Macie bundles through the crowd and makes a beeline for Pierre, and there’s a touching moment as boy and dog are reunited. For what it’s worth, I’m thinking that the time for formalities is long past. I nod to Rosaline’s daddy, who’s looking as unimpressed as a three-hundred-kilo buck with a bushy moustache can.
“Claude, I must say this is an unexpected pleasure.”
“Ben, if I’d have had my way, I would have kicked your ass good and proper when I first saw you in the seventies. You’d have been aching to forget us.”
“Now, now,” I reply, pointing to his reindeer haunches and nudging Pierre for effect. “Don’t get upset just because you’re half the man I am.”
There’s a long silence, broken only by the hissing of Fred’s damned rat copies from the bathtub.
“Oh, c’mon!” I say. “That was a good joke!”
There’s a collective sigh and eye-rolling all around, except for Pierre and Rosaline, who are staring at one another with open mouths.
“So, wait a minute,” she says. “Papa, you ‘ave known this man all this time?!”
“Sure he does,” I reply quickly. “We’ve been friends for decades.”
“Now, wait a minute,” Claude begins, glowering furiously at me, but even he can’t resist the storm breaking in front of him. Rosaline stamps a hoof so sternly that the floor shudders and one or two of the male piaffhomme in the background shoot glances at one another and back away from her.
“Papa! You told me off for associating with ‘umans and now it turns out you were doing it yourself all along?”
Claude looks totally browbeaten. “Now, Rosaline, that’s completely different-”
“‘Ow is it different? You’re an ‘ypocrite!”
“Don’t Rosaline moi, Papa,” she pouts, folding her arms and turning away from him.
In the brief lull that follows, Pierre says, “I’m sorry-“
Before he can go further, Ros turns to him and cradles his stunned face gently between the palms of her hands. “No, mon amour, don’t apologise. None of this is your fault. And don’t you see? This is good news! It means we can actually spend time together now, really get to know one another. It means that our love can flourish and no one can say anything about it,” she finishes, once more glaring at her father.
A long moment follows, which Pierre spends slowly and deliberately peeling Rosaline’s fingers away from his face, one at a time. “I was just going to say… I’m sorry that you appear to be in the middle of a major family dispute, but we have a whole town full of sirens just down the road, captivating people and consuming their life force. I have a house full of centa-I know, that’s not what you call yourselves, but frankly, who the hell cares what you call yourselves? I have a garage downstairs that’s still painted an attractive shade of monster guts and perhaps worst of all, I have a bathtub not ten feet from me that I WILL LITERALLY NEVER BE ABLE TO BATHE IN AGAIN.”
All eyes turn to the bathtub, where two of the crumbling Quantling copies are devouring a third in a rather vigorous, messy fashion.
“So I suppose what I really want to know,” Pierre continues, his voice dangerously light and melodious, “is when all of you… you… nightmare creatures are just going to destroy one another and disappear back into the forest forever. I’d really like my life back, you know?”
That boy is turning a shade of red that’s probably not good for his blood pressure, so I put a comradely hand on his shoulder. “Now, hang on there a minute. It’s okay. The piaffhomme are as invested in this world as we are. If the sirens destroy it, everyone is gonna suffer the same fate. So it makes sense that we help one another to tackle this threat, right?”
Claude is looking pensive behind his giant face fuzz, glancing from his sons to his daughter, who is trying and failing to cope with about a dozen different emotions all at once. At last, he says, “Individually, the Sirens won’t be a problem for us. Piaffhomme are immune to their voices. A direct attack isn’t an option, though. They still outnumber us a dozen-to-one, and that damn rock music they play gives me a migraine.”
One of his sons nods. “It is really annoying.”
“We’ll need more support,” I say. “Ideas?”
I’m barely done with my sentence when I’m jabbed in the butt with a blunt spear. I look down to see Milky’s vacant stare. “Dooooonn’t forgeeeettttt ussssssssss,” Priest says.
“Of course,” I say, rubbing my twinging posterior. “How could I? Claude, could you spare someone to accompany these fine gentlemen to a random hole in the ground somewhere to help their Princess overcome her indigestion?”
Claude throws his hands up in despair. “Why not? I’m helping everyone else today.”
In her smallest voice, Rosaline says, “Papa, I’ll go with them.”
