Judgment 16.11

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Dragon and demon-possessed practitioner were poised to strike at me.  The dragon’s teeth were slightly parted, and liquid fire ran out the corners like drool from a dog’s mouth.  It had been poised to breathe fire before I’d acted, and that hadn’t changed, even though the dragon had been cut in half.

Even if I’d wanted to move, I’d have had to dodge the spatters of fire that littered the battlefield.  Where the area could be navigated, the fire stretched up to calf or knee height from pools no wider across than my feet, patterned with no rhyme or reason.  Picking my way through would be hard enough, but getting any distance before getting cut off by a bad spread of fire- no.

No way I could move fast or far enough to get away before the dragon could spit its fire at my back.

The dragon’s fire was less concerning than the Barber, who was ready to use its demonic implement on me and Rose both.

I had one second to process the situation before the dragon shook its head, getting its senses.  The spittle flew to either side, thankfully leaving me untouched, though it made the Barber raise an arm to shield his face.  Dots of burning dragon’s spit speckled his jacket sleeve and arm.

An opening.

I lunged for him, my eyes dropping to track the spots where I could safely place my feet and legs, then rising up to look at him.

Eye contact.

Eye contact, insofar as he had eyes, anyway.  I felt a kind of despair as it happened, because I knew that I couldn’t change course.  I couldn’t do anything except face the situation head on, watching as the shears were moved, raised as a weapon.

All the same, I followed through.  I rushed him, felt the shears draw together at the blade of the Hyena, and carried forward, charging into him.  My shoulder bumped his hands, the crossed weapons pressed between us, neither successfully cutting flesh.

I’d hoped to drive him back, force him to stagger back into open fires, but he barely budged.  Too strong.  Bigger than me.  Somehow more rooted in this reality.

With my free, damaged hand, I reached up, and, unable to reach his face, I scraped at his throat with the ragged, splintered portion.  Superficial damage, but I could see the more demonic tissues reaching out as blood welled, covering the wound, leaving a scabrous patch of black.  The remaining fingers and thumb of that hand bit into flesh, grabbing his windpipe.

My eyes stared at his, fully aware that the dragon was moving in my peripheral vision.

Turning on the two practitioners that were fighting a short distance away.

On the Barber and I.

Did you cut off the portion that was more bloodthirsty, in favor of the side that was more obedient?  Because I don’t think he’s following orders.  And you’re not in a position to give them.

As if answering my thought, the dragon growled, a deep, powerful sound that traveled along the ground to be felt in my feet and legs, low in the throat.

Sorry Rose, but if I can’t win this for us, I can at least take him with us as we lose.

I didn’t sense any protest.

My grip tightened, as if the body that was beneath the now-ruined veneer of criss-crossing branches was offering a touch more strength.  Holding on as if our existence depended on it, when it was very likely to be the opposite.

“Fay-” the Barber started.

I tightened my grip a fraction more, strangling out the rest of the order.

His hands were occupied.  Both held the shears.  I spotted the pipes dangling from one of his wrists, attached by a fine chain, but couldn’t reach for them without sparing vital leverage.

Tantalizing.  Almost bait.

The dragon’s turned its full focus to us.  Snout aimed our way.

The Barber pulled back, very clearly trying to dislodge my hand, but didn’t pull free.

The whole of my being was concentrated on the one partial hand that gripped his throat.  Two fingers on one side, one thumb on the other.

You can’t speak.  If you let go of the shears to do the snapping thing, I’ll stab you.  I’ll get you in the solar plexus, if not the heart.  I’ll take your air, or the center of your being, and that’s a victory for our side.  Let me keep going, and I’ll crush your windpipe.  Even if you heal it, your words won’t belong to Johannes anymore.

Let the dragon get us, and you’ll lose every part of you.

There was no fear in his eyes, but he did struggle again, shifting his grip, gripping the handles of the shears to push, as if attempting to use raw strength to drive me down to my knees, where I wouldn’t be able to get his throat.

Too little, too slow.  The dragon drew its neck pack, mouth parting slightly.

The Barber cut.  Severing an inch of the Hyena’s broken blade.  In that instant, several things happened.  He found the chance to snap his fingers, and the Dragon paused, watching us.

I shifted my weapon, aimed for the softer parts of the Barber’s stomach, and was deflected.  I managed to press myself in close, chest to chest, my left shoulder jammed against his right shoulder, leaving neither of us the leverage to swing or thrust.

With the close proximity, I could feel as something rippled over the Barber, beneath his clothes, very possibly beneath his skin.  A hundred snakes, or great leeches, coursing out of a source deep within him.

Tapping into a strength that wasn’t his.  It might have been something I could have used, that he was less Johannes now, but I wasn’t in a position to do anything except hold on to his throat and strive to keep his arms pinned closer to his body.

But as his strength grew, my ability to do that faltered.  He pushed out and back, shears against my shoulder.  He pushed down, in a grim parody of the king knighting someone, blade on the shoulder, and my knees buckled with the pressure.

I stabbed at his left arm with the Hyena, and the blade came away slick with blood and black ichor.

I stabbed again, over and over, and he healed as fast as I could hurt.  My arm popped and cracked, stretching beyond all tolerances as he forced me down.

As I was bent down, I could see the stairwell, the others.  Mags and Green Eyes.

Green Eyes looked scared, and I remembered that the dragon had burned her, and she hadn’t yet fully healed.

Mags was holding her piece of pipe, holding it out like a wand, but the Barber was holding me as a human shield.

All the same I maintained a grip on his throat.  More tenuous than before.

Thu,” he managed, rasping out the syllable.  He said another.  “Ban.”

Giant speak, I remembered.  A language of single syllables.  Just what he needed to communicate with the great beast.

A shape lunged from behind, and threw itself at the dragon’s head, knocking its aim off.

