Finish Off – 24.4


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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.”

“And Lucy?”

“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.”

Avery nodded.

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?”

“Oh yeah.”

“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?”

“Tricky question.”

“I know.”

“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?”

“It is.”

“But maybe the ghosts and goblins, witches and wizards aren’t-?”

“No, he’s right.  He’s right and he’s wrong.”

Avery frowned.

“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…”

“Oh, well…”

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.”

Avery sighed.

“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?”

“Okay.  Um.”


“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.

Black rope.

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.”

“That’s great.”

“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.

Speaking of

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.

Clementine bit.

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?”

“Another grace.”

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.

“Och, aye.”

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.

“You think?”

Snowdrop shrugged.


“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?”

“Good call.”

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.”

Avery nodded.

“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.

Wallace nodded.

“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.

Avery nodded.

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.

Past echoes.

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.

Reminding herself.

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.

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Finish Off – 24.3


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

“Hey,” Verona told Lucy.


“Stop looking at Hollow Yen.  You’re bothering him.”

Hollow Yen was sitting on a parapet, almost reclining, one leg propped up, arms wrapped around it, facing the horizon.  He kept glancing back and looking annoyed that Avery and Lucy kept looking at him.

“You’re not going to explain that part of the plan?” Lucy asked.

“There’s nothing to explain,” Verona insisted.  “And if there was, which there isn’t, it’d be a bad idea to explain any key components of the plan where others could overhear and utilize it.  We can’t trust that every last person that came with us here is going to stay on our side.”

“We could extract oaths,” Lucy said.

“We could, but how well do you think that’s going to go?  A few people are going to bail before they risk getting caught up in a bad oath that puts them under the thumb of three practitioners.  Way different than us showing our proof of concept, pulling this off, and them signing on to a wider deal about the handling of Aware and the Carmine.”

“Right,” Lucy said.  She glanced at Hollow Yen.

Verona punched her in the arm.

“Ow.  I’m still sore.”

“Good,” Verona grumbled.

Lucy sighed.

Verona and Lucy watched as Nicolette laid out cards.  People were taking a moment to get organized.  Here on the Path, the sun was shining and the temperature was warm.  A bunch of the Aware had taken off their coats, and were looking around at the scenery, which was a sprawling castle.  The sun swept overhead every few minutes, and when it was overhead, sections of the castle and landscape would be pulled skyward by reverse gravity.  They would then drop when the sun passed, and crash down, shattering.  Add in a number of Lost and it seemed pretty intense.  Except they weren’t really going anywhere.

The weight of anyone standing on or placing key things down on top of a given section counteracted the reverse gravity, so they’d kind of spread out, with a few people -mostly Dog Tags- tasked with holding down parts of the surrounding buildings.  Avery was too restless to sit and watch Nicolette, so she was moving between people and groups.

“When you’re in another realm, the dynamics of augury can change,” Nicolette said, moving some cards.  “If you’re in the Abyss, it tends to focus in on you, a lot of augury will dwell on if you make it through the next few minutes.”

“Valid,” Verona said.  Julette sat in her hood, chin on Verona’s shoulder.  Alexanderp had draped himself on the other, with Peckersnot standing on her shoulder beside Alexanderp, hands on Verona’s collar and Alexanderp’s hair to steady himself.

Alexanderp smelled a bit like a package of meat she’d cracked open and couldn’t decide if it had gone off or not.  Which, like, she wasn’t normally about to fuss about that stuff – she hung out with Peckersnot, so odd smells were usual, but if Alexanderp was actually going bad, that was a concern.  He’d taken a beating earlier but seemed to be holding up.

“Ruins goes the other way.  Big picture but a lack of clarity on details.  You can view things through a Ruins-lens to get fast, broad-strokes readings, large areas, that sort of thing,” Nicolette explained.  “Spirit world for your random nonsense you’ve got to decipher…”


“Varies, of course.  Realms have sub-areas with their own specifics,” Nicolette murmured.

Verona loved this stuff, but there was too much heaviness going on, so she couldn’t get properly excited about it.  She flashed Nicolette a smile to let her know she was receptive.

“But here?” Nicolette asked.  “I’m not sure of the specifics.”

“Hmmm.  Avery!  Jude!”

“What’s up?”

The sun passed overhead.  A few thousand tons of castle soared skyward.  They, except for one part of the immediate area, were A-ok.  A single tower flew upward, though, and it looked like it’d be messy when it fell.  Some Garricks began to draw up diagrams to contain the damage.

Jude had to wait until the sun had passed before he jogged over.  He had one of his kid cousins sit instead.

When he was halfway over, the tower that had floated up came crashing down.  Diagrams flared, chalk glowing yellow like heated metal, and the rubble was kept within the bounds of the diagram, instead of flying into people’s heads or eyes or whatever.

“Hey Ave,” Verona greeted her friend.  “Do you know if there’s any Garricks who’d know how Augury interacts with the Paths?”

Avery made a face, then turned to Jude.  “Augury and the Paths?”

“Crap.  No, not really.”

“All these Garricks and nothing?” Verona asked.

Lucy lightly whapped her in the arm.

“There’s some practitioner families where things split off into branches, and each branch will do something a little off the main practice,” Jude said.

“Like the Whitts,” Avery said.  “Chase and Fernanda’s family.  Emotion manipulation, but Chase went and became an Augur, using emotion reading to help get a bead on people, Tomas Whitt does emotion-altering alchemy…”

“Right.  Well, we try to buy and trade for as many of the books on Finder variants as we can, just to know what’s going on, sometimes our guys dabble, but mostly we’re Finders.  Arguably Path runners.”

“A distinction that feels a bit forced to me,” Verona said.

“Bringing stuff back versus going exploring,” Jude said.  He sighed.  “Uncle Peter!?”

“What’s up?” the Garrick patriarch asked.

“Did we ever get that book on Seekers?  Verona’s wondering about Augury.”

“Nicolette’s wondering about Augury, and I’m wondering as a result,” Verona clarified.

“It wasn’t a good book,” Peter replied, in a grumbly tone.  “Curtsinger takes shitty notes, doesn’t explain anything, knows that if he binds his notes in hardcover and puts a price tag on it, he can make a few hundred dollars from various Finders and Finder families who’ll buy just about anything Path-related that gets put out there.  Does that twice a month and I figure that’s how he pays his rent.  I figured that since he wasn’t doing anything else, I’d task Shane with reading through and seeing if there was anything good… I guess he has the book now.”

“Damn,” Jude muttered.

Verona sometimes lost track of all the Garrick names, but Shane had been the one to betray the Garricks and go join Wonderkand, along with his wife.  “So… Seekers, then?”

“Paths are open to interpretation.  Things like your Turtle Queen force their own interpretation.  Combine the two, you can force Path configurations and brute-force some puzzles.  I’d rather get more clever with the name, but ‘Seeker’ is what we’ve got and it’s too much hassle to get all the Finders out there to change the terminology.”

“Anyone else besides this Curtsinger guy?” Lucy asked.

“Not so much.  I don’t think it’d be what you want, anyway.  It’s in the direction of augury- you need something to pin down Scrivening Others.  But it’s more deep analysis of something specific than what I’m guessing you’re looking for.”

“Okay,” Nicolette said.  “What I’m getting is a fast response but a lot of noise.  So… I’m going to have to couch what I’m doing and be careful, and you all are going to have to not put too much trust in what I’m saying.  Things may be off.”

“How long until sunrise?” Lucy asked.

“Clayton!” Peter barked, touching his wrist.

“Seven and change!”

“Seven minutes.”

“Let’s bring some people in?” Lucy asked.

They called over some others.  Nicolette laid out a piece of paper, and began to outline.

“This is, I’m reasonably sure, their setup,” she explained.  She sketched out some triangles, with some lines to mark out the T-shaped intersection of roads things were built around, with dashed lines to make things clear.  “Some tents as temporary quarters, but they may not be in use by tonight.  Maybe.  I’ll try and get to that.”

She adjusted her glasses, checked notes, and then switched to drawing out an irregular shape.  “This looks to be a main house operated by the Kims, with Kims coming and going, and it’s where the meeting with Ottawa is currently being held.  It’s fenced in, elaborate, and rigged with traps.”

She drew out some squares.

“There’s a scattering of buildings erected by the Allaires, partially fabricated with glamour.”

“So if we can get in, it takes very little effort to ruin hours of work?” Avery asked.

“Probably.  Which is why the tents might still be in use.  Or they’re staying in the Kim house.”

“I’m staunchly against arson,” Snowdrop said.

Nicolette turned to look at the opossum, who smiled toothily.  “I remember.”

“And goblin firecrackers,” Lucy said.  “We should check our supply.  Toadswallow?”

“I can do inventory,” Toadswallow said, from the sidelines.  He stood by Bubbleyum, who had her tongue extended and reaching behind her, holding down some wall, just-in-case.

“I think these are also traps, the tents,” Nicolette said.  “They have a lot of scattered, lesser Others there.  Goblins, bogeymen, technomancy predators, violent fairies, at least one or two oddfolk.  The tents give them somewhere to stay.  Get too close, trip an alarm, and they exit and attack.  Some won’t be in tents at all, and lurk in the dark, beneath snow, or something like that.”

“Tents will be cold to sleep in,” Brayden’s dad said.  “How does that work?”

“Yeah,” Nicolette agreed.  “There’s magic there.  Bit of cloth, rods, basic magic circle to insulate heat.”

Verona looked at Lucy and Avery.  It reminded her of her first day out as a practitioner.  Staying in the tent, sleeping in shifts, with insulating runes to keep the warmth in, because it had been early spring.

A few months shy of being a year ago.

“The roads are clear, mostly, in case any non-practitioners pass through, but there are things around with noses that will sniff out the slightest bit of glamour, ears that will hear a whispered bit of practice… it’s not as simple as being safe as long as you’re on the main road,” Nicolette explained.  “And it gets much, much more difficult when you actually want to do anything like get indoors.”

“Wards, barriers?” Verona asked.

“Among other things,” Nicolette said, as she made some notes on the corners of the map.  She reached down for her bag, got out a bag of chalk, and then dumped a handful over the entire setup.

The chalk hung in mid-air as if it dusted invisible model houses and tents.  Part of the Kim house fell apart, so Nicolette re-checked her notes, erased a part, re-drew it, and dropped more chalk down.  It held up better this time.

“Now, according to the cards, I need to stress that this is not fully accurate, I may have missed things, I may have added things that aren’t there…”

She got a stick of colored chalk and put it out, then drew a half-circle between the wall that encircled the Kim property and the house, like a little rainbow or archway.

The circle filled in with vague, nondescript magic circle stuff.  The second one didn’t, though, and part of the image collapsed.

“Damn it,” Nicolette sighed.  “Sorry, spent too much personal power last night, preparing for and helping to keep the Belangers safe after the raid.”

“It’s okay,” Avery said, crouching down so she was at eye level with the map.  “This is cool enough.”

“The augury around the house came with a set of cards suggesting a pop-up book or jack in the box.  If it’s a jack in the box, it’s something that stays compressed until the ritual to undo it happens, and then it springs up into its full dimensions.  If it’s a book, it’s like one of those childhood books you open, the individual components unfold, and then they have a dark mansion, gardens, and surrounding walls.  The wards are like strings that start up loose but stretch out taut as things settle,” Nicolette said.  “You can imagine it as a cat’s cradle of snares or a webwork of those lasers from spy movies you have to dance around.”

“Can we dance around them?  If we find a way to see them?” Avery asked.

“I can’t say for sure, but I think the gaps are too small for a person, and it’s too hard to tell the difference between a gap something smaller could crawl through and a hole meant to look doable, that has a hidden snare on the other side.  Poke your head through, and…”

Nicolette made a ‘kssh’ sound as she mimed the snare at her neck.

Verona nodded, and glanced sideways at Julette.

Julette shook her head.

“You’d be more likely to survive than some,” Verona murmured.

Julette narrowed her eyes.

“I’m kidding.”


“If you get caught by these traps, it takes things to ten out of ten badness,” Nicolette said.  “Augury says it’s doom and disaster.  Considering who we’re dealing with…”

“You get horrified?” Lucy asked.

“Yeah.  So while it looks like this big open building, there’s no easy entry in from the roof, over the wall, through a window… front path only and the front path has guards.”

“Question,” Grandfather said.

“Ask?” Lucy told him.

“Our goal is to get to the Carmine Exile and catch him at the one place we know he’ll be?”

“Exiting that meeting, yeah,” Lucy said.  “Or we knock out enough of his support systems and power investment that it sets us up to go after him.  We need to make him spend enough power that it goes past what the international powers gave him. Make him recall some of the Others he’s made and whatever other things he’s got in the works.”

“So we need into that house,” Grandfather said.


“And we can’t blow it up?”

“Not easily.  Wards,” Nicolette said.

“And it would probably sit badly with the rest of the Ottawa council if we, you know, blew up half their members,” Lucy said.

“Got it.  And-”

“Sorry!  Interrupting!” Clayton called out.  “Just under one minute, then we need people already in their places.”

“Let’s get people moved.  Go to where you were before.  Come up with your questions and ideas, come back,” Peter told people.

“I’ve got minor clarifications on the wards, after!” Nicolette called out.  People were already scattering to get to where they’d been sitting moments ago.  Verona took a seat, and McCauleigh came over to sit beside her.

“You’re not a pair I expected,” Nicolette said.

“You know, there was a short story I liked as a kid?  The cat that walks by himself?  I mainly liked it because it was about cats, and I was pretty cat obsessed when I was a kid.  Cat earmuffs, cat-”

“You were so cat obsessed,” Lucy said, from about thirty feet away, sitting on a wall.

“Past tense?” Avery asked.

“Okay, but seriously,” Verona said.  “Basically, it was about how the cat could be both independent and dependent.  A wild thing, but also capable of living in a house with people.  That’s what makes the cat special.”

“Sure,” Nicolette said.  “Mentally, I’m chalking that up as another symbol for my augury reading.”

“I thought about becoming Other versus staying human, I thought about buying into society versus-”

The sun rose.  Sections of the landscape began to rise, then rocket skyward, until they were specks in the distance..

“-failing society, I thought about passing school versus failing out, all that.”

“A lot of pressure,” Nicolette said.  “I get that.  Surviving versus not.  Or working under Alexander.”

“Yeah.  Kennet above versus Kennet below,” Verona said.  “I think there’s a third path.  Taking what you need out of both cases, going your own way.  Gotta find the opportunity, identify what people want, accept some dog is going to bite your ass.  But there is a way to be the cat that walks by herself.”

“I don’t think I got that chance,” Nicolette said.  “Or maybe I did and I didn’t recognize it for what it was.”

“Maybe you’re finding it now?” Verona asked, shrugging.


Didn’t sound like Nicolette wanted to engage with that question in a big way.  Sure.  “Anyway, McCauleigh and I are very different people-”

“Very,” McCauleigh said, moving so she was lying down on the slab they were sitting on, behind Verona.

Peckersnot jumped off Verona’s shoulder and onto Mccauleigh’s stomach.

“What?” McCauleigh muttered.  “Oh.”

“-but I think we’re both cats like that-” Verona said.

Julette climbed out of Verona’s hood and leaped onto McCauleigh’s stomach as well.

“Ow!  Fucking cat,” McCauleigh grumbled.  But she put a hand on Julette, and Julette curled up there.

“-finding our own path.  Saying ‘fuck it’ to a lot of the rest of what’s going on, parents, school… easier to fumble along together than to buy in.  Us and Mal and Anselm, until…”

“I’m sorry about your friends,” Nicolette said.

Verona’s eyes dropped to the stone below them.

“How are the Belangers?” McCauleigh asked.  “Any casualties?”

“Not sure what the damage is.  We got forced out right when they arrived and we didn’t get fully organized after.  I don’t know if anyone fell behind or if they didn’t make it.  There weren’t any Belanger bodies, but they could’ve been eaten,” Nicolette said.

“That’s what it’s going to be, I bet,” McCauleigh said.  “If we even make it through this without having to leave the area and scatter, it’ll be weeks of realizing that so-and-so you recognize or whatshisface, friend of a friend, gone and dead.”

Too heavy to dwell on.

“I’m mad,” Verona admitted.  Her hands clenched, and her left hand jumped with a stabbing of pain.  “I don’t like being mad.  It’s so fucked, making life and extinguishing it.  Good people, nuanced people, wiped out for a power hit?”

Julette nodded, before stretching across McCauleigh and resting the top of her head against Verona’s butt.

“I think a lot of us are mad,” Lucy said.

“The trick is to not let it make us make mistakes.  Say what you will about Alexander and the rest of the Belangers, they were pretty good about being a cold, calculating, mean sort of mad,” Nicolette told them, as she turned over cards, doing readings.  She reached into her bag, pulled out a folder of papers with individual tabs, and flipped through to find a tab.

“Looking up the Belangers?” Verona asked.  “Sorry, didn’t mean to change the subject.”

“No.  Trying to get you all sorted,” Nicolette said.  She sighed and looked up from the cards, meeting Verona’s eyes.  “But about what you were asking before?  The more I follow along, the more I feel like the Belanger family has spent generations straddling this weird existence where they’re significant enough they can’t be ignored, they’re a resource and have resources, even if those are mismanaged, but nobody actually wants to take ownership of them.”

“What about Jen?” Lucy asked.  The sun was passing.  Lucy had left her perch.  Others were moving over, talking among themselves.

“Even Jen.  But I don’t want to get into another family’s politics.”

“Do you think you could run it?” Verona asked.

“She just said-” Lucy started.

“No, I hear you,” Nicolette said.  “This is more about me than about them, but still, don’t repeat this elsewhere?”

Verona and the others nodded.  When everyone else was nodding, from Avery, Lucy, McCauleigh and Verona to Julette and Peckersnot, Alexanderp joined in.

Nicolette, satisfied, said, “I think if we left here and I made a call to them, I could put them on the job, and there would be very little pushback.  If there ever was a time to make a play for something fresh and new, it would be now.”

“But do you want to?” Lucy asked.

Nicolette shrugged.  “Dunno.  I…”

Other people were coming over, now that things were settling.  The ‘night’ began, the sky a dark blue chased with purple from the fading sunset.

Nicolette sighed, and didn’t share whatever she’d been thinking.

It was too warm for a sweater and coat.  Verona had put off taking them off because she didn’t want to put it on a stone and have that stone go flying to the stratosphere, but… she started to pull them off, moving Alexanderp aside before she did so.

McCauleigh helped, tugging up the back end of the sweater.

Fuck.  Verona was a bit sweaty.  If they went back out into the cold…

“I wonder if we can put the Belangers on the job,” Lucy said.

“Well, if you want to talk about being mad?  Gillian’s… sort of mad.  Her emotions are out of whack, but I don’t think she’ll turn down the opportunity to do something.  Chase is out there too.”

“How’s he?” Verona asked.  “Like, both in the sense that he’s…”

“He’s got some Augury, still.  No, I get what you’re asking.  Not just about him being horrified.  Chase is still Chase.  Not my favorite person, even if he stepped up,” Nicolette said.  “But for right now, we share goals.  He’ll help once I find a role for him.”

One more moving piece to take into account, Verona thought.

People had all arrived.

“Alright.  Sorry about that,” Peter said.  “Anyone have thoughts?”

“Deborah Cloutier, Storm Chaser out of Thunder Bay, right hand of the Lord of the city,” Deb announced herself.  She’d removed her coat, and her sleeves were rolled up.  Frostburn, lightning, and burn scars on full display, almost proudly.  “I see something as elegantly constructed as all of that?  I think an interesting weather event would set the stage… or upset their stage.”

“Shall we do the usual?” Ann asked.

“I would love to do the usual,” Deb asked.

“Clarify?” Avery asked.

“A bit of the Abyss to go along with the storm.”

“They’re pretty Abyssal, with an expert in the field.  That could turn against us,” Avery said.

“Then Ruin instead.”

“What does that mean?” Jeremy asked, from the back.

“My daughter can explain, I hope.”

“They’re an overlapping realm, non-core, exists intermittently, across place and time, with other realms sometimes taking up the same function.  They’re best described as a filter and processing space confluent but not convergent with the Spirit World-” Ann’s daughter started saying.

“Echoes -ghosts, basically- and rain,” Verona cut her off.

“Ah,” Jeremy replied.  “Thanks.”

“The Carmine’s faction has Ruins stuff too,” Avery pointed out.  “The serpent worm thing?”

“They have almost everything,” Matthew replied.  “He made sure to cover the bases across the different realms when he was restricting passage, and we have to assume he’s got a lot of those same Others all playing guard now, or he got replacements.”

“He’ll have been working all night,” Nicolette said.

“Elemental storms appear all across the world alongside elemental disasters both natural and manmade, wherever there’s a sudden void in human presence,” Deb said, moving closer to the stone block Nicolette was using for her map.  “When they pass through an area, they tend to wreak havoc with local bindings and practice, tearing up things like this webwork of wards.  Storm Chasers like myself anticipate the Storms, get to them, and handle the immediate issues.  Things like the Beorgmann and worse get free when a Storm undoes bindings.”

“And we can manufacture a Storm to undo what they’ve got?”

“And upset the goblins and whatever that are in tents, break up glamour… okay, I think?” Lucy said.  She turned to others.  “Okay?”

“Doable,” Matthew said.  “I and a few others can manage in the middle of the Storm.”

“There is a great deal that can be done in the Storm,” Deb said.  “Many of the heavier-hitting practices welcome any cover against Innocence, as you yourself demonstrated, conjuring a dangling piece of construction material out of nowhere to put Mrs. Ferguson on the back foot.”

“That sounds almost like a compliment,” Avery said.

“Me deigning to be present is a compliment,” Deb said.  “Not at you in particular-”

“Now you’re spoiling it,” Avery muttered.

“But in general.  In any event, I think there’s a great deal we can do.”

There’s a great deal they can do too, though, Verona thought.

“Can we get Mrs. Scobie in on that?” Avery asked.

Deb looked at Nicole Scobie, fellow elementalist, owner of the Abyssal cow, frequent caretaker of the goat, and she did not hide her disdain.

“Please,” Avery said.

“Only because we have a dangerous greater power to unseat,” Deb said.

“Let’s assume the Storm clears the way, puts the enemy on the back foot,” Anthem said.  “From what I’ve seen, what I know, it’ll help, but it won’t be enough.  He has Lords, still.”

“We can work on that,” Lucy said.

“Of course.  Assuming we get past that… that only gets us to the door.  There are the Kims.  Strong practitioners, backed by whatever isn’t bothered by the Storm.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

“Do you have what it takes to hurt Charles?”

Avery glanced at Verona, with Lucy quickly following.

“I think so,” Verona said.  “But before I get to that, let’s talk about one issue.  One of the quote-unquote benefits of the Storm is that it clears Innocents out, right?”

“The location of this place puts it a few miles away from the nearest settlement,” Nicolette said.

“Can verify, I’ve got a map on my laptop,” Zed said.

“Better than me having to draw it,” Nicolette said.

“You can cover bases I can’t.  I can’t get satellite photos of their setup,” Zed told her, as he brought the laptop over to the stone block.

“Julette, my bag,” Verona said.

Julette became human, and she was sitting on McCauleigh, who groaned at the change in weight.

“I’m not that heavy, I’m made of sticks and twine and stuff.”

“Heavy enough,” McCauleigh grunted.

Verona turned to a page in her artbook.  She leaned forward to see what Zed had on his screen, and he turned the laptop to show her more clearly.

“What are you thinking?” Lucy asked.

“Can you show me the view from the street?” Verona asked.  “From the settlement, looking toward where these guys are set up?”

Zed obliged.

“Explain?” Lucy asked.  “Before we have to scatter to hold down the fort again, here?”

“We’re dealing with powerful practitioners that, all added up together, might give Durocher a run for her money, right?”

“Probably,” Zed said.

“Working on a similar ‘fuck everything’ scale.  The Storm does a lot of things we want it to, but it also lets them go all out.  Actually, instead of me doing this with my notebook, can I borrow your laptop?”



“Yes.  But be good.”

“Yeah,” Verona said.  She had to move carefully to not knock over Julette, Peckersnot, Alexanderp, or even McCauleigh, who was sitting up and leaning into her back.  She knelt in front of the laptop.  Screenshot the street-view, open Macroware Draw, ctrl-paste…

She used the spray tool to draw a bunch of squiggly arms, reaching up and out toward the clouds.

“Like… at least like this.  There was an image like this in my Horrific Coitus book…”

“Your what?” Caroline asked.

“Best not to ask,” Melissa commented.

“…or not like this, but like this in terms of scale.  So we know horrors can operate like this.  It’s like for Durocher, saying hey, you don’t have to have your primeval thing stay mostly burrowed with only a finger or tongue sticking out of the earth.  They can go full city-trampling kaiju.”

“This is a thing?” Brayden’s dad asked.

“Surprisingly often,” Melissa commented.

Because,” Verona pitched her voice to be heard.  “There’s a Storm in the way.  They can go that far, up to that scale, because there won’t be people in the next city over saying hey, what the fuck is that?”

She quickly chose the largest spray tool size and then obscured everything with a gray cloud.

“Storms are more impressive than that,” Deb said.

“Less than a minute again,” Clayton said.

“So what happens if we go… boop?” Verona asked.  She hit the keyboard combination to ‘undo’.  The cloud disappeared.

“We take responsibility for shattered Innocence,” Zed said.  “A line you’ve already violently crossed.”

“Free sharing of information, right?” Lucy asked him, tone wry.

“I… very much believe in that, but it’s complicated.”

“There’s a way,” Verona said.

“Time to move, get seated, hold down the fort,” Peter said, clapping his hands.  “Hurry!”

Verona took a few steps back and hopped up onto the block.

“A good way?” Lucy asked.

“A third, cat-walks-by-herself way,” Verona said.


Three teams.

They were lucky that the Garricks could open a door and take them to the outskirts of the settlement.  People filed out, going from warm early summer temperatures to brisk winter cold with snow moving in drifts, snow forming walls on either side of the road, taller than Verona.

They were about ten minutes of walking south of Charles’ new setup, and about fifteen minutes of walking north of town.  There was a place for trucks to pull over, carved out in snow, with a billboard style thing mounted with a plexiglass covered display saying something about the nearby lake, but it was so covered in condensation, frost, and snow that it was barely legible.  An outdoor toilet stood off to the side, with a path dug out to the door that was about the width of a snow shovel.  Their entry point from the Path to here.

Fuck, she’d known she’d sweated too much.  The cold cut right through her sweat-damp self, even with her sweater and coat back on.

She debated using alchemy.

Lucy and McCauleigh were talking plans, and both glanced Verona’s way.  Both reacted in the same instant, lunging for her.

Lucy grabbed the back of Verona’s collar and yanked, producing an ‘urk’ sound from Verona.  Lucy used Verona’s weight and momentum to balance out her own forward momentum, sticking out a foot.

A clawed hand with white flowers growing out of it reached out of the side of the snowbank.  Lucy kicked it aside while putting Verona out of the way.

McCauleigh, a step behind, kicked the elbow of the outstretched hand, so it bent the wrong way.

The thing moved, blurring as it did, becoming an indistinct, vaguely human shaped mess of greyish skin and white flecks that blended into darkness and snow.  It retreated, over snowbank, the damaged arm fixing itself as it blurred.

Anthem, emerging from the door and noticing the Other, threw a knife.

Pinning the Other to the first tree it got close to.  It didn’t look solid, but even so, the knife worked, glowing faintly in the gloom.

“Damn, you got to Verona before I did,” McCauleigh said.

“The important thing is she’s safe.”

“You can say that because you saved her.”

“It’s not a competition.”

“I could call that insulting.  You think you’re that superior to me, that I don’t even compete?”

“Maybe less bickering,” Avery called out.

“She’s messing around,” Verona clarified.

“I wasn’t one hundred percent sure,” Lucy replied.  “Okay.”

“Watch our backs?” Avery asked.

“I’m watching,” McCauleigh said, at the same time Lucy said, “I’m listening.”


“I think we’re okay for the moment, just stay towards the center of the road.”

People shifted position.

Anthem had to climb up the snowbank and trudge across snow to approach it.

“Solid spirit,” he called back.  “Halfway between spirit and animus.”

“Check it’s not a thinking, feeling living thing?” Lucy asked, standing on her tip-toes to look over the partially collapsed wall of plowed snow.

“Spirits like this rarely are.  That’s not me being a prejudiced practitioner either, I’m reasonably sure,” Anthem said, his voice getting quieter as he approached the tree.  “You don’t see as many of these as you used to.  They’re the appendages of simple gods…”

Verona fixed her collar, clearing her throat.  “Thank you.”

“No problem,” Lucy said.  “You going to be safe without me?”

“Going to try.  Goes for you too.”

“I could stick with you,” McCauleigh told Verona.  “Mix things up just a bit?  Avery’ll have Liberty.”

“It’s not the worst idea,” Verona admitted.  The part she didn’t say out loud was that she knew McCauleigh was feeling the recent loss as sharply as Verona was.  McCauleigh had kind of been crushing on Anselm, and he’d been vaporized.  Had found kinship with Mal, and Mal had been reduced to something less than a smear of blood.  Eaten to feed their enemy.

Each of the three of them had a role they were best at in the group.  So, sorting out the people they’d brought with, Verona was specializing in the back line support and problem solving.  Nicolette, Zed, Kass and Mr. Knox, Sebastian, Matthew, Tashlit, Daddy Driscoll… she waited for more to come through.

It would’ve been nice to have Monty and the Turtle Queen for this, but Monty was hurt and they felt it was better to have them back in Kennet, guarding things.  They’d done more than enough, apparently.

Avery would be going between the Aware and the front line, and brought those capable of moving as fast as that required.  It was a shorter list of practitioners, for sure.

“Gremlin wing steam–”

“Waitwaitwait!” goblins cried out.  “Not ready!”

Liberty paused.

Goblins scrambled, some diving into the side of a snowbank.  There were frantic cries and rummaging sounds.

Alpeana set up near Avery.  So did Theodora, the pocket-world collector they’d stolen from.  That felt weird.  Verona wondered if Theodora was even capable of moving that fast.

It looked like Avery maybe wanted to say something to Theodora, but her mom interrupted.

“So we go, we do what we can, and then we’ll keep going?” Avery’s mom asked.

“Call the Garricks if you can, get out of dodge.  We take our stab at this, then, ideally, I come to you,” Avery said.

“I hate that ‘ideally’.”

“I hate not being able to give you a white lie.  I- we’re with you.”

“Ready?” Liberty said, in the background.  “Gremlin wing steamjunk princess, transform!”

She threw a smoke pellet.  Goblins dived into the smoke.

“Cold, cold, cold… hurry!  Please tell me you guys brought the cute pilot jacket.”

The smoke cleared.  Liberty wore steampunk goggles with deep gouges and cracks in them, a metal corset, and a skirt paired with a pilot’s jacket with the furry collar, both pieces of clothing with gouges, and burn marks in them.

The main thing was the dangerous looking contraption attached to the metal corset.  A twisted hulk of what looked like a wrecked plane, one wing without panels, but with a pink, steam-scalded bat wing nailed to the inside, the other on fire.  A gremlin was on her back, hauling on a cord, producing chainsaw revving sounds as it tried to get the engine started.

“Almost had to use a second smoke pellet to buy time.  We should drill these more often,” Liberty said.

“You couldn’t do the bat wing bomber thing?” Avery asked.

“I could have, but we burned through a lot of my bomb and firecracker supply on New Years.  It’s not a very good bat winged bomber if there isn’t a trail of explosions below me while I’m cackling, is it?”

“Hey, Ribs?” Lucy called out.  “In five?”

Her hand moved.  Gesturing.

“Yep,” the Dog Tag replied.

“And Deb?  You-”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Seven o’clock.  Fire?  Or lighting, or-?”

“What are you even-?”

It was Nicole Scobie who stepped up behind Deb, turned to her seven o’clock position, and produced a blast of flame.

Ribs chose that same moment to do his own pivot, lowering his flamethrower, and emptied flaming oil over top of the snow.

Nicole wasn’t very strong, so she didn’t make much headway into the snow, but she did enough to catch a creature inside- hairless, vaguely ghoulish, but not a ghoul, eyes cataract-covered with bits of skin stretching over them, mouth much the same, vaguely slimy.

It turned to burrow into snow,

Deb whispered something, moving her hand.

All sound cut out.  There was a flash of lightning, emphasis on the flash, and the melty-skinned thing, halfway buried in snow, already on fire, was struck down.

Sound resumed, but Verona could only see stars, still.

“Holy shit,” George said.

“What was that silence effect?” Deb asked.

“Me,” Lucy said.  “I kind of guessed there’d be either an explosion or lightning.”

“If you’d timed that differently, you would have cut off my invocation.”

“I know.  But Nicole pretty much had it, good response, Nicole.  Thank you, Deb, for the insurance.  Good job, Ribs.”

“It’s subhuman,” Anthem said, trudging over snow toward the road, holding his knife.  He’d dispatched the Other.  “Emphasis on the sub, hyper-feral…”

“I really hate the term subhuman,” Lucy said.  “Oddfolk?”

“You can’t be serious,” Ann said, as she went to stand by Deb.

“Oddfolk, sure,” Anthem said.

“I suppose we can adjust terminology,” Deb said, arms folded.  “Good tactics, Ellingson.  Perhaps enunciate clearer when giving directions?”

The look on Lucy’s face made it clear she thought she’d enunciated clearly enough.

“It’s not dead, by the way,” Anthem said, as he hopped down beside the Other that lay in a pool of melted snow, spine visible with the damage the lightning strike had done to its lower back.

He pulled a loop of chain from his belt, metal clinking and splashing as it fell into the puddle beside the thing’s face.  It reacted, waking up, squealing, and lunged for him, best as it was able with its legs barely functioning.

He caught one claw with a loop of chain, fended off the other with a forearm, and then looped chain around the thing’s upper body, pinning arms against torso.

It squealed again, and lunged for his throat.  He pushed it down.

“That puddle was deeper than I thought,” he said, looking down.  “Socks got wet.”

“I’ve got spare socks, if you don’t mind them being mismatched and girly,” Liberty said.

People sorted themselves out.  As they came through, they were directed to one group or another.

“I hate this violence for you,” Jasmine told Lucy, as the two of them drew closer to Verona and Avery.  She kept her voice lowered.  “You did that too easily.”

“I know.”

“I hate that this has- that you’ve gone from being the girl I knew a year ago to-”

“I’m still her.”

“But you’ve been through enough to desensitize you to violence.  Or you went through something, was it one event?”

“Both.  One event I spent a while dealing with,” Lucy said.  “But also the numbing.”

“You’re talking about John.”

Lucy nodded.

Her mom put a hand at the side of her face.  Then reached out.  Verona was a half-step too far to be touched by the reaching hand, but… she stepped closer.  Jasmine rested a hand in her hair.

Avery had already said goodbye to her parents, who were mostly corralling the Aware now.

“I’m not mad at you,” Jasmine said.  “You know that, right?”

“It feels like you are, a bit.”

“I am, a bit.  But I’m upset at this situation.  I’m upset it came to this.  I had my heart set on the idea that you’d be free and clear of this violence after tonight, and I really wanted it to be true.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

Verona glanced at Toadswallow.

It would be best to not specify that it was the parents who’d wanted to make this one last fight.  For Lucy’s sake, and Avery’s, a bit.  They’d see it as a betrayal it wasn’t.

Avery had nearly died.  Lucy kept accumulating scratches and scars.  Verona hated that-

She rubbed at her palm, interrupted a bit when Jasmine pulled her into a hug against one side of her body, doing the same with Lucy on the other.

Jasmine’s arm moved, maybe making a hand gesture, and Avery joined in.

Verona hated that her friends were nearly dying and getting hurt.  Mal had died and it felt like a thing she hadn’t even wrapped her head fully around- maybe wouldn’t, until she returned to the House at Half street, and hours turned into days and her friend didn’t come tearing through to find cabinets to rummage in or crazy news to share.

Or Anselm- sitting down to do art or doing something and wanting to talk about it, having a void where an art friend had been.

It would be ten or a hundred times worse if it was Lucy or Avery.  Was that shitty to think?

If she was gainsaid, with no magic, alchemy, or items?  Standing where Jasmine was now?  Yeah, she’d be fighting to keep them from this.  She’d be looking and hoping for another route, that didn’t mean her friends had to go and be at that kind of risk.  Even if she knew that it was less efficient.  She was pretty sure Matthew, Toadswallow, and the others were on the same page on that, which would be why they were playing along with it.

But she did have alchemy and magic items and practice of her own, so…

“We’ll protect each other, best as we can.”

“You’re splitting up, though?” Jasmine asked, breaking the hug and stepping back so she could look Verona in the eyes.

“When we’re apart, we fight like hell to hold up our end,” Verona said.  “And that makes us stronger.  “When we’re together-”

Alexanderp jerked, lifting his head up, and shifting his weight.  Verona cut herself off.

“I think-” Avery interrupted.

“Yeah,” Verona said.  “Eyes are on us.”

“Augury said this was a safe spot they weren’t looking at much,” Nicolette said.

“Maybe those Others we dealt with were supposed to loop back and report in,” Lucy said.  “Mom?  Love you.”

“Love you too.  Please be safe.”

“You too.”

There was a pause.

Verona got her mask out.  “Knife?”

Lucy handed her one.

Verona scraped the knife across the eye.  One mark at a diagonal, one straight down.  Two marks in the section of the mask that was more Kennet Below flavored.

She pulled it on, and tied the ribbon.

Avery pulled hers on, and then put the floating antler above the stump.

Lucy’s still had a bloodstain on it, from the fight earlier.  She didn’t hide it from her mom.

They nodded at each other.

Then Lucy and Avery went separate directions.

Avery and Liberty ushered Jasmine to the rest of the Aware.  Zed passed Jeremy and Wallace some items for self defense.

Lucy got the group together for the more offensive front line.  Combat practitioners, combat Others.  The more aggressively-inclined goblins, minus the recent dead.

Deb, Nicole, and Nat Scobie hung back, staying with Verona.

“Get us started?” Verona asked.

“The field,” Deb said, indicating the field off to the side of the road.  “Melt the snow.”

“You’re not in charge.”

“I am an expert in Storms,” Deb said.

“Please make your collaboration a plus, not a negative!” Verona called out.

Lucy’s group headed toward the Carmine settlement.  Avery’s headed the opposite way.  Away from all this.  An assortment of goblins followed behind.

And Verona stayed put, lifting Julette up the snowbank, having Julette become human, and offer her a hand.

“I was telling Avery before the New Year, I’m not a lifter or a puller,” Julette complained, grunting.

“I carry your skinny ass around half the time, you sit in my hood-”

“I’m lighter.”

McCauleigh climbed the snow, then took over for Julette, lifting Verona up.

Zed mainly knocked out a section of the plowed wall of snow, until there was a loose ramp he could climb.  He had stuff he was carrying, which made it harder.  He helped Nicolette up.  Mr. Driscoll was long-limbed enough to manage the awkward climb up crumbling snow on his own.  Then there was Mr. Knox and Kass Knox, Fernanda and Raquel, and the Kierstaads, so that was interesting.  Verona had picked up a lot of the ex-Blue Heron students.

Toadswallow plunged into the side of the snow wall and burrowed up at an angle until he could emerge, covered in snow clumps.

Matthew and the two hosts who’d stuck around hung back, looking around.

The snow had come down wet and hard enough and things had gotten cold enough it was possible to walk on without sinking in.

Alexanderp looked around, flexing.  Verona pulled on one side of her collar, to move her hood closer to her shoulder.

“Corbin?” Verona asked.  “You do the subtlety dabblings.  Silent invocations, silent practices, practicing around Innocents…”

“A little of anything that allows a practitioner to pull off something tricky.”


“Some.  But if this is Seth or the Carmine…”

“It’ll be Seth and his apprentice, maybe some of the others knowing a bit.  Get something going?  And explain it to me later?  Maybe someone else can expand on what you set up.”

“Okay.  Melody helps?  Or do you need-”

“Go for it.”

He and his sister went to get set up.

Only two goblins had stayed with Verona.  Peckersnot and Toadswallow.  The more free-wheeling goblins had gone with Avery and Liberty.  The fighters had gone with Lucy.

“I’ll!  I’ll have you know, sorry to delay so long and then launch into something so tricky when it comes to timing and organization-” Alexanderp started talking.

“Yeah, you guys are wondering what we’re doing now, huh?” Verona asked.

“They’ll send Others after us,” Matthew said, from the road.

“They’ll want to interrupt this, even if they can’t piece together what we’re doing just yet,” Verona said.

“I can do a basic ward over the area,” Mr. Driscoll said.  “It’s not much, but-”

“I’ll help you in a minute!” Melody called out.

Corbin didn’t focus on one big magic or one practice, but in all the various ways a practice could be modified, or the various little practices that could be implemented, with the idea of stealthy practice in mind.  So he knew some invisibility stuff, some anti-augury, some sleight of hand, some subtle mental influence.

Melody’s tricks lay in another direction.  Making practice last longer, reinforcing stuff, the diacritic marks that could allow something to hold up when it might collapse.

On their own, the Kierstaads wouldn’t do any world changing magic, but if they could help someone else squeeze an extra five or ten percent efficiency out of a practice?  Whether that efficiency was making the practice last longer or go longer without being noticed?  That was the niche they tried to fill.

So if Mr. Driscoll could set up a shitty barrier, maybe Melody could make it hold up a bit more.


“I’m seeing what I can do for the other groups, remotely.  Your two Aware friends have devices.  If they need it, I can get some Others projected to them.  Then I’ve got to figure out how to back Brie and Lucy up.”

“Sounds good.”

And Nicolette was trying to stay on top of who was where.

Fire blazed as Deb the Storm Chaser began to work, melting snow with fire.

The Scobies joined in.

Verona kept to where snow was still solid, pacing around, looking.  She had the one vacuum bottle in her bag.  She could suck up a bit of the water.  But that wouldn’t be enough.

She knelt down, removed the jar of alchemical water vacuum, got out one of her eco-friendly water containers, and pried open a thing of watercolors.

She dropped the watercolor into the bottle, capped it, and passed it to Julette, who began shaking it.

Matthew had climbed over and was watching.  “What are you doing?”

“Prepping.  Hoping trouble’s not arriving.  Know anything about elemental voids?  Kind of ties into your ex-wife and Hollow practices, maybe?”

“Not so much.  Sorry.”


“I’ll watch for trouble?  Guessing it’s coming from the direction of their camp.”

“Guessing so,” Verona confirmed.  She’d opened her book to the pages she needed.  She accepted the bottle from Julette, who picked up the book and held it.

Verona began to pour out the water onto snow, coloring it.  Basic elementary diagram, triangles to direct flow in through the perimeter, insulating diagram with angles specified with Sagittarius runes, suggestion of a circle…

Inside that circle, she made things ’empty’, inverting intent, and drew a water rune not by painting the snow, but by leaving snow untouched by color in the shape of the water rune.  When that wasn’t perfect, she scooped up a fistful of snow and dropped some down to fix a line.

We turn this from a bottle that fills up into an ongoing suction, hold onto water, insulate the void… need to funnel it.

She walked in a crouch to the edge of what Deb and the Scobies were doing, drawing out a line, then drew out another in parallel, walking back.

“Hey, Nico?” Zed asked.


“Let me know before you make a call.”

Nicolette already had her phone out.  “I want to make a call, to Gillian and Chase.  Get their unique eyes on things.”

“Okay.  I can’t guarantee this will go perfectly.  It depends how the enemy responds.”

“I know.  But I think this is vital.”

“Okay.  Give me a minute to set up the security I can…”


Multiple people working on multiple things, with the tension that there could be trouble incoming.  Odds were good that Lucy’s group would draw attention from the mindless Others, but they weren’t perfect odds.

Corbin Kierstaad came running over.  It looked like he’d signaled Matthew.  He touched Verona’s arm.

It looked like Mr. Driscoll was on high alert, and he hadn’t finished the ward over the area.  Melody was with him.

Trouble was coming.

“Keep working.  Where are we on Storm setup?”

“Not even started,” Deb said.

“Okay,” Verona replied.  “You said it’d take five minutes.”

“I need to clear a work surface,” Deb groused.

“Going to draw out the water, if this works,” Verona told her.  “Careful?  I don’t want to dehydrate you.”

Deb nodded, but she didn’t do much to protect herself.

Verona put a spell card on the jar, then lobbed it, two-handed, over her diagram.

“Crack!” she called out.

The glass shattered.

The diagram lit up, responding to things, and the void appeared as a shimmer in the air, the snow in the air pulling toward it, as it shuddered and worked.

Water was pulled out of that space as snow melted from the agitation, into a bubble that surrounded the void.  And water was pulled in along the funnel-tube.

The crater of melted snow that Deb and the Scobies had been making began to empty of water, which flowed up the side of the crater, swirled as it flowed along the diagram, and then fed into the setup.  Flowing into the void, funneling out of void to fill the perimeter, forming that larger bubble.

The void was canceled out by having water in it, and Verona’s diagram work wasn’t perfect, so as water mingled with anti-water, the whole thing got weaker, but water could get pulled out by the diagram, which meant that a jar full of anti-water didn’t remove a jar’s worth of puddle from Deb and the Scobie’s feet and stop.

It just started out strong, which was good, and then got steadily weaker.

Maybe it’d go for a minute.  Drain out some of that water.

The bubble intensified around it, the insulating diagram holding water up and keeping the water from splashing down and erasing the paint, undoing the diagram.

“If that bubble pops, are we getting drenched?” McCauleigh asked.


“McCauleigh,” Raquel called out.

That trouble was close enough to be an immediate concern now.

Verona saw shapes in the woods.

It should mainly be the rank and file, Verona thought.

It wasn’t just the rank and file.  She saw static.

“Technomancy Lord!” she warned others.

The Others that were part of this contingent weren’t a mishmash like the ones by the road had been.  They were all technomancy.  Men and women with digitally blurred and otherwise obscured features, indistinct profiles, and digital glitches peeling off of them as they swung arms and legs forward, running.

A body fell from the sky, slamming into snow in a way that made it hard to believe their neck hadn’t snapped.

Where they’d hit snow, they exposed black wires in a thick tangle beneath a layer of snow a quarter of an inch deep.

A lot of the running footsteps did the same thing, the footprints behind them looking black, exposing more behind them.  Snow that was dry enough to be kicked up as a powder moved inconsistently, with static beneath it.

“Realms stuff!” Zed called out.  “Careful!  They’re going to try to move us onto their turf!”

The first Others reached the barrier Mr. Driscoll had put up.  They slammed into it, and the diagram work lit up.

“It’s not a complete barrier,” Mr. Driscoll said.

Melody reached out to put a piece of paper up against the barrier.  The drawing on the paper appeared around the paper, in the form of glowing lines.

It looked like a countdown, in some Kanji or other characters like that.  Every time something hit the barrier, the Kanji changed, with less lines in it than before.

Some others were circling around to the areas there wasn’t a diagram.

“Should we stop what we’re doing?” Mrs. Scobie asked.

“If you do, I’m betting we won’t get around to finishing that.  Do what you can,” Verona said.

They didn’t have many fighters here.  The idea had been to get things launched with the Storm, set up some defense, then be a relay point, and the people coming and going would be reinforcements as needed.

The timing was bad, here.  If this attack had come earlier, people wouldn’t have left yet.  If it had come later, the Storm would be live, or people would be on their way back north from Avery’s group.  Given there was an Augur on the other side, and that Nicolette had been working from the Paths, where things were a little messier for readings, that wasn’t surprising, that things were happening in this inconvenient way.

But it still wasn’t great.

Verona leaned on her elemental setup, using her watercolor water, drawing out some diagrams tied into the triangles, then putting down spell cards in the spaces.

Tashlit stood by as a bodyguard.

It was reassuring.  Tashlit had kind of pulled away a bit ago, but she was nice to have close by.

“You can handle being wet and cold, right Tash?” Verona asked.

Tashlit nodded.

She just preferred warmth.  Thus the sauna and everything.

Verona drew a line to connect the spell card and paint-on-snow diagram to the bubble of water.

A geyser of water erupted out, fueled by the bubble the diagram had created.

They were running on electricity, maybe even literally, and water didn’t play so nice.  The visual glitches got intense around points where the water splashed the technomancy people.  Some dropped like rocks after getting wet.

“Ground’s dry-ish, starting the diagram!” Scobie called out.

She wasn’t as good a practitioner as Deb, maybe by a long shot, but gods and spirits, Verona sure preferred someone who communicated and worked with the team better.

Tashlit caught one of the technomancy people in her arms, and swung them so their legs went out sideways, tossing them bodily into wet snow.  McCauleigh fought three.  Matthew and his shrine spirit hosts each fought one.

Others were filtering in through, and these were only the little guys.

The static, black wires, and the dull sound of a ringing phone were all sweeping in around them.

“Zed?” Verona asked, pulling her phone out of her pocket.

Zed looked up, and drew in a deep breath, nodding.

“I took classes with Ray,” Nicolette said.

“Yep,” Raquel said.  “I know little things.”

“It’s slow,” Zed said, turning to watch as the Other encompassed them.  It didn’t really try to push through the barrier, even though Melody’s security had stared to fail and entire sections of the barrier were being crashed through- the Others hurled themselves through the remaining Driscoll barrier like humans chucking themselves through glass windows.  They fell and stumbled, McCauleigh tried to jump and step on a few as they passed, but… no.

Verona dropped a fistful of snow on one part of the diagram, to shut off a useless geyser, then activated another.  A curved line of paint-water on snow helped direct the flow, aiming it for a cluster.

“Part of the reason it’s slow, I’m guessing,” Zed said, “is we’re far from civilization, power, tech.”

“Always makes technomancy harder,” Nicolette said.

“Part of the reason is it doesn’t need to be fast.”

The ringing of phones intensified.

It started out like a trick of the eyes, like Verona had been staring at one thing long enough her eyes were getting tired, but then kept getting more intense; the snow they were standing on began to turn into heapings of solid television static.

“Backing out!” Toadswallow barked.  He sounded far away.

The sky dissolved into darkness, lit by flashes of electricity running along wires.

“Our work surface is dry enough, at least,” Deb said.  “Do you want me to continue?”

“Yes,” Verona said.  “The others are counting on it.”

Verona clicked her phone on, then tapped on one of the apps.  The Typetap Kitty had come up to her and it had climbed into her phone, appearing as the app.

Countdown Cassandra had followed after.

Zed had managed others, because he’d had some security intended for protecting sensitive systems against the Turtle Queen.  Partially because he hadn’t known she was restraining herself, with the binding deal she’d made to Kennet.  So he’d taken some of the bound Others from Basil and Opal and tied them to those defenses.

Now he released them.

A woman, either dressed in white or very pale and naked- it was hard to tell, because she looked like she’d been painted into reality with a dry paintbrush and inconsistent varieties of white and off -white paints, mottled and patchy- slinked forward.  A semicolon appeared in the air around her, then was joined by another, and another, all mashing in together, until they formed a serpent-like shape.

With eyes like smudges of black paint, and a mouth similar to the same, she opened both eyes and mouth wide, and voiced a syllable not with the spoken word, but the written- characters appeared with each utterance, some obscure or non-English, and formed a fanged head for the semicolon snake.

A figure that looked like an unfinished 3D model of a person, too shiny and untextured for most of his body, had an overly detailed, hairless face with the kind of gaps that came with bad modeling- like skin was a helmet or mask more than, well, skin.  There were fleshy bits visible between the glossy, detail-less mask-skin and the eyes, or between yellow teeth and the ‘lips’, which were pulled back into a grin, but there was no real sign of the face being connected to meat, or meat being connected to eye or tooth.  He appeared in a crouch, body sleek and featureless except for the spine, no anatomy between the legs, and then rather than move, he grew, arm swelling, then settling down, back into its gaunt dimensions, just in a different position now.

Head and shoulders did the same thing, and when they deflated, his face had been thrust a few feet forward, head now tilted, smile wider.

“My computer just locked up because these guys scare it,” Zed said.  “So whatever help I was giving the others is now kinda fucked.  Rebooting.  For all the good it’s going to do.”

“Right, sorry,” Verona said.

“No, it’s the reality, right?”

A body fell out of the sky, crashing into the diagram that had been absorbing and channeling water.  Water splashed out in every direction.  Electricity flickered, and black wires pulled away.

That’s that for that whole setup, I guess.

Verona had Typetap Kitty, perched on her phone screen, eyes wide, body arched, doing that technomancy style glitching around the edges, here and there.

“Do your thing, then come back?” she told it.  “Focus on that thing.”

She pointed at the wreath of limp, earless, sometimes limbless bodies that were held up by black wires.

The Typetap Kitty arched its back, preparing to jump, lost courage, started to prepare again…

Verona gave it a bit of help, moving the phone in an underhand motion to help propel it.

It leaped to the back of the semicolon snake, and as it ran, the characters changed from semicolons to random letters and symbols.  Making the white girl who was making and building up the semicolon snake turn her head, looking as angry as someone with paint-smear eyes and mouth could.  The mouth yawned open wider, a trembling and jittering combination of characters forming in the center of that black-smear mouth

“No, ignore the cat, thank you,” Zed told her.

Typetap Kitty leaped from the tail of the snake to a junction box that was growing out of a tree.  Sparks flew, then flew down a tangle of black cables.

The sleek 3D man bulged and warped like he was being manipulated with an editing tool, and as he resolved, caught a pair of falling bodies out of the air.

He bulged, hand becoming a sleek, textureless, amorphous mass, and the two bodies were absorbed into him.  The rest of him rippled, accommodating the extra two hundred pounds of mass.

He was smiling with no sign of gums connecting yellow teeth to lips, when the grin was wide enough it looked like all the gums should be visible.

He didn’t move, remaining as still as a statue, but bulged, resolved.  Hands expanded into a mess of shifting, textureless white, meeting, and then pulled back, and what had been fingers were now serrated blades.  The white blob extended out from him to swallow one arm, head, neck, and shoulders, along with several of the lesser technomancy soldiers.  When that resolved, the technomancy Others were impaled on the serrated fingers.  Blood with technomancy glitches appearing across it ran down the Other’s knife-hands and arms to open slots in the arm that sat waiting and prepared for the blood trickles.  Drinking from them with a macabre grin as they thrashed, struggling, impaled on a statue.

Verona gave him a bit more space.

She nearly bumped into Tashlit and Countdown Cassandra.  The girl stood there with eyes closed.

“If we haven’t launched the Storm or handled this whole situation, can you blow things up?” she asked.  “Try to get our guys clear?”

Countdown Cassandra frowned, eyebrows drawing together.

“Might have to be more specific!” Zed called out.

“Fuck.  Um.  I know you need a time, but I wanted confirmation first,” Verona said.

A body slammed to the ground about ten feet to her left.  She jumped back.

“Clarify who’s protected,” Zed told her.

“Fuck.  That’s a lot.  Me, Tashlit, Peckersnot, Julette, Alexanderp, Zed, Nicolette…” Verona said, pointing.  “Raquel, Fernanda-”

“You named a pint-sized goblin before you named me?”


Another body hit ground.

The rain was intensifying.  Bodies falling from the sky, with a speed and intensity that could snap a neck if they landed on someone.  More falling every few seconds.

“Matthew, Toadswallow, Dorian, Lane, Corbin and Melody Kierstaad,” Verona said, pointing.  “Um-”

At every name, Countdown Cassandra gave a small nod of acknowledgement.

“If you’re timing this, we’ll be about two minutes!” Nicole Scobie called out.

“Don’t-” Zed shouted.  He looked.

So did Verona.

Countdown Cassandra’s eyes were open.  The digital readout across the surface of her eyes read 1:57 and was counting down the seconds.

“Now you’ve got to get it done a lot faster!” Zed shouted.

Nicolette shoved him, hard.

Just in time to stop Zed from being hit by a falling body.  The corpse or unconscious person hit the spot very near to where Zed had been standing.

Zed’s laptop crashed to the ground, landing amid the ‘melting’ television static that had once been snow.  He hurried to pull it free.

“Thank you,” Zed said.  He started to get up, and found black wires entangling one hand.  “I think?”

The sound of a jangling phone made Verona jump.  So loud it felt like it was in her head.

A transformer exploded into a shower of sparks.  Wires came loose, falling, and slapped ground.  Sparks collected and congealed into the form of a white cat with black eyes, who did a little tippy-toe dance.  The white electric glare of the cat’s body slowly faded to black again.

“Get over that way!” Nicolette called out.  The lenses of her glasses were opaque blue, like an error screen on a computer, showing the Sight she was using.  “Towards the cat!”

“It will electrocute you if you get too close this soon after it’s eaten!” Verona warned.

“Then don’t get too close, but get close!” Nicolette told people.

The various members of their group who weren’t good at fighting headed over that way.

Bodies thudded, landing hard.

Some were picking themselves up, moving like marionettes, wreathed in black wires that moved like snakes ready to strike.

The ringing in Verona’s ear got louder – far louder in her right than her left.  Julette nudged the side of her face.

She pressed a hand to her ear, doubling over in pain.  Her left hand throbbed-

She felt completely disabled.

Julette leaped off.  “What’s wrong?”

“You can’t hear that?”

“Verona!  Get the hell over here!” Nicolette called out.  “The digital cat thing made it so the rain’s less bad on this end!  You’re could get a body dropped on you!”

“It’s changing the terrain!” Zed called out.  “Not that far from you!”

Julette hauled on Verona’s arm, and Verona let herself be guided.

She made it about two steps before tripping on wires.  Only the fact that Julette was holding onto her arms kept her from falling face-down into black wires dusted in blood spatter from the fallen bodies.

No, not tripping.  The wires were pulling at her leg, but…

She pulled, moving her leg against taut wires, trying to see past pants leg to figure out how they’d gotten her, and Julette bent down, hiking up her jeans to the knee.

Two black wires extended out of the ground, threading up into Verona’s ankle and calf.  They’d gone into and under skin, and there were bulges showing where they’d snaked in and just beneath skin, and were creeping their way up the outside of her leg.

“Uh, no!” Verona called out.  Her hands -mostly one hand, because one wasn’t working so well- grabbed at the wires, trying to pull them out.  She managed to pull them free, slick with blood, but they were growing at about the same rate she was getting them out from under her skin.  “Nope, stop.”

“You need to get to cover!” Nicolette called out.

Tashlit bent down, trying to help, but her hands weren’t good for this.  The skin was too loose, and the hands that weren’t skin were eyeballs, and while less mushy, they were more slick than anything.

Julette stood straight, pulled up her sweater, reached into her ribcage at an angle, with a sound like dry twigs rubbing together, and pulled out a knife.

Tashlit, meanwhile, stood, and picked Verona up as much as she could, so Verona wasn’t sitting on more black wires.  She shielded Verona and Julette from anything falling from above with her body, leaning toward a wall.

She bent back down again and began to cut the thinner of the two wires.

Verona fought with the black wires.  The more she pulled them out, the more blood there was on them.  This place was dark, with minimal lighting, and the wires were black, and her blood was dark, so it was hard to tell, but they were really slick with blood, which made it harder- and her initial efforts to coil the wires saw them constrict, prehensile, trying to bind her hands.  Only the slickness of the blood and the narrowness of her hands and wrists really saved her, allowing her to slip free.

Peckersnot had climbed down and was standing on the wire, clawed toes digging into it, little hands pressing against her leg near the entry point, his whole body flexing to try to add a bit more strength to the efforts in getting it out.

Julette managed to cut the wire enough that she got past insulation and to the actual wire.  There was a visible flash, an arc of electricity, and Julette fell back, the knife flying from her hand.

“Fuck!  Ow!”

“You’ve got one in your leg at the knee, Julette,” McCauleigh warned, as she came over, one eye on the sky.

“Right, that’s fine I guess,” Julette said.  Knifeless, she began helping Verona tug the wires out.  “Just so long as it doesn’t reach my fetch programming, I figure.”

“Would be great if it didn’t,” Verona groaned out the words, suppressing the growing panic.

“Do me a favor and don’t get any more wires in you?” Julette told Verona.  “This is already more than enough.”

“And there’s a box sticking out of the wall, looking like it wants to drop on us,” McCauleigh said.  “So we need to get moving sooner than later.”

Verona looked up, past Tashlit, to the wall above them.  Blood dripped from overhead, dribbling onto Tashlit’s head, shoulders, and back, running down Tashlit’s hair, dotting Verona’s face.

She could see an arm sticking out, moving as the metal beneath it slowly changed angle..

Not a box, but a chute.  It was opening at a glacial speed, but as two bodies fell from some point high overhead, they hit the lip.  The lip was serving as a bit of cover to protect them from any immediate drops from above, but it opened wider with each impact, and opened faster as the hits helped it get the rust out.

Possibly with a whole pile of bodies ready to dump over their heads, from a hundred feet up.

A wire moved, nudging at Verona’s back.  She let go of what she was doing and grabbed at it.  Her hands were too slick with fluids to stop it from flowing between them.

A cramp jumped from her hand up her arm as she tried to make an uncooperative hand squeeze tighter, to find traction.  She tried to steer it away, her arms extended as far as they could, elbows locked.

It curved, snaking into her belly button, and pushed its way in past flesh with no resistance.

The sound of a phone ringing in her ears doubled in volume as it made the connection.

“Kitty!  Typetap Kitty!” Verona called, no doubt with an unhinged note in her voice.  She could barely hear her own voice over the ringing.

The more bodies that fell, the more wires came dislodged.  Parts of the surroundings came loose, going from something that had been tightly packed to things like- like the chute overhead.  The more wires that were dislodged, the more prehensile limbs this place had to grab at them.

Machinery that had been in encasements was being exposed.

And the ringing-

The ringing made it impossible to think straight.

Verona screamed, to try to drown it out.

McCauleigh axed one wire, and used a foot to kick the stump away.  Julette pulled the remains of the wire sticking out of Verona’s leg out.

Making the sound easier to handle, but…

“Kitty!” Verona scream-shouted.

The Typetap Kitty moved closer.

“Such a good kitty, do us a favor and cut the power here?” Julette asked.

It did a little tippytap dance, turned around, showing its asterisk of a butthole.

“Come on!”

More wires were snaking closer.

McCauleigh axed one.  Verona hurried to pull away, free to use her legs again.  If she ran backwards, moving in the opposite direction of the bellybutton one.

She hoped it wouldn’t bring out any of her guts it was gripping as she pulled it out.

The Kitty pranced closer, and jumped into an outlet.

All the lights nearby went out, casting them into a patch of darkness.  The wires stopped moving.

“Get Alexanderp!” McCauleigh warned Verona.

She turned and looked.  The little homunculus had a wire sticking into the top of his head.  He was smirking smugly, a ‘just as I planned’ expression on his face.  He had not planned this.

Verona pulled the wire out of his skull, then stumbled back, helped by Julette.  McCauleigh had two wires in the side of one leg that had been closest to the ground, and Verona stepped on them while moving, to help increase the resistance, helping them to pull free.

Julette had some too.  They were too limp for McCauleigh to hatchet, and when they tried to pull Julette away, she stopped short, thoroughly entangled or ensnared inside the architecture of her leg.

The chute above them groaned, then banged, having come out enough the metal could swing down and slap against the wires and metal beneath it.  Blood or other black fluids came down in a thin waterfall.  Bodies were coming out, but formed a logjam at the exit.  Bulging-

No time.  Verona’s eyes communicated that much as they widened.

So McCauleigh raised the hatchet, got a nod from Julette, and then swung at Julette’s leg.  Meat was severed, cloth torn, then meat snapped dry, breaking like twigs.  The damage to the glamour ran all up and down Julette’s body, and she went a bit limp.

And it hadn’t been a full, clean severance.  Tashlit ended up being the one to reach down, pulling Julette’s leg apart.

They pulled away- Verona with the wire still reeling out of her bellybutton as she backed out, supported by Tashlit.

“Back!” Nicolette shouted.

McCauleigh reacted faster than Verona did, reversing direction, shoving Verona and Julette back.  Tashlit shielded them.

A pair of bodies slapped down where they’d been about to run.

“Come!  Fast!”

The wire at her stomach pulled taut again as Verona resumed running, making her entire midsection hurt, her body twisting mid-stride, corrected only by McCaueligh’s hand.  There ended up being a solid six feet worth of wire that came out of Verona before it finally came free.  No guts pulled out of her bellybutton with the last of it, thankfully.

They got away with seconds to spare.  As they reached Nicolette’s marked out sanctuary, the first body slapped down, more slick with fluids than the normal ones coming from the sky.  Then the rest came all at once.  A hundred bodies slopping down, all limp, wet, and naked, ears cut off, eyes showing only static.

They were slick enough that they flowed like thick fluid, piling up, then puddling out.

Deb and the Scobies were in the crater that they’d made- that had been snow but was now black wire all around them.  Burned black wire- they’d cauterized it so the wires wouldn’t grab at them.  The white, smooth 3D man was crouched over the hole, his body shielding them from everything coming from above.

“You’re lucky to have me,” Deb said.

She met Verona’s eyes with a hint of smugness in her expression.

Verona met Deb’s eyes with wide-eyed alarm, recent trauma, and zero tolerance for smugness in her expression.

“I prepared this in response to Ferguson’s antics in Thunder Bay, months ago.  I intended it as a counter-storm.  All I need to do is signal it, bid it to come… push past the resistance from the local Lord the Carmine put in place…”

“Now?” Verona asked.  She eyed the puddle.  If that puddle of bodies started slopping down into the depression…

And Countdown Cassandra was in the double-digits of seconds.  Maybe twenty or thirty, Verona couldn’t read that well at this distance with moisture and blood in her eyes.

“Only if you’ll excuse me for this being rougher than my usual work.”


“Yes!  Excused!” Zed told Deb.

Deb motioned for Scobie to back off, looking irritated at her presence, held up a hand, and snapped her fingers.

There was a spark, like she’d flicked a lighter.  The spark hung in the air, then redoubled, sparking off more of its own.

“This would be-” Deb checked the sky was clear.  She climbed out of the depression, taking Zed’s hand.  “-the time I’d normally tell you all we should get far from the epicenter, but we seem to be in a closed space.”

“Got anything, Zed?” Corbin asked.

“Give me a bit.”

A half-dozen bodies were falling every second.

The spark had become a cluster of arcing lightning, and the diagram below it illuminated, causing it to rotate.  As it did, it flattened out.  Lightning struck from the cluster to the ground.  It hit the 3D man, who was still protecting the depression, and he didn’t seem to care.

Verona pulled back, her shoulder touched the wall, and she felt the ringing sound return to her ears.  She jerked back and away from the wall, turning.

The damage the Typetap Kitty had been doing was healing. Wires were stirring.  She’d let them plug into her when she’d grazed them.  Wires that passed into flesh as easily as she could put her finger into water.  No pain, only minimal blood, faint physical discomfort of skin stretching and flesh being displaced, and the audio cue of the phone ringing to go by.

“Check yourselves,” she said, touching people’s backs, moving them away from the wall.

Zed had one at his lower back.

The mini-Storm kept intensifying, growing.

“What’s your power source?” Mrs. Scobie asked.

“The nuggets of elemental power I’ve found Storm diving.  Set up around the bigger diagram I have at my place.  I tried to get it to draw from this place, but… hopefully that will gain more traction as it gets up to speed.  You need a lot more years before you can hope to catch up to me.”

“I don’t think it’s that important,” Raquel said.

“If you aren’t thinking about power and where you stand at all times, where are you going to end up?” Mr. Knox asked.

He and his daughter hadn’t been much help, but Verona sort of figured that if there was a case where they had a magic item on hand that could help, maybe they would.  They were collectors, like the Mussers collected implements and familiars, but it was more minor stuff.

Not the sort of thing where Verona could give them a task and expect them to follow through.

Verona glanced from Countdown Cassandra to the Storm.

This was the point she had to decide.  Did they want to blow all of this up, blowing some of their people up with it, and maybe come out okay, or trust the Storm would do its work?

“Countdown Cassandra?”

The Other was in the single digits, counting down from seven in one eye.

“Call it off.”

Countdown Cassandra closed her eyes, stepping back into darkness.  Then she faded out of existence.

The storm had moisture around it now, and the moisture was doing a lot to help carry the arcs of lightning around to walls and wires.

Bodies rained down from overhead, and it felt more deliberate now.  A few wires caught bodies out of the air and flung them-

Matthew, apparently with Enginehead inside him, caught one that was thrown at their group from overhead, and he tossed it aside, then resumed a ready position, ready to protect them from the next.

Others were falling around the storm diagram.  Trying to knock over the 3D man who was shielding the diagram on the floor with his body, or to get past his arms and legs to the depression, to smudge something or interrupt the connection.

A surprising amount of abuse was being directed at the semicolon girl in white.  Three out of five of the thrown bodies were tossed her way.  She was crouched, and her semicolon snake was flowing into the ground.  Two bodies hit the tail of the snake and were stopped as if they’d hit reinforced iron bars.  One slipped past, hit her, and smashed her to pieces, where each piece was made of mottled brushstrokes.

She pulled herself back together, crouched, not even protecting herself against more abuse.

Wires that had been black and slick with fluids were turning white and maybe even dying.

Alone, would she have succeeded?  No.  But she was irritating and draining it now, and they were counting things by advantages they could measure in seconds.  Disadvantages by the same.  The Storm swelled, the wires were bleached, their friends were getting to better positions.  But at the same time, bodies fell, the wires snaked toward them, the entire areas was becoming more mobile and hostile…

Deb stood between them and the worst of the Storm’s energies, and she seemed to be a living ward against the elements.

Lightning struck a transformer box.  The effect was far more dramatic than it had been for the Typetap Kitty, and that stroke of lightning didn’t cease, didn’t stop, didn’t strike and disappear.  It remained as a blinding conduit between Storm and this place.

“That’ll do,” Zed said.  “I’m not strong enough on my own, but if it’s weaker…”

He opened his laptop, which had one broken hinge that required him to use one hand to hold up the lid and screen, and he selected what looked like a text file.

But the text file popped up and it was filled with ASCII characters forming a magic circle- or a diamond, rather.  Lines of running text ran in bands, diagonally, from the sides of the diamond to the edges of the screen.  The letters flashed, the screen went dark, and only the letters remained on the black screen, pulsing faintly.

“What’s the program?” Nicolette asked.

“Gives us a tunnel every sixteen seconds, will punch holes through this thing until it’s like swiss cheese.  Problem is, this place is more tall than it is wide.  So there’s a chance any doors that appear will be too high to reach.”

“Will swiss-cheesing it kill it?” Melody asked.

“Ha!  No.  Keep an eye out for the doors to the hallways.”

The Storm continued to intensify.  The power was cut to their area again, which meant they could back up another short distance, backs to the wall, without wires snaking into them.

There was a fritzing sound, and the fritz became a dull, distorted ringing.

Verona had to check there weren’t any fresh wires plugging into her.

The fritzing was a stuttering flashing of lights, not from the Storm -though someone could be excused for making that mistake- but from the broken tech surrounded by pooled, wet bodies.

I’m going to flash back to all of this the next time I hear an old phone ring in a movie, Verona thought.

The Storm kept getting worse, bright enough on its own that Verona saw spots, but there were also flashes of what the Other was doing, and in the afterimages of those flashes, she could see silhouettes.

“Bringing in help,” Zed said.  “And… I think I can deal with that…”

He opened the laptop, nearly broke the remaining hinge with the speed he’d flicked it up, and Nicolette steadied the screen.  “Thank you.”

“Of course.”

“Scrambling.  The weaker we get it, the more of a foothold I can get here, but I don’t think I can stop the Dropped Call on my own.  For right now…”

Code ran on his screen.

“There’s a pattern to what it wants to do.  If we get out ahead, predict it…”

Each flash on the far side of the area, with silhouettes appearing in the flashes, it came up on the screen as a bright white rectangle.  Almost like morse code, rectangle, rectangle, blank space, rectangle, but then it became quarter-rectangles, shapes, spaces…

Lines of code ran and processed below that.

And Zed’s program recorded the flashes, then posited one- a geometry-heavy magic circle flashed on the screen.  Guessing the next input- fail.  It showed a screen-wide error for a half-second, then resumed, following along for two more flashes.

Screen-wide magic circle.

And it guessed right.

Electronics on the far wall flashed, exploded, and spat out sparks and smoke.

It looked like a laser had carved out the magic circle that had been on the screen, burning it into the wall as a ten-foot-by-ten-foot image.

“Now he has to start over.  Balance how much he wants to slow down and encrypt the pattern against how willing he is to get out-predicted and-”

A black wire reached up from beneath them, smashing into the underside of the laptop.  Not breaking anything, but getting close.

Zed raised the laptop over his head to put it out of reach.

“If you hold that up like that you’re going to get struck by lightning,” Deb warned.

“Well let’s-”

“Door!” Raquel told them.

It was hidden behind a curtain of black wires.  But they could run- checking there was nothing coming down from overhead.  Matthew and Lane floated up, ready to intercept.  The Storm flashed, hitting another wall, making it spark and shut down.

From all of that into a concrete corridor.

And, rounding a bend, with no space to transition from corridor to outside, producing a feeling like missing a stair, they were back in the snow.

The Technomancy Lord was there, so big he extended from ground to sky, darkness, white static, black wires, and a rain of bodies.  But he pulled away, letting altered space return to being normal.  Pulled back and away from the crackling Storm, with its pouring water and lightning strikes, extricating itself like Verona had extricated herself from the black wires- slowly, painfully, with lightning or electricity holding onto parts of it, forcing it to leave chunks behind.

The Storm, freed of its confines, began to swell, rising up, kicking up snow.

The Other retreated, but as it did, it left Technomancy Others behind it.  The blurry figures with obscured faces, and traces of the flicker-people it had been trying to conjure up- like dark afterimages from seeing a bright light, but too consistent, standing in the woods.

Blocking their way from following after.

Not that Verona figured they were in great shape to go chasing the Lord down to follow things up.

“It’s hurt, it won’t be too much hassle for others?”

“Yeah, hoping so,” Zed said.

“I can do a reading… but first?” Nicolette asked.

The Storm was growing.  Lightning struck and produced no thunder.  It came with heavy rain, drenching things.

Verona flipped up her hood.  Julette, dressed in a white cat mask with a white coat to contrast Verona’s, with one leg missing, sat in the snow and did the same, moving her hood to match.

“Let’s get clear of the rain,” Nicolette said.

“I’ve got glamour and twine in my bag for your leg,” Verona told Julette.

Tashlit touched her shoulder.

