All posts by wildbow

Judgment 16.12

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“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!”

Buttsack froze.

“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.

Heads turned.

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.

Green Eyes?

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.

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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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Judgment 16.10

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We watched as the Barber held the shears to one side.  The fire that leaked out of the exposed cross-section of the dragon’s head came out in tendrils and lines, and those tendrils and lines touched the metal, slower and more fluid than arcs of electricity, but conducting all the same.

The metal grew white hot, cooled far too rapidly as the tendrils grew hair-thin and disappeared, another reaching out to touch another part of the blades.

Drinking in power.

One foot still rested on a knee.  He dropped it to the ground, used the scissors to push himself out of the throne and to a standing position.

As he did, the ambient light took on a different cast as it touched his face.  Black veins crawled over and along a horizontal line that marked his face, like cancerous worms, and knots of the veins had replaced his eyes.  More marks covered his flesh where the Library had nicked, burned, scraped and scratched him.  Like maggots crawling through his flesh, but an oily black in texture and color.

The darkness of his expression was countered by the spread of Faysal’s ‘wings’, though the wings were more a fractal pattern than true bird wings.  They reached further, and the light they emanated spread across the tower’s top.

I realized I was backing up, responding to an unconscious impulse, and made myself stop.  A fractional movement of his head suggested he’d noticed.

He could see.

Damn it all.

Alright.  Alright.  Fuck.  How were we even supposed to approach this?

He wasn’t going for the jugular.  As the Barber, just the Barber, he’d chased, pursued without pausing, closing the distance.  He had tricks available, using those shears.

Everything he’d done here had been different.  Passive, standing back, laying traps, striking from oblique angles.

Like a practitioner.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Mags whispered under her breath.

“Mags,” I said.

“What?”

“Keep one of those goblins in reserve.”

“Okay?”

If the dragon cooks us, we might need more bodies, or a distraction.  It’s a pawn we can place on the board, if we need to.

Johannes wasn’t moving.  His shears were dangling from one fingertip.  A twitch of the finger could have made them drop to the ground.

If that happened, if we could simply kick them over the edge, that would be something.

It wouldn’t happen.

He was letting us make the first move?

“You are not Johannes,” I said.

The sheer emptiness of this place meant my words didn’t resonate.  My own voice sounded too quiet to me, even as I spoke in louder, confident tones.

“I reject your power and your claim to power.  You’re a twisted creature belonging to some other long forgotten realm and time, you’re not something to be recognized or respected.

I managed to inject a fair bit of vitriol into my voice.

The Barber didn’t move.  Faysal’s wings continued to rotate in the background, shining past the stone pillars and railings that ringed the tower’s top, the shadows sliding endlessly to the left.  The dragon’s smoke rose up in fine curls, from nostrils set too far apart, on a head split right down the center.

“You wear a human’s skin now, but even before that, you wore a form you drew from our heads.  You’re wearing a mask under a mask.  Your only power is the power we damn well give you.”

The opening salvo.  My attack, for lack of a better term.

“Blake.”

It took me a full two seconds to identify the speaker.  I almost thought it was one of my companions, my ability to intuit direction warped by the nature of sound, here.  But, even as I dismissed that thought, I thought it might be Faysal, behind Johannes and the dragon.

No, I hadn’t really grasped that he might actually communicate with me.  I was caught entirely off guard, even though I was staring directly at him.

Johannes.  The Barber.

“You talk,” I said, stating the obvious.

“I could always communicate,” he said.

The shears snapped closed, opened, closed again.

Tk.  Tk.  Tch.

He tilted his head to one side, as if trying to read and interpret me.  It wasn’t a comfortable position for a human.  He righted his head, and hair fell across his face.  He didn’t move it.

“You’re not Johannes,” I said, for the second time.

“I am,” he said, and he said the words with a confidence that matched and maybe even outstripped my own defiance.  “I’m Johannes, and I’m something older.”

Fuck.  Fuck, fuck, fuck.  I’d hoped to discredit, to attack him with words so I wouldn’t need to cross blades with him.  If I could have upset his position here just a bit before everything unfolded, it could have made a difference.  Maybe led to another thing, which could have led to another.

