Category Archives:  Arc 16 (Judgment)

Judgment 16.13

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The Abyss was ruthless, and our surroundings were coming to pieces in fast motion.  Cascades of dust flowed off of every surface, accompanied by flakes, chips, and fragments, a hundred years of wear and tear occurring over seconds.  Where the surfaces were flat, such as the rooftop, the same dust and fragments danced as the surroundings rumbled and vibrated.  Were it any lighter it might have risen as thick clouds.  Any heavier, and it would have formed an almost liquid pool.

It fell between the two points.  Ankle height, a roiling cloud of finer particles.

I was small enough that ‘ankle height’ was enough to obscure me.  My view of the others was reduced to vague silhouettes.

“We need something to tie her hands with,” Rose was saying.  She was, out of everyone, closest to the ground.

“On it,” Mags said, “Gimme a second… grab her?”

“Grabbed,” Peter said.

There was a sound of chain rattling.

“Here.”

“You’re like a superhero, a tool for every job,” Peter commented.  The chains rattled some more as they were wound around the pinned Ms. Lewis.

“Damn straight,” Mags said.  “Except I use guns, not some stick.”

Respect,” Peter said.

“Got her,” Mags said, tugging the chain to tighten the loops around the lawyer’s wrists.  “Wish I had my combination lock, but we’re good so long as we watch her.  I’d think it was too tight, but it’s not like she can die.”

“I-” Ms. Lewis started.

Mags raised her pipe with one hand.

Ms. Lewis didn’t try to say anything more.

“Use your scarf as a gag?” Peter suggested.

“F that.  My scarf is staying with me, thank you very much.”

They seemed to settle on something.  Within a few seconds, Ms. Lewis was gagged.

“Alright, well done.  Now help me up,” Rose said.

“Try sounding a little less bossy while you ask?” Peter suggested.

“I’ve been clawed open by a hellhound, possessed and hollowed by my inhuman alter ego, my head’s been rearranged and the only reason I’m still conscious is that I’m drawing some power from Conquest.  I’m going to be ‘bossy’, so shut the fuck up, Peter.”

“Wow,” was all he said.  “Maybe try saying please shut the fuck up?”

“Help me up so we can go.  Sooner than later.”

“One of you two better do it,” Peter spoke.  “Bending down is not a good thing for me right now.  My back doesn’t hurt nearly enough for how fucked up it feels.  Besides, I’m not sure I trust Rose not to bite.”

“Got her?” Paige asked.

“Yeah,” Mags said.

There was a pause as Paige bent down by Rose.

“Yeah, that gouge is pretty f’ed up,” Mags observed.

Peter managed to sound pretty casual about it.  “Am I going to have a badass scar?”

“Maybe if you don’t bleed out before we can get you help,” Mags said.  “You look pretty wobbly.”

He turned his head, but didn’t say anything.  I couldn’t see his face.

Whatever he’d done, glaring at Mags or something in that vein, it prompted her to add, “I can’t lie.”

“I like you a little less now.”

Paige finished pulling Rose very carefully to her feet.

“Buttsack!” Mags called.  “Get your ass over here!  You too, Stumpy, I know you’re playing dead.  Come, or you might not get another chance to leave.”

“Uh… you,” Rose said.  Her voice wasn’t that strong as she raised it to be heard.  “Same thing.”

The man in the ill-fitting suit, I realized.

“And he’s gone over the edge,” Rose said.  “Probably easier, if a little hard to get why.”

“We ran into him earlier.  I don’t think he’ll have any trouble making his way down.”

“Alright.  That just leaves Blake.”

“Blake?”

Heads turned.  The Sight, being used to find me.

It was Mags who bent down to collect me.

“He’s alive?” she asked.  My eye moved.  “Oh!  He’s actually alive… in a manner of speaking.”

“I need him,” Rose said.  “Let’s go, before the building does.”

My view was a warped one, wobbly.  I had little volition, almost no ability to move of my own accord.  The group took stairs as fast as they were able, and Mags was toward the front of the group, one arm on Ms. Lewis’ upper arm, periodically jerking her to keep her off balance.  Buttsack walked in front of the woman, one hand raised to hold on to her belt loop.  Trying to run would have meant hurdling the goblin to reach a lower stair.

Mags’ other arm was cradling what remained of me like she might hold a football.  I was a lumpy, crude hand with a thread of flesh running over it, an eyeball, tucked into the crook of her arm.

The walls were bleeding dust, fine cracks spreading and reaching deeper.  Every surface was caught in the same state between fluid and vapor, the stairs below almost a waterfall, though it had no force to it.  Different colors of different materials pooled together to form layers and patterns as they collected.  The sand of a million hourglasses.

We passed the floor the two demons and the chauffeur would have been on with no incident.  They would have left with the possessed lawyer, Christopher, I supposed.

With my body being what it was, I could rotate my eyeball to look through the cracks and glimpse the others making their way down the stairs behind Mags.

They were so worn out, but we’d found the light at the end of the tunnel.

There was hope.  Only a little bit further, and we won.

Power had a price.  Seeing the dust, the sweat, the blood, the sheer exhaustion, the looks in people’s eyes, and the damage that had been done, nobody would dare say we hadn’t paid a price.

Grandmother had created Rose and I to work against the system.  A snarl or a tangle in the pattern.  She hadn’t predicted the future, I was pretty sure; this degree of collateral damage was likely beyond her expectations, especially if we counted Toronto, but she’d achieved her goal.

Mags stopped, turning, and looked back to the others, who were slower to make their way down.  Rose was between Peter and Paige, and the trio were still having trouble keeping up with Mags and the hostage.

Ms. Lewis’ gaze was level, her expression oddly serene as she briefly glanced across to me, though she had drool and blood running from the corner of her open mouth, with what seemed to be tissues stuffed inside it.

While we waited, a shadow moved below.  I shifted position, poking Mags, and she turned her head.

A false alarm.  Green Eyes.  She’d been caught against the side of the building, and she’d made her way inside.

She was tense, her attention on Rose.

“Blake is with us,” Rose said.

Green Eyes frowned, but didn’t speak.

“Come on,” Rose said.  “Keep moving.”

Green Eyes made her way forward, favoring one arm over the other.

She noticed me and paused.  I stared into her eye with my own, measured the nuances of her expression.  Relief, fear, concern, all together.  Enough for me to feel confident that she was the same Green Eyes.  Those blades that had nearly killed her hadn’t cut her in two.

The mermaid looked back at Rose, and I wasn’t sure even she was aware of how her hands had flexed, fingernails scratching the floor.  A tell, as such things went.

Green Eyes took the lead, going down the stairs headfirst.

It would have been a lie to say that we were quick to reach the ground floor.  Too many people were hurt, and by the time we got that far, the stairs were impossible to see, layered with enough particulate matter that footing seemed to be an unsteady thing.

The others were waiting for us.  Ainsley and Lola were on their feet.  The kids were all there, too.  Evan was perched on a kid’s head.

“Green!” Evan greeted the mermaid as she came down the stairs.  “What happened?  Where’s Blake?  Is everyone okay?  Is the world going to end?  What’s- Lawyer!  And Rose!  Rose, you’re hurt!  Where’s Blake?”

“Mags has him,” Rose said.  “The-”

“That’s not Blake, that’s wood!”

“-Barber-” Rose said.

I moved.

“That’s moving wood!  It’s Blake!”

He flew over to me.

My eye hadn’t changed size, but the ease with which he flew so close to me, it drove home how small I was.

“The Barber,” Rose tried again, without the sparrow going a mile a minute.  “He fell?”

“He’s out there,” Lola said.  “I wasn’t sure what to do.  We reinforced the wards to the outside and hunkered down.  He hasn’t made much fuss.”

“What happened?” Ainsley asked.  “Everything’s falling apart.  Not just in here.  You have the lawyer, but… that doesn’t tell me much.”

“We won,” Rose said.  “I think.  We should go.”

“With the Barber out there?” Lola asked.

Rose’s face was grim.  She pointed at the door.

