Be careful, Green Eyes had told me.
Had she suspected? Known? She’d been around the Abyss long enough to see how it operated, the gears turning, certain individuals raised up, certain individuals dashed against the metaphorical rocks below.
The Ink Man had told me that he wanted to get in position, or something along those lines. He too had known. He’d wanted this role. Or one of them. I could imagine other exits, each one guarded.
I was aware of the presence of others, of the murmured conversations, laced with anxiety and emotion. They wanted out, much like someone who was drowning wanted air. They’d faced a share of what the Abyss could dish out, they were in pain, wounded, or suffering from the loss of friends and family.
I wasn’t sure how much sympathy they’d have for my dilemma.
My thumb traced the side of the throne. Anyone else might find it uncomfortable, but I was largely made of wood. Minor discomforts didn’t tend to come up anymore.
“That’s all for you, Blake?” Evan asked.
I nodded. I couldn’t bring myself to look back at them.
“The shards of the sword. We left them on the street. They got washed away. Now they’re here,” Rose said.
I nodded again.
“The locket… I barely remember the locket,” she said. “I figured that the locket being this weird force, just coming and going as it pleased, it was a Faerie thing.”
“No,” I said, and my voice was a little raw, as if I’d been screaming for a long time and hurt something. “Not a Faerie thing. A me thing. It wants me to guard the door.”
“If you guard the door, you can open the door, right?” Nick asked.
“Or would you have to fight us before you could let us through?” the High Priest asked.
The noise in my head was getting worse. It felt like all the noise and chaos of the Library, at its very worst, had seeped in through the cracks the Barber had made in my skull, and now it played at the periphery, crackling at the edges.
“The Abyss has a way of thinking,” I said. “It gives, then it takes, and it generally takes more than it gives.”
“That doesn’t answer the question,” the High Priest said. “Does it?”
It does, I thought.
“Do you think it’s going to make you fight us, as part of the price for letting us out?” the High Priest guessed.
“I think,” I replied, bristling just a little, “that letting you guys go is part of the give. But this, this whole setup, it’s the take.”
“It’s…” Rose started, but she left the sentence hanging. I had my back to her, so I couldn’t see her facial expressions. “…Not as bad as other parts of the Abyss.”
“Cushy gig, as these things go,” Alister said.
I shook my head.
I knew I was making enemies here. The words were soft, gentle, but only barely. I could sense the tension that drove them. Not much different than if they were all spoken between grit teeth. It might have been a skewed opinion, maybe nudged by the influences of the Abyss, but I could sense their fear, a weight pressing on me from behind.
“I don’t think you get it,” Evan said. “All you guys who were telling Blake he should sign up for the Seal of Solomon deal, you never got it.”
“Got what?” Tiff asked.
“Blake’s meant to fly,” Evan said, as if that explanation made any sense to them. “I was his familiar, even if I don’t remember, and I got the wings, and Blake got to be the magician, and then Blake was the monster, and I remember that. Or this, I mean. But if there was any justice in the world, then I’d be the wizard or the monster and Blake would have the wings. Because I’d be a great monster, and Blake… he’s meant to fly.”
“I can almost understand what you’re getting at,” Ty said.
“I can’t,” the High Priest said. “I’m afraid you’re speaking bird, little one. Your perspective isn’t one we’re in a position to grasp.”
Jeremy sounded tired. The oldest person here, and he wasn’t that old.
Evan, by contrast, was the youngest.
It explained the vaguely condescending tone, but it, at least in Evan’s eyes, didn’t justify it.
He snapped. “You jerks! Just listen to me. It’s a trap! A very obvious trap!”
“For the Bogeyman,” the High Priest said. “Who is at the center of this, with all of the rest of us as collateral damage.”
“For Blake, yeah,” Evan said. “So let’s treat this like we would any other trap and take a hike! Literally! We can go, we find another exit. We fight the guy waiting for us there, and then we leave.”
I was already shaking my head.
“No?” Evan asked.
