Avery twirled her lacrosse stick, then scooped up Ninnyhummer and hefted the little goblin. It smiled at her, head around, eyes spaced too far apart, neither eye facing the same direction, a dim smile on its face.
She hucked it across a field, aiming for snow below trees where rain and wet snow hadn’t fallen and helped create a hard layer on top of the rest of the field.
She wasted little time, scooping up another, as goblins pushed at one another to be the one caught in the scoop at the end of the stick, and hurling it a different direction.
On the third throw, Snowdrop grabbed the stick with her hands. Avery glanced at her familiar, wondering if there was a warning. But then Snowdrop sent a flash of emotion.
No sooner had the thought passed Avery’s mind and reached Snowdrop through the familiar bond, than Snowdrop went opossum-mode, and settled in the basket, balled up.
“Give us a bird’s eye view?” she asked, before hurling Snowdrop skyward. Goblins shrieked and cheered.
“Is she going to be okay?” Mia asked. “Or can she turn-?”
Avery took a few quick steps, almost tripping over goblins that were underfoot, and caught Snowdrop on the way down. The impact was muted.
“-into a bird or something? Nevermind.”
“All good,” Avery said. “Even if I dropped her, she should be fine.”
Avery twirled the stick a bit, with Snowdrop caught in the basket. A good fifteen to twenty times heavier than a lacrosse ball.
Snowdrop hadn’t seen anything, though.
“Who’s going to be Snowdrop’s bodyguard?” Avery asked. “Just have to buy time for Liberty or me to get to you guys if there’s trouble.”
Some hands went up. Avery glanced at Liberty.
“Rantallion,” Liberty said, pointing to a goblin with a hooded cape, a sharp point on the hood. He had a sack flung over one shoulder.
“Cool name, I think?” Avery told him.
Rantallion swept his cloak across his mouth, one arm out to the side, eyes narrowed. Then he began bobbing his head.
Goblins in the mob milling at Avery’s feet started humming. Two of Liberty’s squad started making beatbox sounds. Part of Liberty’s annoying sound contest winners, who, thankfully, weren’t making annoying sounds this time.
Their wider group was made of the remaining Aware who hadn’t stayed behind -like Mrs. Schaff- or left -like Avery’s family- Alpeana, Liberty, Theodora, some scattered Foundlings, a few of the more nimble members of the Undercity, and a lot of goblins.
As the goblins got more agitated, getting into the music, Theodora looked over at Avery, an expression on her face like she wanted to be anywhere but here.
“Comes with a musical number?” Avery asked, neutrally.
“Fear the great Rantallion…” Liberty leaned in, whispering in Avery’s ear, with goblins on the ground joining in with a chorus of whispers. Others hummed and added accent sounds.
Avery used the end of her lacrosse stick to push Liberty a few feet away. Liberty grabbed the handle with both hands, grinning, eyes widening. “The heft of those medallions.”
“Nipple thing, huh?” Avery asked, pulling the stick free.
Liberty was shaking her head, whisper-singing, “Bags under his eyes, one ‘twixt his thighs-“
“Right, okay,” Avery said. She dumped Snowdrop out of the pocket of the lacrosse stick, then scooped up Rantallion. “I know how carried away you guys get, so…”
“Lowest of rapscallions…”
Avery chucked Rantallion out over toward the softer snow.
“Rantallionnnn!” Liberty and the goblins sang and cheered, as a send-off.
At the apex of his jump, he gripped the fabric of cloak and sack and started gliding like a flying squirrel.
It meant that when Avery chucked Snowdrop out that way, he was able to time and place his landing to be right by her.
“I mainly got rid of him because I think we might need to try to stay serious. A lot’s happening,” Avery said.
“Pshh, serious,” Liberty made a dismissive sound.
“Please,” Theodora muttered.
“Okay, just gotta say this, now, because people are getting testy,” Liberty said. “Ahem. Being non-seriousness is not just a matter of policy, it’s survival.”
“Is it now?” Theodora asked.
“Practice is about presentation,” Liberty said.
“I’ve heard four or five different ‘the practice is about…’ things tonight,” Wallace remarked.
“For sure! It plays a part. And here, it’s like… hey, Lucy’s mom. You know that whole thing, where if you have a kid and she falls down, she looks to you to figure out how upset she should be? And if you laugh and treat it like it’s nothing, she’ll go on like nothing happened, and if you freak out, she’ll freak out and throw a tantrum?”
“Yes. Except Booker -Lucy’s older brother- laughed off a lot of stuff he shouldn’t have, and I could find Lucy sulking a while later, if I wasn’t careful.”
“Adorable,” Mia said.
“It’s the same with goblins, I guess?” Avery asked Liberty.
“Some! They’re some of the best parts of little kids and raunchy adults. But I’m talking about more general practice stuff. Spirits. The universe is watching you, and it’s like a toddler sometimes.”
“Be careful you don’t offend the universe,” George murmured.
“It wants its cues. And if I’m cuing it to believe hey, this is all in fun, I’m going to laugh shit off, unless the chips are really down, fuck, I’m one step away from being a cartoon?”
“Protects you?” Avery asked.
“Yeah. And if these goobers are taking my cue, it protects them.”
“That works until it doesn’t,” Theodora said. “If it leads to you letting your guard down, and someone comes who is big and scary enough for the universe to start taking their cue first and foremost?”
Liberty shrugged. “There’s different ways to be big. Maybe you’re stronger than me-”
“I’m stronger than you.”
That got goblins riled up. They booed, and turned on Theodora.
“-but how much of that power can you really use? On the one end, my dad is Anthem Tedd. On the other, you’d make enemies with a pretty good number of goblins, right guys?”
There were overlapping but positive responses from the crowd of goblins.
“Something happens, you avenge me?”
There were more responses, goblins fighting to be the one to be loudest.
“And there you go,” Liberty told Theodora. “If something happened, if you were to fight me-”
“Not my intent.”
“-and kill me? If the Carmine was? I think there are decent odds it becomes a goblin meme. Something goblins who barely know who I am would hear about and buy into.”
“Believe me, I know political power and the power of outrage. I was the strongest knight and the right hand of the emperor for an empire larger than North America, for longer than you’ve been alive.”
Some of Avery’s old classmates were looking at her.
“Yep. Inside a board game universe, but yeah,” Avery confirmed. “Theodora collects and makes pocket universes and pocket worlds like that.”
“Few that compare, but I’m building.”
“That’s the first magic stuff I’ve heard about that gets me this excited,” Jeremy said.
“Not technomancy?” Wallace asked.
“If I could program I would already be making games.”
“It’s not trivial,” Theodora said.
“Just so long as you’re not kidnapping kids and stealing souls or parts of their souls to fuel your universes and stuff?” Avery asked.
Jeremy, as excited as he’d appeared a moment ago, backed off some.
“I am not. I was allowed to pursue my own approach until I was sabotaged,” Theodora said, giving Avery a very pointed look. “Now, to get the sorts of resources my mentor offers, I have to be more restrained.”
“Safer and easier to intentionally lower the stakes,” Liberty said. “What I was saying before.”
For good measure, Avery bapped Liberty lightly on the head with the length of her stick. Liberty grinned.
“I can see why you bailed on Kennet,” George commented.
“Huh?” Avery asked. “What?”
“Way more interesting stuff going on in other places, huh?”
“Uhhh… no?” Avery asked, walking backwards to face George as she talked. “I think Kennet’s been the nexus of ‘interesting’ for our wider area, honestly. Centuries-old Carmine Beast dies out behind the Arena during the last game of our season-”
She gestured to Melissa with the stick as she said that last bit.
“-and sets off a whole bunch of crap. Making Kennet more violent, drawing in trouble. The Carmine Beast was the one giving input on like, a quarter of the violent Others and magic around, whenever nobody else wanted to administrate that stuff, which was pretty often. When she died, all that went out of whack, and the whack stuff landed on Kennet’s head.”
Avery looked for and spotted Alpeana in the shadows. Alpeana nodded.
“Because, in a way, Kennet didn’t save her. Then things got complicated, and instead of resolving, they kept getting more complicated. Now we’re here.”
Ninnyhummer made it back, reaching the peak of a snowbank.
“No trouble?” Liberty asked.
The small goblin pointed back at the trees. “Goblin.”
Avery frowned, looking out toward the trees. She saw a branch move.
“Gashwad!?” Avery called out.
