Evan landed off to one side with a muffled thud, snow rising and steaming around his talons.
“You didn’t set the town on fire, did you?” Peter asked.
“Nope,” Evan said, in his deeper voice. He fluttered a bit to get to a point where he could walk by the side of the road, without being up to his stomach in deeper snow. He was the size of a small horse, and continued to leave a trail of fire behind him. “Flew around to lose them, but I flew over backyards and roads.”
“Good,” Rose said. Her eyes were on the North end, several blocks away. The morning light was more visible there, but it was more ominous than reassuring. The light itself was dark, and the clouds thick enough to be almost pitch black. It reminded her of magma.
The highway cut through the older area of Jacob’s Bell and Johannes’ demesne. The periodic car zipped by, while trucks were more frequent, passing with a touch more noise, a glow of headlights and red taillights cutting through the haze.
Each person that passed was utterly oblivious to what was really happening in the town itself.
Rose looked back, toward the others. Smoke mingled with the faint haze of morning mist, but the flames were visible, all the same.
She could only hope that the charms and enchantments that kept all this on the down-low would hold and keep bystanders out of this.
The same made it hard to impossible for those passing by to see the fine gaps and cracks that ran through everything. An eighth of an inch at most, where the west and south facing walls of a building were supposed to meet, or where the sidewalk met the snow that layered the street.
“Sorry about your pussy,” Peter said, to his twin.
“Don’t,” Paige said, her voice sharp.
“God,” Ainsley said, moving to Paige’s side, shooting Peter a look. “Learn when to stop. I know we’re feeling woozy, and we were already tired, before that, but… what she said. Don’t.”
“Welcome to what I grew up with,” Paige said. “He sees weakness and he’s on it like a starved dog on a haunch of meat.”
“No, that’s-” Peter started, bristling. He stopped and composed himself. “No. I do mean it. I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to call her. Really.”
“Isadora,” Paige said.
“Isadora,” Peter said. “Okay. I’m sorry about what happened to her.”
“Okay,” Paige said. “Man, I do not like feeling drunk.”
Rose glanced to one side, and she could see how Paige was rubbing one side of her face.
“She might be okay,” Lola said. “I… don’t know if I feel any lasting effects. If we can bounce back, maybe she could recover?”
“I don’t know,” Paige said. “I’ve only got a few weeks of all of this under my belt. I don’t know anything about way too many things, and I’m usually a fast study. That thing back there was the worst experience of my life, and it hasn’t exactly been all unicorns and flowery meadows. I don’t have anything to compare to here.”
“Rose is the resident expert on horrible badness,” Mags said. “Not that I want to distract, if you’re focusing more on the badness that we’re about to deal with than the badness we just dealt with, but…”
“It’s fine,” Rose said.
“Great,” Mags said. “Because I’ve read that demons tend to do permanent damage, and if you could shed any light on what we were just dealing with, it would do a lot for my peace of mind.”
Rose looked around as she walked. At the gaps.
They’d been part of the vision, except they were more permanent, persistent.
“The world is managed by spirits,” Rose said. “Spirits are influenced by us and our will. For most, it’s a pretty passive relationship. Spirits don’t interfere or change things too much, and they follow set patterns. People don’t influence them either, by that same token.”
“Okay,” Mags said. “Practitioner 101 there.”
“Well,” Rose said, “I’m not liking the look of those gaps. The demon did its thing, and the town started to come apart at the seams. I thought at first it was the Barber, but I’m not so sure, now. We can alter the makeup of the world, with sufficient will or expectation, and it’s subtle, and we’re pushing against the pattern or the will of others if we try to will the world to be different. But if you have a demon alter that will or expectation, twist everyone’s minds to a specific purpose…”
“Breaking up the world?” Lola asked.
“Or a part of it,” Rose said. “They chose the demons they did for a reason. One that could hurt practitioners by hurting their workings, another that debilitated and stalled us, while…”
Lacking the words, she gestured at the surroundings. At the ripped seams and world left ajar.