In the gloom, lit by fire from below, green orbs peered down at me, before the tail wrapped around, arms reaching down, constricting.

The dragon’s head moved in response to the impact.  Her fins flared, joining her body in obscuring the reptile’s vision.

The flaming fluids shot from the dragon’s nose, rather than its mouth, firing off to one side.  It lurched, and it threw itself against the exterior wall that ringed the place.

I didn’t have time to worry about her welfare.  There was only the Barber.  Forcing me down with a strength that didn’t belong to Johannes.

My grip started to slip.

He parted the shears, shifting the angle.  One blade at my shoulder, the other moving to one side.  The ‘v’ of the blades slid closer to my neck.

I let go, collapsing, falling backward.  I had an upside-down view of Mags, standing behind me.

Mags slammed the pipe together, firing a shot at the Barber’s head.  He whipped around, one hand leaving the shears to touch the wound.  Tendrils of ichor wrapped around his fingers in their effort to find and cover the damage.

“Go, Buttsack!” Mags ordered.

“Fuck you!” Buttsack replied.

“You’re bound!” Mags said.

“Fuck you, you lunatic!  You’re fucking crazy!  Call me forsworn!  Nothing’s gonna happen that’s worse than me going out there!”

The Barber straightened.  He coughed, a small sound, then said something under his breath.

White light flared, and he moved himself clear across the rooftop.

Face injured, arm injured.  And I was largely unhurt.

I started to rise, only to collapse partway through the process.

I blinked.

The arm I’d used to grab him was hurt.  My legs weren’t functioning right.  Even my back, Rose’s back, was locked up.

The power of adrenaline had kept me going, strength of fear, but it wasn’t capable of undoing damage.

Mags did something to move the fire around, stepping out of the stairwell.  She offered me a hand.  I was in the process of accepting it when other hands seized me, lifting me up from behind.  Peter.

Paige was still at the rear, crouched down, her attention on the dragon and Green Eyes. The thing was bucking, clawing blindly at a foe it hadn’t seen, putting holes in the wall and gouges in the ground.

I could have gone after the Barber, pursued the fight.  It even made sense, on a level, given the role he played.

But Green Eyes was a priority.  Taking on the one enemy here we could theoretically kill came a close second.

The dragon wretch, as I turned my back on our antagonist to focus on the reptile, was different than it had been.  Mangier, in the same way that a person left to fend for themselves in the wilderness might look tougher and more dangerous, even if it was only hardship that painted that picture.  The scales were ragged, but bristled like saw blades, there was a feral look in its eyes that hadn’t been there before, and it was leaner, narrower, with more muscle.

I moved, and I was surprised at how bad I was at that simple action.  Moving.  Putting one foot in front of the other.

The dragon wasn’t a complete being.  It had weaknesses.

As it happened, I’d seen a cross section of the monster, viewing its insides.

I knew exactly where its heart was.  Low in the chest.  The rib cage was triangular, and the heart rested at the lowest point.  I could see how the scales didn’t line up right.  The Hyena in my one good hand, I aimed it to match the gradient of the scales, to slide under and in.

My lunge missed entirely, as the thing wheeled its bulk around.  In the process, blind, it scraped its head against the wall, and Green Eyes with it.

Bloodied, twisted around, she lost her grip, dropping her constriction of the dragon’s head.  She pulled her tail up and away as it opened its mouth.  Its mouth was full of fluids, and they poured down to the base of the wall.

I backed away before it could splash up on or around me.  I wasn’t very intact.  Maybe only a quarter of my body was protected by the bogeyman exterior.  Rose’s body was almost as battered, inside.

“Blake, guys!” Paige called out.

The Barber.

Moving his pipes in the air, a circular motion.

I felt it like a stiff breeze.  I could see others touched by that same breeze.  Hitting each of us from different directions.

The fire, too, was touched.

Fluids had ignited, and fluids now spread.  Pushed by the effect, they were covering more ground.  The larger flames stayed just as large, but got wider.

I was put in mind of Rose’s sprint through the illusory flames.  Fire on either side of us, spreading, lifting, the gaps all closing.

Working to make the rooftop an expanse of dragonfire.

The spread was too fast.  I climbed onto the only thing that was available.  The Hyena stabbed the side of the dragon for traction, and my toes scratched at scales.  Rough, sharp, they were traction, allowing me to climb.

Before I’d found my first handhold, my wooden fingertips were smoking from contact with the beast.

It lurched, very nearly throwing me off, and lowered its head to claw at the offending mermaid that was clinging to its upper face.  She evaded the scratch and climbed over its head and onto its neck, to a point that head and claws couldn’t reach, between the dragon’s wings.

The dragon’s head turned to one side, peering over its own shoulder.  The eyelid was torn, ragged.

I climbed up higher, but already, the wood of my fingers and feet was turning black, smouldering.  I made a moment’s eye contact with Green Eyes.

“Thu!” the Barber spoke, and his voice had a ragged quality to it.  “Fi!

The dragon responded.  Its head drew back, neck shortening.  I could see spaces at the sides of its neck glow, as loose skin stretched and filled with fluids.  Gorge.

Aiming for the others?  The stairwell?

No.  Mags was manipulating fire, and Paige was drawing out a diagram with glowing lines.  The fire that Johannes was trying to move licked against the edge of the diagram, but didn’t pass it.  Fire wouldn’t hurt them.  Shouldn’t.

No, the dragon pointed its snout straight up.

Well, I suppose this was how dragons dealt with dragonslayers who thought they were clever, occupying the same blind spot as Green Eyes.

Green Eyes was shifting position, getting ready to pounce.  I could visualize the scene, see how she would be too late.  She might stop it partway, but she’d get the worst of it.

“No!” I barked out the word.  “Here!”