“You’re sure?” Lola asked.

“If we stay, we’ll get pulled into the deepest reaches of the Abyss.  If we go, the worst thing that’s likely to happen is that the Barber is waiting for us and subjects us all to a fate worse than death.”

“Can we hold a vote?” Peter asked.

“No,” Rose said.  “Open the door.”

“You’re being bossy again.”

But the vestige kids were obeying Rose, and they pulled the door open.

“Hang back, follow at a distance,” Rose said.  “It won’t do to let him play the pipes for you and lose this now, after everything.”

We made our way outside as a mass.  The Barber wasn’t visible, at a glance.

The entire city was… I might have said it was smoking from every surface, but the smoke flowed down.  Already, the upper floors of other buildings had started to break down, rooftops sinking or sloping.

The street itself was fractured, and it continued to break down. Large planes of pavement had broken in half, folding into zig-zagging ‘waves’ where one piece leaned against another.  Here and there, larger pieces broke down further, and plumes of debris were sent skyward as they landed heavily amid dust.

Had it been a perpetual thing, breaking down without ever ceasing to be, I might have thought the Abyss had decided what form Johannes’ domain should take.

This wasn’t that.  The decay was too fast, too measurable.

Blades that the Barber had summoned had fallen and broken like glass.  Bodies of wretches had wedged into cracks not yet big enough to swallow them.  In the gaps between sections of road, the dust was thicker, burying smaller ones and ones that had been dead for longer.

“He’s there,” Lola said.

The practitioners seemed to notice, turning their heads before Peter, Green Eyes, Evan or the vestige kids reacted.

The Barber.

I was one of the last to see.  Too many people in front.  He moved in a sideways direction, dragging the sickle behind him, and he’d elected to keep the damaged, broken body of Johannes.  The demonic taint of the Barber crawled all over the man.  Only the basic shape remained.  Scraps of hair and clothing.

He held the pipes, and we had children who were maybe in earshot.  He made no motion to play the instrument.

Instead, he drew the sickle back, as if he was about to swing it at someone just in front of him.

He threw it, aiming for us, except the ground beneath his feet cracked as he finished the motion.  Too far forward, too far down.  The sickle sank into the road, point first.

The ground beneath him caved in further.  A crater, with him at the bottom.

Heads turned.  All eyes were on Rose.  Her hand extended, fist clenched.

Slowly, she relaxed it.

“You’re doing that?” Lola asked.  “You took over?”

Rose shook her head.  “I’m asking nicely, as the conqueror who has just unseated the king.  Riding momentum.  But this place isn’t truly mine.”

She gestured at the shears.  The road splintered.  Where it splintered, it folded down.  The shears were drawn in, partially buried.

“Makes me really want a demesne of my own,” Rose said.

“It’s done, then?” Lola asked.  “You’re talking about the future like this is over.”

Rose didn’t reply immediately.

“Almost done,” Rose conceded the point.

“Almost,” Lola said.

“We’re not in any shape to fight, and he doesn’t die.  I’m suspicious he can, if we wanted to defy that convention and go to war with him, but we’re not in a position to make him.  He’s still there, and he’s not out of tricks yet.  He’ll want to sneak out.  He’ll try things.  He might even attack, and I’m not sure we can put up a proper fight, even with all of us together.”

Nobody spoke.

Rose continued, “Move forward, carefully.  If you have anything reflective on you, now’s the time to get rid of it.  Toss it aside, push it into the dust between bits of road to hide it, or hide it inside your clothes.  If he gets another body, he can essentially start fresh, only with a new bag of tricks.  More resources.”

“Good day to be a bird.  Nothing on me!  I’m naked!  Right Sushi?”

Green Eyes didn’t respond.

“Sush- Green Eyes.  I’m sorry I called you sushi, and said I’d cook you.  We’re buddies, right?  You’re not mad?”

“I’m not mad, nugget,” she said.  “Don’t worry about it.  We’re good.”

But she didn’t say anything else.  Her demeanor didn’t change.  Quiet, grim.

“You might be naked, kid, but those beady black eyes are a problem,” Rose said.  “Evolution gave you almost three-hundred and sixty degree vision.  That’s three hundred and sixty degrees of access the Barber has.”

“I’ve dealt with him before.”

“Just… be safe.  Head down, eyes closed.  Ride on someone’s shoulder.”

“With Blake!  He’s kind of shoulderish!  With fingers, and an eye.  But I don’t discriminate.”

“Sure,” Rose said, and she sounded very tired, her words clipped not on purpose, but with the tension, the simple fact that she didn’t have a wealth of focus to spare.  “Same idea for Green Eyes and the…”

Rose gestured, her right arm still around Peter’s shoulder for support.

“Rat pack,” Mags suggested, for the vestige kids.

“Sure,” Noah said.  “Eyes down, extra careful.”

The tension was palpable.  Though they moved furtively, patting themselves down, glancing each other over to point out little things, like buckles or buttons, things were still.  The group a small tableau in the midst of a city that was roiling more than an ocean in high storm.  With the way everything was coming to pieces, the walls thinning out, the little details being washed away, it looked like a city made of candlesmoke, ready to simply puff out of existence.

Peter untucked his shirt beneath his coat to cover up his belt.  Mags pulled off the metallic hairband that had been failing in its duty to keep her disorderly hair more orderly.

After all of the bases were covered, the group began edging forward.

“Don’t look directly at it.  Resist any bait,” Rose warned.  “Don’t look at it in surprise, don’t look back, don’t wonder.  Keep moving forward.”

The group moved around the crater, splitting into two groups, one going right, one going left.

The Barber made a sound, guttural and inhuman.  I imagined it was akin to the sound a giant might make if it managed to howl loud enough to be heard from beneath a river of tar.  It came from a deep, dark, place, past a great deal of resistance.

In the moment the scream reached its peak, Johannes died.  Every member of the group flinched as he popped, the container of the human body no longer enough for what dwelt within.  The contents banked against the sides of the crater, dusting the group.

“Good,” Noah said.  His eyes were fixed forward.

“I wouldn’t call it good,” Rose said, her voice tense.  “But I get the sentiment.  Keep moving.  Don’t look.”

The Barber unfolded, reaching out, flexing, a fresh body in the making.  The sea of dust only absorbed his feet, the pavement cracked underfoot.  He made progress, his form alien, reaching, forming new body parts just to find more traction or hold onto what he’d managed to get, but it was glacial, slow.

The group wasn’t much faster.  Too many people limping or barely able to walk.  The ones who were strong were carrying heavy burdens.  Even Peter, with his injury, was supporting Ainsley and Rose both.

Tkkkkk.

The sound of metal on pavement.

“Don’t look,” Rose said, again.  “He will take anything he can get.  Trust.”

“He went back for the sickle,” Lola said.  “You can hear it.  I can sense it.  He can throw it, like he did before.”

“He’ll fail, like he did before,” Rose said.  “Three times, we’ve gone to war with him.  Three times, we’ve beaten him.”

“Here,” Ainsley said.  “When did you fight him before?”

“The Abyss,” Rose said.  “That was the second time.”

“Was there a time before that?”

“The day he was bound,” Rose said.  “If bloodlines count enough to drag me into this whole mess, they have to be strong enough to let my grandmother’s victory carry forward.”

Tk.  Tk.  Tk-tk.

Ainsley shot Rose a look, and it was one of alarm.

As justifications went, Rose’s was pretty thin.

But saying so would be more dangerous than anything.  It could break the spell, or sunder the confidence of the lesser members of the group.

There was a scraping sound, not the sickle, but the sound of the pavement moving, being pushed aside.

The scrape that followed was sharp, a sudden movement.  It went hand in hand with a crash, and an impact that reached out a hundred feet ahead, serving as the push that some of the sections of pavement had needed to finish breaking.  Dust was knocked upward, and dust was sent cascading forward from behind.

“Trust,” Rose said, and her voice didn’t have the slightest sign of weakness.  “Believe.”

