-0-

Death was a locked cabinet, but Key had hands like hungry salesmen - persuasive and thin - and no thing of metal could ever keep him out. The latch allowed itself to be charmed, clicking quietly to itself, and on well-oiled wheels the mortuary slab slid free, gliding from its socket like a tongue from a mouth.

The body upon the slab was featureless and pale. Where its gender should have been was a glossing over. A melted-togetherness of flesh. Its eyes were likewise undefined.

And shut.

And also stitched close, just in case.

"This isn't the one," said Tanick, his voice so soft and over-the-shoulder that Key nearly jumped out of his coveralls. "Obviously, of course. It belongs to an Oceaner."

Key nodded, since speaking would have meant forcing words out of his fear-shortened throat. Subterfuge and bravado had gotten him past the front desk at the Morgue of All Winters and he would not have his brother thinking he had lost his nerve now.

Not when Tanick was finally starting to respect him.

"Keep pulling slabs," said Tanick, his thoughts elsewhere as he drifted further down the endless rows of locked-away cadavers. "I've got to be in here somewhere."

Key bit his lower lip and slid the slab with the Oceaner back into its socket. The lock would not charm itself closed for him, so he simply shut the little metal privacy door over the body and then moved on to the slab above it.

Tanick stopped where he hung in the air, furrow knitting the gray shag-fur of his brow. Even as a ghost, his pelt was rich and darkly silvered with a double-circled mask around his eyes. The sweep of his brush-tail, which hung down past his trousers and to the backs of his knees, quirked in irritation. "You're just going to go one-by-one?" he asked.

"If we get interrupted," said Key, "I want to know where to pick up again."

Tanick's frown deepened. Architecture and physics were only distant cousins inside the Morgue of All Winters. Above ground, it was little bigger than a gas station or a rickshaw depot. But its mortuary halls were all long featureless tunnels.

Racks upon racks of bodies lay in their metal berths on one side of each passageway. Crumbling brickwork comprised the wall on the other.

If they were discovered by the staff, there would be nowhere to hide.

"If they find us in here," said Tanick, "you should lock me into a slab."

It was not a good plan, but it was better than bobbing out in the open, glowing like a lightbulb seen through a distant window.

Key nodded distractedly. He was standing up on tip-toes, fishing the shroud off of the face of the second corpse. He gave a little yelp as the damp cloth slipped free, exposing the whiskered face of a drowned woman. Her oily pelt had been bloated and distended in places and her left cheek had been attended not gently by hungry fish. "Not this one," said Key, shutting the door on the Kigoz. "But we'll find you. I promise. Down here, we have all the time in the world."

Tanick looked pained by this. His eyes darkened. His small black hands gripped and folded over nothing. "I am sorry to have dragged you into this, brother," he said, not looking at Key. "You could have just let me lie."

A lock clicked and Key yanked open a third slab. The body nearly jolted free of it and the sound of rollers slamming into the end of their track echoed down the corridor in both directions, receding violently into the darkness. Key inspected the third corpse and found that the shroud around it had rotted, even though the body had not. It belonged to a Kaag boy, his quills stiff and even. His face was as peaceful as if he were asleep.

"I wasn't going to leave you dead," said Key, shutting this slab with considerably greater care. "Not after I'd killed you. If the Sinister had caught me under its wheels, would you be doing any differently?"

"Maybe," said Tanick, after a measured silence, "and I think I would have been more cautious about it. There are footsteps coming. Listen."

Key strained his narrow, tufted ears.

There were.

And they were approaching quite quickly.

Key gulped hard, his throat bobbing against its confines. Suddenly the future was a measured thing, a scantness to be counted on fingertips until it was finished.

The past stretched broadly behind, and for a moment Key let his mind slip back into it.

-1-

It was a warm autumn evening in the City of Glass and Floodlights when Tanick died.

He had not been minding his own business at the time the Sinister's hungry wheels passed over him, pulping his spine and leaving him thrashing to death on the hot concrete of the Hinterlane.

He had been minding Key's business, and that was what had cost him his life.

Esiban boys, the Oceaner newscaster would later say, adjusting his tie as he shrugged helplessly from his side of the television screen. You tell them to stay away from the Hinter. You tell them that it's dangerous, that Sinisters are the least of the unfed spirits that gather around the city's edges, and all those kits think is that they're in for an adventure.

Key had thought the adventure would be grand indeed, but that evening, he heard those words coming staticy out of the battered set in their apartment kitchen and he looked up from his brother's body, his own hands red to the elbow, and began crying.