This started with unseating him from his position, destroying it.  Except he now stood at the dead center of the roof, I’d pushed, in a manner of speaking, and he’d resisted my efforts altogether.

Theatrics mattered, and he had stage presence to spare.

“Blake,” he said.  “Mags?  Paige, Peter, Green Eyes.  Listen to me.  It’s Johannes.”

“I don’t believe you,” Mags said.

Good, I thought.  I glanced at her, and her eyes met mine.  I offered her a small nod.

“I’ve seen out their eyes,” the Barber said.  “Their memories.  Their experiences.  I’ve seen how the world is put together, and what it is.  The world is meant to be consumed.  By resisting, we’re only making it worse.  We’re a horse with a broken leg, and the best thing to do is put it out of its misery, because it only gets worse from here on out.”

“You don’t sound like Johannes at all,” Mags said.  “He had faith.  He was optimistic, even if I didn’t like how he did things, he believed in humanity.  Establishing a system.”

Good.  Keep up the attack.

I did,” the Barber said.  “It was only yesterday.  Hours ago, even.  I had hopes and dreams and even a bit of hunger for power, to give me a personal stake in it.  And now?”

He spread his arms a little.

“I know better,” he said.  His words, like ours, simply ended with each utterance.  No bouncing echolocation, no warmth.  They were sounds made with our lips, teeth, tongues and throats.

Every response we gave him, I was genuinely terrified that that would be the provocation he needed to come after us.  To give the word to the dragon or Faysal.

“You said we’re a horse with a broken leg?”  I asked.  “Breaks heal.  I think I’m speaking for most members of humanity when I say that I’d much rather be alive than gone.”

“Yet,” he said, “The end approaches in fits and starts.  You might think that you want more existence, but if you truly felt it, if you believed it deep down inside, then that would tip the scales.  If humanity was truly on the side of creation and progress, he-”

The shears pointed at the angel behind him.

“-he would be winning.  He would be stronger than I am.”

Tch.  The shears snapped closed as he lowered his arm.  There was a languid nature to his movements that suggested that some of his internal makeup was a little bit demon as well.

“That’s disingenuous,” Paige said, speaking up.  She’d found her voice.  “There’s history to take into account.  It wasn’t so long ago we were all getting sick and blaming it on humors or miasma.  Human existence has suckedMy existence sucked-”

“And,” the Barber cut in, “I’m sorry to say that before the end of the night, it’ll turn out worse than you’ve ever conceived of.”

Paige’s mouth opened and closed, the words she’d been about to form drying out and withering on her tongue.

Come on, Paige, I thought.

“It got better,” she said, but her forward momentum had dissipated.  “For so long, it was awful, flat-out toxic.  But it got better.  Humanity will keep advancing.  The broken bone will heal.”

“No,” the Barber said.  He fixed his dark non-eyes on her.  “Your life only got better because you left it behind you.  You threw yourself into the realm of Others, adoration of a centuries-old creature doomed to be among the last of her line.  You threw yourself into studying her and how to be useful to her, and you abandoned your human life to do it.  You’re a coward, Paige Thorburn.  You live for balance, truth, justice and order, and you are none of these things.”

Paige tried to hold fast, but the doubt still crept into her expression.

“If I was a coward, would I be here?”

“Yes.  Your particular brand of cowardice led you directly onto this path.  To go anywhere else or do anything else would mean you had to return to your old life.  I could spare you, I won’t, but I could.  You still wouldn’t last the night.  Where are you going to go, Paige Thorburn?  You threw it all away for a creature that’s now dead.”

Dead.  The word had a finality to it, a certainty.

She set her jaw, but the doubt had crept in enough that I couldn’t deny it.  The pain.

The Barber looked at me.  “You had the right idea.  Attack with words.  Establish the facts, then use them.  If the tables were turned and you were the enemy, me as the one who didn’t know any better, it’s what I’d do.  I can show you how fragile you are before I destroy you.”

