The monster under the bed regarded the teddy bear in the dusty corner and said, “You’re fallin’ down on the job, man. Still,” he conceded, “I guess this is kinda out of your league.” He picked the toy up carefully in a clawed hand and reached out from under the bed, waving it. “Hey, Mateo,” he said, “look who I found.”
The little boy’s hand reached down and took it. Good. Any little bit of comfort he could give. “Thanks,” the child whispered. Then, “Gus, if he doesn’t come tonight, will you come back tomorrow night?”
“Sure thing,” Gus promised. “We’re getting’ him outta your life.”
There was a little sigh in which Gus could almost hear a smile. “Gus,” Mateo asked, “could I look at you again?”
The idea was a surprise attack and, of course, to avoid notice from Mateo’s family, but it was early in the evening still, so Gus again answered, “Sure thing,” swung out from under the bed, and stood.
He loomed over Mateo, seven feet tall and built like a halfback. His hands and feet were clawed, and his knuckles had sharp little horns on them. A lion-like tail switched behind him.
The head and face had started out human, lightly tanned with short, sandy brown hair, but now he had a short, cat-like muzzle—no longer than a human nose but still a muzzle—cat-whiskers that reached the considerable distance to his shoulders, and pointed, mobile ears, twitching for the sounds of approaching footsteps.
He wore a karate gi, not white, but patterned in urban camo. Where arms, legs, and chest were bare, the skin was pebbled with thick, boxy scales, like alligator hide.
Gus knew why he had been called out. He threw back his shoulders, bared his clawed fingers, lashed his tail, and smiled. The teeth in the smile were extraordinary, but that was all to the good. Mateo smiled back in satisfaction.
“I have fought goblins,” Gus declaimed in his light, husky tenor, “and giant dogs, and wicked fairies, and men with swords and guns, and other critters like me.” He had not always won, but it was more important that these enemies could be fought. “So don’t worry about this guy.” Mateo beamed. Brawn was not really going to serve Gus best here, but, like the teddy bear, it made Mateo feel better. So be it.
Still grinning, Gus leaned down to the boy’s face, reflecting his grin, and bumped foreheads, like a cat greeting. “Let’s give him a surprise. I’ll be right here.” He clapped Mateo on the shoulder, crouched, and slid back under the bed.
Time passed. Gus heard the TV on a Hispanic language channel; Mateo’s parents were trying to relax, hoping their little boy would not have another attack of night terrors, and that the vandal would not again break into their little corner grocery downstairs. The two woes had begun last week, together, but they could not fathom a link between them. The police had taken their information but produced no results. The doctor told them night terrors just went away after a while.
They were pathetically grateful when their old neighbors the Weisskopfs said that their son Gus had offered to stay up with the boy, if that would help him sleep, and Gus’s friend Doug had volunteered to guard the grocery. Both were recently returned from Iraq (and points beyond), with massive cases of PTSD, so, the young men claimed, it was no trouble to them to stay up for a night. Find a silver lining, eh?
Mateo’s parents did not, of course, believe Mateo’s talk of the bad man who came in through the window—the closed window—and threatened to take him away to the graveyard.
Gus believed Mateo and more than believed him. Mateo had been a happy, giggling toddler when he and Doug left Chicago, only to drop off the world for five years. He had been a sunny, innocent little boy when they returned a few months ago. Then the terrors had started. Gus knew about terrors. They enraged him. And it made matters far worse that he suspected he had accidentally brought these on.
So, when Mateo was tucked in bed, the parents safely out of the way, Gus had told Mateo he believed him, because he had had to believe much stranger things. Then he had shown Mateo why tonight would be different—shown him the face and limbs his parents had not seen.
Mateo had been delighted. A little too delighted. There had been a lot of running around, being tossed in the air, tugging the tail, and giggling. Finally, Mateo’s father had called up that he was supposed to be asleep, which was, of course, an oblique reprimand to Gus too. (The reprimand had been late in coming. It was too good to hear happy noises in place of weeping or anxious calls or, of course, shrieks.)
So they settled down. Gus stumbled through some Spanish nursery rhymes from a book while Mateo, exhausted, leaned against him and dozed off. Gus had tucked him in, then slipped under the bed, a plan he had explained to Mateo. But the boy had roused and called out, wanting to make sure Gus was there. Gus had reassured him and found the bear.
More time passed. The TV muttered in the distance. Gus wondered if the harassed parents had fallen asleep in front of it. That would be good.
And here he was. Gus felt him before there was any sound of voice or footstep. He had been expecting this, and of course the creature was deliberately broadcasting his presence. Gus heard Mateo move, curling up in dread. He gave three soft, silent raps to the bed frame, to remind the boy he had backup.
“So here I am again,” said a male voice. “Will I take you tonight or not? Maybe. Some night soon. Jump out the window with you. Carry you down to the graveyard. Keep you there. Forever. With the others. All the little kids I’ve got rotting down–“
Gus squirmed soundlessly and took a peek. Round, gloating face washed white as by moonlight. Black suit, probably the one he was buried in. Time. The ghost was well-focused on Mateo and was utterly startled when the lion-man swarmed out from under the bed, rasping, “Aloysius Patrick, you are a liar!”
The use of his true name nailed the ghost in place, in palpability, long enough for Gus to seize the thing’s throat with one hand and pull its right hand behind its back with the other. It had no weight and no strength.
“Aloysius Patrick Feeny,” Gus repeated, another nail, musing. “Baptized at St. Bridget’s, South Side, in 1898. Your mom and dad must have hoped for so much more!” The ghost struggled, grunted, squeaked. It turned cold, colder, painfully cold, trying to pull energy out of Gus, as it had used fear to pull energy out of Mateo for too many nights. But Gus pulled back, felt the phantom form start to soften as he drained its chilly energy, deliberately stopped, and repeated “Aloysius Patrick” in a regretful tone, shaking his head. The ghost stayed firm enough to be gripped.
He glanced at Mateo, who was staring, wary but not terrified. “He’s a liar. He couldn’t take you away. He has no collection of kids in his grave. He can’t even get to his grave; they buried him in consecrated ground for some reason. And he is never going to bother you again.” He met the ghost’s eyes and growled, “I don’t use the word ‘never’ lightly.”
To Mateo: “Research. The greatest general in the world, Sun Tzu, said victory goes to the side that knows the most. So I researched. Always research your enemy. This guy died in a shootout down the street from here, back in 1928, with a handful of others. So I knew within a few guesses who he would be. What his name would be. Right, Aloysius Patrick? Alias Your Pal Al, alias Feeny the Mick, alias Jack Brown.”
Feeny hung in his hand, registering shock endlessly, as only the unembodied can. “What–?” he wheezed. “What–?”
“What am I? I don’t owe you any explanations. You give me some answers, or the pain starts a little sooner. Why’d you start hassling my man Mateo here? Why now?”
The ghost stared into the slitted blue eyes and gibbered, “I just– Cold– Hungry–“
“I bet you’ve been cold and hungry since 1928. Why now?”
“You’ll have to snort him,” said a new voice.
Gus and Mateo turned and saw another cat-man crouching in the now-open window frame. But cat-men were now firmly lodged in Mateo’s brain as good news, so he had no trouble seeing past the muzzle and ears. He beamed and said, “Hi, Doug! I didn’t know you were a cat-man!”
“Yep. Hi, Mateo,” Doug answered, unfolding himself from the window. He was an inch or so taller, even, than Gus, and leaner. His hair was black and his eyes Asian, discounting the slit pupils.
“How’d it go?” Gus asked.
“Okay.” Doug waved a beer bottle. “The late Jules Adelard Gobeil and Barnabus John Kallachek, though I think Kallachek is just a shell.”
“Both in one bottle?” Gus asked.
Doug shrugged. “Kallachek just followed Gobeil in.”
“They shrink down like Greathouse said?”
Doug nodded. “Textbook. Watch him,” he advised, pointing to Feeny.
The ghost, still dangling weightlessly in Gus’s grasp, was stealthily starting to fade and lose focus.
“No you don’t, Aloysius Patrick,” Gus told him. Feeny looked solid, and as if he’d been slapped. “Enough of this,” Gus growled, and pulled in Feeny’s energy.
The ghost gave a fading squeak, blurred, and shrank down to an apple-size patch of mist in Gus’s hand.
“I’ll go now, too,” said Doug. He unstoppered the bottle, leaned over it, and gave a sudden inhalation. At the same time, Gus clapped his hand to his mouth and sucked.
Both cat-men leaned over, grimacing, eyes shut, and stood silent for about ten seconds. Mateo watched anxiously, in great confusion. Was everything all right?
Then Doug puffed into the beer bottle and stood. Gus, still bent over, waved his nearest hand in an urgent “gimme“ gesture. Doug handed him the bottle; he exhaled into it and handed it back. Doug stoppered it.
“Gus? Doug?” asked Mateo, some fear coming back into his face.
“’S okay, buddy,” Gus assured him, sitting heavily on the bed and letting the boy climb into his lap. But then he stared at nothing for some seconds. Doug sat next to him and did the same.
“We’re just thinking,” Doug muttered to Mateo. “Give us a minute.” He rolled the beer bottle between his palms and stared.
When they inhaled, lives had passed before their eyes—not their own, but the ghosts’. They had tried not to look. These had not been pleasant or uplifting lives. And, readily enough, the memories faded like dreams on waking. But the two were trying to hold onto the very last bits, not memories of lives, but of afterlives.
“If I ever get so I like that...” Gus started.
Doug knew that Gus had been about to say “kill me,” but had stopped short. There was Mateo to consider. Anyway, there was no ridding the world of Gus or himself. “I will show you the error of your ways,” Doug told him, brandishing a fist where Mateo could not see. “I will use words if necessary.”
“Thanks.” Gus sighed. “Let’s finish this.” Doug passed him the bottle.
“Is everything okay?” asked Mateo, worried by the cat-men’s demeanor.
