Go for the Throat – 23.6


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One percent would’ve made a difference, Verona thought.

She lay in her bed in the House on Half Street, dimly aware of other things going on in the House.  Get up, you have stuff to do.

It’s cozy, her brain lied to her.  It wasn’t that cozy.  It was her demesne.  Everything was cozy.  There was no real excuse that bed was that much more comfortable than being out of bed, because she could adjust the thermostat and air with her brain.

McCauleigh and Anselm were together.  Either napping or making out.  Verona didn’t pry.  McCauleigh’s corner of the demesne was her own, as was her time with Anselm.

Peckersnot had fallen asleep on watch.

The pigeon and squirrel were playing a Lost board game with overly convoluted rules in the bookstore-in-progress, with small containers of fruity alcohol next to them, in quantities so small that it made Verona smile to think about.  Proportionally, the squirrel and pigeon didn’t have much body mass, so they didn’t need much for their nightcaps.

The smile dropped from her face as she thought about Avery having so recently been in the hospital.

Grunting, more because it was awkward than heavy, she lifted her laptop over from her bedside to her stomach.  She hit the spacebar on her computer to kick it out of sleep mode, then typed in her password.  She checked the spreadsheet.  Every percent makes a difference.

Avery had taken maybe fifteen doses of the healing potion.  One percent in the way of impurities was multiplied fifteen times over.  Technically more, since these were things that compounded one another.  One point of weakness opened the door to more, and there was a whole bunch of alchemical math she’d put into her computer, to do rough calculations.

Rule of three, five times over.  It compounded as the count climbed.  One percent across fifteen doses came out to… thirty seven point thirty seven total impurity intake.

More than double the fifteen percent it would be without the compounding.  Except she hadn’t made her healing potions with one percent impurities.  Even if she worked it for years, she wouldn’t get down to one percent.  She’d measured herself closer to twenty percent.

Fed to and poured onto her friend in a time of need.  And Avery had paid for it.

That was her motivator, to sit up.

Julette, sleeping beneath the covers, back against Verona’s stomach, flipped around, and extended claws lightly, enough to prick Verona’s arm and side.

“Don’t be an asshole,” Verona told Julette.  She reached over and scrunched up the cat’s head-skin, so it was all wrinkled and bunched forward toward the front of her face.

Julette became human, and made faces as Verona tried to do something similar with her face skin.

“Come on.  I might need an assistant, the pigeon and squirrel are doing their off-duty wind-down.”

“Bleh,” Julette replied.

Verona moved her knees to drive them into Julette until Julette rolled off the mattress and onto the floor with a thump.

“That’s a good way to de-incentivize help,” Julette said.

“It’s cool magic stuff,” Verona said, climbing over Julette.  She took stock of her room.  “I should get bedroom furniture.”

“Not the first time you said that.”

Her ‘bedroom’ was still a mattress on the floor, some boxes piled together to be a bedside table and dresser, and then some spare bits of furniture that had been in the house when she’d moved in.  A dresser with one drawer missing, a shelf nailed to the wall, that had her art stuff, and a very crappy painter’s workbench.  The workbench was basically a paint-and-ink splattered board with legs, that served as her art desk, which was also her desk for practice, as evidenced by the partially depleted stacks of notecards in paper wrappers that sat at the back.

About thirty pages of her sketchbooks and art pads had been torn out and stuck up, on the bed-and-dresser side of the room.  Over in the other corner, with the desk, it was mostly reference notes for runes and patterns.

Practice could be improvised.  A spell card could have a line or diacritic mark added, and there were a lot of ways it could be used.  Small, localized rituals could be altered, words could be chosen.  She could scribble out a variety of spell cards, pull out something approximating what she needed, maybe add a couple lines, triangles, or a pairing symbol with a marker, and she was sitting pretty.

It wasn’t that way with alchemy, really.  She was pretty sure that if she got a few more books under her belt, more sources for key ingredients, and some practice in, she could toss something into a flask and shake, for that same effect.  Until then, the direction she chose for a bit of alchemy was locked in and deployed when the alchemy was used.  The cumulative impurities were pretty much decided early on, too.

She’d put stuff on to simmer, showered, then caught a two hour nap, which was probably the worst length of time for a nap.  Not quite a catnap that could re-energize, not long enough to be proper rest.

She got up, stepped over Julette, who rolled over and snatched up a sweater off the ground.

“No nice sweaters if we’re going to be in the kitchen,” Verona told her, before stooping down to snatch up a favorite pair of black, paint-stained jeans.

Julette stuck a foot out, and dragged it out of reach of Verona’s hand.

Verona could’ve changed the traction of the floor or something to win that, but she let Julette have the win.  She found some flannel pants that tended to catch on her leg stubble if she hadn’t shaved her legs, and pulled them on.

She grabbed things, laptop included, and went downstairs, Julette following.  She poked Peckersnot awake as she passed him.  Little lights she’d set in beneath the shelves provided back-lighting so she could see the contents of the alchemy setup she’d put together.  Brass and glass bits of tubing stretched between various containers, distilling, dripping, self-stirring.

She got a hair tie and tied her hair back into a ponytail that was about as short as a ponytail could be and not pull its way free.  She scrubbed her arms down, tied on a black rubber apron, and then pulled on elbow length black gloves of a thinner material.  The safety goggles were last.

She hated this phase of the learning curve with Alchemy.  Where trajectories were set, and room for creativity was limited.  No adjusting a project after it unfolded.  Only the fact that things could get messy kept her moving through the process.  She could initiate projects, which she then had to see through or containers would overflow, things would mix, and she’d have to throw out whole parts of her setup.  The shadow of Avery in a hospital bed dogged her, making it a bit worse.

Julette was standing with her back to the alchemy setup, looking at a sketched figure on the wall.  A lithe man wearing only a gas mask and very low-slung jeans.  The image moved faintly; light shone past containers and through vapors and steam, and the shadows cast on the wall disguised most of it.  The jeans weren’t so low that anything was revealed, but low enough that the point where the pelvis stopped and the leg began was visible, and it was obvious the figure shaved his body hair.  Peckersnot sat off to the side, studying the image too.

Verona gently turned Julette around to focus on the setup.

There were different things that could be distilled with alchemy.  This was stuff that overlapped with just about every field of study.  Along the way, she’d been working at either setting herself up to tap into those fields, or taking the preliminary steps so that if she needed to break into that stuff, she could get there in a week.

Glamour was everywhere, and Shellie had demonstrated some ability to find and collect traces of it to use against the Fae.  There were washing processes that could rinse an item of trace glamour, specifically, which was a good way to get maybe a tablespoon of glamour for an hour’s work… or to get an item clear of glamour, specifically, so it could be tempered like that, putting it through ritualized ‘hardening’ in anticipation of it being a magic item or ritual component.  Hard wash of a cloak, that she then tempered, for example, could be a good way to make glamour not stick to her.  A more advanced practice to temper glamour into the item, say, the inside of the cloak, and she could make it more conducive to transformations.

Except she was pegging that as weeks of work and she gave it a fifteen percent success rate, as things were right now.

Spirits were easy to manipulate and could be inserted into things.  There were processes to bind spirits to insert them into a solid or liquid substance, and then have a liquid form of that spirit, which could then be used as a component or as the central force being manipulated.

There were ways to screen emotions out of an area, or out of a substance.  A technique favored by Hydes, who would extract emotions to maintain balance between themselves and their alter ego, and emotion manipulators like the Whitts, who would try to get people to drink distilled lust or anger or whatever.

Some of the more valuable resources in alchemy were trace elements of Creation itself in certain things.  Refining and maintaining things like primordial clay and promethean sparks could get semi-renewable resources.  Use one of those for a curse and the curse would grow over time, iterating and even evolving, adapting around countermeasures or gaining a degree of intelligence.  It could be used to capital-c Create life, or, in sufficient quantities, foster a pocket world.  A personal dimension.

She had a strong suspicion that the hot lead had a spark inside it, and that was why it renewed in power, with the metal of the bullet folded around it keeping it from leaking out or getting inventive.  She would’ve loved to pry that open and see if she could salvage the spark, which would probably be better in the long run, but she knew that would sit badly with Lucy.  What she’d managed to refine were pieces as big around as a dollar coin, of low power and middling purity.

She leaned down to peer into a series of beakers.  Each beaker had a homunculus inside it, of a slightly different type, and different stage of growth.  They took a week to grow, and she was trying to infuse portions of primordial clay, promethean sparks, breaths of life and fonts of creation in roughly equal amounts.

The foetal ones looked like someone had spooged in the beaker, with a little dark spot where the heart was.  That apparently wasn’t much different from real life, and the people in the city who carried signs around with bleeding fetuses on display saying ‘1 week’ were basically making stuff up, or they’d been lied to.

At different stages, they took on different forms, and with the different end goals she was planning, they went from mirroring the development of human embryos to going off in their own little directions.  Potato-ish, tadpole-ish, little human.

“So, this is critically important,” Verona said, her arms folded.  “Peckersnot, are you paying attention?  Because we’re going to need you here.”