“Fuckin’ suckin’ shit sandwich huckin’…” Gashwad’s distant swears could be heard, as he moved further away from her, to better hiding places.
“He’s a friend, mostly, so it’s fine,” Avery said, shaking her head, before she used the lacrosse stick to fling another goblin out toward the trees on the other side of the road.
A bit of air, a bit of distance. Making the movements of goblins unpredictable.
Caroline was nudging Jeremy, who’d been whispering to her.
“Uh,” Jeremy said.
“Yes?” Avery replied.
“I noticed something weird. I told myself it was nothing, and when I looked back, it was…” he faltered. “The road and trees have seams?”
“Seams?” Avery asked.
“I noticed it and then I looked back and couldn’t see it. It’s like a video game, where things scroll, I’m worried I’m explaining badly, using terms people don’t get.”
“My kid brother plays, talks about, and practically breathes video games,” Avery said. “I know stuff.”
“It’s like there’s two pictures of the road and they got pushed up together, until you can’t see the gap, but if you look at where they meet, the textures… I’d show you but I did a double take and on the second take it wasn’t there anymore. Maybe I’m imagining it.”
“Here, let me… uh, Alpeana? Give me cover?” Avery asked, turning around and moving away from the group.
Alpeana came, hair expanding and billowing. There was still a chunk of her that wasn’t solid. She moved between Avery and the group.
“And close your eyes?”
Avery waited until she was reasonably sure she was clear, then black-roped her way to the trees, finding a perch on a high branch.
It was more bendy than she’d guessed it would be, and her feet slid on wet, frozen wood, her hands fighting to get a grip on higher branches, and getting a fistful of needles and twigs that felt like they’d pull loose in a moment.
She managed to stay up long enough to get a view of the stretch of road.
She hopped down, hurtling the twenty or so feet to the ground, landed in snow without even breaking through the crust, then dialed Zed on her technomancy phone.
“Seams on the road, one of our video-game playing Aware said it reminded him of a game thing. Could be an endless road? Knitting one part back to the start, so you walk the loop forever?”
“That’s probably me.”
“You’re not sure?”
“I mean, it’s common-ish as a way of attacking. But I’m not making an endless road. I’m glitching reality to give you a shortcut, and make it harder to get at you guys. Forces them to take specific routes along the road.”
“Got it. I’ll assume it’s that.”
“You should be a few minutes out from the town. We’re starting to get trouble here, so I’ve got to focus on that. Nico too. Some might slip past us, or you might not get a warning, and if I get really distracted, they could start coming at you from the sides.”
“Got goblins on recon, but that’s good to know. Thanks Zed.”
“Yep. Good luck.”
He hung up.
She made her way back to the group.
“It’s a friend helping, not a foe, I think,” she told them. “We’re close to town. Sounds like trouble’s finding Verona’s group, so keep an eye out. We can talk, but lower volume, keep some attention pointed out that way. Jeremy? Speak up sooner if you see weirdness.”
“Good spotting, it’s not a problem, turns out, just… yeah.”
“What kind of trouble, for Verona?” Jasmine asked.
She was the only parent of the there of them who’d stuck around this long.
“Don’t know. Might be because Zed doesn’t know either.”
“Don’t know. Look, guys, refocusing. When we get into town, if we can find someone, we need to be on the same page. I trust them to handle their stuff. They trust us to handle ours, so let’s reward that trust. We’re going into town with a story. You guys have to tell it, because it gets too awkward when Theodora, Liberty and I can’t lie.”
“We’re posing as residents of the settlement?” Jasmine asked.
“Yeah. Not just residents, but you need to sell just how assholish those guys are being, dropping in there.”
“I’ve run a retail business since before Brayden was born,” Mr. Black said. “Can do.”
“You want to take point?” Avery asked.
She squinted a bit, as a droplet of cold water hit her eye. She looked up. The wind was picking up.
Returning her attention to Mr. Black, she saw him looking a little daunted by her question, which was kind of weird, because like, all the rest of this morning and last night had happened?
“Sure,” he decided.
“And our kids?” Travis’s parents asked.
“Your part comes a bit later. Goal is to get people over there. While that’s happening, while this is happening, rest of us are playing defense. Because the way this world works, the go-to way for dangerous people and Others to do their thing?”
Avery glanced at Theodora.
“Removing all witnesses. So Alpeana, Theodora, goblins, Liberty, me?”
“Not I,” Snowdrop said. She’d made her way back.
“Snowdrop, Foundlings, denizens of Underkennet?” Avery added. “Protect the witnesses. If they pick a fight, raise the stakes, and they can’t touch you guys? They own that.”
“So we’re trusting you,” Travis’s parents said. “Us-”
They indicated the small group of St. Victor’s parents.
“-more than anyone.”
The rain was coming down more heavily. Ice water in fat droplets, coming sideways as much as they were coming down.
The town was in sight, now – pretty much because they were at the edges of it. They’d gotten a fair bit closer, but with the weather worsening, and the general gloom of it being early in the morning and already overcast, the visibility had gotten worse about as fast as it should’ve clarified with proximity. They’d already passed some side roads which led to motels and hotels, and the occasional campground, but now they were here.
There was a view to the side of a quaint little gazebo-ish, marina-ish building, and the white mist and haze of the ice extending out from the shore past it. Off to the other side was a motel that looked way better than any of Kennet’s accommodations, three stories, with a fenced walkway along the outside.
The sign was off- not even offering a vacant motel room. There was no life at the marina.
They walked through, toward the settlement’s center. Avery was reminded of pictures she’d seen of eastern provinces- a quaint, nautical, marina-ish theme persisted throughout. Buried under snow, with the lights off.
“This would be a good place to put down that prop,” Avery told Theodora.
“I’ll catch up then.”
“You can handle things if you get attacked?”
“Should be able to.”
“Leave some goblins?” Avery told Liberty.
“I don’t-” Theodora started. “Fine. It shouldn’t matter.”
“Okay. While we’re sorting ourselves out, I can’t pass in this getup,” Liberty murmured. “Taking to the air. I’ll watch for trouble from above.”
Liberty motioned to a gremlin, who leaped onto her back and got her engine running.
She got a running start, some goblins and gremlins grabbing onto her, and then the jets that were tacked onto the wings started blazing fire.
Liberty flew, shaky and uneven, making a ton of noise, into the combined freezing rain and snow. Goblins made themselves scarce. Alpeana did the same.
“Watch our flanks?” Avery asked.
“You’re great, Alpy.”
“For tha markit, aye?”
“For the market, sure,” Avery agreed. She put out a hand for a high-five, but Alpeana was already going. “And…”
She turned to look over the group.
“Hate to say it, but…” She pulled off her mask. “…Foundlings? Masks off. They’ll get more questions. If you’re not okay with that, you can hang back, keep to the edges of things, like Alpeana and Liberty.”
All but three took their masks off. One was Devereaux the Nineteenth… nineteen? Gave a hint about how rough last night had been, if he’d died that many times. Avery didn’t recognize the other two.
Luna was among those who took her mask off. She hunched shoulders forward and put a hand at her face, peering between fingers.
The weather was getting worse by the minute, and as they ventured forward, Avery found their plan had a snarl. This was a small town, one that resembled Kennet in some ways, because it was touristy. But it operated on a different paradigm. Kennet was a small town that scraped by with its ski town tourists in the winter months, getting a bit of vitality from the phases of tourists coming in, losing it when they were gone.
This was a tourist town to start with, probably with similar timings- focused more on the summer months. But it leaned far harder into that ebb and flow, and it was currently in a hard ebb. Which meant barely anyone was here.
And it was successful, in a way Kennet could only dream of. Because despite having an official population of about two thousand people, it had a capacity for maybe eight to ten thousand. They went from passing the big motel near the entry point, past a hotel, past a series of cottages in that Maritime style, past two houses in similar style, maybe lived in, car in the driveway, but with no lights on, then past two places offering boat cruises and one offering fucking helicopter cruises.
Nothing tangible. Nobody to reach out to…
Thunder boomed in the distance. Rain came down harder.
High-beams shone, and momentarily blinded Avery. More than one vehicle, too, but only the one had the high beams. The rain, mist, and snow in the air made the glare that much worse.
Her hand found her spell cards in her pocket.
“You’re the ones Clementine said to watch out for?” a woman asked.
