Shadow – Interlude 5d

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It’s my night.  No control over what happens.

Rain’s senses were flooded with a turpentine-alcohol taste, filling his mouth, then his nose.  People laughed and cheered, and flesh strained around his face.

He pulled free of the headlock as the fluid hit his eyes, and leaned over, sputtering, trying to blink the alcohol out of his eyes.  The cheers became more laughter.

Rain groaned, facing the ground, and it was a primal sound.  “Are you trying to kill or blind me?”

“Ew, you’ve got some fucked up snot,” Nell said.

He brought a hand to his nose, and realized the ‘fucked up snot’ was a tendril of snot that was extending from his nose, made more liquid by the caustic, homebrewed alcohol.

He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, caught the snot, and threw it into the fire before leaning back.

“Here,” Jay said.  “Drink.”

He pushed the glass jug at Rain.  The inside looked almost moldy with the way the pulp clung to the exterior and caught the light.  The contents sloshed within.

“If I drink more I’ll be useless tomorrow,” Rain said.

“You’re going to be useless no matter what happens,” Allie said, to laughter.

“Fuck you,” Rain said.  He felt his face stretch into a smile.

“Drink, Rain man,” Jay said, more forcefully.

Rain looked up at the guy.  A year older, Jay was tall, his hair shoulder length and blond.  His light facial hair and the smoke of the fire behind him caught the light of the bonfire, but the same light didn’t catch most of his other features.  His eyes weren’t visible.

No choice.  Rain took the jug.  He tipped it back, and the taste of it made him cough more.

The other teenagers around the fire cheered.

“You’re going to be a soldier,” Jay said.  His tone was such that none cheered.  Some knew what it meant to be a soldier, some didn’t, but all respected Jay as the leader of their age group and they knew this exchange was between Jay and Rain.

Rain nodded.  His vision shifted slightly as the alcohol made itself felt.  He looked up at Jay, and his eye settled momentarily on the long hair.

“I’ll be a soldier,” Rain said.  “The Bible talks about the end times, it talks about armies springing forth, powers, and the deaths of the unworthy.  Everything that happened and happens, the Dragon, the Harlot, the seven bowls, and the armies, with all of the soldiers… even the bad stuff is all God’s will and God’s doing.”

“God’s will,” some others echoed.

“People have to step up to be soldiers in those armies,” Rain said.

Not original words, but they were accepted as truth by the group.  Some believed wholeheartedly, and it was clear in their eyes.  Others were newer, unfamiliar with it, but they played along.  As they heard the voices of people who truly believed, they would hear it and start to come around.  Such was the intent.

The Rain of the past, as he spoke the words, believed.

Jay reached over, and put his hand at the side of Rain’s head, fingers in Rain’s hair, where it had started to grow out.

“Put the fear of God in them,” Jay said.  “And you watch my back.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “We’ll give ’em hell.”

Jay let go of his head, refused to take the jug back, and walked around the circle, attention on others.

Time passed.  He could remember a lot of the thoughts he had, as he’d looked at people.  He wasn’t the only person who was earning his stripes as a soldier.  Others, he knew, would be there, and he’d looked at each of them, powered and unpowered, thinking about whether he could trust them, what to watch out for.  Barnabas was violent and could never stop when he got riled up.  Hiram hated Rain because Tabitha, the girl Hiram had liked, had liked Rain.  It didn’t matter that Rain had never reciprocated or liked her back.  Hiram might even take an excuse to hurt Rain, if he had one.  Rain had thought about how he’d try not to be alone with the guy.

They ended up together anyway.  Hiram was a good soldier and he asked for Tabitha.  Now she’s pregnant with his kid, and she pretends to be happy.

Helps that I’m on the lowest rung of the totem pole.

More time passed.  Rain felt the alcohol even through the dream, laughed more than necessary at a few of the jokes from people in the sidelines.

He looked at Erin, who was sitting on the other side of the fire, talking to Jay, shaking her head.  He’d sat where he sat because it gave him a better view of her.

Delilah got up from her seat, hands filled with the blanket she’d draped over her lap, and sat down next to Rain.  “Give me a drink?”

Rain hefted the jug.  It was heavy enough that he had to help Delilah manage it, controlling its tilt so she wouldn’t have it all slosh into her mouth, as Jay had done to him.

“Oh, gawd, that’s awful,” Delilah said.

Rain offered the jug to others in arm’s reach.  When nobody took it, he set it down on the ground by their feet.  The fire’s light illuminated the contents.

Firewater, he thought.  He’d thought it at the time, though it was closer to moonshine.

“Here,” Delilah said.  She held out the blanket.

“I’m warm enough,” he said.  Even in the dream, he felt the alcohol warming him from within, the heat of it, the buzz.  Everything was fuzzy around the edges and his stomach felt ready to revolt if he moved, so he didn’t move.

“Here,” she said, again.  She scooted closer, until her side pressed against his.  “I’ll make you warmer.”

He didn’t resist as she arranged the blanket over their laps.  He didn’t resist either as she slowly undid his zipper beneath the blanket.  Everyone around the fire was talking, the fire had died down and nobody was stoking it or replacing the wood.  Some people had started home.

She took him in her hand, easing him out past the zipper, and he made sure to fix the blanket so nothing was apparent.

“My brother,” she said.  “He’s going out for the first time too.”

Rain nodded.

“Protect him?”

“If we’re even in the same place, sure,” he said, trying to sound normal.  He glanced at Erin.

I’d been so worried about what she thought.

They sat like that for a bit, her hand moving.  The fire snapped loudly, as a log broke, and they both jumped.

Nobody saw or cared.  Delilah’s hand moved again beneath the blanket.

Rain let his head move, leaning it on her shoulder, nose and mouth in her hair.  She smelled good.

“Talk to me,” Delilah said.

“What do you want me to say?”

“Tell me you’re a good soldier.”

“I’m a good soldier,” he said.  His mind had been a blank.

“Some imagination, please.  Tell me what you’ll do.”

“That’s what you like?” he asked, almost incredulous, but he couldn’t put much incredulity in his words without heads turning their way.

He felt her hair move as she nodded, and he definitely felt her finger move.

“I’ll make them beg for mercy,” he said.

“Work your way up to that,” she said.  “And you’ll make them beg for God to save them.”

“I’ll make them bleed,” he whispered.  She nodded fiercely.  He added, “I’ll make them cry.”

“Weep,” she said.  “Better word.”

“You’re so fucked up,” he said.

“Keep going.  If you stop, I stop.”

“We’ll make them think they’re already in Hell, with the fear and the pain,” he whispered.

“That’s good,” Delilah said.  “That’s imaginative.”