I extended my bad hand, as I ran along the dragon’s back.  I felt her take it.

We leaped together, though her leap was far more powerful.  Almost enough to screw us up.

I managed to catch the edge of the broken wall with the Hyena.  We swung out, and we swung around.  I lost my grip almost immediately, blade skittering over stone, but Green Eyes saved the day, finding a ledge.

I dangled from her grip.  I could see the firework spray of the fire spouting skyward, higher than the walls, though most seemed to strike sections of the remaining wall and pillars on the way up and the way down.  That which fell beyond the confines of the rooftop spread out around us.

I saw two droplets strike Green Eyes, felt it in her grip as she reacted, whole-body, head bowed.

Still, she lifted me up, so I could use the same ledge for a grip.  She fixed her position, and then clawed at the site of her wound.

We started scaling the wall, much as I had before.  I paused to sheath the Hyena in a gap in my midsection, then resumed climbing.

“I know you’re there, Blake,” I heard the Barber call out.  “I can see you with the Sight.”

The walls rattled.  I paused mid-climb to maintain my grip.

He kept talking.  “I negotiated with the Barber.  They aren’t about suffering, per se.  They aren’t evil.  That’s an affectation we gave them, just like the human shapes and symbols were.  Once my eyes were opened, I understood it all.  I saw the issues, I saw where we stood, in the midst of it all, and all I had to do was ask.  It’ll only be able to do its work in a small area.  Jacob’s Bell, Mags’ hometown, Port Hope, a sliver of Toronto.  I’ve asked it to be quick.  Merciful.”

I reached the top of the wall.  I paused, hesitating to show myself.

“You’ll all be snuffed out like a candle flame.  Absorbed into the… what you see above.  Time and space and id and ego won’t mean anything, there.  They’ll become momentary and endless, existent and abstract.  Compared to what we face every day, even on good days, it’s the kindest thing.  To not be.”

There was a note of humanity in his tone at the end of it all.  I looked up at the great spheres above us.

One was opening, closer than all of the rest.  Was that what he was doing, right now?

“That isn’t you speaking, Johannes!” I heard Mags.

The dragon roared.  I heard an impact.  I shut my eyes, forehead pressed against the stone wall in front of me.

We can’t win this like this, I thought.  Rose.  Please, you needed me to take over so you could think.  Do something.

I felt her move.

Words.  Names.  Titles.

The WelderThe Nurse of Darnby.  Bristles.

Stop, I communicated.

Stop.  I can’t practice.

There was a pause.

Another thud, an action on the Dragon’s part.

She tugged.

Not at a memory, or a feeling, or an idea.  Not at an experience of an internal structure within me.

At me.

I drew in a deep breath.

“Don’t…” I started.  I started to have second thoughts.  To abandon the others to the fight, instead of taking point?  It felt irresponsible.

But wasn’t that the same arrogance I’d accused Rose of?

“Don’t?” Green Eyes whispered.

“Don’t let me fall,” I said.

Then I receded.  I left the strength and the armor and the bogeyman bits where they were, and I retreated inside Rose, back to the deeper recesses.  The safe territory she’d gone to, to think.

I lost the ability to see, to hear, to think.  I wasn’t tapped into those senses, or those parts of the body.

My expectation was for Rose to summon her strength, to take over again, ready with the names at the tip of her tongue.

She didn’t.

Deep within, she met me.

I knew I was piecemeal.  I was surprised to find that Rose was much the same.  We were two broken stained glass windows, all ragged edges and hard lines, crudely constructed, both glowing from fires that burned within us.  The fires were pretty dim.  Too much of a push, and either of us could collapse inward.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

“We need to unseat the king from the hill.  Everything follows from that.  It should be fast, if we can manage it.”

“For this.  Right here.  We can’t budge him.  He’s strong, he can go wherever he wants, and he has a damn dragon.  Do you have a plan for this?”

“In part,” she said.  “I’ve gathered names.  I could use them, given a chance.  Bogeymen.  Dug through the recesses of my memory.  Stuff I looked at online, stuff I looked at in books that I might have left in the mirror world, when we changed places.  They’re not ones we’ve summoned and used up.”

“Bogeymen won’t win this for us,” I said.

“No,” she agreed.  “No, they won’t.  And even getting that done is hard.  I’m… not assigning blame.  But you’ve kind of left my body in bad shape.  If I take it over, I think I’ll be in too much pain to do anything.  It’s not… not me, but basic humanity.  Agony is a thing.”

I nodded.  “So.  We need my toughness and your practice.  You’re not going to suggest we merge back together or something?”

“No,” she said.  “That’s not possible.  The damage done is permanent.  If it was even remotely doable, I’d have already done it.”

I nodded.  I’d had to ask, but I wasn’t surprised in the slightest.

She said, “I need to patch myself up enough that I can deal with the pain.  I don’t think I can fix the damage that’s already been done.  I can use Conquest, for a bit of an Edge, but that’s a problem while you’re occupying me, and it’s not enough on its own.”

“Spit it out, Rose.”

“Your humanity.  I need some of it.  Maybe most of it.”

“Take it,” I said.

She stared at me.

Take it,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.  “There’s a tangential benefit here.  Because there’s not really much of you left, it’s not very useful.  You won’t default to a human shape.”

“Something else.”

“Yes.  Keep that in mind.  It might be easier if you don’t try.”

Not a human shape.  Alright.

“I understand.  You’re kicking me out, then?”

“Yes.  I hope Green Eyes is ready to catch us, because this is going to suck.”

I could see the white flowers creeping in around her.  Out of some affectation, Rose had them white.  Conquest.

She extended a broken hand, and let the flowers grow there, unfolding, vines stretching.

The vines reached for me, and began to pull me apart.

My awareness faded as I felt true pain, right at the heart of me.  Where we’d scraped each other before, this was something else altogether.