“I know how fragile I am,” I said.

“You as a collective.  Humans.  Mortals and Others.  I’m trying and apparently failing to convey that this has all been decided.  I can see it, and I’m speaking out of the goodness of my heart, as Johannes Lillegard, because I want to spare you the disappointment.  You can’t deny that this is reality.”

“I damn well can,” I said.  “You pretend to know us all, but you’re badly underestimating Thorburn stubbornness.”

“Underestimating you?  I made you,” he said.

Something in his voice made Rose’s heart skip a beat.  An edge, a bit of a growl that did echo, responding to elements of this environment.

He went on, “You can’t tell me that all is well and that you have hope, when you’re planning to die.  You intend to give up your existence to someone you well and truly know is a sad, lonely, shadow of yourself, devoid of passion.  No.  You have no place to say anything to me.  If you try to win over any subtle powers that are listening, you’re going to fail badly.  You have no ground to stand on.”

Why the fuck did he have to be able to talk, damn it?

“You shouldn’t-” Green started.

“Green,” I said, cutting her off.

She shot me a look.

“There’s no rush,” I said.  “Don’t speak just because you feel you have to.  Consider your words carefully.”

“What you mean,” the Barber said, “Is you don’t want to give up an easy third point of debate.  If you challenge my perspective and I firmly establish that a third person has no grounds to make the challenge, I benefit.”

“There is that,” I said.

“He has no faith in you here,” the Barber told Green Eyes.

“That’s not true,” I said.

“Challenging me?  Prove it, then,” he said.  “The Barber is sworn to the Seal of Solomon.  Johannes is a practitioner.  If you would mark us as liars with a meaningful show of faith, we’ll be disadvantaged.”

He was right.  The more meaningful the show, the greater the disadvantage.

But there was no meaningful action I could make that wouldn’t disadvantage us more.  I could walk away, head down the stairs, and let her fight the Barber, I could give her the Hyena.

He’d already anticipated this much.

I spoke, instead, “When all of this is over, Green, I’m counting on you to look after Evan.”

“Paltry, as displays of faith go,” the Barber said.  He didn’t even flinch.  ”

“It’s good enough for me,” Green Eyes said.  “I’m counting on him making it through this, and not dying at the end of the night.  Even if he hates me for what I have to do to make it happen.  He’ll be able to look after Evan himself.”

“I think that sentiment is enough answer to why you have no grounds to challenge me, you and Blake are birds of a feather, after all,” the Barber said.  “Mags, I don’t think I even need to say anything to you, after the long conversations we’ve had.  That only leaves Peter.  Unless you think a goblin would be a better voice for humanity.”

He said Peter with such contempt.

I didn’t agree with the Barber, but I wasn’t the one he needed to sway.  He was answering my attempt to challenge his legitimacy and now he challenged ours, and I was betting he was winning over anything that was listening.  I hesitated to call them ‘spirits’, but they were.  The building blocks of reality were tuned into this conversation.  The words chosen, the way they were presented, and the effects they had were all factors.

He’d declared that victory for his side was inevitable, even if we won here.  Humanity was instinctively helping his side, and each of us here had no ground to stand on if we wanted to say otherwise.

Except for Peter.

“It’s not like I really got to know you, but I don’t remember you being this big of a dildo when you weren’t playing host to some scissors-demon,” Peter said.

“Petty insults.  A small mystery, how I didn’t lose my faith in humanity before the demon opened my eyes.”

“Fuck that,” Peter said.  “Petty insults are an art.  So is talking out your ass, and you’ve acknowledged that.”

“I can see straight through you, Peter Thorburn,” the Barber said.  “Backward and forward.  The benefit of an eye for ruin and having a practitioner’s Sight at the same time.  Don’t even pretend that you have any faith in humanity.  You dwell in the darker recesses of it, and you know deep down inside that when your charm fails you, you’ll plunge deeper still, to your own detriment.”