“We can,” I said. “But it wouldn’t work. The Abyss is smart. It’s doing what it does for a reason. I’m not sure, but I think we’d be starting over from scratch. Have to fight through the gauntlet, the head games, find our way through, and at the end, there’s no guarantee the Abyss wouldn’t have something like this waiting at the next exit.”
“We knocked down one barrier,” Rose said. “Jeremy, can you use your god, knock down this one?”
“I’ve asked a lot of my god in the last little while,” the High Priest said. “I’m concerned that he’s too fond of lose-lose dilemmas to simply hand us a solution to this one.”
There was a bit of noise. Someone had dropped to a sitting position with a crunch and a few snapping branches.
“Blake, you made a deal with Rose,” Alister said. “That you’d step down, let her win the struggle between you two. What were the terms? Does this qualify?”
“The idea was that I’d destroy him,” Rose said.
“This would count,” I said.
“No!” Evan said. “Damn you! This is- no! You don’t get to jump straight to that! Do you know how hard I’ve had to work to keep Blake alive while he’s throwing himself into danger and fighting dragons and demons for your sakes?”
“I’m aware, Evan,” Rose said. “But we need to discuss the options here.”
“No we don’t! We can pretend this isn’t an option because it really isn’t, or it shouldn’t be! If we start talking about this like it’s an option then Blake’s going to decide it is and if it’s talking it’s not something I’m good at! I can push him out of the way of dragons or demons or whatever but I can’t push him out of the way of being an idiot! The last time I let you guys talk he talked himself into letting you kill him!”
The noise in my head wasn’t abating. It didn’t get worse, but it certainly wasn’t getting better.
“He’s agreed to let you destroy him so you don’t both get destroyed, the least you can do is not talk about this like it’s a possibility! Find another way, or I’m done! I’m gone!”
My head turned.
Two eyes peered out of the darkness.
“What is ‘this’?” Alister asked. “Is it so much worse than death?”
“Yes,” the voice belonging to the eyes said.
Green Eyes crawled through a gap in the trees.
There was a coldness in her eyes as she looked at the main group.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” I said. “Leaving might be hard.”
“You shouldn’t have left me behind,” she retorted. “Again.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m actually sorry.”
“I could hear you from a little distance away. The nugget is loud.”
“Nugget,” Evan muttered, “says sushi girl.”
She approached me, but she didn’t climb onto me like she had in the past. She climbed up the throne, flipped her tail over so it was on what amounted to an armrest, and reclined, sitting sideways. If a fish could ‘sit’. The sinuous nature of her lower body was especially clear with the way she’d draped herself back over the throne.
“You can’t,” I said.
“I know. It’s not for me, and I’d be really bad at it,” she said. “Won’t work. Getting past this isn’t as easy as having someone else take the seat.”
She moved her head, rolling it back over the other armrest, facing skyward. In the doing, she pushed her head under my hand, where I was still touching the throne. I moved my thumb to flick a bit of hair away from where it trailed across her damaged face, but I left my hand where it was, the palm touching the bridge of her nose, the fingers and heel obscuring her eyes.
She’d healed, just a little bit, I noted, looking past the gaps of my fingers.
A benefit of being so close to the Abyss, perhaps.
She spoke, “He’ll live a long time. It won’t be good living. This is maybe one of the worst places for him to be, or it will be, once he settles in. A perfect, personalized misery, just for him.”
“It’s not being destroyed,” Ty said. “It’s being condemned.”
“Essentially,” I said.
“What would you rather do?” Alister asked. “As far as I can tell, it’s the exact same choice you made with Rose earlier. Either we all suffer through being here, or one person does.”
I turned to look at him.
They looked as worn out and scared as I’d suspected.
He was right. It wasn’t pretty, but he was right.
The Abyss wanted me to be its plaything. I’d been given the power to affect change, to take action and try to defend my friends, and it had all led to this.
I started to move my hand, ready to move Green Eyes from the throne. She seized my wrist.
She held my hand there, staring at me from an upside-down perspective.
“Why should he do it?” Evan asked. “He made the hard choice once, so he can do it again? No! When’s the last time any one of you made the big sacrifice?”
