All posts by wildbow

Rule of Three

With Pact’s conclusion, I’ve moved on to serial number three.  In the interest of being as obvious about it as possible, here’s a link.

Twig should be roughly as long as Pact was, give or take a couple months.  As the truism goes, it’ll be long enough to reach the end, because I believe in seeing things through. I’m going into it with some rules for myself, to distance it from patterns I fell into with both Worm and Pact.

For those who missed the link, I wrote Pact’s afterword here.  To sum up, for those who are fatigued from all the reading, it was a good experience, and I learned a hell of a lot, lessons I hope to carry forward as I move on.

Thanks for sticking it out with me, I hope to see you guys in the comment sections of Twig.

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Epilogue

Last Chapter                                                                        The End (Afterword)

Wind, the purr of the engine, they blended together to make a white noise.  His brain worked to make sense of it, and it created something very close to music, feeding into an almost zen-like sense of ease.  Not quite relaxation – he felt a tiny bit of fear with every car he passed, knowing how fragile a motorcyclist could be in an incidental collision, felt pure exhilaration running through him over the simple fact that he was on the road.

Even with his helmet on, he could smell and taste the trees and grass.  The faint aroma of gasoline and exhaust was one he very much enjoyed.  When he passed wild growths of flowers on the side of the road, he could smell those, too.

It was fresh air.  When he breathed, it felt like more oxygen got to his lungs.  There was a vague high that came with it.

The cars around him had none of that.  Some had their windows rolled down for the summer, but it was an attempt to escape the heat.  When they looked out their windows, it was through just that – a window.  He had unrestricted vision in every direction.  His body temperature was perfect, the wind sapping away the heat that soaked into the dark fabric of his jacket.

He slowed down as traffic on the highway did.  He didn’t have to, he could have navigated between the gaps without much fuss, but he figured it was sensible, especially given that he wasn’t alone.  He was a little annoyed to have to do it, especially given the reason.  The cars around him were slowing in attempt to take advantage of a slight rise and get a better look at a point further down the highway.  It wasn’t easy, given the trees that had been planted around here, obscuring the view.

He could feel the fractional drop in temperature as he passed into the shade the first of the trees offered, and he smiled.

These trees were his landmark.  He raised a hand, signalling, even as he put his lights on.  A glance over his shoulder, a double check, then a change of lanes.

He could hear the faint shift in the sound of traffic.  Another bike adjusting speed and direction, changing lanes to follow.

The exit took them off the highway, onto a poorly maintained side road, one that was very easy to miss.  He passed a spot where poles had once been holding a sign in place, but the signboard was gone.  The trees obscured the view, leaving the site a passing curiosity.

He signaled again, just to be sure his traveling companion wouldn’t go down the wrong road.

It took another ten minutes to get to their stop, going at a fairly easygoing pace on the poorly maintained road.  Traffic had slowed because people were rubbernecking further ahead.  The little booth had been erected at a spot with a better view.  Well placed, in his estimation.

It was a ways until they reached the town, but it offered a distant view of the buildings and the water that lay just a bit beyond.  A trail marked the way down to the side of the lake.  A family was already down there, kids splashing.

He signaled again, well before he braked, just to be absolutely clear what he had in mind.  He could smell the grease and the oil of the little stand well before he lifted up his visor.  With his sinuses clear and his blood pumping, oxygen flowing through his veins, he might have said that he’d never smelled anything half as good, but he’d experienced this before.

“Oh my god, I could eat a whole cow,” his companion said, behind him, echoing the thought.  She pulled off her helmet, and shook her head to let her cornrows loose where they’d bunched up closer to her neck.

“You should see the burgers here,” he said.  “It’s pretty close to eating a whole cow.”

She put down the kickstand to her bike, then approached, throwing her arms around him.  He hugged her back, and they rocked in place.

“Thank you,” she said, squeezing him tight.  “For convincing me to do this.”

“You’re very welcome,” he said, smiling.  He shifted his grip on her until one arm encircled her lower back.  He faced the surroundings with her.  The water, the trees, and a distant ghost town with far too many trees blocking the view.  Sating curiosity without quite satisfying it.

“What happened?” she asked.

“I asked, last time I was around.  Rumor is that it was something about contaminated water.  Dumping way back when, leeching into the town’s infrastructure.  I guess it was too expensive to salvage.  I don’t know the full story.”

“Why the trees, though?”

He shrugged.  “Maybe they thought it would be an eyesore.”

“We could go back and see if there’s a road we could take to go take a look?” she suggested.

“Shall we grab some food, first, miss Deidre?”

“Yes,” she said, without hesitation.  She smiled.  “Definitely.”

There were three other people in line before their turn came up.  He let Deidre order first, then gave his own order to the man with a mullet.  Burger with bacon and cheese, sweet potato fries, and fried zucchini.

He enjoyed the ambient chatter and people watching before the food was done.  Food in hand, they left their bikes behind and walked down the path to the water, locking up their helmets and bringing their backpacks, just to keep the essentials on hand.

It took them a minute to get settled, sitting on a fallen tree, halfway between the water and the little roadside booth.

They took a minute to get straight to eating.  A kid down by the water screamed.  The beach itself was as much rock as sand, but the child didn’t seem to mind, running away from the waves as they approached, then chasing them as they retreated.

“Is this the place?” Deidre asked.

“The place?”

“You said there was one place you wanted to stop by, after Toronto but before Ottawa.  Process of elimination…”

“Ah, yeah.  This is the place.”

“You never said why.  If there was a better view of the town, that’d be neat, ghost towns can be cool, but there isn’t.”

“It sounds dumb if I say it out loud.”

“Dumb?”

“You wouldn’t believe me,” he said.

She arched her fine eyebrows at him.

“Came through this area for the first time last year… it really sounds dumb if I say it out loud.”

“But you still plotted our entire road trip around this,” she said, before she took another bite of her pogo.  “There was a detour.”

“Yeah.”

“You can convince me to come with you on a spur-of-the-moment road trip, but you can’t explain this?”

He smiled, taking a bite so his mouth would be full and unable to respond.  She smirked at him.

