False Moves – 12.9

Verona

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“Anyone want to do me a solid and let me gainsay them, so I get some power back and can practice again?” Verona asked, hopeful.

The looks she got in response really said it all.  Their group was gathered in the music place, because it had sitting room, encouraged loitering, and gave them a good vantage point for watching the motel.

“I don’t think that works,” Zed replied.  “You might tick off the spirits and then both individuals are depowered.”

Verona groaned.

“Someone could transfer power,” Zed told her, as he flipped through records.  “But I think it’s a skewed system.  If it costs me five units of power to give you three, then in most cases it’s going to be better for you to walk me through whatever it is you want to practice, instead.”

“For most cases?” Verona asked.

“Getting sidetracked again?” Lucy asked, from the next aisle over.

“I love the sidetracks!  Avery goes wandering off and flanks the bad guys and whatever, but I’d like to think I do it mentally.”

Lucy gave her a look.

“Most cases,” Zed confirmed.  “In cases like, say, Raymond doing some big technomancy, if he got gainsaid at a bad moment, maybe it’d be better for me to hand him some power and let him do the programming-dense part of the technomancy.”

“Hmmm.”

There was a knock on the window.

Guilherme, not one to really browse a record shop, was sitting on the sidewalk, in his guise as an older man, hair long and white, body muscular in that way really fit old men could be, where his tanned, less-wrinkled-than-it-should-be skin stretched over muscle.  His hand remained raised, knuckles resting on the window, his head hadn’t turned to look at them.

“Showtime?” Verona asked.

“Showtime.  If things get bad, we need to be ready to book.  That means rushing the backdoor,” Zed said.  He turned to the guy at the counter.  “Can I try this record?”

“Ten dollar deposit.”

“To test play a record?”

“Machine’s junk, if it digs the record, that’s on you, not me.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Zed told him.

“I think it’s been junk since my big brother was my age,” Lucy said.

“That’s even more ridiculous,” Zed exclaimed, legitimately offended.

“Oh yeah.  You should see some of the other old standbys here.  These headphones…” Lucy trailed off.

“I don’t think I want to,” Zed told her.

Guilherme turned his head, peering through the window.

“Guilherme’s giving us a look,” Verona pointed out.  “Can he hear us?”

“No,” Lucy said.

“Right, okay.  Just impatient, then.”

“Give me a bit,” Zed said, bringing the records he was interested in over to the record player, which was set up at one corner of the counter.  He put the records on the counter, pointed at the player, and asked, “May I?”

The man at the counter shrugged.  “You break it, you buy it.”

“The record player that’s been junk since…?” Zed looked over at Lucy.

“At least five years ago.”

The older teenager at the counter reached into a bag of gummy candies that Verona recognized as being from the bulk bin at the supermarket, put too many in his mouth, and then chewed, giving Zed his most disinterested expression.

Zed took a minute to dismantle the needle thingy on the long arm, then began rubbing it on his jeans.

“Static on the needle thingy?” Verona asked.  “Or are you trying to get it staticky?”

“No, and no.  But there’s a burr on the stylus, and a collection of dust and stuff.  Tonearm…” Zed toyed with the thing the needle had been attached to.  “Is too loose.  Screwdriver, in my bag.”

Verona went to Zed’s bag, followed instructions, and found the screwdriver set.

“Seems like you’re as bad as Verona when it comes to this stuff,” Lucy said.

“They’re there?  Settling in?”

“Yeah.”

“Nobody coming our way?  Because if they do we need to book it.

“Nobody’s coming our way just yet,” Lucy said, approaching.

Zed tightened a screw, tested the speed of movement of the ‘tonearm’, replaced the stylus-head, pulled out a record with more care than the dusty record and worn out sleeve seemed to deserve.  He made sure it turned okay, started up the machine, and brought the stylus down.

Rock began to play.  Zed closed his eyes for a moment.

“Sounds pretty good,” Lucy said.

“You might have a better ear than I do, but yeah,” Zed said.  “Still want that deposit?”

The guy at the counter had already jammed another fistful of candy into his mouth, since finishing the last.  Which meant they had to wait about eight to ten seconds for him to finish chewing and choking down the gelatin mass.  “Not if you’re going to be cranky about it.  Forget about it.”

“About-?”

“Play your music.  I don’t care.  Don’t steal anything,” the teenager at the counter said.

Zed walked over to the little chair by the window.  It was a hangout spot for certain types at certain hours, judging by the singular brand of cigarette piled up in the dingy ashtray by the display window, as if this place and that one person’s routine of smoking there predated the indoor smoking laws.

The little chair was at a round table with another chair opposite.  Verona grabbed that chair while Zed settled in, nodding his head a bit to the rock, and pulling a badly outdated laptop out of his bag.  He got set up, finding an outlet and plugging in.

Window seat, view across the seat to the motel, Guilherme a few feet away on the other side and other end of the window.  Verona put her chair down and sat next to Zed, sitting down with knees apart, hands together at the front edge of the chair, edge of her seat, interested.

Zed looked at her while the laptop booted up, lines of green text spooling out.

“Can I watch?  I’d like to see how technomancy works.”

“Sure,” Zed told her, though Verona had a vague sense she was testing his patience.  Or all of this was.  Zed glanced over at the guy at the counter, on the far end of the store, who chewed on candy and turned pages in a magazine.  “I don’t know how you can have all that free time and not fix the equipment, or bring someone in to.  Woobtube tutorials.”

Verona shifted position on the uncomfortable plastic chair.  “One way I like to think about people and learning and stuff is that we’re like cars.”

“I like this analogy already,” Zed said.

“The faster we go, the easier it is to go fast.  If we’re in good working order, it’s easier to figure out what’s wrong and fix it, so we stay in good working order.  Momentum in all things.  And if you’re a teenager who’s been working here since you were fifteen, doing nothing but eating junk and maybe ten transactions a day?”

“No momentum,” Zed said.  “But if you’re working here, don’t you like music?  How could you not be motivated to put in that bare-minimum effort?”

“Small towns, boyo,” Verona told him.

“You should see the headphones they’ve got for sampling music,” Lucy said.  She’d approached and now stood in the vacant spot where the chair Verona took had been, standing by the window, glass separating her and Guilherme, arms crossed, looking outside.  Her expression looked angrier than usual as she watched the Witch Hunters and said, “some have half-inch thick crescents of earwax or something built up in them.”

Zed logged into his computer.  Verona averted her eyes for the password input, out of respect.  Zed looked up at Lucy, though it wasn’t much up, considering he was sitting on a dinky chair and she was standing.  “Have you given any consideration to not saving the town from Musser, Witch Hunters, and whatever else is going on?”

Carmine stuff, Maricica stuff, Verona thought, just to keep track.

“People I care about live here,” Lucy said.

“Plus oaths,” Verona pointed out.

“You could probably barter headphones like that to a goblin, trade for something that you can exchange for cash, and buy replacement headphones.”

“Economical,” Verona said.

The fan on the old laptop was roaring now, the machine kicking to life.  Zed opened an application, then opened a separate window.  Blue text that didn’t fit the lines of code and the streams of ones and zeroes appeared on the screen.

“That’s Nina,” Zed noted.

“Our librarian?  Your librarian?  The librarian?” Verona asked.  “She didn’t stay at the school?”

“Yes, it is, and no, she didn’t.  She sticks with me.  Part of the terms we agreed to.  She didn’t want to be left behind,” Zed explained.  He plugged a wire into his flip phone, then plugged an adapter into that, an adapter into that, and then a clearly homemade and dangerous looking arrangement of wires and plugs to connect the last adapter to his laptop.  He dragged some pictures from one folder onto the desktop.  Blue text appeared, and then the pictures were swept up.  “Being an Animus can be a lonely existence.  For a Librarian Animus, life is defined by the search for books, visits to bookstores, meeting people in a moment and giving them that one perfect book.”

“I wonder how that is for someone like John,” Lucy said.  “Moments of violence?  It feels like he’s moving away from what he is whenever he’s being social and nice.”

“I don’t know,” Zed replied.  “That’s not me disagreeing, it’s me not knowing.  Just going to ask Nina to identify our guys.  Going by names… Clint, Rocky, Gerald Haris, remind me?”

“Elise, Renfroe, Francis, Cleo Aleshire,” Lucy supplied.

“Getting use out of that earring,” Verona said.

“Hopefully it’s useful,” Lucy said, watching out the window.

The witch hunter group had come in, moved out of the way to make room for the tow truck that was pulling the burned husk of Musser’s car out of the lot, and gone into their rooms, but they kept coming out and going from room to room.  Clint roomed with Rocky, Renfroe with Francis, and Gerald with Elise.

Odd combinations.

“Assuming they didn’t change their names… should be able to get something.  And there’s nothing.”

“What if they did change their names?” Verona asked.

“Nina’s looking… and nothing.  Scrubbed.”

“Scrubbed.  Just completely wiped away from the internet?”

“And apparently from news, microfiche records, police records,” Zed said, leaning back into his chair.

“Step one, identify your enemy,” Lucy said.

“We know what they are, we can assume they’re very good and very dangerous,” Zed said.  “But individually?  Only what we’ve seen so far.”

Jessica walked down the sidewalk, passing Guilherme, and paused to say something to him, and then stepped inside.

“Going to go listen in and talk to Guilherme,” Lucy said.

“Sure,” Zed said, absently.  Then he looked up as Lucy walked to the door.  “Hey.”

Lucy turned.

“I was going to joke you’ve got a weird goblin, Sir Toadswallow, and now you’ve got a weird Faerie, y’know?”

“Sure?” Lucy frowned.

“But I think it’s different.  I don’t really know Fae stuff, but is there something wrong with your Faerie?”

“Yeah, yeah there is,” Lucy said.  “Hey, Ronnie?”

Verona looked over.

Lucy put her phone on the table and slid it over, face-down.  Verona looked without showing Zed, because it was face-down.  The messages were still coming in.

Avery:
watching jabber
while were here remember we need to figure out what newbies in town were brought here for:
jabber lis rook
goblin gangs
cig ken chloenibble montague
possible tashlit
remember guilherme has angle for WH

Verona passed the phone back to Lucy.  Lucy caught it before it went over the table’s edge.  She gave Verona a serious look that could be mistaken as a thing for mishandling her phone.  “I’m going to go check on Guilherme.”

Sounding him out to see what you can figure out about the Witch Hunter involvement? Verona telepathically communicated with Lucy.  Not that that actually worked, but in this moment it felt like it sorta did.  Like they were on the same page.

Which was rarer now than it had been.

“I’ll keep an eye out as stuff comes up, I guess,” Verona said.

Lucy stepped outside as Jessica came in.

Zed looked at Verona.

“We’re pretty sure he’s going Winter,” Verona told Zed.  “I don’t think it’s a big secret anymore, but it’s sensitive.”

“Huh,” Zed murmured.  “My involvement with practice doesn’t really get into that general area.  I only know what I learned at the Blue Heron.”

“It’s a kind of dying, I guess,” Verona told him.

Jessica took up the spot that Lucy had occupied, by the table, looking around for a chair.

Verona looked up at her, eyebrows raised.  “How was the wandering?”

“You’ve got a lot of wraiths around.”

“Yep.”

“Spirits are filtered, some, but you’re walking the line.”

“The line?” Verona asked.

“There are places the spirits are a problem, practitioners go ‘that’s weird’, but they leave it alone, and there are places they can’t leave alone.  You’re walking that line between the two.  One bad night and you could end up on the wrong side of it.”

“Technically we’re the practitioners not leaving it alone, and doing our best.”

“Yeah,” Jessica said.  “Can’t say I’d do a better job.”

“Hey, is that a compliment?” Verona asked.

“I don’t see myself willingly ending up with this mess as my job either,” Jessica said.

“Yeah, well…” Verona replied, trailing off.  She sat back against the chair and looked at Zed’s screen.  “Still searching?”

“No.  Okay, so rundown on technomancy…”

“Yes please.”

“They’re grounded in astrology practices and historian practices, if you remember that one kid who left early…”

“Big diagrams tied into celestial practices, which I didn’t get enough time to study…”

“Yeah,” Zed said.  “Astrology is celestial diagrams, which are like your elemental diagrams I know you’re pretty competent with, but many more moving pieces, using massive reference points, math, and other formulas.”

Verona nodded.

“Historian practices can relate to that, but may focus on naturally occurring astrological practices.  Patterns emerging in how a city unfolds, the roads as diagrams, whatever.”

“Which overlaps with city magic?”

“Definitely.  Which overlaps with shamanism, dealing with spirits.  None of these things exist in their own completely unique sphere.  Your friend Avery’s gets close though.  Lost practices are out there, by definition.  Finders, path runners, collectors of Lost things, losers, envoys of the lost, yadda yadda.”

“Her stuff does tie into knotted places, some overlap,” Verona said.

“Oh, for sure.  Probably scourge stuff too.  Ruin stuff.  You know, you get to the very edges of the Abyss or Ruins, maybe.  But… I think way less than a lot of other practices.  Anyway, technomancy,” Zed said.  He was typing all the while that he was talking, putting lines of code down.  “We’ve got the world with power running through lines in the wall, power grids, streets, internet lines… it’s not a big jump to think about the power lines and wiring that could be overlaid on a map or a building plan and the lines we’d draw as part of a diagram.”

“But you’re not the one setting down the power lines.”

“Nope.  But we are dealing with an emergent power.  We dump all this knowledge out there, unfiltered wavelengths through wifi, we’ve got spirits new to reality with very little in the way of reference points or anchors, and all these diagram-like lines, grids, and power pushing them this way and that.  The goal is to give them direction.  Our tools are that we’ve got these things playing out on a lot of different levels.  The architecture of a computer, sometimes literal architecture, the wiring in walls, the framing of a city, internet, power, wavelengths, the flow of spirits…”

“That’s a lot.”

“And if we get a grip on a couple things, we can steer the others.  And it’s some combination of flimsy, minor effects, or we can only do it for a short time, and it gets really costly every time you want to push it further.  It’s also… by the time you get good at manipulating certain tech, customize your computer’s architecture, learn to work with what you have, the world is moving on.”

“Potentially leaving you stuck in the seventies,” Jessica said, voice dry.

“I’m not stuck, and I’m not that old.  I picked this stuff up because it was available, Ray thought it could give me a good grounding and I could go from there.  I just so happen to like the era.  I’m comfortable there.  This laptop is from the 90s, for the record.  I’m sane, I’m not going to use a five-by-three-inch screen on a twenty pound typewriter-scaled monstrosity.”

“Uh huh,” Jessica replied.

“Anyway, with me so far?” Zed asked Verona.  “I’ve learned I’m not a super great teacher.  Tell me if I’m getting too far into la la land.”

“You’re okay.  Um, I think I’m with you.  The world moves on while you’re figuring stuff out.”

“So those spirits that were lost in that maze of power lines and whatever?  Or pipes, rail lines, and steam, of an even earlier era?  Those are the ones that stick by you, help guide other spirits, and the further you’re left in the past, the more you become a techno-shaman.  You lean on them more and more as your stuff gets less able to grapple with the world around you.  If you get left far enough behind, then they just end up saying you’re an astrologer or historian.  The technology becomes so matter of fact or irrelevant that you don’t count as a technomancer.  Or whatever the term is for the era.”

“Will that happen with your tech?”

“Computers are distinct enough, I don’t think so, not for my eventual apprentice, maybe not even for my apprentice’s apprentice.  But wait long enough and probably, yeah.  The world forgets laptops like this were a thing.  There are kids who are born in this era who’ve never seen a floppy disk, who don’t know what the save icon is meant to represent.”

Everyone born in any era doesn’t know.  Because they’re babies,” Jessica said.

“You can see why we keep her around,” Zed said, giving Jessica an annoyed look.  “Keeping us square.”

“So that’s the big rundown.  What are you doing?” Verona asked.

“Certain arrangements of line and power suggest certain arrangement of hallway and room.  With computer architecture on one end, this laptop I’ve customized so the circuits and boards form their own specific, signature diagram, and then surveillance footage on the other end, I can push power to the right places, draw lines, and push a space into being.  As Ray likes to say, it’s going to be fragile, it’s going to be fleeting, or it’s going to be weak, pick two.”

“You created a phantasmal building or whatever to hunker down in, when the Blue Heron thing got bad,” Verona noted.

“Yeah.  What I’m doing is like that.  I’m in a weird position where I don’t want to hurt the Witch Hunters, but I also really don’t want to be too much on Musser’s bad side.  I think I can be involved, but if I attacked him or worked against him directly, I think that’d be trouble.”

“If the Witch Hunters don’t get him,” Verona said.  “That’s… a possibility, isn’t it?”

“This security camera system erases the tapes.  Makes things harder.  You want to field this one, Jessica?”

“I guess,” Jessica said.

Verona wondered how this would go, because Jessica wasn’t a big talker.

Apparently assholes were something that got her talking.  “Musser is a taker.  He takes power, he takes familiars, he takes implements, he takes demesnes.  He takes things people think are safe and he’s very mindful of doing all the while.  Bristow was a collector, an important distinction, because he wasn’t on guard for Alexander taking Tanner from him.  Tanner was an Aware, could read the writing on the wall…”

“Yeah, we got the gist, student guide and everything.”

“Good.  A collector has to be very wary, at all times, because it’s very easy to bring the wrong piece into your collection and ruin everything.  The counterfeit, the cursed, the tricky things and people.  As a taker, same idea.”

“Being careful about what he takes?”

“He’s very unwilling to take shit, to take insubordination, any of that.  He takes selectively, he won’t take just any implement.  He’s always building an image.  He holds himself up as a breed above and unfortunately, we live in a world where far too many out there, Other and human, will see that and go along with it.”

Zed spoke without taking his eyes off the code.  “Which goes back to the question.  Will the Witch Hunters get him?”

“I don’t think so,” Jessica said.

“Neither do I,” Zed added.

“Then… why not say something when we were bringing the Witch Hunters in?” Verona asked.

“Because there are reasons to let them in and deal with the chaos that aren’t outright killing or scaring off Musser,” Zed said.  He finished typing, pushed the laptop back and away, and sighed.  “If you didn’t do anything, I think he’d trample over everything you’re doing here, trample over you, enslave your Others, and inject his own methodology into whatever it is that’s happening at summer’s end.”

“Right,” Verona muttered.

“If you can scare him off, that’s great, but I wouldn’t count on it,” Zed told her, looking her in the eyes.  “And it might even be more of a problem, depending.”

“A headmaster killed, another ruined, a third humiliated?” Jessica asked.  “Too many power systems in the various families lean on these guys.  They might start feeling threatened.”

Systems, power systems, families, expectations…

Verona sighed.

“In an ideal world, the Witch Hunters keep Musser out of your hair long enough for you to do what you need to do, and this-” Zed indicated the laptop, “should help with the Witch Hunter situation.”

“Creating hallways and rooms?”

“Yeah.  In a pinch.  I was trying to get at this earlier, but Avery was itching to go to Raquel.  You guys don’t really have a plan.  I don’t want to be a drag, here, but it’s not one of your strengths.”

“Planning?”

“Strategy,” Zed said.  “I think that’s the big difference between practitioners like Ray and practitioners like the guy we were dealing with last spring who got eaten by his computer.  It’s something I’ve been working on.  Going by how Brie and I were really at the helm for the fight against the Hungry Choir, I think I’m only halfway there.”

“Hm,” Verona made a sound, to let him know she was listening, but she didn’t know what to say.

“You’ve got a thousand things going on, you’re handicapped, and you’re pretty new to this.  I don’t want to come across like I’m ragging on you.  I don’t know what you want to do, big picture, where you see yourself in the future…”

“I’d like to be someone who can teach at the Blue Heron.  Good at something, or a little good at everything, with my own angle.  Just gotta… figure out what that is.”

“Well, if you want to be closer to those like Alexander or Ray or Musser, ideally without the problematic parts…”

“Ideally,” Jessica said, watching the Witch Hunters going about their business.

They were moving cases from the car to the motel rooms.  Haris and Clint were smoking and talking, while keeping an eye on the nearby foot traffic and passing cars.  Elise was giving instructions, mostly aimed at guiding the younger ones.

“If you want to be on their level or if you want to approach that level, you’d want to be someone who can approach a situation with a plan and then carry it out.  With Bristow it felt like you had the end result you wanted and you forced that.  And since he was always someone who was going to self destruct somehow… that went well.  Alexander looked too far to the future and forgot the immediate moment.  I think your instincts are stellar, but that only gets you so far.”

“Okay,” Verona told him.

Her phone rang.

Avery was on her way back.

“Brie’s safe,” Verona reported.  “John took a bullet to the head, so he’s moving a bit slower.  They’re coming here.”

“Good,” Zed said.  “What are your-”

A message came through on his flip phone, and was put on the screen by way of the adapters.  From Brie, almost a minute after Avery.

Verona waited for the question.

Zed read and reread the message, even though it only really said Brie was okay, then closed the window.  He looked at Verona.  “What are your priorities?”

“Protect my friends, protect some key people, protect Kennet, protect the local Others, some key ones in particular, ummm…”

“Lots of protecting,” Jessica said.  “Not that that’s a bad thing.”

“I want to get un-gainsaid.  I want to not be grounded, I want to make it through the end of summer.  I want to stop the bad guys.  Each of those things has a bunch of little add-on extras of things I need and want.”

“You might need to organize by priority,” Zed said.  “Do triage.  Do you know what that is?”

“Yeah.  Matthew- you know Matthew.  Yeah, he explained that.  Damage control.”

“Figuring out who and what you need to save, above all else, what you’re willing to let go.  Would you be willing to be gainsaid for the next few years if it got you clear of this?”

“I’d have a whole bunch of questions before I agreed to a deal like that.”

“It’s not a deal, it’s… reality, you know?  When things get bad you might have to make split-second decisions and it really helps if you’ve already framed everything in your head, one way or the other.  It could help you decide where you need to be or where you need to put your energy.  What comes in what order?”

“I think you’re way overestimating how organized I am.”

“It’s good practice and it’s good Practice,” Zed told her.

Verona groaned.  “When you say it like that…”

“Maybe internalizing that kind of need for prioritization of energy is where you need to put your energy, to start.”

The rev of a motorcycle was audible.  Cleo returned, much the same as before, but her jacket was off.  She parked the bike and wore the helmet up until she’d reached the door, at which point Haris reached for a gun at his waist.

Guilherme stood up, and Lucy shifted position, fingers knocking lightly on the window.

Yeah.

Cleo pulled off her helmet, and flashed a smile at Haris.  White teeth between lips with striking red lipstick, skin darker than Lucy’s, parted hair slicked down close to the scalp.

Verona wished Avery had taken the time to give them the rundown on this woman.

“Is she telling them about Avery, then?” Verona asked.

“Probably,” Jessica whispered.

Because Avery hadn’t texted them any info, and now the woman was telling other Witch Hunters that there were local practitioners and Others, probably… it put them in a bad spot.

Lucy came back inside, followed by Guilherme, who looked around with a generalized disdain.  “Avery messaged.”

“Me too,” Verona told her.  “I mean, she messaged me too.”

“Normally Avery would be back by now but if she’s going at Brie and John’s pace…”

“Yeah,” Verona replied.

“You guys okay?  What’ve you been up to?”

“Security,” Zed replied.  “Because-”

Jessica cleared her throat, angling her head.

“Because that,” Zed said, looking out the window.

The Witch Hunters were crossing the street, approaching them.

“Frig,” Verona said.

Zed hurried to pack up, pulling the cords out and putting them away, unplugging the laptop from the wall, pocketing the phone, then remained poised with laptop open, hand over the keys.

“We should run,” Lucy said.

Cleo wasn’t staying with the main group.  She pulled out, cut across the sidewalk, and drove her motorcycle out of sight.

“She’s going around behind,” Jessica said.  “She’ll be waiting at the back door.”

“We suspected this could happen.  They’re wary.  We’ve got tricks, right?” Verona asked Lucy and Guilherme.  “Glamour?”

“We do,” Guilherme replied, voice deep.  “But remember that they know I’m here.  They may be expecting glamour or illusion.”

“Stay put,” Zed said.  “Wait… and text our guys.  We don’t want them walking in unaware as the Witch Hunters come kicking the door in.”

“On it,” Lucy said, texting Avery.

The Witch Hunters were only twenty feet away, standing on the concrete divider between lanes, waiting for cars to pass.  The boy, Francis, was hanging back on the far side of the street, standing on the sidewalk.  Elise carried a large, long gym bag, and Haris wore a long coat that looked like it had to be unbearable in this heat.

The distant puttering of the motorcycle cut off.

They had weapons but they weren’t brandishing them.

“Stay put, stay put…” Zed murmured.

Verona made sure she had the dropped knife, tucked in a pocket with the handle sticking out.  She wasn’t sure if it helped.

Zed looked back at the counter.  “Guilherme, good sir, would you do me a favor?”

“What favor?”

“Stand beside Jessica at the window?  Shoulder to shoulder?  Jessica, stay put.”

The Witch Hunters crossed the last distance, got to the front door, and, from what Verona could see as she peeked between Jessica and Guilherme, hung back, letting Clint be the one to open the door.

She could see a bit of Clint and a bit of the door as he hauled it open-

-and a few feet away, the front door of the old music store remained closed.

“Damn,” Zed said.  “I hoped to catch more of them.”

“Catch?”

“Delay, slow them down.”

On the laptop, Clint held the front door open.  The image was not high fidelity, but it was clear he stood in a hallway of unpainted drywall, dark gray with white plaster or something smeared in between the individual segments.

“It’s fleeting and it’s fragile,” Zed noted.  “This construction only stands for the next two to five minutes.”

He hit a button.

On that blurry, low-framerate image, the door slammed, making Clint stumble back.

Clint was barely audible as he raised his voice, and his voice echoed a bit.  From inside the store, he sounded like he was outside.  Zed checked what looked like a traffic camera, with what appeared to be a partial view of the street leading up to the traffic lights, and the Witch Hunter gang was outside, hauling on the door and failing to open it.

Elise, the girl with the hood, the shaggy blonde hair, and the big bag, walked over to the window.  She peered into the window, cupping a hand to block the light as she brought her face close, squinting.

She didn’t seem to see them.

“Worth saying, everything I’ve heard about Witch Hunters says we should expect them to figure out this sort of thing a lot faster than you’d expect,” Zed said.

Lucy glanced at Verona, then told him, “When you say that, you make it sound like you’re going more on hearsay than personal experience.”

“I have very little personal experience and I was a bystander then,” Zed said.

“Never ran into one,” Jessica said.

“Right,” Lucy said.

“What are our options?  Could we force the back door route?” Verona asked.  “Or- there might be stairs going to upstairs apartments, above the shop.”

The girl at the window turned away, swayed a second, and then slammed the big bag into the store window, shattering it.  Glass flew inside, scattering across the floor and across the keys of Zed’s laptop.

“Shit!” Zed exclaimed.

“Get down!” Guilherme bellowed, and even though the bellow wasn’t aimed at her, Verona ducked low.  The guy at the counter, bewildered, candy falling out of his mouth, ducked behind the counter, out of sight.

And, as it happened, he no longer had a view of the hole in the window, and the drywall-lined passage on the far side.

Footsteps marched, approaching.

Zed shook keys free of glass, then typed.

Up until Clint showed up at the hole in the window.  The Witch Hunter’s voices called down, echoing through the false space.

Zed lifted up the laptop and carried it a few steps back.

“Here!” Clint called out, as he approached the window, jagged glass lining his makeshift entryway into the store.  Glass on their side, with a view of the outside, but on his side, it was broken drywall.  The image flickered momentarily.

Clint reached for a weapon.  Lucy reached for a chair with her right hand, necklace with her left.

He aimed, and she blocked with a plastic pitchfork, catching the pistol, his hand, and his wrist among the uneven tines, penetrating nothing, but grazing everything.

Clint shifted his grip, twisting, and nearly wrenched the weapon out of her grip.  Lucy seemed to want to keep him from aiming the gun, so she held on- but that only let him maneuver her close enough that he could grab her wrist.

He jerked her hard toward the window and the glass edges there.

Verona reached to catch her friend, but Guilherme was faster.  Moving forward, he moved Lucy’s hands away from her weapon, guided her aside, and then leaped the final step, hopping onto onto table and then stepping forward onto the shattered glass that was still in the window.

An old man Guilherme, wearing sandals, his weight distributed across three of the points of glass that pointed inward toward the break in the glass display window.  He remained there, poised, above Clint, one hand on the chair that was no longer a trident.

“Faerie,” Clint breathed the word.

“I am, and I’ve been around for a considerable time.  That makes me dangerous, Clint.”

Clint didn’t make any obvious movement, but some small motion of his hand made Guilherme adjust the chair, the legs held out so the back right leg and the front left leg were pressed against the top of the elbow and the bottom of the wrist, respectively.  Guilherme remained crouched on the edges of the foot-long bits of broken glass still attached to the window frame, as if he was the weight of a feather.  As Clint jerked, the glass wobbled and cracked slightly but didn’t break.

“I kill dangerous,” Clint replied.  “Faerie.”

He said that last word like he was swearing at Guilherme.

“I may be faerie but you’re a fool.  Faerie are immortal, fools pass early to serve as lessons for the wise.  Hold onto that gun and give it another firm tug and I can demonstrate.”

Zed carried his laptop away from the scene, put it on two rows of old CDs, and typed another line.  “Get ready, we’re going out the front door!”

“They’re out there!” Jessica called out.

“What’s going on!?” the guy hiding behind the counter shouted.

“Don’t look at them, Clint,” Guilherme said.  “If you have any inkling of what I am, you should know that even your undivided attention isn’t enough.  Pay close heed to me, and if I deign to leave you alive at the end of this, you’ll at least have learned a little something.”

Verona’s angle was such that she could see below Guilherme’s legs, with a bit of Clint’s face in evidence.

“I wouldn’t,” Guilherme said.

The hand that Clint wasn’t using to hold the gun went forward and out.  He grabbed Guilherme by the balls.

The glass beneath Guilherme shattered.  The chair clattered to the ground on the far side, Guilherme fell, nearly on top of Clint, and there was a momentary flurry of movement.

Guilherme seated himself in the chair as he descended.  One sandaled foot settled on Clint’s elbow, pinning gun-arm to floor, and the other rested atop a sliver of glass, which penetrated Clint’s throat dead center, just below the adam’s apple.  Clint made small choking sounds.

“That’s nonlethal, and it won’t affect your voice with the current placement,” Guilherme told him.  “That placement can change with one slight movement of my foot, turning the nonlethal to lethal, or removing your ability to speak.”

“Door’s open,” Zed said, closing his laptop.  “Front door.”

“Elise Norwood, stay where you are.  As you can see-”

Clint slammed his hand into the glass that was embedded into his throat, breaking it into three apparent pieces.  Gripping the middle piece, he slashed at Guilherme’s foot.  Guilherme raised his foot up to block the slash with the underside of his sandal.

“Verona!” Lucy shouted.

Clint lurched to his feet, and Guilherme gave him a helping foot, lifting a foot up, placing it in armpit, and bringing Clint staggering to his feet.  He brought his leg around, bringing Clint with it, and slammed Clint into the wall just by the window.

There was a gunshot, and it caught Clint rather than Guilherme.  Verona clapped her hands over her ears, backing up.  She saw Guilherme talking, holding Clint.

That was ill advised,” Guilherme told the Witch Hunters at the end of the fake hall.  “Go, Verona and Lucille, I’ll catch up.”

“Lucy, not Lucille!” Lucy called out, grabbing Verona’s wrist, running.

“Is that what’s important?” Verona asked.

They pushed the door open, and Verona hesitated.  The door led out to the hallway- the same one the Witch Hunters were in?

No.  It was empty, no holes, no people, just drywall and flickering lightbulbs that gave the area a greyish, desaturated look.

“End of the hall!” Zed called out.  “Hurry!  Before it collapses!”

Verona wasn’t good at hurrying.  Her bag was heavy at her back.  She was maybe in the best shape of her life, running around and going on hikes to shrines, but she wasn’t built for running, and even with gym class drills, she’d never felt like it was a natural way her body moved.  She was short, it made her chest hurt, she never felt like she got enough air-

She pushed herself and it wasn’t enough.  A grating buzz of a sound came from very far away to very near, in an alarming, disorienting way that seemed too fast, more like a car whooshing by at two hundred kilometers an hour than anything else.

The chainsaw cut through the drywall.  Bits of drywall on either side broke free, falling, and some broke like glass as they hit the floor.  An eye peered through the gap, tracking Verona and Lucy as they ran up to it, then past it.

The chainsaw remained protruding from the wall, and began to draw a line down the length of it, matching their speed at first, then speeding up.  More and more fragments of growing size began to come free.

What happens if this world breaks down while we’re in it? Verona thought.

It was clear the idea had been for the Witch Hunters to be in one hallway that existed in the middle space between the front of the store and the interior of the store, while they traversed a similar one, overlapping.  But Elise the Witch Hunter was cutting her way through.

Yeah, like Zed had said, they figured out these things fast.  Good instincts.

Maybe I should’ve been a Witch Hunter, Verona thought, before immediately dismissing the idea.

She couldn’t imagine anything more miserable than killing all the magic in the world.

That thought gave her a bit of clarity, not in the practical way, but in bringing her thoughts away from panic panic run run I hate running and toward herself again.

She could hear running footsteps echoing down a hallway that wasn’t this one.

Haris threw himself into and through the broken wall, leaping from that hallway to this one.

Lucy’s hand, still holding Verona’s wrist, trying to tug her forward, let go.  The cracks surrounded them, and they were separated.

The broken hallway tilted, and Haris remained on Lucy’s side.  Verona slipped, falling backward, as up and down ceased to make sense.

She banged backwards into the door, metal framing around glass, and it swung open with her weight.  She landed on her back across the rubber welcome mat just inside the music store.  She could see the regular old outside through the gap in the moment before the door closed.

The Witch Hunter Elise stepped out from around the corner, grabbed the door, and hauled it open, as Verona flipped over and scrambled into the aisle, ducking low behind a collection of CDs.

She licked her lips, going over her options.

“How many of them are inside?”

It was the old man’s voice.  Haris.

“One.”

“One in the hand is better than two in the bush.”

“There’s more than two in that bush,” Elise said.  Her footsteps were loud.  “How many have to be in the bush before you decide to go for the bush instead of securing your grip?”

“Are you setting up a dirty joke, Elise?  I don’t brook that nonsense.”

“Wow,” Elise said.  “It was a legitimate question.  At what point do we start saying the universe is handing us our targets?  If they’re all lined up neat and tidy over there…”

“God, not the universe.”

“It’s a shorthand, Haris.  Call it God, call it something else, something’s acting on our behalf, setting this up, protecting us.”

“He protects us.  It’s spelled out in the book, if you’d only read it.  He chooses champions against servants of evil.”

Verona crawled to the end of the aisle and sat with her back to a shelf of old music devices. Vintage walkmans and tape players, a record player for small, half-sized vinyls, with some of the vinyls taking up shelf space.  She tried not to bump it so that things would rattle.

“Can we keep to the neutral, open-to-interpretation version, and apply our takes after the fact, so we’re not infighting over it?”

“Not if it’s wrong and willfully turning away from Him.  There’s a bible in the motel room.  You should read it.  It might serve you when the next fight doesn’t go our way.”

Verona did her best to catch her breath, gulping in air and trying not to make noise while she did it.   The landing had knocked some air out of her, and she’d been sprinting before, which hadn’t left her much to begin with.

“I have my god, you have your God-”

“You’re nettling me now.  We’ve been down this road.”

Verona could track their general directions by their voices, and knew they were each going down separate aisles, leaving her nowhere to run.  She leaned over, halfway expecting to see the guy from the cash behind the counter still, but he’d fled.

“My faith rests wholly on Blessed Wobbles, the oversized pink dildo, mounted on a broom handle-”

“Stop, Elise.”

“And if you want to shove your god down my throat, I’ll shove mine down yours.  How’s that?”

Haris made a groaning, grumbling sound.

“You know if I actually tried I could.”

“Don’t be vulgar.”

Verona could run to the door back there, but if it was barred or locked she’d be utterly and completely screwed.

She pulled out her phone, and messaged Zed.

Me:
In store.  2WH.

“You smell any civilians?” Elise asked.

“In the back, hiding in the toilet.  In here, there’s just one spooked little girl.  She’s got grit, hasn’t pissed herself.  Breathing under control, doesn’t reek of fear sweat.”

“Hey kid!” Elise called out.

Verona remained silent.  She pulled her bag around to her lap.

“You keep bad company, don’t you?” Elise asked.

Haris already knew where she was.  She could imagine them exchanging hand signals.

“I sure hope you don’t mean my super cool friend with the slicked back hair.  Are you biased against cool people, Elise Norwood?” Verona called out.

“Not him.”

“I sure hope you don’t mean my friends of color.  Are you racist, Elise?”

“Keep going.  We’ll get there.”

They were getting closer.

Verona eased her prize out of her bag.  It was wrapped in newspaper and plastic, and she didn’t want the plastic to rustle too much.

She peeled plastic away from the end, picking at it with fingers.

It was the grungy keyboard, liberated from Brie back when Brie had been spying on Kennet, then kept with Zed’s agreement, as a way of keeping the peace.

They hadn’t brought it with them to the Blue Heron Institute, because, frankly, it was a really gross keyboard.  Some goblin had probably found it as their prize, a keyboard grosser than a million other keyboards out there.  Food drippings gone moldy, people drippings gone moldier, crumbs, corroded plastic, leaking battery acid.

Nobody wanted that in their bags, so it had stayed home.  And it hadn’t seen much use otherwise.

Verona only had it for one reason now: it was a bit of power.  And it was power she could use while gainsaid.  Just like Charles had created the Choir using tools he’d made prior, despite being Forsworn, she could use this now.  She gripped it, and even with three layers of plastic bag as a barrier, she could feel the plastic of the bag slide against the hard plastic of the keyboard by way of some intervening layer of grease and fluid.  Dry crusty layers broke up and slid on oily ones.

“Haris and Clint think that was a Faerie.  That leaves three options,” Elise said, filling the void left by Verona’s silence.

Elise’s voice wasn’t coming closer anymore.

They’d heard the plastic.

Was it better to buy time and wait, or to rush things and secure her position?  If she waited, maybe Zed could help, giving her an escape route, and she’d only need to buy a moment.

If she waited, more Witch Hunters could show up, and her position would be worse.

The recent conversation with Zed made the decision feel even more overwhelming than the mere question of her life and safety.  What was her strategy?  This wasn’t about finding a singular answer.  That-

If she was ever a teacher in front of the Blue Heron or a place like it, she wanted to be a cool teacher, not a…

Not a grizzled one, scarred, talking about the ‘don’t do’s more than the ‘dos’, from bad experience.

The grungy keyboard worked by destroying something of value.  There were records but she couldn’t be sure of the value.  There were some old music players and devices right behind her, but… all lower value, defunct.  A record player in less than mint condition over at the far end of the store, up near the front.

That was one priority.  It could potentially be what got her out of there.  The grungy keyboard needed something of value, she just had to spot it.  A dropped phone, maybe the cash register- but she wasn’t sure how much damage she could do to that.

She needed out.  That was a priority.

She had the enter key.  It would let her escape if she could jam it into a power socket, but it would also potentially kill her.  She couldn’t think of any great options, except maybe a trap for the Witch Hunters.

Too risky, especially when they, as Zed had noted and proved, figured things out too quickly.

Dog tag?  She was worried Lucy needed John.  If Lucy wasn’t here right now she had to trust that it was because she was fighting her own battle.

John was an emergency thing.

“I’m just trying to keep my town safe,” Verona told them.

“By consorting with the Faerie?” Haris asked.  Didn’t sound like he was drawing any closer.

“On that note, I don’t suppose you guys know who sent you that anonymous tip about our town?  Or sent it to Raphael?”

“You met Raphael, of course,” Elise said.

“Nope, wrong,” Verona said, privately hoping that counted a little.  “I was out of town.  What I’m asking is… who tipped Raphael off?  And would it change how you’re approaching all of this if it was a Faerie plot?”

“I don’t like the sound of that.  Should I drown it out with the sound of bullets?” Haris said.

And he sounded closer than before.  For a big old dude, he could move without making much noise.  Verona scrambled-

The chainsaw revved, and Elise was there, a few steps away.  Verona backed off with enough of a reversal in direction that she landed on her rear end.  The keyboard bonked on the floor and shed flakes of black and baked-bean brown.  The roar and the implication that Elise was willing to use the chansaw as a weapon threatened to drive all rational thought out of Verona’s mind.

She focused, eyes going wide.

Priority one, getting out.

The grungy keyboard was one of the only good tools she had at her disposal, for that.  She had one of the dropped knives, and she had the broken Jammer.

She was pretty sure the jammer wouldn’t do much if she got into a knife fight with either of these guys.

Secondary priority, background, Musser, defeating Musser.

Another secondary priority, getting un-gainsaid.

Third big one, if she had to list them, she had to keep an eye out for chances to figure out what was going on with the new Others.  If Rook was right and there was an ulterior motive for each, that might be their best bet at unraveling whatever was coming at the end of Summer.

But for this… she had to get out.  She rose up a bit-

Haris had a gun.  He stood over what were for him waist-high shelves and his arm went out- she didn’t wait to see if he was aiming at her or if he was going to shoot.

The gunshots were loud enough that her instincts were to cover her ears, even though she was scrambling enough that she needed hands to crawl-scamper forward.

Verona ducked low, behind a shelf that came up to her armpit, with a bit more sticking up – a thin barrier of wood for signs and labels to hang on.

The signboard broke, labels fluttering.

And Elise’s chainsaw went out, sticking into the base of the wooden shelving that held the boxes of records up at chest height.  Wood splinters kicked and went flying.

Verona attacked- not Elise, but the chainsaw.  She swung the keyboard underhand to parry and block it, catching the keyboard in the teeth.  Plastic was tugged and torn free and hauled into the machinery, and the outer casing of the keyboard broke like thick eggshell, shedding liquefied machinery and other goop.

Verona caught the gross end of the keyboard in her hands, holding it steady and keeping it from being pulled out of her hands, ensuring that the chainsaw wouldn’t just move or get thrust in her direction.  In the heat of the moment, vibration traveling up her arms, flecks of gross keyboard dappling her face, hair, and upper body, all sound dropped away.  Chainsaw bit into bones near the core of the keyboard.

Guilherme was standing back there, watching without intervening.

She could hear Haris behind her, and remembered the gun.

The chainsaw stopped abruptly enough that it kicked, more or less, both Verona and Elise stumbling as the stances and adjustments they’d made to counteract the movement of the blades were suddenly overcompensation.

Haris opened fire on Guilherme, who ducked low.  Verona’s hearing felt screwed up, the store suddenly too quiet in the moments between those too-loud shots, but she could hear Guilherme running despite how low he was to the ground.

Elise used the distraction to kick Verona.  Verona fell back, choosing to fall harder instead of bracing against the fall and risking letting the gross keyboard land on top of her.

“You okay, Haris?”

“It’s a fucking Faerie, nothing’s okay!”

The Witch Hunter pulled plastic bag out of the chainsaw chain, made an adjustment at the side, and then hauled on the starter handle.  It chugged for a half second and then aborted.

Verona picked herself up, panting for breath, spitting to get the flecks of stuff from the keyboard off of her lips so she wouldn’t breathe them in.  She was pretty sure she could taste one crumb of something, and the taste of it filled her mouth.

“What do we call you?  Were you the ones spreading those creepy smiles?” Elise asked.  “Your own unique way of keeping innocents out of it?”

Verona didn’t comment, catching her breath, sore and worried.  One hand remained pressed over her ear, in case Haris shot again, while she kept shelves between herself and him.

Flimsy plywood, painted teal that had taken on a brown-ish dinge in the cracks a long time ago.  It wouldn’t stop a bullet, she was pretty sure.

“Elise!” Haris grunted.  “She doesn’t smell as scared as she should!”

“Sometimes they’re like that.  They put the fear aside.”

“I’ve done that,” Verona said.

“That ugly keyboard is tech, so’s the chainsaw!” Haris grunted, as Guilherme pushed him up against a wall.  He punched ineffectually, Guilherme moving arm and elbow to deflect each punch as it came, smiling.  “Get rid of it!”

Hopefully a chainsaw that a Witch Hunter loved and carried with her to multiple places and took apparent good care of was worth something, right?

Elise, mid-tug on the starter, seemed to grasp the sentence’s meaning at the last second.  She let go of the chainsaw, her arm still in motion to pull, and whipped it away by the handle and the cord she’d been pulling on, hurling it across the store.

Besides, the keyboard was a goblin tool, and the chainsaw felt like a goblin-aligned weapon.  If gremlins wanted anything to work with, then it should be this, right?

The chainsaw kicked to life, purring violently, then hit the floor and detonated.  Chain whipped out and slashed a box of records, and fragments of the chainsaw kicked CDs and tapes off of shelves, sending them and the broken plastic that had housed them skittering across tile.  The record that Zed had put on a while ago that had stopped playing several minutes back was kicked up and off of the player that housed it, flipping over a few times before shattering on the floor.

“Nice try,” Elise said.

Priority one, she had to escape.

Priority two, defeating Musser.

Priority three, getting un-gainsaid.

Priority four, figuring out the background stuff that might help with the Carmine conspiracy.

None of that applied except getting out.

It helped her to focus, to put other thoughts out of mind, like a mantra.  Now she knew she just needed out.

“You okay, Guilherme?” Verona asked.

“The stench of that machine is filling my nose, slowing me down,” Guilherme grunted.

“You and me both, old man,” Gerald Haris growled in Guilherme’s face.  He was taking on a more aggressive fighting style.

“I’d worry about yourself,” Elise said, staring at Verona.  “I liked that one.  I had it for a while.  I’m a bit pissed off, now.”

There was movement behind Elise.  The sun was dipping below the mountains to the west, while the shop faced north, so the light was diffuse and came in at a low angle.  The shadows were similarly vague, small in size, and belonged to bodies that were staying out of sight.

Elise seemed to notice.  “Did that keyboard hatch something?  Infect my chainsaw?  A little space-themed techno-horror?”

“No comment,” Verona told her.

“I’m having a harder and harder time telling myself that maybe you’re one of the ones we can suffer to live.”

“I think if you say that stuff you’re automatically the bad guy,” Verona replied.

Things clattered in the back corner of the store.

Right now, Verona was pretty sure the right thing to do was wait.  Wait for a moment…

Maybe more Witch Hunters were coming, but for right now she trusted Guilherme to hold his own and she had the gremlins that had hatched from the grungy keyboard, doing their thing.

They weren’t necessarily her gremlins.  That was a problem too.  But she’d deal with that later.

They came out of the shadows, a group of four.  Three went for the nearest target- Elise.  They lobbed makeshift grenades.  One went wide, clipped a box of records, and detonated.  Elise wheeled away from that, saw the other two, and ducked beneath one, picking up a mostly empty box to whip it at the third.  The one open side of the cube-shaped box caught the little explosive and redirected it away.  It detonated mid air.

“Whoo!” one of the gremlins cheered, clapping uproariously.

Elise stomped on him, her foot skidding a short distance.  The other two goblins yelped and went to get more stuff.

“Gremlins!” Elise raised her voice.

“Rather a gremlin than a Fae!” Haris shouted, nearly in Guilherme’s face.  His nose was bleeding and the blood was turning his white beard red.

“Take that back,” Guilherme said.

Verona ducked low, taking advantage of Elise’s distraction to move behind a short aisle of kids music and DVDs, close to the door.  While out of Elise’s sight, she drew the dropped knife.

A small noise made her look up.  A gremlin with no teeth and screws worked through lips to serve as very wobbly ‘teeth’ peered down at her, holding an arrangement of a box cutter and springs that trembled with the force they held back.  Spring-loaded blade?

“No,” Verona told it, shaking her head.

It nodded with emphasis, and whispered, “Yeph.”  The little screws worked through its lips rasped faintly and caught on one another as they rubbed against one another, lips closing and pulling apart.

Verona moved slowly, aware of Elise just twelve or so feet away.  Elise was watching Verona, watching the door, and watching out for the other two living gremlins, who were staying out of sight.

Verona called out, “You didn’t have to kill the little dude.  He was so proud of you for your trick with the explosive.”

“You’re demented,” Elise replied.

“Hey, gremlin dude…ette?” Verona asked, moving her head to check and make an educated guess for screw-lips.  “You’re on the wrong track.”

The gremlin narrowed her eyes.

By the door.  The headphones.  Verona grabbed some, checked, grabbed others.  “You guys like this stuff…”

She found some headphones like Lucy had described.  Sure enough, grosser than anything, with a crescent of what might have been accumulated earwax between the padding and the speaker part.

She hauled on the cord, showing the gremlin, and the gremlin swiped out with the blade, without triggering the launching part of the mechanism.

But she got its attention.  Using the dropped knife, she cut the cord, then handed the headphones to the gremlin.

I wonder if gremlins are the overlap between technomancy and goblins, Verona thought, as the goblin let its guard down.

“You’ve got speakers over here, you’ve got the music player, and you’ve got bins of awful music intended for children.  Awful, awful, awful music.  Look at this.  This actress is not destined to be a singer, as much as the gross family channel might want her to be.”

“What are you on about?” Elise asked.

“There’s so much you can do,” Verona whispered to the gremlin.  “And you’re using a spring loaded knife?  C’mon, dudette.  Step it up.”

The gremlin looked around, eyes still narrowed, suspicious.

“She stomped on your… compatriot, and here I am, I just want to empower you to be the most-”

Elise marched over.  Verona scrambled to keep the little shelf of kids CDs and DVDs between herself and the Witch Hunter.  Elise responded by planting a foot on the shelf and kicking it over.

The little gremlin launched the blade at Verona.

“-funny-horrible little shit you can be, so step it up!” Verona raised her voice.  She slashed her knife, not with any rhyme or rhythm, but to keep Elise from closing the distance or grabbing for her.

She nicked Elise’s fingers.  Elise pulled her hand back, blood droplets falling on the floor.

The gremlins fired something at Elise’s back, and the Witch Hunter wheeled around, kicking boxes of records from the top of shelf to the ground.  A gremlin scampered from wreckage to shadow.

“Have you seen the worst of what’s out there?” Elise asked.

“I’ve seen some horrible stuff, yeah,” Verona said.

“But the worst of it?  And not even demons, or the most cruel goblins or fae,” Elise said.  She kicked something in the direction of a gremlin.  To Verona’s right, screw-lips was climbing up into the little phone-booth-like stall where people could use gross headphones to listen to music.  There was a metal plate but the gremlin was climbing in through the gap in the underside.

“What’s worse than those things?” Verona asked, just to keep Elise talking.

“Those things… they don’t show up very often.  They keep their heads down, do their evil in shadows.  But the wrong people with too much power?  It’s everywhere, there’s no avoiding it.  And here we have something seriously wrong, Gerald can smell it, Clint can feel it, and humans are consorting with Faerie and gremlins in the same room?”

“We’re doing our job, bringing Others to justice, we just imprisoned one and exiled a couple more.  We’re genuinely trying to protect this town.  The guy with the car you totaled?  He might be the kind of person in power you’re talking about.”

The cord of the gross headphones was tugged up into the booth.  The headphones dangled and banged against the sheet metal that formed a three-quarter enclosure.

“I’ve been at this since I was about your age,” Elise told Verona.  “Sometimes a job every day for a week, sometimes a job every month.  Split that up into a fifty-fifty grouping of Others and practitioners that I have to deal with.”

“It’s been pretty hectic here too.”

“Every damn one of you, excepting a number I can count on one hand, made really good sounding arguments.  Even the utter monsters proclaimed innocence or made justifications.  Some pointed to people who were worse, some claimed they needed eternal life, that it wasn’t fair that they were going to die young.  There’s always- fuck off!”

Elise kicked backwards and connected directly with one of the two gremlins behind her.  It went flying.

“There’s always something,” Elise said.  She drew closer, and Verona swiped.

The little music booth sputtered, static coming out of the speakers and headphones.  The screw-lips gremlin scampered along the surface, pulling wires behind it, wrapping it around the face of the machine.

“Maybe there’s something to that something?” Verona asked.  “If all these dozens of people you meet are making really good sounding arguments, maybe there’s a kernel of truth to it all?”

“No.  Get past all that and it’s selfishness,” Elise said.  “People clinging to power.”

Lick lick lickety lick-” the music played.  The sound warped and distorted.  “Lick my pick up stick-“

Verona held the knife out, one hand over her ear, protecting it against the music as she had against the gunfire.  She flicked the knife as Elise grabbed for her wrist.

Lick lick lickety split.  Lick our broom stick.”

The music distorted, the heavy autotune dropping away into anti-autotune or something.  The voice went from kids singing pop to something guttural.  It sounded like the earwax headphones had looked.

“Lick lick lickety lick.  Lick my lipstick.”

Guilherme stepped away from Haris.  Haris leaned against the wall, bleeding in multiple places, the side of his head and his beard painted red with blood, his eyes holding a level glare.

It didn’t look like the old man wanted to go down.

Verona pulled her phone out to check.  She hadn’t even felt the vibration of the incoming message.

Zed:
Front door.

The volume rose.  “Lick lick lickety slick.  Lollipops, don’t make me stop.  More lollipops don’t make me stop.  More lollipops don’t make me stop.  More lollipops don’t make me stop.”

Verona wasn’t sure if that was the gremlin or the actual music.

“I think a world without magic would be pretty sad,” Verona told the Witch Hunter.

“Magic made that sound,” Elise said, indicating the booth that was producing the music.

Booths, plural.  A second booth was now playing music, slightly out of sync with the first.

“Lick lick, lickety split, lick it up, lick it quick!”

“It started with humans.  Humans are supposed to fix it and steer it so it doesn’t get this bad,” Verona said.  “I think humans are the source of a lot of it.”

“Lick lick, lickety slick, lick it up, don’t let it drip!”

“Humans can be the end of it too, then,” Elise growled.  She glanced around for the one goblin who wasn’t in the music device who she hadn’t killed yet.

“Nah,” Verona told her, “I don’t like that.”

“No?”

The guttural voice lapsed into children’s singing again, a little too high-pitched.  “Lick lick, lickety quick, lick my… ummm… chopsticks!”

“Are you really ending anything?” Verona asked.

“Are you?  Fuckers can live forever, sometimes.  Or they live such short lives they don’t care outside of the moment.  And the rest of us have to live in the middle of all that.  Or you do like you did and sign some screwed up contract to sell your humanity.”

“Lick lick, lickety split, lick my lipstick!  You sang that already, Danny!  Hahahahaha!”

Verona flinched and covered her ear as a gunshot went off.  It looked like Guilherme had started to cross the room, only for Haris to pull out another gun.  Guilherme wrestled with the gun.

Elise had barely reacted to the shot.

“I feel like you’re less human than I am,” Verona told her.  “And man, I’m pretty sure I’m not that attached to my humanity, compared to the average gal.”

“Lick lick lickety spit!  Lick my fish sticks!”

“I give you a C, compared to all the lines and arguments I’ve heard,” Elise said.

“Lick lick lickety- lollipop!  More lollipops don’t make me stop.  More lollipops don’t make me stop!  More lollipops don’t make me stop!”

“Huh.  In my defense, I’m just a kid.”

“True.  C-plus.  Unstated implication you were manipulated into this.  You know how we deal with manipulation?”

More lollipops don’t make me stop.  More lollipops don’t make me stop!  More lollipops don’t make me stop!”

“Brute forc-” Verona started to reply.

Elise lunged.  Verona ducked, slashing with her knife- but she hit only air.

Elise went for the music player first.  Her foot caved in the metal and wiring, shorting out the music.

Priority: escape.

Verona had ducked, and now she ran, straight for the door.

She hauled it open, and a hand caught the door.

She twisted around, knife ready, looking back the way she’d come.

Guilherme leaned into her.  Leaves, wood, boxes, records, and bits of shelf were airborne, flipping through the air.  Guilherme’s hair was wild, shirt torn, a cut at his neck that looked like it had come millimeters away from ending him.

The gunshot flashed what felt like a full second before Verona heard it.

She registered the passage of the shot through airborne shelf, boxes, metal, and other things before she realized it had struck the doorframe, just by her temple.  Her eyes slammed shut as the impact cut through the air to touch her face.  Eyelid closed on splinter.

Guilherme pushed her through the door.

Elise gave the music player a backwards kick, silencing it again, before striding forward.

“Lick, lick, lickety-slick-!”

The door closed, and promptly fritzed out of existence.  The distorted music mercifully ended.

“We don’t have long,” Verona told Guilherme.  “I don’t know when he sent the text.”

“Run.”

They ran down the empty hallway.  There was a door at the end, bright red.

Guilherme reached it first and pushed it open.

The exit took them onto a rooftop.  Wind blew, and Verona was beaded in sweat, which made that wind feel amazing.

Lucy and Avery were there too, with Zed, Brie, Jessica, Toadswallow, and Gashwad.

“You’re okay,” Lucy said.  “I was starting to worry.”

“You guys okay?” Verona asked.

“Cleo came after me,” Lucy said.  “Avery intervened.”

“Side mirror from a car, courtesy of Toadswallow,” Avery said.  “If she catches herself in that camera, it keeps her from using it to get you.”

“Could’ve used the help if you had any to spare,” Verona told them.

“We wanted to,” Lucy said.  “They thought it was a bad idea, that we’d get trapped.  We’ve been taking turns trying to lure Witch Hunters away.”

“They caught on,” Avery told Verona.  “They stopped taking the bait and fell back this way.  So we had to apply other pressures.”

Verona huffed, both from the running and from vague upset.

She got her bearings, looking around and placing herself in the downtown area by way of landmarks, before moving to the roof’s edge.

She could see the people standing around, smiling, and she could see the children from the Hungry Choir.  A bunch of Witch Hunters were keeping them away from the store.

“Thanks for trying, Brie,” Verona said.

“You’re alive, it’s good, I’m glad,” Toadswallow said.

“Ugh,” Verona coughed.  “I need a shower.”

“Haris’s nose won’t be smelling anything for the next week, at the very least,” Guilherme said.  “I boxed his ear, stressed his joints.”

“You could have stabbed the man,” Toadswallow said.

“Perhaps.  I thought we’d rather have them around, to keep Musser’s group occupied.”

“Musser is situated just outside town, to the west.  Kennet isn’t upscale enough for his tastes, but he found a cabin suitable to his needs,” Toadswallow said.  “The upside is that he’s out there, not here.  The downside is he’ll have less opportunities to run into the Witch Hunters.”

“Until we tip them off,” Lucy said.

“They might see through that,” Verona said.

“I don’t want Musser comfortable.  If he’s going to hang out here and get involved, we need to make that as much of a pain as possible,” Lucy said.  “Witch Hunters, goblins, anything.”

“Agreed,” Toadswallow said.  “The trick lies in doing it without inviting more hassle, as we faced today.  When they set their sights on us, they’re not harassing him.  Matthew would encourage you to hang back at this point.  Reassess, let others handle things.”

Verona hissed her displeasure at that.

“We’re still technically grounded,” Lucy said.

“Yeah, for sure,” Verona replied.

“I hate it too.”

“Jabber is going to run out of medicine for the innocents of Kennet,” Toadswallow said.  “Guilherme, would you be a dear?  We should rid the area of them.”

“Actually… can someone else?” Verona asked.

“You have a use for this oaf?”

Verona nodded.

“I’ll round up goblins.  We’ll see what we can do,” Toadswallow said.

“There’s a gremlin with screw lips in the music store, and possibly one other she wasn’t able to kill.  From the keyboard,” Verona said.

She looked back at her bag, with the keyboard jammed in it.  The bag would need to be cleaned five times before she felt okay using it, and it might even be unsalvageable.  The keyboard looked like it was regenerating from the damage.

“I’ll send them away.”  Toadswallow disappeared off the side of the roof, other goblins appearing and disappearing to go with.

Zed, Jessica, and Brie remained at the far corner of the rooftop.  Verona sorted herself out, taking water from Avery and pouring it over herself to get rid of some of the gunk.

“I heard you speculating aloud to the Witch Hunters,” Guilherme said.

“Yeahhh,” Verona said.

“Lucy hinted, in her line of questioning.  That, in combination with you wanting time to ask me questions alone?  You gave it away,” Guilherme told Verona.

“I wasn’t about to try and keep it a secret.  Secrets are a Faerie thing,” Verona said.  “No headway, Lucy?”

“I think Guilherme knows and understands me too well.  No luck.”

“Ave?”

“Didn’t try.  Mostly focused on you being trapped in a building with Witch Hunters.”

Verona nodded.

She looked over at Guilherme.

“Ask,” he said.

“Can I call you old man winter?  For the sake of-”

“Of being cruel?” Guilherme asked.

“Not- no.  That wasn’t the intent,” Verona told him.  “I’m going to ask you upfront.  Did you call the first Witch Hunter in?”

“Someone figured it out and told you.”

“Did you?  Just to confirm?”

“Yes,” Guilherme answered.

“Why?”

“For schemes and plots.  To set things in motion for greater purposes here, ones you’d agree with if you and I had the time to go over the totality of it.”

“Can you give us the scheme and plot in twenty words or less?” Avery asked.

“No.”

“Okay,” Avery said.  “Because I got a crack on the head that had me in pain for a long while.”

“That was not the aim, only a casualty of the plan,” Guilherme said.

“I was whimpering because it hurt so bad… Snowdrop can verify.”

“You can’t lie without being gainsaid.  That’s enough for me.”

“But Snowdrop was there.  I mean, Snowdrop was there and taking care of me and where were you?”

“Taking care of Kennet.”

“You- no,” Avery said.  “Lucy got hurt, in all of that.  Chloe went after her.”

“Maricica twisted things, I tried to minimize the damage.”

Lucy shook her head.

“I, as much as I’m loathe to admit it, got hurt as well.  Edith, Chloe, and Raphael got me at different times.  I was a casualty too.”

“But you did this,” Verona pressed.  “You set this in motion and you’re not explaining why.”

“It would take too much time.  The more I try to give context, these days, the more impatient Toadswallow gets with me.  Even John had words.”

“They’re here now because you did that before.  Was that the goal?” Verona asked.

“Again, painting the goals out in full-”

“That’s a cop-out,” Lucy said.  “Summarize.  If you’re that clever, summarize.”

“Two hundred and twelve years ago, in a dark summer court, a walled city ruled by-”

“Today, not two hundred years ago,” Lucy said.  “Start with today.”

“It’s relevant.  Those events two hundred years ago formed a foundation and a pattern that reinforces what happens now.”

“Leave that out, let’s assume there are patterns.”

“Six hundred and fifty years back, a pair of High Summer Fae were with me-”

“That’s the wrong direction,” Avery said.  “You’re going further back in time.”

“It’s the same device, the same plot, if I’m to abbreviate, can I not paint the situation with these past events and how they unfolded as allegory?” Guilherme asked.

“Okay,” Verona said.  A frustrated Lucy and confused Avery looked over.  Verona added, “Short version?”

“Six hundred and fifty years back, with several weeks and months in change, in a different court system, a pair of High Summer Fae were with me.  We were drunk, we caroused outside the gates of a High Spring court palace, singing songs and bidding dames to come out.  Each with their own reasons for doing so.  Subterfuge, to make others jealous, to gather secrets for the keeping, or to share them out into the world…”

“Are they an allegory for Maricica, for the record?” Verona asked.

Guilherme looked annoyed.  “No.  No, they’re not an allegory for anything particular here.

Lucy made a frustrated sound.

“Can you leave it out then?” Verona asked, trying to understand.

“They’re tied into the three other tales I’d tell, which, as much as I try to abbreviate, would take two days and two nights to spell out, with all these interruptions and complaints.”

“Why is it so important that you tell all four stories?”

“Six stories, with derivative tales and such, linked to the base four.  Seven if I want to include a lesson in the telling.”

“But why?”

“They’re inexorably linked,” Guilherme replied.  He touched the wound at his neck and frowned at the blood on his fingers.  “To me and to one another.”

“What’s it you guys said to me?  That the longer I was explaining I was okay, the less convinced you were?” Avery asked.

“Yeah,” Verona said.

“I’m getting the feeling they’re not that linked.”

Guilherme shook his head.  “They are, or let me be forsworn.”

“Is it possible they’re linked that way…” Verona struggled to find a gentle way of putting it and settled on a less gentle way.  “…because you’re falling to Winter?”

“How would you feel, child, if I reminded you at every opportunity that you’re mortal and speeding toward your own demise, in what would be an eyeblink to me?”

“Is it possible?” Lucy asked.

Guilherme shook his head, and started to reply, before he made himself stop.

The wind whipped past them, and Verona closed her eyes, glad for the drenching in water she’d given herself, for sweat.  It was too hot; living with a human body was hard sometimes.  She was sore and tired and the cool-down from the intensity of being inside that music store, the distorted song still playing in her head, it wasn’t helped by this situation, which was tense in a completely different way.

“I want to say no, but a lifetime of avoiding forswearing or gainsaying myself has me forced to admit it’s possible.  I don’t think it’s the case,” Guilherme said.

“Is it possible this scheme doesn’t go anywhere big?” Verona asked.  “That you’re… playing out some story again, too used to the outcomes, expecting them to be the same, even though all the pieces aren’t there?”

Guilherme peered at her through the hair in his face.  The words were stern, reluctant.  “It’s possible.  I don’t think it’s the case.”

“You said us being hurt wasn’t part of the calculating and scheming you did when you put this into motion,” Lucy said.

“I did, and that was truth.”

“Isn’t it weird that it wasn’t?” Lucy asked.  “Isn’t that shortsighted?  An incomplete scheme?”

“Relatively fresh off the oaths you made to us?” Verona asked.

“It would have been for the greater good, for your greater benefit.”

“How?” Verona asked.  “Where, when, why?  How do you know that if you didn’t consider the harm you were doing, to balance it against?”

Guilherme looked frustrated.  He touched the cut on his neck and gave an annoyed look to the blood on his fingers as he brought them forward.

“I can’t explain it in full.  I can tell you I’m fond of you three, in various ways.  One of you my student, one a girl who straddles the line of summer and fall, and the last of you three a girl with some faerie talent with glamour to her, if she’d only hone it and stop using goblin tools.”

