“How bad?” Tyler greeted us as we reached the second floor.
“Bad bad,” Callan said.
“The sort of bad where we barricade the stairs now,” I told Ty.
“More the bad where we break out the machine guns,” Eva commented.
“You have machine guns?” I asked.
“Not here. But if we did, this would be the time to use them,” Eva said.
Ty emerged from the room where Roxanne and Kathryn were holed up, dragging a dresser. Alexis helped him.
“Alexis is an other now?” Ty asked.
“No,” Alexis said. “Running on borrowed power.”
“It’s bad, then,” Ty said.
The first arrivals had already showed up at the landing on the staircase where I’d dispatched the clock man. Too uniform in appearance to be goblins, they were half the size of an ordinary person, pale, hairless and spindly, with fingers like a spider’s legs and no noses or ears to speak of. Their mouths were wide and crowded with teeth. Their teeth and fingernails looked like they’d been collected from people who’d lost theirs. Diseased, cavity-ridden to the point I could see through some, torn, splintered, crusted with plaque or fungus…
The rest of them were so featureless that it almost suggested there was nothing to them but tooth and nail. They seemed fairly craven, shying away as Eva’s eye fell on them. Mustering up the courage as more crawled up from downstairs.
“Jesus,” Callan said, eyes going wide. “Christoff, go in with Roxanne and Kath. Tell them-”
“Don’t tell them anything,” I said.
I didn’t wait to argue or clarify the point. I descended to the landing on the stairs. Then I attacked.
I wasn’t sure what the story was with the little guys, but they weren’t fighters. I plunged into and through the water, to appear in their midst. Four seconds of action, not with any style, but raw brute strength, both hands on the Hyena, slashing at center mass.
Six to eight of them, reduced to twitching bits of gore and blood in the water.
They hadn’t put up much of a fight, but there were a good number of them, and the sheer amount of foot traffic in the hallway downstairs suggested there were more on the way. If one of the little guys got to someone like Tiff, Ty, Alexis or one of the Thorburns, I was betting they would lose the fight with the human, but from the look of those teeth and nails, the human would get sick pretty fucking fast. That wasn’t getting into the damage those mouths could do, biting out a pound of flesh.
Playing the odds. There was too much chance for someone to get distracted or for one of those little guys to slip through and do a lot of damage.
I took on the next group, my head, shoulders, and both arms emerging from the spray. Fighting them wasn’t hard, and I was pretty damn sure there was an assortment of Others lurking in the downstairs hallway. If my actions here could be savage enough to make them second guess what they were doing, all the better.
When there were too many body parts for me to have anywhere to stand, I was shunted, putting me in the hallway. Down again.
Various Others were left to back away as I continued attacking. I didn’t get tired. The incidental scratches caught wood, and very little flesh.
I didn’t feel much fear, and the fear I did experience was a disconnected kind. Distant and buried.
I didn’t feel much pain.
It was easy. Except easy was the wrong word. I was riding a wave, nourished by the reaction I was getting from the Others, using that to push forward.
In the midst of entering and exiting the water, I was getting glimpses of my surroundings. I couldn’t even be sure, in the midst of spray and moving bodies and the tactile part of it, blade dragging a ragged arc through something that wasn’t flesh, if I was actually getting glimpses of what was happening around me, while I was in the real world. I felt like I was lasting longer before my footing eventually crumbled.
I caught myself wondering if this was the way out. If somehow I could just push myself far enough and hard enough, and somehow emerge.
Then something else caught me. Two hands seized my wrists.
I had a full ‘say-Mississippi’ second to recall what I’d glimpsed in the hallway as I hung there, blind, my wrists in an iron grip. This guy was big, muscled, bare chested, with scars on his chest, tiny eyes buried beneath bristling eyebrows, wild hair and mountain-man beard framing his face.
He pulled one hand away from the Hyena, then pulled my arms in opposite directions.
I felt one of his feet settle on my upper chest. Pushing my chest down while my arms were pulled up.
Pulling my arms from their socket. Wood splintered and cracked. One arm jerked as something gave, only for another thing to catch it, the broken end snared in a tangle of other bits of wood and flesh.
My footing was gone, though, and I disintegrated, disappearing from his grasp. Cast down to the basement, into darkness.
