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Splitting the Difference

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We stood on one side of the bridge, the Lythia side. I got a front row seat from the car, top down and Ava and Eron in the back. Mage was standing on the hood, Grim's arm around her waist "to keep her steady" – psh, dude might as well've hung up a sign sayin' "MINE."

And across the bay... there was an army coming.

I still thought the smart idea was to take down the last bridge – only one left, only easy route in or out of the city, and it's not like folks don't have gardens and things like sheep and crap, not to mention the power company's somehow managing to chug along enough to keep us survivors with working fridges and ovens. But noooo, Mage figured what we needed to do was stand up, fight back, and she always was the type to go in through the front door, guns blazing.

Not that I blame her. Only reason I like sneakier approaches is Uncle Ridley died 'cause I went charging in like that, and I try not to have to relearn too many lessons. She wasn't there, and secondhand trauma only teaches so much, and I guess one of us had to be the bolder one.

The first time, only a handful of people knew what was going on. It was an ordinary Tuesday here in Lythia, when bam, out of nowhere - here and everywhere, far as we can tell - tornados touched down, only it wasn't wind and rain and lighting – it was magic. Blue energy, warping the world as they hustled along, didn't matter if you were in a building or the subway, if it passed by you, it was at least fifty-fifty odds that when it cleared away, things would be different. People changed. Their pets changed. Sometimes people's car would go rolling away like they had a mind of their own, sometimes the plants in the garden would lift up their roots and go for a walk.

No big surprise – people freaked. Rioting, lynching, looting, all that fun stuff. I don't remember much of it; I was only six at the time. My kid sister Penny was four. Our family ended up at one of the shelters, untouched by the magic itself but seriously scared.

Folks that were touched by magic, changed – for the most part, the first Storm, it didn't go well for them. Some of them looked like elves, some like Tolkien orcs, and some – well, shit got freaky. But everyone was desperate to convince themselves that this was an act of god, and a one time thing.

A few weeks later, it happened again. Bigger storms, worse effects.

And again. And again. Sometimes we had a few months between storms, sometimes a few hours. Sometimes it was one little area of effect, sometimes -

I hear Detroit is a really wild place now. All crazy stone and moving statues and plants that talk.

Civilization doesn't take that much change and weird shit too well. A lot of states shut down, then cities started cracking down too. Cops and local militia set up walls and barricades, and everyone was talking about how it was the new dark ages.

But humanity, in the end, is like a cockroach. We may end up strange, and kinda squished, but we ain't goin' away. We survive, and eventually there's a new normal.

The army comin' for us was nasty. Some vehicles, but it mostly looked like transport vans and a few large cars. Unlike fiction, tanks aren't easy to get ahold of, and they're impossible for most folks to keep fueled.

The thing that concerned me more was the weird skeleton horses, and the restless bird/horse things that pranced along or took these long, fluttering leaps, spreading wings wide so they glided over the heads of people marching along at a good clip.

Mage obviously saw them too, and she shot me one of the Looks that pisses off all our friends. The "know it all TOLD YA SO" look – I can see why my pals hate it when I do that. "Bridge going down wouldn't matter with the hippogryphs."

I tried to play it casual, leaning back in the seat and resting an arm on the steering wheel. "It'd mean less of the uglies would have easy access. Or are you sayin' you think they're gonna drop bombs on us?"

Grim snorted. "Not their style." He's got this creepy, kinda hollow voice – makes sense, him being a demon ghost and all. He's a huge guy – not a giant, seen those and he's way shorter than that – tall enough that Mage, standing next to him, was only about a foot higher than he was. The kicker of course is he's a god damned giant cowboy, with the boots with spurs and the long, dark green and tan duster. No hat, and long dark hair, so it's kinda like the cowboys and indians stopped fighting long enough to swap wardrobes and sent out the resulting biggest bad ass – Grim.

Five years after the first Spellstorm, as the media ended up calling it, things had kinda settled down in Lythia. Vehicles were rarer, buildings knocked down to make gardens and growing green areas were more common, and most folks were at least to be pretending to be ok with neighbors that might be green or purple or a walking, talking plant.

