The top of the pillar was bright compared to the rest of the library. Smoke rose from innumerable candles, lighting up the surroundings below us like a distant, quiet, grim little city.
Up here, on a largely featureless square of land atop a great book-covered pillar, faces were comparatively easy to make out. The bells that were audible were distant, closer to the ground. The snow that came down was light, a layer of snow just thin enough that one could leave a footprint in it, but a breath of air might have scattered it.
The pillar was akin to a building, and the dimensions were similar, albeit a little narrow for the building’s height, but we were limited to the outside. Only Abyssal things lay within, just past the relatively thin veneer of shelves and books and stairways.
As though we were fighting on the surface of an egg.
There were no signs of the demon’s footsteps.
For a moment, I wondered if it were a trick. A deception. I’d nearly been fooled twice tonight, after all.
But the shears that impaled the center of the rooftop had a weight to them. Everyone present seemed to sense it. We were deer in headlights. Frozen, afraid to move. Afraid to make a sound. I didn’t even feel fear in the conventional sense, and I was virtually paralyzed.
Escape was only a short distance away. A hundred feet, if that, to reach the bridge to the real world.
Rose’s eyes, I noted, were on the stairs. She was frozen, just like me, but unlike me, she wasn’t immune to the fear and panic. She dealt with it all the same.
Alister stood right at her side, his arm touching her shoulder. She shared a glance with him.
It wasn’t a pairing of love. It was a pairing, all the same. He’d helped her make the first step in reaching out to me. That counted for something. Helping her on her way to being better.
She was improving by building something, while I only made headway by tearing things down. Ultimately the reason I was deferring to her. Because even if the tables were turned, I wasn’t sure I could trust her to make the sacrifice.
She met my eyes.
Now, in this moment, were we supposed to coordinate without communicating? Even the addition of one Other to this tableau could be catastrophic. A distraction for our side, an opening for the Barber.
We’d been created to destroy one another, and our interactions had frequently been poisoned ones, more so as time went on. Now we were face to face with every Practitioner’s worst nightmare, and we had to swim against the current.
Rose reached out, touching Nick’s gun. She steered him around, pointing the gun at the stairs. She pointed to other Knights, and directed them to do the same.
She gestured to the Behaims, then pointed.
Spreading them out to either side.
Leaving her, Alister, the High Priest, Johannes, and my friends all at the top of the stairs.
I was reminded of a chessboard. The rooftop was square, and the way things were spread out, we had Behaims in the rook positions, my friends, Johannes, and the High Priest as the knights and bishops, admittedly odd-numbered, and Alister and Rose as the king and queen. The Knights and my cousins weren’t on the board, but instead lurked at the edges along the rear and one side of it, guarding or otherwise watching the stairs. Many of the Knights had knives or machetes on hand. Ellie and Christoff were only an extra set of eyes.
The Barber sat in the middle, yet to take form.
I saw Rose take in a deep breath, exhaling without noise.
There were no pawns. No Others, satyrs or maenads had survived this trip to the Abyss. Too fragile, perhaps.
No pawns. Only me.
Ty had dropped to one knee, and had a pad of papers out, which he was scribbling on.
Still, the Barber didn’t move.
The Library maneuvered itself. Not on our side, nor the Barber’s, it still made its small play. A rumble, a shift, a distortion in surroundings. A set of low groans, as if the Library were alive, and it wasn’t content.
The path beyond the bridge grew longer. More of a descent.
The pillar shifted. A five degree tilt to one side.
Books fell everywhere, spilling to the ground.
With the noise came Others.
One of the Knights cocked their gun. I could read the tension on them as they looked down.
Company, coming from below.
Looking over to the side, I missed seeing what Alister was doing.
But whatever it was, it ended with him raising one hand.
His ring gleamed in light.
The timeless knight emerged.
Alister immediately dropped to the ground. He brushed away snow and scratched into the surface of the roof with chalk.
This was his maneuver, his trick. He had a means of binding the Barber. The rest of us were supposed to buy him time.
With the first touch of chalk to roof, the Barber reacted.