“Yeah,” Avery said, squinting. “Mind toning down the lights?”
“And how are we supposed to see what we’re doing?” a man asked.
There was a noise. Avery could barely see the movements. Someone had opened the passenger side door, reached over, and- the lights turned off. Key removed from ignition.
A guy with heavy muscles and a shit-eating grin stood by the driver’s side of a lifted and heavily modified truck. A woman with hair plastered to her face with rain held the keys, not looking very happy with him.
“No Shellie?” Avery asked.
The woman with the keys shook her head. She looked cold and wet. “Had to watch Daniel.”
“Damn. And Clem?”
“Drove around while we ate at a place down the road. We did a lap around town, looking for her, looking for you.”
“I drove,” the man by the lifted truck said. “You’re a problem when you drive.”
The woman paused, then nodded.
“More than most women.”
The woman sighed.
“I’m just saying what we all know.”
“What’s next?” the woman asked, ignoring him. “We were-”
The trunk’s horn, maybe modified to be louder, honked, interrupting her.
“I’m just saying,” he repeated himself.
“Acknowledged,” she replied, with restrained patience.
“That’s all I ask for,” he said, before flashing a smile.
He turned that smile toward Avery’s group.
“I’d like to meet with Clem,” Avery said. “And I don’t know if you guys know if there’s a place where the locals meet, or a town center or-?”
“Dead Tim’s,” a man said. He was a little disheveled, more than what came with a long car trip. “Meet for coffee and donuts. The local wizards and witches, ghosts and goblins, they stay up all night, they need their caffeine, they meet there.”
There’s a local council? Shit. “Point the way? Can we walk or do we need to get a ride?”
“How did you even get here?” someone else asked. A chubby woman who might’ve been Chinese or First Nations Canadian.
“Bus,” Mr. Black said. “Just back that way. Broke down.”
“We can walk,” the woman with the truck keys said.
“I can drive, meet you there,” the guy said, climbing in.
Here we go.
“So they’re Aware?” Mia asked.
“They’re Aware, but different from you,” Avery said, quiet. She had to back out of the way because the oversized truck came very close to hitting her as it made its u-turn. Others had to get out of the way as it weaved between the stopped vehicles and the people who’d climbed out to greet them. “If the way you’re introduced to the world of Practice is rough enough, it can scar, or put you in a weird position, or sometimes I guess it just happens… but not with any proper introduction. We avoided it, mostly. So on the one hand, we get you guys, who know something’s up, and on the other we get Mrs. Schaff or… I think that guy was Mr. Figueroa. Basically magical asshole powers.”
“Huh,” Mia grunted.
“But they’ve all got something weird. Speaking of, I should get the lay of the land. Excuse me.”
The groups mingled. Avery made a beeline for the woman who’d turned off the high-beams, taking the truck keys. “Hi. Avery Kelly. Friend of Clem.”
“You’re offering some kind of sanctuary? A way out?”
“A safer place, maybe,” Avery said. “I don’t know what the long-term plan is. I guess Clem is handling that, but Sargeant Hall would take the problem cases, we’d take the light and medium difficulty stuff?”
“I want my daughter somewhere better.”
“You’re a mom?”
The woman nodded. “Pauline. Dishman.”
“Pauline, hi. I guess the reason I came to you is I don’t know anyone else, but you seem okay?”
“I hope I’m okay.”
“So I guess you guys know there’s weirdness? That you have weirdness tacked to you?”
“Is your weirdness tacked to you or your daughter?”
“I don’t think it’s that neat and tidy… but it’s tied to me. I should be okay, but it’s best if I’m not driving.”
“Got it. Who can we trust and work with, who should we avoid?”
“Guy with the messy hair, wrinkled clothes? That’s Harold. He’s very right about stuff and wrong at the same time.”
“So… when he says Dead Tim’s the place to go?”
“But maybe the ghosts and goblins, witches and wizards aren’t-?”
“No, he’s right. He’s right and he’s wrong.”
“You’ll figure it out. Um. Stay the hell away from Seph, long hair. Avoid Mr. Figueroa.”
“Heard about him.”
“Yep. Claudia’s fine-”
“Round face? Asian or-?”
“Yep. Hm. Clem, me, Claudia, Harold kind of, and Vaughn- guy with the parted hair.”
“And in terms of what we need to know about key people… you say to stay away from Seph, but…”
“Claudia’s fine, it’s only when she sleeps. Vaughn has bad luck, but he manages. I told you about Harold. Seph is… complicated. I’m not sure I understand it, um, you know Clem.”
“I get the impression all of these things are way more complicated than your one-sentence descriptions.”
“And you? Driving. You’d know the most about…”
Pauline stopped in her tracks, looking around.
Avery did too.
They were alone, separated from the group. The rest of the group wasn’t nearby, and they were on the fringes of the town. Heavy mist rolled in at their feet, and the rain was somehow muted, like there wasn’t ground past the mist.
A hill rose to one side, and a tunnel punched through it, dark and unlit.
A faint, dull clacking that could’ve been a machine or could’ve been some insect made a noise that echoed out of the dark.
“Right,” Avery said.
“If I’d been driving we could be miles away, already on our way through that tunnel,” Pauline said.
“Does this complicate getting back?”
“Same way it complicated us getting to the donut shop.”
“We’ll have more luck if you lead.”
“Hmmmmm…” Avery made a sound. “Okay. Close your eyes? And walk with me?”
“I hope I can trust you,” Pauline said, as she obliged. She reached out and Avery took her hand. “I’m not just talking about you leading us.”
“I hope you can too. I have so many things I want to do, to make things better, and I don’t know if we can. A lot of what we’re dealing with feels too big.”
Avery used the black rope as they walked. Onto a roof-
She found herself and Pauline pushing her way out of trees.
Putting her in the right ballpark of said roof, but…
She used Snowdrop as a compass point, and black roped them again, deeper into town.
That compass point, which should have been roughly to the south, swayed wildly to the east, then settled pointing west, in the time it took them to cross.
“We owe Clem a lot. She backed us and worked with us. Even when we weren’t super helpful.”
“She’s helped us a lot too.”
Avery stopped looking for Snowdrop, and settled on just focusing on the right direction, moving closer to Snowdrop with every use of the black rope.
After four repetitions of that, she blinked hard at the downpour of freezing rain, and stared at the sign that said the town was two miles down the road. Two buildings were off to the side- houses, and there was a space too narrow to be called an alley between them that was dark and seemed to go too far back too deep.
The insectile clacking got louder, echoing down that space.
“How did we get further away!?”
“Sorry. I would’ve said, but you guys seemed earnest and Clem said you knew what you were doing.”
Avery sighed, exasperated. “Eyes closed?”
“It helps if I’m distracted. Except it’s not- if I’m distracted I tune things out and I end up places, but if you’re leading…”
“It gives me more claim, maybe, or takes away from your intent, while keeping mine?’
“I don’t know.”
“Any romance?” Avery asked. Black rope.
Between four buildings now- two on each side of the road. Each pair had that deep, impossibly long, dark alley running down the middle.
A tunnel loomed, twice as large as the one she’d already seen, running through a hill that shouldn’t be there. Four houses on one side- each with the long alleys. The angle of it- Avery could walk forward, and the way tunnels looked, with walls on either side, they should’ve intersected and met. But they didn’t.
“You have a daughter?”
“About your age.”
“You said the line got weird?”
“That’s something we wrestle with. Seph, me, the Wests, Cierra. My neighbor. We have kids.” Pauline had given special emphasis to Cierra. “How do you stop your problems from becoming your kid’s problems? Or…”
Avery black roped, really hoping she wouldn’t get deeper into whatever realm Pauline was unconsciously or metaphysically dragging them into.
The rain was ice.
“Or do you create a problem pushing too hard to keep them from going down your path?”
“My parents kind of lost track of me in the hustle and bustle. They’re great, mostly, but it was bad times for me, bunch of stuff adding up together,” Avery said. “And I got involved in all of this and now I’m very hard to ignore, probably taking up more than my share of mental real-estate.”
“I can’t imagine that’s true. A child should take up most of her parent’s focus.”
Avery black roped. “I got shot not all that long ago.”
“…Don’t do that to your parents.”
“Yeah well, definitely going to try to avoid it,” Avery said.
It felt like they were getting out of the worst of this. The weirdness became less and less, and Snowdrop felt closer.