But, and it was a hard thing to see in the cloud of dust that had surrounded us, Rose’s head trembled.  The muscle at the left side of her jaw was standing out, distinct.

The Barber moved.  Not one sharp sound, but several.  Moving fast enough and violently enough that whole sections of pavement were being pushed aside.

Another crash, more dust filled the air, and parts of nearby building faces fell away.  A fast food building shed pieces of sign and fragments of glass.  Heavier things fell with thuds.

The heavier impacts sounded like footsteps.

The shadows that stirred in the clouds of the group took on shapes.

A roar echoed around us, that same tar-thick howl, only with an edge to it.

They kept moving forward.  They didn’t look back.

There were more crashes, more explosions of dust, another roar.

Further back.

He was mired.  Caught, to be swallowed up.

“Mags,” Rose said.

“Yeah?”

Rose pointed.  As the clouds of dust thinned out, I was able to make out a dip.  A fold of pavement that was lower than the rest.

“You’re sure?”

“She’ll come after us again, otherwise.”

Mags shifted her grip.  Ms. Lewis struggled, and I could sense the hesitation on Mags’ part.

She had no problem shooting monsters or tormenting goblins, but doing this was something else entirely.

Ms. Lewis doubled over, trying to push forward.  The vestige kids got in her way, Noah and Benny each catching one of the lawyer’s shoulders.

“Buttsack, do you-”

Buttsack didn’t wait for the question to end.  He hauled on Ms. Lewis’ belt, driving his shoulder into her stomach, and tipped her.  She fell sideways, into the dip, a ditch toward the center of the road.

In contrast to the Barber, all eyes were on her as she tumbled.  Pavement broke as though it were nothing more than compacted sand.  Still-intact slabs fell around her, disintegrated on landing, leaving her half buried.

Her struggles to get out from under only served to drive her deeper.  She sat up, but her legs sank.  The sand seemed to scrape and abrade.  The Abyss at its basest form.

Ms. Lewis was trying to spit out the tissues that had been stuffed into her mouth.

“A little forward?” Rose asked.

Paige and Peter helped her get closer.

Bending down a little, Rose put out a foot, setting it on a slab.

She winced as she did it, but she pushed.  The slab slid down the slope of the little ditch and collided with the lawyer.  A section of road that, dropped from above, would have turned a person into a pancake.  Definitely enough to cave in a ribcage.  For anyone else, it might have been lethal.  But the lawyer was beyond death.

“You need a punchline,” Evan said.  “Rules.”

“I was thinking,” Rose said.  She watched Ms. Lewis’ continued struggles.  Debris half-covered the woman’s face, and the slab of pavement had driven halfway through her torso.  She worked, all the same, to try and worm her way up and free, futile.

“You want this Demesne, Lewis?”  Rose asked.  “It’s all yours.”

The little light that remained was dying.  It was the light of the night sky over a city, night lights reflecting onto the clouds above, but those same clouds were disintegrating too.  There was only a clean slate.

Ms. Lewis had stopped fighting, but the decay of this world continued.  Even staying still, she was swallowed up, only one eye, a temple, and a bit of hair remaining above the surface.  Watching us.

We collectively turned our backs on her.

Off to one side, a building folded into itself.  The cloud of dust was impenetrable, but it didn’t reach far.  There was too much gravity here.

The rumbling had slowed, until it was barely perceptible.  The predominant sound was a whisper sound, granules on granules, like sand flowing over sand, or sugar over sugar.  The demesne was an expanse of fragments and sections of building floating in a still sea of gray-brown particles.  With no wind to touch it, the clouds of dust were quick to settle.  Only traces remained.

Traces, and the fragments of road that laid out a path between us and the exit.  There were gaps between, but they didn’t break underfoot, and they didn’t sink.

Another sign that this place wasn’t an active site for the Abyss.

We were close enough to the exit that I could see the bridge that marked the division between the older Jacob’s Bell and what had once been Johannes’ demesne.

The sky over the city was so bright I couldn’t look directly at it.

“They’re gone,” Lola said.  “The lawyers on the other side.  The demons.  I don’t sense the connections.”

“Damage is still done,” Paige observed.  “There are gaps between things.  It’s saturated with wrongness.”

“But they’re gone,” Lola said, almost whispering, as if, until this very moment, she hadn’t quite believed it was possible.  “People are alive.”

“Not everyone,” Ainsley said.  “We have to brace ourselves.  It won’t be pretty.”

“But-”

“But they’re gone,” Ainsley said.  She smiled.  “And people are alive.  Yeah.  I get what you mean.”

“We won,” Paige was the one who said it.

Rose didn’t seem so surprised.  “The cost of continuing the fight was too high, compared to the gains.  It might take them a while to digest what happened, put the pieces together, report back to whoever or whatever they report to.”

“The other lawyers will come after you,” Mags commented.  “By your own logic-”

“Their logic,” Rose corrected.

“By their logic, which you outlined just now, it’s too costly to leave you be.  You represent something.”

“Yes,” Rose said.  “I might have to stay in the Abyss until the worst of it blows over.  I’m getting a sense of how it works, it’s my battlefield, and I have work to do.”

“Scourge work,” Lola said.

“That’s part of it,” Rose admitted.  “Got to look after Jacob’s Bell.  That’s our most pressing problem.  Evacuate the citizens, clear it out, clean up the mess.  Too much damage done for it to be salvageable.  I think Alister will be willing to work with me to coordinate.  Each of us on different sides of the divide, if we have to.”

“I’m glad you’re still thinking of my cousin,” Ainsley said.

Rose nodded, smiling lightly.

I gave her the ability to care for others.  Will that be enough?

“But it’s not just the Scourge stuff,” Rose said.  “I was thinking of writing a diabolic text.  Taking after grandmother Thorburn, maybe.”

A few heads turned.

“Need to challenge ideas, change attitudes.  If I can put the right words to paper, disseminate the books, I can hurt them worse than we could repeating this fight a hundred times over,” Rose said.

We’d drawn close to the bridge.  The exit.

“I’m going,” Lola said.  “There’s people I need to look for.  My mom.  I can see the connection, but I have to make sure.”

“Bye,” Rose said.

“I feel obligated to say something or do something,” Lola said.  “But nothing’s coming to mind.”

“We just spent far too long fighting because we were supposed to,” Rose said.  “Because your families are supposed to hate diabolists, and I was a diabolist because I was supposed to be.  Fuck obligations.  Go to your mom.”

Lola nodded.  She turned to go.

“Thanks, by the way,” Rose said.

“Likewise,” Lola replied, raising a hand.  She didn’t turn around, half-running on her way past the bridge.

Hurt as she was, she picked up her pace as she ran, a limping gait.  Going home.

Mags fidgeted.

“The same goes for you.”

“I know you better than she did,” Mags said.

“And I know you,” Rose said.  “Go find your dads.  I know we’ll see you again.  This isn’t a farewell in any sense.”

“Two rounds done,” Mags said.  “As far as my count can be accurate.  Fire, darkness, and blood.”

“You’re looking to do this again?” Evan asked.  “Why?  Huh?”

“Long story,” Mags said.  “One I’d tell if I didn’t have my dads to look for.  And a Faerie to look for.  What happens to the Faerie who were exiled here when Jacob’s Bell ceases to be?”

“Depends on how things were worded,” Rose said.  “I’d guess they get to slip the noose until the individuals who exiled them hunt them down.”

Mags bit her lip.

“Go,” Rose said.

Mags gingerly handed me over into Rose’s care.  Rose held me in both hands, swaying a little precariously before catching herself.

Nobody else moved.

“Faster you all go, faster we can each get ourselves patched up,” Rose said.  “Ainsley, why don’t you go find Alister?  Bring him here?  I’m going to stay, until I know it’s safe.”

“In an empty Abyss?”  Ainsley asked.

“I’ll relocate soon, I think.  But this looks like as good a place to rest as any.  Peter?  Go with Ainsley.  Help her get to Alister, get her patched up.”

Peter glanced at Ainsley, then back to Rose.  “Sure.  You’re really okay?”