Taking my form.

I reached for something, a place to occupy, and I felt the branches and bones move, but they weren’t rooted in anything.

Just the opposite, they were being forced out.  My connection to Rose’s inner self and to Rose herself was cut.

The branches came away, a jumble.  Green Eyes’ iron grip on my wrist disintegrated as it ceased to be a wrist altogether.

I could feel the rush of wind, and I knew that we were falling.

I kept my eyes, I thought.

Kept my face.

The composition, however, was gone.  Rose had taken that, to fix scrapes and gouges in her own face, burns at the side of her neck.

I found them, digging inside, and pushed them out and forward.

I opened my eyes, and I saw the demonic realm of the Barber all around us, and I saw the tower top, disappearing.  Green Eyes, at the very edge of it, looking down with her namesake eyes.

As we turned over in the air, I could see the sea of spikes below.

Any form I want, I thought.

I reached out, and found anchorage along Rose’s arms and shoulders.  I found the skin of my face, not yet taken, scraps of meat that had lingered here and there, and stretched it all out as far as it would go.

Rose hadn’t patched up the holes in her own body.  She was light.

I gave her wings.  I was the wings.

I had an idea of how to glide, to fly.  I used it.

My vision was distorted, skewed.  I could see from the crooks of Rose’s elbows, where the wood was thicker, recesses in the knotting, overlapping mess of wood serving as eye sockets, in the absence of flesh.  Both eyes too far apart.

We reached a point near Green Eyes, and I shifted things around.  Focusing on gripping.  I found the Hyena directly between Rose’s shoulder blades and passed it along the wing to her right hand.  Wood served to form a gauntlet so the spikes wouldn’t impale her.

“The Welder,” she whispered.  She scratched a circle into the wall, then a name.  “Once known as Gunter Veit.  I name you and I call you.  You’ll find few fires hotter than these.  Follow the orders my allies give you.  Fight the dragon, distract the man with the black-scarred face.”

The circle shimmered, then became a gate.  Rose held out a hand, ready to catch him.

He didn’t need it.  Scarred from head to toe, the scar tissue had integrated with a welding mask he wore.  He had a heavy tank on his back.

Won’t he explode?  I wondered.

But he found a handhold, and he swung himself around a break in the wall, onto the rooftop, into flames taller than he was.

I watched as Rose started on the next diagram, my eye swiveling around.

Her flesh was too pale.  Almost artificial.  Her hair was lighter than before, but it made her look severe.  The scratches and cuts that remained looked as though they’d been placed there on purpose, a bad makeup artist’s work.

“The Nurse of Darnby,” Rose said.  “You wanted to put others out of their misery so badly you made your way out of the Abyss to keep doing it.  You can stop a lot of misery from happening here.  Let this be your crematorium.”

The nurse did need help.  She looked more like a snuffed matchstick than a person, but scraps of a charcoaled nurse’s uniform and white teeth in the burned shell marked her general form.  Green Eyes gave the woman a hand in swinging over to the same gap the Welder had used.

“Bristles,” Rose said.  She scratched out the name.  “Here boy.”

The fifty-pound animal that came out snarled and snapped, biting at me on the way out.  Once a dog, it was more scar tissue than anything else, from burns to tire treads.  Weapons and tools that had apparently been used to try to kill it stuck out of its back, sides, head and shoulders, like spines from a porcupine.

The dog that wouldn’t die, apparently.

“Go.  Get ’em!”  Rose ordered.

Bristles snorted, then began its climb.  It snarled at Green Eyes on the way up.

It didn’t venture into the flames, but ran along the top of the wall.

“Faceless woman,” Rose said.  “Resident of Jacob’s Bell.  If you’re out there, we need the help.”

“Ah, that’s what you’re doing,” the Barber spoke, his voice still worse for wear.

Rose’s eyes snapped upward.

“Too close to home, that one,” he said.  “She’s sworn to stay out of my realm.  Cause for me to say no.”

The wall began to undo the word ‘faceless’, the lines melting.

Rose moved, slashing at the word as it disappeared, “Everyone, anyone!  Denizens of the Abyss, I carve your names with one of your own!  Hyena, Thorburn Bogeyman, Rose Thorburn, novice scourge!  Thrice over, we are of the Abyss, and we plead your help!  If you are near, if you can hear-”

“Enough,” the Barber said.

One of the lines she’d etched deepened and widened.  I wasn’t sure Rose saw it.

I changed my shape, forcing Rose to release her grip on the wall.

I felt her reach for Green Eyes, I tensed the hand, a squeeze, a heartbeat’s pulse.

“Get back!” Rose called out.

The blades erupted from the exterior wall of the building.  One for the position Rose had just vacated.  One for Green Eyes.

Not technically within the confines of the rooftop.  Less of an interference for his ruse of being Johannes.

I saw the spray of blood, I saw Green Eyes’ grip falter.  She fell.

Wings.

I formed the wings, stretched out the membrane, the flesh.

Guided Rose to Green Eyes’ falling form.

More blades popped out between us and her.  I dodged two.  Rose brought her knees to her chest to avoid having her ankles cut by the third.

We didn’t catch Green Eyes so much as we collided with her.   I steered us into the wall, shoving Green Eyes against a window.

Please be okay, I thought.

More blades would spring out right there.  I knew it.

The question was whether she was capable of moving.

She managed to move at the last second.

“Up,” Rose said.  “Leave her.  If she can move now, she can move later.  Every second counts.  This is a chance.”

I took us up.  I hated to do it, but I took us up.

It was slow, glacial progress, requiring steady flapping, earning us inches at a time, and it was a progress made worse by the fact that the Barber was still there, and every time we drew close to the building, blades appeared, ten or twenty feet long.

