Slaughterhouse, Take Two

Deleted Scene from CITY OF GHOSTS

Yep, once again, it’s not actually in the slaughterhouse. This was my first attempt to change the original scene to fit it into CITY OF GHOSTS. It was okay, but ultimately I wasn’t entirely pleased with it.

It didn’t feel dramatic enough, but the biggest reason I needed to change it was it felt a bit contrived. No real information came from the scene as it’s written here; it didn’t actually advance the story in any meaningful way. It was just a setpiece.

Moving it into the slaughterhouse allowed me to have Chess and Lauren witness the creation of the psychopomps, and elaborate on/confirm the idea of Maguinness and the Lamaru at war. Plus we got to see Lauren’s ravens try to kill her and Chess, which added a bit more urgency, I think. Plus it was just a lot more fun; the stakes were much higher. So overall I was quite a bit happier with that one, and I think you’ll see why.

This was originally right after Chess and Lauren chase Erik Vanhelm in his car. He ducks into a building in Downside, and they follow.

She was up and running again before the shots stopped echoing. Wood crashed; Lauren ducked through a wall—through a hole in a wall. Chess followed, and almost ran into her.

Nothing moved. Silence broken only by their gasping breaths waited for them in the gloom.

Her eyes adjusted slowly. The only light came from the hole in the wall behind them—the hole which was not a hole, but a rickety door.

Something else was there too. The heavy, thick scent of incense—dragon’s blood, she thought—with a rough undertone she couldn’t place. Like rotten wood and hot stale breath mixed together…it refused to come to her.

As quietly as she could she tugged her bag’s zipper back, slid her hand inside. She had a flashlight; not a very good one, but she did have it, and if she could manage to switch it on without Vanhelm or whoever else might be in the room being warned she might be able to get a bead on them.

Something crashed ahead of them, clattered and rang.

She grabbed the light as she ran, switched it on. Through a low door they went, into another, larger room; larger and darker. Her light flashed off shiny metal; stacks of cans, dented and dirty with no labels, scattered across the floor in fallen towers that stunk of mold.

No Vanhelm. No anyone. But definitely a place where magic had been done.

“Shit.” Having completed one circuit of the room with the light, she started a second. To their left a flight of stairs, darker even than the room, rose out of the filthy floor. Ahead of them a closet with peeled-paper walls. “He must have gone up the stairs.”

Lauren pulled her hair back and secured it with a holder; in the flashlight’s beam her eyes glittered. “I guess we follow, then.”

* * *

Layers of grime and worse covered the stairs, made them slippery and treacherous beneath Chess’s feet. Worse because she suspected the damp came not from plain water but from the bodily excretions of anyone who’d ever come through that bastard door which had been their entrance. The ammonia reek stung her eyes, made her throat close. Disgusting. She could practically see the germs floating in the air and attaching themselves to her.

She grabbed a pair of gloves from her bag and snapped them on. Breathing in the shit was worse than touching it, but she didn’t particularly want to do either.

Why wasn’t there a window, or something? Her flashlight gave her the answer. Thick sheets of plywood covered the outside wall, stretched almost to the ceiling. Made sense, given the likelihood of a pane of glass remaining intact in a place like this anywhere, much less Downside. She imagined the glass had been stolen at some long-ago time, or broken into shards for handy weapons.

Puddles of brackish water dotted the landing, water and—eeew. They were literally strolling through somebody’s latrine. No wonder it smelled so damn bad.

Lauren noticed it too. Her bony little nose wrinkled. “You think they actually live here? Have meetings here?”

“I don’t think anything right now. Somebody’s done magic here, but we don’t know it was him.”

“And he probably already ran out.”

“Yeah, he probably did.” She could only hope they discovered something else in the place. If this building was somehow related to the Lamaru or to Vanhelm—if he was Vanhelm—they needed to look around, no matter how much Chess wanted to run home, have a drink, and take a nice, long bleach bath. But if it wasn’t related, this was nothing more than a big disgusting waste of time.

The building had been full of apartments; open doorways, the doors themselves long since stolen or burned, loomed along the walls. Her skin crawled, looking at them. In fact, her skin had been crawling ever since they entered the building, a kind of low-level unease like early withdrawals aside from the gentle tingle of magic.