My family had moved back to the Weatherly suburb – quiet, boring, and now a major place for farming. Fun times for an eleven year old boy, possibly even worse for nine year old Penny. I didn't get it at the time – she hated how boring and predictable things were. Even Spellstorms had let her down – a few weeks before things went pear shaped, she and I had been caught in one coming home from school.

My eyes had started glowing blue after that. Nothing big, nothing too weird. But Penny – everything seemed normal. Now, by this point, no one was considered normal after being in a Spellstorm, but the fact that there was no evidence of anything strange about her was apparently rough.

All I knew was that my annoying kid sister had suddenly gotten really, really resentful and angry with me. And being eleven, it didn't take much for me to do the same with her.

I don't even remember what the argument was about, now. I wish I did, but all my memories of that day are hazy as hell.

I think Mage got most of them.

Turns out the Spellstorm didn't just make my eyes glow. It let me summon. And boy, did I ever. One minute, Penny and I were screaming in each other's faces. The next, there was a B Movie devil, huge and furry and pissed as hell.

It killed her. It swiped at me.

And then Uncle Ridley killed it.

Turns out that the shades he always wore weren't just 'cause he looked like a sketchy, skinny Santa Claus – it was to hide the glowing eyes.

Ridley was never my uncle. I think a lot of neighborhoods have someone like him – the friendly dude who hangs out, chats with all the kids, can go all crazy commando when those kids get out of hand, and is just... there, you know? So he's "Uncle" to everyone.

First clear memory I had was from a day or two after. I wasn't at home – Ma and Pop didn't want me around anymore. I was at Ridley's. He'd taken me in. And best and worst of all, was that he was gonna train me to use what I had.

Grim was from another time – not just the old west, but that was the last time he was around doing his thing. According to him, Spellstorms happen. They last from about ten years, to fifty, and you can tell that they're ending when there's a huge mother of a storm, that apparently sweeps across the whole world. It changes shit by the ton, and the biggest change is that most folks don't recall the old normal. It's like the last big storm just makes everyone just accept how things will be.

Some folks are immune to it – see Eron – and some types of things are immune to it – like Demons.

That's what Grim is. It's the eyes that it really shows. The whites are black and the blacks white, and the color in the middle is a crazy, electric green. And crazy is the right word. Apparently, back in the Old West – the last time Spellstorms happened – Grim was going by "Virbane" and just wandering around, messing with people 'cause he liked messing. He doesn't like to talk about what exactly he was doing, so we all figure it was pretty bad and not just rustling cattle or whatever. After all, someone had gotten pissed enough with him to cram his body and soul into a book.

Times change, people change, and apparently even demons can change. He's on our side now, and no one doubts he'd follow Mage into hell and back, slaughtering anyone in her way that she doesn't get to first. He's always had her back.

Living with Uncle Ridley was strange. Sometimes it was a relief – he was rock solid no matter what shit hit the fan. Sometimes I just got pissed with him, since he'd been there when my life fell apart, and it helped to blame someone.

I'm not sure if it would've been better or worse if he was around more often. He always had to take trips around, checkin' in on other hoods, and I didn't always – often – get to go with. Those times, he ditched me with the neighbors. Ava Lightbringer and her ma, Sasha, were two of the craziest broads in the hood. You did not mess with them, either of 'em, EVER. Ava was about my age, and even when we first met she was crazy good in a knife fight or a scuffle. Any kind of dust up in the area, and she'd be there, kicking ass and not bothering with the names. She's only gotten better since. She taught me how to handle myself in a brawl, and Sasha taught me summoning when Ridley wasn't around.

Those were actually good years. Ava grew up to join the local "police" force, and would be goin' around in the Kevlar SWAT, tac team like vests and toting more guns than most of us had seen, and hey, it was our girl, from our hood, bringin' law to the streets everywhere for the City Council.

I did kinda the same thing unofficially, locally, taking care of wandering around some of the hoods Uncle Ridley couldn't hit or didn't want to deal with this week. I wasn't never the Santa Claus type – I went with the punk you don't want to mess with 'cause I will mess you up, and I got the summons to prove it and help me if I need it. S'not like I kicked puppies or was mean to kids, I just didn't want any of the flack.