An arm lurched out of the one face of the blade. Shoulder, head, torso and all the rest followed. That it was a massive beast of a ‘man’ that was appearing out of a window no wider across than the breadth of my hand wasn’t even a factor.
I saw the others react, eyes averting.
The fear was so thick on the air I could taste it, but I couldn’t partake of it. It wasn’t for me to have. Only the Barber.
Tk. The shears clicked together.
Someone was gagging, struggling not to make noise, and only choking themselves. They coughed. It might have been Ty, or the Behaim rose had positioned off to the far right.
The sputtering cough, a sharp sound, rang in the general quiet.
A scream, not distant enough for my comfort, answered the ringing. There was noise.
Something big, on the side of the pillar.
Whatever it was, it was making noise enough to draw others. By the rules here, the other denizens of the Library would be attacking it, but the noise suggested it was drawing closer. It wasn’t slowing down, even while under attack.
I couldn’t take my attention off the Barber. We had to trust the Knights and the Behaim on the far end to deal with it.
I hoped they could deal with it.
The Barber advanced. Alister’s suit of armor rushed forward to meet it.
Lance met shears. There was no noise at the impact, but I was forced to take a step back.
The Barber pushed, the armor didn’t budge.
The armor pushed, and the lance inched closer to the Barber. Sparks flew as it grazed the shears.
The lance’s tip penetrated flesh, just at the Barber’s collarbone. Blood welled out.
The Barber lunged in my direction, letting the lance tear through flesh and bone. It didn’t heal, but the wound closed, so broken, jagged, bloody bits met other broken-up bits and they held together.
The suit moved, putting its empty left hand out to block the Barber’s path. The barber continued past, letting the armored hand clutch it, pulling a pound of flesh free.
The suit spun, turning its back to the Barber, extending its other arm, lance in hand, to attempt once more to bar the path. To delay.
The Barber was so close to me.
We had to distract, to delay. Buy Alister as much time as he needed.
I put myself in the Barber’s way, before it could duck under or around the timeless armor’s weapon. There wasn’t much space between me and the edge of the roof, but we couldn’t let the demon reach the others.
The Barber reacted to my presence, and I shifted my weight, my toes and the balls of my feet digging hard into the surface of the book.
He stabbed the shears in my direction, but I was already pushing myself back and away.
Tch. Metal snapped closed a foot from my face. The metal-on-metal sound rang in the air.
I let myself fall from the pillar, and I could see the effects of just that noise. Things were climbing free of the bookcase, and among them was a massive worm made of a series of overly obese humans, most with their respective heads shoved into the nether regions of the humans ahead of them. Here and there, there were ones that had it backward, mouths stretched wide to a macabre degree, teeth sunken into the shoulders and back of the one behind them, a limb or two jammed into the one ahead.
I saw the head, albeit from behind, and it was spread like a cobra’s hood. People had been slashed and clawed open, and limbs and heads were shoved into wounds, with bits pulled free and wrapped around for structural support. Some of the ones there weren’t so obese. Others had been drawn and quartered, butterflied, but still lived.
It was moist, covered in filth, with mucus and spittle and blood leaking here and there and streaming down the length of it. That moistness was largely what let it flow so freely from the bookcases.
Legs and arms worked to grip the ones behind and the ones ahead, futilely clawing at flesh to try and reduce the strain on neck and shoulders, or the pull on their own nether regions. Of the ones that didn’t, many twitched and flailed, some held weapons, others held books.
I folded one wing, and made the sharpest turn I was able before recovering.
It didn’t make much noise, aside from the sound of its extended lower body sliding between shelves, the periodic knock as a leg or arm struck something.
It collapsed onto the Barber. Almost a lunge, almost a dive, but mostly just blindly, violently falling into position.
The entire pillar wobbled.
Even if the Barber made noise, the Library would act. That was good.
I flew, circling the pillar, tracking the movement of the great worm, watching the head, looking for a sign of the Barber.
Any time he disappeared from view, I had to wonder. Had someone looked? Had one member of our group made that split-second decision and looked directly at the Barber, trying to see if we’d won? If the way was open?