“It’s stuff I’ve heard all my life.”

“Are your aunt and uncle your real family?”

“I think so.  I don’t know,” He said.  Rain could remember how weird it had felt to be talking family while in this situation.  “My mom called my aunt her sister when we lived in the same places, which wasn’t always.  I know I’m related to a lot of people here.”

“Not me,” Delilah said.  Her face brushed against his as she pressed her mouth to his shoulder and bit him lightly.

Near Jay and Erin, Allie stood from the log stump she was using as a seat.  She took a second to gather her guitar and sling the strap over her shoulder.

Rain put a hand on Delilah’s, telling her to stop for a moment.

Allie approached.  She looked at Rain and Delilah, eye dropping to the blanket, and rolled her eyes, whites visible in the gloom.

“You good?” Allie asked.

“I’m great,” he said, terse.  “Obviously.”

“Obviously.  My prayers are with you tomorrow.  I might not see you before you go.”

“Thank you.”

“My prayers are with Joel too,” Allie said.

“Thank you,” Delilah said.  “We’ll talk tomorrow, okay?”

“Do you want to meet?  We can keep an ear out for word on how things go, watch the news.”

“Allie,” Rain said.  More terse than before, he said, “Go.

Allie smiled, smug, and sauntered off, guitar bouncing behind her.

“Can I keep going?” Delilah asked.  “I have to be up early, but I want to send off at least one soldier.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Rain said.

In the dream, he was warm in many ways, face flushed, buzzing with the strong alcohol, head pounding in time with his heartbeat, and a good feeling suffused him.

In the dream, as he went through it again, there was none of the psychological, where it was divorced from the physical.  He despised himself a little for succumbing to his instincts in this moment, he’d never even especially liked Delilah.  He agonized over if Erin would notice anything, because he liked Erin.  Even back then, he’d gotten along with her little brother.

And above all else, he dreaded what came the next day.

It was a sunny day as they climbed out of the little bus and the trucks.  Rain watched as a few people in the parking lot looked their way, saw the tattoos, the shirts with crosses on them, and the masks.

The people turned the other way, changing their minds about their plans to go into the shopping center.  They would, Rain knew, agonize over what to do, whether to call for help.  The Fallen appeared here and there, sometimes only to make their presence known, only causing trouble on the rarer occasions.

In a matter of hours from this point, weeping, these people would be talking to the news cameras, saying they should have seen what happened and called.

Rain fixed his mask.  It was hard plastic.  A demon’s face.

“You,” Seir said.  He had his horse’s head on, and heavy black clothes that left his arms bare, where he’d wrapped chains around them.  He indicated Rain.  “Special job.”

He never liked me, Rain thought.  Something about family ties, old grudges he can’t resolve because some people aren’t around anymore.

But he’d listened.  Rain went with Seir, looking back at the others.

They went around the side of the shopping center.  One employee was out the side, smoking.  A teenager of Rain’s age, slightly overweight, her hair tucked under a flat-top cap with a visor at the front.

Her eyes on her phone, cigarette at her mouth, she didn’t see them.

Seir raised a hand.  There was a sound, halfway between a rumble and drumming, almost a stampede, and curling lines of black spilled from Seir’s palm.  The dozen or so lines didn’t curl so much as they bounced, each moving in a smooth half or quarter circle before stopping, curving back or at a right angle to carry on its way.

Where they hit solid surfaces, they exploded into rough silhouettes of Seir, mask and all.  Each was as black as the lines – like gaps in reality rather than mere black that absorbed the light of the sun.  Each had eyes that glowed as they looked around- one human eye where it peered through the horse’s eye socket, and one of the horse’s eyes.

One, twenty feet above the ground, tore the security camera from the corner of the building.  Another appeared beside the store employee, who was running now that she’d heard the sound and saw them.  It snatched her up.

Seir became shadow, and the figure with the girl in its arms became Seir.

Others were turning over trash cans, breaking glass in car windows.  Ten in all.  The ones that finished doing their damage disappeared.

Rain continued walking.  He could feel his heart pounding.

“Bad for you,” Seir said, wrestling the girl around and taking the cigarette.  He took a puff.  “Are you bad?  Are you a sinner?”

“Please,” she said.

“Open,” Seir said.

“What?”

“Open wide!” Seir screamed the words.

She opened her mouth and kept it open.  Seir took another puff, still holding her, his face next to hers.  Rain could see her trembling.

He could remember how he’d felt.  Uneasy.

Seir held the cigarette, only half burned, and held it up in front of her face.  Then he flicked it into her mouth, hard enough it had to have hit the back of her throat.  His hand caught her before she could spit it out, and he held his hand firm over her mouth.

It took what had felt like a minute before she stopped struggling and went still in Seir’s grip.  Only fifteen or twenty seconds.

When Seir held her by only one wrist, she didn’t fight.  Her eyes were wide, terrified.

“Spit on her,” Seir said.

Rain spat on the girl’s face.

If I’d hesitated even a fraction of a second, he would have destroyed me and said he was justified doing it.

“Give me an excuse,” Seir said.  “Fuck up one time.”

“I’m not going to fuck up,” Rain said.

“I’m giving you an easy job,” Seir said.  “You won’t have much of a chance, but I think you’ll manage to fuck it up anyway.”

He dragged the girl, jerked her arm when she wasn’t fast enough.  Her hand went away from her face to wipe away the spit, and Seir shook her hard.

“Leave it there,” he said.  She did.  Seir looked back, and said, “Kid, what do you think you’re doing?  Open the fucking doors.”

Rain opened the double-set of metal doors.  Rain could see within, see the plaza on the far, far end of the hallway, the signs on either side, and the stacked tables and pallets, people walking this way and that, going about their days.

Rain heard a muffled shriek.  Three shadowy Seirs hauled the girl off her feet, the fourth holding her hair and mouth.

She was lifted up until she was horizontal to the ground, then forced to the ground.

“Make a sound,” Seir said, “And I’ll kill you.  Stay.”

Fingers knotted in her hair, Seir held the hair and let the doors swing shut, trapping the hair there.  He stepped on it for good measure, straightening with a grunt.

The man took a chain from around his arm and wound it through and around the door handles, squares of sheet metal, and hauled the chains tight.  He rummaged, and a moment later, came up with a padlock.  He put it through several of the chains to keep it tight, but left it unlocked.

“You’re guarding the door,” Seir said.

“I wanted to do more,” Rain said.

Did I?  Rain wondered.  His old self was so long ago, so far away.

“Cry about it.  We’re scaring the shit out of them.  Step one in scaring the shit out of them is not letting them escape.  Got it?  Let any of them go, you’re not going to get another shot at being a soldier.”

