Fall Out – 14.5

Verona

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Bizarre and weird and vaguely wrong and wonderful.  Verona perked up in her seat.

The way the seats were arranged, there was a column of seats, an aisle, two columns of seats together, an aisle, two columns, an aisle, and another column, for four and a half rows.  More importantly, the arrangement of seats meant Jeremy was right in front of her and Lucy was across the aisle, Wallace in front of her, Melissa beside Wallace.

Mr. Kelsch turned his back to write on the board, and Verona excitedly reached forward to reach for Jeremy, but he was leaning forward and she was short, and the spacing of the desks meant she couldn’t do much.  Rather than jab him with a pen or pencil, she raised her foot up and nudged Jeremy in the butt with the toe of her shoe.

He turned around, eyebrow raised.

She pointed out the window.

Outside, past the fence that surrounded the school grounds, Mrs. Oakham was waiting.  She held a leash, but it was too thin to be an ordinary leash.  It was more like a shoelace, bright blue, extending down to a harness and clipping to the collar.  Sir was at the end of it, fighting the leash he was connected to like he was in a battle to the death.

“Awww,” Jeremy murmured.

“I know, right?  Oh my god,” Verona whispered.  She turned, spotted Melissa, beside Wallace, diagonal to Lucy, and whispered, “Lucy, kick Melissa in the butt.”

Melissa turned, eyes wide, hissing, “Lucy what me in the butt?”

Wallace collapsed, the arm brace on his right arm scraping his desk as he dropped his face down, laughing silently.

Kick, to get your attention,” Verona hissed.

“I did not hear that as ‘kick’.”

Verona and Jeremy joined Wallace in the stifled laughing fit, with Lucy holding it together a few seconds before joining in.  Wallace bit his sleeve to try to keep silent.

“Guys!” Mr. Kelsch called out.  He looked out over the class.  Besides their little cluster at the back corner by the windows, Mia and her friend were talking and some boys were distracted showing each other doodles they’d drawn in their notebook.  “Guys, I know it’s almost lunchtime, but if I could have your undivided attention until class ends, I’d appreciate it.”

Verona stifled the chuckles over Melissa’s line, smiled, and sat up straight.

If body types could be circle, square, pear, whatever, Mr. Kelsch was ‘noodle’.  Maybe a bit taller than her dad, but easily half the weight.  Maybe a third of the weight.  He was the youngest teacher at the school, but had a face that made him look younger still, in a nice sort of way, with a head of the sort of blond curly hair that had to be hard work to keep from going full ‘clown hair’.  She’d seen him around last year even if he hadn’t taught any of her classes, and if he went without a trim for a week or two he just very obviously lost all control over it, and very obviously hated it, too.

He also wore exclusively boring clothes, always in shades of coffee, she thought.  Cream, tan, light brown, dark brown, nearly-black brown.  Ties in those shades were a staple.  As if he thought that would make people take him more seriously as a teacher, maybe.

If he thought that, he didn’t need to.

“Okay, thank you,” Mr. Kelsch said, seeming a bit bewildered that the class had listened.  “I’m sorry, I’ve completely lost my train of thought.  Someone remind me.”

He stared out at the class, a sea of nearly thirty eyes staring back at him.

Verona sobered up, the giggling fit gone.  She felt bad for him, seeing those blank stares, knowing she contributed to it.

Mia put her hand up.  “Something about rights and citizenship?”

“Thank you,” he said, looking relieved.  He held up fingers.  “Human rights.  Civil.  Minority.  Language.  Economic.  Political…”

Mr. Kelsch glanced down at the sheet on his desk.  “Cultural and Legal.  We’ll be getting into those over the course of this week.  I think I already said that, so… I guess that’s that.”

For another moment, it looked like the break in flow had really messed with him.  Asking for their attention to wrap up and then realizing the lesson was over.

He found his stride again, though.  “Write that down and think about what they mean to you, if there are any you don’t understand.  Next class I’ll ask, and depending on how you guys answer, we’ll devote more time to the trickier ones.  If you didn’t read the chapter for today’s class, read it tonight, there’s no other homework.  And I think that’s that.  You can get up, stretch, but wait until the bell rings before you leave.”

The class immediately got up and started sorting themselves out, eager to get to lunch.  Verona penned down the terms.

“Wait, I forgot-!” he called out.

To deaf ears, pretty much.

“Hold up!” George raised his voice.

Everyone stopped.

“That’s- thank you,” Mr. Kelsch said.  “There are sheets here on my desk, please swing by, grab one.  We have a teacher shortage and a lot of the schedules are being changed around.  For your fourth period class, you can choose an elective, to sit in on a grade eleven class, or continue doing what you’re currently and have an afternoon-long math and personal finance class with Mr. Sitton-”

The class groaned.

“So get a sheet, sign it, get your parents to sign it, and bring it back.”

“I’ll get one for each of us,” Jeremy said, as people started to mill around, the chaos of bags being zipped up, books put away, and people hanging around while others wanted to move past taking over the class.  “Me, Wallace, Verona, Lucy-”

“Av-” Lucy started, looking at the empty seat next to her own.  “Nevermind.”

“-Melissa?”

Melissa nodded.  “Saves crippled ol’ me a bit of a walk.”

“Thanks Jer,” Verona said.  He flashed her a smile.

“You can only milk that so much,” Lucy told Melissa.

“I can milk it plenty!  It’s the one benefit from nearly losing my foot.  Now I want Verona to tell me why you wanted Lucy to-” Melissa fake-coughed, “-ck my ass.”

Lucy playfully pushed on Verona’s arm, while Verona cackled.  Wallace laughed, which seemed to make Lucy happy.

“I misheard too,” Wallace told them.

“I wanted to give you a heads up,” Verona said, pointing for Melissa’s benefit.  “It’s Sir.”

Melissa used her cane to walk to the window.  “Oh my god, it’s actually my mom.  I think she brought Sir to cheer me up.  That’s humiliating.  She’s just standing there, people can see her.”

The bell rang.

Jeremy caught up with them, handing out the sheets.  Verona let hers crumple a bit in her haste to shove it in her bag, but she used her left hand to do it and felt the beginnings of a cramp.  She massaged it out.

As she hung back, and as everyone got sorted, she saw Mr. Kelsch packing up the papers, putting them into folders.  Virtually every student had already migrated toward the end of the classroom with the door.

On impulse, she walked over.  “Mr. Kelsch?”

“Yes… Verona?”

“Yep,” she replied.

“I try but with schedules getting crammed in, more students for each of us, I’m frazzled.  What can I do for you?”

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry.  Getting distracted.”

“It’s tough,” he said.  “Right before lunch.  I’m eager to eat and take a break.  I really do think you guys should get recess, even in high school.  Gives you a break and gives us one.”

“Is there a response more ‘amen’ than ‘amen’?” she asked him.  “Because dang, yeah.  But no, it was a kitten.  My favorite kitten.”

“Okay.”

“And that’s my big weakness, and I felt bad I got distracted so I wanted to say so.”

“Thank you,” he said.  He squinted a little as he said, “It’s fine.  Happens.”

“You’re my favorite teacher so far, I like this class,” she said.

Thank you,” he said, with emphasis.  “I’m happy that’s the case.”

She felt a bit awkward, now that she’d said it.

“Keep it up,” she said, as she backed off, clicking her tongue and giving him a finger-gun.

She rejoined the others.

“What was that?” Jeremy asked.

She just shrugged.  She wasn’t even sure she could put words to it.  Like… Mr. Kelsch seemed like someone on the line between going two paths; he was early in his career, she was pretty sure.  She could see him doing with his personality what he’d done with his clothes, hardening, trying too hard to fit into that ‘teacher’ mold that was expected.  But right now, at least, he was gentler than any other teacher, there was more… caring?  Sensitivity?  Like he cared what the class was doing and reacting, and he felt it, compared to some who would just have a lesson plan and ram it through.

So she wanted to at least encourage the good side of it.  It felt important.

Especially when it felt like she was missing some of that caring and sensitivity herself.  She might have some, she might be able to use it like she’d just done, maybe, if she was being generous to herself in how she interpreted her reaching out to him.  But it was a limited amount.  Like she could do it once a day or a couple of times a day and then she’d be emotionally exhausted.

“Lucy,” Mia called out.  “Want to come to Heroes?  Wallace?”

“Uhhh…” Lucy replied, before glancing at Wallace, who shrugged.

“Hang,” Verona told her, on impulse.

“Next time?” Lucy replied.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Mia said.  She talked with Sharon for a second, then called out to Lucy, “We’ll go out there tomorrow instead, kay?  Gonna practice dance in the yard.”

“Sounds good, have fun,” Lucy said.

“Want to come, Melissa?” Mia asked, like it was an afterthought.

“Nah.  Got lunch waiting for me.”

As they left the classroom, Verona maneuvered around to get to Melissa’s side.  They left as a group of five.  “Melissa- Melissa, heyyyy Melissa-”

“What?”

“Can I come say hi to Sir?”

Yeah,” Melissa said.  “Just don’t make fun of me or think I’m a loser because my mom came to my high school.”

“Melissa, hon,” Verona said.  “Bear with me here, because this is a- it’s a principle, okay?  One I hold close to my heart, as close to universal as you can get in this weird world where very few things are for absolute certain, okay?  Kitties.”

Kitties,” Jeremy said, like he was chiming in in agreement.

“It’s almost never wrong to have more cats and kittens, okay?” Verona asked.  “So, if I’m mad at Jeremy for whatever reason?  Is he going to buy me a chocolate bar, or-?”

“Cat pictures,” Jeremy said, like it was the most sensible thing in the world.  Because it was the most sensible thing in the world.

“Works, see?” Verona said.  “Or, like, we could do the lame thing and make fun of you for your mom coming to school, get some chuckles in, or…”

“Play nice and get more time with Sir,” Jeremy finished.

“I can get behind this,” Melissa said.  “I might adopt this.”

“Seems like us dog people are a dying breed,” Lucy told Wallace, dry.

“It’s lonely sometimes, isn’t it?”

They left the school and Melissa sped up a bit to go to Sir.  She had trouble bending down and managing her foot so her mom bent down and lifted Sir into her arms.

“Hello Verona, hello Jeremy.  Nice to see you again.”

“Oh my god,” Melissa muttered.  “I can’t believe you came.”

“I thought you’d like a friendly, fuzzy face to greet you.  Lift your mood a bit?”

“Ugh,” Melissa said, while looking a lot like her mood was being lifted as she nuzzled Sir, getting one on one time before letting Verona and Jeremy reach in for light scratches and pets.  Verona wanted to nuzzle him like Melissa had but that got weird with personal space and the fact Melissa was already cradling him.  She settled for feeling the purrs under her fingertips.

Balm for the soul.

“This is Lucy and Wallace, by the way,” Verona said.

“Hi,” Lucy said.

Melissa’s mom smiled.  “Hi.  I’ve got a deal with Melissa where if she walks home for lunch for her physio, I make her what she wants.  Within reason.  Bonus points for the next day if she walks back, but I sometimes drive if it’s hard.”

“You don’t need to tell them this,” Melissa groused.

“I just thought- I know you wanted that sandwich, but if your friends wanted to come by, hang out… hm, there’s not much in the house.”

“Then don’t bring it up?” Melissa replied.

“If only a couple came you could each share the lunch.  Toasted sandwich?  Loose meat, dijon, swiss, russian dressing?”

“Dang,” Jeremy said.  “Nice deal you’ve got.”

“What a cool mom,” Lucy said.

Melissa glared daggers at Lucy for a second.

“I don’t care about the time with Sir so I’m not obligated to do anything.  Besides, she is being cool.”

Melissa glared daggers at Lucy again then turned away, relaxing as soon as Sir had her attention again.

“Wallace and I can hang back,” Lucy said, before looking at him.  “Right?”

“Yeah, for sure.  Brought my own lunch.”

“Or-!” Mrs. Oakham said.  “You could all come, if you’ll bring Sir home, and I’ll go… will your parents be mad if I get food for you?”

There was a unanimous no and excitement over the prospect of food.

“We walk out to Heroes and some of those other places sometimes,” Lucy said.

“Heroes is healthy-ish,” Melissa’s mom said.  “Heroes?”

Mass confirmation.

“You could give me the list now, time might be tight.”

“Melissa can text you,” Verona said.  “I can carry Sir in the meantime.”

Melissa turned those eye-daggers toward Verona, this time.  Verona grinned.

“Sounds workable.  Yes?  Yes?” Melissa’s mom checked with everyone.  “Yes, yes?”

She stopped on Melissa.

“Yeah,” Melissa conceded.

“Wonderful,” Melissa’s mom exclaimed, beaming.  “Text soon.”

Verona reached out for Sir as Melissa’s mom hurried off.  Melissa gave her a very unimpressed look, but handed Sir over.

This is nice.

Sir relaxed against her.

This is inner peace.

“Let’s walk,” Melissa said.  “I’ve got stuff in my room for Sir.  I’ll show you.”

“Really going all out, huh?” Lucy asked.  “I mean, there was this dog I wanted, this summer, didn’t work out…”

Verona looked over at her friend.  Lucy looked so hurt, just talking about it.

“…Would’ve done a lot to make him comfortable.  I sorta get it.”

“I’m sorry,” Wallace said.  “I bet you would’ve been the best owner.”

“I dunno.  But that’s not something I meant to get into,” Lucy said.

“Okay,” he replied.

Lucy shook her head a tiny bit, as if to shake herself free of a daydream, distraction, or line of thought.  “I’m curious, Melissa, is it your money, or your mom’s, or…?”

“It’s mine,” Melissa said.  “Kind of?  I got caught smoking this summer- got framed for smoking by a certain someone, and got super grounded, right?”

“Why do you say certain someone like it’s someone here?” Wallace asked.

“Someone we know,” Verona replied.  “Can call him Iggie, he’s an alright dude, weird, gets caught up in trouble.  Got imprisoned for a bit this summer.”

“Hey.”  Lucy elbowed Verona, who grinned.

“I didn’t know that last part,” Melissa said.  She thought for a second.  “Good.”

“Yeah,” Verona replied.  “He’s around though.  I think he saw Melissa smoking and when she hid her cigarette from her mom, he sorta snuck in and there it is, a cigarette lying there when mom passes by?”

“Oh damn,” Jeremy said.

“Uh, yeah,” Melissa said, looking uncomfortable.  She’d brought him up, maybe to put Lucy and Verona on the back foot, but now the table had turned.  “Anyway, she suspended my allowance, said she’d hold it back, and I could spend money on what I wanted.  I’m spending it on Sir.”

“Wise,” Verona said, nuzzling Sir with her face, catching Jeremy’s fingers in the nuzzle.

“Before I forget, let me get your orders.”

They gave their orders.  Verona got so distracted by Sir that she needed to be prodded to awareness.  “Uhhh, half size toasted white, spinach, ground meat, cheese, black olives, green pepper, onions.  Garlic sauce.”

“I’m going to ask my mom to put that in a separate bag so it doesn’t taint the rest of ours,” Melissa said.

This was nice.

This was a recharge.

“Are you unironically holding hands?” Melissa asked.

Verona raised her face and looked.

Sure enough, Lucy was holding Wallace’s hand.  He had one arm in a sling and one arm in a brace, and the hand that wasn’t immobilized by the sling was holding Lucy’s hand.

“Unironically?” Lucy asked.

“I dunno,” Melissa said.  “Feels like I only ever see old people doing it.  And guys goofing off.”

“Do you want to hold hands?” Jeremy asked Wallace, smiling, while reaching for the hand that was in the sling.

“See?” Melissa asked.

“People hold hands when they like each other.  It’s a thing.  It’s not a big deal,” Lucy said, a bit defensive.

“Whatever.”

“Do you want to hold hands?” Jeremy asked, overly joking, to Verona, smiling. She elbowed him lightly away.

“Alternative: you can hold Sir for a bit.”

“Ahh, the kitty principle in action.  That’s not a bad response,” he said, carefully taking Sir.  Verona kept hold of the little leash.  “Sir, you gentleman.  I’ve missed you.  I can’t say I agree with the shoelace harness as an aesthetic choice, but we all have to make do, don’t we?”

“I hate it,” Melissa said.  “Who takes a cat for a walk?  My mom.”

“On the other hand,” Verona said.  “Kitty principle.  We got to hang out with Sir.”

“Running a teeny bit thin, that,” Lucy said.

There were some chuckles.  Verona played up the protests.

They walked the rest of the way to Melissa’s place, and she couldn’t help but notice Jeremy sneaking glances at Lucy and Wallace.  At the fact they held hands the entire way from school to Melissa’s.

Verona massaged her empty hand, rolling her thumb in a circular motion around the palm.

🟂

Tuesday.  Ten minute homeroom with Mr. Sitton, an hour and twenty minutes of gym with Mr. Bader, and now an hour and twenty minutes of social studies with Mr. Kelsch.  After lunch would be their last full afternoon with Mr. Sitton, with Math in the first half and personal finance in the latter half.  Later the electives would kick in, and they’d scatter to different and smaller classes, some with younger and older grades, or sitting in with the grade twelves for the other classes.

Just this desperate freaking scrabble to hold to this stupid pattern and idea of what school was.  She knew she could create a fetch of twigs and glamour and it’d be a replica of herself, just good enough to pass, and it took notes and she could read the notes in fifteen minutes of free time, and she’d be up to date.  Instead she sat through a class designed to occupy their time and designed to match the slowest students in speed and pace.

She could be in another version of this school right now, she knew.  She might be in fear for her safety over there, maybe, but she wouldn’t be bored.  She wouldn’t feel the joy and life in her slowly leaking away, leaving her a husk.

Social Studies was the highlight of the day, which wasn’t hard because gym and a full afternoon of Math were a real drag.  At least there would be an art class tomorrow afternoon, and every afternoon for the rest of this trimester.  Trimesters only because the faculty was in survival mode.  The advanced classes and stuff were an emergency band-aid because parents had been upset.

Anyone would be upset about two hours and forty-five minutes of just math.  The class a grade up had English for the afternoons, but they at least got to watch a movie for part of that.  For sanity’s sake.

Social studies didn’t feel like it dragged, and Mr. Kelsch had a bit of a Jeremy vibe.  She wasn’t going to have a crush on a teacher, but if she did, it’d be Mr. Kelsch.  He seemed like the kind of guy who, ten or twenty years from now, she would want to blindside with an advance and bring up to her loft apartment-slash-practitioner atelier above a bookstore.

Lucy was getting water from the back of the classroom, and as she passed by she leaned over Verona’s shoulder to look through the window.  Class was only just starting so it wouldn’t be Mrs. Oakham, but-

It was Miss.  She paced by the fence, and a bag blown by the wind stuck at about head height, barring the view.  As Miss moved, the wind moved the bag to one side.  Nobody else was paying enough sustained attention to notice the weirdness, apparently.

There was no time to go out and check with Miss.  But when Verona raised a hand in a wave, Miss stopped.

“What does she want, you think?” Lucy asked.  “Emergency?”

“What’s this?” Wallace asked, as he approached his seat.

Miss walked away.

“Saw someone we know,” Lucy told him.  “Weird that she’s around here.  I don’t think it’s anything major.”

Not an emergency or she’d stick around, probs, yeah.

“We’ll talk to her after, I guess?” Verona asked.  “Lunch?”

“I guess,” Lucy said.  “I’ve got a thing with Mia.  I think you can come, you know.  It’s not like they’ll tell you to screw off.  How are you doing, Wallace?”

He lifted his arm.  No brace.  “Good!  Being careful.  I listened to the album you sent me.  You might actually get me into music.  There’s stuff I want to send you.  It really reminded me of this other thing I listened to- it’s a game soundtrack, but it’s really good.  Do I hurt my standings in your eyes if I say that?  Talking about games?”

“No.  I’m a bit out of the loop, but no.”

Jeremy joined in.  “I was telling Verona a while back, uh, I think there’s overlap in games and art, right?  Because you’re trying to appeal to a massive audience, right?  So they have to push computer systems to their limits, create art with the right appeal for the game, music’s the same right?”

“Yeah,” Verona said.  “Makes sense.”

“I’ll listen to it if you send it to me,” Lucy said.  “Or bring it, whatever.  You still owe me that- I dunno, video game date?  You wanted me to try some games and see what works?”

“Horror games, yeah,” Wallace said.

“Oh man, that’s cool,” Jeremy said.

“I kinda want to see,” Verona said.  “I’ve got fond memories of Lucy getting super into freaky cartoons and stuff.”

“Kinda defeats the point of it being a date, though, you know?” Lucy replied.

“Doesn’t change the fact I want to see.”

“Reaction video,” Jeremy said.

“No, no, I’d be self conscious-” Lucy protested.

The bell rang, signaling the last call before class was to start.  Students filed in.

“Some of these games you play for a hundred hours, they have to keep the visuals and audio interesting, right?” Jeremy told them, as he settled into his seat.  “A lot of it’s better than you’d think.”

The teacher came in.

Not Mr. Kelsch.

Just some woman who walked to the front of the class, elderly.  She might’ve been pear-shaped but her hair was long and straight and draped down to her shoulders in a way that made it hard to see the line of her neck.  That same hair was dyed black but with roots showing.  The only color was a colorful gauzy scarf around her neck.

There were some murmurs, but the conversation in class died down in volume.

“Where’s Mr. Kelsch?” Caroline asked.

“Mr. Kelsch has moved to a different school.  I’ll be substituting.  Everyone sit down, now, the bell rang, class is starting.  We’re going to get right to it.”

There were a few muted noises of reaction and protest, but various students obeyed.

Verona settled back in her chair, leaning back, feeling that emotional void where a reaction should be.  An extended feeling of shock and loss that had followed from the night of August thirty-first.

“Books out, pencils out.  My name is Mrs. Morehouse, and I’ll be your teacher for the next week or two, until they can find a more permanent replacement for Mr. Kelsch.  I’m going to begin now.  Which part of the textbook did you get to?”

She stopped at George’s desk, he pointed to a part of the textbook.  She compared with the papers in the folder she had on hand.

On the far, rearmost corner of the room was Caroline, who had asked about Mr. Kelsch.

Caroline might have liked Mr. Kelsch as much as Verona had, because it looked like Caroline was trying not to cry.

This- all of this, it was a lot, Verona had to remind herself, in the face of a small war that was being fought inside her head and chest.  A war where one side simultaneously wanted to react like Caroline was reacting but groped for something and found nothing there.  A war where another part of her questioned who would even cry in class over a teacher, had to rationalize it out by recalling that Caroline had been sort-of friends with Pam and Alayna, both of whom had left with a third of the other students.

“Let’s see.  First section, the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship are broken up into eight categories…”

I guess the underside of Kennet just picked up a Social Studies teacher, Verona thought, as she slumped in her seat.

🟂

Miss approached them as soon as they were far enough away from school to not be caught up in the rush of students from lunch.  Peckersnot and Nat followed behind her.

“Hey, Peck,” Verona greeted the little guy.  “Heya Nat.”

He waved.  Nat didn’t, but she dipped her head a bit.

“Did something happen?” Lucy asked.

“A non-emergency, signaling us but not making it a big drag-us-out-of-class deal something?” Verona added.

“Yes,” Miss said.  “Shortly before I came to you, a car of young people came off the highway, driving into Kennet.  They ended up in the underside.”

“Drunk driving?” Verona asked.  “Or something else?  Sketchy people?”

“People may filter in that way, as with the teacher, but others can find their way by other means.  I suspect that happened here.  It’s a distortion in space, and a specific pattern of turns could lead them there.”

“Like how on certain roads, reversing a certain distance and direction can take you to a wrinkle in reality that you wouldn’t reach if you did a u-turn and drove straight?” Verona asked.

“There are a number of those wrinkles and spaces.  We didn’t want to bother you, we know you’re in school, I thought I might try to catch one of you and let you know in case you wanted to act.  We sent Matthew in.  Pipes accompanied him.”

“And has Matthew come out?” Lucy asked.

“No.  Nor have the four young men and women who drove in.”

Verona inhaled a bit.  “Ok, cool.  We’ve got about thirty-five minutes left for lunch, let me do that.  Lucy, you go meet up with Mia, let me handle it.”

“Verona-”

“If I don’t show up within five minutes of lunch ending, the stuff for creating a fetch of me is with all the wood and stuff they piled up and put by the dumpster.  You’ll see it with the Sight.  Just assume I get caught up in stuff.  If Peck’s willing to go he can come find you and tell you if I need a rescue.”

Peckersnot bobbed his head in a nod.

“I want to come,” Lucy said.  “I know you said I wouldn’t like it, but I need to get to grips with this.”

“I’m okay with this being my thing.”

“It’s- I worry, you know?  About you.  About all this,” Lucy told her.  To Miss, she said, “Our social studies teacher left.”

“There will be a trickling of departures.  I’m sorry, if that was a teacher you liked.”

“It was,” Verona said.  “We’ve gotta hold onto what we’ve got, right?  Keeping connections to people around Kennet?  Tell Lucy she should go with Mia and George and Wallace and get fast food.”

“I don’t know well enough to know if she should.  There is a balance, if one of you is above, one of you is below, and one of you is off to the side, but there is merit to holding onto connections.”

“I want to hold onto my connection to my best friend,” Lucy said.  “And I want a better idea of what’s going on down there.”

“You also want to go with Mia.  You’ve got a good thing going,” Verona said.

“Yeah.  Come on.  The Arena is mostly the same direction and that’s one of the clearest routes in, right?” Lucy said.

“It is,” Miss said.

“But are you coming with?” Verona asked Lucy.  “You really should go.”

“Come on,” Lucy said, nudging Verona.  Ignoring Verona.

Verona sighed.  “Peckersnot?”

He nodded.  She bent down, extending a hand, and he clambered up her arm.  He reached her bag and unzipped a side pocket to slid in alongside spell cards.

“He can point you to where the innocents were last seen,” Miss said.  “That would be Matthew’s starting point.”

“I don’t suppose you want to come too, Miss?” Verona asked.

“A number of goblins are asleep, the ghouls can’t come out in the middle of the day.  It limits the number of people who can keep an eye on things.  We need to be able to identify the next batch of innocents who slip through like this group did, if there are any intruders through Kennet’s perimeter and knotwork, among other things.”

“Like if someone from the undercity comes up?”

“Yes.  We have stayed on top of things thus far.”

“That’s happened then?” Lucy asked.

“Yes.  We’ve stayed on top of it.  It would help if you could check on Matthew and help us stay on top of that.  It’s hard for Others to rescue an innocent without testing that innocence.”

“Wish us luck, then,” Verona said.

“Good luck.”

They hurried off.

The Arena was only a few blocks away from the street that led to the school front doors, but the streets between one and the other were convoluted, and it was lunch hour, which slowed things down further.

“Got your stuff?” Verona asked.

Lucy patted her bag.  “Some.”

“Did Avery send you the thing about connection blockers?”

“Avery asked me for the stuff about connection blockers, because I was fiddling around for the ones for my mom, and slipping out early.”

“Gotcha,” Verona answered.

“I hope it’s not a bad thing that Wallace and I tagged along for the trip to Melissa’s yesterday.”

“No.  I wanted to hang out.  It was nice.”

“Yeah.  I like seeing those two together, you know?  Jeremy and Wallace?  I get to see a side of Wallace I don’t when he’s with me and he’s all… I dunno.  Quietly panicking about the fact he’s with a girl?  Like I do when I think too hard about the fact he’s a boy and he likes me?”

“You’re easy to like,” Verona said.  “He’s got good taste.”

“You’ve got good taste.  You picked them both for Class RankR.”

“Hate that thing,” Verona huffed.

“Jeremy’s cool.  I’m glad you’ve got a friend in him.”

“He is cool.  Puts up with me.”

Lucy let out a short, soft laugh, focusing on hurrying.

It was hard to jog and talk at the same time, so they didn’t talk as much.

“How many times have you been there?” Lucy asked.

“The undercity?”

“The dark side, the flipside, the inverted version… I don’t know the terminology.”

“Mostly the same thing.  I think the things that make one-” Verona paused to focus on running and breathing for a second.  “-make a place a bit of the others.  Undercity sounds cooler.  I couldn’t think of any clever names for it.”

“Undercity works for me.  How many times?”

Verona thought.  “Ten?”

“In the last two weeks?”

“Visit one when we were getting the lay of the land, then a bunch lately.  Mostly just quickly passing through.  That one last Monday where I went because Miss hinted innocents were getting stuck.”

“Right.  That’s a lot.”

“It’s a bit of a break, you know?  Chance to get away?”

“I wish you didn’t feel like you had so much to get away from.”

“Eh.”

They reached the Arena.  There were some cars, and a pile of melting ice by the side of the parking lot.  The melt had a rainbow sheen of oil on it, but from their perspective, it looked like it favored the red hues of the rainbow.

They checked the coast was clear, moved to the point in the puddle where the smallest number of people might be able to see them, and Verona bent down to draw the square and sign it.

“I miss the hell out of Avery,” Lucy said.  “I feel like I’ve forgotten how to do a lot of stuff we used to do just fine before she joined us.”

“Yeah,” Verona said.  She wanted to add to that, but… that felt like a whole conversation that she didn’t want to have.

Because she knew exactly how it would go if she talked about the state of them, a pair.  Or a trio, if she wanted to take a half-stepback from the conversation about them as a pair.  And that conversation would lead to a conversation about herself and how she was doing and honestly, she didn’t want to scare Lucy.

They touched their hands to the diagram.

Lines lifted up, and the square became a platform beneath them.  The landscape around them shifted, moving like a picture book, going from one scene to a nearly identical one.

The factories belched black smoke at the one corner of Kennet.  It made everything just a bit darker, and gave the light a slight filter, taking some color out of certain things, while magnifying others.

Peckersnot clambered up to Verona’s shoulder.  Pointing.

“Been downtown yet?” Lucy asked.

“I’ve been to the school and areas around it, mostly.”

“Then I guess we’re visiting downtown together.”

They had to circle around the Arena that had been ruined in the last night of summer.  Verona caught Lucy looking back at the building.

Lucy had a way of looking frustrated, a lot of the time, or she had a natural expression that defaulted to a frown, and on occasion, like when Lucy was with Wallace, she could look so… how to even say it?

Saying she looked nice implied Lucy didn’t look nice when she had her regular expression, and she did.  Regular Lucy was stellar.  But Lucy with her guard down was special.

And this, Verona supposed, was another piece of that puzzle.  Lucy with her guard down, like she’d forgotten Verona was with her, looking vulnerable, but not smiling.  Opposite of smiling.  Crestfallen.  Forlorn.

Verona caught her friend’s hand, squeezing it.  “Come on.”

Lucy nodded.

They almost ran hand-in-hand, but the mechanics of moving got awkward, one hand slipped from another, and they didn’t try to resume it.

“What have you figured out in all the times you were here?” Lucy asked.

“That there’s no one-to-one match for the missing people.  There’s no nega-Avery or anything.  But loose roles might get filled.  Mr. Kelsch leaves, someone fills in a ‘teacher’ spot over here.  Factories are down and out back home?  Someone’s doing something here.  Here.  Check this out.  We’re getting into some place where people might be marking their territory.

As much as the colors were a bit washed out and the smoke from the factories was giving everything the faintest of darker tints, clouding up windows, and making the murky murkier, there were things that weren’t.  A fresh mural stood out on the exterior, alley-facing wall of a store.

A little further down, there was a shop where a scary looking man in a butcher’s apron stood watching while a kid in an employee uniform worked on a ladder, painting over the shop sign.  The initial coat had been black, but fresh red paint was being used to paint the shop letters: Gristle & Bon-  The final ‘e’ was yet to be completed.  The red paint stood out far too much for how it was streaking its way through the still-wet black.  In the midst of the gloom it looked more like lit neon than anything.

“See the sign?”

“Sure.”

“Do you See the sign?” Verona asked, turning on her Sight.

Lucy did the same.

The paint smoked faintly, and a meaty-flesh thing slithered behind the thin membrane-like layer the paint had created over the surface.  The letters welled with blood.

“Definitely See the sign,” Lucy said.

“So there are Others and Other-adjacent humans manifesting too, and as they get involved you can see the hints.  A lot of the time they’ll mark their territory.  Sometimes they mix blood into paint before it’s applied.  So… that butcher might be a little special.  Watch out for stuff like…”

“That?” Lucy asked.

They were in the midst of crossing the street on their way to the northwestern end of downtown, and as they did, they could see a mark.  Smack dab in the middle of an intersection, drawn in blood, it had that same look to it where it was almost like it was lit from within.  Or like some spirit-like cut across reality.

A triangle with elaborate wings and talons, taking up the full square of the intersection, between the traffic lights.  The paint was a bright, electric blue that stood out in contrast to everything else.

And above it was a body, wrapped in trash bags, with only the arms sticking out to either side, flesh mottled and bruised in the way Verona supposed dead bodies got bruised, pallid on top and purplish on the part lower to the ground.  Cords lashed it by the wrists to the traffic lights on opposite corners of the intersection, so it dangled, and a collection of dead birds hung by their feet from those cords.  The arrangement of dead birds was supposed to evoke wings, Verona supposed.  There were strings of ten or twelve dead birds nearest to the traffic lights, connected so one hung by the neck from the talons of the one above, their sometimes broken wings outstretched.  Nearest the hands, there were only two large birds.

When the wind blew one way, it made the strings of birds sway, like the dangling figure was moving its wings.  When the wind blew the other way, it did the same thing, but with the cloying smell of a dead body and the musty smell of a number of dead birds.

The fluids of the person inside the garbage bag wrapping were trailing out through a hole in the black plastic that wasn’t at the very bottom, a mixture of blood and something darker spattering down onto the mark in the intersection.  The face was painted using the same paint as was on the intersection.  A stark blue smiley face.

“Yep,” Verona confirmed.  Then she admitted, “Kinda thought the first one we saw would be less… that.”

“Okay,” Lucy said, quiet.  “So what does that mean, then?”

“That means there’s a group with a medium-strong Other in charge near here,” Verona said.  “And I guess they’re making a statement.

“Don’t tell me that’s Rook.”

“Nah.  Pretty sure that’s the Bitter Street Witch.  That’s Bitter street, not Bittes street.  They renamed it.”

“Okay,” Lucy said, frowning more.

“She took over an empty storefront as her headquarters, lots of the dead birds hanging inside.  Does some augury.  I haven’t met her, I just heard.”

“She’s a practitioner?”

Verona shook her head.  “Talented resident with a bit of Other about her.”

“Okay.  And him?  The guy in the bag?”

“From what I read?” Verona asked.  “If we have like, fifty deaths a year by natural causes back in Kennet, and maybe one to four deaths a year that’s from regular human violence?  Ignoring the recent stuff with the Carmine tipping the scales?  Maybe flip that around.  Maybe fifty deaths a year by violence here, just a couple regularly.”

“They’re killing each other?”

Verona shrugged.  “Some, I think.  Hard to know, not every undercity is the same.  Maybe it’s more active right now while they’re getting settled.  And I guess when it comes to getting old or sick, they keep on trucking, mostly, they’re not super tough, but Famine and Pestilence don’t pay as much attention here, unless they have a reason or it’s a special event.”

“Is it newsworthy?  If someone gets sick?”

“Don’t think so,” Verona said, keeping an eye out.  Above them, someone whistled.  It wasn’t a catcall.  It was a signal.  “Come on.”

They hurried on, before whoever had been signaled could emerge from hiding.

Downtown was already a little more intense.

The stark blue emblems of the Bitter Street Witch seemed to be drawn along the west-facing walls all in a vague line cutting across downtown.  Each one had a bird nailed to the wall in the center, some disemboweled, some so decayed that the nail and a bit of feathers sticking out of dessicated flesh were all that remained.

Until they reached one corner, where an incomplete sign had been painted.  A middle aged guy was sitting there by the unfinished diagram, throat slit, the dead bird who was going to be mounted on the wall shoved into the bloody gash.

A bright yellow scrawling was drawn over the faded blue mark.  Drippings from the paint had fallen onto the body.

“Downtown’s a little more intense than the part I was hanging out,” Verona said.

“Okay,” Lucy replied, not taking her eyes off the body.  “That’s good to know.  If my brain was working I would’ve been really worried about what you’ve been up to.”

“I wish you’d go to have lunch with Mia.  Let me handle this,” Verona said.

“It worries me you’re not freaking out,” Lucy said, quiet.

“It’s because I’m not too freaked out that I want to handle it.  I wanted to at least handle some stuff and establish some ground rules before I had you coming to visit.  I can really truly handle this.  I want to handle this.”

“What ground rules?”

“Making it clear that we’re the practitioners of Kennet,” Verona told her friend.  “I’ve only made one, like, half step in that direction, with the Vice Principal.”

It seemed like someone had written ‘stuck-around-stuck-around-stuck’ ad nauseum on a store window with black marker, but someone else had thrown a rock through it, kicking out the glass, meaning the street was littered with glass with words on it.  Verona wasn’t sure if that was a failed attempt at erasing the mark of another group or the Stuck-Arounds’ way of marking territory.

“I don’t know what group the yellow scribble belongs to, but they’re pretty hardcore, if we judge by the body,” Verona said.  “And there’s something Other in charge, which could be an actual Other or it could be the leader-figure moving away from humanity.  Stuck-Arounds don’t have an Other in charge, they’re just a… big group.  Mostly everyone age eighteen to twenty five trying to party constantly, get drunk, get high, sleep off the times they got drunk or high, or raiding just about anyone and everyone to get the stuff so they can party again.  Some older teens, some older people, but mostly it’s that age group.  Rowan’s age group.”

Lucy nodded, but she was on high alert, eyes scanning the surroundings.  “Trying to keep an ear out.”

“Good,” Verona said.

“So the leaders being Others… that’s like Tashlit’s brother?”

“Yeah.  She pointed out the markings and what they mean.  Depending on the knot and how stuff forms, they can… the markings can take on certain power.  But I don’t think our knot is that far along.  There are knots where if you move into one sub-realm, it’ll just be night and raining, all the time.”

“Ronnie,” Lucy said.

Verona glanced back at Lucy, expecting some warning or signal about something her friend had heard.  Lucy was frowning, but frowning at her.

Verona glanced at Peckersnot, who was still perched on her shoulder, ready to give directions.

“Yeah?”

“How are you?”

Fuck.

“If you mean my hand, it’s pretty eh.  Not fun.  I’ve been massaging it so much my other hand might be developing cramps and soreness.”

“I don’t mean your hand, but I do wish your hand was better.  It’s- it’s hard to get a read on you sometimes.  Avery and I promised we’d back you up, we’d rescue you if you needed rescue.  Are you okay there?”

Verona shrugged.  “Am I ever?  That’s not me saying no, or yes, or anything like that, more like what the heck is okay?”

“I’ve known you for most of my life and I can’t- I can’t tell if you don’t need rescuing at all or if you need it even more than you did partway through this summer.”

Verona smiled.  “Maybe you can’t tell because I can’t either.  Honestly- can this conversation wait?”

“Can it?” Lucy asked.

Lucy’s expression again… it threw Verona all the way off, because it wasn’t the usual frown, it wasn’t that guard-down smile she reserved for Wallace more than she’d ever reserved it for Verona, and it wasn’t the expression she saved for mourning John.  Mourning the end of summer and what they’d hoped it would be and what it would mean.

Here, just… Lucy was looking a lot like a really worried kid.  In a way that reminded Verona of how she’d looked after Paul left.

Except it was reserved for Verona.

Something crashed about a block away, and Lucy jumped out of her skin.  Verona backed away a step, grabbing Lucy’s arm.  They retreated.

Lucy reacting like that was bad.

Or it was good, it meant Lucy was… maybe Lucy was getting better at baring her heart, which was bad because it was for bad reasons more than good ones, a lot of the time, even just this past hour, but good because it meant Lucy was growing past what had hardened her heart in the first place.

But it was also bad because it meant Lucy jumped like that.  It meant Lucy was bewildered and for an instant she was freezing, tensing, when Verona needed a Lucy who was equipped and ready.

She kept a firm grip on Lucy’s arm.

Glass shattered, boards were knocked out of a shuttered store display, and a group emerged from the interior of one of the closed stores.  A scrawny old man, shirtless, with Einstein hair and a shaggy beard, pants that didn’t fit him and only stayed up because they’d been lashed to skinny hips.

And a group of five women who might’ve been his daughters.  Or wives.

He had that blue painted mark on his chest, and flesh around the mark was red and sore-looking.

He was unarmed, but the women with him weren’t.  They were dressed in shades of blue, two of them with slashes of that shade of blue around and over their eyes.  One held her improvised weapon in plain sight- scissors.  Three more held theirs behind their backs or held their bodies so the weapons dangled alongside legs, only partially in view.  Hatchet.  A grouping of chains bristling with fat metal hooks.

The last of the four… hiding it better.  Like she actually wanted to keep it a secret.  Verona saw a glimpse of the weapon when the woman moved, between the old man’s feet, a glint of an arrowhead.

Too thin to be a crossbow.  A short spear, maybe.  Or something else.

Lucy reacted, drawing a weapon with the weapon ring and Verona immediately slapped at her hand.  Too late, too slow.  The old man tensed.  The women moved forward to protect him.

“Drop it,” Verona hissed at Lucy.

Lucy dismissed the weapon, but remained tense.  The old man and his group didn’t move a hair, and they didn’t stand down.

“Sorry, should’ve said,” Verona whispered.  “If you pick a fight most people around here will pick one back.  So you gotta be ready to back up what you’re doing.”

“Are those women okay?” Lucy asked, quiet.

“If you start asking if everyone’s okay here you’re going to spend a lot of time asking questions and not much time getting anywhere,” Verona murmured.  She raised her voice.  “We’re passing through!  We have no issue with you or Bitter Street’s Witch yet!  We’re neutral!  Can we trade?”

“What do you want?” he asked, his voice rough.

“Information,” Verona said.  “Will you stay put if I reach into my bag for cigarettes to trade?”

“Leave the bag!” he called out.

She shook her head.

She could see him weighing the danger of trying to come after her.  He glanced around himself, and she could imagine him trying to figure out if there was an ambush.

Two young teenagers with no apparent backup- if he sent three of his women after them, could his women win?  In a contest of raw strength, numbers, and viciousness, they probably figured they could get away with it.  Could they, even if Lucy and Verona didn’t use practice?  Lucy was good but Faerie swordfighting didn’t lend itself super well to brawls…

Didn’t really matter.  Because they could practice.  They could win.

But he didn’t know that.  What he had to work out was that if he sent these women out ahead, would he be leaving himself vulnerable to attack from the sides or rear?  He had to wonder if it was worth the risk to come after them, if they might have a hidden gun, or other tricks.

Of course, it was more complicated than just looking around.  If he did, he’d betray too much.

But it was how Verona would think.

“We’re on speaking terms with the Vice Principal at the school.  Have you heard of me?” Verona asked.

“No I fuckin’ haven’t,” the old man replied.

“You probably will,” Verona said.  “We’d like to be on speaking terms with the Witch of Bitter Street.  That starts with me offering you a partial carton, in exchange for you telling us where those out-of-towners that wandered into downtown ended up.  Tourists, don’t belong here.  Don’t fit in.  Would’ve been a car full, about… hour and a half ago.”

“I know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m reaching for the carton.  Slowly,” Verona said.

One woman made a small adjustment in where she stood.

Creating a gap for that woman with the arrowhead to step into.

“That weapon that woman has,” Verona murmured, as she reached.

“Harpoon gun,” Lucy replied.

“Ah.”

“I don’t have much for that,” Lucy murmured.  “If I had other stuff I could deflect metal.  Or the spirit shield I used that night.”

“No shenanigans!” the old man called out.  “Shut up and put up!”

Verona dipped her head in acknowledgement.  Peckersnot did the hard work of finding the carton and pushing it into her hand.

She revealed the carton, then threw it onto the road, about ten feet ahead of her and Lucy.  A lone cigarette bounced out.

“Tell us where they are, we move on, you can grab those.”

“We could grab them now,” he replied.

“You can try,” Verona told him.

Again, he was doing that little bit of consideration.

Behind him, the woman with the harpoon gun was still holding it out of sight.  Her gaze was cold.

Lucy wasn’t looking away from her.  Discreetly, hand moving with glacial slowness, Lucy withdrew a packet of glamour from her back pocket.  Folded paper with dust inside, marked ‘blur smoke’.

Good.

“They went to the big gas station, where they service the trucks off the highway.  Axxel Gas.  Pulled in near the mechanic’s.  Tires got popped while they were looking around.  So they’re stuck there.  Trying to figure out what to do.”

“Anyone with them?”

“Don’t know.  They tried taking tires off a car over near Bitter street, we put a stop to that.”

“Tell the Witch of Bitter Street we’ll want to talk at another time.  Gotta establish rules about the white sheep.”

“White sheep?”

“Innocents.  People that don’t belong.”

“Easy marks.”

“Not so easy if you hurt one and get on our bad side.  We’ll spell it out for your boss when we talk to her.  Might be one of us, might be both, might be we bring friends.”

“How should we let you know when your appointment is?” he asked.

“You don’t.  I’ll come back another time, soon, I bring a gift, she adjusts her schedule, we’ll talk.  It should be mutually beneficial.  I don’t know how long she’s been around-”

“She’s been around,” the old man said.  “Couple places like this.”

Verona nodded.  “She’ll know then.  She wants to be on our good side.”

He seemed to see something in her or read something in her tone.

He nodded.  He pointed at the carton.

“We’re moving past you.  You walk to your left.”

The other group did, moving slowly.  Verona and Lucy moved to their own left, the two groups rotating around one another.

“What gifts does she like?” Verona asked.

“Don’t know her well enough to say.  It’s her and six of her brothers at the top.”

“Heard that.”

“She probably likes birds.  Gotta be running out, the way we’re stapling them to telephone poles and nailing them to walls.”

Verona nodded.

They circled around until Verona and Lucy were standing where the other group had been, and the other group was close enough to reach down and grab the carton.

The harpoon gun was pointed at them now.

Lucy’s glamour did its work, swirling around them.

Creating a camouflage smoke that captured the colors of the environment and created a swirling blur.  They quickly shuffled about ten feet to their right, and Lucy tugged on Verona’s arm.

They used the cover of smoke to run, when another situation would have necessitated that they slowly back away for a good long distance.

“We’re close to Heroes, there’s still time,” Verona told Lucy, once they were far enough away.  “You can pull the ripcord.  Arena’s not far.  I can manage this.”

“I dunno.”

They got to where the gas station was in sight.

A dirty white sedan was parked in the middle of an empty gas station.  All around the perimeter, sitting on short concrete dividers or standing in the little roadways the car would need to use to exit, were twenty-somethings.

The tires hadn’t just been slashed, they’d been peeled apart.  Or the people in the car had tried to drive it with slashed tires and the tires had come apart in the process.  The four people were inside the car.  Hiding out.  Probably calling for help that couldn’t find them.

No sign of Matthew and Pipes.

Which was all secondary, in a way, because Verona and Lucy were brought to a halt as the mouse in the trenchcoat stepped out from around the corner, walked out to a point where sidewalk and street met, and turned to face them.

“This freaking thing,” Verona muttered.  She raised her voice.  “Go away!”

A mascot-style mouse head with a wide grin stared at them.  The mascot head was dirty, some of it less fuzzy and more plastic-y, like the polyester fibers had been melted.  Besides that and the stained trenchcoat… naked.  Not naked like any attempt was being made to flash anyone.  Just… casual, far-from-normal naked.

“Fuck off!” Verona shouted.

Body hair dense and matted to the point that the greasy locks that swirled or curved around loose skin were almost impossible to distinguish from folds and creases in flesh.  A deflated potbelly hid the goods, just barely, but long pubic hair was plastered to thighs and dangling belly.  Verona hadn’t been so lucky to have the potbelly blocking the way the first time she’d seen the mouse in the trenchcoat- and what she’d seen had resembled a smashed, lumpy, flesh-tone grilled cheese sandwich framed by pubic hair, which left her no more or less illuminated about the gender of the mouse in the trenchcoat than she’d been before that brain-scarring sight.

“I think I might actually call it quits,” Lucy said.

“Leave!” Verona shouted out.  “God!”

The mouse in the trenchcoat carried a bright red gas canister in each hand.  The mask leered, twenty or so oversized teeth on display.  No reaction, no response.

“Come on,” Verona said, pulling on Lucy’s arm.

They circled around.  The mouse in the trenchcoat turned to keep facing them, making no effort to open the trenchcoat or close it.  As they crossed the road to approach the gas station, the mouse in the trenchcoat turned and started walking with purpose, gas cans in hand, disappearing off to an alleyway.

The men and women and older teenagers who’d been sitting a bit ago now stood, as Verona and Lucy approached.

Peckersnot was hiding, which was a cue- Verona checked.  Yeah.

The people in the car watched.

Which meant they couldn’t practice.

Empty gas station and a bunch of creepy no-lifers giving tourists a hard time?  That could fly.

But fire, transformation, Others?  No.

And they had to get those people out of here.  Somehow.

“How do we get them back?” Verona asked.

“What did you do with the woman you saved?”

“She was so drunk she could barely stand.”

A petite girl with tattoos dragged a bat behind her as she walked down the width of the gas station.  She blew a bubble of bubblegum.

When it popped, Verona felt like people would charge them.

“Can we talk?” Lucy called out.

One of the guys, about twenty years old, actively smoking, shook his head.  His hair was long and greasy and his yellow-green shirt might not have been yellow-green before.  Other clothes he wore, like one pair of jeans, looked new enough Verona wondered if he’d stolen them.  Except stores here didn’t exactly stock blue jeans.

Which raised a lot of questions on its own.

This place is a system I want to know and understand, she thought.

“First thing, we need to blind the people in the car,” Verona said.  “Smoke?”

“Might not be enough,” Lucy replied.  “Wind.”

Verona checked and yeah, there was a lot of open space around the gas station.  Not so much to break the wind.  The smoke from the one guy’s cigarette was flowing away in a steady, near-horizontal stream.

Peckersnot peeped.

“Got an idea?” Verona asked, twisting around.

He smeared fingers at his nose and held them up.

“I’m not sure how you think that’ll help, little guy.  But I trust you.  Don’t- fricking don’t touch me or my stuff with snotty hands.  I trust you, just tell me what you need,” Verona said.

Peckersnot pointed down.

She grabbed him and used the concrete divider between the main street and the gas station to help bar the view of Peckersnot, lowered him to the ground.

He painted an image onto the divider.  A triangle with a partial circle attached… zig-zag for a mouth.

“Snowdrop.”

He drew a series of parallel wavy lines leading to ‘Snowdrop’s mouth.

“…Milk?”

He nodded.

She looked over at the gas station.

“Okay,” she said.  “You want milk.”

He pointed at the car, then himself.

“I deliver the milk, you’re going to the car…”

He motioned, throwing.

“I’m throwing you at the car?”

He shook his head aggressively.

“I’m throwing milk at the car?”

He nodded.

“Open or closed?”

He shrugged, hands out to the side.

“Why?”

He pressed a hand to his one eyeball.

“Okay,” she told him.

He scampered off.

“Might provoke a fight,” Verona noted.

“I don’t think we’re getting those people out without a fight,” Lucy replied.  “Do you want me to use smoke too?  In case Peckersnot’s idea doesn’t pan out?”

“He’s smart for his size.  But I can’t see it hurting.”

More of the Stuck-Arounds were migrating over from places they’d been sitting.  The attitude was casual confidence.  One was eating potato chips, a pair of crowbars tucked into one armpit.

“Lucy!  Verona!” Matthew called out.

As Matthew and Pipes left the gas station, a bunch of the Stuck-Arounds suddenly changed direction.  Many of them took up positions crouching by concrete pylons and behind the pumps of the gas station and the pillars that held the overhanging roof up.

Because Pipes had a rifle.

“What’s going on?” Verona asked.  “You’re hurt!”

Matthew looked down at his arm.  He’d been gashed, and it looked like he’d used a stapler to close the wound.  “I heal fast! It’s fine!”

They ventured a bit in Matthew’s direction.  Verona saw Tashlit inside the gas station.  She raised a hand in a wave and got a wave back.

Tashlit couldn’t leave without being seen.  Verona could make some sense of the situation as she saw more of it.

“Stuck?” she asked.

“Our hands were a bit tied,” Matthew admitted.  “The people in the car won’t leave, can’t use the Doom without them seeing.  Pipes can shoot but they’ve made it clear that if we go that far, they’ll go after the people in the car.  They’re pretty sure that they can kill a few of them before Pipes finishes off the last of them.  I believe ’em.”

“I’m fifty-fifty on that,” Pipes said.  “Want to take a heads or tails bet on whether I can pick ’em off before they do any real damage?”

“Let’s not,” Lucy said.

“Girls,” Matthew said.  “One of you go, get to my place.  Get Jabber.  Bring him here.”

“Could do,” Verona said.

“Enh,” Lucy grunted.  “We’re on limited time.  Lunch break’s getting close to over.  We could talk to Miss, ask her to send… Rook?  Someone that can pass for human.  Have them bring Jabber.”

“Still takes time,” Verona said.  “Still… I’d rather deal with this ourselves.”

“Why?” Lucy asked.

“Because we need to?  Because these guys are part of Kennet now and if we just Jabber our way through it, we’re not gaining any ground.”

“Innocents are a priority,” Lucy said.

“They are and we can make them a priority without that.  Humor me?” Verona asked.

“Sure,” Lucy said.

“Pecker’s on the job, he wants milk.  We toss it at the car.  You think that’ll set them off?” Verona asked.

“Why milk?” Matthew asked.

Verona shrugged.

“Probably won’t set them off.  But that’s only a probably,” Matthew said.

“Then I can distract,’ Lucy said.  “They focused their attention on us.  If we force them to deal with us at the same time you use the milk… I dunno.  Verona sneaks them away and then what?  Once we go looking for a way to cloud their thoughts we’re right back to talking about Jabber.”

“We don’t baffle, we don’t cloud,” Verona said.  “I distract.  Matthew, milk.  Lucy?  Smoke.  Hopefully that’s enough visual cover for us to practice.  We don’t get them out of the car, we draw the diagram and bring the car over.”

“Expensive power-wise, and it takes time,” Lucy said.  “Like, the time to draw and the time for the doorway to open when we’re not in a nice spot like the Arena.”

“Yeah.  But we’re saving innocents, supporting Kennet… that power expense will work, and it’ll be worth more in the long run.  Get them out, bail, let innocence do the rest.”

“If you drop them right in front of the mechanic’s garage you’ll have the car materializing in plain sight,” Matthew said.  “…but I think I can get the Doom to cooperate.”

Verona clicked her tongue.

At the back of the car, someone who’d been using a crowbar on the trunk managed to pop it open.  They immediately clambered in, possibly reaching through a gap to try to worm through to the middle seat.

Pipes moved around, gun in hand, and raised his voice.  “Hey!”

The guy in the trunk backed off, saw, and backed off more.

Couldn’t back off, couldn’t trust.

“You and me, we distract.  Lucy gets the hostages away, the rest of us deal.”

“You’re sure?” Lucy asked.

Verona nodded.  “I think it’s important that the people of the Undercity know who we are.  How many of the Stuck-Arounds are out there?”

“The kids?  Twenty-three,” Pipes said.

Kids.  They were pretty much adults to Verona.

“Get the innocents out of here, leave ’em, see if you can get to Heroes before Mia and her group leave,” Verona told Lucy.  “Set up the Fetch when you get back to school.”

“You’re skipping again?  You need to-”

Please,” Verona interjected, cutting Lucy off.  “Please.  I just- I need this.”

“What’s ‘this’, even?” Lucy asked.

“Something that isn’t going from slowly being ground to pieces at home to being slowly ground to pieces at school.  I’ve been asking you for a while, just let me do this.  Let me have this.  I want you to do your thing, that makes you… you.”

“Does this make you you?  A place with creepy mice in trenchcoats-”

“That fucking thing,” Pipes growled, in his booming voice.

“-or corpses hung up like art installations?” Lucy insisted, her voice rising, a bit more intense.

“And murals, and feeling like a badass, and feeling like something I’m doing matters?” Verona asked.  “Yeah, it’s a lot more me than the grind.”

“You being in reality matters to me,” Lucy told her.

“This is our reality too.  I’m uniquely equipped to handle it.  I want to handle it.  I can see every minute spent in this place, you don’t.  So let me handle it.  Please for the love of fucking everything we’ve been fighting for, for your mom, for me, for you, for John-”

Lucy flinched.

“Go and fucking go have lunch with your friends already!” Verona raised her voice.  “Have Wallace!  Have fun!  Fucking trust me already!  I don’t need you freaking babysitting me!”

“That’s not what I’m doing!”

“Listen to me then!  Listen already!  Listen and go and we’ll touch base after.  There’s literally nothing I want more right now than for you to be okay!  For you to be there and not here!”

Lucy stood there, stiff, jaw set, clearly frustrated.

“Please,” Verona said, making it a statement.

“Okay.  But I don’t think I can act normal with Mia and the rest with this-” Lucy motioned between the two of them.  “-ringing in my skull.”

“Next time, then.  Or a bit more each time.  I think you’re changing and I think you’re letting walls down and I want it to be like it was when you’re with them, not like it was when you were by the Arena.  Or looking at me, not that long ago.  John would want you happy.”

Off to the side, Pipes and Matthew were watching.  Tashlit was watching.  Pipes folded his thick arms at the mention of John.

“That’s dirty fucking pool, Ronnie.”

“Have I ever pretended to play fair?” Verona asked.  “It’s how practitioners are.  We deceive when telling the truth, we cheat with the rules and we tip the scales when playing with balances.  And I’m the best at all that out of the three of us.  We’re running out of your lunch hour.  Can you make the smoke?”

Lucy nodded.

“Milk,” Verona told Matthew.

“Yeah.”

They let themselves into the gas station.  Verona reached for the two-liter carton.  Matthew reached past her to get the plastic crate the cartons were sitting in.  It looked heavy, and he needed both hands.  He motioned with his head and she dropped the carton she’d grabbed onto the tray.

There was a man at the counter, tubes running to his nose, looking at them with what looked like the apex of laziness and resentment combined.  Matthew slapped a fistful of bills onto the counter, and the guy didn’t blink, let alone move.

“Can you throw all that?” Verona asked.

“I can’t,” Matthew said.  He drew in a deep breath.  “I know we don’t always get along.  I worry, I love you, I hate you at the same time.  We’ve been too mixed into things for feelings to be anything but complicated.”

“Hm?” Verona grunted.

“If I let you loose, and if you cooperate, I’ll let you loose again,” Matthew said.

Oh.

“You know where things stand.  You know how close I’ve come to something reckless and stupid.  And I know you’re getting weaker.  Your chances are low and they’re slipping away.  She got too strong, with that composite spirit in her.  I don’t think you can afford to play games or mess with us.”

He held the tray, walking out of sight of the car while holding it.

“I’ll give you fifteen seconds.  You probably only need five.  How you use those extra ten seconds will say a lot,” Matthew said.  He looked at Verona.  “Get clear.”

She backed off, looking back at Tashlit, who retreated further into the store.

“I’m ready,” Lucy said.  “Smoke, slip through, draw the portal?”

“Smoke, wait for Doom round two, then slip through and draw the portal.”

Lucy nodded.

Lucy finished the diagram.

“Go,” Matthew said.

The Doom poured out of him, flowing out as something black and oily, taking on a shape that momentarily resembled Edith, then tore that same image apart.

It flowed along a course that stayed out of sight of the car, carrying the milk.

Going over the little hut with the candy, milk, Tashlit, and the glowing guy inside.  Hurling the milk into the air.

The jugs were torn open as they were mid air, by way of many small claws.

Matthew was the only one out of the Kennet Others who’d fought Musser’s familiars that night and come out clearly ahead.  When he cut loose, he was strong, and he had less and less reason to keep from cutting loose while the situation with Edith persisted.

Partially full milk cartons bounced off the car’s roof and hood.  Stuck-Arounds ducked and ran out of the way.

And smoke flowed.  Lucy had placed it so the wind would carry it.

Verona had a glimpse of Peckersnot on the roof, mixing snot with the milk to thin it out and let it flow.  He smeared it at the top of the window, and it dribbled down.  Windshield wipers worked overtime, spraying to clear the view got stuck.

The little guy dipped his head into a shredded carton of milk that apparently still had some milk in the bottom, snorted it, and then expelled the snotty milk out onto the driver’s side window.  More of it dribbled down.

“Get them!  Break the windows, drag ’em out!  They want to play games?  Let’s play!”

Tashlit stepped out of the store, apparently sensing the way was clear, innocent eyes unable to see through milk and smoke.

And Matthew stepped around the corner, whispering.

Half the Stuck-Arounds formed a line between them and the car.  The other half went after the car.

And Matthew released the Doom again.  Ramming past the lines.  Ramming the vehicle, lifting it up and dragging it.

One push to shove it to the side of the garage.  He strode after it.

Pipes stepped between one of the Stuck-Arounds and Verona.  Tashlit’s advance and her strange nature were enough on their own to make others back off.

Verona hated that.  That they were scared, that Tashlit had to be scary.

But she had to let the others work.

She went into the convenience store, reached around for her bag, and pulled out more of the cigarettes she’d brought.  From Melissa’s old stash.  She placed one on the counter.  “Stapler?  My friend used it on his arm.”

The guy took the cigarette, reached over, and slid a heavy duty, industrial stapler over the cracked plexiglass of the counter.  He barely flinched at the noise of what was probably Matthew shoving the car again.  Verona guessed he was pushing it around to a spot behind the garage.

They were really pushing it with the innocents.

Maybe it would have been better to use Jabber.

But this wasn’t just about those innocents.  It was about the people who came after.

It was about what might happen if Kennet as Verona knew it faded away, and there was only the inverted version of Kennet.  This version.

Tashlit thought there were rules that would settle into place.  People with power here could shape the areas.

Verona put her mask on the counter.  Using the stapler, she stapled sections together along the inside.

The cracks remained visible along the outside.

They’d done things for their masks that included accommodating for darkness, smoke, and other hazards, and while Lucy had stuff to breathe in the smoke more easily, Verona only had the eyes.

Only really needed the eyes.

She ran her hand along staples to make sure they weren’t going to jab or scrape her, and that things were mostly smooth, then tied it on.  The cracked cat.

Am I just accepting that things will be broken?

That Kennet might not be recoverable as we knew it?

I already sorta realized I can’t keep up the routine.  I can try for Lucy but not without coming up for air.

I can’t be the everything my dad needs me to be, like I could singlehandedly be his wife and therapist and daughter and friend.  I can’t be the kid Lucy treats me as.  I can’t do it.

I know I can do this, at least.

She could see through the smoke as the lines around the diagram erupted into life.  Lucy making her exit and taking the car with.

Good.

Verona pulled an arrangement of twigs and twine from her bag.  One evocative of a shrine.

The innocents would be confused, but Verona was pretty sure the answer to that confusion wouldn’t be magic.  They’d pulled off for repairs, been surrounded by hooligans and a scarcity of help, and then the car had been drenched in milk and gunk, there had been smoke to alarm or confuse them, and then the pranksters had fled.

The way innocence worked, reality would help smooth the rest out.  Like how they got moved.  The noises.  People working at the mechanic’s would think the people in the car were high, and the people in the car would think the mechanics were fucking with them.

The others were dealing with the Stuck-Arounds that the Doom hadn’t trampled.  Tashlit sidestepped most people with weapons, backing up, circling around.  Until someone came at her with fists alone.  A guy nearly twice Tashlit’s size.

Tashlit grabbed him and threw him into two other people.

Pipes fired the gun, aiming to wound, not to kill.

And Matthew wasn’t using the Doom, maybe not wanting to strain things.  But his eyes were dark.

Verona circled around, moving through the thinning haze of smoke.

“As I was telling you all,” Matthew addressed the Stuck-Arounds.  “We have a council here.  We’re not going to tell you how to run the gangs on this end of Kennet, but we do have rules.”

“Number one?  Don’t screw with the white sheep,” Verona called out.  “The innocents.”

A few of the Stuck-Arounds turned to look at her, identifying her in the smoke.

She could see through the smoke with her mask on, at least, better than she would with it off.  She could see a faint hazy version of her reflection in the gas station window that faced the lot in front of the garage, and she could see how her eyes glowed with Sight and how the cracks picked up that glow.

She hadn’t fixed whatever she needed to fix to make the mask stick.

Didn’t matter.

“What are you doing?” she addressed the hooligans and thugs.  “You’re backing away from them and moving toward me?”

Tashlit, Matthew, and Pipes were on the one side.  Verona on the other.

She pushed her mask up to take a quick swig of the sixberry admixture.  She held the twig arrangement to her upper chest, and willed it to work.

The little branches glowed like her eyes did.  The spirit reached his way free, then slipped into the emptiness fostered by the sixberry admixture.  Letting her be a host, just for a little while, to one of their shrine spirits, a complex echo mingled with a territory spirit.  Lott was about barred doors, traps, broken glass inset into concrete, and a vicious edge.

“I am one of Kennet’s three witches.  Like Matthew said, you don’t cross the innocents.  That’s the big one.  I’m going to add one.  When we talk, listen, take us seriously.  And if you’re backing away from them and toward me?  Any of us three?  That tells me you’re not taking us seriously enough.”

Her voice mingled with Lott’s as she finished, “I’m pretty tired of not being taken seriously.”


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Fall Out – 14.4

Avery

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Avery shook the hooded sweatshirt out, and tiny motes of fluff filled her side of the bedroom, catching the early morning light from the window.  It was tan, with a white fleece lining, and she wasn’t one for shopping, but when she’d gone shopping for school clothes with her mom, it really was the thing she’d wanted to find.  She put it on and zipped it up, and it hugged her body.  Jeans, green ‘Wild Side’ tank… what she really wanted to add was the other find from the shopping trip, a vintage corduroy jacket, but that would have to wait for colder weather.

She leaned over her desk and bunched up her hair with her hands to see how a ponytail looked, then left her hair down.

She slipped on the wooden spy-detection bracelet, two friendship bracelets, a ribbon, and the charm bracelet with her mask, hat, cape, a baseball bat, and the black rope charmed to it.  It felt weird, using that trick again, after going about a month without.  But they’d gone without in anticipation of dealing with Maricica and that night had come and gone.  It had been horrible, but it was over.

They had no idea where Maricica was now.  Estrella was keeping an eye and an ear out, but Estrella and the Blue Heron Institute were a bit of a mess right now.

Thinking back to that night left Avery with a nervous, uneasy feeling.  She soothed it by sorting herself out.  Spell cards were in a pencil case, she had notebooks she was filling out, with notes on Thunder Bay.

Her bag had a few markings on the liner, which had required her to turn the bag inside out and write on the contents.  A small connection block to discourage thieves and prying sisters, and a signed connection mark for herself.  A ‘find my phone’ for bags with magic stuff inside.  It meant she could bring her bag wherever and if she lost track of it, she could find it about as fast as she could write down the adjoining mark and signature.

She checked the City Pin, her gift from Ken, and it was faded, like it had been worn down, the letters and the image of the great lake difficult to make out.  Haven’t made much of an impression yet.

She pinned it to her bag strap, right above the badge she’d sewn on last night, while she’d sat on the patio with Snowdrop in the bushes a few feet away.  A badly stitched pride flag with a message of love, picked up at the library.

She felt a bit nervous just… wearing that.  Plain view, at her shoulder while she wore her schoolbag.

Reaching over to a vase with another faint connection blocker rune on the base, she broke off a half-petal from the High Summer Rose that Verona had supplied her.  She ground it up between her fingers, then gave herself a little check on her cheekbone.  The faint gold of it faded into the pink of her skin first, but took its time on the freckles, leaving them golden for a few seconds.

Last check of the laptop-

“You’re going to roast,” Sheridan observed.

Avery looked over at her sister.  Sheridan had only just gotten up, and wore pink pyjamas with a faded cartoon character on the front, her hair a mess.

“It’s cool out,” Avery told her.  She hadn’t checked the weather because she had something better.  Snowdrop lounged beneath furniture, lying belly-up in a sunbeam outside, periodically turning over to warm what the ambient temperature cooled.

“Maybe now, but if you wait, believe it or not, the temperature might rise!”

“Believe it or not, you can wear layers and take an outer layer off,” Avery told her.  “Why do you even care?”

“Because you do the sports thing, and that makes you sweat, and you wear those clothes and that’ll make you sweat, and it’s this perverse, obsessive pattern of behavior-”

“Exercising and wearing cozy clothes is perverse?  I guess you could think exercise is perverse.”

“It’s this awful thing you do where it feels like you’re trying to cultivate this stink around you, like a one person gymnasium, and the deodorant- I don’t know if you wear any, but it doesn’t even touch it.  Then the smell reaches me and I’m reminded you exist…”

“I’m going now,” Avery said, grabbing her bag and slipping it over her shoulders.

“Hey,” Sheridan said, stepping forward and reaching for Avery’s arm.  Avery rolled her eyes, turning.

Sheridan twisted the backpack strap a bit, turning the badge toward herself.  “You sure?”

“No,” Avery admitted.  “But I feel like I can get away with this where a lot of others couldn’t, so a part of me feels like I should, you know?”

“You can get away with potentially getting punched in the face?” Sheridan asked.  “Not that I think you should- not for that.  Stealing my room, yes.  Being gay, no.”

“I can fight,” Avery said, putting up her dukes, jokingly.

“Sometimes people won’t-” Sheridan said, stopping, before wiping her hand down her face.  “It’s too early in the morning for this conversation.  I haven’t eaten, I haven’t peed.  Just- watch out?  Be safe?  If something happens it’s going to mean you get all this attention, it’ll be this whole other pain in the ass…”

“Wouldn’t you prefer that?  Being left alone, doing your own thing?”

“Nah,” Sheridan said, meeting Avery’s eyes.  “It’d be annoying.”

Avery went from mock punching her sister to a quick hug.

“Ahh, no!  Ew, ew, get off, ew, gross!”

“You’re the one who hasn’t showered.”

Avery left Sheridan upstairs, heading down to the second floor, where her mom and Rowan were situated.  She grabbed some quick breakfast stuff, popping some toaster cookies on to cook, grabbing a banana, apple, and orange, rinsing all three under the tap for a few seconds.  She tied her running shoes on while the toaster did its work.

Even after a couple days, it still felt weird.  Like she was visiting someone else’s house.  A sleepover at Lucy’s, without Lucy and Verona around.

Her mom was in the midst of getting ready for work.  Colorful blouse under a suit jacket, work-appropriate skirt, modest jewelry, hair tied up at the back with wavy locks trailing down, a look that probably took longer than Avery getting showered and dressed.  She spotted Avery.  “Is Sheridan up?”

“Sheridan is just barely up, last I saw.  And cranky.”

“Cranky is usual,” Rowan said, as he trudged across the room, yawning.  “Morning, Skates.”

“Hey Ro’,” Avery said.  “Up before noon?”

He groaned.

“At my insistence,” their mom said.  “Job interview later, wishing you luck, and a side project for the day-”

He groaned again.

“Buy food for dinner, and cook something for the four of us.  I want something out of a cookbook, sir.  I’ll leave you money for the groceries.”

Anything out of the cookbook?”

“So long as it’s actually a meal and has sides or is a full package deal.  If you want to do a homemade pizza that’s fine, but get some vitamin C and fiber in there.”

“The crash course on adulting continues,” Avery said.

“Speaking of, if you want, we could give Rowan a break, you and I could cook together tomorrow night,” her mom said.

“Sure, maybe.”

“Take a look at the cookbooks when Rowan’s done with them, decide what you want to do.  If you don’t want to add it to Rowan’s shopping list, we’ll have to use weekend time to go shop for it.  Up to you.”

The toaster cookie popped up.  Avery claimed it.  “Okay.  Gonna go eat on the patio.”

“Use the space, it’s nice to have the elbow room.  Vitamin C?”

Avery held up the plate she’d put the breakfast food on, the fruits arranged precariously along the edges.

“Good for you.  If only it was easier with your siblings.”

“Suck-up,” Rowan said, with a bit of a smile on his face to make it clear he wasn’t being hostile.

“Ten minutes before you should go, Avery!” her mom called out.

Avery grabbed her drink bottle from the counter, partially full, and a paper towel.  She went out and down to the patio table and chairs, content with the clothes she’d picked for the temperature, and poured a bit of her water on the table, wiping it free of the dust and grit that had formed a layer on top.

Snowdrop poked Avery’s leg with her nose.

“Apple, banana, or orange?”

Snowdrop reached through their connection, expressing a deep seated need for an orange.  Avery passed it down to the planters and pots that lined the railing on one side of the patio.  Tiny opossum hands claimed it.

“Do I stink?  Sheridan was getting on my case about it, it’s her go-to lately.  Psyching me out.”

Snowdrop looked away from unpeeling the orange to give Avery’s ankle a sniff.  Negation.

“Thanks,” Avery said, waiting for her messages to load.

There was a message from Jude, sent late last night.  Path?  Could run it as a pair.  Parents are bugging me to get more under my belt, also saying I should stay in touch with you.

We’re in touch, she replied.

More in touch.  They want me to milk you for infoWant to run a path together?  Two of us?  Maybe a couple of my younger cousins/sibs?

Sure!  she replied.

He sent a document.  It was hard to read on her phone, and she ate inefficiently, tearing off the peel of the banana with her teeth so the phone remained free.  She buffed off the damp apple and used the cool apple to balance out the lava-temperature filling from the toaster cookie.

She read for a bit before deciding it was pretty doable.

“Up for a Path, Snowdrop?” Avery asked.

Positive impulses mixed with general happiness as Snowdrop demolished the orange and got herself sticky.

“He’s sent me a write-up for The Build Up.  Straight climb up.  Few puzzles, lots of Others, some Others can be obstructions or hostile, just like people can, I figure.  Seems to be common, that part.  Looks like it’s focused on athletic prowess.  Climbing a building as new rooms get dropped on, rammed into, strapped on, welded on, or otherwise attached to the structure.  Gotta stay ahead of the floors that are getting demolished.  Low to moderate difficulty.  The ‘dismount’ as Jude put it is the hard part, getting the boon and leaving the path, and I guess you’d be tired by then.”

Snowdrop communicated amusement.

“I think Jude picked something he thought might suit me.  Good guy.  Rewards are an option, depends how you want to leave the Path.  Gotta stick it out and keep climbing until you see a window.  Or the window if you want one perk.  Perk one is a boon, a tendency for ropes, cords, chains, pipes, draping flags, curtains to be beside windows and other unconventional ways of leaving a place.  Longer you go without using it, the better the chance and the better the moment.  Kinda fun.  Might get messy, though, imagine being forty and your Christmas lights are always dangling by the window or something.  Gotta get super high up, catch a crane hook or something dangling, let it carry you off.”

Snowdrop became human, sitting with her back to the hedge-like bushes, legs sticking out beneath Avery’s chair.  She sucked orange juice off her fingers.  “I hate messes.”

“Perk two is junk, looks like.  Rescue an Other from falling, shelter it and escape with it past the ongoing demolition.  You’ll get a weekly reward, I guess, of something relevant to that Other.”

“I hope it’s not food,” Snowdrop said.

“You just ate an orange the size of your body.”

“It was dry, not much water content,” Snowdrop pointed out, frowning.  She licked more juice off her hands.

“Could be coins, shiny things, could be food, yes, though I think that’d go bad.  Uh, could be red things, could be dice, could be socks.  And it gets dropped off in the nearest blue container outside of the building you sleep in, every Wednesday.  If only one item gets dropped off, pure chance, it’s a super minor magic item.  I think it’d get annoying to get a plastic pail full of Lost food that’d go bad if you forgot about it, Snow.”

“Right this moment, I’m glad I became your familiar,” Snowdrop asked.  “You’re so wise sometimes.  I like the idea of getting the magic items.  Works for Clem.”

“I think they’re minor enough it wouldn’t be a disaster.  I think,” Avery replied.  “I think.  But yeah.  I’m not keen.  I think Verona would be, though.  Last boon option is another perk.  Makes you twice as good at bearing bad weather, heat, cold, some smoke, fog, some noise, mold, some smells, and, hassles like babies crying next door, construction noise, loud music… there’s a whole list of testimonials.”

“Twice as good isn’t a lot if you think about it,” Snowdrop said.  Though Avery wasn’t looking, she saw Snowdrop’s eyes fall on the end of the banana peel that draped off the table.  Avery passed it to Snowdrop without taking her eyes off the screen.

“It’s a pretty huge thing, actually, but, drawback one, is all those things become between fifteen percent and a hundred percent more likely to happen around you.  Or to you, whatever.  Number’s decided once when you run Build Up, you can change it by getting the same boon again, no other benefit for your hassle.”

“Still sounds bad,” Snowdrop said.  “But I’ve never nearly died of exposure or anything, so I don’t have strong opinions on that.”

“I guess you get the boons too, now, huh?  Since we’re partnered with you as my familiar?”

“I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“It sounds like Jude wants to do that one.  Which is why he wants company.  You need to find and greet five different Lost with something in common.  The last three you need to compliment them on that something.  While you’re climbing the building and everything.  And then you hug the last one and everything collapses around you.  Which I guess complicates the partnered part.  Unless we pick the same Others.”

“Can you pick me?” Snowdrop asked.

“I dunno.  I think it’s mainly Others in the building, but you could be right.  It looks like going that way puts you on another Path.  Kickcan Alley.  I think the document is incomplete… or no.”

“No?” Snowdrop asked.  She handed Avery the banana peel.  Avery put it on her plate.

“The Path is fifty feet long, you need to kick a can down the road while walking without stopping, without losing the can off to the side.  The can is an empty beer or soda can of a variety that doesn’t exist on earth.  It is not special, it is not large, there are no tricks.  There are no puzzles.  There are no Others.  The boon reward for Kickcan Alley is roughly eight Canadian dollars worth of random currency, slipped into your pocket.”

“What a shit score,” Snowdrop said.  “Can’t buy anything with that.”

“Texting Jude,” Avery said, as she typed.  “Jude, are you counting Kickcan Alley as a Path for the quota your parents want you to meet?”

“What a dumbass,” Snowdrop said.

“Hey, so what are you up to?  Any luck finding goblins to hang with?”

“Yeah.  They’re brave, come right to me,” Snowdrop said.  “I’m giving up, maybe for good.”

“Going looking today?  Just wondering if I should be on the alert for an emergency situation.”

“Today, not tonight,” Snow said.  “You can’t come.  Not allowed, you’d ruin the vibe.  Loser.”

“Okay,” Avery said, smiling.  Jude’s response came back.  Guilty as charged.

The door to the patio rattled.  Snowdrop became an opossum, hiding beside Avery’s bag.

“Two minutes,” her mom said.

“Sure.”

“I wanted to ask,” her mom said, walking down the short flight of stairs to the patio itself.  Snowdrop wriggled her way into the bushes.  “How is Verona doing?”

“Uhhh… that’s a hard question to answer on a good day.”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about her, about that night you called for help, after her issues with her dad.”

“She went back,” Avery said.

Her mom sighed.  “I know.  Jasmine mentioned.  I just- that moment has been on my mind.  I was wondering, would you be okay- I never got the chance to really talk to her mom, while she was in town.  Your dad got the sit-down at the bagel shop.  I know she’s local…”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe having her over for dinner?”

“Her mom?  Just her mom?”

“I would love to have Verona over for a visit too, but I was thinking just her mom.”

“From what I know of her, she’d love that, she loves talking to people about what they do, I’d say be prepared to answer a lot of questions about what you do, sating her curiosity.  And uh, I’m not sure she’s a kid person.  I think she’d do better one-on-one with you than with Rowan, Sheridan and me at the table.  That’d be a weird scene.”

“Okay.  Though you’re not kids anymore, you know.  You’re turning into little adults.  I’ll think it over, see what she’s comfortable with.  It’d be nice to make a friend, if I’ll be here for the next two years.”

“Mm.”

“And you should be just about ready to go, right?  It’s about time?”

“Yeah.”

“Love that top.  Very cute,” her mom said, flicking the hood.

I wanted to be cool, not cute, Avery thought, slightly annoyed.  She extended a hand to Snowdrop, pushing feeling into the wave, so Snow would feel it even if she didn’t see it.  Snowdrop waved back, out of sight.

Bag sorted, clothes looking good.  Last check in the mirror- crumb fleck removed from one length of hair at the side of her face.  She wondered if that degree of messiness came from Snowdrop.

All good.

Sheridan was all chaos and rush.  Rowan was watching in idle amusement- he had nowhere to go for a while.  Mom had to get everything for work, pulling on driving shoes while carrying dress shoes, juggling keys-

“Go.  Do you need a ride?  Tell me you don’t need a ride-”

“I need a ride,” Sheridan said.

“I’m good,” Avery told her mom.

She accepted a kiss on the head from her mom.

Go,” her mom said.  Avery went.

Avery hurried down the stairs, as quickly and quietly as she could, so she wouldn’t bother the landlord.  She could hear her mom upstairs.  “Sheridan, if you brushed your teeth this morning, you swallowed something dead between now and then, go brush now, you have ninety seconds.  Rowan, I’m leaving the money for the groceries…”

Then Avery was out of earshot.

Go.

🟂

“Hey, you,” Jeanine greeted her.  “What was it?  Avangeline?  Averill?”

“I think that’s a vampire movie and an allergy medicine,” Avery replied.  “The name thing gets less funny every day you do it.”

“I think it’s the sort of thing where it’s painfully unfunny for a while, then you circle around to it being funny again.  As I run out of names I’ll get to the hilarious and contrived.  Oli!”

Oli was Jeanine’s brother.  Both of them were big for their age… or lying about their age and they’d been held back two or three years.  Both had similar wavy brown hair but very different general face shapes – Jeanine’s was triangular, Oli’s was square.  Oli was fit, in about the one percent of guys when it came to having muscles, while Jeanine was leaner.  Jeanine wore a low-cut sweater with a collared shirt underneath, jeans, and sneakers that looked like they’d endured a sandstorm.