“If you need to leave me behind, that’s okay,” Pauline said. “I can usually find my way back within a few hours or days.”
“I’m not okay with that,” Avery said, black roping. “And I think…”
She looked around.
It was night, the rain coming down hard, the mist heavy against the ground. They were on one of five sets of railroad tracks, pointed at a tunnel wide enough to have five trains pass through side by side. It groaned on some subsonic level she could feel deep inside her, like the architecture of the tunnel could only barely hold itself up, stone straining against stone, perpetually trying to settle, or trying to decide if it should collapse.
Barely any snow that the rain hadn’t soaked through and washed away.
The road crossed the tracks, a broken rail crossing sign lying across the slats and rails. It came out of dark forest and entered dark forest. Avery’s eyes couldn’t see far enough into the gloom to make out much past the area they were in and the tunnel mouth that was faintly lit by the one part of the sign that hadn’t fallen, a flashing red light.
There wasn’t a mechanical or clicking sound, but there was a click. One large, singular sound, a massive sound, that came from deep in the tunnel, echoed out, reverberating in a way and to a degree that made Avery feel like it might reach out to the corners of the universe.
Avery took a deep breath. Technically, I’ve faced scarier, right?
She wasn’t sure.
But she could approach this like a Path. No immediate danger, but she had to unravel a way home. No doors nearby. That was a shame.
“Too clean to be the Abyss,” Avery murmured, looking around, trying to fill the ‘silence’ that was otherwise taken up by that deep-earth, inaudible groaning of the tunnel.
“Abyss? I don’t know what that is.”
“Is it always this place? That you go to?”
“No. Comes and goes in phases, tied to how stressed and distracted I am. Sometimes I go months without issues, let my guard down… then it’s a new place after. Never a nice place. I’ve been finding myself approaching this place for a- for a bit over three years, actually. Fall twenty-seventeen.”
“It gets worse when I’m stressed, but missing appointments, losing my job because I get lost halfway, it makes the stress worse. Sargeant Hall helps, because some people help each other, because rent’s cheap. Not that I expect you to have to worry about anything like that. You’re what, fifteen?”
“Yeah. Um. My offer stands, Avery. If you need to leave me behind…”
“You talking about your daughter helped, I think. Get your head away from this place and-”
“And away from our destination.”
“So talk about her?”
“She’s Delphine, about your age, she’s got friends at Sargeant Hall, that’s another complicating factor, I’d be taking her away from them. But I’d be taking her away from bad things, too. I don’t want her to inherit this-”
“Avoid talking directly about this.”
“Right. It’s hard, because it takes up so much mental energy. I think she’s doing the opposite to what I do, and I don’t want her to move away from me. Like, emotionally, or in terms of the life she’s living. Her mess of a mother. What if the only way she has a normal life is if she either picks up her own weirdness to compensate, or if she leaves me entirely?”
“What’s she like?”
“Sharp. She likes robotics. But she also likes a boy that feels intimidated by smart girls. I want to say things about that, about how she’s changing herself, but I worry it’ll have the opposite effect, because she’s at that age, she wants to push back against me, maybe you know what that’s like?”
“Not so much, sorry.”
“What else? I see so many kids who aren’t that interested in driving and she’s already saved up for a beater. She wants to learn to rebuild an engine.”
“That’s all really cool. It’s good to have passions.”
“I want to encourage it, but I keep missing her robotics competitions. She says she understands, but her actions, her attitude, I think it hurts her.”
“Does she know what’s going on?’
“She’s seen things. She got stuck with me one- one month, it was. We got lost for a month.”
“Then maybe she understands?”
“She does but she doesn’t. I’m so terrified, if she goes out driving, one night, without me in the car, and then I don’t hear back from her? It’s a year away. Sorry, I know I shouldn’t-”
“It’s okay,” Avery said. “We’re here.”
Pauline opened her eyes.
Avery had been black roping as they talked.
Pauline let out a shuddering breath. Avery didn’t disagree with the sentiment.
The donut shop was apparently where people congregated, like how the old folks of Kennet kind of met at the Burger Bin, where they could get coffee and talk. There were even some people who migrated between groups like that across the day.
The group had found Clementine, or Clementine had found them. Snowdrop came out of the building, running over to Avery’s side.
“There you are,” Clementine said. “I worried.”
“Thank you for coming. Thank you for all of this.”
“We’re talking to some people inside. It feels less than great, lying like this.”
“I know, but there’s a truth behind the lie- people are setting up to live here long term, sneaking their way in.”
Clementine nodded. “I gave Verona a bracelet. The puzzle bracelet. She seemed to have an idea.”
“But I really need that back, at some point. I only mention-”
She was interrupted by a rumble of thunder.
“-it because if something happens today, and… it feels like a day something might happen…”
“Yeah. If Verona’s incapacitated, or if something happens, I’ll try to get it or something that works in its place to you.”
“I talked to a man, last name starting with K, he knew what my items do.”
“Weird, that he showed a lot of interest in some stuff I thought was minor.”
“Huh. That might be partly due to his family being collectors. Collecting sets of items like Lawrence Bristow collected you.”
“Fuck me,” Pauline muttered under her breath.
“We need help,” Clementine said, ducking her head because the rain was pelting her face, and she could shield it a bit with the hood of her winter coat. “We need more.”
“I know. I want to help you more. A lot of us do.”
“This is a leap of faith.”
Avery nodded quickly.
“We don’t know anything about leaps of faith,” Snowdrop commented.
“And how are negotiations going? Are we able to rally locals to get them over there?”
Clementine shook her head. “Bad.”
“It’s going bad? I’m going to-” Avery reached for the door.
Clementine nodded, moving out of the way.
Avery paused, hand on the door handle. “My name is Avery Kelly, second witch of Kennet, Finder and Path Runner, partner of Snowdrop, the opossum. Can you announce yourselves?”
“Why?” Clementine asked.
Snowdrop said, “I am Octavia Aveline Kelly, missing child of the Kelly family, human through and through, chosen one, advisor to elves and fairies.”
Avery rubbed Snowdrop’s hood against Snowdrop’s hair.
“Clementine Robertjon. I live in Sargeant Hall in Winnipeg, but that may change. Do you need more?”
Avery shook her head, glancing at Pauline.
“Pauline Dishman, same. Live in Sargeant Hall in Winnipeg. Anxious to get back to my daughter, and I know getting away and getting back can be messy.”
“Thank you,” Avery said. “Things can get tricky. That’s not a one-hundred percent thing, but when people can’t lie, it’s good to do.”
“I’ve seen some of those tricks,” Clementine replied, voice soft. “Feels like it needs more.”
“The second part of it is you’ve got to be able to do something if you find someone isn’t able to verify their identity.”
Avery let herself inside. There was an awkwardly compact set of double doors, and people from their group on the far side of the door, so it was a mite awkward.
“Was really cool and funny, feeling you go all over the place, before you practically disappeared,” Snowdrop said. “Wooo.”
“It was something.”
Avery hadn’t been in a Dead Tim’s since the scandals, which had been back when she’d been, like, eight, and she was surprised at how good it smelled. Maybe that was because it was closer to Toronto and they got the good stuff? She wasn’t sure.
The locals, dressed in warm winter clothing, took up half of the restaurant- there was a divider across the seating area with trash cans and a short railing, and a group of primarily elderly folk were occupying ninety-five percent of the side of the divider close enough to the wall-spanning window to get natural light. Then there was the strip of seating, which could be removed in busier months, an area for lines to form, and then the counters, behind which a skeleton crew of employees worked. Or didn’t. They were watching more than they did anything.
Avery shivered. The elderly people, especially with the tension in this place- eesh. There were a couple of cops who Avery couldn’t tell if they were on duty or not. Or maybe this town was so sleepy that when the elderly locals gathered, it was efficient to station a cop or two here to oversee heated debates about politics and stuff.
“They’re only the beginning,” Mr. Black was saying. “I wouldn’t be so sure you can ignore the development project.”
“Hey,” Avery whispered to Melissa. “Fill me in?”
“They don’t care,” Melissa whispered back. “We tried appealing for help, now we’re trying to be big enough assholes they have to come see.”
“New buildings across the coming season. We’re only the early adopters,” Mr. Black told the assembled people. “There’ll be construction year-round.”
“Sounds like you bit off more than you can chew, if you’re running into weather problems now,” the police officer said.
