We made our way around the corner of the house. The white cargo van squatted at the back door, its windows black. I had the sense that it was watching us, though there was no one in it. The fog-wet grass soaked my shoes and the cuffs of my pants as I walked, cold and clammy and grasping. My shirt and hair were getting damp, and Aubrey's hand in mine was the only warmth I felt.
The thick air also muffled sound so that even the handful of crickets seemed to be singing from miles away. The prison that we'd made from our shed was a looming darkness punctuated by intense points of brilliant white light-the line around the doorway, the slats of the tin vent. I squeezed Aubrey's hand one last time and let it go. Hunching close to the ground, I moved forward until the dark, mist-soaked wood was almost close enough to touch. The voices got louder as I approached like someone turning up the volume knob. Ex, his voice hoarse, in a shouted litany. The higher, weeping voice of Sabine.
The world felt thin, changed, unstable as driving on ice. Whatever rituals Ex was doing to cast Legba out of Sabine's body had brought the Pleroma or Next Door or whatever we called it close enough to feel, and it made my skin crawl.
Someone came up on my left. Mfume, and then a moment later, Chogyi Jake and Aunt Sherrie. This was it. The big moment. We would gather all the cultists together, kick in the door and hope for the best. I steeled myself, but my hands were tapping busily at my knees, like my body was trying to get my attention. I had Chogyi Jake and Aubrey, Mfume and Aunt Sherrie, and at least a dozen of Legba's congregation. I was pretty sure, if it came to it, we could rush in and take them by force. A few cultists would probably die. Maybe Ex. Probably Karen.
So I had to try the other way first. I motioned Aubrey and Chogyi Jake to stop, then I waved Mfume and Aunt Sherrie closer.
"Get everyone around the shed," I whispered. "Not in line of sight, but close by, okay?"
"What the hell are you doing?" Sherrie said.
"I'm going in," I said. "I'll get the others out if I can. Just stay clear until I give the high sign."
Sherrie didn't seem to like the idea, but she nodded.
"Your funeral," she said, and I stepped up to the shed door and knocked.
"Ex! Karen! It's Jayn¨¦! We need to talk!"
I waited for a hail of gunfire, but all I got was a stream of invective from inside the shed. I heard men and women scattering in the thick, wet darkness and held myself steady. When the door swung open, the light was blinding.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Karen said, and for the first time I recognized the deepness and power in her voice as a rider. Carrefour was speaking through her, and the mask was beginning to slip.
"I need to talk to Ex," I said.
"Jayn¨¦?" he said from within. He'd stopped his chanting, but Sabine's keening cry didn't falter.
"Hey," I said. "Sorry for the shitty timing. But... I tried calling your cell phone."
"I lost it," he said.
Yeah, I just bet you did, I thought.
My eyes were adjusting. Karen was more than a movement within the brightness, and Ex had come to her side. The shed was lit by four halogen work lamps, hissing and hot as a furnace, and the gloom around us seemed deeper by contrast. Ex looked exhausted. His skin had a gray undertone, and his hair hung in his eyes, limp and greasy. His clothes looked like he'd slept in them. He held a crucifix in one hand and a book bound in black leather in the other.
Karen, on the other hand, almost glowed. Her eyes were bright as a fever, her hair pulled back into a ponytail, with only one stray lock to soften her face. She was wearing what looked like military surplus gear-thick canvas pants and jacket over a ribbed white T-shirt. There was something inhuman in the way she held herself. Carrefour was so close to winning that it could taste the victory, only here I was interrupting the party. Once the young Legba was plucked out of Sabine's body, Carrefour could turn on us all, but until then it had to keep the masquerade going.
I smiled as if I meant it and walked up like I assumed they'd let me pass. Karen almost held her ground, then with a growl like a dog ready to bite, she took a step back, and I went in.
The shed had seemed bigger when it was empty, but it was still a wide, high space. The halogen lamps burned in three corners, fed by bright-orange extension cords. A matte black shotgun lay against the wall like a presentiment of doom. The dirt floor was covered now with symbols in paint and earth like Amelie Glapion's cornmeal veves. The designs seemed to move in my peripheral vision, and they filled me with a deep unease. In the center of the floor, a black iron ring stuck out of the newly poured concrete. Sabine was chained to it, bright steel links going to manacles at her wrists and a tight leather collar at the throat.
Her clothes, ripped and bloody, were the ones she'd worn at the ceremony, the ones I had seen her in only hours before. They were almost unrecognizable. Her eyes were puffy and closed, and she rocked back and forth on the ground, whispering to herself. Louvri le p¨®t. Legba. Legba. Louvri. Please, please, Legba louvri le p¨®t. I wanted to sweep over to her, to wrap my arms around her and comfort her and tell her it was going to be all right, even though I thought it probably wasn't.
How had I ever believed this was a good idea?
