Judgment 16.7

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“Guys, these are some of the vestiges from Johannes’ domain,” Mags said.

Rose tore her eyes away from the scene outside.  Calling it a revel would be wrong.  There was no celebration at work.  There was only chaos.  Countless broken wretches were spending as much time harming one another as they were milling aimlessly.  Reacting to touch with violence.  The aggressor and the victim, fight and flight.  In some cases, where there was enough mean going around, as was the case with the ogres, each side got two very different kinds of viciousness.  Raw barbarism in one, sadism in the other.

It made her deeply uncomfortable to see.  It reminded of the circumstances surrounding herself and around Blake, without the politer aspects her grandmother had no doubt enforced or demanded.

“I’ve made a habit of checking on them when I stop through,” Mags said.

Not that Mags’ acquaintances here were any better, as reminders went.

They’d been moved to what looked like an office building minus the office part of things.  A floor of a building with no walls erected, beyond the exterior ones.  Paint, drywall or other coverings were absent, leaving the insulation and wires exposed.  The ceiling was the same, a drop-ceiling without the tiles dropped into place.  Where the four blades of the Barber’s extending up into the ceiling and the ceilings of the floors above, thicker bits of construction had come down, leaving piled rubble throughout much of the otherwise empty, lightless space.  Everyone was scattered around the room, the vestiges in one corner, and Evan at the window, standing on a concrete balcony, doing his level best to avoid igniting the premises.  It helped that he was smaller, now, but she still worried he was a beacon of light to any who looked.

Now that Rose forced herself to look at the vestiges, she saw two boys and two girls.  One was older than the remainder of the group, thirteen or fourteen, the rest prepubescent.  They were, viewed with the sight and without, like cracked porcelain dolls come to life.  Hollow on the inside, they teemed with rat spirits, to the point that the press of furry bodies formed discolored, matted walls that covered the gaps.  They stayed to shadow more than they ventured into light, and only the flames that licked Evan’s body made their faces visible.

Paige created a light in the palm of one hand, and the light made them too visible.  The little band of vestiges even looked a little shocked when they saw one another.

The elder member of the group was missing most of his face.  The dog spirit that occupied him looked like roadkill, twisted, emaciated, its broken, short-muzzled face and one ear peering from the wreckage of one corner of his head.  If Rose squinted, it almost looked like a patch of hair that was the wrong color, covering part of his face.  That aside, he looked to be the strongest and healthiest, if especially wary.

The boy closest to him was thin to the point of being wasted, but his stomach was bloated to the point that his shirt couldn’t cover it, more weight on one side than the other.  Small, dark shapes moved beneath the skin, reminiscent of Green Eyes’ skeletal structure and organs.

A little girl with black skin was the third member of the group.  That she had her hair in twin buns was almost unfortunate, because it was reminiscent of mickey mouse ears, and she had more than a little bit of mouse in her.  Cracks ran along her skin, and as the spirits moved there, fur and the occasional paw or tail stuck up and through cracks, pushing the cracks apart.  One eye was black from corner to corner, the lids covered in fine dark fur, the other eye socket had a number of mice poking their heads out and through, moving furtively, noses and heads turning as they sought to peer at their environment before others pushed them out of the way.  As one grubby little paw reached too far and scraped her cheekbone, the girl flinched, rubbing at it with one hand, turning a small pawprint into a thin streak of dirt.

It made Rose think of Blake, with the small bird heads peeking out around the edges of one eye.

The shyest member of the group was a skinny little blond girl.  She had freckles across her face that might have faded with age, had she been able to grow older.  She wore a glare on her face, partly concern, partly because that was how her face was constructed.  Her tongue, lips and cheeks had been devoured by the bloody-faced mice that now lurked on the floor of her mouth, and mouse teeth and skulls pushed between her teeth and cut through her gumline here and there, as if the meat of her face was a fleshy grave for the rodents.  The teeth that hadn’t been displaced outright were jagged, twisted around, or set at odd angles.

The girl coughed, and a rodent flew free like a great glob of phlegm might, just barely managing to to catch at the ragged edge of flesh near the jaw before flying out onto the floor.  It darted around the side of her face and into her hair, legs scrabbling for leverage before it managed to squeeze through a gap that the hair hid.

Rose noted how Green Eyes, lurking off to one side, only barely managed to restrain herself from going after the morsel.

“Noah, Benny, Mia, and Olive,” Mags said, indicating the four children in order.

And we’re all present, Rose noted.

“What’s happening?” Noah asked.  “Is this the war you were talking about?”

“Uh, no,” Mags said.  “No, this is… war being led to a very unfortunate conclusion.”

“A demon took over Johannes.  It’s using his power to further its own ends,” Rose told the children.  She turned to Mags, “Why are they okay?”

“I’ve made a point of protecting connections,” Mags said.  “I asked Johannes to go easy on them, and I sort of… guarded them.  Maybe that counted for something?”

“Oh my gosh,” Paige said.  “He was going easy on them?”

Noah narrowed his eyes.

“That’s not important,” Rose said, changing the subject.  She couldn’t be sure if the kids knew how screwed up they were, but reminding them wouldn’t help anything, and informing them could derail the conversation altogether.  “I’m more interested in the fact that he might have kept a promise he made prior?”

