The lawyers arrived from beyond the gate that bordered the property. Rose was pretty sure they hadn’t truly approached. They were there, but they hadn’t come from further away. They hadn’t crossed the space from some distant point to there, before they’d started to make their way up the shattered driveway.
Folding space, or manipulating connections, Rose couldn’t be wasn’t sure. It wasn’t like demons didn’t open doors into messing with the fundamental structures of things.
An ugly thought, that. If they were drawing on demons every time they paid a visit…
Rose eyed the lawyers as they approached. Levinn was the most recognizable, an older man, veteran member of the firm. She also recognized the driver that had taken her to Toronto before the Conquest fiasco, though she didn’t remember specifics-
Memories flooded her mind. Out of place, out of sync with her own. As if viewed from the wrong perspective, the words and responses jarring with her own.
A conversation with the driver. Word choice, priorities, meaning. Getting the book Black Lamb’s Blood.
It didn’t feel good, and her head pounded uncomfortably, the edges of her thoughts burning or dissolving into static at the edges, recovering slowly.
“Tone it down,” she murmured.
Alister shot her a look.
She shook her head a little. “Nothing.”
Walking behind the group was the creepy man who had delivered supplies to the house after her return from Toronto. Long haired, prone to leering, he’d always struck her as the type that had probably been one of the worst kinds of diabolists, before.
Of the two new practitioners she didn’t recognize, one seemed to be occupied by something. He came across as more Other than human, with dark circles under the eyes, and an unhealthy color and texture to his flesh. When he was viewed with her Sight, it became clear that something crawled beneath the skin.
Bringing the total number of demons present up by one.
“What have you gotten us into?” the Elder Sister asked, under her breath.
As the lawyers crossed the distance to Ms. Lewis’ side, the group from Toronto backed away, forming loose battle lines as they did so. A few weapons were discreetly drawn.
Rose used Conquest’s eyes to assess the situation, and she didn’t like what she saw. If she stood on the other end of the battlefield, assessing the assembled group, she could have pinpointed a number of ways to break them, just by body language alone.
A lack of teamwork, obvious at a glance. This was a motley crew, press-ganged into fighting by necessity. Certain things stood out as being particularly vulnerable.
The Astrologer was a member of the group, but stood alone, apart from the others.
The sphinx was reacting to the demons with more fear and alarm than anyone else. Isadora had backed away more than anyone else, when the group had retreated some. The fear of demons was apparently stronger when one was immortal. Or was it that the sphinx noticed things that others didn’t?
Paige, the sphinx’s follower, hadn’t realized just how much Isadora had backed away, and stood off to one side, just a little more vulnerable.
Rose’s own group, huddled within the damaged diagram, hadn’t moved at all. On a level, consciously or unconsciously, the members of Toronto had put the group between themselves and the assembled enemy, imps and lawyers both.
If that continued, it could spell disaster.
“What a grotesque lot,” the sphinx spoke. Wary as she was, she didn’t let it show in her tone.
“Petty insults?” the old man asked.
“You seem poised for a war,” the Elder Sister observed.
“You seem to be under the impression that this will be anything but one sided,” Levin spoke. “Lewis? Please. There are things to look after.”
Ms. Lewis nodded. She squared her shoulders.
Rose felt her heartbeat pick up.
Blake was inside her, feeding her parcels of information. Collecting memories, pushing them to the surface.
Grandmother’s notes on the lawyers. Observations, collected across the diaries.
All drawn together like this, one after another, Rose found her head making a few connections that she hadn’t made when reading the diaries back-to-front, several times over.
Grandmother had written about every aspect of her life, and for the most part, she had been frank. The diaries were diaries, and they held all the weaker and more embarrassing moments of adolescence, of romance and a brief affair with Aimon Behaim. Even a visit to New York, to meet with a cabal of diabolists, for discussion, the trading of books, and an orgy.
She’d detailed her family life, which had been a challenge in every respect. Finding a husband had been hard, when she’d been limited to Jacob’s Bell, and a husband that met her requirements was harder still. She’d settled on a young man who was in Jacob’s Bell to dodge trouble, and had written about being relieved when he’d dodged Jacob’s Bell and his fledgling family too. Compared to so many other mothers out there, she’d written so little of family. They were an obligation, something she had little care for. Her grandchildren had piqued more interest, but she’d watched them from a distance, interfering only periodically and anonymously.