The floor was cold under his knees. Tanick was warm against his fingers. And tears slipped fierce down his cheeks, matting the thin fur of his face.

He would fix this, he decided, whatever the cost.

And so, before he had time to consider the weight of these words, he had found the hook where Tanick's soul was tethered to his guts, slipped it free, and transferred it to his own belly-button.

Instantly, the ghost of his brother had manifested in the air. Tanick had clutched at his phantasmal stomach, frozen in fear when his hands plunged right on through, and then looked up to stare at Key in horror at his own salvation. Oblivious to the drama that was unfolding in their apartment, the newscaster had continued to read off his prompter about the hazards any modern city posed to unsupervised minority children.

Not taking his eyes off of his brother, Tanick had begun to cry glowing silver

He knew instantly what had been done to him.

Necromancy was not an art that was practiced lightly, nor was the carrying of two souls something a body could sustain for long. Key had given himself a death sentence, written out in amateur almasurgery, and Tanick did not have the permission he needed to rip his tether free of his brother.

He could not simply give up and fade into the hereafter.

Not while Key's spirit was gripping him like a drowning man, still convinced that he could be saved.

There were ways to restore the dead, but they involved black magic and bureaucracy.

Life was expensive in the City of Glass and Floodlights, but death was worse.

Bodies were recovered quickly by municipal teams lest something unhallowed nest inside them. Lest they begin the slow mechanical transformation into a Sinister.

Their surviving families were stuck with the bill.

Rich uptowners considered the practice an insult. An intrusion on their grief.

For the Kaag and Esiban and Makwa that lived in the slums, Precautionary Body Repatriation could be the last dainty shove they needed into headlong bankruptcy.

As it was, Key had been forced to crack open Tanick's meager savings. Most of the money had come from what their mother had given them, before she had left to go exploring the Hinter and vanished.

Tanick had been adding to that pile slowly from nights where he worked at the convenience store on Second and Gaslamp, but the fee to dispose of his corpse almost wiped their finances out entirely.

There had been just enough left in reserve to buy the coveralls, and it was then that Tanick's tethered spirit had really begun showing its nervousness. For, as dangerous as it was outside the city, there were powers inside it that made the hungry headlights of a Sinister look like pretty, glittery baubles by comparison.

You did not steal from the powers that ran the City of Glass and Floodlights. Not paper bitmarks. Not glass whorlesks. Not the lives of their employees and certainly not the lives of the dead.

Each of the municipal powers had its own bastion, its own industry nestled amidst the vital organs that washed and regulated the city's labor blood.

One of them ran the Morgue of All Winters, and her name was Solace.

Solace, as in a counterpart to suffering.

Solace, as in a comfort taken cold.

As in a thunder-rumble to tragedy.

As in the kiss of a needle and the rustling of holy pages before a body expires.

-2-

"Get in the slab. Now." In a panic, Key's hands undid the latching on the berth of another corpse. On the cold, sterile metal, a mess of tire-tracks and asphalt-kneaded viscera lay damp and heavy.

It was not Tanick's body. He had guessed wrongly again.

It was female.

This did not matter to Key. "Get in."

In the distance, lights were flickering on and off in rolling sequence, caterpillering down the tunnel towards where the brothers stood. They were not moving quickly, but the fact that whoever was coming was even bothering to announce themselves plugged an epidural of panic into the base of Key's spine.

Morgue employees adapted quickly to their working conditions.

Lights meant a novice, a city official down for an infrequent tour, or Solace herself. The goddess, as far as rumor could supply, did not walk the funerary tunnels without good purpose.

"This is a bad idea," said Tanick, but he slid onto the slab anyway.

Key levered it closed, watching his brother's spirit disappear into the metal socket. "I'll add it to the tally," he said, clicking the doors shut.

If he squinted his eyes and tried very hard, he reasoned, he could almost fail to see the tiny tendril of silver snaking out from under his coveralls and attaching him to the crypt cubby.

Maybe their visitor would not notice.

Key stilled his shoulders and quieted the side-to-side rustling of his tail and counted his breaths. Fifty three exhales later, the lights were blazing all around him.

"So this is what an intruder looks like," said Solace, her painted-on lips pursing in amusement. "Terrified. As you should be."

Solace, had she not been Solace, would have been an Oceaner instead. Six feet tall and towering in her ornate brocaded robes, her features were porcelain and alabaster and utterly without gender. High cheekbones framed a delicate face, with eyebrows and hair and the definition lines that individualized teeth drawn in with skin-inks and fine pencil.