Circling the pillar, I could see that the Knights had dealt with the massive thing that had been crawling up the side. Fingers were still attached to a section of the staircase, but they’d been severed from the hand. I could make out a crater far below where it had fallen, floorboards cracking around it.
Though they’d dealt with the big one, it had stirred innumerable little things into action, and without their previous target to pursue, they’d turned on the Knights.
The fight to hold them at bay was grim, quiet, and tense, both combatants left with little choice but to fight with everything on the line, but still unwilling to risk making noise. Movements were furtive, with more feints and false lunges than actual attacks.
I didn’t see Ellie or Christoff.
But they weren’t the problem.
I circled the pillar, rising.
Alister was still working on his diagram. He was using the leeway to draw more of the diagram, even though the worm’s body continued to slide across the middle of the rooftop like a macabre train on tracks. Rose remained exactly where she was. Imperious.
Ty reached out to me, holding a slip of paper in hand.
I flew down, passing him. Unhooking a thumb from my wing, I snagged it, pinching it in place.
Runes. I thought I might have recognized them. One of the first I’d learned.
I opened my mouth to speak, and no sound came out.
I’d nearly reached my starting point, where I’d begun my circle around the top of the pillar, when Evan saw it.
I followed his line of sight, as his head turned.
The Barber was gone. The shears weren’t.
As the ‘train’ ran along its tracks, the shears were periodically bumped and kicked, sent sliding across the roof, dancing along a trail of blood, piss, shit, and mucus. The length of the worm blocked the others from seeing the Barber. He was on the far side.
With the Knights at one side of the building, the shears were gradually moving toward them. All the Barber had to do was emerge and drop down onto them.
I dove, and Evan flew with me. Evan gave me a push, extra speed.
I landed early, landing in a kneeling position, because I knew my one foot wasn’t wholly intact. I had to grab the silence rune in my teeth to free my hand.
My shins skidded on that same track of blood and mucus that had helped the Barber on his way. I drew the Hyena, winced as a stray arm from the worm struck me, nearly knocking my aim off, and swiped my blade at the shears.
Not aiming to damage them, but to strike them, send them flying over the edge. To give us room. Time.
Between the moment my arm started to move and the moment the blade touched shears, the Barber manifested. Flowing into existence with a cloud of noxious air, the nose of his horse’s head pointed at the ground, shaggy mane hanging down to either side, blood dripping from the base where the horse’s neck draped over the human portion.
The Hyena’s blade hit shears, and the presence of the Barber’s hand on the shears meant they didn’t budge a hair. He didn’t raise his head.
I dragged the blade across the shears, hard, aiming to score the metal, to damage it.
He caught me by the sternum, fingers digging into and through the ribcage.
I stabbed him in the side of the throat with the Hyena.
No more effective than the lance or the fire had been.
The demon rose to a standing position, and he brought me with him, still holding me by the ribcage.
There was no help like this. Not with the worm’s passage keeping the others from even clearing seeing me, let alone acting. A blur.
He brought the shears my way, and I brought the Hyena up, driving the blade into the ‘v’ of the two long blades.
To my right, the worm slowed. It wasn’t a clear slowing, not slow motion, nor was it a simple loss of forward momentum. It stuttered, and flickered, a bad video image, skipping ahead from moment to moment.
The individual bodies that made up the one hundred or so segments were obese, maybe three to five hundred pounds each, but where they’d been moving past too quickly and too unpredictably to see past before, they were now moving at a crawl.
Time magic. Not true time magic, but a trick of perception.
Which still worked wonders, even if it was being used to assist. As the forward section bucked and twisted, a heavier section dropped to press along the roof. I could see over the ‘worm’ to the main group.
Alexis was saying something, but the words had no sound. She held a silence charm.
I could see the shape of her lips, but I couldn’t make out the actual words.
She pointed a rod at me and the Barber. It was wrapped in paper and charms.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Barber wasn’t going to be affected by much.
Which left me as the only viable target.
I realized what the words had probably been just as the lightning struck.
