013. To Fool The Rider

Televisionary, that is what this individual called themselves. Moonwire was restless and not blessed with great reserves of patience. She wasn’t feeling herself today, and she knew it … sensed something different in herself.

‘I hear whitenoise.’

‘What?’ the grating sound of pained annoyance at this person’s voice.

‘I am tuning into a different channel,’ said the televisionary, miming the action of spinning a dial.

The woman squinted at Moonwire and she chuckled.

‘Ha ha, they made you a jigsaw piece; a running beast; a tool of the prosaic. Ha ha.’

‘What do you mean, you crazy old bat?’

‘Ah, I see my spirit animal is singing to people again. What I mean is, you rude young girl. That they have a person riding you. Or rather something that thinks it is a person but is more a puppet or a mask than anything independently operating.’

‘And it can’t hear us talking about it now?’

‘No, not here. This place is blanketed in static; you’re invisible here.’

‘Can it be removed?’

‘Surely, but that might not be the best solution.’

‘What are you suggesting?’

‘A tulpa – something for it to feed on and feedback information from – a dream for its sustenance.’

‘And you know how to do that?’

She smiled. She knew that she was really speaking to Moonwire now, and not the thing that had been seeping its poison into her.

The Televisionary placed forefinger and thumb on either side of Moonwire’s head, slid her fingers to the centre of her forehead, until they met, and suddenly clicked her fingers, and there it was … the thoughtform; the tulpa. And Moonwire could see the thing clasped about it in a murderous embrace.

‘And now we give it a program.’

‘A program?’

‘Oh, yes – there are many screens in here; many channels. Do you not think there are others who have come here and been helped by us in a similar way? If you were to channel surf through these old goggle boxes you would find enough demons to make Legion look like the great pretender.’

‘So, how do you do that? Put it into a program.’

‘Hand me the remote.’

‘OK.’

‘Good, I am retuning him. Now look at that screen.’

Moonwire was not easily shocked, but seeing the vision of her with the monster riding her was not something she could easily process.

‘Good, you are free to go.’

‘This is weird – this keeps happening to me; people help me and then they tell me to leave; tell me that that was the only thing they have for me and I am to never see them again.’

‘Yes, your story is a fast-paced one, Moonwire. You are hurtling towards a meeting with an immoveable object.’

‘A what?’

‘No, a who. And yes, you must leave now, and not come back; this show cannot be repeated. Ha ha ha.’

And gone; a room vanished. Moonwire stamped her foot – this kind of things was obviously helpful in some regards, but in others it was extremely frustrating.

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012. An Ill Wind

The first thing he noticed was the hair. Why was that? Some kind of glamour on it? Draw the eyes away from the face? A game – always.

Magic was shattering against the wall; picked and flung around the place like casual glances. The dream catcher he always carried, and all the electrified charms in his pockets; they would snag and hold little pieces of that energy. He always needed these fragments; they built into whole jigsaws; whole jigsaws he might fling at those who tried to attack him.

Would Mistral attack him? No, not in the open like this. It would be much subtler – like allowing someone like Echo Blank into this space. Associations buckle and snap like snagged spiderwebs.

She smiled, and kingdoms fell between that expression and the next. Because the smile turned.

‘Never did need words, did you, Cheroot?’

‘Lies get stuck to them, Mistral. They echo back into the bleakness of the shell of self, no?’

‘Switchblade poet, as ever. But you won’t be able to hide behind your smoke in the days to come, Cheroot.’

‘Or you behind your hair, Mistral.’

She smiled again.

‘These days are sad, Cheroot; the maps are burning and only those whose location is aflame are able to read it.’

‘Who is Echo Blank?’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘You don’t …’

‘Cheroot, there is a maggot in the apple. A mirror in the eye. An echo resounding under the voice. I stretch myself out to tell you a broken truth, before the thing I truly am disintegrates.’