Her robes were the blue of a mountainous night - of crevasses and blind stumbling and decisions with permanent consequences. Her ears jangled with miniature golden chandeliers, their metal curls pulling at pale lobes.

"Ma'am?" said Key, trying to sound the way Tanick had sounded to customers at the store. "I work here, but if there's something I can help you with…"

Solace yawned, thin fingers fanning her mouth as it widened. And widened. And widened, growing Cheshire-huge in proportion before slimming back to a thin, creased Oceaner's mouth. "I would rather think it's the opposite," she said, her voice low and sweet. "And do not lie to me again, boy. I do not appreciate presumptions about my intelligence. Being here, you have my attention. Now: what did you want of me?"

"Nothing, ma'am," said Key. This was at least a sort of truth.

Solace sniffed primly. "Meaning that what you want is for me not to be here," she corrected, her fingers crossing and uncrossing in a shifting white lattice. She held her hands just below the level of her heart. Or where her heart would be, if she was the kind of creature to be troubled by organs. "Let's assume I'm not going to go away. What do you want from me? What do you desire so badly that you would trespass on the sovereign domain of a municipal power?"

Key did not want to speak, but by standing so close Solace was like a draft to a housefire. All the determination gouted suddenly out of him and he crumbled. "A Sinister took my brother's life away. I want to give it back to him," Key said, dark eyes downcast.

"And that would be your brother hiding inside the slab? The spirit you're wearing tethered to your navel?" Solace unlaced her fingers for just long enough to reach out and pry the metal door to Tanick's hiding place open. She smiled at the ghost and her teeth seemed to momentarily sharpen. "You know that I have a vested interest in making sure that the dead remain dead. The city has an interest in making sure the boundaries of life are not so easily crossed, and even then only in one direction. So why would you come here, of all places, with an astral fugitive in tow?"

"We were going to steal his body back," said Key, ignoring Tanick's frantic hand gestures suggesting that he should really shut up. Possibly even right now. "The city would've gotten suspicious when they came looking if I said I never found it, so I turned it over to them. But we needed it back."

"You and your passenger." There was a murmur of laughter behind Solace's words. Her eyes shut and re-opened in a way that had nothing to do with the biological process of blinking. "No one commented on him?"

Key shook his head. "I said that he had snared on me by mistake. That I was trying to cut him free. I said I couldn't afford the operation to just have him removed. I was told to phone Municipal Reclamation if I started to feel faint, and that I should stay close to home. They told me that if I died they would pick up my body, and that without relatives there would be no one to charge for it. They said that there were emergency loans available in circumstances like this. They gave me a brochure and urged me to consider it."

"Mmm," said Solace. "Words I'll be having with Barrow, I suspect. Public works really ought to set their talent bar a little higher. Because you," and here her head turned sharply, fixing the two brothers with a pointed stare, "are now my problem. And there are so many better things I could be doing with my time."

"Madam, I'm sorry," said Tanick, finally breaking his silence. "This was my fault. I backed him into this position. He's here to take care of me. Please just unclip me from him and he'll never trouble you again."

Solace held up a hand, ignoring the ghost. "Post-mortals don't get a say in this. They are a by-product of the death industry. A little swirl of chemicals to be rinsed out of the glass before it's packed up and shipped off. And what you want, little child, is beyond my ability to deliver. Even if I wanted to, I cannot give your brother back his life. The most I could do would be to stuff him back into his corpse, leaving him to wear it like the stitched-up parts to a mismatched suit. You would not like that, I think. Neither would he."

"Please," all that was left to Key was to insist, and so he did, "ma'am, if you won't restore him, then please let us go. We'll try elsewhere. We'll leave the city. You'll never hear from us again."

"You could both disappear onto one of the slabs," snapped Solace, "and what you just said would be no less true. But it would also mean irregularities in the paperwork. And even more of my time wasted on straightening them out. I will permit your request to leave," Solace knelt, bringing her neck level with Key's face. Her head tipped forward slightly and the Esiban boy resisted the urge to shrink back. "In return, you must make your exit complete and total. Leave my business, leave your home, leave the city, and find somewhere else to settle with the time remaining to you. If you are careful, the Hinter will not be a death-sentence. It can be crossed. Maybe one of our neighbors will take you in. They play looser with the cosmic boundaries in other cultures, you'll find. Maybe one will even free you of your particular burden."

"He's not a burden," said Key, then bit his lip. The words had been automatic. Much like his decision to go exploring the edges of town had been. "I'm sorry, ma'am. But he's not."

