Mongrel Nation VII: A Shyness That Is Criminally Vulgar

Fantasy, Katriel, Mongrel Nation, Shatter Zone, Tiff Van Ry

Van Ry drove the hummer till they only had about an hour of sunlight left. After stopping it, he did an inventory of stuff in the back of the hummer. He didn’t find much. While he fiddled with that, Kat wandered around the scrub, gathering sticks to build a fire. He already felt the night’s cold climbing through his coat. Kat didn’t feel good in the cold. He felt strongly motivated to get a fire started.

A rustling in the brambles halted him. The sound came from behind him—to his right—and low to the ground. He recognized the kind of sound in after a few breaths. Making no slow preparatory movements, he nonetheless prepared to make a move.

In a swift spin, he made two moves: he dropped his armload of wood, and he drew and threw a knife from its hiding place under his coat. The wood clattered to the ground. The knife flicked through the air—a tinkle and a pale glint in the gloaming light.

*

Van Ry watched a small battle. Urgent to almost a frenzy, but with the sureness of easy familiarity with the tools and techniques, Kat built a fire. By the set of his jaw, he looked like it was a conflict for his life. Van Ry left him to it, although he laid himself out in the dirt nearby and watched, leaning on his elbow.

Soon, flames flickered among the sticks in front of Kat. In a deliberate movement, like a gesture of supplication, Kat touched his fingers—just blackened by new soot—to his lips. He glanced up at Van Ry as he did. Kat looked mildly surprised and mildly irritated. Possible comments about Van Ry learning some manners efficiently prevented each other from escaping Kat’s mouth. While his mind hopped around, Kat drew a dead rabbit with a shattered head from his side to the dirt in front of himself.

“Good lord!” Van Ry said. “What did you do to that rabbit?”

“Knife to the head,” Kat said. He took out one of his knives and started skinning and cleaning the rabbit.

“You snuck up on a rabbit and stabbed it?” Van Ry said, and after a half second of considering it changed his thought about it. “No, that doesn’t make sense.”

With an arched eyebrow and an ember spark deep in his red-on-black eye, Kat glanced at Van Ry again. Instead of snapping one of the several things on his mind, Kat coughed. Probably for the best. The things he thought he might say all sounded a bit useless. He did say something, in the end. “I won’t eat all of this. You can have some.”

“Um…thanks,” Van Ry said, his tone very nearly inquisitive. For a few minutes he watched Kat’s deft little movements. Kat’s long fingers and sharp knife soon had the rabbit’s skin neatly removed. He got the internal organs out and into a neat pile on a flat rock. With a bit of string from some pocket somewhere on his outfit, Kat tied the rabbit to a longer stick. Leaning the rabbit-on-a-stick against another rock, he started it roasting.

“You do this a lot,” Van Ry said.

“I spent a while out here by myself,” Kat said. “Mostly by myself.”

“Hmm,” Van Ry watched the juices sizzling off the rabbit into the fire for a while. “Is that is?” He asked. Kat looked—glared, really—at Van Ry. “It’ll be a bit bland, is all. Don’t you…I mean, you seem like the type who’d give a shit about flavor.”

Kat coughed again. A few thoughts occurred to him—a few ways to respond. Before he thoroughly thought it through, he said, “Festal luxuries arrive at festal times.”

It made Van Ry laugh. Kat scratched the back of his neck, frowning, feeling the heat rise up his face. Van Ry wouldn’t be able to see it in the fire-flicker and thickening gloam. That was a comfort.

Without saying anything else, though humming a tune Kat didn’t recognize, Van Ry got to his feet. He sniffed around a little bit, then reached down among some of the bristly plants of the desert. After plucking something from the ground, he returned to the fire, rubbing his palms together. At the fireside, he sprinkled the leaves in his hands over the rabbit, rubbing the last flakes in the moist sides of the meat. The few flakes that crinkled into the flames puffed into little tales of smoke that smelled acridly of pepper and distantly of rain.

“Festal wild sage,” Van Ry said through a smirk. He went back to his patch of ground and laid himself out again, watching the stars blink on one after the other.

Kat kept an eye on the cooking of the rabbit. He decided that he would never mention that the peppery, rainy smell quite improved the oily, gamy smell of the rabbit. Rabbit had been growing boring lately.

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Mongrel Nation VI: Delicate in Every Way but One

Fantasy, Katriel, Mongrel Nation, Shatter Zone, Tiff Van Ry

“You had nothing to do but to be yourself: this blood-letting badass kicker of all other asses. All you had to do was give them what they got hyped up for and let them die honorably. Nearly screwed up the easy part of the plan,” Van Ry said, his lips twisting into a sneer. “What the hell? Where did you grow a sense of mercy?”

So many thoughts. Kat didn’t know where to start. A plan? What plan? And he had no idea what to say to the stuff about the blood-letting and the mercy. In the middle of wondering what Van Ry meant by it all, Kat felt a strong impulse to retort. Anything that he might say jostled around his tongue, almost like a mouthful of warm ice. He couldn’t think where to start a retort either. He could have said something about Van Ry having stupid ways of executing plans, or he could have said something about mistaken perceptions. The two subjects collided in his head into a treatise about governing principles of sentient motivation.

Oppressed under the agitation of whirling words confusing anything he might have said, Kat leaned back into the seat. Heat grew under his collar from the agitation. “Painu helvettiin,” Kat muttered.

“Didn’t catch that,” Van Ry said.

Kat, almost lazily, raised his hand and extended his middle finger at Van Ry without looking.

Van Ry fell silent. Kat glanced at him. Van Ry’s sneer had a cheerful twist to it now, like he had started enjoying the moment. Nothing about the man made much sense to Kat.

For a few silent minutes Van Ry powered the vehicle across the dusty desert. He occasionally checked his mirrors to make sure they had no pursuers. They never did.

“Hummer,” Kat said.

“Hmm?” Van Ry said.

“I remembered what this thing is,” Kat said, pointing at the seat of the vehicle.

“Ah,” Van Ry said. “You really come from very far away, don’t you?”

Kat did come from far away. Thoughts of home warbled in a haze at the back of his head. The ashen, fiery heat, so like and unlike the dusty sunshine of the dessert—the sharp, dark grey stones, cracked in orange-glowing veins—the sky filled with dragons and dragon-herding spirits of fire and smoke and wind—the castles, the keeps, mostly subterranean, but with their tall towers scraping to the sky from craggy mountains.

Yes. Quite far away. He had no interest in talking about that place. So he said nothing. He stared at the wobbly division between the red-brown horizon and the empty blue sky.

“Can I ask you something?” Van Ry asked.

“If I could stop you I would,” Kat said.

“I respect that,” Van Ry said, then asked his question anyway, which is what Kat expected to happen. “What went wrong?”

You walked into my life, Kat wanted to say, but decided that answered too broadly. He guessed—in spite of no evidence—that Van Ry had a more specific thing in mind. “When?”

“Back there,” Van Ry said, gesturing vaguely behind himself. “Back in the sheriff’s office. Why did you have so much trouble with them? You’re the world’s first-in-line badass.”

“I don’t understand,” Kat said.

“You haven’t heard your odious reputation?” Van Ry asked. Kat’s eyebrows lowered. He had not. Van Ry saw it in his face. “You’re responsible for numerous destructive acts. You destroyed at least Cauldron Outpost—blew it up with its own ordnance cache.”

“I didn’t do that,” Kat said. “I was there. A dragon did that.”

“Oh,” Van Ry said. He sniffed. “Free advice for you.”

“I did not ask for your advice.”

“Keep that to yourself,” Van Ry said anyway. “It could be convenient to maintain a reputation as a man capable of destruction on a huge scale.”

Except, Kat thought, for times when people like Van Ry make misguided assumptions because of said false reputation and corner him into impossible situations.

“Still,” Van Ry said. “You were little lover of all the underground fighting rings. I know you’re good in a fight.”

“Good is relative,” Kat said, his ire rising and his tone growing clipped. “Fighting is only one tool. I am not a brawler.”

“Then what are you?”

“I am a tactician,” Kat said. “I would have avoided that fight.”

“Hmm,” Van Ry said again. He thought about it for a few seconds, then he nodded. “I understand.”

Kat took a long breath, letting it out slowly. He felt tired, and let his eyes close part way.

“You seem to have heard a lot about me,” Kat said.

“I hear a lot about everything,” Van Ry said.

“You acted like you had never heard my name,” Kat said.

“I still haven’t,” Van Ry pointed out.

“Katriel Këkale,” Kat said.

“Tiff Van Ry,” Van Ry said, tapping the front brim of his hat and smiling crooked. “’Sides, none of the rumors about you have your name attached.”

Kat took another long breath, this one nearly a growl. “So you guessed who I am,” Kat said.

“Yes I did. It was the glowing eyes gave you away, mostly.”

“Your plan, such as it was, required that I was a person who you only knew by rumor,” Kat said, only kind of asking.

“Kind of gives the whole situation a tingly sort of excitement, doesn’t it?”

“Why?” Kat said. “Why would that be a good idea?”

“Gambling, Kat,” Van Ry said. “It wasn’t a good idea. It was a gamble. Besides, if I couldn’t get to you, I was still home free.”

“Reasonable,” Kat said, sighing. It was reasonable, though hardly comforting.

A few more minutes passed in silence. Van Ry drove the Hummer off road and toward a hill, along a route familiar to him. Kat tried to make note of the way, in case he found himself in need of escape. He found it difficult to navigate in the area, though, and settled for memorizing as many landmarks as he could.

“Judgment,” Van Ry said, in a tone that said that Kat ought to understand. Kat did not, so Kat shrugged. “That’s the name attached to your odious reputation, in case you were curious.”

“It’s not very flattering,” Kat said in a flat voice.

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s somewhat of a compliment, in the right light,” Van Ry said. Kat shrugged again. “It’s the scariest thing they can think of around here.”

Kat thought about that for a few minutes, frowning. Eventually, he said, “I’m not I like that.”

Short Story: Drench to the Bone, Rattle Your Walls

Finger

Mr. Wrage owned and operated Cantor, the only recognized name in the enchantment writing industry. There he maintained a stable of enchantment writers, all from recognized species—fairies, dryads, nymphs, the usual. Every year, to make a show of artistic integrity—because the show was the thing—Mr. Wrage hosted a poetry slam, ostensibly to open the field to all comers who wanted to try their hand at becoming enchantment writers. They were poets, just special ones. Mr. Wrage hosted the slam with an ulterior, and a primary, motivation: the slam showcased the new talent he had already selected. At the end, Mr. Wrage announced his new, young enchantment poets. They were always his secretly preselected poets, and they were always from the usual species.

Finger knew all that, and in spite of it he signed up for the next slam. It felt like a good idea—a radical act of defiance. Now that he stood in the incense-sweetened middle of it, his spider-long fingers shook around his cigarillo, and he cussed himself out about the decision. He watched the tall, elegant crowd wisp around in their gauzy going-out clothes. They cast pale glows with no source on the worn-smooth floor and aged mismatched chairs of the lounge. Finger felt small, dirty, and unrefined. Everyone else was something, and they were accepted as something. He saw elves, leprechauns, and many of the variations on “sprite” that inhabited the hazy background of the universe. Finger wasn’t anything that anyone recognized. He had big bat-like ears, big slanted eyes, tanned skin, cunning and long fingers that had a cleverness for locks and knots. He wore a hooded sweatshirt from an Beastie Boys concert, ripped up jeans, and a pair of combat boots he’d stolen from Baby Gap, because, in his words, he “needed shoes that small so shut up.” He stood just under three feet tall.

He took what he wanted to be a fortifying drag at his cigarillo. It didn’t comfort him much.

Spotlights brightened a slim, airy dryad standing on a stage and behind a microphone. With willowy gestures, the dryad delivered an original poem in a voice like a wind promising a springtime storm.

Wellspring Gamboling was her name. She was one of Mr. Wrage’s newest stars. She gave Finger goose bumps. Half, he begrudged her, because of the beauty of the poetry, but half of his goose bumps prickled on his skin because the warm response of the crowd set a high bar. Because of some history he had with the room, if he hoped for any success today he would need to measure against her.

“Pan’s itchy asshole, I’d love to win,” Finger said.

Someone snorted with laughter next to Finger. Finger looked way up at the person. Finger had to look up at everyone. By other standards, the snorting jack-off next to Finger would have been short, and also tubby. The person wore dark shades and a black suit and a red-faced expression of half-drunkenness.

“Some’ing funny, Wrage?” Finger snapped up at Mr. Wrage.

“What’s this, the third time, Finger?” Mr. Wrage said. When he got a little drunk, it made his voice loud and sharp. Mr. Wrage hiccupped and grinned. “What’d they think you were last time? The handyman?”

“Sound check guy,” Finger said through pressed lips and gritted teeth. He tried to control the rising heat in his neck.

Mr. Wrage spread his hands wide and laughed. “Some of us are made to rise to occasions of high pressure, Pinky,” he said in a derogatory tone. “But not all of us. Some of us are you, after all.”

Finger opened his mouth to retort something, but the applause from the room drowned him out. It was pretty good applause. Everyone clapped, a few hooted. Respectable. Wellspring, a glowing grin on her face, left the stage and went down into the audience.

“Best performance of the night,” Mr. Wrage said, his red face stretched with a grin too. “Which puts you up next, I think, Pinky.” Mr. Wrage’s grin went a little meaner, Finger thought. Finger—still trying and failing to suck steadiness from his cigarillo—shuffled off through the dew-smelling crowd toward the stage. His thighs felt like they’d been electrocuted. His toes felt numb. He felt keenly aware of the his earthy smell. Usually he didn’t think about himself this way. It sucked. “Don’t worry about the public humiliation. I’m sure you’ve improved since last time,” Mr. Wrage called after him. “And when I say that, I’m kidding.”

In the crowd, Finger listened to the snippets of poetry mumbled around himself. The easiest judgment to make of an enchanter’s poetry was how much it got quoted. All the poetry humming from mouth to ear over his head came from the poem just recited by Wellspring. Since this was the debut of that poem, no one had ever heard it before. The amount of the poem “glittering the air,” as they say in that scene, of the room was an impressive feat on the part of Wellspring.