"What's going on," Karen said. "Why are you here?"
"We got back this morning. I needed to see Ex," I said.
"He doesn't answer to you anymore," Karen said, moving to him in a fair imitation of protectiveness. She took his hand, and he let her. The confusion in his expression hurt to see.
"You fired me," he said, which wasn't exactly the same as Karen's statement.
"Yeah, I know. Look, could I just talk to you for a minute? Alone?" I gestured toward the door. If I could get him outside and out of the line of fire...
"No," Karen said. "We're in the middle of a ritual cleansing. Every minute we let it rest, the rider gets its control back over the girl. We have to get her free."
I nodded and smiled as ingratiatingly as I could. It was a doomed effort, but I tried.
"It'll only be-"
"What's going on here?" Karen said. Her eyes swept the door and walls like she could see through them. "Where have you been? What do you want?"
"It's okay," Ex said. "I can handle this."
She turned on him faster than a human could, a hand pressed to his sternum.
"Don't you fucking move," she said. "Something's wrong here. Are you alone? Did you bring someone here?"
"Aubrey and Chogyi Jake are outside," I said, nodding to the door. Karen lifted her head, sniffing the air like an animal. Ex stepped back from her, crossing his arms and frowning.
"I'd love to talk," he said, "but I can't."
Sabine's litany trailed away into a low keening. She looked up, her eyes no more than slits, as if she was seeing me for the first time.
"Jayn¨¦?" she said.
The silence that followed was like a thunderclap. The fear tasted like pennies and tinfoil.
"How," Karen said, her voice low and dangerous, "does it know your name?"
"You've got the wrong rider," I said. "Ex, get outside now."
Before he could move, Karen dove, scooped up the shotgun, and whirled. The barrel was pointing at my head, and it was big as a tunnel. And then Ex was between us, shielding me with his body.
"Karen!" Ex shouted. "Stop it! What are you-"
"She's with them," Karen said. "She's been taken over by them. Don't you get it?"
Ex looked at me, fear and pain in his eyes, and I knew he thought it was true. He had walked away from me, and I had gone and gotten myself possessed by a rider, and it was his fault for not protecting me. Months of living in close quarters made every nuance of his expression legible as a book, and I felt a surge of desperate impatience with him.
"Ex, you need to get out of here right now," I said. "Karen lied to us. She's possessed. She has been from the beginning. It's called Carrefour, and it's the exiled rider. The thing in Sabine never left New Orleans."
"But the girl's possessed," Ex said. "I know she is."
"Yeah, that's true. But it's not as bad as you think."
"Move aside, Ex," Karen said. "She used to be Jayn¨¦, but she's the enemy now."
"I can save her," Ex said. "I got the thing out of Aubrey, I can get it out of her too."
He believed her. He thought I had a rider. Karen chambered a round, and Sabine screamed. I tried to step around Ex, but he shifted, staying between me and the gun. Some flying insect found its way into the furnace flame of the lamps and popped as it died.
"You can't kill her," Ex said.
"Oh," Mfume said from the doorway, "I think she can. The beast within her is quite capable of murder."
Karen turned, her face going pale as bone. Mfume didn't flinch when the shotgun pointed at him; he raised his chin in defiance. I had never been so glad to see someone ignore my instructions.
"You can fight it, Karen," he said. "I believe in you. I know that you can fight it."
The blast of the shotgun was deafening. One of the halogen lamps burst in long, streaming flames. The doorway where Mfume had been was empty, and I couldn't tell if he'd dodged the blast or been knocked back by it.
Karen screamed, a sound filled with rage and violence and joy. And like I had turned a switch, my body moved into action. I pushed Ex out of the way gently as lowering a baby into a crib, then hammered out one leg into the shotgun. Karen staggered back, trying to turn the gun toward me, and I kicked it again. I felt the mechanism buckle under my foot, and Karen slammed into the wall like a cannon shot, the wall actually cracking like something out of a cartoon.
Surprise widened her eyes, but only for a moment. Karen launched herself off the wall, swinging for me. I spun back as Ex tried again to put himself between us. Karen's open hand drove into my side, and I felt the snap of my weakened rib even before I felt the pain. I landed hard on my ass at Sabine's side. Ex was yelling something about being reasonable; Sabine was shouting desperately for Legba. Karen and I might almost have been alone in the room.
Her eyes were hard as marble, the little smile at the corner of her mouth ticked up a degree. Pale hair framed her face and made her beautiful. I knew that beside her, I must look like a drowned rat-fogsoaked shirt and jeans, black hair sticking to me like ivy on bricks. I had a hand pressed to my broken ribs. Every breath hurt like a bitch.
"You can't have them," I said, not knowing quite what I meant by it, but absolutely clear on my sincerity.