“…Making it easier to do what they want to do,” she finished. “So… I’m not ruling out that she could recover. If doing permanent damage to our psyche was the point, then we’d know, I think. But I do think it was trying to hurt the fabric of things, affecting us like it did.”
A part of her worried that the others would react badly. That she might crush morale as she’d done back at the church. But this group, perhaps, was more resilient.
Scared, but resilient.
They’d reached the last leg of the trip before the passage under the highway.
Mags looked down at the dip to one side. The ground sloped down from the road, normally it would have been grass, but now it was only snow. A short tobogganing hill at best.
“What happened to Molly?” Mags asked, all at once.
“Absorbed into the Abyss, I think,” Rose said.
“I owed her better,” Mags said.
“I sort of know that feeling,” Rose replied.
“Darn it,” Mags said. “Hate knowing that there’s nothing left for me to do for her. She’s gone, or mostly gone?”
“Gone, I think,” Rose said. “But if you want to do something for her… we need to focus on this. I don’t think the real Molly would want Johannes to win. She wouldn’t want people to suffer any more than she did. All that anger was just the Abyss speaking through her. Let’s respect the real her.”
Mags huffed out a breath, then rubbed her hands together. “Evan, do me a solid?”
“For sure,” Evan said.
“See that space under the highway? Under the bridge?
“Go there, and flame on, you know? Not destroying the highway, just to light it up. Kiss the walls and top with fire. Yeah?”
“You say that like there’s a chance I’d say no!” Evan said. He hopped forward, wings flapping.
Looking in his direction, watching him take off for the space under the bridge, Mags already walking briskly, broke out into a jog. Rose could see Green Eyes, off to one side, previously blocked from Rose’s view by Evan’s bulk.
Was that intentional? Was the mermaid stalking her, deliberately lurking?
I’m supposed to be a leader here, but… I’m not sure I’m there yet. I need to figure it out before it matters.
“He was on your skin,” Green Eyes observed.
“Yeah,” Rose said.
“He still is, a bit.”
Rose nodded, checking to see for herself. She wasn’t sure she wanted to put words to why that might be the case. Was it because Blake didn’t want to move, when every movement eroded the two of them?
Or because he didn’t have the strength?
Beneath the bridge, Evan flared with fire and light, flames reaching out to fill the space, fire filling the space, tongues of flame spilling out.
A half-dozen goblins dropped from hiding spots in the shadows, partially or wholly on fire. Mags very carefully extinguished a patch of fire on the underside of the bridge itself before starting to put the creatures out.
It took a few seconds before Rose and the rest of the group were close enough to hear.
“-y darn time,” Mags said. “Every time, you try to mess with me! You little twits don’t learn! I’ve shot you, I’ve frozen you, I’ve blown some of you up. Do you learn? Do you announce yourselves and stop trying to ambush me? No. But doing it on a day like this? With demons running around? That’s a special brand of twit.”
“Aaaaaah!” a goblin that was still on fire screamed.
Mags reached out with both hands, athame extended, other hand flat, then clenched her free hand into a fist. The fire went out in the same moment.
“Aaah!” the goblin screamed, still smouldering, burned.
“Deal with it!” Mags said. “Peckerbottom, I bind you. You know the drill, standard rules.”
“Aaah!” it screamed.
“Nod,” Mags said.
It nodded, still writhing.
“That’s the most half-assed binding I’ve ever seen,” Lola commented.
“I’ve bound these little twits at least three times already. Same rules every time. If they can break the binding, I’ll be surprised. Snotwit, I bind you. You know how this works.”
“Uh huh,” Snotwit mewled.
“Spunkyfeets, Pissgag, Cuntwhistle, Stump, I bind you. Stop whining and get to your feet.”
The goblins did.
Lesser goblins, Rose observed. None any taller than waist height.
Mags saw Rose studying the things, “What do you think?”
“Having a few more numbers wouldn’t hurt,” Rose said. “We only needed the smaller group to slip away.”
“That was my line of thinking,” Mags said.
“Can’t help but feel like goblins are more liability than advantage,” Lola commented. “Never liked them.”
