Even for a telegram, the message Joyce’s aunt Sandy sent her was terse. Ozzie missing. Come help. Joyce read it again, trying to parse hidden meaning from between the words. None came. Sandy may not have been a warm woman, but she was direct; Joyce had to give her that.
As the train rounded a grassy hill and Twixt came into view, the differences between it and Joyce’s adopted home of Gar River Junction were clear. Neighborhoods of squat brick houses sat scattered along the city’s outskirts, and it seemed each house sported unique graffiti. The better-looking images and words were painted with thick, visible brushstrokes, while others were merely scrawled with charcoal. In Gar River Junction, there would be graffiti too, of course, but just the basic kids scribbling their names, professing everlasting love or letting the world know how pathetic their enemies were. Here, every line was supporting one liege or the other. Joyce saw a bright red set of horns with a half-ring underneath, the familiar symbol for the Bull, while one building away the Moth’s stylized yellow wings spread across a row of boarded-up windows. Squash the bug, someone had scrawled over the wings. Under that someone else had written a succinct Fuck You.
And wasn’t that Twixt in a nutshell? Two sides battling across centuries to promote gods that held no actual authority in the city, set as it was equidistant between their two spheres of power, out of reach basically forever.
Except that basically threw what should be a quiet city into disarray. Because of claims in ancient stories. A promise that one day a new liege would be born in Twixt, in this between-place, a squirming larval god formed of raw power. And whichever liege’s followers could imbue that larval god with the power of their liege would rule the city.
Escaping that murky and endless war was only one of the reasons Joyce hadn’t returned to Twixt in the ten years since she’d first left for a home outside the realm of any liege. Escaping the yoke of her uncle and aunt was another. But she’d left her cousin Ozzie behind. Of course she felt guilty, but he’d been a child when she left; she couldn’t steal him away from his parents. She’d told herself over the years that he would’ve found somewhere to fit in in Twixt, some group to be a part of. Except she knew that was a lie. Ozzie didn’t want to be an acolyte for any liege, and most people looked at him as a freak anyway; didn’t want him around.
She leaned her head against the window, felt the soothing vibrations humming from the tracks through the body of the train. Three days, she thought. She would give herself three days to find Ozzie, and then the two of them would leave this place and never come back.
“It’s been almost a week, and I haven’t seen him,” Sandy said. “Haven’t heard from him, not word one. Something’s wrong, Joyce. You know Ozzie—he wouldn’t just disappear like this.”
Sandy took a final drag of her cigarillo and leaned forward in her easy chair to toss the butt into the small fire she’d built in the hearth when Joyce arrived. Though she’d offered Joyce a spot on the sofa, Joyce preferred to stand.
“He’s seventeen, Sandy,” Joyce said. “An adult. He can come and go as he pleases.” But Ozzie wouldn’t just wander off—Sandy was right. No one wanted him, but all he wanted was his parents to be proud of him.
Sandy glanced at the end table next to the chair, at her box of cigarillos. Her fingers tapped on her thigh. Joyce could tell she wanted to light another one but was trying to fight the urge. She also knew that Sandy would light it the moment Joyce left. Ever since Sandy had taken her in at nine years old, she tried to set a good example for Joyce and later Ozzie. Unless setting that example meant contradicting her husband. In that conflict, the children were forever bound to lose.
“I know,” she said. “But Ozzie knows I worry about him. You know about his... problem.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Ozzie,” Joyce snapped. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. There was no use revisiting this argument. Other kids had taunted her about her freak cousin even back before she lived with him, when her parents were still alive, but she never knew whether what they said was true, and she’d been too embarrassed to ask. And her aunt and uncle refused to admit why their son came home crying so often. When Joyce moved in with them, and he realized he had someone he could finally cry to, it all poured out. How he’d been born neither a boy nor a girl, how his parents decided he was a boy. How he felt that way too, but not always, and he didn’t know what to do about it. How he wished sometimes he was just dead. And Joyce would hug him and rub his back and tell him that he should never wish that, that she would be so sad, that she loved him exactly as he was. But that never changed the way his parents looked at him. They’d always see it as a problem. See Ozzie as a problem. So she took a different tack. “Has Dacre looked for him at all?”
Sandy took a long pause. “I’ve not seen him near two days.”
Not entirely surprising. He could be sleeping off a drunk or shacked up with some other woman or off on business with other Moth acolytes. “You didn’t mention that in the telegram.”