“You’re going to have to tell me sooner or later,” she said.

He smiled, mouth still full, and nodded.

“Out with it, Dominic.”

He finished chewing, took a deep breath, then confessed, “I came through here last summer, and again in the early fall, because I was curious.  Nothing came of it in the fall, but-”

“I’m not following.”

“It’s easier if I show you.  Can I get you to take my burger?”

Deidre did, balancing the paper container on her knee.

Dominic licked his lips, rolled his shoulders, clearing his throat.

“Stop making such a show out of it.”

Ahem,” he said.  He cupped his hands together, thumbs side-by-side, then raised his hands to his mouth.

He managed a chirping sound.  It took some adjustment until it was clearer and sharper.

“That was pretty bad,” Deidre said.

“Yeah.”

“If any bird heard that, it’ll probably take it as an insult.”

He smirked, taking his burger back.

No sooner did he have the burger in his hand when a bird appeared, surprising him enough that Dominic almost dropped his lunch.

“Hey!” he said, a short laugh escaping his lips.  The bird was circling him, going a mile a minute.  “Hey!  Little guy!”

The bird chirped in response, matching the amount of flight to the sheer amount of noise it was making.

“Hey, stop, stop.  Settle down.  Stop!  Want a bit of sweet potato?”

The bird stopped in the next heartbeat, settling on his forearm.  A sparrow, a fraction smaller than most sparrows he’d seen.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” he said.  He pinched off a bit of sweet potato fry and gave it over.

The bird stopped its constant chirping just long enough to down the bit of fry, then it started chirping for more.

“Okay,” Deidre said.  “That’s almost adorable enough to justify the lengthy detour.”

“Almost?” Dom asked, in the same moment the sparrow turned its full attention toward her, chirping in time with his question.

“Almost,” she held firm.

“Little guy came with me part of the way through the states last summer,” he said.

“What?  No way.”

“Rode with me.  Lost him a couple times, but he always caught up to me.  I think he just really likes motorcycles.  I think he’s someone’s pet, or he was.

The bird chirped.

“Could it be a she?” Deidre asked.

The bird chirped again.  It almost sounded indignant.

“No, pretty sure it’s not a she,” Dominic said.

“How do you know?  Are you a bird expert?”

“Definitely not a bird expert, but-”

“I say she’s a girl, then,” Deidre said.

The sparrow took flight.  Flapping violently, as it moved from Dom’s left wrist to his right shoulder.  It perched there, paused, then fluttered violently, remaining in place, before stopping, feathers fluffed up.

It chirped at her.

“Or not,” she said.

“That’s why,” he said.  “I asked the same question, back then, and I got a very similar response.”

The bird settled, feathers going smooth, or smoother.  It moved back to Dom’s left wrist, before chirping for more food.  It watched with rapt attention as he dipped his fried zucchini in cucumber sauce and took a bite.

“It’s like it knew what I was saying,” Deidre said.  “Do you understand me, little guy?”

The bird didn’t take its attention off Dom’s fingers as he reached for another sweet potato fry.  It chirped, once, as if to remind him that it was there.

“If you chirp twice, I’ll give you all the fries you want,” she said.

The bird didn’t react.

“It was a pet,” Dom said, with more confidence.  He offered another bit of sweet potato fry.  “Had to be.  It responded to your tone of voice, that’s all.  Probably reacts to a few key words, like the gender thing.”

“Right,” Deidre said.  She frowned.

“Almost done?” he asked.

She nodded.  “Sure, but you’re not.”

“Almost.  Come on.  He’s so funny with the motorcycle, I want to show you.”

He stuck the last mouthful of burger into his mouth, picked up his stuff, and led the way back up the path.  The sparrow remained on his arm, staring at the paper container that still held some stray fries.

They reached the little shack of a restaurant, and a few heads turned at the sight of the sparrow.  As they approached the bikes that were parked on the far end of the road, the sparrow took off, perching between the handlebars, then to the second bike.

It practically bounced in place with energy, seeming far too excited that there were two motorcycles.

“Okay, I have to admit, that is pretty funny.”

“I didn’t think he’d go this nuts,” Dom confessed.  “I don’t think his peanut brain can wrap his head around the idea of there being two motorcycles in one place.”

The bird flew straight for him.  He had to duck to avoid it, only to realize after the fact that it would have only grazed him.

They both turned to see the bird disappearing off into the woods.

“Huh,” Dom said.

“What was that you said about tone of voice?  I think you hurt his feelings.”

“Ha ha,” he said, deadpan.

“Seriously though, the bird was funny.  Thanks for showing me.”

“Not a problem,” Dominic said, but his attention was on the trees, his thoughts elsewhere.

“Would have been fun to have it follow along, but I guess it was a fluke thing, last year?”

“Maybe,” he said, his attention still elsewhere.

Where did the bird go?

“Hey, Deids,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Watch my stuff?”

“Bathroom break?”

“Nah, no,” he said.  Almost without taking his eyes off the trees, he pulled off his jacket and put it with his backpack on the seat of his bike, then headed down the path.  Being still, without the benefit of the wind and the motion of the bike, he’d accumulated a bit of sweat.

He’d tracked the direction the bird had gone.  That meant veering off to the right, into thicker trees.  He used his hands and arms to brush at the branches.

The way wasn’t easy.  He made it far enough into the woods that he began to have doubts, to suspect that he’d been wrong.

But the bird had flown with purpose, hadn’t it?

The thick canopy made the way surprisingly dark.  The light that filtered through did so in beams and as an ambient glow, lighting up the dust and pollen in the air.

He heard a laugh.  A girl’s.

He stopped, and he approached with a little more care.

A murmur, the girl’s voice, words inaudible.

A chirp.  The sparrow.

He stopped.

She was sitting by the water, back to a tree.  He couldn’t be sure if it was an old woman or a girl with platinum blond hair bleached whiter by the sun, but the voice, the laugh, and the fit of the seafoam colored sweatshirt she wore suggested the latter.

The sparrow was perched on her finger, busy chirping.

