One After Another – 10.a


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

“They’re all going to die if you don’t let me go!  We’re all going to die!”

Snow blew.  It formed small piles where obstructions and rubble sat on either side of the street, and where cars could catch what blew through the air and deposit it on the ground, but it didn’t add more than an inch to the ground, otherwise.  People had been driven inside and the low visibility had slowed everything down.

It had been happening more and more, as of late.

Horseman dropped down from above with little more noise than a light scuff of boot on snowy road.

Horseman was the first of them.  He was barely more than a teenager, and even though he was fit, he seemed small in his army uniform, cobbled together from both sides of the recent conflict.  His weapon seemed big in his arms as he slumped down against the wall, sitting.

“Three groups,” Horseman said.  The snow caught on his eyebrows, and his breath fogged.  “There’s the group responsible for the hillbilly truck out front.  Been here for a while.  Possible PMC.”

The truck had pieces of other cars and copious amounts of scrap metal spot-welded onto the exterior as extra armor.  So heavy there had barely been room for the tires in the wheel wells that had been pushed closer to the ground.

“New guys we saw come in last week.  Bunch of virgins.  And then a bunch of S-4 types, dressed for business, not warfare.”

“All crammed in together,” Ribs said.  He was skinny, head shorn, wasn’t wearing a shirt under his heavy parka-style jacket, even in this weather.  He smiled, and it wasn’t a pretty picture.  His face was marred with a diagonal stretch of scar tissue, with his left eye peering through strings of the stuff, and the right side of his face was the only part that wasn’t sealed shut or utterly erased by the scarring- and that was because his molars were showing through the hole in his scarred cheek.

Angel added, “Two local nationals, the correspondent, and our POI.”

Horseman leaned back, his head against the wall, gun across his knees, eyes closing.  He looked like he was ready to take a nap right there.  “They’re hanging out together.  The correspondent and the POI.”

“He’s a noisy fuck,” Angel said.  She had very blue eyes for her brown skin, a scarf around her head and lower face.

They fell silent, listening.

It took a sharp ear to pick out the words.

I’m going to tell you what I think is going to happen.  I think some of you are going to die.  You’ve already been funneled here.  They’re liable to set fires or use explosives, throw everything into chaos.  Then they will come.  When you respond to commotions or gunfire, they’ll be expecting you.  It may even be surgical.

If you know who they are why not tell us?

Because I can’t.  Things are going to go wrong and you’re going to need to release me, fast once you realize just how wrong it goes.

Wrong, confidential stuff?  What, are they PMC?  Are they ours?” the correspondent asked.  A recognizable voice.

Yes, might have some PMC in them.  Yes, they’re yours.

There was a pause.

Don’t fucking hit him!” the correspondent shouted.

He needs to stop being cagey.  My friends died out there because of his lies!

Angel reached over, tapping shoulders, pointing up.

The four of them looked.

Grandfather was up there, on the rooftop.  He wasn’t that old, to deserve the name, but he had shocks of grey hair to his hair and beard.  He pointed, hand out flat.

They moved.  Horseman went to the corner and looked at the door, then motioned up.

They climbed the front of the building with coordinated ease, Angel first, Horseman last.  Angel was nimble, and was halfway up the front before Grandfather dropped a rope.  Horseman picked up the slack on his way up.  The rope was pulled up and out of the way before the men walking around the corner would have seen it.

Horseman remained there, halfway up the wall, holding onto the rope, and he dropped down behind the patrol, with barely a sound.  They didn’t hear or see.

“Hey.  How is it in there?”

“Fucked up.”

The guys walking around were talking to guys who’d just stepped out the front door.  Horseman stood behind them, leaning against the wall, calm and casual.

“Nine more months. What a way to start off, huh?”

“Is it all like this?”

“I don’t know.”

“If it is, it’d explain those guys in there.  They were supposed to go home a week ago.  It’s like they snapped.”

“Losing friends does that.”

“I’m not okay with how they were treating that nut they’ve got tied to the chair.”

“Don’t tell them that, or you might be next.”

“How do we report that shit?”

“I don’t think we do.”

“You don’t beat a guy that’s tied up and unable to fight back.  There’s got to be a process.”

“I think Joshua means that communication is down, so you can’t report anything, good or bad.”

“What I mean is if you say anything, you’ll get in deep shit with them, and you won’t make anything better.  If their tours are extended another three months then that’s three months they’re here with you.  Us, if we get lumped in with you.  Our lives are on the line here.”

“They’ve gone off the rez, Mike.”



“Right here, numbnuts.  I didn’t grow up on the reservation but I have family who did.”

“Huh.  I never thought-”

The voice trailed off.

The guy who was speaking was looking past the teenager to Horseman.  Realizing he was there, but he was an unrecognizable face.

They weren’t ready for a fight.  Horseman was.  That was to be expected.  There were too many layers of people who were supposed to keep watch or sound the alarm.

But Horseman was a super soldier in a rare way that deserved the term.  With knife alone he brought four men to their knees, and not one of the four was able to shout out a warning.  With the fourth, Horseman put a knife in his heart, shoving him up against the wall, hand over the guy’s mouth.  The guy returned the favor, or tried, knife in Horseman’s neck.

There was a whisking sound as gloved hands ran down the rope.

Four of them approached Horseman and the four on the ground.  Horseman had left the two most talkative out of the group to bleed, throats cut.  The kid who’d been having doubts had fingers jammed into the open wound in his throat, trying to stifle the blood, but doing so meant he choked, coughed, and couldn’t breathe around the fingers and blood.

The other one fumbled for his gun and Angel stepped on his hand, before bending down.  He reached up with his other hand, trying to get a grip on her tactical vest, and got her scarf instead, pulling it down.  She had no mouth.  Only a cut, some war paint.  She still spoke, sometimes.

The boy’s -Mike’s- eyes went wide and went wild with fear, and that was before she put her handgun to his chin.

John bent over the boy who was suffocating.  The boy reached up with one hand, fingers scraping at mud and scar tissue.  Fingernails passed over where the eyes should be and found nothing to get purchase on.

His eyes didn’t go wide and wild.  He’d talked about reporting things and having nine months of this ahead of him and now he looked more sad than anything.  A very sad teenage kid, struggling to breathe.

He didn’t have nine months of this ahead of him.

John put a hand over the boy’s eyes, drawing his gun.  The coughing and gurgling was worse now, because the kid was so scared.

Horseman stood there, dispassionate, watching.  One hand at his neck, where arterial blood had pumped in time with slow heartbeats, and was pumping slower now.

He pulled the trigger at the same time Angel did, putting one in the kid’s heart.  The flash and impact of the gun rattled the senses.  He could feel the impact of the bullet through the chest in the hand he’d laid over the kid’s eyes.  It took only a moment, and when the flash passed, Angel had a mouth.  She cracked her jaw, opening it, and then frowned, before pulling the scarf up.

John Stiles straightened.

“Another,” Horseman said.  He pulled the hand away from his neck.  The wound wasn’t pumping blood anymore.  It had clotted.  He pointed with his full hand out, rather than one finger, indicating the body.  “Unconscious.”

Horseman had left them dying, to be finished off.

Angel aimed.  The shot was loud.  He could hear the commotion inside.

“You got a last name now,” Horseman said, voice low, as he stepped close, his face inches from John’s.  “Good eyes, those.  Except they’re too sad to suit your old nickname though, Carnivore.”

John closed his eyes, then opened them.  When he opened them, Horseman had a hand on Angel’s chin, looking at her face.  He let go and stepped away as part of the same motion, nodding.

People were coming down the hall toward the front door.  None of them were especially worried as they moved to either side of the entryway, giving Ribs his space.  He lobbed a grenade.

The front of the building was brick, with double doors, and a detonation knocked one of the two doors off the hinges.  The other swung open then banged closed again.

Ribs wasn’t just nicknamed Ribs because he was skinny.  He had an improvised weapon, using fuel siphoned from cars.  It came out as a narrow spray, the stream long, the spray followed by rolling ignition, firing in through the opening.

There was answering gunfire.  Calls for fire extinguishers as the building lit up.  Shouts from the captive.

Their POI.

The gunfire was concentrated on the source of the flame.  The flame obscured vision and set off fire alarms, adding a high pitched ringing to the sound of the guns.  Water sprayed down from sprinklers set into the ceiling.

John Stiles now had a bit of the kid he’d finished off in him.  He had a bit of a sense of how the building interior looked, where things were, and where people might be going.

He ventured in, and Ribs gave him a light kick to help him on his way.  He had no idea if it was because of superstition or a power, but fire seemed to burn them less when Ribs was involved.  John waded through low-burning fires on the front steps and around the door, his head low, pushing his way in through the right side of the front doors.  Someone might have heard or seen a glimpse of him or seen the door opening, because someone aimed at him, there was a tight grouping of muzzle flashes from shots aimed at the doorway, and a bullet hit him in the arm and bowled him over onto his ass.

He shifted forward, then off to the right.  There was a stairwell, but he didn’t ascend, using it for cover instead.  Skin prickled with the heat from the homemade flamethrower and the fire in the adjoining hallway, and pain radiated out from the bullet in his arm.  His pant leg burned from fuel but the fire didn’t spread.  The air was unbreathable, the sound of the guns in the confined hallway almost unbearable.

