I looked around, but I couldn’t find the source of the utterance.
The landscape around me wasn’t quite dreamlike. There was a logic here, a pattern that had a kind of familiarity to it. There was Rose, and there was me, striving to fill the gaps. In large part, I was able to. But where this kaleidoscopic world was shifting, different elements moving around me like a close up of an eye, dilating and widening, there were solid elements too. Elements that didn’t move.
It was like viewing the world with the Sight, which I hadn’t done properly since Ur had cut me off from the real world. If I focused, depending on how I focused, things took on different forms.
I turned to the nearest pillar, focusing so that it was a pillar. It was structurally sound, but only barely. A large section of the exterior had broken away.
Another refocusing, and I could see the jagged cut, a place where nothing could dwell or connect. A crack in the television screen. No matter what we did, we’d be working on a different plane, unable to affect that screen.
I changed my perspective once more. The pillar, the parts I could see, there were elements at play. Figures, with longer hair, a length of thigh, arms folded over the chest. Eyelashes.
They were me, or they were Rusty, but only fragments had survived the damage, from the cracks that ran along the pillar’s surface.
Femininity, perhaps, or self image that fit with Rose being female.
I blinked, looking around.
More structures. Some mine, distinct, positioned where they once would have been part of things, now separate, degraded, damaged, and more raw.
I’d once prided myself on having an eye for interpreting art. Now I was interpreting an alien landscape that should have been more familiar than anything else, because it was us. I quickly made conclusions that I knew I couldn’t rely on, broad-strokes thoughts that let me put everything in a frame of reference.
An arch, more intact than the feminine one had been. The books that stood out like they’d been half-way carved out of rough rock, the surface around them coarse, it somehow evoked thoughts of the Library we’d been in the process of escaping.
The Barber’s work had cut the arch in two, from one side to the other, and left a black fracture through the landscape that ran through virtually everything here. The damage was such that the two halves didn’t fit together anymore. A puzzle with a thick strip taken out of the middle. The two halves no longer meshed.
I looked to the scenes surrounding the arch. More orderly. There was a rigid pattern to how the days and events had been laid out.
I focused a little harder one one section, a little more prominent than the rest, the colors bolder, the image sharper. More importantly, it was a scene that was mostly intact, and entirely on her side of the black fracture. Something of Rose’s that had been denied to me. Entirely unfamiliar.
“Ros-” the sound stuttered. “Go to the principal’s office.”
A seven year old ‘Rose’, pieced together from the remains of Rusty, looked up at her teacher, bewildered.
The teacher handed the foolscap paper to Rose. “I’ll call ahead so they know you’re coming. Don’t worry, it’s not anything bad.”
Rose couldn’t quite believe that. You didn’t get sent to the principal’s office unless you’d done something wrong.
But she went. The front office wasn’t far away.
“Hi Ros-,” the principal said. The tall, thin man smiled.
He looked so big, from Rose’s perspective, even sitting down.
“Can I see?”
She had to step up to the desk to hold out the foolscap. He took it and smoothed it out where she’d crumpled it a bit out of anxiety.
“Mrs. Wells phoned while you were walking down here. She says you’ve been working very hard on your printing.”
Rose hesitated, then nodded.
“It really shows. You should be proud of yourself.”
She allowed herself a smile.
“Do you think it deserves a sticker?”
He opened the drawer of his desk, and he pulled out a thick roll of stickers, as large as a roll of duct tape. He peeled one off, and he pressed it down onto the foolscap paper.
“How’s that?” he asked.
She took the paper back. Her eyes went wide. The sticker was holographic! Shiny! The super-realistic image of the frog on the page opened its mouth, tongue starting to stick out as she looked at it from different angles.
She smiled wide, happy enough she could barely contain herself.
I pulled my attention away, but in the doing, caught other thoughts and reflections, associated to it. A warmer memory, of mom seeing the paper, and giving her an awkward sort of hug, if it could even be called that. She didn’t bend down, but just put a hand on Rose’s back as Rose hugged her, a pat and a short rub, then the work with the shiny sticker going on the fridge.
“Good job,” mom said. “Look at that. Do you think we should show this to grandma, the next time we see her?”
Rose shook her head.
“Okay. But we’ll show daddy when he gets back from work, how’s that?”