“Dog,” Rose said.  “Faysal has to be a dog to be controlled by the pipes.  Even if we didn’t see him, he’s a dog somewhere.  It’s a weak point, just like Johannes is.  I think I know where he is.”

We rose above the tower.  A bird’s eye view.  Rose’s body, my wings.  The heat of the flames made flight easy, though smoke made visibility hard.

I was only wings now.  Not enough of me left.

The flames were dying in areas.  Oddly enough, it seemed to be Johannes that was quenching them.

I could make out the Welder and the Nurse.  They lurked within tall fires much like a lion might lurk in tall grass.  They circled the dragon, who already had a torn wing.  Little more than a distraction.

The Welder even looked larger than before.  He held a spike of metal in one hand, a torch in the other.

“That’s not what I was planning,” Rose murmured.  “But it could be worse, Blake.  Look.  Where isn’t the fire?”

She’d heard the comment earlier.  Lola’s stratagem.

The Barber was below us.  Watching Rose fly.  As we drew nearer, blades sprung from the uppermost portion of the railing-turned-wall.

“Demons function by absence, by destruction.  And he’s destroying flames closer to the throne.  There’s a reason.  Dive.  Right there.”

I dove.  We completely ignored the Barber, going for the throne.

More blades.  But we were too high above, giving the wall a wide berth.  Diving toward the middle of the roof, changing course-

“Forward,” Rose said, “Forward…”

The Barber’s voice carried over the crackle of fire.

A flash of light.

And he was right in front of us.

I had to veer off course.  I didn’t trust Rose’s movements or my own facility in moving her body.

Our landing was awkward.  I heard Rose gasp in pain.  She shifted position, intent on landing on all fours, and it was all I could do to keep the wings from being crumpled beneath her.

We were kneeling right where the dragon’s right head had been.

From this vantage point, we could see behind the throne.  Faysal’s form, hunched over, strained from head to toe, enclosed within a diagram.  One that fed into… all of this.

“I hereby declare that you are not Johannes Lillegard,” Rose called out.  “You do not have his face.  You do not have his voice.  You do not have his rapport with his familiar!  You corrupt his demesne and-”

The ground split.  Rose threw herself to one side.

A blade had sprouted.  From the rooftop.

Oh, fuck.

He was being serious.  The ruse of pretending to be Johannes was paper thin, now.

“Be careful!” Rose screamed the words.  “The Barber is-”

She was cut off as she had to move again.

More blades appeared.  They were indiscriminate.  The Dragon was speared four times, lifted clear off the ground, but not divided.

He wasn’t going that far, at least.

The others were left to scramble, running.

Faysal was contained within a cluster of blades, shielded from our interference.

“This is not your ideology, this is not how you fight!” Rose screamed the words.

Another blade, one Rose wasn’t prepared to avoid.

Even if she’d taken my humanity to patch up her human shape here and there, she was still hurt, still slower.

I extended more of myself, one wing’s worth of material to block the blade.  It was dashed to pieces.  The Hyena was part of it, and clattered to the ground.

Rose pushed herself forward, staggering at first, then running.  For the throne.

We had his weak points.  Rose was calling him on them.  Driving them home.

We just needed a final blow.

“You don’t have his face, you don’t have his voice!”  She repeated herself.  “You are not Johannes!  Johannes would not bind his familiar like this!  He would not corrupt his demesne!  Johannes would use the flute, not the shears!  On all three counts-”

Another near miss.  I moved to shield Rose, but she avoided it herself.

“You are not Johannes!”

Abruptly, I was caught.  Rose jerked in place, arm trapped.

We were bound.

Rose turned.

At three points around the rooftop were lawyers.  Ms. Lewis stood on top of the impaled dragon.

“And you are not going to save the world,” Ms. Lewis said.  She held a loop of platinum.

“This is a farce,” Rose called out.  Continuing to challenge all of this.  “You’ve lost.”

“Maybe the Barber won’t get his claim,” Ms. Lewis said.  “But we haven’t lost.  We have the Thorburn diabolist, and we can subject her to a fitting punishment for breaking the compact.”

Rose bowed her head.

I felt her clench her hand.

Not a fist.  A pulse.  A heartbeat.

A warning, much as I’d asked her to give Green Eyes.

Ah.  The loop of platinum.

Not to bind her, but to bind me.

I let her go.

Rose stumbled forward the last ten feet.

A blade erupted between her and the throne.

She twisted, kicking the flat of it.

Discredited.  Even the demesne doesn’t believe in Johannes anymore.

The blade broke as if it were made of glass.  Rose stumbled, staggered, and half-spun in the air as she practically fell in the seat.

The impact seemed to reverberate.  Her intact left hand, partially that of Conquest, two fingers a near ivory white, gripped the armrest.

There was a heartbeat’s pause.

Not a victory unto itself.

One step.

Her eyes turned to the remaining others.  “Help!”

She’d taken the hill, in a manner of speaking.  But taking the hill didn’t mean anything if we couldn’t keep it long enough to matter.

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118 thoughts on “Judgment 16.11

  1. My time machine has been completed and I am now reading this on, well, I guess it’s Tuesday for most of you and still Saturday for me. Ok, I’m now going back to the previous post.

      1. As I said last Saturday, the suspense was too much for me to wait. So I built a time machine to take me forward so that I wouldn’t have to wait, as I said a few hours ago, or a few days ago, whatever your personal timeline says. Silly me, I forgot to build in a “take me back” function along with the “take me forward”. I guess those days are just gone now, for me at least.

    1. May I extend that:
      The endgame is ON btches! Fck Yeah!

      A question I am debating internally: Does this count as first victory against demonkind in their ‘personal’ campain against them? Then defeating the Lawyers now (to hold the claim) would constitute the second. And the third meaningful one? Defeat a summoned Ornias or another noble demon?