Didn’t matter.

He’d emerged in the midst of violence and fought his way out, and he’d found the others like the water of melted snowflakes running down the window, more a force of nature moving as nature dictated, joining together with the others.

He fished in the wound, tearing it open wider, until he had the bullet.  He pulled it free, and then he waited, hand over his wound.

The fire extinguishers flooded the hallway.

He was the teenage boy and the executioner, he was others, hundreds of others who added together into an uncountable number of dead, the uncountable and the yet uncounted.  Parents on all sides in this conflict were waiting anxiously over news of sons, of daughters, who could be dead for days or weeks before news finally found its way back.  People who had found home far behind them, either because they’d come here from overseas or because they’d been here and had it taken from them in a seemingly endless cycle.

The lights all went out at once.  Instead of the fluorescent haze of artificial lights trying to shine through smoke, everything was now a dark blue made darker by the haze of fire extinguisher exhaust and smoke, lingering small fires touching the walls with orange light here and there.

He breathed deep, then rolled, started moving.  His arm was intact enough to work, and the visibility in the hallway was almost nil with the darkness, smoke and the chemical from the extinguishers.  Men were shouting and he placed them by the sound, arranging everything in his head.  He listened for one voice and knew where he’d look for the POI.

John waded into the fog of the chemical extinguishers and the lingering smoke that filled the hallway, head bent, until he was face to face with the man who was trying to put out the fire.  With a swipe, John cut his throat.  He threw the knife aside so his hand would be free, and grabbed his victim, twisting him around to make him a meat shield.  Bullets punched through the man and into John’s stomach, but it reduced the impact, bought him time to assess.  He drew the gun of the man with the bleeding throat, counting twelve people present, including one who sat in a chair.  A good share of those people were shooting, more were getting clear of John as they saw his gun.

POI.  Their person of interest.  Short, skinny, with short scraggly blond facial hair and thick eyebrows.  He wore a sweater and black cargo pants and he was zip tied and belted to the chair.  The correspondent, a journalist for the media, was right next to him, sitting but not tied.  They apparently trusted him to cooperate.

“Let me go!  Jesus fuck!” the POI screamed.  He rocked in position.

The correspondent vacated his chair and pulled the POI over, the chair tipping and crashing to the ground.  John’s shot missed.  More bullets passed into and through the body of the man John was holding up in front of him, and passed through to John.  John’s muscle and bone started failing him.

John collapsed, pulling the body of the man with the slashed throat down on top of him.

Blood trickled down onto him until people pulled the body off of him.  That blood obscured details while he healed, hid his face.  Down the hall and through rooms elsewhere, fires were raging.  The power had gone out and there was only darkness, the light of the fires, and the light of flashlights now.

Rough hands searched him, checking, pulling weapons and things from him.  Fingers dug into his throat for his pulse and found nothing.

The flashlight shone in his eyes, which were unfocused and dull.  No blood flowed, making John’s field of vision foggy, only some receptors absorbing the signal.  “What the fuck is wrong with his face?  What is all of this?”

“Was this what you were talking about?  Stuff being wrong?” the correspondent asked.  “The fact we can’t get calls out?  That nobody’s come?  MonstersMutants?

“Explain!” one of the military personnel barked.  He kicked the chair, making it slide a foot or so.

The POI growled the words, “Cut me free.  I’m the only one here who can deal with this.”

“Who are they!?”

“Or what are they?” the correspondent asked, as if something had dawned on him.  He stood with his back to the wall, and looked at the others.  “He was hinting at this before, over drinks.  Dicky’s been right about everything so far.  Including how they’d come at us.”

“Shut up!  That little asshole’s been jerking us around for days now, never giving a straight answer, pulling stupid stunts, and last night was enough to get good men killed.”

“Deshazo, I want to go home,” a guy said.  “I think you do too.  He might be an asshole but he sure seems like an asshole who knows what’s going on.”

‘Deshazo’ fell silent.

“Cut me free,” the POI said, quiet, breathing hard.  He was still lying on his side, zip-tied to the chair.  There was a heavy bang from elsewhere in the building.  Something breaking or being broken.  “You’ll need to do what I say.  Even if it doesn’t make sense in the moment.”

And there was singing.  A child, voice sweet.

“That’s bait,” the guy who’d wanted to go home said.  “That’s fucking bait, guys.”

“It’s something,” the POI agreed.  “Bait included.  Number one thing you need to do?  Don’t hurt the little kid.  Don’t touch her.”

“Wasn’t going to.  What else?” the man in charge asked.

“You may want to soon.  Resist the urge to mess with her.  What else, um, cut me free?”

“What else except that?  I’ll decide if I’m going to cut you free based on the other advice.  You’ve fucked us a few too many times, and it sure looked like you’re the one they’re after.”

“They’re after me because they realized I know how to handle them.  Next thing, the guy by the fire extinguisher.”

“No pulse,” a man close to John reported.

“Put a bullet in his head and heart anyway,” the POI said.  “Even that won’t keep him down forever.”

John closed his new eyes and listened to the singing that flowed through the building, to the accompaniment of running footsteps, crashes, the squeal of the fire alarm, and the crackling of flames.

“Fuck me, he moved just now.  Is he a zombie?”

“Bullet in the head and heart!  Cut Dicky the Asshole free.  Don’t make me regret this.”

A man stood over John, gun in hand.  A gunshot silenced it all.


John opened his eyes.  The fire alarms had stopped.  The squeal had been replaced with a scream.

Angel, upper body wrapped in chains, knelt, and she was the one screaming, expression all fury, arching forward to give the scream more volume.  Her eyes were the only blue thing in a canvas of red and orange.  Fire licked the floor and ceiling both but it didn’t spread.

Soldiers lay everywhere, dead.  Only a few were still alive.  Ribs, off to the side, sat in a cage of swords that impaled the ground, trying and failing to light a cigarette he had clamped in the molars that were visible in his ruined cheek, his eyes on Angel.  The correspondent wasn’t far from him, standing with back to the wall.

The correspondent was a journalist who’d been covering the war.  The POI had used him for access, then had tried to turn that access into an opportunity to mobilize these soldiers and others against John and his group.  It had almost worked.  They’d slipped the net with only one casualty, and the soldiers were left bewildered and angry.  They’d abandoned post after post and retreated, condensing, in the face of the snowstorm and steady harassing attacks.  They’d laid the blame for the chaos at the POI’s feet, tying him to a chair.

Settling and grouping up here, with some logistics guys and a fresh batch of virgins.  Thinking that they had enough eyes out there, that they were safe.

‘Dicky’, that POI, was facing down Angel now.  The man was disheveled, hair greasy with sweat, arms dripping with blood to the bicep.  Papers with scrawlings on them were pinned to his chest, and littered the ground around him.  He stood over her.

Angel’s scream didn’t die out as she ran out of breath.  It became a roar, spittle flecking her lips.

“You want mercy?  Anything but what you’ve got coming to you?  All pity choked with custom of fell deeds,” the POI said.

“Your deeds,” Ribs growled the words through clenched teeth and a mouth without an opening in the front.

The POI turned.

“Yours and theirs, both sides,” Ribs said.  “Fires left to burn in places with people inside, when they could have been put out.  Indiscriminate shooting.  Getting mean.  We’re you, your deeds made manifest, from the uncounted dead.”

John stirred.  He shook his head as he pulled himself together.

Don’t.  Don’t tell them that.

It felt wrong, somehow, even if he wasn’t sure why.  To tell when- when the journalist was there.

The POI reached for Angel, grabbed her by the throat, and leaned in close, looking at the tag.  She spat on him.  He ignored it.

“Be bound, Angel, you mongrel Dog of War, in the name of the Leonard family, in accordance with our deals with War and Discord, that reach back a century.  Be bound, until such a time as the Leonard family and only the Leonard family deigns to bring you back to serve.”

“Fuck, you fucker!” Ribs growled the words.

Angel roared in his face, teeth bared, face contorted.

“Be bound.”  The POI hauled on the chain at her neck, snapping it.

There was no Angel now, no chains.  Only a chewed up metal tag swinging from a chain.

“Fuck!” Ribs swore.

“What did you do?” the journalist asked.  “What happened to her?”

“I got what I came for.  The Blast Dog told half the story.  They are us, emerging from our worst, warlike tendencies, and they perpetuate the cycle of war, for War herself.  They come from senseless, uncountable measures of killing, and they inflict more of the same.  I was asked to come here to deal with them.  I leash them for power and reap the rewards for the risk I take.  Then more will spring up and I and my family will deal with them too.”

“I’ve seen a lot of war and I’ve never seen or heard of this.”

“With your expertise, I’d bet you have or you’ve come damn close, but you wouldn’t have recognized what you saw.  And they don’t tend to admit what they are as freely as that one did.  It’s curious that he did.”

“Want me to share?”  Ribs asked.

“No, I want this over with.  I’ve got protections, so I can’t die from it, but breathing this smoke and dust is going to have me congested for the next while.  I’m ready to wrap this up and find a place to kick back.”

Ribs tried a few more times to light his cigarette, as if he hoped to spite the POI by adding to the smoke in the air.  He gave up, throwing the lighter aside.