After mom left, Rose approached the image on the fridge, moving left and right to watch the image move. Still excited, still proud.
Her face still a fractured mess, a reconfiguration that only resembled a girl. The Barber hadn’t needed to be too careful, there. It was a memory. Flaws were to be expected.
I caught a thought from an older Rose, thinking back on the memory while she lay in bed. Abstract, wondering why the school had done it. Trying to build more positive relationships with students? Or was it because she was a Thorburn, and the school had seen several other Thorburns pass through? Were they striving to do this one right, where others had been disasters in their own way? A more cynical line of thought.
One event could do so much. So many individual things had been removed, destroyed, or moved elsewhere, to create two incomplete wholes. How much had we been steered in our own individual directions?
I looked at an associated memory, a defining moment, on the far side of the fracture. It was, on a level, an extension of me, as if I simply flowed into the landscape, as much liquid as solid, filling the available void. The only difference from real life was that I was viewing things with different senses.
A shiny holographic image, our second, less important, but still, it should have been pleasing. Except all that remained of that second memory was the sticker itself. A bird on a branch, wings opening as I looked at it from different angles. There was none of the academic pride, none of the surrounding memories. Only the sticker, alone, at the edge of the fracture, something I had liked.
I heard Conquest’s voice, a whisper.
This time I was grounded enough to look for the source.
It came from above and around. As if the sky was talking to me.
But the sky, as I looked at it, was only more distant images and scenes, structures.
I was, it dawned on me, making a fundamental error. I’d tried to rise, I’d tried to navigate, but my surroundings were a shifting kaleidoscope collection of scenes, moving as Rose and I each focused on different things, even grating against one another as we did so, with some damage resulting, fragments of our selves being lost to the fracture. Swallowed up and gone.
Given time, we might grind each other into dust, as we instinctively shifted pieces of the larger puzzle around, trying to fit things where they didn’t fit.
I’d tried to move around, to look up and down, even altered my focus, looking at things in different forms, to view the pillars as what they were.
But I was small, and I was looking at things in a small way. A large part of the reason it didn’t make sense, was that I was studying a complex organism on what amounted to a cellular level.
I pulled back.
The kaleidoscope remained what it was, though not rainbow hued, but more muted colors. The colors of Rose and Blake’s life. Being a raw spirit, intertwined with my surroundings, my vision didn’t suffer for being further away or for me being bigger.
I was a share of the landscape here, at least in part. I only had to own that reality.
Rose’s body was hers. It was solid, a largely unchanging state. I couldn’t occupy that domain. Not easily. Not without suffering for trying.
Her thoughts were more malleable, her memories all the more so.
Once I figured out the landscape on the macro sense, I was able to find her consciousness. It moved like a roiling storm, too many factors and variables to take in.
Rose’s boots crunched through the snow as she approached the waiting group, Alister, Evan and Green Eyes in her company. Peter, Ainsley, Ellie and Christoff all stood at the ridge above the hole the house had collapsed into. Ellie and Christoff sat a fair bit further back than the others did.
“Peter,” Rose greeted her cousin. Ainsley pulled away from under Peter’s arm to approach and hug Alister.
“Your hand,” Ainsley said, shocked. “Oh my god.”
Alister shook his head.
Ainsley hugged him again, fiercely this time. “I’m glad you made it out. Everyone’s been so worried.”
“Not everyone made it,” he said.
Ainsley nodded. “I heard.”
Rose glanced over at Ellie. She offered a tight smile.
“I’ll try to relay what happened after,” Alister said.
“After a night’s sleep,” Ainsley said. “Seriously.”
It was family looking after family. Rose watched Alister’s eyes, and she tried not for the first time, to reconcile her feelings on that front. His face was almost punchable, sometimes, especially the periodic smirks. Attractive, but punchable. She wondered if it would become something endearing or if she’d grow to want to strangle him. He was so casually confident, almost smarmy, at his worst.
But attractive. She’d never been one to join the other girls in fussing over the boys, but now and then, she’d been able to think that one boy or another was certainly attractive. Alister was one such boy.
Seeing him dealing with his cousin, his almost restrained patience at dealing with Ainsley’s mothering and concern, Rose felt like there was a possibility there. A place in this marriage-to-be where she might be comfortable with him. If not comfortable, at least not wanting to actively murder him.