“Maybe,” Mags said.  “Maybe it was subconscious?  Or he’s still in there, just a little, and he could steer it, or resist?  I have no idea.”

Rose frowned.

“A demon,” Noah said.  “It did all this?  We were napping when it happened.  It was like lightning hit everything all at once, from every direction.  We just barely managed to get out of the way before those things tried to spear us.”

Ainsley and Lola were nearest the things, the great blades that had speared up through the floor.  Ainsley was investigating one.

In the midst of her investigation, Ainsley nearly tripped over Mia, which put her on a collision path with the blade.  Lola grabbed her and stopped her from making contact.

Virtually every set of eyes present was on the trio of girls.

“You’re the magic types from the town?” Mia asked.  She hadn’t moved when Ainsley had approached her, and now her tone of voice suggested another kind of stubbornness, an insistence.  “Wizards and wizardesses?”

“Yeah,” Ainsley said.

“You knew what Johannes was doing?”

“Oh,” Ainsley said, seeing the logical conclusion to the line of questions.  “Listen-”

“You knew?” the smaller girl pressed, a little more intense.  “Mags says she didn’t have a choice, her very Self was at stake, but why didn’t you do anything?”

“It’s complicated,” Ainsley said.

“How?  Why?”

Had the little girl been an adult, the questions might have been answerable, but these were questions that came from the heart, and demanded an answer in kind.

Rose spoke, “Because he was considered too powerful to mess with.”

“That doesn’t sound very complicated at all,” Noah said.

“There were a lot of reasons,” Ainsley said.  “I’m young, there were other things going on, there are rules about who you can attack, when, and why.  But if you strip it all away, or if you distill it into some basic concept… yeah.  The reason we couldn’t just deal with him was that he’s strong.”

Mia only stared at her.  The answer didn’t seem to satisfy.

“As strong as he was,” Rose said, “he’s stronger now.  The circumstances surrounding all of this are forcing our hands.  If you can offer help-”

“I’m pretty sure they can,” Mags cut in.  “They should know their way around.  Things are twisted, crammed in together, reworked, but I think most of the elements that were here are still around, somehow.  If we could bypass that crowd between us and Johannes on any level…”

She trailed off.

“-we could really use it,” Rose finished her thought and finished Mags’ at the same time.

Noah glanced at each of his companions.

“You want us to help?” he finally asked.

“Yes,” Rose said, firm.

“If you want to take out Johannes,” Mags said, “This is the way to do it.”

“I bet,” Noah said.  “All this magic stuff, all the monsters-”

He shot a glance at Green Eyes and Evan.

“-Sucked us in, made our lives a living hell, just trying to survive.  You’re a part of it.  You condoned it.  And if you think you could stop him now, that means it was possible before.”

“I didn’t condone it,” Peter said.  “No wands in these pockets.  I’m an asshole, but I’m not an asshole in this respect.  It’s really very humbling.”

Paige elbowed him, shooting him a look.

“Paige either,” Peter added.

“That’s not what I meant,” Paige hissed.  “Don’t interrupt.”

Peter threw up his hands, turning away.

“It wasn’t all that possible, before,” Ainsley said.  “It’s a long shot now.”

“You mean it’s almost impossible,” Noah said.  “You want to get us involved in a fight we can’t win.”

“I mean it’s a long shot,” Ainsley said.  “One where every second counts.  They’ve got a diabolist with a demon hound sniffing us out, and the demon that took over Johannes is doing things.  Our friends and family may be dying as I say all this.  Please.  I can swear that we’ll make amends five times over.  Me and my family.”

“I can add my family to that,” Lola said.

“The two biggest families in Jacob’s Bell,” Mags said.

“But you want us to join the fight, as part of the price of that,” Noah said.  “You’re all the same.  You, your families, the sorcerer.  Well, I have the right to say no.  You had your chance to get on our good side, and that was before you needed to get on our good side.”

“We’re not the bad guys,” Ainsley said.

“Bad enough,” Noah responded.

“Wait,” Evan said.  He hopped forward a little, “Listen-”

“No,” Noah said.

“But I’m a kid too!  I got shafted too, metaphorically!”  Evan said.

“You’re one of them.”

“I can be energetic and peppy and win you over by speaking from the heart!” Evan said.  “I’m good at it!”

Noah ignored him.  “Mags, I’d say I’m sorry, but I’m really not.  Coming to check on us and maybe protecting us from whatever this is, like you were saying, bringing us snacks or comic books, it’s not enough.  We were fodder, monster chow.  When that happened, you all should have decided that was the time to react and respond.  But you didn’t.  Now that your own hides are at risk?  You can deal with it, and we’ll keep doing what we were doing.”

“He speaks for all of you?” Peter cut in.

“Ahht,” Olive said, speaking without a tongue or lips.

“Yes,” Benny said.  Mia nodded.

“Shit,” Peter said.  “He sounds a little too emotionally involved to be a good leader.”

“We’re all emotionally involved,” Benny said.  “It’s what happens when you’re in a ‘monsters hunt kids’ theme park.”