“Hey, Jeanine.  Hey Ava.”

“Avery.”

“Avalie?”

Avery sighed and rolled her eyes a bit.  Oli grinned.

“See?  He thinks it’s funny,” Jeanine told Avery.  She turned to her brother.  “You’ve served your purpose.  Go away now.”

He didn’t go away and resisted the pushing and shoving.

“I’m supposed to bring you to lacrosse practice after school,” Jeanine told Avery.

“How mad is he I’m not interested in track?”

“Coach Artrip?  He’s fine,” Oli said.

“He’s not mad, he’s disappointed,” Jeanine added, hands on hips for that last word.

“He’s fine,” Oli brushed his sister off.  “He’s happy he has a new player.”

“He asked about what you said at the fence when we said hi,” Jeanine said.  “Oh no, gosh, you didn’t scare them off did you?  That girl runs on her own, of her own volition, I might not have to have to pull teeth to get her to practice!”

“He doesn’t talk like that.  He gets annoyed at you,” Oli retorted.  “Because you hate practice.”

“I push all of Artrip’s buttons,” Jeanine confided in Avery.  “I skip practice a lot and I’m still faster than anyone who isn’t a senior.  Or you now, I guess.”

“Competition,” Oli added.  “Jeanie’s got freakishly long legs.  It’s literally the only thing going for her.”

“I’m an amazon bitch, bitch,” Jeanine said, more to Oli than to Avery.  “I should put that on a t-shirt.”

“Tattoo it onto your forehead.”

The pair had a way of talking over one another and making it very hard to butt in.  Avery stood back, waiting for them to exhaust one another.

“Where are you going?” Jeanine asked.

“Locker, then math.”

“Then let’s go.  I’ll come with.  Go away, Oli.  Shoo.  Frog off.”

Oli threw his hands up, backing off, grinning like a maniac.

“Frog off?” Avery asked.  “That worked.”

“We’ve been doing it since we were seven and eight,” Jeanine told Avery.  “Magic words to get the sibling or little cousins to f-off, but they either get to frog you off or you have to do a dare later.”

“I wish that worked with my siblings.”

“I’ve just got the one sibling, but it’s essential for maintaining sanity.  My parents use it sometimes, too.  They’ll tell us to frog off so they can try to give us a little sibling, then we get to torment them later, or make them order junk.  If you want to annoy your sibs, you still get to, but you have to channel your energies into some dare or prank for later, you know?  It’s a beautiful system.”

“I think I’d be too nice to deploy any mean dares and I’d just go away if asked instead of getting anything mean.”

“That’s your problem then, nice doesn’t work with siblings.  Gotta show you’ve got teeth.”

“Smiles show you have teeth too,” Avery replied.

“Oh my god that’s so corny, fuck you.” Jeanine replied, giving Avery a light push on the arm.  “Fuck off and holy shit is that sweatshirt soft.”

“Just got it.  I love it,” Avery replied.  She side-eyed Jeanine as Jeanine rubbed her sleeve.

“You should!  God, I want rub my face on that fabric until I’ve worn a hole through it.”

It was all Avery could do to keep her face straight and keep from turning red.  She drew a reverse-checkmark on her leg, as if she could pull on the glamour to avoid it.  It worked, either because of the residual glamour or because of the mental trick.  “Want me to check and see where you can get your own?”

“How much was it?”

“Something like forty dollars?” Avery asked, as she reached her locker and started to dial in her combination.  “Worth it, I think.”

“Tell you what, let me save some money, I’ll buy you and you can let me rub my face all over that sweatshirt, how’s that?”

Avery raised her eyebrows, the mental whiplash at that statement and the jolt it gave her heart mingling with faint alarm as something fell out of her locker.  Crumpled papers.

“Oooh, love letter?” Jeanine asked.  “Crumpled.  Hate letter?”

Avery’s head was spinning a bit.  She checked the paper- then showed Jeanine.  Pencil scribblings, intense, like someone had been trying to use up all of a single pencil’s lead in violent back-and-forth.

“Trash,” Jeanine said.  Then she pushed Avery’s arm again.  “What do you think?”

“Honestly, I’m not sure if you’re serious.”  This feels weirdly too easy, like it’s a Faerie trap.  Avery’s eyes glanced around for a moment.

“I’m totally serious.  So do you have a girlfriend?  Or are you wearing that flag on your backpack strap with zero idea of what it means?”

Avery glanced at the people walking around.  Nobody heard or cared, even though Jeanine was a bit loud.  “No girlfriend, and no, I for sure know what it means.”

“Because you wouldn’t be the most oblivious person I’ve talked to.  We had a GSA club last year and that lasted about seven months, and mannnn, some of those kids.”

“So you’re…” Avery ventured.

“Interested, but not a believer in labels or the drama that comes with them.  You’ve got this cool confidence thing going and it makes me want to be silly and foolish with you.  Give me something here.”

It was a very interesting experience to go from everything being cool to being next to this girl in this context, knowing she was interested.  Avery drew on a half-asleep Snowdrop for more calm.

“I’m just-” Avery groped for the word.  “Blindsided.  There was nobody back home.  Feels weird that one of the first people I meet asks me out on a date.  Is this a trick?”

“Oh my god, nobody?  No trick.  But you know, just speaking for myself, you’re this stranger that came off the street, started running with us, blew people away.  You didn’t run screaming from me and Oli talking.  Maybe you’re the trick, some big prank being pulled on me?  I wouldn’t put it past Oli.”

Avery shook her head.

“Nobody at all back home, huh?” Jeanine asked.  “I’d be your first?”

“I- I guess.  There was a GSA, like you talked about-”

“Idiots and vipers?” Jeanine asked.

“Uhhhh, no.”

“Because ours was, every last one of them.  We lasted only a little while, I tried to keep things alive, some of them thought I was bossy, I got booted, and then they fell apart.  Big surprise, right?”

Avery wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so she just said, “Ours was nice, just… not for me.  The teacher I was crushing on ran it-”

“Oooh, hot?”

“I thought she was beautiful.  Still do.  But she ran it, I guess I hated that time I spent there was shared, you know?  I sorta wish I’d given it more of a try.”

“So you’re the jealous type.  I’m making mental notes here.”

“Don’t,” Avery said.  “Just because I got jealous doesn’t make it my type.”

“Right, valid.  I’m working with what I have.  This is the most we’ve talked, I extrapolate.  A first date would be a better time to learn types and stuff, huh?  What do you say?  Dinner, tomorrow?” Jeanine asked.

“I’ve got a thing with my mom tomorrow.  We’re making dinner.  I could cancel but…”

“I’ve got this thing with my dad after practice on Fridays, so tonight’s out.  Sunday, then.  No, wait, shit, Sunday doesn’t work for me.  My grandparents are over.  Hmmm.”

The bell rang, giving a few minutes notice for the main bell.  In the midst of it, a coin clinked in the locker.

Jeanine deflated a bit, then summoned energy, giving Avery a light bap on the arm with a hand.  “We’ll talk later, figure something out.  Let me see your schedule.”

Avery had two copies of her schedule and she’d put one on her locker door.  Avery didn’t let Jeanine see so much as Jeanine pushed the locker door flush against its neighbor.  Jeanine pulled hers out of her pocket, held it against the door and compared them.

“Crap.  Okay, next time we see each other is either lunch today or Monday.  Or lacrosse, but I know from experience there’s not much talking at practice.  Artrip will lodge a lacrosse stick in my asshole if I’m fucking around this close to the mini-tournament.”

“Don’t want that,” Avery replied, eyebrows raised.

“We can talk about plans then, or later.  Or you can tell me to frog off.  I’ll only take it a little personally.  But I’ll have a dare for you if you do.  Those are the rules.  Later, Anna!”  Jeanine talked while walking away, grazing a senior guy about her size.

Leaving Avery feeling a bit like she’d just weathered a sudden, ten minute tear-the-roofs-off weather event.

She checked the paper, uncrumpling it, and it was three pages.  She flattened them as best as she could- she didn’t have long, and the hallways were already thinning out.

The pages showed a progression.  She tried rearranging the order, and as she did, she realized the image had changed.

Only three pages, but four scribblings total.

She flipped through them, moving the front one to the back of the pile repeatedly.  The scribblings resolved into a rectangle, a short wall that bunny ears and then a bunny shape with an erased mark in place of a face peeked up from.

One image was something else entirely- she saw darkness and piled up bones in the rabbit-man silhouette, only realized what she’d seen a second after, and when she brought that paper back around, it was normal scribbles again.

The words ‘Ashumare Ashumare’ appeared above the next drawing, the letters unsteady in their placement as Avery rotated through the sequence.

More words.  Ashumare Ashumare, do you see me?  No time to play!

“Ashumare Ashumare, what can I do for you today?” Avery recited, voice whisper quiet, rhyming Ashumare and play with today.

The words dissolved.  Avery was mindful of the time limit.

Ashumare Ashumare, errand runner, into the fray!
She sits impatiently on her council seat,
the Chaser of Storms would like to meet.
Four-thirty of September’s second Friday

That was today, this afternoon.  Lacrosse was this afternoon.

“Ashumare Ashumare, tell Deb I need to stay.  A later time, is there any other way?”

The subsequent scribblings shrunk, until the papers were blank.

Avery put them aside, sorted out her things, shedding excess books, grabbed the painted coin with a woman’s face on it that had appeared on the top shelf of her locker, then hurried on her way.  No time to even dwell on Jeanine’s advance, except to feel weirdly good and somehow conflicted.

Vipers and idiots?

The bell started its lilting final ring before homeroom.

She picked up speed.

🟂

“An interloper,” Deb told Avery.  They stood in the mostly empty back lot of a dismal apartment building, about ten feet from a sedan-type car that looked about as beat up, burned, dented, and abused as Deb did.  Deb wrote on a piece of paper she pressed against the car hood.

“And?”

“Goes by Frank.  A dabbler, uneducated, low class, actively practicing, which suggests either ignorance or intentional flouting of rules and conventions.  Make him painfully aware.”

“I’m not really an enforcer type.”

“Nonetheless, you will need to enforce.  That is part of your duties.  This Frank should be at this location, or somewhere close to it.”

“How long will this take?  Because I’ve only got thirty minutes for lunch and I already used ten.”

“I trust you will find a way to manage.  Things of this nature can’t wait.”

“In what I talked about with the Lord, I thought I made it clear I would need to pursue school, sports, bunch of other stuff.”

“It’s clear you need to do this,” Deb said, voice hard.  “Time you’re spending arguing with me is time you’re not getting this task done.”

Avery hesitated, then nodded, taking the paper.

She used her phone to check the address and figure out the direction.

“Why are you still here?” Deb asked.

“Checking- good to go.”

Avery pulled the black rope from her wrist, followed by the hat with connection blockers on the brim.

She ducked around the car, then black-roped away.

The connection blocker had a harder time here than it did in Kennet.  Cameras were a big part of that, Avery assumed.  There were some on traffic lights, on businesses, car dashes…

It at least bought her easy passage through the part of the process where she was trying to orient herself in the city and figure out what even the major streets were.  She paused a few times atop telephone poles, stepped down to collect Snowdrop, who had come running a half-kilometer, checked her phone, and headed to the address on the paper.

She stopped on the street, pulling her hat off.  The guy seemed to be inside a building, which was complicated.  She pulled on the door and found it locked.

Snowdrop sneezed, looking up.  There was music playing.

There, Avery thought, at the same time Snowdrop sent the matching impulse.

Avery glanced around, judged that there were too many eyes around, and then headed down the driveway to the back lot, where she saw a way of getting up.  She black roped her way up.

“Holy shit!” the woman reacted.  She looked like she could have been a tired twenty-five or a young-looking forty.  The clothes and hair didn’t help either.  She wore an oversized t-shirt and jeans, her hair short in a way that suggested she’d shaved herself bald a bit ago and was at the awkward stage of growing it in.  She had been in the midst of pouring chalk onto the rooftop, to form a circle.  A goat was in a cage at the back corner of the roof.

Avery walked around the edge of the rooftop a bit, Snowdrop perched on her shoulder.

The diagram was a pretty big circle, with edgy, abstract markings within, like a tree seen from above, the branches curved and curling.  Some guy’s picture was in the center.  A laminated card.

“Frank Reiber?”

“Franky, yeah.  You apparently know me but I don’t know you.”

“Are you a threat?” Avery asked.

“Huh?” the woman asked.  “To who?  You?”

“Me.  Ken- Thunder Bay.”

“No.  I don’t think so.  I don’t know who you are.  Or Ken.”

“I’m a new local.  Sent by an older local to check on you.  It’s good manners to go to the local Lord and get permission to set up or practice.”

“I didn’t know that.  What’s a Lord?” the woman asked.

“Practitioner or Other in charge of a location.  You know what an Other is, right?” Avery asked.

Snowdrop climbed down Avery’s arm and became human.  The woman’s eyes widened slightly.

“I know.  Ran into a few scary ones.  Real-life actual ghosts.”

Avery frowned.  “Listen, I don’t have long-”

“Me either,” Snowdrop said.  “I’m so very busy.  No time to eat, most days.”

“-but you’re running into a bit of a minefield here.  There are procedures,” Avery told her.  “What kind of practitioner are you?  This looks like a curse.”

“I don’t know what the procedure for calling yourself something are,” Franky replied.

“Damn it,” Avery muttered, antsy.  She didn’t want to be late for afternoon classes.  Her mom might get called.  “Where did you learn practice?”

“From… myself?”

“A doppleganger?  Another timeline?  Anything like that?”

“I made up a spell and it worked, went from there.”

“Did you reference anything?  Did an Other guide you?  Did you draw power or use a magic item?”

Franky shook her head.

“There’s a process to this stuff.  You don’t usually just stumble into it,” Avery told the woman.  She had a thought, in the midst of her anxieties over time and lateness.  “When did you first start… doing this?”

“A couple of days ago.”

“A couple of days ago.  And you came here why?”

“I’m strong enough now,” Franky said.  “My boss screwed me and cut me out of the industry, blackballed me.  Now I can screw with him.”

Avery looked down at the very crude start to a diagram. A couple of days ago.

“Did you see a very red animal or something, before this all kicked off?” Avery asked.

“No.  I was pissed, I thought I’d piss on his picture and set it on fire.  Put stones around it to keep the fire contained.  It smoked a lot, I saw a man in the smoke.  With red hair and a red beard, red fur jacket.  He said I had power so long as I kept my word, never tell a lie, and-”

Franky stopped talking.

Avery frowned, nodding to herself.  “What did he say?”

“I shouldn’t say but- you seem sorta nice.  He said not to trust any of them.  I guess he didn’t mean you?”

“He might’ve meant me,” Avery admitted.  “Knowing him.”

Franky studied Avery, wariness clear on her face.  “Is this the point where you use that creepy black rope to strangle me?”

“No.  I don’t want to hurt you.  I’m not positive the Carmine is the same, there.”

“The Carmine?” Franky asked.  She leaned forward, whispering, “is he the devil?”

“No,” Avery replied, exhausted.  My lunch hour.  I won’t get to eat.  “He’s a guy with a lot of power who might’ve set you on a collision course with us to throw things out of whack or remind us he exists.  Or for other reasons.”

“That sounds like how I’d describe the devil.”

Avery drew in a deep breath.  “The way this is supposed to go, I think the usual route is I tell you to leave, and you either leave or you fight me.  If you fight me, I probably run, and a bunch more people, scary people, all show up to come after you.  They might give you another chance to leave, but they might not.  In which case you might die.”

Or worse but let’s leave that out for now because it won’t help.

Franky stood up, backing up a step.

“Let’s do this a different way,” Avery said.  “Please?  There’s a third road.”

Franky nodded slowly, still holding hands out to her sides, away from pockets, like a gunslinger ready to draw two-handed, except she had no guns.  Avery was pretty sure the woman didn’t have any spell cards or anything else, either.  Franky replied, “Sure.”

“Tell me you want to make an appointment to meet the Lord of Thunder Bay.”

“Why?  Do I actually want to?  Because my word matters, right?”

“Right.  The idea is, you make an appointment.  You tell her everything you were going to tell me.  Don’t react to provocation, they might test you or question you.  You’d want to do your best, don’t panic,” Avery said.  She’d been in this position a little under a week ago.  “You have vital information and it should come straight from your mouth.  The man with the red hair and beard.  Pass on what you know.  Did you live here before?”

“Most of my life.”

“Did you firmly establish yourself somewhere else?”

“Firmly?  No.”

“Okay, so, I have no idea if this is legit, but I feel like if you lived here before you might have more of a right to stay, if you ask for it.  But if you’re going to cause trouble or go after anyone local, that’s going to count against you, big.”

“What happens if I do this, agree to this, and go there to say this stuff, and they decide against me?”

“Probably you get evicted from Thunder Bay, they’d ask you to leave, threaten you with violence if you try and stay.  I think once you see the Lord, you’ll know you don’t want to be on everyone’s bad side.”

Franky frowned.

“I guess I’d have to ask you… do you want revenge against your boss, or do you want to stay?  You might be able to buy permission to get one or the other if you’re helpful,” Avery told the woman.  “I’d warn you about the revenge.  Maybe they’d let you do it, but I’d bet they’d tell you to screw off.  They don’t want headaches.”

“How old are you?” Franky asked.

“Doesn’t matter.  Come on, I’ve gotta wrap up.”

“You’re working with all these scary people?”

“Not with, exactly,” Avery replied.  “I’m trying to deal, doing what I can to stay, trying to be fair and push for something fairer.  If it wasn’t me who came to check on you, it might be someone more dangerous.”

“I want to stay.  I have family here.  But if my boss is here and I can’t do anything about him-”

“There are some things you can do, if you just want him to stay away.  I could potentially help.  But really truly, my lunch break is going to end soon, I’ve gotta go.  If I have to hand you off to some of these other guys, this gets way harder for you.  Do you want to stay or do you want to hurt that boss of yours?”

“I want to stay.”

“Okay.  Then tell me you want to meet the Lord of the City.  That’s your right.”

“I want to meet the Lord of the City.”

“Okay.  I have to pass that on.  Ask to meet them tonight.  Late evening.”

“Tonight.  Late evening, please,” Franky said, frowning as she said it, obviously confused.

“Okay.  Franky, I will pass on the request.  People should get back to you.  For right now, I’m going to ask you to swear not to practice in the meantime.  Stay put, stay calm, keep quiet, don’t stir anything up.  When the time comes, be honest.”

“Sure.”

“What was your job?”

“Aerospace design.”

“My brother’s doing job interviews right now.  Advice my mom gave was that a lot of the time, especially for ground level jobs and stuff, they’re looking for reliability, stability.  They’d rather have someone inexperienced they can count on than someone terrific who’s going to flake half the time.  I think we just want stability here.  Stuff gets awfully- awfully awful, I guess, when that stability doesn’t exist.”

“I believe wholeheartedly in stability,” Snowdrop said.

“Stability,” Franky said.

“Swear you won’t practice in the meantime.”

“I… is this a trap?”

“Not from me.  If it’s a trap from someone else, I don’t know about it.”

“Then I guess I swear.”

“Say it more clearly.”

“I swear.”

Avery nodded.  “Tonight, then.  Clean this up before anyone sees it, okay?  Water.  Don’t risk some line closing as you scrub or whatever.”

The woman nodded.

Avery picked up Snowdrop, setting the opossum on her shoulder.

“Gonna need you to eat extra, channel that energy to me, Snowdrop,” Avery murmured, as she headed back to school to catch afternoon classes.

Snowdrop sneezed a few times in rapid succession.

Avery laughed.  She knew Snowdrop well enough to know what she’d say.

A few blocks from home, she dropped Snowdrop off.  “Watch for cars!”

Then she ran full-speed the rest of the way to school, using the black rope for shortcuts.

🟂

Stick clashed with stick.  Avery practically bounced off of Jeanine, from the size and strength difference.  Avery’s practice partner had the ball, a matter of feet away, which apparently made checks against Avery legal.

“Come on now, Kelly!  You said you were fast!”

It reminded Avery of the last game against Olivia.  She got further from the ball, and Jeanine still got in her way.  Kept her from using her full speed.

A game she’d played over and over in her head since.  A scene she’d revisited twice.  Once by Ruins portal, once by the photo’s Alcazar.  Each hit that Olivia had dealt out had been so much worse than the one blow, because it had hit her on other levels.  Emotion, memory, the replays, the regret.  The hardest hits had left an indent in Avery that insisted on replaying in her head at night when she was feeling sorry for herself.

Not now.  Not like this.  Her family watched, again.

She pushed forward.  Jeanine got in her way, blocking rather than checking, and Avery turned, keeping her feet under her, stumbling again from how very strong that girl was as they made brief contact.

I’ve been in real fights since.

Avery’s toes dug into the turf of the field, she found her center of balance, just slightly askew, and brought that in line.  She ran, and Jeanine was there at her left, leaning into her-

And Avery found it in herself to break for it.  Jeanine chased, but the gap grew.

“That’s what I’m talking about!  Be ready!  Hui!  To Avery!”

Avery looked back, spotting Hui readying the throw.  She made her trajectory as predictable as possible-

Hui threw.  Avery went to catch.  Jeanine tried to cross sticks and interfere, and Avery was just out of reach.  She caught the ball, twisting the stick to help secure it so it wouldn’t bounce out.

“Good!  And to me!”

Avery threw to Coach Artrip.  He had to take two long steps to catch it.

“We’ll work on that.”

“Story of-” Avery slowed.  “-my time in sports so far.”

“Stick by us, we’ll make it a story with a good ending,” Artrip said.  “Next chapter is shooting drills.”

Avery stopped, hands on her knees, panting.

“Jeanine, I like the enthusiasm but there are refs who’d give you penalties for some of that.  Body checks aren’t allowed.”

Jeanine laughed lightly, panting for breath.

“Hui!  Let’s talk about how you’re communicating!  I shouldn’t have to tell you Avery’s there!”

“Hey,” Jeanine said.

Avery felt a moment of anxiety, wondering if this would be about the date.

“Thought I had you, and then-” Jeanine made a hand motion.  “Like you’re driving an F-1, switched gears, vroom.”

Avery laughed a bit.

“Artrip’s going to be on my ass to show up to practice, now that I’ve got competition,” Jeanine groaned.  “Water.  Come on.  While he’s distracted.”

Avery nodded.

They went to the table with their stuff, including water bottles and water dispensers.  Avery rinsed her thermos and then drank.

“That your mom?” Jeanine asked.

Avery looked in the direction of the people standing on the parking lot side of the field.  Her mom was a short distance from the car, waving and clapping as Avery spotted her.

“Yeah.”

“She’s hot.  I guess you’ll be hot when you’re older, huh?”

“Has anyone ever heard ‘your mom is hot’ and been like, gee thanks?”

“There’s lots of weirdos out there, so probably,” Jeanine replied.  “Maybe I’m checking if you’re a weirdo.”

“I am, but not like that.”

“Ooh, color me intrigued.”

Avery chuckled lightly, trying to roll with the awkward.  I wonder if Jeremy ever feels like this with Verona.

Not a straight one-to-one analogue, but…

“She into sports?”

Avery shook her head.  “Not in the slightest.  Not even to watch a game.”

“Oh nooo.”

“The family likes singing competitions.  Even the reruns.  Used to be a thing, every night at dinner.”

“That’s so fucking tragic.  I would lose my mind.”

Avery nodded her defeated agreement.

“Girls!” Artrip barked.  “Come on!  Hydration is important, but you can save chit-chat for when you’re off the field!  We’ve got a tournament coming and I want you ready!  Talking to you, Jeanine!”

“Yep!” Jeanine replied.  Then, quieter, she told Avery, “See?  He’s ready to lodge a lacrosse stick up my ass.”

“Everyone together!  Last words before I send you off to get your dinners!”

Avery laughed lightly, because a harder laugh felt like it’d be too much, and a lot of Jeanine left her unsure of how to react.

“Come on.”

Avery nodded.

As they joined the others, Hui shot Avery a thumbs up.

Artrip laid out the practice schedule, talked about practice, told two girls to keep on top of some aches and pains they’d apparently told him about, and went over the small tournament that was coming down the road.

“What we want more than anything is consistency of play.  That comes from consistent practice,” he said.

Jeanine huffed out a sigh.

“Go.  Have your dinners.  I’ll see you Monday.”

Avery’s mom waved her over.  That kind of urgency tended to mean some scheduling mishap.  Probably Rowan already had food ready.

She hurried over.

🟂

“He awoke you, then?” Ann asked.

“I don’t know what that means,” Franky replied.

“That’s something, isn’t it?” Florin Pesch asked Avery, quiet.  The puppeteer still had that ‘ready for a day on the yacht’ look.

“It’s something.”

“You ran an errand for Deb Cloutier, huh?  Except your follow-through…”

“Isn’t this right?” Avery asked Florin.  “It’s something a Lord would want to know.”

“Oh, it’s right,” Florin said.  “But it’s not Deb’s sort of right.  She asked you to handle it, didn’t she?”

“To make Franky painfully aware of rules, expectations, yadda yadda,” Avery murmured.

“You’re not in her good books, then.”

A new guy asked Franky, “Did he say anything else?”

“No,” Franky replied.

“That’s Hugh Legendre.  He’s-”

“A sealer and exterminator?” Avery asked.

“Good.  Of course, his sons would attend the Blue Heron.  More friends of Abraham Musser’s.  Enemies of yours, then?”

Avery shook her head.  “I dunno.  Briefly, but I’d be surprised if they remembered me.”

“You’re local now, so they’ll dredge up those memories, I’m sure.”

“I guess him being local is why Snowdrop is having a hard time finding goblins to hang out with?”

Snowdrop looked up at Florin.

“I would guess you’re right,” Florin said, smiling softly.

Snowdrop hissed faintly.

“You two,” Ann addressed them.  “Questions for Franky?”

“I asked mine earlier,” Avery said.  “If Franky isn’t going to go after her boss, or using those curses all over the place, I’m cool with her.”

Florin stepped forward a bit.  “It might be worth keeping her around to keep tabs on what the new Carmine is doing.  If he reaches out to her again, anything of that nature.”

“His reach doesn’t extend where our Lord has sway,” Deb Cloutier replied.

“Not generally,” Florin said.  “But a lot of rules are being bent and broken.  It’s possible for someone to awaken without referencing the seal of Solomon.  A divine endowment, a compact with an Other of standing… but if the Judge is setting the bar this low, other rules might get their own creative interpretations.”

“No.”  The word came from Odis, the old man with the nasal voice, black suit and slight hunch to his back, both hands resting atop a cane.  “There are hard and fast laws handed down by Solomon and there are principles.  A principle can be bent, like the standard for Awakening.  But the laws are immutable.”

“Perhaps,” Florin replied.  “But I’m not sure I’d rule anything out.”

“I would,” Odis replied.

There was a brief discussion about precedent, and other rules, but it was mostly between Deb and Ann, Odis Saulsbury and Hugh Legendre.

“You seem pretty at ease about a lot of this,” Avery told Florin.

“Panic is the worst thing you can do,” Florin replied.  His voice lowered, he confided, “The spirits watch us.  If you think of it as stage magic, make everything look intentional, it can make a big difference in the most vital moments.”

“Sounds Faerie.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Florin asked.  “I think it’s less of a Faerie trick and more a really good principle that Faerie picked up a long time ago.”

“Avery Kelly,” Odis said.  The rest of the conversation died down.  The old man turned to face Avery.  “Would you take responsibility for this new practitioner?”

“Say no,” Florin murmured.

“But-” Avery whispered back.

“It’s a trap.  Trust me.”

“Will she-”

“She’ll be fine.”

Avery looked at Odis and shook her head.

“Florin?” Odis asked.

Florin laughed, abrupt.  “No, Odis.”

“It would simplify things,” Ann said.

“Then you do it,” Florin said.

Ann turned to Deb, saying something that required Deb to bend her head and lean in to hear.

“Why?” Avery asked.

“Taking responsibility tends to mean a master-apprentice type situation.  Like inducting someone into the practice, or awakening them, you take on some of the karmic debt if they screw up.  There’s no need,” Florin said.  “She should get permission to stay, you can still guide her without setting it up so you get dragged under if her ship sinks.”

“Okay,” Avery said.  “You said it was a trap.  And Odis is a Blackforest trapper.  Are the ideas related?  I tried looking that up but the books were restricted.”

“Not related.  Blackforest is a shorthand term for your Hansel and Gretel type situation.  Make a demesne, demiurgic realm, or mystical pitcher plant type trap, lure people in, harvest power.  Usually targeting vulnerable innocents.  Children, typically.”

“That’s horrible.”

“Odis’ predecessor targeted the elderly at nursing homes.  Bus stops that would appear only to certain eyes, lure in anyone who wandered, especially anyone without connections, regular visitors, living family.  Familiar music, friendly faces, a literal trip through the past as the bus went on.  They’d feel young, talk with others on the bus, on a seemingly unending, mystical trip, sun shining through the windows, sharing stories.  Like a warm, nostalgic dream on a sunny spring morning.  At her peak she had those bus-lines laid out across three cities and at nursing and care homes in ten different towns.”

Avery shivered.  “What happened to the victims?”

“They’d wake from the dream, the bus leaving them by the side of the road while it carried off that warmth it had stirred in them.  If they were lucky, they’d be found in some distant place, cold, hungry, dehydrated, and very confused.  They’d never recover the faculties they had.  Something vital drained out of them.”

Disgust welled in Avery at the idea.  Other emotions too- the sheer number of people who’d have-  something that horrible?  No.

Snowdrop licked the side of her neck.  Avery gave Snow’s side a quick rub in response.

More gently, Florin said, “Odis was one of the would-be victims.  He was a gangster when he was younger.  Old school, not to be trifled with.  He maintained his senses, got his hands on the Witch of the Blackforest Bus Line, when she came to figure out who was taking up a seat on her bus without giving up that kernel of warmth she was after.”

“Threw her into the oven?”

“Metaphorically.  Threw her under the bus,” Florin said, smiling.  “He keeps the buses running.  Different routes, different intent.  Sometimes the old, still, sometimes prisoners without anyone to pick them up.  Same idea, the bus comes along, but the feeling it evokes, it doesn’t look for warmth and nostalgia and set its hooks into those feelings.  It looks for people who have hurt other people and enjoy those memories.”

Avery frowned.

“Do not cross Odis Saulsbury, Avery,” Florin said.

“Are you talking about me?” Odis asked.

“To say not to cross you and to color inside the lines for context.”

“You shouldn’t want to cross anyone here,” Ann Wint the Destroyer said.

“I don’t,” Avery said.  “Zero intention.”

“It would have been better if you’d sent this woman away,” Deb Cloutier the Storm Chaser said.  “You haven’t accepted responsibility, but I’ll assign it to you.  You advised her on how to ask for this meeting and how to stay.  If she causes us any hassle, I expect you to handle it.”

“Don’t react, don’t respond,” Florin murmured.

“You’re testing my patience, Pesch,” Deb said.

“Franky Reiber,” Ann said.  “For the time being, I’m going to ask you not to practice.  Hold off, seek an apprenticeship, learn what you need to know.  Practice, especially at the scale you were about to perform?  It’s dangerous.  It’s a good thing Mrs. Cloutier took notice of the situation.”

Which is a roundabout way of saying it’s a good thing I got there in time?

Or would it have been really bad if I’d gotten there slightly later, when it was going off?  Was this like sending me to go handle a person making a bomb, knowing I could be blown up shortly after arrival?

“I thought bigger would hit harder.”

“It would,” Ann said.  “It would also make a far greater mess.  You can’t tell us what the curse would have done, we can’t know the true meaning- you cleaned it up?”

“Yes.”

“You were going to sacrifice a goat?”

“Yeah.  Seemed like the thing to do.  My old boss is a huge asshole, wanted to make sure it would make him sorry.”

“Had you performed that curse perfectly, with years of practice behind you, I think it is very likely there would have been collateral damage,” Ann said, with virtually no emotion.  “You wouldn’t have performed it perfectly.”

“The diagram,” Avery raised her voice.  All eyes fell on her, and she felt very much like she was an interloper, and she’d just upset everyone by speaking up.  Probably didn’t help that they weren’t happy Franky was moving in.  “It… it was all outward, curved branches or tentacles sticking out.  Like the spikes in an elementary diagram.”

She laced fingers together so they stuck out in every direction, to demonstrate.

“Remind me how long you were at the Blue Heron again?” Florin murmured.

Avery dropped her hands.  Everyone’s eyes were still on her.

“That was definitely a diagram that was going to point out,” Avery asserted herself.  “Curved and overlapping lines suggest connections.  But they weren’t lines, they were like gently curved branches or forking tentacles, fat at the base and narrowing to spear-like points.  All extending from the center, where the portrait was.”

“Your point?” Ann asked.  “We haven’t seen this ritual, so we’re forced to rely on your inexpert testimony.”

“I think collateral damage was the point.  I think- gut feeling, I don’t know what it would have specifically done, but I think it would’ve destroyed Franky’s boss by hurting everyone with a connection to him, somehow.”

“I didn’t want to hurt anyone else,” Franky said.  “Just him.  He’s ruined a lot of people’s lives.”

“I think it would’ve hurt others,” Avery told her.  “Just, you know, how I’ve seen a ton of very different diagrams and I can sorta feel it out.  Maybe the idea was to kill them or make them sick or make them suffer some misfortune one by one, I dunno.  I could ask around, I have a friend who has been looking into curses.  But if we know the Carmine Exile set this up and if we assume he has a grudge of some sort… maybe it was intentional?”

“That it was Franky in specific, targeting this specific individual?” Florin asked.

Avery dipped her head in a nod.  “Like giving someone the ability to make a bomb, knowing they’ll make it and use it on someone specific, and because the bomb is big enough, you’ll probably catch the person you really want in the blast.”

The rest of the ‘room’ was silent.  The Lord sat over them all, legs folded and extending to one side, blue eyes providing a lot of the illumination in the underwater space.

“I think,” Florin Pesch said, just loud enough for others to hear, “you make a stellar point, Ms. Kelly.  I think it would be worth investigating the intended target to see if there is anyone on this council or close to this council who might’ve been caught by the curse.”

“Can we leave that to you, Florin?” Deb asked.

“If the Lord of Thunder Bay wishes it.”

The Lord moved a hand, extending it to Florin.

“As you wish.  Happy to do so,” Florin said, smiling and bowing slightly.  “I suspect it’s a mutual acquaintance of Abraham Musser’s and mine, if it isn’t me.”

“Let’s meet tomorrow and collaborate,” Hugh Legendre said.  “I’ve been meaning to touch base with a few of these individuals.”

“As you wish.”

“I think,” Avery said, butting in again.  “If I think about it, isn’t it weird that Franky made this specific thing?”

“There may have been some Awareness helping to bridge the gap,” Florin said.  “A natural instinct for cursework?”

“Did you ever run into a real-life curse?” Avery asked Franky.

“Childhood games, middle school stuff.  Nothing ever came of it.”

“Or run into the supernatural?” Avery tried again.  “In any way?”

“No.”

“You just up and decided to curse this guy?  Was it after a dream?  Or did you see a certain movie?”

“What’s this line of questions about?” Ann Wint asked.

“Just- I don’t think the Carmine is really equipped to awaken her and also jam this knowledge or instinct in her head.  So I’m thinking, maybe that diagram looks a bit like something sorta related to Dark Fall Fae.  Tentacles, branches, abiguous stuff.”

“Cursework,” Odis said.

Avery nodded.

“The Carmine Exile had a Dark Fall Fae as an ally.”

“Maricica,” Avery confirmed.  “What if she planted a seed?  We know she’s out there, we know she’s gotta be doing something.  She had something at work.”

“At this stage you’re treading into the supposition, and you run the risk of lapsing into your failures and vendettas,” Ann told her.

Get freaking bent, Avery thought.  She held her tongue.

“Let us know if you see anything that points in that direction, Florin?” Ann asked.

“Why state that like it’s an order?” he asked.  “Of course I would.”

“I’m prepared to call it a night,” Ann said.  “I stood my husband up for an evening out so I could be here.”

“If this was a targeted attack, it’s worth it,” Florin said.

“Nonetheless, I stood him up, I don’t want to keep him.  With our Lord’s permission, I’d like to say good night, everyone.  You can continue if you wish.  Deb?”

“I’ll tell you what you missed.”

The Lord shifted position.  The walls began to move.

“I think our Lord is prepared to end tonight’s session,” Deb said, smiling.  “Good night, everyone.”

One by one, people turned, walking into the wall of water.

“Um,” Franky said.

“Come on,” Avery said, moving to the center of the ‘room’ and grabbing Franky’s wrist.  “This way.”

Florin fell into step beside her as she dragged the new practitioner into the wall of water.  The water splashed into and against her face but didn’t penetrate mouth or nostril, the surface tension so high it was more like walking into a very relaxed jellyfish.  The current picked her up, and it thrust her.

She let go of Franky and dropped to a crouch.  Her shoes skidded on wet sand, a hand grazing the ground for the added steadiness.  Franky came out coughing.

“I worry that you, Franky, are a disaster waiting to happen,” Florin said.  None of them were wet.  The water in clothing and hair had been sucked away, leaving them just as they’d been before.

“What did I get into?”

“I don’t know,” Avery said.  “But go home.  Don’t practice.  Don’t lie, be good.”

“I guess I’ve got a pet goat now,” Franky said.  “Unless either of you want a goat?”

Snowdrop raised a paw, making that little sneeze-like sound.

“No,” Avery said, reaching up to scratch Snowdrop.

“I’ll do without that mess,” Florin said.

They walked Franky to the bus stop, then walked a short distance away.

“Every one of these meetings, I think Ann and Deb like me less,” Avery said.

“Probably.  But Ann fancies herself the strategist behind the throne and Deb… I would say she imagines herself an essential appendage of the Lord of Thunder Bay, almost a partner.  I don’t think many agree with her in that, our Lord included.”

“I don’t want to gossip, but… ugh.”

“Then I won’t gossip further.  A bit of non-gossip commentary and advice, accepting Deb’s mission was a mistake.  She’ll expect you to do it again and she’ll take it as a slight if you refuse in the future.  Had you established a firm refusal to work for anyone who wasn’t the city’s Lord, it would be better in the long run.”

Avery sighed.

“I’ll get an early start tomorrow, make visits and ask who might know our intended CEO of an aerospace company.  It’s a short list and I’m on a first name basis with most.  Good night, Ms. Kelly.  And in case there’s any doubt, you did good work today.”

“Florin,” Avery said.

He paused.  He’d been ready to walk away.  He made a small inquisitive sound.

“You talked about Odis, and I think you said he wasn’t a bad guy?”

“No.  Odis Saulsbury is a detestable, dangerous human being with a black heart that got blacker and harder with age.  He survived his predecessor’s attack because there was little warmth to extract.  That’s not gossip, that’s something he’d admit himself.  What I implied was that as awful a human as he is, he’s not doing anything especially awful now.  You could debate the awfulness of his current practice and where the line should be set as opposed to where it is, but he has calmed down considerably and he’s far less dangerous than the Witch who ran the phantom bus lines was before.”

“Hmm, okay.”

“You were saying?”

“Are you a bad guy, Florin?” she asked.  “Because you’re being helpful and you’re giving advice, you’ve backed me up in there a few times now.  But you call yourself a puppeteer and that’s a bit freaky.”

“You said you looked up the Blackforest practice and found the books restricted.  Did you look up puppeteers?”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“And there’s a few practices that use that name.  But there’s a published diary series on the Atheneum Arrangement by someone else calling themselves Pesch-”

“My uncle.”

“Okay.  That’s some freaky stuff, Mr. Pesch.  Targeting a church, bringing it down?  Using those methods?”

“Puppeteers of my family line, sometimes called Corruptors, we maintain a collection of bound Others of a certain variety.  Dopplegangers, Jockeys- those are Others who specialize in possession, especially possession of Hosts, those who can take control of the hearts, fates, or minds of others.  ”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “I guess I kinda hoped you’d tell me I was wrong.”

“I’m not active.  I don’t have any influence over this city.  It wouldn’t sit well with the likes of our Lord of Thunder Bay or Ann Wint, and it’s honestly a poor use of expensive resources.  So you don’t need to worry, it takes an extreme situation for me to even come close to acting against a member of this council.  On occasion, once every year or two, someone will pass on my name and give me a reference, I’ll do my research, and if the situation is right, if the situation is one I can keep contained to one group or localized area, I’ll get paid an exorbitant amount of money to target a particular practitioner family, group, company, or something else.”

“Like the church your uncle targeted?”

“The cult, yes.  I’ll use my Others, infiltrate, and dismantle.  Lay waste, target those around specific individuals, usually to destroy them with particular prejudice.  I didn’t know my uncle’s book was on the Arrangement, I guess he got over his prejudice of technology.  It’s good.  It’s… advertisement.”

The guy in charge killed his wife and kids because he was so paranoid, Avery thought.

“You’re a friend of Musser’s?” Avery asked, avoiding looking as nervous as she felt.

“I am.  We don’t go to one another’s more intimate birthday celebrations, but we stay in touch, we meet for lunches and drinks now and then.”

“Were you one of the people he contacted to target Kennet?  He said he made plans.”

“I’m not at liberty to divulge one way or another.  If there were plans, it’s my understanding they changed when the situation became what it is.”

“So yes, you were?”

“I’m not at liberty to divulge,” Florin said.

Avery scratched the back of her head and looked at Snowdrop.

“Anything else?” Florin asked, smiling.

Avery shook her head.

“Good night, Ms. Kelly.  Again, good work today.”

She remained where she was until he was out of sight, and then she ran home.

🟂

“Groups of four!” the teacher called out, pacing in front of the room.  As new students came in, she raised her voice.  “Groups of four!”

Avery stood, stretching.

“Hey, Annabelle, you’re wearing the same sweatshirt,” Jeanine said, as she found Avery in the crowd.

“Oh?  Yeah.  I like it.  I washed it, for the record,” Avery said.  “The name thing still isn’t funny.”

“Just wait for it, it’ll get there.  Do you want to group up?  There’s a few members of the track and Lacrosse teams in here.  They’re not all dumb jocks like me,” Jeanine said.

“Groups of four!” the teacher called out.  “Put your desks together!”

“We can group,” Avery said, looking around.  “I figured I’d look for people who are too shy to find a group.”

“Yeah?”

“I used to be one of them.  Last year.”

“Really?  Huh.  I can’t imagine that.”

Avery shrugged.  “You don’t have to come with.  But it’s a matter of principle for me, pretty much.”

“Weird principles, but sure.  Two more?”

“Sure,” Avery said.

She scanned the room, looking for those who’d stayed seated, waiting for others to come to them.  One boy looked rather shell-shocked in the midst of the people moving around, searching for eye contact, and Avery found that painfully relatable.  She rapped knuckles on his desk.  “Group?”

He nodded quickly.

“Gotta find…” Avery said, keeping the knuckles there.  Jeanine was talking to Hui from the Lacrosse team.  Which was a bit annoying.  Was that to invite Hui in, against Avery’s plan, or was she leaving the finding of the others to Avery?  “…Someone.”

She moved to the back of the class, and in the back corner, saw someone with dreads slumped onto their desk.

She walked over, squeezing past people and desks, and rapped knuckles lightly on the desk.

The person looked up without raising her head.  “Hm?”

“Group?”

“Sure.”

She waved over the guy, and she caught Jeanine’s eye.  Jeanine looked momentarily disappointed as she saw Avery with two others, saying something to Hui, and Avery was left eighty percent certain Jeanine had meant for Hui to join them.

They got sorted, pushing desks into place.  Avery sat with her chair near the wall, facing Jeanine.

Which, like… Jeanine was nice to look at, hit all the marks.  Jeanine was interested.

She drew on Snowdrop energy and checkmarks to keep from getting flustered, sorting out her bag, getting a notebook and pen out.  The guy looked agitated, Jeanine was distracted looking around the class, and the girl in the back corner looked ready to fall asleep.

“Two people per group, one to the front left corner, one to the front right!” the teacher announced.  “Separate packets.  Do not open the folders.”

“Mrs. Carlson likes these games and activities,” Jeanine told Avery, like it was something confidential.

“Can be cool,” Avery said.

“Can be.  But it’s like, why not be a board game designer or something?”

Jeanine got up, and as Avery started to rise, which was difficult with how awkward the desk and chair arrangement was in the smaller room, the guy at the other desk beat her to the punch.  She settled back down.

“You’re new to this school, right?” the girl sitting next to her asked.

“I am.  Moved from a town a few hours away.”

“Huh.  Wouldn’t have figured.”

“I was homeschooled, even.”

“Religious?”

“No.  Not really.”

“How was that?” the girl asked.

“It was… it was okay.  I love my family, but they’re a lot.  I was happy to go to regular school.”

“Mm,” the girl said.  She watched the room with face half buried in folded arms.  “I don’t know if I should even say this, but watch out for Jeanine?”

“Watch out as in…?”

“As in… a lot of hurt feelings and broken friendships left behind her.  Don’t tell her I said that.”

“No, it’s okay,” Avery murmured.  She shifted in her seat.  “I got vibes.”

“Vibes.”

“She mentioned the GSA club.”

The girl sitting next to Avery made a face, wrinkling up her nose and sticking out her tongue a bit.

Was that a face because it was the Gay-straight alliance club, or because of the situation?

“Do you follow-?”

“No,” the reply came back fast, short.

Ah.

Which left Avery painfully frustrated.  Because yeah, she’d had those vibes.  Little red flags, where Jeanine was friendly but pushy, where it felt like the phrasing of sentences were off.  Or like… if someone called themselves a bitch proudly maybe that could be fine in a certain circumstance, but if it was repeated, in a bunch of variations?  Jeanine did that.

The name thing, even.  What good was a joke if the person it was aimed at wasn’t laughing?  It was just a bit annoying, when Avery was new and trying to make herself known.

Which had amounted to an anxiety and a lack of excitement about going on a date, and a hard time figuring out why, especially when she was distracted running around, unpacking, trying to stay in touch with people, doing the council meeting, checking on Franky, making dinner with her mom, and running around some more.

Someone then commenting, saying yeah, those instincts were valid?  It was super nice.  Until that same someone had that reaction to the GSA.  Which threw it all up into the air again, kind of, with added negativity.

Avery sighed a bit.

“Sorry,” the girl said.

“What even gets taught in a critical thinking class?” Avery asked.

“Even after a week of classes, I’m not sure.  Hopefully we find out today.  Maybe that’s the point of the class, and you get an A+ if you critically think enough to realize the class is a sham.”

Avery pulled her bag up to her lap to get her drink.

She noticed the girl looking at the strap.  The lesbian pride flag.

Is this going to be a thing?

The girl made eye contact.  Lower face still buried in arms, she murmured, “I wouldn’t.”

“Okay, well, I would and did,” Avery said, firm.  “Is this going to be an issue?  Maybe we could change up the groups before things get started?”

“No,” the girl said.  She sat up.  “No, shit.  Sorry.  I’m shit at communicating.  Especially when I’m tired, which is a lot.  Sorry.”

Avery remained tense, unsure what to say or do, or how to interpret.

The girl filled in the silence.  “I didn’t mean to imply- I mean it’s good.  What else did I say, to suggest-?”

“The GSA?” Avery asked, quiet.

“I don’t really follow those sorts of things, I don’t have a lot of friends in this school, so the fact even I heard about how much of a drama fest it became?  Mostly because of Jeanine?” the girl asked, whisper quiet  She made the face again, tongue out, nose scrunched up.

“Ah.  The one back home was nice, at least.”

“Fuck.  Um, so I don’t know if you’re with her, don’t tell her I said this, I don’t want to get roped into it.”

“I won’t.  You’re fine.  And I’m not with her.”

“Okay.  Not your type?” the girl asked.  “Wait, nevermind, none of my business.  Have I mentioned I’m tired?”

Avery put her elbow on the desk.  “She asked me out and the me of last spring would’ve said yes without thinking.”

“What happened in the meantime?”

Avery sighed, super long and heavy.

“Sorry,” the girl said.

“A lot of stuff.”

“Valid,” the girl replied, setting head back down inside folded arms.

Avery looked at her.  She was small, wearing a black death metal tee, black jeans, her hair in thin dreads, with light brown skin and very long lashes that were probably fake, but were the only real reach out to femininity if they were.

“I’m Avery.”

“I know,” the girl replied.  Then she seemed to startle and quickly added, “You’re new and people talked about you right off the bat.  Because of some sports thing?”

“Yeah.”

“So that’s why I know,” the girl said, mumbling a bit because she was talking into her arm, slumped over her desk.

“I brought up my name to get yours,” Avery said, smiling a bit, leaning forward to get into the girl’s field of view.

“Shit.  I mentioned I’m bad at the talking thing.”

“You have.”

“I’m tired too, I’ve said that a few times like a numbskull.  I’m Nora.  But you can call me numbskull if you want.”

“Hi, Nora.”

“And the flag thing…”  Nora mumbled, barely audible.  “I meant I couldn’t.”

Avery looked at her, then settled into her seat.  “Honestly, valid.  Every situation’s different.  I’m pretty lucky.”

Nora watched the class, her eye searching faces, agitated.

“Never mentioned that to anyone,” Nora whispered.

The teacher clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention.  People at the front who’d opened envelopes and read the contents came back to their groups with empty hands.  Jeanine navigated from the far end of the class to their little cluster in the opposite corner.

“Doesn’t have to be anything.  Since I moved there’ve been an awful lot of… difficult people to connect with.  I could use a friend, at least.”  Avery asked Nora, before Jeanine reached them, “Want to hang out sometime?”

Nora nodded, and it was a tiny, tiny nod.

And Avery settled back, feeling… bewildered.  Like something was missing or something was there, and it had been a long, long time, if ever, since that thing had been there, or hadn’t, depending.

“Cool.”


Previous Chapter

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Fall Out – 14.3

Verona

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Verona rubbed her palm in a circular motion, as if she could somehow straighten out something that had nothing to do with the bones or muscle.  The thumb had a tendency now to cross her hand, moving toward the pinky, the hand folding in the middle, and first thing in the morning, while running warm water over her sore hand in the shower, it had gone too far or something, producing a minutes-long hand cramp that had brought her to tears.

Then the doctor.

Verona hurried across the school grounds, hoping to get to class before things started up again.  Students were dawdling, talking in groups, and kids were screaming as they tore around the schoolyard.  They got to hang back, but Verona had the added hassle of needing to figure out where she was going.  She was already the odd one out, and arriving late would only compound that.

She passed through the haze of cigarette smoke and she let herself in.

The place to start would be her old classroom.  The school was L-shaped and the short arm of it was the combined high school and middle school, with a library closer to the core.  The longer length of it incorporated the office, nurse’s office, and all that junk, with the crook of the L holding the two gymnasiums and change rooms.

Here, at least, she’d be in the right ballpark, age-wise.  She hurried up the stairs to the second floor, dodging some more younger kids that were heading down the stairs so fast that they almost fell.

She pressed her hand flat against the lockers and trailed it beside her as she approached the class, again in some vain, stupid attempt to get it to lay flat, as if something would pop or straighten out and be normal.  Many of the lockers were open and unclaimed.

There were about ten students in the class.  Some ate, some boys and one girl were roughhousing, and three girls she didn’t know, about her age, were sitting at or around desks toward the back corner of the classroom.  They all looked up at her as she entered, then went back to what they were doing.

One of the three girls was sitting backwards in a chair, leaning into the backrest, hands on a desk, while the second girl sat on desk and hands both, pinning them down.  The third girl had hair dyed dark blue and heavy eyeliner, and a straightened-out paperclip she was holding up, blood and black ink dried in rivulets down the length of the paperclip, hands, wrists, all the way down to her elbows.  She held a lighter to it.

Girl one’s jeans were unbuttoned and folded down and girl three started stabbing her at the base of the spine with the paper clip, just above where a wadding of paper towels had been stuffed in between butt and jeans to absorb the blood and ink.  Stab, pour a dribble of ink, stab-

Verona walked over to get a closer look.

Girl one groaned and her right leg did a stompy-sort of jitter, suggesting no anesthetic or painkillers were involved.  Her arm jerked but the hand being pinned down meant she couldn’t move it or reach back.

“You can quit any time,” girl two said.

“Just get her to hurry up!  And keep the depth consistent!  I think you’re stabbing my spine!”

“Geeez,” Verona remarked.

“Spectating costs, new girl,” the girl with the paperclip said.  It looked like a broken razor, and she was having trouble maintaining a grip on it, because it was slick with blood.  “You’ll make my hands shake, leaning over my shoulder.”

On the far end of the classroom, a guy shoved another guy.  He crashed past two chairs and a desk.  A whole group laughed at the spectacle of it.

“And that fighting doesn’t?” Verona asked.

The girl sitting on the desk didn’t look away from the window as she said, “that’s been going on for days.”  She shifted her weight to keep the girl in the chair pinned in place.

“Didn’t school start only today?”

“Gotta get in early, claim territory, y’know?”

“I could pay you with much-needed art advice.  Is that a hot dog or a really shitty butterfly?” Verona asked.

“The hell!?  Fuck you, Mallory!” Girl one protested.  “You said you’d do a good job!”

“Whiner, I’m trying my best, I’ve gotta learn somehow,” Mallory said.  “I think I’m getting the ink where we want it.  I hope.”

“You think?  You hope?” the girl asked asked.  “You asshole!”

“Can you not agitate Sloane?” the girl sitting on the desk asked.  “She’s so whiny.”

“Ow, that was my spine!” Sloane complained.  “That got a freaking nerve!”

“That is going to be one really awful tattoo,” Verona told her.

Mallory held out the paper clip,clamped between bent finger and thumb, as if she was prepared to stab Verona with it.

“Fuck!” Sloane cried out.  “I don’t want a shitty tattoo!  Stop!  Stop poking me with that if it sucks!”

“It sucks pretty bad,” Verona said.

“Stop stop stop!” the girl struggled, wriggling enough it wasn’t possible to continue.

“Is your thing being an annoying bystander and screwing with my business?  Fuck off,” Mallory told her.

“I saw a video once, about how to make a tattoo gun in prison.  I tried making one out of an electric toothbrush,” Verona remarked.  I was too chicken to use it, even as a test.

“Good for you,” Mallory said, annoyed and not really paying attention.

“I could bring it,” Verona told Mallory, adjusting her tone to add a bit of charm.  “Maybe tomorrow?  For a price, mmm?  Interested?”

Mallory looked sideways at her.  Interested.

“She is!” Sloane called out, still with hands pinned.  She looked elated, looking between them.  “Mal will use that thing, it’s gotta be better, right?”

Aaaand sold.  She could see it.

“Big currencies right now are cigarettes for the older teens, and toilet paper,” Mallory told Verona, wiping at her hands with a napkin with a fast food logo on it.  Blood remained in the creases.

“Toilet paper?”

“Not many stores open.  Some of the Stuck-Arounds decided to raid the ones that were open for the T.P., corner the market.  First thing this morning, kids started raiding the washrooms here to sell, the vice principal took the toilet paper away and she’s handing it out on demand, in exchange for getting people to follow her rules.”

“Oh yeah?  Nice scam.  Are the Stuck-Arounds Others?”

Mallory’s eyebrows went up, confusion clear on her face.  “Huh?”

Verona tried to think of how to phrase it, with how wiggly things got here.  “Are they Others?  Monsters?”

“Oh?  Yeah.  But there are monsters everywhere.  Some of the guys in this room, probs.”

“Fuck off, Mal!” a guy called out.

Mallory held the sharpened paper clip she’d just wiped mostly clean and pointed it at the guys who were roughhousing.

“Oh, I don’t mean dangerous or horrible people.  I mean… I hate to call them this, but monsters?  We call them Others.  I think you’re a bit Other?  I’m not actually sure where that line gets drawn for you guys.”

“Are Others cool?” Sloane asked.  She was still in the chair, still pinned down, still bleeding where the paperclip had stabbed too deep.

“I sure like a lot of the Others I’ve met.”

“Sweet.”

Mallory frowned.  “Huh.  Monsters, then?  We’ve seen those too.  Fangs and claws?”

“Sometimes.”

“Yeah, well, the Stuck-Arounds aren’t those.  They’re the big gang of people too old for high school, too young to have a gig.”

“Young enough to be dumb, old enough to be a special kind of mean,” the girl sitting on Sloane’s hands said, sounding bored.

The twenty-somethings.  Like Avery’s brother Rowan was before he left for Thunder Bay.  They were a gang on this side of Kennet, Verona supposed.

“Wish I’d thought of it before those losers,” Mal said, surly.  “I wonder what else we could steal and corner the market on.”

“Sounds like they had a good plan,” Verona said.  “Tricky to execute though.”

“Yep.”  The girl sitting on Sloane’s hands examined her nails.  “You need numbers, and you need to have the ability to-”

One of the boys screamed as his arm was twisted behind his back.  As a ‘joke’ another guy kicked it while it was about as far as it could twist.  The scream intensified.

“-hold what you take,” she finished, not looking up and barely pausing in her sentence, more interested in the back of her hand and her nails than the chaos across the room.

“I’ll see what I can scrounge up,” Mallory said.  “Just tell me which of the two you want.  And your thing has gotta work.”

“Information,” Verona replied.

“Can I get up?” Sloane asked.  “Can you get off my hands?  They’ve fallen asleep.”

“When I feel like it,” girl two said.

“A lot’s gonna depend on the kind of info you need,” Mallory told Verona.

“For right now, I just want to know if anyone’s around that doesn’t belong.”

Mallory pointed at Verona, paused, then reconsidered. “Was going to say you, but… I can see it.”

“Yeah?”

“Almost.  Really hard to figure you out,” Mallory said, studying Verona more closely now.  “Using that language about monsters and Others, talking like you have access to supplies the rest of us don’t.  I don’t get your angle.”

“I’m a practitioner.”

“Okay, I’ll rephrase all that stuff I just said.  You talk funny and you call yourself something random that make me want to punch you and call you a weenie.”

“What’s a practitioner?” Sloane asked.

Verona shrugged a bit.  “A witch.  And don’t punch people that call themselves practitioners.  They might curse you or sic an Other on you.”

Mallory looked Verona up and down.  “Yeah?  Okay.  Sure.”

That easy, huh?

“People that don’t belong…” Mallory mused aloud.  “What if I want more than the homemade tattoo gun for that info?”

“I know someone,” a guy said.  “Someone that doesn’t fit.”

Verona turned.

His black hair was greasy and needed cutting, and his shirt and jeans obviously unwashed, and he had a sheen of sweat from the roughhousing, but it kinda worked for him.  “Brennan.”

“Verona.”

“What’ll you give me?” he asked.  He smiled, like he thought he was cute enough to make the go-to answer obvious.  Which he was.

He just oozed that way too stereotypical, bad boy charm, and he just oozed complicated.

Everyone in this new underbelly of Kennet oozed complicated in some way.  Drama bombs and people who didn’t have their shit together, and people with no restraint.

Verona allowed herself a smirk, and was about to reply when Mallory cut in.

“I was negotiating, Bren.”

“Any business needs competition, Mal.  Hey, new girl, what are you giving Mallory for the info?”

“I’m Verona.  And it’s a janky tattoo gun.”

“Gimme, and I’ll maybe tell you-”

“The grade one substitute teacher!” Mallory cut in.  “I know who he’s thinking about, it’s the sub.  People were talking.”

“Fuck!” Brennan swore.

“Gotta give her that one, Brennan,” Verona said.  “Sorry bud.”

“Fuck!  Fuck you,” he told Mallory.  “Now neither of us get shit, you know that right?  You gotta have the payment in hand first.  She’ll stiff you.”

“No intention of stiffing,” Verona pointed out.

“I’m pretty good at enforcing payment,” Mallory told him.  She smiled.  “Not my problem if it means I can beat you to it.”

“Fuck you,” he said, before stomping off.

Mallory said something under her breath.  The girl sitting on the desk lightly kicked her.  Mallory smirked.

“I might buy other info!” Verona called out to Brennan.  “Find me!  Any strays, any weirdness or danger that goes beyond…”

She saw the blood on one of the desks from the more violent roughhousing.

“…whatever is normal here.”

He waved dismissively at her, which she took as acknowledgement.

“You were saying, Mallory?” Verona asked.  “Teacher?”

“Call me Mal.  Grade one, around the bend-” Mal said.  “She should be in class.”

“I know my way around,” Verona said.  She clicked her tongue.  “I will make an effort to be in touch, Mal.”

“You’d better.  Fuck, I believe you less now,” Mal said.  She stood up and Verona could see that she’d used various methods to tattoo her stomach and legs.  They were absolutely terrible doodles with inconsistent, wobbly lines, bits where the ink didn’t even set, and places where the ink had… what was the term?  Blown out?  Her fingers had cuts with ink in them, but that didn’t look intentional.  It looked like her tools were crap.  Lots of box cutter blades and razors she’d snapped in two and haphazardly applied tape to, more paperclips of varying size, all apparently filed to points.

“Off!  Off!” Sloane complained.  The girl sitting on the desk leaned over, freeing her hands.  Sloane stood, very obviously wobbly, and plucked at the paper towels that were sticking up from the back of her jeans.  “Aaahhh, pins and needles.  Aaaaugh, that one grazed my back.”

“Pay,” Mal told the girl.

“You didn’t finish!  Or do a good job!”

“Pay or else.”

“Fuck off.”

Mallory grabbed for Sloane, and Sloane fended off that first grab.  The two started scrapping.  In the midst of that, Mallory wrestled with the girl for a second, and got her in a position where she could slap her hand, hard, against the one-winged butterfly that had been haphazardly poked into into skin, leaving flesh raw and maybe even tattered in places.

The girl’s legs went out from under her in the shock and pain, and she collapsed.

Mallory rifled her pockets, slapping the ‘tattoo’ again when the girl started fighting her.  She picked out some cigarettes and cash, threw the rest in the girl’s face, and then stood straight.  “Got blood on my hands again.”

She went to kick the girl in the same spot and Verona hurried to stick her leg out, blocking Mallory’s foot.

“You wanna fight?” Mal asked.

“No, but don’t take that as weakness.  I am literally capable of setting you on fire,” Verona told her.  “She’s down.  Leave it.  As one artist to… an aspiring artist-”

Mallory gave her a dirty look.

“-don’t fuck up your canvas.  Even for half-done work.”

Mal looked down at the girl, considering.

“Yyyyyeah, so anyway,” Verona replied.  “Gonna go find that teacher.  You guys have fun.”

She gave the wrestling boys some distance, and she still had to skip a few steps to the right to avoid them as one charged a girl who was part of the brawling, knocking her to the ground.  The girl gave him a wedgie in return

Verona left the room.  Verona’s hand twanged with pain, and she did the circular rubbing as soon as she was clear of people.

Mallory hurried to follow Verona out the door.  To not show any weakness, Verona let go of her hand.

“You’re coming?”

“Gotta get to know you, figure out where you live and shit, so I can extract payment later.”

“Are those boys just… always fighting?”

“Sometimes they nap, or eat.  Or make bad passes at girls.  Mostly fighting.  Gotta burn through the excess testosterone somehow, you know?  Or their balls inflate and turn blue.”

“I am at least ninety nine percent sure that isn’t true.”

“So hey-”  Mallory hurried forward, so she could get in front of Verona and face her.  “Balls aside, can you get me other stuff?”

“Depends.  What do you need?”

“Ink.”

“I have got a buttload of ink.  That’s doable.”

“Needles?  Blades?” Mallory asked, eager.

“Are you going to hurt people with them?”

“Only to get better at this tattoo thing.  Really need to have a gig, you know?  If you want to survive, yeah?  I don’t think a lot of these guys get that.”

Verona looked down at a pair of boys who were curled up by a locker, one sitting practically in the other’s lap.  They were making out, with pretty heavy touchy-feely stuff, fingers in hair, ignoring the rest of the world as kids ran by with scissors.

“Good for them,” Verona told Mal.

“Meh.  Don’t care ether way.”

“World needs more love, less fighting.  If the inflating balls thing is right, that’s a way better way for a guy to get himself sorted, y’know?”

“I guess.”

One of them gave her a thumbs up.  He’d apparently heard.  She returned it, smiling.

“I’ve got needles and blades,” Verona told Mal.

“We can do business, then.”

“No classes yet?” Verona asked Mal, pointing at empty classrooms and spaces being used for storage.

“Not yet.  I’m not sure what that’s going to look like,” Mal said.  “Vice principal’s training the faculty.”

“Okay, so… let’s make a deal.  I’m running the risk of getting redundant info, but I’ll see about getting you some ink,” Verona said.  “If you give me the rundown.  Answer my questions, tell me who or what to watch out for.  I saw the creepy trenchcoat mouse outside.  There’s apparently the Stuck-Arounds…”

“I think the mouse is harmless-”

“I think it hurt my retinas.”

“Okay, well, yeah.  Big one is the Stuck-Arounds.  Those guys and girls are either dead to the world or ready to burn everything down to get back to that place where they’re dead to the world.  Uhhh… respect the vice principal.  She’s got sway over some of the gangs.  There’s some scarier gangs downtown.  You don’t want to go downtown.”

“Suck it!  Suckle it!” a girl crowed, loud enough that Mal stopped talking.  Verona identified the direction of the sound and found a crowd in the girl’s bathroom.  The door had been ripped off, and there was a mixed crowd inside, jeering as two girls fought like their lives were on the line.  Verona poked her head in to see the bigger girl forcing the smaller girl’s mouth toward the seatless and stained rim of the toilet.  “What do you call a toilet curbstomp?”

“Fuck you, Narcissa!”  the smaller girl protested.  Her hands were occupied holding onto the broken stall partition and Narcissa’s wrist, and the lines in her neck stood out from the strain of holding her face away from the toilet, while Narcissa leaned into her.

“A toilet curbstomp is justice, honey!  You don’t look at my man.  Any girl who even glances his way is getting a beatdown, that’s my rule!  Suckle.  The.  Rim!  Then, while you’re doing that, I’ll break your whore jaw off!”

An older teenage guy who was watching the event from within the crowd in the girls bathroom chuckled, pleased with himself.

The girl who was almost kissing the rim kicked, knocking Narcissa’s feet out from under her, helped by the fact a sink behind the crowd was overflowing and the floor had a shallow puddle reaching across it.  Narcissa caught the stall door, stopping herself, but the other girl hauled violently downward on her hair,  slamming Narcissa’s face into and through part of the toilet.  Pieces of seat clattered across the floor.  Narcissa lay there, limp, water mixing with blood as it sloshed out of the broken toilet bowl.

“Is she dead?” Verona called out.  She turned to Mal.  “Are you guys hardier?”

“I dunno,” Mal said.  “What the fuck am I supposed to compare against?”

“I fucking wish this bitch was dead.  She’s still breathing,” the smaller girl said, picking herself up, nearly slipping on the wet floor.  She strode through the crowd, grabbed the guy by the collar, and pulled him down to a height where he could kiss her.  She held him like that for a second, making eye contact.

“You didn’t actually put your mouth on-”

The girl shook her head.

He closed the rest of the distance, kissing and embracing her.

She carried him or he carried her or some combination of the two got them into the unoccupied stall next to the stall with the limp body bleeding inside it.  The door slammed closed behind them, and their shoes squeaked for traction on wet floor.

Verona frowned, not exactly sure what she should do.  She started to walk in, trying to check if the girl was alive or unconscious, drowning face down in the toilet or bleeding out with sharp ceramic or whatever pressed against her face.  The small crowd exited, the fight over, a tide she wasn’t big enough to fight past.

Mal tugged on the back of Verona’s collar, pulling her out of the way- just in time, because someone was ready to shove her to get her out of the way.

Two of the stragglers carried the near-unconscious girl out.  She coughed, her mangled face bleeding openly down one leg of one girl’s jeans.

“So…” Verona said, turning away.  She blinked a few times, processing.

“So,” Mal replied.  Mal’s eyes dropped.

Verona was rubbing her hand unconsciously.  She put it in her pocket, flattening it out by pressing it against her thigh.  Which was useless.  It hadn’t helped that morning, when it had cramped.

She didn’t want Mallory to see too much of that, because so much of what was going on in this side of Kennet exploited weaknesses, exploited vulnerabilities.  If she showed any, that could matter down the line.

“Bit of a weird out-of-nowhere question, I know, but are you like… newborn?” Verona asked.

“Huh?”

“Do you have an existence before Kennet?”

“Ohhh.  Me?  I guess.  I’ve been places, you know?  Surviving.  I was too young to remember, then I was here.  But there are definitely new people.  Mostly they go with the flow.  And then there’s people who… you know they’re from outside.  They’re pulled here, maybe they filter through society at a downward angle instead of filtering straight.  That doesn’t make sense.  It’s dumb.”

“Nah.  Not that dumb.  So there’s people… kinda appeared.  Haven’t really carved out a niche?”

“Or found a gig, niche, style.  I dunno.  How do people show up in other places?  Where you’re from?”

“Pregnancy and they get born there, or they move in.”

“Can you verify that for everyone?” Mal asked.  “Did you see everyone getting born?”

“No.  But-”

“But wait, let me finish.  You didn’t see them getting born, but you assume they were born, right?  Most of them?”

“Pretty much all.  Others excepted.”

“Sure.  I can assume or pretend most people here were born too.  Easy.  I assume I was born too, but I definitely don’t remember that.  Do you?  Remember being born?”

“No.  I knew a guy that did, though.  And he got born a lot.”

“That seems like a chore.”

“It was,” Verona said, with decided emphasis on the ‘was’.

“So… does it really complicate things compared to here?  Pretending or assuming I was born, pretend-assuming the same for others”

Verona debated arguing but she decided she’d rather get more important info first.  “Okay, but then there’s ones like you… maybe you half-existed somewhere, filtered out, filtered back in?”

“Who the fuck knows?” Mal asked.  “Time and place get fuzzy when you’re trying to get through the days.”

“Hm.  And then, third group, there’s people who- I guess they might be the outsiders in reality, and they become non-outsiders here?  We call them innocents, but that might be generous.”

“Sure.  Like there’s guys who just sorta wandered in, saw people fighting in the street, or there was a shady bar and people doing mystery drugs in the alley and they were like, ‘I’m home!’.  Or they didn’t care.”

“Or life kicked their asses enough they can’t tell the difference between this and reality.”

“Fuck you,” Mal retorted, unexpectedly hostile.  “This is real.”

“Uhhhh… I guess that’s fair,” Verona replied.

“It’s real fucking fair.”

Verona put her hands up in surrender.

Mal gave her a dark, annoyed look, then relented, and reached over to push the hands down.  “Don’t do that.  It’s a sign of weakness, some people will use that against you.”

“Right.”

Like I thought.

They walked down the hallway, Verona with her hands in her pockets.

“You want to know about the people who ended up here, right?” Mal asked.

“Yyyyyes,” Verona hedged, drawing out the word.  “But now I’m sorta wondering… where’s the line now?  Because it’s not just as easy as finding the outsiders in the mix, right?  I’ve gotta find people who filtered in down here but don’t belong?”

Mal nodded.

Verona thought for a second, before voicing thoughts aloud, “yeah.  Like… I guess my line is who ended up here that’s capable of living here, who’ll maybe lose their innocence but they’ll be fine, maybe eventually indistinguishable from the natural-born residents of this… this Kennet, I guess.”

She dropped her voice toward the end as they navigated past a group who were apparently comatose.  Maybe napping.  The conversation paused for a second.

Undercity?  Inversion?

Mal shrugged.

“And who’s going to get eaten alive?  Because I have a responsibility to those people.”

“I don’t think the substitute teacher belongs.  I think she’s going to get eaten alive.”

“Okay, then I definitely want to check on her.  Let’s keep moving in that direction.  Maybe a jog?  Ugh.”

“Ugh,” Mallory replied.  “No.  Running gets you blindsided.  Walk with purpose like you know where you’re going.  Con them into thinking you might be on a mission from someone with muscle.”

“Speaking my language.  Except I’m my own muscle, mostly.  But okay, uh, who else?  Besides the substitute teacher?”

Mal shrugged.  “Obvious ones?  Seedy video store guy,  edge of downtown, I think he’s an outsider.  The mouse with the trenchcoat-”

“Would rather just not ever remember that exists again,” Verona admitted.

“-might actually be some screwed up human from outside who turned up and then got weirder.  I really don’t have anything to compare to, you know.  I mentioned that.”

“You did,’ Verona confirmed.

“Going by gut feeling.  Who feels like they have more going on than all of this?  Besides you, I guess.”

“You’re putting me in that bucket, huh?”

“Aren’t you?”

“I’m not here to stay, I don’t think.”

“Hm,” Mallory said, and for a second it looked like she wanted to say something, then decided not to.

Verona looked inside classrooms they passed.  Many were empty, or being used as storage.  “Not many students.”

“Some of us came early to establish territory against the gangs, make our faces known… get in on the business.”

“Stealing the T.P., right.”

“And my craft,” Mal said.

“My friend said a third of the people who were going to turn up at school didn’t.”

“Here?  Because it’s way less than that.”

“At a school related to this school, I guess I’d say,” Verona said.  She noted a spray-painted wang that extended along about thirty lockers, about as wide as her arm.  They caught up to the kid who was still working on it.  “Love it.  Nice steady hand, guy, straight lines.”

“Thanks!” the little kid piped up.  He had flecks of spray in his hair and on his skin.  His hands were covered in orange spray paint.

“Here, someone was saying only a third of the students really turned up,” Mal told Verona.

“Iiiiiinteresting,” Verona replied, looking around.

So we lost a third and a third have shown up here?

They weren’t one to one replicas or evil twins, but she was left to wonder if Noah or Ian from last year’s classes had been among those that bailed.  Were those guys making out in the corridor a loose analogue to one or both of those guys?  Was Mal an analogue to someone who would’ve attended?

Was there an Avery?

The library’s lights were off as they passed.  There were kids crowded around in the dark, sitting on shelves without books on them, watching a gory movie on a television.

Mallory elbowed Verona.  “Kay, since we’re getting close?  There’s primo info you’ll want to know, but I need something to guarantee you won’t renege.”

“I’m a practitioner.”

“Still makes me want to punch you, that word.”

“And that means I can’t lie without serious consequences.  My oaths are binding.  Promises are promises.”

“You could be lying when you say that.”

“Nope, because I can’t lie.”

Mal frowned at her.

Verona grinned her best Cheshire Cat grin.

“Oh, gross, is that a rat?  Mouse?” Mal said, pointing.

Verona looked and immediately realized it wasn’t a rat or a mouse.

“Heyyyyy!” Verona cheered.  “Hey little guy!”

Peckersnot used crumpled paper to partially shield himself as he came running down the hallway, sticking to the very edges of the hall where floor curved up to meet locker.

She scooped him up, keeping the paper around him.  “You came!”

He peeped, then sneezed, pulled on his cheek, and gestured incoherently, excited.

“Cheek pull is Tash- she’s here!?  She came?  That’s fantastic.”

Peckersnot nodded, then pointed down the hall toward the main school entrance where the kindergarten class was.

“Gonna go meet up with my friend,” Verona said, starting to walk.  “You can come with, meet her.  She’s cool.”

“Uhhh,” Mal said, as Verona moved closer to the door.  “I know you’ve got your cool little monster buddy saying she’s there, but…”

“But?” Verona asked.

“But I was going to say before.  There are gangs in the school and the kindergarteners are not my first choice of gangs to cross.”

“No shit?” Verona asked, a smile creeping across her face.  “I love that.”

“You’ll love it less when they stab you.  Or bite.  Vice principal established a quick alliance with them, right away.  They’re her bottom tier enforcers and errand runners, paid in T.P., cigarettes, and vending machine candy.”

“She’s one of the bosses, then?”

“Yeah.  Don’t go that way.”

Peckersnot sniffled, rubbing at his nose with open hands to try to wipe the snot away, but mostly he succeeded in getting snot all over his hands, wrists, and arms.  Verona crumpled up the paper around him to catch the worst of it and keep him from transferring it from his little hands to her.   She winced at the awkward movement of stretching out her left hand.  “Library.  There’s an exit if we cut through.”

“You do know your way around,” Mal said.

“I know the layout,” Verona said.  “Been going to a school very like this one for a while.”

“Huh.”

Verona held a finger to her lips, gesturing to Mallory, then did the same for Peckersnot.  He clamped both hands over his beak.

She opened the library door, and it was dark, illuminated only by the crimson on the screen.  The library smelled like smoke of two varieties.  Cigarettes were one.

They edged around the crowd, and Verona saw one five year old that apparently wasn’t part of the prison gang, so tense he was barely in contact with the ground he was sitting on, leaning forward with fingertips for balance, mouth open in awe.

She prodded his stomach with the toe of her shoe, and he yelped, which made others react, in a chain reaction.  Verona hurried on her way, suppressing laughter, pointing at the kid.

They liked the movie enough they didn’t give chase.

They had to go through the stacks of magazines, and a lot of them were filled with stuff students had done themselves.  A scrapbook style ‘magazine’ with modeling style photos stapled to the cover, notebooks with titles written on the cover in crayon.

A guy stood up as Verona approached, and he was big, heavyset, with a sullen face.

He jerked a thumb toward the stacks behind him.  In the dark, some teenagers were sitting and smoking, guys with arms around girls, having whispered and close conversations in the dark and heavy haze.

He motioned between himself and her, expression slack-jawed.

“Got somewhere to be, can’t hang out, but thanks for asking,” Verona told him.

He sat himself down near the entrance to the stacks, digging in a pocket for a pen.

The outside was bright as she opened the side door to the library.  She squinted.  It took them out onto the landing that branched off to the front door, kindergarten playground, and the main, much larger play area and sports fields.

Some kindergarteners near the front door stood up.  They were smeared in fingerpaint and carried broken-off chair legs and a meterstick that had been filed down to a point.  They didn’t pursue as Verona and Mal headed down the stairs into the main playground, Peckersnot’s tiny hand sticking out of crumpled paper to point the way.

The smell of paint lured Verona’s nose, and the rest of her followed, turning.

The big boring brick wall of the school she had grown up attending was bordered in graffiti, especially at the lower portion.  And a sixteen or seventeen year old guy with a mess of jump ropes and wires tied around him was being raised and lowered by a team of kids on the roof, while he painted a huge mural, of a burning book dissolving into silhouettes of a crowd, of a crying face, and trees without leaves.  It wasn’t perfect and if she’d done it she would’ve done something more focused but just the fact it was happening at all…

“Fuck,” Verona breathed, as she took it in.

“What?” Mal asked, quiet.

“I might kind of love it here,” Verona whispered.

“Has its ups and downs, you know?  Up, boys.  Down, creepy trenchcoat mouse.  Up, do what you want.  Down, might get stabbed, or get forced to suck on a toilet, or fed dog food.”

“Dang.  See, back where I come from, I’ve got a friend boy, but I definitely don’t get to do what I want, and I deal with creeps and get almost stabbed a lot.  I’ve got best friends, though.”

Peckersnot made a squeaky, unintelligible exclamation.

“And snot-nosed little artist friends.”

Peckersnot pointed.

“Aaaand a best friend who came here, heyyy!”

Tashlit wore a hoodie, hood up, hands in her pocket.  She stood a little straighter as Verona approached, picking up speed as Verona hugged her.

She hugged Verona back.

“Oh man, Tash.  You’re up there for my favorite people to get a hug from,” Verona said, squeezing.  She could feel the squish of loose flesh beneath the sweatshirt.  “And ascending.”

Tashlit nodded as they ended the hug.  Peckersnot gasped as he’d been squished between them.  He adjusted the crumpled paper around himself, leaving wet handprints on the paper as he moved it.

“Tashlit, meet Mallory, Mal for short, I guess?  Mal, Tashlit.”

“I like your eyes,” Mallory said.

Tashlit winked using the eyes on the left side of her body.  Which was mostly covered up, but face, left hand, and left ankle, anyway.

“Okay, that’s a thing you gotta do again,” Verona told her.  “I like that.  I’m so glad you came!  Backup!”

Tashlit clenched a fist, flexing.

“You good to go in the school?  Maybe some dangerous kindergarteners, but we can cut around that part of things.”

Tashlit gestured drawing a halo shape above her head, before pulling her hood down a bit.

“Iiiii- yes,” Verona replied.  “Some innocents around.  But we’ll be careful.  Can I like, pledge to own some of that, if it gets sketchy?”

Tashlit shrugged.

“Okay, well, I cordially invite you to join me on this little adventure.  You, Peck, Mal if she wants to come, and me, rescuing a substitute teacher who ended up at the school on the shadow-side of Kennet.”

Tashlit nodded.

They walked and Mal did tag along.  They headed back the way they’d come, but not to the library, exactly.  Tashlit, looked over, then pointed surreptitiously at Verona’s hand.

“Someone told you?  It’s okay,” Verona told her, quiet.  “Doc gave me exercises.  Meds.  I like thinking of it as a cat claw.”

Tashlit made a prayer gesture, then pointed.

“I don’t think that helps, Tash,” Verona whispered.  “Mystical.”

Tashlit nodded.  Lower eyelids raised a fraction all across the parts of her Verona could see.  Sympathetic.

Tashlit nudged Verona and gestured.  Claw-scary, head tap, chest thump.

“The vice principal is the big threat on campus, apparently, but there’s also the Stuck-Arounds, they’re not in the school, are they?”

“They’re like roving raiders.  Sometimes, I bet.  Depends what they think they can get away with,” Mal said.

“Who else?”

“Right now?  We don’t know.  Some people are taking over classes, toughest person in a room trying to claim the classroom as their territory.  Arrived early with gangs, picking fights, establishing their pecking orders…”

Verona nodded.