“Wait ’til I show you what I can do with my tongue,” Stump leered.
“If you even suggest anything similar to that, I’ll cut it off,” Lola said.
“He already had it cut off,” another goblin jeered. “Why do you think he’s called Stump?”
The laughs and lewd comments from the goblins were a mishmash of sound.
“Any tips, going into the demesne?” Rose asked.
“It’s his place,” Mags said. “I’m not sure what that means, now that he’s not… him. He basically made it a xerox of reality, complete with occupants. As they’ve worn down, he’s shored them up with magic from the pipes. Navigation is going to be hell.”
“I can help with navigation,” Lola said.
“Good,” Rose said. “Traps? Tricks?”
“On my first visit, the demesne impeded me. After I was invited, he made it easy for me to come and go. Ambassador duties, passing on messages. I don’t think it’s going to be friendly, this time around. It might be actively hostile. And, with everything that led into this, he’s got allies. Underlings.”
“Genies,” Rose said, “among other things.”
“I’ve seen a genie,” Peter said, sounding a little smug.
“Why do you sound proud?” Paige asked.
“Well,” Rose said, “if you think of anything else, say the word.”
To Evan, she said, “Stay low to the ground, until we decide we need you.”
“Right-o,” he said.
She gave him a once-over. “You’re smaller than you were a minute ago.”
“I’m leaking,” he said. “Balloon with a hole in it.”
“Balloons with holes in them pop,” Peter said.
Evan’s eyes went as wide as saucers.
“I don’t think you’re going to pop,” Rose said. “Come on. Let’s move, before you deflate. Lead the way.”
“Because I’m powerful! And strong!”
“Both,” she said. “But maybe keep it down.”
“You’re drunk,” she said. “And you are being loud. Dial it down a notch.”
“Dialed down,” he said.
She nodded, and he took that as his cue to lead the way. Green Eyes hurried to move up to his side.
“Now who’s going to eat who?” Evan asked. “I could do with some roasted sushi. Hm? Hm? What do you say to that?”
“Sushi is raw fish,” Green Eyes said, already far enough ahead that she was barely audible.
“And?” Evan asked.
Rose ignored the conversation that followed.
She had allies here that would listen to her. Paige, Ainsley, maybe Peter. Then she had… Blake’s group. Green Eyes and Evan.
Fitting that Mags, ambassador, was somewhere in the middle.
She didn’t trust Green Eyes to listen to her. Even Evan was a question, in a way.
She held her right wrist with her left hand, tracing her thumb along a line of the faded, nearly-invisible etching of Blake’s influence, between her sleeve and her glove.
With the others, she passed into the demesne. A place she’d seen before, even if she’d never entered it proper.
She wasn’t sure what she’d expected. An extension of the Abyss? A version of the library that fit Johannes?
The buildings were pale, but the light from above wasn’t from sun or moon. It wasn’t from a Conquest-like halo of light. There was no sky. No atmosphere, no clouds, no barrier or dome separating earth from something that was far from being heavens.
It was a darkness so deep it felt like she might be picked up from the ground and sucked away into the wider parts of it, torn away and flung into the deepest regions of that absence in a heartbeat.
Great spheres broke it up, but they were small comfort. They had a gravity of their own. Not planets, not moons, but something else. So close it felt like they might scrape past, and wipe everything here away.
One took up a third of the space above, touching on two sides of the horizon, shifting perceptibly with every moment. It shifted with what looked to be static, like that from a television screen, but the edges were too crisp, the details too sharp, until she thought it might touch her, or reach into her eyes.
When she tore her eyes away, the afterimages of those tiny depictions made her think of bodies. Humanoid. People, creatures, maybe demons, moving across the surface, shuffling over and through and under one another, occupying the entirety of the surface, layered as deep as oceans or as tall as mountains.
Two more great spheres had collided with one another, and fragments stretched between them, with trails of dust or smaller fragments extending between. One was marked with faint glows that suggested the same expanse of magma she’d observed in the clouds over Jacob’s Bell.