“And you’re used to focusing on survival,” Mags said.  “I can’t say I agree with what you’re saying, Noah.  If this goes bad, which it probably will, you won’t last long, and it’ll be bad.”

“Scare tactics.  Right.  Yeah, I’m not convinced.  You collectively dug yourselves into this, you deal with it.”

Noah turned to go, pointing at a hole in the wall.  The other three children headed for it, Mia moving in all fours and somehow not looking awkward doing it.

There was a crackle, a crack, outside, a flash of bright light, a lightning strike.

All eyes turned.

Another gateway.  A tear in reality, a hole opened by the Gatekeeper.

Rose could see it all.  The wretches that moved throughout the condensed patch of civilization, the sky, the tower and the almost certain death that awaited them there.

She could see her allies, her hand-picked team that would no doubt get shredded, taken out one by one on the way out.

The appearance of the gate was just another nudge, another straw on the camel’s back.

She moved without really thinking about it.

Machete in hand, she swung it around.

Her hand caught Noah by the back of the boy’s jacket.  He jerked.  Only thirteen, he didn’t have much mass compared to her fully grown self.

He made a strangled noise, then twisted.  Faster reflexes than any human.  More flexible, even being broken.  A flawed vestige.  He managed quite well, considering that she still had a grip on his shirt, facing her, hands outstretched, fingertips curled in.

The boy’s face contorted in rage, far more than a human’s normal range of movement should have allowed.  Cracks formed.

She felt eerily calm as she brought the machete to his throat.

He froze.

His eyes met hers.

“Um,” Evan said.  “Rose?”

“I wasn’t introduced, I don’t think,” she said.  “My name is Rose Thorburn.  I’m a member of a third powerful family in Jacob’s Bell.  Unlike the others, I won’t deny that I’m a bit of a bitch when it comes down to it.  I’ve only very, very recently learned how to appropriately care for people, like you care about this rat pack of yours.”

His face contorted even further at that last touch.

“I feel the need to protect mine just like you need to protect yours, keeping yours out of trouble.  That’s why I have a blade to your throat.”

Noah didn’t respond.

“Look over my shoulder at the mermaid,” Rose instructed.

Noah didn’t break eye contact.  But Rose adjusted her grip on the blade, and he got her point.  He looked.

“See how monstrous she is?  Her skin, the claws?  Look at those scales.  You can’t see it from here, but each one curls out at the end, and they have hooks with barbs to set into skin, and the slime that runs down her body melts skin to make it easier to rip up.  She eats people, she’s even giddy at the idea.”

“Rose,” Evan said, his tone warning.

Green Eyes probably didn’t like the phrasing.

Except Rose was beyond careful wording.

“I’m making a point,” Rose said, not looking away from her hostage.  “Look at me, Noah.  Look me in the eye, now.”

He did.

Her voice was quiet.  “That demon that got the Sorcerer?  He got me.  I’m more of a monster than she is.  More than the person-melting, flesh-ripping, cannibal mermaid.  By several accounts, she’s actually nice when you’re on her good side.  I have a very hard time saying the same thing.  I’m trying, but it’s an uphill battle.”

“Do your worst,” Noah said, setting his jaw.

Despite this, she could see the fear in his eyes.  Not necessarily fear of her, but knowledge he’d been caught.  He’d pushed it too far, and he’d lost.  Now he was ready to die.  The words that would send his brother and the two girls scattering were no doubt on the tip of his tongue.

“I was made to serve a purpose, just like you,” Rose said.  “I was thrown to the wolves, just like you.  You can see the markings on my skin?  I have a spirit inside me, tearing me to shreds.  Just like you.  The big difference between us is that you were made to run, and I was made to be scary.  Enough that people wouldn’t want to fuck with me.  Enough that people who are even more messed up than I am would think I was playing the game and being a good little monster.”

She let the words sink in.

“I’m all out of fear,” Noah said.  “That bucket’s ran pretty dry a while ago.”

He can lie, Rose observed, but he put up a good bluff.

“Mags has conveniently glossed over the question of what might happen to your group when the sorcerer is gone and this place is left to languish.”

“I didn’t gloss, damn it,” Mags said.  “I didn’t think about it.”

I dwell a lot on the future and long term plans,” Rose said.  “I’ve studied this sort of thing.  Vestiges.  Abandoned places.  When he dies, this place will disappear.  The monsters who’ve been hunting you will throw all rules or whatever to the wind, Johannes’ protections obviously won’t hold, and there’ll be a short period of utter carnage and destruction before they move on to greener pastures.  If you survive, and that’s a big if, this place sinks.  You get swallowed up by the Abyss, a place that made a relatively ordinary girl into that mermaid you see over there.”

Noah glanced again at Green Eyes.

“Being what you are, you won’t last long.  It’ll change you too much, too fast.  Just like it did to my other half.  It will split you up from your friends because that’s the best way it has to change you into something it can use.  That’s if we win.  Understand?  If we succeed in our goal, we kill the sorcerer and stop or bind the demon, you’re doomed.  If we fail, you’re worse off.  I think you get that, but I don’t want you to tell yourself that there’s any chance you can go back to life as usual, miserable as it is.”