Peckersnot nodded.  Julette mimed Verona, arms folded, so Peckersnot joined in, while standing on the counter.

“We’re going to unearth this fella.  Avery found a gem of a homunculus out in Thunder Bay.  And I’ve created one.  It needs two more things to finish.  One should be on order in the Kennet found market.  So we crack this little guy open, and we need to feed him the key ingredient to fuel him for what we need.  I’ve got setups for echoic drip, I’ve got spirit concentrate, I’ve got little elements of Creation, I’ve got Abyssal extract, I’ve got goblin alchemy…”

Peckersnot uncrossed his arms long enough to thump his chest.

“Which you contributed extra to.  Thank you,” Verona said.  “But there’s some extra stuff, I’ll get to that later.  But for right now?  This…”

She unhitched the jar from the wire setup.  It was being kept at a certain temperature.  Within was a homunculus with a scrunched-up face.

“Is a styan.  Anti-clairvoyance homunculus.”

“The ‘Eyy wot’ guy!” Julette exclaimed.  “With the mustache.  Sitting in the bird nest!  I love that guy!”

“Here, in the war room…” Verona indicated.  She didn’t want to get pollutants on her gloves, so she used her foot to push the door between the kitchen and the war room open.  On the blocky table she used for maps and things, she had some practice stuff laying around.  She indicated, Julette got it out, and she put it front and center, removing the weight with an anti-rune charm on it.  “…Thank you.  It’s just about the lowest level augury I could conveniently do.  Binocular practice.  For Kennet, testing things for the greater effort.”

The diagram was already faintly animated, but it lit up at the words.

A loose orb shape, about a handspan wide, appeared over the paper.  Verona crouched down a little, and peered through it.  “See?”

Julette, setting Peckersnot down on the table, leaned down.  The three of them could see into the kitchen, with the practice forming a kind of magnification lens, to view the alchemy stuff on the far end of the kitchen as if it was a foot from their faces.  Moving it around produced a motion-sickness inducing shift of the point of view.


“Now… this should work.  Kind of worked earlier…”

Verona left them there, and, still carrying the jar, walked through the field of view as she did a lap around the table.

“Woahh,” Julette murmured.

Verona circled back around to Julette’s side.  Sure enough, the image was focused on the jar she was holding.  The face took up the entire lens, magnified with a fishbowl tilt, focusing on the scrunched-up face in dark-tinted liquid.  The view tore up as she moved the jar around, and fuzzed out and fuzzed back in again as she let it clarify and lock on again.

“He’s asleep and sleeping in its ‘womb’, so to speak,” Verona said.  “It’ll be stronger after.”

“Heck yeah,” Julette replied.  “What goes into him?”

“Some Ruins stuff.  Attention, attentiveness, obsession.  Some stickiness.”

Peckersnot peeped.

“He helped there.  It’s like if someone bends over and he’s wearing a pink thong, you can’t not have your eye go to the thong?  Or gas mask guy on the wall?”

“I like gas mask guy,” Julette said.

“Similar deal, Augury can’t help but look, and then you stick the metaphorical ‘eye’ to it, so it can’t stop looking.  Alexander talked about how, when the Blue Heron God first showed up, before he got everyone together and they had their big night of drinking, the god would appear in augury and be generally annoying, so he felt he had to go out and deal with it.  Similar deal here, just way smaller in size.”

“I hear you,” Julette said.  “Cool.”

“It is also, I’m pretty sure, going to work as an aphth.”

“Did you just bite your tongue while trying to say empath?” Julette asked, smirking.

“No, but also you’re in the right ballpark, weirdly enough.  The tongue.  One of the most annoying things we’ve been running into is that we’re being listened in on constantly.  Even without the Charles factor, we’ve got an Augur, Seth Belanger, and his apprentice, who is one of the ones who hasn’t bailed.  So?  Anti-clairaudience homunculus.”

“I like it,” Julette said.  “Cool concept.”

“Not my idea, just a thing I found in alchemy texts.  He’s got a balance that has very little breath of life in him.  It makes him less able to walk or crawl around.  Usually Creations without much breath will stick to the same spot, doing the same sorts of things.  Very little promethean spark, it makes him less inventive and less likely to exceed his bounds, be creative, be passionate, and all of that.”

“What hell,” Julette said.  “I’d like to think we have more spark in how we’re made than your average cats.  Us three?”

Peckersnot peeped.  Verona shrugged.

“In setting this up, Peck and I biased it toward the font and especially clay.  Water and earth, the way gods like to use ’em.  Font means he’ll have appetite, he’ll get tired, he’ll age, and a lot of that sounds bad, but it also means he grows, he heals, he has strength in youth, which is great because he’s young now and old age is a ways off.  Hell, given a chance he’ll breed.”

“Not a porny website I’d be tuning into, gotta say,” Julette noted.  “No offense, little jar man.”

“And clay is durability and presence in the world, it’s the anchor for all the other elements, so he doesn’t destroy himself moving or doing his thing.  It’s reinforcement to hold the other ingredient which we’ll add in a bit.  And because he’s mostly wet clay, when we ‘hatch’ him from this jar, he’ll be moldable.  We can choose his appearance.”

“Ahhhhh,” Julette replied.  “That’s fun.

Peckersnot stroked his near-nonexistent chin.

“Want to help me on that one?” Verona asked Julette.  “Sculpting new homunculus flesh?  I’ve got the tools and jars of hair, and the unawakened can do it.”

“Hell yeah,” Julette said.

“Have that be your incentive?  I need an extra pair of hands.”

“I’d do it anyway, but I like incentives.”

“Cool,” Verona said.  She took the container back to the kitchen-lab and popped the homunculus onto the wire configuration, putting a thermometer in through the open top.

She paused, standing in the middle of the kitchen, taking stock.

Idly, she commented, “I’ve got an idea on what we might do for the face, but that’s for later.  For now…”

She trailed off.

She looked across the setup, at what was brewing, what was on her list to brew, and what she might be able to do with the resources available.  Her thumb rolled around her palm as shooting pains ran through it.  Damn it.

“Elemental and spirit there, vacuum jars.  Spell cards get us most of the elemental stuff we need, but the vacuum jars are so useful.  Ruins setup, I want curse removal oil.  If there’s a quiet period, I’d like to hatch another, more general homunculus and get it working on some of the menial tasks.  Healing potions, of course, and I really, really want to get the impurities down for those in particular.  And honestly?  A huge dose of poison would be good.  I’m thinking ‘kill something big’.”

“Makes me think of Avery’s friend Gilkey,” Julette said.  “And how there’s that whole Alchemist cabal in the region that went the way of the dinosaur, what was it?”

“Twentyish years ago,” Verona said.  “Went bad, yeah.  Good reminder to be careful.  Maybe avoid taking on too much.  Except all of this feels essential.  Stop me if I start getting into side projects?”

“Alright,” Julette said.

“You want to look up the curse oil stuff?  Since you don’t have gloves on, you can turn pages.  Peckersnot, let’s turn on the condensers, the vacuum pump.  Let’s see, we’ll want the plate I drew heraldry on, for concentrating spirit there…”

Peckersnot scrambled through and around the setup, to turn tabs and hit switches things as she mentioned them, like a jungle gym of fire, glass, and containers of elemental energies, while Julette plunked herself down in a corner with one of the binders that Verona had put some printed out pages into.

There were so many things that bothered her, that she was worried about.  Avery being in the hospital bed, after their recent scare.  The fight, the fact the Others were involved.

The other two didn’t know about the parents’ involvement.  Verona still felt like that was sitting in the back of her head, asking for her to deliver a verdict.

Then her mom, and that whole deal.  Where was she going to go?  What was she going to do?

Her home was burned down.  Her relationship with her dad was… she didn’t figure it was ever going to be good, after CAS had mandated therapy and he’d gone straight back to being himself after.

But there was a difference between knowing something was dying and terminal and taking it out behind the shed and shooting it.

She was surrounded by burners, tubing, brass piping, vessels, practices concentrated down to liquid and powdered forms, nascent lifeforms she was making from scratch -and a few baseline tissues-, and the alchemy workshop was roaring to life.  This was the fun part, launching each project, before the requisite hours of juggling keeping temperatures, formulations, and balances precise.

She just wanted to go upstairs, down the hall, over to McCauleigh’s room, and crawl into that bed so Anselm was between her and McCauleigh.  Press herself against him, not for anything horny, but to have another human being there.  Or napping with or sitting and lightly chatting with McCauleigh, if Anselm was out, or just lying in her bed with cat-form Julette and the covers pulled over her head, failing that.  It being a boy was obviously preferable, but that was aesthetic and leaving the door open for fun stuff, maybe.

Her heart felt weary, she dreaded this fight that was coming up fast, and she wasn’t looking forward to the upcoming hours of project maintenance once she got started.  The only balm for those things, it felt like, was a good week of resting like she’d just imagined.  Naps with people she trusted as a rest thing.  Hanging out with those same people or with Lucy and Avery or drawing as a mid-intensity thing.  Getting into random practice stuff where the stakes were lower and one percent of difference could mean that her friend didn’t have to get her stomach pumped as her high intensity, exciting thing.  Homework, mom, working on the shop, chores, and catching up on life to fill the spaces between, as a non-intensity, thing.  A side thing.  Grounding herself.