Thunder rumbled outside. Rain pattered against the window. Frost spread in the wake of raindrops.
“Little man,” Mr. Figueroa said, walking toward the uniformed officer. He smiled condescendingly. He was a good head taller than the man. “You’re biting off more than you can chew if you’re crossing us. What’s your peak season?”
“First week of August,” Mr. Black said.
“We block passage in and out of the Marina. No boats for the tourists. No diving,” Mr. Figueroa said. “What do you think about that?”
He punctuated the ‘that’ with a poke of his finger into the one officer’s face. The man leaned back and out of the way.
“Don’t touch me.”
Figueroa stepped in closer. “Little man, we will do so much more than touch you. We will fuck you. So think twice about what you’re doing. We can have diggers and bulldozers coming down the road at a snail’s crawl, logging trucks carrying away the trees, all season long.”
He thrust a finger at the cop. The man twisted his body to avoid it.
“The reason they’re not doing anything,” a man whispered into Avery’s ear. Harold. “I told you before.”
Avery quirked an eyebrow.
Harold was the man who was right and wrong at the same time. Others, practitioners?
Avery looked and she Saw nothing. No weird ties, no shenanigans.
“Walk away, little man,” Figueroa said to the cop’s back, as the officer walked away from him, to get space.
Avery felt a mite uncomfortable with that, but she wasn’t sure what else to do. Was there a point where, if they pulled back now, people would drive up to investigate? How many did they need?
This level of disinterest kind of caught her off guard.
“Did we try calling nine-one-one?” Clem asked, behind Avery. She’d followed Avery in.
“Yes,” Jasmine said. Her arms were folded. “No response. They implied this is the extent of the local nine-one-one here. Two officers.”
“No fire department?” Avery asked. “For a place where they offer helicopter rides?”
Jasmine shook her head and shrugged.
Avery wasn’t sure what to do. How were they supposed to rally Innocents to investigate Charles’ area? Verona was stirring up a Storm and Lucy was making things complicated inside the Storm, to raise the stakes.
But if they didn’t have more Innocence to follow up, then all they’d done was give the Kims a cloud cover.
“I’m telling you-“ Harold insisted, whispering from behind Avery.
“I hear you, Harold,” Avery replied, whispering. “But it’s not a practitioner council. There’s not…”
There wasn’t anything.
No connections, no magic, no Others converging on their location- Avery couldn’t be sure if that was because the goblins, Liberty, and Alpeana were doing a good job, but…
With all the stakes, all the stuff going on, why wouldn’t Charles invest something into securing one of his borders? People or Others to watch out, some kind of influence over the nearest neighbor?
He was short-sighted in a lot of ways, in ways that ran totally counter to everything Avery believed in, but was he that short-sighted?
Avery sent a signal to Snowdrop.
Snowdrop turned, breaking away, and headed outside.
“You’ve got a cop who won’t stand up for what he believes in, and the rest of you are willing to roll over and die,” Figueroa said, walking between the tables.
“Hey,” Avery told Clementine. “I think trouble’s incoming. I don’t know how you guys want to handle that. Some of it may be the sort of thing you want to keep your eyes closed to.”
“What happens if we don’t?” Clementine replied.
“Maybe the issues you’re wrestling with get worse, maybe stuff gets more complicated.”
Clementine frowned a bit, then nodded. She reached over to Pauline, touching her shoulder, and leaned in to whisper something. Then she did something similar to Vaughn, the bad luck guy.
Was that karmic bad luck, or something else?
Both Pauline and Vaughn left.
Avery could also track Snowdrop, as Snowdrop ran out into snow- Avery could vaguely interpret the cold and change in Snowdrop’s momentum. Then Snowdrop started flying, doing a loop.
Please don’t get hit by lightning, Avery thought.
“Hey, Roberto,” Harold said. “I don’t think they’re listening.”
“Maybe turn up your hearing aid!?” Roberto raised his voice as he leaned in by the ear of an older woman. “Then you might get what I’m saying!?”
The older woman shook her head, turning to look out the window, which- there really wasn’t much point anymore. The rain and frost were bad enough it was opaque.
“Oops,” Roberto said, as he moved the hand that had been resting on the table, knocking the tray of coffee, a half-eaten muffin, and other odds and ends into the old woman’s lap. The woman shrieked and moved back and deeper into the bench seat.
Jasmine started to step forward, but Avery reached out, grabbing at her arm.
Snowdrop was soaking wet, cold as hell, and she was singing, calling out to goblins, at the same time she was sending out an impulse at Avery. A query.
Avery got sentiments of a wastebin on fire- the sort of can she’d have in her room. She responded with a push.
Snowdrop retorted with an general image and feeling. There was no coherent image to go with it like the first one had had, but Avery could extrapolate out. Trash can on fire.
Avery hit Snowdrop with a feeling of bigger, that immediately brought Snowdrop’s response up and out of a building on fire.
Followed by a thrill from Snowdrop, at the idea and at the plunging descent.
“It was an accident, I’m not that big of an asshole,” Figueroa said, smiling, as the cop turned his way.
The old woman opened her mouth in an accusatory ‘o’, and a fairy flew out. Bone white skin, hair the red of cherries, with wings like lace.
It was not alone.
The old woman had a hundred fairies come out of her mouth- and her skin deflated, going loose. They were beneath her clothes, in her hair, and as they pulled away, the woman came apart into pieces, like she’d been made of nothing but fairies. Some wore scraps of her skin as dresses, that bleached themselves white as they pulled away. Some had bits of her hair.
They gathered into a swarm, rain and Storm pelting the window behind them.
Avery could see every one of the locals opening their mouths, or standing up and moving in ways that suggested they had bodies that didn’t fit their skin. Long, lithe, and narrow.
She glanced back at the employees of the building. The glamour was fading, and the texture of the staff’s skin was changing to look more like cloth. They had mouths like tears and the tears had teeth, and-
She could see one of the fairies as it darted left, right, moving like a hummingbird as it drew closer, its hair flowing like it was underwater, not moving like it should. It had no lips, and made Avery think of an insect, because the teeth ran down its cheeks like intricate mandibles. The fangs were long enough to reach down to chin and up to the nostrils- it had no nose. Every tooth was overly thin and clearly sharp.
“Mouths closed!” Avery yelped.
She was finishing the word ‘closed’ when she felt something against her lip.
A fairy, in her hair, creeping around the side of her head, touch so light it wasn’t felt on skin, arm reaching forward and around-
She bit, reflexively, realized her mistake when teeth didn’t sever the tiny reaching arm, but jarred, like her teeth had met the barrier of that tiny arm and reconfigured by millimeters, instead of finding any purchase. She pulled back, shaking her head fiercely to dislodge it. Avery spat, and the spit did a lot to ward it off. A goblin sort of approach.
Avery glanced at the window, so covered in ice, frost and wet that it only let a vague, dull gray light through, with a faint patch of light here and there where there was a light across the street.
Two red dots of light floated on the far side.
Avery felt Snowdrop reach out, asking for confirmation.
Avery confirmed hard.
The windows shattered three times. The first time, they shattered because the ice had formed a glass-like layer that broke on impact.
The second time, delayed by a moment, the glass itself broke.
The third time, the damage from glass breaking cascaded through the donut shop.
Liberty stood on the far side, a crowd of goblins at her feet, barely visible through the mist.
Clem backed away.
Avery had to lunge forward. As Clem had backed off, she’d moved closer to the counter. On the far side there was an employee that looked like it was made with a burlap sack, a tear for the mouth with teeth sewn along the tear, eyeholes ringed by teeth as well.
Avery whacked the employee with her stick and heard a crunch.
She could guess what he was filled with.
“What do I do?” Clem asked.
Avery pulled on her deer mask, hoping that would insulate her against having her teeth messed with. “Don’t talk!”
“Tell me what helps here!” Clem insisted.
The fairies moved with more than a startling hummingbird quickness, but with keen predictive ability. As Clem’s mouth opened for her to talk, two were right there in her face, one branding what might’ve been serpent’s fangs, the other going for the teeth.
Mistake, Avery thought.
Except the bite severed two tiny arms at the wrists. The tiny fairy shrieked and pulled back.
“Dentures,” Clementine said. “Since I was little. Nothing much for them to take. What do I do?”