“Ouch,” Peter said, unflinching.  “But who the fuck are you to decide that this is about the now?  Because I think that’s the demon talking, not Johannes.  There isn’t a single person here on this towertop who doesn’t look back at yesterday and think about how much it sucked.  Sure.  I might dwell in dark recesses of humanity today, but maybe I get to enjoy a certain girl’s more pleasant-”

“Ahem,” Paige cut in.

“-tomorrow,” Peter said.  “Even if it’s not for ourselves, necessarily, we’re all looking forward.  Bumps in the road or no, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think there was something better in general, later on.  Right?”

“Right,” Mags said.

Paige was nodding, as was Green Eyes.

“Damn straight,” I said.

The Barber looked us all over with a level gaze.

His eyes met mine.

I reaffirmed my grip on the Hyena.

Was this where he uttered a command to Faysal?  Or threw the shears to close the distance?  We’d answered his challenge, so to speak.

“You know, don’t you?” he asked, the question abrupt.

Know?

“When all’s said and done, the Abyss will spread, and it will swallow all things.  It’s the next step in humanity’s progress.  Left untouched, things will advance, progress and change until they tumble over a cliff.  That is what waits for humanity as a whole, in the interim.  The things you call demons wait beyond even that point.”

“That was about the sense I had of things,” I said, reminded of why I’d suggested that Rose take a bogeyman as part of the group.  Take Green Eyes.

“Then-”

“It’s fine,” I cut him off.  My own gaze was just as level as his.  “I’m not worried.  We’ll find a way to make it work.  I’ve gone out of my way to reject tradition, the ties of the past that bind us.  Why the hell would I let anyone dictate the particulars of the future?”

“Why indeed?” the Barber asked.  “The practitioner you’re currently possessing would do well to keep that in mind, when she considers how faithful you are to the promise you made her.”

I felt Rose react.  A sharp movement, too fast and violent, as she did the equivalent of snapping her head around, paying full attention.  It tore something.  Created a schism.

I tried to open my mouth to protest, but there was a disconnect between the parts of this face that were mine, and the parts that were Rose’s.

I’d left him an opening.  He took it.

He was backing up.  He snapped his fingers, and he pointed with the shears, a sweeping gesture.

The dragon roused.  Suddenly alert, hostile.

I could see the energy building up deep within its body, flowing and flaring at points along the length of its torso, around lungs, up the neck, toward the mouth.

Mags was throwing a piece of paper.  Paige, Peter and Green Eyes were ducking toward the stairwell.

I tried to follow suit, and I felt the disconnect between my wishes and the body’s actions.  The damage done with that pique of doubt on Rose’s part slowed me down, and I knew it was enough of a break that I wouldn’t be able to get to the stairwell.  Couldn’t run back to try and use the pillars or railings that ringed the tower top, and didn’t trust them besides.

The Barber’s dark gaze didn’t break, as he faced me down, the energy crackling and spitting out to fill the ‘v’ shaped gap between the two halves of the dragon’s head.

A pillar rose out of the middle of the rooftop, just behind him.

Control over his demesne.

The only option that remained.

It’s because I believe in changing destiny that I’m walking this road, damn you!

Rose got the message, processed it, and seemed to realize she was holding me back.  I had control again.  I rushed in his direction, Hyena in hand, as the fire reached the dragon’s bisected mouth.

Two focused streams, one to my left, one to my right, the space between them filling with swirling, erratic gouts and curls of superheated flame.

The only piece of cover available was the one the Barber had given himself.  With no other choice, I was heading straight for the Barber, even as the flame closed in to my left and right.

I swung the Hyena, because there was no other choice, here.  Too close in proximity, and this scant amount of cover from the flames wasn’t enough to be shared.

The shears caught the Hyena.  Almost immediately, I realized that I wasn’t strong enough.  He twisted the weapon, and twisted me over to one side, at the same time.

Forcing me in the direction of the flames.

My grip was only a one-handed one, my weapon a broken one, while his grip was two-handed, the individual blades each as long as my forearm.

I was losing this contest of strength, perilously close to the fire that now formed a skewed ring around the tower’s roof, curving with the pillars and railing to flow behind me, simultaneously blazing to my left and right.