He looked at his friend and he knew that something terrible had taken hold of her. Echo Blank was seeded inside her, and he was growing like a cancerous amnesia, washing away all the very things that made Mistral who she was. She was no longer safe, and this place was no longer a haven.

He had gone up against those who might turn a head with a seductive offer before, but he didn’t know if he had met anything that might infect those it touched in quite the way this individual had done.

She offered her hand, something she would never have done in days of old; it was an unnecessary formality, and both of them in that moment knew that whoever the puppet master was, their poker tell had revealed them.He span on his heel and left.

Somewhere in the back of her skull Mistral watched her candlelight of her self flickered and then guttered, and was swallowed by something impersonal, monolithic, and blank.

011. Echo Blank

He didn’t look like anyone and that was by design. When he was built from the ground up, starting with a line of fiction, adding in a few appropriate metaphors and some similes, they tried not to pick anything that would be particularly memorable. His was a face that you could easily forget, easily lose in a crowd, hardly ever place when you saw him.

Not too good looking, not too bad looking; the most average looking individual it was possible to imagine.But under the hood the chassis and the engine truly were something special.

He caged chaos butterflies in his heart to stir the world, and they were agitated according to the impulses directed into the cage from a quantum computer designed to work out the most destructive actions that it was possible to carry out upon the world. Across an infinite number of universes that artificial intelligence cast its gaze, and as each possibility was assessed and rejected or kept another probability wave crashed onto the shore of choice-made-move-along. Slowly the super-positional nature of any decision lessened and it came more solidly into the world, and all this in femtoseconds.

He spoke knowledgeably about so much, but there was little heart behind it. He would listen to someone and analyse the patterns of their speech and he would feed back some hodge-podge of data assembled from appropriate sources in his memory banks. He was most definitely a flesh and blood robot. He stood up to the surface read that most people levelled at him, but for those fighting the prosaic this did not suffice; for them he was transparent – a glass machine with all his inside laid bare; well, for those who knew that they had met him that was.

He moved peripherally – at the edge of crowds; inhabiting the blindspot; coming as a rumour or a whisper … some buried line of code that tweaked the tint of the sky. He had crossed paths with Moonwire and Cheroot many more times than they were aware of, and that was quite a feat to pull the wool over their eyes.

He leaned in and whispered. And he was gone. She stood there for a second wondering whether she had heard what she thought she had. A virus was seeded in the meat of Moonwire.

010. A Life In The Day Of Cheroot

Dark room, a match catches on the rough edge of the box; a cheroot holds the flame and a thin taper of grey lifts into the room. He has been smoking these things for as long as anyone can remember, and he is not in any danger of giving them up soon. He has seen off quite a few people and he has seen off their children too. There are not that many people left who remember Cheroot as a young man, and to be honest even those guys would argue that he was never what an old timer would have called a whipper-snapper; there had always been something about Cheroot that suggested age.

Some people called him the White Aborigine, said he was a farmer who had gone native, but he had his own Songline from way back. He had spoken to some of the old fellers and had told them that he straight up remembered the dreamtime and that he had woken up after a lightshow in the belly of Uluru and stepped out with a song in his heart that could rebuild the land. He had known things which made the old feller, koala dreaming, believe him completely.

In the Irish pubs they talked about him as Ard-Ri; one of the poet kings that had stood on the Lia-Fail, the Stone of Destiny, and sang to the triple goddess in ancient Ireland before Finn MacCool had strode the Giant’s Causeway.

In the Greek restaurants they talked of him as a philosopher king, friend to Ulysses, teacher of Plato.

Why was his skin so dark? Because he had been hung to spin by eagle’s claws by a native American from a tribe that no longer existed in a ritual that had allowed him access to the secrets of the elders.

Cheroot smiled when he heard the tales – they weaved their own magic about him, and in that landscape he became powerful. Daily he was offered totems and thanks and words of prayer, and in his line of business that kind of thing was useful.

Today he was out checking the hiways and by-ways. Following the warchalking to see the open nodes and the closed nodes and the safe places marked out. He knew that Moonwire had been reinforcing the map and making it more standardised, but he also knew that there were others out there that would walk around and change the marks just to fuck with people.