If he’d waited any longer, Dominic might have felt like he was doing something wrong.

“Miss!” he called out.

The girl froze.

“Are you the sparrow trainer?  I was wanting to ask.  Last summer, I-”

There was a flutter, a flap.  Not the sparrow that had perched on her finger.  If it weren’t for the branches right behind him, Dom might have fallen over backward.

As it was, he caught himself, freezing with a sparrow just inches from his face, perched on his shoulder.

The smaller sparrow arrived a moment later, flying his way.  He put out a hand, and it settled on his knuckles.

The girl was gone.  Small waves lapped up around where she’d been.

“Uh,” he said.

His heart was pounding, and he couldn’t put words to why.  It wasn’t just the fact that the larger of the two birds had nearly flown into his face.

The little sparrow bounced with excitement.  The larger one remained where it was, ruffling its feathers momentarily, almost seeming to ignore Dom altogether.  Its attention was on the trees.

“Well, I’m going back to my bike.  You can come if you want,” he said.

The sparrows didn’t leave.  Dom turned to go back to the path and Deidre, then paused, glancing back.

No sign.

The birds were patient as he forged his way past the branches and everything in his way, the small one flying off and away when he accidentally almost knocked it off with a stray branch.

Back into the daylight.  The smaller sparrow perched on him again as he headed up to the food shack and Deidre.

There you are,” she said.  He raised her eyebrows.  “And you brought friends.”

“I did,” he said.

Both sparrows took off.  Each one settled on a different bike.  The larger on his bike, the smaller on Deidre’s.

“There’s two trained sparrows?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you call them?”

He shrugged.  “I don’t.”

“You could call the big one Ugly,” she said.  She turned her head at a sound, then shooed the smaller of the two sparrows.  “No!  Do not peck my motorcycle!  No!”

It evaded her sweeping hands and settled back in the same place.

Dom looked at the larger sparrow that had perched on his bike.  Unlike the small one, it seemed to be more focused on the surroundings than on him, or even the bike.  It had feathers sticking up here and there, and it was a little dirtier.  A small bit of branch was stuck in the plumage at its front.  It looked like a sparrow that a cat had hacked up and left on the forest floor.  Still, it had looked very similar last summer, too.

“I don’t want to call it Ugly,” Dom said, not taking his eyes off the little creature.  “It saved my life.  Maybe.”

“What?”

“I know it sounds dumb.  But I was riding through the states, and there was this moment where I was overtaking, and I had that feeling.  You probably know the feeling I’m thinking about.  Something being wrong.  Small voice in my head said ‘no’.  But I went ahead, ignored it, and the car I was overtaking started merging into my lane.  Totally blind to the fact that I was there.”

“The bird saved you?”

“Getting to that.  The speed I was going, where the car was, the incoming traffic, I had that moment where I realized it was all going to go in a bad way, no matter what happened.  Then, bam.  Bird that was riding with just flies off, slams into the side window of the car.  Scares the shit out of the driver, they correct, and I don’t die.”

Deidre looked at the bird.

“They rode with me all the way to Wisconsin.  Disappeared.  When I was on my return trip, they found me.  Rode with me back here.  They weren’t around in the fall, when I checked in.  In retrospect, I’m not sure they weren’t acting as someone else’s…”

He trailed off, looking at the bird, and saw it staring at him.  Very still.  As quiet as the smaller one was animated.  Deidre hadn’t said anything, so he elaborated, “…I was going to say guardian angels, but…”

“But?”

He thought of the white haired girl he’d glimpsed, the way she’d disappeared.

The ‘guardian angel’ thing had been an amusing thought before.  Now it felt a little less like an idle thought.

He couldn’t put words to that feeling.  Instead, he said, “I really like the idea of them being along for our road trip.  Especially while you’re with.”

She smiled, approaching to grab him by the shirt front, and gave him a peck on the lips.  “Sure.”

The little one peeped.

“If they’re coming,” she said.  “I’m happy if they are, but we can’t get your hopes up.”

“I think they are,” he said.  “Are you two coming with?  Deidre and I are heading to Labrador.”

The little one peeped again, bouncing on the spot.  The big one only turned, facing forward.

Dominic smiled.

“How about we loop back, see if we can’t take the other road and head down to explore the little ghost town, satisfy your curiosity?” he asked her.  “Then we can head on our way.”

“Sure!”

They began to steer the bikes around.  It was only a short trip back to a branch in the road. The birds remained at the front of the bikes.

A chain stretched across the side road, but it wasn’t impossible to duck under.

The moment they had the bikes pointed at the road in question, however, the birds took off, first the large one, then the small one.

Both perched on branches, just a short distance away.

Dominic blinked.

“Come on,” he said.

The birds didn’t move.

“Just visiting the town.  We can pass right through and pop out the other side, head to Ottawa, then Montreal, maybe.”

The little one peeped.

Still sitting astride his motorcycle, he raised his hands, and tried the bird call.

He got two blank stares instead.

“Won’t?” he asked.

“I’ll remind you that you’re talking to birds,” Deidre pointed out.

He leaned forward, elbows and arms draped over the handlebars of his motorcycle.  “Come onnn.”

The birds didn’t budge.

“Maybe they can’t?” Deidre asked.

“Can’t?”

“It’s like… you hear about animals reacting before an earthquake hits.  You said it was groundwater contamination.  Maybe they sense something wrong down that way, so they’ll instinctively refuse.”

“Maybe,” Dom conceded.  “Poisons in the air?”

Deidre offered a shrug.  She had very nice shrugs.

“How committed are you to going this way?”

“Not very,” she said.  “If I’m being totally honest, I had a bad feeling, like the one you described.  Nothing I can reason or explain, but-”

“But a bad feeling,” he said.  He sat up straighter.  “Good enough.  On to the highway, head to and through Ottawa, find some spot between there and Montreal to settle down for the night?”

Deidre smiled.  “Sounds good.”

“What about you two?” he asked.

There was no response.

“Right,” he said.

But as he turned the bike around to go back toward the little shack and the highway beyond, there was a flutter.