“Better than,” Rose said.  She managed a smile.

“You’re not all that bad for a Thorburn,” he said.

“Surprisingly high compliment, coming from you,” Rose said.

“I know, right?  But I can lie, so I figure I should get the most out of-”  He winced as Ainsley elbowed him.  “Geez!  I’m wounded, don’t go doing that!”

“You had a good moment back there,” Rose said.  “Freeing Faysal.  That was… heroic.  It made the difference.”

Peter smirked.

“Don’t let it go to your head.  I’ll be in touch, once I figure out how to manage it.”

His eyebrows went up.  “And the scary thing is, I think I almost look forward to a call from family.”

He offered a salute, then joined Ainsley in hobbling out and under the bridge.

“That pairing is not going to work out,” Paige said.  “I know I should watch out for statements that could turn out to be lies, but I’m… ninety nine percent positive.”

“I agree,” Rose said.  “Just don’t tell him those numbers.  He’ll make it work out of sheer stubbornness.  Maybe the failure will be good for both of them.”

“Maybe,” Paige said.

“You only stayed because you’re keeping an eye on him, right?  You’re probably itching to check on Isadora.”

“I am.  But that’s not the only reason I stayed.  I just wanted to say good work.”

“Good work?”

“Not for all of this, but for making it through.  All my life, I wanted to rise above the Thorburn stuff.  Family drama.  I kept getting dragged back down.  I didn’t realize that anyone else was fighting as hard as I was.”

“We were friends once, before Blake and I were separated into two individuals,” Rose said.  “Close, you, me, and Molly.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“I wish I remembered.”

“Like I said to Peter, I’ll try to keep in touch.”

“Yeah,” Paige said.  She glanced at those who remained.  The vestige kids, Evan, Green Eyes, and me.  “You okay like this?”

“I think so,” Rose said.

“You said you were better than okay when Peter asked,” Paige said.

“Entirely different questions,” Rose said.

“I suppose that’s true.  You did a good job, Rose.  You too, Blake, if you can hear me like that.”

Paige didn’t say goodbye.  Neither girl had anything more to add.  Paige’s exit was more of an awkward retreat.  Stepping away, constantly glancing back at our group, a concerned expression on her face.

She passed under the bridge.

The moment Paige was out of sight, Rose collapsed.  Noah tried to catch her, but he wasn’t big enough or strong enough to support her weight.  It made for an ugly, awkward fall.

The scene was still.  Even the sand-on-sand whispers had stopped.  There were no noises from Jacob’s Bell.

A car passed along the length of the highway, headlights only catching thick mist.

Darkness on this side, daylight on the other.

Green Eyes hadn’t budged an inch as Rose fell.  She watched, her expression cold.

“Green Eyes,” Rose said.

“I’m not going.”

“I wasn’t asking you to go,” Rose said.  “I’m asking you not to kill me.”

“Wait, what?” Evan asked.  “No!  We won!  This isn’t a bad end!  We fix Blake, we fix me, Rose triumphs, happy, happy, happy!”

“Rose is bleeding,” Green Eyes said.  “Too much.”

“Oh man!  You’re going to be okay Rose!  I can go for help!”

“She’s going to eat Blake, consume whatever humanity or flesh he’s got to try and patch herself up.”

Evan went still.  Shocked into silence.

“Essentially true,” Rose said.

“Then why shouldn’t I kill you?” Green Eyes asked.

“Because he wouldn’t want this.” Rose said.  “You know he wouldn’t want this.  And the promise I made with him… that was what he wanted.”

“This is better than-”

“No,” Rose said.  “I want to tell you I’ll give you the ending you want, but if I do, and it winds up being a lie, it’ll probably kill me.  I’ll be too weak.  I have to draw on him to patch myself up, I’ll probably have to pass out and rest for a bit before getting underway, and he could die at any point during that.  There might be too little left.  But with what remains…”

“There’s almost nothing as is,” Green Eyes said.  “You’re telling me what I want to hear!  Dodging the truth!”

“Green!  Green!”  Evan cut in.  “Come on!”

Green Eyes was bristling.  Fingertips digging into the pavement.  Her fins flared.

“Do it for me?  For the nugget?”  Evan asked.

Slowly, the fins relaxed.  The tension went out of the fingernails.

Rose nodded.

She turned her attention to me.

“Damn it, damn it, damn it,” she said, reaching down to break, digging for the flesh that remained.

Then all went dark.

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Judgment 16.12

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“Buy me time!” Rose called out.

Easier said than done.

The others were okay, though battered, bruised, and at least one bad injury.  They were standing closer to where the dragon had been impaled, and many of the blades were in their way, forcing them to very slowly extricate themselves, out of fear of dying to a simple slip or fall.

In short, it was Mags, Paige, and Peter on one side.  Buttsack, the Welder and the Nurse were there as well, though the goblin had been gouged by the blade, the Nurse injured in the prior encounter with the dragon.

Ms. Lewis, the possessed lawyer with two deep wounds in his chest, and the chauffeur that had taken us to Toronto, and the Barber, on the other side.  The Barber was only a short distance from the throne.  Closer than anyone else.

The Barber surveyed the situation, taking it all in, while the others fought to get closer to Rose, one eye on Ms. Lewis, who loomed above them, perched on the fallen Dragon.

He started toward Rose.

Rose brought a hand to her mouth, and whistled.

“Sic ’em!” she hollered.

Bristles leaped from the wall above, a solid twenty-foot drop, slamming into the demon.  The Barber stepped back for balance, it was able to stay standing by leg strength alone.  The hound’s exterior was heavy with the arrows, makeshift spears, knife handles, darts, a spade, and any number of other tools, making it something of a mess, and each of these weapons proved an obstacle or additional hazard as it clawed at the Barber’s chest and arm, fighting for leverage.

The Barber struck it, only to cut his arm on a knife that stuck from the bogeyman’s shoulder.  He pulled back, grabbing Bristles with an apparent intent to fling the beast off the side of the building, only for Bristles to twist around, mouth opening.  In the doing, it revealed that two of the weapons had once pierced its skull, replacing teeth with a blade and what might have been a screwdriver.  It seized the Barber’s wrist in its jaws, teeth and tools cutting deep.  The attempt to fling it away failed.

The other practitioners were acting. The chauffeur was speaking, his low tones carrying.  The possessed practitioner was approaching, one hand to his chest.

Mags was already reloading her pipe, pushing a shotgun shell into the end.  She raised it, aimed, and slammed the pipes together to fire.

She was too far away to do much, but the shots did serve to interrupt the man.  It proved brief as interruptions went.  Even if he hadn’t been immune to death and dying, he was a good distance away, Mags’ aim wasn’t perfect, and the one or two stray particles that happened to find him weren’t enough to do much.

The possessed lawyer continues his march toward them, speaking under his breath as a chain unfurled from his sleeve.  The chain smoked, and the smoke began to trace out a form of a hound.  The Welder hurled himself forward, stabbing with a spear of iron, but the possessed lawyer didn’t break his verbal stride, uttering a string of guttural words in another language.  With lupine yellow eyes and scruff on his cheeks, his hair now in disarray, he looked savage, as much animal as human.

The demon within him was one of the feral choir, it was clear.

There were shouts, orders, a jumble of noises.  The Welder and Nurse stepped forward to meet him, while Buttsack cowered, unable to retreat entirely because of the blades that now blocked the stairway.

My focus, however, was shifting to Ms. Lewis, who stood above and away from it all, doing nothing but keeping me bound.  I shifted my gaze again, to Rose and the Barber.

Rose was on the edge of her seat, fingers gripping the arms of the throne.

The Barber’s attempts to beat, batter, and wrestle with the Bogeyman were proving largely ineffective.  Bristles was a sponge for abuse.

This, naturally, led the Barber to his next option.  With one hand occupied, maneuverability proved hard.  He let go of the shears with one hand, gripped one of the handles, and let them fall open, the other handle resting against his upper arm, blades pointed down at the bogey-beast.