That was the dream.

Peckersnot did a peep that slid into a whistle.

She startled a little, emerging from her thoughts.  She turned to Julette.  “Favor?  Cheek slaps.  I’m wearing clean gloves.”


She closed her eyes, then paused, sensing-

Julette was sitting down, one arm all the way back, ready for a homerun swing.


Julette relented, and slapped each of Verona’s cheeks, twice each, quick, fast, and just hard enough it stung.  Getting her fully awake.

“Thank you.  Let’s get to work.”


Her hand twinged, and as she moved it in reaction, the twinge became a lightning-strike of pain from palm to spine.  She almost dropped the beaker she was holding.

She grunted, “Fuck.  I’m definitely going to need those extra hands now.  My left hand is giving up on me, I think.  Using it too much.”

“I’m so glad I only have that hand thing as a visual thing.  You okay?” Julette asked.

“I think I’ll be back in a minute.  Can I get you cleaning more containers and jars?  And the gloves?  It’s one of those tasks Peckersnot’s less good at, when it comes to being lab assistant.  Some part of it usually ends up weirdly sticky.”

Peckersnot peeped.

“On it.”

Verona pulled off the gloves and draped them on the sink’s edge.  Moving her hand to get it free of the glove made more twinges shoot through it.  She left the apron on, jogging upstairs.

Over-the-counter everyday painkillers, which, ironic with a hand like hers, were a pain in the tit to open one-handed, then… brace.  She got two out and tried to assess whether she could get away with the soft one, rather than the one with the metal part that pressed against her palm and kept her wrist and hand at a fixed angle and position.

McCauleigh sidled into the doorway, leaning against the frame.  She had severe bedhead.

“Heya,” Verona said.  She winced as her hand twinged.


Hard brace for now, she’d swap it out for the soft one later if she had to.  She put her hand through and awkwardly strapped it on.  Another irony, that it wasn’t made to be easier.

McCauleigh reached over to put a finger down, holding one part down so Verona could strap it.

“Napping with Anselm?”

“Some chat.”

“I like your aesthetic together.  I’d like to draw you two, in calmer times,” Verona remarked.

“Maybe.  Not sure what that involves, but sure.  Doing alchemy?”

“Yeah.  Bunch of stuff.  It’s pretty neat.”

“When I did it at the Blue Heron, I got frustrated.  First thing I did, instructor’s all, “No, no, there’s too much emotional turmoil in you, it tainted the batch.  Like, fuck all the way off, tell me that beforehand?”


“Second batch, I dunno, something about me moving too aggressively while carrying the solution?  And third thing, I don’t even really remember.  I think I got a three in the math and that changed things and we definitely weren’t warned enough about it beforehand.”


“Three things where I couldn’t know in advance it was going to be a problem, trashing my work and I kinda went, fuck alchemy, you know?”

“I hear you.  You have to do reading in advance.”

“I’m not so good at retaining reading,” McCauleigh said.  “And my head was in a different, angrier place back then, I think that got in the way.  Still, fuck alchemy.”

Verona shrugged.

“I don’t know how you juggle all these things.”

“Eh.  I’ve got a decent memory, I’m good with creativity, improvising, and I’ve got good hand eye coordination, for making stuff and diagram work, I dunno.  Or I had good hand eye coordination.”

She thunked the hard part of the brace against the edge of the counter.

“You look tired,” McCauleigh said.  “Be careful you don’t blow yourself up.”

“Had a two hour nap.  Like you and Anselm.”

“Yeah, but we were sleeping in, we slept, beyond those two hours, and you were up.”

Verona drew her eyebrows together, thinking.  Her head swam a bit.  Had she overslept or underslept?

“It’s eleven thirty.”

Verona paused, thinking.  “AM or PM?”

“The fact you don’t even know…” McCauleigh sighed the words.  “What day do you think it is?”

“It’s either the night before everyone’s leaving to go deal with Charles, and I’ve got twenty-four hours, or it’s the day we’re going to deal with Charles, and I’ve got twelve.”

“The day.  Twelve,” McCauleigh said.

Verona took that in, made the mental adjustments, then, eyes closed, right hand clutching the brace on her left hand, which prevented her from massaging her palm, she nodded.

Her eyes went to the window.  She liked things darker, as a general rule, lights dimmer, light levels brought down by the trees around the property, so there wasn’t morning sunlight streaming in through the window… but that was a her decision.

She un-adjusted and light came beaming through, making her eyeballs hurt.

The Demesne made it hard to keep track of time, sometimes, because of the little adjustments like that.

“What can I do?” McCauleigh asked.

Verona thought about going with McCauleigh to that bed Anselm was lying in, and crawling under the covers.  Her back pressed hard to Anselm’s front, him spooning her, McCauleigh on the other side, arm draped over, so Verona could hold it.  Sleeping like that for ten straight hours.

But she’d started her alchemy stuff.  She could leave it for a short time, maybe, but not ten hours.

“I know you said fuck alchemy…”

“I did.  I meant it, too.”

“But did you get enough know-how that you can help Julette and Peck keep an eye on things?  Help them figure out what to do if something starts boiling and it shouldn’t?”

“I know some.”

“Probably better off than Julette or Peck.  Can you?  Is that okay?  I need to get out of the demesne and run an errand while I’m at it.”


“Thank you.”  Verona lifted off her apron and put it over McCauleigh’s head.  She bent down and rinsed her face, and when she’d straightened, washcloth pressed to her lower face, McCauleigh was already on her way into the kitchen, talking to the other two.

She went and pulled on the sweater Julette had wanted to grab, then changed out the pyjama pants for old jeans.  Ones she’d worn last year.  There had been a point between Thanksgiving and Christmas where she hadn’t been able to get the button through the hole, but she’d run around enough in the last few weeks that they fit again.  Socks… she went with mismatched ones for speed.

She sorted things out, got her bag, got notebooks, scribbled out an insulating setup onto paper and then put that in between two layers of the brace she couldn’t put a hand over, so her fingers wouldn’t get cold, and made sure to bring some Kennet found currency, pocketing it.

She checked on the others, who were chatting while watching everything, McCauleigh helping with cleaning jars.


“What’s up?”

“Heading out.  For the sake of making the most of our time… you want to just do the styan-aphth homunculus yourself?”

“Yeah?  You’re for real?”

She badly wanted to do that, because it was cool and a couple of weeks had gone into this, really, but… time was short and she didn’t have the resources.  “I’ll go get the last components.  Don’t feed it.”


Verona did have to get involved, helping to set up the workspace, while Julette got the tools.  Then she got the little guy out of the jar, pouring the fluids into a strainer that caught him in it.  He writhed there, bubbles forming at his mouth as he ejected the fluids in his lungs and started breathing for real.

“Gotta work fast before he dries out.  You should have one to two hours,” Verona told Julette.  “Hair…”

She moved a jar of hair into reach.

“And my suggestion.  If it doesn’t work out or you need to go another direction because something went wrong or you feel inspired, do that, but…”

She put the picture she’d printed out onto the table.

“Got it,” Julette replied.

“I aim to be back within an hour,” Verona said.  Her hand twinged.  She got her duffel coat, shrugging into it, and secured her cat mask before leaving, stepping outside.

The pigeon flew out and settled onto her shoulder as she stood on the stairs, thinking about the order of operations, here.  She greeted it, “Yo.”

“Coo,” the pigeon replied.

Even venturing into Kennet found, where things were in perpetual just-past-sunset or just-before-sunrise twilight, the lights were too bright.  She needed a minute to adjust.  Bending over, hair a shield from the lights from the glittering Lost-and-Foundling ski hill, she texted the others, to see who was doing what.

I’ll come

There were some stalls which were making food, so she stopped at one and handed over some bills with Cherrypop on them to pay, and ate while checking at some stalls, buying some odds and ends.  Fried pastry in the shape of a snail shell with a creamy-spinachy-meat mixture inside.  Like with alchemy, magic items had a frontloaded focus.  With skill and tricks, they could be adjusted or skewed in function, and some items interacted together, but mostly what you started with determined what you ended up with.

Starting with the right items for the right practices was vital.  Fae magic in an ugly item?  Abyssal stuff in something mass-manufactured?  Goblin practice in something delicate?

She didn’t have time to prepare much in the way of magic items.

Some belts, a bell, a box, a lens…

Pain jolted through her hand.  She had to stop everything she was doing, putting her food aside, on the edge of the counter of a stall, one hand gripping her forearm, because the brace made her hand inaccessible.  A pins-and-needles numbness at her pinky and ring finger promised an imminent worsening.

“Coo?” the pigeon asked.

She couldn’t bring herself to answer before another lightning strike of pain ran from hand to spine- some of that might’ve been imagination.  Knowing what nerves were, her mind filling in blanks as her body just processed pain.  The ‘lightning strike’ didn’t end either, but sat in her arm, a coursing of signals, twisting, making muscles clench and convulse in connection to what was going on in her hand.  It left her entire arm shaking.