Solace's smile was wintery. "You carry around a burden around for long enough and that's exactly how it feels. Just ask me what I think of this city." She glanced around the corridor, then waved a hand dismissively towards the brick wall on the opposite side from the slabs. Several bricks hastily scuttled out of their moorings, crawling away from each other until a door had unearthed itself from behind the architectural clutter. "Out you get," said Solace, twisting the door open. It led out into the parking lot beside the morgue. "And don't stop moving," she added. "If you're still in the city by nightfall, you will be seeing me again."

Key, pulling Tanick along by his silver tether, bounded out onto the asphalt and did not look back.

-3-

It was colder on the city's fringes, foggier in the Hinter, than it had been the day Tanick had lost his life. He bobbed in the swirling chill, letting the stray lights of the city filter through him. Letting them turn him from silhouette to constellation. "Just let me pass on," he said for what might have been the hundredth time.

In reply, he felt Key's spirit clench around the base of their tether. "Not a chance," his younger brother said, picking his way over a broken, weed-bedraggled curb. Dandelions thrust their tufts up between cracks in the stone, never quite blooming in the dimness.

If the City was a vital, healthy body, then the Hinter was its sickly shadow.

"I don't want to die out here," said Key testily. "Not wearing a jumpsuit, and not like some criminal." His voice had not yet deepened the way Esiban kits' did with age. Not like Tanick's had over the course of the past year. "You're going to stay with me, and you're going to watch over my shoulder for trouble. Do you understand?"

Tanick shrugged helplessly. Their brush with Solace had left him visibly shaken for the first few miles and somber for the next dozen, until finally an angriness had started blossoming inside him. None of his frustration was directed at Key, but instead it radiated outwards at the world that had permitted this to happen.

That had reduced them from a family to a tangle of braided soul-stuff, strained at the middle.

He felt a shallow simmering in his heart and recognized it as a special grudge against the owner and proprietor of the Morgue of All Winters. It had been within her power to simply shear Tanick free, to save Key from his own reckless intentions, and she had done nothing to help him.

Instead, she had plunged the younger Esiban deeper into the crucible of his own poor decisions.

"I've never been dead before," said Tanick as his tether tugged him along, taking him down a row of rotted-out shopfronts, all collapsed and sopping in mist. "I don't really know how this works. Sure I'm an extra pair of eyes, but maybe there's also a part of me that Sinisters can see. Maybe you've lashed yourself to a great silver beacon in the night. Maybe you should just cut me free."

"Not a chance," said Key, bare black feet skirting a rusting mass in a rotted wooden box. "If you were physical, I'd carry you on my back. This just makes it easier."

"Why can't you just listen to me?" Tanick sighed. Or, at least he felt as if he did. No vapor left his lungs, but little spumes of mist shot away from his mouth, displaced by the sound of his voice. "Accept the loss. Let me go. Move on."

"Because that's not how this ends," said Key simply. "You know that. In every story Ma ever told us, did the heroes ever give up? Did they ever decide they weren't clever enough, or quick enough, or desperate enough to do what needed to be done?"

"Ma's not here, Key. She left us alone. You're going to have to accept that loss too. Better to do it now while I'm still here to talk you through it." Reaching the end of the lane, they crossed an abandoned intersection and hurried into a desolate shopping arcade.

Tanick shivered, the motion tracing muscles that no longer existed. Because he had grown accustomed to his bodilessness, it took him a moment to realize what the sensation was. A chill had passed through him.

"Key, I think there's something here," he began at the same time his younger brother froze.

"There's something here," Key whispered.

Headlights bloomed in the fog.

The Sinister had been sleeping; its gaunt, plastic-framed body lounging on a nest of road-burned tire peels. A throaty growl preceded the rumble of an engine turning over, then a single solitary windshield wiper scudded across a glass screen that had long ago been spiderwebbed with cracks. The thin, frictiony screech of plastic on glass lingered in the air.

What would have been Tanick's heart rocketed into his throat and clung there like a chunk of choking apple.

Key, without hesitating, reversed his stride and began to creep backwards around the side of a rusting metal kiosk.

A half-empty washer-fluid reservoir spritzed aimlessly twice as the Sinister sniffed at the air. Its engine shifted gears into a deeper diesel pur. A hunting rumble. Its headlight beams swung across the arcade, searching in the gloom.

Tanick felt his thoughts shutting down. His mind's cohesion gave way to memories of how it had felt to die, to be run down like prey, to go tumbling to the side of the lane while his killer had drank in the energies of his death.