John reached for his gun, and found it missing.  He moved, searching the body next to him, every beat of his heart painful, his head a bit of a fog.  Both things improved by the second, but there wasn’t much time.

He groped for and found a gun in the gap beneath a half-collapsed desk.

When he straightened, the POI was looking at him.

He aimed and shot before the man realized he had the gun.

The paper that was stapled to the man’s sweater fluttered, and the bullet went wide.  Black marker on stained paper briefly turned red and orange-red, like black iron heated under a flame.

John kept firing, one after the other.  That black marker turned orange-red, then yellow, then near-white.  A bullet dinged off of a sword that caged Ribs.  If he could overwhelm the defenses or the reserves of the man’s power, heat up the paper enough it could burn…

The gun clicked empty before he got that far.  He reached for a pocket.

“It’s no use,” the POI told him.  “Here.  A leash for a dog.”

The man flicked a paperclip at John.  It distorted and slapped hard against his arm.  It connected to a filing cabinet behind him… it was a chain, now, hampering John’s ability to dig in the pocket by his knee.

John threw the handgun.  Not at the man, but past him.  The paper still fluttered, and it still turned in the air.  It didn’t land anywhere close to Ribs.

The correspondent backed away with every new demonstration of power.  He was more scared of the POI now than of John or Ribs.  The gun landing seemed to be the point he decided to run for it.  He turned and ran for the back hallway.

The POI turned too, drawing a gun, and he shot.  A lazy firing of his gun.  Tattoos glowed through his shirt and the bullet struck home.  Small of the back.  Spine.

The journalist fell.  Screamed.

“I can’t have witnesses,” the POI said.

Ribs had his hands up, while the POI faced him with gun in hand.  As the POI turned back to John, Ribs smiled, and it was a mean smile.  His thumb tucked into his palm.  Then his pinky finger, then his ring finger… middle finger, index finger.

Counting down, silent.  The journalist continued to scream.

John grabbed a book and threw it.  He hauled on the chain, kept moving.  He screamed as Angel had.  To hold the man’s attention for just one moment longer…

Three… two… one.

Rib’s smile became a manic, snarling look as an explosion ripped through the ground floor of the building.


John roused once again.  It wasn’t an unusual thing, even, to ‘die’ a few times in one day.  This was his existence.

It was nice to wake up to singing, this time.

In the rubble and smoke, Songbird was there, sitting by his hand, where it stuck out of the mess.  He could barely make her out through the gaps in the rubble near his face.

He died of suffocation from the weight on his back, and everything went dark, and he roused, fighting for a few long moments to gradually shift things and pick himself up before he blacked out again.  Songbird removed the bits of rubble she could lift.  There was color to her eyes, now, and she wore a bright blue woman’s top that didn’t fit her and had a bloodstain at the side.  She kept singing throughout.

After a minute, Grandfather and a few of the others arrived and added their strength.

John climbed out from fallen sections of building.

“Where was he?” Grandfather asked.

It was the first time John had heard Grandfather’s voice.

John indicated, hand flat, pointing.  His mouth opened, and he was surprised to have a mouth.  Had the kill been at least partially credited to him?

“There,” John said, speaking for the first time as well.

Nobody commented on the fact that he could speak.

They pulled things aside, checking, digging.

The POI was there, dead and already stinking.  It took some work to get access to the right parts of the crumpled body.

The tags were around his neck.

Grandfather moved aside and let Songbird take them, counting her way through them.

“Richard Miles.  Angel.  Noakes.  Horseman,” Grandfather recited.  “All bound.”

John reeled with the loss and none of that reached his face or body.  They’d come after the POI because the POI had gone after Miles.  They’d lost three more.  Maybe more.  The group seemed too small.

Songbird looked at him, and her eyes were moist.  “Can we bring them back?”

John shook his head.  “According to the words he used, only a member of their family can bring back any of those four, and they’d still be bound.”

“What about Ribs?” she asked.  “We can’t find him, he doesn’t have Ribs’s tag.  We could do a bonfire, but…”

John rose to his feet with a grunt.  He was technically ‘inside’, but the building was so damaged that snow was falling indoors, fighting to descend as smoke fought to rise.  The end result was a lazy snowfall and low smoke hanging over it all.

He walked over to where Ribs had been, and found a gleaming sword-blade.  He rummaged, and in the mess of it all, he found Ribs’s tag.  Charred black and bent at the end.

“No body?” Grandfather asked.

“He was bound in a cage of swords when he was extinguished,” John said.  “I don’t think he can come back either, not like he normally would.”

“He’s not supposed to die from fire or explosions,” Songbird said.

“He’s not supposed to tell innocents what we are, either.  I think the protections that he’s supposed to have failed him,” John said.  “The innocent might have been alive still when Ribs’ explosive went off.”

If only Ribs hadn’t said what he’d said, about them being Dogs of War.  John was left to wonder why he had.  Ribs had been violent, aggressive, angry, and there’d been no hint of whatever had driven him to… confess?  Elaborate?  Announce his existence to someone who wasn’t one of them and wasn’t the POI?

“Can we have a bonfire?” Songbird asked, looking up at him.  She switched from English to Dari, adding, “Can we try?

If they burned a building of any value, then it would accelerate the return of any fallen Blast Dogs.  They didn’t tend to rise on their own as easily as John or Songbird did, but they had immunities and protections.  When they didn’t forfeit them for some wild-ass reason.  Burning a nice building would normally suffice, with Ribs walking out through the flames, and it would be a smoother process if they had his tag, to throw into the fires.

The ‘bonfire’ Songbird wanted.  John looked down at her.

“Why are you asking me?  I don’t have rank.”

“I don’t know,” she said.  She looked at him.  “I like your eyes.”

They needed to move, to get away.  A POI like Dicky had family, and the family would come after them.

“That’s not a good enough reason,” he told her.  “There are others who would be a better fit to replace Horseman as leader.”

“But you have some idea how this works, don’t you?” she asked.

He did.  Had that been something he got when he’d been credited with helping to kill the POI?

“We can try the bonfire, but I wouldn’t hold out hope,” John conceded.  “And it will have to wait.  We need to go.”

Songbird nodded, blinking moisture out of her eyes.  Then, one by one, she slipped the tags around her neck.  The five tags joined ten others.

“You don’t have to carry that burden,” Grandfather said.

“I want to.”

Nobody argued.

It was in their nature to spoil the little girl.  Gifts and kindnesses in the midst of the violence.  It was her predilection to not demand many things and to be silent when she wasn’t singing.  So when she asked for something like this, to carry the burden, she meant it.

“What next?” Grandfather asked.

There were two answers to the question.  The first was to carry on.  A pre-emptive attack that saw their number halved was better than being victim to any action from the POIs like Dicky that got them all.  They had only escaped the first one with the loss of Miles because the POI hadn’t realized Songbird was who she was.  Without that bit of luck, the POI might have captured them all in one fell swoop and bound them.

John found the passport in the coat of the POI.  Richmond F. Leonard.  There were details in there too.  A home address.

There were other Leonards out there, potentially.  John had a gut feeling that some were here.  Local.

The second answer was something else.  It came from the eyes he wore now, from the boy he’d shot.  A feeling that the kid had held from the moment he arrived in this place until the moment he’d died.

“I want to go home,” John said.  “Tour of duty over.”

“Where’s home?” Grandfather asked.

John shrugged.

“I like the snow,” Songbird said, holding out a hand that was wrapped in a threadbare glove that had been dirtied by moving rubble.  She caught snowflakes.

John digested that, and then he dug inside himself.  He had an idea now of where they might go.  In broad strokes.

“Then we’ll go someplace that has snow,” he decided.

Grandfather spoke up, “The POI killed human soldiers because it would make us weaker.  If we leave the warzone, we’ll be more vulnerable.  Same idea, right?”

John met the eyes of the soldier with grey hair.

“Observing, not arguing, sir,” Grandfather said.

“You’re senior to me.  You shouldn’t sir me.”

“The C.O. nominated you,” Grandfather said.  Three other Dogs backed him.  They had no names or nicknames, only scars, smudges, dust and facepaint in the shadows of kevlar helmets and hoods, where there should be eyes and mouth.  All looking to John.

Already they were falling into new roles.  Grandfather would manage the three.  John would lead, apparently.

Songbird would be their official, unofficial commanding officer.  She would give them someone to spoil, would be one who cared from the outset, instead of picking up that caring from among a Dog’s scraps, like John had.  They had war as their starting point and built up from there.  She started from the sympathetic.

“We’ll be more vulnerable then.  We find our home, someplace with snow.  Tour of duty finished once we get there.  Whoever makes it looks after Songbird.”

“And if I don’t make it?” Songbird asked.

“Not an option.”

She didn’t respond.  He had the impression she wanted to disagree, as if a willingness of one individual to be extinguished for the sake of the remainder of the squad was important.

“You look different,” he told her, once he was sure it was her that had changed, and not his perceptions.

“So do you.”

He studied her.  There was only one thing that really made them change by any leaps or bounds.

“How many did you kill last night?” he asked her.

“Eleven.”  Her answer came without hesitation.

Eleven.  Even Grandfather looked surprised at that.  It was unusual for Black Dogs to get a single kill in the span of a night, because they killed slowly, by attrition and by curses.