Then Sasha died – age. Then Ridley died – my stupid damn fault. Ava found out the folks at the Citadel – old Town Hall – were using her and her squad and some of her buddies as experiments in Spellstorm related mutations, and she quit with a vengeance.

It was her and me, trying to keep some of the crumbling neighborhoods together.

Until the night I walked into the wrong bar.

Grim has this crazy sneer that should peel rust of'a cars. He had it directed across the bridge, at the two huge uglies strollin' along in front. One looked like a glowing skeleton monster in a suit of armor, sword slung over his shoulder and head on fire. The other was a yellow-green troll thing, but giant sized and wearing fur tighty-whities and an ugly cape. One hand had a walking stick that reports say the heads of his enemies hang off of it, and the other was replaced with a steel hook.

Ulfrane and Torbane. Demons, that come out and play every time Spellstorms hit the world. They like death and destruction and all that fucked up jazz, and apparently they've been spending centuries trying to find a way to make it Spellstorm all the time, so they can fuck the world over proper.

They've been working their way across the States – no idea if they were messing up other parts of the world before that, communication isn't good enough to tell anymore – and they leave major cities smoking ruins and any survivors are forced into the army ranks.

Spellstorms make sure that those survivors either die or mutate to fit the ranks proper pretty damn quick.

Ulfrane and Torbane are bros. Grim's their ugly ducking reformed brother. They'd heard he was in town, and they'd swung their army south just to have this fun little reunion with him. Rumor had it they wanted to add his head to Torbane's walking stick.

It was a cold and rainy night, and I was pissed. S'not that I'd gotten kicked out of one of the areas I'm keeping an eye on, it's that there'd been a dustup and I hadn't been able to stop it. Lotta dead, lotta crying. "It's all theiiiiir fault, they wouldn't shaaaaaare" and stupid crap. So I was taking the long way home, outta my usual hoods and into one of the ones Ridley used to watch but I just couldn't manage to hit up regular. I saw this bar was open, so I figured fuck it, might as well get stinkin' drunk too, right? How much worse could this night get?

Never. EVER. Ask that question.

Place was small, but crowded. Saw a lotta faces I recognized, from different close neighborhoods. And I also saw real quick how the ones what knew me kept shootin' looks over to a corner, like "uh oh, sheriff’s in town, he's not gonna like -"

Whatever it was what was in the corner.

So of fucking course I headed over there, and more and more of the bar got quiet until in the corner, some chick stood up. Since everyone was ducking their heads to not make eye contact with either'a us, I saw her.

Feet show which way a person's gonna go more often than anything else. And she seemed built like a babe, so why not start there and move up?

Biker boots, tall and tan leather. Worn jeans, and a plaid shirt tied at the waist which was so old and used it was just a soft gray. Hip pouch on her right side, long calloused fingers of a worker on the hand settled on the other hip. Biker's leather jacket in a shade of blue I'd kill for, sleeves shoved up to show bracelets on one side, and a watch on a wide leather wristband on the other – just like the one Uncle Ridley got me for a birthday ages ago. Above the wide shoulders of the jacket, there was long brown, kinda curly hair-

And fuck me, her face was almost mine. Little more girly, some different scars, but same long nose and glowing blue eyes and damn stunned look.

Uncle Ridley had been keeping secrets.

I checked my watch and tucked my hands into the pocket of my hoodie – wasn't sulking, it's smart to keep your weapons in good condition. "We got like half an hour before they get here. Still plenty of time to blow it if we hustle."

"Magi. Stop." I hate it when she gets that tone, like I'm a little kid. Mage shook her head. "If it's not their style, then you still think it's just going to be a head on attack?"

Grim nodded. "Brute force and destruction on as wide a scale as possible. Tear down everything in their way, and sow salt on the ashes."

Mage has a pretty mean sneer too. She didn't look away from the oncoming army, but she did raise her voice so that the front ranks of our army could hear, and pass the word on. "Bastards wanna destroy our city? Leave Lythia a smoking ruin after the Council couldn't manage it? I don't think so."