The birds settled in, the large one perched on his headlight.

He paused.  The girl with white hair stuck in his mind.

“Two ways we can go,” Dominic said, “Take the main highway, or we can go by the water.”

No sooner was the word water out of his mouth than the little one started to bounce in place.

Even the large one looked at him, which was about as much attention as it had given him in the entire road trip last summer.

Deidre laughed, and it was a good sound.  “I don’t think I get a say.”

“By the water it is,” Dom said.

Dominic led the way, easing in, gently ramping up the speed, one eye on the sparrow.

It managed a good enough grip, though the vibrations of the engine had to be rattling its brain in its skull.

Tough little critter didn’t seem to mind.

He picked up speed, until he’d matched pace with traffic on the highway.  He merged into traffic, glancing back to make sure Deids and the little guy were with him.

They passed the trees that seemed to surround the little ghost town.  It didn’t take long to pass it outright.

Small as it was, the sparrow couldn’t hold on forever.  Shortly after the town was left behind, there was a bump in the road, and it came loose, disappearing off to the side.

Dominic tried not to worry, but it was hard.

But, sure enough, just as it had been last year, the bird reappeared.  It wasn’t faster than the bike, but the highway curved gently, and the bird could fly in a straight line, meeting him further ahead, then continuing on, to meet him at the next bend.

It would fall behind eventually, he knew, but it would always catch up somehow.  If it got tired, it would take advantage of his stopping for gas or food to catch a ride, somewhere where the wind wouldn’t throw it loose.

In Dominic’s peripheral vision, the sparrow was joined by its smaller companion, and the two drifted out in the general direction of the lake.

The way got clearer as they got further from Toronto and the annoyance of the slower traffic around the ghost town.  He smiled, accelerating, content to be leaving it all behind.

Last Chapter                                                                        The End (Afterword)

Judgment 16.13

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

The Abyss was ruthless, and our surroundings were coming to pieces in fast motion.  Cascades of dust flowed off of every surface, accompanied by flakes, chips, and fragments, a hundred years of wear and tear occurring over seconds.  Where the surfaces were flat, such as the rooftop, the same dust and fragments danced as the surroundings rumbled and vibrated.  Were it any lighter it might have risen as thick clouds.  Any heavier, and it would have formed an almost liquid pool.

It fell between the two points.  Ankle height, a roiling cloud of finer particles.

I was small enough that ‘ankle height’ was enough to obscure me.  My view of the others was reduced to vague silhouettes.

“We need something to tie her hands with,” Rose was saying.  She was, out of everyone, closest to the ground.

“On it,” Mags said, “Gimme a second… grab her?”

“Grabbed,” Peter said.

There was a sound of chain rattling.

“Here.”

“You’re like a superhero, a tool for every job,” Peter commented.  The chains rattled some more as they were wound around the pinned Ms. Lewis.

“Damn straight,” Mags said.  “Except I use guns, not some stick.”

Respect,” Peter said.

“Got her,” Mags said, tugging the chain to tighten the loops around the lawyer’s wrists.  “Wish I had my combination lock, but we’re good so long as we watch her.  I’d think it was too tight, but it’s not like she can die.”

“I-” Ms. Lewis started.

Mags raised her pipe with one hand.

Ms. Lewis didn’t try to say anything more.

“Use your scarf as a gag?” Peter suggested.

“F that.  My scarf is staying with me, thank you very much.”

They seemed to settle on something.  Within a few seconds, Ms. Lewis was gagged.

“Alright, well done.  Now help me up,” Rose said.

“Try sounding a little less bossy while you ask?” Peter suggested.

“I’ve been clawed open by a hellhound, possessed and hollowed by my inhuman alter ego, my head’s been rearranged and the only reason I’m still conscious is that I’m drawing some power from Conquest.  I’m going to be ‘bossy’, so shut the fuck up, Peter.”

“Wow,” was all he said.  “Maybe try saying please shut the fuck up?”

“Help me up so we can go.  Sooner than later.”

“One of you two better do it,” Peter spoke.  “Bending down is not a good thing for me right now.  My back doesn’t hurt nearly enough for how fucked up it feels.  Besides, I’m not sure I trust Rose not to bite.”

“Got her?” Paige asked.

“Yeah,” Mags said.

There was a pause as Paige bent down by Rose.

“Yeah, that gouge is pretty f’ed up,” Mags observed.

Peter managed to sound pretty casual about it.  “Am I going to have a badass scar?”

“Maybe if you don’t bleed out before we can get you help,” Mags said.  “You look pretty wobbly.”

He turned his head, but didn’t say anything.  I couldn’t see his face.

Whatever he’d done, glaring at Mags or something in that vein, it prompted her to add, “I can’t lie.”

“I like you a little less now.”

Paige finished pulling Rose very carefully to her feet.

“Buttsack!” Mags called.  “Get your ass over here!  You too, Stumpy, I know you’re playing dead.  Come, or you might not get another chance to leave.”

“Uh… you,” Rose said.  Her voice wasn’t that strong as she raised it to be heard.  “Same thing.”

The man in the ill-fitting suit, I realized.

“And he’s gone over the edge,” Rose said.  “Probably easier, if a little hard to get why.”

“We ran into him earlier.  I don’t think he’ll have any trouble making his way down.”

“Alright.  That just leaves Blake.”

“Blake?”

Heads turned.  The Sight, being used to find me.

It was Mags who bent down to collect me.

“He’s alive?” she asked.  My eye moved.  “Oh!  He’s actually alive… in a manner of speaking.”

“I need him,” Rose said.  “Let’s go, before the building does.”

My view was a warped one, wobbly.  I had little volition, almost no ability to move of my own accord.  The group took stairs as fast as they were able, and Mags was toward the front of the group, one arm on Ms. Lewis’ upper arm, periodically jerking her to keep her off balance.  Buttsack walked in front of the woman, one hand raised to hold on to her belt loop.  Trying to run would have meant hurdling the goblin to reach a lower stair.

Mags’ other arm was cradling what remained of me like she might hold a football.  I was a lumpy, crude hand with a thread of flesh running over it, an eyeball, tucked into the crook of her arm.

