Category Archives: 12.05

Duress 12.5

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The holes in the bookshelf were widening as claws and weapons pierced the wood.  With each thrust, each chunk that was torn away, there were books that fell from the shelves, the railing and ladder-stairs popped and creaked as metal strained.

“Should that be happening?” Peter asked, looking around.

“The doors have only held up this long because they’re part of a distortion in reality,” Tiff said.  She was drawing in chalk on and around the bookshelf, while Ty was drawing on the floor.  Alexis had a book open.

“I’m asking again, should that be happening?

“In an ideal world?  No,” Tiff said, her attention on the diagram she was drawing out.

I could recognize bits and pieces here and there.  I recognized one of the symbols in the dead center, writ large, as an elemental ward, one of the more elementary ones we’d learned from Fundamentals.  Not containing, but pointed outward, with fractal-like lines extending out from the four points of the diamond.

Ty, on the other hand, was drawing a diagram on the floor.  The diagram was more of a wheel or Ouroboros.  The snake eating its own tail, the diagram fed into itself.  Not facing outward, not facing in.

“A gate,” I observed.

“I’m hoping so,” he said.  “Alexis?”

“We need to sacrifice something of value, destroy it irrevocably, and say a few words.”

“Define ‘value’,” Peter said.

“If you have to ask, it’s probably not valuable enough,” Alexis said.

“I’m starting to hate this whole thing,” Peter said.  “Karma, which apparently means you can’t lie, but when you want details, you can’t get a damn straight answer either.”

“You’ve basically summed up the last few weeks of my life,” I said.

“That’s reality,” Ellie said.  “Everyone tells you to do this, do that, there are rules and they fuck you in the ass if you obey them, and if you don’t obey them, then they fuck you in the ass.”

“There’s a lot of ass-fucking going on in your worldview, huh?” Peter asked.

“Fuck you,” she said.

“I think,” Tiff said, “that just like real life, you can be kind, honest, and decent, and it’s something that helps you, even if it’s in subtle ways.”

“Says Tiffany,” Ellie said, “Happy go lucky, smile and it’ll all be alright!”

“Shut up,” Alexis said, looking up from her book.  “You don’t know anything.”

“I know that I got dealt a bad hand.  Shitty family, get diagnosed with a learning disorder finally, and it all makes sense.  But it’s when I’ve already decided to drop out.  But oh, hey, mom and dad didn’t notice I had problems because they were too busy divorcing.  I drop out, dad mostly disowns me, mom helps me get by only if I do favors for her.  I figured it all out pretty damn quickly, how everything works.  If I want something, I have to deal with others to get it, and everyone I deal with wants to take advantage.  The only way I’ve figured I can make it is if I lose well, or if I don’t play their fucking game.  Be a good little loser.  But oh, hey, if I’d actually just smiled and been a good girl, it’d all have worked out fine.”

The sarcasm was thick with that last line.

“I’m not getting into this,” Tiff said, hunched over her diagram.  Alexis came to her side, book in one hand, a wooden box in the other.  Tiff took the wooden box and set it on a shelf, as part of the diagram.

That Tiff was hearing Ellie at all was kind of amazing, considering the variety of claws and other limbs that were starting to reach through the holes that had been opened in the door.

“You’re not getting into it because you admit what you said is stupid?”

“Ellie,” Alexis snapped, “Shut up.”

“I can speak for myself, Alexis.  Ellie, I’m not interested in discussing it,” Tiff said, her voice tense, “because I think you’re wrong.  You guys don’t have a monopoly on shitty families, and you don’t have a monopoly on shitty circumstances.  My family’s personalities were worse, I’m pretty sure my upbringing sucked more than yours, and I still believe what I believe.  Keep your chin up and persevere and there is a way through all this.”

“Your family was worse?  How?”

“Their personalities were.  If you go outside just personalities, you get the whole ‘dark magic’ thing going on in the background, and yeah, your family wins.  But for personality, a lack of basic human decency, my family trumps yours.  They weren’t fancy or complex or even varied in their horribleness, but they were bad, and bad enough that I’m not interested in discussing it or elaborating.”

Ellie opened her mouth to answer that, but the death glares from a few others and an increase in the intensity of the pounding on the doors kept her from actually speaking.

“Valuable thing,” Alexis said.

Ellie reached into her vest pocket and pulled out a trinket.  There was a woman’s face cut in ivory, against a tarnished silver background.  It swung on a silver chain.

“I thought I stopped you from looting the house,” I said.  “I didn’t see you pocket that one.”

