Lucas had no idea where Elritch Throdaeous Morphos Vernii had come from, but times like this really made him wish he could send him back.

Don't forget the peanut butter, said Ritch.

"When have I ever forgotten the peanut butter?" said Lucas to the empty room. He was in a kitchen, kneeling on top of the counters and rooting through the unfamiliar pantry. The duffel beside him was over halfway full of food: rolled up bags of chips, a candy dish worth of circular mints, boxes of cereal, poptarts- junk food, mostly. All gathered from other houses earlier that day.

"I'm not finding any," he said. "I think these guys are out."

Out? Ritch's voice brushed across the top of Lucas' mind, fizzing slightly in irritation. How can they be out? What kind of people don't have peanut butter?

"I don't know? Maybe they're allergic. Maybe they just don't like it." He grabbed a few cans of tuna and tossed it into the bag, then slid off the counter.

Barbarians, said Elritch. Leave that place and go find one whose inhabitants have some class.

"In a minute," said Lucas. He headed down the back hall.

What are you doing?

"Winter's coming," said Lucas, slightly embarrassed. "I- well. I mean, I'd kind of like to have- you know, while we're here. . . um. . ." He trailed off, his face flushing red.

Elritch mentally sighed and peeked into Lucas' mind proper to see what the boy was getting at.

Socks? he said incredulously.

Lucas nodded, though it was useless as Ritch couldn't see him. "And maybe a new shirt. This one's getting kind of tatty. If, you know. You don't mind. . ."

Fine. Just be quick about it.

A grin cut across the boys face. "Thanks, Ritch!" He ran into the first bedroom on the right and began looking through the closet. No good: the boy who lived in that room was a lot smaller than he was. He tried the next door over.

Hurry, said Ritch. You're taking too long.

"Hold your horses." The next one was the parent's room. He went straight for the closet and started rooting through man of the house's clothes.

Pick one and go, said Ritch. They're less than two blocks away.

"Crap!"

Lucas tossed two shirts into the bag and tore down the stairs. The kitchen was messy, but regular 'people-live-here' messy, not 'freshly-broken-in' messy. One of the things Lucas had learned on these runs was that people- especially families with kids- almost never noticed he was there, provided he didn't take too much or leave a mess. Who was going to take the loss of a few cans of tuna, or bag of chips seriously?

The back slider door was still open. He crept out and flicked the gear down, locking it behind him. After that, it was a quick trip out the side yard and down the front walk. None of the neighbors noticed him. Either they weren't home, they weren't paying attention, or they didn't care. It was all the same to him.

He didn't run. Running only made people suspicious. Instead, he walked briskly away from the scene of the crime.

Anything else? he thought.

A car drove by, the only noise in the otherwise quiet residential street. It went on down the road, completely oblivious to him, and pulled into the house he'd just left.

No. I think that's good for today. You'd better start heading back now before someone catches on.

You sure? You don't want anything else? There's probably a few more houses we haven't hit yet-

No, said Ritch. No. You're pushing your luck as it is. Just head back.

Lucas grinned. He could feel the worry in Ritch's voice.

"Okay, dad," he said, dripping as much sarcasm into the word as possible.

Ritch didn't say anything, but Lucas could feel the mental smile.

* * * * *

They lived in a condemned homeless shelter down town. The irony was not lost on them.

At one point, it would have been constantly filled with people in line for food and social workers for the state, but now it was mostly empty, and its windows were boarded up. Budget cuts had seen to it that the place was deserted, and Ritch had seen to it that it appeared very uninteresting to outsiders.

Lucas squeezed through a partially boarded window around the side of the building and came inside.

The inside was dark, dank, and full of trash he'd never bothered to clean up. Any and all repairs were done by Lou, which meant that a lot of repairs didn't get done. The corner closest to the front door was piled high with stolen or salvaged books and toys arranged around a mountain of smelly blankets. That was Lucas' nest.

On the other side of the room, diagonal from the nest and right next to the counters separating the room with the soup kitchen, was Ritch, hunched over and cocooned up to the neck in his own blankets. Sitting like he was then, he was a good seven feet tall and just a few foot shy of hitting the ceiling. He was completely bald, missing both eyebrows and head hair. He had a mouth and a nose, but no eyes Lou could see, just smooth patches of skin where they ought to have been.

Lou didn't know how tall Ritch really was, because he'd never seen him stand up. There was always a few large blankets over the lumps Lucas assumed were his legs, but Ritch never stretched them out or moved them. He never left the spot. In the back of his mind, Lucas sometimes found himself wondering if Ritch actually had legs at all, or if that was just lumps caused by more blankets beneath the ones on top. Lou never had the courage to ask. His skin was the pale, gray-white color of sun bleached concrete.

Ritch wasn't human. He wasn't even close. And he was the only family Lou had ever known.

"I'm ho-ome!" he shouted, emptying the contents of the sack onto the middle of the floor.

Ritch shifted slightly under the blankets. His head tilted towards Lou.