The visible flash was brief, easy to miss. There was no explosion, no crackle of thunder. Both the sender and the target were carrying runes of silence. All I felt was an awe-inspiring impact, and the curious sensation of my chest being torn to pieces.
I dropped from the Barber’s grip. The Hyena slipped from its position between the blades of the shears, and the blades snapped closed. Given where I was and where the shears were, I knew that they’d closed awfully close to my own forehead, or just over the top of my head.
In trying to scramble back, I felt the lack of structural integrity. I knew right away that I couldn’t fly. If I could glide, it would be with Evan’s help, and it would be a steep glide. The front half of my torso had been largely blown away.
My eye fell on those shears.
I brought my wing in front and hooked it around my front, for protection and in hopes that if I started to fall apart, my wing could help hold me together.
With my free arm, I reached out, and I stabbed the worm.
Blood and mucus sprayed out, spurts, as the blade caught the passing flesh. The spray was in slow motion, stuttering, discordant.
The Barber didn’t flinch. Didn’t treat it as anything unusual. Blood sprayed and spurted to cover him.
Covering the shears.
Evan moved, flying close, and gave me a nudge.
Putting me just out of the way as a passing arm carrying a stick swung by. Had it hit me, it might have clobbered me and sent me flying into the Barber’s grasp for a third time.
The timeless armor, on the left side of the roof, hopped up onto the moving worm, riding it toward us. Holding the lance in one hand, it leaped, bringing the lance down in conjunction with forward momentum.
The Barber moved away, bending low, the shears slashing at the surface of the roof.
Once, twice. A triangle-shaped cut
The lance came down, stabbing it, but it hardly seemed to care.
The timeless armor landed on the sliced section of roof and froze in place. Unmoving. Tilting forward as though it were going to fall, then stopping, mid-tilt.
The action had cleaned a part of the shears. Again, I stabbed the surface of the passing worm. More spray, more spatter.
The shears were dirtied once more.
As forms of attack went, it was mild at best. The shears got bloody in the course of the Barber’s day to day.
But so long as they weren’t reflective, I could hope that the Barber couldn’t enter the shears. So long as the Barber couldn’t do that much, it was more limited in mobility.
The Barber paced toward me. I backed away. I was still damaged. Still hurt, I reminded myself.
There. Behind the Barber. Movement. I thought it was Others, or more lost souls. It wasn’t.
Ellie had climbed the face of the pillar, opposite the main group, climbing up so she was right next to the bridge. Her head and shoulders were visible. I saw her eyes widen as she saw me. Saw the violence, the gore, the worm, and the group on the far side.
She started to look toward the Barber, and I made a quick, violent motion.
The Barber stopped, watching me. Not understanding.
Ellie resumed climbing.
She bent down, and she gave Christoff a hand, blocking his view with her body.
I watched as the two of them ran the length of the stairs, along the roots, and into the middling ground. The outside of the Library.
Out. Free and clear. Or as close as one could hope to get.
Would the angel stop them? Would they wait?
I shook my head a little.
I was squaring off against the Barber. The worm separated the others from me. The timeless knight was incapacitated by its own design.
But we were buying time, weren’t we?
Alister was drawing his diagram.
I just had to keep him occupied.
The Barber swung the shears around in a circle, one finger in the loop of the handle. The blood and gore was sent flying. Cleaning the blades with the force of the spin.
I flinched every time the point came around in my direction. If he let go, let them fly forward… I probably wouldn’t be able to dodge. But if I could, it would be over.
It was worse because I couldn’t watch it directly.
The noise in my head momentarily got worse. I was struck with a vision of me clawing my own eyes out. Letting the Abyss provide replacements.
Eyes the Barber couldn’t occupy.
No, I thought.
The Barber’s head turned toward the others. To Alister in particular.
He let the shears slip from his finger.
The shears went straight up, like an arrow loosed from a bow.
His head turned toward me.
Then he disappeared. Into the shears. An indeterminate distance in the air. Maybe even not in the Abyss anymore.
I couldn’t speak while I held the rune.
The rune was a tool. Something I could use. If he came back-
No. No guarantees. Even if I knew exactly where he was going to run, no guarantees.