He reached a hand out for Rain.  Rain knocked it away, then backed up a step.

“Don’t disappoint us, boy,” Seir said.  “You know how fucking bad it is to disappoint us.”

“The only disappointment today is that I’m left guarding a door.”

Seir snorted.

Black lines flowed up from Seir’s head and shoulders, arcing and bouncing off the wall on their way to the roof.

Seir took the place of one of his shadow selves, leaving a shadow on the ground.  It lunged at Rain, and Rain jumped back.

Only a feint.  The shadow looked like it was snickering, then disappeared.

Rain gave the now-absent Seir the finger.

Then he was left to wait.  He stared down at the hair that still stuck through the door, stuck there.

Someone at the corner of the building walked out to their car.  Rain turned away, hiding his masked face.

The day was slightly overcast, but the sun was bright.  Rain fidgeted, back to the wall, hood up and head down.  When the explosion hit, he could feel it through the walls of the building.

He looked down at the hair.

The door jumped, chains clacking and screeching against the metal of the door handles.  Rain stepped back.

He heard the thuds, the pounding of fists on the metal, and the first of the shouts.  As the thuds escalated, his own heartbeat picked up.  He could feel the rush, hear the pounding of his blood in his ears joining the cacophony from the hallway.

He could make out the words, the pleas.

His hands went to the chain, traveling along it to the lock.  He could feel each push from the people on the other side, until the pushing stopped outright.

Not because the people had stopped, but because there was so much pressure that it wasn’t possible to pull the door back.

He looked up, for Seir, then to the side, and he gripped the lock.

His hand fell to his side.

He could hear people screaming and shouting, and he closed his eyes.  There were still thuds on the door, pounding fists.  Those, too, came to a stop.

Just the outward pressure on the door, and sounds from people further inside.

An interminable amount of time seemed to pass.

On the other side, he heard the scream he now knew to be Love Lost’s.

A huff of noise left his mouth, more cough than anything.  He brought a shaking hand to his face, and his vision jerked, spasmed.

His hand fell again, grazing chain, and he stepped back.  No longer muffled, the laugh left his lips.  It didn’t stop, continuing when he couldn’t draw in the air properly, small, hysterical, wild.

He sucked in a breath, almost pulled himself together, and then the laugh came out again, while his hand pressed against the door.

He was still laughing some time later, when Seir appeared.  The man created a shadow near Rain, took its place, and shoved Rain down.

“Fucking moron!” Seir swore.  “This is supposed to scare them, not kill them!  How the fuck do you think we’re supposed to clue them into the power of God, goodness and badassness both, if they’re all fucking dead!?

Rain’s mad laughter continued.

Seir kicked him, hard, in the stomach.  It didn’t make the laughter stop, but it did make it quieter.

Seir hauled on the chains, then used his shadow selves, and began tearing at the door, breaking the chains with the strength of the shadows and the help of the pressure on the other side.

Rain’s laughter died as the handles shattered with the force.  Fragments of flat, shattered metal skittered along the pavement, alongside some pieces of chain.  The doors were open.

People had to climb over others.  They flinched as Seir’s shadows tore at the pole that stood between the doors, then tore more at the frame, opening the aperture wider.

People stumbled out, and smoke followed them.

Rain started to climb to his feet, then fell, his hand going to his stomach.

Seir shot him a look, then created his shadow copies, and went to the roof.

Rain climbed to his feet, hand at his stomach, and found himself staring down the crowd, angry, hostile.  His hand had been near his mouth from the laughter, and now it touched his mask.

He could feel the instant the trigger hit him like a bucket of cold water being sloshed over him.

Rain found himself in the room, awash in self-loathing.  Bending down, he reached for his chair.

Stumbling, he dropped to one knee, hand on the loose floorboards and pine needles below.

No chair.

No, it wasn’t where it was supposed to be.  It was ten feet away, lying on its side, broken.  The lighting in the room was different. Almost everything had been scattered to the ground, damaged, or both.

They invited someone.

He lurched to his feet, looking around.  In Snag’s area, a shelving unit collapsed noisily, metal shelves falling.  Snag cursed in his characteristic growl.

Snag emerged from among the shelves, giving a wide berth to some bent shelves that leaned precariously.  He looked at Rain, then looked away, scowl etched around his eyes.  To Cradle, he said, “This may have been a mistake.”

Cradle emerged from the shadows around his area.  His fingers traced broken construction, the concrete slabs had cracks running through them.  More worrisome, however, was the fact that the invisible wall that rested between Cradle and Love Lost was streaked with blood, which ran down in thick, chunky globs.

At the base of the wall, a body so mangled it barely looked human was slumped against the wall.

Love Lost approached it, and knelt down beside the corpse.

It’s like an intense fight happened while the rest of us were off dreaming, and this person lost hard, Rain thought.

“This is going to be a hassle,” Cradle said.  “She brought bodyguards.”

“Do you need help?” Snag asked.

“I took precautions when Love told me old one-tooth here was dangerous.  Fuck.  Fixing our situation is going to be hard if the powers lash out at the people who get involved.”

“Do you want one or not?” Snag growled.

“Give me one.  I might need to make a run for it.”

Snag passed one piece of glass over to Cradle.

Mama Mathers, Rain thought.  He braced himself for the appearance, and saw nothing.  He scanned the room, looking.  Too much to hope that it would have brought her in, for the same treatment the one-toothed woman had been given.

Emotionally, after his visit with Mama Mathers, after the dream, he felt raw.  There was a part of him that wanted to break down in tears.  But to show weakness?

Blood still worked its way down the invisible barrier.  It was responsible for some of the altered color in the room.  Where others’ spaces had been cast in shades of blue and purple, it was now redder.

The others would discuss, they’d share out powers, while leaving Rain out of the loop, and then they would go back to trying to kill him.  Rain, meanwhile, would wake up and find himself where he’d been the night before.  Mama Mathers would watch his every move.

“I need help,” he said.

The looks on their faces.  Hate, hate, and a cold stare through scratched-up glasses.  His heart sank.

“There are people with the Fallen who need help.  Innocents.  The Fallen- they use powers to force us to act a certain way, keep us from leaving.  There are-” Rain started.  He looked at Love Lost.  “There are kids at risk.”

Love Lost’s hand went out.  She punched the barrier between them with enough force that something in her hand audibly broke.  She trembled with a mixture of pain and sheer loathing as she lowered her hand.

The hand would heal when they woke up, but still- to go that far.

“There are kids who are being forced to comply with powers.  The ones who aren’t brainwashed the usual way are made to obey with powers.”

“Convenient excuse,” Cradle said.