‘Hey, dude, what you looking for?’

Cheroot looks up – small wiry kid, shirt three sizes too big hanging off him; sees the tension in the fingers suggesting he is gripping something, sees that ripple up the arm as he goes for a loose limbed fling of a throw. Cheroot sidesteps and catches the dart, lifts it, sniffs the poison, and flings it back; doesn’t miss.

The kids cries out, drops to his knees with a speed, and it sounds like something breaks; snaps like a dry twig. Cheroot walks over to him.

‘Who you working for, kid? Who sent you out on this fool’s errand?’

‘Echo Blank.’

‘What kind of fool name is that?’

‘No worse than Cheroot.’

‘Ah, you maybe have a point there.’

‘Where would I find this Echo Blank?’

‘He drinks at the Widening Gyre.’

‘Bullshit – pull the other one kid. That place is under the protection of a good friend of mine.’

‘You sure?’

‘Shit, you’re mighty cocky for someone who is about to die in five minutes or so.’

‘I’ve been promised something after.’

‘My friend, whoever you spoke to is lying to you. I am sure you never read Faust, but you have that gift forever in your back pocket, you just have to reach there for it. Better luck next time round.’

And the kid expired – a meat puppet with the strings cut; sure, that was a harsh way to think of it, but sometimes in this game of life and death that was the stance you had to adopt. A killer sent after him who never stood a chance – it wasn’t even a warning shot; it was an insult.

It did send a message of a kind though – that these guys didn’t care much for their pawns; that life meant little to them; that even though they wanted him dead they weren’t too concerned about sending a professional in.

He would have to go and see Mistral and see what this bullshit was about with Echo Blank. Why did that name sound familiar?

009. Mistral

Her hair was impressive – she’d worked the dreads up so she had something of the Medusa about her; she liked there to be a little bit of theatricality about these meetings – people expected it and she didn’t like to disappoint.

Cheroot – one of their footsoldiers, even if he didn’t agree that he belonged to anything other than himself – she fed him the lines they fed her, but she didn’t edit them like they asked her to. What were they going to do? They couldn’t come and go like she could, and they couldn’t trust anyone half as much as they could trust her. But she was a player in the game and every player has an angle or they are not playing.

Moonwire – a late addition to the game. Mistral had not met her yet, but she had a leash strung to her. She needed to reel her in … not much, but a little at least. Moonwire was a catalyst and she was doing her job well, but there was a timetable for certain things to occur and, not that they had to respect it exactly, but if there were not to be alignment issues with every sanctioned action, then they had to at least match up to some degree.

She had met with Cheroot and now she was meeting with Moonwire. A meeting of serious import that would be disguised as a casual drink … wasn’t that how business was always conducted in polite and impolite society?

The bar was a favourite: The Widening Gyre. She liked the Bosch on the walls – the way they had managed to wrap the entire place in apocalyptic imagery. When people first walked into this place – a bar where you could still smoke – she watched as they squinted through the people-sponsored smog and started to focus in on the nightmare pictures that surrounded them. Some of the expressions on their faces were priceless.

Moonwire was unfazed – that more than slightly impressed Mistral, though she wasn’t sure why; this woman was going to be tasked with stopping a very real apocalypse herself, so why wouldn’t she be able to handle some pictures on a wall. Moonwire walked straight up to her – didn’t have to ask the barman, just seemed to know straight off who it was that she was supposed to be talking to.

‘Hello, Moonwire.’

‘Hello, Mistral.’

‘What are you drinking?’

‘Chocolate beer.’

‘Nice,’ she raised her fingers and whooshed the picture over to the barman, who smiled, clicked his fingers and sent the beer floating to the table.

‘So, let’s cut to the chase right? I hear you aren’t one of these oracles that like to orate unnecessarily.’

‘Ah, OK, I had heard you were a straight arrow – not a winding road like our friend, Cheroot.’

