Friday, April 26, 2013

Tooth and Claw: Into the Bramble, part two


Sunday, July 8th, 2012

                As Della approaches the door, she sees a darkness through it that is most certainly not her bathroom.  She follows Samantha, uncertain but excited, then feels the world turn inside-out around her.  She’s been drunk a couple of times, hung over once, and the sensation as she steps through is remarkably like the whole process compressed into a single second that seems to last forever – except without all the partying and peeing and wishing you were dead.  She goes dizzy, loses her sense of space and time, feels like she’s been hit in the back of the head with a brick – then she sets her foot down, and she’s through.
                “So this is my place,” Samantha says warmly, gesturing at the open living room as she flips on the light switch.  Bookshelves dot the walls, every one of them filled with volumes of varying height and thickness, their spines perfectly aligned except for the odd gap.  A dining table, the kitchen counter, two coffee tables, and a desk are all covered with books and papers, manila folders piled and arranged here and there.  A few filing cabinets stand stoically in a corner.
                “You sure seem to keep busy,” Della says.
                “Yeah,” Sam says, cocking an eyebrow.  “I don’t eat or sleep.  Made of wood, you know.  So I read and do some, um, ‘filing’ for Jennie.  She’s sure bright, but she can be a bit flighty at times, so I help her keep things in order.”
                “I see,” Della says, taking in the scene.  “So, what do we need?”
                “That depends,” Samantha says, tapping her chin and screwing up her face in concentration.  “We need to find your hourglass, that’s easy.  We’ll need an anchor; that’s you, when you tangled with the dead ‘un.  We just have to figure out how to get from A to B.”  She rolls her head around in figure eights, waving her eyes back and forth like a metronome.  “What’s so important about this thing, anyhow?  It seemed rude to ask Thomas, professional discretion and all that, but I figure I can ask you a couple awkward questions on the free.”
                “Well,” Della says, “Far as I can tell, Thomas is pissed about having his shit stolen by some goon.  I’d be pissed if my magic treasure was taken.  He just wants to get it back.”  She thinks for a moment.  “Also, I guess it would be nice to find out what this revenant is up to.  We’re not sure what she wants with it, and Alice seems to be pretty miffed about her just walking around unsupervised.”
                “Well, what did Thomas use it for?  That’s clue number one to what la mujer muerta – heh, mujerta – is gonna do with it.”
                “He didn’t do anything with it.  It was just a trophy.  We don’t even know what it’s good for.  The guy’s just had it for freakin’ ever.”
                “Huh,” Sam says, twirling her hair and tapping a foot.  “So:  we hit your anchor, track down la mujerta, then maybe – if we see where it ends up, we might be able to find out what she wants to do with it.  We could also try when it was made, ask whoever made it what it’s for.”
                “What, like, tonight?”  The bramblekin swiftly nods her head.  “You can do all that?”
                “Sure,” Sam says.  “It’s just expensive.  But Jennie and Alice go way back, so it’s not that big of a deal.  The hardest part is keeping all the elements straight in my head when I weave the spell.”
                “Jeez,” Della says, “Alice made Thomas promise her an unspecified favor for like a two-minute scrye.  This seems like it would use up a lot more tallow than that.”
                “Ha!  Storing magic up like that is a nifty trick, but it’s really a symptom of the mages’ limitations.  While they wield tallow like a cudgel, to force the world to fit their will, we are able to take a more persuasive tack.  They’re still fully human, after all; they only use magic.  We bramblekin are magic.”  Samantha walks to a storage closet and begins rummaging around.  “We’ll want this,” she says, placing what looks like a wooden hula hoop for a four-year-old on the ground.  “And a few of these,” she adds, pulling down a box from the shelf above.  She counts out five sheets of yellowed paper, double checks, then replaces the box.  “All right, we’re set,” Sam says as she gathers up the wooden ring and heads for her bedroom.  “C’mon, let’s get this show on the road.”
                Della follows her into a bedroom that looks ready for a guest, but not lived-in.  An immaculate bed sits beneath the window, a full-length mirror some paces from its foot.  Little trinkets dot the various surfaces:  a nightstand, a small vanity, and a corner desk.  Samantha stands before the mirror, closes her eyes, and speaks her incantation:
Mirror, mirror, in my room
Weave for us from Journey’s loom
Guide us through a bramble pass
To the Sandstorm Hourglass
Let the path be trod by night
Hidden from the sunshine bright
First, the anchor Della knows
After that, through several doors
One and two, then skip the rest
End, then start, then back here – yes?
                Another brief break in the bramblekin’s glamour indicates that the spell has taken effect.  Samantha nods to Della and steps through the glassy surface as though it were a doorway.  Della approaches hesitantly, reaches through with one hand, and feels the glass yield to her touch.  The surface is cool, but offers no resistance to her movement.  She leans through with her upper body and sees a dirt path through a tangled wood on the other side.
                The bramblekin takes Della’s hand and pulls her through.  “C’mon, you don’t want to spend time split between worlds.  It’s bad for the digestion.”  Della follows, bewildered.
