“Buy me time!” Rose called out.
Easier said than done.
The others were okay, though battered, bruised, and at least one bad injury. They were standing closer to where the dragon had been impaled, and many of the blades were in their way, forcing them to very slowly extricate themselves, out of fear of dying to a simple slip or fall.
In short, it was Mags, Paige, and Peter on one side. Buttsack, the Welder and the Nurse were there as well, though the goblin had been gouged by the blade, the Nurse injured in the prior encounter with the dragon.
Ms. Lewis, the possessed lawyer with two deep wounds in his chest, and the chauffeur that had taken us to Toronto, and the Barber, on the other side. The Barber was only a short distance from the throne. Closer than anyone else.
The Barber surveyed the situation, taking it all in, while the others fought to get closer to Rose, one eye on Ms. Lewis, who loomed above them, perched on the fallen Dragon.
He started toward Rose.
Rose brought a hand to her mouth, and whistled.
“Sic ’em!” she hollered.
Bristles leaped from the wall above, a solid twenty-foot drop, slamming into the demon. The Barber stepped back for balance, it was able to stay standing by leg strength alone. The hound’s exterior was heavy with the arrows, makeshift spears, knife handles, darts, a spade, and any number of other tools, making it something of a mess, and each of these weapons proved an obstacle or additional hazard as it clawed at the Barber’s chest and arm, fighting for leverage.
The Barber struck it, only to cut his arm on a knife that stuck from the bogeyman’s shoulder. He pulled back, grabbing Bristles with an apparent intent to fling the beast off the side of the building, only for Bristles to twist around, mouth opening. In the doing, it revealed that two of the weapons had once pierced its skull, replacing teeth with a blade and what might have been a screwdriver. It seized the Barber’s wrist in its jaws, teeth and tools cutting deep. The attempt to fling it away failed.
The other practitioners were acting. The chauffeur was speaking, his low tones carrying. The possessed practitioner was approaching, one hand to his chest.
Mags was already reloading her pipe, pushing a shotgun shell into the end. She raised it, aimed, and slammed the pipes together to fire.
She was too far away to do much, but the shots did serve to interrupt the man. It proved brief as interruptions went. Even if he hadn’t been immune to death and dying, he was a good distance away, Mags’ aim wasn’t perfect, and the one or two stray particles that happened to find him weren’t enough to do much.
The possessed lawyer continues his march toward them, speaking under his breath as a chain unfurled from his sleeve. The chain smoked, and the smoke began to trace out a form of a hound. The Welder hurled himself forward, stabbing with a spear of iron, but the possessed lawyer didn’t break his verbal stride, uttering a string of guttural words in another language. With lupine yellow eyes and scruff on his cheeks, his hair now in disarray, he looked savage, as much animal as human.
The demon within him was one of the feral choir, it was clear.
There were shouts, orders, a jumble of noises. The Welder and Nurse stepped forward to meet him, while Buttsack cowered, unable to retreat entirely because of the blades that now blocked the stairway.
My focus, however, was shifting to Ms. Lewis, who stood above and away from it all, doing nothing but keeping me bound. I shifted my gaze again, to Rose and the Barber.
Rose was on the edge of her seat, fingers gripping the arms of the throne.
The Barber’s attempts to beat, batter, and wrestle with the Bogeyman were proving largely ineffective. Bristles was a sponge for abuse.
This, naturally, led the Barber to his next option. With one hand occupied, maneuverability proved hard. He let go of the shears with one hand, gripped one of the handles, and let them fall open, the other handle resting against his upper arm, blades pointed down at the bogey-beast.
He stopped, his eye flickering to Rose.
She’d moved, her mouth open, and he’d noticed.
When he’d stopped, so had she.
His eye dropped, to the various tools that were stuck inside Bristles’ body.
“I see,” he said, and his voice still had that rasp to it, not entirely his. “Going to banish it, and have it take my shears with it?”
Rose didn’t react. She was frozen in place.
Shifting the shears to the hand that Bristles was attacking, the Barber reached to the same wrist that Bristles was gnawing on, he pulled the pipes away, then maneuvered them in his fingers, as they were apparently upside down.
With one hand, he raised the pan pipes to his lips, and he played.
Rose, in the meantime, shifted position, sitting straight in the throne. Her eyes closed.