We talked a long time, that night. Mage – we both went by Mage, but after a quick arm wrestle for the name, which I might've thrown a little but not if she ever asks, we figured I'd take the plural of Magi since it amused me – she figured that when Penny died, the demon had swiped at me, and somehow split me in two. Her and me. Both of us, raised by Uncle Ridley, taught summoning and magic, patrolling different areas of the city and keeping the peace best we could, helping when we could. While I had Ava and Sasha, Mage had a magic talking book which could transform into Grim the giant angry cowboy, and Eron, an honest to god knight in shining armor and the densest skull ever. Like Grim, he was from another time, pulling a Sleeping Beauty due to an ancient Spellstorm.

I never have figured out if Mage took care of Eron, or if he really did take care of her when she was younger, but by the time I met them, they had this nice buddies thing going on.

I've never been as pissed with Uncle Ridley as I was that night. Fine, yes, after Penny I don't think I could'a handled a twin sister very well, and I did the whole angry young man shit, but -

I hate it when people do things for my own good. Let me fuck up on my own, dammit.

In the back seat, Ava made that soft snarling noise that always makes the hair on the back of my neck rise. Eron had this snorty little grunt of agreement instead, and I just knew that if I checked behind me they'd be kissing. Those two and combat are the freakiest three-way ever.

Fine, so I looked. I was tired of watching a flaming, grinning skull over armor and ugly troll thing marching up to tear down my city.

Behind the lovebirds, behind my car, was our army. Mage and me had spent hours calling in favors, making sure non-combatants got the hell away, and handing out Ava's looted cop gear – compensation for mental anguish and genetic tampering is what she says, but since she tricked Eron out in Kevlar and guns and still had plenty left over for a lot of our army, I think she just wanted to take everything not nailed down to spit in the City Council's faces.

And we had done that when the City Council decided me and Mage were bad news, and that they wanted Grim to buy off the Demon army. We'd taken it to the Citadel, and won, but not before word of Grim got out -

So here we were. Doing it all over again, but on a bigger scale, with way bigger stakes than my not-quite twin's demon cowboy boyfriend.

Behind us, we had everyone from the Hutchen family (creepy little gnomes that was surprisingly good at chewing up bastards they didn't like) to Emila, the old lady I thought was just Uncle Ridley's old girlfriend, but was now heading the new governing board of the city. We had Ava's freaky twisted sisters, former cops who now looked like demon hookers and were at least twice as terrifying in battle, all guns and nasty knives for close work, wings and literally killer boots when they ran out of ammo and just wanted to wreck face. Dragon things, robot things, angelic things, we had it all.

No way were we just going to give up our city.

Me and Mage teamed up. Grim was a given for the in-crowd, since I think it must'a been obvious even to Uncle Ridley back in the day that Grim and Mage were banging. I pulled in Ava, Mage brought in Eron, and those two got on like a house on fire – lots of screaming and chaos and adrenaline fueled action. Ava brought the firepower and equipment, Eron brought tactics and some real bad-assery, and we seriously started to clean up the city.

Which is when things went to hell. The City Council, up in the Citadel, had been keeping a pissed eye on Ava. With her being with us, they realized Grim was a good bargaining chip against the Demon Bros. We fought back, since he is one of us, and we won. It had nearly killed some of us, but we'd had enough time to rest, and hang out together that we were a better team than ever.

Just in time to hear that the Demon brothers were coming for us.

Mage turned around, hair and that stupid over-shirt flapping in the breeze. "Last chance, people! There's still time to leave if you want to stay safe!" She got a growing roar from our troops instead, guns and pointy objects thrust skyward in a clear fuck you to the Demons. Grim was smiling like a devil himself as he lifted Mage down, shrinking to human size as she hopped onto her bike. Mage cranked the motorcycle as Grim hopped on behind her and handed her a shot gun. She pumped it, holding it up with the blue glow of deadly magic blazing around her hand and gun. "Storm's coming! Let's go break it!"