I let the paper drop. Evan caught it.
“Take cover!” I roared the words.
The shears dropped. The Barber had already emerged.
The members of the group had backed to the corners, were gripping shelves and stairs and railings. All at the edges. I stabbed the floor with the Hyena, and I gripped that.
The Barber arrived, smack-dab in the center. Cutting through one section of the great worm of human flesh. The forward section and the rear section flew apart with such force that nearby structures and pillars were destroyed.
The impact brought with it a ringing that might have deafened. A gong, a crash of a bell being broken.
Our pillar flew apart, cracked down the middle, all down the sides. In places, the stairs held it together. In others, it was shattered at the bottom but intact at the top, or vice versa. A split log.
Gaps separated individual chunks and sections of roof.
The ringing continued, and it didn’t abate.
Looking over the edge, I could see the movement.
Every Other in the library now came toward us.
Creaking, cracking, a section of shelves broke away, and crashed into a nearby structure. Others used it as a bridge, crossing to us.
Speaking was impossible, with the noise of the bell.
My own head was filling with noise, worse than before. The split in my skull from the Barber’s grasp ached, making itself acutely known.
Even fighting back was impossible, like this. I could make out Tiff touching the silence charm to her ear. She grabbed Alexis’ wrist and forced Alexis’ hand up to make Alexis do the same.
Johannes, I noted, was helping one of the Behaims. Where they’d been on the stairs before, they now dangled, the stairs themselves at a forty-five degree angle. Too many surfaces without handholds. He offered a hand, supporting them so they didn’t have to rely on the individual rails.
The Barber tossed the shears forward, entered them, exited them, as if he were passing through a door, a trick of the dark.
Did it again. Crossing the roof toward all of the others.
Alister was talking, trying to shout instructions. He and Rose were perched on an edge, with the High Priest nearby.
I saw Rose point skyward, talking to the High Priest. To Jeremy.
Looking over my shoulder, I saw the timeless suit of armor. The section of roof, ironically, had moved at a tilt, putting more secure ground under the armor. I turned to Alister, but he was too preoccupied to notice, and the noise of the bell was deafening, making it impossible for me to communicate the fact to him.
I moved, skipping over the fractured roof, over gaps that allowed glimpses of those things that stirred within.
Nearly invisible in the shadow, an eye larger than I was peered through one gap, watching me as I crossed. Iris swelling, then abruptly narrowing. By the dimensions of it, whatever it belonged to had to be so large that it nearly filled the entire pillar. A body in a narrow coffin.
The first of the Others were reaching us. Among them, perhaps the most vicious of them, were the ones the Barber had made. A bird without flesh, human beings broken until they resembled spiders, crawling and skittering forward on shattered limbs, no doubt howling, but impossible to hear in the chaos.
The Barber still moved toward the others. A halting progress, zig-zagging, from one bit of secure ground to the next.
I saw Alister’s eyes go wide as the Barber approached them.
A Behaim threw up a ward, a protective shroud of some sort. The Barber simply swept the shears sideways through it, dashing it to pieces. Too little, the wrong element.
The shears closed on Alister, and there as nothing he could do about it.
I followed, four steps behind the Barber. I lunged, and the ground crumbled under my feet, very nearly costing me the leverage and distance I needed.
I wasn’t close enough to put the Hyena between the blades, nor was I strong enough to do anything to the Barber.
I was close enough to put the Hyena between the handles of the shears. The only thing that matched the jarring of the handles stopping, blades on either side of Alister’s throat, was the pounding, impossibly loud noise of the bell.
It was a momentary interruption.
I opened my mouth, shouted a message. The words were dashed to every realm of the Abyss by the noise around me.
I reached out with my wing instead. I touched Alister’s hand.
He lowered it.
With the very tip of my wing, I touched the ring on his hand. The Behaim family ring.
I moved my wing to the side, pointing at the armor with the tip.
The suit of armor moved in that same instant.
Rose clutched Alister, and she pulled him down and away. They slipped backward, and they dropped five feet before landing on their backs on a section of stairs, almost out of sight. The High Priest was right behind them.