“That was you?”

Alexis took the brooch.  “Works.”

The brooch was placed in the center of the gate.

The scratching and pounding had stopped.

There was only silence outside.  No growling, no footsteps or splashes, no laborious destruction of the wall.

It was not a good silence.

“Hurry,” Christoff said.

“Having the thing isn’t enough, we need to destroy the valuable object,” Alexis said.  She still held the book.

“I don’t have a sledgehammer, sorry,” Evan commented.

As if the word sledgehammer had invoked something, a heavy mass slammed into the bookshelf doors.  Several of us stumbled.  Books all across the library fell from their shelves, and even the floorboards shifted position so they didn’t all lay flat, before they resettled into their old positions.  Approximately.

The damage to the doors had spread, every hole almost twice as big, every crack three times as long or twice as wide.

The doors wouldn’t take many more hits on that level.

“Holy shit,” Peter said.

“What was that?”

“Fuck,” Alexis said, eyes back on the diagram, “We need to annihilate this pendant now, and get out of here.  Think.

More silence from outside.

“Biggest, heaviest thing in the room?” Peter asked.  “Desk?”

Our eyes collectively fell on the old writing desk.  Old fashioned, it probably had as much overall mass as a grand piano.  I’d tried to move it alone, when Rose had trapped me in the mirror, and I’d failed.

“All together,” Alexis said.

Everyone, Eva and me excepted, gathered around the writing desk.  A collective effort to lift it-

Another slam on the door.

The cracks and holes opened further.  The mirror I was dwelling in rocked side by side violently enough that I thought it might fall over.  Peter caught it.

Metal yawned, and dust fell from the ceiling in plumes, every joint and joist, nail and screw in the room straining and popping as reality found itself at odds with the configuration of things.

I could see a figure on the far side of the doors.  Deep brown skin, eyes like  liquid gold, hips wrapped in wispy white cloth that was gossamer-fine.  Genderless.

“Djinn,” Alexis said, breathless.  “Lift.

The Djinn turned his back, walking away.  It was going to come back, most likely, and it was going to act.

Fuck.

Big and bad enough that the brainless little homunculi were afraid to approach while it was taking point.  The scariest Others that rational individuals steered clear of were steering clear of this thing.

The group waddled over toward the diagram, table held between them.

“Careful,” Alexis said, voice strained with the burden. “If we mess up the lines, we won’t get another chance.”

I knelt, my face almost pressed against the mirror.  “Left.  Alexis, Ty, swing your half left a half step…”

They moved.

If all four legs came down…

I saw Roxanne step away, more in the way than helping.  “Roxanne, move the tome to your right, put it under the back leg, furthest from the pendant.”

“Why-”

Do it!” Kathy hissed.

Roxanne did.

“A little bit right,” I directed.  I saw Roxanne back away.  Now!”

They dropped the desk, hard.  A leg that was a three-quarter foot by a three-quarter foot in solid, laminated wood came down.  With the books on the far end, the one leg came down independent of the rest.

It broke the pendant.  It also punched through abused floorboards.  As the other leg on the same end came down, it did much the same, if rather less seriously.

“Shit,” Ty said.

“It didn’t work?” Tiff asked.

“It didn’t work,” Alexis said.  “It was supposed to open up the gateway in the moment of-”

The Djinn hit the doors again.

Third time’s a charm.

The door broke.  Tiff’s ward went off.

Snow.

Even without the ability to see connections, I could make out how the sudden formation of snow followed certain patterns.  Cold air flowed into the room from outside, and where it did, snow appeared, growing in size and intensity as it did.  It followed the same general outline as the fractal pattern, causing snow to build up and spread across the shattered door, reinforcing it.

The floor continued to crack and break, something giving way.

The writing desk had punched a hole in the floor, and the hole widened as the pressure of the desk’s weight overwhelmed the integrity of the floor.  The desk went onto its side, and then down.

It seemed the pendant wasn’t an acceptable valuable object, but the writing desk served.

I hoped there wasn’t anything too valuable in the drawers, because we weren’t getting it back.

Not from there.  The space below was hostile.

“Oh god,” Green Eyes said.

She recognized it too.

Not the Drains.  But not the house either.

Some other part of the Abyss.

The Djinn had disappeared as the snow had appeared.  Maybe it didn’t like cold.  Maybe it had done its task and decided to go.  But other Others were now making their way forward, some having more difficulty than others against the miniature snowstorm.

Eva was making her way down the ladder, her brother’s wrists bound together, his arms wrapped around her shoulders.  Strong as she was, she was struggling with the burden.