“You want us to join you because of that?” Noah asked.

“No,” Rose said.  “I’m negotiating.  You don’t get what we’re really doing, or the reality of what else is happening, or any of that.  That’s fine.  I understand that you’re limited in terms of what you’ve been told.  You’ve been fixated on everything that’s going on here.  On surviving, on the fact that you’re a plaything.  You’ve resigned yourself to the fact that you got screwed.  I’m going to say this in terms you can relate to.  You’re a vestige.  You’ll always be a vestige.”

I’ll always be a vestige, the thought crossed Rose’s mind.

“And?”

“And you’ve told yourself you’ll always be Johannes’ pet.  Or you’ll be stuck running from something or other.  You can’t leave because you have no place to go to.  Well, I’m offering.  If you help and we succeed in all of this, I should be free to stake out a demesne, and I’ll give your group permission to use a share of it.  You’ll have control of that space just like Johannes has over his, like the demon has now.  No more running.  Minimal obligations.”

“No obligations,” Noah cut in, too fast, too eager.

He was just a kid, after all.

“Minimal,” Rose said.  “The way this world works, you can’t have no obligations.”

He hesitated, but he’d already expressed some interest.

He looked to his brother and the two girls, but they weren’t any help.  They weren’t giving him an avenue to refuse, or to argue against it.

The hook was set.

“I’m the type of person who holds a machete to a kid’s throat,” Rose said, “But I can be that type in a way that’s useful to you.  One that’s invested in protecting you.”

“I dunno,” Noah said, noncommittal, “Like you said, you’re a bitch.”

Using fodder she’d handed him.

But, at the same time, her own thoughts were coming together.

She wasn’t willing to spend any more time on him.  Time was too tight, and something told her that so long as she pushed, he’d push back.  If she tried to pull, to draw him in, he’d resist.

“Figure it out,” she said.

She released him, pushing him away with her free hand so he couldn’t or wouldn’t throw himself at her, clawing and biting.

“I’m not sure I like how you handled that,” Ainsley commented, quiet.

“Did we have another choice?” Paige cut in.

“Aren’t you supposed to be some exemplar of truth, fairness and justice?” Ainsley asked.  “Because maybe that was true, but I don’t think it was fair or just.”

“I think it sounded like both,” Peter said.  “I agree with the kid.  This whole situation here wasn’t fair or just, either, and I think we’ve already established that your whole dynamic was a bit hypocritical, as far as Rose and general nonsense went.  You’re oh for three.”

Ainsley shut her mouth.  Rose wondered if she’d connected to the notion that Peter had been pursuing her, and was left thoroughly off balance now that he was on the attack, in a manner of speaking.

But that wasn’t the focus.  Rose turned and looked out the window, her thoughts elsewhere.

One of the many plans she’d considered in the context of the war had been a big declaration for her demesne.  If she would be attacked by everyone anyway, why not claim as much as she could?  If she could claim the streets of Jacob’s Bell, for instance, she might be able to encapsulate or overwhelm Johannes’ influence.

The idea of a proper demesne had stayed with her, and had inspired the offer she’d made to the boy.  But halfway through that thought, as she looked to the future once again, she could imagine how her personal realm might be affected by her association with the Abyss.  How Noah and his friends wouldn’t be out of place in the midst of it.

Johannes’ demesne wasn’t so dissimilar from the Abyss.

The parallels kept getting drawn.  Blake had wanted her to bring Green Eyes.  A bogeyman.  Was there more to it?  Was he with her in thinking about how things all fit together?  Gatekeeper, human, demon?  Humans and the abyss?  The stable ‘real’ world and the churning void of the Abyss?

“We should go,” Lola said, an abrupt statement that disturbed Rose’s line of thinking.  “I might not be capable of doing much, but I can feel my neck prickling like someone’s sneaking up behind me.  I’m pretty sure the lawyer is close.  Not about-to-kill-us close, but in or near the building.”

“There’s no point in going if we wind up stuck in the same situation we just had to scramble to run from,” Paige said.

“Yeah there is,” Lola said.  “Staying?  We definitely die.  Go, there’s a chance.  Slim, but still a chance.”

Rose clenched her teeth.  If they couldn’t help, couldn’t they just shut up and let her think?

“Boy,” Green Eyes said.

Noah startled a bit as Green Eyes drew closer.

Prey and predator.

“Rose, who’s making that offer?  I want her to die more than anyone, and she’s smart enough to know it,” Green Eyes said.

“Uh huh?”  Noah looked between Green Eyes and Rose.

“Yeah,” Green Eyes said.  “She’s right.  She’s everything I’m not.  If I could erase anyone, no consequences, I’d erase her.

Noah was looking at Rose as Green Eyes said it.  He didn’t see Rose flinch or change her expression in the slightest.

Rose offered him a nod for good measure.  He looked away, as if bothered.

“Dunno what you’d call it, but I’m vouching for her.  I know what you’re in for if you say no and we win.  She’s telling the truth there.  It’s a good deal.  One I’d take.”

“Character reference,” Peter chipped in.

In the sense that we sometimes want to look at a one star review for a popular product to see what the worst critics have to say.

