The individual floorboards underfoot felt like the boards of a rope bridge, each one suspended but unsteady. Not all of the boards were capable of supporting the weight of a human being.
One of the Behaims stumbled, one leg going straight through the floor. I caught the man by the upper arm.
Callan’s age. Related to the man that had killed Callan.
Though I was capable of holding him up, I wasn’t capable of lifting him back to a more secure position with one arm alone. Another Behaim reached forward and grabbed him, and we lifted him together.
The sound of wood creaking under a great strain joined the tolling of the bell, as we followed the main group.
Someone was saying something, but the noise around us drowned out the words.
The abyss was building again, pulling down sections of the house that had lingered, clinging to the sides, one section of wall providing enough material to build six or seven walls, down here.
We climbed, and the environment all around us settled into place, crashing, cracking, splintering. Bookcases tipped over and spilled out their contents, and small avalanches of loose wood, bricks, tomes, and stone found solid ground, dancing off unseen surfaces, careening this way and that, and settling into shapes that resembled bookshelves, sometimes only a stick caught between rocks or larger texts, with a book or two resting on it. Each impact seemed to knock us down. Sometimes an inch, sometimes a foot.
Above us, the opening to the town and the woods was only just visible. The hole that the house had dropped into was roughly circular, and if I didn’t look directly at it, it cast the illusion of a great moon looming over us, albeit one so dark gray that it was far closer to being black than to white.
The meager light that reached us from above highlighted the others that were making their way down and around, on surfaces we couldn’t make out. Light touching a bald head here, an outstretched arm there. A little further away, a haggard woman stood with her arms spread, face turned skyward. Soaking up even this pitiful indirect moonlight the way I’d soaked up the sun before.
“Oh man,” Evan said, and I could only just barely hear him over the cacophony of noise around us. “Oh man, oh man, oh man.”
Hillsglade House had disintegrated and what had been high was now low, hallways sloped with only one wall and one floor, or a twist of plaster ceiling that cracked underfoot like so much ice when we let our feet linger too long. The tumultuous movements of our surroundings weren’t smooth, but jerking, lurching.
A section of porch came down, apparently pulled from its perch when an Other tried to climb on it. It struck a surface, bouncing, and the Other went flying in the opposite direction, head over heels.
No way, given trajectory, that it would come close to us. It traveled left to right, a hundred feet ahead of us.
All the same, everything had purpose down here. Everything played a part in wearing us down.
We moved along a section of broken hallway that swayed as though it were suspended by ropes, the midsection tilting left and right as our weight reached it. It was as if things were only barely held together, here, while the Abyss struggled to piece it together. To either side, there was only darkness, and it was a darkness as dangerous as the void of space. There would be little to nothing to catch us if we fell.
My eye tracked the section of porch as it disappeared into shadow.
Behind the bell’s tolling, the countless noises of things settling into place, I could hear the crunch.
Too perfectly timed.
“Heads down!” I bellowed.
My hand found Evan, and I cast him forward, toward the others.
One Behaim woman was so startled at the noise of my voice that she nearly fell right there. She twisted and lost her balance, arms wheeling.
I grabbed her, and I hauled her back.
A mass came careening down at a sharp angle, spinning end over end. It struck the middle of the hallway like a great hatchet.
A gap formed and yawned wide in the same moment, as though the connections holding the hallway up were only attached at certain points. We teetered away from the other half, until fifteen feet separated me and the Behaim woman from the others.
I could see Alister with his arm around Rose’s shoulders. My friends, Evan. The High Priest, Ellie, Christoff, and Kathryn.
The intention had been for Evan to help the others dodge whatever was coming.
Plumes of dust obscured the shadows to either side.
“Fuck you!” the Behaim woman cried out, nearly drowned out by the bell. “Fuck!”
“I could have made it!”
No you couldn’t have.
“You might as well have thrown me over the side!”
“Don’t tempt me,” I said.
“What? Say again!”
I didn’t clarify.
The ground swayed just a bit as Evan settled on my shoulder, returning to my side.
“Fly?” he asked.
“Can’t fly with a passenger,” I said, raising my voice to be heard.