“But when the vice principal makes her move, who knows?  We’re expecting the new teachers to come in any time, start running the classes.  Might get brutal.”

“Hmm.”

They avoided the front door and walked around to the side entrance, about halfway up the long arm of the ‘L’ shape, which put them near the office.

“Early moves still, first afternoon of the first day of school,” Mallory said.

Tashlit nodded.  She bapped Verona’s shoulder with a hand to get her attention, then gestured, indicating writing, then banging a hammer…

“Laws?”

Tashlit made a so-so gesture, and swung an arm wide, indicating… everything.

“Hey Mallory, any idea if there are any rules about how… all of this works?”

Tashlit nodded, leaning into Verona a bit as Verona asked.

“Again, I don’t-”

“You don’t have a point of reference,” Verona talked over Mal as Mal said, “-have anything to compare to.”

Tashlit nodded.

“Nothing I’ve noticed,” Verona told Tashlit.

Tashlit nodded, then tapped her wrist.

“In time?  You think it’ll happen?”

Tashlit shrugged.

“Could happen,” Verona said.  “Gotcha.”

They re-entered the school, using another of the entrances.  The office was to the left, but the interior was dark.  Two unconscious kids lay in the hallway, a third sitting with her arms around her legs, looking a bit dazed.

“You guys okay?” Verona asked, looking at the girl who was just sitting there.

“Sure,” the girl on the floor said.  “I’m super high right now.  Your friend there is a little much for me right now.”

Tashlit’s eyes flicked closed in a blink, the simultaneous closing of all those eyes producing a faint wet sound like a camera shutter.

“Hey, Tash, how is being at school?” Verona asked.  “Kinda cool?”

Tashlit nodded and shrugged.

“Cool,” Verona murmured.  She looked toward the end of the hall, the very top end of the ‘L’.  “If they haven’t moved the class since I was in the early grades, then the first grade class would be-”

“Hey,” someone called out.

Verona turned to look the other direction, away from the classes and toward the kindergarten, gym, and library.  A group of older teenagers were standing there, with two brightly painted five or six year olds behind them.

“Vice principal wants to talk.”

“There’s someone I want to check on-”

“You don’t get a choice about this.  It’s her school.”

“Can I send someone to go handle something while I-”

“No.  All of you.”

“What do you think?” Verona asked Tashlit.

Tashlit made a slight curtsy gesture, before putting her fingers up near her forehead.  At first, the four raised fingers made Verona think ‘four-head’, but then she realized the intention was a crown.

“Bit of a Lord situation, huh?  Okay.  After this, we want to check on a first grade teacher who doesn’t belong and is probably having a hard time, make sure she’s okay.”

“Don’t care.  Come,” the vice principal’s enforcer told Verona.

Verona nodded.  As she walked by an upended trash can, she threw the ball of crumpled paper onto the side of it.  It landed between the can and the wall.

As they headed into the side hallway that led to the showers, vending machines, combination cafeteria-gym and the big gym, Verona glanced back.  She saw Peckersnot sneaking down the hallway, shrouded in the crumpled paper, heading for the stairs.

Good man.

She met Tashlit’s eyes, which was easy, and Tashlit nodded.

Best we can do for now.

They didn’t actually enter the gym, but instead headed out to the back parking lot.  A bunch of cars had been arranged into a blockade, and within that blockade was one of the larger gathering of students Verona had seen yet.  They ranged through all ages, but the very youngest and very oldest were prominent.

And the Vice Principal was there.  Verona found herself putting more emphasis on that title, seeing her in person, framed by a crowd of teenagers and kids who probably wouldn’t flinch at seeing someone get a beating.  Maybe even at murder.  The Vice Principal was about seven or eight years old, wearing a fairy costume, and bearing a sash with her self-appointed title on it.  She held an oversized wand with a star on the end, and she stood on the back of a four hundred pound man with a cage around his head, a chain leading from inside the cage to her hand.  The other teachers were similar, though not of the same body type, and the Vice Principal’s retinue consisted of the kids and teens of varying ages who used them as chairs to sit on or had them standing while sitting on their shoulders.

Each kid with a ride had a different sash or nametag.  A boy with a tie and ‘treasurer’ on a nametag and ‘maths’ on a sash, an older teenage girl with a bored look on her face, sitting on some skinny dude with an oversized cage on his head, with one leg folded over the other, her sash reading ‘school nurse’.  There was a younger kid with an oversized apron on, the tag reading ‘shop’, and a kid who looked barely out of kindergarten with ‘bio’ on his sash.

“They have a monster,” Mallory whispered, as they walked closer.  The Vice Principal beckoned with her hand, bidding them to move faster.  “Fangs and claws.”

Verona saw, as the Other raised his head.  It snorted, sniffed, then prowled closer, before breaking into a loping, awkward run.

Verona stepped forward, and staggered back a step as Squeak hurled himself at her, crashing into the ground at her feet, rolling onto his back, rubbing his face against her front.

“Heyyyy, Squeak, my man,” Verona greeted him, giving him a vigorous rub.  “Gentle soul.”

“The fuck?” Freak raised her voice, before stomping over.  She had a sash that read ‘guidance’.  “Oh.  You.”

“Heya Freak.  You’re here.”

“Status, respect, food, chance to cave in the occasional face.  Only bad part is I’ve got that loser coming along for it.”

Verona rubbed the patchy fur at Squeak’s chest.  His head lolled one way and the other in delight.

“You know them?” the Vice Principal asked.

“What’d you do?” Freak asked, quiet.

“I asked you a question, Freak.”

“Just showed up,” Verona replied.  “Asking around.”

“Because if you did something and I back you up, they’re going to get on my case and I’m going to have to do some murderin’,” Freak told Verona, quiet.

“I don’t think I did anything, and try to avoid the murdering.  I know the rules and expectations are different here, but… yeah.”

“Freak, last warning,” the Vice Principal called out.

Freak’s eyes narrowed.

“I know them,” Freak said, without taking her eyes off Verona.

“Your call then.  Do you vouch or do we draw straws to decide which staff member deals with her?”

Freak seemed to consider.  Squeak moaned, which got him a hard look from the little girl with flowers in her hair.

“I vouch,” Freak declared.  Under her breath, she said, “Don’t fucking make me regret this.  Come on, Squeak, you’re getting your stink on her.”

Squeak moaned, made apologetic sounds, and loped off.  Verona leaned forward to extend the shoulder rub a bit.

“I was told you were asking around.  Looking for someone?”

“Any people fitting a category.  People who don’t belong,” Verona told her.

“Are you messing with me?” the girl in the fairy costume asked.  “Do you think you’re in charge?  Or that I’m not?”

“Hey, you’re in charge of the school, but I’ve got a job that covers all of Kennet.  Means I have a responsibility to find the stragglers and… the white sheep in with the black, I guess.  Innocents who wandered in who need out.  I’ve had this job longer than you’ve had yours.”

“But I’ve got this job now,” the little girl said.  She used her wand to strike the cage around her steed’s head, making it ring and jangle in an obnoxiously loud way.  He swayed, moving his head to try to escape it.  At a prodding from her wand, she goaded him to crawl closer to Verona.

Tashlit took a step forward.  With that, a bunch of people tensed.

“It’s cool,” Verona said.

A third of Tashlit’s eyes looked at Verona, the framing of lid and eye making her reluctance clear.

The Vice Principal went on, “I’ve got one of the biggest gangs in town, a small army, I’ve got supplies, I’ve got strong people behind me.  I say this school is mine, and anything inside this school is mine, and my gang, my supplies, my pets, they all say so too.”

A few faces in the crowd nodded.

Verona glanced at Freak, trying to read Freak’s posture and mood.  Which wasn’t a strength of hers.

Can I beat her in a fight if it comes to that?  Verona wondered.

“She’s cool.  She’s a friend,” Freak said, sounding sullen.  Her thumb turned, indicating the Vice Principal.

Made a friend, Freak? Verona thought.

“Is she?” the Vice Principal asked.  The thumb disappeared.

And the V.P. thinks Freak is talking about me.

Freak went on, “Verona here is strong.  If I’m the guidance counselor, then my counsel is you want her as an ally.”

The girl in the fairy costume turned to look at Freak.  “I’m the strongest person in this school.  By the end of the day I’ll own the school and the surrounding area.  I can’t have someone going around doing stuff behind my back.”

“Remember that show we were watching last night?  Sentai Elite?  She could be your Sentai Wood B.  She could be your- the other show,” Freak said.  “Sugar Mask.”

The principal flounced a bit as she turned, an act that made the man she was standing on wince as she stomped on his kidney.

“You know the only thing better than a tried and trusted friend that’s by your side no matter what?  Random ass stranger who shows up out of nowhere, saves your ass, and demolishes your enemies,” Freak exclaimed, getting excited.  “That’s her!  That can be her!”

“Her?”

“I am talking full on aerial bombardment shit.  Illusions, monsters, crazy-ass transformations.  And magic aerial bombardments.  Whenever she feels like it!” Freak exclaimed, excited.  The excitement was contagious enough that Squeak perked up, making noises, and Freak shoved him about ten feet away from her, the crowd swiftly parting to get clear as Squeak hit the wall and bounced off, collapsing.

“I’m not convinced,” the Vice Principal said.

“I can do all of those things.  I’m not positive I will,” Verona said.  She looked at the man that had the cage around his head, features obscured within, head bowed or weighed down, shuffling uncomfortably as the Vice Principal shifted her footing.

“Reluctant hero.  That’s perfect!” Freak exclaimed.

The Vice Principal, despite herself, was nodding along a little.  She startled a little as Freak leaped up onto the man’s back and jostled her in her excitement.  That alone did a lot to break the cultivated composure.

“That’s really super cool,” the Vice Principal confessed.  “But Sugar Mask has a cool mask.”

“I’ve got a mask,” Verona said.

She reached into the front portion of her bag, where there was a separate space, just thick enough for important papers and handouts.  She pulled out the three pieces of her mask.  She raised them to her face and held them together.

They came apart as she relaxed the tension.  The fit between two pieces was so perfect that they stuck together for an extra second or two, giving her a moment of fleeting hope.  She held them clumped together in front of her chest.

Felt bad, showing something vulnerable to a crowd of hostile strangers.

“Why is it broken?” the Vice Principal asked.

“I guess it’s still broken because I haven’t fixed what I need to fix.  Or figured out what I need to figure out.”

“You need to get on that,” the Vice Principal told her.

“What I need,” Verona said, and the note of freedom and fun that had run through so much of her visit to this school had faltered a bit, leaving her colder and more serious than before, “is to do my job.  I protect Kennet, I protect Kennet’s people and Others, that includes you guys, and right now you’ve got a teacher who is probably having the worst day of her life, I’m going to go get her, assuming she’s still there, and I’m going to get her out of here.”

“We’ll consult.  Freak?  Watch her.  Don’t mess with me on this.”

Freak shook her head, hopping down from the man’s back.

He crawled on hands and knees to the huddle with the other kids with the self-proclaimed staff roles.

“It’s cool you made a friend,” Verona told Freak.

“Mm.  Better than this stinking loser who follows me everywhere and drools on everything,” Freak said, indicating Squeak.

Freak clamped hands around mouth in a vain effort to stop the drooling from the elongated snout.

“That man she’s riding on?”

“The previous vice principal.”

“I’m not super okay with that treatment.  My partners would hate it too.”

Mallory commented, “Veep came in with a plan.  Delinquent kids?  Capital punishment-”

“Corporal?” Verona corrected.

“That too. Three strikes, school assembly, you in front of everyone.  You’d have to do a big speech, saying how sorry you were, what you did wrong, all that, then…” Mallory drew a line across her throat, making a choked sound.  “If you do a bad job of the speech, stutter, hesitate, they’d draw it out.”

“Holy crap,” Verona said.

“Chance you survive, if you have friends and those friends join the truancy squad or one of the other groups.  Hunt students who missed class.  You can buy someone’s survival with a few weeks of that.  Or like, save a friend from the late punishment.”

“What’s the late punishment?”

“It was going to be losing a foot.  Really nice we got someone like her.  Still don’t want to cross her, y’know.”

Verona nodded slowly.

“The other teachers were all cackling along with it, we heard, we saw.  They posted stuff up on the walls.  Burned all the books, plans for school uniforms with ties tight enough to make it hard to breathe.  Dreams of turning us into a personal army, literally beating us into shape, conformity…”

“Right,” Verona said.

Tashlit tapped Verona’s arm, then gestured.  Claw, fierce, clutching motion at heart, hunched over, then thumped her chest once and put her hand up near her brow, fingers raised.

Fivehead?  Four-head? Verona thought, looking at the fingers.  Crown.  Mean, evil, danger…

“People in power are evil?”

Tashlit made a gesture, then the motion for ‘small’.

“Some people in power are evil?”

Tashlit repeated the gestures for fierce and dangerous, then twisted skin over her heart, clutching it into a tight bundle.

“Twisted and very evil.”

Tashlit pointed down.

“Here.  In a place like this, people in power can be true evil, really twisted.”

Tashlit nodded.

“Huh.  I imagine anyone could, right?”

Tashlit made a lazy waving hand gesture, shrugging, then a firmer ‘crown’ motion.

“Yeah.  Much more common for the ones in charge, I guess.  Something to watch for.”

Tashlit made a cradling gesture, touched her heart, then held up a few fingers.

“Gotcha,” Verona replied.  She sighed, and saw a confused Mallory.  “Tashlit’s brother.  He was a crime boss in a place like this.  A… very dangerous one, I guess?”

Tashlit nodded, then pointed at the principal, twisting over her heart.

“And a twisted one.”

“Badass,” Freak commented.

Verona looked around, taking in the scene.  The V.P. and her ‘staff’ were having a chat, others were hanging out.  Someone was drawing on the side of a car.

“Feels a bit like I imagined High School would be when I was little,” Verona told Tashlit.  “Being defiant, breaking rules.”

Tashlit gestured.

“Yeah, the drinking, smoking.”

Tashlit wagged a finger.

“I know.  I know you don’t want me to smoke,” Verona told her.  “I like so much of this, though.  Creativity run rampant.  Screw the rules!”

Tashlit bapped her arm to get her attention, because Verona was taking in the wildly varying, often messy fashion and the art being produced.  A girl was drawing on a guy’s bare back.  Tashlit bapped a second time, making sure she had Verona’s attention, then gestured.  So-so, scary, the crown, so-so again.

“Yeah,” Verona replied.  “Depends who is in charge, huh?  This would be way different if the original V.P. was in charge.  Hey Freak, why is it V.P. if there’s no P.?”

“Was that way to start,” Freak answered.  “And we kept it like that because vice is cool.”

“Right, okay,” Verona replied, frowning a bit.  She had a working theory now.

Tashlit nudged her, and Verona leaned into Tashlit to look.

Gashwad, crawling out from beneath a car, with Cherrypop on his head, gripping his hair.  He had a bag slung around his back.

“Gashwad!” Verona called out.

He looked surprised, beady eyes widening.  Meanwhile, Cherrypop thrust both her hands into the air and nearly lost her grip- not helped by the fact she hadn’t let go of one of the fistfuls of Gashwad’s hair, pulling it out by the root.  He shook his head and nearly threw her free.

Verona and Tashlit extended their hands skyward in answer.  “Cherry!”

Cherrypop broke into an excited ramble, but was too far away to hear.  Gashwad walked with one hand and two feet, the other hand holding the bag.

“You’re here!  I got rocks for sale, they’re cool rocks, have you heard from Snowdrop?”

“Selling shivs.  Cigarettes or ass paper,” Gashwad told Verona.  He reached into the bag, laying four goblin-crafted shivs on the ground.  He paused, then picked out one jagged one with a black brush handle and held it out for Freak.  “Free shiv for a goblin friend.”

“Don’t need it,” Freak told him.

“Free shiv for a goblin friend,” he said, to Verona.

“Heyyy, thanks.”

“I got cool rocks but they’re not free!  I got throwing rocks and skipping rocks!”

“Cherry, Avery sent two Snowdrop vids.  I’m supposed to show you later, okay?”

Cherry thrust her hands over her head again, smiling wide.

“This dum-dum was sitting on a rock waitin’,” Gashwad said.  “Toadswallow said I had to do something with her.”

“She’s gonna come back in two years!”

“She’s going to come back before then, Cherry,” Verona told her.

“Yus.  That too.  Gonna wait.”

“Gonna starve if you don’t get up.”

“Gotta turn my brain off.  Makes time go faster.  Passing out makes time go faster,” Cherry said, rocking side to side atop Gashwad’s head, holding onto hair for steadiness, until Gashwad reached up to make her stop.

Tashlit reached forward, rubbing thumb against fingertips.

“I think Tashlit wants to know your price for a rock,” Verona said.

“Oh!  Depends!  I’m not good at numbers.”

Tashlit pointed at Gashwad, then made a chopping gesture.

“What’s Gashwad’s cut?”

“Gashwad brought me so he gets half.  And he’s carrying my stuff, so he gets half for that too.  And he’s puttin’ up with me, so he gets another half.”

“A hundred and fifty percent cut?” Verona asked.

“She agreed,” Gashwad grumbled.

“She’s not good at numbers, apparently,” Verona said.  “What if all three halves were the same half, hm?”

Gashwad narrowed his eyes.

“While we’re on the topic of this business arrangement… did you actually get permission from Toadswallow to-”

Gashwad snatched the shiv he’d given her out of her hand.  “No free shiv anymore.”

“Seriously, Gash?  I can’t think of much that’s going to make Toadswallow as mad as edging into his plan.”

“Good,” Gashwad said, smiling a mean sort of smile, fangs showing.  “If he wants me to stop, he’ll have to fight me.”

“Knowing Toadswallow, he’ll find another way.”

He spat on the ground, then began to move on.  He stopped in front of Mallory.  “Shiv?”

“Wait.  I’m makin’ a sale!” Cherrypop exclaimed.  She hurried to practically throw herself into the bag of knives.

“Hit me up,” Mallory said, holding up two cigarettes.

“I like the fried egg,” he said, pointing.

“That’s a sun,” Mallory replied, defensive.  She took the offered shiv and stuck it into her shoe.

Cherrypop floundered, tiny clawed finger and toetips poking and tearing through plastic as she climbed her way up.  She emerged, triumphant and bleeding badly, holding a rock over her head.

Tashlit leaned forward, picking it out of Cherry’s hands, but that sudden motion made some of the guards who’d escorted them to this lot react, stepping forward with their improvised weapons.  They stopped as Tashlit backed off and sat back down.

Tashlit gestured between Verona and the mournful looking, blood-streaked Cherrypop with head and arms sticking out the top of the shopping bag.  Tashlit tapped her wrist.

“She can pay you after!” Verona called out.

“I made a sale, aaa!”

Gashwad went to the guards, holding up shivs.  They gave him cigarettes as payment, taking the shivs for themselves.

Verona looked at Tashlit’s stone.  It looked like a good skipping stone, with a crack running across the surface.

“That made her happy,” Verona told Tashlit.

Tashlit nodded.  She slipped the stone into a pocket.

Verona hadn’t put her mask away, and sat beside Tashlit, the pieces in her lap.  The two pieces that had stuck together before weren’t sticking now.

Tashlit gestured.  The cradling gesture, for family, but with a middle finger hidden inside the elbow.

“It’s fine,” Verona murmured.  “House on Half Street isn’t private anymore, so I can’t really hide out there as easy, and it was never exactly mine, it was Ken’s.  Kinda tempted to hang around here more.  You know, assuming the Vice Principal says it’s okay.”

Tashlit gestured.  Time into a loopy-loop, a tap against Verona’s arm, and then taking gentle hold of Verona’s top near the collarbone, twisting it over the heart.

“Maybe a bit,” Verona agreed, smoothing out her top as Tashlit let go.  “But maybe staying home would too, you know?”

Tashlit nodded.  She pressed hands together over a tilted head, then made the sign for ‘far’.  Did it again, tapped her heart.

“Yep.  Sleepover at Lucy’s is fair game,” Verona agreed.  “And a sleepover at your place would be hecking cool.  Camping a bit?  I’m down.  Just gotta find a way to explain it to my dad.”

Tashlit nodded.  She brought the index fingers of both hands into parallel, then pointed down.

“Same as here?  Oh, same as if I was going to run off and stay here for a bit.  Yeah.”

Tashlit nodded absently, like ‘I’m listening but nothing to add.’  Letting the conversation trail a bit.

Verona remained quiet enough that the comment was just for her and Tashlit.  “It’s hard asking Luce, you know?  Because the end of this summer hit her hard, I don’t want to add to that with… with crap that’s just going to be ongoing, you know?”

Verona looked out at the people.  At the ongoing art.  At the school that looked like her own but wasn’t.  A school that had probably been identical to her own after Charles set up the knot, and was swiftly changing into something very different.

“I like that it’s a place where like… you’re here.  Y’know?  There’s all this cool stuff, and people, and art, and you’re hanging out and that’s… I know I should be worried about the Vice Principal making things here harder, but it’s pretty cool.”

Tashlit gestured, drawing out a triangle, then a square, then a circle around it, expanding out.  She motioned for ‘small’ and then smeared whatever she’d just drawn out.

“Uhhhh… I’m usually pretty good at this, but I have no idea, Tashlit.”

It took a few clarifications.

“Small… home?  Small town?”

Tashlit nodded, then motioned more.

“Small small town.”

Tashlit thumped her heart.

“Oh.  You’re a girl from a very small town.”

Tashlit nodded once, tapped her heart, backhand tapped Verona’s shoulder as she moved her hand away, then did the cradle motion for family, tapped her forehead.  She paused then made a so-so gesture, before making a coin-shaped circle over her eye with index finger and thumb and bringing it close to the ground.  She made another so-so gesture.

“Me, you, your family, maybe Peckersnot maybe?”

Tashlit nodded.  She hugged herself, then gave Verona a thumbs up.

“You’re cozy?  Happy?”

So-so on the first one, but Tashlit didn’t do a follow-up gesture.

“Girl from a small town, you’ve got people that matter, that’s all you need?”

Tashlit nodded.

“You okay with Kennet right now?  Situation liveable?”

Tashlit gestured, a wide circle, indicating everything, then wiped her forehead.

“Worried about this?  This specifically?  The… new undercity?  Knotted inversion?  Whatever it is?  I’m really not certain on definitions.”

Tashlit negated, pointed down, negated.

“Not here…”

Tashlit did that wide circle gesture again.

“Worried about everything going on with Kennet.  Yeah.  Me too.”

Tashlit nodded.

Verona leaned her head into Tashlit’s shoulder and sighed.  Her hands in her lap, she massaged her palm.  It didn’t necessarily help, and the exertion would make her right hand cramp up too, eventually.

“Girls!” the Vice Principal called out.  She swatted at the cage on the ex-Vice Principal’s head, with a strike to the right to get him to steer left and a strike on the left to get him to go right.  Guiding him like that was slower than walking on her own would be, but she didn’t seem to care.

Verona wondered if she’d decided to have the ‘steed’ after hanging out with Freak and Squeak.

“If you want to get that woman out of here, that’s fine.  I hear she’s too whiny to be a good steed.”

“Yyyyeah, probably,” Verona said.  “I don’t think she deserves it either.  Bad karma.”

“Feels like trouble,” the Vice Principal told her, resting the heavy wand against her shoulder.  The star on the tip was iron, it looked like, painted bright yellow, but dinged where it had been used to smack stuff.

“That’s the bad karma.”

“If you want to do anything else in my school, you gotta ask.  Stop in before you do anything.  Bring gifts.”

Verona nodded.  She wondered how much of that policy was from the other ‘staff’.  The Vice Principal’s council.  The school nurse was an older teenager and she had a cold look that might’ve betrayed a lot more experience and intelligence than the average student had.  Maybe she’d come from another Knot or something.

Verona knew she really needed to do some research here.

“Fix that mask.  If you’re going to be my unexpected secret weapon, you gotta fit the part,” the Vice Principal told her.

“I’ll give it some thought,” Verona told her.  “Keep an eye out for more innocents?  We can work out a system to pass on word.  Let me know if you know of anyone slipping out of this side of Kennet into the… brighter side, I guess.”

The original side didn’t feel brighter, but Verona was stuck on the terminology from what she’d read.

“More visits from you means more gifts, right?”

“Yeah,” Verona said.  “More rapport.”

“I don’t know that word.”

“Means… connection.  Friendship, kind of.  If we talk more, there’s a higher chance I might actually stumble onto you in the middle of a losing fight and save the day.  How’s that?”

“Sweet,” the kid said, looking giddy for a second before she managed to hide it.

“What do you want for gifts?”

“Anything with zebra stripes.  And candy.  And anything with mermaids.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Get outta here, then.  I’ve gotta strap some weapons on these teachers, let the monster out of the basement, and scare the shit out of the people who think they can be gang leaders in my school, and if you’re around when we’re going door to door, we won’t hold back.”

“I’ll get to it.  Thanks for dealing fairly, Vice Principal,” Verona said.

“Yeah.  Well, Freak likes you.”

“Good to go?” Verona asked Tashlit.

Tashlit nodded.

“She stays,” the Vice Principal said, pointing her wand at Mallory.

Mallory froze.

“Knows too much.”

“You’re not going to hurt her, right?” Verona asked, stepping between the two.

“She stays, she can go free after.  And you don’t say anything about the raid later.  If you do, maybe something happens to her,” the girl in the fairy costume said.  “And you might not find me so friendly later.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” the Vice Principal told her.

Verona got her bag, tugged on Tashlit’s arm to help her get to her feet, and looked down at Mallory.

“You owe me ink, blades, and that tattoo gun.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m gonna be a tattoo artist, that’s the plan,” Mallory told her.  “But if you fuck me, I’m going to make my whole thing messing with you, instead.”

“Got it.”

“I’m gonna go sit nearer that boy with his shirt off,” Mallory said, looking at the Vice Principal.  “If that’s okay?”

“Whatever.”

Verona left Mallory to it.  Tashlit followed her out.  She waved farewell to Gashwad and Cherry.

Up to the second floor in the lower grades wing.  She checked the rooms.

There was one room, a tiny kid in a private school uniform standing over kids who sat on the floor, all of them silent and hard at work dismantling desks into component parts, the wooden legs being sharpened and smashed into stakes with handgrips.  In another room, a lone seven year old was smoking and listening to music.

In the last, the first graders were fighting, upending desks, screaming, shouting.

And a teacher in the corner of the room was slumped at her desk, face buried in the crook of her arm, a whiskey bottle in front of her, held securely at the base by the arm on the desk, other hand at the top.  A young kid was tugging on it, and she seemed dead to the world.

As Verona ventured inside, kids got in her way, lining up with obstinate looks on their faces.

As Tashlit walked up behind her, they shied back a little, but most held their ground.

“Vice Principal gave me permission.  I think I’m taking your teacher.”

They exchanged looks, and the ranks dissolved.  Nobody got in her way as she ventured carefully into the room.  Tashlit hung back.

Innocence.  Tricky.

She walked up to the teacher.  “Are you the sub?”

“I’m quitting teaching,” the woman said, face still buried in her arm.

“Are you hurt?”

The woman sat up.  No apparent injury.  But she looked visibly drunk, swaying, gaze unfocused.

“Oh boy.  You brought alcohol to school?”

“You have no idea,” the woman told Verona.

“Did you arrive drunk or… that’s a pretty big bottle, isn’t it?” Verona asked.

“I think more of your teachers drink than you realize, kid.  Especially if they have classes like this.  Worst class I’ve ever taught.”

At least five kids were screaming at the top of their lungs, three more were running around with zero regard for their own safety or the safety of others, and one boy stared up at Verona with part of a crude skull marked onto his face with what looked like crayon, the skin around the crayon a violent red from the pressure it must have taken to apply crayon that evenly to flesh.

Looking back at the woman, she could see Peckersnot’s single eye peering up from inside the woman’s bag.

“No way am I going to risk having a hangover kick in before the day begins.”

“Okay, if you’re showing up drunk that’s probably explaining how you got here.  You’re in the wrong school, I’m pretty sure,” Verona told the woman.

“Worst mistake of my life,” the sub replied.

“Come on.  Up, we’re leaving.”

It took some doing, and in the end, when the woman looked like she was going to fall asleep, Tashlit came in to provide the muscle, lifting the woman to a standing position and then supporting her as they walked.  Tashlit kept her hood pulled forward at one side.  It obscured most of her face and what would’ve been seventy-five percent of her vision, but she was covered in eyes, so that simplified things.

Peckersnot climbed into Tashlit’s sweatshirt pocket while the woman wasn’t looking.

Awkward, that innocence had to be preserved in this kind of scenario.  It was so cool that Tashlit could be around people and be herself.  Verona wanted more of that.  She wanted to see more of Tashlit.

They made their way out of the school, then down the block, toward the Arena.

Four out of every five houses were unoccupied, boarded up, with no signs of life, and only the remnants of previous owners left behind, too crummy to move and made more crummy by the passage of time and weather.

In the remaning houses were characters.  One house had bars welded around the windows, a security door, and a man peering out the window, holding a hunting rifle.  He looked terrified, but he also looked like a long-time resident.  A warmer looking house had so many mannequins inside that she couldn’t see furniture.

They passed a van with a sticker family on the back window, representing the residents of the house.

Mom, dad, four dogs, and… six rows of at least ten kids each.

All of it subtly disconcerting.

She loved it.  She really did love it.

“Hopefully it’s a little easier to find the white sheep on this side of Kennet, next time,” Verona told Tashlit.

Tashlit gestured.  Tapping her heart, then making the gesture for money or payment.

“Heart-currency?”

Tashlit nodded.

“Oh.  Connections?  Rapport.”

Tashlit nodded.

“Yeah.  It’ll get easier as I establish myself as a presence and authority, I guess.  I don’t think Lucy would be able to handle this like I can,” Verona told Tashlit.  “Like… people getting hurt?  That’s normal here?”

Tashlit nodded.

“That’s the flow of this place, right?  Things are skewed.”

Tashlit nodded again.  She had to fix her hood.

The woman they were supporting between them groaned.

“They drove her to drink.  Drink more, I guess.”

Tashlit reached left with her right hand to smooth the woman’s hair a bit.

“You’re a better person than I am, Tash.  I worry I’m becoming a jerk.  I worry I’m too okay with bad stuff.  I dunno.  I don’t want to be okay with this sort of person being a teacher.”

Tashlit shook her head, pointing at the woman, wagging a finger.

“You’re not okay with it either.  But like… you’re okay being nice to her and I’m just… this is frustrating.  I’m so frustrated with awful people, you know?”

Tashlit nodded.

“And worst of all is boring awful.  I’m so, so, so tired of boring awful.”

The Arena came into view.  It was still a distance away.  The fire had burned out, but it had left the Arena a husk.  Some wood grew out of a portion of the collapsed roof, and rubble surrounded the building that had folded in on itself.

“I like interesting people, I feel like I could hang out with Mallory and a bunch of others I saw and it’d be so nice.  I could hang out with you, here, in a way we can’t back- back home, I guess.  I like hanging out, Tash.”

Tashlit nodded.

“Mallory said sometimes people come to the undercity and maybe it’s like, they look at how different and weird it is, and they immediately go ‘I’m home!’ and I feel a bit like that,” Verona told Tashlit.  “But the idea that you’d be there and that you’re not like… I don’t want you to ever feel like you’re missing out.  I want you to experience everything cool.”

Tashlit’s hood hid her face, but Verona could see the hand that was around the woman’s shoulders, and the eyes peering past the loose skin there maintained steady eye contact.

Verona checked.  The woman was barely conscious.  She’d given up on teaching the class and had sat at her desk drinking herself into a stupor instead.

“The idea you’d get that makes me feel a lot more like I can say yeah, me too.  This is home.  It’s especially home because it could be cool for you.”

Tashlit nodded.  She put a hand to her heart, then dropped it.

“Am I being presumptuous?  Maybe you’re a small town girl, this isn’t your jam…”

Tashlit shook her head.

“Was that a-”

Tashlit gestured.

It was a messy gesture, but Verona got the gist.

“It’s your jam?  At least a bit.”

Tashlit pointed at Verona, then gave a thumbs-up.

“Open offer, Tash.  Don’t answer right away.  If you wanted to stick by me for the long term, get access to stuff you wouldn’t, there’s nothing saying the demesne thing is the big one I have to do next.  I can’t think of a place that’s mine yet… but if you wanted to be my familiar, after a bit of consideration, I’d be down.”

Tashlit nodded.

No gestures, no follow-up.

Cool.

Verona took quiet note of the businesses that were open and the businesses that were shut.

They reached the Arena.  Tashlit took over the task of keeping the woman upright, and Verona got her chalk.

The ground of the parking lot was wet, but it was an inexplicable sort of wet because it hadn’t rained recently and there was no source for the water.

Verona walked slowly across the parking lot until the scene came into view.  Past the reflection, she could see the Arena as the Sable had rebuilt it.  Partially.

Broken on this side, shattered, burned, and stained with blood.

Past the reflection, it was intact enough to use for activities.

She used chalk, drawing across the water, to capture that reflection.  Drawing a square.  She added a touch of city magic, the signature-like scrawl of the cityscape of Kennet in abstract.

To get in, it was the same thing, but in reverse.

She paused.  Technically, she was communing with Lis by doing this.

She pocketed the chalk and rubbed at her palm.  She dreaded the idea of another cramp coming out of nowhere like that first one had.

And she’d done it for no good reason.  They’d been too late, they hadn’t really been in a position to act.

She reached down and touched the diagram.

“Open this door in the name of Kennet.  In accordance with my duties, I bring a citizen of Kennet back to you.”

She could say that because to end up here, the woman had to be a citizen.

The lines of the diagram started to move, the loops and angles of the cityscape signature rising up around the border.  Tashlit walked over.  The woman’s eyes were closed.

They entered the diagram, and let the glowing lines rise around them.

The world inverted around them, and the diagram acted as the only stable ground while everything else seemed to flip.

Water splashed as the chalk was consumed.

They were in the parking lot of the Arena, and the water here was from scraped-off ice that had been pushed out of the Arena and onto the edge of the lot, where it gradually melted.

They led the woman to a bench by the road, and Tashlit walked a short distance away, her back turned.

Verona gave the woman a pat on the cheek, trying to get her awake.

She gave the woman a harsher pat on the cheek.

“Mmmhh,” the woman groaned, stirring.

“Do you have a phone?  I can call a taxi or an app ride.”

“I-”  The woman frowned.  “My students stole my phone.”

“Your wallet?”

“I don’t- they stole that too,” the woman said, checking, patting herself down to double-check.  “I had-”

She realized who she was talking to, and frowned at Verona.  “How did I get here?”

“There’s a bus stop here.  We thought it was best if you weren’t drunk at the bus stop by the school.”

“The bus only comes twice a day.  Eight in the morning and eight at night.”

“Yeah,” Verona said.  “But… yeah.  Do you have anyone I can call?”

“My sister.”

“Okay.  You really can’t- if you drink before you even start the day’s work, you might end up in the wrong place again.”

“Yeah,” the woman said.  From the way she held herself and how still her head was and how uncertain her gaze seemed, she still had a lot in her system.

“What’s your sister’s number?”

The woman recited.  Verona dialed.  Then she communicated the short message.

She gave the woman some water, checked she was okay, then backed off as the car came.  Leaving the woman and sister to have their fraught conversation, the sister concerned, the substitute teacher hazy.

After a few minutes, and a wave from the sister, which Verona returned, the sister drove away with the tipsy substitute in the passenger seat.

“That was a task,” Verona told Tashlit.  “Innocence preserved, pretty sure, woman rescued, minus one phone and one wallet.  Job reasonably well done.”

Tashlit put up a hand and Verona gave her a high five.

Peckersnot crawled out of Tashlit’s pocket, and Tashlit handed him over.

“Hey little guy.  Thanks for watching her while we were stuck with the V.P.  I know it’s tough around innocents.”

He shook his head and held up two tiny fingers.

“Two?  Two-”

He flexed.

“You helped twice?  You helped her twice?”

He nodded.

“Saved her from kids?”

He nodded, and made some gestures she didn’t even bother trying to understand.

“Good man.  I’ll see about rewarding you later.  Thanks for backing us up.”

He flexed arms with almost no muscle on them.

With Peckersnot in the crook of one arm watching what she was doing, Verona checked her phone.  She tilted it to show him the time.

“School day is almost over.  No wonder the V.P. was in a hurry to get going.  You need backup, getting where you gotta be, Tashlit?  I know it’s awkward, getting into the middle of Kennet.”

Tashlit pointed at the water.  Across the parking lot, across a street, and down a slope.

“Cool.  See you later?  I might take you up on that sleepover.”

Tashlit reached over, and Verona wasn’t sure if she wanted a high-five, fistbump-

Tashlit hugged her instead.  Verona got Peckersnot out of the way of being squished just in time.

“Yeah,” Verona said, nodding into Tashlit’s shoulder.

Tashlit backed up a step, then gestured, each hand grabbing one wrist, before she touched her heart.

Like the gesture for friendship, hands clasped, but… more?

Oh.

When Verona and Mal had been hurrying over to Tashlit, Verona had called Tashlit a best friend.

“Of course we are,” Verona said.  “I wouldn’t ask you to be my familiar if we weren’t.  Just… think about it.”

Tashlit patted her heart twice, then pointed at the water again, starting to walk.

“Have a good one.”

Verona watched to make sure Tashlit was in the clear, no bystanders suddenly turning up to get a good look at her face, no traffic on the road that stopped.

“Come on.  I’m heading toward home.  You want to come with for a bit, or you got someplace to be, little guy?” she asked.

Peckersnot mimed a yawn.

“I’ll let you go then.  Get somewhere good.  Thanks for watching the teacher.”

She took Peckersnot to the bushes at the end of the lot and let him go.

By the time she got home, she had some questions from Lucy.  She gave Lucy the short version.  That a civilian needed help.  That she’d missed the morning because of the drawback from the glamour compass, so what did it matter if she missed the afternoon too?  First days barely ever had anything important, anyway.

Yes, she promised, in response to Lucy’s annoyed messages.  She’d attend tomorrow.

She messaged Jeremy.  Checking.

You brushed me off today, he messaged her.

Frig.

Not my intention, she messaged him.  Distracted.

Verona stopped, because she couldn’t type, look at her phone, walk home and think on the level she needed to think all at the same time.

She looked up at the sky.

It had been easier over there.

Is your hand okay? he asked.

She rubbed at her palm as best as she was able while holding her phone.  I’ll make it up to you, she messaged him.  Not answering the question.  We’ll hang.

He replied with a thumbs-up.

Which felt crummy on its own.

A text from Lucy followed.  Call Matthew.

Verona did.  With the phone occupying one hand, she rubbed the other against the side of her leg.

“Verona,” Matthew’s voice almost caught her by surprise.

“Lucy said to call.”

“What’s the update?”

“One innocent did get in.  Rescued.  Made a friend at the school.  Gash, Cherry, and the Freak-Squeak duo were over there.  Tash and Peck came.”

“Okay.  We’ll have to work something out, so too much of that doesn’t fall on you.”

“It was honestly okay, Matthew.  I’d actually- I think it’d be better if I handled more of it, so Lucy doesn’t have to.  I think it’d be rough on her.”

“We can adjust a bit.  I don’t want to keep secrets from her, or-”

“No, no, no.  Just… nevermind.  I just don’t want to stress her out more.”

“Alright, thanks for the update.  I’ll pass it on.”

“Matthew,” she said, before he hung up.

“Yes?”

“I noticed a pattern.  Lucy said a third of the students didn’t show up, despite being on the list.  Last minute moves, all that stuff.”

“Yeah.  She mentioned.”

“And the school on the other side of Kennet, it was… only a third of the students were there, I think.  I think one in five or so houses were occupied over there, and if I look over here…”

“You think one in five houses are empty?”

“I think it might be the same for businesses.  What we lose, they get.”

“Lucy was worried about how Lis was influencing the shrines.  She thought it’d get worse before it gets better.  If it gets better.”

“Does this get worse before it gets better?”

“I think it definitely does,” Matthew said.  “I’m not an expert.  You girls are more educated as practitioners than I am.  But I have experience living with dark reflections and dark influences.  There are two ways this can go, I’m thinking.”

“Tell me,” Verona said, head tilted to pin the phone between ear and shoulder while she rubbed at her hand.

“Way one?  We find our way to a fifty-fifty equilibrium.  Balance between the two sides.  Things balance out, new reality we gotta live with.”

“If half the students are gone, half the houses empty, half the businesses shut down…”

“Kennet’s probably screwed,” Matthew said.  “Yeah.”

“Maybe… can we find another balance?  Maybe if all the houses are full on both sides?”

“It’s a thought,” he said.

She could tell in his tone he didn’t think it was a very workable thought.

But there were possibilities.  Okay.  Things to think about and research, as she got her head around the shape of all this.

“What’s the other option?” she asked.

“Worse.  The other option is what we’ve got right now… it keeps going.  People leave, homes empty, businesses close.  Which means that more people leave, more people lose faith in Kennet, more businesses close because the lower population can’t sustain them.  The inverse side of Kennet gains what we lose…”

“The side we know disappears, pretty much, and they become a town?”

“A town that only certain people can get to, only in certain ways,” Matthew said.  “The more I think about it, the more I think it might be what Lis, Edith, Maricica and Charles want.”

“How?”

“You were there for at least three hours rescuing one person, right?”

“About.  Had to deal with the warlord in charge of the school.”

“Now imagine that for Charles’ enemies to get to him and Lis, they have to go through that.  Past three, five, six, ten different warlords, people with rules, people with demands.  And it still takes a day to get there, complicated by interruptions that could risk resetting that progress.”

“This is what Charles wants?”

“I can imagine him thinking he’s doing a twisted kind of favor for us, in exchange for sheltering him.  A slap in the face and a way of protecting us at the same time.  Which…”

“Makes sense, maybe,” Verona said.  “Lucy’s mom has work here.  I’ve got Jeremy.  I’ve got places I know… I don’t want the Kennet I know to disappear.  I don’t want cool people to move out.”

“Just… don’t panic.  This takes time.  There are things we can do, but for right now? you worked hard today, okay?  Rest.”

“But-”

“Rest, Verona.  Recuperate.  Talk to your friends.  I’ll talk to people, we’ll figure out our options.”

Verona sighed.  She stopped rubbing her hand and took hold of the phone.

She wasn’t sure what to say.

“I’ll talk to the others,” he said.

“Okay,” she replied.

He hung up.

She stood there, on the sidewalk by the river, and she couldn’t really think of why she was going to go home, but she didn’t know where else to go.

She knew she wanted to go back, but that was stupid.

With no driving desire to go home, and nowhere to go, she leaned against a light post by the road, standing over a slope that led down to the water, and she stared out over Kennet, rubbing her hand now and then.

Only a growing need to pee and a desire to not be standing here when people got out of class got her moving again.

She walked home, and the car was in the driveway.  The front door unlocked.

Her dad was in the kitchen, unloading groceries, as she walked in.  He smiled at her.

“Hi,” she said, closing the door behind her.  She put her bag down.

“How was the afternoon?”

She shrugged.

“How’s your hand?”

“Sore.  No more big hand cramps after that one.”

“Good.  I didn’t like seeing you like that,” he said.  “Scary.”

She shrugged again.

“Got some of your favorite foods.”

“Okay,” she replied.  She picked up grocery bags.

“You don’t have to-” he started.  He stopped.

She put some stuff away, sorted out the bags, and put those away.  She wiped the counter where flecks of broccoli had fallen on it.

“It’d be nice if you talked to me,” he said.  “Visit from social services next weekend, checking in.  I’d like to be able to tell them we communicated like human beings at least once.”

“I’m not sure what to say,” she told him.  “I went to the doctor.  You know that.  I went to school.  The teacher of the grade one class was drunk.”

He snorted.  “Speaking of drunk, my supervisor’s supervisor, you know the one I’m talking about, the alcoholic?”

“Yeah, I think.”

“Well, he’s gotten on Renault’s case, lately.  Shoveled all this work onto Renault’s desk, and of course Renault can’t handle it himself, so who does he dump all of it on?”

“You?”

“Me and Luis, but you know Luis is useless.  You know Luis?  You met at the Christmas party, when I had you come?”

“I- they blur together.”

“You know Luis.  He announced his wife is pregnant.  Now, that man’s useless to start with, but if you give him baby brain, drag him away for weeks as he goes on paternity leave, can you imagine?  I’ve had a headache broiling all day, started this morning, I’m not blaming you for that…”

🟂

Verona looked up at the evening sky from her backyard, rubbing at her hand.  There was a one or two second cramp in her hand, and she held it to her sternum while rubbing aggressively, before it eased up.

She’d wanted to wait until her dad wasn’t on the ground floor before checking.  She’d need a system if she did this again.

Kennet needed practitioners available at more hours than just the mid-to-late afternoon and evening, and they didn’t have Avery anymore.

Behind the garage, on a bench that her mom had put there once upon a time in the distant past, another Verona sat, looking up at her.

“Hey,” Verona said.

“Hey.”

Verona sat down on the bench beside her body double.  Far end of the backyard, behind the garage, out of sight, quiet, in the dark.  The only light was from the neighbor’s porch light.  It smelled like nature.

“Gotta improve this setup, you know?  You were cold to Jeremy,” she murmured.

The other Verona blinked.

Another her.  The books had outlined the method, the means of creating a copy of herself to serve a purpose.  Faerie used these sorts of puppets to cover their tracks.  If the glamour was good, a child could be stolen away and a double like this left in their place.  There were tells, and there were issues.  It took a skilled Fae to craft one that had rich emotions and the ability to convince even close family members.  That kind of skill tended to require more years than a human lifetime contained.

She’d managed okay.  Only the Jeremy thing had stood out.

Lucy had texted her earlier, to say Cherrypop had showed up and she’d shown Cherry the Snowdrop video.  Verona had texted back to say they should show Cherry together, next time.  Lucy had confirmed.

Verona had hoped to do that with Cherry.  Maybe that little creature’s glee could be infectious.

Being on the other side of Kennet had been exciting, interesting.  The people there were scary, unreasonable, hard to predict.  Some of the boys aggressive, others alluring.  The drama of high school amped up, the dull institution of it excised.

Before she’d left, she’d been at the doctor.  Before that, she’d had the hand cramp in the shower, leaving her doubled over.  But-

But what?  She’d expected it?  It hurt like hell, but the weird way her brain worked, she could convince herself that there were options?  It had brought her to tears but tears weren’t emotions.

Anyone else would be freaked out if their body stopped cooperating, right?

She hadn’t been.  Tired, her thoughts elsewhere, she’d felt numb in the midst of crisis.  She’d thought for a moment, on the car ride to the doctor, that it would hit her after.  That it was shock to get her through the moment and the emotions would follow.  Except they hadn’t.

Losing to Charles had rocked her in the moment.  It had left her breathless, her thoughts disorganized.  Real shock had followed.

It felt like it had never really left.  That she was still reeling, quietly, in a numb way, waiting for everything to follow.  The longer it went the more it felt like she had been fragile from everything earlier in the summer and something in her had broken in a way that hadn’t been broken before.

So she kind of avoided Lucy for now, because she didn’t want to freak her out.  And she’d dodged school.  Her conversation with Matthew had spelled out dire things for Kennet and… she functioned.  She could hang back, she’d think of stuff to do.  But as much as she recognized the crisis she didn’t feel it.

She’d reached out to Tashlit, offered the familiar bond, and maybe part of her rationale was that she wanted to spark something.  Or draw on something.  She wondered privately if Tashlit hadn’t accepted or said more because she recognized what was going on and didn’t want to say yes while Verona was messed up.  That would suck.  Or if Tashlit didn’t see it at all, in which case… it felt a bit lonely, past that numbness.

She wanted Tashlit to accept and she was super glad Tashlit hadn’t accepted at the same time.  She dreaded and hoped for the answer.

It wasn’t the answer, not the fix, she knew.

She needed to fix her mask, she needed to fix her Self.  She wanted to dive into practices she knew she shouldn’t, she wanted to go to that other half of Kennet where things were wild enough to spark something in her.  Even if Tashlit suggested it was dangerous.  She wanted to not go to boring regular school again.  She-

It felt like every road out of this had people screaming at her not to take that road, not to go that route.

For now, she’d have to go to school tomorrow, to check on Lucy, and to smooth things over with Jeremy.  Verona looked at her double.

She’d done a pretty convincing job making another Verona, considering.  No need to craft a rich tapestry of emotion if she barely felt anything herself.

Verona reached over, reached tentatively, into the other Verona’s face, and her fingers slid past skin to graze the gathered branches. that she’d put her clothes on.  Locks of hair were tied to upper branches.  Twine helped bind everything into a vaguely human shape.

She reached in, found paper, and found the twig the paper was impaled on.  The paper had her runework and notes on how to behave, where to go, what to do, fueled by glamour to point the way.

She snapped that bit of wood, freeing the paper.  In the process, she effectively released the routine, the everyday, from the peg on which it was set, and she destroyed the regular old Verona.


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Fall Out – 14.2

Lucy

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Lucy set about tying her shoes.

Everything from spring until a week ago had been building up to a moment, the timetable accelerating, the mystery and the trial for the Carmine throne something that had occupied at least some portion of her every thought.  Everyone she talked to, every new idea, every bit of relaxation, it had always been with the end of summer in the back of her mind.

That night had come.

That night had passed.

Every moment since she’d felt some degree of wanting to cry, some degree of wanting to scream her frustration, and she couldn’t really bring herself to do either.  The world didn’t feel real compared to- compared to the gravity of everything before, maybe.  As if she could reach out and break the world around her and she’d be back at some point fifteen minutes before it all went wrong, she’d know what to say to Charles and Maricica.

Or she’d pull the trigger on a gun made out of a can of pop and end Charles.  Spare John.

She would feel like absolute and complete shit with a murder on her hands, Charles  would lie there with his head cracked open like an egg or his chest bleeding, and yet the world would be a better place for it.

She tried to tell herself Maricica wouldn’t have let her point that gun at Charles if she didn’t have some plan to deal with it, but that thought fed into frustration and wanting to scream, and any other thought fed into how she wanted to cry-

-and she was gripping her shoelaces in her fists and not tying her shoes.

I’m tired, Lucy thought.  She wasn’t sleeping.  She’d gotten up early.  Thoughts all over the place.

She tied her shoes and got her stuff, lifted up posters to adjust her connection block and buy herself passage out of the house, then slipped out of the house, doing her best to not make noise.  She’d learned from experience that noise wouldn’t break the connection block, but the rebound would mean her mom would start nosing her way into Lucy’s life in an annoying way after, every day she made enough noise to disturb her mom.

Didn’t help that her mom had been up all night for work.  She saw the note on the door, with a grocery list of basic items, and she pocketed it before heading out.

Because they’d made their routine a little less routine, with more overlap of the shrines they visited, Lucy had to consult a chart to figure out where she was going before she headed out.  She got her bike and took off to the southern end of Kennet.  Near Verona’s house, where she used Sight to glance over the building in vain hopes of getting some idea about how things were going, then down to the trail behind Verona’s block.

She wouldn’t have to use the Sight to get a sense of things if Verona would talk but Verona wasn’t saying much.

Lucy’s brakes squealed, wheels skidding on the dirt.

Two soldiers stood by the path.  There was the one with gray in his hair, Grandfather, and the big guy, who had a full beard and a couple of inches on the others.  Lucy forgot his name.

She got off the bike and walked it toward them, slower than she might normally walk.

“Rook said you’d come through,” Grandfather said.  “After sunrise but before school.”

“And?”

“It might not be a bad idea for you to have protection.  Or company.”

“There was something about learning the system?” the big guy asked.

“I was going to bring that up after, loudmouth,” Grandfather said.  “It’s why he’s called Pipes.  He’s got lungs and insists on using them.”

“Starting with secrets?” Lucy asked.

“Starting with sensitivity,” Grandfather told her.  “If you were missing your friend who left, I might wait to suggest it.”

“Avery.”

“Yeah,” Grandfather said.  “But now it’s on the table.  Rook thought it might make things easier on the two of you who stuck behind, if the locals pick up some work in managing these shrines.  Might help the town too, something about us connecting, city spirit?””

“Ken.  Yeah, there was a thing.  We couldn’t pull an Other side of the city spirit out, because the Others aren’t networked into things.  I’m not sure the shrines are what you need, though.”

“Lucy,” Grandfather said, shaking his head.  “I don’t understand half of this.  If I’m lucky I get gut feelings.  Right, wrong, innocence, but aside from that, I’m a guy with aches from old injuries that I didn’t earn or get myself, I have a good sense of battle, tactics, being quiet, and I survived a bit in some odd corners of Canada before some asshole practitioner bound me.”

“And he knows ten times what I know,” Pipes said, before chortling.  There wasn’t a better word for that.  He wasn’t big around the belly, but he was big, and it was a breathy, deep, from-the-gut-to-breathy laughter sound only a big guy could make.  “Shit.”

“Language,” Grandfather said.

“I really don’t care about language.”

“I kind of do.  John told us to look after things the best way we knew how and letting these crapslicks corrupt you doesn’t feel right.  Now… do you want company?  Bit of chatter?”

“I don’t not want it.”

“Do you mind the protection?”

Lucy shook her head.  Then she looked down at her bike.  “I was going to bike further down.  I can leave it in the trees, I don’t think it’ll get stolen, but I’ll come back to find spiderwebs on it or something.”

“Tell you what,” Grandfather said.  “Do us the favor of letting us tag along, I’ll wipe down the bike to be safe.”

“You don’t have to do that,” she said.  She’d been standing behind the bike with it in between her and them, and she steered it around, heading forward.

It was tempting to think of these Dog Tags or Dogs of War as being friends and allies of John.  Friends of a friend, right?  But the reality Toadswallow had noted for her a few days ago was that John was special and not all of these guys had been given the opportunity to grow.  Some had been birthed on a battlefield and started fighting within minutes, and then they’d been bound.  They hadn’t left that fight, yet.

She put her bike in the woods, leaning against a tree, and looked at Grandfather, shrugging.

“Lead the way.”

She did.

“Anything you want to talk about?” Grandfather asked.

“Not exactly, no.  Some stuff, but… later.  After I’ve thought about it some.  I’m sorry about John.”

“Ah, me too, Lucy,” Grandfather said.  “Me too.”

There was that feeling again, like she wanted to cry or scream.  She kept her gaze focused forward, on trees and the green that shrouded the tops and bottoms of them.

“Bunch of our guys headed off.  We had a big sit-down with Rook, the funny little goblin, and the guy- Moss?”

“Matthew, yeah.”

“Figuring out what we’re doing.  Some of our guys already headed off.  They’re too restless.  Horseman and Angel, Ribs, Black, Miles, Fubar, Elvis, Mark, and Joe.  So they’re in these groups of two or three.  Figuring out what they need to figure out, they’ll do these circles to the north, east, west, northeast, whatever, keep the surroundings clear of trouble, stop off in towns, see what appeals, if they can find what John and Yalda found.  What I was starting on before I got snatched up.”

“That sounds good,” Lucy said.

“I’m heading out too,” Pipes declared.  “On my own.  Shorter trip, got things I need and want to do.  Itches to scratch, I won’t say any more than that.”

“They’ll meet up when they can, loop back here,” Grandfather added.  “Get directions if we need directions, we were thinking if anyone wanted, maybe they’d stop in, get civilized a bit, you know?  So it’d be me and Doe learning the ropes, maybe Pipes comes back and we make sure he knows how to act, gets eased back into civilization, maybe make it so he doesn’t scare people.  Not that we can change that face of his…”

Pipes laughed and pushed Grandfather on he arm.

“…Doe can leave, Pipes stays… maybe after a while I’ll leave for a little while, leave Pipes and Doe to watch the fort.”

Why did her heart sink at that last line?

Lucy nodded, but didn’t have any real words to add.  She forced herself to say, “sounds workable.”

“We’ll see.”

“I guess… you learning the shrine maintenance stuff is part of the whole… getting used to Kennet, staying, that sort of thing?”

“I guess so,” Grandfather sighed out the words, sounding weary or unsure.  “Apparently the goblins or ghouls are going with your friend tonight?”

“Okay.  I’ll try to remember to let her know to expect that.  First day of school today.  She’s not a morning person so we fell into the routine of me doing this every morning and she’d do it at night.  I guess if we’re doing it with me, her, and you all trading off on the third shift, that means we’re mixing it up some.”

“We could do more if that helps,” Grandfather said.  “There’s more of us.”

“Maybe,” Lucy said.  “Let’s talk to Verona about it, and to Rook, Miss, Toadswallow, and Matthew.  See what they think.  My gut feeling is- I worry.  I worry at the idea that if you guys are doing five shifts and Verona and I are doing one each, that’s making it more Other than Practitioner?”

The pair were silent.  They carried on walking down the forest path.

“Not that that’s bad on its own,” Lucy hurried to add, as she sorted out her thoughts and realized why the conversation had died.  “Except there’s some Others in town and more Others out of town we haven’t dealt with, who might want to screw us up, and who we can’t easily deal with.  If they start adding their influence into the mix- that’s bad.”

“Sure,” Grandfather replied.  “Is that better if it’s two of you and one of us?”

“Maybe,” Lucy replied.  “Harder for an enemy to get sneaky and wedge themselves and their power into things, taint the shrines or something.”

“How complicated is this crap?” Pipes asked.  “What are we signing on for?”

“I’ll, uh, show you,” Lucy said, looking around and frowning.  “Soon as we get there…”

Where was the shrine?

She checked the paper.

There were two forks to the ‘path’, which wasn’t really a path at this point.  They’d been careful to set shrines down in places innocents didn’t tend to go.  But Avery had tied a ribbon to a branch to mark where they needed to venture into deeper foliage, and that ribbon wasn’t there.

She led the way into the woods, looking, and only by chance did she see the shrine, a bit off to the left.

“Here.  I would like to introduce you to Grabsy.  A not-that-complex complex spirit.”

The spirit lurked in the deeper woods, a silhouette of a child that didn’t clarify much from being a silhouette as it ventured out.  It had that ‘spirit’ look where it felt more like a painted animation cel worked into video footage of realistic woods than something that actually fit the area.

The soldiers trailed a bit behind her as she walked over to the shrine.  Grabsy lurked.

“Complex?” Grandfather asked.

“Like Edith James, Matthew Moss’ wife, but… not as strong or involved here.  Grabsy, we think, was a spirit of want, but an echo- a ghost, of a thieving child, got into the mix, strengthening and supporting him.  Watch your things, especially jewelry, knives, candy.  It is just about exactly a thirteen minute, twenty second chase to get your stuff back if he manages to get it off you.”

“Exactly?” Grandfather asked.

“The child the echo is from.  Probably shoplifted or something, ran off, got caught at that exact time.  That became a distinct memory that detached from the real child and fed into the spirit.  They intertwined.  Just… keep an eye on him while you’re here and tending to the shrine, or you’ll have to run through fallen trees, branches, bushes, whatever, for an uncomfortably long time.”

“Got it,” Grandfather replied.

“He’s helping us out, though.  Through this shrine he supports Kennet and the perimeter.  So what we do is wash the shrine, clean water…”

She uncapped one of the battered thermos-like containers and poured it over the shrine, which had a doll’s hand sticking up from between some rocks, adult-sized jewelry hanging from doll-size fingers, and some pretty stones and bits of glass set within the basin.  The water pooled in the basin itself, only to slowly trickle out through gaps.  Lucy imagined it would take thirteen minutes and twenty seconds to empty.

“Sometimes say a few words.  Thanks for what you do, Grabsy, may you steal something vital from our enemies and intruders.”

“Thanks Grabsy,” Grandfather said, watching the spirit lurk.

“And a token of appreciation.  Usually food, but anything works, if you see something fitting.”

She put some candy on the edge of the shrine, with a shiny gold wrapper.

Grabsy lurked closer.  Lucy watched out of the corner of her eye while trying not to look like she was watching, her fingers brushing away bits of pine needle.

Grabsy dashed in, soundless-

“NICE TRY!” Pipes boomed.

Lucy nearly jumped out of her skin.

But Grabsy had reacted too, and ran off.

“And be gentle with them.  They’re fragile,” Lucy said.

“More gentle than that?” Pipes asked.

She nodded.

“A lot of these guys don’t do gentle,” Grandfather admitted.  “We’ll work on it.”

“Guh,” Pipes grunted.

“Maybe make it up to him another time by letting him take your stuff,” she told Pipes.  “Next shrine…”

She checked the map.

It turned up faster than she’d expected it to.

“We tried to balance it out so the shrines go from violent to passive, or they don’t clump together in terms of concept, because that makes it a weak point.  Setting the table, basically.  So if you start with an easygoing one you might expect a spookier one next.”

“We don’t spook easy,” Pipes told her.

“Yeah, okay, well, these guys are cooperating, I wouldn’t expect trouble from most.  Lott up in the northern part of the perimeter and Engine Head at the three o’clock position of the border are some of the more cranky types.  That’s a complex territory spirit and a rather aggressive industrial machine spirit.”

“Right,” Grandfather replied.

“I won’t remember half of this,” Pipes told her.

“Well, try,” she said.  “Footspur?  Hello!  She likes to hide.  Not that they’re he or she, unless they have echoes inside, but…”

Lucy ducked down, peering beneath a tree that had fallen but hadn’t landed all the way.  Branches meant there was a gap beneath.

Grandfather stooped below to see.  Footspur lay on her belly, hidden in the shadows beneath.  Contorted, eyes narrowed, where hands and feet touched ground, spikes penetrated them, stabbing up and through, sometimes criss-crossing to make lifting the limbs up harder.

“Watch your step.  Sometimes spirits have easy, one-word concepts but not always.  Footspur is the conceptualization of, I think the idea is ‘you step on something and it hurts more than you’d expect’.”

“Lovely,” Grandfather said.

She used the toe of her sneaker to dislodge a small plastic block.  With an extended finger she pointed at a rusty nail that stuck out of the dirt, point up at an angle.

“They’re helpful, but we were limited to using the ones we thought we could trust.  Engine Head is cranky, like I said, but I beat him in a fight so he respects me.  Footspur is taking a little longer to warm up to us, but she’s cool.”

The shrine was a hole dug in the ground, with spikes at the bottom, surrounded by a ‘crown’ of branches that leaned diagonally against one another, sharpened points sticking up.  Rocks helped secure it, and the ground was especially hazardous as she got closer.

“They just want attention and respect, like any of us do,” Lucy said.  “Keep ’em clean and looking nice.”

She opened the next thermos and poured it out over the shrine, then picked up some crap.

“Bringing us to the tricky subject of what offerings to bring.  If you can find something thematically fitting that’s best.  Makes them stronger.”

She had a single-serving box of Queen Cronch cereal, of the type that shredded the roof of the mouth when eaten, even with milk.  She opened it and scattered some on the ground before setting the now-half-empty box at the foot of the shrine.

“And… maybe keep an eye out for minor issues.  This is more something you need to see over time, to notice trends, but if there’s anything funky, let others know.  Like, for example, Footspur?  Hey, we had a talk a few days ago, didn’t we?”

Footspur crawled forward a bit, long hair catching on the ground.  As she pulled hands and limbs free of the spikes and things on the ground, more erupted to punch through.  A shard of glass, a hot ember that made flesh sizzle.  Footspur didn’t seem to care.

“Maybe refocus your energies on things other than making it hard to get here?  You don’t want less offerings, do you?  You could make your shrine prettier or cooler.  Or maybe bring in some like-minded spirits?  Don’t go building an army, but if any minor spirits or Others want to hang out, maybe let them?”

Footspur lifted up a hand, making a sucking sound as she pulled it free of a triangle of glass in a bloody way, then slapped the hand down on the same spot.

“Okay, she’s in a mood.  Thank you for the help, Footspur.”

Footspur scampered off into the undergrowth, moving fast even though she moved with her belly to the ground.

“Pretty easy.  Just gotta make sure they aren’t going too far with however they use their spiritual abilities, report to Rook, Toadswallow, Miss, or us, if there’s anything weird or obvious.  Clean up, bit of food or a minor trinket, say hi, move on.  Come on, last two.”

The spirit of Long was curled up around her shrine.  It took a bit longer to reach her, but Lucy wasn’t sure if that was because of spiritual powers.  The spirit was wearing the affectation of a noodle-like cat, head near the shrine.

“Good work last week, Long,” Lucy told it.  She washed the shrine with the third bottle of water, and Long extended her head beneath it, letting water run over face and down the body, where it turned improbable angles in the course of running down her.  Lucy got some pasta salad she’d made using noodles, and portioned it out just in front of Long’s face.  The spirit ate.

“Everything seems to be in order here.  Were you making the path to get to you longer?” Lucy asked.

The spirit was too busy eating to respond.

“Bit obnoxious but we can work on that.  You seem a bit low energy so I thought I’d give you a better snack.  We’ll give you a bit extra until you’re back at full power, how’s that?”

The spirit didn’t respond.  Lucy pet it gently, then turned back to look at the soldiers, jerking her thumb.  “Last one.  Verona covered it last night but we want a bit of overlap.  I’m sure you can ask any senior member of Kennet and they can tell you the schedule.”

“Alright,” Grandfather said.

They walked down the way.  Lucy found herself glancing back- past Pipes, and at the path.

She did even more glancing as they took more time to get where they were going.  The way wasn’t too bad, and made use of a dirt path with leaves creeping in from the edges, but…

Whatever it was, it left her unsettled, like one plus one added up to two, and two plus two added up to four, but now that she was in the numbers where adding them up took an extra thought, she wasn’t sure it was adding up.

Was that Long being mischievous, stealing a bit of extra attention by making it obnoxious to get to her?  Intentionally or as a way of replenishing strength Long wasn’t fully aware of?

She’d done a bunch of patrols and she’d been here a handful of times, on this path.

And there was no shrine where there was supposed to be a shrine.

“What’s wrong?” Grandfather asked.

“Something’s making it hard to navigate.  There were two close together, Long was harder to get to… reminds me of when Guilherme and I dealt with… it was this god that built a trap around itself, by distorting space.”

“We were told it would be harder to get back to Kennet than it was to leave,” Grandfather observed.

“Yeah,” Lucy replied.  “But we’re not entering Kennet.  We’re at the border.  Borrador, spirit!  I call out to you!”

She felt a breeze, and the breeze intensified, along with an ominous feeling.

“You said spirits went from friendlier to unfriendly?”

“They’re mostly friendly or neutral, but, I dunno.  Combat ready?  Aggressive isn’t the right word.”

“What’s this a spirit of?”

“Bit hard to pin down.  Verona’s pretty good at this stuff and she called it an unwelcome stranger at the door, letting a draft in?  She named it too.”

The ominous feeling mounted, and as Lucy turned, sensing the breeze, she saw the gap between two trees, the spirit of a tall man in dark gray clothing standing within the vaguely rectangular frame.  He wore a top hat and the part where hat met head made unkempt hair fan out a bit.  He hunched forward a bit, intimidating.

Unlike other spirits he seemed mostly normal, but the frame of the space around and behind him, between the trees and squared of by a horizontal branch above, like a narrow, tall doorway, it was filled in in a funny way, the colors off.

She shivered a bit at the draft coming past him.

“Hey Borrador,” she greeted him.  “Is this weirdness with the way to your shrine you?  Or Long?”

The spirit shook his head.  The image didn’t hold together very well as he did, almost as if he was an echo.  But he wasn’t complex.  Maybe tainted by another angle.

“Sorry about this.  Do you mind showing me the way to your shrine?  I think something’s up.”

Borrador turned, then stepped out of view.

Leaving that gap between the trees open, the draft stirring past.

“You don’t have to come with, I know this isn’t your thing.  Spirits don’t lend themselves to shooty-shoot.”

“I’ll come,” Grandfather said.  “John put up a good fight against a spirit, I can imagine him frowning at me if I left you now.”

The mention of John left Lucy feeling a little less balanced on her own two feet, which mixed up with the feeling of this weirdness, and the lingering feeling that nothing was really real.

Which would only get worse.  She approached the door.

“Coming, Pipes?” Grandfather asked.

“You need the door guarded?” Pipes asked, looking around.

“Wouldn’t hurt,” Lucy said.  “In fact, until we know what’s up, might be good if you did.  Keep an eye on our rear?”

“Cute rear like this?”  Pipes grabbed for Grandfather’s butt, prompting Grandfather to skip out of the way, then punched Pipes squarely in the upper arm.

Pipes laughed, loud.  “I’ll stand guard then.”

“Asshole,” Grandfather said.  Then he looked at Lucy.  “Sorry.”

“Again, really don’t care about the swearing.”

They passed through the door.  Borrador lurked nearby, waiting, as they ventured into the spirit world.

Here, theme, context, symbol, and imagery took on different meanings.  Component parts of things became their own entities.  The sky was more white than blue, the clouds hard to distinguish from foliage, everything blurring together until it ate at her confidence.  If she could be certain that she was looking at a vertical tree trunk, she could take a few steps and realize it was a gap, an optical illusion.  Things moved when she wasn’t looking at them and they moved when she was, form dissolving to spirit and spirit settling into form like fog fading to reveal a wall where it had been opaque before.

No clear signs of disturbance, no weirdness…

Grandfather interrupted the silence.  “Did John do this sort of thing a lot?  Strange places, dealing with all sorts of Other?”

“Some,” Lucy said.  “Mostly the dealing.  But the locals went to the spirit world to summon Ken and visit him.  John stood guard over Ken some, so he spent some time here.”

“Ah.”

Leaving his curiosity sated a tiny bit, and throwing her emotions into all sorts of upheaval.

Not that Grandfather had any less reason to be upset over John.

“Maybe, uh…” she started, then she stopped.  “Nevermind.”

“Whatever it is, I want to hear.”

“I was really fond of John.”

“He was fond of you.  All three of you but you specifically.”

That stung.  She didn’t know why it stung when it was something nice but she would have rather not had that mentioned.  If she tried to make sense of it, she felt guilty, hearing it.  But that wasn’t even part or all of it.

“You were saying?”

“Just… can we space out the John talk?” she asked.  “Maybe not… I feel like an asshole saying this, but not mentioning him every five minutes?”

Grandfather fell silent.

“Just… sucks.  I’ll answer your questions, I’m…” She stopped short of saying ‘happy’.  “…I’ll answer questions about him, who he was to me, to us, to Kennet, but-”

“But not all at once.”

“Yeah.  Is that okay?”

“It’s okay.”

“Sorry.”

“No.  I plan to be around for at least a few months before I leave Doe in my spot.  Spacing it out sounds good.  I’ll tell the others too, in case you run into them.”

It felt like she was betraying John, doing this.

She tried to push it out of her head.  There was something to focus on here.

Navigating here was weird too, but it was more about the sense of distance and time passing than the sort of weirdness they’d run into back in reality, where paths were too long or too short and landmarks like a ribbon on a branch or a shrine in a clearing weren’t where they were supposed to be.

She navigated her way to Borrador’s shrine.  It looked like a doorframe, without the wall on either side.  Rocks kept everything propped up, and little skulls surrounded the base.  Some from Verona’s room, some from Snowdrop and the goblins.

It looked different here.  The space inside the door was darker than the space outside, and the bones moved.  It swayed in the wind of the spirit world, and that wind whistled faintly as it passed through the gap of the narrow doorway.

She got the last thing of water out, and she cleaned it gently.  She placed a cigarette at the base-

“Heads up,” Grandfather said.

She moved aside.  Borrador came, stooped low, and occupied the narrow rectangle that was the ‘door frame’.  The shadowed space within darkened as he contorted, fitting himself within by bending limbs at impossible angles.  Lighter features receded, leaving the dark and the shadow, and he dissolved into a comfortable state, occupying his shrine, turning the doorway dark, with a human-shaped shadow striking its way across the ground just past the shrine.

A hand reached out to take the cigarette.

“Thank you for your help with the perimeter, your power, and for granting us access.  Take your tribute and my respect,” she told Borrador.

The wood of the shrine creaked.

“If we run into spiritual trouble we’d appreciate any help you’re able to give.”

There was a rasp of a exhalation from the doorway.

It sounded generally positive?

Cool.

She turned, looking.  She had to look for it, but the shrine was connected to other things in reality.  The frame cast shadows, like the faint shadows cast if five different bright lights illuminated the same subject, and two of those shadows reached out.

But they weren’t straight.

“That feels like something that should connect directly to the next shrine, and back to Long,” Lucy said, pointing.

“If you say so.”

“I think it still connects.  The perimeter holds.  But… come on.”

Moving to that shadow-connection helped get things out of the way.  Landscape shifted, the path cleared.  Like a pop-up book, the individual components moving into place or folding down and out to the side.

She stepped from field to the dark shadow-path, bent down, and touched it.

What was it associated with?  Distances between things in the spirit world depended on connections and thematic links.

Avery would have been the person to call and get help from in this sort of thing.  She’d done that write-up of the spirit world, and some research.

While walking down the path, Lucy kept an eye out for anything that stood out.  Anything that was different now that she was here.

“Anything weird to you, Grandfather?” she asked.

“The sky.”

She looked.

It looked like the sky had been painted in trails and markings left behind by passing planes.  Those faint smoke trails drawing straight lines, but birds had flown through them, making them fork.  Planes had turned at relatively sharp angles, or moved in formation.

The longer she stared at it the more it clarified.  Dark clouds against a white sky- light gray clouds against a sky that darkened as if a shadow had passed over it.

Streets.  Streets and lines and if she looked she could now see buildings.

“It’s Kennet,” she told Grandfather.

“Seems like.”

“Might be Lis.  Our new city spirit, she’s probably lurking somewhere in this spirit world, protected.  Maybe directly over-”

She moved, letting dramatic effect help bring everything into alignment.

If she was in some spiritual representation of Kennet and the sky above reflected some ordered spirit of street, structure, layout, then, sure enough, there they were.

A flare of red and bloodiness near the center of Kennet, on an island that would be hell to reach, surrounded by a river that ran with blood as it got too close to that flare of a building.

And that flare extended up to the sky, and that organized layout of Kennet.  To a rooftop that stabbed down from that network, inverted, surrounded by staircases.

The same place they’d gone to see Ken and talk to the four subdivisions of the city spirit.  Unsuccessfully.

“The city spirit is accommodating the Carmine Exile,” she told Grandfather, “who is repaying the favor by sheltering the city spirit.  I bet we couldn’t get to her without running into that red stuff.  And I don’t think we can even approach, by spirit or by reality, without taking a day to get there, which gets awkward when we’re less than a day away.  What do you do?  Travel out and then drive in?  Or walk a slowly closing spiral through the town and hope nobody notices or thinks you’re crazy?””

“Is this something to tell the head Others of Kennet?” Grandfather asked.

“Guess so,” Lucy said.  She used the vantage point to try to work out what else was going on.

The clouds at the periphery of the Kennet in the spirit-clouds were roiling, rolling, in a loose ring.  Leaking out in an inconsistent stream and general push outward, but on the flip side, barely anything leaked in.

And the finer paths, those thin trails that marked ways through the valley, or ways through the woods, to the perimeter?  She could look almost straight up at the representation of the perimeter and the paths between shrines and she could see that things were drifting considerably.  Toward the edges of Lis’ reach, things were bending and twisting, stretching out, the trails thinner.

“Mind telling Rook or Miss to come and take a look at this?  I’ll contact Verona and meet up with them later, maybe we can figure out a way to lay claim or pin down the shrines.  Avoid letting the city lay claim to them or push them out of relevance.  For right now, though, I’ve gotta get to my first day back at school.”

“I’ll pass it on.”

“Thanks.  Borrador!” Lucy called out.  “Can you provide an exit!?  I should get to school!”

🟂

Lucy came down from her room, freshly showered, dressed in a new top from back to school shopping, and a skirt she’d worn before.  The smell of freshly cooked breakfast filled the kitchen.

“Wow,” she said, taking in the french toast, mini-sausage and fruit salad.

“Much of this is only possible because you picked up the things from the convenience store.”

Lucy had copped to going out first thing, but had made it about the run to the convenience store and not being able to sleep.

“Thought we’d start off the school year in a good way.  You look beautiful, by the way,” her mom said.

“Thank you, you too,” Lucy replied, feeling awkward.

The ‘you too’ got an eye roll from her mom.  “I probably look like a zombie.”

“Did you sleep?  Not like- I don’t mean this took all night, but I know you worked late-”

“I napped.  I’ll sleep while you’re at school.”

“I don’t know how you do that.  But thank you.”

“Mmm,” her mom said, smiling, sitting across from Lucy, eyes half lidded, but smiling like she was happy.  She perked up and got up, going for her bag on the corner of the counter.  “Oh!  Let me get a picture of you.”

“No, please, not while I’m eating.  Barely anyone looks good halfway through eating.”

“You’ve got to give me one photo after.  Before I drive you.”

Lucy, midway through getting a spoonful of french toast into her mouth without getting any traces of syrup on her clothes, gave her mom a thumbs up.

“I was thinking, before my nap and after, that phone call you made.”

Lucy knew the phone call.  She raised her eyebrows at her mom.

“You sounded so distressed.  And I don’t know- it ended up being good.  But you were so on the mark when you asked if he was attractive.”

“Mm,” Lucy said, chewing and nodding.

“What on earth was that about?”

“Did something happen?” Lucy asked.

“Are you trying to distract me by asking that?”

“Really truly did something happen?  Are you okay now?”

“You first,” her mom said, fake stern but also kind of serious stern too.

“There was a rumor, about a possibly dangerous creep, some of the people I’ve been hanging out and meeting with said it.  About an eerily beautiful man who could manipulate relationships coming to Kennet.  And then when we talked on the phone, I was thinking about it and… yeah.”

“Bit of an urban legend?”

Lucy shrugged, using a finger to keep a grape in place so she could spear it with her fork.  Chewing and eating was a refuge where she didn’t have to talk much.

“A ghost story told at the end of summer party?” her mom asked, eyebrow quirked.

“There really, really very super truly wasn’t an end of summer party, or if there was, it was discreet and we weren’t invited to it.”

“Uh huh,” her mom answered, in the tone of someone who was ready to fall asleep.  She yawned.

“Are you going to be okay to drive me?  Because I can bike.”

“Not wearing that skirt you can’t.  Don’t worry.  We will be fine, and traffic moves at ten kilometers an hour around the school.”

“Okay.  Did anything happen with the guy?  You never said.”

“With Steven?  A bit.  He was rude and grabby, I shut him down.  But if you hadn’t sounded like that on the phone, I’m not sure I would’ve been as quick to catch what was happening.  That is all I need to say, I think.  That, and thank you.  Even if you didn’t intend to, your concern for me mattered.”

Lucy nodded.

“I’d be interested in hearing where that urban legend started.  Maybe there’s some truth to it.”

“Isn’t there more truth to these things than we’d suspect?” Lucy asked.

“Maybe.  I’m going to use the facilities, splash some water on my face, and try to get my hair presentable in case any parents walk up to the car window.  Do you need anything?”

“This is great, thank you.”

“Got your books ready?  We’ll go shortly after I’m back.”

“I’m set, I think.  It’s only the first day anyway.”

“Good.”

Lucy finished while her mom sorted herself out, washed her plate, and put everything away that she could get away with putting away, with wrap over the bowl of fruit salad and juice going in the fridge.

The fridge door closed and she felt an exceedingly vivid impression of the front door to the Arena closing.  For John.  For Charles.  Each moment chased with a flare of emotion, almost as if she was back there, her heart and head and body reacting.  And another moment, the door opening.  The hope.  The hope that everything would turn out okay.

Goosebumps prickled her arms and legs and her heart felt like it dangled from a fraying string in her chest.

She wiped up bacon flecks and bits of crispy french toast crust that had broken off and escaped the plate.

She ran upstairs as her mother went into her room-

“One moment!”

“Brushing my teeth!”

“We leave in a minute!”

Lucy already had toothpaste on her toothbrush.  She did a quick scrub and spit, wiped her mouth, and checked herself over in the mirror.  She used a fingernail to scrape away a bit of toothpaste.

Reality didn’t feel real.

“Ready?” her mom asked.

She nodded, turned around, saw her mom with phone ready, and gave her best smile and pose.  The camera flashed.

They left the house, Lucy locking up while her mom went to the car.  Not that it super mattered that they were super on time, because it was day one and there would be lost kids showing up five or ten minutes late, and friends catching up, but whatever.

Once belted, as they pulled out, she texted Avery.  Good luck at the new school!

The reply came back: already sitting through h-room.  school starts an hour earlier here.  is rude IMO.  school is fine.

“Then what are you doing texting?  You’ll get your phone taken away,” Lucy muttered.

“Hm?”

“Avery’s at her new school already.”

“Tell her good luck.”

“Already did.”

She texted Verona.  OMW.

Verona replied: i’m not.  dad’s taking me to the doctor for my hand.  uuugh.

“What the frigging heck is that timing?” Lucy muttered, as she typed out something to that effect.  For her mom’s benefit, she said out loud, “Verona’s going to the doctor.”

“And missing school?”

“Apparently a hand thing.”

“Worrying.”

“It’s not her dad.  He’s taking her.  I think it’s something from before she went back.”

“Hmm.”

Her mom didn’t look happy about that.  Lucy didn’t feel happy about it.

Traffic was slower than ten kilometers an hour as they got close.  Parents unloaded kids and older people in orange vests managed traffic and made sure parents didn’t linger too long with the hugging and tearful goodbyes, especially for the youngest kids.

“Good luck!” her mom called out, as they pulled up.

“Thanks!  Sleep!”

“I’ll try.”

Lucy closed the door and hurried to the front door, pulling her bag on while dodging some kids Kerry’s age- and Kerry herself.  It felt jarring, seeing that, until she remembered Kerry hadn’t gone.  Avery hadn’t mentioned Kerry a lot when talking about the dynamic at her dad’s.