Verona checked the damage- it was mostly to skin, with holes about a half-inch across, but the muscle and her stomach felt a bit bruised, just from being pushed around and abused.

“I can manage, I think.  Might need stitches.”

Tashlit nodded, and clapped a hand on Verona’s shoulder.  She turned, looking.

“My daughter had a chunk taken out of her,” Mr. Knox said.

Verona wasn’t sure Kass had had it that much worse than she did, but… they were allies.  Whatever.  Hopefully Tashlit would have enough child-of-something-divine juice in her to heal more people if it came down to it.

The rain continued to get worse.  Freezing.  Verona lowered her head, to benefit more from the hood.

She could see Hollow Yen over by the trees.  She gave him a nod.

Got a nod back.

“Where’s Toadswallow?” Verona asked, looking around.  She turned toward Hollow Yen, calling out to him, “Toadswallow!?”

He pointed.

The road?

Verona glanced up at the growing Storm, and was rewarded with cold rain in her face and at her neck and collar, running down to armpit, with the way she was standing.  She turned to go, limping slightly.

“Ann will be ready when the storm comes her way,” Deb said.  “Adding echoes to it.”

“Good,” Verona said, a bit curt, not feeling one hundred percent up to managing people.

But they had roles to play.

She recognized the truck.  Verona reached the kind of ‘ramp’ that had been made when Matthew had climbed up, and slid down.  Her calf throbbed.

The door was open, two of the car’s inhabitants standing by it, with Toadswallow sitting with his back to a tree, staying out of their sight while presumably engaging with them.

Clementine, and a member of Sargeant Hall that Verona didn’t recognize.  It didn’t look like Clementine’s romantic partner.  Just some guy, horseshoe bald, with thick eyebrows and thick lips, adding up to a bit of a weird expression.

“Verona,” Clementine said.

“Hey,” Verona said.

“Here to help.  Somehow?”

“And I’m here to be your relay point.  Get you stopped, set up, and sent the right direction.”

“The weather’s weird.”

Verona nodded.  “Yeah.  It is.  You good to chat outside the vehicle for right now?”

“I think.  I’m okay to help, but I don’t know exactly what it is I’m doing.”

“Your timing’s great.  A bad weather event is about to hit a new settlement to our north.  We’ve already got a bunch of people ready to reach out to authorities in the town, they’re going to go investigate after, in a very similar way to how you, Sharon, and Daniel investigated Kennet.”

“Hm,” Clementine grunted, frowning a bit.  She squinted a bit as the wind blew freezing rain into her face.  “Am I part of that?”

“If you’re willing.  There might be danger, but we’d do our best to protect you.  Hell, we’ve got family and friends there, so… you’d better believe we’re invested in protecting you all.  In the meantime, while you’re deciding how involved you want to be?  Meet…”

Verona checked he was there.

“Mr. Knox.  He’s actually a one-time friend of Lawrence.”

“Is that a good thing?” Clementine asked.

“Good question.  I don’t know.  But he knows stuff, and one thing I think he knows pretty darn well…” Verona trailed off for a moment, checking again.  Taking a dramatic moment to fluff the man’s ego.  “…is objects like you tend to find and carry around.”

“Ahh,” Clementine said.  “Am I selling?”

“Maybe.  I don’t know.  But if you’re carrying?”

“I am.”

“I’m suspicious a man of his talents can help you figure out exactly what those things you’re carrying are.  Or Nicolette here can, maybe, if he’s not up to it.”

“I think I’m a touch better than our good augur,” Mr. Knox said, “no offense intended.”

“No,” Nicolette said.  “None taken, really.”

Let them get cocky with the storm in play, then crash the town with a very confusing mix of Innocents and Aware.  Force them to adjust, pull back.  And because it’s the Aware who sent Innocents in, we’re insulated from responsibility.

Just got to hope the others have their bases covered, hope Lucy can force them to overextend, and keep our guys safe.

“I don’t suppose you have your room-shuffling puzzle bracelet with?” she asked Clementine.

Clementine hesitated, then raised a hand, pulling back her sleeve to show the bracelet with the thick, interlocking wooden pieces.

Mr. Knox looked interested as he saw it.

Clementine was willing to show it, but she did add a very guarded, “Why?”

“Because the guys we’re dealing with have a weirdly folded puzzle house, kind of, and I’m curious how they’d work together,” Verona said.

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Finish Off – 24.2



Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Snowdrop felt a faint shiver.  Avery felt it through the familiar bond.

With Sight, she looked and found a connection absent.  Snowdrop’s hair had been used to make Percival the second, just like the first.  Verona, Avery, and Lucy had contributed different things to Percival’s creation.  They had paid enough attention to that connection that it had become a stronger thing.

That connection was absent, now, because doors were closed, things were sealed.  Charles was either locked into a discussion, or he’d destroyed Percival and they had to make this move now anyway.

“Connection to Percival is gone,” she murmured.  “Bit earlier than I expected.  Nicolette!?”

Avery waved.  Nicolette, who stood halfway down the room, talking to Brie, came over.

“What’s up?”

“I think they started?”

Nicolette laid down some cards.  Then, using a separate deck, she laid down a map of the region and some more cards.

“Yeah.  They started.  Some people are on their way.  Mussers, Braxton Hart, Winters.”

Verona nodded.  “Where’s McCauleigh?”

“Backed off when Grayson showed,” Nicolette said.  “Sitting outside with a few others on guard duty.”

“I guess that’s fair,” Verona said.

“We should start before those others are here,” Lucy murmured.  “You wanted to go first, right?”

“Yeah,” Avery murmured.  She frowned, glancing at Verona.  Verona, lips pressed together, gave her a quick little nod.

“Is there anyone we’re missing?  That would be helpful?” Lucy asked.

“Let me read,” Nicolette said.  She started moving cards around, laying them in rows and columns-

Avery felt a pang from Snowdrop, and responded by rubbing Snowdrop’s head.  Snowdrop, in human form, sent a note of appreciation, then walked over to the windows.

Avery looked across the room.  She wondered if the meeting room Charles was in was similar to this one.  Sootsleeves’ castle stood over the Blue Heron, with seats of all sizes around the edges of the room, many occupied by key people, and many ‘seats’ that weren’t ordinary chairs, like a giant chess piece being used as a stool, or a large music box placed on a stack of other boxes, lid open, the dancing figurine broken and lying in ruins around the rotating center pedestal, with Biscuit, Tatty, Peckersnot, and Doglick sitting on the pedestal.  Doglick perked up every time he saw friends, and then drooped as the rotating pedestal moved him so he faced the back, head tilting as he looked into the mirror on the underside of the lid, then perking up again after.

Aware, their families, Sootsleeves’ pigeons and rats, urchins, goblins, Dog Tags… all there, standing or sitting, at the edges.

Nicolette had come through, and was their liaison to the Belangers, who were set up elsewhere in Sootsleeves’ hold.  Zed had come, and was at the far corner of the room, talking to others on the phone.  Brie stood by the fireplace, jacket laid over the back of a chair, fresh tattoos running down her arms and up her neck.

There were Garricks here too, for which Avery was immensely grateful.  They came in groups, passing through, dropping off anyone who didn’t have other ways to travel.  Peter Garrick remained behind with Cliff.  Avery’s parents went between them and some of the more curious new Aware, who listened in.

The floor was a patchwork of mismatched tiles; there would be one section which was mostly consistent, with three or four outliers, and by the time you got a little further on, the outliers would be the new norm and the seeds would be planted for others.  The ceiling was high and arched, the fireplace was crammed in there, with a slightly crooked chimney, and a table extended along three quarters of the room, the head of the table framed by windows.

But at the center were tables.  It was arranged as a conference room.  The orange from the fire and the yellow-white of the early morning sun coming through the dusty window reflected onto the mess of mismatched picture frames, at least a hundred, on the wall opposite the fireplace.  It caught the light and made the glass reflect white instead of showing the odd and mismatched pictures.

Florin sat in one chair, took offered tea with a quiet thank-you from a little girl in a makeshift maid costume, then accepted milk from a stack of rodents in decreasing size, sitting on one another’s shoulders, with the smallest holding a little pitcher.  Florin let them pour, finger placed at the base of the pitcher to keep it from falling into his tea as the stack tipped forward, then helped right them.  A ‘coo’ came from above and he held up a finger.

The sugar cube dropped from the rafters.  He blocked the splash with one cupped hand and a napkin.

Thunder Bay had come promptly.  The Lord of Thunder Bay didn’t come, but that was expected.  Deb, Ann, Odis, Nicole, the Childs, the apprentice Gleaner Dav, Sourav Evans, two Whitts, Theodora, and their contract guy Sebastian were here.

Estrella had suggested she might come, but hadn’t turned up.  Jessica had turned them down.  Andrea Fulton, a lesser heroic practitioner who’d helped them when Musser had invaded, had come with her daughter.  Graubard had showed with three daughters- including one of the ones from the invasion.  Elizabeth Driscoll’s father was present, but not Elizabeth, which Avery figured was a bummer for Nicolette, at least.  The Kierstaads and Knoxes were here, which was a win in Avery’s book, when the Kierstaads had been so conflict avoidant during the Alexander-Bristow thing and the Knoxes were pretty conflict avoidant.

And there were combat practitioners from the sword moot.  Grayson Hennigar had already showed up.  The Mussers hadn’t, though Raquel was here.  The Legendres said they were coming if only to learn what they needed to do about local bindings they were maintaining, but hadn’t turned up.  There was a list of other names, key ones, who hadn’t come.

Mixed feelings there.  Some great people and some awful ones.

“Hmmm.  Not sure,” Nicolette murmured.  “I think you lose more by waiting.”

“The sooner the better, I figure,” Lucy said.  “We hit the start time.  If they haven’t arrived already, then waiting lends them power.”

The ones present were, Avery figured, the hungriest and the most wary.  Maybe that was why they were supposed to start here.

Avery nodded.  She circled around, to where Snowdrop stood by the window, looking outside.  Snowdrop had to press her cheek into glass to see at the right angle, but there was a view of the graves.  Sootsleeves’ people had handled that overnight.  Only half were buried.  Others had been placed in boxes that were slapped together for easier transportation- there was enough wood from the ruined Blue Heron to use.

Three tall, narrow windows, in three different states.  Lucy took the chair backed by dusty glass, the morning sun directly behind her.  Avery and Snowdrop sat so the rest of the table would see them backed by a window with newspaper over it.  A hundred piercing dots of light made it through the gaps of the newspaper, that was warmed to a dull orange by sun.  Verona’s window had been painted over, black paint faded to a purple-black or blue-black.  Verona had used her hand to wipe a circular spot out of the peeling paint to look out of, and as she sat, it was just over her head and the back of her chair, a circle lit not with direct sunlight, but with sunlight bouncing off the nearby brickwork.

Snowdrop became human long enough to reach across the table and pull a tray of homemade cookies, grapes, crackers and cheeses closer.  She brought about five things with her as she became an opossum, curled up in Avery’s lap, with foodstuff between Avery’s stomach and Snowdrop’s body, little opossum jaws working and making an awful mess as she ate breakfast.

Resupplied Self, after a loss.

Florin noticed them settling in and shifted position, sitting back instead of forward, holding his tea in front of himself.  Others noticed.

Lucy put a spell card on the table, then tapped her cup with a spoon.

The ringing sound filled the air.  All conversation ceased.

“I’m tempted to call this a charade,” Ann said, “and the theatricality isn’t helping that.”

Ann’s daughter was in attendance, standing against the wall behind her mother’s seat.  Ann had disapproved of the young girl taking a turnover from an offered plate, but after the girl had settled in behind her mother, some of the urchins and rats had taken to putting bowls and things on surfaces near her.  A little receptacle for umbrellas or canes with various curved handles sticking up out of the end now had a bowl perched between the handles, loaded with treats.  Within arm’s reach.

“It’s not a charade,” Lucy said.  “I’d argue this is more serious than any business we’ve put forward.  I’d ask that you please not interrupt.  We’ve called this meeting to order, we’ve offered bread and water, among other things- thank you for facilitating, Sootsleeves, and we’ve taken pains to bring you here…”

“Thank you, Garricks,” Avery added in.

“You’re paying,” Peter said, shrugging.  “No complaints.”

They weren’t paying much, but yeah.  She appreciated him saying that in that way, since it lent them legitimacy, and that was apparently Lucy’s angle.

“…By the rules of hospitality, we’ve hosted, there are certain rights afforded to that.  Please allow us to open this,” Lucy said.

After Mr. Hall, Musser’s lawyer guy, had sort of trounced them on that front during the meeting with Musser, Graubard, and Durocher, Lucy had apparently read up on that stuff.

“That’s how you want to do this?”

“It is.”

“It’s customary,” Sebastian said.

“Such is your right.”

“Given the faces at the table, it might help if some practitioners announced themselves,” Mrs. Graubard said.  “Eliana Graubard.  Head of the Graubard family.  Dollmakers.”

“Sorry,” Sebastian said.  “Sebastian Harless, contracts.”

“What do you contract with?”

“No, I mean, I write and handle contracts.”

“You helped with what they brought before Musser.  The deals with markets?” Graubard asked.

Sebastian nodded.

Some of the people who were standing by the walls moved closer, to be in earshot.

“What we’re fighting for is the future,” Avery addressed the group.  “It’s been the question hanging over this region.  What next?  How do we want things to be?”

Many eyes were on her.

They’d had Nicolette help them look into possibilities, but there was enough ground to cover that she’d figured they needed Wye too- to bring the other Belangers on board.  Doing readings, figuring out how best to start this out.  A read on each player in the region- not all dwelling in the region, anymore.  But people who had interests here.  Who could be convinced, who couldn’t?

Avery swallowed, then continued.

“There was a magic school here, with students coming in, sometimes from far away, but usually because they had money or talent.  People who’ve been in charge of it, I’d say, are the people who were basically trying to decide the future of where this whole area goes.  In other places, that decision’s already been made, change is harder.  I think we’re really close to having that happen here.”

Lucy spoke up next.  “A lot of what we’ve been fighting and doing has been trying to stop someone from making a shitty call, creating a shitty status quo that’ll be a hundred times harder to budge.  Maybe with Charles making the deal, that status quo is in place, but things are still green and pliable.”

Lucy turned to Avery and Verona, asking, “Brief history, background, you think?”

“Sure,” Avery said, hand on Snowdrop.

Lucy nodded.  “Alexander Belanger, who ran this school when we got here, was a person with good ideas, about cooperation, problem solving, and building something.  But under that was something really damaged, scheming, and conniving.”

“We’re going that far back?” Verona asked.

“I figure we’d have to.  He perpetuated this sometimes subtle, awful side of the practitioner establishment, where scheming and being ruthless is how you get ahead.  Where if you aren’t screwing others over, you should be screwed over and gotten out of the way.  He abused and pressured our friend Nicolette, his apprentice’s apprentice, pushing her, and forswore his own nephew.  Basically putting him through hell on earth.”

Nicolette was nodding at Lucy’s words.

“A gentle hell, maybe, because Nicolette helped him, but yeah,” Avery added.

Verona spoke up, “Alexander fought over the school with Bristow, who represented a different side of it.  Money grubbing, greedy instead of ambitious.  Alexander didn’t care much about the Innocent- what some of you guys were before being made Aware.  Bristow used them.  Used Aware like some of you, here in this room.  Bristow’s friends used them.”

“Where are they now?” Wallace asked.

“Dead and gone,” Lucy said.  “We were part of that.”

“Part how?” Brayden’s dad asked.

“John, a Dog Tag that was in Kennet but isn’t anymore, shot Alexander.  Because if he hadn’t, Alexander would have done something to take over Kennet,” Lucy said.  “I summoned John to the school, for protection, but a part of me knew what might happen.”

Jasmine went from standing with her back to Lucy to twisting her upper body, looking at Lucy.  Lucy didn’t flinch away, but her expression… that looked hurt.

Jasmine didn’t look away, after.

Verona said, “Bristow… he was messing with us.  Attacked Kennet, did a lot of damage that took us months to recover.  Put people at risk.  Because he thought doing that would mess with Alexander.”

“Arguably, it did, given how Alexander ended up,” Florin commented.  “Florin Pesch, by the way.  Puppeteer, which means I specialize on those who control people.  But I’m here for my other management skills.”

“Why?” Jeremy asked, from the sidelines.  “Why did hurting Kennet hurt Alexander?”

“It didn’t, directly,  but it was a messy series of power plays.  Long story.  Maybe we explain the particulars later, if you want to get into that later?” Verona offered.


Verona resumed.  “As part of that, we got into a contest, him trying to strip me of magic, me doing the same to him.  Putting pressure on one another.  He was fighting Alexander.  I got the edge, partially because he was distracted, he lost power, couldn’t fight Alexander, couldn’t win, and decided getting captured by fairies and imprisoned for longer than human lifespans was better than facing defeat.”

“I’m Grayson Hennigar, battle practitioner, I knew Bristow,” Grayson said.  “And you sent brownies after him.”

“Sure,” Verona said.  “But I was a then-inexperienced practitioner with a fair bit of power, he picked a fight with me when he was already distracted with Alexander… and he decided to walk into the brownies’ kitchens.  I’m not denying involvement, but I’m not taking full responsibility either.”

“Musser followed after,” Avery said.  “I guess I’d say that instead of being greedy or ambitious, exactly, he was… he had what greed and ambition get you.  Power, wealth, everything else.  But he wanted more.  I… he- I know that sounds like more greed and ambition, but-”

She stumbled, trying to articulate it.

“He thought that what he had entitled him to everything he wanted, basically,” Lucy said, arms folded.  “He had the worst of Alexander’s thing where he’d screw over those he thought of as lesser, Bristow’s way of preying on Innocents.”

“Had?  Past tense?” Grayson asked.

Lucy nodded.

“How many more are there?” George asked, interrupting Grayson.

“A couple million, depending on how you look at it,” Toadswallow said.  He’d taken a seat at the table to Avery’s right.  “Practitioners?  You could find a family of five here, an independent one there.  Group of thirty there.  Six or seven in Kennet, depending on whether we count our prisoner Anthem Tedd…”

Anthem stood on the sidelines, hands in pockets, dipping his head in a nod.

“…Thirty or so in Thunder Bay.  You humans add up to quite a sum, even a small share of that sum being practitioners adds up.  How many are bad?  A question for the philosophers, sir.”

“And how many of you are there?”

“I’d wager a guess, but the young ladies are talking, perhaps it’s best to focus on what needs focusing on.”

“Right,” George said.  “Sorry.  Still figuring this out.”

The oldest practitioners, like Graubard, looked restless at the interruption.

“I don’t mind fresh eyes on an old set of issues, though,” Avery said.  She had to put her hand on Snowdrop to steady the opossum as she shifted position, tucking one boot under her butt on the chair.

“My question had a second part, though,” George said.  “How many more get removed or kidnapped or killed or… whatever?  In the course of all of this?  How many more are in line?”

“That’s part of what we’re doing here,” Avery said.  “Hmmm.  Can you let us finish before questions?  I’ll get to that.”

“Okay, I guess.”

“About Grayson’s question… I didn’t get the full picture when Sootsleeves gave me the rundown,” Avery said, turning to Matthew.  “Musser, according to people who were on the battlefield, is gone too?”

“Good as,” Matthew said.  “He was being kept in the hole in the blood goddess’ chest, and he was still there when she got poisoned and imprisoned in a box by the Wild Hunt of Winter.”

Avery nodded, taking that in, trying to formulate what she wanted to say.

“None of this was by design,” Lucy said.  “The people dying.  But I think it shows the stakes.”

Avery nodded.  “Musser, if he’d won, would have been the one in charge of magic, Others, and practitioners from east of Winnipeg to just west of Ottawa.  Including Toronto.  Including Kennet.  What he wanted to do while he was in charge?  He wanted to enslave people like Toadswallow there, or Ramjam, or these guys…”

She indicated the Dog Tags.

“Or Alpy, or…”

“Others,” Deb said.

“Or humans, even,” Lucy added.  “Arranged marriages.  Ruling over areas with enough control that they’re forced to cater to his whims and designs.  For practitioner families, that’s establishment.”

“The definition you’re giving, you’re phrasing this this way for the sake of the Aware in the room?” Hennigar asked.  “That might get tiresome.”

“It’s important,” Avery replied.  “A lot of the words and ideas we use, like being forsworn, or how we talk about people like Musser or Alexander, they’re loaded, they come with assumptions.  But forswearing is torture.  I don’t think Lucy’s wrong in how she talked about Alexander, or Verona about Bristow.”

“We use the words we use because it keeps things short and sweet.”

“Too sweet, though?” Lucy asked.  “Alexander sentenced his own nephew to a lifetime of torture.  A life the universe wants to prolong so it can hurt him more, because that’s what forswearing is.  Musser sacrificed his son in the Carmine Contest that put Charles Abrams on the Carmine Throne.  These are people who want to shape the future.  We’re deciding how we want to shape it.  That’s why we brought you here.”

“It’s an issue if we try to start fresh but the words we’re using are loaded with bad ideas,” Verona said.

Avery thought of the items they’d been gifted by Miss.  Avery had gotten notes on the Forest Ribbon Trail.  Lucy the weapon ring.  Verona had gotten the quill pen, that let her manipulate words.  But the pen had broken before summer was over.  Avery wondered what Verona could’ve or would’ve become if she’d kept with that, with the way Avery had gone down her course and Lucy down hers.

“Is that why we’re here?” Grayson asked.  “To relitigate words?”

“To talk about the future,” Avery said.  “Kennet ended up being involved in a lot of what happened, Now-”

“Arguments could be made that the Belangers were involved for a lot of what happened,” Grayson said.  “Hell, the Hennigars were, if you want to look at how we were on the sidelines, watching objectively.”

“That’s thin,” Verona replied.

He shrugged.  “World doesn’t start and end with you three.”

“How many conversations have you had with the Carmine Exile?  Before and after he took the throne?” Lucy asked.

“How many conversations have you had with the Aurum, before and after he took the throne?”

“Like, four-ish?” Verona suggested.

Lucy counted, “One talk after we awakened, the time we attempted to apprehend Maricica and she pulled Faerie bullshit, the end of Summer, and when-”

Lucy glanced at Avery.

Avery, one hand on Snowdrop, moved her hand, thumb touching the scar near her hipbone.

“When we tried to call an Aurum contest and I got shot because he pulled some B.S.,” Avery said.

“But we’re talking about the Carmine, not the Aurum,” Lucy said.

“That’s not my point,” Grayson said.

“What’s your point, then?” Lucy retorted.

“It doesn’t connect.  He is, or should be a nonentity.  He’s an oversight in the system, took power, and when we attempted to address that glitch, you got in the way.  You blocked us from taking a final territory and screening him out.  You confronted Musser.”

“Technically it was Durocher who ruined Musser.”

“You three challenged him to bring details to light,” Graubard said.

“If everywhere you go, you smell shit, check the bottom of your shoe,” Grayson said.  “And if everywhere you three go, the Carmine finds successes and great men fall?”

He spread his arms.  His chair creaked as he leaned back on the back two feet of it.

“The Carmine needs to fall,” Lucy said.

“So much,” Verona said.

“Now we’re redefining Kennet going forward, as part of our plan,” Avery said.  “The Seal is flawed.  It’s too all-or-nothing.  We tested the waters with making changes and pushing the Carmine out with the Sword Moot, but we’re looking at something bigger.  We have reason to think the Carmine is indisposed right now, tied up in talks with Ottawa.  What we want is to make a deal, here.  For sharing out responsibility for the Aware…”

Some people had entered.  Two middle aged men, with wavy brown hair, then Basil Winters and his mom.  No Braxton Hart.  Raquel glanced at them, then approached the table.

“It’s up to you all, to decide how you want to handle that,” Lucy said.  “If you want to be on board, or if you want to work with us on this.  But I think what we’ve been doing has been rough, and if we don’t sort things out, it’ll be the Carmine deciding the way forward.”

“Getting back to what George asked earlier,” Avery said.  She indicated George for those who didn’t know him.  “We’ve had a whole slew of people going to war, fighting over this region, and being toppled.”

“It’s messy,” Verona said.  “There should be a point where enough have died, enough have fallen, enough friends are lost, and you’ve got to question the status quo.”

Raquel had leaned in, waiting for a pause in conversation, and whispered, “The new arrivals are Mussers.  That’s Gabriel and Darius.  Members of two different branches, so they probably haven’t decided on a new family head.”

Avery nodded.

“You made your argument to me last night,” Mr. Knox said.

“What Verona’s saying?  A big, massive chunk of what’s been happening has been an argument- or a demonstration, that something needs to change,” Lucy said.

“We want a better convention, before Forswearing,” Avery said.  “A new establishment, so the harshest and most inflexible parts of the Seal ease up.  Something where even a normal broken promise leaves outs.  A clearer middle ground, between being Innocent and being Awakened, where the Aware have more freedom, where Others can maneuver a bit better, too.”

“And what does that have to do with the current situation?” Graubard asked.

“International community backs Chuck?” Verona asked.  “Okay that’s fine-”

She’d paused just a moment, to let people stir and get a bit riled up.

“-if we make an arrangement that leaves him with no effective power.  We’re not technically defying the international community, since Chuck stays, borders aren’t moving, hell, we’re taking stuff off the Carmine’s plate.”

“All the stuff,” Avery said.

“The sword moot would make a collective declaration and arrange to handle the cases that would cross the Carmine’s metaphorical desk, with other groups being able to chime in,” Lucy said.  “And combat practitioners would stay on primarily as that, and as backup and reinforcement against Others that the community at large agrees to handle.  The Carmine role in things gets phased out.”

“Our handling of Awareness has to change, as part of that,” Verona said.  “Otherwise, there’s too much reason to prey on people and target the vulnerable, and I know some of you jackasses are already doing that.”

Lucy added in, “Or removing other people from the sword moot and move closer to being a dominant power.  There’d be a collective responsibility over Aware, agreed on as part of this whole deal.”

“You want everyone here to sign on to that collective responsibility,” Mr. Knox said.  “Not just the sword moot?”

“Well…” Lucy said.  She glanced at Avery.  “I think people here will want to sign on.”

“Will we, now?” Graubard asked, arching an eyebrow.

Lucy was still looking at Avery.

Okay.  Avery supposed she was taking the lead, here.

She wasn’t sure how to go about it.

“There’s a thing that I’ve been sitting with for a while,” Avery told the room, drawing on the thought process that had brought her here, spelling it out.  She shifted position, both feet tucked under her now, both hands on Snowdrop, leaning forward a bit.  “I talked with the Page of Suns a while back.  Before Kennet found.  Garricks can tell you who he is.  Major guy on the Paths.  I’m thinking he might actually be important enough a lot more practices should be paying attention to him.  He’s a bit cryptic, but I think he knows stuff on a, hmm… a really fundamental level.”

“Where are you going with this?”

“He asked questions.  Leading ones.  If the Paths are where things other realms don’t want, where unimportant things go, then why look into them?  Why does it matter?

“Something or someone can be viewed as unimportant, low-priority, ignored, and still have a lot of value or meaning,” Avery said.  She met her parents’ eyes, flashing an apologetic smile.  Not the easiest thing, to bring up something so touchy.  “I don’t think even my fellow practitioners back in Thunder Bay have paid much attention to the fact there’s a fairy market on the fringes of the city.”

“There are fairy markets in lots of places,” Florin said.

“Exactly!  There’s a lot out there.  Individuals, small markets, modest-sized markets.  Some of you were with Musser, taking over whole sections of Ontario and even he didn’t realize what was out there.  Lords didn’t.  The closest we got was Milly Legendre and her family ousting small goblins from the region she controlled.  A lot of them didn’t listen.  They found places to hole up and made the gamble that one to three goblins the size of a hamster weren’t worth the thirty minutes it would take even a Lord to track down, dig up, and eradicate.”

“Maybe if she’d had time,” Grayson said.  “What does this matter?”

“Those were the same markets they made contracts with, to make Kennet inconvenient to stake a Lordship claim in,” Graubard noted.


“Sure, yeah,” Avery replied.  “But this isn’t a repeat of that.  These small markets, tucked-out-of-the-way individuals, the scattered Others who get ignored or treated as unimportant?  They -and Kennet- have one thing you don’t.”

“If it’s that they’re ignored, you ruined that by paying attention to them, didn’t you?” Grayson asked.

“They stayed,” Verona said.  “They’ve endured a lot of hassle and abuse, they’ve been ground down, even, threatened.  But they found a place to hole up and they stayed… and a whole lot of you didn’t.”

“They outnumber you.  Us,” Lucy said.  “They have more numbers, they cover more ground.  They add up.”

Verona said, “The Aware are out there, and we think they outnumber practitioners.  People who know the supernatural is real, but can’t or don’t really grapple with it.  Most don’t have anything special to them, as far as supernatural tools or abilities, but some do.  They can be hassles for practice, they can be obstacles for a tooth fairy trying to collect her quota, or a goblin raiding a house for food.”

“They are, by the Seal, lesser considerations.”

“They are, by your current handling of the Seal, lesser considerations,” Lucy said.  “Under our approach, they become something more meaningful.  They’re going to be around, and if you mess with them and we find out, we retaliate and seek retribution.”

“And others have signed on already,” Avery said.  She gave Snowdrop a prompt through the Familiar bond.  “So it’s not just us.  It’s-”

Snowdrop, getting up, becoming human, and drew a fork, plunging it into the table with full overhead swing.

It became Cherrypop.


“You can’t be serious,” Graubard said.

Snowdrop took a piece of meat from a platter and put it in Cherry’s mouth.  When Cherry looked up at her, Avery got Cherry’s attention and held up a finger.

“Hey,” Verona said, leaning forward.  “They outnumber you.  They cover more ground.  They have claim, by virtue of being here.  What do you have?  As far as I can tell, they count for more.”

“Until a hundred of them are wiped out by one of ours,” Grayson said.

“Goes back to the Legendre issue,” Avery said.  “That takes time, effort, and with markets talking to other markets, fairies working tentatively with goblins, heroic spirits helping to guide Others?  If you go after one settlement, you’d better be prepared to go after all of them.”

“I think you come out worse than you would if you didn’t try,” Lucy said.  “Having to protect all your properties against attack from a diverse set of enemies?”

Grayson sighed, running his fingers through his hair.  “Wards are a thing.”

“Sure, but it’s nice to have internet and power, isn’t it?” Verona asked.  “Roads in and out?  Maybe you can put your place in a bubble, spend power to keep some clever fairy from poking a hole in it and getting some troublemakers in, but how shitty will it be, no TV or internet, no power, no water?  Having to teleport in and out to avoid having some goblin spike strip ruin the tires of a nice car?”

“Weigh the costs,” Lucy said.

“The benefit, if you cooperate,” Avery said, “is resources.  Interconnected markets, Aware as resources and a pool to tap into.  They’re willing to back us, on diminishing the role of the Carmine.  Help, instead of hurt, on all those fronts.  Information sharing.  Instead of a Lordship defined by one person, it can become a region defined by thousands.”

“Not especially interested,” Grayson said.

“So you know, this is something we’re going to do, barring some serious reason not to.  It’s a question of whether you’re on board.”

“Again, not interested.  I don’t think this carries the weight you want it to.”

“On that note, actually,” Florin said.  “Sorry to cut you off before you take your turn, Grayson, I think we’d all benefit from checking the metaphorical scales we’re using to measure that weight.”

“You’re playing your games, Florin?” Grayson asked.

“Mr. Knox?” Florin asked, with a smile.

“If I could interject?” Avery asked.  “I had a thing I wanted to say, tying back to what came up earlier.”

“Go ahead.”

“Musser was the worst of Alexander and Bristow.  He was them after ambition was rewarded, greed fed.  The bad stuff still there, rewarded and fed.  What I’m proposing is the best aspects of them.  Cooperation, connection, problem solving.  Getting key, overlooked elements like Aware working together to be greater than the sum of their parts.”

“Thank you,” Florin said.  “Then, Mr. Knox?”

“I talked with them last night, and talked with family members before the Finder family came to pick me up.  If we have sufficient numbers today, and the terms remain what they were when we discussed them, the Knox family is in.  Innocents and Aware will be respected and given due consideration, the organized markets will get my acknowledgement and tacit support, I hope to get consideration there as well.”

“What did they offer you?” Mrs. Graubard asked.

“What are you offering me?” Mr. Knox asked, heated now.  “I helped.  My daughter helped.  We backed Bristow and we got nothing for our trouble.  We backed Musser and got nothing.  We helped out of expectation of rewards, prestige, and repayment and we’ve gotten less than nothing.  We’ve been set back.  The area is backsliding into the pre-Seal days when monsters lurked and people had to stay cooped up in their homes at night.  I don’t get the impression you’re trying to fix this.”

“We tried and-”

Mr. Knox banged a fist on the table.  “No!  No, forget all that.  Right now, what are you doing, except trying to maneuver to an acceptable position around a region where the Carmine Exile rules by some perversion of the system?  I know you’re not strong enough to stop him yourselves, so you’d need help, and you sure haven’t called me, or anyone I know, to get that help.  Ergo, you’re not trying.  So what the hell are you offering?  Graubard?  Hennigar?  Mussers?  You’ve been quiet.”

The two Mussers were middle aged.  A bit of Abraham, a bit of Reid.

“Catching up.  You began before everyone was present.”

“By the rules of hospitality-”

“It’s ideal to wait,” the older of the two men said.

“Unless we’re pressed for time.  The Carmine should be tied up in bureaucracy right now.  We have a limited time window.”

“Not so limited you can’t blather on,” Grayson said.

“Right, but still limited enough to call for certain shifts in expectation for rules of hospitality.  It’s different to show up late at a war meeting than a book club.”

Serves you right for trying to show up late to throw your weight around.

“Let’s move on before we get into more back-and-forth,” Florin said, flashing a smile.  “Going down the table, Kierstaads?  Generalist dabblers, studying executions and other dimensions of practice- range, presentation, subtlety, and so on.”


“I see Nicolette standing behind Mr. Kierstaad.  Augur.”

“I’m in.  I was Aware, once.  Homeless and crazy, spirits flooding my head.  Let’s do better for anyone else in that situation.”

“Zed Sadler, I think it was?  Technomancer apprentice to Raymond Sunshine.”

“Yes.  More information from the small markets and communities is great, a kind of unofficial Black Box, sharing details about any problems across the network, and like Nicolette, I was once Aware.”

“Same,” Brie said, next to him.

“Mrs. Fulton?”

“I’m in, if it means the Fultons can move back into the region.”


Elizabeth Driscoll’s dad.  Historian.  Ten year old Dom had been their point of contact with Musser’s group during the big invasion.

“Interested but not committing yet.  More to discuss.”


“Have they completely broken you, Anthem?” Grayson asked.

Anthem smiled, one eyebrow raised.  “Want to step outside and see how broken I am?”

“If you’re going to be on your knees before anyone, I’d prefer it be me.”

“Anthem?” Florin asked.

“I like Driscoll’s wording.”

“Of those still in the area, the three Oni practitioners are interested in anything that gets them more power and points of contact…”

Avery glanced at Hollow Yen, who was hanging back.

“…Bringing us to the Thunder Bay contingent, to which I belong.  I’ll add my own name.  I’m interested in seeing this play out, if people will have me.  I know I spoiled things before my exit, earlier.  Sebastian, of course?”

“Yes,” Sebastian said.  “I’ve been working with the small markets and Kennet.  It’s good business, I want to see where it goes.”


One of the Gleaners.  Small practitioners from Thunder Bay who cracked open magic things for the power inside.  Avery had messaged Jason, the head of that group, but Jason didn’t like to get involved with anything that wasn’t work, so he’d sent an apprentice.

“If things get difficult, we leave.  If this makes things less difficult, we stay.”

“Raquel,” the younger of the two Mussers said, interrupting things.  “A word?”

“No,” Raquel replied.

“If this could wait?” Florin asked.

“No, it won’t.  It pertains to your mother.”

Raquel paused.

Avery leaned over.  “Need backup?”

Raquel shook her head.  Then she stepped outside.

Florin kept going down the list.  “Mrs. Scobie.  Elementalist of Thunder Bay…”

“You have a better offer?” Nicole asked Grayson’s end of the room.  “Money, power?”

“It could be that saying yes to this makes us enemies down the line.”

“A threat?” Scobie asked.

One of the Mussers went to close the door, once they and Raquel were in the hallway.  Raquel stopped it, blocking it with her body, arms folded.  Being tough, even if they were intimidating- Raquel couldn’t quite keep from ducking her head down a bit as they stepped in closer to talk to her- or one of them did.  The other drew a chalk line at the door.

Lucy glanced at Avery.


The conversation was short.

“Mr. Childs?”

The two Mussers turned to go, and Raquel re-entered the room, scuffing the chalk as she did so.  Head down, eyes on the floor.

The Mussers didn’t re-enter the room, heading out the hall.

Grayson Hennigar’s chair scraped, and he followed.

“You decided, I take it?” Florin asked, interrupting one of the Childs.

“The Mussers have it right.  The longer I hear this go on, the less I think any of you or any part of this region is worth it.”

Grayson collected his coat, pulling it on, and strode out of the room.

Avery looked at Mrs. Graubard.  One of the more loyal of that whole contingent.

“Are you asking me, with that look?” Mrs. Graubard asked.

“Technically I was asking the Childs, but…”

“It’s a no from me, but I’m listening.”


“…bringing us to a tentative yes?” Florin asked, voice bright.

Avery fidgeted.  This wasn’t like school, where she could take her seat and take information in, getting up every hour and a bit, with gym, lunch, and possibly an errand for the council during the lunch hour.

The stakes were high, she had to be on, with people watching her every reaction.  She had to make sure that a lot of other people were behaving, whether they were Cherrypop, asleep in her lap, lying against Snowdrop’s side, or one of the opposing practitioners being sneaky.  She had to make sure people weren’t getting the wrong ideas, taking a line of thought to the wrong endpoint, or looking out for tricks they could exploit.

“And in answer to that tentative part,” Florin said, glancing Avery’s way.  “We can identify our obstacles.”

“Charles,” Lucy said.

“That’s the main one.”

“The St. Victor’s practitioners,” Avery said.

“That’s one of the fringe issues.  A handful of practitioners with a lot of power and very little expertise in wielding it, with everything on the line for them.”

“Where-” one of the parents spoke up.  “What’s the plan?  What are you going to do wi- for-?”

“Your kids?” Avery asked.

“You’ve talked about removing people.”

“I want to try to avoid hurting them,” Lucy said.  “Have you managed to get in touch?”

“About half of us.  A few of our kids are scared, wanting to leave, but they don’t think they can.  Others don’t want to leave, they’re in too deep.”

“Has anyone called Cameron?” Avery asked.  “I don’t want her to slip through the cracks.”

“She’s not answering.  We got her number from her mother’s phone.  There are over fifty messages left on read.  If she’s not answering calls from her mother…”

“There’s a third group.  The kids who want to go but don’t think they can, the ones who don’t want to go, and then Dony and maybe Travis.  Their dad went and…”

“Yeah,” Avery replied.

Dony’s dad was being put in a box to be brought back to Kennet.

“Fuck,” Verona whispered.

“We have the notes on their practices.  Names they’re prepared to call.  Those names include Lords,” Avery said.  “If we know, is there a counter?”

“There can be,” Opal Winters answered.  She was an older woman, dressed like she could attend a modern tea with the Queen.  “We’re prepared to give it to you, but we need a concession.”

“Run it by us, then,” Verona said.

“The Turtle Queen.  Let us re-bind it.”

“She’s semi-bound by the conventions of Kennet’s council.”

“Won’t last.”

“Doing pretty well, making bonds, learning to work with people.”

“She’s a virus.  One that infects information.”

“Virus or no, I like her better than I like a lot of people,” Verona said.

“We’ve been arranging the cleanup of the mess caused when the Oni and the body snatcher loosed Others from Basil’s book.  We have Countdown Cassandra, we have the Hot Blot, the Typetap Kitty, the Stuffy Head letters, but we’re missing one of the big ones.  You may revel in this… mess…”

Opal indicated the room, with its loose crowd and piles of mismatched items along the wall.

“…but we’ve made a career out of cleaning up messes.  Help us help you.  Trust us when we say there’s danger there.”

Lucy shook her head.  “Can’t the same be said for you?  I didn’t even know about Countdown Cassandra or the other thing.”

“Kitty,” Verona said, very seriously.

“But you’re binding living creatures.  Given how last night went?  Bit of a sore point.”

The Dog Tags.

“Cleaning up messes.”

“Countdown Cassandra was local, right?” Lucy asked.  “We thought she moved on?”

“She was,” Matthew said.  “We did.”

“What does it take to get you to let her go?” Lucy asked.

“I’m not interested in negotiating it with you.  I get the impression you’re invested in what you’ve spent the last year doing.  I’ve spent decades on this.  Same investment.”

“Would you negotiate it with me?”

Raymond was out in the hallway.

Avery glanced at Verona, who shrugged.  Lucy didn’t look surprised, but she might’ve heard him.

Durocher and Raymond entered.

“Disclaimer,” Raymond said, holding up a finger.  “I can’t be directly involved.  These are fraught times, the international community has made its stance clear.  I’m here because the Blue Heron fell and the person I installed as headmaster is apparently no longer with us.”

“He hasn’t been with us since October,” Durocher said.

“Basil?” Raymond acknowledged the narrow man.


“Have recent events tempered your ambition?”

“I honestly don’t know well enough to say without worrying I’d be gainsaid,” Basil replied.

“I warned you about setting foot on these grounds again.  You’ve done so repeatedly, with this moment, right here, being an ongoing violation.”

“It’s not-” Basil looked like he was about to argue.  “Yes.  You’re right.”

Raymond approached the end of the table.  Durocher, sun in her face, looked tired and relaxed.

“I’m coming to the realization I may be an optimist,” the dour Raymond Sunshine said, with zero brightness in his expression.  “Things keep turning out worse than I’d imagine they could, whenever my back is turned.  I turned my back on Basil, years ago, and he nearly stole everything out from under me.  I leave this situation, thinking it’s stabilized, and months pass with work demanding my attention… only for the Carmine Exile to take the region for himself.”

“Can we help you?” Matthew asked.  “I think Kennet has been fair to you in the past.”

“And you let Charles slip through your fingers,” Lucy muttered under her breath.

“I sometimes think I’ve been forced into a position like an Incarnation,” Raymond said.  “Arbiter of capital-‘T’ Technology, no longer allowed to sleep, no life except my single-word purpose, tasked with smoothing out wrinkles and easing out knots in the fabric of things.  Deviate from my path, I cease to exist.”

Avery looked at Alpeana, who was perched on top of a birdcage on a stand, as far back from the windows and the fireplace as possible, with a slight frown on her face.  Still hurt, by how wild her hair was.

“Sucks,” Lucy said.  “But why-?”

“I’m here to smooth out wrinkles.  Things were gifted and loaned to the Blue Heron.”

“The older Belangers tracked a lot of that,” Nicolette said.  “The records are going to be spotty, some have the information in their heads and they got hurt, others had it on their computers or in notebooks, and a lot of computers and notebooks are lost in the rubble.”

“Good to know.  It’s better than nothing.”

“Can we get confirmation you are who you appear to be?” Verona asked.

“I am Raymond Sunshine, Technomancer, I was headmaster before Musser.  Custodian before Wye was temporary, de-facto caretaker of the building.  Ex-friend of the Carmine Exile.”

“I am Marie Durocher, supplicant of the cascus wilds,” Durocher said.

Avery shifted position.

“And I’ve been teacher in enough classrooms,” Raymond said, “to know when people are restless.  You’ve been at this for some time?”

“Yeah,” Avery replied.

“Come.  Use those legs, move.”

“Is this a trap?”

“My intentions are neutral.  I do not mean to trap any of you.  I have no knowledge of any subterfuge or issues that could strike you down.  I’m only here to smooth out wrinkles.”

“And we’re not wrinkles?” Lucy asked.

“No more than many others.  Nothing I see myself needing to smooth out.  Shall we step outside, walk and talk?”

Avery nodded.

“Good idea,” Florin said.

Avery had the impression that Sootsleeves’ furniture was meant to accommodate a variety of types of Other, and that meant that even a chair she’d picked that looked mostly normal was a mite uncomfortable.

She passed Cherrypop to Snowdrop, who stood.  All of them got coats and things.  Avery pulled on her slightly stained tan coat with the bleached antler pattern, and a yellow scarf that faded to orange.  She kept her bag slung over one shoulder, deer mask fixed to one strap, badge on the other.

Raymond talked to Zed for a moment.  Possibly getting the rundown.

“What wrinkle is it you’re looking to smooth out, old chap?” Toadswallow asked, as they made their way down the stairs, when it looked like Raymond and Zed were done enough.  “Is it only the items?”

“Sorting out the debts and obligations of the school is one thing.  International powers would like what comes in the next few days to pass smoothly.  A transition of power, the Carmine settling in, secure.”

“You want to help that?” Lucy asked, tense now.

“I’ve listened from the beginning, through phones people had around the room.  Charles is tied into that bureaucracy.  It will probably last a little less than twenty hours.  Augurs can pin that number down with more clarity if they want, I’m sure.”

“Could,” Nicolette replied.  “But pinning things down-”

“Binds you to that conclusion, good or bad.  Often skewed to be worse for you, if the spirits don’t like being bullied.  I know.  I was best friends with an Augur for over a decade.”

“Yeah.  With the number of Aware with us right now, it’s good to spell things out a bit.”

Raymond looked back at the group, frowning.

Verona had dropped back a few paces, and was explaining for parents and kids.

“There was a point of discussion about freeing some Others?” Raymond asked.

“Countdown Cassandra and Typetap Kitty.  But that was a tangent, from us talking about the threats we’re facing.  There are a bunch of kids, they got baited into this, and their parents are back there, worried,” Lucy explained.

“He’s using kids.”

“One of them killed their dad last night,” Avery said.

“Are you bringing that up because you know my history?”

“You are giving me way too much credit,” Avery said.  “It didn’t cross my mind between you saying that and me saying what I just said.”

Raymond sighed.

“You’re making a mess that’s potentially going to leak into other areas.  Aware that are going to potentially go to Ottawa?  New York?  London?”

“Uh,” Melissa said.

Raymond turned, still descending stairs.

“I think the idea is if we want to go, we ask for company.  Someone to walk us through stuff.  But it’s not like we’re, like, walking disaster areas?”

“The Seal doesn’t have provisions for limiting Aware.  There’s not even a convention that Aware announce themselves when entering a lordship,” Sebastian said, from the back.

“Sounds good, let’s get ignored,” Melissa said, “unless we’re doing the thing Avery talked about, like, an hour ago, and we want to to use the fact we’re ignored to get an edge.”

“You’ve sent Aware out to harass Charles?”

“The less said out loud, the better.  We made a suggestion, to people we’ve been dealing with.”

They reached the foyer.  Boys in little makeshift butler uniforms, including one in an old tuxedo tee, all bowed, with three working together to haul the big door open.  Cold air blew in.

“Thank you for the courtesy, Queen Sootsleeves,” Durocher said, as they passed through.

Avery fixed her scarf and her opossum, at her neck and her shoulder.

Out into the battlefield.

The snow was thick in the air, lending it a fog-like quality.  It obscured a lot of the details, but it couldn’t hide the damage to the main building.

“He hated injustice,” Raymond said, looking at the husk of the school building.  “He cared about children, I thought.  He and I both had a bad habit of associating with the wrong people.  Maybe it’s that some of those people were as magnetic as they were.  Or as good at finding people like Charles and myself, with that specific weakness.”

“That’s the way it is, with abusers,” Jasmine said.

Raymond looked back.  He glanced at Lucy, then extended a long finger.  “Her mother?”

“Yes.  Jasmine.  Proud and angry at the same time,” Jasmine replied.

Raymond’s forehead wrinkled, wavy creases all across it.  “That might be the curse of family.”

“I think it’s the curse of this magical war, with so many people who’ve failed to step up when they needed to, leading us here.  Now my daughter has sworn she’ll pick this one last fight and… I’m sick to my stomach with fear.”

He nodded.

His eyes scanned the crowd, from behind circular, red sunglasses.  “Avery Kelly’s parents.”

“Kelsey and Connor Kelly.”

“I looked you up online back when they applied to the school.  Same jobs as then?”

“When?  Summer?”


“I’ve moved to Thunder Bay.  I’m running the branch.”

“And Verona’s mother.”

Sylvia nodded.  “Very new to all of this.  Still taking it in.”

“You know a friend of mine.  Xavier.”


Avery couldn’t help but hope that there’d be some moment with Sylvia where she took in enough information, then said or did something definitive.

Verona was distracted from all of this, because McCauleigh sat on the short wall that protected a garden near the front of the ruined Blue Heron.  She’d wiped snow away, and hunched over, looking cold.

She’d lost Mal and Anselm too.  She was probably exactly what Verona needed.

But on the other hand, Raymond was talking to her mom.

“Send Julette?” Avery suggested.

Verona got her cat out of her hood and dropped Julette from a foot above ground into snow.

Julette turned human, shot Verona an annoyed look, then tromped over to McCauleigh to sit next to her.

“Why did you have to swear?” Raymond asked, quiet.

Lucy looked at him.

“I came prepared to offer incentives to drop this and go.  Power, knowledge, money.  We can drop wards at the edge of the Carmine territory, ward it off for five years.  Whatever he’s doing, I wish we could agree to leave it alone.”

“You really want to do that?” Lucy asked.

“Yes, I want to, but no, I won’t.”

“Okay, well, you probably won a lot of points with my mom, saying that, anyway.”

“I was a parent, once,” he said, forehead creasing again.

“But less points with me.  You wanting to do that is doing what you did with Alexander, Bristow, and Musser, you know?” Lucy asked.  “Letting ugliness slide, letting it metaphorically rot underneath your metaphorical nose.  It’s… catastrophic neglect, when you’re talking about people who operate on power scales that casually ruin lives?  Or things like Charles here?  You can have the best intentions in the world, but if you’re so stuck to your rules or so afraid of rocking the boat that what we see and what we get is… this?  On this scale?  It’s…”

She trailed off, lifting her arms and dropping them.

“This isn’t what Durocher arriving with Musser was,” Raymond said.

“What?” Lucy asked, surprised by the turn in the conversation.

“You persevered, you found a weakness and an ugliness in Musser that… sickens, to borrow from what your mother said.  “I knew the people he preyed on, the Crowes, but I didn’t know what he’d done until Durocher told me.  But this?  I can’t intervene like she did.”

“Then, please take this in the politest possible way, can you iron out wrinkles and then go?  Get out of our way?” Lucy asked.

“Part of why I’m here is to make sure I know enough I can explain when questions are asked.  What I can do is organize the information in a way favorable to you.  To Zed, as I assume he’s going to be involved?”

“I have family in the region.  Not in contact with me right now, but… I don’t want them dead, or in the Carmine’s reach, whatever he ends up doing,” Zed replied.

“Yeah,” Raymond said.  “Okay.  I hold a position that, while hard to envy, has one upside.  I can speak in loose terms about what the international powers want, because they act on and through me, and I have had to pay too much attention.  You have wiggle room.  Only a little, but it’s something.”

“Wiggle room?” Lucy asked.

“They secured Charles’s position.  Now, I’m not about to upset that, I’m sorry.  But I don’t have to support it either.  The catch is that by taking responsibility for it, they stabilize him, and I can say you can work around the edges and removing this or handling that won’t rock the metaphorical boat.  Let’s, for the purposes of this conversation, take Charles off the table.”

“Okay?” Avery replied, unsure.

“Taking things back to what you were all talking about.  That leaves the Lords, the Allaires, the Kims, the Ex-Forsworn, and the St. Victor’s students as considerations.  You have a new system you want to put into place, but if you do, they strike back, and with the stakes being what you set them at…”

“Goes back to the deal being tentative,” Lucy said.  “People are on board, but it’s risky to do when he’s creating feral goblins and bogeymen all over.”

“Durocher and I ran into several on our way here,” Raymond said.  “Mindless, barely formed.  Bogeymen forming without even the ability to cobble together an outfit or gather weapons.”

“Another issue, that,” Verona said.  “We can’t leave that lying around.  We’d want to make him spend enough power he has to eat them to recuperate like he did the undercities.  That feels bad to say.”

Raymond walked up the front stairs of the Blue Heron, several cracked down the middle.  His intent didn’t seem to be to address them from a higher vantage point like Alexander had on their first day on the Blue Heron, but to peer in through shattered doors and see the damage, while he talked.

“I said words, I’m sure, to the effect that I would protect the students of the Blue Heron.  Basil Winters?”

“Yes?” Basil asked.

“Be careful how you respond, but understand that part of the reason I was gentle with you when you tried to steal from me and sabotage me was that you were an ex-student.”

“Understood,” Basil said, curt.

“The St. Victor’s students were, in an interpretation of words and labels, students of the Blue Heron.  Different leadership, different structure, but I’ve said words and lent them weight.  So…”

He got his phone out.  He took a second.

Avery’s phone dinged.  So did Lucy’s.

Verona was off to the side, near McCauleigh, so Avery couldn’t tell.

“That email and phone number I listed.  It’s not for you, I do know you were ex-students, but-”

“Involvement,” Lucy said.

“Yes.  But if you can have any of those students send a text to or email that number?  I’ll be able to pull them out.  Actually, Zed, if you could-?”

“Yes.  I’ll handle that.”

“Rerouting to you…”

“You can save them?” a parent asked.

“Zed can.  Or he can try.”

“We don’t know exactly how many were really willing to leave,” Lucy said.  “But this is good to have.”

“What about the children who haven’t agreed to leave?” another parent asked.  “Teddy?  Kira-Lynn?  Julie?”

“You’re asking me?” Raymond asked.  He looked annoyed.  “I’ll tell you this.  If this is a failure, then, after the initial grief fades, you’ll start asking questions and analyzing details.  You’ll think of things you could’ve said, that you wished you’d said.  You’ll remember little things and connect dots.  You’ll play through things in your head on repeat, every minute or hour, until it starts to destroy your very soul.  It will do that for the rest of your life, if you had a soul to begin with, and if you’re here, caring enough to ask, I think you do.”

“Then help us.”

“I don’t know your children.  Nothing more than what a search of their internet activity says.  I don’t know you.  I don’t know their stories.  Everything I just talked about?  You figure it out.  Figure it out now.  Connect the dots, figure out the words you’ll wish you’d said, audit yourselves as parents and people.  Know your children like you haven’t before.  Be ruthless, because I promise you, if you aren’t, you’ll end up being far more unkind to yourself when everything’s done.”

There was uncharacteristic anger in Raymond’s voice, as he finished.

There were no follow-up questions.  The parents looked a little lost and frightened.

“So that’s the kids handled?” Avery asked, quiet.

“Depends on the parents who haven’t yet gotten that scared call from children wanting to escape,” Verona said.

“Those students aren’t quite ‘handled’.  They can still come after you, they may be desperate and afraid,” Anthem said, from the side.  “But you can offer a way out.  If they take it, that’s one less enemy to fight.”

Avery nodded.

“The ex-forsworn are dangerous.  He’s handing them a lot of power,” Raymond said.  “The Kims are worse.  Many students and families have visited our doors.  The Kims concern me.  I’m afraid there’s no trick there.  They’ll put themselves in your way.  They’re dangerous, as I’m sure many here found out.”

There were some nods around the group.

“The Allaires are tasked with building something.  I won’t and can’t say what, but I can say how.  The idea was, based on their communications, that they’d use the power of a Goddess’s ability to Create, capital-C, and start from there.  Without that, they’re using glamour instead.  Faster, more fragile at the start, but just as durable if it’s left alone.”

There were boos and hisses from some goblins at the mention of glamour.

Avery frowned.  She looked at Lucy and Verona.  “Any ideas?”

“Not so much… now one.  Now two.”

“Spit it out?” Lucy asked.

“I think Chuck is awful at learning from his mistakes,” Verona said.  “So the first thing that jumps to mind is that he had a big plan in mind to make a ritual incarnate, to trap Alexander and others.  You, Raymond.  But it got perverted because he was Forsworn.  Then later on, to get the Carmine throne, he called out the Hungry Choir.”

“Pulled it out of me,” Brie said, looking down at her arms.

“Another ritual incarnate.  Maybe he does a new one, has the Allaires make it, but make it big.  That’s idea number one.”

“Or?” Avery asked.

“Or he’s got all this power, all these regrets, just like you talked about, Ray,” Verona said.  “And maybe he thinks he can Create or glamour up a fix.”

“Alternate reality?” Ray asked.

“Or a wish, similar deal.  Create life, paste in what needs pasting.  Lets him say hey, I’ll do what’s necessary, use child soldiers, abuse people, wipe out whole populations, I’ll fix it later.”

“Then of course, the fix might never come, or it gets spoiled because someone challenges him or challenges it,” Lucy said.  “Lets him be the sad-sack self-pitying victim asshole, saying he was going to fix it and we stopped him.”

“Is that even possible?” Avery asked.  “A big wish?”

Lucy looked at Verona, who nodded.

“It’s more like reality alteration.  Throw up some walls, change everything within, then have glamour or Creation or whatever your reality alteration sauce is alter things that would look in, or meet what’s coming out, and you gradually expand.”

“Wouldn’t that violate the deal with London?” Lucy asked.  She glanced back, looking for Sebastian, but it seemed he was still inside.  Staying warm, maybe.

“Most of the damage is contained within his region, he could keep the fix inside the region.”

“It’s only a theory anyway,” Verona said.  “Maybe it’s the spite ritual incarnate instead.  Catch anyone coming in, even.”

“I can’t participate in this conversation,” Raymond said.  “It pertains to Charles.  You know your enemy.  I think I might go and do that inventory.”

“There are two technomancy Lords,” Avery said.

“There are,” Raymond said, pausing.  “The White Rot and the Dropped Call.”

“Any tips?”

“Hmmm.  He’s stable, secured by international powers.  I don’t think he needs the Lords anymore, and they are a wrinkle.  Basil Winters?”


“You have a nephew?”

“I do.  Young.  Eight?” Basil asked his mother.


“I don’t trust you, Basil.  You’re worse, Opal.  But if you two are willing to swear to avoid any subterfuge and avoid leading the boy that way, I can take your nephew as an apprentice, come time.  Teach him enough that he can add being a fine technomancer to his skills as a scrivener.  In exchange-”

“Release the two Scrivening others?  Leave the Turtle Queen alone?” Opal asked.

“You can temporarily release more than the two.  For tying up the Technomancy Lords.  If I’m noticing them poking around my technomancy setups, they’re a problem for the region, a wrinkle to smooth out.”


“On a handshake,” Raymond said.

Opal nodded, walking up the stairs, then shaking his hand.

“I’m going to do my audit,” he said.  “I’ll be around.”

“Keep you company?” Zed offered.

“Sure.  And Nicolette?  You know the most about what’s going on with this arrangement.”

“I do.”

Durocher swept past them, doing her tour of the school.  She smelled like animal musk and blood.

Avery wondered if Nora would like her.

Lucy had turned around, and looked at the scattered, assembled group.

“That makes the way clear,” Mr. Knox said.  “We can still offer odds and ends to help.  Summoned Others, our own talents…”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “Um… I think we were getting pretty wiped out by the meeting.  We still have time.  Want to take a break, snack, pee, get thoughts in order, and then reconvene?”

People seemed relieved to say yes.  Even the likes of Mr. Knox, stiff and proud, or Anthem.

One of the most important meetings we might ever have.  Deciding the future.

Sylvia stepped forward, approaching Verona, but Verona had already turned, going to McCauleigh.

Julette became a cat and hopped into McCauleigh’s lap just as Verona plunked herself down, arm at McCauleigh’s back.

The parents were talking.  This was a period of rest for, like, Verona, or Raymond, a chance to get the little things done.  But for the parents of the St. Victor’s kids, it was crunch time.

Raymond’s words had hit home, maybe.  His tone definitely had.

Maybe they’d be cruel in retrospect.

Avery had no idea.

Sylvia looked like she was going to come to Avery to say something, but then Avery’s parents came over.

“We’ve been talking with the Garricks.  We’re going to get Rowan and Sheridan.  We want those two safe, they want to be out of the way.  We’ll have to figure out what to do with Grumble, but it’ll be good to get him clear of all this too.”

Avery took that in, and looked her parents in the eyes.  She glanced at Jasmine, who was mad, then looked back at them.  Yeah.  She got what they were trying to convey, she was pretty sure.

They were in.  They were willing to play ball here.

“I love you,” Avery said.  “I got you.  Maybe use a blindfold for Grumble?” Avery asked.  “Or cart him over while he naps?”

“I wish it was that simple,” her dad said.

Avery nodded.

“Then we’ll get on that.  We can coordinate and communicate through Nicolette and Zed?”


“Good.  Stay safe,” her mom said.

“That’s the plan.”

“You heard what Raymond said, about regrets, second guessing?” her dad asked.

Avery nodded.

There was moisture in his eyes.  “Every time I think about you in that hospital bed… that’s going to be a lifelong thing.”

Avery swallowed and nodded again.

“Don’t do that to us again.  Stay safe.  You too, Snowdrop.  We introduced you to the family, you can’t break Kerry and Declan’s heart.”

Snowdrop sneezed.

“We’d better go,” Avery’s mom said.

Then she pulled Avery into a tight, tight hug.

“Want me to take you?” Cliff Garick asked.  He turned to Peter.  “That alright?”

“Very,” Peter replied.

Cliff clapped a hand on Connor’s shoulder.

McCauleigh, sitting by Verona, was crying.  Verona had maybe cried herself out, because she wasn’t.  Or she wanted to look strong because they were trying to organize this thing.  Raquel was looking over, looking startled.

Verona’s mother had stepped away, phone at her ear.

“Raquel,” Avery said.

“My mom’s dead.”

Avery blinked.

“One falls, they all fall, I guess?”

Avery shook her head.  “How?  What?  Because of this?  Charles?”

“Weeks ago, and nobody bothered to tell me.  They didn’t want to interfere with the wedding, then I left and they weren’t in touch.  She took on a job, sort of like the original founders of the Blue Heron going after the Blue Heron god, and… didn’t make it through to the end.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m- I’m not?  I don’t know how to feel.  They came, they wanted to see if there was an angle here.  But like Grayson, they feel it’s too much hassle.  So they’re focusing efforts elsewhere.  They asked if I was willing to come back, do the marriage, said it’d be good for me and the family, I said no, they told me about Mom, and left.”

“Like an afterthought?”

“She was an afterthought,” Raquel said.  She paused.  “I don’t want to be an afterthought like that.”

“You matter,” Avery said.  “Are you along for the ride here?  Healing chalice?”

“I don’t know.  Hearing about my mother dying like that…”

“Yeah, no, I get it, I think.  Hell, I got shot recently.  Maybe, um, go to my family?  Help them get sorted?  Go to Sheridan?  Talk about podcast stuff to distract her from more serious stuff?”

“Sure?  I mean, is that a priority?”

“I’d love it.”

Raquel nodded.  She looked.  “With all the red hair, your family’s easy to spot, at least.  I’ll see if I can catch up.”

“Thank you!” Avery called after her.

She saw Sylvia making a beeline for Verona, and felt like it’d be important she back Verona up.  If things turned sour, it wouldn’t necessarily be limited to a shouting match like Verona had described.  Not with a very upset McCauleigh right there.

Basil and Opal were looking into their books.  Others were talking in groups.  Lucy was mad at the Kennet Others over the ‘one more go’ rule that had cornered her, while her mom was mad at her, leaving Lucy without a lot of places to go.  She focused on the work and preparations, surrounded by Anthem and Dog Tags.

“I’m going.”

Verona looked up at her mom.

“Whatever I do, I’m going to get in the way.  It’s more hassle than it’s worth for you to have me here, I have work to do.”

“Sure,” Verona said.

“I love you, you know?”

Verona nodded.

“Okay.  We’ll talk later.  Call me as soon as things are settled?  Let me know how you’re doing?”

“Sure.  Assuming I live, I’ll head back to the House on Half street, I guess.  McCauleigh will be there.  You don’t need to worry about the whole me having sex thing, since my fuck buddy died.”

McCauleigh, arms wrapped around one of Verona’s, squeezed.

“Don’t talk like that, okay?”

Verona shrugged.

“And- if that’s what you need to do, fine.  But I want you to come to me.”

“Let’s not-”

“In Kennet?” her mom interrupted.  She sighed.  “I’ll make short-term accommodations.  Apartment or motel.  Give us a month or two.  Then we’ll figure it out from there.  I don’t know enough yet, and I don’t like how little I know.  I’ll-”

Verona pulled free of McCauleigh and gave her mom a hug.

“-try to catch up.”

Verona nodded.

Avery reached down to McCauleigh, who took her hand.  She squeezed, and got a squeeze back.

The wind, thick with snow, blew hard enough that Sylvia and Verona’s hair was painted almost white by fat flecks.


Others were arriving.  The Goblin King Braxton Hart had turned up, realized things were decided, talked briefly with Anthem, and left.  Liberty had come, and talked Avery’s ear off, while simultaneously trying to catch up.

The Kennet group had partially recuperated.  The Others were getting ready for the next go, with some injuries.  Denizens and Foundlings were present, along with the Aware.

Clementine was by her little truck, which had braved the heavy snow.  Overnight drive.  She’d brought others.

They kept stacking up.

Lucy found her way to Avery’s side.  She’d been focused on things nonstop, barely taking a break.  Verona had napped for thirty minutes, by contrast.  Like some small weight had been lifted and she could rest.  Now she was up, hair messier than usual, eyes wide, taking things in.

“We have a shot at him, don’t we?” Lucy asked.  “One place we know he’ll be, that doesn’t require us to travel a day?”

“The chambers.”

“But what do we even do when we’re there?” Lucy asked.  “Big fuck you magic?”

“Sure,” Verona said.  “Why not?  I’m a nascent sorceress and I figure being an actual sorceress is like being ‘cool’.  You can’t call yourself one or you’re being kind of a douche canoe, but if you make it so they can’t help but call you cool, or call you a sorceress…?”

“Aren’t you supposed to get more coherent when you get a bit of sleep?” Lucy asked.

“I gotta stick with my brand, build up that reputation, until the ‘sorceress’ label sticks.  But also, I think I got it.”

“Got what?” Avery asked.

“A plan.”

“Is it a plan you can share?”

“Basically.  Rook’s.”

“Rook had a plan?”

“Ahem,” Hollow Yen said, above them.

He was sitting on top of a ruined bit of wall.  The Composite Kid; Reagan, Collins, and many others, bundled together, reworked into a… nascent Oni, like Verona was a nascent Sorceress.

“Yo,” Verona said.

“Rook didn’t leave you with the idea there’s some plan you’re meant to catch, or something you’re meant to get,” Hollow Yen said.  “And she didn’t leave you with me as some trump card.”

“Well said,” Verona said.

Hollow Yen sighed.

Verona turned to look in the direction Charles had apparently set up.  “I’ll tell you guys when we’re through the door.”

Avery, hands in pockets, looked back at the assembled group.  People, numerous, many ignored, many de-prioritized for too long.  Cast-offs.

“Just gotta get there, past everything they’re setting up,” Lucy said.

“While you were learning to fight, I was sorting that part out,” Avery said.

She borrowed Verona and McCauleigh’s help, pulling the double doors up to the doorframe, then took off her bracelet before they could fall.

The doors slammed into existence in the broken frame.

She recognized the mark.  The castle and the hand.  Hold Down the Fort.


When she looked back, everyone was looking at her.  Conversation had stopped.  Practitioners with summoned Others.  Aware, friends, past enemies.  Liberty beamed a smile, surrounded by goblins.  Others looked far too tired and wounded from the fighting- too much spent.

No words really fit.

Avery jerked her thumb toward the door.

The group moved, filing through the double doors.  Alexanderp was reacting, smiling.  The enemy augurs knew and were moving to counter.

This was it.

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Finish Off – 24.a



Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

The branches of trees extended, while the distant horizon -what Teddy’s art teacher at St. Victor’s called the horizon point- flexed and worked its way closer.  It didn’t do it in a straight line, but wormed, in a way that suggested that reality wasn’t alchemical earth, air, fire, and water, or spirit, or something else, but an Ordinary Family type thing on a grand scale, jerky and desperate.  Earth as a maggot world, a dying, thrashing limbless world.

Branches reached for and found points on the distant horizon to hook into.  Distant buildings loomed, surged, and buckled, walls bulging toward them, from the distant horizon until they seemed to be in front of Teddy’s face.  Windows bowed inches from his face, glass scraping and popping in the frame, individual sections of glass bulging, straining, and popping up like ulcers.

He could move his head, but it didn’t fix things, and didn’t change the effect.  The glass remained in front of his face when he turned away, even looked down, the strain intensifying, ulcers collecting, some with things inside them- on the other side of them.  People distorted like funhouse mirrors, like homunculi in bottles.

Grass reached up from below, sky reached down from above, and intruded on frame and glass, ulcer, and air, like everything else.

The glass popped, crackled, and hissed, until it exploded in Teddy’s face.  Beyond Teddy’s face.  Not just his face, but his neck, the back of his head, reaching below clothes to touch skin, past nose to sinus, throat.  Glass disintegrated, the people on the far end of glass dissolved and broke apart into fleshy fragments.  Every part of Teddy touched every part of every other thing, and was touched back.

It pulled, and it pulled by angles he shouldn’t be pulled by- a gentle touch at the front of the throat pulling with the same force as a firm grip at the back of the neck.  It pulled with grass, dirt, tree, building, and person, among many other things, inside Teddy, in throat, ear, mouth, intestine.  If the universe was a dying, thrashing snake moving on a timescale so slow to perceive, with everything mankind knew clinging to one wisp of one bit of skin that was in the middle of shedding, then that bit of skin hooked into Teddy and moved him.

Their entire group, with the exception of people who didn’t need help to cross great distances, was moved part of the way to their destination.

In the wake of that move, people who’d been unable to make noise while things were in process gasped and swore, even screamed, in one case.  Some doubled over.  A few vomited.

The last time there had been shrieks as people vomited things they shouldn’t, like grass, wood, bits of animal, and broken glass.  This time, Miller, Teddy’s mentor, had passed around some anti-emetics.

They’d moved to a town by the lake, a single road, two stoplights, a gas station, and a sprawl of houses and what could’ve been more houses, could’ve been cabins, sprawling out in the space between road and water.  If there were any streets or roads between the houses, they were buried under snow.  The presence of snowmobiles suggested it was easier to use those than to plow.  Similar to the Belanger enclave they’d raided, in that way.

“A reminder, you’re fine, you should be fine, and so should the people we knit with along the way.  Protections were woven and layered a handful of times by multiple experts, when one would have sufficed.  Glass you’ve taken into yourself won’t cut, heavy metals won’t poison.  But if you start vomiting, be sure to get as much as you can out.  The protections will fade eventually, and if you didn’t hold the contents of your stomach in place, they might remain behind to do their damage.”

“I can screen for anything with spirit surgery, if needed and asked for, if I have time,” Griffin said.  He winced.  It looked like he wasn’t doing great, even with Miller’s potion to settle his stomach.

The cold air rolling off the lake made the low temperature sharp and unforgiving.   Not that it bothered Teddy.

Teddy moved, stretching, rubbing his shoulders.  His stomach burbled like it wanted to be upset, and the blackness coursing through Teddy refused to cooperate.

The youngest two members of the Kims, a boy and a girl who could’ve been fraternal twins, tied off the Horror-styled teleportation ritual.  There were a whole run of practices that could dip into this kind of thing, but it was hard to imagine what was rougher than this.

“Very good for a first time, you two.  But slow.  You can do the next and final length,” one of the adult Kims told them.  “I want to see you get us across faster.”

“Yes, sir,” both replied in unison.

The adult moved on.

Maybe that was why it had been tougher.  Slower?  Teddy had no idea.

The girl, about ten, had long, black sewing needles that were three-quarters the length of Helen’s chopsticks, as Teddy thought of them, but many more in number, ten embedded under fingernails, twenty more held between fingers, either across the middle, or with points and ends pressing into flesh.

She wore a summer-length, short black dress with black lace and lace-textured black tights, and a long coat that reached her ankles, that she’d left open in the front.  The inside pockets were full of odds and ends.  She had similarities to Helen, nose straight, chin narrow, body angular, all very severe.

Her brother was similar, not seeming to care about the cold.  He wore a shirt that was summerweight, so light it was translucent with just a touch of lace at the front end of the collar and around the button holes, his coat not nearly as long.  both brother and sister had hair that was mostly straight, but twisted wildly in places, at the brow and ends.

He had the same sort of chopsticks as Helen, capped at the fat end with silver, silver etched with indicators.  They clacked as he gripped them all into a fist, and rattled as he slid them into a coat pocket that seemed specially made for them, a slot for each stick.

Teddy was put in mind of kids who’d gone to walk the runway at some fashion show, expecting to wear sportswear or something, and they’d been put in this sort of getup instead.  Which would be tragic, except, no, they were the type of people those fashion shows were for.  Or their families were.  More tragic.

“You’ve got, ah…” the boy said, trailing off, motioning at his mouth.

Teddy was, when he didn’t watch himself, breathing hard enough that spittle flecked and frothed between teeth, and by default, his mouth pulled back in an exaggerated grin that should’ve made his teeth hurt, especially since it had been that way for two hours, now.  Drool was a casualty.

Teddy wiped at his mouth.  “Not at you.”

“Good.  I thought so.  It’s hard traveling this way, for most.  But you and your friends endured.  Most of your friends.  Good for you,” the boy said.

Cocky, condescending, superior little asswipe, Teddy thought, without anger, venom, or judgment.  It was fact: the boy was a cocky, condescending, superior little asswipe.

The other St. Victor’s students were mostly okay.  Besides the main group, half of the ten or so recruits they’d managed had taken on a bit of Abyss stuff.  The other half were suffering right now- one had been tattooed, and had freaked out, the other was injured enough he was spending time more unconscious than awake.

Miller, Teddy’s mentor, was holding his own, which was pretty impressive, because he didn’t have the Abyss stuff running through him.  Helen, obviously, was perfectly fine.  Lenard, just like Teddy and the other St. Victor’s students, was hardened against the worst of it.

Towards the middle of the pack were Griffin and Joel, who were suffering, but who got to their feet.  Joel to walk out to the edges of the group, while Griffin tended to the people who’d been hit hardest.

The Allaires were managing.  This wasn’t a strength of theirs, as far as Teddy had even seen them, but they were made of stern stuff.  They’d been inducted into practice, Forsworn, and then kept as slaves and experimental fodder for practices, essentially, and upset stomachs were the least of what they’d dealt with.