Fuck, that might actually be early withdrawals, now that she thought about it. According to her watch it was close to eight-thirty; she’d arrived at the Church just before five. Not quite four hours… a little early. But she’d been stepping on it for a while, hadn’t she? More pills, more often…

Blah. Later. She’d think about that later. Meanwhile she’d focus on getting out of here, and, though the thought appealed to her about as much as impaling herself on a spike, on being alone for a few minutes so she could dose.

“Look, let’s just get through this quickly,” Lauren said. “I’ve got my flashlight, too. How about you take that side, I’ll take this one?”

They covered the rest of the hall quickly, pausing at each door for a cursory sweep with the lights. Studio apartments, these had been; just one big square room, with broken cabinets against the left-hand wall and empty bathrooms on the right. Occasionally Chess’s light caught a newspaper on the floor, or the remains of a fire, but for the most part only graffiti waited in the empty shells.

Empty, but not silent. Rodents-and possibly worse—scuttled through the garbage piles or across floors, their claws making horrible scrabbling sounds on the linoleum.

Worse was the breathing. She didn’t hear it, not exactly. But she felt it. Every time she stopped and shone the light into another empty room she felt the doorway throb around her. Every step she took down the hall felt like an exhalation. Like the building was waiting for her. Worse than waiting; it was pulling her, sucking her in like a whale eating plankton. And with every step she got closer to the cavernous pit of its stomach.

To calm herself she tried to focus on other things, other thoughts, but there wasn’t much there. Was she supposed to think about the conversation she’d have to have with Lex, sooner or later? Or maybe about how Terrible looked at her like she was something he’d purged onto the carpet? How about the scars on her wrists, and the tightrope she was walking with this dual investigation? How many lives depended on her? How she still didn’t even know what the Lamaru were doing, when twice in as many days she’d been attacked by them?

No. Not much to cheer her up there. So she chased those thoughts away and focused on the next plodding step, trying not to cringe when things crunched beneath her boots.

The next floor was much of the same. She hadn’t gotten a real look at the building, wasn’t sure how many floors there were, but this was getting ridiculous. He wasn’t in here. Not only was he not in here, but nothing at all indicated this building had anything at all to do with him in particular or the Lamaru in general, save the vibrations she’d felt in the basement and still felt twitching around her. Dark magic, black magic, would feel worse than that. It would—

No. No, it wouldn’t. It hadn’t, had it? The energy around those body parts hadn’t been particularly unpleasant. Nor had it been in the squat, earlier.

How were they muting their power? She’d never heard of it being done before, not like that. Some of the Elders had the ability to mask their magic signatures but the idea that a Church Elder was involved with the Lamaru was laughable, and not just because she doubted they’d do such a thing.

An Elder involved with the Lamaru would have taken her out long before this.

She’d been checking the apartments as they passed without really seeing them. Now they hit the stairs; she snapped back into herself in time to feel her palms start to itch. Okay, she really needed to get her pills.

Maybe she could sneak a couple out while Lauren wasn’t looking?

Luck was with her…sort of. What passed for luck was with her. The apartments on the third floor—she thought it was the top floor—were larger. Only three doors interrupted the hallway on each side. They’d have to go into each one and examine it.

“We should split up. I’ll stay on this side, you stay on that one, okay?”

Lauren pursed her lips. “I think we should stay together.”

“Lauren… There’s nobody in here. You want to get out as bad as I do, right? And I didn’t even see an exit anywhere, so we have to go all the way back to the basement after this.”

“If he’s hiding somewhere, he’s probably up here.”

Why the hell was the woman picking this moment, of all moments, to start being conscientious? This woman, who’d yanked her gun on Terrible and shot at Vanhelm in the alley, now wanted to play it safe and do the right thing?

She realized she was bobbing on the balls of her feet, ever so slightly, and forced her heels back to the floor. Another crunch. Dead insects, probably. Ugh.

“If he did come up here, he probably heard us coming and snuck down the other staircase. Come on, let’s just get this over with, okay?”

Lauren hesitated. Yes! Her pillbox practically sang to her from the depths of her bag.

One more push… “We’ll keep talking. So you’ll hear me and I’ll here you. These apartments can’t be that big, right, and listen to how our voices echo in here.”

“Okay, fine.” Lauren sighed and switched her flashlight into her left hand. With her right she pulled out her gun. “But keep talking.”

The words hadn’t even finished leaving her mouth before Chess ducked into the first open doorway, her hand already digging for her pillbox and cracking it.

“I don’t hear you, Cesaria.”

Chess waved the flashlights around in case Lauren was looking. “Just getting a drink.”

