The tolling of the bell picked up, and with it came the monsters. Floorboards creaked and shifted, as if they weren’t all nailed down or supported, but we weren’t standing on rope bridges anymore. Things were solid, and sounds in the walls suggested that they were still being built, moment by moment. Deeper constructions, beyond the surface level.
Gunshots punctuated the chaos. With each shot, it felt like the bell was rocking, as if the recoil of the guns was jarring the bell, moving it harder and faster.
I saw Nick toward the lead, patting pockets, reaching into his jeans. “Need ammo!”
One of his companions pushed ammunition into his hand.
I could see dark shapes moving toward him, and sprinted forward, a little too rushed. My hard wooden feet slipped on hard wooden floor, and I nearly fell. I used my wing to brace myself, touched my hand to the floor, and covered the distance.
If I’d been a half-step later, I might have been too late. He was only just finishing reloading now, as the attackers reached him.
I tackled the nearest one, driving him into his companion. Evan flew away, to the far side of Nick, to push at a lost soul that was approaching with a makeshift spear in hand.
Ink black, because he was ink. He hit ground, and the ink splattered in lines and loops, spelling out words, drawing images.
The images covered his companion, who wound up beneath him. Not an Other, not quite, simply a lost soul. The script spiraled out as if drawn by invisible pens, and there was a delay.
The lost soul moved, trying to crawl away, and where the lines had been drawn, skin split, blood gushing out as if by as many knife slashes.
The group was running, and in getting to my feet, hurrying to put myself between these two strangers and the tail end of the group, I was left behind.
The ink man grinned, and I could see ink-stained teeth and a black tongue in the lower half of his face. His eyes were black pools of ink unto themselves.
His companion struggled to stand, fighting to hold his skin in place where it had parted. He slipped on wet ink and his own blood, and fell hard.
The ink man reached out with one foot, and placed it on the lost soul’s chest.
The spiraling script didn’t only cover the surface, but ran through the man’s veins, spreading out from the largest to the surface of the skin.
Blood, bone, muscle, and skin all separated, cut to pieces by the script.
The gore itself ran red-black, colored with ink, and the blood spread out in turn, forcefully enough that a chunk of skull was sent spinning off to one side. The blood penned out a story in red around the corpse.
The ink man smiled.
I touched the spot where my shoulder had connected with him. The wood had been gouged, and splinters stood away from the wound. The gouges had been inked black.
“It’s a shame you’re the asshole kind of monster,” I said, “Because I really miss my old tattoos.”
He spread his arms. Ink dripped from the fingertips, knuckles and elbows.
When he spoke, it was through a mouthful of ink. Spatters flew from his lips, and the words were muddled. “Got to earn a place.”
“I don’t think the Abyss is going to kick you out. You fit here.”
“Fit, yes,” he said. “But my aspirations are higher.”
“Higher? You want out?”
He only smiled.
I was aware that the others were continuing to leave me behind. The butcher behind me was a problem I had to keep in mind. I needed to resolve this, fast.
The tolling of the bell was growing quieter. Slowly but surely.
I frowned, backing toward the others.
The ink man apparently took that for weakness, opting to charge me.
My wing stayed up, raised like a shield, blocking much of my body, defensive.
If he cut the membrane of the wing, I might lose the ability to glide, my flying-without-really-flying.
He might have realized that. Being the sadist he was, he might have wanted it. To take something from me. The bogeyman, reducing things to their composite elements. Recycling the world.
It was greed of a sort. Greed I took advantage of.
I pulled the wing back and away, twisting my body as I drew and thrust with the Hyena in one movement. A weapon he’d been prevented from seeing with the wing where it was.
He ran straight into it. Changing course for him was as difficult as it had been for me to rush to Nick’s aid. His ‘blood’ splattered, a large amount of ink, and it landed on my arm and hand. It didn’t spread or soak in as ink should, but took form, carving out nonsense words.
Still impaled, he reached for my face.
I hauled the blade of the Hyena up and toward his heart and shoulder, dragging it through his flesh.
His hands dropped, and he collapsed.
I was quick to back away, as the script spiraled out like something alive, a hundred thin, razor-sharp limbs, ranging from curved to looped and to angular.