Teddy wondered if that was why Seth had been hit hardest- because he’d endured less of the actual brutality of being Forsworn.  He was groaning, sitting on snow.  Cameron, Abyss running through her, leaned her front into Seth’s back, no real color in her skin, fingers in his hair, her light smile eerily soulless.

The girl in black lace was moving her fingers like spiders in fast motion, moving the needles, her face expressionless as she met Teddy’s eyes.  Maybe showing off a bit, by doing all that without looking.

Almost as one singular motion, she set two-thirds of the needles next to her throat, each needle lying lengthwise against skin, some penetrating the slotted ends, but mostly braced so they were held in place by two or three other needles.  It looked like the moment that house of cards collapsed, she’d have five different needle-points inside her throat.

Ten needles remained, sticking beneath her fingernails, the points driven to the nail beds, the black lines visible through translucent nail.  She brought the other ends up to her mouth, bit, and pulled them free.  Blood spilled, but fingers deftly moved those ten needles, and as they did, the ten fingers briefly seemed like twenty, maneuvering needles around, blood stopped flowing, freezing suspended an inch above snowy road not making contact, then moved like tendrils, and snaked back into finger, and the wounds and blood were gone.

She practically stabbed those ten needles into her throat, sliding them into the arrangement.  The finished, thirty-needle setup forced her to keep her chin high., unless she wanted the underside of the chin stabbed.  Then, looking at Teddy like she was disappointed in him, she strode off, things to do.

“Tell me how you do that,” Teddy said, to her back.

“I’d ask you what part you mean,” the boy of the pair said.  “But the parts I’d be interested in sharing with you, I shouldn’t, and the parts I can tell you, I’m not interested in.”

“Cat’s cradle,” Helen said, from behind Teddy.  “Start with cat’s cradle and knots, then transition into doing it with sticks, connected at the ends, instead of string.  Then you lose the connections, relying only on fingers, sticks resting on top of and against other sticks.  For me, they started me early.  I was in the crib or barely out of the crib when they had me playing with sticks, needles, and string.  Every year, I was told I wouldn’t get more toys or playtime unless I’d mastered that year’s lessons and techniques.  Some family branches don’t even give the kids toys.”

She indicated the boy and the girl with a jerk of her head.

“So, one way of interpreting what you’re saying, is that that kid showing off like she was, it’s kind of unimpressive, given how much she’s probably practiced,” Teddy said.  He’d pitched his voice to be heard by the girl in black lace.  She turned, glancing over her shoulder at him.

He grinned at her, to drive the joke home, and with the Abyss-stuff making muscles tense and taut, it was a wicked, rictus sort of grin.

The girl turned away, going to talk to an older female relative.  The boy went off.

“How are we doing, Seth?” Helen asked.

“Miserable.  It sucks fucks we lost Freeman, he was better at moving us places.  What the hell is all that?  It was worse that time.”

“Did you use the Sight while it was happening?”

“No, I was actually trained by a respected Augur, I know better than that.”

Helen made an amused sound.  “That?  That was the world by different angles.”

“I saw the world as a dying, thrashing snake, shedding its skin, and we’re one bit of that skin,” Teddy said.

“Is that what you saw?” Helen asked, smiling.  “I like that.”

“A collapsing box with jagged edges, an iron maiden,” Cameron said.

“It’s like looking at clouds.  We can all see something different.  See enough of the big picture, it can look like anything, everything,” Helen said.  “Get good enough, and you can make it into anything.”

“How good are you?” Teddy asked.  “All of you?  The Kims?  In terms of the world, rankings…?”

“We’re not world class, but practitioners who are still find cause to hire us now and then, to handle things, putting us at their periphery with room to climb,” Helen said.  “We work with them a few times a year, senior family handles that.  Most of the family’s work is securing dangerous practices for others.  Things that could turn a person into a horror if mismanaged.”

“Mind how much you share, Helen,” someone said.

“They’re our new colleagues,” Helen replied, smiling.


“Yes, sir,” she said, smiling wider, meeting Teddy’s eyes for a moment.  He smirked.  Helen left Seth and Cameron behind, sidled past Teddy, past Dony, who was looking introspective, and past Travis.  As she got far enough away, she whispered, “I used the word ‘we’ when talking about my family, and he didn’t tell me off for that.”

She sounded pleased.

“Congratulations,” Dony said, without looking up.

“Speaking of minding…” Helen said.

She clapped her hands together.  The sound was much more pronounced than it should have been.  Heads turned her way.

“I know it’s late, we’re tired, some of you are recovering.  Let’s carry on with the same procedure as last time.  If you’re capable of standing, walking, and fighting, protect the rest.  Form a perimeter, patrol, don’t leave gaps.  They were on our heels last time, they might be still.  We recuperate and move on as soon as the most affected are up for it.  We’re two thirds of the way, we should be able to get there with one more move.”

“Abba and Agrippa will move us the last stretch,” one of the Kim leadership figures said, indicating the boy and girl.

Teddy wanted to spend a moment trying to get a better sense of the family’s leadership structure, work out who was on top, but lingering would look bad, and he had the impression that trouble had already found them.

That had been the case at the last stop.  He felt a moment of trepidation, looking out into the dark.

The Abyssal taint was starting to taper off.  It would take another two hours before he was ‘normal’, he guessed.  He wiped at his mouth with the back of his sleeve, and there was something black in the spittle.  He would have tried collecting it, his mentor would have wanted him to for the alchemy, but the Lost and foundlings were back.

In the meantime, he was able to… he wasn’t even sure how to put words to it.  Not ‘think more clearly’.  He thought clearly with the Abyss running strong through him.  The difference was that now he was undecided about words and feeling that trepidation as he looked for enemies.  That doubts were slowly creeping back in, suggesting he was less under the influence of the Abyss, and under the influence of humanity, instead.  He kind of preferred the former.

No, he hadn’t stopped thinking, there wasn’t a rage that took over, even when his muscles were tense, veins standing out.  He had blood pumping through him, but unlike any other time he’d felt this kind of surge, he wasn’t about to do something asinine like trying to show off in front of girls.  He felt more quiet and tense, not more driven, loose, or agitated.  With the Abyss running through him, he was humorless, which was weird when humor was a big part of his identity.  He felt dangerous.

He wasn’t seeing red because he saw black, instead.

He stretched, trying to -not enjoy, those feelings weren’t there- experiencing it while he could.  His shoulders were able to stretch in ways they couldn’t without the Abyss there.  Parts that should have hurt didn’t.  He could do weird contortionist shit with shoulders and limbs at weird angles.  Not that he would, here.  He did make his shoulders do interesting things as he extender arms over head.

He felt like the way his muscles were pulling, if he’d drank just a bit more Abyss, he could be taller, bulkier.  He was already gangly, skinny, weirdly proportioned.  A part of him wanted to play hard into that, exaggerating it.  Kira-Lynn was kind of doing that already.

Was it worth working with wormy-mouthed, pear-shaped, ‘smile to your face and then be casually cruel’ Lenard fucking Lily, though?



Fuck.  The parts of him that said ‘no’ were probably not the parts he should be listening to, he knew.  He thought that immediate ‘no’ because Lenard was such a worm of a man, and Teddy didn’t want to be gross like Lenard was.  He knew he should be worried about what his teacher had taught him and all that, about tolerances, limits, and whatever.  Or that he should be afraid of diving into this visceral darkness to get away from the real-world dark.

That didn’t really factor in.  He couldn’t bring himself to care about it.

“Saw one!  They’re out there!” someone shouted.  One of the denizens that had converted over, off to Teddy’s right.

Teddy’s eyes tracked the shadows.  Off to his left, Dony was crouched, staring out into the dark, expression gloomy, a two-handed black branch in hand.

Teddy had his own black, crooked branch that Lenard had made, which worked as a go-to weapon.  He also had a dragonslayer weapon from Joel’s arsenal, that Joel had opened up to all of them before the fight.  The twist of metal formed a claw shape, holding a nugget of cracked concrete that had an echo-like blur around it, and always looked like it was being viewed in the dark at night.  It was heavy enough to threaten to pull his pants down, hanging from the side of his belt, despite looking like it weighed only five or six pounds.

The ruined claw was a weapon against echoes, spirits, and other things like that.  Things without bodies.

He had some other trinkets and tricks.  He’d stapled a strip of seatbelt material to his belt and slotted some vials of alchemy into all but one of the slots.  One slot at the end had ended up too big and prone to having stuff fall through- so he’d jammed a multi-tool in there instead.  He had a paper lunch bag with a lump of meat inside that periodically moved and reacted- he could open the bag to have it scream, and disturb spirits around him.  He had black coins he could toss into a crack, vent, well, or other dark place, to get a temporary weapon or tool from the Abyss.

His real prizes, things he’d bartered at a loss for with the others, were a set of four cards.  Cameron had gotten the bangles from Seth, that had defeated Dog Tags.  Kira-Lynn had a weapon, Dony had a summon in a jar.  Travis had three items, because he’d traded away stuff like the card.  Two cards from Maricica’s involvement in Abyss and Undercity.  Two from the Blue Heron storerooms.  Each was from a different deck, he was pretty sure, and he’d talked to Miller and Joel about the possibility of turning the collection into something.  A growing deck of cards where every card was uniquely different from the rest.

A card that temporarily turned an item, magic or otherwise, into a goblin version of itself.  Interesting, but he needed time to figure it out.

A second card, one that dragged out the consequences of a gainsaying or other karmic penalty he or someone he designated suffered, making it only a quarter as bad -keeping seventy-five percent of his practice- but last ten times as long.  The card would get a hole burned in the middle, eating most of the way to the edges, then slowly healed, needing to fully close before another use.  Not as useful when he had the Carmine backing him, but it fit the set.

The third was a card that flipped practice in his immediate area over to his control and gave him claim over the surroundings.  It didn’t work on everything and would backlash against him if he tried something too strong for it, but when it did work, it let him turn someone’s practice against them.  Even summoned Others, sometimes.  The downside was that when he used it, it also produced a gang of goons, maybe undercity, maybe subhumans, maybe some mix, he didn’t know.  They were brought forth to go wreak havoc on the area, usually going on crime sprees until arrested.

That was more interesting to use, the consequences didn’t really touch him, but it would get harder to use as they got further along in all this.

And the last was a card with a man in an improvised jester costume on it, with a scraggly beard and an obnoxious face, which he held.

He heard Dony shout something, and he barely had time to process before something lashed out in his field of vision-

A bola.  Rope and weights, flying out and curving through the air to catch the joker card, wrapping around the card and Teddy’s hand.

That was what the card was for.  Drawing fire.  It made his karma worse while holding it ready, but also absorbed harm.

He held out the black branch, tracking the source as they ran through the woods, on the opposite side of the road to where the houses and snowmobiles were.  He shook his hand to get the bola loose, letting it drop to the ground by his feet.

He recognized this one.  It kept turning up, whenever they stopped to rest.  A foundling, wearing winter clothes, with a porcelain mask, the number ‘XVII’ on the forehead, and past the eye sockets of the mask, there weren’t eyes, or head, or shadow, but a distorted view of the forest behind the person with the mask.

Holding the black branch felt like holding a live wire.  The Abyss ran deep into the world, it ran through him, and it sat heavy in the branch.  Pushing himself into and through the branch felt like being on the verge of vomiting and forcing it to happen.  The body wanted to, he wanted to, even for the relief alone, and all it took was using uncommon mechanisms and biology, flexing muscles that didn’t get used that way.

Connecting the flow, making the blackness pump through him, out through the branch, in a violent release he wasn’t equipped to easily describe.  Like being mad enough to thrash someone, as a starting point, but black, not red, and not someone.  Everything.

He aimed for the mask.  The Abyssal energy flowed out and tore past tree, wood, grass, caught the back of one leg, and shredded it.

Which made the foundling stumble.

The foundling was slowed enough that the next surge of Abyssal energy, aimed at the mask, could rake along trees, branches, catching arm before arcing downward and clipping legs again, blowing both off around the knees.

The foundling tumbled, sprawling, and the mask bounced away.

I aimed at that fucking mask…

Teddy was careful to look for traps as he walked over, eyes scanning for where the mask might have fallen.  He didn’t stop looking as he idly kicked the body with one toe, so it lay on its back instead of its front, and the clothes collapsed and went limp the moment contact was made.  There was no face where the mask had been, only a stitched doll face.

He spotted the mask just in time to see a hand reach out from behind the tree to pick it up, pulling it on.  Teddy roared as he aimed the black branch, tearing past trees to try to hit the fleeing individual.

He hadn’t seen, but the ‘XVII’ was an ‘XVIII’ now, if the pattern held.  The foundling kept ‘dying’, only to survive because the mask did.

Teddy’s roar became a laugh without humor.

“Fuck these guys,” Teddy said, the rueful, humorless laugh trailing off.

A few trees creaked, wood popping and splintering, and they began to topple.

He blasted a few as best as he could before they could fall on him.  Another blast followed his, then a third, raking past trees to knock off branches, splinter trunk, and push back.

The shattered wood tumbled to the ground, plowing into snow.

Dony and Kira-Lynn were behind him.  Travis was further back but hadn’t participated.  Both held branches.

“Where the hell were you until just now?” he asked Kira-Lynn.

“Talking to the Carmine,” she replied.  Kira-Lynn seemed taller.  Her skin had gone nearly white, and the staining faintly swirled at the edges like smoke roiling at one-sixteenth speed, around her collar, cuffs, and hairline.  One of the black veins at the back of her hand had split, and was raw, blood mixing with blackness and losing out in the process.  Her expression didn’t twist, she didn’t give anything away.  She looked at home in that blackness.

She’d changed like Teddy had imagined himself changing, if he’d taken in more Abyssal energy.  Like she was walking the line of becoming a bogeyman.

“What do you and the Carmine have to talk about?” he asked.

“Maricica.  Stuff.  He’s occupied, he offered to talk about it with me later, when things calm down.”

Kira-Lynn had bonded hard with Maricica.  Being like this, she hadn’t even reacted, except to want to go hurt people, but then the Carmine had called her off, and then they’d left.  Kira-Lynn had gone with it.

Dony looked… bad.  Like it all weighed him down and he couldn’t quite straighten up.  He was a doughy kid, round-headed, built like a junior football player, but without the height, cheeks usually reddish with even the lightest amount of sun or slightest bit of cold weather, hair red-brown and short.

Dony had killed his dad.

Dony had killed his dad because the Abyss ran heavy and black through him and changed him into someone more vicious.

Dony had killed his dad because the Abyss ran heavy and black through him and changed him into someone more vicious, much like it had changed Teddy into someone who could casually joke and foster paranoia.  Telling Dony that it could be a body stealer, glamour, or doppleganger.  It wasn’t like the three witches didn’t live in a town small enough it wasn’t possible to figure out who their parents were, right?

So Dony had shot.  Dony’s dad had died.  Now Abyss leaked out of Dony, out of Teddy and Kira-Lynn, and they were inching toward a point in the near future where the emotional coldness would stop being as cold, and the feelings would be there.

A Lost darted by, followed by a thunderclap-like crash.

Teddy fired, and so did Dony.  The black lightning arced off to the side, tearing through fallen trees.

“Fuck!  Where’s Lenard?” Teddy asked.

“Not far.  I just saw him,” Kira-Lynn replied.

“Lenard!” Teddy hollered.

The man jogged over.

“How do I aim this?”

“You don’t.”

“Can I get a gun, instead?”

“Wrong mindset,” Lenard replied.  “This isn’t something where you fix it by refining your aim.  You fix it by not needing to aim at all.  Guns make bad practice.”

“Do they?” one of the Dog Tags accompanying Lenard asked.  “Anthem did alright.”

“Anthem has the clout to force it.  Here.”

Lenard wrapped some strips of black cloth around the branch, then added a chain.  He pushed Teddy’s sleeve up.  “Arm’s doing alright.  Wearing off?”


“We’ll be established by the time it’s fully gone.  If you can get any of our pursuers, that’s fine, if you can’t, don’t worry about it.”

It was surprisingly gentle for Lenard.  But he was weird like that.  Like an ordinary, good person was periodically taken over by the bad.

“I don’t want it to wear off,” Teddy said, looking out toward the trees.

“Study under me, you’ll pick up Abyssal taint over time, while also learning to live with it.”

I don’t want it over time, I want it two hours from now, so I don’t need to lie awake and stare at the ceiling, seeing what I’ve seen tonight.

“Maybe.  This change you made to the wand makes it stronger?  Anything I need to know?” Teddy asked.

“It’s stronger.  You’re fine.  Go easy on that arm, though.  If it hurts enough, you stop.  Don’t push through.”

Teddy nodded.

He waited, Lenard standing behind him, Kira-Lynn watching, until he saw movement.

The blast of lightning was forked, and each limb of the fork was four times as wide.  The darkness lanced up his arm and he felt the damage run through muscle and bone.

It wasn’t the masked person he’d hit, but he’d aimed for the head, and with the lightning-like strikes of darkness being as broad and numerous as they were, he hit the head- and just about everything else.

“Nice one,” Kira-Lynn said.

He flexed his arm, testing the damage, and then put the wand away.  He’d lean on different weapons.  A payment of a black coin let him reach between two rocks and pull out an Abyssal gun.

It wouldn’t be the first time the Abyss seemed to respond to recent prompts.  So soon after the conversation with Lenard?

He checked the road was clear, then jogged across, eyes scanning the trees.  There wasn’t anyone out there.  There was noise to the south, where Lenard’s bogeymen were.  Lenard watched Teddy with one eye, and the bogeymen with another.

He looked down at the dead teenager.  Obliterated.  There were chunks of muscle and they were still contracting and twitching.

The others were talking, and their voices faded into a mumble of background noise.

He watched until muscles stopped twitching.  The sound of distant fighting faded, which meant Teddy had to spend less time keeping an eye out for movement in the woods.

A hand at his shoulder made him flinch.  He swung and someone caught his arm.  Josef Miller, his mentor.

Others were gone.  It said something that the others hadn’t reached out to him, or come to stand watch beside him.  He wasn’t sure what it said, but it still said a lot.

The man had let his dark hair grow to chin length, and he had stubble on his chin, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.  He wore the alchemist’s leather apron, and a faint steam rose off his skin, suggesting he’d taken something to beat the cold.  The sleeves of his black long-sleeved tee were even rolled up.  No coat.



“I called, you didn’t answer.  I even said your name three times.  Are you gainsaid?”

“I have the card, so I wouldn’t go deaf to that anyway.  Lost in thought.”

“Hmm.  Good thoughts?”

Teddy shrugged.

“Did you collect samples?  Blood, tissue?” Miller pointed at the body.


“I’ll train you to do that automatically, whatever else is going on.  You’ll be a happier alchemist down the road, if you can get in the habit.”

“Feels weird.”

“It does.  It is.  But why now?  This isn’t your first kill.”

Teddy thought of a Belanger at the Belanger compound.

Dony’s dad, which was kind of his fault.

“First one up close.”

“We’re getting ready to go.  You don’t want to be a straggler.  We scared off the pursuers, but they’ll come in to get you if you trail behind and get so lost in thought you’re not properly listening.”


“Use any alchemy tonight?”

“Earlier.  Plus the spirit surgery.  Similar-ish.”

“Similar-ish,” Miller agreed.

“You got anything for stuff like this?”

“Being blown into chunks?  Yeah.  Work in progress.  But you don’t want that.  It’s not pretty, it’s meant to fight back against things that can tear you apart like that.”

“No, not him, not that.  For the mental stuff.  I’m not disloyal.  I need to be part of this.  But this- Dony’s dad?”

“I heard about that.  Heavy.  I don’t have the stuff with me.  I’d need to set up a lab.  Come on.  If you’re still awake in a few hours, I’ll see about mixing up something to help you.  We’re getting ready for the next mass teleportation.  Last one before we get ourselves settled.  Then maybe even trying sleep.  Imagine that.”

Miller looked tired, but he was the kind of guy who looked like tiredness was a comfortable and usual state for him.

“Any way we can keep this Abyss thing going, instead?” Teddy asked.


Teddy shrugged one shoulder.  “I…”

‘I like it’ would be a lie.

“…don’t hate it.”

Miller didn’t stare at him, and even seemed mildly disinterested and disconnected, but his gaze felt penetrating.

“Just saying,” Teddy replied.  “It’s a war, and being tougher, more efficient, all the other stuff, it helps.”

“You can talk to Griffin about that.  If you’re after what I’m guessing you’re after, there are other ways,” Miller told him.  “Becoming a Hyde.  Dangerous game, I knew some who did it, back when there was more of an alchemist enclave in the area.  If you don’t trust someone to get a job done?  Take a potion, become exactly who you want for the job.  Hurting?  Give it the hurt.  Angry?  Give it the anger.”

Give it…

Teddy looked back down at the teenager with the shattered mask, most of the head obliterated, the hot blood had melted snow where it was piled up less at the foot of trees, overhanging foliage keeping the snowfall away, and it was hard to tell what was meat chunks, what was soil or old leaves, and what was residual Abyss-stuff.

“There’s a cure for all that ails,” Miller said, voice soft.  “Every problem in the universe, I imagine, has a solution.  But for right now?  Other problems take priority.  We don’t want to be left behind, that’s a good five to six hours in the car.  Five or six hours we’re at risk.”


“Seth says he’s got some inkling that our enemies are angling at you guys.  Might tie into what happened with Dony’s dad showing up.”

“Right now?”

“As in, it’s in the works.  One of a few things.  We’re trying to figure out the shape of it.  They block some of the augury, baffle it with that styan Seth described.”


“I think I can break that, now that I think about it.  But to do that, I need to be in a lab, and to be in a lab?”

“We need to go.  I get it.”

Teddy looked down at the meat, then turned to go, looking both ways down the road.

There was a car coming, just far enough away he felt like he shouldn’t jog across- especially with ice in the way, but far enough away it felt awkward waiting.

He waited, using his body to block the view of the gore in the snow.

The car -the truck, Teddy could see more clearly now- slowed as it got closer, prolonging that awkwardness- extending it further when the truck came to a near total stop.

It was a massive pickup, with heavily tinted windshield and windows, bright aftermarket high beams.  Teddy was just learning to drive, taking driving lessons at night, and he’d run into it before.  When the lights seemed to flood the interior of his parents shitty little sedan.

The truck idled, and Teddy started to cross the road, keeping his Abyssal gun at his left side, out of view.

The truck lurched, tires skidding on snowy road, and Teddy, in his alarm, fell.  He reached for the cards in his inside pocket, and had a moment where he had to decide which to use.  He’d already used the mocking card.  One to goblinify something?  No.  To reverse practice?

Teddy’s finger was on the card for managing karma when Miller reached into his coat, pulling out a vial.  Teddy felt something.

“No!” Teddy called out.

Too late.

The truck found traction and surged forward, veering away from hitting Teddy, while avoiding a direct hit from the vial- it clipped the top corner of the windshield.

The contents were liquid for a moment, then flesh.  Flesh expanded, crawling across the outside of the vehicle as the liquid spread.

Teddy didn’t even get up, flipping onto his side before aiming the gun.

He fired twice, trying to shoot that patch of spreading flesh.

Miss and miss.  Maybe because he’d aimed high, not wanting to hit the passengers.  The truck, with truck nuts swinging from the back and a sticker that said something like ‘no fat chicks’ on the back hatch, carried on down the road, swerving slightly.

“Fuck,” Teddy swore.  He got to his feet, arm throbbing because using the gun wasn’t that much better than using the branch, the way the jolts had run through his arm.

The truck had stopped, turning sideways in the road.  A window rolled down.

A woman sat in the passenger seat, middle aged and worn-down looking.  The driver was a man, muscled, with short black hair and a receding hairline, large nose, and thick eyebrows.  He was smiling, but it was a weird, offputting smile, upper lip curled back to reveal teeth, eyes in a weird glare.

The fleshy thing clung to the top.  A puddle of everchanging flesh.

The woman noticed, and shrieked.  She quickly rolled the tinted window back up, using a hand to bat at the flesh.

The gunfire had drawn attention from others in their group.  Miller shook his head.

“The alchemy is being suppressed.  It’s not thriving.”


“You know what’s going on?” Miller asked.

“Innocents, or something.  Weirdly hostile, but… yeah.”

Miller made a sound halfway between snarl and sigh.

The truck peeled out.  The fleshy thing on the roof was losing its grip.

“What happened?” Griffin called out.

“Innocents.  Fuck.  Is the Carmine still around?”


Miller helped steady Teddy as they crossed a snowbank, moving toward the main group.

The Carmine was there, surrounded by the Allaires, Abraham Musser’s familiars, a Fae that was apparently Maricica’s friend, and the rest of their contingent.

“Innocents,” Miller said, with resignation.  “Spooked us.”

“You picked up bad karma,” the Carmine noted.  “Both of you.”


“Apparently the man is obsessed with guns.  Yours sounded weird.”


“And the bad karma is entangled.  They’re Aware.  One is a karmic filter.”

“They’re gone,” Seth said, looking at a hand of cards he’d drawn.  “Not in this realm?”

“That would be the other one,” the Carmine said.  “You couldn’t know, you took pains, Teddy Kilburn.  You’re absolved.  I’ll spend power to clear that up for you.  Everyone else, be careful.  This would be some of what Seth talked about.  The measures they’re taking.”

“First the annoying as fuck Lost and foundlings?” Teddy asked.

“That I’m sure Miss created with this sort of scenario in mind.  Harassers and harriers, hard to put down, keeping us on our toes.  They fell back after the bogeymen started pursuing.  They’ll keep coming, but now we’ll have to be careful there may be Aware mixed in.”

He raised his head.

The Aurum was there, sitting on the centipede’s head as the centipede weaved through trees.

“We can assign some of any karmic debt to the people who put the Aware on task?” the Carmine asked.

“They were careful to divorce themselves from direct involvement, but yes.  The argument can be made.”

“Good.  In any case, I think it would be good to move.”

“Abba and Agrippa,” one of the Kims said.

The boy and girl faced each other and began working with the sticks.

“Do you know what’s going on?” Cameron asked the head Dog Tag.  “We can compel you to say, if you do.”

“I don’t,” the Dog Tag said.

The Dog Tag was the only one that looked remotely at ease, like this.  Giving nothing away.

People were tired, or bloody.  The others who were tainted with Abyss had that Abyss-stuff draining away, and as it did, the costs of the night began to wear on them.  Teddy’s arm throbbed.  The Allaires and Kims were best off, the key players for some of the next phases in their bigger plan, but even they had traveled long distances and were up in the middle of the night.  The Kims seemed to wear it well, especially because they traveled a lot, but clothes were rumpled and coats were wet with damp snow.

Which made him think of bloody chunks in the snow.  He could still see that blown-apart teenager in his mind’s eye.

The Aurum moved on.  The Carmine remained where he was, wearing his red fur coat, a dark look in his eyes, not immune to the night’s costs either.


“Why aren’t we doing this in Toronto?”

“Because I made deals with Eloise Miraz’s extended family, offering them Toronto.  Were I to relocate my throne to the city, it wouldn’t sit well with them.  We’re close.  Three hours away.  Enough to be neighbors without stepping on toes.”

The location was apparently a peninsula extending up and into Lake Huron, northwest of Toronto.  The Carmine Exile liked cabins and being a bit removed from civilization, and this struck a balance of having nice cabins and things while still suiting his tastes.

The Kims were unfolding a house they’d brought with them, turning it from something horrored -they’d used some word he hadn’t caught- to ordinary.  Teddy went out of his way to avoid looking at it, because it pulled at his eyes.

The Allaires were very new to glamour, but the Fae were prepared to work with them, and they were eager.  Had been eager for a long time.  Promised magic and then forsworn instead.  The way they took to it, it was like the universe was trying to make it up to them.  They conjured buildings.

“Won’t someone notice a whole new area sprung up out of nowhere?”

The Carmine watched as the house rose up.  “Things are out of season, the only people coming by are ice fishers.  The Aurum can nudge civilization, I can nudge conflict, they can be left to think some unscrupulous developers pushed for this to happen, and now that it’s here, it’s too late to protest.  It’s easier if there are no Aware…”

He paused.

“The truck is out there.  Others are approaching.  This will cost more than it should, even with the debt split between me and them.”

“You have power to spare, don’t you?” Helen asked.

“They might think they can nickel and dime me, when I have hundreds of millions to spare, metaphorically speaking.  It will cost them more than it costs me.  Maybe if I hadn’t accepted the deal, it would be a different picture.  This could be a backfire of their plan.”

“Do you think it is?” Helen asked.  “A backfire?”

“I think they would have pulled back in some way, somehow, if it was.”

“Carmine, sir,” one of the Kims called out.

“What do you need?”

“Should we hide the building behind trees?”

The building was an old manor, with multiple wings and sub-buildings, a walled fence around the exterior, and exaggerated, twisting paths past gardens with the lightest smattering of snow on them, in contrast to everything else.

“It would be a good idea.”

“We’ve got a patch of forest we can lend over here.  Technically the trees are rooted in our folded neck of the Kingdom, back home, but we can stretch things and make it believable.”

“Good,” the Carmine said.  “Will it be long?  I have my throne to set down, and I don’t want us to get in one another’s ways.”

“Not long.  Then we can give people rooms for the short term.  The house is a bit of a bear trap to be living in, but it should be fine.”

“Bear trap?” Seth asked.

“Ready to be folded up at a moment’s notice.  Folding any intruders up too, stretching them out and compressing them, as needed.  But we won’t do that to our guests, if we can help it.  Later the Allaires will have finished more houses, and we’ll have defenses.  Others in the woods and along the road.”

“Carry on,” the Carmine said, arms folded, a glower on his face.

“Thaddeus!  The forest!”

Travis walked over.  “Do we have snacks?  Dony’s hungry.”

“Dony can’t ask himself?” Kira-Lynn replied.

“I figured I’d save him the trouble.”

“Joel has snacks,” Teddy said.  “Packs these big survivalist kits and MRE-type things.  Military rations.”

Travis met Teddy’s eyes, accusatory.  Teddy met them- not sure if it made him more of an asshole to meet the stare, or if it’d make him one to look away.

Then Travis stalked off, in Joel’s direction.

“Good call,” Cameron said, to Teddy.  “Remembering about Joel and all.”

It sounded like she was trying too hard to be nice.

Dony killed his dad.

Dony killed his dad because I suggested it.

“I’m going to patrol,” Teddy said.

“Good idea.  Want company?” Cameron asked.

“You said you’d stay with me tonight,” Seth said, reaching out for her, pulling her against him.

I guess he’s feeling better.  The third teleportation leap had been only marginally better than the second.

Teddy ended up doing two loops around the new area.  He familiarized himself with it, passed a sign that suggested only a thousand people lived here in this part of the peninsula, and saw little enough civilization that he wondered if all of those one thousand people lived here in the winter.

The cabins were nice, though.  Some had been co-opted, or broken in to, by members of their group.  Others were being conjured up out of glamour.

Glamour could shatter, Teddy knew.  Maricica had given them the rundown, and some lessons.

There was the chance they could be attacked, and even a few intruders could do a lot of damage if they could break up the houses before the glamour settled into being something real.  So Teddy did his full loops, trying to occupy his thoughts with observations, and by the time he’d circled around the second time, he could feel the last major traces of the Abyss leaving him.  He coughed a few times and spat up blackness.

The house the Kims had made was fully erect, now. Teddy found his hastily packed bag by one of the cars, undid the protective binding on it, and brought it with him, approaching the gate.  Two teenage Kims stood on guard.  Helen was outside too, talking to… two other Helens?  One with a different hairstyle, one a little younger than her.


One of the boys on guard told Teddy, “So you know, don’t hop the fence in the night or anything like that.  There are protections.  You’ll land on the other side with more limbs than you had when you started.”


“Can we verify your identity?”

Teddy went through it with them.  They checked, called someone inside, and Teddy exchanged words and verifying details with them too.

“Okay,” the voice on the phone said.

The guard said, “You can go on in.  There’s food in the kitchen-”

“Not that hungry.”

“Then you can go up the first flight of stairs and turn left to go to the rooms.  Walk softly, it’s an old house.  If the room’s empty and the door’s open, the room’s available.  If you want to shower and warm up, use the showers by the kitchens, the servant ones, so you don’t make too much noise.”

“I’ll shower later.”

“There are Brownies available, to sort out minor needs, sewing, cleaning, furniture, and food, of course.  There are rules when it comes to the brownies.”

“I know, I was at the Blue Heron, before.  Not to acknowledge or thank them?”


“So they came.  Okay.”

It should have lifted his spirits, knowing there’d be food that good, but Teddy felt heavier than when he’d had the Abyss in him.

The main staircase was framed by statues that had multiple limbs, one with a lower jaw that dipped as low as the stomach, like a wax sculpture that had a metal jaw, that had sunken when the days had gotten too warm.  The black carpet that ran from front door to the main staircase wasn’t straight, but cut an uneven path across the floor, even doing a little loop-de-loop as part of a left-hand turn.

He felt so tired that he figured the moment he lay down on the bed, he’d pass out.

He closed his eyes and saw bloody chunks.

Dony’s expression- the way Dony had held himself.  Like he’d been already feeling the weight Teddy was now.

The fact he was further from home than he’d ever been.

Dony’s expression.

Your actions and thoughts when Abyss-tainted are still you.  Words from Kira-Lynn, back in the new year.

The thoughts went in circles.  He could push some away, but others crept in.

He wished he’d done a better job of bonding with Kira-Lynn.  A part of him wanted to go to her, to- his thoughts went in two directions at once.  To be held and to hold.  To confide, to be confided in.

The room was so big.  A painting had aristocracy from some renaissance type era sitting around an old fashioned living room, and the image seemed ordinary at first, but the longer he looked, the more details became clear- a lady’s legs blended in with her dress, and the repeating pattern on her stocking became the repeating pattern on the floor, like she was the floor.  A man leaning over the end of a couch held a teacup, cane, and pet his dog, when he had only two hands.  The dog was an optical illusion that could be one in a play motion, head down, rump high, man scratching the point where spine met pelvis, or it could be a dog with head under the man’s hand.

On another wall, pages that might’ve been from an old textbook had been removed and framed.  Vitruvian-man style images of women with organs laid out in rows and columns beside them, many of the organs not humanly possible.  Another image of a woman with a linked diagram indicating a fetus in her belly, and another linked diagram with a man curled up into a ball within the fetus, manhood in mouth.

It was all very dark and heavy, and none of it was good in the way of a distraction.  Like, yes, it distracted, but it also depressed and intimidated him, and the moment the distraction failed, the depression made the return to dark thoughts easy.

Kira-Lynn had lost Maricica.

Travis was trying to help Dony.

Dony had shot his dad.

Teddy had encouraged the shooting.

The others were gone.  Joshua had bailed.  Nomi, Adrian, and Harri had turned traitor.  Cameron was with Seth right now… probably the happiest of them.  Knowing how she was with Seth, probably very happy.

She’d never really been a part of their group, hanging onto Seth like she did.

And there were others, but they were even less a part of things than Cameron.

“Fuck,” he swore under his breath.  Sleep wasn’t finding him.  He sat up on the bed.  His arm hurt.  Swearing helped, so he swore a few more times.  “Shit.  Fuck me.  Fuck Dony for listening to me.  Fuck, why couldn’t we have stayed in the Blue Heron?  Why the fuck does this have to be so hard?”

Saying things out loud made it easier to keep thoughts from spiraling, even if he knew he sounded like a crazy person.

“Fuck, shit, fuck, damn.  Goddamn it.”

His grandmother had once freaked out on him for taking the lord’s name in vain.  It hadn’t stopped him from doing it, but it had given the idea a special weight and presence in his mind, grabbing at his attention.

But swearing and even swearing about God had less weight the more he did it.  The room was big, ostentatious, and the decorations were disturbing.  His voice felt small in it.

He sighed, heavy and loud.  Trying to strike a balance where he wasn’t waking anyone up, but could fill the space with- with himself, maybe.

The space that was a bear trap, apparently.  Why did they have to mention that?


He sighed again, and found himself a bit out of breath.

The breathing quickened.  Meat chunks and the smell of those meat chunks, blood and Abyss stuff in the air, sprung up in his sensory memory.

The broken logic that flowed through his mind was that he’d exerted himself too much, bringing his bag in, and in his efforts to not be quiet, he’d held most of his breath for too long.  But that didn’t make sense, it had been fifteen minutes.

More broken logic.  It was the last traces of the Abyss leaving him.  Exhaustion rubberbanding back at him like a broken connection block.

Except that wasn’t how it worked.

He fought to catch his breath, stood, felt dizzy, and sat back down on the bed.  It squeaked and screeched beneath him, springs compensating for his weight.

He wasn’t sure what to do to break away from this.

He wasn’t sure where to go, in this strange place.  He wasn’t sure where to go tomorrow, what he was meant to do.  Miller would give him jobs but other stuff was happening and it all felt too big.

Meat chunks and Dony and fucking Aware and Lost and foundlings, more fighting, maybe, and they were setting up shop here, this would be the center of what the Carmine was building from here on out.  London had lend international aid and support, and that counted for so much, but there were still enemies who they’d have to confront.

More fighting.  More situations like with Dony.  Whose turn would it be next?

Couldn’t breathe.  His heart hurt.

Panic attack, he belatedly realized.  You stupid fuck, this is panic.

Putting a name to it didn’t make it better.  Because every time he’d seen a panic attack on TV and in movies, it had been someone who had someone near them, to walk them through it.

The room was big and empty and he was so far from home and everything he knew.

He couldn’t stay.  He didn’t want to go out there and have anyone see him like this but he couldn’t stay.  It felt like the paintings were moving, the faces above twisted bodies turning to stare at him  Like furniture was moving.

A dying snake and we’re its shed skin.

Meat chunks.

He pulled on clothes, and he left.

Into the hallway.  A labyrinth of a house he didn’t know his way around.  He knew there were people at the door outside, there might be some at the kitchen.  So he went the other way.  Further down the hallway, until he saw spiral stairs going up.  He went up spiral stairs.  Passed another hallway with people in it.

He banged his shin against stone stair.

He felt dizzy.  The spiral stairs didn’t help.

And he came face to face with a girl.  One of the Allaire forsworn.

In this place, with so much black, black lace, red, and macabre imagery, she wore a light yellow nightdress.  She sat on the top stair by a door.

He struggled to breathe.  He held his breath so he wouldn’t embarrass himself, which compounded everything else, and made him briefly feel like he could die.

“I needed to get away from things,” she said.  “I was outside a bit.  It’s nice… ish.”

He coughed out a breath and it came with a whimper.

“Hey.  Are you okay?” she asked, voice soft.

“Need air,” he gasped the words.  He could feel a faint cold draft, which she didn’t seem to care about.  Which set alarm bells ringing.

She scooted out of the way, but she also reached out a hand, and he caught it- gripping fingers together in one hand, hard.  She flinched, trying to pull free, and he held on, with crushing grip.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“I’m Alex Tatum.  One of the Allaire practitioners, but I hate being called that.  I’m loyal.  Can you let go of my hand?  It hurts.”

He couldn’t, any more than he could fix his breathing.

“Let go!”

He let go.  Guilt surged through him.  He would have apologized, but his breathing-

His chest felt like it was being crushed.

He felt dizzy.

“Look, take my hand, gently-”

He smacked her hand away, out of guilt, with enough force he knocked it into the stone wall to his right, her left.

“Fuck you then,” she said, standing, holding her hand.  “I tried.”

He didn’t-


He didn’t want to move.  He wanted help.  He just couldn’t-

His chest hurt.

She pushed his chest, moving him aside.  He almost tumbled down stairs, except there was a windowsill and the wall curved to go along with the spiral stairs.

She went down, taking the steps quickly.

He would have apologized, but he could barely breathe.  The door had a latch that had to be turned, and he turned it to get outside, stumbling.

Teddy collapsed onto a narrow strip of walkway, wrought iron railings on either side of him.  There were bits of snow, and he didn’t have a coat on.

The door banged shut behind him.

He’d wanted help, but he didn’t deserve it.

Dony’s dad had come and Dony had shot him.  His dad would have backed him up or something.  So Teddy, for his part in that, didn’t get backup either.  He’d fucked it.  He’d stacked one more bad thing onto a whole slew of them, hurting the girl, maybe making an enemy.  One more thing to dwell on, to keep the thought spiral going, to feed future ones.

He’d gotten the part in the TV shows where someone could help him and walk him out of this and he’d fucked it, so now he lay here, arm touching cold wrought iron, and he had to live with feeling like he was dying.  It felt as bad as he’d imagined a heart attack being.

Eventually, because the hurt and exhaustion from suffering through it all had worn him down enough his thoughts couldn’t spiral, he found breathing more under control.

Maricica had urged him to be a trickster.  To have his bag of tricks.  He was good at it.  He’d shown he was good at it, figuring out about the Aware, almost in time to stop his mentor from provoking them.  He had flexibility, he could be witty and funny.

But this, feeling like he’d just felt?  It was the opposite.  His thoughts so limited and locked in that even basic functioning like breathing had been fucked up.

He straightened.  The metal railing was cold, but necessary to get to a standing position.  His arm hurt.

It was cold, but not nearly as cold as it should be, if he was in Canada, frozen or partially frozen lake on three sides of the peninsula.  Because technically this house wasn’t here.

Onto a little strip of path that went along the peak of the roof, between the tower with the spiral stairs and some room at the far end.  Wrought iron fence ran along either side of that path.  More jumbled roof stood to his left.  To his right, he could look north and see the Carmine Exile erecting his cabin, setting up his throne here, like he’d done at the Blue Heron and in Kennet before it.  Cracks like broken glass appeared and then fixed.  The moonlight that shone off the lake and passed near the Carmine’s place came away red tinted.

Slowly, he pulled himself together.  He cried, and wiped tears away.  He stood there, watching the Carmine build.

The door opened.  Teddy wiped his face in a hurry, too slow to do it without being seen.

The lead Dog Tag.

Words failed Teddy.

The Dog Tag didn’t talk immediately either.  He put both hands on the railing, and looked in the Carmine’s direction.

“If things had gone differently, if I’d made it out this far, if this had been what was in Canada when I arrived, I think I could’ve been okay with it,” the Dog Tag said.  “A representative of War in power, offering fuel to the fires that keep me and my brothers and sisters going?  Not that bad.  If I didn’t know what I know now.”

“You’re not supposed to try to subvert or sway-”

“Not what I’m doing,” the Dog Tag replied.  He touched his neck, which was encircled with floating, slowly rotating runework.  “I’m thoroughly bound.  Your mentor or one of your mentors ensured that.”

“You kind of are doing it.  Suggesting the other side was better, changed your mind-”

“Not intentionally.  It’s part of who I am.”

“Don’t do it unintentionally either, take that part of yourself and put it away,” Teddy told the Dog Tag.  “Part of your binding is you’re supposed to listen to any and all of us?”


“Don’t do that.  Can you go the fuck away?”



“Me going might break orders I’m bound to follow.  I’m supposed to act to preserve the life of you and your friends and mentors, and all of them.  There’s a boy in distress, standing on a rooftop.”

“If I say I’m not going to jump and it didn’t cross my mind, will you fuck all the way off?”

“I’d still worry, and I’m going to play this careful.  I want to get through this, somehow.”

“There’s no through.  This is it.  This is life from now on.”

Teddy’s voice broke a bit on that last sentence.

“Hmmm.  Maybe.  Is there any way this can be life from now on where, instead of me patrolling endlessly like some horse walking in circles all day, we meet on the regular, we talk?”

“I don’t trust you.”

“You enslaved me.  You enslaved my comrades in arms.  You made me shoot at friends with intent to kill.  I’ve wounded people I fought for, before.  I saw a friend, also enslaved, go out to fight, and he got shot through the forehead.  A funny, great-”

“You’re not supposed to-”

“Yeah,” the Dog Tag said.  He leaned into the railing.  “Jus’ saying.  It’s not like I trust you either.  But if this is where we’re at?  Can’t we meet, shoot the shit?  Be enemies who respect each other?”

“What the fuck would I have to say to you?”

“Talk about fighting?  War?  My buddy, he’s falling into a leadership role, he’d talk with the three witches, one in particular, about the costs of war.  How it’s really a thing where both sides lose, and one side tries to make the other side lose faster.  It’s not fun.  You don’t look like you’re having fun.”

“Fuck you.”

“What even got you into this?  I’ve heard bits and pieces.”

“Are you fishing for information?”

“I am not.  Genuinely.”

When they’d fought over who’d get what mentor, Teddy hadn’t had a great story.  Nomi had the dead mom, so she got the necromancer.  Joshua sacrificed for others, so he took Lenard so everyone else wouldn’t have to.  Cameron had come late, but she’d had the whole scandal with being a thief and all.  Harri’s mom had hit her or something.

Teddy was a below-average student with a quick wit, he’d had a long string of bad teachers, and it had felt a lot like any job he got, it’d be more of the same.  He’d changed schools, hoping to get better teachers, even though his parents couldn’t afford the tuition -it was barely anything, mostly covered by stuff for religious schools- but they didn’t have a lot of money.  But the teachers had been acceptable, not great, and that feeling hadn’t left him.  That there was no bright future, there was nothing ahead.  They talked about God and it sure felt like God had better things to do than look after him.

Everything he was good at was contrary to what he was being asked for. Being the joker, quick to come up with ideas?  Good instincts?  Nope.  Even when he was in a position to put those talents to use, he had to move as fast as the slowest student in the class.

And then someone comes along, saying hey, here’s an actual goddess who’s there if you ask for her, offering power.  Here’s a guy saying he wants to tear down the old system.  Here’s a chance to be your best you.

He didn’t like this, any of this, but the alternative felt worse.

The railing moved slightly as the Dog Tag leaned more into it, bending over, forearms resting against the bar, the spikes at the top very close to his neck and the runework there.

“You’re still here?” Teddy asked.  He’d gotten lost in thought.  He was tired, even if he hadn’t been able to sleep.

“Still here.”

Teddy felt a flare of anger.  He wanted company but not this.  Not- not a fucking enemy only helping because he had to.  He didn’t want company that stripped away more control, made this feel even more out of control.

“Hey.  If I ordered you to leave, take that gun and fuck yourself with it, and then pull the trigger right before you got to the happy part, you’d have to, right?”

“Guess I’ll be walking in circles like a horse tied to a stake, huh?”


“Is that really who you want to be?  That’s ugly.”

“You’d have to, right?”

“Guess so.  Doesn’t get me to go away though.  Just means I have to humiliate and hurt myself after I did get around to leaving.”

“What the fuck does it take?  To get rid of you?”

“Name someone I can call on.  Something or someone you want.  If they replace me, I’m carrying out the orders that came from people with more say over my bound self than you have.”

Teddy shook his head.

“First person that comes to mind.  Who?  Just say it.”

“Kira-Lynn.”  Teddy thought of how she’d crossed his mind earlier, around the start of the panic attack.


“Closest person I have to a friend here.  Or a- I don’t know.”

“Surprising number of I-don’t-knows out there.  People that defy easy labeling.  Especially girls.”

“Not like that.  I- we’re not like that.  We’re friendly, but I want the Kira-Lynn where I set things up better.  Someone to be next to me.  Someone to listen.”

“I could call a buddy down there, get them to find out what room she’s in, call her up.  Even if you’re not there, you can work your way there.”



“If I go inside, does that settle it?  I go to my room, sleep, you don’t worry you failed in some duty?”

“I guess.”

“Get out of my way then.  That’s what I’ll do, or try to do.”

The Dog Tag opened the door, leaning against the railing to make room for Teddy to pass by.

The door banged shut as Teddy got a few stairs down.


The Dog Tag was sitting at the top of the stairs, back to the door, like the Allaire girl in the nightgown had been.


“Two things.  First off?  If someone young as you wants someone to hold them and listen to them?  Take it from a soldier, sometimes that’s not your girl.  Sometimes you want to call your mom.  Don’t get the two confused, goes awkward places.”

“Uh huh?” Teddy asked, out of patience.

“And if you do end up talking to your mom?  I hope she doesn’t ever have to know you said the kind of shit you said up there.  The threat.  She might have fucked up raising you, but-”

“Shut up.”

The Dog Tag fell silent.

“Don’t talk to me or anyone else unless it’s mission critical or someone with more say over your binding than me asks you something.  Don’t talk to your Dog Tag buddies, don’t tell anyone about tonight, just fuck off, shut up, leave me alone, and walk in your circles, patrolling.  How’s that?”

The Dog Tag pressed his lips together and nodded once, sitting on the stairs.

“Don’t relax there for too long, you have a job here.”

The Dog Tag stood.

“Yeah,” Teddy said, voice soft.

Teddy jogged downstairs, slowing his pace when he reached the old wooden floorboards, so he wouldn’t wake anyone.  An ugly feeling chased him.

He found his room again, using Sight to help follow connections and make sure it wasn’t occupied, and let himself inside.

He got his phone and plugged it in, waiting a minute before turning it on, because it was tricky like that.  He saw the log of missed calls.  Then he dialed.

Six AM call.

“Teddy!  Oh my god.”

He could hear the exchange as his mom woke his dad up.

“I needed to call, I need you to not ask too many questions, just-”

“About the magic stuff?”

He felt that crush around his heart, like he’d felt with the panic attack.

His breath came out as a shudder, the panic threatening to return.

“Why’d you have to go and find out about that?” he asked, voice thin.

“They told us.  We were so worried, already, and with everything…”

He was silent.

“Teddy, we love you.  You can come home any time.  We’ll figure things out.”

“We love you,” his dad repeated.  “Whatever’s going on, it doesn’t matter.  Come home.  There’s a hug waiting for you.  We’ll take the day off work, whatever you need.  But come home.”

He opened his mouth, but didn’t know what to say.


“You shouldn’t trust them.  The girls that told you about stuff.  They have an agenda.”

“Okay, come and explain to us.  Honey.”

He almost said yes.

“Honey, Teddy, we love you.  We’re so worried, so scared.  Things we saw- if you’re tied up in that, risking getting hurt, I don’t want that.  Come home.”

But then his mind tripped over the question of how he’d get there.  He didn’t know a convenient practice.

“Teddy?  Are you there?”

This wasn’t really a thing they could back out of, anyway.

“Yes.  I’m here.”

“Come home?”

It sounded like she was crying.

How would he even explain?  The big things?  The little ones.  Crushing some nice girl’s hand?

“I’m in too deep,” he said, hanging up so quickly he wasn’t sure if they heard him finish the statement or not.


Teddy looked in the mirror and he saw the Carmine Exile.

The Kim’s place had a meeting room, and it incorporated an arrangement of mirrors that made things reflected look like oil paintings, and caught things at weird angles and refractions, so a person appeared to have more arms than they should, or Teddy could look straight on into a mirror and see someone else.

The representatives from Ottawa arrived.  Only a handful.

“Deals were sworn,” one of the representatives said.  “Things were secured.  We’re not to be harmed in any way, on your oath.”

“On my oath,” the Carmine said.  He’d moved his throne into the room, and sat there.  Half the room was taken up by his allies.  Teddy sat with other students.  Kira-Lynn and Cameron.  Not bad company, except by not wanting to sit near Teddy, Dony had ended up sitting at the far end of the half circle, kind of facing Teddy.  It was pretty obvious Dony didn’t want to look at him.

The Carmine addressed them before they’d even finished sitting.  “My position is secured by international powers, by verbal agreement with the Lord of London, head of one of the most prominent practitioner councils in the world.  We are, whatever happened before today, looking like we’re going to be neighbors for a long time.”

“So it seems,” one of the representatives said.

She didn’t sound happy.

“Things are in motion, some set that way last night, others still being put in order.  The last of my enemies are under pressure.  I’ve met with smaller powers and forces, the Aurum has met with others, and I know others reached out to Alabaster and Sable.  You’re the first major power I’m talking to.  This deal made with London is for your benefit as much as mine.  It’s one border you don’t have to worry about, it gives you an excuse to talk to London, and you curry favor by accepting the status quo.”

“And by accepting, we’re protected from you and your Lords?  Your business takes place in your borders, we converse as required for matters crossing jurisdictions, we may even do business, on pain of drawing the ire of London if we attempt to be anything but amicable and fair.  This is a hard truce and peace treaty.”

“Yes.  The deals and truce are to happen on my terms.  Things in my jurisdiction will be different.  There will be rolling effects, London knows and accepts this.  Some of it will inconvenience you, that’s the reality your council has to face.”

“If we accept,” the woman said.

“If you accept, yes.  You’re going to accept,” the Carmine said.  “The cost is far, far greater if you don’t.”

They exchanged glances.

“Then we accept.”

Teddy relaxed.

One step toward being out of the darkest, ugliest part of all of this.

“So agreed, so sworn?” the Carmine asked.

“So agreed, so sworn, as representatives of Ottawa’s council, speaking for ourselves, our council, and all under our jurisdiction.  Some may rankle, we will put in the effort to make them comply.  There are matters to arrange, we ask for your full attention, consideration, and evenhanded cooperation as we work through questions of mutual concerns, security, and trade.  This is a closed door meeting.”

“Agreed and sworn on our part as well.  That’s fine.”

“And on that token, allow us to put one current temporary member of Ottawa’s council forward, to outline matters…”

Teddy shifted in his seat.

The Carmine, for his part, put elbow on table, hand over mouth.

“I hereby announce myself! I am Percival Awarnach the second, of the one hundred titles!”

“An arrangement set forth before any deals, we agreed he would have time at the table today,” a representative said.

“Excuse me!  I’ve been interrupted!  I will restart!”

“You intend to occupy me?”

“We ask for your full attention as our temporary member handles proceedings.  I hope you’re prepared, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and he’s loquacious.  We’re prepared for a long meeting- I’m a chronomancer, time is no concern.  My colleague is a leprous martyr.”

“Suffering is power.”

“And the others of our accompaniment have made accommodations, in preparation.”

Teddy shifted in his seat.

The Carmine raised a hand, motioning for him to stay seated.  Not that he’d planned to go.

It’s that closed door a meeting?  We can’t leave?

“What do you think it will change?” the Carmine asked.

“I suppose we’ll see.  Get us started?”

“I, representative of Ottawa, Percival Awarnach the second, of the one hundred titles…”

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter


Finish Off – 24.1


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Lucy was tempted to remove her earring, to tune out the voices from the others, but she didn’t want to let her guard down.

Her entire body hurt, in ways healing potions couldn’t reach.  Bones felt bruised, and every step brought up that bone-deep hurt.  Joints felt uncooperative, swollen or locking up and then making every grinding fraction of adjustment known when she pushed past that lock-up.

George, Wallace, and Brayden said something, guffawing, and she closed her hand, and it hurt in three different ways as it closed into a fist.

Them being happy and easygoing is a good thingWe just have to find a balance.

It didn’t help that the ground swayed, as if everything in this town was part of a massive rope bridge.  The Common’s Thread looked like it was all made of driftwood, lashed together with salty rope, overcast sky above and below them.  Clouds sometimes drifted by, and they tasted like saltwater.

Gashwad swore as he knocked some stacked wood off the edge of a rooftop.  It spooked some of their Aware.  A Lost called him out, and he swore at them, intently and loudly, to avoid giving them the chance to give him any orders.

“Oh, look, look!” Mia gushed.

A flock of birds that were tied together or something, some gripping parts of a sweater and a pair of pants, were flying, some in opposing directions.  The effect created a herky-jerky shape of a walking woman.  The loose end of ribbons, otherwise pulled taut by the birds, were some facsimile of hair, made to snap and flutter by beating wings.

“That’s so cool,” Wallace said.

“Oh, hmm, shoot,” Avery said.  “Give her space?  Avoid eye contact-”

“She doesn’t have eyes that aren’t bird eyes, I don’t think, I’m not sure how you avoid bird eye contact without looking at her altogether,” Verona murmured, but she turned away, looking aside, and walked elbow first into Mia, who was still looking.  “But yeah.  Mia, that means stop looking at her altogether, I guess.”

Avery had reached for her charm bracelet.  Lacrosse stick.

Lucy reached for her weapon ring, and moved to block Mia’s view.

Verona grabbed past Mia’s open coat, got a fistful of the side of Mia’s stomach, and squeezed.

“Ow!  What the fuck?” Mia asked.

“Is there a problem?” Connor called ahead from the back of the group.

“Not sure yet,” Avery said, before walking into the side of their friend group, pushing them.

“I’m sure.  What the fuck?” Mia asked.

Lucy helped herd.  “Listen to Avery, seriously.  She knows how this place works.  Don’t touch stuff without asking first, don’t wander, and listen to Avery, to the letter.

“Ribbons symbolize trouble here, and she had a lot,” Avery pointed out.  “It’s like… imagine a tourist was in Canada and didn’t know that a big yellow ‘electrified fence’ sign meant that you shouldn’t touch the fence, or that certain colors and symbols signified gang affiliation.”

“So she’s a gang member?” Brayden asked, glancing at Lucy.

“Why are you looking at me?  I don’t know much about gangs,” Lucy replied.  “Grew up in the same place you did, crumbnuts.”

Mia perked up.  “You knew about the creeps in white that came into the school, right?  That Bracken knew?”

“I- yeah.  That was magic stuff more than anything.”

“Damn.  More background magic stuff, that’s wild,” Mia said.

Lucy felt bad for Mrs. Schaff, who was back in Kennet, coming to terms with the fact she’d be herding supernatural cats.  But they had fellow teenagers, and Lucy didn’t like fellow teenagers much.  Even Mia, who was okay.

“With the warning sign, some stuff’s universal,” Jeremy said.  “Isn’t it?  You could go to just about any country in the world and a yellow triangle would mean a warning, right?”

“This is universal, in that it’s part of the universe,” Avery replied.  “The Paths might be as big as Earth, I don’t know.  They’ve got their own cultures, their own way of doing things, but the Lost are still people, whether they’re flocks of birds or have yellow signs for heads, so don’t gawk or be weird, and know, hmm… just like people, they can suck, be dangerous, be good, be-”

“Aaa!” Brayden exclaimed.

A family of husband, wife, and two kids with nooses around their necks were moving down the road at a good clip, and they’d just come past Brayden’s right.  The toes of their feet dragged on the ground, ropes extended from their necks into the overcast sky above.  The kids were joking around, while the parents were acting normal, saying hi to some of the Lost at the head of the group.

Ignoring the humans, which rankled, but it wasn’t anywhere near Lucy’s top one hundred priorities right now.

Connor whistled.  Heads turned.  Including the group of Lost.

“Sorry!” he called out, raising an arm in a wave.  “Wrangling this group!”

The dad of the noose family raised a hand in response, before carrying on.

“Rest of you, whose attention I was trying to get?  Pay attention to what Lucy, Verona, and Avery are saying.”

“Especially Avery, when it comes to this stuff,” Verona said.

“Yep,” Connor said.

Mollified, the group carried on.

The way things were arranged, a bunch of the new Aware that were their age were with them, a loose herd.  A few Lost were with them, leading the group, Snowdrop among them.  The parents and other Aware trailed behind, with Avery periodically walking backwards to keep an eye on things.  Avery’s mom and dad had been to Paths, more her mom than her dad, and were able to manage things a bit.

They all moved to the other side of the street, giving a wide berth to bird woman, who’d started walking their direction when attention had been drawn to her.

Miss had rubberbanded back to Kennet, bringing a lot of the Lost and Foundling residents.  On her recommendation, the three of them were heading out.  Miss and her Lost and foundlings had taken over protecting Kennet, joined by the Aware who’d been Aware before all this, like Mrs. Schaff.

Making this trip didn’t feel super great, knowing that things weren’t great at the destination, and with the slight delay imposed by Avery needing to find an acceptable Path to travel by.

“No!” a Lost at the head of the group called out.

The birds making up the flock-of-birds woman chirped and sang and the sounds came in bursts, like coordinated birdsong.  Lucy tried to use her earring, and thought she maybe caught something, but only got the last sound of the last word of the response.

“We haven’t done any of that,” Snowdrop replied.  “We could use the help.”

The birds-woman paused, then the birds took off, and in the taking off, sweater and pants disintegrated into more birds, flying out over nearby buildings.  A stray ribbon fluttered to ground.

“We good?” Lucy asked.

“Nah,” Snowdrop said, warily watching as some of the birds flew in a lazy circle above them.  Avery’s eyes were on the ribbon.

Apparently the rule for this Path was that Lost could request things or give orders and you had to obey.  But they’d come with Snowdrop and some other Lost and pre-empted that with some orders for each of them, to insulate them.  The way was supposed to be clear- or as clear as any of this stuff got.

Verona wasn’t talking to her mom, who was back at the rear of the group.  Her mom wasn’t reaching out, and was instead taking it all in, chatting lightly with Lucy’s mom and Avery’s parents.

“She doesn’t seem happy.”

“Her friends just died.”

“More than that.  Before she even knew that.”

“All the girls got pulled into a scary situation.  They’re fighting against something I still don’t entirely understand, for the sake of people they’ve befriended-“

“Love.  With some it’s love.  Platonic love, mentors, people they take care of.”


“Do we really want our kids wrapped up in this?  The other kids, George, Wallace, Jeremy, the girls?”

Brayden’s dad was the one asking.

“I don’t know.  Probably not.  Maybe.  I think a lot depends on how things went tonight.”


“Still going!” Lucy raised her voice, turning to look back at her mom, interrupting Brayden’s dad.  “Not went.  Still going.”

Her mom didn’t look happy.

“She heard that?” Brayden’s dad asked, not whispering any more.

“My life has been punctuated by me realizing Lucy’s overheard things, and me not realizing she’s overheard things and really wishing I had.  Now she has magic to help with that,” Lucy’s mom said.  “We’ll talk about it with the Others, okay?”

Lucy shook her head and turned away.

“It’s still going?” Jeremy asked.

“It’s always going,” Oakham replied.  “There’s always something, seems like.”

“I thought we fought off the guys back at the Arena, and now that was it,” Jeremy said.

“What fighting did you do?” Wallace asked, before adding, “I said that wrong, it’s not like I did anything either.”

Still, it looked like maybe Mia, Wallace and the others had picked up that impression somehow.  It kind of explained how easygoing and goofy they’d become.

“No,” Lucy replied.  “So listen and be safe, okay?”

“Hey Lucy?” Mia asked.  “When we were all hanging out before the movie and you said you knew swordfighting, that was for real?”

Lucy slipped her weapon ring on, reached for a pen that was in her pocket, and flicked it out into an epee-style sword.

“Holy shit.”

“Where we’re going is where we went for summer, actually,” Lucy pointed out.

“With the swordfighting?”

“Some.  A lot of other stuff.”

“Verona?” Verona’s mom asked.

Verona looked back at her.

“If Avery’s thing is this sort of stuff- exploring this sky place?  And if Lucy’s good at swordfighting, what’s your thing?”

“Can we put a hold on the questions and stuff?  Ask them?” Verona asked, indicating Lucy’s mom and Avery’s parents.  “I’m a bit occupied by other stuff.”

“We are,” Lucy said, indicating herself and Verona, before she glanced at Avery, who did a little hand motion.  Lucy re-did the indicator, pointing at herself, Verona, and Avery.


It was hard to read Verona’s mom’s tone.

Lucy made a point of navigating over to where Verona was.  Verona had settled into position walking between the group and nearby buildings, Julette and Alexanderp riding in her hood, hands in her pockets.

Lucy didn’t say anything, but fell into step beside Verona, putting pen away, dropping weapon ring, Yalda’s ring, and John’s tag beneath her collar.

“What?” Verona asked.

Lucy shrugged.

“Want something?”

“To be beside you.  If you want to talk, I’ll listen, if you don’t…”

“No talk for right now.  Keep people off my case?  I’m wiped, I’m not looking forward to this.”

Lucy nodded.

They walked for another five minutes.  Lucy didn’t have to do much fending-off, besides a small head-shake when Jeremy and Caroline sidled over.  Finally, Snowdrop ran ahead, and Avery perked up.

“Here.  The way out.”

The ‘way out’ was a rope off the side of things, that went straight down, so far down it disappeared from view.

“Are you for real?” George asked.

“It’s our dismount,” Avery said, glancing over the edge again.  “Gets us to the highest point there, which should be convenient, if I remember the geography.”

“Not everyone has the boon that protects them from long falls, Ave,” Lucy said.

“Hmm.  It’s what we’ve got, unless you want to backtrack,” Avery said.  “It’s not as bad as it looks.  Connections should kind of pull you to the rope, so even if you let go, you should be mostly okay, just make sure you grab on again toward the bottom.”

“You’re sure about that?” George asked.  “You don’t sound sure about that.”

“Mostly sure,” Avery said.  She got out a spell card and pulled an elastic off her wrist.  She put a hole through the card, and scribbled down ‘Blue Heron Institute’.

While she was at it, the stragglers of their group caught up- the parents, basically, and a lot of them took a moment to look over the edge, seeming way less than thrilled at the thousands-of-feet of descent ahead of them.

“That works?” Lucy asked, as Avery threaded the elastic through the hole to attach it around the rope.  Tagging it.


“I’ll go?” Verona asked.

Lucy was a bit surprised.

“I recommend gloves, coat sleeve if you don’t have any, and use your legs to control your speed,” Avery said.

Verona nodded, reached out, and then slid down, very hesitant at first, then faster.  Julette rode in her hood.

“Damn,” George whispered.

Lucy watched Verona’s mom with a careful eye, studying every expression.  The concern, the puzzlement, the- Sylvia was watching Verona as much as Lucy was watching her.

Hard to read.

“I’ll go next, do I get cred for that?” Oakham asked.

“So much cred,” Mia replied.

“You know I’m still sort of mad at you over how the stuff went with the Dancers?”

“Oh my god, I tried, Oakham.”

“But then that feeling is conflicting with-”

“With me -us- trying?”

“-with the cred.  Wooh, belly did a thing, looking down.  Anyone else get thoughts like, ‘what if I let go’ or ‘what if I stepped over the edge’?”

“I’ll have more now, because you said that,” Mia told her.

“Intrusive thoughts,” Avery’s mom said.  “Sometimes I wonder if I have more intrusive thoughts than real thoughts.  Patches, here and there, especially when driving long distances.”

“You’re all alone in that, sister,” Snowdrop circled around Avery, becoming opossum, then becoming human again, to change her outfit.  Her t-shirt had an opossum with head and butt sticking up, with text that read ‘Ass protrusive, panicked thoughts intrusive’.  She stuck out a fist.

Avery’s mom paused before responding to the fist-bump.  Avery mussed up Snowdrop’s hair.

Oakham slid down the rope, kind of hugging it with arms while also using her hands, squeezing rope between thighs.

“I’ll go ahead?  To make sure the coast is clear?  You stay for last, Ave?” Lucy asked.  “Make sure there’s no issues, no sudden Lost appearing, or weird Path shenanigans?”


Lucy straddled the railing and waited until Oakham was further down- she wouldn’t be able to look down that easily, and she didn’t want to go so fast that she bumped into Oakham’s hands and messed up her grip.

“Is there a boon for this?”

“Yeah.  More for me than for you, because I ran the Forest Ribbon Trail, but we technically ran the middle segment of this path.  Old dark brown rope… If I remember right, pretty sure I do, if you’re taken somewhere against your will or by accident, you’ll stop at a well traveled place, like a crossroads.  That means if you’re kidnapped, the kidnappers might get stalled for a bit there.  If you were whisked away to the Faerie courts by a magic item or something, you’d go somewhere more like a marketplace or center of a city.”

“What’s this?” Jeremy asked.

“I’ll explain more after,” Avery said.  “But we shouldn’t dally too much.”

“Was that why you wanted to do this?” Lucy asked.  “That boon for all these people?”

“Not sure how well it works for them, but no.  I chose this Path because there aren’t many that are anchored well enough I could bring more than ten people through in good conscience.”

“Got it,” Lucy said.  She took a deep breath, and felt her stomach flip-flop as she adjusted her grip, getting a hold of the rope.

She slid down, testing momentum and speed before zipping down at a better clip.  It felt like her gut had disconnected from her body, and if she went down too fast, she left it behind, but if she went too slow, it went down ahead of her, wobbly in the wind.

She passed through salty mist, then thicker clouds, some of which were darker than others.

She could look up and see the Commons Thread disappear, the mists closing in.  Each pass through a dark cloud made the sky darker.

And then the darkness of the thickest part of a cloud in the overcast sky turned out to be night.  And she slid the rest of the way down, from just about the point where the air was thin enough to make her dizzy, gradually making her way to the ground.

No friction burns either, as it happened.  They’d been spared that, at least.  The rope was old and salty, but it didn’t chew up her gloves or prick her palms with stray strands of coarse, rigid fiber.

Her biggest issue was the fact she’d unzipped her coat on the Commons Thread, where the temperature was more neutral, and now she had a ten minute descent down a rope into deep winter, with her coat open and ears uncovered.

She settled, boots meeting the tower of a castle that loomed over the battlefield.  When she touched a bit of snow there, it slid from its perch, falling from the tower to hit the castle’s peaked, patchwork roof, creating a mini-avalanche.

There was barely any spot below where the snow hadn’t been trampled down, and it had originally piled up ass high, by the looks of it.

In fact, as she looked around, there were more places with bloodstains than places beyond the trees where the snow hadn’t been trampled.

The school was there, in a manner of speaking.  Leveled.  Only parts of the original stone building stood, off to the side of Sootsleeves’ castle, which had relocated from the southwestern end of Kennet found to here.  Some parts were still on fire.

People wandered, with Sootsleeves’ hold being a common stopping point or meeting place- a place to get warm.

Debris was collected and sorted through.  Some Foundlings had remained behind and were gathering books from the demolished library.  Verona was standing on a balcony closer to there, watching from above.

Lucy went to Verona’s side.  Verona looked up and over at her.

“I’d go collect some books, distract myself, but there’s claims to the ownership, most were on loan, it’s not worth the hassle,” Verona said.  “End up with some Graubard tracking it down or something, maybe.”

“Makes sense.”

“Not really in the mood to distract myself either.  Feels wrong.”

Lucy nodded.

Oakham had made her way down to the ground level, and was with Bracken.  Bracken looked grim.  Well, he always looked grim, but the way he moved now, head down?  More so.

Lucy wanted to know but she didn’t want to ask, so she watched as people got sorted, taking a moment in the quiet she hadn’t had, fighting the mob and Family Man, or dealing with the new Aware.

Some of the Hosts around Matthew would periodically turn on spirit mode and start floating some, their bodies illuminated by lights that didn’t match the lighting here.  It was cool to see.  Objectively.  The ‘coolness’ of it felt at odds with this whole fucking mess.  Blood in snow, a field turned into a battlefield.

Bodies, laid in row and column on snow out toward the workshops, which were in better shape.

She didn’t want to know, but she had to know.  The gap between the two sentiments left her feeling uneasy.

“I asked one of the pigeons,” Verona said.  It sounded like half of a sentence, but the second half didn’t come.

“You asked-?”

“There’s no bodies.  For Mal, for the other denizens who didn’t make it.  It’s almost as if they never existed at all.”


So those rows and columns – thirty plus people, they didn’t include the denizens.

Verona’s expression was hard, little microexpressions popping up around mouth, chin, and eyebrows, like she was fighting back against saying something, or crying, or screaming.

“Woaah, shit!” George exclaimed, as he came down the rope.

More clashing sentiments, more unease.

“I’m gonna-” Verona mumbled.  She reached up as Julette headbutted her ear, and scratched around the cat’s face.  “We’re gonna-”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

Verona circled around to where there was a ladder and began going down the side of the tower to where there were some balconies that went inside.

“That’s something I never want to do again,” George said.  “Whoo!”

“Ease back?” Lucy asked.

“Ease what?” he asked, peering over the railing near the tower top to figure out how to get down.

“The whooping, the cheering.  People-”

“Oh my god, holy fucking wow,” George said, as he came down to stand next to Lucy, gloved hands on the railing.  He looked down at everything.  “Is that dude a wagon?”

“-died here,” Lucy finished, after a pause.

Killwagon was dead.  Or appeared to be.  Not one of the rows or columns either.  He lay by the westernmost entrance to the building that no longer stood.

Not the worst loss – that sounded bad in Lucy’s head, and she hoped to have her thoughts more centered before she opened her mouth around anyone, down there.  It wasn’t the worst because bogeymen bounced back.  She would wait before being upset over that.

She didn’t want to see more.

“Coming down!” Mia shouted.  “I can’t see where my feet are going!”

“You’re fine!” Lucy called up, after checking.  “Feet on track, keep sliding down!”

“Is there solid ground?  Holy fuck, oh man, I thought it might be a trick and I’d get past a cloud and the ground would be right here.  I’m so glad I do gymnastics.”

Maybe they shouldn’t have brought the new Aware, but bringing them and involving them was supposed to be part of the bigger picture – fuller involvement, showing they were standing by what they were putting forward.

It sucked that it was so hard.

Fuck Charles.

Lucy waited until the rest arrived.  It took a while.

She could see Verona on the ground, talking to people.  Far enough away that Lucy’s earring didn’t pick things up.  She would have used practice to augment the earring and try catching it, but it wasn’t worth it, not when the others had small questions, about the Blue Heron, about the school.

She could feel her patience wearing thin, but… this was what they’d agreed to.

Their parents came last.  Avery followed after, but she, like a lunatic, had just jumped, and touched the rope in the spaces between where the parents were before reorienting.

Avery landed on the rooftop with a bang, the ground rippling beneath her.

“Holy fuck,” Brayden said.

“What was that?” George asked, from a lower balcony.  “I didn’t see.  Did someone fall?”

“Avery,” Lucy said.  “That was Avery coming down.  She’s fine.”

The parents were still making their way down.  Avery’s dad was talking to her mom a lot, walking her through the motions, being reassuring.

Lucy felt bad for her mom, that she didn’t have that.  She deserved that, but it was all so hard.

Felt bad about the ‘gotta climb down a stupidly long rope hanging in the sky’ thing too.  Avery could be such a ditz sometimes.

Lucy also noticed Gashwad, the last one to come down.  He was a small shape clinging to the rope, as high up as he could be while seeing what was going on, and not quite revealing himself.  A black lump hanging off a black rope against a night sky.  Waiting for enough people to move and turn their attention in other directions so that he could climb the rest of the way down.

“How are we doing?”

“Dunno,” Lucy replied.  “Mostly I’ve been guarding the rope.”

Avery nodded.  She looked around.  “Here, they’ve got that.  I need to know.  Come on.”