All this was committed to paper. She’d held nothing back, and she’d still been willing to leave her diaries for Rose to find. Regular updates over the course of a long life.
It was, Rose realized, akin to the way a legal office might send a file, along with dozens or hundreds of other boxes of files.
The information in demand was there, it was only buried.
Family, husband, romance, sex, each had their turn at being glossed over. But Lewis, Levin, and Mann were there, regularly, details provided.
Blake brought up the various little details and notes, one after another.
Ms. Lewis made eye contact with Rose, and the expression was unreadable. Not cold, not angry, simply disconnected.
“Murr,” Ms. Lewis said, and the name was an intonation. “Please.”
Murr unfurled its wings. Black feathered, the wings spread, and the shadows grew deeper, spreading in every direction, as though the light sources were growing smaller. In this perpetual night, the darkness was already thick. Murr made it impenetrable.
One by one, the figures rose and stepped from the midst of the shadows, as if passing through thresholds.
Fell was first. He staggered a little as he stepped forward, caught himself, then straightened. He’d emerged armed, guns in hand.
“Malcolm,” Fell’s niece said.
Callan appeared second. Worn out, worn down.
Laird was third. He straightened his jacket, and the gesture seemed eerily Laird-like. The way he held himself with his chin up, so very casually, as if he looked down on everyone, just a tiny bit, even when he looked, well, like he’d died and come back.
There were others, but they were others that Rose didn’t recognize. Deceased belonging to other members of the group. Someone for the Knights, dressed in the same rough, not-trying-very-hard way that the Knights had, carrying a gun.
Two women for the Sisters, one older, one middle-aged. Maybe ones killed in the fight that had risen up around Conquest.
Someone for the Astrologer. Rose couldn’t place the name, but she knew who he was. The mentor figure.
Three children, for the Shepherd.
Alexis followed. She’d been dead for a shorter time than the others, and she didn’t look quite so damaged. Her expression was terribly sad.
Seeing Alexis was like a punch in the gut. Rose tried to swallow and found it difficult, and that in itself was alarming.
To the best of her recall, searching back through all of her memories, she couldn’t remember ever missing someone. Regret and heartache weren’t part of her emotional makeup. In part, that was because she’d never had anyone to lose.
This sort of emotional distraction wasn’t what she needed right now.
Focus. Bringing back the dead? It didn’t make sense. That wasn’t how demons operated.
She glanced over her shoulder, in the direction of Faysal.
Was it possible? As a gatekeeper, he theoretically had access to any place, anywhere. It was possible that he could provide access to some realm of the dead.
No. Too many issues came up with that. Alexis, if she’d died in the abyss, had to belong to the Abyss.
She eyed four new arrivals. Black and featureless from head to toe.
Broken, somehow. There but not there. They didn’t move, didn’t react.
Three for her group, all three short, diminutive, one even looking at Evan. One for the Knights.
There were more emerging.
“Tricks,” she said, aloud. Not wholly because she believed it, but she said it because there would be far too many people here who would be put off guard, their heartstrings tugged at seeing someone they’d lost.
She had to establish it as a ruse, or the demon’s side would make their moves, and Rose’s allies wouldn’t have the wherewithal to fight back.
“No,” Fell replied, shutting her down, just like that. “I’m sorry.”
Rose clenched her teeth.
They could talk. That wasn’t good.
Zombies or effigies wearing the faces of loved ones were one thing. But this?
“Help,” Ainsley said. “Uncle Laird, the people standing behind you are not your allies here.”
“They don’t matter,” Laird said. “This is between me and my family. Just as Fell’s business is between him and his niece.”
“Rose too,” Fell said. “At least, as long as she acts as a host for Conquest. And Diana? I’m sorry, but you did kill me.”
“Oh,” Laird said. “Are we doing revenge, too?”
“We’re doing revenge,” Fell said, with conviction.
They knew each other? Fell knew about Conquest?
No, of course they knew each other. A major practitioner in Jacob’s Bell wouldn’t be able to function without some relationships to the major cities in the area, and Fell had been Conquest’s right hand man.