No answer. Fine. Who needed to hear Lauren talk when four Cepts sat in her palm, practically glowing in the darkness? She threw them into her mouth, screwed up her nose and bit down.

“Still here,” she called as clearly as she could. Ugh, they tasted awful. And wonderful. Even that horrible acid bitterness was worth it, was welcome, when it meant her skin would stop tingling and her palms would stop itching and she wouldn’t feel scraped raw around the edges.

“I’m here too.” Lauren’s voice was a little muffled. Maybe she was actually exploring the apartment she was in, instead of standing just inside the doorway drugging herself. Which made sense.

She washed the gooey pill-mess down with water and made her way across the floor. Once it had been covered with a deep pile carpet; only shreds remained, the color indistinct in the darkness and bleached yellowy by the flashlight’s beam.

Something moved behind her.

She spun around, her heart hammering, the bitter taste in her mouth suddenly overpowering. Nothing there.

“Still here,” she told the silent room.

“Me too,” came the reply.

Through another cave-mouth doorway into a kitchen, or what had once been a kitchen. A pile of broken wood filled one corner; loose wires like spider’s legs protruded from the wall where a dishwasher or stove had once been hooked up.

Last came the bedroom. Empty. A large bathroom off of it, now just a hole in the floor; chunks of tub beside it. A closet with a broken pole. It was as if someone had come in with a sledgehammer and simply destroyed whatever they could; not as if, she thought. That was probably exactly what happened.

“Still there?”

“Still here,” she replied, and moved back through the place, her feet kicking crunchy bits and stirring up paper. What the hell was crunching, anyway?

Bones. A few of them; rodents, it looked like. Mice, maybe a small rat. Yes, dead insects too. Little balls of something; probably petrified droppings. They turned to dust when she crushed them beneath her feet. For some reason she thought of dog food, of the way it had gone powdery and turned into a dry sort of sludge in her mouth, those days when she’d had nothing else—no. No, not going there. That was all she needed, to stand in this building, these rooms as empty as her soul, and batter herself against the dark rough walls of her memories.

Almost done, she reminded herself. Her pills would kick in any second now, she they were almost done, and she could go to the pipe room after she’d had a shower and spend hours there, until all of this was as far away as those days before the Church found her and made her something she never thought she could be.

A voice seeped into her consciousness; a harsh, low voice, male. She froze. “Lauren?”

“Still here,” came the reply. She sounded further away. Well, of course she was; she was actually working, not standing around thinking about things better forgotten. Things she’d worked for years to forget. And any day now maybe she would forget.

She moved back into the hall, shone the flashlight’s beam straight up so it would illuminate the entire area better. “Did you hear something? Like someone else talking?”

“Hmm?” Lauren popped her head out of the next doorway along. “Oh, sorry. I was talking to myself.”

“No, it sounded sort of—” Had it? It had sounded like a whisper; was it possible to tell if the whisperer were male or female?

“Like this?” Lauren said it under her breath, and smiled. “I’m getting a little spooked myself. Let’s hurry up. I don’t think there’s anything in here.”

Chess nodded and moved into the next doorway. Only this one and another one left.

Bright light flashed into her eyes; she stumbled back against the wall, momentarily blinded, her breath escaped in a shrill, embarrassing yip. She floundered, her free hand scrabbling at the wall, blinking desperately to try and clear the spots in her eyes. “Lauren!”

“Cesaria, are you okay?”

A window. A fucking window. The ones in the last apartment had been boarded up; this one wasn’t, and one of the few broken shards still hanging in the pane had caught the light’s beam. Shit. “Yeah, sorry. It—a rat, that’s all.”

“Oh, yeah. I’ve seen a couple. Ugh.”

Her boots scuffled through the detritus on the floor. Breeze filtered through the open holes and caught the papers strewn around, made them rustle and flap like damp threadbare sheets on a line.

A shape in the corner. A couch, stuffing spilling out of the cushions like they’d been slashed. Which they probably had been; ragged shreds of fabric surrounded the holes in tangled strips.

She took a step toward the kitchen and paused to smile as her pills started to kick in. Peace seeped into her blood, into her brain; she pulled out a cigarette and lit it, letting nicotine and narcotic form a delightful stew in her head. That was better.

“Still there, Cesaria?”

“Still here.”

She aimed the light on the empty doorway and followed it, ignoring the crunching noises, until something flew up her leg with a sick, moist shiver.

Black magic.

