I met everyone’s eyes in turn. Rose, the High Priest, Alister, my friends.
I wasn’t getting resounding support. No voices echoing my suspicions.
“Proof?” Johannes asked.
I only shook my head.
“What I can’t decide,” Johannes finally said, “Is if you think you’re right, or if you’re just stirring up trouble, by your nature.”
“I’ve been through the metaphorical grinder since this all began,” I said, my voice low. “Virtually everyone here has been my enemy at one time or another. I’ve seen alliances form and be broken, marriages and families shattered and united. It keeps hitting the same notes. The line between enemy and ally is never as clearly defined as we think it is. I’m a pretty good example of how labels don’t always apply in nice, clean-cut ways. I can’t believe that, given all the time they’ve been around, that angels and demons haven’t found a way to cross wires or cross paths at some points.”
“You really believe what you’re saying,” Johannes said. “You think my familiar is allied with demons?”
“I’m saying that he’s probably working with demons or a demon. Different interests, but right now, right here, with so much at stake on a greater scale, I don’t think you can have entities like that in close proximity without having things get sucked into their orbit. There’s just no way to deal with powers that vast in a safe manner.”
Johannes put two fingers to the bridge of his nose. “Are you really going to dismantle what we’re trying to build here, out of sheer paranoia?”
“I might try,” I said. “Is it paranoia if it’s justified? I’ve faced down demons. I’ve seen a demon working its way into the Abyss. I’ve seen a man destroyed, the hierarchy of beasts and man overturned. I’ve had my life taken from me by the fallout of two different demons doing their work. Angels are apparently, according to an angel, only a step down from that. I don’t know how much involvement your pet had in your decision to do this, but I do know that, according to the book that serves as Familiars 101, powerful familiars can eclipse the practitioner.”
“You may be underestimating how strong I am,” Johannes said.
“You don’t even factor in, Johannes,” I said, my voice hard. “They operate beyond the bounds we do. They destroy, and they create. Those of us here, the humans, the faerie, the goblins, and whatever else, we’re only changing what they’ve left us to work with. There’s very little we can do to even compete on their level. A major, if forgotten god was only just keeping an even ground with what I was told was a moderate demon. You want to tamper with the Barber, and you think anything is going to stop it?”
“Grandmother said that binding Barbatorem was one of her greatest accomplishments,” Rose said. “Seeing other demons in action, if only briefly, just being around the Barber, I think I understand why.”
“I was hoping that you would get the Thorburn monster on a metaphorical leash, rather than agree with him,” Johannes said.
“I don’t,” Rose said. “I’m not about to bind him in any manner, but I’m not going to agree with him automatically, either. The deal sounds good. There’s a lot more that’s at play, and, honestly, the deal fits in well with that stuff.”
“Too well?” I asked.
I saw Rose’s expression change for just a moment.
“I don’t know,” she said, a little less confidently.
I turned away. Couldn’t push her too hard. I had to think my way through this. Argue with my head more than my gut. In the meantime, I had to hope that Rose could do the opposite.
If we could both find our way to the right answer, at the same time, maybe the shattered whole that was the sixth Thorburn grandchild, Rusty, Russel, Ross, whatever his name was, maybe he could figure out this situation. He, we.
It wasn’t quite Mara’s words, but her sentiments lingered, the warnings, the mockery, the observations.
Rose and I were at odds with one another. Not enemies, but still at odds.
If we could cooperate, so could the angel and demon.
I’d found my way to one part of the answer.
But there had to be more to it.
My eyes fell on one stack of books. Grandmother’s diaries.
Had Rose read them? How much knowledge had she gleamed?
Was her knowledge of grandmother’s plan or greater agenda influencing her decision here?
Alister spoke, “Jacob’s Bell is so damaged that I’m not even sure I’d want it anymore. There’s too much mess to clean up. I can’t speak for the others, but I helped build the junior council based on the idea that we didn’t want to wait until our parents vacated their seats before being able to take a hand in things.”
“Ironic,” the Drunk said. “Coming from the new leader of the Behaim family.”
Alister flashed what he probably thought was a winning smile. To people who didn’t like him in the first place, though, it was only annoying.
“Honestly,” Alister said, “If you want to make a deal of nonaggression, help us on our way? I’m not sure I care what you do.”
“You’re marrying Rose,” I said. “And Rose-”
“Will be protected,” Alister said. “As best as we can.”