Finger swallowed, trying to make his sand-dry throat feel like an organ he could use. Aside from himself, no one ever repeated anything he had written.

He thought he had found something to help himself—a “secret weapon,” inspired by some reading about Bob Dylan. His confidence in it wavered with every step.

At the stage, he had to clamber to get up on top of the two-foot-tall platform. At the back of the stage a huge, black man sat behind a set of bongos, ready to drum along with the poetry whenever it seemed necessary. Finger had talked to him before the show to express how very bloody necessary it’d be for him. Fortunately, the bongo player had liked the idea, and Finger.

“Hey, Fuzz,” Finger said. The big black man smiled from behind his black sunglasses. Finger pulled the two items of his “secret weapon” from a spot he’d stashed them behind the stage. From a case he took a slightly-small guitar—still too big for him, but not by too much. The other thing was an amp. He hurried around on the stage to plug the amp into an outlet and his guitar into the amp.

Then he adjusted the microphone down to a place he could use it. While he did that he looked out at the assembled, mumbling crowd. They were already pointing at him and chuckling. No doubt they talked about his attempt last year, how he had run off the stage after his garbled attempt at a poem.

Finger’s sweaty hand slipped on the neck of his guitar. He frowned, stretching his fingers and wiped his hand on his jeans. “Why do I do this, Fuzz?” Finger muttered at Fuzz.

“Don’t know, small fry,” Fuzz said. “Why do you do it?”

“Love of it,” Finger said. His lips tripped over the words and slurred them together. Finger cleared his throat and swallowed again.

Fuzz chuckled. It was a kind chuckle—companionable. “As the betting man I am, I would not put money on the truth of those words, Finger.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please,” came the voice of Mr. Wrage over the room’s speaker system. At the back of the room he held a microphone in front of his smiling, red face. “As an added point of fun in tonight’s little soirée, I will be enacting a piece of audience involvement. We all like a little audience involvement, right?” The audience applauded. “Tonight, you choose my newest enchantment writer. I will hire the poet with the best audience response of the night—anyone who isn’t already an employee of mine.” Mild laughter greeted that. Polite laughter, Finger thought, since the “joke” was dumb. Then, as if from an afterthought, Mr. Wrage caught Finger’s eye and, looking right at him, and finished his announcement. “And the poet who gets the worst response from all of you will be extricated from this community forever.”

The audience response to that was mixed. Some laughed. Some looked confused. Mr. Wrage, with a satisfied smirk, saluted Finger.

“Well,” Fuzz said from the back of the stage. “That was real personal, wasn’t it?”

“Fuzz,” Finger said. His grip tightened around his guitar neck.

“’Sup, small fry?”

“I don’t know why I do this, not in general,” Finger said.

“Good. Can’t start from any other place,” Fuzz said. “Where’s the ‘but’ in that?”

“I know why I’m doing it tonight,” Finger said.

Fuzz smiled. “Smooth—smooth,” he said.

“Let’s crank this puppy up to eleven,” Finger said.

Fuzz chuckled at that. “Think you earned that reference?” Fuzz asked.

“Not really,” Finger said, giving Fuzz a sheepish smile.

“Ready?”

“Born to die, dude,” Finger said. His frown creased deeper than ever. The dread-weight in his chest went nowhere. “Born to die.”

Finger used his toe to turn the dial of his amp as high as it would go. Then he turned back to the audience.

“For you, Rage,” Finger said, pointing at Mr. Wrage, and dedicating it in his mind to that other spelling.

The next image of him made it into the local paper next day: he leapt, his pick-hand raised to strike down on the steel strings, his heels kicked up, and his eyes and mouth pulled open with the rage he was about to put into the chords of his song. He embodied that rage, and over the next three minutes it roared out of him and whooshed across the audience in a torrent. The lyrics came in a chattering rush. The guitar ground out chords and trilling notes reminiscent of the industrial-inflicted metal scene: harsh, in a minor key, but still melodic.

It finished. And, for a moment, no one knew what to do with it. For a moment, Finger stood on a quiet stage, panting behind the microphone, uninterrupted. The silence still seemed to vibrate from his noise—his chest certainly did. He felt steady. A smile twitched at the edges of his wide mouth.

At the back of the room, Mr. Wrage began to grin too, but because of the silence. He turned to order a drink from the bartender behind him. The bartender hooted, though; he hooted in an appreciative tone.

That seemed to loose the dreadnaught. First a handful at one end of the room, then a group over there, started clapping. Most of the room joined in.

It wasn’t a standing ovation. It wasn’t a world-overturning roar. It was certainly a fine amount of applause—certainly not the worst response of the evening.

Mr. Wrage was about to protest about it to Wellspring at his elbow, but then he heard something even more disturbing: several hummed notes from Wellspring. No words, but the notes were from Finger’s song. Before Mr. Wrage could even say anything about that, Wellspring walked away from him, starting through the crowd toward the stage.

“Where are you going?” Mr. Wrage demanded of her.

“To welcome one of us home,” Wellspring said. “To say hello to a newborn poet.”

Mongrel Nation Sideways Tales: Fairy Dust I: Fairy Dust

Fantasy, Mongrel Nation, Rime-on-Heartsease, Shatter Zone

Humans would call it a fairy ring. The fairies there called it Landing Zone Four. The thirty meter diameter dwarfed any casual fairy ring that usually appeared on Earth. Aside from having a somewhat nodular shape like a mushroom, the glowing transport nodes that made its circle bore only limited resemblance to the toadstools that made most fairy rings. The nodes glowed white-blue and shined some distance into the sky. Pale wisps whipped up from the nodes periodically, looking like they ought to sweep through the air with a swishing sound, when in fact no part of the fairy ring made any sound at all. It glowed, a bright ring of cold light, making the grey dusk outside of the ring look dark as night. Soon, supplies to outfit a reasonably sized military tower would emerge in the fairy ring, available for the use of the maneuver’s commander, the Base Auspex, whose name was Rime-on-Heartsease. Before that could happen, they had the fairy dust test to complete. The local the fairies had captured lay on a stone table in the middle of the fairy ring, silver chains tethering his slim body down. A fairy carried a syringe toward the prisoner. The new fairy dust formula had been mixed into a saline compound; the hypnotechs had discovered a liquid injection made the fairy dust compound mainline in the subject faster. Aside from the natural dejection expected from getting overpowered and chained to a stone table, the prisoner expressed no fear about the slightly glittering syringe moving toward his arm.

“Poor misguided soul,” Rime said. He put a hand on the prisoner’s shoulder. He meant the gesture as a comfort. When it came to it, though, he couldn’t think of anything comforting to say. Gripping briefly, Rime nodded.

The other fairy pushed the needle of the glittering syringe into the prisoner’s arm. All of the contents slid into the prisoner’s bloodstream.

It took swift effect. Rime had never seen it happen so fast, the drain of color so the subject looked frozen—the softening of muscles as if the subject slept. The thing that made it most uneasy to Rime was the quiet. It seemed like the wrong way to respond.

“Did he have a name?” Rime asked the other fairy. “Or, I mean, did you know his name?”

“Jericho,” the other fairy said.

Rime nodded. “Jericho,” Rime said. Jericho turned his low-lidded eyes toward Rime. “Jericho, can you hear me?”

Jericho swallowed. “Yes,” he said without much breath.

“Jericho, I need you to do something. Would you do something for me?” Jericho nodded again. “Hold your breath, Jericho.”

Jericho swallowed again. He closed his lips. His chest stopped its slow movement up and down. Rime waited for a second, just to make sure he was holding his breath. Then, taking a sharp and finalized breath, Rime said to the other fairy, “Tell me when he’s dead. We’ll start his outfitting as soon as possible.”

Rime left the stone table to send word back to Fairyland. He composed his report in his head. It began: Preliminary tests prove promising. Send more fairy dust…

Mongrel Nation V: For You to Bathe in Glory You Must Be Doomed to Fail

Fantasy, Katriel, Mongrel Nation, Shatter Zone, Tiff Van Ry

It made Kat nervous that he felt like he could trust nothing about Van Ry except their common purpose: avoid captivity. Kat had not decided whether to list Van Ry under “assets” or “liabilities.”

“Just don’t do anything stupid,” Kat said to Van Ry. “For as long as we maintain control of the situation, we—no, what the hell are you doing?” Kat interrupted himself, swiping to grab at the flipping end of Van Ry’s coat. Van Ry, getting to his feet, went straight for the door out of the sheriff’s office. Van Ry smirked at Kat. Then, his expression turning into a good impression of panic, Van Ry hurled himself wildly at the door. The door burst open under his weight. Sunshine flowed into the dim sheriff’s office. Van Ry sprawled out the door.

Kat jumped to his feet, his heart rattling under his ribs. A hundred impotent curses and inquiries jumbled for place behind his teeth, succeeding in only gagging him. From outside the door, Kat heard Van Ry.

“Shit!” Van Ry mewled. It was a tone much like the yelp of a bully who discovered a bigger and badder bully. “He’s gone crazy! Get him away from me!”

Kat almost looked out the door after Van Ry, then remembered that would be stupid. Instead, Kat fell with his back against the wall between the door and the boarded-up window. He didn’t know quite what would happen next, but he couldn’t think what to do about it except assume a defensive position.

Above the pumping blood in his ears, Kat heard snippets of speech from outside. “—alone in there,” Kat heard from Van Ry, then a question. Van Ry said something that sounded like, “unarmed.”

Kat had a second to feel betrayed—to suffer a tightness across the throat. He tried to tell himself not to be surprised, at least. It shouldn’t have surprised him. The next thing to happen ought not to have either. It was what he would have done, if the situations had been reversed. It still surprised him.

The boards over the window exploded. Kat flinched. Splinters clattered into the room. The light increased. The sharp contrast between the large patches of sunshine and darkness made it hard to distinguish details in either. The boards on the window on the other side of the door exploded too.

Kat took a moment to do two things. First, he assessed for a breath. On his left, two big guys with shotguns—on his right, three with machetes. The rubble sloughed from their broad backs, pattering to the ground. The chunks of concrete that broke the windows in for them had broken up the furniture in the room and left most of the floor cleared. None of them had looked at Kat yet. The moment felt tranquil.

The second thing Kat did was to resign himself to how fucked he was. Which he found quite relaxing, for the moment.

Trying not to immediately invite the attacks of the twelve armed people still outside the sheriff’s office, Kat lunged to his feet. The people with shotguns and machetes had not got used to the confusing light yet. Kat pressed that advantage. He moved quickly between light and shadows. His fists and feet wildly struck around at ribs, knees, necks. Kat managed to drop two of them in the first few seconds—one clutching his groin, and the other unconscious on the ground with his head turned almost too far. Because of the close quarters, none of Kat’s attackers shot at him. That didn’t give Kat an advantage; he kept having trouble tracking on the people he fought. They kept getting behind him. It was only through flexibility and brute strength that he had avoided their grasping arms so far. The rest of the guys outside filed in, taking their time as if waiting in line at a carnival game. With every passing heartbeat, Kat felt himself losing any meager control he had over the fight.

In a day already head-aching with twists, Kat felt numb to the next one.

A stuttering roar loomed close from outside. Then a shattering crash interrupted his fight. Preceded by two, round, unnatural yellow lights, a big metal object crashed through the front of the building. Rubble clattered everywhere. Plaster dust burst into the air. The people who weren’t crushed aside dove out of the way. The object slid to a halt—its wheels grinding in the dust. Grit sluiced over Kat.

The door in the vehicle’s side clunked open. Van Ry sat inside at the steering wheel. He made eye contact with Kat. Kat needed no further signal. He darted the two steps to the vehicle and jumped inside.

Van Ry clunked the shifter next to the steering wheel. The engine in the vehicle roared, and it grumbled swiftly backward out of the front of the sheriff’s office. From there, Van Ry executed a tight turn that, in the dust outside, got the vehicle skidding. Kat almost fell out of his open door, the vehicle spun so hard. When the nose came all the way around, Van Ry chunked it into a different gear. He slammed his foot down on the accelerator. The vehicle thudded forward, knocking Kat against the seat. His legs still hung outside the vehicle and the door thudded against his knees. It was about the worst pain he’d felt that day. He didn’t pay much attention to what Van Ry was doing for a second, concentrating instead on pulling himself all the way into the cab. By the time he had a more solid seat and the door slammed shut after himself, Van Ry had wended or broken a path through Ramshackle. Ahead, the way was clear except for the heavy front gates, which were being drawn closed by two big guys.

“This truck won’t get through those gates if they get them latched,” Van Ry said. “They’ll get them latched before we get there unless something happens.”

With a snarl of annoyance, but no further thought, Kat unlatched the door again. In a few snaky movements he climbed on top of the vehicle. It had a luggage rack. He braced his feet in the luggage rack. One from each hand, he flicked two knives from hidden places under his coat. The knives glittered through the air. Then the two big guys at the gate stumbled, each with a knife in the back of their knee. No longer capable of pulling the heavy gates closed, the two big guys now bleeding in the dirt had no greater interest than pulling themselves out of the way before the big vehicle zoomed through the partly closed gate and out into the scorching desert.

Kat took a calm breath. He turned to watch Ramshackle’s bent and broken silhouette widen then begin receding. No one set out to pursue them. Not yet, anyway. Somewhat comforted, Kat slipped back into the cab of the vehicle.

He slammed the door behind himself and sunk into the seat. Relieved to have an opportunity to breathe easy, Kat took a long breath.

“Well,” Van Ry said before Kat finished exhaling. “You almost bollixed that up, didn’t you?”

Mongrel Nation IV: I Got a Wooden Medal and a Fine Harangue; if You Want to Be a Hero Follow Me

Fantasy, Katriel, Mongrel Nation, Shatter Zone, Tiff Van Ry

Kat faded into a head-achy, dehydrated haze. Heat itched at him. After a second he remembered why his head hurt and why the heat-wavering blue sky stretched down infinitely below his feet from an emptiness of brown, crusty desert over his head. I am upside down, he reminded himself, from a rope around my ankle.