The walls were bleeding dust, fine cracks spreading and reaching deeper.  Every surface was caught in the same state between fluid and vapor, the stairs below almost a waterfall, though it had no force to it.  Different colors of different materials pooled together to form layers and patterns as they collected.  The sand of a million hourglasses.

We passed the floor the two demons and the chauffeur would have been on with no incident.  They would have left with the possessed lawyer, Christopher, I supposed.

With my body being what it was, I could rotate my eyeball to look through the cracks and glimpse the others making their way down the stairs behind Mags.

They were so worn out, but we’d found the light at the end of the tunnel.

There was hope.  Only a little bit further, and we won.

Power had a price.  Seeing the dust, the sweat, the blood, the sheer exhaustion, the looks in people’s eyes, and the damage that had been done, nobody would dare say we hadn’t paid a price.

Grandmother had created Rose and I to work against the system.  A snarl or a tangle in the pattern.  She hadn’t predicted the future, I was pretty sure; this degree of collateral damage was likely beyond her expectations, especially if we counted Toronto, but she’d achieved her goal.

Mags stopped, turning, and looked back to the others, who were slower to make their way down.  Rose was between Peter and Paige, and the trio were still having trouble keeping up with Mags and the hostage.

Ms. Lewis’ gaze was level, her expression oddly serene as she briefly glanced across to me, though she had drool and blood running from the corner of her open mouth, with what seemed to be tissues stuffed inside it.

While we waited, a shadow moved below.  I shifted position, poking Mags, and she turned her head.

A false alarm.  Green Eyes.  She’d been caught against the side of the building, and she’d made her way inside.

She was tense, her attention on Rose.

“Blake is with us,” Rose said.

Green Eyes frowned, but didn’t speak.

“Come on,” Rose said.  “Keep moving.”

Green Eyes made her way forward, favoring one arm over the other.

She noticed me and paused.  I stared into her eye with my own, measured the nuances of her expression.  Relief, fear, concern, all together.  Enough for me to feel confident that she was the same Green Eyes.  Those blades that had nearly killed her hadn’t cut her in two.

The mermaid looked back at Rose, and I wasn’t sure even she was aware of how her hands had flexed, fingernails scratching the floor.  A tell, as such things went.

Green Eyes took the lead, going down the stairs headfirst.

It would have been a lie to say that we were quick to reach the ground floor.  Too many people were hurt, and by the time we got that far, the stairs were impossible to see, layered with enough particulate matter that footing seemed to be an unsteady thing.

The others were waiting for us.  Ainsley and Lola were on their feet.  The kids were all there, too.  Evan was perched on a kid’s head.

“Green!” Evan greeted the mermaid as she came down the stairs.  “What happened?  Where’s Blake?  Is everyone okay?  Is the world going to end?  What’s- Lawyer!  And Rose!  Rose, you’re hurt!  Where’s Blake?”

“Mags has him,” Rose said.  “The-”

“That’s not Blake, that’s wood!”

“-Barber-” Rose said.

I moved.

“That’s moving wood!  It’s Blake!”

He flew over to me.

My eye hadn’t changed size, but the ease with which he flew so close to me, it drove home how small I was.

“The Barber,” Rose tried again, without the sparrow going a mile a minute.  “He fell?”

“He’s out there,” Lola said.  “I wasn’t sure what to do.  We reinforced the wards to the outside and hunkered down.  He hasn’t made much fuss.”

“What happened?” Ainsley asked.  “Everything’s falling apart.  Not just in here.  You have the lawyer, but… that doesn’t tell me much.”

“We won,” Rose said.  “I think.  We should go.”

“With the Barber out there?” Lola asked.

Rose’s face was grim.  She pointed at the door.

“You’re sure?” Lola asked.

“If we stay, we’ll get pulled into the deepest reaches of the Abyss.  If we go, the worst thing that’s likely to happen is that the Barber is waiting for us and subjects us all to a fate worse than death.”

“Can we hold a vote?” Peter asked.

“No,” Rose said.  “Open the door.”

“You’re being bossy again.”

But the vestige kids were obeying Rose, and they pulled the door open.

“Hang back, follow at a distance,” Rose said.  “It won’t do to let him play the pipes for you and lose this now, after everything.”

We made our way outside as a mass.  The Barber wasn’t visible, at a glance.

The entire city was… I might have said it was smoking from every surface, but the smoke flowed down.  Already, the upper floors of other buildings had started to break down, rooftops sinking or sloping.

The street itself was fractured, and it continued to break down. Large planes of pavement had broken in half, folding into zig-zagging ‘waves’ where one piece leaned against another.  Here and there, larger pieces broke down further, and plumes of debris were sent skyward as they landed heavily amid dust.

Had it been a perpetual thing, breaking down without ever ceasing to be, I might have thought the Abyss had decided what form Johannes’ domain should take.

This wasn’t that.  The decay was too fast, too measurable.

Blades that the Barber had summoned had fallen and broken like glass.  Bodies of wretches had wedged into cracks not yet big enough to swallow them.  In the gaps between sections of road, the dust was thicker, burying smaller ones and ones that had been dead for longer.

“He’s there,” Lola said.

The practitioners seemed to notice, turning their heads before Peter, Green Eyes, Evan or the vestige kids reacted.

The Barber.

I was one of the last to see.  Too many people in front.  He moved in a sideways direction, dragging the sickle behind him, and he’d elected to keep the damaged, broken body of Johannes.  The demonic taint of the Barber crawled all over the man.  Only the basic shape remained.  Scraps of hair and clothing.

He held the pipes, and we had children who were maybe in earshot.  He made no motion to play the instrument.

Instead, he drew the sickle back, as if he was about to swing it at someone just in front of him.

He threw it, aiming for us, except the ground beneath his feet cracked as he finished the motion.  Too far forward, too far down.  The sickle sank into the road, point first.

The ground beneath him caved in further.  A crater, with him at the bottom.

Heads turned.  All eyes were on Rose.  Her hand extended, fist clenched.