Still, a one-handed grip meant I had one hand free.  My own grip on my weapon was enhanced by the spikes.  Still holding the Hyena, I twisted around, my back to the Barber, and moved to his left, driving my elbow back and toward his elbow.

I hit his upper arm instead.  The shears were jarred, the blades closed, and the Hyena was forced out the upper end.

Our weapons no longer pressing against one another, I was given an opening, while simultaneously threatened by the fact that the shears were right there, and I had no idea what he was about to do with them.

Someone was screaming, male but still a high pitched, ragged sort of sound.  It wasn’t me.  It wasn’t the Barber.

I dropped to one knee, anticipating that he’d thrust the shears at me, instinctively knowing I was off balance enough that if he simply threw his body at mine, he could send me stumbling into the fire.  Being low to the ground meant I was harder to move.

But he was more deliberate, careful.  He didn’t thrust blindly.  He had all the time in the world to decide where he’d put the shears.  As my knee hit rooftop, he was already poised, shears drawn back, slightly parted, thrusting them at my neck.

I swung the Hyena around, but I didn’t manage to put them in the way of the Barber’s weapon.  The shears were knocked up and to one side, instead.  They grazed cheekbone, temple, scalp, and ear, carving away wood and bone that marked my claim to that part of Rose’s face.

I cut at him, in turn, a halfhearted backhand slice at his midsection, given how I needed to move my weapon-wielding hand anyhow.  I saw the line appear, red, raw.

It closed instantly, knitting together with those black, leech-like masses.  Just as the Barber had been damaged but never actually hurt.  Never debilitated.

But, as efforts went, it perhaps made him a fraction of a percentage point less Johannes, a bit more Barber.

My damaged hand, cut by the shears earlier, went up to catch at one of his wrists.  I seized him, and he didn’t seem to care.  His eyes were elsewhere, looking over and past me.

I saw his lips move.

White light consumed him.  My hand closed over nothing.

Faysal.

The screaming I’d heard earlier was getting louder.

It was Mags, her goblin in tow.  A goblin, short, fat and wrinkled, was clad entirely in armor that looked like it had been made with some sheet metal clippers and liberal time spent in a junkyard.  It had a shield that was taller than the goblin was, and both a hunched-over Mags and the goblin were taking shelter behind it.

“Hot!” the goblin screamed.  “It’s hot!”

They reached the pillar.  The goblin positioned the shield so it added to the cover the pillar provided.

“Where is he!?” Mags shouted, over the goblin’s whining and the roar of the flames.

“Faysal moved him!”

I didn’t catch Mags’ expletive.

“Hot hot fuck me it’s hot!”

“Shut up!”

“Why didn’t you use him earlier!?” I called out.

“He’s a coward!”

“Fuck you!” the goblin retorted.

The dragon’s fire was more like napalm than a simple continuous blast of fire.  Where it moved through the air, it made for thick licks of fire.  Where it touched the rooftop, it spattered, making stone burn with all the eagerness and enthusiasm that wood or paper might.

It wasn’t stopping.

It wasn’t stopping, and I was almost certain that the Barber wouldn’t leave it at that.

He’s playing a role.  He’s trying to hold on to Johannes, avoiding doing anything that could jeopardize this claim to a demesne that he might be able to use.

What would Johannes do?

If the pillar fell, we would lose all of the cover we had.  The flames could keep coming, and we’d bake.  I’d combust, by virtue of the heat around me.  We might well suffocate before anything else.

Both were possible even if he left the pillar where it was.

But he had no reason to leave the pillar where it was.

No reason, except to keep us here, waiting for the dragon to run out of fire.

The others?

“We have to go back!” I shouted.

“Back!?”

“The others!”

Mags seemed to get it.

The goblin didn’t.

“Go!” Mags ordered.  She gave him a kick in the rear end.

He did go, and very nearly left before I could join them, with me throwing myself past the licks of accelerant-fueled fire that danced in the gap between shield and pillar.