My shoulders worked on healing, the skin on my chest crawling as the tattoo moved to cover where he’d planted his foot, healing the scratches.
When my right arm healed, I used my hand to pull my other arm back into position. I waited while branches reached around, hooking into open spaces at my neck and back, like great wooden fingers finding purchase. My eyes were turned toward the first floor.
There was a lot of foot traffic. The floor of the hallway was broken up by a countless number of splashes. Twenty, thirty Others in total, now making their way up the stairs.
But, even with the hallway floor being as disrupted as it was, I could still see. There was light there. Not everywhere, but patchy.
I moved back up to the hall.
Not the floor.
There was enough blood on the one wall of the hallway to reflect me.
I lunged from the wall, going straight for the big guy.
The Hyena raked him between the shoulderblades.
He half-turned, his hand catching mine, forceful enough that specks of blood flew into the air.
I was quick to switch the Hyena to a free hand, and stabbed him through the wrist.
He, in turn, caught the Hyena, tearing the weapon from my hand.
His spare hand came down on my forearm. The spikes of the Hyena’s handle tore sideways across my palm as my hand came free, my wrist wrenching.
I was shunted.
Not to the basement this time.
Surrounded by darkness, I found myself almost drowning. Nothing to grab, nothing to breathe or touch. Swallowed by darkness.
I wasn’t inclined to feel spooked, to be afraid. I’d killed a big part of that fear in me.
But I felt a note of genuine fear as I waited, adrift in darkness.
I couldn’t tell if I was rising or falling. There was no up, down, or any of that.
I broke the surface. I found myself in the basement. I might have gasped for breath if I still needed to breathe. Instead, I felt drained. No power, no strength, I was unable to move, able to experience only dull sensations, a world of light and darkness, while I lay prone in the water.
A few more of the little toothy bastards were still crawling in through the window.
There was probably a source. They were so nearly identical that I suspected they were being poured forth by a cauldron or pushed out by some kind of injection mold. A monster-bake oven.
The spirits that had occupied my body stirred around me, hopping here and there, wings fluttering periodically.
My fingers moved under my own power, agonizingly slow, bones grating against one another, as my fist clenched. Dead branches fell away.
A piecemeal hand, like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. My left hand was worse off, with a gaping wound in the meat between index finger and thumb. The fingertips were shredded.
It was me, minus the help of the spirits.
A spirit-bird hopped around, not quite real, a sketch brought to life. It cocked its head, looking down at me.
“Didn’t like that either?” I asked. It was my voice, reedy and weak.
It cocked its head the other way.
“You know I’m your best bet,” I said. “You want to be big? You want to grow up to be a badass spirit? Hitch a ride.”
One by one, they found the openings. The parts of me where the branches stuck out and there was no more flesh beneath. They wormed their way inside.
My body returned to normal piece by piece. Three fingers, then the forearm, then the shoulder, and finally the rest of my arm. All of me, coming back bit by bit. The wood grew back, the tattoos finding purchase on my skin.
I pulled myself to my feet.
The Drains are reminding me that they can take me back.
Or something else? Outside interference?
The bastard mountain-man had my sword.
I returned upstairs, bypassing the second floor.
The little toothy bastards were climbing over the barricade – a dresser and two chairs piled against the stairs. Eva was dealing with them much as I had. Almost effortlessly.
“There’s a big-” I started.
Eva reacted instantly, slamming her foot in my direction before she’d even turned to see what I was doing.
Sending me back into the great nothingness beneath the basement.
This time, it took nearly a minute for me to surface.
Leaving me lying in the reflection in the basement, the spirits having largely abandoned ship yet again.
“Note to self,” I muttered. “Don’t spook the witch hunter.”
The birds stared at me. One fluttered up to the highest point of my head, perching in my hair.
“We’re all in this together, guys,” I said.
They returned to the interior of my body.
Once again, I pulled myself together.
Swearing under my breath, I headed back upstairs.
Alexis, Ty, Peter, and Callan were all at the base of the barricade, trying to hold it there, while Eva was perched on top, a curtain rod with a broken end held in one hand, spearing down with short, rapid strikes, machete in the other hand, held high. She raised one foot as a large hand swiped at her, the Hyena’s blade narrowly missing her leg.
I looked to the landing of the stairs, but there was too much foot traffic for the ground to serve.
The wall… the press of bodies had smeared much of the blood away.