It made for a strange effect. Rose pursuing one plan of attack while the Barber pursued another. The Barber’s melody was haunting, finding an echo in this strange environment that seemed to make them impossible. It reverberated, found an echo, compounded itself. The more drawn out notes were like a wolf’s howl, punctuated by notes that evoked thoughts of yipping, whines, and even sharper notes that suggested something else altogether. Pain, perhaps.
Rose, however, was speaking, and she was putting Conquest into her voice.
“This demesne goes unclaimed, belonging to none by right or establishment…”
Bristles grew more aggressive, savaging the Barber. Stronger though the Barber was, the bogeyman was the equivalent of a squirming child with a pitbull bite. Small as it might have been, in terms of relative strength, it was tenacious enough to be a problem.
Bristles opened its mouth. The Barber shook his arm, and the bogeyman fell free. It found its feet and shook its head.
The music continued.
Again, Bristles shook its head. This time, it lunged, interrupting the music with the force of the impact. The Barber turned his full attention to the bogeyman that still attacked him.
Not a dog? I thought. The Barber seemed just as confused by the fact as I was.
His thought process must have been very similar to mine, as he connected the dots. Bogeymen were a human establishment. He’d argued they were humanity’s eventual destination.
Animals did exist in the Abyss, that was true. So did Others. The dragon-bat-goblin thing I’d seen was such a case. But Others were derived from man. To continue along that journey wasn’t so strange.
For something to become an effective Bogeyman, had it taken on enough elements of humanity to resist the Barber? Or had it never been human in the first place? A human, treated like a dog, abused, finding his way to the Abyss, where it continued a journey to become doglike, but not a true dog?
Rose wasn’t smiling, but I thought I saw a gleam of satisfaction in her eyes.
A gambit, and it was one that had bought her time. Bristles was the sort of thing that was very much worth summoning, here.
“The Abyss has a claim to all places left unowned. As agent of the Abyss, I move to expedite this claim,” Rose said.
The Barber’s head snapped up, looking at her.
“Johannes is finished, and with him go all ties that anchor this demesne to this world.”
The Barber began to haul itself toward Rose, a limping gait. Bristles gripped his leg, paws scrabbling for a grip on the rooftop, pulling in the opposite direction, only stopping to get a better grip and pull in another direction.
“This place can go when Jacob’s Bell goes!” Ms. Lewis called out. “By three points of similarity, this place is anchored! By the vestiges, echoing the people, by location, echoing the place it grew from, and by the bloodlines that are both here and there, knitting this place to that! Inexorable, intertwined, the two cannot be separated. When one falls, so shall the other!”
Ah. She was ready to make a counterattack if Rose tried something.
“By three points of similarity-” Rose paused as the Barber drew nearer. The pan pipes were in one hand, while the shears were in the other.
He slammed the handles together, and the shears became a sickle.
Only a few feet away, now.
The possessed lawyer’s hellhound lunged straight into the midst of the combined group of bogeymen, Mags, Paige, and Peter. Peter had a cut on his back from earlier, when the blades all came flying up from below. I could see ribs, and a whole lot of blood. With the hellhound attacking, the rest of the group was bowled back. The Welder was flung back into Mags, and Mags was sent sprawling.
Buttsack was the only member of the group who wasn’t engaged in a life-or-death struggle. He cowered within the forest of blades beneath the dragon.
“Go, Buttsack, or we all die!” Mags shouted.
“Fuck yourself with a fork!”
“If you get us out of this, I will damn well pay you in porn for as long as I am humanly able!”
“I will give you thumb drives, you sorry excuse for a goblin!” Mags roared the words. The Welder was forced back again, his arms hugging the Hellhound’s muzzle, and he inadvertently kicked Mags in the side. Still, she managed to get out another two words. “Of weird stuff!”
He seemed to make his call, picking up his junkyard shield.
He sprinted for the Barber, and drove the base of the shield into the backs of the Barber’s knees.
Though it had been abstract as a demon, strong, it now had Johannes’ body. It could take on aspects of its old self, but basic mechanics meant the Barber fell onto his back. Bristles let go of his leg to go for the face.