Teachers were calling out, “Grade one!  Grade one!”  “Second grade!”

Parents were in the mix too, guiding the youngest kids.  Some kindergartners were openly crying.

Lucy hoped Kerry wouldn’t be forgotten in the chaos like Avery had.

She went inside, and saw a crowd in the front hall.  There were papers on the wall with labels above them.  Grade 8, Grade 9…

She worked her way through the crowd, looking, and saw Wallace looking at a sheet.  One of his arms was in a sling.  Sidling up, she stood next to him, her shoulder and upper arm touching his.

He looked confused for a second, then he beamed.

That felt good.

“Heya,” she said, leaning into his non-sling arm and shoulder slightly as she said it.

“Hi.  You look great.”

“You didn’t even need prompting this time, Wallace,” Mia declared.  “Good man.”

“Same class,” he said.  “Not that that’s hard.”

“Same class?” Jeremy asked, as he joined them.

“Yeah, but-”

“But there’s only one class,” Mia said.

There had been two, it looked like.  Two sheets, with a list of students on each, but black marker had been used to scratch out a name, and about fifteen names on the two different lists.

“What the heck?” Lucy asked.  “Was there some horrible bus accident I didn’t hear about?”

“Wow, morbid,” Jeremy said.

“What happened?”

“You heard, right?” Mia asked.  “They’re doing construction on highway seventeen?”

“Uhhh… yeah, think I saw something.”

“So yeah.  They’re doing construction all fall and some of the winter, shut down a whole section of the highway, there’s a side road people can use in the meantime, but they apparently didn’t consider Kennet in the planning, so it’s a real pain to get through.  A bunch of businesses closed real quick, because nobody’s driving off the highway to stop by or use a motel if it’s awkward to get in, you know?  People are mad,” Wallace explained.

“I saw a newspaper article,” Lucy said.

“It was so last minute,” Mia said.  “Emerson’s dad commutes, you know?  They up and moved, put the house on the market, gathered up stuff, left.  They’re staying with her uncle until they find a place.  Amadeus left too.”

“Nooo!” Lucy exclaimed.  “Really?”

Mia clasped her hands to her heart.  “Utterly heartbroken.”

She didn’t really look or sound that heartbroken, but she was a hard one to read.  Lucy nonetheless exclaimed, “I’m so sorry.”

“Sucks sucks sucks,” Mia said.

“How did that affect the dance thing?”

“We barely scraped by before Kennet imploded.  Any later and people would’ve moved away.”

Imploded, Lucy thought.

“Boys and girls, if you’ve found your class, please hurry along!” a teacher declared.

They glanced at the sheet and hurried along.  Lucy glanced at the other sheets and saw more lines drawn out.  Black marker crossed a third of the names out.

Things would’ve been one and a half classes but it had been cut down to one.

Is this going to get worse? Lucy thought, feeling a bit of trepidation.

“Where are Verona and Avery?” Mia asked.

“Avery left.  Verona’s missing school to go to the doctor.  She hurt her hand on the last day of summer.”

“She mentioned that.  She was rubbing it like it was sore,” Jeremy said.

“You saw her?” Mia cooed.

“To visit Melissa’s cat.  We were working together to take care of it before Melissa adopted it.  Verona and I are friends,” Jeremy replied.

Mr. Sitton was their homeroom teacher.  Lucy hid her distaste as she saw him greeting them.

“Mr. Jeremy Clifford, the talented artist.  Always a pleasure to have a top student back, Wallace.  Mia, congratulations, I heard Wavy Tree did fantastic this summer.  Miss Ellingson, how are you this fine day?

She smiled awkwardly at that, without responding.

When they were a safe distance away, she asked, “Does Mr. Sitton use a different tone of voice with me or is it all in my head?”

“I wasn’t listening,” Jeremy replied.

“Maybe he flubbed on what to say, like, you’re a good student, maybe he thought he couldn’t repeat himself, stalled, and jumped to something default?” Mia suggested, shrugging one shoulder.

“Weird tone because of the awkwardness?” Wallace asked.

“Except it’s all the time,” Lucy said.

“I’ll try and listen for it,” Wallace said.

She smiled at him.

“Sharon Maddocks, congratulations on the win,” Mr. Sitton said.

“Sharon!” Mia cried out, arms extended.

“Inside voices!” Mr. Sitton told them.

“You’ve survived the pruning,” Mia exclaimed, fake-dramatic.

“We lost Alexa, Kyleigh, and Emerson,” Sharon moaned, assuming a similar tone.

“Alexa?  But she was on the list!”

“They decided this morning!”

Mia fake-sobbed.

Jeremy, Wallace, and Lucy inched away from that.  The two boys took seats near the back corner, far from the door.

“Crazy,” Jeremy said.

“Them or this?” Wallace asked.

“This,” Jeremy said.  “I was worried when I didn’t see Verona.”

“Fingers crossed, she’s sticking around,” Lucy said, crossing her fingers.  “Mind if I ask about the sling, Wallace?”

“Nothing’s injured but my elbow was feeling like it sometimes gets before it comes apart, so we thought I should play it safe.  Surgery in nine days.”

“Luck, man,” Jeremy told him.

“Are you going to be staying in the city for that, then?” Lucy asked.

“We were on the fence about it.  If I stay here there’s school, friends, uh, you-”

She smiled.

“-But if we stay in the city, it’s easier of something goes wrong.”

“I think, the way things are going, if you go to the city to stay, you might not come back,” she told him.

“You think?”

She nodded.

“This is wild,” Jeremy murmured, looking at the class as students filtered in.  “We don’t have the advanced class anymore, huh?”

“I’m not sure if we’d have it or if we’d be in it with the new students, but yeah,” Lucy replied.  She checked Mr. Sitton wasn’t looking and got her phone out, texting Verona.  A third of the students moved or somethingKnotting @ work?

Verona sent a surprised cat emote in response.

How are you?  Lucy messaged her.

hand ok.  doc gave me exercises, some meds I prolly won’t use.  drugs scare me after that 1 nightmare.

Lucy tried to think of how to respond to that when Verona sent a follow-up message: might not make it in this afternoon either.  will see

“Melissa Oakham.  Congratulations on the Wavy Tree win.”

“Pretty obviously not in dance or gymnastics anymore,” Melissa said, stamping her cane on the floor.  She looked for and found Lucy.  “Can I fill my water bottle in the sink?”

“Of course.  Maybe let it run a bit it to make sure the water isn’t stale.”

There was a sink at the back corner of the classroom, with a tiny cabinet of science stuff.

Melissa jerked her head over.  Lucy got up from her seat, walking over.

Melissa ran the tap, emptying her water bottle, and leaned against the counter, looking at Lucy.  She’d lost just a touch of weight but her skin was bad, her hair tied back into a ponytail.  Her hair was crimped but not freshly crimped.  Everyone was wearing back to school clothes and seemed ready for a fresh start and Melissa looked like the class usually did when winter was coming to an end and everyone was dead tired of existing in the dark and the cold, not really putting in effort anymore.

“What in the hell is going on?” Melissa asked.

“Do you really want to know?” Lucy asked.

“I know I’m supposed to say no, by whatever stupid rules you guys operate by, but… hit me with it.”

“The guys we were up against?  Scary people, monsters, things?  We kinda lost,” Lucy told Melissa.

“Lost, like…?”

“Like we lost friends, we-”

Lucy stopped.  That feeling of wanting to scream hit her out of nowhere, and it took her a second to just hold things together.  She continued very carefully, “like Avery’s gone, Verona’s hurt in some metaphysical way because she pushed herself too hard.  Like… Kennet is being twisted.  And I guess like how you wring a towel and the water comes out… we’re losing people.”

“What happens when a town gets twisted?  Besides losing people.  That thing with the highway?”

“Locations move.  Bad things come out at night, maybe.  Usual rules don’t always apply.”

“That sounds like a massive pain in the rectum,” Melissa said.  “Why the hell couldn’t you guys win?”

Lucy started to reply, stopped, then turned her back to the class.  From wanting to scream to wanting to cry.  She couldn’t completely hide it from Melissa, and Melissa’s expression changed, softening, as she realized she’d crossed a line by asking that.

“We tried.  We really did try,” Lucy whispered.  She picked moisture out of the corner of her eye with a thumbnail.

“What happens next?” Melissa asked, not whispering.

Lucy whispered her response.  “You should go.  You have an out, we gave you the information.  Maybe take it.  You’re vulnerable.  You’re still innocent, but you’re vulnerable.”

“I’d like to stay a bit, see what happens.  Maybe help.”

Of course Melissa wasn’t going to listen.

“What should I expect?” Melissa asked.  “What gets weird?  What happens?”

“All I know is…  things are going to get worse…”

🟂

“…before they get better,” Lucy said.

“Almost certainly,” Rook answered.

They were gathered.  The ‘top brass’ of the Kennet council, which meant Miss, Matthew, Toadswallow, and Rook.  They were joined by Grandfather, Pipes, Doe, and some scattered goblins in the back corner.

No Verona.

No Guilherme.

No John.

“And so Lis is out, controlling Kennet…”

“At least it seems to be largely benign,” Matthew said.  “Or neutral.  She’s not exacerbating the issue and she’s holding back the knotting.  I’ve spent nearly a decade trying to hold a sword of Damocles by the blade to try to keep it from falling on someone… or I thought I was.  It’s hard not to interpret this sort of thing as manipulation, now.”

“Don’t mess with me or I’ll stop holding back the knotting?” Lucy asked.

“Something like that,” Matthew said.  “It’s on brand for them.”

“What’s the word from outside practitioners?” Toadswallow asked.

“Talked to Nicolette, talked to Avery.  Sounds like Charles is doing a lot of preliminary moves.  Testing the waters, going after the vulnerable.  Kids.  He went straight for Ray Sunshine, though.  Some of Musser’s other contacts, too.”

“No great surprise there,” Rook replied.  “I expect Musser anticipated it, even with his great confidence.”

Miss finally spoke up, saying, “Maybe Charles is reminding people he exists while he catches up on everything that wasn’t done while his predecessor was dead for nearly six months.”

“Would he be catching up if he thought his tenure would be short?” Rook asked.

“Maybe he thinks it won’t be, now?” Toadswallow asked.  Then the goblin groaned.  “Such nuisance!  You’re fine, right, Lucy dear?”

“I’m- I think he’s going out of his way to leave us alone.”

“That may change if we end up on his bad side,” Miss said.  “I’m afraid that with everything going on, you’ll have new responsibilities, Lucy.”

“Hit me with it.”

Miss explained, “Knotted persons have already started filtering in.  Tashlit could tell you more, so perhaps reach out to her to speak with her in dreams, I know her brother has experience.”

“Knotted people?”

“There are people drawn to knotted spaces, and there are people who will spontaneously appear in those spaces.  The line between the two things is indistinct.  They usually keep the company of other knotted persons, but not completely.  Some will cross that indistinct line.”

“What in the heck does that mean?” Lucy asked.

Miss went on, “They’ll show up.  Broad daylight.  They don’t always flinch at or care about Others and they aren’t innocent.  We don’t know the particulars yet, but you’ll want to watch out for them.  Perhaps guide them back where they came from.”

“Jabber is ready if they kick up more of a fuss,” Matthew said.  “It’s not an elegant way to handle things, but…”

“It’ll have to do,” Miss said.  To Lucy, she said, “Call Matthew if a situation becomes untenable.”

“I don’t even know what that would look like.  What happens with these guys?”

“We’ll have to see.”

“I should ask, what we’re talking about is a coin with two sides, isn’t it?” Toadswallow asked.  “They’re getting in, and…”

“It is,” Miss said.  “Yes, the opposite is true.  Some of Kennet’s innocents may wander down the wrong street that doesn’t see much traffic and find themselves in the company of knotted people.  Keep an eye out and be ready to rescue them if need be.  I mentioned this to Verona, earlier.”

“You talked to Verona?” Lucy asked.  “Earlier?  This morning earlier?”

“Yes.  She called me.  She asked for a distraction from reality.  So we talked about duties.”

“Why the heck did she need a distraction from reality.  Is her hand okay?”

“Her hand is mostly alright.  I think it was a collection of factors.”

“How did Verona seem to you?” Matthew asked Lucy.

“Withdrawn?  She pulls back when things get bad and things are pretty obviously bad but this is… way overboard.  What did you say, Miss?”

“We talked, and the conversation led to discussion of what the foreseeable future might look like, and to me telling her much of this.”

“Is that why she might not be at school this afternoon?” Lucy asked, a little heated.  “She fucked off to go investigate the knotting?  On the first freaking day of school?”

“It was not my intention that she jump straight into that, but I imagine it’s possible,” Miss said.

“I should ask,” Matthew said.  “How long is your lunch break?  An hour?”

“Forty-five minutes.”

“I think your time is almost up.”

“Shit!  Thanks,” Lucy said, getting up, and getting her stuff together.

“I’ll come with you,” Matthew said.

Without being bid, Pipes and Doe got up.  Grandfather remained.

“We’ll need to talk about the shrines,” Lucy told the room.  “Figure out a way to pin them down.  If they get too disorderly then it might… what did you say during awakening?  Tip the table one way or the other?”

“That might mean having to negotiate with Lis,” Matthew said.

Lucy scowled.

“I don’t like it either,” he said.

“We will discuss and see if we can come up with anything,” Miss said.

“Fuck me,” Lucy swore.  She pulled out her phone.  “Okay, gonna run.”

“Enjoy your day!” Toadswallow called after them, as they left.

She walked in the direction of school, Matthew beside her, Doe and Pipes following.

“And why do I have an entourage?”

“Because I have work and this is the direction to my car,” Matthew said.

“We’re guarding you, just in case,” Pipes said.  “Not sure what else I’m meant to do with myself.”

“Maybe find Verona, because if she’s sticking her nose into the knotted-up parts of Kennet, she might really need it.”

“We’ll go do that as soon as we see you safely inside,” Pipes told her.

Lucy glanced back at Doe, who nodded.  Silent.

They walked a block.  The school came into view.  Some senior students walked by.

This all felt like a bad dream, but it was real.  Things just so slightly off.  Would that group of older teenagers have been larger, before?  Would there have been more cars on the road?

“Is Kennet going to disappear?” Lucy asked.

“No,” Matthew replied.  “But it might turn into something hard to recognize.”

“Are you okay?” she asked.  “Generally?”

“No.  Generally speaking I’m feeling like nothing’s going to be okay ever again,” he replied.  “But that’s for me to deal with, okay?”

“I don’t think it is okay.  I think I want to help, we need to help each other,” Lucy told him.

“I will manage,” Matthew said.  “And you, your job?  Take care of yourself first.  We never expected you to- to do most of this.  Miss might have, but the rest of us really didn’t.  We didn’t expect you to find the culprits, we didn’t expect you to bind or stop any of them, we didn’t expect you to stop Charles, we don’t expect you to save Kennet.  Okay?  If you want to help, I won’t say no, or I won’t say it in an overly strenuous way… probably.  But don’t help at the expense of your own well being, physical, mental, or emotional.”

“I think that boat already sailed, got fucked by a hundred torpedoes and sank, Matthew,” Lucy said.

He smiled.  “Metaphorically?”

“Of course.”

“It helps if you add that.  Metaphorically speaking, practitioner thing.”

“Okay,” she told him.

“You call me if you need anything, okay?  I don’t just mean Jabber, I don’t mean practitioner knowledge.  I know this is tough with your mom not in the know.  It’s tough with…”

Don’t say John.

“…Everything.  If there’s anything I can do, ask.  Alright?  I’d feel better if I had a chance to be useful.”

Matthew stopped.  Doe had reached forward, touching his arm.  Lucy walked another few steps then stopped as well.

He turned his head, following Doe’s gaze.

Edith.  Across the street.  With a shopping bag in hand.

She noticed them after they noticed her, then she looked both ways, like she was going to cross the street.  Matthew was very still.

“Don’t you fucking dare!” Pipes boomed.

Edith stopped, surprised.  A few stray heads on the street turned to look.

“You walk away!” Pipes shouted, and he was loud.  “Walk the fuck away now!  Better yet, leave Kennet!”

Matthew raised a hand, touching Pipes’ arm.

“Fucking-” Pipes started.  He bit off the words.

Edith remained where she was for a long few seconds, then turned, striding away.

“I might’ve mentioned to the Dog Tags that are sticking around that…” Matthew trailed off.  “…Yeah.”

“Did she move out?” Lucy asked.

“No.  The house is partially hers, and there’s no easy way to get rid of her just right now,” Matthew said.

“You’re- you’re living with her, still?” Lucy asked.

“If I move, if I give up my house… what do I even have?  I don’t think I’d even get anything for it, current state of things.  The knotting.”

“You’d have your sanity,” Doe remarked, quiet.

“Maybe, yeah,” Matthew replied, staring at Edith’s back as she walked away.  “I kind of don’t mind sacrificing my sanity, taking on some heartbreak, if it means I can keep an eye on her.  On them.

“Is that really worth it?” Lucy asked.

“Fuck,” Matthew muttered, volume so low her earring picked it up as a whisper.  Then, louder, he said, “The ambient spirits, wraiths, echoes, and everything that leaked in after she was bound by you and the Sable, she’s got a good handle on them.  She’s keeping them closer.  Keeping herself strong.  I think she thinks I might let the Doom out, so she’s staying protected and ready.  They lurk around the house.  It’s like a haunted house from the movies, things moving, spirits occupying vessels, echoes moaning in the dark corners, angry ghosts jumping out at me, throwing things…”

“That’s a fuckload of shit to be dealing with, Matthew,” Pipes told him.  Lucy nodded her agreement.

“You know the worst part?  It’s me going to my kitchen, my fridge, to get a beer, and she’s there, drinking water, making eye contact.  Two of us living in one house, separate beds, barely talking, barely interacting.  But she’s there.  Not even there in the basement, jailed, leaving me the hope she could come around and realize what she did wrong.  She’s just… there.  And it feels like she- like she thinks she’s winning somehow just by being there.”

“What if you let that Doom out, Matthew?” Pipes asked.  “Hypothetically.”

“Then maybe it succeeds,” Matthew said, quiet.  “And real life people have real life questions about where my wife went and why she’s not just dead but splattered across… splattered, probably.  Or worse.  And on the Other side of it, I don’t know how the Carmine Exile reacts, or if Maricica made promises, or any of that.  Maybe Lis stops playing nice.  And either way, I’ve killed the woman I love- who I don’t want to love, but there it is.  I’ve dwelt on that a lot.”

“Matthew-” Lucy said.

“A-a-and,” he stuttered, interrupting.  “Maybe somehow she beats it.  Maybe those spirits and wraiths buy her an edge, and she beats the Doom, which was never as strong as she pretended.  And then there’s me, with a big gaping hole inside of me that the Doom used to fill, and there’s her, a complex spirit that would be happy as anything to fill that void and never let go of it.”

“I think you gotta leave, Matthew,” Lucy told him, deeply concerned.  “Leave Kennet if you have to or… at least rent a place?  If you had the money to give to Verona you have the money to get a rental.”

“Get yourself to school, Lucy.  Live that rich and full life, as best as you can.  I shouldn’t be adding to your stresses.  If you want to help, ask for help, okay?  Take my offer for help, let me give advice, let me get away from it all, alright?”

“I will, but tell me- swear, Matthew, if things aren’t better in the next twenty-four hours…”

He was already shaking his head.

“Go?” she asked.

“What about three days?” Pipes asked.  “Or seven?”

“Maybe seven.  We’ll reassess,” Matthew said.  “Get going, Lucy, you’re already probably late.  I think I’m going to take time off work.  Not really up for it right now.”

She checked the time and frowned.  She walked up between two parked cars, waiting for traffic, and turned around.  “Doe, I’m asking you to do me a favor and look after Verona.  Make sure she doesn’t need backup, at least.  Pipes?  Look after Matthew.  That’s an order, or as much of an order as I can get away with giving, okay?  Is that okay?”

“You can give us orders,” Doe said.  Pipes nodded.  Doe added, “Okay.”

Lucy nodded.

She checked for traffic and crossed the road, then headed to school.  She had to run, bag bouncing, the multi-layered skirt she was wearing feeling uncomfortable, but she made it before the bell.

“Verona!” she called out, as she saw a familiar dark-haired, so-scruffy-it’s-barely-a-bob bob.

The girl she’d called out to turned.

Not Verona.  Similar but different.

“Sorry,” she said.

“No problem,” was the reply.

Lucy had to pull out the planner with the schedule and check for her next class.  Head swimming, pity for Matthew crowding out all sorts of feelings, she couldn’t even feel as bad as she had about John and everything else.

To compound all of that, Verona didn’t come back to school that afternoon.


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Fall Out – 14.1

Avery

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One Week Later

Avery had to hide her phone from her mom as she checked the text.  Doubly so because it was from Liberty.  Liberty regularly toed the line of mom-appropriate stuff, for one thing, and she didn’t really ‘get’ living with innocents.  Avery had been forced to quickly change tabs or turn off her monitor when video-calling Liberty as Declan or her dad checked on her, which conveyed an image she didn’t want.

It’s not rude stuff, family, it’s goblins and crap.

Sure enough, Liberty had sent Avery a short video of her secretary and official bone polisher, titled ‘show Snowdrop’.  Skullcrap wore a skull over his head, with a few skull stickers on it, and danced, shaking and smacking his ass for the camera.

“Is that a game?” her mom asked from the driver’s seat.

“Hmmm?” Avery asked, turning off her phone.

“I can see the reflection in the window.”

Avery looked at the window, and then past it, at the trees and the flat faces of the rock that had been cut and carved away to make way for the highway.  A sign suggested they didn’t have far to go.

“Just something silly a girl from the summer thing sent me,” she said.

“It’s good you’re staying in touch.”

Avery unzipped her bag carefully, then dropped her phone inside.  It bonked Snowdrop on the shoulder, and the opossum roused, following Avery’s cue and shuffling a bit before moving the phone, pressing a paw to the face of it, and loading up the video.

She got a drink out of the bag, beaded with moisture with opossum hair clinging to it, and discreetly wiped it off, before wiping her now-hairy hand on her leg.

Snowdrop sent a rapidfire series of amused and energetic impulses to Avery, switching over from being sleepy to ideas like ‘fun’ and ‘gotta do something’.

Gonna have to make time for her to work out a reply video.

Avery smiled a bit at the thought, looking out the window.

“You good?” her mom asked, reaching out with one hand to run fingers through Avery’s hair, bit of a head stroke.

“Tich tired.”

“Still not sleeping?”

“Not for the last week or so.  I’ll deal.”

“Hopefully you can sleep after you’re settled.”

Avery nodded.  Her mom dropped her hand from Avery’s head to her shoulder, gave it a rub, then returned her hand to the wheel.

“Sorry if this is awkward,” Avery said.

“Oh, it’s terribly, horribly awkward, upended everything, has all of us second guessing everything,” her mom said.  “And that has almost nothing to do with you.  It’s your dad and I being too clever for our own good, splitting things up.”

“But not splitting up?” Avery asked.

“No.  Not a chance.  I adore that man, Avery.  I saw him two and a half hours ago and I miss him.  Every time I see a place I want to try eating at, I think- I want to eat it with him, hear what he has to say.  When things are busy I want to tackle it with him, working together as best as we can, and when we’re calm and tired I want to be right next to him, hip to hip.”

“Sounds so nice.”

“See, if it was Sheridan remarking on that, it would be gagging noises, with grumbling and groaning about your dad and I being gross.”

Avery smiled.

Snowdrop was wriggling a bit too much, so Avery took a drink, moving her leg to shift the bag and press it down a bit while she did, capped the bottle, and placed it in, giving Snowdrop a light bonk on the head with the bottle as she put it back in the bag, where it sat between her feet.  She reached inside to rearrange things, then pulled out a snack bar.

She had to put up with hungry Snowdrop impulses as she unwrapped it, bit off half, then sorted out the rest and dropped it back into the bag.

“Here we are.  Just around the bend and…”

Avery might’ve hoped for a bit of a rise they could crest over, to get a view of the city as a whole, but the way was flat, and the periodic rural building or dilapidated house or barn dropped away, allowing them to enter the collection of buildings that reminded Avery of Kennet’s southeastern bit.  The bit that McKeller Steel had been rooted in.  A slice of Ken and Kennet.

That line of thought made her uneasy, reminding her of what she was leaving behind.

Thunder Bay didn’t have a lot of ‘thunder’ to it, as she might’ve imagined, and it didn’t have a lot of ‘bay’, at least as far as she could see.  The passage into the city was even a bit dreary, with lots of empty parking lots, brick buildings, and not a lot of trees.  It took its time to get away from that.

That improved as they got past the borders of it.  Trees drank in the last of summer, vibrant and bright, and they saw the first houses, which were nice.  Nicer than Kennet’s, anyway.  Past the factory buildings or whatever they were, Avery could see the lake, blue and sparkling.

She relaxed a bit.

“What’s going on with you, huh?” her mom asked, voice soft.

Avery glanced over.

“Did anything happen?  With dad?  With Grumble?  You seem so melancholy.”

“Leaving friends.”

“Is that it?  That’s valid, I mean, but…”

Avery shrugged, shook her head, and found herself at a loss for words.  Her eyes scanned the surroundings, looking for anything of note.  Interesting things.  Dangerous things.

Which was a thought that led to her opening her mouth.  She saw her mom looking, and decided to go through with it.

“World feels a bit scarier than it did a few weeks ago, and it already felt scary then.”

“What’s scaring you?”

“Hmmm…”  Avery tilted her head back against the backrest of the car, drawing in a deep breath.  “I guess if I had to reach for a really short, quick answer before we arrive…”

“Going to be another ten or fifteen minutes, you know.”

“Really?”

“Thunder Bay is as big as Montreal, but has one hundred thousand people, to Montreal’s… I think one and a half million?  More than.  What were you going to say?”

“You wanted to know what’s scaring me and the cliche answer that jumps to mind is, hm, what isn’t?”

“Oh baby.”

“That might be my personality, me being a bit anxious and nervous.”

“If that’s your cliche response, the cliche mom response is to be terrified about what kind of exposure you’re getting to the world from social media and everything.  Don’t- don’t give me that look.”

Avery’s eyes were wide, hand protectively over her bag.

“I’m not going to take away your phone.  Not now.”

“It’s not social media, you know?  It’s… Verona going back to live with her dad.  It’s… people die.”

“Who died?”

“A veteran we’d say hi to sometimes.  Living in around the factories.”

“A veteran- homeless?”

“Please don’t make a big deal of it?  Mom-”

“Avery, if you’re-”

“Mom!” Avery raised her voice a bit.  “You said you’d try to listen and pay attention more, stop freaking out and do what you promised.”

“That sounds dangerous.  Why or how were you associating with this man?”

“He was cool.  And then he died.”

“Do people know?  Is there-?”

“People know.  He had friends, they swung by.  Mom… you’re missing the point.”

Her mom stopped, heaved out a breath, and kept driving.

“He’s gone,” Avery said.  “People die.  They- bad things happen and all we can do is sorta cling together, trust each other, and I might be betraying that trust by leaving.  Whatever Lucy and Verona say.”

“I thought you were worried about climate change.”

“That too.  A lot of other stuff.  Verona says- she read something that said depressed people have a clearer sense of reality than other people.  And anxious people too, I think?  Sorta makes you think.”

“I’ve read that and it’s a little more nuanced than the headlines say.  In some things, yes.  But in many others, no, not at all.  You need to keep talking to people to help you keep things straight, especially if you’re wrestling with anxiety and depression.”

“Hm.”

“Tell me about things like this soldier, okay?  I might- I worry.  I worry so much.  But tell me.”

“John.  His name was John.”

“Do you want to talk to anyone?  Do you know if there’s a service you’d need to go back for?  Was this part of the reason for wanting to move?”

“He didn’t want one.  And I dunno if I want to talk to anyone.  I guess I’ll let you know about the therapy?  It wasn’t,” Avery replied, a bit jumbled.  “I decided, sat on it for a bit, told dad, then John died and now I feel even worse for leaving my friends.”

Her mom sighed.  “And here I thought this would be a bit easier, your dad and I giving each of you some one on one time and more dedicated focus.”

“Nuh uh.  We’re all growing up.  And on that- about that.  You can’t focus on just Rowan, Sheridan and me.  Declan.  He’s becoming a troll and dad’s a bit slow on the draw.”

Her mom sighed again.  They pulled up to a red light, and her mom looked over at her.  “First of all, it’s more you and Sheridan.  Rowan spent time with Laurie and her friends here and I think it was the kick in the pants he needed.  He’s saying he wants to work two jobs, show he’s motivated, and he’s maybe, maybe considering continuing his schooling.”

“Huh.”

“I think it’s important he’s finding that motivation on his own.  Even if it’s by feeling like a bump on the log when surrounded by motivated, cool people who are talking about their futures.”

Mom and Dad did that sometimes, where they’d be talking to Rowan and they’d use language like that, ‘bump on a log’ like they’d use for Kerry, or accidentally let swear words slip with Kerry, when they’d use that kind of language with Rowan.  And Avery got the worst of it.  “You mean he felt like a loser.”

“I’m making no comment and I’m asking you not to.  Sheridan’s Sheridan.  I’m hopeful that school starting tomorrow is a similar push for her.  We’ll see.  I’m- let’s just say I’m expecting to have to help her, steer her, give her some direction.”

“Good luck with that.”

“Same as you, you know.  We do need to talk.  I can’t help but feel you were just deflecting to Declan.  That’s the downside of the dedicated focus.”

“I’m still sorting it out in my head.  Can we talk about it after?”

“About you and you… it’s about you wanting to leave more than you wanting to come, isn’t it?”

“I wanted to come.  I do.  I like new places, new experiences.  And I didn’t want to leave, I just…”

Avery let the sentence taper off there.

The light turned green and her mom didn’t move.  A car behind them did a mini-beep.

Her mom set the car into motion.

Avery didn’t pick up the taper of sentence.

“I think we need to have a small talk about it before Thanksgiving.  And we’ll follow up on that after Thanksgiving.  And, big deadline, before you go back, I want to have this figured out.  Even if it means hard talks with your dad.”

“Or Grumble?  Or Declan?”

“All three, huh?”

“I’m not trying to dodge you.  I do want to talk, or, hmm… I do want to figure this out, you know?  I don’t want to actually have those conversations, I’m sorta sick of them.  But thanksgiving deadline for a mini talk?  Sounds good.”

“At a bare minimum, please.  If there’s more, or if you want to give me some idea of what I need to say or do, I’m here.  Busy with work, but I’m here.”

“Right.  Just… not now?  I’ve got a lot on my mind, starting the new school, moving to a new place, other junk.”

“Okay.  Speaking of new school, how are you set for back to school clothes?”

“I’ve got some stuff.  Dad gave me the card for after the bagel shop but we were distracted.”

“Show me what you got and if there’s any gaps we can squeeze something in between unloading the car and picking stuff up for dinner.”

Avery nodded.

Snowdrop was startled from a doze by a phone notification, hit the screen and then sent Avery a note of panic.  Not because of the message but because of a warning?

Avery unzipped her bag and reached inside.  Her phone screen had a big ‘do you want to block this user?’ message on it.

Avery refused.

Raquel.

“Who?” her mom asked, pointing.  “Lucy and Verona?”

“Nah.  Raquel from the summer thing.”

“You really hit it off there.”

“Sorta.  We were kinda enemies while we were there, but after she seemed sorta… alone?  Her uncle took over her school and she lost her friends.”

“That’s extreme.”

“It makes more sense if you know who her uncle is.  It’s less that her friends ran away and more that her uncle’s a misogynistic dildo who won’t cut her a break.  And so I offered to stay in touch by phone.  Then her cousin died a week ago.”

Her mom gave her a concerned look.

Avery shrugged a shoulder.  “Mostly I’m recommending films and shows for her to watch, because she’s horribly behind on all the pop culture stuff.  She hadn’t seen a blockbuster film since she was eight.”

“What did she do with her time?  Laundry?  I’m trying to picture-”

Avery snorted.  “They have people for laundry.  And for taking care of the horses.  And they have a private jet.  But they also have expectations of their sons and daughters.”

She made ‘expectations’ as scary and ominous as she could.

“Ahh.”

“Lucy was all, ‘you have to watch these films, they’re the genre staples, cover all the genres, then we can build out from there, figure out your tastes… and Raquel’s not- I guess having said what I just said about expectations, then saying that, we sorta should’ve realized she wouldn’t be into that.”

“Mm hmmm.”

“And Verona- I can’t tell if Verona was messing with her or trying wild shots in the dark to try to see if she could find something Raquel adored, or if it’s this artsy, push the boundaries thing, but… more misses than hits.  Raquel was sorta frustrated with that.  A lot of ‘why would anyone like this?’ questions.  Mostly she likes me to just riff off stuff I liked that I think would be cool and relaxing.  I’ve been rewatching a lot of old favorite stuff, because I’ll check it to make sure it’s kosher and not stressful and doesn’t have any depressing stuff in it, then I end up watching, and we’ll each say a few lines about it after.”

“I’m glad one of you found something that works.”

“So am I,” Avery replied.

“Are you, uh… is there anything… Raquel, was it?  Between you?”

“Us?  Heck no.  No.  Don’t do that.”

“Okay,” her mom said.  “Is she the same one that sent you the skull?”

“That was Liberty.  They’re just online friends,” she said.

A text popped up from Liberty, image included.  Hey gorgeous, how far does this outfit push it?  I want to see how close I can get to the line before a teacher says something.

Avery hurried to switch conversations before her mom saw the outfit or the goblins in the foreground that were a little too in motion to be explained away.

“A lot of online friends,” she added.

“And Verona and Lucy, I hope.”

Less than I’d like.

Avery wasn’t sure where to draw the line.  Was it bad to expect a reply in the span of an hour?  Maybe they had stuff going on.

“Any recommendations about stuff for Raquel?” Avery asked, changing the subject.  “Something not too intense, but relevant, pop culture-y.  Her dad made comments about her watching stuff but she said she needs to know so she doesn’t embarrass herself at a party or anything, and he kind of let it slide.  It’s gotta be something she can justify.”

“Hmmm.  I like musicals.”

“Good freaking call,” Avery said.  “What’s that one, it was popular last year?  They did a movie musical remake about it?  Unpopular high school girls?”

“Claudias.”

“Thank you very much… Yeah.  I could even see that being something she’d be super into.”

“Glad to help.”

“Almost there.”

“‘Kay.”

The apartment was a house, tall and narrow, with red brick and black trim.  The garden looked like something had been attempted and only partially succeeded, with patches of dirt.

There was a patio table with an attached umbrella atop the garage, bounded in by railing and tinted glass panels.  A few potted plants had fronds and leaves sticking out through parts of the railing.  Sheridan stood up as they slowed down to maneuver into the narrow driveway.

“Bottom floor is the landlord, she’s older.  Upper two floors are the apartment.  Balcony on top of the garage is also ours.”

“Kinda stretching the definition of apartment, huh?” Avery asked.

“It’s nice and I’m not complaining.”

“We really have an older landlord?  Does she need help?  Did you really find us a woman version of Grumble?”

“Ha ha.  It’s up to you guys to shovel the walkway and driveway.  We’ll work that out.  But it won’t be a Grumble situation.”

They parked at the back of the property.

“And let’s unload quick, you can unpack after, we’ll run to the store and get food, how’s that?”

“Sounds good,” Avery said.

She got out of the car, picked up her bag, Snowdrop inside, and stretched.

Then she got boxes.  Some were dusty containers they’d had in their basement.  Tape with writing on it labeled it as hers.

Her mom led the way, with the heaviest one, and Avery followed.

“Did you finish the bed?” her mom asked.

“Didn’t get around to it,” Sheridan said.

“Color me unimpressed, Sheridan.  Help unload, okay?  Where’s Rowan?”

“Job interview, or so he says.”

“I believe him.  Let’s believe him.  Okay, that’s fine.”

Sheridan stood in the stairwell as Avery went up, and as Avery went around, Sheridan sidestepped, getting in the way.

“This is heavy, please move.”

“I am going to shiv you in your sleep.”

“Sheridan-”

“Are you serious?  I’m nice to you and this is what I get?  I am almost not lying when I say the shiv thing.  I’m literally not sure if there’s going to be a point in the next little while where I’m lying awake in bed, annoyed at your existence-”

“Move!”

“-and I’ll catch a whiff of your gym clothes or something and I’ll just get up and end you.  There has to be some justice in this screwed up world.”

“Do you want me to drop this on your foot?”

Sheridan moved up a step, and stuck her toe out to press against the front face of the box so Avery couldn’t walk up.  Avery set the edge of the box down on a stair and frowned up at her big sister.

“I finally had a room of my own.  Finally!  I will murder you if it means I get a room of my own.”

Their mom stepped into view at the top of the stairwell.  “First of all, if you murder her you’re going to get a shared jail cell and I think you’ll find that much worse.”

“Is it though?  Because you know, skeevy addict or gangster woman on the one hand, thirteen year old human embodiment of a stale gym sock on the other.  I think I’d rather room with the skeevy addict gangster.”

“Love you too Sheridan,” Avery muttered.

“Loving you means recognizing who you are deep down inside, human equivalent of a stale gym sock.”

“It’s a big room,” their mom said.  “Our landlord was going to separate the two upper floors into two apartments, and what you’re getting as a quote-unquote ‘bedroom’ is the combined living room, kitchen, and side nook.  Put up a curtain to cut it in half and it’s still more space than you would have had if you’d had your own room back at the house like we originally planned.  There are whole apartments smaller than that room.”

“It’s the principle!”

“And my principles say that if you don’t let your sister upstairs and work with us on this, I’m going to be mad, Sheridan.  I’m talking worse than when you nearly failed eighth grade and I had to talk to the teachers to convince them to fudge the numbers let you pass.”

“I knew the material, the teachers just had it out for me.”

“We’re not re-litigating that.  We’re not even litigating this.  You have two choices.  Let your sister upstairs, don’t kick up a fuss, don’t murder her, and get the bed put together with no shenanigans before we’re done with our shopping.  Do that, and you can pick what we have for dinner, like I promised earlier.  Or get on my bad side.”

Sheridan moved aside.  Avery lifted the box and walked up.

“Overloaded?” Sheridan asked, walking down the stairs as Avery walked up.

“Thought so.  That’s fine.  If you get the bed made.  Don’t forget a screw because you think it’ll be a laugh for the bed to break halfway through the night.”

“You know me so well,” Sheridan said.

“What’s Overloaded?” Avery asked, as she carried the box up past her mom.

Her mom answered, “burgers and calzones with too much topping or stuffing.  Sides like Cajun fries.  This will be the third time we’ve eaten there in the last two weeks, after which point we’re going to take a break from eating there, Sheridan!”

“And give up a good way to bribe me?” Sheridan called up, already outside.

“Avery, they have some vegetarian options.  If that doesn’t work we’ll stop somewhere else.”

“Thanks,” Avery said, flashing her mom a smile she didn’t feel was too forced.

Avery carried the stuff up to the top floor, putting the box on the counter before exploring.  There was a side door leading to stairs that went to the garage-top patio.

She opened the door and her bag and let Snowdrop free.  That would be Snowdrop’s hangout spot until the weather got too cold, she supposed.  Close by, with hiding spots from family, but with access to the world.

There was also a bathroom, but it was mostly an empty space with Sheridan’s stuff at one end, and then a mattress, boxspring, and the unloaded contents of a bedframe on the ground that hadn’t been put together.  Some of Avery’s stuff had already been delivered a few days ago, and was stacked against the wall in what Sheridan had probably figured was the most annoying and inaccessible way possible.

The front window was really her best view of Thunder Bay since she’d arrived.  Or ever- she’d been before, but mainly to shop for Christmas and things, and she hadn’t been able to get a great sense of the city.  It was less of a city than she’d imagined.  More of a sprawling town, apparently as large as Montreal, very flat and low to the ground.  They had a view of the water from the patio and their bedroom window.

Her phone had picked up some more messages while she’d been carrying.  One from Liberty- Want to bet on whether I singlehandly can get them to force a dress code?   Whats yur take on school uniforms?  I need opinions from some1 who hasnt been corruptd.

Avery typed out a message: was in car with mom.  sdrop loved skullcrap dance.  I think she wants to make a reply vid.  uniforms are cool.  low pressure for fashion.

Liberty’s reply was almost immediate: hi blood pressure!!!  Boys in snazy button ups and ties.  Legs 4 yur gay ass!  Swishng skirts!?   Give me a hell yea!

Avery sent a rolling eyeball image across the text field.

Things are so absolute shit right now.

The message came from Liberty, in a complete and total shift in tone, like a bucket of water over Avery.

how bad?  She asked.

Kids getting hit with visions in their dreams, gainsaid with no warning over stuff they said a year ago sometimes.  Couple little kids are afraid to sleep.  Vice-Head Ray got gainsaid like that a few days ago and recovered yesterday.  This morning he was gainsaid again.  He’s leavingHas 2.  Can’t work.

Zed had already communicated about Ray getting gainsaid.  He hadn’t said anything about being hit by something else right after he’d recovered.

Avery typed: Just Musser in charge now?

Cple guest teachrs.  We might not have fall smster.

Avery was in the middle of typing something when Liberty sent a short message.

G2g.  Bbsc ttys ❤ B===D

“Shit,” Avery whispered.

The worry made her check, and she saw a message from Lucy that she hadn’t had a notification for.  It might’ve been Snowdrop accidentally opening it.  She clicked-

Her mom interrupted her, “Keep moving, it’ll mean you have more time for shopping, and Overloaded has forty-five minute waits sometimes, we’ll need to account for that on the other end.  It’s a bit of a chore but it keeps Sheridan happy.”

“Keeps me so happy,” Sheridan said.  “Don’t forget the cheesecake.”

It felt really jarring to go from the conversation with Liberty to this.  From gainsayings and chaos at the Blue Heron to cheesecake.

But Avery had felt like this all week.  From losing John and losing to Charles to babysitting Kerry and listening to her sing along to the worst cartoons in existence.

“We’ll put in the order while we’re buying school clothes and supplies,” Avery’s mom told her.

Avery nodded, forcing a smile.

They all went down to get boxes.  Avery waited for her mom to take the biggest one, Sheridan took the lightest load she could, with a pillow under one arm and a partially filled cardboard box of coats and shoes under another, and Avery went to pick up the next, when Snowdrop nudged her from afar, reaching through their bond.

Avery turned and saw a pair of women at the end of the driveway.

Snowdrop immediately started climbing down from the patio, while Avery walked over.

One of the women didn’t look well.  She had a cataract at one eye and her ears and nose were red and waxy-looking, her fingers much the same, with black around the fingernails.  The other looked like any woman who might live around here.  Like she could be a friend of Avery’s mom.  Both were old, around Avery’s parents in age.

A glimpse with the Sight confirmed.  The one woman was covered in black handprints that had pressed in, a half-inch deeper than skin level.  The other had power, tiny handprints that appeared and faded on surfaces around her like wet footprints on hot sidewalk.

Their eyes flashed as well.

“Avery Kelly, wild practitioner and Path Runner.  This is-”

She waited as Snowdrop ran over in human form, wearing a light jacket and a dress that said ‘drop dead, gorgeous’.

“-Snowdrop.  Opossum spirit companion.  I gather you’re the welcoming committee?” Avery finished.

“I wouldn’t presume welcome,” the more normal woman said.

Avery nodded, pressing lips together.

“Ann Wint.  Chainer and Destroyer,” the normal woman introduced herself, before introducing the other as, “Deb Cloutier, Storm Chaser.”

“Do you know what these titles mean?” Deb the Storm Chaser asked, voice a bit strangled.

“I think I know what a Storm Chaser is.  I got the rundown on Storms- I guess you go diving into those elemental hotspots searching for… stuff?  Or move in right after they leave?”

“Diving, yes.”

“No idea about the other, but… I gather you’re not to be messed with.  Either of you.”

“Good gathering,” Ann told her.  “That will do.  If you’re a wild practitioner, that suggests a patron Other or greater power, do we need to worry about him or her?”

By ‘do we need to worry’ she didn’t mean just them.

Avery knew she was already talking to the Lord, just one step removed.  Whatever she said or did wrong here would get taken there.

“Patrons, plural, and no, I don’t think so.  Not unless, like, you take me hostage or something goes really wrong, pretty sure.  Even then, I think, um, you’d probably have a really annoyed diplomat type before you had a war on your doorstep.  Goblin or a Lost.”

“A diplomat goblin?” Deb the Storm Chaser asked, clearly skeptical.

“Yes, and on that note, I’d like to request a meeting.  With the Lord of Thunder Bay.  To introduce myself as I move in.”  She’d been told it was better to ask for the meeting before being made to attend one, and she was glad she’d managed to wedge it in without sounding too demanding.

“You moving in is not up to you,” Ann the Destroyer told her.  “It’s up to us.”

Deb added, “If the Lord or the locals decide you’re not welcome, you’ll need to go back where you came from.  If you don’t leave after being asked, you’ll be considered an intruder to be dealt with.”

“Understood.  For that appointment, I can try slipping away for whenever is convenient, but tonight would be easiest,” Avery asserted.

“I’m diurnal, so I prefer day,” Snowdrop said.

“Either way, tonight serves.  Ten thirty.  We’ll indicate where,” Deb the Storm Chaser told her, voice strained.

Avery nodded once.  “May I have permission to practice?  I’ll keep it to travel only and some connection blockers.”

“Do without until we decide what to do with you,” Ann said.

Avery frowned, but nodded.  “Is it okay if I use a ‘down to earth’ rune to lock some passive stuff down?  I’ve got like… ongoing enchantments and benefits from running paths.”

“Does it keep things calm and uninteresting?” Ann asked.

Avery nodded.  “That’s the whole point of it.  Definitely more than not using it.”

“Avery!” her mom called over.

“Then that should be fine.”

Avery turned, and when she glanced back, the pair were walking off.  Snowdrop ran off the other direction.

She rejoined her mom.

“Who was that?  Neighbors?”

“Locals.  Delivering a ‘be good or else’, sorta.”

“How pleasant,” her mom said, sarcastic, sounding very much like she’d given birth to Sheridan once upon a time.  She frowned in the direction of the driveway entrance before looking at Avery.  “I wish you’d let me handle talking to them, in that case, or waved me over.”

Avery shrugged.

“Point them out if you see them again.  Now come on.  Still more to get out.”

Avery hopped to it, taking the bedside table with stuff still in the bottom drawer.  It had been taped shut.

“You’re going to be okay with that?  Heavy.”

“Just keep Sheridan out of my way.”

She got upstairs, maneuvered around Sheridan, who was now working on the bed frame, and dropped off the boxes by the corner where her bed would go.

She checked that message from Lucy that she’d been interrupted from twice.

I’m worried about Verona.

Swallowing hard, she fired off a reply and then hurried downstairs.

keep me up to date.  we’ll figure something out.

🟂

Being bound up in the car and then while driving around getting to food and stores, and feeling a bit bogged down by a very large meal of deep fried pickles, a veggie nacho calzone, and Cajun sweet potato fries, Avery had decided to go out for a run.  She’d been sweating a bit from just the process of eating that meal before she even set out on the run.

It was a bit dangerous when she couldn’t practice, but the idea of being locked down from morning to night and then facing a tough meeting with the Lord of Thunder Bay really didn’t sit well.

At least this way she could get centered.  Running.  Exploring.  She wished she could black rope around, but she stuck by the rules.

The sound of a tweeting whistle was a siren call.  Doubly so when she realized it was a school.

She walked up to the fence, watching as a bunch of high-schoolers ran laps around the perimeter of a field, where there was a paved footpath for running.  Boys and girls.

She had the sick feeling that school had already started, and she’d missed some, and she’d arrive with everyone’s eyes on her.

“Hey!” the coach barked.

She looked at him.  He had a shaved head and a full-face squint like he was staring into the sun, even though the sun wasn’t up anymore and the sky was overcast.  Like he wore that expression so often it had gotten stuck.  Polo shirt, sweat pants, whistle in one hand, papers in the other.

“How old are you?”

“Fourteen.”

“You out running?”

Avery nodded.  She leaned against the fence, breathing hard, little towel around her neck.

“Spying on the competition?” he asked, sounding almost as if he was joking, but not quite.

“I just moved, I think this is my school that I’ll be going to.”

“Unofficial practice,” the coach said, pointing a rolled up paper at the others.  He turned.  “Watch your form, Camille!  Don’t you dare get injured!”

“Why unofficial?”

He was splitting attention between her and the group, and the way he squinted, it was hard to tell which he was looking at.  “Track event two weeks after school starts, thought we’d get a head start.  Lacrosse a month in.  Come in, run.”

“I’m not sure-”

“Come on.  If you’re running anyway, better you’re somewhere safe, making friends.”

She debated it internally for a short bit, then nodded, running over to the break in the fence where it had been unchained and opened to allow entry.  She emptied her water bottle over her head and face, slipped her various bracelets and things onto it, waited for a gap, then ran.  A lot of the students were older.  She didn’t try to pass, and ran at a regular pace, keeping an eye on the bottle to be safe.

After her first loop, she passed the coach.  He called out, “Name!?”

“Avery Kelly!”

“Run hard, Avery Kelly!”

“But-”

“Run hard!”

She ran hard.  It was hard and annoying to pass with the track as occupied as it was, but she found an angle, then sprinted ahead.  It helped that the others were tired from running well before she’d gotten there.  She ended up behind a pack of the seniors and a couple others who were managing a good pace, and in other circumstances she would’ve maybe passed them slowly, but both passing and navigating around them was a bit difficult.

She saw the coach at the far end.  “Excuse me!”

“Excuse yourself!” a senior called out.

She grunted, then forced herself forward a bit more, slipping past on the inside track.

In the end, the seniors put in a bit of extra effort, and they did leave her behind.

“Come over here!” the coach called out, pointing at her with the rolled up papers.

Panting, she came over, went straight for the water on the little table he’d set up, and drank, before sitting on grass.

“Track?”

She shook her head.

“I want you on the track team when the school year starts.”

“I tried it.  I…” she searched for the words.  “Hate it?”

“Try it again?”

“I like hockey and soccer,” she said, pressing her hands together.

“You skate?”

“Fast.”

“You were running fast enough to almost keep up with girls three years older than you.  Admittedly, they’re on their last legs, but… I believe you.  How’s this?  I know people who manage the minor and the A-league junior teams for hockey.  Try track again, I’ll put in a word.”

“I’ll think about it?” she told him, unsure.

“Lacrosse?”

“Played some in middle school.  One game earlier this summer, with older kids.”

“Ah, darn.”

“They accused me of cheating.”

“Cheating how?  Technical fouls?”

“Being fast, I guess.”

“And how does that make sense?”

“He was sore I was faster than him, I guess?”

“Keep an eye out for the sign up sheet.  We’re doing practice twice a week, it’ll be official practice once school starts, with sheets for your parents to sign.  Don’t get injured before then, not allowed.  This isn’t me, this is them deciding they wanted to run all at the same time and I happened to come by and decide to supervise and hydrate them.  Don’t get injured or that’s on me.”

“Okay.  Will try.”

“You good to keep running?” he indicated the track.

She shook her head, drinking the last of the water.

“Do you have the speed without the stamina?”

“I was running around all summer, I have stamina.  But I’ve gotta get home.  I’ve got somewhere to be tonight.”

“See you around then, Avery Kelly.  Keep an eye out for the sign-up sheets, think about my offer.”

She picked herself up, got her water bottle, and headed out.

Someone clicked her tongue as Avery walked along the fence, trying to get some more drops out of the bottle.

A guy and a girl.  They looked like seniors.

“Impressed Artrip,” the girl said.  “How old are you?”

“Fourteen,” Avery said.

“Same,” the girl said.

Not a senior then.  Just tall.

The girl indicated the guy.  “Brother, fifteen.  He’s Oli, I’m-”

“Jeanine, Oli, run!”

“Jeanine.  See you around?”

“Run!  I know you have it in you!”

Avery shrugged and nodded.

Felt good.  Being seen.

The bracelet clicked.  Avery turned her head.

An Other with bright eyes disappeared into a gap between houses.

She raised her hand in a wave, then hurried along.

Felt less good.

Like she could have something here, but it could be taken away on a whim.

🟂

Sneaking out was difficult without connection blockers.  She got up and headed to the door, and Sheridan groaned, long and loud.

“I’m just going to the patio.  It’s nice out, and I can’t sleep.”  Because I’ve got somewhere to be.

“Fuck youuuuu.  I’m tired, let me sleep my way into my carb coma.  I hate that you exist right now.”

“It’s been hours.”

“I had that extra slice of caramel cheesecake for dessert an hour ago.  Fuck you for talking to me right now when I should be asleep.  Fuck you for this room not being mine.  Fuck offfff.”

“Love you.”

“Love you I guess but fuck you and fuck off.  I’ll still smother you with a pillow if you make noise coming back in.”

Avery let herself onto the patio, grabbing the bag she’d placed by the door.

She grabbed Snowdrop, and took Snowdrop’s direction in climbing down to the lawn.  She ran off into the night.

Felt lonely, not having the others around.

Spooky, knowing how bloody and awful the world of practice and Others could be.  Was she walking into danger?

Verona had given her the rundown from her brief experience with various minor lords and powers that had sway around Kennet.  Some only had small towns of fifty people, but they had say.  Many were beholden to other nearby towns and cities.  Thunder Bay being a prominent one, but fake London, Waterloo, and Toronto were others.  Like medieval vassals.

“You have a good afternoon?” Avery asked.

“Didn’t sleep a wink, no way to break in and steal snacks.”

“Sheridan will get blamed for pigging out.”

“That’s a shame.”

Avery smiled.

“You?” Snowdrop asked.

“Might have a team.”

“Awful, you’ll hate that.”

“Yeah.  We’ll see, I guess.  It’s all for nothing if there’s a problem tonight and we get kicked out.”

“Sure glad we don’t have Miss or anyone telling us to do this, do that, ooh, be careful, that might upset the Lord.”

“I hear you, Snow.”

They walked toward the water.  Avery’s bracelet clicked, and she saw the Other with the glowing eyes again.

As they got closer to the water, streetlights went out.

Most streetlights went out.  As they flickered back on, Avery waited for a few stray cars to pass, then hurried across the road, toward the lights that had remained on.

She got there, and the lights flicked off again.

Another remained on in the distance.

“Feels like a Path,” she told Snowdrop.

“I’d bet it’s as dangerous as one.  Mostly.”

Avery nodded.

The lights led them to a little marina.  Avery had to work to find a way in that didn’t mean trespassing.  There was a little walkway stretching across the watery part of the property, where bikers and people walking could cross without having to circle past a parking lot.  It looked like it folded up for the boats in the marina to exit.

The lights went out again.  The moon glowed bright, and when Avery turned, it was dark.

She ventured onto the rocks at the water’s edge.  As she got closer to the water, the ripples on the surface made the moon refract, cast out in three or four iterations.

It reminded her a little bit of the Choir, but that had been chaotic.  This was like… glowing lily pads.

She held onto Snowdrop’s hand, sticking a toe down, and felt something solid.

“I wonder if she’s a prankster?” Avery asked.  She helped steady Snowdrop as Snowdrop hopped down from the rock, onto the spot where the circle of the moon was reflected on the lapping water.  It sloshed over Avery’s running shoes.  “This would be a good prank, pulling the rug out from under us, letting us get doused.”

“I’d love that.  On a cold night like tonight?” Snowdrop replied.

Avery got her bag, handed it to Snowdrop, and pulled out her mask and cape.  She didn’t wear the mask, but set it over one shoulder, the ribbon at its most extreme.  Cape on, hat on but strung around her neck.  She put the little broken antler at one corner of her forehead, where it floated in place.

They hopped from one glowing disc on the water’s surface to another, out about a hundred feet past the shoreline.

On the last step, as they reached the end, it gave way.  Water rushed out and up on either side of them, and they plunged in.

They barely got wet.  They went down, balanced on a reflection of the moon, descending into deep water.

The walls of water on all sides of them went out, reshaping into tendrils and other shapes that meant they didn’t hit the people who were standing there.  They solidified into walls of parted water forming a loose dome shape, with a window at the top for the moon to shine through.

Leaving Avery with the feeling that if the Lord so chose, she could stop holding back the water and let it all crash in.  At which point most of those present would drown.

Light from the moon bounced down and reflected, casting everything in a gentle glow.  Avery could see about seven figures, plus the Lord, a ten foot tall woman with long limbs that bowed and bent.  Where forearms rested on her legs, they bent into arcs, the slender, transparent gray-skinned hands limp.  Water flowed from the top of her head down, forming hair and dress.  Her face looked like a mask, eyes glowing the mottled blue of the water on a summer day.

“Lord of Thunder Bay, I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” Avery greeted herself.  “Thank you for your audience.”

The Lord didn’t move or speak.  Was it a trick?

She glanced around and saw that there were two Others- one she hadn’t seen before and the one with glowing eyes was entering the ‘room’.  A man with glossy black brimmed hat and coat, the glowing eyes the only part of him that weren’t as black as black got.

The other four were practitioners.  Distinct practitioners- none looked like they obviously belonged to the same family or practice.

Eight in total if she counted the Lord.

She hated public speaking.  She really did.

She’d been told what to say.  She hoped she wouldn’t mess it up.

“I’m Avery Kelly, Wild practitioner, I’m told the title of Path Runner is more accurate than Finder when it comes to me, but I’ve been called both.  I come in peace, to live here if you’re so gracious.  I intend to cooperate, as much as is reasonable, and to those ends, I bring gifts.”

“Plural?”

That was Deb, with the rasping voice.  The Storm Chaser.

“Plural.  If I may?” Avery asked.

The Lord of Thunder Bay extended a hand, palm out and up.

Avery reached into her bag, nervous as heck.

“An elemental weapon, I’ll leave it to you to unwrap, so I’m not bearing any weapon against you,” Avery said, taking the Dropped Knife she’d wrapped in a silk scarf her mom hadn’t wanted anymore.

The elemental pulled her hand back.

Avery paused, unsure.

“Is… something wrong?” Avery asked.

“Do you have a coin?” a man asked.  “It can be a penny.”

Avery hesitated, then went into her bag.  She dug in and found the two coins she’d brought to the awakening ritual.  The Hudson’s Bay Company coin they’d actually used, and a silver dollar.

She wasn’t done with the other coin.  It represented things still unresolved.

“Put it in with the knife.”

Avery did.  As she did, the elemental extended her hand once more.  Avery placed the gift inside.

“And wait.”

Water swirled and sloshed.  The scarf was unwrapped and set aside.  The coin was tossed into the air, flipping and glinting.  Avery caught it, and froze post-catch.

“Do I have to give the coin with each gift?” she asked.

“It’s a belief that if you give a knife as a gift, you threaten to sever a friendship or alliance,” the man said.

“I never heard of that.”

“That’s good.  If you had and you did that intentionally, it would be a bad sign.  Carry on.”

The Escape Key.  They’d only used it once, and only as a trap.  It was inside a case.

“An elemental key, it’s dangerous to use but I know you have people who can manipulate elements in your service.  My second gift.”

She place it in the elemental Lord’s waiting hand.

A third hand extended from her liquid mass, gray-skinned and cracked, water swirling and foaming beneath the smokey, hard surface.

“And a goblin matchbook.  It’s powerful, I know it’s of fire when you’re of water, but we thought a trifecta of elemental gifts might suit.  I can explain what they do if you wish.”

“Who is we?” Ann asked.  Ann Wint, Destroyer.

“I’m one of three.  We awoke together, wearing our regalia.  We extend these gifts to you in hopes of hospitality.  I represent my friends and my friends represent me, and we hope that if they ever visit, any clout, credit, or hospitality given to me will be extended to them.”

“Any offense,” an old man said, from the sidelines, voice rough and nasal, “as well.”

Avery shivered slightly.  “Of course.”

The lord took the matchbox, closing the hand around it.  All three gifts were taken and placed on a rock to her right.

Gifts accepted?  Good sign.

The elemental turned to her right.  Just past the rocks was Deb Cloutier.  Storm Chaser.

“Deb Cloutier, Storm Chaser.  I serve this council as Lord when our Lord is unable or otherwise occupied, which is admittedly rare.  We have been informed you are of Kennet.”

“That is correct.  I’m a protector of Kennet, a representative of it.”

“Why aren’t you protecting this place you’re a protector of?” Deb asked her, voice strained.

“It’s knotting.  And quickly.  Family circumstance had me planning to leave beforehand, then Charles- the Carmine Exile took the throne, we decided it was best I was gone, protecting it from afar.  Ready to move in from the flanks.  Even before the awakening, we were told we could live elsewhere, so long as we came back from time to time.”

“In which case you could take our secrets back there with you,” Deb told her.

“I have no intention of doing so.  If need be, I could swear oaths or leave, if a secret is that important.”

“So you have no intention of being a wholehearted member of this council?”

“I- you’ll have my help if you need it and it doesn’t conflict with my duties.  But I have no interest in drama, or secrets, or anything like that.  I just want to stay with my family and keep the peace, make allies while making as few enemies as possible.”

“Right now we have an influx of practitioners who are seeking refuge in our Lord’s reach.  We’ve refused all,” Deb said.

Avery swallowed.

“Do you expect us to take you in, when you come from the same place that the current chaos started from?”

“Ma’am,” Avery answered, a little caught off guard.  Her hand shook, and Snowdrop grabbed it, holding it.  “We fought really hard to try to stop it.  We lost friends.  I don’t think the chaos followed me, it just… bled out everywhere.”

“I cede the floor,” Deb said, stepping back a fraction.

The man to her right stepped forward a bit.

Oh, shit on me, are they all grilling me one at a time?

“Florin Pesch,” the man who’d advised her about the coin said.  He had a light sweater on, dark blue, with white pants and sandals, like he was ready to be on a boat.  His blond hair looked like he used a stylist.  Avery felt underdressed in this moment.  “Puppeteer.”

“Like a Dollmaker?”

“No.  Who are your enemies?”

“I’m… not a fan of the current holder of the Carmine throne, or those who put him there.  Those include the Dark Fall Fae Maricica, one of my former patrons, Edith James, and the City Spirit usurper of Kennet, Lis.  Abraham Musser opposed us and fought us we tried to stop the chaos and we parted ways without fighting, after.  I think he’s leaving us alone if we leave him alone.”

“Abraham Musser is a friend of mine,” Florin Pesch told her.

Shit.  “Okay.”

“Who else?”

“A goblin princess took issue with me and my friends.  We fought Witch Hunters.  A body snatching watch named Bridge is currently in custody of an Other we know… we’ve offered freedom if terms are met and he refused.”

“We don’t want your trouble on our doorsteps,” Florin said.

“I don’t think any of them would come here to strike at me directly, and not in a way that hurt you, except for the goblin princess, and I’ll be told in advance if she decides to come after me.  I can try to leave and intercept her so the fight doesn’t happen in Thunder Bay.”

“Your allies?”

“My patrons, a council of Others.  With the state of Kennet, I’m told that’s no longer secret.  A Lost, an enclave of goblins, a hostbound, a swordsman now of the winter fae, a nightmare, two ghouls, a plicate spirit, a god-begotten, an Oni, an alchemical construct, and a living cigarette.  I have practitioner contacts that include a technomancer, augur, enchantress, an ex-host, a goblin princess, sister to the one I mentioned before, an emotion manipulator, an amateur collector, and a family of Finders.  There are also-”

“That grouping reminds me of some Blue Heron students.”

“Yes.”

“Were you involved in the crisis there in the summer?  Where two competing headmasters did not survive?”

“Yes,” Avery replied, heart sinking.

“Carry on.”

“I’m interested in hearing more about that,” Ann Wint interrupted.

“I have the floor, and I told you some of that.  You said it was dull.”

“Dull and irrelevant at the time.  It’s relevant now.”

“I’ll tell you after.  Any of you.  Now, may I have the floor?”

The Lord extended a hand.

“Avery?” Florin asked.

“Hmm?” Avery asked.

“Carry on.  There are also?”

Avery drew a complete mental blank for what felt like ten seconds but was probably closer to five.  Being interrupted and on the spot were a bad combination.  “There are also several Aware among my allies…”

Snowdrop squeezed her hand.

“…my Familiar, of course, and a collection of innocents that include family.”

“A good thing your familiar is your ally.  What a terrible thing it would be if it weren’t,” Florin said.

“She, and yes.”

“Will any of the patron Others you named come to offer assistance or support to Thunder Bay in times of crisis?”

“I could see a situation where they came to help me, but no, not exactly.”

“Then if we discount the Others who are not likely to come to aid us, what allies do you bring to this council?  I could reach out to Abraham Musser and have him send students if we needed those specific talents.”

“I think the technomancer and host might be leaving soon… and I’m not actually sure Musser will be in charge that much longer?”

“Oh?” Florin asked.

“I mean, I heard it’s pretty bad there.  They can’t do a lordship contest without inviting an awful lot of people in, and without the protection of lordship, it’s a mess.  Students getting gainsaid.”

“Can confirm,” a woman behind Avery said.  She looked familiar.

A student’s parent?

Florin folded his arms, taking a few seconds to think, then raised a hand, still holding that elbow, gesturing.  “Cede.”

The next was the old man with the nasal voice.

“Odis Saulsbury.  Blackforest Trapper.  If you were accepted into Thunder Bay for any length of time, we would expect you to participate in council meetings like this.  There are twelve families or individuals.  We also have four Others who appear sometimes, making sixteen in total.  You would be the seventeenth.  We try to aim for six to eight council members on nights of less important matters, but we’ll have all sixteen representatives attend for questions of war and circumstances affecting the entire city.  Individuals or representatives sent from each of the seventeen.”

“The Lord always attends,” Deb the Storm Chaser told Avery.

“I think I follow,” Avery said.

“I definitely do,” Snowdrop added, quiet.

“On another night, you might be signaled to attend as a council member.  You would be expected to stand where one of us stands now, and ask questions of an applicant, eager or desperate to move into Thunder Bay.  What would you ask, if you were as aware as I am that you’re being judged for the question as much as the applicant is for the answer?”

“What would I ask an applicant?  It would depend on the applicant, but I’d want to know how they treat Others and how they or their family deals with others.  It’s not just people from outside you have to worry about.  Sometimes your own family can be a problem.  Or people in your town, or at your school.  Mr… Pesch?”

She got a nod.

“Mr. Pesch asked about the school and mentioned the problems there and that’s a pretty good group.  I’d want to make sure we can work together with them, and that they can work together with Others.  So I’d tweak the questions but I’d ask about that.”

“Then I’ll turn it around on you.  How many Others have you hurt?”

“That’s- I don’t know.  I couldn’t give you a hard count.  A bunch.  But always or almost always when others are put at risk, or to carry out duties.”

“How many practitioners have you hurt?”

“A bunch, again, but again, they were threatening me, things I cared about, or I had to, to carry out duties.  I don’t like hurting people.”

“I’ve asked my question.  I cede.”

Bringing her to the first of the two Others.

The figure, which appeared to be a human-shaped silhouette, stepped forward, and as it did, it became clear that the silhouette was almost all of what it was.  It looked like a three-dimensional pencil-scribbling –violent pencil scribbling- of a person in a rabbit costume, but the face wasn’t filled in, making it look like a wide open mouth.

“Ashumare Ashumare,” Its voice was musical, but in a way like it was run through a program to sound that way, everything smoothed out.  It waved its arms a bit in time with words, “fuzzy to hug and sweet to hear, yet I get blamed for things little girls and boys do.  Do you see me?”

Avery started to answer, and Snowdrop squeezed her hand.

She used her Opossum sight, seeing as Lost could.

She saw an arrangement of very small bones, loosely collected together in the shape of adult bones- three broken skulls pressed in together for the upper skull, forearm bones for the rabbit ears, two jaws, each rib was three or four smaller ribs lashed together.

She used her regular Sight, and the black handprints meshed in so close together that the figure really did look like a person wearing a black-furred rabbit costume, with a gentle face and eyes that were only mist.

“Ashumare Ashumare,” the figure intoned, voice musical.  The lip movements didn’t sync up with the voice.

She dropped her Sight.

“Is it safe to answer?” Avery asked, over her shoulder.  She was asking Florin, Deb, and the Lord.

“Yes,” Florin said.

“I see you, Ashumare Ashumare,” Avery said, certain Verona would be way better at this.

Ashumare dropped their arms to their sides.  They were still but the violent pencil scribblings weren’t.  They spoke, still musical.  “Abraham with the cracked glasses has a friend who isn’t his, a guide to spirits, painted in pretty colors.  Ashumare Ashumare, say what she looks like.”

Abraham?  Musser?

Avery thought through the familiars she’d seen.

There was one Lucy had remarked on.  That John had described as old and scary?

“A pretty lady… painted in pretty colors, like you describe.”

“Ashumare, Ashumare, all played out.”

“Pesch?” Ann Wint the Destroyer asked.  “Explain.”

“Musser stole a Daena familiar.  A Zoroastrian psychopomp.  When seen by wrongdoers and murderers, she appears ugly, and she condemns them to eternal wandering.  Others she guides as a psychopomp will.”

“Bit crude,” Ann Wint said.  “I don’t like black and white tests of character.”

“It’s better than most of Ashumare Ashumare’s contributions,” the one practitioner who looked familiar said, a bit sour.

“Speaking of, Ashumare Ashumare ceded.  Your turn.”

This did not feel like it was going super well.  She’d given one answer that she felt was good, answering Ashumare’s in a way that pegged her as ‘good’, but one of the practitioners sounded not that impressed.  The rest of her answers felt like they weren’t really satisfying to this group.

Why aren’t you protecting the place you’re supposed to be protecting?  Reasons.
Will you become a wholehearted member?  No, she couldn’t.
Will you keep our secrets?  She couldn’t make guarantees.
Who are your enemies?  Got a bunch of those.
Who are your friends?  Got those too, worked hard at that, but apparently it doesn’t count.
What Others and Practitioners have you hurt?  Lost count, but I feel bad about it.
Then Ashumare.  Apparently seeing a pretty lady was a mark in the plus column.

The woman who looked familiar stepped forward.  “Nicole Scobie.  Elementalist of receding frost.  You were at the school at the same time my daughter was.  Did my daughter seem well?”

“As well as anyone.  It was pretty stressful, earlier this summer.  I saw her go swimming a lot.  She seemed happy, healthy, nothing amiss that I remember.”

“I liked her familiar,” Snowdrop said.  “Cuddly.”

“Was she with any boys?” Nicole asked.

“I… don’t feel comfortable answering that question.”

“Even knowing it may affect my feelings on you entering, and our relationship going forward?”

Avery thought for a second.  “I think establishing myself as a person willing to narc would hurt my standing here more than anything.  I said I wasn’t interested in secrets or drama.”

“So she was with boys?”

“I would have used that same general phrasing if she had been, and if she hadn’t been.  It was intended to be read as one or the other, and should be read that way.”

“I cede the floor.”

“Not very productive,” Ann Wint said.

“I went above and beyond last year, don’t get on my case if I shift my focus inward a bit this year.”

“You can only stretch that so far.”

“Are you questioning me or are you questioning her?”

Ann frowned.  “Ann Wint, already introduced.  Destroyer, Chainer, and enforcer for this council.  For matters too petty for our Lord, but too serious for most of our council, I handle them.  I consign by Abyss and I consign by Ruin, and I wield those selfsame realms as tools against the enemies of our city.”

“Okie doke,” Avery replied.

“Earlier you stated you have no interest in drama.  Yet you seeded drama when you mentioned Musser’s school failing.”

“I only provided information.  I was told to be honest.”

“You said you had no interest in secrets, but you hold Natascha Scobie’s dalliances close to the chest.”

“Dalliances or lack thereof, I neither confirm nor deny,” Avery said.  “Because that’d be a bitch of a thing to do, and just to be clear, I don’t know you, Nicole Scobie, ma’am, but I know some real shady practitioner parents and honestly, your daughter never bothered me, she seemed nice enough, as far as I know, if I give the wrong answer she gets beat up, or thrown into eternal void or something, this is just me trying to be cool to her.”

“You’re addressing Ann Wint, not me.”

“Just trying to be clear & cool,” Avery said, raising her hands.

Nicole Scobie the Elementalist didn’t exactly seem impressed.

Shit.

“You maintain a secret, despite your apparent lack of interest.”

“No, that’s a misreading of what I said.  I didn’t say I wouldn’t ever keep a secret.  I said I have no interest.  I won’t share or divulge them, I won’t abuse them, I don’t want to stir up anything bad.”

“If you value fidelity so much, I’d ask what it would take for you to betray the Others you call patrons and allies?”

“I…” Avery shook her head.  “Kind of already have.  For a certain meaning of betray.  They acted against their own professed values and mine, as I see it.  They became dangerous.”

“And what would it take for you to betray the other two practitioners you awoke with?”

“They’d have to betray what they stand for and what I stand for.”

“With all these friends and allies, two practitioners you awoke with, if the bonds are so strong, the bar for betrayal set so high, whyever would you leave them all?  The real answer.”

“I didn’t leave them all.  I have Snowdrop,” Avery said.

“Ugh,” Snowdrop muttered.  “Gross.”

“The rest, then.  Why leave them?”

“Family?” Avery asked, shrugging, uncomfortable.  She glanced at Nicole Scobie.

“To go to, or to leave?”

“Yes?  Both, one or the other.  Depends on the moment, how I’m feeling about it all.  But it made strategic sense too.”

“I cede.”

Leaving the last one.

The one who had been following Avery for most of the afternoon.  With glowing eyes when the rest of him looked like wet black ink.

He raised a hand, pointing.

At Snowdrop.

“Uhhh… Bye.”

“Stay,” Deb the Storm Chaser ordered.

Avery cleared her throat.  “I should make it clear at this point, Snowdrop is actually-”

The man with glowing eyes pressed a finger to his lips.

“I’d listen,” Florin said.  “He’s tichy.”

“Gilkey,” the Other introduced himself.  “Distillation.  Errand runner, spy.  I would ask the familiar my questions.”

“You’re shit outta luck,” Snowdrop said.

“Those words may cut both ways.”

“I want to cut everyone here,” Snowdrop declared, hairs on her head standing up away from the scalp as she bristled from nervousness.  “I’m not cooperating!”

Avery put her hand over her face, hoping that gesture helped convey the situation.

“All I ask is that you tell us about your master-familiar relationship.”

“She’s the worst!  She’s actually a serial murderer, she hurts people all the time, she came here to hurt you!  She’s an ambassador of war!”

“Snowdrop…” Avery groaned.

“Quiet,” Gilkey said.

Stop.

Snowdrop stopped, bristling, all nervous energy in a way that could have been read as aggression.

“Keep going,” Gilkey told her.  “It’s clear you have more to say.”

Guess you have to, Avery thought, giving Snowdrop a resigned signal.  Don’t get us killed, please.

“She starves me!  And never shows affection!  She never let me see the other Lost I wanted to see, when it came to the familiar ritual!  I didn’t even want to go with her when I could have stayed in Kennet!  When I was called to the path, she was going to sacrifice me, she almost went through with it!  But then the Wolf came, and she scared the pants off of him!  She’s a nightmare!  She tried so hard to destroy Kennet and help the guy that’s causing this whole mess!  So hard!”

Avery put up her hand like she was in class, waiting.

“She’ll kill you all!  She’ll upend your city!  She doesn’t want to help!  This is all a trick!”

“Answer enough,” Ann Wint said.

Florin Pesch the Puppeteer laughed.  Others seemed startled.

Avery cleared her thought, hand still raised.

“What is this pain in the ass, awful familiar?” Florin asked.

“Snowdrop’s great.  She just has a peculiar rule of discourse,” Avery said.

“She’s lying.  Don’t believe her.”

“Snowdrop,” Florin said.  “Could you fight and kill our Lord?”

“Could and would,” Snowdrop said, turning to him.

“I vote no,” Ann Wint the Destroyer declared.

“I haven’t ceded,” Gilkey told her.

“I still vote no.”

“No,” Nicole Scobie the Elementalist added her voice to the group.

“No,” Deb Cloutier the Storm Chaser decided.

“Yes, I think we all need a good laugh sometimes,” Florin said.  “She seems genuine.”

“Ashumare Ashumare, from sky to grass, yes!”

“No,” Odis Saulsbury the Blackforest Trapper said.  “I prefer a blanket policy of hard no until the ambient chaos stops.  We invite one in, we invite others in.”

“Yes,” Gilkey said.  “Assuming I understand the familiar right.”

Three yes, four no?

Avery’s heart sank.

What happened in a tie?

She looked at the Lord.

“The Lord doesn’t vote,” Deb said.  “And you need a majority.”

Avery swallowed, digesting that.

But the Lord moved, picking up the first gift.  The knife.  It was placed on the ground in front of Odis, along with a silvery coin.

In front of Nicole Scobie, the matchbook.

In front of Deb the Storm Chaser, the key.

“I know what Deborah is going to do, now,” Florin said, smiling.

“Do you?” Deborah asked.  “I’m not committed to my vote.  If the gifts trickle down to the council, I’ll take it with reservations.  Make it probationary.  She has to help.”

“Yeah, fine,” Nicole said.

Odis picked up the knife.

Then Odis walked into the wall of water.

Nicole followed.

“I don’t… understand?” Avery asked.

“You’re in.  More for the gifts, being genuine counts for something too.  I’ll give you the rundown after.  I’ll be on the shore.”

“Don’t give that man too much of your time,” Deb said.

Deb walked into the water, out of sight.  So did the others, in turn.

“Ashumare Ashumare, another day.”

“Another day, Ashumare Ashumare,” Avery said.

Gilkey remained.

“Speaking is hard,” the Lord told Avery.  Her voice came more from the walls than the gray-skinned giantess’ body.

Avery nodded.

“Attend when signaled.  On occasion, there will be duties.”

“Can I ask, um… sorry.  Gilkey, are you an assassin?  Or a fighter?”

“No.  I watch, I bring messages.”

“Can I… help with that?” Avery asked the Lord.  “I’ve done a lot of surveillance, I’ve protected a perimeter, I have the tools, I’m fast, I can run messages.  Not- I’m not trying to take your spot, Gilkey.”

“It’s fine.  But I’m an Other, Avery Kelly.”

“I’m okay getting the same responsibilities.  I’m not trying to grow a practitioner family or anything.  I just… want to keep the peace, keep people safe, go to school, look after family stuff and friends, maybe join a sports team.”

“Then I will signal,” the Lord said.

“Is that a yes?”

“It’s a yes,” Gilkey said, before the walls of water collapsed.

Avery was washed out and away, forced toward shore.  The heels of her running shoes skidded on silty mud as she stumbled onto shore.  When water pulled away, it left her dry.

“Wah,” Snowdrop exclaimed, as the same water deposited her on the shore.

“I think you won her over with those gifts,” Florin said.

“That’s great.”

“Betting the big dogs on the block aren’t that keen.”

“Big dogs?” Avery asked, feeling a little weirded out to be standing in the dark with a strange and vaguely intimidating guy, even if they guy was one of the friendlier and more helpful faces she’d seen tonight.

“Deb thinks of herself as the Lord’s right hand woman.  I suspect anyone who attends the meetings who doesn’t call her a suck up behind her back is thinking it.  Or will, given time,” he said, indicating Avery.

“I’m not sure-”

“And Ann Wint is the heavy hitter.  The school bully, graduated to top of the council.  Then you’ve got Odis the gingerbread witch…”

“I’m really not sure I want gossip.  Sorry.  I’m not trying to get into the local politics or anything.  I want to exist in peace.  If they don’t like me, I’ll try to prove my worth to them.”

“Hmmm,” he mused aloud.  Then he flashed a smile with teeth so white they looked fake.  “I think I see why Abraham Musser and you ended up at odds.  That’s fine.  I look forward to our continued association.”

“Same.  Thanks for the tips about the knife and the yes vote.”

He walked off.  Avery turned to the water, rubbing her arms.  She felt like she should be drying off even though she didn’t have a droplet of moisture on her.

Snowdrop stood beside her.  Avery hugged her friend, tight, rocking her side to side, aggressive, growling a bit, before mock-strangling her too.

“I did nothing wrong!”

Avery relented.  “We need to work out a system, that’s all.”

“I locked that crap down, super serious.”

“You did.  Broke the ice, I guess.  We still need to work out a system.”

“Lies.”

“Come on,” Avery grunted, getting to her feet.

“I have no idea what system we could use.  but I can tell you it doesn’t involve fire or rusty forks.”

My system is I try to get some sleep before my first day of school tomorrow, get a snack or two in you, you can stick close to the apartment tonight, maybe hang on the patio, steal some of my comics.  Or snuggle with me.”

“I like my plan better.”

Avery messed up Snowdrop’s hair a bit, then put an arm around her shoulders.

“Let’s go,” Avery said.  It felt weird, leaving that sentence as it was.  Unfinished.

She forced her way past the weirdness, trying to adapt to the new normal.  A normal after deaths.  A normal after moves.  A normal of friendships strained by distance, now.  Strained by a very scary outside world, where she wasn’t sure what was going to unfold with a new Carmine holding sway over practice in those places where Lords didn’t yet have a say.

“Let’s go home,” she clarified.


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Summer Break

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter


Lucy

Lucy’s phone rang.  Her shaking hands nearly dropped it as she lifted it to her ear, holding it two-handed to keep it in place.  An ugly, empty feeling swelled in the middle of her chest, preparing her for the worst.

“Nicolette?”

“No word on your mom.  Phones are working again.  Avery dashed off.  Why did she go?  Fill me in.”

“A bird.  It stole Yalda’s ring.  John needs it, or-”

“Yalda?  From the Choir?”

“Yes.  They unbound the Choir from Brie.  Charles is inside.  We can’t go, not um- without getting pulled into the contest.”

“Is she okay?”