But not all.
I emerged, grabbing one of the weedy little tooth-and-claw creatures by the throat, and struggled forward, shaking off others as they scratched and bit me. My focus was on the mountain man.
Still holding the toothy motherfucker, I slammed it mouth-first into the space where the mountain man’s thigh met his buttock. Teeth sank into muscle that stood out like steel cable, and the force of the hit dislocated the little guy’s jaw.
The rest were clustering on me, each no more than twenty pounds, but there were enough of them that I was weighed down.
I let myself fall, moving out to the nearest reflection. The creatures fell away as I disappeared.
I was back in the hallway.
The big guy had eased up, and the group was slowly gaining ground, Eva standing on the railing with one foot, her hand braced against the wall. Suspended above the staircase, she stabbed down at the big guy, and the curtain rod came back with one end slick with blood. I could hear the mountain man roar.
She dropped back onto the toppled dresser to add her weight to it. The mountain man’s hand settled on the edge as he tried to find leverage, and she chopped at it with the machete. Nothing severed, but his hand disappeared.
The entire dresser jerked as the Other bodily threw himself into it.
A drawer slid open, long spidery fingers tipped with horrendous looking fingernails grasping the edges as one of the bald toothy things began to worm its way through, entering by some hole in the back face of the dresser and passing through the half-open drawer, between Ty and Tiff.
Ty tried to shut the drawer, but all of his focus was on maintaining traction on the wet floor, one foot on the doorframe of the bathroom, the other on the ground, shoulders and one hand against the dresser. He didn’t have the leverage.
The little thing came out, teeth gnashing, and Ty opted to roll away rather than get bitten.
Without Ty’s efforts helping to keep the dresser in place, the mountain man managed to push it back. Eva hopped back to the floor to try to cover for Ty’s portion, but momentum was momentum, and the wet floor let it coast.
Around the time everyone collectively abandoned their efforts to hold the barricade together, the mountain man grabbed the dresser with one hand and hurled it. It flipped end over end, clipping Tiff and Eva both, before crashing onto the floor in two pieces.
A dozen of the spindly little tooth freaks, and a trio of other Others were in the stairwell now, the mountain man in the lead, blood pouring from one destroyed eyeball, and a gash on his cheekbone. The trio were composed of a nigh-identical brother-sister pair, dark haired, expressions grim, glaring, as they ascended the stairs. Teenagers, he wore shorts, she wore a skirt, her polo shirt had lace at the collar and sleeves, her hair long at the back, but they were otherwise the same. Same severe bangs, same expression, same exact rocking of their bodies from side to side as they picked their way around the spindly things and made their way up the stairs.
The one behind them was a robot, it seemed. I didn’t get a very good look.
Callan ducked into the room with Roxanne, Kathy, and Christoff. I could see Christoff peering through the ajar door before the mountain man stepped forward. Callan appeared, a flash of his face, and the door slammed.
“Eva,” Ty said.
She glanced back. Ty held out a set of nails with what looked like gift tags attached to the ends with string. I couldn’t make out the letters on the tags, but they didn’t look like English.
“They work?” she asked.
All the same, she flipped the machete over, gripped the handle in her teeth, and took the nails. The tags fluttered.
“Confined quarters,” Alexis commented. She was supporting Tiff, who’d toppled when the dresser went flying. “Hard to fight.”
The big guy moved, swinging the Hyena, which looked ludicrously small in his grip. Eva blocked it with the curtain rod, and the rod lost in the exchange.
He lunged, swinging his fist with the Hyena clasped within it, and Eva tossed the remains of the curtain rod down.
The mountain man’s foot came down right on the rod and flattened the end. Solid metal, by the look of it.
“Harder for him than for me,” Eva commented, as she moved the machete to her free hand. “Don’t presume to know anything about fighting.”
“Whatever,” Alexis said. “It doesn’t look like you’re winning, and our escape route is behind him.”
“Or through the window,” Eva said. “Sloped roof, snow…”
“I put a diagram on the window,” Ty said. “There’s stuff out there.”
“Of course there is,” Eva said. “But maybe that stuff is easier to deal with than this stuff.”
“The diagram, that the crucified bat thing?” I asked.
“Yeah. I figured like repels like, so… what better to scare off the gargoyle-bats than a dead gargoyle bat? I was improvising.”