“He’d barely been gone yet,” Sandy said. “Still’s barely gone. Besides, would you have cared?”
Joyce didn’t answer. Instead, she said, “Where’s the last place he was headed?”
Sandy raised her eyebrows.
“Right, the pub then.” As good a place to start a search as any, Joyce thought. Though she knew the answer to her next question, she asked it anyway. “And what pub would that be?”
And sure enough, Sandy told her the Crimson Thorax.
“Fine then,” Joyce said, already moving toward the door. “I suppose I could stand a pint.” In the doorway, she turned. “Why’d you ask me, anyway? Why not call the city guard?”
Her aunt, not quite fifteen years older, looked much more worn than her age. “And what would they do? You know this has something to do with the Moth or the Bull, and all of them guards’re on the take from one side or the other. You’re the only person I know who got away from all that. Anyway, you’re a reporter, you must know how to investigate.”
“I’m not a reporter, I work for a newspaper. I edit... I’m an editor.”
Sandy sunk back in her chair and reached for her cigarillos. She removed one, struck a match, and lit up. Smoke trailed up to the yellowed ceiling. “Joyce, love, you’re all I’ve got.” Left unsaid, but clear to Joyce: she was all Ozzie had too.
She left for the pub. In a way, she was glad her aunt didn’t know just what she did at the newspaper. After working her way up over the years, she’d eventually landed a spot editing the obituaries.
A lot of negative things could be said about Twixt, and Joyce had said most of them. But one thing she couldn’t fault the city for was its liquor. Twixt was widely and rightfully acclaimed for its bracken lager, a brew of fermented sweet seaweed mash infused with the slightest touch of saltwater platypus venom, which provided the beer with both its uniquely piquant flavor and its mild psychotropic qualities. Other cities tried to replicate it, but nowhere else got it quite right, and it was only when she had a pint of bracken in front of her that Joyce actually felt like Twixt was home.
Now, she sidled up the bar at the Crimson Thorax and leaned her elbows on the dark scuffed wood. Before she could catch the barman’s eye, a voice spoke behind her.
“Joyce Prezzano! As I live and breathe.”
She recognized that voice fondly, naturally high but so roughened from decades smoking that it resembled notes from a scratched and battered flute. “Jimbo Campagne. You sound like you swallowed a handful of tadpoles last spring and they’re all grown up.”
A grin split his face—a face that had been weathered even before Joyce had left; had been browned and windblown when she’d first met him shortly after being taken in by her aunt and uncle. Jimbo had likely squirmed from his mother’s loins with a mug of beer in one hand and a cigarillo in the other. “Finally come home have you?” he asked. “Took you fecking long enough.” He raised two fingers to the barman and took a seat on the stool next to her.
“Afraid I’ll be disappointing you then, Jimbo,” Joyce replied. “Just here on a little family business.”
“Ah so, and how is your aunt? Lovely woman.”
“That she is, but I’m not searching for her here.”
Jimbo’s face soured. “Your aunt should’ve told you. Dacre’s not been welcome in here for some time.”
“What’re you on about? This is still a Moth pub isn’t it? Moth’s about the only thing in his life Dacre’s ever been faithful to.”
“Aye, but there’s faith and there’s zealotry. Man comes in here with a ring through his nostrils, we’ll chuck him on his arse, sure. Make sure he knows his side’s not wanted about. But no one gets truly hurt.”
“And Dacre’s been hurting people.”
Jimbo shook his head; pulled a squat half-smoked cigarillo from a crumpled box in his pocket. He offered the box to Joyce, but she declined. Clenching the cigarillo between his yellowed teeth while he dug about his pockets for matches, he spoke around it. “Joyce, love, whatever you want from your uncle, you leave him be. Last year or so he’s taken a turn. Talking a load of shite about all the Moth is going to do for him, for Sandy. For Ozzie.” He found the matches, but his hands shook, and he couldn’t get one to catch.
“I need to find him, Jimbo,” Joyce said. She gently took the matches from his hand, lit his smoke for him. “Now, after that big favor, how about you tell me where Dacre’s drinking these days? And who with.”
Jimbo chuckled. “Oh, a true paragon of virtue you are.” He sighed and let out a puff that transitioned into a hacking cough. “I don’t know where he’s drinking these days, honest. But as to the who-with? There’s a lass comes in here from time to time. And from time to time I may’ve seen her leave with your uncle on her heels like a well-trained pup.”