I clenched my fist. “You’re not grasping what you’re up against.”
“I’m not stupid,” Rose said. “I’ve met grandmother’s lawyers more times than you have. I’ve put a lot of thought into them and how to deal with them. I just faced them down, on my way here. The barrier that Mara talked about? That would delay my arrival? It was them. More than a little upset about the state of the house.”
I kept my mouth shut.
“If it weren’t for my engagement with Alister, I don’t think they would have left me alone. They’re a big part of what I’m trying to figure out, moving forward. Striking a balance, keeping them dealt with. I honestly feel a lot more confident giving up the house, keeping the books, or as many as I can take, and moving forward with Johannes’ contacts and Alister’s family backing me. I think I can get the lawyers to agree to it. They just want the Thorburn family to keep going.”
“What’s the alternative, Blake?” she asked. “You say this deal is a trap, some great conspiracy by an angel, but what’s the alternative? What do you propose?”
I clenched my teeth.
“Right,” she said. “Maybe an unfair question to ask you.”
“By your own admission, you’ve been through a lot,” Johannes said. “But don’t underestimate us. If worst comes to worst, we’re not incapable.”
“Trust me,” Rose told me.
There was an insistence in her tone.
I was almost instantly reminded of my own line of thinking. The thoughts I’d had about how to communicate to Rose without influencing her instincts.
Was Rose doing the same thing?
Did she have knowledge that she was forced to hold back? Putting her in the awkward position of having to communicate with me, getting me to play ball?
I looked back to grandmother’s diaries.
I stared at them.
Mara had talked about grandmother. Grandmother’s plan and motivations were still a great big unknown for me.
“The good thing is that there’s no rush,” Johannes said. “The bad thing is that I don’t think there’s an easy way to resolve this, and a deadlock is as bad as an inability to get everyone involved to cooperate.”
“We’re not about to get deadlocked,” the High Priest said. His tone was serious, grave.
I didn’t participate in the discussion. My thoughts were on grandmother.
What Rose wanted, or didn’t want, did it fit into Grandmother’s scheme? Or did it subvert that scheme?
I glanced around.
Sandra wasn’t here. Neither was Mags. Faysal Anwar, too, was absent.
“Where’s Mags?” I asked.
“With the Duchamps,” the High Priest said. “Who, thanks to your summoned crow, are in dire straits. Sandra was very nearly killed by the backlash from her own contingent.”
“We simply set it loose,” Alexis said. “We didn’t have time to give it more concrete instructions. Things were rather serious here.”
“All the same,” the High Priest said.
“They have dibs on the Ambassador,” Alister elaborated.
“And your familiar?” I asked Johannes.
“Faysal is managing my domain,” Johannes said. “Too many powerful agents that can’t be given too much free reign.”
I nodded slowly.
“Victory is in my grasp,” Johannes told me. “The Behaims are strong, but not unbreakable. The Duchamps have fallen. I’ve shown you all my strength. If this were a court case, you could consider this my offer of a plea bargain. If it were war, which it is, I’m offering peace. There is no longer anyone in play that cares to have Jacob’s Bell. Let me have it, let the others be, free to relocate if they see fit, and even if we are not creating or destroying as angels or demons might, we’re still creating a great work of change. That has to count for something.”
“A new order,” I said, only speaking so I wouldn’t be left behind or ignored as the conversation moved forward. My mind was still elsewhere. “One of the other locals told me you wanted to create a realm where Others could reside.”
“Power,” Johannes said. “But I would want that power to be untainted, and to attract the right types of Other. I need this house gone. Give me that, and I’ll share the power with each of you. Even at one hundredth of the total share, you stand to gain much. I can offer you that deal, Blake, but I think you’d appreciate having life again.”
“It makes sense,” Rose said. “All that Faysal has asked for has been to be allowed to guide the demon to the Abyss, still within its circle, where it can most easily be dealt with. Presumably by a greater power like a god.”
“Or an angel?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Rose said.
“An angel named Faysal Anwar?”
Johannes sighed. “Paranoia.”
My attention fell on the diaries again.
I’d only read the opening. I had only glimmers of an insight into who Grandmother was, otherwise. A snippet here, mentioning Barbatorem, a detail here, from memory of dealing with family or visiting the house as a very young child, the brief conversation over the inheritance.