“Yep,” said Gus, forcing a cheerful tone and sitting up straight. “Watch this.” He uncorked the bottle and said, “Aloysius Patrick!”
In a gray flicker, the ghost sprang out of the bottle. Gus immediately stoppered it. Mateo huddled deeper into Gus’s lap and glared defiantly at his tormentor, who stared back, dazed.
Gus felt in the pocket of his gi. “I don’t really know that you’re going to Hell,” he told Feeny. “That’s just the way I’d bet. But you can’t stay here.” He pulled a lighter out of his pocket and lit it.
Feeny stared at the flame, bewildered, and made no move when Gus reached out and touched it to his shirt cuff. For an instant, he was a silhouette of fire, then gone.
“See?” Gus told Mateo. “Gone forever.” The boy gave a little grunt of satisfaction. Gus handed the bottle and the lighter to Doug.
“Jules Adelard,” Doug called. He held the lighter ready at the bottle’s mouth as he unstoppered it. The flame flared briefly, but no figure formed. “Barnabus John.” Another flare. “And now,” he told Mateo, “no one will be smashing bottles and tearing open candy bars and cigarette packs in your folks’ store.”
Mateo gave a smile, sighed, leaned back onto Gus, and fell asleep.
“Holy crow,” said Gus.
“Enviable,” Doug agreed, shaking his head. “If I could pick good sleep like that out of his pocket– Well. It would be quite a temptation.”
Gus nodded, rose with the boy in his arms, and slid him under the sheets. Then he sighed and, with the sigh, melted back into his human form. He whispered a prayer for the boy’s continued peace.
Doug did not have such definite beliefs but echoed the “amen“ at the end, partly in solidarity with his friend, partly because, if Anyone was listening, he wanted to cast his vote.
He then hopped back onto the window sill. “See you at six.” He clambered down the brownstone side, humanized as Gus had done, and re-entered the store, to keep watch for the look of the thing until dawn. Upstairs, Gus did the same.
Mateo’s parents, the Navarros, rose at five, not six, so six found Doug and Gus at their breakfast table, being stuffed with coffee and pastries.
Over the pastries, Gus told them Mateo might have a story about how Gus jumped out from under the bed and caught the bad man and bawled him out and burned him up so he was gone forever. They smiled and connected this with the horsing-around noises heard early in the evening. Gus did not correct them.
Doug told them, in vague terms, about spotting, chasing, cornering, karate-kicking, and threatening a couple of terrified figures. Then he took out his phone. “Here they are.”
Mr. and Mrs. Navarro looked at the picture: a corner of their store, with the dairy case on one side and a rack of salty snacks on the other. Between, cornered, cowered two figures in shabby old-fashioned black suits and ties. Their faces were colorless, almost unreadable. Their eyes were darknesses. If you looked carefully, you might think they were a bit translucent, especially around the feet and hands.
“Sorry about the poor picture quality,” Doug said airly.
“You kicked them?” Mr. Navarro asked.
“Well, at them. Not sure I connected, but they were unhappy about it. Do you want me to send you the pictures, for the police?”
“Send them, yes, please,” said Mrs. Navarro. “You threatened them?”
Doug nodded. “They seemed pretty scared. Don’t think they’ll be back. But if you have trouble like that again, contact me, and we’ll do what we can.” He glanced at Gus, who also nodded, though he was gazing thoughtfully at his friend.
A few minutes later, on the steps of his parents’ home, Gus asked Doug, “What was with the pictures?”
“I wanted to reassure them,” said Doug. “They were taking physical damage in their store, so I wanted to show them I’d taken physical measures, or near it. And yeah, they are probably wondering about ghosts, but we know those two won’t be back.”
Gus was silent a moment, then asked, “So what did you make of the memories?”
“I’m trying to forget ’em. There’s just ... an aftertaste. Those were not good lives to live.”
“Neither was Feeny’s. But that’s no excuse. Never mind their lives. How about after? Why’d they start poltergeisting when they did?”
“It’s ... hazy. And,” Doug added hastily, “I might be making up stuff. But... It was like they had a hard time focusing on anything for a long time. But then they could see this place. And the neighborhood.” He made a wave that included the Navarro’s store. “So they started hanging around. But not too close because there was ... a big, bad scary thing nearby.”
“That would be me,” Gus said without pride.
“But here was stuff they could see and touch and be alive with. Sort of. So they went for it. Smashing stuff was what they liked to do before, so they did it some more.”
“Okay, well, Feeny was a lot like that. Focused in, found a victim, started bullying, which is what he liked to do. How about at your place?”
“Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw, but I think that, in Chinatown, they’re quicker to slap down misbehaving ghosts, and the ghosts know it. So no trouble. But more ghosts just on the street than I see anywhere else. And there are the animals.”
Starting two weeks ago, pigeons, stray cats and dogs, crows, endless sparrows and rats, some raccoons, and even, Doug thought, a coyote roamed the streets and alleys near his home. “Mom asks me to do something about them at least once a day.”
“I suppose,” said Gus, “we could do something about it, if we knew what we were doing. But we don’t. Not yet. So...”
“Call on Professor Rook?”
The next day, they sat in a little office several blocks from Chicago’s Loop, well below that neighborhood’s standards. The office was a three-floor walkup and featured creaky wooden floors, a lack of rugs or upholstery, and a general air of dating from the 1930s. The only new thing in the office was the sign on the frosted glass of the door, which read “Windy City Fantasy Circus.” The walls were blank: no circus posters or other memorabilia.
Doug and Gus sat on bare wooden chairs, before a wooden desk. On the desk sat the only welcoming touch: a teapot, a couple of cups, and a plate of cookies next to a small chessboard. Behind the desk sat—on two more bare wooden chairs—Professor Rook and The Amazing Madame Theano.
The young men sat, each enveloped in his camo gi, over-large on their now-human frames. A gym bag sat on the floor beside each, holding the street clothes they had arrived in.
Prof. Rook looked about fifty, though extra-gray of hair. He was thin and sharp-faced, just now in slacks and sports shirt. Mme Theano was equally uncostumed, in a loose sweater and slacks; she was a head shorter, a little plump, with olive skin and lustrous dark eyes. Though not Asian, she looked like Doug’s mom, Gus said later; Doug denied it.
Thirty seconds earlier, Doug had knocked on the door and told the surprised Rook, “We heard you were hiring.” Rook, his face a careful blank, had invited them to come in and sit.
“And where did you hear we were hiring?” he asked.
“Professor Greathouse told us.”
Rook and Theano traded glances. “That is not quite right,” said Rook. “We are willing to hire. We haven’t been looking. Go on.”
Before they could, Theano asked, “What do you know about us?”
“Your circus is a cover,” Doug answered. “You’re a traveling company of ... talents.”
“You go around doing good,” Gus added. “Mainly, you’re monster hunters.”
Rook raised his eyebrows and looked annoyed. “Greathouse is usually very discrete. She must have had a good reason for being so free with her information.”
“What are you offering?” Theano asked. She looked at their clothes. “Martial arts?”
“That’s part of the package,” Gus answered, “but– Well...”
Doug caught his eye and together they stood. Then, together, much more quickly than in Mateo’s bedroom, between systole and diastole, they changed.
“Who better to help you hunt monsters,” asked Doug, “than your own monsters?”
Rook and Theano had both jumped in their seats and now sat staring. Rook rose and walked around the two, inspecting. “That wasn’t in the numbers,” Theano remarked.
“Or in play,” Rook replied. “But we never see it all. What are you?” he asked them.
“We’re fays,” said Doug, still feeling odd about the label.
“But we’re new at it,” added Gus. “Five years ago, we were regular guys. Soldiers. But we got taken. And changed.”
“‘Fay-marked,’ the Grand Normans called it,” Doug added, “as well as shape-shifted. We were made to serve as soldier-slaves, along with more than twenty other guys. But our captor died—well, was slain—and we escaped. We got back just a few months ago.”
“The Grand Normans helped us,” said Gus. “You know about them?” Theano and Rook nodded. “They got us glamours and shipped us home. Then we found Hengist. He’s a Kerdean at the Field Museum. You know him?” Again they nodded. “He pointed us to Greathouse and she taught us to shift back to our original shapes.”
“How?” asked Rook. “She’s no fay.” After a moment’s thought: “Is she?”
“No,” said Doug, “but she’s a shaman, isn’t she? They can shapeshift their astral bodies. And she’s a good teacher.”
Theano rose and took her turn circling them. “You called us a collection of talents,” she said. “What are your talents?”
“Well, this is the big one,” said Doug, spreading his arms and looking down at himself. “This way, we’re strong and tough and fast.”
“And we can see in the dark. And hear and feel our way like cats.”
“Of course, it’s a great disguise.”
“And scares the willies out of people.”
“For other magic, we can feel spells, and push and pull the energy.”
“But that’s about it.”
“But we have our soldier skills.”
“We can fight with rifle, pistol, sword.”
“Ride a little.”
“The Grand Normans taught us that.”
“Wilderness survival. First aid.”
“Camp cooking. Hunting.”
“So we can at least be handymen. Whadyacallem?”
Theano and Rook tried to take in the rapid-fire resume. Though Gus’s voice was a husky tenor and Doug’s was a clear baritone, it was hard to keep track of who had said what. They stood contemplating the pair for a few seconds, after they had run down.
Then: “Sing something please,” Theano said.
“What?” asked Doug.
“I’m a Pythagorean,” she explained. “My magic runs on numbers and music.”
“You don’t wanna hear me sing,” said Gus with a self-deprecating grin that, incidentally, gave Theano and Rook a first look at his teeth.
“No, I do,” she insisted. “I can tell a lot about you if you sing. So please.”
Doug and Gus traded glances and shrugs, then, without further preparation sang:
A soul cake, a soul cake.
Please, good mistress, a soul cake.
Doug: An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry.
Gus: Any good thing to make a soul merry.