She looked away before she could get caught staring.
Rose met Peter’s eyes.
“You look like shit,” Peter told Rose, in a marked contrast to Ainsley’s gentleness and care.
“Probably,” Rose said. “You have no idea what we’ve been through.”
“The stickman didn’t make it out?” Peter asked.
“He did, in a manner of speaking,” Rose said, her voice soft. She tapped her collarbone.
Eerie, to step back from the scene and look at it more abstractly, to see how the entire storm that was Rose’s awareness briefly focusing on me, searching for and finding me within her.
Clouds hued in the grays and blacks of what Rose was seeing, tinted with flashes of light blue, like Ainsley’s jacket, as if someone had dyed the storm.
“You’re going to remember him forever? He holds a place in your heart?” Peter asked.
“No,” Rose said, annoyed.
Alister, beside her, was fiddling with his jacket, where it had been cut off along with his hand. He pulled his glove off with his teeth and started to work with the fabric.
Rose helped, pulling his sweater down and tying it in a rough knot. After a moment, she pulled off one mitten and pulled it tight over the stump. It was mangled, but not openly bleeding. It took some doing.
“Because here I was, thinking you and stickman didn’t get along,” Peter said, sounding impatient with the conversation.
“The bogeyman’s spirit is possessing her,” Alister said. He reached out, and he clasped Rose’s right “He’s dormant for now, but he may take a more active role soon.”
Ainsley’s head snapped around, giving Rose a second look, suddenly very concerned.
“Oh,” Peter said. He paused for a beat, then said, “That sounds like a terrible idea, but you know, I’m just the uninitiated guy who got introduced to all this a matter of hours ago. If you guys think it’s okay, I can roll with it.”
“No,” Alister said. “It is a terrible idea.”
Peter flashed a smile. “Oh. At least I’m hitting the mark, figuring this stuff out.”
“Yes. You seem oddly comfortable, all things considered,” Alister said. He glanced at Ainsley.
“What?” Ainsley asked.
Alister shook his head.
“Seriously, what? I have no idea what you’re saying,” Ainsley said.
“Can’t help but notice he had his arm around you, as we walked up,” Alister said.
“Did he? I barely paid attention,” Ainsley said. Then, a little defensively, as my cousin glanced at her, she added, “We were cold, sitting here waiting for all of you, and I’m tired, so I don’t see how it’s a big deal.”
It sounded like she was addressing Peter as much as anything. Rose paid particular attention to that. She analyzed it, and I didn’t follow the analysis. I could figure it out myself, without studying it.
Peter took it all in stride, shrugging.
“Okay,” Alister said. “Fine. I’m overreacting, and I’m sorry. We all have reason to be tired.”
Rose turned, surveying the surroundings. “We should leave. I’m not sure I like being so close to all of this.”
“No objection,” Ellie said. “Would have done that an hour ago, but where the hell are we supposed to go?”
“Our place,” Alister said. “We’ve got beds, right Ains?”
“Yeah. Might have to pull out an air mattress, but we’re provisioned.”
Peter glanced at Ainsley. “I thought there was a family rivalry. Are you really okay with dirty Thorburns sleeping with you?”
“Okay,” Alister cut in, his voice firmer. “You did not have to word that like that. You could have asked me instead of her.”
Peter looked offended, “I spent way too long sitting in the cold with her, we hiked all the way from the woods on the fucking other end of town. We’ve talked, so I’m sorry if I feel more comfortable asking her than asking you.”
“I don’t even know what you two are saying,” Ainsley said, exasperated.
Rose shook her head. After all the stress of nearly dying, wrestling with countless others, and dealing with the demon, she was almost relieved at the mild argument here.
A movement behind her made her turn her head.
Her eye fell briefly on Green Eyes, who was laying in snow, one hand on a branch. The thing. She was supposed to be a mermaid, but she was a nightmare. A mockery of a mermaid. Every inch of her was covered in scales with flesh-ripping barbs, and even the angle and posture of her body threatened immediate and horrible degrees of pain.
A bogeyman, Rose estimated, could be bad enough. But one that was pissed off?
Rose’s heart rate picked up a touch as the creature narrowed her eyes. She reached for Conquest-
-And I could see the landscape on my end of things change.