A face pushed toward him. Every feature of the hairless face was sharp, including the teeth in its thin-lipped grin. The person pushed his aviator sunglasses down off his eyes to look more closely at Kat.

Kat swallowed, trying to wet his dry throat so he could talk. He didn’t manage the swallowing very well, but he breathed out a few dusty words anyway.

“You Coon?” Kat asked.

“Yeah,” Coon said. “Going to do something with the information?”

Kat nodded, realizing it probably looked odd since his chin was going up. “I am here to collect on your bounty, sir. Prepare to be arrested.”

Coon’s smile twisting, he pulled his bowie knife from his thigh sheath and held its tip against Kat’s throat.

“How’s that again?”

Kat tried again to swallow—gave up. “Trust me,” Kat said.

Coon just kept smiling.

*

Kat calculated. He looked at the face of Van Ry, smiling under the pressure of the pistol in Kat’s hand, and aligned variables with constants, and Kat from there extrapolated possibilities.

In light of a conclusion, Kat let go of Van Ry. Van Ry slumped to his feet, struggling to keep upright against the wall behind himself. When Van Ry righted himself, he found the pistol shoved into his face again, but this time Kat held out the handle.

“Awfully trusting, aren’t we?” Van Ry said, looking up at Kat. Kat’s lips pressed together in a harsh frown.

“I am not happy about this,” he said. “I don’t trust you.”

“That makes one of us,” Van Ry said, taking the pistol.

Kat considered asking which of his statements Van Ry applied that to, but he let it go. Turning on his heel, Kat strode toward the door out of the cells.

“What do you expect me to do now?” Van Ry asked. He pointed the pistol at Kat’s back, sighting along the barrel.

“Survive,” Kat said, expressing not the slightest worry. “Now you are my accomplice.” With those words, Kat pointed at Sir Ramsey’s valet. The big man still hung by the handcuffs attaching his wrist to the pipe hanging from the ceiling. The valet stared from under thick eyebrows out small eyes at Van Ry.

“Like repays like,” Kat concluded. He pushed through the door to get out of the cells.

“That bitch,” Van Ry muttered. He swallowed, scratching his cheek with the barrel of the gun in his hand. “Any way we can talk this one out?” he asked the valet. The valet shook his head. Van Ry nodded. “That’s fair, I guess.”

In the front room of the sheriff’s building, Kat raided a locker. The dusty shafts of hot sunshine dropping through the slatted windows made Kat’s outline fuzzy. His nightmare-black coat distorted light oddly. His movements looked dreamlike in the uneven, crooked light.

Kat glanced over his shoulder when he heard Van Ry. “These are yours, I think,” Kat said, pulling a bundle of items out of the locker. He dropped the bundle on a solid table in the middle of the room. The table was otherwise covered in maps and papers. The stuff scattered under Van Ry’s bundle of items. Before Van Ry picked it up, Kat moved toward the front door of the building, sliding the last of his knives into a sheath on the back of his forearm. He had several knives on his person now—recovered from the locker where Chamfer put them after confiscating them. Four of Kat’s knives were visible—two on his forearms and two on the outsides of his boots. All the others were hidden under his ankle-length, nightmare-black coat.

In several steps that shushed like dead leaves in wind across the cement floor, Kat moved to crouch with his back against the wall and look out the window. Scoping. That was clearly his intention: scoping the situation.

Van Ry raised his thin black eyebrow in his effeminate pale face. He started tugging the bundle of his things apart.

“You try too hard,” he said. “Do you think anyone out there is as careful as you?” Van Ry pulled on his own long coat, putting his wide-brimmed black hat on. “You have no reason to be so disciplined.”

Kat looked back at Van Ry, his face blank. He considered retorting with something trite—something about how Kat had the world against him and a weird compulsion to save that same world. The words wouldn’t take shape in his mind. They kept rearranging themselves behind his eyes, and he couldn’t think of a striking way of saying “I need to save everyone who’s hunting me.” It felt annoying. He kept quiet, glancing out the window again.

“Sir Ramsey got away—he’s out there,” Kat said. Van Ry squatted near the window, watching Kat assess the view out the window. “He has seventeen men with him. Four shotguns. Three rifles. Five crossbows. Twelve pistols—only four drawn. Many knives, and a lot of improvised clubs… Is that a horse’s thighbone? Paska.”

“What are they doing?” Van Ry asked.

“Waiting,” Kat calculated outcomes. He assessed visible angles and known resources. None looked promising. Idly, not really thinking about the question, he asked, “In your version of events, what did you plan to do at this point?”

“Plan is the wrong word,” Van Ry said. “If I’m consigned to it, then the ‘plan’ didn’t include oversights like the ‘bad-ass’ letting the weakest of his opponents get away. The ‘plan’ didn’t include people out there realizing anything amiss till I got further away.”

“And I was assuming you weren’t an optimist,” Kat said.

“What?” Van Ry said, surprised into feeling convinced he’d misheard Kat.

“Nothing. Have you revised your plan yet?”

“See, that’s where our communication here seems to fall apart,” Van Ry said. “To say I ‘plan’ would be unfair to people who make a living out of defining things.”

“Provide a better label,” Kat suggested.

“I react,” Van Ry said.

“That sounds suicidal,” Kat said.

“I have not yet died,” Van Ry said.

Kat made a few choices about the things he saw outside the window. He looked around in the room, rough-lit as it was by slatted sunshine, and he reminded himself of the things he could use here too.

“Did you shoot him?” Kat asked, nodding toward the door to the cells where Sir Ramsey’s valet still hung by his wrist.

“No,” Van Ry said, his tone surprised.

“I expected you to shoot him,” Kat said. “It would have been more to your advantage.”

“I seem like that kind of guy to you?” Van Ry asked. The thought brought back his crooked smile.

“You seem like a pragmatist to me,” Kat replied. “Take in your surroundings. These are your circumstances. How will you react?”

His gaze turning inward, Van Ry stroked the side of his chin—a thoughtful gesture. “I know what I’ll do next,” he said quietly, through a thoughtful smile. “Want to know a better question? I know a question that’ll have way more to do with our survival than what I’ll do.”

“Is the question, ‘What will Kat do about what Van Ry does’?” Kat asked.

Looking Kat full in the face, Van Ry’s smile turned again, and again unexpectedly, genuine. “Shnikies, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, he ain’t dumb,” Van Ry said.

Mongrel Nation III: Thought Myself to Death

Fantasy, Katriel, Mongrel Nation, Shatter Zone, Tiff Van Ry

“We have about two minutes to decide if we’re going to be able to work together,” Van Ry said, lighting another cigarette. Kat’s cell stood open, the keys that Van Ry took off the unconscious guard still in the lock. Kat sat on the floor at the back of the cell, frowning with skepticism in every little wrinkle of his thin-lipped face. “Let me get this out of the way right now: you shouldn’t trust me. And, since we’re being honest with each other, I know why you’re in here.”

One of Kat’s thin eyebrows arched. “It’s not a mystery,” he said.

“So you say,” Van Ry said, his smile pouting and going crooked, like he would break into a sneer if no one stopped him. “Here’s how it’s going to be: either you come with me, or I walk out of here and let them walk into you like this,” Van Ry spread his hands to gesture to the whole, hot and dimly lit corridor of cells.

The keys in Kat’s open cell had come off a guard. The guard lay on the floor of another cell, stunned for now, with the cell door locked behind him. Van Ry had done it.

“They’ll know you did it,” Kat said.

“You really think so?” Van Ry said. “You think you can trust these people?”

If Kat was entirely honest, he wasn’t sure. What he felt for sure is that, on the spectrum of such things, he was a good guy compared to Van Ry. That had always counted for something in the past.

“Suit yourself, then,” Van Ry said. “Before you condemn yourself, then, I’ll warn you of this once, before we get all tangled up together: I like to prove my points.”

With that, Van Ry gave a lazy, kind of salute with the two fingers holding his cigarette. He left the cells.

Not sure what would happen, but entirely certain he didn’t want to face it without doing something, Kat calculated his possible courses of action. As soon as Van Ry got out of sight, Kat curled up to his feet. If the problem was going to be what it looked like in the cells, Kat would change what it looked like. He swept across the dirty floor of his cell, his nightmare-black coat shushing the air around him. At the door he jerked the keys out of the open door. From there, he meant to go and open the cell with the stunned guard. After that he planned to return to his own cell, lock the door, and throw the ring of keys toward the guard. At least if he did that it’d look like Van Ry had escaped by himself.

Parts of the plan felt counter-intuitive, like the part where he locked himself back in his cell and threw the key away. In a saner moment, he supposed he could consider the wisdom of the course of action. In this odd moment, he felt like all he could do was follow his instincts. In the name of his instincts, he tried one key after another to open the cell with the stunned guard. He did what he could to lie to himself about his trembling fingers and chattering heart.

Just as he found the key that slid into the keyhole with a promising ease, a shout interrupted him.

“Now, you jus’ ease yourself around, son,” a gruff voice said. Gruff—such an impotently overused term. Growling in the face of the sentiment, the calming, cigar-smoke-rasped voice of the sheriff fell cozily into the category of sound easily described as gruff. The sheriff of Ramshackle was named Chamfer. Kat liked him. Kat glanced at Chamfer out of his ember-glow red-on-black eyes, pricks of orange light in the shadowy cells.

“Jus’ you ease around,” Chamfer said. The attempt not to frown put uneven wrinkles in Chamfer’s dark brown face. “Consider yourself good and took. We’ll jus’ be taking you over to Sir Ramsey’s dungeons and all. You come quiet, and we’ll see our way around making the situation uncomfortable for you.”

Chamfer did not have his pistol drawn, although he had a large hand resting on the long-iron hanging on his hip. Several other people stood with Chamfer. One of them was Sir Ramsey, in his white suit, leveling a black crossbow at Kat. Sir Ramsey’s valet/bodyguard was there too. The bowler hat and poncho wearing valet had no weapons drawn, but that didn’t mean he had no weapons on him. With the others, Van Ry stood. Van Ry panted, as if he’d been running. He had somehow got a small wound on his forehead that bled a little down his pale face.

Several courses of action occurred to Kat while he stood there. The first thing he considered doing was to point out how odd it was to see Van Ry doing what he was doing. Clearly, Kat considered saying, Van Ry pulled one over on you gentlemen. Do you not see the reason in the situation? I, sirs, am being framed! Kat considered saying that.

Even thinking about it made his tongue feel like it tripped over his teeth.

So he considered his second course of action: going quietly. That smelled troublous; it went even further from being a good idea than his original attempted deception. Sir Ramsey’s dungeon was notoriously impregnable. Until they built a real jail, the lawmen of the area had been using Sir Ramsey’s dungeon for years to hold prisoners about whom they meant business. Kat supposed he could possibly plead his case over time from inside a cell in Sir Ramsey’s dungeon. The prospect felt frighteningly improbable. Besides that, Kat didn’t have time to stew in a dungeon for he could not say how long before an impending threat to Ramshackle fell on it and destroyed the whole town.

Feeling woefully trapped into the only other course of action he could imagine, Kat drew the set of keys from the lock of the cell. He sighed, frowned, and looked at Van Ry.

“Blackmail,” he said.

With a dismissive flicking gesture Van Ry shrugged behind a renewed smile. The other men all looked over at him, momentarily confused. Van Ry suddenly darted to the side to avoid the thing that Kat used their moment of confusion to start doing.

The bunch of keys clinked out of his hand and tinkled through the air. They smacked into Sir Ramsey’s cheek hard enough to cut his skin and leave a bruise. Crying out, Sir Ramsey jerked to the side. His hand convulsed. His trigger finger fired his crossbow bolt wildly. The click and whir of the crossbow caused enough disturbance to make Chamfer cuss and whip around. Chamfer had his pistol half out. Sir Ramsey’s valet drew a knife from somewhere under his poncho. All three men could attend to nothing but their surprise for the length of several calm heartbeats. Kat would have sworn, though, that his heart beat a hundred times in the few steps he ran to get to them.

At the last cell, Kat leapt. He kicked off the bars of the cell. Now able to fall from above and the side, Kat dropped his elbow into the side of Chamfer’s face. The elbow had all Kat’s strength and weight behind it. Chamfer’s head cracked around too fast. His neck turned too far. His body took over, determining that Chamfer didn’t know what he was doing, and it turned off for survival. Knocked unconscious, Chamfer fell to the ground, thumping like a sack of flour.

Of the three men, Sir Ramsey’s valet kept his head the best. His knife glinted like a spark in the shadows. The blade moved toward Kat. To avoid it, Kat turned in the air and fell backwards. Watching the big knife snick through the air, Kat flumped onto his back. He fell onto the body of Chamfer. Kat felt behind himself for something on Chamfer’s belt. The cold metal of the sheriff’s handcuffs slid into Kat’s hand. Tugging the cuffs with him, Kat rolled off Chamfer. He avoided a swipe of the valet’s knife.

Kat loomed to his feet with all the fluttering and shimmering black of a rising murder of crows. The valet thrust his knife at Kat again. With his left hand, Kat slid up the side of the knife’s blade. Then he grabbed the valet’s thick, warm, hairy wrist. Heaving and leaping, Kat pulled his much lighter self up and around the valet. He perched like a monkey on the coarse poncho across the valet’s broad shoulders. The valet began wildly turning, as if he could flail around to face Kat. Kat kept a hold on the neck of the poncho with most of the fingers of his right hand. He held the handcuffs in the curl of his pinky. With his left hand, Kat kept a tight hold on the valet’s knife hand.

The valet spun, trying to get at Kat, and swung his arm, trying to swipe Kat off. At the peak of one of the valet’s swings, Kat made a quick move. He clamped one end of the handcuffs around the valet’s wrist. The other end of the handcuffs he snapped around a heavy steel pipe running a few feet lower than the ceiling. The valet didn’t notice it happen. Almost comically, he tried to complete his knife-thrust down. His wrist jerked against the handcuffs and the pipe. The force of his swing tugged him a few inches off the ground.

Kat braced, then he leapt backwards. Curling, he flipped in the air. He landed in a crouch, his long hair flipped behind him.