“I’m fond of you too, Guilherme,” Lucy said.  She looked concerned, and Guilherme saw that look and looked away, shaking his head.  Lucy took a step forward.  “I’m not fond of this… thing you did.  It’s shortsighted and that doesn’t seem very you.  You brought trouble to Kennet.”

“Would you bind me?”

“Do you want me to?” Lucy asked, quiet.

“No,” Guilherme said, voice hard.  “I’m not a fool, Lucille Ellingson.  Don’t be graceless.  Pay attention to tone and meaning.  I’m asking you, are you so offended that you’d take action?”

Lucy’s words failed her.

“We’re worried,” Verona said.

“When the worry gets to be too much, bind me.  Or go to Toadswallow for permission, to add the insult of goblin involvement to my injury, call on greater forces, and hold me to court.  If I’m truly deserving, I welcome it.”

“You’re reminding me of my dad,” Verona said, quiet.

Guilherme looked at her, the insult clear on his face.

“Making us out to be the bad guys for trying to work through things.”

“I’ll leave then, and I’ll leave you to decide what you will.  Do it yourselves or involve others, then let me know.  For the time being, I have one story left to wrap up, as the mentor and protector in the Carmine plot.  I am going to make sure Toadswallow and the goblins don’t bungle what they are doing, and I’ll handle the Witch Hunters.  I’ll endeavor to keep the rest of this Witch Hunter plot from affecting you.”

“I’d rather talk,” Lucy said.

“And I would rather not.  There are better uses for my limited time as a free Fae,” Guilherme told them.  “Again, do as you will.”

Then he strode over to the rooftop’s edge.  The beams of the sun peeking through the clouds over Greensey got brighter, and they consumed him.

He was gone, just some stray leaves and a smell of honey in the air remaining.

Lucy looked down at her ankle, at the little augury detection bracelet that she wore there.  Quiet, she asked, “Does that resolve that?”

“I guess?” Avery asked.

“Guilherme’s sick, he’s making less sense now?” Lucy asked.

“I guess?” Avery said, again.

Verona nodded, partially to herself.

Too much of this made her uneasy.

“Does this mean we have to do something about it?” Lucy asked.  “Deal with a guy who’s our friend, because he might pull something like this again?”

“I don’t know,” Avery said.

They fell silent for a bit.

“That didn’t look like it went well,” Zed said.  “Or sound like it went well.  Couldn’t hear the words, but the tone-”

Lucy nodded.

As bad as Verona felt, Lucy looked like she needed the backup.  She’d been closest to Guilherme.  Verona gave Lucy a one-armed hug.  Avery offered a back pat to Lucy.

“It’s getting closer to dinnertime,” Zed said.  “Maybe time to take a break.  Brie, Jess and I are probably going to see where we’re sleeping for tonight.  Maybe do the same?  You three look a bit shell-shocked.”

Verona nodded.  Lucy didn’t move, and she didn’t have an angle to see Avery.

“We were going to do shifts tonight,” Avery said.  “But…”

“Toadswallow suggested we let the Others handle stuff a bit more.  Maybe until we’re more grounded?” Lucy suggested, pulling back from the hug.

“Musser might not give you the chance,” Zed told them.

“Right,” Lucy said.  “Let’s set up what we can against Wye’s tracking, Haris can’t smell, so that helps.  I think we’re okay to go home?  And if Musser does something, we can react.”

Verona nodded.

Strategy, planning, triage.  Verona knew she had to focus more on that now, because she had so much less to work with.

Avery helped them all down from the rooftop.  They crossed downtown, splitting up with Avery and Zed’s group.  Verona extracted an a-ok from Jessica to have Jessica come and see the shrines during one of their visits and give her input.  Tonight they’d rest, hang back, let the Others handle things.

What was realistic, and what wasn’t?

If she was strategic and sensible about this, her answer on dealing with Guilherme got very different.  That warranted asking John questions.  Or Rook.  Or Miss.

If she went by what she wanted, an end result she could try to force, then her mind jumped straight to some clever wordplay that would mean gainsaying someone.  But logically, being strategic… how likely was it that she could gainsay Musser?  Or Wye?  Or Reid?  What about Raquel, even?

If she couldn’t trust her ability to gainsay someone, even with a contrived trick of some sort… what did that leave her?

Lucy helped her slip inside, donning the form of sunbeams to travel in and through the window.

The two of them collapsed, Lucy onto her bed, Verona onto the cot.

Magic items.  Magic items worked even when weakened from being called out on a lie, or when forsworn.

She got her phone out, and she started messaging Clementine.  Clem had offered some of the magic items she had in abudnance, but they’d never followed through on asking after it.

She sent the message, with a polite request.  In a pinch, she suspected Miss or Alpeana could help travel the distance and pick up what was needed.

If she could get competent working with barely any power at all, then maybe, if she could get free of the gainsaying by summer’s end, she could be that much stronger when she finally had access to Kennet’s power again.

She hoped that meant she’d be strong enough.


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False Moves – 12.8

Avery

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Avery crouched on the rooftop, looking past the sea of smiling faces, to the Witch Hunters, who were sorting themselves out, immunizing people against Jabber somehow.  Musser’s car was left where it was, two car doors, one tire, and one side of the front in ruins.  The hood had even popped up.

The woman with the motorcycle finished talking to the others, pulled her helmet on, put visor down, and then peeled out, cutting across stopped traffic, through a fast food parking lot, and over a grass divider to get to the next road over.  The rest gathered near Musser’s car.

The one with shaggy blonde hair, a hood built into her sleeveless tee, and cargo pants tossed something into the car.  A fire started immediately.  She took a bottle of water from the youngest member of the group, barely any older than Avery was, and poured it over her hair and face, drenching herself.  With a hand, she rubbed at her face, then pushed wet hair back and away, before tugging the hood into position over it.  It sat awkwardly.

The teenager that was about Zed’s age, muscular in more of a lifts-weights type way, with short black hair, went back to the car, put away the medical stuff, and then grabbed his bloody heart off the dash.  He squeezed it out onto the ground, and as far as Avery could see, the gunk that came out was black.

Then he pulled his shirt up and stuffed it into the roughly circular bloody ruin where his chest was, before pulling some metal down and adjusting straps.

Riiiiight.

“Any ideas on that, Snow?” Avery asked.

Snow sneezed.

There was a blonde girl who gave Avery Fernanda vibes, but was closer to Nicolette or Zed in age, who hung close to the heart guy and leaned against the front of one of the witch hunter’s cars.  She didn’t even flinch as he did the heart thing.  A mid-teens guy with chin scruff and a male about Avery’s age who hung out by him.

Last and certainly not least was the older guy with a dense white beard and shoulders as broad as anyone she’d seen.  He wasn’t fat or even a bodybuilder sort of muscular, but was instead built like someone who’d been built wiry and lanky and then put two hundred percent into the muscles he did have.  He dressed in a black shirt and jeans, but he didn’t look heavy metal- the hair and beard looked a bit more Amish.  Even from a block away, she could see the veins on hairy arms as he heaved that massive gun around, sliding it back into the back of the car he’d ridden in on.  It was so long it looked like it had to run all the way up to the dashboard, down the middle of the vehicle, with the end sitting in the trunk.

They didn’t even seem to care about the people around them, who were smiling and quietly giggling to themselves  That little patch of Kennet had stopped entirely, and people who were going about their business and who got close to that area were succumbing to the effect.  It created a kind of border, a higher density to the number of people at the edges, as they gathered, or looked to see what was going on and then fell victim to the giggling fits.

When he straightened, hand at his back, stretching a bit, he turned his head.

The older guy looked at her.

She was far enough away she couldn’t make out his eyes, but just like Raph, this was a guy who could find them.  With a gun like that, she wasn’t sure she could even dodge if he decided to carry that gun, point it in her direction, and pull the trigger.

She made sure Snowdrop was securely on her shoulder, then black-roped her way away, jumping down out of sight, and landing in a crouch a half-block away.  Lucy turned her head to look at her as she approached.  Guilherme stood by, wearing the form of an older man, gray in his hair.  He looked like the sort of guy who’d be an old master, which made John, next to him, look relatively young by comparison.  Toadswallow, Nat, and Gashwad were in the window of the abandoned shop just behind them, eyes and noses visible as they peered through.

Zed, Brie, and Jessica were gathered, hanging back a little as they discussed.

“Were you part of that?” Avery asked Guilherme.

“I was,” Guilherme replied.  “Unfortunately.”

“Unfortunate?  Whatever you did worked great, from what I can tell.”

“What I did, unfortunately, did not work great,” Guilherme said.

“He’s pissy about it,” Lucy noted.

“Faerie do not get pissy in the way you’re implying, Lucille Ellingson,” Guilherme replied.

“Call me Lucy.  I’ve told you that.”

“It didn’t work?” Avery asked.

Verona shook her head.

“I planned something more elegant.  Imagine you offer your hand to a dance partner and they use the momentum of the dance’s turn to fling themselves through a window, cutting themselves and the bystanders to ribbons.”

“The metaphor’s a bit lost on me, Guilherme,” Avery said.  “I can’t really dance.”

Verona perked up.  “I can dance, apparently.  Melissa got on my case about joining up with the Dancers.  Mostly improv, throw in a well-timed shimmy, or confident chest-pop as the song goes off…”

“Don’t- don’t demonstrate,” Guilherme said, as Verona demonstrated.  “You’ve demonstrated.  I’m starting to envy Musser’s car the bullets.”

John clapped a hand on Guilherme’s back.

“The old guy looked at me and Snow,” Avery told the others, to change the topic.

“That’s Haris.  We called him the old dog of the group,” Lucy said.  “He has a really sharp sense of smell, and he was paying close attention to what Musser’s group was saying despite them being across the parking lot, he didn’t even seem to accept it was weird that he heard that sharply.”

“No relation to my kind of dog,” John commented.

“Right, yeah,” Lucy said.

“The woman with the motorcycle headed off in Raquel’s direction,” Avery said.

“Raquel might be the most reasonable member of that group,” Zed commented, joining the conversation.  “Wye is biased and wants to resolve the Alexander thing, Musser isn’t likely to budge, and Reid follows too closely after his dad.”

“From my observation, the one on the motorcycle doesn’t fit the group.  She’s an ally of theirs, they know her from passing meetings, but she isn’t a bosom companion.  She double checked her bag one more time than your typical person would.  That suggests it’s valuable.  That she checked it before pursuing a target and not when she’d just been affected by Jabber suggests it’s not valuable for valuable’s sake, it’s something she uses in the field.”

“She’s armed.  Just say she’s armed, Guilherme,” Toadswallow croaked.

“She has something at her disposal, possibly several somethings, from the shape of the bag.  It isn’t necessarily a weapon.”

“Should we go help Raquel?” Avery asked.  “Or talk to her?”

“Can we get a quick rundown first?” Lucy asked.  “Who else… the old guy?”

Guilherme answered.  “Haris assumes seniority and leadership by default, but the girl with the hood-”

“Elise,” Lucy cut in.

“-is supposed to have it by right.  If I were you, and if I were not interested in developing my skills as a fighter, or if there were no greater agenda-”

“Get on with it, Guilherme,” John said.

Guilherme gave John an unimpressed look.  “-I wouldn’t want to fight her.  She moves with an easy confidence around those bigger and stronger than her.”

“I saw something like that,” John said.  “The girl part of her and that dangerous fighter part of her don’t mesh well.”

“I would not be surprised if she has a very steep cliff she descends when she’s in the heat of battle,” Guilherme said.

“That’s a bad combination with Musser and his group,” Zed said.

“Who else?” Avery asked.  “There was the teenager, muscular.”

“Clint,” Lucy said.  “He broke free of Jabber’s effect.”

“Tore his own heart out,” Avery said.  “Squeezed it clear of Jabber-gunk or something after.”

“Oh, hey, wow,” Verona said.

“Right?” Avery asked.  “Gross as heck.  What’s even going on there?”

“Cool as heck, you mean?” Verona asked, nudging Avery.

“Sometimes Witch Hunters are broken by whatever introduces them to this world, and they stay broken on purpose,” John said.

“Got it,” Lucy said, frowning.

“Bwaaargle!” Jabber piped up, from inside the building with the goblins.

“Three other Witch Hunters.  Blonde with shorter hair-”

“Rocky,” Lucy said.

“Mid-teens guy with chin scruff-”

“Renfroe.”

“And a kid our age.”

“Francis.”

“Little Francis has dealt with something Faerie-adjacent,” Guilherme said.

“Like Daniel or Shellie?”

“No.  Not actual Fae, I’m fairly sure.  Too raw, he’s too graceless.  From what has been described to me, Shellie Alitzer had her own brand of grace and calculated gracelessness.”

“I think we should go to Raquel,” Avery said.

“Should you?” Zed asked.  “Sorry, I’m trying to get to grips with this.  You set them against one another.  Isn’t that the plan?”

“At the very least, we protect civilians,” Lucy said.

“That’s fine, that’s tricky, but it’s fine.  But you said you wanted to help Raquel?”

“I asked if we should,” Avery said.

“I don’t think it hurts to open the door to conversation, but Raquel collects these tools like grails, emblems, and instruments.  A lot of that adds up to her being slippery,” Zed said.  “Slippery could mean you end up in the Witch Hunter’s way while she runs for it.”

“She’s expecting you to be around, too,” Jessica added.

“I’m wondering,” Zed pressed, jumping in to say something before anyone else could change the subject.  “What’s the plan?  What do you want to do?  What do you need us to do?”

“Protect civilians, limit damage, discourage Musser enough he goes home…” Lucy went down the list.

“I think that might be hard,” Jessica noted.

“Maybe.  But that’s where we’re at.  We’ve gotta handle a bunch of stuff before summer ends, this is in the way, if they can tie each other up some…”

“Let’s narrow it down, I hope I’m not coming across as aggressive,” Zed said.  “But what’s the plan for today?”

“Keep tabs on things without the Witch Hunters coming for us…” Avery said.

“Good, okay, that’s workable.”

“…limit the damage if things start getting out of control.  Jabber should be useful…”

“Alright.  They’re starting to counteract Jabber.  Musser’s immune, the Witch Hunters have some chemical they’re using now.”

“Yeah,” Avery said.

“…Shrines,” Verona said.  “Family.  Like, if we’re listing off stuff that’s necessary.  We need to eat dinner in a few hours.”

“Shrines?” Jessica asked.

“Uhhh, we did a bunch at the edge of town.  Just to address spirits and echoes.”

“Using shrines to influence echoes is like trying to build a fence to keep birds out of your yard,” Jessica said.  “It’s doable, but probably an unrealistic degree of effort.”

“Huh,” Avery said.

“Jessica knows some stuff from camping out in the Ruins.  She handled the wards and protections while we were fighting the Choir,” Zed explained.

“Can we talk to you about stuff later?” Verona asked.

“If that’s how I can be useful.  I don’t think it’s a priority right now, is it?”

“If you’re sticking around any then you’ll see where we’re at echo-wise, later,” Verona said.  “Ummmm… priority.  Witch Hunters, Musser.”

“I’ll contact Nicolette about giving us eyes on what’s going on and keeping track,” Zed said.  “That might take time to set up.”

“Oh!  Tell her I’ll send her the file later,” Verona said.

“Are you going to send her the file later?  I don’t want to get gainsaid.”

“I’m already gainsaid,” Verona replied.  “I’ll- I’ve gotta figure out the places I’m useful, so I’ll stick around here and help Zed, Brie, and Jessica.  I can give them the info and communicate with the locals.”

Toadswallow, settling his chin on the windowsill, so it sort of pooled out below his face, fingers gripping the edge as he looked over, croaked out, “It would be appreciated if your guests informed us about any moderate to major practices they wanted to undertake.”

“It’s really appreciated that you’re here,” Avery said.

“Very much so,” Toadswallow said.  “But decorum must be observed.”

“How do you and I split this up?” Lucy asked Avery.

“I’ll go to Raquel.”

“Then I’ll keep an eye on Musser and what the bigger conflict is like.”

Avery nodded.  That made sense.

“What’s the logic?” Zed asked.

Was there logic?  Avery looked at Lucy, and it just felt right, like they each had a place they had to be and a rhythm they moved at and it made sense that Raquel would be hard to pin down, the witch hunter was on a motorcycle, so Avery could do that, while Lucy could handle herself in a Musser-Hunter situation.  This was a sports team situation, with everyone having a natural role.  But actually having to stop and explain why Hansen was on defense on Ottawa’s team was… ugh.  Putting that into good words?

Lucy and Avery paused, and Verona didn’t volunteer anything.

Avery was first to answer.  “Maybe Raquel is slippery and maybe that’s a problem with the Witch Hunter and how she picks targets, but I’m fast.”

“Faster than a motorcycle?” Brie asked.  “I remember you running after the bull during that night with the Choir, but…”

“I’m fast,” Avery said, confident, fingers grazing a place she’d put a checkmark on her leg.  “I’m hoping I can get Raquel to listen, or to tell us something about Musser.”

“If we’re in this for the long haul and you can get away with being out late more than we can, while we’re grounded, maybe plan a break?” Verona suggested.  “We can do shifts.”

“We’ll figure that out after,” Lucy said.  “Regroup for dinner, touch base?”

“If we can,” Verona said.

Avery nodded with emphasis, eager to get going at this point.  She might not be especially fond or unfond of Raquel, but she wanted to see if they could establish that line of communication.

“You can go,” John said.  John got it.  “No need to work this out further, just stay safe.  Avery?  You have the tags?”

Avery nodded.

“Here!” Toadswallow said.  The position of the window and his height meant he was only barely able to peer over the edge, but he stuck his hand up and held a can out the window.  John took it and passed it to Avery.  “Goblins in a can.  Throw it into a dank, dark, or dirty place, the worse it is, the better the results.  They should listen.”

Avery nodded again, bouncing a bit, ready to go.

“We’ll back you up where we can,” Zed said.  “Keep your phone on.”

Avery nodded.  She looked down at Snowdrop, who sneezed.

Right.

“Go,” John said.

Avery ran.

“I overheard Musser telling Raquel to look into house or apartment rentals and cabin rentals!  Be careful of whatever it is she has in that bag!” Lucy hollered, raising her voice as Avery got further along.  “Let us know early if you need Jabber!”

Avery twisted around, running backwards, and gave the thumbs up, before turning, ducking around a couple she’d nearly bumped into, both under the influence of Jabber.

She looked for the connections, and the fact Jabber was effectively blocking the connections between people by making his victims unable to think made the coast a lot clearer.  Avery knew the direction Raquel had gone, and had a sense of the type of destination.

She cut diagonally across downtown, in the general direction of that valley below Bowdler, where the other Witch Hunter had set his traps, where Edith had had her cabin, and where the initial influx of wraiths and spirits had come in.

That valley was too open an area, landscape and everything else funneling stuff in.  It was far enough away from society and innocents that a lot of protections didn’t hold, so stuff happened there more easily, but it was still accessible as a place that people from the outside or people from Kennet could go.

As Avery black roped around, moving carefully because there were a lot of people around, Snowdrop hopped down, assuming human form, hair pulled back into a ponytail, headphones with the black ears built into them on, dark circles around dark eyes, teeth a little uneven.  Snowdrop’s shirt read ‘Fake your own death, live in hiding behind a dumpster, profit?’

“You okay?” Avery asked.

“It’s nice on a hot day like this, snuggling close, sharing the extra body heat.  Cozy,” Snowdrop said.

Avery brushed her shoulder off, where Snowdrop had been, and the shirt was damp with sweat.  Coarse gray hairs stuck to her hand.  She dusted them off as best as she could.

“Gotta figure out where Raquel might’ve gone.  Let’s assume she used her phone…” Avery thought aloud.

“You’re on your own if someone attacks you from behind, you know.  I’m a coward like that.”

“Thanks, Snow,” Avery said.  She forced herself to relax a bit, and tried to open the way to the familiar bond.  This was something she was just starting to work on, after they’d talked options for the dream and the idea of trying to communicate by way of their bond with one of them asleep.  It had let her keep tabs on Charles while she and Charles were asleep.

She could sense Snowdrop looking out for trouble, in a way that was more nervous than Avery’s typical approach, head a little jerky, eyes darting around, switching between senses.  Little things grabbed at Snowdrop’s focus, even though Avery didn’t get more than a dull impression about what those things might be, like blobs of color behind foggy glass, viewed through squinting eyes.  Something familiar-ish and moving.  Something interesting.  Something that took a moment to understand and bring into more focus.

A hunger pang that wasn’t Avery’s.

Still typing her way through her phone with her thumb, Avery shrugged off her bag, bent down, and reached inside the front flap.  She absently handed Snowdrop a quarter-sandwich.

“You’re such a loser sometimes,” Snowdrop said.  “Hitching me to you and dragging me around.  You think I want a tiny bit of sandwich?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I don’t!” Snowdrop said, before biting into the bread.

There was a cabin rental office not far from here.  Perfect place to check.  The web search on her phone showed a photo that she recognized as the end of the strip mall at the bottom corner of downtown.

Snowdrop wasn’t even looking in her direction, but as she started moving, glancing back, Snowdrop sensed where she was going and followed without needing a prompt.

There were parts of all of this that were so great.  Being a part of a team like this was what drove her to sports like hockey and soccer, or at least, drove her there when things were good.  Like being a part of something bigger in a smaller, contained arena.  That was a good part about the practice, and about being part of the trio.

Which made the rest of it, in sports and in practice both just… heartbreaking, sometimes.

She didn’t know what she was going to do.  Or her head knew, but her heart wasn’t all the way there.

Had Olivia felt like this before going to Swanson?  Abandoning the combined Kennet-Tripoli group?  Abandoning her best friend?

Except Olivia had gone to something, and Avery was…

…getting distracted.

She saw Raquel leave the little box-shaped store that was tacked onto the end of the strip mall.  Raquel watched her, wary, circling around the side of the building, backing toward the valley.

Raquel was slender, wore a nice shirt with tights worn as pants, her long brown hair styled with loose wavy ringlets and coils.  She was about the same age as Avery, Verona, and Lucy, but the way she dressed and held herself made her seem a touch older.

“Can we talk!?” Avery called out, as she crossed the street, calling out from sidewalk, across parking lot.

“I’m just running errands, I don’t know what you want to talk about, but- just leave me alone!”

Avery held her hands up as she approached, Snowdrop doing much the same.

The store employee stepped out the front door.  She was a frumpy middle-aged woman who looked like the summer heat was really disagreeing with her.  She spotted Raquel.  “Did you want to keep going?  I’d need to call your dad.”

“Uncle, and maybe later,” Raquel said, frowning.

“Is there a problem?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“I just want to talk,” Avery said.

“Go inside?  Let us talk?” Raquel asked the woman.  “I’ll call my uncle after, get permission, get him to finalize the paperwork by phone, if I can.”

The woman frowned, looking annoyed.  Red faced and squinting, she seemed to decide it wasn’t worth pressing, and went back into the dark office.  As Avery and Snowdrop approached, Avery could see the interior through the glass.  There were four or five desks, and lots of posters on the wall, that made the place feel like a travel agency or something, but the posters were for Kennet and skiing.  The woman was the only apparent employee working in the off-season.

“Did you call the Witch Hunters?”

“We were holding them off and we kinda just… stopped,” Avery said.

“Reid said they opened fire.”

“Yeah.  One of them went after you.  We kind of expected to find you in the middle of dealing with her.”

Raquel shook her head.

“Hear any motorcycles?”

“No,” Raquel said.  “What the heck is wrong with this place?  What’s wrong with all of you?  I’ve got- this freaking-”

Raquel reached into the handbag she carried, and lifted out something that looked like a goblet, but it was narrow and tall, with lots of decorative metal at the rim of the glass and down the stem.

Raquel swirled it, and it became apparent there was water inside, even though it had been horizontal a moment ago.  The swirling liquid darkened and took on a particular color.  Red.

“Wine?” Avery asked.

Snowdrop sniffed, and Avery became aware of that impression, which wasn’t very fruity.

“Blood,” Avery changed her mind, saying the word as Raquel did.

Raquel emptied the thick, congealing liquid onto the empty parking lot.  It dissipated more quickly than blood should have.

“I repeat,” Raquel added.  “What’s up with this place?  If you answer, maybe my uncle will end his little investigation early.”

“Do you really think he will?” Avery asked.  “Because I think he wants a win or something.”

“Probably,” Raquel said.  “But I think it’s really easy to underestimate my uncle, and you don’t have as many options as you think you do.”

“Can you explain that?” Avery asked.  “Because I’m willing to hear you out if you’re willing to hear me out.”

“My uncle asked me to look after some stuff, which I’m guessing you know if you’re here and you saw me in there.  I’ve got to do that.”

“Want help?”

“Do you really think my uncle would be okay with that?  Do you think he’d be clapping me on the back and saying good job, Raquel, working with those dangerous, incompetent little practitioners to finish your errands?”

“I don’t think your uncle would be okay with much you do,” Avery said, then seeing Raquel’s expression change, hurried to add, “because he’s a twit, not because you’re doing a bad job.”

“And who are you to level judgement at me or my uncle, Kelly?  What are you even doing here?  What is this place?”

“I think your uncle figured it out, and John, the soldier, he told him a lot of it.  Things are out of balance but they should resolve at the end of summer, somehow.”

“You’re keeping the company of strange Others, you’re living in this blood-soaked place, you’re getting into trouble, destroying Bristow and apparently murdering Alexander.”

“Technically we didn’t.  That was the local Other.”

“Who you count as a friend?  As a reliable source?”

“Kinda, yeah.”

Raquel narrowed her eyes.  “I’ve got to- I need to do this.  I have to run this errand.  If I do a bad job or if I’m too slow, I’ll lose months worth of building my esteem in this family.”

“Just like that?”

Almost disgusted, Raquel replied, “Yeah.  Just like that.  Do you even know what the Blue Heron meant to me?  Do you even know how rare it is that I get a break?  A chance to pursue my own interests?  Hang out with friends?  To study stuff that isn’t from the family library, available only if a senior family member signs off on it, and only if Reid doesn’t need it, or if Reid or one of my other cousins might want it at some point in the future?  A lot of the time, that’s my only chance, do you get it?  My only chance to find a trick, or to have an answer that I’ve figured out myself that they don’t already know because they already read those same books first!”

“That sounds miserable.  I- my experience isn’t anything close to that, but the stuff I deal with is sorta in that same category, and that’s crushing enough, it-”

“Don’t try to relate to me, Kelly.  You guys were front and center of that all going to hell, and now my uncle is headmaster.  Do you think I get unrestricted access to the library anymore?”

“Shit,” Avery whispered.

“Or my friends?” Raquel asked.

“We didn’t want that,” Avery replied.

“You don’t know this world, Kelly,” Raquel said, intense, bitterness oozing into the words.  “You’re new to this, you’re getting skewed perspectives, you’re playing in this blood-soaked pigpen with some clearly dangerous Others, and interfering in things you don’t understand.  I’ve lived this shit since I was little.  I don’t think you even had an inkling about this world when I was dealing with my mom being disappeared one night, because she developed an independent streak.  You need to shut your mouth, put the magic stuff away, and leave this alone until you can get a better education on how this world really works.  Or put it away and go away for good, ideally.”

“I don’t think I’m in a position to do that,” Avery said.

“She could get rid of me,” Snowdrop said.

Raquel’s words came at low volume but with heat behind them, “You and your friends are everything that’s wrong with the practice in the modern day.”

“I- don’t see how that could be true,” Avery replied.

“You’re destabilizing when we need stability and when we draw power from stability.  You’re empowering the wrong Others, you’re trying to stand in the way of someone like my uncle fixing this bloody mess of a town by claiming priority, you’re clearly ignorant of how our society works and why it’s set up like this.  Powerful plus ignorant is disaster in this world, Kelly.”

“Can you at least call me by my actual name?  I- I said I’d try to hear you out and I will but… hi, I’m Avery.  Kelly is my last name.”

“You can call me anything but Snowdrop,” Snowdrop said.

“We’re not on a first name basis,” Raquel said.

“So I’m supposed to call you, what, Musser?  You want that, with the way they treat you?”

“Yeah,” Raquel said, quieter now, with gravity behind the words.  “I want to be called a Musser.”

“That’s…” Avery trailed off.  She looked at Snowdrop for help.  Snowdrop shrugged.  “…tricky.  I don’t think I can wrap my head around that.  Couldn’t you go hunt for your mom?  Track her down?”

“Would you give up everything you know?  The places you’re used to, your room, family, the friends you at least get to see once in a while, when stupid parental restrictions or practitioner responsibilities aren’t getting in the way?”

Avery took a deep breath, then sighed.

There was an answer she could give, but she was ninety-five percent sure it wouldn’t help anything.

“I’ve got this errand to run, and you’re getting in my way.  This job is one of a thousand steps on the road to me building up an image as someone who they can trust to get stuff done if asked, someone who can keep getting responsibilities in this family, understand?”

“Yeah,” Avery said.

“I figure the only way I can get away with not doing this promptly and well is if I can tell my uncle ‘sorry, that took longer than expected, but here’s the head of the girl who caused that delay mounted on a stick, with her opossum’s head as a bonus.  That’s one less obstacle in your way, what would you like me to do next?’

“I kinda agree,” Snowdrop said, to Avery.  “You’re what’s wrong with this world.”

Avery put a hand on Snowdrop’s shoulder, giving it a rub, and looked over at Raquel.

She wasn’t sure what to say.

Raquel took the silence as an answer, when it wasn’t intended as such, and turned, striding back over to the office.

Avery brought her phone to her ear.  She dialed the others.

“Hello?” Lucy asked.

“Hold on,” Avery said, waiting.

There was a boop.

“Hello?” Verona asked.

“Putting you on speaker so Snow can hear,” Avery told them, as she hit the button.  “Negotiations with Raquel didn’t work out.  She’s gone back to her errand.  I’m… not sure what to do.  I thought she’d listen but she’s pretty mad.”

“Come back to us?” Lucy asked.  “Or to me?  Verona’s going to go back to the house and ask my mom about going out to see Zed and Brie while they’re ‘passing through.’  We’re keeping tabs on things here.”

“And what about the Witch Hunter and Raquel?”

“I dunno.  Zed said Raquel is slippery, so she might be fine.  Musser seems to be okay sending her out.”

Avery made a face.

She could hear Zed saying something in the background of the call.

“Hey, Avery?  Zed’s getting our attention-”

“I heard.  What’s up?”

“Nicolette thinks one of the Witch Hunters is getting close to you.”

Avery turned, looking, switching from normal sight to foggy-connections Sight to Opossum Sight.

The woman who’d been riding the motorcycle was crossing the street at a run, approaching the strip mall.  She wasn’t wearing the leather jacket or helmet part of her outfit anymore, which was why she was hard to identify, and she was even harder to identify because she’d changed up her look.  She wore a loose-fitting shirt with decorative trim at the wide collar and hem, a draping necklace that was hidden by the shirt, and she had an old-fashioned camera with a flash provided through a box mounted on top, hanging from a strap at her neck, and a cube-ish shaped bag at her hip, strap extending to the far shoulder.  She looked more a photographer than anything, or a tourist- she looked like she stood out, and she already had been someone who’d stand out anywhere, with a classic buxom figure, narrow waist, big chest, long legs, but also black skin and a striking, severe expression.

“Yeahhhhh.  I see her.”

“Run.”

Avery, feeling the nervous energy, bounced on the spot, like her legs knew she needed to go, as the rest of her held back.

Why was that constantly a thing?  The head and the heart, the heart and her legs…

Snowdrop gave her hand the slightest tug, indicating direction.

She ran, and she ran away, but her trajectory, aim helped by Snowdrop, took her toward Raquel.  Toward that big window with the pine tree and skiier stenciled on it.  Snowdrop ran alongside.

She bumped into the window, and she knocked, trying not to be too obvious to the Witch Hunter.

Raquel turned, looked, and gave Avery the finger, while Avery tried to convey the danger with a look of alarm.  Raquel turned back to the counter and the frumpy woman sitting there, leaning down and forward to keep her red face in the zone of a desk fan.

Avery kicked the window, and glass rattled in the housing, and Raquel pointedly ignored her.

In another world, or if she’d been watching a movie, this might have been the point she lost her patience as a member of the audience, arguing for the heroine to save herself.  Let the asshole die, right?

Except… Raquel was still a person.  Deluded and maybe not a great person, if she really did want to be a Musser, but a person.  Someone with hopes, dreams…

Avery looked, saw the Witch Hunter halfway across the parking lot, watching her, stride long and forceful, one hand keeping the camera from swinging.

Avery could go to the door but there was a good chance the Witch Hunter could intercept her if she tried.  The parking lot was too big and open to black rope into some unseen corner of the interior-

Snowdrop tugged on her arm, pulling her away from the window, and then Snowdrop screamed, top of her lungs.

Avery caught a glimpse of Raquel turning, startled, before her momentum took her around the corner and put the window out of her field of view.

Black rope wrapped around her fist, Avery punched up, holding onto Snowdrop.

Up to the flat roof, littered with crushed beer cans and cigarettes.  She caught her balance, and tried to avoid stepping on some, but there were enough up here that it was impossible.

“Nimble little thing, aren’t you?  Where are you, where did you go?” the woman asked, with the loose vowels of a strong Quebec accent, a little faster than normal English, with added emphasis on the ends of each utterance.

Avery found her balance, helping Snowdrop find a spot to stand by lending her a hand to lean onto while she picked her footing on the rooftop, so she could avoiding kicking or stepping onto any more cans.

“I may be a witch hunter, but I have no real quarrel with witches.  I hunt the monsters, don’t worry!”

Raquel hadn’t left the building yet.  Was she in a position to see the Witch Hunter through the window?

“What if the monsters are nice?” Avery asked, glad the parking lot was empty, the strip mall largely devoid of any business, especially anything nearby.

“You would have to explain that to me,” the woman said.  “Can we talk?  It is very clear that something is wrong with this town, and I like to have as much information as possible.  You could tell me about these nice monsters.”

“I think I’m more comfortable being up here than down there with you,” Avery told her, calling down.

“If that’s so, I don’t mind,” the woman said, out of Avery’s sight.

There was the sound of the camera going off.

“What are you doing?”

“Gathering information, as I said.  Your friend is trying to hide from me.”

“She’s not really a friend.”

“Ah.  That’s too bad.  It’s a very unfriendly world.  We need all the friends we can get.”

“What’s the deal with the camera?” Avery asked.

“Information.  I like to understand things.  I capture the world on film and put it on my wall.  By the time I leave here my motel room wall will look like a conspiracy theorist’s mad dream, lines everywhere.  What’s your name, little witch?”

“Sharing a name can be dangerous.  Sorry,” Avery said.

“I’m Cleo.  Cleo Aleshire,” the woman said, lapsing into thicker accent as she stated her name, like it was very much how she was used to saying it.  “We heard there was something possibly loose here, wardings to keep something very big and nasty inside.”

“There isn’t, unless I’ve been horribly misled,” Avery called down.

“Then the other Witch hunters may have been horribly misled.  They’re another group than mine.  It may be important to work out what’s happened and who did the misleading, before things get bad.  You seem nice, wanting to warn the other girl I was coming.  Can we talk?  Can we try friendship in this unfriendly world?”

Avery looked at Snowdrop, who was frowning a bit.  Frowns and smiles weren’t necessarily flipped, it was more usual for Snowdrop’s expression to be perplexing, slightly uneven teeth biting down on one lip.

“Are you part of the same group that attacked the Vanderwerfs?” Avery asked.  “From Montreal?”

“I am a part of that group, but I wasn’t there, then.  I heard about it.  Are you friends with the Vanderwerfs?”

“No comment,” Avery said.  “But it lets me know a bit about who you might be.  That you deal with scary people that’d exterminate most of a family.  I don’t want to show my face in front of that camera in case it’s a ploy.  So I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“What sort of ploy are you imagining?”

“Like… you taking a picture and then sending it to other Witch Hunters, to help them hunt me later, in case you fail.  Or you taking a picture and trying to destroy my life.  For someone who hunts monsters, it feels weird that you’re supposed to be someone who hunts monsters but a camera is the only weapon I can see.”

“As Mister Musser demonstrated, guns don’t always work.  Bullets can be caught or warded off.  For the monsters I hunt, I prefer traps.  A pit and a lot of explosives will kill a good few things.”

Avery considered the responses, but as was becoming the case more and more… she didn’t have any good ones.

Easier to be quiet, to wait.

She remained where she was, crouched on the roof, and heard the woman walk around a little bit.

Right.  Okay.  Ambush was probably a bad idea.  Could she black rope off to some distant location?  If the camera was there to, like, inform other Witch Hunters and make this a thing that never stopped, each Witch Hunter they stopped being followed up by a group, until the Witch Hunters finally broke the threat, then what did it count if Cleo down there caught a distance shot, Avery and Snowdrop at the edge of the trees, disappearing into the woods?

While she was thinking, she heard the creak of the door, and the jangling of the bell.

Entering?  Going after Raquel?

Avery approached the roof’s edge-

And was blinded by a flash.

“Oh!  Much of that was lies, witch,” Cleo called up.  “I do hunt witches, and now I have you.”

Avery tensed, letting her vision return, watching as the old fashioned camera spat out a photo, a black square with white borders.  Cleo pulled it out and began giving it a shake.

Frig.

To her Sight, the Camera had just spat out about fifty kinds of film reel, a lot of them attaching to her.  Something had happened.

Now, seeing that, she was really worried that it was the kind of thing where any damage to the photo would damage her.  Hole in the photo, hole in her body.  Burn the photo, and she burned.

Except a lot of it seemed to be connected to the roof’s edge, and the surroundings.

Avery pulled back, retreating, feet kicking cans across the roof, crunching the sparse gravel that was scattered across broad, four-foot-by-four-foot shingles or whatever it was that haphazardly tiled this store rooftop.  Some of the connections broke.

“Don’t go!” Cleo called out.

Avery ran, Snowdrop following.  Off the rooftop using the black rope.  Distance helped, pulling free of the effect.

She knew she was moving away from Raquel, away from her ability to steer things, maybe renew conversation.

She didn’t want this to be a big, ugly fight with a lot of blood and casualties.

She looked back, and she could see Cleo, holding what might have been a grappling hook or something.  It was shiny and had that look to it, and she was whipping it around in a circle, to help build up the momentum that would send the grappling hook up to the roof’s edge.

Except Avery was long gone.

“Call goblins?” Snowdrop asked.  “John?”

Avery hesitated.  Calling John could be a disaster, if that camera was the sort of thing John couldn’t fight.

The Witch Hunter was back there, backing up from the roof, grappling hook in one hand.

The other hand shook the photo.

The world lurched, and there was a chemical, mechanical smell, like oils and paint cleaner, washing over her, a flutter of stiff paper-

And she was on the rooftop, no longer running.

Cleo had already let the grappling hook go.  Avery twisted to go, but she barely had time.  The hook scraped the roof before tension of rope at roof’s edge pulled it up, one of the points scraping her calf, another catching on her laces.

Pulling her off-balance, and pulling her off the roof.

Avery kicked hard at the roof as she tipped, a boost of wind that shook the hook free and gave her the momentum that carried her out and forward.

It was still a twelve foot drop or so, one she wasn’t prepared for, and one she faced with a position that was more horizontal than vertical, now.  She’d hoped to black rope, but as she did, she felt a muscle pull in her arm, and she didn’t go anywhere.

Cleo didn’t take eyes off her for a second, didn’t afford her the opportunity to use her best tool.

Dimly, she remembered videos she’d watched.  She punched at the air, twisted at waist and hips- and kinda-rolled as she landed on parking lot.  She huffed out a breath, felt skin at her bare shoulder scuff up, and rolled.

Terror surged through her as she saw the Witch Hunter striding toward her, Camera dropped and dangling from strap, knife in hand.

Avery rolled toward the Witch Hunter, despite logic, pulling the dog tag from her neck and whipping it more than she dropped it, in the opposite direction.

The Witch Hunter came at her at a run, knife out, and Avery knew she had to be on her feet to get away.  She braced herself to get cut, arms up, as she staggered to her feet.

And she was pushed out of the way.

John.  John engaged with the Witch Hunter, with so little time that if he had any knife on him he didn’t have time to draw it.  He grabbed the fist that held the knife and then grabbed the woman by the fancy collar.

“Do you like my collection?” Cleo asked him.

“Not especially,” he answered.  He glanced at Avery.  “How hurt are you?”

“Scraped but nothing much else, I don’t think.”

“Give me time,” Cleo said.  “I’m sorry I don’t want to be friends, witch.  I do have my quarrel with witches.  I don’t care for information gathering, unless it’s what you tell me when I slide a knife inside you and twist it.”

“I think if that’s true, you’re more of a monster than the things you’re hunting,” Avery replied.

“At least give me a photo to remember you by,” Cleo said.  Without raising the camera, still looped around her neck by a strap, she put hand to camera, tilted it to face Avery, and hit the button.

The flash went off.

“What does it do?” John asked.

“I don’t-”

“Captures a moment in time,” the Witch Hunter said.  “I had to clean it inside and out before the curse would go away, it was owned by a practitioner. One of my many trophies.”

“And the necklace?  More trophies?” John asked.

Cleo smiled.

She plucked the photo from the camera.  Still a black square, the actual picture yet to fade in.

And when it did, Avery would reappear where she’d been standing.

“Don’t let her get me if I reappear here!” Avery shouted, before bolting.

“Right!” John called out.

Cleo laughed.

Avery made her second attempt at breaking the connections by putting enough distance between herself and the photo.

How long had it taken the first time?  Shaking the photo, trying to hurry the clarification of the image.  Five seconds?  Ten?

She chose her route this time with the idea that she needed that distance.  She saw Snowdrop near the trees, anxiously waiting, and willed Snowdrop to understand, she was about to use the black rope.

Snowdrop put a hand over her eyes.  Good!

Avery checked the coast was clear, then jumped the distance, clearing the stretch of partial fence and back field behind the strip mall, running toward Bowdler.

The connections were peeling away, and she could tell that some were between her and the location, and some were between her and John, who had also been in the picture.  That helped, but-

Snowdrop wrapped her in a hug.

More connections to anchor her here

And the last of the photo’s grip pulled away, the connections like strips of film negative that drifted in the wind, nothing attaching them to her anymore.  Avery breathed hard, while Snow supported her.

“Did you escape?” Snowdrop asked.  “Will you get sent back?”

“I don’t know, but…” Avery whispered.

She turned to look, and she saw those same film negatives go from tattered and weak to something else entirely, bigger, stronger, purposeful

Like the fingers of a massive hand closing or a series of serpents striking in unison, they came for her.

Pulling her back and away.

She prepared a shift of balance, pushing Snowdrop clear, and prepared mentally to jump, not to escape this

She reappeared in the parking lot, and jumped.

Cleo had just released her knife.  Timed like with the grappling hook.  Avery felt the sharp pain at her forearm.  A graze, not a full-on impact.

John had tried to shield her, but John had been moved by the photo too, his balance was off.

Avery landed on her side on the parking lot.  The knife clattered to ground behind her.

“Darn,” Cleo said, smiling.

Spooky.  Seriously spooky.  What the heck?

Cleo was still carrying the camera, but she’d pulled her necklace out of her shirt and wrapped it around the camera.

That necklace was black cord wrapped around fingers.  Twenty or so, some dried up to the point of being mummified, beef jerky skin over bone.  Some were fresh, blood oozing out of them still.

“Trophies,” John said.  “Something taken from the practitioners she hunts, so she can use their power when she needs it.”

Why?” Avery asked.

“Because collecting trophies makes it easier to get more trophies,” Cleo said, with her heavy accent.  “The ones that still bleed are from the ones I’ve kept alive and confined.  The ones who piss me off, or the ones who are small, young, and manageable like you.”

“She’s a serial killer?” Avery whispered to John, alarmed.

“Something like one, yes,” John replied.

“Is the third time a charm?” Cleo asked.  She drew a knife out of her bag.  “That is a thing you Witches say, isn’t it?  I don’t really believe in it.  You can run and try to break free, I have magical items, more than just this camera, I have power to spare to make these items work twice as hard, and I won’t get too tired doing this.”

“Help’s coming,” John whispered.  “Try to get away without letting her take your picture.  Stand behind me.”

Avery did.

“If we can stall this out as a fight, we should be okay with Jabber and the others,” John murmured.  “I’ll be able to use my gun.”

“Okay,” Avery whispered, feeling anxious because John standing between her and Cleo meant she couldn’t see much of what was happening.  It was an awkward position, no cars around in this area of the parking lot, the nearest tree about fifty paces away, the nearest building had Cleo between herself and it.  She couldn’t even trust the black rope would work if she used it, because there was unobstructed line of sight from a good portion of Kennet to where she stood now.

The door of the office opened.  Avery hoped for a second that Raquel was standing up to the Witch Hunter, and starting to cooperate.

It wasn’t Raquel.  It was the employee, the middle-aged woman who had been red in the face before but was even more alarmed now.

“What on earth are you doing!?  Put that away!” the employee shouted.

Cleo looked to her left without actually turning her head or moving so she could see the woman.  Crouching, knife in her right hand, she let the camera drop from her left hand, and it was tangled up enough in the necklace with fingers strung along it that the camera didn’t even drop from where it was.

She had photos in her hands, some already used, others already taken but not yet shaken.  She picked one out and shoved the others into her pocket.

She shook it.

“Lady!” the employee shouted.  “Put the weapon down!  I’m going to call the authorities!”

“Go inside!” John called out.  “People are on the way, just stay safe!”

Cleo kept shaking the photo.

The employee blurred and fuzzed up, like an out-of-focus picture, and then she was gone.

Avery peeked, and saw the employee at her desk, acting like nothing was wrong.  Cleo moved the knife to her left hand and walked over a few steps, so she wasn’t in plain view.

Innocents seemed to be reset without memories intact.

Cleo glanced down at the photo.  “There used to be two people in this photo.  One trying to hide under a desk.  Where did your not-friend run off to, Witch?”

“Don’t really know,” Avery replied.

“So the question seems to be,” Cleo said, her accent-heavy voice lilting now, playful. “Do I go after the bird that’s nearly in my hands, or do I go for the one in flight?”

“Or do you stop?” Avery asked.  “Stop.”

Snowdrop was trying to express how she wanted to approach.  Avery willed her away.

Snow couldn’t do much here.

Cleo began to walk backwards, swift, long strides, as she rounded the corner, going to look.

Raquel had found a back exit, maybe after pointing out the knife to the employee.  Now Raquel ran for the woods, going to the same general location that Snowdrop was at.

Cleo glanced over, then picked up her camera, taking a picture.

Hide, Avery willed Snowdrop.

Snowdrop ran.

“Cleo, I want you to back off,” Avery called out.

“She dresses better than you, don’t you think?  Nicer hair, nicer clothes,” Cleo said.  She pulled the picture out of the camera and began giving it a shake.  The camera looked like it was a bit overused, the housing pulsing like it had a heartbeat.  Specks of black oil or something oozed at the seams.

Avery told Cleo, “Go after the others, that’s… workable.  But Raquel seems to be a victim more than anything.  If you’re after ransom money or something, I don’t think her family will pay.”

“I don’t want ransom money.  I want to stop you.  All of you, those who practice dark magic.”

As Cleo slowly backed up in the direction of Raquel, Avery and John gently approached her, maintaining roughly the same distance, Avery staying behind John.  Cleo kept one hand close to her bag.  Like if something went wrong, she’d reach in and pull something out.  Another item?  A gun?

“Can you stop her?” Avery whispered.  “Gun?  Nonlethal shot?”

“After Jabber gets here.  Anything else might draw too much attention.”

“I could try to black rope us out.  If she isn’t watching us.”

“I would worry about what might happen if she has another trick up her sleeve and we can’t escape.”

Raquel blurred, and instead of being close to Snowdrop, reappeared halfway between the strip mall and the treeline.

Cleo took another picture.

Capturing that moment in time, capturing Raquel, in the midst of trying to get away.  Raquel couldn’t run far enough away, and didn’t have a Snowdrop to run to, or she could run to Snowdrop, but it wouldn’t have the same effect.  Snowdrop was mostly a stranger to her.

“You’re not friends, right?” Cleo asked.  “I’ll take her, you can go.  I might catch up with you later, if the mood strikes.  Keep an eye out.”

“Not friends, but I don’t want you hurting or kidnapping anyone!”

Cleo ignored her, heading toward where Raquel had been as the picture had been taken.  The photo was at Cleo’s side, and Cleo gave it a firm shaking.

“John,” Avery whispered.

“You want me to shoot?”

“If Mr. Musser chooses violence and the Witch Hunters respond, okay.  But Raquel just goes where she’s told.  She doesn’t get much choice- she’s not willing to lose everything, and she’d have to if she wanted to refuse to work for family.  I don’t agree but…”

“But you don’t want her to get hurt?”

“No,” Avery whispered.

John drew his gun.  He aimed it at Cleo.  “Be prepared to get us clear of outside attention.”

Avery nodded.

Cleo darted forward, changing direction- she seemed to see John in the midst of the movement, and flashed a smile.  Still shaking that self-developing picture.

Raquel reappeared, and she reappeared into Cleo’s waiting arms.  The Witch Hunter grabbed Raquel, twisting arms and kicking the back of her leg, Cleo dropping to a crouch while Raquel’s knees hit grass, arm twisted behind her.  She was a human shield for the Witch Hunter, who smiled a bit.

“Stop!” John called out.

Cleo whispered something in Raquel’s ear.  Raquel’s entire body jumped, pain flashing across her face, as her arm was twisted further.

“I will shoot!”

Avery could see the red of a tool that Cleo held.  Raquel went stiff, grimacing.

Handheld wire cutters or bolt cutters or something  She had them right up to Raquel’s hand.

John exhaled slowly.

Yeah,” Avery whispered, quiet.

John shot.  The Witch Hunter was thrown back, blood jolting out of her shoulder more than it sprayed, like a single frame of animation, before the crimson red was out of view.  She fell.  Raquel hurried to her feet, one hand in the other, a finger bent the wrong way, like it was broken, bleeding profusely… but intact.

“Raquel!” Avery called out.

“Fuck off, fuck you!  You probably led her right to me!”

Avery stopped.

John approached, gun out and pointed at the ground, watching the Witch Hunter writhe, hand at her shoulder.

“Surrender.”

Cleo smiled, and then she fuzzed out, like a picture taken out of focus, more and more, until she wasn’t there anymore.  A patch of flattened grass and some blood.

“She took a selfie?” Avery asked.

“Looks like.”

“She could be anywhere, then, right?  Anywhere she’s been recently?”

“Could be.”

“I didn’t know Witch Hunters used magic items,” Avery said.

“Many do.  Some stick to one.  Some collect them in the same way they stockpile guns and ammo.  They’re just tools to be used.  They’re available to the uninitiated.”

And to the Forsworn, Avery thought.  It was how Charles had made the Choir.

They’d really opened a can of worms here, hadn’t they?  And now Cleo was out there, more dangerous than Avery had imagined was possible.  Bloodthirsty and competent.

Snowdrop caught up with them.  Avery was glad for the hug that immediately followed.

“Raquel was a lost cause.  It’s good if she’s a little shaken but ultimately fine,” John said.

“Broken finger, cut to the bone, it looked like,” Avery said.

“It did look like that.  You offered, you tried, let’s leave it at that and go back to the others.  This is only the overture,” John said.

“Only the overture?”

A gunshot made her nearly jump out of her skin.  John took a step forward.  And despite the fact it wasn’t raining, a warm dappling of moisture settled on Avery’s scalp, face, ears, and shoulders.

Snowdrop’s too- a mist of blood.

Avery caught John, as did Snowdrop, helping him balance.

The gunshot wound was small, but it had gone in and out.  Through the back of the head and out the front.  With the direction John was facing, the direction of the mist-

Avery grabbed Snowdrop, pulling, and used John to block the view.  She used the black rope to hop to the back of the strip mall, where garbage cans were sitting by back doors, and where air conditioners hummed.

They gathered there, leaving John where he was, backs to the wall.

Cleo shouted something.

She hadn’t actually gone that far.  She’d just… gotten in position and put a bullet in the biggest threat.

We can’t afford to get wrapped up in this, Avery thought.  There’s already too much to do.

It felt like she’d betrayed John, not being more on guard.  It felt like she’d betrayed herself, arguing earlier that they shouldn’t compromise or reach out to people who weren’t reaching back.  Charles, in that case, but she’d…

She’d really, deep in her heart, wanted Raquel to reach back.  Not out of any crush or love or anything.  There was barely anything she even liked about Raquel.  But she’d thought it made sense that Raquel might accept a reaching hand, and it hurt doubly that the girl had slapped it away as fiercely as she had.

John started to rise to his feet.  There was another gunshot, and he fell again.

They couldn’t leave John or the Witch Hunter might do something to make the next death permanent.

“Immortal!?” Cleo called out.

Avery wanted to respond but couldn’t.  She had a sense of where Cleo was, on the far end of the strip mall, just going by the direction of her voice and the sound of the gunshot.

That shooting might attract police attention soon.  Avery wasn’t sure what would happen then, but the fact that Cleo wasn’t worried made her worried.

If she could draw Cleo away, then maybe John would be able to get up.

She looked up, grabbed Snowdrop’s hand, and black-roped her way up to the roof again.

She advanced along the roof, trying to make a bit of noise, zig-zagging and keeping the noise to the left side, to try to pull Cleo in that direction.  She was aware that if she went too far left and was visible at the roof’s edge from the ground, a camera flash could put her in Cleo’s grip.

Snowdrop went small and began pushing and throwing cans off the edge.

Cleo had gone silent.  No more taunting calls, no more threats, no more gunshots.

The lack of knowledge scared her.

Avery crouched down, eyes scanning the roof’s edges in case that grappling hook Cleo had had in her bag made a reapparance, and pulled out her phone.  She texted Lucy.  ‘Gate earng’.

She began to text clarification, because she’d rushed the message, but Lucy’s response came back.  A single letter.

She went to Snowdrop, and flipped through her phone to find the reference image.

“Keep eyes out.”

Snow nodded, and turned her head and Avery moved her face and chin to the side.  Avery began to draw on Snow’s ear.  The gate of horn and antler.  It was meant to connect Sight, but for the ear…

Snow jumped a bit, then looked around, pointing, finger moving, presumably, as Cleo circled around, then circled back, to watch John.

John wasn’t reviving that fast, or he was biding time to build strength.

Snowdrop took the pen and phone and Avery sat while Snowdrop drew the image on her left ear.

It took a few seconds, but the sharpened sound came through.  It came and went a bit.

“Thanks, Lucy,” Avery murmured.

That thought alone seemed to clarify it.

What a mess this is, she thought.  And that seemed to hurt the enhanced sound.

They were probably burning through a lot of power this way.

“Fuck.”

John.

Avery looked.  She could also place Cleo’s general location.

Careful, wary, she grabbed a can, found a bit of broken roof-edge, and grabbed that too.

Snow helped.

Together, they hurled things over the edge.  Cans, trash, bits of broken concrete, a fistful of gravel.

Cleo ran, and they aimed accordingly.

The clatter of cans was apparently audible to John, because he got to his feet and he broke into a run, running closer to them and the building.

Cleo was on the front-facing side of the building, and there was a huff of breath, a grunt.

Climbing.

Cleo scaled the front of the building using security bars and signage.  Her hands gripped the edge and Avery wasn’t in a great position to punt her off.

John shot again, past them, at Cleo.  It wasn’t a good angle, even with John approaching by running down the hill’s base, where things sloped a bit, giving him a somewhat high vantage point.  He missed, and Cleo ducked, running for cover behind a roof-mounted air conditioning unit.

Dangerously close to Avery and Snowdrop.  Peering at them past a pipe.

They could jump, but Avery was still scraped up from the last fall, and a twisted ankle this early into things this intense was a scary, scary idea.  Probably along similar lines to how Verona felt being gainsaid.

Frig.  Frig, were they supposed to wait for John?

Or-

Avery looked toward the street, and she saw people had stopped in their tracks.

People except for one.  A young woman with dirty blonde hair and a white top.  A woman who appeared to have entire limbs and the side of her stomach made of bloody red handprints when viewed with the Sight, bloody smears over nothing, congealed enough to make limbs.

Brie saw Avery, and Brie reached out.

Children’s singing swelled.

Feet scuffed the gravel and kicked cans as three children appeared on the roof.

They snarled, and scrambled for Cleo.  Two more appeared and joined them a moment later.  Biting, scratching desperately, clawing with fingers as if they could tear off flesh to eat with.

Cleo fought them, hurling one bodily off the roof with two arms, then pushing off another, and got bit for her trouble.

The one that fell from the roof picked himself up, barely hurt.  Only for Cleo to jump onto him, using him as an awkward cushion to soften the fall.  She stumbled as she stopped.

Only for more children to appear, one pouncing onto her back and biting into shoulder.

She reached into her pocket, not for a weapon, but for paper.

“Don’t let her shake the photo!” Avery shouted.  Her own voice was loud with the earring’s effect.

Brie was too far away to hear.

“Don’t let her shake the photo!  Have them take the photo away!”

Avery mimed.  Snowdrop did the same.

Too late.

Cleo disappeared.  She’d set up a contingency.

The chidren huffed, one almost barking as he choked on meat he’d bitten away.  Another gnashed with broken teeth.

Brie stopped running, and walked the rest of the way.

John had climbed up onto the roof, and touched Avery’s shoulder as he passed.  “Alright?”

Avery nodded.  She’d been grazed by a knife, though, and it had bled more than she’d thought it would, now that she saw.  She’d also taken the fall, and her one shoulder looked like sandpaper had been taken to it.

But, all considered, they’d survived enough.

John approached the roof’s edge and looked down as the children gathered, fighting with one another for the mouthfuls of raw meat they’d taken from Cleo.

She’d heal, if the ‘moment in time’ camera worked like it had before.  She was still out there.  There was even a dim chance that she wasn’t even that far away, and that she’d choose someone else to open fire on.

Avery looked at John, and she saw the look on his face as he watched the children.

“It would be nice if- if what the stuff we gave Brie helps her undo all that?”

“Yalda would still be dead.  Her power is there, a trace of her is there…”

“There was enough of her there to ask about you before she was bound,” Avery said.

John smiled.

“So maybe?” Avery asked, hopeful.

Because she felt like she really needed hope right now.

“Maybe.  But I don’t think it’ll happen before summer’s end.  That kind of work takes time.”

“I guess you’ll have to set things up so you stick around past summer, huh?” Avery asked him.

“I don’t-” he started.  He stopped.  “Let’s get somewhere safer.  She might still be out there, and I don’t like being shot all that much.”

“Right,” Avery said.  She wasn’t going to push it.  “Let’s go grab Jabber, and catch up with the others.”

John nodded.

Avery black-roped her way to ground, bringing John and Snowdrop, and then caught up with Brie, who was still in the process of putting the Choir away.  The ones who were still eating and pulling flesh between teeth and hands to try and tear it didn’t seem to want to go.  The song permeated the air.

The people inside the stores, the employee of the cabin rental place included, were all smiling Jabber smiles.  A woman had wet herself and stood in a pool of urine.

Avery shuddered.

“Thanks,” Avery told Brie.  “Nice save.”

“It’s nice to be the one doing the saving, instead of the one needing it all the time,” Brie said.  “I hope it wasn’t upsetting, John.”

John shook his head.

They got the hell out of this stupid parking lot, with its lack of cover, and headed back toward downtown.  As they did, they caught up with the goblins that were escorting Jabber.  Biscuit and Doglick.  John gave Doglick’s head a rub, and Doglick yapped.

Biscuit, Avery noted.  And Jabber.  And Chloe, Nibble, Rook, Ken, and all the other new ones.

There were still mysteries that they needed to figure out, and the purposes of the new Others felt like an important one.  The nature of the goblins and their involvement in the conspiracy another.

And they had to do it discreetly, while trying to manage this nightmare.

Avery was careful to pay as much attention as she could to a babbling Jabber, without giving away what she was doing.  She hoped the others were doing the same.


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False Moves – 12.a

Interlude

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Last Thursday: Knots & Depressions


Eight years, five months ago

The kitchen was noisy, with the sound of the radio, the baby crying, and the clatter of dishes as the sink hissed.

“Hey hon,” Clint’s mom greeted his stepdad, as he approached, squeezing her shoulders and giving her a kiss on the cheek.  “Aren’t you late?”

“Byrnes is opening.  Leaving late, staying late.”

“Do you still want me to make you dinner?”

“Sure, but tinfoil it, maybe.”

The baby’s screech reached a fevered pitch, that nerve-jangling kind of noise that made Clint squirm in his seat a bit.  He startled a little bit as his stepfather approached, putting the back of his hand to Clint’s forehead.

“Feeling okay?”

“He’s been feeling off all week,” his mother said.

“I’m okay.”

“You’ve barely had any cereal.  I thought you liked that kind.”

The colorful shapes had dissolved into mushy blobs of color in the milk.  Forcing himself, Clint raised the bowl to his mouth and chugged it.  It was gross and overly sweet and he coughed-gagged a bit as he put the bowl down.

“Easy there,” his stepdad said, clapping a hand on Clint’s back.

“Yeah,” Clint replied.  “I’m gonna go get ready.”

“You look ready.”

“Gotta fix my hair,” Clint said.

“Do you want a ride?”

“Teresa’s coming by in… twenty or thirty minutes, we’re going to walk,” Clint replied, before heading upstairs.

He could hear his mother say, “He’s at that age where he’s starting to care about his appearance.  Do you want to finish up these dishes or see what has Brody screaming?”

He didn’t hear his stepdad’s response.

The gross cereal felt weird in his stomach.  He tried to focus on other things, like his hair, getting the spikes up at the front right.  Like Teresa.

A couple days ago, Teresa had said she liked him and it was up to him if he wanted to stay friends or be something else.  He’d asked for time to think because he had a lot going on.  She’d said that was fine, but he was pretty sure she was running out of patience.

He texted Teresa to ask her to come by, so the excuse he’d given wouldn’t be a lie.

He wondered if he should tell her-

“You’ve gotten so handsome,” his mother said, from the doorway.  “Already ten, hmm?”

He gave her a bit of a forced smile.

Her hand reached out to adjust a bit of his hair that he’d just gotten right.  In the mirror’s reflection, though, the hand wasn’t human.  Hand, fingers, and wrist were overlong, encased in white glass with broken edges where things needed to bend.  Raw red meat, shredded and barely intact, was wrapped around broken bones that rubbed up against one another to serve as joints.

He did his best not to let her know he was as terrified as he was.

He looked into the doorway, and saw his mother’s face smiling fondly at him, as she held a fussing Brody against her shoulder.

“I gotta whiz,” he said.

“Okay, baby,” she replied, smiling as he shut the door.

He shut the door, then whizzed.  His hands shook enough that aiming was hard.  He finished, went to the sink to wash up, and then remained at the door for a long time.

He had to get out, he had to act normal, get his bag, get his things, he couldn’t show he was scared, and then he could leave with Teresa.  He could have the entire day at school, he could go to someone’s house, maybe hers, and then he wouldn’t have to come back until dinner.  If they asked, which they usually did, then he could stay there for dinner too.

Then early bed, fitful sleep waking up at every small sound, and another morning like this.

He could run, but what would he even do?  If he ran and got caught, then he’d get brought back here and they’d know.  They’d know he knew.

He could tell Teresa, but who would that help?

Clint had felt so scared for so long now that it felt like he was being hollowed out inside, and every physical sensation, from stomach cramps to trembles to racing heart made him feel like he was becoming one of them.  Like he’d look in the mirror and he’d look like that.

He swallowed hard and opened the door.

The thing that was pretending to be his mother was there, a few feet away, bouncing a complaining Brody against her shoulder.  “Done?”

Clint shrugged and gave a little nod by way of response, his voice refusing to come out.

She navigated past him into the bathroom, and he caught a glimpse of her, taller in the mirror than she was in reality, a white glass doll’s face with mis-aligned eyes broken, barely clinging to the mess of raw meat that was her head, more glass like a collar around the neck, a torn and bloody dress draped over her body.  A torso with white glass breasts, meaty jagged shoulders, white glass upper arms, meaty elbows with jagged bone sticking out, white glass forearms… and so on.

The arms held the white glass and meat version of Brody, who cried in reality but was unmoving and watching.  One misaligned eye staring in Clint’s direction, the other eye socket empty except for the red of a slick blood clot.

It had been like this for a week.  When he saw them in the mirror, the metal of the kettle on the stove, the screen of the television set when it was off, he saw them like this.

He ducked away.

“Clint!” she raised her voice.

He stopped, pausing.

He had to force himself to retreat.

“You went number one and you didn’t flush,” she told him.

“Sorry,” he said.  “I was in a hurry.”

“Haste makes waste,” she told him.  She pointed at the flusher.  “You only end up losing more time if you rush things.”

He was very aware of what she looked like in the mirror as she stepped out of his way, expression and body language stern as he crossed the bathroom, crossed within a foot of her, and pressed the metal tab down.  The toilet roared as the yellow water rushed away.

Her hand reached for his face, and he flinched, stepping back quickly, nearly tripping on the mat before he caught the counter.

They were very still, him leaning backward against the counter, looking over at her.  He couldn’t see her in the big mirror over the counter, but there was a little mirror at the edge of the counter near the toilet, and he wasn’t sure what part of her was being reflected there, but he could see the parts of her that weren’t at all like his mother.  Just vague raw meat and semi-transparent white.

His heart hammered, and he didn’t move as she adjusted his hair.

He tried to leave in a casual enough way that it would counteract the slip-up just now.  Straightening, fixing his shirt, offering her a tight smile, because a tight smile was the best he could do, and then he headed to his room, leaving them in the bathroom.

The thing that was pretending to be Brody whined, and the thing that was pretending to be Clint’s mother shushed it.

He closed his door and pulled on a jacket, not because he needed one, but because he wanted to buy time.  He tried to get his breathing under control, his mind racing in circles as he tried to consider options.  Where could he go?  Who could he talk to?  Did they know he knew?  Did that matter?  Whatever they were, maybe they’d be happy to pretend, even if he was scared.  But in case it did matter, he’d have to run.  Where could he go?  Who could he ask for help?  What would they do?  Would they do anything?