Slowly, she relaxed it.

“You’re doing that?” Lola asked.  “You took over?”

Rose shook her head.  “I’m asking nicely, as the conqueror who has just unseated the king.  Riding momentum.  But this place isn’t truly mine.”

She gestured at the shears.  The road splintered.  Where it splintered, it folded down.  The shears were drawn in, partially buried.

“Makes me really want a demesne of my own,” Rose said.

“It’s done, then?” Lola asked.  “You’re talking about the future like this is over.”

Rose didn’t reply immediately.

“Almost done,” Rose conceded the point.

“Almost,” Lola said.

“We’re not in any shape to fight, and he doesn’t die.  I’m suspicious he can, if we wanted to defy that convention and go to war with him, but we’re not in a position to make him.  He’s still there, and he’s not out of tricks yet.  He’ll want to sneak out.  He’ll try things.  He might even attack, and I’m not sure we can put up a proper fight, even with all of us together.”

Nobody spoke.

Rose continued, “Move forward, carefully.  If you have anything reflective on you, now’s the time to get rid of it.  Toss it aside, push it into the dust between bits of road to hide it, or hide it inside your clothes.  If he gets another body, he can essentially start fresh, only with a new bag of tricks.  More resources.”

“Good day to be a bird.  Nothing on me!  I’m naked!  Right Sushi?”

Green Eyes didn’t respond.

“Sush- Green Eyes.  I’m sorry I called you sushi, and said I’d cook you.  We’re buddies, right?  You’re not mad?”

“I’m not mad, nugget,” she said.  “Don’t worry about it.  We’re good.”

But she didn’t say anything else.  Her demeanor didn’t change.  Quiet, grim.

“You might be naked, kid, but those beady black eyes are a problem,” Rose said.  “Evolution gave you almost three-hundred and sixty degree vision.  That’s three hundred and sixty degrees of access the Barber has.”

“I’ve dealt with him before.”

“Just… be safe.  Head down, eyes closed.  Ride on someone’s shoulder.”

“With Blake!  He’s kind of shoulderish!  With fingers, and an eye.  But I don’t discriminate.”

“Sure,” Rose said, and she sounded very tired, her words clipped not on purpose, but with the tension, the simple fact that she didn’t have a wealth of focus to spare.  “Same idea for Green Eyes and the…”

Rose gestured, her right arm still around Peter’s shoulder for support.

“Rat pack,” Mags suggested, for the vestige kids.

“Sure,” Noah said.  “Eyes down, extra careful.”

The tension was palpable.  Though they moved furtively, patting themselves down, glancing each other over to point out little things, like buckles or buttons, things were still.  The group a small tableau in the midst of a city that was roiling more than an ocean in high storm.  With the way everything was coming to pieces, the walls thinning out, the little details being washed away, it looked like a city made of candlesmoke, ready to simply puff out of existence.

Peter untucked his shirt beneath his coat to cover up his belt.  Mags pulled off the metallic hairband that had been failing in its duty to keep her disorderly hair more orderly.

After all of the bases were covered, the group began edging forward.

“Don’t look directly at it.  Resist any bait,” Rose warned.  “Don’t look at it in surprise, don’t look back, don’t wonder.  Keep moving forward.”

The group moved around the crater, splitting into two groups, one going right, one going left.

The Barber made a sound, guttural and inhuman.  I imagined it was akin to the sound a giant might make if it managed to howl loud enough to be heard from beneath a river of tar.  It came from a deep, dark, place, past a great deal of resistance.

In the moment the scream reached its peak, Johannes died.  Every member of the group flinched as he popped, the container of the human body no longer enough for what dwelt within.  The contents banked against the sides of the crater, dusting the group.

“Good,” Noah said.  His eyes were fixed forward.

“I wouldn’t call it good,” Rose said, her voice tense.  “But I get the sentiment.  Keep moving.  Don’t look.”

The Barber unfolded, reaching out, flexing, a fresh body in the making.  The sea of dust only absorbed his feet, the pavement cracked underfoot.  He made progress, his form alien, reaching, forming new body parts just to find more traction or hold onto what he’d managed to get, but it was glacial, slow.

The group wasn’t much faster.  Too many people limping or barely able to walk.  The ones who were strong were carrying heavy burdens.  Even Peter, with his injury, was supporting Ainsley and Rose both.

Tkkkkk.

The sound of metal on pavement.

“Don’t look,” Rose said, again.  “He will take anything he can get.  Trust.”

“He went back for the sickle,” Lola said.  “You can hear it.  I can sense it.  He can throw it, like he did before.”

“He’ll fail, like he did before,” Rose said.  “Three times, we’ve gone to war with him.  Three times, we’ve beaten him.”

“Here,” Ainsley said.  “When did you fight him before?”

“The Abyss,” Rose said.  “That was the second time.”

“Was there a time before that?”

“The day he was bound,” Rose said.  “If bloodlines count enough to drag me into this whole mess, they have to be strong enough to let my grandmother’s victory carry forward.”

Tk.  Tk.  Tk-tk.

Ainsley shot Rose a look, and it was one of alarm.

As justifications went, Rose’s was pretty thin.

But saying so would be more dangerous than anything.  It could break the spell, or sunder the confidence of the lesser members of the group.

There was a scraping sound, not the sickle, but the sound of the pavement moving, being pushed aside.

The scrape that followed was sharp, a sudden movement.  It went hand in hand with a crash, and an impact that reached out a hundred feet ahead, serving as the push that some of the sections of pavement had needed to finish breaking.  Dust was knocked upward, and dust was sent cascading forward from behind.

“Trust,” Rose said, and her voice didn’t have the slightest sign of weakness.  “Believe.”

But, and it was a hard thing to see in the cloud of dust that had surrounded us, Rose’s head trembled.  The muscle at the left side of her jaw was standing out, distinct.

The Barber moved.  Not one sharp sound, but several.  Moving fast enough and violently enough that whole sections of pavement were being pushed aside.

Another crash, more dust filled the air, and parts of nearby building faces fell away.  A fast food building shed pieces of sign and fragments of glass.  Heavier things fell with thuds.