John didn’t want to do what Horseman had done, leading an endless campaign.  He didn’t want to keep doing what he’d done, when he’d been more reaction than individual.  He’d taken a bit of conscience in the same moment of violence that had ended a life.

He didn’t want Yalda to be a killer.  Especially if she was going to be an exceptionally good one.

He reached for the wreath of dog tags and chains that were at her neck, and he pulled them out of her oversized, borrowed shirt.  He found the ring in the middle of it.  It wasn’t the most expensive of rings, but it was the kind of thing that a mother could pass onto a child, chewed up by gouges and deep scratches.  A little less chewed up than it had been.  It was engraved on the inside.

“You have a name now,” he told her.

She nodded.  She’d already checked, apparently.

“Yalda.”  He put the chains down and he reached for her hand.  She took it.

Grandfather took her other hand, and they marched, letting Yalda the Songbird lift her legs up and periodically swing from their grips.  She appeared too old for it, really, but they were tall and she was spoiled.

She tired of that quickly, and John lifted her up to sit on his shoulders.  From her perch, Yalda the Songbird sang, a haunting melody for the fallen.  As a squad, they disappeared into the blowing snow.



John stared down at the dog tag he’d collected on his way here.  Avery had given Snowdrop the one she carried and Snowdrop had thrown it.  Joe “Horseman” Blackacre.

He closed his hand around the metal tag, thumb pressing against the raised letters and gouges.

He stood at the far left of things, near the woman who typed away as the chatter came in from multiple communications channels.  He liked the chatter of it.  Verona was working with Avery to share her sight, now reporting what she saw.

The other attendees were arranged in a loose line, a step or two back from the line of light and shadow that separated the observers from participation.  Metal tiles were bolted to a steel frame, creating two avenues and one bridge, with shops and stalls poised precariously along the center, between the bridge and the two avenues.  Chimneys and vents exhaled streams of steam and smoke that mixed and entangled.  Grey against a sky as red as anything.

The entire ‘promenade’ was a fierce attempt by the denizens to inject color and life into something dismal.  They wore bright colors, painted stalls and shops and had decorated the metal tiles with an irregular pattern of three stars, the eclipsed crescent, the sun, and the cross inside the circle to represent earth, painted in iridescent red.

Lucy was standing below Verona, who’d been halfway up the mess of pipes that framed the oversized station entrance, beneath the massive, steam-powered clock.  They stood on the opposite end of the doorway that John did, watching intently.  The various practitioners that had been invited stood between them and John, and he knew he could have easily walked around, but he had no idea what he could have said.

It was hard to shake the mental image of Lucy’s face, that night he’d put a bullet into Alexander Belanger.  How small her shoulders had been.

His thumb rubbed at the surface of the tag.

Brie was there, beside Zed.

Just as hard to approach, but for very different reasons.

John watched the proceedings as Avery and Snowdrop retreated, avoiding an Other who had emerged from around the corner.  The pair were caught between him and another and didn’t seem confident in their movements.  They’d called for a halt.

The bridge,” Avery’s voice came through over the walkie-talkie.  “Do I have enough spaces to move, if I start here?”  Three over, one to the side?

Verona called down to Lucy, asking for confirmation, then raised the walkie-talkie to her mouth.

“You’re good to go,” Verona reported.  “Three to your left, one back.”

Good, John thought.  It reassured, seeing them cooperating.

He missed that.

He had company.  Even now, Peckersnot was draped on John’s shoulder, arm and one leg hanging over the front, other arm and other leg hanging off the back, head resting on John’s shoulder as he slept, snoring.  They’d had to separate him from Cherry.  Or Cherry from him.

The goblins and Guilherme were company.  But they were company without much cooperation.

Avery turned toward the shops and the catwalk bridge that stretched above them.

The woman who was handling communications did checks with the various groups.

Counting down…” she declared, once she was done.

John watched as Avery crouched down on all fours.

“Three… two… one, go!” the woman ordered.

Avery leaped, twenty or more feet up into the air, cape fluttering.  She grabbed the pipes and slid beneath one to reach the bridge in time.  The clock whistled as things came to a screeching halt.

Lucy whooped, and Verona followed suit.

John cheered as well, clapping with force that he thought might be audible to Avery, but jostled Peckersnot in the process.  The little goblin tried to rouse to clap, but his position meant he would have had to sit up or reach around John’s shoulder and he wasn’t capable of either.  So he slapped at John’s shoulder a few times, trying to make a clapping sound, hit too much cloth, and started slapping his hand against the side of his head instead.

He was asleep again a few moments later.

John waited as they deliberated their next moves.  Avery loaned her shoes to bring Jude up to the bridge.

He put Horseman’s dog tag away, and his finger grazed Yalda’s ring, on another chain.

Lucy was talking back and forth with Verona, and John had a hard time dissociating her from the fresh mental image of Yalda.  Which was strange, because the two were so very different.  Yalda sang and Lucy listened.  Yalda had retreated into being a child and Lucy fought so hard to be like an adult.  Yalda had been bright and cheery, sympathetic and open, with moments of sadness, but she’d been dangerous, a killer even by accident, sowing wrongs wherever she went.  Lucy was tougher, more walled off, seemingly perpetually upset at things, but with moments of brightness like this one, here.  And as walled off or grim or serious as she might seem to be, Lucy had fought so hard against the wrongs of Alexander and Bristow, rallying others.

What would she have said to Richmond Leonard?  ‘Dicky’?

What would she have said to Yalda?

She had mentioned the idea of him and her doing the familiar ritual and it had caught him off guard.  There was no replacing Yalda but was there a world in which he became her familiar and she remained someone who reminded him of her while being so very different?

Would he have said no to the ask, that he become the next Carmine? Would he have given up what he was due, to be her familiar?

He looked at Brie and wished she could release Yalda so he could ask.  Was it okay?

Being a familiar allowed one to shirk responsibilities.  Alpeana would be able to give up her nightly routines that were wearing her out.  Snowdrop would no longer have a short lifespan.

A true end to the cycle of violence.  Being an actual dog would be nice.  Sitting in the sun.  Warm touches from family.  He could become human when he desired, and play his guitar, in a mediocre way.  He could sing songs he’d learned from Yalda, very poorly.  He could let his guard down.  He could rest.

Avery leaped down from the bridge, cape trailing behind her, into the fray.  John tensed.

She landed in a localized tornado of wind that made the hair and clothing of Others billow and flap.

Nobody had buzzed in, so the woman with the walkie-talkies started the count down.


Avery remained, talking to an Other.

Why had he tensed?

“How’s she doing?” Lucy asked.

The older man who had been guiding people through turned, looking.  “She’s doing fine.  The table note is interesting.  That’s something to explore on a future expedition.”

“Will she be invited?” Verona called down.

“I suppose, if she wants.  We’d like to maintain some form of contact.  Pair her and Jude up more, teach her the family secrets as they go.”

Verona smirked, while Lucy nodded, maintaining a poker face.  Between them and John, Zed and Brie exchanged glances.

Brie glanced past Zed at John.  She smiled briefly, then turned, looking out at the Promenade.


Avery didn’t move.  John watched her body language, studying.

He had a bad feeling as the report came in from her.  “I have just been informed by a friend of a friend that you-know-what from the Forest Ribbon Trail will be making an appearance by train.”

“Be prepared to rope out,” the gatekeeper said.  “We were worried it might happen but we can deal with it.  Keep a healthy distance.”

It was an excuse to close the distance.  John walked around the practitioners.  The ones who were paying attention were wary of him, as they’d been wary of any Other who crossed this area and approached them from behind.  It wouldn’t do to get pushed or jostled from behind and knocked out into the light and onto the path as a participant.

“What is this?” John asked.

“Remember Miss leaving, to save Avery?” Lucy asked.  “This is what we were saving her from.”

Nicolette shifted her feet.

The woman at the other end of the door did the countdown.  The clock whistled as it kicked into motion.  A train slid into position at one of the stops closer to Avery.  The whistle of the clock and the whistle of the train joined together.  The Promenade was chimneys and pipes and metal tiles laid over bracing and more pipes and the entire atmosphere had changed.  Pressure was higher and the air, steam, and smoke that leaked from pipes did so at an almost imperceptible whine.  The plumes and leakage were so thin that they weren’t even very visible, until what they were outputting accumulated into clouds.

At the same time, the sky was opening up, becoming less overcast.  A red tint fell over everything.

There was an Other, a tiny woman carrying a very large baby, and the cane reached out of the train, hooked her by the neck, and pulled her and the baby off the side, to tumble into the open sky and plumes of steam.

Nicolette put her hands over her ears, even though the sounds of the pipes and train whistle were dying down.

A man stepped out.  Eight feet tall and ugly, wearing a long coat with many pockets, carrying a cane he didn’t use to walk.  His beard was scraggly and white, and reached his navel.  He wore a top hat with a card in it, and from a distance it looked like a pointed ear.

The member of the Garrick family with the ankle injury who was filling up a pegboard with white and black pegs made a mistake, paused to hold a shaking hand over the board, then swept it into a bag, starting to pack up.

The Wolf-” Avery’s voice came in, halting.

None of the confidence she’d evidenced before was there, now.

It can move while the clock is stopped!