                “This must be the bramble,” she says, after taking in her surroundings.
                “Bingo,” Samantha says, leading Della down the path.  “We’ll head through the bramble between destinations.  These will keep us safe,” she says, waving the stack of papers in her free hand, the wooden hoop looped over her arm.  Della moves at a stuttering jog to keep pace with Sam through the twists and turns of the bramble.  Brush crowds at the edges of the path, making it impossible to see more than a few yards ahead, but soon enough they come to a door set in a thicketed frame.  “OK,” Samantha says, “Showtime.  Just stay close and don’t do anything stupid.”
                The admonition strikes an angry chord with Della, but she has learned her lesson:  she resolves to stay close to her guide and take no action out of turn.
                Samantha opens the door and leads them through to the bloodkin trophy room.  Dead ahead, Della sees the revenant turn in their direction at the creaking sound.  Samantha shouts, “Safe passage!  We got safe passage,” an octave higher than her normal speaking voice.  Memories fall into place, but Della concentrates on the task at hand as she follows Sam across the trophy room to the other door.  The revenant smiles and nods as the two of them pass her by without another word.
                Once back in the bramble, Della says, “I’ve seen that before.  I heard you, when Alice was scrying the theft.  But I didn’t recognize your voice, because you were shouting.”
                Samantha looks briefly back at Della, then turns to the path ahead and says, “Well, yeah.  You’ll have that, on a big project like this.”  Della thinks back to the oddities – the “seeing double,” the “meeting again” – but they are approaching another door.  “Here we go,” Sam says cheerfully, throwing the door wide before her as she continues apace.
                Della sees an entirely different room now, floor-to-ceiling windows to her right, one panel distorted to allow a full-grown adult to pass through.  There’s the revenant again, standing before a large rock on a pedestal with the Sandstorm Hourglass in her left hand.  A trinket hangs from its leg on a braided black cord.  Samantha shouts as they run through to the opposite door, “Safe passage!  Safe passage again!”  Beyond the windows, Della sees an enormous crater yawning wide in the moonlight.  The smells of desert dust and burnt-out electronics fill her nostrils as they pass through the next door, before the first has even closed behind them.
                In the bramble, Della notices that one of the papers in Samantha’s hand is crumbling to dust.
                “What’s with those papers,” she asks.
                “They’re writs of safe passage,” Samantha explains.  “They’ll prevent anyone from harming us while we’re between the bramble.  We can talk with the people we meet, but so long as we take no action against them, they’ll do nothing against us if they know what’s good for ‘em.  It’s a strange sort of magic that runs off of agreement:  if you can get the powers that be to agree on something, they’ll have Hell to pay if they break their word later.  Anyway, I got like a hundred of these a while back, they’re pretty useful.”
                “How’d you get them,” Della asks.
                “It’s a long story,” Samantha says as they approach the next door.  Unlike the others, this one isn’t a wide wooden door with a push bar, but a regular-sized steel door with a nickel-silver knob.  She throws the door wide and steps out onto a walkway alongside a set of train tracks.  “Shit,” she exclaims, stopping abruptly and causing Della to run into her from behind.
                “What,” Della asks.  She looks around:  they stand atop a trestle, rising over the tree tops, looking down over a moonlit river.  They’ve just come out of a utility closet or a stairwell set in a tower at the side of the trestle.  Samantha turns around and scrambles for the door, but it has swung shut and locked behind them.
                “Oh, fuck.  Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck.”  Samantha leans against the door and falls to a seated position, cradling her head in her hands.  “I’m, uh – I’m not so good with heights.”  Della looks to her right:  the tracks ramp down to ground level.  To her left, she sees another tower across the river, a good hundred yards or so distant.  Nearing the tower, the revenant proceeds along the walkway, carrying the Sandstorm Hourglass in her left hand as before.  On her right shoulder, she carries an enormous rock glinting in the moonlight – the one from the pedestal in the last room, Della reasons.
                She turns to Samantha, huddled into a ball against the door and rocking back and forth.  “Tell you what,” Della says.  “I’ll go make sure we’ve got a doorway on the other side.  You just stay here and try to keep it together.  When I come back, if that’s where the door is, we can get you there safely.  Sound good?”
                “Yeah, sure,” Sam says.  The creeping desperation in her voice tells Della that she’ll agree to pretty much anything that doesn’t involve looking down.  Della heads across the trestle, hurrying to catch up with the revenant.
                Her footsteps clatter along the walkway.  Several dozen yards away, the revenant turns around to look back at her.  Della slows her pace and waves as she approaches, regretting that she did not bring a writ of safe passage with her.  Whatever.  The revenant is laden, and if she makes a move, Della will easily be able to counter and gain the advantage.  Now that she knows what her opponent is capable of, she doesn’t expect to be taken by surprise again.
                “Evening,” she says with a smile.