A soul cake, a soul cake.
Please, good mistress, a soul cake.
Doug: One for Peter, two for Paul,
Gus: Three for Him Who made us all.
God bless the master of this house.
And the mistress also,
Theano raised her hand to stop them. “That’s– Thank you.” She was staring at them almost as intently as when they had turned into cat-men. She backed up a pace, bumped into the desk, picked up two cookies and handed one to each of them. Then she seized Rook by the elbow, told the two, “We need to confer privately,” and steered him through a door into a room lined with old wooden filing cabinets.
Gus and Doug looked at each other. “We scared her,” Doug said.
“My singing’s not that bad,” said Gus. “She didn’t bolt when we went cat. What gives?”
Doug shrugged and started to nibble the cookie.
In the other room, Theano murmured to Rook in a tense undertone, “Two entry-level fays walk into our office, turn into monsters, and start singing about souls! What do you make of them?”
“And you gave them their ‘soul cakes,’“ Rook noted.
“Damn right I did! That shapeshift! I’ve never seen magic that ... showy, that heavy-duty, and neither have you. Even the Loopers’ wind-play and levitation doesn’t match it. And there’s the delicate part, too—the way they picked that song out of the air together. Whatever we do with them, even if it’s nothing, will have consequences. What do you make of them?” she asked again.
Instead of answering directly, he mused. This being his habit, she waited and listened. “They look Leo but they’re really Gemini and human. Quite human. I felt for that when they changed: they still felt quite human. That fits their tale: children of opposite sides of the world, born here on the third side, then made into elves.”
“Elves? They’re sphinxes! Dragons! Ifrits!” In her excitement, she unconsciously let her voice rise.
“No, that’s just shape,” Rook replied, his voice also rising to a normal volume. Outside, Gus cocked an ear. As he had openly told them minutes ago, his cat-ears had excellent hearing. So had Doug’s.
“Are those two telling the truth?” Theano asked. “I thought they were.”
“I thought so too. So... We’ve met fays. We’ve met some who used to be human ghosts. We’ve heard of living mortals being fay-marked, but this is the first time we’ve met any. Any so ... fresh! Turned only five years ago, not five hundred or anything like that.” Theano watched his face as his eyes gleamed. “We hire them,” he announced.
“Why?” asked Theano. “I can see you want to, but why?”
“They weren’t on our radar. I drew the pieces and the cards this morning. You spotted counts and germinals. Nothing big or imminent. But we looked for coming bad news. Some big-bad might be hiding and it might be them, or we could both have fumbled it this morning. But, likelier, things are as they seem. So far as we’ve looked. We’ve only checked the bad side, and they weren’t there.
“And you’re right, I’m sure. This is consequential. They’re fays now, fata, the people of Fate.” His eyes gleamed again. “Think of the opportunity!” Outside, Doug and Gus looked at each other.
“What do you mean, chessmaster? I mean, yes, spectacular magic, but only the one trick, though it’s a good one. Apart from that, they’re just big, strong, willing young men. And?”
“And it’s one trick now, but they’re at the beginning of their fay lives. If we help them, get them off to a good start, think where they could be in a hundred years! Like Huon! Skírnir! Glorfindel! The Dagda!”
“We help them?”
“And the other way around, of course. But the circus won’t last forever. They will.”
Outside, Gus’s shoulders slumped. Doug clapped him on the one nearest.
“So it’s said,” Theano replied. “Well, I admit that having our own pair of elven knights on the staff–“
Outside, Doug and Gus both sat up straighter.
“–could be great, but can we first ask them why they want to join up?”
“That’s sense, yes.”
Theano and Rook returned to the office, where Doug and Gus, now seated, still cat-men, met their eyes. “We didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” said Doug, “but our ears are very good this way.” He twitched his demonstratively.
Theano raised her eyebrows and said, “I see. Well, then, why do you want to join our circus?”
Doug had worked this out beforehand, with some edits from Gus. “We’ve just come back to the mortal world after five years’ absence. We’ve been through some really weird stuff and been made really weird. Our families are delighted to have us back, but everything’s changed, especially us. We’re trying to figure out what to do with ourselves. It makes no sense to try to go back to an ordinary life.
“And–“ He raised one clawed finger. “And we seem to be attracting weirdness. Maybe ‘fresh’ fays just do. Don’t know. But we seem to be drawing animals and ghosts to us.”
“Not all nice ones, either,” Gus put in. “The ghosts, I mean. The animals are regular animals.”
“So we figure we need to travel, not settle, to protect our families and anyone else we stayed with. But, going back to the first part, what do we do with ourselves now? The Grand Normans had some suggestions, but mainly they said, ‘Be good fairies.’ So joining a traveling band of monster-hunters seemed like a good fit.”
“Oh, I agree!” said Rook, a light like greed in his eyes. “As you know if you heard us.”
“Why’d you call us ‘elven knights’?” Gus asked Theano. “That’s what the Grand Normans called us, and I want to live up to that, but we don’t look like elves.” He swept his hand down to his clawed feet and swaying tail.
“Do they?” asked Theano. “I must have picked it up. But then, they and I both see young warriors bent on Doing Good, and you’re elves. Well, fays that look human most of the time. Isn’t that an elf? So, elven knights.”
“I think it’s an excellent match!” declared Rook. “After all, as you know, we too are wandering about on … errantry, Doing Good as best we can. I’d be very pleased for you to join forces with us!”
The two looked over the other two for some seconds. Their enthusiasm seemed to shrink as Rook’s grew. “Could you tell us a little more about yourselves, please?” Doug asked. “You know our tricks. What are yours? Greathouse didn’t tell us any more about you than we’ve repeated.”
Rook and Theano nodded and resumed their seats behind the desk. “Well,” said Rook, “for a start, ‘Madame Theano’ and ‘Professor Rook’ are stage names. We are really Irma and Dennis Vogel. Of course, we’re both Sundered, but I’m just a chess mage, really.”
“And I’m just a Pythagorean,” said Theano. She studied their puzzled expressions. “You do know what ‘Sundered’ means, don’t you?”
They nodded. “The weird side of the street,” said Gus.
“The Sundering,” said Doug, “is the twist of luck that hides magic. Most of it.” He grimaced. “Not all. But why do you say ‘just’ a chess mage and a Pythagorean?”
“We’re not any kind of mages,” Gus put in.
Rook smiled at him. “You don’t need to be. If a mage is an electrician, you are a lightning bolt.”
He expected a pleased reaction, even if mixed with embarrassment. Instead, Doug looked at the monster-hands in his lap and said, “I see.” Gus did look embarrassed, but not pleased. “We didn’t mean to show off,” he muttered. “Well, we did, but that’s what you do on a job interview, isn’t it?”
“To be sure,” said Rook. “Don’t apologize for your powers. We are just explaining that we don’t have much.”
“Pythagoreans,” Theano said, “are the accountants of the magic world, so to speak. Mostly, we know things. No fireballs. Not even rabbits out of hats.”
“I do rabbits out of hats,” said Rook, “but it’s just stage magic. That’s my act in the circus. But there’s not a lot of magic to be got out of chess. I, too, mostly just know things.”
“That’s hardly an insignificant power,” Doug retorted. “Gus and I and twenty-five other guys spent five years desperately wanting to know things, mainly what had happened to us and what we were now.”
“And just last night,” said Gus, “I was telling a scared little boy that the winner is the guy who knows the most. So you use your magic to track the bad guys? To know where to go next?”
“You make it sound so simple,” sighed Theano, “but basically, yes. So, is that enough to start with? And—somehow I think this connects—please tell us about that little boy.”
Gus and Doug told them about Mateo and his parents.
“There!” said Theano, smiling warmly. “We’re already doing the same work!”
Rook smiled too, but with an edge. “And, somehow, we have gone from you asking us for work to us asking you to work with us. An elegant gambit. So what do you say?”
“Please come work with us!” urged Theano.
Then she watched as both nodded slowly without looking at each other. “Okay,” said Doug. “It is what we came here to do.” Gus leaned over and engulfed Rook’s hand in his own, shaking it. Doug did likewise with Theano.
A few minutes later, back in street clothes and human forms, Gus and Doug were descending the stairs of the fourth-floor walk-up. “They came on a little strong, there, at the end, didn’t they?” Doug remarked.
“Yeah. I think I know why it bothered us so much.”
“Why?” asked Doug, not the least surprised that Gus knew it had bothered both of them.
“Last time someone was that eager to acquire us, we woke up with scales and tails.”
Nevertheless, two days later, goodbyes all said, Gus and Doug were sitting in the back seat of an elderly Volvo station wagon, being driven to the Indiana Dunes National Park, just east of Gary, where the Windy City Fantasy Circus was presently parked.
“My family used to come out here sometimes, when I was a kid,” Gus muttered, looking at the oak and pine rising out of the sandy soil.
“Mine too,” said Doug. “I wonder if we were ever here on the same day, before we met.” Then, in a lilting tongue, “Olthanne-ma o i ered medui fuin? Car-im.” (“Did you dream about the mountains last night? I did.”) They had been enslaved in a mountainous country.
Gus nodded. “Thuin a deryn, dan gondren. Baradh. Bain dan ring. Sen dae laug. Dae bâr-be.” (“Pine and oak, but stone. Steep. Beautiful but cold. This is warmer. Homier.”) Doug nodded back.
“May I ask what language you’re speaking?” said Rook from the driver’s seat.
“Sindarin,” Doug answered, and said no more. They had, after all, picked that language for privacy. So Rook asked nothing more.
The circus was tucked away in a large parking lot surrounded by trees, perpetually in danger of being sunk in sand. Perhaps the dunes were warmer than the mountains, but they were not, in literality, very warm. It was autumn and the oaks had all turned brown. The wind made the lake roar, a few hundred yards away.