I hated to say it, but if she was going there with that sort of burden, it would probably kill her.  I’d hoped to have time to hammer out the rules, to give them some idea of what to anticipate, and how to prepare themselves.

“Grab what you need and go!” I shouted.

I moved to the mirror Alexis was wearing.

We descended together, as Alexis leaped to the nearest available platform.

If I’d had time to warn them, I would have told them not to trust any footing.

It gave way.

The fall was, as falls went, pretty damn rough.

I managed to catch Alexis partway, wrapping my arms around her, and absorbed the worst of the impact.  Bent nails, broken glass, and spikes of wood tore at my back and sides.

One of my hands found a handhold.  I latched on, feeling my shoulder nearly jerk free of the socket as the sum total of her weight and mine hung from the one arm.

There was no footing beneath us.  As the fixture collapsed, it fell.  Fragments of wood and chunks of rubble hit the wall and bounced off, or hit other pieces of falling debris and bounced off that.  It disappeared into oblivion, far, far below us.

Joining the writing desk, I imagined.

A steep vertical surface, air thick with choking dust, fog, and darkness.  As far left as I could see, vertical surface.  As far right as I could see… more vertical surface.  Up and down… the same.  Disappearing into darkness and fog, a good kilometer or five.  There was far more light than there had been in the drains, but it was almost more hostile.  Red and orange, flickering violently.

The nooks and crannies that dotted the surface, irregular, were windows.  Spaced too far apart, or clustered, they took different forms.  As if sections of building had fallen and somehow jammed together, like a game of Tetris.

Several hundred feet away, running parallel, there was another building of the same composition.

As the lights in one building died, the lights in the other made up for it, or happened to go out at similar times.  A fluorescent light hung half-off the ceiling in the room opposite me, and it made the shadows of handholds dance deceptively.  In other places, dirty and burned lightbulbs cast a mottled, dappled light onto the wall, suggesting handholds where there were none.

Apartments.  The surface Alexis had aimed for had been something like a flimsy fire escape or a window washer’s platform.  Or, more accurately, it was a trap, rigged by some local resident or another.

“Fuck!” I heard Ty hiss.

When I looked up, I saw that he’d found a handhold, only to discover that it was serrated with broken glass.  He fought for a foothold and failed to find it, as his fingers bent into a clawed position, trying to avoid the worst of the glass.  Blood ran down his hand and arm.

Peter had wrapped his arm around a piece of wood that stuck out from an area of the building where things had simply blown out.  His bad hand was now fighting for traction, as the wood creaked.

I couldn’t quite make out the others, due to angle or the like.

My arm strained, creaked and popped as I raised Alexis up, lifting her.  She huffed out a small breath, halfway between a gasp and a whimper, as her hands found purchase in a gap where brick became wooden slats.  Her arm jerked as silverfish came boiling out.

“Got it?” I asked.

“Not really that good,” she said, her voice strained.

“You won’t find good here,” I said.

“Got it,” she said, her eyes scanning me.  I wasn’t sure whether she was answering my question or statement.  “You’re out.”

I looked around.

“I’m home, I guess,” I said.

She didn’t have a response to that.

I abandoned her.

Climbing, I ignored the rats that lurked just out of sight, ready to bite as I found a handhold.  I held firm when I tested a foothold and it proved to be only rubble, crumbling and falling.

Christoff was struggling to climb up to a ledge.  There was a note of panic in the movement.

“Christoff,” I said, my voice as low and soothing as I could get it.

I could see him tense.

He tensed more as he looked down and saw me.  Rather than freeze, he started to climb faster.  Not out of fear, but because it was the only thing he could do.  Up there was a horizontal surface.

My branch-covered fingers dug into stone, oblivious to the scratches and scrapes they endured.  I clawed out a position and climbed up.

“Help,” he said.

“Focus on finding a place to hold on,” I said.

“Up there-”

“It’s a trap,” I said.  “I guarantee you, it’s a trap.”

He was breathing harder with every passing second.  Fear was winning.

“Find a place to hold on,” I said.

He nodded, a tight gesture.

Roxanne, a short distance away, had wrapped herself around a section of wall.  The part of her that was more indoors was serving as a platform for innumerable earwigs to flow over her and through her hair.  She shook her head, and made small sounds, digging her longer fingernails into her ear, speared and dead bugs scooped out in the curve of her nail, along with blood.  I wasn’t sure if it was the bugs making her bleed, or if the panic of having bugs crawling beneath her clothes and into her hair, eyes, and ears was driving her to dig into her own flesh.