I don't understand why you insist on announcing that every time you return. It's not as though I can't tell.

"Just habit," He balled up his new shirts and tossed them into his corner. "Way too quiet 'round here, if you ask me. But hey, pretty good haul today, am I right?"

Ritch sniffed. I still can't believe that last house.

"Yeah, well, what'cha gonna do, huh? Here." He dug out a couple jars of peanut butter gathered earlier that morning and tossed them over to Ritch. "All yours."

Four arms as long as Lucas was tall with hands the size of spades darted out from behind the blankets and snatched the jars in mid-air. They twisted off the tops and began greedily scooping the innards into his mouth.

Thank you, said Ritch. It didn't matter that his mouth was full. He never used it to talk. We still need to get more, though.

"Yeah, I know. There's enough for maybe tomorrow, if you can pace yourself." He gathered up the rest of the food and took it to the adjacent kitchen.

Ritch stopped stuffing food into his mouth and stared straight ahead.

Hmm.

What? What is it? Lou came out of the kitchen, a box of cereal in his hands, his mouth full.

Cops, he said. A few patrol cars. Five of them, this time. All combing today’s neighborhood.

Lou set the box of the counter and wiped off his mouth. “Five? Really? Shit.”

We can’t go back there. They’re on to us.

“Jeez, you think? Aw, whatever. The place is cleared out for another two weeks ‘til they all go shopping again anyways.” He kicked off his sneakers and went to his nest.

I don’t like this. You were sloppy.

“Sure, blame me.” He started rearranging his bed.

I don’t blame you. I’m just worried.

Lucas snorted from beneath the covers. “Suuuure you are. Don’t worry. I can handle it. I’ll just have to go out farther next time. Someplace new. “

I don’t know-

“Relax. Get some rest. And lemme get some shut-eye, ‘kay?”

Ritch sighed. It was the only vocal noise Lou ever heard him make.

“G’night, Ritch.”

Goodnight, Lucas.

And with that, Ritch withdrew himself from the forefront of Lucas’ mind and gently helped usher in sleep. Since he didn’t have to sleep himself, he busied himself by creeping in to Lucas’ subconscious and monitoring the dreams there, making sure to only let the good ones pass.

* * * * *

Lucas walked down the street with the air of someone who knew exactly where he was going. Even though he didn't.

The new neighborhood was much nicer than any of the others he’d seen before. The lawns were tiny and well kept, the houses were huge and new looking, and the cars parked in the driveways looked old-fashioned and shiny.

I don't like this, said Ritch. His voice was small and weak. You're going too far away.

I have to Ritch, he thought back. He didn’t want to risk talking aloud in case someone happened to be paying attention. You said it yourself. They're on to us back home.

The house up ahead looked promising. Two story. Empty driveway. Lots of flowers. He walked around side of the garage and climbed on top of the trash bins. The window was dirty, but he could see well enough to know there weren't any cars inside. Score!

We could wait it out. We've done it before. Even at this distance, Ritch’s anxiety burned at the edges of Lucas' mind.

He sighed and went around to the back of the house, looking for a decent sized window. "Don't worry, Ritch. I'll be fine. Can you tell if there’s anyone inside?"

He waited a moment for Ritch to scan the house.

No, came the grudging reply. It’s clear.

“Well then there’s no problem, now is there?” He pulled the crow bar out of the duffel and got to work on the window.

Ritch didn’t answer. Lucas pried open the window and went inside.

* * * * *

The first house went smoothly. As did the second. By the fourth one, the duffel was almost full and Lucas had decided that this was the greatest neighborhood, ever.

“I’ve never even seen some of this stuff before! It’s all fancy!

Yes, very nice. Now come home. The connection’s stretched out as far as it’ll go, and I don’t think I can hold on much longer.

“Spoilsport,” he said. He unlatched the side gate of the fifth house and went into the backyard. “Hey, these guys have a pool!”

So?

“So it’s in the ground! I didn’t know they could do that!”

Lucas. . .

“Fine, fine. This is the last house, I promise. Hey, maybe next time I can come up and actually go for a swim, huh? Huh? What do you say, Ritch? Please?

Irritation flared up for a second before Ritch managed to squash it back down. Maybe, he said. But this is the last house for today, alright?

“Deal. Scan?”

It’s clear.

Lucas tried the kitchen window, and found it unlocked.

“Thanks, Ritch.”

This kitchen, like the others on the street, was filled with colorful, brand name foods, most of which Lucas was dying to try. The bag, however, was stuffed full. With a regretful sigh, Lucas put away the organic chip-things and slid off the countertop. Instead of heading for the back door, however, he went for the stairs.

Oh not again! said Ritch. What are you doing now?

I just want to check out the rest of the house, he thought.

But you’ve got the food! What more do you need?

I just want to look around.

Curiosity, said Ritch, not even bothering to hide his disgust. I wish you wouldn’t.