She resumed moving.

“Coo?” the pigeon asked, turning around.

“Sorry,” she muttered.  Can’t really chat with you.  Or explain right this second.

“Verona?” someone asked, behind her.  “Sorry, you’re Verona, right?”

Someone else, now.

The guy with the stall.  He indicated the food she’d set aside, that she’d almost left behind.  She didn’t want to let go of her arm, even if technically gripping it wasn’t doing anything to stem the pain.  Wasn’t- wasn’t damming the flow of badness or numbing it by cutting off circulation.  But she couldn’t pull her hand away.

Like sticking a finger in an outlet, or what they’d run into using the escape key, they’d gotten from Brie and Zed.  Like electricity coursing through you, locking up the muscles needed to pull away.  Like that, but not that.  It was paralyzing all the same.

She was glad she was wearing her mask, down here.  She didn’t want to drop to her knees and start crying here.  Not with cool Others around.  Not in general.

“Thanks, sorry,” she said, her voice tight.  She forced herself past the paralysis, grabbed the container, and clutched it awkwardly with her good hand, hugging the foil and remaining pastry against her side.  Maybe getting a stain on her coat.  Her throbbing, shaking, pain-wracked hand got jammed in a pocket.

There was no out-thinking the pain, no denying it, no willing it away.  She could push herself to an emotionally dead place, where she didn’t feel like crying anymore, could move mechanically, choosing to put one leg in front of the other, focusing on not hunching over, keeping her arm still even as it wanted to jerk and twitch.

She let herself into the store with the post on one side and shelves of resource books and reference materials, maps, and educational stuff on the other.  It looked like the guy at the post desk was in the back, sorting out boxes.

“Ferris,” Verona called out.  Was her tone bad?  The pain was a constant, she really wanted to stop and cry, and it felt like she’d come across more curt or angry than she was.

“Hey.  Uh.  Hi,” the man greeted her.  He was human, a lost sheep, meaning he’d started elsewhere and come over here, and his mask was three simple plastic clown masks rigged to a headband with what looked like tiny motors, so they rotated steadily around his head, his face partially covered at all times.

“Hey, good to see you,” she said, to temper her earlier tone.  “Hope you’re doing okay.  My package was supposed to come in?”

He made an expression that was hard to see with the masks.  “It did.  That was the guarantee.”

“Sounds good.”

“Be right back.”

Her arm jittered,

He pulled up the box and set it down.

Verona gave him a look, then picked up the box.  She gave it a light shake, then put it down on the counter.  She leaned forward, reaching past the cash register for the small knife he had there-

“Woah woah woah woah-” Ferris protested, backing off.

-and used it to open the cardboard box.  She checked the contents- or the lack thereof.

She turned it upside down to verify.  “Ferris.”

“The package arrived, as was promised.  The contents are due in another week.”


“Not my call,” he said.  “Can you put the knife down?”

Her arm jittered again.  She took a second, then put the knife down, giving it a light push to put it close to where it had been.  “I wasn’t even thinking about using that to hurt you.  It was for the box.  And I couldn’t hurt you here even if I wanted to, which I didn’t.”

“Okay,” he said.  He moved it back to where it had been, beside the register.

She looked at the box.  “Fuck, I really wanted that.”

“Sorry.  Again, not my call.”

“You can’t do that,” she told him.

“I didn’t-”

“You can’t- Ferris!” she interrupted his protests at innocence.  “Ferris, dude.  You can’t fucking lead me to believe I’ve had a package I’ve anticipated show up when it hasn’t.  I get in trouble for lying.  Lost and foundlings get in trouble for lying.  You don’t know- you can’t know for sure if a human-ish tourist that shows up gets in trouble for lying, okay?”

“Sorry.  Figuring all this out.”

“You’ve been around for months, and this is-”

Her arm jerked as pain ran through her hand again.  She let out a small sound, eyes shut, face turned toward the ground.

She turned her eyes back to him.  “-it’s important.  It’s vital.  I’ve got a fucking war coming up, and if I got gainsaid, what the fuck, dude?  If I’d said it was good the package came in and it wasn’t good, I could be in trouble.  Stuff matters!

“Okay,” he said.

She sighed, looking at him.

“Sorry,” he added.

“I had two weeks worth of alchemy work making a little lifeform in a test tube, not counting the other weeks I put into reading up and preparing.  I just hatched it from the tube earlier, and now…”

“That sounds cool.  Sorry again.”

“…You didn’t tell me the box was empty, Ferris!  You could’ve gone out of your way to tell me the box was empty and now the work is probably wasted, it won’t do what I needed it to do.”

“I kinda wondered, maybe I got it wrong.  It says it’s something divine, so maybe it was light, or actual light, I dunno.”

“God milk.”

“Yeah.  That’s what the label said.  But I didn’t know until a bit earlier, I got a bad feeling and called, to figure out what happened.  They needed to keep to their word for the delivery time, so they sent the package, without the contents.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Fuck, though.  Fuck, two weeks of regular work…  I was working on this when I thought my best friend might be dead, so the work wouldn’t be wasted, and this bullshit?”

“Sorry,” he said.

She wanted to flip on him.  Her hand clenched up, pain running through it, and she wanted to cry.  The hand, the product, the work.

“Sorry,” she said.  “You caught me on a bad day.  Seriously though, communicate?”

“Got it,” he said.  “Sorry.”

She shook her head slightly.  “Let me know when the contents come in.  It’ll be too late, and who knows if it’ll even be sour when it gets to me, but I can still find a use, probably.”

“Will do,” he said.

She stepped outside.  Her hand jittered.  The brace helped keep it from forcibly closing up, clenching until it felt like something would tear or break, but it didn’t help beyond that.

“Sorry,” she told the pigeon.  “Not me at my best.”


“Do me a favor, look out for Avery?  I wasn’t precise about where I’d be or what I’d do.”


The pigeon took off.

Verona took a couple minutes to herself, leaning against the wall, eating the pastry that had gone lukewarm, looking out toward the river canal.  Letting her arm relax.  Maybe.  Deep breaths, fresh air.  Cool practice waiting for her… even if she didn’t have the milk.

Her phone buzzed.  She fished it out and checked.

Coming.  Where do I find you?

She replied.

kf.  outside the dumb post

The pain and having to focus on keeping things together around the pain was exhausting.  A few times a week, to varying degrees, and that number wasn’t improving.  It hit at random, asleep or awake, busy or not, and she just counted herself lucky that it hadn’t happened in a big way when she was in the middle of a serious fight or practice.

She saw the pigeon circling above.  Then she saw Avery drop out of the sky.  Verona crossed the street and went to the railing, to get a better look.

Verona raised a hand, leaving her braced hand wedged in her pocket.  Avery, who had landed on the bank of the canal, looked up at her, hurriedly pulling her mask on.  Snowdrop, as she went to human form, came with the opossum mask already on.

Avery jogged, with Snowdrop following, to where a giant, bipedal, mammoth-like Lost with an ivory mask was wading, because the street was too narrow for him.  She said something to the figure, and he raised a hand, which Avery stepped onto.  He lifted her up and across the road.

Avery ran to Verona, black roping as she disappeared behind a telephone pole, to cross the street where an apparent teacher was leading a bunch of Lost kids in various animal masks in a human chain.

“You’re so energetic,” Verona greeted Avery.  “Ugh.”

Avery hugged her.  “Heya.”

“Hey.  You know, the fact you dropped in without a mask, I figure it’d be like being in Kennet above and you just hop out onto a busy street while you’re still getting dressed, flashing a bit of tit while you work on pulling your shirt on.”

“Hey Verona, sure, leap right into that, huh?  How are you doing?”

“Eh,” Verona grunted.  “Hand’s acting up.  I-”

Verona stopped as Avery lifted up her mask.

“-You just metaphorically lifted up my shirt and flashing the entire street.”

“Only I saw, I’m pretty sure.  You have circles under your eyes,” Avery said, flipping the mask back down.

“Unique,” Snowdrop said, putting out a hand for a high five.

“Represent,” Verona agreed, slapping Snowdrop’s palm with her good hand.  “And pigeon saw.”

“Coo,” the pigeon said.  He’d settled on the railing.

“How bad is it?  The exhaustion?” Avery asked.  “You need to go back, or-?”

“It’s bad.  Not as bad as when I first went to the hospital, or when I visited your place in Thunder Bay.  But close.”

“I’m sorry.”

Verona shrugged.  “I screwed up my sleep schedule, and eating schedule, I guess, and… I guess I had extra caffeine, drinking tea while staying up.  Plus sugar.  I might’ve been asking for it.”

“It sucks that it happens, still.”

“Changing the subject.  How are you?” Verona asked, indicating Avery’s hip.

“That part of me’s fine.  Scar’s a bit gnarly but I can deal with that.  Stomach’s a bit fucked.  That’s harder.”



“I guess my gut bacteria are wiped out, or something?  Things aren’t sitting so hot.  Like after you have the flu and things are tender, and you feel like you could throw up if you have something too rich?  But for a few days, now.”

More guilt.