Evan flew up to me, wings flapping.

“Help her,” I said.

“What?  Man, bugs are not a part of my diet.  Except for that one time I was trying to fix my power running out and that was bad and ick and-”

Help her,” I said.  “And save your energy.  There aren’t a lot of safe places to roost and rest those wings.”

“On it.”

He flew to Roxanne’s shoulder.  I saw a glimpse of him pecking at the bugs that were making steady progress towards her ear canal.

By the time I reached Peter, Green Eyes was there.  Her tail wrapped around the wood, and her arms strained as she held it up.

Tiff, Eva, and Ellie were all in the same place.  Ellie was managing the burden of her brother and still managing to keep Ellie from slipping, her shoulder offered as a foothold.

Kathryn… I was pretty sure I could make out Kathryn further below, standing on a window ledge, about two floors below me.

“Kathy,” I said.

She looked up at me.

“There are good odds that monsters will lunge out of those windows to grab you,” I said.

She started making her way to the side.

I headed to Ty, who was still struggling.

His breath fogged from the cold as he panted, accepting my help to drop down to a position about five feet lower than he’d been.  There were wooden slats with spaces between, and a light shone from within.

The lights were on inside, some old fashioned, almost torches in sconces, the  others were fluorescent, flickering constantly.

Ty found a position, holding onto slats that wobbled when he moved his arm, only one side nailed in.

“Is everyone stable?” I spoke, trusting my voice to carry in the near-silence.

I didn’t get much in the way of responses, but nobody said no.  Their focus was on not falling, and the seemingly endless drop below us.

“There’s no relief here,” I said.  “No respite.  We need to move fast, get out of here before it gets to be too much.”

“Inside?” Peter asked.

I moved over, peering into a window.

It looked like a bad motel.  A television was on, but showed mostly static, the image flipping over and over, flickering.  There was a threadbare armchair, a wall with paint missing, and paint chips littering the floor.

Too easy.

I didn’t know what this place was, but the rules had to hold true.

“Let’s limit how much time we spend inside,” I said.  “This place is meant to ruin us.  Break us down and spit us out.  If you see something that looks safe, assume its a trap.”

“We need to head northwest,” Alexis said, “Only two hundred feet.  Cardinal directions should hold true.”

Only.

“Which direction was northwest?” I asked.

She held one arm out away from the wall, so she could point off to one angle, off to one side.

We’d have to go over and inside.

“Green Eyes?” I asked.

“What?”

Oh, she sounded pissed.  She didn’t like having to come back.

“How are you managing?”

“Considering that I don’t have feet, and there’s only so many handholds?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Considering that.”

“I’m fine.

“I think… we’re mostly okay, by virtue of being bogeymen,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“We’ll help you guys out where we can.  Slow and steady is better than rushing.  We just need to head a bit to the right, then we need to find a way in.  Ask if you need help or if you can’t find a way.  Okay?”

I heard one okay from elsewhere.  I really hoped it was someone I knew, and not a stranger’s voice.

“This place is going to get to you,” I said.  “Tiff, Ellie, all that stuff you were mentioning?  Alexis?  Your time on the streets?  The longer you stay, the more you let down your guard, the more it’s going to dredge up that stuff.  It’s going to put ideas in your head…”

“Let’s just climb,” Alexis said.  “And hope we get out before we run into that.”

I wanted to say more, to prepare them, to explain the different things, but my arms didn’t get tired like theirs did.

“Okay, go,” I said.

I felt an almost genuine fear for the welfare of my friends, watching as they climbed.  The building was so pitted and worn that there were spaces to hold on or stand on, but they were treacherous.

“My hands are tired already,” Christoff said.

“Callan died to buy us time,” I said, turning to check on him. “If there’s strength to be found, find it there.

He nodded tightly.

Behind him, something slithered out of a window.  A man with a centipede body from the waist down, long hair and beard, homeless guy chic, pale and skeletally thin, he had pale, rainbow-hued eyes like a bug’s to be found between eyelids that were stretched taut, unable to fully close over the orbs.

Ignoring us, he climbed the side of the building, and his upper body disappeared into a crack in the wall.

The lower body continued to climb and crawl after him, almost unending.

Six or so seconds later, the tail end of the lower body, bearing an earwig-like set of pincers, disappeared the way the upper body had gone.

When I looked from my oblivious younger cousin to Ty, I could see the alarm on his face.  The fear at what Christoff had completely missed seeing.