It was a setting, she instinctively knew, that was familiar to demons and gatekeepers, and very few others. A setting that predated things. Or a setting that would be.
Far removed from humanity. From this ghost town lit by that crackling static of a planet covered in moving bodies or the faint red glow of the burning wasteland sphere. It made for a mottled, red-tinted moonlight at best, but more frequently the light provided that shifted away from the eyes, as if it were shy.
The town was disordered. It was the best way to put it. Things weren’t in their proper places. It conjured up images of a ruin, but the buildings themselves weren’t ruined. The buildings were crammed together, and with everything else pushed away or left untouched by the faint light. At worst, there was only more of the absolute darkness.
“Any pursuers?” Rose asked.
Her voice sounded so empty here. As if any and all suggestion of an echo or sound bouncing off the surroundings and back to them had been removed.
“Yeah,” Lola said. “At least one of the lawyers.”
Rose nodded, unsurprised. “The runes didn’t help, huh?”
“They got us out of there,” Lola said. “But whoever or whatever he is, I get the impression he or she is on us like a bloodhound. Some sort of trinket or demon or familiar. If I had to put it to words… it’s that moment where a rabbit realizes it isn’t going to get away from the wolf or the hawk, captured, frozen in time.”
“Makes sense they’d have someone to track others down,” Rose commented. “The lawyers have their debtors and fugitives. I’m not the first to try to escape the consequences.”
“Man,” Peter said. “If this is escaping consequences, I don’t even want to know what facing them is like.”
“I’d try to divert or do something subtle,” Lola said, “But I don’t feel like it would be useful.
“Let me, then,” Ainsley said. She lifted a lighter to her candle, and tried and failed to produce a flame on four concurrent tries. Each failure prompted a faint shift in her expression, leaving her with a deep frown by the end. The look didn’t change when the fifth try produced flame, lighting the candle. She let wax drip across their path, reached into a pocket, and pressed a piece of wood down. Rose leaned forward and saw that she’d impressed a seal into the wax.
“Seal?” Rose asked.
“That should shake our bloodhound for exactly two minutes. I just wish my lighter hadn’t been so finnicky.”
“Candles need oxygen to operate,” Lola said. “Maybe this place operates by different rules?”
“We need oxygen too,” Paige added. “What happens if it takes that away?”
“We have oxygen, let’s not set any self-fulfilling prophecies in motion,” Rose said.
There were some nods.
The mermaid was at the front of the group with Evan, peering forward, head periodically moving to scan the surroundings. When she looked back, Green Eyes’ namesake eyes glowed a pale green with the light from the pseudo-moons above.
“It’s quiet here,” Green Eyes said. “Sound doesn’t carry like it should.”
Rose couldn’t help but notice that voices sounded strange, too. Too sharp around the edges. As if sounds weren’t diffusing or breaking apart enough.
“Can’t tell, not really. Smells aren’t traveling like they should either. But there’s death, and blood.”
“Blood and darkness,” Mags said.
“Faster we do this, the better,” Rose said. She hadn’t forgotten that the others were dealing with demons. A minute was fine if it meant getting their hands on some goblin cannon fodder or if they were making sure they understood the basic rules of a new landscape, maybe delaying or shaking a pursuer. But waiting for waiting’s sake made her feel like she or someone else might lose their courage and outright lose the ability to press on, or that those precious seconds might cost someone on the outside their life.
She’d anticipated the abyss, or a shifting landscape where buildings themselves barred the path or formed walls. Nothing moved. There was no sound, and this place didn’t steadily wear against them or fight them.
Up a segment of fire escape, onto a rooftop of an adjoining building, then onto a jumble of cars that had been shoved over to one side, each member of Rose’s group walking carefully on the rooftops.
“Is that a genie?” Paige asked.
“Yeah,” Peter answered for her, his voice hushed.
Paige shot him an annoyed look.
They continued along the slanted and sloping rooftops, stepping down onto the ground itself. Peter offered a hand to Ainsley, then Paige, then Lola, in turn, offering them something to steady themselves against in case their feet slipped.