He had been lucky his brother had been there to drag him away.

Just as he was now.

Tanick unfroze, just in time for Key to bolt out of hiding. The silver cord yanked at Tanick's core, hauling him along after. A headlight beam slid over his body which glinted in the brightness like a fishing lure.

Fully awake now, the Sinister flung itself after them.

And Tanick caught it by the front bumper.

Survivors of Sinister attacks - few as they were, due to most citizens keeping within the boundaries of the City - often described their salvation as a sudden change of directions. A veering off. Phantasmal tires would scream their fury into the air, and then the beast entire would go lurching suddenly away into the distance.

No signs were left at the sites of any of these incidents suggesting what had chased it off.

As Tanick bent his back, lifting the front of the Sinister up into the misty air, he found himself wondering if there might have been another spirit involved.

Torquing suddenly sideways, Tanick sent the Sinister skidding away. It spun twice, crashing through the remnants of an empanada cart before lurching dizzily to a stop in a shower of rust and industrial detritus.

Tanick's ghostly mouth was open and panting. His banded ears were pointing straight back, their tufted tips as angled as razors.

The Sinister gave an engine-y grumble and slipped back out of neutral. Its motor revved and its belts slithered on their spools. Its headlights dimmed and then brightened again in challenge.

Key found that, despite his screaming instincts, his own body was standing quite still.

"We need to leave," said Tanick, not looking over his shoulder at his brother. "I'm not sure I can do that twice."

Key nodded, not caring that Tarick could not see the bob of his head. He could still feel it down the soul tether. Probably.

Squinting through the fog to the other end of the arcade, Key traced a hasty mental route over the rubble. A quick scramble over some rotting boxes, a hasty duck under a sagging overhang, then a sprint across an open stretch of pavement and they would be nearly -

The Sinister unloaded a reeking, oily diesel bellow as it caught them.

Tanick grunted, pivoting on his tether to put his body in between Key and the spirit. There was a grinding crash and then phantom wheels revved madly in the air.

Tanick's silvery form was scrunched, stuck like a wedge under the Sinister's chassis, holding its front end up off of whatever plane its tires needed to grip to propel it forward.

Key flinched. Little ghosts of gravel and dirt sprayed intangible past his face. He realized that he had ducked down, made himself as small as possible in the hopes that the Sinister would not hit him. Chemical terror sang its jangling song in his brain and down his nerves, but for the moment he remained still.

"Getting better at this," grunted Tanick, adjusting the set of his shoulders against the spirit-weight pressing down on top of him, "but you should get running. Right now. I can't keep holding it up."

Key shook his head. A stray thought was slowly wending its way through the fear, tickling as it passed beneath his scalp. "If we run, it'll just chase us."

Run anyways, urged his instincts. He clamped down on them, biting sharp carnivore's teeth together into a considering grin.

"I got us into this. I can get us back out again," he continued.

Tanick just growled. "It's too late for that. It was too late from the moment you dipped your hand into my chest and fished me out of my meat. Just accept your loss. Just let go and run."

Tanick blinked, steeling himself for the tug on his tether that would rip him out from underneath the Sinister. Instead, the silver line went completely slack. And a fraction of the weight on top of him peeled away.

Key had joined him beneath the predator's shade.

Tanick's eyes widened and he almost lost his grip.

There was only a few ways that spirits could interact with the living.

Spirits of incandescence could coax twined wires to brightness, but could not set fire to anything else. Spirits of the returned dead could touch their families, but no others. Even creatures like Solace were bound by the rules and restrictions of their chosen industry.

For every astral body, there was a litany of can-nots governing its interactions with the world.

Sinisters, for example, could only touch mortals when they killed.

But Tanick could touch Key who could touch the beast.

Setting his hands on the backs of his brother's, Key pushed upwards into the underbelly of the Sinister. It let go a sickly bleat of distorting metals and its front wheels rose higher into the air, rotating furiously. Its back wheels still sat useless and unmoving on the pavement.

"Tip it over," shouted Key, throwing his weight sideways. Above them, the Sinister tipped. Then it passed its own balance point and slipped from Tanick's hands, thundering over onto its side.

Key scrambled away, dragging Tanick after him, as the Sinister's horn howled and its headlights flickered madly, painting the plaza in epileptic brightness.

"Now we can run," hissed Key, dropping into a lope towards the closest exit.

Tanick allowed himself to be dragged after, the silver tether tugging him along while he fought to process what had just happened.