“Missing a hand here,” Alister said.
“Thank you for that,” the High Priest added. “I do owe you something for it.”
“Big sacrifice,” Evan said, stressing the ‘big’. “You know… um- I’m not good with words. Help me out here, Blake. Green?”
I could hear the cries of the various denizens of the Abyss. I could hear the tolling of the bell, even though it wasn’t here, and I could make out a deep rumbling, promising a reconfiguration, a change in broad strokes.
I opted to keep my mouth shut rather than risk the possibility that the noises in my head might become sentiments expressed through my lips.
Green Eyes answered Evan’s call. “I don’t know what the nugget is saying-”
“And stop calling me a nugget!”
“-but the thing I keep hearing, over and over again, is that everything comes with a price. What I’d like to know is, what are you paying Blake? What does he get in the deal?”
The group exchanged glances.
“I’m not sure this isn’t another trick of the Abyss. One more mouthpiece, so it gets what it wants,” the High Priest said.
“No,” I said. I squared my jaw, and stood up a little straighter. “No, Green Eyes is right. This isn’t something you ask for without giving something in return.”
“What do you want?” Alister asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “As far as I can tell, there isn’t that much that’s worth enduring a personalized little hell for gods know how long. You may have to sell it to me.”
“Blake,” Ty said.
“What?” I asked, and my tone was a little harsher than it maybe should have been.
He spread his arms, then dropped them to his side. “I don’t want to say it, but apparently I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you. I won’t say I regret it, but… I don’t remember it, and that’s making it feel really hard to justify. There’s Tiff, and there’s Alexis.”
He put emphasis on her name. It had the desired effect.
“I’m going to side with Blake on this one,” Rose said.
I looked at her in surprise.
“Green Eyes is right. Everything has a price. If we accept this option, let Blake make this choice, we’re going to pay somehow, further down the line. We should give up something, to make it more equitable.”
She drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.
“Ty,” she said.
“Blake was cut from the same cloth I was. The cuts were meant to achieve things. Blake was rigged to surround himself with allies. Just like he was created to ultimately destroy himself. I don’t know how much choice he had in the matter.”
“It’s a fair accusation,” I said. “I did get them involved.”
Rose nodded slowly. Her breath fogged. The trees and branches were so thick around us that it felt like they were closing in. Like a piece of music that was rigged to sound like it constantly escalated in pitch, ad infinitum.
Ty had shown me the piece of music in question, now that I thought about it.
“You did,” she said. “But I’m more inclined to blame the demon, but that’s… I’m so very tired right now, Blake. This isn’t even certified over, and I’m exhausted on every measurable level, and several levels that can’t be measured. I’m tired of blaming you. So maybe I’m biased, and that’s coloring my perception. Don’t let me come across like I’m stopping you two from resenting Blake.”
She was talking to Tiff and Ty.
“I don’t resent him,” Ty said. “But-”
He couldn’t seem to finish the sentence.
“You can’t resent someone for something that you don’t recall,” Tiff said. “Knowing Blake, admittedly not that well, I don’t think it was mean spirited.”
“It was selfish,” I said.
“And it happened,” Ty said. “Alexis is dead.”
All at once, I was back atop the ruined pillar. The Others were clawing their way up, the Barber’s minions, the fleshless bird, the lost souls, the broken crab-walking wretches…
I could see it all as though I were there again.
My focus was on the fight in front of me, trying to find an avenue I could use to attack. I was injured, my chest in ruins, and the group was at the corner of the pillar, Barber to one side, the mob to the other. The Timeless Knight was on the approach.
Then, as if someone else were taking control of a camera, moving it away from the scene, I could see Alexis, off to one side. Surrounded.
She screamed, and the noise was drowned out by a toll of the bell.
Others, including the feathers and talons that had been cut away from the skinned raven-man, were closing in, doing as much damage to each other as they were doing to her.
I saw the scene from Alexis’ perspective. Looking over at the others. Looking up at me.
She screamed something, the view distorting with each word.