No doubt of it. None at all. She knew what she was feeling, and she heard Lauren yelp across the hall.

“Lauren? You okay?”

“I just—I just felt—”

“Yeah, I know. I’m coming, okay? Meet me in the hall.”

A chuckle. Loud. Almost right in her ear, right nearby. Her heart bounced in her chest like a rubber ball; she spun around, almost falling, and her eyes met Erik Vanhelm’s. How had he—

He was on her before she had a chance to scream, his heavy fist catching her across the jaw. Pain exploded in her face; her brain caught fire with it, throbbed with it, as though it had suddenly swollen three sizes. She hit the floor, her knuckles still wrapped around the flashlight taking most of her weight. Her cigarette—how fucking dumb was she, smoking in here—flew from her other hand and landed just before she did, so her knee crushed it out.

No time to feel it, or think about it. Get up, run, back to the hall.

He grabbed her hair, yanked her back. She heard Lauren scream. Shit were there more of them—she’d thought it, in the car. A Lamaru welcome party. And here they were.

“Lauren!” she managed, her jaw creaking and throbbing, before her ass thumped to the carpet. Vanhelm over her, grinning at her.

“Cesaria Putnam,” he said, and the sound of her name in his voice made her want to scream. Ugly power crawled over the words like roaches. “I’ve wondered what you look like.”

What the fuck did he think this was, some kind of spy movie? Did he want to get into a clever little dialogue with her or something?

Fuck that. She dug her shoulders into the floor and yanked her legs up hard; her burned knee connected with the side of his face with a satisfying—if painful—thump.

His grip on her hair loosened. She rolled away, tried to get up. Not fast enough. His arms closed around her, trapped her. His weight pinned her to the floor; she inhaled a mouthful of foul-smelling dust that tasted of raw meat and sand and gritted her tongue.

Lauren screamed again. Heavy footsteps thundered past in the hall. A harsh voice: “Aaron?”

“Five minutes.” Vanhelm’s breath heated her ear, her neck. His arm pressed hard on the back of her neck, shoving her face further into the filthy floor. Several inches away a dead roach lay on its back, its awful legs shriveled in the air. Oh, fuck…the floor was covered with them, they were under her, on her, she was breathing in their dust…

A chuckle from the doorway. “Make it fast, we don’t have time.”

She barely heard it. Insects crawled through her head; she felt them on her, everywhere, their horrible bodies swarming over her… She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t move, they had her trapped, if she moved they would crawl into her eyes, her mouth, her ears and hair…

Her stomach lurched. Only her desperate swallows, the realization that if she threw up she’d have to lie there with her face in the puddle, kept her from losing her pills.

Vanhelm’s free hand beneath her stomach, finding the button of her jeans. Undoing it.

She broke. The paralyzing fear, the memory image of the roaches on her body, the lectures in an evil sonorous voice about germs and the germs filthy little girls carried—it snapped, set her free, disappeared from her mind, and all that was left was mindless, red-haze rage.

He meant to rape her. Had waited up there, lurked up there, punched her, shoved her into filth, and now the scumsucking motherfucker actually thought he was going to get his sick fucking rocks off, use her without her permission?

Nobody was ever, ever going to do that to her again. Never. She’d sworn it, the day she finally realized that the Church wasn’t like that, that the Elders weren’t going to enter her room at night—the first room that had ever been hers—and do things to her, and make her do things. Things she didn’t want. The day she realized that was over, that part of her life had ended forever.

The way she still realized it every single day, when she woke up and remembered that she wasn’t a child anymore and she could fight back.

She went limp, germs and bugs and the horrible-tasting dust forgotten; something cold and watchful replaced them in her mind. Let him think she’d given in. Forced a few whimpering sounds out of her throat. Fucker was about to die, she’d feel his blood pour over her hands…

Her zipper went down. No fear. Just waiting. Only one of them was in danger here and it sure as fuck wasn’t her. His arm still pressing the back of her neck. Was that smell him? It was familiar, should have been familiar, but she couldn’t concentrate on it. Every cell in her body, every cell in her brain, was focused on the man on top of her; nothing else existed.


“Go without me,” he shouted. “I’ll meet you there.”

Where was Lauren? She’d screamed again, a minute ago. Had they killed her? Or was she waiting too, lying on the ground while someone fiddled with her clothing, while hands that were about to be separated from their hosts touched her skin?