“I don’t see any gargoyle-bats,” Tiff said. “Maybe it worked.”
The mountain man bent down and picked up the curtain rod. He bit down on the flattened end, tearing away excess metal.
The solid metal rod ended in a crude point.
“Brilliant,” Peter said. “You armed him.”
“He was supposed to slip,” Eva said. “S.O.P. against giants and brutes, take away their footing. But nooo, fuck physics, he gets to break the rules.”
The mountain man stabbed with the spear, and Eva parried. She resumed her previous position, body turned sideways, machete extended, nails held between her fingers in the hand behind her. The mountain man barely moved at all. He didn’t need a fighting posture. He was tall enough to hit his head on the ceiling if he jumped a little, and wide enough that he could touch both walls of the hallway without difficulty. It wasn’t a narrow hallway. When the family had met for the inheritance, everyone had been gathered in here, sometimes three across, without feeling like any personal space was being violated.
He stabbed again, a movement of the arm, without his body or footing changing. Eva threw herself to the side, forearm pressing against the blunt edge of the blade for a little extra leverage.
He brought the Hyena down. Almost face to face with him, she deflected the swing with her forearm and elbow, forcing the arm down to the side.
Even as a deflection rather than a block, the impact sent her down, off balance. She stopped herself from falling flat on the ground by stabbing the machete through his foot to the floor.
Still in a crouching position, machete-wielding arm extended in front of her, she punched the nails into the softer part of his stomach.
Unarmed, she threw herself back, accepting Ty’s offered hand in getting to her feet.
The mountain man stared down at his impaled foot. He raised it a half foot, sliding it up and down the machete’s blade. He raised it as high as it would go before reaching the handle, then angled his foot and brought it down. The metal snapped and broke underfoot. He scraped his foot back and forth, doing more damage in the process, until the metal fragments fell loose from his foot.
He faced down an unarmed Eva.
“Those tags-” she started.
“-Were supposed to do something by now,” Ty said. “Sorry.”
Eva turned her head and spat, shaking her arm, as if trying to relieve herself of pins and needles.
The big guy swung the Hyena. Eva leaned back out of the way, then shook her arm again.
She, and we collectively retreated. Odd as it was, even in the mirrorverse, I was limited to the more undisturbed reflections, and when everyone was packed into the hallway like this, I was just as pressed for space as they were.
I didn’t feel eager to jump into the fray and get cast down again. I’d pressed it too far earlier. I didn’t like the look of those twins.
The robot stood behind them. A man, prim and proper, with ken-doll hair all in one solid piece. Gears turned visibly at his joints.
I could see Eva open and close her fist.
“That scar earlier…” I said. “From the faceless woman.”
“Hurts like a motherfuck.”
“The nerves, though. You were moving your hand funny,” I commented.
“Still am. Like playing a fucking video game with all the buttons mapped wrong. You can do it, but it sucks. Instead of A, B, C, D, it’s A, Z, Q, F. You adapt.”
“Not that fast,” Alexis said.
“I adapt then,” Eva said, moving a little forward, then back, as if gauging the mountain man’s willingness to react. “Shut up and let me focus on the fighting?”
I scanned the area.
The door was ajar. Was she observing?
“Green, on three,” I said.
“Go fuck yourself. I’m doing this my way,” Eva said.
“Two,” I said.
The mountain man lunged, sticking the curtain rod out. Eva stepped aside. He simply moved his hand to the right, and swept her into the wall with enough force to make a thud.
I advanced. Through the reflection, out of the water to break the surface. “Three!”
I’d made sure to step out before I urged Green Eyes to come out. Her body disturbed the shallow pool of water even more. Before, I’d had seconds to act before I was shunted. Cast aside. Forcibly relocated. Now I was far less willing to be moved, because I knew I’d get moved down. Each time, a little deeper, a little slower to recover.
If I’d had four or five seconds before, I now had three and a half. That last half-second had to be dedicated to moving myself to the nearest reflection. I couldn’t take chances.
Going for the weapon type I was most familiar with, I grabbed the broken machete’s handle. I sliced the mountain man’s calf.
He turned to look for the attacker, and Eva struck out, kicking in the general area where the nails had embedded his stomach, retaking his attention.
I moved, putting myself between the automaton and the twins. The gangly little biters retreated from me, apparently content to let the big guys do the fighting.