“And her name?”
“Ach,” Jimbo said, waving her off. “At my age, who wants to meet new people?” Their lagers finally arrived, and he took an appreciative sip, smacking his lips happily. “Have a drink with an old man. I’ll point her out to you if she comes in.”
One drink became five as Joyce waited for Dacre’s mystery paramour to show while Jimbo regaled her with tales of people she’d neither seen nor thought of in years. Guilt swelled in her. Not because she missed those people, but because she knew them too well. These were the men Dacre spent his time with, the ones who claimed allegiance to the Moth but were less interested in trying to bring its power into Twixt than in using that allegiance as an excuse for drunken brawls and petty crime.
If Dacre had brought Ozzie into that, it was piss-poor parenting, but Joyce could understand. But if Dacre had gravitated toward the more serious acolytes, the ones who truly believed they could bring the Moth’s magic to the city? Ozzie could be in danger, and here she was, pint in hand, stool growing steadily unsteady beneath her.
Outside, the sun set, and Joyce attempted to slow her drinking, swapping in sips of water amongst the lager. The crowd grew livelier, the tone of conversations sharper. Someone struck up a tune on accordion.
Jimbo’s stories blended together, the names in them flitting past like leaves in a stiff wind.
“Did I ever tell you I was born in Antaennae?” he asked. Which of course he had. Anyone who’d ever fronted Jimbo a pint had heard about the scant years he’d lived in the Moth’s sacred home city. “I was just a wee one—I hardly remember. But that’s true magic there, lass. Buildings stretching to the sky, spun of silk stronger than any stone.” He sighed. “People fly there.”
Joyce nodded, waiting for him to continue, but instead he tilted his head toward the entrance. “Ah sure,” he said, “there’s your one now.”
As surreptitiously as she could through the haze of five pints, Joyce glanced over. Framed against the doorway, head scanning like she was looking for someone, stood a petite woman of about Joyce’s age. Her face was soft and round, and as she turned her head Joyce saw a thick blonde braid with one strand dyed blood red. She looked, Joyce thought, skittish.
“That’s the woman who seduced my uncle?” Joyce asked. “She’s a babe in the woods, not some militant Moth acolyte.”
“I know what I know,” Jimbo said, shrugging and taking a gulp of his beer. “Dacre meets her, soon enough he’s spouting shite about taking out Bull-followers, making Twixt a city ‘prepared for the ensconcement of the Moth.’” He chuckled. “You know he didn’t turn that phrase on his own.”
Joyce had to give him that. Her uncle was many things, but poet wasn’t one of them.
The woman screwed up her face, her little nose crinkling like a rabbit’s. Apparently, she hadn’t found who she was looking for. She huffed, turned, and left.
Before the door had closed behind her, Joyce was off her stool and dropping a handful of coins onto the bar. “See you round, Jimbo,” she said. “Appreciate the company and direction.”
“Ah hells, Joyce, wait now. You don’t want to—” Jimbo began, but his words were lost in the din as Joyce pushed her way through the crowd, out the door, and into the crisp spring night.
Though it was night, the street was especially well-lit, every building in this Moth neighborhood sporting bright globes of burning walrus oil in order to draw moths in for good luck. Insects swirled around and crawled across the lamps. If they’d been on the Bull side of the city, it would be darker, but luckily there were still enough pedestrians on the street that Joyce thought she could blend it and avoid being seen by the woman.
She’d never tailed anyone before, and she hadn’t exactly known she was going to follow this woman until she was already moving. The woman never glanced back. She walked toward the border between the Moth half of town and the Bull side. This part of town was where Joyce had liked spending time, where everything mingled and swirled together. Where people didn’t care which liege you followed so long as you could spin a joke and stand for a pint. Not a hundred yards down the road, Joyce could just make out the sign for her old favorite bookshop.
Before they reached that shop, the woman ducked down an alleyway between a rooming-house and an apothecary. Joyce hesitated. Once she entered the alley, she couldn’t pretend she’d just been out for a stroll. Taking that step would commit her to this.