Lucy took Avery’s hand, Snowdrop took the other.  Avery had them jump down to a nearby balcony, move around the tower, and, when their bracelets of wooden cubes stopped reacting to people watching them, they black roped to ground, before circling around Sootsleeves’ hold.

The bodies.  Dog Tags stood by.  But not all of them.

Horseman… who else?  Lucy trudged over bloody snow and snow that had been painted gray by the dust from the collapsed parts of the building.  Fragments of blue glass were scattered across parts of it, bright in the gloom.

She was stopped by Grandfather, who put a hand at her shoulder.  Stopped from doing an easy assessment of the group.  She did one anyway.

Black.  Midas, it looked like – or maybe he’d bailed, he hadn’t been a cohesive part of the unit.  Mark.  Foggy.

Grandfather put a hand at Lucy’s other shoulder, steering her until he could put an arm around her, squeezing, keeping her put.

“I hate that.  Hate this.”

Lucy turned her head to look.

Her mom, standing on the tower.  Lucy hadn’t been able to hear conversations down here while she was up there, but she’d heard her mom’s murmur to Kelsey, when the distance was the same.  Because sound traveled down, or because connections were stronger?

“I don’t want this for you.”

“It’s what I’ve got,” Lucy replied, knowing her mom couldn’t hear.

“Hm?” Grandfather grunted, before looking where Lucy looked, making eye contact with Lucy’s mom.

“Oh no,” Avery said.

Snowdrop leaped off of Avery while becoming human, forceful enough that Avery’s forward momentum stopped.  Avery was standing in place for a moment while Snowdrop ran forward.

A number of pillowcases had been brought out from inside and one was laid over a body, but the horn that curled out was telling enough.  Another bulge- too round, too big.  Smaller than Toadswallow, and Lucy could see Toadswallow besides, but…

Snowdrop moved the first pillowcase.  Ramjam, curled up, wearing a kids winter coat and snowpants, lying there with a hole in his forehead, eyes open.  Magic runes were laid against the skin of his narrow neck like a collar.

The other was Butty McButtbutt, lying face down on a pillowcase that was now bloodstained, another laid over him.  He was wearing furry bikini bottoms.  Same deal with the runes.

Six or seven other goblins had also died, not part of the main Kennet contingent, she couldn’t see all of their faces, either, but still… Kennet goblins.  Mostly.  One was one of Liberty’s crew who’d showed up to fight.  She’d come by Lucy’s house at one point.  What had her name been?  Nude-

Lewdtube.  Ferret shaped but hairless, with ear tufts in ponytails.

Damn.  Fuck this.

Goblins had gathered, and more were gathering closer to Snowdrop.

Snowdrop reached into her inside coat pocket, and pulled out some snowdrop flowers.

One flower was placed across Ramjam’s forehead hole, where the bullet had apparently gone in.  One planted in Butty’s buttcrack, which was visible above the line of his bikini bottoms.  Some goblins chuckled lightly.

When she got to Lewdtube, Snowdrop put it at the goblin’s chest, and moved hands to hold it there.

There were nuances for each.  Something gentle for Ramjam, a joke for Butty, a bit of the sentimental for Lewdtube.

Lucy found herself moving forward, pulling away from Grandfather’s warm arm, wanting to do something to pay respects.  She got to Ramjam, knelt in snow, and wiped his forehead free of snow and specks of blood before kissing him there beside the wound and the little white flower that stuck up out of it.

She looked down at him, then, reaching into a pocket, found some chalk.

A little ‘x’ on his neck broke the binding.  The runes fell away.  Lucy smudged the ‘x’ away to make it so there were no marks.

She considered giving Butty a kiss too, but his pear-shaped proportions meant his head was awkwardly close to the ground, his butt stuck up, and-

Easier to kiss her fingers and touch them to ass cheek.  Butty would have liked that, and it felt more appropriate.  Ramjam was enough of a romantic in the broader sense that the kiss she’d done felt right.

She drew an ‘x’ on the back of his neck, breaking the binding.

Purely performative, it wasn’t like he could be compelled to do anything, but it felt right.

One of the other goblins had the same binding.  She broke that as well, before straightening, feeling the aches and pains from her long fight.

“We won’t make him a weapon,” Snowdrop said.  “He doesn’t deserve that.”

“For those who don’t know, that’s a thing we do,” Tatty said.  “I’m gonna tell you, because I’m the one ‘sides Toads who’s most procedural and semantical.  We make ’em into weapons.  A lot of the magic’s gone, the good stuff, but he worked hard at being a good hammer.  Some will still be there.”

“Fits,” Avery said.

“Same for the others.  We’ll do the rest-”

“Except Liberty’s,” Avery said.  “She’ll have her own process, she’ll say her own goodbyes.”

“Uh- right!  We’ll do the same for Butty and his McButtbuckler, Clambeard’s clamshears, Gapwhap’s clapslapper, Bitchhiker’s bitchstriker, Nubchub’s Grubclub, and Bald Bishop’s Massturbator,” Tatty said.

Some goblins did the forehead-groin, nip, nip, lips salute, in varying patterns.

“All wrong,” Snowdrop said.

“Not going to give ’em to you.  Doesn’t feel right,” Tatty said.  “Not angry or nothin’, but…”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

“If the market’s around, we can take Ramjam and the rest and put them in a place nobody will know him or see anything,” Snowdrop said.  “Find someone who doesn’t know jack all about ’em, someone who’ll fuck it all up, use the weapons and stuff for something stupid, and sell ’em for pennies.”

Goblins nodded.

Toadswallow and Bubbleyum had come over and were observing.

Verona kissed Ramjam’s forehead, and gave Butty a light pat on the butt, making it jiggle.  Jiggle some, anyway.  The cold was setting in.  The jiggle was getting more rigid.

“Should maybe do it soon,” Lucy said.  She saw Matthew too, now, walking over to Toadswallow.

Fuck all of this.

“Ramjam, you were great,” Avery said.  “You were the best at saying it, I don’t think I can give it that nuance.  You were genuinely great.  Everything a goblin should be.  Butty, you kept surprising us, grosser, funnier, slipperier, more offputting, putting out better results than we expected, time and again, and you did it without words.  Good showing.”

“Clambeard,” Lucy said.  “You ran a good market stall, you came here to fight.  That’s goblin class.”

“Bald Bishop, didn’t know you, but you have- had a cool schtick,” Verona said.

“Given a chance, Snow and I will take Lewdtube to Liberty after,” Avery murmured, once they’d done the rounds, recognizing each.

A miserable looking Biscuit offered them alcohol, maybe for libations, but Lucy shook her head.

They left the goblins to it.  They walked over to where Matthew was talking to Toadswallow and Bubbleyum.  Grandfather followed Lucy.

“Here you are,” Toadswallow said.  “Where to even begin, my dears?”

“Who else?” Lucy asked.  “Who did we lose?”

“Horseman and some of the other Dog Tags were bound, and were taken away.  They’re bound, doing whatever the St. Victor’s practitioners say,” Matthew said.

Grandfather nodded.

Lucy had guessed.  She touched her chest, feeling the rings and dog tag there, against her sternum.  “We got Midas, Foggy, Whistle, and Trick from the clutches of combat practitioners.  I want to believe we can get those guys away from Charles.”

“I’ll back you up in that,” Verona said, voice soft.

“The Vice Principal.  Lost her,” Matthew said.

Lucy looked across that arrangement of bodies.  The Vice Principal’s massive ‘steed’ was sitting at the far end, back to the wall of a workshop, sobbing.  Some denizens milled around him.

“She was unmade?  With the rest of the denizens of Kennet below?”

“No.  She was too tied up in other things for him to lay any claim to that.”

“Mal was a part of our council,” Verona said.

“I don’t know,” Matthew said.  “All I know is what I was told and what I Saw.”

“Fuck this,” Verona muttered.  “Not you- not mad at you.  But fuck this.”

“Yeah,” Lucy echoed.

Matthew went on explaining, “when the Vice Principal’s people started getting unraveled, she got mad.  Pushed in too far, too hard, a bogeyman got her.  Piece of metal through the spine.  Freak and Squeak dragged her back to us, but her heart and breathing had already stopped for too long.”

“She was tough,” Verona said.

“She was, but it’s hard to out-tough that kind of injury,” Matthew said.

“Is that it?” Lucy asked.  “Or are you working your way up to the bad?  You’ve done that before.”

“No.  Just… not always sure.  Stew Mullen’s in rough shape.  I don’t know how that’ll go.  Is Kennet below still there?”

“Yeah,” Avery replied, elbowing Lucy.

“We got the Family Man,” Verona said.

Lucy nodded, somber.

Lucy could see the image of that twisted caricature of a man lying there.  It jumbled together with the image of Milo Songetay, with denizens she had stabbed with enough lack of grace that she didn’t know the outcome of those injuries.  With Alexander Belanger, lying in the forest with his head looking like a cracked egg.  That same image of Alexander Belanger lying there, viewed with the Sight, the practice active in and around his head, to the point he looked alive when he had no right to.  Diagrams had floated around him, with eyes in them, each eye roving, with increasing agitation, as if the reality was settling in.

Her dad, lying in the hallway of her home.  She hadn’t seen, Booker had, but the false memory lingered in her head, and by some twist of mental fuckery, it was the only memory of her dad where his face wasn’t an ever-shifting blur.

“When you say you got him,” Matthew was saying.  “Is he imprisoned, bound, or…”

“Dead,” Avery said.

Lucy banished the mental image and the storm of thoughts that followed.

Matthew raised his eyebrows.  “And Kennet below is okay?  Okay, it sounded bad from what Nicolette said on the phone, but okay.  Good, except I have no idea what our leadership situation’s going to be, over there.  Even if Stew pulls through, it’d be only the Bitter Street Witch left to steer him.”

“Is that it?” Lucy asked, feeling anxious, frustrated.

“Guilherme left.  His story here is done, as I understand it.”

No surprise there.  She’d only have been less surprised if he hadn’t shown at all, if he’d found it more efficient to turn his focus elsewhere.

“Rook’s gone.  She said she’s done with all this.”

“I have no idea if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Avery said.

“Hollow Yen?” Lucy asked.

“Here.  Stayed back.  It sounded like Rook thought that was the wrong move, but who even knows?” Matthew asked.  He sounded tired- the kind of tiredness that came with heartsickness.

“No idea,” Avery replied.

“Dog Tags were talking about splitting up,” Matthew said, looking over at Grandfather.

“I don’t know,” Grandfather replied.  “I convinced them to hold off until we know how this falls out.  If there’s a hub to come back to, Kennet still there, maybe we do like we originally planned.  Some Dogs stay to hold the fort, others go.  If there’s no hub…”

If there’s no Kennet in twenty-four hours? Lucy thought.

“…maybe we go after Horseman, Midas, Mark, and Black, see if we can get ’em back.”

“That might be a suicide mission,” Lucy said.

“It’s a mission, which is better than the alternative, way things are right now.”

She frowned.

“We’d be careful.  John sacrificed something to bring us back, we won’t go easy, if we can help it.”

Lucy felt worries stir.

“Alpeana’s not great, neither is Monty, though that’s a mixed thing,” Matthew said.  “Nibble’s… it’s better if you visit them, judge for yourself.  You’ll be better at assessing the damage than I am.”

“That sounds bad,” Avery said.

“Of course it sounds bad,” Verona added.  “It’s bad.  Is there any good?”

“Depends on your angle, what you think of as good or bad.  The Girl by Candlelight is dead.  Slapped by the Turtle Queen.  Maricica beat Musser at some point, last few days.”

“We heard,” Lucy pointed out.  “It came up.”

“Right.  She had him, held him in that wound in her chest.  Had his minions.  The Wild Hunt got her, I don’t know the specifics.”

“I do.”

Lucy turned her head.  She hadn’t heard the man approach.  If it was a man.  He was dark and looked like a man dressed in black raingear with a wide-brimmed hat, soaking wet.  The light turned a yellow-green where it caught the edges of the wet material.

“Gilkey,” Avery said.

“The Wild Hunt approached me.  They took ownership of her deal with me, where she’d promised a fix, gave me the fix, asked for a bit of poison.  They suggested I come, I think as part of a bigger plan that ended up being unnecessary.”

“You’re fixed, you’re cured?” Avery asked.

“No.  But I’m… it’s better.  Better than I was before I met Maricica.  They said more of a change would make me stop being… this,” he said, indicating himself.  “Being Gilkey, and I needed to think about that.  They offered a bigger fix, if I could decide how I wanted all that to go, what I wanted to give up, all of that.”

“You have to be careful with deals with Fae,” Toadswallow murmured.

“I know.  The way it was presented to me, the way they took ownership of her deal with me, the games, the schemes, the stuff that would normally come with a Fae deal, they were aimed at her.  Winter’s apparently too rigid to corner me or pull something on me?”

“Something like that,” Lucy said.

“Not that I cared.  It was a way out of my situation.”

“That’s the trap, right?” Verona asked.  “Thinking it can’t get worse?”

“Believe me, I know.  I made that mistake and I ended up standing in a blighted field for months, unable to die, unable to kill myself, knowing if I moved, I’d kill people, kill wildlife, trees.”

“We can talk, organize, maybe, if you want to figure out a way forward.  I know a bit about Winter,” Lucy offered.

“I might stay like this for a while, before I decide anything.  So don’t worry about it.  It’s not a priority.  But that’s not why I spoke up.  It’s not that important.”

“It’s maybe the one clearly good thing that happened tonight,” Avery said.  “It’s important.”

“Maricica,” Gilkey said.  “They poisoned her, they sealed her away.  Musser’s buried inside her, so he’s part of that, I guess.  She’ll suffer and stay imprisoned for a while.  The longer she was willing to let me suffer like I was, or let others suffer, the longer she’d be imprisoned like that.  Because of the karmic backlash.”

“It’s very Winter,” Lucy said.  “Not necessarily right, but it’s the extreme, unjust sort of justice you get when you talk about immortals the karmic weights they throw around.”

“Musser had familiars.  They were freed when he was imprisoned with Maricica.  Some left.  Some went with Charles.”

“He just left, then?” Verona asked.  “Charles, his contingent?”

“Yeah,” Matthew said.  “We’ll have to figure out where, if we want to keep going after him.  Which is a whole conversation.”

“I overheard a bit of it, between you and my mom, when you were on the phone with her,” Lucy said.  “A whole conversation, yeah.”

“It wasn’t what we hoped for,” Toadswallow said.  “We wanted to find a weakness in the old red bastard.  We got some of his allies, Edith’s spirit, Maricica, the Black Scalpel, the neighborhood, plicate wraith.  We forced him to relocate, but he’s recruiting more help.  I don’t know how much of a weakness there is.  And he signed that deal.”

“With the Lord of London overseas?” Lucy asked.

“The same.”

“Fuuuck,” Avery whispered.  She ran fingers through her hair.  “Fuck.  That… I’m not sure even what that means, one hundred percent.”

“It means he got enough power he doesn’t need to worry about spending it for a while,” Toadswallow said, eyes narrowing, one magnified by his monocle.  “His borders are secure- nobody’s penetrating them or trying to unfuck any geographical wedgies-”

Knotted spaces, Lucy guessed.  She wasn’t in the mood to play twenty questions.

“-and they’re backing him for any future Carmine Contests, extra power, weapons, and recognition from world powers to make his ruddy derriere very hard to budge from that throne.  Just in fuckin’ time, after the Wild Hunt dealt with Maricica, who he’d planned as the replacement for whoever replaced him.”

Avery, fingers still in her hair, paced.  Snowdrop reached out, as if to stop the pacing, or hug, but Avery was too agitated to notice, seemingly.

Verona had a dark look on her face, hands jammed into pockets, Julette in her hood, chin on Verona’s shoulder.  Alexanderp awkwardly did the same at the other shoulder.

This was so fucked.

“He summoned a lot of Others,” Avery said.  “We figure he’s just doing a blanket ‘yes’ to every conflict based Other that the universe considers putting into existence, and then points them at his enemies.”

“Which raises the general, somewhat rhetorical question – can he do that?”  Lucy asked.  “It doesn’t seem like he should be able to get involved on that level.”

“I do believe, my dear, he has ceased giving a fuck about ‘should’,” Toadswallow replied.  “I see your parents on their way down from the towertop.  Shall we give them a minute?”

“I can get them, speed things up,” Avery said.  “I’m so glad things worked out for you, Gilkey.  I’d hug you if-”

“Do not,” he said.  “You’d still die.”

“Yeah.  Okay, still cool,” Avery said.  Then she jogged off, tying the black rope around her hand.

“What’s the situation with Alpy, Monty, and Nibble?” Lucy asked.

“Come.  It’ll take Avery a minute for all the adults, especially if she has to walk them through the process,” Toadswallow said.  He walked off, and Bubbleyum joined him, rubbing his mostly hairless head.

Lucy followed him around to the side of the ruined building, where Killwagon’s wagon lay, with yellow tape surrounding it.  Gilkey and Grandfather followed after.  Their route took them a bit of the way into the trees, away from everything.

Nibble was with Chloe, the two of them sitting by a stump- it looked like Chloe had tried to sit down with him on it, but he was thrashing, and Chloe had arms and legs wrapped around him, holding him in a headlock while keeping him from getting his feet under him.  If they’d been sitting on the stump, they’d fallen and now sat with Chloe’s back to it.

Nibble was in a worse state than Chloe had been, back when they’d first met the pair.  A black wound at his shoulder had spikes of bone around it, and flesh had gone grey and necrotic around the spikes.  He struggled, hissed, and snapped, and Chloe patiently held on, stopping to rest with her face between his shoulderblades when he was still, pulling back when he wasn’t.  There was a weary look in her eyes.

He noticed Lucy and Verona, and got more agitated, to the point he and Chloe were on their sides on the ground.

“I’m glad you thre- There’s two of you.  Is Avery okay?”

“More or less.  She’s fetching family and friends.”

“I’m glad you’re okay, then,” Chloe said, over Nibble’s small breathy screeches.  She leaned into Nibble’s back.  “They’re okay.  It’s okay.”

He hissed.

“We’re okay,” Chloe said, forehead against Nibble’s back.  “Didn’t hurt anyone too badly when you flipped, Nibs.  So that’s okay.  It’s all okay.  Got to wait this out, give it a few days or weeks to get it so things are quiet again.  Maybe a few months.  Could be months.  But it might be easier to be okay if nobody fleshy and edible was nearby.”

Meaning Lucy and Verona.

Verona reached for a stack of spell cards, and flipped through it.

“That’s um,” Chloe said, with uncharacteristic tension in her voice.  “Meant to be a hint, fleshy and edible friends.  Not that we’d eat you if we had our heads straight, but if you haven’t noticed-”

More tense, saying that.

“-Nibble’s head isn’t straight.”

“Might be better if you didn’t use those specific words,” Gilkey said.  He walked around, snow melting and picking up a rainbow-ish sheen beneath him, if rainbows were limited to greens and yellows.  When he settled between the group of them and Nibble, Nibble seemed to lose their scent.  “I forget the specifics, but I know if someone’s ravenously hungry, it’s best not to talk about food.”

Verona dropped a card onto snow.

The darkness welled out, cutting off light.

Good that Verona had the spell cards, since Lucy had used all of hers against the mob.

“Better,” Chloe murmured.  “But smell, the sounds of you, heartbeats…”

“Working on it,” Verona said.

“I got sound,” Lucy said.  She reached for and pulled on her mask, and tapped it to turn on the lights she’d worked in around the eyes.  It made them glow red and gave her some illumination that pushed back against the ambient darkness.

“Makes sense,” Verona said.  “I got smell, maybe.  Not our usual.”

Lucy finished her spell card first, which was a first, but she had her implement to help with the sound diagram and getting her intent into the specifics.  She made it complex, screening out things for Nibble.

“Nibble?” Lucy asked.

He didn’t react.

“Chloe?  You can hear me?”

“Yeah.  This is better.  Darkness and quiet.”

“Insulating air against connections, not sure how that affects sound,” Verona said.

“You sound like you’re underwater,” Chloe replied, sounding similarly like she was talking from beneath shallow water.  It looked like Nibble was easing up a lot.  “I can still make out most words.  This works.”

“We’ll find a way to get you back to Kennet,” Toadswallow said.  “Bluntmunch is around.  Rook asked what we wanted to do with him, then let him go before she left.  He said he’ll be good.  He’s strong enough and tough enough to drag your boy where we need him.”

“Okay,” Chloe said.  “Nibble- Nibble, stop.”

He kept fighting, trying to pull away.  Even with everything quieter, their presence not triggering him, he wasn’t in good shape.

Chloe sounded tired.

Lucy got her phone, and flipped through it.  She had no idea what to put on, so she picked a playlist of Mr. Lai’s videos.  Their old biology teacher, who did lumberjack and sustainable gardening stuff on the side.

Nibble was a ghoul who liked videos and TV.  She navigated carefully past him and Chloe, picking up Verona’s papers and carrying them with her, for the added sensory deprivation.  She placed her phone on the stump, resting against a point where one part of the stump was higher than the other, screen roughly facing Nibble and Chloe.

Then she backed off, bringing the sound, smell and light blocking effects with her.  Revealing the stump and the phone with the video playing on it.

Nibble kept struggling, but it was with a different aim, and Chloe let him win, still careful to keep a grip on him and limit his movements.

He settled, cheek on stump, clawed fingertips digging into wood to help him maintain that posture, eyes on the glow of the screen.  Chloe adjusted her grip, and he was relaxed enough she could do it without freeing him.  She got settled, elbow on stump, hand on the top of her head, propped up a bit, legs wrapped around his body, one arm under his armpit, claw gripping his sweatshirt and coat.

Lucy backed off, leaving them alone, like that.

She was giving up her phone, but whatever.  Nibble needed it more.

She helped lead Grandfather and Bubbleyum past the patch of sensory deprivation she left there as additional security.  Bubbleyum steered Toadswallow.  Verona followed.

So did Alpeana.

“You okay, Alpy?” Verona asked.

“Aye, ah’m better than some ‘ere.  Bit spent, somethin’ took a bite oot o’ me, bit i’l abide.”

“That’s good.”

“But th’ nigh’mare merkat?”

“The market?” Lucy asked.  “I don’t know.  Things are a mess.”

“Ye lassies heard aboot Maricica, ah’m sure?”

“We did,” Lucy said.

“Tis a’ sae bitter ‘n black.  Did we win anythin’?  Did we git anythin’?”

“I don’t know.  I think we’re making headway.  But… hard to talk about, when Charles could be listening.”

“We lost some,” Alpeana said.

“So many,” Verona replied.

“Cuid dae wi’ a win.”

“Same,” Verona said.

“Yin that’s nae mah auld chum meetin’ a tairible end.”

Alpeana hopped down from the trees, an amorphous mass of drain-guck hair and pale limbs and face.

There was a pause, a long moment where Alpeana had hit snow and crouched there, not taking any form, that made Lucy empathize more with the nightmare than she had maybe ever.  The way Lucy’s own bones and joints hurt…

Alpeana didn’t have a strict body, but something in her had been hurt and that made shape and movement hard in a way that was noticeable in the pauses and little things.

Avery showed up, waving an arm, beckoning them.

“And Montague?”

“Gone, with the Turtle Queen.  They’ll head back to Kennet.  Mixed bag there.  Something tore him in half.  He’s weaker, smaller, and he’s not upset about being smaller, like that,” Matthew said.  “Except maybe in the guy machismo sense, guy being a bit shorter and smaller than his girlfriend.  Or bringing less to the partnership.  If that’s possible for a plicate horror.”

“Is that a confirmed thing?  That she’s a girlfriend?” Avery asked.  “Or partner?”

“I don’t know,” Matthew said.  “Everyone’s here?”

“Basically,” Avery said.

“You really made people Aware, huh?”

“Checked with Miss and checked with Louise,” Avery said.  “But there wasn’t a good way to do things without tipping off Charles, which we might’ve done anyways…”

Lucy tuned out a lot of it, as they walked over.  Alpeana moved on all fours, hair swirling madly.

With the exception of the Lost and foundlings that had gone back with Miss to protect Kennet, and with the exception of the fallen, some of which were arranged in rows and columns in snow, everyone gathered.

The group seemed a lot smaller.  A big part of that owed to the fact that the denizens of Kennet below had been vaporized, apparently.  A few remained, like the Bitter Street Witch, some of the Vice Principal’s staff, and a couple of enforcers, but it was bad.

It looked like the seriousness of it all had settled in for the new Aware.  Lucy took a minute before joining the group, remembering to take her mask off, with the glowing red eyes.  She walked down the length of the rows and columns.

She’d spent a lot of time with Dog Tags, who had sprung forth from the uncountable and unacknowledged dead, from rounding errors when people had done too much averaging and abstracting, or lost all sense of who was who in heated armed conflict.  She didn’t want to take those who’d died in conflict for granted.

This guy worked in the market and Arcade, liked the Kennet below video games.  Talked about wanting to mess around with Kennet above games.  Wallace would’ve liked him, I bet.

Enforcer keeping the peace in the refugee house that burned down the other night, hung out with Bracken.  Never took off their helmet.  A gentle giant, seemed to get a lot out of looking after those refugees and being a rock of protection and stability.

One of Stew Mullen’s factory workers, wanted to grow up to be one of Stew’s armored juggernauts.  Doyle, Bracken’s pseudo-dad, had mentored the kid for a bit, after the Foreman had left.  The kid had had something knot in his heart, making his blood roar through veins more than it pumped, and had thereafter done hard labor, eaten protein, and exercised pretty much twenty-four seven. 

Foundling.  The Auteur was a very annoying foundling woman who filmed and narrated herself incessantly, usually denigrating others -particularly other women- in the process.  She had failed to get on the Kennet found television network, which had such a low bar that a kid folding origami and leaving the camera pointed at a paper-littered desk and running unattended for twenty or thirty minutes at a time had a channel.

Not everyone was cool.

There were a few foundlings she didn’t know.  She at least made sure she recognized them, giving each a moment.

“They are?”

“Heed.  If they could hear anything anyone had to say, they didn’t show it.  Ignored anything anyone had to say, but had a way of helping out when people were in need.”

“Baldface.  Said something that sounded fishy, always had another seeming lie in the back pocket to explain it.  Piled up until it seemed impossible it was all true. Then coincidence would strike.  Usually in a way that was cool, or helpful to the community, or, tonight, saved a lot of lives.  Got a bad rap.”

She knew she was delaying things, and everything was chaotic, but this was important.

She circled around, walking down the last column.  She paused, then moved a sheet.  The guy was shorter than average, with short blond hair, an expression that looked scrunched up, reminding her of an angry pug, not relaxing even in death.  Someone from Kennet – she’d seen his face.

“One of the parents of the St. Victor’s kids,” Matthew said.

“Dony’s dad,” Avery said.

“We cleared a path when he showed, called for a temporary ceasefire,” Matthew explalined.  “Some listened.  The Ordinary Family let him through.  But not everyone let him pass, obviously.”

“I don’t want to sound callous,” Avery said, “but does that fall on us?  Responsibility-wise?  I know the dead don’t threaten Innocence, but… feels shitty.”

“We said not to go,” Verona pointed out.

“Between that and the people inside the building ignoring the call for ceasefire, I’d say it falls on Dony.  He had something dark in him, like the bogeymen,” Matthew said.

“Like the night they killed Edith,” Lucy said.

“I guess, yeah.  I don’t know why he came or why he came alone.  Other parents apparently came too, according to Louise?  I’ve seen him talk to her, to Louise.  Seemed pretty short tempered.”

“So he decided he couldn’t wait for his son to come to him, and came here?”

“Or his son called.  Unless we talk to the kid, I don’t know if we’ll ever know.”

Lucy put the sheet back and made her way to the assembled group.

“You awakened a lot of people.”

“Talked about it with Louise, I know it’s shitty in timing.  Talked about it with Miss when she came back.  I think it fits with what we want to do, big picture, and what we’ve been doing already.  We were already easing into things,” Avery said.  “Market, nightmares bringing people in, our parents, the Arcade…”

“Yeah,” Matthew said.

“There’s more to it, but I don’t want to dive into it with Charles potentially listening,” Avery said, glancing at Alexanderp.  “I can say it changes things.  Partial Innocence trades away the natural shield for tools and the ability to know there’s even a threat you’d need to protect yourself against.  I think of it like the perimeter around Kennet.  Where there’s pushback, resistance, but if it breaches or goes down-”

“It sucks,” Verona said.

Matthew sighed heavily.  He was no doubt remembering what had to be one of the worst nights of his life.  When Edith had turned out to be a co-conspirator.  The parts of the perimeter she’d been supporting went down the moment she was in her cell, and they’d been flooded with wraiths and spirits.

“Sorry to more or less do that unilaterally,” Avery said.  “It felt right.”

“We agreed the council would be able to set terms and build what it needed to build,” Toadswallow croaked.  “Just so happens that tonight the council was one Aware woman and three witches, hm?  Our fault for that little loophole.”

“I don’t think it’s exactly like that,” Matthew said.  “But- I’m willing to keep an open mind.  You girls have had workable plans so far.”

“The benefits of having Aware pile up over time.  Again, there’s some I won’t spell out, but diversity and a variety of people with a variety of types of innocence… it’s not a smooth road for enemies.  It becomes a thing where every potential victim for a dangerous Other becomes a potential snarl.”

“I’ve said before, I could see one in twenty people having a glimmer of Awareness,” Toadswallow said.  “A bit of a belief or willingness to believe in ghosts and goblins.  That becomes a bump in the road for any goblin wanting to steal food or prank them.  You expect them to be unaware and they turn their head.  That’s the basic, smallest sort of Awareness.”

“More bumps in this road, then,” Lucy said.  “Less basic, less small.”

“Mm hmm.”

Avery went on, with a bit more enthusiasm.  “And after everything, I think it makes for a bigger, better, more interesting Kennet.  One like things were out East, pre-Oni war.  I’m- I know I’m saying a bunch of stuff that my friends from school and Brayden’s dad don’t get.  I’m talking about a reality where kids can learn magic if they want to.  Or meet friendly goblins, or foundlings, or whatever.  Where there’s video games and books in Kennet that nobody else in the world gets.”

“We have to get there, first,” Toadswallow said.  “Get past Charles.”

“We’ve got friends outside Charles’ reach working on this.  Nicolette is outside the territory now, we’re hoping, and has the Belangers on the task.  Finding the optimal people to reach out to, to build what we need.  Liberty’s goblins and the network of fairy markets we were working with are reaching out to communities of Other all over, making the pitch.  They’re supposed to arrange meetings and then wait until a certain time before pitching it, so the Carmine Exile has less time to fuck with it.”

The sharing out of responsibility.  If we make it so we all share equal responsibility, we all have equal reason to root out problems and ensure people are protected.

“How far does this go?” Toadswallow asked.

“Kennet for now.  But the way I’ve presented it, they’d agree to recognize what we’re doing, agree to extend our protections over anyone passing through the wider region.  So if I dunno, Jeremy wanted to go to a fairy market or travel through any area we’ve got a working relationship with, the people there would know he’s one of ours, he’s protected in a sense.  Mess with him, mess with us.”

“The more we sign on, the more weight that carries, then,” Sootsleeves said, from the back.  She was riding a horse, torch in hand.  Classic look.

“More clout, yeah,” Lucy said.  And again, there’s more to it.  “Might get harder to use our clout against some people or places.  Like, say, if an Aware wanted to visit Russia.  But Avery can go just about anywhere in the world in a matter of an hour, so…”

“Oh, is that what I’m doing now?” Avery asked.

“Or deliver someone who can remind them our Aware are protected, anyway,” Lucy said.  “It’s not perfect.  It does close doors, we warned them.  We warned you.”

She directed that last bit at the group.

There were some nods.

Some looked spooked.  Maybe because Lucy stood there with a backdrop of corpses covered in sheets, some sheets with blood soaking through them.  The school was in ruins.  Blood stained snow.

“We’ve figured things out so far.  We’ll figure out more,” Lucy said.  “Maybe escorts.  If you want to go to Russia, or wherever, maybe we send a Foundling or someone to protect you with.  Could disguise them as a service dog or something.”

“Or temporarily revoke your Awareness, like Matthew did with Louise,” Verona said, eyes on the ground, hands in pockets.

“I’ve always been about arrivals and departures, I wanted to travel since I was little,” Avery said.  She glanced at her parents.  Her mom nodded.  “Maybe I’ve never one hundred percent been someone who loved Kennet as a place I’d be happy to stay in.  But if we can build something, if we can do this, maybe Kennet becomes cool enough it outweighs the hassle.”

“Again, we have to get past Charles,” Toadswallow said.

There was something in his tone, that made Lucy think that maybe the reason he was stressing that was because he was stressed over it – that he’d seen this fight, how hard it was, and what it had cost, and he wasn’t sure victory was possible anymore.

“One question?” a Foundling asked.  She had a duck mask.

Some other Foundlings groaned.  One shouted, “No!”

“Wait, what’s going on?” Avery asked.

“First off, is it possible there’s a way to share out consequences if the Aware get hurt?  If you’re already spreading out responsibility?”

“That’s your foundling schtick, isn’t it?” Lucy asked.

“Ruins things!” someone shouted.

“No, no!” the Foundling protested.  “I think this works!  This could be really cool, this time!  Because if we’re fighting someone based in conflict and war and blood, and we set up a broad protective effort, if we restructure things to discourage conflict across a wide area, then isn’t there a way to use this to diminish his role?  Oh!  Or even take it over?  You’ve got that war council.  The more you diminish him, the more you’re able to have a bunch of people formally say hey, anything the Carmine does, we’ll take over that job.  Leave him with nothing!”

Giving away the whole fucking plan.

They could only hope that Charles wasn’t listening, and that Charles didn’t have someone who could pass him that information.

“It’s so great!” the foundling in the duck mask exclaimed.  “What’s the hole?”

Lucy met Avery’s eyes, then Verona’s.

She could see Matthew taking that in.  And Toadswallow.

“There are problems,” Avery said.  “The Lords are a big one.  I think we need to knock out a few key ones.”

“We already got some.  Others are weaker.”

“The Parity Lord is out of the picture because Chuck agreed not to use it against us,” Verona said.  “That’s one more.”

“And the sheer amount of lesser Others, goblins, ghosts, and things, that’s… we need to stem that tide.  We might need to go after Chuck, force him-”

“Oh!” the foundling in the duck mask called out.

“No, don’t,” Lucy said.  “Don’t- hold onto whatever you’re saying.”

“Cover her mouth?” Verona asked.

Someone tried, but the duck mask was really strapped on and there wasn’t a mouth-hole to cover.

“We can argue he takes responsibility for what his creations do!  Maybe pass on some other costs-”

The deal we made with the Alabaster, that Charles owes her and she owes us, so in a roundabout way, he owes us.

“Weaken him at a crucial juncture?”

“Leaving the problem, do I need to say it a third time?” Toadswallow asked.

“That we have to address Charles himself, sooner or later,” Lucy said.  “Which is where you guys claimed you wanted us to only fight one more fight.  My mom interprets that as what we did to protect Kennet, but I’d argue that’s a part of this ongoing fight.”

“It’s complicated,” Matthew said.

“I’ll uncomplicate it,” Verona said.  “Charles is likely to try to gainsay us at a crucial moment anyway.  So we move forward with the idea we won’t have practice then.  Items and alchemy, other stuff.  So if we say nah, we’re going forward even if you guys revoke magic, then it’s really up to you.  Do you want us disarmed pre-emptively, or disarmed later, when Charles forces the issue?”

Matthew sighed.

“Sorry again, guys,” Avery told the Aware.  “Someone can explain later, hopefully.  Appreciate you being here.”

Lucy looked at her mom, reading her mom’s expression.  She could see Sylvia, off to the side, taking it all in.  Very much like Verona was hanging back, not saying much, no doubt with a lot of ideas working through her brain.  Lucy had no idea what happened when Sylvia spoke up.  Or what Verona would have to say if those ideas came to fruition.

Didn’t matter.  This was a stupid hurdle, and she understood her mom’s concern, but what they needed to do here was too important.

It wasn’t about vengeance or anything like that.  Yes, John mattered, but that wasn’t it.  It was about the landscape of the world they’d live in.  The rolling consequences.  Charles made a world where a son killed his dad.  Where Dog Tags got bound.  Where Kennet below and the denizens all got drained – thousands of people who had feelings, opinions, desires, hopes, personalities.  Some shitty, some bad.  Gone.

Gone because they’d picked a fight with Charles, yes, but eventually someone would have.  Eventually he would’ve needed the power.  Eventually, a power hungry man willing to do something like that would’ve found a reason.

“You guys swore to lock us out of one fight.  I know my mom’s arguing that we already fought it, but is there an interpretation where we didn’t?”

Matthew hemmed and hawed a second.

“Yes,” Bubbelyum said.

“Then I’ll make it even simpler than Verona did, I’m done with debate, I’m done with questioning this,” Lucy said.  “Too much is too important.  I swear I’m taking up this fight.  You’ve got to give us this last shot, at least.  So if you’re going to try to hold me back from it?  You’re not temporarily taking magic away.  You’re going to have to forswear me.”

She focused on the Others as she said it.  But her mom was there in the corner of her vision.

She met her mom’s eyes, and she watched her mom turn away, walking away from her.  From this.

“Are you going to?” she asked.

Nobody was going to.

“Then let’s start planning.  We’ve got the books about the St. Victor’s practitioners…”

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Go for the Throat – 23.z


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Avery could see through the glass door as Castleberry tore into a bogeyman.  Literally into- the bogeyman turned around in a complete three-sixty arms reaching to try to get at it, and she could see the hole it had burrowed, with only spine intact and pushed to one side.  Torn flesh around the edges waved like fronds underwater, except it wasn’t underwater.  Frond snaked around wrist, and the bogeyman pulled to tear free of it.

The ‘frond’ didn’t tear.  Instead, he pulled a connected string of white nodules out of the side of his lower back.

Avery waited, leg bouncing, phone at her ear, keeping one eye on Castleberry and one on the papers they’d put against glass.  They’d secured the glass with ‘quality of earth’ runes so a swung hammer bounced off instead of punching through.

It was the scuffling sounds that got to Avery.  Scraping of that makeshift concrete hammer against the surface of the parking lot, when it rested on the ground.  The muffled sounds.

The Family Man had been muffled, because the air had been warded off.  He’d scuffled.

The others were all inside.

“You really weren’t kidding,” George said.  “That this was dangerous.”

“Upstairs hatch secure,” Lucy said, stepping past Melissa and her mom as she came down the stairs.  “Windows seem okay, I papered them.”

Avery nodded.  The bogeyman kept pulling on the frond and there kept being more length to it, more nodules.  Like a clown pulling on an endless scarf.

“What in the actual seven-sided fuck?” Lucy asked.

“Well said,” Avery murmured.

Lucy turned.  “Looks like Verona got the front, but she’s not looking like there’s an emergency.”

Avery looked.  Verona stood by the front doors, looking out the window, her back to them.  Julette was in cat form in her arms.

“Is she okay?” Mia asked.

“Friends of hers died tonight,” Lucy murmured, her arms folded.

“Of ours,” Melissa said.  She was sitting sideways on the stairs that went up to the second floor, one foot propped up on a stair higher than her rear end was.  Lucy’s mom had been looking after her since they’d all slipped through the chaos to get inside.

“Should she be alone like that?” Lucy’s mom asked.  “My gut says no, but…”

“She’s not alone, she has Julette,” Avery said.

“You know what I mean.”

“I don’t know,” Avery said.  She felt anxious, the dial tone in her ear.  She redialed.

“Give her a few minutes,” Lucy said.  “She does better if she has time to process and digest.  If that’s even what she’s doing.  Fifty-fifty odds on her coming back acting more normal or not more normal, but with some crazy magic in mind.”

“Speaking of a few minutes, how is your hand?” Lucy’s mom asked.

Lucy opened and closed it.  “Hurts.”

“Getting slashed open should hurt.”

Lucy’s mom had bandaged the back of Lucy’s hand, wrist, and forearm, which was the worst wound she’d told her mom about.  Lucy also had a gouge in her neck, but she’d had Avery handle that, and pulled her coat up to hide it from her mom.  A little scarier.

If a moment away from people was what Verona needed, Avery was glad to give it.

Avery hadn’t really had a lot of time to bond with the people, but they were people Kennet had responsibility over.  That she had responsibility over.  People who’d lived here, with families and other things.

“Are you okay?” Avery asked Lucy.  Lucy had had some involvement.

“I lost less friends than she did,” Lucy replied.  “Bracken made it out okay.  I don’t know about people from the Arcade, but I guess it’s not good.”


“It’s fucked,” Lucy said.

It felt weird, having this discussion with people nearby.  Jasmine could hear, Avery guessed.  Especially if she had even half of Lucy’s ability to overhear stuff, pre-earring.

A goblin speared Castleberry, and pulled the cat free of the wound.  Stray bones and chunks of dead flesh came out- far in excess of what there should have been.  Strings of what could’ve been tendons, veins, or something else that was inside the body and stretchy came out with the cat.  Like a piece of gooey pizza, except way grosser.

The white nodules were breaking apart, revealing lashing centipede-shaped things, with spikes at the edges and stingers at the ends.  They flailed around like ribbons in a hurricane, each about four feet long- until one hit near the end of another, joined to it, and pulled the other free, almost doubling its length.  It slapped the goblin across the face, bored in, and pulled it toward the fallen bogeyman.

The cat made a gurgling yowl sound as it fought to claw itself free of the spear and gradually cut itself in half more than it did anything else.

The quote-unquote ‘cat’, anyway.  Avery had more and more doubts every second she watched.

“Just a regular Tuesday, huh?” Wallace asked.

“No, that’s uh, closer to a once-every-four months thing, as far as the casually horrifying stuff goes,” Lucy said.  She had a dark glower on her face.

“Maybe literally casually horrifying?” Avery asked.  “I feel like there are books that talk about the lines between, like, oddfolk and horrors, or horrors and-”

“And Castleberry?” Lucy finished the question.


The bogeyman’s wounds were festering in fast-forward, swelling with pockets that burst and had stuff inside.

“Hey, Lucy, uh, about the way things went,” Wallace said.  “Uh.”

“It barely matters right now.”


“No hard feelings,” Lucy said, her arms still folded, a scary glower on her face as she watched out the back.  “You seemed preoccupied, I was busy, it’s okay.”

“Okay,” he said, again.

“Where are we on the phone, Ave?” Lucy asked.

“Busy signal,” Avery replied.

The bogeyman who’d been clawed at by Castleberry was now being dragged around by the wound on his back, which went after anything that moved, which made it go back and forth between the thrashing second victim and the bogeyman with a concrete cone bolted to a pipe, that was smashing at the papered glass.  Castleberry was on its third victim.

Goblins were, with the exception of the one that had torn most of its face off to get away from the centipede things, staying the heck away.

“You had that in your house?” Jeremy asked Mrs. Schaff.

“I was nursing it back to health, I thought.”

“Reminds me of a fleshmongler,” Avery admitted.

“Goblin grotesquerie, whatever you want to call it,” Blankshanks commented, airy.

Lucy turned and looked until she found the white cat.  “Blankshanks… please tell me that after suggesting we call Castleberry, you know how to deal with it.”

“If there’s a problem you can handle today, but you face two more down the road, what is it you should say?” Blankshanks asked.

“Given a choice?  I’d want to say no,” Lucy replied.

“Exactly,” Blankshanks said.  “Exactly, if you have an option that solves an immediate problem, but asks you to deal with two tomorrow, you say no, that’s a coward’s way out.  Don’t settle for any less than three problems on the ‘morrow.”

“I want it known,” Spades commented from the sidelines, “I didn’t want to do this.”

“Three problems on the ‘morrow means your adventure continues, and if you have no adventure in your heart, then truly, haven’t you already died before you have solved your original problem?” Blankshanks asked.

“So you don’t have a plan for bringing Castleberry back in line?” Lucy asked.

“Not in the slightest.”

“I think fire works okay for Fleshmonglers,” Avery said.

“Corpsemongler, I think,” Verona said, as she walked over.  She winked a bit, but the wink and lighter attitude didn’t really hide what was in her eyes.  Hurt.  Anger.  Not anger at anyone here, but anger, still.  “Slightly different.”

Avery paused a second to take stock.  Verona wasn’t coming out the gates with a practice idea, which meant she’d done the side of the fifty-fifty Lucy had talked about where she’d pulled herself together, instead.

Avery preferred that.

“Corpsemongler.  Alright.  So… not fire?”

“No, definitely fire.  More fire.  Did you call the people?”


“Lucy?” Verona whapped Lucy’s upper arm with the back of her hand.  “You and me?  We leave Ave on the phone?”

“Are you up for it?” Lucy’s mom asked.

“I’m managing.  Come on.  I get the feeling this is better to handle sooner than later.  We’re going to set one of your cats on fire, Mrs. Schaff.”

“Please do, this once.  Looks like it’s for the best.”

Castleberry had been smacked with the hammer, crushing the main body, but it didn’t do a lot to actually kill it.  The strings of flesh still connected it to a past victim, the bogeyman with the wound burrowed into his back had merged with victim number two, and a lot of the aggressors were getting scared off.

There were no issues at other windows.  Snowdrop was keeping an eye out front, now that Verona had left, and Avery could sense her awareness as she noticed everything that moved, and every little sound.  The coast being that clear might’ve been a trap.

Jasmine had left Melissa alone to go watch what Lucy and Verona were doing out front.  Avery wandered over.

“Hey,” Melissa said.  “Others are pretty anxious.  Wondering what the point of them being here is.”

“They helped us stabilize.”

“Is that it?  That’s all?”

“Not entirely.”

“Fuck.  Okay.”

Avery hung up and redialed, shaking her head.

“Mallory was a friend, you know?” Melissa said.

“I know.”

“Anselm was okay too.  But Mal was on a wavelength with me.  I feel like I’ve been wanting that forever.  More than I wanted a boy, even.  And I really wanted Bracken.”

“We noticed.”

“When I invited Verona onto the team over and over again, I felt like she could be that.  Like, square peg into a round hole.  You on the hockey and soccer teams, Mia, Hailey and all of them on the Dancers, you fit in.  I thought Verona could be a fellow misfit who’d find a way forward.  So I nagged her.”

“Makes sense.  And Mal?”

“I found a misfit.  And now she’s dead.”

“I’m sorry.”

“So, um,” Melissa dropped her voice.  “I saw you kill a guy.  Lucy beat him down over and over, Verona did some magic, you kicked him around to keep him from getting away from the magic, he folded, and then he died.”

Avery met Melissa’s eyes.

“Holy shit, right?”

“Right,” Avery replied.  “I’m trying not to think about it.”

“He was on the side of people who did that to Mal.”  Statement, not question.

Avery nodded.

“If you say so, I take it to the grave.  What you did.  If you need something here, I’ll try.  No stubbornness.”

“I’ll probably tell my parents,” Avery told Melissa.  “If we get that far, anyway.  After-action report.  Might phrase it all in a way so Luce and Ronnie can decide what responsibility they want to admit.”

“Heavy,” Melissa said.

“Look after these guys?” Avery asked, indicating the newly Aware.

“Okay.  But can I have my moment to be disgruntled and bitchy about the fact you guys hung me out to dry for so long on the details, and now you’re telling everyone?”

“Yeah,” Avery replied.  “I’m not sure what that moment looks or sounds like.”

“Dunno.  I’d say five seconds of silence, but silent time feels like it should be saved for Mal, Anselm, and the other cool people who got snuffed out.”

Avery sighed.

“Me bringing it up is the moment.  So long as it’s recognized.  Good luck, eh?”

“Eh,” Avery grunted.  She dialed the phone again.

The fact there wasn’t a dial tone startled her.


“Wye,” she said.

“Family’s a mess, people all over the place are panicking, please tell me you’re offering something and not asking for something.”

“I want to call in the favor,” Avery told him.

There was a pause.

“Another time?”

“Now.  You asked us to help Raquel and Reid.  Three times, I’ve advocated and gone out of my way for Raquel’s sake.  We tried to spare her and Reid when Montague turned the Musser minions against the family.  I went to save her from an arranged marriage and we sheltered her.  We have, on three separate occasions, discussed finding a good place for Raquel in the greater political landscape of all of this- I discussed her being a Lord of Thunder Bay with Florin Pesch, Lucy discussed her being a point of contact for the Sable, and Verona talked about her being a liaison-”

“-with the greater practitioner community.  She’s currently in a role like that with the Belangers.  Yeah.”

“You asked in good faith, I think.  We acted in good faith.”

“I’ll note that Pesch brought up Raquel unprovoked.”

“Because he knew we were keeping her in mind, we were invested in a good outcome for her.”

“Conceded.  Is this favor something I can ask another Belanger to handle?  I’d, with a lot depending on what the favor is, put in a good faith effort to keep them on task and secure a good outcome.”

“You, Wye,” Avery replied.  “I called you first because I need the best Augur on this, to make sure I’m calling the right people, and because I need your status.”

“Alright.  If it’s not a doable favor, might throw a wrench in this, but I’m listening.”


The wounds on Maricica’s body glowed from within.  She’d twisted in the air, every cut found its specific angle.  The injuries shifted, divorcing themselves from her body, and fell into alignment.  Three diagonal slashes, running in parallel.

Her symbol, simple as it was.

The pool of blood beneath her expanded.

Other injuries did the same.  The pool expanded further, and the air took on a red tint.  She was smiling, as though the injuries up to this point had been intentional.

Marks she’d made in the ground began to glow too.  The light had a dark touch of divinity to it, and they moved.  None of the Wild Hunt tried to block them, where they could have done so with a lesser diagram or power.

Three slashes in alignment.

The pool tried to grow, but one of the Hunters was crouched beside it, blade planted in the snow.  It and its wielder wouldn’t be budged.  With a pool unable to expand, its contents instead surged and overflowed, a wave of blood washing out in every direction beneath her, past the Hunter crouched beside it, who didn’t flinch.  None of the Wild Hunt on the ground moved, even as blood sloshed around their feet and knees, or past the shoulders, even, for those crouching.  Maricica swelled on a scale that had nothing to do with height, weight, width, or mass.  She would act-

She had the blood form a wave.  The wave congealed into spikes as it found its momentum.

Parries became openings, enemy weapons became footholds and leverage.  Blades skimmed the surface of the tide of blood, and Maricica barely defended herself, only raising a hand to protect the eyes that were beneath the covering of blood that masked most of her head and face.

That was a reveal for later.

She knew what she was fighting.  She knew there was no wrong move.  That if she shifted the footing as they leaped from the spikes of blood, or changed the viscosity of the blood tide as blades traced it to let warriors do their subtle adjustments to their mid-air acrobatics, that wouldn’t advantage her much.  It would take her focus away from something, it would let one spear-wielding acrobat move a different way that would prove to be worse.

Besides, she could turn her wounds to a kind of advantage.  Making a blood goddess bleed?

As foolish as waging war against a Carmine Judge.

The blue windows of the Blue Heron turned red.  The stars in the sky took on a red tint that was fierce enough it began to change the tint of everything here.

She gestured, hand turning a sharp half circle as it closed into a fist, and most of the invisible blades of the Wild Hunt shattered.  Any one that had even a speck of her blood on its length.

Another gesture, hand still closed, but now in a shape halfway between a ‘stop’ and a closed fist, fingers curled down and thumb tucked in, with palm forward, she pushed it toward the main forces of the Wild Hunt.

Those who had even a speck of her blood on them had bone shattered, flesh cleaved away, eyeballs popped, clothing tore.  Not a one flinched, but two novice members of the Hunt died.  A boy had chest caved in, the points of ribs pushed out through his back, and a heroic figure had a droplet of blood settled in the outer part of his ear had that droplet fling itself down the ear canal and through eardrum before expanding out into needle-like spokes with bladed edges sharp enough that they cut as his head moved and the droplet resettled.

Both of the freshly dead had their blood claimed by the goddess as falling within her domain.  Their bodies shuddered, moving as if alive, and then exploded into blood spatters that were thirty feet across, tissue shredded, bone fragments flying.  A few of the Hunters moved or drew blades to let splinters of bone and one buried curse bounce or reflect off steel, instead of catching a vital or seizing them.  A third of four new members of the Hunt died.

In the wake of that damage, a blood mist settling around them, snow kicked up, the fog of mixed red and white revealed the remainder of the Hunters were untouched, clothes immaculate.

“How long must this charade go on?” she asked them all.

“You can end it at any moment by dropping the act,” Idonea told Maricica.

“If we stall out, I do believe it’s to my advantage.  Will you tell me I’m wrong?”

“You’re not wrong, in abstract,” Lefwald said.  “But stasis is our medium.”

“Let’s do away with stasis, then.”

The blood below her feet, which were suspended in air, began to slosh, like a wine cup held in one hand, moved in a circular motion.  Blood lapped against walls that weren’t there, and the glow that was continuing to emanate from wounds and from blood began to play off of surfaces.

Nicsiege raised his chin, looking up.  He was loosely assigned to the job of keeping a eye on the flanks.

The stars.  They had their own interplay with all of this.

A goddess had power, and power had reach.  She was reaching out to the extremes of her boundaries and drawing up walls.  The stars were the intended ceiling on this box she was painting in blood and divine power.  The tide of blood was the floor.

The Hunters took turns talking.  Ionysia told Maricica, “It would be foolish to close yourself in a box with your hunters.  The only avenues available to you are forfeit and an escape that prolongs your time until the forfeit.”

“If I bring things to a draw-”

“This isn’t one,” Ulftheof stated, simply.

“Even a temporary one?” Maricica asked, pausing, to leave them room to answer.  The silence was answer enough.  She smiled.  “In this closed box, I have enough power to dictate the rules.  I can dictate that a goddess cannot die in such a realm.  I can deceive myself.  We know I cannot die of fleshly wounds, my power remains mine in such a closed system, everything else sealed out.  You can torture me and attempt to break me, but how many centuries may that take?  Without something substantial to cut past the lies I may tell myself, it could be three or four hundred years.  We would emerge to find I have set things in motion on the outside, and you would be diminished in the eyes of many, being caught for centuries.  Even one contingent of the Hunt.”

None of the Hunters budged.

“You cannot retreat.  You are too proud.  I have remade and redesigned myself and this move has been part of the plan for a long time, so the lies I tell myself will hold, if it comes to it.  There are only a handful of moves you can make.”

“Maricica,” Guilherme said, his voice carrying.  She smiled as she faced him, because she knew the fact that he was speaking was a form of punctuation.  It was his turn to speak only when the words mattered, and the words mattered because of the moves she’d made to get this far.  “Throwing yourself upon a spear may limit your pursuer’s moves, but that does not mean it’s a good idea.”

“I’ve seen the damage your spears do.  I stand here unscathed, any bleeding I have done, I say it is for the benefit of expanding my power.  Shall we let this box close around us, and see the outcome that awaits us on the other side, a few centuries from now?  Or will you move to stop the box from closing?  Bring something into the box?  Or will you… oh, I see you’re bringing something into the box.  The number of possible outcomes dwindles further.”

The Hunter Maggebeth took a few steps to the side.

She was tall enough she could hide things behind her, and one of those things was the Consort.  The Fae Maricica’s mistress, sitting on a cushioned seat, held by a group of sixteen human slaves that had been partially transformed by Dark Fall glamour to be beasts of burden enough to carry a slice of palace with them.

The cushioned seat had stairs beneath it, and the Consort was long-limbed enough that her legs extended down several stairs.  She sat askew, legs crossed, one elbow on the arm of the seat, smoking spices from pipe that was made from a long, segmented leg of a primeval spider-thing, as long as the arm of some Fae that were present.  Beneath her, no less than thirty scantily-clad glamour-drowned humans and Fae were draped on the stairs, each one given a small diamond-shaped patch of the Consort’s leg to care for and tend to with kisses and caresses ranging from the gentle to the sensual.  The effect was a tumbling dress made of of fawning, beautiful, writhing humans, each straining to give enough attention without distracting her or giving too little attention, each focused on every movement they made, to not be jarring, to move as a part of the whole.  Each knew that if they strayed from their designated territory, they could be punished in the worst ways, by either the slave who had been designated the territory they’d encroached on, who could tug on their clothing or step on hair and spell their doom days or weeks down the line, if they so desired, or by the consort herself, if she noticed their error.

At her feet sat her grace, one Fae -always always a Fae- who had been part of that organized system of competing, overlapping personal attendants and had come out on top.  He was assigned the space between the Consort’s legs, but that a thing for the hours she rested.  To get to where he was, staying interesting and surviving the writhing mass took keen instinct and untold skill.  It made him an attack dog that used touch, not teeth.

By the right of her seat stood a Fae who was her whisperer.  A Fae of the Dark Fall court who, at any moment, could be called on to say something interesting to her.  Maricica had been given increasing amounts of time to impress the Consort more and more, and perhaps, down the line, if she’d proven her ability to regularly bring something interesting to a Consort of the court, she might have found such a position.  Some days, the Consort could be bored, and the whisperer would have to know a hundred things to amuse her and take up her interest.  Sometimes it would be three months, and the thing revealed when the Consort remembered the whisperer existed would have to be as singularly interesting as ninety days worth of valuable whispers.

A tricky role to hold when the whisperer was beside the Consort for every waking hour.  Getting, receiving, and managing the information required a mastery of scheming that was, in essence, building a house of cards that could hold up to an attack by one’s enemies in one’s absence.

To her left was her hand.  A similar role, and one that had remained unchanged for centuries.  The Hand was her knight, her bodyguard, her enforcer, and her representative.  Where the whisperer was her control and eyes over the court’s workings, the Hand was her ability to reach anywhere else.  He’d been cursed a thousand times, and then had been cursed an untold number of times more.  Countless curses that made a Fae ugly or distorted meshed together and made him beautiful.  He wore armor in copper and black, and his hair was white, his eyes perpetually downcast and seemingly closed- his gaze disconcerted even Lords of modest stature from other courts.

Were the Consort a lesser Fae, any of the three of grace, whisperer, or hand could have supplanted her.  But she remained, sitting idly in the chair, smoking that pipe of spices, looking bored, a dress of lithe and beautiful people sliding against and around one another as she shifted the position of her legs, anticipating her movements, each striving to avoid becoming boring.

“This is your reveal, is it, Maricica?” the Consort asked.  “You’ve become grotesque.”

“Grotesquerie is not outside of Dark Fall’s bounds, but I care very little for what you think, now.  I am not here to prove myself to you.  Just the opposite.”

The whisperer leaned in to say something in the Consort’s ear.  The Consort’s expression didn’t betray a thing.

“You’re reduced to being a pawn for the Wild Hunt of Winter.  You bored, boring thing,” Maricica said.

“Our paths align.  I would not be here if I didn’t wish to.  You’ve drawn attention, been dogged by a servant of a human, plunged yourself into Abyss for power and then lost that power.”

Rook sat where the kitchen that had been managed by the brownies had been.  That entire part of the Blue Heron had been replaced by Sootsleeves’ hold, but the room had been allowed to remain a part of the kitchen, because it had to conform to the presence of brownies just as the footing of the hold had to conform to the rise and fall of the landscape here.  So the kitchen remained where it was.  Rook sat in the window, across a small table from Hollow Yen, her would-be Oni in training, the two of them taking tea while watching proceedings.

Neither would do anything tonight.  They had already done everything they would do.

“You’re here because I forced them to bring you out.  They believe you are what can break me, if I close the gaps between wall and wall, wall and ceiling, and wall and floor, of my divine space, here.  What we have is a solved game,” Maricica said.  “There are two branching paths that remain, two things you could reveal to me now, that would carry the necessary weight.  Both converge on the same point.  You are the Hunt’s pawn and you are mine, Consort.”

“Do you think so?  The-” the Consort paused as the whisperer leaned in to say something in her ear.  The Consort nodded.

Maricica smiled.

“To close so many other avenues and paths that I or the Wild Hunt could take from where you stand and have stood all this while… that necessitates a leap of faith.  That is not skill or cunning, Maricica, child, that is reckless stupidity.  The Courts cannot reward such.”

“I don’t need to leap when I am buoyed by worship.”

“False worship.”

“So is that,” Maricica retorted, indicating the dress of writhing people.

Some of that mass spared glances for the Goddess.

“You’ve shed your Fae-ness and you’ve become something gross and stupid.”

“And you’ve become boring, overdue for Winter to take you and sequester you away, Consort.  As is the case with too many Lords and Ladies of the seven courts.  Two outcomes remain.  There are two moves you can make.”

“The first would be to reveal that I have, in fact, already destroyed you, and you don’t know it yet.”

“The Carmine Judge stands ready to reverse most destruction,” the Hunter Elyas said.

“And the look in your eyes suggests it is not the sort of destruction that can circle around the Carmine.  One outcome remains,” Maricica whispered, closing her eyes.

The Consort moved her black pipe to another hand, shifting her position to sit more upright.  The writhing dress of people adjusted accordingly.

As the smoke from the pipe cleared, a figure was revealed in shadow.

Maricica opened her eyes to see, then nodded.

“Brsne,” Maricica let the composure slip, emotion in her voice.  “Briserban.  My brother.”

“The alternative to having already destroyed you, is to have you held firmly hostage by a vulnerability you did not even know you had.”

“But I knew well enough,” Maricica said.  “Countering your last available move.”


The phone rang.

No busy signal this time.

There was a debate going on in the background, Lucy arguing with her mom, that the ‘one more fight’ that they’d had imposed on them didn’t, couldn’t be the fight she’d had with the Family Man, and the fight going on outside, starting and ending there.  Because Charles had overheard about the rule, he’d picked this fight knowing about it, and so on.

Avery missed the response.

Avery walked away from that, hand over one ear.  “Sorry?”

“Doe calls King?” Pesch answered.

“Hi Florin.  Doe calls King.”

“Sounds lively.  Not that I mean to eavesdrop- I can’t make out the words, only the sentiment.”

“Lively’s one way of putting it.”

“Word gets around, people have remarked on what’s going on out there.  And you’ve called.  This should be interesting.”

“You went after the Lord of Thunder Bay.  I spared you.  Because of that, or because you wanted to remain in my good graces after, you said-”

“That I would grant a favor.”

“I’m calling it in.”


“You could not know.  I made sure of it.  You made a reckless guess,” the Consort told Maricica.

“On the day the Carmine Beast died, a messenger visited Guilherme to update him on minor matters.  It did not ultimately matter to Guilherme, who was close to Winter, and I was left to infer what it could mean to me.  As I’ve poked, prodded, and explored the boundaries of this messy situation here, with Carmine Lords and the shifting powers in this patch of the human world, I’ve paid constant mind to the voids.  When powers move or talk, where haven’t they stepped, what isn’t being said or given enough attention?  Space enough for Briserban or others of my brothers and sisters to be in.  I’m asked to visit your court every once in a long while, and the spaces between?  A simple schedule where they each have their turns, each of them thinking they’re among the dwindling number of survivors.  Well, the numbers did dwindle that year you had each of us kill one of the others.  you knew who each of us would kill.”

“You could not know.”

“A Fae holds few securities,” Maricica said.  “You spied on us and watched us closely, to know us and our vulnerabilities before we even came to you.  But even the closest watcher will rarely catch the way someone can communicate as two who grew up together could communicate.  We learn to watch expressions as Fae, we learn to read the smallest of details, we must learn.  We learn our kith as twins learn other twins, we learned from each other, exposing each other to layers that would later be covered up by experience and defenses.  We know each other best.  Few spies are good enough to know those subtleties.  That was one of the sole arrows in our quiver.”

“To know one another well enough that you can imagine your brother’s movements in spaces and places nobody sees.  For if you made even a moment of eye contact, I’d know.  But it was only imagining.”

“An act of faith, but make no mistake,” Maricica murmured, “I am a goddess, now.  As I said, I knew well enough.”

“Now, here he stands.  I shouldn’t need to spell it out, but you’ve become something bloated.  You came as a group to announce yourselves to the Dark Fall Court, as Fae who had come of age.  Each of you saw your kith destroyed in the ugliest, pettiest ways.”


“Effective enough.  My entire subdivision of the Court is built on it.  Not one complicated story, but twenty-one, each completely ignorant to the fact the other narratives exist.”

“Except that the spaces between the metaphorical lines are wide enough to fit words made invisible to us.  Some of us sent away when we got too canny, to train ourselves elsewhere.  Others kept too close.”

Maricica eyed the drapery of writhing, caressing, kissing people, worshiping the Consort’s legs.

“They cannot and will not hear.  The Hunt will not speak of it, they do not care enough.  They only care that I have your heart hostage.  You were destroyed once, when he died, and you can be destroyed again by the same measure.”

“Except I knew well enough, as I said,” Maricica replied, smiling.  The divinity around her glowed.  “The messenger sent to the High Summer Lord Guilherme was a message for me.  Nothing stated, nothing signaled.  Shadows between things in motion, spaces between the lines left for me to infer meaning from.  You sent messengers to many places, didn’t you, Briserban?  To many places at the cusp of turmoil, with Fae exiles, Fae on task, and Fae enmeshed into humanity all at the ready?  To see who would get the signal?”

“Yes,” Briserban replied.  “Not me, but a subordinate of a subordinate.”

“If you don’t mind-?”

“Not at all,” he said.

The Consort arched an eyebrow.

“The messenger arrived on a night we made our first move in subverting natural order.  To put a Forsworn on the Carmine Throne.  That was the signal.  That the move we were making was important enough to be a part of something bigger.”

“I can follow your thought to its natural conclusion,” the Consort said.  “Really, now?  How impetuous.”

“I sought a private letter from Guilherme for much the same reason I brought things to this point tonight,” Maricica said.  “A Fae on the verge of winter has few options remaining to him.  With so few options, it is possible to solve for an answer.  For Guilherme, few things remained to him.  Four for that year, swiftly dwindling to two: a letter tying him to the deep court intrigue, with secrets held within, and the Carmine mystery as it unfolded.”

“The letter was spoiled,” Guilherme said.

“It was.  I hoped to follow that thread.  You were wrong, by the by.”

“Was I?” Guilherme asked.

“The boy asked you how many hundreds of years the letter’s story was to play out over.  You said several.”

“It will be.”

“The courts revolve.  We were flowers not so long ago, but a wilted flower, viewed from an upside-down angle may be a flower of spring, yet to bloom.  The seasonal courts were set in motion and treated as if they were always what we were rooted in.  As things revolve, too much remains the same.  The Consort remains seated.”

“And you seek another change in the nature of courts, not even a decade later?” the Consort asked.

Maricica bowed slightly.  “You did ask for something interesting.”

“A child’s scrawl is wild but not interesting.  I’d call this abject failure.  You’ll protest, saying it’s about something greater, tying back to what you said earlier…”

“The event that was marked by the messenger’s timely arrival.  I anticipated the change in the courts and went looking for what might provoke it.  I kept close to a Fae nearing Winter so I could follow the threads he traveled, for if I could solve one piece of the game, I could position myself on the far side.   Great and terrible things happening in the human world have Fae at the edges.  A Fae exile pretending to be a human, working in a common store, a Fae disseminating cursed items, finding themselves close to a shift in the idea of what a Lord is.  Another pretending to be a girl, dancing the edge of darkest dark and bloodiest ends.  The last revolving of courts was a disappointment.  The courts will be reinvented, we’ll pretend it was always that way, but this time it will be different.”

“Unseating me as part of it, for your revenge?  Many have tried.”

“There will be no seat, Consort,” Maricica told her, and her voice became a snarl as she said it.  “There will be no courts, as you understand them.  You’ve become boring, constrained in your way of thinking, and that is your undoing.  What is the difference between a court of red flowers and a court of early fall, besides the ways we dress ourselves up?”

The Hand of the consort was standing a little straighter.

“It’s not quite time yet, but I don’t think you’ll be too sorely missed, especially if others perpetuate a deception that you’re still around,” Maricica told the consort.  “As a Forsworn became Carmine Exile in the midst of bloodshed and fire, let Fae exiles and those who’ve seemed to abandon the Courts to mingle with humanity become the real Lords and Ladies.  Fae will not dwell in courts of Faerie.  They will dwell in and among man and mankind.  Am I right, Brsne?”

“Exactly so.”

Far more interesting and dynamic, isn’t it?” Maricica asked.

The Consort turned to look at Briserban.  He didn’t flinch or cower.

The Consort shifted position, and as the crowd of people moved to adjust accordingly, she kicked a leg, and some tumbled down stairs, others bumped into others near them.  Noses were bloodied.  The tip of one Fae’s ear tore off.  The scant spider-silk shifts and briefs some wore tore with the roughness.

Maricica smiled, and she let down the walls she had put up, that box she’d placed around them all.

The Allaire Forsworn were there.  People who’d been introduced to practice and promptly Forsworn, to be kept under the thumb of the Allaire family.  Eighteen ex-forsworn tied into Maricica’s plan.

The Kims stood by as well, dangerous in their own right.

“You realize, of course-”

“Does being a goddess mean you must belabor the obvious?  There’s no grace in spelling it out.”

The consort’s hand shifted position, looking at Briserban, at the grace, and then the whisperer.

“You remain doomed,” the Consort told Maricica, a moment before the Hand used a blade to take her head from her shoulders.

The consort’s head tumbled down the stairs.  The Hand followed after it, a single lunging step forward, past the tumble of bodies, the long blade that had removed head from neck was sheathed before the Hand’s boot touched the base of the platform.

One well placed swing, made in the process, killed the entirety of the Fae and glamour-drowned who had formed the Consort’s ‘dress’, the swing so exact it severed something vital from each of them.

“Was that necessary?  She tuned her words,” Briserban said.

“She did, but they could infer,” the Hand replied, eyes downcast.


“I’ll whisper in your ear at a later date,” the whisperer said.  “For now, we perpetuate the deception that the consort lives.”

The grace stood, stretching languidly, and gestured, and the glamour that made up the slave-borne platform began to disintegrate.  “Do you want sixteen slaves with high end transformations worked into their souls?”

“That will be fine.”

With a sword unsheathed and sheathed, a gift, and a helpful deception, the three bought their place in a new Courtless order.

They were gone in moments.

“It could be interpreted that the Wild Hunt of Winter has stayed its blades because they knew this would happen, playing along because that was the way events were flowing.”

“It could.”

“You knew this was in the works.”

“We did.”

“It will happen.  We’ll have a new courtless system.”

“We will.”

“Your reputation remains untarnished.  I am not a threat to a court system that will not exist soon enough.”


“I remain at your disposal should you require me,” Maricica said, dipping her head and bowing, one arm out to the side.

The Wild Hunt of Winter departed, one by one.

She smiled at Briserban.

“I won’t state the obvious,” he said.

“And say that I’ve changed?”

“She was right that you’ve become more blunt.  Crass,” Briserban said.  “It’s not the worst thing.”

“We’ll change further.  There will be much to do.”

“You have people.

“And so much territory made fertile by bloodshed.  Many will find themselves with no home, as we do away with the Faerie as a realm and move en masse into the realm of man.  They’ll need a place to go, more than one place, but… this will do for a good share of them.  And, of course, they’ll need people to help them find their ways around humanity.”

The Allaire Forsworn stood by.


“So where do I rank?” Liberty asked.

“Rank?” Avery asked.

“You’re calling a bunch of people.  I’m wondering if I’m the last person you’re calling, the third, the fifth.  I hope I’m not the first.  That would be a fucking disaster, don’t do that to your cute drummer girlfriend.”

“You’re number three.”

“Number three’s a good number!  Wow!  You flatter me.  Why the fuck do I rate number three?  Shit.  Wait, is my dad okay?  Because-”

“I don’t know.”

“Because okay.  Okay.  No bad news.”

“Not really, no.”

“So why the fuck do I rate number three, freckles?”

“Because I wanted a friendly voice before some unfriendly ones.”

“Well, I can definitely be that.  It’s a bit like introducing someone as funny, isn’t it?”

Avery remembered Booker introducing Verona as the funny one, a ways back, when they’d met his girlfriend.  “Yeah, a bit.  Don’t feel pressured.”

“I do, though.  Now everything I say is going to feel artificial, and I’m already trying hard not to sound flirty, which is kind of my default.  You’re tying my hands.”

“I…” Avery checked nobody was in earshot.  She settled into a corner, sitting on a table that had been stacked upside-down on another table.  Snowdrop settled in beside her, in human form.  “I helped murder a man today.”

“Did he deserve it?”

“Didn’t see another way of settling things.”

“How are you doing with that?”

“I don’t know.”

Snowdrop settled her head against Avery’s shoulder.

“Not your vibe, is it?  Doesn’t suit you.  It’s heavy and you’re… light.”


“When I don’t know what to do, I sorta say fuck it, go with my instincts, and I don’t know what to do here, and my instincts are saying like, fuck, shit happens, sometimes you gotta murder, and then remind you there’s a future past all that.”

“Future, huh?”

“Like… we should make plans to hang out.  Spring break.  And we’ve got to get your sugar deprived drummer girlfriend a cake.  Something to look forward to, that helps you get through the rough patches.”

“You do that a lot?”

“Fuck yeah.  For sure.  Babe, when ‘Meri was in the dumps after Alexander and dad was caught up in the whole Musser takeover thing?  You were that for me.  I looked forward to your calls, I looked forward to seeing your freckled ass…”

“I really hope you didn’t actually see my ass, because that implies-”

“Nah.  Metaphorical… discourse-y ass.  You were my light on the horizon, reminding me the sun was due to come up the next day.  You were kind when everything else was cold.  And that’s getting flirty and weird but in my defense, it’s the middle of the night, I’m sleepy.”


“Spring break?  You, me, your girlfriend, baking a cake.  Let that get you past the, I don’t even know, the trauma?  The-”

“Being weirdly fine with it?” Avery interrupted.

There was a pause.

“That too.”

“Is it okay to move on from murder?” Avery asked.  “Is it okay to be eerily fine with it?”

“I sure as fuck don’t know, but I know you, I know you’re good, you’re a good person, and you wouldn’t do it without a reason.  Maybe it catches up with you later tonight, maybe in a few days, when things have settled, maybe in a year, you’ll see someone who resembles the victim…”

“I sure hope not.”

“Maybe it catches you off guard, maybe it catches you on guard.  Maybe you’re fine with it because you’re going up against the Carmine and you’ve known for a while that stopping him means killing him.”

Avery looked over at Verona.

Verona was the one they’d assigned that task to.  Figuring out a way.  And things hadn’t gone quite that way, but… had Verona had that in mind?

“I dunno.  I’m rambling.”

“It’s a good ramble.  Getting everything organized in my head, around all this, maybe,” Avery said.

“Good.  On that note, you called for a reason, and I don’t think it was to hear me blather.”