Then, just before the Others could get her, she slipped beneath the railing, holding onto the edge, climbing down. Clearly intent on climbing across the underside, to get under the stairway that was so burdened with Others.
Except there were more Others beneath, climbing up.
My head turned, taking in the scene, but even though Alexis could see me between the slats of stairs, I couldn’t make her out through the jumble of bodies. All I might have seen, had I been given the time and perhaps a bit more light, were her fingers, clutching the slab of wood of the stairs.
She was scratched, and she made a call.
She dropped. One floor down, to the next set of stairs.
A bad landing, a tumble, taking several Others down with her, landing in a heap. Her limbs were bent in odd ways.
The image lingered on her, making sure I knew. Her eye was open, a glimmer visible from a distant candle. It didn’t blink, even as seconds passed.
The vision faded, clearing away.
But even though the vision faded, Alexis remained. Shrouded in the darkness at the edge of the little glade here, her eyes glittering as if from candles that weren’t here.
“I can’t make a call,” Rose said. “I’m biased on too many fronts.”
“I suppose the question,” Alister said, “Is whether one death and two lives cast into chaos is worth demanding this fate from him. That’s really for you two to decide.”
Alexis hunched over, and I saw another little flame join the lights that danced in her eyes. A lighter.
Cigarette lit, she straightened. She saw me looking, and raised one hand in a wave. Her arm was broken.
“I invited them to this world, I’m responsible for them,” I said. I watched as Alexis moved through the shadows, a little further back from the rest.
“I’ll amend my statement,” Alister said. “It’s for you three to decide, between you.”
“If it spares them-” I started.
Green Eyes clutched my wrist tighter.
“No,” Ty said. “I can’t ask him to do that. I shouldn’t have even brought it up. I’m just-”
“Tired,” Rose said.
“Yeah,” Tiff said. “I don’t want to do this like this.”
They were too nice. Too good.
“Two out of three say nay,” Alister said. “Bringing us right back to square one.”
Alexis, continuing her circuit around the clearing, stopped by the throne.
She stayed behind it.
Taunting me? I wondered. Or is it offering something else in the bargain? A fresh Hyena, a locket, and now an Alexis?
“If you have any last wishes, things you want us to resolve on your behalf,” the High Priest said.
“I already promised that,” Rose said.
“Why does it feel like you’re more on his side than ours?” the other Behaim asked.
“Because I’m tired of taking sides,” Rose said. “So long as everyone takes sides, the scales will inevitably wind up tipping, and we suffer for it.”
“Rose,” the High Priest said, and his tone was grave. “What choice do you think we have? We need out, and I’m not hearing answers. You’re only working to convince yourselves that it’s too inhumane to make a fragment of a human being sacrifice himself.”
“We could choose to stay,” Rose said. “It’s not a very good choice, but it’s a choice.”
“You’re testing me,” he said.
“A little,” Rose said. “This is actually my first visit to the Abyss. I’m not sure my head is on straight, right now, and a part of me feels a little insecure about how everyone else is doing. I might be testing you a bit to see if you’re responding rationally.”
“Do you know who thinks they’re being rational?” Evan asked. “The Angel. You know, the dog that’s waiting for us out there.”
“Dog?” Green Eyes looked at us. She flipped over, so her chin was on the armrest. “I didn’t see it.”
“That gives us hope that getting past this means we won’t get blocked by the angel,” Alister said. He managed a smile. “We only have to figure this out. Does Blake take a seat, or do we stay here forever?”
The noise in my head was unbearable, but looking at Alexis gave me some relief on that front.
On the other hand, it made me feel so guilty I felt like I might go to pieces over it. Whether I turned to the monster or the human, I was being assaulted, pushed into a corner.
“We trick the Abyss,” Rose suggested. “Abandon the question, take a third path.”
“I’ll remind you,” I said. “It’s here, it’s watching, it’s listening, and it isn’t stupid.”
“Mmm,” she said. “Then… can we make a deal?”
“Saying that so soon after saying you want to mislead it,” Green Eyes commented. She was looking at Rose, and her eyes were narrow. Slits in the gloom.