“Yeah, that,” Green Eyes said.  “Don’t always know the right words.”

“Why do you want her dead?” Noah asked.

“‘Cause that spirit she talked about, that’s tearing her up inside, like your spirits’re eating you up?  He’s my hero.  Not my boyfriend, exactly.  But someone important.  I’m worried about him, and stopping her is the best and fastest way to stop worrying.”

There were a few surprised glances from members of Rose’s group that hadn’t gotten the memo yet on that particular conflict.

“Okay,” Noah said, and the word had a tone.

Rose didn’t move.  She needed more.  Something told her that if she pushed, leaped to shake his hand right now, he’d run.

“Okay,” the boy said.  “It’s… better than nothing.  I believe you.  If my friends are okay with it-”

“If you’re okay with it, then go,” Rose said, stern.  “We don’t have time to talk.”

He looked at his brother and friends for confirmation.  They nodded.

He pointed, and this time, he was inviting everyone else to follow.

They’d had time to rest and recover, but not to mend.  Rose’s legs were stiff from far too much activity in one night.  Scratches and bruises from her stint in the Abyss were making themselves felt, and having stopped, the sweat that clung to her body had chilled.

They didn’t head for a stairwell or elevator, but for one side of the floor, where flooring had given way, a hole.

Dropping down to the floor beneath.

Green Eyes and the vestiges were the first ones down.  Rose’s group followed.

Evan was the last to come, leaving a line of fire behind him.

Further down, the floor was more damaged.  They improvised a route, dropping down another floor.

“No stairs?” Peter gasped.

“Blocked, trapped!” Mia said.

Which might be a factor in why there was so little furniture.

Another floor down, and Rose could see from the view out the window that they were close to the ground floor.

“Trouble,” Lola said.  “Just below us.”

“Keep going!” Noah said.  “There’s always trouble here!”

Rose redoubled her efforts, even as her legs felt like lead.

They dropped down once more, this tie through a shattered section of bathroom.  In making downward progress, they’d moved at a diagonal through the building.  From the northwest corner to the southeast, roughly, if cardinal directions had any sense or logic in this place.

Where other floors had been emptied, furniture and even walls torn away to barricade or block conventional entry, the ground floor was littered with debris, including but not being limited to a car that had been dragged into the interior, set beside the front desk.

Among that debris and detritus was a lurking wretch of the Barber, waiting for them, a broken thing, a half that had been given little except the ability to feel pain.  It had been beaten, left a shell of it’s former self.  A fat lump of a man.

She looked, almost automatically, for the other half.  She found it.  A female half, muscle and ugliness, face contorted with rage, a makeshift spear in one hand.

Not the threat that Lola had warned about.

The double doors at the front of the building shattered.

The demon hound.  The lawyer wasn’t far behind, holding the leash that connected to the hound’s great metal collar

The demon beast shrugged its way free of the double doors.  Paige was ready, holding her orb of light up high, hands cupped around it.

The light flashed, and it very nearly blinded Rose, even though her line of sight was blocked by the backs of Paige’s hands.  Ainsley grabbed her, helping to pull her forward, and she followed the rest of the group to the very corner of the building.

A passage, lined with wires on one side.  Not even an access hatch, it was more of a space cut for the wires, which just so happened to be large enough for the spirit-infused kids to crawl through.

Very possibly too small for them.  For her group.

Peter was the next one in, and it wasn’t an easy fit.  He went in head first, and he stopped at the chest.

Rose turned to look, and she saw the demon hound shaking its head.

Paige was saying something.  A quick prayer.

Not directing her focus at the hellhound, but at the lawyer.

The light flared again.  What looked to be invisible figures wreathed in glowing drapery emerged from the reflections and refractions.  They reached out and gripped the lawyer.  Not firm holds, but gentle ones, enough to mire him.

Karmic burdens?  Rose wondered.  It would fit the Sphinx’s specialty, as would the protective end of things.

A hand covered his mouth, while another covered his eyes.  He fought and twisted to get away.  The hound strained, but though it was massive and strong, and even though the chain went taut, it didn’t pull free of the lawyer’s hand.

The hell-beast lunged, harder, and a stray, blind swipe of its claw destroyed part of the front desk.  It still didn’t pull free.

Behind it, Rose saw, the lawyer’s expression changed.  His body rippled with dark smoke, and that smoke served to shrug off the specters.

“Rose!” Ainsley called.  She was already in the vent.  Rose and Paige were the last ones.

Rose climbed through, and she was thankful of all the days where she’d simply forgotten to eat.  Had she been one half-inch thicker around the chest or hips, she might not have fit.

Her cousin was so close behind her that the girl’s face collided at one point with the bottom of Rose’s boot.

The hellhound could be heard behind them, gnashing.

It’ll pursue us aboveground, Rose thought.

The path led to a basement area, and the group collected there, in almost pitch darkness, before Paige produced another light.  Maggie’s goblins were the first thing that Rose saw.  The vestiges were the next.

An omen, perhaps, that there was nothing pretty waiting for them ahead.

Noah led the way across the basement, to a hole in the wall.

“There was a worm here, it whispered things,” Noah confided.  “The Sorcerer sometimes came to ask it questions.  I think that was why he had it stay here.  But it left after a bit, before this war started.  We use the paths.  Old tunnels.”