He stopped, his eye flickering to Rose.

She’d moved, her mouth open, and he’d noticed.

When he’d stopped, so had she.

His eye dropped, to the various tools that were stuck inside Bristles’ body.

“I see,” he said, and his voice still had that rasp to it, not entirely his.  “Going to banish it, and have it take my shears with it?”

Rose didn’t react.  She was frozen in place.

Shifting the shears to the hand that Bristles was attacking, the Barber reached to the same wrist that Bristles was gnawing on, he pulled the pipes away, then maneuvered them in his fingers, as they were apparently upside down.

With one hand, he raised the pan pipes to his lips, and he played.

Rose, in the meantime, shifted position, sitting straight in the throne.  Her eyes closed.

It made for a strange effect.  Rose pursuing one plan of attack while the Barber pursued another.  The Barber’s melody was haunting, finding an echo in this strange environment that seemed to make them impossible.  It reverberated, found an echo, compounded itself.  The more drawn out notes were like a wolf’s howl, punctuated by notes that evoked thoughts of yipping, whines, and even sharper notes that suggested something else altogether.  Pain, perhaps.

Rose, however, was speaking, and she was putting Conquest into her voice.

“This demesne goes unclaimed, belonging to none by right or establishment…”

Bristles grew more aggressive, savaging the Barber.  Stronger though the Barber was, the bogeyman was the equivalent of a squirming child with a pitbull bite.  Small as it might have been, in terms of relative strength, it was tenacious enough to be a problem.

Bristles opened its mouth.  The Barber shook his arm, and the bogeyman fell free.  It found its feet and shook its head.

The music continued.

Again, Bristles shook its head.  This time, it lunged, interrupting the music with the force of the impact.  The Barber turned his full attention to the bogeyman that still attacked him.

Not a dog?  I thought.  The Barber seemed just as confused by the fact as I was.

His thought process must have been very similar to mine, as he connected the dots.  Bogeymen were a human establishment.  He’d argued they were humanity’s eventual destination.

Animals did exist in the Abyss, that was true.  So did Others.  The dragon-bat-goblin thing I’d seen was such a case.  But Others were derived from man.  To continue along that journey wasn’t so strange.

For something to become an effective Bogeyman, had it taken on enough elements of humanity to resist the Barber?  Or had it never been human in the first place?  A human, treated like a dog, abused, finding his way to the Abyss, where it continued a journey to become doglike, but not a true dog?

Rose wasn’t smiling, but I thought I saw a gleam of satisfaction in her eyes.

A gambit, and it was one that had bought her time.  Bristles was the sort of thing that was very much worth summoning, here.

“The Abyss has a claim to all places left unowned.  As agent of the Abyss, I move to expedite this claim,” Rose said.

The Barber’s head snapped up, looking at her.

“Johannes is finished, and with him go all ties that anchor this demesne to this world.”

The Barber began to haul itself toward Rose, a limping gait.  Bristles gripped his leg, paws scrabbling for a grip on the rooftop, pulling in the opposite direction, only stopping to get a better grip and pull in another direction.

“This place can go when Jacob’s Bell goes!” Ms. Lewis called out.  “By three points of similarity, this place is anchored!  By the vestiges, echoing the people, by location, echoing the place it grew from, and by the bloodlines that are both here and there, knitting this place to that!  Inexorable, intertwined, the two cannot be separated.  When one falls, so shall the other!”

Ah.  She was ready to make a counterattack if Rose tried something.

“By three points of similarity-” Rose paused as the Barber drew nearer.  The pan pipes were in one hand, while the shears were in the other.

He slammed the handles together, and the shears became a sickle.

Only a few feet away, now.

The possessed lawyer’s hellhound lunged straight into the midst of the combined group of bogeymen, Mags, Paige, and Peter.  Peter had a cut on his back from earlier, when the blades all came flying up from below.  I could see ribs, and a whole lot of blood.  With the hellhound attacking, the rest of the group was bowled back.  The Welder was flung back into Mags, and  Mags was sent sprawling.

Buttsack was the only member of the group who wasn’t engaged in a life-or-death struggle.  He cowered within the forest of blades beneath the dragon.

“Go, Buttsack, or we all die!” Mags shouted.

“Fuck yourself with a fork!”

“If you get us out of this, I will damn well pay you in porn for as long as I am humanly able!”

Buttsack froze.

“I will give you thumb drives, you sorry excuse for a goblin!”  Mags roared the words.  The Welder was forced back again, his arms hugging the Hellhound’s muzzle, and he inadvertently kicked Mags in the side.  Still, she managed to get out another two words.  “Of weird stuff!”

He seemed to make his call, picking up his junkyard shield.

He sprinted for the Barber, and drove the base of the shield into the backs of the Barber’s knees.

Though it had been abstract as a demon, strong, it now had Johannes’ body.  It could take on aspects of its old self, but basic mechanics meant the Barber fell onto his back.  Bristles let go of his leg to go for the face.

“By three points of similarity,” Rose resumed, no longer holding her breath, caught in the chair, “Justify the connection of the vestiges here to the people there!  They’ve been butchered, and any echoes have died!”

Ms. Lewis didn’t have a ready answer.

Rose went on, her voice rising as she spoke.  “Jacob’s Bell will be removed as a place, and all that is happening here is evidence as to why.  The Practitioners here will die or leave, one and all.  Let this be the first of dominoes to fall, on both counts!  I am of the Abyss, and I am of Conquest, and from this seat, I deem this done!”

A vibration rattled through everything present.  It was much the same as if something very heavy had been dropped just out of sight, rippling through the strange firmament above, the very air, and the ground below.  The building seemed to waver.

The Welder, cast off of the Hellhound, fell at the hands of the possessed lawyer, fingers tearing his neck open.  Paige’s light was forming a shield to hold the Hellhound at bay, but it wasn’t holding up.

Below the dragon, Mags was still on her back.

I’d told her to keep a goblin in reserve, fully expecting that we’d be beaten and battered, and that we might need a distraction to cover our retreat.  Mags summoned it.

Not a particularly big goblin.  Smaller than Buttsack, who was the size of a morbidly obese seven year old.  Still it came when Mags tore the paper it had been bound into.

I didn’t hear the words, but I saw it run to the dragon’s dangling tail, which touched the ground.  Climbing, and moving toward Ms. Lewis, who appeared to be unaware, her focus elsewhere.

Paige created a brilliant flash of light, and everything went white.

The light served to blind everyone present, myself included.  Buying us time.  I used the time to pull myself together.  No longer a wing, but an arm, a hand.

In the time it took for the brilliant light to fade, people had repositioned, pulling back and away from the fighting.  Only the Barber was still caught up with the tenacious Bristles, but even he was on his feet again, back to a wall, hacking the goblin’s shield to pieces.

The chauffeur had summoned two demons, and they didn’t look like small fry.  They looked much like the Barber had.  One was grotesquely fat, covered in boils, his ‘face’ a lanky mess of hair, the sides, top and back of his head replaced with faces that looked as though they belonged to drowning victims.  The genitals that hung between the thing’s legs weren’t distinguishable as anything belonging to either gender.

The other was narrower, thin, with the head of an emaciated cat.

“I was diabolist,” Rose said, and she rose from her chair.  She’d left traces of a partial handprint in the metal of the chair’s arm, and the print glowed faintly, as her gleaming white fingers did.  “I’m now a servant of the Abyss.”

She faced down both of the demons and the chauffeur both, stepping forward.

“I think,” she said, “I’m qualified to tell you to get lost.

She swept her hand to one side.

A glow similar to the one on the chair traced along the edge of the rooftop.  As it faded, it left cracks in its wake.

The demons moved, lunging, the chauffeur moving after a bit more of a delay.

That corner of the rooftop caved in.  The demons and chauffeur were all swallowed up in the falling rubble.

“Yes!” Mags crowed.

Don’t celebrate just yet, I thought.

This wasn’t done.

The Barber was winning its brawl.  We still had two lawyers to deal with.