“Can we get the goblins moving?  Goblin enclaves, pockets, key groups?”

“Separate from the Redcap Queen stuff, or do you need to bring that mess in?  Or, better way of phrasing it, how deep do you want to risk dipping into those waters?  Because there are goblins who are borderline involved.”

Avery thought of Blankshanks talking about fixing a problem now, by taking on three for the future.

“Let’s keep it simple and easy.”


“Gotta get some to Toadswallow.  Gotta put more of it forward.”

“And the angle?  What can I promise ’em?”

“It’ll be interesting.”

“Got it.  Who’s number four?”


“Number four on the list.”

“I was thinking Musser.”

“Old Man Musser is a goner.  Abraham’s dad?”

“Yeah, no, Lucy mentioned that.”

“And Abe Musser, the one you went up against?  He’s gone.”


“Didn’t make an appointment.  Gainsaid as a result.  Maybe in a position to be Forsworn.”

“That complicates things.  Okay, that… frig.  It’s not that I expected him to cooperate, but…”

“Yeah.  Call Raquel?”

“You think she has clout?”

“I doubt she has clout in her family right now, but I don’t know who does and I don’t think the Mussers know who does.  While things are mixed up…”

“I can maybe offer some sense?”

“I was going to say mix it up more, throw them for a loop, but whatever pickles your nipples.  I hope you have a good pitch.”

“I have no idea.”

“I’ll get goblins mobilized.  You figure out if you have an idea.  I’m going to guess that if you haven’t told me the details of what you’re doing, you don’t want to tell the Carmine.”

“We’ve got a countermeasure that helps, but-”

But she hadn’t brought Alexanderp over here before making the call, like a dumbass, and he was injured from being tossed around.

“-But yeah.  Get the goblins over to us, so we can time giving them marching orders to things kicking off?”

“On it.”

“Thanks Libs.”

“Give that cute girlfriend of yours a kiss for my vicarious pleasure.”

“I will if I remember and if this all goes okay.  Hanging up.  Thank you.

“Bye, frecks.”

Avery started to respond, but Liberty had hung up.

She looked at Snowdrop, who nodded.

They walked over to the main group.

“My mom’s calling Matthew.  We might lose magic, depending on what he decides.”

“Fuck,” Avery muttered.

“I’m equipped if we need to be,” Verona said, quiet.  “But it makes life harder.”

Others were inching closer.  Their friends.  Some parents were hovering near Jasmine, trying to pick up what they could.

Mrs. Schaff had a scorched Castleberry in her arms, swaddled in a stinky towel that had been left lying around the Arena.  Nobody was standing near Mrs. Schaff as a result.

“Wye and Florin are on the job of talking to key people.  Wye’s in touch with people associated with the Blue Heron, Florin’s on the job with people who aren’t part of that.  Those on the fringes, Ottawa included.  He didn’t sound optimistic about Ottawa being on board.  That might be our hard border to the East.”

“It’s not just about them being on board.  If they take hard offense to the fact we’re making a bunch of people Aware…”

“Yeah,” Avery agreed.

“Is it that much of a problem you told us about this stuff?” Mia asked.

“It’s a problem that we’re telling others.”

“Matthew made the same argument Lucy did,” Lucy’s mom said.  “I don’t agree, I’m not happy-”

“But that’s between them and us, right?” Lucy asked.

Verona shifted position.

“I don’t want you fighting any more than necessary.”

“It’s all really necessary though,” Lucy replied.  “There’s a lot on the line.”

“There is, but it seems like your response to problems is to put more on the line.”

“More ends up on the line whether we try or not.  Better to do it on our terms, right?” Verona asked.

Lucy’s mom sighed.

“Abe Musser’s apparently missing and gainsaid,” Avery said, mostly to herself, getting things organized in her head.  “His dad’s dead, as Lucy heard.  Liberty thinks we could call Raquel, the family’s in a weird place, maybe they’re up for a weird idea.”

There were some questions, but Lucy held out a hand, motioning for them to stop and be quiet.

“I’ll explain who’s who as best as I can later,” Lucy’s mom told the group.

There were some nods.

“Thanks, Mom.  Um, Ave, if you’re thinking of calling Raquel and trying to get them going, I think it’s going to be a lot like it was with the war council thing.”

“I mean, a big part of what we’re doing is going to be using the war council.  That’s why I want to call the Mussers.”

“Yeah.  Anyway, best way to do that would be with momentum.  Go to the Mussers saying others are listening and on board, offer them something to rally around.”

“Dangerous, though.  They’re still Mussers,” Verona said.

“Are they human or something else?” Caroline murmured to Lucy’s mom.

“I’m going to go visit Mr. Knox, I think,” Avery said.

Mr. Knox?”

“He was tied into Bristow’s group, kind of a mini-Bristow, he has connections, he has money, he knows the scene, but he craves feeling important and big and he doesn’t get that a lot.  That might be part of our in.”

“Can I come?” Melissa asked.  Then to the other kids, she said, “This is the part they say no.”



“Your ankle okay?”

“Potioned and cared for by Lucy’s very cool mom.  I’ll hobble.”

George and Mia decided to come as well.

Avery pulled off her bracelet, approaching the area where there were doors to the bathrooms and some closets.  George yelped as a door slammed into place.

Up in Smoke, a little dangerous.  One unknown.  One that- she checked.  Draw Near.  Way too dangerous.

And the Skinny Dip.

She opened the last one.  “Stay close, don’t touch anything, do everything I say, don’t question.  Snowdrop?”

“I’m the vanguard.”


The brightness of a town with houses and shops that were all about as wide as a person was a stark contrast to the Arena, Kennet, and the parking lot with burned bits of corpse and piles of barbecued, corpsemongled flesh, with goblins and dangerous things prowling out there.

“This is wild,” Mia whispered.

“Dangerous?” Melissa asked.

“More of a hassle than a danger.  But… it’s hard to know for sure on Paths,” Avery said.  “This?  This is my thing, of us three.”

“What’s the thing the others do?” George asked.

“I can guess Lucy’s,” Melissa said.

“What’s Lucy’s?” George asked.

“Can I say?”


“I saw her cut, smash, and magic her way past like, a hundred people, with one scary mutant dude at the end.”

Avery nodded.

“I took on seven.  Grown adults, too,” Melissa said.  “I’m proud.  And freaked out.”

“And Verona?” George asked.

“No idea,” Melissa said.  “Chemistry?  Alchemy?  I saw some of that at her place.  Plus there’s the little googly eyed thing with red hair that talks funny.”

“A bit of everything and a handful of scary-huge magics,” Avery said.

“Cool,” George said.

Avery was worried about Verona, but the best way she figured she could help was to get them moving forward on all of this.

“Why are you asking like that?” Mia asked George.

“I mean… I want to know what’s out there.  Can we learn?  Can we get into this stuff?”

“Let’s get through this, then talk about it.  But yeah, the plan is to leave that door open for you guys.”

“Okay.  Nice.”

“But we have to get through this,” Avery said, tone insistent.  “And that’s not a certainty.  So…”

“What can we do?” Mia asked.

“For this guy?  Respect.  Hang back, don’t scuttle this by, I dunno, making fun of his appearance.  If we show up and he’s half naked?  Be polite.”

“Is he the kind of guy who’s half naked a lot?” Melissa asked.

“No, I don’t know, but we’re showing up in the middle of the night.”

They had to pass through another Path, from the Skinny Dip to the Dipped Wick.

From the Dipped Wick to Mr. Knox’s driveway.  Their arrival necessitated them showing up in a patch of light, and blinded them on arrival so they appeared in the brightness of the security light, which flared and then shattered as they stepped through.

Avery felt alarm from Snowdrop, something sensed

She shoved Melissa, George, and Mia as she scrambled to get out of the way, trusting Snowdrop’s senses to get a vague impression of what was coming at them.

She used a spell card.  Air.  To blow the assailant away.  He landed and immediately came running again.

Her eyes adjusted slowly.  An axe wielding maniac, teeth bared, eyes wild, swinging.

He didn’t see much better than her in the gloom.  Maybe worse.  Avery threw herself right, behind Snowdrop, using Snowdrop to block line of sight and buy herself the chance to use the black rope.  Snowdrop, at the same time, turned opossum-sized, to better evade the horizontal swing of the axe.

Avery went high, then jumped down, pulling out her lacrosse stick.  She shouted, “Mr. Knox!”

Snowdrop, having gone small, turned regular kid-size again, using the size change to rise up with shoulder driven into the guy’s crotch.

It didn’t bother him much.  He checked Snowdrop with the bit of shaft between his hands, then lined up another swing.

Avery used the lacrosse stick to smash the axe out of his hands.  A very decorated, fancy looking axe, wielded by a shabby looking guy.

She remembered Kass Knox, from the Blue Heron, had been a Collector, focusing on trinkets.  It seemed Collector families had a way of giving shitty secondary roles to the girls, much like how Raquel had a bunch of ‘soft’ implements.

Magic item, which meant the disarmed axe… Avery tracked its movements more than she tracked the guy.

Good thing, because the guy de-materialized.  The axe always had a wielder.  It being knocked out of his hands meant it was at a weird angle, already lined up for a swing.  She blocked the axe-haft with her stick, the head of the axe coming a few inches from her forehead.

Her stick was enchanted, buying her a burst of power, but he was stronger.

“Just this one guy to deal with!” Snowdrop called out.


“Mr. Knox, Mr. Knox, Mr. Knox!” Avery called out.

“The girl who showed up with the two dragons.  Now with a handful of kids.  It’s a step down,” Mr. Knox said.  He was tying on a bathrobe as he came outside, wearing rubber boots, breath fogging in the winter air.  He whistled, gesturing, and the axe-wielder backed off, throwing the axe to him.

Mr. Knox caught it out of the air, then heaved out a sigh.  “You have a twenty seconds before I reactivate my security systems.  Decide what you’re going to do with that time.”

“Abe Musser’s gainsaid and gone, you were our next person to talk to.”

With this guy, going straight for ego was the key.

“Keep going.”

“Step through the door here?” Avery asked.  She checked.  It was a decently safe Path, as long as they stayed near the entrance.  “We don’t want Charles to get the details.”

He hesitated.

“You were my fourth person to reach out to.  After two big favors, getting Wye and Pesch to start organizing people, and one friend, to sort other parts of this out.”

He nodded.  Two of his items came with him as he followed Avery, George, Mia, and Melissa through.

“You fucked my ankle, pushing me,” Melissa muttered.


“It’s okay.  Better a fucked ankle than an axe to the head, I guess.”

“Time’s ticking,” Mr. Knox said.  “We’re out of earshot?”

“Hoping so.  We aim to make people Aware en-masse.  A lot of people.  We talked about how, and it’s going to be a system… we or the existing Aware like these guys, they can decide who to bring in.  Maybe eventually we bring in everyone.”

“Two problems with that.”

“Seal isn’t so cool with that much broken Innocence, and that’s a lot of responsibility to take,” Avery replied.

“Yeah.  So?”

“Responsibility gets shared out.  Between Aware, between everyone signing on to be part of this or peripheral to it.  A bit proximity based, a bit based on the people who agreed to bring them in.  Anyone Aware gets hurt by the supernatural?  We all suffer, people closest to it suffer a bit more, but generally, it pushes each of us to want and need to protect things, enforce things, keep it all safe and sane.  Keep the ugliness out.”

“And the Seal?”

“It’ll be weaker.  Practice dependent on the Seal will be weaker.  But we can get past that.  On the one end, the way things were pre-Seal, magic still existed.  Power existed.  We’d be reverting to that some.  On the other end?  Given practice, everyone signing on…”

“Everyone’s a lot of people.”

“A lot of people tied into everything that’s been going on haven’t exactly been getting the best end results.  Evicted from the region, families and old power structures in turmoil.”

“And you’re saying this fixes that?”

“I’m saying this is one possible replacement.  We make people Aware, we diminish the worst parts of the Seal in the process, we, as part of this big organization, say we need a better approach to gainsaying and forswearing.  We elevate the people who were on the bottom of this power structure and we elevate all of us as a part of that.”

“You’ve answered my question about who takes responsibility.  That’s a complicated one I’m too tired to get into right now.  But the other question, the power…”

“We’ll be collectively more powerful.  More Aware means it’s a minefield for dangerous Others and predatory practitioners.”

He looked George up and down.  “I have a new question.”

“For me?” George asked.

“No.  You do know that the Carmine just decided the entire region should be a hornets nest and he’s got goblins, wraiths, and other dangerous Others crawling up out of the woodwork.  He decides what Others emerge and-”

“And he’s saying ‘yes’ to just about all of them, seems like.”


“Yeah,” Avery agreed.  “I know.  We’ve bumped into that already.”

“It’s part of why I’ve got extra security out right now.  So here’s the thing.  You want to make a lot of people Aware?”

“We do.”

“We can debate the merits on that, but you’re going to lose that debate in about five seconds if someone like one of the Mussers starts asking why we should take responsibility for ten, twenty, a hundred, a thousand Aware, if there’s ten thousand new low-level, dangerous Others out there who’d tear them to shreds.”

“Are there ten thousand?”

Mr. Knox shrugged.  “I don’t know, but if they ask, you’re going to want to have an answer.  You’ve got your friends attacking him?”


“You think they’re going to be able to get him to shift priorities and stop doing that?”

“I don’t know.”

“You want my advice?  You’d better know, before you talk to the Mussers or anyone else you want on board.”


Maricica turned.  The Wild Hunt had left, but one remained.

She adjusted her position in the air, facing him square-on.

One of the Allaire Forsworn took a small step forward.  Maricica smiled at the courage.

This was her concern.  Anyone dumb enough to interfere wasn’t any use, and anyone smart enough to be of any use wouldn’t get involved.

“The Wild Hunt moved on.”

“I remain.”

“You diminish them and you diminish yourself, standing against me.  They stepped away.  By lingering, you act against them.”

“I am of the Winter court.  I do not diminish, I simply am.  What I am, standing before you, should be taken as a reminder.”

“I have gone out of my way to leave Faerie nature and matters of Faerie Court behind me, and as I’ve noted tonight, I intend to move forward, the Faerie as a realm and the Faerie as a system left as burned ruin behind me.”

“You have gone out of your way to leave things Faerie behind, but I believe there is a kernel of you that is cowardly enough that you held onto it.  Shall we test that?” he asked.

“I don’t see the point,” she replied, drifting in the air.  Briserban looked up at her, casual.

“Don’t you?” Guilherme asked, and he created a spear out of ice.  He judged the weight of it.  “Remember in the cave?  I threw spears at you until I’d trained you to move certain ways.”

“And you failed.  I did end up dodging things.”

“The issue we run into, Maricica, is that you’re insistent on a short-term view.  Something that must be cured if we’re to move forward.  I know you’ve talked to Miss and heard Miss talk about how humanity gained its foothold, using the Seal.  That we misjudged what time and eternity mean in reflection of humanity and its ability to sprawl.  If you’re to help build a courtless system with heavy involvement in human matters, we must train you out of that.”

“And you’ve taken that on yourself?”

“The issue is that you, in talking to the Hunt, talked about the dwindling options, how matters become a solved game.  That if you can track a Fae doomed to fall to winter, you can reach that point where the options dwindle to so few you can predict and shape an outcome.  You talk about your defeat of the consort as a similar dwindling number.  As if everything draws to a singular point.”

He adjusted his grip on the spear.

“You’ll tell me it doesn’t?”

“It does.  But you must be aware, things do not end.  We are Faerie, and things carry on.  Turned to Winter, we remain perpetual.  Past a confrontation with a lifelong enemy, things will carry on, life must be lived.  If you look for a singular outcome when dealing with humans, you may well get it.  You’re capable enough.  But you may not like what waits on the other side.”

“Will you talk me to death?” she asked.  “Or will you make your move?  Throw your spear at me as you did?”

“You made a deal with Gilkey, the poison elemental, the alchemical distillation.”

“I plan to see it through.”

“But you treated it as a means to an end.  The end was reached, and now we must impress that there’s something past that end.  I visited Gilkey, traveling with the Hunt on cold winds to his side.  I had him blow a kiss, caught it in the air, and I kept the air flowing around me, so it would not land.  A trace of saliva, of chemical, of intent.  If you’d done something to mollify his situation, the poison will be weaker, perhaps so weak it doesn’t bind to the spear.”

Guilherme held out the spear.  The blown kiss landed on the end.

“And the stakes have been set?” Maricica asked.  “You’d poison me.”

“The Wild Hunt likes its invisible blades.  For this moment…”

He adjusted his grip.

Light fell on the ice and then fell through it.  It became invisible.  Not even that blown kiss, faint green-black, lingered.

“You made a deal with Edith James, and with the Girl by Candlelight.”

“A deal I intended to keep, I granted her power and the ability.”

“She is not here.  The invisible spear here is viewable with the right lights from spirit.  If those bowls of candles were still around, you’d be able to see a glint along its length.”

“I am not forsworn, you could not even gainsay me if you tried, on these things.”

“It isn’t about the lies, but the underlying idea.  We hold ourselves and each other to standards.  One standard is that the Wild Hunt is not to be trifled with.  Winter is not to be looked down upon.  You think you would dismiss us, your victory scored against an old nemesis?”

“I would phrase it as a change in the paradigm.”

“The paradigmn,” Guilherme said.  He raised a hand.

Maricica turned her head.

The walls she’d erected, the floor, the ceiling, they had that gleam he’d talked about.  Light from spirits catching momentarily.

Four members of the Wild Hunt were still there.  At four corners of the box.  They’d used winter glamour to keep up the walls of the space she’d forged around herself and the Wild Hunt.  Just her and Guilherme inside, now.

“You built your box and brought things to a close with your nemesis and superior.”

“I talked about things beyond it.  If you’re trying to make a point…”

“The point is about means to ends,” he told her.  “And what happens past the end.  Now you and I are in a box.  I hold an invisible skewer, tipped with virulent poison, made with your outstanding obligations in mind.  If you have divorced yourself from being Faerie and exist as something else, then the Winter Court -for as long as a court remains- and the Wild Hunt have no firm grip on you.  I would throw this skewer, and it would miss- you would be different enough my anticipation of your movements, remembering last time, would count against me.  Absolution.  The past matters insofar as you’ve grown past it.”

She stared at his hand.

“But if, in cowardice, you’ve only acted by half measure, and in your transformation you’ve clung to some part of Faerie, your old self, for the familiarity of it, if a part of you believes you should have already met your obligations, and if you’re not truly reaching forward as you claim, that may be the difference by measure of hairs-widths.”

“I feel compelled to offer my objection.”

The Carmine Exile had appeared.  He paced outside the bounds of the box.

“On what grounds?”

“Matters came to a close.  She’s right that no word has been broken.”

“She contrived for the Wild Hunt to summon up her enemy, so she could square off against them here, where she is stronger.  But when you call on the Wild Hunt, you must be prepared for it to come calling in turn.  We are allowed to test her measure, lest she do it again.  We will not be pawns.”

Maricica looked at Guilherme.  She dripped with blood.

“You know it true, Carmine,” Guilherme said.

“Maricica.  I can grant you a position as my agent,” Charles said.

“They would be waiting for the moment I was no longer that.  That very moment, the skewer would be thrown at me.  No box, I assume, but that barely matters.”

“The box is a stand-in for the cave.  A return to our moment many years ago,” Guilherme said.  “The dimensions aren’t even dissimilar.”

“You throw, I dodge, I’ve proven I’ve cut myself off?”

“I throw, this makes contact, and you’re poisoned.  As you said, you can define the rules in your space.  We define the same.  You will not die.  You will suffer and be boxed inside, and perhaps three hundred years will pass before the poison runs its course.  You’ll emerge soon after.  Twisted by the pain, everything you clung to will be twisted in your mind, by equal measure.  Including your brother.  You’ll destroy what you needed most to hold onto.”

“You contrived to let me have my victory, to threaten to take it all away?”

“No contrivance was required.  The threat is for you, by you.  That is why I am not truly acting against the Wild Hunt or Winter.  This is your own doing, the past catching up with the present, with the speed of a thrown javelin.”

Charles Abrams sighed.  “I have an imminent phone call.  I hope to see you inside.”

Maricica was silent, every last part of her trained on the spear.

Charles left.

“I’ll take your silence as acceptance,” Guilherme said.  He raised the spear into a throwing position.

Maricica moved, blood crashing upward, congealing and hardening into scabrous crust.  She moved when he couldn’t clearly see her, much as she’d moved before.  She played tricks with light on the most translucent parts of ice.  He wasn’t tricked.  She moved in different ways, because she was something different.

Guilherme watched with trained eyes, finding alignment between past and present, anticipating where she would be in future.

He knew how she’d moved, before.

He threw, hurling it, and let wind stir snow around himself, glamour shattering.

Spear punctured the blood wall, and poison scraped away from ice.

Spear passed her arm, her shoulder, cutting through long, blood-soaked hair, and the tip of the spear grazed the back of the arm that came backward as she turned in the air.  Just above the elbow, back of the arm.

With just enough poison, honed by stewing in the primeval that had chased her, that Gilkey had inhabited, to inflict three hundred years of suffering.

Guilherme closed the box before she could speak or respond, and plunged it into the snow at the back of the school.  It disappeared beneath, dropping through, where fairies would carry it to a repository deep in the Winter Court, that would not be a Court for much longer.

She had her legacy, that would stay.  Briserban was saved, the upheaval in courts was subtly in motion.  Perhaps in the chaos of an upended court system she had helped orchestrate, someone would forget where she was kept, or those that knew would be removed, trapped themselves, or destroyed.

It didn’t matter.  That would happen, but she wouldn’t be a part of it- not for three centuries, at the very least.

Briserban dropped to his knees, ready to begin his mourning.

Guilherme, brought to earth by his own mourning, put all other considerations to rest.  He was done with this Earthly side of reality for now.  Until the courts upended Fae all over it.

It would be best to plan for that.  Perhaps it was best if they kept one slice of Faerie going, redefining what was currently known as the Winter court as an anchor and preservation of the old ways.


Charles picked up the phone.

There was no voice on the other end, but he could feel the weight of the call.

“The Lord of London, I take it.”

“It is.”

Charles paced in the inner sanctum of Alexander’s old Demesne.  One of the only parts of the building that still stood.  Wood creaked with his every footstep.  Alexander had destroyed his, so it felt cruelly ironic.  Charles traced a table with his fingers.

Alexander, who’d put so much emphasis on forging connections, tying the community together.  He’d done many things wrong, but he’d had some good ideas.

“Yes,” he said.  “The Judges are in agreement, three out of four.”

“Then it is done.”

The call ended there.

Charles disposed of the phone, throwing it aside.  The building was in such dire shape, held up by a faint expression of his power, that that was all it took for the dominoes to start tipping, and the cascading collapse to begin.

The Blue Heron was gone, and then so was Charles, skipping a short distance to where the others were.  He joined his bloody Lords, Abyss-touched students, Forswearing-scarred teachers, the Allaires, who were so broken, the Kims who broke others so easily, a tide of violent Others who he’d invoked into being, who didn’t know what war they’d fought in, and the growing number of undercity denizens who’d agreed to be loyal.

The Aurum made an appearance, weaving past, giving Charles a wry look.  He’d felt a change.  The change.

It is done.

He could feel it.  The territory was his, borders secured.  Power flowed in easily.

He wouldn’t gainsay the Lord of London by saying it wasn’t done, but it wasn’t.  Not yet.

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Go for the Throat – 23.f


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Next Chapter

Dorian felt the eye of the Carmine Exile pass over him.  With senses that weren’t his usual ones, he was aware of the Judge, of that presence, that attention, the dismissal.  It made him feel small, scared, relieved, and the relief came with equal amounts of self-condemnation for feeling relieved.

“Keep moving,” Matthew said.

“People are dying,” Lane said.  Lane was the one hosting the spirit of Boughbreak.

“I know,” Matthew replied.

“A lot.  From Kennet below.”

I know.  I’m sorry, but there’s no way to know who, yet.  If you feel you need to back out, let me know.”

“Not saying that,” Lane replied, defensive.

“There’s not a lot we can do here except moving forward.  Stop him before he can do more damage.  How’s everyone doing  How are your spirits?”

“Hot,” the guy hosting Engine Head said.  Dorian’s opposite, here.

“Go easy.  Anyone else?  If there are issues, this might be our last chance to tackle them.”

How am I doing? Dorian thought.

From feeling as tall as the towers for the shrine spirits around Kennet found to feeling like he could be extinguished if the Carmine Exile had felt just a little different about things…

Memories kept stirring.  Experiences floated to the surface.  Having the spirit inside him, even if it was arguably the weakest, it felt good.  It felt like his blood was pumping hard, it felt like his body was strong, he had power, potential.

The scene kept running through his mind, the closest comparison he could make.  His first date, the nervousness, the way the other guy had looked at him.  One of the first times he’d felt wanted in his life.  He’d felt seen, charged, strong.  This was the same.

He was trying not to think about that date too much, not just because he’d had some growing to do when he’d gone on that date, after being raised in Kennet below and coming out of it with no confidence, but because he was pretty sure the spirit in him had a view of what was in his mind’s eye.  It didn’t care, it wasn’t like it would gossip, but… the memory was his.  Hard fought, hard earned.  Embarrassing to reflect on, but nice.

“I’m okay,” he muttered, more for himself than for Matthew.  He felt the spirit inside him, occupying the hollow spaces, trying to find a comfortable position and not quite getting there.

He wasn’t sure he was even heard, saying he was okay.

“Our guys have cleared the way to the building, but even with there being a way there, it’s not entirely safe.  Let’s try to keep the way clear, maintain pressure from all sides.  Lane?  Dorian?  Arrow?”

Dorian turned to Matthew, as did the other two.

“Trade out with the first group, cover the Ruins.  Go shallow, try to keep the pattern going.”

Dorian winced internally, then nodded, stepping away from the main group.  Lane was from Kennet above but had gone to Kennet below.  Arrow had gone from Kennet found to Kennet below.  Dorian had been the one to leave, and felt a bit cornered.  He’d been one to leave, and these two had been so intent on going.

Worse, they’d been doing this for a bit, but the last two goes, which had been Dorian’s only two goes, he hadn’t been sure he’d been doing it right, or at all.

Let it take over.  You’re trading places.

He reached out to Florescence, and he let down the walls.  He put arms out to the sides as the spirit flowed out of his eyes, brow, and the base of his throat, creeping down across his body, painting him the dull black of a computer or television screen with the power on.  His hair got longer, and as he straightened his back, rolling his shoulders, he felt bone slide against bone, not even trying to connect anymore.

“Not too much,” Matthew said.  “Or the way back gets hard.”

Dorian nodded.

“Be that kernel of direction,” Matthew said.  His eyes burned.  He’d said stuff like this before, and Dorian had felt like it had been a little tiring, but in moments like this, he appreciated how it could be necessary.  It was easy to lose track and the words were a touchstone to come back to.  “Spirits don’t have a lot of individual will, usually, but can be singular when they do.  The moth will seek out the candleflame, decide how they get there.  Identify the candles for them.”

Dorian opened his eyes, and the digital images of flowers erupted around him, swallowing things up in their neon brightness.  Florescence’s long hair blew around her, black with digital flowers in it.  She stepped forward, and barely felt the snow on the ground.  She floated a little.

Boughbreak and Nyeh were with her.

Okay, he’d managed this in the test runs.  He’d done this the last few ‘shifts’, as they’d patrolled the edges and supported other groups.

“Relieve the others.  I’ll be behind you, so I can be me again when I’m in the building.  To get to the Ruins-”

Rely on your human aspect.  Emotion, connection…

Florescence dipped into the spirit world, instead of the Ruins.  But so did the others.  Matthew’s voice was suddenly far away.

Rolling mists tried to hide the full extent of the surging, undulating thing that stretched out beyond them, pushing spirits away, and stretching the ideas of distance and perspective as it did.  Meat compressed into meat, compressed into death, ate spirit, and forced it to conform, contort.  Like taking dead birds and arranging the feathers of the broken wings into flowers, entrails for the stem, but in three dimensions, taking color, style, intention, and motive force.  A macaroni art sprawl of neighborhood with houses, gardens, people, barbecues, a small street festival, with things both living and dead in place of the the macaroni, moving, shifting, real to life while being the furthest thing from living.

All a lie.

The school stood out.  Here, in the spirit world, he could see the protections that had been laid into the ground, and erected with oaths to the world.  The lighting around the school wasn’t quite in tune with the neighborhood.

The ground around the school was laid with stones that had been arranged into a kind of broad magic circle.  The ground of the neighborhood was hostile.  Florescence floated up, aware of the nether worm thing that was one of the most dangerous things here, and the fact she had less places to hide, up here.  Its fins extended into spirit while the body remained in Ruin, like the dorsal fin of a shark extending from water into open air.  It exuded menace, and it shed hundreds of echoes.  Six of the others were playing defense, baiting it, distracting it.

Florescence floated their way, going higher still.  Boughbreak and Nyeh followed, the former heavier, the latter heavier still.

Height wasn’t safety.  Things shifted, and she had to take evasive action- the sky was hostile too.  The blue sky was painted over corpsemeat that hadn’t been given the grace of death.  The sun was white rats running in eternal circles, a ring moving clockwise while another ring ran counter-clockwise.  They ate each other’s tails, giving birth to baby rats that quickly grew up, tails entwining, creating as they destroyed, teeth gnashing, tearing, loins spewing blood, eyes wild with fear and frenzy.

The Turtle Queen warred with the neighborhood out at the front of the school-  Florescence was high enough up that she could see over the school.  Viewed through the mists of the spirit world, it was clear how the Turtle Queen changed configurations of things around her to suit herself.  When defenses were raised against her, she changed the contents to suit herself.  From human flesh to the flesh of snakes and turtles.  From bone to gold.

The Girl by Candlelight incinerated flesh and melted gold, while leaking a constant pool of wax that was resistant to the Turtle Queen, running down the peaked roof and overflowing gutters out front.  The fires were a loss of ground for both the neighborhood and the Turtle Queen, but the neighborhood could make better use of the scorched corpseflesh than the Turtle Queen could- one of her provinces was black, mingling with green and gold, and the burned flesh was black in places, but that was a small foothold.

Montague reached in, because burned corpseflesh was more his thing.  Red and black, mangled.

The barrier that had warded off the worm retreated as Montague moved in.  They’d rigged something up, it seemed, to avoid giving Montague something to grab onto.

Dorian wished he could come up with a way to pin things down, or give him a way.  He didn’t know enough about this stuff.  He was new to it.

Florescence could see him, twisted, fragmented and folded in spirit, and it was an image that demanded that it be straightened out in the eye and mind of the spirits.  The problem was that in straightening out the eye and mind to see that the way it wanted to be seen, one had to fold and contort themselves.

Dorian tried to distract her.  The worm.  Other spirits.

The worm was thicker than a city bus, and tore through spirit and reality both.  Black and eyeless, the ends of its scales were hooked, with echoes and spirits attached to it.  As they were shed in its wake, with intentional flares of its frills scattering echo like psychic venom, or accidentally, with every impact or sharp movement, others managed to crawl free from within the worm, only to get hooked, primed.

Unveiled Skullbone bit, and was knocked back by the cascade of echoes, putting him off balance for the passing worm’s fin to smack into.  Long tried to wrap limbs around it, the white from her arms leeching out into the worm’s body.

Long’s arms tore.

Boughbreak managed to shield the two from afar, reaching out, spearing the worm with broken tree branch while a cupped arm of unfolding branches provided some cover.  Boughbreak wasn’t strong enough to stop the main body of the worm, but could at least block the ends of frills and fins, and stop some echoes from getting at them.

The worm plunged deeper into Ruin, the fins that extended into Spirit slipping into mist, becoming vague, then nonexistent.  In the wake of it crashing through, the neighborhood exploded up and out.  In the spirit world, the sky rippled as dust touched it, flesh rolling out behind it.  Things reached from beneath it, subtly trying to snare.  Jagged, camouflaged meat-fingers and tendrils, bloody froth that had a spiritual grip and traction.

In the distance, caught between the Girl by Candlelight and the neighborhood Montague was seized by the neighborhood.  There was a moment of stillness, and then he was torn in half.  One half was devoured, pulled into the gnashing, meaty sidewalk and lawn nearby  The neighborhood found some strength, by eating him, or by having one less enemy to fight.

Everything near and around Dorian and Florescence shifted, finding a sharper resolution, sharper configuration.  Meat met meat, colors rolled, and it took on a shape that, even in the spirit world, looked like a sunny neighborhood would in reality.  No mists, no spirits- the lesser, ambient spirits were eaten.  The sun shifted from being a teeming, ever-winding, disc-shaped arrangement of white mice birthing and eating one another, ouroboros style, to infections weeping blood and pus, to the pus flooding out to fill gaps between mice, who fought more frantically as they drowned in it, the red of blood mingling with white to find the orange-white brightness of a sun in the sky.

People that lived in the neighborhood looked up at Florescence.  There was gnashing, scraping, silently screaming, shifting flesh behind their eyes, instead of anything spiritual.

Then there was emptiness, a glazed look.

Then it looked like any eyes of ordinary people would, a light and animation that looked as bright as anything.  A patch of ordinary, bright, and populated Earth in the vague, shifting, and misty spirit world.  A dog barked, wagging its tail.

The air began to press in, sky, the fragrance of garden beds, barbecue, and fresh-cut grass thickening, coiling around them, pulling-

Dorian and Florescence’s movements were awkward, like a baby’s, still learning to coordinate.  They flew higher, away from it all, and, tracking the movement of the worm toward the ruins, moved laterally.  Dorian reached for emotions, for the peace and quiet serenity he’d felt as he’d gotten out of Kennet below and into Kennet found.

Florescence moved in the direction that Dorian’s heart reached.  They moved into bright Ruins, and the vague shadow of the worm in mists surrounding the neighborhood clarified into something sharp and real.

The sun became overly bright.  The air was thick with flower petals and tree blossoms that glimmered as they caught the light.  No snow here.  Warmth, blossoming trees, and tall grass, water flowing off of broken chunks in waterfalls that spread a diffuse mist.

Florescence began to wither, the black breaking up.

Light is good for plants.  So is kindness, Dorian thought. Willed.

The flowers began to sprout out, a barrier between Florescence and the light.

And let me out, a bit.

The black broke up a bit.  Dorian’s skin became a shield against the Ruins in the spots the sunlight was most direct.  Not too much.  They wanted to be spirit enough they could float.

Spirits with enough kinship with an area of the Ruins can hold out there, just like goblins can hold out in the Abyss.  It was why he’d wanted to come here, to this aspect of the Ruins, specifically.

Dorian had suspected he’d get the spirit of digital flowers.  It wasn’t a strong one, but the shrine had been one of the easier ones to get to from his place in Kennet found, and it was nicer than its neighbors.  The foundlings and people he met around that shrine were alright.  Not that he’d made many friends.  He didn’t really know how.  Because he’d suspected, he’d asked questions, trying to get prepared.  So he knew about Ruins, and Abyss.

He wasn’t upset he’d gotten it, he only worried because it wasn’t strong, and he felt like there was something he was meant to do that he wasn’t doing.  Like, had they offered to let people host the shrine spirits, and only included this one and maybe Scatters too, because it would be rude if they didn’t, and then they were quietly slapping their foreheads because some dumb kid had gone and taken it?

It was a strong spirit, it had been given a lot of strength and stability by the constant shrine visits and tributes.  But it was a strong spirit of something kind of useless and weirdly specific.  Digital representations of flowers.

He tried not to dwell on it, worrying the spirit would read his mind or something.  Even if it didn’t seem to care.

The neighborhood was still here in the Ruins, perched on floating rock, connecting multiple chunks, with sun-bleached rope ladders and ropes trailing from each of them.  It ignored the aesthetics and conditions of the Ruins much as it had the spirit world.  Suburban houses, bright green, neatly trimmed lawns, tidy fences, sunshine and people in clothes suitable for wearing to church, all having paid way more attention to hygiene than Dorian remembered seeing back in Kennet below.  Half the residents stood where they were, watching Florescence and the other hosted that had followed her.  Others went about their business.  The whole of it pushed back against the Turtle Queen.

The other hosted had traveled by different angles, into dark sorrow and burning anger.  They were recognizably there but out of reach for Florescence.

I’m not strongBut we have numbers.

“Going back to Matthew!” Long called out.  “Too hurt!”

None of the people that were hosting more intact spirits responded with words, choosing to communicate by way of spirit, instead.

We have less numbers, I guess.  Long left with Skullbone.

The Girl by Candlelight had noticed them.  The Goddess looked their way too.

I’m not strong, as a person, or with this spirit.

Dorian’s physical body began to slide one way, the spirit another.  Like a sandwich with the fillings working their way out the back.  They pulled themselves together.

They reunited just in time to be able to move as the worm came tearing through.  It passed within ten feet of him -that wasn’t the issue-  skimmed one section of Ruin, shattering rock, plunged through another, into darkness.  Echoes scattered in its wake, and withered fast in the bright light of the brighter end of the Ruins.

Florescence fought past them, swinging arms, pixelated flower petals following each swing, illuminating echoes as they made contact with flesh- smoke?  Ectoplasm?  Weighing them down.

The worm turned sharply- shedding more echoes all around the others, who were closer to ‘ground’, in another layer of Ruin.  It came for Florescence, and she floated around one large rock with trees on it.

The worm smashed the rock, and shards went flying.  Shards that came closest to Florescence, grazing skin and hair, became flower petals.

The worm reared back, shaking its head after the heavy impact.  In the light of the sun, black scales were quickly being bleached to white.  Tattered cloth ringing its neck at one point frayed, then became gold chain.  Dark recesses, like eye sockets with scaled flesh stretched concave over them, began to glow from within.  Echoes began to die off, with others emerged.  Brighter ones.

Its breast glowed, at the widest point below the ‘neck’.  Even if it was all technically neck.

Florescence flew.  Dorian reached out from within- he’d been the pilot, before, with Florescence’s instincts periodically poking through, and now the roles were reversed.  He turned attention to the school, to the bright, artificial blue glass windows with garden beds below them, no snow in Spirit or Ruins, and turned attention to to the Girl by Candlelight, bright in shadow and surrounded in glittering gold as the Turtle Queen tried to come for her.

He’d hoped the worm would charge in, coming diving for him and crashing in to hit the Girl by Candlelight, but it wasn’t charging.  It opened its mouth, and echoes streamed out, bright, dancing, laughing, so liquid they splashed into one another and lost all form, before re-emerging elsewhere in that bright flow.

A barrier became apparent as she got closer.

Change back.  Let me be a shell around you-

Florescence withdrew.  Spiritstuff crept back into Dorian.  He held onto just enough to be able to navigate this space, a bit of floating, a bit of petals in wind, a bit digital.

His human flesh withstood the barrier that was there as a fence against spirits and stray echoes, protecting the spirit that was now inside him from whatever the barrier might have done to her.  He landed on the roof, a good distance away from the Girl by Candlelight one eye on her, one eye on the worm, ready to fly off or even jump off the roof if he had to.

The worm exhaled tangled echoes, bright, and they splashed against the barrier.  Straining it.

I wonder if the barrier is mostly up because of the worm, because they know it’s raw.

The Girl by Candlelight glanced at him, eyes glowing, and a flash of orange startled him.  Prickling heat and smoke immediately followed.

She’d set him on fire with a glance.

It was so startling he was caught frozen between the worm and responding to the fire.  The worm came after him, still breathing that stream of bright echoes, and it hit the strained barrier head-on.  The barrier was strong enough to keep it from plowing through, which would have taken off a bit of roof and, with luck, seen the worm smash into the Girl by Candlelight.

Dorian flailed, trying to put out the fires.  He was balanced on the sloped roof, and each wild footstep threatened to see him tumble.

He almost stopped, dropped, and let himself roll off the roof, but as he patted some flames, he felt her, the Girl by Candlelight, and flames renewed, swelling.

He felt a heat in his chest, in his heart.  His eyes widened.

And Florescence covered it, embracing it.

The heat in his heart died.

The fires extinguished.  Mostly.  Dorian slumped to hands and knees, burned in seven places, some fires still lingering, smoking more than they ravaged him or his clothing.  He patted at the fires, burns on his arms making themselves known with the movement, skin too tight, pain surging, then redoubling.

He could feel where the help was coming from.

Matthew Moss.

“There you are.  Stick with the others!” Matthew called out.

The Girl by Candlelight’s eyes flared, and Dorian was again set on fire.

“No!” Matthew shouted.

Fires went out moments later.  Mostly.  The spirit of ‘Smoulder’ was in Matthew, and Smoulder liked to ride a line of almost no flame, but lots of heat and smoke.

Dorian gasped for breath, gasped from pain, struggling to get further from the Girl by Candlelight.  He called on Florescence, and she emerged, covering him, replacing burned flesh, blooms sprouting as a shield between her spiritstuff and the light of the bright, joyous Ruins.

The heat washed over them, and Florescence lowered her head, shielding her face.  The smell that washed off of them was the same one that came from an overhot laptop.  The flowers began to glitch out.

Matthew reached out, and smoke poured out of his hand, obscuring everything.

“I’ve got you.  Come on,” Matthew said, quiet and urgent.

Florescence leaped from the rooftop, into Matthew’s arms.  The guy was pretty strong, and Florescence was light.  His hands held her- their ribs, for a moment, before he set Florescence and Dorian down.

On the one hand, Matthew was a good decade too old, attached to Louise, and this wasn’t the time.  On the other, though, strong hands, and being held like that left an impression Dorian figured would stick with him for a long time.

The Girl by Candlelight was visible as a dark spot surrounded by a heavy orange glow.  Black wax poured off the roof past her feet, which did a lot to show where she was.

“This way,” Matthew said, as Smoulder smouldered, overtaking him.  The light was drowned out, darkness came out, and moisture began to drip around them.  “Reach for the emotions.”

Dorian reached for the feelings that had dwelt with him when he’d lived in Kennet below.  There were some who found freedom there, strength.  One of the administrators in Kennet found who he’d talked to during his orientation classes talked about something Verona had been told by the Carmine, about his intentions over Kennet below.  Maybe there was a world where Dorian hit rock bottom and then found strength scrabbling back.  Lane, the holder of Boughbreak, had been like that.  But hitting rock bottom sucked.  Scared him.

His uncle and dad had been so disappointed in him.

It sucked to recall, but that suck was his way through into darker Ruins.

They moved from the Ruins that eroded under too-bright sunlight and guard-lowering warmth into cold, depressing rain.

Rain is good for flowers too, Dorian thought.

The glitching got worse.  Florescence was hurt too, even if it wasn’t an obvious hurt.

Not digital flowers.

They met up with Boughbreak and Nyeh.  Boughbreak had expanded branches from shrubs and small trees in the school gardens, creating a partial circle around them, which added to what the school’s barrier offered.  Nyeh, it looked like, had grown a bit, and turned a mean face and overlarge hands toward the worm, which was still recuperating.  Blades of grass stood up around Nyeh, tall, sharp, and forming ‘x’ shapes as they crossed, like spears brandished by guards.

“Recover.  Do you need to fall back?” Matthew asked.

Florescence considered, letting Dorian decide.  Dorian shook her head.

The glitching slowly eased.  She backed up until she was standing in the garden bed.  Flowers weren’t in bloom, but they did bloom here.  There were automatic sprinklers, connected to the building infrastructure.  Wards around those, because everything here had safeguards, it seemed like, but… familiar ground, in a way.

She dropped to a crouch, and drank that in.  She populated the garden with digital flowers.  She pulled on the blue of the broken window behind her, and glass shards became bright blue.  Bright blue glass, lit with digital light, beaded with rain, because they were in the depressed part of the Ruins, now.

The light of the flowers dimmed.

Rain was good for flowers, maybe, but not electronic ones, Dorian thought.  We’re being drained.

That was what the Ruins did.  Drain and extinguish the leftover shit.  Echoes, spirits, sentiments, the scraps of Incarnations.

The teachers in Kennet found had been happy to outline all of that.

The worm headbutted the barrier.  Echoes exploded out, and the barrier rippled as they smacked against it.

“I tried to get it to hit the Girl by Candlelight,” Florescence said.

“Don’t say her name,” Matthew said.  “You’ll reveal our location.”


“You’re doing alright.  Too bad your idea didn’t work.  Would make life simpler.”

“How’s the fight going?  I can’t tell,” Boughbreak asked.

“I’m not sure.  But the Goddess is fighting the Wild Hunt, we’ve got more people getting to or into the building, constantly.  I think if we can just knock one or two of these watchdogs out, that’s the last straw on the camel’s back, we can push our way inside.”

Fostering the garden of digital flowers was getting less effective the further Florescence took it.  Dorian had the feeling that she was willing to keep going until she burned out.  Maybe that was a spirit thing.

A nudge from him, and she stopped.

They’d gathered together enough that he, burned and hurting, and she, dimmed and weakened by the rain here, could pull together enough to float some.

“I’ve got to step away,” Matthew said, his voice altered by Smoulder as he gave the spirit more power.  He was eyeing the glow in the clearing smoke.  The Girl by Candlelight was turned sideways, eye on them, but her fire and wax were mostly turned in the direction of the ongoing tug of war between the neighborhood and the Turtle Queen.

“Eh,” Nyeh grunted.

Matthew stepped aside, through the smoke, and out of the Ruins.  The Girl by Candlelight, standing on the roof, seemed to move more that direction.

Florescence floated up a bit more, to get a view of things, and kept tabs on the Girl by Candlelight.  She and Dorian slipped apart again as surprise jarred them, the air vibrating.  The worm had headbutted the barrier again.  Echoes hit the barrier like raindrops on a tranquil pond.

Boughbreak reached out, and touched the barrier.  Extended into it.  Nyeh positioned himself by the barrier, arms up and crossed, an ugly expression of rejection twisting his face.

She’s a spirit of shelter, kind of, Dorian thought.  And he’s a spirit of refusal.

I’m a spirit of useless pretty shit.

It looked like the Girl by Candlelight was contemplating a bit of interference.  Here in the Ruins, Montague looked very similar, but the Turtle Queen had become a collection of sentiment, and echoes were being pulled into her wavelength.

If that’s the game we’re playing…

His heart pounded in Florescence’s chest.

He could see Matthew’s movements, faint, by the echoes that were stirred up in his wake.  He was trying to gather up some of the wounded and the rest of the hosts, some of whom were actively hosting, others dormant and recuperating.

Wax flowed off the roof, splashing to the ground, covering some of the garden bed.

They were losing ground.  Losing space that wasn’t either outside the barrier and in the neighborhood, or being above that wax, where the Girl by Candlelight was stronger.

“Matthew!” the Girl by Candlelight shouted, and her voice had that echo quality to it, both in how it echoed and how much it sounded like the repeating, degraded-tape-recorder voices of the ghosts.

Fire erupted a few feet to Matthew’s right and ahead of Matthew, just as he stepped forward, wax splashing.  Matthew fell, hand and arm shielding face.

Boughbreak reached through to help shield Matthew, providing a path for some to run through toward them.  Some were in reality, not the spirit world, but the lines were thin.  Even the ones who were wearing their human forms, spirits nested within, were all emotional enough for echoes to weep and peel off of them, spirit enough for them to be silhouettes in the spirit world.

Matthew turned his focus to the Girl by Candlelight.  Smoke rolled out, sparks and flakes of burning wood blowing in the wind.

Her power faltered.  The heat was reduced, flame turned down, more smoke than fire.

“Are you hosting that spirit to taunt me?”

“Protecting myself from you!”  Matthew’s voice didn’t have that echo quality, even if echoes did flow off of him.

“Why can’t you let me in!?”

“Oaths were sworn!  That you wouldn’t try!”

“The Carmine will forgive.”

“I won’t!”

“I know.”

The Girl by Candlelight swept her candle through the air.  Wax that had poured out now flowed away from her, a small tidal wave of molten wax that didn’t form froth at its tips, but candles, pillar-like, thrusting out of the peaks, dipping back below, the flames dividing into smaller candles on bowls that rode the wave, illuminating the dark ruins in bright light.

“I waited, vigilant.  I fought.  I made deals.  I can’t understand.”

“I truly believe you can’t,” Matthew said.

You can’t,” she replied.  “You don’t understand me.  You made me meet you in humanity.  I’ll have you meet me in spirit.”

“There’s a reality where things turn out okay for both of us,” he said.

“Let me in.”

“And that isn’t it.  Back down.”

The worm went after Matthew and the other hosts.  Nyeh tried to deflect it, but it was too strong.

Florescence flew in, trying to distract, petals scattering.

The worm ignored her.  But the echoes it shed were drawn to the false lights.

Were unable to process them.  They made contact, clustered around them, but then clung to them with nowhere to go and no strength to move them.

She flew in closer.  Close enough that the scents that wafted off the black scaled things -scents of things deeper and darker than death and oblivion- were thick in the air.

She followed it as it swooped, avoiding direct contact.  Digital flowers and petals helped pull echoes away.

It was still more destructive force than four subway trains moving in concert, huge and fluent in moving through Ruins and spirit world both.  Boughbreak, Nyeh, Skullbone’s skull, and Enginehead’s strength barely mitigated the impact as it slammed down.  People were wounded, scattered.

The Girl by Candlelight was continuing to support the neighborhood against the Turtle Queen, and with Montague wounded, it was mattering.  A good portion of her attention was on Matthew.  She didn’t flinch or cry when he was wounded.  She looked greedy.

Contributing to her front line, while being ready to throw out a helping hand to an entirely different battlefield.

That, Dorian thought, was a tactic that went both ways.  He let Florescence handle most things, avoiding danger, spreading her influence, weak as it was.  Digital flowers that shattered with any excuse.  He focused on looking for opportunity, keeping his attention on the Girl by Candlelight.

“Maricica, I call on oaths you made,” the Girl by Candlelight invoked.  “That I would have him.”

“You did, and you lost me!” Matthew shouted.

“I’m owed, not just in word, but spirit!  I gave you and the Carmine everything you have!  You’re elevated!”

Florescence looked at the goddess, who bled from a hundred wounds from invisible blades, some of which pierced her.  The giant woman was smiling, standing in a pool of blood.  Like the neighborhood, she transcended realm.

Twice, apparently, Maricica had been cut down, twice she’d received the Carmine’s help.


The translucent wax turned red.  The light from the flames of candles floating in bowls turned a pure white, the flames rising higher, straighter.

“I think Charles Abrams let us both down when he refined your complex nature,” Matthew told the Girl by Candlelight.  “There are emotions and boundaries you don’t have, emotions cobbled together from mingling close neighbors.  There are things missing.  If you’d told me, if we’d worked on it, I think we could’ve been fine.  But you didn’t.  You lied and poisoned me.”

“You abandoned me.”

“There’s a world where you stand down.  If you do, I’ll back off too.  We can be friends again in a decade, after we grow as individuals.  Separate,” Matthew said.

“A world where you have someone else.”

“I can extend friendship.  If you back down.  Agree to make amends.  If you give me room to forgive you.  If you don’t do this, with that goddess’s help.  There’s no way I can extend love.  Not after what you and Edith did.  Love requires trust on a level I can’t give you.”

“I don’t want your friendship.  I want to be one.  Maricica.

“You have what you need,” Maricica said.  Her hand bled as she gripped an invisible blade with its point at her throat, pressing in against bare, blood-smeared skin.  She shattered it in her grip.

Matthew stepped back, Smoulder flaring.  Wax flowed forward, candles cresting at peaks, and Nyeh, Boughbreak, Skullbone, and Lott all pushed back, a wall in front of Matthew.  They relied on the barrier, separating them from the neighborhood, and reducing alien and hostile spiritual flows.  Matthew kept them from being burned.

All lost.  They began to lose ground.  Matthew and Smoulder alone weren’t enough to stop fires from igniting.

Dorian was reminded his physical body was badly burned.  The invasive thought and fear made him falter.  Florescence carried him.

Don’t become what the Girl by Candlelight is, preying on me like she wants to do with Matthew, and I’ll do something nice for your shrine, he thought.

The sentiment carried forward.  Just a little more strength and speed in the air, moving through air like flower petals through a digital darkness, suggesting a wind that wasn’t there.

The worm reared up, flying skyward, through the neighborhood with its oppressive air and hostile, bright, sunny sky.  Staying close to the worm and matching its ascent meant Florescent was safe from the worst attempts at being assimilated.  The worm and the neighborhood seemed to have a tentative respect for one another.

The worm snapped toward Florescence, but she was close enough that she could move around its head, staying near the top of it, or near the base of the chin, so it pushed at her half the time it tried to move to a certain angle.

Nobody was looking at her, it seemed like.  Nobody was looking at her beautiful flowers.

Which wasn’t right.

She pulled away from the worm in the moment it changed direction, flying through echoes, half of which collided with the flowers she was already shedding.  Floating still, Florescent and Dorian created flowers, letting them fall through the air.  Dorian drew on the sentiment, fueling the hail with just a bit of his own emotion.

Flowers and petals landed in the wax, blew in Matthew’s smoke, and littered the rooftop.

Gold, black, and green.


The Turtle Queen reached through the colors in the same way the Neighborhood had relied on shapes.

A metaphorical foothold.  A metaphorical handhold.  A pixelated lily pad to step on to cross a sea of crimson wax.

Flowers had roots.  Digital flowers could have roots like circuits, lines that raced out, glittering and bright.

Reaching for a wounded Montague who was being swallowed by the Neighborhood.

He seized the roots and moved through them, red-black flesh that burned like plastic and festered like cancer snaked along it, forming angular vein shapes.  Every foot of territory he took removed an equal amount from Florescence and the power she’d pushed out there, but that was fine.

Flowers existed to be plucked.

The Turtle Queen emerged beside the Girl by Candlelight, and slapped her with a force that sent a lone ripple across a sea of viscous wax.  Bowls with candles in them were upended.  The power the Girl by Candlelight was receiving from Maricica was dashed away.

The Girl by Candlelight grabbed the Turtle Queen’s wrist.  Flame burned the bugge’s flesh.

And Montague rose up out of the roots and flowers.  To the exhausted, nearly spent Florescent, it was easy to let her perspective warp, to be folded as he folded, to stretch as he stretched, to break as he broke, in the wake of his power.  A man in a suit, flesh, hair, clothing, and everything else about him a blighted, burned, ever-shifting ruin, painful to every sense.  A man in a suit, partial.  He’d been torn in half and part of his left side and lower body were hollow, framed in veins with nothing filling in the space between them, the veins becoming spider legs and coiling tendrils at the extremities, grabbing onto nearby things and piercing the shingles of the roof.

The weakened Florescence twisted, bending-

“No,” Dorian said, quiet.  He pulled back.  “To me.  Don’t follow him to wherever he is.”

The spirit retreated, and as it did, Montague became something more vague to her and Dorian’s senses, harder to interpret and put in order.

There was no dramatic movement, no music to pause, no stillness.  Montague had produced spider-like legs as he rose up.  Some had caught the Girl by Candlelight in the legs and lower back like narrow blades.  One had caught her arm. She was bending forward, and Montague held her upright, a mess of spider legs and a vague human-ish silhouette made of the same flickering stuff as the rest of him.

Strength drained out of the Girl by Candlelight, and her ability to hold the Turtle Queen’s wrist flagged.  Her hand dropped.

The Turtle Queen’s hand, still raised from the prior slap, moved the other direction, in a firm backhand.

Another ripple was produced, but this one erased what it passed over.  Erased crimson wax.  Erased bowls with candles, erased flame.  Wax moved in a wave over wax and the quantity thinned out.  When the last of it rolled out over grass and the stones that were etched with protective markings, it was an expanding circle of something thinner than a pencil lead, then thinner, then gone.

The complex spirit crumbled, with Montague behind it and the Turtle Queen in front of it.

Montague and the Turtle Queen stood there on the rooftop, a foot of space between them, both with senses too alien for them to be staring into each other’s eyes or having a moment.

Dorian wanted to extend a flower to them, but Florescence was spent, and it was their moment anyway.

Turtle Queen and plicate spirit moved in directions that saw them collide.  They crashed into and through one another, mingling briefly before parting, resuming their attack on the neighborhood.

Dorian slipped out of Ruin and into reality.  The cold air combined with the damp made him shiver, and fabric clung to fresh burns.

He staggered back to lean against the wall by the window.

Matthew shouted to some of the people he’d been escorting.  They rushed toward the broken window.  Dorian winced as they came rushing past.  If they even bumped into him, they’d be touching the burns.

“Asshole,” Engine Head’s host told Dorian.  A big guy.

“What?” he asked.

But Engine Head’s host was already through the window.

“He hasn’t had the chance to do much.  Still working out the host-spirit balance,” Lane told Dorian.

Dorian nodded.

“Need a hand?” she offered.

He hurt everywhere.

“A hand would be nice.”

She stepped through, kicking one of the triangular shards of broken window with her boot as she did, clearing it out of the way, then leaned over, hand extended. She lifted him up and helped him step through, into a room that made him think of the barracks at the Vice Principal’s school.

Everyone was getting here now.  The Neighborhood was too busy with the Turtle Queen and Montague, Matthew was directing the relief team of other hosts to help with the worm, and there weren’t enough other things outside to stop everyone.  He stood by the window as people passed through, because he didn’t want burned skin to rub up against the press of people in the hallway, and he could see through, as the goddess fought the Wild Hunt, Anthem, Bubbleyum, and the Dog Tags fought others- not necessarily winning, in every case, but at least keeping them busy.

“The brownies are running!” someone shouted.

Dorian knew a lot of stuff, but he didn’t know enough to know what that meant.

“If the bomb experts are running away, you run too!”

Oh.  Did that mean-

He turned to the window.  Were they meant to leave?

There wasn’t much point in asking.  The Neighborhood made its move.  The exterior wall across the hall tore away, and was folded into other houses and buildings.  Floorboards were torn up and swallowed.  People shoved against one another in their hurry to get away, as the east wing of the building disintegrated.

Someone came racing by the window on a motorcycle.  He wasn’t sure who in Kennet rode one, so his assumption was that it was an enemy.

Problem was, he wasn’t sure if Florescence or he was stronger, if they needed to fight.  He watched as the walls came apart.

Something banged down the hall.  A motorcycle revved.

The walls were disintegrating enough that Dorian could see a bit through the gaps.  Some people were being pulled in.  Sootsleeves sat astride a motorcycle, the end of her cigarette bright.

My kingdom is a poor kingdom.”  Her voice echoed down the hall.

“Don’t make a speech, do something!” someone shouted.

A kingdom’s poorest are a reflection of the person at the top.  The person at the top is a reflection of the poorest.

Mice and pigeons flew out of gaps in the walls.  Some kids scrambled forward.

“In heart, mind, and body alike, in sweat, blood, and tears shed.”

“Do the short version!”

“Or lack thereof.”

People were crowding in Dorian’s way.  He let Florescence creep over his skin.  The press of people crushed flowers.

“I rode out of my mother’s womb, castle and kingdom all, and castle and kingdom travel where I do.”

“What do we do?” a Foundling asked.  They weren’t red anymore.


“In heart and mind, if not always in body.”

“Shit! It’s the Dragonslayer!”

“Enforcers!  Out front!”

Dorian could only barely see the man at the end of the hallway opposite Sootsleeves.

“I rode out of my mother’s womb with the horse I’d ride forevermore, never to dismount!”

People threw themselves in either direction as the Dragonslayer fired his cannon.  The hallway had a bend in it, but the damage that had already been done was enough that it barely mattered, and the Neighborhood dismantling the building to replace it with a stretch of suburb only made it worse.

Sootsleeves peeled out, avoiding the blast.

Mice, pigeons, and urchins cheered.

Dorian felt the floor begin to eat his foot.  It went somewhere wet and warm.

The sound of the motorcycle shifted.  Coming right for them.

“I emerged from the womb with torch in hand!”

She soared above them, having hit some ramp or another.

Flicking her cigarette.

It hit the ground near the Dragonslayer, and flames erupted.  He shielded his face, but didn’t seem to mind that much.  Because he was a Dragonslayer, Dorian figured.

But it meant one hand wasn’t on the cannon, which meant the cannon wasn’t aimed.  Walls began to rise up.  Green lawns were torn away, street and sidewalk, fence and suburban housing all shattered, as stone walls rose.

Sootsleeves erected her castle.  Taking the east wing and the central building of the Academy.

The Dragonslayer aimed his cannon, firing at her, but gates rose up and the doors slammed shut, and there were only hints of orange light in the gaps between gate with its patchwork metal doors and the stone of the wall around it that hinted at the blast.

The Neighborhood retreated.  Dorian got his foot back.

“Regroup and we press in!” someone shouted.

“Hosts!” Matthew shouted.

Of course.

Static was sweeping in from the flanks.

One of the technomancy Others.

Dorian nodded.

He wasn’t a fighter.  According to his dad and uncle, he was a wimp.

Kennet had lost people, according to Boughbreak.  Maybe that even included his dad and uncle.  Kennet was home.  Kennet was a place where Lane could find herself in the course of hitting rock bottom.  Where Dorian could avoid that rock bottom that he knew would have shattered him into countless pieces, if he’d hit it.

This was bigger than Kennet.  He was starting to feel that, with the scale of everything.  With the Ruins worm, with the Neighborhood, with the Turtle Queen, Montague, and the Girl by Candlelight all fighting to find territory, turf, a place of their own, that was them.

One move, one crucial action, and it could impact places far bigger than the space his own two feet were on.

He could look down and see Florescence’s flowers sprouting out of the slightly uneven, weather-warped floorboards of Sootsleeves’ hold.

You up for this? he asked Florescence, even as he straightened up, knowing the answer.


Griffin vomited, and the vomit made cuts in his mouth sing with bitterness.  It wasn’t a good song.

Hunched over, hurting in a hundred places, he stared down at the mostly clear contents of his stomach, laced through with bile and stomach acid, and saw translucent worms wriggling through it, almost invisible, closer to hair in their thickness than they were to spaghetti.

He had no idea if they were spirit, or something natural, or something between- the spirits finding some way to dredge up some prehistoric parasite, maybe, or Nature inventing something entirely new, just for him.

His stomach cramped.  His right hand- a wound had festered.  Things lived in it now.  Crawled through it.  By sheer bad luck, the nerves were holding firm, refusing to die.  So it could hurt long past the point the necrotic wound should have gone cold to sensation.

The same way the spirits wouldn’t let him die.

No shelter remained his.  He would always be evicted, or it would collapse.

No food was especially edible – there was always a price, to make it nutritious but disgusting to eat, or painful, or he’d get hurt acquiring it.  If he didn’t try to eat, spirits took over his body and made him.

Urination was painful.  So was defecation.  Blood and parasites.

Sleep- never a good night’s sleep.

Even masturbation- one of his hands wouldn’t fully close, the other had a necrotic wound.

Then there was the worst thing.  The boredom.  The periods between the pain.  The yawning stretches of time where a few minutes felt like hours.  Where the sun seemed to refuse to move across the sky, while every breath made his right side hurt, every movement awakened an ache.  Every gurgle of his stomach a reminder of his hunger, and a threat that what little in his stomach might rebel, and that he might have to scramble to his shitting hole, to hold back screams until he was done, then use non-functional hands to try to grab at the parasites that trailed out his holes in the wake of his diarrhea.

Boredom mingling with a waiting for the next hurt.  The next horror.

The best thing he could do with his body was to not move at all.

With his mind?  He fantasized, slipping into daydreams.  The spirits seemed to allow it because waking up back to reality was so painful.  He could fall into detailed imagining, narratives…

Being sixteen again, surrounded by girls, a promising student no matter where he was educated- public school, Blue Heron, or the Burgess Tower, south of the border.  The food… more so at the Blue Heron than the Burgess Tower, much more at the Blue Heron than public school.  What a treat.

Enemies and allies, rivals, teachers watching him, testing him.  The politics, the contacts he had to maintain, the dangers of saying the wrong thing to the son of the wrong family.

The time of his life.

There was a balance to be struck in it.  Riding the line of dread and desire, the reality always in the back of his mind.  But on the other hand-

Ha.  The other hand.  He’d been an aspiring surgeon, and now his hands were mangled, one too crippled by old injuries to work, the other so necrotic that he was pretty sure the tiny white nodules nestled in the tissue around the hole in the center were eggs.  A horror for a future day.


No, on the other hand, there had to be the other hand.  The dream, the fantasy.  Being in the Blue Heron.  The smell of it, he had to remember the smell, let that pull him in, away from this.  Old smoke, Alexander’s Demesne filtering out the stink of it, leaving the more pleasant aromas.  The faint smell of whiskey, of books bound in leather.

A girl stepping out in front of him.  Pretty enough.  Kira-Lynn.  His apprentice.

“Griffin,” she said.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.  He gathered himself together enough he could take in the rest of the scene.  The newer apprentices, mostly girls, coincidentally, were bent over the Others they’d captured, each in a magic circle.  They laid out the bindings.  He stood over them, arms folded, ready to intervene, or offer suggestions.

“Check my work?”

“You four good?” he asked the binding team.

A goblin with ram’s horns slammed his forehead against the barrier.  He shouted something, silenced by the circle’s perimeter.  Griffin’s idea.  It wouldn’t do to bind something, send it out to fight, and then have it unbound and free to tell any secrets it had overheard.

Besides, some of them screamed so much.

“Managing,” the lone guy in the quartet replied.

“Show me, Kira-Lynn,” he said.  He met his apprentice’s eyes and flashed a smile.

A brief look of disgust crossed her face.  She turned, a huff, as some from the Tower would’ve said.  English born, come to America to learn.

He didn’t mind.  He rode that line, one that didn’t let his guard down, didn’t forget that wreckage of a human being, sitting broken, wounded, and diseased on the forest floor.

He could smell her shampoo.  Something herbal, with a hint of citrus.

He’d been sixteen or so when Alexander had forsworn him.  Alexander had led them to think he’d be okay with Griffin leaving to get his education exclusively at the Tower, so long as they passed on the good word and weren’t enemies later.  He hadn’t been.

Alexander had three bugbears.  Disrespect was one.  He was more proud than he let on, and a betrayal that respected him could be allowed to pass, but one that diminished him?  No.  That got a rebuke.

The others were subtler.  Alexander had narrowly avoided a Hangmaiden.  Maurice Crowe had let that on, in one quiet conversation, far from the Blue Heron.  He’d been tempted with a spider that pretended to be the perfect woman and he’d chosen ambition instead.

When Griffin and his dad had weighed the pros and cons of Blue Heron and Burgess Tower, and one pro of the Tower had been that the women there were of a higher caliber.  The prospects for marriage and the family were so much better there.  He’d talked about it with his friends, and had foolishly expected them to keep his secrets.  There had been jokes.  Cup sizes of girls at the Blue Heron compared to the Tower.

Some fodder to think about, creeping through the forest, forsworn and broken.  The dots he’d failed to connect.  Silly to think it wouldn’t get from Seth back to Alexander.  Stupid, to not realize that Alexander let his boys club jeer and chatter about such things, but would calculate, contemplate.  He’d constantly keep in mind, Griffin imagined, which student he could forswear next.  And he did it, waiting three or four years sometimes, sometimes waiting less than a year between students.  Like there was something ugly inside of him that needed release, and he did it by destroying lives of people who failed expectations he never fully voiced.

Charles Abrams had disrespected Alexander, had lacked ambition.  Two of the three bugbears.  Seth had gotten in too much trouble with girls, and had lacked that ambition too.  Two of the three bugbears.

And Griffin… he had disrespected Alexander by choosing another school, had, by the sound of the jokes he’d made, prioritized girls.

Kira-Lynn crouched beside Dony, who laid back, his hand keeping the shard of Abyss pearl at his chest.  A gift from Maricica, before she’d had her easy access to the churning underbelly of creation revoked.  Griffin’s eye darted to Kira Lynn’s bare thighs, her shirt collar.  He looked away.  She still saw.

He focused on Dony, before she could say or do anything.  The diagram was drawn onto skin, over the heart.

“Good,” he said.  “Do you want me to?”

“You’re better than me,” Kira-Lynn said, with a note of resentment.  Like she hated having to admit there was anything good about him.

His hand clicked in the center as it moved, something internal still off, even after he’d worked to heal things.  With his left hand, the joints felt artificial.

Gesturing around the diagram, he separated various aspects of Dony from one another, a layer for spirit, a layer for echo, a layer for the visceral, deeper than flesh.  Dony grunted in alarm, then fell unconscious a moment later, his thoughts unable to travel between the planes.

Off in the hallway, Joel was shooting his cannon.

“Do we need to worry?” Teddy asked.

“Don’t think so,” Cameron said, glancing at cards on the counter beside her.  She was tweezing stingers out of Seth’s face, holding a treated paper towel to the spots to kill the things nested inside.  They’d heal Seth after.

Bugs in flesh.  The spiders laid eggs, a surprise for tomorrow.  Reality rhymed with the nightmare, and it didn’t feel real, it couldn’t.  He couldn’t let it.

Hand movements sorted through layers, silhouettes of Dony, filled with different things.  He brought the deep visceral to the top.  Fingers indicated the Abyss pearl, and he raised it up, until it was at his fingertips.

He pressed it down, steadily, into one layer, pushing that layer down and through, into others.  They crashed through and into one another, aspects of his self countering the deep darkness that the pearl held.

Some adjustments along the way.  Dony’s conscience was nagging at him.  A thread trailed out of his gut.  Griffin’s finger traced it.  The texture and thickness suggested family.  He’d talked to a mentor, someone who’d taught him things.  Including mild violence.  Shouting, maybe, or a cuff on the head.  His dad, based on what Griffin could remember about Dony.  A hard father to get along with.

Dony’s back met the floor, and he convulsed a moment later.

“Your skin might be a little more gray than the pink it normally is, you’ll be paler-”

“Is that possible?” Seth asked, laughing briefly.  Then he winced in pain.  Griffin smiled.

“-but having this much Abyss in your heart will change your vitality.  You’ll be really hard to kill,” Griffin told Dony.

Dony groaned, hand clutching his chest, prying at the spot the pearl had dug in.  Except it hadn’t passed through flesh to get nestled in his heart.

“Teddy,” Griffin said, crouch-walking a few steps over to Teddy’s side.

“Fuck me,” Teddy said, then he laid down.  He had another fragment of the same pearl.

“Aaaugh!” the goblin shrieked, as it left the binding circle.

“Obey,” the new apprentice said.

The goblin began smacking itself in the forehead.

“What are you doing?  Stop fighting.”

“I whack-” He hit himself in the forehead.  “-myself for fun.”


He stopped.  He clenched and unclenched fists.

“Go out and fight for our side.”

He hesitated, then staggered off.

“Wait,” Griffin said.  “Send him my way.”

“Goblin.  To him.”

The goblin’s eyes widened.  He broke into a run, head lowering.


And slowed, a few paces from Griffin, breathing hard.

Griffin grabbed one ram horn, lifting it, and took a look at the binding that encircled around the goblin’s neck.  He gestured to make the magic circle expand out, away from flesh, glowing in the air.

He made an adjustment, rotated it, then adjusted again.

“Go,” he told it.  Then, to the girl, “A bit of tightening of the bolts.  That’ll keep him from getting inventive in his interpretation of orders.  After all of this is over, if it’s possible, if you were interested, I could teach you that.”

“Sure,” she said, and she flashed a smile.

She was one of the ones who liked him, in stark, stark contrast to Kira-Lynn.  Felt good.  But that was dangerous.  That good feeling had to be weighed against that image in the back of his head.  The idea this was all false, all a deep, detailed fantasy he could be wrenched out of at any moment.

She was fifteen or so, he was eighteen.  He’d been forsworn when he was her age, and he hadn’t exactly had the time to mature when he’d barely been surviving.  His blood pumped hot and happy in the wake of her smile and interest.

“Kira-Lynn?  Hand sanitizer, behind you.”

She was sitting on a stool now, and twisted around.  He had a glimpse of the shadows between her thighs, beneath skirt, only shadow, and looked away, hand out.

He took the hand sanitizer and scrubbed his hands.  He was walking lines.  Dangerous ones.

Hands clean.  He separated aspects of Teddy, saw a trace of a spiritual wound from an earlier scrap, and mended that while he was at it.  The pearl went in.

“Who’s after?” he asked, as he tied a bow on that, watching Teddy grunt and endure what looked like a heart attack as the pearl’s power ran black through his veins.  “Cameron?”

“I’d rather stay out of that.  Stay alert.”

“Okay,” he said.  A bit disappointed.  Cameron was genuinely gorgeous.  He looked up at Kira-Lynn.

“I’m last.  I want to observe.”

Which meant Travis, then two of the others who were new to this.

The doors opened.  Lenard.  “Helen?”

“Out fighting.”

“Her family arrived, east side.  They’re engaging.  We weren’t sure if there’s something to adjust to give permissions.”

“I think those barriers are long down.  There’s some residual stuff with the spirit barriers, weakening those who’re inside a bit.”

“I think they want those taken down long enough for them to come inside.  Griffin?”

“Hands full.”


“Face full of unhatched baby spiders,” Cameron said, tweezing.

Stirring memories again.  Another reminder.  Griffin’s hand clicked more.

The two boys after Travis were simpler.  They didn’t have any practice stuff going on, hadn’t come into contact with complicated Others.  He could do them at the same time.

“Miller’s in the room down the hall,” Seth said, as Cameron pulled tweezers away to place a small egg on a plate that had previously held food.


“Don’t think so.  Way things are going, we need to be ready to act anyway.  Our first-line Lords and Others softened them up, the others are on standby.  We’ve turned about twenty of them with bindings.  Get Miller out of his lab, he knows enough about the perimeter measures, then have him start using whatever he’s been brewing.”

Lenard grunted a response, letting the door swing closed behind him as he left.

“And take one of the loyal Belangers!  Ow!” Seth shouted.  Lenard shouted some kind of affirmative from the hallway.  One of the burrow-holes in Seth’s cheek started to weep fluid.

“Almost done,” Cameron told him.  “Then healing potion.  But we don’t want healing potion while you’ve got those in you or they’ll get bigger and stronger-”

“I know how it fucking works!” Seth raised his voice.  “Fuck.  Okay.”

She resumed her work.

Griffin might’ve passed the job to Kira-Lynn to finish, but he felt it was a bad idea to do self-surgery, the kids needed someone stable and supportive, and, shit as it was, he was that, here.  He was aware of how fucked that was.

And, maybe a bit of him had wanted…


She sighed, then got onto the floor, lying down.  The others were starting to stand.

Kira-Lynn unbuttoned her top, and Griffin saw a flash of bra.  He looked away, then looked at his apprentice’s face, and saw her staring a hole into him.