The circus was presently packed into several trucks and RVs bearing the name in swirling letters of purple and orange. Rook parked the Volvo among the larger vehicles and the riders got out. Rook and Theano wore light jackets, but Gus and Doug wore their camo gi; they would probably have to demonstrate their shapeshifting several times today.
“No tents?” Gus asked.
Rook waved at the trucks. “All packed away. Some little ones; no Big Top. We perform outside as much as we can, so–“
“Dogs!” exclaimed Doug. Half a dozen miniature poodles, two standard poodles, two golden retrievers, and two German shepherd mixes came charging out from among the vehicles, to greet Theano and Rook, to inspect the newcomers, to practice barking, to blow off steam, or whatever.
Rook had deliberately refrained from telling Gus and Doug much about the circus staff, and vice versa, exactly so he could see their spontaneous reactions. However, he had worried how sometime cat-men would react to dogs. He need not have. Doug and Gus crouched down and spread their arms, grinning, to receive incoming.
After they underwent an intense few seconds of sniffing and licking, they were rescued by a lean man in boots and a bill cap who strolled up and commanded, “To me! Stay!” In a moment, it was so, and all was silent. Still crouching, Gus and Doug stared up at the man from very much the same perspective as any of the larger dogs.
“These the new guys?” asked the man.
Rook assured him they were, then said, “This is Christopher Johns. And his pack. Dog acts, of course. Beyond that, on what you called the ‘weird side of the street,’ he can get them to do some amazing things. In his sleep.”
Gus cocked his head and said, “Benandante? Wolf shaman?” Johns nodded silently. “We met some among the Grand Normans.” He rose to shake hands. “August Weisskopf. Call me Gus.” Johns nodded.
Doug rose and shook hands too. “Douglas Shengming Cheung. Doug.” Another silent nod.
After a couple of seconds’ inspection, Johns asked them, “What do you do?” He nodded at Rook and Theano. “They only said ’two new guys.’“ This had been discussed. The circus masters were letting Gus and Doug introduce themselves in the manner they chose.
They chose openness. “Well, just roustabouts, to start with,” said Doug. “But we were thinking demonstration swordfights and like that.”
“And there’s this,” added Gus. He and Doug took a pace back, looked at the obediently seated dogs, and changed. They took it slowly, a couple of seconds. There were a few soft growls and whines, but no one broke ranks. Neither did Johns, though his eyes were wide and he’d taken a step back.
Gus gestured at the dogs and asked, “Can we make friends again?”
Johns blinked, nodded, said, “Good idea,” then, to the dogs, “Say hi.”
Quietly, more slowly and subdued, the dogs came around to investigate. Doug and Gus crouched down again and extended re-formed hands. “It’s me. It’s still me,” Doug promised. “I’m still okay.” “Me, too,” said Gus. “I like dogs, and not with gravy.”
Johns told them later that, probably, it was the sudden increase in height that took the dogs aback. But Doug and Gus smelled the same and sounded the same. The body language was the same, even if the bodies weren’t, and the boss regularly came to them in their dreams in the form of a wolf. So this was not too big a stretch. Most of all, the boss himself was okay with it. So, soon, someone in the back yipped for their share of attention and soon the barking and nuzzling were back full force.
After a couple of minutes, Johns summoned the dogs again and said, “They’ll soak that up by the hour if you let ’em. Time for lessons. Time to let you get away.”
Doug and Gus scratched a few more ears as they rose, then turned away. The dogs did not even notice.
“I suppose,” said Theano, “that the next logical stop is through here.” She led them into the cluster of vehicles, ending in an ad hoc courtyard bordered by two trucks and two RVs. In it, on the sandy asphalt, a young woman was guiding three cats through a stage routine. All three were big tortoise-shells and each was standing on a bucket-sized drum, rolling it along by walking (backward) on top of it.
The young woman herself was walking backward as she led the cats through the course she had planned for them. Behind her stood an impromptu jungle gym of PVC piping, in which a short-haired calico, a long-haired calico, a long-haired black, and a solid brown cat were climbing about in a manner more monkey-like than feline.
The cat-trainer looked up and registered only mild surprise since Gus and Doug had humanized on the walk through the trucks. She was slender, her dark hair in a bob, and she scanned the two curiously.
“Felicity,” said Theano, “these are the two new guys we sent word about, Gus Weisskopf and Doug Cheung. Guys, this is Felicity Whittington.”
As Doug shook her hand, he asked, “Of the London Whittingtons?”
“Quite right,” she answered, in a British accent. “Practicing the family trade.”
“But you’re a long way from home,” Gus remarked.
She shrugged. “Not all of us stay in London, though the family doesn’t like to talk about it. When I go home, they act as if I was never away.”
“But isn’t your magic tied to London?” asked Doug.
“There are three family magics: London, bells, and cats. But you probably knew that, since you seem very well-informed. I’m perfectly happy with cats–“ She gestured at her clowder. “–and bells are okay, but I got bored staying in London, like some kind of internal exile. But it’s a long story. What’s yours?”
The two did their glance-trade, in which Doug handed the explanation duty to Gus. While his friend related their story in the short form they had used for Theano and Rook, Doug crouched down and held out his hand to a big black and brown tabby tom who was strolling over with clear intent to investigate.
The tom sniffed Doug’s fingers, then looked him in the face. Doug gave the slow blink that is a feline smile. The cat moved in for scritches. Doug was aware of Whittington’s gaze on him.
Shortly, Gus reached the point in the story where they demonstrated their alternate shapes. Still crouched, Doug saw his friend’s foot enlarge and grow scaly. He rose with the cat, which made no objection. For the sake of his passenger, he turned as slowly as possible. The cat took no notice.
Whittington did. She stared at their changes but showed less surprise than had Johns. Not all the other cats took it as easily as Doug’s guest. One cat jumped from the rolling barrel and ran off, as did a couple of by-standers. One of the gymnasts dropped off and crouched, staring.
“So, what kind of fay are you?” she asked.
“As far as we know,” said Gus, “this shape was made up by a shapecaster working for the fay who kidnapped us.”
“We call it lungmao, dragon-cat,” said Doug. “But that’s just to have a word for it. Who’s this, by the way?” He petted the cat in his arms, who was now purring.
Whittington said, “I think your shapes might qualify as ríastrad, warp-spasms. Special battle-forms. The word’s from Gaelic. And that’s Bombur you’re holding. Here, toss him to me.”
“Toss?” asked Doug.
“Yeah. Just give him a little bounce once or twice to let him know what’s coming, then toss.”
Doug obeyed. When he jogged Bombur in his arms in preparation, the cat perked up and tensed. Doug tossed and Whittington caught. Bombur landed neatly and immediately turned around in her arms, ready for the next launch. “Here,” said Whittington to Gus, and tossed.
Gus caught, though not as gracefully, laughed, turned, and tossed to Doug. After three circuits, Whittington put the cat down. He sat at her feet and stared at the newcomers some more.
“He’s one of my attack cats,” she said. “But he knows when we’re just practicing, playing.” Lungmao faces register surprise even better than human ones do: it’s the expressive ears. She laughed. “It’s very effective, especially as a surprise attack. Which it usually is.”
“I expect,” agreed Doug.
“Holy crow! I bet!” said Gus. “He lands scratching, right?”
“And yelling. And biting if opportunity presents itself. Then he leaps off and runs away. You two ought to have a pretty good surprise factor, too.”
Gus nodded. “As in ‘What the hell is that?’”
“Yes, but also the changing itself. Can you change fast enough to do it in the middle of a fight?”
Beat. Their gi jackets fluttered down onto their human shoulders.
“Right! Well, welcome aboard.”
They met the acrobats en masse. They were practicing on the safety net, using it as a trampoline. In the course of nature, the net did not have enough bounce for that, but that was only the course of nature.
“Loopers,” said Gus, watching two slim figures join hands in mid-air, then twirl heads over heels for rather too long. “Wind mages.” Two more figures climbed into the net and began bouncing, working up improbable amounts of altitude. All four wore costumes with bold black-and-white diamond patterns.
“Quite right,” said Rook, showing up next to Theano. “This is the first half of practice. They keep their levitation skills up. In the second half, they run through their show routine and practice not using too much levitation, so as to look merely spectacular, not unbelievable.”
A fifth figure jumped into the net. She performed five bounces, each accompanied by pointed toes and arched back, and was by then on a level with the pair that was currently highest. They were doing a mid-air dos-si-dos but opened it up to let her in. The three dove into the net together and somehow concentrated their joint energy in the newcomer, who went rocketing up.
“Holy crow!” exclaimed Gus. “That looks plenty dangerous even with the net.”
“And,” said Doug, “she’s no Looper. At least, she not levitating.”
“Quite right,” said Rook. “She’s just running on muscle and nerve. A lot of nerve. No magic.”
With the non-Looper’s arrival, the team shifted into the second half of practice, the rehearsal of their show. The four on the ground watched respectfully.
At length, as it started to wind down, Doug said, “She’s showing them up. The non-Looper. She’s good, really good. You see her next to them and you can tell there’s some trick keeping them up. You see her and you can tell the Loopers aren’t doing it for real.”
“That is a bit of a problem, yes,” muttered Rook. “On performances, there’s a framework, for trapezes, and people can suppose there are wires leading up to it. It annoys the Loopers to hide their lights under bushels that way, but it is a cover-up, after all.”
The acrobats were climbing out of the net now. The non-Looper star walked up to them while the Loopers watched in the middle distance. The checkerboard costume included a tight hood over the head; this she pulled back, to towel the sweat out of her hair, which was black. She was Hispanic and looked like a gymnast, short but tautly athletic.
She glanced at Rook and Theano, but addressed herself directly to Gus and Doug. “Hello there.” She held out a hand. “Estabana Herrera. Call me Bana. But not Banana.” She flashed a grin.
Doug took her hand and replied, “Doug Cheung.”
“August Weisskopf,” said Gus. “Call me Gus.”
“Right.” She looked over their martial arts robes. “So. Chop-meisters? You here to be karate-kickin’ monster hunters?”