How easy it would have been for the centipede man to just grab Christoff.  A tug, a pull, and Christoff would be falling.  Holding Christoff, he could have carried him off, and there was little Christoff could have done.

“Oh god,” Peter said, under his breath.  “Oh god, this sucks.  This sucks, this sucks…”

Roxanne shrieked, loud.

“Roxanne!” Kathy called.

“They’re crawling under my clothes.  I…”

She screamed louder, a different sort of scream.

“Roxy!” Kathy said.  “Pay attention!”

“They’re under my skin,” Roxanne said, almost like it was the least reassuring mantra in the world.  “They’re under my skin, they’re under my skin, they’re under my skin.

Her voice grew higher pitched and edged with pain, her body tenser, with every utterance.

They’re in my skin.  They’re inside me.  They’re under my skin.”

When I looked, I could see the red lines tracing maze-like paths across her body.  Here and there, something popped out, a tiny black wriggling form, traveled an inch or two over the outside of her skin, then burrowed again, blood welling at the entry and exit sites.

“There’s nothing there,” Peter said, flat out lying to her face.  “Whatever you think you’re feeling, there’s nothing there.

“This place is psychological,” Alexis said.  “The book said as much.”

Roxanne shook her head, tightly.  She wasn’t moving.

“I don’t know what to do,” Evan said, before pecking at one bug that had emerged, spitting it out.  “She can’t hear me.”

“I can hear you,” Roxanne said, in a small voice.

The others were making forward progress.  Roxanne was dead last, only just behind Kathy, who was struggling with the climb, and Peter, who wasn’t functioning well with one hurt hand.

“You can hear me?” Evan asked.

“Different rules,” I told Evan.  “Less layers separating you and them.  Besides, I don’t know how much innocence you hold onto, here.”

“Oh.  Hi, Roxanne!”

She made a sound, whimpering.  She shook her head, and bugs flew free, but her hand very nearly slipped.

“I said hi!  I’ve been grabbing bugs off you, least you can do is-”

“Hi,” she said, her voice tiny.  “Please stop talking.”

“It’s like Tiff said,” Evan told her.  “Chin up, persevere, and you can make it through.”

She shook her head, a small gesture, as if even a normal shaking of the head threatened to unseat her from her precarious position on the wall.

I edged closer to her.  The bugs, and one hurt hand, and all the rest of the abuse from Eva’s beating earlier, and she was the youngest one here, Evan excepted.  She needed the most help.  Green Eyes was with the main pack, further ahead, and I’d have to trust them to the wall-scaling mermaid.

“I can’t move,” she said.

“You can do it,” Evan said.

“I can’t move!  My… I keep getting shooting pains down my arms.  The bugs are eating me, they’re eating me!

Going shrill again.

“Channel that fear,” Evan said.  “Keep moving.”

“Fucking bird!  I will grab you and I will take you down with me if you don’t shut up!”  Roxanne shrieked.

Evan looked up at me, helpless.

I was only about fifteen feet away.

“I’m going inside,” she said.  “I can’t-  I can’t-”

Evan flew away as she reached a window, climbing in past broken glass with enough panic fueling her actions that she wasn’t careful.

Evan landed on my shoulder.

“It’s okay,’ I said.  “You tried.  Help Kathryn.”

It took me ten long seconds to reach that same window.

“Roxanne,” I said, peering inside.

The interior was haphazard, the floor tilted so the left side was lower on the left, the right too high.  At the other end of the hallway, maybe twenty feet away, it was the opposite.  A window marked the exit onto the other side of the building.

Impossibly tall and broad, it was only twenty or so feet thick, here.  One room thick.

My cousin was sitting on the floor at the base of the window, head buried in her arms.

“Roxanne,” I said.  “If we don’t go, we’re going to get separated.  There’s no going back home if that happens.  We need Ty to draw the circle.”

“It hurts.  I’ll… I’ll walk inside.  It’s not as cold in here.”

“The place will mess with your head, and it’ll lead you away from them.  There’ll be places, I’m sure, that won’t have routes, understand?  This place is under no obligation to be convenient.  Just the opposite.  It’ll let you think you can follow them, and then you’ll hit a dead end, and you’ll have to go outside, on the wrong side of the building.  This is what it wants.”

“Roxanne… what would your dad say?”

“Dad?”

“Uncle Paul.”

“He’d say… I don’t know.”

“Then I’ll take a stab at it,” I said.  “He might tell you that all the others are coping.  They’re dealing.”

“Bugs aren’t eating them!”