Could he go out the window?  Where would he run to?  Who could he go to for help?  Would they come after him?

His fingers shook too much to slide the pieces of his jacket’s zipper together, so he left it unzipped.  He put his hands in his pockets, felt unnatural and defenseless, pulled his bag on, and gripped the straps tight with both hands.

Deep breath.

Had to get outside, had to get to Teresa, then he could go to school.

He stepped out into the hallway.  Every door he passed felt like it would have something standing on the other side, ready to lash out.

The bathroom especially, when it had been where he’d last seen them.

Empty.

He eased down onto the stair, praying for it to not creak.

There was conversation happening in the kitchen.  He’d be out of sight while crossing the front hall, he just had to do it without making a noise.

Down another stair.

He could hear some of the words.

“…int knows.”

“How long has he known?”

“He’s been acting strange and subdued for a week.”

Holding his breath, Clint eased down the next few stairs toward the door.  He turned, peeking a little bit, and the bag he was wearing scraped against a picture frame by the stairwell.  He hurried to stop it from swinging and scraping the wall.

The conversation had stopped.

He wasn’t holding his breath anymore, but he was trying to keep his breaths quiet, as they came fast and hurried.  He moved down the stairs in the quickest way he could while minimizing noise, halfway down, two thirds of the way down-

“Clint.”

His stepfather.

He stopped.  “I’m ready.  I’m going to go wait…”

His stepfather stared at him.  His mother stood in the doorway behind his stepfather, bouncing Brody against her shoulder, giving him a sympathetic look.

More because of that than the unreadable stare from his stepdad, Clint was pretty sure that if he hadn’t just taken a whiz, he’d be wetting himself.  His hand gripped the railing.

He couldn’t get to the door before his stepdad did.  He wouldn’t get outside.

He turned, and he scrambled up the stairs, pulling on the railing as much as feet pushed him.  His bag’s straps were too wide for his skinny shoulders and he let the bag fall- hoping maybe a little that it would help or trip his stepdad up.  He nearly lost his balance, letting go of the railing, letting the bag’s strap slip down his arm.  He grabbed onto the railing, and he felt it break.

His stepdad was at the bottom of the stairs, and as he’d gotten there, he’d grabbed the railing.  The little posts had shattered and the railing had been pulled away, and Clint had to let go or he’d be pulled over and away from stairs, down into the front hall.

He screamed.  It was a cry for help, a cry out to neighbors, a wail that let out every bit of pent emotion that had built up for a week.  Wailing, he ran down the hall, past bathroom, past his parents’ room.

His stepfather’s footsteps came so fast up the stairs that it sounded like he had more than two feet.  There were crashes, wood breaking, glass breaking.

Clint ran for his room.  He heard another crash, and looked behind him, and his stepdad was at the top of the stairs.  The remnants of the bathroom door and doorframe had fallen on top of and around the man, who stared at Clint.  He’d come up the stairs so hard and so fast that he’d carried on forward and he’d smashed the door and wall.

Clint slammed the door of his room, and looked around for furniture to move into the way.

The door broke, his stepdad pushing through with such force that it came free of one hinge.  The door itself was hollow and came apart with an ease that made Clint feel stupid for ever thinking it could protect him.

“Please,” Clint whispered.

His stepdad stood there with hands by his side, but Clint felt a hand around his neck.

He was lifted, legs kicking, hands reaching for and finding that invisible hand, holding onto it to alleviate the pressure on his neck.

Lifted higher, higher.

Another hand at his hip and the hand at his neck pressed him against the ceiling.  There was a sense of vertigo like he’d never had before, even on rollercoasters.

His mother stepped into the doorway, and Brody was silent, watching without even pretending to be an irritable baby.

There were tears in Clint’s eyes now, blurring his vision.  And as they blurred and marred the image he saw, he saw them for what they really were.  His stepdad with three arms of meat and white glass on one side and two more on the other, his face like three pieces of a doll’s head split in three and barely fit together over something misshapen.

He couldn’t speak, with the hand at his neck.  He could barely breathe.  Struggling, fighting for any leverage or anything he might be able to do, he kicked the ceiling, driving heel into ceiling, once, twice, three times- moving over to the side, he kicked the light, jarring the housing, kicked it again, trying to find some way.

Anything.

He blinked hard, squeezing tears out of his eyes, and he cleared away the image of the monsters.

Just him against the ceiling, and his stepdad looking up at him, as if vaguely confused, his mother smiling sympathetically.

The hit came without warning.  A singular blow to his ribs, sharp and hard enough that something broke explosively, and Clint’s vision wobbled before going dark at the edges, the vertigo getting worse.  He coughed, sputtering, fighting to breathe more than ever, and every breath produced pain that made his thoughts go all over the place, like he’d panicked beyond panic and now he was going insane.  He felt himself start to pass out, but he couldn’t quite- couldn’t get there, even though he kind of wanted to at this point.  The buzz and thrill of fear kept him from getting- getting past the moment he was in.

The fingers of an invisible hand dug into his chest, with purpose, and with the realization of what that purpose was, he succumbed to unconsciousness.

🟂

Clint woke up on his bed.  A thousand unpleasant smells filled his nostrils, and his thoughts swayed like he hadn’t slept at all.  Confusion, alarm, that vertigo feeling.

His hand went to his chest, examining, and then he pulled his shirt up, looking and not understanding the bloody mess that was there in the upper center of his chest.  He wasn’t feeling nearly enough pain for… for this amount of damage.  Not nearly enough.  He’d been cleaned up too, except for his clothes.

The carpet had been cleaned, he realized, with a spot drying in the middle.  The door had been put back together and repainted.  One of the hinges was brand new.

He wobbled a bit as he ventured across his room.  At the top of his dresser was a thing of facial tissues, and he pulled out fistful after fistful, before pressing them into his chest, where the damage had been done.  He pulled his bloody shirt down, pressing a hand down over the wound to help keep the tissues in place, and looked back at the bed, with a huge bloodstain on it, that had been shaped by the position he’d been lying in.

It felt wrong, like everything else was clean and fixed and then there was that shocking, making-his-stomach-feel-weak amount of his own blood there.

He opened the door and felt disoriented by how it opened even more easily after having been fixed up.  He could smell the cleaning chemical on the carpet and fresh paint.

He looked up at the ceiling where he’d been- where he’d- he’d been held.  He could see the shine where it had been fixed and painted as well.

There was a faint trace of shoeprint on the light fixture, like the skids left behind by bad sneakers on a gym floor.

The hallway rug had been fixed, the pictures put back up.

The bathroom door was fixed, the frame mended, both glossy with that smell of paint.

The railing fixed too.  The pictures were put back there too, glass cleaner than before.

He ventured downstairs, dazed.

Into the living room.

Through the front window, he saw his mother talking to Teresa.

Had it only been twenty or thirty minutes?

It was so disorienting.  Like the worst of bad dreams.

He wasn’t sure why he kept thinking of her as his mother, when she wasn’t.  When she was something much, much worse.  Maybe because she looked like his mother, because the mannerisms were there, because he couldn’t break ten years of thinking the same way about her.  Because… a part of him wanted this to be a nightmare.

Teresa saw him in the window and raised a hand in a wave.  Black hair done up nice, wearing nicer clothes than she usually did, like she was trying really hard to make a good impression.

His mother saw, and looked at him, before flashing a smile, and giving a little wave as well.

Teresa made a heart shape with thumbs and middle fingers.

Could she not see the blood?  It had to be hard to see him standing in a dark living room.

Clint knew he could have called out for help, or said something, or signaled something, but shame and fear won out.  If he did say something with his mom right there, she might hurt Teresa like they’d hurt him.

Teresa left, pink and black bag at her back, marching on with purpose.  Off to school.

Clint remained where he was, kneeling on the couch and looking out the window.

His mother came back in.

“I told her you’re taking a sick day,” his mother said.

Clint tried to decide how to respond for so long that continued silence became the only sensible response.  It felt a little bit like a silence so deep and so awful that he might never say a word again.

“Have a lie down, put the television on,” she said.

He didn’t move, didn’t respond, but as she took a step closer, he found himself retreating.  It was easier to continue to play along, to listen.  He lay down, head against the armrest, and grabbed one of the puffy decorative couch cushions and he hugged it tight against his chest.

“I’ll check in on you when it gets closer to lunch.  Let me know if you need anything,” she told him.  “I’m going to change your bedsheets, I’ll bring a shirt for you to change into.

Then she was gone, going about her business.  His nostrils were filled with the smell of his own blood, the fresh paint, and the cleaners used upstairs.

They didn’t keep tabs on him.  His stepdad came and went from kitchen to the workshop upstairs.  His mother changed the sheets, brought a change of shirt and waited while he pulled his shirt off, wincing as it stuck to his chest with the blood, then went to do laundry.  She looked after Brody, fed Brody, put Brody in the bouncy swing, then went upstairs to take a belated shower.

Clint could have left.  There was nobody stopping him from going out the front door, was there?

Except… what was the point, now?

The television didn’t matter.  He couldn’t pay attention to the shows.  He watched news and crappy non-primetime cartoons with equal disinterest and mild confusion, the scenes not feeling like they were stringing together.  He watched people argue on some stupid talk show about cheating in relationships and he kind of wished he could have gone out with Teresa before it had all went wrong.  It wasn’t that he, like… liked her liked her, but she was cool and now he felt like he was ruined for anything like that.

His mom made and brought him lunch, and he ate with the same disinterest he’d watched television.

He lay there, avoiding touching his chest, and he watched.  There was a glimmer of annoyance as a neighbor started mowing their lawn and he couldn’t hear the show, because that left him more alone with his thoughts, but he could turn up the volume and after the mowing stopped he left it loud.

Another roaring, similar to the mowing, made itself clear, and he sat up to look.

A van, parked out front.  The people who emerged did so on the far side, so he couldn’t see them with the van in the way.

They came as a group of five, one remaining in the van, a phone pressed to his ear.  Five people, with two adults flanking a teenage girl who was holding a chainsaw, like they wanted to keep people from seeing it.  The ones on the side were watching the neighbors, looking around, wary but not slow wary.  They moved with a forward stride that kept them all going at about the same speed.

They were carrying guns.  It was spring and they were wearing heavy jackets and two of the guys were carrying long guns and the one woman Clint’s mom’s age was carrying a pistol or something.

She saw him looking and pointed the gun at the window, at him, before glancing both ways.

He froze, staring, tears in his eyes as he looked down the barrel.

The others mostly disappeared from view.  He could see a hint of the corner of one’s jacket as they stopped at the front door.

The door clicked, and they came in as a group of four.  Clint moved slowly, turning to look, as one of the men pointed a rifle at him.  It was only when he was securely in the sights of that rifle that the woman with the pistol came inside, closing the front door.

None of them made much sound.  The footsteps were quiet even with boots on indoors.

The teenager with the chainsaw walked around the couch and hauled the curtains closed.  It made the living room dim.

The man with the rifle and the chainsaw girl were studying him.  The others were standing at the end of the living room, watching the rest of the house, weapons out more clearly now.

Moving slowly, so he wouldn’t be shot -did he care if he was shot, now?- he raised one hand.

Two fingers extended.

The man with the rifle turned, and pointed at the various entryways.

Clint paused, then pointed once upstairs.  For the backyard, he pointed back toward the kitchen, then leaned forward a bit, for a second, longer point.

Tears rolled down his cheeks.

With a series of hand signals, they split themselves up.  Two for upstairs, two for the back.

Leaving the girl with the chainsaw standing by him.  The weapon looked like the panel at the side had been scuffed and sanded down enough times that it was misshapen from what it had used to be, the label unreadable except for the hint of an ‘A’.

The girl wore a hoodie, and her blonde hair was long and dense enough that it filled the space between the neck and the sides of the hood, and burst out near the forehead, pushed into a bit of a part with strands sticking out.  She wore cargo pants and there was a knife handle sticking out of one pocket of the pants, and the pockets were all full.

She held one finger to her lips.

He nodded.

There was just so much silence.

The gunshots came, one upstairs, two in the backyard, incredibly loud, and Clint nearly jumped out of his skin.  His breath came out in wheezes.

“Cleared!” the group upstairs called down.

“Heard!” the teenager called up.

“Cleared!” the backyard group called out; the guy who’d had the rifle approached the back door and raised a hand in a wave.  The teenage girl waved back.

“Heard!  Upstairs, back shed is cleared!”

“Heard!”

“You okay?” the teenager asked.

Clint had no idea how to answer that question.

She didn’t press him, and most of her attention was on the other parts of the house.

Nervous, unsure, Clint paused, then began to roll up his shirt, pulling it up.  It was easier because she wasn’t looking at him.

She looked and he stopped where he was, shirt up to his lower ribs.

It took effort to bring himself to keep going.  Effort to lift it up to the armpits, and show her the damage that had been done.

With fingers, he pulled bloody tissues out of the wound.  Fistfuls and fistfuls that had gotten soggy and pressed in together.

There was a hole in his chest where his heart was supposed to be.  A hole big enough to fit his fist into, ribs broken, his skin torn and folded away, flaps pressing into the sides of the wound.

An empty space with nothing to fill it.

She stared down at it.

“Yep,” she said, quiet.

He wasn’t sure what response he’d been expecting, but that wasn’t it.

She turned.  “Upstairs!  Can you keep an eye out for a heart?  Maybe in a box or a jar?”

“Heard!  On it!”

“They’re looking for stuff?” Clint asked, quiet.

“Yeah.  Figuring out what’s up.  Hints that might lead us to more other groups like them, or help us figure out weaknesses.”

“There’s a baby,” Clint whispered.  “It looks like my brother Brody.”

“Shit.  Upstairs!  There’s a third!  Look for-”

“Crib.  End of the hall.”

“There’s a crib!”

Clint could hear the running footsteps.

There were three gunshots, one after another.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I wasn’t fibbing, I thought since it’s a baby-” he sputtered the words, before remembering that oppressive silence, before remembering he’d nearly been unwilling to ever speak again.

“It’s in the walls!” someone upstairs shouted.

“Heard!” the teenager shouted, waving in the other two as they came down the hall.

“It’s fine,” the teenager said.  “You’ve been through a lot.  Just do me a favor?”

Clint nodded, tense.

“Maybe pull your shirt down and if your neighbors poke their heads outside asking about the noise, say it’s construction.”

Clint hesitated, then obeyed.  It felt wrong, having his shirt down, nothing filling that gaping hole in his chest.

As he headed out to the front door, the teenager revved the chainsaw.  “Stop stomping around, upstairs!”

He left the front door open, wandering out to the front walkway, and everything felt too real for how strange the moment was.  The lots and houses were big and the neighbors were a little distance away but with everything so horrible happening-

The teenager moved the chainsaw, like she was tracking something she couldn’t see.  Then she plunged it into the wall.  Blood sprayed out of the hole there.

-the outside was so sunny and normal.

“Cleared!”

“Thank you!” the other woman said.  “My daughter, lovely daughter.”

The teenager made a face as the woman came down the stairs, used sleeve to wipe away blood, and then planted a kiss on her forehead.

“Still looking for your heart, baby,” the woman told Clint.

Clint nodded.

“These ones usually keep them around.”

“There’s- other ones?”

“Oh, honey, um-”

“Mom?” the teenager asked.  “Can I?  I’ll give him the rundown?”

The mom nodded.

The teenager approached, passing the chainsaw to her mother, and partially closed the door.

“Buddy, you got a name?”

“Clint.”

“Clint, hi.  I’m Elise.  Listen, I’m so sorry, but your family died in a house fire-”

Clint looked at the house, unburnt.

“There’ll be a fire.  You’ll- this is all a bad dream, okay?  You made up monsters because that was easier, it’s easier to pretend there are evil things that can be killed than it is to pretend that sometimes really awful, random things happen.”

Clint shook his head a little.

There was a knock on the door, from the inside.

Elise opened the door a bit, and the man who’d had the rifle passed her a wooden box.

She popped it open, pulled out a bloody heart, and then lifted up his shirt a bit.  He lifted it up the rest of the way.

“Just… stick it in there.  Yeah.  Looks about right.  We can call the fire department, they’ll find you, you can say you got hurt in the chest, they’ll look and go oh no, that’s horrible, how are you alive, but they’ll put you together again.  And maybe any time you see a doctor you can explain you’ve got a tricky ticker and ask them not to poke around too much.  I think if you’re a little bit phobic of doctors that’ll be okay, it’ll work out and the universe will keep you out of the way of anything too health-related, as thanks for playing along.”

“I don’t understand.”

She reached into a pocket and pulled out bandages, and she wrapped bandage around his chest.  The heart was pulsing in there, wriggling, and as it did, more blood was welling out of the wound.

She kept wrapping as she told him, “Lie, Clint.  Lie to the doctors, lie to neighbors, lie to friends.  Just lie, lie, lie to yourself.  Do whatever you gotta do, convince yourself, as deep down as you can, this was all a bad dream.  Even this conversation.  Can you lie?”

Her voice was almost hypnotic, almost something that could pull him in, if he let it, the repeated words, the pattern.

He shook his head a little.

“Does any of this feel right?  Does this feel real?”

“You- you guys feel real.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “But if you lie hard enough, you can tell yourself I was a subconscious voice, or a face in a dream, okay?  And that’s better.”

“Better than?”

“Than continuing to live in a world with monsters.  Live in the lie, Clint.  Because the truth gets…”

She looked back at the house.  She looked down at her hands, and there was a little speckling of blood on her arms and hands.  She wiped the beads on her right arm away with the edge of her left thumb and thumbnail, one by one.

“How’s that heart doing?” she asked.

“Beating.”

“Wound looks fresh.  That from today?”

He nodded.  “But I’ve known a week or so.”

“Ah, Clint, buddy,” she said.  “That makes it harder to buy into the lie, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he said, though he wasn’t sure exactly what she was talking about.

There was another knock on the door.  It felt weird to be outside and talking and having people on the inside knock.  Elise opened the door.

“Kid,” the tall, broad-shouldered, middle-aged guy who’d had the rifle said.  “You know of any hiding spots?  Any other weirdness?”

He shook his head.  “They fixed everything up after it broke, but…”

“What’d they fix?”

He pointed at the front door, then slipped inside, and pointed at the wall by the stairs, the railing.

“That it?”

He shook his head.

“Just burn it down, Haris,” Elise said.

“Was that what you were thinking?  Is that the story Clint’s going with?”

“Trying to get him there.”

Haris nodded.  “Anything you want to keep, kid?”

“Clint?” Elise asked.

“Uh,” he couldn’t imagine- he still felt a little stunned by proceedings.  He still felt scared even though it was supposedly over.  His heart felt weird as it throbbed in his chest.

“It can’t be a big deal, can’t be weird that you grabbed it, on your way outside after first seeing the fire.  Couple pictures, maybe?”

“You can take more if you can sell yourself on the lie, about how you got it,” Elise said.  “Maybe keep it secret?”

He didn’t want to go back in that house.  He could see through the open door to the living room, where the chainsaw had cut a hole in the wall, and the hole in the wall was bleeding.  Brody or something pretending to be Brody was inside.

He went inside.

“Power bar in the kitchen, we’re thinking a trace of white phosphor and metal filings,” Elise’s mom called out.

“Don’t burn yourself,” ‘Haris’ said.

Clint went to a photo album, and he picked it up, hugging it to his chest, feeling his heart throb in a strange way as something pressed against the opening.  He glanced at the people, and saw the skepticism on their faces.

Walking over to the couch, he dropped it there, opened it, and picked some photos.  One of the family all together.  One of him and his friends, Teresa in the background.

He got a bunch of things, and he didn’t care if they thought it was too much.  He went upstairs, and averted his eyes from the washroom, from the shower curtain that had been pulled down, draping over the thing that had pretended to be his mother, half in and half out of the tub.  The gunshot had painted a wall red.  He passed his little brother’s nursery and he could see the holes in the wall there.  In his own room, he stepped in the cleaning chemical and got his sock wet, and so he changed his socks before also pulling on his favorite shirt, he grabbed the tag that hung from his lamp, a bit of metal with his cat’s name on it, from the box that her ashes had been put in after she’d been cremated last year.  He got his school bag.

They looked like they wanted to tell him it was too much, as he came downstairs.  He set his jaw.

“All good?” the mom asked.

“Yeah, think so,” Elise replied.

There was a sound like a match being set, but it wasn’t a match.  It was a dusting of something cast into the unused openings in a power bar with a bunch of appliances, radio, and toaster all plugged into it.  The dusting sparked, then erupted into fire.

As a group, they departed.

“Let’s go before people start poking their heads outside,” the mom said.  “How’d it go, talking to the kid about options?”

“Not… great,” Elise said.  “Eh Clint?”

“Options?  You only told me one.”

“I sorta mentioned the other, but… you’ll be happier with the one I told you about.”

He stood a few feet away from the front door as they all walked out, moving with that same stride.  The grizzled old guy with the long coat, Haris, was carrying most of the guns, holding them inside the coat, a large hand holding them as a bundle, barrels pointed at the ground.

“Go with the lie, Clint, say nothing at first, then leak small details over time, okay?  Ones you’re sure about, ones you know don’t contradict anything you’ve established.  Believe it as you say it.”

He was silent, his heart hammering in his chest even though he felt calmer than he had all week.

He watched as they all got into the van.  He glanced back at the house and saw the fire spreading through the kitchen.

“You’re going to be okay, Clint,” Elise said.  She settled into the back of the van, speaking through the open door.  “You’ll be groggy after the surgery when they fix your chest up, that’ll help fuzz everything up.”

“What if they don’t burn up all the way?” Clint asked, worried, worried not just because of the questions but because he wanted that lie.  He wanted his chest fixed.  He wanted to not be scared.

“They’ll burn.  The universe cleans up pretty nice after us.  Just like the universe is keeping the neighbors from getting up in our hair about the gunshots.  We get that little perk.”

“It’s not the universe, Elise,” Haris said.  “It’s God.  Don’t disrespect Him.”

“Do you want me to shove my god down your throat, Haris?  Because we’ve been down this road.”

“Save it, Elise.  Quiet, Haris,” the mom said.  She leaned out the passenger side window.  “Okay, Clint?  Look after yourself.”

He looked back at the growing fire.

He started moving.

He walked, strode at first, and he thought of how they’d come down the walkway, in the opposite direction, all at first.

Look after yourself.

It felt like they were asking him to do just that, and the idea terrified him as much as anything, and he’d become very acquainted with terror lately.

And they were saying the universe looked after them?  Or God did?  Or something did?

He switched from stride to jog, and then he ran the last few steps.  As if he’d miss his chance or the door would slam.

But Elise was there, by the door, and she wasn’t closing it.  She didn’t look surprised.

There were no open seats, but she grabbed his hand as he reached, to help him inside, and then she pulled him into her lap.  She helped pull off his bag and then she hugged him tight from behind.

The guy in the backseat leaned forward to push the door closed.

The van started up.

The flat of Elise’s hand was over Clint’s heart, where it pumped unevenly where it sat, at the bottom of a horizontal hole.

“Yeah,” she whispered in his ear, squeezing him.  “I couldn’t either.”

🟂

Four years and three months ago

The apartment building had the vibe of a building that had served some other purpose once, like an office building with wires in corrugated metal tubes threading in and out of walls, all painted over in white.  The paint was probably lead.

Elise led the way, holding a bat with nails poking through the end.  Her chainsaw was hanging behind her back from a strap that also connected to her belt and holster, where she had a gun at her hip.

She was followed by four more.  Her mother was in the car, a heavy gun rigged to the passenger seat, pointed at the door.

“How are you doing, Raph?” she asked.

“Nervous.”

“This should be…” she wanted to say easy.  It wouldn’t be easy.  She’d already seen the hints.  “…doable.  Just follow Clint’s lead, okay?  Don’t shoot until he’s shooting.”

“Yeah,” Raph replied.

He and Clint were… not as far apart in age as some of the pairings she’d seen, a fifteen year old and a twenty year old.  They had similar likes, fought over the same girls who fell between their ages, but Raph was bright and Clint was dark in demeanor, Raph was careful and methodical and Clint crashed in the door.

Clint had grown.  He was taller than Elise was now, muscular, hair short, eyes dark.  He was only barely fifteen and he was showing signs he’d be one of the biggest in their group by the time he was fully grown.  His workout regimen only played into that.

Raph was narrower, could pass more easily on the street, without that look in his eyes that let everyone know he’d seen some messed up stuff.  Which he had.

She reached the top floor and saw the chalk on the floor.  She eyed it, she wasn’t an expert, but she knew what to look out for, and she knew what wasn’t an issue.  There were markings that could explode or turn the metal of the stairwell into a bear trap, and there were markings that kept things out.

This was meant to slow things down, keep them out.  Her shoes scuffed the chalk, marring it.  She reached the sliding metal door that served as the entryway, and hauled it open with one hand.

“Daddy!” a little girl shrieked.

It was a loft apartment, high ceiling going to a peak above the hallway she still stood in, high windows, tons of light.  The walls were painted that same lead paint white, the floors were white as well, if a little more scuffed, and it made the place very bright.  Furniture was hypermodern, with egg-shaped chairs all hanging from fine chains, around a massive and hyper high-def television set that was just screen, no apparent border.

“Pardon the intrusion,” Elise said, as she stepped inside.  She saw a woman in the kitchen, and Elise’s eyes went to the knives in the marble knife block.  The woman backed away, not even thinking to arm herself.

Her squad followed her in.  Clint, big and cold, carrying an assault shotgun.  Raph, new, longer-haired, skinny, a little shaky, but still with that sense that he was dangerous, carrying a crossbow.  There was Nelson, who Elise hated being around in times of peace, but was more than happy to have along in a crisis, and who hated Elise back, in peace and war both.  He was round-faced, round-bodied, with stubble and a glimmer of mean-ness in his eyes.  And there was Rocky, who was newer than Raph but had the aura of being an old pro, which was a combination that made Elise more nervous than shaky Raph with a crossbow did.

The mom was pretty, pale with blonde hair, an hourglass figure, in her late thirties or early forties, but wearing it really damn well.  Her girls were maybe twelve, ten, eight, and six, pretty enough to be models, in clothes nice enough to deserve models to show them off.  Like the kind of fashion that was showcased in the big store windows in the fanciest stores in downtown Toronto.  Hair styled, everything nice.

“Who are you trying to impress?” Elise asked the mom, jabbing at the occasional art piece, tipping over flower vases with plants in them.  “Looked at your Go Foto Yourself galleries.  Perfect family, perfect everything?”

“If you want money, um, just let me put the kids in their room, we can lock the door-”

“You always lock your kids up?” Clint asked.

“No.  No, never, but-”

“We don’t want money,” Elise said.  “We want to talk to your husband.  We know he’s in.  Where is he?”

“He’s in his office, we don’t disturb him, especially when he’s doing precise work.”

“Yeah,” Elise said.  “I think, in a scenario like this we should disturb him.”

“We never disturb him,” the mom said, with emphasis, and she looked a bit scared now.

“Mom,” the oldest girl whispered.

“Shh.”

“In there?” Elise asked, as she crossed the apartment.

“Don’t!” the mom raised her voice, and stark fear crossed her features.  “We can’t-!”

Elise kicked the sliding metal door that led to the office, hard.  It rattled in its housing and it banged like a really shitty gong.

The door opened.  The guy inside was… sorta attractive, but in that ‘best looking guy on the block’ way, not model-esque like the others.  Tanned, with wavy black hair with a high forehead, bushy eyebrows, chiseled jaw, bit of a dimple, loose cotton shirt, sweatpants.  He was fit, and the way his skin was darker outside of the creases in his forehead suggested he’d spent time in the sun.

He took in the scene, tense.  Machinery hummed behind him.

“Mr. Asher?”

“That’s my first name, yes.  Asher Hodgston.  And you are?”

“Witch hunters, Witch,” Elise told him.  She held the bat at the middle and at the end.  She glanced from him to the bat and back again.

He swallowed, hard.

“Witch?” the wife asked.

“Does she know?” Elise asked.

He shook his head.  “She doesn’t need to.  They don’t need to.”

“Your eldest daughter thinks differently.  She tipped us off.”

A look of pain crossed his face.

She held the nail-studded bat out toward his face, forcing him to back up, as she ventured into the workspace.

A desk, four monitors, and a glass case with lasers flashing within.

In another case, a lump of white-gray material.

She found the catch and she opened it.

“Don’t touch it, don’t taint it-”

She dug fingers into soft material, and it was warm to the touch.  It was soft enough to stretch but firm enough that she could dig fingers in and lift the entire block.

“Don’t get it dirty!” he raised his voice.  One of the others might have motioned with a weapon, because he reacted to them, backing off just as quickly as he’d gotten angry.

She walked through the office door and she threw the material into the center of the floor.  It rolled a bit, picking up grit from the floor.

Mr. Hodgston dropped to his knees, looking at it.

“Clay from which life can be forged,” she said.  “Fancy stuff your husband works with, Mrs. Hodgston.”

“I stay out of his work.”

“Uh huh,” Elise said.  “I think he made you that way.”

“What?”

“I made her her own person,” he said.  “There’s no point if there’s no free will, I’m not a monster.”

“You’re a monster of a rare breed and all of this is on your head,” Elise told him, her voice getting heated.

“Made?” Mrs. Hodgston asked.

“Forged out of clay, with life breathed into you, you came to life,” Clint told her.

“With his tendencies, you were, are… perfect, aren’t you?” Elise asked.  “Not a speck of impurity or grit in you.”

“This is nonsense.”

“Can you tell me a childhood memory?  A real, verifiable one?”

“I have childhood memories,” Mrs. Hodgston said.  “Vacations by the beach.  Parents would argue sometimes, but they’d make up later.”

“You made her well,” Elise told the guy who was still on his knees, despondent.

“What will it take for you to drop this charade!?” the wife raised her voice.  “You’re scaring our children!”

“Didn’t you wonder why your kid ran away?” Nelson asked.

“Every minute, sometimes.  It breaks my heart,” Mrs. Hodgston said.  “She never leaves my thoughts.”

“She realized there was something wrong.  She snooped.  She went into the office,” Elise said.

“We’re not-”  The wife sounded intense.  She shook her head, looking away.  “-allowed to go into the office.”

She said it like she’d realized what she was saying before she was even done with the sentence, voice dropping.  Realizing how it sounded.

“Yep,” Elise replied, voice low.  She shot the woman a sympathetic look.

The woman looked away.

She glanced at the others, and Raph tapped the side of his neck.

Elise looked.  The wife was wearing a necklace of what looked like white gold plates connected to one another, the biggest one in the center an inch by an inch across.

“You think so, Raph?” she asked.

“Saw a glimpse, between the segments.”

“Those crazy eyes of yours, Raph,” Elise said.

“Yeah.”

Fuck.  How were they supposed to resolve this, without… without just opening fire indiscriminately?  Without the chance, however slim, of undeserving casualties?

She spoke slowly and carefully.  “Mrs. Hodgston, if you’re willing, I’ll make you a deal.  Your daughter’s downstairs in the truck-”

Teary-eyed, the wife made a small exclamation, hands to her chest.  “Please.”

“And we’ll give her back to you.  We’ll leave, without violence, with apologies…”

“Please-”

“If you take off that necklace.”

And there it was.  The brick wall, the immediate, kneejerk no.  Like she’d asked the impossible.  Damn.

“It’s more a symbol of our bond than our wedding ring.  I-”

“More important than your daughter?” Elise asked, testing, seeing the limits of the wall.

“No, but-”

“But?” Elise asked.

Seeing the emotions on this woman’s face, her heart sank.

Yeah.  This wouldn’t be easy.

“You’re not allowed like you’re not allowed to go in the office, huh?” Nelson asked.

There was a meanness to the tone that went beyond what Elise was comfortable with.

“It’s not like that.”

“That’s the deal, Mrs. Hodgston,” Elise said.  “Mr. Hodgston?”

The man, eyes downcast, kneeling, shook his head.

“Mr. Hodgston?”

“I do good for the community.  We give to charity, I build medical equipment and donate it to hospitals, my wife does low cost photoshoots, professional quality, for a hobby, she takes pictures of the homeless for a humanitarian project.  My children get good grades, they say their prayers every night.  They have friends, happy, who love them.  They have fans on social media.”

“They’re not real,” Nelson said.

“They’re real!” Mr. Hodgston roared.  “They’re living, they breathe, they love, they enjoy their shows, they get snarky, my youngest makes little clay figures of mythological creatures and does videos about them, she has thousands of followers!  Kati is student president, she plays violin beautifully!”

He got to his feet, his movements intensifying as his words did.  Crossbow and gun pointed in his general direction and he didn’t seem to care.

“I love them!”

Raphael aimed his crossbow at Asher Hodgston’s heart.

“Asher!” the wife shouted.  “They’ll kill you!”

He stopped in his tracks.  He turned his head, looking down at the blob of the clay of life, sitting on his floor.

“Take the necklace off,” he said.

“But-” was the response.

He didn’t say another word, didn’t look at her, and she didn’t finish her protest.

Elise watched as she undid the clasp, fought with it, because it had likely been a long, long time since she’d put it on.

The jewelry clattered as it touched the counter.

“There.  Done,” the wife said, like she was disgusted she’d had to do something so trivial.  Then, not seeing any change in their expressions, doubting that indignation, her hands went to her neck where the necklace had rested.

“Mom,” the oldest daughter whispered.

And there, on the side, fingers found the grooves that were less a scar or mark in flesh, and more like the etching a needle might make, digging into clay.  A four digit number: 2113.

“What is it?” she asked, as she turned, looking at herself in the reflective surface of the fridge.

“A doomsday clock, counted in people,” Elise said.  “We had to ask around.  See, having the lifegiving clay is only the first step.  The skill to make something out of it, yeah, that’s it’s own thing too.  But you also need power, and your husband… he’s from a fine family, one we don’t have any major issues with, but they’re not a powerful family.  So maybe, everything else being the same, we’d leave this be, warn him not to go overboard, check in once in a while.”

“Big maybe,” Nelson said.

She bit her tongue rather than reply to that.  It was important to be on the same page in the field.  “Husband doesn’t want to go the usual route, decides he wants a perfect wife and crafts her out of clay, and for the power, he makes a deal with something nasty.  I’m guessing those prayers your kids have been saying are to this thing.”

“Yes,” Mr. Hodgston said, quiet.

“And if enough people make that deal, ask for that big hit of power, I think somewhere in the neighborhood of seven thousand?”

“Seven thousand, nine hundred and nineteen,” he said.

“Millions die, you all included, and it all goes to hell,” Elise said.

With shaking hands, the mother knelt down, to where a bangle encircled her daughter’s ankle.  She had to work to undo the clasp, using a knife from the knife block, had to pull on the clasp.

The girl looked up at the group of them, tearing up, one hand on her younger sister’s shoulder, rubbing as if to reassure, when she looked like she needed all the reassurance in the world.

“Twenty-nine thirty,” Mrs. Hodgston said.  “On Kati’s ankle.”

“Oh god,” Kati whispered.  “I’m not real?”

“Fast climb.  How many years?”

“Four years.  It went down again, after,” he said.  “For the next child.”

“No thanks to you,” Elise said.

“No,” he agreed.  “They are so good, you have no idea, they’re such good children, they make the world brighter-”

“Do you want us to handle it, or will you?” Elise asked, with tears in her eyes.

“Handle?” he asked.  “Just like that?  You say that so easily?  Come on, no.  No, they- we could leave it.  We could wait until there are signs the number has gotten too high.”

“The number jumped by eight hundred in four years.  You could have had beautiful, lovely children by some beautiful, lovely wife you didn’t have to make out of clay,” Elise told him.

“Then they wouldn’t have been perfect,” he replied.

“You got greedy, and you having to make this decision in this moment is the price.  If just a few thousand more people made the decision to be this greedy, to take advantage of that kind of offer, or to reap the benefits of it and etch their own kids with the number, it would all be over,” Elise told him.

“You’re asking them to die for my greed.”

Elise didn’t respond.

“We could let them live.  At least until the number climbs.  You can decide a number, and at the first sign that it’s passed that number?  Six thousand?  Five thousand?”

Elise shook her head.

“Three thousand, even.  A bit more time?  A week together.”

“Pretty sure it’s over four thousand five hundred with the mark etched onto them by now,” she told him.  “We never know quite for sure what the number is getting up to.”

The man swallowed hard.

“You’re making another child in there, aren’t you?  The lasers, etching the clay?”

“A baby.  They’re to be twins.”

“Do you have the numbers for the twins yet?” Elise asked.

“No.  They answer a prayer from one of the numbered and that numbered individual or Other comes to pass a note under the door with the number on it.”

“And if someone’s gone and killed the person with number three, then you’d get the number three, potentially?”

“Listen, listen, please.  They might have started as clay, the marks may look like that, but they bleed red.  They cry.  They laugh- laugh beautifully.”

“Do you want to handle it, or should we?” she asked.

He drew in a deep breath, and he looked over at his family, huddled together in the kitchen, hugging one another, crying.  The youngest probably didn’t understand.

“Asher,” Elise spoke, the tone a warning.

“You,” he said, barely audible.

“You fucking coward,” she told him.  “Rocky?  The lab.  Total it.  Raph?  watch the door, pick off any runners.”

The family was sounding more agitated now.

“Nelson?” she let the word hang.

“The kitchen?”

The family was in the kitchen.

“Please.”

“And what are you doing?”

“Brooking zero sass, I am so not in the mood right at this moment.  Clint?  Help.  You and Raph pick this clay up off the floor, we can probably barter that crap.”

The others set into motion.  Clint and Nelson circled around either side of the kitchen counter, aiming, and one of the girls shrieked her fear.

She didn’t take her eyes off of Asher, didn’t break eye contact as he stared at her.  Until one girl scrambled over the counter, lifted up and forward by her mother.

Raph shot, and she went from forward momentum to backward momentum, bouncing back.

The girl shattered like baked clay.

Elise glanced from that to Asher Hodgston, who knelt on the floor.

She brought the bat down to his head, nails sinking in.

🟂

Leann drove, not speeding, not going slow.  She drove to drive and move them in a measured, unhurried way away from that scene back in the city.  The Hodgstons.

She reached across to the passenger seat, where Elise sat on a cushion because they’d modified the seat to hold the machine gun mount.  She tucked a bit of hair behind Elise’s ear.

Elise’s stare was a thousand-yard one, extending out the side window for the last hundred kilometers or so.  If Leann couldn’t see the reflection of Elise’s face, and if she didn’t know what had happened at the Hodgstons’ loft apartment, then she might have thought Elise was sleeping.

Each of them had their own techniques and talents.  If they had them before, from the bad moments that each of them realized there was a fight and that they needed to join the fight, they went to the Lighthouse to train in those things.  If they didn’t, then they trained harder, with some meaner people, and those things were forced into the open.  Sometimes it was little, like Elise and her proficiency with any weapon that was sufficiently impractical and grisly, and sometimes it was more profound, like Clint’s heart.

Leann was more middle of the road.  She kept them going.  A thump on the chest from her fist seemed like it could revive people a team of doctors and a defibrillator couldn’t.  She’d failed out of nursing school when it had all gone- well, before she’d gone to the Lighthouse, but the skills she’d picked up and retained went a long, long way to keeping the team patched up and able.

She liked to think that it extended to other fields.  Morale.  Support.  She cooked for them a lot of the time, and she might not have been the best at it, but nobody complained, and maybe her food was a medicine like a thump of her fist could be a defibrillator or a haphazard stitch job could help like field surgery from the next guy did.

But in moments like this, it wasn’t action that was needed, exactly.  It was presence, a kind silence.

Raph needed guidance, to find his way, he’d been through so much and he was so angry.  That was the kind of anger where, if they couldn’t train him to be collected and rational in the heat of it, he’d get angry and then get himself killed an instant later.

Clint took the bad moments hard, like any failure on any level was a mark against him as a person, and in those moments no explanation would stir him.  He needed firm feeling, care and love.  And it frankly terrified Leann that he was, right this moment, in the close company of Rocky.

She didn’t know Rocky, but she suspected Rocky, like, Nelson, needed to be kept away from people when things got bad for her.  The distinction was that Nelson got ugly in ways that put him at the top of a list of five people in Leann’s life that were ugly, and Rocky was adorable at fourteen and on the fast track to being gorgeous, the kid knew it on both fronts, and she’d use it to hurt people, now and worse in the future.

Depending, Rocky could bump Nelson from fourth to fifth place on the list, further down the line.

And there was Elise.  Leann was admittedly biased, because Elise was hers, from womb to world, but she was sure she had a firm grip on her daughter.  When things were quiet, Leann would go and she’d send a message to the boss, Samaniego, and she’d say her group needed a little rest so they could find their way back to center.  Elise would need the quiet.  It could easily be a day, maybe a week, before she’d say much, and-

“Turn,” Elise said.

“What?”

“Turn!” Elise said, sitting up.

Leann steered the truck over to the right hand lane.

To the off-ramp.

“And stop,” Elise said.

Leanne saw a rest stop, and decided that whatever else was going on, it was good to make use of it.

She pulled into the little lot.  There was a view from here to the town nearby.  Framed by two hills, with a ski lift in plain view.

“Why are we here?” Leann asked.

“I want to get Raph’s eyes on something,” Elise replied.  She was up, animated, unbuckling herself.

The van, trailing behind Elise’s truck and pulling into the lot, had the others inside.  Elise went straight to the back door, opening it.  Raph climbed out, squeezing past her, while Clint got out the other rear door, and circled around.  Rocky, who’d apparently been napping in the back, climbed out by Clint, combing fingers through hair that had gotten messed up as she’d napped.

Leann turned off the engine and climbed out, stretching.

“Hey mom,” Elise said.

“What’s going on?” Leann asked her daughter.

“I’ve swung by this direction a few times, and every time I do, I get a bit of a feeling like someone’s giving me a nudge.  Go on, Elise, hurry on your way.”

“Someone or something?” Nelson asked, as he got out of the van.  “Very different things.”

“Or both?” Leann asked.  “They can be the same thing.  A someone that’s also a something.”

“Yeah,” Nelson said.

“I figure maybe we can exercise a bit?  Stop from getting blood clots in our legs.”

“I’ve got to go water a bush,” Nelson said.  “I’ll watch the vehicles.”

“We’re going to hike, Mom.  Just look around, see what’s up.  Do you want to come?”

Disquieted, Leann just nodded.

She didn’t want to interfere, or to stop Elise from developing… whatever bonds she’d develop with these kids.  Samaniego was putting them together to train, putting Elise in charge, and when Leann said she wanted to go to make sure they were safe and healthy, he’d treated it more like… like a concession, than something he thought was desirable.

Twice in the last five years, there had been groups from the Lighthouse that had gone out to run ‘errands’ and they hadn’t come home.  Further down the road, Leann was pretty sure, Elise’s group would be asked to step up, after another squad didn’t come back from an errand.  They’d be young, fresh, talented, with blades honed and senses sharpened, their talents on full display.  Ready to step up.

Elise being able to work together with these younger people was so important, in that regard.  That teamwork could make or break the difference when it came to the big question: would Elise eventually be part of one of those groups that didn’t make it back?  To be replaced by an even younger group?  Would members of her group train others before then?

Where would Elise find herself, on this cycle?  Where would sweet, introspective Clint?  Where would this new boy, Raph?

The path from rest stop to town went through the woods and under the highway, and the woods were tranquil.  Leann checked that she had her weapon, just to be sure.

At Raph’s suggestion, though, they didn’t go to town.  Instead, as the path curved, they headed straight, deeper into the woods.

She trailed behind, watching them.

Watched as Elise stared off into the distance, still coming to terms with what had happened with the Hodgston family.

Elise did that a lot.  She was outgoing and vivacious, and on an ‘errand’ she was aggressive without being stupid, ready to jump into things or protect people.  But after a bad day, she fell into this kind of quiet.  Now that Leann knew what she was looking at and now that she had seen Elise come through these periods of quiet with so much strength, she was okay with it.

A long eight years ago, Elise’s father had stumbled onto a trinket.  A magic item, maybe a cursed one.  A clock with a spherical face that let the distorted face be seen from any direction, so blue that it evoked deepest sea or furthest sky.  The sphere had been inset on a golden base, surrounded and held in place by golden, cherubic infants bearing snakes, with more golden snakes for the minute and hour hands.

A rival at his work had disappeared.  Then a woman at his workplace, that she’d frankly suspected him of having an affair with.  Then his boss.  The company hadn’t survived the restructuring that had followed, and many more people had gone missing.  People had investigated, including private investigators that might have been practitioners, if she applied details that she knew now that she didn’t know then.

That attention had become fevered when the coworker her husband had had the affair with had returned twenty-four days after her departure, symbols etched into her skin and scarred over, naked, feral, and angry, choosing him to target and attack before being gunned down by a security guard at her husband’s work.  It had redoubled when she mentioned the strange animal her husband had killed and bagged before throwing it in their trash.  She’d found it and been so creeped out, but she’d taken his word for it when he’d described it as a chance mutation of something like a coyote.

Too many had gone missing but when people had investigated, her husband had claimed innocence.  The investigators hadn’t been able to find the clock, but Leann had seen it present before the interview, noticed it gone after, and she’d noticed its reappearance in her husband’s ‘man cave’ when the attention had died down.

She’d pried, and he’d attacked her, wrested it from her grip, and used it on her.

Opening a door to a primal, far-away, alien place where the golden sky screamed and impossible beasts lurked in dark wilds.

The cost of that device, she’d learned, was that it could send things back, on a schedule, and he’d often have to fight and kill things it sent out, to have the ability to get rid of anything in his way.  Like her.  Sometimes it sent beasts, sometimes men, sometimes men who could work magic.

She’d forged her way to the scheduled exit, only to find that a young Elise had been sent through, for asking too many questions, for refusing to take no for an answer.  She’d chosen to save Elise instead of leaving, and then she’d traveled and waited across another twenty-four days for the next exit.

She’d come through as someone who saved people.  Elise as someone very good at doing a grisly amount of damage to others.

Authorities had taken her husband, private investigators had taken the clock, and the Lighthouse had found them.  A Lighthouse-provided therapist had done her damndest to convince them that it was all a lie, that they were fabricated, delirious memories conjured in while they were in the secret captivity of her ex, Elise’s dad.

Because the Lighthouse didn’t need those who weren’t committed.

Leann had known she had to fight to protect others from the same fate, and she wished dearly that Elise didn’t feel the same way.

Her feelings about her ex were part of why she hadn’t gone up to the Hodgston’s loft.  She’d stayed behind with the older daughter, who had had a teenaged Romeo playfully take off her jewelry and found the number, then pried into her dad’s affairs.

If Leanne had gone, she’d have been too upset, given the similarities of the situations.  If she’d gone, she couldn’t be a support now, she’d reasoned.

Except…

Except as much as she knew her daughter, Elise was talking and strategizing, discussing things, and proving to be alert and eerily fine.

The thousand yard stares still happened, but they were fewer and further between.

Elise wasn’t struggling to function, like she might normally do.

Maybe that had been happening for a good long while, now.

Leann found herself wishing her daughter was struggling.  That the decisions made and the reality of having to deal with the children marked with numbers were weighing on her more.

She would have felt so much better than she did right now if Elise was sobbing and inconsolable over the decisions they’d had to make.

“There,” Raphael said.

The younger group crossed the woods, and Elise glanced back at her mom, flashing a smile.

Leann smiled back, but it was an expression put out there by sadness, not anything else.

“Wards,” Elise said.  “Practice, by a practitioner.”

“This is a lot,” Leann observed, as she got close enough to see.

Most wardings she’d seen were over a small area.  A glade or a clearing, maybe a patch of forest as large as this one.

It looked like a straight line.  That meant the curve, if there even was one, was very gentle, drawing out a circle over a very, very large area.

Was this warding over the town?

“Are they keeping things out?” Elise asked.  “Or are they keeping something in?”

“What the hell is big enough to deserve a cage this size?” Raph asked.

“Samaniego has talked about things,” Elise said, glancing at her mom.  “Beasts from a time before beasts had defined form.  Forms fed by the imagination of savage humans.”

“Could be other things,” Leann replied.

“But stuff like that, right?”

“Say yes.”

Leann paused.  “Yes.”

Elise nodded, bending down to examine the little organized arrangements of sticks and twine, and stone, and other things.  The others fanned out.

Leann turned.

A woman stood with her back to the same tree that Leann was standing by.  Black hair, her back to Leann, face not visible, hands in pockets.

“I have things I want to protect, same as you,” the woman by the tree said.

Leann reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone.  She held it to her ear, so talking to herself wouldn’t seem so strange.

“Are you practitioner or Other?” Leann whispered.

“Other.”

“Of what sort?”

“I’d rather not say.  Not Fae, not a sort where the label would stir much in the way of worries, if you knew all of the labels.”

“I see.”

“A colleague, admittedly a Fae, suggested that you have kind eyes, despite the blood on your hands.”

“I’d like to think I do, yeah,” Leann whispered.  “I worry sometimes about how much blood there must be, and how far the kindness gets me.  I’ve let Elise become this.

“It’s why I’m approaching you.  In another circumstance, I’d disturb your cars, and the man there would call you all back, and you’d hopefully consider your options before going home.  Or I’d send an Other to distract, or an echo you could normally deal with… except for the fact your tempers are frayed, you’re tired, and two of you might come into sharp conflict as a result.”

“Are you that clever a creature, Other?” Leann asked.

“I’m a creature who thinks of little else other than… this.”

“The boundary?  This warding?”

“If you pressed, I think you’d find things you’d feel obligated to mention to others.  These things would reach the wrong ears, and life would become more complicated for your people and mine.  I swear to you, I’m trying my hardest to prevent any undue harm to human, to Other, to you…”

“Are we a distinct group from humans?”

“Distinct from humanity, I think.”

“Ahh,” Leann made a sound.  “Maybe.”

“I think you want the same for your daughter, at the very least.  Protection from undue harm.”

“And you want to?”

“I’d ask you to suggest to the other members of your group that this might be something contained with good reason.  It isn’t.  But if you can suggest it, it buys us some reprieve.”

“Who is ‘us’?  You, a Fae…?”

“I meant us, as in your group and mine.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“It doesn’t, I know.”

Leann stared at her daughter, and watched her talk to Raphael.  Giving him advice.

“There are members of… my contingent-”

“Of the Lighthouse.”

“Yes,” Leann murmured.  “They’d hear there was something scary here and they’d feel compelled to stick their noses in it.”

“If they’re that gung-ho, I can throw them bait to direct them elsewhere.”

“And practitioners who would want to know who made and claimed responsibility for this barrier.”

“I think I can deal with them too.  But your group… they have sharp eyes in their midst, they’re driven, they’re hungry, and yet they don’t have anything pulling them elsewhere.  I think they’re too tenacious.  I’d have to send a gunman into their midst to get them to stop, and that’d attract attention.  The Lighthouse would work it out.”

“And you’d be murdering a group where half of those present are minors.”

“Yes.  I could say some words about who it is that’s leading them into that kind of situation, where murder is possible, but… I don’t want to be enemies, Leann Norwood.”

“No,” Leann replied.

The woman on the other side of the tree went silent.

Leaving Leann with her thoughts.

She gave it her due consideration, aware that the little decisions she was making here might be ones that pulled her away from the Lighthouse.

At the end of the day, she had no quarrel with Others.  She wasn’t bothered by the Fae if they didn’t bother her.  Which, yes, some had, and she’d pumped buckshot into their faces as payback.  But that wasn’t her battle.  It wasn’t what drove her to fight.

If this Other was asking politely to be left alone, if the town wasn’t suffering in any obvious way?  She wasn’t going to push.

Men like her ex-husband scared her more than any ghost or goblin.  Practitioners did.  Selfish people scared her.

She’d had to put a bullet in Skye Hodgston, the oldest daughter, and then she’d cleaned the dry clay out of the back seat before the others could come down.  And when that girl hadn’t been that far away from Elise in age… it sat heavy.

She was tired.

“Thinking on this situation in front of us, I think I’m a little uneasy with the idea of poking around wards and protections that might be keeping something dangerous in,” she told the group.

They looked back in her direction.

“And I’m pretty gosh-darn easy with the notion of getting back to the city with enough time to catch a movie in the hotel room.”

“You think there’s something here?” Raph asked.

She shrugged.  “They look like protective wards, to my uneducated eye.  I don’t see anything too tricky.  Seems to me that someone out there did the legwork for us.  I say we leave that alone.  We’ve done enough today.”

Elise looked around at the scene, then jerked a thumb back in the direction of the path.

When Leann stopped leaning against the tree, glancing around, she couldn’t see the woman she’d just been talking to.

The other members of the group headed back the way they’d come.  Leanne fell into step beside her daughter, picking her footing as she trudged through vegetation.

“I guess if the wards end up going down, we should check that something big didn’t get loose?” Raph asked.

“Maybe,” Leann said.  “When anything this big goes to pieces, it’s usually a sign of trouble on the horizon.”

🟂

Now

“Let me get this abundantly clear,” Gerald Haris addressed the group of Witch Hunters.  “Because I haven’t come down this direction all that often…”

They looked at him.  Many young faces, some as young as fifteen, others as old as their mid-20s.  Meanwhile, Gerald Haris was six foot six, broad in the shoulder, and long in the tooth at fifty-six.

Not many Witch Hunters made it to fifty-six, he knew.  That kind of instinct was usually an instinct for self preservation, and it conferred a sort of seniority.  The ones who had an instinct for killing scary shit that got them all the way to fifty-six got conferred a whole lot of other things, seniority included.

“…Something’s been annoying you all into going away every time you come this way?  But skinny Raph made it in?”

“We think.”

“And whatever sorts of things it does to make you need to go somewhere else… it stopped?”

Elise replied, “We’d get calls for other errands as soon as we got close to here, felt like the uni- your God, he wanted us to not hang around.”

Uh huh.

“But whatever was doing that, delaying and distracting, it stopped a few months ago, but there was always a… mess, as you got close to the perimeter.  Subtle at first, when the perimeter was strong, but we got tipped off that it wasn’t strong anymore… Raph’s last messages back said there were a lot of ghosts and spirits hanging around the border.  Different kind of barrier.”

“Uh huh,” Gerald Haris replied, rolling those two syllables around in his mouth, giving them a lot of inflection.  “Right.  And now we’re here, we’re looking to go in, and there’s no ghosts?”

“Yeah,” she said.  “No ghosts.  And no-”

“No spirits either?”

“No obvious ones.”

“Uhhh huhhh,” he rolled those syllables around in his mouth again.  “No anything?”

“Not that we can see.”

“Gates are wide open, coast is clear, Raph went in and didn’t come out?”

“Yeah,” Elise said, sounding tired of this back and forth already.

“I know your mother, bless her soul and memory both, didn’t raise an idiot…”

“I know it looks a hell of a lot like a trap, Haris.  I know,” Elise told him.

He chewed on his tongue for a second, bobbing his head in a nod, looking around.

Elise, Clint, Rocky, Renfroe, Francis, and Haris himself from the Lighthouse.

Cleo Aleshire from Montreal.  A different breed.  Thirty or so, black, hair short and oiled close to the scalp, red lipstick, heavy eye shadow, and a level stare.

She hadn’t gone to the Lighthouse to get any particular talents sharpened or honed or pulled out of her.  No, she’d taken another route.

Cleo was hanging back, not engaging.

“Somethings and someones get hard to tell apart when you’re talking about Others, you know?” Elise said.

“Is this going to make my head hurt?”

“Mom thought it was something big, and it would’ve been something that’s also a someone.  But Raph investigated, like Raph has a tendency to do…”

“Yes.”

“…and he doesn’t think it’s a someone.  It’s something, for sure, because you don’t build a barrier for nothing, but it’s not a someone-something.  It’s a lot of someones.”

“Uh huh,” Haris replied.  “You really want to take this piece of bait, huh?”

“Yeah,” she replied.  Behind her, Clint, Rocky, and Renfroe nodded.

“You good with this, Cleo?  Want to go for a walk, into the warm loving embrace of a primed bear trap?”

“I’m good,” Cleo replied.  “Lead the way.”

“Speaking of leading ways, Elise!”

“Yessir?” Elise replied.

“If you want to do this-”

“I do.”

“Then you can lead.  If it’s a trap- I loved your ma.  She was sweet and her cooking was… filling.  But if you want to do something like this you can lead the way, I make no apologies to her.”

Elise nodded.  “Am I in charge?”

“You know these kids better than I do, I’ve trained them individually but I haven’t worked with them as a group.  You have.”

“So… yes?”

“Yes, but I can override if I see fit.  If you’re getting too stupid about this, I’m pulling us out.”

“Get in the cars,” Elise called out.  “And before you ask, no, you can’t drive, you’re not sixteen yet, Francis.”

The kid groaned.

“Yeah, fuck off,” Elise said.  “I don’t want to get pulled over before we even get there.  Clint, you drive.”

“I hate driving,” Clint said.

“But you’re good at it for that same reason.  Go on,” she said.

“Let’s see how wide open and clear these front doors of theirs are,” Haris said.  “You can ride with me, Francis.  Youngest with the oldest, how’s that?”

Francis looked over in Elise’s direction, and she pretended not to notice.  The kid did his best not to show his displeasure, which was not a very good job in Haris’ estimation.

Kid needed to work on his poker face, or some damned Other would use that against him.  It was a weakness.

Haris climbed into the back of a car, because it let him spread his legs more than the passenger seat or driver’s seat could, resting one against the metal tube that ran down the middle length of the car.  Francis sat beside him, glancing down at Haris’ knee encroaching over the middle line of the car and pressing the metal in his direction as if Haris had taken a heaping shit there, instead.

The car puttered to life, Clint shifting the gears with a bit more force than necessary.

Haris had been injured more as he’d gotten older, and it was Samaniego’s style to keep them useful, so he’d put the injured to work as trainers if they were experienced enough, and paper pushers if they weren’t.  Haris had taught a lot of these guys individually, and as time went on he found himself thinking more about what they’d need to learn and what kind of exercises would get that across.  He saw stubborn, quiet Clint pushing the car too hard, and he started thinking about things that would teach the guy gentleness.

Maybe time with one of the dogs.  If one of the bitches had a pup that needed care, he could give it to Clint to give milk to.  Or one of the barn cats, he supposed.  He wondered which Clint preferred.

And that poker face, the disgust on Francis’ face… that would need something too.

They were situated far enough away that any force from the town that tried to come after them would have to travel a ways, but that blade cut both ways.

Gerald Haris leaned back, groaning, rolled down a window, and smoked a cigarette, watching out the window as if there might be some sign in cloud, tree, or in one of the rock faces that had been cut through to make way for the highway, that would let him know what this damn trap was.

🟂

Kennet.

It wasn’t the kind of place he’d go for fun.

It wasn’t the kind of place he’d go for self-abuse either.

But as they got closer and he leaned his prematurely gray-haired head out the window, Haris could smell it.  A town that smelled more like blood than some bloodbaths he’d walked in and out of.

“Where in the hell are you taking us?” Haris asked.  “You smelling this?”

“Nah,” Clint replied, then he clapped a hand against his chest, producing a hollow metal sound, hand knocking on the lid he kept over his heart.  “But my heart’s acting funnier than it usually does when we pass through.”

“Something big here, huh?”

“That’s what we were thinking, yeah,” Clint replied.

“Huh,” Haris grunted his reply.

It might have been a nice drive in, but Cleo was on her motorcycle, and it roared as she pulled alongside the vehicle, glancing inside, then roared again as she pulled ahead, going to the truck up front, where Elise and her group were.

Violating traffic laws all the while.

Cleo relaxed her speed, and fell back until she was next to Haris’ window.  She flipped up her visor again.  “She wants to know where we’re going.”

“I’m thinking anything this big, we’re going to need to figure out where we’re staying.  Let’s stop at the best place available in town, see if our boy Raphael stopped in there, yeah?”

Cleo nodded, then sped up, evading an incoming car, and then passed the truck, shouting a single word to Elise before pulling ahead of them all, speeding.

Elise stuck her thumb out the window.

They reached the highway, and they reached the town.

“Perimeter is somewhere near here.  We’d never used to be able to get in.”

“Watch out for that motorcycle.  If they’re pulling something, she might take a spill,” Haris said.

“Right.  Seems like she’s okay.”

“Your eyes are better than mine, Clint,” Haris said, groaning the words, right arm stretched all the way across the top of the back seat, left arm bent at the elbow but still stretched some.  “Smell that.”

“Feeling it, yeah,” Clint replied.

Haris could almost hear it.  The drum of that heart that had been torn out of the boy’s chest and dropped back in.

“Shit!” Clint swore.  He swerved, and Haris’ hand gripped the door, fingers outside the window.  Haris looked, and he saw- there was someone in the middle of the road.  Tall, muscular-

He lunged, hand reaching out, grabbing for the throat.

The stranger’s hand went out too- a deft slap, almost a parry, to push Haris’ hand away.

“The fuck?” Clint asked.  “What was that?”

Haris brought his hand to his nose, and he sniffed, hard.

It smelled like sunshine and blood, but everything here smelled like blood.  It smelled like blood without smelling like gunpowder and that offended him.

At least this one smelled a bit like steel, under the sunshine.  Smelled like honey and wine and fucking flowers.

He snorted, then horked a loogie out the window.  “Fucking Faerie.  Fucking fuck fuck I hate the fucking things, fuck.  That’s a bad fucking omen, fuck!”

“Easy,” Clint said.

Haris leaned into the window and he stuck his head out.  Then he hollered, “Elise!”

She stuck her head out as well, one hand over her ear, keeping hair out of her face.

“That was a Faerie!”

“We think so!” she said.

“And you still want to do this!?”

“For Raph!” she hollered back, hand cupped by her mouth.

“Fuck!” Haris swore.  “Fuck, I’m not leaving you to do this yourselves, but fuck me, if I have to deal with that fucking shit again…”

“He was trying to rile us up,” Clint said.

“I fucking know he was fucking trying to rile us up!” Haris raised his voice.  “God fucking damn it.”

“You going to be okay?” Francis asked.

“Don’t fucking condescend to me when you can’t even shave yet, boy.  Have you been trained in what to do with this shit, boy?”

“I started with this shit, sir,” Francis said.

“Yeah?  Shit.” Haris grunted.  He gave the boy a rough pat on the arm, and he pulled his knee back so it wasn’t encroaching on the boy’s space, even though it made his joints hurt some.

They didn’t have much farther to go.  Elise’s car turned and they pulled into a grungy motel, only to find there wasn’t enough parking for both them and the truck the others were in.

The motorcycle was already parked, but instead of taking a spot, Cleo had pulled it up to the walkway by the front office.

As Haris stuck his head out, looking to see if any cars might be making room, Cleo folded her arms, a single finger pointing.

At another pair of vehicles, a nice BEWC in gleaming black, and a sporty blue thing that he might’ve expected a woman to drive, that had a reddish-haired young man leaning against the door instead.

“What do you want to do?” Clint asked.

“Shhhhh,” Haris shushed him.  He listened.

“We’re getting increasingly surrounded,” the reddish-haired guy with the blue car said.

“I’m aware.  It’s fine.  Raquel?  Look into… any other option.  If the locals want us to go, we’re going to stay, but we’re not staying here.  Any house that’s being rented out, if it’s passable, maybe look into the cabins.”

“Yes, uncle.”

“Stay safe and stay close to innocents,” Reid said.  “It’s dangerous out here.”

The girl walked from the car to the sidewalk, glanced around to make sure the coast was clear, and then jogged across the road, deeper into downtown, phone pressed to her ear.

“Wye, Reid?  If you’d help me talk to this group…”

The man in charge looked around.  He had glasses perched on his nose, a glove on his hand in high summer, and clothes better fit for some bank party in Toronto than a town in west Ontario.  He looked like he exercised, but he didn’t look like he got exercise.  It was a fine distinction to Haris.

Haris popped his door open and climbed out.

He snorted, and the place smelled like drains, drugs, black mold, night sweats, and depressing sorts of intercourse.  At least some of that was Other.

“Are you the one in charge?  Abraham Musser,” the man with the glasses said.

“Gerald Haris, and no, I’m not the one in charge here.”

“Who is?”

Haris pointed at Elise, who’d climbed out the side of her truck.

“You look young enough to be my illegitimate child,” Abraham said.  “Oh, this is going to be a shitshow, isn’t it?”

“Could be,” Elise told him.

“Who are you with?”

“The Lighthouse.  Most of us.”

“We have arrangements with the Lighthouse.  Nonaggression pact.  We supply you with Aware.  The building in Winnipeg.”

“Surely you can name the person in charge of ‘the building in Winnipeg’,” Elise said.

“I can.  Bristow?  He was a colleague.”

“Was is the operative word,” Haris called out.

“A damn shame.  We’re hoping to get back to a position where we can keep supplying you.”

“They’re behind, aren’t they?” Haris asked Elise.

“Are they?”

“I think so.  They were supposed to get back to that position weeks ago.  We’re going wanting,” he called out.

“That’s troubling,” Elise said.

“Are you that eager for a fight?” Abraham Musser asked.

“A fight… or concessions.  A healthy bribe keeps us out of your way,” Elise said.

Gerald turned his head, sniffing.

His mouth turned up in a sneer, the sneer became a leer.

“Careful,” he growled the word, both as a warning to friends and a warning to this Abraham Musser.  “Is this that girl you sent off?”

“Is what that girl you sent off?”

Haris huffed out a laugh, which became another wheezing laugh.  He shook his head.  At least, being big, it took time for drugs to get to him, and this smelled like drug.  “Cover your-hh, mouth.”

Francis and Clint covered their mouths as best they could.

He turned to glare at Musser, who met the glare with a level stare of his own.

Yeahhhhhh.  Fuck this guy.  Fuck the Faerie, fuck anything getting this complicated.

Lower face pressed into elbow, motioned to Francis, making a gesture for a weapon.  He was aware that civilians all around them were starting to smile and laugh.

Francis handed him a one-handed crossbow.

This was what the kids were carrying these days?

The drug was starting to get to him.  He motioned, and when the kid didn’t move to hand him something better, he stooped down, looking.

The kid was smiling, laughing to himself, in a choked, uneasy sort of way.

“I will leave you to that,” Musser said.  “If you survive, reach out, I hope to re-establish old business again.”