They drew themselves up and changed. “Hunter monsters,” Gus replied.
She laughed. “Wow! So what are you? Ogres? Trolls?”
“No more than you’re a banana,” said Doug with a grin that might have been genial if you got used to the teeth.
“Ah. Point taken. So what do you want to be called?”
She nodded and finally turned to Rook and Theano. “Good timing,” she said. “So you got the memo?”
“What do you mean?” asked Theano.
“You didn’t get the warning?” Bana asked back. “I thought you’d finally given up your silly rule about foretelling for us.”
“We have not,” Rook answered coldly. “What you foresee you cannot change,” he added, in a sing-song tone of one tired of repeating themselves. “We’re not going–“
Bana put her hands on her hips and spat a word they don’t teach in high school Spanish. “You’re tripping around in the dark when you don’t have to!”
“Unless we weren’t,” exclaimed Theano, ignoring the argument. “Dennis, you were so eager to hire them. Could you have subconsciously–?”
“Oh, perhaps!” snapped Rook. “But that’s not foretelling!”
“Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa!” interrupted Gus, holding up his hands. “Back up. Warning about what?”
“There’s an attack coming,” said Bana.
Rook snorted. “Again? We make enemies. We’re always being attacked. Be specific.”
Bana rapped, “Soon. Bad.”
“That’s not specific.”
“It’s what I got. It’s better than the nothing you got!”
“No it’s not! We run the watches, we set security. If all you can say is ‘danger soon,’ you might as well–“
“I was right about the guy in Columbus! I was right about the coven in Indianapolis! I was right about that thing in Wisconsin!”
“Of course you were! A stopped clock is right twice a day! If you always say ‘it’s dangerous,’ you’ll be right when it’s dangerous!”
Doug made the time-out sign and said, “Hold it.” He turned to Bana. “Look, we’re being introduced around. So far, we’ve met the numerologist, the chess-mage, the werewolf, the cat-lady, and the Loopers. Kinda. And you. We’ve been told everyone’s tricks except for you. What’s your trick? How do you come by these premonitions?”
Bana shrugged and got as far as “I just–“ when Rook interrupted: “She’s a sensitive, a receptant. Or hedge-wizard or intuitive. There are lots of names. It means–“
Bana took the conversation back: “I get hunches. Good hunches. But this guy! No, I haven’t filled out the forms, so it doesn’t count! I can’t add it up in a column of numbers, like her–“ She nodded at Theano, who looked offended at being dragged into the fight. “–so it doesn’t count!”
“You don’t check sources! You have no sources! You don’t try other approaches and compare because there’s no approach! You don’t check contrary angles because there’s no angle!”
“I don’t need your damned bookkeeping, old man! I just know!”
“You don’t know! You suspect! All the time! When–“
“PIPE DOWN!” barked Captain Cheung. He folded his arms behind his back and lashed his tail. Before the short, startled silence could end, he said, in a tone of deliberate detachment, “We appear to have what’s called ‘creative differences’ here.” He stared into space and quoted, “‘I see what you are. You are a little, peddling Magician who works by rules and books. There is no real Magic in your blood and heart. Your kind was made an end of in my world a thousand years ago.’ Jadis, the future White Witch of Narnia, to Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew. Is that about the size of your estimation of Professor Rook?” he asked Bana.
“He’s a chess mage,” she grumbled. “Everything’s on a grid for him.”
“I’ll take that as a Yes,” said Doug.
“It’s an unfair characterization,” Rook protested. “Chess is my ruling metaphor, but I still understand the uses of intuition. Chess requires it. But intuition needs to be more than a gust of anxiety.”
“We asked you two or three times how things stood, how they ran, in your circus,” Doug remarked. “And you said, ‘Oh, come see for yourselves.’ Well, now we’re seeing. At our first interview, Rook, you wound up needing us more than we needed you. Convince us we should go through with this.”
Rook looked stricken, Bana seething, Theano fretful.
“How long have you goobers been at this?” Gus asked.
“The circus is about six years old,” Rook answered.
“And you’re not all dead,” Gus observed.
“I joined about seven months ago,” Bana said.
“And you’re still here. So it looks like the circus must be doing something right and you must make some contribution to that, not just excellent acrobatics and false positives. What is it? You a fighter? Use your Receptance as a tracker? What?”
Bana folded her arms and smiled. “Both of those. But mainly I’m a vampire. A recovering vampire.”
“Hmh. Well, that sounds impressive. I’ll ask what you mean by it later.” Gus looked over Bana’s shoulder, where the Loopers stood watching, joined by some other folk, variously talking and smiling among themselves. Placing bets, he wouldn’t be surprised. “Meantime, it looks to me like you two must enjoy your arguing. So we’ll leave you to it, and maybe Mme. Theano will show us around some more.” He met her eye. She smiled and headed off, shooting Looks at her husband and Bana in passing. Gus and Doug fell in behind her.
“So you like animals?” said Theano.
Doug chuckled. “Well, look at us.”
“And we owe a lot to people who are dogs and horses,” added Gus.
Theano tucked that remark away for future consideration and replied, “Well, we have three horses, who belong to belong to the trick-shot and lariat folk, if you’d like to see them next. You said you ride?”
“Just a little,” said Doug. “The Grand Normans gave us some beginner lessons. Some of them are, ah, really into horses.”
“Waist deep,” muttered Gus.
“Normally,” Doug went on, “horses don’t care for us. They’re very cautious animals and know freaky when they see it.” He shrank into human form. “Maybe we should ask their owners about doing the Big Reveal in front of the horses.”
“So what’s this about Bana being a vampire?” Gus asked Theano.
“What do you know about vampirism?” she asked back.
“Not a lot,” he admitted. “We’re stronger on fays, wizards, and ghosts.”
She watched him from the corner of her eye as, over a couple of paces, he too shrank back down to human. She looked about: they were in a little alley walled with truck bodies; no one was around to have seen the changes. Was she, in fact, safe with these ... guys? things?
She had four extremities and they, when lungmao, cat-men, had five each, for a total of fourteen, the number of the helpers. Now, tails gone, the total was twelve, the number of the complete community. She sounded those numbers in her mind, on the alert for false notes, but heard none.
Nor were there any warning notes in the boys’ voices. As a Pythagorean, she did magic mostly through number and music, sound. All through the trip out from Chicago, she had listened for false notes in the their voices, but heard only candor. Now, she heard only curiosity and understandable annoyance over her husband and Bana.
She had been silent a little too long. “Vampirism?” Doug prompted.
“She doesn’t look dead,” Gus said. “Of course, we don’t look like fairies.”
“She isn’t dead. There are many kinds, many strains of vampirism. Some vampires are alive, others are ghosts or undead corpses. Some are obligate, some are facultative. Some got it through a curse; others by deliberate training. What they can all do is rob people of power—chi, prana.”
They nodded. “But we did that with ghosts,” Gus said. “Greathouse told us how to. Is that vampirism?”
Theano waved a dismissive hand. “Anyone can do ghosts, once they know it can be done. There’s nothing in the way. And it’s only a little harder to move power between two willing subjects. Vampires are rougher. And they don’t just move power. If they try harder, longer, they can rob you of power-generating capacity. Like sucking out marrow as well as blood. That can kill you quickly.”
“But Bana is ‘reformed’?” asked Doug.
“Yes. She’s alive, learned the skill deliberately, and pulls power through breath, body heat, or touch. Very versatile. But no blood drinking.”
“And you believe her,” said Doug.
“Yes.” She had listened long and hard to Bana’s voice for truth.
“Did she ever kill anyone?”
“Once, in self-defense, perhaps. She doesn’t know the outcome. And here are the horses.”
They met with the three women and the man who owned the horses and did trick shots and lariat tricks. (“Yeah, don’t do that change in front of the horses until they get to know you. In both shapes.”)
They met with the clowns—more like roving jesters—who blended in with the acrobats who weren’t Loopers, and who spiced up their acts with repartee and stage magic. (“Rook doesn’t mind you doing that?” “Mind? We taught it to him.”)
They meet the alchemist who had no act but worked invaluably behind the scenes. (“Either of you cook?” “Cook?” “They all seem to think the alchemist should be the cook. But I’m a metallurgist!” “Oh. Either of us can cook for one with a microwave or for twenty with a camp fire.” “Outstanding.”)
They met the little chorus of singers. (“Why don’t your voices change when your size and faces do?” “We never thought about that before.”)
They ended the day on bed rolls in the back of a truck trailer, with the promise of better accommodations tomorrow night. Not that they would use tonight’s.
Doug lay back on his bed roll and puffed out a sigh. “I haven’t done so much changing since Greathouse taught us how.”
Gus nodded. “Up, down, up, down. Cat, man, cat, man.”
It was a strange kind of fatigue, not in the least physical—all they had done was stroll around the parking lot all day—nor mental in the way of someone who had spent the day concentrating in hard thought. But tired they were. “It’s like … writer’s block,” said Doug. “Like, I’m out of ideas. Ideas about my shape, anyway. As if each change was a creative act, and I just don’t…“ He waved his hand vaguely.
“Yeah, okay,” agreed Gus, just as vaguely. “I guess we’re out of chi. I suppose sleep will tank us up,” he added doubtfully.
“No way I can sleep.”
“Yeah, we’d just spend the night back in the mountains.”
Without more discussion, they opened the back of the truck and stepped out. Their trailer backed onto the edge of the parking lot; a few paces took them onto sand and into dune grass. Lake Michigan rolled a few yards away. To the left, lights from Gary and Chicago reflected off clouds. “Are we on patrol?” Gus asked.
“Guess so,” Doug answered. “In which case… one more time.” He had been human; he was now lungmao. Gus sighed noisily and followed. Now, to their feline eyes, the night was hardly dimmer than an overcast day. The lake waves were louder, but they could also hear the murmur of late conversations in the circus camp. Their whiskers told them exactly which way the breeze blew. The chill did not bite. They strolled down to the water line.