“Don’t eat yogurt, give it to me,” Snowdrop said.  To Verona she said, “she’s been good about that.”

“I’ll eat yogurt that wasn’t in the trash of some random business, Snow.”

“I respect that.  Right, pigeon?”

“Coo,” the pigeon replied, clearly affronted.

“He’s a pigeon of class, he doesn’t eat trash can yogurt,” Verona said.  To Avery, she said, “Errand’s a bust, but Lucy’s coming, so… should wait for her.”

“Bust?” Avery asked.

“They sent a package, no contents.  No god milk.”

Snowdrop reached forward, grabbing the front of Verona’s coat.  Behind or inside that perpetually open mouth of the opossum mask, her mouth hung ajar.

“I know.  Sucks.  And I need to find some alternative in the next hour if I’m going to pull this project together.  I don’t suppose you know of any markets that have something like that?” she asked Avery.

“No,” Avery said.  “Hmmm…”

“Don’t get distracted by the thought of some hundred foot tall goddess lactating majestically.”

“You are in a mood, Ronnie,” Avery said.  “Geez.”

Verona snorted.  “You’re thinking about it now, I bet.”

“No comment.  You get like this when you’re emotionally wiped out.  What’s up?  Is it your house, your dad, your mom?”

“The fight.  Preparing.  Trying to cover stuff that’s likely to come up.  Batches of potions.  Spell cards.  Magic items.  Not having a great game plan, despite everything.”

“It’s not your job, you know.  You don’t have to have a big move in mind every step of the way,” Avery told her.  “The Founding, replacing the Alabaster…”

“The Aurum, partially.”

Avery sighed.

It’s the job we assigned me when we kicked all this off.

“I might have an idea,” Avery said.  “We’ll see.”

Waiting for when we aren’t being listened in on?

“Okay,” Verona said.  “I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse.”

Verona rested her head against Avery’s shoulder.

“If you need to close your eyes while we wait for Lucy…”

“Coo?” the pigeon chimed in.

“If you would,” Verona told it.

It took off, flapping.

“I’m sorry,” Verona told Avery, when they were alone.  Or more alone.


“For indirectly committing genocide, I guess.”

“Hmm.  Yeah, that sounds bad.  Huh?”

“Of your gut bacteria.  Because the potions weren’t better.”

“Oh that.  Don’t be silly.  The potions saved my life.  It’s my fault for getting shot.”

“Yeah, that wasn’t great either, but honestly, we’ve been shot at plenty.  It was a matter of time.”


“The council’s probably right to say ‘no more’,” Verona said.  “Considering.”


“I know it’ll be temporary, only as long as we’re insisting we’ll go and fight, but I’m anxious about it anyway.  I know Charles likes to keep gainsaying in his toolkit.  So that’s a bit of why I’m focused on the alchemy and items.  That stuff works even when you’re gainsaid.”

And it equips us if we want to press on for a second try after things have failed.  Or if someone needs rescue, or whatever.

“There’s other things, you know?” Avery said.

“Hm?  The power of love and friendship?”

“Kind of.  Others.”

“I guess not every Other we could call on for help is tied to the council.”

“There’s a whole mess of them here in Kennet found,” Avery said.

Verona looked around, head still resting against Avery.  “True.  How are you doing, Snowdrop?  Doing the goblin sage thing?”

“I’ve got it all figured out.”

“I figure it’s symbolic in a way that’s not about having some actual wise person in place.  The sage is important because the sage is important, that’s circular, it takes the load off.  Like, maybe even a slightly crushed can of soda could be held up as a ‘sage’ to-”

“Ronnie,” Avery cut her off.  “Really?”

“Shit.  No, I didn’t mean you’re worthless.”

“You’re a jerk.  Doesn’t make me feel better at all,” Snowdrop said.  “Isn’t that weird?”

“Okay,” Verona said.  “That’s good.  Sorry.  Pain and tiredness means I’m accidentally mean, I guess.  I think you’re way more valuable than a slightly crushed can of soda.”

“I give crappy advice.”

“And you’re fun.”

“As boring as unbuttered toast,” Snowdrop replied.

“How much more do you have to do, workshop-wise, Verona?” Avery asked.

“I could spend a week preparing and it wouldn’t feel like enough.  I’ve got some alchemy waiting for me to get back and finalize it.  I might squeeze in some tempering and quick enchantment.”

“Cool.  I’d like to see.  I-”

“I’d like to have you over.”

“Yeah.  Let’s do that.  The pigeon’s signaling us that Lucy’s over that way, I think.  Here.  I’ll black rope us.”

“Less walking?  I’m down.”

Lucy was a few blocks over, wearing her red coat from the Dog Tags and her fox mask, earring glinting in the light of the ornate streetlights.

“Good mask protocol,” Verona said.

“What’s she talking about?” Lucy asked Avery.

“There was a thing.  Verona being Verona.”

“I notice how we’re not asking me for clarification,” Verona said.  “Here, Snowdrop, be buddies with me.  We’ll be a pair of the chronically misunderstood and maligned.  A trio, you can be included too, pigeon.”

“Coo,” the pigeon said, from where he’d perched on a rail.

“Will you tell me what god milk tastes like?”

“If my shipment eventually arrives and it’s not spoiled, maybe I’ll even give you a taste?  Hm, I wonder what happens if a regular person or spirit-opossum boon companion drinks it.”

“What a shame, there’s no way to find out,” Snowdrop said, dead serious.

“God milk,” Lucy said, still catching up.  “Okay.”

“Yeah, presumably from some majestically lactating, hundred foot tall goddess,” Verona said.

“Is this mental image meant for you or me, Ronnie?” Avery asked.  “Because you seem to be enjoying it so much.”

“It’s sort of funny, so… both?”

“Alright, fair enough.”

“Draw it, maybe, if it’s that good a mental image,” Lucy suggested.

“There’s an idea, for when I have time,” Verona said.  Then, to get more on track, she clarified, “There was supposed to be god milk, but no luck.  Shipping issues.  I’ll look it up, Snow.  I’ll probably have to find a use for it, anyway.”

“People keep feeding my familiar weird stuff,” Avery griped.  “Toadswallow with his gremlin candies, then Rowan with his failed attempt at chili, he’s still getting his course in adulting, then Nora was asking if she could bring Snowdrop mealworms from the pet store, which I feel weird about.”

“Why?” Snowdrop asked.

“Because you’re human most of the time.”

“I would like to formally reject you from the club of the chronically misunderstood and maligned.  Because there’s no way I’m misunderstanding or thinking awful things about you, right now.”

“I remember Nora, on our first meeting, saying she’d basically belong in that club.  But here I am with what feels like my foot chronically stuck in my mouth.  She’s being really tolerant.”

“You’re a fit, dashing, mysterious type,” Verona said.  “You’re nice, in a way most people aren’t, you’re adventurous, you’re interested in bettering the world.”

“I wasn’t actually fishing for compliments.”

“I’ll give you them anyway, you’re a friend to animals, including weird opossums, you turn enemies into allies, which is a rare and special skill derived from how genuine you are.”

“Okay, okay, alright,” Avery said.

“I struggle to recall anyone who doesn’t like you as a person, Ave,” Lucy threw in.  Verona clicked her tongue and gave Lucy a thumbs-up behind Avery’s back.

Avery pulled away from their grouping and turned around, walking backwards and facing them.  As she did that turn, she said, dead serious, “America.  Jeanine.”

“Kept those slung in the side holsters for a quick draw, huh?” Verona asked.

“Even America’s okay now, though,” Lucy said.

“She tolerates me, I guess.”

“And Jeanine doesn’t hate you, I’d argue,” Verona said.  “It’s not your personality, it’s that you’re awesome and you don’t want her.”

“But hey, things are stable, it’s confirmed, you’re talking to Nora again?  It’s not pulling teeth?” Lucy asked.  “I didn’t get any updates while with the Sable or on the way back.”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  Her expression was hidden by the deer mask, but it seemed like she was happy.  “Regular talking.  Awkward but only in the usual way, not pulling teeth.  Obviously my focus is going to this, but-”

“But you’re talking.  That’s great,” Lucy said.

“Awesome,” Verona said.  “Have you given her that cake you talked about with Liberty and Nora?”

“It’s on the agenda.  Obviously, again, this.  We’re doing a whole thing.  I’m happy to be in a decent place.”

“For sure,” Lucy said.

Verona’s arm jerked.  She caught a glance from Lucy, who reached out past Avery to briefly rub her shoulder.

Yeah.  That was kind of the best response, not drawing special attention to it.

“It’s good to hang out,” Avery said.  “Feels weird.”

“Weird?” Lucy asked.

“Like… when was the last time we really got to spend time together without other stuff getting in the way?”

“The Christmas party,” Verona replied.

“You ever get those moments where it’s all… I’ve been working my ass off, going to morning practice with the team-”

“Never,” Verona cut Avery off.  “No team, I don’t think there ever will be a ‘team’, if it’s the sports type.”