In a grimy corner of the room, Van Ry stood, smirking and leaning like a spectator who, having bet on the fight, watched his investment make valuable returns. Van Ry idly shoved with his shoulders off the wall. He looked about ready to say something glib. Kat had no patience for that. Snatching Chamfer’s pistol from the floor, Kat swept across the room. With his right hand, Kat slammed Van Ry against the wall, lifting Van Ry off the floor by his leather vest. Kat pressed the tip of the pistol against Van Ry’s cheek. Under Kat’s thumb, the hammer of the pistol clicked back.

With the cold metal against his cheek, Van Ry’s expression changed. Kat expected that. But rather than a distortion of fear or desperation, nor even some extremity of cockiness, Van Ry smiled still. The smile, though, turned genuine, like seeing a friend.

“Yeah,” Van Ry said. “I think we’ll be able to work together.”

Mongrel Nation II: The Drunk of Ramshackle

Fantasy, Katriel, Mongrel Nation, Shatter Zone, Tiff Van Ry

Kat, a man in a black coat, dragged a swatch of canvas through the brambly desert. The swatch of canvas trailed the booted feet of a dead man. Kat frowned, in part from the effort, but mostly because of the snaggletooth fortress sitting rickety in the desert ahead of him. For the last several miles he could see the walls of Ramshackle, the biggest “town” around. Calling Ramshackle a town was a gracious title for the overbuilt shanty. Its jagged edges prickled up from the desert like the picked-over bones of some ancient carrion. For better or worse—mostly worse—Ramshackle maintained the dubious prestige of being the most stable and largest settlement within easy striking distance. In many senses it had been built out of mulishness and carved from a landscape of opposition. Because of it the people there clung together with a fierce patriotism, maintaining aggressive pride over their loosely united mongrel nationality. And Kat dragged the corpse and an unlikely story to explain it. He did not feel calm about it.

A long-cultivated instinct for survival kept tugging him away from Ramshackle. It caused him almost physical pain to ignore it.

One foot fell in front of the other. The canvas swatch and the dead body shushed through the dust behind him. He trudged forward, and he brooded on a failing of his: poor skills of persuasion.

He felt tempted to turn and run. He didn’t. He kept trudging, kept suppressing his surprise about it.

Eventually he got within shouting distance of the city. The guard on the gate peered out at him. Kat swallowed, trying to dampen his dry throat.

*

Not long after, he skidded across the dusty, piss-smelling floor of a holding cell. At that point it didn’t surprise him at all.

The sturdy door of the cell thunked shut. Kat took his time to creep to the wall and turn around to sit with his back to it. He felt like he should console himself with the thought that he had good intentions. It didn’t work much.

Through half-closed eyes he idly observed the dim holding cells. Light seeped through hundreds of worm holes in the walls, warming the shadows to enough of a mild fever to just make a penetrable dimness of what would have been a hot, black, dusty darkness.

There wasn’t much to see. Anchored in crudely poured cement at the bottom and welded to steel beams at the top, the several cells held only Kat and one other person. The cell walls were made of cobbled-together materials—a few cast-iron gates mangled to the right shape, chunks of cars, broken tools, bed frames—but they were heavily built. For a while Kat traced the lines of the crude-if-sturdy cell, more interested in the chaotic construction than any opportunity for escape.

In this place of half-formed, hurried construction, Kat stood out, and he knew it. He was tall, slim, and walked with the control of many long years of varied, meticulous training. He wore black clothes made—according to the person who had given them to him—of spider silk, shadows, and nightmares. They fit him like a second skin and shimmered like a snake. He looked designed, elegant, and the opposite of crude. The scavenging survivors of the world where he lived found him difficult to accept. He had not figured out a way to ingratiate himself to them. Probably the problem went deeper than the clothes he wore.

In the dimness, his roving red-on-black eyes glowed like two orange embers. He saw better in the dark than most people. After exhausting the admittedly poor entertainment in his cell, Kat looked elsewhere. The one other inhabitant of the holding cells occupied the cell across from Kat. The other person had chalk-pale skin, and black hair that looked damp. He had full lips and otherwise narrow features that he held in an effeminate way. Kat couldn’t tell what it was about the guy, he just looked womanish. To Kat, that sounded unfair, since he didn’t think of women in any particular way except as being…well, women. On women, being womanish looked natural. On this pale inmate, looking womanish seemed like a mask, like a caricature of woman.

The pale man leaned against the bars of his cell, his bare arms leaning lazily out. He looked utterly bored with where he was. With boredom like that, Kat didn’t find it remotely surprising that the man peered attentively at Kat.

Kat flicked two fingers in a vague hello. The pale man’s full lips curled in half a smile. The smile made his eyes look inclined toward mischief.

“You got away with it. I think they were totally fleeced,” the pale man said. Kat raised a questioning eyebrow. The pale man’s half-smile twitched on his face. “Not that you deserve it. Toaster and Bags are a couple of dumb-ass hounds,” the pale man continued; Toaster and Bags were the guards who had thrown Kat in the cell. “Anyone with, like, some small wit would have seen through your little charade.”

Kat sighed. In an idle gesture, he snapped his fingers and slapped his fist with the palm of his other hand. If he had been really committed to the deception for some reason, he might have tried to brush off this pale man, but he didn’t care quite that much. “I thought I did all right,” Kat said. “I put up a bit of a struggle.”

The pale man raised a thin, black eyebrow of his own. “Well, maybe you’re as dumb as they are.” From one of the many pockets in his slim-fitting leather vest, he produced a pack of cigarettes. Putting one between his full lips, he lit it from a match and started puffing.

Kat decided it wasn’t worth the energy to rise to that. So he didn’t.

“So here you are in the gloom,” the pale man said, leaning forward and stretching his back against the bars of his cell. “A brawler with all the obvious indelicacy of a thunderstorm and all the hidden precision of a mother’s slander. To what gain do you sit the low throne of thieves and drunks?”

Kat scratched his cheek then leaned his head on his hand and his elbow on his raised knee. He frowned at the pale man, yielding not the slightest inclination that he cared to engage.

“Oh, come on,” the pale man said, smiling fully and demonstrating clear excitement. He almost shook the bars of his cell, he wanted so much to know. “I’m going nowhere, and I assure you that I am inexorable. You have before you the option to either tell me of yourself or to have a lesson in the depth to the roots of your patience.”

For a few moments, the pale man leaned on the bars of his cell, the half-smile bending his face in the dimness, his cigarette loosening thin smoke from his hand.

Kat felt immediately inclined to argue by explaining the finer points of gargoyle hunting strategies, which could include sometimes weeks of motionless waiting no matter what weather or small creatures came to be bothersome. The second thing he felt inclined to do was to simply demonstrate some of those strategies.

Instead, after staring a few seconds at the pale man’s excited face, Kat decided he grew weary of working too hard to rationalize his actions. He picked the easiest path.

“Easier,” he said.

“Easier to do what, pray?” the pale man said.

“Easier to let them take me.”

“Easier than what?”

Kat sighed again, tiredly raising both his eyebrows at the pale man and reconsidering how easy this was. “Easier than explaining why they shouldn’t.”

The pale man took a drag at his cigarette, nodding and narrowing his eyes as if he felt included on the conspiracy. He took a few steps in his cell, flicking the ash off his cigarette. For a blessed moment, Kat thought he had abandoned the subject. The pale man opened his gob again.

“Do you think it would be easier to explain it here to me? You know, in this controlled and—moderately—safe setting,” the pale man asked. He had one hand in his pocket and stood near the middle of his cell. He didn’t look directly at Kat, seeming instead to have his gaze turned inside.

“No,” Kat said.

The sharpness of Kat’s tone seemed to amuse the pale man. He looked directly at Kat again, smiled—less widely than before. Then he sat on the cot at the back of the cell. He raised one knee and rested his cigarette holding hand there. The deep shadows washed him like a silent waterfall. Kat couldn’t see his face anymore. Mostly he saw the glow of the cigarette in a pale-skinned hand, sticking past the blackest of the shadows.

For a few silent minutes only the pale man moved, and he only moved to occasionally suck on his cigarette and blow out the smoke. He smoked the cigarette to the butt. Flicking the spent cigarette onto the floor in his cell where curls of smoke twisted off of it for minutes yet. He took another from the pack in his vest. In the momentary flash of the match in his face, Kat saw that the pale man had his eyes locked as before on Kat, rapt as one contemplating art.

“Do you want to get out of here?” the pale man asked, flicking the still-lit match to burn out in the dust on the floor. Kat shrugged. “I thought that everyone wanted freedom.”

“Freedom is a state of mind,” Kat said before he could stop himself. He snapped his mouth shut, figuring the pale man would laugh. He didn’t. Kat couldn’t tell if he had any distinct response.

“Well, if you’d like the opportunity to exercise that high ideal in more commodious quartering sometime soon, then your timing is good. My escape plan is coming to fruition as we speak. I’ll let you in on it, on one condition.”

“I finish my story,” Kat said. In a gesture of agreement, the pale man pointed the two fingers holding his cigarette at Kat then raised them like a pistol firing.

For a long moment, Kat just stared at the shadowy shape lounging on the cot. He couldn’t tell what to think about him. He seemed nuts and sincere at the same time. Not, Kat reminded himself, that those had to be mutually exclusive character traits. Either the pale man was a liar or he wasn’t. Mostly because Kat presumed he was a liar, Kat finished explaining.

“I know of a threat,” he said. “A threat to Ramshackle, and to everyone within a hundred miles. I’m kind of new to them. They don’t believe me.”

“Do you think they’d be convinced with evidence?” the pale man asked. In lieu of shrugging, Kat spread his hands apart. He didn’t know. The people of Ramshackle did logic and reason differently than people familiar to Kat. In the shadows, Kat could just see the pale man nodding. “That’s enough for me,” he said, taking a last drag at his cigarette, then stubbing it out on the wall behind his shoulder. “Hark, I do believe I hear my escape plan coming to, as it were, fruition.”

The door into the cell block from the outside opened. Bags the guard returned. He walked toward the pale man’s cell. “You sobered up enough to get the hell out, Van Ry?” Bags asked rhetorically. He went to the cell of the pale man and unlocked it. “This is, what, fifth time this month you been in here? Might be you should move along out of town sometime soon, ’fore you get a reputation as town drunk. We already got our share of those, Van Ry. Don’t need another.”

“What can I say?” the pale man, Van Ry, said. He rose to his feet, spreading his arms in an apologetic fashion. “The local rotgut is just so…enticing.”

“Yeah, well, you’d best get enticed by some other town’s moonshine,” Bags said. “Ain’t doin’ no good around here.”

“I shall bow to my adoring public,” Van Ry said, taking a deep bow.

Rolling his eyes and shaking his head, Bags turned away from Van Ry and the open cell. He glanced at Kat, opening his mouth to say something. Kat opened his mouth too, to warn Bags. Van Ry moved too fast, though. In a rough, deft move, Van Ry hurled Bags against the bars of the cell. Bags fell to the ground, stunned.

Kat was on his feet in a heartbeat. Not that there was anything to do. Van Ry dragged Bags into his cell. Taking the keys from the guard, Van Ry closed and locked the cell behind himself. Coming to lean on the bars of the door into Kat’s cell, Van Ry jangled the keys loosely in his hand.

“Want to know how the story ends?”

Kat swallowed. His throat was still dry, and his frown was still deep.

“I am not sure what just happened,” he said.

Van Ry’s half smile once again made his eyes brim with mischief.

Dusk

Dusk, Twig Lithnmark

Twig named the dragons. He watched them, lying on his belly on a ledge of stone with lingering warmth from sunshine. Night had fallen. A passel of dragons lazed around in a ravine below him, growling at each other, snapping at each other, like a nest of huge hyenas. The moon shined bright enough for him to see them. Caius—Mossback—Clotilde—Earthquake. Various others. All the names reflected something he’d observed about the dragons, although the personal touch made no difference to them. Just to him. They had no way of naming themselves. They couldn’t speak. He almost never had cause to say their names aloud. No one lived near enough to speak to about them. He liked having names for them anyway. It made him feel less alone. He couldn’t remember when he started caring about that.

Twig watched the dragons, unblinking. They had spent the day sunning themselves. They liked this ravine for the sun. It cut through the hills east to west, and its pale stones soaked up the heat. It was one of their gathering places.

The dragons tended to be solitary animals but with a few odd social habits. They hunted together as whelps, built connections, and then went their own ways when they hit adolescence. All the adult dragons tended to keep to themselves most of the time. For some reason they gathered semi-regularly in places like this ravine. Twig hadn’t figured out why they did it. Sometimes it seemed like they needed the opportunities for dominance displays. Their wrestling could carve new canyons, when some of the bulls went at it. Sometimes, like this time, they gathered and did nothing, just lying around for days at a time.

He never found them dull or tiring. Even gatherings when they did nothing, he would watch them for as long as they gathered. Especially this time, because Dusk had returned. Dusk was a dragon that Twig found especially interesting. A while earlier, Dusk had left. They did every now and then—flying as far as the Wretched Isles in the west, thousands of miles over the mountains.

They sometimes didn’t come back. It pleased Twig to see Dusk. Dusk was the color of the gloaming sky at dusk—sandy orange at the front, fading to smoke-grey at the tail. He was neither the largest nor most spectacular of the dragons. Twig liked him best, though, because all the other dragons gave place to him.

Twig had seen Dusk approaching late in the afternoon. Before doing anything else, Dusk had gone hunting on the prairie. He’d meandered ever closer to the craggy hills, where many dragons kept aeries—where Dusk had kept his, not far from this ravine. Hoping he’d make his way here, Twig came at sunset to watch.

Finally, now long after the rising of the moon—it was a nearly full moon, smudging out many stars—Dusk alighted on a pinnacle of stone across the ravine from the ledge where Twig lay. At the sight of him, Twig stood, then jumped off the ledge. He fell down the cliff face, a hundred yards down. On his way, he kicked off outcrops and cracks, slowing his drop. Some sheer and slightly inclined faces afforded him places to slide. It took him only a few moments to reach the floor of the ravine. He landed in a stretch of sand with a whumph.