Rash decisions weren’t something she normally permitted herself. The last one she’d made had been when she’d left Twixt with barely enough money in her pocket for a train ticket and a whitefish pasty. That decision she had made for herself. Now it was time to make a rash decision for Ozzie. If this woman knew where Dacre was, Joyce could find Ozzie, extract him from whatever magical militant shite Dacre and this woman and gotten him involved in. Besides, what could the harm be in confronting a woman she easily had six inches and thirty pounds on?
Joyce entered the deep-shadowed alley. Something snagged her ankle, and she fell hard onto hands and knees. Something else thunked into the back of her head, and she collapsed onto the cobblestones. There was a bright blue flash, and everything went black.
The world stank of vinegar. Joyce gagged. Her head throbbed, and opening her eyes just made it worse. She shut them again, as gently as possible.
“It’s counterintuitive, but if you open your eyes it will help, actually,” a voice said. A woman’s voice. Joyce guessed she knew just what woman it would be.
Heeding the advice while wincing in pain, she forced her eyes open. The woman from the pub stood across the room from her, back to a thick wooden door.
They were in a nondescript cellar, by the look of it. Rough stone walls, a dirt floor with dried kelp rushes spread across it, algae growing in the corners. A walrus-oil lamp burned low next to the door. Joyce sat in a rickety chair, and she expected to find her wrists and ankles tied to it but realized that they weren’t.
The woman must have noticed her surprise. “Don’t worry about running away. I don’t need you tied up to keep you here.”
“You got the jump on me. In a fair scrap—”
“No, no, no,” the woman said, waving a hand airily. “I mean you’ll want to hear what I propose. But also, yes, I would absolutely wallop you in a fair scrap. Not a question.” She snapped her fingers and pointed at herself. “Oh! Niamh, by the way. Sorry, bit rude of me, yeah?”
“Where’s Ozzie?” Joyce asked.
“We’ll get to that. First you tell me what you know.”
Niamh shrugged. “This whole... situation.”
Joyce snorted. “Well you’re swagging my uncle, apparently. Beyond that, I couldn’t wing a shite for your situation. I’m tracking down my cousin, and then I’m happy to never lay eyes on Twixt again.”
“Ah now, sure Twixt isn’t so bad as all that. And Dacre and me... Well, that’s complicated.”
“What do you mean?”
Niamh winced. “Turn around so.”
Joyce did, and startled so violently that she tumbled from the chair. Slumped against the wall, his head tilted back and a ragged red gash across his throat, was her uncle Dacre. Even in death, panic filled his eyes.
“Dacre wasn’t a bad man,” Niamh said from behind Joyce. “Not a good man, either, mind you, but not a bad man. Which was his undoing, I suppose. Wanted to seem the big man, bragging about how important his son would be. Honestly, I could’ve been some hideous sow and I think he’d have told me just as much. But I underestimated his loyalty, and that was my fault.”
As she spoke, her voice got closer, and now she prodded Joyce with her foot. Joyce turned around, still speechless.
“I need your cousin Ozzie, Joyce. Well, not me, exactly. The Bull. And you’re going to get him for me.”
Thoughts and words could barely coalesce in Joyce’s head. Wasn’t Niamh a Moth acolyte? What else would she be doing at the Crimson Thorax? With Dacre? “What could you want him for?”
“Don’t play coy—you know he’s special. A bit twixt hisself, as it were.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Ozzie,” Joyce snapped.
Niamh truly looked offended that Joyce would even insinuate that was her meaning. “Of course not. But all this magic coursing through me, all the Bull’s power? It’s no good if I can’t channel it into the larval god. Your cousin is going to be my channel, transferring my magic. He’s the means by which the Bull will be born into this city. He’s the only one in Twixt who can.”
“There is no larval god.” Joyce stood up, faced Niamh head on.
“Tell yourself that.”
“Fine. But there’s no magic in Twixt, everyone knows that.”
Grinning, Niamh lifted her hands. Blue light sparked and danced on her fingertips. With a flick, she sent it flying onto Joyce, whose feet lifted half an inch off the ground. She snapped her fingers, and Joyce dropped back to the stone.
“There’s no magic born in Twixt,” Niamh said. “Vahana, on the other hand...”
And it all clicked into place. The Bull’s sacred city; its ancestral home. This woman wasn’t a Moth acolyte at all; wasn’t even a local. Whether the larval god really was about to be born or not, her people clearly believed it was, and she was the vanguard. A spy, snuck into neutral ground, stuffed full of magic that could sway the larval god to her side. If Joyce didn’t hate everything to do with the factions, she’d have to admit it was clever.