Karen snarled and brought her foot down hard. She was aiming for my knee, but only scraped along my shin as I rolled. Another blow landed on my shoulder, shaking my balance but not badly enough to keep me from regaining my feet. I was going to lose. I was hurt and comparatively weak, and Karen had years of training and a supernatural serial killer. I faced across the narrow space, and I knew that I had no chance standing against her alone.
I also knew there were thirty plus people just outside the shed. I hadn't managed to talk Ex out to safety. I hadn't managed to get Sabine free.
But I had gotten Karen's undivided attention, and that was going to be enough. I bolted for the door.
The air outside was cool, the fog thicker than when I'd gone in. The house glowed, twenty feet away, and distant as a vision of elfland. I ducked by instinct and something whizzed past my head to thud against the wall. I skidded to a halt, the grass slick under my feet, and dropped to one knee. My side was on fire, my breath short. I was pretty sure nothing had punctured a lung but I wouldn't have put a lot of money on it.
After the brightness of the halogen lamps, the world was a tissue of shadows and mist. Karen roared out from the lit doorway, murder in her voice, and three dark forms tackled her. She went down, twisting like a cat. I heard a soft impact, and one of the bodies rolled free as two more piled on. Someone shouted, and a volley of answering calls came from the distant trees. My little army charged.
Ex appeared framed in the light, his crucifix held loosely in his hand, his mouth open in confusion. Chogyi Jake stepped out of the shadows, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Don't kill her!" Mfume called out as the cultists of Legba descended on Karen. His voice was strained, but not weak. "Hold her down, but do not kill the horse!"
They piled on her like a football team, and Karen, screaming, went down under the sheer weight of bodies. I let myself sag a little. I'd gotten a cut on my neck, but I didn't remember when. A trickle of blood ran down my collarbone. Karen screamed. Someone cursed.
Aubrey was at my side. He looked worried.
"I'm okay," I said. "Don't hug me."
He knelt, his hand fluttering between my arm and shoulder, uncertain how to help and unable to keep from trying. I thought it was sweet.
"We have to get Sabine out and get Karen in there," I said. "Ex has to get Carrefour out."
"I know," Aubrey said. "I know. Don't move. You're hurt."
"Yeah. Clear on that. But I'll still be hurt later, and we need to fix Karen now."
"We've got it," Aubrey said. "We're taking care of it."
I let my eyes close. The sound of the tussle was like a television in the next room. Karen's voice was high, shrill, and animalistic. Other voices-Aunt Sherrie, Omar, other men, other women-competed with it yelling instructions or threats or shouting in triumph. Mfume exhorting them not to kill. I thought I heard Sabine wailing behind it all. I lay down, my head resting against cool grass. I felt like the ground itself was lifting me up.
"Mfume?" I said.
"His arm's pretty messed up," Aubrey said. "He won't stop, though. We tried to make him."
He's a big boy, I almost said, but it seemed like a lot of effort. I made do with a long, stuttering sigh. Running footsteps came toward me, familiar as a known voice clearing its throat. I opened my eyes to Ex.
"What the hell is going on?" he said. "They're killing Karen."
"They won't kill her. I don't think they'll even hurt her if they can help it," I said. "But we need to drive the rider out of her body."
"What rider?" he said. "She was fine yesterday. She's fine. When did she get possessed?"
There were tears in his eyes. Of course there were. In the rush and fear for him, I'd never taken a minute to think how this would look from his perspective. How it would feel. He'd been this woman's lover. He'd shared her bed and her body, he'd gone to her when I pushed him away, and it had all been a lie. Carrefour had used Karen, and Karen had used Ex. If he'd been prone to taking inappropriate responsibility for the safety of people around him before now, this one was going to send him through the roof.
"I can explain everything," I said. "But... Ex, I am so, so sorry."
I levered myself up. The blood from the cut on my neck had soaked the parts of my shirt that the fog and dew hadn't. Ex shook his head once, and then stopped.
Aubrey went still, and the fighters in the dogpile. The thickening mist froze where it was, and the distant crickets fell silent. With a howl like meat tearing, Carrefour rose up, scattering Amelie's congregation like leaves.
Karen was gone. The rider's body had broadened and thickened, splitting the seams of canvas shirt and pants. Its fish-pale skin was veined in black, and claws like knives clicked at its fingertips. I scrambled to my feet. A flash of motion to my right was Joseph Mfume pulling a length of silver chain from his pocket with his good hand, his shotgunned arm limp and blood-soaked at his side. Carrefour looked from one of us to the other, and its broad, inhuman face broke into a parody of a grin. I said something obscene.
It had taken us to the crossroads, the natural environment of riders, the place where the Venn diagram of reality and hell overlapped. We weren't thirty to one. It was just me and Mfume, neither of us whole, against an engine of rage and death, and suddenly I didn't like our odds.
Carrefour raised its bladed hands and bounded toward me.