“I wish you wouldn’t worry so much.” He went to the master bedroom and started rooting around the closet. True, he had shirts now, but it was getting colder. He wanted something more. He wanted a jacket. A jacket all for himself. His jacket.

He'd just set himself on a thick brown one hiding in the back when there was a low growl behind him.

Uh, Ritch? he thought.

What?

The growl developed into a full-blown snarl. Slowly, he turned and found himself looking into the eyes of an unusually large, entirely hostile German Shepherd.

You didn't tell me there was a dog!

Dog? What dog? What's going on out there?

"Nice doggy, good doggy. . . "

It barked. A heavy, no-nonsense bark that knocked him right back onto his rump. He stepped backwards into the closet and stumbled backwards, through the hanging clothes until his back met wall. The dog stayed where it was and continued to snarl.

"Lucy!" shouted a man's voice. Heavy footsteps thumped their way upstairs.

Oh God.

What?

Somebody's home.

What? I don't sense anybody! It should be empty! He felt Ritch clawing desperately at his mind, trying to see through his eyes. It didn't work: they were too far apart.

The footfalls entered the room.

"Lucy, down."

The dog quieted, and there was a sound of metal sliding against metal.

"You know what that was?" said the man.

Lou didn't, but he had a good guess. "Yes," he squeaked.

"Good. Come out of there slowly. Hands on top of your head."

Lucas crawled out of the closet and saw the man for the first time. Big. Top heavy. Looked like he made a living off of beating up bears and towing trucks by hand. He did, indeed, have a gun.

I am so screwed, he thought.

What? said Ritch. Lucas, I can't tell what's going on. I think you're too far away. Lucas?

"Devon?" said the man. "Dev, is that you?" He lowered the gun. "Good God, Dev! I could'a shot you just then! What happened to you? And what the hell are you doing in my house? I'm fine with you comin' over, but you gotta at least tell me first. Why didn't you come in the front? I thought someone had broken in!"

"I-I don't-"

The man came closer and looked him over, frowning. "God, Dev. When was the last time you took a shower? You reek. Do your parents know you're here? I can't believe Mary would let you out of the house looking like this. Hey, Lucy- down! Down! Bad dog! I dunno what's got her riled-"

Lucas took a step back, away from the growling dog.

"Did you do something to her? Like pull her tail or something? I-" The man glanced up and saw the look of abject terror on Lucas' face.

"What? What's-" The man went stock still. For a long, awkward moment, the only noise in the room was that of the dog growling. Then he said, "You've got a bunch of scars 'round your eye."

Lucas resisted the urge to feel his face. "Yeah," he said. When that didn't seem to be enough, he added, ”Went through a window when I was a kid."

He remembered it clearly. It was a little after Ritch had found him, and it was the first break in he'd ever done. The guy had been home and had chased him to the second story. It had been a choice between getting arrested or taking a dive through a closed window. He probably would have just gone along if Ritch hadn't taken over and forced him through it. The cuts had taken weeks to heal up.

"You're not Devon."

Lucas shook his head.

"Oh. Oh shit." He stared at Lucas, eyes wide. "Oh Jesus. Oh hell." The man pointed the gun at Lou and jerked it towards the bed. "You- you just sit down. You don't move, you hear me? Not one Goddamned muscle."

Lucas did as he was told, wondering if this was the part where the man called the cops.

Ritch, I'm in a lot of trouble here.

"Lucy. Stay. Heel. Now kid, I'm going to make a call. If you even twitch, that dog is going to do her damndest to tear your throat out, understand?"

Lucas almost nodded, but stopped himself in time. "Yes."

The man set the gun down onto the dresser and pulled a phone out of his pocket. He flipped it open and said, "Contact list. Mary." He never took his eyes off Lucas. "Hello, Rob? Yeah, it's Tino. Hey, is Dev there? Yeah? Shit. Fucking hell. Listen, a kid just broke into my house- no, Sytha and the girls are out- everything's fine. But I got him right here and I think you and Mary are gonna want to see this. Yeah, hold on."

He held out the phone towards the bed and, after a second, made it make a strange chk-chk! Sound. He fiddled with it and then said into the receiver,

"You get that?" There was a moment of silence as the man listened intently to the other line. "Okay." He hung up.

"Am I going to jail?" Lucas croaked.

"Maybe,” said the man. "But not yet. There are some people who want to see you, first."

What's going on? said Ritch faintly.

People are coming. They want to talk to me.

He could feel Ritch boiling through, trying to take over, but still too far away to manage completely.

Run! Lucas found his muscles tensing. His heart pounded. Ritch may not have been able to take over completely, but he was releasing as much adrenaline into Lucas’ system as he could. Run or they'll hurt you! Run!

The man was talking. Lucas couldn't hear him through the blood pounding in his ears.

Run

He did.

He leapt over the dog, kicked off from the bed frame, plowed into the man, and then bolted into the hallway.

The dog was hot on his heels.

“Hey, wait!” the man shouted. "Lucy, fetch!"