If Rose’s self was a realm unto itself, with me holding some territory and Rose holding the rest, then Rose willingly ceded territory to Conquest.
Changing my perspective, I could see Conquest taking hold, vines with tiny white flowers creeping, shoring up the solid structures, creeping between shattered images, bolstering them.
The storm roiled, but now white petals stirred, multiplying in the darker shadows which might have represented Rose’s fear.
I saw a tendril of Conquest’s reaching, and I moved to head it off, to look and see if my own strength could hold up to the incarnation’s.
Further from ongoing events. Into memories.
It was much as things had been before. Fractured images. On the one side, Rose attended church with her parents. On the other, well, I didn’t have those same memories. My view of church was what I’d seen walking past and looking in, after a given church had closed. The church where the Jacob’s Bell council met. Ominous, dark, and empty.
“You’re in my way,” Conquest said. She didn’t speak in a loud voice, but it carried in the church. “I don’t think you want to be in my way.”
The scene was largely frozen, and it remained fractured. On the one side, the church bright. Mom and dad sitting on either side of a young Rose. Rigid, proper, keeping her in line. The fracture ran down across the benches of the rightmost aisle, and my side of the church was empty, dark, with things moving in the shadows.
Conquest stood at the Altar. The minister, middle aged, all in white, with a pinched mouth and hard stare. Two bouquets of flowers sat on either side of the altar, and both blossomed, white petals falling to make room for the new.
“I’ve been looking for you,” I said.
“Why do you need to occupy this sort of memory?” I countered.
She pointed. I followed her gaze beyond the church windows.
“Peter,” Rose said, with a stern tone. Her connection to Conquest connected, exaggerated, and drew from several events in her personal experience. From the scene that Conquest and I occupied, I saw Rose reach into and draw from the strict and slightly scary minister, our parent’s aura as they sat on either side of her, the pressure and expectation that she sit still and be good.
Peter shook his head, and looked away. Breaking eye contact.
It felt satisfying to Rose, to achieve the effect she’d aimed for, getting Peter to back down with a word.
“That would be why,” Conquest said, her words tearing me away from the scene. I was back in a church formed from composite images and memories.
Rose was relaxing her use of Conquest, and I could see as this Conquest retracted the tendrils and branches.
“I can’t help but note that you hold more ground than you did before she drew on you for power,” I said. “You’re still here, for one thing.”
Conquest smiled with her pinched mouth. She stepped down from the altar, fingers touching the petals that had fallen around the base of the bouquets. Another sign of lingering influence. “Rose knows what I’m doing. She knows the price.”
I looked out the window, and I watched as the group turned to go. Ellie and Christoff led the way. Ainsley and Peter followed behind.
Heavy snow gave way under Ainsley’s feet, causing her foot to drop a few inches. Peter caught her arm.
“Thank you,” Ainsley said.
“No worries,” Peter said, still holding her arm as he glanced over his shoulder.
His expression was placid, but he made eye contact with Alister.
It was probably more infuriating anything else. It implied the shit eating grin that everyone present knew he was wearing inside.
Alister tensed, and Rose put a hand on his chest, stopping him.
“He’s…” Alister flailed ineffectually with his stump of a hand, trying to articulate something and failing.
“I know,” Rose said, gently. They’d stopped, and the others were moving slightly ahead, out of earshot.
Rose was very aware of the mermaid bogeyman, who had also stopped, still glaring at her.
“I don’t know,” Evan said, from his perch just above Green Eyes. “I’m clueless. Someone explain?”
“She- Ainsley doesn’t know. She’s not versed in this stuff. She’s a good student, a good practitioner. She doesn’t have any defenses against-” Alister said, with genuine worry creeping into his voice. He stopped very deliberately.
“Against assholes,” Rose said. “Against the scummy, slimy, far-too-intelligent-for-anyone’s-good guys who every dad and caring cousin worries will come calling.”
“Yeah,” Alister said, and there was an odd inflection to his voice.
“Come on,” Rose said, tugging on his good arm.
Alister obeyed, swaying a little with fatigue.
Rose ended up with both arms around Alister’s arm, her shoulder against his side, her head resting against his shoulder.