“Any item with sickness, disease, noise, chaos, disruption-”
Liberty’s goblins were already ready with all of that. Liberty stood outside, framed by the broken window between her and the rest of them, scratched ‘steamjunk’ goggles practically glowing red, a smile on her face, both of her hands on Snowdrop’s shoulders.
“You’re safe now,” Snowdrop said, to the fairies.
Which was the prompt for goblins to start throwing tricks, traps, and goblin-y odds and ends over the base of the window and onto seats, tables, and under the tables.
Stink bombs, firecrackers, an egg that hatched three angry Cherrypop-size goblins, a music box that started blaring an annoying sound.
“What they’re doing,” Avery told Clem, pointing at the commotion.
She had to move to help people. Avery started forward, lips clamped together, using her lacrosse stick to catch fairies out of the air. Where people had fairies prying at their mouths -tenacious, swat-resistant fairies, even- Avery grabbed at them to pull them free.
The locals weren’t all swarms in skin suits made from interlocked bits of fairy. Some were real skin suits that were being shed. Tooth fairies that were taller than Avery, eerie and feral.
And there were at least two humans, too.
But they’d hung back, had taken longer to get out of their skin suits- and Liberty’s bombardment caught at least three of them off guard. One even fell over, skin suit bundled up around the knees, landing awkwardly on a wing. Goblins crawled over it.
Taking out some of the biggest fairies, with the light disruption that mucked with the small ones- clouds of stink they had to avoid, whole clouds of the things being knocked out of the air by the shockwave of a firecracker.
And they didn’t like the Storm either. The rain came in hard and at an angle, chased by snow or sleet. So they couldn’t even push back against goblins.
Figueroa had scalded the legs and lap of the one lady and her neighbor, and the tooth fairies there had wet wings and were moving slower- freeing him to slap at them with the coat he’d pulled off.
The tint of the room changed.
Clementine had pulled something out of her handbag. A tattered cloth, in a sickly yellow-green that seemed to infect everything around it with that sickly-ness.
Like cartoon radioactivity.
And the fairies hated it. They went from being able to flit around to struggling to fly, moving behind cover so there was something between them and the scrap of cloth. When they did fly, they only had the strength to make leaps, wings flapping to assist those leaps and adjust their trajectory in the air. Up, flapflapflap, down.
Avery felt a pang in her stomach, that reminded her of what it had felt like when the overdose of healing potions had screwed her up. She moved around, watching the tooth fairies.
Fairies mostly dealt in glamour, intangible stuff, illusion. Tooth fairies broke the mold, having found a niche in something solid, in human convention, in a time when people no longer left saucers of cream out overnight or paid the brownies to help with housework. Teeth were an anchor-point for more solid glamours, like the skin suits that the fairies wore. The suits went on over everything, were pulled around the face, and anchored to the wearer at the back teeth.
She’d had a few brief run-ins with them, she knew the minimum basics, as a result. There was a contingent working as staff at the ghost market, and Verona…
Avery’s train of thought was interrupted as a trio of small fairies worked together to plunge into a burlap sack employee. Where there was a trove of teeth within.
Arming themselves. Fuel for a tooth fairy as much as a stockpile of glamour was a tool for another fairy.
Verona… Avery reconnected to the train of thought.
“Dentienne!” Avery called out.
Verona had her weirdness, but one thing that Verona could do that blew Avery and Lucy out of the water was remember stuff – not photographic or anything like that, but she could surprise Avery by pulling out some obscure reference or some thing she’d read, and go right to the right section of the book when she did it. Practice, random items from way back when- like Clementine’s puzzle bracelet, that Clementine had mentioned earlier.
Avery couldn’t do that, but she remembered names okay, and she kept track of their contacts. This was an easier one to remember than some.
“Is Dentienne here?”
“No,” one of the larger fairies replied.
A goblin firecracker detonated, sending sparks flying through the interior of the donut shop.
“Do you know her? She dwells in this region.”
“Yes,” was the hissed response.
Fighting had died down a little bit, except for the bombardment from goblins. Avery held her hands out for friends, and Clementine had put the scrap of cloth partially into her oversize handbag, reducing the intensity of the glow.
“In another reality, when things played out differently, Dentienne was the friend and ally of my friend, Verona. They talked about Dentienne becoming her familiar. We don’t have to be enemies.”
“That bond is something to respect. Even in another reality.”
“Yeah, for absolute sure,” Avery said, tense, arms still out to either side, motioning for people to stop, waiting for the other shoe to drop. She motioned to Clementine, and Clementine put the cloth away. “I put a lot of stock in the familiar bond.”
“I can tell,” the fairy said, as tense as Avery was, in its own way. She was a beautiful woman, with the addition of a facial feature- when her lips parted, a seam running from the corner of the lips to her ears parted, exposing way too many teeth along the way.
“We’ve done good business with fairies across the region.”
“You have. Your market did collapse, deals were strained.”
“It resumed. A temporary lapse.”
The words hung in the air.
Need a third.
“We can, if things go well, give you a better rate of return, should you also want to do business. We can give you a grace on that front.”
The fairy straightened. “If you do poorly?”
Slang for a lesser favor that wouldn’t break any backs or ruin lives.
“We leave without…” The fairy glanced sideways at goblins. “…interference.”
“Snowdrop?” Avery asked.
“You’re doomed,” Snowdrop told the fairies. She smiled, teeth uneven, soaking wet and shivering.
“Backwards-speak from the goblin sage of Kennet. Liberty?”
“Got our guys all riled up, you’re going to leave them blue-balled?”
“Yeah, Libs. Come on?”
“Come on, gob squad,” Liberty called out.
The goblins retreated.
“Agreeable?” Avery asked the tooth fairy representative.
“We’re not the only things in this town.”
“Good to know. I don’t get strong Carmine vibes from you guys, honestly. From what I know, tooth fairies trade, they deal in the fall-ish Courts?”
“We didn’t ally with the Carmine directly, no.”
“Aurum? You made a deal, to set up…”
“Concordance. He laid out what he needed and let those who would agree to those unsaid, intangible terms settle. We are the bulk of it.”
“A foothold for the Aurum, in arm’s reach of the Carmine?”
“It is so.”
“You’ve dealt fairly with us, go without interference. A grace awaits, ideally between you and our markets. We’ve developed a good rapport, fairy and human, and we’re respecting the familiar bonds. Perhaps someone with me awakens later, takes Dentienne or one of you as a familiar.”
“Perhaps,” the fairy said. She made a motion, like she was bowing, then finished it by pulling at the skin suit, drawing it up around her, pulling face over scalp like a hood, before closing the mouth. Her tongue clicked four times as she sank the four attached teeth into the sockets where her wisdom teeth would be.
An old woman wearing a padded flannel shirt, who pulled on a coat.
Others followed suit, or they got bags, and entire swarms of fairies flowed into the bags. The two humans ducked past Avery’s group- everyone moved aside to let them by, and got the burlap sacks. Teeth rattled as they were pushed into the bags, with a few scattered handfuls left lying around.
“What if I don’t agree?” Figueroa asked.
Avery heard Melissa make a small scoffing sound behind her.
“You want to handle all that yourself?” Avery asked him.
“I’m only asking. I don’t really care. I got more of ’em than any of them got me.”
Please don’t ruin this.
The fairies, at least, ignored him.
Avery didn’t fully relax until they’d departed. Snowdrop came to her as the fairies sorted themselves out, and Avery did her best to rub at arms and shoulders, warming her up.
The fairies stepped out through the broken window, going out into the rain.
“Just like that?” George asked. “Ends as fast as it started?”
“They knew they weren’t trouncing us,” Avery said, quiet. Her tongue pushed at her teeth that had settled funny around the little fairy arm. “And they’re proud. Fairies and Fae. I gave them an excuse to bail. Nothing great or game changing, but three okay reasons.”
“Is everyone okay?” Jasmine asked.
Not everyone was. A couple of the fairies had a bit of glamour where they could brush up against skin and leave tooth-shaped gouges where hands and feet touched -like repeated bites when strung together. And a few of the Sargeant Hall Aware were new to stuff on this scale.
“Was only possible because of you,” Avery told Mr. Black.
“The leap of faith you gave us, helping with the market stuff. You helped by helping convince him, Brayden.”
“Cool,” Brayden said.
“And if we ever go back to Kennet, if I’m part of the market again, I’d be dealing with things like that?” Mr. Black asked.