Looking past the gap, I could see Rose pointing at the staircase at the far end of the ‘hall’. Which was more of a bridge, and a dangerously tilted one. Everyone on there was gripping something, and I wasn’t positive that the bookcases that lined the side like a strange railing wouldn’t simply break away at the most inconvenient time.
I motioned for her to go. I’d have to catch up, but we couldn’t delay.
They lurched forward, moving diagonally to get from handhold to handhold and scale the incline.
Very carefully, I advanced down the decline that pointed down toward the chasm between the two sections of hall. The darkness below matched the darkness that lay beyond the short and ragged bookcases on either side of the hall.
Except as I continued to stare, I could make out the same section of porch that had divided the hallway. There was a platform, deceptively solid looking, and a criss-crossing mess of wood planks and rails from the porch, collapsed against some surface or another.
My eye traced the new route. Down perhaps twenty feet, almost two stories, then forward, and a matching climb up to the platform the others had been on.
“No,” the Behaim woman said. She was looking in the same direction, clinging to a bookshelf. “No way.”
“It’s probably a trap anyway,” I said. “Things here don’t cooperate.”
“They’re leaving us behind!”
She’s scared, I reminded myself. She’s not rational.
“We need to goooo!” Evan said.
The abyss had an intelligence to it. There was an organic flow to the way things happened, the why of it. Obvious enough with the way it had showed me select visions. There was a strategy.
The strategy here was simple. Attacking me by forcing me to make a choice. Leave her, or fall behind.
I smelled burning hair.
A scream echoed from below us, loud, close and forceful enough to momentarily drown out the Bell.
“The Barber,” Evan said.
“He’s coming,” I said. “He’s letting us know.”
“The demon,” the Behaim woman said. “Wards? I can erect defenses. Buy us time.”
“He can bypass most defenses,” I said.
“He- No, I refuse to believe that! Every problem has a solution! If I manipulate time…”
She looked at me, head snapping around.
“Bridge!” the woman cried out, abrupt. “Can you tear apart that bookcase? I can freeze it in time.”
“That isn’t a perception trick?” I asked.
“You know?” She asked, staring. She shook her head a bit, and our section of hallway reacted, swaying slightly, like a boat on water. “It’s my personal reserve!”
I looked at the bookcase, touched it.
“Hurry!” she said.
“Things here don’t cooperate,” I said. “It’s a trap. Tear it apart and we might lose our footing.”
“Can you unfreeze?” I asked. “Promptly?”
“Freeze me,” I told her. “Use me-”
I had to stop as a rumble made everything shake.
“-As a stepping stone!” I raised my voice to be heard.
She looked at me like I was crazy.
“Can you? Do you need to prepare?”
She shook her head.
I wasn’t sure which question she was answering with that negatory gesture, but one hand now covered her mouth, and it looked like she was gagging.
Before things got too bad, then…
“Evan, help me, circle back and help her!”
I spread my wings, and I leaped. I worried the ground would break underfoot or tilt to the point of dumping her down into the darkness.
But I couldn’t turn to look. I could only focus on covering the distance.
There was a flash, and as the darkness settled once again, I saw that the hallway was gone. Floorboards had tilted and fallen into the gap, and the gap itself had widened to about thirty feet.
I saw the woman on the other side. She’d landed, then scrambled for safe ground before unfreezing me.
I was glad she hadn’t simply fallen through and left me frozen there for some indeterminate amount of time.
Evan soared back to me, giving me some more height, so I could safely land. I practically threw my wings back out of the way, reaching out with one hand for a handhold.
“Good-” the Behaim woman started.
An object came flying through the darkness, striking her in the temple. It might have been a bat, might have been a brick.
Her handhold gone, legs spinning out from under her as her body twisted with the force of the hit, she simply slumped to one side, slipped beneath the lowest shelf in a bookshelf, and disappeared over the brink.
“Wha!?” Evan spoke.
I was frozen, staring at the place where she’d been, the open space her body had passed through.
“No!” Evan said.
I started moving. Climbing. Hurrying to catch up with the others.
Aggressive. The Drains had been slow, patient, deliberate. The Tenements had been more like an adolescent, intelligent, but not above pulling the wings off of flies.