                “Hello,” Ferraille replies as the bloodkin whelp draws closer.  She shifts her weight under the diablo stone as she stands to face the child squarely.  “You seem to get around.”
                “Yeah,” Della says, coming to a stop just out of arm’s reach.  “I’m here and there.”
                The whelp still bears the mark of the writ – Ferraille can do nothing to harm her.  That is doubtless the source of her casual ease; were it not for the writ’s protection, Ferraille would deal with the nuisance right now and be done with it.
                Yet the bloodsucker can do nothing against her, lest she lose the writ’s protection.  Why has she come?
                “What brings you here,” Ferraille asks.
                “Well,” Della says, “I couldn’t stop you from taking the hourglass.  So now I need to get it back.”
                “You are persistent,” Ferraille admits with a diffident tilt of her head.  “But I am afraid I still need it for my own purposes.  So:  we stand again at an impasse.”
                “And that big rock on your shoulder?”
                Ferraille shoots her eyes briefly to the diablo stone.  “What of it?  It is none of your concern.”
                “Well, it was in some kind of museum before,” Della says.  “You’re going around, stealing prominent objects for purposes unknown.  You seem to be somewhat well-connected – if you were gathering these items for a benign purpose, borrowing or buying might be easier.  So, on the contrary, I think it is my concern.”
                Ferraille purses her lips and inclines her head toward the bloodkin.  Perhaps she is not as foolish as she appears.  “Perhaps,” she acknowledges.  She waits for it, but the pain does not come.  She is in a precarious position – she must walk a knife’s edge, careful neither to betray her master nor to provoke her interrogator.  Should it come to blows, her burdens will put her at an immediate and decisive disadvantage, to say nothing of the difficulty she will face in retrieving the stone, should it fall through or off the walkway.
                “So what are they for?”
                “I cannot say,” Ferraille replies, narrowing her eyes with a deliberate sigh.  “My master’s eye is always upon me, and I cannot betray his purpose.”
                “All right,” the bloodkin says.  “Then what’s your angle in all this?”  Ferraille considers her options carefully.
                “I once overheard a man say, ‘The assholes have the world by the tail, and they will hit you with it every chance they get’.  I suppose this is why I do what I do.”
                “So, what?  You wanna become the biggest asshole?”
                “No,” Ferraille says, shaking her head in dismay.  “My solution is much simpler.  I will kill them all.”  The whelp locks eyes with her for a moment.
                “Well, shit,” she says with a laugh, “That sounds like something I could get behind!”
                “Oh, really,” Ferraille asks with a wry smile, grateful for the chance to divert the conversation.
                “Yeah,” the girl agrees eagerly.  “There’s all kinds of assholes throwing their weight around.  My friend’s dad, he works in advertising, these executives make stupid changes to good ads just so they can prove that they’ve got the power to cancel the project.  This shit happens all the time, and it pisses me off.  So who are you after?  Politicians?  Bankers?  Executives?  World leaders?”
                Ferraille raises her eyebrows and says flatly, “All of them.”
                “Well, Christ,” the bloodkin says, eyes wide.  “Seems like a tough row to hoe, with a rock and an hourglass.”
                Ferraille shrugs slightly beneath the weight of the stone.  “Sometimes, the balance can be tipped by the smallest of things.”
                “You don’t say.”  The bloodkin narrows her eyes and glances side to side.  “So,” she says conspiratorially, “You need any help?”
                Ferraille weighs her options.  This is an unexpected turn, to be sure, but she has worked alone for so very long.  While the bloodkin may not prove terribly useful, she could be a thorn in Ferraille’s side if rebuffed – perhaps she may have some instrumental value.  Life and death, she remembers.  It certainly would be handy for these elements to come to her.  And if this whelp is able to help her in any other way in the meantime, then so much the better.
                “I may, indeed,” Ferraille says after her considerations.  “But we cannot speak of these things now.  I shall send for you:  look for the ravens.”
                “All right,” the bloodkin says with a smile.  “Until then.”  She turns on her heel and heads back across the trestle.  Ferraille watches as she retreats into the distance, turning back to her own long road after the whelp has gone some fifty yards.

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