“Not helping,” I said.
“I swear I’ll approach this deal with honest intentions,” Rose declared. “Blake received the passion to strive for a future, I received the ability, but no passion, no drive, and no goal. I have only an arranged marriage while you have my fiancé‘s engagement ring, and a future rife with conflict and chaos, due to me by my bloodline’s karma. Now… I’m staking the open nature of my future on this deal. If I’m dishonest in this bargain, I give the Abyss the right to claim my future, in addition to any and all other costs I pay.”
“I’m not sure I agree with this,” Alister said.
“Would you rather we get married and live out our lives here?” Rose asked. “Or are you going to say that Blake should give up his existence because he’s only a fragment of a person?”
“Wouldn’t dare,” Alister said. “I know you’re a fragment too, if a more substantial, prettier one. But while I’m commenting one way or another, I have to wonder if the pair of you being in agreement isn’t just as disastrous as the two of you at odds.”
“I wonder,” Rose said.
“What’s the deal you’re making?” the High Priest asked.
“Look at Blake’s feet,” Rose said.
The branches that made up my feet had broken away. They’d split up, and they’d set root in the forest floor.
Sealing me here.
When had that happened?
The sensation in my head was getting worse.
To be filled with noise and violence and ruin, yet frozen in place. Eternal restlessness. Only freed when it came time to guard the gate, to dash the hopes of others. A far cry from my hopes to leave the world a better place than it had been before I was a part of it.
Once I realized it, I might have screamed, snapped, broken.
I looked at Alexis, and rather than relief, I thought I might break in an entirely different manner.
“I hereby request Blake,” she said. “I request passage to the outside for me and my allies. In exchange, I’ll give you what you desire, and I’ll give you us. You’ll have my services as a scourge. Bit of a step down from being the town’s diabolist, but I’ve done a bit of it before, and I can do more. A lifetime of service.”
The silence lingered.
Birds moved through the trees, just out of sight. Rustling, nervous, their cries hesitant.
To be a birdwatcher, but to have the birds forever out of sight…
I wondered if I’d find the rusted hulk of my bike somewhere in this mess of trees and snow. It’d top it off, as far as the taunting went.
For a moment, in the midst of the disturbance in my own head, the idea fresh on my mind, Alexis lingering in my field of vision, I thought I heard the rev of the bike.
But the sound was a tearing, a breaking.
The trees, burdened by ice and snow, dropped the debris on either side of the throne. They stood straighter, and more trees did the same.
A path had formed.
I could see Peter and Ainsley there, at the end of the path. Peter had one arm around Ainsley, the two of them hunched over, trying to stay warm.
The other members of the group practically broke out into a run, on seeing the path.
I remained where I was.
“Stop!” Alister bellowed the word.
“Stop!” Evan shouted, a shriller sound.
Most did. When one of the younger Knights continued to run, Rose touched a knife to her palm, then gestured, tripping the Knight and sending them careening sideways into a tree. A rough fall, but no damage.
“Not yet,” Rose said.
She turned to look at me. The roots hadn’t released my feet.
Just in front of me, Green Eyes was tense. Her mouth was slightly parted, narrow fish’s teeth more clear without the lips in the way.
It was harder to convince the others to stay put when the way out was there. The deal was the same, me being imprisoned here, them going, but the choice wasn’t in my hands anymore.
“Not yet,” Rose said.
They were restless, freedom so close.
As if to taunt them, the branches began to slowly descend, the way disappearing.
She approached me, even as the exit was fading. She put hands on my shoulders.
“You could have thrown me off the side of the pillar,” she said. “Or at least let me fall.”
“Could have,” I said.
“Alister,” she said.
“Do you know the familiar ritual off the top of your head?”
“You’re not considering-”
“I’m not,” she said. “Honest. I’m not.”
“Then yes, yes I do.”
The front of my torso was destroyed, and though it healed, the healing was only partial.
Rose seized my heart, and hauled it out of my chest.