The Barber kicked me, and the shears snapped closed. The sound of the shears cut through all the rest of the noise, clear and sharp.
He stepped down, landing on the stairs, and wood creaked, threatening to give way.
If only we were so lucky.
I started to follow, but a hand reached through the crack below. An iron grip held me in place.
I bent down to slash at it, and something tackled me from behind. Other hands reached up to seize me.
The timeless armor marched past. Giving chase where I couldn’t.
My progress was halting, struggling. There wasn’t one person we’d brought with us, Ellie and Christoff excepted, who weren’t now dealing with three or four serious Others and maybe two lost souls. The Barber’s creations were tearing through the rest, and very quickly closing the distance. We were on the stairs that spiraled up the exterior of the building, with most of the group at one corner, the southern face of the building to their right, with the Barber’s monsters ascending the stairs, clawing through all the rest, and the Barber at the western face to the left, cutting off their ascent. The timeless knight followed the demon, but I doubted its ability to achieve anything. It was more an immovable, indestructible object than a demon slayer.
And here I was, standing over it all, helpless, damaged and broken.
For most of the group, there was no way up, no way down except falling.
What followed was an impact that nearly matched Barbatorem’s fall. One I’d experienced myself.
Not so long ago, at Hillsglade House.
A smiting, perhaps. Something on that scale.
An act of god.
The High Priest had made a move, clutching a horn in one hand.
The impact hit every Other excepting me and Evan. Many were sent flying from the exterior of the building, joining a practical torrent of books.
Their screams and howls cut through silence. The ringing had ceased.
The Barber was left attempting to catch its balance.
The timeless knight appeared behind it. I could see the strain on Alister’s face, the focus.
He controlled the knight. The knight stabbed with the lance, driving the Barber back and over the railing.
The demon fell. Disappearing into the shadows below.
“Come on!” I shouted. My voice was so quiet in the stillness, the ringing it provoked so mild.
If I brought Others to me, then so be it. Better me than the group.
I saw a lost soul clamber over the edge of the roof, coming for me, and I kicked it loose, letting it fall.
The others were ascending the stairs. The high priest was barely moving, head bowed, horn in hand.
Vines, I observed, were tying things together. Sections of building were being brought together as the vines tightened their hold.
The Library groaned, as if resettling, and some vines split.
Resisting our influence.
But vines made it possible to cross certain areas. People were hurt, they’d been clawed apart, scratched, battered. They’d fallen.
We had most of our number. I couldn’t see one of the four Behaims that had come down here with us. One was named Alister, one had been lost on the bridge, back when this started, and one, apparently, had been lost in this chaos just now.
I couldn’t see Alexis. I had to look over the group twice to see.
I had so very little blood, only in my face, and my face was damaged, with thin branches crawling across the skin there. All the same, I felt the blood run cold, practically draining out of me.
The realization that Alexis was gone was paralyzing. It froze my head in place, leaving me unable to look at Tiff and Ty, because I might see their expressions.
In my stunned state, I didn’t even see it. Not in time, at any rate.
The group was busy crossing the cracked, desolate top floor of the pillar, making their way toward the bridge back home, which was being restored with vines, and they were watching their flanks.
An object flew through darkness, spinning end over end. Shears.
The demon emerged from them, soundlessly, without flash, impact or fanfare. It came with its stink, and a sense of foreboding. I joined many of the others in wondering just where it was coming from, in going tense, being ready for a fight.
Until I saw the hand, reaching skyward, from the midst of the group, toward the rear.
“Scatter!” I bellowed.
The demon didn’t flourish. He merely brought the shears down, toward the high-priest’s back.
Alister saw, and Alister threw his left arm back, over the priest’s bent head, and put it out, sticking it into the path of the shears. His right arm pulled the priest forward.
The shears crunched through bone and muscle with virtually no difficulty.
There was no blood, for blood loss could kill, and the Barber wasn’t about killing. He was about ruin.
He stabbed a Knight in the back, the shears closed, and then hauled them open, opening the wound wide.
I ran forward, pushing past the other members of the group that were fleeing, running.