Some of the dragons looked over at the sound. Not many, though. They didn’t find him very interesting. He had an odd physiology. Because of it he gave off no body heat, and he smelled more like chalk than anything else. Twig figured they saw him as neither edible nor threatening, so they mostly ignored him.

Twig padded in bare feet through the lingering-warm sand to the sandstone rising in boulders from the sand. A tangle of dragon whelps scrapped there. He always liked the whelps best. They had softer skin and more curiosity. They all knew him by sight. The few that still wondered what he was turned and snarled at him, raising their growing neck spikes and baring their teeth. Most of them were as large as him, many were larger. He went among them quietly, patting a few on their necks. The natural furnaces inside their chest cavities made their necks warmer than the sun-warm stone beneath them. They huffed at him. Most of them were distracted. The adults were having interactions. The whelps took interest in the goings on: a big bull had noticed Dusk.

Twig called the big bull Warlord. Twig could have stretched out in his mouth without touching any of his teeth. His wings stretched out large as yacht sails, his body appropriately sized for such wings. When Dusk had left, Warlord hadn’t been full grown. Now that Warlord was, he seemed to think he could challenge Dusk for the comfy hollow that Dusk had grown accustomed to keeping to himself. Seemed reasonable, to a creature without reason. Warlord was a third again as large as Dusk. The dragons never displayed any reason, so far as Twig had seen. Calamities of pure instinct, dragons.

Twig crouched with the front row of the whelps. The vibrating heat of their fidgety bodies thrummed on him. The whelps all scrambled for a place to see what would happen between Dusk and Warlord, but none of the whelps wanted to be in front. All the other dragons in the ravine turned their big heads to watch too.

Dusk slunk, like a cat. He walked with no hurry toward the hollow he liked. Dragons have no lips, but if Warlord had lips then he looked like he’d be wearing a self-satisfied smirk. He lay on his back, scratching his chest with his front claws, watching Dusk approach. Warlord yawned. His eyes closed from the tongue-curling size of the yawn. Midway through the yawn, he began to turn onto his side, deciding to finally engage in the fight he’d started. He seemed to think he had all the time in the world. He moved without the slightest hurry.

Twig knew what would happen next. He flicked his eyes to watch Dusk. Just in time too. Dusk coiled his lithesome body into a pounce—tucking his wings back, digging his claws into the stone. His tail started a long, slow whip. Dusk threw himself forward. His claws scratched on the stone. His wings made one, slapping cut in the air. Before Warlord could turn onto his side, Dusk landed on him. Warlord couldn’t help yowling. Dusk sank his claws into the bigger dragon. Dark blood came out. With one, big heave, Dusk threw Warlord into the wall of the ravine. Warlord’s body shook a handful of boulders loose. The boulders fell on Warlord. None were big enough to very badly injure Warlord. They would hurt him, though.

Dusk crouched on his hollow. He let a howl out at Warlord, letting a huff of bright flame out. There was not enough fire for an attack. Twig thought that the dragons used heat partly to express emotions.

Then Dusk turned his back on Warlord, finished with him. Warlord panted for a while under the rubble. None of the dragons paid Warlord much mind for a while. The conflict had passed. The dragons resolved things with acts of visceral instinct, never signaling that they had any memory of anything that happened.

Twig had an experiment to attempt. Because the dragons never seemed to have any memory, Twig felt that the experiment would probably not work. He’d been wanting to try it for a few weeks, though, and as soon as Dusk returned. It would reveal…well, he didn’t actually know. He hadn’t been able to think of any way of discovering what he wanted to know about the inner workings of the dragons without trying this experiment.

He stood from the whelps, patting a few who he recognized and hadn’t named yet. They deserved patience from him before he named him—that’s what he thought, at least. No reason to rush things. They lived for hundreds of years, if nothing calamitous happened to them.

When they saw Dusk, they enacted a particular gesture: a particular growl, with a cock of the head just so. They did the gesture much of the time, though not all of the time. Most of the dragons had similar little gesture to each other. Something special about Dusk drew that attention a little more often. It almost seemed like they treated him like a chief, but they had no need for chiefs. They weren’t like wolves, they had no need to maintain social pyramids.

Twig had a theory about why they would yield up more recognition of Dusk than many others, though a tentative theory at best. He needed more evidence before he could even start looking into it, so he had an experiment.

He walked among the dragons without fear most of the time. A few glanced at him as he passed, but they had no interest in something that seemed inedible. Caius glanced as him, a warmth churning briefly in his throat. Mossback huffed at Twig—the hot air shushed in Twig’s hair—but then he closed his eyes and laid his head down.

In a moment, Twig crouched in front of Dusk’s warm hollow. Dusk lay on his side, purring every so often, his eyes halfway open and his gaze lazily watching some whelps wrestle. The adults kept an eye on the whelps, never doing anything for them except occasionally breaking up fights if it looked like someone was going to get hurt. Although the dragons didn’t seem to have great judgment, and the whelps did occasionally kill each other.

Twig felt unhurried. He spent a few minutes crouched there, looking at Dusk and making no move. He knew what he wanted to discover: that the dragons had a language, however rudimentary it turned out to be. The thought of it sounded ridiculous.

To get Dusk’s attention, Twig tossed a loose rock toward the dragon. Dusk looked at the rock where it made a sound. Twig tossed a second rock, drawing Dusk’s attention directly to himself. It looked for a second as if the dragon would not focus on Twig. Twig almost preferred that—the option of bowing out of the experiment because the great beast had no ability to focus so meticulously on Twig’s somewhat weird presence. The dragon’s huge eyes lit upon Twig after a long moment, though. Twig met the gaze of the dragon. The dragon looked Twig in the eye. Twig did not know what he saw in the depths of those eyes.

Twig said, “Hello, Dusk.” He hoped it was, anyway. He had been practicing the growl. He knew it was weaker than even the sickliest whelp, but he had the tone and the length perfectly. He cocked his head just so, like shaking off a fly that’d tickled his chin. It was the same as the other dragons, aside from the inescapable fact that Twig was shaped like a man and not like a dragon.

When Dusk received the gesture, more than half the time he had a particular huff that he used to acknowledge. If Twig got that huff—that short growl—back, then…he didn’t actually know if that would mean anything. He’d at least have another piece of information to add to his hypothesis.

More than anything, he felt an urgency. He wanted Dusk to respond. Twig awaited without moving, watching the great beast.

The moment breathed on. Dusk did nothing. The dragon yawned and laid his head down, closing his eyes.

Twig crouched there for a long time.

###

Nothing came of the research for several weeks. Twig didn’t have the spirit for it. He spent the time visiting the dragon powwows, watching the subservience paid to Dusk. It kept happening—the subtle gesture directed by the dragons at Dusk. Dusk would respond to it, consistently, frequently, with the same huffing growl. Other dragons received the same sort of gesture, responded with similar kinds of huffing growls. Dusk elicited a gesture from the other dragons most frequently.

Twig spent long hours watching the dragons interact. He liked to sit among the whelps to do it. Though they shuffled around a lot, rarely keeping still for any reason and frequently distracted by each other and random events—shifting wind, blowing clouds, new dragons arriving—he liked sitting among them anyway. They accepted his cold presence most easily.

He sat next to one he had taken already to calling Sophia. Though years younger than the age he usually named them, Sophia had already showed a spark of wisdom that he found interesting. She spent more time watching quietly than most of the whelps. He appreciated mulling next to her large presence. She sat for hours with him, large as a horse, warm as sunburned sandstone, and soft as a snake. She often watched what he watched, or he looked at what she looked at. It was the same in Twig’s mind.

“Your father lounges there,” Twig said to her, waving vaguely at where Dusk basked in the sun. He knew she didn’t understand him, but that didn’t always make much of a difference to him. “When he reached your age he already walked with the bearing of a prince, I remember. The other whelps gave him space even in his earliest days. I wish to speak to him. I never shall. You and your kind speak no language, my love.”

Sophia had been watching Twig while he spoke. She sometimes did, never giving any indication she found him intelligible, either from gesture or expression or from the emotive shifting of her heat. He petted her side.

“I wish you could speak to me, Sophia. I know that you would say to me that my experiment would fail the crudest scientific definition. Variables still exist which I allow to overpower me. You would tell me that Twig, in his man shape, will forever fail to indicate sensibility to the dragons. He possesses insufficient anatomy. You would probably say that, Sophia.”

As Twig spoke, Dusk rose and began to walk from his hollow through the dragons. Some of the dragons saluted him in that familiar way. Sophia was one. Twig still had his hand on her side. While she gestured, the heat in her belly rose to a particular temperature, suggesting an emotion—probably excitement, although Twig hadn’t made specific note of all the emotions that the dragons indicated by their heat. He used the word emotion, but he decided long ago that their shifting heat equated more to instinct than anything. Emotion was too advanced a word, he supposed.

Sophia rose to a very specific heat. Because he was watching just then, he noticed a few other whelps rise to the same heat, and a few of the adult dragons as well. He had a special sensitivity to heat, partly because he produced none himself and was more sensitive to it. Twig’s gaze darted around, looking at as many of the sources of this specific temperature as he could manage in the instant he felt most aware of it. Many dragons who had modulated to the temperature had enacted the gesture that Twig had come to equate with, “Hello, Dusk.”

Twig wondered. He petted Sophia’s side, and he wondered.

###

Twig kept a cave, high in a butte that overlooked the yellow-red plains for hundreds of miles, like a watchtower built by giants. Twig went to it only rarely. It took him a long time to climb to it. He hadn’t bothered building ladders for most of the climb, and he never carried ropes or any sort of gear. He climbed free of any saving ropes or tethers for many of the more hazardous cliff faces, going always as swiftly as he dared, to save time and to challenge himself. He preferred to avoid getting too decadent, even so far from any world conflicts. There had been a time when he liked involving himself in world conflicts—someday he would do so again, though he felt no hurry.

He kept old things in his cave. He kept swords and spears in barrels—relics of another life. He kept his old, leather clothes on a coat rack near the back of the cave, with a voluminous cloak that he never found interesting anymore. He kept piles of books and scrolls, all over the dusty space. His mind retained all the words perfectly, but he occasionally perused them again for the pleasure of looking at the shapes of the writing or the typefaces. He had a corner with a cot where he never slept and sometimes read; all the surfaces in that corner dripped with candles and age-old wax from them.

People from far away had occasionally seen fit to give him gifts. He had a potbelly stove, which would have been impossible to get up here if it had not been for the dirigible operated by the person who’d given him the stove. Twig also had all the parts of a small dirigible, disassembled and taking up more space than he wanted on the floor of his cave. The dirigible parts had been given to him with the idea that he’d be able to build the dirigible and watch the dragons more easily.

Twig had never found it anything but a bothersome, cumbersome excessive of pieces, bundled together as far out of the way as he could keep them. It almost made him smile to think he’d found a use for it.

Twig tugged the wrapped-up balloon of the dirigible away from the rest of the parts. He found a knife, cut the ropes tying the balloon into a bundle, and he laid it out some way across the floor of the cave. The knife was the knife he used, so it always had a good edge. For good measure, though, he sharpened it more before beginning to cut a few pieces from the dirigible balloon.

The great advantage of this particular dirigible was that the man who’d given it to him had been an experienced volcano miner—work done with the aid of dirigibles, sometimes. The dirigibles in volcano mining had fireproofing done on them, which—Twig’s friend had thought—would help in dragon watching too. Logical, yes. Twig had never been interested in using a dirigible to chase dragons. Dirigibles go too slowly, and would not be much use in maneuvering. It felt agreeable to finally make use of the gift, though this was far from the intended use.

Conceptually similar, though. Twig finished cutting the sections of balloon. He rolled them into convenient shapes, tied them with ropes and then to his back. He plunged from the mouth of his cave to make the long half climb, half fall down from his tower.

###

He next needed charcoal. He had not made a fire in a long time. The weather in the area stayed hot during the days, and he found the frigid nights soothing—another idiosyncrasy of his odd physiology: he liked the cold. He had no need to cook—he had no need to eat. When he made a fire, he made it to heat water for tea. It had been a while since he had any tea, so it had been a while since he made a fire.

Wood was difficult to find in the area, which hardly helped. He walked for a day and a half across the arid plains to get a bundle of it from a creek. The storms to the north had been plentiful, fortunately. The creek was full, and the crooked cousins to cottonwoods thriving. Dragonflies darted through the muggy patches of shade. He’d have an easy time of breaking dead branches from dead trees. Before that, he walked into the creek and submerged himself in the cold water. Dust, silt, chalk sloughed from him.

With his bundle of wood, he hiked back across the plains to the mountains. In among the sharp ridges, he wended along paths he knew. The hot, sharp rocks sometimes felt like ancient bones, long abandoned by vultures.

Night started falling when he found a convenient alcove. It had a boulder at one end, protecting it from the worst wind. There he lit a fire and made charcoal from his sticks. He took his time about it, feeling no hurry. The alcove looked out onto a dry, yellow valley with steep walls. Sedge grew in the cracked stones, and cactus in the hollows. An eagle soared past, appearing to be resting on the thick, hot air, not quite cooling yet. It would soon be cold. The wind rustled in the sparse life, and it whistled between the steep mountain faces. His fire crackled at his back. Shadows deepened. Stars began
sparking in the greying sky.

When he had charcoal enough to satisfy him, Twig gathered it into one of the patches of dirigible balloon. He wrapped it, slung it on his back, and walked the last mile he had left to get to Dusk’s aerie. It was a long overhang of rock with not much in it. Dragons did little in their aeries but sleep. A few of the rock faces had long scratches where Dusk would ply his claws when he grew agitated. Dragons did sometimes if they stayed still too long.

The aerie had no Dusk in it when Twig arrived. That suited Twig. It gave him a chance to get set up. He picked a place to build his fire and set to work. He lit the fire, then spent a long time alternately stoking it and removing coals.

Temperature stuck in his head like smell for some other people. He remembered the exact temperature of Sophia when she greeted Dusk. It took a lot of fiddling to get it just right. To make the heat more of a signal, he rigged a patch of the dirigible balloon on sticks he’d saved. It absorbed the heat and spread it out in a more obvious way, like a speaking trumpet for sound or something. It worked as well as Twig hoped, which was well. He had a high opinion of his own ideas.