The heavier impacts sounded like footsteps.

The shadows that stirred in the clouds of the group took on shapes.

A roar echoed around us, that same tar-thick howl, only with an edge to it.

They kept moving forward.  They didn’t look back.

There were more crashes, more explosions of dust, another roar.

Further back.

He was mired.  Caught, to be swallowed up.

“Mags,” Rose said.

“Yeah?”

Rose pointed.  As the clouds of dust thinned out, I was able to make out a dip.  A fold of pavement that was lower than the rest.

“You’re sure?”

“She’ll come after us again, otherwise.”

Mags shifted her grip.  Ms. Lewis struggled, and I could sense the hesitation on Mags’ part.

She had no problem shooting monsters or tormenting goblins, but doing this was something else entirely.

Ms. Lewis doubled over, trying to push forward.  The vestige kids got in her way, Noah and Benny each catching one of the lawyer’s shoulders.

“Buttsack, do you-”

Buttsack didn’t wait for the question to end.  He hauled on Ms. Lewis’ belt, driving his shoulder into her stomach, and tipped her.  She fell sideways, into the dip, a ditch toward the center of the road.

In contrast to the Barber, all eyes were on her as she tumbled.  Pavement broke as though it were nothing more than compacted sand.  Still-intact slabs fell around her, disintegrated on landing, leaving her half buried.

Her struggles to get out from under only served to drive her deeper.  She sat up, but her legs sank.  The sand seemed to scrape and abrade.  The Abyss at its basest form.

Ms. Lewis was trying to spit out the tissues that had been stuffed into her mouth.

“A little forward?” Rose asked.

Paige and Peter helped her get closer.

Bending down a little, Rose put out a foot, setting it on a slab.

She winced as she did it, but she pushed.  The slab slid down the slope of the little ditch and collided with the lawyer.  A section of road that, dropped from above, would have turned a person into a pancake.  Definitely enough to cave in a ribcage.  For anyone else, it might have been lethal.  But the lawyer was beyond death.

“You need a punchline,” Evan said.  “Rules.”

“I was thinking,” Rose said.  She watched Ms. Lewis’ continued struggles.  Debris half-covered the woman’s face, and the slab of pavement had driven halfway through her torso.  She worked, all the same, to try and worm her way up and free, futile.

“You want this Demesne, Lewis?”  Rose asked.  “It’s all yours.”

The little light that remained was dying.  It was the light of the night sky over a city, night lights reflecting onto the clouds above, but those same clouds were disintegrating too.  There was only a clean slate.

Ms. Lewis had stopped fighting, but the decay of this world continued.  Even staying still, she was swallowed up, only one eye, a temple, and a bit of hair remaining above the surface.  Watching us.

We collectively turned our backs on her.

Off to one side, a building folded into itself.  The cloud of dust was impenetrable, but it didn’t reach far.  There was too much gravity here.

The rumbling had slowed, until it was barely perceptible.  The predominant sound was a whisper sound, granules on granules, like sand flowing over sand, or sugar over sugar.  The demesne was an expanse of fragments and sections of building floating in a still sea of gray-brown particles.  With no wind to touch it, the clouds of dust were quick to settle.  Only traces remained.

Traces, and the fragments of road that laid out a path between us and the exit.  There were gaps between, but they didn’t break underfoot, and they didn’t sink.

Another sign that this place wasn’t an active site for the Abyss.

We were close enough to the exit that I could see the bridge that marked the division between the older Jacob’s Bell and what had once been Johannes’ demesne.

The sky over the city was so bright I couldn’t look directly at it.

“They’re gone,” Lola said.  “The lawyers on the other side.  The demons.  I don’t sense the connections.”

“Damage is still done,” Paige observed.  “There are gaps between things.  It’s saturated with wrongness.”

“But they’re gone,” Lola said, almost whispering, as if, until this very moment, she hadn’t quite believed it was possible.  “People are alive.”

“Not everyone,” Ainsley said.  “We have to brace ourselves.  It won’t be pretty.”

“But-”

“But they’re gone,” Ainsley said.  She smiled.  “And people are alive.  Yeah.  I get what you mean.”

“We won,” Paige was the one who said it.

Rose didn’t seem so surprised.  “The cost of continuing the fight was too high, compared to the gains.  It might take them a while to digest what happened, put the pieces together, report back to whoever or whatever they report to.”

“The other lawyers will come after you,” Mags commented.  “By your own logic-”

“Their logic,” Rose corrected.

“By their logic, which you outlined just now, it’s too costly to leave you be.  You represent something.”

“Yes,” Rose said.  “I might have to stay in the Abyss until the worst of it blows over.  I’m getting a sense of how it works, it’s my battlefield, and I have work to do.”

“Scourge work,” Lola said.

“That’s part of it,” Rose admitted.  “Got to look after Jacob’s Bell.  That’s our most pressing problem.  Evacuate the citizens, clear it out, clean up the mess.  Too much damage done for it to be salvageable.  I think Alister will be willing to work with me to coordinate.  Each of us on different sides of the divide, if we have to.”

“I’m glad you’re still thinking of my cousin,” Ainsley said.

Rose nodded, smiling lightly.

I gave her the ability to care for others.  Will that be enough?

“But it’s not just the Scourge stuff,” Rose said.  “I was thinking of writing a diabolic text.  Taking after grandmother Thorburn, maybe.”

A few heads turned.

“Need to challenge ideas, change attitudes.  If I can put the right words to paper, disseminate the books, I can hurt them worse than we could repeating this fight a hundred times over,” Rose said.

We’d drawn close to the bridge.  The exit.

“I’m going,” Lola said.  “There’s people I need to look for.  My mom.  I can see the connection, but I have to make sure.”

“Bye,” Rose said.

“I feel obligated to say something or do something,” Lola said.  “But nothing’s coming to mind.”

“We just spent far too long fighting because we were supposed to,” Rose said.  “Because your families are supposed to hate diabolists, and I was a diabolist because I was supposed to be.  Fuck obligations.  Go to your mom.”