  2. “Fuck you, you lunatic! You’re fucking crazy! Call me forsworn! Nothing’s gonna happen that’s worse than me going out there!”

    Buttsack’s got the right idea. Team Thorburn is over their heads and he’s better off staying away from the big demonic dragon.

  3. So what exactly is this compact she supposedly broke? If they wanted the House they should have kept it out of the Abyss. Plus wasn’t the penalty for not caring for the House having the property go to the next person?

    1. I think it was the Deal that Granny Rose, the Thorburn Diabolist, made with the law Firm.We haven’t actually seen the exact deal that was made. We’ve seen Granny Rose’s instructions and have had part of the inheritance papers paraphrased, but not the actual deal, I think.

      Considering that they’re lawyers, it’s probably fair to assume they have some clause in the deal set that allows them the option of punishment. Inversely, Perhaps the universe just allows you to choose a punishment when someone breaks a deal, the same way it allows for the option of naming someone forsworn.

  4. The final section is a little unclear to me. Blake and Rose separated? The Lawyers have Rose? She escaped and conquered the demense? Is Blake bound or did Rose do a thing? Can someone clarify please?

    1. They bound Blake, who is now fully Other. Rose can no longer be bound. She’s now sitting on the throne of an unclaimed demesne, since she established that Johannes is not the Barber.

      1. But then, what is Blake? I had gotten the impression that he turned into a pair o wings for Rose. Is he actually a winged Other that carried her? Is he a just a pair (or I guess one now) disembodied wing? Does he even have a body at the moment? How can he see?

      2. She’s sitting on the throne of an unclaimed demense, but when you claim a demense, every Other in the area gets a chance to contest that claim. So if she were to claim Johanne’s demense for her own, then the lawyers get a shot at her and the Barber gets a shot at her. Now perhaps she’s hoping that the lawyers and the Barber will disagree on who gets the first shot at Rose, and that they’ll kill each other off?

      3. I don’t really like how Blake has given up everything for Rose until he’s almost nothing now.

        Wasn’t he supposed to be the protagonist?

        1. /start Blake rant

          My gripe in this story is that Blake has only really wanted two things: to be left alone and for his friends to be safe. Neither of these things have the faintest chance of occurring since all of his fiends are either dead or given to Rose to teach her how to be an actual person. He’s got Evan and Green Eyes, but of course he’s so diminished that the chances of him getting to leave with them are just about zero

          And let’s not forget Rose who has been plotting to screw Blake over and save herself from the beginning, even after Blake vowed to find ways to help both of them. I have no problem lumping Rose in with Laird and Isadora, since they’ve all agreed that Blake was better off dying so they could continue their existences.

          It feels like he’s put himself through hell and effectively killed himself to save a town of people who’ve been trying to kill him from go. The are unworthy of Blake sacrifice.

          /end Blake rant

          1. And at this point I don’t see any way out of that sacrifice, Rose can’t give Blake back the parts he’s given her, not without sacrificing herself. Which would be pretty out of character at this point.

            Maybe Green Eyes will do something to prevent Blake from being reduced to nothing? But Blake would despise that. I’m just wondering how the author will eventually write off his death. Rose will get a bitching new Demense and probably Faysal, while Blake is quivering uselessly on the floor as a single wing and the parts of his face Rose deigned to not take from him.

          2. I really can’t dissagree with this rant. The most sympathetic characters get run through hell and wiped out or given up. In the end I don’t think I’ll be feeling any joy or relief at the end of this story, just a bit of sadness and exaustion. World may be saved but I don’t know how much I’ll really care. And I don’t see any way to avoid that that wouldn’t be a Dues Ex Machina.

            1. Really? Blake has repeatedly shown the ability as an Other to repair himself and change and grow, given power. And he has friends with a lot of power. If they get out of this alive, there should be no real reason they can’t give Blake any new body he wants.

              He should be able to easily come back from this.

              His personality has been pared back some but the dude embraces change. And I’m pretty sure that he’d be happy to leave a lot of the last few weeks on the cutting room floor and start fresh. Free to make new friends and life of his own. Not Rose’s, not Rusty’s, but Blake’s.

    2. They used the platinum (I want to know why platinum) to bind the Blake/Rose fusion via its opposition to Blake. Rose figured that out and signaled him to separate. The binding continued to hold Blake, but Rose is not opposed to platinum and so was unaffected by the binding. Guess she got the memories of playing Gen IV.

      So now she’s sitting on the throne, which means… something. I have no idea what, since Johannes used a modified ritual that means it should be collapsing now that he’s dead.

      1. That makes sense, thanks.

        I assume that they used platinum for fear that Blake/Rose would bend the ring and disrupt the binding. As we all know, platinum is immune to metal bending.

      2. According to some random bullshit website on Alchemy, “Platinum represents determination, grit, and seeing our manifestations to completion.” We know that these are some of the traits that Grandma had Blake ‘cut’ for by the Barber, and as part of the whole crazy machination, the Lawyers probably know this too. So maybe they’re trying to bind like with like on Blake?

          1. You might be right. But the platinum in particular seems to be a “bind by like”, since Blake at this point is nothing BUT determination.

            1. Hm, could be either. Like with like apparently only works on weak things and would probably not work on the Abyss’s favorite tree, but Blake is getting pretty worn down here.

        1. Well, that’s normally how it works. Here, though, it should be self-destructing. I guess maybe the Barber is no longer acknowledged as Johannes but he’s not considered dead, so the clause on the ritual hasn’t triggered, or it just takes time and Rose securing control will delay the collapse until she dies.

    1. Except, Barbie didn’t even try to use them. He’s been using the shears almost exclusively since the fight started. Hence Rose calling him out. Unless he’s faking this, he may not have enough control over Johannes’ identity to use them properly. 😐

      But, faking is certainly an option. 😛

  5. Typo TARDIS. The typos are bigger on the inside?

    “Our landing was awkward. I heard Rose gasp in pain. She shifted position, intent on landing on all fours, and it was all I could do to keep the wings from being crumpled beneath her.”