It wasn’t familiar to her, not quite natural, never something she’d had experience with, but she was trying, and she was secretly hoping to find her way there. If it was even possible, with what the Barber had done.
“He’s trying to get a rise out of you,” she said. “He’s scared, and he wants control, even if that control is earned by getting to the guy who seems to know what he’s doing.”
“The guy,” Alister said.
“The handsome, talented guy who happens to be engaged to his cousin,” Rose said.
She tried to make the compliment sound natural, but to her ears, and to mine, as I listened with those ears, it didn’t sound that way. I was also privy to the fact that it killed her, just a little, that she hadn’t been able to pull it off.
“Fair enough,” Alister said, and he did manage to make it sound natural, enough to ease that small knot of anxiety.
Rose looked to get to more secure ground, and simply advised, “The worst thing you can do is make a big deal out of it, because he can and will take it as far as he needs to, to win.”
“Oh god,” Alister said, “Don’t even go there. I don’t want to know what qualifies as winning here.”
“Mmm,” Rose said. She pushed down the complex emotions that were stirring at that thought.
“Thinking about winning,” Rose said.
“With the big bad bogeyman lurking within you?” he asked. “I can see how you’d be a little worried.”
“Shhh,” she said. “He’s there, aware, and he’s watching, listening. As far as I can tell, he’s being good.”
Rose turned, and she glanced at the mermaid and Evan. The bogeyman was stalking them, staying just a few paces behind, watching through narrowed eyes. Evan rode on the mermaid’s head. Disheveled, feathers sticking up here and there. Nothing to do with the fact that they’d had to inject spirits into him. But to do with associating with Blake.
With me, I corrected.
“I need to cobble together a good barometer,” Rose said, to the mermaid. “But nothing feels wrong, there. He’s okay.”
“Mm,” the mermaid said. Her tone was low and threatening as she commented, “I sure hope he stays that way.”
“Me too!” Evan added, brightly.
I looked away from the window.
I felt vaguely uncomfortable. There was a dissonance that came with looking through Rose’s eyes. Seeing Evan and Green Eyes without the same sort of familiarity or attachment.
Most definitely not rose-tinted glasses.
The minister was gone. The church had half-emptied, and Conquest was now in the shape of my mother. She stood by a memory of a young ten year old Rose, fixing her hair, smoothing out her blouse, a fractured image of a dress shirt.
“Winning,” Conquest said, looking up at me.
“There’s a joke to be made here,” I said. “A juvenile one about conquering and mothers.”
Conquest gave me mom’s best disapproving look. Rose and I had experienced enough that there was no shortage, even portioning them out between us.
The old standbys held, when it came to dealing with Conquest. I needed to keep her from gaining ground. I couldn’t let her influence me, or get me under her thumb.
“That’s not nearly as effective as you think it is,” I said. “You don’t scare me, Conquest.”
She smiled, and it was a dangerous smile. “I don’t?”
“For one thing, I’ve largely lost my ability to be afraid. For another, I’ve seen exactly how much real estate you have in here. I just faced down a demon, and I wasn’t even in that thing’s neighborhood when it came to raw strength or power.”
“I was there too,” she said.
“I can gauge how much you have to bring to bear. You’ve only got access to a trickle of power in here.”
“That’s true,” she said. She approached, still wearing mom’s and I held my ground. “You’ve got more power and far more presence than I do. I have the benefit of being very familiar with functioning on this level, knowing how to use the power I have. We might even be an even match, if we were at odds.”
I had to wonder if I should be worried she was agreeing with me, or if that was a consequence of her being Conquest. Was it even possible for her to back down, being what she was?
“We can be enemies in here,” I said. “We can deplete power fighting each other, competing, or we can cooperate. You can be for me what you are to Rose, with the same cost and payment.”
“I can,” she said. She smiled a little, “But I decline.”
“On both counts,” she said.
I wanted to react, to prepare for battle, but she was right. I wasn’t familiar with this battlefield, with the weapons that might be employed.
She closed the distance, reaching out, and she seized me by the neck.
I tried to reach out, but I didn’t exactly have arms to grab her with.
“You slowly lost your arms when you became a bogeyman,” she said. “You gained new ones, fabricating them, but they weren’t yours. It was the Drains claiming you for itself, and you grasped that, deep inside. Now, reduced to your essence, you’re left without.”