The script did its damage, tearing apart surroundings, taking bookshelf to pieces, and cutting floorboards in half. The blood script that marked where the lost soul had died was swallowed up and dropped down to a lower floor.
I turned and hurried to catch up with the others. I couldn’t see them, as they’d started to run up a staircase that spiraled up a great pillar of bookcases, as thick around as a house, and they’d already rounded a corner, but I could see the brief flashes that came with the gunfire. There were Others swarming them, now. Many could be just as bad as the one I’d just dispatched.
The tolling of the bell grew louder as I ran.
Not because I was drawing closer. The sound of the bell wasn’t quite following the group. I was heading toward the base of the staircase, and the others were ascending.
I slowed to a stop, waiting, looking up.
I listened, as the sounds of the bell grew quieter still.
There was a scream, a man’s, and I tensed. Now that they were high enough to have few options, the pillar was getting in their way. Rearranging, or employing some trap.
I was getting a sense of how this place worked.
“Evan!” I roared the word.
The peal of the bell joined the echo of my cry.
They came out of the woodwork, some very literally. They stepped out of shadows and crawled through gaps between and inside bookshelves.
Lost souls, one or two bogeymen.
The lost souls were haggard, very much not in tune with the theme of the library. They reminded me of the homeless, but their skin and hair had suffered for going too long without light, their eyes were eerily large, as if they were trying to take in whatever light was available. Many were looking furtively about, as if studying their new surroundings.
I recognized the one bogeyman. The papercut girl from the library. She’d been the one that had been turned back on us by the witch hunters. Old fashioned clothes, old fashioned hair. Where she’d been prim and crisp before, each page of her body was bloodstained, she worked to breathe, and she bent over as if in pain.
Her book was gouged, and blood leaked from it, a slow, steady drip.
Her expression was one of hate.
The other was a brute of a man with a cracked old leather tome for a head, a great paper-cutting guillotine blade in one hand, wielded like a sword. He had hardcover books slipped into the breast pocket of his dress shirt and the pockets of his slacks, one smaller book tucked into a rolled up sleeve like someone might with a pack of cigarettes, and they fit easily. He had a belly, but not to the point of being morbidly obese. I could estimate him at six hundred pounds, easily, and it was more muscle and height than fat. A literary ogre.
I remained still, only periodically turning to check my back.
“Blake! Fly!” he cried out.
His voice was the trigger that set the Others to moving. Lost souls mobbed, and Bookbrain lurched into action. The papercut girl hung back.
I turned away from Bookbrain, ran toward the nearest bookcase, sheathing the Hyena and preparing my wings.
The shelves became footholds, I ran up the surface, and drew the wings down.
Evan reached me, and he buoyed me up, just out of reach of Bookbrain’s swinging paper cutter.
A flurry of papers rose past me. I felt the papers cut, and I recognized the papers for what they were. Superficial damage, but she preferred the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach.
They collected into the papercut girl’s form, about fifty feet above me. The girl perched on one railing at the spiral staircase that ran along the pillar, just a silhouette in darkness, but I could see the pale eyes staring down at me.
She leaped, and she didn’t fall so much as she floated. Papers in the wind. Unpredictable movements, her dress and blouse moving with a life of their own, all sharp angles, as if the were starched to a ridiculous degree. Now and again, she shifted the orientation of the pages, and every page that formed her body fluttered, as if she were a living flipbook.
I evaded her, turning a sharp right. She passed me.
A moment later, the pages all went horizontal to the ground, and an updraft caught her. The pages folded, turning a sharp angle, and she snapped over in my general direction, a paper airplane flight.
The papers formed a real, denser body as she flew straight for me. Injured book still in hand, she reached for Evan, missed, and wrapped her arms around my wing, crushing it against her body. Her consolation prize.
Whatever I was, I still needed physics to fly, and a folded wing with a fifty-pound weight attached to it was the bad sort of physics.
I spiraled, and it wasn’t a good sort of spiral. Not a slow one. It was the sort of spinning descent that made it impossible to get my bearings in time.
Evan gave me a slight push, to counteract the drop, but it was a small thing compared to terminal descent.
I -we– crashed into the railing at the side of the pillar. The papercut girl was scattered into thousands of individual bloodstained pages, and I was sent through the stairs, still descending, left to crash at a diagonal angle into the bookcases above the next set of stairs.