The goblin poked its head up behind Ms. Lewis.  It sank its teeth into her calf.  In the moments of struggle that followed, it managed to drag her off the dragon’s back.  She and he dropped.

Freed, I immediately began crawling in her general direction.  My fingers weren’t strong enough to drag my entire arm and the entrails that flowed behind, lacking a better word.

Instead, I used my fingers to hook into the cracks and individual stones of the rooftop, curled my arm, set the base down, and unfolded my arm, lunging out to reach the next handhold.

A foot or so of progress per attempt.

Chaos.  Everything they had established was now breaking down.  The power, their invincibility, the supposed inevitability of their victory.

We were, all of us here on the rooftop, people who had a tendency to stick it out, to bulldog our way through it all.  Somewhere along the line, our belief in that had trumped our belief that they would win.

There wasn’t a single person in our group now who was intact.  Our enemies, even the demons and lawyer who had been cast down with the section of roof, remained immortal.

There was a yelp.  Buttsack followed it with a cry of his own, fleeing the Barber.

The Barber stood.

I wanted to act, to respond to situations as they arose, but that wasn’t a power I had anymore.  Rose had taken on titles and roles, she’d adopted parts of me, and she was versatile.  Able to call the maimed Nurse to her side, a temporary bodyguard.  Mags had Buttsack.  Paige… I suppose Paige was supposed to have Peter, but he’d collapsed, lying on his back, eyes open.

All I could do was continue my steady progress.  I could see all the blades that lay between me and Ms. Lewis’ silhouette, as she worked on extricating the small, stupid goblin that was trying to attack her.

The possessed lawyer moved in the same instant his hellhound did.  A two-pronged strike.

The burned Nurse flung herself at the Hellhound, only for the beast to explode into flame, leaving her to stumble through.  She recovered and threw her arms around the feral lawyer.  Her embrace singed clothing and made hair smoke.

Buttsack threw itself at the Hellhound, or tried to duck beneath it as it lunged, shield raised to protect himself, I wasn’t sure.  Either way, his bulk was a stone for the Hellhound to trip over.  Paige’s rebuke took advantage of that gap, a contained flash of light that acted like a slap to the face, making the Hellhound turn its head.

Things had reduced to a brawl.  Chaotic.

Rose grabbed the chain, hauled on the slack, and forced a loop around the Hellhound’s muzzle as it came around to bite her.

Mags, for her part, threw herself forward to Rose’s side, snapping a combination lock through one loop of the chain.

The hellhound raised a paw and clawed at two of them, hard.  Mags was unscathed.  Rose wasn’t, and dropped, hard.

The Hellhound pulled, trying to get closer to the others, but there was no more slack in the chain, and try as it might, it couldn’t break the binding.  Its tenacious attempts to pull free or get closer only served to tighten the loop.

Paige and Mags backed away, Paige dropping to Rose’s side to help put pressure on the claw wound.  Buttsack, now behind the Hellhound, backed away in the other direction, toward the fracture on the far end of the roof.

I started to make my way through the blades that dripped with dragon’s blood.  The ground itself was slippery, but the blades themselves were precarious handholds where the blood didn’t touch them.

The Barber was approaching, Rose was down, and the others weren’t capable or willing to get closer to either Barber or Hound.  Mags bent down and grabbed Rose, pulling her further back.

In their efforts to get away, they backed straight up into Ms. Lewis, who had dispatched the goblin.

“This would be the beginning of the end, I suppose, for now at least,” Ms. Lewis said.  She turned her head.  “Christopher, don’t summon anything more.  We should extricate, rather than entrench ourselves.”

Christopher, the possessed lawyer, scowled.  He’d dealt with the Nurse, tearing her throat out, but was struggling to get the chain away from the Hellhound’s muzzle.  The lock prevented easy removal, the hound wasn’t cooperating, which didn’t help matters, and it apparently couldn’t turn into fire when it was shackled.

I edged closer, the same halting progress I’d been managing for the last several minutes.

Rose was crumpled up on the ground, a claw mark on her already savaged upper body.  She looked up and glared.  “You’re staying, for as long as I can get the Abyss to keep you.”

“That won’t be long at all,” Ms. Lewis said.  “You know, this all could have been so much tidier.”

“We’re not the sorts to do tidy.”

“Things are the way they are for a reason.  What have you really gained, Rose?  At the end of all this?”

“You’re assuming it’s over,” Rose said.  She grunted with pain, and the look on her face suggested she hated that it had happened.

Close.  I was so close.

Not that there was much I could do, even if I got there.  I was a hand.

“Barbatorem,” Ms. Lewis said.  “Could you convince Ms. Thorburn that things are resolved?  I’d like to accomplish that much, at the very least.”

“I can,” Barbatorem said, his voice low.  He’d already healed the damage that Bristles had done.  He spoke, and he sounded a hell of a lot more like Johannes as he did, “I’m terribly sorry, Rose.  I agree with Ms. Lewis.  I wanted to do this better.  I never harbored an abundance of ill will for you.”

“Stop,” Rose said.  Bleeding, wounded, worn out, perhaps a bit touched by the Abyss, she looked like she had more of me in her than ever.  Sheer savage stubbornness.  Warrior grit.  “Don’t use his voice.  There’s no point in faking it anymore.”

There was a long pause.

“Ah.  Yes,” the Barber said, and the words were guttural, hollow.  There was nothing of Johannes in the sounds that passed through he mouth of his black-worm face.

“Lewis,” the possessed practitioner said.

Heads turned.

Peter.  Earlier he’d fallen.  Now he was up, active.  One arm was useless, the other held a chunk of stone from the broken edge of the rooftop.

He was at the wall of blades that had been erected around Faysal, prying.

“Peter!” Paige called out.

He noticed that we, our enemies included, had realized what he’d done.  He redoubled his efforts, no longer trying to be subtle or quiet.

He smashed.  “Bullshit!  Bullshit shitty assed bullshit fakery!”

Two blades broke in one swing.

“Christopher,” Ms. Lewis ordered, only to see that the hellhound wasn’t yet free.  “Barbatorem!”

Barbatorem threw the sickle.

“Get down!” Paige screamed.

Peter didn’t.  Call it Thorburn stubbornness, or just his natural inclinations, he wasn’t one to follow orders.  He turned to look at the source of the cry, saw the projectile, and threw himself to one side.

The weapon sank into the wall above where Bristles had fallen.  A foot to the right, and it might have continued on through the hole in the wall, disappearing into whatever lay beyond, or falling to the street.

Barbatorem gestured, and what he did had to be a kind of enchantment, drawing on his connection to the blade.  He moved, and he covered the distance with remarkable speed, closing on Peter.

He stopped and went still as his hand settled on the handle of the weapon.

He pulled it free, then kicked Bristles’ body over the edge.

Peter was still sitting on his ass, hands behind him to prop up his upper body, not yet on his feet.

A demon against a normal human.

“Fuck you!” Peter shouted.

Resistance was admirable, but even with everything we’d established and accomplished, it wasn’t enough to decide that particular conflict.

I’d already gone still, lurking at the base of the wall, ready in case Ms. Lewis tried anything.  I watched, and would have been holding my breath if I’d had lungs.  Or a mouth.

A shadow moved behind Barbatorem.

Green Eyes?

She’d been too hurt.  Barely able to keep out of the way.

Not Evan, nor one of the vestige kids.

Rose had called out to anyone willing or able to help.  She’d called one Bogeyman we knew.

The creepy man in the ill-fitting suit from the Tenements stepped out from the other side of the wall.  I’d bound him and sent him out to pursue our enemies, and here he was.

The Barber saw him.  Too late to react.  The man in the ill-fitting suit stepped to one side, then pushed.

A simple, stupid one-trick bogeyman pulling out his trick.  Defenestration.

The Barber toppled over the same brink it had just kicked Bristles over.

A long pause lingered.

Peter summoned his strength and threw himself at the cage again, stone in hand.

The cage shattered, and in the midst of that breakage, the diagram that sealed Faysal’s form broke.