This was something else. There was fury. Chaos.
Was it the influence of those of us who were here? An echo of Molly’s anger, of the war in Jacob’s Bell? The demon?
I reached the staircase Rose and the others had gone up. Shelves lined either side, leading up to a set of dilapidated rooms I could only see the underside of. Planks loomed overhead, just low enough to be inconvenient, with books perched on them. More makeshift shelves.
I turned to look back, and I could see the gap, one half of the library on each side.
Though it was barely illuminated, I could make out the Barber, my eyes fixed a few feet to his left, while I scanned him with my peripheral vision.
He was muscular, with scar tissue covering much of his body, suggesting lash marks, the rest of his skin bruised and ulcerated.
His head, though, was covered. An animal’s head with a long nose, tufts of hair. I guessed it was a horse’s or a mule’s head, pitch black, with teeth bared, the eyes pale. Blood leaked from the base, trailing down his muscular shoulder and arm, all the way down to a pair of shears as long as my forearm.
The shears tapped against his knee. Tk. Tk. Tch. Two clicks followed by a sharper sound.
“Run,” Evan whispered. “Run, please.”
Tch. Tch. Tk. Tch.
The Barber hurled the shears.
I dodged, with Evan’s help. Going up the stairs wasn’t an option. Too slow, and if the shears were aimed at me, the walls on either side wouldn’t let me continue to move out of the way. I’d simply be throwing myself further along the shears’ path.
I headed left of the door, one wing out, spread, to produce the wind that would stop my movement, fanning air away and pushing me back the way I’d come, before I simply reached the one corner of the hallway and crashed into and through the bookcase. Knowing the abyss, I might have destroyed one wing in the process.
The weapon struck the frame of the doorway that led up the stairs, just a foot to my right. Had he adjusted, predicted the way I’d move?
For a heartbeat, I considered grabbing the shears.
Then I saw the Barber reflected in the gleaming metal. I swiftly backed away as much as I was able.
He tore his way free of the blade’s surface, and the entire hallway lurched with his weight as he set foot on the floor.
Bookcases toppled like so many dominoes, and the floor gave way, starting near the gap, the collapse gradually taking more of the hallway, steadily stealing away the rest of the floor.
He easily tugged the shears free of the wood, giving no mind to the floor or the bookshelves.
Passing through the door meant getting close enough to him that he could hug me.
I kept my eye fixed on the door, just to his left. When he took a step forward, moving toward my line of sight, I was forced to drop my eye, staring at the floor between our feet.
I’d inadvertently moved back, and my shoulders pressed against the bookcase behind me.
I couldn’t smell like I should’ve been able to, but the air was thick with the Barber’s presence. I could feel it winding its way through me, and the spirits that lurked within my body cringed and backed away, as if it were poisonous gas.
Tktk. Tch. Tch. Tch. His free hand opened wide, palm facing me.
The sharp sound repeated, over and over. He wasn’t striding toward me. He moved slowly. Almost relishing this.
I planted my feet on the ground and pushed. Bracing myself, pressing against the bookshelf.
It didn’t work. Everything here broke so easily, except the stuff that I wanted broken.
I lunged, running for the chasm, the open space, the gap.
“Blake!” Evan shouted.
He threw himself between me and the Barber.
If I’d had blood, it would have run cold. I swatted at him, trying to knock him out of the way, force him to not do what he was trying to do. I wasn’t successful.
Three steps in, my hand just finding my wing, gripping the part that I needed to grip to make the arm and hand a part of the wing’s mechanism, I was stopped.
The Barber had matched me in speed.
The shears had penetrated my midsection.
Evan flew around in front of me, perching on a shelf.
He’d helped me dodge. There was only so much he could do against something like the Barber. Getting me entirely out of the way had been too difficult.
So he’d nudged me. Put me in a position where the shears, wielded like a knife, had punched straight through the gaps in my body and out the other side, piercing the wood of a bookcase. Touching nothing.
“Um,” Evan said.
The Barber moved around, and I had to twist my head to the side to avoid looking at him.
A hand settled on the right side of my face. The heel of the hand touched my jawline, the fingers reached just over the top of my head. Calloused and otherwise scarred enough that the hard edges grated against the wood on the side of my face.