Claude watches her carefully for a moment, not too sure what this latest development means. “Rosaline, when I told you that you couldn’t speak to humans, I didn’t mean-“
“I know what you mean,” she says. “Or I don’t know, but I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I’ll help… les rats.”
“That would be mighty kind of you, Miss,” I say, gently.
She says pointedly, “Sure. It’s not as if anyone wants me ‘ere, anyway.” She stamps a painted hoof once again and flicks her hair at Pierre, revealing a pair of dazzling diamanté earrings underneath. It would take a stonier heart than mine not to feel empathy for her. She’s been bridging worlds for a while now, and those worlds are about to collide in the worst possible way.
“Now wait a minute,” Pierre says, but he’s talking to a receding reindeer hump. Somehow, she manages to get a haughty sway going on despite only being a teenage human from the waist up. Priest and Milky skitter away in her wake, following her out the farmhouse door.
There’s a certain amount of embarrassed male solidarity amongst those left behind. Pierre mutters half-hearted apologies, and Claude says, “Headstrong, just like her mother. This one time, before we got married, she got bit by a bobcat and if I hadn’t talked her round, she would have chased that damn thing all the way to the shores of the Hudson Bay.”
We’re still short of the force we need to take on the Sirens, and it’s only now that I see Fred, sitting alone to one side, forgotten by everyone in the excitement. He’s facing away from us and rocking slowly from side-to-side.
“Fred,” I say cautiously, “Are you alright?”
When he responds, it’s in a deep powerful voice entirely unlike his own. “The time has come to tip the balance in your favour. If you are to fight and prevail, you cannot hope to rely upon your feeble modern technology. One does not win wars with your ‘Google’”—and here, he gestures with the first two fingers on each hand—“and you cannot pay for warriors with your ‘cryptocurrency’. No, you will have need of real allies.”
Pierre glances at me in a way that implies he’s already said enough today, and that maybe as the experienced head within the wider team, this one is down to me to resolve.
“Fred, no one blames you for what’s happened.” Pierre opens his mouth and I quickly jam it closed with my hand. “If you have any ideas about how we can fight the Sirens, we’re really keen to hear them right now.”
Fred stands up slowly and sniffs the air. There’s an eerie light projecting from somewhere in front of him and some unseen force is making the hairs on my neck and the backs of my hands stand up.
“There’s another being here in the town,” he says. “A saviour. One with ancient power that could turn the tide in the forthcoming war. It is imperative that you find her before the Siren Queen does.”
The light is growing all the time, and my clothes are starting to crinkle and crease, as though they’re being folded by an invisible hand.
“Where is she?” I whisper. “Where can we find this ancient saviour?”
Fred seems to be growing in stature even as he struggles for unfamiliar words. “I have sight beyond sight, and I can see the saviour. She is in the place you call… Tim Hortons.”
The power intensifies in waves and Fred finally turns around. We can all see the bolts of white lightning arcing between his eyes and his open hands. I can hear the shuffling of a dozen Piaffhomme hooves frantically scraping on tiles.
Claude grips my arm in a motion of real fear, the first time I’ve ever seen that from a Piaffhomme. “Ben, I don’t know what you’ve got here, but this is a power that could end us all!”
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. I step between Fred’s crackling form and those of my friends, and in a calm, clear voice I say, “Fred, get me a small double-double!”
There’s a moment where the irresistible force of ancient power slams head on into the immovable object of contemporary cultural imperative. Somewhere, a paradigm shifts without using its gearstick. The powerful voice that we’ve been listening to seems suddenly uncertain, and responds, “That’ll be… a dollar sixty…”
Halfway through, the voice changes entirely, reverting back to the Fred we know. The lightning earths itself through the bathtub, frying all of the remaining rat copies that were there, and our magical barista sags, falling forwards into my arms.
“Is he okay?” Pierre asks breathlessly.
On cue, Fred’s eyelids flutter. “Haitius? Did it work? Did you see what you needed to see?”
I help him back up onto his feet. “You did well, Fred. Your friend found what we needed.” And then, with a newfound purpose I hadn’t felt since I first saw Cynthia Dale in a short skirt on Street Legal, I stride through the crowd, take Macie’s lead in one hand and Pierre’s shotgun in the other. Piaffhomme step aside to let me through.
“Where are we going?” Fred gasps.
In one movement, I cock the shotgun and pat Macie’s head. “Buckle up, gentlemen,” I say. “We’re going to Timmy Ho’s.”
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