I exhaled slowly. The damaged shelves had pierced my body, trashing my midsection and my haphazardly repaired leg. My head still hadn’t fully recovered from the brief skirmish with the Barber.
Yet, as I remained there, temporarily a part of the bookshelf, I could feel my body stirring to life, taking splinters of wood into itself, repairing that damage.
My enemy, too, was pulling herself together. The impact had been nothing to her.
But the wound delivered to her book might never heal.
I could see the rest of this area, with similar pillars, differing in how they were climbed, the ground floor with its rows and columns of bookshelves, and the lost souls and Others that were milling about, yet to find an equilibrium.
Pockets of chaos.
I closed my eyes, and I heard the bells.
Was it even Molly anymore?
Was I even Blake? Or Rusty?
“Are you dead? Please don’t be dead,” Evan said.
“Alive,” I said, my voice a murmur.
“You shouldn’t keep doing this,” he said.
“I have to,” I said. “Have to get the others out.”
I pulled myself free of the book case, and hopped down. My landing was a crash landing, not helped by the state of my left leg. It was only partially intact.
The papercut girl stood on a bookshelf that was as tall as a two-story house. It swayed with her negligible weight, threatening to topple and take the other bookshelves around it like so many dominoes.
I turned to head up the stairs, and she took flight, dissolving into a flurry of windborne papers.
Intent on interrupting my forward progress.
Right. Change of plans.
I turned, dropping one wing, steering myself toward the pillar. I landed, bracing myself with one hand and both feet, and was utterly unsurprised as the shelf under my feet gave way.
I found fresher footing. My eye was fixed on the spine of a book. The Killing of Angels.
I turned my eyes away.
I braced myself with my wing and used my free hand to seize a candle.
“That’s fire, Blake! Fire bad! You’re made of wood, remember?”
I passed the candle into my mouth, biting into it.
“That’s fire very close to your hair and your head, Blake!”
I took flight, pushing off and away from the shelves.
The papercut girl was drifting, riding the currents of hot air that rose from innumerable bookcases with a lonely candle on every other shelf. She saw me move and gave chase. Arms became great collections of paper, broad. Wings to match my own. Only she could fly. Her dress and hair moved in the wind, not rising, but only shuffling their flipbook shuffle.
I fought to ascend. Both to catch up with the others and to stay above her. But I needed Evan’s help, and she could fly with ease.
She matched me in height, and for a moment, we made eye contact.
I would have spoken to her, but I still held the candle, clamped in my teeth.
I charged her. A bit of a dive, then rising. She countered by moving skyward, then dropping. Evading, doing the reverse of what I did.
As she was lower than me, I spat the candle out at her.
As attacks went, it was meager, pathetic. It didn’t even reach her, and it was stupid to imagine the candle might have remained lit while one flew through the air.
She watched it spiral down, and looked up at me with a mean smirk on her face.
Her eyes widened as she saw me flying straight at her again.
She scattered, turning into pages, each one slicing past me. Many slicing at the flesh of my face and eyelids.
“Evan, the book!” I called out. “Thick clumps!”
He abandoned me. Taking my ability to fly.
My instructions had been vague, short, nonsensical, but Evan and I were on the same page, so to speak.
He flew into the midst of the papercut girl, and I saw him flip over, hit hard by one flying piece of paper.
But he recovered, and he evaded the next attack. Ironic, but he evaded the aimed blows better than the one that was very possibly incidental or accidental.
I twisted my face away from the attacks that still struck it, to little avail.
Evan, for his part, found what we were looking for.
The papercut girl couldn’t abandon her book. Even like this, she had to carry it with her. The book was supported by papers around it, a parachute or hang glider, hidden, masked.
Evan hit the book free of its protective sheath, sending it spiraling end over end.
I dove for it. So did the papercut girl.
She reached it first, and rematerialized part of a body around it, torso, face, arms, but not head, not legs or stomach. She hugged it to her chest.
She wasn’t in a position to move out of the way. I folded my wing, Hyena extended, and touched the sides of her book with the toes of both feet. I plummeted with it, touching the Hyena to the cover.
Her expression changed as the wind rifled through the pages of her head. Fear.