A child born into the Thorburn family, who swore never to teach her own children the practice. A young woman who made a mistake, and saw innocents hurt for it. A bitter, sly, arrogant old woman who derided her family as failures, and arranged her grandchildren in the wrong order. Catching one by surprise, barbering the second, slighting Paige because she wouldn’t necessarily bear a daughter for the family.
“If you don’t have any more arguments,” Johannes said, “Perhaps you should stand back. We can finish this discussion and deal without your input. But you can’t filibuster our decision without actually saying something. Not in a civilized process.”
“I’m not sure,” Alister said. “The suspicions about your familiar’s motives might be a bit much, but… I’m wondering if we should bring him here to say his piece. If only to reassure us.”
“He might complicate things,” the High Drunk said.
“He might,” Alister conceded. I’d expected a rebuttal, a counterpoint. He didn’t give one. He’d been telling the truth when he’d said he wasn’t sure.
I made eye contact with Rose. Willing her to somehow express or transmit her thoughts to me. To share what she might know of grandmother or the larger plan.
Assumptions. Thinking that enemies were going to stay enemies was dangerous.
But if I turned it around, looking at Rose, knowing that I’d once considered her a lonely ally when I had so many enemies, was the opposite true?
Grandmother. The Lawyers.
Ostensibly allies, or at least willing to cooperate. In practice? Was Grandmother subverting them?
If I banished all assumptions, dismissed the obvious as a ploy, a trick to keep the lawyers pacified…
All power had a price. Practice was akin to a currency, and we were in so, so much debt.
We could work for lifetimes, and possibly never be rid of it all.
In the beginning I’d wondered, very briefly, why we couldn’t game the system to get rid of the debt. Spread it out among countless children, stagger it out, or figure out other means of breaking it down.
The lawyers were keeping us in this position.
Just desperate enough that we might take their deal, take an out, join their firm.
Putting ourselves in a position where we were contributing to a greater cosmic decline.
Was Grandmother working against that? Was Rose?
By looking like they were cooperating on the surface level, but…
But. That was the key thought.
“I suppose silence is as good an answer as any,” Johannes said. “Only speculation. If everyone else-”
“Rose,” I interrupted him. “I think I’m starting to get it.”
“Yeah?” she asked.
But I was only on the brink of putting it together. The others were on the brink of making the deal.
It was a good thing fear wasn’t an emotion I really experienced anymore. Panic could easily have taken hold of me, dashed the thoughts from my head.
How did one deal with an impossible amount of debt, when the debtors were striving to claim the funds?
We, the children, were the assets.
Except bankruptcy didn’t work. Didn’t make sense.
My eyes didn’t leave Rose’s.
“Rose? We can do this without your permission, but I’d really rather not,” Johannes spoke, his voice calm.
Rose didn’t glance away from me.
“Rose?” he tried, again.
Not bankruptcy, but something simpler. Something older.
“What gender is Kathryn’s child?” I asked.
“Male,” Rose said, without a moment’s hesitation.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Johannes asked.
I saw Rose’s expression change, just a fraction.
Everything, I thought, and I knew Rose was thinking something very similar.
Her chin rose. Confidence? Something else, maybe.
“Alister,” Rose said, still not breaking eye contact. “A word? In private?”
“You’re delaying,” Johannes said, exasperated.
“As you said, there’s no rush,” Rose said.
Alister glanced at Johannes, shrugged, then headed to Rose’s side. The pair of them stepped past the people collected at the doorway and headed down into the hallway.
Buying me time?
I did what I could to use it.
Grandmother wasn’t a hero. She wasn’t a good person. She had sacrificed us, she’d set us up for failure.
But she’d done it with purpose. A game of something like chess, giving up set pieces in a set order, to play a long game and hide the fact that she was intentionally losing.
Molly, the sacrificial pawn. Rightly angry about it. Too easily broken or swayed, perhaps. Thrown to the wolves without time to prepare, absorbing the initial assault, forcing enemies to show their hands.
Rusty was second. The division into Blake and Rose serving multiple purposes. Intended to do just what it had, warning us, forcing us to confront the new reality immediately. Catch the enemies by surprise. Positioning us with the warrior buying time, while the true heir found her footing.
But… there was something more to it.
If Rose won, earned her survival, secured her position in this world, how was that a win for Grandmother?