“Some-” Lucy paused, not wanting to lie, especially when she knew she wasn’t at her best.  “Some blood loss.  Zed’s got her.”

“What can I do that helps the most?”

“The bird,” Lucy said.  “We’ve gotta- we can’t let Charles have a claim to the Choir.  If we get the ring to John-”

“Careful,” Toadswallow interjected.  “Witch Hunter got turned to coinage, just by that hole in the wall.  I think that’s something like the Brownies at the school.  Looked when we all know we shouldn’t.  I think they’ve made it clear, interfering from the outside will be punished.”

Lucy looked and saw a black stain on the crack in the wall.  She frowned as she saw it swirl and move.

“What is that?”

“Smoke,” Toadswallow told them.  “Compressed.”

“Lucy, Lucy-!” Nicolette raised her voice.

Verona hurried over and pressed her ear in close to Lucy’s, sharing the phone.

“-I need more.”

“About the bird?” Lucy asked.

“Ephemeral,” Verona cut in.  “Faerie beast bird, stole a ring inscribed with Songbird, on a- I think it’s a metal bead necklace.”

“On it.  Chase is better at this sort of thing.  Going to see if I can barter.  Hanging up.”

“Luck,” Lucy breathed the word.  Nicolette hung up partway through it.  “Guilherme!  That glass glamour compass you gave Verona.  Is it three uses total, ever, or is it three uses by each user?”

Guilherme made himself sit up.  He was slumped against the building, nonlethal wounds at one arm and his calf staunched by leaves and moss.  “Both.  You can’t cheat it by handing it to everyone here for one use each.  But primarily, it’s by each user, but I would be careful.  You’re a trio, you’re linked.”

“I think if we were more linked, we would’ve done better,” Verona said, looking at Lucy.  “Can we use it?”

“Once.  Twice would be a risk.  Thrice a certainty.”

Verona drew the glass from her pocket and gave it to Lucy.

Lucy held it up, and squinted as the lights shining through flared.  Maricica’s recent presence had laced the area.  Verona practically glowed, and Lucy had traces on her too.  She turned, refocusing the light, and found the thread of the bird, a thin tracing of amber cutting through the treeline.

“That’s our starting point!  Go, go!”

“There’s music!” Zed called out.

They paused just as they were about to run off.

“John gave Brie some music.  We can use that for claim, right?”

“Two things,” Toadswallow said, toddling over.  “There’s restrictions on interference, and that smoke’s an issue.”

“Got you,” Verona said.  She opened her bag, reaching inside.  She checked the labels on two jars she had with her.

She seems so calmI’m freaking out and she’s just the same as usual.

Verona passed Toadswallow a jug.  “Vaccuums up smoke.  Made something like it for Cig.”

“That gets the hole open.”

“We can play the sound, right?” Zed asked.  “If we make it loud, but it’s not direct interference, not using the crack, just…”

“Try it, please,” Lucy said.

“Which do you want me to-” Zed started.  A nearly-passed-out Brie squeezed his arm.  “I’ll figure it out.”

Verona ducked down, getting hands dusty on the road.

“You’re using glamour?” Lucy asked.

“I think she knows if she’s still around, we’re going to demolish her.  We need to move fast.”

Lucy hesitated, then nodded.

They became birds and took flight, in the direction the bird had gone.


Black, Explosives!
Ribs!  We need more fire!
Horseman, Angel!  With me!  All we need is one bullet in that asshole!


Jasmine

“I feel like I’ve been talking about myself too much,” Jasmine admitted.

“That’s on purpose.  For one thing, I’m interested.”

“That goes both ways.  I’m interested in you.”

“That’s the other thing.  First thing, I am interested in you.  Second is that I work hard to cultivate a facade.  If I start talking too much about myself, I might let the mask slip.”

“I’m not sure I like the idea that I’m talking to a mask.”

“Aren’t we all?  Every single one of us pretending on some level?  Wearing masks and talking to masks?”

“That’s cynical.”

“And my mask slips a bit.”

“Hmm.”

Steven sighed.  “I’ve been on a few dates, I don’t know if you’ve run into this-”

“I barely date.”

“-the baggage talk?  That part of a first date where you say, we’re in our late thirties, early forties?  You know what I’m talking about?”

“No comment on the age front.”

“That right there’s a mask you know,” he said, with a one-note chuckle.  She smiled and ducked her head in a bit of an acknowledgement.  “But when you hit a certain age, you don’t want to waste time, you know who you are and you know what your limits are.  Some women don’t want to move on to a second date with the clock ticking.”

“I haven’t had those talks, and I’m glad.  Is this what’s waiting for me as I start dating again?”

He laughed.  “Nearly everyone at our age is divorced, or they have one, two, or three children.  The crazy ex, the medical condition, the need for an open relationship, the hard no on open relationships, being trans, any number of other things.  Some dealbreakers, or complications, or things that need to be disclosed.”

“Do you date a lot, Steven?”

“I do.  I travel a lot, which gives me opportunities, and people interest me more than any television show or movie.  There’s my big disclosure.  I go on a date or two every weekend, couple during the week if I can manage it, rarely with the same woman for more than two months.  Is that a dealbreaker for you?”

“No.  There might be questions I’d ask about that if-  no.  But I think we might be more different as people than you were hinting at earlier tonight.  Family’s important to me-”

He sniffed, like he’d found something funny.

“What?”

“Nothing.  I’ve loved hearing about your children.  Vicarious enjoyment.  But yeah.  Family’s a safe bet, I think we’re different there.”

“Do you play up the mysterious thing on purpose, or is it-?” she paused.

“Necessity,” he finished the sentence.

“Not the word I expected.”

“I brought up the baggage because I’m leaving tomorrow- later today, as a matter of fact.”

“Is it that late already?”

“We could talk it out, bring things up, break them down.  Lay out the baggage, have a heart-to-heart.  I’m okay with that, Jasmine.  But it’s just as nice, I think, if we enjoy the night, enjoy each other’s company.  Go our separate ways- or I go, you stay.  Let the mystery linger, an almost perfect evening.  It’s your choice.”

She didn’t give her answer right away.

They walked around the large pond on the property.  Trails led way to parkland and threaded into hills.  Some lanterns by the path provided scant light, but mostly it was the moon.  Kennet was visible in the distance.  Other couples were taking some time on their own, and a healthy respect for privacy meant they walked very slowly, so they wouldn’t walk up to anyone or intrude, and they walked a winding route, circling around those stationary couples and groups of men with beer bottles that were standing or sitting by the pond’s edge.

She remembered how upset Lucy had sounded on the phone.  As they reached a spot where the moon shone on the water and the resulting light wasn’t blocked by reeds or fence, she glanced over at Steven.  He had an unusual but strong jawline that drew the eye, long eyelashes, and long hair tied back into a partial ponytail.  He was tanned, with light blue eyes that stood out in the gloom, wearing a suit with a button-up and no tie.  The light blue of the button-up complemented his skin and eyes.  The scent he wore had cedarwood in it.  It smelled nice enough she’d unconsciously leaned in toward him, earlier.  She’d caught herself before overstepping.

It made her feel like she was in high school again.  Attraction pulled her in, but doubts and uncertainties made her feel anxious about what happened if she followed her heart in that respect.  Lucy’s face and the sound of her anxiousness lingered in her mind’s eye, and that hadn’t been a factor in high school.  A sense of responsibility to someone else.

“I think…” she trailed off.

He looked at her.

“…I think you talked about wearing a mask and I’m worried about what’s beneath.  A nice night with no baggage sounds tempting, but I really do think that when someone tells you who they are, it’s important to listen.  It’s something I’ve tried to impart on Booker on Lucy.”

“You want to know?”

She nodded.

“My father was like frost.  Cold, there in the mornings and late at night, not there at all in the warmer times.  Fragile, attractive.  My mother was more… vines.  Flowers, ensnaring, choking, creeping in.  Frost and vines don’t coexist well, even if they share a lot in common.  What helps one grow and reach out kills the other.”

“Very poetic.  And worrying.”

“I’ve thought about it enough I think it would count against me if I couldn’t find the poetry in it.  I had to exist in the middle of that.  Bound in my mother’s expectations, my father a fleeting, bewildering presence at the edges of my life.  If I tried to reach out for what any kid would want, it’d either be such coldness it hurt, or I’d find the thorns.”

“I’m sorry, Steven.”

“I am too.”

Jasmine wondered if the serial dating tied into that kind of childhood.

“Were they wealthy?”

“She was.  He was… talented.  Resourceful.  And handsome enough nobody questioned why she was dating him.  They saved the questions for after they were married.  I think you would’ve struggled to find one person who could find one point of compatibility.”

“Hard for a child.  Heartbreaking.”

“I played along.  Got away, reinvented myself.”

“Went to med school?  Did getting away mean you did it on your own?”

“Yup.  I got my credentials myself.  Found the right people, really helped.  What about you?  Nursing?  Parents?”

“My mom was a nurse.  I was just at the cusp of that era, they were telling us we could be anything, but if you asked my parents, they didn’t really mean it.  A woman could be a teacher or a nurse.  My parents were terrors.  Bad grade, out past curfew?  Bend me over the knee and give me a whupping.  I guess I didn’t want to test things, so I took my mom’s cue.  It helped me get away, I met the man who’d be my husband, delayed the last part of nursing school to raise the kids, and then my husband passed.”

“Can I ask how?”

“Hepatitis, from close work with a coworker who was doing some dirty jobs.  The doctors didn’t listen to him, didn’t see the signs.  Booker found him.”

“I’m sorry.”

“So am I.  Baggage, right?”

“Are you still in contact with your parents?”

“Some.  Phone calls twice a year.  Christmas cards and birthday cards for the kids.  Or Lucy, anyway.  They stopped sending the card to Booker when he turned eighteen.  You?”

“Killed them, weighed them down with rocks, threw them into a quarry.”

Jasmine felt a chill.

She swallowed hard.

“Baggage, am I right?” Steven asked, chuckling.  “I kid, I kid.”

If someone tells you who they are, listen.

“Did the joke not land?” he asked.  “I forget sometimes, working with a lot of the same doctors as I travel, they have dark senses of humor.  They need them.”

I know about gallows humor, Jasmine thought.

Goosebumps prickled her skin, whole-body, as she found herself hyper-aware of the environment.  Steven.

“I’m a bit chilly, and I’m worried about how late it is,” she said.  “Thank you for a nice night, Steven.”

“Don’t go,” he said.

“No need to walk me back.  Enjoy your evening, good luck with your work.”

“I said don’t go.

He grabbed her upper arm.

Strong.

“Let go of me, doctor.”

“There is a woman in the dark over there.  To your left, by the large tree.  I’ve been keeping an eye out, but it’s very clear she’s trying to hide.  And her focus is on you, not me.”

Jasmine looked.

There was a woman.  The woman raised a hand, and it was hard to tell whether she was waving or touching a branch, because of leaves blocking the view.

“Jilted ex?” Jasmine asked, wry.  She didn’t feel wry.  She felt painfully lacking in confidence.  A lot of the people at this event were coworkers, the bulk of them from the evening and night shifts, and as much as Jasmine had tried, there was a bad clique among her fellow nurses that she had found impenetrable.  She’d found a few friends to eat meals with and touch base with when things were thrown out of kilter, but only one of those friends was here and she might have already gone home.

She wasn’t sure she had a lot of allies here, if something happened.

“Have I already become such a bad guy in your eyes?  After a bad joke?” Steven asked.

He hadn’t let go of her arm.

She glanced back at the woman who stood in the trees.  “I’ll take my chances walking back alone.  You stay.”

He didn’t even flinch, didn’t say anything, his expression didn’t change, and neither did his grip.

The light around them was pretty meager.  Who was looking?  Who would see, if something happened?  Who was the last person to see her with Steven?  They’d been hobnobbing earlier, but that was earlier.

It was hard to hold her composure and take stock of everything.  Steven had gathered a lot of attention among the nurses, as they’d fawned over him, even a few married nurses aggressively flirting.  But did they really know him?

He’d come in as a pharmaceuticals rep and lobbyist with a medical degree, paying the local government and hospital for the chance to refresh himself on current procedures and medical practice, so he could make a better sales pitch on behalf of his employer come fall.  Jasmine had been assigned as his guide and someone to sit down and meet with him on the regular and answer questions.  She wasn’t sure if it was because she so fresh off the back of a job which had prompted her to do her own research, which would be nice, being recognized, if it was because the nursing clique was so used to working together that the bosses didn’t want to disrupt their flow, or if they’d wanted her out of the way.

But who, besides her, really knew the details about this guy?  Maybe some of the bosses.

“If you don’t let go, I’m going to raise my voice.”

“I wouldn’t try that, knowing where this could go,” he murmured.

Something in his tone was very convincing.

There was a sound of something scuffing the rocks that helped frame and border the pond.  Jasmine looked, and saw an old woman walking with a cane, straight-backed.  She wore a black dress, which might have been severe, except she also had a purple silk shawl with what looked like a dramatic sunset, soldiers, and other fantastical things on it.  The shawl was extensive, and surrounded shoulders, twisted at one side, and then formed a sash at the waist.  A birdcage pin secured it.

“Mrs. Rook,” Steven said.  “What a pleasure to meet-”

The old woman approached, lifting the cane, and aimed it for the center of his chest.  With the angle she approached, it looked like she might push him into the water.

He let go of Jasmine and caught the cane, his eyebrows raised.

Jasmine thought about running, but with the old woman close, she didn’t want to leave someone else at Steven’s mercy.

Whatever that meant.

“I’m terribly sorry,” Steven told Jasmine.  “Mrs. Rook, ma’am.  It’s late, I forgot myself.”

“Unhand my cane, please?” Mrs. Rook asked.

Reluctantly, he did.

She jabbed him in the chest, driving him back a step.  He dropped about a foot, stepping into the shallow water at the edge of the pond.

He frowned at her.

“My dear, would you walk me back?” Mrs. Rook asked Jasmine.

“I’d love to.  You know each other then?”

“Know of,” Mrs. Rook said, offering her arm.  Jasmine took it, supporting her, even though the woman seemed like she needed even less support than Jasmine did.

“Mrs. Ellingson?” Steven raised his voice a touch.

“Ignore him.  The only power a bully like him has is the power you give him,” Mrs. Rook advised.

“I’m well aware of how bullies act.  Who brought you to this party?”

“A friend.  Someone I knew a long time.  I wouldn’t call it a pre-approved invite.”

“Jasmine,” Steven called out.  “You should know what happens if you walk away here.”

She glanced back over her shoulder.  Mrs. Rook placed a hand over the hand Jasmine was using to hold her arm.

“If we part ways on a poor note, it may reflect poorly on me, but it could easily reflect worse on you.  If I go to them a few hours from now, just before leaving, and let them know the deal is off because the assigned staff weren’t hospitable, what do you think happens?”

“See?  A bully and a coward,” Mrs. Rook said.  “Trust and it should work out.  If it’s so easy to worm out of the contract, then I don’t think he ever intended to pay the hospital.  I know his type.”

“You know a lot about him and what’s happening.”

“Part of my job.”

Steven had to walk around the rocks.  He hurried forward, faster than Jasmine could help the elderly woman walk.

He blocked their path.  As Rook lifted her cane to jab him again, he caught the end.

Security floodlights kicked on.  Jasmine blinked, squinting against the brightness of it.

The sole person in the beam of the floodlights was the woman who’d been watching from the trees.  She walked away, back turned, hands in her pockets.

“I’m sorry!  I think someone flipped the switch I taped down.  The neighbors are going to hate me.  I told them it would be quiet!” the hostess apologized as she hurried down from the porch, around to the side of the building where there were some switches and a boxed in area for hiding garbage cans.

She spotted Steven, who was in the process of releasing the cane, as well as Jasmine and Mrs. Rook.  “Is everything okay?”

The spotlight was literally on them.  People on the porch with drinks and light jazz playing in the background were looking at them.

“I’d like to take a seat, if I could?  I was out for a late night stroll, as I’m never able to properly sleep, I’m a bit worn out.  I hate to intrude, but Mrs…”

“Jasmine.  Jasmine Ellingson.  Registered Nurse.”

“Nurse Ellingson was kind enough to walk with me.  This man here is being obnoxious.”

“Come on up to the porch and sit.  I’m afraid I don’t have much else to offer besides water-”

“Tea, thank you.  Something herbal, non-caffeinated.”

“I’ll see what I can do.  Are you okay, Jasmine?”

“I’m-” Jasmine paused.  She met Steven’s very light blue eyes.

I’m not sure.

“Don’t walk away from me,” Steven whispered.

“Is this what’s behind your mask, Steven?” Jasmine asked.  “Threats?”

“Jasmine?” the hostess asked.

“Excuse me, Steven,” she said, loudly enough that people heard.

Steven stepped back out of the way.

Mrs. Rook, who had just been walking with no difficulty, seemed to feign being older and more off balance than she was as they got to the stairs, leaving Steven behind.

Ida met her at the stairs.  She was indigenous, short, and wide, wearing a beautiful off-the-shoulder dress.  Ida was one of Jasmine’s new work friends, a new mom at forty-three, displaced in more ways than one.  Too old for the various local mom groups, not included into the clique of nurses, Ida lived out of town, spending much of her time doing the cooking and cleaning for an overworked and underpaid husband who tended cabins and did boat repairs for the sort of people who had cabins and boats.  She spent her time split between work in Kennet, her baby and husband, and family on the reserve, and for all her effort she’d had no support, nobody.

Ida had remarked before about how she’d been on the cusp of quitting or snapping at someone she couldn’t afford to when Jasmine had, in Ida’s words, ‘saved her’, by asking her to lunch and giving some mom-to-mom advice.  It was now a regular thing that almost always included a very young nurse who’d been shut out of the clique, and a handful of others.

Whatever Ida had been trying to express, Jasmine suspected the giddy relief and fondness she felt at seeing a friendly and familiar face in a strange and uncomfortable situation resembled Ida’s.

“Be careful,” Mrs. Rook murmured, as Jasmine helped her sit on a bench.  “A man like him strikes me as someone who gets the benefit of a doubt more often than he should.”

“What happened?” Ida whispered.

“He made a joke about killing his parents, I didn’t think it was funny.”

“Very wise,” Mrs. Rook said, both hands on her cane at her eye level.  The way the crowd formed around them, and the way the host looked at her, she seemed very out of place, somehow.

“When I tried to leave he wouldn’t let me.  Grabbed me.”

“Asshole,” Ida murmured.  “I never liked him.  The way the clique glommed onto the man, it rubbed me the wrong way.”

“I liked him,” Jasmine murmured.  “Is Bernice around?”

“Went home.”

That was one friend gone, then.

Steven had followed them up the stairs but had avoided approaching them, taking a hard left on the length of porch that spanned two sides of the very large house.  He walked over to the man who was head of patient care, Jasmine’s boss’s boss, shaking the man’s hand and leaning in to say something.

“If the newbie screwed up that deal, that impacts all of us.  That’s money for the hospital.”

A whisper, past the open door and inside the house.  Jasmine could place the voice as Kaycee Lewis.  One of the clique.

The head of patient care said something to Craig Buchannan, head of nurse management.

“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Rook said.

Kaycee Lewis left the house, seemed startled to see Jasmine as close to the door as she was, pausing for a full second to look at Jasmine and Mrs. Rook, then went to some of her friends and their husbands at the far end of the porch.

Someone was quietly saying something to the hostess.  Jasmine had made a point of keeping track of these things but in her current state, frazzled, tired, she wasn’t positive- Lindsay Lance was wife of Calvin Lance, who was in charge of Support Services, who was both the person Connor Kelly had talked to about hiring Jasmine, and the person who had tasked Jasmine with working with Steven.

Lindsay Lance was hosting this party, and everything had been going great, and now it very much wasn’t.  Someone was talking to the Lances about how it must feel so intrusive to have a guest of the party bring a stranger in without asking in private.  Jasmine wasn’t sure if they were bad at whispering or intending her to hear.  Either way, when Steven passed by, glancing at Jasmine, Calvin Lance stopped him to murmur a quiet apology.

“Who are you?” Jasmine asked the elderly woman.  “Are you a neighbor?”

“Don’t worry.  Don’t concern yourself with me.  Keep your eyes open, be brave.”

Lindsay Lance’s adult daughter brought a cup of tea through, pausing so her mom could say something to her.  She brought it to Mrs. Rook.  “Here you go.  As soon as you’re done and your legs aren’t tired, let us know and I can walk you back home, okay?  Or drive, if you need it?  I think we’re getting ready to wrap it up for the night.”

“Thank you, dear.”

The look the daughter gave Jasmine wasn’t distressed or critical, but it lingered, like the daughter was trying to figure something out or assess the situation.  She hadn’t talked to her mother long enough, and hadn’t glanced at Jasmine when her mom had been giving her instructions, which made Jasmine feel like there had been talk inside.

It was like that one jarring ‘joke’ from Steven had thrown everything off, and now it was all just… sliding off a cliff.  How far did this reach?  Was it going to be a stern talk tomorrow night, at work?  A ruined deal where the hospital was supposed to get money?  Did it extend further?  Blackballing her, career-wise?  Did it affect Booker and Lucy?

Ida said something in Ojibwe.

Mrs. Rook replied in the same language.

Ida looked surprised, then her posture changed a touch.

“What was that?” Jasmine asked, quiet.  Confused.

“Be strong,” Ida murmured.

Calvin Lance approached, smiling, hands out to the side, disarmed and disarming.  “Jasmine.”

“Mr. Lance.”

“This is tricky, isn’t it?  I asked Steven and he explained that he made an off-color joke.  It seemed to have gotten out of hand.  We’ve got the meeting first thing tomorrow, and this really seems like the sort of thing where if we had more time, it would easily be smoothed over.  But it’s late, we’ve all had a few drinks, personalities can clash…”

“It would have been fine and amicable if he’d let me leave.  The so-called joke was uncomfortable, but I was polite, I said I was cold, I have to get back to my family before too long, and he wouldn’t let me leave.”

“I can confirm,” Mrs. Rook said.

“I beg your pardon- do I know you?  Who are you?”

“A concerned individual who was past your property line when I first became aware something was happening.  I came over to offer help.”

“I’m told you battered him with your cane?  And that’s why he grabbed it?”

“I prodded twice after he wouldn’t let go of nurse Ellingson.”

“He grabbed you?” Calvin asked.

Jasmine nodded.

“Christ.  Are there marks?  Any proof?  I- I believe you, but…”

She checked as best as she could in the dim porch light.  Ida shook her head.

“I was going to say, Marcy’s pis-ticked.  Steven said he was bothered and worried that any overreaction- I, again, I understand it’s not that black and white, it changes the situation dramatically that he put hands on you, but when it comes to the hospital, the contract-”

“I’m not following, I’m sorry,” Jasmine replied.

“He said if you apologized and did him the favor of driving him to his rental, he’d consider it water under the bridge.  But obviously- I said this was tricky before but it’s even more tricky now.”

She could read Calvin’s expression, saw the war ongoing on his face and general demeanor.  She knew he wanted her to cave, to agree to it, to make nice, even if he maybe understood why she wouldn’t want to.

“I’m not going to drive him back,” Jasmine replied.

“Maybe if Ida rode along with you, I can talk to people, I can make it clear you’re doing us a big favor.”

“Steven is not who he appears, the contract was a sham from the start and if you revisit it you may see that,” Mrs. Rook said, holding her tea in one hand, her other hand on the cane she’d laid across her knees.  “If these two women drive back with him I would not rule out the possibility they would not survive the trip.”

Jasmine’s skin prickled again with goosebumps, more intense than before.

Why did she give so much credit to this old woman?

“That’s- that sounds like nonsense.  He’s done good work with us for two weeks now.   I’m sorry, I have to ask again, who are you?  Can I get your name, address?  Mrs…?”

“Rook,” Jasmine said.  She looked down the length of the porch at Steven.  He was watching this exchange.  Members of the clique had gathered around him.

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave.  You weren’t invited, and this is an affair for coworkers and friends.  I hope you understand.”

“Shortly,” Mrs. Rook said.

A phone went off, and it was an abrasive, uncomfortable sound.  Not an alarm, but a ringtone, if something had gone wrong with the speakers.

All eyes searched, until they found the culprit.  Steven.

First the lights, now this?

“I’ll be on my way,” Mrs. Rook said, rising to her feet.  Ida and Jasmine helped.  “Thank you for your hospitality, for the tea, sir, and the support, Mrs. Ellingson.”

“Thank you,” Jasmine said, her attention split between Steven, who was trying to stop the misbehaving phone, which was playing frightened and angry voices amid the noises, and Mrs. Rook, who was getting ready to go.

Steven opened the phone case and grabbed for the battery, but pulled his hand back as if shocked.  The voices were getting louder- louder than it seemed a phone should be able to be.

He dropped the case-less phone into a glass of wine that wasn’t his.

“Everything okay?” Calvin called out.

“I’m going to be on my way.  Any word on that ride I asked about?” Steven asked, pointed.

Jasmine was shaking her head even before Calvin Lance looked at her.

Steven went to walk into the house, and as he did, stopped in his tracks.  A few women shrieked and a man yelped.  Some of the clique members continued to kick up their feet, shrieking, hurrying out of the room.

“What’s the problem?”

“Longest centipede I’ve seen in my life,” Calvin’s daughter said, “darted across the living room.”

“Are we haunted?” Lindsay asked, joking.  “What on earth…?”

“I think it’s Steven being haunted,” a doctor joked.

There was some nervous laughter that seemed hesitant until Steven smiled and laughed with it.  Waiting for his permission.

“We live by water and nature.  I guess this sort of thing is inevitable,” Lindsay said.  Some people agreed, backing her up, reinforcing that statement.  Lines like how there was no reason to be embarrassed, everything was fine, it was such a nice party…

Steven changed direction, walking over.  Jasmine tensed.

“Mr. Lance, I’m going to leave.  I’m feeling like I’m being bullied at this point.”

“Not the intention at all, Steven.”

“Jasmine, I wish things had gone a different way.  Mr. Lance, I suppose we’ll talk about what comes of the contract fulfillment tomorrow?”

“I suppose so.”

Jasmine glanced back at Rook, and startled a bit.  The older woman wasn’t there anymore.  She couldn’t even see her in the back of the property, or in the shadows.

Ida gave her a half-smile, expression worried, but trying to be reassuring.

It took a few minutes for Steven to say his goodbyes.

After he left, one of the clique members who’d been shrieking over the centipede whispered to another, calling him creepy.

“I have no idea what’s happened,” Jasmine told Ida.

“If you believed in angels or spirits, I’d tell you to thank them.  It seems they were on your side tonight,” Ida said.  “But you don’t, I remember?”

Jasmine shook her head.

“Perhaps Steven is the sort of person who makes enemies, and… tonight he gave them the excuse to put the spotlight on him?  Either way, I’d count yourself lucky.”

“I’m not sure my job is going to survive this,” Jasmine admitted, quiet.

Ida nodded.  “Sorry.  You know if you go, I’m probably leaving too.”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“So do I.”

Jasmine stayed long enough to give Steven a head start, then said the necessary goodbyes to be polite.

Jasmine went to the upstairs bedroom where those guests with coats and bags had left their things, collected her coat, and walked downstairs, pulling it on and digging through pockets.

She was outside, on the front steps, searching her pockets, when she saw the woman who’d been in the trees.  The car was parked far enough down the street that there was no light, so Jasmine couldn’t see her face- only dark hair.

The woman walked past Jasmine’s car and with a clatter, dropped Jasmine’s keys on the hood.  They slid down the sloped surface.

“Ma’am!?” Jasmine called out, hurrying over.  “Miss!?  Would you stop?”

She caught the keys before they fell into dark grass.  When she looked up, the woman was gone.

“Why did you have my keys?” Jasmine asked the darkness.

There was a roll of paper wedged into the loop the keys were connected to.  Jasmine pulled it out and read it.

Her eyes went to her car, searching the darkness within.

She backed away.

“Help!” she called out.

People on the front porch looked her way.

“Help!  Call the police!  He’s in my back seat!”

As people hurried down the stairs, perplexed, many of them not privy to the drama at the back porch, Steven acted, hauling on the car handle, once, twice- many times.  It was a violent rattle, then a thud, as he kicked the door.

Jasmine hadn’t put the kid locks on the back doors since Lucy was little.  Openable from the outside but not the inside.

As she saw Steven try to work his way between the driver’s seat and the passenger seats, she reached for the keychain, and held down the button.

The car alarm went off, lights on inside and outside the car.  Steven in plain sight.

And then, because nobody was calling police, she did it instead.

More people came at the commotion, realizing what was wrong, gathering and looking.

“I think he has a knife,” Jasmine said, to the group.

One of the clique members came to her side, supporting her, followed by Ida.  At the doorway, Lindsay Lance put a hand to her mouth.

Steven kicked again at the inside of her car door.  People murmured and exclaimed.

She crumpled the paper in her hand.  It wouldn’t do to explain that part, when it defied explanation.  She’d leave it out.  She looked back at Ida.

Angels and spirits?

She couldn’t go that far.  She shook her head, then pressed the phone to her ear as the dispatcher asked something.


 

We can’t get through them, Stiles!
Try!  We-
Stiles, Grandfather is right!
Agh!  Fucking shitfucking biters!
Need help over here!

The test.  Test us.  Test us, damn it!
So be it.


Verona

They found Avery before they found the bird.  Verona flew in a tight circle around her before flying on.

The physical fatigue from running around translated to fatigue while flying.  Something that was normally easy was far from it now.

“There!” Avery shouted.

Lucy and Verona flew in formation.  Avery skipped around using the black rope.

The bird flew through an open window.

Verona was closest.  She swooped-

And hit a screen the ephemeral bird had slipped right through.  Wing-bones crunched awkwardly, shoulder strained, the screen rattled in the window’s housing, and the glamour fell apart.  She grabbed the windowsill before she could fall.

“Got you!” Avery shouted.  “Fall!”

She dropped, trusting.

And an insulated cushion of wind formed below her.  Clothes and hair pried away from from the sweat-sticky, glamour-dusted skin they’d been plastered to.

“We lost him?” Avery asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Damn it!”

Snowdrop hissed.

Lucy landed, dropping the bird form.  She held the glass up and out toward Avery.

“Safe to use?”  Avery asked, taking it.

“I don’t know, I think you can squeeze out one use.  Depends how much it’s- Guilherme said if we’re a trio, what one of us does might count as all of us.  But we’re…”

“We weren’t much of a trio when it counted,” Avery said.  “Is that ironic?  That we need… not to be a trio, to use this?”

“I don’t know,” Lucy said.

“I’d guess fifty fifty odds,” Verona told Avery.  “That explodes in your hand in a bad way, or it gives us a direction.  Nicolette’s supposedly asking Chase and Wye.”

“Which means we’ve gotta figure, do we want to gamble on those two, or do we want to gamble on the glamour finding glass?” Lucy asked.

“I trust Nicolette more than I trust that.”

“But this is what we have right now,” Verona said.  She picked up the glass from Avery’s outstretched hand.  “I won’t make you, but I’m- I’m tired, I’m sore, I’m not sure how fast I can be.  If I use this, you guys can go ahead.  It knocks me out, might mean a hospital visit, but- I trust you to handle the rest of this.”

“I don’t want you to maim yourself,” Avery said.

“If I fuck up the one hand, I’ve got a spare.  Works better, even,” Verona said, waggling her left and right hands.

“Yeah, no, let’s not-”

Their phones rang, out of sync.  Two different calls, within seconds of one another.

Lucy answered hers.  Avery did the same.

“Nicolette,” Lucy said.

“Zed,” Avery added, putting the phone to her ear.

Verona stood there, glass in hand, tense.

“Nicolette’s got a bead,” Lucy said.  She pulled out glamour.  Verona did the same.  “Gotta- Avery, you okay taking directions?  Shout.”

“Okay,” Avery said, taking Lucy’s phone, still holding her own.  “Hey Zed, is Brie okay?”

Verona and Lucy slipped into the glamoured forms.  Crows.

“Lucy!” Avery called out.

Lucy swooped, turning, looping past Avery.

“Your mom’s okay!  They got the beautiful man!  Zed, Eloise, Rook, and Miss!  They caught him, police have him!”

Lucy dipped low, then went high.

“Toward the trees!  Nicolette says there’s a trap he wants to bait you in, vague!”

Avery burst into motion, running, black rope in hand, Snowdrop at her shoulder.  The pair of them flew in the direction Avery had indicated.

They found it.  The bird had arranged the chain so it looped several times around the neck, ring laid against its breast.  It still glinted in the right light.

Swag bird, Verona thought, going high, waiting and watching, while Lucy was more direct in the chase.

Needed a plan.

“Rook is coming to help!  Miss too, but that’ll be a bit longer!”

Avery moved unpredictably, keeping tabs on the bird, or maybe on Lucy, while weaving in and out of trees, using the black rope to appear on the left, right, up ahead-

The bird couldn’t ascend above the treeline or Lucy would have a clear shot, but while it was in the trees, Avery was appearing at the flanks, cutting it off, forcing it to be more unpredictable.

“Nicolette says trap!” Avery shouted.

The ‘trap’ was an owl that took flight, wings pounding air, nearly silent in its flight as it went after the songbird, only to then find Lucy more immediately in its sights.

Verona formulated a maneuver, then dismissed it.  It would take too long.

Avery had it.

Lucy flew to Avery, Avery caught her, hugging Lucy to her chest, and the owl had to fly on.

Verona did her best to keep the songbird in view.

Stop, take stock, stay calm.  Situation is bad, but Lucy’s mom is okay and-

The feathers all down Verona’s body trembled, threatening to uproot themselves and turn her human, a hundred feet in the air as she circled, watching the songbird, looking for the telltale glint.

A jab of emotion, relief and pent up anxiety flooding out of her, enough to nearly break the glamour.

-she’s okay, Verona told herself, calmer, swooping, circling.  Gotta get the ring to John, somehow.  Not sure how that works if we can’t interfere without being turned to coins.  Already on thin ice with the Sable.

Are we missing an angle?

What can we even do?

She had no idea.

So she focused on doing what she had to.  Tracking-

Tracking the glint.  The bird had gone one way, it had sent a spot of glamour another, glinting like the ring did when it caught the light.

She landed on the corner of a building with enough force that the glamour fell away.  She watched Avery and Lucy search for the songbird.  Fruitlessly.

“Fuck!” she swore.  “Fuck it!  Fuck!”

She could see Rook, darting through trees.

But Rook couldn’t find the elusive songbird either.

Verona clutched the glass.

“Verona!  Nicolette’s looking!” Avery shouted.

“We don’t have time!” Verona shouted.  “By the time she reads the direction, gets back to us, and we find the bird, it’s gone again!”

Avery didn’t disagree, saving breath to run, darting behind a light pole, appearing on a tree branch.

Inhaling slowly, exhaling, she brought it to her eye, and she let herself see through it.  Focusing- narrowing her gaze.

There.  A spark of amber, leaving a clear trail behind it.  A haze that might’ve been why they had such a hard time keeping tabs on it.  She turned, tracking it, clarifying-

The glass shattered.  Shards slid between fingers, along palm, stabbed deep- deep enough that when she moved her hand in reaction to the pain, she felt something crunch and crack between finger bones.

Rook had paused, looking at her.  She nodded.

Verona used the last of her saved-up glamour, slipping one arm free of her bag.

The shards stabbed at her wing.  The glamour nearly shredded itself as she took flight.  Straight line, while it thought it was clear.

Rook saw Verona move and followed.  So did the others.

Lucy-the-crow cawed noisily.

Pissed.

Didn’t matter.  Verona had felt weak all night, no tricks, no arena.  She had some illusions, a bit of a trick for John, but none of it had mattered enough.

She needed to help here.  To hold up her end of the triangle that they’d first stood in when they’d awoken.

It was painful, now, not just tiring, to fly.

She found the songbird, pausing for a breather.

Verona swooped past it, violently enough that it was knocked from the branch.

But the swag bird was a nimble flier.  It immediately reoriented, flying the other way.  Rook was there, but the bird was out here to tease, to taunt, to thrive on fucking with them.

Verona landed, shucked off the glamour for the last time.  She hunched over, one bleeding claw of a hand held against her chest, and leaned over, letting her bag slip from her shoulder, catching on the crook of her elbow.  She reached inside with her good hand, got the second bottle, and hurled it.

She inhaled while it was in the air.

She’d made one alchemical concoction to suck in smoke, something she’d worked out for Cig.

But this was something else.  She’d hoped to use it on Maricica in case of a fight, but there hadn’t been one.

The jar shattered, and all air in the immediate region was sucked away.  There was a ‘whump’ sound, a hum as air that tried to explode back into the void was drawn back in in a steady and controlled way, and a shimmer at the boundary of the effect.

The bird, no longer with air under its wings, couldn’t maneuver.  It carried forward on its course by momentum alone, a forward arc that slowly curved downward.

Rook pulled a small wooden box from her pocket, opened it, and held it up.

The bird slammed into the interior, the lid closing right after it, slapping closed.

Verona nodded.

Rook collapsed the box flat, and feathers squirted out the coin-slots on two opposing faces.  As did the chain, which dangled.

“Got it!” Verona hollered.

“Let me!” Avery shouted.  “I’m faster running than you are flying.”

Rook threw the chain to Avery, ring on the end.  Avery bit it, nodded, then sprinted.

“Go!” Lucy shouted.

They stopped where they were, as Avery disappeared from view.  Verona swayed a little, then dropped to her knees.

Lucy ran over to her, then dropped down to her own knees, looking at the injury.  She slapped Verona across the head, once- twice.

“Stop!  I’m already wounded!”

“Idiot!”  Lucy shouted. “Why!?  Idiot!  I just wanted the people I cared about to get away safe and sound, and I justjust heard my mom was okay, and you do this!?  Why!?  It might not even make a difference!”

“I worry it won’t.”

It wasn’t Rook’s voice.  Or Maricica’s.  Verona looked up, cradling her injured, bleeding hand, which had too much fragmented glass in it for her to even put proper pressure on the wound.

Miss.

“I believe the contest is drawing to a close.  We’re not in a position for the ring to decide this, or to get it to John.”

“Idiot,” Lucy hissed, before hugging Verona.

“Worth trying,” Verona said.  “Had to do something.

Lucy shook her head.  “Let’s get you to Tashlit.  See what she can do.  Sooner the better.”

“It’s part of a price, I don’t think it’s that easy.”

“Let’s at least try?”

Verona nodded.

The contest is almost over?  It’ll be over before Avery gets back?

She got to her feet and she was surprised at how shaky she was.

Lucy had tears streaming down her face.  Rather than start walking, Verona butted her head into Lucy’s shoulder.

Lucy hugged her, and she hugged her friend back, using her one good arm and hand, fingernails digging into shirt.

Your mom’s okay.  That’s one of the most important things.

Now all we can do is trust and hope.


Your test is as follows, John Stiles.  Consider them forsworn.  See it through.
Them?  Why?  That makes no sense to me.
That is the test.

To see it through, I’d need to know it’s just.
It being a test isn’t a good enough reason.  Justify it.
Thrice now, those girls have played dangerous games with karmic law.
The trial of Finnea, calling her to account for oaths she did not swear.

The gainsaying of Lawrence Bristow, a thin attempt, dangerous.
Had we been called to judge on that matter, we would not have been so kind.
They survived it only because Bristow condemned himself,
because he viewed us as a thing of past ages.

Many more oaths remain outstanding.  Of fidelity, of support, repayment.

Weak.  That’s no justification.

Nonetheless.  For the purposes of this test, the three girls you’re so fond of have slipped.  They have failed enough in one or all of these things that they warrant your attention.
Stiles.  If it’s only pretend-
It’s not.  It’s more.  It asks me if I want this throne enough to forfeit who I am.  What I want.  What I value.

Your decision?
That that isn’t the kind of Carmine I would be.  They saw the trial through.  Gainsaying isn’t a broken oath.  They have long lives ahead of them to attend to fidelity, oaths, and repayment.
Do you refuse the test, then?

Not in the slightest.  That is my answer.  I won’t reach for forswearance, or imagine it where there isn’t any.  Not with friends, not with enemies.  Set the test before me again if you wish.  Justify it better, paint them as oathbreakers, and I’ll judge them accordingly.  I’ve passed your tests, over and over, now.  Yalda, this contest.  I’ve proven I’ll do what I must.  But I won’t act without good reason.

So be it.
Tell me.  Were you as unkind to Charles when you delivered his test?  Did you set him something as impossible?  A test of how badly we want it, where passing it would mean we’d have to forfeit wanting anything at all?
Charles Abrams bears the furs.
He is closest to the throne.  His test was a different one.


Avery

Avery clutched the ring and chain in both hands, tense, waiting.

She hadn’t had the opportunity to give it to John.  The Alabaster now stood by the door, guarding it.  The light that shone from inside barred entry, as impossible as walking through glass.

Lucy and Verona finally arrived.  Verona flapped weakly, landed, shrugged out of the glamour, and went straight to Tashlit.

“Don’t say anything, Guilherme,” Lucy warned.

“I’ve nothing to say.  We wait all of us.  Words are being said, affairs looked after.  We wait.”

“We fucking wait,” Toadswallow growled.

They were all present.  Even Alpeana, who wasn’t a fighter, who had been at the border.  Miss and Rook had beat Lucy and Verona back.  The ghouls, goblins, Guilherme, Tashlit.  Montague occupied the box Jabber had been in, walking around with spider legs, while Jabber sat, uncharacteristically quiet.  Matthew hung back, arms folded, expression dark, foot tapping.

No Ken.  Ken had been extinguished.  No Lis, of course.  She had left in the chaos.  No Maricica.  No Edith.  She was still jailed.  Freak and Squeak hung out with the goblins.  Avery wondered if they’d stay local.

Whatever that meant.

Tashlit removed her hand from Verona’s.  Blood remained, but glass was gone.  Verona winced and rubbed at her hand, which seemed inclined to draw closed into an almost-fist, instead of relaxing flat.

Verona and Tashlit wandered over.  Snowdrop wandered a bit away, checking on goblins.

“Guys?” Avery asked, nervous.  “Lucy, Verona?  Can we talk?  There’s been something I wanted to bring up.  And I don’t- I don’t know if this is the right time, but…”

“We can talk,” Lucy told her.

Avery thought about asking them to take a break, to walk away.

But then she felt like maybe that was unfair to the local Others.

It wasn’t like it’d be much harder, because this was… this was about as hard as it got.

“I’m…” she paused, eyes dropping to the bloody pavement.

Was the blood dissipating?  Leaking into the cracks?

“…Whatever happens, however this turns out, I don’t think my decision will necessarily change.  Might depend, who wins, if it’s John and things are hunky-dory, or if it’s one of the weird ones, or Reid.”

“Or Charles?” Lucy asked.

“What are you on about?” Verona asked.

“I’m… you should know before things happen, so you don’t think it’s because of the outcome.  I don’t think I’m sticking around.”

She saw Verona’s expression change.  Saw Lucy’s eyebrows draw together, that angry frown that didn’t necessarily mean Lucy was angry.

“Plan is, I’m moving in with my mom.  Thunder bay.  Idea is I stick around for a short bit, for cleanup, make sure Verona’s okay moving back with her dad…”

“You’re bailing?” Verona asked, whisper quiet.

Avery tried to look away- and found herself looking at goblins, who were staring up at her.  When she looked in another direction, she saw Matthew.  Her expression screwed up for a second or two, while she did her best to fight it, and to avoid crying, because if she cried, she worried it would mean open sobbing.

She regained her composure.

“Home isn’t great for me.  You know that.  I’ve told you that.  And I can at least go to my mom’s, you know?  I can… I dunno.  But I do know I don’t think I can stick it out here, with Declan and Grumble and Grumble’s TV, and my dad being slow to catch on to stuff, and the house being really big and empty.  Relatively empty.”

Lucy stepped forward and Avery flinched a bit.  Lucy wrapped arms around her in a hug.

Avery’s breath shuddered on its way in, as she did her best to not let the moisture in her eyes leak out.  She hugged Lucy back hard, as if that aggressive squeeze could help her not tip over into crying.

“Do what you need to do,” Lucy told her.

“I’ll come by.  I- a part of me thought this would happen, somewhere down the line, all the way back at Awakening.  I asked then.”

“I remember,” Lucy told her.

“I’m still a Kennet practitioner.  But two years, I’ll be away, I’ll learn, I’ll make connections, I’ll visit when I can.  Holidays, at the very least.  More if I can use practice to teleport or something.”

“Sounds good,” Lucy whispered, squeezing.

Avery looked at Verona, saw Verona rubbing at her left hand, eyes on the ground.

“Ronnie?” Avery whispered.

Lucy broke the hug, taking a step back.

“I had a nightmare about this.  Maybe Maricica told Alpeana what to put in there-”

Alpeana, a distance away, lurking in the trees, shook her head.  Grungy hair swayed with the motion.

“‘Twas a deep seated fear, lassie,” Alpeana replied.

“That you’d pull away.  That you wouldn’t be here,” Verona finished, meeting Avery’s eyes.  Forlorn.  Scared.

“Are you going to tell me I shouldn’t go?” Avery asked her friend.

“I told me I shouldn’t go,” Verona replied.

“Does that mean you don’t want me to go?  Because if you ask…”

“I don’t know,” Verona told her.  She blinked rapidly a few times, sighed, and turned her back to Avery.

“Ronnie?”

“I’m still here.  I’m not, like, rejecting you.  Just… give me a second.”

Avery waited.

“It’s pretty fucking miserable, you know?” Verona asked, looking over her shoulder at Avery, her eyes wet.  “Staying.”

Avery nodded.

“I don’t want that for you.”

“I don’t want that for you either, you know?”

“Go, then.  But come back.”

Avery nodded.

“Gotta- step away,” Verona said.  “Nothing meant by it, it’s not-”

“Not a jab at you,” Lucy filled in.  “Verona process.”

Verona nodded, sighed, and walked away a bit.  Tashlit and Peckersnot followed a short distance behind, giving her space but staying close enough to be company.

Avery swallowed hard.

“Frig,” Lucy muttered.  “I was wondering what the fuck was going on with you.  Why you were trying to prove something…”

Avery swallowed hard again, and then coughed because of it, the lump too big.

“Frig.  You didn’t tell us?”

“I thought- thought it’d distract.  It’d be too much.  More of a divide.”

“Might’ve been.  The way Verona and I were fighting?”

“Don’t go telling me stuff just to make me feel better or make this more okay, okay?” Avery asked.

“Okay.  Then I won’t.  You do what you need to do.  We back you up.  All of us, I hope,” Lucy said.

A few nearby goblins grunted.

Avery smiled a bit.  Snowdrop headbutted her, and nuzzled her with messy blonde head, and Avery mussed up her hair, before hooking an arm around her neck in a sorta-kinda-hug.

Every last one of them was waiting, tense.

Musser was at the end of the parking lot, arms folded.  Wye and Raquel were with him.

No Witch Hunters left.  Guilherme had trashed their car and given them a hard enough time they’d fled through the trees.  Apparently leaving Kennet.  For now.

Who knew what the future held?

So much hinged on-

The Alabaster moved out of the way.  The doors opened.

Everyone who was huddled, or hanging back, Alpeana in the trees, goblins sitting facing one another, Raquel sitting on the trunk of the car, Verona, wandering away- they all turned.  Looking.

The Aurum Coil flowed out, the centipede gleaming.  It looped, as if clearing the way of something indistinct or abstract, knotted in around itself, then flowed aside, the centipede anchoring itself in and on trees, while the head and its rider extended twenty feet out over the parking lot, watching.

The Sable Prince followed, hair long and coarse, beard much the same, eyes dark, suit as black as charcoal.

The Sable Prince’s departure was followed by a breaking of whatever barrier had been holding the building together, keeping the ritual within.  The entire structure groaned, adjusting, and smoke poured out in a violent way, leaking out of doors, the crack near the roof, and the back door.  Windows broke, and orange flames glowed.

The smoke hid those that followed.

John’s soldiers stepped out, not seeming to care much about the smoke.  Their uniforms were mixed and matched, drawn from multiple groups, multiple styles.  Some improvised, some belonging to one nationality or another.  All scavenged from battlefields.  They were armed in a similar way.  Hunting rifles, guns, machetes.  Many were injured, missing flesh on arms, necks, and faces.  Some had pulled on masks or goggles to hide the worst of the damage.

And the Carmine followed.  A silhouette in smoke, chased by papers that had been close to the door, by pieces of a hockey banner that had been on the wall, celebrating a win of a team from before Avery had been in middle school.  Fire licked the corner of the banner as air pressure helped blow it across the parking lot.  Lucy stepped on it, extinguishing it.

The soldiers flanked him, standing still, stoic.

He had hair, and a red coat.

The smoke took some time to clear.  Something inside the building settled, crashing.

And one of the soldiers standing near the door horked and spat.  Onto the Carmine’s face.  A female soldier standing next to him grabbed him.

The Carmine didn’t care.  He used the sleeve of his coat to wipe it away, and advanced forward out of the smoke.

His hair had regrown enough, and his scraggly beard had grown in.  He was no longer draped in a blanket, but wore a coat with fur on it, blood red.  Hair, coat, and beard were blood red, his eyes dark.  He’d de-aged, the wear and tear of being Forsworn gone, but the deep lines and the deep-set glower that had settled in around the eyes was worse, not better.  He was still skinny, shirtless.

“No, no no no,” Lucy whispered.  “John.”

Avery clutched Lucy’s hand.

“What?” Lucy asked.  Her eyes welled with tears.

“What the fuck?” Avery asked.

“I’d tell you, but we’re sworn to silence,” the oldest of the soldiers said, tense, neck and jaw tight, like he was holding himself back.

“I’ll tell you,” the Carmine said.  Charles said.  “It’s a rigged contest.  Knowing how to rig in your favor is more important than any ability to earn it by strength, by right, by any great sense of justice.  The fact I can take it like this only proves me right.  That this needs to change.”

“Can’t bring myself to say you’re right, Charles,” Matthew said.  “I don’t think this proved anything.”

“I don’t think you understand.  I’m Right, now, Matthew,” the Carmine told him, growling the words.  “You don’t like that?  Get in fucking line to kill me and take my spot, throw up a lordship so my reach doesn’t extend to you-”

“You know that’s not something we’re in a position to do.  It invites challengers,” Miss said.

“-or hurry up and fucking fix it.  Until you figure that out?  I’m going to do it my way.”

“Fuck you,” Lucy said.  “You killed John?  Fuck you.”

“In the end, I wanted it in a way he didn’t,” the Carmine replied.  “So yeah, I killed him, yeah, fuck me.  But at least I’ve forced the issue.  No more complacency.”

“What now?” Miss asked.  “Retaliation against us?”

“No.  I’m not so petty, my focus lies elsewhere.  For now, things must be settled and arranged.  Edith James.  Let’s revisit the forswearing of her, her holding to oaths.”

“What the hell are you doing?” Matthew asked.

“Binding isn’t sufficient.  I’ll give you the choice.  Consider her forsworn, let her be unmade, or revoke the forswearance, at no penalty to yourself, and let her be free.”

“Destroy her or free her?” Matthew asked.

“I’ll give you time to decide.”

Matthew shook his head, bewildered.

“Further… to secure Kennet, keeping to oaths I made before I was forsworn, and to show you I’m not as cruel as you’d paint me… I’ll make Kennet the seat of my throne.  Let it continue to be bloody in its way.  The perimeter will be secure, and for Other and for practitioners, let Kennet be a day’s travel away.”

“What?” Verona asked, as she joined Avery and Lucy.  “Why?”

“Sentiment, and because the forces Musser has arranged against you would wipe you off the face of the Earth in short order.  They may still, but it’ll take them more time to organize.”

“You’d kill Kennet,” Lucy said.

“Or knot it,” Avery whispered.  “If it takes a day to get in for spirits… that disrupts the flows, doesn’t it?”

The Carmine nodded.  He raised a hand to push hair back away from his face, and opened and closed his hand, as if it was a new sensation.  After being forsworn for so long, and then finding himself on the opposite end of the spectrum, maybe even the movement of a hand was really that new.

Rook set hands on Lucy’s shoulders.  Tears were rolling down Lucy’s cheeks.  Because of John.  Someone that had mattered to her.

“I’ll tell you now, I’ve done away with the Choir.  There should be no more deaths as a result.  There are other things to see to, dangerous in their own ways.  I don’t intend to be complacent or quiet.  I don’t know how long I have, how coordinated people like Musser will be in opposing me.  So I’ll work hard in the meantime.”

His head turned.

“Already, Others want permission to be made.  Small disputes need attention.”

“The work is Always,” the Aurum Coil said.

“Then let’s get to work.  I’ll be close and far away, Kennet.  You know where to find me if you want audience.  A day’s journey away.”

“Title yourself,” the Sable Prince said.

“The Carmine Exile,” Charles declared.  “Once forsworn, still partially removed from all of this.  I don’t doubt I’m unwanted.  I’ve long ceased to care.”

The red of sky and ground flared, and then he was gone.  So was the red in the sky, the blood on ground.  The pavement remained wet, even though it hadn’t rained hard at all.

Avery shivered, still taking it all in.  She and Verona each had one of Lucy’s hands, and Rook stood behind her.

The lights brightened, and the Alabaster Doe disappeared.

The Aurum Coil flowed into the trees.

The Sable Prince remained.  He turned to the building, and the various Dog Tags moved out of the way, scattering a bit.

“I suppose these things need to be administered to,” the Sable Prince said.

The ground became even more reflective, a shimmer on the pavement.

The shimmer reached the burning, broken Arena.

And then it was restored.  In an eyeblink, back to the same state it was in before tonight.

“I’m sorry for the passing of your friend,” the Sable Prince said.

The shadows swelled, reflections shimmering, and he stepped away.  Out of Kennet.  To a place a day’s travel away, as was the rule for reaching the various Judges.

With all that done, everyone reacted, swaying, sitting down, moving because sitting still was impossible.

Avery stepped away from them, arms folded, glancing back and up at Rook-  Avery looked too.

Rook nodded.  Entirely unsurprised.

Avery looked over at Miss.

“Excuse me.  I have things to tend to,” Miss said, before walking away.  Into the trees.

“A first loss, and an important one,” Rook said.

“Is it?” Avery asked.  “Is it a loss, just like that?  Can’t we- could we start now?  Take the fight to Charles, before…”

“How?” Lucy asked her.

“I don’t know!  But… but I can stay, right?  I can stay, I was careful not to swear anything or make anything absolutely for sure.  If you need, me, if we’re going to fight this…”

“Go,” Lucy told her.

“But-”

“But it takes something like the Choir to kill a Carmine.  We don’t have something like the Choir,” Lucy said.

Avery turned to Verona.

“We’ve got Kennet to look after,” Verona said, as she walked a few parking spots down the parking lot, bent down and picked up a brochure.

As she picked it up, the paper peeled away, the image distorted.  A map of Kennet distorted already.

Verona held up the brochure, then crumpled it.  “A knotted Kennet to look after.  And you- you work best from the flanks, right?”

“Do I?”

“Staying in contact with the right people?” Verona asked.  She rubbed at her left hand.  “You go… you do what you gotta do, and you come in hard from the sidelines, with great timing.  When we’re working together like we need to work together.  And we-”

Verona was a bit choked up, the words not coming.

“-need to find a way to work together, with this.  Around this.  With everything.  But stay in touch.  Don’t you dare lose touch.  If you can stay in touch with Liberty after she nearly threw you off a bridge, you stay in touch with us.”

Avery nodded.  “For sure.”

“We’ll try and manage here,” Lucy said, rubbing at her eyes with sleeves over her hands.  “Somehow.  You… we’ll need allies.  Help.”

Avery nodded again.

“Don’t stick around for me, if you can help it,” Verona said.  “If you stay, it’ll get harder to leave.  I know that’s not how this particular knot looks like it’ll work, but it’s-”

“It will be.  Yeah,” Avery answered.

She looked left, at Matthew, who was staring off into space.

At Toadswallow, who ducked his head in a sharp motion.

It felt wrong, not to immediately fight this.  But the others were right.

She hesitated for a moment, looked over at Snowdrop, and the opossum nodded.

She walked over to where Zed, Brie, Musser, and Raquel were.  Raquel looked very hard like she was trying not to cry.

Lucy had lost John.  Raquel had lost her cousin.

“We’ll be leaving,” Musser said.  “We’ll see how the protection of a Carmine holds up.”

“I’d worry more about you guys than about us,” Avery said.  “You- you allowed this, you know.  You sided with Charles.  Whatever comes next…”

“Don’t condescend to me,” Musser told her.  “Let come what will come.”

Snowdrop sneezed.

“I guess I won’t be going back to my place with Brie,” Zed said.  “Back to the Blue Heron, battening down the hatches.”

“I’m sorry.  I’m sorry we weren’t able to- to stop him.  To protect Brie.”

“It’s fine.”

“Lucy’s a bit- emotionally exhausted,” Avery said.  She wasn’t sure how she felt, as she said that.  Bewildered?  A deer in very big headlights?  “Devastated.  But I know she’s grateful to you for helping with her mom.”

“It wasn’t much.  Keeping eyes on things.  A carefully timed, carefully skewed alarm.”

“It helped,” Avery said.  “I’ll be in touch.”

Zed nodded.  Brie leaned into him, and he whispered something to her that looked private enough that Avery stepped back and away, leaving them to it.  Zed opened the car door.  Getting ready to go.

She backed away further as the oldest of the Dog Tags approached Musser.   Wanting to talk to Raquel.  Just the two of them.  Alone.

Avery backed off.

The distortion of time and place around Kennet was relaxing.  Moments that had all been pressed in together now eased up.  The night had ended, symbolically if nothing else.

No blood in the sky, no blood on the ground.  No more than there’d been all summer.  Light on the horizon.  It felt a bit insulting, after everything.

She used her Sight.  The bloody handprints remained.

Avery walked away.  It felt wrong, but she walked away.  Everyone she hadn’t talked to, she’d see to before packing up and leaving.  Freak and Squeak, goblins… she’d say some final goodbyes.  But she had to start the process of leaving now or it would get harder.

Hands were raised, waving.  She raised her own.

As she walked, Snowdrop fast-walking to keep pace beside her, Avery got far enough away that angles were right, she could see what the Sable had done.  How, viewed in the right way, with the parking lot wet, the reflection of the Arena didn’t match what she saw.

The knotting already at work.

She had to tear her eyes away.  Had to keep moving.  Because stopping at this point would hurt, would just mean she’d see more reasons to keep stopping, to turn and help.

She had to trust.


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Break 5

Previous Chapter

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The Alabaster gave the signal.

“We could come,” Horseman said, as John walked to the door that would put him on the opposite end of the stands from the corrupted spirit.  John took the choicest of the weapons his old squad had distributed among them.  He belted on some explosives and canisters.

Rifle at his back, three handguns, appropriate ammunition, knives…

John considered it, then reaffirmed his decision, telling Horseman, “Best if you don’t.  I don’t think you guys have fought this sort of thing, and it’s infected with a piece of something demonic.  Consequences get too high if you fail here.  Entire point is you all live.  I’ve fought spirits.  Not something I’m good at fighting, hard to beat if you’re in a hurry, but I think I’ll manage.”

“Hey, boyo,” Breastbiter called out.

“What?”

Breastbiter threw John a lock of red hair bound in red string.

“I don’t think I want or need this.”

“Take it anyway,” Breastbiter said. “No tricks, no traps, no special meaning intended.”

“Is this going to backfire on me?”

“It’s a bit of extra mojo, if you want it,” the goblin said.  He folded his arms.  “These things, we all have to work together to stop them.  Shouldn’t hurt or backfire too bad.  But you know, goblin shit.”

“I know goblin shit,” John told Breastbiter.

“Here,” Reid said.  “I don’t want a goblin to be a bigger man than me.  A protective charm.”

“I’m much bigger than you,” Breastbiter told him.  “Do you know why?”

“I’m sure you’ll tell me,” Reid replied, sounding weary.

“You wear shirts.  They constrain you and inhibit vital growth!”

“Oh, we’re talking about nipples again?” Reid asked.

“Of course.  What else could we be talking about when talking about how size matters?” Breastbiter asked him.

“I don’t think I’ll dignify this conversation by continuing it.”

“Nipples, boy, nipples!  Flesh-medals that Nature herself pinned on your chest!  A badge of honor saying you were born and shit like that!  With this, we may nourish the babes, let the milk spray forth!  It can even be a gender-indiscriminate spray, with preparations!”

Ignoring him, Reid turned to John.  He opened his book and tore out a page with runework on it that looked as though it had been dripped onto paper with fine amounts of wax, standing out rather than soaking into the paper.  He reached into a pocket and pulled out a safety pin.

John glanced back at Angel and Ribs.  He wasn’t sure if Horseman remembered, but the practitioner named Dicky Leonard, the war mage who had bound them, had used a charm just like this.  Angel and Ribs had still been aware at the time Dicky had gone full throttle.

John still took it.  He pinned it to his chest.

“How many of these infected things have you fought?” Grandfather asked him.

“A couple.”

“Were they spirits?”

“No.  One human, one goblin.”

“Were they this big?”

“No,” John said, as he stepped through the door.  A push on his shoulder made him glance back.  Ribs.  He looked over at the spirit.  “No they weren’t this big.”

The contact with Ribs was a bit of a help.  Association with Blast Dogs like Black and Ribs helped the rest of them with enduring the heat and explosions of a battlefield.  A kind of blessing, a bit of luck, a bit less of a tendency to burn or get blown to shreds.  The fire at the corner of the arena was spreading now, licking up the tree, along the wall of blue-painted concrete blocks.  But even with the sturdy, mostly fireproof construction, the fire had space to spread.

The corrupt spirit that had emerged from Lauren Snyder wasted no time in breaking into a run.  Trapped in bounds, in the loop of seats that surrounded the ice rink, it had apparently realized it had company.  Tearing past and through the debris and chunks of meat, the swirling, vague mass of the creature picked those things up.  It looked like lightning striking in reverse, from ground to sky, meat becoming something shadowy and veinlike against a bright, eerie form.  Wood, metal, plastic, and broken concrete jumped up as well.  Where the shocks of material that ran up into the spirit connected, spaces were filled in.  Raw flesh mingled with concrete, blue plastic seating with wood.  They shifted to find a coherent form.

A larger branch from the tree fell, smoke streaming from its burning leaves and branches, and it fell across wooden paneling, a flurry of sparks flying up from the impact.  The paneling started to ignite.  That was spreading to his left, the spirit circled around clockwise, and approached from his right.

As it moved through the area where Cleo Aleshire and the other witch hunters had been smashed and torn apart, it picked up more flesh.

As he’d told the others, he’d been on a lot of patrols.  He’d fought spirits.  He hoped he knew what he needed to know.

Spirits didn’t have form.  They could borrow form, occupy vessels, occupy people, or occupy a space in a more abstract way.  There were few places they couldn’t go and few things that were outright impervious to spirits, but at the same time, there weren’t a lot of places outside the spirit world where they were truly at home.

Types like Edith had to make their home, more than anything, bringing the spirit world in.  The way John figured it, it was his job to empty that home.

It started and ended with Lauren Snyder, who the beast was swallowing up.  She floated in the center mass, head still shattered, spirit-stuff pouring out to add to the semi-fluid, semi-gaseous, semi-solid form.  Whether it was fluid, gas, solid, or spirit, it maintained a general theme of the animal throughout.

He waited until the corrupt spirit had rounded the corner and he had a clear shot.  Winding the red hair Breastbiter had given him around the barrel of his handgun, he fired.  His time with Toadswallow had helped here, so he knew this was a thing he could do.

The bullets penetrated the spirit and slowed as they did, as if he’d fired into gel.  The first bullets stopped short of getting to Lauren Snyder’s body inside the spirit.  He could see the goblin influence flow out, snaking through, the veins shooting out in every direction from the holes the bullets had drilled into flesh- mostly to the sides, instead of to Lauren.  Each vein expanded, and each became a tear.  The tears acted as doors, and goblins flowed out, each the size of men, fighting and tearing their way free of vague spirit-flesh.  Flesh retaliated, biting back in turn.  Where chunks were torn free, they became mist and fog, and the mist and fog transformed, still holding the ideas of the original spirit- nature, war, and violence.

He watched as some of the bits of devoured goblin became mass in the head, aimed, and fired.  The fifth bullet affected by Breastbiter’s lock of hair penetrated the brain that was forming amid the spirit-stuff, and the goblins that emerged tore it apart from the inside.

Spirits occupied vessels, most often, and they found refuge there, anchors in reality that made the rest of it more able to leverage its strengths.  So he let it forge its own vessel, veins and brain, organs-

He saw something heart-like appear, and dropped to one knee to get a lower angle, and shot through the chest of the spirit.  That was a sixth shot augmented by the hair.

It came at him, two forelimbs and a lower body that was a trail of ghost-like body and smoke that flirted with the idea of being something real.

He side-stepped down three of the large concrete stairs, so the spirit would have to flow into and through more debris that had piled up into a sort of cover.  It broke the debris apart and formed it into skin and hide, disassembling it on a conceptual level to forge its own body.  Color went one way, shape another, function a third way.

He placed another shot through the shoulder joint, shattering ‘bone’ that was forming out of wood and broken concrete.  More goblins ripped their way free around the wound.  Spiritstuff couldn’t accommodate, and the spirit’s limb became too weak to hold it up.  It crashed into stairs.  He used the opportunity to place another two shots- one to carve a way forward, drilling into spirit-flesh, and the other to follow the same course.  To Lauren Snyder.

Witch Hunter flesh picked up from the side of the arena stands bulged, blocking the way to Lauren.  Maybe the bullet might have arrived regardless, but in the bulging, the nearly straight line the bullet had carved became less straight.

He tried to tell himself that the slow process of cutting this spirit down wasn’t as much of a problem as he worried it was.  It didn’t matter that he’d been delayed, because a Faerie would account for that, would plan for it.

The trick, the catch, the benefit of going faster, was that maybe, if he was lucky, she’d make a mistake.  Maybe, if he was lucky, the girls would succeed in holding Charles back.  Or Toadswallow and the goblins would.  Or Guilherme.  Or Matthew.

Maricica couldn’t see the future.  She tried, she got an advantage and a thrill for threading a needle and anticipating things, she might even be great at it.

But if he could give his all to hurry this along, and if the people outside could give their all to slow Charles down, maybe they’d surprise.  Maybe Charles would step inside only to be told the contest was over.

If he could put on a good show, maybe he could forge an advantage, in terms of perception, in terms of making the contest more his.

Which was why he hurried to spend the bullets from Breastbiter.  Because if they contributed to the finishing blow, it would make the victory a bit more of the goblin’s.  That could be a small advantage.

He timed things, pacing them out as much as his limited patience allowed, letting the corrupted animal spirit recover enough to charge through more blockades, more wood, more seating.  Veins and strips of muscle wove their way through the spirit’s composition.

He emptied the handgun in the process, and saw as the hair slipped free, drained of color at the same time the gun was left empty.

Jamming the gun into the hip holster, he pulled a heavy off-white grenade from the belt in the reverse motion.  One of the explosives Black had given him.   He pulled the pin, and lobbed it.  It took a fair amount of arm strength to cover the distance, because the grenade was twice the weight of most.

It flared bright, and kicked up a spatter of hot white gobbets and black smoke.  The wood that the spirit had absorbed into its form ignited.  Plastic burned and turned black.  Dark smoke flowed through the interior of the spirit’s body- John could see through the thinnest parts of it to where the smoke gathered, and to where Lauren Snyder drifted, temporarily dead.

It resembled fighting a titan, a dragon, or something suitably monstrous as it tried to climb over the lip of a cliff.  He had to target the claws that came up over the edge, weaken the grip- it was possible that outright slaying his enemy here was impossible.  The further bullets traveled toward the dark shape of Lauren Snyder, the more resistance they seemed to meet.

No, he had to weaken its grip.

He shot out another organ, without the benefit of the lock of red hair now.

It wasn’t actually on a cliff.  It was heavily spirit, of the spirit world, and the cliff’s edge in this metaphor was reality.  Every organ and every part of it that was anchored into reality was a handhold.  The more handholds it had, the easier it was to get more, to pull the bulk of itself into reality here.

But, John knew, there was a cost.  In this metaphor, the titan at the cliff’s edge still needed to expend energy to lift a hand, to get a hand settled into position at the edge, so he could pull himself up.  Actually lifting his own weight up would be a task that got harder, not easier, in proportion with his size.  Repeatedly forcing that movement, denying the ability to get over the edge…

John hoped to exhaust it.  To drain its strength by forcing it to repeatedly try to get a grip on reality and then lose that grip.

It was the same tactic the Witch Hunters had tried against the barrier around the rink.  The same thing he’d tried against Dicky Leonard back when Angel and Ribs had been bound.

More bullets.

Overwhelm whatever process was in effect.

Guns and bullets didn’t tend to work well against Others, but they were the tool he had.

He placed each shot with care, aiming for the places where it anchored itself in reality.  Places where it made itself real.

He’d been down this road before, in a lesser way, with lesser spirits.  There were two major ways this could go.  The first was that it would change tacks.  If it started pushing the spirit world into the arena, as Edith could do with her lake of black wax, he’d be forced into a more strategic game.  The fire to his left would be critical.  So would anything he could do to mar the landscape it painted around itself.

It leaped for him, with a force that suggested it had back legs it didn’t.  He had to throw himself down concrete stairs, arms around his head to shield it, because there were no great options left to him.  Up was too slow, forward put him right under it, back meant he’d get turned into a smear if it skidded too far forward.

That was the second option.  The lunge, a sudden aggression.

He lobbed a grenade underhand as he scrambled to get to his feet, turned, and ran.  The spirit flowed well past the grenade-

But the explosion was still jarring.  A sudden burst of noise, of violence, of everything that would make even a hardened predator stop what it was doing.  It was still crawling over the edge of a cliff.  It still needed to maintain some grip on things, and the explosion helped that grip to slip away.  He could see the more solid and stable parts of it splinter and fall away, mixed into roiling spirit.  It slowed down, lost track of what it was doing.

He reloaded as he backed up, closer to the fire.

The debris that the falling branch had ignited now burned high enough that fire spread to a hockey banner on the wall.  From there, it spread to others.  There were sections of a small concessions store that were pushed out of order and off to the side, and that was close enough for the sloped side to collect falling scraps of flaming banner.  Smoke began to spread from there.

The spirit found its bearings, and it began to pull itself together.

Last grenade.  John lobbed it underhand.

This was the point most spirits collapsed.

But this wasn’t just a spirit.  There was something inside it, as thin as a hair, as long as an arm, and John could feel the vibration of it deep in his chest.

The spirit that had been solid, gas, and liquid all at the same time started to boil.

And our tired, wounded creature that’s trying to climb up a cliff face and over the lip now has handholds to spare.

It probably made those same handholds in Lauren Snyder, chipping away at her body, her Self, and her soul.

If clouds could be interpreted to look like animals, this was one such cloud, but it was a storm now, high winds, the clouds so dense they blocked out light.

Standing one moment, moving as fast as a train at full speed in the next.  John was braced for it, with cover and the direction in mind, and it still felt like it came at him fast.

It stopped nearly as fast as it had moved, the detritus that was now getting more chewed up and mixed up forming into a spreading mask.

The Wolf on Avery Kelly’s path.

The Ondvarg.

Lucy, just outside.  After a fashion.

Now this.

I keep fighting beastsCanines.  Foxes and wolves.

I wonder if the others found themselves on a track like this.

He shot, trying to stay calm even though he wasn’t, aiming for key points.

His brothers in arms were on the rink, not that far away.  They shouted but their voices didn’t reach him.

I want to win, for Lucy’s sake.  Maybe she’ll come, after she stops being mad at me.  To say hi.  To see me and the space I’ve carved out for myself as a Carmine Dog.  I want there to be one less corrupted, awful thing causing trouble in the world.

Surgically placed shots.  Holding composure-

It wasn’t slowing down as it got hurt.  It kept coming, kept bringing more into its spirit body, to get more complete, to become more of a mingling of spirit and real.

Like John was.  Except John was relatively small, in comparison.  John was backed by War.  Maybe if this had found its foothold in reality, it would be backed by Nature.

He kept shooting, scrambling back, getting perilously close to fire now.

But it wasn’t backed by Nature, and it could never be.  It wasn’t supported or made stronger.  This was backed by something that tore away at the world around it.  Not making it stronger, but making everything else weaker.  Just a piece, but a piece was all it needed to steer something as delicate as a spirit to ruin.

And, he had to remind himself, it was backed by Lauren Snyder, buried within.

The spirit swelled, and it launched another attack he wasn’t as ready for.  There was metal in its claw, though, and the paper John had pinned to his chest glowed, fluttering.

It slowed the swiping claw enough for John to duck beneath.  He could smell the distinction between the burning paper just under his nose and the fire behind him.

The swings kept coming, and he hurried back out of the way, grunting as one non-metal limb lifted him off his feet and into a concrete block wall.  Chips of the wall’s paint stuck to the red, winter-weight army jacket he was wearing as he pulled himself away, ducking low to avoid the claw with metal tips.  The paper helped to ward it off enough that John could move out of the way.  He raised his gun hand and popped off a single shot.

The deafening sound of gunfire and the effect such noise had on animals would affect the animals in this spirit… if it wasn’t currently being propelled by something scarier.

The gun still had an effect on the spirit’s body, even if it wasn’t acting like it was dying.  John’s most immediate problem was that it was getting that foothold, and pulling the bulk of itself into reality.  Smoke, dust in the air, light, and other things were feeding into it with no sign of slowing down.  Sweeping swings of its heavy forelimbs cleaved past concrete, with notches dashed away where the claw-tips had grazed.  It was heavier, stronger, and it was developing a hind body that was more coherent, with actual limbs, instead of the roiling smoke trail.

John switched guns because he couldn’t afford the time to reload.  Bullets hit something approximating flesh, now, and the spirit smoked out of the wounds, before drawing them closed.  Smoke from behind John mingled with the smoking form of the spirit, and as the clouds of smoke and spiritstuff around them got so opaque John could barely see his surroundings, the spirit’s eyes became some deeper shadow than any ordinary darkness could produce.

This was too slow and getting slower.  Even accounting for size, it felt like most spirits would have gone down after this direct an assault.

Is it drawing energy somehow from the splinter?

From Snyder?

He finished off the magazine, then holstered the gun, before unslinging the rifle from behind his back.  Part of the strapping was broken, and he guessed it was from being knocked into the wall or rolling down the stairs.

A shot between the eyes.  He couldn’t see through it enough to make out where Lauren Snyder was, but he could remember, and he used the distraction as it shook its head and regained its senses to aim for her.

Something seemed to set the corrupt spirit off, because it hit that point of desperation again.  It chose to lunge again, and it was still moving from near-standstill to train-like speed momentum, and crushing force.  Yet it also chose to spread its influence, dragging this part of reality into the spirit world, or dragging the spirit world into this part of reality.  The effect spread from where its feet met the ground.

Normally, a spirit’s assertion of its power was a painting of the environment.  Here, it was a spreading puddle of black oil.  The corners of concrete stairs eroded away beneath the thin liquid, fire dimmed, and smoke curled up from the edges, leaving smoke-patterned grooves in the wall and stairs around the edges, giving the liquid a place to flow into, exaggerating the effect.

John ducked behind a support beam, and the beast smashed it enough it bent.  Pieces of concrete rained down.

With a degree of willpower, John waded backwards into the lower parts of the open fire, where smaller bits of tree branch and bark flaked down in a steady shower.  Some landed on his head and shoulders, and he shook his head fiercely in one moment to get rid of a bit.  The smell of his own burning hair filled his nostrils.

He fired the rifle, reloaded, firing again, reloading.

It paused, hesitating at the flame’s edge.  The spreading pool of liquid didn’t extend into the flame.

He kept up the onslaught, aiming each shot carefully, and both the finger that pulled the trigger and the hand that helped keep the gun steady were burning as he stood there.

Ribs’ little boon and forward push probably helped him here.  Helped put pain aside, helped keep him steady, and helped his clothes and skin stay more intact than they otherwise would.

Half-blind in smoke, holding his breath because there was no oxygen to be had, he continued to back away, testing each footstep before trusting it, so he wouldn’t trip.  He tried to steal the time for half-second glances through smoke with watering eyes, to see if a tree branch was poised to drop on him, or if the curl of smoke from the spreading, corrupted spiritual influence was reaching to his left, or if that was ordinary smoke.

The spirit struck the support pillar it had already damaged.  More of the material from the ceiling rained down- mostly on top of the spirit.

It braved the flames, charging forward.  John didn’t have the time to shoot anymore, and focused on staying out of the way of the worst sorts of harm it could deliver, wading through fire, stepping on burning branches and flaming bits of signage.  The spirit’s spreading influence was cut off, and it either wasn’t trying or wasn’t able to establish that influence in the middle of the staggered concrete here.  The only real hazard was how much tiny, burned bark and bits of tree had collected underfoot.  John’s boots scraped with hard charcoal-like bits catching in the threads as he tried to duck, weave, and run, rifle held in one hand.

The paper from Reid Musser burned.

It didn’t relent, and one bad guess about where it might be charging off to saw it come right for him.  He let himself step onto a destroyed bit of stairway, and skidded down it on his back, feet out below him, down to the base of the rink.

The spirit followed, but the descent was hard for a four-legged beast.  John had to scramble to get out of the way before the spiritual influence could chase after it- a thin tide of that corroding spiritstuff that hit the hard, painted barrier surrounding the rink, and splashed up to the arcane barrier the Judges had put up to protect other contestants.

John backed up, and on the other side, behind magically secured plexiglass, Horseman kept pace with him.  Staring hard.

I do realize what’s wrong, John thought.  Besides the fact this thing is mean, unstoppable, and inexhaustible.

He’d ‘talked’ with Horseman about it once, before.  John hadn’t had a mouth or eyes, then, but they’d shared one another’s company and Horseman had carried the conversation for both of them, as natural as anything.

Dogs of War weren’t necessarily super-soldiers.  Horseman was, but that was an archetype he’d grown into.  John might have been something exceptional now, but he’d picked up something different through the killings of various practitioners.  All of that was beside the point: their primary advantage in war was that they didn’t die like real soldiers did.  They came back.

So long as they could hold back from being reckless, the fact they knew they could try something and then put that knowledge into action made them very dangerous.  No fear slowed them down, their guns didn’t waver when another man’s might.  They were what soldiers were sold as, amid national fervor and whatever else it took to get a young adult to leave everything and try their hand at fighting the young men of other countries.  Real soldiers got spooked, real soldiers decided they didn’t want to kill another human being and aimed high.  Much of what the army, many armies tried to do was to drill in a willingness to shoot without aiming high.  In some ways, that was harder than participating in a firefight.

That was the advantage John brought into a fight, one of the first advantages he’d had in this world, before he’d had eyes and a mouth.  Before he’d had a proper name.

He’d only been Carnivore.

He didn’t have that advantage anymore.  He cared about dying.  He cared about losing.  People depended on him.  Kennet.  The three children.

And his enemy in this moment?  His enemy had that advantage he’d lost.  It almost wanted to die.

Horseman shouted something, pointing.

Yeah.

With the way they’d circled around the stands, a full circle for the spirit, a half circle for John, they were almost back at Lauren Snyder’s starting point.  John took stairs two at a time to ascend them, skin prickling as burned flesh slowly healed.  He aimed and shot at the spirit’s ankles as it prowled upward, trying to slow it down.  It barely mattered.  It had too much of a foothold in reality.

Fire extended along the wall above John, having already burned away banners.  Boards that lined the wall and the shop all burned now, and some fire had spread out into the lower area, where people might’ve once stood in line.

A third of the Arena burned.

High ground.  With the way the spirit-stuff spread beneath Lauren Snyder’s spirit, it flowed downhill.  Putting himself higher meant he didn’t have to worry about it much.

Another shot, another reload.  He tried to make each count.

Come on, come on…

How dumb was it?

He moved closer to the shop, bringing the rifle to his shoulder to pop off a quick shot.

The beast lunged, and John was prepared for it.  Feet shifted to an angle, and he pushed himself into a quick run down the stairs with little heed for what his situation would be when he was further down.  As it happened, he was able to grab a bit of railing.  The same railing that kept spectators from falling down into the pathway that led from the front door to the rink and the seats closest to the ice.

The spirit crashed into the burning concessions shop.  John quickly reloaded, then fired off another shot, reloaded, fired.  Each shot was aimed at Lauren Snyder.

More bullets.

The spirit turned to face John, and more of the shop collapsed around it.  The act of turning speared it at several points.  It breathed hard, shifting footing, and charred wood that speared it made sucking sounds as it pulled out of wounds.  Spirit stuff flowed, filling in gaps, flowed to mend skin, to build up protection, horns, drawing on the spirit’s theme of animals in general.

It hunkered there, poised, tense, fire burning along one side of its body, flesh and spiritstuff boiling through one another while the spirit held a vague but mostly solid  quadruped shape.  John’s eyes darted around, looking for places he might go, cover he might take.  He sniffed, nose running from the smoke, and his every breath had a burr to it.

Down into the hallway, under the railing?

From there… where?

The spirit’s head and shoulders dipped.

It began to give way, drawing back into itself.  The matter it had gathered up to build up a physical body fell away.

It all drew back into a central point- the gap in Lauren Snyder’s head.

John shifted his footing, aiming.

She looked far worse for wear as the spirit crawled back into her.  Her head pieced itself together around the spirit as it folded in, and a brief flash of light sealed it, doing away with most signs of injury- only blood and bruising around one eye.  Her shoulders drew together, and a hand covered all of her face except for one bloodshot eye.

“Ahhghh,” she rasped.  “Always hurts worse than the time before.”