“Swear. Never harm another soul!” I shouted.
I could hear the bell’s protest.
She touched her hand to her heart. To the book. Her lips moved, but no sound came out, only the rustle of pages.
I kicked off, pushed away, sending the book through her paper body, scattering it.
Evan and I took flight. I flew in lazy, gliding circles around the pillar, higher with each circle, counterclockwise to the stairway’s clockwise rotation.
I wanted nothing more than to catch up with the others.
But, for just one rotation, flying around the pillar, I worked only to glide. To observe, to listen.
I saw the Barber on the ground. Six stories down, but he was unmistakeable. Cutting through hordes, reveling in the chaos. A limb cut free here, a hand around an individual’s face while the scissors passed through to snip off a tongue.
He threw the gurgling Other to one side, and met another head on.
The black-feathered Other clawed at him, dug talons in and then twisted away, taking pounds of flesh in the process. Yet somehow, with all the damage that was done, the Barber wasn’t any less.
I could see the body language of the Other and the observers change, as they realized that something was off. Wrong.
The Barber took that opening, stabbing. And the Barber cut.
With one hand, the Barber tore.
I could see an entire crowd back away from the Barber, with that action, as if the tearing were so great an action it had a shockwave, capable of parting a sea of monsters.
The Barber’s arms remained extended out to either side, his body bloody, as the two halves rose. A raven man that had been skinned and feathered. A twisted non-human that was twisted, broken, a wretch even among the sad and desolate souls of the Abyss.
He didn’t move, nor did he drop his arms as each half lunged, attacking Others on either side of him. It was only when the skinned birdman tossed a body his way that he let his hands drop, a two-handed grip on the shears, spearing the victim in the side.
He used both hands, angling the shears, as he starting to cut yet another victim.
My flight carried me forward, putting the pillar between me and the barber, blocking my view.
The bell was loud, down there. It was loud above.
I was almost certain now.
“Up, fast!” I said, as I found a warmer air current. I flapped my wings. Evan joined me, and we worked to climb our way.
It didn’t take long to catch up to the others, even with the delay. The staircase was steep, and flying beat already-exhausted legs climbing what had to be twenty stories.
Especially when the Others kept coming at them. Lost souls worming their way out between shelves like so many maggots in a carcass. Now and again, an Other would appear.
Several of the Knights had abandoned their guns, ammunition spent. The ones that had guns were saving the bullets for the Others.
There were so many Others around them that the collected pile of bodies on the stairs was impeding progress.
I circled around, and landed on the outside of the railing, further up.
“Rose!” I called out, roaring over the noise of the bell.
A bullet penetrated my chest. I very nearly lost my grip.
“Shit! Sorry!” One of the Knights called out.
Nick snatched the man’s gun from him and passed it to another Knight.
I touched the bullet wound.
Rose and Alister had rivers of sweat running down their faces, and it wasn’t hot. They were dirty, spattered in blood, and Alister seemed lightly wounded, though he still managed to help Rose, one hand on her shoulder.
“Can’t stop,” Rose said.
“Stop!” I called out. “Stop making noise!”
Ironic, that I had to shout out over the bell to say it.
She and Alister glanced at one another.
Behind them, Ellie screamed as a haggard old man reached between books on the shelf and tried to drag her closer. Her back to the railing, she kicked the man in the face.
Ellie seemed to like doing that, as it happened.
The railing, in that same moment, gave way. Karma? Whatever it was, Johannes and a Knight reached for her. Two baseball players going for the same ball. Counterintuitive. Both failed, where one might have succeeded.
I took flight, Evan helping.
As rescues went, it wasn’t graceful. It might not have even counted as a rescue, given how crude it was. I veered into her, slamming her back toward bookshelves and stairs. It kept her from falling the entire way down to the ground floor and the Barber, but it was only about as graceful as my last collision with the shelves. Except Ellie wasn’t the type to heal within minutes, she was meat.
We collapsed in a heap, and stairs creaked, threatening to break and drop us even further, as we reeled from the impact. She was hurt, and I was very aware that I didn’t want to hurt her further.
I saw a set of red eyes peering between books. No back to the bookcase here.
I shook my head.
The lower lids of the eyes raised, as if the cheekbones were rising. Glee? Opening its mouth?