“In that dream, I wasn’t under the influence of any powers except for a watchful eye,” Rain said.  “She was observing me back then, but it doesn’t appear in the dream.”

“Shut up,” Cradle said.  “Stop.  We hear this every five-”

“I’m desperate!” Rain raised his voice, advancing.  “It’s bad.

“Good,” Snag said.

Love Lost nodded.

“Suffer,” Snag said.

“Innocents are going to die, or worse!  I can give you information on the Fallen.  You can use it to stop them.”

“We’re not going to cooperate with you,” Cradle said.  “Anyone else, but not with you.”

“I can tell you where they are, I can tell you how they operate.”

“No.”

Emotionally ragged, Rain almost opened his mouth to mention Erin.

“I’ll- if you cooperate, if you save these people-”

Save Erin.  Save her brother.  Save Lachlan.

They’re going to force me to go to the team.  They’ll find out about them.  If they get their hooks in Tristan- in Sveta?  Kenzie?

His teeth chattered with emotion.

“We’re not going to help you,” Cradle said.

“If you do,” Rain said, “I’ll do what you want.  Tie me to a chair, torture me for days.  Kill me.  But save them.”

Love Lost shook her head, looking away.

“We’re going to come after you,” Cradle said.  “Could be tomorrow, could be a week, could be a year.  Then we’ll do that anyway.  If you’ll lose people and things you care about in the meantime?  Good.  And you can know we let it happen because of your fucked up attitude infecting us.”

“Fuck you,” Rain said.  “Whoever or whatever you were before, it wasn’t normal or good.  People staring at you with disappointed looks from across a desk, looking at reports?  What was it?  Because you weren’t living up to potential?  You’re proving them right.”

Cradle didn’t flinch.  “You don’t know anything.”

Rain clenched his fist.  He looked at Love Lost.  “Your daughter would be disappointed in you.”

She raised her other fist, ready to punch the barrier again.

“Don’t take the bait,” Snag said.  “Don’t give him that satisfaction.”

“If you got anything from me, it wasn’t evil,” Rain said.  “It was willful blindness, being fucking sheep with no self-esteem or self-respect.  What happened to that Snag that helped that girl?”

It was Cradle who answered, “You guarded the door while he was trampled on the other side, and you laughed.  You see what we went through in our dreams, but you were the one getting a drunken handjob and laughing while we faced the worst days of our lives.”

“It was panic,” Rain said.

“Fuck that.”

“It was panic.  It was a nervous reaction!”

“Fuck that,” Cradle said, dismissive.  “We’ve heard it before, but-”

“Why do you think my share of the powers breaks things apart?  They’re thematically tied into who we are!  And my share is to shatter things because I was fucking shattered, right then!”

“It’s a power to destroy because you destroy things.  Do you know how I know?” Cradle asked.  “Because you fucking told us.  Day one.  You, me, him, her, in this room.  You laughed.  You told us we deserved it.  You threatened us.”

“Kill me, then.  Stop the Fallen, kill the monsters at the top, like Seir, and then kill me.”

“We’ll do all that without your help,” Snag said.  “Give us time.  Wait for it, dread it.”

Rain was shaking.  He approached the dais.  He found the his shards of metal.

He snatched them up and gripped them as a stack in his hand.

He turned his back to the dais, the three others, and the mangled body.

Fingers ran through Rain’s hair.

“Shhh.  Easy.”

He closed his eyes.  All of the aches and pains, the soreness in his throat from vomiting, and the more physical side of his emotional exhaustion were making themselves felt with every beat of his heart.  Sunlight streamed in through the window of the machine shop.

“Rain.”

He startled, flipped over, and scrambled away from Mama Mathers, her fingernails scraping his scalp.  She knelt on the ground by where he had been sleeping.

His back was to the wall as he stared at everything that wasn’t her.  Looking at the images and hearing them made them last longer.  His prosthetic hands – if he dwelt on the design, focused on the schematics, on the work he needed to do, and the possibilities, if he didn’t think about-

Her hand touched the side of his head.  He flinched away, then froze, shaking.

He was so tired.  Already, he was on edge.

“You’re going to show me what you’ve been up to.  Show me the progress you’ve made in preparing to kill the others with matching powers,” Mama Mathers said.

He stared at the sunlight that came in through the window, the dust in the air illuminating it.  More dust and sawdust on the floor had patterns where footsteps had left tracks.  Clothes had been layered over a bag to serve as a kind of pillow.  Erin’s sweatshirt.  There was a wet spot where he’d drooled on it.

“Don’t disappoint me,” Mama Mathers said.

He made his way to his feet, his bruises and aches from his encounter with his uncle not helped by his sleeping on the hard floor.  He bent down to get the bag, picked up the sweatshirt, and folded it so his drool wasn’t too obvious.

Was Erin safe?  She-

Mama Mathers was in the corner of his vision.  Even his suspicion about who was responsible if Erin wasn’t safe was enough to bring her to bear.

She would have had to go home.  Her parents were fanatic enough they’d excuse almost anything, but he couldn’t imagine her staying all night.

A note sat on the table, beneath a connector tab from one of the digit manipulation systems he’d been working on.  He really wished Erin hadn’t moved it- just the fact that it wasn’t in order meant another ten or fifteen minutes of work.

Not that she could have known.

You sleep like you’re dead.  It’s freaky.
See you in the morning, bud.  We’ll figure something out.
~Erinnn~

The name was penned out in an exaggerated cursive, the ‘n’ exaggerated and drawn out long with a dwindling series of dips and raises.

Bud.

He touched the name and realized he still had her sweatshirt.

He wanted to hold it to his face and inhale, only because he felt so desperate and alone that he wanted any connection that wasn’t- wasn’t her.

Mama Mathers approached the window and looked outside.

He might have wanted and done the same connection if it was a boy.  If it was Byron, or Tristan.  Not because he was that way, but…

He didn’t have much.

There was a knock at the door.  He reached for the note, folded it, and put it in his pocket.

“Come in.”

Erin.  She’d showered, and she had a stack of lunchboxes under her arm.  Three.  She wore a t-shirt with a blurry skull design bleached onto the front, crosses for eyes and separating the teeth, jeans, and high boots.

“What’s that?” he asked, indicating the lunchboxes.

“Food.  I asked my mom for breakfast to go, and lunch too, and she went overboard.  I thought after a day like yesterday, you might want to take it easy.  Hot breakfast, coffee in a thermos, and some lunch for later.”

“And the other?” he asked.  His voice was more hoarse than it had a right to be.  He felt the disparity between dusty, injured, weary himself and clean, beautiful, vivacious Erin.

“Breakfast for me, duh.”