“Don’t move,” John warned her.

She looked up.  “The soldier?  Not the horror?”

“Yes.  You were shot by one of the Witch Hunters.”

“You didn’t breathe the smoke?  Spiritstuff?  You didn’t walk in the dark pools?”

“No.”

“Didn’t let it bite you?  Or scratch?”

“No.  I was careful.  I am going to shoot you now, Lauren Snyder.”

“Bullets on their own won’t do it.  We’ll go through this in a cycle until you run out of bullets.”

“I thought I’d shoot it until it ran out of power.”

“You can’t.  I mean, it got you this far, I guess, but you can’t.  There’s way too much power.”

“What’s the power source?”

“Made a deal with a goddess back when I was fourteen, to serve her as a devout, to access a conduit of her power.  Her power is my power.  When things went wrong, that spike of darkness in Manu, my familiar… it stuck through some fundamental part of me and nailed something in.  Can’t close the gate, can’t break off the relationship to my goddess, much as she wants me to- she despises me now.  The darkness will leech off that power until my goddess dies.  I’m not sure it stops then, either.  It might keep the door open to… the universe, I guess.”

“Why did it retreat?” John asked.

“Manu is still a spirit, still feels, still doesn’t want to die.  So it falls back if it starts getting too drained.  If I die, Manu comes out, if Manu dies, I come out, but beneath it all, feeding it all, that flow of divine power that’s been forced to constantly flow.  Keeps us alive, even if it doesn’t keep me very strong or well.  I think it’d be satisfied to leave me withered, broken, and immobile, so long as it could keep drinking from the well.  I’m hoping to avoid that.”

“How do I kill you?”

Lauren Snyder dropped her hand away from her face.  Her eye was no longer bloodshot.  “I don’t think it’s possible.  I was hoping whoever I ended up against would have a way.  The horror seemed like a good bet, they’re resistant, they could dislodge the splinter enough that I stay dead enough to qualify for the contest.  Probably not forever, though.”

“He died rather than fight you,” John noted.

“Oh.  Um…” Lauren looked stunned.  She turned, and she opened her mouth to call out, before coughing at the smoke.  Her shout was strangled, “Alabaster!?”

“Yes, Lauren Snyder?”

“I can’t concede, right?”

“We’ve established this.  No, you cannot concede in entirety any more than a binding could encircle you in entirety.  Chalk cannot draw a full circle, and neither can Law.”

“Do you have a ten-count?  If we say one contestant is unable to fight for a pre-decided amount of time, they lose?”

“Not in the way you mean.”

“Can we make up that rule, then?”

“If the majority of remaining contestants agree?” the Aurum Coil announced, rising higher.  “That’s one agreement.  Two for… one against.”

John hadn’t made the decision.

If he agreed to this, it hurt him, it cost him options that he was keeping in the back of his mind.  If it came down to it, the support beam had been damaged, and others could be blown up.  If he brought down a portion of the Arena, he could survive amid the rubble in a way Reid Musser and Charles Abrams couldn’t.  Even Breastbiter might struggle.

It could decide a final confrontation.

But only if there was no way to come to a draw, no way he could be counted as the loser by some catch in the wording.

He looked at Lauren Snyder.

I keep fighting wolves and I keep hurting people I’d rather protect.  Young women, no less.

“Three agree, one against.  If one contestant is unable to fight or declare themselves willing to continue for a long enough span of time, the match in question may be called,” the Aurum Coil called out, voice filling the Arena.  “How long?”

“Five minutes,” the Sable Prince told them.

“You’re all cowards!” Breastbiter called out.  “If I had my way, the only way to lose would be dying!  No wimpy concession, no wimpy countdown from five hundred seconds!”

“Three hundred,” Reid said, “a minute is sixty seconds, five minutes is three hundred seconds.”

“Maybe it is for you, the way you get on with a girl, kid,” Breastbiter said.  “I don’t need to shorten how long a minute is to pad my numbers with the ladyfolk.  Or menfolk.  I’m gender indiscriminate.”

Reid sighed.

“I heard that sigh.  That’s psychological warfare at work, bitch-nips,” Breastbiter hissed.  Other goblins laughed and mocked.

John looked at Lauren.

“Five minutes?” she asked.  “Might get tough.”

John quickly reloaded his handguns, and checked the rifle.  It wasn’t just that the strap was loose, but the part of the housing it connected to had come ajar.

“Gun!” John called out, hand extended, shrugging off the strap and tossing the gun away.

“You chose to do without your subordinates,” the Sable Prince told him.

John stared the man in the black suit with the onyx black eyes down.

“Allow it,” Lauren said.  “Please.”

“There’s a consensus,” the Alabaster said, and it almost felt like she was saying it to the Sable Prince, to settle a disagreement that had never happened.

Angel threw another rifle to John.  He caught it without needing to move his hand.

The fire continued to burn around them.  Continued to spread.  It crackled, and only cracks in the wall and ceiling let the smoke out, keeping it from becoming impossible to see inside.  Maybe that was something the Judges had done or allowed.

“Reid,” Lauren said.  “It was nice meeting you.  Maybe it sounds weird, but I wish we’d met a long time ago, living under different circumstances.”

“So do I,” he answered.  “It doesn’t sound weird to me.”

She turned to John.  “So?”

“I need to put you down and keep you down?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think I can do that with bullets or blades.  The way I understand it, if the spirit says it wants to live and keep fighting, whatever language it speaks, the count resumes.  Bullets or blades would leave too many opportunities.”

Sweat rolled down John’s face.  The red army jacket he wore wasn’t warm or cool, but the rest of him was.  The interior of the building was hot enough it singed the nostrils and it was getting hotter.  Smoke made it impossible to see the far half of the Arena from where he stood.

“Okay, so not bullets or blades.  I won’t fight you, whatever you decide,” she told him.

John looked at the corner of the building, where the tree still burned.

She looked as well, then she exhaled softly.  “Spooky.”

“I know.”

“Support me while we walk over?”

He did.

“Don’t want to fall and die, when I’m not in position.  I really did plan on explaining, but-”

“You got shot.  Don’t worry,” John said.

He led her to the edge of the open fire.  The wood had burned enough it had broken into chunks, and each chunk blazed.  Smoke rolled off and made the visibility next to nothing.  Still, the hole in the wall was the biggest opening and the pressure difference seemed to make it suck out the largest volume of it.  Much of the smoke flowed away from them.

Lauren Snyder coughed violently all the same.

“Don’t let it get you,” she said.  She coughed again, eyes shut so she didn’t have to have them open in the smoke.  “I don’t know how long it takes to die of oxygen deprivation-”

“You might be on your way.”

She clutched at his sleeve, trying to speak through coughs, “but if you wait it out, let me take my time dying, that’s less time you have to deal with Manu.”

“I’m not that cruel.”

“Pragmatic,” she told him.

“I’m not that pragmatic,” he said, surveying the surroundings.  Trying not to think-

Trying not to think about Yalda.  About the pragmatic conversations beforehand.

He decided on a plan.  He gripped her arm more firmly.  “I’m sorry it came to this.”

“Believe me, I’m so much more sorry,” she said.  She looked up at him, shielding her eyes with one gaunt hand, and she looked momentarily surprised by his expression.

“Anything else?” he asked.

“You’re very kind.  I didn’t expect that.”

“Messages?  Words?”

“I wish there was any other way.  Any way I could live.  But I decided this the moment I walked through the door.  Finish it.”

He pressed the gun to the bottom of her chin, and angled it before shooting twice in quick succession, to do as much damage to her brain as he could.  Spirit-stuff started boiling out immediately, already as angry as before.

She was shockingly light as he lifted her, heaving her body with a two-handed toss toward the corner of the building.

Striding through flame, flesh burning, he kicked down a section of trunk.  It fell across her.

The spirit emerged, and John hurried to back away, muscles failing, pulling the rifle around, aiming, and firing.

The spirit writhed in fire, and it didn’t have a body around itself.  It retreated.

John shot the moment Lauren Snyder jerked back to life.

Like a bad dream.  Not that he’d ever truly dreamed.  He didn’t sleep.

But he’d watched movies.  He’d played games.  He’d seen them represented.

He gunned down the spirit as it tried to find something in its immediate area to absorb.  He backed away as it boiled out with more tainted spiritstuff, as if it thought it could quench fire.

It wasn’t that strong, or that kind of spirit.  Small mercies.

Lauren Snyder jerked awake, voice ragged.

So it went.

Reliving some grotesque mimicry of the worst moment in his existence over and over again, licked by fire.

She’d been so concerned about the test, about the fact that so many contestants weren’t in this to win.  And as she’d voiced that, he’d dug for that drive to move forward, to protect Kennet.

Which had put him at a disadvantage he wasn’t used to, against the spirit.  The spirit was willing to give its all, not even caring if it died or lost.  John cared enough that it made him hesitate to put his life on the line.  More than normal.

Maybe she had been worried John and the other contestants would back out like the horror had.  If they didn’t care enough, if they were here to serve some general purpose… why would they fight something that could ruin them in a way that went far beyond mere death?

The Judges cast three long shadows over Lauren Snyder, as they stood on either side of John.

He worked, conserving bullets.  One bullet to shoot away a branch the spirit wanted to absorb, another to brain it, as it drew in a chunk of Lauren Snyder to try to form a physical brain in the midst of its spirit body.  Maybe it wanted to think enough to communicate.

“That’ll do,” the Sable Prince said.

John waded out of the fire, flesh seared deep, clothes burning but not burning away.  He walked down concrete, surrounded by thick smoke, eyes unfocused, jaw set.

Behind him, Lauren Snyder was unmade.

Reid Musser adjusted bandages around his face, facing down at the ice while he adjusted ones behind his head.  As he worked on ones around his eye, he used an extended knuckle to wipe at the base of the eye socket.

“Had me worried,” Grandfather said, clapping a hand on John’s shoulder.

“Thought the splinter inside it was propping it up, but it’d still run out of reserves,” John replied, looking back in the direction where Lauren Snyder had been laid to rest.  “It didn’t.  Might’ve been impossible if she’d fought me at all.”

“That sort of finish was more Fubar’s sort of job,” Miles said.

“Heck yeah,” Fubar cut in.

“Fubar wouldn’t have been that kind,” Grandfather said.  “John tried to be merciful about it, seemed like.  That’s harder.”

John nodded once, eyes focusing on nothing in particular as he settled back with his group.  He closed those eyes.

“Really went and grew up on us, huh, John?” Horseman asked.  “I was prepared to tell some of our rookies off if they weren’t listening to you.  If you were more a symbolic leader, whatever.  But you’ve come further than any of us.”

“For better or worse,” John replied.

“That’s the way it goes, isn’t it?” Horseman asked.

When John didn’t reply, Horseman resumed pacing, pausing to exchange remarks with Mark and Elvis.

John rested for a moment with his eyes closed.  When that got too stressful, accumulated stresses and impatience building up, he opened his eyes, checking to see where things stood.

The fire had been put on hold, the flames moving but not consuming.  John hoped that extended to things beyond the fire itself.  The Judges held the splinter between them.  It was terribly thin, and long.  They apparently didn’t want to be disturbed, or they wanted to preserve the spirit of the contest enough that they were putting things on hold.

“What do you do with something like that?” Angel asked, leaning against the boards at the rink’s perimeter.

“Put it-” Reid Musser started.  He stopped, then said, “somewhere deep, somewhere stable.  Far away, where it won’t interact with anything.”

The Sable Prince created a square of darkness in the floor.  All three Judges worked to position the sliver above the door, then dropped it.

“Bully for you then, isn’t it, soldier boy?” Breastbiter asked.  “That’s the sort of job waiting for us if we take the position.  Cleaning up waste, and not in the fun way.”

“Mmm.”

“Your jacket is more red than it was,” Horseman murmured.

John looked at his sleeve.  His jacket had collected some soot and smoke, but it was undeniable that the parts of it that had been protected by creases were a striking red.

“Bully for you indeed,” Horseman added.

“We may continue,” the Alabaster announced.  “Lauren Snyder is unmade, consigned to oblivion, and that is far better than what was waiting for her, after the infection took hold.  Her familiar has been interred in the same manner, and the fragment has been removed.  Thank you for your assistance, John Stiles.”

“Mm.”

“We can continue now.”

“Eh?” Breastbiter asked.  “Musser, boy.  You’re the only one who hasn’t fought.”

Reid Musser looked back in the direction of the worst of the fire, where the tree was burning away.

“If you’re going to delay, I can fight Breastbiter in the meantime,” John told Reid.

“You’re injured,” Angel commented.

“How do you follow up on something like that?” Reid asked, looking back in the direction of Lauren.  “What do you say or do?  Everything in comparison seems petty.”

“Except tits and nips,” Breastbiter added.

“Fuck off!  Fuck you!” Reid raised his voice.

“You want to fight?  You want to swear?  Let’s take it out there,” Breastbiter told him.

“Don’t disrespect that kind of death with your stupid- stupid- everything.  She got dealt the worst- the worst hand, she dealt with it the best way.  That matters more than anything I’ve done in my life, everything I’ve done in my life put together.  So don’t fuck around.  Not after that.”

“Reid,” John said.

“Fuck- what?

“If you want to respect what she did, the way to do it is to fight, win, and make it matter when you’re Judge.  But if you delay, if you waste time, then there’s a much greater chance Charles Abrams comes in and takes the throne.  A man who didn’t even see what happened.”

“The Judges would remember, at least.”

“Judges don’t talk about the contests.  Makes it easier to change things in little ways,” John told Reid.  “And I don’t think they care enough to do much in memory of her.”

“I would do something,” the Alabaster said.  “Planting a flower.  Those I’ve taken under sanctuary tend to the flowers.”

“That’s not enough, a human being deserves more than a flower in a hidden garden,” Reid said.  He looked back at John.  “The way you brought people in.  Could they go and say-?”

“All summons and would-be lieutenants are sworn to secrecy,” John said.

Reid shook his head.

John continued, “Fight, that’s your way.  If you want to fight me, if you keep it clean and fast, I’ll do something for her if I become Judge.  If you don’t want to fight, say it now, so we can move on.”

“I never-” Reid started.  “I never had anything.”

John started walking toward the door that led off of the rink, glancing at Breastbiter.

“Wait,” Reid said.  “Wait.  If the Judges won’t respect her, they won’t care about what I have to say.  Just hear me out, I’ll- I’ll make things faster.  Talk to me?”

“I don’t see how you could make this faster,” John said.

“I swear.  I swear on it.  I’ll… just help me out.  Hear me?”

John paused.  Grandfather met his eyes, looking pretty unhappy.

Yeah.  Reid was not that far a leap from the sort of practitioner that had bound them.

But John stopped, and he faced Reid.

“I feel like everything I ever got in life, it’s- it’s my dad’s.  Even goals.  Dreams.  Even the ideas about the world.”

“What about your cousin?” John asked.

“I didn’t have her.  She was- she is my father’s pawn.  I- I wish she’d done more to fit in with the family, done something to use her assets, to play along.”

“And if she had, wouldn’t she have ended up like you?  Never having had anything?”

“Coming out here, I feel like the connections to the family are cut, and I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“You’re about to face a life or death fight for the Carmine Throne.  If you win, I guess you’re meant to support your family in a passive way.  If you lose, you disappear and only a few people will hold onto your memory,” John told him.

“Depends what you did for or to them,” Horseman added.

“I was talking to Lauren and I realized I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with a girl or a woman that was just me and her. If my family wasn’t there, or if they weren’t part of the reason I was talking to them, then they were still there in- strategy.”

Reid looked at John, the one unbandaged eye wide and surrounded by ragged, torn eyelid.  Blood and staining crept along the bandages without finding any permanent purchase.  Smoke curled around them.

“Sounds right,” John said.  “You were a soldier.  They called the shots, decided where you’d go, what you’d do.”

“I fooled around with a girl and I called family first, to check it was okay.” Reid spoke the words like he was in a daze.

Breastbiter leaned over, asking, “Was it at least a ‘hey mom, I’m about to pork that girl from the party last week, thought I’d double check and you’d be the person who’d know if she and I are related or not?  Or maybe your dad boned her too and you wanted to check about any disease?”

“It wasn’t either of those,” Reid said, sounding lost.  “I had familiars, implements, I thought- more than the next guy, right?  Better.  But they weren’t really mine.”

“Sometimes that’s the way it goes,” John told him.  “You did your duty, I think you did it for the wrong people, but now you need to make your peace with that.”

“I’m trying to think- was there anything?  Did I do anything that was mine?”

“Move forward, try to win, and do something for a girl you met, that your family didn’t make you meet,” John said.  “Which means fighting.  That’s how you get something that’s yours.”

“But… on the throne, will what I do be mine, or the throne’s?”

“From what I was told about the Carmine Beast, she didn’t feel she had much impact, and she felt she was a slave to the role,” John answered.

Reid’s eye widened, surrounded in the Abyss-touched bandages on one side of his face.  He sounded nothing like he looked as he said, “I’ve got cousins, Raquel, some others, some are little kids, will they feel like this?”

“Probably,” Breastbiter said.

“I don’t want- I don’t want that,” Reid said, turning around to face the Judges.  “Can I have an hour?  A bit of time?  We could postpone all this.”

“No,” John said.  “I don’t think you can.”

“But if I- I could talk to my dad.  I could tell him to stop Charles Abrams.  Maybe if I did, would you agree to just let me go, say a few words to my cousin?”

“There is one exit, Reid Musser,” the Sable Prince told him.  “The throne.”

“But- what if- just if you’d give me the one hour?  I could go, talk to them, then come back, we could wrap up.”

“No,” the Aurum Coil said.

“Fifteen minutes?  They’re just outside.  They’re- I could go and be back before John and Breastbiter are done.”

There was no reply.

“Five?” he asked.

“That would contradict the pledge you made to John Stiles, to buy his listening ear,” the Sable Prince said.  “That you’d hurry these proceedings along.”

“I-” Reid started.  He looked at John.  “When my face was carved up, I didn’t even get my own grieving.  I was sitting there, feeling sorry for myself, and my father- he said crying wouldn’t be becoming of a Musser.  So I did my best.  I made that my focus.  I think- I think the fact I was crying before he said that, it’s why he took me to the Abyss.  To harden me up.”

“I’m sorry,” John told Reid.  “I am.  I’m… also aware that this preoccupation you have with having something of your own right now?  I know you preyed on others.  You took their precious things.  Perhaps there’s justice in what you’re feeling right now.”

“In my- me never having existed at all, for all I’ve mattered?”

“You hurt people,” John told Reid.  “Maybe your cousin will be kind enough to remember you in a good way, but most… they won’t be growing flowers for you, in hidden gardens or real ones.  That’s the stain you’ve left on the world.  Now, the little sympathy I’ve extended you is wearing thin.  You made a promise to make this fast.  I could call you forsworn.”

Reid lifted his head.  He looked at the Judges.  “Would I get to leave if I were forsworn?”

The Aurum Coil shook his head, smiling a little.  “No.”

“Oh,” Reid Musser said.  “Oh.  Alright.”

He looked over at where Lauren Snyder had died.  “I- I wasn’t in love with her.  But the conversation was mine and hers, right?  I would’ve liked to have her for a friend.”

“Reid,” John said.  “I will call you forsworn if you don’t hurry this along.  And as we fight, if you delay, if you hold back, if you hide, if you postpone in any way, I’ll use that.  More important things are happening.  Things that impact your cousin and many other individuals.”

Reid nodded, a small and quick movement.  He turned, heading to the gate.

“Soldier,” Reid said.

John exhaled, small and forceful.

“You should get to shoot him soon,” Horseman murmured.

“Soldier,” Reid called out.  “Can you do me a favor?”

“Haven’t I already?”

“If you survive, if this is my loss?  Can you tell Raquel something?”

“If you don’t hurry this along, I’m inclined to promptly forswear you and mislead her about how you went out.”

“Tell her- I hope she puts in some effort and appeals to someone suitable for the family, someone kind to her, and marries them.  That will elevate her station enough she- she can maybe have something of her own.  I want her to have something of her own.”

“I think she’s more likely to find happiness and find something of her own if she leaves the family entirely,” John called out.

Reid stared across the rink at him, then nodded, as if to himself.

John let the last of his squad through, then slammed the little wooden door to the rink.

“Jesus Christ on cheese crackers,” Fubar muttered.

John sighed.

He and his squad stepped out onto the stands.  They had to sort out guns and things for a moment.

Reid, alone, paged through the little book that had hung from his waist by a chain.  He began tearing out pages, all of which he held.

John and his squad got sorted, then faced Reid, looking past plexiglass and smoke.  Reid was only a silhouette.

Other silhouettes began to rise.  John wasn’t unfamiliar with this sort of thing.  They were the province of some old families.

He could identify them by the way they stood, the shapes of faces, and the colors they wore.  That there was a theme, a commonality.  One that tied them to Reid and Abraham Musser.

Mussers.  Mussers of past generations, crystallized echoes, or a bit of Animus, a bit of history forming its own patterns.  Some held whips, others held muskets.  They’d fought for a long time.  And of course, some were practitioners.  As they rose up out of the ground, some had to move away from the swelling fire at one side of the building.

John triple-checked his rifle was in working order.

Reid Musser called Blackhorne, and surprisingly, Blackhorne answered.  He said something, Blackhorne responded.

I know what he’s probably asking.  But they should be sworn to secrecy about the proceedings, much in the same way as those who came on foot were.

Reid’s movement was violent.  A lashing out, a frustrated, angry movement, as he pulled out a chain.

It was heavy, blacker than even Blackhorne’s dark silhouette, and it broke concrete as it draped out over the steps around Reid’s silhouette.

And chains ripped their way out of ceiling, wall, floor, and other surroundings.  Some came from fire and they came out hot enough that they glowed white in the midst of smoke.  He moved his hand roughly a foot, holding the tail end of chain, and chains all around the arena shifted, sawing, tore, pulled up concrete.

“He’s not coughing,” Angel murmured.  “The heat of the fire doesn’t bother him.”

“It’s the Abyss-hardening,” John said.  “It’s fine.  He hamstrung himself.  He’d be stronger sending his summoned Others forward, but I can have him meet me.”

“Good enough,” Horseman said.

“Support me.  I need to get close enough to shout to him.”

His fellow soldiers fanned out, finding positions where they could deal with various angles.  Elvis slipped away, leaving an annoying gap that Mark had to fill.

John moved, circling around, counter-clockwise, passing through the corner of the arena opposite the fire.

Reid remained where he was.  He turned his wrist at a right angle, and chains moved, forming a barrier in front of him.

John led the way, knowing the risk, knowing he could weather some of these tricks better than the rookies like Mark or Joe.

“Reid Musser!” he shouted.

Reid turned his head, staring at John past the curtain of chains, not moving otherwise, not responding.

“You swore to hurry this.  You pledged that!  Come forward, instead of making me come to you!”

Reid Musser didn’t come forward.

The summoned highlights of the Musser bloodline turned to face John.  Some readied weapons.

“Reid Musser, for the second time, I warn you, you swore an oath, I’m willing to call out to the Judges below us and have them make a decision on that oath, if you make me fight through your summons!”

Reid didn’t move, only staring John down.

“Give the order,” one Musser said.  He was more echo than Animus.  Vague, blurry at the edges, but what wasn’t blurry was sharp and adorned in gold.  “Child, descendant, you have to command us, by the terms of the summoning.”

John slowed.

He looked at Reid Musser, saw the young man’s hands shaking, as he held the book in one hand and a chain in another.

John gave a wide berth to the summoned family members, and circled around the chain curtain.

Reid nodded.

“Grandfather?” John asked.

“What do you need?”

“If I make it, I’ll try to pass a message to Raquel Musser.  Urging her to get away.  I’ll tell her it’s what her cousin wanted.”

“Please,” Reid said.

“I’ll do something about Lauren Snyder as well.  To let people know she made a sacrifice to facilitate the splinter being buried.  She was dropped off, it looked like.  Perhaps I’ll try to find those people who brought her here, to let them know how it went.”

Reid nodded, swallowing.

“If I don’t make it, Grandfather, do you think you could do something appropriate, while holding to the promise made to keep proceedings secret?”

“Why me?”

“You might just be the most compassionate member in our group.”

“We’re a real bunch of assholes, then, huh?” Grandfather asked.

“You know it,” Fubar rejoined, from the background.

“That works,” Reid Musser told John, nodding quickly.

John drew his revolver, rifle held in his other hand, then put a bullet in the young man’s head, then followed up with two quick shots to the body.

Reid Musser’s summons dissipated before he slumped to the side, flopped forward, his face slamming into the concrete stair a few levels below.

The chain slapped against ground, and scarred hands reached out of cracks in the concrete to haul it beneath, reclaiming it.

Leaving only Reid on the stairs.

“I suppose that keeps his oath, speeds this along,” Horseman said.

John sighed.

“No fight in him?” Ribs rasped.

John shook his head.  “Realized what taking the throne meant, I think.”

Breastbiter pushed his way through the door John had slammed only a minute ago, taking up residence on that side of the Arena.  He was followed by his crowd of goblins.

John was glad he’d used the red string early, so the spirit could kill them.  Less soldiers for the goblin.

Leaving John and his squad to stand with fire at their backs.  Black clapped a gloved hand on John’s shoulder, and it helped.  An imperceptible difference that built up, compounded itself.

The Aurum Coil slithered up through the door, up the stands, holding up one finger, signaling a wait.

He picked up Reid Musser’s body and carried him down to the rink.

No contestants waited there.  Only Judges.

Made fire easier to bear, easier to see in, easier to breathe.

“It’s all so fucked up, isn’t it?” Breastbiter raised his voice.  He had a good sense of acoustics.

“Yep,” John answered.

“Not enough fighting in this fight to the death!  What do you say?  You and me, stripped down to our undies, mine’ve got red hearts.  Oil ourselves up, get a good grip on each other’s nipples, twist until one of us caves!”

Goblins cheered.

“I won’t play you at your game, Breastbiter!” John called out.  “I’m not an idiot!”

“Too bad!  Gets you thinking, doesn’t it?” Breastbiter called out.  “Everything on the line, gotta look at everyone who fought, makes you fuckin’ reflect!”

“Yeah!”

“You think they rigged it!?” the goblin asked.  “Shoehorned in the poor face fucker?  Tweaked the universe so the kid would come?”

“No idea!  Might be the sort of thing where you come up with some fancy answers no matter what!”

Fire crackled.  Something collapsed behind John.  He trusted his brothers and sisters to watch his back, in case he needed to get clear of anything that was falling down.

Breastbiter called out, “Life or death situation, throw in a few grisly deaths, noble sacrifices, pathetic kids!?”

“Something like that!” John shouted.

“Got me thinking, you know?  Like watching this shit’s got me more prepared to be a Judge!?”

“Might have to think on that one!” John shouted across the rink and Arena.  His voice echoed in the open space.  “Not sure what lesson Ondvarg was meant to teach me.  Or Faceful.”

“Pain hurts!?  Know what you’re getting into!?”

“Cagerattler set up the test.  Seems to be asking, do we really want this?  The others- Brotherhood?  Sacrifice?  Legacy?”

“What kind of fucking boring life are you leading, John Stiles?  Shit, man, I came into this thinking I’m going to saw off part of that throne, gonna have some chicks with huge ta-tas stand there, massage my head, trade off, handle it in shifts.  Or some heavy dudes with serious moobs, you know?  I’m talking-”

“Gender indiscriminate!” John called out, as Breastbiter said it.

“Yeah!” Breastbiter laughed out the word.  “Shit, man!  Thought I’d get free, set something like that up!  But now, seeing everything I’ve seen tonight?  This is some elevated shit!  If this is to teach me how important the job is, message fuckin’ received!  I’m not talking boring shit like legacy and brotherhood and sacrifice but still!”

“Yeah!”

“So I’m gonna say!  You were saying there was serious stuff coming.  Your forsworn asshole hasn’t arrived.  While we wait for Reid Musser to get dissolved into nothing, I’m going to offer you a deal!”

“He’s dissolved,” the Sable told them.  “You may begin.”

“Let’s hear it first,” John told Breastbiter.

“Concede.  Go out into the black oblivion, call it now.  I think I’d be a pretty good Carmine!  It’s all about fighting and fuckin’, right?  The rush?  The wild stuff?  Name your terms, tell me what you want, you call it quits, contest ends, asshole doesn’t get to play.”

“Be nice to the humans?  No harassment, no killing, lets get that down to a minimum.”

“More fuckin’, less fighting?”

“In that direction, but I’d need something more firm.”

“What else?  Let’s hear it out, figure out what’s negotiable.”

“Kennet.  They’re trying to do something better, something where Others and practitioners, there’s a better relationship.  Wild, older.”

“I like wild!”

“Peaceful.  There’s some pretty cool goblins there, Breastbiter.  A guy with a plan.  Hear ’em out, if they need a Judge?  Help ’em out?”

“That sounds pretty doable.”

“John,” Horseman said, quiet.

“My war buddies?  Treat ’em well?”

“Course.  They look like the sorta guys we want to keep around!”

“John,” Grandfather said.  “It sounds like you’re giving up.”

“No.  Just…” John looked back at the door.  “Keeping options open.  Breastbiter?”

“Yeah!?”

“This goblin queen you’re scared of!”

“Redcap queen!”

“What happens if she comes this way?”

“I back her.  That’s the deal.  She lets me go, lets me try this, I back her.”

“Non-negotiable?”

“Non-negotiable, soldier.”

“That’s non-negotiable for me too, Biter.  She sounds like bad news.”

“You have no idea.  But that’s a problem for five or ten years from now, you know?”

John nodded to himself.

“Non-negotiable?” Breastbiter asked.

“Yeah.”

“Then we fight?”

“Yeah.  I guess we do.”

The goblin raised a hand, pointing.

And the lesser goblins scattered.  Big ones came straight for John’s group.

“Ready,” John murmured.

His old brothers in arms got ready.  All of them sorted, Doe by Horseman, who was front and center, Angel to his left, Grandfather behind him… so it went.  Black and Ribs in the wings, Black preparing, Ribs ready to be all-out aggressive, pouring fire onto this battlefield.

The goblins moved, and they moved fast.  Breastbiter followed, moving more carefully, keeping to cover.  A burly pitbull of a goblin lurking behind, grinning excitedly.

“Biter!” John bellowed.

The goblin made momentary eye contact as he advanced to better cover.  It wasn’t the original cover that had been laid out with this battlefield- much of that had been demolished.  It was cover that now existed because damage had been done, because chains had torn through parts of the ceiling, because rubble had been churned up by hands, because grenades had blown up piles of seating, rearranging them.

“What do you want, soldier boy!?”

“If you’re right, and there’s some profound lesson we’re supposed to take away from each fight, what are we teaching each other?”

“Hate to break it to you, soldier, but I don’t think you’re the smartest knife in the drawer, if you can’t see it!  You’ve got your bullshit morals like legacy, power of love, looking both ways before you cross the street, whatever, and you can’t see what we are!?”

“‘Fraid not, Biter!”

“Something every boy oughta come to terms with before they become a man!  You’re overdue to learn it!”

“Tell me!”

“Your final life lesson’s going to be about what the back half of a goblin’s ballbag smells like!  Universal fuckin’ lesson, soldier!  Right there between the power of friendship and coming to terms with death!”

“Profound!”

Breastbiter laughed.

“Can I defect?” Fubar asked.

“No you may not,” John told him.

Mark picked off one of the smaller goblins.

He had been birthed by War herself, and he had the unique position of being able to relate to both Guilherme’s sort and the goblins like Toadswallow and Bluntmunch.  He’d won their respect and they’d earned his.  Now he kept what he’d learned from the association in mind.

The talk about meaning and definitions came from a pretty Faerie place.  There was always a story being told, everyone had their own tale, and if he was smart about it, then he could catch where Breastbiter’s story was taking him and get out ahead of it.

Goblins had their own techniques.  It wasn’t only chaos, and it was profound in its way, even if it probably didn’t tie to the lessons John and Breastbiter had been openly theorizing about.  Coup and claim.  The act of asserting control by the little moves, the little insults, the individual hits and blows, whether physical blows or blows to pride.

That was what goblins excelled at, in a contest where practice crossed practice or Other crossed Other on a battlefield.

That made this a fight where, on an abstract level between John and Breastbiter, the one who could keep his head up highest won.

So John did something less tactically sound, and stepped away from cover, stood tall, and fired his rifle at Breastbiter’s cover.  He trusted his team to gun down goblins who turned and went straight for him.

Breastbiter still had the one lock of hair.  If he could get past that, he was fairly sure the win was his.  For the time being, if he could keep the goblin down, that counted.

Two bald goblins with bloody handprints on their scalp came tearing out of the smoke, straight for him.  Bullets from the flanks didn’t stop them.  John held his ground.

A claymore set by Black detonated, blasting one of the two goblins dead on.  The other stopped in his tracks.

John jumped the other one.  Twenty feet separated them, but John could run down the stands, throwing himself forward.

The burly goblin caught him around the chest, baring teeth, but was forced to let go of one side of John’s chest to catch the wrist of the hand that held a combat knife.  The lopsided catch and John’s downward momentum meant the goblin half-turned from the impact of the catch.  His back was put to John’s group, and a bullet to the cranium and upper chest ended him.

John cut the goblin’s throat as it fell.

Soaked in the goblin’s blood, the brute falling, the smoke from the claymore mingling with the smoke elsewhere, John faced the greater cohort of goblins.  His soldiers continued to lay down suppressive fire.

Breastbiter laughed.

John had practiced for this in little ways, dealing with goblin pranks, the back and forth of dealing with Bluntmunch, Toadswallow, and even Gashwad.

If he could put Breastbiter down, if he could have a critical moment where he got to stand taller…

It meant Breastbiter’s sway of his own group faltered.  Breastbiter had to do something.

John glanced to one side as the Alabaster stepped off the rink.  Her light shone, clear, through smoke.

As she went to the door.

There it was.  He wasn’t surprised.  Fae had a sense for timing.

And goblins like Breastbiter had a sense for the contests of dominance.

“Hey, soldier!”

“The last contestant arrived, Breastbiter,” John called out.  He grabbed his rifle strap and fired the rifle from the hip at one larger goblin, his other hand still holding the knife.  “He’s stealing your moment.”

A bit of drama, showing off, establishing dominance, denying Breastbiter the same.

“Him?” Breastbiter asked, stepping out of the smoke.  His eyes glowed faintly in the haze of red-tinged smoke.  “A scrawny, forsworn old man.”

Breastbiter had the lock of red hair under his nose, worn as a mustache.  He flexed, muscles popping out from under other muscles, to exaggerate his bulk.

“Would’ve been nice to have him come here, ready to deal with me, now that I’ve mopped up some of the tricky candidates, only to have to deal with you instead.  But the redcap queen stuff… too bad.  Can’t accept that.”

“I think you’re going to have to accept some of it, soldier boy,” Breastbiter told him.  He licked the mustache off his lower lip, catching it on his tongue, then drew it into his mouth, swallowing it.  “Non-optional.”

“Figured.”

“How about, when I’m done with you, I tear his nips off, suck his blood out through the raw holes left behind?”

“When you and I are done, the only thing you’ll be sucking is the back half of your own ballsack.”

Breastbiter chuckled, then grunted.

He hunched over, his back swelling, back muscles expanding and swelling.

A hand reached up against skin, stretching it translucent.  Then others.

Charles Abrams was down here, watching.  Wrapped in fur.

“I’d pay attention,” Breastbiter growled.  “Say ‘mommy’.”

The back-skin split, and human-sized goblins tumbled out, slick with amniotic fluids.  Others swelled into existence at Breastbiter’s back, quickly filling the void.

“Sorry, Breastbiter,” John said.  “This is me and him.  You’re in the way at this point.”

Thin wood paneling that had once bounded some kind of back office had been piled up in one corner, and as the fire weakened it, it collapsed.  The contents cascaded down the stairs, along with a tide of smoke, sparks, and burning bits of furniture.  A filing cabinet practically exploded, casting smoking papers out into the air.  Some caught aflame.

Most of it in Breastbiter’s direction.

Breastbiter was hidden from view.

He chose that moment to lunge.  John stabbed a reaching mitt of a hand through the palm with a combat knife, and was carried off his feet, back through the flaming remnants of the concessions shop, which had spilled down over the stands.  Past his own team.

Making this a one-on-one fight helped discount the advantage Breastbiter had in the long-term.  Goblins could tough out a lot of the common stab wounds and gunshots.  They stayed down when they were killed, but getting that far was its own problem.  John’s soldiers could get back up, but in this tug of war of territory, of claim, of one-upmanship and standing, John knew how easy it would be to lose ground and then have it forever lost.  There would be replacement goblins.  Breastbiter would be birthing a pair every minute or so, at this rate.  The wounded could be dragged off, or goblins would take up residence and keep it, with stink, with spikes, with something.

But goblins respected the one-on-one fight.  Their loyalty was contingent on respect, and if Breastbiter needed their help, then he didn’t have their respect.

A cyclical thing.

Which meant John had to deal with a muscular goblin and whatever goblins had been born of the red hair’s power recently enough that they didn’t care about all that.

He fought with the combat knife.  His shoes skidded on concrete as Breastbiter bent low, smoke rolling around them.  Muscular arms groped out of the large goblin’s back.  One caught Breastbiter around the throat, providing leverage for the naked, hairless brute of a goblin to haul himself out of Breastbiter’s swollen, bulging back.  Another hand caught Breastbiter’s arm, and the goblin heaved himself forward and out, toward John.  John had to pull away to avoid letting the goblin grab his knife hand.

The brute slopped out and forward with a sucking sound, tumbling down two stairs, before he found his senses.

Around him, his team was shooting.  They gunned down goblins who might’ve thought to interfere, and kept this a one-on-one fight.

John managed to slash Breastbiter across the collarbone, in one quick slash, then hurried to deliver a swift kick at the side of the recently birthed goblin’s neck.  It was slick enough it slid down a few steps on its belly.

Doe stabbed it.

Two more goblins were being born out of Breastbiter’s back.

“What’s the profound lesson you’re meant to teach me, soldier?” the goblin asked.

“I think it’s something you’re supposed to figure out, more than something you’re taught, but I can get you started.  This isn’t your power, biter,” John told his foe.  “It’s something borrowed.  It’s her power.”

“You brought a gun to a fistfight.  That’s a bitch move, soldier.”

Breastbiter lunged.  John stabbed the goblin through the wrist, and Breastbiter didn’t seem to care.  The blade dragged a line from the back of the wrist to the elbow, and the goblin caught John at the collar.

John drew his gun and fired it through Breastbiter’s wounded arm, twice, thrice-

He was jerked in close.  Breastbitter smiled, even as groping hands emerging from his own back pulled at his ear and the side of his face, trying to find handholds to get out from his back.

Doe had been grabbed by two, dragged down stairs.  Another naked, fluid-slick goblin was being set on fire by Ribs.  The fact that Breastbiter had plowed through into their midst and was spawning large goblins was making their formation fall apart.  Smaller goblins were getting in closer.

John empted the gun into Breastbiter’s arm, doing enough damage that when he slammed his arm against the inside of Breastbiter’s, bone grated against bone.

But he was still held firm enough that Breastbiter could reach under his shirt, reach up, and grab him by one nipple.  The goblin smiled.

A second smack against the inside of the arm broke the wrist.  Bone grated against bone again, and something fell out of alignment, wrist-bones sliding past one another.  Breastbiter lost his grip on John’s coat.

Only the pinch of flesh between two goblin fingers remained.  Breastbiter pulled John off his feet with enough force that the skin of his chest almost tore.

John could see the goblin’s intent.  A channeling of power- the arms of goblins at Breastbiter’s back overlapped, reached, supported shoulder and arm.

For catapult-like strength.

He intended to hurl John by one nipple, into the thickest mass of goblins who’d been pinned down by gunfire.

John would be torn to shreds.

But John had the gun in hand.  It all came down to where he placed the two remaining bullets.

Coup and claim.  The insults of a well placed blow to ego, body, or both.  The mechanics of taking.

He could get his coup, but Breastbiter would get a pyrrhic victory.

No, instead, John aimed the gun at his distended left nipple and the fingers that gripped it, and fired.

In the doing, he clipped his own flesh and he took two of Breastbiter’s fingers.  He was freed.  He landed on his back just beneath the hunched-over goblin.  Two goblins in the process of being birth slopped down on either side of him.

The second bullet he placed through Breastbiter’s left nipple.

He could have done both, but he would’ve been flung.

Instead, he used the knife to impale the right one, and he held it there.  The newly birthed goblins on either side of him grabbed him.  Breastbiter loomed, almost like he’d fall on top of John.  Fire surrounded them.

Gunfire from multiple directions caught Breastbiter.

Coup and claim.  It was a one-on-one fight, but in the moment he’d gotten Breastbiter in such a signature way, he’d decided the fight in a way that meant none of Breastbiter’s goblins would cry unfair or fly into a rage.  It was still his victory.

He planted a foot on Breastbiter’s stomach, and heaved, kicking Breastbiter back and backward.

Angel brought a machete down on the neck of one of the goblins that was holding John’s side.  She let go of the handle, and John grabbed it, swinging it in a full arc to get the goblin brute to his left across the face.

There was a whole snail-trail of birthed goblin brutes left in the course Breastbiter had charged, and those had to be dealt with, but the fight was more or less over.

John found his feet  He pulled the machete out of the one goblin’s face, turned, and looked down at Breastbiter.

The goblin’s back still bulged, but the goblins there weren’t strong enough to pull themselves free, so it looked more like he had many arms and one leg sticking out of his back.

“You might’ve done better without the lock of hair, this time.”

“Guess that’s the lesson?” the goblin asked.

“Maybe,” John said, frowning, breathing hard.  His chest hurt.

“Hey, soldier boy?” Breastbiter asked.

“Yeah?”

“Your jacket turned green again.”

John was slick with blood and amniotic fluid, to the point it was pretty damn hard to tell.

But sure enough.  His jacket had turned red when he’d laid a claim to the throne.

The Sable Prince approached.  John turned, walking away.  Breastbiter’s hand dropped away.

The haze from smoke was enough that John couldn’t even see Charles.  He focused on his team in the moment.

“Your guy arrived,” Grandfather said.

“Yep.”

“Good showing.”

“Thanks.”

“How bad is it, that he showed up?”

“I don’t know.  But just about everyone seemed to think it was a worst case scenario.  Guess we’ll see?”

He walked down the stairs toward the rink entrance.  Time for a final conversation with Charles?

“John!”

John, his old war buddies gathered in a half circle around him, turned to look at the door.

The Alabaster stood in the hallway.  Charles stood at the rink’s edge, visible only because the smoke wouldn’t extend that far in.

Avery was at the door.

“Take this, use it.  Find a way, before Charles takes the Choir!”

The Choir?

John stepped forward, hands out, as Avery prepared to throw.

He saw the ring on the chain.

And a dark shape swept past.

Just behind her.

The look on her face said it all.  That the ring had been important, somehow.

She stepped away, turning, chasing, and the door swung closed.

“Your jacket is green,” Angel said.

“Breastbiter mentioned,” John said.

“What’s with you and these practitioner kids with agonized looks on their faces, John?” Grandfather asked.

John turned his back to the door.  He approached the rink, and Charles stepped away from the entrance.

“Remember what I said about me shooting Yalda?” John asked.  He rubbed at his chest as it healed from the graze of the gunshot wound and the tearing and bruising of being tugged around.

“I don’t think we could forget,” Grandfather said.

When it came to the group, Grandfather was good enough at sounding disappointed in someone that the rest of the group was willing to let him do the talking, apparently.

“Yeah.  Got too strong, too messy,” John said, as he stepped onto the bloody ice.  He breathed in, and it was good to take a breath where the air was clear of smoke.  “Started hurting the innocents.  Wasn’t what she wanted.  I’ve heard arguments I should’ve taken her far from here, but I don’t think that’s what she wanted either.”

“I hear you.  I don’t like it, but I hear you,” Grandfather said.

“Tonight, seeing what we’ve seen, the look on the face of that guy inside Cagerattler?  Lauren Snyder?  Kid Musser, even?” John asked.  “It’s like they’re rubbing my nose in it.  Or maybe it’s an illustration, bit of a hint for the rest of you.  What it took, what it cost, what it felt like.”

Grandfather didn’t have a reply anymore.  He only nodded.

“I put that girl to rest, despite what you’d asked of me.  Despite what I wanted of myself.  Despite a lot of things.  And this man?  Charles Abrams, who I protected, who I helped, who I was never anything but civil to?”

Charles Abrams didn’t flinch as John met his eyes.

“Dug her up, used her for power, and brewed a killing ritual that ended a few hundred lives.  With her at the center.  The Choir.”

The soldiers all turned to look at Charles.  There was enough hostility that the skin of John’s back and arms prickled from it.

“A Choir?” Angel asked.  “Songbird liked to sing.”

“Yeah.  You connected those dots faster than I did.  Because I didn’t think the people I counted among my friends were capable of something that ugly.”

“It wasn’t the intent,” Charles said.

“You used her!” John raised his voice.  “You might’ve wanted a different result, but you still dredged her up!  You still used her for your own selfish ends!”

“I was a man on the edge.  The way it got twisted, that was happening to every part of my life.  Again, it wasn’t the intent, I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“It was the result, wasn’t it?  And according to Avery Kelly, ten years after, you’re happy to take that result and use it?” John asked, his voice hard.

“Not happy,” Charles answered.

“When I talked to Edith about this?  When the girls revealed what was happening?  I was heartbroken, I’ll admit that.”

“Yeah, th-”

“Shut up,” John cut Charles off.  “Don’t you dare talk.  Because you?  Doing this?  You want to use her against me?  I’m past heartbreak.  I’m pissed.”

“Again, not happy, and I don’t want to, but-”

“Shut the fuck up, oathbreaker,” John hissed, stepping in closer.

The Aurum Coil flowed between them.  John was forced to step back as the centipede’s body slid between himself and Charles, the sharp-tipped limbs carving a groove into the ice.

“I gave you mercy.  I was decent to you.  That forswearing?  Sure sounded like bullshit.  But we took you into our collective home, our sanctuary, and you repay us with this?”

Charles remained silent.

“You have no right,” John told him.  “No shame.  You might not have deserved that forswearing, but you’ve gone out of your way to be a miserable enough fucker that yeah, you deserved everything you got and worse.”

“Breastbiter has been disposed of,” the Sable Prince declared.  “The goblins have been returned to the Warrens.”

Fire burned around them.  The rink, though, was faintly cold.

Charles reached beneath the furs he wore wrapped around himself like a blanket, and pulled out a gray-black doll.  Cloth and twine.

John could hear the singing now, faint.

The first waifs appeared at one side of the stands.

Charles’ hair and beard were taking on a deeper red coloring.  His eyes too.  The furs were blood-slick.

“The final round,” the Alabaster declared.  “Would each group go to their side?”

“I’m not done with him,” John growled.

“Whatever you have to say or do, it can be taken out there,” the Aurum Coil told him.

John shook his head.

When he turned, he could see his brothers and sisters in arms.

He could see their anger.

“What are we in for?” Angel asked.

“Those children?  They’re like us.  They get back up after they’re knocked down.  Faster than we do.”

“Weaker, aren’t they?” Horseman asked.

“Some.  They bite.  And there’s a lot of them.”

There were thirty now.

But with each passing second, more were standing up, or fading into existence.

Forty-five.

John walked to the doorway, and stepped off the rink, into the stands.  The fire burned.

If there was a series of lessons to be painted in the series of fights, maybe it was something that prepared him and elevated him to the point he was ready to take the mantle of Judge.  Whatever the Ondvarg had been intended to impart – what had the Ondvarg wanted?  Survival?  Faceful had been innocent.  Something to test if he was ready.  Something that raised the question of brotherhood and if he was willing to bring people he loved to a losing fight.  Lauren had been about the noble sacrifice.  Reid had raised the idea of legacy, of family.  Breastbiter had been… violence?

Different aspects of John, of being a Dog of War, brought to a place where a light could be shone on it.

But there were other lessons to be learned here.

John turned around.

There were easily a hundred and fifty waifs on the other side of the Arena.

“I don’t think we have enough bullets,” Joe said, quiet.

“We have knives and righteous fucking fury,” Grandfather growled.

John nodded.

There was another interpretation, and it took each of the encounters thus far and confronted John with hard truths.

Ondvarg had hurt those closest to it, devouring them for a fight it couldn’t win.  Faceful had been hurt and destroyed out of the naivety that had brought him here.  The Witch Hunters outclassed, brought here by anger and hate and destroyed for it, despite their solidarity.  Those who died in noble sacrifice were dead at the end of the day.  Duty could be a bitter thing.  Violence brought those who perpetrated it low.

Two hundred and fifty waifs now.  The singing filled the Arena.  Witnesses gathered.

John Stiles felt less like a soldier and more like a man than he ever had.

And Charles wore the red that had disappeared from John’s coat.  Marking him as closest to the Carmine throne.  Just because he wore the furs.

“Charles!” he called out.  Smoke swirled around him.

Charles’ voice was faint.  “What?”

“You haven’t earned this!”

Charles was silent.

“You haven’t fought your way through this contest!  You haven’t learned the lessons or witnessed what others went through!  You haven’t grown as a man!”

Burning wood popped.  Three of the four walls had fire licking them.

“You haven’t earned the red you’re wearing by any real sacrifice on your part!”

Charles adjusted his grip on the furs he wore loosely around him.

“You don’t deserve your fucking righteous anger, when you’ve done so much worse than people you hate!  You’re a traitor at heart, a worm of a man who turned on friends and allies, you bit the hand that showed you hospitality!”

“Maybe!” Charles answered.  He coughed.

“You don’t deserve this!”

Charles looked down at the doll.  He flicked it in a direction, and roughly half of the three hundred waifs started to storm their way around one end of the stands, circling the rink.

“Shit,” Horseman whispered.

Another flick sent the rest around.

“That’s been my fucking point all along!” Charles called out, voice hoarse from the smoke, shouting, and ill-health.  He lowered his voice, but John still caught the words.  “It’s a broken, unfair system.”

John’s soldiers started shooting.  Fubar met the first wave of children with a knife in one hand and a machete in the other.  He cut four down before the rest pulled him off his feet.

“And I’ll exploit that fucked up system,” Charles roared, to be heard of the singing and gunfire.  “If it means I can gut it!”

The first waif got past John’s group, and he caught it by the shoulder, hurling the small boy down the stands.

Then the second, third, fourth, and fifth ones reached him.


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Summer Break – 13.13

Avery

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There was something that felt very wrong about the town Avery had lived in all her life rearranging itself.  Familiar places in the wrong places.  Things all moving further away.  Before, when Ken had done it, he’d done it to help them along.  This wasn’t that.

This wasn’t like that.  This felt like grains of sand slipping between her fingers until her hands were empty.

“We can double back, give chase, go after Brie, get the scent trail,” Avery said.  “It’s our fastest road to Maricica, and we can save her.”

“Couldn’t smell her if I tried, smell of blood clogging up my nose,” Snowdrop said.

“Doesn’t make sense,” Verona replied.  “It’s what Maricica wants, we’d be following after, and at best, if we chased and we caught them and we won… we’d have Brie, but they already have what they want.”

“She’s a friend.”

“I know she’s a friend,” Verona replied.  “But consider that- it’s like dealing with a bully.  If we chase and she has Brie hostage or unconscious or something then she’s just going to threaten her.  Maybe if we don’t go straight for Brie there’s a chance we can blindside her or get something she wants.”

“Which we can’t give her,” Lucy said.  “Whatever we do we should go now.  Waiting and debating is just losing a shot at both.”

“I’m not good at arguing or hurrying to this stuff,” Avery said.  “But if we screw this up we might lose the Carmine Contest and all our alliances, which we might really need.”

“I think Zed would understand,” Lucy said.

“You’re siding with Verona?” Avery asked.  Why am I surprised?

Verona cut in.  “If you want to do that, do that.  Lucy and I can go to the House on Half Street.  We know it’s where they want to go.”

“Let’s not split up,” Lucy countered.

“Fine.  The house,” Avery said.

“You’re sure?” Lucy asked.

“You wanted to go?” Avery asked Lucy.  She looked at Verona, “You think this is the smart choice?”

“I do,” Verona replied.

“Okay, let’s go.”

They ran.  They weren’t all that far, but ‘far’ was a weird thing when the town wasn’t currently their friend.

“Gotta stay together, work together,” Lucy huffed out the words.  Avery was going to reply, but she saw a shortcut, grabbed Lucy’s arm, and black-roped her up to a roof.  She stepped back down, circling around a light post, and did the same for Verona.  Snowdrop rode along in opossum form.

“Yeah,” Avery replied, belated.  “Like in team sports, you might have a better idea, but unless it’s a really great shot, your best bet is probably doing what your team knows you’ll do.  A C-plus plan pulled off as a team is better than an A-plus plan executed alone, you against their entire team.”

Verona groaned, exaggerated, stopping only because they had a clear series of jumps to get back down to the road, and she had to hop from a rooftop down to a truck.

Metal rasped, like it was being dragged across the ground.  A chain-link fence emerged from the ground between them and the sidewalk, rising until it was ten feet tall.

Lucy whipped out a spell card, hand at her cloak to shield the rest of the group as it detonated.

They ducked through the hole.

Out of the downtown area, into the residential area to the southwest of downtown.

They looked down the length of the block and at the far end, twelve or so houses down, things were moving, shifting position.  The street and its contents were sliding, turning a ‘T’ intersection into a right angle.

“Go,” Avery said.  “If we go the long way around they might twist up the streets by the time we get around to the far end.  Might as well go forward.”

“I don’t know how you guys talk so much while running around like this,” Verona groaned, as they ran down toward the shifting street.  A dog barking reminded Avery that the Dog Meat that Blunt brought was still out there.

“You’ve been running around with us for a lot of the summer,” Avery observed.  “How have you not caught up some?  Maybe your breathing technique is bad?”

Verona only groaned as they ran down the street.  “Teach me.”

“Focus,” Lucy cut in.  “This is serious.”

“I know it’s serious,” Verona replied.  “I’ve got-”

A sifting, grinding sound filled the air around them.

Fences and gates protecting nearby properties began to move.  The dog barking intensified.

“Careful!”

“Got a mind like an alchemist’s workbench, stuff on the back burner…”

“Focus, god, please, Verona.”

Dogs were let out of yards as fences ceased to enclose those yards.  One was leashed to a clothesline but the clothesline was attached to the house, and the place it was attached to was moving along the siding, no cut or furrow left behind it, just a huge metal hook with a wheel attached to it.  It stopped short of actually reaching them, barking and choking as it pulled the line taut.  They hurried to the left.

But another dog was pacing forward, growling, hackles up, stopping halfway across its lawn.

It’s like that retro game Declan played with Declan and Declan, Avery thought.  Badass Mormon or something.  Going door to door while dodging dogs, manhole covers, paperboys chucking papers at your head…

It’s like a path.

She grabbed Lucy and Verona’s hands, pulling.

There are rules.

The dog on the lawn lunged forward.  Verona awkwardly grabbed at a spell card, using left hand to reach into her right-side pocket.

“Don’t.  Shouldn’t need-” Avery started.

The dog stopped on the edge of the lawn, howl-barking.

On their right side, a dog that was chained to a stake in the earth lunged forward.  The stake it was chained to moved along the lawn, same as the clothesline pulley had, with no furrow or anything.  It stepped out onto the road, out ahead of them.

Lucy was closest, and Avery steered Lucy away, watching, watching-

The stake stopped moving.

Go.

She pushed back against Lucy, putting Lucy on a forward path.

If Lis was the driving force behind this, then Lis had made promises not to hurt them.

“Lis can’t hurt us without being forsworn, but we can hurt ourselves, so don’t run into anything.”

If Lis let a dog loose and that dog directly hurt them, that was on Lis and they won tonight.

But if Lis put a dog in their way and they ran into the dog, that was on them, their fault, didn’t count.

They reached the end of the block.  They could see off to the left where the T-junction had become a left-hand turn, and it ended in a dead end, taller houses and fences surrounding it.

Behind them, the block was closing off.

“She can still trap us,” Verona said.  “Temporary trap.”

Avery paused, looking around.  “Which way to the House on Half Street?  I can get us out, I think, but I don’t want to go the wrong way.”

“Key,” Verona said, pulling the key from her neck.  “Find the connection?  Or the scent?”

“I haven’t nurtured that part of my Sight much, ever since it almost took over my regular vision,” Avery replied.  “Let me try.”

She turned on her Sight, looking.

Bands of film, of connections…

“I think there’s not enough emotional connection.”

“Here,” Lucy said.  “Take it off.”

Verona hurried to pull the key free.  Lucy held out a notebook, glancing at Avery.  Avery held it up, while Lucy found her pencil sharpener.  She drew a quick circle with an ‘eye’ connection marker in it, dropped the key inside it, and then popped the pencil sharpener open, emptying the contents onto the page.  She jiggled the book as Avery held it, being careful not to let the key fall free.

The shavings and graphite danced on the jiggled page at random, but very quickly began to find lines and patterns.

“Good one,” Verona said.  “That one’s to me, that one’s…”

They looked back and off to the side.

If they’d just gone by the directions they knew were right for Kennet, they might have continued forward, especially with the fences and trees gathering to block off the way there.

But no, Lis was using her growing control over the spirit of Kennet to move the House on Half Street to a place somewhere behind them.  Far enough off to the side that they wouldn’t stumble on it if they backtracked, but they would have to backtrack, then find their way sideways.

Avery grabbed Verona.  “Eyes closed.  You too, Lucy!”

“Yeah!  Come back for me!”

“That’s the plan!”

She black-roped Verona to a rooftop.  Dogs barked and pulled on lines, or ran across the street to put paws on the side of the house.  They were unsettled, disturbed.  Like an earthquake was coming.

Avery took Verona a few steps down the line.  “Stay safe.”

“Yep.”

“Guard her,” Avery said, passing Snowdrop to Verona.

She went back for Lucy.  In the twenty or so seconds that it’d taken her to go back and get forward -a tree moved to block the way between the leaving and the return, adding a few extra seconds- Verona had struck out a basic diagram.

“You need to rinse off, Luce,” Verona said.  “I know we haven’t had time, but-”

“I will.”

“Sooner than later.”

“I will!  Just- priorities.”

“Your safety is my priority.”

“Get the direction,” Lucy said.  She reached into her bag.  “Didn’t want to do it while running around or we waste water.  Might need it to wash off glamour later.”

Verona shook her head slightly and threw down a handful of chalk.  It settled more in a few radial lines.  One to Verona, but one to a more distant location.

The House on Half Street was moving again.

They wasted no time.  Lucy doused herself, upending a container over her head.

“We need to work together,” Lucy told them, breathing hard from the running, and the shock of cooler water.  “Stay together, stay on the same page.”

“That’s why I’m coming,” Avery said.  “Instead of going after Brie, even though it feels like crap.”

“It’s drama,” Verona gasped.  “Narrative.  What gives Maricica the best moment?  Doing something to Brie when we’re not looking, or waiting until we show and then confronting us and giving us a shot?”

Lucy poured water onto her arm.  Avery steadied her.  “I’m not ruling out the ‘welcome, here’s your dying friend’ as her way of saying hi.”

Avery swallowed hard.

They found the right neighborhood, but there was a twist in it.

The House on Half Street was no longer locked up.  No key required for entry, no folding of space.  It was just… there.

Front door open.

They slowed as they approached.  Lucy took a second bottle from Verona and sloshed it over herself.

They walked up to the front door.

There were sounds of heavy breathing and something wet within.

Lucy reached into her pocket, got some papers, and handed them out.

Silence runes.

Lucy held hers, and pushed on the door to open it.  The rune brightened on the paper as the door moved, no creak, no squeak, no slight bang as it hit the open door of the front closet.

The floorboards didn’t creak underfoot.

Flowers grew out of the wall and floor.  One was a nettlewisp, and the spikes pointed at them as they drew nearer, points trembling.

“How am I supposed to wear this?”

The voice had a rough edge.

Charles?

They stopped in the front hall, just short of the point where they could be seen from the living room.  The Nettlewisp looked like it was set to go off the moment they got too close.  They’d have to answer it before they entered.

“Wrap it around yourself.  Edith was doing you a kindness by making it into clothes, but it isn’t necessary.  Worn as a wrap or a full suit of clothing, the function is the same.”

Maricica’s voice was unmistakable.

“Do you have a knife?” Charles asked.  “Cut the twine and rope?”

“They left one behind.”  Ken’s voice.  Lis.

The sound of the blade of a box cutting knife clicking its way free of the handle was audible from their end.

They’re here?

Avery peered as much through the door as she could.  She pulled her head back as she saw a shadow move.

There were more wet sounds.

“It seems we have company,” Maricica announced to the room.

More wet sounds.

“Who?” Lis asked, in Ken’s voice.

“Hello there, nice of you to finally show up,” Maricica called out.  “The timing is mildly inconvenient, but nothing we can’t manage.  Would you like to come in?”

Avery eyed the Nettlewisp.  It was hard to make out in the dark, but the petals had patterns and the patterns had a faint glow.  The spikes glistened.

Avery couldn’t answer without abandoning the silence, and she didn’t want to risk setting off the Netttlewisp.

There were some wet sounds.  Some furniture moved.

“Don’t worry, Charles,” the Faerie said.  “Don’t worry, I’m not offended, as much as I find the collection of you all so very offensive by default.  I suppose rudeness is to be expected.”

Lucy held up a finger, then inched toward the front door.  Avery nodded.

Verona got some cards and began drawing eyes.  Avery motioned, and Verona handed her half the stack.

Avery drew about eight by the time Verona had twelve or so.  Verona nicked the back of her hand and began daubing blood on the pupil of each eye.  Avery followed suit.

“What are you doing?” Maricica called out.  “I don’t suppose we could open a dialogue?”

“I think they’re too wary for that, talking with a Fae,” Lis said.

“Would you talk to Charles, then?”

There were wet sounds again.

What’s going on with Charles?

“Anything you think is appropriate,” Maricica added.  “Talk to our local practitioners.”

Heavy footsteps banged against the floor.  The wet sounds continued for a second, then stopped.  “-fuck to do with the local practitioners?”

“Trust me, Charles.  Just do as I say with confidence, I promise you victory.”

Verona jumped.  Avery looked, and saw Lucy touching Verona’s arm.  She pointed to the door, then gestured, holding her arm out in front of herself, bent and braced, drawing a shape around it.  A giant leaf shape?

A shield.

Verona nodded.  Avery did too.

Avery and Verona retreated slowly from the door and the Nettlewisp.  She was careful to step over and around some of the smaller, decorative flowers, and the twisting, curling vines that extended out from them.

“I didn’t come prepared with words,” Charles said, a little more distant.  “I never had anything against you three.”

“Good,” Maricica said.

“Didn’t want you involved.  I don’t intend any harm, not to you three.  You were fine.  You were fair to me.  But we need to do this.”

Verona hid behind the door of the hallway.  Avery behind the front door.  Avery fished in her pocket and found a card where she’d drawn an ‘Earth’ rune, as in Earth the solar body, not earth as in dirt.  She drew out a diamond around it and laid it against the door.

Peeking outside, she saw Lucy standing just beneath the big front window with boards in it.

Is that what we’re doing?

“The world needs it.  Practitioner or Other, we can’t keep doing what we’re doing.  There’s too much rot at the foundations.  I hoped- I really did hope your time at the Blue Heron would make that clear.  I never had anything against you,” Charles said.  “Bit of hypocrisy, but you’re teenagers.  That’s allowed.  You’re doing better than I did at your age.”

“Should we maybe consider going now?” Lis asked.  “Let them do what they want?  Those girls shot me, I want to get where we need to be and stop.”

Lucy moved her arm.  Then she ducked.

The card she’d placed near the window exploded in a spray of glass that exaggerated the glass already in the winter.  Shards flew everywhere.

The Nettlewisp activated in response.  Spikes were hurled out.  The vast majority hit the cards with eyes on them that they’d left on the floor.  Some hit the hallway door.  Verona had done something, so they bounced off more than they punched in.  Avery’s ‘quality: down to earth’ enchantment made the door sturdy enough that the spikes disintegrated.  Flecks bounced off the side of Verona’s face.

They moved in.  Avery was careful to dodge the remaining flowers, putting all the footwork she’d picked up in soccer and skating to work.  Her running shoe skidded on the floor, where it was coated with old dust and new-ish blood.

Peppered with tiny holes and gouges from the glass, Charles, Maricica, and Lis stood around the cube of meat, which was similarly damaged.

That was the illusion.

“-cover our retreat,” ‘Maricica’ said.

The image was a scene that had happened already, maybe only a matter of two to five minutes before they’d arrived.  Maricica stepped out toward the hallway, dust flowing off her wings, and cast out the seeds that would sprout into flowers.  She whispered to one and set it as the Nettlewisp.

And flowers curled, pollen leaking out, and they reinforced the image.

Avery stepped on one, crushing it underfoot, and parts of the scene fell away.

Charles, as he walked around to the illusory cube of meat, disappeared.  That part of the illusion had been damaged before they’d arrived.  That was why Charles had lapsed into only the wet sounds.

Maricica had been addressing them, but not addressing them.

An Other was in the room, on all fours, hands and feet so far apart it didn’t look like they’d be able to hold their position without slipping, let alone move.  They could have looked like a bogeyman, like the video game bogeyman with the bag over his head that Avery had fought, or the pig dog man that she’d dealt with, but she didn’t get that vibe.  They weren’t stained, exactly.

They were gaunt, bloodstained, white clothes so soaked through with sweat and blood that they were translucent, hard to distinguish from the skin, which was greasy and bloody both.  Something was wrong with their eyes, and she couldn’t see just what it was, in the dark.  Something was wrong with their mouth, too; they had a lower jaw that had been damaged enough that it didn’t have teeth poking up from gums.  It had toothless, splintered  jawbone extending up from ragged flesh instead, that looked like it had been chewed off.  Stitches helped keep the flesh roughly where it needed to stay.  Bent nails were embedded into bone at the shoulders, more at the hands and fingers that turned the extremities into weapons more than anything that could wield or use tools.  Everywhere she looked, it looked like something very nasty had gotten very inventive, in very different ways.

She’d seen a few bogeymen by now and this wasn’t one.  Bogeymen tended to… average out, or pick something that they were built around.  One thing that was their deal, really, and everything else became scars or raggedness, or stained.  This was a hodgepodge.

This was goblins.  The worst sort of goblins, Avery was willing to bet.

The Dog Meat.  The project Bluntmunch’s friends had been planning to do, that he’d brought into Kennet as a way to cover his back.  A distraction.

Avery remained very still and remained very wary as she kept it clearly in view.  The Dog Meat watched her through messy hair.

When they moved, Avery was reminded of playing the party game in the basement of her relative’s house, with her siblings and cousins.  Put your right hand on the red square.  Put your left foot on the black square… Their every movement was disjointed, as if the poor thing was reluctant to move unless they were deliberate in that movement, like everything hurt.  Moving across the floor like a rock climber moved up a cliff face.  Put your left hand on the bloody floor.  Put your right foot on the bloody floor.

They didn’t blink, they barely breathed, and their eyes didn’t waver from her.  They moved through the illusion of the meat cube, and with that illusion already damaged by the glass shards, it crumbled.

The meat cube, Lis, Maricica, and Charles were gone.  Maricica had left a glamoured recording to play, to delay them, to trick them.  The Faerie had called out to the Dog Meat, and at the same time she’d made it sound like she was calling out to them, to set up the recording.

Maricica had asked Charles to play along, even though he’d been confused.  And probably worried about this bloody, nail-studded person who’d have been crouched where Avery was standing now.

The Dog Meat’s left eye remained fixed on Avery as the right eye moved, drooping.  It was like the eye was bulging out against fishnet or wires, like one of those stress balls with a net around it that created a bunch of bulging bubbles when pressed.  Quick, almost too fast to track, they snatched up a fistful of stray fur and blood, pushing it into their damaged mouth.  With no proper lips, they sucked and licked, briefly showing a tongue that had been stitched onto the end of their ordinary tongue, for nearly double length, snaking around hair.  Their right eye moved back to Avery.

Sucking up blood before coughing and ineffectually spitting to clear away the bits of fur.

“Hungry,” they whispered, barely intelligible.  Blood it hadn’t managed to swallow drooled out of its mouth.

Avery cast the silence rune aside.

The Dog Meat jerked, moving about a foot to the side, crouching lower, eyes wider, if that was even possible.

Avery showed it her empty hands.  “Can-”

The Dog Meat flinched again.

“-can we trade you?  We’ve got some snacks.  Tasty snacks,” Avery said.

“We can give you snacks later, too,” Verona said.  “Snacks every day.  If you’ll cooperate.”

The Dog Meat shook their head so fiercely their entire body swayed, rocking left and right as it perched there, arms and legs spread out.

“No?”

“Coop- cooperation… impossible.  Fight ourselves, fight each other.  Have to.  Made us.”

“The goblins made you fight?”

“Ave,” Verona said.  “If the furs aren’t here, we need to be after them.  You wanted to go after Brie.”

“I freaking know,” Avery whispered back.  She glanced at Verona.  “But if we got our… acquaintance here to stand down, maybe we could track the connections.  We can’t do that if we’re worried about being attacked.”

She glanced back at the Dog Meat.

It was gone.

She turned her head, and looked into the kitchen, where Verona’s alchemy setup was.

It was there, facing a right angle from her, but the bulging eye-

No, it wasn’t the fishnet she’d thought it was.  It was worse.  At least ten eyes were jammed into the same socket, until each one was strained to the point of bursting.  All bloodshot, some even bulging up or down into the space between eyelid and eye socket.

No wonder they didn’t blink.

All of the individual pupils, or most of them, were aimed at Avery, the mouth lolled open, drool and blood dripping down onto the floor.

“If not cooperation, trade?” Avery asked.

“No.  They made us trade.  Made us decide.  Who got hurt, who gave something up.  Done trading.  Trades are never fair, not in this world.”

“Ave?” Verona asked.

“Our biggest successes so far have been by turning enemies into friends, or gathering friends around us,” Avery said.

“Really good idea,” Lucy replied.  “But we don’t have time. Maybe some of the others can buy us some, but…”

“Hey, uh, person in the kitchen, do you have a name?”

“They took that from me too.  They took fairness, they took belonging.  They took my face.  They took my name.”

“If you let us go, we’ll go and hurt the friends of the people who did that to you.  How’s that?  And we’ll make plans to deal with the goblins who did that.”

“All that’s left is hurting and wanting,” the Other whispered.  “No.”

“But-”

Verona touched Avery’s arm.

Avery activated her Sight, keeping half an eye on the Dog Meat, and half on the living room, where the furs had been taken away.  Only scraps of fur remained.  If there was a trail…

“Snowdrop, do you think you can sniff out the trail?”

“Flower smells make this easier,” Snowdrop said, forehead creasing as she raised her eyebrows.

“Then let’s-”

Avery stopped short.

In her Sight, the doorway to her right was packed with eyeballs, pressed in so tight together they bulged, teared up, or formed six sided honeycomb or five-sided eye shapes.  They were slowly getting more bloodshot.

“I had a daughter,” the wall of eyes whispered.  “I wanted a son.  They were beautiful.  So energetic.  I wonder if they would have looked like you.”

Verona put a hand on each of Avery’s shoulders.  Her eyes glowed purple in the very corner of Avery’s vision.  Avery didn’t dare look away.

“Remember what Bluntmunch said?” Verona asked, quiet.

“What?” Avery replied.

“Bluntmunch said they were making Dog Meat by offing these really awful people.  Um.  People with hidden cameras.  People that got animals from shelters to hunt.”

“I think we tried hunting people too,” the wall of eyes whispered.  “Had to travel to the right spots.  Wasn’t that fun.  Only tried it three times.  They all gave up too fast, or didn’t even run for it.  What’s the point?”

“Let’s rule out cooperation,” Lucy murmured.  “And sympathy.”

“Maybe, yeah,” Avery replied, quiet.

Avery blinked very slowly.  When she opened her eyes again, the Dog Meat’s face was close, its breath heavy against the side of her face.

They extended the double-length tongue, and licked the side of her neck.  Avery jerked back, pushing the Dog Meat away, nearly stepped on one of the Nettlewisp spikes that Verona had warded away from the door, and only avoided falling because Verona caught her.

The Dog Meat grabbed her wrist with a surprising quickness, belly-flopping onto the floor because it couldn’t move that easily.  Nails sticking through fingers scratched skin and caught on the ropes and bracelets.

“What the frig!?” Avery shouted.  “Licking me?  Let go!”

Can’t touch without scratching anymore,” they told her.  “Can barely touch at all without hurting.  Licking is the nicest I can do.”

“Be my daughter, come.  I’ll teach you to stalk and hunt.”  It tugged with enough force that she was pulled off her feet.  Strong.

Lucy stepped past them, weapon ring turning a pen into a two-handed staff.  She smashed the butt-end into the side of the Dog Meat’s head, turned it into a trident, and stabbed downward.  In the process, she impaled the floor and caught the hand in the space between the prongs.  Nails sticking out of the back of the hand kept it from pulling the hand through, and in the trying, it pulled the trident in a little deeper.  Lucy kicked hard to drive the points home and embed them.

“I’ll care for you, I’ll feed you, I’ll love you, no matter what you do,” the Dog Meat told Avery.  “No matter who you hurt, no matter what you look like.”

Lucy fought to keep the trident embedded in the floor.  “Right pocket, someone.”

Verona leaped to the task.

“I don’t want to hurt anyone!” Avery told the Other.

“You will!  You will, you know you will, that’s what this world is, now!”

“I don’t think you’re right.”

“We abandon each other.  You said you left someone called Brie?  You abandoned her?”

“No.  Not like that.”

“Don’t engage with them,” Lucy said, grunting.  She kicked a reaching hand away.  The Other couldn’t rise very high up off the floor, which limited its ability to attack.  “Third group- yeah.  Quick, flip through, flip-”

Verona flipped through.

“We cling to each other, we hurt each other, then we leave, over and over,” the Dog Meat whispered.  “Over and over.  I’ll cling to you, I’ll keep you, I don’t care if you hurt me.  I’ll keep you so you can’t run.  Be the child I never had.  She was so pretty, so much better than I am.  They took him away from me.  She said I was sick, she’d never have a child with me.”

Avery shook her head, stepping back.

“Go back,” Lucy said.

“Got it, I see it,” Verona said.  She pressed the card to the handle of the trident.

The trident became stone.

“Can I use another?” Verona asked.

“Go for it, though I don’t see-”

Verona dropped the paper and stomped on it.  “In the name of protecting Kennet!”

With the stomp, the floorboards around the trident became stone, merging with the stone of the pitchfork.

The two of them swiftly backed away, joining Avery.  Even though Lucy didn’t have contact with her weapon ring, the spell paper helped the pen-trident keep that shape, locked in as stone.  The Other flailed, scratching with the nails that embedded its free hand and feet to try to do something about the trident, but after the handle broke off, the head remained in place.  It began to dig and scratch at the wood around the part of the floor that had been turned to stone, gouging and sawing at it.

“Can we bind it?” Avery asked.

“No,” Verona said.  “It’s tricky to put in a binding circle like Dogs of War are.  Need to have mementos, fifty drops of blood added to the circle plus one for every person it’s killed, or we have to beat it down three times in serious combat without letting it hurt anyone in the meantime.”

“Don’t have, don’t have time for, and I’m not sure we’d pull off that last one,” Avery said.

“Maricica probably accounted for that.  Good researching, Ronnie,” Lucy said.

“‘Course.”

It would get free.

The Dog Meat froze.

Staring at them, as they retreated from the property.

To Avery’s Sight, it was less a person and more an ooze, ephemeral eyes with a shadow of a figure visible past them.  Eyes that got more bloodshot, staring.

“Let’s go.  We have to stop them from getting Charles and the furs to the Arena,” Lucy said.

“Kill me or come with me but don’t leave me!” the Other screeched.  “Don’t leave!”

They ran together.

“Can we use another portal?” Lucy asked.  “Ruins gate, some coins?”

Avery shook her head.  “I’d worry about the realms thing.  I don’t know exactly what a horror is but if the town is folding and we put a portal down, and the portal folds…?”

“Could Lis do that?” Verona asked.

“By accident?  Yeah.  Let’s not.  If it scared Zed it should probably scare us at least a little,” Lucy said.  “Go, run.  Let’s assume Charles isn’t that fast.”

But he has Kennet on his side.  Lis controls the roads, the routes.  He has to walk in a straight line.

We have to navigate this freaking mess, every roadblock thrown in our way.

“No fur,” Snowdrop said.

“Where?” Lucy asked.

Snowdrop pointed the wrong way.  Avery tracked Snowdrop’s awareness and led the group down the block.

There was some trace fur from the cube that had been taken away.  Scraps.

“The Dog Meat is free,” Lucy said.  “I hear it.”

“Already?”

“Not this way,” Snowdrop said.

The trail led to a garage.

“I don’t know this house,” Snowdrop told them.

“How?” Avery asked her.

“I don’t know!  Definitely not the goblins.  The owners always lock it tight.”

Lucy grabbed the handle of the garage door and lifted.  It clanged.

Someone locked it,” Avery noted.

“Might be our culprits,” Verona said.

“Ratfink key?” Lucy asked, pointing at Avery, then Verona.

Verona fished it out of her pocket: the little bit of wire sticking out of a rat skull’s mouth.  She used it, putting it into the lock.

“Guess the owners won’t be able to lock it at all, now?” Avery asked.  “Hey Snow, remind me of the address later, okay?  So I can leave them a bit of cash.”

“Nah.”

The garage door slid open.  They walked in, edging past the vehicle, and Snowdrop pushed past, sniffing, before opening the side door.

“Why cut through this way, though?” Lucy asked.  “They can take a straight path, can’t they?”

“Might be that Lis is burning through her power,” Verona suggested.

“It’s that,” Snowdrop said.  “She’s burning through her power, nothing else.  They came through here on foot.  More than five minutes ago.”

“They drove?” Avery asked.

“Charles might’ve,” Lucy said, looking at the car.  “Nothing else?”

“Brie,” Avery said.  “Less than five minutes ago?”

Snowdrop shook her head.

“Less than five minutes ago.  Go.”

They exited the garage, entered the neighboring garage, and hauled the door open, instead of using the fences.  More of the city was arranged to block them.  Neighborhood after neighborhood that was difficult to cut through.  Not that Kennet had really prized being easy to navigate on foot, before.

“I can take us over.”

“No,” Verona said.  “I’ll fall off a rooftop.  Does City Magic really work on home interiors, or is that protected?”

“Protected?” Lucy asked.  They were discussing while hurrying across the street in the direction of the Arena.

“By innocence?”

“I think so,” Avery said.  “They didn’t rearrange the garage interior or anything, and they didn’t mess with the House on Half Street.”

“Why go over when we can go through?”

“Trespassing?” Lucy asked.  “Potentially getting shot?  Connection blockers, at least.”

“Yep,” Verona said.

Verona pulled her hat brim down to draw on it with a white gel marker.  Lucy slapped a notecard to her arm.  Avery did the same.

It felt like running through the sands that were pouring down an hourglass.  As they got closer to the midpoint, the point where Lis was shaping Kennet, everything drew together.  All the inconvenient fences that barred easy shortcuts, the tall roofs, the trees that grew close together in the parts of neighborhoods without any houses.  Lis had given up on using the dogs, at least.  The uphill rise that required them to climb stairs to get to Louise’s house was now struck through the middle of Kennet, the far end of downtown up the hill.

The ratfink key let them into a house where the lights were off.  They cut through, escaped through the back door, and skipped that entire climbing-the-hill part.  The street they were on was a broken one, downtown residences on one side, stores on the other.

Snowdrop’s head turned.

“What?”

“We’re safe.”

“What was it?” Avery asked.

But as she asked, she saw.

The Dog Meat, inside a store window, peering out.  Televisions around it were tuned to static, with faint eye images surrounding it.  The white static gradually turned red.

To her Sight, the phantom eyes around it were doing the same.  Handprints gradually turned redder.

“We can ward it off, right?  John could potentially be slowed down by a chalk line?”

“Potentially,” Lucy said.

The light coming from the televisions in the store window became a bright, bloody red, playing off of the light from the sky and below.

“We have to keep moving,” Avery said, backing up.

“She wanted a distraction, she found a good one,” Lucy remarked.

“Yeah, well… let’s not give it any more attention than we have to.  We’re only five minutes behind?”

“More than two or three minutes,” Snowdrop said, sniffing.  “They covered a lot of ground.”

“He’s not making any sound,” Lucy said.  “I think the Dog Meat picked up that paper you dropped, Ave.”

“Oh.”

The light from the televisions flicked off, the store going dark.  The Dog Meat effectively disappeared.

Avery reached for chalk, turning, looking.

And she saw the Dog Meat.  Moving faster than a speeding car, low to the ground, long-limbed, reaching-

She ducked low, striking out with the chalk, to draw a line on the street.

The Dog Meat stopped short, momentum broken, circled around-

Lucy used a chalk spear to strike at the ground, drawing another line.  Blocking it.

Avery used the Sight, and she could see the phantom eyes receding and retreating.

Lucy pressed the attack, lunging, striking out another mark, shifting from the defense to the offense.

The Dog Meat dropped to all fours, twisting around to face the other direction.

Verona flicked out a piece of paper.  Avery could see the mark on it, and pulled her hat-brim down just as Verona put a hand out to shield her face, which combined to make her hand knock Verona’s hand into her own nose.  “Unf.”

The light flared.

Avery reached for her bag, where there was a strap beneath to wedge a small umbrella into, and she pulled out the Ugly Stick.  She smacked the Dog Meat across the back of the head.