Like a localized storm, Dusk returned. He returned while Twig still worked. The dragon padded heavily to the rounded place at the back of his aerie where he slept. From there he watched Twig fiddling about. Dusk looked every bit as interested and aware as a huge goat, which Twig found disheartening. Of the creatures Twig had been stared at in his life, goats seemed best at staring, but did not seem among the most intelligent. He had never met a goat with much imagination.

He considered giving up—simply sitting next to his fire and staring back at Dusk for the rest of the evening. Why not? He’d spent many an agreeable evening before doing such things. Dragons are fascinating. He’d gone to all this trouble, though. He may as well follow through.

The surface of the dirigible balloon facing Dusk finally radiated at exactly the right temperature. It would not last long at that temperature—it already began cooling. Twig had a few minutes to enact the rest of the gesture. He went to stand next to the hot patch of fireproof balloon, and he stared at Dusk. Dusk stared back without anything significant in his deep eyes.

Twig tossed his head, letting loose the correct growl. He felt the fire warming his skin. Couldn’t hurt.

Nothing happened. Dusk kept staring at Twig. The dragon’s head slowly cocked a few degrees to the side. Then, in a moment that—in its smallness—stuck like a quivering arrow in Twig’s memory forever, Dusk returned the huff of a growl that he returned to other dragons who enacted this gesture to him—his, “yes,” to the, “hello, Dusk,” he permitted. Then the dragon laid his head down, closed his eyes, and began to sleep.

Twig sat there till his fire went out.

###

A few days later, Twig sat among the whelps, watching Dusk and the other adults bask in their places in the social ravine. Twig patted Sophia’s side, watching Dusk, who watched some adolescents wrestle over a patch of unclaimed sunlight at the end of the ravine.

“It could be instinct, Sophia,” Twig said, patting her warm side. “You dragons act instinctively most of the time. You have made that much clear to me.” Sophia looked back at Twig, all the concentration of a goat in her eyes. The dragons had a gesture of dismissal: a slow flick with a fore claw, like they were flicking a mouse away from them. Twig did this gesture to Sophia. And he nodded.

She did the gesture back, and she also nodded. She looked away from him again, out into the ravine and the mess of dragons.

Twig stroked her side. He had never seen a dragon nod like that. For a long time, he sat among the whelps. Their warmth crept into his cold, stony bones.

The Fighting Ghost

Fantasy, Ghost Hunters, Steam Punk, Wickham Eldridge

The old sign creaked over the door in the cold wind. In chipped and yellowed paint it read:

Eldridge and Associate

Ghost Hunting

Séance Hosting

and Bereavement Counseling

All except the “and Associate.” That paint was new and white and already fading.

The sign hung over a large window made of many small panes all misted by age-old city greases. The window did a poor job of keeping the cold out of a sparely furnished office inside. Off to the side, his quill scratching away in a notebook, sat Wickham Eldridge the Ghost Hunter. He sat at a long table on the left side of the room, his back to the door but ready, in his work clothes, to meet with customers. He wore a black waistcoat and white shirt, tidy and pressed and the same as he had been for as long as most of his clients could say. He kept his white hair and beard well-trimmed. Deep wrinkles drew years of memory around his mouth and eyes. His eyelids hung like forgetting over his dark brown eyes. Under the lids, though, they had sparks like lightning in them, ready to flash forth when he decided. He always smiled just a little because, frankly, the world amused him more than saddened him anymore. Though his patience had been tried a great deal more than usual lately.

He had hands as white and slowly creeping as cave-dwelling tarantulas; they were the bone-strong hands of many long decades of constant work and at the same time skin soft as talcum powder. In one of his hands he held a jar with a little sawdust in the bottom and a dull grey tie pin in the sawdust. With his other hand he scratched with a quill in a notebook. The page he wrote had the heading, “Alvin Algology.” The notes Eldridge was writing were things like, “Mr. Algology’s ghost hardly put up a fight. He seemed quite as prepared to go on as might be expected from a man several months deceased—” The tie pin nestled in a more than usually brooding way for those who could see it. It was the effect of a tethered ghost haunting it. Because of a special knack for such things, Eldridge could very nearly see the ghost as a hazy shadow unaffected by any light. On his worktable he had a small wooden crate, its bottom full of shredded paper. In the shredded paper nestled a dozen or so jars holding a haunted vessel each. He occasionally glanced at the crate, and he felt satisfied with his work.

The “associate” of the above mentioned sign bore the name Knott. Mr. Knott thunked past Eldridge’s worktable and set down something as he went to put some books back on a shelf. Eldridge glanced at the younger man’s back as he passed. Knott had practically no meat on him, an unremarkable color of hair—vaguely blonde but nearly brown. His waistcoat did not fit as well as Eldridge would have liked. Their trade required a certain demonstrable dignity; it comforted the clientele. Knott wore small round glasses that made his small face look all the smaller, in spite of which he grew a large mustache. Knott turned to check his watch, and Eldridge was able to see the mustache. He wondered, not for the last time, why the man kept it. Eldridge disapproved of many aspects of Knott, most except one: Knott had a strong spirit; Eldridge saw it like a biding echo. It made Knott the raw gristle of a potential great man. Eldridge hoped he would be someday. Knott came across as fussy and overly particular right now.

Only after a disapproving huff, Eldridge examined the stack of small papers Knott had placed on his table. In Knott’s efficient scrawl, the little pieces of paper bore names—one a piece. Alvin Algology was the first. Eldridge flicked the papers away with frown. He went back to his notebook. A few silent minutes passed during which Eldridge hoped Knott would do nothing. Eldridge had never been very good at wishing, though.

“These are labels,” Knott said, picking up the little stack of papers. “We’re supposed to use them.”

Eldridge turned toward Knott. He had a good, long stare, allowing the youth the option to stop talking. Knott was not, however, a youth in any sense. He was thirty-five and he possessed a man’s conviction. Eldridge forgot that about Knott most of the time.

“Who, pray, supposes that, sir?” Eldridge asked in his voice as low as a kettledrum and precise as a scalpel.

Knott cleared his throat. “It is becoming a convention of the trade, Mr. Eldridge.”

Eldridge dipped his quill into his inkwell. “Mr. Knott, some time ago a man discovered the correct process by which a ghost might be tethered to an item that the ghost did not have a personal relationship to in his life. All Ghost Hunting has relied upon that process since that day. Do you know who discovered that process?”

“I do, sir,” Knott said.

“I discovered it,” Eldridge said. He said it calmly—without boasting. “Remember that you came to me, Mr. Knott. You asked me to teach you this trade. By your leave, I will continue to teach it to you.”

Knott pressed his lips together. Taking his little stack of labels with him, he went to his writing desk in the opposite corner of the room.

The bell above the door tinkled. A gust of chilled air and a smell of spiced autumn came in, as did a man and his large stomping feet.

Eldridge put away his quill and weighted open his notebook so the ink could dry. He spun in his swiveling chair and rose to his feet, taking his knee-length coat from where it hung on a hat tree within reach. Wickham Eldridge had excellent posture; he was tall and thin and, in his well-tailored black suit, looked every inch the undertaker…or the accountant. He considered himself a mix of the two, so that suited him.

The man who had entered had a squashed face, or one that at least looked squashed. Everything about the man looked squashed, as if he had survived many fights leaving him stocky and spread out. He dressed like a working man in a dirty brown jacket and pants and shoes and hat. The red scarf around his neck was of a fine silk, however, and his jacket clearly came from a finer shop and fit him with the fine tailoring of Slightly’s or some other gentleman’s shop. Though he had clearly not bothered taking care of it; it had the usual frayed cuffs and roughly-patched elbows one expected on a working man.

From the unshakeable way the man placed his feet at every step and the shifty glances of his glinting eyes, Eldridge thought the man looked like a professional fighter. He was a little old for one, though, and the finer cloths he wore suggested more money than fighters usually made.

After a thorough and quick survey of the room, the man spoke, and his accent was as unapologetically callous as Eldridge would have expected. “This the Ghost Hunters’ place, then?” the man said.

“Yes, sir,” Eldridge said, buttoning his coat as he approached the man. “We are professionals in that arena. I am Mr. Eldridge, and this is my associate, Mr. Knott.”

“An’ you do work with hauntings and such bedevilments, eh?” the man said.

“We do, sir, though rarely with gentlemen who we do not know personally,” Eldridge said, his small smile returned to his face.

For the first time since the squashed man had entered the room he met Eldridge’s eyes. Something about the moment seemed to strike him as funny, and the man let out a hacking laugh, made scratchy by too much pipe smoke. “Of course and naturally, gov,” he said. “You have standing before you James Pilgrim. At your service.” With the words, James Pilgrim took his dirty cap off his head and gave a sort of suggestion of a bow like he had long ago lost the illusions of the politic differences between himself and a gentleman.

“You used to have a different name, did you not?” Knott said. “Treasure Pilgrim.”

Mr. Pilgrim let loose another grating laugh. “Gov knows ’is fighters, does he?” he said. “Mr. Pilgrim once fought under the name Treasure Pilgrim. Treasure terrorized the pits in this town. Not another fighter lived who’d meet him knuckle-to-toe, not an’ feel happy doing it. Nah, but Treasure retired years back. Mr. Pilgrim’s an honest businessman, now,” Mr. Pilgrim’s smile had gone. He replaced it with wrinkles of concern. “But now…some strange spirit’s having a wrecking on my business. I’ve reached the end of patience, gov. Mr. Pilgrim has no end of patience an’ all.”

“Quite,” Eldridge said. He smiled. “Would you have a seat, Mr. Pilgrim?” He gestured to two leather chairs that sat either side a small table near the middle of the room. “Your notebook, Mr. Knott. You know the sorts of things to note.”

“Yes, Mr. Eldridge,” Knott said. He took his notebook and a pencil from his pocket and made a note at the top of a new page.

“Now, Mr. Pilgrim,” Eldridge said. He took a seat in one of the chairs, crossing his ankles and interweaving his fingers. “Tell us the story.”

“I know where to start,” Mr. Pilgrim took his cap off and scratched his forehead. He sat in the other chair, facing Eldridge. “Not sure if I’ve the nerve to start there, eh?”

“We are here to assist, Mr. Pilgrim,” Eldridge said.

Mr. Pilgrim nodded. He frowned—his jowls turned handfuls of wrinkles. “Do you remember the first time a ghost gave you the shakes?” he asked. “Everyone has a first time in this world.”

Eldridge nodded.

“I forgot my first time,” Mr. Pilgrim said. “Fell to a gloomy cold, always giving me gooseflesh—not unexpected, eh? Pilgrim learned his knocks on the streets. Everyone died there.” This brought another laugh out of Pilgrim. It disappeared to a frown again before he kept talking. “I got woke up to an old memory by our new ghost. I know how young Jimmy Pilgrim feared the first ghost he saw.”

Knott made a note.

Mr. Pilgrim continued his story. His brow furrowed, and his gaze stayed down as he remembered. “Like I say, I’m a businessman now. I run a fighting arena in Roseboro Street—clean an’ honest a pit as any man could expect in a pit. That is precious little, I’d never be anything but square about that, but I used to be a fighter, an’ I saw too much unfair treatment of fighters to let that go on…well, not more than the usual sort of carousing fighters do on their own time…. An’ that’s to say nothing of the bookies. Lords of Chaos, gov, if ever you discover you need to do business with bookies, take it from a curmudgeon who knows the difference: don’t. Eh?” Mr. Pilgrim let loose another laugh.

“I think I understand the setting, sir,” Eldridge said. He glanced at Knott—Knott returned a small nod and emphatically dotted his notebook. Mr. Pilgrim’s nerves suggested a deep brooding cloud had filled the whole haunted place. “You meander away from the narrative, Mr. Pilgrim.”

“Ah, yes,” Mr. Pilgrim paused, pursed his lips and squinted thoughtful. “Lor’, it must have been a few months back. Aye, it was because I remember the blazing heat when I first saw evidence of it. What happened, Mr. Eldridge, was some of me bookies complained they’d started losing money.”

“Tragic, sir,” Eldridge said, suggesting mild irony. Mr. Pilgrim glanced up. He smiled back to Eldridge’s mild smile. More at ease, Mr. Pilgrim continued more calmly.

“When that occurs, Mr. Pilgrim has grief,” Mr. Pilgrim said with danger in his voice. “Of course, you know that the profession of a bookie is judging how a fight will end. Well, when one bookie come and tell me he lost money when a fight went sour on him I put it down to whining. Same with two and a couple more. When nigh a dozen bookies tell me fights they saw had what they viewed as unsavorable outcomes, well, I could hardly leave it lie there, could I? Mr. Pilgrim made his own inquiries.” Mr. Pilgrim finished with a smile. Then he scratched his cheek, and his smile disappeared as he thought through the next thing he would say. “Now, understand that fighting in the pits calls the roughest lads to it. The vipers’ll pull the lowest, greasiest trick they can to put one up. Only way any of us ever made money was by dirty fighting. You make a name not by guts nor skill nor brawn, but by how much you’ll pay from your conscience out to the pit…. Well…the lads that was winning the fights and raising such uncommon attention, they was the underdogs in no uncertain sense.

“Sometimes an underdog’ll sideways ya,” Mr. Pilgrim smiled again, doing a few pulled punches from his chair. “That’s where the sport is. Them fights are flukes. Not the same with these fights: these lads was winning fights in ways they had no business knowing. Fat boys being too quick—trembling dogs firm as iron. One broomstick of a pup broke a prize fighter’s jaw and three of his ribs. Worst of them, though…something in the gaze,” Mr. Pilgrim frowned now, staring at the floor. “They wasn’t looking no where, all the same sort of way.” Mr. Pilgrim took his cap off, scratching his scalp underneath it. His frown took on a curve of confusion. “Have you heard of a ghost like that?”

“I have not yet heard you mention a ghost, Mr. Pilgrim,” Eldridge said, although he surmised that he actually had heard all about the ghost. He hoped to be wrong about his conclusion. He rarely came to wrong conclusions.