His thumb pressed against my chin, just below my bottom lip, and he squeezed.
Bone and wood cracked, both splintering.
The thumb moved to my cheekbone. His grip still iron, though in a less advantageous position for raw power, he squeezed once more.
I felt pain, and I suspected my eye socket was almost on the verge of shattering, the eye popping out.
Evan cried out, but I couldn’t hear over the bell.
Abyss, help me, I thought.
There was no aid. But my eye didn’t pop free. Bone beneath my scalp fractured instead, and I very nearly slipped free of his grip, the blood or other head-fluids making his grip less secure. A gorier version of soap in the shower.
He caught my neck before I could.
He pulled the shears free, and there was nothing I could do in the way of struggling.
Evan came for me. All I could think about were the shears, and a bird that was flying right for the demon that was wielding them.
My thoughts were noise and that noise sang in response to the bells. It was a reckless song, a mad song.
I reached up and I grabbed the shears. I held them partially shut with my one hand.
Evan veered around, and he dove.
Under the floor.
The butcher tugged, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t keep my grip on the shears. I could only hope that I’d cost him precious time. Still gripping my neck, he twisted, and he stabbed.
The shears punctured the floor, all the way to the handle.
An aimed strike.
There were no signs as to whether he’d hit Evan or not, but Evan’s initial dive and movements hadn’t been ineffectual. He’d flown past and under the disintegrating floor, and accelerated the destruction, jarring it.
A whole section of floor gave way, and the barber backed away, heading back toward the doorframe and stairs that led up to the others, dragging me with.
Oh, to have a second hand.
The nearest bookcases were to my left, and I had only a right hand.
I could draw the Hyena, but what good would that do?
I twisted, striving to grab at something, anything, but my feet were too high up off the ground, and there was nothing in reach to my right. My head snapped sharply from far left to far right, until I thought I might damage branches or spine doing it, just trying to avoid looking at him. Simply closing my eyes would be admitting defeat, giving up any and all chance of spotting some clue or tool I could use.
The noise in my head was getting worse. Chaos, noise, blood, pain. I felt like every chip of bone that was dancing against my brain or whatever things surrounded my brain was producing a dozen televisions worth of maximum-volume static.
My dangling wing scraped something. The chain at my middle.
I reached down, and pulled it free. The barbed wire caught, as if the goblin was spiting me.
Bringing one leg up, I managed to hook my toes on the end, and kick it down and away. I let it spool more.
It caught. We simultaneously jerked, the Barber’s retreat from the gaping maw of the abyss temporarily halted.
He tugged me, and the tiny hooks that had latched on wood broke or bent.
Change of tack, then.
Still holding the end of the chain, I quickly reached down, and grabbed more before it could fall. A loop. I threw the loop over the Barber’s arm, then reached under and caught the end.
Rusty bits of metal and hooks of barbed wire caught on his flesh. It parted like burned plastic wrap, immediately oozing pus and wriggling things I couldn’t make out in the dark.
I tugged harder, but the damage remained superficial. I’d wanted to set the metal into his flesh, or verify if he could be hurt at all.
The chain ran along my right leg, and I struggled, while the Barber dragged me, to get my foot in the right position, the chain against the long side of it.
We reached the stairway. He paused to reach forward and shove one section of bookshelf away. His frame was slightly too large for the narrow corridor, lined by books, on either side and above.
I kicked out, kicking the chain, so it struck the doorframe and neighboring bookshelf.
It wasn’t a firm wrap, certainly not a knot or anything binding.
But when he ascended, pushing again to destroy surroundings and make room for, himself, the chain around his arm bound him to the doorframe, and he was momentarily halted.
He hauled his arm to one side, hauling me with it, my body striking the bookshelf, and links broke, though the barbed wire only stretched a fraction.
It put him in an awkward position, facing down to the bottom of the staircase.
Until he reached out and clasped the chain.
Passing some kind of energy into it. Or taking something out.
The chain disintegrated, and I could hear an echo of a goblin’s scream, in the noise it made as the pieces scattered.
Evan flew past. A reckless dive, a perpendicular direction to the angle of the stairs. Veering wildly just as he reached me, passing me, to fly off into the empty void.