A hand snapped out, tipped with black claws.
I grabbed it.
“The fuck!?” Ellie gasped.
I shoved my wing into her lower face. The closest I could approximate to a finger pressed against her lip.
“Shhhh,” I whispered.
I dug wooden fingers into the flesh of the Other’s wrist, sharp, intended to hurt, and as it gave me leeway, I twisted the arm, bending it backward, forcing it into the shelf.
I heard the moan and growl of pain.
My fingers sank in to the first knuckle, blood welling around them.
The Other screamed, long, loud.
The scream was interrupted as something else behind the bookshelf seized it, tearing it away so quickly and so suddenly that only part of his hand was left in my grip. The ring and pinky finger, and a bit of the upper palm.
The noise in my head got louder.
Ellie was staring at me.
I joined her in looking at the piece of hand, then quickly tossed it back, over the railing.
I climbed off Ellie and gave her some assistance as she found her feet.
Looking where the Other had attacked from, I saw the spines of books. Gibberish, running ink, scratched spine, and a book titled The Lies Rose Has Told You.
I took hold of the book, then pushed it past the bookshelf, into the dark void beyond, where monsters seemed to dwell and stew, ready to emerge.
“You okay to move?” I whispered.
“Have to be,” Ellie said. “No way I’m staying behind like Kathy did.”
I nodded. I flexed one wing, and I wasn’t sure I liked the structural integrity of it. It had been lightly damaged, and being this high up, I wasn’t sure I wanted to try to fly and fail.
I opted to ascend on foot, instead. Staying closer to Ellie.
We were a full story down from the others, now. We were quiet on the ascent, but we still moved as fast as we were able. Ellie was clearly hurting, wincing, moving with a limping sort of gait, favoring her back, but she didn’t complain, and there was something dogged about her persistence.
“You keep doing this,” Evan said. “Jumping on the grenades.”
“I think the Abyss knows it,” I said. “It keeps encouraging me to.”
“Well stop! Because the guy that’s made of wood is the guy that’s gotta stay behind with the fire and the demon? That makes no sense at all!”
“Quiet!” I hissed, “We’re in a damn library!”
For a moment, he seemed stunned. He blinked.
“It’s like you’re trying to die,” he said, his voice almost a whisper.
“You’re making it awfully hard to keep you alive. I don’t know if I’ll get another chance to say it before you do something else that’s stupid, but you keep playing with fire? Dragon, demon, The third time counts.”
“Faysal, maybe,” I said. “Dunno if he has fire, but it could be angelic, light, energy…”
“Fay- No. You’re not getting it, you nincompoop. We do this as a team. We kick his butt and you live, and then we figure out where we go from there!”
“Shh,” I said. “I’m not disagreeing. But shhh.”
I saw him bob his head in a nod.
Ellie spoke up. “What are you talking about? Kathy just got magicked or something and we’re so supremely fucked, and you’re seriously thinking this could turn out okay?”
“You’re not?” Evan shot back. “How can you get through something like this if you don’t believe you can?”
We’d just reached the tail end of the other group. They’d stopped where they were, and were taking a breather.
Sure enough, now that the were being quiet, the influx of Others had stopped. The Library was relaxing.
But I could see every head turn skyward as a rumble shook the entire area. Books fell off shelves here and there, and one tall bookcase toppled, forming an arch with another tilted bookcase.
“We make noise if we move,” Rose said, her voice low, still carrying well with that Conquest voice she had a way of tapping into. “But if we stay still, we sink.”
“Lose-lose,” Alexis said.
“It’s the way the Abyss works,” I agreed.
There were screams from far below, a rumble as something shifted into place elsewhere. Candleflames throughout the Library swayed, very nearly going out.
“Flying’s the way to go,” Evan said. “Minimal flapping, find the hot air…”
“We don’t fly, you little moron,” Ellie spoke. “Why am I just now realizing I’m arguing with a bird like it’s normal?”
Johannes spoke for the first time, after his long period of silence. “Don’t let appearances deceive. The angel Faysal is powerful enough that only a god or a demon might pose a challenge. This bird…”
“Is awesome,” Evan said, with confidence.
“Evan is one of the individuals here most qualified to speak on the subject of perseverance,” I murmured.