She looked up at me as she said it.  The rents in her flesh, the scars, were reminiscent of how Callan had died, the poison eating along the paths his veins marked in his skin.

“They’ve got their own stuff to deal with.  But the place is going to try to scatter us.  It’s going to fuck with everyone, in turn.  Do you want to be the one who failed and got lost, when everyone else succeeded?”

“That’s stupid,” she said.  “I’m not some stupid idiot that can be convinced like that.”

“Roxanne,” I said, my voice quiet.  “Man the fuck up.  You don’t get to give up here.  For once in your life, you don’t get a second chance.”

Oh god.  I had so many memories of my dad and Uncle Paul talking in just that tone.

I didn’t stop.  “This place, it has a kind of intelligence.  Think of it as a person, doing its utmost to fuck with you.  Okay?  Fuck with it back.  Win.  Get out of here.

It was a language she spoke.  It struck home.

Mute, nodding, she found her feet.  I offered her a hand and she took it.

She startled.

Three feet away from us was a man in a rumpled business suit, tie too tight at his neck.  His hair was mussed up, like he’d just woken up.  His sleeves barely reached past the halfway point on his forearms, and he wore no socks or shoes.  Hands and feet both were covered in deep gouges that disappeared beneath the fabric of his suit.  His face pulled into a wide grimace, not quite a frown, not quite a smile, just pain and ugliness, every one of his teeth visible, even the molars and wisdom teeth.

There had been zero sign of his approach.  Not a sound.

“No,” I told him, firm.

His lips moved too fluidly as he closed his mouth, licking his lips for a moment.  The mouth closed, lips moist, but it was almost out of place on his face, like it wasn’t centered.

“Okay,” he said, barely opening his mouth.

I kept a wary eye on him as Roxanne eased her way out of the window.

He didn’t move.

“My hand,” she said.  “It’s hard.”

I watched the man in the ill-fitting suit as I followed her out, straddling the window and finding a foothold.

“Climb onto my back,” I told her.  “Focus on holding on.”

The man didn’t budge an inch.  He didn’t shift his weight, barely breathed…

Roxanne found handholds in the branches at my left shoulder and the open hole at my right side.  Her legs wrapped around my midsection.

I inched away, getting as far as I could from the window before I turned to look for the next handhold.

“You stink,” she said.  “Like gutterstuff.”

“Cope,” I told her.

The main group was so far away.  Three-quarters of the way to where we needed to be.  Kathy was still below, but she was halfway or so.

We’d almost backtracked.

I wanted to be there before they went inside, because all signs pointed to these apartments being occupied.

I looked back toward the window just in time to see the man’s head emerge.  Slower and more fluidly than a person should be able to move, his head at an angle that would have only worked if he were lying down or standing on a wall, it was more like a puppeteer was extending a cardboard cut-out through the open window.  His bloody, cut-up hands emerged, a bit too late, gripping the windowsill firmly.

His expression was neutral as he stared.

I edged away, and against my better judgment, I took risks, reaching further, testing things less carefully.  My body was strong and it didn’t get tired, allowing me to rely more on one grip.

I saw one Other emerge, then another, poking their heads out of windows three floors above Kathryn.

Clowns, female, their paint smeared on so thick that it made their flesh look like paper mache.  The colored-in parts looked half-done, like it was smeared on in crayon, pastels, or charcoal.

The noose fell, missing Kathryn.

I redoubled my efforts, striving to cover more ground.

They reeled it in double-time, until the noose was halfway between them and Kathryn, and let it drop again.

Evan flew up, wings flapping, and the noose moved aside before it could settle around her neck.

The lights around Kathryn went out, and the next attempt was conducted in near-pitch darkness.

When the lights came on, Kathryn was struggling to keep upright while removing the noose from around her wrist.

I felt Roxanne’s arms tighten around my neck.

Evan hopped down to help her, working on undoing the knot.

One of the silent clowns jumped from the window.  The other end of the rope was wound around her arm.

I hurried to close the distance, but there were no handholds in the brick.  I was forced to backtrack, paying for rushing with a loss of time.

The rope went taut.  It was connected to something in the clown’s room, which made the falling clown a counterweight.  It went down, and Kathy’s arm was hauled up.  She lost her footing, and was forced to catch at the top of a windowsill with the elbow of her free arm.  When the initial momentum was gone, she dropped again, and caught herself again, legs dangling for a few seconds before she found the previous footholds once more.

She weighed more than the clown did.  That meant she wasn’t pulled up endlessly.  She was, however, suspended in place.

Evan continued working on the knot, and I continued heading over to her location.