‘Well, time is of the essence, right?’

‘Sure, to a degree.’

‘How’s that?’

‘Well, don’t start playing dumb now – we all know that most of us who drink in this place and play these games are a little more lucky with our handling of time than the average bear, right?’

‘Yes, of course. I just don’t …’

‘Don’t want to miss anything, right?’

‘Of course.’

‘Don’t worry, you won’t.’

‘I would ask how you know, but I don’t suppose you would be much use as an oracle if you didn’t.’

‘True. Which is going to make what I say next seem a little odd.’

‘OK.’

‘We need you to slow up a little and follow the lead of whatever person we send to tell you what state the timetable is in.’

‘You want me to slow up? Follow a timetable? I understand that my purpose is to push things forward. If I step up the pace and get things moving a little quicker; if I choose to edit the script; if I do what I am supposed to do, aren’t you just going to have fall in line and run a little faster to keep up? We are talking about the future and we are talking about prophecy – is it an exact science? No. Do things need to happen? Yes. Am I the one that is going to make them happen? Well, you tell me. The future can’t arrive too fast as far as I am aware. If I get the jump on the Prosaic and I force their hand and make them act faster then that is what happens.’

‘Well, OK. I don’t think this is going as well as I want it to. This is not how this is supposed to happen.’

‘Not falling into step with your vision? Are catalysts supposed to really play by the rules? While you are looking in your teacup and prognosticating we are out there on the streets stopping people from dropping like flies. Do you think the Prosaic are going to bend under to some kind of rules?’

‘Ah, well, out of the mouth of babes. I had told them it was useless to come down here and speak with you about this. It is like trying to hold back a tsunami.’

‘The universe needs a tsunami and it conjures one up. You see where the path bends, but who ever thought they could control that? I do what I do because it strikes me that I must do that. Is there a plan? Sure – defeat the Prosaic; beyond that? I take each footstep as I see fit. And who sent you to speak to me?’

‘Players of the game.’

‘Ah, the mysterious players of the game. Great Chess Grandmasters moving behind the scenery. They create; I create … do they move me or do I move them? It’s all a matter of perspective, right?’

‘Sure, I see change snaking out from you. You are brave and reckless and whether you survive this or not, I am glad I met you. I can see how you would work well with Cheroot.’

‘OK, so that kind of sounds like this meeting is over.’

‘I guess it is. and you didn’t even touch your drink.’

‘I’ll brown bag it. Don’t worry. Sorry if I came off as disrespectful – I didn’t mean to.’

‘Of course you did. It’s fine; I have been here before. I remain unsurprised. We won’t meet again, whatever happens.’

‘People are telling me that a lot lately. I seem to represent ending cycles.’

‘Well, they have to end for things to begin anew.’

‘True, goodbye, Mistral.’

‘Happy beginnings, Moonwire.’

008. A Talk With The Head

He sat there looking at it and wondered how it maintained its freshness given what it was and what should usually happen with a severed head. If he were not used to things that did not make sense then he would be a little more than bemused by this thing before him.

‘Don’t like smoke. Looking into the fire. Man turning over in the flames. Burning story. You set it – you set it; you will have to put it out.’

‘Making more sense now, eh? Trying to tell me I am to blame, right?’

‘Who are you, Cheroot? Why do you hide in smoke?’

‘Oh, it gets better.’

‘Wired to the moon, blood on the tide, ash in the mouth.’

‘One more verbose prophecy engine. I tire of you clue-dropping cowards.’

‘We tire of you – digging into the meat; pulling forth truth to save those who are not worthy.’

‘Wow, so you can address me directly, quit the persiflage, and speak your mind.’

‘I can, if I so desire. Reality is not always my friend though, because I am a meat dream and sometimes logic gets a little leaky, rather than fluid.’

‘Ah, excuses, excuses. If you chose to be found and chose to persist in this form then you are capable of making decisions about what it is that you tell me and how you tell me. All this glossolalia bullshit is just you performing your ass off for some kudos that will come to you for being mysterious in the eventual fictionalisation of this whole story.’