Lucas was at the stairwell when the dog caught him. Just as he was jumping down the first few steps, the dog's muzzle clamped around his ankle and bit. Hard. There was a flash of pain as teeth cut into skin, a disorienting feeling of missing the intended step, and then an entirely different pain as his face met the stairs personally. After that, a more generic, all over pain as he went tumbling head over heels down to the floor.

He landed at the bottom of the stairs his lower half on the steps, other half on the living room carpet. He had a perfect view of the front door, but couldn't make himself move towards it. It was all he could do just to lie down and breathe. Something trickled down into his left eye. It took a second for him to register that it was blood.

The dog was still attached to his ankle. Apparently, she wasn't going to let a thing silly as a rapid procession of gravity stop her from fetching. She tried valiantly to pull him back up the stairs, digging her teeth deeper into his ankle and pulling as hard as she could.

Oh God owwie oww fuck!

"Shit,” said a voice from above. “Lucy, down.”

There was the sound of someone coming down the stairs the more usual way. Soon, a large pair of boots stepped into sight.

"Kid?" A hand came down from on high and touched his head. "Fuck."

The boots went away and he heard the man dialing. "A kid here just fell down the stairs. I need an ambulance at . ."

Ritch? The thought was muddled and weak. Can you hear me?

Silence on the other end. The front door opened up, and a man and woman entered. She saw him and screamed. "Oh my God!"

He winced.

Ritch, I'm sorry. I think I blew it. And then the world went blissfully dark.

* * * * *

Ritch felt the connection sever in the same way someone feels the wind getting knocked out of them. Suddenly and, though not entirely unexpectedly, shocking all the same.

Lucas? Lucas!

There was no answer.

Elritch Throdaeous Morphos Vernii tried very hard to remain calm.

It's fine, he thought. He's fine.

He's not fine, said a creeping little voice of reason. He was terrified.

He's fine. Things have gone rocky before, and he's always pulled through.

Any minute now, Lucas would reestablish the connection. He'd laugh at Ritch for worrying, and then brag about how he managed to wriggle out of the mess. Things were going to be fine.

He's gone. Gone forever. Gone like all the others. You're on your own, now. Gone, gone-

He shifted in his pile of blankets and tried desperately to squash the thought.

What if he wasn't dead? What if he wass hurt? What if they'd hurt him? What if they were psychopaths? What if he was tied up in their basement, being horribly tortured and cut up into a million little pieces-

You can't lose this one too.

Slowly, as though he wasn't quite sure what he was doing, Ritch placed two of his hands on the ground before him, spaced a little farther out than the width of his shoulders. The other two were positioned on the wall behind him, rotating completely in their sockets in a way human arms couldn't manage. He pressed off with the back and toppled forward onto the first arms. Before he fell over entirely, he swiveled the other two around and started spider-crawling towards the front door.

The blankets fell away, revealing mangled stumps of varying length that once might've been legs, or might've been something else. Whatever they were, they were completely atrophied, and the places where they'd been cut off were slowly turning black.

He reached the doorway and began effortlessly tearing off the boards. He threw open the door and-

Sunshine. Cars driving by. Someone walking on the other side of the street.

He slammed the door shut.

It was daytime outside. There were people. They would see him. The 'ignore us' trick only worked so well, and these days people had phone cameras. Video recorders. Things he couldn't fool.

He couldn't leave. Not yet.

I'm sorry, Lucas, he thought, dragging himself back to his corner. I can't. I'm sorry.

He buried himself beneath the blankets and waited for night to fall.

* * * * *

Lucas woke up in a hospital with a splitting headache and an IV attached to his arm. He knew it was a hospital because he'd seen a TV show about doctors once when Ritch let him hang out in a house with a big screen TV. This room was small and whitish and reeked of cleaning products and antiseptic. The lights were over-bright, and there were a few chairs by the wall. It even had a TV hanging up in the corner, just like the patient rooms on the TV show. Unlike the show, though, the only bed in the room was the one he was lying in.

Ritch? he thought groggily. Ritch? Where am I? What happened?

There was no answer.

Oh come on, are you mad at me? It's not my fault! A fuzzy memory made its way through the murk in his head. You didn't tell me they had a dog!

Nothing. For the first time in a very long time, Lucas was alone.

Okay. There was no need to panic. He just had leave before anyone noticed.

He tried sitting up, and found that he couldn't. Everything about him felt heavy and stiff. Like. . . like-

Like you fell down the stairs, genius.

He groaned and tried to rub his head, only for his wrist to catch on something. There was the tinkling of metal. Handcuffs. Whoever had brought him here had handcuffed him to the bed so he couldn't get away. Further inspection revealed that the ankle the dog had been chewing on was thoroughly bandaged. The best he could do with it was wiggle his toes.

Oh hell I'm screwed.

Just when he was seriously beginning to consider how long it would take to gnaw his arm off, voices floated in from down the hall.

"He's over here," said a deep, male voice. "They've had him sedated, but he should be waking up soon."

"Can we talk to him?" said a woman's voice. "I- I just want to talk to him."