“Teddy?” Kira-Lynn asked, not breaking eye contact, until she paused to glance at Teddy.  He was stained with the Abyss, the color gone from his flesh, veins black here and there, while he continued to adjust.  “Fuck.  Cameron.”

“What?” Cameron asked, squinting as she tweezed a hole in Seth’s face.

“Watch Griffin while I work?  Make sure he doesn’t do anything?”

“I’m not that type of guy,” Griffin replied.

“I think you’re lucky the Carmine won’t gainsay you and other Judges are staying away from all of this,” she said, lying down.  She placed the pearl on her chest.

He wasn’t that type of guy.  He liked girls, but if all of this was illusion, a detailed fantasy he sank into, deeper each time, the forced shift back to reality worse each time, he couldn’t afford…

Even in fantasy, he couldn’t slip.  So he starved, and in the starving he craved, but he kept it to glances, to brief thoughts.

He’d fantasized about ravishing a student from school, a while before.  The fantasy had been ruined, thoughts disturbed.  He’d been left sitting in the forest, sick and hurting, with a proud erection he could do nothing about, with his hands in ruins.  One part of his body uninjured, whole, and ready, every other part unable to reply to that readiness.

One more torment, hormones surging, the fantasy dogging his sleepless self, the erection returning with any excuse, until he’d been a sort of rabid animal.

Until he’d seriously sat forward, rocking slightly, hand poised over it, convinced in his animal madness that he could find some relief if he put his cock through the festering hole in his hand.  If he could push through the pain.

It hadn’t worked- he’d barely made contact before the pain was so great he’d thrown up.

One of his lowest moments, that chased him even now.  He couldn’t indulge in himself without feeling ill.  How could he do anything to a girl?

Every joy was counterbalanced by an opposing darkness.  The glimpse of the curve of her breast with the pearl shard sitting askew because it laid partially against it, the edge of her bra cup, the rise and fall of her chest, all matched by the memories of the woods.  Woods he wasn’t entirely sure he’d ever left.

The more the animal urges rose in him, the more he had to pull back, be the scholar, the practitioner elite.

Alexander would be so proud of what he’d inadvertently wrought.  So proud.

“You took the biggest pearl splinter for yourself, didn’t you?” he told Kira-Lynn, with some fondness he could only really enjoy because she was more or less unconscious.  His apprentice.  Cameron watched him.

“A delicate process,” he said, partially for Cameron’s benefit, as he rearranged things to bring the deep visceral to the surface.  Two of the new apprentices were watching.

With two straight fingers, he pushed the pearl down and in, into soft flesh.  Into the largest hollow portion of the heart.  It felt a bit like he was getting away with something, doing this while being watched, even if it was innocent.

Flipping things around.  A darkness here, a- a what?  A twisted joy in that ruined wreck of a man in the woods, to counterbalance?  Smiling with rotten and broken teeth at Griffin, at the knowledge that Griffin was weak?

He pushed the pieces of Kira-Lynn together.  He saw her back arch in full-body spasm as black Abyss ran through her veins, and turned thoughts away from the natural conclusions that followed.  Couldn’t- couldn’t go back to that memory, that cycle, fantasizing so much that he got hard, sitting in the woods.

He would’ve done spirit surgery on himself, to try to fix this, to withdraw the traumas, to bring things into alignment.  Even to spiritually castrate himself.  But he shied away from doing something so vital to himself, and there was nobody he trusted.  Even as Kira-Lynn learned, he knew she hated him, and he knew this sort of work needed a delicate touch.

Besides, any relief, any resolution, it threatened to break the spell.  To make this detailed fantasy shatter, leaving him gasping, shitting his parasite-riddled self in the woods,

He was sweating.  He turned away from Kira-Lynn.

She’d used the Abyss stuff more than she’d let on, if she was adapting this fast.  She buttoned up her top, noticed him noticing that she was doing that, and stared at him without staring a hole through him.  Without hatred.  She sighed, stretching her back a bit, grunted.  Too at ease, here.

Would an abyss-tainted Kira-Lynn welcome his advance, when the real one wouldn’t?  What would that mean, big picture, if she did?

Didn’t matter.

But thoughts stirred, went in circles, twisted against one another.

There were lots of girls around.  He wiped his hands with hand sanitizer, then ran the excess through hair, pushing it back out of the way.  Probably not good for his hair, but whatever.

“Seth, man,” he said.  “I need fresh air, and we need to start taking action.  Where am I best utilized?”

Being close to Seth meant being close to Cameron.

“Do you want to take your shirt off before I pour this on your face?” Cameron asked Seth.

“Do you just want my shirt off?” Seth asked, teasing.  It would’ve been better if his face wasn’t swelling and weeping blood and clear fluids from the evacuated spider-holes.

But Cameron took it in stride.

“One second,” Seth said.

Griffin swiped a wastebin off the ground from beside the desk, and held it, catching the worst of the runoff as Cameron poured.

“Oh, that feels so much better,” Seth said.  “I think you missed one, by my ear.  Swelling.”

“I see it.  Sorry.”

“Make it up to me tonight,” Seth told her, leaning over while she used the sharp nose of tweezers to cut the bulge open, and pull out a spider as big around as a quarter.

“We’ll see,” she said, voice soft.  She weirdly sounded more positive as she said, “and this is so gross, I’m so glad we’re done.”

Griffin would have smiled, but his thoughts were a conflicted mess.  He tried to keep his cool, looking calm and collected, instead.

He wondered if Alexander had ever been the same.

Seth, taking an offered handkerchief, leaned over the wastebin that Griffin held out for him, and wiped the worst of the fluid off.

“Joel,” Seth said, as he cleaned up.  “Help Joel.  He needs to hold out for an extra minute or two for the Kims to show up.”

Griffin saw Cameron wipe her hand along the top of Seth’s head, helping to get red potion out of coppery hair, and pulled away from that scene with the same intensity he’d have pulled a hand off a hot stove.

“Any more bound?” he asked.

The guy who’d been doing the binding with the three other girls nodded.

One Lost, one goblin.  One Griffin hadn’t seen in his glimpses of what went on around Kennet.

“Come,” he ordered the two, gesturing at the binding circles.  He could See the spiritual flows, indicate them, and have spirits listen.

“Dony’s parents are coming crashing through, not sure what’s up with that,” Seth called out.

“Do us all a favor and find out?” Griffin asked, keeping the words civil and calm, even as he felt more like the animal.

Into the hallway, flanked by the Lost and the goblin.  Both smaller than him, but they were help.

“Die to help Joel and I, if it comes to it,” he told them.  He paused.  “Acknowledge me.”

“Acknowledged,” the Lost replied, as the goblin grunted in the affirmative.

Joel had abandoned his cannon.  He threw chunks of metal out, and they embedded into walls around the hallway.  Floor, ceiling, walls.  Each began spewing flame like a water sprinkler spewed water, all from different angles, criss-crossing and overlapping, to form an impenetrable flame.

In the moment before the last flame-spewer fired, someone slid underneath.  A young girl with a rabbit mask, skidding on one hip, then climbing to her feet.  She had a serrated knife.

Joel drew out another weapon, swinging, and she put a foot out.  She moved strangely, standing parallel to the floor, moving as his arm did, then leaped off, standing on the point the door frame stood out from the wall, above a door.

Joel swung, and flame whipped out as a lash, raking paint and wood.  She walked along the ceiling, avoiding it.

It was like a dance, Joel backing up a step, her matching him, standing on the ceiling with her face less than a foot from the top of his head.  He moved two steps to the side, and she followed suit, not letting him make a gap.

There were two moves, as Griffin saw it.

Joel chose the aggressive one.  He moved his arm, bringing the whip out.  A mistake.  Griffin wasn’t a fighter, but he knew it wasn’t the move, and it looked like Joel realized in the moment the little kid moved and he realized he wasn’t only not going to hit her, but his weapon was a lash of flame that extended out of the metal handle he held, and the lash, going overhead, and had to land somewhere.  He had to get out of the way of his own weapon.

She walked down Joel, dropping to floor for the last portion, twisting in the air to slash the side of his throat as she did so.

The bound Lost that Griffin had brought tackled her, grabbing her as she landed.  It kept her still long enough for Joel to kick her into the wall with a steel toed boot.  She hit the wall and bounced off, glancing at Griffin before finding her footing, barely seeming hurt.  She backed away from the goblin.

A jewel framed by twisted metal hung off of Joel’s side.  It glowed bright red, and the bleeding slash wound at Joel’s neck cauterized, the ragged edges of the wound from the serrations in the knife turning to something that looked like metal.

Joel had gone out of his way to make that after getting hurt raiding the Belanger compound.

Griffin had never been one to spar much, but unresolved frustrations really helped.  As the girl prepared for another move against Joel, Griffin pushed out with Sight, hands out in front of him, forming a square with forefingers and thumbs.  He gestured with other fingers, inhaling-

She feinted, the goblin threw itself at her and belly flopped on floor, ad then she lunged for Griffin.  Griffin took that moment to pull the ‘square’ apart, rotating hands to connect different fingers.  His hand clicked from an old, unhealed injury.

The girl came apart into four versions of herself, silhouettes aligned in parallel, each a foot apart from the others, moving slower and then stopping in the air.  Visceral, spirit, connected Self, and echo.

Joel took a sharp step forward, glancing right, and then body-checked the Self directly, knocking it out of the lineup.

The others broke apart into fragments, and, after a delay, followed behind, crashing into alignment with her as she slammed into a doorway.

“They’re only intermittently red.  They’re fierce when they’re red, single-minded.”

“Let’s figure that out.  Hold her.”

Joel bent down and picked her up by the neck.

Griffin used Sight, studying her, letting vision clarify.  He looked deep, sorting out the layers…

Until he saw that connected Self, with a fat boot-print on it.  There were threads, threads tied to and through other aspects of herself…

“Rooted in Miss.  The Founder of the third Kennet.  She’s getting weaker, so the radius gets smaller and smaller.  There’s a tether on the Lost…”

He glanced at the bound Lost he’d brought.

“They’re meant to belong on the Paths.  It doesn’t take much to send them back.  Something similar for the Paths.”

“And the rabbit girl?  Can we send her back?”

“Not Lost.  Foundling.  Similar but different.  She’s tied to the third Kennet through the-”

The rabbit girl swung her legs, walked up the doorframe, and broke Joel’s grip, retreating onto the ceiling, where she crouched, out of reach.

The goblin threw something at her.  It cut her arm.

“-the Founder.”

“Send the Founder back…”

“No red alignment, might even pull some of them back, or weaken them.”

Joel nodded.  He started to turn, and the rabbit girl went after him again.

This time, at least, Joel took the option of retreating instead of trying to attack her.  He went through a doorway into one of the rooms on the side of the hallway.  She was forced to drop to the ground to pass through the door to pursue.

There was movement on the far side of the flames.

“Incoming!” Griffin called out.  “Through that fire barrier!”

“Fucking-” Joel swore.  The rooms on this end of the school were larger, but not so large that a scrap with a guy in armor, a scrappy little girl in a bunny mask, a Lost, and a goblin weren’t a crowd.

The way the barrier seemed to work, the gouts of flame heated up the metal, while the handles extended some kind of protection through themselves and the surrounding surface, so they didn’t burn the place down or do so much damage to wall, ceiling, or floor that they came loose.  To move them or manage them, you had to reach through fire.

Or withstand it.  Three people in heavy armor carrying massive metal shields came through, shields erected as barriers against the flames.

Making a gap, briefly, before metal started to melt, for some more Lost and Foundlings to come through.  Among other things.

Seth had mentioned the Ballerina.


Joel came out of the room, and saw.

Did I buy the extra minute we needed? Griffin thought.  Being part of this helped quiet the contradictions and the frustrations.  Something as dangerous as this…

“How worried do we need to be?” Joel asked.

“Did Seth not mention her?”



The Ballerina crouched, arms a loop above her head, face turned the wrong way around.

“Luna,” someone said.

The rabbit-masked girl joined that group at the end of this hallway, flames behind them.  The red leeched out of her.

The Ballerina sprung, straight for Griffin.

Joel moved to intercept, and she stepped on Joel’s arm, touched toe to wall, and redirected herself, straight for Griffin.

He was already wrapping the fingers of each hand around the thumb of the other, pulling hands apart to make that square, the frame.

Pulling her apart into three versions -he’d fumbled it worse than he had with the rabbit- slowing her, drawing her into stasis.

But her momentum was enough that even after being slowed to a quarter her prior speed, slowing more with every passing fraction of a second, she was still moving fast.

Her shin smashed his hand.  Her body whipped around, and the toe of her other foot cut clipped his chin.

A quarter of an inch and she would’ve made contact with bone, and with the speed of that twirl…

It’d be his head facing the other direction.  He fell, hand mangled, eyes wide, the frame coming apart, meaning she was free to move, striking a pose, standing on one foot, one leg cocked, toe touching knee, arms in a cradle in front of her.

He touched his chin as he rose to his feet.  The skin there hung by a flap.

This isn’t even a combat practice, he thought, hands poised.  It’s Sight, it’s diagnostic, and every time I use it like this, I’m… fucking up my tools.  I’ll need weeks to recalibrate the finer points of my Sight.

But she was scary.

Joel’s focus had turned elsewhere.  One Lost swung a pair of scissors as long as she was.  A spirit floated, black like a glowing screen displaying ‘black’, digital.  The rabbit girl prowled, knife ready, matched by the goblin Griffin had brought.

The Ballerina moved toward Joel, instead of Griffin.

Forcing Griffin to use the framing again.  He did it indiscriminately, knowing how badly he was mangling his tools.  All of them.

Separating every person in the scene into five.

Except he didn’t have a lot of experience with Lost.  Things immediately began to go wrong.  The girl with the scissors was like a deck of cards mid-shuffle, cards riffing between the layers, loudly and violently.  The ballerina split into four, and all four began to move in different directions, the visceral layer coming for Griffin at a run.  Three more closing on Joel.

He slammed hands together, choosing one version that Joel seemed most prepared for.  Joel caught her with the flame lash, kicked the scissors-wielder, and knocked her into the goblin.

Too tense and chaotic a battle in close quarters for Joel to remember the goblin was an ally.  Small loss.

Griffin framed the fires the lash had started, then gestured as he broke the flame apart.  Directing spirits.

Fires moved, splashing into people.

He could support Joel as Joel, wearing heavy armor, was battered by three separate kicks as the Ballerina did a small hop in front of him.

Joel went through a door in the wake of that.

We all have our strengths.  Joel’s is making those weapons, not necessarily using them.

Griffin felt like an animal again, on edge, frustrated, as he realized what he was up against here.

The group was taking down the flame barrier.

We lost the east wing and center, we’ll lose the western wing of the Blue Heron at this rate. 

The rabbit girl, watching the door Joel had gone through, dropped to the ground.  Legs snapped.

The Ballerina sprung off to one side, through a door, avoiding similar treatment- one arm, one leg twisted in the fleeting moment she was still visible.  Others followed suit, ducking into adjacent rooms, but tracking the Ballerina was his priority.

Griffin tuned Sight, peering through layers of spirit, to track her.  He saw her go through a window, outside, moving up toward roof, before the trail of spirit movements got too vague.

“She’s circling around to come at us from the flanks,” he said, glancing back over one shoulder.

The Kims had come through.  In all the commotion with the Ballerina, he hadn’t even seen the damage done behind him.  A bogeyman with a wagon towed behind him had gone through part of the wall near the doors at the end of the hall, and lay mangled, limbs broken.  He was trying to reel in a chain, but every time he did, one of the Kims broke his arm a bit more.

They resembled Helen.  Blond, blonde, fine-boned, with sharp noses and sharp chins, favoring black as their clothing color of choice.

Helen was with them, and so was Josef Miller, the alchemist.

“What were you fighting?” the matriarch of the Kim family asked, her accent faintly British, even if the family technically hailed from a folded bit of reality.

“The Ballerina.  She was near the roof, last I saw.  Dangerous.  But if we can hold her down for just a second, I think we can make the elastic attachment between her and the Paths pull her back and away.  The Founder is out there, I think.  If we can send her back to her realm, it’ll ease a lot of the pressure.”

“That sounds like a plan.  Leon?  The Ballerina.  Charmaine?  The Founder.”

“Yes’m,” one of the men said, while the woman, presumably Charmaine, gave a nod.

Helen walked up to Griffin, and cupped his chin in one hand.  He felt fifteen fingers on that hand, and pulled a bit away.

She poked him in the chin.  “There you go.”

His skin was reattached.

He did not get how they functioned.  But he was glad they were on his side.


The kids were ready enough to step outside the office.  Abyss-stained, with dark looks in their eyes.

His apprentice among them, most stained among them.  Somehow, she didn’t hate him as much when she was like this.  It fucked with him.

Frustration surged.

It only got worse when he saw that the spirit- the Host, he’d glimpsed the shape of them when he’d framed everything.  It had planted flowers.  Ones like someone would draw in an old computer program, with big fat pixels, glowing like neon.

Artificial nature.  Making Griffin think of the lie, the broken forsworn man in the forest.  This as the fantasy.  It was easier if this was all fantasy.

The fake flowers were like a taunt.  Something beautiful that belonged to nature.

The universe was cruel.  To do that to him, to let Alexander do it to him.  The universe held love and touch back from him, it twisted him up inside.

It would have been the same if he’d seen a child’s drawing with a heart or a happy sun on a refrigerator.  Like someone was spitting in his face.

A hand at his shoulder made him startle.


He hadn’t realized he was breathing harder, scowling, until she touched him.  It bothered him.  Having the right appearances was all he had, if he didn’t have control of other sides of himself.  And he didn’t.

He glanced at her, then looked away from her eyes.  Because he knew she knew.  Seth knew him on certain levels, but Helen did on entirely different ones.

He took in the destruction, the damage to the walls, the hole where the wagon bogeyman had come plunging through.  The fires that weren’t gaining any ground.  Holes here and there, with cold air blowing in through broken windows.

“If we lose the western wing-” he started.

“Then we will be fine,” the Carmine said.  He’d come out of the upper portion of Alexander’s office.  “It would be best, in fact, if I could see the school crumble, the last brick timed to be broken as we wrap things up here.”

“Can we?” Helen asked.  “Wrap things up?”

It was evident in the Carmine’s tone.  We can, Griffin thought.

“We can,” the Carmine said, unnecessarily.  “You can.  I’ll stop in for a word with some of our best assets, see if they want to be agents.”

“We’re confident, then?” Joel asked, weapon brandished, held out to ward off any attacks from the infiltrators as he came through.

A crash behind them made Griffin glance back.

Someone had tried coming in through the hole by the doors.  They were being horrified only a couple of seconds later, by the Kim that had been dealing with the wagon bogeyman.  Arms reached out, getting thinner as they did, forking, until they were so thin they broke under their own weight, curling up like dead spider limbs.

Seth had stepped out into the hallway, Cameron hanging off his side.  Seth looked more like Alexander than he ever had, maybe.  Confident.

Griffin felt the frustrations stir.  The fucking flowers, like smiling suns on a fridge.  The apprentice that felt so in reach, especially with the Abyss taint in her, except he couldn’t let himself, not because he didn’t want to, but because his sanity hung together on the belief that he could be that person in the woods, forsworn and broken.

He met the Carmine’s eyes, and more than with Helen, or with Seth, he felt seen.

The frustration quieted.

The Carmine Exile had been forsworn for ten years, give or take.

“Yes, we are,” the Carmine said, answering the question about confidence.  “Let Maricica have the moment she’s been waiting for all this time, you hold the line as you’ve been doing.  Then we move forward.  Even though we shouldn’t need it, I’ll be waiting by the phone.  Seth has informed me London is calling in a few minutes.”

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Go for the Throat – 23.e


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

“Our kids are gone, and you’re playing games!” a man roared.  Jeremy had seen the guy, but not enough to put a name to.  “Where are they?  It’s late, they need to come home.”

“As far as I know,” the other Verona said, “they’re a four to five hour drive away, at a magic school that’s basically a battlefield right now.”

“Is that where Lucy is?” Mia asked.

“Are we buying this?” George asked.  He had a constant half-smile on his face.

Questions overlapped.  Voices were raised.  Jeremy found himself studying the other Verona’s expression.  Then Lucy’s mom standing aside, looking grim.

“Maybe,” Jeremy said, goosebumps prickling up and down his arms and back.  Realizing the goosebumps were prickling gave him a second wave of the same.

Other kids from class were gathering together.  Wallace, Caroline, Brayden Black, George.

“Guys, guys!” the other Verona raised her voice.  “Hold on.”

The voices didn’t stop.

The woman with the lines of red tears down her face leaned over to say something.

Jeremy stepped forward, hoping to say something while there was- not a break, but at least she wasn’t trying to talk to everyone.  He caught the tail end of what the woman was saying.  “-didn’t think it would be this bad.”

“Different agendas and needs, yeah,” Verona said.  She held up a finger for Jeremy.  “Guys!  Do you want to be mad and shout, or do you want answers?  Because if you want answers, you need to shut up!”

People didn’t shut up.

George walked up to be beside Jeremy, to get out ahead of things, but others started to do the same thing, so it backfired.

“Do not step on the salt and chalk!” Verona called out.  She was nearly drowned out by overlapping questions and statements.  Jeremy would have asked her a question, maybe, trusting that the degree of personal connection would at least get him an answer where she was ignoring others but… he didn’t want to add to the problem.

“Hoy!” George hollered.  It didn’t really work.  He put a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder, still kind of smiling, drew in a deep breath-

“Hoyyy!” Jeremy added his voice to George’s.  Mia, Wallace, Brayden and Caroline came in, in that order, adding their voices, until their united hollers were countering the mob.

The mob stopped shouting.  George motioned for them to stop.

Quiet.  George pointed at Verona, winked, and then said, “Go.”

“This whole thing is really complicated, because there’s whole worlds of complicated stuff going on, there’s a bunch of stuff we gotta get out of the way, and we’re doing it with a time limit.”

“Doesn’t matter!  Where is my son!?”

Others with the same question joined in.

“Hoy!” George started to jeer and interrupt again.

“Do not!”  The man wheeled on George, anger in his eyes.  He took three steps toward George as George took two back.  “Do not interrupt me!”

It was intense enough that Brayden’s dad hurried forward, pushing George back a bit so there was a gap where he could step in between the two.  He kept his body turned sideways, hands raised, not looking at either.  The guy tried to get around him, and he stepped forward to block.

“You keep doing that, none of us get anywhere with any of this, so just shut up and let her talk!” George shouted.

“I don’t care about these games!  I only care about my son!”

“You want to know what’s up?” Avery asked.

She was crouching on a high tree branch, twenty or so feet off the ground.  Some animal clung to her shoulder.

“Fucking give us answers!”

Avery hopped down from the branch, landing in a crouch, then stood up like she hadn’t just destroyed her legs.  “Some people went looking for vulnerable kids, picked your kids, and dragged them off to a school.  Now they’re being conscripted into a fight.  That’s the gist of it.”

“Give me the address.”

“I can, but you won’t-”

“Give it to me!”

Avery pulled off her bag, setting it down.  Jeremy watched as the animal -a small opossum- peered over her shoulder.

Too calm, too quiet.

Goosebumps again.

Avery pulled a notebook out of her bag, found a page, then showed him.

He went to take the notebook from her, and she pulled back.  “Take a picture.”

“Mr. Gill-” Brayden’s dad said.

“Fuck off.  Fucking-”

“You can go but I’m betting you won’t make it.  Someone or something will bar your way.  Maybe you’ll have car trouble,” Avery said.

“Fuck you,” the man said, before storming off.  A pair of others went with him.

“Might’ve made a mistake inviting him,” Verona said.

The guy heard, and looked like he was going to say or do something about that statement, but he had other priorities.

“Mr. Gill isn’t a bad person,” Brayden’s dad said.  “Just…”

He looked like he was floundering for an explanation and couldn’t come up with one.

“You might be trying to explain too much,” Avery said, to Verona.  “Getting their heads around the whole problem?”

“Do you want to try this?  I’m bad at it.”

“I dunno.  Guys, everyone, thank you for coming.  But right out the gates, I’ve got to make it clear,” Avery said.  “This stuff gets dangerous.  Knowing about this stuff means you’re more likely to get attacked.”

“Lots of overlap between the places that burned or demolished the other night and people who are tapped into this stuff,” Verona said.

Jeremy nodded.  He’d seen Verona’s house.

“It creates this really nasty situation where we can’t explain without putting you in more danger,” Avery said.  “So I’ll just say this…”

She undid the front of her antler-patterned coat, pulled it a bit aside, and hiked up her shirt.  A bandage was taped there.  She peeled it aside.

“I’ve been shot.”

It looked like a bullet wound, but there were makeup prosthetics to explain that sort of thing.  Not ones that seemed to go into flesh, but still.

“What’s the problem?  Why are we here?  What’s the supposed benefit to us?” Mrs. Schaff asked.  The cat lady that lived on the east end.  She’d answered the ad Jeremy’s mom had made him put out when looking for a new owner for Sir.  He’d visited her but hadn’t felt good adding one more cat to that house.

“Kennet’s primed to collapse,” Avery said.

“There’s a lot of weird stuff that’s been happening for a while,” Verona told the assembled people.  “You’ll have noticed it.  The violence over summer, the way so many people in Kennet left all at once.  Police stuff, ghost sightings, three dead teenagers, no explanation.”

“Stripper man at the party?” Mia asked.

“Yeah,” Avery said.

“Is it okay if I say I don’t believe you?” a woman asked.  “That it’s late, I can appreciate anything that makes Kennet more lively, even if I wish it wasn’t this dark or intense, but it’s not for me?”

“Your son died, Mrs. Necaise,” Avery said.

“I don’t have a son.”

“You did.  His name was Gabriel, and he signed on for some magic stuff he wasn’t ready for, and he got killed.  We- Verona, Lucy and I, we tried to help but we couldn’t save him.  I think you know something’s wrong and something’s missing in your life.”

“At the same time, I’m betting something’s wedged into your life that doesn’t belong,” Verona said.  “A room with a boy’s things.  And sometimes someone comes to visit, and a kind of switch flicks and you treat them like a son, and everything’s normal, then they leave, and you forget again, but maybe the feeling sticks around.”

The woman folded her arms.  Jeremy watched her face, trying to figure out if there was a kernel of truth there.

Goosebumps again, as he saw the tiny changes in her expression.

Avery addressed everyone, “We don’t have long.  You can go if you want, you should go if you have doubts, but I think most of you have some sense that something’s off, or you’ve run into something bad.  You can walk away and hold onto that feeling and life stays simple, or you can help and things get complicated.”

“And the collapse?” Mrs. Schaff asked.

“Hopefully if we get enough people on our side, it helps,” Verona said.  “We’d want you to stand for Kennet.  Symbolically.”

Why is it collapsing?” Jeremy asked.

“Long story short?” Verona asked, meeting his eyes.  He got goosebumps again.  “Someone twisted up spiritual, magical stuff all around Kennet, making a second, darker Kennet that overlaps it.  Now he’s sucking power out of it, maybe even pulling his throne out of it-”

“Keep it simple,” Avery said, hands in pockets, eyes on the diagram, nodding along.

“-He’s pulling power out.  It goes, Kennet follows.”

“Darker Kennet?” George asked, that half-smile still on his face.  “I went wandering once, I wasn’t… feeling well, and I ended up-”

“Yeah,” Verona cut him off.

“That’s what I saw?”


George nodded, pressing lips together, taking a deep breath.  When he said, “Okay,” the smile had dropped off his face.

“What do we do, then?” Jeremy asked.

“Diagram,” Verona said, pointing.  She turned to Avery, saying, “we’ve got the items.”

“Six sets,” Avery said.

“Leaving six spaces on the perimeter.”

“More than six people,” Avery said.

It was like they were workshopping something.

“I’ll draw,” Verona said.  “You make sure people are square?”

“Yeah,” Avery said, before turning to some of the parents.

“What are you thinking?” Caroline asked Jeremy, quiet.

“That a lot of stuff makes a lot more sense.”

More sense?” Caroline asked.

“I remember when Verona was away for the summer, she came back, and I saw her talking to thin air.  I thought I saw someone.  She said it was a ghost.”

“The weirdos that attacked the school, remember?” Wallace asked.

Bracken,” Brayden said.  “He knew stuff.”

“Melissa,” Mia said, suddenly, grabbing George’s arm.

“She’s been going by Oakham,” Jeremy said.

“Yeah.  She’s been with Bracken, she’s been so weird lately.  She had these crazy martial arts with her cane?  And her house got trashed.”

“If this is a long setup for something way bigger than the Arcade, it’s really well done,” George said.

“With actual crime as part of it?” Mia asked.  “The burned and trashed houses?  They flipped a car downtown, scared some moms who were out for a stroller walk.  You really think it’s fake?”

“I’m worried you guys are mixing up real events with the fake stuff,” Caroline said.  “Or they’re taking advantage of real bad things that happened and wrapping them up in this… I don’t know…”

“Mythology,” Wallace said.


The woman Verona had called Louise had approached them from the side, after talking to some of the parents who’d been agitated- but not so agitated they’d gone with Mr. Gill.  She was younger than his mom, and wore a plaid shirt under a bulky, brand-less jacket of the sort that construction workers and other outdoor laborers used, sixty percent durability, thirty-nine percent warmth, one percent looks.  Her jeans and boots were the same.  She was bleeding from the eyes.

“Odds are, those eerie moments that have stuck with you, moments without explanation, since last spring, they tie back into this.  Those three have been fighting their hearts out to preserve normal for the rest of Kennet.  To hold it together, to fight tyrants, to keep it from bleeding out.”

“That’s Avery, Lucy, and Verona?” Jeremy asked.

“Not Verona!” Verona commented, without turning around.  She’d overheard.


“I’m not Verona,” she said, turning to meet Jeremy’s eyes.  “Call me Julette.”

That’s not Verona.  He wasn’t sure what it was, couldn’t put his finger on it.

“Is Verona okay?” he asked.  He felt weird dwelling on it with his girlfriend a few feet away, but…  “Or was she ever Verona?

“She was.  She’s been going through a lot, but I think she’s mostly okay.  She went with her mom to set something else up,” Louise said.

“Did her mom get her into this?  Hereditary witchdom or…?”

“No,” Lucy’s mom said.  She had a long neck and long, narrow arms, and legs that swam in her nurse’s scrubs, which she wore under her coat.  Her hair was a very short afro with bangs grown long and swept to one side.  Very little body fat or curves- he only noted that because he could see a lot of Lucy in her.  Except he’d always generally gotten the impression she was even less warm than Lucy, who was already not very warm, based on how she acted in class.  “She’s telling her mom about all of this tonight.”

“Oh,” Jeremy replied.

“Which one of you is Jeremy?” Louise asked.

“Ready!  Need everyone in position!” Avery called out.

Jeremy raised a hand.

“Go.  I was just going to say, that if things had gone differently, they might have chosen you, instead of one of those three.”

“What?” Jeremy asked.

“Very possibly life or death, people!” Avery called out.  She clapped her hands.  “Hustle!  I need someone, anyone, so we can get through you all in time!”

Jeremy moved that direction, waiting for the crowd to clear.  He looked back at Louise.

“They had people in mind, for who they’d introduce to magic, and make guardians of Kennet,” Louise said.  “You were on the list.  Then they picked Avery first, and they wanted two people who complemented her.  Which wasn’t you.  That’s not an insult, it’s just the way things happened.”

“The other two were Lucy and Verona?” Mia asked.


“Where is Lucy?” Mia asked.

“Fighting for her life.  For all of your lives.  For Kennet, for bigger things.”

Jeremy looked back at Lucy’s mom, who was hugging herself with her arms.  Hugging tighter, hearing that.  Dead serious.

“This is a part of the fight too, organizing this,” Louise said.  “Cooperate and listen.”

Jeremy nodded.

The look on Lucy’s mom’s face felt like a punch to the gut.

“Gut feeling, if you’re not into this, if you won’t cooperate, if you can’t stand for your life to get more complicated, say now,” Avery said, to one of the parents.  “It makes leaving Kennet harder, it’s more dangerous.”

Julette was asking someone else, “Do you love Kennet?  We’re asking you to buy into something bigger than all of us, if that’s not you then-”

Julette stepped aside to let the parent through.

“-you need to let us know.  There’s danger, there’s risk, there’s- no promises what happens if you leave this general area, we can protect you some here, but if you ever dream of moving away…”

“I’m in,” a guy who’d come with Mrs. Schaff said.

“Stand at the edge of the circle, please, gods and spirits, don’t step on the salt or chalk.”

“How do we know we can trust you?”

The question came from Noah.  Directed at Avery.

“You don’t,” Julette replied.

“We’ve been in touch with a lot of you,” Avery said.  “Most of you have seen us around, I think we’ve been really fair to you guys, generally.  A lot of what we’ve been doing, it’s been building, playing defense, reaching out, trying to include you guys.”

“I don’t want to sound like a dick,” Noah said.  “But you’re asking us to reconsider everything we know, buy into something big.  If we’re reconsidering, do we reconsider who you might be, your motivations?”

“Valid,” Julette said.  “I wish I had the time to give your questions the time they deserve.  Hang back, see if you can decide on your own?”

Jeremy looked at Wallace, who was looking down at the diagram.  Then at Caroline.

“What are you thinking?” he asked her.

“Trying to-” Wallace started.  Then he realized Jeremy hadn’t been asking him.

“That I wasn’t invited.  That I don’t want to make the wrong call,” Caroline said.

Whether the question was legitimate or not, Noah’s ask had slowed things down a mite.

Mia stepped forward.  “Dangerous, might be risky to leave Kennet, it’s complicated?”

“Yeah,” Avery said.

“Helps Lucy?”


“The leaving Kennet is a sticking point.”

“If it helps, we’re planning to make Kennet and everything way cooler,” Julette said.  “Like the market, arcade, and Christmas concert, but constant and next level.

“That does help, but… this helps Lucy?”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “I do think it should.”


“I’m in,” George said.  “Not leaving the family I’m in here.”

They weren’t just the most popular people in their grade for no reason.  They were leaders, in a lot of ways.  Mia, aside from the occasional beef with someone like Hailey, or not trying very hard to keep contact with Oakham, had been pretty cool.  George was less cool, less of a role model- that had been more Amadeus.  George was more of a stoner, a funny guy to hang with, but in moments like this, he, like Mia, could apparently stand up.

Jeremy wasn’t surprised George wasn’t making the whole ‘it’s hard to leave’ thing tricky.

“I’m not really planning on leaving my mom for a good while anyway,” Wallace said.  “And I feel like I owe Lucy something.”

“I don’t think she’s angry, exactly,” Avery said.  “You drifted apart.  She had a lot going on.”

Wallace shrugged, then rubbed one shoulder.  “Where do I stand?”

“Outside perimeter.”

Mrs. Schaff went.  The cats she had with her leaped down to the ground.

Jeremy primarily lingered because of Caroline.

“You don’t have to say yes,” he told her.

“If I say no, what happens?” Caroline asked.

Julette shrugged.  “You go home, you convince yourself it was all fake, kick yourself for missing out on a project that had a lot of effort put into it, that’s it.”

Caroline looked over at Jeremy.

“Don’t do it for my sake.”

“I’m not.  My dreams are here.”

Jeremy nodded.

She put out a hand, and he took it.  Corny, but nice.

Caroline worked on weekends, doing really shitty work, literally mucking out stables while learning about horses.  On weekdays she babysat a lot.  It actually made planning time together hard, but on a whole other level, it gave things a momentum.  Absence making the heart grow fonder, looking forward to time together instead of being together all the time.  It required work, to plan for the time they could wedge in, between homework, her odd jobs, and he was finding himself doing more art than he’d even been doing alongside Verona, for a gift for Caroline, the one time, and in general, to match her energy some.  Chasing dreams and interests.

His dad kept saying ‘a good relationship should feel easy’ but he was glad this didn’t.  Being with Verona had felt easy, but it had been an easy that didn’t go anywhere, wasn’t supposed to go anywhere.

This, walking forward with his hand at Caroline’s back until they were between Wallace and Mia, it felt like it went somewhere.  Somewhere a bit scary, but…

“Our daughter?” Oakham’s mom asked.

“With Lucy.”


“I don’t know,” Avery admitted.

“Did this magic stuff lift her up or was it how she got so down on herself?”

“Both.  But credit where it’s due, she’s helped us a lot,” Avery said.  “She’s been a champ.”

“She’s been a huge help,” Louise said.

Oakham’s parents walked forward.

“This doesn’t feel godly,” Savannah said.  One of Avery’s soccer teammates.  She hadn’t been in their class last year, but had come in this year, because they hadn’t had enough students for the one and a half classrooms.

“No sweat,” Avery said.

Others filtered in, and out.

Jeremy felt awkward as he found himself looking across the circle at Mrs. Schaff.  The cats were arranged in a line behind her.  Was she pissed he’d said no to her taking Sir?

“Me?” Lucy’s mom asked.

“Yeah, please, sure, you definitely count,” Avery said, pointing to a gap in the outer circle.

Lucy’s mom gave Avery a kiss on the top of the head as she passed, a rub at one shoulder.  She looked super stressed, but in that moment, there was a gentleness Jeremy hadn’t expected.

Wallace sighed.

“What’s up?” Jeremy asked him.

“Worried about Lucy.  I don’t know what it means to be ‘fighting’.”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Lucy’s mom said.  “She’s more capable than I could’ve imagined, and I think the world of her, but the scary thing is, the people and things she’s fighting are capable too.”

“When we move you, be very careful to not step on the salt or chalk.  If you look around where we put you, and where you’ve passed, try to see if there’s any broken or scuffed lines,” Avery said.

“If you’ve screwed up any lines because you’re not taking this seriously and you think it’d be funny,” Julette said.  “I’ll make you a deal.  Tell us now, let us avert disaster, and I’ll laugh like it was funny.”

“I think that’s you and your mentality, Ron- Julette.”

Julette clicked her tongue, winking.

“Okay.  So, putting people in spots… Mia, George, here.  Together.”

Mia and George were put in a small circle that had been sketched out inside the diagram.  There was barely room for the two of them, so they stood, Mia’s front to George’s.

“This is nice.  I could do with more of this,” George said.

“Stop,” Mia told him, mock-slapping his chest.  Then she relaxed a bit, and laid her head against his chest, watching as Julette and Avery did their rounds.

“Noah and Ian?” Avery asked.  “I can’t tell if you’re in or out.”

“I’m out, I think,” Ian said.  “You’re talking about this making life more complicated and dangerous?  I… can’t.  Sorry.  Already carrying too much.”

“I’m in,” Noah said.  Then to Ian, “Sorry.”

“No.  For sure.  Represent both of us.”

“I was hoping for another couple,” Avery said.

“Parents?” Julette asked.

“That’s different.”


“Do we have twenty-two?”

“If we pair people up,” Julette said.

“Spacing doesn’t lend itself to twenty-two.  Twenty-four spots, with the way we’re breaking it down, six for items, that means eighteen spots for people.  If we were doing the dual-city stuff, just Above and below, we could have poles filling two spots, but… let’s keep it simple.”


“Those already Aware in three spots, making a triangle…”

“I’d offer to be part of that,” Louise said, “but I’m supposed to go to the rooftop?”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “Sorry, the diagram’s done, it would take more time than it saves.”

“That’s fine.  I’ll go now?  I’ll let Lis know when I’m settled.  And text you.”

“Right,” Avery said.  “Thank you, Louise.”

“Four aware,” Julette said.  “We space them out so they’re each three spaces from one another, we…”

Avery turned.  Julette turned her head to look, and Jeremy and the others did too.

Someone had appeared at the sidelines.  A senior in a St. Victor’s uniform that Jeremy didn’t recognize.


“Trouble is coming your way.  I think they see this as a weak point.  Especially after the ritual.”

“Okay,” Avery said.  “Let’s hurry before they get organized.”

“I’ll escort Louise most of the way, then tell Verona.”

Lis turned to look at them, then at the diagram.  Then she strode away.

“Square for the classic Aware, square for classmates, Jeremy and Caroline together, Mia and George together, Wallace, Brayden and his dad, Ian… that’s five.  Five doesn’t divide into twelve or twenty-four,” Avery said.

“Split up Jeremy and Caroline,” Julette said.

Jeremy raised an eyebrow.

“Gotta, sorry.  Okay, and then we do a triangular intention on the couples, youth, young adult, older…”

“What are you trying to do?” Jeremy asked.

“Balance.  Balancing the components.  The entire point of this is to lend structure and balance…”

They directed people to move to different points.

“Okay, now everyone, close your eyes…”

“Suspicious,” George said.

“Don’t be a dick, George,” Julette said, pointing at him.

Jeremy closed his eyes, standing straighter.

He could hear whispers.  They didn’t sound like Avery whispers, or Julette whispers.

“There,” he heard Avery.  “And there.  Empty spaces.  We tagged the items by color… and I wonder if half of you are colorblind…”

The constant dialogue helped assure Jeremy that they weren’t about to be ritually killed here.

“Remember when we abused the pathfinding glitch in Obligitare?” Wallace asked.

“Ha, yeah.”

“Wait, what’s this?” George asked.

“We told you and Amadeus about it in class.  Enemies would spawn, walk over to the altar to get to you, and you could use the shout command to wipe them out?”

“Oh damn,” George said.  “I think I wasn’t that far then, I got grounded for raiding dad’s liquor cabinet and watering down what I took, so I didn’t have the game.”

Boys,” Caroline muttered.

“I think I get what you’re thinking, though,” George said.

That we could’ve been led here by promises, to die on an altar so power could be sent to one of the lesser gods opposing actual God?

He didn’t get that vibe from Avery.  Even with everything.

“Is it okay if we’re talking?” Jeremy asked.  Some of the adults were talking too.  Oakham’s parents.  “Or are we supposed to be blind and quiet, like in prayer or something?”

“You can open your eyes,” Avery said.  “In fact, it’s best if you do.  Keep an eye out on the trees.”

Jeremy did.

Things were rearranged.  The diagram had been added to.  Six of the circles now had an assortment of objects inside them.  Some were the things that others had brought.  And things Avery had asked about when texting them all.  He saw an apron with three flowers in the corner.  A shoe without laces.  A wooden ball.  Twelve items to a circle, six circles filled.

“Why are we keeping an eye on the trees?” Lucy’s mom asked.

“Trouble,” Avery murmured.  “We’ve got friends in the trees…”

She turned, looking out at the trees that bordered the back lot of the Arena on three sides- mostly, anyway.  One corner was taken up by the rink.

Jeremy only briefly saw them – eyes in the gloom.  Bright yellow.

“I see-”

“Those are friendly.  They brought the stuff.  They’re part of our line of defense,” Avery said.


“I hear them,” Julette replied.  “Not friendly.”

“Verona, Verona, Verona,” Avery said.  “We need to launch fast.”

“I thought that was Julette,” Mia said.

“It’s not- that wasn’t what I was saying.  Just- be careful.  Try not to move from your location unless you have to.”

Jeremy could hear noises in the trees, now.  He could hear gabbling, muttered, angry sounds.

A tree branch broke and fell.

A sound of a blade being drawn made Jeremy jump.  He had an immediate thought of a huge ritual sacrifice.

“Do not scuff the chalk, Jer.  Gods,” Julette scolded him.

He checked and it didn’t look like he’d messed anything up.  His attention was divided though.  That blade sound…

It took him a moment to place the sound.  One of Mrs. Schaff’s cats, sitting outside the circle, was moving strangely.  It wavered a bit as it shifted to standing on its hind legs, legs more spindly than they should be.  It tilted its head to one side, cracking its neck, and then righted it, ears going flat.

Extending a paw, it extended claws from its nail bed, then fingers surged out from behind those claws, the padding around the base of the finger straightening out, like a bunched up sleeve being pulled to the wrist.  Each finger ended in a hooked nail.  It flexed its fingers to crack the knuckles, tossed a knife into the air with the other hand, which had already extended fingers.

Then a second knife was in the air.  Then a third.  It juggled them for a moment, then snapped its teeth, catching one knife by the handle.

Jeremy’s heart hammered.

“Now I have an idea of how you got into my charcuterie setup I was going to take to book club,” Mrs. Schaff said.

“Ah wah ‘im,” the black-gray cat with three knives said, around a mouthful of knife handle, pointing at a white cat.

Caroline gasped at the sound of the voice.  It looked like she hadn’t had a clear view of the cat from where she stood, with others in the way.

“Blankshanks?” Mrs. Schaff asked.

Blankshanks meowed.

The black cat began to juggle knives again, freeing its mouth to talk.  “They have a plan or they wouldn’t be making this many people aware.  Let’s get in on the gig, Blanks.”

“You’re owning this more than I am.  I do it at your behest,” the white cat said.

“Yeah yeah.”

The white cat was pretty.  Like, the kind of cat a millionaire would want to have, with sleek white fur and a rich and wild ruff of fur around the neck, emerald and expressive eyes.

“They’re going to break through,” Avery said, putting herself between the circle and the closest trees.  A blonde girl in a gray coat joined her.  “Most of the people who could fight left.”

“Gashwad?” Julette asked.

“I don’t think he’s anywhere near here.  He’s nearer Lucy, because she was fighting.  We could try, but it’d be a dick move,” Avery said.

Jeremy watched as the cats paced.  The one who was juggling knives threw one into the trees.  There was a squeal that made hairs on Jeremy’s neck stand up.

“Help, ‘Shanks?” the black-gray one asked.  “You and I, holding the line?”

“Spades, my dear, I’m a lover and a scoundrel, not so much a fighter.”

“Ugh,” Spades replied, teeth clamped around a knife handle again.  He reached behind himself and pulled out another knife.

Holy shit, holy shit.

“Waiting for confirmation from Ronnie…  Verona, Verona, Verona.  Should I bother Lucy?”

“Let’s maybe assume she’s busy,” Lucy’s mom said.  “No distractions.  Please.”

“Come on, come on…” Avery said, pacing, her back to the diagram.  She swung an arm out to the side, and she was holding a lacrosse stick all of a sudden.  One she definitely hadn’t had on her before.

“If they hurt these people, make us take responsibility…” Julette said, trailing off.

“That’s probably Charles’ intention,” Avery said.

A shirtless man with deep, infection-blackened scars across his flesh stepped out of the trees.  Two women followed, skinny and scarred as well, one with rocks embedded in scar tissue.

“And here we go,” Avery said.  She did a little spinny-around-handy move with the lacrosse stick, then brandished it.

“Anything we can do?” Jeremy asked.

“Blame them, stay safe, stick to the instructions we gave you.”

“Don’t scuff-”

“Yeah,” she interrupted, her voice pitched weird.  “Don’t tell them, y’know?”

“Right,” he said.

“Not that opsec is my strength,” she said, and she glanced over her shoulder at him, smiling a bit.

He could see something in her eyes.  Tiredness.  Pain.  Fear.

She’d been shot, she’d said.

Now she was facing off against a guy twice her age, twice her size, muscular, with more than twice her numbers backing him.

I could’ve been in your shoes?  If for some reason they didn’t pick you first? Jeremy thought.

George crouched, dropping low to the ground, facing one of the women who’d stepped away from the man.

“What are you doing?” Mia asked.

“If we’re not supposed to move, let’s get down low.  So we’re harder to budge.”

Jeremy followed George’s lead on that.

What would I have even contributed? he wondered.  Why me?

There was a wet sound, and he didn’t even realize what he’d seen, in the gloom, parking lot lit by a sole light above the outdoor rink in the back corner.

The woman across from George stumbled.  Her hand went up, and it was only in the contrast of black knife handle to white-ish hand that Jeremy could see the knife had embedded into her eye.

She didn’t fall, or go down.  Her hand slapped against the handle, which had to hurt, but she barely reacted.  She pulled at the handle, and it came free of the blade.

“That’s a little treasure, a waste to use it on the likes of you,” Spades said.  “You owe me two marbles of dangerous knowledge or equivalent currency.”

“Ideal world, we’ll pay you back, Spades!” Avery called out, swinging the lacrosse stick to keep the man back.  “Assuming it’s reasonable!  I’d have to ask, why is your knife so damn expensive?  Isn’t that six hundred bucks in human money?”

“You know the currencies!” Blankshanks remarked.  He was keeping the full diagram between himself and any trouble.  “Wonderful.  I thought you’d gone the degenerate route with your market.”

That’s the market thing?” Brayden’s dad asked.  “Magic?”

“There’s a big component of magic merchandise to it,” Julette said.  “Thus the secrecy, and the midnight part.  And the whole clientele that’s willing to buy your stock from last year.”

“Why is the knife so expensive, Spades?”

“It’s the contents of the knife,” the cat remarked.

“This is crazy,” Wallace muttered.

The knife handle was hollow, and bright yellow bugs were flowing out of it- far more than should have fit inside.

One flew across Jeremy’s field of vision, and it was a person- only a quarter-inch tall, gold skin, gold hair, gold fly wings.

The gold things clustered on the woman, and on others.

“Not her!” Spades called out, as they flocked onto Avery’s arm and hair.  “Brainless things.  Where did I put the signal bell?”

“Spades, what are the fairies going to do to me!?” Avery asked, as the little fairies gathered in greater numbers.

“Nothing!  Assuming I can find the bell.  Tarnation, a cat can only have so many covert pockets…”

“This is starting to hurt more than it’s helping!” Avery called out, tense.  Amber-orange fireflies circled around her, useless.

The blonde girl, a year or two younger than Avery, waved her arms, trying to fend them off.  She chomped her teeth at some.

“Don’t eat them!  You’ll agitate them, and things will turn for the worse!” Spades called out.  “Give me a moment!”

The blonde girl opened her mouth, tongue extended in a ‘yuck’ face, and a golden fairy flew off of her tongue.

They weren’t kidding.  About the danger, about the complication.  About magic.

Avery was bowled over by the big guy.  The woman that was sticking close behind him jabbed out with a length of pipe that had rusted at a diagonal, coming to an uneven point.  Avery kicked the pipe aside.

“You can do it!” Mia shouted.

“We really can’t help!?” George called out, still crouched.

“Waiting for Verona to kick this off!  Stay put unless you’re in serious danger!” Avery shouted.

“We’re not in danger!?”

“Immediate danger!” Julette supplied.

“Mrs. Schaff, if I may make a suggestion?” Blankshanks asked.

“You’ve been able to talk all this time.  The mischief, the mystery-”

“It’s been lovely, toying with you.  Your place is a hub for learning.  But we can have that conversation another time when we’re elevating you beyond what you were.  My suggestion?”

“Whatever you have,” Mrs. Schaff said.

“Call Castleberry, three times.”

“Egh,” Spades said, throwing a knife into the air to catch it again.  “Really?”

“Castleberry?” she asked.

“Who or what is Castleberry?” Oakham’s mom asked.

“A cat I’m caring for, it’s been ill, the vet refused to consider it alive, wasn’t even sure it was a cat, I’ve been nursing it to health.  What could Castleberry possibly do?”

“Three times,” Blankshanks said.

“Castleberry, Castleberry, Castleberry.”

“And some direction would be good, point at our enemy.”

“Like this?” Mrs. Schaff asked.

The ‘cat’ came tearing out of the woods a moment later.  If it was a cat.  Its head was a roadkill mash with some teeth sticking out of a hole in the mouth-ular region.

It moved with surprising speed, considering Jeremy wasn’t sure where its eyes were.  Stiff limbs without much bend to them skittered on the ground, and it leaped, catching on the man’s buttocks and lower back.

He fought, trying to get it off him, turning around-

Avery took three quick steps forward, then kicked him in the side of the knee, before retreating from any possible counterattack.

Not that there was one.

The cat had gouged his back and thrust its head in there.  It clawed, pushed head forward and into gore, until the place the back stopped and the head began wasn’t clear.  Its head might have been roadkill, but it was intent on getting any teeth in that roadkill settled into flesh.

With a gurgling ‘mrowr!” it pulled free, its head was ground meat crowned with broken skull.  Flesh visibly withered and died, rotting as much as a corpse would in weeks, over only a few seconds.

Are we sure we’re the good guys? Jeremy thought.

Avery’s nose was bleeding, he saw.  The blood ran down her face, across lips, and onto shirt and coat.

“When things kick off, you guys stay put until we say!” Avery shouted.  Blood flew from her lips.

It was so alien, seeing that blood like that.  The look in her eyes.

“Then you need to run!  Get inside!”


“I’ve seen this place before.”

“Did a test run of this conversation we don’t have time to have, in a dream.  Anselm!”

“What’s Anselm?”

“A boy who hangs out here.  Mallory!”

Verona’s voice rang through the house in a weird way.  She set the creepy little doll man aside.

“Verona-”  Sylvia reached for Verona’s shoulder.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.”

Sylvia’s eyes darted around the space.  At the nearly naked art on the walls, the-

“Is that a drug lab?”

“It is, but not like you’re imagining.  I’m not taking painkillers for my hand, I don’t like drugs, don’t worry.  Fuck.  I hoped they’d have turned up here.”

“These are friends?  They live here?”

“They stay sometimes.”

“A boy stays?  Do you stay?”

“It’s where I live, it’s my house, I own it.  Fuck, I’ve got to run upstairs.  Stay.”

“What are you-”

“And don’t touch anything!”

Verona ran up the stairs.

Leaving Sylvia to reel in the front hallway.

So many little things were weird, like the magic tricks, but…

She ventured into the living room.

Cigarettes sat stubbed out in makeshift ashtrays.  Mixed in with them were some stray articles of clothing and things that were very Verona.  A cuckoo clock with a cat theme sat on the mantle with some screws, looking like it was waiting to be put up.  Artwork sat piled on the table at one end of the couch.  Some more artwork looked like it had been burned in the fireplace.

There was a chair with leather belts strapped to it.

A cabinet was open, some reference art and art things, and one box of what looked like three to four hundred cigarettes.

“You have boys staying here?” she asked.

Verona had a bunch of notebooks.  She ignored Sylvia, walking through to the corner of the house opposite the stairwell.  A dining room without chairs, a big box in the place of the table.

The notebooks were dropped onto the box.

“I thought you didn’t like boys.”

“I like boy dick and boy flesh, not boyfriends.”

“You’re having sex?”

“That is so far from the top ten list of priorities.”

“It’s my priority.  Are you smoking?

“Nope.  Those are friends and people who came to meet about the market.  Getting people from Kennet’s undercity not to smoke is like asking a cat to leave the mice alone.  It’s currency.”

“It’s currency for prisoners, you’re not in prison.”

“Well, take my word for it, there’s a lot of similarities between Kennet below and a prison, in terms of the types you find.  Extreme and warped personalities.  Who smoke ninety-five percent of the time, seems like, so I keep cigarettes on hand for them.”

“You have a chair with belts?”

“Oh, that.  For prisoners and-”

“You have prisoners?  It’s not a sex thing?”

“Holy shit, it’s the opposite of a rude thing.  I have some people come by to get off drugs, and they have to be belted down, I give them a potion, they expel every last iota of the drugs from their pores, it’s the opposite of sexy, as I see it.”


“What?  I’m literally telling you a fact, a thing that happens.”

“Are you lying to me?”

“Fuck, Mom, no, I can’t lie, not without crushing consequences I really can’t afford.”

“Is that a lie?”

“Can you stop?  Seriously?  Listen to me for once?”

“I’m trying to get my head around where you are, what you’re doing.”

“And you’re trying so hard you’re not even listening to me!” Verona raised her voice.

“You’re having sex with boys, you’re smoking, you’re making drugs-”

“Magic drugs.  What I just told you about?  It’s an anti-drug.  Made with magic, remember that?  Magic is real, are we glossing over that?  Is the Innocence that deep-set?”

“I’m not glossing over that, but my priority is you.”

“And my priority is so, right this fucking second, so much that my friends are in danger and other friends might be dead!” Verona replied.  “So if I’m your priority, and that’s my priority, it should be yours too!  Back me up!  Play along!”

“You kept all this from me, and then you dump so many things onto my head and you get mad I’m not digesting it all, that’s not fair.”

“It’s not fair that I tell you stuff!  I tell you about Dad and give a pretty clear signal things aren’t okay!  I tell you my needs, and hint there’s something major going on!  I tell you I’m in crisis right now!  And you put up this wall between me and you-”

“I don’t.”

“-and the only way it seems like I can get through to you is for it to be too much!  That seems to be the only time I can catch you off guard, and get you acting different, without the wall of bullshit!  So here it is!  You missed or ignored the signals!  One of which is I like boy dick!  I like exploring rude stuff, do you really want details?  I’m not ashamed.”

“Can we calm down, talk this through?”

“I need to find people.”

“Tell me what’s going on, how did we get here?  Are you okay?”

“I’m so clearly not?  Is anything I’m saying registering?  I need to find people.  So I’m going to do that.  And if you want to ask questions, name a category and I’ll tell you things you really don’t want to know, how’s that?  Then I’ll be really disappointed you’re not meeting me halfway.”

Sylvia shook her head, closing her eyes.

She could picture Verona, after the Brett situation.  The needs, the complexities of the situation… she’d been warned before Verona came for the vacation trip that the toxic behaviors could be learned, and she shouldn’t be surprised by acting out.

Except there hadn’t been any.

It left her floundering, constantly in the dark.  Verona didn’t volunteer much- didn’t share this huge, whole part of her life.  Her marriage to Brett hadn’t been abusive, it had been disappointing.  He’d been an engaged-enough father with good moments like teaching Verona to skate and taking her to the games at the Arena, doing homework with her, always like pulling teeth, and working on projects.  Objectively, he’d been bad with money, and he’d needed too much reminding about cleaning.  Usual stuff.

She’d never felt passion.  She’d waited for it to come, had done her job, working, getting married, going on the honeymoon, having Verona, waiting for the bond to form with Brett as a result.  She had talked to Father Rich, back when she’d gone to church, they’d gone to couples counseling, she had even had a brief and even more soulless set of affairs, to see if the spark could fire up elsewhere and then be carried back home.  All the while, he’d adored her, he’d yearned for her, he’d made overtures, and he’d constantly asked for things that she couldn’t provide.  It had been like trying to spark a fire with wet newspaper and wet matches for too many years.

Her mistake, thinking things would flow a different way.  Buying into the promises society made to her.  That a churchgoing life would reward her.  That being a wife would fulfill.  That if she worked hard, she’d be rewarded with success and promotions, which she had, but only at the sacrifice of other things.

She didn’t know how Brett had gone from being what he was to being someone who’d hurt Verona that deeply, except that she’d hurt him by leaving, more than she’d hurt him by staying.

She didn’t know how Verona had gone from being who she’d been, even on that vacation, to this.  Except that she’d made mistakes, missed things.  She wanted so badly now to grasp those things at their core, to follow that thread to answers.

Sylvia opened her eyes.  The boxy table had changed.  A map of Kennet was worked into the surface.


“Please, please, please, let the next words out of your mouth be you backing me up, recognizing my priorities.”

“I do, I think.  Magic is real, you’re trying to find people.”

“Thank you.  I hope you understand why I need to stay.  I’m tackling some pretty big stuff, tied into big stuff.  But really truly, I think it’s cool, and once you get over the freakiness of the opening part?  You’d take to it.  It’s more of what you love.  Cool people with interesting passions.”

Passions and love.

Her mind turned to the nightmare she’d had, where she’d seen a house very much like this one.

“Are you pregnant?”

Verona looked over at her.

“It was part of the nightmare, it would explain-”

“How emotional I am?”

“The stakes.”

“My!  Friends!  Might!  Die!  Or be dead!  Or something!  Those are the stakes, but okay, no, nevermind, wait, hold-”


“-Hold on!  No, I said, I’m going to do what I said.  I’m treating that as you wanting a pull of the lever, Verona’s sex and sexuality, let’s see what the clue turns up, can you follow this thread to something that actually matters!?  Do you want specifics on what your daughter has been up to with boys?  Ooh, tantalizing!”

“This isn’t helping either of us.”

“Hey, you’re close!  Close!  But recognizing that is only half the battle.”

“Can you calm down?  Please?  Five minutes of level-headed conversation, let me ask, let me find you, so I can ground myself in all of this.”

“Hey wait, it’s a double clue!  Maybe not just boys?”

“Please stop.  You’re- are you gay?”

“Now I know you’re not listening to me!  Did we miss the part where I said there was a boy?  Or that I like dick?  Come on, mom!”

“Or bi or-”

“This game has a trick to it, mom,” Verona mock-whispered.  There were tears in her eyes.  “There’s some important stuff I’m saying here, but it requires you to not even read between the lines, but pay attention to what I’m saying.  That wasn’t the important part of that sentence.”

“I love you no matter what.”

“Still not the important part.  For the record, I’m one hundred percent into boy dick-”

“Please stop saying that.”

“-unless they’re dead boys, which my friend might be, but is that TMI enough to get your brain to misfire, maybe get you listening in the reboot phase?”

“I don’t judge, I hope you’re being safe.”

“Not the important thing.  Hey, there’s a trick to this game, what’s the thing I keep saying?”

Sylvia paused, then said, “You’re worried about your guy friend.  Who isn’t a boyfriend.”

“Thank you!  We have a winner!” Verona cheered, with absolutely no joy.  “Can I work on this, or do we get into categories for the magic drugs I’ve experimented with, the violence, oh, that’s a fun one, or do we try the mystery category?”

“You’re not being fair to me.”

“Same, all this time, me stressing how stuff’s important.  Funny how that works, right?” Verona asked.

“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you, but apologies aren’t a top ten priority, don’t worry.  Can we put that conversation aside until later?” Verona asked, agitated.  She moved around the table to open and page through a notebook, then rubbed at her palm with a shaking hand.  “I’ve gotta figure out how to tackle the Charles situation, screw him over, fight back.  Gotta-”

“None of this means anything to me, I’m sorry.”

“Gotta figure out where things stand, first.”

“I want to have a conversation about you, about where you’re at, I want to understand this whole situation through you.”

“And I’m saying I love you, I included you in this aware-ening because I felt like if I didn’t, it might be the death knell for our relationship, if not now, then never, and I kind of hoped I’d have one ally for all of this.  Avery and Lucy got theirs, through their parents.”

“Death knell?”

“I don’t know, it’s not a priority, okay?  I’m really fucking sorry, but it’s not.”

“It’s my number one priority.”

“You’re not getting it.  Okay?  I love you, Mom, I would have kicked you out of my house a while ago if I didn’t, I love you, but that love, compared to some of the huge, crazy stuff that’s going on?  The lives on the line?  It’s got to take a back seat for now.  Please.  Because you’re kind of being as bad as Dad-at-baseline.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Wrong thing to focus on, again.”

“I don’t know what I’m meant to do here.”

“Just… don’t try to lead.  Accept that while you weren’t looking, I ended up doing something important.  Back me up.  Watch.  Take it in.  I know you can do that with some of your friends and their work.  The artist you had me meet.  Seeing how they operate.  I know you can communicate with them.  I don’t see why I don’t get the same consideration.”

“It’s a little too much to figure out all at once.  You talking about lives being on the line, it’s- it doesn’t feel real.  It doesn’t connect to anything I know or relate to.”

“Then don’t try to know or relate or figure it out all at once.  Trust me to do my best to lead you through this,” Verona said.  “There’s Louise.  We’re good to go.”

She circled around the table, counter clockwise, with Sylvia left to turn and watch.  Verona pulled out a drawer of a secretary desk in the corner of the dining room, and got a glass flask.  Sylvia ended up doing a near-three-hundred-and-sixty degree turn as Verona walked past her to go to the back door, flask in hand.

“Where are you going?”

“Stand back, watch, observe,” Verona said.

She uncorked the flask.

The flask contents ignited, and exploded out with enough force that Verona stumbled back.  It traveled across the sky, painting a streak of fire against black as it arced over Kennet.

“There we go.  Signal made and-”

The air tremored.  Kennet shook.

Sylvia took a step back.  It felt like an earthquake, but… muted.  In the bones of it all, not at the surface.

“It worked?”

“Sky isn’t screaming, Kennet isn’t devolving into a multi-armed mess, or tentacles, or collapsing… need to do diagnostics.  Really want to look for my friends, but diagnostics first.  Make sure we’re level, and no last-minute adjustments are needed.  Then I should help with the invasion.”

“When do we talk?”

“Maybe tomorrow?  I don’t know.  It’s- again, love you, but the way this is going, I don’t think I can delve into this with you and also save the lives I want to save, do what I need to do, or any of that.”

“I worry, because you said we were facing a possible death knell of the relationship and this isn’t going well.  Now we’re putting this off until tomorrow?”

“Crow humping toads,” Verona told her mom.

“What?  What are you talking about?”

“Repeat it.  Say those words.  Crow humping toads.”


“To show me you’re capable of hearing me, without getting your own ideas and thoughts out first, putting those ideas and thoughts in the way.  Crow humping toads.”

“Verona, if we can do this, why can’t we have a genuine conversation?”

“Because if we can’t do this then no conversation’s possible, is it?  Crow humping toads.”

“It feels like you’re trying to hack me like you’d hack a computer or, I don’t know, can you hack magic?”

“Crow humping toads.  I don’t want to move forward until we get this down.  But yes, for the record, I think I’m pretty good at hacking together magic.”

“It feels like you’re trying to come up with these games and rules and throw me off balance, you’re getting mad when I don’t get it, but if I get it, then you ask me to do something else.”

“I want you to meet me halfway, and the halfway point is now toads with a bird fetish, or a single crow grinding off on multiple toads, depending on how you read it,” Verona said, moving things around the table as she worked.  She scribbled something down in chalk.

“And after that?”

“After that there may be other things, if you’re not playing ball.  I don’t know, but if this is the agonizing way we have to go down the road, for you to follow my lead?  I guess it’s going to be crow humping toads.”

“You’re fourteen, you don’t have to have the lead.”

“I’m in a leadership position, empowered to do something about a situation which matters to a lot of people, sorry, but I’m lead here.  Say the words or that’s it, and that may actually be a real hard knock, maybe even a knell, for us.  I’d go on to handle my shit, you’d go back to Thunder Bay to handle yours, I dunno.”

“I don’t want that.”

Verona shook her head.  She went to the other room and came back with a tattoo gun and notebook.  She put them on the table, then circled them with chalk.  “I’m fighting a higher power, basically a god.  He has a goddess as a friend, helping him.  Can we appreciate that?  Put that into context?”

“I can’t because I don’t understand it.”

“Okay, well, can you say the three words and maybe once I know you’re listening, I can explain it?”

“The three words?”

“I’ve been repeating them.  Seriously.”

“Camel- crow humping toads.”

Verona dragged the chalk over the table without making a line between one of the circles and the stuff she’d scribbled closest to her, a circle filled with writing and a star.

“Was that right?  Are we okay?”

Verona snatched up another piece of chalk and raked it against the table, without leaving anything on the surface.


Verona tried a line between the notebook and the diagram.  Twice.

Sylvia bent down, trying to see past Verona’s hair to her face.  Before she could, Verona turned, moving- storming away.

“Can I look?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Verona said, voice cracking a bit.

Sylvia opened the booklet.  Poetry?

Crossing to the living room, where she grabbed an ashtray with enough force that ashes were scattered into the air.  She got a sketchbook, and tore out a page while storming back.

Sylvia could see a glimpse of the emotion on Verona’s face, the flush, like she was holding her breath until she turned colors.

The page with a piece of artwork was slapped onto the table.  Circled.  A line raked out- nothing.

Two of the cigarettes, one with lipstick.  There wasn’t enough room from prior circles, so circles overlapped.  Line-

One of the two made a mark.

“Where’s the feather?” Verona asked.

“What feather?”

Verona made a whimper of a sound.  Sylvia reached out, but Verona was already moving away, going to the secretary desk.  She pulled out a drawer, slammed it shut.  “Give me the feather, house.  Um, the bottlecap medal, the screw.  Just spit them out, spend what you need to spend, we’ll recoup later.”

She pulled the drawer out again, and then snatched up a feather, medal, and screw.

Each got a circle.  The lines connected.

Verona turned to her sketchbook again, tearing out pages.  Slapping them down.

Teenagers.  An old man.  A flasher with a mascot mouse head.

No, no, yes.

Verona turned pages rapidly.  Got frustrated, almost crumpling a page into a ball, threw the book down.

And things were still.  Verona said nothing, didn’t move.  There wasn’t anything crazy being thrown out there, in terms of arguments or provocation, or riddles, or anything else.  No baiting, no requests.

Sylvia circled the table, moving gently, then put her arms around a crying Verona.  She pulled her into a hug.

“They’re not okay?”

Verona made a whimper of a sound, then shook her head against Sylvia’s shoulder.

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

“Two out of three,” Verona moaned the words into Sylvia’s shoulder.  “Mal.  Anselm.  Berk, who did the mural, Salma, she helped with the market.  Nigel.  People I worked with.  People I was building something with.”

“I’m sorry.  Was-” Sylvia started to ask.  She was struck by the fact Verona was at her shoulder already, size-wise.  Yet somehow still so small, inside that black duffel coat she was still wearing from outside.

She didn’t ask the question, about if Anselm was the boy.

Didn’t matter.

She rocked slightly, hugging Verona, and Verona nodded by that same measure of ‘slightly’.

All around her, the murals were shifting, drifting.  Heads bowed, hands reaching, clutching, tearing at clothes.  A skeletal hand on a chain contorting.  Emotional turmoil painted in scenes that bled out like watercolor and chalk in water and became something else in the bleeding.

Magic.  Sylvia took that in.  She wished she wasn’t taking it in with her daughter weeping in her arms.

One of her big regrets was not hugging Verona, the night she’d separated from Brett.

She hugged Verona now.

Until Verona pulled away, rough.

“We could regroup with the others, talk to Jasmine-”

“Not a priority,” Verona said, her voice a bit hollow.  She heaved out a sigh, cheeks and eyes still wet, and looked around.

“Your friends died.  Acquaintances.  People you were building something with, you said.”

“Yeah.  But it’s not the priority, now.  Priority is I’ve got to figure out what I’m doing next.  Fuck Charles.  Fuck him so much for doing this.  Lucy’s fighting, she needs help, Avery…”


“No,” Verona replied, anger in her voice.  Not aimed at Sylvia, but there all the same.  “Gotta plan for this.  Equip our guys.”

“What are you doing?”

“You can stay.  It might be better if you do.  I wouldn’t poke or prod at anything unusual, like the alchemy setup in the kitchen, or my magic stuff upstairs.  Library downstairs is probably safest to hang out in, lots of interesting books, just stay away from the bookshelf with the glass and locks.”

“You need to stop for a moment.  You lost friends.”

“And I’m worried I’ll lose more if I stop,” Verona said, gathering up some containers from the alchemy setup.  She pulled off her coat, pulled on an apron, then stuffed a front pocket with flasks, then put the coat on again.



The phone rang.

Mr. Gill held it to his ear.

It finally went through.  He put it on speaker phone, for the benefit of the others in the car, resting phone on thigh.

“Dad?” was the answer on the other end.

“Dony,” Mr. Gill said, by answer.  “My boy.”

“What happened?  How are you calling?”

“We were tipped off that something strange was going on.  We’re on our way to you.”

There was a pause on the other end.

“How hard are you going to fight, to avoid coming home?” he asked.

There was a sound on the far end of the line, like Dony was walking somewhere, closing a door.

“You going to use more magic tricks?” he asked.

“You know?”

“Got the gist of it.”

“That gets really messy, Dad.”

“So they keep saying.”

“I’m scared.  All of this.  The way it feels so out of control.  Like there’s no lines anymore.”

“I’m an hour away.”

“It’s dangerous.”

“People keep saying that too.  I’d rather it’s me facing the danger than you.”

“I’m sorry I left without explaining.”

“Word is, you were pressured.  Wait for me?  So long as we get you home safe and sound?  I forgive you.  There’ll be no punishment.  Way you sound, scared like you are?  Sounds like you’ve been punished enough, going through this.”

There was silence on the other end.

“I just want you okay.”

“Dad, they’ve set things up, there’s threats, there’s traps.  I want to come home.”

“Then wait.”

“Did they say how I can’t lie?”

“Something like that.”

“Then can you believe me when I say this is too dangerous for you.  It’s a warzone.  I can’t leave like this.  And you can’t come.  I want to come home but it’s too dangerous for you to come get me.  Please, please believe me when I tell you those things.”

“Can you get away?”

“I don’t know.  No, I don’t think so.”

“Then I’ll come.  We’ll figure it out when I’m there.”

“It might be over by the time you’re here.”

“Then I’ll take you away in the aftermath.”

“No.  Dad, look.  Can we make a deal?”

It was Mr. Gill’s turn to go silent.

“I don’t think the other side wants to kill any of us kids.  They’ve been capturing us, holding us.  But they aren’t killing, I don’t think.  Let me work on this tonight, I think this is really the last they want of me.  Then I’ll come home.  I’ll stop with ninety percent of this stuff.”

“Only ninety?”

“Some of it’s cool, Dad.”

“You’re sure you’re good tonight?”

“I don’t know.  It’s scary but I think I can make it through.  Kira- we have a way to make us kids stronger, we’re going to do that, I think.  For the edge.”

“Hold off if you can.  I’m going to show up, I’ll talk to whoever’ll listen.”

“It’s a battlefield.”

“Then I’ll talk to people on the other side of the battlefield.  We’ll see where things go.  But if I can’t get through or if it seems too dangerous, I’ll know that at least you thought you could handle it.”

“Okay.  Knowing you’ll be there after really helps.”

“Be a fighter, Dony.”

He hung up.

“Be a fighter?” one of the other parents asked from the back seat.

“Make your call,” he replied.

“Someone should call Cameron.  I don’t think her mom is able.”

“I can, after.  For right now, we’ve got one kid wanting to come home.  All it took was some parental concern.  Let’s see how many there are.”


“Carmine!” the Family Man shouted.  “I ask to be your agent!  Let me serve under you!  In exchange for a mending of my wounds, a relief from curses…”

The lighting changed.  Red-tinted.  Charles didn’t even bother to show up this time.

The Family Man was healed.  Jewelry he wore turned blood red.  Veins across his body throbbed, standing out against flesh, rearranged to a new configuration, then receded.

“And I ask you to relieve me of service, if you see fit.”

The red lighting and coloration faded.  The Family Man smiled, flexing muscles that didn’t look like they should flex in the directions they did.  Veins rippled and rearranged again.

“You’re weak.  Every victory against you stacks up,” Lucy said.

Most of the bystanders had been driven off.  The Family Man had no army.  They’d stabilized.  The only danger now was that he was still standing, still eager to return to things.

“Maybe,” he said.  “But you’re tired.  That fatigue adds up faster than your victories do.”