I managed to put myself between the others and the Barber.
He moved the shears, and I moved the Hyena, trying, failing, to position it where I might be able to keep those blades from scissoring closed.
I saw his arm move. Stabbing.
“Stop!” Rose ordered.
The Barber hesitated. I couldn’t block the shears, but I could strike at them with the Hyena. The impact and the way it sent me moving to the right was more what saved me than any deflection. Barbatorem was far stronger than I.
“My name is Rose Thorburn! I am of the Thorburn Bloodline, I am of the line that named you Barbatorem! You have been bound by my blood!”
Barbatorem hesitated once more.
Rose’s voice brought a ringing with it.
“Go,” Ty said.
The survivors were spreading out, forming a circle. Guarding Rose.
“I bind you, Barbatorem! As the Thorburn heir and diabolist, I order you to yield!”
Barbatorem backed away a step.
Rose was clearly tapping into Conquest. The confidence with which she spoke. The fact that she wasn’t cringing at the foulness that the Barber exuded, but instead advancing?
“By the seals to which you are bound, I order you away! Back!”
The Barber backed away once more.
There was shouting at the fringes as the Knights met with the first wave of Others that Rose’s words had called.
“Back!” Rose said.
Tiff had bent down to Alister’s side, and was helping to support him. His face contorted in pain, but he managed to crawl forward.
The Barber lunged, and I met the shears with the Hyena, twisted them over to one side. It felt like I was meeting a truck head-on, but it stalled him, kept him from gaining momentum. I dropped to one knee, precariously close to a gap, and fought to regain my footing.
“Away with you!” Rose cried out, her words ringing in the air. She gestured violently at the air.
The Barber backed away a step, in the same direction as the gesture.
I looked past him.
Alister’s diagram, shattered, spread out over several sections of pillar.
But the vines the high priest had called out were wrapping around.
Drawing the individual pieces closer.
The Knights, Ty, and the remaining Behaim were doing what they could to fight the Others. Too tired, too hurt, it was looking ugly.
As if to punish me for looking away, the Barber made a move. I only barely managed to keep the shears from taking a piece of my head.
“I compel you to be bound!” Rose cried out. “Remain here in the Abyss!”
I matched her words with a strike, a lunge. Battering the shears.
The Barber backed away, stepping into the still-broken circle.
The vines hauled the individual pieces of building together. One last pull.
“…the temple,” I heard the High Priest murmur, the end of a prayer. “From my demesnes to here. Let your actions here be a memory that speaks of your deeds…”
The cracks began to mend. Undoing the damage to the pillar.
“I compel you!” Rose cried out, but the words faltered.
There was a gap. Gaps. The circle didn’t mesh perfectly. The priest’s prayer was fixing the building, but it didn’t fix the circle.
I dared to glance toward the center of the roof. Sure enough, the damage toward the center wasn’t mending.
“I bind you to where you stand!” Rose said, doubt pushed aside.
But Barbatorem took a step forward.
“Thought so,” Rose said. “Only have so much clout. Had to use it well.”
“Good try,” I said, my heart heavy. “Damn it all. We set our sights too high.”
She smiled sadly.
“Why?” came a voice to the side. Ty’s. “The circle-”
I spoke, “The actions of a demon are permanent. What they destroy is irrevocably destroyed.”
Barbatorem walked over the lines of the now-useless diagram. I was the one backing away now, fighting to find secure places to step without letting my guard down.
Tch. Tch. Tk.
“I’d hoped for more,” Johannes spoke, with a strange cadence to his voice. “What a shame. I thought I might have to force it, but I think I can leave this up to you.”
“Damnation,” Johannes said. “Damnation.”
“Have you lost it?” I asked.
“Probably. I suppose this is where I say farewell.”
“Farewell?” Rose asked.
“This is all partially my fault, really. I suppose I should bear the brunt of it.”
“What are you doing?” I asked, looking over my shoulder.
Backing away, Johannes raised his head. But he didn’t look at me.
I could see something move in his eyes.
My head whipped around.
The Barber was gone.