"Mary. . . " said a different man's voice. Lighter. Airier.

"I just want to talk to him!"

Several people entered the room, then. One was the large man from last night. Lucas flinched, expecting to be yelled at. Instead, the man averted his eyes, refusing to look at him and instead look at the floor. The other was a nurse who immediately began fiddling with the IV. The third was a police officer, who was talking to the fourth, a man Lucas didn't recognize.

The last was a woman who watched him with wide, blue eyes. She looked- afraid? Kind of hungry. The look made the hair on the back of his neck prick up and gave him the urge to run. She was holding onto a couple of brown binders.

"How are you feeling?" said the nurse.

"Like I fell down the stairs."

She smiled and shone a flashlight into his eyes. He didn't know where the flashlight it had come from: one second her hand was empty, the next it was there.

"Follow the light. Good. Now, I'm going to ask you a few questions. . . "

She did. When she was satisfied that his brain wasn't leaking out though his ears, she spoke with the other adults in the room in a footballer's huddle, then left.

Well, that was one down. Now to just get the others to leave. . .

The officer pulled up a chair and sat, smiling at him.

"Hello, son. My name is Officer Dalton. And your name is. . . ?"

"None of your business."

The smile didn't change in the slightest. "Do you know where you're at?"

"Hospital," he muttered, looking away. There was something about the cop's smile that put him on edge. He didn't like cops. Ritch had told him everything he'd ever need to know about them.

"That's right. You know why?"

"Fell down the stairs."

"While you were robbing Mr. Jacob's house. Yes."

Lucas flushed.

"Do you know who these people are?" He gestured to the man, the woman, and Mr. Jacobs. Jacobs still wasn't looking at him, but the man and woman. . .

He quickly looked away. The looks they gave him made chills run up his spine. They were so eager.

"No. I don't know who they are."

"Son, where do you live? Do you have family we can call? A guardian? Or have you just been on the streets?"

"I ain't sayin' nothin'."

The officer sighed. To the man and woman, he said, "The social worker will be here soon. If you'd like to take a try. . . "

"I'm gonna go," said Jacobs. "I can't do this- this is all yours. You don't need me. I'll go check on Dev and Sytha and the girls."

"Go," said the man. "Thanks, Tino. For everything."

Tino waved him off and left the room without looking at Lucas.

The woman took a deep breath and went to sit beside Lucas. Not on the chair, as the officer had done, but on the bed itself.

"Hi," she said softly.

He nodded at her. "'Sup?"

The smile she gave him was broken. It looked more like she'd taken a bit out of something sour and was trying hard not to spit it out. Her eyes were glassy.

"Do you know who I am?"

"Not a clue."

"My name is Mary. Mary Jacobs. This," she gestured to the man. "Is my husband, Robert Jacobs. Do- do you want to tell us your name?"

"Lady, if I didn't tell the cop, then what the heck makes you think I'll tell you?"

He immediately felt like an ass. The woman looked like he'd flat out slapped her. She didn't say anything about it, though, and instead touched up her broken smile and started laying out her binders.

"Do you want to tell me why were you in my brother in-law's house?"

"I was robbing him," he said flatly. "I broke into his kitchen. I picked through his cupboards, took what I wanted, and then I went upstairs to take a jacket. Because it's cold." He looked straight at the cop. "Is that what you want to hear?"

The officer smiled vaguely and said nothing. The woman, however, said, "So you were hungry?'"

"I'm always hungry."

"So your family doesn't feed you?" She flipped through the pages of the binders, looking for something.

"I feed myself. Listen, is this going to take long? 'Cause if I'm going to jail, I'd like to get a move on. If not, then my head's killing me and I could use some more pain meds."

"Please," she said. "I want you to look through these."

He glanced down at the binders. They were full of white pages of paper and photos attached to the insides.

"Will you do that for me? Just look through these."

Lucas rolled his eyes and took the first album with his free hand. Just to humor her. Anything to not have to look into that creepily eager face.

Babies. Two of them, sitting in little feetie pajamas, looking up at the camera with gummy smiles. Next one, babies again. Toddlers, dressed up for hallowed: one as a pumpkin, the other as a black cat with face paint whiskers.

"I don't see how-"

"Please."

Crazy lady.

He flipped ahead a few pages. The two kids were older, here, and standing in front of a giant yellow flower bush. One looked utterly pissed off and was glaring at the camera with all the disdain a little kid could manage. The other was smiling brightly, his hands tucked behind his back. Lucas was terrible about guessing ages, but the handy note scrawled in the corner told him that Devon and Conner were seven years old in that picture.

He flipped ahead another few pages and found a school portrait.

The picture was of a kid roughly his age. Dark hair, brown eyes, slightly chubby face, wearing clean clothes- probably a school uniform. The note at the bottom said it was Devon, seventh grade, dated last year.

He looked up at the man and woman. "What is this?" He held up the book. "What the hell is this?"

"That's our son," said the man. "His name is Devon." He cleared his throat. "He turned fourteen, last month."