“By three points of similarity,” Rose resumed, no longer holding her breath, caught in the chair, “Justify the connection of the vestiges here to the people there! They’ve been butchered, and any echoes have died!”
Ms. Lewis didn’t have a ready answer.
Rose went on, her voice rising as she spoke. “Jacob’s Bell will be removed as a place, and all that is happening here is evidence as to why. The Practitioners here will die or leave, one and all. Let this be the first of dominoes to fall, on both counts! I am of the Abyss, and I am of Conquest, and from this seat, I deem this done!”
A vibration rattled through everything present. It was much the same as if something very heavy had been dropped just out of sight, rippling through the strange firmament above, the very air, and the ground below. The building seemed to waver.
The Welder, cast off of the Hellhound, fell at the hands of the possessed lawyer, fingers tearing his neck open. Paige’s light was forming a shield to hold the Hellhound at bay, but it wasn’t holding up.
Below the dragon, Mags was still on her back.
I’d told her to keep a goblin in reserve, fully expecting that we’d be beaten and battered, and that we might need a distraction to cover our retreat. Mags summoned it.
Not a particularly big goblin. Smaller than Buttsack, who was the size of a morbidly obese seven year old. Still it came when Mags tore the paper it had been bound into.
I didn’t hear the words, but I saw it run to the dragon’s dangling tail, which touched the ground. Climbing, and moving toward Ms. Lewis, who appeared to be unaware, her focus elsewhere.
Paige created a brilliant flash of light, and everything went white.
The light served to blind everyone present, myself included. Buying us time. I used the time to pull myself together. No longer a wing, but an arm, a hand.
In the time it took for the brilliant light to fade, people had repositioned, pulling back and away from the fighting. Only the Barber was still caught up with the tenacious Bristles, but even he was on his feet again, back to a wall, hacking the goblin’s shield to pieces.
The chauffeur had summoned two demons, and they didn’t look like small fry. They looked much like the Barber had. One was grotesquely fat, covered in boils, his ‘face’ a lanky mess of hair, the sides, top and back of his head replaced with faces that looked as though they belonged to drowning victims. The genitals that hung between the thing’s legs weren’t distinguishable as anything belonging to either gender.
The other was narrower, thin, with the head of an emaciated cat.
“I was diabolist,” Rose said, and she rose from her chair. She’d left traces of a partial handprint in the metal of the chair’s arm, and the print glowed faintly, as her gleaming white fingers did. “I’m now a servant of the Abyss.”
She faced down both of the demons and the chauffeur both, stepping forward.
“I think,” she said, “I’m qualified to tell you to get lost.”
She swept her hand to one side.
A glow similar to the one on the chair traced along the edge of the rooftop. As it faded, it left cracks in its wake.
The demons moved, lunging, the chauffeur moving after a bit more of a delay.
That corner of the rooftop caved in. The demons and chauffeur were all swallowed up in the falling rubble.
“Yes!” Mags crowed.
Don’t celebrate just yet, I thought.
This wasn’t done.
The Barber was winning its brawl. We still had two lawyers to deal with.
The goblin poked its head up behind Ms. Lewis. It sank its teeth into her calf. In the moments of struggle that followed, it managed to drag her off the dragon’s back. She and he dropped.
Freed, I immediately began crawling in her general direction. My fingers weren’t strong enough to drag my entire arm and the entrails that flowed behind, lacking a better word.
Instead, I used my fingers to hook into the cracks and individual stones of the rooftop, curled my arm, set the base down, and unfolded my arm, lunging out to reach the next handhold.
A foot or so of progress per attempt.
Chaos. Everything they had established was now breaking down. The power, their invincibility, the supposed inevitability of their victory.
We were, all of us here on the rooftop, people who had a tendency to stick it out, to bulldog our way through it all. Somewhere along the line, our belief in that had trumped our belief that they would win.
There wasn’t a single person in our group now who was intact. Our enemies, even the demons and lawyer who had been cast down with the section of roof, remained immortal.
There was a yelp. Buttsack followed it with a cry of his own, fleeing the Barber.
The Barber stood.
I wanted to act, to respond to situations as they arose, but that wasn’t a power I had anymore. Rose had taken on titles and roles, she’d adopted parts of me, and she was versatile. Able to call the maimed Nurse to her side, a temporary bodyguard. Mags had Buttsack. Paige… I suppose Paige was supposed to have Peter, but he’d collapsed, lying on his back, eyes open.