This would have to do.

Haris aimed the crossbow.  He aimed at the back of Abraham Musser’s head.

He pulled the trigger, and the little arrow, solid metal from tip to feather, shot off.

The little thing had kick.  Good engineering.

And Musser caught it out of the air without turning around to look.

Right.

The drug was getting hold of him.  Bastard inconvenience.  Haris slumped against the car, thoughts dissolving as his brain became a stew of panic laughter and all the mental chemicals that were supposed to evoke it.  He dropped the dinky little crossbow into the open window.

“Maybe I’ll kill you,” Musser said.  “Want this back?”

He couldn’t bring himself to respond.  Every passing moment made it harder to process everything, and he’d- he’d been drugged and poisoned and cursed a whole lot over the years.  He liked to think it gave him resistances and immunities, but it was really fifty fifty as to whether he had picked up some resistance or some weakness from a given event.

He watched as Musser walked over to Elise, peering around, maybe to look for cameras or bystanders.

Clint pulled his own heart out, black and bulging with alchemy, and the smile on Clint’s face dropped away.

Yeah, Clint had his own perks.  The ability to hold something in his heart and put it away.

The guy grabbed top and bottom of window and hauled himself out.

“Musser!” the guy with reddish hair called out.  “Behind!”

Abraham Musser backed off from Elise, eyeing Clint and Clint’s torn shirt with the gaping hole in his chest.

Clint opened his car door, bent down, and pulled out one of the emergency kits, one eye on Musser.

“Let’s go,” Wye said.

“Is this your practice saying to go?”

“Common sense.  Let’s walk away, make an agreement, unspoken on their part, to just… not cross paths.  How’s that?”

Clint turned to Haris, and smeared something foul-smelling at the entrance of his nostril.  Haris’ face screwed up, his sharp sense of smell filling up with the smell of ass instead, and he turned away.

The smile fell off his face.

“There we go,” Clint said.

“There we go, and there they go,” Haris growled.  “Running?”

“Let’s call it a gentleman’s truce,” Musser said.

“You were willing to let us die and you were willing to hurt our Elise Norwood.”

“I’m sure you’d do the same if the tables were turned.  Wye’s right.  You came here for reasons, we came here for reasons, let’s not get distracted.”

“We came here to see what’s making this place stink,” Haris growled.  “And right now you’re not smelling like roses.”

“It’s not us.”

“I’m fifty-six years old, you know,” Haris said.

“I’m sure you’re proud,” Musser said.  “Either drive, Reid, or get out of the way so I can.”

“Fifty-six years old and I’ve learned to trust my instincts, something that goes double when I get a whiff of anything Fae.”

“You’re being manipulated.”

“I’m cutting past the manipulative shit and doing what feels right, and you crossed our Elise, you’re giving me all the bad vibes, hold up one moment.”

“I don’t think I will,” Abraham Musser said.  “Excuse us.”

Haris slapped the trunk of the car twice in quick succession.  Clint hurried to pop it.

Haris got one of his guns, hauling it out of the trunk.

The bar that had run down the car was a gun barrel.  It was technically called a punt gun, eight feet long, two inch barrel, ninety nine pounds loaded, with three-quarters of a pound of that being the gunpowder.  He had to take three steps back to get it clear of the back of the vehicle.

The gun slapped down on the hood of the vehicle, because he couldn’t hold it and shoot it at the same time.  The sound of that collision and the denting of the hood got the practitioner’s attention.

He saw the whites of Musser’s eyes as the man realized he might not be able to catch this with that tricky glove of his.

Musser, in the midst of pulling out of the spot they’d parked in, hauled open his door and ran clear.

The shot was concussive enough to lift up the front of the car Clint had driven in, and the massive amount of shot that hit the side of the practitioner’s fancy little black car lifted both left tires a good foot off the ground.  He could have aimed for the man, but taking a good chunk out of the car made his point just as well.

He watched them run for it, crossing the street where the cars had parked, the drivers leering.

“Wake up our guys and burn the car before people start coming to,” Haris said.  “Start with Elise, she’s technically in charge, and I’m too short on patience to lead right now.”


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False Moves – 12.7

Lucy

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Lucy folded her arms, looking her friend over.  ‘Verona’ shifted her feet, fixed her hair and then messed it up again, strategically, before showing off a wicked smile.

“It’s the t-shirt,” the real Verona said, scrutinizing Snowdrop, who mirrored her movements.

“I mean, we know it’s Snowdrop so obviously that’s a tell to us…” Lucy mused.  The t-shirt showed a badly drawn opossum winning a fight with a badly drawn cat.

“I’d like to think that anyone who knew me would sense that there’s something off, even without directly noticing the cat thing.  A Verona who doesn’t love cats?”

“Hate ’em,” Snowdrop said.  “Hate their psychopathic tendencies, leaving dead birds and rodents everywhere, that they don’t even bother to eat.  It’s bad for the ecosystem, in my uneducated opinion.”

Verona indicated Snowdrop with both hands.

“How much do you even need to eat, Snow?” Lucy asked.  “Carnivores and protein eaters are supposed to have one or two big meals every week, aren’t they?  And you’re tiny in your opossum form.”

“I’m tiny in my human form too!” Snowdrop said.

“That does sound like me,” Verona admitted.

“You can’t go gaming the system like that, you know,” Snowdrop said, confidentially.  “Can’t screw with things so you’re filling a human-sized belly instead of an opossum one.”

“System-messing-up.  That sounds like me too.  It’s gotta be the shirt that feels off,” Verona told Lucy.  To Snowdrop, she asked, “You’re not becoming human to eat carrion are you?”

“Yeah.”

“Good,” Verona said.  “That’d get weird.”

“Wouldn’t even if I could.”

Lucy frowned, studying Snowdrop.  Was it the little expressions?  Little differences in how she held herself?

“Say something as Verona?” Lucy prompted.

“I’m good at drawing.”

“I am good at drawing, that’s true,” Verona said.

“Let’s pretend I’m my mom.  If I ask you what you’ve been up to all day, you say…?”

“I’ve been drawing, reading, and making productive use of my time.  Can I have snacks?”

“Maybe let’s not go hard on the snacks,” Lucy said.

“Right, I don’t deserve payment for my hard work and sacrifice, being here.”

“And can you make it sound natural?  What were you doing yesterday night, when we were out?”

“I wasn’t browsing opossum pictures or anything, I watched a movie about, uh, cars,” Snowdrop replied.

“That’s less natural,” Lucy noted.

“What happened in the movie?” Verona pressed.

“Uhhhh.  I didn’t fall asleep part way through so I should know this, uhhh.  I know what happens in these movies.”

“I think I’m starting to get why my mom was concerned about Verona,” Lucy said.

Flustered, Snowdrop huffed, “I spent time with a boy!”

“I like where you’re going with that,” Verona said.  “Art and boy time is a passable starting point for being me.”

“Except that gets us in more trouble,” Lucy said.  “We’re supposed to be grounded.”

“I didn’t eat any bugs!”

“That comes across as an oddly specific denial,” Lucy noted.

“Stop teasing her,” Verona nudged Lucy.  “I’d still like to think it’s the shirt choice more than anything.”

“I’m not sure I want to know what a Snowdrop version of me would be like,” Lucy said.

“Way harder,” Snowdrop said, settling down a bit.

“Easier how?” Lucy asked.

“Lots of similarities, like… Verona and I aren’t scruffy, but if I’m you I can be all… I take care of my hair, I care about wearing more than a t-shirt and shorts.”

“Again, you do realize this is about you pretending to be us?  If you’re pretending to be me and talking like that then my mom’s probably going to think I did drugs or something.  Or she might think I had a brain aneurysm.”

“I’m flattered,” Snowdrop said.

“Do you want to abandon this plan?” Lucy asked.  “I thought it was better to have someone on guard, I’m glad you were there, but this seems like more stress than it’s worth, when we can use a connection blocker.”

You can use a connection blocker,” Verona groused.  “Want to come with, Snow?”

Snowdrop nodded.

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “I guess this is me doing all of this then.  Connection blocker, but I don’t want to not exist to my mom, I’d rather do something subtler…”

“Let me be the assistant,” Verona said.  “Connections and elaborations, different forms of connection block?  That’s what I’m looking up?”

“Sure.”

Verona went to get the laptop.

“Snow?” Lucy asked.  “Want to help or you want to nap while we get sorted?  I know you’re tired.”

“I’ll nap.  You don’t deserve help with all the abuse you give me.”

“I thought we were a bit abusive,” Lucy mused, as she pulled down her poster setup.  She’d cleaned the wall as thoroughly as she could and then she’d repainted it, because that one smudge of glamour from Maricica bothered her.  She used a ruler and penciled out the basic lines.  “Markers are on my desk.”

Snowdrop went this way and that, collecting things they needed and helping look for things that had gone astray.  Because this was Verona’s space too.

Lucy loved having one of her best friends around but she was going to be so glad when this was her room and only her room for a while.

Glad and sad, because she had no idea what that meant for Verona.

It took a few minutes to figure out what she was doing.  Verona turned her laptop around, showing the textbook file she’d opened to Lucy.  Swirlier lines and lines would weave under and around one another, before extending out.  There were options for all sorts.

She started to read about elaborations and the framing of the subtler connection block, putting a border around it, but Verona changed the page.

“Uh, hey?”

“Were you not done reading?” Verona asked, innocent.

Lucy changed it back, then used the touchpad to select the plus sign and zoom in a bit on the images.

Verona scrolled down a bit.

Lucy wrapped her fingers around Verona’s neck and mock-strangled her.

“I know what you were looking at, I’m keeping it on the page!”

“You’re moving it around.  You’re a bad assistant.  Hands off, off!  Let me figure this out.”

Verona made grousing and grumbling noises, backing off.

Lucy started penciling out what she was doing, etching it onto the wall, then went back to the computer, checking the border stuff again.

Verona’s head butted in beside Lucy.

“Really?” Lucy asked, before turning, then frowning.

“Not sorry,” ‘Verona’ said.

Lucy gave her head a pat, which won her a smile.

“You’re nicer to her than you are to me, sometimes.  I’m thinking that’s very rude.”

“She’s a wild animal.”

“I’m very civilized,” Snowdrop said.

Lucy resumed working, with Snowdrop sitting in her chair, handing her what she needed when she needed it.  Verona went over books and texted Avery to let her know their schedule.

A ‘triquetra’ flower, with clockwise-hand-side elaborations on each of the three ‘leaves’ for sound.  The nineteen-leaf ‘tree’ was the better diagram for this purpose, but it was so complicated that she would have been reluctant to put it on her wall if she was held at gunpoint.  Twelve segments at the top, mimicking the sun, seven at the bottom for the roots, a trunk and branches each weaving into and around one another… nah.

The triquetra had more room in the center for symbols and notes than the usual diamonds of cyprus did.  She’d do that later.

The trick was to specify the sounds she wanted the elaboration to mimic, and to key the length of each leaf to the distance she wanted to maintain- she cheated and extended out the diagram, with lines pointing to floor, ceiling, and walls.

As she got more into it, Verona perked up and stared paying more attention, offering some advice.  Snowdrop continued to hand over tools and keep stuff ready, despite being visibly tired.

Lucy gave it a border, then gave that border a border, a ring of ‘quality of earth’ symbols ready to destroy her diagram if the condition was met.  A set time limit.

She checked the clock.  It was noon.

“Ten hours?” she suggested.  “If we leave and we’re out later than that, it’s a disaster.”

“You could do, like, forty-eight,” Verona suggested.  “Then cancel it, destroying the diagram.”

“I think that weakens things a bit.  Even if you have the intent.”

“Right, but I don’t like being locked in,” Verona said.

“Yeahhh.  So, ten hours?”

“Sure.”

Lucy put that in the center of the three-leafed knot with the curls and symbols worked into it, some of those curls reaching out to the border.

Then she signed her name.  The end of her signature took on a red glow, pulsating.

The overall effect was to paint a connection blocker that made it feel like they were present, sometimes talking indistinctly between themselves, but that there was no need to intrude.  A sense of familiarity and positive sentiment that made it so they wouldn’t be missed and thus, there wasn’t a big fat imposition being made.  No big ‘don’t think about us, don’t approach us, don’t bother us’ rule put in place, like there was with the cyprus diamonds.

“You too,” Lucy told Verona.

Verona signed her name on the wall as well.

The glow wasn’t as prominent.

Lucy pressed fingers to the tail end of Verona’s signature, “On Verona’s behalf, for Kennet.”

The glow was there when Lucy pulled her hand away.

“I want to practice againnnnn,” Verona groaned.

“Speaking of… bird form?”

Verona nodded.

“Guess I’m doing that too,” Lucy said.  “Come on, Snow.  Do you have a preference?”

“My last choice is the noble seagull.”

“Seagulls are bigger and we don’t have that much glamour,” Lucy said.  Especially since we’re avoiding using Maricica’s now.  “We could do three people but then we’d be running a bit low.  Any second choices?”

“Anything but a pigeon, then.”

“Cool,” Lucy said.

Verona opened a page on the laptop, giving Lucy a reference image to go off of.

Head-pats with glamour on her hand became fingers running through short, dense feathers, which became broader shape changes.  The residual Verona glamour crumbled up into large chunks that Lucy used for color and structure before working the smaller bits in.  She made sure to keep the right images in her mind throughout.

“My name is Polly and I don’t want any crackers,” Snowdrop said, as the form settled.

“That’s parrots.”

“We might as well do a snack run, make sure we’re set for a long day,” Lucy said.  Raymond’s coming.  “Maybe a fight.”

“Let’s hope not,” Verona replied.  “I don’t think we’d win, even with the Others here.”

“Let’s hope not,” Lucy agreed.

They left Snowdrop preening feathers on the windowsill and headed down to the kitchen.

“I’m off to work,” Lucy’s mom said, as she walked by them raiding the cupboard.  She was already wearing her nurse’s scrubs.  “Can I trust you two?”

“We’ll keep our heads down, be good, and stay put, unless we have to leave in event of fire, a dramatic magical incursion of wizards and monsters and stuff like that, home invaders, or anything like that,” Verona said.

“Mm hmmm,” Lucy’s mom acknowledged.  She approached and put a hand on Verona’s cheek.  “Are you doing alright, honey?”

“Could be better, could be a lot worse.  At least I’m here with my best friend and the best mom I know.”

“You’re not going a little stir crazy, being grounded with the other pressures?”

“Was I acting that weird?”

“You were acting- yes.”

“Oh, uh-”

“If you need to talk, let me know.  If you can’t talk to me, we can try arranging an appointment with Dr. Mona.”

“Could we consider putting her in an institution, instead?” Lucy suggested.

Verona gave her arm a push.

“She’s doing better than she was, so I don’t think we need to worry about going that far,” her mom replied.  “Thank you for being good.”

Lucy accepted the forehead kiss from her mom.

Was this what it felt like to be Avery?

“I’ll be back this evening, you have my number.  The neighbor may come and check on you, I’ve asked her to keep an eye out, she has a key and she has my go-ahead to come in if her instincts tell her to, so don’t panic if anyone comes in.  I worry about-” her mom stopped herself.

“About the woman who came by the other night, pretending to be CAS?” Lucy asked.

“I forget you all talk among yourselves.  I don’t want you to worry about that.  Just be good.”

“Will try.”

Her mom pulled on her work clogs, got her bag, and pulled a lanyard over her head, identification card dangling.  She made a face as she looked at them.

“Have a good day at work, Mom.”

“I can get through just about any day if I know you’re here, safe, and being good.  I love you.”

“Love you too,” Lucy replied.

“Love love love,” Verona said.

Then Lucy’s mom was out the door.  The lock clicked.

“Guess I’m adding a bit of extra security for the neighbor check-in,” Lucy groused.

She got a thing of pepperoni sticks and chips, while Verona filled up four eco-friendly water flasks with tap water.

“Are those the same flasks that we used to hold the spirits before putting them in the shrines?”

“Yyyyyes.  They’re still good!” Verona told her, passing her one flask.

“What was in this flask?”

Verona examined it, and Lucy switched to the Sight, checking, and it looked mostly fine, but…

“Run-into-traffic ghost boy with the stupid hat.”

“I don’t want little boy ectoplasm in my drinking water.”

“I rinsed it!”

They bickered and joked a bit as they headed back upstairs.

“What bird do you want to be?”

“Anything small and black-feathered,” Verona said, when it got to be her turn.

Same idea.  It was easier to glamour Verona than it had been to do Snowdrop.  Part of that was that there wasn’t already a heavy application of glamour there already.  Part of it was that Verona had already laid a lot of the groundwork.  That path had been walked enough times that the glamour knew where to go as it surrounded Lucy’s friend.

Lucy packed a last few things, pulled on her bag, checked the map and satellite image with the marker on it, sourced by some collaboration between Snowdrop and messages from Avery, and then applied the glamour to herself.  She chose the form of a Cardinal.  It took a bit of doing to get past the hump of size and weight, especially with the full bag she carried and the fact she was reaching behind herself.

They flew out the window.

They flew up and out over Kennet, above the town that was squeezed in between two of the larger hills that were nearly mountains, covered grass, one dotted with kids who might’ve been attending a summer camp.

They flew together, a set of three odd birds, and Lucy made sure to watch out for hawks.  That would be a disaster.

Wind rolled off the hot rocks and pushed up, and they rode that wind, and they faltered a bit as they passed over water and dense woods.

Verona loved to fly but wasn’t super good at it, and Snowdrop’s approach made Lucy wonder if their possum friend would fall out of the sky or lose her glamour.

It was easier to keep the wings steady, make small adjustments, and figure out each new… windscape, as it came.  It let her pull ahead a little bit.

She spotted the cabin, set on a lakeside, and her bird’s eye let her spot Avery.

This wasn’t a location that really screamed ‘come vacation here!’.  The woods were too dense, the lake didn’t look good for boating or swimming, with more cat-tails, algae, and other greenery growing out than there was open water, and the cabins were too lived in.  There was one with fifty little statues of Jesus, painted wood and plastic, with a banner out from that was in such bad condition it was unreadable.  One had burned down and the tarp that was placed over it had been bleached by the sun, it had been there so long, moving less than tree branches did in the wind.

Lucy shrugged off the bird form in a flurry of feathers as she landed.  Verona followed soon after, frowning a bit.  Snowdrop went straight to Avery, left bird form, and tackle-hugged her.

“Heyyyy.  You came!  You guys didn’t want a decoy?”

“I might get a brief stay at a mental institution if we kept doing that,” Verona said.  “Which, compared to going back to my dad’s… dunnnooo.”

“Don’t do that,” Avery said.

“You okay here?” Lucy asked.  “You left early in the morning and you’ve been here for a few hours, right?  Snow came all the way to us and back here.”

“It’s okay,” Avery said.  “It’s quiet, but it’s a sun and trees and nature quiet.  I’ve been getting a feeling for things here.”

“Oh yeah?” Verona asked.

“Yeah.  Like, uh, I think Matthew and Edith came here for an anniversary or something.  Charles’s stuff was sorted out and put away and there’s traces of them having been here.  I’m not sure, but I think- here.”

Avery reached down to the side of the rusty, weather-worn chair she’d been sitting on and pulled out a bag with cigarettes in it.  “Ummm… let me see, where did I stash this stuff?”

“Cigarettes?  Edith smokes, right?” Lucy asked.

“It’s Edith’s for sure, yeah,” Avery said, digging into her bag.  She pulled out spell cards, put them back, and then pulled out an envelope.  “Aha.”

There were slips of paper with eyeholes cut into them, and they were marked with the runes for the gates of whatever that Avery had gotten from the Garricks.  Lucy took one, and Verona did the same.

“For Kennet, my power, my Sight,” Avery murmured, eyes closed, holding the paper to her eyes.

Lucy felt the paper respond.  She lifted it up, and peered through the eyeholes.

She could see through Avery’s sight.

It was misty, and there were really clear connections, drawn out like bands of film in stark black and white, with no grey, or black, but with the white cut out.  It was hard to tell which it was in the fog.

“The cigarettes I found connect to…”

They followed Avery, Lucy stumbled a bit as she nearly tripped over the leg of the lawn chair.

At the corner of the property, there was a broad, flat rock with scorch marks on it.  The dirt around it had a lot of white mixed into it, that might have been old soot or… chalk?  It looked like the rock had been moved, and there was a freshly dug hole beneath.

“…Hiding place,” Avery finished.

“Edith came and hid the stuff?”

“In case Charles ever needed it again or something, yeah,” Avery said.  “On this vacation thing she did with Matthew, which sucks for Matthew, you know?  Like, ruins what was probably a nice weekend or week.”

“As a non-expert in many things trash, I rooted through the bins and I think they were here for at least a week,” Snowdrop said.

“Didn’t Charles lose his place?” Verona asked.

“I think he gave it away to them as a second property, not that it’s… it’s not marketable.”

“What’s the rock?” Lucy asked, indicating.

“I think he did practice on it.  Snow helped me move it earlier.”

To Lucy’s sight, pulling the paper away, there wasn’t a lot of hostility, badness, or negative energy staining the rock or the area around it.

This wasn’t where the Choir was made.  Probably.  Which made sense, because Charles couldn’t go far from Kennet.

They meandered up to the cabin itself, past a large fire-site that she attributed to Edith, in dire need of having pine needles and branches cleared away from its perimeter.  Lucy walked through it and nudged the bed of the fire-site with her toes, to see if there were traces of anything that had burned.  There was only charcoal that crunched to dust under her weight.

The cabin had suffered like Charles had suffered.  Aged prematurely, degraded, it had traces of that dark, oppressive feeling that had pervaded Charles’s nightmare.

“Makes sense that Edith had ulterior reasons for coming, because this isn’t… cozy?” Avery said.

“I can understand it, though,” Verona added.  “Like, you can’t make a stupid-huge fire in the city.  Or slip your skin and be the spirit and also, like, do stuff.”

“I guess,” Avery said.

“Seems like you’d spend three days cleaning, a couple days enjoying yourself, and then a bunch of time packing up and trying to make sure the place won’t fall to pieces before you come again,” Lucy noted, looking around.

There were traces of Matthew being around- he was fit and wore a bigger size than Charles.  It almost felt like a big brother and a little brother had been here, because Charles was narrower and smaller.

Charles’s stuff was more… all over the place.  Old jackets and things on coat hangers by the door.  Spare boots, novels, and other things he’d used to pass the time.  It looked like he’d eaten in the kitchen and used the portion of the living space that would normally have been a dining area as a workshop station.  The practice-relevant stuff was gone, at least to the point that Lucy could say that anyone coming by wouldn’t be exposed to practice and awakened, but the type and style of tool and the stencils and things made it clear to anyone who already had that knowledge.  This had been where he’d made stuff.  The proximity of a shelf for books, now empty of books…

It was like he’d retreated from everything and set up shop here.

The kitchen area was cleaner, and a sleek black countertop that jutted out toward the living space had some books and papers laid out on it.  Avery’s bag was sitting beside it.

Lucy picked up a badly scuffed book.

“Taken from his nightmare,” Avery said.  “Alpy agreed that what I was doing wouldn’t hurt him, but I think she was territorial.  He might find his memory of his hiding place a little foggy if he goes reaching for it.”

“Hm,” Lucy made a sound, pressing lips together, as she paged through.  It was half text and half diagram, and a lot of the text was in shorthand.  “This is… weird.”

“Probably a field of expertise for certain kinds of practitioner,” Verona said.  “Speaking the languages of spirits and memory?”

“Maybe.”

Verona took the book.

“This was in the hiding place,” Avery said.

The notes for making the ‘Red Heron Inveiglement’.  There were a lot of dense notes in tiny, tight script where Charles had mapped out what would go where, the resources he had.  There was blood on the edge of the page, and beads of blood elsewhere on the page, like he’d suffered a terminal papercut at one point.

As the writing went on, the writing got more frantic, still dense, but overlapping more.

There were books on basic summoning, the making of Others, the creation of an archetype or eidolon, which was a concept or an idea that wouldn’t exist unless summoned, and would pull in all the necessary spirits, power, and whatever to manifest.  More appropriate spirits and more appropriate situations, stronger summoning.  There were whole chapters on how Others could be ‘summoned’, and the logistics of taking an Other that existed halfway across the world and bringing it to a summoning site.  Some dwelt in a realm, others were like the Choir and existed over an area like a storm, manifesting elements within that area freely.  A note in the margin pointing to that suggested ‘Raymond’s Nex Machina?’.

A broken, old fashioned lantern, spent of power.

“It looks like he was trying to fix what happened,” Avery said.  Verona was reading papers and as Avery turned the papers around so Lucy could read them right-side-up, Verona moved around the counter, her shoulder bumping Lucy’s.

Notes on what had gone where, the elements of the Choir, its construction, deciphering it, trying to find weak points, and the preliminary research into how the Choir’s ritual worked.

It looked like the early stages had been a little more inconsistent.    People would sign up and then weeks would go by without the required number of participants showing up, so they’d only have fitful nightmares that eventually culminated in them being dragged into the ritual.

A sheet had names of participants, each with a series of moons beside them, the number of nights of the Choir’s ritual that they had completed.  A lot of names were crossed out.  Others had notes like ‘wants money’ and ‘trades information for support’.

There were thirty pages.  Many were just Charles trying to figure out what he’d helped create.  In the last quarter or so were plans and notes for something… trying to coordinate, pulling together names.  ‘Five of eight’ were trying to beat the ritual not by actually winning, but by trying to trace its origins and unmake it at the source.  Not practitioners, just… savvy horror-film watchers, Lucy liked to think.  Not that that worked in all kinds of horror.  Eastern horror films tended to have evils that triumphed, where Western horror films liked to have the final girl.  One champion who triumphed and maybe a hint at the end that the bad guy would go on.

The second to last page was a final draft for a message from Charles to the participants.  It was a sobering read.

He would give them answers and point them in the right direction- a direction that included Kennet and named Raymond.  And to deliver that message home, to avoid his forswearing tainting this or keeping it from reaching its intended targets, he pledged to sacrifice himself.

Except he hadn’t sacrificed himself, and the message hadn’t been sent.

Lucy paused, fingers pressed down on the bottom edge of the page to keep the wind from blowing it away, digesting that.

“I think they all died,” Verona said.

“You think?”

“Earlier page-”

Verona took the pages and picked through them, going back to the list of names.

She pointed at the names there.  “Wipeout.  Eight out of eight eaten by the Choir in one night.”

The back of the second to last page and the last page had writing on them, but it trended toward the incoherent.  It looked like brainstorming, or a struggle to find ideas.  A written expression of Charles finding his way to realizing there was no road forward.

“He didn’t try again?” Avery asked.

“I don’t think he thought there was a point,” Lucy murmured.

“I always hated on tv shows where the big bad guy would create a superweapon and they’d try it on the heroes and the heroes would make it out by the skin of their teeth, and the bad guy would disappear for a while before coming back with the next big interesting weapon, you know?  Like, why not just fix that big glaring flaw and try again?  You’ve done ninety percent of the work.  You’ve done ninety percent of the work here, Charles.”

“Work that requires him to sacrifice himself,” Avery said.  “I get why he’d take the discouragement of the plan falling through and not want to pick it up and give it a hearty second go.”

“I don’t believe in sacrifice,” Lucy said.  “Even for that.”

“I don’t either,” Snowdrop told her, peering between Lucy and Verona to look at the pages, before redirecting her attention to cabinets and things.  “Not that I have relevant experience.”

“I’m really sorry I was going to sacrifice you to the trail, Snow,” Avery said.  “We didn’t think you’d be like… aware.  You were just a dying baby.”

“It was uncool.  There wasn’t any greater purpose, you know?” Snow asked.

“Alright, with that reminder, I’m starting to think I hate the idea of sacrifice too,” Avery said, more to Lucy than Snowdrop.  Snowdrop fished in Avery’s bag and found a tennis ball, which she bit into experimentally.

“There had to be a better way,” Lucy said.  “I think Charles could have done a lot of things very differently, but I don’t think we should be, like, disappointed, that he didn’t sacrifice himself in hopes that they can read this thing and find the answers they need to destroy the Choir.”

“I’m disappointed if he and Edith aimed the Choir at the Carmine Beast and created this whole situation with Kennet,” Avery said.

Yes,” Lucy replied, with emphasis.  “Agreed.”

“I wonder if we could, uh, borrow a few of these tools,” Verona mused, looking over the workshop.  “Some good stuff for diagram drawing.”

Lucy shook her head.  “Nah, doesn’t feel right.  I feel more righteous prying into his mind when we know he’s been lying to us and he promised to give us this Summoning stuff anyway.  Like… we went up against the Choir and him lying to us could have put us in the way of danger.  That’s messed up.”

“I guess I could buy it.  Just feels like a waste.”

“We could ask,” Avery said.  “Depending…”

Depending.

The idea sat heavy with Lucy.

Depending on what happened to Charles.  Depending on the Musser-Raymond situation over Alexander.  Depending on how the last weeks of summer went.

From the silence of the others, it probably sat heavy with them too.

“Ray is coming and he’s bringing people.  It’s pretty major,” Lucy noted.

“Pretty major, yeah,” Avery agreed.  “Gosh.”

“Charles offered to confess to take focus off of us.  I’m worried it’d go wrong, because things go wrong around Charles,” Verona noted.

“There’s also, like… Charles is forsworn, so everyone kind of dislikes him.  Even his friends are distant or… I dunno, they don’t want to spend time around him, with the vibes he gives,” Lucy said.  “And I don’t want to act on that.  I don’t want to let it influence us.  Even if that means going easy on him.”

“What if it means something else?” Avery asked.  “What if it means… hurting Kennet?  Or hurting relationships with outside practitioners?  How far do you want to go with that?”

“Is this a rare case of you being harder on someone than I am?” Lucy asked.

“I’m-” Avery started, and she shook her head.  “I’m- people are awful, a lot of people are, and the good ones leave and the bad ones force us to bow down and make concessions.”

“For sure,” Lucy said.  “I get that.”

“I get it when I’m out as a practitioner and I get it when I go home.  And now we’re like… what do we do about Charles?  Is it going to be one big concession, for a guy who, like, yeah, it was an accident, and yeah, it’s understandable he didn’t want to sacrifice himself for a maybe-“

Lucy nodded emphatically.

“But also like, there’s at least ten ways this is super not okay, like the lies and the ulterior motives and enabling Edith and Maricica, and lying to us, and a bunch of other stuff…”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

“How much crap are we willing to shovel into our mouths for that?” Avery asked.  “Because I feel like I’ve been shoveling a lot of crap.”

“Graphic,” Lucy said.

“Spending more time with goblins?”

“Not my fault,” Snowdrop said.

Avery shook her head.

“You okay?” Lucy asked Avery.

“I’m not super great, but I’m not, like, not super great in a way that’s going to wreck things.  I can hold it together.  I’ll figure out what I’m doing after.”

“We can talk, you know?”

“We gotta deal with a bunch of other stuff.  I mean it when I say I can hold it together, okay?  I can deal with my Grumble being a bit of an ass, I can deal with my dad not getting it or even seeming to want to get it, and I can deal with Declan and I can deal with Kerry and I can deal with a quiet house and you guys being grounded and not around as much, and I can deal with feeling like I’m not getting the same chances everyone else is.  I can deal.”

“The longer you go on the less convinced I am,” Verona told her.

“Don’t gainsay me,” Avery said.  “Just back me up.  Just tell me… tell me you had a nice date, Lucy.”

“I did.  I told you that on the phone.”

“I know, but I want to hear it.  I want you to know I’m super interested and happy for you, right?  Give me tips sometime, about what to do and what not to do on a first date.  Because I’ll get there, but it might mean long distance, or going further afield than Kennet.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “First tip, right off the top of my head?  Don’t make it a group date, and definitely don’t make it a group date with Emerson and Xavier along for the ride.”

Avery smiled.  She looked around.  “We done here?  We scouted around.  Is there anything you can see with your Sight?”

“Don’t got sight at the moment,” Verona said.  “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.  You bit the bullet for us,” Avery said.  She walked over to Verona, who was hunched over the counter, reading the summoning book, and gave her a hug from behind, prompting a brief smile from Verona.  Then Avery went over to Snowdrop, and the pair of them wandered outside.

For all she’d been talking about being dealing with stuff and the accumulated stresses, Avery seemed like she was dealing with a lot and she was maybe a bit quieter and a bit quicker on the draw when it came to frustrations like conceding to Charles, but Lucy could believe she was okay at her core.

Lucy glanced over at Verona.  Verona was the opposite from Avery like that.  She could seem so fine until Lucy put the teeny tiny details together and realized that, like, Verona was walking over jagged bits of clay and plastic because her dad had ruined her art stuff and she was refusing to clean it up, refusing to deal with it on any level.

Lucy wanted to say something, and she had no idea what to say.  The dating conversation was freshest on her mind.

She hated the idea so much that Verona might really be happy dating if she only gave it a try, and by not trying she was possibly going down a road that would make her more like her dad, not less.

Because her dad didn’t date either.

It was very true that Verona could be right.  That maybe this wasn’t her thing.  But the thing with Jeremy seemed to be on a crash course and everyone could see it except for Verona and maybe Jeremy.

Wouldn’t it be better to try, experiment, and fail, and put the Jeremy thing to rest as a lesson for herself and a ‘loved and lost rather than never loved at all’ thing for Jeremy?

She’d told herself to stay out of it, to course correct, to nudge.  Anything else would get resistance.

Except that wasn’t all of it.

Verona’s nightmare had been falling into her dad’s clutches at the parent teacher meeting.  Verona’s dad had never talked like that at any PTA meeting, that had been an exaggeration for effect.  Her mom had never talked like that about ‘everything Verona was doing wrong’.

It just felt like that, to a teenager like Verona.

They were waiting, most of them- including Lucy’s mom, including Avery, including a few of the local Others, for the end of summer, when Verona was supposed to go home.  What then?

Just… hoping that Verona’s dad treated the entire thing as a reality check?  That he got therapy and fixed things enough that Verona could be happy at home?

Verona kept thinking she was so broken but it was the family that was broken, it was her dad that was broken on a level where it made the house eerie.  Lucy still remembered how it had felt, like she was doing something wrong by sweeping up the mess from the broken art shelf, when neither Verona or her dad had been talking.

Verona looked up at Lucy and then gave her an annoyed look.  “Stop.”

“Stop what?” Lucy asked.

“Don’t look at me with pity.  That’s screwed up.”

“Not pity, honest,” Lucy said.  “It’s… worry.”

“I’m fine, okay?  I’m pretty sure I can guess what you’re thinking, it’s about me and Jeremy, right?”

“Some.”

“You wanting to stick your nose into it and bug me about it is more likely to ruin things than anything, okay?  Your mom nagged me about it too, you know?”

“I just-” Lucy held herself back.  Nudges, nudges only.

“Please leave me alone on this stuff?  If you keep giving me sad looks or whatever I’ll- I’ll pack up my stuff and move into Booker’s room.”

“You’d hate that and so would I.  I do like having you around, even if you are messy.”

“Then buzz off, because I hate that I’m being treated like I’m a relationship train wreck waiting to happen when I’m being careful.  I’ve laid out boundaries, I let Jeremy know where I gotta stand, he’s deciding to play along, it’s nice.  We’re friends that experiment with clothes-off sometimes, that’s all.”

“I was thinking… Just to nudge you…?”

Verona tensed, glaring.

“…Wallace seemed surprised you and Jeremy weren’t an item.  It might be the case that you need to go over those boundaries with Jeremy again.”

“Thank you, then,” Verona said, terse.  “I will take that under advisement.”

“Sounds good.”

“Damn it,” Verona muttered.

“I’m sorry it’s tricky.”

“Yeah, well…” Verona replied.  She closed the book and scooped up some of the other stuff.  She went to the kitchen window and looked out to where Avery was playing catch with Snowdrop out front, tossing the tennis ball between them.

“Well?” Lucy asked.

“C’mon.”

They sorted out their things, packed up the things Charles had hidden away, and then secured the cabin, closing the door and windows.  They met Avery out front.  Avery threw the ball to Verona.

“We never really decided, how do we handle Charles, and this meeting with Ray,” Lucy said.

“Wing it?” Verona asked.

“That might be dangerous.  We should all be on the same page, but we should let Ray know what page we’re on too, so he doesn’t go and do it.”

“There’s something I was thinking about,” Avery said.

“Yeah?” Lucy asked.

“About like… well, like, we’ve got a bunch of stuff hanging over our heads, you know?”

“We do.”  Verona’s voice was quiet.

“Ton of stuff to do, but the big thing we haven’t figured out is like… at the Blue Heron, they said the number one thing you start with when you deal with an Other or a problem is labeling it.  Figure out what you’re dealing with.  And the end of summer is coming and what the heck is going to happen?”

Lucy nodded.  “I’m worried they come after my family to make me desperate enough to try to become the next Carmine Beast.  John being on the line would… I was thinking about it a lot, laying awake this morning.  This really awful situation that’s not as one thousand percent bad as it could be because I saved John and he’s there, you know?”

“Scary,” Verona said.  “I like your mom too much to be okay with that.”

“Right?” Lucy asked, a bit plaintive.  “Me either.”

“I’m dealing because I have options, still,” Avery said.  “And I could see stuff happening where, like, I don’t?  Nobody to talk to, no help, no support, just you guys in a pinch?  I don’t think that gets me all the way there.  But didn’t Maricica have this one ‘gift’ for me that was like, you’ll never find love in Kennet?  Frig.  What if that was like… prelude?  The whole thing being set up as early as this spring?”

“I really hope not,” Lucy said.

Verona opened her mouth to say something, and then she didn’t.  She looked off toward the water.

“Ronnie?” Lucy asked.

“Don’t want to talk about it.”

“If it’s about you becoming the Carmine Cat or something, like, I get it, but we should work out at some point what we need to do to play defense.”

Verona nodded emphatically, but she didn’t say anything else.

Avery said, “If we’re talking about showing mercy to Charles and figuring out what to do and how to handle him… Tashlit’s watching him right now?”

Verona nodded again.

“It might be worth thinking about, like, what if we got him out of Kennet?  What if we took some of these really problematic, key pieces off the board, got them out of the picture, and made it so they can’t be used against us?”

“He’s forsworn,” Lucy said.  “I’m really worried that if they start looking for other punishments, especially knowing there’s some big karmic prize for hurting or offing anyone forsworn, and knowing that these guys are power hungry…?”

“Oh,” Avery whispered.  “Yeah.”

“You know?” Lucy asked.  “So yeah, that’d take him off the board, but I kind of summoned John with this idea in my head that he might resolve the Alexander situation.”

Verona glanced down at her wrist, checking the bracelet.  They weren’t being observed.

“…I’m not sure I’m okay signing off on giving Charles up for execution.  Or sending him off into the custody of people I definitely do not trust to be kind.”

“Even if it means he stays in Kennet and gets involved in the big twisty Fae plot?” Verona asked.

Lucy shrugged.

“While we’re talking about removing things from play… do we give up the furs?” Avery asked.  “While Ray’s in town?  Ask him to take custody of it?”

Lucy shook her head with emphasis.

“I’m not settled on the idea, I’m not even sure as I ask, but why not?”

“Because they’re people who’d use that power, possibly put their own person in charge, and that’s… almost definitely a bad possibility.”

“Ken swore up and down that the working he did to hide the House on Half Street wouldn’t budge unless it was the kind of power that would stomp Kennet to the ground,” Verona said.

They thought for a little bit.

“Can I suggest something?” Avery asked.  “The way we’re doing this… remember Verona’s approach?  The big stopping point is this one thing, right?  We can’t deal with Charles because we’re worried about them killing him, so let’s address that, instead of scrapping the entire plan?”

“So no compromise?” Lucy asked.

“Do you want to compromise on that level?  Compromise Kennet?” Avery asked.  “I hate that I sound like this.  I hate that I’m asking, but… what do you do with a forsworn guy, especially when we don’t trust all the Kennet Others?”

“I don’t want to compromise,” Verona replied.  “But I’m also way cooler with saying he’s messed up, he kept practice from us, and yeah, he let us fight the Choir, we could’ve been stronger and better informed and I could’ve lost you guys, and when I think of that…”

“How much of this discussion is karma?” Lucy asked.  “How much is the Sable and Alabaster and Aurum consciously or unconsciously controlling things and managing this system of really old rights and wrongs, and nudging us this way?”

“I don’t know,” Verona said.  “But that sounds like another problem that shouldn’t scrap the plan.  Just… let’s talk it out.”

Lucy crossed her arms, thinking hard.  “I’m not saying no to any of this, talking things out is good, but how many times do we stop to go okay, that’s a really snarly point that we should talk over before moving forward?  Because this is the second one, and I’m not sure we’re getting anywhere.”

“Speaking of getting places, can we talk while flying?” Avery asked.  She tapped where her watch would be.

Lucy pulled the foggy watch out of her pocket and checked the time.  It was two in the afternoon.  They’d left a bit before noon.  It took time to fly, even with a relatively straight-line travel route, and it’d take time to get back.

Avery had a stash of extra glamour, and she chose to be small hawk.  Lucy chose the Cardinal, Verona the black songbird, and Snowdrop the pigeon.

All very different birds, trying to fly in formation.

🟂

The rest stop was set on a hill, and gave a view of the highway sweeping east to west and west to east, across the top of Kennet.  The road from here dipped under the highway and swept into Kennet proper.  There was a view of the two grassy ski hills, and the kids had cleared off, except for a pair of teenagers on Bowdler who were trying to climb the covered ladder that led up one of the ski lifts.  They were just far enough away that Lucy could make out the silhouettes.

Charles stood by, on his own.

They’d had a talk with him, letting him know they didn’t want him to turn himself in.  It was the best option, in the end.

Lucy finished drawing the connection blocker, then waved the Others over.

Toadswallow emerged from the trees, and he was followed by other goblins.  John was there, and Lucy was glad to see a face that… well, John didn’t exude friendliness.  A reliable face felt like a really crappy way of putting it but the fact he was there, still, really meant so much.

And Guilherme.  Guilherme wore his regular, muscular, over sized form.  He had a strand of hair in his face, and moved with confidence, but… it felt off.  The same way Snowdrop-as-Verona had felt off.

John was there, yeah, and Guilherme wasn’t.  Guilherme, who had called the witch hunters in.  Lucy had gotten hurt because of it.

Tashlit crossed the gravel lot to the grass, then crossed the grass to the picnic table where she sat beside Verona.  No words were exchanged, but Verona leaned her head into Tashlit’s arm, skin squishing around the top and side of her head.

This wasn’t all the others.  These at least, were the ones they’d asked for, minus Miss, who hadn’t wanted to show her… self.

Others came unasked for.  Bluntmunch loped in, and grunted as Toadswallow started blathering about presentation and being ready.  Ken came as well, which felt important, because Ken was vulnerable in ways but he was also the protector of Kennet and this was, in large part, about Kennet.

Lucy leaned against the table, watching everything, and watching the road.  Verona sat between where she leaned and Tashlit, and Avery stood off to the side, hands in pockets, strawberry blonde hair blowing across her freckled face without her fixing it while she watched the horizon.

“Thanks for coming, John,” Lucy said.

“Of course,” he replied.

“And for guarding my date, I guess.”

“Toadswallow wanted to interrupt it altogether, just in case.  I remember you were tense about protecting your mom,” John said.  “When we were exiling Maricica.”

“Yeah,” Lucy replied.

“You get the privilege of growing up, of living a full life.  I remember dates I never had, fragments of memory from soldiers who became a part of me.  You should experience something real, if you can.  As uninterrupted as possible.”

“Thanks,” Lucy replied, feeling like that was a really lame response to something meaningful.  “I dunno how profound we should be getting when it’s like, me sitting in the movie theater and being like…”

She struggled to think of an example, acutely aware that John and Tashlit were there.

That Wallace had teeny tiny hairs on his cheek and ear that glowed like a halo in the streetlight and that noticing had felt weirdly special, like a secret just for her?

“…really stupid little stuff, I guess,” Lucy said.

“I wanna know what stupid stuff,” Verona complained.

“Me too,” Avery said, looking over.

“I’ll tell you guys later, maybe.  Remind me.”

“Woo,” Verona said.

“Maybe there’s stupid little things,” Avery told Lucy.  “But the big picture?  That’s a first date.  If it went wrong because of everything going on, I bet it’d be at least a little bit annoying for the rest of your life.”

“Maybe,” Lucy agreed.

Tashlit gestured.  Verona pulled her head away from Tashlit’s arm to look.

“At least you didn’t fall through a… bench?  Chair,” Verona translated.  Tashlit patted the table of the picnic table.  “And table, and…”

Tashlit motioned with her pinky finger.

“Broke a finger?”

“You did?” Lucy asked Tashlit.

Tashlit held up one finger.

“First date,” Verona translated, putting her head against Tashlit’s arm again.

Tashlit made a so-so gesture, then put her hand down at an angle Lucy couldn’t see.

“Kind of a first date, she was very young,” Verona said.

“The little things are some of the things most worth protecting,” John said.  “The big milestones too.  I want you to have those milestones.”

John was expecting to make a bid for the Carmine Throne and he wasn’t necessarily expecting to make it.  She didn’t understand that.

“I want you to be around for those milestones,” Lucy told him, impulsive.  Then she flushed, aware of everyone else in earshot.  Tashlit, Verona, Toadswallow looked like he was caught up in conversation with Bluntmunch, Avery, Snowdrop…

“It gets complicated,” John said.  “I’m… I could be around to see those things, maybe, but would I want you to be around to see me, when I am what I am?  When-”

He stopped himself.  Not finishing the sentence.

She thought of the scene with Alexander, which they were here to confront.  A man laying face down-insofar as he had a face.  Head cracked open from the back by a high-caliber bullet, chunks of skull connected by torn skin and gobbets of blood.

John met her eyes and she felt like she should say something.  Then he turned, looking behind himself.

There was a second half to what she’d been intending to say, something she wanted to say even when that mental image of Alexander was firmly in her mind.

I want you to be my familiarDon’t take the Carmine throne.  Be there for the little things,

Verona lifted her head up again, off of Tashlit’s arm.

Rook approached.

“You’re attending?” John asked, before Lucy could.

“Things are involved enough that I think I have to,” Rook said.

Lucy walked away from them and around the table, finding a seat beside Tashlit.  She sat with her back to the table, watching the road.  After a bit, Avery came over, holding an animal-form Snowdrop.

A check of the time confirmed: 4:28.

They were half an hour late.  Avery pointed, and Lucy nodded.  She recognized Zed’s car.  It was part of a convoy.

It took another two minutes for them to come down the road, and at 4:30, the convoy of cars were pulling into the parking lot, with Zed stepping out of his car with Brie climbing out of the passenger seat, and Ray behind them in his own car, some fancy electric car.

Avery perked up as she saw Zed, then jumped to her feet as another of Zed’s passengers climbed out of the back.  Jessica.

“You came?” Avery asked, as they got close enough.  “You look… good.”

Good.

Yeah, Lucy hadn’t noticed right off, but she could see it.  Jessica was clearly uncomfortable with the company she was keeping, Zed and Brie excepted, but there was less tension there.  She looked younger.

“Did you find him?” Lucy asked.

“I told Avery.  I was either going to find him or I wasn’t going to surface again.  It had to be that one final plunge.”

“You found him,” Avery said.  “Why didn’t you say?  You could’ve messaged me!”

“It felt weird.  It’s my thing, my cousin’s thing, what would I say?  I succeeded, congratulate me?”

“Heck yeah!  Amazing!  And you didn’t tell me, Zed?”

“It was her news.”

Avery didn’t even seem to care about the answer.  “But he’s okay?  Your cousin’s alright?  You found his echo or-?”

“He’s alright.  He’s… better.”

Again, that look.  Avery pressed both hands to her heart, beaming.

“Congratulations,” Lucy said.

“I”m not really here for that,” Jessica said.

“Why are you here?” Verona asked.  “Not that it’s not cool, but…”

“You have a lot of enemies right now.  I thought you could use one more friend.”

Those were heavy words.  Lucy nodded, and mouthed a thank-you, but the others were showing up, and the focus that that demanded was an interruption of sorts between her and her forming the words.

When Alexander had first showed up here, he’d come with a bunch of his apprentices.

Mr. Musser came with Raquel and Reid, and their various familiars that hadn’t ridden in the cars as their humanoid forms left their animal forms.  Too many familiars for three people, especially considering Raquel didn’t have any.

Wye was there too.  Wye had been there for Alexander and he was there for Musser.

Wye felt especially dangerous, as someone who was always there, waiting and watching, quieter than Alexander, and if he was as ambitious as Alexander, he kept it to himself instead of leaving it as a weakness.

“Heya,” Zed said, voice soft, as he joined them.

“Hey,” Verona replied.

“This is pretty serious stuff, you know,” he told them.

“We deal with a lot of serious stuff, somehow,” Lucy told him.

“You do seem to.”

“We need to have a word, uh, with you and Ray, before anything major transpires,” Lucy told him.

“I… sure.”

Mr. Musser started to approach, but Raymond Sunshine put up a hand, indicating for him to hold off for a second.  Musser hung back, about twenty paces of distance separating them, like he was here but not yet involved.

Papers on the table would keep him from eavesdropping, hopefully.

Ray approached Charles.

“I’m sorry it’s been so long.”

“It’s been as long as it has for good reason.  I’m poor company,” Charles answered.

“Are you keeping well?  Are you safe?”

“I’m protected, at least for the time being.”

This entire thing felt like a powder keg, ready to blow.  A single off word, or one more person joining the conversation, something from Musser, or Charles stumbling into something that provoked the wrong response and disrupted the peace…

Everyone present was aware that the very sensitive matter of Alexander dying hanging over their heads.

“Broken, dead, and lost, so many of us from that night,” Raymond said, quiet.  “A triumphant night, wasn’t it?  But it’s felt like it’s been a steep decline from there, for all our successes and power.”

“I’m sorry about Hector,” Charles said, quiet.

Raymond winced, then nodded.

“Marie?”

“If Durocher was ever okay, she’s alright now.”

Charles glanced over Raymond’s shoulder, to where Musser was poised, tense, like he was ready to launch into a fight.  With a different tone of voice, voice slipping into an unintentional growl as he dropped his volume.  “Musser?”

“I don’t think he cares so much as he feels the need to act.”

It was a very different question, not about the past or old friendships, but about this.

Musser looked like he was losing patience.

“Mr. Sunshine?” Lucy asked.  “I’m sorry to interrupt.”

Raymond Sunshine turned to look at her.

She took a deep breath, glanced at Charles, and then reached into her bag, pulling out the papers.

Charles hadn’t seen these.  He hadn’t known.  They’d only told him to hold off on telling Ray.

Ray took the papers, adjusted his glasses, and read.

Because Zed was there too, Lucy felt the need to explain.  “Documentation about the creation of the Choir.  Or the creation of something else… that became the Choir.”

“That’s… partially for Zed,” Avery said.  “For Brie.  Maybe it’ll help decipher what she’s hosting inside her, and help deal with it.  Doesn’t practice start with identifying what you’re dealing with?”

“You figured out who made it?” Brie asked.

Lucy glanced at Charles.

“He made it?” Brie asked.  She looked almost disappointed.  “I thought they’d be powerful, or stately, or… something.”

Cutting words, for a man who was very close to being nothing, in the eyes of karma and the universe.

“They said they didn’t want me to confess,” Charles said.  “Because being forsworn, it could go wrong.  So they’ve turned me in.  They let me know just before you arrived.”

“It could have gone wrong,” Raymond said, frowning as he paged through it.  “This is better, but this isn’t…”

He paused, sighing, and turned a page, then went back  a page.

“…This isn’t good, Charles.”

Ray looked up at Charles, peering through red sunglasses, and Charles winced as if he’d been jabbed with a fork.

“I didn’t know you had those,” Charles growled, turning his focus to them as if it let him avoid facing Raymond’s examination.  “The books too?”

“Couple,” Verona said.

“I thought if you had them, you’d unravel things.”

“Got ’em now,” Avery told him.  “I don’t know if this counts as unraveling.”

“I don’t know either,” Charles replied.

“Raymond, the papers are yours, for Brie’s sake,” Lucy said.  “But we’d like you to take custody of Charles.  We’re not equipped to really secure him and we’re worried about what happens if he’s around, when he may be the pawn of Fae plots.”

“Fae?” Zed asked, making a face.  “You’re really sticking us firmly in the mud, huh?”

“We wanted this to be help for Brie,” Avery said.  “And a thank you to you for helping us out when you have, but…”

“It is, and I’m grateful, I’m glad,” Zed replied.  He ran fingers through his hair.  “Ray?”

“Taking him isn’t my jurisdiction,” Ray said.  “It’s not-”

He shook his head.

“It’s not Musser’s either,” Verona said.  “He’s not a Lord.”

In the midst of the conversation with Charles, Charles had touched on the subject of Lords, and in the midst of that, a few things had clicked into place.

Cig had done a lot of talking about assholes and losers, and Charles was a loser.  But Cig had, in his peculiar way, also talked about how the culprits would deal with everything.

There was no lordship over the Blue Heron, and there weren’t that many Lords over any of the nearby regions.  A few minor ones, over towns and such, more formalized versions of what Miss had been, then what Matthew and Edith had been, what Toadswallow was now.

But there were greater Lordships, with a lot more sway, and as Cig had put it, ‘They’ll go after each other in the process of deciding what the change should be and who should be the one to execute it.’

If it came down to it, some great play to mess with practice and everything else, then they’d have to pick Lords, to not be under the sway of a corrupt Carmine whatever that was trying to hurt practice itself.  And with what had happened to Bristow and Alexander, just over the Blue Heron, no greater stakes, everyone was pretty aware that that would be a disaster.  One way or another, if the plot went ahead, it’d do a number on everyone here.  More the Mussers, Alexanders, and Bristows than the Durochers and Raymonds who didn’t like to get involved.

But maybe even those people too.

That reluctance to make that big push for power with everything that it would involve… that was something useful to them here.  Because yeah, Musser had authority over the Blue Heron, but that authority didn’t reach this far.  Maybe if he became a powerful Lord and extended that reach, but how much would that complicate things?

So they had to do their best to give authority to someone who they trusted to at least not abuse it.

“We need you to at least keep Charles safe,” Lucy told Raymond, quiet enough that Musser shouldn’t hear.  “Find a way to imprison him, sure, deal with him, but… you can’t go killing him, you can’t go hurting him for karmic benefit.  You can’t let Musser.”

Raymond looked split, caught in the crux of the decision.

“Is it really that hard, to say you won’t torture or kill someone?” Avery asked.

“Or is it another one of those things where if you take a stance, you’ll get on the bad side of international powers?” Verona asked.

“Neither, exactly,” Raymond Sunshine replied.

“We could extend our protection to Charles through tokens,” Toadswallow said, joining the conversation.  “If it’s a question of expending the power or having the responsibility.”

Raymond shook his head.  Then he straightened, handing the papers to Zed.  He turned to Musser, and he gestured.

Lucy drew in a deep breath as Musser approached, familiars, family members, and Wye Belanger following behind him.

“Charles Abrams is responsible for the Hungry Choir,” Raymond told Musser.

“Is he?  Then we should-”

“And I’ve been asked to use my authority and power to look after that,” Ray told Musser.

“Have you now?”

“Is it a problem?” Ray asked.

This was the Lord thing being put to the question.  Lords of an area apparently had a lot of power over what went on in their territory, and a lot of that power extended out to surrounding regions.  Being the headmaster, at least, was a little different.

“And the matter of Alexander Belanger?” Musser asked.

“I would like to have input, where appropriate,” Raymond told Musser, “But I can leave much of that to you.”

This was the drawback, of negotiating for a release of Charles to more forgiving jailers.  Musser didn’t care that much about Alexander, his predecessor, he didn’t seem angry, but there had to be a ton of parents of children and other contacts who wanted answers and wanted something.  Maybe if they’d given him Charles, a trophy and an explanation for something major that had been going on for a long time, a sacrifice for him to kill, maybe he wouldn’t have needed much more.

Musser asserted himself, standing straighter.

“You three girls know why I’m here, don’t you?” Musser asked.  “The murder?”

“Was me,” John uttered the words, his voice a flat affect.  “I put a bullet in the back of his head, secured his body against augury, put him in the car and then drove that car to the water.  I do believe Wye found him.”

“The Dog of War.”

“I am,” John said.  “I go by John Stiles.”

“Why kill him?” Musser asked.

“He was an implicit threat to our territory.  He set a deadline before he’d be able to target us-”

“A ceasefire of sorts,” Wye cut in.  “One you betrayed.”

“It was not a ceasefire, but a changing of the terms of engagement,” John said, voice firm.  “Believe me, I know about ceasefires and the lack of them.  Alexander continued to involve himself in our events by action and inaction.”

“We were invaded by Bristow’s Aware because Alexander chose to let him find his way here, and found reasons not to stop him,” Lucy said.  “Alexander never took his sights off of us.”

“He intended to weaken us with that kind of game,” John told Musser.  “I was in my rights to weaken him.”

“You shot the man in the head, you said,” Musser replied.

“It left him very weak, yes.  He died shortly after.”

The image flashed through Lucy’s mind again.  She looked aside.

“You couldn’t even bring yourselves to invite us into the territory you protect?” Musser asked.  “No rules for hospitality?”

“I’m well aware of what hospitality counts for,” Charles said.  “You and Alexander both.  I know how you get some of those implements and familiars, from people who think the kind of power that makes you great makes you good.”

“A plurality of demesnes too,” Musser said.  “But I digress.  You’ve shown no hospitality, which shouldn’t surprise me, when you have an Oni in your midst.”

“Are you so prejudiced?” Rook asked.

“I’m alarmed at how organized you Others seem to be, and what that might mean in the context of Belanger and Bristow’s falls.  I don’t know if these children are pawns-”

“Teenagers,” Lucy said.

“-or if they’re a danger otherwise…”

“They’re friends of ours,” Zed said.  “Of mine, Brie’s, and Jessica’s, at least.  Cross them and you cross us.  If this area is a danger in some way, let’s work that out by studying the danger first, finding the best way forward.”

“How long did it take to drive in?”

“From the time you told me to mark the distance?” Zed asked.  “Forty-five minutes, roughly.”

“The area is knotted,” Raymond cut in.  “If that’s where you’re going with this.”

“It’s knotted and it’s getting worse.  It’s harder to enter than it is to leave,” Musser said.  “Visiting Bristow in some of his old haunts, I got an education in such matters.”

“It will be resolved,” Toadswallow said.

“Am I to take the authority of a small goblin?” Musser asked.

“It will be resolved,” John said.  “In a matter of weeks.  I intend to take the Carmine’s throne, to undo the knotting, to cleanse Kennet of the blood that soaks it, and deal fairly with Other and practitioner both.”

“Will you now?  You who killed Alexander?”

“Will you interfere in the accords of Solomon?” Rook asked.  “We have the authority to decide these processes, to put Others into places of power, to judge matters of Truth.  Just as you have your authority to practice.”

“A big get out of jail free card?”

“It’s already been arranged,” John told Musser.  “Other powers have acknowledged me as their choice.  Unless someone better comes…”

“Would you try it?” Rook asked Musser.  “Challenge him for the seat?”

“I could.  But I don’t want that seat.  I’d sooner take the hide off him and keep it as a trophy, with the power that entails.”

“Then in a little under two week’s time, you can try,” John replied.  “Take it from me or whoever bests me.”

“It is our prerogative to investigate, to look into your affairs, as the highest of you may judge ours.  Raymond, would you follow?  Reid, familiars, guard me.  We’ll look into this.”

Toadswallow glanced over.

“No,” Lucy said.

Musser glanced over

“It’s our job.  We’re looking into it,” Lucy told him.  “We just gave some of our findings to Raymond Sunshine.”

“We announced ourselves to the remaining Judges,” Avery said.  “They gave their permission.  They’ve overseen several of the major steps we’ve taken.”

“I don’t care,” Musser said.  “You’re not competent enough.  Give us all the information you have.”

“No,” Verona said.

He stared her down.

“I’m not admitting any blame or anything for Alexander, but an awful lot of Blue Heron Headmasters die around us,” Verona said.

Lucy elbowed Verona hard.

“You really want to be another one of them?  This feels dumb.”

“Trying to cross me would be dumb.  I’ll look into matters and I’ll discuss with the powers that be as necessary.  Reid?  Come now.  Raymond?  If you please.”

“You’d be trespassing,” John said.

“Act accordingly.  I will respond in kind.”

“Go if you will, Musser, but I can’t cross the powers that be,” Raymond told him.  “I’ll secure Charles.”

“I’m disappointed, Raymond.”

Raymond gave only a singular nod.

Raymond, Zed, Brie, and Jessica remained where they were as Musser and his group headed back to the cars.

“Jesus,” Verona whispered.

“It was worth a try,” Toadswallow said.  “It was why we picked you in the first place.  So you could have that claim.  He’s powerful and connected enough to get away with ignoring it.  Now we… find a way, hm?”

“A way?” John asked.

“Any ideas?” Toadswallow asked, sounding a little hopeful.  “Anyone?  I have the backup plan of throwing more goblins at the problem, but Musser doesn’t seem like the sort to respond to that.”

“He very much isn’t,” Raymond said.  “The goblins would die en masse.”

Lucy joined Verona and Avery in shaking her head.

“If I may, I have one,” Rook said.

“Well, isn’t that delightful?” Toadswallow said, rubbing his hands together.  “Or not?  The look on your face-”

“My face is largely hidden,” Rook said.

“I can see it in your eyes,” Toadswallow said.

“Miss is seeing after the Witch Hunters.  They’re not so far away.  With your permission, and the agreement of the Kennet Others, they could be thirty minutes behind Headmaster Musser.  It’s not beyond the scope of imagination that they could cross paths.”

“Always poised with a counter-move, Rook?” Toadswallow asked.  “You’d turn Kennet into a warzone.”

“It might be easier to manage a warzone than to manage Musser.  He’s…”

“Unmanageable,” Raymond said.  “Unbeatable in nearly any direct conflict.”

“That’s the plan?” Lucy asked.  “Seriously?  The regular people of Kennet-”

“We can look after them,” Rook said.  “Jabber can come out of hiding.  Miss and I anticipated this, we discussed-”

“You might’ve included us in that discussion,” Toadswallow said.

“-and we welcome any other plans, but this was the best we could formulate.  We think it might draw out other involved parties.”

“The Fae,” Toadswallow said.

“And that, Charles, may be our cue to leave,” Raymond said.  “Zed, Brie, you can decide if you stay.  Jessica, if this is too much for you, I’m happy to give you a ride back.”

“No hard feelings if you want to bail,” Zed said.

“Then you’re staying?” Avery asked.

Zed nodded.  “At least for a bit.”

Toadswallow looked around the group, then frowned.  “Communicate your plans and these moves of yours next time and the times after, Rook.”

“I’ll consider it.”

“Tell Miss yes, and tell her to stay away..  John?  If you’d tell the ghouls and the other ones in your care?  Let Matthew know, have Matthew bring Jabber.  Guilherme?  Talk to Montague.”

“We’re really doing this?” Lucy asked.

“We must,” Rook said.  “The only other option is to concede on every front.”


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False Moves – 12.6

Avery

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Dreams were supposed to be the brain sorting out the things it hadn’t processed in the day, so Avery made a point of not getting too caught up in what Charles was saying, examining the cramped little house.  Her fingers trailed the wall, toes of her running shoes tapping things set against the wall, fingers touching the little things like jars and books on shelves.  The words were gibberish.

“Why?” Verona asked Charles.

“That requires a long explanation-”

“Don’t dodge,” Lucy cut him off.  “Don’t drag this out in hopes you can escape or-”

“I’m surrendering.  People like me don’t get to escape.  We endure at best.  Now, will you take a seat?”

Avery turned.  Her eyebrows went up a bit as she noted the three chairs that hadn’t been at the table earlier.  The table was square, but the chairs were clustered at the one end, the chair on the left and the chair on the right situated so they rested against the table legs at an angle.

Wary of Charles, unsure if it was him or their collective unconscious that had changed this space, Avery didn’t sit.  Verona did, though, plunking herself down to Charles’ left.

“Why’d you do it?” Lucy asked, standing behind her chair with hands resting on the chair-back.

“Before I get to that, I do want to say I’m afraid I can’t be hospitable.  I don’t have any food or drink.”

“Stop dodging!” Lucy raised her voice, alarming Charles.  His arm jerked, and dragged against the glass embedded in the table’s edge.  He winced and gripped at the wound with one hand.  “Stop delaying, stop playing games-”

“I’m not playing games!” Charles raised his voice back, standing, wincing again as he put more weight on his feet with the glass all around him.  “Fact is, I don’t want to talk about it!”

“You’re going to have to!” Lucy shouted.

“I know that, girl!  But-”

“And I’ve told you, call me by my name!  Lucy Ellingson!”

“Nothing is meant by this.  It’s how I talk!”

“Say.  My.  Name.”

Charles took his hand away from his scratched arm to clench a fist, and the blood that had collected on the hand squeezed out from between his fingers in beads of blood.  “Lucy.  I’m sorry.”

She nodded, but she didn’t relax.

Avery walked over to the window, and it was not only grimy, but it looked like oil from the nonexistent kitchen in this tiny shack-like space had gathered on the window in beads and dribbles, that had then collected dust.  It made the space darker than it should have been, and made the view outside blurry.

She glanced back as Charles resumed talking.  Almost growling the words, he said, “I know I have to talk about it.  It eats me alive.”

“That sounds fair to me,” Lucy said.

“Hey Charles, Charles,” Verona said, leaning forward.  She grimaced at how dirty the table was.  “Charles?”

“What?” Charles asked, testy.

“Why’d you do it?”

“That depends on what it is,” Charles said.  Then, seeing Lucy getting ready to raise her voice again, he raised a bloody hand, to indicate for her to pause, or to acknowledge her.  “Let me gather my thoughts.”

Avery fished in her pocket for a spell card and used it to scrape the window of grease and grit, mostly streaking it.  As soon as it was clear enough, houseflies began to collect on both the inside and outside of the window, keeping the view obscured.