Light flared, spreading, and where the wings that Faysal had drawn had been obscured by the wall that rose around us, they now rose up and around us, spreading over the sky.

The light was bright enough that it helped to obscure the darkness behind.

The wings folded, and in the sweep, the orbs and expanse that had decorated the firmament of this place were wiped clean.  There was only darkness.  Not a nether sort of darkness, or anything of the sort, but comfortable, absence-of-ordinary-light darkness.

The figure disappeared, spearing out and through that darkness.

The movement seemed to prompt another rumble.  This time, it didn’t stop.

One more anchor point gone.  Johannes’ lack of claim was undeniable.

“Man, Angels are assholes,” Paige said.  “He couldn’t stick around long enough to contribute?

Ms. Lewis turned to leave, gesturing to Christopher.  Heading for the broken section of roof.  Maybe where they could have hopped down and away.

I seized her by the ankle.

It created a delay, prompting a stumble.  Time for others to notice.

Mags and Paige were on their feet in a moment.  They threw themselves at her, pinning her against the wall with their weight.  Christopher disappeared, down and away.

The struggle was brief, but it was human strength against human strength, and by virtue of numbers more than anything else, it soon came to a halt. The grip of the two girls secured on the woman’s wrists, Ms. Lewis pulled down to her her knees.  She momentarily struggled again, almost to test that she really was caught.  A long pause followed, quiet but for the steady rumble, still in the midst of an entire domain that was steadily going to pieces, fragments breaking away from every wall, every ceiling and object.

The sky above was gone, the ground was disintegrating, and everything between was breaking down.

Rose stared up at Ms. Lewis from her position on the ground.  Rose smiled.

“I didn’t want to do this, you know, given the consequences.  I was so close to being free of my debt, being free,” Ms. Lewis said.  “Orn-”

Mags struck her in the teeth with the pipe-shotgun.

“So don’t,” Mags answered.

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Judgment 16.11

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Dragon and demon-possessed practitioner were poised to strike at me.  The dragon’s teeth were slightly parted, and liquid fire ran out the corners like drool from a dog’s mouth.  It had been poised to breathe fire before I’d acted, and that hadn’t changed, even though the dragon had been cut in half.

Even if I’d wanted to move, I’d have had to dodge the spatters of fire that littered the battlefield.  Where the area could be navigated, the fire stretched up to calf or knee height from pools no wider across than my feet, patterned with no rhyme or reason.  Picking my way through would be hard enough, but getting any distance before getting cut off by a bad spread of fire- no.

No way I could move fast or far enough to get away before the dragon could spit its fire at my back.

The dragon’s fire was less concerning than the Barber, who was ready to use its demonic implement on me and Rose both.

I had one second to process the situation before the dragon shook its head, getting its senses.  The spittle flew to either side, thankfully leaving me untouched, though it made the Barber raise an arm to shield his face.  Dots of burning dragon’s spit speckled his jacket sleeve and arm.

An opening.

I lunged for him, my eyes dropping to track the spots where I could safely place my feet and legs, then rising up to look at him.

Eye contact.

Eye contact, insofar as he had eyes, anyway.  I felt a kind of despair as it happened, because I knew that I couldn’t change course.  I couldn’t do anything except face the situation head on, watching as the shears were moved, raised as a weapon.

All the same, I followed through.  I rushed him, felt the shears draw together at the blade of the Hyena, and carried forward, charging into him.  My shoulder bumped his hands, the crossed weapons pressed between us, neither successfully cutting flesh.

I’d hoped to drive him back, force him to stagger back into open fires, but he barely budged.  Too strong.  Bigger than me.  Somehow more rooted in this reality.

With my free, damaged hand, I reached up, and, unable to reach his face, I scraped at his throat with the ragged, splintered portion.  Superficial damage, but I could see the more demonic tissues reaching out as blood welled, covering the wound, leaving a scabrous patch of black.  The remaining fingers and thumb of that hand bit into flesh, grabbing his windpipe.

My eyes stared at his, fully aware that the dragon was moving in my peripheral vision.

Turning on the two practitioners that were fighting a short distance away.

On the Barber and I.

Did you cut off the portion that was more bloodthirsty, in favor of the side that was more obedient?  Because I don’t think he’s following orders.  And you’re not in a position to give them.

As if answering my thought, the dragon growled, a deep, powerful sound that traveled along the ground to be felt in my feet and legs, low in the throat.

Sorry Rose, but if I can’t win this for us, I can at least take him with us as we lose.

I didn’t sense any protest.

My grip tightened, as if the body that was beneath the now-ruined veneer of criss-crossing branches was offering a touch more strength.  Holding on as if our existence depended on it, when it was very likely to be the opposite.

“Fay-” the Barber started.

I tightened my grip a fraction more, strangling out the rest of the order.

His hands were occupied.  Both held the shears.  I spotted the pipes dangling from one of his wrists, attached by a fine chain, but couldn’t reach for them without sparing vital leverage.

Tantalizing.  Almost bait.

The dragon’s turned its full focus to us.  Snout aimed our way.

The Barber pulled back, very clearly trying to dislodge my hand, but didn’t pull free.

The whole of my being was concentrated on the one partial hand that gripped his throat.  Two fingers on one side, one thumb on the other.

You can’t speak.  If you let go of the shears to do the snapping thing, I’ll stab you.  I’ll get you in the solar plexus, if not the heart.  I’ll take your air, or the center of your being, and that’s a victory for our side.  Let me keep going, and I’ll crush your windpipe.  Even if you heal it, your words won’t belong to Johannes anymore.

Let the dragon get us, and you’ll lose every part of you.

There was no fear in his eyes, but he did struggle again, shifting his grip, gripping the handles of the shears to push, as if attempting to use raw strength to drive me down to my knees, where I wouldn’t be able to get his throat.

Too little, too slow.  The dragon drew its neck pack, mouth parting slightly.

The Barber cut.  Severing an inch of the Hyena’s broken blade.  In that instant, several things happened.  He found the chance to snap his fingers, and the Dragon paused, watching us.

I shifted my weapon, aimed for the softer parts of the Barber’s stomach, and was deflected.  I managed to press myself in close, chest to chest, my left shoulder jammed against his right shoulder, leaving neither of us the leverage to swing or thrust.

With the close proximity, I could feel as something rippled over the Barber, beneath his clothes, very possibly beneath his skin.  A hundred snakes, or great leeches, coursing out of a source deep within him.

Tapping into a strength that wasn’t his.  It might have been something I could have used, that he was less Johannes now, but I wasn’t in a position to do anything except hold on to his throat and strive to keep his arms pinned closer to his body.

But as his strength grew, my ability to do that faltered.  He pushed out and back, shears against my shoulder.  He pushed down, in a grim parody of the king knighting someone, blade on the shoulder, and my knees buckled with the pressure.

I stabbed at his left arm with the Hyena, and the blade came away slick with blood and black ichor.

I stabbed again, over and over, and he healed as fast as I could hurt.  My arm popped and cracked, stretching beyond all tolerances as he forced me down.

As I was bent down, I could see the stairwell, the others.  Mags and Green Eyes.

Green Eyes looked scared, and I remembered that the dragon had burned her, and she hadn’t yet fully healed.

Mags was holding her piece of pipe, holding it out like a wand, but the Barber was holding me as a human shield.

All the same I maintained a grip on his throat.  More tenuous than before.

Thu,” he managed, rasping out the syllable.  He said another.  “Ban.”

Giant speak, I remembered.  A language of single syllables.  Just what he needed to communicate with the great beast.

A shape lunged from behind, and threw itself at the dragon’s head, knocking its aim off.

In the gloom, lit by fire from below, green orbs peered down at me, before the tail wrapped around, arms reaching down, constricting.

The dragon’s head moved in response to the impact.  Her fins flared, joining her body in obscuring the reptile’s vision.

The flaming fluids shot from the dragon’s nose, rather than its mouth, firing off to one side.  It lurched, and it threw itself against the exterior wall that ringed the place.