The female twin looked my way. The male was focused on Green Eyes, who was on her belly, emerging from the bathroom, elbows bent, hands planted on the ground. The mountain man was tall enough to obscure the light, and the hallway was gloomy. Her eyes glowed faintly in the dimmer light.
Green Eyes lunged. Pouncing by virtue of her forearm strength alone, mouth yawning wider than it had a right to. I followed suit going after the female of the twins.
The male twin caught Green Eyes, staggering backward with her weight and momentum, and her teeth slammed shut an inch from his nose.
The female of the twins backed away a step. Almost casually, she drew a knife from each sleeve and stabbed Green Eyes twice, a one-two motion, once in the body, once at the face.
Green Eyes moved fast enough that the knife aimed at her face only grazed her temple, the cut disappearing into her pale hairline.
Already, the male twin was twisting. Moving to deal with me. I’d gone after his counterpart, and she’d retreated. Now he turned on me. I caught a glimpse of the broken bit of metal in his hand. A bit of the machete that had probably flown off.
I blocked the thrust as best as I could with my arm, but rather than try to stay and wrestle, risking losing my footing and falling, I turned to move to the nearest reflection, heading into the bathroom. He used the opportunity to land a grazing hit on actual flesh at my back.
I had so little to spare.
I returned to the hallway to see Green Eyes fighting the female twin, while the male defended his sister, striking at her. Not deep wounds, but a knife wound was a knife wound. I saw flesh part, already pulled tight against Green Eyes’ skeletal frame, and it was eager to separate. Blood flowed, dark, and bone gleamed, exposed so easily.
“Stop, Green!” I said.
She twisted around, tail swinging like a bludgeon. When it got caught between herself and the male twin, she thrust out. Pushing herself and him away. The female twin struck at the fan of her tail fin with the knife, cutting at the webbing.
The twins settled back in a fighting posture. For them, it was hands at their sides. The female twin faced me, her back to Green Eyes. The male twin faced Green Eyes, his back to me.
Their postures mirrored one another exactly.
Go for one, they only defend, or dodge, and their counterpart attacks.
Even working with Green Eyes, there was a fraction of a second’s difference in timing, and the twins could use that.
Behind the automaton, another group of Others gathered. The small toothy motherfuckers were heading upstairs, climbing up the railing to head for Ellie, Andy, and Evan.
“Those tiny fuckers!” I shouted.
Eva spoke without taking her eyes off the mountain man. “Homonculi from Sandra’s extended circle. Anyone who loses a fight to one deserves to die.”
“They’re going upstairs.”
“The moment my brother dies, I’m coming after you,” she said. “Every one of you, and I break-”
She grunted as the mountain man swung at her.
“-your arms and legs and I’ll take bids on which other can do the most horrible thing to each-”
I tuned her out. I had other things to focus on.
The male twin drew a knife and handed it to his sister. She didn’t even look as she accepted it.
One organism. Operating in perfect sync.
“I wanted to do better,” Green Eyes said, panting.
“You’re doing fine,” I said. I eyed the spot of exposed rib at her side, the knife wound in her stomach, and the bit of her skull that I could see beside her eye. The skin had split like stretched saran wrap, and the edges of the wounds were oozing. “Except those cuts, they look ugly.”
She made a face, like she was genuinely hurt on an emotional level.
“You know what I mean,” I said.
She managed to smile a bit, her white teeth flashing whiter without the veiny translucent skin covering them. “I know.”
The automaton behind me was advancing. I had very little space to work with between it and the twins.
I saw some Others make use of the room to head upstairs.
Third floor lost. I could only pray that Evan and Ellie were doing okay.
Going down the hall, we had my friends and Peter at one end of the hall, then Eva, the mountain man, Green Eyes, the twins, me, and then the crowd of Others ascending the stairs, in that order. Off to the left of the twins was the bedroom with the rest of the Thorburns.
If the twins stopped focusing on Green Eyes and me, they could easily head right into the bedroom with the gathered Thorburns.
We were alternating enemy and ally, here. One-on-one, we were losing.
Meaning someone had to take the fall.
“Take the big guy!” I shouted.