“What if I refuse?” she asked.
Niamh shrugged, tilted her head in Dacre’s direction. “Your uncle refused.”
Growing up, Joyce had always considered the Crimson Thorax a true Moth pub. Now, standing at the threshold of a windowless and nameless pub—a plain strip of wood with the word beer burned into it hung above the door—she realized that she and her uncle and Jimbo and their whole family had only ever been tourists in the world of Moth acolytes. Drinkers in the Thorax would lift a pint, sing songs about the glory of their liege, and head home to normal lives. The real serious ones might get wings tattooed across their backs or a thin set of antennae along the sides of their faces. The men in this pub—and they were all of them men—didn’t need to display their allegiance with tattoos or patches on their clothes. Others might support the Moth as their liege; these men lived it.
The dull annoyance in their eyes frightened Joyce more than open hostility would have. She wanted nothing more than to turn and walk out. It wasn’t the threat to her own self that made her walk into the pub and up to the barman. It was Ozzie. He was somewhere in this town, and he was in trouble. And according to Niamh, these men knew how to find him.
“A pint if you please,” she said to the barman, casual as could be.
It earned her a chuckle at least. “Think you’re in the wrong pub, miss.”
She glanced around, though there was little to see. Cheap plywood tables with their edges worn and splintered away, a couple guttering walrus-oil lanterns puffing out deep gray smoke. Hard men, silently watching her. “No,” she said. “This is the place.” She leaned forward. “I’m here for Ozzie Di Bona.”
Now the chuckle transformed into an outright burst of laughter. “You can feck right off then, miss. Don’t know anyone by that name.”
“I think you do.” Her voice wanted to quaver, but she tried to stand fast. Prayed that this cocked-up plan Niamh had given her would actually work out as outlined.
The smile remained on the barman’s lips but fled his hardened eyes. Joyce sensed the other men drawing closer. “Miss, you’ll want to be leaving now.”
Joyce swallowed a lump of fear and played the only card she had. “You’re going to let me see Ozzie. Because if you do, I’ll give you the most powerful Bull acolyte in Twixt.”
The questions they posed to Joyce were nearly the exact same ones Niamh had told her they’d ask, and Joyce tried to channel Niamh’s aloof confidence when she answered.
No, she didn’t know where the Bull acolytes were based, but she knew where she’d been held captive. Yes, of course she knew that if Niamh let her see that, then it meant it was only a temporary spot.
How could she possibly know if “Niamh” was her actual name?
Yes, Niamh definitely had magic in her, and yes, she said she knew Ozzie was a conduit. No, Joyce didn’t know just what that meant, but she could guess, and she had a feeling they knew that answer so maybe they’d care to enlighten her?
No, she didn’t know where the larval god would emerge. She didn’t think Niamh knew either.
No, she most certainly did not care one way or the other which liege controlled Twixt.
All true, and all exactly what Niamh had dictated to her.
Then she said something Niamh hadn’t told her to share, though she’d warned Joyce about it. “She’s watching me.”
The men looked around the room as if Niamh would suddenly poof into a corner.
“Magically,” Joyce said. “I don’t know how, but she told me that if I tried to run off, she’d find me. She can see what I see. It’s how she’ll know when you bring me to the larval god.” Those last words felt thick and slimy on her tongue. A day ago, she didn’t believe there would ever be a larval god born; thought those days were over, the Moth and Bull cults each ensconced in their own magical home cities, the followers of each side perpetually fighting in the mundane no-man’s land of Twixt. And now she was going to see a larval god; was going to help one side or the other win. She just didn’t know which one yet.
The man who seemed to be in charge—about Dacre’s age, body like a fur-covered barrel—sneered. “Sounds like you need us more than we need you. Tell me now why we don’t just lock you up here and go about our business? We have the kid, we know where the larval god’ll rise. Having you with us just adds risk.”
“You can take out the Bull’s strongest people in Twixt,” Joyce said.
“Feck the Bull acolytes. By tomorrow we’ll’ve won, and won’t be nothing they can do.”
Niamh hadn’t prepared her for pushback. Wheels spun in Joyce’s mind as she tried to come up with something. Half-remembered stories from growing up, the sort of maybe-true fairytales that kids tell each other surfaced. There was something useful there; she knew it. Finally, something sparked.