Lucas stared at the photo. There were no mirrors back home- why would they need them? But he did occasionally look into the mirrors in public restrooms, or the houses he broke in to. Just so he knew what other people saw when they were looking at him.

The picture in the album was of him. A cleaner, better-fed, slightly paler, scar-free, smiling version of him.

"That's. . . that's not right." His hands shook. "No. No, that's wrong. This is all wrong."

"We had two sons," said the man. "His brother. Connor. He-"

The woman broke. She suddenly came forward and wrapped her arms around him, weeping into his shoulder.

"You're alive," she sobbed. "I knew you were. I knew it."

"I- what?" Lou looked to the man and was horrified to see tears in his eyes, as well.

"My baby's alive," said the woman. She rocked back and forth, clutching him hard enough to make breathing difficult. "My baby's back."

"I'm not!" He looked at the cop, hoping for some help. "I'm really not."

The cop shrugged. "The doc's have already gotten a DNA sample. It'll be a while before it's done, but-"

"Connor-" said the man.

He pushed the woman away with his free arm. "My name's not Connor! My name's Lucas! My name is Lucas, and this is jacked up. You people are crazy. You, cop. Dalton. Either arrest me or let me out of here."

"You are our son," said the woman. "I know you are."

"No. Fuck and no. Ritch," he said to the air. "Now would be a good time to come in and rescue me."

"Ritch?" said Dalton. "Who's Ritch?"

"A ten foot tall four armed mutant. Let me out of here."

"Is he the man that took you?" said Robert.

Lucas clamped his mouth shut before he said anything else stupid.

"Connor, please-"

He turned his back to them and pulled the covers around himself tighter. His hands balled into fists.

Above, he heard them all talking. The cop talking about an ongoing investigation. How things take time. The husband talking about the social worker due to visit. The mother talking about the boy who looked like him- Devon. How, they all agreed, Lucas needed some time to himself.

But that was all secondary. The one thought, burning at the front of his mind and dwarfing everything else was;

Ritch. You and I have so much to talk about.

* * * * *

He didn't get his chance to talk to Ritch until later than night, and when he did, he found that talking to Ritch was the last thing he wanted to do.

Lucas!

Oh. So now you show up.

He pulled the covers over his head and turned onto his side. It was probably around midnight. Maybe later. There was a clock in the room, but it was analogue, and he didn't know how to read those.

The man and woman were asleep in their chairs. They'd left for a while earlier, and then again for the social worker's visit, but after, they'd come back and refused to leave. After a few failed attempts at conversation, they'd gone quiet and had finally fallen asleep. He watched them. They leaned against one another, his head on top of hers, her head on his shoulder. Outside, the hospital was filled with muffled beeping noises, of the feet of the night staff scuffing across the floor and other, unidentifiable noises, but in here, the only sounds were of them breathing.

Lucas, get the hell out of there.

He shifted onto his back. Can't. Sorry. Handcuffed.

Fine, I'll take care of it.

He felt Ritch creeping in to his head, like motor oil dripping through cracks in the pavement.

Ritch, no! Get out of my head.

Ritch drew back, tangibly confused. What? What's wrong?

I don't want to talk to you, Ritch. Lucas thought back.

What happened? No, wait. I'll look for myself. He began rifling around through Lucas' memories, tossing aside the irrelevant ones until-

Oh.

Yeah, said Lucas. Oh.

Lucas. . .

Go away, Ritch. I don't want to talk to you.

I can't let you stay there.

The compulsion hit him then. The overpowering urge to go. He grit his teeth and clutched at the corners of the mattress.

Stop it!

You're only dragging it out, said Ritch. I need to talk to you.

The compulsion stopped, leaving him breathless and shaking with unused adrenaline. After a few seconds of quiet nothing, he tentatively allowed himself to relax.

Ritch, he thought as loudly as he could. I can't. I'm at the hospital. My leg-

The compulsion swamped over him again, twice as strong as before. This time, Ritch was at the head of it. He took control of Lucas' arms, braced against the metal bed frame, and retched, disregarding all of the muscular and mental mechanisms made specifically so this sort of thing wouldn't happen. Lucas' wrist dislocated with a snap and flew out of the cuff.

He howled in pain.

I'm sorry! said Ritch, forcing him to tear out the IV. I'm so sorry, Lou. I'll shut it off for you. The pain stopped immediately, but he kept screaming until Ritch forced his mouth shut.

The Jacobs jolted awake just in time to see him leap off the bed despite his bandaged foot and run out the door.

He tore down the hospital hallways unhindered and left through a back exit, out into the parkinglot.

It's raining! he snarled at Ritch, keeping up the pace.

How do you think I feel? said Ritch. I had to crawl out into this- this weather.

Lou said nothing and followed the tugging in his head. The run wasn't far. The pull lead him to the old railway, to an old cargo train that had stopped for the night. Ritch was inside an empty cattle car that was still strewn with bits of hay from the last load. Ritch was in the corner, managing to take up a good chunk of car despite his attempts at huddling up.