She didn’t hesitate, going after the mountain man’s exposed back. She leaped, the fingertips on one hand finding purchase on his back, the other hand on the wall for leverage. Her scaled tail wrapped around one side of his body, and the individual scales were barbed. When she moved her tail around to the other side of his body for more leverage, she took strips of skin with it.
Her fins flared, the spines standing out, two or three scraping through the flesh like so many knives, and she sank her needle-teeth into the base of his neck, where his spine met his shoulders.
But while she was busy with him, I was left to deal with the twins.
One organism. Not joined by any physical connection, but something else altogether. Four arms, four legs, two heads and two bodies. Four knives, now that they’d fully armed themselves. They were quick, and they were brutal. Every time I saw an opening, I’d attempt to exploit it and achieve nothing, except opening myself up for an attack to one flank.
Recovering, changing to the nearest reflection, closer to Green Eyes, I decided to change tacks. Not going for the opening, but attacking straight on. Attack the attacker, not the vulnerable one. The old plan was turning out so badly, this had to be better.
One knife pierced right through my right hand, arresting the forward movement and causing me to drop the broken machete. Her other knife found the left side of my throat.
My free hand reached out, trying to grab her, to stop her.
Her brother impaled my left hand. His knife found the right side of my throat.
New plan, worse than the old plan.
Their arms limbs crossed one another like it was the most natural thing in the world.
The two of them smiled in unison. Their heads both tilted as they met each other’s eyes, two siblings that shared a secret.
I couldn’t stay.
I tore free, not giving a damn about the damage to my hand or my throat.
I thought about Eva’s fight with the revenant. Just so long as I didn’t behead myself.
Recoiling, front of my throat torn out, mending slower than my hands, I stumbled back, and found myself in the mirror that Alexis wore.
Oh man, I felt weaker than I had before. Only so much energy to spare on mending myself. I was drawing from a reserve with a limit.
“Blake?” she asked.
I couldn’t respond.
Ty leaned forward, peering into the mirror. “Yeah, that’s Blake.”
“Doing okay, Blake?”
I didn’t, couldn’t respond.
“No, I think,” Ty said.
Ahead of us, Green Eyes was crawling out of the way of the mountain man’s reaching hands, slithering this way and that, dragging barbed scales through his skin as she went. Tracks of sliced and flayed skin marked his back, shoulders and arms. She bit into his shoulder.
He turned, reaching for her, and in the doing, he put weight on the one leg I’d wounded earlier. His leg buckled a little. Green Eyes swept her tail across his arm, cutting him.
Eva kicked him, full-strength, three times in the side. He lost a little more ground.
But the twins were advancing, going for Green Eyes.
The whole plan with ganging up went both ways.
Back to the fray, because my friends wouldn’t recover like I could. My throat and hands had partially healed, and that would have to do.
I’d reveled in frenzy earlier, now the shoe was on the other foot. From the moment I appeared, I was back on the defensive. The twins were acting in concert, cutting at me, brother slashing, then sister, then brother, each cut or thrust coming within a tenth of a second of the last. It was all I could do to deflect the lightest blows with my arms and keep stepping back out of the way of the rest.
I retreated, moving to a new reflection.
Which meant I hadn’t accomplished a thing. They were still advancing on Green Eyes.
Think like a practitioner, I thought.
What were they? Damned if I knew. I wasn’t a hundred percent willing to slap the bogeyman label on them, but I wasn’t ruling it out either.
Simpler line of thinking, then.
One word, to sum it up.
Connection, finesse. They were bound to one another.
I moved to the fallen, shattered dresser, and reached through the water’s surface for the one drawer that stuck out the most. There was hardly anything in it.
With a two-handed grip, spinning, I hurled the thing at the twin’s backs with all the strength my body could manage.
They’d heard something, because they both turned, then flung themselves to either side of the hallway.
But the drawer hadn’t sailed down the middle of the hallway. The brother moved to the left, the sister to the right, but the hurled drawer struck the brother in the shoulder.
I didn’t get to see all of the aftermath. I was forced to move back.
I saw the clockwork automaton move, and dodged to one side.
Its fist punched through the floor.
I heard an audible click, a k-chunk, as if the thing was changing gears, and it straightened. Water flowed into the hole in the floorboards as it took a step forward.
Papers flew through the air, around the mountain man, past the twins.
The automaton retreated, arms raised, as if it was something more than paper.