A shove. Pushing me down.
Branches on either side of my neck broke away as they scraped against the Barber’s fingertips and thumb, and I was driven face first into the stairs. Barber to my right, bookcase wall to my left.
I pushed myself back and away. Off to one side, into empty darkness.
Void, shadow. Nothingness.
I turned over in the air, still reeling, thoughts distorted, before I remembered to unfold my wings.
Evan joined me.
“Little hero,” I said.
He might not have heard me, because he didn’t respond.
The Library was still coming together all around us, but for the time being, it was a twist of architecture suspended in shadow. I couldn’t know for sure if anything lingered in those shadows, or if there were any buildings or features, but the flying seemed unimpeded.
Far below, now, I could see the Barber, ascending the long staircase, periodically destroying what was in its way.
Further up, much further up, I could make out the others.
Rose had recruited a bogeyman. A pale man with newsprint on his skin and a great paper-cutting knife.
They were making headway. Covering ground.
The barber, shears in hand, covered half the distance between himself and the others, traveling into a broken picture frame, then stepping out of it.
I got to a point where I was just above the others just as the Abyss decided to step in their way.
Light flared, showing around the edges and bottom of a set of double doors, leaking through a window. It was as if the tunnel and door had always been there, without the light. Which it hadn’t, but the darkness played tricks.
The main group was tense, ready for trouble, when the doors opened.
Children. Boys and girls in private school uniforms. Gaunt, pale, their eyes more dark shadow than eyes. Some held flashlights.
One threw a flashlight forward, toward the others. It hit wooden floor and span violently.
On each pass, the beam briefly illuminating the group of students, there were a different number. Seven, six, seven, three, six…
On the final turn, there was a woman, following the group.
Horn-rimmed glasses, a corset taken to some terminal extreme, leaving room for only spine, and floor-length dress that didn’t reveal her feet. She didn’t walk like she had legs. She flowed forward as if she were carried aloft by beetles or impossibly tiny, quick feet.
She was talking, making grand, sweeping gestures. With each gesture, the children around her flinched.
Was there a section of the Abyss that was a school?
Newsprint-face, now the students and teacher. The Abyss was pulling together Bogeymen and Abyss-residents with a theme.
I did what I could to land as gently as possible. I didn’t want my landing to make the floor start breaking down.
The teacher collected a book, lifting it free of the shelf. She opened her mouth to speak, gracing us with a view of something that looked more like the inside of a worm’s gullet, studded with hooks and teeth, then raised a finger. Wait.
Everyone but the teacher was knocked clean to the ground, many sprawling precariously close to the edge, as things moved.
Great pillars and blocks of stone rose from the abyss. They were dark gray and black, but they were textured enough that I could see the dappled tone, the cracks, the doorways and tunnels that marked the surfaces.
One pillar struck the underside of the platform, and only quick moving on Ty’s part saved Tiff from falling.
Evan flew over to help the rescue operation.
The teacher remained rooted where she was, looking down on us all. I eyed her, wary, but speech was impossible, and even standing was risky, as the Abyss insisted on shoring everything up.
Ty and the others managed to rescue Tiff before the renovations continued.
With the last set of rising columns and slabs came bookcases. Returning that which had fallen, adding more.
A bookcase with a glass front rose to our right, breaking the bridge that led to the Academy. It continued rising, a regular bookcase beneath it, then folded on some great hinge, right over top of us. A candleabra that had been on a shelf fell, flames flickering as wax pooled against the glass.
What had been a rope-bridge setup of rooms and stairs and countless bookcases was now becoming confined. Narrow.
The bell took on a different tone, now. Not so loud, but each toll seemed to pass us like so much wind, just piercing enough to make people wince, angling their heads to reduce the blow of it.
“Where’s Milly!?” a Behaim said, eyes wide.
“Couldn’t-” I started.
“You left her behind!?”
I shook my head.
“He tried,” Evan said.
“Says his friend?”
“Tut tut,” the teacher cut in, flowing forward to put herself between the two of us and the Behaims. “Arguing. Arguing has to be punished.”
The children that accompanied her cringed.