“Ha ha.  But seriously, morning practice, school, friends, actual practice, council meetings, errands for the local Lord, family, family dinners, and then whatever the current crisis is?  There are these weeks and you’re so busy, you just focus on doing everything, and then one day there’s free time and you’re like… I don’t know what to do with myself?”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

“Not so much,” Verona said.  “But I might be a little messed up by years of feeling like I’m windmilling my arms around trying to get my balance whenever I’m in school, or doing day to day, everyday life stuff.”

“You did okay,” Lucy said.  “It’s when you fell behind from being focused on other stuff that the problems really started to show.”

“I did okay,” Verona admitted.  “But I still felt like I was flailing my arms around, off balance, and I wouldn’t know I was doing it right or wrong until after the feedback rolled in.  Give it a big fat bias toward ‘no’ if it was chores at home.  Add the occasional strict teacher who doesn’t give me leeway, and then I’d start thinking I’m a fuckup in general, and everyone else is only entertaining me because I’m okay at playing to their tastes.”

“Hmm,” Lucy made a sound.

“You seem down, Ronnie?”

“Just… dreading a lot of this, and this metaphorical kick in the damn shins when I’m trying to get a major project going…”

“Yeah.  But you know, what they were saying to me, about my gut-”


“-is that gut health and brain health are linked, so bad gut health means depression and anxiety, and I was already pretty rigged to go for the anxiety… I was feeling down.  Still am, a bit.”

More guilt.

“You know, getting shot, also a cause for feeling down.”

“Sure, absolutely,” Avery said.  “But getting around to what I was saying.  Have you eaten?”

“Ate a pastry.”

“Vegetables, protein?”

“Some protein, some vegetable in there.  Mostly caffeine.”

“There you go, hm,” Avery said.  “Let’s get something better to eat.”

“I’ve got a shrinking time window for my project.  It’s going to be so much less useful than I’d planned if I can’t make this happen.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “Is that priority one?”

“I wouldn’t go that far, necessarily,” Verona said.  “I’m here chatting with you, recharging.  You guys are priority one.  But it’s up there.”

“God milk.  Does it have to be milk?  What’s our leeway?  What’s the principle at work?”

“I don’t have an alchemy setup to tap into that whole spectrum of practices.”

“What spectrum?”

“Like the classes Durocher would teach,” Verona said.

“Miss as founder?” Lucy asked.

“Don’t get me visualizing milking Miss,” Avery said.  “That’s… traumatizing.”

Verona cackled.

“You went and put that in my head, Ave.  You could’ve kept your mouth shut,” Lucy said.

“It’s the sort of pain that has to be shared,” Avery said, with dead seriousness.  “I don’t want to bear it alone.”

“I could whip up a quick alchemy that would get that stuff flowing,” Verona said.

“That’s the kind of book you’re reading?” Lucy asked.

“Actually, yes.  Or a syringe.  But Miss doesn’t have a face to feed her through and she doesn’t have a heart to pump drugs through the rest of her, so… no go, I figure.”

“I can’t believe this conversation went even one more step beyond the mental picture,” Avery said.

“If it’s important?” Lucy asked.

“It’s… yeah, it’s important,” Verona said.

“It’s about things greater than and lesser than milk,” Snowdrop said.

“Then we figure this out,” Lucy said.  “Tashlit?”

“Slid the direction of the ophidian, or the megahydrophiidae, if you want to be specific.”

“You’re just going to randomly spit out something official-ish, huh?” Lucy asked.

“It’s Tashlit related.  I did reading.  But yeah, she’s half big sea snake.  Doesn’t incline itself toward the boob.  And I wouldn’t, either.”

“She has… skin.  Tissues?” Avery ventured.  Draping skin with… if you whipped something up?”

“I wouldn’t,” Verona said, seriously.  “It’s Tashlit.  Sticking a syringe into Miss’s chest to drug her and get her producing, and having her squeeze out a cup of-”

“Aaugh!” Avery groaned, dropping down to a crouch, heels of her hands pressed to her forehead.  “My brain.”

“-milk, that would be one thing, if it was possible.  But Tashlit is another thing entirely,” Verona told Lucy.

“Does it have to be milk?” Lucy asked.  “If we asked Tashlit for something else?  Tears?”

“It’s Tashlit,” Verona said, trying to convey with tone what she couldn’t with words.  “It’s… everything she’s been through, what she holds onto.  It’s… sacred.”

“You said it was important,” Lucy said.

Verona paused, thinking.


The kitchen was noisy with the sound of things bubbling, churning, and self-stirring in earnest.  McCauleigh hung back, keeping an eye on things, with only periodic glances through the door they’d propped open.

The homunculus was molded, and stood, head-heavy, with legs that became a fused mass like an inverted, flat-top mushroom.  Not ambulatory.  His hair was an orangey-brown, parted on the side, with streaks of white at the temple, and he had light lines in his forehead, with large, piercing blue eyes, and a tendency to smirk by default.

“I vote that we call it Alexanderp,” Julette said.

“Good work,” Verona said, as she moved around the group, hand on top of Julette’s head.  “Your vote counts for double.  We’ll discuss the name.  You want to run upstairs?  I have a sock on the table.”

“I know what you mean.  Be right back,” Julette said.

She became a cat to travel more freely around the people in the house, most of whom were crowded in the war room to see.

Tashlit batted Verona’s shoulder with a hand.  Verona looked over.

Tashlit held out her hand, closed, like she was vying for a fist-bump.

Verona put her hand below Tashlit’s.

Two teeth.

Verona took the teeth with what felt like appropriate reverence-

And almost dropped them as pain ran through her hand.


She caught the teeth in a washed and boiled spoon.  Wearing one of her gloves, she laid one of the teeth atop white bread that she’d torn out from inside the encircling of crust and placed on a sterile platter.  With gloved hand, she balled it up, dampened it with store-bought milk, and then dropped the first nugget into the homunculus’s mouth, which opened and turned toward the ceiling as her hand came nearer.

She did the same with the second.

Tashlit quietly cinched the bag she kept with her at all times closed, putting the loop around her neck again.  Lost fingernails that would never regrow, teeth, and locks of hair.

She was god-begotten.  There was a trace of something in there.  And if they were going to make this work, maybe that would get the door open.  And if it didn’t… what?  Tashlit had given up teeth she’d treasured?


Please work, Verona thought.

She didn’t need more guilt from projects she’d failed to get one hundred percent right, where even a slim percentage of imperfection could have rolling effects.

She backed away, and her eyes flashed as she used her Sight.

The moment the homunculus was in her field of Sight, it leaped forward, consuming the full field of vision, a caricature of Alexander Belanger’s face, smirking, looming, leering, turning his head in little directions, to look at her with the one eye on the one side of his head, then the other, then to turn his nose up and look down at her, smirking.  He moved around, agitated, trying to find the right angles.

She closed her eyes and shut off her Sight.  The image of his face loomed in her field of vision as an afterimage, still.

Sight off… she was fine.  Normal vision unaffected.  She walked into the living room.  Sight turned back on…

And with a few moments to wriggle his way in, he was there, taking up her full field of vision again.  He’d gotten his hooks in.  It would probably take a few minutes of looking away before he lost his grip and Sight became normal again.

She walked over, and picked up chalk, using her sense of the Demesne to avoid bumping into Lucy or Avery or Oakham or Mal.

She drew a circle around him, then, without even breaking that motion, continued the circular motion for a second loop and wiped away the chalk she’d just drawn.  Breaking the connection.

Back to the other room… she was clear.

“Good?” Lucy asked, breaking the silence.

“So far, working as intended by base,” Verona said, as she pulled off the long glove on her right arm, while walking around the table.  She’d gotten chalk on it, and while chalk wasn’t likely to be an impurity, she tossed it into the kitchen to the sink, for later cleaning and boiling in distilled water.

Luna, hanging back, immediately started washing it.

With her hand free of the glove, which would be too grippy, Verona pinch-stroked her eyelashes until one came free.  “Exclusion.”

He gulped it down, head bobbing.

“You guys will want to do the same,” Verona noted.

Avery, Lucy, and McCauleigh all managed to get eyelashes out and feed them.

“So he intercepts and redirects Sight and stuff to himself,” Lucy said, arms folded.

“That’s the plan.  The divine side of the main ingredient we fed him makes it stronger, more tenacious.”

“And the hearing part?” Lucy asked.

“That, I think, your implement wouldn’t be the right angle.  It filters through your ear, it’s too close to regular hearing, and he doesn’t activate with regular hearing.  We’d need to take him out of here, I think.  The Demesne might act too much as a filter.”

“Whatever you say,” Lucy said.

“I read him the lists,” Julette said.  “I saw what you wrote, figured we didn’t have time, if you weren’t back already there was a snag, but I could get that part imprinted.”

“That speeds things along,” Verona said.  “Good work.”

“I didn’t mess it up?” Julette asked.

“You did good.  Good.  Thank you.

“Cool.  You let me do the cool flesh sculpting thing you were probably looking forward to.  Good way to get me incentivized,” Julette said.

“Come on,” Verona said.  “Let’s go out.  Masks on, we’ll go to Kennet found.”