“Oh,” he said.  His thoughts went in the wrong direction.  Mama Mathers paced the length of the room.

His life wasn’t his anymore.

“You can crash in your workshop today, figure your things out.  If you want dinner, I can bring that to you too.”

“I have to go,” he said, aware of Mama Mathers’ stare.  “I need to talk to the others, and I need to deal with my cluster.”

“Okay,” Erin said.  “I can drive you.”

“You don’t need to.”

“I can drive you.  It’s fine.  When do you want to go?”

“As soon as possible?  I need to shop for stuff, for my hands, and I want to stop by the library.  We could eat on the road.”

“Perfect,” she said.  “I’m ready to go, so get your stuff.”

He nodded, stiff.

“Can I?” she asked.  She pointed.

Tired, dazed, trying not to think, he was momentarily dumbfounded.

She pointed with more intensity, until he looked down.  Her sweatshirt.

He handed it to her, then turned to get his arms together.  His stuff hadn’t been touched from the night prior, but there was other stuff he wanted to bring, just in case.

“Did you jerk off onto my sweatshirt?”

He looked at Erin, stunned.  He looked at the wet spot of drool.

“I- no.  Drool,” he said.  “Sorry.”

“Fuck, you look like you just ran over my dog.  I was joking, I wanted to try to get a smile out of you.”

She smiled, encouraging.

He opened his mouth, then closed it.  He was so far from smiling, he couldn’t even process the idea.  He was all too aware that Mama Mathers was watching the exchange.

“Oh, honey,” she said.  “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry,” he said, again, automatically.

“It’s okay.  Let’s get on the road and get the stuff you need.”

He nodded.  He followed behind her, firmly shutting the door behind him, and the smell of breakfast was intoxicating.  He felt hollow inside, in more ways than one, and the idea of food to fill him up, after throwing up, after missing meals, with only candy and caffeine to tide him over, it made him almost delirious, his thoughts momentarily freed of the trap of thinking, not-thinking.

But thinking about the trap only brought her out again.  She stood on the street, looking around, as he got into Erin’s dad’s car.

He took the boxes, opened his, and started eating immediately.  “Thank you.”

“My mom’s a good cook,” she said.  “I did the pancakes, because they’re easy.  Made properly, not out of a box.”

“It’s the best thing I ever tasted,” he said.

As the car rolled down the dirt road, he could see the camp outside the window.  People who were only just waking up, meeting in town to eat at the communal dining hall, or borrowing what they needed to harvest crops or do a day’s worth of building.

“So, silly story, bear with me.”

“Silly story sounds good.”

“My brother and I, we had a game we’d play a year or so ago, when we were new here and there wasn’t much to do.  A series of codes and signals.”

Rain nodded.  He worried he was too tired to process anything complicated, but Bryce was young.

“Some of it was so we were on the same page, and if our parents were being especially kooky we could touch our hair near the right ear.  It was a good way to stay sane without making them upset or defensive.”

“Okay.”

“And the other sign, it was folded arms.  We couldn’t do it all the time, or it’d be obvious, and we’d obviously have to change the subject.”

“I don’t follow.  You’d cross your arms when-”

“Be careful when you eat the sausage, by the way.  It’s handmade, but it has gristly bits in it that will do a number on your teeth.  I swear they’re bone shards, they’re that tough,” Erin said.

Rain looked at her.  He made the connection, realized what she was doing.

Mama Mathers was in the back seat, leaning forward, and Rain folded his arms.

“Yeah,” Erin said, with emphasis.  “Exactly.  It’s miserable, because my dad loves the things.  I can’t mention it, you know.  I haven’t been able to since we first arrived here and that was first dropped on my plate.  He’ll get super defensive, and my mom keeps making them and giving them to Bryce and I.”

The rest was filler.  Rain processed what Erin had intended to say, things he mostly knew.

The folded arms were to tip the other off that Mama Mathers was looking.  It was more of a concern for Rain than for Erin.  Erin’s introduction to the woman had been fleeting.  New visitors that were brought in as serious residents were given a glimpse of her, and a bit of a listen of her voice.  Most didn’t even realize what had happened, until they broke a rule.

The effect was weaker, only kicking in if Mama Mathers was mentioned by word, written or spoken, or possibly if she was thought about at the same time as a strong emotion was felt.

Erin couldn’t tell the others any more than he could, or Erin wouldn’t have been allowed to come.

“I’ll eat your sausage if you don’t want it,” he said.

“You go right ahead, you madman.”

They drove into the city, and his arms were crossed for much of the trip.

“Just don’t tell me whatever you end up doing to him, and we’re golden.”

“That’s fine,” Snag said, again.

In the background, the dog girl approached, the girl in the bodysuit, scarf, and demon mask walking at her side.

“Bitch,” Tattletale said.  “This is kind of a clandestine meeting.”

“My favorite kind,” the girl in the demon mask said.  Snag startled, his hand raising.  Tattletale moved forward, hand out to rest on top of it.

“My recordings do not like this person,” Kenzie said.  “I’m getting a billion and two warning messages.”

“Memories don’t track her,” Victoria said.  “She was relatively new when I left Brockton Bay.  Cameras record her better than the eye does, but the footage degrades over time.”

“Uuuuugh,” Kenzie groaned.  “This messes up so many things.  Let me reboot.”

The screen went dark.

“Our memories of this should be fine, unless she’s gotten stronger over time.”

“Do powers do that?” Rain asked.

“That’s a complicated question with a lot of answers,” Victoria said.  “Kid capes tend to get a better grasp on their abilities than adults do, but that’s partially because they adapt to the agent’s wavelength.  It’s part of what feeds into the myth that kids are stronger.”

“Not so much that they’re stronger,” Sveta said.  “Just that there’s less person and more power?”

“Something like that,” Victoria said.

“I know that reality pretty well,” Sveta said.

“There are other things.  Some have hidden uses or nuances that aren’t made obvious to the user.  Most powers are instinctively usable, but there are gaps, sometimes, or things about the power you need to figure out.”

“We’re back!” Kenzie announced, as the screen lit up, showing the camera footage, Tattletale’s group all gathered.  “And I have to say I love gothic doll girl’s dress.  That’s awesome.”

“Don’t wear a frock, Kenzie,” Tristan said.  “A tinker in a frock would be a travesty.”

“Having to keep all that neat and tidy would be a nightmare.  I’d rather spend that time on my cameras.  But she looks awesome.”

“Beside her is Flechette.  Was Flechette.  Foil, now that she’s gone over to the dark side,” Victoria said.

“Dark side?” Chris asked, from the other end of the room.  He snorted.

“Get out of the damn corner and join the conversation, you goon,” Tristan said.