Lucas didn't go inside. He stopped just outside the car's entrance and stood in the rain, arms crossed.

"Well?"

You're getting wet, said Ritch.

"Tell me why I'm here, Ritch. Tell me why I shouldn't just leave."

You can’t.

“Why not?” His fists shook. “Why the hell not, Ritch? Are you going to make me stay?”

I have to explain.

“You kidnapped me. You took me from my family. You said- you said I didn’t have anyone. You said I was alone. You lied to me. You wanna try and explain that?”

Lucas. Come inside.

"My name's not Lucas! That isn't even my real name!"

Please come inside. You're going to get sick.

Lucas said nothing.

I promise I'll explain everything. Just, please. Get out of the rain.

“. . . Fine.”

He climbed into the car and sat cross legged on the opposite side. Ritch immediately offered him a blanket. He didn't take it.

"Talk."

You're going to get sick-

"Talk."

I don't-

"Talk or I leave." He kept his eyes on the floor.

Ritch gave up.

Where do you want me to start?

"The beginning."

There was a long moment of silence.

I was hurt, he said eventually. I couldn’t go out on my own. I couldn’t get food. I couldn’t move. I needed somebody. I needed help.

There were people around. Always people.

The first ones I tried didn't work. I pushed them too hard, and their minds were too rigid. They felt me and they fought. The first few broke. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know. But something inside them snapped and shattered, and they were left gibbering. Useless.

I learned to be gentle. I learned to ease my way into them. Those ones didn’t break, so long as I let them go on time. If I waited too long, they started to crack. They’d get taken by the ones around them and get locked away. They couldn’t help me, then.

They taught me, though. The older they were, the harder they fought. The stiffer their minds, the more easily broken they were. I didn’t want one that would fight me. I didn’t want one that would have to leave all the time, that could only drop off a bag of food before returning to the outside world. I didn’t want one that would be missed, or be taken away suddenly if their families noticed something wrong.

He went silent. Lucas continued staring at the floor. “Go on,” he croaked.

They had a spare! The emotion behind the words nearly knocked Lucas back. If you had been their only one, that would have been different, but they had a spare! Another just like you, while I had nothing! I saw them walking by, the man and woman and you and the other one. So I claimed you. I latched onto you, and that night, I called you to me, just like I did tonight.

I let you forget them. You didn’t need them anymore. You had me.
You would be different from the other ones. I wouldn’t let anyone take you. I wouldn’t let you break. I’d take care of you. And I have, haven’t I? We were a team, weren’t we?

There was a brief second where Lucas felt the tendrils in the words latching on. There was an even briefer struggle where he tried to get them out. But he’d been groomed to be malleable, and Ritch knew his work well. Ten seconds later, and the boy was completely unaware that anything had just passed between them.

Lucas slumped. “Yeah,” he said, “We were the greatest.”

Are the greatest. Over a hundred houses and we never got caught.

There was a hint of something in Ritch's voice, but Lucas couldn't think through the fog to find out what it was. Instead, he let it go and smiled tiredly. “Except for the first one. And that last one.”

Those don’t count. The first was practice, the last one cheated.

“Right. Whatever you say.”

You don’t need them. They don’t need you. They have one of you already.

"Devon," he said. "I guess my brother's name is Devon." He wondered suddenly if his parents were looking for him.

It doesn't matter if they are.

Little by little, the concern drained away. So what if that man and woman were looking for him? So what if his name was actually-

He frowned. He couldn't remember. The name was on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn't say it.

It doesn't matter.

"Yeah. Right, Ritch. It doesn't." He suddenly felt very tired. Ritch held out a blanket. With a yawn, Lucas crawled over and took it. He curled up gratefully on the spot, not bothering to make the trip back to his corner.

"Thanks," he mumbled.

You're welcome, Lucas.

"They're gonna look for us, aren't they?"

Yes. But don't worry. The train's going to the Midwest. They won't find us. It'll be a fresh start.

He yawned again. "Tha'ss good, I guess."

It is. There was the smallest spike of uncertainty. I'm doing this for your own good, you know.

Lucas couldn't bother to speak. He was too tired. The adrenaline was gone, and even if he didn't feel any different, his leg and wrist and various other bits still needed to heal.

I do Ritch. Thank you. The world began to fade.

I mean it. I know what's best.

Mmmhmm.

You have to trust me. You trust me, right?

Lucas didn't answer; he was already asleep.

Ritch sighed and shifted in his corner. He absently reached out to touch Lucas' hair, just to make sure he was-

He scowled. What? To make sure he was there? Ridiculous. He brought his hand back and settled down. It would be hours until sunrise. Hours before the train would take them away. So to kill the time, he peered into the boy's mind and watched over his dreams, as he always did.