“When I was a kid,” said Gus, “I used to wish the lake had sea shells.”
“I used to wish the white kids would play with us,” said Doug. “Sometimes they did,” he added when he saw Gus’s head droop. “We’d come in a big bunch, with all my cousins. The Golden Horde was probably intimidating.”
Gus snorted softly to acknowledge the little joke and turned, leading the way back to the parking lot. “Perimeter?” he asked.
“Sure. But if we are on patrol, let’s go back and get our swords and stuff.”
As they re-emerged from the truck trailer, buckling their sword belts, a pale shape padded out of the truck cluster. It was one of the large poodles. “Fellow patrolman, I guess,” said Doug. “Hi, guy!”
“Hi, buddy!” Gus echoed. But the dog was on duty, not looking for company. It looked them over with an expression suggesting it wanted to see their papers.
“Would it help if we changed back?” asked Doug.
“Mm. Don’t think so. Probably more help to roll over and show our tummies.”
The dog raised its head and made a soft noise, a little bit whine, a little bit howl. Immediately, an even bigger canine walked out of shadows that could not have contained it—a wolf, wavering between gray and translucent. It came up beside the dog and made a soft, comfortable growl. The dog relaxed a bit.
“Good evening, Mr. Johns,” said Doug.
“Evening,” returned the wolf, in Johns’s voice. “He’s just not sure about you yet.”
They nodded. “Sure.” “Of course.”
The wolf gave a grunt and the dog trotted off without a backward look. The wolf reared up and became the human version of Johns in a nondescript, pale gray version of the clothes they had last seen him in. “They put you on patrol your first night? Seems inhospitable.”
“Our own idea,” Gus answered. “Can’t sleep tonight.”
Johns nodded and looked them over. “Swords?”
“We own rifles and revolvers,” said Doug, “but we’re out of ammo, and anyway there’s the legalities. Are swords enough?”
Johns nodded again. “Commonest is a cop or a watchman showing up. Then you stay out of sight and alert Rook to do any fast-talking. Next is thieves figuring us for easy marks. Usually mundane. Uh, you might want to think about looking like that, or talk to Rook.”
They nodded but made no move to change back. “So we don’t get many Sundered troublemakers?” Gus asked.
Johns chuckled, and his face briefly pulled out into a grinning wolf mask. “We go after them,” he answered, “not them after us. Sometimes, they come back for two or three more rounds, but I can’t think of any outstanding grudges just now.”
“Bana seems worried,” Gus remarked.
“She always worries. She does have some precog—she can dodge all day—but at longer range, it’s just always on. I suppose there’s always a next danger, and she feels that. Or she’s just a worrier.”
“Well,” said Doug, “since we’re here and available, and you’re the senior watchman, how do you want to use us?”
Johns shrugged and, in the act, melted back into wolf. “Suit yourselves. Julia and Sal are out and about just now. So’s Jude. You’ve met them?”
“Dunno,” said Gus. “Can’t remember,” said Doug. “If they run screaming at the sight of us, I guess not.”
The wolf chuckled as he prowled back into the shadows and faded. The two started their first circuit around the perimeter.
It wasn’t a long perimeter or an interesting one. After the fourth round, they widened their scope and wandered up into the lake-ward dunes on one side of the camp, then skirted the trees on the other.
The steady breeze from the lake was stirred around, here at the edge of the trees. Still, their whiskers picked up an approach and they were starting to turn when a cold hand grabbed each at the back of the neck.
They had thought they were magically exhausted, drained of chi. But, just as their military lives had taught them new depths of physical fatigue, this assault showed them what it was really like to be out of chi.
They went flat on their faces in the sand. It was not that they were too tired to raise their heads, not that they tried to stir and nothing happened; they could not, for the moment, even remember how to stir, how to will the action.
The hands on their necks pulsed warm, briefly. They gasped, though it was not oxygen they needed or had been given.
“What the hell are you doing here?” demanded Bana.
No words came to Gus, but Doug muttered, “Patroling. What the hell are you doing yourself?”
“You show up just as the dread factor goes up,” she replied. “And show that you’re monsters. That confuses me. I don’t like being confused.”
“I don’t like being assaulted! Gus? You okay, man? If he’s–“
“Don’t worry. Aren’t you immortal?” she mocked. “He’s just stunned. Answer.”
Doug pried a little more volition from the bottom of his brain-stem and put a little growl into the reply: “We’re what we said we are.” To his surprise, she relaxed. “Why do you believe us now? Oh, I get it! You can tell while you’re latched onto us.”
Shouts in the distance. Dogs barking. A gunshot.
“There’s your dread factor!” Doug told her.
They were still on their bellies, with her hands on their necks. Now heat flashed in the touch. With disorienting speed, they felt normal—sort of, over a lingering hollowness. “Go!” she commanded. Doug rose and dashed toward the noise.
She was about to follow, but Gus’s hand grabbed her ankle. “More,” he demanded.
“¡Cerdo!” she spat. (“Pig!”) But he held on. There was nothing wrong with his physical strength, and now he had enough chi to glue his will to his hand. She got ready to kick him off.
He rolled over and sat up, keeping his hold. She demonstrated her supernal agility by staying upright. “It’s for Doug too. You just sent him into action with his tank near empty. I could feel; I was in the circuit. If this was guns, you’d give us ammo. We’re in a rush. Give.”
Her boot turned hot under his hand as she topped him off.
“Okay, then!” He jumped up and ran after Doug. He was not surprised to see Bana run past him.
He figured she knew where she was going; he sought Doug. As he zig-zagged through the vehicles, he realized his superhuman hearing had deceived him: the shouting voices were mostly muffled—the people were calling from inside their RVs and trailers, beating on doors and walls, shut in.
He tore past several dim figures, zeroing in on Doug—by sound, by second-guessing him, by the fact that he could always find Doug—and came on him heaving and rattling at the door handle of an RV. People inside were beating on windows.
“Where’s a goddam rock?” demanded Doug. “Or even a branch? There’s nothing here but sand and grass!”
“Here!” said Gus, clapping a hand on Doug’s shoulder. “Supplies from Bana.” As he had with the ghosts, to keep them solid, he pushed the power. Doug felt what he was doing and pulled it in. Theano was right: it was pretty easy.
“What’s going on?” Gus asked, though Doug had been here bare seconds longer than he.
“Everybody’s trapped inside.” Doug tried a leaping kick at the lock.
Everybody? Then who were those people he had run past in the dark? Gus looked around the little temporary courtyard of vehicles. Five or six figures stood still, watching. Ghosts. And he had passed more on the way here.
The window beside the door broke and a set of chair legs thrust out. “Find Bana!” Rook called from inside, and “Get us out of here!” Theano demanded. Gus reached up and pulled the chair through, then began using it to clear the remaining glass from the edges of the window. Doug, meanwhile, went to find Bana.
He headed for the loudest noise. Above the muffled shouting of the circus folk, two voices, male and female, were yelling at each other, and he thought the female was Bana. No more gunshots. That was good.
Rounding a corner of the maze that was the circus by night, he charged through a still dark figure and experienced a flash of chill. He brought himself up short, turned, and grabbed the ghost, putting out a faint tingle of power for tangibility. “What’s going on?” he demanded. “Who are you lot?”
The ghost, a teenage boy in jacket and jeans, all tones of gray, stared back, astonished, then started to blur. Doug had no name to call or any other trick, so he just grabbed for its shoulders, already no solider than a stiff breeze, and pulled a gulp of cold energy out of the thing, letting it vanish.
Someone sighed. Doug’s ear cocked toward the sound and he whirled after it. A man crouched against the side of the opposite trailer. A baton hung forgotten in his hand and he stared at Doug. This must be Jude, one of the other guards on patrol that Johns had mentioned. Doug must have met him in the course of the day, so maybe the fellow wouldn’t be too terrified.
Jude apparently decided the same. “Did– did you banish it?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Doug answered, “or scared it off. Look, everyone’s trapped in their trailers somehow. Go get whatshisname, the alchemist. If you can free him, maybe he can cope with metal locks and stuff. Don’t worry. They’re just ghosts.”
Jude nodded, started off in a crouching shuffle, then with an act of deliberate courage straightened his spine and trotted away. Doug continued toward the shouting. It wasn’t continuous, but a dialogue. He would yell, then she would yell, sometimes several seconds later. In Spanish, or so Doug thought; at least, he couldn’t understand them yet.
Bursting on the scene might not be the smartest move, so he slowed for stealth and kept to the sides of the trailers. As he skulked, he reflected how scary ghosts used to be. Chinese folklore has a rich supply of ghost stories, and as a kid Doug had had his blood duly curdled by them—fun to hear by day, hell to remember by night. Now, ghosts were just sad.
Well, usually. Doug’s grandfather had not been sad, the night he died and stopped by to bid farewell. Yéyé, Grandpa, had seemed almost gleeful. Doug could not always wrap his head around Gus’s horror of being immortal, but when he thought of ages ahead with no chance of seeing Yéyé again, and the same eventually applying to Mom and Dad and the rest of his family, then he understood.
Here she was. And here he was, the guy with the gun. They were a study in sliding silhouettes. Bana, in a black body stocking that was probably a costume by day, ducked and drifted behind packing cases. The guy—black jeans, black sweater, black balaclava—wandered the center of the area. He held a gun pointed up and turned slowly, stepping in a slow, random waltz. From the way they failed to face each other, Doug guessed that it was too dark for them to see well.
The angry bursts of of speech continued. Doug could now tell that Bana was shouting in Spanish and the man in English, but he still couldn’t make out sense. The words had a tingle, though, that had nothing to do with sound.
When the man was facing away, Doug sidled up to Bana, trying to be quiet and hoping she would not yelp when he spoke. She only twitched violently when he murmured, “So vampires don’t see in the dark?”