“The larval god will be weak,” she blurted, hoping it was correct, that she hadn’t conflated liege lore with some other story. “It’ll be vulnerable after it’s born, yeah? After you imbue it with the Moth’s magic? And once it rises there’ll no hiding where it is. It’ll call to anyone with magic in the whole damn country. The Bull’s acolytes will come for you. But if you get them to walk into a trap, you’ve got smooth sailing while the larval god grows strong. That’s how you’ll win real like.”
The men glanced at each other, as if silently conferring. Did they have magic too? Could they communicate without words? They leaned in to whisper to one another, and Joyce couldn’t help but laugh bitterly. Less than two days from receiving the telegram from her aunt and here she was, wondering if some random men in a seedy bar could truly perform magic.
And it was a completely reasonable concern. Magic was supposed to be kept in the liege’s sacred cities, wasn’t that the unspoken rule? Now acolytes from those cities were bringing their danger to Twixt, turning innocent kids like Ozzie into their tools, and Joyce didn’t like it. When she left Twixt this time, she was taking Ozzie with her, and she was never coming back. If the two of them survived the next day, and she had no idea how she would pull that off.
Finally, the men finished their discussion. The leader faced her. He covered his mouth with his hand as he spoke. “Fine, you’ll come with us. We’ll bring you to your cousin so you can see he’s grand. We’ll let you see the spot where the liege will rise, so’s the Bull folk will think their little ploy to use you as a spy worked. The larval god will rise, we’ll imbue it with the Moth’s power, and the Bull folk will stroll into our ambush. It’ll be a right slaughter, an offering like. A proper start to the Moth’s reign.”
“And afterward Ozzie and I leave.”
The man shrugged. “You don’t hold any cards here, lass.”
Joyce hated it, but she couldn’t argue with him. “Why’re you covering your mouth?”
He looked over her shoulder, kept his splayed fingers in front of his mouth. “Sure, don’t want anyone reading my lips. This Niamh sees what you see, yeah?”
Joyce didn’t have time to complain before a burlap sack was pulled over her head. She supposed it could have been worse. At least they didn’t knock her out.
The men brought her somewhere in a carriage, shuffled her into a room, plunked her into a chair, and left her, bag on head.
“I’ll be right here,” the barman said. For a moment Joyce thought he was trying to reassure her, until he added, “So don’t try and take the bag off or I’ll clip you one.” After that, he refused to engage in conversation; told her to wait. She would see Ozzie soon, and then the liege would rise, and then they’d all celebrate. He wouldn’t say another word.
Waiting silently, eyes open but seeing only dim beige light through the filter of the burlap, Joyce tried to game out her next move.
She thought about Ozzie. Would he have come here on his own? She doubted it. He’d never been a follower—not that many people would have wanted him to follow them anyway. Except, against all good sense, he loved his parents; wanted their love in return. If Dacre thought that by bringing Ozzie to the Moth acolytes he could gain favor and status, he would doit. If Dacre told Ozzie he had an important job for Ozzie to do, Ozzie wouldn’t have even questioned. How could a father do that to his son?
But was Joyce any better? She’d abandoned Ozzie to Twixt, which rained insults and abuse on him from every angle. Could she blame him for seeking shelter? For latching onto whatever scant approval his father had thrown his way? Ozzie couldn’t have suspected he’d end up in the clutches of these zealots; nothing more than a game piece in their never-ending battle with the Bull. This was her fault for leaving him. Whatever it took, she had to make up for that; had to save him and save him for good.
Hours passed. She wasn’t sure how many, but at one point the quality of the light changed and she figured the sun must have set, the natural light replaced with walrus-oil lamps. Not much later, a loud moan sounded from somewhere outside the room, but the barman didn’t stir, so Joyce figured it was expected. Part of a ritual for the larval god, perhaps. A sign it was coming closer.
Without warning, the barman’s voice was in her ear.
“Right then, here’s what you’re doing. When you hear me leave the room, you take off the bag. You look around, get a good eyeful of everything out the windows. When that brings those Bull bastards running, we’ll get to choose the fighting ground. Then you make your way out of the room, looking around all the while like, and turn right. Head down the stairs and through the door at the bottom. The kid’s down there.”
And then what? Joyce wanted to ask. But the barman had already retreated, the door clunking shut behind him.