“The corner is comfortable.  I can see everything.”

See everything.

Rain was aware of Mama Mathers, standing on the edge of the group, watching, paying mind to the others.

“Good boy,” Mama Mathers whispered in his ear.  “We’ll be ready for them.”

He crossed his arms.  Erin wasn’t around, but it was habit, and he worried his hands would shake if he wasn’t careful.

Knowing what he’d done to those people in the mall ate at him.  The woman with her hair in the door hadn’t survived.  Others had died in the crush.  Some were children.

But Rain knew.  He’d have to kill Mama.

He’d have to kill Snag.  He’d have to kill Love Lost.  He’d have to kill Cradle.

“I don’t want to go inside,” Bitch said, on the screen.

“You came all this way, and you don’t want to go in?”  Tattletale asked.

“Across universes,” the girl with the very ironic demon mask commented.

“Across parallel worlds,” Tattletale clarified.

“I came all this way because you said I had to.”

“I said it would be a good idea,” Tattletale said.

“And I came.”

“It’s a good idea because we all need to be on the same page, and we need intel on all these people we’re going up against.  I meant for you to come to the briefing.”

“Briefings are important,” Foil said.  “Especially for something this big.”

“Tattletale can tell me before it happens,” Bitch said.

“Or you can come in, and you can listen.  It’ll be good for people to know your face.”

“I don’t care about those people.  It’s a nice night.  I’ll sit with my dogs and stand guard.”

“She’s right,” the girl in the demon mask said.  “I’ll come with you and hang out, if that’s cool.”

“No,” Tattletale said.  “For you, it’s absolutely mandatory.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Life isn’t fair.  Go.  Inside.  Rache, find a nice seat by the water.  Everyone, again, I shouldn’t need to repeat myself, but your antics are making me worry, watch what you say.  They’re listening, and they’re watching.”

“You sound paranoid,” Foil said.

“Deservedly so,” Tattletale said.  “If you have to say anything about the job, say it indoors.”

“Or I can not talk,” Bitch said.

“Or that.  Go.  Shoo.  You guys, indoors.  Snuff, watch the cars.”

Rain watched as Tattletale herded everyone.

“Jesus,” Tristan said.  “These are the guys who took over a city?”

“And run one of the most established areas of Gimel,” Victoria said.

“I ran into some of them when they came to Cauldron, right on the heels of the Irregulars and the whole mess there,” Sveta said.  “They were there at the end of the world.  They played a big role in it.”

“Credit where credit’s due,” Tristan said.

Victoria had her own arms folded.  Fingernails bit into her upper arm.  “Give us some intel later, Sveta?  Or do you think that would be unfair?”

“I can give some intel.”

Tattletale, business done, stepped away, and when she was at the side of the building, nobody in her immediate area, she leaned against the wall.

She drew a phone out of her pocket, and pressed it to her ear.  Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a lighter, but no cigarette.

No, Rain realized.  Not a lighter.  It flipped open, but there was only a button on the top.

“What is that?” he asked.

Kenzie hit keys.  “No phone calls live.”

“You’re tracking that?” Sveta asked.

“Part of making sure we’re not being listened to.  No biggie.”

Tattletale hit the button.

“Uuuuugh,” Kenzie groaned.  “What is she doing?  This is messing up other stuff.”

“Victoria.”

All eyes went to the screen.  It was Tattletale that had talked.

“Optics, or whatever you’re calling yourself now.  Capricorn.  Sveta.  Creepy kid.  Boy from the Fallen.  Not sure if I just outed you, but there we are.”

“Are we supposed to reply?” Kenzie asked.

“I’m creepy kid?” Chris asked.

“Cute stunt, alleging I’m working with you.  I’m sure you have camera footage to help build the lie.  Fine.  You win.  You ruined my day and it’s going to be a headache for a while.  This insane grudge you’re nursing?  It’d be great to call it even.”

Victoria didn’t move a muscle.

“Fifty-fifty odds you’re shaking your head at me right now, G.H.  If you’re not, you’re standing there being all stoic, really wanting to be.  Fine.  Five of you need to butt the fuck out.  The sixth needs to run.  These guys really want him gone, and frankly, after hearing what they had to say, I’d almost cheer them on.”

I can’t run, Rain thought.  I would have run a long time ago, if I could.

“I know you’re not going to, but if I jumped straight to that, it’d sound too aggressive.  I’m going to be unusually gracious and give you this warning.   Tonight is the briefing.  After that, we’re going to have a war.  Be as far away as possible, be crafty, and maybe they’ll run out of money to pay me before they catch up to you.  If you can’t get away, put as many people you don’t give a shit about between yourself and these guys as you can.  You’ve been staying in the camp for a while, that’s a good place to be.”

“She’s giving us advice?” Chris asked.

“Mastermind games,” Victoria said.

“I’m going to hold nothing back when it comes to finding you, as soon as my contract starts, and I’ll tell them exactly where you are within minutes.  They’ll come after you, they’ll get you, and they’ll do things to you that make me squeamish.  If your friends are in the way, Fallen boy, they’ll probably do the same to them.  I could list off a hundred things I’ve seen and even done that would drive the squeamish point home, about how it’s actually pretty amazing they got me, but this doo-dad is almost out of juice, and I don’t want this recorded or overheard by our friendly clairvoyants.”

“Uuugh,” Kenzie groaned.  She mashed the keyboard with her palms.  “That’s what she’s doing.”

“Cost me a lot too,” Tattletale said.  “Sorry Optics.  Victoria?  Third time I’ve been really gentle with you or your people.  Kind of hope-”

Tattletale stopped.  She smacked the lighter-sized jammer with her hand a few times.  Looking back up to the camera, Tattletale gave it the finger, then turned to walk away.

“Thinkers are scary,” Tristan said.

“Fuck her,” Victoria said.

“Are you okay, Rain?” Sveta asked.

“Nothing about that was really news.  Except just how confident she is she’ll find me.”

“I think she could say the sky is lime green with confidence,” Victoria said.

“I’m… not reassured,” Rain said.

“Whatever you want to do, we can back you,” Tristan said.

Rain, arms folded, was aware of Mama Mathers.  He looked at her.  He prayed for someone to notice, to put pieces together.  He saw Victoria and Tristan exchange a look.

“Come home,” Mama Mathers said.

“I’m going to go back,” he said.  He didn’t have much of a choice.

“We’re going to help, okay?” Tristan asked.  “This thing is happening, you’ll be over there, we have people on both sides of the conflict, you on the one side, and-”

“And an agent on the other,” Rain finished, before Tristan could name names.  “If that group is even part of it.”

“They are,” Kenzie said.  “They’re attending the briefing.  A lot of friction.”