A peek backward showed that the man with the ill-fitting suit was still in the window, staring.

A peek downward indicated that the clown was fumbling around its person.

Drawing a knife, it clamped the knife in its teeth.  It began walking up the side of the building, reeling itself in as it went.  Towards Kathryn.

Twenty feet away, fifteen, ten…

The knot came undone.

The clown fell about ten feet before its counterpart caught the rope, stalling its fall.

Faster, I thought.

We were equidistant from Kathy now, but I was burdened, and the clown acrobat had clearly done this before.  Her face was determined, though her eyes were literally empty – there were only black spaces rimmed with red where the eyelids had been cut out.  She had a light smile on her over-painted face.

“Roxanne, if I leave you behind,” I said, “I’ll be able-”

“No,” Kathryn said.  Her voice was strained.

“You’ll-”

“My arm is dislocated,” she said.  “There’s no point.  There’s nothing you can do for me.”

Ah.

“Focus on Roxanne,” she said, “And when you’re done getting her to safety, go to fucking hell.  Bringing us here?”

I didn’t have a response.

Hooking one arm inside a windowsill for leverage, Kathryn stuck out one foot in the direction of the taut rope.  She wound the rope around her leg, and then swung it.

The clown was forced to dance to the right as her rope moved.

Kathryn did the same thing in the other direction.

The clown moved like a pendulum, back and forth.  Its forward progress had slowed.

Kathryn met my eyes.

I edged downward, aiming for the rope.

If I could get between them…  I did have the Hyena.

The clown danced left, then danced a bit right, and clawed her way a few feet higher up the rope, until she was fifteen feet below Kathryn.

Another dance to the left, playing along with the momentum, within two feet of me.  A dance to the right-

A window shattered.  A large hand seized the clown by the throat.

The rope fell loose, still swinging as the clown girl let go.

The clown’s arms went limp at her sides as the hand continued to squeeze.

The hand let go, and the clown dropped.  Tumbling down much as the debris had.

I passed under Kathryn, then climbed up, to give a wide berth to the window the hand had reached from.

The lights went out, then came back on again.

Something dropped.  It might have been a sink, or part of a toilet.  But Evan was in flight, and gave Kathy a push.  She swayed, and was forced to catch at antoher handhold with her sole good hand, in order to stop from falling.  The chunk of porcelain disappeared into the void below us.

“Don’t,” Kathryn said.

“I just saved your life!”

“Save it better!” she snapped.

She was panting, and I could see the shine of sweat on her brow, despite the fact that it was cold enough for our breath to fog up.

She looked up, wary for more ‘slapstick’ falling objects, and then edged along to another spot, finding another handhold.

“Kathy,” Roxanne said.

“Get going,” Kathryn said.

“But-”

“Get going, you little idiot!”

Roxanne was the one being told to go, but I was the one doing the work.

I continued following the others.

Kathryn, in turn, followed me.  With only one arm that functioned at all, she had to be doubly sure of footholds, and sometimes there was only one, one place to put her foot down while she lunged for the next surface to grab, with swaying, flickering, and misleading maps of light and shadow.

She followed the route I forged, and remained silent as I mentioned the various handholds and footholds, what was good, what to watch out for.  No breath for a thank-you.

Rose let the book drop onto the coffee table.  She stood there, staring down at it, another two books stuck under one arm.

Her expression was grim.

“What happened?” Ty asked.

“One second,” Rose said.  She scrawled a symbol on the coffee table in chalk, looked around, then circled it.  “Need to make sure we have privacy.”

“What’s going on?” Evan asked, flying closer.

“The benefits of doing research,” Rose commented.  “I found him.”

“Him?”

“Our recent visitor,” Rose said.  “Blake.”

“Oh,” Ty said.  “Shit.”

Shit indeed,” Rose said.

“He’s in the books?” Tiff asked.

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Is he for real?” Alexis asked.

“He thinks he’s telling the truth.  For the most part, he is,” Rose said.

“Then that’s… not a bad thing, right?”  Tiff said, a bit of cheer in her voice.

Alexis picked up the dropped book.  She turned it over, then opened it.

Evan hopped up, cocking his head as he read over Alexis’ shoulder.

“No title?” Ty asked.

“It’s not a text,” Rose said.  “It’s a diary.”

“Oh.  Your grandmothers.”

“There’s a lot to be said for what gets left out,” Rose said.

“Left out?”  Evan asked.

“In the diary, she talks about binding the Barber.  I was doing some fact checking, so I could be sure there were no surprises with the dead man’s switch, and I noticed the discrepancy.