“No,” she retorted, soft even to his ears. “Only cat-monsters.”
Maybe the man heard. “Bana!” he called. “You’re getting noisy, my candy! Careless!” Bana retorted in Spanish and immediately took three steps sideways. Doug followed.
“Old boyfriend?” Doug asked.
“That’s sexist. He could be a creditor.”
“But he’s not, is he? He sounds possessive.”
“Okay, right. He is. Bad romance.”
“Is he your sire? The guy who made you a vampire?”
She sniffed, then stepped five strides while crouched, since the noise brought the man around to face them. Doug waited, then followed slowly. “His name’s Darrell,” she mouthed, making use of his acute hearing. “I knew it was him when I heard the people yelling and pounding. Favorite trick of his. He has his ghosts bugger locks, then sends them in. Adds a layer of freak-out on the marks, being trapped. Then the ghosts drain ’em, come back, and upload to him.”
Too much talk. When Doug stopped scrambling, he and Bana were athwart the direction Darrell was aiming, tucked under a truck trailer.
“I thought you were immortal,” Bana said. “Why don’t you just rush him?”
“It doesn’t work that way. There’s pain, and ages of lost time, so no thank you.” And, really, he’d only been told he was immortal. What he knew was that he’d been turned into a lion-man and had learned to change back. “So he has trained ghosts?”
“Yeah. Mostly victims.”
And you used to be okay with that, Doug reflected. Well, maybe you saw the light. Reformed, you say. Anyway, we have to get rid of Darrell.
“What’s he want?” Doug asked. “You, I suppose?”
“Yeah, under a binding oath. But also I ran off with the pot.”
Doug’s mind danced over cauldron and marijuana before settling on the right meaning. “The … takings? The collected chi?”
She nodded. “As much as I could grab. That’s what powers my acrobatics. And healing and speed and stuff. He doesn’t want to kill me because then it’d go up in smoke. So he’s saying he’d take an oath too, and we’d be partners again, and forgive and forget. And he’ll stop attacking my friends. Liar.”
Darrell had heard them again. He faced their way. Go ahead, idiot, Doug thought. Shoot again, at moving targets in the dark, and waste another bullet.
But instead Darrell spoke: “Bana, I hear your breathing. You’re getting tired.” Doug felt power in the sentence. It was supposed to make Bana tired. “It’s getting hard to keep up the stealth,” he added.
Doug rolled out from under the trailer, scuttled to the side, and glanced at Darrell to make sure he was still staring Bana’s way. Then– You wanted a rush, lady? He drew his sword and leapt at Darrell.
He must have made a noise. And Darrell was fast, faster than a lungmao. He hopped back and now wasted the third bullet.
“SHE’S NOT ALONE, DARRELL!” Doug bellowed. “YOU’RE OUTNUMBERED.” You do voice magic, I do plain intimidation. It at least made him jump again.
Doug crouched and dodged sideways, which was well, since it meant the fourth bullet was also wasted.
Meantime, Gus had cleared the window frame of glass and helped Theano out. As he turned back to help Rook, she said, “Gus, listen! Next time you meet–“
She was interrupted by a translucent shadow that rushed upon her, arms reaching for her throat. She gasped, but then grabbed back. Gus suspected, could almost feel, that she and the spectre were struggling in a tug-of-war for chi.
Gus had had his arms up, to grasp Rook. Now, just before he started to reach for Theano, something was pressed into his hand. A lighter. He continued his turn to Theano and the ghost.
“Thank you!” said Theano as Gus went back to pulling Rook out of the window. “As I was saying, next time you meet a friend, count down seventeen seconds before you strike.”
“Strike?” asked Gus. “The friend?”
“No, of course not. Whoever needs striking.”
Meanwhile, Rook found his footing, grasped Gus by the shoulder, and said, “The ghosts are pawns. Their king is here; take him out and the game is over.”
“Like Sauron,” said Gus.
“Like Sauron. When they took out Sauron, all the orcs folded.”
“Right. Now, j’adoube. I adjust my pieces. Get on the roof and go look for the king. Irma and I will go get Harvey.” Harvey was the alchemist. Irma was Theano. Right. Gus tossed the lighter back to Rook. “We got our own,” he said, and clambered up the side of the RV.
“Seventeen,” Theano called. “Number of conquest.”
“Don’t be afraid of the ghosts,” added Rook.
“I’m not. Remember?” He heard a gunshot in the distance and headed for it, running from roof to roof. And another shot. And another.
Something pale loped beside him. A wolf, misty, silent until it said, “Where’s your pal?”
“Up ahead. Where are the dogs?”
“Hiding. On orders, so’s not to get shot.” The wolf nodded to Gus, then flitted ahead, far faster than flesh and blood, not even bothering to put paws to rooftops. Gus grimaced, leaped the next gap, and kept running.
Doug shook a ghost by the throat and reflected that he shouldn’t get cocky. So far, ghosts seemed easy. But he supposed that not all were as feeble as the penny-ante poltergeists he had banished or minions like this one.
The ghost was once a thirty-something woman and looked to be an ordinary citizen. Probably she was one of Darrell’s victims and, if she could still think at all, would welcome a more complete death. In any case, she was getting it. Doug flicked his lighter and closed his eyes against the flare to save his night vision.
One more down. Ghosts weren’t hard individually, but Darrell had so many working for him, and had apparently brought them all.
And here was Bana. She had been darting about in the crowd of phantoms, evading Darrell’s sight and scaring off his ghosts with her own threats of predation. She had just yelled one of her Spanish insults and Doug could tell, at this close range, that it was meant to sting, had some magical force in it like Darrell’s taunts about tiring, losing touch, getting clumsy, being stupid. He supposed it was good to have this dirty trick on his side, but he did not like it.
“Cute, with the burn,” she said, sounding just a little winded. Ghosts hung about them but dared not approach, just stared in silence. Not very enthusiastic minions, but then if they were his victims, they wouldn’t be.
“If I’d known, I’d have had a lighter on me,” she said, surveying the spectral crowd.
“So you did not know Darrell was coming?” Doug asked. “Just your rising sense of dread?”
“Yeah, like I said, no details.”
“Then I have to say I see Rook’s point. I suppose he could have doubled the watch, but beyond that–“
A ghost rushed him. It struggled in his grip hardly at all, and he could feel no resistance as he drew out the energy. Could you make a suicide run when you were already dead? Flare and gone.
He and Bana moved off so Darrell could not locate them from the blaze of the ascending ghost. They took different directions.
Gus arrived on the rooftop overlooking the fight just after the flare. He tried to be quiet, but it was hardly necessary, between Bana and Darrell yelling at each other and the background of moans and wails from the ghosts.
Johns was already crouched on the edge. “There he is,” he murmured to Gus, pointing with his muzzle at Darrell. But Gus had noticed Doug and started counting. “One Mississippi. Two Mississippi...”
The astral wolf leaped, not in an arc like a real wolf that has mass, but fast and straight like an arrow. Darrell broke off in mid yell, grappling with a beast weightless but still strong and toothy. Gus wondered if he would even be needed. “Four Mississippi...”
But at “Seven Mississippi” the gray shape winked out with a cry that snapped off before it could turn into a wail. Gus almost cried out. He knew from Greathouse that an astral form was, in some way, the projector’s soul. What had happened to that one? With unsteady voice, knowing he’d paused, he picked up at “Nine Mississippi.”
Doug did not see Johns vanish. He was coping with a rush of ghosts. They varied a lot in strength and palpability, and you never knew how much trouble they would be until they were on you. But once they were on you, the technique was always the same—he had worked it out by now: pull all the chi out of them and burn them up with the lighter. Meanwhile, resist the other attackers passively, unless one or more were solid enough to be trouble, then turn on them.
Questions came to him between rounds:
Was his lungmao shape helping? He thought so. It scared and confused them
Were they really making suicide runs at him? He thought so there, too. If they were all or mostly Darrell’s victims, they might well long for release. And though he probably had them under some kind of compulsion already, he was still yelling “Get him!” frequently, which gave them a perfect opening to throw themselves on Doug and go out in a blaze.
Why hadn’t Darrell shot at him again? Was he running low on ammo? Of course, Doug was doing his best to be a bad target, ducking and skittering away after each fiery banishment. And maybe Darrell was busy with his continued argument with Bana.
Was he, Doug, getting drunk on all the chi he was pulling off these ghosts? Certainly adrenalized or something like it. Did Bana feel like this all the time?
In the light of the latest flaring ghost, he saw the faces of the others rushing toward him. There was no mistake now—the longing, the eagerness as intense as fear, and no trace of hate. He remembered his own time of slavery, his mind compelled by another.
There was something going on here besides a fight. Suddenly, he saw his role in it. He stood tall and cried out “Come to me! The doors of the horizon stand open!” And he held the fire in his hand out to them.
Above, Gus had been pacing the rooftops, unobserved as far as he could tell. He tracked Doug, who seemed in no danger from the ghosts. The guy with the gun wasn’t using it, just shouting to the ghosts, and at Bana. Both sets of shouts had some magic to them that set his teeth on edge. He could see it sway the ghosts but not Bana. Figured. He remembered his own magical slavery and wished he could pray for the ghosts, but he couldn’t while counting. Later.
Doug was just below him now. At seventeen, he’d leap down next to him, sword ready (though swords didn’t do anything to ghosts). “Thirteen Mississippi.”
Then Doug laughed, shouted something about doors and horizons, and held his lighter out to the advancing ghosts. Flare. Flare-flare. Two ghosts ran up with clasped hands and vanished in a single flare. “And thick and fast they came at last, / And more, and more, and more!” he heard Doug call, laughter in his voice. That was from the Alice books, Gus recalled.
“Stop!” shouted the guy, the magic in his voice. But “Go! Go to him! Go! Go!” shouted Bana just as magically.
“Fifteen Mississippi.” Doug, he saw, was brilliantly lit by the flaring ghosts. It was a fitful light, and the burning figures hid him, but he was no doubt a better target now.