But Fell knew about Conquest.
She turned to the Sight, and she tuned her vision.
She took an involuntary step back, bumping into Christoff and nearly knocking him over.
The connections that tied the revived to others were eroding.
No, not quite eroding. They were consuming, drawing fuel, and destroying in the process. Dozens or hundreds of candle flames slowly eating at so many wicks.
Many of those wicks led to people who were present.
It was reminiscent of the broken connections that had been visible here and there, after Blake had been eaten. The damage that had left Alexis sobbing without explanation, or Ty’s head going in circles. Evan had been the most affected on that front.
“They’re tainted,” Rose said. “Don’t get close to them. And I’m not just talking physical closeness. They’re consuming everything around them.”
“That’s what that is,” Alister said.
“I’ve seen it before,” Rose said.
“If you hadn’t seen us before, I would be very worried,” Callan said. “Grew up together. I gave you goddamn baths, when you were still shitting in diapers.”
Tiff clutched Christoff a little tighter.
Rose spoke louder, “You aren’t revived. You’re mockeries. Very accurate mockeries. You’re actively consuming everything around you. Ignis Fatuus. Fool’s fire. Candles to draw the moths.”
Except they’re liable to do a hell of a lot worse than burn us.
The shadow figures were spreading out, and they either couldn’t see or apparently didn’t care about the imps that lurked between, pacing, joining them in spacing themselves out.
It did, Rose noted, have the upside that her side was closing ranks, drawing together, preparing to fight shoulder to shoulder if they had to.
“I’m real,” the Astrologer’s mentor said. “I can feel my heartbeat, I have all of my memories.”
Gods. Rose could tell how the Astrologer was holding onto every word. A bomb could have gone off and it probably wouldn’t have torn the woman’s eyes from him, her ears from his words.
“I can remember reading you bedtime stories,” Fell said, to his niece. “You can ask questions.”
He reached out, stepping forward.
The girl didn’t move. Her hand, however, rose from her side.
The Elder Sister reached out, ring flaring. Flame erupted, and it drew a line of fire between Fell and the child.
When the smoke cleared, Fell had a gun pointed at the Sister. “If you don’t believe I’m real, I could pull the trigger right now.”
The Sister didn’t speak or react.
Everyone had gone still.
Except, Rose noted, the lawyers. Levin was gone, absent. The other Lawyers had retreated. Eerie, to realize how much they’d been able to maneuver, with this distraction.
It was a wake up call, of sorts, to the fact that this was a distraction. A damn good, dangerous distraction, but a distraction all the same.
The imps were lurking amid and behind Murr’s creations. The only ones who weren’t primed, tensed, and ready to attack or defend at a moment’s notice were the ones the mockeries were successfully getting to, and even they were straining to hold themselves back. Fell’s niece, the Astrologer, Christoff…
A horrible form of fighting, this. To prey on those who bared their hearts the most.
“This is a great deal messier than I would have hoped,” the angel spoke, in a deep, melodic voice, far removed from the dark scene.
“I really did try to keep it simple,” Ms. Lewis said.
“I believe you. But that doesn’t change that things are far from simple now.”
“Blame the Thorburn diabolist,” Ms. Lewis said. “She was the one who conspired to raise the stakes.”
“I did warn you,” Isadora said, behind Rose. When Rose turned, the sphinx was already looking, making eye contact. “The best thing you could have done would be to simply end your own existence. Now look at where things stand.”
“I don’t remember that warning,” Rose said.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Isadora said.
Rose felt more than a little heated at that, much as if she’d been talking to Blake, enduring his casual disregard for her, or how monumentally difficult he was making her life. She wished she had some means of retaliating, telling the sphinx to shove it, somehow, without hurting the group’s cohesion.
Blake probably would have.
But the stirring of anger was different than she was used to. Harder to pinpoint, when Rose was often very good at figuring out what was going on with her head and her heart.
A bit of indignation she hadn’t had before? Stubbornness?
“I don’t want to die,” Rose said, aloud. “I don’t plan to.”
This line from Peter.
The act of rebellion, standing up for herself, it went a long ways toward centering herself.
Have to assert control, break this illusion.
“You don’t want to die?” Callan asked. “What about me? What about us? Huh!? We’ve died. We’ve seen what there is, after.”