Looking back, I saw Ty, one hand raised with a stack of paper on it. He did the ‘make it rain’ effect, slapping it to send the papers flying forward, and each one soared like a paper airplane.
Several others retreated downstairs.
It bought me time to deal with the twins.
The pair had turned around to face me, shielded from the flying paper by the mountain man’s bulk, their facial expressions and body language were identical. Solemn, frowning, and yet somehow conveying a great deal of displeasure with me. I’d actually hurt them.
Then, acting out of sync, the brother turned his head to look at his sister. She continued facing me.
She sheathed a knife, then used the one existing knife to cut her shirt. She rasped her arm with the side of the blade with three quick motions, until it started bleeding. She caught one drop of blood with the blade, then flicked the knife out, casting it aside.
Only when she was done did she draw her knife.
When I looked at him, I saw where the corner of the drawer had clipped him.
Torn shirt, light scrape.
The trickles of blood on each arm matched.
They broke into runs, heading my way.
Well, I wasn’t above using the same strategy twice.
I gripped and hurled another drawer.
It was heavier, with some contents, and in trying to compensate for it, I threw it too high. The twins stepped away, to either side of the hall.
It hit the mountain man, further down the hall. He had to shift his footing, and the clothing fell out to disturb his footing, but that was all the damage it did. Eva was on the assault, and gory wounds marked his back. Green Eyes dragged clawed fingertips through the gore with far too much ease. The mountain man’s muscle broke away with a weird stringy quality, like the contents of a spaghetti squash.
Before the twins reached me, I moved across reflections. Toward the mountain man.
The twins had reversed direction to face me by the time I’d emerged. I grabbed the drawer I’d just thrown. They came after me.
A blunt, blind, wild swing to the side, much like the reckless way I’d thrown it.
Crudity to match finesse.
The sister caught the drawer before it could hit her head. Her sibling lunged to capitalize on my shifted focus.
I ignored the lunge, the stabs to my side, and I pressed the attack. I charged, pushing forward, using raw strength to just ram her back. Her brother shifted his stance, skipping back with rapid steps to match.
Pushing the girl at a diagonal, I knocked her into the wall. When she stopped, fairly abruptly, the corner of the drawer hit the corner of her eyebrow, near the bridge of her nose.
Wait for it…
The brother drew his knife.
He struck himself with the hilt.
My eye flickered over to his sister. She was watching him.
But she had a fleck of blood.
I was almost too late. He brought the knife up, point moving to the injury-
I brought the drawer up, helping him along with a quick bludgeon. Hitting the butt end of the knife.
When I lowered the drawer, the knife was stuck through his eye socket, just above his eyeball.
The one time they’re out of sync.
The sister watched her brother wobble, then collapse.
Long seconds passed.
Like lightning, she slammed her own knife into her eye socket.
When she collapsed, dead her body was a parallel to her brother’s. Their arms crossed in the middle of the hallway.
When I turned to look, the mountain man had fallen. His head was charred, like it had been burned, while his wounds bubbled like someone had poured hydrogen peroxide on them. My friends had done the former, I was guessing, while the latter had to do with Green Eyes. In the midst of it, her body slick with foamy gore, Green Eyes had her teeth around his spine, pulling it free from the bloody ruin of his back, arms straining to help her pull it up and away.
Eva stabbed the broken curtain rod between body and spine, then leveraged it to one side until the spine broke.
“Here,” Tiff said. She grabbed the Hyena, holding the pommel with two fingers so she wouldn’t impale her hand on spikes, and tossed it in my general direction.
I reached through the water, only to grab it. My hand barely made a ripple.
Green Eyes smiled as she saw me. There was gore between her teeth. “We did it!”
I wasn’t able to muster the same enthusiasm.
There were an awful lot of Others at the end of the hall. The automaton, one skeleton with what looked like praying mantis arms made of bone, swaddled in cloth, and one very large, very fat goblin. Some were still migrating upstairs. Others were hanging back, focused on us.
“Upstairs,” I said. “They got upstairs.”
I could see my friends behind Eva, shifting position, as if ready to retaliate against her.
But Eva didn’t do anything.
Thing was, when she did decide to do something, she’d do it in a flash, and one of my friends would be dead.
A chunk of the mountain man broke away, the surrounding flesh dissolving.
“We’re fighting our way through, then.” Eva asked, her eye on the end of the hall. “We’ll need something that hits a hell of a lot harder.”