Very simple. Something the lawyers couldn’t act on until it was far too late. If Rose carried on her position, kept going as the Thorburn heir, marrying Alister, settling into Jacob’s Bell, or leaving the house to fall and moving elsewhere with her new husband as leader of the junior council… time could pass.
Until no heir was produced.
One individual, cut in twain. One given the desire, but not the ability. The other left with the ability, but all of the trauma that would discourage the desire.
To the point of turning down the offer from the girl he loved, for a three-way.
I couldn’t guess what had been arranged for if we failed, if we died. Kathryn was next. And Kathryn had a little boy. Again, not an heir.
Would Kathryn be cut in two, by the same sort of deal? Or was the expectation, from the evaluation we’d been subjected to, that Kathryn would die or fail by some other measure?
Maybe the line of thinking was that Kathryn and Ellie would fail in a similar way to how Molly had. Maybe, as she’d prepared other individuals with knowledge of how to deal with demons, she’d anticipated that they would destroy themselves, attacking Laird or Alister or someone and having the demon rebuffed, sent back to the summoner. A demon, ready at hand, that was capable of bypassing the typical defenses.
Leaving the impulsive, stubborn, aggressive Kathryn and Ellie ill prepared for the rebound.
Rose probably knew the particulars. She’d studied up, read between lines.
Rose would have, much as I was doing in this moment, come to the conclusion that she agreed with grandmother. That we could let the debt rest with one individual, who couldn’t produce an heir.
There was more to it, I was sure.
Grandmother had had a plan, and she’d deemed that plan worth working with a demon, worth sacrificing one child.
Weighing the odds, she might well have thought that clearing the slate, in whole or in large part, even committing those wrongs to do it, was worth the many, many Thorburns who might die further down the road, or deal with demons as many of her predecessors had.
Damning herself in the process.
A full minute passed, after my thoughts came to rest.
Rose and Alister re-entered the room.
She and Alister both glanced at me, side-long, as she returned. A fractional glance.
I gave her a quick nod.
I gestured toward Evan, who had come to rest on Ty’s shoulder. Talking to Tiff, Ty and Alexis in whispers and murmurs.
Evan flew to me.
“Some might say that calling your familiar in the middle of a meeting is like drawing your sword,” Johannes commented.
“I’m pretty harmless,” Evan said. “Look at me. I’m a bird, I’m a kid. I’m dead.”
“All the same,” Johannes said.
“Now who’s being paranoid?” Evan retorted.
“Shh,” I said. I cupped my hand around him and lifted him to my left shoulder.
“Well?” Johannes asked. “Your discussion with Alister…”
“Was about wedding arrangements,” Rose said. “Wasting time.”
“Why?” Johannes asked.
“Blake?” Rose asked. “We’re on the same page?”
“No,” I said. “That may never happen. But I think we’re thinking along the same lines.”
“Convince me,” she said, her voice quiet.
I glanced at Johannes. He was rigid, jaw set.
He, I remembered, had a dragon and a giant at his beck and call. He had genies.
If we upset him, if and when we disrupted his plan for a deal, we might be dealing with those soldiers of his.
“Do you remember what happened, why I went to the Abyss in the first place?”
“But why, specifically?”
“The ties were cut.”
“Nothing to hold me up,” I said. “Jacob’s Bell is the same. This house is the same. Connections matter. Everything we’ve dealt with to this point, they’ve proven how much those connections matter.”
I glanced at my friends. My hand still at my shoulder from where I’d lifted Evan up, I gave him a poke.
He pecked at my finger just before I let my hand drop to my side.
“Yes,” she said. “And the lack thereof.”
“The whole reason the house was worth money, is it’s connected to other things. Briar Girl’s forest, the marsh, the town. It’s tied to our family. You want to sink it? I’m thinking it’s going to get pulled into the Abyss, and as if it’s tied to everything around it, it’s going to drag other things with it. One of those things might well be me. If I took the deal, it would be me, minus the Otherness. Just a human in the Abyss.”
“Me too?” Rose asked.
I spread my arm and my partially-folded wing. “And Alister, because he’s tied to you? Drawn into a dark place, where there is only unrest, never a moment’s peace? It could pull in every prominent figure that’s tied to this city. That’s why Mara was so terrified that her house was gone.”
Alister turned to stare at Johannes.
The High Priest did as well. Sandra had strong ties to the city.
“With your collective consent?” I asked. “Johannes could empty the city of everyone and everything prominent, and leave the remainder of Jacob’s Bell intact. All he would need to do to expand his reach into what remained.”