“Well the lads, they was making deals with it,” Mr. Pilgrim said. “That’s how they won fights, see? Pilgrim’s got no proof of the solid sort of that. The vipers wouldn’t talk of it. When I found the room where it stays it kept itself out of sight—far as I can say in truth in seeing or hearing it never was there.”

“You think it was there?”

“I know it was,” Mr. Pilgrim said.

Eldridge raised an eyebrow and gestured for Mr. Pilgrim to explain.

“Kept out of sight, it done, but never tried to hide,” Mr. Pilgrim said. “Somewhere in my gut a frightened boy woke up, and that ghost laughed at him.”

Eldridge didn’t like the sound of that. He looked at Knott, an eyebrow raised. Knott nodded, scratching away at his notes. “You said that the fighters make deals with the ghost.”

Mr. Pilgrim nodded. “Heard ’em chatting on that. So’d my valet.”

Eldridge smiled at the thought of Mr. Pilgrim keeping a valet. “What kind of payment do they exchange?”

Mr. Pilgrim gave a dismissive flick of his fingers. “Keeping that mums, they be. What sort of thing can a living man pay a ghost, an’ all?”

“What sort indeed,” Eldridge pursed his lips, touching them with his fingers. What indeed. Eldridge had never heard of the dead desiring anything except information pertinent to their peaceful afterlife. They rarely sought the information, however. They usually waited for it to come to them, if it ever did. He couldn’t guess what this ghost asked for.

“Is that the whole story, Mr. Pilgrim?” Knott asked.

“It is,” Mr. Pilgrim said. “This situation…it ain’t good for business. It ain’t good for clients. It just don’t feel right.”

Eldridge nodded. A quiet moment crept on. Eldridge cleared his throat. “We shall consider our services engaged, Mr. Pilgrim,” Eldridge said. “We shall need to see the work of this fighting ghost.”

“Naw, now you make it too easy, gov,” Mr. Pilgrim said, his snaggletooth grin broad as his crooked voice.

*

Mr. Pilgrim sent word with a boy that he had arranged a performance by the ghost that night. Eldridge and Knott put on their stovepipe hats, white gloves, and wool capes against the autumn chill. They took a horse drawn cab across town to Mr. Pilgrim’s Arena. Their cab ride passed in silence; both men watched the grey city pass.

Mr. Pilgrim’s Arena was a converted warehouse. Flower and cigarette girls huddled around fires in metal baskets sharing cigarettes and jokes with painted ladies. A handful of working men in greasy coats and caps leaned against the building, chatting over clay mugs of what smelled like hot mulled wine. Only a few of them turned their dirty faces toward the approaching Ghost Hunters. None of them looked surprised to see two men in evening wear coming to the arena. Gentlemen sometimes attended fights in the pits.

In the thirty feet of walking from the cab to the arena, Eldridge began to do what made him the best Ghost Hunter in the business: he looked at the Shadow Plain, where ghosts exist. Due to an unfortunate experience with a being that stayed on the Shadow Plain, Eldridge had the ability to look at the deeper and more essential parts of thing—at the immaterial parts. It used to be a struggle to look into the Shadow Plain. In the past years it had started becoming more of a struggle to stay out of it. Looking beneath the material and into the ghostish felt like letting his concentration lag. He never confided that in anyone. It quite disturbed him.

He slipped out of the autumnal cold on his skin and into a quieter cold in depths. His bones rattled with it. Sights and sounds subdued, taking second place to their echoing insides. Inanimate things vagued away to dark and static outlines. He could see all the people still, but he saw them as undetailed shells. Now he saw their ghosts as their more vivid parts. Like so much cobwebbing of smoke and gossamer darkness, the ghosts communicated by furtive glance and obscure gesture, responding to and confused by each other and the acts in the material world.

Any light of the hundred candles and oil lamps, any heat and smells of straw and sweat clouded out from the door of the arena, arrived on Eldridge’s eyes and ears and nose as a crinkling suggestion, less important than what he sometimes called the thematic relevance of the impressions. He still perceived sensible things, but only insofar as they affected his soul: bad smells disgusted him, loud noises irritated him, and the hints he could hear of raucousness reminded him of his younger days.

A pair of thick-souled men flanked the door, their ghosts hardly moving clouds. The taller of the two wore a finer coat and a bowler hat. Eldridge looked closer at the material part to see he had a mustache with waxed curls as wide as his face. He knuckled his forehead at the sight of Eldridge, just barely tipping his hat.

“Mr. Pilgrim’s expecting you,” the large bouncer said. His ghost behaved almost exactly the same as his material part: solid and with limited expression.

“And your name?”

“Oldham,” Oldham said. “Mr. Pilgrim’s valet.”

“Thank you,” Eldridge said. “My associate will follow me in a few minutes,” Eldridge said, gesturing with his stick back to where Knott asked questions of the people just outside the door of the arena. “See that he finds me, would you?”

“We’ll see to it, gov,” the bouncer said. He said a few hushed words to the other bouncer, prodding a thumb at Knott as he did. The second bouncer’s ghost did a lot of looking back and forth, evaluating the situation. The bouncers nodded to each other. The larger bouncer led Eldridge inside then.

They walked through the arena. The word eerie had been invented for the shadow plane. There was a crowd, and the crowd was excited, drinking and cheering. To Eldridge, they loitered around in a dimness leftover in the thinning of shadow that was the usual ghost of light. The Shadow Plain tended to be black and grey and filled with mists, the people in it half-blind shells with not much to say.

He watched the dark mists of the not-living building cause obstacle to the cobweb-and-gossamer souls of people clinging to their bodies. Almost every ghost looked directly at him with wide eyes and gaping jaws. They knew he could see them, but they did not know what to make of it. Only one thing usually looked directly at the ghosts still clinging to bodies: Ferryman, the god of death, come to collect. Since no one knew what Ferryman looked like Eldridge found himself often mistaken for the morbid god.

Eldridge followed the solid bouncer to a clear spot at the edge of the fighting pit. Peering in, Eldridge watched the fight start.

On the one side, a man with happy anger—visible in his ghost as brightness and the emptiness behind the echoes of laughter—lunged forward. Eldridge only had shadow eyes for the other fighter, though.

White mist clung to the fighter. Even at this distance, Eldridge could smell the chalk in the mist. It made thin veins around the fighter’s hands and feet, clearly steering their movements, and it obscured the fighter’s face. Holes with all depth replaced his eyes, and instead of a mouth he had grin with no mirth. The mist sang in strangled verse, all its words in wrong order, yet it expressed a perfect contradiction of terror and joy.

It drove the fighter to a swift victory. Even in the Shadow Plain Eldridge could see the blood spattering into the sawdust covering the floor of the pit.

A non-voice whispered at his side; with no breath nor sound it said, Wickham…good to see you again.

With no interest to look, Eldridge looked, though he knew what he would see. That is to say, he knew that he would see an absence of presence. The thing could hardly be said to appear at all: a shape as shifting as water. It existed as a hole in the imagination; if ever closely examined, it would hold as much shape as the memory of a bad dream long forgotten, because the mind needed to have shapes for things. Eldridge found the absence of presence to very nearly resemble a slender man-shape made all of absent light—not darkness—that drew in undulating tendrils from behind all around them.

In the ghost hunting community, this creature had a name: Frost. No one remembered why that name.

Ah, you have come for the fighting ghost, Frost did not say. Good. I can take the last piece of you if you try. I might take you as my apprentice. You have some skill in this trade, Wickham. We could be jailors of ghosts together. Till the end of all times.

*

Risen from the Shadow Plain, Eldridge strode back through the Arena toward the exit. He frowned, in part because it always gave him a pain between the eyes to pull himself out of the Shadow Plain. Frost had quite put him out.

The room had far more light than Eldridge had supposed. The brightness irritated him.

As Eldridge swept toward the door, he spotted Knott hustling in the opposite direction. Knott had his gaze tight on his little notebook and was liable to miss seeing Eldridge. Eldridge turned to head the younger man off.

“We’re leaving, Mr. Knott,” Eldridge said.

Knott fell into step with Eldridge without looking away from his notes. “We are not dealing the average sort of ghost,” Knott said, his voice hurried and low almost as if he spoke to himself. “The degree of ambient unsettlement is higher than usual, but the individual instances of fear have hardly charted. The ghost’s inclination to interact only with underdog fighters is telling—it likes the power. A dominant spirit. I think the most relevant thing I discovered was the manner of bartering token the ghost asks of the fighters: rumors and gossip, the farther flung the rumor’s source the better the ghost repays the fighter. This ghost is actively looking for something, Mr. Eldridge! And…we are leaving?”

While Knott spoke, Eldridge led the way back out into the street. A hesitancy of snow had begun falling from the sky. He signaled for a cab from the scattering of them in the main road. One cantered over to them.

Eldridge frowned down at Knott. Knott’s brow wrinkled—his lips curled in befuddlement.

“There’s so much left here to discover,” Knott said.

“We’re not taking the job, Mr. Knott,” Eldridge said. He swung himself up into the cab that arrived. Slower, Knott followed. He didn’t put his notebook away.

Most of the cab ride, the only sound came by clattering of wheel on cobble and the clatters and jangles coming from the horse’s movements. Knott spent the ride trying not to speak, Eldridge could tell. The younger man’s curiosity scratched like a sound. Eldridge was nearly ninety years old, though, and hardly felt like he needed to respond to such things except in his own time.

Lo…eventually he did, when the cab made the third to last turn before reaching the chambers of the Ghost Hunters.

“Do you remember your history from school?” Eldridge asked. Knott nodded. “Do you remember the story of Twig Lithnmark?”

“The draugr,” Knott said. “The dead and walking soldier.”

“The Ghost Hunting community has speculated a great deal about Lithnmark,” Eldridge said. “He is understood to be his own vessel—his ghost tethered to his body by the exiled gods in the Age of Legend. Ghost Hunters speculate that they ought to have a similar power. The yield of experiments in that area has proved to Ghost Hunters the necessity of humility regarding their powers. We are not life bringers, and dead men stay dead unless by some power beyond us.”

Eldridge snuffed, looking out the window while deciding how to phrase the next part. “If a man is willing to make certain sacrifices, his ghost might become…” Eldridge took a deep breath—words had trouble describing these things. He settled on a word that made sense, “it might become stronger than it would otherwise.”

“Why would you want that?” Knott asked, his tone confused.

Eldridge waved the question away with two fingers. “There are reasons. In any event, if a man does not know the manner of tethering used in ghost hunting, if he wishes for a stronger ghost there is a person of influence he might approach who will charge him steeply for their product. In life, the strengthened ghost might have greater vitality than usual.”

“When he dies I suppose the person of influence has a thing or two to say about him.” Eldridge did not nod. He glanced at Knott, who was right. Knott took the silence as assent. Knott’s eyebrows wrinkled in thought. “I can’t think what kinds of things a ghost would be able to pay someone…aside from maybe themselves.”

“Yes,” Eldridge said. “The person enslaves ghosts on the Shadow Plain.”

“I didn’t know there are any persons of influence who have influence on the Shadow Plain.”

“The one of importance in our present circumstances is the creature called Frost.”

“I thought Frost was more or less a poltergeist.”

“Rather more than less, I’m afraid,” Eldridge said in a voice of distant thunder. Eldridge considered explaining then that part of own ghost had been captured by Frost—that Eldridge was, in face, partly dead, in a sense. He had sacrificed part of himself to defend the rest of him from Frost’s clutches. It had resulted in some part of his soul being turned to ephemeral, matterless dust, scattered in the void.

It had not been pleasant. Because he had anchored himself, his soul and body had remained apiece. He didn’t know how much of him remained inside, though, and did not wish to discover it.

“He’s defending this fighting ghost?” Knott asked.

Eldridge saw no reason to reply. “I will not fight him again.”

Another pensive silence ascended. The cab made the last turn onto their street. Eldridge hoped Knott would say nothing more, but he feared the man would.

As the cab slowed to a halt in front of their chambers, Knott spoke. “So…he can be fought,” he said.

“Leave it in peace, Mr. Knott,” Eldridge snapped.

*

Eldridge avoided Knott for the next day. Keeping to his small apartment above the shop, Eldridge avoided callers as well, instead distracting himself with some deskwork that he had been allowing to pile up. He was working on two books: his memoirs, and a tome that would be the most comprehensive guide on ghost hunting ever written. He knew because he had read all the others. He also hoped it would be the most practical: brevity and clarity were his foundations.

He emerged only for food and drink. Finding himself in need of tea, he pulled his dressing gown around his shoulders and exited his apartment with his empty kettle. He filled it from a tap in the kitchen down the hall. The hall ended on a landing that overlooked the front offices. The sound of voices chattered from there. It was probably clients. Knott had told Eldridge he would continue taking clients, and Eldridge had given his consent. Eldridge went to look who Knott entertained.

The scene in the shop below halted at the sight of Eldridge’s silent entrance, which was fortunate because it was a peculiar sight: four burly men removing the lid from a coffin; inside the coffin lay a tall and thin man with a face as wrinkled and hard as driftwood. Knott stood at the foot of the coffin; his jaw tensed at the sight of Eldridge. Knott looked like a youth caught in an act of vandalism. Eldridge had only a glance to spare for the last two man, but a glance completed his impression: Mr. Pilgrim and his bowler-wearing bouncer cum valet looked up at Eldridge.

Eldridge supposed he should not have been shocked. It did not stop him from stiffening in anger. He had nothing to say, though. Knott was a grown man and he could design his end however he wished. Taking up his kettle, Eldridge turned and went back to his room.

Hours passed. Eldridge tried to concentrate on his memoirs again. He found his attention lagging, so he went for a brief walk in the neighborhood and bought a loaf of bread. When he returned to his apartment he stoked his fire and made some toast on a poker. By the time he had made six pieces he felt very nearly distracted. He sat down at his writing table. The plate of toast nestled among his papers with a small bowl of butter and another of peach jam. With his fresh pot of tea, he prepared for a late dinner.