‘What do you want to know?’

‘What is it that’s coming? How is it going to come? Who is it going to effect?’

‘You know this is a game, right?’

‘Surely.’

‘Then why do you expect me to give you a leg up in climbing over the wall of mystery?’

‘Because you’re a little self important bastard and if you don’t give me something then hanging around as a head has all been for nothing.’

‘I told you, and you heard. You heard what I said about Moonwire and your part in that. You know the Prosaic are coming; you know what they intend to do. I have done my part and my lights are going to go out soon. Just because you don’t want to hear it, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t said.’

‘OK, thank you, John.’

‘You recognised me.’

‘Sure, why wouldn’t I? I was expecting it to be you.’

007. The Girl With The Scissors

Snip, snip. Scissors and lines of narrative – fate strung from a decision to an eventuality. She claimed she had been a spider in a past life and now she was undoing some of the damage that she had done treating everyone and everything as if it were a fly.

Moonwire smiled as she sat there and listened to this girl’s potted autobiography – it kind of came off as a tragedy injected with the drive of a comedy routine. It made a change to listen to someone who spoke like they were a normal person – if a person fired up on way too much coffee.

The thing is she wasn’t a girl. Moonwire wasn’t an audience at a stand-up routine. This wasn’t a joking matter. And the pair of scissors that sat on the desk between them wasn’t a normal pair of scissors.

Lines snaked through this room – some visible and some less obvious. They were rivers dreaming; they were roads snaking through subtext; they were paths untied from the maps they had been knotted into; they were lifelines knotting and un-knotting instant by instant – they were all under her remit and they were all consuming her attention. She watched them all and knew when to pick up those twin blades and exercise them.

‘I’m like a quantum computer, you know. You needn’t worry that I am not taking notice of you or fully tracking with what it is that you are saying, because one of the gifts that they gave me when they asked me to take on this position, was the ability to process an infinite number of strings of data. I observe the binary on/off and the superposition of the qubits that capture this entire mmultiverse as a datastream.’

‘Good, thank you for setting my mind at rest. Before you cut the string that is binding me to that place can you tell me whose story it ties into?’

‘Maybe. I will read it and then I will judge whether telling you is permitted or not.’

‘Permitted?’

‘There are certain rules to disclosing information and they are set by both arcane and on-the-fly rules which come from several different angles that represent beings from different dimensions who are not necessarily of this reality and whose spheres of influence extend beyond mine, beyond the gods of this realm, and beyond whoever it was that set this whole particular shebang off.’

‘Well, ok.’

She placed her hand on Moonwire’s chest and bunched her fist around something that she could not see but could feel pulling when it was pulled taut.

‘Someone has been following you who is a representative of the Prosaic.’

‘Who?’

‘That I am not allowed to dsiclose.’

‘Can you tell me why you can’t tell me?’

‘Sure, because it messes with the game that some people are playing.’

‘The game?’

‘Yes, there are many games. You may not see some of them as games because you are deep down in them.’

‘And I don’t know the rules?’

‘You don’t know the rules. I am going to sever the string now.’

‘OK.’

The pain was surprising – it was something that she would not have believed possible before it reached through her from the soles of her feet to the blood vessels burning on her scalp. She felt like every single muscle in her body had suddenly lost all elasticity – like she was stretched to breaking point and that the entire world around was going to snap and break. And then the tension released, and she breathed.

She watched as the girl raised her fingers. She heard the whip-crack as the girl clicked her fingers. Then she was outside, and she suddenly realised that she did not know where the room she had been was anymore.

She heard a whisper and it was the girl: ‘That was a one time deal – you will never see me again and I will not help you anymore.’

006. A Buried Clockwork Prince

He could feel his heart moving in his chest. A dream of perpetual motion. Small infinitesmal clicks as his eyes blinked, as his fingers moved. He is a secret the city has been keeping for a long time.