He extended a reaching hand.  She fended it off, but it bowled her over.  She sprawled on the base of the monument to the uncountable soldiers killed in war.

“Do you need help?” Oakham asked.

“I don’t think there’s a lot you’d be able to do,” Lucy said.  “Hang back.”


Lucy gathered up glamour-

And a hand reached out, muscles reconfiguring to separate bone from bone, so the arm could extend twice as far as it should.  Glamour was scattered.  She moved to recoup some, but only some.

He hooked the end of a pinky finger on the chain at her neck, with the tags.  She reached up, grabbing the chain, holding it so it wouldn’t snap, contents lost.  She let herself be pulled, moved with that, and avoided the punch he was angling to hit her as she got close to him.

Her reserves had dwindled enough she wasn’t sure she could reliably become the three foxes.

The weapon ring’s weapons felt heavy and hard to lift.  She stabbed him, gutted him, feeling a quiet horror as she learned what it felt like to draw something sharp through intestines, and avoided the worst of an elbow jabbing toward her head.

Avoiding the worst of it, but she’d basically fallen for the third time in a row, now. Like staying upright was something she was having to sacrifice.  Getting to her feet again was something that cost.

“Third time’s a charm like Charles said, huh?” Lucy asked, picking herself up.  “How many tries has it been?”

“One continuous, long try, that’s wearing you down,” the Family Man said.  “One time I knock you over, you won’t have the strength to get up again.  Then I’ll take you.  What do I do with you after, that hurts the most?  This thorn pressed through your eardrums?  Eyes?  A fox chained in a dark room, blind and deaf, fumbling for her daily ration of water and moldy bread?  Thorn in your chest, once I’ve used it where I need to use it, making you curl up in pain every time your heart beats too fast?  Punishing fear, anger, passion?”

She held out her weapon, hand not wavering.  The best answer she could give.

He laughed.  “Want a taste?”

“Want a taste of-”

His hand closed around the thorn on the cord at his neck.  A light glowed.

And she felt her vision go, like all the lights had been turned to half what they should be.  All the sounds around her-

She pushed, reaching through her implement.

Pushing that back.

The glow from his clenched fist increased.

All sounds died down.  The light continued to dwindle.

She felt something sharp at her chest.  Then sharper.

Like he was right there, pushing it in.

She flourished her blade, taking a step back, fighting back the panic.

The pain increased.

“Oh, there’s a trace of the old curse on it too.  Here.”

She felt it in her throat.  At the back of her mouth.  She could taste the curse.

Back of her eyes, running down the back of her neck to her arms.

She shifted footing.  Her foot kicked someone fallen, touched wet.

She was too blind to see the blood, but she knew it was there, and that was enough to scatter her thoughts.

Blind, deaf, unable to think straight, unable to call for help.

She felt the air move.  Reaching hand.  She ducked and moved aside.

Remembered the fights she’d had to get this far.  To knock down and disable waves of people.  That there was a body here, blo- wet patch there.  That someone had fallen, leg cut, and would grab her if she moved too far one way.

She stepped between and around bodies, avoided the bloodiest.

Walked briefly on the unconscious form of some kid.

More air movement.


She pushed out through the implement, but it was no use.

What bullshit was this?  Bit of divine power, the thorn, and he could call this a predetermined outcome, force the curse through?


Air movement.  She moved with it, leaning back.  Like a feather in the wind, the reaching hand pushed air toward it, moving it back.

A hand, reaching for her necklace.  She cut it as it reached for her.

Blood.  She quickly shifted her weapon to one hand to shake her hand furiously, to shake off the droplets that had dusted it.

Her other hand was bleeding.

She moved it aside, away from her body, turned thoughts away from it.  Dropped the marker that she’d been turning into a blade.

She backed away, stumbled, and fell.

A hand came for her.  Sideways.  She could read his intent, after defeating him a half-dozen times now, just tonight, and knew he’d go for the ear.  Because he’d sensed that would be the thing that would break her more than anything.  The possible permanent damage.

The thorn jabbed her hand.  She felt it take hold, the curse settling, the temporary effects he’d laid on her becoming more permanent.

But he wasn’t going to leave it there, embedded in her hand.  He had other plans for it.  He wouldn’t give that up.

She could hold onto that knowledge, use it, and predict the shape of the follow-up attacks.

She fell again as she blocked one from really hurting her, but got knocked off balance.

Her legs were so tired.

Thoughts in knots, panic thick in her brain, eyes and ears useless.

More shifts in the air.  Laughter.

Goblin tricks.

Toadswallow had taught her the curse, nailed in with three blows.  Could she hold out for three more defeats, three times three, to really drive it home?

She did a bad job of avoiding the next blow.  It knocked her onto a mess of blood, hands skidding on it, and the curse-induced blood phobia seized her.  She rolled away, pulling back, courage leaving her.

But the other goblins.  Goblin tricks.

Not the assblaster firecrackers, but other things.

She tossed them into the air.

Her fox mask was on, it protected her from gas.

There was also lights, to baffle and bewilder.  There was noise.

Spell cards she’d wrapped around them as prizes, like she had with the can, were still in effect.

Noise and light.

She was blind and deaf.

And she knew he was arrogant, and he was the sort of monster that could shrug off this stuff in seconds, what it would take others minutes to handle.

Meaning she could predict his move-

Moving in and beneath the reaching hand.

A wad of Bubbleyum’s gum, stringy and sticky.  Meant for use in gluing things together.

Lucy used her trace of glamour to become a fox, to get the height she needed, slithering up and around, past the Family Man.  Still blind, still deaf.

Couldn’t make him bleed.

As she went over his head and became human again, she used the gum and she used the assblaster fireworks.  Gluing them to his head while she was upside-down above him.

So concussive they’d shake the bowels loose.

She moved with the air, to reorient, get feet back under her, while turning the lighter into a weapon that would go after the fireworks-

And he hit her out of her mid-air flip.

She went more sideways than down, even with gravity.  She landed in the midst of bodies, and immediate ick and phobia scattered her thoughts, destroying her residual sense and memory of where she was and what was around her.

The fireworks went off, all together.

Strapped to his head, multiple at once?  They’d have to do something internal.  He was all twisted up with muscle, but the brain didn’t have muscles, she was pretty sure.

Her thoughts were screaming awfulness, fighting, reminding her of the blood, horrible blood.

And she felt warmth and light on her skin.  Prickling skin.  Unfriendly light.

She felt the air move as he laughed.

Seven.  That’s seven victories, but he’s found it in himself to call on Charles.  Is calling on that trickle of divine power again.

Lucy was blind, deaf, so tired she couldn’t stand up straight, bleeding and trying not to think about it.

The warmth and light felt hostile.

He was preparing an attack where she didn’t have the experience to know what it’d be like.  She couldn’t imagine it coming, brace against it.  Some kind of divine smiting or something.

She backed away.  Toward the statue.  Toward John and Yalda, the Dog Tags.

Tripping constantly over bloody, unconscious people.  A mob she’d battered into unconsciousness, or left too wounded to move, lying on the street, bleeding, in the dead of winter.

She tripped, falling, and her thoughts immediately went to the follow-up.  Protecting her ear.  Or compensating if that thorn was shoved deep into the ear, where it would poison her and ruin her ability to hear again.

Hands caught her, and she tensed, moved to attack-


Not Oakham.  There was a pat on her shoulder.  A voice beside her, moving the air.  Too light to be Oakham.  Too comfortable with elemental air, where Oakham was more earth.  Once a gymnast and dancer, now grounded in many ways.

This was Avery.  They’d come.

Lucy’s vision cleared.

Not because of Avery, but because Verona was on the attack.

She saw the backlash.  The water that had smashed the Family Man turned back, and washed back against Verona, slamming her back.  She’d been braced for it, but it still looked like it hurt.  Because she’d put so much into the attack on the Family Man.

The Family Man sputtered, then smiled.  He started to get to his feet, then faltered.  Hands went to his throat.

Lucy could feel something off, a rush past her.  Air moving…

Vacuum jar.

Sucking away the air.

Verona advanced, hood up, cat mask on, Alexanderp’s head sticking out of the bag at her back.  She tossed out some spell cards.

They stopped mid-air, forming a loose circle around the Family Man.

He realized what was happening, and rushed forward, and Avery moved from beside Lucy to step out from behind Verona, crossing the last five feet to get in the Family Man’s way, and keep him in-bounds.

“How many victories?” Avery asked.

“Seven, by my count.”

“Nice.  Good number.”

“Was working toward nine.”

The Family Man turned, moving the opposite direction.  To get clear of the space that had been vacuum jarred.  Avery moved to intercept and block, lacrosse stick slamming him in the chest.  He stumbled back, and fixed himself.

The runes that hung in the air were sealing air spirits.  Sealing that vacuum-ness around the Family Man.

Lucy nodded.

“Can’t call out to the Carmine, huh?” Lucy asked.

The Family Man’s face contorted in anger.

He charged straight for her.

She was too tired to move.  She let Avery handle it, dropping down from a streetlight above the monument to smash his reaching hand down to the ground.  Smashing upward, to hit him in the chin.

He fell back, landing on his back.  His chest heaved and convulsed as he failed to get air.

It was going surprisingly fast.  Something to do with how he was knotted.

“You figured him out?” she asked Verona.



“We lost people,” Avery said.  “Anselm.  Mal.  The painter who did the outside of the school, two of our market coordinators.  Killwagon’s reading buddy.”

“Bracken?” Oakham asked.

“Bracken’s okay.  So’s Bag.  So are the warlords.  Because they connected outward.”

The Family Man was barely moving, chest jerking more than it moved in fluid breathing motions.

Verona dripped from the water that had splashed her in the backlash.  In winter.  Lucy could hear her teeth chattering through the earring.

“I’m so sorry, Ronnie,” Lucy said.

“Yeah,” was the reply.

They waited a minute, while the Family Man suffocated to death.  Avery drew up a warmth rune on Verona’s coat in chalk.  Quality of fire, made ambient.

Lucy nodded as she watched him go still.

Verona walked over, nudged him with a toe, and then bent down to retrieve the thorn.

“I want to destroy Charles now,” Verona said.  “I want him to lose what he loves.”

“I hear you,” Lucy said.

Avery said, “We need to swing back.  Our Aware are barricaded in the Arena.  We’ve got our third-stringer, noncombatant goblins and others backing them up, but…”

“I know,” Verona said.  “Let’s do that.”

“I want to destroy him too,” Avery said.

They started back.  A bewildered and wounded Oakham followed beside, limping more than she had in months.  Lucy wasn’t in a position to offer a shoulder, and Verona was carrying other things, so Avery gave her a hand.

“But we can’t.  We go for the throat,” Avery said, and she touched fingers to her own throat.  Meaning the point of Self.  “Communication.  Connections.  Society.”

Lucy didn’t like saying it like that, when they could be overheard, but Alexanderp seemed docile and bored.  Nobody looking, she hoped.

Verona pulled her mask off with some force, and looked at Avery.  The hurt, the anger, the contortion in her expression- as bad as Lucy had ever seen it.  Reminiscent of the Family Man.

“Ronnie?” Lucy asked.  She reached for Verona’s arm, and she found Verona’s hand.

Twitching, tense.

“I’m kind of hoping this doesn’t work,” Verona said, quiet, glaring with lavender eyes.  “That’s all I’ll say on that front for now.  For right now, let’s help our people, then do the throat thing.”

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Go for the Throat – 23.9


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Kennet below is dying.

Kennet found is empty.

I never had as strong a connection to Kennet above… less so now, with my house burned down and my mom not listening.

Here I am again.  Drawing this circle, and facing the risk of losing everything all over again.  Just like I did when Musser attacked and I had to claim my Demesne against them to avoid being forsworn.

The principles were the same.  A lot of power was incoming.  Kennet below was being leeched for power, losing key structures, and the result was that what remained would collapse, coming through.  Like building an extensive basement, then knocking out key walls.  Kennet above and Kennet found would be damaged, bits of that basement would crash through, and Kennet would be dangerous to live in.

After getting too restless at her Demesne, she’d gathered her stuff, Julette, two workshop homunculi, and headed to the Arena.  It looked like some hockey players and-or employees in the Arena were having a party or something that was running well past midnight, which wasn’t the most unusual thing for the Arena, so she’d thrown up a connection block and tossed a bit of glamour on the back windows, painting a picture of an empty, ordinary parking lot.  Trees on three sides around the back lot helped hide things.

She and Julette finished drawing the main circle, starting at opposite ends and then circling around, ending where the other started.  Verona set down the fifteen pound bag of salt.

“Smaller double-circle within!” Verona called out.  She held up her arm.  “Space it elbow to forearm!”

Julette watched as Verona started, double checking.  Crouching near the ground, Verona put elbow at the outermost circle, hand pointing inward, she raked the end of her chalk into a thin layer of ice to break it up enough she could put down a visible line.  The chalk was bright purple, so it was visible even in the gloom, against white snow and black asphalt.  She placed a bag of salt just outside the perimeter to mark her spot.

“Leave salt where you are, to mark the spot!  One pace, chalk mark!”

She could trust Julette to follow her instructions, have her proportions, and follow her movements in the same way.  She could say ‘one big step’ and trust Julette was doing something similar-ish.  One big step, crouch, same span to measure distance, mark with chalk.  No ice, at least.

“Same all the way around!?” Julette called over.

“Until you get to my spot!”

“-You fail, you whine, you let people down, and then you wonder why you’re alone?  You wonder why you feel empty?” Alexanderp prattled, off to the side, guarding their bags.

“Not saying anything, Seth, Cameron, and-or Chuck, creeps!” Verona called out.

The two other homunculi sat and listened to Alexanderp, all three as dumb as potatoes, one hatched too early.  It was the fleshy equivalent of dough removed from the oven before it had cooked.  Both wore clothes Verona had bought to see if she could outfit Peckersnot in something.  The larger, more complete workshop homunculus wore two layers of the clothes that had been way too big for Peckersnot: overalls, a sweater, and a sweatshirt over that, a bit too large, all probably from a stork bindle baby doll with maybe a few articles of actual baby clothes thrown in.  The smaller one wore something Peckersnot-sized that Peckersnot hadn’t liked.

Measure with arm, chalk mark, move, repeat.

Getting up and bending down was wearing on her, not helped by the fact she’d carried two fair-sized bags and eight boxes of salt all the way from her Demesne to here, but anxiety helped her press through it.  Every moment counted, but an error while doing this could be catastrophic.

Like, instead of all of Kennet below crashing through Kennet above, it’d be funneled like water through a pressure washer.  Horrification ahoy.

She reached the spot Julette had left the other bag of salt.  She found Julette’s mark in orange chalk and picked up the bag.  Julette mirrored her.

They went clockwise from their positions, using the little marks of chalk to help measure distance.  The trick was getting a smooth pour.

She reached the spot Julette had finished, connected the line of poured salt, and then adjusted, picking up a half-handful to correct the size of the pile.  “And again!  Hand’s-width distance inside the last circle!”

They ran out partway through.  Which made her worry.  She reached the other two bags they’d brought, each maybe twenty pounds, and used a box knife to cut off the corner from each.

She waited until Julette had reached her spot before resuming.  To keep things moving in parallel.

She wanted to rest so bad.  To lie down on parking lot with ice and snow on it, huffing for breath, stomach sore from the bending down and picking stuff up.

She wanted other people to live even more.

The outermost rim of the diagram was like the raised lip of a dinner plate.  It was where the decorative and outward-facing stuff went.  A distance inside was the double-ring, which they were now finishing.  Double lines reinforced, which they needed because this was where the cogs and gears went, basically.  Needed a strong frame around this engine.

“Another circle, one pace inside!”

“One circle, one pace inside, on it!”

They drew out the circle.  Where salt settled into snow and ice, it melted it, which made for a workable effect, the salt lined on either side with the shiny black of fully exposed asphalt.  There was always an issue when drawing on a surface, that any existing lines or patterns could muddle things.  This was better to do indoors but indoors didn’t have enough space.  The closest things she could think of, like the rink or the school gymnasium?  Had lines already.  The top of the arena was a bit of a mess, and honestly, after hurrying here, even with Lis’s help, lugging salt, she hadn’t felt like climbing up and down the ladder at the side of the building.

The coating of snow at least obscured the yellow lines of the lot.  That was okay so long as they didn’t have a very sudden heat wave.

She glanced back over her shoulder.  To her Sight, the flows of power out of Kennet below were no longer there, but the threat of collapse or inversion was still there, cracks spreading from damage already done.  Too many key things were too weak.

“My back.  I’m made of twigs and twine, and there’s only so much I can bend,” Julette said.

“You’re as flexible as me,” Verona said.  “Spare your back, put the big guy on the line drawing.  Innermost circle, line from twelve o’clock to eight.”

“What’s the-”

“Six is my bag,” Verona cut her off, to answer the question.

“Got it.”

Verona began drawing on asphalt with chalk, which was never super fun.  Julette hurried to pick up the homunculus, grab some salt from the bag, and position him.

With a prod, he waddled forward with a box of salt only slightly smaller than he was, pouring.  He’d been made with a focus on precise measurements and attention to details, and Verona was pleased to see that applied to the line work and even pours.

“Line’s done.  I’m not sure me bending over to pick up this little guy is all that much better.”

“Then do it yourself.  I don’t know, Julette!” Verona replied, tense.


Libra signs inside nested half-circles to distribute power out across everything.  Verona marked the half-circles on the inner rim of the perimeter, pointing toward the center.  “Um, starting from that line, at the point it intersects an imaginary line between two and eleven o’clock, go to the point that two and eleven would meet twelve and six, turn him to go to five.”

“This is where you’re supposed to throw out a side line about being flexible for Anselm.”

“Anselm might be dying or dead!” Verona answered, voice cracking.  “So no, no lines like that, sorry!”

Julette looked stricken.  Then a moment later, turned, sweeping up the homunculus, moving him into position.  Her hair hid her face.

“I thought-” Verona started, still drawing.

“Sorry.  Didn’t know it was that serious.”

“I implied…” Verona started to tell Julette, then stopped.  We’re not perfectly in sync.  We’re not the same person.

She dealt with Dad but got a pass on the heaviest of this stuff.  Mostly, with the close call on New Years excepted.

But she hasn’t been as deep into this.  Into losing Avery.  Facing Charles.

So she doesn’t get the gravity of it, always.  My fault for not telling but…

“Mal?” Julette asked.

“I don’t know,” Verona replied.

“What do we know?”

“We don’t.  We don’t know.”  Verona crawled between the segments of the diagram she had to draw on.  Her knees were so soaked it had reached the backs of her knees, and it felt like the trace amounts of salt were adding to the chafing, the abrasions at her knees and palms, and where the folds of the jeans at the back of her knees rubbed.

This was all she knew how to do.  She looked at what she still had to draw.

“Done the line.”

“Triangle with point facing down, at the nine-”

“Wait.  You’re doing something repetitive, right?”


“Swap out?”

“This’ll hurt your back more.”

“I’ll deal.  I didn’t realize it was this big.”

“Fuckin’ huge magic circle, you didn’t think it was big?”


“Switch,” Verona said.  She got to her feet.  She took over at the center, while Julette did the repeating pattern at the edge.  It was dumb to not have done that sooner, but Verona had wanted to retreat a bit into the meditative parts of the diagram drawing, like drawing up spell cards.

The diagram had a medallion at the center that was the city magic mark for Kennet.  The weird lines she’d had Julette doing were the main roads.  She made marks for the major hills, then the water.

She looked up, city magic running through her head, and Lis was there, standing on the roof of the Arena, looking down.  Verona wasn’t surprised to see her, like it was this thing that logically followed.

Putting her arms out to the side, she gestured to Lis.  Part demonstration, part shrug.

Lis shook her head.

“It’s not good!?” Verona called up.

“It’s not good enough.”

“Even when we finish?”

Lis shook her head.

“Avery will have the mundane items.  You saw those in action!”

Lis’s expression did not look confident.

“Fuck.  Fuck!” Verona said, turning, resuming work, thinking all the while.

This wasn’t a question of if they could stabilize Kennet, really.  Even with what Lis was saying.  It was a question of how much damage would be done in the meantime, and what the cost would be.

This was a repeat of what they’d done for the founding.  Avery had likened it to a catcher’s mitt, because of course she had.  Distribute energy, brace against it, keep everything stable.  Securing Kennet.

The warding perimeter around Kennet with the sixteen shrines was key, that was stuff going around the decorative edge of the plate.  They had signs they’d worked out for each spirit, which they did with the arrangements of twigs they sometimes used.  But the shrine spirits had been pulled away.

They didn’t have a huge power battery to empower this and give it the juice to counter whatever came flowing through.  They’d used that to make the spirits at the edge strong enough to manage the ‘splash’.

Avery hadn’t reported back that she’d found all the mundane items that would help ground this.

They had options, but the options were bad.  They could call on power from Kennet’s Others, but that drew power away from the people on the front lines.  She could give power from her Self, but something this big could hit her way too hard.

“What next?”

Verona shook her head slightly, trying to clear her thoughts.  Julette stood there, hand on the homunculus’s head.

“Spokes.  Um…” Verona made a half-circle shape with her hand, knuckles facing sky then held her arm against it at a diagonal, then reversed hands and arm.  “Right side of the Libra bits to the left side of the city magic circle in the center, vice versa, we get X or V shapes.  Reinforcement, plus it gets us a star shape.”

“Got it.”

“It’s a good job for the homunculus.”

“Come on, little guy,” Julette said.

She considered herself good at finding the possible, but something about the latest series of hits was pushing her to feel like the opposite was happening.  Thoughts spiraling, the can’ts and counter-arguments and doubt jumping to mind where there’d normally be ideas.

Come on, get it together.

She finished the city magic seal.  There were six circles she had to put in the spokes.  Three would be the key locations – her Demesne, the council seat, and Lucy’s spot.  Three would represent the three sides of Kennet.  She put a hand at her back as she straightened, then got her phone and phoned Avery.

There were twenty-nine messages from her mom and twelve from Jasmine.


“Come on, Ave.  Need to know how you’re managing before I do the exterior reference.”


Verona hurried to type.  Are you going to the Demesne?  Because I’m at-

“Here!” Avery shouted.  Arriving before the text was even sent.  “Shit, wait, there’s people inside?”

“Connection blocked.”

“I’m here,” Avery repeated herself, jogging to a stop.  Opossum-mode Snowdrop hopped off her shoulder and went to Julette and the homunculi to help.  “What’s up?”

“First off… I’m Verona Hayward, your friend, nascent sorceress, third witch of Kennet, and all that jazz.”

“Right.  Good call.  I’m Avery Kelly, partner to Snowdrop, second witch of Kennet, Finder and Path Runner.”

“Lucy’s spot?”  She pointed at the diagram.

“Memorial statue for the Dog Tags.”

“And how’s Lucy?”

“Fighting.  Said she’d handle it.  She stopped things.”

“Stopped flows.  We still need to get things stable.  I think we can, but what’s it going to cost?  How are we with collecting?”

“Three sets of twelve done, fourth looking likely, fifth is a reach.”

“I was hoping it’d be more.  We don’t have the active shrine spirits, we don’t have the power source we did for feeding the shrines, Kennet above is sleeping, Kennet below is dying, Kennet found is empty…”


Avery put her hand out, like she was slapping Verona’s cheek, but it wasn’t a fast movement.  She turned Verona’s head so Verona faced her, then held fingers on either of Verona’s cheeks.

“We okay?” Avery asked.

“I’m not great.”

“What can I do?”

“I don’t know.  It’s a me issue.  It’s-”

“You didn’t sleep?”

“I barely slept.  I cut sleep short the- two nights ago, then my hand was acting up, and everything, and I’m-”

“Not doing hot.”

“Melting down, kinda.  With people counting on me.”

“Counting on us, we’re in this together,” Avery said.  “Yeah.”

“And I just need to get my head straight, but every second it’s not straight it’s worse, and I kick myself…”

“Stop,” Avery said.  She put her palm against Verona’s forehead.  “No more stress loop.  Cease.”

Verona closed her eyes.

“I did that to Nora once, she said it didn’t help, but I wish it did, and I hope the sentiment at least-”

“It helps,” Verona interrupted, her eyes still closed, Avery’s palm at her forehead.  It was the fact the palm was steady and warm that really helped.  Her own left hand was especially shaky.  Her right hand at least had the chalk to hold onto.

“I can back you up here for a minute, I’ve got everyone looking for stuff.  You wanted to draw this here, then run back?”

“Command phrase activation or signal, I was thinking.”

“Okay,” Avery said.  “Stepping away from this for a bit-”

“We don’t have a bit.”

“Lucy stopped the flows temporarily, Charles can’t pull lifeforce or lives out of the Undercity.  We don’t have a lot of time, but I’d rather get us right instead of rushing and making a crucial mistake.  Go easy.  Get centered.”

Avery pushed harder against Verona’s forehead as she said those last three words.  Verona pressed her forehead into the hand.

“Article of clothing with three flowers on it?” Avery asked.

“What?  Oh, mundane item.  No.  Don’t think.  Does an item with four flowers count?”


“Damn, have a washcloth with herbs and stuff.”

“A triangular container with a lid?” Avery asked.

“Nothing I can think of.  At my old house, yes, but it was in the basement, with costume- no.”

“Shears?  Like, two handed, trim the hedge shears?”


“Thought I’d ask.  Diagram looks good, and holy crap, are the homunculi creepy.  Seal…”

Avery dropped her hand, then pulled off her city magic pin from her backpack strap.  Her eyes flashed with Sight.

Verona looked too.

The pin looked really good, but there was a point on it that caught the light in a way that, for a fraction of a second, looked superheated.  Then did it again when different light caught it from another angle.  Viewed with Sight, Verona could see the city magic icon she’d put on the ground, in more detail.

She quickly moved across the diagram and added some lines to cross the horizontal and vertical lines, copying the more intricate version she could see on Avery’s pin.

“Your memory’s good,” Avery said.  “I’d need to double check after each line.”

“There’s no need to puff me up, I’m… that’s not it.”

“Not what I’m doing.”

“Okay,” Verona said.

“What is it, then, Ronnie?” Avery asked.

“I… we all have our demons, right?  We have this shit that keeps coming back at us?  For Lucy it’s injustice, and when injustice thrives?  For you, you… you’re okay when you’re moving, but there’s problems at your starting points and endpoints, a lot of the time.  Family and wolves.”

“Sure.  And you?”

“I keep losing things.  Any time I start to feel good about what and how I’m doing, something comes along and ruins it.  I thought I figured it out, got some people and things I could hold onto, keep safe in my Demesne.  And now Mal might not be okay?  Anselm?  McCauleigh’s off fighting.  Lucy’s off fighting?”

“Yeah.  I’m pretty scared too.”

“My mom’s being so Sylvia, she’s freaking out Jasmine by proxy.  I fucked up my relationship with my dad to the ground, then it was like I couldn’t stop myself from doing it with my mom, and what if it happens with you guys?”


“I’m letting you down.”

“Not- it’s understandable.”

“And it starts to feel like the only thing I’ve got left I’m reasonably confident and okay in is that I do these big fuck-off practices.”

“That’s why you wanted to do this diagram?” Avery asked.

Verona shrugged.  “It’s got this pressure, like, if I fuck this up… I’m so tired of getting a foothold in life, finding cool people, and then having them leave, or disappoint me.  Or die, now?  Of losing whatever I get.”

Avery reached out, tugging on Verona’s shoulder, and pulled her into a hug.  “No plans to go anywhere here.  We’re working on this together.”

“Mal and Anselm need me.  A bunch of these people in Kennet below need me.  And I’m just here, freaking out, my mom situation in my head-”

“Ronnie?” Avery interrupted.  She broke the hug and held Verona’s shoulders with arms straight out in front of her.  “I think that’s normal.  It’s normal to have your brain not working so good when everything’s going to shit.”

“I don’t want to be normal.  I want to be a sexy sorceress with a wandering bookstore, hanging with you guys, and occasional teaching jobs at magic schools where they treat me a bit like they treated Durocher, because of my big fuckoff magic stuff.”

“Goals,” Avery said.  She sighed.  “Keep that in mind, maybe?  Channel it?”

“But part of that, bigger picture, is like, I’d have Mal as someone who hangs around the shop, who’s just off enough to get looks, and she’s saying like, she could be on the fringes of organized crime and back-alley weirdness, for when there’s a situation.  So much of the market.  So many little things.  Anselm as my angsty poet friend I can ring up if I want a bit of dick, or talk creativity with.”

“Ronnie, geez.”

“I keep building shit and it keeps getting torn down and I’m spooked.  These guys are cool.”

“They’re badass,” Julette said.  She’d come up beside them.

Was it weird that she wasn’t leaning on her would-be-familiar as her confidante?  That she hadn’t vented to Julette?

Nah, because she wasn’t after what Avery had.  Maybe there was a reality where she could vent to Julette, with therapy and figuring out boundaries, but considering her closeness to Julette, in metaphorical blood, it felt like it’d be to easy to use her as a dumping ground.

She didn’t live in that reality.

“Okay, if we’re thinking three or four, then a twelve pointed star fits both,” Verona said.  “We can adapt that to either last minute.  But-”

She looked past Avery, to where Alexanderp was nested in beside her bag.

“What?” Avery asked.

“He’s preening.”

The homunculus was mugging for a nonexistent camera.  Smug smiles, thoughtful poses.

Trying to turn left.  He did little hops to try to reposition in between, but he didn’t really have hips or legs so he was mostly punching the air with his handless limbs to move.

Verona looked in the direction he was trying to move to, at first to judge the direction any augury might be coming from- the north?

Then she looked into the trees.  Sight on.

Two pairs of eyes looked back at her- no.  Not her, or her bracelet would have moved.

At Alexanderp?

The eyes met hers, and they advanced out of the trees.

A sixteen-ish year old guy with overly stylish clothes- the sort of clothes available at stores Lucy had shopped at, before, but like he’d picked the most expensive, most branded clothing.  Vikare swoops across multiple articles of clothing, with an open coat that had a big ‘Vikare’ running down one arm, swoops extending to his back.  High end boots, gold necklace, two earrings in one ear, and hair styled into a fauxhawk with frosted tips.

And, with all of that, he had circles under his eyes and a defeated expression.

The man with him was huge, distorted, and flickered like something technomancy.  His eyes were like points of green light in the gloom, in an expression cast in shadow by the long, unkempt hair that framed it, blocking ambient light.  His legs looked too short, his tree-trunk thick arms too long, and his skin looked like it lacked pores.  Waxy, with grit in the wax, hairs poking through.  He had no shirt on, and wore ragged pants with a belt of ragged clothing braided together.

He didn’t move more than a few feet from the teenager.  The teenager walked forward, easygoing, hands in pockets, and the big guy hurried to stay near him, hands thumping the ground as he used them to walk on as much or more as his actual legs.  Thumping in front, beside, criss-crossing… the teenager didn’t react in the slightest.

“Practitioner!?” Verona called out.

The teenager shook his head.  He said something, too quiet for Verona to make out.

He said something else, and pointed at Alexanderp.

The man’s breath fogged, and the fog had the telltale visual glitches around it.  Then he lifted a hand-

Avery started running.

-the man reached, arm distorting, surrounded by those visual glitches.

Verona pulled her pack of spell cards out of her pocket, drew one of the air cards and hurled it.

The explosion of wind made Alexanderp go flying, tumbling as he landed.  The hand hit icy asphalt, then swiped sideways toward the fallen Alexanderp.

Avery beat him to the homunculus, scooping up both Alexanderp and the undeveloped one.

The hand swiped the other direction, fingers bending backwards, visual glitches shedding off skin as the right hand became a second left hand, so fingers could close around Verona’s bag.  Salt was tipped over.

“Hey!” Verona shouted.

The hand pulled back.  The man dangled the bag in front of the teenager, leaning in to whisper in his ear.

Avery passed the homunculi to Snowdrop -Alexanderp was bleeding- then ran over to the teenager and Verona’s bag.

The other hand went out, blocking her way, perspective and proportion glitching out so the hand could be a wall, nearly as tall as Avery was.

She tapped feet, leaped-

The hand went up, in eerie parallel to Avery’s ascent.  Fingers moved to close around her, and she kicked the palm, doing a partial flip in the air before landing on hands and feet.

Verona circled around the diagram.

The big guy hadn’t even looked away from the boy he was whispering to.

“Hey!” Verona called out.

“Do you want a girl, then?” the big guy asked.  “Get your dick wet?  You’re old enough.  Name a girl, I’ll give you a girl.  Want a woman?”

The teenager looked so tired.

“Hey!” Verona called out.

“Let’s just get the job done,” the teenager said, pointing at Alexanderp.

The big guy reached out his hand again.

“Aaaaa!” Snowdrop screamed, running, jumping as the hand arced down.  It slammed into asphalt and tore up a section of the lot.  Thankfully nowhere near the unfinished diagram.

Avery put a hand out in Snowdrop’s direction, and Snowdrop got a little more graceful and fast on her feet.  Avery turned her attention to the teenager.

Verona, meanwhile, hurled a spell card.  Fire.

It barely hurt the guy’s arm.  Visual glitches surrounded the impact site.  A shield?

Or… she could look at him more closely now, and that waxy skin was frostbite.  Whenever it got too bad, it glitched and reset back to normal.

Avery kept trying to get past the guy to reach the teenager or Verona’s bag.  The hand unerringly blocked her.  The big guy was leaning forward to a crazy degree, top-heavy, and even with that, he didn’t fall.  The one arm reached, the other blocked.

Or blocked until he saw another opportunity to grab for Avery.

Avery ducked clear, but only barely.  Julette chose that moment to leap out of cat form, coming at him from behind.

He blocked Julette with an elbow thrust back.  Blocked Avery with his palm, moving with enough force that she stumbled back.  Avery used the black rope, stepping out from behind Julette, giving Julette a light push.

The big guy turned, arm sweeping through the air with enough size and speed that the air drove both back, before they could approach him from behind, from two awkward directions.

He held his hand out.

There was a rhythm and pattern to how he moved.  Verona wasn’t good enough at keeping track in the heat of the moment, but there was something to it.

“Ave!” Verona called out.  “I think the grabbing is automatic, third try is going to be special!”


Avery backed up.

“Same for you, Snow!” Verona called out.

Avery turned and hurled something toward Snowdrop.  Snowdrop put hands out.

The big guy’s hand snatched it out of the air.

“A prize.  A… shitty shitty prize, but a prize all the same.  Here,” the man said.

The man moved his hand, and dropped the thing.  The boy pulled his hand out of his pockets to seize it.

The ratfink key from Cherrypop.

Snowdrop continued to back away, circling around the diagram.

The teenager looked down at the ratfink key with his odd eyes.

“Cool,” he said.  He looked up at them, Avery and Verona.  His pupils were mostly white, strangely shaped.  Squares with smaller black rectangles near the top.  Calculator?  No.

The big guy leaned in, looming so close it looked like he’d fall on the teenager, crushing him.  He didn’t, though.

“You could keep one, dress her up however you like?”  The man’s voice was ragged around the edges, eager.  “Make her do whatever you want.”

“Nah,” the teenager said.  “You’re getting distracted.”

“Can we call a short timeout?” Avery asked.

“Don’t see the point,” the teenager said.

Verona looked into his eyes.  What was that?  Relating to greed.  Calculator?  But calculators didn’t have screens that big, if the black rectangle was a screen.

“Video game console?” Verona asked, thinking out loud.

The kid’s eyebrows raised.  Verona wasn’t sure why she was downgrading him from ‘teenager’ to ‘boy’ to ‘kid’, but it felt apt.  “Sure.”

“Heard about one of those.  Cursed console, only one game, game booted funny, events…”

“The dating sim?” the boy asked.

“I don’t think it was.  Life sim.”

“You know where it is?” the kid asked, that tired expression of his perking up.  “I’ll give you that timeout if you say.”

“Where did we hear about this?” Avery asked Verona.

“In the notebooks,” the big man breathed, smiling in a way that bared teeth.  He gave the bag a shake, then upended it, emptying contents onto the ground.

“You asshole!” Verona shouted.  Papers were now being scattered by the wind.  Containers of alchemy rolled on the ground.  There was also the red button…

The big hand scooped up the containers and placed them by the kid’s feet.

“I’ll destroy this,” the big guy said, as he picked up the red button.


“If you want to get rid of him-!” Verona shouted.

“I don’t.  Not like that.”

The big hand destroyed the little joystick with the red button on top, crumpling it up, then throwing bits aside.


“Dude,” Verona said.

The big guy’s finger touched a lone paper and slid it across the ground until it was in front of the boy.  The notes from Alexander on Clementine, presumably.

“Not many details,” the big guy said.

“Do you know more you didn’t write down?” the teenager asked.  “Say yes, you can have a small timeout.”

“Guy, you-”

“Guess you don’t,” the teenager said.

“Ronnie?  Any ideas?” Avery asked.

“What are you being offered?” Verona asked.  “Can we trump the offer?  Or did you make a deal?”

“No official deal,” the teenager said.  “I don’t think you can trump it.”

“Give us a shot?”


“Because I might not know much about that console, but someone else I know does.  Maybe someone like you?  So… maybe we can do better than whoever brought you here…”

“Doubt it.”

“Or give you that information.”

He paused.

“I could get it out of them,” the big guy breathed, looming over the boy’s shoulder.

“You’re only good at getting material things.  You fuck up when it comes to interrogation and information.”

“I’ll get better.”

“Dude,” Verona said.

“Three minute time out, she doesn’t run in the meantime?” the kid asked, pointing at Snowdrop.  “Since there’s a chance you have something to offer.”

“I won’t run,” Snowdrop said.

Mal is in danger.  Anselm.  Other Undercity people I like.

We don’t have three minutes.

“Aurum?” Avery asked.

The kid shrugged and nodded.  “Nothing direct, but…”

“Yeah,” Avery said.

“What’s your sitch?” Verona asked.

“Found a cool magic item.  Lots of people wanted it.  To hide it and personalize it, I put it in an Alcazar of my own Self.  Sometimes called sword swallowing.  Except not a sword in this case.”

“Game console,” Verona said.

“Got knocked out in a fight, once.  When I came to, it had gained ground.  Taken over parts of me.  Rooted in me.  Wires running through my veins, my eyes, my heart’s a battery now.”

“How big a battery?” Verona asked.

“Why does that matter?” the boy asked, around the same time Avery asked something very similar.

Verona glanced over at Avery, then behind Avery, at the diagram in the parking lot.

“Ronnie.  Seriously?”

“I think a lot of people would say they’re lucky.  Anything I want, he gets.  Christmas every day.  I think it’s supposed to go bad.  Get ugly.  But that’s held off.  Great, right?” the kid asked.  He sounded anything but great.

“What’s the importance of the other console?” Verona asked, to change the subject.

“There’s a few.  Same toymaker.”

“Tenmercy?” Verona asked.


“Damn.  Could be Tenmercy knows other sketchy creators of cursed items?”

“I’ve asked around, I’d doubt it.  This guy doesn’t really network, doesn’t share his name.  Anyway, I probably die if I get rid of the console that’s inside me now,” the teenager said.  “Can’t really dig into the details of how he’s made, how he works.  ‘Cause, you know, it’s my heart, my veins, my brain.  Integrated into me.  I could study one of the others.  Or feed it someone and let it go, follow it.  They loop back to him so he can collect the power the curses reap.”

“There’s a scenario where you work with us, let us do what we need to do here, and we help you,” Avery said.  “Sanctuary, good brains on the problem.  Could open your Alcazar.”

“A lot of lives are on the line right now,” Verona said.  “It’d be appreciated.”

“I don’t care about those lives.  And I’m being offered, roundabout way, a fix.”

“The Aurum?”

“Mentioned he could help me, in theory, but there’s a homunculus near here that’s blocking his view of certain things.  Fucking with our view too.”

The huge man smiled.

“That’s thin,” Verona said.  “The offer.  Nothing direct?  He can’t make a better offer because he can’t get involved, I’m not sure he could really give you a fix, for the same reason.”

“Best offer I’ve had in years.”

“Counteroffer.  Sanctuary, minds on the problem, provided nobody key dies in the meantime, and we put you in contact with someone who might have more details on the other game console,” Verona said.

“That would be Clementine Robertjon,” the big guy said.  He picked a paper out of the wet snow and held it up.  “That’s her contact information.”

The kid took the paper, pocketed it, and shrugged.

“The fuck?” Avery asked.

“He’s got some sense of the quality and contents of stuff,” Verona said.

The big guy smiled, green eyes bright in the gloom, like some appliance with an always-on notification light.

“Your offer’s worse without that.  Just as uncertain as what the Aurum hinted at, if things are as messy as they look, here.”  The boy looked at his very spiffy watch.  “About twenty seconds.”

Nothing jumped to Verona’s mind.

“Aurum’s trying to throw us off our game,” Avery told Verona.

Verona nodded.

Was there a way they could call him out on impartiality?  She wasn’t sure it’d work, especially if it got fobbed over into Charles’ court, as a question of conflicts and ongoing wars.

The boy started to walk forward, then paused.

Verona glanced back.  Snowdrop was gone.

Verona smiled.

“You still want it?” the big guy asked.  “It’s low quality.”

“For the job,” the kid said.

“Then let’s go.”

The big guy swiped the kid with a hand.  Picking him up without injury.  Then he charged forward.  Across the diagram.

No, no, no.

“Snow!” Avery called out.

Verona reached into her pocket, got her wallet, and dumped out some change into her hand.  She threw it.  If this big guy was like some greed machine…

He ignored the thrown change.

Bills?  She pulled some free, then threw them into the air.

The hand came at her, so fast she did a full-body flinch, arms crossed in front of her face.

The disturbed air from the hand snapping closed blew cold air past her crossed arms and made her striped sweater billow out, cold air tracing her lower belly.

Verona uncrossed her arms and grabbed for the hand in the same motion, finding a lone fistful of bristly hair on the back of the hand.

Avery tackled her, dislodging her.

The boy and the man ran on, around the side of the Arena.

Avery helped pick Verona up, then pointed.


Verona nodded.

Avery’s finger dropped.

From roof to inside.

There was a hatch up there.

“Black rope?”

“Black rope.”

“We’re running out of time.”

“I know,” Avery said.  “Shh?”

Verona pressed lips together, nodding.

She looked back at Julette, who pointed down at the scattered belongings.  Verona nodded.

That’s why I want you as a familiar.  Combat executive dysfunction with double the function.  Let you become who you need to become, keep each other in check.

Avery took hold of Verona’s arm.  Verona shut her eyes, and stepped with Avery, feeling her stomach lurch as Ave brought them to the roof.  They scampered across, ducking low, and reached the hatch.

They dropped inside, and came face to face with Snowdrop and Alexanderp.

“Come on,” Avery whispered.

Verona paused only long enough to lay down a spell card, then scribble around it with marker.

They’d come in at the upper level, which had the building manager’s office, she figured, and then the ways to the little skybox areas, which weren’t impressive at all.

But one of those areas was in use.  Four or five people were hanging out and were drinking.  Employees, or some employees and their friends.  Verona sort of recognized them, in the same way she could sort of recognize most people in Kennet, even if she couldn’t put names to every face.  Booker’s age, give or take.  Maybe they’d even hung out with Booker once.

Verona could hear a noise on the roof.  She wasn’t sure if she felt an impact or imagined it.

Got to fix the diagram, got so much to do, she thought.

In a way, she was glad for this.  Glad that it was sharpening her.  A puzzle of an Other, a question of strategy, not just trying to put together a solution when she didn’t have the resources.

He was able to be selective, so she probably couldn’t make him grab something dangerous.  Seemed to be aware of the contents of things, like notebooks, so she couldn’t hand him a trap.  The kid was protected…

There were things Verona knew she was good at.

Reading the intent and needs of something like Alexanderp, to know something was viewing him, specifically.

The hatch opened.  A faint amount of moonlight shone through.

The teenager dropped through, and the big guy followed.

And the spell card activated.  Light flared, bright.

Verona and Avery backed into the shadow of the unlit skybox as employees noticed.

Another thing Verona knew she was good at was unraveling this sort of thing.

What was the biggest, bluntest hammer she could use here?  It wasn’t an explosion.  That wouldn’t do anything if that big guy could block it and protect the kid.

No.  It was Innocence.

Four employees, two guys, two girls, came running to investigate- well, two guys and one girl did.  The last girl lingered back, hesitant.

The big guy had come through, but as the Innocents showed up, he retreated, moving into the walls, and briefly glitching out before becoming an odd pattern of shadows.  Lights around the teenager flickered, making shadows dance.  The big guy moved, but couldn’t move that far.

“If he hurts them…” Avery whispered.

“We can help them,” Verona whispered back.  “He owns it.”


“Would you believe, this is particularly relevant-” Alexanderp announced, at normal speaking volume, which felt deafening in this tense silence.

“Fucking-” Verona swore.  She hissed, “No!” as she had to stop Avery from covering Alexanderp’s mouth.

“-to the current predicament we all find ourselves in, if in fact we are not all in a predicament at all times, for that is the nature of humanity-”


“-but actually, let me start from the beginning, that will make everything clearer-”

“He’ll explode,” Verona whispered.  The noise was drawing attention.

Avery yanked on Verona’s arm.  They crouched, hiding behind a cushioned seat that had been badly abused, and moved together as an employee investigated the skybox, phone held up with light on.

“-we will, if you’ll excuse the metaphor, or the lack of metaphor, as the case may be-”

The boy was talking to the other two employees.  The last employee kept hanging back, afraid to get involved or something.

“-and this is maybe my most important point, we will have to organize and coordinate, and make sure we settle-”

Verona saw the employee reach her hand to the wall.  Light switch.

“Black rope,” Verona whispered, squeezing Avery’s arm in the right moment.

The lights came on in the skybox, and they were blinding.  Avery moved them all in the moment that people couldn’t see.

Taking them behind the woman and into the office where they’d been partying.  It smelled like booze and candles.

“-begging your pardon if my phrasing gets heated, but the matters are, as I’ve repeatedly stressed, I know, critical-”

Sorry we interrupted your night, Verona thought.  But it’s important.

The two guys were talking to the teenager.  The two women were now backing away from the office Avery, Snowdrop, Verona, and Alexanderp were in.  Hearing the voices.

They didn’t have enough time to navigate all of this.

“-and I’ll be especially perservacious, is that a word, it feels like a word, there are some words that you read and absorb without knowing, but I digress-”

“Let go of me!” the teenager shouted.

He pulled away from one of the staff.

It didn’t look like it was becoming a thing, at least.

“-I’ll get back to my point, very important, critical even, but- was the word perspicacious?  That sounds wrong-”

The kid went down the stairs, heading for the front door.

Trying another angle?

Verona and Avery crouch-walked over, keeping out of sight of the staff, moving over to the walkway that led to the skybox opposite the first.

‘Skybox’, anyway.  It wasn’t anything fancy.  A six foot by twelve foot box near the ceiling with a bench and shelf to set drinks or scorekeeping papers on.

“-and perhaps that is the most pertinent point of all, that communication is key, and communication is hard, and if a single word can cause this much constipation- is that the word?  I think that’s the word-”

Avery reached for Verona’s face, and Verona flinched.  Then she realized what Avery wanted.

She closed her eyes, moved a crouch-step to the side.

And they were outside.  Verona nearly fell, and it was Avery who caught her.

They were on a tree branch.


She closed her eyes again.

And they were on the ground, with a view around the corner of the kid and the employees.

Snowdrop backed off, carrying Alexanderp away from earshot.

“You need to tell us what you were doing, breaking in.  This is serious,” the employee said.

“I wasn’t breaking in, it was someone else that broke in and I followed.  I didn’t hide my presence, the lights flashed, there’s someone else inside.  You could hear their voice.”

“I want to gainsay him so bad,” Verona whispered.  “But I’m worried it’d invoke the Aurum or Carmine.”


“I’m going to go.  Watch yourself,” the teenager said.  “Whatever’s going on tonight, it’s dangerous, I’m telling you.”

“Whatever, kid.”

The employee turned to walk back to the building.

Off to the side, someone stepped out of shadow.  Verona couldn’t make them out, because they were on the far end of the parking lot.

One of the St. Victor’s kids.

Arms forked out.

Harri, probably.

The huge man lunged out of shadow, hands gripping three to five of the narrow limbs each, and then broke them, squeezing and wrenching them.

More arms forked out, attacking from all angles.  The man swiped, bent, scooped up the kid, and shielded him with his broad back.  He started to run.

Two hands clapped, loud, as other, broken limbs retreated.

The employee turned around.

And the big guy disappeared into the ground.

The kid dropped, falling awkwardly.

“Are you drunk?

“No, I’m not drunk.  I’ve just got some crazy stuff going on.  I doubt you’d believe me.”

The employee started to turn away.

And hands forked out again.  The big guy loomed out of the kid’s shadow-

And the hands didn’t even go for them.  One slapped the employee in the back of the head.

“What are you doing?  Did you throw a snowball at me?  When I’m cutting you this much slack?”

“Did it feel like a snowball?”

“Did you throw something at me?” the employee asked.

He was just drunk enough, and probably not happy at having his date or party or whatever interrupted.


Avery and Verona looked up.


They walked around back, to where Julette had picked stuff up and was working on the diagram.  Nomi made her way down from the roof.

“We’re not here to help you,” Nomi said.  “We agreed in advance, it works for us to keep the school intact, try to manage issues.  We don’t want to lose our homes.  That has nothing to do with what you’re doing.”

“Okay,” Verona said.

“Harri’ll probably do okay keeping him busy.  You know there’s a shitload of Others starting to appear?”

“Aurum ones?” Verona asked.

“No.  Mostly Carmine.  But I guess that guy showed up.  There might be others.  I saw some jack in the box thing.”

“Charles is using the energy he’s drawing out of Kennet below and places like it, probably,” Verona said, feeling sick.  “Aurum’s throwing in a bit of help, I guess?”

“I should go see about the mundane items,” Avery said.  “Are we thinking that guy won’t come back?”

“Don’t count on us to do anything like that.  But he seemed dangerous, and he has stuff, so we figured we could mug him for his stuff or something,” Nomi said. “I’m going to go check on Harri, then loop around.  Yiyun and Adrian are trying to handle the stray goblins and stuff.  I’m leaving stuff behind, don’t touch it.”

Nomi threw her bag aside, against the back wall of the Arena.

“Your stuff’s a mess,” Julette said.  “I got most of it.”

“Thanks.  You’re a champ.”

Julette clicked her tongue and pointed at Verona.

Verona’s feelings were all over the place.  Like she could cry, laugh, be angry, be hopeless…

“I’m going to go,” Avery said.  “You okayish?”

“I don’t even know.”

“Snow!” Avery called out.

Snowdrop ran up to Verona, and passed her Alexanderp, who was mercifully silent.

Verona’s hand twitched.  The headache sat at the back of her skull.  Her stomach felt uneasy.  Her body felt drained.  Her knees were sore from kneeling on gritty, salty ice.

Verona got Alexanderp settled, called over the two homunculi, and then went to Nomi’s bag.  She hesitated.  Was it trapped?  A Nettlewisp equivalent?

She couldn’t afford to get hurt.

She used her Sight, checked as well as she could, and then opened it.

No trap.

She dug inside, and found Nomi’s notebook with the black cover.

With Nomi’s extensive details on the St. Victor’s kids.

The Aurum throwing one obstacle their way was such a pointless distraction, and worse, it threatened more.


Verona could See the faint throbbing of Kennet.  The tilt of it.  The threat of damage done.

What are we willing to spend to stabilize?  What power do we draw on, if the Kennet Others might be fighting, needing every last bit?

It was a question of looking at all the problems, all the variables in play.  Could she turn a problem into an advantage?

Like, just for one idea, could they draw on the Others who were apparently showing up, and sacrifice them?  Blood for power, slitting throats en masse?

No.  Didn’t work.

What else?

She looked at the book.

Letting thoughts fall into place.  One of the things hanging over her head was the fact the next steps felt so out of reach.

So why not put them in reach?  Like, now?  They’d already been toying with the boundaries of it all.  They’d been doing it inside, even.  Playing with a particular sort of fire.  Innocence.

Hey Aurum, your distraction might have helped some.

She got her phone and texted Avery.

let’s put the long term plan into play early.  talk to louise.  can you swing by where louise is at?  talk to her in private?  It’s time to make a hard call, fast.

Silence followed.  Verona went to work on the exterior part of the diagram, that would point to shrines.

The phone blipped.

are we sure about this???


not nearly sure enough. but I don’t see another way.

Every second Avery wasn’t replying had Verona tense.  She used that tension to motivate herself to put lines down, figure out the diagram.

What was Avery typing?  An argument against?  A doubt?  A new complication?



She looked down at her phone.  Then she found her contact list.

Please call me back.  Jas isn’t giving me a straight answer.

Are you safe?

If we can talk I’m sure we can work something out.

Would a mediator help?  Or CAS?

And so on.

Verona typed.

leap of faith for the both of us.  I’m sorry in advance if this blows up your life.

She didn’t send it.  She deleted it.

Fuck, this wasn’t productive.  Except it was productive, if she could just figure out what to say and send it.  Lives hung in the balance as she misused her time, but if she rushed this and said the wrong thing, it blew up her own life.

Fuck it.

Kennet arena.  Back parking lot.

She didn’t send it.  She deleted it.

I’m ready to show you what I’ve been working on.

No.  She needed to draw more.  Avery needed to talk to Louise.

She was motivated now.  She had to get this done.

But she’d send it.

Sleeves pushed up -uselessly, they just fell down again.  She started drawing.  Exterior shrine symbols.  The perimeter…


“Here,” Avery said, hurrying ahead to open the door.

Louise approached the threshold, paused, and then stepped through.  Her stomach swayed as she adjusted to shifting footing.  This world looked Venice-like, but its houses and buildings floated along a very wide river.  It looked like there were rapids ahead.

Having to shift her weight as the strip of walkway they were on moved with the rolling water made old and internal pains surface.  When they surfaced, they took their time going away.

Louise gripped a railing for security.

“Hold the door, Snow?” Avery asked.


“To start us off,” Avery said.  “Introductions?  Verify who you are?”

“I can lie.”

“But the Others that might pretend to be you can’t.  I’m Avery Kelly, second witch of Kennet, Finder, Path Runner, partner to Snowdrop.”

“I’m Cherrypop,” Snowdrop said.  “Familiar to Snowdrop, never been to a Path that I can remember.”

Right.  “I am Louise Bayer, Aware, I can lie.  If you want a title, I’m the head of Kennet’s council seat.  Which is empty.”

“For a couple minutes.  I’ve got to give you this info out of earshot of Charles.”

Louise eyed the door, which was open to a crack.

“I think we’re okay,” Avery said.

“So,” Louise said.  She hesitated, then asked, “No word on Matthew?”

“No word on a lot of things.”

“Okay,” Louise replied, unsure if she should be more disappointed or worried.

“Four sets of items done.  But we’re not set.  I can follow Verona’s logic,” Avery said.  She sat on a barrel.  “We don’t have the backup, we don’t have power, and this is something we were considering as a play anyway.  Making Kennet Aware.”

“Like I am?”

“Very much like how you are.  It’s one step in a bigger picture thing, but… we figure we can ground Kennet in another way, like we did with mundane items.”

“How long do we have to decide?”


Of course it wasn’t easy.

“Minutes,” Louise took that in.  “And you want to upend all these people’s lives?”

“It’s being upended anyway,” Avery replied.  “A whole summer of ramping violence, trouble at the hospital.  The three kids dying.  The police.  The random Others attacking, the wraiths and ghosts after we arrested Edith.  Then in one night, several places burn down, houses like yours are demolished?”

“That was partially them targeting Aware,” Louise said.  “Me, Oakham.  Because they could.”

“I know.  Kind of.  They went after Verona’s house, but they could only do that because she’d cut ties with her dad, more or less.”

“It’s a choice we’re making for people.  It makes the world scarier and more dangerous for so many others.”

“I know.  When I pitched this at Verona and Lucy, Lucy said, you know, her mom and my parents are really saying, over and over again, this shouldn’t fall on our shoulders.  Me, Verona, Lucy.  It’s- Verona’s really not doing okay.  I think she’s hitting a limit.”

A look of deep worry crossed Avery’s face, and Louise was reminded again of how young they were.  She could only imagine what shape Verona was in, if Avery’s reaction to it cut that deep.

“You three have done a great job.  If you hit a limit, succeed or fail, I hope you’re proud of the effort, at least,” Louise told her.

“Thanks,” Avery replied.

“I didn’t try at all,” Snowdrop said.

Louise smiled a bit.

“Hmm.”  Avery made a small sound.  “Hmmm.  Trying to remember what I already said, I was reciting this in my head earlier.  Yeah.  We’re kids, we’re doing a lot.  That’s not fair, and there’s no way we can do that for another year, or another ten years.  But the way things were before we showed up?  It isn’t fair, in a very different way, if it’s the Kennet Others on their own, just waiting for the day some asshole comes waltzing in to take control and enslave them for the rest of their lives.  They needed a practitioner.  It’s shitty and stupid that they aren’t recognized as people and someone could come through like they were worried about.”

“They did come through.  Musser.  Right?”

“Right,” Avery replied.  “But that was a special case.  That’s the logic for why we were brought in, basically.”

“Right,” Louise replied.

“So it’s not fair if it’s just the Others and it’s not fair if it’s us, three kids in way over our heads, and it’s not fair if we’re here and not participating and they’re out there fighting and we’re up against a Judge…”

“Nothing’s fair?” Louise asked.

“I don’t know.  Thing is, choosing to make people Aware is a pretty big deal, and it’s a bit selfish, but not making them Aware and leaving them to go through a whole lot without getting why?  That’s a decision too, and I’m not sure I like it.”

“It’s complicated.”

“I guess the question is, you know, if it’s going to be unfair on the Innocents, is it better that they’re Aware and in more danger, or better if they’re kept in the dark?”

“Is this rhetorical or-?”

“I’m asking you,” Avery said.  “And I know it’s shitty and I know there’s not enough time, but we’ve sounded out some of the others about this topic before, you’ve spent time talking to Toadswallow, Matthew, and Miss, specifically about Innocents and Aware.”

“We have a few Aware besides me already, yeah.”

“I’d loop them in, but we’re tight on time and I don’t have their phone numbers handy.”

Louise drew in a deep breath.  It made her side hurt.  It was only when her face moved in an expression of pain that she became aware of the bloody tears.  She released her deathgrip on the railing and rubbed tears away.  “It’s my call?”

“Verona was texting me while I was on the move.  She’s mostly done.  It’s a question of how wide we want to go, do we want all of Kennet?  Some of it?  Do we try to skew things so everyone observes the supernatural the way you do?  With the option of lapsing into the ordinary?”

There was a bit of hope in Avery’s question.

“It stopped working quite as well for me,” Louise said.  “But I’m with Matthew, I’m immersed in this.  I see and remember everything all of the time, I cry blood when things are especially intense.”


“Sorry.  But I don’t think it works the way you want it to… which would be my question.”

“What’s the question?”

“What do you want?  What’s the end goal of this?”

“I wish I could give you a deeper, longer answer, but the gist of it is that the Seal is rooted in Innocence.  So much of what it does is about protecting Innocence, separating the world of man and Other.  Laying out rules for who can be in charge. Except they’re bronze age rules, basically.”

“When lions feared mice,” Snowdrop said.

“Might makes right,” Louise guessed.

Avery nodded, eager.  “So we say nah.  Let’s ditch Innocence, or a good chunk of it.  Kennet or a good chunk of Kennet becomes Aware.  Baseline, we focus on the people who stayed.”

“Stayed?  At the end of Summer?”

“Yeah.  Charles’ shakeup and the Knotting of Kennet saw a bunch of people with loose ties leave, but others stayed.  End goal, stuff Verona and Lucy were excited about, was idea of a magic school, integrated populations of Aware and Other, bigger council stuff with more people getting a say in their future and reality.”

Louise had to work to remember everything she’d been told, considering the possible issues.  “And they can never leave?  They’d be complicating things for neighbors.  I’m of the understanding that that can be politically problematic.”

“Well, a lot of our neighbors are Charles’ Lords, right now.  Thunder Bay is closest and I think I can sell them on this.  As for leaving, if Matthew could use that Hollow practice to make you forget stuff, then maybe there’s a chance he can do it for anyone wanting to leave?  It’s not like Miss doesn’t have a whole Kennet with a bit of bureaucracy ready to process exits.”

“I might have an issue if my lover has to kiss everyone leaving.  Or everyone with split Awareness.”

“He kissed you to make you forget?  He’s your lover?”

Louise winced internally, wishing she hadn’t chosen that word, or mentioned that kiss.

“Sorry!” Avery apologized, but she was also smiling like she couldn’t help it.  “That’s a bit of good news on a rough night.  Look, hmm, refocusing?”

“Please.  Change of subject.”

“We really need to decide this before something collapses.  He shouldn’t have to kiss people.  It’s just an idea.  There’s other options.”

“That’s… it sounds magical, I- what’s the word?  Idyllic?  But the reality?”

“The reality will be a lifetime of work.  It’ll be challenges and intense stuff, but…”

“But,” Louise finished for Avery.  “You reduce the power of the Seal in the area, and by doing that, you reduce the power of Judges who hold positions founded in that Innocence?”

“That’s part of it,” Avery replied.  “So it’s a choice of doing this as a whole, partial, or doing it not at all, figuring out some other way.  Like Verona and I paying Self and being out of the fight, or drawing on the Others and risking their lives in their fight.  Or giving up Kennet altogether.  We don’t have a lot of power to spare, but having a bunch of Aware involved in the process should be a bit like having some mundane items grounding things.  It makes less power go a longer way.  Partial Innocence as a dampener, Awareness letting them be involved.”

“One question sits in the back of my mind…” Louise said.


“Responsibility.  Who takes responsibility?”

“Us, but the idea would be we share it out.  And I know.  If someone’s made Aware and they get hurt as a result, it comes back on the person responsible.  And there’s a big chance of hurt, tonight, especially with everything going on.”

“So it’s not only the Aware we’re considering.  It’s the Others who would be signing on to formally take responsibility?”

“That’s the idea.”

“And I have minutes to decide?”




“Is Lucy safe?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s fighting.  Holding the line.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone call.

“It doesn’t feel like there’s an issue,” Verona threw in.

“And you can’t tell me what’s happening?”

“If I did, I’d be risking telling their side.  Charles’,” Verona said, phone at her ear.

It was Caroline Gray who showed up first, coming past the Arena to the back parking lot.  She frowned as she saw the magic circle.

Caroline Gray.  The universe had a hell of a sense of humor.

“I look forward to a day when that stops being a thing and you can all tell us everything,” Jasmine said on the phone.

Verona could hear her mother’s voice in the background.

“Hah,” Verona replied.  If you only knew.

People who were closer to the Arena were faster to show up.  Made sense.

Mia Campbell-St James.  George Mason.

“Is this the arcade stuff!?” George asked, a bit loud.

“She’s on the phone,” Caroline said.

“Holy shit.  What’s this?” George asked, approaching the diagram.

“Mess up that salt and I will kick you in the ass,” Verona told him.

“Right,” he said, laughing.

“We’re on our way.  Leaving the hospital now.”

“Hey?” Verona asked.  Her stomach was in knots.  Her hand hurt.  She was glad she didn’t have a headache at least.

“What do you need?” Jasmine asked.

“Love you,” Verona said.  “Love to my mom too.”

“I love you too, Verona.  Please let me know the moment you hear from Lucy?”

“Yeah,” Verona replied.

She hung up.

Some others were filtering in.

“Holy shit, are we doing this!?” George asked.  “The coolest thing we had going all year, shut down, now revived?”

“You think,” Mia said.  “There was something else, wasn’t there?”

“The nightmare market,” Verona said.

“There was a whole other event and you didn’t share?” George asked.

“Easy does it,” Mia said.  “We talked about bits.  Brayden and his dad were part of it, remember?”

Brayden from the sports shop.

Caroline was quiet.  She flashed Verona an awkward smile as Verona looked over.

Didn’t invite you.

“Jeremy called me.  I think he was worried everyone in class would be getting an invite except for me.”

“I don’t hate you.  I wouldn’t do that.”

“Okay.  That’s good,” Caroline said.  “Is everyone from class coming?”


“Oh, so this is an issue, then?  Should I leave?”

“Stay,” Verona said.

Nomi lurked in the background.  The sword-swallowed teenager had been scared off by police- Innocents he couldn’t really deal with.  Now, if he wanted to return, there was a cushion of Innocence around them here.  It’d be hard to pull out that magic again.

Still, he was out there.  Others were out there.

George spotted Nomi.

“St. Victor’s?” George asked, loud enough for Nomi to hear.  “They either don’t know how to party or they overcompensate like fuck.”

“Oh my god, will you chill out?” Mia asked him.

Verona felt a bit worried George was being like this.

The cat lady showed up, three cats with her, with one of the other Aware from town in tow, a woman who’d had some scares on a road trip.  Louise had introduced them, and they were sort-of friends now.

Friendly enough to show together.

“This isn’t just classmates like before?” Mia asked.

“It wasn’t just classmates before.  It was a special thing we did, bringing you guys and you guys only, that first time.”

“Where’s Lucy?”

“Busy.”  Fighting a long fight.  Dealing with the Family Man.  Waiting for us to do something.

“That’s the cat lady, isn’t it?” Caroline asked.

“She’s cool, don’t rush to judgment,” Verona said.

Caroline frowned.

“You guys were a part of something cool, I trust your judgment,” Mia said.  “Wish Lucy was here, though.  Is Avery still in Thunder Bay?”

“She’s around.”

Others came.  Verona glanced at Nomi.

Nomi’s grandmother was one person.  Verona had quickly double checked before inviting her.

Others came.  Some people from school.  One of the librarians.  More parents of St. Victor’s kids.  They parked out front and then walked around back.

“Cameron!” a woman shouted.

Verona vaguely recognized her.  Like she’d seen her in relation to some event or something.  According to the writeup, she ran volunteer things.

They’d checked who the parents were, who was cool, who wasn’t.  Some parents of the St. Victor’s kids were abusive, others were problematic for other reasons.

“Is my daughter here?  Cameron!”

Mrs. Merson had been deemed okay.

Except… something about the tone of voice.  The intensity of the questions.

Avery came back through, entering through the trees.  She raised a hand.

“Is my daughter here?  Is she okay?  Who’s in charge?  Is this a party?  Is she okay?”

George pointed the woman Verona’s way.


Verona picked up Julette, in part to have another living thing in front of herself.  She felt like it would stop the woman from-

Mrs. Merson grabbed Verona, rough, surprisingly intense.  “My daughter.  You know where she is?”

Mrs. Merson sounded shaky, lost.  Was it because she was that concerned?  Verona supposed if she had a kid and knew that kid was dating Seth, that would warrant this level of intensity.  Plus the whole dark magic and being in league to a blood goddess and the Judge of all conflict for most of Ontario and some of Manitoba.

Avery hung back, looking uneasy.

Or there was something else.

“Cameron’s away,” Verona said.

“Away?  She didn’t tell me- she doesn’t tell me.  I don’t know where she is and I don’t know what she’s doing.  I need her.”

Those last three words.  Like a punch to the gut.

“From what I hear, your daughter is talented and capable, tragically poor taste in boys, but that comes with the territory of being a teenager.”

“She’s- a teenager?”

“Almost an adult, it’s crazy.”

“No,” the woman said, airy.  “Noo.  She’s not.”

Which was enough for Verona to more or less work it out.

“Have you seen Cameron?  Is she here?”

“She isn’t, but with luck she’ll come through soon, and we’ll have a cool hangout.  That’d be nice, wouldn’t it?” Verona asked.

Like managing an echo, or the opposite of an echo.

“It’d be nice,” Mrs. Merson said.

Lots of eyes were on them.

“I’m Verona,” Verona said, extending a hand.

Mrs. Merson shook it.  “Hi, Verona.  Is Cameron here?”

Mrs. Merson wasn’t even old.  Verona used the Sight to check for curses-


Verona squinted one eye shut as Mrs. Merson touched her eyebrow and cheekbone.

“Yeah.  Lavender.”

“I drink Lavender tea.  Calms me down.”

“Me too.  Sometimes.  For headaches I get when stressed,” Verona said.  And saying those words made her feel like one of those headaches was mounting.  She hadn’t let go of Mrs. Merson’s hand.  “Your hand is cold.  No gloves?”

“I- no.  I was- it’s not important.  Cameron?  I’m so worried about her.”

“I’d offer you mine…”


“My gloves?”

“Too small.  Your hands are so much smaller than mine.  Cameron has small hands too, but she’s young.”

Almost an adult, Verona thought.

“I’m so scared,” Mrs. Merson said, with a tremor in her voice.

It wasn’t an ‘I’m so scared for Cameron’, but an ‘I’m so scared’.

“Valid.  I’m sorry I called you out here when I can’t help that much,” Verona said.  “Do you want to go inside?  Get warm?  We unlocked the back door as a just-in-case.”

“I’ll- let me,” Nomi said.  “Hi Mrs. Merson.  We’ve met.”

“Hi.  I don’t remember your name, honey.  Heather?”

“No.  Look, um- hm, you’ve tried calling Cameron?”

“I don’t know, I-”  The woman searched herself for her phone.  “I- I don’t have my reading glasses.”

“Okay.  I don’t need ’em that much, myself, so let me- can I?”

“Do you know where Cameron is?”

“I’ll try calling her with my phone.  She’s more likely to pick up.  Let’s go inside, and try that, how’s that?  A bit warmer?”

Nomi led Cameron’s mom into the Arena.  Nomi’s grandmother went with.


Making this entire thing complicated.

More complicated was that Verona’s mom had turned up.

“Ready?” Avery asked.

“Not really.”

Jeremy had come, and was talking to Caroline.  He might’ve approached, Verona figured, but the Mrs. Merson situation hadn’t been an easy one to jump into.

Wallace.  Ian and Noah.  Savannah, Brayden.

Reagan’s friends from school.  Reagan’s mom.  Gabe and Collins’ parents.

There were a few more people they’d identified as those who’d nearly become black sheep, or lost sheep.

Two of the Aware.  Louise.  Lis lurked in the background, blending in with the crowd.

Only four of the St. Victor’s parents.  Oakham’s parents were here too.  Verona had talked to Oakham some about them and her plans.  This was a leap of faith.  A shitty one that complicated things for her friend, but Oakham wasn’t answering her phone and… she had to trust.

“Did anyone I talked to bring any of the items?” Avery called out.

Some hands went up.  Mia put up two.

Verona saw her mom approaching, and held up a finger.

She let Julette go.  Then she walked away.  She couldn’t deal with a full mom conversation right now.

Avery took the items and brought them to the diagram.  She sorted things by checklist.

“We’re up to six with some of these!” Avery called out.

Six sets of mundane items.  Okay.

Feeling the abrasions on the front and backs of her knees, back sore, Verona climbed the ladder.

Public speaking.  Her heart hammered.

She walked over to the edge of the roof.

“Verona!” her mom called out, full-body tense.

She cared.

“I’m not jumping!  I just wanted a stage!” Verona called down.

Chatter was dying down.

“Magic is real,” Verona said, to everyone present.

She saw Jasmine’s hands go to her mouth.

“A lot of you have been adjacent to it.  Sometimes knowingly, sometimes not,” she addressed the crowd.  “Someone close to you, or an encounter.  Or wandering down a dark street and ending up somewhere that isn’t the Kennet you know.”

Various concerned parents were looking more concerned.  Like they didn’t believe Verona, but couldn’t entirely dismiss the ideas.  George, who she’d specifically called out, had nearly been a black sheep, and had run into someone from Kennet below before finding his way back up.

“And you’ve stuck by Kennet, or by us.  That counts for something.  You were reasonably good, most of you, and that counts.  So we’re trusting you with this knowledge, which comes with its burdens and possibilities.”

She looked across the parking lot to the back, where Julette had navigated in cat form.  Julette began speaking, instead of Verona.  “Big things are happening.”

Heads turned.  Verona used a bit of the residual glamour from painting the windows to hide the strange activity out in the lot.

People effectively saw her talking, then appear on the far side of the parking lot, behind them all.  Those that did double takes saw that the original Verona was gone, moving across the parking lot in an instant.

“The big question for you, is are you in?  If you’re not in, there are ways to make an awkward exit.  But if you are, we need help.”

“Louise, Verona, and I are the people to talk to,” Avery said.  “The way Louise wanted to set this up, you’ll all have the freedom to bring others into this, but you have to be careful.  We’ll get into why.”

For those who looked, Julette was now gone.  There was a cat in the snow, preening herself.

She didn’t like public speaking either, apparently.

“That’s Louise,” Avery said.

Louise was crying blood, which got some attention.

Avery stepped back behind a tree to Verona’s left.

And emerged at the far right side of the back lot.

“And she cries blood because she saw something so major it altered her.  Making this decision alters you…” Avery said.  “She won’t be available to you tonight, but she’ll be your best resource if you decide to walk this road.”

“To magic?” someone asked.  One of Reagan’s friends.

“What does this have to do with our kids?” one of the St. Victor’s parents asked.

Verona slipped down the ladder.  She avoided people, and circled around to where her mom and Jasmine were.

Jeremy looked between Verona and Julette, who’d just reappeared to deliver a line.

“Can we go?” Verona asked her mom, quiet.  “You and I need to have an us conversation.  Julette agreed to handle my role.”

“Are you sure about all of this?” Jasmine asked.

“How are you doing this?” her mom asked.

Verona put a hand on her mom’s arm, pushing lightly.  When her mom didn’t budge, she headbutted her mom in the shoulder.  Resting her head there.

“Do what Verona asks.  Listen,” Jasmine said.  “It’s important.”

Verona’s mom agreed to go.

Lis was overseeing things, and the configuration of things slid.  The way to the House on Half street was cleared up for them.  Straight line and two blocks of walking.

“Something’s weird.”

“I hope you can forgive me and Jasmine.  I decided to be selfish tonight.”

“You weren’t selfish.  You scared me.”

“I was selfish.  Just how and why will become clear.  But I need a mom and I don’t get one unless I force this issue.  Hopefully you understand why I need to stay in Kennet.”

“For magic?”

It didn’t sound like her mom believed.


At least her mom wasn’t instinctively fighting her on the idea of staying.

Lis waited up ahead.

“Is Louise at the rooftop?”  Verona asked.



“You’re taking responsibility for a lot of people, doing this.”

“Who are you?” Verona’s mom asked.

“I know,” Verona replied.