Fell, the imp’s Knight, and Alexis were nodding in agreement.
“Bullshit!” Peter said. “You lying fuck!”
The ‘bullshit’ was becoming a refrain, almost a catchphrase.
“It’s true,” the Astrologer’s mentor spoke. “I was a good person. Paid my dues. I was a good person, wasn’t I, Die? I know I didn’t do the family thing, but, I took care of you, right? As a scholar, I contributed to the betterment of people in general?”
Diana nodded, and there was a fierceness to the gesture.
The look on the man’s face was terribly sad. “Then take it from me. Even for the good guys, every second of being dead is a kind of torture.”
Diana reacted as if she’d been struck. She backed away a few steps, making an unintelligible sound.
Her mentor didn’t follow, and it was a break from the pattern where they’d been inching closer.
It lent his words a fraction more authenticity.
Freshly armed with a bit more caring and sensitivity than she’d had, Rose was trying to find some way to reach out, to convince these people about what was happening.
It was a flailing attempt at trying to figure out a strategy. Blind, unsuccessful, unfamiliar.
And, she thought, if there was an answer to be found here, Blake could offer me something. A memory, perhaps.
If there was an answer to be found, did it lie within her?
She took all the emotions and feelings and memories that Blake had given her, and she pushed them down and away.
She looked at this from an objective sense.
“Fuck you,” she said.
Laird raised his eyebrows. The mentor looked at her.
“I’m not talking to you,” she said. She pointed at the Astrologer, then to the Elder Sister, then Nick. “Every single one of you who are looking at them and getting all teary-eyed, fuck off. You were happy enough to throw me and Blake under the bus when you thought we had something to do with demons, and then you see a demon actually create these sad-ass puppets, and you’re crying, you’re buying this?”
The focus was on her. Even the Astrologer was dimly aware, and the Astrologer was a moth flying very, very close to the flame.
She simply had to use the advantage. Somehow.
“It’s not like that,” the Astrologer said.
“What’s it like, then?” Rose asked.
“That’s-” The Astrologer floundered.
“Someone?” Rose asked, “Anyone?”
Apparently, anyone included Blake. He was ready. Offering up a memory.
This one so recent it was disorienting.
A glimpse of Alexis, fresh from the Abyss. Changed. Lurking in shadows, broken in form, with an unearthly light in her eyes. The Abyss, taunting him.
This Alexis wasn’t that Alexis.
The action, the push of the memory into her head, it didn’t feel helpful. It felt more like she was being stabbed with that twisted blade that Blake always had with him. This new memory of Alexis was dropped in the midst of her other memories of Alexis, and the aftermath of it left her feeling hollow.
The feelings were a little too raw, too heavy, and a little too bogeyman. It was worse than before. It damaged things.
She’d been given the ability to care, then had a share of it smashed from her only moments later.
These were negative sum maneuvers. Whatever he gave, she lost more.
The Barber’s curse.
It scared her, more than she liked to admit.
Fear, unlike her ability to care, to miss someone, was something that had sat close to her heart since all of this began.
That fear threatened to become anger, and the anger was directed at Blake, even as she knew he had a reason for doing what he was doing.
Even as she’d known, when she accepted him into her, that she might well become part of Blake’s negative-sum game. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, now that he had access to her being, that the very being might end up a casualty. That he might not see the full picture, like the fact that she’d agreed to be a scourge, and he’d just given her an experience the Abyss had used to get one more hook in him.
Now, potentially, it was a hook in her.
But, even as Blake’s crude interference it made her head hurt, left her mind feeling like it was scraped raw, it helped clarify her thoughts. Make sense of it all.
This Alexis wasn’t the same as the Alexis Blake had seen.
Rose’s eye fell on the three shadowy figures who stood by, unmoving.
Broken. Nonfunctional. Something missing.
These were all constructs. And they had been constructed in a way that didn’t reach to Blake, though it reached out to all of the others.
Because Blake was buried? Hidden within her? Was that part of what had broken these three, and the one near the Knights?
What connected the Knights to her and Blake? A certain demon.
She drew in a breath, then spoke.