Charles didn’t take long to gather his thoughts.  His fist was unclenched, blood at his fingers, blood running down the side of his forearm to drip onto the glass beneath him, clothes rumpled and darkened, like they’d been through the wash with the darks too many times, he didn’t meet their eyes, instead fixing his gaze on the table that was grody with moist dust.  The normal grit to his voice was even worse as the words came reluctantly.  “It wasn’t my goal to make the Hungry Choir what it was.  I was newly forsworn, I was bitter, angry, and desperate.  I had no more ability to practice, and what I did have was slipping steadily through my fingers.  Water damage to books, things getting lost, some were taken by Alexander Belanger.  I gave some to the local Others for safekeeping.”

“What things?” Verona asked.

“Partially completed projects, tools for welding spirit to substance, extracted pieces of Others, reserves of power, like a kernel of elemental power from the original Girl by Candlelight, before she was refined.  Every week, I had a little bit less than the week before.  When you’re forsworn, there is no ideal time to act, understand?  Acting right away, I was rash, I hadn’t had time to think things through, but if I waited, I wouldn’t have the tools.  Freshly forsworn, I didn’t understand the ins and outs.  I never intended to hurt innocents.”

“Who did you want to hurt?” Lucy asked.

“I want to make it clear, I didn’t want to hurt those innocents.  Would you give me that?  It’s important,” Charles told them.  His eyes went to Lucy’s and he looked away, like her gaze was too hard.  He looked to Verona, and stared there for a second, looking for a response, and there was nothing.  No change in her solemn expression or large eyes.

He looked at Avery.

“Why is it important?” Avery asked, meeting his gaze.

“I was a bastard once.  That was back when I kept more company with Alexander, Larry, Ray, and Marie.  I was even more of a bastard when I was younger, I thought I could change direction, focus on other things.  I didn’t realize until too late that I was empowering the wrong people.  I retreated from everything, but in the end I still opened my door and my home to Alexander.  More than an oath about glass, I think that’s what I’m being punished for.”

“I don’t get it,” Verona told him.

“That’s important why?” Avery repeated.

“Because…” he paused, shaking his head, trying to find words.  “…The universe doesn’t want to give me what I want.  I think that’s why it became what it was.  I wanted retribution that was more or less free of collateral damage.”

“What were you trying to do?” Verona asked.

“I wanted to use another aspect of Yalda.  As a Black Dog… Sick Dog, Famine Dog, whatever you want to call her, she hurts people who hurt people.  They’d appear on battlefields, to represent the unjustly killed innocents.  She’d represent the anger, sorrow, and ugliness that they carried in their last moments, casualties of someone else’s war.  And when someone hurt them, or spoke words of hate at them, or even looked at them with prejudice-”

He paused, looking at Lucy.  As Avery glanced over, Lucy was narrowing her eyes.

“-Anyone doing harm in some fashion would invite the curses that Yalda and those Black Dogs like her would carry.  I wanted that piece of her, at the center of the ritual incarnate I was trying to build.”

“Not very fair to Yalda,” Lucy said.  “John was pretty upset about Edith’s involvement in Yalda.”

“I know,” Charles replied.  “I was desperate, I wasn’t thinking straight.”

Avery opened a cabinet, musing on what he’d said.  It made some sense.

There were bottles and broken table legs in the space beneath, covered in cobwebs.

Have to remember, he can lie.

“Who would the ritual have targeted, if not innocents?” Avery asked him.

Charles paused, then looked at the three of them in turn.  “Practitioners.  Alexander’s type of practitioner.”

“How?” Verona asked.

“Ritual incarnates can be prizes for practitioners.  I know the types they look for.  I know that Alexander is- was greedy, opportunistic, with high aspirations and a willingness to harm others.  I would have made it something that had promise only to practitioners, a riddle with an element of the technological and a lot of power drawn from an elemental lantern.  Drawing on the right themes, suggesting the divine, lay the breadcrumb trail, and paint a tempting picture.  I thought maybe not of a blue heron God, exactly- has he told you this story?  Have you heard of it?”

“He, Ray, Durocher, and other practitioners broke into some kind of server building that an Other took over?” Verona asked.

“Yes.  I was one of those others.  I custom designed and altered the Others that they used to open the way and fight past the dangers.  I thought it would be nice to create a suggestion of something else, similar to the Blue Heron God, possibly of the same origin.  A red bird instead, with a ritual incarnate surrounding it instead of server infrastructure.  Alexander envied Larry Bristow his collection.  What about the possibility of collecting nascent gods?”

“Nascent?” Avery asked.

“Fledgling.  New.”

“Oh.”

“I thought it was clever.  The riddle would be something Alexander would pride himself at being able to Augur his way past, the power would be irresistible to him.  The technological element would draw in Raymond.  The scale of it could lure in Marie Durocher.”

“It didn’t work out,” Lucy observed.

“Riddle became rhyme, rhyme became verse.  Yalda fought me and won some scant willpower, then twisted out of my grip.  Edith had some claim, she used it in the moment-”

“Edith was there?”

“Edith was there.  She helped make the Choir.  I mentioned the lantern of elemental power, I had her bring that and several other things to me.  I’d pulled that out of her, it was Abyss-touched and it was affecting her, making her meaner.  It was a lot of power and I wanted the cruelty from it as one piece in the ritual incarnate I was making.  I did the work on the Yalda side, Edith worked with that, and when it all started becoming something else, she grounded it in Kennet and Kennet’s power base.”

“So are we supposed to hear that and think you’re innocent?” Verona asked, leaning over the table.

“I’m not fucking innocent,” Charles replied.  “I should have known better.  At the outset, later on.”

“You didn’t tell anyone what the Choir was?” Lucy asked.

“I am a doomed man.  I intended to create something that hinted at a false god to target the kinds of practitioners who hurt others.  That would have been the trap, the test at the end of it.  Would they be willing to sacrifice themselves for the many?  And what did I get?  A mockery of what I wanted, with innocents in the way, its existence a taunt to me, its only real uses ones of selfishness for me, confronting me with my worst self.  Do you know what happens if I try to stop it?  If I try to be the hero?  It’s not pretty.”

“That sounds like a whole heap of excuses,” Lucy said.

“Yeah.”  One word from Charles had five different kinds of emotion in it, none of them especially pretty, with a bit of anger, a bit of bitterness, and other things.  It came out sounding almost triumphant.  “I know they’re excuses.  I dwell on them every single day.”

“The Choir had people hurting and despairing out every single day,” Lucy said.

“You think I don’t know!?” Charles replied, slamming a hand down on the table.  “But let me ask you, if I only get to ask one question of you three this entire interview, can I do that?  Will you give me your answer?”

That intensity was still there.  He breathed hard, and the hand he pulled off of the table had a triangle of glass embedded into the palm.

“Depends on the question,” Verona said.

“It’s more of a test question, seeing how well you understand what you’re dealing with,” Charles replied, pulling the glass out of his palm.  It broke, and fingers tremble-curled around the wound as he stopped pulling at the glass.  He let the hand drop.  He was calmer now.

“You can ask,” Lucy said.

“Whodunnit?” Charles asked.

“The Carmine murder?” Lucy asked back.

“The Hungry Choir,” Charles replied, calmer still, glaring a bit.

“Is this a trick question?  Because you admitted-”

“No,” Charles said, “I made it.  I have my responsibility, but Edith and I weren’t the only ones there, trying to pull the disparate pieces together into a convoluted force.  There was someone else present, who I’ve already mentioned.”

Not Yalda, not John…

“The universe?” Avery asked.  “The- the Carmine.”

“The Carmine,” Charles replied, dipping his head in one small nod.

“We saw it with the Sable and the Alabaster.  They have their own interpretations for the different… systems.  How they enforce rules, how they act, how they interpret.”

“They stand in for the collective unconscious.  For the ambient spirits, for the seats unclaimed.  If there are no spirit lords in the area, they’ll be the spirit lord where spirits need leadership.  If there is no Lord of a township, they’ll arbitrate the highest disputes.  When those forces and others are away, they arrange defense against the forces where not defending isn’t an option.”

“And they manage karma, decide forswearing cases,” Lucy said.

“Yes.”

“The Carmine was the one who twisted your ritual incarnate into the Choir?” Avery asked.

“She gave things the push they needed to go astray, and let the pieces fall in a way that would hurt me most.  Damn all the rest of them, am I right?  Damn the men, damn the women, damn the children, damn the communities, friends, and family.  Damn those sorry individuals who felt they had no choice but to do some ritual they read about on a newsletter or online!”

A fleck of spit flew from his lips as he raised his voice.  “Let them eat each other alive, let them die violently at the hands of animals, let them get pulled from the meat of their bodies to join the Choir!  At least she fucking got me!  How’s that?  Set that into motion and then she let it be and there we fucking go, she got to rub my face in my failure again, as if I wasn’t already fucking aware of it all, and Alexander got another chance to act the hero and grow his status, and I get the victims on my conscience!”

They didn’t have an immediate response for him.  Lucy went from leaning over her chair to turning away, arms folded.  Verona looked down at the table.

Avery glanced at them, saw Charles breathing hard, a bit of spit still there where scraggly beard drooped over the corner of his mouth, and looked away.  She glanced out the window, but there was nothing to see out there.  She opened a dresser drawer with the toe of her running shoe, lifting and pulling the edge, then backed away a step.  Rodents teemed within, using clothing they’d chewed up and torn up as nesting material.

“So you killed her?”  Verona’s voice was quiet.

Charles shook his head, looking aside.

“Charles?” Lucy asked, turning around to face him.

“I had the idea to, but any involvement more than the idea could have gone that same way, twisting against me.”

“You had the idea, others carried it out?”

“Others led the way, managed, forced me to play along in the small things, see it through.”

“Edith, Maricica, Bluntmunch?” Avery asked.

“Bluntmunch?” Charles asked.

“Is that wrong?” Avery asked him.

“It doesn’t surprise me.  I don’t know for sure.  I know goblins have helped here or there… it would be late involvement.  If our burliest goblin is involved, then you can count on them to be organized.  As organized as goblins get.”

“Let’s go back to what happened,” Lucy said.

“If you want,” Charles said.

“You had the idea.  They carried it out.  How did they carry it out?”

“Edith had some claim, still, they could collect some things from John to establish more, influencing the Choir through Yalda, and we’d established precedent early, tying the Choir to Kennet and Kennet’s perimeter.  It wasn’t a long line to draw between a hostile force powering the fence and the hostile force targeting someone who breached the fence.  We were able to make a bid, an ask, the Choir followed through.”

“And Maricica?”  Lucy asked.

“A trick.  Maricica avoided direct involvement, but did hamper the Carmine Beast in ways that helped her fall into the Choir’s clutches.”

“It was blindness, according to Maricica,” Lucy noted.  “She said it was temporary but weeks or months can be temporary, still.”

“Something like that.  I don’t know many particulars.  Faerie, as you might have noticed, don’t like to give straight answers.”

“Humans can be tough on that front too,” Verona murmured, slumping forward over the table.  “And here we are, hmm?”

“It took nearly a decade for the Choir to gain the power necessary.  I wanted it to happen sooner, but I don’t get what I want.  I hoped the Carmine would destroy the Choir and hurt enough she regretted her place in it, or be weakened and replaced, or that the Carmine would go and someone else would step up to take the spot.  Someone who wouldn’t let Hungry Choirs come about to make a point.”

“Do you know why she didn’t fight back?” Avery asked.

“I don’t have a clue.”

“Do you know why she went to the Arena?” Avery asked.  “The sports area.”

“I know what the Arena is.  No.”

“Or who the furs are meant for?”

“I think Maricica had ideas.  I wasn’t privy to them.  My job was to seed misinformation and mislead you.  For what it’s worth, I didn’t want to.  I didn’t want you to be so young.  I was braced for them to bring in an outsider, or for Miss to pick someone they would easily get rid of, with conscience clear.  She surprised me.”

“Then do-” Lucy started.

“Small,” Charles interrupted.

“What?”

“I overheard.  Edith was doing the tailoring.  Maricica told her not to make it too large.  I’ve wondered if they intended to put John in the crosshairs so one of you would take the seat yourselves.”

“Us?” Verona asked, sitting up.  “Any one of us?”

“It would be one of you, specifically, with Maricica playing a Fae game to push you that direction.  I have to admit, I hoped that you’d know and point to one of you three when I said it.”

“Then why would they want the furs back?” Lucy asked.

“I don’t know.”

Verona stood from her seat.  She indicated Lucy and Avery, and beckoned for them to come.

Avery glanced at Charles, then headed for the door.  Verona shut it behind her.

“One of us?” Avery asked.

“Carmine Doe?” Verona asked, indicating Avery.  She pointed at Lucy.  “Carmine Fox?”

“Carmine Cat?” Lucy asked Verona.  “Don’t tell me the thought didn’t cross your mind.”

“It did cross my mind, and was swiftly dismissed.  That sounds like hell to me,” Verona noted.  “Stuck with a job to do and responsibilities?  Until someone decides you’re not fit for the job and murders you, maybe replaces you?”

“I could see you enjoying making Others,” Avery said.  “And being tapped into practice?”

“Maybe,” Verona said.  “But you remember when Nibble and Chloe were talking about how their relationship would go bad eventually?  Made me think… I’m not sure I want forever if it’s forever without you guys.”

“Aw,” Lucy said.

Avery gave her heart a light punch, but… ugh.

I’m sorry, she thought.

“It might not be true,” Verona noted.  “If I wanted to distract from the truth, I’d do what he did and turn things around so the other guy is all, ‘Is it me?  Is it you?  What is truth?’ and stuff.”

“He’s seemed very upfront,” Avery replied.

“Good for him, but maybe he’s a really good liar.  He already got us once.”

“We have to remember that because he’s forsworn, there’s this ambient bias, right?” Lucy asked.  “We ran into that almost right after meeting Charles.  It’s come up a few times since.  The universe makes him really easy to dislike and hard to believe when he’s being upfront.”

“We don’t want to be biased,” Avery agreed.

“Do what feels right,” Verona said.

“The point is that it all feels wrong when it comes to Charles,” Lucy replied.

“Okay, fine.  Yeah, but you know what I mean, righ?  Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk about.”

“Why are we out here?” Lucy asked.

Avery looked around.  They stood on a bit of grass and broken ground in the middle of void.  One tiny house and nothing else.  Bugs clustered on the window.

“Alright, hm, okay, keeping all possibilities in mind,” Verona replied, “how does this map out?  If they want to force us or trick us into taking the furs, theoretically, assuming it’s truth… big assumption, right?”

“Right,” Avery replied.

“From what I can pull together, they have the furs, they start making clothes out of them, then we get them, right?  And we know they were frantic and worried… did that stop when they figured out we were the ones that had them?”

“Same end result?” Lucy asked.

“Something to think about,” Verona replied.

“Crap,” Lucy replied.  “I hate this.  Because I don’t think we’re there, or close to there, and the only way they’d get us there is… bad.”

“Massive bribe?” Verona asked.

“What about threatening everything we care about?” Lucy asked.

“Could it be someone else?” Avery asked.

“Definitely,” Verona replied.

Avery thought through all the people they knew, or the people they knew that Charles knew.

Nobody jumped to mind as a good fit.  Anyone that might would’ve already been considered.  They’d been thinking about this Carmine murder thing for months, really.

Avery sighed, and looked out in the direction of the void.

The darkness out there was the kind of dark that got mottled and distorted the more she stared into it.  As she stared, she could make out shapes from her nightmare.

“Want to continue?  I think these nightmares get more fragile the more we drag them out,” Avery asked.  “Until we get a jolt and fall back awake.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “There’s other stuff we can discuss in daylight.”

Avery reached the door first, and she pushed it open.

There was a rat that had crawled out of the drawer, digging incisors the length of Avery’s pinky finger into Charles’ leg.  Charles looked down, grimacing, but resisted moving until Avery approached at a swift stride and the rat pulled away, tearing a chunk of Charles’ shin off.  Charles’ leg moved involuntarily, the soles of his feet raking across the glass embedded in the floor.  He hissed through his teeth.

“Are you okay?” Avery asked.

“Does it matter?  I’ve told you how many people I hurt.  To keep to the plan to destroy the Carmine, I kept quiet, didn’t I?  I could have told people how the Choir worked.  I’ve made excuses, they may even be good excuses, but I could have told people,” Charles told them.

Avery looked around the dismal room, which was starting to smell like mold, blood, and mouse poop.  Charles bled from multiple places.  It was dark, and everything was a bit dirty and gross, in a way that suggested that cleaning wouldn’t be as easy as a wipe.  It wasn’t just dusty, but it was dusty and moist, so the dust streaked.  The windows were oily and dusty at the same time, and her attempt to clean it had only invited flights toward the increased source of light.

Blood soaked Charles’ sock and shoe, and pooled beneath him, not as a growing circle or oval, but something that spread maze-like through the uneven glass that peppered the floor beneath him.

He looked groggy, like the blood loss was getting to him.

This wouldn’t do.

“Do you want to go for a walk?” Avery asked.  “I think we can get out of here.”

“Please,” Charles said.  “I’ve seen this room too many times, too many variations, in nightmares I can’t wake up from.”

“This way, then,” Avery said.  “Can you get outside?”

He made the effort of standing, and the glass on the chair back had made marks from below his shoulderblades to the small of his back, scratching in deep lines or sinking in like small knives.  The same was true for buttocks and the backs of his thighs.

He took a step toward her, and glass slid out of the plain, uneven floorboards to meet his feet as he put his weight down.  His knee bent too much, he nearly fell, and there was glass waiting for him if he didn’t.  As he fought to get his balance and get properly upright, his foot slid on slick blood, a handful’s worth of glass cutting him from the front of his foot to the heel.

Avery reached out.  His bloody hand nearly slipped on hers as he took hold with a bony hand.  The grip was hard and fierce enough to be cruel, the blood sticky and cold.  Long arm hairs tickled her hand and made her skin crawl, from arms to shoulder, down her back, all the way down her legs.

When he walked with her support, there was no more glass.

Lucy was frowning more than usual as she held the door for them.

“Where are we going?” Verona asked.

“Anywhere but here,” Avery said.  “I can see my nightmare.”

“My nightmare wasn’t a great sit-and-talk sort of nightmare,” Lucy said.

“Ave?” Verona asked.

“It’d be a walk through the woods,” Avery replied.  “Let’s do yours first, if yours works?”

Verona nodded.  She looked out into the void.  “How?”

“Just… expect it to be there,” Avery told her.  “It’s out there in the gloom, like the shapes that appear against your eyelids when they’re closed.”

Verona stepped out toward the edge.

The shadows intensified in areas, leaving other areas brighter.

The more progress that was made in the nightmare coming to be, the more there was to work with.  A corridor became a school hallway, and then there were people.

Verona hopped across.  Clothes, skin, and hair ripped away, flying in their faces.  Avery shielded her face with her arms.

Verona stood ten feet down the hallway.  Three or four years younger, short, with shaggy, wavy black hair down to the small of her back.  Her hair was thick, so it was never quite straight, and it tended to be a bit messy in all but the best of times, and that made the long mane of hair have an insane amount of body.  Her eyes seemed even larger than usual on a smaller face.  She wore black overalls with paint on them in a way that seemed intentional and strategic, and a purple tee.

Lucy’s hand touched Avery’s.  Avery looked over, then held Lucy’s hand.

They made the leap from the edge to the hallway.  Avery felt an outer layer of skin and hair pull away, and she thought of the glimpse she’d seen as overeager members of the Hungry Choir had torn into Collins, the guy with tattoos.  Revealing a smaller body within, beneath the meat.

Lucy, beside her, still held her hand.  Lucy wasn’t wearing her usual ponytail, and had mostly natural hair glistening behind a headband that pushed the hair back and away from her face.  Mostly natural because it glistened with something that might have been helping to reduce frizz.  Young Lucy wore jeans with rips at the knees and a t-shirt with a breast pocket, with a graphic of a bird poking its head up and out.  It was a look that felt a bit like Verona might wear it today.  Just… it would be a cat in the pocket, and darker colors.

Lucy flashed a smile at Avery, revealing missing front teeth, and the smile was interrupted as Verona tackled Lucy with a hug.

Avery glanced back.

Charles had crossed.  He was blond, hair buzzed super short except for a frill at the front, and had a smudge on his cheek.  He wore a white tee with a tear in it near the beltline, a very thin jacket with a zipper, almost like an overshirt, and jeans that were rolled up twice at the bottom and cinched at the waist with a belt, like they didn’t fit him yet.  His eyebrows were thin and expressive, his eyes sharp.  He immediately jammed his hands into pockets, glancing at her.  He’d been reduced down to the same age.  There were no more cuts, no more blood.  He looked more alert.  He looked okay.  Like he wasn’t forsworn anymore.

Someone bumped Avery from behind, and she twisted around to look.  Olivia, young, running down the hallway with some other kids.  The rest of the Swanson team.

It left her with a bit of a pit in her stomach.  She wrinkled her nose and she was made aware that there was a band-aid there, over the bridge of her nose.  Bright green, at a glance, contrasting with the hair she wore in a ponytail, that had been redder when she was younger, now a reddish-blonde.  She wore an oversized sleeveless jersey, the breeze reaching through the armholes and around her lower ribs and stomach, a hand-me-down from Rowan, actually, that would go to pieces before she grew up enough to wear it, and jeans she remembered owning.  She’d complained about getting Sheridan’s hand-me downs, these were a pair she’d picked out herself, no hearts, no flowers, no dump-in-my-diaper look where Sheridan’s butt had stretched out the rear-end region and hips.  Just straight-up jeans that she’d drawn leaves on at one point, doing one leaf a week near the heels until she messed up her pen drawing on denim and stopped bothering.

“We should still talk about what needs to be talked about,” Avery said.

“Okay,” young Charles said.

“Raymond is coming.  He wants to meet.”

“I know.  That’s fine.  I guess you’ll decide what to do with me, now that I’ve confessed.”

Avery’s dad came down the hallway, reaching for a young Declan, who was running away from him, laughing in a way that the Declan of today never did.  Her dad’s angle, bending down and to the side to reach for Declan, made it feel like he was going to crash into Avery, like he didn’t see her.  She sidestepped and bumped into Verona, who responded by hugging her.

“With everything going on, I would understand if you’d want to put me front and center,” Charles said.  “If you ask, I can draw their focus.”

“Their focus?” Lucy asked, eyebrows knitting together, not in a frown, but a look where the middle point was raised high instead.

“I want to go shopping!” a ten year old Sheridan complained, as she led her mother away.  Their mom carried a whiny infant Kerry, looking harried.  “This is a drag.”

“We’ll go shopping after, or tomorrow, if Kerry needs to go down for a nap.”

“You said today!”

Avery’s mom, younger, bent down in passing and kissed the top of Avery’s head, interrupting Kerry’s whining as she dipped her and then straightened.  “Thank you for being good.”

Avery nodded, turning a bit as her mom carried on walking down the hall, carrying Kerry, Sheridan trotting beside her.

“I’m being good too!” Sheridan complained.  “Aren’t I?  Isn’t it fair that if you promise something you stick to that?  I know you’ve told me that.  I don’t think it’s wrong to stand up for myself!”

“I have told you that but I also told you that when there’s a child as young as Kerry in the picture that sometimes we have to compromise.”

“I didn’t ask for another little sister,” Sheridan complained.  She glanced back at Avery and gave her a look, like Avery’s mere existence was akin to Sheridan just having stepped in dog doo.

“Why is it just my family and peers?” Avery asked, turning.

“It’s not,” Verona said.  “My parents are here.”

“I saw my mom for a second,” Lucy said.

“Oh,” Avery replied.  She glanced at Charles.

“I didn’t have the support of family.  My father worked, my mother didn’t get out of bed.”

“Depression?” Verona asked.

“It was a long time ago, and I think there were many versions of the story even back then.  Depression, she had chronic fatigue, alcoholism or drugs, all of the above, or none of the above.  They divorced,” Charles said.  “My dad went to prison for not paying child support, I stayed with my mother.  He was in prison for six months, got out, got his second chance, never even tried to find work, went back in for nonpayment.  My mother would go weeks or months, mostly catatonic, then get out of bed just long enough to get my hopes up, back to bed she went.  Most of my parenting was in the form of advice from my dad when I went to visit him in prison.  Then, fourth or fifth time he got out, he decided it was easier to disappear.  He said goodbye, said he was sorry, left me to take far, far too long to realize he wasn’t coming back.”

“I’m sorry,” Lucy replied.

“They didn’t teach you practice?” Verona asked.

“No.  I got to my mid-teens, my mother never changed, I got fed up paying for her and me, I left too.  Met some kids who would find isolated houses where the families were going away, break in, and throw big parties with a small entry fee, trash everything, three hundred people who’d steal everything that wasn’t bolted down.  One of the houses had books on practice.  I took as many as I could load into the car.  They stopped throwing the big break-in parties after we had too many burglar alarms in a row, used the money they had to start selling drugs instead.  We amicably parted ways.  Then I started summoning Others to help them out for a cut of profits.  I’d tell them I knew someone scary that’d deal with any problems they had.  That ended badly.”

“Spooky,” Avery said.  She winced as Olivia came tearing down the hallway, bumping shoulders with her, not even looking.

The boy-version of Charles continued, “Me summoning Others opened the door for a revenant to rise up to get revenge against them, I think.  It hurt their innocence, left them vulnerable.  It was a wake up call for me.  I started trying to do better, be better.  I thought I’d associate with better people.  I keep- every time I stop paying attention and start relaxing and getting into the flow of things, I end up looking back and realizing I’ve been associating with terrible people.”

“Are you still trying to do better and be better?” Lucy asked.

“I’m-” Charles started.  He shook his head.  “I don’t think I can be better.  That opportunity is gone now.  Third strike.  The dealers, the Blue Heron group, and then inviting Alexander into my place.”

“That-” Avery started.

She was shoved, hard, wrists skidding on floor instead of stopping her fall.  Her chin cracked against the gritty tile.

“Leave her the frig alone!” Lucy shouted.

“Sorry sorry sorry!  I love you, Avery, we’ll hang out another time, okay!?” Olivia called out, still jogging down the hallway with friends.

A bad feeling was welling up, as if this was building up to something.  Avery accepted help in standing, and realized that one person was Charles, the other a young Pam.

Her mouth opened, and she wanted to say something to Pam, but Pam was already flashing her a smile, totally unfiltered, dashing words and sense from Avery’s brain.  Then Pam was gone, turning away.

“Was there a bigger plan with the Carmine Beast?” Lucy asked.

Charles absently dusted off Avery’s arm with one hand.  “Some.  I hoped to get unforsworn, if it came down to it.  I know one boy at the school got forsworn.”

“Seth,” Verona replied.

“Alexander has probably forsworn many more that we don’t know about.  It’s a power thing.  He’s gainsaid others as a matter of habit, I know.”

“Definitely, except past tense, because he’s dead,” Verona told Charles.

“Right.  That’s hard to picture.  He always seemed like someone who would always get by, always thrive by being slimy.  I started thinking that the deaths were unavoidable.  My fault, yes, also the Carmine’s.  But if something could come of it, it would be nice to undo the forswearing of others.  It shouldn’t be a punishment.  Edith started out helping me because I’d asked, and because I’d helped her without asking much in return, for a long time.  Later, it took on other reasons.  A catch-all solution for her problems.”

“And Maricica?” Lucy asked.

“I don’t know.  She inserted herself into things and gave it cohesion and direction beyond simply pointing the Choir at the beast and waiting.”

Avery saw Ms. Hardy in a classroom.  Ms. Hardy glanced at her, and without even smiling, turned to a young Ian, Noah, and their parents, and shut the door.  With Avery at the far right of the hallway, the door was pretty much shut in her face.

“What about painting the town red?” Avery asked.  She turned, then turned around and started walking backwards, to keep an eye on Olivia, to avoid getting bumped.

Behind Charles, she saw Lucy frown, shaking her head.

But it was too late.  She’d already dropped that clue.

“Painting-?” Charles asked.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t you?  It’s the plan, isn’t it?”

“I…” Charles trailed off, then shook his head.  “I’m wondering who would have said something so cryptic.  Cig?”

“Overheard, really,” Verona said.

Olivia was out of sight.  Avery turned, looking, and saw Olivia and her friends careening down the hallway, past parents, teachers, and younger-versions of kids at school, almost like pinballs.  They banged into lockers with empty metal bangs, and bumped into people or one another before pushing themselves off at wild trajectories.

This was like a game.  A playing field.  She anticipated their movements-

And a movement at the corner of her eye made her flinch.  Rowan.

Rowan and her parents.

Her mom held up one finger, indicating for her to wait, then shut the door nearly in her face, like Ms. Hardy had.

“Don’t wake up,” Verona said.

“Don’t say that!” Avery told her.

Olivia came at Avery, harder and faster than a person should be able to move, and it was Lucy who intercepted, crashing into her, shoving her into a locker, to the wincing ‘ooohs’ of the people around them.

Olivia bounced back up and she wasn’t Olivia anymore.  It was a boy, kind of good looking except for a sharp nose, and he came back fighting, tackling Lucy to the ground, and punching her across the face.

“Frig off!” Lucy shouted.  “Why me!?”

He hit her across the face again, then again, and the milling crowd efficiently blocked Avery from reaching her friend.

“It’s a nightmare, Lucy!” Avery shouted, but the crowd’s voices rose in eerie sync to drown her out, volume-wise.  Verona was in a similar boat.

Lucy was trying to fend off the kid, to defend herself and push him away, and he was- he was trying to hurt.  He had a grip on a lock of her hair and another on the vest pocket of her shirt and he pulled on both hard, alternating, each tug eliciting tearing sounds.  The breast pocket tore first, showing the bird with the little pink butt instead of a bird tail, and hair tore too, coming away in a clump.  She shoved him away, he climbed on top of her, and in scrabbling for position he found purchase on the ripped knee of her jeans, and used it, kicking down.  What had been a modest rip ripped to the seams on either side of the knee, and pulled her pants partway down one of her hips.  She tried to tug them back up into position and he used the opportunity to grab her head with both hands, shoving it into the floor.

“Leave her alone, Logan!” Verona screeched.

“Are you doing this?” Avery asked Charles.

“No,” Charles and Verona replied at the same time.

“No, this is the nightmare,” Verona said.  “Just… expanded to all of us and our individual flavors.”

Lucy shoved Logan away with arms and legs both, and he hit a locker, with a resounding bang.

And everything went eerily quiet.

“What is your daughter doing to my son!?” the voice cut through the quiet.

“Mom,” Lucy called out, climbing to her feet.   Avery tried to squeeze through the crowd and it was a step of progress for every three steps Lucy took, moving away from her.

“Look at him, look at the mark on his forehead!”

More people joined in, all raising their voices at Lucy’s mom, or tut-tutting, or pointing fingers.

“Don’t blame my mom!  Leave my mom alone!” Lucy shouted.

“It’s a nightmare, Lucy!” Avery called out.  “We need to leave, find somewhere else to talk!”

“Don’t wake up!” Verona called out.

Lucy was still trying to protect her mom and get to her mom and she couldn’t.

Avery glanced back, and behind Charles, there were others.  Kids, many older, all with a… a dark aura, she supposed.  It wasn’t actually darker, but something about them made her skin crawl.

Charles backed away from them, but the rule seemed to be that the kids appeared behind him, and by turning to face them, there were more kids stepping out of doorways behind Charles.  All with that feeling.  Avery couldn’t put names to faces, there wasn’t a clear teenage Alexander in the mix, but she knew that they were the bad influences, the people he’d fallen into problematic friendships with.

Lucy banged into a locker as she tried to push her way through to her mom and got rebuffed.  Lucy turned her head to track Logan, who was back on his feet, nose bloody, cut on his forehead bleeding, glaring at her, pacing like he was trying to circle around to her side or behind her.

Lucy’s fingers reached up to a bald patch at her temple, where hair had been pulled out.

“Go away, I need to protect my mom!”

Lucy’s mom shrieked, and Lucy’s face became the picture of alarm, her head turning.

The scenery behind her shimmered, trembling like it was about to give way.

Before she could do anything, including waking up, Verona screamed.

The kind of scream only a kid could make, high pitched, long, and loud.

Interrupting everything about the scene.

Until her parents came in.  A bit younger, Verona’s dad a fair bit slimmer, bending down to grunt as he picked Verona up.  He was large and strong and Verona was small for her age.

There was a momentum to their appearance.  Avery grabbed Charles’ wrist and jogged after, and Lucy, hesitating as she glanced in the direction of her mom, followed.

“Spreading lies, not doing your homework-” Verona’s dad said, putting Verona down but not really letting her go.

“We’ll talk about it later, let’s just focus on the problem right now,” her mom said.  “What can we do to address this?”

“For one thing,” the teacher Avery didn’t know said, “making the time to sit down and go over her homework with her.  She’s a smart kid, and I know she’s done her homework before, but she won’t turn it in.”

“I have coworkers who do the exact same thing, I couldn’t even begin to tell you how frustrating it all is,” Verona’s dad said.  “I wouldn’t have to work half the number of hours if my coworkers would do their share, but instead I end up doing the share of fifteen people, you wouldn’t believe it.  I work twenty-seven hours a day…”

“I’m supposed to say you’re embarrassing me, oh god, my entire class is outside in the hallway, but this is a rerun of my nightmare,” Verona said.  “I don’t care, can I go back to talking to Charles?”

“Can we focus on everything Verona’s doing wrong?” Verona’s mother asked.

“Excuse me, I was talking,” her dad said.

Verona tugged, trying to get out of his grip, and failed.  His arm moved less than if it was a stone statue’s.  He tugged on her arm to move her in front of him and held her shoulders.  That seemed to distress Verona more than the scene overall.

Avery looked around, then reached to her back pocket, to pull out the Dropped Knife.

She looked at Lucy, and saw that Lucy, vulnerable and young, had tears on her cheeks.  And behind them all, Charles stood surrounded by five kids, two standing shoulder to shoulder with him, another three behind him.  He was firmly in their grips.

“We were thinking about sending her away,” Verona’s dad said.

Kids in the hallway murmured and commented in whispers.

“We can talk about that later,” her mom said.

“Or you can say no now!”

“It’s a nightmare, remember!” Avery shouted.

Lucy was crying, tugging at torn clothing.  That worked.  With care, Avery reached out, holding the knife near Lucy’s face.  “If I may?  For Verona’s sake.”

“Just about anything for Verona’s sake,” Lucy whispered.

Avery scraped a tear off of Lucy’s cheek with the flat, edgeless back of the knife.

“Just about anything for you too, you know,” Lucy said behind Avery, as Avery turned away.  The knife took on a brilliant sheen, and got more brilliant as Avery dug deep into a well of feeling.

“One tear, one hundred cuts!” Avery shouted, leaping, cutting a hundred times in a second.

Brett exploded into confetti.

The scene began to take on that shimmer of a nightmare about to end.

“No weapons in school!” someone shouted.

The entire tone of things changed, getting more intense, the promise of something dark and violent sweeping toward them.

Avery sheathed the knife and turned, looking to the window and the tree outside.  “Verona!  Get the window!”

Verona scrambled over.

Charles was still there, surrounded by seven kids, but the oldest kid had fingers digging into the side of Charles’ face, dragging down.  And like fleshy mud, Charles’ face distorted, stretching down, eyelid pulling away from eye.  Bone grated and stretched.

Avery and Lucy tugged on either of Charles’ hands, hauling him free, and the distortion got worse for the pulling.

He came free, but the group of bad influences kept pieces of him.

They threw themselves into the window and hurled themselves out, as teacher and student chased.

We shouldn’t have shown Charles all this, Avery thought.

🟂

“Let me turn your last question around on you,” Charles said.

“I forget the last question,” Lucy said.

They were their regular ages again.  They walked through Avery’s Forest Ribbon Trail.  Dark trees both painted and growing out of the wall, ribbons attached to branches, rattling vents blowing cold air.  The only light came the moonlight that shone down past two impossibly tall walls on either side of them.

“What do you think it is that Miss and Rook want?” Charles asked.

“I feel like if we said anything we’d be betraying them,” Verona replied.  “You’re still one of the culprits.  Maybe there are sorta-reasons, but that’s not good enough.”

“If I admit to my involvement tomorrow, when Raymond comes, then it can draw attention away from the murder of Alexander.  It would confound Maricica.  If Bluntmunch is coordinating the goblins, he won’t be able to after this.  You could try arguing with Raymond to keep custody of me, or turn me over to him.  Whatever he’d do would probably be more secure than anything you could manage on the short term.  Not that you’d need much.  You could put me in a room with a door you’ve left unlocked and the lock would decide to spontaneously close on me, or the door would jam.”

“That’s up to you,” Lucy said.  “But I don’t see what that has to do with your question.”

“I’ve surrendered.  I’ll face consequences.  I’d- I’d say I already have, far and above anything I did to Alexander, but I’m not going to fight.  I’m too tired.  You don’t need to re-litigate it, you don’t need to keep bringing it up.  I’m caught, I’m done, let’s talk.”

“You had a question about Miss,” Avery said.

“I did.  What do you think Miss hopes for?  And you don’t want to answer, so I’ll give my best attempt.  Miss is keenly aware of the very same thing I am.  That this system is broken.  It’s antiquated, it’s ugly, it’s unfair, and it serves the worst people best.  She knows this, I know this, Rook knows this, Matthew and Edith know it, Toadswallow knows it, and I think even Maricica has her own version of this in her head, flavored to the courts.  Practitioners and practitioner society aren’t good for this world.”

“Everyone on the same page?” Lucy asked.

“No, not at all.  But we’re in agreement on this.  It’s a world that serves the Bristows and Alexanders-”

“The Mussers,” Lucy said.

“Oh yeah.  The Mussers.  I didn’t think you’d met him.”

“He runs the Blue Heron now,” Verona said.  “Or co-runs.”

“We told you guys all that,” Avery said.

“Ah.  Memory gets weak when you’re forsworn.  A combination of the spirits not cooperating and the distractions of everything else.  My point is, this is a world that serves them.  Us, here?  We all have our different responses to it.  It’s usual for them, for us to avoid it all.  We retreat, and we let the worst of them grapple with the worst of them.  What happened early this summer at the Blue Heron Institute is the sort of thing that happens every five or ten years, I’d think.  An event to be remembered and remarked on, but nothing for the history books.”

“I think it was mentioned that they had a crisis every two or three years, actually,” Verona said.

“Something like that,” Lucy said.  “But probably not a headmaster-dying type of crisis.”

“Every two or three years, hm?” Charles asked.  “I suppose it was Alexander’s school, styled after his approach.”

“Yep,” Avery said.  She pointed at a picture on the wall.  “Skull of a cat, painted there.”

“Isn’t that a bundle of ribbon?” Lucy asked.  “Oh… no, huh.  Good eyes.”

Avery gave her a thumbs-up.  “Turn around.”

They turned around and carried on in their walk.

“This is nice.  Why didn’t we start with this?” Verona asked.

“Don’t you feel the mounting dread?” Avery asked.

“Well, yeah, but I felt that at school.  I kind of feel it at school most days at non-nightmare school.  That feeling of being processed.”

“Back on track,” Lucy said.  “Everyone has the same goal, but with different approaches?”

“It might be that I’m a tired man, aged by my experiences before I’m middle aged.  I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in nearly a decade, I struggle to scrape together a tolerable meal.  Worry eats holes into my guts.  But I’ve fancied that if this went through and if we got what we wanted, even just the part where we released the forsworn in this one region of Canada, that might get at least a few people thinking about what the alternatives might be if this system starts coming apart at the seams.  Would Miss or Toadswallow begrudgingly admit that this wouldn’t be the way they’d go about it, but the end result isn’t the worst thing?”

“How does freeing people lead to things coming apart at the seams?” Avery asked.

“If a lie can pass without judgment, then a special truth doesn’t matter nearly so much, and practice is about your word meaning something, isn’t it?  If broken Oaths become even a bit more acceptable, then Oaths stop holding as much sway.  What use a contract, if there’s no ability to enforce penalties?”

“And the world loses its magic?” Verona asked.  “What happens to Others?  Wasn’t the big Seal of Solomon thing a way of slowing or stopping that gradual loss of territory and whatever to humanity?”

Charles’ voice was rough in his throat as he replied, “It was.  No, they’d hurt for it.  But Maricica and Edith are on board all the same.  The ideal case would be if a new, modern system was invented and put into place.  But I don’t have that faith in humanity.”

“You think people would just shrug and be okay with what you did, because even though your way of doing it was horrible, you all kind of agree?” Lucy asked.

“Accepting it is different from being okay with it.  Believe me, that’s where I stand with the slaying of the Carmine Beast, and the innocent lives the Choir took in the process of getting strong enough.”

Lucy shook her head.

The trees were changing.  That ominous feeling returned.  The walls had dropped away and there were more actual trees on either side of the path.

The ribbons on the trees were red now.

“It’s why I didn’t want you to practice, you know.  Why I discouraged the Asian girl and your friend with her foot in the brace.  There are too many drawbacks, and I think we should do away with practitioners as we understand the idea.”

“And you’re going to do that by…?”

“With luck, the Forsworn will be forgiven wholesale.  Freed from unjust consequence.  But I’m not lucky, so… I can only hope for the best while expecting the worst.  Maricica will pick her champion to fight John over the Carmine Throne, and she seems confident it will happen the way she wants it.”

“And that’s enough?”

“Miss has told me, years ago, that we can’t expect to change things from Kennet alone.  But one small change here could provoke thought elsewhere, and the right thought in the right mind?  I’d hope that could change what Solomon built.”

“People would stop you,” Lucy said.  “I don’t… I’m not in complete and total disagreement-”

“I don’t think anyone with enough exposure to Alexander and Bristow would be,” Charles said.

“-But can’t they supplant the Carmine by picking Lords?”

Avery perked up, then grabbed Lucy’s arm.

Lucy turned to her, and this was the moment Avery had connected the dots, that she’d mention it, and Avery didn’t open her mouth.

She didn’t need to.

Verona nodded, as well.

Yeah.

“Yeah,” Charles agreed.  “Anyone who takes the seat and starts making dramatic changes to the practice itself will be challenged and removed, or made redundant by the placement of Lords over any major areas, pre-empting the Carmine’s authority.  The Carmine only rules where the Lords of cities don’t.”

“We’re about at the end of the nightmare,” Avery noted, as the way got darker.

“The end?  That soon?” Lucy asked.

“It’s why I wanted to go after Verona.  Because I knew… there’s a clear end point.  You have to keep moving but when you get to the end, you wake up.  That’s this nightmare.  I took a detour to get to Charles’ nightmare.  Alpy helped.”

Lucy nodded.

“Will you go to see Ray?” Verona asked Charles.

“He should come to see me,” Charles replied.  “Or I’ll need something to protect me.  I’m protected from the bulk of what would hurt most Forsworn by the power and privilege the Kennet Others provide.  But Edith, Maricica, and the Choir are gone, Matthew is a shell of his former self, and the new Others aren’t fully a part of Kennet.”

“That’s why you were so hard to get to?” Lucy asked.

“In part.  It’s a problem with two edges, because their absence also means more Others have entered, and I’m the best sort of prey to them.  Consequence free predation, easy, defenseless, and rich in all kinds of misery that many Others eat, and there’s no karmic cost or risk to coming after me.  No, it’s a karmic reward.  Dispatch the Forsworn, and you can benefit like you’ve found a four leaf clover.  Hurt him slowly and regularly over time and the powers that be might as well be clapping their hands and calling you Just for every little bit of harm you do.”

“Ugh,” Lucy said.

“Ugh, yes,” Charles replied.

“But I think you’re not being hard enough on yourself,” Lucy said.

“What do you know about how hard I am on myself?” he asked.

“Hundreds of people, Charles.  To give the world of Practice a big middle finger?”

“It might mean more than that.”

“It might mean less!”

“Maybe,” he said.  “But I didn’t create the Choir willfully to get these ends.  These were the ends she handed to me!  I’ve got nothing but misshapen, tumorous lemons and I’ll make my fucking lemonade if I must!  Give me that, at least!”

“No,” Lucy retorted.

“Sorry, Charles,” Avery commented.  “We’ll try to be fair and just, but I don’t think you’re being straight with us.  I think of the people who got taken and everything that happened, and… there were better ways.”

“I don’t get better ways, and I hope to hell, I do mean this, that you never ever have to truly know and understand that for yourself.”

“You want to take magic away,” Verona said.  “There’s Others who are hurting too, for reasons that aren’t plugged into this thing you want to overturn.  Tashlit.  You gotta- you gotta set up something better.”

“If the-”

“If they can’t set up something better, they deserve this?”

The voice, feminine, came from down the path.

Verona gripped Avery’s sleeve.

“I can hear her breathing,” Lucy said.

If Ray and Marie Durocher couldn’t find the goodness in them to beat your arbitrary challenge, they’d deserve their fates?”

“Choosing the many over the self is a basic, long-understood bar for goodness,” Charles replied.

The Wolf approached, coming down the path, pushing branches out of the way.  Her teeth caught on a ribbon, and she bit, eyes that peered through dark branches bright and intense.

“That’s not my Wolf,” Avery whispered.

“I don’t know Finding,” Charles said.  “What is it?”

“A Wolf,” Avery told him.  “A threat tailored against your Self.  Except it’s not mine.”

“Not mine, either,” Verona said.

“No,” Lucy said.

Avery looked at Charles.

“Hello Avery, I’ll get to you eventually,” the Wolf said, letting the ribbon fall from her mouth.  Her hair was silver-gray with an emphasis on the silver, her skin pale, and her clothes familiar.  She walked like Durocher walked, but-

The clothes were Alexander’s, for the most part.  The button-up shirt in satin blue was a button up shirt in satin red.  The black blazer, the slim pants, the black shoes.  Her footsteps were overly heavy on creaking floorboards that had been set into oily, brown-black mud.

“She didn’t wear human form very often,” Charles said.  “Even for the meetings with the others.”

“The Carmine?” Avery asked.

Charles indicated his Wolf.  “She didn’t wear those clothes, of course, or move like that.  But the face…”

He fell silent.

“You girls may go.  He’s the favored prey, by karmic rules,” the Wolf said, as she drew a wand from her waist.  “But Avery?”

Avery frowned.

“You might get to wake up when you reach the end of this dream, but him?  He doesn’t get to wake up that easily when the nightmares get bad.”

“Alpeana normally protects me from the worst of it,” Charles said.  “But for tonight, there was no avoiding it.  I’m glad we were able to talk, even with this.”

“Let’s see if I can change your mind about being so glad,” the Wolf told him.  “If you girls don’t go, I’ll include you in this.”

“Go!” Charles barked the word.

They went.  Avery backtracked on the path, and she felt that ominous feeling that had intensified as she reached the Wolf getting worse, redoubling.  The nightmare began to break up.

Verona woke up, the nightmare breaking up around her.  Lucy did the same.

Avery turned, found a detour that felt more or less right, and then she leaped.

Charles wasn’t waking up.  The Wolf was right about that.  Which meant his nightmare was out there, stitched to their nightmares by Alpeana.  Verona waking up had stripped hers away, as Lucy’s had with her own, but Avery remained asleep, in this realm of dark dreaming, and so did Charles.

So she let him dwell in her nightmare, confronting some amalgamation of Carmine Beast and Blue Heron staff, and she went back to his nightmare.

The nature of the Paths that Finders walked, like Oz and like Alice’s Wonderland, were whimsical, sometimes, or random, or weird.  For a long, long time, according to Jude Garrick from the Garrick clan of Finders, they’d thought the Paths were special dreams that went on forever.  There was apparently evidence to support that idea, but the Paths were weird enough that someone could take anything and find a pattern as far as how it linked to the Paths in general.

Whatever it was, she was better in a dream than some.  She could pull out tricks, like the Dropped Knife, and she could push the boundaries of what a dream allowed, she was the last one to wake up, and that might have had to do with mentality, but it might also have been tied into her wearing the Finder label with pride.

So she remained, and she made use of it.

She visited Charles’ nightmare, and entered the house.  She did a more thorough search, pulling on the gloves she’d gotten from the Paths, to avoid rodent bites and cuts from glass.

She dismantled the cabin of Charles’ unconscious, heaving the table to one side and letting the gloves put it somewhere else with a firm clapping.  She opened cabinets and pulled out drawers, pulled furniture aside and found that the cabin from most angles had vertical boards on the walls, but from another position, standing where the broken bed had been, there were recesses.

Bookshelves.  Most gibberish.  Photo albums.  She could almost recognize some faces in pictures, a teenage Charles hanging out with practitioners.  They’d been the young faces clinging to him.  The gang members?

She checked other books, then saw more stacked haphazardly on top of the bookshelf.  Navigating got hard, the space cramped and labyrinthine, all storage, bookshelves, and paper records, the occasional memento used as a bookend for records or diaries.

She closed her eyes momentarily, to figure out how much time she had.  There was a limit to what she could pull off here.

Avery reached out to her bond with Snowdrop, for sentiment, for feeling, for awareness.

Snowdrop opened the way.

Perched on a windowsill, Snowdrop watched Charles sleep.  Increasingly fitful, but… he didn’t get to wake up easy.

She had time.  She clapped her hands three times, and brought the table back into reality.  It dropped with a crash, splitting in the middle with one leg breaking, but she was able to kick it over and then balance one foot on the peak of the little pyramid shape formed when the table lay ajar, propped up by one leg.  She reached up to the top of the shelf with the Dropped Knife, nudging books over, over-

They dropped to the floor.  Avery hopped down.

Records, records… childhood memories, foods and food preferences, food dislikes-

Avery winced as a piece of paper tore free and zipped off around the corner, the white of paper disintegrating, the letters dissolving into meaning and intent.

Maybe he was tasting something bad at the Wolf’s behest?

She carried on.  It would be nice to find a way to wake him up early, when she was done.  She dug through the books.  Nothing.  She carried the broken table over.

She found logbooks.  She paged through, but it was purely visual notes, inspiration, the type and nature of inspiration logged in code she couldn’t read.

There were others.  Pulling notebooks from shelves only revealed more.  She put things back with care.

She didn’t want to leave traces.

More logbooks.

Scenes and dates, and some wheel of emotions, overlapping an image of his face, with notes on the side.

She paged through until she found the right range of dates, then flipped through more slowly, looking at scenes.

To Snowdrop’s eyes, he was getting more agitated, fighting his way to consciousness.

What had Edith said?

That they’d get rid of them.

Back at that meeting.

And here it was, sketched out on the left-hand page of the notebook, captioned: we can’t keep them from living long lives, but one way or another, we’ll get rid of them.  The left hand side referenced notes on the right-hand side, with emotion map and expression.

Edith and Charles alone in the kitchen, having a conversation.

Charles, finding his way from concern to relief.

There were other scenes, and she wanted to find tonight, but whatever the system was, it wasn’t here.

She searched more, aware that time was running short.  She needed hours and she had ten minutes at the very most.  Time moved funny here and staying anchored to Snowdrop made that harder.

She changed tacks.  There was a flavor to each area, disorganization for some memory stuff, a transition of nice to austere to gritty and dark as things moved away from early childhood to where he was now.  Or close to.

She searched the maze, running this way and that, finding her way from one recessed space to another, until she came upon an area where the bookshelf had been sundered.  Like an axe had been taken to shelves, everything fallen, much of it in disuse, left to pile up and gather bugs and dust.

But some had been set aside.  Stuff he found relevant even now?

She found a book on summoning, and it seemed to be his rudimentary understanding of it, a chronicle of growth.

She looked through the stacks of books by chronology, looking for the dark and looking for the bloodstained.  What was most recent?  Would that be the ritual to create the Hungry Choir?  Would it be possible to verify the facts?  To look for the lies?

“Thar yer!”

Avery jumped.

Alpeana wove and used hair to move through the space.  “Lassie, no!  This is a space even ah’ament meant to deep into!”

“It shouldn’t hurt him, going by the ways alcazars work-”

“It doesn’t maiter, lass!  Ah let ye in, ah didnae think you’d find yer wey ‘ere!  It’s a matter o’ privileges!  Get rid o’ that!”

Avery looked down at the book she’d picked up.  Each of the books was a very specific slice of one very specific field.  The earlier texts had included memories of facial expressions in key moments.  This was the most recent memories of summoning, but going by date…  She tossed it aside, then dusted off her hands.

“I’ll be wakin’ ye up now.”

“I hope you had a good night, Alpeana.”

“Ah did, but it weren’t helped by this!”

“Really didn’t mean to cause you any grief,” Avery told Alpeana.

“Ah know.  Yer a good lass, but let’s be goin’.”

Avery nodded.

Alpeana reached out with dirty black hair and swallowed her up.

🟂

Avery woke up, sat up, and stretched.  It was early, but not unconscionably early.

People were up, but the house was quiet.  Air conditioning hummed.

Kerry was sleeping in, and Avery made sure not to jostle the bunk bed too much.  She climbed down, gathered up her stuff, running shoes included, and carried them downstairs, depositing them by the front door.

Curtains were drawn, but morning light shone through the gaps like laser beams.  It made the space feel stark.

She slapped her cheeks hard, to test, making sure this wasn’t a nightmare.  All clear.

Right.

Just… different.

Her dad was on the phone while he made breakfast, waving hello while keeping phone tucked between ear and shoulder.  Declan was already up and playing video games.

She pulled stuff together, pulled on clean clothes straight from the dryer, kicking dirty t-shirt and pyjama shorts to the corner with the laundry waiting to be done.  Then, before eating, she checked on Grumble.

Because he was old and in a bad way and it felt a bit like maybe one day she or someone else would check in on him and he wouldn’t be snoring like he was right now, like a table being dragged across the floor, the grumbliest of snores.  She smiled fondly, but it was a sad sort of smile.

In some ways, she felt like she was barely hanging on.  This quiet was crushing her.  The snoring helped, and she found herself sitting down on the floor next to the bed, so she wouldn’t disturb her grandfather.  Her head leaned against the mattress by his hand, and she just listened for a little while.

There were still things to figure out.  They’d be running full-tilt for a lot of this, and it didn’t help that Verona and Lucy were super grounded.  If they couldn’t figure out the secret purposes of some of the new Kennet Others, if they couldn’t figure out what Maricica’s plan was, if they couldn’t defend Kennet, if they couldn’t avoid consequences for Alexander’s thing…

In another situation, she would have had a hard, next-to-impossible time moving away from this spot without an excuse.  But she could reach out, through that familiar bond, and she could connect to Snowdrop.

It was like getting a hand, being helped to her feet, except Snowdrop beamed feelings of fondness and warmth and happiness at her.  And some of those feelings of happiness included Snowdrop, right at this moment, having a mouthful of bugs while she laughed at something.  Avery responded with mild disgust.  Avery found her feet and left her Grumble’s room.

“Going for a bit of a run before the day gets too hot,” she told her dad.  “Want anything from the convenience store?”

“Here, I’ll get you money for milk.  Be safe.  Keep your phone on.”

“Yep.”

She communicated where she was going by general feeling, and Snowdrop started moving in that direction too.  They’d meet, they’d hang.  Then Snowdrop would probably sleep for a good chunk of the day.  While they’d been sleeping, Snowdrop had been watching Charles, just in case he woke up and started to make a break for it.

She waited until she was clear of the house to pause, getting ready in case the thing with outside practitioners, witch hunters, or something else got problematic.  She made sure she had her knife, her black rope, her collection of ribbons, friendship bracelets, and barometers.

She pulled on the gloves.

Would this work?

She clapped three times.

The book, pages torn and free of the back binding, dropped from the air to the ground in front of her.

While in Charles’ nightmare, she had tossed it aside and in the process of dusting off her hands, she’d clapped them three times.

She picked up the damaged book.

This was the most recent notebook on his experiences on the subject, dated after the creation of the Hungry Choir, going by the spine.  The genre seemed to be summoning experiences.  What summoning had he been doing?

The information was arcane, referencing forward and backward.  This wasn’t about summoning, but it was related to the summoning practice and his experiences in it.  This text seemed to be focused on a hiding place?

The pages were badly stained and torn from their passage through wherever the gloves sent things.

It took some doing, and she stepped off the road because she was so focused on the task that she couldn’t hope to stay out of the way of incoming cars.  Not that many people were up.  She had to check four areas to make sense of the recent page.

There was a cabin where he’d worked on Edith.  That thing he’d talked about, extracting some lantern.  It was a good distance away from here.  He’d stayed there before moving to Kennet full time.

The leftover items, tricks, and books on summoning were stowed there, buried under a tree.

Charles wasn’t being entirely forthright.

“Guess we’ll be making a detour, Snow,” she murmured, pushing a feeling at Snowdrop.  “Shrines first, then a short trip, and with luck, we should be back in time for Raymond and all heck breaking loose.”


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False Moves – 12.5

Lucy

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Lucy was acutely aware of the fact that she was being watched.  Crossing from her front door to the car that Mia’s mom had parked on the side of the road, she knew her mom was watching her from behind, possibly Verona was too, and then there was the loaded-for-bear minivan with stickers and peering faces in the window.  Mia’s mom and Mia Campbell-St. James in the passenger seat, Amadeus Kent, Emerson Peart, and Xavier Cope.

And, of course, there was Wallace Davis, who the others were saying something to.

There was a feeling that tended to hit her heavy on the first days of a new semester at school, or when the spotlight was on her, like when they’d been in sixth grade and they’d had to get into groups and make up anti-drug puppet shows for the third graders.  An insistent, aggressive impression that people were making a ‘one of these is not like the others’ joke at her expense.

Not helped by the fact that people had, when she’d been younger and the filters hadn’t been there.  Not helped by the fact that, if the individual was mostly innocent, the group gave away the sentiment by collectively watching her more than they watched others, looking away like they’d been caught mid-thought when she made eye contact.

Wallace was struggling to figure out how to open the side door of the van, and she didn’t want him to hurt his arms, because she knew that he had that genetic thing Jeremy had mentioned, and that would be a horrible way to start out the date.  She slowed her approach to give him time.

It was hard to shake the fact that it was her being put on the spot, that when those eyes were on her and that sentiment singled her out, it was never a good thing.  Logan picking her to have a fight with.  The bully at the lake those years ago, who’d shoved her into the water over and over again.

She’d rated last in the Class_RankR app.

She wasn’t bulletproof right now.  She was wearing her hair in a style she wasn’t used to and it tickled her neck, and it looked a little wet.  She was wearing a dress that fit loosely, fabric light enough to move when the wind hit it.  She was standing in front of her house and it felt like her house was being judged as much as she was.

Wallace got the door open, and then stepped outside, standing off to the side of the door, like he was holding it open for her or letting her in.  She approached, smiling at him.  He was flushed, wearing the same shirt with the silver-y repeating pattern he’d worn to the party, except with shorts this time, hair styled with one errant spike sticking up at the wrong diagonal, that she wanted to poke into alignment with the others.

“Hey,” he said, a little red in the face.  “Door’s tricky.”

“No stress,” she told him, crossing the gap.  On impulse, she gave him a quick hug.  His shirt was soft, except for the graphic part, and his body was bony, and the smell of his hair product was thick in her nostrils, and it was a smell she could bear to smell again.

“Hugs already?” Emerson jeered.

“Shhhhh,” Mia’s mom said.

Lucy stepped back, and Wallace was more red in the face and that was contagious, and for a second Lucy felt like her heart was connected directly to her face, pushing all the blood there in a rush, joining together with that thrill of being someone who warranted someone else getting flushed.

“Sorry,” she said, quiet.  “Thanks for putting up with all of this.  My mom, you know.”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” he replied.  “Moms.  It’s cool, it makes some things easier.”

It makes some things harder too.  People were watching her, judging her.  “Yeah.”

“Glad you’re here,” he said.  “It would’ve been the worst thing ever if you’d never stepped outside.  Just you looking out the window and here I am, feeling like a goofus.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“I know!  Yeah.  But I would’ve died on the spot.”

“I think if I did something like that to you, you should murder me before you go spontaneously dying of embarrassment.”

“Good to know.”

“Can I-?” Lucy motioned toward the open door.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Oh my god, Wallace,” Mia said.  “Tell her she looks nice, already.”

“You- uh, you look great,” Wallace said.

“You too,” Lucy told him, a smile finding its way to her face without her putting it there on purpose.  Even if he’d been asked to give her a compliment, it was still nice to hear.  “I like that shirt.”

“Oh, cool.”

She climbed into one of the middle seats, with Wallace climbing in after her.  He used his foot to push the door closed, leaning into her, and she was aware of that contact.  The way the van was constructed, the back row had three seats, which were occupied by Xavier, Emerson, and Amadeus, and the middle row had two narrow seats, leaving room at the side for people to pass through to get to the door.  It meant when Wallace sat down he sat with his arm resting alongside hers.

She smoothed out her skirt in her lap, then looked up, and saw Mia’s mom looking at her in the rear-view mirror.

“Thanks for giving us a ride, Mrs. Campbell-St. James,” Lucy said.

“My pleasure, and it’s just Mrs. Campbell.”

“Lucy doesn’t care about that,” Mia said, groaning.

“I’m just saying.  Where am I driving you all?”

“Do we want to do ice cream, movie, dinner, or dinner, ice cream, movie?” Mia asked, turning around.

“Don’t really care,” Amadeus said. “I’m up for anything.”

“I dunno, do you have any preference?” Wallace asked Lucy.

“I need to know where I’m driving you,” Mia’s mom said.

“Dinner, ice cream, movie,” Lucy said, just to get things moving.

Thank you.”

The van started moving and nobody really talked, which made the pressure that much worse.

That feeling that all attention was on her.  She knew, objectively, that it probably wasn’t, but it was the kind of thing that wasn’t always logical.  She couldn’t be on guard one moment and then relaxed the next.  She felt like she had to put on a good show, because she wasn’t just here to try out going on a date with a boy, she was also, in this subtle, crushing way, also a stand in for her family, as if one mistake here would count against Booker and her mom, in the eyes of Mia’s mom and the popular kids who had so much influence.

In the same way that she was a stand-in for every black person out there.  She was the odd one out, plain as day in a way that she knew it, she believed they knew it, or they were thinking it or it was an unconscious thing.  If she said something dumb here, it was hard to shake that feeling that for this group of kids, it’d be something they took forward that’d make the lives of every other black person they interacted with harder, just a little bit.  It was stupid and it was frustrating and it was a thing.  She’d talked to Dr. Mona about it and a part of her wished she hadn’t because the talking had made it more real.

Mia’s mom made an attempt.  “So, this is nice.”

“Oh my god, Mom,” Mia said.

“It was nice of you to pull things together and arrange this, Lucy,” Mia’s mom said.  Her gaze went to the rear-view mirror, reflected eye contact made with Lucy.  “What have you been up to this summer?  Have you been around?”

Okay, she’d braced for this, she’d prepped answers.  “Verona, Avery and me went to a summer camp type thing.  Almost a summer school-”

“Ugh,” Emerson groaned.

“But more… eclectic?  They gave options most mornings and afternoons, for which classes or events you wanted to go to.  There was swordfighting, presentations from this one guy who made it pretty big by making these obscure online things-”

“Who?” Amadeus asked, interested.

“Uhhh, Raymond Sunshine?”

“Never heard of him,” Amadeus said, pulling out his phone.

“I kinda figured.  Like I said, obscure.”

“He’s not even showing up on Wooble, unless he’s one of these random Go Foto Yourself accounts.”

“What else?” Wallace asked.  “Swordfighting sounds cool.”

“Could you beat us in a swordfight?” Xavier asked.

“I- probably?”

“I bet you couldn’t,” Xavier said.

“Okay?” Lucy asked.  “You’re allowed to have that opinion.”

“I want to hear more about this camp,” Wallace said.

She looked at him and was once again conspicuously aware that they were shoulder to shoulder with the proximity of their two seats.  The information fled her brain for a second.  “Um.  There was a thing from this one guy who talked a lot, he traveled the world and he went to these locations with lost tribes and at least one weird, isolated sub-community that formed in a city.”

“That sounds so interesting,” Mia’s mom said.  “Can I go?”

“Mom, ugh.”

“Verona and Avery helped me make my earring,” Lucy said.

Which prompted others to make her twist around and show them, and she had to turn almost a hundred and eighty degrees because Wallace was to her left and the earring was on her right ear.

“What about you guys?” Lucy asked.  She had more things to mention but maybe that could come up again later.

“We had a Canada Day thing where there was a waterslide on the hill-” Wallace said.

“I heard about that.  Verona was talking to Jeremy.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Are Jeremy and Verona a thing?” Emerson asked, from the back.

“A dating thing?  No, not really,” Lucy said.

“No?” Wallace asked, surprised.  “Because the way Jeremy made it sound…”

“That’s the sort of thing I think we should mostly leave alone, let them figure it out.  Give them the occasional reality check.”

“Right.  I guess that’s why they’re not coming?”

“Right,” Lucy echoed Wallace.

“Huh.  Anyway, what was I talking about?”

“The Canada day celebration?” Emerson asked.

“Yeahhh.  It was pretty intense, sliding down to this ramp and then you’d land in this big inflatable pool.  Until some jackass hurt themselves and they had to stop.”

“Cool.”

Lucy remembered Booker talking about coming back to town and there not being much to talk about.  She wondered if this was like that.

“I’m going to drop you guys off here, because parking gets questionable further up,” Mia’s mom said.  “Most of the places to eat are around here.”

“Thanks, that’s perfect,” Mia said.

“Keep us updated if you go anywhere that isn’t here, ice cream, or the movies.  I want exact locations and no delays!”

They got out of the car, and the conversation kind of stalled as a result.  They picked a burger place to eat at, stood in line where it was awkward to talk about a lot of stuff with strangers right in front of them and behind them, and then took food to a booth with nobody immediately around them.

Except then they were eating, and conversation didn’t go anywhere.

Amadeus sat across from Lucy and to her left.  Amadeus had been one of the first boys she’d noticed when she’d started noticing boys.  When puberty had started kicking in, it had been meaner to the boys than the girls, with about half of them nosediving into this awkward, sweatier, mis-proportioned middle phase, a bunch more easing into it, like Wallace who maybe had some pimples sometimes and had his awkwardness, but yeah.  And then Amadeus was like bam, dimple in his chin, he was pretty as boys went, no obvious awkwardness or lumpiness, no major weirdness.  He’d hit his starting growth spurt, got all new clothes, and yeah.  He tended to wear an expression of disinterest that she’d learned was like her own ‘resting frowny face’, because he was really passionate about stuff.  He’d come first or second in the app and she was so not surprised.