His memory is fallible and was designed to be so – he is an artificial replica of the real, started by the key to the city; started by someone who did not wait around to explain anything to him.

Rust made him a study in entropy, and he did not wish this to be so; he wished to be a shining example; a beacon for those around him to follow. He could walk longer and farther than any of them – he could make the necessary joourney to speak to whomever he might need to speak to make this city a great place once again.

He had no picture of the man he knew he was looking for, but he had an idea of him; the father of the city Eustace Benefold, the Great Architect, inventor, and possibly his creator … if that part of his memory was reliable.

He first saw her stood peering into the window of a flowershop and the motions of his heart began to change – first irregular skips and then a whole new music and rhythm began to forge itself. Days shadowing her led to hours of thinking about her, and he realised he had been distracted from his mission … or had he? Something in him sensed that with her may lay the answers to where Benefold might be found.

She was painting something on the wall when he approached her, and he startled her so much that when she turned she had a weapon in her hand (he saw the rapid reflex in action after he heard a sharp intake of breath) but when she saw him she just as rapidly dropped the weapon to her side.

‘Clockwork?’

‘Yes. How did you know?’

‘I have seen a picture of you. We have been looking for you; me and Cheroot. One of the books that talks about the great plan for the city talks about you.’

‘Did it talk about Benefold?’

‘Yes, as one of the architects.’

‘I mean as a key to the future.’

‘But he’s dead, isn’t he?’

‘I don’t believe so – I have some recollection that I was a kind of prototype that he built to learn how he might preserve himself.’

‘So you think he is alive out there somewhere?’

‘Maybe he, like me, is buried somewhere and waiting for the key to be turned that sets his motion in action.’

‘I suppose it’s possible. We can talk to Cheroot about it – see if he has heard anything or if he knows anything.’

‘I remember Cheroot.’

‘Remember?’

‘Yes, he’s older than he looks.’

‘So it would seem.’

There were moments when secrets smiled and turned away from her; and there were moments when history’s whispers became louder and changed the balance of the present. Telling the difference between those subtle interchanges was not always the easiest.

A new person in her landscape knew more about Cheroot than she did. She never wondered and she never worried what it all meant – it would reveal itself. Things always unfolded – they had to; there was no way that once something was set in motion that it would not at some point become evident what it meant, whether that was casting light on past mysteries or pointing the way forward to what would come after.

Keys came in many forms and the doors that they opened were not always as obvious as one might think. The swinging piece of wood in the portal was not always the opening that one needed to be watching. She would watch this clockwork figure closely to see what he revealed of Cheroot; to see what Cheroot revealed of him; and to see what each of them revealed of the others whose lives they were destined to touch.

005. The Man Who Didn’t Exist

Old before his time – the ancient five year old; sufferer of Methusaleh Syndrome; that was what he told them all, and they lapped it up because it pushed the sympathy button. Cassius had slipped back through time and placed himself in the alley in order to attract her attention. He had known Cheroot a long time ago; knew his name – his real name; and he knew her’s too.

They wouldn’t recognise him from the first time that they met because he looked different – he always looked different. There had been a war and he had been part of it, and some might say that he had come off worse out of any of them. He had once been a man and now he was little more than a clue to a mystery (several mysteries) that lay far ahead on the path and far back on the path.

Cassius floated around most of the time – a few seconds in one decade, an hour in another. Sometimes his body got mixed up – he would appear as an aged child; he would appear as a youthful septuagenarian.

Ah, why lie? It wasn’t really Methusaleh Syndrome – that was what he told people. He was temporally unstable – his spatiotemporal index had been buckled by a destabilising quantum bullet fired from a sniper’s rifle – the intention not to assassinate him but to knock him loose from the script.

She passed, not noticing him, so he stood up; threw a dart at the wall in front of her – a small electronic whistle that lit up and warbled.

‘Josephine.’

She froze in her tracks.

‘Remember me, sweetheart?’