    Not quite a typo, but I honestly don’t understand this paragraph. Blake didn’t do anything. Maybe it should say “all she could do”?

    1. Blake controls the wings. He is the wings. Rose was intent on landing on all fours, not in trying to land on her feet. Blake was flapping, so it seems like you wouldn’t be able to flap and also land on all fours (there’s no room to flap downward).

    1. That’s not a victory, Blake is now bound in the hands of the Lawyers. 😦

      Someone summon Evan to take on 2 Lawyers as Green Eyes eats the 3rd.

    2. No, she toppled the Barber from the throne, and now sits on it, which in itself, is a grand claim. She now has to win three wictories to hold onto the “hill” and defeat them.

      1. However, she’s also broken his status as Johannes, costing him the familiar bond and his implement link. That’s quite likely cost him Faysal; I doubt the pipes are up to binding an angel without being an implement and without the support of the familiar bond.

        1. I gathered that the only reason they can bind Faysal in the first place is because he is unable to change fully out of dog form as long as he is still Johannes familiar. Now that he is no longer the familiar, he can change his form so that he is completely immune to the pipes.

          So while the pipes on their own might not be enough, they won’t work on him at all now that the bond is broken.

          I’m also really looking forward to seeing what Faysal can do now that he has broken free.

      1. Well Barberhannes did say that eventually the Abyss was going to swallow everything when he was arguing that it would be better to just let the demons just erase everything.

    1. Of course, summoning an unkillable dogeyman… bogeydog? -Ahem- Summoning Bristles might not have been the wisest move against an enemy wielding the Pipes…

      1. I think that was the point — the fact that the Barber DIDN’T immediately go for the pipes was another strike against his claim of being Johannes. It was, I think, a calculated choice on Rose’s part.

    2. I didn’t expect that (I believe I expressed worry that Barbatorem/Johannes would become some sort of bogey-demon). I did expect a little more dignity in summoning bogey-not-men.

    1. Actually, I think Buttsack was right not going in because any action on its part might have changed the outcome of the battle in the Barbers’ favour.

      Now however, would be a good time to send Buttsack in to fuck with the Lawyers’ Practice.

      1. I disagree. The Barber could, if he wanted, declare the goblin foresworn, and then command the goblin to come forward to be an additional/backup host for the Barber if Johanne’s body bites the dust. As we saw with Conquest, anyone can call a person foresworn, not just someone that you’re theoretically bound to, right? As I recall it, Fell’s ancestor made his oath with the universe at large, not specifically with Conquest.

        1. Buttsack drew attention to that, first: which probably lessens the impact if you outright admitted your problem from the get-go… And, if the practitioner who you told to go swivel accepted that they could, but didn’t.

          But, there will be a price, however diminished. There always is. 😛

  6. I have some difficulty visualizing the change that happened to Blake and most of everything after that too.

    Also, has it ever been established what the consequences of being forsworn are? You lose your human defenses and your practitioner powers, but what does that mean for an Other? Can anyone bind you the way Conquest bound Fell’s family? If yes, then rather being forsworn than bound to enter the fight makes little sense for Buttsack.

    1. I imagine it strips you of all the benefits and protections of the Seal of Solomon (and any other pacts you may be part of) while leaving you bound to the restrictions, plus any karmic penalties the spirits think are appropriate.

  7. Please oh please oh please wrest control. You’re halfway there already. Say the words, Rose. “I claim this space, and only this space…”

    1. Rose is shoutier.

      “I, Rose Thorburn, Scourge of the Abyss and Lady of Jacob’s Bell, hereby claim this demense as a spoil of war!”

      1. “I, Rose Thorburn, Lady of Jacob’s Bell, claim this space and only this space as a spoil of war, as a refuge for those it once harmed, and a bulwark against the demons that corrupted its former master! If any would contradict this, I bid them come!”

      2. “I, Rose Thorburn, Scourge of the Abyss and Lady of Jacob’s Bell, hereby claim this demense, as a spoil of war, in the name of the abyss and let all who would challenge me for the rights to it also face the abyss itself.

          1. Yeah, I don’t see anything wrong with that right now, unless it lets Ur suddenly pop up in Jacob’s Bell, but barring that it sounds great.

  8. “Ah, that’s what you’re doing,”

    …What? Is she doing something else besides summoning boogeymen? Did I miss a step in her master plan? I’m hoping so, because if this is all her plan was about, she might not have made great use of her time-out time.

    why platinum?

    1. Well, her plan there was to summon every bogeyman she could get to show up, which the Barber disrupted. However, taking the throne almost certainly matters a lot. The exact way it matters depends on many things.

        1. Apparently he knows things that aren’t relevant to the current situation. I suspect he has also tampered with his connections to seem less important.

  9. I still vote that blake possesses the dragon (since wretches are vulnerable to possession) and becomes a tree-dragon of fire and awesomeness and doom. Green is probably into that kinky shit anyways.

    1. Not going to happen. As much as Green Eyes would love to be covered in Blake’s hot tree sap, it just won’t happen. No way he’s actually going to have something that awesome happen to him, no matter how much we might like it. Even if it were there’s be some horrible downside to it.

    2. Yeah, that would actually make sense.

      Better, the lawyers claimed to have the heir bound but there is no sign they completed it.

      The dragon is pretty gimped so possessing it might not be a huge improvement.

      And we have F’s buddy angel still on the shelf. Should be interesting what he does, if anything.

      Still, I want Blake and Green Eyes to have a happy ending.