Rose followed the group through the hole in the wall and into what looked like a very crude mineshaft.

“Like Mags told us, back when we first met, there’s bad news,” Noah said.

“Where does this end?” Rose asked.

“Close,” Noah said.  “It gets you close to that big tower, or it did.  But it’s hard to know, with how things got twisted around.  There’s a good chance you’ll come up at the edge of some group or another.  That’s the bad news.”

“The worse news is that lawyer and his pet are going to be right on top of us,” Lola said.  “So… plan accordingly.”

Rose nodded.  “I figured as much.  And wherever we end up, it’ll have to do.”

“You do have a plan?” Lola asked.  “Something beyond attack?”

Yes, Rose thought, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it.

The answer terrified her, a little.

She’d sensed how much Blake had worn away, being deep inside.

He’d helped her get this far.  He’d given her pieces of his heart, and helped her feel her way past obstacles.  He’d fed into her instincts, where they were lacking.

But, she knew, she wasn’t much of a fighter.

Now to return to the same circumstance that they’d been in when this whole mess had started.  Her thoughts, his actions.

Her hand trembled a little as she extended it in front of her.  She could barely see it in the gloom, even with Paige’s light.

As she ceded control, following the same path Blake had taken when he’d retreated from the madness demon, she felt the tattoos take over, some thicker than others, overlapping, reaching out over skin.

She just prayed that if they somehow made it through this, that he’d give it all back.

Your turn, she thought.

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102 thoughts on “Judgment 16.7

  1. The kid vestiges return and call everyone out on their bullshit! Rose is terrifying but also offers to help save them! Everything is wonderful!

    1. Admittedly, of all the things that the practitioner families have done wrong, I am most willing to give them a pass on not attacking Johannes before. He could rearrange his Demense as he saw fit, had Faysal assisting him, and had quite the army at his command. This is probably the most desperate gamble in the entire story. The odds of an attack succeeding were never particularly good

      I’ve criticized the Toronto practitioners for not dealing with Ur, but that’s because I genuinely think they could take him. The Choir of Darkness is vunerable to light and fire, and they’ve got the Sisters, the Astrologer, and the Eye.

      1. The odds of an attack succeeding were never particularly good

        But now that they’re so thoroughly outmatched, their odds have become exactly one in a million.

        Too bad for them that Pact is not set in Discworld.

        1. Let’s not forget that most practitioners don’t know how to defend against demons. Blake “won” by offering the demon a foothold in the world and still ended up filled with taint and betrayed.

          The moment they found somebody qualified to deal with the threat, they sent him out.

          1. Fighting demons isn’t different in principle from fighting normal Others. Granted, it’s really dangerous to go after one with an unknown weakness, but after Blake’s factory attack they did know Ur was vulnerable to fire. The Astrologer and the Sisters also have expendable assets on tap, though there is some risk of connection-related backlash. And the Timeless Knight and the Eye have both demonstrated that even moderate-rank demons can be overwhelmed by force, so team Toronto could have taken a mote even blind.

            Really though, I feel that people should make an effort to spread the list of Choirs and their weaknesses around. Then they wouldn’t be having these problems.

            1. The risk with that is that it might inspire false confidence and practitioners might start thinking of demons as just another tool. That’s a recipe for disaster.

  2. I feel like these next couple of chapters are probably Blake’s swan song. I do believe that Barbatorem will be defeated, and Faysal may even be able to repair some of the damage to the world, but experience tells me that the sort of salvation that many stories tend to end with is not within reach for Wildbow protagonists. However, even in Worm those who were left behind were able to build something for themselves, even if none of it was what they would have chosen. I look forward to a sort of closure, despite the inevitable losses. They won’t get what they want, but perhaps now in the end they can get some of what they need.

    1. I really want to have an ending with Blake, Sushi and Chicken… But I have kind of given up on that. I think Blake has probably lost too much of his essence, and I am worried there will hardly be anything left of him by the time is over :/

      1. Don’t fret my friend, up until now the Abyss was undoubtly the Big Good of the Story.
        And B-S-C are all tied to it. Maybe it can change enough of what’s left of Blake, to give him a happily ever after with Green Eyes. And there’s still the leaking Phoenix.
        The Abyss will save the day!!

          1. Of course my brother! The Abyss might seem like a hellish place but it truly isn’t! It’s a truly chaotic neutral realm, in which everyone get what they deserve. In contrast to ‘karma’ the Abyss is fair. Even reasonable.
            I’d take that instead of all the hypocritical religions, gods, fairys and demons.
            Come my brethren to the Abyss, we got sexy mermaids.

            1. @osato

              became too forgettable(and the world forgot her. don’t worry lost one the abyss remembers)

              ..people’d have remembered her if she’d bitten more of them…the abyss was only trying to help her in the future

  3. I think I have it figured out. How do you defeat an unstoppable monster who carries around a giant pair of scissors? Chant the mystical incantation: Dwayne Douglas Johnson. Dwayne Douglas Johnson. Dwayne Douglas Johnson.