Before he started to eat, he listened. He couldn’t hear much. His fire crackled—the night outside had a tame wind blowing. Aside from that he couldn’t hear anything at all. He tried to hear what Knott was doing. Whatever it was, it made very little noise.

Eldridge lasted halfway through one piece of toast, and by then he found the crunching too loud in the silence. He gathered his plate of toast, his jam, and his tea on a tray. He carried it out into the hall.

Knott wasn’t in his room down the hall. It was cold and dark and as messy as it could be for a room with very little in it. Eldridge went out to front offices. From there he could smell where he needed to go: whiffs of ether and formaldehyde tendrils crawled from one of the back rooms. Eldridge followed the smell down a hall. It had no lights except the flicker of oil lamps from a door cracked open at the end on the left. Thin sounds of cloth slides and metal clinks came from behind the door.

Nudging with his toe, Eldridge pushed into the room. Knott’s back was to the door. He was in an apron and his shirtsleeves. He glanced around at the small swish of the door opening. With a single nod, Knott acknowledged Eldridge’s presence, then he turned back to his work.

The body from earlier lay on the table wearing only trousers. Fresh cuts with fresh stitches lined the body’s arms and legs. Knott made more deep cuts in the body’s chest. From the look of the tension in his shoulders, Knott looked like he was having difficulties.

“Toast and tea,” Eldridge said, setting the tray down on the wooden counter that circled the room. The counter was covered in beakers and tools and jars.

“I shall have some when I reach a good place to stop,” Knott said. “In a few minutes, perhaps. This is proving…difficult.”

Eldridge, taking up a cup of tea, went to stand next to Knott to look at the body.

“Meet Perlis Grady,” Knott said. “Called until recently Black Knuckles Grady.”

“Another pit fighter,” Eldridge said. “He died less than a week ago. The fighting ghost will not know he has died.”

Knott nodded. “It will be effective in my snare,” Knott said. He frowned, finishing a cut into the belly of Mr. Grady. “If all goes well, at least.”

“Hmm,” Eldridge said. He sipped his tea. “What sort of snare?” he asked, looking around at the other things on the table. Some rubber tubing lay in coils with the innards of clocks along with a nearly-finished battery. Knott had clever ideas about machines.

As Eldridge watched, Knott started working lengths of rubber tubing into the cuts in Mr. Grady. “I will hopefully succeed in convincing the fighting ghost to give Black Knuckles Grady aid in his last fight.”

Knott went across the room and took up a glass beaker and a large, antique coin.

“Is that the vessel you have selected?” Eldridge asked, pointing at the coin. Knott, nodding, handed it over. The coin was heavy, an inch and a quarter across, and had the profile of a bear on it. It was a coin that had been in wide circulation some few hundred years ago, and it was just the right kind of neutrally old manmade thing that could hold a ghost—it had enough constructed structure and enough aged tie to the earth to maintain solidity even while haunted. Ideally, vessels should be artifacts from the ghost’s life. They did not know the fighting ghost’s identity, though, so Knott needed to use this sort of vessel: a vessel with enough tie to materiality to work. Eldridge had discovered this coin decades ago; he had been saving it for just such a day as this.

Eldridge thought it quite a suitable choice.

“I thought that I could construct a frame of corks,” Knott said, taking the bear coin with a pair of tweezers. He held it suspended in the middle of the spherical jar, demonstrating his idea. “The vessel would be less apparent to the fighting ghost if the iron doesn’t touch the glass.”

“A good instinct,” Eldridge said. He took a fragrant, rough sack from a cabinet. “A cumbersome method. Fill the jar with lily petals,” Eldridge said, filling the jar with dried lily petals by the handful from the bag. “They will hold the vessel in place, and—”

Knott interrupted, “The ghost will be distracted by the lily petals as well.”

“Yes,” Eldridge said. There are many reasons why lilies are the funerary flower.

When the jar was packed halfway with lily petals, Knott settled the bear coin in among them. Eldridge let Knott finish the job. The old Ghost Hunter went back to his tea.

Without speaking, Eldridge watched Knott keep at his work. Knott packed the jar then corked it and sealed it with wax. Setting the jar with the vessel aside, Knott began constructing the small mechanical device that he intended to put into Mr. Grady’s chest that would be used to trick the ghost into thinking Mr. Grady still had pumping blood. It had fittings for the rubber tubes in Mr. Grady’s limbs. Knott filled another jar with a protein-rich jelly of his own concocting. He stabbed wires from the battery into it then attached the jar to the device. The device—part clockwork, part electric, with a jar of now-sparking jelly attached to it—looked a bit like a nine inch long body of a man with fittings for the rubber tubing instead of arms and legs. Last, Knott attached the jar with the vessel for a head. The setup needed to be extra complicated because the ghost was atypical.

“Next to hollow him out,” Knott said, taking up a knife to go back to work on Mr. Grady. “He will never again win an endurance contest, but he will serve for long enough.”

“It is a morbid machine you have made, Mr. Knott.”

“Thank you, Mr. Eldridge,” Knott said.

Eldridge considered how to phrase the next words he wanted to say. He frowned, watching Knott work. Knott surprised him and spoke first.

“You do not need to say it,” Knott said. “I know you’d rather I avoided this job.”

“Yes,” Eldridge said. “Because I fear you are incapable of accomplishing it.”

“I have studied every one of your cases,” Knott said. “I can reproduce your methods on this one.”

“Are you sure of that?”

Knott said nothing. He said nothing in a way that said he did not know how sure he was. “I am unmovable, sir,” Knott finally said.

“May I ask you why?” Eldridge asked.

Knott, with a frown on his face, glanced around at Eldridge. Eldridge had trouble reading the expression. Fear—focus—nerves—but his strongest expressed emotion was resolve.

“I am a Ghost Hunter, Wickham,” Knott said.

Eldridge thought of a hundred things he might say. The one he never considered saying, though it resounded most loudly in his head, was, at least one of us is.

He did not say that. Instead, Eldridge walked out of the room, taking with him a piece of toast and his cup of tea, and leaving behind a clinking quiet and the makings of a good man.

*

Late the next afternoon, Mr. Pilgrim returned with his four, hefty lads. They put Mr. Grady back in his coffin and they nailed him in. Knott watched, his cloak around his shoulders and his top hat and black gloves in his hand.

“You look pale, gov,” Mr. Pilgrim said to Knott. “Need a drink, eh?”

Knott shook his head. He tried to say something, but couldn’t. Instead he swallowed, then gestured with his gloves to the hefty men to take Mr. Grady’s coffin with them.

“Will Mr. Eldridge be coming along, then?” Mr. Pilgrim asked.

Knott shook his head. He looked up at the landing to the second floor. Eldridge had not appeared from his room since bringing the toast and tea down. “He’s involved in another case,” Knott said. He cleared his throat before producing the following lie, “He has expressed complete confidence in my ability to deliver satisfaction.”

“Well, gov, you’re the experts,” Mr. Pilgrim said. “We shall defer to your wisdom. Come on, lads. Pack it up.”

The hefty men carried the coffin to a cart in the street that Mr. Pilgrim had brought. Knott followed, but slowly, he took as much time as he could, delaying and hoping Eldridge arrived at the top of the stairs. Eldridge did not.

Growing ever paler, Knott left the shop. He checked his watch, then the door jangled shut behind him.

The shop, for a moment, settled in silence. It sounded more crisp and cold than it actually was. That was the effect of the winter sunshine gleaming off the darkly-polished surfaces of just about everything there.

A noise of clicking footsteps disturbed the shop. In a moment or two, Eldridge appeared at the top of the stairs, bedecked to go out. He even wore his fine, white cashmere scarf, which he rarely wore except to the symphony. Resting his walking stick on his shoulder, Eldridge looked over his shop with a satisfied smile. He nigh-skipped down the stairs, and he exited into the cold. Feeling energetic, he walked with his stick clacking on the grey cobbles for a block before even attempting to hail a cab.

“Where to, gov?” the cabby asked. Then he did a double-take. “Lords of Chaos, gov, you feeling well? Look pale as death, if you don’t mind me saying it.”

Eldridge tapped his stick against the brim of his hat, smiling like a rogue all over his chalk-white face. He had lost his color, like a man barely recovered from bad influenza. His eyes sparked with a fiercer than usual light. Stepping like a dancer into the cab, he told the cabby where to go in clipped tones. Then he collapsed back into the seat of the cab, closing his eyes and submitting for a moment to the exhaustion.

He squeezed his walking stick. It would help him anchor—that was the key, to anchor, right till the end.

When he arrived at Pilgrim’s Arena, the sight was far different than several nights previous. It was still daylight, for one thing; being much earlier in the evening, no one loitered outside. The building looked like a calm barn in the daylight.

Eldridge strode from his cab through the wide open doors of the Arena. There were no customers in the building. The smells of the other night were old now. In the main part, the light came only from all the various windows letting in the cold sun.

Words murmured from near the pit. Eldridge walked that way. The smells greeted him: ether and formaldehyde, and also a rising sweet savor of a thick cloud of incense smoke.

A handful of people stood around the ring. Mr. Pilgrim stood alone at one corner. Four men who looked like bookies huddled at another. A few gentlemen—probably prestigious gamblers and investors—chatted here and there in hushed words.

In the ring, the large bouncer cum valet with the bowler hat paced at one end. He had his shirtsleeves rolled up and a cigar puffing in his mouth. He looked ready to fight.

At the other end of the ring, Mr. Grady sat in a chair. Incense burned under the chair, letting off creeping breaths of smoke. Mr. Grady had been arranged in a natural pose, his forearms resting on his thighs and his feet far apart. The smoke obscured him from easy view. He looked tired, but he did not look dead.

Near the middle of the ring, Knott consulted his watch. Now it had nearly begun, he looked far more relaxed.

Eldridge walked to the edge of the ring. “Well, Mr. Knott,” he said. “Everything looks in place.”

Knott’s expression was marvelous. It was a look of perfect confusion. Ghost hunters get used to coping with hallucinations. For a moment, Eldridge watched Knott assume he was imagining Eldridge. Knott had enough command over himself that he quickly went over the signs of hallucination or other trickery and determined that Eldridge was, in fact, standing there. Knott’s response was to sigh. He did not smile, but smiling was not in his nature. He did nod just a little.

Knott turned to Mr. Pilgrim. “All is in place, Mr. Pilgrim.”

“Should be starting at any moment, Mr. Knott,” Mr. Pilgrim said. “The ghost has always been prompt. The lads told it that the fight should start…” Mr. Pilgrim checked his pocket watch, “just about now.”

Eldridge looked at Mr. Grady. No one present seemed even to breathe. They watched. Nothing sits more motionless than a dead man.

Then the dead man moved. It looked like a trick of the eye at first; the wreathing smoke made it appear his hand shifted. His chin lifted from his chest. Mr. Grady’s face looked toward his adversary with eyes of umbral gloss—not a twitch of expression changed Mr. Grady’s becalmed face.

Mr. Grady slowly rose to his feet. The bouncer, his adversary, had a face made all of timidity.

Eldridge looked at Knott. Knott was on his knees. He shielded his head with his hands, though he stood far from anyone else.

Frost had come.

Without hesitation, Eldridge fell into the Shadow Plain. All darkness arose. The fighting ghost gripped Mr. Grady. The bouncer’s solid spirit screamed. In the middle of the fighting pit, the absence that was Frost bore down on the cowering Knott. If Frost had such a thing as posture, it expressed manic glee at having Knott so nearly taken.

He raised his walking stick. It was made of a shard of the black crystals that formed the bones of the world. He had a special fondness for it, and now it was a bomb made from part of his own ghost.

He charged toward Frost, bringing his walking stick down on the creature. Without turning, Frost faced Eldridge. As much as the absence could express, Frost let loose an angry howl. He took a first aggressive step toward Eldridge. Laces of the black of Frost crawled up to pluck at Eldridge. Raising his walking stick again, Eldridge smacked it down on Frost.

The stick broke. A crying flashed from the shards. A ripping followed. The ghost of Eldridge momentarily filled the negative space of Frost, turning the black to pale grey mist. In a scream with all the drawing force of a receding tide, the mist spread in a rush. It could no longer hold shape because it did not know what shape it was supposed to hold. Frost’s black said one thing, and Eldridge’s partial ghost said things incompatible. In splintering tendrils the mist burst. Every tendril hooked a piece of Eldridge. He felt his crumbs ripping out of him to the void. It was not a pain. Pain was material. It was terror drawn from him in little shards.

Thus he won the fight.

He fell to the sawdust, rising from the Shadow Plain. He felt so utterly spent. Shadow flooded his head—so much psychic ink. The last he saw was Knott digging in the chest of the again still body of Mr. Grady. Knott smashed the lily petal filled jar against the floor. The petals fell through Knott’s trembling fingers leaving the bear head coin behind.

“We have it,” Knott whispered. With those words in his ears, Eldridge fell into silent black, his last feeling of thankfulness for a final and long-awaited end.

*

Firelight flickered on the jar. Shredded paper partly filled the jar. Nestled in the shredded paper the bear head coin brooded with more than the usual motionlessness of old coins. On the little table with the jar sat a notebook, a quill and ink, a pot of paste, a pair of scissors, and a glass of port. The port smelled of bedtime and glinted with more pretty depth than the other items on the table. It deserved a long appreciative look.

Some minutes passed, but then Eldridge’s long hands opened the notebook, dabbed the quill in the inkpot. Eldridge wrote The Fighting Ghost at the top of a blank page of paper. With the scissors, he cut out the rectangle the words covered, allowing them a generous margin. Daubing paste lightly on the blank side of the paper, he placed it on the jar with the bear head coin. Not entirely sure if he liked the effect, but decided on it, Eldridge turned the label away from himself. He sipped his port and nestled into his wing-backed chair.

Making as little noise as possible, Knott entered the room. He took up the jar containing the fighting ghost. When he saw the label, his brow wrinkled, his lips pressed tight under his mustache, and he looked as if he had something to say, but also as if he would never say it.

“I am tired, Mr. Knott,” Eldridge said. “I may need some time to heal. The practice is safe in your hands, I trust?”

Knott nodded. “It is, Mr. Eldridge.”

“Thank you, Mr. Knott.”