Narrow cords of wood, the roots of smaller plants, entangled branches, all followed, like so many veins and arteries.
“Woah, what!?” Evan cried out.
Green Eyes hissed, violent.
“Shhh,” Rose shushed them. Her eyes and much of her focus on my heart.
“If you do anything to him-” Green Eyes said.
“Don’t finish that sentence,” Rose ordered, with a bit of Conquest in her voice.
Green Eyes shut her mouth, though she was tense.
I stared down at it. A dark thing, a knot of wood encasing a bird, or a bird made of wood, both and neither, thumping and thrumming and beating without rhythm.
“Not a real heart,” Rose said. “Spiritstuff, filling the gap.”
“They’re running,” Alister commented.
I looked to see. Tiff and Ty were staying, and Nick was lingering, but backing slowly toward the exit.
Rose frowned. “That makes this harder.”
“What are you thinking?” Alister asked.
“The Abyss has a claim to Blake.”
“Yes. It’s going to claim us if we don’t get out of here.”
“What if there’s no clear Blake to claim?” Rose asked.
“Whatever you’re going to do, do it,” Alister said.
“Give me a prompt, any prompt. Need a bit of ritual in this.”
“Um. I, practitioner’s name, invite you to the world of man and mortal. Let this be the port-”
“He accepts your hospitality. Then you offer shelter, hospitality, demesne, sustenance…”
“That’s enough,” Rose said. She glanced over her shoulder. “I, Rose Thorburn, invite you within. Let my body be the gate and the dwelling. We were once one, then two, and now we will be an incomplete whole, for just a short time. I offer you mercy, and I bare my throat to you, knowing what you are to me. May my body be your shelter, my strength your strength, my being your sustenance.”
“Damnation,” Alister said. “Should have known what I was getting into, marrying a Thorburn.”
I replied, “As the willing spirit, I accept your offer. I agree to share in my own power and strength.”
Rose continued, “I give you me, my body for your spirit, for enough time that we might put old affairs to rest. I give you time, up until we reach the moment where one might destroy the other. I give you this with the hope that we both will strive for balance, and the knowledge that we will likely not find it.”
“I accept,” I said, not because I didn’t have better words, but because we were out of time.
Rose pulled, and the dark tendrils of the Abyss’ wood held on to my heart.
Alister handed her the Hyena. Green Eyes tensed, now out of the chair.
Rose cut, severing me from the body, and I lost my eyes, my wings, and everything else.
The scene was broken, two sets of sound, two different views. I might have been viewing it all through a shattered television screen with two sets of audio out of sync. Out of the left eye, I could see my mother fussing over me. Out of the right, she was standing still, distracted, fixing her hair.
In the left, I was Rose. In the right, Blake.
Rose’s view was fractured, in a thousand pieces, painting a very different picture. She was taller, simply by virtue of the images reflected through each piece of glass.
Blake, getting ready for church. Rose… the time and placement of it wrong.
“Your grandmother b- -e there,” our mother fussed. “Inheritance.”
It was a broken soundtrack, a bad edit, with imagination left to fill the gaps. Rose’s memory of the event was rearranged, putting her at home, with our parents, just before the big meeting at Hillsglade House.
For me, it was much the same. A whole section cut free. I had no memories of my mother fussing over me.
I reached out, as if I could touch it, affect how things were arranged, then thought twice about it.
I couldn’t dwell in such a small, dismal, broken space.
I tried to find my way, to approach the surface. Perhaps I could take one eye, to see the outside world.
Slowly, things were taking form around me. Making this a place I could navigate, or operate in.
I was only spirit now. Relatively small, compared to what I’d once been. From a human to a fragment of a human possessed by the Abyss, now only a fragment of spirit.
I could hear Rose’s declaration, from far away. Not a memory, but the real world.
“You can have both of us, you could break us, and it might even be easy!” she said. There was definite Conquest in her voice. “Or you can let us go, and the deal I proposed will hold!”
I didn’t hear or see the response.
I tried to, listening and looking for cues.
Instead, I only heard Conquest’s amused chuckle, echoing through the shattered space.