The cane slapped against palm, then a long arm holding the long cane by the end thrust the handle out.  It struck a child in the head and punched the head through a wall.

Release the clock!

“Go!” the gatekeeper shouted.  Others rushed to follow.  The coordination wasn’t quite there, the clock resumed a moment late.  Avery remained where she was, staring at the Wolf, glancing back at the smiling Others.  They were the only Others who weren’t actively fleeing.

“What do I need to know?” John asked.

The gatekeeper looked up at John.  “What?”

“To participate.”

“You need to decide how you move and stick to it.  Four moves to the four different tiles, two rests.  The smiling ones are a danger.”

“Rope isn’t working!  Wolf’s on the right side, a third of the way down, not far from Avery.  He’s not moving!  Pause, I don’t think Avery has a move that isn’t toward him!”

The gatekeeper looked, and someone signaled.  He made a hand-chopping gesture, before reporting, “Pausing.”

“This happens?” Lucy asked, accusatory.  “There’s no escape?”

“Anything can happen,” the gatekeeper said.

The ‘Wolf’ hadn’t moved.  It was enjoying the process in a mean, indulgent way.  Lost who had reached them here were stepping into the gloom, breaking from the rigid patterns of movement, and going elsewhere.  Others had moved onto trains, or into shops, hoping the Wolf wouldn’t reach them there.

It moved now, straightening.  Pulling cabling out of the side of the shop with the head of the cane, then gripping it in one hand.

“What’s a good pattern?” John asked.  “I’d need to move fast.”

“Fast movements mean running into danger sooner.”

“I can deal with danger.”

“While you’re moving, it’s about who’s stronger than the other.  But if you’re there and they land on you I think they have the edge,” Verona said.

“So I want to intercept?”

“If you can win.”

He nodded.  “Does it hurt the Others?”

“No.  Maybe if she does it.”

He indicated the Wolf.

The Wolf was walking, cane held out.  The cabling caught, knotted, and tore free behind it, leaving horizontal rents in the wall with torn and stretched-out cabling pulling out.

With every step it looked like it should slow down.  That the accumulated tension and weight of the cables and debris attached to the cables should add up and that it should lack the strength to continue like it was.

It didn’t.  The Wolf moved easily, and the implication was that it could keep doing this forever, or keep doing it until it had pulled out enough cabling and things that this little pocket of reality would come unstitched down the center.

“Are you sure?” Lucy asked.  “John?  This is dangerous.”

“Tell me not to and I won’t,” he told her.

“I don’t deserve that trust,” she said.  “I don’t know enough about any of this.”

John watched.

“Avery needs to move,” Verona reported.  “It’s catching up!”

“Countdown!  Three, two, one, go!” the gatekeeper shouted.

Avery didn’t move.  She still had to rest.  The smiling Others moved closer to her.

“Save Avery,” Lucy said.  She grabbed an idle walkie-talkie and passed it to John.

I don’t deserve that trust.

John watched over tense seconds, trying to figure out what he had to do.


John passed Peckersnot to Lucy and stepped out into the light.  The bright, red-tinted light of the sky warmed him.  Smoke and steam rolled over the ground, obscuring his vision here and there.

He moved in a tight zig-zag.  Taking up as many tiles as he could.  Forward, right, diagonal-left, right, diagonal-left, right, diagonal left.  The clock squealed, and he stopped, squaring his feet.  He aimed… reconsidered.  He didn’t want to waste bullets.

At the same time, Avery leaped, carrying a small Snowdrop, wind billowing over her.  Moving over the heads of the others.  A metal ruler and groping hands reached for her and didn’t touch her.  She landed in a roll, holding Snowdrop to her chest, stopping on a tile.

The Wolf broke into a run.  Cables tore and snapped behind him, fraying, and a rotten-toothed smile in the midst of the stained white beard stretched wide.


John moved again, same pattern, for a headlong rush.  He stopped, squared his feet, then aimed.

The gun was loud, as if this was a confined space, and not an open one.  The jolt of each shot jarred his upper body and shook his senses, but his eyes remained focused, and he controlled for every jump of the gun as he followed one bullet with the next.

They punched into the flesh of face and upper body and they didn’t destroy the flesh in the way they should.  They were higher caliber, the gun heavy.

The Wolf didn’t care.


John moved, and Avery and Snowdrop ran past him.  He drew his knife.

Wild eyed and grinning, the Wolf tore into the smiling Others.  He held the cane high, the still-connected cables hooked on it, stretching and straining, and grabbed one schoolboy, hurling him at Avery.  A cable snapped, and slapped a girl with a green skirt across the side of her head, cutting past flesh and shattering the bone at the side of her skull.

She twirled on the spot, the contents of a pencil case spilling out of her skull cavity.  Protactors, rulers, erasers, pens and pencils.  The Wolf ceased running and instead let the scene frame him.  An Other destroyed.  One with a paper on its face crouched off to the side, hand shielding its face.  Another thrown.  Avery had avoided it, but now it was right next to her, brandishing a fistful of pencils.

John eyed the spot he had to take on his next move.  He’d still be zig-zagging, but it would be mirrored from before.  He had to get past the Wolf.

The Wolf stepped into the way, cane held high overhead, with a hundred cables, broken, knotted, and fraying stretched out behind it in a loose, skewed ‘v’ shape.

“Mr. Stiles,” the Wolf said, looking at John with eyes that had a lot of white to them.  Grinning.

He said it like he knew John.

And to John, in the world he lived in, in the languages his enemies spoke, that kind of knowing meant absolute and crushing defeat.


The Wolf resumed running.

John had planned to fight and now he moved the other way.  After Avery.

Avery crossed paths with the schoolboy with the pencils.  It was like a joust, a contest as paths crossed.  Who laid the first blow, who slipped past.

She went over, leaping, and the schoolboy lashed out, reaching overhead.  She kicked him in the head on her way past, and no less than six pens or pencils landed.  Embedded into the sole of her shoe.

She tried to land on one foot, failed, then tried to catch herself with the toe of the other, and keeled over instead.  Landing on her sole would have punched a few of those pens and pencils through her foot.  Instead, she fell.  Snowdrop separated from her.

John reloaded and shot while running.  He aimed first for the legs.  Nothing.  Bullets punched into skin, muscle, and shattered bone with audible cracks and the Wolf didn’t even break stride.  The wound healed.  He placed two shots at the cane and cables instead.  The bullets sparked as they glanced off.

He scooped up Avery and pulled her to her feet, and she leaned down to do much the same with Snowdrop.  She hobbled, hopping on one leg, pushed her way aside, out of his grip.

Taking the tile she wanted.  But she’d misstepped a few times, not taking her pledged course, and Others were stepping out of shops ahead of them, grimace-smiles on their faces.  That was the natural consequence, then.  John carried on, because his movement took him a bit further.  He stopped, turned, and reloaded again.

Reset!” the command came through.  “Four movements before rest!

“It’s not meant to go down like that!” Avery huffed.  She was stuck waiting for the next ‘go’ as the Wolf approached, and took the time to pull the pens and pencils out of her shoe.  “The you-know what isn’t!”

Go!” came the order.  John was close enough to hear the person without the walkie-talkie.

“You can call me what I am, Avery, I’m already here!” the Wolf jeered.  It came at her, running, and she tensed, maybe preparing to run despite the rules.

Avery moved just in time, running, hugging Snowdrop close.

John challenged the smiling Lost that were in their way, on his way back.  It was a sequence of darting movements, he’d chosen a course that went wide, and so he ‘jousted’ with three Others in quick succession.  A woman with an oversized teapot she swung with casual ease.  He kicked her off balance.  Another with eyeholes carved into a bucket on his head came at John with a sword.  John had his knife.  The sword bit deep into John’s side.  The knife sank into the bucket knight’s neck.  The third was a kid with a dog mask with a mechanical mouth, that whirred like the walking chattering wind-up teeth.  It got a grip on John’s arm, and he lifted the boy, because he needed to keep moving to arrive at his spot on time.  He threw the boy aside, losing a chunk of his arm in the process.  Leaving one more.

A woman slapped ineffectually at John’s face and chest while growling, flinching overdramatically as John lifted a hand.  John shoved her aside.

He’d moved twice forward and twice back.  He’d intended to step back into the shade.  To maneuver, plan his re-emergence.  But as he reached the others, and they parted to let him charge through, he hit a wall.

Threads, thin and narrow, formed a web that barred his path.

He turned, slumping against the barrier, hand at his wounded side, and his eyes widened.

Avery had avoided the Wolf.  The Wolf, in turn, brought the cane swinging down.

Cables snapped, and they combined the force of snapped elastic with the fact that they were steel, sometimes an inch thick, and heavy.

There was no precision to how they lashed out or what they struck.  They hit pipes, and they punched into and through tiles, folding metal and sending it tumbling into the open sky below the Promenade.

The others were all talking, arguing, raising their voices behind John, as he lay there, sitting, his back to the barrier that kept him from retreating.

“Leave them alone!” Jude shouted.

“I won’t kill you, Mr. Stiles,” the Wolf growled the words. He stroked his beard with one hand.  “I’ll break you, and I’ll own you.”

“Shut up!” Avery shouted.


Movement number two, post-reset.