It reached for her, blind, and she swung the club two-handed, striking the arm.

It moved its face like it was screeching or hollering something, but it was silent.  It scrambled back.

The Ugly Stick was supposed to do major damage, leaving wounds that were slow to heal and prone to scarring.  Permanently smashed noses, dented heads, bent arms.

It was an ugly, awful weapon to use, and the one time she really put muscle into it, to slow down this dangerous, hateful, pitiable creature… it barely did anything.

A goblin weapon against a goblin-created Dog of War type thing, Avery thought.  Like using water to stop a flood.

The creature ran, screeching, and as it did, a woman stepped out of her front door, bag at her shoulder, car keys in hand.  She locked her front door behind her.

“No!  Get inside!” Lucy hollered.

The Dog Meat sprinted, not as fast as before, and went straight for the woman.

The woman didn’t see or turn around in time to react.  The Dog Meat leaped the side of the porch railing, and it tackled her, nail-studded forearm braced to catch her at the neck.

The woman slammed into the doorframe, pushed by the neck, head and body at the wrong angle for a heavy impact.

There was no audible snap, but if Avery had heard one, she wouldn’t have been surprised.

She started forward.  Lucy was with her.

“We have to go,” Verona said.

The pair of them moved forward, while Verona hung back.

“More people will get hurt if we stop here.”

Verona watched the Other, who crouched over the woman, sniffing her limp body before licking down the length of her sleeve.

The Dog Meat turned to look at them.

There it was.

“It’s the eyes.  The Dog Meat stalks prey, builds up strength, and spends it,” Avery said.

“The stain?”

“Red stain?”

“Yeah, if that’s what you see.  Gets redder?”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “We might have to stop to bind it.”

The Dog Meat crouched, waiting, hiding behind one part of the porch, peering past it.

“I think she’s alive,” Lucy said.

Avery switched from studying the Dog Meat to glancing at the woman, trying to judge if she was alive.  If she was, they’d have to change their tactics.

And she saw the bag.

She reached for her Lost Sight, through Snowdrop.  A way of seeing that looked around corners, a bit, and through stacks of things.

The bag had bones in it.

And once she found that angle to look at things, she could look at the woman…

“It’s not a real person.  Maricica trick,” Avery said, pulling on Lucy’s sleeve.

“I don’t know why you guys don’t listen to me,” Verona complained, as they rejoined her.

“Ease up,” Lucy told her.  “We didn’t know she was fake.”

“She was fake?” Verona asked.

“Bones in the bag.  Guilherme told us to watch out for that sort of thing.  Doll parts, bones, spidery things, brambles, anything Dark Fall.”

“Guilherme told you that a while back,” Verona said.

“He repeated a lot of things,” Lucy added, quiet.

“Used the same line about giving a last gift he used when giving me the Summer Rose,” Verona noted.  “Different meaning, I think.”

The layout of Kennet continued to bar their way.

“We’re clear!” Snowdrop called out.

Avery turned to look.

The Dog Meat was following, getting ready.  Streetlights flickered and flickered red around them.

As a young boy in army clothes ran across the street, the Dog Meat went after him, instead.

Avery tensed, watching-

Until she saw the action figure in the boy’s hand.  A soldier.

A kind of doll, mirroring the boy in appearance.

Avery hesitated, then turned, continuing to run.

“Keep your distance from me,” Lucy said.  She was calling out spirits to the circle around her again.  “In case.”

“Be careful, okay?” Avery asked.

“I will,” Lucy said, but she looked tense.  Water and sweat beaded her skin.  “Work together.  We really need to be on the same page here.  I worry we aren’t.”

“Don’t say it, or you might make it more true,” Verona told her.

Lucy shook her head.  “Saying it is necessary if we’re going to do anything about that.”

“I don’t think anyone disagrees that we need to work together,” Avery cut in.  Trying desperately to keep the peace.

“House,” Verona said.

They cut through a house, jimmying the front door with the ratfink key, then opening the back door to let themselves through to the other side.

It was a way past what Lis was doing to the town.  Past the pinch in the hourglass where the ‘sand’ was most intense, the way most obstructed.

Lis adapted, pushing harder, moving more trees and things into their way.  The town flowed like water, and it flowed in a way that put the heaviest stuff in their path.

But they had a way, and as long as they cut through a residence where people lived, it seemed to cut past Lis’s influence over the town.

As they approached the Arena, cars parked on the side of the street where there were apartments all pressed in together, the gaps between them closing to turn the cars into a barrier.

Avery hopped up and walked over the car, checking the road before hopping down.

Maricica was there.  So was Lis.  The pair of them faced Guilherme, who fast-walked to keep a damaged, parked car between himself and the corner of the building, where Clint, Rocky, and other Witch Hunters were gathered.

Freak, Squeak, Chloe, Nibble, Tashlit, a full assortment of goblins that included Toadswallow, and Matthew Moss were at another corner of the building, ready to act but unwilling to cross the Witch Hunters.

And Musser stood on the rooftop with Raquel and his assembled Others.

Avery scanned the surroundings with the Opossum Sight and her original Sight.

No Charles?

Lis’s control over environment kept anyone from getting a good shot at Maricica, who stood there, wrapped in wings.

Who turned, looking at them.

“And there you are,” Maricica said, and even though she was halfway across the parking lot, her voice carried.  “You arrived faster than I thought you would.”

Lucy touched her earring, then drew a rune.  “Are you another illusion?”

Verona grabbed the piece of glass Guilherme had given her.  The compass, for finding glamour.  It shone gold as it found Guilherme, and it shone that emerald green that turned the rest of it black, as it identified a locus of Maricica’s glamour.  Maricica herself.

“Yes, I’m real.  The true Maricica, with the true Lis.  Charles needed a moment.  He’ll be along in a minute or three.”

“Matthew!” Avery called out, top of her lungs.  “You left Ken!?”

Matthew said something to Toadswallow.  His shouted response was drowned out by the gunfire from the Witch Hunters, aimed at Guilherme, the most exposed Other.

Toadswallow filled them in without needing to speak: a gesture.  A finger drawn across the throat.

“Ken’s dead?” Lucy asked.  The rune glowed as it carried her voice across the gap.

Toadswallow shook his head.

Tashlit gestured.

“Gone,” Verona added.  “Back from whence he came, I guess his power was drained, taken by Lis.”

Lucy’s circle of protection kicked in, the personal barrier flaring to life, the engine spirit lunging up to block an incoming bullet.

They hurried behind cover, before sustained gunfire could break down the circle.  Lucy had to take separate cover.

“Fuck them!  They’re shooting the wrong people,” Lucy hissed.

“I thought it most likely you’d arrive just as Charles entered the building, or just before, as he walked across the lot,” Maricica’s voice echoed through the dark, bloody parking lot.  “But you’re a few minutes ahead.  I’m wondering what you sacrificed, what you saw through.  Did you let the bystanders die?”

“They were crummy glamours!” Avery called out.

Even from a distance, she could see Maricica’s eyes narrow.

“You’re apparently not very good at the tricking humans thing!” Verona shouted.

Guilherme laughed.  It wasn’t a mocking laugh, but more the kind of laugh that suggested he was having fun.

Snowdrop mentally nudged Avery, and Avery looked over.

The Dog Meat.

“Freaking…” Avery whispered.

Gunfire drowned everything out.  A bullet clipped the edge of a car that had been tipped onto its side, and Guilherme didn’t even flinch as it took a notch out of his shoulder.

“You did so well, you three,” Maricica addressed them.  “Whyever didn’t you give the furs to John Stiles?”

“He didn’t want them,” Lucy said, her back to a car, watching the Dog Meat.

Avery drew a line of chalk on the sidewalk, to give herself and Snowdrop some protection from an attack from that direction.

“Too proud?”

“He thought they would make him less him.”

“His instincts were right.  I do wish you’d tried.  I worked a glamour and a curse into it.  Such a letdown, to find it all still wrapped up tight.  I repurposed that glamour into a taunt.”

The recording?

“The curse I’ll save, for another enemy, another time.  You could have had great fun, you know.  A taste of victory, a dark but happy dream, where tonight was quick to arrive, and you thought you won it all.  John abandoning the fight, Lucille Ellingson’s mother safe and sound, one of you finding security in Kennet, another of you finding escape from the worst of it.”

Avery’s eyes dropped.

“No mind games!” Verona called out.  “I’m not leaving my friends!  B.S.!”

Maricica laughed, and the laugh echoed.  “It’s part of what I am, Verona.  Mind games.”

“It’s most of what you are.  You’ll be a short story for Fae in the various courts,” Guilherme declared.  “I’ve spent too much time with you, Maricica.  Do you remember why the Winter Fae are so disconcerting for their fellows?  Two reasons.”

“We dread becoming one.”

“And you dread knowing one, because they know you,” Guilherme said.  “I know where the paths you’re on lead, Maricica, you’re a maggot among Fae and when all is said and done you’ll be lucky if you’re merely a maggot.  That is your Truth.”

He gave that last word a peculiar emphasis, in a way Nicolette had, once.

“Among the other things I am is a one-time friend of a certain Nightmare,” Maricica told them.  “She told me about your prophetic nightmare, Verona.  Back when you were fending off the invaders, fighting a ghoul, when the Aware came?  It’s True.  You won’t leave your friends, child.  You’ll be left.”

Avery, still watching the Dog Meat, reached out for Verona’s hand.  Verona pulled her hand away from Avery’s, into her lap.  She whispered, barely audible, “s’okay.”

“Ronnie.”

“Just head games.”

The Dog Meat seemed to have lurked and stalked enough.  It darted off to the left, out of sight.

“Don’t go giving it any help, Lis!” Avery called out.

No phones or anything made all of this so much harder.

Avery tried to predict the direction the Dog Meat might come from.  Above?  Would it leap from the roof of the apartment building?  Come from the left, where it originally was?  Out of a window?

“Hey little guy,” Verona whispered.

Avery looked.

Beneath the car they’d crouched behind, Peckersnot was peering out with one eye.

“Still wearing your war wounds, huh?” Verona asked, giving his the top of his head a rub with one thumb, where a cat scratch had scarred over.

Peckersnot picked his nose then placed a gob on the sidewalk between Verona and Avery.  Avery switched off with Snowdrop in peering around.  She was fully prepared for the Dog Meat to come after them full bore, full intensity, with minimal warning.

“Miss should be proud,” Maricica declared, not shouting, not raising her voice, but letting the wind and the nighttime carry it.  “She picked you so well.  Boxing up Jabber, taking the furs.  You took Charles’ things!  You would have so enjoyed the look on his face when he went looking, earlier tonight.”

Peckersnot slapped a small hand against the sidewalk, pointing.

He’d drawn the Arena in streaks of snot on the sidewalk.  A large square.  A circle to mark where Matthew was.  A circle for Guilherme, slightly off because Guilherme kept moving as the car he was trying to use as cover was periodically shifting position, dragging itself to new orientations in the parking lot.  An X for the Witch Hunters, an X for Maricica.

“This wouldn’t have been nearly so much fun if you’d been incompetent.  I would’ve had to contrive to have you sold to the Dark Fall to make this interesting at all, dragging all the rest of Kennet in to save you.  But this?  This will make for more interesting exchange.  I have Brie.”

Avery looked up.  She felt alarm from Snowdrop, and scrambled, drawing a quick line of chalk.  Snowdrop, slower to move, became opossum size, dropping down beneath the car with Peckersnot.

“Shitfuckme!” Verona swore, as the Dog meat came crashing through the door straight in front of them.  It stopped at the line of chalk.

Avery had to leave cover to step across the first line she’d drawn.

She was distracting us.  A mention of Brie just as he was going to attack.

Verona had drawn lines too, and had put a spell card down.  Fire erupted, chasing its way up one side of the Dog Meat, as it moved around the drawn lines, onto the top of parked cars, and then moved on all fours to cross them, double-length tongue extended.  Not making a sound the entire while.

Avery did a quick triple-tap of her foot as she backed up, aware any Witch Hunter could be putting her into his sights.

She glimpsed Maricica raising a wing.  Dust was cast out, blocking the view.

Protecting Avery.

But not from the Dog Meat, who wanted her, for some damned stupid reason.  Some creepy ass creature wanting a daughter to fuck up as badly as he was fucked up?  Fuck.

She leaped back, wind runes on her shoes kicking into life, and stumbled on landing.  The Dog Meat came charging after her, and she rolled out of sight, roping herself out behind Lucy.  Verona had already moved around.

The Dog Meat turned on its heels, and came straight at them, and was met face to face with the smoke spirit, Smoulder.  Avery had suggested Fumey, but that had gotten shut down.

It wasn’t the most solid spirit.  Blind, snagged up on solid smoke, the Dog Meat was slowed enough for Lucy to stab it twice.  Avery powered up her shoe and kicked the silent Other.  On impulse, recognizing that it had probably burned through its post-stalking burst of speed and strength, she reached out, looking for connections.

She found the paper she’d drawn and made, and pulled on that connection, hauling it free.

The Dog Meat snarled as it caught itself, one hand at a car window, one at a sidewalk slat, one foot on the side of the car, another against a tire, entire body tensed, like a spring ready to release.  The lower jaw that had been whittled to a crude serrated blade worked, tongue flailing around it like it hadn’t quite learned how to use it.

“Come,” it said, looking at her with too many eyes crammed into two eye sockets.

She could sense something from Snowdrop, and in the moment, it was hard to parse, until she realized Snowdrop was communicating the same thing.  Come.

Snowdrop was running across the street, alongside Peckersnot.

The Dog Meat came after Avery.  Avery dodged around, ducking low fast enough she had to put a hand on the ground, and turned her head, glancing at the battle map.

She slapped her hand against her shoe three times, a quick motion that bought the Dog Meat time to come after her.  Then she leaped skyward.  The tongue licked her leg and  a hand caught at her shoelace, tearing it.

She reached a second floor window, and placed a foot on the sill, pausing, hands pressed against either side of the window to keep herself from falling.

Taking in the scene, with the battle map in mind.  Peckersnot had smeared a handful of snot from one O to an X.  From the group with Toadswallow and Matthew and Tashlit and the others to the Witch Hunters.  There had been other gobbets, but they were harder to interpret.

Maricica hadn’t been providing cover.  She’d been blinding them about what the real plan was.

Matthew had unleashed the Doom on the Witch Hunters, driving them back.  The gunfire was aimed at it.  Guilherme closed in on Maricica.

The coast to get to the side of the local Others was clear.

“Verona!” Avery hollered.  “Lucy!  Run!  To our guys!”

The Dog Meat came up the wall, climbing, grabbing every handhold, leaping up off of windowsills, climbing more by a sheer lack of self-preservation than anything else.

Avery pushed her deer mask up to her face, tapped her shoe three times again, then tipped backward.  She kicked herself off.  From a second story window, twenty to thirty feet above the ground, to being in the air above the car-less road in front of the Arena, still twenty to thirty feet above the ground.

She reached into her pocket as she flipped back, a lazy backflip.  One of her last two coins.

The Finder’s trick, it bought her passage.  It worked with any kind of travel practice, and worked as a currency with a lot of Others who acted as couriers and guides, mostly Lost ones.

She hurled it down at the ground.  “Safe landings!”

She landed in a crouch, hat and cape flapping around her, then sprinted to catch up with the other two.

“Good girls!” Toadswallow crowed, as they got closer.

“The Doom comes back in a moment,” Matthew said.  “Guilherme’s exposed.”

“Daft man!  You set too short a time!” Toadswallow cussed at him.

“I’m not used to giving it longer.  I’m afraid it might get too clever.  Go after the Sable Prince, to undo Edith’s bindings, or negotiate with Maricica.”

“Guilherme!” Lucy shouted.

Maricica laughed as she avoided Guilherme’s approach.  The Faerie wore his original self, black haired, young-ish, a giant of a warrior with a fistful of overlong spears in one hand, a spear ready to throw in the other.  More weapons dangled from his belt.

“Witch Hunters!”

“Goblin-wrought pest!” Guilherme bellowed his response.

Avery looked.

The Dog Meat had leaped from the side of the building, much like she had, but the landing had been rougher for it.  It came for them.

She remembered the battle map Peckersnot had drawn.  Other gobbets-

Chloe came tearing out of the woods, intercepting the Dog Meat.  The two immediately began thrashing one another.

A nail-studded hand raked Chloe’s face, and that was enough to set Nibble off.  He leaped into the fray, working with Chloe to tear into and bite at the Other.

“And it’s now finally safe for Charles to emerge,” Maricica said.

Her voice was pitched to carry, in that magic Fae way that Estrella had used, but it wasn’t pitched to carry like it was pitched at them.

Lis moved a wall on the far side of the street, about ten feet from where they’d been huddled for cover.

Charles stepped out, beard trimmed shorter, but still scraggly, hair long-ish and thin near the top, bags under his eyes visible even from a distance.  The red furs were a shroud, wrapped around him, like a crude cape or robe.  Too long, they trailed behind, matted with blood.  He was shirtless, but the furs steamed in the cool night air.

“Guilherme,” Maricica said.

He threw a spear, and she avoided it, touching it as it passed.

Charles stopped walking as the spear continued forward toward him.  It struck a car door about two feet to his left, embedding there.

“You say you know me, winter-numbed oaf,” Maricica spoke, her voice high.  “But you’ve become too easy to know.  You chased me with those spears for three years.  You think I don’t remember?  How you move?  You won’t hit me or Charles, I guarantee that.  But if you don’t deal with those Witch Hunters as the Doom recedes, they will push forward from their cover, and they’ll open fire.  Good Others of Kennet will die.  They won’t shoot me or Charles.  I’ll see to it.”

Guilherme inhaled, chest expanding.

“You know it,” Maricica made her voice a whisper that was louder than her speaking voice, carrying further.  “I’d say the choice is yours, but I don’t think you can afford something so callous as these deaths to be what follows you into Winter.  You’d do more harm in the long run.”

“You’re nothing, Maricica.  You’re lesser.  A mere maggot that fantasizes of grander things.”

“And you’re repeating yourself,” Maricica whispered once more.  “The Doom of Edith James recedes in three… two… one.”

Guilherme turned, striding toward the Witch Hunters.  The first of them saw him approaching, and they opened fire.  Guilherme swiped with his spear, striking the bullet out of the air, then gave the spear a swift and sudden spin, deflecting three more bullets.  Whatever followed, Avery couldn’t see, because Witch Hunters retreated, still shooting, and Guilherme chased.

“And one more piece is removed from play,” Maricica said.  She looked back at Charles, who resumed walking.  He’d stopped when the spear had been thrown.

He wasn’t a fast walker, not with the weight of the furs and the fact he had to drag them.  He wasn’t that strong a man to begin with.

“I told you to walk forward with confidence, Charles.  Carry on, and don’t stop,” Maricica told him.

He bowed his head slightly as he pressed forward.  Crossing the street to approach the parking lot.

“Zed!” Avery called up to the roof.  “I’m so sorry about Brie!  Do you know where she is?”

“I can’t,” Zed called down.  His facial expression was lost, almost forlorn.  “She glamoured my power supply.  I’d do something about it, but-”

But?

But what?  Pouring water on the power supply?

Kicking it violently?

Delicate technomancy?

Yeah, no, that had to be a bit tricky.

“I’m conserving energy.  Lucy, I’m holding onto what so I can help your mom if I can get through… whatever Ken is doing.”

“It’s not Ken, it’s Lis, with a lot of Ken in her,” Avery called up.  “So you’re mostly right.”

Zed hesitated, like he was going to say something, then his eyebrows drew together.  “Please, in exchange-?”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “Absolutely.  I’d do it even without the exchange.”

“Don’t make it a promise, just…”

Avery joined Lucy in the tight nod.

Just help Brie.

“Any last words, Charles Abrams?” Maricica asked, smiling, her wing extending while one remained folded around her.  Like she was bowing, giving him the stage.  Dust twirled out.  “You had things you wanted to say.”

Lucy dropped one backpack strap from one shoulder while Maricica was facing the other way.  She glanced at Verona, who reached inside.

Nibble and Chloe continued fighting the Dog Meat.  It looked like as much as they hurt it, it just added more cuts and scars without actually removing flesh or slowing it down.  As if injury could pile onto injury forever without ever making it less.  At the same time, though, the two worked together and kept it from coming at them, and the more ‘living’ binding kept it from being able to hang back, stalk, and build up in intensity for a future attack.

Verona passed a can to Lucy.  Lucy began making it a gun.

For Maricica?

Charles?

Are we really going that far?

“I thought we were fair to you, Charles,” Matthew called out.  “We couldn’t afford to give out power for nothing, we asked you to manage some sickness and curses.  Others in our group were facing down Witch Hunters, risking their lives.  We only asked you to carry a share of the load, for protection.”

“It’s not that,” Charles replied.  Maricica seemed to be magnifying his voice.  The glamour she’d cast out.  “It’s the rest of it.  All of it.”

He looked up at Musser, who stood at the edge of the roof.

“Boo and fuck my hoo, Charles Abrams!” Toadswallow raised his voice.  “You hung around with arsewads like Belanger and Musser when you knew it was a bad idea.  A smoker who carries on with his bad habit shouldn’t blame the world if he gets cancer.  You want to bitch and moan?  Sure!  But don’t blame us.  Don’t blame this.”

“It’s the world that props them up, Toadswallow,” Charles said.

He stopped in his tracks as Lucy aimed the gun at him.  She stepped forward.  He stared at her.

“I told you not to stop, Charles,” Maricica said.

“Implicit binding by way of gun.  Learned this from Durocher,” Lucy said.

“I don’t want her to shoot me,” Charles said.

“You stand a higher risk now that you’ve stopped in your tracks.”

“I don’t want her to have to live with that.”

“You’ll have harder decisions to make soon,” she told him.

He stared at Lucy.

“Charles,” Avery said.  She started to walk forward, then flinched as the Dog Meat flung Chloe away.  Chloe landed in a crouch, tense, teeth bared.

Nibble strained to lift up the Dog Meat.  Chloe tackled it and Nibble into the foliage.

“Charles,” Avery tried again.  “I think this only ends in tears.”

“I can’t remember how much I’ve told you about this, but I sat in jail for years, after a Revenant killed the gang I was helping.  I thought a lot about the harm I did.  And about the harm that system was doing.  Prison, jails, the sheer injustice in our justice system.  I deserved to be there, but a lot of people didn’t.  And they didn’t deserve how terribly we fail so many of them.  We fail to help, you know that?  It’s barbarism.  And men up top will pledge to be harder on crime, they’ll argue for that barbarism, and the world will cheer.”

“What does that have to do with the price of tea, Charles!?” Toadswallow shouted.

“That’s the button Alexander pressed, to get me angry enough to forswear me.  And he plunged me into a life sentence so much worse than the prisons.  If prison is barbaric, then this system you all exist in, swim in, karma and truth?  Forbearance and forswearing?  It’s evil.  It is varnished, polite evil.”

“You say that only because you’re no longer part of it,” Musser called down.

“Yeah,” Charles replied, looking up, drawing the furs tighter around his shoulders.  “But isn’t that the trap?  The innocents don’t get to know and the least innocent of all, people like me, we don’t get a say.  Who is benefiting from it that’s going to tear it down or question it?”

“Us?” Lucy asked.  She extended a hand toward the Kennet Others.

“I’m talking about practitioners.  If Rook and Miss were here I think they’d agree the Others are fighting a losing war.  They don’t have a say.  Judges get replaced by Lords.  By practitioners.”

“And I’m talking about us.  Practitioners,” Lucy insisted.

“Charles, you could have talked to us,” Avery said.  “Said something.  Raised ideas.”

“I told you when you were innocent, not to do this.  I told you when you became Aware, just before your awakening.  You didn’t listen.  Now you’re in too deep.  You’re bleeding, you’re tired, I have little doubt you’ve got chalk under your fingernails and crusted into the creases of your palms, mixed in with blood.  Your hand is trembling as it holds that gun, Lucy.  I don’t think Toadswallow considers you children anymore, because he swears around you.  You were thrust into this world and now you’re in a bloody, stark part of it… is now the moment you finally listen to what I have to say?”

“Try us,” Lucy told him, still holding the gun.

“Avery said this only ends in tears.  I can’t help but think of how many tears are being shed every day.  By Seths.  By people like me.  By innocents who have no inkling of how the practitioners around them are harming them.  By Others bent under the establishment of practitioner families and organizations.  I think Solomon envisioned a world where the rules he put in place were the start of something.  Then he was forsworn, did you know that?  Were you taught that at the school?”

Avery shook her head.

“I think what he wanted was twisted in the same way my plans for stopping Alexander were twisted.  A system of laws and Truth turned into an ugly mockery of what he’d wanted, as sure as anything.  If it was meant to be the start of something, it got twisted into being a stopping point.  A bastion against the people who’d push for change.  Who’d push for better.  That bastion is manned by Alexanders, by Larry Bristows.”

“If you delay too long, John Stiles may finish the contest,” Maricica told Charles.

“It’s fine.  Maricica told me to address you three, in that house where you had the furs.  She created puppets to replay the scene, using glamour.  Did you-?”

“We did,” Verona told him.

Guilherme and the Witch Hunters still fought.  There were gunshots in the back parking lot.

“I thought about what I should’ve said and to put it in as few words as possible…” he paused, trailing off.  He looked at Lucy.

“No tricks,” Lucy told him, reasserting her grip on the gun.

Avery glanced back at the Kennet Others.

“If you pull that trigger, you’ll be helping to enforce a system where the weakest don’t ever really get a shot at changing things at the top,” he said, voice rough-edged, almost a growl, as he put more force into it than he’d used yet.

Lucy’s hand wavered.

Verona put a hand out, steadying Lucy’s.  “Distinction being that you’re being kind of a bunghole, Chuck.”

“I’m forsworn.  I’m doomed to be a bunghole, Verona.  To be cast in the worst light.  To have any avenue up and out from the bottom be an ugly one.”

“You’re going to hurt people,” Verona said.  “What this sounds like… burning the system down, forcing reckless Lordships?  You’d catch a lot of innocents in the way.  That’s not you being forsworn and people treating you worse, it’s you being a complete and utter bunghole.”

“Maybe I’d catch innocents, but I’d catch a lot of men like Alexander who’d condemn many, many more.  I’d clean the slate, or at least give it a chance at being cleaned.”

“What if you can’t?  What if you just mess it up worse!?” Avery called out.

“It can’t get any worse!” Charles raised his voice, angered now.  “Don’t you understand?  Maybe it won’t be as pretty, but we’re already sliding!  We’re already condemning children to roles they’ll live out the rest of their lives!”

He glanced up at Raquel.  Musser placed a hand on Raquel’s shoulder.

“We’re condemning people by their word!  We’re condemning Others by binding!  Awful people thrive until someone worse cuts them down!  Every day this continues is a day people live out things worse than your worst nightmares!  It has to cease!  It’s nothing to do with me or my being forsworn, it’s that I’m not fucking alone in this!  It happens every day!  All of this, it happens every day!”

“If you didn’t have it in you to shoot in the midst of his tirade, Lucille Ellingson,” Maricica purred, “you don’t have it in you to-”

Lucy twisted, and she pulled the trigger.

In the flash of the gun, Maricica’s glamour slipped slightly.  Her form, sleek and insectile, but with a female form in the midst of it, a face like a horrifying maze of mandibles. The bullet tore a hole through a wing of both the human-ish Maricica and the real version behind the mask.  It clipped Maricica’s arm, blowing away a chunk of flesh.

“That’s for Brie,” Lucy said, hand shaking.  The gun became a can of soda again.

“Brie cut away and ate seven different body parts from seven different people to survive her contest.  They didn’t survive.”

“Charles’ contest,” Verona pointed out.  “Charles made the Choir.  Doesn’t really fill me with confidence he’ll handle this.”

Maricica smiled, holding her injured arm.  “It was hers in that moment.  I think it remains hers now.  One of the nightmares Charles speaks of, behind her eyes every night as she tries to forget and move forward.”  She looked up at Zed.

“And it seems you’ve given her one more,” Zed called down.  “Bleeding her?  I caught a glimpse before you cut the phone and internet.”

“She sleeps.  She’ll wake.”

“What’s wrong with you!?” Lucy raised her voice.  “You’re hurting people, over and over again!  You scared students at the school, you created the Choir, you used that power!  You hurt Brie, you let us get hurt!”

She created a blade.

Toadswallow walked between Lucy and Avery.  He touched Lucy’s leg, giving it a pat.  “Perhaps leave it to us?  I don’t want you to have to shoot the man either.”

Lucy didn’t look like she was going to back down.

Goblins were gathering, moving through the group, gathering.

“We have a responsibility to you three,” Matthew said.  “We thought you would say what was necessary, maybe poke around the mystery of the Carmine Beast, but you stepped up, you really did, above and beyond.  That you’re even here makes me think I should have done more, so you wouldn’t have to be.”

“You’ve had a heaping load of shit on your plate,” Verona said.

“That’s true,” he replied.  “Let us?”

Tashlit put a hand on Verona’s shoulder.

Charles looked up at Musser.  “What do you think?”

“I think you’ve broken, Charles.  It hurts to see.  We weren’t close, but I liked you.”

“Assume I enter that building.  Assume I win.  Aren’t you afraid?”

“It would be an inconvenience.  A disruption.  Little more.”

“You’re so sure?”

“Sure enough,” Musser replied.

“Deal with them, and I’ll spare you and you alone the inconvenience.”

“Go!” Matthew shouted.  “Before he negotiates an agreement!”

Avery went with the group.  Goblins charged.

A gleaming chain link fence rose up from the ground of the parking lot, barring their path.  Goblins shied back.  Avery hurried forward, grabbing on, climbing, helping herself over.  Lucy cut through.

Avery landed on the far side, turned, and pulled a stack of spell cards out of her pocket.

“Careful!”

It was Maricica, sweeping in close.  Avery scrambled away.  She started to page through the cards, glancing down to check what she had, but as she did, Maricica moved again.  There was a glimpse of the more dangerous hidden shape as Maricica moved beneath one of the lights that illuminated a section of parking lot.

Lucy charged forward, weapon ready, standing between Avery and Maricica.  Avery trusted Lucy to guard her as she checked the cards she had left.

Musser called down, “Charles Abrams, I don’t believe you.  You’re forsworn and I haven’t forgotten.”

“Imagine that, that we must deal as men do without practice,” Charles said.

“You’ve dedicated yourself to opposing me.”

“Let it be a test.  I won’t touch you, I’ll trust that the change I bring about can unseat you.  You can be unmolested, free when everyone else worries and deals with inconvenience,” Charles said.

“I’ll add my oath to it,” Maricica spoke.

“I don’t know you.  For all I know, you’re mad, and you’re a Fae,” Musser said.

“If you side with the people that hurt Brie, I’ll never forgive it,” Zed told Musser.

“Who said I had any intention?”

“You’re tempted,” Maricica said, “you-”

The sound of her voice dropped in volume.

Silence reigned.

Verona hadn’t come past the fence, but she had written up a silence rune.  She stared through with purple eyes.

Goblins surged forward, through the hole Lucy had made.  Avery motioned for the people at the fence to stand back, then threw a card.

The ground cracked.  The fence became loose.  The pressure of Tashlit, Matthew, and others pushing against it brought it down, very nearly on the heads of the goblins who’d just passed through.  Tashlit caught it and held it one second for them to get past, then dropped it.

Freak and Squeak charged forward, and Maricica took flight, avoiding them.  She turned in the air like a dancer might, wings and dust around her.

Toadswallow loosed firecrackers, and Maricica slipped back and away.

The silence made it hard to coordinate and communicate.  Avery glanced over and saw Charles staring down some approaching goblins.  Gashwad was in the lead, holding a combat knife.

Fences erupted around them.  Lucy hurried over to do what she could to take them down.

Have to deal with Lis.

Just as Avery was about to sprint off, the silence ended.  Avery glanced back, and she saw Verona on the ground, holding her hand.  No paper or rune was there anymore.

“I won’t be silenced,” Musser declared.

“You should be helping!” Avery called up.  “Your instincts are right, Charles is going to screw everything up!  It’ll be inconvenient, at the very least!”

Maricica landed on the rooftop, not far from Musser.  She said something Avery couldn’t hear.

“If we win, we’ll be more inconvenient.  An oni, dead headmasters…” Lucy murmured.  “She just swore to him.  A lifetime of her serving him if Charles tries anything directly against him.  A Fae in full bloom, a supply of glamour.”

“You heard?”

Lucy nodded.

Musser opened his mouth.

Avery didn’t need the translation from Lucy.  She could see Zed react.

“He said yes.  He’s not afraid of Charles, furs or no furs.”

“Careful!” Avery shouted.

Musser’s six familiars descended from the rooftop.

Avery scrambled back, looked for Lis, and saw her at the far end of the parking lot.  Wearing the appearance of Ken.  She moved slowly, hand at her side.

A head-on fight against Musser’s group was bad enough, but fences, walls appearing out of nowhere, and the cover of the scarce few cars on the lot slipping aside made it harder.

Avery hurried, circling around-

Lis raised a wall between herself and Avery.

“You’ll have to go now, Charles,” Maricica said.  “Trust.”

Charles snorted, barely audible.  “Trust?”

“You’re siding with Musser!?” Avery shouted.  She had to avoid the expanding shadows of Rabbit Killer as Matthew met it with the Doom.  She circled around behind Charles.  “Don’t you realize how that runs against every last thing you said!?”

“I am no stranger to compromise,” Charles said, trudging forward.  He glanced back over his shoulder at her.  “What else can I do?  I’ll fix it later.”

“On the backs of people you’ve hurt!  Off the Choir!” Avery charged at him.  “Brie!  Us!”

A wall rose up out of the ground.

She started to circle around, saw a glow, and used the wall for cover as a bright beam erupted from Musser’s familiar with the glowing hair.  Goblins scattered, some with hair set afire, others badly burned.

Glad Chloe and Nibble are fighting elsewhere.

Freak and Squeak were tearing through things.  Tashlit faced the woman with black hair and ivory skin, both of them with hands raised.  The woman flinched as Verona pelted her with flaming spell cards.  Tashlit rushed in, grabbing the woman by the wrists.

Until the raincoat-wrapped quartet of others tackled her, cutting with a scalpel.

Charles was advancing on the door.

Maricica moved with agility over and through the crowd.  A dash of glamour, maybe a curse- it was hard to tell what she was doing, except that she helped sway certain fights in her own group’s favor.

Avery circled around further, looking for an angle.  Maricica glanced at her.

If she circled around enough, maybe she could go after Lis.

Lucy, spear in her hands, advanced on the Faerie.  She hesitated as Musser stepped off the roof and landed on his feet, about twenty feet away.

“Careful!” Avery called out.

“I know!” Lucy retorted.  She surveyed the situation, then reversed direction, moving toward Charles.  She nearly tripped over a shift in the footing as Lis worked.

Avery stomped her foot three times, then leaped high, up toward trees.

The trees moved, but not so fast that Avery couldn’t grab a fistful of foliage, get a foot onto a branch, and reorient.

She saw Lis, surrounded by walls, but there was no roof.

She hurled cards down.  A flood of water, ice-

The rainclouds that had been spitting down water around Kennet released the rain they’d been holding back.  Freezing rain.

Avery leaped from branch to the top of one of the walls Lis had surrounded herself with.

“I can keep going.”

“I surrender,” Lis replied.

“Where is Brie?”

“Safe and asleep.  Maricica will use her.”

“Swear.  The surrender.  You can’t go back-”

“I swear, for tonight, I’m done.  I’ll lower all obstructions, I won’t interfere further.  I’ve played my part.  I-”

“No tricks!  No lowering a wall that’s keeping some monster away!”

“No tricks.  I’m done, I play no further part, even by inaction,” Lis replied.  “I’m nearly spent anyway.”

“Do it!” Avery spat out the words.

The wall she was crouched on dropped out of existence, disappearing into pavement.  Fences fell away, barriers fell.

Avery hopped the last few feet to the ground, and broke into a run.

The few moments of being up against the worst of Lis and Musser’s group had added up.  An awful lot of their side were down and out, or tied up in ongoing fights.  Matthew’s Doom smashed Rabbit Killer up against the wall, hard enough that Rabbit Killer didn’t get back to his feet after, but the trenchcoat Other had left Tashlit lying on the ground and now went after Matthew.  The Doom didn’t sweep back in to defend him.

Musser advanced on goblins, and goblins retreated.  Toadswallow hurled a trick, and Musser smacked it out of the air with a gesture.

The Elemental Other was creating radiant fires that forced Squeak and Freak back and out of the way.

All with the clear intention of clearing a path for Charles.

“You three,” Maricica said.

The Faerie was atop the roof, in the position Musser had occupied a minute or two ago.  Her voice carried.

“Together, you’re a threat.  I dare say you win,” Maricica declared.  She smiled.

“Get bent!” Verona shouted.

“You’re the nicest!” Snowdrop called up.

“But you’re not together, are you?” Maricica asked.

She extended wings, and lunged into the air, in Lucy’s direction.

“You’ve washed off your glamour, but your body remembers the shapes it has held,” Maricica said.  “Washing it off only removes the dust, and the dust is something I can provide.”

She changed direction abruptly in the air, grazing the building.

Avery drew closer to Charles, but she could see Verona as Maricica descended on her.

Verona pulled a bottle from her bag and cast the bag aside.

Maricica came down out of the sky in a cloud of dust.  Verona opened the bottle, and the dust flowed into the container.

Maricica laughed, turning in Lucy’s direction.  She landed, her back to Verona, motioning-

The glamour in the bottle moved.  Verona capped it.

And the very end of Maricica’s long wing, which had been grazing the roof, came away.

The dust Maricica had put on the roof’s edge before taking off came down in a cascade.  Directly atop Verona.

“Lucy,” Maricica said.

Lucy held her ground, weapon ready.

The dust cleared.  Verona was a cat.  Her spell cards and items were scattered to the wind around her.

“A final gift for you.  I break the pattern of threes and threes,” Maricica told Lucy.

“Don’t want it.”

Maricica held her hand out.

Behind Maricica, Avery could see, the Beautiful Man emerged from the trees.

“They’re very pretty,” Maricica purred.

“Fuck off!” Lucy shouted, head turning to look at the Beautiful Man and back to Maricica.

“She would want you to have them.”

Maricica dropped them.  They glittered gold, dancing on the bloody parking lot like a pair of dice.

Jewelry?

Avery was too far to see it clearly.  She had to focus her eyes, use Snowdrop’s Sight to make out details beneath the golden shapes.

Earrings.  Square, large.  With torn earlobes attached, black skin, ragged crimson edges.

Lucy charged, as Maricica laughed, voice high and carrying.

Verona was nosing into her bag.  She popped open a lid of a container.

I have to trust them to handle these things, Avery thought, turning on her heel.  Going after Charles, who was walking the remaining distance to the door.  She pulled out the Ugly Stick.

Verona got into the jar of her own hair, using it to break free of the shape she was wearing.

“Lucy!” Verona hollered.  “She broke into your mom’s room, remember!?  When she visited!?  It’s a trick!”

Lucy slowed, eyes widening-

Too late.

A little too short sighted, too tired, too angry, one step taken in too deep.  Musser stepped in, disarming her.  Maricica took flight.

Avery pushed herself, legs hurting as she ran, desperate now, leaping as she grabbed onto the side of Charles’ head, getting a fistful of ear and hair.  Sideways momentum to pull him off balance- tear his ear off if she had to.

Maricica slid a hand into the gap between the base of Avery’s palm and Charles’ head.  Fingers slithered between Avery’s, almost like oil in how easily they flowed, moved, and made her grip slip away.

Maricica pushed on Avery’s hand while Avery was still in the air, making her body turn slightly.  Avery landed on both feet, but had to turn a partial circle.

Maricica swept her way to her own landing, wings following.  They were dizzying, curtains sweeping around Avery, blocking off her view of the everything else..

“Got some nasty trick for me too?” Avery asked.  “Worst fear?  Secret desire?  Gonna pull back those wings and have someone ready to blindside me?”

“I don’t have to do anything, Avery,” Maricica told her.  “You’ve done it yourself.  Strayed too far from your friends.  You’ve already said goodbye in your heart, haven’t you?  you’ve left yourself a few steps too far away-”

Avery’s leg jittered, heel hitting the ground at least three times.  She leaped, a flying knee straight for Maricica’s face.  The Faerie’s wings moved, pushing her entire body to one side, and she easily avoided it.  She touched Avery’s side.

Avery stumbled as she landed, scrambled to find her feet.

Charles walked the final few steps to the door.

She reached for him, worried Maricica would act again.  But as she glanced back, Maricica was gone.

His hand fell on the door.  Verona, a few steps away, had peeled a spell card off the wet ground.

He pulled, and light from within formed a beam, a bar, across the pavement.

Avery’s reaching hand hit it like she might hit a glass wall.

The Alabaster Doe stood in the doorway.  Verona’s hand with the card in it pressed against the other side of that barrier of light.  A distance away, Lucy kicked at the air, breathless, while Musser held her arms from behind.  Rain soaked them.

“Charles Abrams.”

“Do I finally get anything but rejection from you, now?” he asked.

“There is no shelter for you here.  No quest, no passage, no currency.”

“No, of course not.”

“But you’ll have your chance and your contest.”

“As is my due.”

“As is anyone’s.”

He walked inside, as she held the door.

The door closed behind him, a metal door meant for all weather, allowing for a heavy sound.  That slice of light and impenetrable barrier became bloody darkness again.

Avery sank to her knees.

“You idiot!  You absolute idiot!” Lucy swore.  “You don’t know what you’ve done, Musser!”

“I know full well.”

“Guys,” Zed said.

They stopped, looking up.

Then they followed his gaze.

At the far end of the parking lot, Maricica stood with a limp Brie standing askew, leaning into one of the Faerie’s arms.

“Coming down,” Zed said.

Avery didn’t wait for Zed.  She hurried.  Musser let Lucy go, and Verona raced over, carrying her bag.  A few stray spell cards had fallen across the bag and her, and fell free as she ran.

“She’s a little drained,” Maricica said.  “But I don’t imagine that’s her foremost concern.”

Avery didn’t respond.  Neither did Lucy or Verona.

Avery looked back, and saw Zed.  Zed hurried, followed by Raquel.  Musser walked but didn’t hurry, didn’t run.  His attention was more on fights that had petered out.  He motioned for his Familiars to stand down and step back.  Only Rabbit Killer and the woman with the ivory skin had been taken out.  The rest of his familiars looked like they were in decent shape.

“Brie,” Zed said.

“Zed,” Brie whispered back.

“Where was she?” Lucy asked.

“With me the entire time, hidden in a fold of my wing, camouflaged in the dust.  I may be unclothed, but I do have need for a means of putting things away,” Maricica said.  “I loathe crude weapons, but sometimes I need to put things down, as well.”

She looked at Brie as she said it.

Brie tensed, finding the strength to fight, but she found no purchase- no arm to firmly grip, only a sheet of wing that fingers grazed, stirring up dust.

Blood ran from a cut on Brie’s palm to a chalice held near the elbow, a match for the goblet Lis had had.

“Let her go,” Zed said.  “She can’t take much more of that.”

“I think you imagine me more kind and merciful than I am.”

“You’re a creature of Dark Fall,” Zed said.  He swallowed hard.  The tension was clear, and his focus was more on Brie than Maricica.  “I know it’s a court that likes trade.”

“I don’t believe you have much I desire.  On the other hand, killing her could easily punctuate tonight as a loss for your side.”

“Maricica,” Lucy said.  “By the deals made, and the oaths sworn, you promised us long and full lives.  Take a good and honest friend from us and you’ll be betraying that oath.”

“That’s a very open-ended interpretation,” Maricica replied.  “I might even call a Judge to order, if you were to press me on it.  I do think we’d have to wait until they were done with their other business.”

“You promised and I’ll hold you to that promise.  Not for after.  For now.  Screw the judges,” Lucy spat the words, voice hard.  “I’d ask the universe to judge you.”

“We’d ask,” Avery said.

“Yeah,” Verona added.  “Haven’t you gotten all the use from her you need?  You got the power she has in her through the blood.”

“I did.  Some.  I could drain her further, keep what I took.”

“Or you could keep your oaths,” Lucy retorted.  She spoke like she was fighting to hold back from shouting and screaming.  “Do you really want to try it?  Do you want to push us- me to the point of being unreasonable?”

“If you did, that’d be denying us a full and rich life and all that jazz, too,” Verona added.

“And how do I know you won’t attack me the moment she’s not in my grasp?  Would you swear?”

Lucy barked out a laugh.

“That’s suggestive of your intent,” the Faerie said.  “It’s clear you want to harm me.”

“You fucking think?” Lucy asked.  “But I won’t if you leave her alone.”

Maricica smiled.

Avery put a hand out to the side, and she motioned the others to back up a bit.  Lucy hesitated, tense, before acceding.

They gave Maricica about ten or fifteen feet of space.

And Maricica released Brie.  It was Zed who hurried forward to catch her before she could lose balance and fall.

Zed hugged her, the two of them sagging to the ground.  Zed checked she was alert, and she let her head rest against his shoulder.  He twisted his head around to kiss her forehead.

“Good.  Now get the fuck out of our lives,” Lucy told Maricica.

“Very well,” Maricica said, backing off.  She swept wings around herself until she was wrapped in them, upper corners turned away, as if she was wearing an off-the-shoulder dress.  She smiled.  “It was amusing.”

“Screw off,” Avery told her.

“I thought you might chase that little piece of glass Guilherme gave you.  A compass for glamour.  But you went the opposite way, didn’t you?  Telling a completely different story.”

“I’m so sick of you talking,” Verona said.

“You’ll be done with it soon.  Had you gone that way, you’d have found Charles, kneeling in dirt, digging.  You could even have brought him into custody.  Of course, Lis and I would be busy in the meantime, and wherever you took Charles, you’d have found a snare waiting.  It’d be best to tease you, giving you a chance to talk to him, to have confidence shaken.”

“I don’t think I care,” Lucy said.  “Just go?”

“Do you know what he might have dug up?  I know you stopped to check it was buried, at two separate times.”

“The doll,” Verona said.

“The doll,” Maricica confirmed.

“What doll?” Raquel asked.

“That held the curse for the Choir,” Verona said, looking up and over.  “Why?”

“Claim,” Maricica answered.  “Let me go.  I’ll leave you to wait for the contest to finish.”

“What did you do?”

“And, as I go… my apologies, Brie.  I reinforced those bindings with glamour, to keep you from surrounding me with hungry waifs…”

Maricica moved one arm, violently.  Imperceptible threads glinted in the light.  They pulled, and they pulled at Brie’s skin.  They pulled away glamour, and they pulled away ink.

Stripping away the tattoos.

Lucy lunged.  Avery followed.  Lucy’s hand met with the threads that had pulled taut, a web to block her reaching hand.  Avery ducked around, circling- but Maricica was already moving.  Flying.

The air filled with the sound of children singing.

“Charles must have the doll,” Avery whispered.  “Claim over the Choir?”

“Probably.  Tricks and stuff tied into it?” Verona asked.

“He has the knowledge, he would only need the tool and power,” Musser said.  “He’s not an utter fool after all.”

Brie reached up with a hand.  Individual beads of blood welled where the tattoo had been stripped from skin.  She pawed weakly at her shirt collar.

The sound of children singing swelled.  Avery could see waifs now.

“What are you doing?” Zed asked.

Brie pulled a necklace free.  A beaded chain necklace, like the ones John had kept the dog collars on.

With a ring on the end.

“It’s claim,” Brie whispered.  “More claim than the doll, maybe.”

Avery looked up at Maricica’s disappearing silhouette in the red night sky.

Brie pushed the necklace into Avery’s hand.

“Get it to John.”

Avery turned, then broke into a jog.  Running.  Before John got locked into some circumstance where he couldn’t answer the door.  Before something happened.  Before Charles brought the full weight of the Choir to bear.

She hurried.  Past a wounded Freak and Squeak.  Past an exhausted Nibble and Chloe, who slumped against a tree, in one another’s arms.   Past Tashlit, who was healing.  Past Matthew, past Musser’s Familiars.  A wounded and bloody Guilherme sat near the trees at the corner of the building, watching but not participating.

Past waifs, who gathered in growing number, their voices rising to crescendo.

She reached the doors.  The arena where this had all started.

“Don’t enter!” Toadswallow called out.  “You’ll be locked in!”

She hesitated, then hauled the door open.  “John!”

John was there with the soldiers all around him.  Like Lucy had said.

“Take this, use it  Find a way, before Charles takes the Choir!”

He hurried over.

The Alabaster watched them.  Charles watched.

She reached forward, stopping short of putting a hand past the doorway, in case that might count as entering.  Instead, she pulled it back, ready to throw it underhand.

And it was snatched from her hand.

She turned, aghast- no people, she’d been careful enough.  A shadow from Rabbit Killer?

A bird.

She spotted it, flying with the chain and ring dangling.

Weaving into trees and away from the Arena.  A ephemeral songbird, carrying a ring bearing the same as an inscription on the inside.

She let the door fall closed.

She wrapped herself in glamour, and she threw down the last coin.  “A faster course!”

To become a bird.  To chase.  To get that ring back.

She flew after it, a raptor, a hawk, a wolf of the skies.

She did not find it.

The singing of the Choir reached its loudest.  Audible even as she was a ten minute flight from the Arena.

The singing stopped entirely, and she had to take a moment to gather her thoughts enough and realize why.

The Choir had gone inside.


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Break 4

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Cagerattler

Men with guns entered the Arena, fanning out as they got past the bottleneck of the back hallway, stepping out onto the stands.

“What the hellllll?” one of the men asked.

“Entrants may come at any time before the contest concludes, two entrants may fight at a time,” the Aurum Coil told them.  “The last of you standing may take the Carmine Throne.  Have you joined individually, or is one of you set on the throne?  The others may be soldiers or servants of the entrant, so long as they swear to secrecy about what unfolds.”

“None of us,” another of the men said.  “None of us wants your shitty throne.”

“I would be very careful about what answer you give,” the Alabaster told them.  “There is a way this ends where some of you can walk away.”

The Sable passed across the hallway behind them, raising one hand.  Spikes of black crystal gathered around the door, all of them pointing from the door toward the Arena.  It meant that those entering could glide alongside the spikes and enter, but those within would have to walk into a hundred bristling points of varying lengths and angles.

A woman in the group pointed her gun at the Sable’s head.  She spoke with a coarse French accent, “None of that.”

“It’s done.  This sort of contest began before even the accords of Solomon.  Those of us who administrate this competition are backed by thousands of years of precedent.”

“This bullet is backed by some force too, non?”

Lucas Olson gripped the bars of the living cage he was crouched within, head bent forward, with no comfortable sitting position.  The most comfortable surface resembled sandpaper in texture, the least comfortable spots like razors fused to the space by something that seemed to combine the worst traits of rust and mold, or where needles were fused to the metal frame, serrated with rust along their length, so they dragged going in and dragged coming out.  His right wrist had a shackle on it, of the same material, and it had rubbed enough that there was barely any flesh, hard material grating against bone.  The hand was consequently weak, shot through with pain every second, more intense than if he’d slammed his funny bone on a corner.  His left ankle was the same, but the attached foot was mostly dead.  It didn’t inflict shooting pain on him, but instead it perpetually died, pumping toxins and weakness into his leg, groin, and lower stomach.

For all that, he was mostly pristine.  His skin would get scratched, then heal when he wasn’t aware of the pain anymore.  His hand wouldn’t die or rot off.  Clothes had turned to rags and fallen off, his hair had grown long, until it could touch his lap, and it wasn’t as greasy as it should be.

He’d forgotten a lot, over the years, but the demeanor of the woman struck a chord in his memory.

“Can we talk?” Lucas asked.

“What the fuck are you, man?” the first of the men asked.  He pointed the gun at Lucas.  “Jesus.”

“If you want to talk, get them out of the Arena so we can move on,” the soldier John Stiles said, as he rejoined his group.

“Eager!” Breastbiter crowed.  “I like it.”

“Some fucking Mad Hatter’s tea party shit, randoms everywhere,” one of the men at the back declared, looking around.  “Shredding the place, random trees…”

“Should’ve burned down the building,” another of the new arrivals declared.

“Yeahh.”

“I’d like to talk,” Lucas pressed.  “Because I don’t think you belong here.”

The man pointed the gun at him again.  Lucas stared at the barrel.

The woman at the back paced, when the others were still.  She was black, lipstick red, hair combed close to the skull and glossy.  She wore a leather jacket and jeans, guns at her belt, military-style bag slung over her right shoulder and resting against her left hip, gun in hand.

She aimed at the Aurum Coil.

“You achieve nothing by-”

She fired.

The bullet hit a sheet of glass that framed the rink, that hadn’t been there in the instant before the gun’s flash had distracted the eye.  Cracks spiderwebbed out from the point of impact, but the bullet didn’t pass through.

She fired again, over and over.  Lucas shut his eyes and covered his ears as the sound bounced around the Arena, carried by the good acoustics.

An eternity ago, Lucas and his wife had fostered three boys.  All uniquely troubled, all struggling, picked specifically because they weren’t the types to normally be adopted-  too old, too obviously problematic.  His wife had been an orphan, had grown up in a group home, and it had been important to her – having their own kids hadn’t even come up as a point of discussion.  She’d glowed as she’d risen to the occasion, raising the boys, talking to them, and sharing her own experience.  Lucas had stumbled in the first year or two, then he’d found his stride, being a father, being a support, a supporter, a role model.  To Ed, a chronic liar, to Norman, who was so afraid of losing the new home he’d gotten that he’d run away from it six times before realizing it was his place to stay.  The adoption that cemented that realization as truth had been- whatever the opposite of heartbreak was.  To Cruz, who had seemed to be an angel at first but was the opposite behind the scenes, especially with those smaller and weaker than him, which was a lot of his fellow students.

Past tears, past agonizing decisions, discussions with teachers and government officials, and talks with his wife that extended late into the night, they’d found a way forward.  Ed had found his way, Norman had found security, and Cruz had turned around enough he wasn’t a bully anymore, leaving them hopeful that he’d eventually become a support to those weaker than him.

Then Cole.

Cole, by accident, by the same means most couples had their children.

Cole, who had grown up just as his older brothers were getting over the last of their issues.  Lucas had found that as misbehavior was addressed, with consistent, firm and fair rules, that misbehavior would emerge in a final intense burst.  At a young age, Cole had seen the final throes of his brother’s misbehavior.

That wasn’t it.  There were a hundred complicating facts.  A hundred things that could have been it.  Lucas’s wife-

He wished he could remember her name.

-had taken the pregnancy hard, had gone from being a mother who could parent three troubled boys in a way most couldn’t, to someone who doubted her every move, inexplicably.  Doubted his.  They’d fought.  Lucas’ efforts to remind their three adopted boys that they were loved seemed to leave Cole wanting, but giving more time to Cole didn’t soothe the boy either.  So many things were like that with Cole.  Where he could fail but could never recuperate what he’d lost in that failing.

Then Cole had become old enough to be semi-independent, to go to school, out of their sight.  Where he was a liar, truant, a bully.  Suspended for a week after breaking the glasses of a girl in his class, first grade.  Suspended for two weeks, third grade, for emptying paint over a classmate’s desk and lap.  Fourth grade, he’d stolen extra cake slices before classmates had been able to get them, and had thrown them into the schoolyard, for seagulls to flock in and eat.  The teacher had gone to the effort to make the cake, and it had been her last straw with Cole, prompting her to spank him until she broke down in tears midway through, with most of the class consoling her.  Cole had run home.

Things along those lines until eighth grade.  Cole had assaulted one of the girls in his class.  He’d been arrested, taken away for two years, where Cole had learned to be harder, meaner, had made friends.  Cole’s mother had left for her mother’s, taking the other boys.  Lucas had stayed, trying to help Cole, getting ready for their son to come back.  Because someone had had to.

Was it nature?  A bad roll of the dice, of bloodline and blood?  Or had someone hurt Cole, or gotten to him at an age before he’d learned to read and write?  Or later, with the earlier instances of bad behavior normal, inflated in the heads of parents who’d never actually raised a child from birth and seen what was typical?  Had one his brothers said or done something at a critical moment in his early growth, when the brain was drawing connections together?  Had Cole’s mother?  Had Lucas, somehow, unwittingly?

Cole was released, but he came back harder, meaner, and connected.  He hadn’t even pretended to try to go to school, and disappeared with these other youths with criminal backgrounds.  Lucas’s work had suffered-

What was my job?  Who was I?

-and then the reports had come in.  A neighbor and classmate of Cole, who’d long liked the boy despite everything, assaulted.  Cole had been shot as he fled.

So Lucas had gone after Cole.  He’d known what Cole liked, the spaces his son had played in.  He’d expected to find his son in a hiding place, bled out and dead.  Instead he’d found a wounded Cole with one of the new friends caring for him, the one with a silver tongue and a sensationalist leaning toward the occult.

A leaning that had had some truth to it.

Lucas’s son had used what his friend had taught him and forced Lucas down into hell.  He’d bound him there with shackles, chains, and a cage.

The sound of the gunshots in the Arena faded.  Lucas’ ears didn’t even ring.  He didn’t know how much of that was the fact he was no longer human and how much was that he’d adapted to the clamor and chaos of the hell he’d been caged in for so long.

“If you wish to fight, fight through,” the Sable Prince told the new arrivals.  “The contest is set.  None here and nobody close to this place have both the power and the willingness to change the course of tonight’s events.”

“If you won’t leave the arena floor, then perhaps we can bring others to you,” the Aurum Coil said.  “Would any contestants step forward to battle the Witch Hunters?”

Witch Hunters.

“We’re willing,” the soldier declared.

The cage shifted.  Lucas braced himself, adjusting.

“Okay,” Lucas murmured.

John Stiles stopped in his tracks as the living cage cut him off.

Cagerattler made his way into the arena stairs, far from the Witch Hunters.

“What if we don’t want to play your game, huh?” the woman near the back of the group asked.

“You made the decision when you entered despite the Sable’s warning,” the Alabaster told her.

The lead Witch Hunter tried to enter the rink.  There was a hollow bang as his hand touched more of the glass, a material so clear it had looked like the way was clear.

Are they someone else’s Cole?  Angry, hurt people who hurt other people for reasons I might never discover?  Reasons their loved ones might never know?

Are they orphans, or people who had people surrounding them, people they wounded by leaving?

You fired that gun without even batting an eyelash.

Lucas’ eyes dropped to his lap.  He had a knife there, usually hidden, gleaming, clean, lying in a bed of his own loosely curling black hair.  He kept it, and the living cage that bound him let him.  At least part of the reason was that he might use it to try to escape, by one means or another, and in the doing he’d make his last words to Cole a lie.

The hell he’d been plunged into seemed to work on perverse logic and intent like that.  The cage was saturated in that, seeming to live by it.  If he tried and he failed to truly escape, maybe he’d deserve hell.

In this way, it was more a cage of his own making than something Cole had done.

Cagerattler’s body was dense, with bones crusted with barnacle-like growths of rust, iron, and denser materials.  As he left the rink, chains that dangled from his back pulled taut.  Bars within Lucas’ confines slid, and he pulled out of the way as best as he could.  The dead foot wouldn’t move, and his left arm had been braced against the wall, so his body wouldn’t be thrown against the back of the cage as Cagerattler walked.  The bar slammed into his forearm, cracking or bruising bone.

Lucas didn’t make a sound, his eyes dropping.

The chains, as Cagerattler walked up the stairs, pulled things from beneath the blood on the ice.  Objects.  A mallet with the chain tangled around it.  Dark, liquid hellstuff dripped down the length of the chain, dropped from the mallet… and left a trail of something behind.  A tether.  As more gunk flowed and fell, the tether became more substantial, with a shape to it.

An arm.

By the time the head and upper body had been hauled free, other chains were pulling contents free.  A yoke for an ox, with a brutish man bound to it, hands and neck encircled by barbed chain.  A shard of mirror surrounded by corrosion, with a woman scrambling to grip chain, grab the edges with enough force her fingers were cut by the shard’s edge, all so she could keep her face in the reflection.

There were items without the damned of hell attached to them.  A straight-razor, a sun-bleached trash bin unlike any Lucas had seen, that produced sounds like the glass around the arena.  Hollow, dull.  A book of photos- grotesque photos of blindfolded people with sawn-off body parts.  The photos came free and the ones that touched the blood on the ice were grabbed by hands from beneath, dragged under.  The ones that touched the concrete of the arena started spreading dark stains.

Cagerattler whispered.

Every item without an owner became its own owner.  The shadows they cast became figures, the figures fit to each item.  A man with skin that looked like he’d been rinsed in dark ink a few too many times, his glasses bright in the dark, a camera at his neck.  A man in old-fashioned clothing with a face rendered unrecognizable by a criss-crossing of cuts.  The trash bin tipped over, and someone or something banged within as they shifted position.

Things that went down there got hardened, turned ugly.  It was easy to get angry, easy to get desperate, easy to give up on everything.  And Lucas had been down there long enough to see some get out.  He’d seen them fall back down, after.  Some came up, they killed a few, they were vanquished, and they’d be sent down, and that was the pattern.  Some of these objects were owned by those sorts of beings, and by binding the items, the owners were bound to follow and obey.

Others were just the objects.  Objects with enough awfulness behind them that they could boil up too, they could find targets, and they could hurt.  The people that Cagerattler had created were representations of the gathered negativity in those items.  Manifestations of the history, of the owners, of everything else.

Lucas had been sent down to that place and he wasn’t angry enough to get out.  He wasn’t desperate.  He was patient.  For Cole.  But that hellscape was still a place that took someone’s worst fears and gave them life.  That took their worst qualities and gave them physical shape, be it scars or monstrousness.

It hadn’t had enough leverage to get a grip on Lucas himself, maybe because of the way he’d been sent down there, but it could get its grips on other things.  On the-

Delusions?  At what point does support for someone troubled stop being a positive and start being something damning?

-connections.

How long had it been, now?  He hadn’t surfaced in some time, and they hadn’t come into the city much after that surfacing.  Cars were different.  Trash bins were this hollow material more than metal.  The lights were bright.  Clothes- the soldier’s military outfits, the signage, even, it all seemed more detailed than he remembered.

The chains began to reel out.  Lucas had to balance avoiding letting the chains saw at or through him as they ran through the main body with trying to keep the peace, maintaining the balance.  They’d found a kind of deal and he’d abide by it.  As with the raising of the three boys they’d fostered and then adopted, he had to believe in consistency.

Consistency might’ve been the only reason he hadn’t become monstrous in that monstrous place.  After his cage had started moving, started delivering him to scenarios that would test his resolve, he’d met an old man who’d been made part of the walls around him, like the cage had mingled with Lucas.  The man had said he was a pearl in the Abyssian depths, not directly corrupted.  There was little hell could deliver unto him that would beat what he felt inside.  A father that had failed his son.

The Witch Hunters were circling around, careful, guns at the ready.  The chains dragged noisily against the ambulatory cage as the various servants of Cagerattler charged forward.  They made more noise as they slapped and scraped against the floor, and the edges of the blocky stairs.

“Abyssal,” one of the men said.  The gun he held up was old fashioned even by Lucas’ standards.  “I hope you’ve kept your brass polished.”

“Doesn’t have to be brass.  Anything old,” another man said.

“Anything old and looked after,” another corrected.

The youngest member of that group lifted a crossbow bolt from the small one-handed crossbow he carried, clamping it between his teeth, so he’d be free to slip another one into the top.  The little mechanism clicked.

They’ll come after me.  They always do.  Lucas breathed hard, muscles straining, arm throbbing where the bar had smashed it.  His right arm with the weak, pained hand was held out where the shackle helped deflect a chain that was pulling out from the darkest recesses of Cagerattler’s leg and pelvis, bottomless and endless.  Keeping that chain from sawing its way through Lucas’ side.  His other hand gripped bars where needles pierced and blades cut.  On the abrasive surfaces, rust ground its way beneath his skin.  He had to brace himself-

Cagerattler charged.  The ‘ride’ was not a gentle one.  Bones had calcified and been coated in collected rust and debris from the dark, cold parts of hell.  The living cage was too small for Lucas, every movement throwing him against one side, against the ceiling.  The chain found his arm and skinned it to the elbow.

The deal.  He’d told Cagerattler that he wouldn’t fight the propensity for violence, so long as it was aimed in the right directions.

Was this the right direction?  Were the Witch Hunters like Cole had been?  Stubborn, impossible to decipher?

The boy shot the crossbow bolt.  It passed between the bars of the cage, and punctured Lucas’ forearm.

He bit back any noise of pain he might make.

This was the compromise.

“Nice shot!” the woman called out.

Most of the others were focusing on the servants Cagerattler had brought up.  They moved fast.  Bullets- Lucas had seen things like this and how bullets didn’t seem to work on them.

The first Witch Hunters met the man with the straight razor and the man with the yoke.  Bound as he was, the yoked man was monstrously strong, and kicked a man with a sickening crunch.  The woman with the French accent wielded what looked like an old knife against the straight razor.

And won.  Lucas’ eyes widened.

The yoked man fell, as the bullets took their toll.  He started to rise, then collapsed.

They were losing?  This easily?

The picture-book man used cover to creep forward.  Two men circled around the cover, aiming for a pincer attack.

“I’m the prettiest, have to be the prettiest…”

The woman with the shard of mirror stepped out of shadows she hadn’t actually moved to, tackling one of the men to the ground, pressing the mirror down at his face.

“Won’t let you be prettier than me…”

The whisper was sinuous, flowing through the Arena.

The man managed to push her off, one hand near his face.  When she did, he slipped, losing footing, and rolled down two stairs.  Nose cut off, ears cut off, eyes stitched closed, mouth stitched open, chin to neck, lips pulled up and stitched to the edges of the cut-off nose and one cheekbone.  A hand with only two fingers stitched to the side of his face.

“Cover each other!”

She ducked away into shadow, catching one bullet at the shoulder.  The chain continued to reel out, threading into that shadow and out of another, as she emerged.

The album man threw himself backwards, lying on his back, camera up just in time to catch the remaining Witch Hunter that had been after him.  The camera went off, producing a flash bright enough to illuminate the arena, blinding everyone.

In the second or so that it took eyes to adjust, the Album Man had the subject of his photo butchered, limbs removed, a band of metal welded around the eyes as a permanent blindfold, a ring of metal piercing the floor of the mouth and extending out, so he was propped upright, connected to the ceiling.

“Those are two of the strongest bogeymen I’ve ever seen and he’s got them on a leash?

“Focus!  It’s gotta be him, at the center!  He’s a power source.  Something old!”

They weren’t wrong about the power source.  They were wrong about Cagerattler being old.

He hadn’t been down in Hell that long, had he?  Cagerattler hadn’t taken that long to gather this strength, had he?

They were coordinated.  The bogeymen weren’t.  They were predators who hunted by opportunity, picking off stragglers.  As the Witch Hunters organized, there were less opportunities.

The vain woman with the mirror shard tried to scare them, to divide up their number.  She got shot, through the mirror, first and she flew into a frenzy, hurling four people about ten to twenty feet each, in various directions.  In the midst of it, the woman with the old knife cut her throat.

Meanwhile, the yoked man needed four of the Witch Hunters to keep him at bay.  He was dumb, and their bullets and cuts were working better than anything Lucas had ever seen, but it was his nature to be the last one to fall.  He drank the power Cagerattler provided through the chains and he used it to keep going, no matter what.  A small explosive took a chunk out of his chest, and it became apparent that the chains threaded into the yoke also threaded through him, much as they did with Cagerattler.  There were enough chains and connection points for chains that the explosive had stopped at a wall of metal and bone.

The trash can contents exploded out, a naked man with legs that had never grown, head distended on one side, mouth perpetually open, teeth malformed.  Behind his lower body was twenty feet of worm-like mess; translucent skin bound around intestine, choked to the point of gruesome swelling by the umbilical cord that was still attached, connected to the fetid meat at the bottom of the can.  Prehensile enough that the distension from his midsection and buttocks let him move, weaving around, letting that flesh pour out of the stained can as he made his lower body a barrier to the Witch Hunters.

They shot, cut, hacked away with an old cleaver- but as the discarded man extended himself further, another twenty feet of length, a lot of the flesh they were trying to damage was put out of their reach.  The thrown-away man grabbed onto branches of the tree growing out of the corner of the arena, letting his lower body buck, thrust, and shove, pushing Witch Hunters off their feet.

One threw one of the explosives down toward the can that rested against boards beside the ice rink.  It was Cagerattler who hauled back on the chain tied to the handle, pulling it out of the way.  He caught it in one arm, and Lucas twisted his face away as the fluids from the can splashed him.

The wielder of the straight razor was finding his feet again, slowly.  Like the soldier’s helpers, these were not entities that stayed down.

Four of twelve Witch Hunters had fallen.  They didn’t seem like they’d rise again.  Maybe the one man with the cut-off nose and the stitches could, but…

The woman had something.  A splash of liquid, and what was stretching before began to crack and tear.  It created a gap they could fight through, and slowed down the movements of the discarded man.

And another something- tossed into the air.  A coin, flipping end over end, catching the light as it flipped- each time it caught the light it returned it brighter.

Lucas had to shield his eyes as the coin lit up the arena.  It wasn’t descending.

Cagerattler swiped out with chains, and swatted it out of the air.

It seemed the thrown-away man was losing.  He’d caught the Witch Hunters off guard at first, but even as he added more mass, and the ongoing disemboweling of his seemingly endless lower mass added slick blood and guts to the concrete stairs, slowing the Witch Hunters… he was losing.

Cagerattler was strong but he wouldn’t survive the fight.

Cagerattler and I made a deal.

Lucas huddled in his prison, cradling the broken arm with a small arrow sticking through it.

“Judges,” Lucas said, quiet.

“Lucas Olson,” came the response, from the Alabaster Doe, who’d heard him, as quiet as he’d been.  Her voice carried.

“This is a contest of leadership, of fitness for the throne?”

“It is.”

“We test our leadership by managing our own.”

“We do.  That was John Stiles’ claim.”

“But can we have more of a test of judgment?  Something to help decide this?”

“The time to propose rules was before,” the Sable Prince declared, stern.

“But we may allow it,” the Alabaster Doe added, unreadable.

“If the majority agrees,” the Aurum Coil finished, smiling.

“No more delays,” John Stiles said.

“Does it have to be a delay?  Can we test each candidate, put forward a challenge in a moment, let it count?” Lucas asked.  “It could even speed up the results.”

They were close to cutting through.

“You may,” the Alabaster said.

There were things like this in the deepest hell Lucas had seen  In some ways, it was the only way to get around, every step forward a trial.

“The majority is in quiet, unspoken agreement over the idea,” the Aurum Coil declared.

The world faded away.

We’ll get out, we’ll stay out.

You can fight, you handle the challenges I can’t.  I’ll… I’ll try the talking part.  The kinder parts.

That had been the deal.

They sat on their throne.  Lucas was free of the cage, but not of the shackles at right wrist and left ankle.  He was dressed in red, and fresh blood dripped from each shackle, where it bit into flesh, where the blood joined that which formed a fine layer on the floor.

Cagerattler sat on the bifurcated throne.

Cagerattler, Lucas’ prison.  His struggles made manifest.

It was quiet.  For now.  Cagerattler would get restless, and he wasn’t sure what that would mean in this context.  In this quiet clearing where the ground and brick walls were soaked red, and the sun shone through at a low angle, casting long shadows and illuminating the edges of broken machinery near the walls.

“Cagerattler and Lucas Olson, your challenge,” the Aurum Coil announced.

A child, a girl of ten or so, was led into the clearing.  She wore clothes better suited to a boy, her expression fierce, angry-

Lucas swallowed.

“She’s to become Other.  Something savage and violent.  This is non-negotiable.”

“And the challenge?” Lucas asked.

“See it through.”

The Aurum Coil left, riding the centipede into the darkness.

The girl realized the coast was clear, and screamed, more like an animal than a human.  She ran at Lucas.

Cagerattler called chains out, barring her path.  The first stretched across throat-level, edges sharp.

“No!” Lucas called out.  “The deal!”

And the chain went slack.  But a shackle caught her ankle.  She tripped, falling, and thrashed.

“If you kill her or knock her out, we might fail,” he told Cagerattler.

The living cage didn’t move or react, only watching the girl thrash, fight, and tug.

Wounded, angry, fierce-

Inexplicable.

He had the means of seeing the anger take hold, deep in her bones.  Fury transcended normal limitations, the limits of strength and exhaustion.  She wouldn’t tire, she’d fight endlessly, and she’d take on a shape that wasn’t human.  Abstract forces loomed around her, like the ghosts of animals, but they came before animals had been born, rather than after they’d died.  There were others that weren’t animals.  Ghosts of violence, of weapons, of pain.

He knew what he had to do.  He knew he had to simply will it.  It would happen.

He couldn’t.

They were back in the Arena.  The Witch Hunters, struggling through, found their shoes had purchase on bloody concrete stairs.  The little differences began to add up.  Other things had changed too.  It was hard to say how, but one of the Witch Hunters got the advantage on the yoked man, and knocked him down stairs with a well-timed, well-aimed blow.

The straightrazor man was shot through the hand, shattering the handle of the straightrazor.

“It wasn’t a fair test,” Lucas said, forehead resting against bars that bit into his skin.

“Many of them won’t be.  I put the same sort of test before Cleo Aleshire.  The answer she gave wasn’t necessarily a correct one, but she has conviction, and she did give an answer.”

One of the older guns fired, a different sound than something more modern.  It clipped one of the bars of the cage and it hit Lucas.

Cagerattler didn’t slow at all.  Wielding fistfuls of chains like whips, whipping one limp corpse of the album man around as part of it, he waded into the attacking force.

Lucas fought to stay conscious, the heat of the bullet that had settled in his gut like touching a hot stove, but it was inside himself and there was no way to pull away.  Instead he retched, writhing in his prison.  As Cagerattler tipped forward, he had to catch the knife with his weak hand, to keep it from sliding between the bars.

A man gripped the bars and tried to pull Cagerattler off balance.  Lucas was given an opportunity to cut at those fingers.

But if he’d been the type to take that opportunity, maybe he wouldn’t have been able to survive as cleanly as he had in that hellish place he’d been caged in.  He’d gone most of his life without hurting people.  Deliberately or directly, anyway.

He might have hurt his other sons by trying to save Cole.

He couldn’t attack.  He kept the knife.  He let them gradually win the struggle against the cage that encircled him.  That punished him for his failures.

Cagerattler fell.  A Witch Hunter leaned over top, trying to weigh him down, while Cleo Aleshire, the woman, emptied a gun into Cagerattler’s face, metal bonded over skull and the corruption that had grown over skull.

“There’s a heart in here!” the Witch Hunter said, as he leaned over Lucas.

There was.  A short distance above Lucas’ head, an exposed, stained heart pulsed.

“You have a knife and you haven’t gotten it?  Afraid you’ll get locked in?” the man asked.

Cleo shouted out, “Don’t trust him!  He might be the power source, deception and shit!”

Lucas stared into the man’s eyes.

Cagerattler was losing, and Lucas had failed the very test he’d asked for.

“We surrender.”

Cagerattler relaxed, not fighting as hard, anymore.

It was the Aurum Coil who swept in.  Separating Lucas and the cage from the Witch Hunters.  The Aurum Coil who encircled them, a young face, smiling, almost mocking.

Cagerattler hadn’t been strong enough to win against the Witch Hunters alone.  Lucas hadn’t been strong enough to meet the test, mid-fight.  It stood to reason they wouldn’t have done a very good job in the role.  Maybe the tests really would have been that difficult.

The glow and brightness of the centipede’s coils around them became brighter.  They crushed in tighter, destroying the cage from the outside in.

The skull shattered from the crushing force on the outside, the fragments exploding out.  A face exposed.  The coils crushed in around it-

“Give them some kindness,” the Alabaster Doe said.

And then those same coils moved away, focusing efforts elsewhere.

Lucas sat up and sat as straight as he could, as the door opened.  Hair tore from scalp as the coils raked it.  He looked at Cole.

Cole had gone down, and he’d dragged Lucas with him.  Cole had shattered on the floor of hell, and Lucas had refused to leave.  Death hadn’t come for Cole, but instead, corruption and all the flavors of hell had embraced the boy.

“You could have used that knife any time.  Pierced the heart,” Cole said, not comprehending.

“I meant what I said.”

“You could have opened the shackles, opened the door.”

“I told you.  You’re my son.  I wasn’t going to leave you.  Especially when you were going through that.”

“You could have pushed me away, as I dragged you down.”

“I could have.  I didn’t,” Lucas said.  He teared up a bit, seeing Cole’s face for the first time in far, far too long.  How long had it been, that they’d been down there, that new materials had been invented, that lights were brighter, guns and clothes fancier?  “I’m responsible for you.”

Cole had fought, continued to fight.  Where so very many souls fought to get out, to get up, to return to wreak vengeance, Cole had plunged.  Intentionally.  And Lucas had held on, staying with him.  Cole might have been digested, but for his tie to Lucas, who had gone unclaimed.

Maybe Lucas had deserved that hell for that.  Unconditional love could be ugly.  Cole had not been a good person by any measure, and he hadn’t been any kinder as a living cage.

Cole was so small now.  A head and the rust-covered bones of the upper chest, stained heart beating.

The coils closed inward.

“I don’t understand you,” Cole said.

And I don’t understand you.

He might’ve said it, but it felt unkind in the moment, and past that moment, they were disassembled, taken to pieces, in body, mind, and soul.  A young man who had drowned in his own darkness and the father he’d dragged in after him, consigned to oblivion.  This way, taking this course, there would be no hell, no heaven, only elements returned to the universe.

🟂

Francis

Francis watched as the centipede man wrung out the coils.  As tough as the Deep Abyssal had been, there wasn’t even dust left afterward.

Cleo was talking with some of the others already, about strategy, sharing details that others might have missed.  Francis ventured over.

Pike stood up, groaning as he rubbed his ribs.  He was tall, thin, black, with a receding hairline, and way too fond of Cleo for his own good.  Lighthouse but not Lighthouse, he’d signed on after his family had been slaughtered.  Had the credentials but hadn’t gone through all the training.

“Guess that’s what they intend to do to us when we lose this stupid little game?” Pike asked.

“Guess so,” Cleo replied.  Pretty, black, and very Montreal as Witch Hunters went.

“It’s not the first time Witch Hunters have stumbled into a game or contest like this,” Toy said.  He was a Chinese Canadian, stout, with a belly, a scraggly beard shot through with white, and a shaved head.  Lighthouse.

“Done.  We may proceed,” the man on the centipede declared.  “Cleo Aleshire, as your group’s throne-seeker, if you wish to step onto the ice here, another contestant may step up.”

“And if I tell you to make me?”

“Then we could send another out.”

Francis frowned as a small Other vomited blood onto the bloody rink.  It was two feet tall, misshapen hands and feet, skin like thin scar tissue, and an ear-like shape for a face, crusted with blood at the canal, which had a spiral inside it.

“Trrfrpprheplath has expressed an interest in fighting,” the woman in white declared.

“Better you guys than us,” Reid Musser said.  His face was heavily bandaged, but he had other staining around him.  Abyss?

Francis nudged Pike.  Pike nodded.

“What’s your guess?” Toy asked.

“Not goblin.  If it wasn’t so small, I’d think it’s a horror,” Cleo said.

“Horrors can be small,” Toy said.

J.L.J. raised a hand to get their attention.

“Ntrstctaplalth will take to the arena.  Decide now if you’ll participate, Cleo Aleshire,” the gold-robed man on the centipede said.

“You have no power over us.  I don’t have to decide anything.”

“Perhaps, but decisions can be made without you.  It is your choice to be stubborn, and it is ours to allow Srentystrpleth to take the field.  The doors remain sealed.”

“Give me a second,” Cleo said.

“We’ve established we don’t need lengthy periods of rest and recuperation,” the man in the black suit declared.  “It was offered and candidates refused it.”

Srentystrpleth.  The name had changed, but as Francis thought about it, he couldn’t remember the permutation of sounds from before, and he knew exactly who it was meant to refer to this time.

An anti-binding measure?  A way for it to slip easy labeling and summoning?

It fell in the right ballpark for horrors and darker things.

“The fight may begin in-”

“A second, fuck it!” Cleo swore.  Then she swore again, “Tabernac, how are the wounded?”

“They killed Jarrell twice over, Fry got smashed, two more hurting,” J.L.J. said.

Estrada was one of the ones who was hurting.  He’d had had his face stitched up, nose cut off and cauterized.  J.L.J. had cut the stitches, but some had yet to be pulled out of the one eyelid or upper lip, which made it look like he had a really bizarre mustache and eyelashes.

It looked like Keith might have shattered ribs.  The macabre photographer had turned Ted Jarrell into a limbless trophy that dangled from the ceiling by his jaw, and the giant bogeyman had turned him into a one-punch punching bag, hitting the guy so hard his insides came out his lower half.

Yeah, those had been some scary bogeymen, and they’d come as a group.  Would the rest of this be like that?

Francis licked his lips, not even sure what to feel.  His eyes scanned the others on the bloody rink.  Three important ones, managing this thing, the rest were practitioners and Others of the worst sort, it seemed.

“Take ’em out of the arena.  If I’m playing this savage little game of yours, I can do that, right?” Cleo asked.

“You can,” the woman in white said.  “You’d bring them down here.  Contestants aren’t to hurt one another outside of the sanctioned fights.  That precedent has been firmly established.”

“We’ll see,” Cleo said.  She turned to Francis and Toy.  “You two?  Take Estrada and Keith.”

“I can fight,” Francis protested.

She stepped in closer, hand cupping the back of his heck.  Her forehead touched the top of his head.

“You were distracted, and I want to keep you fresh, legs fast, for if we need it later,” Cleo said.