Her knife was in the pocket of her jeans. She’d have to reach it fast. When was the best time? If she moved too fast he wouldn’t be vulnerable enough. He’d still be focused on her entire body instead of the parts he wanted. She had to time it right, just right…

What was that smell?

Lauren screamed. Male voices, laughing. Lauren still alive. That’s what mattered.

Her pants down now, cold floor against her soft skin. His arm lifted her, pulled her to her knees; cold metal against her throat. Not her knife. “Don’t move.”

He had no idea what mistake he’d just made. No idea at all.

The sound of his robe shifting behind her, so loud. So slow. Her knees trapped by her jeans. The blade in his right hand, pressed to her right side; move left. Roll away from it.

His left hand left her body. Positioning himself. Now. Now!

She spun to her left, dropping her right elbow, flinging her left arm behind her. Her shoulders knocked his knife out of the way; her arm missed him but her legs, carried along with the force of her spin, did not. She knocked him over; he lay on his side, with her legs over his chest. Not enough, not bad enough.

His blade sliced her thigh. No time to scream, but fuck that hurt, oh shit…

Good thing she still had her gloves on. Her right hand shot out, grabbed him where it would hurt the most, squeezed as hard as she could. His scream broke the air around them into vicious shards, brought more footsteps, coming back. She didn’t have time—the smell was stronger, her heart pounded, her body knew what it was even if her mind refused to accept it.

Her knife’s handle leapt into her hand; she flicked it open, lifted it, ready to bring it down right into the center of his evil, foul little chest—

Something hit her, sent thick black vibrations through her body. A curse bag, energy so vile tears sprang to her eyes; like the fetish she’d found earlier. Exactly like it, in fact. Another toad, fallen to the floor at her knees; she wavered, unsteady, trying to catch her breath. Blood trickled down her leg from the wound on her thigh. She moved away, not wanting her blood anywhere near it.

They grabbed Vanhelm, dragged him from the room. She took one faltering footstep, then another; the thing on the floor radiated evil like a dead fish throwing off stink. But her knife was still in her hand and she was ready to go, ready to move, she could catch them they were only at the doorway.

Could catch them; could have caught them. She was a foot, no more, from the open doorway when a heavy slab of steel shot across it from out of nowhere. She threw herself at it, cold and solid, slick against her palms. It refused to give. She heard pounding. The steel vibrated. Hammers. They were nailing the steel over the door.

She was trapped.

* * *

“Cesaria!” Lauren’s voice came from miles away, miles padded with cotton. An anguished whisper at the top of the other woman’s lungs.

She filled her own lungs as much as she could. “Are you trapped too?”

“They put steel over the door.”

“Me too.”

They fell silent. Okay. She was trapped in here, but she had a window. Her flashlight still worked; she followed the beam to the empty, glass-spiked hole.

Four floors up, not three. No fire escape. That was a hell of a long way down. Shit.

Leaning too far out gave her vertigo; in her mind she saw ghostly hands poised right behind her back, ready to give her that one solid shove that would end all her problems. In her mind she saw herself stepping over the edge of the window herself.

Then she saw the City, and jumped back as if from a maggot-covered body.

Okay. No escape from that window. But there were others, right? And maybe, who knows, maybe someone had left a convenient sledgehammer there or something, she could punch a hole in the wall and get their asses out of there.

Meanwhile, she checked the room out a little more carefully. The Lamaru had been waiting here. Set up an ambush here. That didn’t mean it was their building, but it made the possibility a hell of a lot more likely. She’d felt the vibration by the kitchen door, over there, so that was the best place to start—especially since she had to go past it to get to the bedroom and see if that window had a fire escape.

Lauren was still screaming, her voice tinny and faint. Chess yelled something reassuring back and kept moving. Through the kitchen first, stay calm, she was going to get out of this…

Broken cabinets stared back at her, the doors missing or hanging off their hinges like drunks off a trolleycar. Cloudy plastic containers sat on the countertops and filled the blank space beneath. So they were using this place; had used it, at least.

She should probably not open the containers. Opening them was not a great idea.

She did it anyway.


Of course they were empty, what did she think, that they’d just leave all their supplies behind? Duh. But part of her training at Church had been identifying herbs by smell, and despite the sharp odor growing stronger in the air around her, she could still do it.

One by one she popped the lids, held the things to her nose. A few smelled of nothing but plastic; other supplies, she imagined, stuff like mirrors and spiderwebs and iron filings, or, hell, who knew what sort of shit the Lamaru kept around? They could keep body parts in there—like the finger she’d found inside the earlier fetish.