All I could do was continue my steady progress. I could see all the blades that lay between me and Ms. Lewis’ silhouette, as she worked on extricating the small, stupid goblin that was trying to attack her.
The possessed lawyer moved in the same instant his hellhound did. A two-pronged strike.
The burned Nurse flung herself at the Hellhound, only for the beast to explode into flame, leaving her to stumble through. She recovered and threw her arms around the feral lawyer. Her embrace singed clothing and made hair smoke.
Buttsack threw itself at the Hellhound, or tried to duck beneath it as it lunged, shield raised to protect himself, I wasn’t sure. Either way, his bulk was a stone for the Hellhound to trip over. Paige’s rebuke took advantage of that gap, a contained flash of light that acted like a slap to the face, making the Hellhound turn its head.
Things had reduced to a brawl. Chaotic.
Rose grabbed the chain, hauled on the slack, and forced a loop around the Hellhound’s muzzle as it came around to bite her.
Mags, for her part, threw herself forward to Rose’s side, snapping a combination lock through one loop of the chain.
The hellhound raised a paw and clawed at two of them, hard. Mags was unscathed. Rose wasn’t, and dropped, hard.
The Hellhound pulled, trying to get closer to the others, but there was no more slack in the chain, and try as it might, it couldn’t break the binding. Its tenacious attempts to pull free or get closer only served to tighten the loop.
Paige and Mags backed away, Paige dropping to Rose’s side to help put pressure on the claw wound. Buttsack, now behind the Hellhound, backed away in the other direction, toward the fracture on the far end of the roof.
I started to make my way through the blades that dripped with dragon’s blood. The ground itself was slippery, but the blades themselves were precarious handholds where the blood didn’t touch them.
The Barber was approaching, Rose was down, and the others weren’t capable or willing to get closer to either Barber or Hound. Mags bent down and grabbed Rose, pulling her further back.
In their efforts to get away, they backed straight up into Ms. Lewis, who had dispatched the goblin.
“This would be the beginning of the end, I suppose, for now at least,” Ms. Lewis said. She turned her head. “Christopher, don’t summon anything more. We should extricate, rather than entrench ourselves.”
Christopher, the possessed lawyer, scowled. He’d dealt with the Nurse, tearing her throat out, but was struggling to get the chain away from the Hellhound’s muzzle. The lock prevented easy removal, the hound wasn’t cooperating, which didn’t help matters, and it apparently couldn’t turn into fire when it was shackled.
I edged closer, the same halting progress I’d been managing for the last several minutes.
Rose was crumpled up on the ground, a claw mark on her already savaged upper body. She looked up and glared. “You’re staying, for as long as I can get the Abyss to keep you.”
“That won’t be long at all,” Ms. Lewis said. “You know, this all could have been so much tidier.”
“We’re not the sorts to do tidy.”
“Things are the way they are for a reason. What have you really gained, Rose? At the end of all this?”
“You’re assuming it’s over,” Rose said. She grunted with pain, and the look on her face suggested she hated that it had happened.
Close. I was so close.
Not that there was much I could do, even if I got there. I was a hand.
“Barbatorem,” Ms. Lewis said. “Could you convince Ms. Thorburn that things are resolved? I’d like to accomplish that much, at the very least.”
“I can,” Barbatorem said, his voice low. He’d already healed the damage that Bristles had done. He spoke, and he sounded a hell of a lot more like Johannes as he did, “I’m terribly sorry, Rose. I agree with Ms. Lewis. I wanted to do this better. I never harbored an abundance of ill will for you.”
“Stop,” Rose said. Bleeding, wounded, worn out, perhaps a bit touched by the Abyss, she looked like she had more of me in her than ever. Sheer savage stubbornness. Warrior grit. “Don’t use his voice. There’s no point in faking it anymore.”
There was a long pause.
“Ah. Yes,” the Barber said, and the words were guttural, hollow. There was nothing of Johannes in the sounds that passed through he mouth of his black-worm face.
“Lewis,” the possessed practitioner said.
Peter. Earlier he’d fallen. Now he was up, active. One arm was useless, the other held a chunk of stone from the broken edge of the rooftop.