“I’ve studied vestiges more than you would believe,” Rose said. “Chances are good that these things are reflections of our memories, of details that we can’t quite recall, so it goes beyond just the surface level, beyond the point where we can think of things to trip them up. They’re drawn from our impressions of them, most likely. But that’s all they are.”
The Astrologer blinked.
“They’re mocked together from missing connections, from psychic impressions, or from memories, or something in that vein,” Rose said. “And they’re wrapped around demonstuff. It’s a headgame, and it’s a distraction.”
One perfectly tuned to get to us. Manipulating connections even as they work to erode us through them.
“Distraction from what?” Alister asked.
“Good question,” she said.
Except for the feral imp, who was now at the Ms. Lewis’ side, the lesser demons were still out there. Lurking in the shadows. No longer visible, they were lumpy silhouettes on trees, or a winged shape flying in a tight circle, a dark background with a darker shape moving across it.
The lawyers themselves… were apparently content to stand back. They were talking.
Blake had refreshed her memories of the lawyers.
She was equipped to analyze them. To figure out how they worked.
Her eye fell on Laird, and she couldn’t help but think of his metaphor, way back at the beginning.
Nuclear weapons. The lawyers made for a powerful group with weapons so terrible that they, corrupt as they were, were reluctant to use them.
How far did things have to go before they lost that reluctance?
Blake shifted within her, and Rose winced, both at the pain of Blake being there, ill-fitting, breaking things just a little with every action he took, and out of fear that he’d hit her with yet another painfully jarring set of memories.
But he didn’t.
He was only reminding her that she was there?
Trying to draw her attention to something?
She was thinking too far ahead, again.
All well and good when she was in her library…
“Diana,” the mentor said.
Diana stared at him. Rose could see the connections that stretched between the two. The demonic taint was creeping along, reaching, making progress with every second.
“What if-” the Astrologer asked, “What if having only that much, what if that’s enough?”
The taint reached further, closing the distance, a metaphysical handspan from Diana’s heart, her throat, her mind.
“It can’t be,” Rose said. “Take it from me. I know vestiges, I know demons, and I know what it’s like to live with half of a person. To be half of a person.”
She spoke the words, but she didn’t see the change she wanted to see. The Astrologer wasn’t refusing the connection. She wasn’t fighting.
Have to act in the now.
Evan… she looked for Evan, and she had trouble finding him. So different from Blake, who always seemed to intuitively know where the bird was.
She found Evan with Ty, which made a degree of sense. Letting go of Alister’s arm, she reached forward.
Evan hopped into her hand.
“Rose,” Alister whispered.
“Be ready,” Rose hissed the words. They reached her entire group, huddled inside the diagram.
Rose broke away, stepping over the lines of Alister’s already broken diagram, more toward the others.
If the Astrologer lost this, well, she couldn’t be certain what would happen.
Please, she thought. Don’t follow your heart.
The Astrologer bowed her head.
The taint continued creeping her way, taking advantage of welling emotion, of some vulnerability.
“I just finished saying goodbye,” she said. “And you have to go and pull this.”
“My timing was always bad,” he said. “Remember? I’m a dork like that.”
She twisted her head to one side, eyes closed, a pained expression on her face.
The taint flared, spreading, encapsulating her.
Reaching into her pocket, she touched something. A remote, or a crudely hacked-together-phone.
Light flared from beneath her clothes, worn LEDs. One below her right shoulder blade, two on the left arm, three on the right.
Wings spread, and for a moment, she was an angel.
With the action, the connection frayed and broke. The demonic taint fell away.
A long-necked bird, quite possibly a crane, rose up and away from the Astrologer. It flowed forward and struck the Astrologer’s mentor.
As blows went, it was minor, but it opened the fight.
On the opposite end of the battlefield, three children rushed for the Shepherd, who hadn’t spoken a word, nor reacted.
He didn’t resist, didn’t react.
They made physical contact.
Rose turned her head away, as every connection that made up the Shepherd abruptly unraveled. The Shepherd screamed.
In a heartbeat, he was a wet patch in the snow, though his scream continued well past that point. Ghosts streamed from the location, one after another, and the associated emotions and effects were too intense to take in. Rose twisted her head away.
Don’t fight me, Blake, she thought.
She drew more on Conquest, pushing Blake down and away.