“Those people will be under attack soon.  Charles is being indiscriminate, letting anything violent come to be, and pointing them loosely in the direction of their enemies.”

“Nomi mentioned.”

“No.  That was minor, by comparison.  Charles just removed the Toronto undercities.  He has power, he’s put it to use.  If they hurt the people you’re awakening-”

“Always something we had in mind, it’s okay,” Verona said.  “I hope.”

“Alright,” Lis said.

“Lucy, Lucy, Lucy,” Verona signaled her friend.

In moments, we’ll secure Kennet, but as something new, with a bunch more people in the know, now.  And that’s only the prelude.

She felt more like herself, even as she felt like she was in freefall.  Maybe because of that feeling.

Bring it, Chuck.

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Go for the Throat – 23.d


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

She found Turdswallow sitting in front of a flickering gremlin-made screen displaying an event, above a wooden arrow pointing the way to the Tiny Meathole.  As if the crowd wasn’t sign enough.  Goblins of various sizes were funneling through the tunnels, self-sorting according to the size of the various openings.  There was already noise as the shit-stirrers stirred shit, noisemakers made noise, and some pre-event things were kicking off.

There wasn’t a lot going on at the outskirts.  The settlement got less settled past here, and the Warrens tunnels opened up into caverns.  Fleshmongled creations, wildlife, flora, fauna, sapient slime molds, and even tribes of human who’d worked their way down into the Midwarrens were out there.  The fighting pit drew people in, making this a last bastion.

This wasn’t a good vantage point to see, which was probably why Turdswallow was being left alone, here.  A full-bodied, foot-tall goblin sitting on the ledge just beneath the sign, a dark silhouette when the screen was bright, backlit from behind by the ambient glow when everything was dark.

He looked at her, then looked away, resentful.  With a snub of his hand, he rubbed blood away from a nostril.  He wouldn’t have been thrown into the Tiny Meathole.  That was a fighting pit for the smallest goblins, and Turdswallow was a foot high.  He’d been mugged, it looked like.  The last she’d seen him, he’d collected a lot of knickknacks, odds, and ends.

Now he had more wounds on him than he had scraps of clothing.

“Go ‘way,” he said, and speaking made blood start running out of his nostril again.

She had to remove her tongue stretcher before she could talk.

“Ya don’t want me to lick your wounds?” she asked.

“Inside’s worse than the outside,” he said, averting his eyes.  “Kicked me around.”

“Offer’s open,” she said.  “I’ll lick ’em all.”

He didn’t look at her.

She approached, and he pushed at her leg, almost pushing her off the sign.  It was a twenty foot drop to the rust-colored mud with old blood refusing to congeal or scab up, sitting in the valleys, and she wasn’t any taller than him, so the twenty foot drop was a lot.

She thought about going, then got settled next to him, sitting with her legs dangling.  She leaned over, head on his shoulder.

“Yer bad at listenin’.  Dumb,” he grumbled.  “All the pink and interestin’ bits that’re supposed to be inside your head’re stickin’ out of it instead.”

She smoothed her pink hair back some with the arm that wasn’t pressed up against him.

“Yeh, but I got you to do thinkin’ for me.”

He sighed.

The crowd cheered, audible even from a distance, lights and fireworks going off.  Screens around the fighting pit showed a very dynamic view of the Tiny Meathole, spiraling down from a view of the crowd down to the base floor, where numbered gates kept contestants out.

Two gates opened, and the contestants stumbled out.  Number 107 was mostly mouth, with brawny arms and legs.  Number 132 had hair long enough that it pooled around her feet, tripping her up, a lone bat wing at one shoulder, and very thin limbs.  Because so much of her was shrouded in her long hair, they’d used crayon to draw her number on one of her eyeballs, so she could barely see, eye watering, number visible when she managed to force it open.

Number 132 looked terrified, shown on a fifty-foot screen above the venue.  The pit was a straight shaft down, and the tunnels were sorted by size, leading to barred and chain-link gated windows that gave spectators a view of what was going on.  The higher one went, the bigger the spectators went, with a handful of goblins at the top who were large enough that, if they were here instead of there, they could’ve and might’ve reached up and plucked Turdswallow and her off the ledge below the sign and eaten them.

But towards the bottom were some of the ex-spectators.  Goblins who’d grown too large to be pushed down into the greased tunnels that would put them by a gate.  Ones who’d survived that, and were mean about it.

132 had barely even looked at her opponent.  She flinched away from the crowd and shouted something microphones didn’t pick up.

The fight wasn’t a fight.  A swift and brutal execution.  132 scrambled to get away, clawed hands and feet scraping at the side of the pit, and then her wing got torn out at the root, leaving the socket raw and open as a hole in her back.  She had even less fight in her after that.

Bubble watched without joy, thinking about how she’d fight the mouthy bastard if he was bigger.  Watching because 132 deserved to be recognized, even in her last moments.

She looked over and saw Turdswallow wasn’t even watching the screen.

She nibbled on his shoulder, and he looked at her, glanced at the screen, and finally looked away again, sighing.

“Do some thinkin’ for me?” Bubble asked.  She reached over and rubbed the top of his head, moving skin around.

“What would her name have been?” he asked.


He pointed at the screen without looking.

“Hmm.  Dunno.  There’s more where she came from.”

“What if we didn’t kill each other off?  What if every goblin got a name, found somethin’ to do, and then we got that more?” he asked.  “Could beat anyone.  All the courts.  Humans.”

“That’s some big thinking.  So big,” she said, bunching his scalp up at the tip-top of his head so it was all wrinkled.


“Would need the best warlord ever, y’think?” she asked.

He snorted.  Blood started flowing from his nose again, running down onto his broad belly.

She extended her tongue, and snaked it into his nostril, plugging it and stopping the bleeding.

“Not me,” he said, ignoring the tongue.  “No warlord, mebbe.”

She used a hand to move the tongue around so it went around the back of his head instead of across his face, tip going the long way around to reach the nostril.  She moved her head, so she could study his expression.

There were cheers and fireworks as another fight opened.  She ignored it, staring at Turdswallow.  He didn’t meet her eyes, didn’t look at the sign.

“This coming from Dee?” Bubble asked, a bit awkwardly, talking with her tongue extended.  She was thinking about one of the goblins from the home neigborhood.  “Little scrawny-ahhed, bat-nohed-”


She stopped, still annoyed.

“And don’t you tell her neither.  She’s already cracked out enough on all that human TV, she doesn’t need more wild ideas.”

Bubble grunted.

“She’s bigger than you and she’s younger, eh?”

“Ah bit.  Skinny.  Ah could break her.”

“Why?  Why will she get to be taller?  Why am I fat?”

“You shtanding there with your mouth open beneaf that mystery lard hole in tha tunnel near home might haf somethin’ to do wif it.”

“More than that.  ‘Member the kings comin’ through?”  He finally met her eyes as he asked it.

Practitioners.  They’d come through their Homewarrens to recruit.  Fuckin’ Pustlebottom had been wailing she didn’t get picked.

Bubblecum nodded.

“They don’t care.  They aren’t tryin’ to figure us out.  They don’t seem to know what makes one goblin bigger, one goblin spikier.  They come through an’ it’s all, you, you, not you, you’re not worth lookin’ at.  They get enough useful goblins, they move on.”

“Ah’m not smart enough to get my head around all that thinkin’,” she admitted.  “What does thith haf to do with that?”

“I got a nipple hair,” Turdswallow said, flicking one nipple.

“That haf even less to do with this or that.”

“And that fightin’ pit, some goblin made that shit, I’m positive.  Some goblin or goblins, they took the time to dig, to work through rock deep in mud, keep mud from flowin’ in, size the tunnels, get it all put together, bars on the big windows so nobody near the top can jump on through.  Who?  Who knows?  Could we ever know?”

She reached over, and plucked the nipple hair from his chest, simultaneously withdrawing her tongue from his nostril and into her mouth.

“Ow.”  He punched her in the arm.

She brandished the hair at him like it was a shiv.  She could talk more clearly now. “Make sense.  You’re not talkin’ like you’re good at thinkin’, you’re talking random.

“It’s all the same shit,” Turdswallow told her, rubbing his nipple.  “How’s it all put together?  How are we put together?  Why?  What’s the fuckin’ point?”

“I like you being angry,” she said.

“It’s not fuckin’ anger,” he retorted, face screwed up.  He shook his head, sure doing a bad job of not looking angry.  His nose wasn’t bleeding, at least, even with the way his face was all scowly, his pushed-in non-nose all wrinkled.  “You asked yer questions, you got my nipple hair, have fun with it.”

She didn’t budge, still holding out the hair.

He was silent.  Sulking.

“Hey.  Explain better.”

She pushed his shoulder.  He ignored her.

“Yer smart enough to.  Explain.”

He scowled.

“Turdsy, hey.  Hey.  Heya.  Explain.”

He glared at her.

She tickled his cheek with the curly nipple hair.

He heaved out a sigh.

“Explain fer me.”

“Way I figure it, hair starts growin’ in, yer partway to bein’ grown.  Halfway, mebbe.  I’m halfway to grown, mebbe.”

Halfway to being grown.  He’d only end up two feet tall?

He sat there, sullen, blood crusted around his nose, more crusting on his stomach.  Ragged, all his stuff gone, figuring out he wouldn’t ever be big.

“You’ll be bigger than that,” she said.  She gave him a shake.  “Turdsy.  You’ll be bigger.”

“Goblins get stronger by pushin’ through.  Can’t get in a rut,” he said.  “Can’t be a victim, gotta figure out how to be mean an’…”

That expression again.  Scowly.

He looked up at the screen.

She rested her face against his shoulder, mouth smushed up against skin, looking up at his face.

“Don’t look at me like that.”

She remained where she was.

She could stare up at his face, as he stubbornly remained silent.  Like 132.  Hurt, defeated before anyone even started tearing him apart.

Well, he’d been beaten up and kicked around.  So… they’d started, at least.  But not a proper tearing apart.

She turned her head so her cheek was against his shoulder.  Her sharp teeth scraped the inside of her cheek as she talked, like that, but that was okay.  “I think… can I do some thinkin’?”

“Would it matter if I said no?” he asked, not looking at her.

“Reason goblins don’t all stop fightin’, get together, and win, is we’re about the fight.  When you win you can’t keep fightin’.  If we took over everythin’, we’d be out of fight.”

“I don’t like fightin’,” he said, his voice a quiet croak, reluctant.  “I don’t like hurtin’, I don’t like mean.”

She pressed the front of her mouth into his shoulder again, not looking at his face anymore, digesting that.

“I’m out of fight.”

“You might only be halfway grown, you said, so what’re you sayin’, man?” Bubblecum mumbled into his shoulder.  “Out of fight?”

He turned his head, and she saw it.

She fell silent.

The crowd roared, fireworks going off.

Different tunnels were opening.  The pre-show was closing, and the Tiny Meathole was opening up to another event.

“I’m lame.  I tried to push out of my rut, I got beat, my stuff got taken.  I was goin’ to do somethin’ cool,” he said.

“Everythin’,” she told him.

He looked at her.

“Everythin’ you do is cool.  An’ sexy.  An’ smart.”

“You’re the only one who thinks that,” he said.  “An’ you’re brainless.”

“You don’t have any fight in you?” she asked.  “I’ve got fight in me enough for both of us, get us through.  I’m brainless?  You come up with the plan.”

He gave her a long look.  Mouth still pressed into his shoulder, she stuck out her tongue and licked the length of his arm.  She could taste the blood from his wounds.

“Yer not that brainless,” he said.  “Us being all about fight.  That was good.  Not sure it’s right, but it’s good.”

“Thank’yeh,” she mumbled.

“I’m a loser, I lost.”

“We’ll win.  We gotta win.  No fight in you?  That’s fine.  We’re an us.  An’ we’ll be a bigger us, okay?  We’ll get more peeps, we’ll get shits like 132, no matter how lame, we’ll name ’em.  You come up with an idea, we’ll make it happen.”

He sighed, but it was a different sort of sigh.  Relief, maybe.  Forcing himself to adjust.

“You’re my day one number one,” she told him.  “Day one, you were there.  First thing, day one, moment my eyes were clear of muck, you were my number one guy.”

“I’m not, not that-”

“Then-” she started, stopped.  “Then figure it out.  Whatever it is.  Kings are comin’ down here pickin’ goblins, missing somethin’ you think is important?  Figure it out.  You got something you want to be?  You want stuff?  Get stuff, figure out what to do with the stuff.  I’ll… I’m with you.  Let me be with you.  But figure it out, become that.”

He nodded.

He seemed to think for a bit, then he got to his feet.  She remained sitting.

He put a hand out, palm up.

She wanted to accept, but…

“You say you’re not mean but you’ve been mean,” she told him.  “An’ that’s okay.  You were a boy, I’m a girl, I’m clingy and shit.  But this?”  She held out the nipple hair.

“Get rid of that thing.”

“No.  No.  You’re halfway to grown.  Day like this?  I can take it.  But one day it’ll be me sittin’ around feelin’ sorry for myself.  Me bleeding out the nose hole.  Me that’s going to need to be dragged forward.  You can’t be mean then.  I won’t be able to stand it.  Not from my day one number one.”

He dropped his hand, then looked up at the screen.  Fireworks exploded in a line across the sky.  Gibberlings on the street squealed, babbling, rushing forward.

When he put the hand out again, it wasn’t with palm up, but palm sideways.  “No more mean, not at you, I might forget, but I’ll make it up to you if I do.  Remind me, if I’m not getting it.  How’s that?”

“Deal,” she answered.  She took it, clasping it, then holding onto it as she pulled herself to her feet, putting her arms around him to hug him in the process.

The screen was playing the next segment, where the mouthy goblin was strutting out onto stage, thrusting his lower body-slash-chin.  He’d been stark naked before but now wore a shiny black thong.  It was more obscene than being naked had been.

“I don’t want to see this shit,” Turdswallow said.

“Me neither.”

“Let’s go?”

“What are we doing?” she asked, hanging off his lovely solid body as he walked toward the ladder.  He was solid enough to drag her, like a tractor with a low top speed but a lot of torque.

“I figure somethin’ out, we’ll push.  See how much we can grow before our bodies catch up with us, what we can put together.  I want my stuff back.”

“I fight ’em?” she asked.

“They’re pretty big.”

“I’ll fight ’em,” she said.

“We’ll fight ’em.”

She was as happy as she’d been since day one.


Bubbleyum turned her head, watching as Anthem Tedd navigated the trees at the edge of no man’s land, so close to the boundary between natural trees and artificial suburbia that the sleeve of his right arm distorted, curling and getting pulled into tendrils before snapping back.  It was an effect that got less pronounced as the magic got stronger.  When it wasn’t fighting a tug of war elsewhere, it could hide itself as something seamless, being strategic about what it took.

The Girl by Candlelight stalked over houses, burning, wax flowing and pooling, and shingles ignited, wax flowed, little bowls with candles on them floating on the expanding lake around the spirit.  The spirit’s concern for the moment was Anthem.

There weren’t many Others who liked this environment, a town of white picket fences and shit.  The serpent sometimes poked out of the ghost dimension, but it was quick to leave.

Anthem came to stand beside her.  She gave him a sidelong glance, not turning her head, chewing her gum slowly.

Sir Toadswallow said, “Be good,” and she flicked her eyes left to look at him.

He wasn’t that far away.  He was wrangling their goblins.  Sockgnash from their old neighborhood was backing him, the lesser goblins of Kennet were milling around him, getting gunk and trinkets.  Her man of car salesman confidence, grease and gristle in fifty flavors, depending on where she licked.  The side of her mouth closest to him lifted in a smile.

The smile dropped away as she flicked her eyes the other direction and looked at Anthem with disdain and loathing.

This is the man who was going to bind you and put you in a book, Toadsy.

“One of Lucy’s instructors.  It’s been an interesting experience, trying to consult on her training, without being able to do violence in Kennet found or see the training elsewhere,” Anthem said.

“Did anyone ask?” she asked him.

“Ahem,” Sir Toadswallow cleared his throat, which he was very good at doing.

“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Bubbleyum said.  “We helped train the same kid.”

Branches stirred, brushing against clothing.  She could hear the rustle.

Miss, with the Ballerina in Blue following right behind her.

A bit fairy-ish, but the head being twisted around was a fun image, and every one of Bubbleyum’s senses was telling her that the Ballerina wasn’t to be messed with.

“Montague and the Turtle Queen are preparing for a concerted push against the Ordinary Family,” Miss informed them.  “Matthew has the shrine spirits, some denizens, and some goblins with him.”

“The goblins won’t be too useful,” Toadswallow said.  “The reason they’re there and not here is they think they can hide behind someone else and let him do all the work.”

“Want me to give ’em a bit of a twist of the arm?  Nipple?” Bubbleyum asked.

“No,” Miss said.  “This is an army of volunteers.  No need to twist nipples to get someone to the fight.”

Bubbleyum gave Toadswallow a glance.  He nodded.

Alright.  She’d listen to Miss on that, then.

“Five or ten minutes.  They’ll call me when it’s time, I’ll tell you, we make a concerted attack.  You can expect the Black Scalpel, technomancy Others, wraiths, the Ghoul King, and possibly the Girl by Candlelight to get in the way, and that’s without the Ordinary Family effect covering the way.”

“There was a ritual incarnate,” Toadswallow said.  “Like the Choir.”

“More or less dealt with by the girls, Zed, and Brie, then finished off by others.”

“Hm, good,” Toadswallow said.  He looked up at Bubbleyum.  “Just the one thing Making a field into a whole town we have to get across.”

“Up the hill to the school at the peak,” Anthem said.

“Not in the snow, at least,” Toadswallow said, smiling.

“We can’t go through the Warrens?” Bubbleyum asked.

He shook his head.  “Blocked.”


Bubbleyum used one of her tongues to stick a piece of gum behind one of her back teeth, then dug deep to pry another fist-sized wad out from behind another tooth.

She chewed, working the stiffness out.  For this piece, she was down to eight hundred and thirty-one pieces of gum, pried from under surfaces in a prison, retrieved, and worked into the wad, condensed down.  The goal was nine hundred and ninety nine, but making it past other milestones counted.  Distilled stress, nicotine, the spit and grit of people who had nothing better to do with their time than exercise, and boredom.  She chewed her way through it.  It laced the spit in her mouth, and the rest of her tilted to accommodate.

She could stand here with the snow blowing around her, the fight raging, and be bored.

She didn’t need the gum for that.  The gum took things to the next level and made her extra bored in the face of it all.

She watched with half lidded eyes as the Girl by Candlelight stalked past them, eyes blazing.  Watching them.

Anthem raised a hand, and beckoned for her to come.  A duelist’s taunt.

The spirit’s eyes burned brighter as she moved on, away, mouth moving like she was talking, communicating to someone or something.

The spirit didn’t want to fight them here.  Not where their strength was collected, where the forces on her side weren’t holding ground.

“Matthew should distract her,” Miss said.  “We’ve got people inside, they should be drawing attention and resources away, and we have more coming.  Hello, Grandfather.”

The Dog Tag came through the trees with some others backing him up.  “Horseman went inside and hasn’t signaled.  One of the gunshots that came out of there, felt like his.  I think they’ve been bound.”

“We’ll do our best to get them free,” Miss replied.

“I know.  I don’t like it though.”

“Gunfire inside the building suggests we’ve got people inside and they aren’t all bound, at least,” Miss said.


“Got some infiltrators inside, we’ve managed to get organized for a major push here… I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t restless, though,” Anthem said.

“Yeah,” Grandfather replied, brusque.

Bubbleyum didn’t want to agree, because she didn’t like the man.  Instead, she focused her senses on what they were about to face.

“Another mentor of our student, hm?” Anthem asked.

“Hm?  You talking about Lucy?” Grandfather asked.

“You taught her things, right?”

“Guns.  Some.”

Grandfather clapped a hand on Bubbleyum’s shoulder as he came up to stand beside her.  She nodded.  She’d drank with the Dogs at the speakeasy and had gone on a patrol with them, the last time she was in town.  It had mostly been her getting information on Sir Toadswallow, the goblins, how things were really doing, and what needed to be done.

The Tags were pretty tolerable as non-goblin company went.  A little less fun, but there was less goblin bullshit, too, so it evened out.

Anthem’s bullshit kept spilling out of his mouth.  “…Tried to get my daughters on board with some concepts, but teenagers are going to be rebellious.”

Her nostrils flared.  She could smell gunpowder on Grandfather.

There was no gunpowder in the air coming across the ‘town’, or smoke from the Girl by Candlelight.  It was all swallowed up by that Other that crept across this area like a Warrens slime mold with a special intelligence driving it, twisting up everything into the appearance of a pretty little town.

She could smell something else, though.  It tickled her nose and left her feeling irritated.  Like she was snorting mints stolen from granny’s tin, but they were laced with antifreeze because granny really didn’t like the grandkids.

She wrinkled her nose and glanced at Toadswallow, a very specific expression of disgust on her face.  He nodded.

Yep.  It was bitch dust.  Winter flavored bitch dust.  One nearby, but the fact the town kept so many of the interesting smells out of the air let the subtler traces filter through.  A crowd, in shadow, in snow.  Bitches silently and constantly farting out bitch dust.

Lucy had wanted to learn how to fight and protect shit, going to anyone who’d teach her something.  And now that anyone good at fighting was collecting at this point, ready to drive toward the school like an ice pick through the nostril, it was an inadvertent reunion of all the different teachers.

The kid had come to Bubbleyum trained by one specific faerie, and she’d had no choice but to work around all the stuff she’d been told and trained: a balancing out of this, an answer to that, a challenge of whatever.

Fucking hell, if that muscled lump of bitch showed up here and it was a fucking reunion of all the different teachers…

Nah, it was more than that.  Those bitches.  The faerie, the unfair folk, the fancypants glitter huffers.  She had run into them often enough.  She knew how they operated, she knew how they cheated.

She leaned slightly forward to look past Grandfather’s chest to Toadswallow and the goblins he was prepping.  She ignored the ongoing conversation between Grandfather, the entirety of her focus consumed by the attention she gave him.  Silent communication.

He poured some of his goblin gunk into a bottle of booze, corked it, and threw it to her.  She caught it out of the air, just in front of a startled Grandfather’s face.  Her extended arm caught some of the blurring effect that had touched Anthem as he’d walked over.  The grit quieted it.

“I can appreciate a dry drink, but that’s not quite it,” Grandfather said.

“You want drinks!?” Biscuit could be heard.

Bubbleyum only had eyes for Toadswallow.  She circled past Grandfather, eyes locked to Sir Toadswallow’s.

He held out the bottle, and she took it, before bending over him, kissing him, tongues slipping inside his mouth, down his throat, and getting deep enough to become familiar with the start of his small intestine.  He’d had some alcohol to steady his nerves, and she could taste it.

The tip of her tongues took turns tracing the roof of his mouth as she withdrew them.

“Prisoner gum.  I can taste a bit of that Lantsman fellow.”

“Piece of prisoner gum, number five fifty-nine,” she said, chewing, holding the bottle.  She glanced to her right, at the sunny, snow-less town with its fences and puppies and total bullshit.

And, waiting, hidden… she wrinkled her nose.

“Yeh,” Toadswallow murmured.

Fractionally, she leaned that way.

Toadswallow dipped his head in a nod, she kept leaning, starting to walk- and Anthem had to fuckin’ ruin the moment by grabbing her upper arm on the far side.  Intercepting her.

“Wait,” he said.

She elbowed his hand away with the hand that held the bottle, and there was a puff of grit.  It dusted her and made Anthem cover his mouth with his forearm, hand still extended in her direction.

“You don’t know everythin’,” she told him.  “You lost to us.  You lost Toadswallow, then you lost to us again.  So be quiet and see if you can’t catch up.  I have my reasons.”

“If we coordinate,” Anthem said, “we’ll be stronger.  Miss?”

“I don’t need her permission,” Bubbleyum said.

Then she proved that by stepping forward.

Into that altered reality.  Into the town.  Trace dust on her helped her to change like she’d changed before.  With Sir Toadswallow’s counsel, she’d dressed herself up as a human.  Now she let that transformation start… just enough that she got some more length on her legs.  Length in her limbs.  A human’s height and proportions, but only that.  The rest of her remained very goblin.

The effect of this place pushed in at her.  The glamour around her pushed back.  That fight, push and pull, rolled off her like a heat shimmer on a summer day.

Toadswallow called them glitter ninnies, a way of sanitizing things for the kids he taught, when he’d been starting out.  The ninnies were there, waiting to swoop in, and if that was their game, she’d flip the board.

The effect pressed in around her.  The ground closed around her feet, like the pavement had a sponge-like give to it, and teeth were in there, finding their grip on her boots.

“Sock!  Ramjam!” she called out, one hand extended.

Sockgnash was big, bigger than any of the humans present in the gathering back in the trees.  She’d worked with him before.  He was a hulk of a goblin, heavy with muscle, so tough a chainsaw had given up before cutting through him, as evidenced by the fact it was still sticking out his back and shoulder.  He was confident, capable, funny, smarter than some might think a hulk like him would be, he was interested in her, and he had a cock like a horse, if horse cocks were also prehensile.

But he couldn’t measure up to Toadswallow on any of those fronts, so it had always been a firm no.

He was reliable, at least, when she needed a second set of hands, backup, a rescue waiting if she was going into a situation she might be bound.  She could say two words and he’d know what she wanted.  He picked Ramjam up by the skull.  With no wind-up, he thrust his arm forward and yeeted Ramjam through the air, toward her.

Flashing a brief jack-o-lantern smile, Ramjam became a warhammer, one curling horn winding around the head, the other pointing the same direction, but sticking out the back end behind it, weighted to be a clumsy weapon if wielded with one hand, easier to wield with two.

She let the dust flow from the bottle.  She caught the Ramhammer out of the air, twirled to let his momentum carry past her, and flexed her body to direct him with one hand, across the slats of a white picket fence.  Demolishing a solid six-foot length of it all.

The lightest bits of gunk came out of the bottle like smoke, mingling with the wood chips, dust, and uprooted dirt in the air.  Those particles became more gunk.  The ground got less grip on her as it had to content with the gunk.

It was like glamour.  They wouldn’t say that much to any goblins they were trying to get onboard, but it was like glamour and with attention, spectacle, and the right medium, you could spend some and end up with more than you’d put in.  Same deal here.

The unfair folk are watching.  This may be their first time seeing it this blatant.

Can you see, you giggling butterfly-fellators?

She’d talked this out with Toadswallow, in whispered conversations in places the Winter fae wouldn’t go.  The balances they had to strike, the way this challenge worked.

This was a gamble.  There was the chance the wrong clenched asshole would take issue.  Less with the Wild Hunt, who specifically enforced this shit, but still a gamble.

Would they come for her?  Changing targets from the faerie-turned-goddess?  That was problematic, especially with so many watching.  It would mean turning away from a target they’d negotiated and decided on.  Going scorched earth on her, Toadswallow, every participating goblin, every witness, everyone they’d interacted with. It would mean abandoning and taking away from another situation the Hunt had been called to, in a way that, given the scale of everything, would look worse.

It was a consequence of trying to appear perfect.  The distance from one hundred percent to ninety-nine point nine percent was huge compared to the distance between ninety percent and fifty percent.  What it asked for, what it took to do, and how fragile it was.

It left them one option.

She refocused, dramatic moment over, the dust settling around her, as she held her post-swing pose.

Ramjam’s bit of magic had made nails thrust their way up from the various bits of destroyed fence.

“Rammy,” she said.  “You’ve been practicin’ this, haven’t you?”

He couldn’t answer, but she could feel his shaft twitch.

“Toadsy coachin’ you?  Because that’s a fuckin’ good weapon trick for a goblin your size.  Doin’ us proud.”

She had to keep moving, to keep the effect from closing in.  The destroyed fence was already mending itself, debris sinking into lawn.  She twisted, full body, doing a near complete turn of her body before the head of the hammer scraped against the pavement, following after her.  She used the rotational force of her body to swing it, with the back of the hand that held the bottle pressing against the shaft helping to direct it.

“You like girls, right?  I can introduce you to some!”

She slammed the Ramhammer through more fence, and part of the gate.  A mailbox on a post out front went sailing, and she extended her tongue after it, momentarily grabbing the red flag thing on the side, to stop it from flying away, while leaving it airborne.  With full-body exertion, she ran forward to be beneath it as it tumbled mostly straight down.

“Girls’re great!” she shouted.  Ramjam’s line, delivered as she swung the Ramhammer at the mailbox.

A grandmother had opened her door to see the commotion, and the mailbox embedded itself into the doorframe just beside her head.

Eight inch nails erupted out from the mailbox in every direction, like the opposite of one of those magic show things that had swords thrust into it.  Spearing granny through the head in five places.  The old woman went limp, the nails keeping her from falling, so she kind of dangled there.

Way more enthusiastic with the nails than they’d been before, and Ramjam definitely didn’t lack for enthusiasm.

“Yeah, you like that idea?” Bubbleyum asked, smiling.

The old woman’s face-skin tore as her weight pulled her down.  There was a small dog, red, raw, and twitching, curled up just beneath the skin.  It twitched, making small noises, before her body hit the steps and was folded into the space, disappearing.

The doorframe was slower to fix.

People were coming out of their houses now.  Others came from the end of the street, and around the hill.

It’s like a slime mold, she thought, again.  Natural defenses.  Got it.

“Sock!  Biscuit’s Blitz-Disc!”

He didn’t really aim at her, exactly.  The disc went flying toward the far side of the street, where people were running across their lawns.  It ricocheted off several heads without losing momentum.  Each impact, if Bubbleyum took the time to watch, produced a slow-motion effect, spit flying out of mouths, skin across head rippling, impacts audible as brain was jarred inside skull.

Biscuit could handle her shit, which was funny when a lot of her shit was being hard to handle.  She’d braced herself with metal around the rim.  That was good.

Bubbleyum whistled and threw the uncorked bottle of goblin gunk into the air.

“Ram and Biscuit, you’d better play-” Bubbleyum yelled, getting a two-handed grip on the Ramhammer.

The Biscuit blitz-disc bounced her way, the sticker on top showing Biscuit with her hands, stubby claws and all, over her eyes.


Goblin gunk thick in the air as it was shed from the bottle, she slammed the Ramhammer into the Blitz-Disc.

They played nice.  There was an interpretation of one meeting the other where Biscuit didn’t survive it.  Splat.  In another interpretation, in this one, the Blitz-Disc was sent flying harder and faster than even Sockgnash could throw.

The plastic disc with its metal bolted and riveted around the perimeter slammed across the top of a woman’s head, taking the skin off from forehead to the back of the head like a bad toupee, clipped the side of someone else’s head, producing that slow motion impact, and then redirected, at an angle, into someone else’s mouth, where it broke teeth and disconnected jaw, lifting him off his feet with the force of it.

Nails erupted from the impact site.  The Blitz Disc became a dizzy Biscuit, who grabbed a nail in each hand and pulled it free from the ruin of the man’s face as she navigated in a dazed way around the other nails.

Biscuit hopped down from the man’s chest to the walkway between house and road, and immediately began to sink in.

She tossed the Ramhammer aside.  “Good man!  Stay close!”

The Ramhammer became Ramjam before he’d hit ground.  He smiled, huffing for breath.

“Doglick!  Here boy!”

Sockgnash had come out of the woods, wading across the trail of destruction Bubbleyum was trying to carve, and was close enough to be able to toss Doglick out.

Bubbleyum caught the goblin, holding forelimbs in one hand, back limbs in the other, and aimed him.  He barked.  “Weapon form!”

He became a modified crossbow, a lime green band with K-9 written on it wrapped around the handle, strung with a convoluted arrangement of extended tongue, the projectile a bear-trap at the end of the tongue.

“Good boy!  And get the toy!”

Biscuit, scraping nails against walkway to try to avoid sinking in, managed an “Aaaaaaaa!” as she saw Doglick aimed at her.

The weapon fired, the bear trap was sent flying, and Biscuit managed to become a disc in the last second before the metal teeth bit in.

I’m thinkin’ you’re glad you worked on that tweak, eh girl? Bubbleyum thought, yanking the weapon back.  Addin’ the metal like I told ya?

That sort of thing took work, like exercising every day, and Biscuit wasn’t the type to exercise every day.  But she’d listened, and it paid off now.

The tongue reeled in, and the Blitz-Disc was pulled in.  She tried to pull Biscuit free, and the teeth held on.

“Let it go.  Doglick, give me- Dog… do you want to be neutered?”

The people were getting close.  The injured were healing, the dead were being swallowed up by the landscape.

Couldn’t lose momentum.  She tossed the pairing of Doglick and Biscuit at Ramjam.  “Get ’em apart.”

“Can I smash ’em?”

“Sure, I guess.”

“I can smash his nuts!  Best neutering!  Dramatic!  Once, I smashed a fly, it made a splatter like, two feet wide!”

“Do whatever-”

The crossbow became Doglick, who let go of Biscuit.  Ramjam moved his hands so each was as far from the other as he could manage.

“-you want.”

“Aaa,” Biscuit gasped, wide eyed, legs and arms milling in the air like she was running in place.  Doglick just looked pleased with himself.  Or maybe he was trying to play innocent to avoid Ramjam’s attempt at making a bigger splash.

The people were coming.  Bubbleyum chewed her gum a few seconds, taking it in, then licked her lips.

Bubbleyum had extended her tongue a long time ago, then she’d bifurcated it, keeping the individual lengths of the split tongue separated with wraps and meat-patty poultices from a fleshmongler vendor at the outskirts of the Septic Wastes.  Letting it heal so each length was as wide as the original had been.  Then she’d done it a few more times.  She’d had to widen her throat with dilators, sometimes with biological help from Toadsy, sometimes with other things, so she’d be able to breathe while she kept her extra tongues down there while one was out and in use.

Which was all to say two things.  The first was that Toadsy had wanted to figure out what goblins were, and they’d been digging into that from two directions.  Toadsy had left her to go explore, figuring shit out.  She’d stayed, to dig deep into herself, and when she’d started to hit limits in the kind of clout she could throw around, she’d signed on with the patriarch of the Cavendar clan.  He let her see the magic items and tricks, work with the various war magic shit, so she could try to convert what she could into stuff she could do, sometimes cheating, sometimes just putting a goblin spin on it.  In exchange, she was a bit of an surprise card in the back pocket of a B-list combat practitioner family.  He even listened to her sometimes, when it came to strategy.

The second thing was that she had the ability to save Biscuit, but she was doing a lot of different things here.  This wasn’t just about stopping the Carmine Chucklefuck.  This wasn’t only about protecting what I’ve been building with my day one, number one man.  It wasn’t about Lucy, or winning some competition with other tutors and teachers, to prove her approach to a fight was the best.  It wasn’t even about showing up those twits who thought flocks of butterflies sprayed from their piss-holes.

She poured some of the bottle’s contents onto Ramjam.  “Bigger, harder.

He became a weapon as she took hold of his horn and tossed him in Sockgnash’s direction.

Sockgnash caught the Ramhammer, which was twice the size it had been.


The goblin that resembled a cat was clawing at a man’s face, chewing on his beard, fighting to avoid being absorbed into the man as the injuries healed up.  At the call, Kittycough pounced at Bubbleyum’s face.

She tore Kittycough in two, then felt the weapon settle in at her hands, which had her painted claws at each end already.  A series of plates like an arrangement of brass knuckles, set between each knuckle, with curved blades like a cat’s claw hooking forward.  Her one hand still held the bottle.

She met the incoming crowd.  People that looked scared, alarmed, who were trying to talk them down, even as the closed the distance, reaching out to reassure or something.

She used the Kittycuffs to slash at the reaching hands.  She saw glimpses of things beneath the surface that weren’t bones or meat.

“Bring it all down, Sock!” she called out.

“Sure,” Sockgnash grunted, before smashing a car with the goblin gunked Great Ramhammer.  He was big enough that he could hit the rear end of the car and the impact shattered headlights and bent the hood.

The car rolled over a few people, then the nails sprouted, catching people who’d reached out to stop it as its momentum had slowed.

She slashed a nine year old in the face with the Kittycuffs, tips raking bone, did a spin, still holding the bottle, and kicked through the goblin gunk.  A slash of her toe- the arc she cut through the cloud of gritty powder finished with her standing there with leg bent, knee near chest, a blade sticking out the front of her boot.

She kicked that blade into the crack where the claws had broken bone with far too much ease.  The crack in the bone spread and the kid’s head came apart.

Three corpses spilled out, and were quickly covered up by lawn and road.

She stomped that foot, breaking that blade, and creating dust.

The crowd, mindless, not even caring if they got hurt, pressed in.

She protected some of the smaller goblins, like Biscuit.

Hands grabbed her arm, and it bent at a right angle.  She felt flesh get sucked into the pleasant suburb, transforming into one more reaching hand that grabbed the stump where her arm now ended.  The palm of that hand drank in more of her arm, until it had absorbed everything up to the elbow.

She punched repeatedly with the Kittycuffs of her other arm, pulping flesh until she could back away.  Her arm came out in gory strings, and put itself back together.  Mostly.  The strength wasn’t there, and it was covered in small wounds.

Nah, it’s about solidarity.  Proving something to these guys.

That there’s a point.

Tying them into what we’re doing, with goblin gunk, figuring out goblins.  Figuring out a new Toadswallow way of doing thingsGiving them what they want, so they want more of it all.  So others get greedy and want in on it all.

“Biscuit,” she said.  “Hit me.”

“H-hit you?” the small voice came from near her feet.

“Whatcha got?  What’re you packing, when it comes to substances that deliver abuse?  Somethin’-”

A small and fluffy dog on a leash, a child behind it, got a grip on her leg.  She felt it reel her partway in.  A slash of the Kittycuffs opened the side of its face, and fingers reached out, gripping the edges of the wound.  An eye peered out, terror evident in how it wavered.

“-somethin’ you haven’t been able to convince someone else to try!”

“From below!”

Biscuit tossed it up, a syringe, and Bubbleyum caught it.

“How mad will Toadsy be with you after I’m done with this?” Bubbleyum asked.

“Mad-ish.  You can handle it!”


“Nah!  Unless you get addicted to power!  It’s goblin-ified krokodil and goblin-ified PCP!  Grunge and violence so intense the dudes in Kennet below got cold feet when I told them stories!”

Would I get addicted to power? she thought.

I’m addicted to licking Toads.  Power was never the point.  Maybe that’s why I’m a bit different from your average middle-tier goblin.

Bubbleyum stabbed herself in the thigh, pressing the syringe down.

It hit her veins hot.

“Croc on a rocket!” Biscuit cheered.  She was wide eyed, smiling, a kid on Christmas.

The meat inside Bubbleyum began to churn and boil.  She continued fighting, clawing, punching.

“Biscuit’s running!” Sockgnash called out.  “I think that means all of you need to get running!”

Bubbleyum smiled, and then the smile kept going- out to the sides of her jaw, down her shoulders, down her body-

Then she opened her mouth, with the jaw now being somewhere around her hips.  Everything from her lower face to there was lower jaw.  The back half of her was upper jaw.  Steam came out the gaps, while bloody drool flowed out the lower portions.  The drool sizzled as it hit the road, bits of it igniting.

Sockgnash was getting goblins to fall back, putting himself between them and her.  Bubbleyum chewed gum with most of her body, now, bracing herself against the change.

The heat in her veins reached her brain, heating up her thoughts to something feverish-

Bubbleyum roared, and then she faced the mob.


Training gave Lucy the ability to move how and where she needed to.  The trick was in the layers of logic.  What did she need to do, what would she pull on, if she moved here, where did she need to be a bit after that?

Multiplied by three, then by five, or seven, or nine.

Goblin fox, loaded with tricks.

Fae fox, pretty, sleek, and graceful.

Warrior fox, dog tags at her neck.

More, inconsistent, as she lit fires and fanned the flames with her own movements, stirring up the resulting smoke into fox shapes that could bite.

One could get stabbed, or hit with a bat, or worse, but if she could generate enough spectacle, prepare in advance, and leave room for things to happen in ways others could see, she could replace what was lost.  Play it off as a trick, smoke peeling away from one of the temporary foxes to reveal something fae, or a goblin fox with a leering fanged smile.

She’d been refining this for a while.  Verona could cover a lot of ground in terms of different practices.  Avery could cover a lot of ground in terms of running around, going places.  Lucy had turned her focus to this, by and large.  Something she was developing herself, that she could refine.  Everything she learned was considered in terms of how it could fold into this, play into this.

Principles in hand to hand combat applied both to herself

She slipped out of fox form as all three foxes came under concerted attack, becoming Lucy again.  She tossed spell cards, clearing some space.  Then she split again.  Lunging.

and to the fighting styles of the foxes.

Could a trick be put into a goblin fox?  Could a fae fox hold a curse, to be transmitted into flesh with a bite?

She drew focus away with two of the foxes, her thoughts split into three awarenesses.  The Fox with the dog tags around its neck tended to hold the line, be less interesting.  Sturdier, guarding the ‘door’.

Enough that some goons thought they could make a break for it.

She shed the guise of the Warrior fox, weapon ring on her finger.  She had a lighter she’d gotten from Louise.

The weapon ring tended to draw its own conclusions, but she’d been using it for a while, learning the ins and outs, and putting a lot of herself into it.  Her Self.

It meant that she could hold it one way and have it become a spear.

Holding it another, it was a small handgun-sized flamethrower, spitting burning oil.  Puddles of the stuff, some intensifying as they touched flames she’d ignited with her spell cards.  She ducked low, then threw a canister at a group of people who were rushing around the flame, all clustered in one spot.

The flash from the canister made the group have to shield their eyes.  A minor effect that made them stop for a second, then press on with more confidence.

But the flash had been from a spell card she’d put on the empty tomato soup can hours ago, when she’d been stocking up for tonight.

The contents of the can were goblin firecrackers, including one of Bluntmunch’s assblasters, that produced a bass shockwave that was amplified by the diagram on the base of the can, drawn at the same time she’d glued on the spell card.  Her earring made her better at using sound, so that helped.

They wanted to come at her as a group, outnumbering her.  She could predict that, use it.  The group being gathered pretty much on the can, around it, it meant the shockwave got a good number of them, producing a ripple that jarred not bone, but sphincter.

Emptying bowels into underwear and pants.

She adjusted her grip on the lighter, letting go of it for a moment, then seizing it again, weapon ring clinking against the metal case of the fancy old lighter.  A different extension of her arm, position of hand, like how Guilherme had taught her to make a spear.

It followed suit, becoming a length of metal with the same light etching as the lighter case, that basket weave of metal that guarded the lighter flame now part of the section that connected spearhead to shaft.  Flame flickered within, and dripped out.

When she swung the spear through the air, its point whipping within a foot or so of faces, the flame roaring around the spearhead with the rush of oxygen the people who were already reeling from the assblaster fell into one another, or fell on snow or cold brick walking path with their saturated asses.

A good way of driving the point home without having to stab them.

There would be no glory for them tonight.

The Oldbodies were hanging back, encouraging others.  Only three of the wicked old men and women remained from the other night, but the ones who were still around were nasty.  Lucy had seen one of them fight- a cursewright.  One, now that she thought about it, who might’ve retrieved the thorn in the flesh from the Family Man.

Who was back there, waiting, smiling.

The Oldbodies had some people under them.  Some had been twisted up by the knot and maybe by Oldbody practices.  There were little kids with wrinkles and white hair like they’d been prematurely aged.  Knotting or some Oldbody alchemy?  She couldn’t begin to guess.

But they had little tricks.  One wrinkled little boy, when kicked back, opened his mouth and let out a fog that read to her Sight as very malevolent.  A little girl, when she landed and skinned her aged palms, had more fog ooze out of the wounds.

One more thing to factor in.

Some had been stained by exposure to the Abyss, but were still here, and hadn’t turned on Maricica when the nail was removed.  After a few false steps with them, she’d settled on a loose rule, that they would come at her harder than expected, and take twice the punishment before backing off.  She could adjust expectations depending on the severity of the staining.

Others were adherents of Bloody Glory.  Many had the three diagonal, parallel cuts at their lips, and wore crimson.

One moved her arms, gesturing like she was spelling something out in sign language, with sweeping arm movements to accompany it.

The flames parted.  Lucy suddenly had another flank to consider.

Lucy as the Goblin fox went low, sliding on wet ground, while the Warrior Fox vaulted over, to fill that gap.

Some people saw that the Warrior Fox had abandoned her post at the opening near the monument and made a break for it.  Foxes made of smoke and shadow pounced at them.  Good for a single bite, sinking into calf or into arm, to pull someone off balance, but they were fragile.  They exploded into clouds of smoke or dispersed darkness when weapons or fists were swung at them.

Speaking of explosions, Lucy thought.  The Goblin Fox let itself die.

It had its own gas inside it.  The gas touched the flame that had been parted, and it caught fire, exploding.  The explosion undid the parting, filling that gap again.

Lucy worked to create another, feeding it one of the items from her dwindling supply.  Sending it after the ones who’d broken through.

Momentum mattered here.  Momentum and goblin glamour together meant that when the goblin fox was created, and she wasn’t keeping count of what she’d used, and her enemies certainly weren’t, the count could favor her.  She was pretty sure, in retrospect, that she’d been out of gas bladders, but the goblin fox had had one.

Holding her ground mattered.  She stood so the forces that wanted to flow out of Kennet below and into Kennet above were blocked in a way by her.  She was the barrier.  And by stepping further into Kennet below, pushing the attacking forces back, she was symbolic.

She could represent a pushback, tell the spirits how to flow.  She could reduce the severity of how Kennet below was bulging into Kennet above and Kennet found.

She could also represent claim.  The unspoken claim that Kennet below was contained.  That there was a distinction, a hard and enforced line between the two.  She could take away from the Carmine Exile’s claim over the space by removing his people.

She’d called on the Sable and the things she’d established while meeting with him to stop Charles from transitioning power out of Kennet below and its people.  But just the statement wasn’t enough.  Not when others were pushing back and arguing against her.

The mundane items Avery was working on would help lock stuff down.  The three points of Kennet, like they’d had for the founding, would help as well.

But if she couldn’t hold this point, then it wouldn’t count for pushback, claim, or defining this space as a key point of Kennet.

People were slipping by.

Three versions of herself going all out weren’t enough to stop the occasional kid from sneaking by, or hurdling over flame.  The shadow foxes could slow them or get in the way, but they weren’t stopping them.

Each one that got through to wreak havoc on the other side undermined her efforts, risking Kennet as a whole.

Lucy roared, biting deep into one woman’s shoulder, then, not willing to spare the effort or time to turn around, split the fox’s skin and leaped out of its back to swipe at a guy’s chest with the combat knife, which bought her space to draw a weapon with the weapon ring.

She fought to re-establish her spot, blocking the door.

Someone shouted a racial slur at her.  She didn’t flinch.

Someone else screamed that they’d rape her once they got their hands on her.

She tuned it out.

Someone hurled a molotov cocktail her way.  Bottle and flaming rag, bright in the evening.

She turned the lighter into a gun, shooting the bottle while it was at the apex of its arc.  Glass and flame exploded out, raining down around them all.

She turned, saw the Family Man’s grin, and, feeling very little at all, aimed and popped off a shot from the lighter-gun.

Right to the face.  He staggered back, and was caught by some of the cultists of Bloody Glory.  Maricica’s worshipers.  His worshipers too, maybe.

The shot had been right at the point where the corner of the eye met the nose.  Bottom of the brain, from the angle.  He slumped.  People caught him so he couldn’t fall.

The hole in his face closed, skin pinching around it like a clenched butthole.

Then it relaxed, smoothing out, and there was no damage.

The man smiled.  Muscles moved across his body like fat, broad worms beneath skin, exploring configurations.  A smudge of his finger wiped away the blood.

He approached.


Bubbleyum’s body was a thing of its own, a predator seeking prey, with her consciousness watching as a separate, disconnected thing that was slowly getting more strength.

The others worked around it.  Some of the smaller goblins were even having fun with it, it seemed.

Cherrypop ran screaming across the street.  She tore after her.  Another movement, she changed course, tearing past a car, biting it in half along the way.

Biscuit in Blitz-Disc form hurtled through the air.  She chased.

Through a crowd.

The destruction wasn’t healing.  Montague and the Turtle Queen were pressuring the town elsewhere.

The crowd stayed still, trying not to provoke, but by taking no action, they lost claim to this space.  The goblins and Dog Tags were free to move around.

She turned her focus to the crowd, studying her enemy, who she assumed she’d be able to go after, in a bit, when she had more control, and her body went after them, chasing, biting, and tearing them apart.

She turned her focus to Guilherme, who had made an appearance, and her body lunged at him.

He blocked her open mouth with a spear shaft.  She extended her multiple tongues, wrapping around different parts of his body-

Yucky glitter.

-and he fended her off, twirling the spear, and pushed her aside.

“You’re almost as much a problem for our side as you are for theirs, like that,” he said.

She turned her attention to their side, and felt her body go that way.

I have control.

It was a loose control.  She could direct focus, but not the details.

She cackled and roared as she hurled herself at more of the people.  Tearing up the neighborhood.

The Dog Tags were fighting the Black Scalpel.  The Girl by Candlelight was elsewhere, judging by the flames.  Distracted by Matthew Moss.

More and more, this place was proving to be eggshell thin.  And beneath the eggshells were bodies, bloody, broken, dead, and dying, reaching out, fighting, grabbing.

She crashed through the eggshell, scattering gore.  Forging a path toward the Blue Heron.

Bodies began to animate.  Hairs all up and down her body twitched, as if the temperature had changed.  It hadn’t.

Echoes.  Wraiths.

Flowing into the gore, finding vessels.

Vessels rose up.

Break stuff, and it became living zombies, wrecked and torn flesh animated by things that couldn’t be bitten or stabbed.

Leave stuff alone, and it healed, and the longer it healed, the faster it healed, ramping up.

Breaking stuff was easier.

“The best cut is surgical,” Guilherme said, walking forward, sword resting against shoulder.  “Deft, just enough energy expended to dispatch your foe.”

She made cuts as unsurgical as she could.

He annoyed her, and annoyance grabbed at her attention.  Attention and her attacking something went hand in hand.

She lunged at him again.  A woman Dog Tag ran between her and the Faerie.  She changed course, chasing.

Until she saw juicier prey.

She tore into the mess of wraith-animated flesh.

“It’s an echo of a practitioner or something!” Grandfather hollered.  “It’s working practice!”

“Wraith, not echo, but you’re learning, friend,” Guilherme said.


It was working practice.

She started to lunge for the wraith, but stumbled, falling.

Her body had split almost in two, to become a giant set of crocodilian jaws, and now the jaws were closing, the corners of the mouth moving upward, up her ribs, front of the shoulder, collarbone, neck, then the corners of her mouth.

Pain gripped her.

“Was it good!?” Biscuit piped up.

Her head pounded.

“It’ll fuck you up, but it lets you fuck other things up worse!  It’s so cool!  I finally got to see it!”

A mean part of her wanted to go after Biscuit, silencing her.

But other parts of her won out.

The technomancy Other swept over the area.  Shadows became television static, and television static sorted black to black and white to white, with faces lunging out of the static like hungry sharks out of water.

Bubbleyum leaped out of the way of one, before one ‘shark’ could emerge and bite her.  Human teeth instead of shark ones.  Somehow more menacing.

The sky was beginning to take on that static effect as well, deepening shadows, letting the static spread further.

“Butty!” she called out.  “Bangnut!”

The two goblins came running.

They had enough trust in her.  She owed that to Toadswallow.

“Open!” she ordered Butty.

He opened his mouth without a moment’s hesitation.

“In,” she ordered Bangnut.

Bangnut did hesitate.

“And Butty is not to swallow.  You have-”

The static in the sky swelled, black sorting to black, white to white, and a white face with white eyes and pus leaking out the tear ducts loomed, reaching down.

While they were distracted, the wraith drew out echoes in a circle around it, setting them to spinning around it.  The ragged ends of echoes were connected together, until they formed a wreath, the speed of the orbit increasing second by second.

The wraith pointed, and the wreath went from stationary, spinning, to flying out at two hundred kilometers an hour, smashing into gore.

Gore connecting to gore.  Echoes connected to echoes, animating flesh that melded and crammed in together with other flesh.

Guilherme confronted it.

The Dog Tags were emptying guns at the face, which was a hundred feet across, sticking out of the static like a face surfacing from water, but down, instead of up.  Dipping down toward them, mouth opening wide, more pus in the mouth.

Butty closed his mouth around Bangnut, cheeks bulging.

She grabbed Butty by the back of the too-tight cowboy underpants he wore, and ran toward Sockgnash.

Pus dripped down from the eyes and extended tongue of the face.  It hit ground and caved in a house.  White static consumed the house, and more faces began to bulge out, emerging from that static, speaking a foreign language.

“Sock!” she shouted.  She let go of Butty and let his obscenely smooth body coast on the uneven road the last twenty or so feet to where Sockgnash was.  “Moonkiller wedgie!”

Sockgnash bent down to get ahold of Butty’s underwear.

She took advantage of him being bent down to grab hold of the chainsaw.

She hauled back on the starter.  Revving it up.

The chainsaw’s chain threaded through flesh and vein, running through Sockgnash’s entire body.  When she revved it up, she kicked him to another tier of strength.

She revved him up again, hitting a switch.

Third tier.

Butty grinned at her, held by the front and back of his underpants by a chainsaw powered strongman of a goblin, who was frothing at the mouth as the chainsaw’s added horsepower churned through him, multiplying his already intense natural strength.

“M-m-m-m-mmmm-m-oou—ouut-” Sockgnash’s lower jaw chattered and jittered, spitting out more forth than words.  His eyes had gone entirely white.



The face reached them.


“-yyyyking- iii- iiii-”

The pus hit ground around them.  Faces sprouted.


“Gob damn it, Sock!” she shouted.  She kicked him in between the shoulder blades.

Bits of the wraith-animated gore snaked past Guilherme, toward them, barring the escape route she’d been keeping an eye on.

Different gum.  She had different varieties, different types.  The prisoner gum was one.  Some she was nowhere near nine hundred and ninety nine pieces.  Others she was close.

This one… close.

She’d passed nine hundred with the gum collected from annoying people.  As a multiple of three, it was a good one.

It wasn’t stiff like the prisoner’s gum was.  Looser, messier, and it didn’t take much to get a good chew started.

The giant head’s lower teeth scraped at road and grass.  Glitchy stuff took over what it scooped up.

She took a deep breath and blew.  The bubble reached a four foot diameter in a moment.

She shielded the most important parts of Sockgnash and his chainsaw with her body, and let it pop.

Gum exploded out to coat the white-eyed techno thingies, ground, and the wraith’s interconnected mess of gore.  It even stuck to parts of the giant head.

Tying them up, buying her time, and giving her a bit of claim.

“Making it harder!” Sockgnash screamed.  The chainsaw had run down slightly.  “My aim’s-”


“Not that good!”

Probably striking a good balance of power and control, at least.

Sock did a two-handed skyward toss of Butty, gripping and using underwear because it had more traction than the rest of the goblin, lobbing him straight into the giant head’s nostril.

Butty was smooth and lubed to the point he could slide with little friction on gravel.  So he slid into the face’s nostril and kept going.  And kept going. 

To the back of the nose, down the throat, down into stomach, and all the way through that tunnel.

Or whatever that Other had in the way of insides.

A delivery vehicle for Bangnut.  Because whatever was on the far side… it would probably have tech as part of it.

The head had stopped biting and its forehead rested on ground.  Static kept creeping around them.

The wraith-stuff tore free of gum.

The Dog Tags were firing, hacking with machetes and knives.  Anthem had his gun.  Guilherme was facing the largest part of the wraith thing’s creation, cutting down limbs often enough it couldn’t reach very far past him.

And the neighborhood was losing steadily more ground as goblins rampaged.

She chewed on her gum.  Tongues with enough strength to break fingers pushed the excessively stiff gum out of her mouth, so she could blow a small, tight bubble.

The bubble popped with a percussive sound like a gunshot in volume and snappiness.

Scattered debris rolled away from her in the wake of that pop.  Small bits of glamour broke.  The static retreated.  The edges of the illusion that was barely holding this fake suburb together and the weakest of the wraith-animated bits of flesh all broke down.  Not completely, not in a rolling way that would shatter it all.

But it helped bring things to a standstill.

Helped to finalize the retreat of the sunny neighborhood effect.  Helped to drive the technomancy Other away- as did the damage Bangnut and Butty were apparently doing behind the scenes.  One of the Other’s eyes had turned from white static to black, like a television that had been turned off.

One of the things she’d modified from a Cavendar book.  It had been a clap in a book she’d found interesting, that talked about titans, and the elemental practitioners who tried to emulate them, becoming huge.  Pillars of elemental power packing serious fat, height, and muscle, with shit like the clap to take control of a scene.

The Winter Fae were still out there, still hidden.  Maybe hidden in the layers of this messed up eggshell-thin town.

One of them was here.  Guilherme.

“Don’t look at me,” Guilherme said.  “You wasted enough of my time with that transformation, earlier.”

She started to say something, and then Grandfather stepped forward.  Between them.  Given the difference in height, he stood closer to her than to the Fae.

“Did Miss tell you to do that?  Get between us?” she asked, smacking the gum between fanged teeth.

“No comment.”

Other Dog Tags stood around the ruined, gore-strewn neighborhood, with its shattered facades and the people walking down the sidewalk, half-shattered clown cars packed with corpses of people and animals, leaving whole piles of living, dying, and dead bodies to one side as they hobbled away, acting like it was an ordinary day in the fucking neighborhood.

The wraith started to move more carcasses, sending more echoes out.

Momentum, again.

Anthem, a bit behind the rest of the group, covered in blood, fired his gun.  It hit the wraith lord, and a magic circle expanded out from the impact site.

The wraith moved, and the circle moved with it, slowly.  With the resistance the magic circle made around the wraith, it was like a person with a ball and chain attached to them.  A metal ball, not the fleshy sort.

Two more shots did substantial damage to the wraith.

Bubbleyum broke into a run.

She was doing many things at once.  Proving something, inspiring goblins, showing up the fae, going after the Carmine Chucklefuck, helping Sir Toadswallow save what they’d been putting together.

The bottle had broken, but Sockgnash was right on her heels, and he had more gunk.

She motioned, and he threw a brown paper bag at her.  Gunk inside.  Good.

Others were inside the school, a bunch of complicated and problematic individuals.  Now if they could get up that hill, get inside, they could start doing stuff.  Like killing off a few key people.  Rescuing Horseman and whoever else.

As if to answer that thought, the blood goddess descended from the sky, landing on the roof of a stately little house.  Naked and soaked in blood.

The entire eggshell-thin suburban area began to change under her sway.  Paint darkened, then started to bleed.  The gore began to liquefy.

She was naked, but the blood ran thick enough over and around her that it covered her chest.  She seemed like she should be blind, with the blood that covered the upper half of her face, but managed just fine.

The house she was sitting on began to break down.  Not because of weight, but because of weight.  She held her position without dropping an inch as the building shattered into a thousand bloody pieces of wood, siding, shingle, and other things, which broke down further, into slivers and shards, pointed pieces of wood, individual nails, and triangles of shingle.

A bloody wound in her chest hadn’t closed.  She reached long fingers up to it, and reached inside.

Anthem shot his gun.  The flesh at her wrist was punctured, the surrounding flesh tearing, breaking, as if the bullet had been followed immediately after by an invisible truck crashing full speed into the impact site.

It put itself back together as fast as it had broken.

“Blood, conflict, power,” she said.  Each word felt like it was… Bubbleyum didn’t know.  Changing the weather?

The sun wasn’t shining anymore.  The smoke from the fighting had already touched the sky, but now things were taking on more darkness.  Smoke being encouraged to become cloud.

Maricica found what she was after, and fished a human out of the hole in her chest.  Allegedly where the nail had been.  A man, partially clothed, broken.

The blood that flowed down and around her was thick enough that when she dropped him, he hit a slope and slid a few feet.

Bubbleyum wasn’t that good at recognizing humans as distinct from one another.  Especially when the guy was covered in blood.  Usually it was fashion and other stuff that helped them stand out.

“Musser,” Anthem said.

“I found him trying to rally his old allies.  We had an encounter.  He was once stronger than you, Anthem,” she told him.



Bubbleyum looked around.  Every surface was bleeding now.

The neighborhood retreated, ceding ground to the goddess.  Redoubling its strength as it pushed back against the Turtle Queen and Montague.  Things held their shape, mostly, but as blood and flesh, quavering, congealing.

As it congealed, it shifted, settling, so fenceposts were small spires, or spines.  Houses were altars.  The things that were left behind, from corpse to debris, it levitated into the air, the sharpest or most menacing ends pointing at them.

A segment of blood-streaked bone went flying, spearing Grandfather.  A bit of wood so soaked through with blood it was crimson caught Bubbleyum in the stomach.

She felt the Goddess reach through that projectile, into her.

Twisting that wood inside her, to tear and do internal damage.

Bubbleyum doubled over.

More and more, the individual segments of levitated bits of debris became a hail.  Anthem and Guilherme could fend it off.  Goblins could take cover.  Dog Tags took the hits and endured it, returning fire.

Ground increasingly became slick with blood.

One of the Dog Tags, rushing forward, grenade in hand, had a foot go into a pool of blood and drop a foot.  She threw the grenade aside, because she couldn’t get the distance she wanted.

“The trouble with mercenaries is they follow the money,” the blood goddess told them, her voice carrying across the scene.  Nails and splinters of wood hit bloody buildings and road with enough force the blood splashed up in six foot high splatters.  “When someone comes along with more money, you lose your army.”

The overcast clouds began to rain blood.

“The same applies if you rule with fear or power.  Isn’t that right, Musser?  And if I’m scarier and more powerful than you are?”

She used a finger to lift up his head.

Blood running off of her face dripped onto his.  Some hit his open mouth.

He barely reacted, except to try to turn his face away.  When she moved her finger from beneath his chin, his head lolled, and he coughed, spitting down toward the ground.

The Goddess had company.

Shit.  Musser was the one with a mess of familiars.

Familiars who were backed by others.  The Black Scalpel had returned.  Again.

The Wraith King had broken free of binding.

Bubbleyum huddled behind cover, trying to think.

A nail stabbed its way through what might’ve been a car, that was now a lump of clotting blood.  She was thrown face-first into the blood that pooled on the road, covering ninety-five percent of it all.  It had nailed her in the upper arm, tearing away a quarter-pound of flesh.

She had the goblin gunk.

She brought her fist up to her mouth, and she kissed her pinky finger, which currently and always had Toadswallow’s first nipple hair tied around it.

Anthem was shouting something to Musser, trying to rally him.

“Goddess,” Bubbleyum said.

“Mmm,” Maricica made a sound, and it felt like it carried out to Bubbleyum specifically.

“You stopped being a faerie.  Good for you.  Except you’ve still got it wrong.  You still don’t get it.”

“I thought you might offer a prayer, and surrender,” Maricica murmured, and she was big and powerful enough the quiet words filled the area as far around her as anyone could see.  Like they’d be heard if hands were clapped to ears.

“You want to hurt me?  I grew up with hurt,” Bubbleyum said.  She got her feet around her, and she left cover.

The hail focused more in her direction.  That focus meant she could try to avoid some.

She used the gunk.  Goblin glamour.  Toadswallow’s work.  Blurring the edges, deflecting.  Bloody rain pelted her from above.  Splinters and nails grazed her, cutting her at edges.

“Tricky little human town?  I’ve been navigating unfriendly human shit for all my life!”

She ran forward.

Musser’s familiars stepped in her way.

“And the blood shit?  The gore, the darkness, all of this!?  You think it’s fancy!?  You think it’s cool!?” Bubbleyum’s voice reached the levels of being a screech.

She dropped down into a slide, Butty style.  Coasting on blood.

Into the space beneath what might’ve been a car.  Where the undercarriage hadn’t quite dissolved into more blood.

She could use glamour, cheat things.  Erupt out of a space nearby.

Past the Musser minions, closing in on the Goddess.

“That’s what the Warrens are you ex-faerie bitch!”

Maricica moved a hand.

And the blood that soaked everything and hid the street beneath an inch-deep layer became a tidal wave.

Bubbleyum was able to hurdle it, but the wake of it still dragged her off course.

It didn’t matter, really.

Toadswallow had a way of thinking big.  Big picture, figuring out how things like goblins and the unfair folk fit together.

They’d talked strategy, for how the goblin glamour stuff would go.  How the fae might react.  Toads’ brains and her strategy.

Communicated in a glance when she’d decided not to wait for everyone to group up.

Her being out here, first in line?  When they’d set out a mission?

They couldn’t let her be the last.  The goblin glamour was an unknown, and there was a very real risk that she could deliver the final blow.

Which she couldn’t.  But they didn’t know that for sure.

The blood and residual illusions of the town broke up.  Cold swept in.

The Wild Hunt of Winter revealed itself.

Bubbleyum turned her back on the goddess, letting them do the dirty work.  She’d privately take the credit.

She faced the minions that had belonged to Musser, and the Black Scalpel.

Guilherme plunged from the sky to stab the latter through the chest.

In its death throes, the Black Scalpel moved to throw its weapon.

She lashed out with her tongue-

“Don’t hold it!” Grandfather hollered.

Striking it, instead of grabbing it.  Sending it flying.  Embedding into a distant tree, deep enough it would be hard to pull out.

Then she turned her full attention to Musser’s minions.


The Family Man twisted, mutating, muscles parting to give him two arms on the one side for a moment, so he could both avoid the thrust of a spear that was meant to leave his arm useless and strike out at her at the same time.

He caught her across the face, scratching deep.  She slid on icy ground.

The Family Man smiled, pacing.  His people were a mob behind him.

“You’re bleeding,” he said.

“Happens,” she answered.

“Would you look at that?  The curse was lifted.  You made me faint at the sight of it, and now… it stirs the heart.  I’ll give you the curse back, well before we’re done.”

He swatted at her ear, grabbing for her implement with a bare hand, arm reaching a bit too far for his dimensions.  She parried the hit.

Anywhere she cut, he closed flesh around it.  Not healing, just putting the injury away.

“It’s up to you where I push the thorn in, to give it to you with the curse attached.  To drain your magic and leave you weak in word and bloodlust.  Belly?  Face?  Eye?  Thigh?  Or an existing hole?  Into an ear, until the world goes quiet?”

He was good at finding weaknesses.

“That cut on your face might scar.  Lovely.  I will give you so many more.  Until it stops being sadism and starts becoming art.”

“Try,” she answered.

He moved a hand, and she moved her weapon to be ready-

A shout behind her made her turn her head.

Someone was creeping up on her.  Someone who made no noise at all.  No practice, just Undercity weirdness.

She got her weapon up in time to keep cord from being pulled tight against her throat.

The Family Man came for her, thorn in hand, reaching, jabbing for the side of her head, her ear.

She transformed her weapon, then brought it up as a knife, cutting the cord.  The silent man grabbed her hair, and she used glamour to become a fox-

The Family Man kicked her, hard enough to shatter the glamour.

She picked herself up.

Spell papers-

Someone in the crowd threw something.  She stopped it, saw the Family Man reach out, parried the reaching hand, cutting it.

And one of the Oldbodies’ old little kids came running at her, puffy-faced.

She kicked them away, being careful about footing, careful that the Oldbodies had treated so many of their people to have gas or alchemy or something else inside them.  She had to stop the kid but couldn’t stop the kid when the kid was close.

Another grab from the Family Man.  Thorn jabbing her way.  Toward her chest.


Kick the kid away.

Find footing.

The silent person darted in, cutting at her hand.  She turned her hand just in time, and the cord was severed.

Spell cards were scattered into the wind.  She hurried to find footing, to go from being against this wind and the constant pressure that was trying to push a collapsing undercity into Kennet above to being with it, shaping it.

Guiding papers.

They touched ground and people all around her, and erupted into fire, into ice, into electric shocks and flares of light.  Above all, they erupted into smoke.

The silent man came for her, through the smoke, but it was hers.  She’d spent almost all of her glamour on this area, and the metaphorical seeds had been planted.

So smoke became a fox that had fur with the color and twistiness of smoke, baring teeth, seizing hand.

A gesture bid another to lunge out of smoke.  The kid came running at her and tripped over it.  She was already backing well out of the way when the kid fell hard enough that skin ruptured.

Gas billowed out in a huge cloud.  The silent man, standing in the area of the gas, opened his mouth in a scream that made no noise.  His skin blistered and sloughed off.

She had no elemental spell cards, now.  Cards were still going off here and there.

Lucy, Lucy, Lucy.

She heard it.

Tiny hairs all over her body stood up.  She was attuned enough to the wind to feel it change.

She turned her head, looking back through the passage that led between Kennet above and Kennet below, looking for the voice that had shouted for a warning.

Oakham, bloody, clearly injured, a huge cut on her arm, stood there, over the seven people who’d slipped through.

She’d held the ground Lucy hadn’t been able to.

“Did you protect the toad?” Lucy asked.

“Seriously?  That’s what you ask?”

“Did you?”

“Yeah.  Of course.  Warm and safe.”


“Is it the answer to this whole mess?  Toad as the key-?”

Melissa’s question went unfinished, because the Family Man acted.

She’d wanted him to.

Her ear was facing him, he’d identified a weak spot- probably because she had the earring and he knew about her implement being focused around sound and hearing.  He wanted to hurt her in that way.

Sadism, after all.

But she’d been secretly keeping an eye out for it, she could fend off the hand and the thorn.

The way he worked, he stretched, extending, pulling back.

So she let him extend.  And when he pulled back, she went with him, kicking off with her boots on glamoured ground, fingernails catching his forearm.

With her weapon in her right hand, she created a stiletto dagger.  A knife-length blade with a width like a rapier.

His focus was on her.  The fact she was making what he had to feel was a grave mistake, getting into arm’s reach.  Getting up close to him, where he had friends all around.

But her name had been called three times by her friends.  And they’d put together what they were putting together.

The timing was more or less right.

Verona kicked off the ritual to help secure Kennet above.  Avery had the mundane items.  Lucy was holding the third of the locations.

A shift of power, a shift of balances, a reassertion of claim and domain.

He felt it.  It helped to distract him, as she speared the thorn with the stiletto blade, and used the fact he was pulling her in to get the momentum to drive it in.  Sideways-ish, but in.

He staggered back, a fresh hole in his chest.

“Second time, let the curses be twice as strong.  You brought it on yourself.”

He made a wailing sound, eyes going wild.  He couldn’t stand blood anymore.

Lucy backed up.

Back to the opening.

She scanned the crowd.

Two of the Oldbodies.  Adherents of Bloody Glory…


Bogeymen?  They’d removed the nail…



He stood there, in the crowd.

“No, no, no, no, no, no!” the Family Man roared.

“No,” Charles agreed.

“What are you doing?” Lucy asked.

She watched as the wound in the Family Man’s chest bled.

The thorn was pushed out by the blood.

“It was a duel, implicitly.  Outside factors interrupted it,” he said.  “Third time’s a charm, I suppose.”

“I did that fair and square!  No.  Bullshit!”

He had a dark look in his eyes as he looked at her.  “Take it up with a judge.”

“I fucking am!  Bull!”

“Your points have been considered and your appeal is denied.  Funny how that works, isn’t it?” he asked, without humor in his voice, still with that darkness behind the eyes.

She shook her head.

The Family Man stood, picking up the thorn.

More Others were emerging.

He’s making every kind of dangerous Other, now.

“Carry on,” the Carmine said, before disappearing.


Bubbleyum had to retreat.  She was hurt, she’d spent too much of what she’d had, and as Biscuit had said, the transformation did fuck her up.

The Wild Hunt speared Maricica with invisible blades.  Blood ran down the length of each one, Fae holding the weapons.

Guilherme had one but hadn’t used it yet.

“You did good.”

“Toadsy,” Bubbleyum said, turning to find him at the rear, with other wounded.  The Ballerina was fighting some kids in a trenchcoat, bowling them over, splitting them up.  Then they’d hop back together.  The Dog Tags were out of ammo and were using blades.

“I’ve got potions.  They’ll fuck you up in different ways, but we can get you fixed.”

“How’s this for a chink in the armor and a way forward?” she asked.

“We’ll see,” Toadswallow answered.  “But you did good either way.”

“You don’t think we got this?

“I think there’s too many other factors.  Miss says others are coming in.”


“Practitioner families.  The Horror family.  Goblins.”

Bubbleyum narrowed her eyes.

“Not her.  But goblins.  Elementals.  He has the ability to decide what sprouts up, what manifests, and he’s saying yes to them all, giving them…”

Toadswallow went quiet.

She turned, following his gaze.

The Carmine Exile stood at Maricica’s chest, feet on either side of the hole the nail had been in, that Musser had been pulled out of.

“You stay my blade?” Guilherme asked.  He was ready to impale her.

“Maricica,” Charles said.  “I give you the option of becoming my agent.  It is the prerogative of Judges to have any being, human, Other, or practitioner, become their servant, to help them in carrying out their duties.”

The smile was visible beneath the blood that flowed down Maricica’s face.  “I agree.”

“Then by the Seal, you are mine, you are protected, removed from all events, all prior bindings, all prior curses.  I spend my power, let us restore you, so you can do what is necessary as an agent of the Carmine Throne.”

The Winter Fae released her.

Bubbleyum put a claw on Toadswallow’s shoulder, gripping it tight.  He put his claw over hers.

Maricica straightened.  Injuries the Winter Fae had inflicted were healed.  She stood straighter.

“I empower you with extra strength and capabilities… much needs to be done.”

“Of course.”

The air changed, pressure increasing in a way it did in the deepest Warren tunnels.  Nearest the greatest and oldest goblins and goblin-adjacent things.

The sky above them had gone from daylight to overcast and now clouds were breaking up to be a uniform crimson, studded with black stars, directly above her.

The pool of blood beneath her expanded to nearly double.

“Carmine Exile,” Maricica said.  “I ask your leave to abandon my position as agent in your service.”

“Unusual but not without precedent.  I consider your service worthy enough.  I will grant it.”

“And she keeps the power you granted her in her brief stay in office?” Guilherme asked.

“Also not without precedent,” the Carmine Exile said.

Dark and bloody Others were coming out of the darkness, to join the ranks of those who served the Goddess.

Bubbleyum tensed.  She silently took the healing potion Sir Toadswallow handed her.

“How many others will receive this opportunity to be your agent, however brief?” Toadswallow asked, raising his voice.

More were coming from behind them.

“Enough,” the Carmine Exile answered.

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