“No,” Rose said, her voice sharp. “We’ll take Evan’s word for it. And you…”
She pointed at the teacher-Other.
“Shut up. I don’t know what you are, I don’t care, you don’t scare me, and I refuse to let you waste our time.”
The teacher blinked, a little put off by that.
The kids were cowering even more, now.
“March,” Rose said.
“Barber’s coming,” I said. “Twenty seconds to a minute away, I’d guess.”
“Then march faster,” Rose said.
The others started to head up the stairwell. The walls were so close on either side that they had to go single-file.
By some signal I didn’t catch, the teacher sicced her children on us. They ran forward. The ones that had flashlights were winging the lights left and right, and it made for something of a strobe effect. Tricks on the eyes.
Again, the uneven number of kids, from one moment to the next. All gaunt, all hollowed out, the color sucked away.
The Knights fired their guns. The muzzle flashes only made for more bursts of light. The Knight aimed at one, fired, and in the moment of the flash, was hitting open air between two children.
“Stop shooting!” Nick called out. Too late.
When their number crashed into us, there were two dead Other-kids on the ground, and ten kids clutching and clawing at us.
I put the Hyena to one’s throat. I’d hoped to stop it, but it only continued to press forward, until it ran itself through on the blade.
Ellie, for her part, displayed a remarkable enthusiasm in kicking one child down the stairs. Not surprising, but remarkable.
Kathryn, for her part, despite being stronger, was struggling.
Rose gestured, her palm already bloody, and sent two kids sprawling. She stepped on one’s throat, then stepped on one hand when it tried to claw at her calf.
The newsprint man fought, tearing apart and getting torn apart in turn. The teacher reached out to him and dug claws into the underside of his chin, penetrating the softer tissue there. He dropped, flesh sizzling around the wound.
The teacher moved while we dealt with the kids. It felt like every time I turned around, they’d found some excuse or occasion to multiply. Not a lot, but there were roughly thirteen here, and that was four more than before, if we ignored the one that had been kicked down the stairs.
“Books,” the teacher said. “Oh, how I have missed a good book. I do think I’ll enjoy this relocation.”
“Do you?” Rose asked.
The teacher hugged a book to her dangerously pointed breasts. “Heaven.”
“Hell,” Rose said. “At least for certain types. Look inside.”
I could see concern on the teacher’s face.
“Rose,” I said. “Barber.”
“I know,” she said. “But-”
The teacher shrieked. She dropped the book.
I saw Rose lean forward, peering down, squinting against the poor, mottled candlelight.
“Oh,” she said. “Yeah. Very few books in here are readable. The ink runs, or it’s in a lost language, or something. The rest, near as I can figure, are filled with things you want to avoid.”
The teacher’s mouth gaped. She turned, clutching for more books, pulling them from shelves, dropping them on the floor so they landed open.
I approached the teacher from behind.
The children didn’t stop me. Whatever control the teacher exerted, be it fear or some kind of puppeteering, she wasn’t exerting it now.
I cut her throat with the Hyena.
“Did you think it would be any different?” I asked.
“Go!” Rose said. “Go, go! Careful, don’t get jammed in!”
The children were gone when I turned around.
Rose and I lingered, Alister standing off to one side.
“I need time,” Alister told me. “Rose knows, but… I’ve been taught things we might be able to use to block Barbatorem. We just need, I don’t know, five minutes? Ten?”
“You have-” I started to say.
I stopped short as the air that passed through my lips came with a taste, one that was filling the room.
The rank smell of the Barber, soup-thick in the air.
I heard his footsteps.
“-Seconds,” I finished.
“Avert your eyes!” Rose called up the stairs. “Try not to look back!”
She gave Alister a push. He headed up the stairs.
“Go,” she told me.
I didn’t waste time.
For her part, she was right behind me. Holding her rifle, she aimed it at the ceiling.
Glass shattered. The candle fell, and the light nearly went out.
Reaching into her coat, she pulled out a string of pouches. She tossed one into the middle of the room.
The flame erupted. Oil, or some kind of accelerant. Filling a room that was all wood and books.
“Won’t work,” I said.
“I know!” she said.
I turned, pushing Alister lightly, but there was a jam, and the single-file line had halted.