“Sixteen Mississippi.” And here came the guy, striding through his ghosts as through so much fog, to get closer for a better shot, and yes he was raising his gun.
The eruptions of light played hob with Doug’s night vision, but he still saw the solid figure marching straight at him. The last flare gleamed off a gun.
Darrell did not expect Doug to lunge forward and slash at his throat with a sword.
Doug did not expect Gus to land next to him and slash at Darrell’s throat with a sword. He certainly did not expect Gus to be uttering the cryptic word “Mississippi.”
Darrell dropped the gun and grabbed his neck. Gus and Doug could feel him burning chi with desperate speed, trying to heal. Apparently, it was not a magic trick he was used to, but he was mastering it. The blood flow lessened, his eyes cleared, and it looked like he was on the verge of rising or speaking.
Doug and Gus were having none of that. They raised their swords, but just then Bana strode out of the gloom and thrust a knife into the base of Darrell’s skull.
The three of them were alone with the corpse. All the ghosts were gone. No ghost of Darrell was apparent.
“Johns,” said Gus after a blank moment.
“What about him?” asked Doug.
“He jumped this guy but lost, winked out. I don’t know what happened to him.”
“Take us to his trailer,” Doug told Bana.
A short dash later, they were there. They found Theano, Rook, and the alchemist there before them. The alchemist, Harvey, was poking at the lock with a stubby, pointed, copper wand.
“Any idea what happened here?” Harvey asked Bana. “Welding? Magnetism? Glue?” He was a short, thick man with dark red hair. He wore a tool belt over pajamas.
“I think some of the works just got bent a little,” Bana answered.
Harvey grunted and poked again with the copper wand. This time, the tip glowed dull red with heat. “That’s a lot of work to get out of a ghost,” he remarked.
“He charges them up for it,” Bana said. “Charged,” she corrected.
“No longer with us?” Rook inquired, then said “Good“ when they shook their heads.
“Not even his own ghost,” Gus said. “I looked around for it. ’Spose he had a pressing engagement elsewhere.”
“Likely enough,” agreed Rook just as Harvey said “Ah!” and opened the door.
The trailer was full of dogs, gathered around Johns as he lay on his bed, or huddled next to him.
Theano felt his wrist for a pulse, tried again at his neck, and gently pried open an eyelid. “Alive, I think, but unresponsive. What do you make of his state?” she asked Bana.
Bana put a hand on his head as if feeling for a fever. After a few seconds, she said, “Vegetative. Any little thing could– ¡Asombroso!” (“Amazing!”) She laughed. “He’s getting a trickle from the dogs.”
“But he’s still in danger?” asked Doug. When she nodded, he put a hand over the man’s heart. Bana left hers on his head. They both pushed chi. Johns shuddered, moaned shapelessly like a man in a nightmare, then woke.
His eyes flickered around the trailer, then settled on Doug. “You’re losing your touch, cat-man,” he told him. “First thing I see is you and I don’t even jump.”
“We have a corpse to dispose of,” Doug remarked. He and Gus were sitting cross-legged on the asphalt by Johns’s trailer. Johns was walking up and down, a little shakily, breathing deeply in the middle of a surf of dogs, who uniformly thought he needed looking after. Bana leaned against the trailer wall, her eyes closed. Rook and Theano were sitting on the doorstep. Harvey was making the rounds, unjamming locks.
“We also have a furnace,” said Rook. “Well, Harvey has a forge.”
“A little forge,” said Theano, looking her negative vote.
“We, um, we could cut him up,” Gus offered. “We know how. I mean, with a deer,” he added hastily. “Shouldn’t be too different from dressing a deer.”
Bana snorted without moving or opening her eyes. “I thought you were city boys.”
“But we have dressed deer,” Doug countered. “A long, long way from Chicago.” He looked up at the stars, which were the farthest thing in sight but still not that far. He grinned, showing his trademark teeth. “Then we passed out the cuts and ran like the poachers we were. The gamekeeper was coming.” Bana snorted again, smiling this time.
“It’s a very small furnace,” Theano emphasized. “I mean, you’d have to chop him up into bits no bigger than– Oh! I don’t know why I’m talking about this. It wouldn’t do. And Harvey would fuss, and I wouldn’t blame him.”
“You must’ve had this problem before,” said Gus. “What did you do?”
“No, we haven’t!” Rook contradicted sharply. “In six years of operation, we have not, in fact, racked up a big body count. Not human bodies. A lot of our ... quarries don’t leave bodies at all, and the others don’t leave human bodies. We leave it to the Sundering to keep them hidden until they rot away. There have been only two human cases. Magical mass murderers, both, like Darrell there. In both cases, it looked like natural death.”
Bana sighed, long and drawn out. “Half decapitated and stabbed through the brain stem. Doesn’t look much like a heart attack.”
“You okay, Bana?” Gus asked, then added, “Don’t say yes just for good manners.”
She sighed again and said, “It’s complicated. He was my lover, and then he was my enemy. He tried to kill me, then I tried to kill him. Thought maybe I had but wasn’t sure, so I ran away. Round two, and now I’m sure. So I’ve already tried to kill him once. I don’t know how I feel. Not yet. But there’s this: That background dread is gone. I guess I was picking up on him. So, Rook, I guess I won’t be bugging you with premonitions so much.”
“I will pay better attention to them when they come,” promised Rook.
There was silence for a bit. Johns sat down on the asphalt and was engulfed by dogs. He didn’t order them off.
“What was that stuff about doors you were saying?” Gus asked Doug.
“It’s from the Egyptian Book of the Dead,” Doug answered. “Well, it’s from an opera that used the book. I suddenly realized what I must have looked like, a beast-faced thing in the dark, summoning ghosts to the afterlife—Anubis.”
“He’s a dog,” said Johns, unexpectedly. “A jackal.”
“We work with what we’ve got,” Doug answered. “What did you mean by ’Mississippi’?” Gus explained. Doug sighed in satisfaction. “See, Madame Theano? No need to be apologetic about being ’just’ a Pythagorean.”
Harvey came up. “That’s everybody,” he announced. “You want me to take care of the body?”
Rook looked up. “Ah? You have a plan?”
“Simple. Get me some driftwood, or branches from the woods back there, and we’ll make him a funeral pyre. Nice, anonymous ashes—I’ll see to it.”
Rook nodded. “Thank you. There remains only his car, or motorcycle, or however he got here.”
“Find it and leave it in Gary or Hammond,” Doug proposed.
“If we’re lucky, he took the train,” said Gus. “The South Shore line has a station a brisk walk from here.”
Doug laughed. “We walked it once! Mom and Dad, my aunts and uncles, and all the kids. Marching along the roadside. Someone whistled the ‘Colonel Bogey March’ and got told to knock it off. And hiked back, of course, with kids skittering off into the woods each way. I don’t know if money was tight or they just wanted to exercise us. But after that, they stuffed everyone in one or two cars and drove it.”
“My folks had us hike it three or four times,” Gus rejoined, “until the last time, when it rained. Let’s get firewood.”
Bana went to gather wood as well, and the two followed her up into the trees. She said nothing about it, but asked, “You going to keep those big cat-shapes? What-d’ya-call-’em?”
“Lungmao,” said Doug, “and yes. Are you feeling … reasonably collected?”
“Yeah,” she replied in a surly tone. “You have no idea the kinds of things I’ve faced. I can be ‘collected’ when I need to be. Why?”
“Well, good. We can get all the unpleasant topics out of the way tonight.”
She stooped to pick up a fallen branch and asked Doug, “What’s your next unpleasant topic?”
But it was Gus who answered: “That’s a cute voice trick you have, pushing the ghosts around, dueling with Darrell. Must be handy.”
They could see her nod in the dark. “The meaning rides the sound and the chi rides the meaning.”
Gus nodded back, though she probably could not see it, and remarked politely, calmly, “If you ever use it on us, we’ll go berserk. Try to kill you. Maybe even on purpose.”
“We told you,” Doug went on, “about being slaves. What happened was that, five years ago, Gus and I and twenty-five other guys woke up in these shapes, with no explanation and no hint that a change back was possible, and were taken away to be slave-soldiers in someone else’s war, in someone else’s world. Along with changing our shapes, she put a leash on our minds. We had to obey. The idea of not obeying filled us with dread. And it stayed that way until our owner was killed in battle. So you understand we are very touchy about mental compulsion. Very.”
“Very,” Gus echoed. “We wouldn’t mean to go berserk, see? It would just happen.”
“I guess I don’t know what you’ve faced, either,” Bana said. “Thanks for the warning. I guess it’s a good thing I took you two down in one blow, earlier this evening.”
“Nah,” said Gus. “That was different. We were just at your mercy.” He leaned down and picked a couple of black lumps off the ground. “Think pine cones would be good?”
Theano came up to the lakeside funeral pyre and announced, “A car. In one of the parking lots, over to the west.”
Rook nodded. “Gallison and Monahan can run it up to Gary tomorrow.” These were two of the jesters. “I can find them a place where a chop-shop will grab the car and have it stripped within a day.” He returned to watching Harvey extract far too much heat from the oak and pine branches, carbonizing the bundle in the flames.
“I promise you,” Theano said to Doug and Gus, “tonight isn’t typical. But I think it’s had its positives. The world is shed of a vampire murderer. Rook and Bana are getting on better, and Bana has some more peace. We’ve acquired your services. And I think Bana now trusts you.”
“She was suspicious because we showed up just as her dread alarms were going off,” Doug said.
“I admit, that could look odd,” said Theano, “especially to one in the grip of the dread. But coincidences happen.”
“I don’t know that you need to reach for a reason that lame,” said Gus.
“Oh? What’s your explanation?”
“Providence. Or kismet or whatever. You guys and Doug and I, we all come together just in time to put down Darrell here. We can just be grateful and take heart.”
Theano smiled. “Very good.”
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2021