The cane swung down.  Cables followed, whipping down.  The first slapped tiles and broke them, tore up landscape, scratched ground.

John had to change course, moving alongside the door.  Avery ducked between the incoming cables, pausing for one second to let one slap the ground in front of her before she leaped over it.  The Wolf whipped the cables back and away from the path, laughing, then swiped at the bridge.  Destroying most of the stairs.  The entire catwalk bridge that stretched over the shops creaked and bent.  Avery’s friend Jude nearly fell.

“Tell us rules, what are the options?”  Zed was shaking the man in the suit who’d attended the Familiar ceremony.  Brie was standing by the bride, keeping her from interfering or reaching her fiance.

Nicolette had hands up near her ears, but her glasses were tinted red, and she was watching things.

They were mute.  Zed released them and pushed them away in the same motion.  “You!  Help!”


Movement three…  John moved around behind the Wolf.  The man smiled.

“Come on, Avery!” Lucy shouted.  “You’re managing!  You gotta get away!”

“Ropes and clocks, what else?” Verona asked.  “Nicolette!”

“I don’t know!” Nicolette raised her voice.

“We need to suspend the movement rule entirely and let them make a break for it!  What other conventions?”

“I don’t know!”

“Okay, it’s okay if you don’t know, what about the Garricks?  What do we know?”

“About the Wolf?”

Verona’s voice pitched too high, almost a shriek.  “About the Promenade!  What’s consistent?  Clocks, wires-”


John circled around behind the Wolf, going for the cables.  He pulled out the gun and aimed at the thickest clusters, shooting.

Cables snapped, but it didn’t seem to be because of the bullets.  The Wolf moved the cane and the metal’s tension became too much.  Twined up metal split, one strand breaking, followed by the others in succession.

The boy with the sharp pencils approached and stopped.

The Wolf lashed out, and Avery avoided the worst of it, wove through the less-worse parts.

“Does it bother you that you didn’t get me!?” Avery called out.  “You had me for that long and you had to let me go!?”

“I had you before you stepped foot on the Path, Avery,” the Wolf replied, smiling.


John and Avery had just made their fourth moves since the reset.  Now John was stuck in place, Avery and Snowdrop much the same.

And the Wolf walked toward Avery.

John reached for the tags at his neck.  Then he began reciting names.  Asking for help.

The boy with the fistful of sharp pencils drew closer to John.  John ignored him.

“…Horseman, Meyers, Miles, Doe, Angel…”

Guns didn’t work as well as knives, most of the time.


Knives cleaved closer to connections, to Self, to personal power.  Momentum and physics didn’t always matter, and to many, a bullet was simply a smaller amount of metal than a knife or sword, with less meaning and history ascribed to it.

“…Ghost, Smith, Grandfather, Poe…”

Avery threw a ball skyward.  The Wolf reached out to catch it.

John whispered.  “Yalda.  I’m home for a little while longer.  I need your power to keep the promises I made.  Sorry.”

The ball dropped.

John shot.  One bullet to the back of the head.

The Wolf staggered a step forward.  His hand missed the ball.  It bounced off of Avery’s head instead.  With a backhand swipe, he swiped for Avery, and she moved, running several steps.


John moved.  Toward Avery.  Avery kept moving.

“Breaking yourself free of the rules like that only works once!” Jude shouted.  He was clinging to the railing on a catwalk bridge that was sloped to one side.  Others occupied the bridge, smiling.  “And only for a bit!  Stop when you’re next supposed to!”


So the ball with the rope around it broke rules.  Avery had intended to use it on herself.  Or maybe for it to hit the Wolf on the way down, opening it up for John to shoot.

Avery was moving toward the left path of the Promenade.  As the Wolf followed, the cables that were tearing out were pulling at the fronts and sides of the buildings and shacks.  Others spilled out, making the necessary movements to get away, but it was causing steady collapse, and it was making the bridge lean more.

Others this dangerous didn’t tend to move much.  They hadn’t threatened Kennet and they hadn’t tested the barrier, in the last ten years.  The closest that they’d come to was the Choir.  And there had been reasons the Choir had cooperated.

There were Others too strong for John to fight.  Sometimes drawing on the tags like he’d just done would work.  Other times, he could fall back, or he could die and then revive, depending.  Then he’d return and he’d gather some of the others.  Matthew or Edith could hit hard, Matthew on a metaphysical level like a Wraith King, Edith with flame that burned anything physical like a strong goblin or bogeyman.  Or Miss would deflect.


John was catching up with Avery now.

Could he deflect?

“Sorry!  Excuse me!” Avery shouted, as she wove through Others.

John rushed to the square he needed.  He held his knife, facing the Wolf.

“Don’t you get tired of this, Mr. Stiles?” the Wolf asked, still walking, walking past him.  “Either killing the weak and unaware or losing to those stronger?  Endlessly fighting, patrolling, and watching what you have slip through your fingers.  Friends, teammates, child, home?”


“Help me again,” John whispered, touching the spot on his chest where tags were strung.  He went for the Wolf.

The Wolf turned his head, making eye contact with John.

John, for one of the few times in his existence, hesitated in a moment of crisis.  The other big moment sat heavy, flashing through his mind.


“You have to,” Yalda told him.  She leaned forward, forehead against the gun.  “You said you didn’t want me to kill again.”

John was silent.

“This puts you on a better road,” she said.

He didn’t break eye contact.  If he had he would have seen the Sable.  He would have seen the goblin, the Faerie warrior, the burning ghost-spirit, Miss, and the practitioners Matthew Moss and Charles Abrams.

“I was at the end of the road, Yalda.  I was home.  With you.”

“It was nice.  As short as it lasted.  Look after the others?  Killing me will elevate you.  Important people are watching.  Use the power and position you’ll get and carry the burden.”

She pulled off the chains and tags, one by one, when they weren’t mulitple tags on one chain, and she dropped them at his feet.  One chain hooked on the end of the gun, and Matthew Moss tensed, off to the side.  Expecting the worst.

But he moved the gun and then moved it back before he second guessed himself, and Yalda carried on with removing the chains.

“Sorry if I hurt you in the meantime,” she told him.

He shook his head.

She draped the last chain on the gun itself.  The ring that looked like it had been bent and cut, trampled and dragged through gravel hung on the end, the parts that weren’t damaged catching the light.

“Don’t be too miserable about this.  That’s my order, as your so-called commanding officer.  I’m pulling rank this once.”



He studied her expression.  For a long moment, he considered turning and putting bullets in the two practitioners.  Even if they weren’t responsible, others like them had pushed them to this point, at this very spot.  Chaos would erupt.  The burning spirit-ghost would lash out.  She liked Matthew.  And that chaos, the fighting that ensued, it would be comforting, a home of a different sort, and it would strip all responsibility from him.

But that was the kind of thinking that made the cycles of War spin out.

He struggled for words.  He felt like it would sit wrong with him for a long time if he couldn’t find them.

Da stargo tora,” he said, lapsing to Pashto.

She smiled, moisture appearing at her bottom eyelids for the first time.  She nodded.

He pulled the trigger and it hurt.


The Wolf grabbed John’s knife by the blade.  Blood welled at the Other’s palm.  With a wrench to one side, he seemed intent on disarming John.  John found it in himself to hold on.  Instead of having the knife handle pulled from his grip, the blade snapped off.

He dragged the fragment that still stuck out of the handle across the Wolf’s face.

Infants quartered with the hands of war,” the Wolf told John, catching his wrist.  A hand with wiry hair on the back of it reached forward and gripped John by the chains that looped his neck.  He pulled them taut, and metal squeaked.  “What else does this get you?  Anything else is an illusion, a shadow enslaved in a chewed up woman.  A faint promise from those who have no expectation they’ll have to live up to it.”

A ball bonked off of the side of the Wolf’s head.

John took that opportunity to lunge in.  Teeth to throat, biting.  He found purchase.

“Do you know how many Finders have crossed my path?  How many had that as one of the first things they learned?  It has never once counted,” the Wolf said.

The hand gripped tags and bent metal, and the Wolf bent down to bite John back, harder, fiercer.

With one tear, all the strength went out of John’s arm.  The wolf released the now-limp arm, grabbed John, and lifted him up.

It cast him down onto the tile, hard, and then brought a foot down, shattering knee, shin, and foot, in that order.

The Wolf pulled, and the chain broke.  John lunged for individual tags before they could scatter, despite the pain of his leg, and caught them.

But he was on his belly now before the Wolf.  The Wolf stomped onto his back, breaking that too.

“Go!” was a sound from a distant walkie-talkie that hadn’t broken.  Avery gave John a long look and then moved.  Snowdrop went a separate direction.  She looked up at Jude.  “Jump!”



The Wolf broke into a run.  John couldn’t do anything about it.

He was immobilized, and as part of that, he was failing to move as he was supposed to.

Smiling Others were filing out of the shops and stalls that were still intact, or crawling out of rubble.  He wasn’t the only one, it seemed.  Others were pinned, or just trying to deal with things, because they’d been close to having no options when the Wolf had arrived and taken away the escape routes.

He stared at the back of the Wolf with loathing and hatred.  It was the same thing he’d felt toward Matthew and Charles, once.  The Wolf was that.  Repulsive, loathsome, everything he’d been fighting against.  Everything he’d failed to fight against.