“Yet, somehow,” I said, my words a touch strangled, “I have a neck.”
“You’re a little more attached to your neck,” she said. She turned her head, and dug her fingers into the skin between my neck and my jaw, to force me to look in the same direction. Forcing me to look out the window, at the landscape beyond this church in composite. “Much of this is yours. You have defenses that Rose has lacked for some time. Spirits that would protect a host, that I’ve worked to eliminate and replace. But, even with your defenses, you’re raw, like this, and you can still be examined, analyzed, and broken down.”
“Does Rose know?”
“She knows that I have been making myself necessary. She’d be stupid not to, and your counterpart isn’t stupid.”
I struggled, but in this medium, I wasn’t quite sure how.
Stupid, to get cornered like this, but what choice had I had? I’d tried negotiating, and backing down or cowering would only have made Conquest worse. I’d had to bluff my way into it.
Had to hope I could find power and leverage it.
But I might as well have been a one year old, this setting and form were so new to me.
“Ah,” Conquest said, still forcing me to look away. Her voice had changed. Harder, a little more crisp, a different person’s voice. “I was expecting this.”
Outside, in the real world, Rose stopped walking. She allowed herself to clutch Alister’s arm just a little tighter, before releasing it.
“Shit,” Alister said.
Rose was silent. Most of the others, including the others who had escaped the Abyss, the High Priest, the Knights, Tiff, and Ty, had stopped, collected as a loose group.
Ms. Lewis stood a distance away. Facing all of them.
“I was expecting this,” Rose said, echoing Conquest.
As she spoke, she drew on Conquest for presence, power, and courage.
Conquest, gripping me by the throat, squeezed tighter. Hurt me.
Rose turned her head sharply to one side, as if listening for something.
“What?” Alister asked.
“Blake,” she said.
“He has atrocious timing,” Alister observed.
“It’s not that. He’s hurting.”
She eased up, letting go of Conquest, and the grip on my throat relaxed a fraction. Still painfully tight.
“Not good,” Rose said. “I’m disarmed, and we need every edge we can get, here.”
“You have us,” Alister said.
“I’m not sure that’s good enough.”
I looked down at Conquest, who wore Grandmother’s body, her expression cold.
Because, I had to assume, when I’d dealt with a dragon, fought multiple demons ranging from mote to nightmare, when I’d been in and out of the Abyss three times, befriended monsters who flayed people alive, and fought off the hordes of Toronto, my ignoble end had to be rubbed in by it being at the hands of an old lady.
“Rose,” Ms. Lewis said. “Your husband-to-be, hello, Alister.”
“And Mr. Thorburn, who isn’t in a position to respond.”
“No, he isn’t,” Rose said.
Rose’s heart was pounding, and I was keenly aware of it. A sensation I’d missed. Her mouth was dry, and she wanted to tap Conquest, very, very badly.
“We’re displeased,” Ms. Lewis said. “I don’t imagine that’s a great shock.”
“No,” Rose said.
“We were to obtain the house, but the property isn’t in a state we can benefit from. Which leaves us at a crossroads.”
“Crossroads,” Peter said, from the midst of the collected group, as if trying on the word, barely aware he’d spoken.
“This can be resolved without conflict, if you would agree to sign on with the firm.”
Several people in the group between Ms. Lewis and Rose moved uncomfortably. Hands were on weapons.
“That’s good to know,” Rose said, very carefully. “Can I have some time to get my affairs in order?”
“We would need an explicit affirmative on the offer of a position,” Ms. Lewis said. “Are you giving it?”
Rose was silent. Seconds passed.
Conquest tightened her grip on my throat.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Ms. Lewis said.
“It would be making me everything I’ve promised myself I wouldn’t be,” Rose said, “And I made other promises. To Alister, and to the Abyss.”
Lewis didn’t look surprised in the slightest.
“Conflict it is, then,” she said. “I’m sorry to have to do this, but I have orders.”
Rose nodded, but she didn’t speak. She didn’t trust herself to.
“Sorry, Blake,” she thought, communicating to me. “But if you could endure, I’d really appreciate it. And if you could help, that’d be even better, because I have a dozen ideas, and zero faith they’re going to work.”
That thought expressed, she started to feed into Conquest.