He was at the wall of blades that had been erected around Faysal, prying.
“Peter!” Paige called out.
He noticed that we, our enemies included, had realized what he’d done. He redoubled his efforts, no longer trying to be subtle or quiet.
He smashed. “Bullshit! Bullshit shitty assed bullshit fakery!”
Two blades broke in one swing.
“Christopher,” Ms. Lewis ordered, only to see that the hellhound wasn’t yet free. “Barbatorem!”
Barbatorem threw the sickle.
“Get down!” Paige screamed.
Peter didn’t. Call it Thorburn stubbornness, or just his natural inclinations, he wasn’t one to follow orders. He turned to look at the source of the cry, saw the projectile, and threw himself to one side.
The weapon sank into the wall above where Bristles had fallen. A foot to the right, and it might have continued on through the hole in the wall, disappearing into whatever lay beyond, or falling to the street.
Barbatorem gestured, and what he did had to be a kind of enchantment, drawing on his connection to the blade. He moved, and he covered the distance with remarkable speed, closing on Peter.
He stopped and went still as his hand settled on the handle of the weapon.
He pulled it free, then kicked Bristles’ body over the edge.
Peter was still sitting on his ass, hands behind him to prop up his upper body, not yet on his feet.
A demon against a normal human.
“Fuck you!” Peter shouted.
Resistance was admirable, but even with everything we’d established and accomplished, it wasn’t enough to decide that particular conflict.
I’d already gone still, lurking at the base of the wall, ready in case Ms. Lewis tried anything. I watched, and would have been holding my breath if I’d had lungs. Or a mouth.
A shadow moved behind Barbatorem.
She’d been too hurt. Barely able to keep out of the way.
Not Evan, nor one of the vestige kids.
Rose had called out to anyone willing or able to help. She’d called one Bogeyman we knew.
The creepy man in the ill-fitting suit from the Tenements stepped out from the other side of the wall. I’d bound him and sent him out to pursue our enemies, and here he was.
The Barber saw him. Too late to react. The man in the ill-fitting suit stepped to one side, then pushed.
A simple, stupid one-trick bogeyman pulling out his trick. Defenestration.
The Barber toppled over the same brink it had just kicked Bristles over.
A long pause lingered.
Peter summoned his strength and threw himself at the cage again, stone in hand.
The cage shattered, and in the midst of that breakage, the diagram that sealed Faysal’s form broke.
Light flared, spreading, and where the wings that Faysal had drawn had been obscured by the wall that rose around us, they now rose up and around us, spreading over the sky.
The light was bright enough that it helped to obscure the darkness behind.
The wings folded, and in the sweep, the orbs and expanse that had decorated the firmament of this place were wiped clean. There was only darkness. Not a nether sort of darkness, or anything of the sort, but comfortable, absence-of-ordinary-light darkness.
The figure disappeared, spearing out and through that darkness.
The movement seemed to prompt another rumble. This time, it didn’t stop.
One more anchor point gone. Johannes’ lack of claim was undeniable.
“Man, Angels are assholes,” Paige said. “He couldn’t stick around long enough to contribute?”
Ms. Lewis turned to leave, gesturing to Christopher. Heading for the broken section of roof. Maybe where they could have hopped down and away.
I seized her by the ankle.
It created a delay, prompting a stumble. Time for others to notice.
Mags and Paige were on their feet in a moment. They threw themselves at her, pinning her against the wall with their weight. Christopher disappeared, down and away.
The struggle was brief, but it was human strength against human strength, and by virtue of numbers more than anything else, it soon came to a halt. The grip of the two girls secured on the woman’s wrists, Ms. Lewis pulled down to her her knees. She momentarily struggled again, almost to test that she really was caught. A long pause followed, quiet but for the steady rumble, still in the midst of an entire domain that was steadily going to pieces, fragments breaking away from every wall, every ceiling and object.
The sky above was gone, the ground was disintegrating, and everything between was breaking down.
Rose stared up at Ms. Lewis from her position on the ground. Rose smiled.
“I didn’t want to do this, you know, given the consequences. I was so close to being free of my debt, being free,” Ms. Lewis said. “Orn-”
Mags struck her in the teeth with the pipe-shotgun.
“So don’t,” Mags answered.