Some had contained herbs, though, scents she recognized. Wolfsbane and asafetida. Yew. Mistletoe—like in the fetish. What the hell was the mistletoe for? What in the world were they doing?

She shone the light into each of the cabinets but found nothing. Damn. Not a big surprise, but still. She had to admit, part of her was hoping to come across something she could really use. Like a journal called “Who we are and What Evil we’re Committing: A detailed description of our crimes,” with a list of full names and addresses signed in blood or something beneath it.

The funny thing was, it was entirely possibly such a thing existed. Contracts signed in blood were immensely powerful; marriage contracts were signed that way, just as marriages were bound in blood in other ways too. When she’d finished her training and taken the oaths every Church employee took, she’d signed her name in her own blood on the enormous scroll which lived in a Blackwood box in the Grand Elder’s office. Hell, the scars on her wrists, temporary though they may be, were in essence a signature in blood, marring the tender skin.

So there was every chance that those joining the Lamaru placed their blood signature somewhere, on something.

It was simply the idea that they may have left such a thing here that was ridiculous. A sign of how twisted her own mind was; the desperation screaming at the base of her skull to get out, to take over. She was beating it back, oh yes. Keeping calm. Even searching for clues, taking advantage of her entrapment, in a logical manner.

But dark feathered wings of panic fluttered in her chest; her ears were straining to hear that steel door move, to hear voices. Her toes wiggled inside her boots. Her thoughts swirled, twisting in the air, like a butterfly refusing to light anywhere for too long. Like that smell, that smell somehow pleasant and stinging at the same time, almost like—


It was gasoline.

And it was smoke.

Lauren’s screams came to her suddenly; she’d been so focused on shutting out the panic she’d managed to shut that out too. Lauren’s voice and what Chess assumed was the heavy thud-thud-thud of Lauren’s hands on her own steel door.

The building was on fire and they were trapped.

She ran back to the doorway, pressed her face against the cold steel. Still cold, good. The fire hadn’t reached it yet; hadn’t reached them. They might still have a chance.

“Lauren! Lauren, do you smell smoke?” So loud her throat hurt.


“Do you have a fire escape?”



Lauren’s voice was a high, thin shriek. “Ghosts!”

As if on cue something wavered in the corner; she turned and saw the ghost emerge from the bedroom, with another behind. Two…three. In the bedroom, shit, she had to get in there, had to see if there was a fire escape or something…

As quickly as she could she grabbed the black chalk from her back and sketched a few protective sigils on her forehead and cheek. Her arms were next, sleeves shoved out of the way. Some of her tattoos, the most powerful ones, were incomplete; leaving them active all the time would feed her too much energy, leave her like an engine constantly over-revving. She completed them now; power rushed through her body and stole her breath.

No time to keep talking to Lauren. She had to get out of there. She didn’t have her psychopomp; she couldn’t banish any of the ghosts but she had enough to freeze them, to sap their strength.

Which would do her no good at all if she couldn’t somehow get out of that room before it caught fire.

Smoke snaked up through a broken floorboard by the far wall. Stupidly she watched it for a second, her mouth bone-dry.

Then she ran. Back into the bedroom, her light bouncing off the walls and floor in front of her. Ran through the ghosts, like racing through an ice-cold shower.

Boards on the windows. She grabbed at them, scraping her fingertips on the rough edges, but they were bolted in. Tears stung her eyes. All she smelled was smoke now, smoke and gasoline, thick fumes in the air. This building would go up like a stack of fucking paper. They didn’t have much time.

The ghosts followed her, hovered in the doorway. Watching. They didn’t have any weapons, but then neither did she save her knife, and while she may have been able to work the screws holding the plywood with it, it would take too long. The knife would be totally useless against the ghosts.

The bathroom. Her sledgehammer-happy pal had been through here as well, and left big chunks of porcelain littering the floor. Ugh. If the Lamaru were using this place to do more than meet for rituals they had some serious hygiene issues.

Still, the hunks of dirty tub were heavy, and probably strong. Strong enough to try, anyway. She hefted one that looked manageable; heavy, but she could handle it. She wasn’t as strong as… Oh.

Keeping one eye on the ghosts, she dragged her phone out of her bag and hit 3. Terrible’s number. Why the hell hadn’t she thought of him before? He could be here quickly, maybe the fire wasn’t too bad on the lower floors. He’d be able to push through the walls as if they were paper—well, not that easily, but she knew he’d be able to do it. Knew he would. He wouldn’t let her die; not die.