Lucy was shouting something.

By fighting it, he played into its hands.


More Others stepped out.  Jude jumped.  Avery created a wind cushion with a card, then intercepted him, helping him catch his balance as he landed.

“Are you okay!?” Lucy’s voice reached him.  Not through a walkie-talkie, but through some kind of sound projection.  “John!”

He twisted, flopping back onto his back, and looked at her, upside-down in his view.  He was healing, but the smiling Lost crowded around him.  They would get to him before bones and spine knit together.

With the world turned around-

“Change perspectives!” John hollered.  “The gate thing!  It’s too hard to fight our wolves!”

“Avery already did!”


Another move he’d failed to make.  More Others.  John caught a fork as it came plunging down toward his midsection.  The Other wasn’t stronger than him, but it was supposed to hit him, because he’d failed to play by the rules of this asinine system.

So the fork gradually came down and bit flesh.

Maybe the change in perspective didn’t help that much.  Maybe it made that small amount of difference, because Avery was moving, doing what she needed to.  Saving Jude by catching him as he jumped.  Actually fighting the wolf instead of hesitating or flashing back to bad moments.

There was a chant coming through on the walkie-talkies now.

“Over the edge, John!”

John wrestled with the Others that were close.  The fork rose, then fell again.

The edge?


John moved, lurching, rolling with arm strength alone, even though his leg was so destroyed it didn’t rotate with him, his lower body numb.

“And hold on!” Nicolette shouted.

That was- that was important.  He went to the edge of the Promenade, and he grabbed onto a pole.

Timepiece for Time, cable for the threads of Fate.  The edge…

Another catch?

He dangled, hanging off the edge, nothing but sky below him.

The smiling Others hung back, waiting, weapons ready.

The chant ended.  Avery was one of the participants.  Her, Verona, and Lucy, together.

And, as though they were on a train that had passed into a tunnel, an arch swept over and past them, bright white.  The sky was painted in television static, and every star in it was falling, a streak of color in the noise.

No more chimneys and pipes, but decaying buildings instead.  Buildings that looked familiar.

Whose eyes were they looking through?

He spotted the Wolf, and he knew.

She was no older than twelve, wearing a red dress.  Her hair was black, her feet bare, and her skin pale.

Yalda in different colors, holding an electrical wire.

Brie’s Wolf.  Had they chosen one that would be smaller, thinking she wouldn’t be as strong?

Because if so, that wasn’t right.  She grabbed the half-fallen bridge by a railing and pulled it down onto the path, halving the available ground there.  Avery was clinging to the sideways-bridge with Snowdrop in her arms, and she was forced to jump.  Jude had to move to get out of the way, and that brought more smiling Others onto the path.

“Give me strength,” he murmured, chin at his collarbone.  He didn’t have a spare hand to reach for the tags.  “Each and every one of you.  Give me vigor, and anger, and whatever else you have, buried in there.  Let me heal.  I need to fight.”

He paused, feeling it work.

“Don’t hold anything back,” he whispered.  “It’s not as if I’ll need to draw on you again past this summer.”

They stopped holding back.

Sensation returned in a painful way.  He felt his leg mend.

The Wolf got Jude.  Almost got Jude- John’s view put her between him and the boy.  Avery threw a card, and there was an explosion.  It hurt Jude, but it kept him out of her clutches.

The wolf laughed.

Close enough to Yalda to disconcert, but it wasn’t her.

Then she took a step to the right, and she reached out.

Touching a clock.  Stopping it.

The concourse, damaged, creaked.  The bridge had fallen over half of the left lane.  Shops had emptied, and Others crowded out.

Metal creaked and popped.

The Wolf stomped, and tiles broke, floor broke away, and an entire section of the left concourse tilted left.  Bits of debris slid and fell over the edge, into a sky of television static and streaked colors.

Jude pulled a rope from his side, then threw the metal catch at the end over a bit of railing where things were more secure.  He attached a metal clip to his belt.

The Wolf let go of the clock, and she lunged.

Jude took Avery and Snowdrop into his arms, and then he jumped.

The rope jerked taut, and he swung, dangling, holding Avery.  The railing nearly pulled free of where it was bolted.

Then the Wolf hit it, and it did come free.

The railing fell to the void, pulling rope after it.  Pulling pack after rope.

John adjusted his grip, sliding down the pole a bit, to see below the Promenade.

He couldn’t quite see all of it, but Jude was clinging to Avery, still, having switched to a grappling hook.  They dangled, swinging, having hooked onto the underside of the Promenade.

The Wolf started moving with purpose, toward the ledge, where there was an alley between shops and gaps where shops had been damaged and uprooted and there was only sky below.  In the process, she tore past and through Others as they milled, many heading further down the Promenade, to where Jude’s family seemed to be.

John hauled on the post he was hanging off of, and as part of that same motion, he stumbled forward.  The Wolf was preparing to go after them, the Lost who could climb were doing so, hanging off the sides and underside.  There was no way John could reach them and he wasn’t sure they were in a position to do more than dangle.

More important, with so many failed moves, the concourse was flooded with smiling others.  John fought his way forward, toward the Wolf, who was pulling part of a shop down.  Through these countless Others, who clawed, hacked, and bit at him.  They poured boiling water on him.  He answered every blow with another, in a blind fury that had nothing to do with anger.  He had been nothing more than this, a combatant, for the first year or two of his existence.

The Wolf turned to face him, holding the cables in a small hand.  She hauled on them, and whipped the length of them in his direction, and for the Others closest to it, it was like being hit by a car.  They hit John in turn, slowing him.

She was ready to face him, she was stronger, and she would destroy him.

But the cable- he fought forward.  It was in reach.  And he grabbed that.  He used the fact it was angled slightly, starting high and sloping down to a small hand close to the ground, and he slid along it.  His hand gripped the tags that were still intact, silently asking for strength.  To break her grip, to separate her from what prevented the others from escaping.

It didn’t work.

She caught him, and she tore at his stomach with small hands.  Like Yalda’s curse had gripped him by the midsection for a little over a year.

He drew his gun as he fell into her.  He held it to her head.

“I don’t need to say anything to explain why this deserves to count,” he told her.

She smiled.

He pulled the trigger, and it had enough of an impact that she stumbled back.

He rushed forward, pushing, and the two of them went over the edge.

They fell into endless sky.  Into nothingness.  The cable jerked free of her hand.  Her other hand was buried in his guts, small fingernails like knife blades.

“They’ll call you back with a tag.”

They spiraled, tumbling over and past one another.

He didn’t answer, his jaw set.

“But that will take time.  And you’re at my mercy in the meantime.”

She was free to tear him apart as they fell.  A mad, vicious, false Yalda destroying him.  Everything he’d tried to stop.

She laid her head on his chest.  Her hand made a sucking sound as it pulled out of his stomach, and she laid it on his chest beside her face.

“What you are… you’re expendable, you know.  It’s the fate of a soldier to be seen as a throwaway life by those at the top.”

They fell.  There was no ground below to fall to.

“This is what you are.  Either you’ll be a sacrifice, or you’ll perpetuate the cycle of violence and loss.  Whichever you do, whatever you do to those girls, they’ll cry and they’ll lose more innocence, more childhood.  The closer you are to them, the more it will take from them to lose you.”

He closed his eyes.

“And all for causes you care nothing about.”

She laid her head on his chest.

“Wonderful,” she whispered.

The whisper became a laugh, and the sound of that laugh carried them all the way down into oblivion.


Tags struck ground.

John’s boots hit ground with matching force.  The only sound was the scuff of boot on dirt road.

“Kind of crazy, that whichever direction I step, so long as we’re in Kennet, I’m walking toward conflict,” Verona said.

John opened his eyes.  He looked at them.

“I’m so glad we were able to call you,” Lucy said.

“I’m bound to this place by history, by other things.  And there’s power in those tags.”

“I’m just glad,” Lucy said.

“Are you okay?” Avery asked.  She was sitting, leaning a bit to one side, making a face.  “Tashlit can maybe heal you.  She had to heal me and Jude.”

“I’m intact enough,” John said.  “I mend on my own.”

“Thank you for coming,” Avery said.  “Distracting, fighting her.  I felt bad, leaving you behind after she hurt you.”

“No.  It wouldn’t have helped anything for you to walk into her clutches.”

Snowdrop stepped forward, and she wrapped arms around John’s midsection.  It hurt where he hadn’t healed from having a hand inside his guts, but he didn’t comment, instead laying a hand on her head.

“We had a plan of the order we were going to do all of this and that Wolf showing up really messed it up.  I wish the Garrick finders had mentioned that possibility,” Lucy said.

“It was always a possibility,” Avery said.  “Verona’s got to go meet her mom and we’re going to go talk to the other guys.  We all ended up coming to the outskirts of Kennet.  Lucy and I are going to go talk to them about stuff.  I don’t know if you want to come?”

John shook his head.

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “Thank you for saving Avery.”

“Go get healed up the rest of the way by Tashlit.  You didn’t need to save anything for me.”

“Did too,” Avery said.  “Question of respect.  Are you sure you don’t want to come?  The goblins would enjoy your company.”

“I’ll see them later.  For now I’ll recuperate.  I’ve got a patrol later.”