She followed the barman’s instructions, snorting out a laugh when she saw the view from the window. Not more than two hundred paces from a small Bull chapel. Surely, Niamh and her compatriots would know exactly where she was. There wouldn’t be much time.
The stairs descended deeper than she’d expected, flights chiseled into the dirt and rock cutting back on themselves, down at least three stories, though the irregular lengths of the flights and height of the steps made it difficult to know for sure. The deeper she went, the louder the moaning grew. She didn’t think it was Ozzie but worried that her hopes might be coloring her perceptions.
Finally, she reached the bottom of the stairs and a thick wooden door. It opened smoothly when she pulled the handle, revealing a round room, the walls and floor of fitted stone, and in the center a wide, circular dirt pit. Kneeling next to the pit, backs to Joyce, were two men. One was the source of the moaning and held the other by the hand. Joyce recognized Ozzie right away, even from behind, but not the moaning man. Still, something about the moan sounded familiar. She stepped forward; put her hand on Ozzie’s shoulder.
And realized that the man next to him was Jimbo Campagnale.
She let slip a choice curse, then seized Ozzie harder, her hands on both shoulders. His head drooped forward, eyes glazed, a trickle of drool dangling from his lower lip. His hair fell greasy and long in front of his eyes. That was what twigged her to how out-of-it he had to be. All their years growing up together, he always kept his hair trimmed short, neatly styled. It was a thing about himself he could control; an outward way to present himself the way he felt, regardless of whatever cruel whispers lingered behind his back.
“Yo, Ozzie,” she said. “Rouse yourself now. We’re clearing out.” Not that she expected they’d let her go, but seeing him so out-of-it like this, she couldn’t think of anything but extricating him from the situation.
As she pulled Ozzie away, his hand fell from Jimbo’s, and Jimbo’s eyessnapped to her. “Joyce, lass,” he said through pain-gritted teeth, like he was forcing the words around the moans. “That Bull bitch didn’t kill ya?”
“Feck’s sake, Jimbo. How could you?” She noticed now that on the ground in front of Jimbo was a dagger. Thin and only a few inches long, but it looked plenty sharp.
His left eye twitched. “This is my life, Joyce. It’s what I was born for. Haven’t I ever told you I was born in Antaennae? There’s magic there, lass, magic in me enough to imbue the larval god with the power of the Moth. This is my purpose, and to be a conduit for that magic is your cousin’s.”
“You’ve known Ozzie since he was boy.”
“This is greater than one person, lass,” Jimbo said. “This is—” He screeched and grabbed his head with both hands. The ground rumbled, tiny fragments of dirt and stone popping off the floor like oil on a hot skillet. Joyce watched the trembling ground, transfixed.
The larval god didn’t dawdle entering the world. From deep below the earth—whether it was supposed to have always been there or to suddenly manifest, Joyce couldn’t remember—it burst into the cavernous basement room headfirst. The head resembled a drill bit, tapering to a series of rusty studlike teeth. The body following, however, was white, fleshy, appropriately like a gigantic larva, a maggot twice the size of Joyce herself. It missed the dirt pit, crashing through the stone and sending chunks flying. Joyce dropped to hands and knees to avoid a piece the size of her foot. Jimbo still moaned, but the painful sound had taken on something beyond that; not pleasurable, but a combination. A holy agony.
He grasped the dagger and stood, facing Ozzie. Joyce realized she still held one of Ozzie’s hands, and she tried to pull him away, but Jimbo grasped the other and tugged back. Unnaturally strong, with the power and magic of the Moth coursing within him. And then he would let it out into Ozzie, letting it flow through Ozzie. And he would use the dagger to open places for the magic to enter and exit. Joyce had never heard that bit of lore growing up, but wasn’t that always how these things went? Didn’t gods always demand a sacrifice?
“Let him go, you shite!” she screamed, leaning backward, pulling with all her might.
And then something else broke through dirt and stone. But from above this time, and this time it was something Joyce recognized immediately. Niamh, wreathed in sparkling blue magic, boring her way from the street above into the basement.
“Everyone back off,” she snapped. “The conduit is mine.”
Jimbo snarled. Joyce shouted something defiantly incoherent. The larval god belched out a rumbling gurgle.