“What is it?” Alexis asked.

“A power the Barber has.  Blake is a vestige.  It’s a question of how it was made.  And why.  The Barber is a demon of ruin.  It ruins by way of reflections.”

“Reflections?” Evan asked.

“Cut right down the middle.  Or, more likely, cut out a quarter.  Let them get filled in and shored up as vestiges are prone to do.  One gets the friends.  One gets memories of school.  Another gets the ability to study.  Another gets the ability to fight.  Trauma to one, repressed memories to another, and all down the line.  Where there’s overlap, there’s enough memories to spare, or the spirits are filling it in.  Things get exaggerated in vacuum, expanding to fill the empty spaces.”

“You’re both vestiges?”

“I’m pretty sure we aren’t,” Rose said.  “We’re both more vulnerable to possession, but that’s not the point.  The bigger part gets to be real, the smaller part is the vestige.  But the way it’s done, there’s always conflict.  Which is the point.  The Barber makes his victim destroy themselves.  Fight tooth and nail for everything.  If one side survives, well, there’s nothing saying the Barber can’t cut away more of them.  Do it again, until all you’ve got is a ruined, mad, pathetic husk.”

“But Blake wasn’t-“

“The hostility was raw,” Rose said.  “It’s supposed to be subtle, but… coming from  where he did, I’m betting the subtleties have been ground away.  The way this works, one of us is destined to destroy the other.  Believe me, I definitely want to get rid of him, especially now that I know.  If he finds out about this…”

“He’ll want to destroy you.”

“He was telling the truth, when he said you were his friends.  If he finds out,” Rose said, speaking very carefully, “that he could get you back, get all of his old life back, simply by defeating me, that he could make headway by diminishing me, even, that we’re in a tug of war for every aspect of the existence, that we’re being driven to the point where one kills the other…”

She was rambling, and had lost the thread of her own statement.

“Rose-” Alexis said.  “What he said, it matches up with this.”

“He’s not real,” Rose said, “The diary says as much.  When a man is cut in twain by the shears, the part that retains the heart and soul is female.  He’s… I’m going to need your help.  I’m going to need promises, because we can’t fly blind here.”

“But I like him,” Evan said.  “He’s got birds on him, and birds are awesome.”

“Then- fuck it,” Rose said, “Like him all you want.  But I’m going to have to ask that you stay quiet.  I’m genuinely frightened.  The stories that go with the Barber…  it’s usually a build-up, regular interactions with someone who overlaps too much with you.  Then conflict comes up, and the damage is… as bad as it gets.  Life-destroying.  And neither of us are complete people.  It’s pretty easy to do damage to each other.”

“It’s different here, though,” Ty said.

“But the pattern is still holding.  Grandmother used it, but it’s still the same thing.”

“Why?” Alexis interjected.

“Because she wanted a tailor-made heir.  Cut away all the bits she doesn’t like… like my having friends and ties to another city, or interests.  Retain the parts she does.  Then, when all’s said and done, if I can’t beat my reflection, maybe I don’t deserve to be her heir.”

“You want to lie?

“We have to,” Rose said

She injected a bit of Conquest into her voice.

Continuing, she said, “We can’t afford to be weak right now, or to have to watch my back for an attack from a fragment of my reflection.  I’m not denying it’s going to be messy, but we need to stand together.”

The others accepted.  Influenced, but not forced.  They made the call of their own accord.

It was only after the others had fallen that Evan finally relented to the pressure and promised to stay silent.

I felt the birdlike flutter in my chest jerk, twitch, then splinter, as if it were multiplying.

My entire body shuddered with the ensuing vibrations, as if I had a flock of birds within me.

“Blake,” Roxanne said.  She was slipping.

It took me long seconds to go still again.  I caught her wrist and pulled her up.

My chest heaved.

I’d stopped climbing.

But only just.  I’d been moving while the Tenements showed me a glimpse of the past.  We were nearly at the place the others had gone inside.  Ellie was looking out the window.

I looked back, and saw Kathryn making slow progress behind me, hugging the wall, oblivious to the damage she was doing to her one good hand, fingertips, cheek, and knees bloody where they’d been scraped raw.

I climbed up enough to hand Roxanne over, then headed down, giving Kathryn some support.  She wound up needing it, climbing up to the window.

I was last to ascend.

Ty was already opening the way.  A gate to the foot of the hill, outside Hillsglade House, near the trees.

Alexis glanced back and smiled.

I couldn’t smile back in return.

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