I could see the Barber appear in the doorway, lit from below by fire.
The flesh burned, and it smelled like rancid meat and burning hair, but he didn’t react with pain. He didn’t slow or stagger.
He was dragging someone or something with him. A body, held not with his hand, but skewered with the shears.
Using both hands, he held the body as he waded through the flames, so it wouldn’t burn.
The boy Ellie had kicked down the stairs.
The barber cut him in half.
One half almost disappeared before it touched fire. It screamed and thrashed for a moment before it disappeared like the other children had.
The other thrashed too, but it was a gibbering, screaming, violent thrashing. Bloody, flayed, rasping, almost breaking itself in a struggle to reach down and get at the Barber. Its expression was wide, and the expression so twisted and manic that I thought its skin might split, pulled back and away as far as it was.
A girl, dressed in a scorched, ripped private school uniform, drenched in blood. No longer a half, but a broken whole.
The jam further up cleared. I grabbed Rose, and gave her a push, squeezing past her, and I grabbed a book.
“What are you doing?”
“We already decided I would die tonight,” I said. “Run!”
The barber threw the child, over the flames and at the stairs.
There was nothing to her but fury and violence. Pain and viciousness.
The child grappled me, clutching, tearing. Her own fingernails tore free of the beds as she scrabbled, scratched, and clawed. She found a grip on one of the bones of my forearm, and I felt something crack as she pulled.
Only one of her own fingers. But she’d clawed away wood and twigs, too.
I did what I could to keep her at bay, keep the damage minimal, but I had only one hand, and I was focused on holding on to the book.
I caught the motion of the Barber in the corner of one eye.
I moved the book to intercept. It slammed against one shelf, and I braced it there, as the shears slammed right through it, handle-deep. Even with the bracing, I was spun around, and nearly fell on the blades of the shears.
The Barber was reflected in the blade.
I felt him starting to emerge.
Underhand, practically trampling the child, very nearly falling into the flames, I hurled the book underhand, down the long staircase the Barber had emerged from.
Wing extended, one hand catching a bookcase, I kicked the mirror-child loose, into the fire.
She screamed with pain and rage and madness, and I turned, running, taking stairs three at a time.
From a narrow staircase to a sprawl. Bookcases six stories high, pillars with nothing but books and balconies and bridges extending from them.
The bell was louder here. Others practically crawled on every surface.
We had a number of skilled practitioners, a priest, we had several Others. We could do this, if we could just keep moving.
But we’d stalled. Somehow.
I saw Rose with a gun to Kathryn’s head.
Kathryn wept, lying on the ground, propped up with her one good arm.
“Move!” Rose said.
But Kathryn didn’t budge an inch.
“Rose,” Alexis said, “It’s not going to work. You can’t force her.”
“We can’t leave her behind,” Rose said.
“Leave me behind,” Kathryn said. Her voice was a croak. “Please. Just leave me.”
I looked back over my shoulder.
Stepping closer, trying to see what had happened.
Kathryn lay across a sprawl of books.
Children’s books. More square than rectangular. The scrawled figure on the covers and the open pages bore a striking resemblance to her. My eldest cousin.
I picked one up. Saw Kathryn flinch.
It was open to the last two pages.
But, Big Bad Kathy told herself, even if my son doesn’t love me, and even if my husband hates me so, I love myself. I do, I do!
I glanced at Kathy. I looked down at the last page.
I do, Big Bad Kathy lied to herself. I do, I do, I do.
Kathy had met my eyes. They weren’t eyes anymore, but scrawls. Crayon scribbles. A tear leaked from the corner of one.
I looked down, at the stairway where the Barber was no doubt making headway. I looked up, and I saw how far we still had to go.
“She’s gone,” I said, wincing at the noise in my head. “Do like she wants. Leave her.”
There was reluctance, the token hesitation, but there was no protest.
Kathy only hung her head.
“I’m sorry. I wish I could help, but can you just…” I hesitated, reaching. “Not be here, when the demon comes?”
Kathy didn’t respond, but moving slowly, she did pick up her books, and she hurried off in another direction.
“Don’t read the damn books!” Rose warned the others, as we moved onward and upward.