That the fire department might show up never crossed her mind. Nobody in Downside cared enough to call them, and even if they did, nobody in Triumph City’s government cared enough to send them. Buildings in Downside burned down all the time, occasionally taking a couple of squatters with them; when the smoke cleared the scavengers would pick up what wood was still burnable and take it, and the rest of the wreckage was allowed to rot.

The phone rang. Rang again. “We’re sorry. The number you have dialed is no longer in service. Please check your call and try again. Fact is Truth.”

No. No, that couldn’t be right. She disconnected and tried again, ghosts and fire momentarily forgotten.

“We’re sorry. The number you have dialed…”

He’d changed his number. He hated her so much he didn’t even want her to have his number anymore. Even with them working on this together…

In vain she searched for a reasonable explanation. She even found a few. But in her heart she knew they weren’t true. He’d changed his number. That was it. It was done; he would never forgive her.

For a second she considered dropping her knife on the floor. Let the ghosts pick it up. Save herself from a slow smoke-inhalation choke. Let the Lamaru win, be done with the whole sorry fucking mess.

Let the Lamaru win? Oh, no. No fucking way.

She hoisted the chunk of tub again, rested it on her shoulder like a discus thrower she’d seen once on TV, and marched back to the living room. That room had air from the open window, and a little light from the moon outside, and she figured the walls there were probably no thicker or thinner than anywhere else.

Her wrist twinged when she brought the chunk down from her shoulder and slammed it against the wall, closer to the kitchen where she hoped the steel plate didn’t reach. The wall shook, but did not break.

Okay, she needed more power behind it. She took a step back, twisted a little so she faced the wall at an angle, and spun back.

The chunk flew from her hand; the plaster broke. Beneath it a layer of bricks. Shit. Nothing could be fucking easy, could it? Bricks, of all fucking things.

Another chunk of porcelain hit the wall. Oh… Oh no.

She’d given the ghosts ideas.

They came at her now, the other two, each holding a piece of tub. Shit, they were going to beat her to death with those things—

Or not.

Without taking her eyes off them she found her bag of salt and grabbed a handful. She didn’t have a lot. All she could do was hope it was enough.

They came slowly, anticipating her death. Licking their translucent lips. She shuddered. Don’t telegraph it…

“By my power I mark this space,” she said, casting the salt in a shivery semicircle around her, a few feet off. Just far enough so if she stood against the wall they wouldn’t be able to reach her. She pushed into it, felt her power flare, felt the salt line snap into place. “With salt I mark this space.”

The ghosts halted at the edge. Chess waited, her breath coming in shallow pants. She hadn’t left herself enough room for another roundhouse like that; if they didn’t take the bait she didn’t know what she would do.

He’d changed his number, he hated her that much.

The ghosts on the right’s face twisted into an ugly leer. His hands drew back, lifted the porcelain. Her body tensed.

He flung it. She ducked. Chips of brick and porcelain rained over her; the sound like a shovel hitting stone.

But it worked. Oh, yes, it fucking worked—

She ducked again, as another chunk flew, then another. The hole in the wall grew wider. The pile of porcelain at her feet grew bigger. Shit, she had to get some of that out of there or she wouldn’t be able to dodge the pieces they threw.

It went against every instinct she had, but she had no choice. She started throwing the porcelain back at them. Arming them. Hoping she was fast enough. Blood soaked the leg of her jeans; she knew they could smell it, feel the power in it.

She lost her rhythm, and one hit her left shoulder. Her entire arm went numb. No time to scream, no time to think about it. Just keep moving, keep throwing…pick up a lump of tub and beat the hole with it, grab the edges of the bricks and yank them, wait for her left arm to start working again. One more hit, one more good, solid hit…

Yes! More bricks crumbled. Lauren’s voice grew louder. Smoke poured in the hole. Shit—the fire was spreading. Orange light flickered along the walls, over the steel plate covering Lauren’s door.

“Lauren! Lauren, do you have a fire escape?”


Fuck. Okay, she had to get Lauren out of there. The fire moved too quickly; she glanced to her right and saw it flying up the stairs, down the carpet.

The hall spun and seesawed before her panicked eyes. Anything to use, anything at all. The ghosts were still in the apartment she’d left, and even if they weren’t she didn’t have time to wait for them to break a hole in the wall again. She needed something, anything.