Amadeus was friends with most of the guys in class, helped by the fact he threw big birthday parties and stuff every year and invited his entire class every time, and his family had all the consoles going back to the 70s and made his own computers and stuff.  It made pretty much every guy want to go over or hang out, and he often let them, because he had something new to show them.  Which was part of why when she’d asked Wallace who he could invite, it had been Amadeus.

Amadeus was dating Mia, kind of, and Mia knew Lucy from the end-of-school party and apparently Lucy joining in had counted for a lot, they’d had a brief group text and it had happened this way.  This was the group that was around and free and comfortable going on a date.

Mia hadn’t dressed up much, but she’d done up her eyes with heavy makeup.  Even without that makeup, Mia tended to look like the sort of actress who’d play the oddball, intense, sometimes goth weirdo protagonist girl in movies, who was slender and feminine enough that it shone through, even when they wore overalls, an oversized shirt, and a pixie cut.  Except she’d also hit her early growth spurt and she looked more like sixteen than thirteen, and she wasn’t dressing down.  She dressed pretty close to Lucy’s standard of bulletproof.  Queen bee, one of the top dancers, got good grades, was nice to nearly everyone.

Xavier walked that line between the awkward guys and like, Amadeus and George. He wore a black tee with a golden symbol on it that might have been from a game, and long pants, and he looked a little hot, like he’d picked the wrong clothes for a summer day, going for style over sense.  She didn’t know Xavier much.  He’d rated high in the app, but he’d always been a face that was nice to look at but who had blended into the blob of boys when she’d hung around mostly with girls in her class, or just with Verona, and then hadn’t distinguished himself a ton from the crowd since.

And then there was Emerson, who was very blonde, pretty, a dancer, and… basic?  Was that unfair?  Lucy had gone to school with everyone here from the beginning, and Emerson had been very into ballet until it got too hard, had been into dolls, had her period where she got a golden retriever and was super into dogs for a while, then lost interest, and so on.  Was currently a Dancer, as in a member of the clique, but wasn’t the best dancer despite the hours put into it, and was also a gymnast, and was really good at that, but not enough for, like, national level stuff.  Lucy couldn’t shake the fact that in her implement ritual, Emerson had been a jerk.

“What happened with the bag thing?” Mia asked.

“The bag thing?”

“At the school party?”

“You were looking for someone,” Xavier said.

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “Uhhh, Verona’s bag got stolen, Jeremy was helpful-”

“My man,” Wallace said.

“-and we tracked it down.  Ran into that thing with that guy appearing out of nowhere?  The dancer?”

“The stripper!” Mia exclaimed.  “I wish I saw that!”

“Who was the culprit?” Xavier asked.

“I don’t want to say.  They’ve made it up to us since.”

“Wasn’t it Melissa?” Mia asked, at the same time Emerson said, “Hailey was in the middle of that, screw Hailey.”

“Are you in the loop?” Wallace asked Lucy.  “With the Hailey thing?”

“I got the gist of things.”

Emerson didn’t care, and launched right into her version of events.  “Hailey went into the woods with George despite a gentle-ladies agreement about communicating with the group before dating, to make sure there’s no hard feelings and not blowing up the Dancers.  Which was mostly formality to cover a few situations, like how Sharon really liked George and Hailey knew it.  And look what happened?  Went into the woods to smoke pot with George and smoke his pipe, if you know what I mean-”

“I don’t think that’s how you say it,” Xavier said.

“I don’t want to talk bad about George while he’s not around,” Amadeus said.

“You’re supposed to be taking me on this date so don’t get on my case,” Emerson said, to Xavier, and then she pointed at Amadeus, “And I’m talking about Hailey, not George.”

“You’re talking about him too.”

“Well, you’re biased.

“Uh, yeah?” Amadeus replied, looking bewildered.

Emerson shrugged that off and went on, “Anyway, Hailey was sleazy and so she blew up the Dancers, and we’re barely recovering.”

“It’s been tough,” Mia said.  “Losing our best flyer when Melissa practically snapped her foot off, and then Hailey… getting dropped from the team.  I’m with Amadeus, I don’t want to badmouth.”

“It’s juicy,” Emerson said.

“It’s sordid,” Mia said, like she really liked the word and she’d been keeping it in her back pocket for a while.

“Then call me little miss sordid,” Emerson said.  “Put that on a t-shirt, give it to me, to wear, and then tell me what the heck sordid means.”

“In that order,” Mia said.

“Heck yeah.”

“You follow all of this?” Wallace asked.

“Some,” Lucy told him.  “You?”

“Yeah.  Kind of have to, I guess.  Um, changing topics-”

“Please.”

“Your summer camp sounded cool.  Is there any chance I could get in next year?”

“There was a lot of drama, a bit of a civil war, and I don’t think we can get back in next year,” Lucy told him.  “We sorta kinda cheated the rules to get in and then got in trouble for it.  It’s normally pretty selective.”

“Darn.”

“Drama?” Emerson asked.

“I like some of the class ideas, but isn’t it still summer school?” Xavier asked, ignoring his date.

“It kinda is.  Some of it was pretty groan-worthy,” Lucy said.  “Um, but you know, hanging out with my two best friends, little bit of swimming, you guys had your ramp but we had a rickety wooden bridge we could jump off of, into the river.”

“How tall?”  Wallace asked.

“Tall.  Like, twenty feet or so?”

“Whoo,” Mia said.

“I got pictures,” Lucy said.  “Give me a bit…”

Browsing, she found a bunch of stuff to get rid of, and moved those to an archive folder to retrieve later.

“Another minute,” she said, as she realized there were Others in the background of some pics, and some questionable weapons.

“Whatcha hiding?” Amadeus asked her.

“Organizing,” she said.

“I’m so mad at Hailey,” Emerson said.  “Melissa too, but that’s because Melissa’s a butthead.”

“Let it go for today,” Mia told her.

Lucy showed Wallace first, because of course.  The bridge, them on the shore, pre-Liberty.

“You jumped off of that?

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

“I thought you were exaggerating.”

She shook her head.  Her hair tickled the back of her neck.

“Show, show,” Xavier said, leaning into Wallace.  “Lucy in a swimsuit, see?”

“Uh yeah,” Wallace said, giving Lucy a worried look.

“Don’t make me regret showing you guys,” Lucy told him.

My punishment for not being bulletproof.  I thought this outfit was okay, but the pictures…

“Swim cap?  Seriously?” Xavier asked.  Amadeus rose from his seat to come around and look over Wallace’s shoulder.

“Seriously,” Lucy told him, testy now.

She’d had a long talk with Dr. Mona first thing today, and they’d gone over things, like what to expect and Lucy wasn’t entirely positive that the talk about expectations and stuff had helped, exactly.  She was thinking a lot about how conspicuous she was, even now, she was thinking about how bulletproof she wasn’t, and about the pressures.  About feeling more like a representative than a person who could just go on a regular old date for the sake of the date itself.

She’d resolved to give one pass to each of the others.  Because there would be comments, and there would be stuff, but she didn’t want to blow everything up for an honest mistake.

On a level, she wondered if talking about it had made it all fresh and alive in her mind, and if her brain had grabbed all that ammunition to arm itself.  If coming into this with strategy was why it was harder to relax.

Sucked.

“Does this little kid have tattoos?”

“Oh, that’s Sol.  Yeah.

“This guy has a rat on his shoulder,” Wallace said.

“Dreg, pretty cool.  I meant to remove pics like that one.”

“So you were hiding stuff,” Xavier accused.

“Didn’t say I wasn’t.  I was hiding stuff by organizing it.”

“Find it, find it,” Xavier pressed.  “Find the hidden pics.”

Wallace wriggled to avoid Xavier’s clutches and with Xavier jostling him, clapped the phone down a little harder than necessary onto the table, before sliding it to Lucy.  Fight-induced clumsiness aside, it was a good one on Wallace’s part.  “Thank you, Wallace.”

“Wallace is such a heavy name.  Have you considered being a Wally?” Emerson asked.

“Never once in my life,” Wallace said.

“Waldo?”

“I still want to look at those photos, but with Xavier being a pain- ow!”

“Don’t bother the other people eating,” Amadeus said.

“Maybe another time,” Lucy told Wallace.

She wanted to fall into the date, like if she was tired and wanted to fall asleep.  To let things wash over her, to get into the flow of things, let it be unconscious, and put all that conscious overthinking out of mind.  As much as it was helpful to have others around to give cues and as much as it was nice that if they found kernels of things to speak about the group could pick it up, it made it so much harder to fall into the date than if it were just her and Wallace.  So many subjects, like Jeremy and Verona, were off limits as long as they could be fodder for the rumor mill.  Stuff she could have talked about with him but not as part of this group.

“How are you guys feeling about ice cream?” Wallace asked.

“Sounds good,” Lucy said.

“Let me get the tray-”

“You don’t have to.”

“It’s cool.”

“I’ll take his lead,” Amadeus said.

Which became the boys taking the trays away while Lucy, Emerson, and Mia got sorted.  Lucy wiped the table free of salt and fry bits with a stray napkin.

“Are you going to kiss her?”

“I dunno.  If she wants me to.”

“They’ve already kissed, Xavier.  End of year party?”

“That doesn’t really count, does it?”

“Counted to her enough she asked you out on a date.  Are you going to let her take the lead on everything?”

Lucy frowned a bit, glancing over.  Don’t spoil it.  Don’t push.

This was another problem with groups.

“Wallace seems great,” Mia said, disturbing Lucy from her eavesdropping.  “I went on my first date when I was eleven.  The guy spun this stool in front of the counter at the place we were at, and it broke, stool top came unscrewed and fell off or something.  I cringe every time I think about it.  Wallace is doing well for a first date.  Staying cool, that”s the big thing.”

“Is it a first?” Emerson asked.

“He told my mom when we picked him up.”

“Yeah, he’s neat,” Lucy said.

Mia looked at her, inquisitive.  “You get a look on your face that makes me wonder if you’re in love.”

“What?” Lucy asked, genuinely surprised.  “What?”

“It’s too soon to be in love,” Emerson said.

“I have to agree with her,” Lucy said.

“Have to?”

“Love can catch you all at once.”

“Stop.  Stop stop stop,” Lucy urged.  “Come on.”

She got her little bag and carried the napkin she’d just used to the trash.

“…open air, with perspex panels, I made the face plate out of fiberglass, sanded it myself.”

“That’s crazy,” Wallace said.

“Did you get Amadeus talking about computers again?”

“Computer builds.  You can sell some of this stuff.”

“Man, money, right?” Lucy asked.  “I was helping Verona with some projects and it’s so hard to pay for things sometimes.”

“Too young to work, too old to get a bit of spending money from your super cool grandma.”

“My grandma’s okay,” Lucy said, thinking of Barbie and Ran.  Her dad’s parents.  “Sends a letter every year.”

“Do you celebrate Christmas?” Xavier asked.  “Or what’s that holiday?  Starts with a K, I think.”

“I keep thinking quaalude,” Mia said.  “Sorry, is it okay that we’re asking?”

“It’s fair to ask,” Emerson said.

Lucy stood by, feeling awkward.  She glanced at Wallace, but she couldn’t read him.  Frig.  She’d promised herself a long time ago that she’d be upfront.  Why was it so hard now?  “Are you thinking of Kwanzaa?”

“Yes.  That’s it.  I don’t know what it is, but that’s it,” Xavier said.

“We celebrate Christmas,” Lucy replied.  Does that count as a strike?  “And as far as I know, you can celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas.”

“Today I learned,” Xavier said.

“Why are you only asking me that?” Lucy asked.

“I kinda know Amadeus and Wallace, and Mia and Emerson, I assumed,” Xavier said.

“We love Christmas,” Emerson said, hugging Xavier’s arm.  “And I love ice cream.  Can we get our ice cream?”

“I was going to ask,” Xavier said, “can you even eat ice cream, Wallace?”

“Uhh, there’s a Sherbet with less lactose.  It’s usually okay.”

“Do you want to not?” Lucy asked, as she pushed the door open.  “We could go to the movie, instead.”

“Maybe, if that’s-”

“I want ice cream.  I got my hopes up, don’t let me down,” Emerson said.

The group.  Ugh.

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “Let’s go… you can go get ice cream.  I’m pretty much full and there are snacks at the theater, I think, Wallace isn’t keen, Mia, Amadeus?”

“Could go either way.”

“You guys get your ice cream, or tell Emerson and Xavier what you want, and we’ll go to the theater.  We’ll double check the times and get tickets, meet up, then we watch.”

“Sure,” Mia said.  She looked at Emerson.  “Yeah?”

“We’re supposed to be a group,” Emerson protested.

“I won’t tell if you don’t,” Mia told her.

They left the Burger Bin and they went the same way at first, but Emerson and Xavier trailed behind.

“She’s so pushy sometimes.”

“Lucy?”

“In the car and just now.”

“I think she doesn’t want to spend forever debating stuff, so she comes up with a plan.”

“It’d be nice to have more of a say.”

“You okay to go with them?” Mia murmured the question to Amadeus.  “That way we’re still kind of a group, and parents don’t have to worry about us getting pregnant if we spend five minutes alone together as a couple.”

Lucy laughed at the abruptness of that mental image.

“You like that, huh?” Mia asked.  “Poor Wallace is so flustered.”

“I’m not that flustered,” Wallace defended himself.  “I don’t know what to say.”

Amadeus laid a hand on Wallace’s shoulder.  “Say you solemnly swear-”

“That you’re not going to get our friend here pregnant,” Mia cut in.

“-that you’ll take longer than five minutes,” Amadeus finished.

Now Wallace was flustered.  “We’re not- that’s not.”

“Ignore them,” Lucy said.

“We did the-” Wallace started, and stopped as he made eye contact with Lucy.  “-at the party.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

“But that’s it.”

“Of course that’s it, you’re on a first date.  We’re kidding, kidding.  Hey, Amadeus, you good to go with that group?”

“Yeah.”

I hate groups, Lucy thought.

Mia and Amadeus were technically in the half of their class last year that was in grade 10, but the lines were blurry and even though teachers were supposed to give grade-appropriate work to different halves of the class, it usually ended up muddled.  Lucy tended to forget that stuff until moments like this, where she realized the two were just that little bit more mature.  At least as far as the organizing and sorting out groups went.

Not so much with that other part of the conversation.

“Thanks for not making a big deal over the ice cream thing,” Wallace murmured to her.  “Or the five minute thing.”

“They’re being dumb, and ice cream isn’t a big deal.  Except why didn’t you say something when I asked you out?”

“Because I wanted to say yes before I wanted to say bluhhh, I’m lactose intolerant like a loser.”

“You’re not,” she told him, “and I’m glad you wanted to say yes that badly.”

“For sure,” he replied, a little red in the face again.

They walked close enough that the backs of their hands touched twice.  On the third touch Lucy felt Wallace reach around and take her hand.

“So cute,” Emerson cooed.  “They’re holding hands.”

Wallace started to let go, until Lucy grabbed his hand harder.

“Ease up, Emerson.”

“I’ll be happier when I have ice cream.  Off we go.”

“Coming with,” Amadeus said.

“Uggh.  Third wheel.”

“Vroom vroom vroom,” Amadeus said, deadpan.

“Don’t take too long!” Mia called after them, as they took another crosswalk.

Wallace’s hand was warm and walking together, arms touching, hands clasped, was pretty much what Lucy had hoped for out of this.  It was weird, zig-zagging from stress, from anxiety, even feeling a tiny bit like there was some grand responsibility on her shoulder, to making a big deal out of holding hands.

The comment about Christmas and feeling singled out had jarred her out of stuff, and this pulled her in, and Mia jarred her out by being here as their unofficial third wheel, a slightly older girl hanging out as they tried to enjoy the moment together.

Lucy could feel herself yearning for a point a little further on, where this wasn’t a stress.  Where she’d had conversations with Wallace and made sure she didn’t have to be on guard with him.  If he got it, if he understood why this was a kind of work for her, if she didn’t have to educate him.

It would be nice to enjoy this but instead this just felt like a few isolated good moments in the middle of a lot of stress, wariness, and figuring people out.  A prelude for the future.  Maybe.

Her phone buzzed.  She had to fish in the little handbag Verona had packed to get it.

She opened the message, then stared at it.

There was a follow-up shortly into the staring session.

Alexander.

John.

Now Charles, now… so many others.  There were so many complications.

She held the phone at her side and stared out over toward broader Kennet, toward ski-hills that shimmered slightly with summer heat.

“You okay?” Wallace asked.

“Hm?”

“You’ve got, uh…”  He used two fingers and pinched his eyebrows down and together.  “Something happen?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Sometimes you look like you’re concerned about everything…”

“An awful lot of things are concerning,” Lucy said.

“Wise words,” Mia chimed in.  “So true.”

Lucy smiled.  “Concerning in a not-jokey way.”

“Other times you look okay, and you smile or you’re not smiling with your mouth, but your eyes…”

“That’s what I was noticing,” Mia said.  “Earlier, when I mentioned-”

Lucy turned her head to the right and gave Mia her best withering stare.

“I’ll… trail a few feet behind and enjoy this breeze.  You carry on.”

“Verona’s mentioned that,” Lucy said.

“Seems like whatever that text was, you went in the opposite direction from smiling eyes or smiling mouth.  What is it?”

Lucy checked her phone again, and it vibrated in her hand as a message came in, followed by others in the same chain.

Avery:
on it! you keep doing your thing, lucy. don’t sweat it!  enjoy your time with Wallace!!
for crushes & blushes & love requitted
for the xs and os at the end of love letters!
I am all the way on it so you stay put and enjoy yourself or I’ll be MAD!

She put the phone away.

Avery would probably be more upset if Lucy had to bail now than Lucy would.

It was a bit of a walk down by the water to get to the Catholic school.  It was ironic that the movie theater in Kennet was closed for so much of the year, but the Catholic school was an option.  During the summer days, senior students in school uniforms managed the two auditoriums, turning them into an impromptu movie theater to raise funds.  There was a dinky little concession stand, the theater itself had an inexpensive sound system, and the projector wasn’t all that.

At the same time, it was air conditioned, it was convenient, tickets to crappy movies were three dollars and fifty cents, and a combination of a movie ticket with small popcorn and a can of soda was five dollars total.  Some younger kids would spend a portion of their summers here, depending on what was on the screen.  Ones that had finished watching their movies were outside, waiting for parents, running around the… moat, Lucy decided to call it, that surrounded St. Victor’s.  Waterless at the moment, it was more of a broad, shallow L-shaped ditch around the side of the school that caught runoff and redirected it toward a storm drain.

She texted her mom to let her know she’d arrived.

The idea that things were dissolving into chaos out there dogged Lucy.  Would there be fighting?  Who was participating?

It felt like the phone in her pocket was getting heavier, like it might burn her hand if she grabbed it.  No curse, just sentiment.

They paid for their tickets and snacks, then sat at the back.  The theater was mostly empty.  She had to make a conscious effort not to check her phone.  Not to be rude.

Maybe this was the worst of both worlds.

Would someone crash into the midst of this?  Would Wye Belanger start spying?

Ugh.

She wanted to say stuff to Wallace, but Mia was there.  She wanted to hold his hands, but they’d carried stuff here and that meant not holding hands, and then their hands had remained separate, even though they’d sat next to one another.  Cup holders and the drinks they’d socked in there meant that any meeting of hands couldn’t be casual.

She was on a date and that was great, it was a bit of a rush on its own, but then Wallace was proving to be the most decent and soft spoken person in their group of six, currently a group of three, and she liked that.  She wanted to… reach out.  To say stuff and test the waters, to maybe embarrass herself without doing it in front of others.  She wanted so much, yet the majority of that ‘so much‘ was little things.

She was in the middle of a war unfolding within a war.  Maricica.  It had to be Maricica.  Old allies would become enemies, potentially, and old enemies would become immediate problems.  America, and Wye, and even Musser…

Two very different realities that made her wish she could grab some glamour, split herself in two and somehow deal with both at the same time.

Not that easy.

She wanted to talk to Verona about this but Verona didn’t get it, Verona was… running in the opposite direction from this.  Verona was so very different from her and in this specific circumstance that talk would be a fight, or a frustration.

She wanted to talk to Avery about it, but Avery was struggling in her own way.  Avery was alone and it felt a bit like anything Lucy said on the subject of girlfriends and boyfriends and balancing the crisis that was so tied into the magic with the mundane would be… harmful?  As enthusiastic as Avery was about wanting to vicariously enjoy stuff and be a champion of crushes and blushes and requited love and whatever else, that had to suck?  There was also this feeling she had, where she was suspicious that if Avery was going to find love, it would be through the magic.  Like she could go somewhere, and it’d happen.  Or maybe Liberty, but she was even more reluctant to push for that particular pairing than she was with Verona and Jeremy.

She wanted to talk to Dr. Mona about it but she felt like talking about the little things that were so important in this would mean talking about the big picture and right now she was burned out on thinking about that.  Maybe if she told Dr. Mona that, but…

She wanted to talk to her mom about it, but the big part of what she’d want to talk about was her inability to tell her mom the magic stuff.

She wanted to tell Wallace but what the heck would Wallace know about it?

“Sorry,” Wallace whispered.  “I don’t know what to say.”

“It’s okay.  Me either.  But this is nice, in its way.”

“Okay.  I hope whatever it was on your phone isn’t a big issue.”

“Crap I’ll have to deal with later.  I’m trying not to think about it.”

“Oh.”

Five questions passed through her head, as she tried to distract herself and turn her focus to Wallace, but none were great questions.

“What else have you been up to this summer?” she asked Wallace

“Not a lot.  Some video games, some reading.  Helped my mom garden.”

“Any good games or reading?”

“Do you play games?”

“No, not really.”

“Then I don’t want to bore you, reading…”

“You can talk about games.  I just don’t know much.  I like horror movies.  Do you play horror games?  Those are a thing, right?”

“You really don’t play games.  Yeah, but I haven’t played anything good in a long time.  I can think of one or two that are like interactive movies, but now that you’ve said that, I don’t want to tell you about that.”

“What?  Why?”

“Because it’d be cool to, I dunno, show you a couple really good ones without any spoilers and see you play them.  They’re good enough that I bet you’d walk away from it getting why I like video games.”

“Is that an invitation for a second date?” she asked.

There was a pause.

Crap.  Had this not been super great so far?  They’d barely done anything, they hadn’t even talked much, was he now in the awkward position of-

“That’s a fourth or fifth date thing.  Since you’d be coming to my house and meeting with my parents.”

“I hear your mom’s nice.”

“They’re pretty good parents,” Wallace said.  “But you’d be meeting my parents.”

Again, there was that feeling of being the odd one out, of wondering.  But Lucy smiled, willed herself to give Wallace the benefit of a doubt, that he wasn’t the type to make the color of her skin a part of why that was such an obstacle, something to be put off.

But now it was in her head.

And she was still willing herself not to dwell on the outside world, or the forces arranging against Kennet.

She reached over, past the cup holder and cup, and found his hand, and she gave it a squeeze, holding it, even though it meant sitting at a slight angle, reaching over.  It felt weirdly daring, validating that he squeezed back, that this was a them thing.

She wished that point of contact and the linked feelings were enough.  She could imagine the others out there, struggling as the number of threats increased.  With all the different shapes and flavors of practice she couldn’t know if enemies were at the gates right now or if weapons or summons or other threats were being pulled out.

Things were starting to build up, too intense to deal with in summation, and she hated it.  Hated it was getting in the way, hated that the little things had such big things arranged against them… she worried she’d go overboard, or she’d burn through all the energy she had fuming at nothing in particular and then fall asleep partway through the movie.

Amadeus, Emerson and Xavier came back as she was digesting all of that, and something about the look in her eye seemed to maybe make Emerson decide to sit at the far end of the aisle, so that Mia and Amadeus were between Lucy and her.

“What’s your favorite horror movie?” Wallace asked.

After some more mild chatter about horror movies, video games and books, and after they talked briefly about family and got midway into the topic of music, the theater went dark.  Only about fifteen seats out of a hundred were filled.

It was a crappy film from four or five years ago, opening with film footage that looked like it was from the 90s, not the ’10s, opening with shots of a savanna, and epic instrumentals.  Animals raced through tall grass.

Part of going to a movie in Kennet meant accepting that there weren’t many options, but this?  This was-

She paused, as the scene cut from the big title card: ‘Star of Leo’ to a family of white people gathered under a tent with khaki sides and top.

The universe had a dark sense of humor.  If this could even be called funny.

Maybe better to say that the universe had a keen sense of tragedy.

A boy appeared on screen, nine or ten, shirtless with messy hair, climbing a tree.  Blond, cute, and almost unrecognizable.

Gabriel.  Gabriel who had been consumed by the Hungry Choir.

It was a slap in the face, almost a challenge.  Like the universe was putting a blade to her throat like Guilherme had done in training sessions, and just that thought, Guilherme, one topic she’d been mentally avoiding, was enough to make her eyes water.

She watched Gabriel on screen as credits continued to roll, and the screen fritzed, a few frames skipped, to a few dismayed shouts, before it righted again.

Uncredited.

Stupid, to be nearly at a point of crying, here, for this already awful film, but the weight of everything and of Guilherme’s possible betrayal, of so many betrayals, of so many people proving they couldn’t be counted on…

She squeezed Wallace’s hand, and did her best to keep tears from springing free and messing up makeup.

She could imagine Gabe as a kid, partway around the world, shooting this movie with wooden acting, running around, experiencing new things.  Playing with a lion cub, apparently.

She felt so off-balance, so out-of-kilter.  Everything was messed up and then Wallace was beside her and her traitorous brain was skewing everything there too.  She was way too aware of where his hand was and of his body heat, and every little movement made her think he was going to do something or get up and leave or something.  Her skin felt flushed and then cold, little hairs standing on end, as if her body was trying to figure out how to deal with a boy this close.

A wet sucking noise that was picked up by her earring made her jump.  She looked around, and Wallace moved his hand, thumb jutting out, pointing.

She peeked, and saw that at the end of the aisle, in the dark, nobody around them, Emerson was sitting sideways in Xavier’s lap, making out with him, tongue in his mouth.

“I guess they don’t have to be alone for five minutes to scare their parents with a pregnancy, huh?” Wallace whispered.

Lucy’s laugh caught her off guard, and then didn’t stop.  She doubled over, stifling her own laugh, the tears rolling free.  It made no sense and it was something she’d needed and through some combination of those two things the bits and pieces of her that had gotten more and more tightly wound over the course of the evening all came undone, leaving her helpless.

Wallace gave her a pat on the back.

Emerson and Xavier were looking at her offended, as she straightened up, sitting back against the seat, trying to manage breathing again.  She wiped at two sides of her face with one hand, still holding Wallace’s hand with the other.

“I didn’t think I was that funny.”

“Wallace,” Lucy leaned in to whisper.  “You’re close but that’s not how babies are made.”

And, dumb as it was, it set him off, which set her off as well.  Wallace was less good at hiding his laughs, and there were a few annoyed ‘shhh’ sounds from others in the theater.

“This is such a bad movie,” Wallace told her.  “Do you want to go?”

She felt like she should stay, as a matter of respect for Gabe.  As if this was a sign from the universe, an order, an alignment of stars.

More likely, they showed the film with a local as one of the stars as a regular thing.

She nodded.

“We’ll be right outside,” Lucy told Mia, who had her head on Amadeus’s shoulder.

They left the film only partway through, left the school-turned-theater-for-summer, and walked out front, across the waterless moat and over to a big rock they could sit on.

John Stiles was on the far side of the street, looking both ways before crossing about fifty feet to Lucy and Wallace’s right.  He whispered, trusting she’d hear.

“I won’t interfere, watch, or listen.  I’m here to stand guard, to keep my oath to give you a long and full life.  I’ll protect this.”

She didn’t take her eyes off him as she walked over to another of the rocks that kept cars from careening into the school or the ‘moat’, sat down with his back to the rock, hands behind his head, not really looking at her.

“There’ll be trouble, but it doesn’t look like it’ll be today, so don’t worry.  Raymond is getting ahead of a lot of it.  You’ll have to deal with him and the people who come with him later, but there’s little you can do about that now.  That’s the last I’ll say about any of that.”

Avery and presumably Verona were out there, shouldering the load so she didn’t have to.  John was here, guarding her, guarding this.  She could, at least right now, count on John and she could count on Wallace for little things.

She laid her head on Wallace’s shoulder, overly gentle, wary of the slightest sign he might shrug her off.  Then she said, “Let me know if this is uncomfortable.”

“My shoulder’s iffy but this sort of thing won’t bother it.”

“I meant me… leaning on you, so soon after being a big dork.”

“Nah,” Wallace said.  “You laughing at my joke is something I’ll proudly carry through every stressful time the next year brings.”

“Do you have those?”

“Surgery scheduled for a couple weeks after school starts,” Wallace said.  “It’ll get in the way of everything.  I’ve had a bunch of MRIs and CAT scans this summer, I didn’t want to talk about it in front of those guys.  I didn’t want to talk about it in front of you, but…”

“I don’t mind.”

“It’s one of those things that get so big it takes over your life for a while.  No time to even watch that much or play that much, and then you ask what I’ve been doing this summer and I don’t know what to say.  Hospital stuff?”

“Just be honest.  Don’t let me down.  A bunch of people, guys, have let me down.”

“Dating, or…?”

“Nah.”

“Okay,” Wallace said.

“Sorry about the hospital thing.  We should schedule something you could look forward to, maybe?” she asked, head on his shoulder.  “That video game you wanted me to play?  We can do that if your arms are in slings, right?”

“Probably going to be worse than a sling, but yeah.”

“Except that’s a fourth date thing, you said?  I can’t remember the number.”

“Something like that.  Meeting the parents.”

“So we’d have to do something like this again.  Get a few dates in before then, so it’s not too much.”

He ‘hmmmmed’ a bit.

“You can say no.”

“Yes.  But you keep taking the lead, so you gotta let me decide some things.”

“Does that bother you?”

“It’s… no, I guess not.  Amadeus was saying I should… take the lead.”

She lifted her head up, sitting straight and facing him.  “How?”

She already knew the answer.  She’d cheated, eavesdropping.  He touched her chin, leaned in, and then paused, “May I?”

“Yes.”

He kissed her.  And it was nice, and a bit cozy, even with a backdrop of a few scandalized kids chiming in from across the lawn.

John didn’t budge an inch.  He wasn’t there to comment or to watch or interfere.  He was there to make sure there was room for this to happen.

“I needed that.  I needed this… whole thing, even if I’ve been quiet and distracted, sorry.”

“Nah.  A little bit the same here.”

“End of summer,” Lucy said.

“Two weeks after the end, but yeah.”

“I’m kinda super grounded right now, my mom’s being extra nice letting me go out, so we’ll have to cram those extra dates in after school starts, after everything.  Before your thing.  And if you need distractions or anything you let me know.”

“Yeah.  Okay, will do.  Can I ask, uh, why me?”

“Verona picked you for the app.  She made a pretty good pitch.  It got me looking at you.”

“I should buy her a chocolate bar.”

“Something sour or spicy, but not overly sweet.”

“I like how you’re not getting on my case about buying some other girl a present.”

“It’s a chocolate bar, not flowers, and you said you wouldn’t let me down,” Lucy said, with a slight warning tone.

“Okay, right, yeah.  Yeah.”

“Then the spin the bottle thing happened where I got you three times out of four, and… if the universe is going to give me a sign, right?”

“Do you believe in that stuff?”

“Yes, but not in the way you’re thinking.  We’d have to talk about that another time, later on.”

“Heavy stuff?  Not for a first date?”

“Heavy stuff is a good way of putting it.”

“I guess I shouldn’t talk about my sick mom, huh?  Too heavy for… this?”

“I think if that’s something really close to the surface that you want to talk about, it’s good.  I don’t mind.”

“It’s not too stressful?”

“I can handle it.”

So he talked about his mom, who had M.S., among some other minor things, and the crappy genetic lottery, and how she was what his future possibly held in store for him.  Then he talked about how she’d maybe die not that far into the future, and how weird it was to be trying to spend as much quality time with her as possible when Mia was snarky with her mom and Lucy was grounded.

“My dad died when I was little.  I remember bits and pieces.  Booker, my big brother, he found him.  It really got to him for a while, in so many little ways.”

“The little ways,” Wallace echoed her.  “I’ve been talking to people about how to prepare and they keep telling me the little things will catch me off guard and I’ll act weird in ways I can’t explain at the time, and… that’s scarier than any big thing.”

“Yep.  Yeah.  But I think Booker turned out fantastic, he’s one of my favorite people, and he might miss my dad a ton, but he’s okay.  So…”

“Hope for me, maybe.  So it’s Booker, am I saying that right?”

“Yeah.”

“And your mom, and you, and…?”

“And not many others.  There used to be Paul but he ran out on us.  Cowardly white dude.”

“Is that a thing, why’d you say it like that?”

“Because if I didn’t I’d be worried people would think it’s a black guy that ran out on us and that’s a stereotype.  Gotta calculate a few steps in advance, you know?  Get out ahead of those things.”

“The little things.  Or not so little?  I don’t want to assume.”

“Lots of little things.  So many little things.”

“I think a lot about how people look at me when I have my arms in slings.  They’re mostly nice about it, but sometimes they’re too nice, and kids especially…”

“I so get that, believe me.”

“I’m trying to get you.  After we kissed during spin the bottle I started paying more attention to you and thinking about stuff.”

“Mr. Bader.”

“Was he-?  I didn’t notice.”

“He wasn’t great.”

“Huh.”

They’d left fifteen or twenty minutes into a movie with another hour to go.  They sat, they watched kids play, and they talked about everything under the sun that touched on their lives that was way too freaking heavy for a first date.

And maybe a little bit in the midst of it, John standing guard, Wallace getting a bit more of it than she thought he would, the world made a bit more sense.  Everything that felt out of balance or out of place felt a little bit more in sync.  If she could draw this line between the worlds and protect it… then maybe that was okay.

It got dark out, and she shivered, and he sat closer, and that was nice.

Conversation petered out, but it was nice to sit, and it was good to think.  About the movie, another thing that had fallen into place, a thing she had to confront.

Another ten minutes passed with light conversation before Mia’s mother came by.  They waved as she got out of the car.  “You’re outside!?  The film should be about over.”

“They’re just finishing up, I think,” Lucy told Mia’s mother.

“I’ll go check on them, make sure they aren’t dallying- you’re alright?  Are you cold?  Get in the car?  So I know where you are.”

They did, obliging, and the car still bore a lot of the heat from the daytime.

While Mia’s mom went inside, Lucy kissed Wallace again.  “That’s for the postponed spin the bottle kiss.”

“Worth the wait.”

She snorted.  As they settled in and belted up, she texted Mia to warn her her mom was out there, and then texted her own mom to let her know she’d be heading home.

She could see the messages between Verona and Avery, and it looked like a hectic back and forth and battening down of the hatches, and a communication of messages, but as John had implied, the confrontation wasn’t for tonight.

No.

No, another confrontation needed to happen tonight.

🟂

A nightmare.

She was getting better at navigating these.  Spider limbs prowled forward, and where they landed, the floorboards rotted, swelled, inflated, and burst into more spiders.

She was getting better but they were still nightmares, still horrible.

One spider was enough to make her keep a few feet of distance and this was spider-ness that was running out of control.

This was the veil, where her own fears came together to form a crossing point, a barrier she needed to push or be pushed through.

A jumpscare moment.  It helped to think of it like a horror movie.  The sudden lunge.  She reacted, like Guilherme had taught her to.

Guilherme

Her hand caught the spear-like spider leg, and the bristles along its length were like needles.  They punched into her hand, then bulged, each bristle a little pump to push something beneath skin.  She pushed the leg away.

Skin that swelled, red, bulbous, liquid shimmers at the center.  Dark specks growing quickly within.

Smaller spiders boiled out of her hand, bubbles as small as pencil erasers and as big as quarters popping to reveal their inhabitants, sometimes one, sometimes many.  She shook them free, wary of the spider’s continued approach, and felt some latch on, biting, doing their own pumping, spreading the effect.

She could see bone in her hand, past that which had swelled and popped.  The flesh around the wounds was black with tiny legs grappling for purchase.

A hand settled on her shoulder.

She looked back and she saw Guilherme, but it was a Guilherme of a darker court, or a Guilherme of the past, who had once been a villain, because he’d tried his hand at many roles.  There was nothing warm behind his eyes as he pushed her.

He pushed her, a deft and simple movement that she instinctively knew was meant for maximum harm.  Pushed her into the wall of the spider’s twenty or thirty legs, so she bounced off of one and careened forward, stumbling, before she hit another.  Bristles eagerly pumped more eggs into her.

She screamed, and it was an angry scream, because anger, like Dr. Mona had said, fueled.  It pushed, and for right now, she had to push through.

She tore her way forward, despite the fact she couldn’t breathe and in this dream-consciousness her heart’s beat was something that she had to control as much as her breathing and she couldn’t make it beat either.  So, breathless and dying inside, her mind a wild panic that pulled a lot from anger, she pushed her way through and out.

Her hand was intact.  There were no spiders.  She still gave herself a thorough shake.

Avery was there already.  Maybe somewhere along the way, she’d picked up a perk that helped with dealing with nightmares.  Maybe it was a Finder thing.

Verona appeared next.  Lucy could see the door behind Verona as it swung closed.  School lockers lined the hallway she’d just come from.

“Thanks for the backup,” Lucy said.

“Return the favor someday,” Avery replied, jamming her hands in her pockets.

“I would be so happy to play defense so you can have a nice date.  You have no idea,” Lucy said.

“I’m glad it was nice.”

“Tell Snowdrop that if she’s faking being me so that I can run around, she can’t be that weird,” Verona told Avery.  “She made Jasmine worry.”

“I will pass that on.”

“Cool.”

The location was a wooden building, squat and square, surrounded by grass… up to a point.

The plot of grass was barely bigger than a normal property in a normal neighborhood, and the house was the size of a small, one-floor home.  Knick-knacks, dolls and wards littered the garden instead of flowers, many planted in the dirt.

Avery took the lead, walking down the walkway.  The door wasn’t locked, and opened as she pushed.

A single room with a cot in the corner, a shelf mounted over it that anyone would bang their head into as they got up, a kitchen table, a cast iron stove that took logs to heat the place, and a small kitchen and preparation area.

At the kitchen table was a single chair, and in the chair was Charles Abrams.  On seat, chair back, and the floor around him, on bed, and in the table’s edge, was broken glass.  It had been melted or set into notches in the wooden table, chair, and floorboards, clustered together so there wasn’t even the space to cleanly set a toe-tip down.

A man who looked fifteen or twenty years older than he was, from the fatigue of dealing with this, metaphorically or literally.

“Sometimes there’s sound,” Charles said.  “A phonograph, or radio, or television.  Sometimes there’s company.  Mercifully, Alexander hasn’t haunted me as much since John dealt with him.”

“Have you been dodging us, Charles?” Lucy asked.  “This has been hard to arrange.”

“Not dodging.  I think the universe wants to put me out of your way.  Or a Faerie does.”

“We need to talk,” Avery told him.

“Yeah,” he replied, and for a moment he looked despondent.  “I’m the furthest thing from an augur, you know, but even I knew this was coming.”

“Us, here?” Verona asked.

“I meant them, out there.  I didn’t want it for you.  But this too.  I figured you’d show up at my doorstep.”

“And planned accordingly?” Verona asked.  “Is this where you spring a trap on us?  A magic item or something you can use while Forsworn?”

“All my traps are sprung, spent, lost, or broken.  My tools and resources stolen, shattered, scattered, and emptied of power.  It’s hard to hold onto things or take care of things when you’re in my position.  I’ve thought a lot about what to say, and virtually every answer is a waste of your time.  And mine, if that’s possible.”

“And?” Lucy asked.

“And you’re so strong.  You’re scarily capable.  I think everyone was caught off guard.  I can’t put up a fight, I can’t escape, I have no real allies.  I did it.  I created the Hungry Choir using devices and resources I’d managed to hold onto, with a bit of help from the others you’ve already indicted.”

His eyes didn’t open any wider, and no emotions really crossed his face.  Lucy watched him, wary, curious, as he sat in his little nightmare here.

The broken man lifted his hands, surrendering.


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False Moves – 12.4

Verona

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No time for rest.  Even their sleeping hours were now a get-crap done sort of time.

Verona stretched on the cot, then felt that tilt-jolt that so often woke her up when she was just getting to sleep.  Her eyes opened, and she found herself looking up at Alpeana, who was frowning and looking off to the side.

“Ye’r ‘ave tae put up wi’ a wee falling dream tae get ye on yer way.  I’m so behind on my work, meetings’n no’ running ye ’round, a lad supposed tae get ‘is fifth recurrin’ ‘n’ he’s nae sleepin’ a’ all last two nights.  Lil’ bugger is on tae me, I think.”

Verona was in the midst of parsing all that and was in the middle of the part where Alpy was giving some kid his fifth recurring nightmare when she backtracked a sentence to: “Falling?”

Alpeana put a hand on Verona’s chest, then pushed her down.  The tilt worsened, and Verona fell through the cot, and the darkness of Lucy’s bedroom broke up, swirling like vapor.

Then she was falling through dark clouds at night, each cloud lined silver by moonlight.

A monochrome nightmare, like a black and white movie.  Verona plummeted, squinting as cold moisture in the air stung her eyes and blinded her.  The clouds parted, and the ground came into view.

Glamour!

This was a dream, with dream logic.  She had to expect the glamour to be there, because of course it was.  Always in the same pocket-

She found the papers and feather.

Centipedes flowed out of her pockets as she gripped the papers, nipping at her fingers.  Her arm jerked back and the feathers and papers scattered.  She snatched at one and fingertips scraped against the flat face of the paper, pushing it away.

The ground loomed.

I have glamour on me, traces from many, many transformations

She dug fingers into her arms, pulling, bidding flesh to twist, fingers moving to shape the traces of glamour.

Skin tore, and centipedes flowed out, nipping, biting, widening gaps.  Blood welled, as did revulsion.  Her stomach churned, and then centipedes flowed out of her mouth, with enough force that her trajectory through the air was shifted, head forced around, down, feet high above her.

She looked up, in the direction of down, vertigo seizing her, and saw a single point on the ground rush up to fill her vision.

Verona collided with the rocky earth in slow motion that only seemed to exaggerate the hurt.  There was enough force that her teeth bit through centipedes and then gnashed through one another, tooth meeting tooth and driving into and through one another, eyes closing and then the bone of eye sockets closing after them.  Shoulder and arm were pressed in, followed by bone and rib closing gaps and crushing in close.  The air rushed out of her, and the queasy feeling compressed into a feeling that exploded all the feeling of sick out of the gaps between the broken and torn parts of her.

Her feet met the ground with a lateness that would have been comical if she hadn’t just been pulverized by the fall.

Avery landed on her feet a few feet away.  Lucy, shuddering, pulled her way free of groping darkness, shaking off spiders.

“Verona?” Avery asked.

Verona’s face made a wet, sucking sound as she pulled meat and shattered bone away from the rock.  “Not sure if the Aurum is messing with me even in dreams, or if I’ve internalized stuff.”

Her voice was eerily clear considering her face and part of her head and upper body were broken bone mixed in with hamburger.  It was very disconcerting, but she was entirely willing to play ball with that, accept this was a dream, and wear it.

“Hopefully internalization,” Lucy said.

Verona made a wounded sound, pressing hands to her heart.

“I mean, first of all, we can hope the Aurum isn’t that hostile right now…”

“True,” Verona said, picking a bit of broken bone out of her face.  She looked around, and saw that they were on a mountainside, the top of the mountain up in the clouds.

“Second of all, maybe some internalization of stuff wouldn’t be a bad thing?”

Verona repeated the wounded sound, hands to her heart.

“Can you fix your face?” Avery asked Verona.  “That’s really ick.”

“Close your eyes-” Lucy said.

“Or shattered eye sockets,” Verona said, pointing both fingers at Lucy.

“-and dwell on your unconscious impression of who you are, your face?”

Or,” Verona told Lucy, “I can experiment and broaden my concept of Self.  If we can mold ourselves in our dreams, why not explore different identities?”

“I like my identity,” Avery said.  “Maybe I could try different styles, though.”

“I like my identity too,” Lucy said.

“I like your identity, Verona, by the way,” Avery said.  “Regular old Verona is pretty cool.”

“I don’t like that word, regular,” Verona said.  “Regular clothes are nice to wear and they’re cozy but sometimes you want to dress up and sometimes you want to dress down.”

“If you trying on different looks is a temporary thing, I’m pretty okay with that,” Lucy said.

“Oh, do I have your permission?” Verona asked.

“Yeah, not that you need it.”

“Good, and good.”

Lightning cracked but kept to the heavy clouds, illuminating the surroundings and shining entirely different lights amid the clouds, making some transparent while highlighting other shadows.  A silhouette stood at the peak, amid the clouds.

“Did Alpy specify who she was arranging the meet with?” Avery asked.

“Nah, she just complained about work.  I think,” Verona replied, looking up toward the top of the mountain.  There was someone up there.  They’d given Alpeana a short list of people they wanted to talk to, and an order, but some of those people were bound and others complicated to arrange meets with.

“Imagine her as a familiar,” Lucy said.

“I’m definitely like, not as keen as I was.  Imagine me ditching my dad to hitch myself to a familiar who’d spend all her time complaining about work.”

“Imagine,” Avery said.

“Is Snow coming?”

“She’s having some quality time with Cherry.”

More lightning crackled, and it never touched ground, keeping instead to the sky.  A smell of burned air and burning flooded the area, and the clouds intensified.

“Ah,” Verona said.  “That’s who.”

The smoke and clouds swirled, the bright points of lightning intensifying, and the sky seemed to lower as the surroundings dropped away, leaving only floor and lowering ceiling as everything crushed in together.

Still monochrome, for the most part.  The smell of smoke flooded a large room, and within that room, adults in nice clothes were bustling this way and that, shoulder to shoulder in many places.  Ladies in dresses fit for events, men in suits, some with ties undone or loosened.  People carried drinks, but most importantly, everyone carried a cigarette.  Smoke streamed up from each cigarette, thick as soup, and fed into a cloud of smoke that hid the faces and shoulders of all of the adults.

Only the burning cigarette-ends and dots of burning ash in the omnipresent ashtrays provided any color.

Stools lined the side of a bar counter, some occupied, each stool high enough to keep heads at the appropriate level, while the rest of the bar or evening club or whatever this was had people standing and milling around.  There were large windows, and it was foggy outside, to the point the windows were barely functional, except to suggest there were more people outdoors.

The hard soles of dress shoes and heels of high heels clicked on the floor, glasses were placed on hard counter, and others were slid into place, but above all else the soundscape was whispering.  Intimate, each conversation private, the laughs at little comments stifled, choked.  Voices, even female voices, were husky, deeper-throated than the usual, reminiscent of Louise’s voice, their sole witness to the Carmine thing.

Lucy held a finger to the underside of her nose.  Verona rolled her eyes.

“Hi.”  Avery approached the bar, and the man behind the counter who was providing a bright orange lighter flame for a lady who was leaning into and over the counter.  He wore a vest-like top over a dress shirt, tie monochrome silver, and it was a good look in Verona’s book.  Avery looked like she was unsure if she was heard, and shifted position, asking, “Can we talk to Cig?”

The man behind the counter tapped a metal case against the edge of the counter, until a cigarette stuck out, and offered it to Avery, lighter ready.

“Oh, no thanks,” she told him.

He turned the case around, tapped the cigarette against the counter, and pushed it back into the metal case, sliding the case into a pants pocket and the lighter into a vest pocket, before striding down the counter, to where a man held up a finger for his attention.  He began serving a drink.

“That didn’t seem to work,” Lucy said.

“I hate being ignored,” Avery said.  She looked at Verona, and made a face.  “Still going with that?”

Verona touched her messed up face. “Maybe.”

Avery made a face again, then suggested, “Explore?  Maybe we’re meant to find him.”

“Okay,” Lucy replied.  “Don’t go too far.”

They split up.  Verona wove her way around the huddles and clusters, past two men who danced close enough to be cheek to cheek, not really doing more than swaying togeher, each with left hand around the waist of the other, right hands holding old fashioned glasses and cigarettes at the same time.

Is this Cig’s mindscape?

Were there rules to a mindscape?  Montague had been an extreme case but there’d been lessons to learn there, for how to navigate his brain.  They’d had to endure intensity and as Verona had learned, maybe not eat the gross decaying-tooth cake or drink the battery acid tea.

Would an alcazar be like this?  Maybe firmer?  Here, at least, when she walked by a group and then turned around, the figures she’d recognized were gone.  The slow-dancing men had been replaced by a group of women who were laughing a lot.  If they opened up Cig and explored him as if he were a place, would it resemble this?

Verona tried touching someone lightly, fingers grazing a suit jacket, and the man didn’t respond.  She poked a butt cheek with a finger, just to test the waters a bit more, and the man ignored her.

She went by the bar, stepping up onto the bar of the stool where feet could rest, and snagged a glass of something… semi-dark and grey.  Monochrome, still.  Taking a sip, she winced at both the fact that her face was hamburger and some liquid dribbled down it, and the sharpness of the drink that hit her right in the throat and sinuses.  It tasted smokey, but also definitely alcoholic, and it made her suppress a cough.

She touched a woman’s dress, admiring it, and let herself shuck off the pulverized body.  It was only aesthetic.  She looked at other dresses and details, trying to find a time period or clue there, and at the same time appreciated the look of everything.

She moved in a straight line through the place, and she found herself reuniting with Lucy.  Avery found them a moment later.  This place didn’t have bounds, in the usual sense.  It was more a scene than a location that could be navigated.  Would Montague’s have been the same if they’d gotten up and tried to walk away?

“You changed,” Lucy said.  “Thank you.

Verona posed, lifting up one leg.  She wore a slinkier black dress now, with a pearl choker and pearl earrings, and a little headband to help manage her hair, with an ostentatious metallic flower fixed to the band.

“Any signs?” Avery asked.

Verona shook her head, sipping the drink again.  “Maybe we did it wrong.”

“Did what wrong?” Avery asked.

Verona looked over.  “Bartender?”

The man at the counter finished lighting another cigarette for someone who promptly walked away to rejoin his group, and then walked down to where he was still behind the counter, but was as close to them as he’d get.  Hands rested casually on the counter.

“Could you tell us how to communicate with Cig?” she asked.

He didn’t move.

“Does it involve us smoking?  To open the doors or something?” Verona asked.

He retrieved the metal case and tapped it on the counter.  He offered her a cigarette.

“Ronnie,” Lucy said.

“It’s a dream!  Maybe we need to play along,” Verona said, walking over to take it.  She leaned over the counter as best as she could, while the man held out the lighter, flicking it on at the last second.  She drew back on the cigarette, and fought not to even begin coughing, even as her eyes watered.

“Any clues?” she asked the barkeep, settling onto the stool, arms on the counter, glass in front of her.  “Whisperings?  Rumors?  How do these things work?”

He was silent.  Beside Verona, Avery and Lucy settled onto nearby stools.

“Maybe he doesn’t want to talk?” Avery suggested.  “I could understand if he was upset.”

“Tricky,” Lucy murmured.  “But we’re not going to get anywhere and I don’t think we’ll be able to release him- I don’t think we’ll be able to release you, Cig, if you can hear this, unless we can confirm some basic stuff and get some info.”

“Want?” Verona asked Avery, indicating the cup.  “I think it’s whiskey.”

“Are you a whiskey girl, Verona?” Avery asked.  She hesitated, then took the cup, sipping.  She made a face.  “I might not be a whiskey girl.”

“They say these things are acquired tastes,” Verona replied, taking the cup back, holding the cigarette in her other hand.  “I like the idea of acquired tastes.”

“If nothing else, this is a neat experience,” Lucy said, looking around.  “Eerie, and more smoke than I normally like, but neat.”

“Yeah,” Verona said.

“Maybe look out for the one cigarette in all of this that doesn’t have someone smoking it?” Avery asked.  “That’s a tell for Cig, isn’t it?”

They paused, taking their time to search, scanning the surroundings, twisting around on their stools.  Verona looked, studying ashtrays, studying the floor, where the periodic bit of dropped ash created regular spots of burning orange or yellow.  Some were stepped on.  The floor remained pristine and glossy, despite that.

Lucy held up a finger to her mouth.

They remained quiet.

The investigators got me, didn’t even give me a chance…

A whisper between two businessman-types who were walking by, one with his arm around a curvy woman.

Lucy gave the two of them a knowing look.

Yeah.  Verona turned around, taking this in.

…what can I get you?” the barkeep asked a woman, leaning in close to maintain that volume of intimate whisper.

Anything strong enough to make me forget today.  I’m in the doghouse,” the woman replied, fiercely gripping her cigarette.  “I’m worried it’s all over.”

“I’ll make it strong,” he told her.

“It might not all be over.” Verona matched the volume of the room.  “Depends what you tell us.”

So I asked her, what do you want?  What do you want, woman?” a guy who’d had too many drinks hissed rather than whispered, to convey intensity without raising the volume.  Tie loosened, suit jacket off, he and his friends looked like they’d had more drinks than was typical for the people here.  The friends chortled, the sounds suppressed, held back, even though it led to one coughing.

“Do you know what Maricica is up to?” Verona asked nobody in particular.

No,” a woman said, refusing an offer for a light.  She struck a match of her own, and it hissed before she put it to her cigarette.

“Do you know-” Lucy started, pausing as the man at the counter offered a newly arrived pair of women a drink, “-what they’re all up to in general?”

“Yes, please,” one of the two women whispered.  “Champagne, please.  It’s a bit of an event.”

She turned, giving the other woman a peck on the lips, fingers interlaced.

“Champagne?” the man at the counter asked, turning to pull a bottle off the shelf.  At the same time, Avery put her elbow on the counter, hand on her cheek, back to Lucy and Verona, looking.  He asked, “What’s the occasion?”

“That, sir, is a secret,” the woman whispered, pressing a finger to lips, coquettish, even though the smoke hid her face.  It was only by the virtue of not being fully grown that the three of them weren’t in the same boat.

“A secret?” Avery asked, glancing over her shoulder at Lucy and Verona, as if double-checking.

“I could be convinced to tell,” the woman whispered, wriggle-shrugging her shoulders.  “Maybe.”

“I’ll be honest,” Lucy said.  “I can’t speak for my friends, but I’d love to have a good reason to let you go.”

“I would too,” Verona murmured.

“It’s not necessarily all over,” Avery said.  “Like you said earlier.”

Can I get more?” a man murmured to the barkeep, placing a bottle down on the counter with a hand that held a cigarette between two fingers.  The barkeep put down a full bottle, removing the cap and sweeping the empty bottle from the counter in the same move.  The smoke trails swirled and broke apart in the swift movements.

“More what?  Concessions?  Are you wanting to barter?” Lucy asked.

The girl at Avery’s left butted in, whispering in an excited way, “Hey, you three, could you help us settle a deal we-“

Her partner tugged on her elbow, interrupting her and hauling her back into their private, indistinct conversation.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Lucy said.

“If you can provide meaningfully useful information for the investigation, and swear against further involvement, we can let you go, I think,” Verona said, to nobody in particular.  “I don’t think you’re dangerous or violent.  But we might ask the council to revoke your membership in Kennet, depending.  If you can provide that stuff and if you’re sorry and-or if there are any things like you didn’t know or you were forced to help or whatever, then maybe there’s a chance you can stay in Kennet.  Just… again, not as a helper for the conspiracy.”

“Or as a double agent,” Avery said.  “Even though Maricica might be too clever for that.”

“I’m listening,” the barkeep murmured to an older man with nicotine-stained fingers, who sat further down the counter.  He leaned in closer, paying avid attention as the man launched into what might’ve been a joke, but was too soft to properly hear.

Smoke and whispers whisked through the space, making Verona’s hairs stand on end, helped by the buzz of the very small quantity of alcohol she’d consumed.

Does that mean we’re good to move forward?

“What’s the agenda?  Do you know?” Lucy asked.

We’ll paint the town red,” a man spoke in an almost guttural voice, made hoarse and rough by years of smoking.  He held his brimmed hat high over head as if to signal the crowd as he left by way of the front doors, stepping out into the opaque fog beyond.

“Paint it red?” Verona asked.  “And?”

“Turn things around on them,” the businessman from the near-beginning of this ‘conversation’ murmured, as he walked by, pausing near the stools the three of them sat on as people were gathering for drinks.  The barkeep looked like he wanted to go serve, but the old man that told the joke had a grip on his arm.  The businessman’s tone took on an intensity, his volume dropping as he continued to whisper, “If they want to turn those poor saps out onto the streets, that’s fine, but they should also sort out the mess.”

“Who’s them?” Avery asked.

“Losers and assholes,” the businessman whispered to his friend, aggressive.  “If those assholes want to play their parts and let things come to this, let them deal with it.  While we’re at it, we should tighten regulations until they can’t fucking breathe without the red tape.  Fucking strangle them with it.”

“They’ll change the policies and regulations,” the businessman’s friend whispered back.

“Sure.  But how many do you think we can strangle before they get around to that?  They’ll go after each other in the process of deciding what the change should be and who should be the one to execute it.”

“Is this who you are, Cig?” Avery asked, voice soft and concerned.  “Strangling?  Executing?  I thought you were gentler in… if not personality, exactly, then maybe… nature?”

“I don’t fit in with that crowd, I don’t fit in with you,” a woman said, from the stool beside Verona, to her conversation partner.  Her back was to Verona, her hand moving in an emotive way, scattering ash from the end of her cigarette.  The barkeep, laughing politely at the tail end of the old man’s joke, took the opportunity to step away, wiping the counter clean in passing as he went to serve drinks to the growing lineup of people.

“Hmm,” her conversation partner made a sound, considering.

“Then why?” Avery asked, looking at the woman.  “Why do it?”

“We’re all making concessions,” the man replied to the woman.  “We get lonely, and loneliness leads us to cling to even those people we don’t fit in with.  We compromise on our ideals, and a person we wouldn’t give the time of day to in another circumstance starts to feel like a kindred spirit.”

“Spirit?” Verona asked.  “Edith?”

“Exactly right,” a man said, sounding pleased as the barkeep served his drink.

“Do you have ideals, Cig?” Avery asked.  “Do you feel loneliness?”

“Not quite right,” the woman to Verona’s right whispered to the guy, touching his nose.  “But I understand the sentiment.”

Verona was starting to feel like she was getting whiplash, the various people all around them forcing her to turn around and hear.  Or maybe she was meant to settle down, ease up, and let it wash over and around her.

“Can we trust you?” Lucy asked.

“I want to stay a bit longer.  Say yes.  Yes yes yes?”  suggested the woman, the more excitable member of the lesbian couple that had sat to the left of Avery.

“Is that a yes?” Lucy pressed.

“Yes,” the other woman in the couple whispered, touching her forehead to her partner’s, resting it there.  “I suppose.”

“Then can you tell us more?” Lucy asked.  “About Maricica?”

I don’t know her very well,” a man said, passing by behind them.  Lucy and Avery turned and from the look of it they couldn’t see him.  Verona was settling in, not worrying about it so much.

“Edith?”

“Can we light this candle?” the upbeat young lady whispered to the barkeep.

“Is that a yes?” Lucy asked.

Yes,” the barkeep replied, to both of them.

“It’s a horror story,” the young lady told her partner, picking up the candle and holding it so it would illuminate her face.  Her whispers were wistful.  “In a way, it was like coming home, she was warm, she had this natural way of drawing you in, at least for me.”

“You’ll make me jealous,” her partner said.

“It wasn’t like that.  It wasn’t love.  I went along with what she wanted because nothing and no one was telling me not to.”

“Does that mean that if we’re there for you, keeping an eye out, that there’d be no need to worry you’d get into more trouble with sketchy types in or around Kennet?” Lucy asked.

“I wish I knew,” was the answer from somewhere in the crowd, one voice clear in a mess of indistinct, goosebump-raising whispers and exhalations of smoke.

Verona looked down at her own cigarette, and drew on it experimentally.  She managed to not cough but did have to clear her throat.  She didn’t like it for the taste or the warmth, though she sort of liked it for the smell, but what she liked most was having something to do with her hands and mouth, that felt like it fit in with everything going on around them.

“Would you swear oaths?” Lucy asked.

“If I take the deal, will that keep me out of jail?” a man asked a woman who might have been his lawyer, the two of them leaning against a part of the bar where the stools weren’t as numerous.  “Scott free?”

“Possibly,” Lucy said.  “We’d have to talk to Toadswallow and the others, get the okay from them.  There’d be restrictions, as part of the oaths.  We’d need free and unfiltered information.  As much detail as you can provide.”

“Yes.”

“Then we can look into that,” Lucy said.  “We don’t have to do this all tonight, if you’re patient.  We can talk to the others or call Alpeana and have her check with them that it’s okay to make deals.”

“I’m fine, thank you,” a man at the counter whispered, refusing a drink, lighting up another cigarette.  It looked like the counter had filled up a lot after they’d sat down.  A nice subtle touch.

“Can we run questions by you, or do you want to confirm the deal first?  We want to be fair,” Avery said.  It looked like Avery was struggling more than Lucy was when it came to addressing a nonspecific entity that filled up this space, looking this way and that and not getting any eye contact.  Lucy, meanwhile, was struggling a bit more than Verona.  Verona, slumped over the counter, just smiled, sipped the whiskey, then let Avery have it when Avery reached over, moving her arm out of the way.

“I’m all ears,” the man who’d waxed poetic a bit earlier said.  It looked like the old man wanted to tell someone another joke.

“Then, just to recap, and make sure of some stuff,” Lucy said.  “Edith is involved and you worked with her.  Is it that you can’t say if Maricica is involved?”

“She’s in,” the businessman whispered.  “Damn her.”

“So you know she’s in, but you don’t know what she’s up to?”

“Yeah.”

“Is Charles?” Avery asked.

“That loser,” the businessman hissed.

“Cig used that earlier.  Losers and assholes,” Verona pointed out.  “Turning things around.”

“Can we get confirmation on Charles?”

Now, our guy, we’re not one hundred percent sure…” the joke teller said.  “But if anyone around here is going to get caught in a compromising position with a pretty dog like that…”

“Is that a yes?” Lucy asked, exasperated.  Lucy was having the most difficulty with the exact nature of this weird way of speaking, more than the ambient nature of it.

Yeah!

“But you don’t know how?” Verona asked.

“No, no no no no…”

“Or why?” Verona asked.

“Scott free, then” the man with the lawyer said.

The babble felt like it was pressing in on them.  That combined with the very low ceiling effect from the smoke that was just reaching the tops of their heads as they sat on the stools, the lack of color, and the bustle of people in the full… whatever it was.  Establishment.

“He gets unforsworn, presumably,” Lucy said.  “And Edith?”

“Don’t know.”

“Maricica?”

“No ideas here.”

“Do you know what their greater plans were for you?” Verona asked the empty air.  “Because we’ve had hints that that’s a thing.  Secondary plans, uses?”

“Good to bring that up,” Lucy said.

“Anyone else?” Avery asked.  “I’m afraid to-”

“Little bastards!” the angry businessman hissed.

“Goblins,” Lucy whispered.  “Which?”

“Yeah, the contractors, yeah, them!  Get in touch-“

Verona shifted position, wanting to sit back, but the stool’s back only reached the small of her back and she would have fallen violently.  Which would have probably kicked her out of the nightmare.

“Contractors.  The ones Bluntmunch brought in?” Avery asked.  “That would’ve been Ramjam, Creamfilled, Kittycough, Biscuit, and Fishmittens.  Maybe Bluntmunch too?”

“No, I fucking wish I knew the full story, man… yeah.  I know they pulled something.  They got on the wrong side of this.  Each of them, to some degree.”

“Frig,” Avery whispered.

“When they sent the witch hunter after the ghouls, the goblins fought in that, and a good few of them died.  Creamfilled and Fishmittens,” Verona noted.

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “They were pretty depressed about it, however they might’ve acted.”

“We’ll have to sound them out about things,” Lucy said.  “Talk to them discreetly, somehow, get a sense of what happened?  That might be a thing we can focus on.  If they were allies, then Maricica targeted them.  Why?  Were those specific goblin deaths for a reason?  Were they not onboard anymore?”

Avery mused, “Maybe they’re not happy after Maricica let them die.  I can talk to them if you want.  Go with Snowdrop?”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “Good, that works.”

“Anyone else?” Verona asked.  “Or anything else?”

“Remember the big guy?” the excitable young lady asked her partner.  “Close to retirement, long hair?”

“I remember.”

“Guilherme?” Lucy asked, twisting around.  “He’s not-”

“He was the one who made the call, you know.”

“To the cops?”

“Not the cops exactly, but-“

“No,” Lucy said.  “Come on, no.”

“You’re waking up,” Avery said, grabbing Lucy’s arm.  “Chill, relax, we’re-”

The stool broke under Lucy, and Lucy dropped to the floor.

Verona grabbed for her, throwing herself off the stool to catch Lucy, grabbing the arm of a bystander- grabbing smoke instead.

The dream of smoke, ambiance, drinks, men with nice bodies and women with enviable clothes dissipated in kind.  It became a nightmare of falling again.  A swift descent where Lucy came free of her grip, pulling just out of arm’s reach.  Avery dropped a short distance above them, following after.

Verona hit the cot with enough force that she bounced nearly a foot straight up in the air, springs screaming, pillow dropping to the floor.  The back of her head banged against the denser end of the spring near the frame, and hair pulled free as it was caught in the gaps.  “Frig!”

“Frig,” Lucy whispered.

“Remember, they had to account for the fact Cig might get caught, we haven’t confirmed anything, with Cig’s weird way of speaking, it’s hard to get context or nuance.”

“But Cig has reason to believe Guilherme called the Witch Hunter?” Lucy asked.

“Maybe.  We can do another follow-up conversation with Cig, follow up on details, like the goblins, and Charles-”

“It’s my turn to do the shrines, right?” Lucy asked, reaching for her phone.

“Luce, hey, talk?  It’s- five freaking thirty.”