They got their winter coats and masks on, and Julette got the sock Verona had mentioned.  It was done up like a sock with a tuxedo print, close to knee length, but it was a suit with a tie, and with the toe cut out.  Pulling it down over the homunculus’s head, she got him dressed, tugging to get things aligned right, tie under chin.  The ‘foot’ remained what it was, upended mushroom for a body that would basically stay wherever it was plopped down, but it was something.

Verona let Julette carry him, leading the way.  She did a little turn, and Verona could see the little eight-inch tall homunculus smirking self-indulgently at things as he took in his surroundings.

The rest of the group followed.  Snowdrop threw an arm awkwardly around Luna’s shoulders, and Luna went with it.

Letting them lead meant she could hang back, with Tashlit.

“Thank you.  I don’t know if it’ll work, but it means a lot.”

Tashlit nodded.

That it wasn’t being waved off as insignificant and that there was context Verona had taken in over a lot of time spent with Tashlit, especially over the summer?  It meant it was significant.

Maybe the spirits would hear that and give this a little bit more of an edge, letting this work better.

“Are you fighting?” Verona asked.  “Tonight?”

Tashlit made a so-so gesture, then pressed hands together.

“Makes sense.  I kind of got the impression you pulled away some after we tackled the hospital in Kennet below.  I showed a kind of mean-ness, maybe?”

Tashlit shrugged one shoulder.

“You’re not a fighter.  And I guess you’re not a stay-er?”

Tashlit trailed a narrow black finger with eyes taking up its length through the air, drawing out what looked like a sideways ‘eight’, then a circle.

“But you have places that anchor you and you stop there, make those parts of your routes.  Back to your dad, then extended family, brothers, sisters, then here again, maybe?  Check on things?”

Tashlit nodded.

“I can try to keep your cabin intact.”

Tashlit tilted her head, then mimed sweeping, before pointing at Verona, tilting her head more.

“Yeah.  I’m not a chore person, you’re right.  But I can assign someone to the task, I can use practice to try to preserve it.  We carved you out a little corner of the world here.  You did good things.  You were a support.  You came here, drawn by Clementine’s earring, and when I said to stop, you stopped.  That was big.  I needed someone that wasn’t my friends to listen to me.”

Tashlit nodded.

“And you were genuine throughout.  You backed me up in hard times.”

Tashlit tapped Verona’s back, then pointed.

There was McCauleigh, Mal, as part of the group, now.  Her other friends.  Oakham, who wasn’t here.  Anselm.  Julette.  The Pigeon and Squirrel, again, not here.

Verona nodded.  “Doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it.”

Her hand jumped, pain darting through it.  She almost snarled.

Tashlit touching her head made her flinch.  She froze, shoulders hunched up, unsure what Tashlit was doing.

Then she felt the cool wash of Tashlit’s power.  Some trace of a sea-related divinity running through her.

“That’s not efficient, and it doesn’t really help with my hand.”

But Tashlit offered a bit of healing.

It was weird, because it didn’t make Verona less tired.  But it did take that battering Verona felt from the raw exhaustion, like eyeballs that felt like they were being punched whenever she looked at bright light, or the stiffness in her shoulders, and it washed it away.  The accumulated impact on the body from being stressed and in pain.

“Thank you,” Verona said.

This time, Tashlit waved her off like it was nothing, when it was kind of something.  That was healing someone else might need.

It was also, Verona was forced to admit, healing she needed.

They walked until they reached a part of the road leading away from Verona’s demesne, where it arched a bit and provided a view over Kennet found.  A lot of roads seemed intent on having some inclusion or offshoot that provided that, to the point it made Kennet found crowded in a way the town normally wasn’t.

“When do we know?” Lucy asked.

“I dunno.  Depends.  We might need to provoke Charles to listen.  We know he spies on us, so if we start talking about how we’re gonna-”

“Ahem,” the homunculus cut in.  The voice was fairly Alexander-ish.  Not quite there, but that made it better.  “I have to warn you, this is important, before you say anything else, there’s a matter to be discussed and that matter, I-”

“Okay,” Lucy said, almost drowned out by the homunculus.  “Are we sure this isn’t a curse for us?”

“-I have to say, do listen, it’s utterly vital that we impress these facts, these important facts, which are, you must understand, critical, and without this information, if you aren’t careful, you’ll find yourself on the back foot, so do hear me out when I say it’s critical, paramount, even, that this is communicated promptly, and-”

“Holy shit.”

Verona turned her head.  She felt a jolt run through her skin, paralleling a jolt in her hand.

Charles.  He stood down the road a little ways, looking a little miffed.

They’d gotten his attention.

“-because this is of serious import, communicated from me to you, and if you don’t listen with utmost care, then you stand the risk of falling prey to the all-too-common fallacy that is uncommon ignorance, so let me educate you on these critical facts-”

“Ronnie,” Avery murmured.

The Sable, to her left, standing on a rooftop.

“How?” McCauleigh asked.  “How much power did you put in that thing?”

“Fair bit,” Verona said.  “My blood, to help it grow.  Um.  The divine energy saturating Tashlit’s teeth as a god-begotten, definitely helps.  More importantly, it’s supposed to open the door to the aphth having some boggling effect on other higher powers.  Gods, judges, founders.  Tashlit probably gets audience a lot more easily with these guys than we do, just by virtue of her birth, kind of.”

“This is why I didn’t want you going to meet the Sable,” Lucy said.

“The effect doesn’t work as fully as you probably hoped,” Charles said, as he approached them.

Tashlit touched Verona’s shoulder.  She looked over and saw the Aurum Coil was present as well.

“It works enough I’ve got three of you here, huh?”

“More than three,” the Sable said.

Verona turned around.

The Alabaster was sitting on a rooftop that was level with the raised, Kennet-found path they were walking on.

And Miss stood behind them.

“You guys think I can add this to my list of titles?” Verona asked.  Her heart was pounding, from some mixture of fear and excitement.  “What would it be?  God-botherer, in a sense beyond the usual?”

“We’re not quite gods,” the Sable said.

“Higher-power-botherer doesn’t really roll off the tongue,” Verona said.

“Excuse me,” Charles said, and he strode forward.  Directly for the styan-aphth hybrid.

McCauleigh got in his way, pulling out a long knife, and he reached out, grabbing the blade, holding it as he kept walking.  She tried to put herself in his way and he moved her aside with relative ease.  Julette, meanwhile, scrambled back.

“It’s not your jurisdiction!” Lucy called out.

“It’s not!” Avery chimed in.

“Fuck off, Chuck!” Verona called out.  The hand pain, the exhaustion, it played into her not being as witty as usual, maybe.

“It’s mine,” Miss said.

The ground shifted.  The path Charles was walking along dipped, and the path Julette was on rose.  The difference became a short wall in front of Charles.

“My realm, which you were ejected from, at the outset.  Here, any area you would have claim to is managed.  I channel violences into a specific period of time and circumstance,” Miss intoned.

The lighting began to change.

“You know the reason for our timing, here,” Miss said.  “Or will you say moon phases never crossed your mind in all the time the hungry choir was tearing into innocents?”

A red tint took over Kennet found.

“Visiting Lost and the foundlings who don’t wish to participate have already vacated the area,” Miss told Charles.

As the red took over, Luna’s white mask became red, and her white dress and stockings did the same, with the stockings darkening.  She threw an arm over Snowdrop’s shoulder, awkwardly pulling Snowdrop off balance, and the hand at the end of that arm dangled a bit, holding a serrated knife.

Snowdrop didn’t look like she knew what to do.

Various Lost and foundlings who’d stayed in Kennet were stepping outside, or they were already outside.  They took on similar changes in color scheme and appearance as the moon changed.

“I’ve already told them, if they wish to participate in a red moon celebration, it’ll be a little different tonight,” Miss said, walking over to the top of that ledge.

Charles backed away a few steps to be able to look at her without craning his neck all the way back.

“-I’ll break it down for you, but let no one point take precedence over the others, don’t let any details slip your attention, we truly have failed this generation of youth by failing to inform them-”

“Did this thing bother you, Miss?” Verona asked.

“No.  I have no eyes nor ears, as it happens, so it’s failed to get much traction with me.”

“Good, sorta figured.  Um, Sable?  Alabaster?  If you guys want to pass me an eyelash, I can exclude you from any obstruction this thing throws at you.”

“It’s not blocking us from looking or listening in,” Charles said.  “Even with the power you’ve put into it.”

“Too bad,” Verona muttered.  A damn shame I didn’t get that delivery of god milk I was promised.

About eighty percent of the population of Kennet found was outside now, looking in their directions.  Some masks had been swapped out.  Some were wearing bloodstained clothes.  The canals, in this lighting, seemed to run red with blood.

Avery came back from the Alabaster, with a flower petal in hand.  She gave it to the empowered homunculus.

“All you’re really doing is annoying.  And if you truly wanted to be accurate, for a creature saying so much while saying nothing at all, you should have made it Larry Bristow.”

“Hey, little guy,” Verona told the homunculus.  “List two.”