“Do me a favor, if you please,” Johannes said, staring skyward. His eyes weren’t his anymore. He staggered blindly. “Tell that angel to go fuck himself.”
Black veins tracked down his face and neck.
“Gladly,” I said.
I slashed across his eyes with the Hyena. A red line, marring the reflection there. The veins continued to spread, and skin started to boil and flake away.
Then I gave him a push. Enough that when he fell from the edge of the building, he didn’t hit the stairwell on the way down.
I watched him fall, because I had to be sure.
His body hit the ground, almost impossible to see.
From a large crack in the side of the pillar, a great black hand as large as a house reached forth. It seized the body, and it dragged it into the darkness.
With no time to waste, I hurried to help the Knights in dispatching the lost souls that had clustered around them.
With my approach, however, they scattered.
The library rumbled, and in keeping with its rules, we were silent on the way out. Limping, wounded, missing pieces, and perhaps a little heartbroken.
I was acutely aware of Alexis’ absence.
The gunshot was loud, but it prompted no ringing.
I saw Nick’s expression, as he looked down at his Knight. The one the Barber had torn open. The pain had been too much. We’d had to stop walking, and the victim had begged for peace.
Nick had given it.
“Alister,” Rose said.
Alister shook his head.
“You got hurt badly too.”
“I did. It sucks. I- I lost my ring. I’m not sure what that means.”
Rose nodded. “And the pain?”
“I don’t think the cut was meant for me. The pain is… there. But not like it was for him.”
Rose gave him a hug. It was stiff, unexpected, and weird, without any real affection. Alister looked more surprised than anything.
Then he returned it, and he was able to offer something resembling affection.
“We’ve been walking a while, and we’re not making any headway,” Ty said. “We’ve got a lot of injuries. Should we stop and look after the wounds?”
“We’re close,” Rose said. “We feel close.”
“We’ve felt close for a while,” Tiff said.
I looked up. We were working our way uphill, but the trees were dense, and the uphill climb didn’t stop. We might as well have been on a treadmill. But as we walked, the Abyss was drawing more into itself. More trees, more marsh.
“Evan?” I asked.
He was with Tiff and Ty.
“Are you up to it?” I asked. “Scout?”
He nodded, wordless, and took flight.
We continued our trudge through snows and between trees. The sky remained dark overhead, the clouds roiling.
Evan returned. He led us off to one side. An angle.
The trees were denser here. A cage, a barrier.
“Blake!” I heard Green Eyes, from somewhere distant.
“Green Eyes!” I called out.
“Be careful! Remember what I said in the beginning! Our first meeting!”
But my cry wasn’t answered.
“Can’t,” Evan said. “Tried flying to them, but it just keeps going. Peter’s up there with Ainsley, the witch hunter, and Green Eyes.”
“A trick, a trap?” Alister asked.
I shook my head.
We were in the Abyss, but we weren’t. We were at the gap, a middling place.
What had Green Eyes told me on the first meeting?
Ways to escape the Abyss.
I felt something ugly well up inside. A kind of certainty.
Once I knew what I was looking for, it wasn’t hard to find.
Into thicker trees. I moved with an energy, now, a desire to find out that I was wrong.
“Blake! Don’t get too far ahead, we’ll lose you!”
I forged on. Evan at my shoulder.
I found the path. One that led from the library to outside. Sections of snow-covered driveway. Burned tree. Thick woodland.
A locket dangled from a branch.
I took it, and I opened it.
Dark hair within.
I tugged it free of the branch, firmly enough to break wood.
Three more paces found the fragments of metal, laid out in the snow.
One of the ways out of the Abyss, I thought. Gotta get past the Gatekeeper.
I put the Hyena down in the snow, and the broken edges of the sword lined up with the fragments of metal, like two puzzle pieces. I had little doubt they’d fit together readily.
Birds chirped in the trees.
When the others caught up with me, I was staring at a tree that had grown into a peculiar shape. It bent, providing a space.
Mara told me, I thought. That I’d lose the freedom I wanted.
I touched the wood. A chair. A throne.
The Abyss wants me to be one of the gatekeepers, and it’s holding the others hostage.
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