Rose and Mags were already on the ground. They approached the genie.
Eviscerated, the genie was stuck in a standing position. Hollowed out, chest and stomach torn open, its jaw had split at the chin, as if it had opened its mouth too wide, venting from within. Its remains were scattered around the open parking lot. The source of whatever impulse or push had moved the assorted cars. Scorch marks etched the pavement, leaving sections of it glassy. There was no blood, no gore, only the shell of a form and signs of an outpouring of energy.
Not a one minute walk away was a giant. Sitting cross-legged, hands folded in its lap, its shoulders slumped forward, head tilted so it faced the ground. Even sitting, its head reached as high as the roofs of the two stores on either side of it, each one three floors tall. The face had burned away, the skull shattered, revealing just how thick the bone was. Far thicker than a human skull. The interior of his head was only dark. The fragments of the skull and wisps of scorched flesh littered the hands, lap, and surrounding pavement.
“Man,” Evan’s voice cut through the silence. “Why does that bother me so much?”
“Giants are nearly extinct,” Lola said.
“Man,” Evan said, again.
“He’s his own tombstone,” Ainsley said. “In a place like this, he won’t ever change from that. Wind won’t erode him, microbes won’t eat him. He’ll just sit there, until this place is gone.”
“Fucking assholes,” Mags said. “Fuck them. Even clueless idiots like me know you don’t mess with the giants.”
“Cause they step on you,” one of the goblins chimed in.
“Because they’re fucking giants,” Mags said.
Rose shot Mags a curious look.
“Wasn’t aware you could swear.”
“I can, but I’ve decided not to. Stay as close to my old identity as possible, even if it means embracing the bad.”
“Looks like he was a cool dude,” Evan said. “Just sitting and chilling and facing his death like a boss.”
“More likely he just wasn’t fast enough to defend himself,” Lola said.
“Cool dude!” Evan said, and his voice shifted enough from one syllable to the next that he looked to be well under the influence of the drink, still.
“Sure,” Lola said, in the tone of someone who had dealt with belligerent young sisters or cousins before. “Let’s go with that, then.”
They left the giant behind, moving further into the city.
Rose had anticipated a maze, but as hard as the going was, there was little chance to get lost. There were more ups and downs than lefts and rights.
They made their way down from the roof of the gas station, to neatly sorted piles of rubble. Each pile was roughly the same size, and each pile was equidistant to the next.
It was telling, and it got the gears turning in Rose’s head. She stopped, and she turned, looking. How had things been laid out, when she’d been atop the gas station, or on the rooftops, earlier? She tried to draw a mental picture.
“Rose?” Mags asked.
Rose realized the group was threatening to leave her behind, as she looked.
“It’s a diagram,” she said. “He’s laid it out as a diagram.”
The other practitioners turned and looked for themselves. The non-practitioners looked restless, drawing closer to the group. Peter, Green Eyes, and Evan.
The observations and ensuing discussion were interrupted.
“Crush you,” the voice whispered, but it was a deep voice, not unlike Evan’s present one. It was a voice that could have boomed if it wanted to, if this place allowed.
Weapons found hands.
Rose wasn’t surprised. She’d anticipated trouble, and a part of her was glad to find it.
She held the machete that the witch hunter had thrown to one side. Ainsley had her candle, Lola and Mags had knives.
“Break you,” the voice said, closer.
It moved between two piles of rubble. Quick, given how large it was.
It was big, but not giant big. Comfortably in the order of hundreds of pounds. Fat, neckless, not unlike Midge in general proportion, the resemblance stopped there. The mouth was a slash across its face, ragged, filled with misshapen teeth, the eyes dark recesses, filled only with shadow. Rose was suspicious that if she had a light and the opportunity, she might have peered into those recesses to find beady black eyes. Better suited for darkness than light. Textured like callused flesh or a mole rat.
Ogre, Rose thought to herself.
One of the old creatures Johannes was so fond of surrounding himself with.