As Jimbo raised the dagger, Niamh raised her own blue-flashing hands, and Jimbo seized up, his killing blow halted a foot above Ozzie’s heart. Body frozen, his lips still moved, and he screamed, though Joyce wasn’t certain whether it was at Niamh, at her, at the larval god.
“The conduit is ours!” Jimbo yelled. “He was born here, born betwixt and between. It’s what Ozzie wants, what his family wants. If we couldn’t use him for this, do you think he’d even be alive? You think someone wouldn’t find out what he is and stove his head in in an alley? But because of the Moth, he is special. He is the stem through which the Moth’s magic will flow into the larval god! He is the harbinger of glory!”
Joyce punched Jimbo square in the face. “He’s a fecking person.”
The dagger fell from Jimbo’s hand as he staggered, and Joyce dove for it. Standing, she brandished it at Jimbo, then at Niamh.
“Come now, Joyce,” Niamh said calmly, hands out in front of her, stepping forward slowly. “The god is already here. It’s going to be filled with magic from one liege or the other. What’re you going to do?”
The larval god breathed loud and wet, its pulpy body slowly pulsing, its head lolling from side to side. It could become a vessel for the Moth or the Bull, leading Twixt down one path or the other. But would that really change anything? Would the losing side really just give up or would they fight forever? Chipping away at power wherever they could? Killing whoever they could? Bull or Moth, neither would bring peace to Twixt, and either way, Ozzie would be dead. Joyce couldn’t make that decision. She wouldn’t.
Her breath rasped and shuddered, but she made no other sound as she lunged forward and plunged the dagger as deep as it would go into the body of larval god. Behind the head, into the soft flesh. She pulled back and stabbed again, so hard that she found herself elbow deep inside the body. Gripping the dagger tight as she could, she waggled it back and forth violently, cutting, ripping the beast apart from the inside. It burbled and hissed and shrieked like a kettle left too long on the fire. It writhed and thrashed. Someone—Niamh or Jimbo or both—grabbed her legs and shoulders and pulled. She kicked and flung them away. She didn’t let go or stop cutting until the larval god ceased moving. She tumbled off it then, into the dirt and gore.
Fireflies twinkled around the edges of her vision, and her breath came ragged, but Joyce knew she wasn’t finished. She sprang to her feet, dagger ready. But Niamh and Jimbo didn’t attack her. Eyes glassy, mouths agape, they appeared catatonic. Who knew how long it would last, though. Joyce spun from them, found Ozzie on the floor blinking rapidly.
“Joyce?” he said, the word slurred and disbelieving.
“It’s me,” she replied. “Let’s go.”
Viscera and blood from her arms and hands smeared onto him as she lifted him by his armpits and propelled him ahead of her, toward and up the stairs.
On that main floor, men and women still fought, not realizing that their war had ended. Bodies dead and unconscious littered the floor. It was impossible to tell who were Bull acolytes and who were the Moth’s. Joyce didn’t care. Moving as fast as she could drag Ozzie, she dodged among them, feinted with the dagger, made her way outside and away.
People stared as Joyce ran with Ozzie down the street, ducking into alleys whenever she could to avoid curious onlookers. Any of them could be acolytes of one liege or the other, and her murder of the larval good wouldn’t go unnoticed by the non-magical acolytes for long. Soon enough, both sides would be pursuing her and Ozzie. Though now that the larval god was dead—now that Ozzie was no use to them—maybe they would let him go. Probably not. As Jimbo had said, people born like Ozzie rarely got to live peaceful lives, free of judgment. But she had done what her aunt had asked in the telegram. She’d found Ozzie, and she’d helped him. Now it was time to fulfil the promise she’d made to Ozzie.
They couldn’t take a train, but eventually Joyce found a wagon heading out of town being driven by a woman not much older than her.
“Please,” Joyce began, and her voice cracked, and the woman didn’t need her to say anything else. She told Joyce to get both her and Ozzie in the back, behind the crates of pumpkin and fire-apples. Clearly, she understood that circumstances could lead a bloody woman to need a quick escape.
Only then, surrounded by rattling crates of fruits and vegetables, Ozzie slowly becoming cognizant beside her, did Joyce let herself relax. Not fully. She didn’t know if she or Ozzie would ever be able to fully relax again, though she planned to run far enough away that she might be able to imagine it. Across a border; across a sea. Somewhere that neither the Moth nor Bull held sway, where they never would. Somewhere, in fact, kind of like Twixt.