“This goes down tomorrow, and we will make something happen,” Tristan said.

“We’ve got your back,” Sveta said.

Rain nodded.  Tired as he was, with only a brief nap in the car to sustain himself, he felt emotional.

No words.

“I’m going to talk to the Wardens,” Victoria said.  “It’s time.  They’re probably already aware something’s up, this many major players getting together, but I can provide context and get you help.”

He nodded again.  He didn’t have it in him to speak.

The Wardens wouldn’t want to help him.

He walked over to where his stuff was, grabbed the cosmetic things Kenzie had given him, and exited the door.

Erin had gone home earlier, at the time of Advance Guard’s appearance.  With all the chaos after, they’d canceled the other plans.  It wasn’t worth it, and the cat was out of the bag.

He had the support of the group, potentially the Wardens, of Erin, and even Tattletale giving advice and a head start.

He wasn’t sure he deserved it.

The ferry-car that Rain had called was jam packed, and the trip was made more uncomfortable by the fact the road into the camp was choked with vehicles.  There were trucks, jeeps, and the barely-intact rush jobs that more enterprising people had put together from scrap, back when they’d needed workhorse vehicles and there hadn’t been enough cars coming out of Earth Bet.  Sheet metal welded together to form car bodies, with Frankenstein interiors and engines.

Even after the cars had been available again, the car junkies had kept making the ugly beasts, as a point of pride.

He had spent enough time around the other branches that he knew the cliques and groups, the tendencies, styles of dress, and the favored tattoos.  All three sub-groups of the Crowley family were present.  All three brothers.

Mama Mathers knew about the attack, because she’d seen what the group had seen.  She’d called in help.

Tents were going up, cars were parked on lawns outside houses, to the point it looked like every house was throwing a massive party, and bonfires dotted the dark fields and hills.  Even the forests were eerily illuminated, as whole groups of people were bringing down trees and dividing them into firewood.

The Fallen weren’t outnumbered three to one anymore.

There were others, Rain saw.  Groups that he didn’t know, but that the Crowleys were no doubt familiar with.  Bikers.  Scattered people from the Clans.

If they fended off the initial attack, and they might, Rain knew they would attack back.  They’d hit Cedar Point, wiping it off the map and they’d do a lot of damage to everything between here and there.

The truck stopped several times.  Many of the people in the vehicle with Rain were Crowleys, new to the camp, so the truck drove well past the point of the central settlement, to deliver multiple people to each house.

It meant, at least, that Rain had transportation direct to his place.  Two guys got out with him.  They were Crowley jackasses- actual titles they wore with pride.

“Rain,” Mama Mathers said.  “Stop.”

He stopped in his tracks.  The two jackasses gave him a look.  He waved them on.

The woman’s hand, spectral as it was, felt real as it touched Rain’s hair.  He flinched, but she persisted.  He remained where he was, head turned away, neck stiff.

“This was good,” Mama Mathers said.  “I’ll reward you.”

He didn’t move a muscle.

“Enjoy your evening, my soldier.  Tomorrow, we show them we’re not to be trifled with.”

Rain turned his head, to look for clarification, but she was gone.  There was a distant sound, like a flock of birds taking off.

He’d slept on the train, but this whole scene was so surreal.  She’d-

He stopped, bracing himself for her appearance.  For the physical contact.

She hadn’t appeared.  The sound remained.  A thunderous flapping, far away.

Mama Mathers, he thought.

There was only the sound.

She’d freed him?  For only tonight?

Adrenaline coursed through him.  His eyes were wide as he strode forward.  He had- not opportunity, but something.  He walked at a speed that was only a run, passing the jackasses, pushing his way into his aunt and uncle’s house.

His aunt and uncle were in the living room, organizing sleeping arrangements for five boys and girls, ages ranging from sixteen to mid-twenties.  Soldiers, like Rain had once been.  Crowleys.  Allie was at the kitchen table, with others her age sitting around her.  Adult women were cooking.

He was free, or almost free, and he was surrounded by Fallen.  What was he supposed to do?

His aunt spotted him.  Her expression was unreadable, and she shooed him off.

His room.  He’d go there, he’d regroup.  If it hadn’t been commandeered to give others a place to sleep.  He had some spare things in his room.  Weapons, traps.  He took the stairs two at a time.

Jay’s sister was in the hallway.  Nell.  The house was crowded, but the upstairs had been kept quiet.

Nell stared at Rain as she put headphones on.  The stare persisted as he walked past her, her head moving to keep him in her sight.  He was uncomfortably reminded of Love Lost.  This wasn’t hostility, but-

Threatening?  Ominous?

He opened the door to his room, and let himself in.

The room was occupied.

Rain swallowed, hard.  “Erin.”

Erin sat on his bed.  She didn’t make eye contact, her fingers picking at the blanket she’d put over her lap.

She was wearing only a silk nightgown.

“They were waiting for me when I drove in, like last night,” Erin said.

“No.”

“They took me to the big house,” she said.

“To the leadership?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Elijah?  Valefor?”

“To the elders, in the sitting room.  They told me I’m to marry.”

Rain swallowed hard.

Erin put her hand forward.  When she pulled it back, two simple golden bands were left on the dark wool blanket Rain kept at the foot of the bed.

“They’re giving me to you,” she said, her voice lacking inflection.  “If-”

“Erin.”

“If you want me.”

“Not like this.”

“Can you hear me out?  Can you let me talk?  Because I’ve been sitting here for hours.  They took me to my house, they made me change.  When I wasn’t dressed how they thought I should dress, they went through my room and picked this out.  This isn’t my choice, so you know.”

“I don’t-”

“Hear me out?  Please.  Before you say anything and I lose all composure.  I know you’ve helped me out a ton, and I’ve helped you out, but can you do this for me?  Let me talk?”

Rain nodded.

“I want to do this.  I want to- I want you.  Please.  I thought about it and I’ve been thinking about it as a just-in-case.  They asked me at the big house, they said Mama Mathers wanted to pair you and me, and they asked what I wanted, if it were to happen.  There’s this dilapidated house I think it could be fixed up nice and expanded to be a proper house.  It’s on the outskirts, near the old gate.  It’d be ours.  For us.”

“Erin-”

“And my parents could move in.  I want them away from everything, not so involved and tied in.  They’ll make them move, and they’ll start being more rational if there aren’t those influences.  You and I together.  I know you don’t want to stay, but we’d barely be part of the community, that far out.”

“I can’t.”