Johannes shook his head slowly.
“All I’ve ever wanted was to better the relationship between man and Other, as Solomon did. Even with all the ugliness, I believe this world is better with magic in it. I swear to you, none of what he says was ever my intent, or more than an inkling in my mind.”
“But,” a voice spoke from the hallway, “It was mine.”
The dog strode into the room.
People gave it a wider berth than a simple white-haired dog might have merited.
“The demon would have had its way with all of you, freed of its confines, able to prey on you, until the Abyss caught it once more. A firmer, longer-lasting binding than any that man could achieve,” Faysal said. “The Seventh Choir of angels exists in abstract. We cannot and do not typically win direct confrontations. The demon gets what it desires, to undo the working that binds it to man’s word by taking the Thorburn family and associated individuals to pieces, and I achieve what I desire, stopping it in the longer term. Worth cooperation in the short term.”
The room was still.
“Well,” Faysal said, “That plan is spoiled. How unfortunate. It would be much tidier than this. Still, with most relevant parties here, we can get started.”
“Faysal,” Johannes said. “By these pipes-”
There was a distortion. A folding of space, complete with brilliant light. Faysal disappeared.
“Damn,” Johannes said.
The entire structure distorted, the walls sucking in, as if by an immense pressure, then ballooning outward. Glass and wood cracked. As floorboards and sections of ceiling twisted, light shone through.
The light was soon marred and masked by the smell of putrid meat.
I could smell burning hair.
“Run! Out of the house!” Alister cried out.
A small grace that the wall around the door had been blown open. The crush of bodies might have jammed all traffic, trapping us within. We were able to make our way to the hallway.
“Metal objects,” Rose cried out. “Anything reflective. Hide it! Don’t look directly at it!”
“How are we supposed to fight it!?”
“You don’t! It will destroy you!” she said, her voice high, imperious, altered by Conquest.
The smell was growing thicker.
I saw Ty hold his hand to his mouth. He’d thrown up, caught it, and now blocked his mouth. Rounding the stairs, he spit the mouthful to one side.
A fraction of a second later, the stairway and the rest of the house collapsed.
The noise was akin to an entire city folding in on itself. There wasn’t a sensation that wasn’t amplified a million times over, every inch of me that vibrated was shaking like it would simply tear into splinters and sawdust. Bone threatened to crack.
All light went out.
When everything stopped moving, we were in a heap.
The stairs that had led up now led down, haphazard, some only attached on the one side, others broken, some three feet below the stair that had sat next to it.
The house had distorted, and now sat warped. Bookshelves lay along every wall, largely empty, and even as I watched, script appeared on the spines, as the words were being penned in on the blank spines of books.
Water and dirt flowed in along the sides, streaming along the surfaces, turning what had been conventional novels into sodden messes.
A library? I thought.
We had light.
I stared up.
I hadn’t expected this.
We were at the bottom of a great depression. But there was sky above us. Clouds swirled, dark, but not quite pitch darkness. Somewhere off to the side, a light was shining, lighting up the falling snow.
Lying on her side, Rose reached a hand up, and caught one of the first snowflakes to reach all the way down to us, a hundred or more feet deep.
There was a rumble, as if responding to the thought.
We dropped by another twenty feet.
“Snow,” Rose spoke in a whisper, as the snowflake melted against her palm. “That means-”
“The time effect,” Alister said. “The floorboards broke.”
The bell started to ring again. Violent, discordant, never with a pattern. It, Molly was angry.
At the edges of the darkness, shapes began to move.
Called in from nearby sections of the Abyss by the peal of the bell.
As the snow had reached us from above, the smell reached us from below.
Even with my inhuman nature, it was almost enough to steal all sense from my head, to leave me reeling helplessly.
I heard a scrape. Metal against wood.
“It’s coming. On your feet!” Rose said.
“We’ve been in the abyss before,” Ty said. “Blake too! Listen to what he has to say! He knows how this place works!”
One snowflake, however, didn’t move.
Distant, at the edge of the Abyss, I could see it. But it was humanoid. Impossible to look straight at, as space distorted around it.
The dog. The angel.
“Faysal,” Johannes said. He’d collapsed onto his back, and he looked hurt.
Between a rock and a hard place, I thought. With monsters all between.
“He says ‘stay’,” Johannes said.