“We don’t have-”
“We’ll need something,” she said, raising her voice.
It wasn’t an option. If we said no, if we gave up on the chance that somehow Ellie and Evan were holding out against the same caliber and quantity of Others that we’d just barely managed to fight, then she had no reason to keep cooperating with us.
She was going to save her brother. No question.
Her and her brother. The twins I’d just dealt with…
Why couldn’t I have that kind of relationship with Rose? I mused.
Then I thought about how the twins had gone down together. How the witch hunter so willing to go down fighting if it meant helping Andy.
“Something,” I said. “I don’t suppose anyone has the key to the library?”
“Yeah,” Alexis said.
“We’ll need elbow room,” I said.
“I can help,” Ty said. He held up the stack of papers. “Did these a bit ago.”
“Command words. Ofuda. A Japanese style of practitioning. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I went down the list and copied out words. Figured it’d be better to get a virtually guaranteed one or two out of the deck right than risk getting none or all.”
“Don’t suppose you have any paper?” Alexis asked. “I wouldn’t mind something to write on.”
Ty reached into a pocket and handed some over. “Go for it. Runes work, but you really need to frame it, so the paper is the diagram and contact with anything but the ends or the edges releases the word. Runes will just go off right away, indiscriminate.”
“I’m… just going to do regular runes. How do you throw it?”
“The spirits carry it forward. They’ll find the right target. Path of least resistance.”
“Right,” Alexis said.
The press of bodies made one or two Others advance a bit, flanking the automaton. The bone mantis and a fat man who looked like some schlub off the street, but with eerie dead eyes. I took one look at him and thought Gacy.
They were dangerously close to the bedroom with the Thorburns inside.
Green Eyes, Eva and I moved forward, ready to confront the mass. At our approach, they retreated.
Still had to get the Thorburns out of the bedroom.
I was so not looking forward to another skirmish so soon after the last.
“Uh, no,” Ty said, behind me. “If you write fire, and fire takes the path of least resistance in a wooden house with wooden walls, what’s going to happen?”
“You sure like fire,” Tiff said.
“Fire works,” Alexis said.
“Gotta love fire,” Eva said. “Hey, that reminds me. Horrible fates awaiting you guys if my brother’s dead? Fire’s a good one. Fire hurts. One of the worst ways to die, frankly.”
“Actually, you don’t die by burning when you die in a fire,” Tiff said. “You suffocate from the smoke.”
“I won’t let you suffocate,” Eva replied, very matter-of-factly.
I believed her.
“Better,” Ty told Alexis.
“Good enough better?” I asked.
The next few seconds were basically what I’d done against the twins, only en-masse. We charged the front group, Ty and Alexis flinging papers. It was chaos, and in the midst of it, I alternately felt like I was doing it all and I was barely contributing.
But Ty got the door open.
“Roxanne, Kathy, Christoff, close your eyes! Follow Ty! Hold his hand!”
I didn’t get a chance to see what they were doing.
I only fought. Brutal, savage, stupid fighting, where I seemingly took as many hits as I delivered. No strategy, no tactics.
One praying mantis limb punched through the center mass of my body.
I pulled free, feeling the numb coldness sweep through me. Some kind of poison.
But very little of me was flesh, still.
“Come!” I heard the voice, distant.
Green Eyes and Eva pushed out, then retreated. I kept fighting, pushing forward, retreating, waiting for reflections to clear up, using the blood on the walls.
Not hard, the hallway was practically coated in blood.
Then I returned to the mirror in the library.
All the Thorburns gathered, my friends, and Eva. Evan was perched on the upper floor, by Andy’s body. Ellie was slumped over. Evan had let them in. Cracked the lock.
They’d tried to shut the doors behind them.
The clockwork automaton was there. The Behaim’s work, no doubt, and its hands were keeping the door from shutting all the way.
Holding the door open a crack.
“Andy,” I heard Eva.
She was already climbing the ladder.
“Stop her!” I called out, but it was futile.
She’d reached her brother’s side.
I couldn’t attack him.
We had no leverage on the witch hunters, now. Maybe we could have managed it if we could threaten her with all of our concerted efforts, but we couldn’t.
The witch hunters were the least of our problems, with the Thorburns gathered in the diabolist library, and monsters at the gates.