“How much you deal with it depends on how far you want to get into it. I’m sorry we’re asking you guys to get so into it tonight,” Avery said. “It’ll be up to you guys to decide if you continue. This is only a teaser.”
“Fuck,” Mia said, before adding a quick, “sorry,” as she glanced at the parents.
She walked toward the shattered front window while Liberty came inside. Avery gave her friend a punch in the arm as they crossed paths.
“Can we do anything to fix the window, so we’re not ruining the property?” Mr. Black asked.
Avery let others discuss. Her focus was elsewhere.
“Alpeana, Alpeana, Alpeana.”
The ongoing storm whistled. Rain came down hard enough to go right past Avery’s coat by every possible angle- past collar to neck and shoulders, down back, down front. It had started to soak her jeans from the knees down earlier and now that she was in the rain’s path again, it picked right up where it had left off. So cold it felt like it should be frozen into pellets or shards, but it wasn’t.
Alpeana hung close to the foot of the donut shop, between the rightmost end of the shattered window and the corner of the building. Out of sight of the Sargeant Hall Aware.
“I know it’s closer to daytime, I hope it’s not too rough for you.”
“The sun is blocked. Tha’ helps.”
“Any chance the residents are still around? Sleeping?”
“I dinnae sense any. No a soul asleep an’ primit for a nichtmare.”
“Is it like, weird that nobody’s sleeping in and possibly ready to have a nightmare?”
“Question is… is the town empty, or is there something like a sleeping beauty thing happening? Magical, pleasant sleep to keep the locals out of the way?”
“Lemme gae check.”
Alpeana dipped into the darkness. In this freezing rain, gloom, and cold, Alpeana at least seemed to be in her element. Not that far off from the ruins.
Jasmine was doing some quick stitches on some grisly looking bite wounds.
“I hope Pauline didn’t get lost. She makes a bad pairing with Vaughn,” Clementine said. She opened a door and hollered, “Pauline!”
“What’s Vaughn’s deal?” Avery asked, standing by the window as she waited for Alpeana. “Bad luck?”
“No. Not like you’re picturing,” Clementine replied. “Whenever things get weird, he ends up at the butt end of it all.”
“Why bring him, then?” Avery asked.
“Because he’s one of the smartest, most competent people I know.”
Alpeana returned. Avery raised her eyebrows.
“Mah colleagues in th’ dreamin’ say they’re oot cauld. Yer standart sleepin’ beauty business,” Alpeana reported.
“And you can’t wake ’em?”
“Ack, it’s hard, lassie. Costs, an’ I’d haf to do et one by one.”
Avery nodded and stepped back, pushing her hood down, moving her mask aside, and ran fingers through hair that had gotten soaked.
“We can’t ask the goblins for more,” a shivering Snowdrop told her.
“Goblins!” Snowdrop raised her voice. “I know you’re crap at scouting, so I won’t ask you and I won’t expect anything good. But if you do end up in someone’s house and you find them in some magical sleep, we need you to leave them alone, you don’t wake up someone that’s sleepwalking.”
“Draw on their faces!” a goblin raised its voice.
“No!” Snowdrop said, pointing.
“Maybe,” Avery said. “Or…”
She really didn’t want to hurt innocents. She looked at Liberty, who shrugged.
“Here’s the game,” Liberty said, leaning forward. “Every three people you wake up, you can pull something. No permanent damage, whoever has the best story about waking them up and making them go ‘what the fuck’ gets a prize! Woo!”
The goblins gathered in the dark outside cheered.
And they practically climbed over each other in their rush to go.
“Gremlins! Different job, shut off the power for a bit, make it easier for our guys to get inside,” Liberty ordered.
There were cries of acknowledgment.
“Did she mean actual goblins and gremlins?” Claudia asked, quiet.
The door Avery had used to enter opened, with Pauline and Vaughn coming in, Vaughn with a hand over his lower face. They both paused when they saw the devastation.
“I’d say it was a good thing we left, but, um…”
Vaughn lowered his hand.
About twenty additional teeth stuck out of his lower face, out of lips, gums, pinning lips to gums, even jutting out of raw holes in his cheek. Blood trickled from the base of some of them, mingling with the icy rainwater. It wasn’t just that the teeth had happened to stab into flesh and stick. They looked like they were growing out of skin, lip, and gum.
“…bumped into someone in the group as they were leaving,” Pauline finished.
Vaughn’s gaze was downcast, and it looked less scared or defeated and more… weary.
Clementine’s hand, as they got Vaughn sitting on a table, lingered a bit longer than necessary to make sure he got settled properly. Not romantic- only reassuring. The look in Clem’s eyes was weary as well.
Avery met Melissa’s eyes.
The worst case scenario. What we were warning you about when we were worried this could go bad.
A gentle introduction worked best, but it wasn’t always easy to do.
Avery had a healing potion in her bag.
Healing potions held an entirely different weight for her, after everything with their last run-in with the Aurum.
“Once you get the teeth out, pour this over,” Avery said, walking over and putting the container down. “It’ll help close the holes.”
“Alright,” Jasmine said, her voice soft. “We have to get the teeth out?”
“I think so.”
“I’ve got pliers,” Liberty offered.
Jasmine glanced at Avery, then nodded. “I guess we’ll need them. Sterilize them first?”
The lights cut out with a bang, like all the breakers had blown at once. They were plunged into darkness.
Cell phones lit up, and then people turned on the flashlight functions.
Things were picking up outside.
Avery watched out the window, wary of any follow-up attacks.
She could see the Storm in its full throes. Lightning without thunder and thunder without lightning. Rain came down cold enough it should be frozen, but didn’t freeze. Sometimes it froze on impact with hard surfaces, leaving spiky little growths of frozen splash.
And, maybe one out of ten lightning flashes, Avery could see figures. Silhouettes with glowing eyes, wandering. Animals. Defined more by the water running down them than by anything else. Elementals, manifesting as part of the Storm. Not on their side, but not enemies either. Neutral, existing as long as the Storm did, ceasing to exist when the impossible weather passed.
It made for a tense job as she played lookout, waiting just a bit. Because there were other things out there.
Some were echoes. Those were, supposedly, on their side, if Ann was doing her job, stoking up Ruins-stuff across the entire Storm.
Lightning flashed, and three times in a row, Avery saw a distorted shape. A boy, with fancy hair and clothes, but weird proportions, head too large, arms and body too narrow. His eyes reflected the light of distant lightning flashes out of sync with the illumination of closer flashes that illuminated the rest of him.
He looked like Avery imagined if Pinnochio was a dark fairy tale about being happy about being a miracle living puppet, and the dark moral played out with the twist ending that a previously wooden puppet made for a really ugly little boy, and that was his punishment for not being happy with what he had.
“Oh, that’s creepy,” Caroline said. She, Jeremy, Wallace, Mia, and George had all come closer. Brayden was sticking by his dad. Melissa was sticking by her boyfriend Bracken, head on his shoulder.
“You have no idea. We’ve bumped into him before,” Avery said. “Or Verona did. Either that or there’s multiple of them, which wouldn’t surprise me.”
“Why can’t the tooth fairies be the worst thing that happens today? Or whatever happened to that guy,” Wallace indicated Vaughn.
“I think it’ll get worse,” Avery said. “If you want to bail, we can signal the Garricks to get you.”
“I’ll be going,” Jasmine said, from across the room. “After all of this. Lucy’s worried I’ll be an obvious target if I’m close. Your parents had similar worries.”
“So I can take anyone who needs to go,” Jasmine said. “I wanted to help and follow along with events as far as I could, without stepping directly onto the main battlefield.”
“Makes sense,” Avery replied.
“Just say, okay?” Jasmine asked, her attention on Wallace and the other kids.
“I’ll stick with this,” Wallace said.
“Don’t feel obligated,” Avery told Wallace.
“I’ll stick with this,” he repeated.
There were nods from the rest of the group.
“Potion,” Jasmine told Clementine. “I’m going to go wash my hands.”
It looked like Vaughn’s skin had torn and split in places, where teeth had resisted being pulled out.
Avery, sitting half-on a table, watching out the window, as echoes and elementals stirred, leaned harder into Snowdrop, to get a good angle to work her phone out of her pocket. Her opossum shivered.
She didn’t really expect a response, but she’d rather try soon and repeatedly and get an answer as quickly as possible.
“Northern Bruce Peninsula emergency services. How may I help you?”