“I’m going out.  I’ll stop in, check on Long, stretch my legs before Mom gets up.  I’ll set up the connection block while I’m at it.”

“Don’t go see Guilherme.  This could be a Maricica trap.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?  I- I didn’t expect that to be so easy.”

“I won’t go out of my way to see him.  I’m not going in that direction anyway.  I just need to think.”

“Do you want me to come with?”

“Nah.  Knowing you, you’d be super grumpy at this hour.”

“I would, but I can also be a friend.  Ask Ave.  I was with her yesterday morning.”

“It’s okay,” Lucy said.  “Sleep in.  Do your thing.  I won’t be too long.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I’m not, but hey.  I will text you or Avery if I need anything.  You just make sure my connection blocker doesn’t expire, or I’ll be mega super grounded.”

Verona nodded.  She got her phone and then checked it was set to vibrate, and then slipped it into her bra.

“I don’t know how you can wear that to sleep.”

Verona shrugged, settling back in.

Lucy got dressed, pulled on her shoes, and then went to the posters on the wall, sighed, and then used a fresh patch of wall to draw out the diagram.

Then she left, leaving Verona to rest up for whatever the future held.

🟂

More than ever, it felt like nighttime was when they’d been awake and the day was when they dreamed.  The hours passed inconsistently.  Verona lounged.  She’d gotten up and showered and then retreated back to her room, where Lucy was, and browsed the Atheneum Arrangement for free texts.  She’d read a good chunk on Faerie-adjacent creatures and then check the time, expecting to have spent a few hours, and it would have been only thirty minutes.  Yet she was left with the frustrating sensation that she was both covering a lot of ground in terms of pages and not taking a lot out of it.

A lot of that had to do with the texts themselves.  The sorts of things put out there for free were teasers, tasters, and old editions that were dry and didn’t seem like the sorts of works to fly off the shelves.

She spent a few hours on that, taking periodic notes, talked over the situation with Lucy and communicated with Avery, who had the decent fortune to not be grounded, even after Jasmine had called her dad, and then she ventured downstairs.  She washed the dishes from breakfast, then at Jasmine’s request, swept, hosed off, and re-swept the back porch of pollen and the occasional leaves, then picked a random book of Jasmine’s to read.  She finished the mystery novel in two and a half hours, and then it was lunchtime.

They ate lunch together, made small talk, and then Verona and Lucy cleaned the dishes together.  All like a dream, substance out of reach.  Even her Sight wasn’t working like it should.  She could turn it on, but things were blurry, the definition of the gossamer wrappings and the meaty things within no longer present as more than blurry white outlines and vague, still shadows within.

Avery was off running basic errands, and was supposed to be talking to Matthew and Toadswallow about Cig being aid to the conspirators without necessarily being a co-conspirator.  They’d have to see what that meant.

Either way, it wasn’t like Cig had been especially malevolent about things.  He’d just been… Cig about things, maybe.  Matthew and Toadswallow would be able to follow up with direct questions and their usual methods of communicating with Cig.  Hopefully.

That covered Avery and kept Avery busy.  Lucy, on the other hand… Lucy was taking the Guilherme thing surprisingly hard.  Her mentor.  When they were alone together, Lucy would raise the subject, and Verona would remind her that Maricica might have misled, or that there could be context, and then Lucy would drop it, only to bring it up later, like she’d forgotten the reassurances.

Or they’d be apart, each of them doing separate chores, and Verona would see Lucy looking upset, more frowny than usual, or staring off into the distance.

Verona didn’t know what to say or do.

Bluntmunch, the goblins from Creamfilled’s group, Charles, Maricica, and Edith?

Was it that simple?  To do what?  Overturn order?  Paint the town red?  Cig hadn’t elaborated and they weren’t in a position to ask.  They still had to talk to Charles, and that would be a thing.

They still had to prepare, somehow.  Jasmine wasn’t following up on what Lucy had mentioned, that maybe they could work off the punishment and buy themselves a few days of freedom, if not a week of freedom.  Even a week would be tight.  If this not entirely deserved punishment was the cost of playing nice and protecting Jasmine, she could put up with it.  But as much as Verona loved Lucy’s mom, she wasn’t willing to sacrifice the well being of Kennet to make her feel better.

She started on another novel, and then put it down about a hundred pages in, getting out her computer and sending an email to Nicolette.

Nicolette responded to the email with a request for a video call.  Verona accepted.

“Heya,” Nicolette said.  “What’s going on?”

“I’m gainsaid.  Power’s out, no practicing.”

“Ah, that’s rough.  Definitely happens.  Alexander gainsaid me once every two weeks, give or take.  What can I do?”

“I was going to ask the same question.  What can I do?  I’m bored, I’m grounded, I’m gainsaid.  You have anything for me to do?  We owe you for backing us up, I figure in the interest of being fair…”

“I don’t have anything interesting for you to do.”

“If I’m going to be bored, maybe I can be bored while being helpful to you.”

“Hmmm.  You okay with grunt work?”

“I don’t know what else I’m good for.  I’m housebound, by the way.  Grounded, like I said.”

“I’d have to ask permission to bring in an assistant, Seth is pretty much useless, but I’ve got something… give me a few minutes.”

Nicolette leaned off screen, feed set to mute.  She picked up her phone and called someone.

“I’ve got nowhere to go,” Verona said.

Nicolette deafened herself as well, effectively muting Verona.  Verona sighed.

“Tell Nicolette I said hi,” Lucy told Verona.

“Okay.”

Nicolette came back on.  “Hey, they say it’s okay.”

“Lucy says hi.”

“Hi.  So, I’m going to send you these files.  There’s like, thirty different documents around fifteen pages each, they’re portodoc files so they take up to a minute to load on the default software, they were scanned in with this device, anyway, the pages aren’t in order.  Or numbered.”

“Am I making fifteen little documents or…”

“If you could order them as best as you can and then stitch them together into one document that isn’t a portodoc file, I think it’ll be four hundred and forty pages, that’d be great.  Some are degraded, covered in artifacts and speckles that keeps you from selecting text, so you’d have to copy it down by hand, copy formatting-”

“Send ’em,” Verona said.  “I’m sparing you some grief, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Good enough,” Verona said.  “Is it an interesting text?”

“Not at all.”

Verona sighed.

“Verona!” Jasmine called upstairs.  “Can I have a word?”

“I’ll send them to your email,” Nicolette told her.  “Even if you don’t finish any progress you can make would be great.  Just keep track of which doc the pages are from.  There are footer settings-”

“Put the instructions in the email.  I don’t remember stuff like that so hot,” Verona told Nicolette.  “I’m being called.  I’ll try to get to it soon.”

“Verona!?” the call came from downstairs.

🟂

“Here!” Verona called downstairs.

She made her way down the stairs two at a time, partially out of restless energy and the desire to move.

She stopped in her tracks when she saw her dad in the hallway, with the CAS guy.

“Hi, Verona,” he said.  “How are you?”

Lucy came down the stairs behind Verona, but Verona didn’t turn away, shrugging instead.  “Grounded.  I’m sure you know.”

“I did tell him,” Jasmine said.

Verona pressed her lips together.

“It would have been nice to hear from you in some capacity while you were gone,” her dad said.

“It would’ve been nice if you hadn’t broken my stuff throwing a tantrum like a child,” she told him.

“Hold on, interjecting,” the CAS worker said.  “Sorry.  Hi Verona, we talked online?”

“Yeah,” Verona replied, quiet.

“I asked if I could take on this role, joining you and your dad as you go back to your place.”

“For a visit?  Talk?  Preliminary stuff?” Verona asked.

“Verona.”  Jasmine spoke with such a sympathetic tone, telling a whole story.

Verona shook her head.

“To stay,” her dad said.  “I talked it over with your mom.  This thing with Jasmine was a comfortable middle ground, but it seems you got too comfortable.  We think it’s best if you return home.”

“Your mom and dad do,” Jasmine said, quiet.

Verona tensed.

“I’ll accompany you, we’ll have a sit-down meeting in your dad’s living room,” the CAS worker said.  “About expectations, responsibilities of your dad’s, responsibilities of yours.  I’ll make sure everything is square.”

“You’ll still be grounded,” her dad declared, looking a little smug, like he’d scored a win.  “No TV, no computer, no phone.  I’m taking some time off work.  We’ll catch up on things, find a new way forward.”

“Nah,” Verona said.

“Verona,” Jasmine said.  “I know this isn’t the outcome you wanted, it isn’t the outcome I wanted, but-”

“But?” Lucy’s voice came down the stairs.  Verona glanced back up at her friend.

“But… did you threaten Jasmine?” Verona asked her dad, heated now.  “Did you threaten to get her in trouble?”

“We can get some good headway done on the basement,” her dad told her, still smiling.

Verona turned to run back upstairs, and kicked a stair instead of getting her foot on top of it, falling across it.  Vertigo gripped her, her stomach roiling, brain rebelling-

Nightmare.

“Fuck you, Alpeana!” Verona raised her voice.  “I need you not to freaking do this!”

The nightmare transitioned, carrying her into someone else’s dreamscape.

🟂

Chloe was her original human self, wearing the subtle signs that she’d been backpacking through wilderness for a bit.  Her top was a pink turtleneck, her jacket a green so dark it was almost black, and she had a bag slung across her shoulders.

The landscape was all black stone covered in moss, rising and falling like waves.  The sun was low in the sky, more white than yellow or orange, the sky itself pale and speckled with beads of black.

It looked nice, but Verona couldn’t quite enjoy it.  The nightmare that had taken her from bedtime sleep to this scene was still fresh in her mind, even a bit into everyone meeting up and general conversation.

“I think, if they were trying to leverage us, it would’ve been by making Chlo go berserk,” Nibble said.

“No other ideas, then?”

Nibble shook his head.

“Chloe?” Avery asked.

“No idea,” Chloe said.  “I wanted to say sorry, Lucy, about before.”

“I didn’t get the impression you were in control,” Lucy said.  Her expression darkened, even though the words were kind, and as Verona looked between them, it seemed like Chloe recognized that, her own expression changing, shoulders shrinking.

“You okay?” Verona asked Lucy.

“Thinking about other stuff.  The Witch Hunter, where he came from,” Lucy said.

“Maricica?” Nibble asked.  “She steered him our way, apparently.”

“Apparently,” Lucy said, but she didn’t say anything more.  She didn’t mention Guilherme.  “Heavy stuff.”

Chloe relaxed a bit, as if she’d realized that Lucy wasn’t mad at her, exactly.

Good.

“You said you wanted something,” Avery told Nibble.  “It was a few days ago, the timing wasn’t right…”

Nibble looked more like himself in a way that Verona couldn’t put her finger on.  Sure, there was the lack of claws, and the way his lips didn’t stick out a slight bit more because of the fangs behind them.  His eyes weren’t as deep set, and even the clothes he wore looked a bit softer.

“I was going to ask… what if you’re on the wrong side?”

“You think?” Avery asked.

“I don’t think.  I don’t know,” Nibble told them.  “I didn’t.  I thought what if… what if you talked to Edith or someone and they did give you the full story, and that story included this really good rationale?”

“They put a whole lot of people in the way of the Hungry Choir,” Lucy said.

“I know.  I get that now, I’ve had a bit more time to get my head around things and learn the details.  Rook explained some.  But…”

But?” Lucy asked.

“No, I… I worry.  About feeding Chloe.  About feeding myself.  Things are bad right now for you, I get that, but for us they’re as good as they’ve been for a while.  We have a full freezer.  Chloe’s, minor injuries and issues aside, on her way to getting better.  Then we hear that if you guys arrest the culprits, that supply will dry up, the rest of it gets harder, you’ll need us less?”

“Don’t worry about feeding me, doofus,” Chloe said, jamming her hands into her pockets.  “Just… put me down if I get that bad again.  No hard feelings on my end.”

“Hard feelings on mine, Chlo!” Nibble turned on her.  “Hello?  I care!  I don’t want to put you down!  I want to spend the next few hundred years being undead with you, looking after you and having you watch stupid films with me, and then we can get sick of each other and part ways, but I’d like to think we’d walk away from it thinking ‘hey, that was mostly really good, wasn’t it?'”

Chloe approached him and hugged him from behind.  He hugged her arms awkwardly where they met at his chest.

“Or spend eternity together?” Avery asked.

“I’m more realistic than that with my unrealistic dreams,” Nibble said.  “I watch a lot of romance and stuff but c’mon.”

“Oh!  We could do that on again off again thing,” Chloe said.  “Where we miss each other when we’re apart but we get more and more sick of each other every time we get back together, spending less and less time together until we end up hating each other’s guts.  Punctuate the centuries that way.”

“That’d be nice, in a way.  I like the idea that you’d be that self sufficient,” Nibble said.  “And that you’d be around that long.”

“I bet I could kick your ass in a fight if we end up rivals,” Chloe said.

“Probably.  You’re meaner when you’re mad.  But I could annoy you with movie quotes before you tear my face off.”

“Throw in a quote from Sixteen Candles when you do it, okay?  Right at the end, so I know you care and remembered and stuff?”

“I’ll try and keep one in mind.”

“And marry me at some point.  When I’m not all growly.  I want to get rid of the claws and fangs and get so I can pass in the middle of a city and then you and I can have a big wedding.  But I want to be mostly human when we do it.”

“Goals,” Nibble said.  “Big how?  We barely remember our families, we definitely don’t keep in touch.”

“We’ll have to make lots of friends and build something.”

“It sounds to me like you’re doing a bit,” Verona said.

“We’ve gone in circles about this a lot, with minor variations,” Nibble explained, for the benefit of Verona, Lucy, and Avery.  “It’s like, uh, self-stimming?  Or a cooperative mantra we go over, to get more zen and put the ghoul away?”

“Not that we need to right now.  What a nice nightmare this is,” Chloe said, looking around.  “Melancholic.  This is where I got ghouled, I think.”

“Sorry,” Avery said.

“It’s okay.  That’s… not life, but unlife?  Undeath?  It’s the way things go sometimes,” Chloe said.

“Point is, if the people who killed the Carmine Beast want Kennet to stay bloody or something, like Rook says?  I could see a future where like, yeah, that’s super bad from the perspective of like, Choir and everything, and those are the same guys who used us,” Nibble said.  “But also Chloe stays fed and I can live with that.”

Chloe kissed the side of Nibble’s neck and rested her chin on his shoulder.

“I’d like to think we’d back you up, Nibble,” Verona said.  “Somehow.”

“So do I, but…” he hesitated.  “This is tough.”

“Are you switching sides?” Verona asked.  “Going with Edith’s group?”

“No,” Nibble said.  “At least… not unless I get some really critical information or something huge happens, I don’t think I’ll go with them.  Being entirely honest, I think we’ll be okay no matter what directions things go, as long as Kennet stays Kennet.  But if there’s some reality where you’re going after these guys and you realize what they’re doing and there’s a middle ground or something… it sure would be nice to find a way to keep Chloe fed in the long term.”

“That’s fair,” Verona told him.

“And I guess I thought I should let you know… if food sources can’t be secured, I know you said you’d think about ways to do it-”

“I have but it’s hard,” Verona admitted.

“Yeah.  For sure.  But if you can’t work it out, then maybe we’ll move on.  Or we’ll make it a regular thing where we roam to other communities to find ethical meals and then come back to chill and be safe.  Even if Kennet is safe, it’s not good for us if food isn’t in supply.”

“Thanks for being upfront,” Avery said.

“It’s the way we should go about this, isn’t it?” Nibble asked.  “In this topsy turvy world of dark magic and dark ghouls, ghosts, and goblins, it’s kind of messed up that those of us best at handling the whole ‘never tell a lie’ thing are just really freaking good at being deceptive, somehow.  It’s important to rise above that, be honest when we can.”

“Yeah, that’s really poignant,” Verona said.

“Says Ronnie, our best deceptive-when-telling-the-truther,” Avery joked.

“Except when she’s talking to my mom, annoyingly.”

“She was upset!” Verona protested.  “I hate your mom being upset!  Why do I get so much abuse?”

“Because you dish it,” Avery said, poking her in the arm.

“This is true, but still!”

Alpeana appeared in the shadows.  Verona wheeled on her, pointing a finger.  “You!”

“Aye, ye’r done?”

“You gave me that freaking nightmare about my dad before dropping me in here.  Do you have any shame at all?”

“‘Twas easiest!  Ah’m busy!  I’m workin’ thae meetings intae my schedule for ye, th’ least ye can dae is put up with a wee bit o’ trauma!”

“I think you owe me a hot guy dream,” Verona told Alpeana.

“That’s th’ province o’ some ither bloke.  We barely talk any.”

“That’s a thing?” Avery asked.

“‘E’s not in Kennet, but he’ll come by ‘ere and thar.”

“Can we put in an order, do you think you could pass something on?” Avery asked.

“Ah’ve enough tae do, lassie!  I gave ye yer gifts, dinnae ah?  Ye’re makin’ healthy use o’ it, lest few nights.  Yi’ll want me tae keep arranging these?”

“Be nice to the poor overworked nightmare,” Chloe said, walking over to wrap Alpeana in a hug.  Alpeana, a foot shorter than Chloe, face pressed against Chloe’s fluffy pink sweater, glared over the protrusion of Chloe’s chest with one dark eye, still clearly huffy.

“We’re done, by the way, I think,” Lucy told Alpeana.  “We’re done?”

“I wanted to get that off my chest, make sure things were clear, if we didn’t know what we knew now about Maricica, we might’ve sounded you out about the direction things are going.”

“Sorry it took a few days,” Avery said.

“It’s been hectic.  It’s cool,” Nibble said.

Alpeana dissolved into a morass of hair, escaping Chloe’s hug.  She stalked over, her hair and arms extending out to grab at Verona’s wrist, then Lucy’s.  Avery got the hair grabbing at her arm.  “Ah’ve got more tae do, let’s go.  I’m behind.”

“So grumpy,” Verona poked her.

“Ah am, fer good reason!”

“How’d things go with that one kid you’re trying to give the recurring nightmare to?”

“Lil’ rat bas!  Went tae a sleep clinic, ah couldnae follow ‘im thar!”

“Recurring nightmare?” Avery asked.  “Maybe he deserves a pass?”

“Rat bas was at a rope swing, lassie beside him haudin’ th’ rope, aye?”  Alpeana spun the story and moved hair, creating two silhouettes of a boy and a girl standing on the cliff’s edge, girl holding the rope.  “He gives ‘er a push, is a’ ‘go already!'”

The boy pushed the girl off.  She didn’t hold onto the rope.

“Oh no,” Avery said.

“Skinned ‘er legs from knee tae toe, cricked ‘er knee.  ‘N’ she dinnae say a word ’bout him pushin’ her.  Is eatin’ him up, the guilt.”

“Maybe the sleep clinic will lead to him explaining why he can’t sleep?” Avery suggested.

“Thas’ no good tae me, issit!?” Alpeana raised her voice.  “Wha’s th’ good o’ that, aye!?”

“He’d get better?” Avery suggested.

“Better, ohhhh, good fer him, aye!?  Wha’s th’ good fur me, lassie!?  Wha’s th’ good for the oot cauld expanse, oh?  What do ye say t’ tha’?”

“I don’t understand half of what you’re saying or why you’re upset,” Avery admitted.

“Then maybe hold yer cheek an’ let me be, aye?”

“I think we’re just agitating Alpy more,” Lucy said.  “We should go, I guess?”

“Aye.”

“Can we stay?” Chloe asked.  “Nibble and me?  Is that okay?  This is… this is a nicer moment than we’ve had in a long time.”

“That costs!” Alpeana griped, wheeling on them.  “If it’s for all’ye here then I can make tha expense, but for jus’ you two?”

Chloe pressed her hands together, pleading.

“Bah!  Ye owe me!”

“Thank you!” Chloe called out.  “You’re lovely!”

“Bah!”

They stalked their way to the cliff’s edge.  The boy’s silhouette was still there.  Alpeana shoved him off the edge, as if to vent frustration.  Then she threw the three of them over the edge too.

They descended from the nightmare toward waking.

“Sorry, about Maricica,” Avery said.

“She dinnae tell me.  Ah’m I so useless?”

“You’re strong,” Verona said, experimenting with trying to fly again and only getting some more centipedes.  “I think Maricica is just a jerk.”

“It sucks when your friend is a jerk,” Avery said.

“Verona,” Lucy said.

“Hey!”

“I meant my old friend Olivia,” Avery said.  “You deserved better, Alpy.  Let us know if there’s anything we can do to help make it easier, or if you want company.”

“Ye’d jus’ get in th’ way.”

“Maybe, but you’d have company at least,” Lucy said.

“Aye.  Thanks, lassies, but get on with ye.  Those two back there might be okay if this goes on bu’ ah’m not, aye?  Fix it!  Tha’s all I need.”

“We’ll try.”

“Aye.”

Then, as they fell, Verona could feel a hand shoving her.  Separating her and Lucy from Avery, while separating her from Lucy by a fraction.

She woke up in the cot.

“Five in the morning,” Lucy murmured, staring up at the ceiling.

“Do you think she’s waking us up earlier and earlier as a subtle way of making us want to do this less frequently?”

“We gotta, though,” Lucy said.  “We’re grounded, it’s the only mostly-reliable way to talk to the people we need to talk to.”

“Yeah,” Verona said.  “I’m doing shrines this morning?”

“Yup.”

“I’ll go now, while it’s dark.  More comfy that way, and cooler out.”

“If you say so.”

Verona got up, and started pulling on clothes for the hike.

“I’ve got Dr. Mona this morning,” Lucy said.

“Okay.  Do you need me to stay out or…?”

“You’ll be back before I’m on, I think.  Just a reminder.”

“Right on,” Verona said, hiking up some denim shorts and doing them up.  “A week and five days.”

“Yep.”

“Okay,” Verona said, mostly to herself.  Keeping everything straight in her mind.  “Can you do up my silence runes?  I’m still gainsaid.”

“Ugh.  Yeah,” Lucy said.  “Pass me the paper.”

🟂

“Can you do up this zipper?” Lucy asked.

“Ooh la la,” Verona said, feigning a bit more excitement than she was feeling.  It was cool that Lucy was excited and happy, but the whole being grounded thing was wearing on her in a big way, and Lucy was getting her escape.

Which, again, was great, but

Which wasn’t to say it wasn’t good or cool, and she was happy for her friend, but

And so it went.  It wasn’t helped by the fact that she’d fallen asleep at midnight and woken up at five and she felt so ground down that ten full hours might not have felt like enough.  She was tired and it had chased her across the day, and now she was pushing herself because Lucy deserved good cheer and focus.

Verona smiled as Lucy posed.  “That is legitimately a great look for you.  The gold fits with the earring too.”

The dress had thin bands of gold and thick bands of electric blue and black and left the arms and back bare.  The zipper went up at an angle and then turned to go to the back of the neck.

“I wore this to graduation from middle school.  Do you think Wallace remembers?”

“I think he might.  But I think that’s okay.”

“It’s not too much?”

“I think… knowing as little as I do about dates, that a date consisting of fast food, ice creams, and a movie warrants you being about twenty five to forty percent more than you are on the everyday.  Which is tough, because you set a high bar.”

“This feels like… seventy five percent more than my usual.”

“Nah, not that much more.  Fifty to sixty?”

“So it is too much.”

“Maybe!  Yeah, I guess.”

Lucy smiled, winked, and then hurried to get into her closet.  She shucked off the dress.

“You don’t want to be late, Lucy!” her mom called out.  “It’s about time!”

“I know!”

“You, Wallace, Mia, Amadeus, Emerson, and Xavier?” Verona asked, not for the first time.

“Yyyyep.  I feel like there’s pressure to perform.”

“Those other four you’re going with are popular-ish in our grade, but they’re not royalty.”

“Could’ve been you and Jeremy.”

“Not really?” Verona replied.  “Let’s not get into that.”

“Okay, sorry,” Lucy said, as she changed.  “Please tell me this works.”

It was a red dress with a pattern that faded into existence toward the bottom.  A looser, summery fit that wasn’t what Lucy normally wore.  Lucy put a belt around her waist, then turned around, posing a bit.

“That’s a ten out of ten in my books, and you know I can’t lie without paying a price I’m not happy paying,” Verona said.

Lucy flashed a brilliant smile.  “How’s my makeup?”

“Solid.  Eight out of ten for me, but I don’t think a guy like Wallace will notice the little things I’m noticing.”

“Ugh.  You’re so picky.”

“And you’re getting honest answers out of me.”

“Hair?” Lucy asked.

“It looks really nice,” Verona said.  Lucy’s hair was down, with two braids helping to keep it manageable.  “Really really nice.  Your mom did a good job.”

It was like Lucy had been bound up tight and ready to fight and through hard work and a lot of anxiety she was letting that guard down and relaxing some.  It showed in her posture and how she held her shoulders, and it showed on her face.

If Wallace was anything worth a damn he’d see that on Lucy’s face and it would be more magical than anything, because it kind of broke Verona’s heart in a good way when she saw it.  Damn it, Wallace had better appreciate how important that was.

Darn it.

Verona wondered if this was a bit of how a parent felt seeing their kid go off on a date, worrying that the date could make their child’s week or utterly destroy them, depending on the little things.

“Shoes, shoes shoes shoes.”

“Sandals?” Verona suggested.

“Maybe!”

Jasmine called out.  “Lucy!  I think they just pulled up out front!  Let me see what you’re wearing!”

“Damn it, darn it.  Should I bring some basic emergency practice stuff?”

“I would.”

“So probably not, huh?” Lucy asked.  “Kidding!”

“Ha ha.  Here.  Bring something.”

“I don’t have pockets.”

“Tuck some spell cards into the side of your underwear, maybe?”

“I’m not you, Verona,” Lucy said.  She held up some sandals.

“Those are good.”

“Call if you need help.”

“Got it.  I’ve got a little bag, actually.  Bottom drawer, over there-”

Verona grabbed it.  She put some spell cards and the necklace with the weapon ring and tags in there, then grabbed some of the makeup stuff that Lucy had used and put that in too, along with some hygiene stuff.

Lucy pulled the sandals on, double checked what Verona had packed for her, gave Verona a look, and then zipped it closed.

Verona followed her down the stairs, and stayed on the stairs, halfway down, looking as Jasmine and Lucy had their moment, Jasmine fussing and taking a quick picture, while Lucy groaned.

The nightmare sat heavy in Verona’s mind.  It wasn’t just Alpeana’s fault.  Too many times, she’d watched from the stairs of her own house as her dad had come in.  She’d felt that sinking feeling.

“Love you, wishing you lots of fun,” Verona said, as Lucy went to the door.

Lucy turned and looked like she was going to say something.

“Don’t say it.  Or I’ll get snippy and it’ll be something annoying or frustrated that sends you off,” Verona said.

“Right.  Love you, bye.  Thanks for the help with the clothes.  Thanks for the help with hair, Mom.”

Then Lucy was gone, meeting Wallace halfway across the lawn.

“She wanted you to go so badly,” Jasmine said.

“I know. I really do.  But the guy I’d ask…”

“Not a good guy?”

“He’s my favorite guy, or he’s pretty up there.  But I can’t do that to him.  He likes me more than I think I can ever like him.”

“Have you communicated that?”

“I thought I did, and I thought I told Lucy but in moments like this she seems to forget.  Or wants to forget.”

“I could talk to her about that.”

“Maybe.”

“Do you think you could have taken another guy?”

“I couldn’t do that to Jeremy either.  I don’t want to be rude or anything, but I sorta went over this with Lucy and I’m a little peeved she’s not getting it, so maybe… let’s not talk about it for right now?”

“Sounds tricky.  If you ever do want to talk about it, I’ll do my best to listen.”

Verona shrugged.  “Maybe.  Thanks.”

“What are you up to while my daughter’s out?”

“Reading, I guess.  Someone helped us out during the summer thing at the start of the year, so I’m trying to help her organize these documents for her work, it’s pretty boring so I think I’m not breaking the spirit of being grounded.  Is that okay?”

“Okay.  That sounds positive.  I’ll be down here or in the back yard if you get bored of reading.  We’ll order in?”

Verona nodded.

Jasmine went outside, and Verona lingered for a second.

It wasn’t just that this was one of those times she really felt like a stranger in this house, or that she felt like a stranger in general.  It was that the specter of her dad lingered in the hallway, an impression in a nightmare that followed her into the waking present.  Like her mind wouldn’t let go of the idea that this was temporary.  This ended.  Less than two weeks.  The reality of that felt heavier than it had a few nights ago.

A quiet desperation chased her thoughts and emotions this way and that, as she tried to process that, tried to think of an escape hatch or solution that would let her dodge that somehow.

A whole load of connection blockers, maybe.

Frigging Alpeana.

Frigging Wallace.  Frigging Lucy.  How in the world did it make sense that a boy Lucy barely knew could spark that kind of genuine nothing-held-back smile, so easily, and Verona couldn’t?  Magic couldn’t?

Frigging… all that stuff they’d said about her and Jeremy, and how unfair it was to Jeremy, and poor Jeremy, he’d get his heart broken.

A hypothetical thing with Wallace that hadn’t happened yet was enough to get Lucy to smile like she almost never did and a real thing with Jeremy that Verona was trying her best at just got pooh-poohed and dismissed.  Blah.

She retreated into the room, and spent about fifteen minutes staring at Nicolette’s thing and utterly failing to make any headway.  She’d already done a hundred and fifty pages earlier in the day, so it wasn’t like she’d failed entirely.  It was just right now that it wasn’t working.

She collapsed on her cot, springs squeaking, and texted Jeremy:

Me:
Heya

The response was pretty quick:

Jeremy:
heya
my best friend and your best friend are out on dates huh?

Me:
Yup.  I’m grounded and bored.

She hoped that mentioning she was grounded would forestall any hurt over the fact she hadn’t asked him for the triple-date thing, without leading him on or anything.

Jeremy:
Grounded why?

Me:
Stayed out past curfew chasing faeries and nearly getting dragged into the fae realms.

Jeremy:
oh no
that sounds like a night.  tell me about it sometime
will pictures of Sir make things better???

She spammed a stream of consciousness of various emoji at him until the pictures started coming in.  She cooed at the pictures out loud and in texts.

In the midst of it all, tired and on the cusp of maybe falling asleep wayyyyy too early, the texts changed color and a large block of text appeared in the middle of the screen.  It took her tired brain a second to realize it wasn’t Jeremy who’d texted her.

Nicolette:
Heads up.  Be on your guard.  Someone just seeded some info to key people about Alexander Belanger’s circumstances of death.  Word is getting around, the last few pieces are being connected.

Nicolette:
Ray just told Zed 1-2 minutes ago that he really wants to talk to Charles and you three.  He knew but now he thinks he has to do something about it.

Verona tried to think about what to type, and the words eluded her.  She checked and realized the message had gone out to Lucy and Avery as well.  It was interrupting Lucy’s date.

Nicolette sent another message:

Nicolette:
Be ready.


Previous Chapter

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False Moves – 12.3

Lucy

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“I hereby open the discussion on the matter of Maricica’s exile from Kennet,” Toadswallow declared.  “Maricica has guided stranger Others in past our perimeter, fed them partial information, and those selfsame Others have worked against Kennet’s Others and practitioners.  Maricica herself has worked against Kennet’s citizens, raising suspicion and threatening what our council and collective are trying to accomplish.”

Some of the newly arrived Others were settling in.  Jabber.  Alpeana.  Nibble and Chloe were back, and they’d brought Montague.

No Charles.  It seemed like Edith was being left alone with just the Sable’s binding, which was supposed to be enough.

Even with something as important as the Sable backing the cage, the promise that the binding would hold up to just about anything, and the idea that anything strong enough to break it down could destroy Kennet anyway, it felt bad to Lucy, leaving Edith like that.  Unguarded on a trying night.

Toadswallow looked around the group.  “We must move with care.  The glitterpriss has dealt with all of us and if she is indeed against us, then we have to reconsider every interaction she’s had with us.  But by doing that, we open ourselves up to vulnerability, further manipulation, and schemes.  With your permission, as your elected head, I’ll guide this discussion past that for the now.  This is not a time for condemnation or holding a trial by proxy.  This isn’t a time for panic, or twisting ourselves in knots.  Agreed?”

There were nods all around.

“We hold her in exile until such a time as she brings herself to us for explanation and discussion.  Should she do so, we safely take her into our custody, sequester her temporarily, get the answers we need, and then decide as a group what we’ll do.  If she won’t bring herself to us or tries to approach the most vulnerable of us to win people to her side or twist future proceedings, she has to be considered a danger.  Is there any objection?  Would anyone here, practitioner or Other, wish for different treatment?”

He went one by one, checking with a pointed finger.  Each person murmured a negation or shook their heads.

Avery nudged Lucy.  Lucy followed Avery’s gaze to Alpeana.  The Nightmare looked sad.

Yeah.  Alpeana had known Maricica for a little longer than Lucy had known Verona, if Lucy had her timelines right.  They’d been companions, keeping each other company and sharing a space.  Even a nightmare like Alpeana needed someone to confide in and it sure seemed like Maricica had been that someone.  A big sister figure, maybe.

That was a thing, wasn’t it?  That things were so interconnected that any betrayal, big or small, was something that hit a lot of people really hard.

Toadswallow got to Lucy.  She shook her head.  Avery, to Lucy’s left, said, “No.  I think it’s fair.”

Toadswallow continued, “Then I’ll tell every Other and practitioner here, you should apprehend her without undue violence, and then give her the option of coming to us to explain.  The other option is to offer to bring her to us for discussion, and if she refuses, you may then turn to any necessary violence to apprehend her or drive her back into exile.  Use your best judgment, or the judgment of smarter or senior Others on the scene.  Newcomers, that means listening to those who’ve been around longer, unless you have good reason to believe they’re playing into the Carmine Conspiracy.”

There were nods all around.

“I’ll ask those here for your thoughts.  Guilherme, you knew her best,” Toadswallow said.

“To my detriment,” Guilherme sighed.  “Our newcomers haven’t seen her do much more than humiliate herself and humiliate other Fae by association, and I’m unsure if those of us who have known her since she came to Kennet are especially impressed either.  Maricica’s primary duty has been to deflect, distract, and confound.  On nine major occasions and an uncountable number of lesser ones, Maricica has averted threats that the non-Fae in our midst would have struggled to stop or turn back…”

He paused, looking around to make sure he had people’s attention.

Yet,” Guilherme put emphasis on the word.  “Each major occasion has left me confident and comfortable in my assertion that it could have been done better, or that she had other goals in mind.  Always insufficient in some way, always subversive, always in ways that test Kennet.  She arranged the final blow to the Witch Hunter, but she guided him toward our more vulnerable Others before that.  Many were hurt, including Nibble and Chloe, and several goblins were killed.  She was wounded trying to stop the glamour-drowned Daniel Alitzer, but I’m of the belief she did this to drop into the background and withdraw her aid, letting her ideological opponents within Kennet’s council do the fighting and tire themselves out, while she maneuvered-”

“I take it you vote for exile?” Toadswallow asked.

Guilherme held up a hand, which made Toadswallow frown, annoyed.  “What comes next is relevant.  A man of unnatural beauty was spotted by Lis, having bystanders do the task of filling up his car and paying for his gas.  The beauty came from a place outside of Lis’s reach, impossible to emulate, so Lis went to Maricica for assistance, Maricica turned the man away.  I do not think this man is gone.”

“Was he the Faerie?” Lucy asked.  “Finnea?”

“Not a Fae.  Some practitioners turn their talents toward refining their selves.  Some do it for longevity, as Matthew’s father did, but others do it for other advantages.  Matthew might know more than I do.”

“We’re getting sidetracked, you oaf,” Toadswallow said.  “The longer you go on and on, the longer Maricica isn’t in exile.”

“If we don’t discuss this now there may never be a more opportune time.  Everyone is gathered.”

“Then pick an inopportune time!” Toadswallow told him.  “Put your thoughts to paper while you’re pinching a log free from between your overly chiseled buttcheeks and then fiercely fart the papers out the window to find their designated recipients.  Find a way, you’re not that dumb.”

“Faerie do not tend to ever pass gas, Toadswallow,” Guilherme said.

“Stuff enough glamour up your arse and I’m sure you can accomplish it.  It might help you be less uptight, if you aren’t packing in decades’ worth of flatulence.”

Goblins in the crowd hollered and shouted encouragement.

Matthew cleared his throat loudly, as he got to his feet and walked to the center of the group, placing himself firmly between Guilherme and Toadswallow.  “I think we’re really getting sidetracked with that.  I’ll be brief.”

“Please,” Toadswallow said, like he hadn’t been contributing as much disruption as Guilherme.

“Practitioners can do what you talk about.  The Hyde types of Alchemist accomplish it with chemical treatments, and then there are Egoists who, like Heartless pare away ugliness or pare away weakness to turn much of their practice inward.  Lis and Maricica told Edith and I about the beautiful man and I checked in on one individual I knew who had apparently interacted with him.  I don’t think he’s human anymore.”

Lucy glanced to her right as Verona put her hand up.

“Yes?” Matthew asked, as Toadswallow sighed in the background.

“Why do you think he’s not human anymore?”

“There’s a tell.  I asked the woman, she comes into my store sometimes, she helped build the addition where we have kayaks and canoes, did she think he could have been a model?  She said he was too attractive to be a regular old model.  Those who find power or beauty or whatever else by practice or by their Other abilities often find innocent things put beyond their reach.  Politics, acting, work that would leverage those traits.  A man this beautiful could, I assume, become the husband of royalty and avoid most public events, existing more as rumor than reality, enjoying the luxury, but he could not easily find the public eye even if he sought it.  Sometimes their beauty is captured in the moment but it curdles in retrospect, sometimes it’s something more specific, like being the opposite of photogenic, appearing ugly in photos and videos.  These things hold them back when circumstances alone aren’t enough to.  In much the same way, a Heartless practitioner that achieves immortality may find that any fortunes tied directly to them age in a way they don’t.  Those fortunes will slip away from them if they have to withstand any scrutiny from innocents.  Heartless will tend to put their fortunes into art collections and obscure ventures.”

He was getting sidetracked by Verona now, Lucy noted.  Not that Verona was complaining.  Even though she looked like she’d just gotten over the flu, Verona was paying rapt attention.

Lucy didn’t want to interrupt but she did want to get home, rather badly.  She felt antsy, as this drew on, and it was weird to be on the same page as Toadswallow.

“Point is, he’s an Other now?” Toadswallow asked.

“Right.  Probably,” Matthew said.  “I think so.  Or he’s firmly in that territory.”

“And he’s around, you think, you glittering oaf?”

“Yes, I’ve seen signs of people who’ve crossed paths with him, I think he’s dwelling in a location a few hours away.  Just far enough he could come if signaled, not so far that our usual patrols or searches would turn him up.  Maricica may have guided him there.  There are others.  Fauna Ephemera.”

Verona’s hand went up.

“Don’t annoy Toad too much,” Lucy whispered.

“It’s better to know now, isn’t it?” Verona whispered back.  “Toad?  A question for Guilherme.”

“Must we?” Toadswallow asked Verona.

Verona nodded.  “What are Fauna Emepher-”

“Ephemera,” Guilherme said.  “Fauna Ephemera.”

“Make it brief, Guilherme,” Toadswallow said, before leaning over to whisper something to Miss.

“Fauna Ephemera are Fae-adjacent works.  Wildlife cultivated to exist for a few glorious years as living pieces of art.  Fae seek beauty and beauty-”

“Is this brief?” Toadswallow asked.

“It will be briefer if you permit me to talk.  Can I suggest, Toadswallow, that you relieve yourself of gas, as you were so recently hinting about, in hopes you mightn’t be so cranky afterward?  And allow me to talk?”

Toadswallow made a face.  The fart came out as a long, high-pitched squeal.

“I meant it as a jibe.”

“Carry on,” Toadswallow grunted out the words, the squeal gaining new dimensions every second or two.

Guilherme opened his mouth to talk, but as he was about to start, the noise Toadswallow was making changed pitch and volume.  Guilherme shifted position, opened his mouth to start again, and the noise changed again, to something staccato.

“Is this productive?” Matthew asked.

Lucy had to hold herself back from flipping out on everyone involved.  Her mom had been threatened, and now this was dragging out in this juvenile way that even Guilherme was absolutely contributing to.

She started counting to ten, picking her words carefully well before saying it, because she was upset enough that she would probably say something regrettable if she really went all out.  The fart was probably annoying her more than it was annoying Guilherme at this point.

Toadswallow, one eye half closed, as if he was in the midst of a stroke, stomped one foot three times against the ground, punctuating the sound.  “Over the long term.  Perhaps I can train Guilherme in matters of- unh.  Brevity!

Just as Lucy was about to speak up and say something, Guilherme continued, not really rushing, either.  “Fae keep the beasts in gardens and glades.  Occasional beauty to fill spaces where perpetual beauty would be too much detailed crammed into a space.  Fae and the Fae adjacent may keep them as decoration and security.  They may have been tied to Finnea.”

“Finnea seemed more… aristocratic?  Court-focused?  Does that make sense?” Lucy asked.  “A city Fae more than a nature fae?”

“You are very right,” Guilherme said, “but seemed is dangerous when it comes to Fae.  The beasts were crossbreeds between dark summer, dark fall, and the pups had crossbred with mundane earth animals of their ilk.  If they aren’t Finnea’s, whoever owned and nurtured them died and they moved on to new pastures.  Chasing the smell of carmine blood, I imagine.  I sent them scurrying back in the direction of the Faewilds, but after the fact, Maricica made hints she knew about them.”

“You didn’t tell us?” Matthew asked.

“If I was meant to tell you about every arcane hint Maricica left, we could be here all night, and Toadswallow might injure himself.  These are the details and events that stand out in retrospect, with the new information we have about her.  There are others, but I won’t torture Toadswallow any longer.”

Toadswallow wrapped up, terminating the fart with a fluttering, flatulent sound.  “I’m afraid, dear Guilherme, that I’m still cranky after all of that.”

“Alas,” Guilherme said.

Lucy twitched with irritation.  Her home had been violated, her mom had been threatened, and all of this had a way of feeling like salt in the wound.

She just wanted it over with.  She didn’t want to play into it, and she knew that if she responded in a way that drove a wedge in between herself and the Others, it would probably be to Maricica’s benefit more than anything.

“What do we need to know about the animals?” Avery asked.

More questions, more delays, more digressions.

“For animals they are short lived and intense.  They tend to accompany rather than exist independently, which is part of why this group of Fauna Ephemera has multiple species all keeping one another company.  They are happiest and healthiest if there is one Fae they surround and work with, or one magical or important fixture in a location they can frame.  A nature-themed Fae lord may have such animals lounging on and around the throne, for example.  If you encounter them, expect them to be vicious, crafty, and coordinated, with a flair for the dramatic.  Their senses are sharp and penetrate most things like your connection blockers, glamours, and other things that would divert them from their course.  Depending on their caretaker, they may be empowered, augmented, or trained with other talents.”

Avery nodded.

“If she’s sending birds out,” Guilherme said, “I suspect the beautiful man and the fauna emphemera are among the targets.  Or she’ll work with them directly.”

“Alpeana?” Toadswallow asked.  Lucy privately winced, hoping this wouldn’t lead to so many tangents.

Alpeana’s accent was thick, made thicker by the emotion in her voice.  “Och, aye.  Ah’m heartbroken, I considered her a friend.  Ah’m feart ah’ahent much help.  A’ve been too busy tae pay attention ‘n ah’m not th’ type to plook thae things anyhow.”

“Tell us if you think of anything,” Toadswallow said.

“Aye.  I’ll agree tae th’ exile, if she has th’ chance tae make her case.”

“I’d imagine she’d try to reach out to you,” Matthew told Alpeana.

“Aye.  Ah hope ‘n dread it.  Hope tha’ she’s friend enough, dread about wha’ I’d say.”

“Anyone else?” Toadswallow asked.  “Relevant information, before we hold any vote.”

Miss stepped forward, hands in her pockets, foliage blocking her face.

“Miss.  Welcome back, by the by.”

“Thank you.  Toadswallow, you were something of a friend to Maricica.”

“Spurious allegations!” Toadswallow exclaimed.  “I put up with her.”

“More than you’ve put up with others,” Miss said.  “I know she’s shopped on your behalf when you were preoccupied with other matters, and she requested that you purchase a splinter of abyssal wood, which you did, and you were paid for the delivery with a curse that you used to empower one of your creations.”

I’m so not in a mood for goblin and faerie hijinks right now, Lucy thought, thumbs hooked into her pockets, hands balling up into fists.

This is important, she told herself, while goblins hissed and jeered.

“Are you jockeying for my position as head of Kennet, Miss?” Toadswallow asked.

“No, I’m not.”

“You lay these things at my feet, but there was more to it.  Context!”

“Semantics!” Tatty chimed in.

It seemed Tatty was trying to get in Toad’s good books.  Lucy was doing everything short of literally biting her own tongue, while this went on.

“Nonetheless,” Miss said, calm.  “You knew her, you were close to her in a way.  Do you know anything by some odd angle that might shed light on who she is and what she’s doing?”

“Hharrumph,” Toadswallow grunted out the sound.

“I have to ask,” Miss said.

“I’ve dealt with many Faerie,” Toadswallow said, before turning to the goblins who were chattering on the sidelines.  “Dealt with!  Messed up, fought, evaded, confounded, annoyed.  I’ve made many of them miserable.”

“As I can testify.” Guilherme’s voice was dry, idly amused.

Guilherme agreeing with Toadswallow hurt more than it helped, as far as the various goblins and their upset went.  It felt like another second of delay when Lucy wanted to be gone already, already talking to her mom.

“Don’t need your help!  I know Faerie better than a lot of goblins, as awful as it can be, and I use that knowledge against most.  To answer your question, Miss, yeah.  Yeah, I’ve dealt with a lot of Faerie and she’s an odd one.  She’s after something and I don’t know what.  Might be good to search her part of the cave, see if there are any clues.”

“That’s all?” Miss asked.

“She’d ask me for things she couldn’t get so easily when she slipped back home to check in and keep plates spinning.  Here and there, she’d use one thing from some odd realm to mask her trail or bait a practitioner into a trap.  If we search her cave we might find some of that.  If this proceeding doesn’t take too long.”

“Very well,” Miss said.

“Next is-”

“No,” Lucy said, going from leaning against a tree with hands in her pockets to taking a few abrupt steps forward, hands clenched.  Then, because virtually anything else she said might cause problems, she just said, “Please.”

All eyes were on her.

She was tired, upset, she was sore from running around, and she was sweaty.  Her mom had been threatened and she still hadn’t gotten the full story.

“Please… can we move this along?  I want to check on my mom,” she told the assembly, trying to keep her voice level.

“Any further input that is especially relevant?” Toadswallow asked, grumpy.  “No?  Then we’ll vote.  One by one, state your names clearly, your nature, and your vote clearly.  I, Sir Toadswallow, goblin, vote for exile.”

Lucy retreated, leaning against the tree.  Avery gave her arm a rub.

“I, the Lost who many of you have known for years as Miss, who has no true name, will vote for Exile.”

“I, Matthew Moss, host of the Doom of Edith James, vote for exile.”

“I, Alpeana, nightmare, vote for exile.”

Verona looked over at Tashlit and then at Montague.

“I, John Stiles, dog of war, vote for Maricica’s exile.”

“I, Nibble, original name forgotten, ghoul, vote for exile.”

“I, Chloe, ghoul, abstain.  My thoughts aren’t clear enough, can’t vote.”

“She put us in the line of fire,” Nibble said.  “Right?”

Guilherme nodded.

“I shouldn’t,” Chloe said, quiet.  “Go ahead.”

“Very well,” Toadswallow said.  “A non-vote doesn’t stop this from being unanimous.  Next.”

Eyes went to the radio Montague inhabited.  It crackled, buzzing.  “A pretty face –kkt– must go!  Clearan–”

“A vote for exile from Montague,” Toadswallow verbalized.

The votes continued.  Guilherme and two-thirds of the goblins took a turn, unanimous.

“I, the Oni who is currently going by Crooked Rook, will vote for exile.”

“I, the piecemeal person known going by Reggie, also Reagan, also Collins, also Gabriel, vote for exile.”

Tashlit.  She tapped Verona’s hip and Verona passed her one of the elemental Dropped Knives.  Tashlit pricked a thumb, then gave the thumbs down.

“Exile?” Toadswallow asked, as the blood welled.

Tashlit nodded.  The droplet fell to ground.

“So accepted.  The blood is Tashlit’s, god-begotten.”

“I, goblin, current name Bluntmunch, sanitized for children, vote for exile.  I’d rather do worse to her.”

“Exile for now,” Toadswallow said.  “A band-aid over the damage and some minor safeguards.”

“Gashwad, goblin, exile,” Gashwad snarled.

“Cherrypop, goblin, get ‘er gone!” Cherrypop piped up.

“Snowdrop, I’m not an opossum spirit or boon companion, I’m not a part of Kennet, I can’t vote for Exile.”

Peckersnot was on Verona’s shoulder, wheezing periodically, still cut up from head to toe with claw marks.  He nipped his thumb and gave the thumbs down.

“Verona Hayward, practitioner.  Exile.  Sorry we couldn’t get her.”

“We couldn’t get her either, and we had her surrounded,” Toadswallow said.

“Lucy Ellingson, practitioner.  I vote for exile.  As one step in a process, I hope.”

“Ideally,” Toadswallow grunted.

“I, Avery Kelly, Finder, vote for exile.  Let’s keep protecting Kennet as best as we can.”

“Protect all of us,” Toadswallow said.  “The terms are set, the deals arranged.  No succor-”

Goblins giggled.

“-no hospitality, no support or refuge.  She doesn’t belong here any more.  Who has tonight’s patrols?” Toadswallow asked.

“We did our afternoon patrol earlier,” Lucy said.

“I do,” Guilherme said.  Nibble and Chloe raised claws.

“Tell the spirits at the shrines?” Toadswallow asked.  “Montague, we’ll have you give the barrier a jolt.  A bit of a kick in the pants for any intruders.  Try to get a feel for things, report back to us about the barrier’s nature?”

“I’ll have to leave before then,” Miss said.  “Can we arrange a strict schedule for Montague?  I’ll leave Kennet while he works, time patrols and diversions for then.”

“A strict schedule ties our hands,” Toadswallow said.

“I’ll put in the effort to try to compensate for that, finding potential intruders drawing closer, spying on them, finding ways to move them on their way,” Miss said.  “I’m good at this, Toad, you know this.”

“I do,” Toadswallow said.  “But that’s focused on the outside.  Inside, the wraiths and spirits keep appearing.  Sometimes it’s easier to push the innocents indoors and churn up the immaterial landscape.”

“You are the head of Kennet,” Miss said.  “If that’s your decision-”

“It’s not,” Toadswallow said.  “But be aware.  We’ll all have to work harder to keep the town safe.”

There were nods of heads and agreements.  Lucy couldn’t help but notice the new Others were a little less sure.

They didn’t know Miss, so they didn’t know what she brought to the table.

This felt shaky.

“Lis,” Toadswallow said.

“Can we make this fast?” Lucy asked.

“Same terms.  She can come back, but only if she faces us and answers questions.  She may be innocent, but she has to testify and explain what she knows.  We know she worked with Edith and kept secrets on her behalf.  We suspect but cannot one hundred percent verify that she was working with Maricica as well.  Her sponsors were Maricica and John.  Maricica is gone.  John?”

“She did good work as a protector of Kennet, as far as I saw.  We got along but she still chose to associate with Edith and Maricica more than with me.  I don’t know if it was because I remind her of parts of herself she dislikes, or if she was going to Edith because Edith was one of the heads of Kennet at the time.  I’d vote for exile, as long as she has room to return by coming to us and explaining.”

“The sponsors were always meant to know the new Others best.  Their time here was looser and less formalized,” Toadswallow said.  “If there isn’t a resounding outcry, we’ll take John’s recommendation.”

There wasn’t a resounding outcry.

“Do you have the writ of invitation?” Toadswallow asked.

“I do,” Matthew said.  He opened a binder and pulled out a piece of paper.  It was marked with a signature and blood at the bottom.

“Writ of invitation rescinded,” Toadswallow said.  “By the rules set by our council.”

He tore the paper, then let the two halves drop.  As they settled on damp mud, they absorbed the mud and damp faster than even paper towel would have.  They quickly disintegrated to nothing.

Lucy prepared to go, picking up her bag where it sat by her feet.

“There’s also the matter of Cig,” Toadswallow said.

Lucy stopped.  Right.  Cig.  Frig.

“Bound,” Verona said.  “Same suspicions as with Lis.”

“We haven’t questioned him or anything yet,” Lucy admitted.  This was annoying, because she knew that it was wrong to keep him confined in an unjust way, but also- she didn’t want to be here right now.  She was spent, she wanted her mom, her patience was thinner than anything.

“Sponsored by Edith and myself,” Matthew said.  “Would you release Cig into my custody?”

It would be so easy to say yes.  It felt wrong to say yes, just like that.

“We could release him into the custody of Kennet as a whole,” Lucy said.

“You don’t trust me?” Matthew asked.

Lucy shook her head.  Her emotions were in the way of her thoughts, for once, and she had to take a few seconds, staring at the ground, to form the response.  She hated taking those seconds.  “When we bound him we did it with permission, but we also took responsibility for him.  I think it’s best if we act with as much caution as possible.  It’s not that I barely trust you, but I barely trust anyone all on their own to take care of him and keep him secure.  Someone like Maricica could swoop in or try something, or stuff could go wrong.”

“Right,” Matthew said, in a tone that made her wonder if her intentions had come across the way she’d wanted.

“Miss?” Avery asked.  “Toadswallow?  Would you two join Matthew in looking after Cig?”

“What’s the long term plan?” Miss asked.

“Questioning him takes time, doesn’t it?” Verona asked.

“If it isn’t yes or no answers, yes,” Matthew replied.

“Plus we’d need to draw a diagram if we’re moving him out of the bottle.  Is it okay to keep him confined for tonight?  And we handle that tomorrow?  Then decide?”

“If we must,” Matthew said, as Miss said, “Yes.”

Toadswallow followed up with a, “Yes.”

Okay, good.

It felt better that three people were making the call than one.  Lucy wasn’t sure why that was so important.

“That handles the things I think we need to handle promptly,” Toadswallow said. “We should make sure we’re all on the same page, discuss plans and priorities for the coming two weeks-”

Fuck.  I want to check on my mom, Toadswallow,” Lucy said, more insistent, patience wearing thin.  “Please.

“Of course,” Toadswallow said.  “Of course, yes, that’s your prerogative.”

“It’s not a prerogative!  It’s basic decency, I’ve held back, I’ve asked politely, and you’re ignoring it-!”

Avery touched Lucy’s arm.

Lucy held herself back.

“I’m sorry,” Toadswallow said, ducking his head down.  “We’re a largely motherless lot, us Others.  It’s easy to be insensitive, I’ve fallen into that trap just now.”

“I can stay,” Avery said.  “I don’t really want to go home right away anyway.  I’ll report back, if that’s okay?  If you guys trust me to mostly handle what you would, if you were here?  You guys go.”

“Thank you,” Lucy said.  “If that’s okay?”

“More than,” Toadswallow said.

Lucy nodded quickly.  “Thanks for the backup, guys.  Sorry this Maricica thing was a bust.”

“Be well, we’ll be in touch.”

Lucy nodded quickly again.

She escaped the scene, striding away, an ill Verona following.

So much bureaucracy and decision-making, so much crap.  Frig.

Fucking going on forever, putting her and her wants secondary, when she’d been in the midst of it, when they’d been dealing with that, feeling like they were on the wrong side of everything, while some creepy otherworldly naked lady was doing something to her mom and she couldn’t do anything.

Fuck!  fuck!  She clenched her fists until her wrists and forearms hurt.

Verona trudged beside Lucy.  Lucy forced herself to slow down, seeing how Verona was.

“You okay?” Lucy asked.

“I’m freaking gainsaid for a big chunk of our very limited two weeks before the big deadline,” Verona said.

“But are you okay?”

“I guess?  Ugh.  I feel like I was just starting to get my momentum.”

“Okay.  Still on that.  But you took some alchemy and that affected you and-”

“I’m going to try something else next time.”

“Alright,” Lucy replied, feeling like she wanted to say a lot more.

“My muscles hurt, my stomach hurts, my brain hurts.  I’ve got to figure out a treat to give to the spirit of Long.  I wonder what he’d like.  Super-long spaghetti noodles?”

“Maybe.  Are you making noodles yourself?”

“I guess!” Verona replied.  She bumped shoulders with Lucy.  “You okay?  You seemed pretty ticked back there.”

“I just want to check on my mom.”

Verona nodded.  “Don’t walk slow on my account, then.  I’ll try and deal.”

Good enough.  Lucy stopped slowing down, striding forward.  She checked her phone, and there were six messages from her mom she hadn’t replied to.  She took the time to send something back:

Me:
On my way.  Sorry sorry sorry.

The reply was almost immediate:

Mom:
Where are you?  I’ll drive to pick you up.

Lucy hesitated, then provided the information.  By the river, west of Avery’s.

They hurried to get there, then waited.

“Two weeks,” Verona said.  “Avery said Ray wants to come see Charles.”

“We’ve got to talk to Charles.  I hope we’re not super grounded.”

“I guess we don’t need to catch and bind him, since he’s kind of bound anyway.  But yeah, that’s a thing we need to figure out,” Verona said.  “Would be weird if we’re like, hey, yeah, Ray, come on by, also, we arrested Charles.  Might get awkward to arrange if we’re grounded, too, and Ray can’t enter town.”

“Frig, my mom’s going to be so mad,” Lucy muttered.

“I’m figuring if I’m gainsaid and practice doesn’t work so hot, I’ll dig deep into the reading and stuff.  I figure Ave’s going to handle staying in touch with others.  Big things are maintaining the shrine visits and checking in with the other Others.”

“Can we not dwell on this?” Lucy asked.  “After tonight?  Feeling overloaded.”

“Okay,” Verona said.  “I- sorry.  Figured you liked being on task, you’re usually the mission person, so I thought that’d be good.”

“Not right now,” Lucy told her friend.  “No practice stuff, no deadline stuff?  At least for tonight?”

“Okay,” Verona said.

It felt like five minutes passed, but it was probably closer to one or two.  They didn’t talk.

Lucy couldn’t think of much to talk about that she wanted to talk about, and Verona wasn’t volunteering anything.  They sat on the grass by the sidewalk, heels dug into grass a bit down the slope, the river burbling, water level perilously low.  Sweat prickled on Lucy’s skin, even now that it was dark out and cooling off.

It was like all the alarm and intensity was dying down and her body could remind her about basic functions again.  Prickly skin, she had to pee, and emotions that weren’t the handful of ones she’d needed to hold onto to stay strong were creeping in.  Doubts, fears, feeling distracted, her disgust with the humid heat, the little annoyances.  A lot of those emotions were settling onto other thoughts, like her mom, and knowing she just wanted to go to her room and crash, and when she did it would be messy because Verona was there, and she loved Verona, really truly, but just thinking about that alone made her want to scream swear words at the night sky.

“You know your mom’s great, right?” Verona asked.

“What?  Yeah.”

“I mean like, she’s super, she’s cool, she might get mad but it’s a healthy mad, I think?  At least from the times she’s showed it.  My mom doesn’t show it and you know my dad, you know?”

“I still don’t want to upset her,” Lucy said.

“Neither do I!  I really don’t, I love your mom, she’s super, she- there have been times the alarm goes off and I’m like, ugh, I don’t want to hike it all the way to the shrines, but then your mom is like, one part of the reason I go, you know?  To protect Kennet’s people, because your mom is one of those people.”

“It’d be cool if she was someone you thought of first, instead of practice stuff.”

“The practice stuff is me thinking of her, I want to get stronger and better so I can help her and fight- I thought you didn’t want to talk about this stuff.”

“I don’t!” Lucy replied.

“Okay!” Verona replied, loud, exasperated.  “Sorry!  I don’t know what to do or say.”

There was another silence.  Lucy felt like she had a responsibility to fill it in.

Except she couldn’t figure out how, and then her mom arrived, headlights illuminating the slope.

Lucy got to her feet, helping Verona up.

The car door slammed, Lucy’s mom rounded the car, and Lucy collided with her as much as anything, hugging her tight.

“Are you two okay?” Lucy’s mom asked.

Lucy nodded, tearing up, face rubbing up against her mom’s ribs.

“Not feeling super hot,” Verona said.

“What part of you isn’t feeling well?”

“Stomach.  Headache.”

“Your usual stress stuff,” Lucy’s mom said.

Lucy didn’t hear a response, and wasn’t breaking the hug to look, so she had to assume Verona nodded.

“Why weren’t you answering your phones?”

“Phones weren’t working for a bit, and other stuff was going on?” Verona tried, sounding unsure.

“Really?  The phones weren’t working?” Lucy’s mom asked, voice hard.  “Why is Lucy this upset?  Why are you this stressed?”

“I don’t- I’m,” Verona stuttered.  Lucy couldn’t see Verona but she could imagine Verona withering.

“Well?”

“Stuff,” Verona said.

Stuff?  What stuff?”

“Mom,” Lucy said, hugging tighter before releasing a bit.  “Can we go home?”

“In the car.  Come on,” her mom said, breaking the hug.  Lucy looked up and saw her mom searching her with a gaze, studying her.

They climbed into the car.  Lucy in the passenger seat, Verona in the back.  Her mom started it up, but before shifting gears, said, “I want to know what happened.  I want to hear your version of things first, because I have a number of things to say but I can’t even begin without making sure you’re okay.  Because that’s my priority, understand?  Everything else comes secondary to that.”

Lucy nodded.

“We heard, um, through people, that apparently you were calling around?” Verona ventured.  “About some stranger?”

“That’s an adult thing, Verona,” Lucy’s mom said.  “Don’t worry about that.  Right now, the number one thing is… why is Lucy crying?  Why are you stressed?  Are you hurt?”

“Not really,” Verona said.

“No,” Lucy answered.

“Were you attacked?” Lucy’s mom’s voice was softer, worried, and that was worse.

Lucy couldn’t find the words.

Softer, more worried.  “Did anyone touch you?”

Lucy shook her head.

“Not like that,” Verona said.

“Like what, then?” Lucy’s mom asked.

“We- we called someone out, for being problematic,” Verona said.  “And it turns out we weren’t exactly right, and… stuff.”

“What stuff?”

“It all got out of control, bunch of other people joined in, they wouldn’t let us leave.  We couldn’t call you, if we could’ve we would’ve,” Verona said.  “It was pretty scary.”

Lucy sighed, a shuddering breath.

“Lucy?”

Lucy nodded her confirmation, then looked at her mom, and saw the upset, the anger, the worry, and a whole mess of other emotions.

She wanted to tell her mom.  Show her.  So this wouldn’t be lies.

She wanted to let her in, and explain everything, and she knew that would mean she’d have so much less power and control over things and she might not even be able to participate in the end of summer if her mom didn’t let her, after that.

And she was a little bit okay with that, after everything tonight.

She couldn’t.

Not if it meant bringing her mom into it.  Not if it meant that the two worlds bled in together and she couldn’t escape from it and go home.  Every step of the way, for all of her life, as bad as things got, with two exceptions, she’d been able to face anything so long as she got to go home.

Except when her dad had died, and she barely remembered that time.  And when Paul had left.

Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she looked away, out the window, out over the dark river of Kennet.

“Can you talk to me, Lucy?”

“I screwed up.  We screwed up.  I overstepped, I was overconfident, we shouldn’t have picked that argument, tonight, called that woman out.  I’ll be more careful in the future.”

“What on earth did you call her out for?”

“Hurting this red canine,” Verona said, “or helping to hurt it.  Resembled a fox or a dog.  We didn’t see directly, she-”

“We overdid it,” Lucy told her mom.

“She made all these accusations of us and people were chiming in and stuff, crowding in, and we asked if we could leave,” Verona said.

“You said that.  Who were these people?”

“I don’t know,” Verona said.  “But she pretty much accused us of being racist, which-”

“That wasn’t a big part of it,” Lucy cut in.  “It came up briefly, but it wasn’t- don’t make that out to be a big part of it.”

“Sorry,” Verona said.

“For accusing her of hurting a dog?” her mom asked.

“For general stuff,” Lucy said.

“They went off on us, for everything, being dishonest, and not trying hard enough.”

“Which doesn’t matter, because what matters is I thought I was doing the right thing by calling her out and it all went upside-down and…” Lucy trailed off, before wiping at her cheeks.

“You’ve always had too much of a sense of justice,” her mom said.  “You shouldn’t have picked an argument with a stranger, you-”

“I know!” Lucy told her mom, with enough emphasis that tears squeezed out.  “Believe me!”

“But this short older guy told us we shouldn’t waste any time,” Verona said.

“Why didn’t he handle it?”

They stopped talking over one another.

“I don’t know,” Lucy said.

“Well, if that isn’t a telling sign,” her mom said, shaking her head.  “You shouldn’t have picked that fight-”

“I know.”

“-and you shouldn’t have been out, after the curfew I set, without letting me know where you were.  Was Avery involved?”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

“Okay.  I’ll talk to her dad.  I have to let your mom and dad know what happened tonight, Verona.  Especially with the way word gets around about these things.  Setting the record straight.  So if either of you are stretching the truth or if there’s anything you’re leaving out…”

“Can we go home?” Lucy asked.

Her mother shifted the gears, then pulled onto the road.

“Were you drinking?” her mom asked.  “I have to ask, because it’s one of those things-”

“Only water,” Verona said.

“Drugs?”

“Not my thing,” Verona told her.

“Was anyone else involved?  Anyone we know?”

“Someone we know.  Liberty, this girl from camp, Avery was in touch with her, she came into town.”

“How old?”

“Fifteen,” Lucy said.  “She was cool.  A little wild, which might’ve helped the situation get worse-”

“She helped save us,” Verona said.

“Yeah.  Or if we’d done it her way and been upfront maybe it wouldn’t have been a misunderstanding,” Lucy said.  “Ugh.”

“Okay.”

One curt word.

The car went over the bridge, past the convenience store, past Verona’s house.

Turning the corner.  Into the driveway.