It begins

My name is Walter Kenneth Birmingham, and I am a priest of dark gods. A freelance priest, as a matter of fact. I learned my craft all by my lonesome, reading in ancient, skin-bound books, poking through even more ancient, cyclopean cities in the forgotten corners of the world and, when I had no other recourse, summoning, binding, and making dark pacts with the servants of the Elder Gods themselves.

 

...No shock. No amazement. Certainly no horror at the thought of your thin veneer of sanity being stripped away, leaving you confronted with the horrid truth of what reality really looks like. Oh, no, don't say it, don't...Damn it. I hate that word. "Cool." "Cool!" Modern America. Hah! The turn of the century was better. No, scratch that, the 1830s were better, and they were quite possibly the most boring decade I ever had the misfortune to live through. No respect for your forebears, that's the problem. Not one inkling of the hardships we faced in the early days, back when everything was ice and desolation, when the only other human being you saw were eyes in the trees, belonging to people that everyone knew were cannibalistic demons bent on your destruction and the ruination of your soul. Nobody these days knows what it's like to hope and pray that the food would last through the winter, or that the livestock wouldn't get taken in the night...

 

...You're still looking at me like that. I can see that you want, no, demand proof. Very well. Here's what my soul looks like.

 

...Yes...Now you see. This is the truth, the unwashed, unfil--

The unfilt--

The un--

Look, will you please just STOP SCREAMING?!

THANK you.

A-hem. Where was I? Oh, yes...I am a freelance priest of dark gods. It's an interesting line of work, to be sure. Pays well, on average, and the fringe benefits are amazing, and that's not even mentioning the respect you get in certain metaphysical circles. Not many people can manage to hold their own against cosmic entities older than the last four iterations of the Universe and full of enough barely-repressed power and malice to turn you to atoms with nary a thought. I will admit, I am somewhat proud of this accomplishment, but really, it's all a matter of knowing which buttons to push and knives to twist.

Really. That's all that it is. For example, the Seneschal with Infinite Eyes desires knowledge of mortal experience. For the mere price of a few memories, you can see through His eyes.

The Voiceless Mother of All Flesh wants pain. For the price of a fleeting instant of pain, you gain complete mastery over your body.

The Swarming Host of Death's Own Putrescence will let you know precisely how and when you're going to die. After that, you're immune to earthly disease and most injuries.

There are others who have...blessed...me with their gifts, over the years. And that is the easy way. The hard way is to sift through ancient texts written in languages long-since forgotten for the barest fraction of truth, or trekking to the few places in the world where Their power still holds sway without constant sacrifice and devotion and nosing into corners that you really shouldn't be in. Doing this all and retaining your mind is challenging, but it can be done.

Why am I telling you this, I hear you asking? Well, it's because I desire a pupil. Yes, you. No, I'm not joking. Look, I'm about to die very soon, and I'm not about to let the knowledge of centuries get flushed down the drain here. Whaddya say?

Hmm? Well, if you refuse? That depends. How much of a death wish do you have?

Look, I'm trying to be serious here, and you--

This is hardly digni--

I, out of the goodness of my heart, decided to not ki--

STOP LAUGHING!

THANK YOU.

I was being dead serious, thank you. You've heard too much for me to let you live. Oh, there you go with that damn laughter again. Look, I...

Hang on. Somebody's in the building...That's not right. Give me a second to let my mind wander...There. Five of them. Heavily armed. Damn them. Damn them. Didn't I teach them to leave well enough alone? Well...Time to give you a more practical demonstration of the kind of power you will wield. Won't that be fun? Yess....

First, I'll turn my arm into a weapon....AAaghgaAAaaegghhh....Good. You didn't even scream this time, and you don't seem catatonic. Oh, stop staring.

Stay here for a moment...

.................................

"You expect me to beg, old man?"

No. I expect you to die!

............

Now. Wasn't that a fun little demonstration? Surely, such power is irresistable! Oh, what's that look for, hmm? Calm down, lad. It'll be fine. Just remember to breathe, and we'll get started with the first lesson. Here. Let me untie you. The first lesson must be whispered, for it is the most poweful. Come here. Good. Now hold still and listen...

...

Good. It worked. Aaahhh. Much better. Ha-hah! It worked! IT WORKED! And you fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. Don't look at me like that. You couldn't have thought I was serious, now could you? HAH! Oh, you're so stupid I almost pity you. Hmm. Nice body, by the way. I can tell you took good care of it. Didn't smoke, didn't drink...And the best part of that little ritual is the brand new soul that comes with it. How's my old one doing, by the way? Hmm?  

Hehahahahaha....If there's any of your mind left in that old body, then know that there's nothing personal, kid. I just didn't want to die. It was just business, that's all. I'm looking forward to the next few decades, kid. A brand new body to practice all the tricks I know in, a brand new soul to trade, and that beautiful little girlfriend who's probably wondering why you haven't called her. Oh, showing her what I know is going to be fun...

Gotta go, kid. There's a cult in Albany who's paying me ten million bucks to poison a maternity ward. I'll leave you to finish matters with my body. Enjoy the buzzing...

 

 

+++++++++

Cue the music

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