“Listen,” she said.  She stood from the bed, and he looked away as he realized how short the nightie was.  She scooped up the rings and held them in cupped hands.  “Listen.  Please listen.  I only liked you as a friend, before.  But a few days ago, you gave me a hug, and it was nice.  I started thinking, if it had to be someone, I wanted it to be you.  Once I started thinking like that, I started thinking about how you looked nice.  Kind of 90’s bad boy, with the long hair, ripped jeans and flannel, very Bender in Breakfast Club, except you’re way more attractive than Nick Cage.”

“You’re rambling, and-”

“I’m terrified,” she said.  She stepped forward, well inside his personal space, until her chest touched his.  He pulled back, back to the closed door, and she didn’t pursue.

Instead, her hands went up, fingers pinching at the very edges of his shirt.

“Please,” she said.  “You.  My parents.  My brother.  This is the only way I get anything close to a happy ending.”

“You need to come with me.  We’ll run.  There’s going to be this war, anyway, and-”

She was already shaking her head.

“I can’t leave them.  I lost everything.  My family lost everything.  If they lost me too?  If I lost them?  I couldn’t ever.”

“This place will destroy you.”

“Not if- not if we get that house on the outskirts.  We’ll be far enough away, we won’t have a lot of involvement.  Please.  I see the way you look at me.  I’m not dumb.”

“I can’t.”

“If you want me barefoot and in the kitchen, I can-”

Rain made a face, shook his head, looked away.

“No.  I didn’t think you would.  But…”

Her presence was overwhelming enough he worried he might do something stupid.  Every look he’d averted, every thought he hadn’t completed, every time he’d jacked off and thought of her, but hadn’t ever been able to let himself imagine a scenario to go along with her, they were things that had been left incomplete, like a hole inside of him.  Love with a missing letter.

She was, standing before him, promising that.

“That you’d suggest that… isn’t that the destruction I just talked about?  That’s not you.  That’s this fucking place.”

Mama Mather’s disconnected presence was like bird’s wings against the exterior of the house, rustling.

Erin was barely able to speak and barely audible as she said, “You want this.  I want this.”

“Yeah.”

“Give me my family, Rain.  Be my family.”

“It would destroy you,” he said.

She shook her head.

“And it would destroy me.  It’s the one thing I can’t do.”

She went very still.

“I love you, Rain.  I really think I do.  It took me hours sitting in here and considering possibilities, but I do love you.”

“I love you too.”

“Don’t say that.  Not when you’re also saying no, when they’ll marry me off to someone else instead.”

“You need to leave.”

“I can’t.”

“You need to leave.  You can go.  While everything’s going to pieces, I can get your parents and brother.  The team will.  We’ll kidnap them, we’ll get them out.”

He could see the glimmer on her face.  The hope.

He could see it die.

“If it failed, I’d lose them.  Unequivocally,” she said.  “I can’t risk it.”

“Erin-”

“I can’t!” she raised her voice.

The murmur of discussion downstairs grew quieter.  People were listening now.

“I can’t.  The world ended and I have nightmares every night.  I lost friends.  Losing my family will destroy me more surely than anything.”

Rain wanted to reply.  He remained silent instead.

Something in his expression conveyed what words couldn’t.  Her expression changed.

She hit him in the chest, hard.  She hit him again, drumming him with her fists.  He didn’t resist.

She stopped, clutched his shirt, and pressed her face to his chest.

It was all he could do not to wrap his arms around her in a hug.

“This isn’t you,” he said.  “It’s this place.”

She pulled away.

“You need to leave,” she said, with restrained anger.  “If you say no to this, they’ll want to know why, and the reason why is that you aren’t loyal.”

She wasn’t wrong.

He stepped away.  He approached the window, and he looked outside before creating his silver blades.

“I’d die for you,” he said.  “But I can’t be Fallen.”

“Then fucking die, Rain.”

He cut into the bedroom window with his blades.  With a strong tap, he let the glass fall to grass below.

If it hadn’t been his day, he wasn’t sure he’d have had the precision to cut like that, or the ability to so easily tap it out, without breaking the glass.

He hit the ground, and he started running.

Rain punched the numbers into the keypad.  He was on the train, and he had no destination to travel to.  He couldn’t go to the others.  He couldn’t go back to the camp.

His finger traveled over the number pad.  One, seven, four, six, nine, three, and M.

The numbers painted out a letter on a conventional number pad.  He’d just drawn out ‘H’.

Nine, seven, four, six, four, one, three, and D.  He’d drawn out ‘E’.

Seven, one, three, and N.  ‘L’.

‘P’ was the last letter.  One, seven, nine, six, four and S.

The letters were a code of their own.  An incomplete word or phrase.

He sent the message, and he waited, staring at the phone.

He got his reply.  A text: 9713A97139E17593S9746413Y

He translated it.  ‘Come’.  Letters: A, E, S, Y.  Put together with his, ‘Madness’ and the stray Y.

In plain text, he asked ‘where’?

In code, he got his reply.  It was lengthy enough it had to have been pre-prepared.  An address.

It took him an hour to get there.  A dark part of the city, where the power hadn’t been kept on.

A door as opened.  Candles were lit within.

The woman who faced him was petite, and wore a rabbit mask with a uniform that looked like a soldier from the 1800s.  A rapier dangled from her waist.

“March,” he said.

Wordless, she invited him to come in.  He did.  Further inside, he could see others.  A trio of people.  Another pair.

Other clusters.

“I’m out of options,” he said.

“You know what I want,” March said.

“Foil.  Flechette.  From your cluster. I’ve seen her.”

“I’ve been planning on dealing with her and her acquaintance Tattletale for some time now.  It puts me in a unique position to help you.”

“You want her to die.”

“That discussion can wait until tomorrow.  For now, you look like you need to sleep.”

Heartbroken, exhausted, he couldn’t bring himself to say no.

He dreamed, and the dream slipped from memory as soon as he entered the room.

Rain bent down for the chair, found it in its usual place, and set it on the ground.

There was no discussion.  The others stood, Snag approached the dais.  Love Lost hung back.  Cradle paced.

Rain sat, and he watched.  After so many hard days and nights, he felt eerily calm.

Not so much left to lose, in a way.

It dropped from the sky, and it bounced on the tip of the crystal spike that stood up from the center of the dais.  A token.  A coin, flipping in air, a shard of metal as it showed its other side.  A tooth, shadow moving across it as it rotated in the air.  A piece of glass.

It bounced on the point of crystal with eerie accuracy, landed, wobbled, and then slid to one side, breaking apart as it slid.  Rain stood, and he approached the dais.

He pushed everything else aside, and he collected his shards of metal.

With them, a piece of glass and a coin.

Today mattered.  The others’ expressions were trying not to betray anything, but they were bothered.

I’ll see you tomorrow, Rain thought.  And at least one of us here is going to die.

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