Maricica was here earlier.

The Others had apparently been ready to fight her, surrounding her, before she’d escaped.

The car hummed, engine idling, as Lucy’s mom sat there, looking out the window.

Lucy imagined that was how she’d looked earlier.  Just barely holding back.

I cannot express to you two,” her mom whispered the words, barely audible over the car.  “How terrified I was.

“I’m sorry,” Lucy said.

When I couldn’t get in touch with you?  I was asked to call you and I couldn’t?

“Sorry,” Verona said.

The inside of the car was dark, and most of the light on them was from the headlights reflecting off of the garage door and back on them.  It left much of Lucy’s mom’s face dark, but made the tears very bright.

“All I ask is that you let me know where you are and what you’re doing.  For just this reason.  I had no idea what happened to you two, if you were hurt, if you were taken, if- whatever happened out there tonight, I’ve talked to you about this, Lucy.  The system isn’t always friendly.  If that woman had brought the police into the picture, there’s nothing guaranteeing that those police officers would be fair or neutral.  They’re people, and people can be good and they can be awful.  Some of the awful ones will take any excuse, even fabricated ones, to turn something that should be open and shut into a nightmare.”

Lucy nodded, glum.  It hurt to see her mom crying.

“You talk about not knowing, Lucy,” her mom said, making brief eye contact.  “Not knowing if someone’s being rude because they’re a jerk or if they’re doing it because of your skin color.”

“Yeah,” Lucy replied.

“And when you don’t know, it’s somehow all bad?”

Lucy nodded.

“When I can’t get in touch with you, it can be the same thing.  When I don’t hear from you it’s not me sitting on the fence between ‘she’s probably alright’ and ‘she might be hurt’.  It’s me bracing myself for you to be hurt, or worse, or for you to be in trouble, or any number of things- all of those things at once.”

“Yeah,” Lucy replied, breathless.

“Verona?” her mom asked.  “Honey, I love you dearly, and it goes for you too.  You’re in my care.  That means you have to meet me halfway, let me care for you.  Follow my rules.  They exist for good reasons.”

Verona nodded, silent.

“Oh, this is hard,” Lucy’s mom said, wiping the tears from cheekbone and cheek.  She turned off the car and everything became dark, the only real light from the streetlights outside.  “I was so scared, I’m so disappointed…”

“Sorry,” Lucy said.

“I’m not in the best mental state to be handing out punishments, so I want to be clear, this is subject to change, understood?”

“Yeah,” Lucy said, because it was almost too dark for her mom to see her nod.

“One week of grounding for going out after curfew.  One week for not being available by phone.  This is preliminary, so I might tack on more time after I calm down, think on it, and check in with Avery.  I’m not sure how to process what you’ve described about the event with the woman, but I’m suspicious you’re sufficiently spooked and have learned a lesson.  I’ll have to decide if you’ve learned your lesson.  Depending on my feeling, later, it could be more of a grounding.  I want you to do what is right, but rushing into something that got that out of control… that’s absolutely not okay.”

“Makes sense,” Verona replied.

“And Verona, you won’t be in my custody after those two weeks, but your parents will have some input.”

“My dad?”

“Yes, even your dad.  He’s still your parent, he and your mom agreed together to let me look after you for the rest of this summer.  If they want you grounded for longer, if they want any other punishments, then I will listen to them, understood?  That might mean your mom asks you to come stay with her.  It might mean your dad revokes his compromise with your mom.  If it comes to that, it will be up to them to work out a new compromise or agreement.”

“Urgggh.”

“Believe me, honey, I feel very much the same way,” Lucy’s mom said, her voice sad.

“Lucy’s got that date with Wallace,” Verona said.

“It’s fine,” Lucy said.  “It’s okay, I can postpone it for a few weeks.  It’s not that important.  Grounding is very fair.”

“Um, can I-” Verona stopped herself.  “I feel sick.  Can I-?”

“You’ve got a house key, right?”

“Y-” Verona made a half-syllable of a sound and was out the door, running for the house.  The door swung closed but lacked the velocity to properly close all the way.  It left the car lights on and the door beeping audibly.

Lucy’s mom got out of the car, and Lucy followed her cue, pulling her bag around from being on her lap to being behind her.  She shut the door while her mom shut her own door and Verona’s.

“I love you, you know that?” her mom asked.

“I know.  Same.  Really,” Lucy replied.

“Did you already arrange the date with Wallace?”

Lucy shook her head.  “I was going to this week, once we knew what our plans looked like, but I can put it off.  It’s awkward, but we already had that first conversation, and if I can get through that I’m pretty sure I can call him and ask him to wait an extra two or three weeks.”

Her mother touched her shoulder as they walked up the little path that cut across the lawn to the front steps.

“Look after Verona?” her mom asked.  “I don’t know… was I too hard on her?  Too upfront about her parents getting involved?”

“I don’t think so.  That’s just… reality, I guess?”

“Maybe I can talk to Dr. Mona about it.  I’d like to talk to Dr. Mona with you beside me, if that works, to go over tonight.  Maybe an extra couple appointments.”

“Okay.  I’ll email her.”

Her mom kissed the top of her head as they reached the front door.

“I’m really sorry.”

“Good.  I’m glad.  I think I’ve said what I needed to say, so get ready for bed.”

“Um.  Would it be at all possible for me to squeeze in a bit of extra work, homework, any house projects, to get just a bit of time off at the end of summer?  It’s when everything’s happening.”

“We’ll talk about it tomorrow, after I’ve given everything some thought.”

“Okay,” Lucy replied.  “I’ll go look after Verona.  Do we have any ginger ale?  I know she likes to have flat ginger ale when her stomach acts up.  Or peppermint tea.”

“I’ll look.”

“Cool.  Thanks.”  Lucy headed up the stairs.

She was most of the way up when her mom called up, “Lucy?”

She stopped, looking down.

Her mom stared up at her for a few long seconds, then looked up at the ceiling, drawing in a breath and heaving out a sigh.  “This is hard.  I know I told you I have the right to change my mind about things, but this is not the sort of thing I can change my mind about, without coming across as unfair.  I want so badly to not be my parents, but… I worry about going too far the other way.”

“Changing your mind?  About the grounding?”

“No.  You are definitely grounded.  Make your plans with Wallace.  Dress up, do your hair, I can help with that if you want.  Go on your date.  It’s too important that you have that moment to socialize, be a young teenager, connect.  I don’t want you to miss a shot at something good.”

Lucy swallowed hard and nodded, revealing a tentative smile.

“Curfew in strict effect, and it has to be a group date.  You look after each other.  Two other couples your age.  You get dropped off and picked up.  Can you figure that out?”

“I’ll try.  I’ll run it by Wallace.”

“Okay.  Keep me informed.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, love you,” Lucy told her mom.

“You’re still very grounded!”

“I know!” Lucy called back, as she escaped upstairs.

She dropped off her bag in her room, and did a careful walkthrough.  Avery had had the tip about glamour, flicking lights fiercely on and off, and Lucy did that in her mom’s room, then her room.  She checked everything with Sight and more, checked her posters with the alarm and found them loose, a smudge of green-black dust across one line, and wiped it up as best as she could, spitting in her hand for a bit of goblin flavor and then using her palm to wipe at it.

The letter she’d hidden for her mom, placed in the midst of a stack of albums, so it would only be discoverable in a situation where her mom was tossing her room, untouched.

That done, still uneasy, she went over to the bathroom, where Verona was sitting in front of the toilet, slumped over at a diagonal, head resting against the cool tile of the bathtub.

“Texted Avery the bullet points about what happened,” Verona said, without lifting her head.

“Okay.”

“Sucks not telling your mom the whole truth.”

“Really does.  I almost told her.”

It was very quiet.  Verona had put the fan on, probably anticipating the smell, and it hummed.

“Want a cool cloth or something?”

“Please.”

Lucy found a clean washcloth, soaked it in cold water, then wrung it out.  It still dribbled cold water down the back of Verona’s shirt as Lucy laid it across her neck.  Verona squirmed, got the cloth, and wiped her face before pressing the other side against her forehead.

“Mom okayed the date.  I’m ungrounded for the date only, has to be a group date, still has curfew.”

“Group date?  Succccccks,” Verona said.

“I’m okay with it, I think,” Lucy said.  “I hope Wallace is.”

“You’re really attractive and stylish and cool.  I bet Wallace would be cool with a date of sitting on nests of fire ants if he got to do it with you.”

“Thanks, I guess.  Want to come with?  My mom might okay it.  You and Jeremy?”

Verona shook her head.

“It’d be really nice, really cool, Jeremy and Wallace get along, and we’re okay, and we could see how our dynamic meshes with theirs.  It’d be a really cool thing to bring into the fall semester.”

“Would you- would you ask Avery to go on a date with a boy, to help you out?  Wait, no, that’s a bad example, because she might, just to be nice.”

“Could you?  To be nice?  If you explained to Jeremy…” Lucy tried.

“I think he’s in love with me or something.  That’s already hard enough, but if we do something like this?  It’d be… mean.  It’s too much of what he wants and it’s not at all what I want.  I don’t want to break his heart.”

Lucy wanted to argue, wanted to say more.

Verona felt very far away.

All the talk about practice earlier, even if it was to distract herself, when Lucy had just wanted support.  Then there was the drug Verona had taken.  That had pretty much been a lie when she’d negated it in front of Lucy’s mom.  Not the kind that got her gainsaid, but… it felt bad.

They’d had practices they had been afraid to dive into.  Goblin stuff and aggression for Avery, along with the glamour.  Lucy with the cursewright stuff.  Verona with the halflight stuff.

Except Avery’s thing had been, like… external.  It had been her not wanting to hurt Pam, or hurt others.  Lucy’s thing was about Paul.

But Verona’s thing, the big thing that had steered her away from the halflight stuff, when she was into it, was Lucy.  And as much as it had been important to tap into the things that were very them while still being unfamiliar and unusual enough to throw the Faerie for a loop… it felt like a betrayal, that Verona had gone straight to this.

Maybe it wasn’t fair or right.  Maybe it was more than fair or right and Lucy’s instincts were flashing alarms at Lucy, while she desperately tried to dim them and silence them.  Maybe this was a moment she would wish she’d spoken up or said something.

She sat on the floor next to Verona, her back to the tub.

Would she remember sitting here, a year down the line, when she no longer recognized her best friend?

Was she not showing enough trust in Verona?

“I know you said you didn’t want to talk about practice stuff,” Verona said.

“It’s okay, now that the mom thing is out of the way.”

“You know Maricica wanted to pull this, to mess with us, tie our hands.  Get your mom looking at us in a different way.”

“Yeah,” Lucy replied.

“We’ve got so much to do and we’re super grounded.”

“We are.  We’ll probably figure something out,” Lucy told Verona.

“Okay.”

Lucy leaned over, and laid her head on Verona’s back.

She felt Verona sigh.

“Wallace is kind of friends with Amadeus.  I think Mia and Amadeus are together-ish,” Lucy said.  “I could ask them if they’re down for a triple-date.”

“That’d be super cool.  You should do that,” Verona said, perking up a bit.  “Mia’s alright.”

“The power of being the most popular girl, and she uses it for good, mostly,” Lucy mused.

“Yeah!”

“Except she was a bit evil in middle school.”

“Wasn’t everyone?”

“Mmm,” Lucy said.

“Lemme know if you need help with anything for that.  I know I’m being a bad best friend by not breaking Jeremy’s heart for your sake-”

“Nah.”

“But if you need help with clothes, shopping, you could really milk this, you know.”

“I’m not going to milk it.  My mom’s already being ten kinds of cool, considering.”

“Yeah,” Verona said.

“There is one thing, though.”

“Whassat?” Verona asked, twisting around a bit, not that she could really see Lucy’s face, with Lucy resting her head on her back.

“I really, really need to pee, and you’ve claimed the toilet.  Can you give me a bit?”

“Urrggh.  Use the sink.”

“Gross!”

“Or the tub.”

“Who does that!?   No!”

“What if I lie down?  I’m tired, I can close my eyes and cover my ears.”

“Out!” Lucy said, straightening up a bit and sticking her knee into Verona’s butt, then lower back.  Verona squirmed but refused to move.  “Out!  Out!”

“Arrugh.”

“Go to our room and clean up your stuff!”

“You’re worse than your mom.  So mean!”

“I am so much worse and so much meaner than my mom.  She’s making you peppermint tea-”

“Ooh.”

“-And I’m ready to roll you down the stairs.”

“Whee.”

Every attempt at getting Verona to move only got Verona to flop or squirm a bit in the direction of the door.  Once Verona was mostly on the bathmat, Lucy grabbed the end and dragged her friend out.

Lucy shut the door, then took a minute to do the necessary.

After washing her hands, she wiped them clean, then washed her face, fixing up her hair, but stopping short of preparing it for bed.

What the heck were they going to do?

She walked over to the window, and opened it.

“Alpeana, Alpeana, Alpeana,” Lucy called out to the darkness of Kennet at night.

Nothing.

She took the time to prep her hair, wrapping it in silk and clipping it, then headed to her room, pausing halfway to hug her mom and say goodnight.

She entered her room, and Verona was sitting at the desk by the window, pointing.

Lucy shut the door.

Alpeana sat outside, edge of her behind on the one inch of windowsill, dark hair swirling around her.  Rather than turn her head, she let hair cover her face, then had her face emerge from the morass of matted, damp, gritty hair, out of alignment with neck and body, dark eyes wide.

“Can you help us arrange some meetings by way of dreams and nightmares?” Lucy asked Alpeana.  “We’re grounded for the time being, and there’s a lot we need to sort out.”


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False Moves – 12.2

Avery

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter


Early in the Day

“What comes to mind if you think of Verona unleashed?” Avery asked.

“Leash Verona, cuff her, and throw her in Verona jail,” Snowdrop commented.

“What?” Verona asked, as she ducked under a branch.  “Huh?  What’s the context?  What the what?  Jail?”

“Any context,” Avery said.  “Every context.  Who are you when worst comes to worst, and you have to dig deep and be the ultimate you?”

That’s a frigging question,” Verona said.  “It’s not even seven o’clock. This isn’t deep ‘look into thyself’ time.  This is the time for me to resent the sun for being bright, resenting morning people, and resenting existence in general, a little.”

“Very resentful,” Avery noted.

They walked down the path at the south of Kennet.  It wasn’t a well-traveled path, which was why they’d set up shrines this way, so there was a lot of vegetation in the way.  They navigated as a pair with Snowdrop trudging behind them.

Snowdrop said, “I find it helps if you think of the morning as a start of a brand new day.”

Verona grunted, squinted at the light shining through leaves, and then looked at Avery.  “Interpret?”

“Snowdrop thinks you should think of this time of day as the drawn out end of the night, instead of a new day.”

“Uh huh.  It’s still annoyingly bright for my tired eyes.”

“How late were you up?”

“Late.  I think better in the evenings.  What were you on about again?”

“Unleashing you.  Let me make sure we’re not being watched or recorded…” Avery sorted out some papers.  “You were reading up on alchemy and halflight stuff, right?”

“Yeah.  Why?”

“Thinking along the same lines… I want to run this by Lucy too, but like, if we’re treating this whole thing as super serious, which we are, or if we’re making plans for the absolute worst-case scenarios, what happens if we’re pushed into a situation where we’re forced to do some of the stuff we backed off doing before?  You with your halflight stuff, right?”

Verona groaned, long and drawn out.  Snowdrop echoed her, joining in, which made Verona have to stop to snort out a laugh.

“Do you want me to stop?” Avery asked.  “Or if you’re not up for this, can I just talk at you, think out loud?  Do you mind?”

“I don’t.  Keep going, no mind, so long as this isn’t meant to be encouraging or peppy.  I can’t take pep.”

“No real pep,” Avery said.  “Could be the opposite of pep.”

“Good, I think.”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about my ideal Avery, you know?  And there’s the little glamour thing where I give myself little glamour gold stars or checkmarks, recognizing the steps I take toward that, right?”

“Yep.”

“And I think that’s positive, and it’s good, but there’s been this constant series of little reminders that, I dunno, glamour is fragile.  I’m not sure what it does if the glamour shatters.  I don’t know if it gives Guilherme a tiny bit of claim because it’s his glamour and the checkmark idea came from him.  There’s this whole idea that whatever this is, it could get taken away or ruined.  But I don’t want to stop doing it.”

“Makes sense.  We could brainstorm options when it isn’t ass o’clock in the morning,” Verona said.

“Care- I was going to tell you to be careful, but we could brainstorm when it isn’t ass o’clock, you’re right, okay!  Right, thanks for the offer, back on topic,” Avery said.  “I’ve already been brainstorming.  ‘Cause there’s this whole other thing that’s separate from the glamour.  I’ve got an image album and I’ve been going back to some characters and stuff in movies and TV, and the ideal me is… fast, acrobatic, athletic, and has these poised vibes where people ask if she could be a prince or princess, because she’s pretty and maybe a bit androgynous, and even straight girls gush over her, and-”

Verona cackled.

“-and maybe forget I said anything, nevermind,” Avery said, more than a little bit wounded.

“No, no, no, no.”  Verona grabbed onto Avery’s arm.  “No, it’s early and I’m not communicating right.  That was absolutely not me laughing at you.  That was me laughing with, that’s awesome and cool.”

Avery nodded, though the hurt lingered.

“No, seriously, I love that and I want you to do that, I just laugh because… I picture you doing that and you’re trying to act all aloof and cool but secretly loving it.  And that’s great.  What else? Path stuff?”

“Path stuff.  Having treasures and boons from the Paths to play into that whole thing,” Avery said, though her stride had been broken some, and it was harder to get into it.  “I think it’s important that I stay in touch with people and maintain connections, even if we’ve parted ways.”

“Like Zed and Nicolette, sure,” Verona said.

Like you guys, if I end up having to leave.  Avery nodded but didn’t say anything.  “Point is, all that stuff is fragile in its own way, isn’t it?  I think back to the fight in the mud with America Tedd, before we left the Blue Heron Institute.  What if my leg gets hurt and all that speed and my efforts to be more athletic and acrobatic go out the window?  What if I’m covered in mud and I can’t be poised?  What if… I dunno, what if something happens to you guys, or Snowdrop, and I can’t be levelheaded, and I’m in this place where I’m the opposite of what I want?  Slow or stuck or hurt or someone’s been torn from me?  I want to be poised and cool and protect the weak from bullies and loneliness.”

“And shout catchphrases and activation lines for your practice.”

“Yeah!” Avery exclaimed, finding a kernel of the pre-cackle enthusiasm.  “Yeah, exactly!  What if I say hey, don’t be a shit to your friend, Declan?  Or don’t be mean to that gay kid?  And they’re shitty or mean anyway?”

“With you so far,” Verona said.  It looked like she was trying to be more serious, giving Avery her focus, maybe as an apology for the earlier laugh.  “I think if you were a Faerie, the answer would be… be cooler, be faster, be more acrobatic, be more poised, have more social networks so that if the house of cards collapses there’s a chance it just settles into a new configuration.”

“I’m not a Fae, I’m an Avery,” Avery said.  “I don’t have centuries to work on this and work it out.  So just to connect the dots and start making more sense… when we were theorizing last night, about what animals we’d-”

She checked the papers.  Verona nodded encouragingly.

“-have for our new masks.  I’m leaning in a different direction.  Not a bird, not plumage, not… the Kell thing is something I’ve held back on, but it’s not the big thing.”

“I was going to do the masks this morning while Lucy’s got her therapy thing, there’s still time to change your mind.  They’re not going to be pretty, but pretty isn’t the point, is it?”

Avery nodded, but carried on with her thought. “I was thinking… if I’m going to make it count, I want to be able to tell people, ‘you don’t want to do that’, and then when they do it, really hammer in that they shouldn’t have done that.  You know?”

“Don’t go whacking them with an ensorcelled hockey stick,” Snowdrop said.

“Nah.  Meaner than that, even.  I’ve been holding back on the goblin thing, but there’s a time and a place for a… what was Toadswallow’s thing?  Gross boxing glove?”

“Soggy handshake,” Verona said.

“You won’t want to use the rusty fork any,” Snowdrop said, sagely.

“Make me a wolf mask, Ronnie,” Avery said.

Verona exhaled through her teeth.

“No?” Avery asked.

“No, uh, can do.  But what’s the logic?”

“If I’m thinking of the me that’s pulling out all the stops, really unleashed, no more fun, no more running, ready to bring the consequences and make them really frigging sorry they didn’t listen?” Avery asked.

She trailed off a bit as she said it, then looked out down the forest path.

She didn’t follow up on that thought.  Following up on that thought in a way that she wanted to meant tapping into an emotion in her chest and conveying an emotion backed by a whole heck of a lot of emotions she wasn’t feeling right at that moment.

The follow-up came later.

🟂

Earlier

Lucy was spooked and Verona was sick and she had to trust them.  Avery kept her fingers laced behind her head, forearms pressed against her ears, and even that didn’t shut out all of the noise, the vague Faerie voices, the situation-

Protect them, Snowdrop, Liberty.

All of that was background.  In the foreground was her pulse, and that faint dead-wood creak of muscles, bones, or the structure of her own ears.  In the noisier days of her childhood she’d discovered that sound, trying to shut out a newborn Kerry and a wailing pre-kindergarten Declan.

Wait, she thought, and it was almost meditative.  The arena means there isn’t much room for running or acrobatics.  Just waiting, biding time.

I’ve got to be the antagonist of someone else’s story.

She looked at the Faerie in purple.  Finnea, who smiled.  Who looked down on her.

Think it through, she told herself.  How can I make her as unhappy as possible?

Goblins.

How can I bring the goblins to bear?

Her friends were unhappy and there was no way that was okay.

They’d have to wait.  If she did this, she couldn’t go it alone.  Either Lucy would need to get it together or Verona would need to.  Or they’d hope for a signal.

🟂

Now

Avery set the wolf mask into place.

“Whatever your assertion, this isn’t a trial by combat,” Finnea declared.

“It’s not,” Avery agreed.  “But I’m still allowed my tools and I’m still allowed to mess with the formula, like Maricica would.  By the first concession of the Aurum and by the third, I want my collection of weapons and tools from earlier.  Doglick!”

“Inappropriate volume, thirty demerits.”

Finnea stood a little straighter.  “If you wanted weapons from earlier-”

“You’re so annoying!” Liberty jeered.

“Fifty demerits.”

“-you should have had them on your person.  You set the arena-”

“As aggressor.  As defendants in the trial we agreed they get the tools and prep, it was expected and planned around,” Lucy told the Fae.  “If you failed to take precautions that’s on you!”

“Aurum, by the first and third concession, I get my gear back, I get my clothes back, if you wanted to stop us from bringing stuff in you should have argued better,” Avery said.  “Doglick, doglick!  Come!”

The Aurum nodded once.

The goblin woofed, and came tearing into the clearing.

“Screw this!”  Snowdrop said, eyes wide.  “Cherrypop, Cherrypop, Cherrypop!”

“Aaaaaa!”

“Aaaa!” Snowdrop answered.  Cherrypop was small and not that fast, so it took her time to arrive.

Doglick leaped into Avery’s open hands.  She held him up.  “Temporary binding to weapon form, with your permission!  Dognailer form!  Doglick says come!”

Doglick settled into his crossbow form, flesh stretching as the parts of the crossbow protruded from within him, the rest of him diminishing.  Becoming a crossbow with a harpoon-like bolt, tongue extending along the stock to the back end, flesh decorating the bow and body of it.  Avery could feel Doglick’s heartbeat in the weapon, see the tongue move in anticipation, fixing the bolt’s alignment.

Liberty laughed, enough she had trouble saying the necessary words.  “Shocktease, Shocktease, Shocktease!  Break’er switches!”

The goblin that came through the woods was one of Liberty’s, a gremlin with batteries and one lit but broken lightbulb embedded in her skull, her hair standing on end.  When she opened her mouth, visible electricity danced along the gobbet of spit that stretched between two fangs, briefly outlining her teeth.

Liberty caught her and she swung her way around behind, catching the back of Liberty’s belt and hanging there.  The goblin became visible arcs of electricity that danced around Liberty’s upper body and arms, then settled into the form of a cracked battery pack with an eyeball peering out from within, wires extending up and out to two thin, narrow metal poles with triggers on the handles.  She touched the poles together and electricity arced between them as she moved them apart, out to three feet.

“I thought- you were scared and I didn’t know what to do so I left you behind and I went to find you and help you!” Cherrypop told Snowdrop, struggling to speak while also catching her breath.  She broke into tears.  “I thought I’d never get to force you to chug milk again!  I’m so glad I nearly drowned!”

Snowdrop gave her a pat on the head.

Guards came in running, holding spears, and Liberty stepped into their way.  As the spear points were leveled, she tapped them with the sticks, and electricity sparked.  The spears got dropped, and Liberty swatted one on the armored rear end to send him packing.

Others approached, and Snowdrop didn’t really put up a fight as two guards seized her, one holding her and the other holding manacles.  But Cherrypop leaped onto his armor and crawled beneath the ornate breastplate, prompting him to panic.  Snowdrop became an opossum, trying and failing to replicate the maneuver before climbing up the breastplate, forcing the guard to throw her aside.

Chaos.  But chaos was good here.

“Implicit threats, violence against footmen of the court, improper conduct, introduction of goblins to court in session, five hundred and fifty demerits,” the old woman fae said.  “For each of the three offending individuals.”

“Can you do nonlethal?” Avery asked the Doglick weapon.

“Speaking out of turn while armed, fifty demerits.”

Doglick slurped, then horked up a second crossbow bolt, which emerged from the length of the weapon and then got tongued into place, settling in parallel to the first.

“That’s… twice as lethal, isn’t it?” Avery asked.

“Speaking out of turn while armed, another fifty demerits.”

There was no response from Doglick, except for an internal kick or jolt, the weapon bouncing in her hands, eager.

“Trusting you,” she said.  She turned, aimed, and fired at the old Fae.

The two bolts separated, one flying to the left of the old woman Fae, the other flying to the right, but the tongue connected them, stretching thin between them.  One hit a tree right beside her, the other hit a tree further down.  The tongue, stretched in the middle, caught her across the lower face at a diagonal, pressing down nose and part of her mouth, while slamming her back into a tree, pinning her there with her head forced to look to the right.  The tongue flexed, saliva running down the diagonal toward the Fae’s face, while her one visible eye went wide, tracking the movement of the thick droplets toward her mouth.

“Let’s assume I get demerits for that,” Avery told the Fae.

“Anyone else?” Liberty asked.  “Demerits?  Commentary?”

“This is barbaric,” Finnea said.

“You’ve made a whole lot of noise about selling us!” Verona cried out, gripping the railing to better keep her balance.

“Release her,” Finnea said, indicating the trapped Fae.  When Avery didn’t budge, some Fae in the crowd moved to the tree, pulling at the bolts that were stuck in the tree.

Excusez moi,” Liberty said.  “Do you mind, Doglick?”

The crossbow barked.

“Jump,” Liberty told Avery.

“What?”

“Three, two, one, jump.”

Avery jumped.

Liberty touched one of the metal poles to the spit-slick tongue.  Electricity jolted through the weapon, much of it seemingly concentrated around the bear-trap rigged to the front, but a fair share ran down the length of the tongue to the bolts in the trees and the Faerie who were handling them.  They jumped back, hissing, one nearly falling over a shorter Fae with sharp teeth and deep dark circles around her eyes.

They didn’t resume their attempts to free the trapped Faerie.

“Your honor, I must insist that order be restored to the court, weapons should be confiscated-”

“Your honor,” Lucy said.  “Finnea is overly concerned with stuff that’s happening on the side, and hasn’t even been arguing her points.  If she can argue for things to be forfeit because we’re talking among ourselves, her overwhelming focus on other stuff means I should be able to dismiss the charges.”

“Down boy,” Avery said, putting Doglick down.  He turned from crossbow to goblin, leaving his tongue stretched out and extended to the spikes.  Heels dug into grass and dirt as he hauled back, keeping it taut.  “Tatty Bo Jangles, Tatty Bo Jangles, Tatty Bo Jangles!  Let me temporarily bind you to weapon form!”

Tatty came running in.

“My accusations about their handling of court process fold into the accusations about trivial handling of the oath,” Finnea replied.  “They’ve sworn oaths of equality, invitation, and protection and those oaths are in clear bad faith when it pertains to the Faerie, trivialized to the point of nonsense.  Their handling of court process only bolsters this claim.”

“Trivialized?  We’ve bled, sweated, and cried in our efforts to work with local Others, Faerie included!” Lucy argued.

“Tatty Bo Jangles?  Ratty bola tangle!” Avery shouted, as Tatty jumped into her open hand.  The bolas had rope of coarse, black hair that was wound together, the ropes so twisted they refused to go straight.  There were three balls at each end, each slightly teardrop shaped, with a coin-sized disc welded on, a spike protruding from each disc.

“Trivialized nonetheless,” Finnea said, frowning as she glanced warily at Avery’s weapon.  “If you’ll allow me an analogy?”

“Anyone going to mess with us?” Avery asked the crowd.  “Any interjections?”

They were quiet now, though she could see some plotting and thinking.

These weren’t clever Fae, if they were Fae at all.  But she couldn’t discount them.

This was only part one.  Shutting up the rogue’s gallery.

“Nobody?  Stand by, Tatty,” Avery said, “goblin form.”

“Shocktease, down,” Liberty said, glancing at Avery and nodding.

She dropped the Bolas.  Tatty landed on the ground, hands and feet digging into dirt, back arched.  She tugged a part of her dress of interwoven breasts tighter, then straightened.  The rods and the wires that attached to the rods went up in smoke, and Shocktease broke free of the battery case, leaping to the ground.

“Giggleberries!” Liberty called out.

“I must interrupt!” Finnea interjected.

“Giggleberries!”

“Are you still prioritizing this over your argument?” Lucy asked.  “Can we dismiss?”

“Giggleberries!”

Giggleberries was giggly, as it happened, and moved through bushes and foliage before pouncing onto Liberty, who put her arms behind her to catch him.  He peered over her shoulder, a wide-eyed goblin face with runny clown makeup.

“I bind you, Gigs, temporarily.”

He became a drawstring bag.

“The argument is one and the same with what I’m protesting!  You are using a loophole to invite goblins into this proceeding, showing a clear lack of respect for the culture of Others.”

“We’re prioritizing goblin culture over Faerie culture,” Avery said.

“You’re implying goblins have culture,” Finnea retorted.  Every new goblin on scene seemed to make her more uneasy, and Liberty reaching into the drawstring bag and pulling out a spray-painted grenade only added to that unease.

“Their inclusion is granted by a higher authority than this court,” Lucy said.

“Tough shit, suck bits,” Liberty added.

The demerit lady mumbled something, still strapped to a tree.

Lucy spoke up, “For the third time, I’m making a motion to-”

“No,” Finnea said, talking faster, abandoning her hope of appealing to the judge.  “I’ll continue.  The analogy is as simple as this.  If you were to ask a man to protect you, if you gave him a small fortune, and then you found out he only had days to live and he was committed to that, wouldn’t you be upset?”

“What?” Lucy asked.  “I thought Fae were supposed to be clever.”

“Aren’t you the ones trying to be clever?” Finnea asked.  “Only living a mere sixty or so more years before you expect your lifespans to end?  In offering services to those who will live for thousands of years?”

“If Maricica and Guilherme are that dumb, not accounting for the fact we’re human, then you could be taking them to court, for making you all look bad,” Lucy said.  “They knew what they were getting with us.”

“You’re human but you’ve been shown clear and obvious routes that would enable you to serve in a more appropriate longer period of time.  Matthew Moss has studied life extension practices and told you about them on your first day as practitioners.  Was it not a clear notice that you had these options available to you?”

The crowd murmured in agreement.  Avery glared, looking around, but without one stand-out member to target, she couldn’t whip Tatty at them.  “Tatty, is Bluntmunch around?”

“Yeh.”

“Bluntmunch!”  Avery shouted.  “Bluntmunch!  Bluntmunch!”

We didn’t bring Bluntmunch with us to start with, please don’t call this out, don’t call this out, be distracted

“Are you done making shit up or can I talk?” Lucy asked.

“You made a long and full life a requirement of the awakening deal,” Finnea retorted.  “But you selfishly and egocentrically cut that short to human ideals, a mere lifespan of seventy years?  A hundred and some years at most?  Nothing by the standards of the worlds you’ve sworn to join and support!”

This?  This is bullcrap,” Lucy said, sighing.

“It’s so nice to be able to talk without the Faerie butting in,” Verona said.  “Making my headache worse.”

Bluntmunch lumbered in.  Finnea’s frown was distinct as she saw the size of him.  He was bigger than she was, if not quite as tall, with the way he slouched and moved more like a gorilla than a human.

“Will you be my weapon?  Ramjam gave us the rundown,” Avery said.  “We’ll move this to the next phase.”

“Phase?” Finnea asked.  “Your honor, they dismiss this as bullcrap and invite goblins in to sow chaos and make implicit threats to our audience, targeting one with abuse and harming others, but they make no argument.  This is human-centric, practitioner-centric worldview at its worst, and it offends the Fae as a whole, harming the Fae side of Fae-human relations.”

“We’re human, we have human lifespans!” Verona exclaimed.  “You can’t call us human in one breath and then pretend it isn’t a reality in the next!”

That Verona has a pretty sharp brain, remembering stuff like that, Avery thought.

“I can if you are indictments of humanity as a whole!”

“Finnea’s argument holds,” the Judge said.

“How?” Lucy challenged.  “By what standards?”

“Faerie standards,” Finnea replied.

Bluntmunch glanced warily around at the Faerie.  He met Avery’s eyes.

“Say the words,” the large goblin rumbled, reaching out with one heavy, calloused hand.

Avery put her hand under his, and he set his atop hers.  She was more careful with others because she hadn’t pre-arranged the binding with them, “I bind you temporarily, Bluntmunch, until you choose to abandon the form.  Help us out, take your weapon form.  Greatclub Munchabunch!”

Bluntmunch put his other arm out, laying it over the first, hair dropping off of his body.  Calloused, scarred skin that had been burnt, cut, and many other things and which probably hadn’t been pretty to begin with got even more gnarled, more ugly, twisting in together.

He was a big goblin, and a strong one, and according to what he’d told Verona when she’d done her first interviews with the goblins, he’d been sought after.

So he became an appropriate weapon.  Nearly as long as Avery was tall, narrow at one end and wider at the other, he resembled a broken off section of tree trunk, worn by weather until the splinters and rough bits were mostly gone, much of the wood turned stone-like by treatment or harsh environment.  Straps had been wound around the handle, and railroad spikes driven through the heavy end.  Like a baseball bat with nails driven through it, but huge.  Avery’s fingertips dug into soft wood where it was wood, and found rigidity where it was stone.

“What in the seven courts do you need that for?” Finnea asked.

“Redecorating!” Avery exclaimed, heaving the end of the club off the ground.  She wasn’t strong enough to swing it around, but Liberty jumped in, offering a helping push to get the club up to the point Avery had it overhead.  She let it drop, falling on the railing that separated them from the open middle area of the court and kept them from approaching the judge.  The railing was fifteen feet wide and ornate and the entirety of it went to pieces, breaking off and pulling free of the dirt where it had been planted.

“Insanity, and it only proves my points!” Finnea exclaimed.

“Agreed,” the judge said.  “This bodes ill for you five, on the charges of frivolous disrespect for the court.”

The crowd murmured, joining in.

Avery took in a breath, looking around.  Had to make this stick, had to make it work.

The parts where the railing had pulled free of the ground were burbling with mud.

Toadswallow wasn’t a fighter, so his ‘weapon’ wasn’t good in a direct fight.  It was good at bringing enemies low and bothering them, but the wrist attachment allegedly let the wielder unload a lot of tricks and traps.

Doglick was a chaser, a pursuer, a biter, a dogged harasser of whoever it was he went up against, so his weapon emulated that.  Tatty made herself a pest, Cherrypop was sort of useless.  Each goblin had a thing.

Bluntmunch was big, he hit hard, and… he was good at bossing around goblins.

Muddy goblins of Cherrypop’s caliber started hauling themselves free of the muck in twos and threes, looking around.

“As the wielder of Greatclub Munchabunch, I have commands!” Avery declared.  “For those of you who’ve emerged and those of you yet to emerge, if you’re connected to this weapon, know these commands have power, ignore them on the threat of a Bluntmunch buttkicking!”

The little goblins looked up at her, eyes wide.

“Within the bounds of this arena, make a mess.  Don’t do any permanent harm to the Fae, don’t bother the humans or other goblins, and have fun!” Avery told them.

“Woooooo!” Liberty drew out the sound.  Cherrypop mimicked her.

The goblins picked up the noise, then scattered, some falling over themselves in their hurry to find something to do.

Avery had to use arms, upper body, abdomen and legs to haul the club around, smacking a Fae-made lantern-holder.  The lantern extinguished, the candle and contents bouncing out.  A goblin emerged from the broken bottom half of the lantern, naked.  He was larger than the others, roughly Tatty’s size, halfway between something like Cherrypop or Peckersnot and the thirty-something pound Doglick.

He followed the orders, judging by the way he picked up on the “Wooooo!”

“You’re applying Fae standards to us in a way we wouldn’t apply human standards to our prisoners!” Lucy told Finnea, who was using one foot to keep a small goblin from trying to climb her leg.

“I’d challenge- disgusting!” Finnea interrupted herself, shaking her leg firmly.  “I’d challenge you to prove that!”

“That’s your job as the one making the accusation!” Lucy told her.

“Why?  Innocent until proven guilty?  The longer a being lives the more likely they’re guilty of something.”

Going to be sore tomorrow, Avery thought, as she made another full-body swing of the club, demolishing Fae decorations and a hung piece of tapestry.  The crowd backed swiftly away.

There was a goblin, dressed in armor, lurking in a hole in the tree behind the hung cloth.  Gashwad size.  He met Avery’s gaze, frozen, looking very much like someone who was walked in on while sitting on the crapper.

She gave the club a pat.

“Woo!” he shrieked, leaping onto Avery, with a very strong whiff of body odor, before springing off of her with enough force that she would have stumbled back or fallen over if she hadn’t been anchored to the ground by the club she was holding, the heavy end already firmly in the dirt.  He’d leaped onto a robed Faerie, hugging their face.

“If this group is unwilling to see the proceedings through to the end-!”

“We’re willing!” Lucy retorted, raising her voice over the growing noises of smaller goblins.  “You’re just taking far too long to get there, this is on you!”

Finnea paused, seeming to think hard about something, then touched the locket at her neck, opening it.

Glamour came out as an expanding purple-black mist, and small purple flowers began to form on the ground where the glamour touched grass and dirt.  Flowers sprouted between the bricks of the court floor where bricks of marble and other materials had been inset into the dirt in intricate pattern.

Smaller goblins protested, and held their noses, running from the flowers.

Something they didn’t like?

Faerie could counter goblins just as easily as goblins could counter Fae.  This might have been one of those things.  It was interesting that Finnea was willing-

There was a clamor off to the side as Liberty heaved a grenade into the midst of the Fae bystanders.  Five Fae fell on it and grabbed at it.  One at the bottom of the pile managed to grab it and held it it so it wouldn’t go off, only to find himself with multiple Fae still atop him and a mob of smaller goblins spawned by Bluntmunch’s club coming right for his face.  He fought to keep the grenade away from them, but they managed to pry it free.

It didn’t detonate, but instead vented gas.  The gas spread, mingling with the purple mist from Finnea.

Couldn’t let that continue.

“Man, your goblin spawner is great!” Liberty called out.  “I’ll show you mine!”

“This is a thing!?”

“Heck yeah!  Sproghog, Sproghog, Sproghog!”

The goblin that came hurrying into the clearing was female and very pregnant, skin stretched to the point of translucency, tiny goblin faces pressing against the inside, becoming briefly and vaguely visible.

“You do you!” Avery called out.

“You showed me yours and I want to show you mine!”

“I’ve got a court case to win!” Avery called out, gripping the club tighter.

Avery picked up speed, dragging the club as best as she could.  It was easier to drag it as long as she kept moving, but Fae were milling around, she had to avoid stepping on goblins that were fleeing the goblin-repellent flower patch, and she had to give a small part of her attention to Finnea, who was a very real threat and was arguably more threatening so long as she was facing a growing swarm of goblins.  Where the club dug into dirt and mud, goblin limbs reached and burbled out, many joining the scene with ‘woo’s and cheers.

“I move to resolve my point, due to a lack of counterargument!” Finnea called out.  “Oaths made-”

Avery swung the club awkwardly, not really raising it above hip level, but she still managed to smash the chair next to Finnea.  A goblin scrambled away from the underside of the chair like it had always been there.  Finnea backed up a few steps.

Avery dropped the club, catching the handle with one foot, and then clapped her hands a few times in quick succession.  She felt the weight in the air, and braced herself, catching the handle of the water-elemental pickaxe as it dropped into place, gouged, scratched, and badly beaten up from its trip to wherever the gloves sent things.  She hurled it past Finnea.  It hit the dirt, flipped, bounced, and hit the dirt again.

In the midst of that, it hit the dirt a third time, and the dirt around it transformed to water, which quickly became mud, splashing the backs of Finnea’s legs and dress.  Cutting off Finnea’s route a bit.  The Faerie didn’t seem to want to turn her back on Avery, and stopped short of stepping into the mud.  Goblins milled around her.

Avery grabbed and lifted the club as best as she could, her stomach doing a butterfly-flutter thing in the midst of the strain of lifting.  She drop-shoved it into the railing that had been in front of Finnea.

More goblins emerged from the divots below the wrecked railing, complaining as they found themselves in the midst of the purple fog.

“If you’ll name your actual arguments, beyond some vague references, I can try and answer them,” Lucy told Finnea.  The chaos grew around them.  “Name them one by one.  Let’s go over it in detail.  Slowly.

Verona cackled.

Another Giggleberries grenade went off.  Fae choked and stumbled their way through the mist.  One trapped inside looked like he was laughing, but no laugh was audible over the din.

“Heads up!” Liberty called out.  “Aim’s terrible with this beauty!”

She pumped what looked like one of those guns Declan liked that fired foam projectiles, but what came out was a spurt of fluid and a small Cherrypop sized goblin with the umbilical cord still attached.  It bounced off of the brickwork goblins were trying to tear up, then got to its feet, wobbling, bringing the umbilical cord to its mouth to start chewing at it.  Liberty fired off another two in quick succession, to much the same effect.

The Fae that was still stuck to the tree wriggled and tried to pull goblins off as they climbed her clothing.

“One by one!” Lucy told Finnea.  “Let’s do this in an orderly fashion!”

“All you’ve done thus far is prove you outnumber me.”

“Weren’t you so fond of saying the time to argue that crap was earlier?” Verona asked.  “Already decided.”

“This is what Maricica would be doing, we’re pretty sure,” Avery told Finnea, glaring past the eyeholes of the wolf mask.  “Sowing confusion, using pre-prepared plans and tools, things she set up earlier to sabotage us, make the proceedings as hard as possible.  You’re clearly not up for this.  We prepared, you didn’t, if you wanted to do it any differently, that’s on you.  Concede.”

“You’re spending power on that glamour, aren’t you?” Verona asked.  “I’m guessing you made the mental calculation that you have to do something to fight back, even if it means this thing isn’t the win you wanted it to be.  Every second you’re using that crap to keep from being annoyed, you’re spending something on this transaction.”

“It’s glamour, not crap,” Finnea retorted, flinching as Liberty fired another goblin fetus arcing into the air.

“Concede,” Avery told the Fae.

“If I concede this challenge, you’ll push the original confrontation, and you’ll be free to use this same chaos to lay undeserved charges at my feet.”

“You’re not the Fae we want,” Lucy said.  “We can negotiate.  And just so we’re clear, the fact you wanted to sell us?  That’s going to count against you in the negotations.”

Finnea drew herself up taller, tense from head to toe.  The locket continued to release vapor that trailed down her body and arms, expanding out to create the bed of flowers that extended naturally from the base of her dress.

“Concede,” Avery said.  “Negotiate with us.”

“We want info on Maricica.  If you’re her rival, you should know stuff.”

“If that’s all you want, we can talk.”

“We want it promptly,” Verona said.  “Before you leave tonight, and we want the means of contacting you for follow-up details.  We want you to revoke anything you’ve done glamour-wise in or relating to Kennet, and we want you to agree to tell us what you know that goes beyond Maricica’s history.  Anything you might know about her plans.”

“Anything you might infer,” Lucy said.

Avery adjusted her grip on the greatclub.

“Aurum,” Finnea called out.  “Is this acceptable?  Will you oversee these negotiations?”

“I can,” the Aurum said, floating into view.

“Don’t try something,” Lucy told her.  “No sneaky terms, no finnicky wording.”

Snowdrop startled Avery by pushing Cherrypop into Avery’s chest.  Avery’s hands were full, but Cherry gripped her shirt.  Snowdrop hurled herself into the purple flowers, hand over her nose.  Many broke like glass beneath Snowdrop’s weight and thrashing.

“If you try something and we catch you, we can pause for fifteen minutes and an hour, to deliberate,” Verona said.  “Let the goblins party, you can put up with it, and then we get back to you and resume where we left off, without the trick.”

“Aaaaaaa!” Cherrypop shrieked, in the most annoying way possible, still holding onto Avery’s shirt, twisting around to look at Finnea.  She held the cube of stone, waving it in the air, paused to pant for breath, then shrieked again, “Aaaaaaa!”

“Let’s put an end to this.  Do away with the goblins.”

“When we’re done,” Avery answered, peering through the eyeholes of the wolf mask, her own breath hot in her face.  I’ve set myself the goal of being the antagonist of your story, you don’t get anything easy as long as I’m here.

“When you’re done giving all pertinent details, no hedging, no half truths, no trickery,” Lucy told her.  “Swear to give us what we want to know in a way that we’d be satisfied was complete and right, if we had the full story and could compare notes.”

“I’m a Faerie,” Finnea said.  “You might as well ask a goblin to be polite.”

“We have one of those,” Verona said.

“You’re a Faerie, but that’s not the entirety of who and what you are,” Avery told her.  “Concede.  Negotiate.”

Finnea paused, taking in the situation.  A Fae in the background shrieked as she ran by, goblins pulling at her hair.

She nodded.

“I’ll take that as confirmation of concession, and allow the negotiation to commence?” Aurum asked.

“Please,” Finnea asked.  “Would you deal with the worst of the rabble?  I’ll negotiate in a corresponding amount of good faith.”

“Goblins!” Avery called out.  “Job’s done!  Those of you who were summoned by the club, you can go, or you can leave Kennet and go anywhere not in its perimeter, but you can’t stay here!”

There were jeers and complaints.

“We win!?” Liberty asked.  “I wasn’t paying much attention to you guys!”

“We won,” Avery told her.  “Sort out your gobs?”

Liberty pumped her fist, then fired off another goblin-fetus with umbilical cord streamer for good measure, before releasing the weapon back to pregnant-goblin form.  “My guys!  Gather round!”

“Can we negotiate about the gainsaying penalties?” Verona asked.  “This sucks.”

“No,” Finnea said.  “Not with me.”

She looked at the Aurum.

“No,” the Aurum said, looking at the three of them.  “You called on me to adjudicate a lesser challenge, that Finnea of the Thistle Tay was tied into the conspiracy to unseat, disappear, or kill the Carmine Beast, whatever may have unfolded.  This was not so.  Your issue of gainsaying lies with me, not Finnea.  As the defender of the challenge, the power you’ve lost is hers.”

“And I’ve spent a share of it on this,” Finnea replied, indicating the flower patch.

“A practitioner’s word must matter,” the Aurum said.  “Several days to a week, depending on circumstance, and you’ll be back to your usual self.  Be more careful in the future.”

Verona made a face.

“Ey,” Cherrypop whispered.  She looked over at Lucy and Verona.  “Ey!”

“What?” Lucy asked.

“Are you giving precedence to a least-tier goblin over me?” Finnea asked.  “Humiliation of someone who has just expressed willingness to negotiate-”

“Calm the frick down,” Verona said.

“And don’t pull that crap,” Lucy told her.  “We warned you about tricky stuff.  Annoying stuff like that counts.”

Finnea fell silent.

Avery looked down, glanced over at Snowdrop, who was messing up the flower bed, to Finnea’s clear annoyance, and then back down at Cherrypop.  “Cherry?”

“Oh!  I heard stuff.  They said I should tell yeh,” Cherrypop told her.  “Lucy’s mom is calling people.  They’re making a phone tree, which is dumb, because you’d have to climb so fast to get to the phones before it finishes ringing.”

“What about, Cherry?” Avery asked.  “Why is this important?”

“Maricica is out there, looking to talk to another kid.”

“Melissa?” Verona asked.

“No,” Avery said.  “I think it might be Pam.  Twisting the knife, no matter what happens.”

“Damn it,” Lucy said.  “Hopefully-”

“Hoping isn’t enough,” Avery interrupted.  “Can you guys hold down the fort?  Handle negotiation?”

“We can,” Lucy replied.

“Headache is killing me and my stomach feels ick but I can stick it out,” Verona told her.

“With your leave, may I go?” Avery asked the Aurum.

“You may.”

She went straight for the general direction of her bag, where she’d shucked it off to switch to wolf-mask mode.  The arena collapsed, and she paused a moment, seeing the gathered Kennet Others.

Miss was among them.  Toadswallow clapped, polite, smiling.

“I’ve gotta go,” Avery told them.  “Black rope, black rope…”

She found it in Lucy’s stuff.  Right.

“Avery,” Toadswallow said.  He put a hand on her arm, and she paused. He looked up at her, monocle glinting in moonlight.  “We have reason to believe the glitter twit has already left our town.  She did what she wanted to already, if she did anything at all.  We had goblins protecting the girl you named.”

“Pamela.”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but I still need to check.”

“Do you need further help?” Miss asked.  “Friends?  Tools?”

“I don’t know.  I- I’m going to go check on Pam, I’m worried I gave Maricica what she needs to go after her.  I’ve gotta- I can’t be responsible for her getting hurt.  She was a bystander.  I don’t know if any of you move as fast as I’d want you to.  I’d rather just get there, make sure it’s okay.”

“I hope you know that if she was hurt, it would be because of Maricica, not you,” Miss told her.

“That doesn’t make me feel better enough,” Avery said, pulling off the wolf mask.  It was heavy in her hands, warm with her body heat and breath.  She stared down at it for a second.  She shoved it in the front compartment of her bag.  “Gotta go.”

“I’ll be leaving Kennet shortly, I can’t stay within when I can’t trust the perimeter,” Miss said.

“I’ll check in with you later!”

“I’m sending goblins after you,” Toadswallow said, indicating Biscuit’s group.  “They’ll catch up.”

“Yeah!” Avery called back.

Already running.  Already reminding herself that she had the Deer mask in her bag too.

Leaving the chaos and noise and stress behind, chasing after something else.

She black roped her way across a nighttime Kennet.  Running shoes hit the ground, predominantly grass that was softer to run on than street, and periodically scraped along rooftops as she went from low to high to find her next leaping-off point.

She knew the neighborhood.  She’d biked around hoping to see Pam a lot, once upon a time.

Then she’d steered clear.

For what?  If Pam was still in danger, because Pam had been so close to the surface of Avery’s thoughts when a Faerie was trying to find weak points…

Ugh.  Ugh ugh ugh.

The energy of the trial stuck to her, stayed with her, even as she resumed her role as deer, of the Avery she wanted to be, rather than the Wolf she’d had to be back there.

It was hard to leave that kind of antagonism and aggressiveness behind.

I don’t want Kennet to change me that way.

Even if the masks had kind of been her idea.  The role reversals, the unleashing of their more dangerous selves.

Avery found a discreet place to stop, changed back into regular clothes, and set out for Pam’s again.  She stuffed the costume Liberty had given her into her bag, and wondered if she’d ever have occasion to wear it again.  Punk wasn’t her thing.

She found the right block, and leaped onto a roof, getting her bearings, before hopping down.

She walked, catching her breath a bit before she arrived at the corner of Pam’s property.

No blood, no commotion.

Butty and Nat were there, in a hedge.

“Did she come by?” Avery asked them.

Butty nodded, smiling that too-wide, too-pleased-with-himself smile that was so often on his face.  Like a kid who had just proudly shat himself.

Frig.  That mental image suggested she’d already spent a bit too much time around goblins.

“Did she get away with anything?”

“We couldn’t get close,” Nat mumbled.  “Kid was watching.”

“Pam was?”

Nat nodded.

“Did she manage to do anything?”

“Talked.”

Avery made a face, wincing.

She rounded the corner of the property.

“Hey!”

Avery looked up.  Pamela’s window was one of those ones that jutted out a bit, with a seat in the window itself, and there wasn’t much light in the room itself, so she’d been sort of invisible, sitting there.  Her hair was down and she had a book on one thigh, a poseable flashlight clipped to it and illuminating the pages.

“Oh, hey!” Avery called up.  “Doing okay?”

“Been better,” Pam said.

Avery’s heart sank.  “How come?”

“Stay there?”

Avery nodded.

Pamela disappeared, apparently heading downstairs, and Avery hurried to fix her hair, using the bottom of her shirt to wipe sweat and whatever else off her face.

Pamela could be heard having a small argument with her mom, which continued even as she opened the side door of the house and stepped into the backyard.  “-from class, relax!  It’s no big!”

Pamela was a bit flushed and she was wearing this linen top with a fancy collar which was really summery in style and that wasn’t a style Avery had ever seen her in.  It looked really nice.

“Everything okay?” Avery asked.

“You’re friends with Lucy, right?”

Avery nodded.

“Apparently some creep came to her house asking about her mom and a bunch of parents are calling around to warn other people.  There’s a bunch of details on social media, people are trying to figure it out.”

“Oh, I heard a tiny bit about that, but I haven’t gotten the full story,” Avery told Pamela.  “Did anything happen here?”

“Not like that, but…” Pam paused.  “Guy from a while ago showed up.”

“Oh?  Boyfriend?”

“Maybe he might’ve been if he stuck around.  Tourist, I think.  Or some guy passing through.”

“Oh,” Avery said, very quiet.

“My mom wouldn’t let me go outside because of the whole thing Lucy’s mom was warning people about.  Probably a good thing.  He started off nice and sweet, then he got meaner.”

“Frig,” Avery said, not sure what to say.  “I’m so sorry.”

“It was this really nice thing, you know?  He shows up, he calls me pretty, that- I never expected that.  It was nice.  Then he shows up again and… ruins it?  I was trying to tell Caroline online, but she was being annoying about it and…”

Pamela made a face, and it made Avery’s heart hurt, seeing it, because it was so unfiltered.

Avery wanted to say something and there were half-ideas in her head, where she could say it was her fault, that Kell had done it because of her or something.

But she was so tired of half truths.

“I’m being lame and dramatic,” Pam said, as she walked across the backyard in bare feet.  “I shut off my computer, thought I’d read, but I keep reading the same page over and over again because I can’t stop thinking about what that douche said.”

Pam’s hands gripped the top end of the picket fence as she got to it.

“Pam, I want you to stay close to the house or stay inside!” Pam’s mom called out from the house.

“It’s Avery from school, I told you!” Pamela called back.  “Chill!”

“Hi Mrs. O’Neill!” Avery called out.

“Avery, honey,” Pamela’s mom said, stepping into the doorway.  “It’s best if you get home, okay?  There’s rumors going around about creeps.”

“I’m pretty sure I can outrun your average creep, Mrs. O’Neill,” Avery said.

“I don’t think that’s good enough, honey,” Pam’s mother said.

“Avery’s fast,” Pamela said, smiling at the ridiculousness of the idea.

“Go home soon, okay!?”

Avery nodded.

“Ugh, my mom’s overprotective,” Pam said.  She faced Avery again, then frowned a bit.  “You okay?”

“Huh?  Yeah,” Avery said.  “Worn out.  Crazy night.”

“Yeah, apparently.  But your eyes are wet.”

“What you were talking about before,” Avery said, shrugging.  “Sorry.  You don’t deserve that.  At all.  It sucks.  I hate that that happened, so much.”

“It’s okay, it’s-”

“It sucks,” Avery said, with emphasis.

“It does suck,” Pam said, blinking a couple times.  She leaned into the fence.  “Ugh.”

“If you ever see him again, point me at him and I’ll do my best to kick his ass.”

“Only if you let me get one good kick in between the legs.”

“If that’s doable I’d be happy to,” Avery said.  “Probably not doable.”

“Darn,” Pam said, sighing.  “Ugh.  Thank you.  I don’t know if you’re forcing it because I said Caroline wasn’t really listening, but thanks for hearing me out.  Thanks for being upset or acting upset.”

“No act, no force.”

“Thanks,” Pam said, her back to the fence, to Avery, as she looked up at her window.

Avery took a second, studying Pam, wracking her brain for anything she might do or say.  She wanted to give excuses or soften the blow but she’d given Maricica the ammo and the glamour and Maricica had used it.  Probably to hurt Pam through her, or to set something in motion.  She had no idea but Pam was having a bad night because of it.

She hated that.  She wanted to make it better, but the way to do that wasn’t through lies.

“I’m… really hoping you won’t take this the wrong way, or anything,” Avery said.

“Huh?” Pam asked.  “Oh no.”

“No, no.  Not like… not bad.  I think you’re great, Pam.  I think you’re super nice and cool.”

“But?”

“No but.”

“Why would I take that the wrong way?”

“Because… I voted for you in the class app thing.  I know you’re not into girls,” Avery said.  She managed to keep her composure as Pam turned around to give her her full attention.  She hoped Pam wouldn’t be crappy about this, she had no reason to think she would, but…  man, that would be gutting and awful if she was.

This was a leap of faith.  Putting herself out there.  It was hard to read Pam’s expression in the dark.

“You’re my first crush,” Avery said.  “I hope it’s not disappointing that it’s not a boy who voted for you, but I think there’s gotta be guys out there who like you like I do.”

“Okay,” Pam said.  “I’m not sure what to say.”

“Take it as a compliment?  I think you’re pretty and when I was super depressed earlier this year you made the room brighter with your good mood and jokes and I really needed that, even if you didn’t know.”

“You were depressed?” Pam asked.  “Super depressed?”

“Yeah!  Yeah,” Avery replied.  “I was super lonely.  Came from homeschool and everyone had their friends.”

“Oh, you could’ve asked me or anyone if you wanted to hang out.  If you’re ever lonely again you can.”

Avery smiled.  “I’m okay now.  But thanks.”

“I didn’t think you were the type to get that depressed.  You’re always out there, sports and stuff, and you’re pretty, and-”

Avery thumped a fist over her heart.  “Means a lot.  But I think we’re all… dealing, I guess.”

“I miss being a kid,” Pam said.

“Yeah.  I get you.  Used to have a best friend from out of town, then she bailed on me.  But I got through the bad, y’know, and now I have two better friends.”

“Cool.”

“I’m talking about me, though, and I wanted to cheer you up,” Avery said, momentarily alarmed.  “I’m dumb sometimes.  Look, Pam.  You’re great.  Okay?  You’re super, you’re sweet, you’re pretty as heck, and whatever that fake-ass guy said, screw him, forget him, okay?  Except if he shows up again, you can call me and I’ll see about beating him up and arranging for you to kick him between the legs, how’s that?”

Pam smiled.  “Okay.”

If this was awkward and felt like putting herself three hundred percent out there, seeing Pam smile made it worth it.

“Pam!” Pamela’s mother called out.

“Oh my god my mom is going to drive me crazy.  I swear, if she keeps me cooped up inside because of this creepo rumor, I’m going to flip,” Pam said.

“I’ll let you go,” Avery said.

“I’m super flattered, you know, but I’m not-”

“I know.  And that’s good, that’s the intention.  I wouldn’t be saying all this if it wasn’t, my heart’s beating like crazy, I feel like I’m rambling.  I bet I’m going to kick myself for ten different things I said here, later.”

“I heard you liked girls but didn’t want to buy into the rumor without verifying.”

“Verified,” Avery said, shrugging.

“Whatever girl you end up with will be super lucky,” Pam said.

Avery thumped a fist against her heart again.  “Means a lot.  More than you know.”

“Cool.”

“Pam!” Pam’s mother called out.

Pam sighed, “Can you give me an alibi if I murder my mom in the next few days?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Darn.”

Avery lifted a hand in a wave as Pam went back inside.

That had been what she’d wanted to do the first time round.  She hoped she wouldn’t find reason to regret this.

Owe myself a checkmark she told herself, as she walked away.  She gave Butty a pat on the head as she walked by.  “Keep an eye out for trouble, guys.  Gotta go check on the others.”

🟂

“Any issues?” Lucy asked.

“I don’t know.  I’m not sure if Maricica couldn’t get to Pam the way she wanted or if she was setting something up for later, but I hate it,” Avery said.

“Damn,” Lucy muttered.  “Sorry.”

Avery shrugged.

“We’re doing a big debrief, talking to the Others,” Verona said.  “Finnea doesn’t know that much about Maricica.  General background details.  Stuff that fits in with the court intrigue and what she was talking to Guilherme about.  No weaknesses, no clues about where she might be hiding.”

“Are we thinking of a hiding place in Kennet?” Avery asked.

“Who knows?” Verona replied.

They joined the larger group of Kennet Others.  The Faerie and goblin stuff was gone and there was only some light damage to trees and a lot of fallen branches to show for it.

She gave Snowdrop a head pat, as Snowdrop sat with Cherry.

“…had an idea,” Cherrypop told Snowdrop.

“What?” Snow asked.

“I wanna be your familiar!  You can stay Avery’s and then that way I’ll be working with you and stuff!  And we can keep hanging out!”

Snowdrop frowned and looked around.  “I think that works.  I think that really works.”

Cherrypop pumped her tiny hands into the air.  “Yes!”

“All good?” Liberty asked, as they approached.

“I don’t know,” Avery admitted.  “Seems okay?  But it’s a Faerie and-”

“And you’re getting it,” Liberty said.  “I guess I’m done here?”

“Thanks for coming,” Lucy said.

“It was fun!  Well, it wasn’t fun at the midway point, but it got fun!  You guys are great, and the outfit was great, Avery!”

“I’ve still got it.”

“Wear it sometime!”

“Maybe?”

“We should hang out sometime when it’s not a huge crisis.  I hope we’re okay after me almost hurling you off a bridge and everything America did right at the end of you guys leaving.”

“Yeah,” Avery said.

“Man, you’ve got a good crop of goblins,” Liberty said, giving Cherrypop a small head pat.  “I’m jealous you’ve got Uncle Toad.”

“Maybe you can visit,” Verona suggested.

“If your guys allow it.  Anyway, let me get out of your way so you can do your big debrief.  Hugs!”

Liberty gave Lucy a hug, then Verona, then hugged Avery, rocking side by side and giving her a tight squeeze around the shoulders, which happened to remind Avery that she’d been hauling that Bluntmunch-club around and she’d be feeling it tomorrow.  Also a hug from a cheerful girl.

Then Liberty was off, saying her goodbye and giving a super-extra-big hug to ‘Uncle Toad’ before leading the goblins out of town, including the little ones who’d been spawned or dug up.

“She gave you a longer hug than the two of us combined,” Verona pointed out.

“Please stop,” Avery said.  “Maybe she thought I needed a hug.  Or I’m the one most in contact with her and I was fighting alongside her.  She gave Sir Toadswallow a bigger hug and I don’t think there’s anything weird about that.”

“I dunnnoo,” Verona said, before Lucy jabbed her.

Avery made a pleading gesture.  “Please don’t turn this into a Fernanda thing, which you drag out past the point of funny.”

“It’s so tempting though, and what if, just saying, what if-”

Avery put her hands around Verona’s neck and mock-strangled her.

“Ready?” Toadswallow asked.  “We all need to be on the same page, and it’s clear not everyone has been sharing everything.  Rook and Miss?”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “Not that you’re one to talk.”

“We’ll leave that aside, if you please,” Toadswallow said, smiling in what he probably thought was an ingratiating way.  “Come on.  Not everybody’s here, but the relevant parties are, I think.  You’ll need to explain the binding of Cig.”

“Lis is gone?” Avery asked.

“We think.”

They joined the main group.  It was still half goblin.  Guilherme had showed up.  That would probably be useful, in putting the puzzle together.

“It’s a shame we can’t call a formal meeting and demand all the Others of Kennet show up,” Verona said.  “Make them appear.”

“There are standards and rules when it comes to hospitality,” Toadswallow said.

“We can- we can make them show up, and then we give Maricica a chair!” Cherrypop exclaimed, so excited she was a bit out of breath.

“A chair?”

“With a hole in the bottom, she’s naked and she’ll sit and I’ll be underneath and bam, here’s that rock, right up the butt!”

“She doesn’t sit at meetings, I don’t think,” Verona said.

“Dammit!”

“If only it was so easy,” Toadswallow said.  “Alas, she was one of our original Others, working as part of the group.”

“If it’s okay, can I make a request?” Avery asked.  “I don’t know how much it matters, but… for my friend Pam.  And for Lucy- for her mom.  If Maricica is out there, I don’t want to worry every step of the way that she’s going to show up and ruin things.”

“What do you want to do?” Matthew asked.

“We didn’t get her, she’s out there, she escaped,” Avery said, looking around the group.  “Can we revoke Maricica’s welcome?  And membership?”

“We can.  Consider the motion opened,” Toadswallow said.  “Revoking the membership among Kennet’s Others.  Exiling her from Kennet and its protections, removing her power and influence, wherever seen or noted.  She isn’t to be welcomed within the perimeter.”

“This won’t stop her from coming in,” Matthew said.

“No,” Toadswallow said.  “But we’ll have some notice she’s entered or if she’s present, and she won’t be as comfortable inside the perimeter.  If Montague acts, she’ll be pointedly uncomfortable.  Sufficient?”

Avery nodded.

“Same for Lis?” Verona asked.

“Lis’s sponsorship will be revoked if we have unanimous agreement,” Toadswallow said.  “We’ll take measures.  Again, we can’t bar her from entry until the perimeter is stronger, but we’ll know if she’s here and we’ll know if she enters.”

There were nods all around.

“Any objections?  Points of clarification?” Toadswallow asked.

There were none.

“Let’s begin.”


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