“I’ll be fast enough.”

Her eye flicked to her left, Francis’ right.

He glanced.

The Musser successor?

“I need you at your fastest, so you can get to them before they can get to whatever they’ve got in their pockets.  And I remember your sheet.  You haven’t fought horrors.”

“I’m a fast learner.”

“Go,” she said, squeezing his neck until it hurt.

“Are you sure?” Pike asked.  “Playing their game?”

“No, not sure,” she said, her accent momentarily heavier.  “Keep your eyes open.”

Francis made a pained expression, and she let go, pushing him at the same time.  “Go.”

He went.  The crossbow remained in his hand as he helped guide Estrada down to the rink.  Toy had his hands full with a grumbling Keith.

The soldiers were hanging back, some smoking, a lot of them talking.  The soldier that they’d heard was called John Stiles was a few paces away from the rest of his group, frowning, arms folded.

The soldiers unnerved Francis, and it was hard to say why.  He’d seen things like them, but the way so many of their eyes were cold, they’d never been children, they didn’t eat… maybe it made them a little different.  Uncanny.  Jaw muscles less developed, body not fitting together right.

He’d talked to others about it, about something similar, and they hadn’t seen it.

There were others.  A bald girl with a hood up, smiling at him in a way that made him take a few extra steps to the side to avoid her.

“You’re so young,” she said, her forehead wrinkling.  “Be careful, okay?”

He didn’t break eye contact until he’d walked far enough around her that eye contact was impossible.

There was also the Musser son, who didn’t pretend to be nice, and who stared Francis down, and there was the smirking, muscular pitbull of a goblin with glistening skin, features trimmed off to make him harder to grab.  Other medium sized and small goblins were hanging out near him.

Toy, Francis, Keith, and Estrada settled on the far side of the rink, still in earshot of the group.

Cleo and her group prepared.  The little horror stood in the stands, twitching and spitting up bits of blood here and there.  It had no genitals- only a stretch of skin like the webbing between fingers, and the texture of its skin didn’t line up like it did on some animals.  Rougher skin on the belly and one side, thin, nearly translucent skin on one pectoral, stretching up the neck.

“Taking bets,” the glistening goblin declared.  “I like the little gender-indiscriminate thing.  Name your terms.”

“No bet,” the Musser son answered, quiet.

“You’re no fun.”

Francis shivered a bit.  He watched as Cleo prepared, huddling with the rest of the group.  Nobody present was siding with her?  With them?

Brothers in arms.  The family Francis had never had.

Samaniego had said not to let Cleo lead.  He’d laid out a long chain of command and it had just so happened that that chain of command had been gutted.  Cleo had taken charge and it had felt alright.

Less so now.  She’d walked them into this.  That had felt alright too, until the bullets had been blocked by the sudden appearance of bulletproof plexiglass, and they’d realized they were in a sealed space.

The sort of space where the only way out was through.

He looked over his shoulder at the big white tree that had roots spiking up out of the ground.  An artifact of an earlier fight.

It felt more familiar than a lot of things in this place.  Way back when he’d been a little kid, he’d been lured away from his parents by sprites and fairies, the small wasp and butterfly winged kinds.  One fairy was stupid, only enough thoughts to fill a thimble, but as an organized group they could network, swarm, and think collectively.  They’d constructed a lie good enough to fool a kid who was only barely starting primary school: a fantasy world where he could be a hero, a robin hood type.  When he’d started to worry about the time, they’d convinced him that even though he’d spent all day with them, only a bit of time had passed, his parents casually still eating at the beach where he’d left them.

They’d laughed about that later.  That was how he knew.

No, they’d gotten lazy about keeping up the lie, and they’d put him in a giant bottle, and after their group had split up over some stupid fucking arguments about who had the best flower in their hair and who could dance best when nobody was looking, the illusions they’d made had fallen apart.  He’d been their plaything, to tease, mislead, torment.  They’d spin stories and let him think he’d escaped and he was fighting his way through fae landscapes or stranger places, and then they’d let the illusion fade.

When they wanted to buy something they’d sneak into his ear or up his nose and pull out memories in the form of glowing worms, and he’d wake up without a Christmas memory, or he’d forget his neighbor’s voice.  Or his mom’s.  They pulled out the little half-formed emotions and left him with huge ones and no ability to modulate them, then pestered him to push him to his limits.

When the Witch Hunters had come to set fire to the hive, the fairies had had four captives like him.  They’d reclaimed some bottles and tried to match them to each child, interrogating the little bastards, but fairies were stupid, and not every memory had gone to the right kid.  Francis had been left so jumbled that he couldn’t remember where home was, what his parents looked like, or any of that.  So he’d gone to the Lighthouse, and the Lighthouse had raised him.

He stared at the tree that very closely resembled the ones near the hive of fairies that had captured him, until Estrada nudged him.  The man was pulling the suture threads out of his eyelid, while giving Francis a disapproving look.

Yeah.

That was the past.

“He’s so cuuute,” the oiled up goblin cooed.  “Scarred up little nippleless wad.  Or maybe he’s all nipple.  Who knows?  Could be all folded up.”

“You know your horrors?” the Musser son asked the bald woman.

“Some.  Get your portals or space manipulation wrong and you might get distorted.”

“I’m trying to figure you out.  Not a realms practice, or you wouldn’t say ‘some’.  I don’t get the sense you’re a fighter.  You’d have scars.”

“What if I’m a really good fighter?” she asked.  “So good I don’t have any?”

“I know some of those.  But no.  Divine?”

“Divine-ish.”

“Yeah, pretty loose categorization, that.  Gods, demiurges, powers that be…”

The Musser son indicated the woman in white.

Francis nodded a bit to himself.

They’re basically gods, then?  Lesser gods?

That explained a bit.

“Speaking of, feels like they have a design,” the bald woman told the Musser son.

“Who?  The Judges?”

“The Judges,” she confirmed.

“You’ll say that right in front of them, will you?” the Musser son asked.  He looked at the man in the black suit.

“They know everything that happens in their territory.  Why not say it with them ten feet away?”

“What design?”

“That they let Cagerattler’s test happen.  A test of character.  Feels like it’s their idea, but they waited until one of us came up with it.”

“Will that test happen again?” the Musser son asked, turning to address the woman in white.

“If either contestant calls for it.”

“I think there’s something to that,” the woman told the Musser son.

“Hey, judges,” the goblin raised his voice.  “I have an issue.”

“Then raise it with us, Breastbiter,” the Judge on the centipede said.

Breastbiter?  Gross, Francis thought, repulsed.

“The girl, Snyder, she’s leaning on the throne.  Feels fishy.”

“I am very literally dying as we speak, Breastbiter,” the bald woman said.

“I don’t like it.  You don’t have any claim.  Don’t go getting your dying-ness all over my future throne.”

“Remove your hands from the throne, Lauren,” the woman in white said.  “My apologies.”

“It’s fine,” the woman said.  She straightened, then wobbled, clearly weak.

Reid put out an arm, steadying her, and she held onto it.

“Is this a con?” he asked.

“No.  I don’t have the strength for a con.”

“Okay,” he said.

Breastbiter looked over and shot the Musser son a big, obnoxious wink that scrunched up half of his face.

The Musser son sighed.

“Support Cleo however you can,” Estrada murmured.  “We can’t help her directly, but that thing is small.  Help keep eyes on it for her.  The way we’re facing can help her.”

Francis nodded, turning to watch it.

It was more or less motionless, standing there awkwardly with head tilted and belly thrust out, while Cleo’s group had divided in two, circling around both ends of the rink.

“Witch Hunters,” the bald woman said.  Lauren, she’d been called.

“Eyes in your own lane,” Toy said.

“Do you know what your leader saw?  What the test was?”

“Wouldn’t tell you whether we knew or not.”

“It matters,” Lauren said, turning to Reid Musser.  “If it’s about justice, or power, or something else.”

“Can you even fight?” Reid asked her.

“No.  I can barely stand,” she said, smiling.

The little horror burst into movement, as the Witch Hunters drew nearer.  Gouting blood from its mouth hole, moving on spindly limbs, it dashed through stands, past cover, and ran toward one group.

“Come on, come on,” Francis whispered, tracking it.

“Don’t like this,” Estrada murmured.

“Which part?”

“All of it.  The fact she dragged us into this.”

“Cleo?”

Estrada nodded.  “I don’t like how she approaches this.  She plays their game too easily.  Entering this building was her idea, and now she’s playing along?”

“It’s a snare.  Like the Judge in black said,” Francis replied.

“She’s playing along, she uses their power too readily.  Feels bad.”

“It works.  She’s strong.”

“It’s their strength.  Poisons the soul.”

Cleo paused, gun ready, and tracked the little horror as it ran.

It wasn’t really evading, its focus on the other group that had circled around.

She fired.  Francis’ head whipped around as he checked to see if the horror had been hit.

Straight through the lower back, out the gut.  It fell, leaving a streak of blood behind it.

“Hope you loaded something that counts!” Estrada shouted.

“They can’t hear you,” the Judge in the golden bathrobe told him.

Estrada shook his head, pressing a palm to the cauterized stump of his nose.

The horror dragged itself over to the edge of the broad step then fell.  Blood spurted out of the earhole and both holes in its midsection.  It was rapidly losing strength.

An arm emerged from the blood spatter, ten feet long and slender, fingers nearly a foot long, a ridged hole in the palm that seemed deep, though there was no hole in the back of the hand.

“Get back!” Cleo shouted.  “Back, back, back, back!”

Something slithered up through the arm and out the hole in the palm- two more arms, connected by bowed strings of flesh, each with a hole in the palm.

And more hands were emerging from the pool, in varying size.

“When they shrink a space down too much, try to make a dollhouse with a real house inside or some shit like that, you can get a horror like that,” Toy said.  “Features so pushed-together they get folded inside.  Compacted.  Give ’em an excuse, an outlet, and… explodes out.  Like compressed gas.”

Each hand was giving birth to more.  Some spurted blood, which produced more pools of blood, while others simply branched out, or groped, scratching, tearing, pressing against the fake plexiglass barrier.

They multiplied in strength every few seconds, and Cleo, at the far end, was digging into her bag.

“If you have to use their tricks to win, you’re already gone,” Estrada said.  “Would’ve been better if she thought more about the bullet she was putting into the chamber before she shot.”

“How do you fight something like this?”

“You don’t fight it in a sealed space, for one thing,” Toy said.

“Guess we’ll see how strong these Judges are,” Estrada added.

It wasn’t that long before three-quarters of the stands were filled with arms, pressing against one another, crushing one another to pulp, which produced more blood.  Some oozed between the plexiglass and the boards.  Nascent hands began to emerge, before turning to black crystal.  The Judge in black.

“I call for the test!” Cleo called out.

“Playing their game,” Estrada whispered.  “No.”

The hands went still.  Cleo sat down, firmly, while the others gathered around her.  Two of them dug into her bag, looking for magic items to use in the meantime.

Hands began to wither and die.

“I think Cleo has the right idea,” Francis murmured.

“Maybe, but wrong approach,” Estrada said.

The arms and hands needed momentum.  Without the driving force behind them, they were withering and losing strength.  Some broke under their own weight.  Ear canals in the palms that ran down the forearms puked up black liquid with fragments of bone in it.

“Raises the question, how do you fight something like that?” one of the soldiers asked their leader.

“I’ve got ideas,” John said.  “Black, Ribs, you’d be central to that.”

“Makes sense.”

Dying hands ceased dying.  They began to multiply again, slower than before.

Cleo sat up, eyes clearing.

“Tests complete.  Cleo Aleshire succeeds.”

Lauren Snyder hobble-walked, almost falling because she’d started moving without telling the Musser son anything.  “Witch Hunter!  What was the test!?  It’s important!”

Cleo looked at the woman, and flipped up her middle finger.

“First one,” Toy said, quiet, “Cleo was asked to give sanctuary and protection to some practitioner kids, against something monstrous outside the building.”

“Is that something these judges do?”

“Who knows?” Toy asked.

The hands reached around toward Cleo and the others.  Francis tensed.

“Don’t lose track.  She said to keep eyes open,” Toy said.

Estrada rubbed at the one eye where beads of blood were leaking out of the suture marks.

There wasn’t much to watch, though.  There were the Others gathered here, ready to compete, and then a sea of arms pressing against the barriers, both the real one that normally surrounded the rink, currently damaged, and the invisible wall the judges were apparently supporting.

He felt claustrophobic, realizing that.  It reminded him of being bottled.  Fucked with.

This was fucked.

Cleo was going to die.  The others were going to die.  If there was any chance he could get out of this, he’d still have to report back to Samaniego about how over their heads they’d gotten.

“I won your little test, you bastards!” Cleo raised her voice.  She shot at the hands.  One of the Witch Hunters had found a fire extinguisher and used it.  It helped slow the hands, inexplicably.  Another was trying to set a fire at one barrier, which was more plastic than wood.  The thin, groping hands tore the barrier apart before anything could catch.  “I won your test, and I get nothing!?”

“You obtained an advantage, but you’re in no position to use it.  You’re unequipped,” the Judge in black told her.

“Fuck you!  Fuck-!”

The hands reached the first of the Witch Hunters.  As they got a grip, multiple arms that were connected together moved in unison, slamming the first man into the barrier with enough force that his jaw unhinged, skull no doubt cracking.

Francis watched, dispassionate.  He let emotions slip away, and focused, studying- any weakness?

If there was one in the hands, it was going to be replicated, because they were fractal, clones or copies of the hands that had come before.

“Might have to use another lock on that bastard, unless one of you is feeling brave,” Breastbiter said, laughing.

Francis felt a surge of hatred for the goblin, who’d laugh when people who’d devoted their lives to an important cause were dying like this.  Brutally, torn apart.

“Cleo Aleshire!” the Snyder woman shouted.  “What was the test!?”

“If you really want to find out, you could participate,” John Stiles said.  He didn’t look happy.

“It’s less risky if I wait.”

“Of course it is,” Breastbiter said, laughing.  “Less chance you’ll lose.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Hands gripped Cleo and lifted her up.  Each hand that gripped her had a hole in the palm, and the firm grip didn’t keep them from continuing to multiply.  Hands reached beneath skin, up her arm, and Francis could see as fingers bent, digging into joints, to sever and divide, or palms pressed in, so more arms could branch out.

For too long, the skin held, as the arms branched into and through her.  Then some broke the skin, reaching out, and she looked like a common horror herself, jaw yawning wide, arms where there shouldn’t be arms, her entire body stretched out, distended.

And the remainder of her tore apart.  Arms that weren’t supported fell, bringing gobbets of her with them.

Beautiful, dangerous Cleo… gone.

Francis had hardened his heart long ago.  He’d had to, to survive the hive of fairies.  It still hurt to see.  His eyes watered, and for a moment his thoughts were very confused as he glanced at some of the gore and realized it was her and he had no idea what part of her it was.

“Is it important that the arena be as stained with blood and gore as possible?” the Snyder woman asked.

Francis concentrated.  Trying to make sense of it, anchoring himself in the present.  He heaved in a breath, like he’d just finished running.

Estrada clapped a hand on his back, then squeezed his shoulder.

Francis nodded, even though he felt dizzy, his heart hurting, his stomach flirting with the idea of emptying itself if he thought too hard about how someone as whole as Cleo Aleshire, the people he’d seen around the Lighthouse, people who’d been like distant uncles to him, Pike who’d made funny jokes yesterday… they were steaming lumps of meat now.  They’d been those people and now they were meat that fogged up plexiglass.

He looked away.

“The brutal nature of it feeds the ritual of the contest,” Reid Musser said.

John Stiles nodded.

“How do you know?” the Snyder woman asked.

They were so casual about it.  Francis felt that spark of hatred again.  There… there wasn’t any wood for it.  Nothing for the spark to ignite.  He was paralyzed, helpless, convinced that even his crossbow wouldn’t work, because the forces arranged against them were so strong.

“Feels about right, through the parts of me that got touched with the Abyss,” Reid said.  He looked at the Judges.  “Am I wrong?”

“No,” the Alabaster said.  “This is ultimately about how power is asserted, from one corner of this.”

“A bullet is cleaner,” John Stiles said.  “This was unnecessarily brutal.”

“I’m sure the Witch Hunter would agree,” Breastbiter said, before bursting into laughter.

Francis tensed, that burst of hatred coming again.  His thoughts disappeared into a daze of hatred and confusion.  He momentarily wondered if people ever got to this point and just plain lost their minds.

He wanted to do something, but as long as they were here…

He shook his head.  He was fairly sure he wouldn’t get away with shooting the goblin.  But if they were slated to die anyway…

It took a touch of his shoulder by Toy to let him realize that as the internal dialogue warred within him, he was practically talking to himself, shaking his head, gesturing.  He went still.

The little horror’s hands receded, one retreating into another.  Some brought things with them.  The tangle of fingers on Cleo’s necklace, flesh, concrete that had been crushed by the press of arms, the fire extinguisher.

The multiplication reversing.

Until they’d all drawn together into an arrangement swimming in loose flesh that had accumulated in the process.  Collected flesh and items were dropped in a loose pile at the feet of the little horror’s body.  It lay there, breathing, no gunshot wound, and no apparent desire to move any further.

He’d just wiped out a squadron of Witch Hunters.  An ear-faced fuck of a thing with no apparent emotions.

Francis looked past the Other to the tree in the corner.  It felt fitting that something like that overlook things now, if this was the last…

There was a hole in the wall.

A crack, where the wood had strained the wall or pulled away and pulled some wall with it.  Francis could see the way the moonlight shone through, casting mottled light on the wall, where the actual lights in the building didn’t reach.

A gap?

There had been a lot of times in his life he’d have given everything for a gap smaller than that.  A chink in the bottle that had contained him.  A chance to get at one of the practitioner families that dealt with Fae and stayed forever out of reach.  Cleo had only reignited those feelings with tales about the work they’d done on that front.

“Rgngrnncerplage’s victory,” the Judge in gold announced.

“To speed things along, I don’t think we’ll find and dissolve every chunk of flesh that has been scattered across the arena,” the Judge in black said.

Francis tensed.

There was a gap.  Now he had to find a chance to use it.  To get from the inside out?  They might block it.

“By the rules of your game…” Francis said.

“Don’t play their fucking game,” Estrada hissed, gripping Francis’ arm.

“It’s how we survive here.  The only way out is through, and I see a way through… and a way back in.  We can hurt them.”

Estrada’s eyes narrowed.

“What rule do you speak of?” the Judge in white asked.

“If Cleo was the leader, and we’re the soldiers brought in to help… she’s gone, we can leave, right?”

“I warned you that by entering you admitted yourself to the contest,” the Judge in black told Francis.  “You were admitted.”

“Is this the kind of thing you’re going to tell me, later?” John Stiles asked.  “That my people can’t leave?”

“We have a prearranged deal.”

“I can only imagine the other participants would have made different choices if they knew their participants might not be allowed to leave,” John said.  “Sable Prince, you’ve said nothing specific about the fact they must pick some new leader and continue…”

Francis watched the exchange, his expression neutral.

“You may leave,” the Judge in white told them.

Francis reached down to help lift Keith to his feet.  Toy helped at the other arm.  Estrada rubbed at his nose stump, where mucus was leaking out, and made an ugly expression that might’ve been pain combined with his frustration.

The spikes at the back door shattered, littering the floor.

“I helped you,” John Stiles said, as they got to the little door that let them off the rink.  “Leave Kennet, leave it be.”

“Fuck yourself,” Estrada told the man.  “We don’t owe you anything.”

They had to practically drag a groaning Keith to the door.  Francis wasn’t strong, but he was the only real option, when Estrada was hurting, and kind of a useless asshole besides.

They stepped outside, and the air was cool, free of the cloying stench of blood.

Clint was there, sitting on the back of a car, Rocky and a guy Francis didn’t know with him.

“Shouldn’t have gone in,” Clint said.

“Cleo said.”

“Shouldn’t have listened to her.  They dead?”

“Yeah.  Can give you the rundown after,” Estrada said.

“Already got the gist.  Get yourselves into the car.  There’s a kit, Rocky?”

“I suck at first aid.”

“It’s a chance to learn.”

Francis lingered, looking back at the building.

No Musser Patriarch, no pointed hats, nobody peering over the edge.

“They’re gone.  There’s some in the woods and out front, they agreed to leave us be if we’d return the favor, I agreed.  They’re mostly panicking,” Clint said, as if he was reading Francis’ mind.

“Panicking?”

“They got hit with a distraction out front, a tattooed woman got carried away.”

“What’d you do?”

“Nothing.  Their circus, their elephant shit,” Clint said.  “They really walked in there and got themselves killed?”

Francis nodded.

Clint’s expression fell, and he wasn’t an expressive person.

“We can do something about it,” Francis whispered.  “I saw something.”

“We can leave,” Clint said.  “It’s them killing one another, I see no reason to get in their way or slow them down.”

“Cleo told me she needed me to be quick, to keep my eyes open.  So I could do something later.”

“You think she intended this?”

“I think she kept the mission in mind.  I want to do the same.  We can hurt ’em.”

“We can hurt them more if we go back to Samaniego, report, and maybe come back another time with more forces.  Let them butcher each other in the meantime.  We only hurt ourselves if we get in the middle of them,” Clint said.

“Cleo was good to me,” Francis said.  “Respected me, was going to share some Montreal know-how with me.”

“That stuff gets tricky, Francis,” Clint said.  “Look, sometimes we bring in someone like Pike, they bring tricks of the trade with them, or we mix it up by working with Montreal’s group, but if you go there to stay for any length of time?  Some people here won’t trust you.  I’m not sure Cleo would’ve been doing you a favor.”

“Cleo was good to me.  So was Pike.  So was Jarrell, so was Fry, so was Epperson, so was Watson.  A lot of good men died.”

“That’s the war we’re fighting.”

Francis bit back words he knew he shouldn’t say.

“Sorry, Francis.  I get it.  I really do.”

“Losing our guys doesn’t bother you at all?”

“I was preparing to have lost all of you.  Then you four came out.  I’ll handle the rest later, but for right now, I want to make sure Keith isn’t bleeding out internally and that Estrada’s going to be able to manage.”

Francis drew in a shaky breath, and it felt for a moment like he’d somehow breathed wrong and there was no oxygen in there.  He coughed, trying to trick his body into working again, then huffed out a breath.  Each inhalation and exhalation were somehow a failure, too fast, too breathless.

“Ffffuck,” he gasped out.

“Breathe,” Clint said.

He could see the ways they’d died.  The white trunk and branches of the tree stood out against his eyelids when he closed his eyes.  So bright in the gloom. He clung to that, because the other thing he’d see was the pink behind his eyelids, and it was really hard not to see the bloody bits of people he’d once considered friends and fellow soldiers.

“It’s-”

“Breathe first, talk second.”

“It’s a big fucking brutal killing ritual.  Murdering one another.”

“Let ’em,” Clint said.

“To take a throne?  We really want something like that in charge of anything?  Fuck, Clint,” Francis said.  He coughed in a forced effort to regulate breathing.  “Fuck no.”

“It’s apparently been going on that way for a long fucking time, Francis.  These judges are all over the place, unless some practitioner Lord takes over.”

“That makes it okay?  You don’t think that might be why it’s all fucked?”

“I don’t think, because I don’t know enough.  You know even less than me.”

“Fuck you.”

“It’s the truth, Francis,” Clint told him, holding Francis by both shoulders.  “We don’t know enough, not knowing enough is what put you guys inside, in the middle of that.”

“Fuck off, no.  You want to walk away?  You won’t even hear me out?”

“Nah.  Tell it to Samaniego.”

“The chance will pass.”

“No,” Clint said, firm.

Francis stopped.

He looked past Clint, and he could see the car, with one of the back doors open.  Estrada sat in the doorway, feet on the ground, staring at Francis.

The man raised one hand to his cut-off nose, and dug a thumb into the wound, gouging the burn, opening a gap between it and the rest of his face.

Blood began to pour out, running down his hand, arm and down from his elbow.  He gasped in pain.

Clint turned, looking, and swore.  “Shit on me.”

“Started bleeding,” Estrada said, glancing at Francis.

“Get the big kit out of the trunk,” Clint said.

He threw Francis the keys.  Francis popped the trunk, then pulled out the clear case with the extensive first aid supplies.  There was enough for a minor field surgery, with clear saline bags, among other things.  He dragged it out and placed it on the ground by the tire, lifting the lid away.

“We won’t get attacked?” Francis asked.

“Half of them are worried about an attack from the outside.  I made a deal for info, like Samaniego said to do.”

“But we won’t get attacked?”

“Francis!” Clint raised his voice.  “Fuck, I know- just hang back.  Let me do this.”

“Bleeding like a stuck pig,” Estrada swore.

Francis took a step back, watching as Clint did what he could to staunch the other Witch Hunter’s wound.

“What the fuck did you do?”

“Fucking sneezed,” Estrada told the man.

Francis placed the keys on the clear tote, went to the trunk, and grabbed some canisters and a gun before shutting it.

He could move quickly and quietly when he wanted.  The world he lived in might’ve been a fantasy, but some of it had stuck.  The fairies had brought little gifts and points of education from the Fae realms to better reinforce the fantasy they’d built around him.  One where a six or seven year old could run circles around a greedy kingdom’s armed guards.

Silently, he walked away, taking advantage of the chance Estrada had given him.  The man had heard, the man had been there.

He looked, and he found the crack in the exterior wall, barely visible, but for a white branch that crept out, latching onto brickwork.

Clint had rescued Laprade, who had touched the ladder and gotten electrocuted, but Francis wasn’t willing to try it.  Besides, that got him nowhere near the hole in the wall.

Instead, he scaled a tree.  The same way he had in a fantasy world that had been painted for him.

The fairies had taken his childhood from him and shattered it, and now there were pieces that were really stuck in there, playing over and over again.

Climbing trees was one of those pieces.

He judged the distance from the most stable branch to the wall, and then made the leap.  He caught onto the edge of the crack, the things he’d taken from the trunk banging against his hip.

The next round was already starting.  He adjusted his position, hooking one leg over the white branch, body sideways, elbow in one bit of the crack, peering through, gun ready.

The Snyder woman.

🟂

Rgngnncerplath

Thoughts twisted through the horror’s mind, making several turns at odd and impossible angles before reaching their destination.

“Bets!” Breastbiter called out.  “I bid on the little fuck!”

Goblins in Breastbiter’s company, primarily the smaller ones, began to try to get his attention.

“We’re running out of candidates, so sure, we’ll include you guys,” Breastbiter said.  “And these wimps aren’t betting, sooo-”

“I’ll bet,” Reid Musser said.

“You don’t have to do that,” Lauren Snyder said.

Jhnstrstnyplath spat blood on the arena stairs.  Somewhere deep inside it, a glimmer of a man, mind, Self, and soul contorted into an impossible shape, tried to express something.  A scream, a cry for help.

The horror twitched, head tilting, and it mated with the universe, spitting out more blood.

Every sequence of movements was at once impossibly complicated and very hard to arrest.  Once Lrnsnycherpleth started moving, it was hard to stop.  It was hard to be aware of the world, but it was very aware of the shape of the empty space around it.  Sensations and awareness flared on it like spots and bursts on the surface of the sun.

In the midst of one, a frequency was struck, and the man that Chrlmssrogoplath had once been opened eyes wide and saw nothing but the cage of flesh that surrounded him, a cage smaller than the eyes and self it contained.  He screamed with a mouth that had virtually no connection to the eyes, and the scream disappeared in the maze of the horror’s compact creation.

It provoked a nervous response, and the little horror spat blood to mate with the universe once again.

“Shall we begin?” Lauren Snyder asked.

“Whenever you wish.”

“Then I immediately call for the test.”

Btrrstmssogplage felt the world change around it.  It thrust body forward, belly twitching, arms flailing.

Michael Horst sat atop the throne.  The world around him was flesh.  The throne was flesh.  Much of it was his.  Eyes roved on the wall, ear canals and other holes bled openly.  Hands groped everywhere.

The Alabaster stood next to him.  “Same as before.  All you have to do is remain in that seat-”

Michael rose to his feet.  He turned around, facing her.  “You can’t let it- me have the seat.”

“I could not stop it if I chose to.”

Michael shook his head.

Then he drew in a deep breath, and forced himself to bite through his tongue.  To choke himself on the blood, or to die by the blood loss- to do anything except-

“It won’t work,” she said.

The walls of the flesh room collapsed in.  He was wrapped once again in bondage of his own flesh, so tight and twisted that few things made sense any longer.

His head tilted back, and he mated with the universe, showering himself in a sputtering spray of blood.

“And that’s the test,” Lauren Snyder said.  “Did the last judge not want the throne?”

“She was ambivalent,” was the answer.  “She didn’t wish to die, but she had no passion for the role.”

“And that’s what you’ve contrived to add to this test?  Nudged Cagerattler to add to the dynamic?  A test of how much we desire the throne?  If we’re willing to compromise ourselves and our wishes to take it?”

“Essentially.”

“How many people here even want the seat?” Lauren Snyder asked.

“Do you?” Breastbiter asked, voice loud.

Lauren Snyder shook her head.  “So Cagerattler didn’t want it as much as he wanted other things.  Cleo Aleshire wanted it, or… she was willing to make the hard decisions for the victory, at least.”

“She made a decision for the victory.  Her competition was weak,” the Sable Prince answered.

“Vernystassiplath doesn’t want it at all?”

Vernystassiplath mated with the universe once more, in a trembling, agitated way.  It would fight.

It began to run around to where Lauren Snyder was.

“Breastbiter?  Would you wholeheartedly succeed in the test?” Lauren Snyder asked.

Breastbiter laughed.  “We’ll see!”

“John Stiles?”

John was silent.  A soldier behind him grunted his dissatisfaction, turning away.

“Reid?”

The man with the bandaged face only stared at her.

“What a sad, twisted little contest this is,” Lauren Snyder said.  “I thought better of you, Alabaster.”

“It’s not my contest.  I only administrate it.”

“I can’t see anything good coming-” Lauren Snyder said.

The gunshot was ‘silenced’, but even a silenced gun had some noise to it.

A bullet through Lauren Snyder’s head, so clean she didn’t even fall immediately.

She sat down on the stair behind her, then collapsed, draping herself sideways.

The horror stopped in its tracks.

“The fuck!?” Reid Musser cried out.

“Outside interference,” the Sable Prince declared.

“It doesn’t matter,” the Alabaster Doe answered.

“Witch Hunters can be so fun,” Breastbiter said.

There was a hallowed space within Lauren Snyder.  The horror could see the bonds, and it could recognize the connections.

Lauren Snyder had picked a familiar.  When she couldn’t manage it, she’d bound it inside herself.

Now that her head was cracked open, it could crawl forth from her heart.  A simple spirit given physical shape.  Nothing complex, nothing overwrought.  Something animal.  The horror didn’t have the senses to see the particulars.

But inside the spirit was a sliver of something.  It had bitten into something very, very bad, and that something had poisoned it.

“Oh,” Reid Musser breathed the word.  His eyes flashed with Sight.  “What did you do?”

Lauren’s body was picked up, limp as a doll with loose joints, the spirit unfolding around her, twisted, tainted, ruined.  She tangled from one side of its face, a morass of vague and roiling spirit with taint bubbling out and through it.

Ppscttlodoploth ran away, misshapen feet slipping and stumbling as it put distance between itself and the spirit.

“If the horror has no interest in fighting…” John Stiles raised his voice.  One of his soldiers leaned in close to whisper something, and he nodded.  “…does it concede?”

The horror stopped, turning.

A voice deep inside it cried out.

It shared the same sentiment for once.  It choked back its fluids, shaking bodily.

“That might be a yes,” Reid Musser said.  “You brought in someone with something so vile in her that you’re scaring the horror to the point it doesn’t want to exist anymore?  What even is this?”

“She exhausted all options.  If she participates and brings something that small to us, we can manage it,” the Alabaster Doe said.  “Fight her as you would any other candidate.  There is some risk of infection but the end result is much the same.”

“Don’t get infected,” the Aurum Coil said.

“And you’re forcing us to do your cleanup work?” Reid Musser asked.  He sounded angry.  He looked at Lauren Snyder’s limp body and clenched a hand.

“If you take the throne, you may influence choices and policies like this one,” the Aurum Coil told them.

“You didn’t need your shitty test,” Breastbiter growled.  All good humor had slipped away from the goblin.  “You have it right here.  Waste of time and words to do that other stuff.”

“They requested it,” the Sable Prince replied.  “And it seems we have more outside interference.”

The tree was burning now.  The fire spread.

“I can deal with it,” the Aurum Coil said.  “I’ll get him, if you’ll put it out?”

“Leave it,” John Stiles said.  “No need to extinguish the fire.”

“It’s up to the contestants.  Majority vote will serve.”

“I vote no,” Reid Musser said, quiet.

The Aurum Coil left the building, going outside to find the arsonist.

Breastbiter laughed, but it was a meaner, more intense laugh.  “Sure.  Keep it.  I don’t mind a bit of heat.”

“Lauren Snyder must abstain, as she is temporarily dead, Detckdtnsogrplath will abstain as he concedes.  The fire remains,” the Alabaster Doe decided.

Breastbiter laughed, and it was the mean laugh again.

“Witch Hunter did you a favor after all, after you argued for him to be allowed to go, didn’t he?”

“Did he?” John Stiles asked.

“Set your fire.  You’ve been itching for things to move along, now our arena is burning down,” Breastbiter crowed, before laughing.  “Someone going to turn up that you don’t want to fight?”

“Charles Abrams.”

“The Forsworn?” Reid Musser asked.  “Really?”

“Really.”

Breastbiter laughed, and it was laced with that grim negativity again.  “Let’s do this, then, four of us left.  Soldier boy, ragface, the girl with the tainted familiar, and Breastbiter the Chonk, devourer of nipples.  Better hope we can wrap this up soon, or that you can pass the test better than this forsworn dick can.”

The Sable Prince picked up the little horror, and started to unmake it.

“You think he wants it more than you?” Reid Musser asked.

“I want it enough I’ll fight her to be through this faster,” John said.  “As soon as I’m clear.  I don’t need or want my squad.”

“When the horror is unmade,” the Sable Prince said.

The Alabaster Doe held up one finger.  She was backlit by the steadily spreading fire.  The Aurum Coil returned, gliding in on the centipede’s sinuous body, weaving through the structure.

She dropped her hand as the unmaking completed, finger sweeping down.  The little horror didn’t see the last of the motion, or anything that followed.


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Summer Break – 13.12

Verona

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“Gotta cover both entrances,” Avery said.

The Witch Hunters moved around them.

“Go,” Verona said.  “You two.  Trust me.”

Lucy gave Verona a long look.  Weeks of feeling beaten down, on edge, feeling lesser, guest in someone else’s house like some stray cat brought inside just long enough to get patched up… the fights, it made it really hard to tell herself that the look wasn’t mistrust.

She knew it wasn’t mistrust, not fully.  It was concern.  But it was really hard to tell herself that.

“Back her up?” Lucy asked Zed.

“We’ll try,” Brie answered.

“Goblins?  Some of you with us.”

“Freak and Squeak with me,” Avery said.  “Nibble and Chloe with Verona?”

“Heck yeah,” Verona said.  She put out a hand for a high-five.  Chloe high-fived her, long sleeves draped over most of her hand, thumb sticking out of a hole in the side.

The other two moved toward the front of the building.  Verona motioned for her group to stay down.  Not that any of the goblins that were around were tall enough to peer over the roof’s edge without first climbing it.  “Watch they aren’t climbing up over the edge.  Grappling hooks and crap.”

“Yeh,” Nat replied.

The scare with Lucy almost getting her head taken off at the front end of the rooftop was fresh in Verona’s mind.  She ducked low, approaching the side of the rooftop instead.  To the right of the rooftop was trees, curving slightly inward like wacky trees in some children’s book.  To the left was the road to the back parking lot, and then more trees.

The Arena was the biggest deal in Kennet after the ski hills themselves.  Five rows of seating.  That necessitated parking, and the back lot had most of that, along with space for an outdoor skating rink as well, currently dismantled.  The Witch Hunters were back there, organized and very, very dangerous.

Rune for wood… she hadn’t used that much.  Connection… markings for distance…

“They’re at the back door,” Zed said.  “Checking.”

She looked back and Zed had a phone out.  He was aiming it in the direction of the door, looking past or through the roof.

“If there’s trouble, come to me,” Musser said.

Verona raised an eyebrow, then saw he was talking to Raquel.  Apparently giving her orders without explicit orders.  Raquel remained behind while Musser and his familiars followed Lucy and Avery, to observe.

Verona finished making the necessary marks, paused, then added a bit of a lopsided ‘earth’ inscription to the connection indicators.  She didn’t want to land it too close, and she didn’t want to hit the branches.

She cast the papers over the roof’s edge.

Connection blockers drew papers to trees.  The papers swooped down and touched where wood and earth connected.  She peeked over the side, saw a Witch Hunter- but he was more focused on the papers, shouting a warning.

Runes detonated.  Chunks were taken out of trees, and trees fell.  She’d have to make this up to nature spirits, like the one she’d befriended while on vacation with her mom.  Plant trees and shit.

Wood creaked and some trees began to tip.  A smaller one fell, and that was enough to scare some Witch Hunters away from the back door.

The appearance of the first Hungry Choir children at the upper end of the rooftop helped in that regard.  Brie.  There was a gunshot, and one was knocked onto his ass: a kid wearing baggy clothes, dressed up like a tough guy with a mangled gold grille in his mouth, sawing at one corner of his lip as he pulled lips back to snarl.

The kid got back up.  Others appeared.  A gun was apparently aimed and fired at someone on the ground.

She hadn’t knocked over as many trees as she’d hoped.  Had she hit the same tree too many times?  Or-

She looked and she saw the branches.  The trees were so close together, branches mingled, that the other trees nearby were helping to hold the damaged ones upright.  They sagged but didn’t fall.

Verona grabbed a shingle with nails in it, and pulled chalk out of her pocket.  A rune for wood… spikes pointing inward…

“You’re really going up against this many Witch Hunters, huh?” Raquel asked.  “No hesitation?”

“What’s happening is major,” Verona said.  “I don’t know how you guys don’t get this.  Affects the whole region.”

“We get it,” Raquel said.  “But these things normalize after a while, you know?  Like the Blue Heron thing.  Sure, really shitty, but things settle down after, new is mostly same as the old.”

“Yeah?  That’s working out okay for you?  Friendships intact, everything cool?” Verona asked.

Goblins sniggered.

“How’s being a bitch working out for you?” Raquel asked.

“I’m just saying-”

“It’s the reality, Hayward.  I don’t always like it but it’s the way things are.  Things settle, things return to the norm, and if you’re paying attention and watching for opportunity, you can end up on top of things after.”

Wood was creaking.

“Just make sure you aren’t missing the forest for your opportuni-trees,” Verona said, touching the rune.  She winced as a goblin threw a fast food wrapper at her head, presumably for the pun.  Then she tossed the shingle with the rune on it over the rooftop’s edge.  Trees groaned, branches snapped.  She shouted after it, “For Kennet!”

A gun fired.

The trees relaxed.

“Did they just-”

“Shot the rune,” Zed said.

“Are you kidding me!?”

“I don’t think you realize how dangerous Witch Hunters are,” Raquel said.

“I’ve been hunted by the Witch Hunters, on several occasions so shut your yap!” Verona retorted, scrambling to find another suitably heavy thing to drop over the roof’s edge.  “You’re the ones who’re really not getting just how bad this goes if we don’t win tonight.  I don’t think things settle like you want, and you’re just going to observe with thumbs stuck up your asses?”

“Ew, and I think my uncle wants to re-establish contracts with the Witch Hunters later.  Which is magnanimous of him considering Reid and everything.  Fighting them would make things worse.”

“Oh my god.  Do you even understand what’s happening down there?” Verona asked.  She scribbled on a bit of plastic left over from the roof’s ledge as best as she could.   “Do you understand what the seat is?”

“A stopgap measure until a proper lord eventually gets set up in an area.  I’m impressed you can draw runes and talk at the same time.  Takes concentration.”

“Raquel,” Zed said.  “Ease up.  Let us focus.  Verona-”

“What?”

“In the interest of keeping our focus on what’s happening, someone just touched the ladder and collapsed.  Witch Hunter.  I kept it nonlethal.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Electricity isn’t usually bright and loud.”

“So they’re there already?”

“Yeah.”

If they were there already there was a chance they could slip around behind Lucy and Avery, catching them off guard.  Verona’s teeth clenched, her tongue like lead at the floor of her mouth, her hands not cooperating fully as she hurried to get stuff.  Any stuff.

Blank notecards, pens, the plastic- papers, torn from her notebook, scrap illustrations.  She crumpled some in her hands.

“For Kennet,” she said, touching the rune with thumbs while her hands clutched the other stuff.  Then she tossed it all, plastic included, over the roof’s edge, above where the doors were.

“Heads up!” a Witch Hunter shouted.

There was another gunshot.  This time it didn’t stop things.

The rune activated.  The plastic was a less-good surface for drawing on, probably had less affinity with the wood than a shingle, and she’d rushed it more.

But it worked to pull on the wood, drawing it in.  Trees tangled up in one another pulled free, and they toppled, landing across the parking lot, aimed for the doors.  Some clipped the edge of the building.

Looking back, she could see smoke.

“They’ve started shooting at the Choir with bullets that are keeping them down longer,” Brie said.

“We’ve delayed, door’s blocked, hopefully the side path and road are blocked…”

“Yes,” Zed said.  “Well, like, I wouldn’t drive over that.  You maybe could.  Lucy filled the road with smoke, looks like.”

“Hopefully now we can scare ’em off?” Verona said.  “Or frustrate ’em?”

“They’re Witch Hunters,” Raquel noted.  “They run at the things they’re scared of.”

“Just hold back,” Zed said.  “Delaying them works for now.”

“This contest could run for hours, according to Lucy.  She saw one of the old rituals in the Alcazar.”

“Yeah,” Zed replied, looking up.  “Hopefully your guy John hurries things along.”

Verona turned her head.  The Witch Hunters had gone quiet.  No gunshots, no real fuss…

She pointed at the phone.  Zed looked down, then shouted, “Get back!”

It came sailing over the back edge of the rooftop.  A mote of fire, flipping end over end, attached to- a bottle.

Verona scrambled back, feet skidding on the gravel of the roof as she tried to get to her feet, remembered she didn’t want her head to stick over the edge-

Raquel reached out, a hand-mirror held out.

The bottle bounced off of an invisible wall, clinking, and reversed course, sailing back at the sender.  There was a shout.

“Thank you,” Verona said.  She would’ve gotten out of the way, but she wasn’t positive she would’ve gotten all the way out of the way.

“Don’t interfere, Raquel!” Musser called out.

“Yes sir,” Raquel replied.  “I thought a molotov cocktail and a bigger fire would be inconvenient.”

The man didn’t reply.

“Yes sir,” Raquel repeated, like he’d said something in the middle of that silence.

Verona crouch-walked over to Zed, straightening up a bit as she got further from any point the Witch Hunters might be at.  She looked over his shoulder at the screen.

The wood near the door was on fire now.  That worked, even if it might get out of control.  She was pretty sure there wasn’t anything directly flammable there.  It was more likely the fire would spread along the fallen tree to the trees around the Arena, now.

That worked.

She sat down by him and began drawing runes, using her leg as a surface.

Another gunshot from the front of the building made her nearly jump out of her skin.  Her pen drew a ragged line across the work, in the process.  She threw the notecard aside and started over.

“That mirror a magic item?  Or something that used to belong to someone else?  I had the sense you weren’t in on the family secret,” Verona said.

“Magic item.  But I’ve got some instrumental incidentals.”

“Some what nows?”

“They were implements, owner died, item was left behind, took on incidental power… you left before that class, right.”

“Right right.  Guess an implement is nicely primed to become an accidental magic item.”

“Yeah.  Pretty good ones, a lot of the time.”

Verona paused.  She was good with words, but not so good with people.  Even with her closest friends, sometimes, apparently.  She wasn’t sure how to deal with Raquel, but the Witch Hunters were staying put, they weren’t lobbing anything else up onto the roof, and things seemed to have stabilized.  Verona looked at Zed’s screen, and saw them trying to deal with the wood blockage.  Some were climbing through, dealing with the collection of members of the Choir in the process.

She could manage that.  Gosh, how though?  Wood connecting to people.  She’d want it to bridge the gap…

Figuring out what to say to Raquel was another thing.  She wrote the rune down.

“I don’t know your family politics, exactly,” Verona mused aloud.

“You don’t, you’re right.  So butt out.”

“You’re butting into our local politics so I reserve the right,” Verona said, still writing down the rune.  “You want power in your family?”

Raquel didn’t respond.

“I think making a good call here might help you stand out and climb the ranks.  If that’s even doable.”

“I think it’s doable,” Raquel replied.  “Avery said something similar.  I don’t think you’re right, though.  Either of you.”

“You’re stuck following behind, Raquel.  You’re obediently doing as you’re told and him?  What he’s doing?  He wants you there, following, behind.  So you can obey every order and do everything right and I don’t think you’ll ever get ahead that way.  By definition.”

“Weren’t you just saying you don’t know my family’s politics?”

“You have to do something bigger.  Make a big call, make a big move.  And right now?  Knowing everything I know?  If this goes topsy turvy and you were there saying you should get involved, or getting involved and helping, like you just did with the mirror?  Maybe that counts, maybe that means he has to listen to you and respect the calls you want to make.  Get out from behind that way.”

“Or it goes topsy turvy and I get blamed for making the situation messier.”

“Maybe.”

“What happens if it doesn’t go badly for your side?”

“I mean, if John wins I think your uncle is gainsaid, right?”

“Yeah,” Zed said.

“And I might get blamed for that.”

“I- I don’t know.  Is he that petty?”

“No.  I don’t know.  Petty’s the wrong word- I shouldn’t be telling you stuff.  I keep saying more than I should.  Just… go save your town or whatever.”

“It’s more than the town, you get that?  It’s-”

Verona heard something shatter below, and it was big, in a way that made her think of liquid nitrogen freezing a truck and a wrecking ball hit it.  No explosion, no sound but the cracking-

Verona Julette Hayward.

She felt the contact as it was made, and then she felt that contact become something that seized her.

And she was on the ground, fire to the right of her, black spikes to the left.  The Sable Prince stood above her, and the trees that laid across the parking lot had been partially turned into those black, cthonic spikes that the Sable Prince had used near Edith, standing out on the lawn.  A path had been cleared to the door.

“Heya,” Verona said.  She wondered if this was what it felt like to be an Other, called by summoning.

“Potential contestants shall not be barred passage to the building.”

“It was not my intention to stop any contestants.  If it was, I would’ve gone after the front door.”

“Keep the way clear.  This is your warning.”

“Right,” Verona said, eyes wide.  The burning wood was close enough she could have put her arm out and burned her fingertips, and it felt like it was getting closer.  The night was cool but the heat of the fire was making her skin prickle.  There was a lot of it.  “Got it.”

“Do any of you wish to participate?” the Sable Prince asked.  “If so, that changes the nature of my conversation with Miss Hayward.”

“Participate in what?” a Witch Hunter asked.  He pointed the gun at the Sable.  The gun turned black and crystalline.  Bits fell free as growing spikes of black onyx ran up against one another and added stress to the construction.  The Witch Hunter dropped the weapon.

“The contest for the Carmine Throne.”

“Would I get to be queen?”  Verona recognized Cleo’s very French accent.  So Cleo had showed.  “And what does it have to do with her?”

“You could call yourself queen if you desired.  Were you to say you wished to take the Carmine Throne and that Miss Hayward’s action barred you, I would deal with her.”

“Tempting,” Cleo said.

“I was stopping Witch Hunters, not barring contestants, there’s a distinction,” Verona said.

The Sable didn’t flinch or acknowledge her.

“This contest idea feels like a trap,” a male Witch Hunter said.

“It is,” the Sable Prince said.  “But it’s a trap many welcome.  You may enter if you wish to participate.  Now, I have other affairs to see to.”

He opened the door, going back inside.

“Uhhh, hey?” Verona asked.

The Sable paused, looking at her.

“You brought me down here, mind sending me back up?”

“One way or another, you won’t bar the way again,” he told her.

The metal and glass door closed behind him.  With the closing, a connection was cut off or an impact delivered.  Obsidian spikes shattered into dust.  The fire remained.

Leaving Verona with about six feet of tree trunk and some branches protecting her, her back to the wood, a branch poking into the skin of her back between the bottom of her top and her shorts.  Leaves tickled her right arm, while nearby fire made that arm prickle.

Running to the left meant running directly across the doors, in full view of armed Witch Hunters.  Running to her right meant crossing the little road leading around the building.

“Huh,” Verona murmured.  “Point very taken.”

A Witch Hunter whistled behind her.

On the camera, she’d seen that some Witch Hunters had been at the side of the building, getting past some of the trees.

“I don’t know how to help!” Nibble called out.

“My right side, your left!” Verona called up.  “Some guys coming!  If you or the goblins could slow ’em down…!”

There were boots shuffling around.

If they walked up another five or ten feet, they’d have a clear shot at her.

Someone fired a gun.  A bit of bark exploded off the tree into a spray of splinters.

She went through pre-drawn spell cards.  There.  She slapped one down on the ground, marked it to close the circuit of the magical diagram, then slid it forward, toward the road and fire.

Interconnected runes, two water, one fire, surrounding architecture to indicate a cloud shape.  Cloud of hot steam.  To make Witch Hunters hesitate to move into the cloud, and to dampen the flames.

“Witch Hunters!” Verona called out.

“Witch!” Cleo called out.  “It’s rude to talk without making eye contact, oui?”

“Ruder to demand eye contact and shoot the other person!  Listen!  You guys are all over the map here!  I don’t suppose you’d be willing to negotiate a bit here?”

“Ha!”

“You worked with Lawrence Bristow to get the Aware for the Lighthouse, apparently!”

“Past tense.  The man seems very dead, funny how that works, is it not?”

“Yeah, uh, hi!  He’s not dead but I don’t think he’s coming back.  Got dragged off to the magical kitchens to wash dishes for eternity or something.  And that’s me, I was responsible for that, in a way.  Feels shitty but here we are…  I guess that impacted your business…”

“Come on out and I’ll shake your hand for it.”

“And shoot me while you’re at it?  No thanks.  But seriously, guys, can we… there’s gotta be a way to coexist or something?”

“Ha!”

“One’s coming right at you!” Nibble shouted.

Verona grabbed her bag, opened the front pouch, and pulled out the stick arrangement with a cluster of doll’s legs dangling from it.  “Legs!  For Kennet, in accordance with oaths sworn!”

Feet skidded as she slapped it against the tree.  Legs reached inside the wood, and found purchase in the branches.  They began to expand, ‘kicking’.  Each limb of the tree multi-jointed.  It fended off the approach of the Witch Hunter that had been sneaking up on her.

One Witch Hunter was shielding his face, walking into the steam, but as much as he seemed able to endure the pain, he couldn’t see.

“Verona!”  Another shout.

She turned her head.

Francis.  The kid who’d come with the first group.  Nearly silent, holding a knife.

She twisted back, throwing herself back out of the way, kicking up as he reached- the knife scraped the underside of her shoe.

“Legs!” she called out, touching the wood.

The branches reversed direction.  They kicked at Francis, hard, and knocked him into the glass and metal door, hard enough that cracks spiderwebbed out.

She didn’t have long.  She reached into a pocket-

Francis, in the midst of slumping down, perked up and lunged away.

Didn’t have long.  She hated to do this, using up so many resources, but-

She tossed out a card with feathers attached to it.  A bird- she didn’t wear it, but sent it out as a distraction, to draw fire.  Then another.  Then another.

And finally, the cat card.  She used it.

Forming a cat, small, shadowy… leaping forward.

Mid-leap, getting shot three times.

And Verona, following behind the cat, slipped into literal shadow, painting herself in it, dipping into it.  She wore the shape of the shadow cast by the cat.  A question of lighting on the ground, shielded from the flash of gunfire by the cat’s form, as the cat died.  She paused long enough to give the cat a death scene.

She made it past the door and to the length of fallen tree on the other side, which provided cover to let her get to the deeper woods and the narrower space between the building and the trees.

I tried.

Gonna have to rinse off again.  Ugh.

She scaled the unlit side of the building, to make it back up to the roof, then shucked off the glamour.  She held the spirit-charm.  “Legs, out of the tree.”

“Geez,” Zed said.  “I thought they had you.  I was making a door.”

“It’s cool.  Thanks though.”

Goblins were at the edge of the roof, throwing goblin trinkets and things over the edge.

“Back off, guys.  No more interfering, or the Sable might get mad.”

“Aww!”

“I know, but there’ll be a lot more going on tonight.  Save some shit to throw at Charles, kay?”

“And they’re in,” Zed said.

“What?” Verona asked.

Zed showed her.

There was an image on the phone of the parking lot, as if a security camera was mounted on one of the lights at the far end.

The Witch Hunters entered the building.

So they’ll interfere after all.

“Can I go in after?” she asked.  “The Sable Prince implied entering meant applying to the contest.”

“I really don’t think so.”

“So that’s a thing, then?”

“That’s a thing.  Maybe not for the Witch Hunters, they can sorta ignore a lot of our rules.”

“Are my friends okay?”

Zed checked.  “Yeah, looks like.”

They were standing by a car, the local Others around them.  Talking to a Witch Hunter.

Verona felt simultaneously hopeful that they’d figure this out and work out a deal, and she hated the idea that they’d succeed in working out a deal where she’d failed.  Being clever with words had been her thing.  She’d picked it up fastest… but it was like one of the driving games Avery had given to John, from her brother’s collection.  Some cars had fast acceleration but a low top speed.  Fast out of the gates but weak in a longer race.

Bittersweet.  She wanted her friends to do well, but…

“How’s her mom?”

Zed switched ‘channels’.

It was a very, very dark scene, illuminated by hand-held electric lanterns.  Zed tapped a square in the corner, and the scene distorted, gaining a lot of old person television type snow and the scene changed, highlighting the people involved.

“They went out for a walk out by the water, away from the noise of the party.  Miss is close.  I think- see this line?” Zed asked, quiet.  “Connects to Miss.  He knows she’s there.”

“What’s with the super late night party?  Is he doing that?”

“Nah,” Zed said, quiet.  “I think that’s the distortion Ken and the contest are doing.  Keeping people busy.  The party’s going strong, people are losing track of time, so… no issues, nobody coming out and wondering why the city is weird.”

“Right,” Verona said.  “And Jasmine’s still a hostage?”

“I’ve got a fifty-fifty shot at setting the Beautiful Man’s phone on fire if things get hairy, fifty-fifty on a second trick, trying to draw a lot of attention to him.”

“Does that add up to a hundred or-?”

“No.  Two coin flips.”

“Right.”

“If I’m paying attention to that scene when things kick off, if Miss tries something, or if he does something, signal comes in from Maricica or Charles?  I’ll set those off, maybe it slows him down or distracts him enough.”

“Okay,” Verona replied, quiet.  “She’s one of the most important people to me.  To Lucy, for sure, but me too.”

“After dinner with you guys I kinda got why,” Zed replied.

Brie rubbed his shoulder.

“I’ll do what I can,” Zed told her.

“Can you give that your focus?  Brie, can you watch Zed?  Nibble, Chloe?”

“If it gets bad, we’ll leave with Musser.  But I’ll do my best to stay on that.”

Verona nodded.  “Gonna go check on the others.”

“Good luck,” Brie said.

“You too.”

She hurried across the roof.  As she got to the edge, a bullet clipped the roof’s edge, a foot from her face.

“Shit, Jesus, shit!” Lucy swore.  “What happened?”

“Hiii!” Verona called out.

“No surprises,” a Witch Hunter said.

“Don’t want any either,” Lucy said.

“Can I come down?” Verona asked.

“Yeah.”

Verona circled back, pointed at the ladder.  Zed held up a finger, typed something on his phone, then pointed.

She hurried down the ladder, experimenting with sliding down, but deciding she wasn’t brave enough to do that.  She moved carefully around the unconscious Witch Hunter that lay against the base, stooped down, and snatched up the gun he’d dropped.

She tried to find the safety, couldn’t see in the dark, and she didn’t feel safe enough to drop it into her bag if it might misfire.  Especially if she was going to be dealing with Maricica.

She tossed it into the woods.

She touched a card to the side of her throat to keep her breath clear as she waded through Lucy’s rune-generated smoke.  “Coming through.”

“Hands up!”

She pulled the card away from her throat at the last second.  It made smoke tickle her nostrils, forcing her to blink.

She walked past Squeak and Freak, Ramjam, Snow, and Cherry, who were hanging back.

“Charles is here,” Lucy said.  Lucy and Avery had pulled off masks and Lucy was no longer smoking, but that faint circle was on the ground near her.

“How are we doing with these guys?”

“Trading a few answers for a bit of… them not shooting us?” Avery said, stumbling through the sentence, glancing at the nearest Witch Hunter.

“This time,” the man replied.

Avery nodded.

“You think they’re in it?” the man asked.

“Zed isn’t sure,” Verona said, walking over to the others.  “A friend who knows more than us about a buncha stuff.  Uhh, Witch Hunters get to ignore a lot of the rules the rest of us abide by.”

“Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s good,” Lucy said.  “Because they’re on the wrong side of a collection of dangerous Others, and they’re on the wrong side of the three judges.  If they’re part of the competition they’ve got to beat a gauntlet of really strong Others who want to rule over the region.  If not, they’re intruders and that’s a… tough fight.  Sorry.”

“And if they win the contest they become important Others,” Verona added.  “Was just trying to tell some other people… this is pretty major.”

The Witch Hunter winced.

“Okay,” the older Witch Hunter said.  “Good to know, if we end up having to report back to the main office.”

“Thanks for talking,” Verona said.

“Get out of my sight before my trigger finger gets itchy,” the man said.  “You’re minor, this is major, I get that, it’s the only reason I’m letting you go.”

Lucy jerked her head to one side.

They hurried down the parking lot, and around the corner, before stopping.

“Almost got us shot, popping up like that,” Lucy said.  “Almost got yourself shot.”

“Sorry.”

“He’s here,” Lucy reiterated.  “Alabaster told us.  With Lis and Maricica.”

“Where?”

Lucy shook her head.

“Frig.”

“Bit tricky,” Avery said.  “Remember what Ray said about the dam?”

“All of Kennet is a pretty huge space to dam,” Verona replied.  “What do we do?  If we stay close then they’re free to do whatever in the rest of Kennet, that’s bad.  If we go too far, then they could waltz in.  They’d just have to deal with the Witch Hunters, Zed, Brie, and the others.”

“How’s your nose, Squeak?” Avery asked.

Squeak put a claw to his nose, then blew, pulling claw away with strings of snot connecting nose to claw.

“So gross!  So useless, you have a snout and you can’t even smell!?  You went and got a cold!?” Freak exclaimed, kicking Squeak in the shin.

“Snow?” Avery asked.

“It’s good enough to do some serious tracking,” Snow said.

“Even with me in tow?”

“Might hurt more than it helps, but I’m confident we can do it,” Snow said.

“What else?” Lucy asked quiet.  “Options, how do we get a bead on them?”

“Nicolette?” Avery asked.

“Wye,” Verona added.

“I- sure.  Get Wye. Get Nicolette.  You two handle that.  I’m going to call Guilherme.  Faerie to deal with a Faerie.”

Verona nodded.

They walked a few steps away from one another, each with their phones.

Verona searched the school directory, then called Wye.

“Hello?  Bit busy.”

“Verona Hayward here.  I want to call in that favor you owe.”

“No can do.”

“Why not, you butthole?  I was even trying to be nice to Raquel just a bit ago.”

“You rubbing her recent lost friendships in her face and telling her to shut her yap isn’t nice in my books, but I got the general sense of it.  Yeah, but I’m under contract right now, and that means giving my full attention to Musser.  We’re recording everything, so we can let the various Lords in this area of Canada and the nearby U.S. know what’s up after the contest resolves.  Bit of money in that.”

“Okay.  You gotta do what you gotta do, I guess.”

“I do.  I hope Nicolette will be more helpful.  Tell her to watch out for those damn needle flowers.”

Lucy walked over, motioning.

“One sec.”

“I’m watching through the phone connection, I see.”

“Hi, Wye,” Lucy said, as she took the phone from Verona.  “You said you owed us one.  That if we went out on a limb to try to help Raquel, it’d count.”

Wye said something Verona didn’t hear.

Lucy replied, “Yeah, okay, but this is strike one, Wye.  We go ahead on good faith, we’ll keep being fair to Raquel, Avery’s got her email.  But if we ask a total of three times in good faith, and you happen to be busy or happen to have reasons not to listen…”

She trailed off, presumably because he was saying something.

“Okay,” she said, hanging up.

“Well?” Verona asked.

“He owes us interest, and he’ll give us the favor next time or the time after, or we’re right to call him out for welshing.”

“Nicolette’s on the job but she’s pretty nervous about the Nettlewisps,” Avery said.  “Ray almost lost an eye to one when they went after Charles at the Blue Heron.”

“Stark reminder,” Lucy said.

“She’s putting everything behind layers, one step removed from herself.  Slows her down.”

Verona nodded.

“Interest?” Avery asked.  “Wye?”

“Wye can’t help,” Verona explained.

“He’ll owe us a bit more.  I’m not sure how we do that.  Maybe we force him to play nice to Nicolette.  Pay her back for helping us out, by getting him to pay her some,” Lucy said.

“I really like that,” Avery said.

“She’ll have to be careful,” Guilherme said, as he stepped out of the trees.  “Wye’s crafty enough he could give her a poisoned apple.”

Guilherme was in the guise of an older man, hair long and white, tied into a ponytail, but features still strong, muscle definition on his hairless chest and stomach, with his shirt unbuttoned, a light brown and well-worn leather jacket worn over it.  Like a bodybuilder and health nut who’d gotten old but hadn’t dropped the routine.  The signs of age there, but all really, really favorable.

“Thanks for coming,” Lucy told him.

“I can help you find her.  I can’t go with you, so you’ll have to continue alone,” Guilherme told them.

“Why the hell can’t you come with us?” Lucy asked.

“She’s so inexperienced, but nimble. I’m too experienced, the nimbleness gone,” he replied.  “No.”

“Guilherme… come.  Back us up,” Lucy told him.

“I can do more here.  You go, Jord- Lucy.  Keep an eye out for bone, for hair, for shed feathers and shed skins.  For carcasses with essential pieces missing, and for dolls and other children’s things that are made of macabre materials.”

“Right,” Avery said.  “I remember that.”

“It’s a trap, and your noticing is part of the trap.”

“We’re supposed to find her trail, but not… notice it?”

“Yes,” Guilherme replied.  “I’ll tell you this.  Chase your own light, Avery Kelly.”

Avery’s eyebrows knit together.

“Snowdrop?  It’s not your first choice of meal, but it’ll help you find the way.”

Snowdrop reached out, taking a moth from Guilherme.  It flapped and tried to escape before she managed to secure it in her hands.  Guilherme touched his nose.

She opened her hands enough to sniff deep, then popped it into her mouth, chewing.

“Focus on what needs to be focused on, Lucy.  Don’t ignore your instincts.  They’re better than most.”

“Yeah.”

“And for you, Verona, a belated gift.  The last one I have to give out.”

Verona hesitated, then reached out.  She took a fragment of glass.  “It’s not cheating?”

“Cheating?” Avery asked.

“Taking another gift.”

Guilherme told her, “Be careful of how much you use.  It is, in itself, a lesson in moderation.  I think that’s important for you.”

“Okay,” Verona said.

He took her hand and he held up the glass.  Letting it catch the light.  By twisting it and moving it, the light focused and split apart.

She found an angle.  Emerald green light magnified in the glass, bright enough the rest of the glass darkened.  There.  That specific direction.

“Her glamour, at its most concentrated.  Mine is a bold gleam, as warm as summer.  Hers is this emerald that darkens the surroundings rather than gleam.  You have three uses.  On the third, the glass will break and cut you deeply enough you have to stop whatever you’re doing for long enough you’ll miss an important event.”

“Not going to use the third use then, I guess?” Verona asked.

“That is your choice,” Guilherme told her.

Verona pointed the direction the glass had indicated.  Nearly directly south, a bit west.  It pointed in the direction of Verona’s house, maybe Lucy’s, but Lucy’s mom wasn’t home.  No… as she took a few steps to the side, she could get the angle.  Closer to her own house.

She looked back at Guilherme.  “So that’s a trap?  If that’s the trail?”

“Yes.”

She looked the opposite direction.  Trees blocked the way and Kennet was distorted in shape, especially around the Arena.  She had to use her mental picture of Kennet…

“Downtown?  The town center?” Avery asked.

“It’s as good a direction to start as any,” Guilherme said.

“Want me to get us there faster?” Avery asked.  “Worst we can do is overshoot.”

“And the hangover?” Lucy asked.

“I can deal.  That’s a tomorrow problem.”

Verona nodded.  “My house, or close to it?”

“On it,” Avery said.

She had three coins she’d borrowed Verona’s paints to prime and paint over.  Well, she’d painted one, but the rest had started to pop up here and there.  Avery collected them when they did.

It was a Finder practice, from Avery’s big batch of new things.  Each coin was metaphorically ‘bought’ by turning down a journey, a trip, or an experience.  Each coin could then be spent to accelerate travel through other realms.  There was a chance for things to be livened up, for Lost to turn up, for the experience to be intensified in a variety of ways.  They’d done it with the Ruins to get to the Blue Heron faster.

Here, Avery laid one coin down.  “Three coins, open the way three times as easy, get us there three times as fast, and make our aim three times as true.”

“What important trips have you been turning down, Ave?” Verona asked.

“Mom was in town, remember?  She asked if I wanted to go… places.”

“Sucks you had to do that.  Skipping out on mom time.”

“All of this is more important,” Avery said.  She touched chalk to the ground.  “By way of Ruins, paid in Lost coins.  Three of us.”

“Be safe, help Guilherme,” Lucy told the Others.

The runework wrote itself from the point where the chalk touched road.

It came fast and it hit hard, water erupting around them, covering them.  Echoes and forces tore past them.

“Reminds me, I used glamour, I should rinse off,” Verona said.

“We’re maybe about to face Maricica, you tit!” Lucy exclaimed.

“You haven’t either, so you’re more of a tit than I am!” Verona retorted.

“Well yeah, but I had to use that, Avery was about to get tazed.”

“I had to too!” Verona retorted.  The emotions ripped past.  Tense ones, hard ones.  Scared.  She bit back the words she might’ve said.  “Give me the benefit of a doubt, kay?”

“Remember what Guilherme said!” Avery raised her voice.  “Lucy, stay focused.  Verona-”

Moderation.

More echoes.  She recognized Brie in them.

“Don’t overshoot!” she exclaimed.

Avery clapped hands together.

The initial eruption of water hadn’t even stopped, and now it fell away.  They were- Verona got her bearings.

The town center loomed, the clock glowing a faint orange-red, the rooftop a green copper.

Snowdrop lifted her nose to the air and sniffed.

She got so much more power.  Would I have that, if I’d committed?  If I’d just jumped into the Halflight stuff, screw second guessing?  Ask Matthew to sponsor me, get him more involved?  He knows about hosting.

She looked at Lucy.  Lucy was strong, too, just in different ways.

“Zed’s watching your mom,” Verona said.

Lucy nodded quickly.

Downtown Kennet with no people was eerie.  It was two-forty in the morning, going by the town clock, but most nights, as they’d found out while patrolling and dealing with Wraiths, there were often people up and about.  Some were addicts or troublemakers, others just hit the bar until closing, then drank into the middling hours of the night.  They’d even learned to recognize some regular faces.  People would walk this way and that, laughing and talking at normal volumes at three, four, even five o’clock at night.  It was apparently worse during winter, with all the people in town to use the ski hills, but she hadn’t been a practitioner last winter, hadn’t had cause to see.  There were apartments and businesses that sometimes had lights on until stupidly early hours, or always.

Nothing now.

Kennet slept and when it woke up everything would be different, in a way they couldn’t recognize or pin down.  Maybe it would be John managing the violent forces of the world.  Maybe Reid Musser.  Or the ear thing.

While Avery roamed, Snowdrop sniffed, and Lucy walked across the street to get a better perspective.

Verona took a moment to clear her pockets of things, holding them out of the way as she doused herself in water, rubbing vigorously as best as she could.  She put papers and stuff on the ground and pinned them there while she got rid of glamour, soaking herself.

When she was done, she gathered it up again.  The last of it, papers she’d folded up that she was keeping in a pocket for reference- various fliers.

She unfolded them.

“Lucy.”

Lucy looked over.

Verona showed Lucy the papers.  Ken-derived stuff.

“What is it?” Avery asked.  She was coming back from her roaming.

She was too far away to have noticed, but Snowdrop had noticed and passed it on, apparently.

“Fliers with the contestants.  They’ve changed.”

“Don’t tell me one’s of Charles now,” Avery said, hurrying over now.

“No, and no Witch Hunters, either,” Verona said.  “Got three of Ondvarg’s, they’re faded out and tattered.  Face thing is too.”

“Go John,” Lucy said, quiet.

“Check it,” Avery said.  She pulled a paper from a post.  “Lauren Snyder.  We saw her.”

“Are there any others?  The Witch Hunters?” Verona asked.  “Charles?”

Avery shook her head and shrugged.  “Don’t see any.”

“The fact it’s reporting on the contest as it’s happening is… not right,” Lucy said.  “That’s not what I saw in the Alcazar.  It’s supposed to be insulated better than that.”

“So why does it matter?” Verona asked.

“I don’t know.”

Verona got her phone, and she dialed.  She’d just been thinking about Matthew, too.

When Lucy gave her a quizzical look, Verona showed her the face of the phone.

“Verona?” Matthew asked.

“You’re watching Ken.  We had questions.”

“Ask.”

“Fliers are changing.  We’re getting updated ones.  Is there any way he can tap into that, give us some info?”

“I’ll ask.”

“We’re not far from them,” Avery said.

“That’s part of what worries me,” Verona said.

“Follow your instincts.  Go,” Lucy said.

She hated go.  She didn’t like running, especially the uneven running that ended up happening when she wasn’t using one arm, because she held a phone to her ear, when she had the weight of a full bag at her back.  When she had a rising feel of sick in her guts.  Like things were out of control, she felt uneasy about the outcomes, uneasy about the current situation with the three of them, uneasy that they didn’t know where the hell the invaders were.  Were they running around like chickens with their heads cut off?  Chasing wild geese?

They ran down the empty, lightless block of downtown Kennet.  The Arena was more a source of light than the moon above them, and it was a full moon.  Slanted shadows cast by red light beat out the white of the moon.  The distortion of Kennet made the streets seem wider, the buildings taller, the distance between important places and corners shorter.  Was Ken helping?

“Ken doesn’t know.  Knowing these things isn’t a strength of his.  He’s still young, relatively speaking,” Matthew said.

“Okay.”

“I was going to- something may be wrong,” Matthew said.

“With?  You can’t just say that,” Verona said, stopping in her tracks, huffing out a breath.  “What’s wrong?”

“I was going to wait.  You have enough to deal with, Ken wasn’t sure, then Lucy texted to say they might be here, I asked Ken to try to narrow down the feeling-”

“Spit it out!”

“Ken feels weaker.”

“Ken feels weaker,” Verona said, for Avery’s benefit.  Lucy’s eyes went wider.

“I was asking how, how he could place it-”

They ran with a touch more intensity now.

“-said if it kept up another few minutes without us being able to diagnose or without it getting better, we’d contact you guys.”

Another wild goose chase?  A subtle hint at something to produce a big action, something that dragged them off course, pulled them further from where they needed to be?

Where was that glamour supposed to lead them?  If they’d used the glass, if they hadn’t had Guilherme’s advice, where might they have ended up?  What was at her house or past it?

The awakening site?  Where they’d started on this journey?

What would that matter?

If they’d gone there, would Maricica have led them astray?  Or was that where they were meant to go?

It felt like being at school, end of the year, knowing she’d fucked around more than she should, the last set of tests, knowing report cards were coming at the end of the week, worrying no matter what she did, the wrong decisions had been made already.

They reached the entryway to Ken’s domain.  Or at least, the last one they’d used.

“Matthew?” Verona asked.  “Can you get-”

“Wait,” Lucy said.

Verona paused.

“My mom watches these shows with my aunt Heather, even when they’re not in the same town, they’ll watch and then talk about it on the phone.  I hear a lot of this stuff.  I can’t help but think of one thing in a show I watched.  Guy breaking into a prison to kill someone, convinces everyone something’s wrong, poison or something, so they’ll open the way, move the guy, and the hero can get at the target.”

“Pretty dark hero if he’s killing people,” Avery said.

“You think this might be the trap?  Ken’s locked up all tight, they mislead us, get us to open the door, and give them the means of getting inside?” Verona asked.

“Like how we didn’t want to move the furs.”

“Get more info from Matthew,” Lucy said.

Verona put the phone to her ear.  “Matthew?”

The response was a crackle.

The call disconnected abruptly.

Verona licked dry lips, still breathing hard from the run.

She changed targets.

“Ronnie?”

She hit the call to connect to Zed.

The phone didn’t even try.  No connection.

“Phones are dead,” she said.  “Last we got was Ken was feeling weaker…”

“What the hell are they doing?” Lucy asked.  “Do we break in?”

“Can we?” Avery asked.  “Maybe if we took a shortcut to the spirit world, we could get to Ken’s place from there.  But we did protect the crap out of it.”

Snowdrop grabbed Avery’s arm.  “You don’t have anything from Ken.”

“The pin?” Avery asked.

Snowdrop shook her head.

Avery pulled the pin from her backpack strap.  She paused as she looked at it, then pressed it into Snowdrop’s hand.

Snowdrop sniffed it.

“You think that can help us find the shortest path to Ken’s little domain?”

“No.”

They followed Snowdrop, who used the scent trail as best as she could.  She wasn’t a bloodhound, but she was an opossum spirit, albeit a Lost one, tied to the Paths.  That helped.

Trying to find a way to the spirit, or to get to Ken enough to ask and figure out what was wrong.

They reached the park, two blocks from downtown.  Where Lucy had caught one of the invading body snatchers.  Bridge.

“That’s what I was trying to find,” Snowdrop murmured.

Ken was there, sitting on a bench, staring up at the sky, hands between his thighs, presumably for warmth.

An expanding pool of blood sat below him.

If they’d gone the other direction, they’d be far, far away from this.  From seeing him here, a little out of it.  Bleeding?

“Ken?” Avery asked, quiet.

His head turned.  His eyes widened.

“Didn’t expect to see you,” he said, quiet.

“What did you do?” Lucy asked.  “Or what did they do to you?”

He smiled, shrugging.

“Ken, this isn’t the time to be coy.”

Frustration wormed in Verona’s gut.  Ken resembled her dad.  He did, and it sucked, and it sucked because she worried that would affect things here.

Sucked that Ken and her dad could be so stubborn, so unwilling to help themselves.

“Answer us!” Verona raised her voice.

“Red stars in the sky, city with a red tint, you know?  Getting redder as things move along.”

“Answer us!” Verona told him, hands clenched, voice forceful.  “I’ve asked twice.”

“Ah,” Ken said.  “You’re doing that?  A lesser binding, to take away my liberty?  Ask three times, force the answer?”

“What the fuck do you expect us to do?” Verona asked.  “Answer us!  Three times I’ve asked-!”

“And I’ll answer,” he replied.  He stood, and he was holding a goblet.  The liquid that pooled at his feet came from the goblet, more liquid than the cup should have been able to hold.

“What is that?” Verona asked.

“Which question do you want answered first?” he asked.

She stared at him.  She thought about that connection to her dad.

In Ken’s eyes she saw something that wasn’t there in her dad’s eyes.  Wasn’t properly there in Kennet’s eyes.

“Lis,” Verona said.

“And power,” Lis replied.  He held up the cup, then drank from it.  “Courtesy of Maricica.”

“It isn’t blood,” Snowdrop said.

Lis nodded.

“That’s Lis?” Avery asked.

“Lis… spending power and extending her reach, like she did when we went after her.  She didn’t want us to see she could do that.  She can reach further than just the people immediately around her.  More groups, more numbers.”

Lis nodded.

“Extending her reach so she’s an approximation of every single resident of Kennet.  Just like Ken.  Edging him out of the role,” Verona concluded.

Lis smiled a bit with Ken’s face.  “He doesn’t really hold onto it.  He’s too young to know how, and his personality… I think you probably know.  He doesn’t really fight.  Charles helped arrange the calling of Ken, and they didn’t arrange for him to be strong or tenacious, as far as Others go.  I have power with this cup here, I’m a solid spirit, like John, like Ken.  I’m experienced, I’m ambitious, I can be a representation of Kennet’s people, Ken folds like a house of cards.  It’s enough for me to take the position.”

“Reading the emails about you guys back to back, it did feel like you guys were a bit similar in concept,” Verona said.

Lis nodded.  “Was it Edith who wrote them?  That would make sense, she had an idea of the plan.  She might have done that without thinking.  Dumb, but not unexpected.”

“Matthew,” Lucy said, terse.

“Influenced by her.  Or maybe he realized the link, subconsciously,” Lis said.  “Yes.  Similar enough in concept.  Ken can stay where he is, cloistered away, withering, surrounded by the traps you set, guards you put in place.  The barriers you put up might even be helping him along.”

Lucy shook her head in a tight little motion.  “We were pretty careful.”

“But if you hadn’t done that, we might’ve gone after him.  Or if you’d made him stronger, we’d have other ways.  We could gut him.  We talked about fires at major buildings and landmarks.  Kennet would try to wake up, Ken would have to spend power to keep them asleep and out of the way… or I could come to terms with a sundered and shocked Kennet before he could adjust himself.  I’m faster.  Would’ve taken another ten minutes or so to set up and activate, as part of the bigger plan.  Maricica has alternative plans like that, you know.”

The gap they were trying to dam was too wide and the floodwaters had come.

Verona reached for a spell card as Lucy reached for her bag.

“Didn’t expect you to come here.  Thought Maricica would give you the runaround.”

“Bit of luck, bit of intentional avoiding of the runaround.”

“You hid Jabber away, that was a wrinkle… we had to figure out other options.”

“Power?” Avery asked.

Lis held up the goblet.

Lucy drew a hand along a soda bottle.  It became a gun.

“I had no idea if Maricica would manage it.  Whose blood do you think this is?  It’s gross to drink, but standing in it works too.  Soaks into Kennet, and it’s clearly mine.”

Lis took a step to one side.  The background shifted, skyline sawing against sky.  A railing from one side of the steps moved between them and Lis, marring their view of her.  All three of them scrambled to get to different vantage points.  Verona held out a spell card.  Lucy finished making her gun.

“No,” Avery said.  “The only other power source we figured was big enough-”

They’d discussed it when they’d talked about the options they’d use to try to overwhelm what Maricica might try to do, if she used Jabber.

“The Choir,” Verona whispered.  “Brie.”

“I hate that I have to spend power on getting away,” Lis said.  “Slows things down.”

“Do you really think you’re getting away?” Lucy asked.

The footing of the park shifted slightly, the perspective changing, as if Verona had vertigo.  Lis, streaked in the blood that splashed from the goblet, turned to walk away, holding the goblet so blood slopped down.  They gave chase, but the footing didn’t favor them.

Verona threw the spell card, not at Lis, but at the path Lis wanted to take to get away.

Fire erupted.  The last card of that sort Verona had.  She’d spent the others on John.  She’d wanted a wider variety of options, rather than a huge arsenal of the same.

Lucy stumbled, path through the park uneven, as if every bad or cracked or old bit of path and sidewalk around Kennet had gathered here.  Her gun banged against the top of the railing as she tried to bring it down to aim at Lis.  The landscape around them was sliding into different positions, a labyrinth unfolding.

“Lucy!” Avery shouted.  “To me!”

They hurried to meet.  But it was a bit like a bad dream.  Running as hard as you can and not getting as far as you wanted.

Avery grabbed Lucy by the waist and boosted her, a two-handed thrust to add to Lucy’s jump, giving Lucy the height to step up onto the railing.  Lucy adopted a bit of a pose, like something she’d practiced with Guilherme- and Lucy shot the soda gun.

Dropping Lis.

Lucy half-stepped, half-fell down from the railing, but the ground on the far side was steep.  She skidded, trying to stop herself with her heels on grass, until she reached the base of it, a bit of a ditch.  “How much power does that cost you!?”

Lis moved, blood spreading across the plaid shirt she wore.  Finding her feet.

Verona threw another card, aiming to put Lis down on the ground again.

The sidewalk lifted up, becoming a concrete wall.  A building- the public bathroom that had been at the edge of the park, that always had police coming by to clear out the local homeless.

Encircling her, ensuring her escape.

“Enough, I hope,” Avery said.  “I hope that cost her enough power that it matters.”

Lucy tried her phone, swore.  “No connection.”

Phones would be in Kennet’s domain.

Verona looked around.  She could see the adjustments being made to Kennet.  To slow them down.  To facilitate the other side.  Phones and footpaths.  They’d set Ken up to be supplanted.  Lis, soaked in Brie’s blood, transferred by some goblet or something, was that painting the town red?

They’d been planning to use Jabber, though.  Lis had made it sound like they’d tried to get to him and hit the stumbling block of the shell game of locked boxes.

“They’re going to do more, to paint the town red somehow,” Verona concluded.  “Right now we need to worry about-”

“Brie,” Avery said.  “If they have Brie’s blood, they might’ve gotten to Brie just after we left.”

“The furs,” Verona finished.  “Ken locked them up, but if Lis could take over for Ken, she could unlock it, and that’s why they never really had to worry.”


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