Lola nodded.  She turned to go.

“Thanks, by the way,” Rose said.

“Likewise,” Lola replied, raising a hand.  She didn’t turn around, half-running on her way past the bridge.

Hurt as she was, she picked up her pace as she ran, a limping gait.  Going home.

Mags fidgeted.

“The same goes for you.”

“I know you better than she did,” Mags said.

“And I know you,” Rose said.  “Go find your dads.  I know we’ll see you again.  This isn’t a farewell in any sense.”

“Two rounds done,” Mags said.  “As far as my count can be accurate.  Fire, darkness, and blood.”

“You’re looking to do this again?” Evan asked.  “Why?  Huh?”

“Long story,” Mags said.  “One I’d tell if I didn’t have my dads to look for.  And a Faerie to look for.  What happens to the Faerie who were exiled here when Jacob’s Bell ceases to be?”

“Depends on how things were worded,” Rose said.  “I’d guess they get to slip the noose until the individuals who exiled them hunt them down.”

Mags bit her lip.

“Go,” Rose said.

Mags gingerly handed me over into Rose’s care.  Rose held me in both hands, swaying a little precariously before catching herself.

Nobody else moved.

“Faster you all go, faster we can each get ourselves patched up,” Rose said.  “Ainsley, why don’t you go find Alister?  Bring him here?  I’m going to stay, until I know it’s safe.”

“In an empty Abyss?”  Ainsley asked.

“I’ll relocate soon, I think.  But this looks like as good a place to rest as any.  Peter?  Go with Ainsley.  Help her get to Alister, get her patched up.”

Peter glanced at Ainsley, then back to Rose.  “Sure.  You’re really okay?”

“Better than,” Rose said.  She managed a smile.

“You’re not all that bad for a Thorburn,” he said.

“Surprisingly high compliment, coming from you,” Rose said.

“I know, right?  But I can lie, so I figure I should get the most out of-”  He winced as Ainsley elbowed him.  “Geez!  I’m wounded, don’t go doing that!”

“You had a good moment back there,” Rose said.  “Freeing Faysal.  That was… heroic.  It made the difference.”

Peter smirked.

“Don’t let it go to your head.  I’ll be in touch, once I figure out how to manage it.”

His eyebrows went up.  “And the scary thing is, I think I almost look forward to a call from family.”

He offered a salute, then joined Ainsley in hobbling out and under the bridge.

“That pairing is not going to work out,” Paige said.  “I know I should watch out for statements that could turn out to be lies, but I’m… ninety nine percent positive.”

“I agree,” Rose said.  “Just don’t tell him those numbers.  He’ll make it work out of sheer stubbornness.  Maybe the failure will be good for both of them.”

“Maybe,” Paige said.

“You only stayed because you’re keeping an eye on him, right?  You’re probably itching to check on Isadora.”

“I am.  But that’s not the only reason I stayed.  I just wanted to say good work.”

“Good work?”

“Not for all of this, but for making it through.  All my life, I wanted to rise above the Thorburn stuff.  Family drama.  I kept getting dragged back down.  I didn’t realize that anyone else was fighting as hard as I was.”

“We were friends once, before Blake and I were separated into two individuals,” Rose said.  “Close, you, me, and Molly.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“I wish I remembered.”

“Like I said to Peter, I’ll try to keep in touch.”

“Yeah,” Paige said.  She glanced at those who remained.  The vestige kids, Evan, Green Eyes, and me.  “You okay like this?”

“I think so,” Rose said.

“You said you were better than okay when Peter asked,” Paige said.

“Entirely different questions,” Rose said.

“I suppose that’s true.  You did a good job, Rose.  You too, Blake, if you can hear me like that.”

Paige didn’t say goodbye.  Neither girl had anything more to add.  Paige’s exit was more of an awkward retreat.  Stepping away, constantly glancing back at our group, a concerned expression on her face.

She passed under the bridge.

The moment Paige was out of sight, Rose collapsed.  Noah tried to catch her, but he wasn’t big enough or strong enough to support her weight.  It made for an ugly, awkward fall.

The scene was still.  Even the sand-on-sand whispers had stopped.  There were no noises from Jacob’s Bell.

A car passed along the length of the highway, headlights only catching thick mist.

Darkness on this side, daylight on the other.

Green Eyes hadn’t budged an inch as Rose fell.  She watched, her expression cold.

“Green Eyes,” Rose said.

“I’m not going.”

“I wasn’t asking you to go,” Rose said.  “I’m asking you not to kill me.”

“Wait, what?” Evan asked.  “No!  We won!  This isn’t a bad end!  We fix Blake, we fix me, Rose triumphs, happy, happy, happy!”

“Rose is bleeding,” Green Eyes said.  “Too much.”

“Oh man!  You’re going to be okay Rose!  I can go for help!”

“She’s going to eat Blake, consume whatever humanity or flesh he’s got to try and patch herself up.”

Evan went still.  Shocked into silence.

“Essentially true,” Rose said.

“Then why shouldn’t I kill you?” Green Eyes asked.

“Because he wouldn’t want this.” Rose said.  “You know he wouldn’t want this.  And the promise I made with him… that was what he wanted.”

“This is better than-”

“No,” Rose said.  “I want to tell you I’ll give you the ending you want, but if I do, and it winds up being a lie, it’ll probably kill me.  I’ll be too weak.  I have to draw on him to patch myself up, I’ll probably have to pass out and rest for a bit before getting underway, and he could die at any point during that.  There might be too little left.  But with what remains…”

“There’s almost nothing as is,” Green Eyes said.  “You’re telling me what I want to hear!  Dodging the truth!”

“Green!  Green!”  Evan cut in.  “Come on!”

Green Eyes was bristling.  Fingertips digging into the pavement.  Her fins flared.

“Do it for me?  For the nugget?”  Evan asked.

Slowly, the fins relaxed.  The tension went out of the fingernails.

Rose nodded.

She turned her attention to me.

“Damn it, damn it, damn it,” she said, reaching down to break, digging for the flesh that remained.

Then all went dark.

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