The High Priest nodded. He sounded so weary, but he was one of the oldest people here, not counting the two remaining Behaims who weren’t named Alister. He sounded so calm as he asked, “He’s earned the right to be optimistic, hm?”
Evan piped up, “Damn straight. I survived for a long time, being hunted by a monster, and I kept up hope until the day I died, and you know what happened after I died? Still hopeful. So if you think you can change my mind about us being able to get through this, you’re going to have to do better than the wolf-goblin-hyena thing did, you’re going to have to do better than a personification of Conquest did, and you’re going to have to do better than all the other practitioner schmoes did, along the way.”
“Schmoes?” Alister asked. One of the schmoes.
Something moved in the bookshelves behind Evan, just at my shoulder. He hadn’t raised his voice that much.
I wasn’t sure I liked that.
“Kathy died, like Callan died,” Ellie said. “Like Molly died. One of the… other people didn’t come back, after that bridge got cut in half. I don’t see how you can be this confident. This place is…”
“Liable to grind us up and digest us,” Johannes said, his voice low.
I caught a glimpse of his, as we ran between bookshelves as tall as buildings. He looked haggard, strained. His long hair was sticking to his head with sweat, and the candlelight glittered in his eyes.
“I wanted to help you,” he said. “Faysal said we met when Molly Walker died. I think my approach to you was the same that it was to Rose. A refuge for a vestige, a kind of peace with a diabolist. As much as that’s possible.”
I thought I detected a faint ringing with his words.
“Shhh,” I reminded people.
“That plan changed,” Rose said.
“Not by my choice,” Johannes said. “In the midst of all this, I still had to maintain my own goals.”
“Past tense,” Alister observed.
“Yes. I’m not sure what the future holds,” Johannes said. “I’m inclined to hope it’s merely a short, brutal, violent end. Not the-”
“Barber,” Alister finished. Then, as an afterthought, “Don’t look!”
It was hard not to, when we were making the connection, when we wanted to see with our own eyes. I hurried to throw my hand over Ellie’s eyes. She had diagnosed impulse control problems.
Alister pulled Christoff close with a bloodstained hand, the boy’s nose shoved into Alister’s armpit, facing away from the demon.
On a distant pillar, the Barber stood on a balcony. The ruined bodies of lost souls lay at his feet, arms twitching, grasping for something that wasn’t there. Hundreds of feet away. Walking to him might have taken two to four minutes, if we’d had a bridge.
He’d just been on the ground below.
We were utterly silent. Even the sounds below seemed muted, now.
The Barber snapped the scissors closed, producing a sharp sound that carried all the way to us.
He didn’t move, even as a body at his feet clawed at one of his legs, groping, trying to climb up, plead.
The scissors opened and snapped closed again. Then again.
Tch. Tch. Tch. Tch. Tch.
“Those measures you were talking about,” I spoke to Alister. “For stopping him?”
“Not like this,” he said. “I need time. Open space.”
I didn’t respond. You’re not liable to get either, down here. Not unless the Abyss wants to tease you.
Tch. Tch. Tch.
“Shoes off,” Rose said.
“Shoes?” one of the Knights asked.
“Keep them, but don’t wear them,” she murmured. “Anything that might make noise, leave it behind, or put it away. We-”
Hands snapped out from the bookshelf at her eye level. Grabbing her by the head and throat. One covered her mouth, the other clutched her windpipe.
She was hauled off to the right, away from stairs, still gripped by the mouth and neck. The arms knocked books from the shelves, and those books rained down on the rest of us. One struck Johannes rather soundly.
Rose’s legs struck Alister, nearly knocking him down the stairs. Only a chance catch of the railing saved him.
She dangled at the corner of the pillar, strangling, her toes ten feet up from the nearest stair.
Alister and I both climbed, though I was slower, my wing serving poorly for the task. Alister on Rose’s left, me on her right.
I stabbed the wrist of the hand nearest me, the one that had her throat. The other hand caught at her nose and lip, threatening to tear away skin if she happened to drop while the fingers were in place.
Rose clutched at me, and I folded one wing around her.
Alister touched a silver chain to the other hand, then, seeing it react, he encircled the wrist, pulling it away.