            1. Peter reminds me of Qvanu Nypbgg Fpubbyf Rirelbar, in that he goes around insulting and calling out people we want to see insulted and called out. And it’s incredibly cathartic.

      1. How many games have been played where scissors beat rock? None. How many games where rock beat scissors? MILLIONS.
        Rock-Paper-Scissors sets a precedent in repetition that dwarfs even Crone Mara. To defeat the Barber, throw rocks at him.

          1. I wonder if that’s why the Timeless Knight was so effective v. the Barber? It’s basically an immovable object that can travel and attack.

        1. So they need the poer of Rock to defeat him. And obviously, the harder, the better… Also, since he’s a demon, a Hallelujah wouldn’t be out of place to fight him (although that would be better against a demon of Madness than one of Ruin).
          Obviously, they need Lordi’s help.

    1. I concur. We got so many details on the rat band. I’d also like some more info on how that lawyer looks. I know he’s supposed to have given up his identity but how does that look? Or is the complete lack of descriptive features (including the fact that they lack such features which would be pretty damn noticeable) the whole point?

    2. I don’t think the hellhound is a demon. It might be, but I think its more likely to be a creature that was created by a demon (or the descendant of one).

  4. The comparison to Mickey Mouse… ouch.

    I need to go to bed (why must you keep me up when I should be sleeping, Wildbow!), but this is an awesome chapter. The next couple of chapters are shaping up to be amazing.

    1. HAHAHA I had the same reaction! I was like oh god, really wildbow? What am I doing with my life that I am reading this right now?

      And then I got to the end and everything was magically awesome.

        1. It’s midnight for me, but I had had a long night and at like 3 or 4 am was like WAIT A MINUTE!!!!!

          I used to work nights, best/worst feeling when i would get to work and just know there was a new episode of Pact waiting for me…

    1. I know!

      I mean, Blake going out fighting the good fight, let’s be honest, it’s been expected, and it’s probably the best ending he can hope for. But where does that leave poor Green Eyes and Evan? Something tells me that having all three die horribly taking out Barbertotem is the most likely ‘happy’ ending

      1. …Actually, the death flags here have me nervous for another reason entirely. We still haven’t hit the third betrayal by a friend that was mentioned earlier, and the way things are shaping up I’m beginning to think that betrayal will come in the form of either Evan or Green Eyes making a bad deal to save Blake.

        Also interesting: The line “Damn me, damn them, damn it all” Was said at the beginning of the story and when Blake became a Boogeyman. That’s two. If it comes up again, it will be three. Considering what that line’s associated with, that’s not a good thing

        1. Damn me, damn them, damn it all

          That line has already been said thrice, as far as i can remember. The first time was the beginning of the story in 1.1. The 2nd time was when the junior counsel refused to listen to him in 11.9. The 3rd was when he contemplated his bogeyman nature, the fact that he was filled with rage while in the abyss in 12.6.

          Blake could’ve said it more but I only remember those.

        2. He’s said that line, and variations on it, multiple times now. Actually, he might be getting up to the three*three now if we include him just saying a simple “damn me”.

  5. Heh. Even when Peter’s trying to be nice, his sister dismisses him. I like that he’s willingness to call out practitioners from both sides. Could we have a Peter spin off set in an alternate universe where he isn’t immediately confronted with demonic threats? Peter seems like one of the most interesting characters from Pact who would have a very fun story under other circumstances.

    I never expected the Karmasutra to be so bright. Paige impressed me.

    Still hoping for a happy(ish) ending for Green Eyes and Evan.

  6. I’m hoping that Blake/Rose channel the change that is the power of HUMANITY and somehow find a workaround/overcome the ‘destruction’ demons can impose (changing things enough so they can be put back together) and doing what the Angel is incapable of concieving. That is, overcoming damage which demons can inflict.

    And then Blose (Rake?) will be one person to live their (fucked up abyssal-guardian) life!

      1. I don’t think that the damage a demon does is necessarily irreparable in a local sense, just in a universal sense. A practitioner or Other with the correct set of skills could export the entropy elsewhere i.e negentropy.

        Visualization: If the world is a sculpture of clay, then demons hack a chunk out of that clay and throw it away. The hole that is left there can be filled in with clay from other areas, but the sum total of the clay is still going to be diminished.

  7. Huh. Rose is giving Blake control. I wonder if the next story is going to switch back to the first person as Blake takes the reins?

  8. Agh I don’t even know I can’t believe I used to be kind of apathetic to Pact.

    Meanwhile, I’m just picturing this next scene from Paige’s POV. She is going to freak. So much.

  9. Barber — rock beats scissors, right?

    What they need to do is to get the Sphinx in there. I think she’s the only one that could really qualify as a rock. The Rock of Ages. Time passes around her like water in a river passes around a boulder. She is Paige’s rock in life.

    Hunh, actually, come to think of it, I think Blake could qualify as Evan’s rock. Green Eye’s rock. A guy who doesn’t deviate — a guy who makes a promise, then come hell or high water, no matter what sacrifice might be required, doesn’t hesitate to come through. The more I write this, the more I think that Blake might just be able to qualify as a Rock, he just needs someone to point it out (someone inside the shared body who can spend time reviewing memories, etc., and feed that revelation to Blake, perhaps).