“We saw what happened to the others,” she called out. “He hollowed them out, tore them to pieces. All the Others that followed him, before.”
“Sacrifices,” the ogre said, a little louder than before.
“Crack it all to pieces!” the ogre bellowed, spreading his arms wide.
“Unmake it!” a second ogre bellowed, at a matching volume, from the opposite side.
Rose turned, and she saw the resemblance.
The Barber had cut, and these two ogres had once been one. Now they were his. Cut in a way that served him.
There would be no help from them.
In a low voice, Ainsley murmured. “I can use the candle to bind one. I can’t use it to bind both.”
“Open the gates!” the first ogre cried.
“Ruin to all things!” the second howled, louder than before.
Rose was already running, hurrying to catch the others.
The second ogre hurled something. It might have been a concrete block. He threw it underhand, like a human might throw a softball. It sailed.
Lola managed to deflect it with a gesture, a stone in her free hand.
“Crack the walls!”
“Let darkness bleed through!”
The loud cries were stirring attention.
Now they had company.
Broken, cut, distorted things. The Barber’s creations, sheared into shapes that pleased him. They emerged from buildings, and they flowed from windows, or appeared on rooftops.
They moved, shuffled, and crawled with little noise. Only periodically did one whimper. Rank and file, in the service of other things. A hunchbacked figure, cut with the shears. A gaunt figure.
Things, if she was judging the ogres right, which had been predisposed toward destruction before, made into something worse with a careful cut.
They ran, and the hordes closed in. Evan used his flames to drive them back and leave trails of flame that guarded the flanks. Green Eyes went after one leader that strayed too far from his group, biting into his shoulder and neck, then scrambled to escape the hail of thrown objects and weapons.
But Rose felt her progress diminish. She wasn’t moving slower, but her strides covered less ground, all the same.
She turned, walking backward, and she saw the pursuer, the possessed lawyer, with a demon hound at his side.
Binding her into place, so the hordes could get her.
Rose drew and aimed her unloaded gun, pointing it at the lawyer.
He stopped trying to bind her, saying something to protect himself instead.
The binding that was leashing her to one place still lingered. Each step was less effective than the last, as if she were walking up an icy slope, sliding back a distance with each step she took.
“Ainsley!” Lola cried out. “Get Rose!”
Ainsley threw pins in Rose’s direction. Each pin traveled a measured distance, stopping at the cardinal points around Rose’s feet. Faint lines marked a binding, etched into the street.
Ainsley blew out the candle, and blew away the binding.
They’d still lost their head start.
The Barber’s creations were closing in.
Too many for it to have touched each with the shears. The cut was some effect the demon had worked across his domain, to alter vestiges.
Standing against them was akin to trying to withstand a tidal wave that looked to crush her against the beach. Except they were far more brutal and savage. Far less kind.
“Give me names!” Lola was saying.
Mags provided them.
“Now!” Lola said.
Mags cut Lola with the athame.
In a flash, they were moved.
Shifted to a building interior.
As a group, they collapsed.
“I’m No good to you now,” Lola said, looking down at her palms. “Did all I could. Pulling us along a connection. That lawyer found us, he’ll find us again.”
“You did good,” Rose said. Whatever you did, it has to be better than that.
“I know you’re there,” Mags said, quiet. “Come on out, guys. If you’re still okay.”
Rose found her way through the building interior. Blades, like great shears or kniveblades, punctuated the inside of the building. Each was stained with blood.
Not like the abyss had been. Not a trap, or a way of attacking the residents. They’d been a singular, decisive cut.
Rose saw vestiges emerge, untouched by the barber. Ones that had dodged that strike.
“There we are,” Mags said.
They were children, partially hollow, broken and occupied by other things.
Rose couldn’t look straight at them. It struck a little closer to home.
She looked outside the window, instead.
To the Barber’s tower. To the gateways that surrounded it, fabricated by Faysal Anwar, and to the teeming horde that stood between them and it.
Had the way been clear, it would have been a ten minute walk.
But as things stood, she was far less confident than ever.