  10. Re: the lawyer’s advancing speed.

    They’ve now clearly established themselves as a separate and distinct group from Rosewood, and have a better chance at dealing with the Barber instead of having him immediately attack them as part of Rosewood’s group. “Hey, we just showed up and our first immediate actions were to try to bind these people that are giving you a hard time — we should be on the same side, or at least we shouldn’t immediately attack each other.”

    When we see them all together, they’ve taken time to prepare and get set. When we saw them all get together, they had enough demons to send everyone running. When they all got together outside the church, they took out Isadora and sent everyone running. Now they’re all together, with a prepared platinum lasso (and those things don’t grow on trees, you know, seriously where’d they get a platinum lasso from in that short amount of time), have successfully (at this point) caught/bound Blake, and Rose is right there with nowhere to run.

    They’re like Pepe le Pew in the old Looney Toons cartoons — certain of their foe’s capture, they can just take their time walking. Meanwhile, the target is panicking and the panic is leading to errors that will compound the situation and make things worse, while the lawyers are just having a casual stroll to catch up.

    Besides, it’s entirely possible that someone somewhere has some sort of “get out of jail free” card that they’ll play and the lawyers don’t want to get foresworn by that. “Hah, diabolist Rosewood, I’ve caught you now!” Too bad, because we just summoned a massive amount of Others to do some quick rebuilding and froze time and made a deal with the Abyss, and rebuilt the house, and closed the Abyssal hellmouth gate, which means we’re in compliance, which means it’s actually you who just broke the terms of the agreement and we declare your lawfirm and all its employees foresworn.” We know Rosewood’s group has nothing. The lawyers believe that, but they aren’t 100% certain, and it’s better to advance cautiously than to get caught in a trap.

  11. Well There goes the humanity. Blake’s down to being wings for Rose. Don’t worry I’m sure with the upcoming fight the last few bits of Blake will be given to Rose to reinforce her. Kinda sad but I’m giving up most the things I had hoped for right at the begining of this.

        1. Eye’s are the windows to the soul. Blake’s soul is no longer human.

          Blake getting through things alive and human, and the assholes who told him that it was better for everyone if he just died cause Diabolists are too dangerous being proven wrong… These are the things I wanted at the very start of the story, and I’d say we sure as hell ain’t getting them now.

        2. if you were a pair of wings would you want to be too blind to use them?

          besides he fought pretty hard to keep them this long…opted not to trade them in for demon immune eyes in the library fight no matter how ridiculously helpful that would have been, briefly considered and decided against trading them in for an upgrade when crippling the dunchamps, refused to trade them for wings and bargained the abyss into accepting something better in the future,

  12. So, Blake is now just a pair of skin-and-wood wings, and maybe a bit of face in between them. Why does that sound so famil….. Wildbow, did you just turn Blake into a wooden vargouille?

    (For non-D&D nerds, a vargouille is basically just a human head with bat wings that can bite people to turn them into more vargouilles. Do an image search, then imagine that made out of sticks and moxy and you’ll have my mental image of Blake)

    1. He’s one wing, with some odd amalgamation of a face in there somewhere.

      He said he didn’t have the structure right, just the parts; and what use is a single wing?

      What I don’t get is why Blake has literally sacrificed his everything to Rose to the point where he’s not even a proper Other, only the horrendous and short-lived shambles of one.

      1. Blake has given up so much to Rose for three reasons. 1 neccisity. 2 Because it’s him rejecting the fate of the two being enemies. If they have to destroy each other then he will give to her rather than both being destroyed. and 3 because he is by nature the giving, self sacrificing and self destructive sort.

      2. There are perfectly effective single wing aircraft (the body sits in the middle of it). And Blake’s wing can flap on top of that.

        I could be envisioning it wrong, but the fact he said he had eyes near Rose’s elbows suggests a single wing centred on her body like that.

    2. I hadn’t thought of that. However, I don’t think a vargouille’s wings would be big enough, nor Blake’s face facey enough, to qualify.

  13. But Ms. Levin,

    Your agency has already violated the compact on three counts.
    You transferred custodianship of the property to a new heir, prior to the heir’s death (Blake’s)
    You Refused to help the heir when he asked for it and had sufficient funds in his allowance.
    And your ally put the house into the state for which you are trying to claim a remedy.

    Furthermore, since it was your ally who claimed the house you’ve already collected more than any remedies that would be due, even if it was through force and by ignoring the compact.

    Your abuse of the law firm’s resources is wasteful and unneccessary, and gives the lawyers a bad name.

    1. Sure, sounds good to me. Maybe Paige could speak up on that topic, if she knew anything about the agreement that had been signed and what had happened. She’s the only really lawyerly one and she was just barely brought in.

    2. I imagine that the lawyers spent enough time on this to counter obvious little details like that…sadly. It would be a pretty epic conclusion, though.

  14. Hey, the Next Chapter button for last chapter is broken.

    “I can see you with the Sight.”
    And I can hear you with the Hearing.

    “You’re not going to suggest we merge back together or something?”
    Why do I have a feeling that this is responding to some comments?

    Wouldn’t Bristles be affected by Johannes’s pipes?

    Finally…
    Now I need to wait for the next update to figure out what happens next, and hence curse wildbow.

  15. “A blade erupted between her and the throne.

    She twisted, kicking the flat of it.

    Discredited. Even the demesne doesn’t believe in Johannes anymore.

    The blade broke as if it were made of glass.”.

    I suggest swapping those last two paragraphs around. It’s not initially clear what the one starting with “Discredited” is referring to.

  16. Hmm….things seem bleak,but somehow,despite what my logic tells me,I cannot taste Blake getting a bad ending.

  17. AHHHH!!!! Wildbow, what you do in Pact with using concepts and ideas manifesting as physical things continues to be amazing!

    Giving up humanity to retain eyes and a face and gaining freedom to choose form? That’s glorious!

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