There were words clogged in her throat that were losing meaning and rotting into nothing; she had been struck dumb. She never expected to see this man again. She could remember forwards and backwards and she knew that he had been kicked loose from his mooring in reality. There were few like her and Cheroot who could hold the thought there of someone they knew who no longer really existed.

‘I have come to offer you signposts for yesterday, and signposts for tomorrow.’

‘Cassius, how are you here?’

‘A small escape; an edit effected by willpower. I am here to tell you that one of your number from the past is a liar from the future, and that the death of one of your friends will mirror this liar’s death in the past; this is how you will know the traitor in your midst.’

‘You’ve been appearing, Cassius, haven’t you? Scattered all over the map.’

‘I am the map, Josephine. I am the last one who will ever utter your name. Moonwire will be the appelation all of them know you by hereafter. Jospehine is a fiction that must perish. I have seconds and I will not appear again – not as a man, but you will recognise me in the object I become.’

She reached to touch him but her hand was laid upon nothing.

004. Smoke Walker

Blood engines. She is quite the artist – sketches a golem and breathes life into it. He is watching her – and despite the caution he has urged her to exhibit he is confident that she can handle herself and any situation that might arise.

He has lived through dangerous times, but they were marginally safer than the times through which they now must move. Cheroot is old and has seen the dark gods wear many masks to fool man into worshiping them, but he fully recognises that they were a broken, spent, and scattered force through most of the time that he has drawn breath – now there is a shift underway, and those spirits that were benign merely through lack of a support network now have teeth.

He is the smoke walker; an alternate mapping of the world gifted to him by the man with no eyes back in the day when the skin-walker was abroad. One needed to be a ghost and be able to seep through the walls.

He had been talking to that graffiti head for a few days now and its coprolalia confusion would spit out the occasional gem that he could use. If his map was hard to draw then the maps of these bastards were floating jigsaws that lied the world into islands of experience that you had to pass through fire to assemble.

He knew that some of the newer saints had stirred from their uneasy graves and were abroad again. They were come to shepherd those they could away from the coming battle but the number they could save would be small and of little significance in saving humanity, but maybe would promise some small future to an important few.

The death toll amongst the poets was high – they were the easiest target when it came to hacking the subtext. Novelists had harder shells to crack but there were rumours of a huge metafiction engine being constructed from abducted writers of big ideas. The shock troop haiku writers were running their switchblade verse deep between the ribs of the enemy, but even they had succumbed in some places: cherry blossom funeral pyres where they had fallen.

A house of mirrors had been constructed from satire by one clever writer which was populated with reflections of people from both sides; ciphers that might be puppeted through various scenarios so the kinks in the magic might be worked out.

Cheroot was checking the dew-laden spiderwebs; he was digging in the storage rooms at the back of bookshops; checking the open nodes and the warchalked drop points; he spoke to the semi-sentient guardians disguised as homeless people that were dotted throughout the city.

Moonwire made names for herself and let her echoes run free – triggering the tripwires; springing the traps; stirring the waters; kicking up dust. He watched, waiting for her to shake someone or some thing loose. It would happen.

The crystal balls were tuned out. Tarot was a poker-faced card game. All the methods of divination were drawing blanks – something was wiping the energy traces clear.

He sat in the pub watching the local denizens. He was talking to the digital cameras; pulling their images; asking for the kirlian pulse of the place. All the baffles and security systems here; all the ancient charms, incantations and sigils were poking at his eyes. The Close Ear – this place had been a mainstay of his network for as long as he had been working, and here it was crippled; made stupid by the evil seeping up from the ground like swamp gas.

Time to issue a challenge. He wrote something on a note and pinned it to the notice board. A tremor shuddered out through localspace – time stuttered; places that had been hiding themselves unfurled their paths; beings who were folded away into mirrors and pretending to be shadows stepped from their haunts. Someone who had been watching Cheroot put on his coat and went to meet his contact.

Things were afoot and abroad. Things moved. A word: a catalyst. A single word: come.