The homunculus blathered, “-before I even get to the points, are you taking this down, there are things to consider, and ultimately, what I’ve been stressing up to this point, is, you see, you’re miserable and it seems like you’ve been miserable for a long time, you festering dick pimple,” the homunculus said, “and the common denominator, across all these people who failed you, all the disappointments, all the frustrations, is you.  You, the failure, you, the disappointment.  The world isn’t against you as much as you think it is, you just suck.”

The words, conveyed with Alexander’s face, were meant for either Charles or Seth, whoever spied in.  Maybe Seth’s apprentice or the Aurum, too.

“And back to list one,” Verona said, not breaking eye contact with Charles.

The homunculus carried on, “So, with that in mind, I’ll impress upon you the importance of taking in what I’m about to tell you, the…”

Charles nodded slowly as it went on.

“Figured I’d reserve the option to sling in something like that as you listened in on us.  I figure it comes across way better from Alexander, though.  Annoying you, pricking pride, reminding you of people you hate.  If it makes you miserable…”  Verona shrugged.

Avery came over with a single eyelash from the Sable pinched between fingers.  She gave it to the homunculus.

“When you attack me like you’re planning, with this?” Charles asked.  He indicated the various foundlings.  “People will die.  This is a last chance to stand down.  The Sable should have told you about what we were offered.  Do you really want to pressure me to say yes to the offer?”

“Get out of my realm,” Miss told him.  “You don’t have the jurisdiction or right to be here.  I can handle anything the Carmine would otherwise, and I supercede you here.  Aurum too, for that matter.”

Charles half-turned, paused, like he was going to say something-

“-and listen, please, do take note, the way things stand, if I can convey this appropriately-”

Charles gave them a long, searching look, as if trying to find an angle, or a clue about something.  Then he was gone.  The Aurum slithered away.

Sable and Alabaster disappeared too.

The homunculus went quiet.

“Hunh,” Verona grunted.

She looked at the homunculus, who looked up at her.

Then she looked at Miss, and then Kennet found.  The foundlings were standing by railings, on bridges, and on streets, not really roaming, or talking.  Just watching and waiting.  Some a bit more restlessly than others.

“We have a few hours,” Miss said.  “Do what you need to do, you know where to find me.”

“Come on,” Avery told Verona.  “You had more you wanted to do, for alchemy and making magic items, and assuming we now have a warning system about if Charles is listening…?”

She trailed off, adjusting tone at the end, making it a question.

“It seems you do,” Miss said.

“I can tell you what I’m thinking, plan-wise,” Avery told Verona and Lucy.  “You can help poke and patch holes in it.”

“Get yourselves ready,” Miss said.  “You leave with us…”

She paused for emphasis.  Still being careful.  Maybe in case of spies.

And then we double back.

We hope you guys can push back against Chuck enough that a chink in the armor reveals itself, and we capitalize on it.

“…We’ll be counting on you,” Miss told them, turning to survey her realm, the bough of a low-hanging tree hiding her face, the wind blowing her hair around some.  The red-dressed Lost and foundlings were there, looking at her, it seemed like.

The moon wasn’t changing back.

It gave things a weight.  A few hours.  An entire facet of Kennet now battle-ready.  Swords metaphorically drawn, and they weren’t being sheathed again.  Because the fight was that imminent.

Was there some meaningful fondness that would’ve appeared there, on Miss’s nonexistent face, if Verona had been able to see it?

“Kennet rests in our hands,” Miss said.

Verona’s arm jumped, hand run through with a lightning bolt of pain, jarring enough that she would have dropped anything she was gripping.


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21 thoughts on “Go for the Throat – 23.6

    • And here I’m thinking of the Alice Returns games. I’m really hoping Luna shows up for the fight and just obliterates people by being able to preternaturally balance on things… run along a phone line, or leap onto an opponent’s weapon and slash at them…

      I enjoy the trope of “It’s always the quiet ones” especially when they’re as adorable as Luna Hare.


      This was a lovely way of setting us up for some exposition so the fight doesn’t have to feel like a Third Act Deus Ex Machina because the girls couldn’t talk ahead of time. It’s understandable why it’s been that way in the past and I’ve enjoyed it, but seeing them able to come together as an interactive Trio instead of just three cruise missiles on roughly the same trajectory will be very cool.

      I find the homunculus a good foil for Aurum and Carmine because they both came from human stock, so they’re more affected by annoyance than the spiritual Sable and Alabaster. It won’t stop them from listening it, but it does fill the airwaves and make life more difficult when they try to. Also, bonus kudos for the Alabaster Assembly not desiring to be excluded from the homunculus because she’s literally not bothered by it – she “listens” to her territory and people constantly as part of being a representative spirit. It’s a nice little touch.


      Verona is truly all over the place. She’s exactly the sort of sorceress that Charles desperately wants his Red Heron students to be, but she does it basically all on her own without the crutch (?) of learning from opinionated mentors or other students.

      Also, we get to see that some scars never really leave us…

      Although, I wonder if the faerie glass was really another lesson from Big G that Verona hasn’t internalized yet. Maybe it’s a caution about reaching too far, or trying to know too much? Because she’s right, it doesn’t come up when it would truly doom her… only when she’s in the process of doing something big in terms of prep work… hmmmm

      Liked by 3 people

  1. That arm feels like it’s getting worse. Coming to a head, perhaps? The injury knowing the hour of its doom is nigh? Seems a bit fanciful when written down, but this is the Otherverse. Weirder things can and do exist.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Okay, Luna and the rest of the foundlings going full murder mode? With Miss still in charge and still… gentle? fucking terrifying. Absolutely fucking terrifying.

    I love it. But also… kind of makes me sad and a bit sick.
    Charles is right. People will die. It’s not a great feel.

    Also, I can’t help but think that we’ll hit the point where Charles gets desperate and goes to accept the Deal, and then and then finds out that the Sable has already turned it down.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh, also, I love that WAY earlier in the story, we got the warning of like… practitioners getting tangled up, lost in the Demesnes, losing track of time…. and then here we get like 5 pages into the chapter before realizing that Verona has lost track of time so bad she can’t tell AM from PM…

      It’s a really nice callback, and a great way of highlighting Verona’s weaknesses…. but also showing the value/importance of having friends allies IN the house (which is ALSO a choice by Verona, thus mitigating her weakness).
      Very nicely done.

      Liked by 7 people

      • Now that I come to an understanding I most probably had ADHD for my entire life so far, I think V has it to some degree too. It was already easier for her to get lost, and that multiplyies with the escapist Demesne effect.

        Liked by 2 people

        • As an ADHD entity myself, I’m fairly confident that Verona has ADHD. It doesn’t help that she’s traumatized by her relationship with her father, but even taking that into consideration, it’s still pretty clear to me.

          Of course, recognizing that ADHD is a heritable trait means that there’s a high probability that one or both of Verona’s parents have ADHD. And both are possible candidates, based on their observed behaviours — VD could very well be behaving this way due to executive disfunction, or it could be narcissism, and VM’s need to go out and meet people and not be pinned down could also be caused by ADHD.


          Liked by 1 person

  3. “Kennet rests in our hands,” Miss said.

    Uhh, be careful of getting gainsaid there, Miss. You literally don’t have hands!

    Also, I have to say, I loved the explanation of what Alchemy was capable of, and how it worked. Refining the power of Creation by extracting and concentrating the remnants of Creation in everyday objects? Making anti-faery equipment by extracting the Glamour fron objects, then using that Glamour to temper other objects to make them more capable of transformation? Very cool.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I got chills when the moon turned red, Miss started getting all “I’m about to punch Chuck in the fuggn face, and I don’t even have hands” and Luna Hare got all slasher villain with dangling arms, hand gripping a bloody knife, staring vaguely up into the sky. I was like “ohshitohshitohshit”.

    I’m a little surprised Avery didn’t offer to run a quick Path to get the god milk. I guess it depends on if it’s the kind of supply issue which is the magical equivalent of the item still sitting in the warehouse, or the kind that comes around because no one has milked the god yet.

    I’m of two minds here. Either god milk’s divine power means it keeps really well, or the power encourages life, leading to rapid bacterial growth.
    If they were shipping it in a regular box, I assume it’s the former, since I can’t imagine anyone’s bottling UHT god milk.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Somebody should mention to Avery the hundred foot tall goddess lactating majestically needs milking. I suspect it has more to do with people preparing a container that won’t contaminate it. I wonder how Verona bought it, what currency is used to buy god milk?

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s also possible that the milk originates in some other way. Maybe you arrange a group of people in a pair of adjacent circular conga lines each dancing around a pair of empty jugs to form the appropriate shape while ceaselessly chanting “Got milk?” On the seventh hour of the seventh day, a massive sentient milk-bucket bursts through the wall with a mighty moo and splashes its divine contents over everyone and everything in the vicinity, filling the jugs and giving all present persistent milk mustaches for the next year.

      I mean, they had to get the idea for the Kool-Aid Man from somewhere, right? Maybe it’s one of those warped nuggets of truth.

      Liked by 5 people

  5. Related to a comment I made just now: what do you think is feasible to happen if someone tries to summon to life a manifestation of all of the Abyss; all of the Ruins; et cetera? Probably there are a couple of canonical choices given what we know! But I can’t immediately see one.

    Liked by 1 person

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