It wasn’t a long trip to the stairs, but with my focus on the fire, the dragon, the shield, and positioning myself exceedingly carefully in the midst of it all, joining Mags and the goblin in taking a zig-zagging path, I did my utmost not to let myself burn or walk on any patches of ignited ground, I very nearly missed it.

I’d guessed wrong when it came to the Barber’s goal here.

The railing rose, the space between the top of the railing and the floor of the roof grew thicker, with curls of metal and stone filling in to become a wall.

Ringing the tower, sealing everything in.

Turning this into an oven.

Four enemies to fight.  Demon, gatekeeper, dragon, and the tower itself.

“Keep going, protect the others!” I shouted.

“What!?” Mags asked.

But I was already changing course.  Separating from her.  The intensity of the fire got worse as I stepped further from the shield-bearing goblin.

Pieces of wood at my back ignited.  One foot did as well.

I could feel Rose’s flesh sear and burn, and it was a pain unlike just about anything I’d ever felt.

But I reached the railing, staggered into it, and cut at it with the Hyena to chop at a piece of it, pushing myself through the biggest gap.

It now shielded me from the fire, giving me avenue to pause.  Hanging on with one hand, I used the Hyena to hack at myself.  Cutting away wood where it burned, too generous in how I cut, just to be sure I didn’t miss anything.  I left Rose’s foot as it was, seared by licks of the flame.

I climbed.  Up the exterior wall, onto a pillar.

The fire had stopped, and had perhaps stopped some time ago, but the flames remained intense, burning as if they consumed fire for fuel, endless, roiling, dying out in one place even as it surged in another for no apparent reason.

Looking down, I couldn’t make out the others.  They’d retreated into the stairwell, and the fire danced above them.

In the midst of the fire, I could see the Barber.  He was joined by the dragon, which moved awkwardly, its entire form and function altered by the way it had been parted.

I was twelve feet up, twenty feet away from the Barber.  Armed with only a broken sword.

We weren’t equipped to win this fight as it stood.  There were too many heavy hitters.

I stabbed the Hyena into the pillar’s top for leverage, in case he tried something.

The Barber saw me, using the Sight.  Or he sensed the offense to the demesne he sought to control.

I was ready for him to move up here.  A fight with a burning rooftop below and a fatal drop to the street on the other side.

He ignored me.  He used his shears to cut at the flame, severing it like he might paper.  A swat of the tool, another cut, and he created a path for himself, the dragon right behind.  Moving perpendicular to me, as if inviting me to come.

No, he was forcing my hand.

He was leading the dragon to the stairwell.  From there, all he had to do was fill it with fire.  The others wouldn’t be able to hold it off.  They just weren’t equipped for it.

Have to remove a threat.  Can’t do anything about the angel, the Barber is too careful…

My eye fell on the dragon.

Fuck me, I thought.  It was really my only chance.

I found myself running along the top of the wall, following the route they were traveling.  With the circular nature of the roof, we naturally converged.

I leaped, with all of my strength.  I flew, for lack of a better word.

No longer breathing fire, readying for its next blast, the dragon was focused on the stairwell, the Barber was focused on me.  I couldn’t touch him.  He’d meet my blade again, and he’d move away if he felt threatened.

I landed on the Dragon’s wing, tumbled, and only just managed to grab the dragon’s shoulder to stop myself from falling off to one side, at the base of the wall.  The fire there was only part of it.

My goal lay elsewhere.  With the leverage the grab had afforded me, I hurled myself over.  Into the v-shaped gap where the dragon’s body parted.

Into the divide the Barber had made.  With white-hot burning scales on either side of me.

I stabbed the part that looked most like a heart.

I saw the dragon wither, staggering away.

It made for a feeling of victory, however fleeting and tinged with the other danger that was moments away, but even that feeling faded fast.

As I turned, I saw that the Barber had answered my stab with a cut of his own.  He’d finished cutting the Dragon.

Now whole, its sickened and dying half killed by my sword, the Dragon rested against the wall.  Patches of flame surrounded me, and the Barber faced me, weapon at the ready.

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