Avery passed the phone toward Mia and George. Mia seized on it.
Mia listened for a second, probably to a repeat of the line.
“We’re touring a new housing development on the peninsula, but there’s a lot of damage and I think stuff is on fire. We need help. As much as we can get,” Mia answered.
Avery stood, giving Snowdrop’s shoulders and arms a rub for warmth. She had elemental runes of her own, and Snowdrop had some inside her coat, but there was only so much it could do in weird weather like this.
Looking outside, Avery could see the town waking up. Flashlights turned on, and people stepped out of houses to look at what was going on.
Echoes and elementals retreated deeper into shadow.
“Let’s go,” Avery said, quiet. “We’ll need the goblins and stuff on guard duty, in case the Carmine’s group or the Aurum’s people decide to remove all witnesses.”
“We need to point them north?” one of the St. Victor’s parents asked.
Mia was still answering questions for the nine-one-one caller. Avery hung back, waiting until she could get her phone back. She watched as their people ventured outside. Stumbling over icy patches and little icy spikes.
She could hear, just barely, the story being spun. Outrage mingled with concern. Maybe mostly outrage, that someone was trying to sneakily get a whole run of construction finished in the quiet months, getting it done and begging forgiveness later. The implication that some unscrupulous government person had signed off on the build.
Car headlights turned on as the first of the nearby locals climbed into cars. People who’d just woken up, finding storm and hearing commotion, and now wanted to investigate or help.
“Libs?” Avery asked.
“Yeah,” Liberty replied. “I’ll watch from above as they drive over. In case anyone tries to run them off the road.”
“I’ll be behind you.”
“Heading out the back,” Liberty said, as she hurdled the counter, edge of one steamjunk wing clipping the counter’s edge. She only barely avoided falling.
It took a minute to get sorted. More of their people emptied out of the donut shop. Mr. Black had found a tarp and some nails at the back and went outside, nearly getting bowled over by high winds. People ran over to help him nail the tarp up over the shattered window.
Avery tied her hair back into a ponytail, set her deer mask aside, and joined the last half of their group as they ventured outside.
“Clem?” Avery murmured, as she caught up to Clementine. She touched Clementine’s arm to get Clem’s attention. The noise of the Storm was bad enough she wasn’t sure Clem could hear her.
Clem turned her way.
Avery pointed at Tenmercy, the fleshy Pinocchio. “Just in case you see him again tonight?”
“Yeah? Creepy little guy.”
“He makes cursed items. Scatters them out into the world. They do their thing, reap power, hurt people, collect energies, collect emotions… I don’t know his angle, specifically. Then they find their own way back to him.”
“He’s the reason?” Clementine asked, barely audible. Water streamed down her face as she stared out into the dark.
“No. There’s more to figure out, more to research,” Avery said. “But I’m pretty sure at least a few of the things you’ve found were made by him or things like him. Most areas have banned him. He’s too dangerous and he makes too many messes. But our enemies tonight? Apparently they put out an open call, offering a place for anyone or anything willing to cooperate with them and do what they needed. And that includes him and things like him.”
Clementine’s expression had hardened.
“Sorry,” Avery said. “I know that’s a lot to drop on you.”
“If I hurt or- stopped him? Would that… is that?”
“Yeah,” Avery said. “Maybe give him a chance to repent. Always worth doing. But if he doesn’t, or if he can’t? Hurt or stop him with prejudice.”
“Okay,” Clementine replied.
“I’m- I’ll try to do the same. Not saying it’s your job. If I cross paths with him, and there’s a chance to stop him? I’ll offer him a chance to change his ways. If he swears to, it sticks. I’d like to do that, take the weight off your shoulders, give you a chance to ask questions…”
Clementine nodded. Her expression had changed a bit.
Avery was focused on Clementine. She followed Clementine’s view to Tenmercy, and saw the puppet boy smiling ear to ear with overlarge teeth that looked too white, too square.
“If I can’t, is that okay? Would you rather have a shot yourself, or would you rather…?”
“Stop him. If he’s hurting people. I’m not that proud. But tell me. Don’t tell me he exists and then leave me not knowing that he’s stopped existing.”
“Okay,” Avery said. “Sorry again.”
She wasn’t one hundred percent sure why she was apologizing.
Then, because it felt like the staring contest between Clementine and Tenmercy wouldn’t end, Avery started forward toward the puppet boy.
Lightning flashed, and he was gone in the darkness that followed.
Avery wasn’t surprised.
She changed direction, indicating Clem should go with a touch on her arm, to break that spell, as Clementine stared at the spot where Tenmercy had been, and because the darkness, the storm, the mist, the rain, and everything else made touch a better way of communicating than anything else.
Some of her school friends were behind her. They’d seen the exchange.
Avery jerked her head, and they started moving, joining Clementine.
Avery took a moment to look around, finding echoes in shadows and spaces between lightning flashes. Finding elementals, alternately, in the moments that things were illuminated, gone in the darkness that followed.
The rain came down hard, like small punches coming down at an angle, more than weather. Avery was part of the rear guard, watching everything as people all migrated north.
Theodora was out there, by the bus she’d summoned, looking like she was itching to do more.
Your part comes next, Avery thought.
People from their group looked glad to be climbing inside, where there was shelter, illumination, and warmth.
Avery didn’t go into the bus with them, sticking to the rain, moving around the flanks. She got away from the largest group of people, then started black roping around the perimeter.
Landing on a branch where an elemental that hadn’t been visible a moment ago made an appearance, just one branch over. It immediately reacted to her presence, a humanoid figure that reached out with arms that looked like a doll had shattered and then been held together with rainwater streaking down glass.
Opossum at her shoulder, she let herself fall from the branch, boots scraping on wet wood. She found footing on another branch, pushed off, and black-roped across the road, to another perch.
Locals were pulling onto the road. All moving at about twenty miles an hour on icy, wet roads.
Avery followed the caravan. Headlights, taillights, and lit up car interiors formed a slash of light cutting across stormy darkness.
She prepared to black rope further along, eyeing possible options, and stopped. With face slightly upturned, the ice water threatened to flow into her mouth, which was open to exhale heavy fogged breaths. So much water it momentarily felt like she could drown in it. It had already soaked her shirt and sweatshirt beneath her coat. Runes struggled to fight back against the pressure- the same spirits that would obey the runes were being bossed around by the Storm.
But Avery held her position, frozen.
Tenant 2603. The old technomancy Other who collected and summoned urban legends and things. He was perched on her spot on top of the telephone pole.
Avery didn’t feel like that was one of Charles’. No, the Aurum was working, in his own way.
Rallying troops. Organizing. Some, like the tooth fairies, would delay. Others were obscuring what they were really doing- something Avery, Verona, and Lucy had yet to riddle out.
Others, like the Tenant, would be more of a wall.
Avery’s hand, jammed into a pocket, pressed against the interior lining, past sweatshirt, past shirt. Putting pressure on the spot where the scar was. Where she’d been shot.
The Tenant watched as traffic passed, and he moved like he was going to lunge after the stragglers. But another car turned the corner, headlights flashing as they swept past trees, turning northward.
He left, not picking the fight.
Avery skipped further ahead, moving along with the caravan.
Charles’ camp wasn’t that far away. Only about a five minute drive, at these glacial speeds. Avery could move faster than the cars, black roping forward, eyes out for echoes and elementals, and any of the Aurum’s agents.
A mingling of the Innocent, the lightly Aware, and the messy-as-hell Aware, Avery thought. The enemy Others didn’t want to get tangled up in that. The Aurum had powerful assets, but it was too much.
So the way was made clear, even as the Storm intensified.
Lightning flashed, and Avery was pretty sure she could see a massive growth in the distance, marking where Lucy was currently in the thick of the fighting, with Aware drawing closer. Verona would be, if they were keeping to the plan, at the edges of all that, a place to do some bigger practices from, and a place for allies to fall back to.
Avery would help. She made a beeline for Verona, one eye on the caravan. On the bus, brightly lit, sailing toward the site of the battle like a missile. Avery already had her next play in mind.
She was moving to flank, to blindside. But Charles was doing something similar. The Allaires. The houses made of glamour. They were up to something, and it was crucial to find out what.
The question was who would blindside who, first.
Another moment of pressure on the scar reminded Avery of what had happened last time she’d lost that exchange. Now the stakes were higher, if anything.
She let boots touch ground, then ran.