Her feet pounded on the floor as she ran to the left. Another apartment down there, maybe she’d find something in there?

Or maybe she would, but not what she was looking for. Foul energy so thick she could hardly breathe; the scars on her wrists ached, the wound in her thigh stung, as if the filth in the air was seeping into her blood through the breaks in her skin.

The circle on the floor mocked her, a thick white line glowing in her flashlight’s weak beam. It seemed to vibrate. Waiting for her. Watching her.

She edged around it, checked the window. No escape. Okay. Check the bedroom. Through the kitchen—more empty plastic containers. Shit, they really cleared everything out, didn’t they?

In the bedroom she found three or four metal cages; sacrifices, probably. More black sows? No—fur caught the light. Dogs, perhaps. She could think of a few spells that used dogs’ blood or energy, and none of them were anything she’d ever want to mess with. They were right up the Lamaru’s urine-scented alley, though.

Finally a piece of luck; the room had a fire escape. Okay. All she had to do was figure out a way to free Lauren, and they could get out. Something else hovered there in the back of her mind, some connection being made, but she couldn’t focus on it right then. Worry about staying alive. Later she could figure it out, later she could let the connection grow and turn into something real.

The cages might… No. No, they were just wire; they’d collapse. She moved them, looked behind them. Maybe the bathroom…Cages. Dogs in the cages. Mistletoe in the fetish. It was coming, realization like a thick cloud rolling in from the ocean. Mistletoe, traveling between the worlds. Dogs—

Agony shot up her leg. It buckled beneath her. The ghosts had found her again, and they had broken cabinet doors to throw at her.

Exhaustion poured from her head all the way down, and she went down with it. A puddle on the floor, that was all she was, fuck she was so tired. Just so tired of this, of all of it. Fucking Lamaru, fucking ghosts and fire and it was enough.

The fire escape was right over there. She could just leave. The ghosts might follow her, sure, but they weren’t very good with jumping or crawling down things. She could hit the street well before they did.

But she couldn’t leave Lauren there to die. The girl might be a spoiled bitch but she didn’t deserve to die for it, especially not like that, trapped in a filthy squat while smoke filled her lungs and flames ate her skin.

She got up, ran to the bathroom, at the same time something exploded in the hall. Not like a real explosion, though; short, sharp bursts—Lauren’s gun.

Another icy blast when she ran through the ghosts, back out into the hall. Yes, Lauren was shooting the wall. Damn, took her an awfully long fucking time to figure that one out, hadn’t it?

The flames hit the hall, raced down the carpet. Out of time.

Back through the hole, grab some porcelain. Beat on the wall. Plaster flew; brick chips nicked her skin. Coughing. Flames erupting around her.

The wall shook. Erupted. Lauren had the same idea; in her mannish hand she clutched her own filthy hunk of white. Her face was almost the same color, her clothes rumpled. Her left eye was already swollen half-shut.

Neither of them spoke. Why waste the breath? Instead Chess grabbed her hand, led her through the thickening smoke into the apartment.

The fire had encroached there too, climbing the walls, eating the carpet. Ghosts wavered in the center of it, sprouting from the sea of flames like translucent Venuses from raging shells. More of them, converging in the room, drifting in from the halls.

Chess ignored them. She kept moving, heading for the escape.

She jumped onto it first. Lauren’s pale face was streaked with tears; her eyes didn’t seem to be focusing. Best to be below her in case…in case.

The rickety metal shook and groaned beneath her; rust bit her palms slick with sweat.

Carefully she started down. From this vantage point on the side of the building she saw how close the place was to complete destruction. Smoke and fire poured out of every window, climbed the outside walls. They didn’t have much time.

Lauren came down after her. The escape gave a mighty creak; the balcony above broke free of the wall and hung crazily over them. Shit. Go faster. Faster.

Her hands slipped on the rungs, her fingers stiff and aching. With every rung down it got harder to let go; her legs ached, her head went light.

She wanted to rest on the first balcony down but didn’t dare. Wanted to rest on the second but couldn’t. They were almost there. Almost free.

It got harder to climb down. The escape boiled and shifted beneath them. Down, and down; she’d been doing this forever, all her life had been spent on this fire escape, with orange light taunting them and the sky a hazy dull gray above them.

Flames danced along the wall and caught her right leg; her jeans caught fire. Without meaning to, without thinking, she screamed; her right hand left the rungs, batted at the fire, and she fell.