“You can wind it back, you know, John,” Avery said.  “You don’t have to.  You helped today, others can take over.”

“It’s fine.”

“You don’t have to sacrifice yourself,” Lucy said.  “It means a lot that you would.  That you’d leap off the edge with the Wolf.  But it scares me, every time.”

I don’t like the alternative, he thought.

He was struck again with a pang.  The idea that Lucy might have offered the familiar relationship, that he might have taken it, and that something else might have happened.  Being a real dog, tail wagging, when being a dog was best.  Being a support.  Protecting her.  Them.

But he couldn’t tie her to him when there was a very real chance that he could pull the trigger one day and see that expression on her face again, that he could pull the trigger at some point and not see that expression, because he’d allowed his presence and violence to change her like he’d allowed it to change Yalda, or the look on her face at the end of that road, when he had to shoot her because of what she’d become.


“Sorry,” he said, to all of the above.

“You’d better be,” she said, hands on her hips, mock stern body language and real-stern voice.

Cherrypop screamed.  Liberty laughed.  The three girls turned.

“Go,” he said.  “Do what you need to do.  Enjoy your time away, Verona.”


“I think Tashlit’s looking forward to it.”

“Yeah.  That part’s cool.”

“We should hang out.  Patrol,” Lucy said.

He nodded.  He turned to go, but Snowdrop was still holding on.

He had to disengage her.  She hugged Avery instead.

“You’re a good pair,” he told them.

“Nuh uh!” Snowdrop said.

“We know,” Avery said.

The four girls headed over to where the various practitioners and small handful of Others were gathered.

John turned and he headed down the dirt road to Kennet, feeling his insides shift and reposition as they healed.

It was only noon.  It felt far later.  It was hot, and the mountain was blocking the wind instead of encouraging it.

Not that the heat bothered him.

A shadow fell across his path as he walked.  He knew it very well.

After the bullet had killed Yalda, that same shadow had passed over her, and a bit of something insubstantial had left her.  She hadn’t changed in any perceptible detail, in color or anything like that.  But he’d known.  That the body wouldn’t be standing up again.

The shadow was cast by a man with black hair in a black suit with a black shirt beneath.  His footsteps were silent.

The Sable Prince.

“I’m on course,” John told the spirit.  “You don’t need to worry.”

The Sable Prince walked on, matching John’s pace.

“You just keep up your end of the bargain.”

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

22 thoughts on “One After Another – 10.a

  1. I wonder if the girls could let John’s old friends loose from those tags if they wanted to? Coup and claim, after all, and the girls probably have as much as if not more claim to them than the practitioners who originally bound them.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Also, come to think of it, I’m starting to think that the Composite Kid might be a Hang Dog – and given how defined their body is, I think it’s entirely possible that they’re fairly powerful as these things go. They’ve got a full-blown face, but not a personal name.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Pretty sure you can’t get around the original wording, which is “Only peeps of my family can let you out.” … that said, they MIGHT be able to negotiate for it, if they can find the required family… thought that would have to be one hell of a negotiation.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Coup and claim. “I’ve taken them from that family, so I have the right to do with them as I wish.” You just need to convince the spirits that you have a stronger claim on them than the family that bound them. If it’s possible to use coup and claim to steal Implements, it’s certainly possible to use it to “steal” bound Others.

        Liked by 2 people

        • You can use coup and claim to steal implements??
          Bloody heck.

          that said, I’m still not sure it holds up. As in…. its more like a locked box?
          As in, I lock a box using a particular key. It is now the nature of the box to resist anything that does not have that Key. You can steal the box off me (steal the dogtag)…. but that isn’t that same as HAVING the key.

          You can try to break into the box… but that isn’t a question of ownership… that’s a question of convincing the universe that YOU HAVE THE KEY (in this case, are a member of the family).
          It’s more like Verona vs Bristow on “thanking” the brownies. There was a bunch of coup and claim involved, sure, but she ALSO needed to get him to say the right words- get him to say how appreciative of how things turned out. Probably the closest thing on that score would be marrying/adopting into the family, or like… managing to trace your lineage back to the family 9 generations back.

          That or you bash open the box by raw force. You BREAK the lock. But like… That feels like it would damage the contents of the box. Hell, in this example, I think its probably more accurate to say that the Dogs of war ARE the box. You can bust them open, but the result is going to be pretty close to them being foresworn.
          (that said, the binding could also be more like a chain wraped AROUND the box. brute forcing the chain is less likely to damage the box in this case. I’m not sure which metaphor is more apt)

          Liked by 1 person

        • I think you’re both right.

          I’m pretty sure coup and claim can override a previous claim of ownership.

          I’m also pretty sure that convincing the universe that you are the named owner will give you access.

          The two work together. By making an assertion that you’re already the rightful owner, you need less coup to make the claim.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. “Da stargo tora,” he said, lapsing to Pashto.

    What’s the Pashto mean? Google translate didn’t like it straight up, and my attempts to work from it to Pashto’s actual script had issues from the fact that the romanization in wikipedia has lots of diacritics and the direct transliteration of text as shown (ie, no diacritics) wouldn’t translate.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Finding out the tags have John’s comrades bound within them make me increasingly interested in what Crooked Rook can do with her box shenanigans.

    Also, the callsign of Carnivore feels portentous.

    Liked by 7 people

  4. The moment I realized this was a John-centric chapter, I instantly felt my gut clench up and stay that way through the entire reading. I haven’t gotten super emotional over a lot of these chapters, but this one kind of got me. I’m not ready to lose John in any way. I don’t want him to go.

    Liked by 9 people

  5. So; things we discover.

    Yalda actually choose to get shot by John, which puts that interaction in a different light than what I was assuming.

    Practictioners continue to be assholes to others… and journalists. Ribs is awesome.

    John Vs Wolf is the fight we all needed to see, and god damn, it was amazing….
    In no way to I believe the wolf is gone for good. I DO wonder if the damage to the promenade is permanent (damage to “the stuck in” place appears not to be permanent).

    A knew ominious figure has arrived in the story (damn you Sable Prince), leading to the bizzare possiblity that the Carmine judge was killed by one (or more) of the other judges… which would imply… significant amounts of threat escalation incoming.

    More likely , Carmine Doggo was killed by Kenneters, but the other judge/judges are acting as their own faction/interest group…and I don’t think this is simply about John agreeing to take the Carmine seat at the end of summer if no one else does. It sounds…. to much like a deal between John and Sable, not a deal between John and “the powers that be” in a general sense.

    Also: Poor John not getting to be a Familiar. Once again, your daily reminder that Alexander Belanger is a bastard.

    Thanks Wildbow!

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Dogs of War are a little bit scary. How are they dealt with when Practitioners aren’t around, I wonder. Peace ceremonies and treaties, maybe? Also explains why John is in Canada. A soldier’s yearning for home and a child’s love of snow. Even if none of his constituent parts are Canadian.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. For some reason, I want to concoct a scenario that let me write a fanfic starring John and a young Miss Militia. (IE, “before she was Miss Militia” Miss Militia.)


    blockquote>The POI turned too, drawing a gun, and he shot…
    The journalist fell. Screamed.
    “I can’t have witnesses,” the POI said.


    And people criticize the trio for not telling Melissa what’s going on.
    Granted, “someone else is doing something worse” isn’t a logically sound response to anything, but explaining why telling people about magic is hazardous in this universe and why Melissa specifically is a bad fit (or pointing out how hard Avery’s tried to reach out to her) doesn’t seem very effective.

    “What you are… you’re expendable, you know. It’s the fate of a soldier to be seen as a throwaway life by those at the top…This is what you are. Either you’ll be a sacrifice, or you’ll perpetuate the cycle of violence and loss. Whichever you do, whatever you do to those girls, they’ll cry and they’ll lose more innocence, more childhood. The closer you are to them, the more it will take from them to lose you…And all for causes you care nothing about…Wonderful.”

    Damn, that’s savage. Appropriate for a Wolf.
    Also, I now want to concoct a scenario that let me write a fanfic starring Jack Slash and the Wolf, for two big reasons. One, they’re both pretty good at hurting someone on a profound level that exceeds even the serious physical injuries they inflict. Two, at least one of them (and probably both) would suffer from the meeting, and after what they’ve done, that would be cathartic.
    Naq lrf, V xabj Wnpx Fynfu vfa’g fb tbbq ng qvffrpgvat aba-cnenuhznaf. Uhfu.

    “I’m on course,” John told the spirit. “You don’t need to worry.”
    The Sable Prince walked on, matching John’s pace.
    “You just keep up your end of the bargain.”

    Because this chapter was too cheerful, it really needed more gravity.

    Nice to see what makes John tick, tragedy and all. The fact that his dog tags aren’t just mementos of fallen comrades, but literally all that’s left of them…makes it a lot more significant that he trusted the Kennetteers with them.


  8. I’d have to reread to be sure but it sure felt like this chapter had way less punctuation than normal. Lots of full stops and clipped sentences. Really helped get me in the exaughsting head space that is John. He would have been the best of doggos.

    Also the links between Lucy and yalda, especially the bit where he worries about being forced to execute her out of duty. Oh
    My heart

    Glad to see my favorite other git a chapter.


Reply - No Pact spoilers!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s