      1. Exactly, owned. The Sphinx didn’t just grab Paige off the street, they knew each other before, and made a decision based on their past experiences. Their relationship has now been codified, made permanent. That being said, I think Blake is a better bet for a “rock” in people’s lives, if not for their attachment to him, then for how messed up he’s made their lives after he was thrown in, by the ripple effects made when he landed in the metaphorical pond of their lives.

        1. made permanent

          well…you know, unless the sphinx gets hungry and/or page slips up and accidentally answers a question. “you’ll never find a student who’d say they weren’t happy with the arrangement”(because they’re already digested and no longer have feelings about such things or the ability to speak)

  10. Seriously someone in this series needs to catch a break eventually. Doesn’t even need to be a big one, but the total lack of pause will lead this to become like that British tv show about mi5 where like one person is left alive from the original cast.

    1. People have been saying that since arc 2. The scary thing is, I’m pretty sure the “break” came sometime during the Toronto Arc before everything went bad.

        1. If you mean a break from the main action, I agree with you. When I referred to a “break”, I meant a period where things weren’t always getting worse for Blake and Rose.

          For a brief period during Toronto, things were looking up for Blake and Rose, for Blake was finally gaining tools, Allies, slaves and actually defeating his enemies. Of course, we know that ended with him loosing a few ribs and eventually his ties to the physical world. We all knew something bad was coming, but for those few chapters, Blake and Rose were actually making progress instead of falling deeper into a winless situation.

          1. Well, I meant a break from things getting worse for everyone who isn’t blake.
            If you’re talking about when things aren’t getting worse for blake and rose, it would have to be when they both agree to a truce, and after some shit goes down, he starts working against the DuChamps.

            He starts winning, gaining good karma, collecting allies and followers, and she gets engaged to probably the most handsome and powerful chronomancer in the city who isn’t already married. That’s a break if you ask me. Hell, blake even managed to kill the Benevolent rather easily, on top of getting Jeremy to ally himself with the BlakeGuard.

            1. I think the main issue that makes Pact seem so draining is that every “one step forward” seems to be followed by a “two steps back”.

              Beating the Benevolent came easily because they were all about to be swallowed up by the Abyss. Rose made peace by getting engaged to the most powerful chronomancer: who immediately loses access to his family’s power and, not incidentally, an arm!

              etc. etc.

  11. hi, it’s the first time i’m commenting here.
    i’ve enjoyed the story so far, but not nearly as much as worm.
    it’s not bad by any mean and i’ve really liked some parts but i think there is a major flaw.
    that would be the declared “bullshitting” part of the magical system. save for a few stated rules, most of it is just undefined, as a reader i cannot build expectations of what will happen next based on the premises, anything could happen. the elements of time magic also don’t help here as things could be reversed (even though it’s not abused in the story).
    no matter what the situation is or what happens, i cannot get a grasp of it, the spectrum is just so broad and so superficial that what comes next will just be what the author wants.
    to quote h.g. wells:
    “If anything is possible, then nothing is interesting.”

    1. Everything that happened is foreshadowed.Seriously,in my opinion,this is the best magic system,because:

      Its not so well defined to qualify as superpowers/alternative physics ,like many other works

      Yet its also not vague enough to qualify as bullshit from the author/deux or diabolus ex machina mine/new plot elements out of nowhere/omnipotent plot device,like the rest of the other works.

      Its like magic should be,OP yet expensive,vague yet with a certain logic one can grasp.

    2. I’d also point out that bullshiting is
      actually an official part of the magic system. If you can convince the surrounding spirits that what you’re doing is legit, then it’s legit. The fae in particular make a great living by conning reality itself into playing along with what they want.

  12. I REALLY hope the next chapter isn’t a histories interlude. Please, at least just one more chapter with Blake, that’s all I ask.

    Also… who’s being judged?

    1. I think the title is a reference to the Major Arcana. Tied to Archangel Gabriel, the resurrection of the dead, and the end of the world.

        1. It’s one of Tarot’s 22 Major Arcana, and it is connected to the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Obviously it normally doesn’t literally refer to the apocalypse, but this case may be an exception.

    2. I think this arc is the histories interlude, given that it was written in the 3rd person and the protagonist is Rose. If I am right, the next arc might start already this tuesday.

  13. “I can be energetic and peppy and win you over by speaking from the heart!” Evan said. “I’m good at it!”

    Evan knows his role damned well.

  14. As someone who does spirit work and stuxies the occult i havent really had any problems grasping anyoart of the story, and can say the magic system is pretty sound,

      1. Some people (like me) go directly to the table of contents, look there first and don’t see any updates 🙂

        I only thought of simply clicking at the big shiny Pact banner and going to the main page after directly modifying the URL with “2015/02/17/judgment-16-8”, but heck, I’d jump through fire hoops to read more Pact :3

    1. I interpreted that as: he’d already had “it” torn off so, having suffered that loss, he wouldn’t find the loss of his tongue to be all that big of a deal.

    2. What makes you think that the tongue is what they meant by “it”? I guess wildbow didn’t feel like having them say “Penispenispenis” again.

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