Rose managed to catch herself. She was facing outward, the nearest horizontal surface the stairs that were ten feet below. If she dropped, it would be so very easy for her to simply hit the stairs and keep going forward. Over the railing. Dropping to the ground as if she were falling from a rooftop.
Given the choice of accepting my support or Alister’s, she chose Alister. A grim expression on her face, she managed to get turned around, and she made the climb down.
I kept my wing extended, sheltering her. I wasn’t sure it would make a difference, given it’s general lack of fingers but there was only so much I could do.
There wasn’t a lot of room on the stairs themselves. I paused, not wanting to rock the metaphorical boat, while Rose got to her feet. Others were pulling off boots and shoes, laces tied together, hanging them around their necks.
“Can’t talk too much,” Rose whispered.
I saw her eye flicker in the direction of the bookcase.
Can’t openly discuss how to work against the Abyss in front of the Abyss, I thought. The abyss liked its lose-lose situations.
I found a space to climb down to, and found myself in the midst of Ty, Alexis, and Tiff. My former friends.
They looked so worn out.
Mara told me they wanted a way out. Escape. I don’t blame them.
I had to hope that there was a way to get them what they needed.
They’d gotten into this for my sake, and then I’d been removed from the equation.
Ty cupped one hand over one side of his face, shielding his eyes, and then pointed.
I very carefully followed the angle of his finger.
The balcony. The broken lost souls were crawling away and over the railing. They moved like damaged spiders, shifting around at a glacial pace, leaving bloody handprints and footprints here and there, making whimpering noises that carried through the relative silence. The Barber was gone.
“Shit,” I said, under my breath.
I looked around, and I couldn’t see the demon.
He shouldn’t have been able to climb that pillar so fast. But he could. The question was, where was he?
“Did anyone look at the barber?” I asked.
Something behind the bookcase moved. Books rocked in place, and a candle flame went out.
That movement got people’s attention more than my question had. I wondered for a long second if anyone had heard me speak.
What was there to be said? Even if they had, would they tell the truth?
Well, yes. It was one of the rules. Even the Barber was bound to keep to his word.
Except the Library strongly discouraged communication, apparently.
I could see the restlessness of the others. The fear. They were on their last legs, and the Abyss was getting to them.
Not knowing where the goddamned demon was was a pretty good reason to be afraid.
“Go,” Rose whispered.
She led the way.
The others climbed stairs with socks on. They weren’t running anymore, and that meant our progress was slower.
A stair creaked. Large black birds flew up between the individual stairs, pecking, scratching.
Then they were gone.
Even elsewhere in the Library, it felt like things were settling down.
The ones who hadn’t gotten the point were starting to get picked off.
I was at the tail end of the group, letting my wing mend from the fall with Ellie. I looked out over the railing, watching for any sign of the Barber. Blood, smells, movement, violence…
I looked at the group, searching for signs. Possession? Was the Barber occupying one of them?
I looked at Evan, even, sitting on my shoulder. Not the most obvious target, but if I was doomed to have an ally turn on me…
The faint shuffle of feet on steps changed in tone. My head snapped around, looking up.
Rose and Alister had rounded a corner, and now they were out of sight.
It was a good twenty seconds before I reached that same place.
The pillar stopped. We’d reached the top. The roof of it. As though it were simply a narrow, horribly tall building, with books on every face. A library turned inside out.
The roof was flat. Just the open space Alister wanted.
At the far end, I could make out a stairway. It led over and outward, to a tangle of tree roots. At a certain point, the stairs stopped, and the tree roots became the path.
There was snow, there were trees, dense and twisted, joining ruined walls and spiked railing. There was ice, and here, where they wasn’t taken apart by the heat of the candles and the entropic nature of the abyss, there were falling snowflakes.
What had been the base of the hill, now the edge of a crater. The path out of the Library.
The ‘roof’ was like the cover of an oversized book, bound in something tougher than paper, harder than leather.
Sitting dead in the center, spearing that cover, was a scuffed pair of shears
“No,” Tiff said. “No. No. No.”
Ellie had her hands clenched into fists. She was trembling.
I could see the look of complete and utter defeat on Johannes’ face.
The Barber had beat us here. Now he waited between us and the way out. Waiting for us to come to him.