-4-

When the two brothers next stopped to rest, it was only with the lights of another town on the horizon. By then it was well and truly dark, with the Hinter around them reduced to vague shapes and suddenly looming facades across which the headlight eyes of other Sinisters sometimes roved.

They took shelter in the lee of what might once have been a museum before the Blight had crawled across it, sucking the will to visit it from its customer base.

Towns kept the Blight at bay with their cordons and flamethrowers and charity drives, but every year it would pluck another building or two from the perimeter of the City of Glass and Floodlights.

Tanick had never really seen this as a positive force, but as he hovered, bobbing at the upward end of his silver tether, he realized how quiet it was out beyond the borders of civilization.

Where the Blight had come and industry failed, the stars shone bright - even if that brightness was filtered through an overhead wall of fog. Occasionally the mists would part in a momentary eddy and then Tanick would catch snatches of constellations he had never imagined existed.

He gave them names while Key leaned against a wall and wheezed and waited for his heartbeat to return to normal. Tanick called them Lamp-Post and Television Set and Sinister With Her Cubs, although he was not certain as to the anatomical possibility of the last one. His first up-close study of a Sinister had left him in his present state.

"Are you ready to move on?" Tanick ventured.

Key shook his head and held up a paw. Another minute.

This was the seventh time he had given that particular signal. Tanick tried not to let a nervousness creep into his bobbing.

Just drift casual.

At the very fullest extension of his tether, Tanick could peer over the slumping museum roof. He could see the distant illuminated fringe of the town in their path, could begin to guess at its characteristics.

It was not poor. He knew that much. It blazed far too brightly for poverty.

Beyond that, he was less sure. Key had been barely a kit when Ma had taken them to the City, and Tanick had not been much older. He had distant memories of dashing across an overgrown field. Of waiting, pressed flat to the dirt floor of an abandoned barn while something snuffled outside. Of being too numb with relief when they finally reached civilization to even cry. Dirt had smudged on his cheeks when he brushed them self-consciously, hunting for tears.

He imagined telling his younger self about how they had flipped the Sinister. His smile was silver and shining.

"Okay. I'm ready," panted Key, although he did not move. Tanick decided to allow him one more minute. It was the least he could do, and also the most.

Damned tether.

But there were worse fates.

Even in death, he had not been forced to abandon his brother. He had not been thrust out into the cold after with no knowledge of how the other story, the only important story, Key's story ended.

Tanick was not alive. Not by a strict definition of the word. But he was not entirely dead either.

The best way to describe his condition was this: he persisted.

In another few moments, the younger Esiban would be off scrambling through the fog and the rubble again. Tanick would be jolting along after like a bobber to a snagged lure. And this new town, this unmapped possibility, would be rearing up ahead of them.

Tanick flexed phantasmal whiskers and his eyes narrowed to slivers of translucent light. It was not the future he would have imagined for himself, but it was better than the alternative.

There would be other morgues, others spirits, other chances for recorporalization.

And as long as some part of him was with Key, there would be hope.

-5-

Solace sipped from her glass, the dregs rich and foul against her lips. Perfectly aged. Perfectly preserved. The way wine and schemes and cadavers all ought to be.

Her office was a simple tiled room. Old wooden cabinets crawling with fading paperwork crowded the walls. A decanted bottle sat alone amidst a sea of forms on a battered desk. A computer with a thick round monitor hummed wearily from where it had been put and neglected on a side-desk.

No one would disturb her in here. Her sanctum was barred to mortal entry and warded heavily against rival spirits.

Another municipal might have been able to force its way in, but only at heavy cost. And then the others would have been upon it, tearing at its meats and absorbing its domain. Attacking one of the city's powers was a murder suicide at best.

Solace took another sip. Something not unlike a scrap of old fabric clung to her tongue until she bolted it down.

Others might have gotten impatient after the first thirty years, but she did not mind playing the long game.

Not when it paid out so well.

The boys' mother had been a disappointment. An empty lead. One she had written off with a shrug and a turn of her attention.

This had been a reminder - a welcome one - that no door was ever truly closed to her. No victory was ever quite beyond her grasp.

Savoring the last pooling of fluid in her glass, she began composing a memo.

She would need to speak with Barrow about a few changes in regulatory policy.

-A/N-

Species names - with the exception of Oceaner - are in what I hope to be Abenaki. The Abenaki are noteworthy as a first nation in that they seem to have been formed after contact was made with European settlers, and as a result were a mash-up of several different cultures which had already been reduced by disease, expansion, etc.

In a way, they were a people made whole from the deaths that had visited them.