Recognizing that she was, being so rough, doing the same damage to him that he’d been doing to her.
Then, as best as she was able, she reached out to him.
Never an easy thing to do, but it had paid off before.
He met her halfway, and she took hold of a part of his diminished, pressured being, and she drew on it for a little bit more power.
“Attack!” she gave the order. “If you can’t attack yours, attack someone else’s!”
She hadn’t finished speaking when Fell wheeled on her. Gun drawn, pointing.
“Go!” Evan shouted.
She threw herself to one side. It wasn’t clever, or quick, or particularly graceful.
Fell, practiced, waited for her to stumble, then corrected his aim, lowering the gun as she bent low.
Evan leaped from her hand. He went up, and he managed to push her down as he launched.
Rose landed on her stomach in snow, and the bullet fired, going over her head.
When she’d managed to catch her breath, she saw eyes in the darkness.
Her first thought was Green Eyes, and that was bad unto itself.
But Green Eyes, to the best of her knowledge, still had only the one eye. Healing, but still. One eye.
What emerged from the shadow was Surbas. The fanged, feral imp. The big one.
Surbas chuckled to itself.
“I ord-” she started.
Surbas howled at her, sudden, loud and forceful enough to take the words from her mouth.
“No,” it said.
“Rose!” Alister shouted, from too far away.
Something flew up, a mess of connections. The telltale ticking of Chronomancy.
The imp collided with a barrier, and it shed its skin.
A smaller imp continued forward, while its skin remained; a torn, stretched, furry hide drifted in a soup of slowed time.
The imp landed right in front of Rose, only a fraction smaller than before.
Immune to the practice?
Evan flew past, and the imp’s first snapping bite missed.
I’m not a fighter.
Blake was, but she didn’t know how to tap into that. Not in a matter of one or two seconds.
The imp lunged, and Rose’s world became noise and pain and brightness. Her ear set to ringing.
Dark shadows danced across her eyes in the aftermath of something impossibly loud.
A bolt of lightning had struck the imp.
She looked over her shoulder, and she saw the Elder Sister, standing by the Eye of the Storm. The woman pointed, and the Eye moved.
Rose scrambled to her feet. Evan tried to help, and she fell, overcompensating. She found her feet again, backing away.
The imp, struck, was crawling from its mouth. Shedding another body.
Even proper death didn’t stop it.
Between her backing away and Alister’s approach, she reunited with him.
All around them, there was disaster, chaos.
Some of the lawyers, a distance away, were holding items, but they weren’t acting, weren’t summoning.
“Faysal!” she roared the words, and she gave them power. “Damn you! Help! It doesn’t get messier than this!”
The sensation was akin to a mountain deciding to move.
Faysal flared with light. He stood, he approached, and the imps were driven back.
The lawyers, even, reacted, retreating.
“Do you want a war, Faysal!?” Lewis asked. “You’re outgunned!”
Faysal spoke, and his voice carried well. “Let’s put an end to this. Maintaining a good working relationship has to be better than this.”
Everything had gone still.
“You’re right,” Ms. Lewis said, relaxing. “You’re very right.”
“Good. Let’s settle this with words,” Faysal said. On four legs, he advanced, putting himself between Rose’s side and the lawyers.
In the stillness, a faint tune filled the air.
With every passing second, it grew louder, more nuanced.
“No,” Faysal said.
Light flashed around him, then died.
Diagrams around the lawyers and tools they held each glowed with an intensity that suggested they’d taken the light. Prepared in advance.
It was the last word he spoke.
Mr. Levin approached from the edge of the crater.
By his side was Johannes, holding pipes to his mouth with one hand.
Dogs, rats, and children.
Johannes moved with an eerie, lurching sort of ungracefulness. The large pair of shears he dragged with him were part of it. The damage and corruption to his body were another.
Rose felt utter despair take her.
“Well,” Ms. Lewis said. She didn’t look happy. She opened her mouth to speak, but she was the one who didn’t get a chance, this time.
The explosion struck in the middle of the collected group of lawyers.
“Ellie!” Evan said, cheerful. “And rocket launcher witch hunter man!”
“Run!” Rose shouted, though the words were useless, redundant. Everyone was already moving. For the love of everything, run!