I didn’t have time to worry about her welfare.  There was only the Barber.  Forcing me down with a strength that didn’t belong to Johannes.

My grip started to slip.

He parted the shears, shifting the angle.  One blade at my shoulder, the other moving to one side.  The ‘v’ of the blades slid closer to my neck.

I let go, collapsing, falling backward.  I had an upside-down view of Mags, standing behind me.

Mags slammed the pipe together, firing a shot at the Barber’s head.  He whipped around, one hand leaving the shears to touch the wound.  Tendrils of ichor wrapped around his fingers in their effort to find and cover the damage.

“Go, Buttsack!” Mags ordered.

“Fuck you!” Buttsack replied.

“You’re bound!” Mags said.

“Fuck you, you lunatic!  You’re fucking crazy!  Call me forsworn!  Nothing’s gonna happen that’s worse than me going out there!”

The Barber straightened.  He coughed, a small sound, then said something under his breath.

White light flared, and he moved himself clear across the rooftop.

Face injured, arm injured.  And I was largely unhurt.

I started to rise, only to collapse partway through the process.

I blinked.

The arm I’d used to grab him was hurt.  My legs weren’t functioning right.  Even my back, Rose’s back, was locked up.

The power of adrenaline had kept me going, strength of fear, but it wasn’t capable of undoing damage.

Mags did something to move the fire around, stepping out of the stairwell.  She offered me a hand.  I was in the process of accepting it when other hands seized me, lifting me up from behind.  Peter.

Paige was still at the rear, crouched down, her attention on the dragon and Green Eyes. The thing was bucking, clawing blindly at a foe it hadn’t seen, putting holes in the wall and gouges in the ground.

I could have gone after the Barber, pursued the fight.  It even made sense, on a level, given the role he played.

But Green Eyes was a priority.  Taking on the one enemy here we could theoretically kill came a close second.

The dragon wretch, as I turned my back on our antagonist to focus on the reptile, was different than it had been.  Mangier, in the same way that a person left to fend for themselves in the wilderness might look tougher and more dangerous, even if it was only hardship that painted that picture.  The scales were ragged, but bristled like saw blades, there was a feral look in its eyes that hadn’t been there before, and it was leaner, narrower, with more muscle.

I moved, and I was surprised at how bad I was at that simple action.  Moving.  Putting one foot in front of the other.

The dragon wasn’t a complete being.  It had weaknesses.

As it happened, I’d seen a cross section of the monster, viewing its insides.

I knew exactly where its heart was.  Low in the chest.  The rib cage was triangular, and the heart rested at the lowest point.  I could see how the scales didn’t line up right.  The Hyena in my one good hand, I aimed it to match the gradient of the scales, to slide under and in.

My lunge missed entirely, as the thing wheeled its bulk around.  In the process, blind, it scraped its head against the wall, and Green Eyes with it.

Bloodied, twisted around, she lost her grip, dropping her constriction of the dragon’s head.  She pulled her tail up and away as it opened its mouth.  Its mouth was full of fluids, and they poured down to the base of the wall.

I backed away before it could splash up on or around me.  I wasn’t very intact.  Maybe only a quarter of my body was protected by the bogeyman exterior.  Rose’s body was almost as battered, inside.

“Blake, guys!” Paige called out.

The Barber.

Moving his pipes in the air, a circular motion.

I felt it like a stiff breeze.  I could see others touched by that same breeze.  Hitting each of us from different directions.

The fire, too, was touched.

Fluids had ignited, and fluids now spread.  Pushed by the effect, they were covering more ground.  The larger flames stayed just as large, but got wider.

I was put in mind of Rose’s sprint through the illusory flames.  Fire on either side of us, spreading, lifting, the gaps all closing.

Working to make the rooftop an expanse of dragonfire.

The spread was too fast.  I climbed onto the only thing that was available.  The Hyena stabbed the side of the dragon for traction, and my toes scratched at scales.  Rough, sharp, they were traction, allowing me to climb.

Before I’d found my first handhold, my wooden fingertips were smoking from contact with the beast.

It lurched, very nearly throwing me off, and lowered its head to claw at the offending mermaid that was clinging to its upper face.  She evaded the scratch and climbed over its head and onto its neck, to a point that head and claws couldn’t reach, between the dragon’s wings.

The dragon’s head turned to one side, peering over its own shoulder.  The eyelid was torn, ragged.

I climbed up higher, but already, the wood of my fingers and feet was turning black, smouldering.  I made a moment’s eye contact with Green Eyes.

“Thu!” the Barber spoke, and his voice had a ragged quality to it.  “Fi!

The dragon responded.  Its head drew back, neck shortening.  I could see spaces at the sides of its neck glow, as loose skin stretched and filled with fluids.  Gorge.

Aiming for the others?  The stairwell?

No.  Mags was manipulating fire, and Paige was drawing out a diagram with glowing lines.  The fire that Johannes was trying to move licked against the edge of the diagram, but didn’t pass it.  Fire wouldn’t hurt them.  Shouldn’t.

No, the dragon pointed its snout straight up.

Well, I suppose this was how dragons dealt with dragonslayers who thought they were clever, occupying the same blind spot as Green Eyes.

Green Eyes was shifting position, getting ready to pounce.  I could visualize the scene, see how she would be too late.  She might stop it partway, but she’d get the worst of it.

“No!” I barked out the word.  “Here!”

I extended my bad hand, as I ran along the dragon’s back.  I felt her take it.

We leaped together, though her leap was far more powerful.  Almost enough to screw us up.

I managed to catch the edge of the broken wall with the Hyena.  We swung out, and we swung around.  I lost my grip almost immediately, blade skittering over stone, but Green Eyes saved the day, finding a ledge.

I dangled from her grip.  I could see the firework spray of the fire spouting skyward, higher than the walls, though most seemed to strike sections of the remaining wall and pillars on the way up and the way down.  That which fell beyond the confines of the rooftop spread out around us.

I saw two droplets strike Green Eyes, felt it in her grip as she reacted, whole-body, head bowed.

Still, she lifted me up, so I could use the same ledge for a grip.  She fixed her position, and then clawed at the site of her wound.

We started scaling the wall, much as I had before.  I paused to sheath the Hyena in a gap in my midsection, then resumed climbing.

“I know you’re there, Blake,” I heard the Barber call out.  “I can see you with the Sight.”

The walls rattled.  I paused mid-climb to maintain my grip.

He kept talking.  “I negotiated with the Barber.  They aren’t about suffering, per se.  They aren’t evil.  That’s an affectation we gave them, just like the human shapes and symbols were.  Once my eyes were opened, I understood it all.  I saw the issues, I saw where we stood, in the midst of it all, and all I had to do was ask.  It’ll only be able to do its work in a small area.  Jacob’s Bell, Mags’ hometown, Port Hope, a sliver of Toronto.  I’ve asked it to be quick.  Merciful.”

I reached the top of the wall.  I paused, hesitating to show myself.

“You’ll all be snuffed out like a candle flame.  Absorbed into the… what you see above.  Time and space and id and ego won’t mean anything, there.  They’ll become momentary and endless, existent and abstract.  Compared to what we face every day, even on good days, it’s the kindest thing.  To not be.”

There was a note of humanity in his tone at the end of it all.  I looked up at the great spheres above us.

One was opening, closer than all of the rest.  Was that what he was doing, right now?

“That isn’t you speaking, Johannes!” I heard Mags.

The dragon roared.  I heard an impact.  I shut my eyes, forehead pressed against the stone wall in front of me.

We can’t win this like this, I thought.  Rose.  Please, you needed me to take over so you could think.  Do something.

I felt her move.

Words.  Names.  Titles.

The WelderThe Nurse of Darnby.  Bristles.

Stop, I communicated.

Stop.  I can’t practice.

There was a pause.

Another thud, an action on the Dragon’s part.

She tugged.

Not at a memory, or a feeling, or an idea.  Not at an experience of an internal structure within me.

At me.

I drew in a deep breath.

“Don’t…” I started.  I started to have second thoughts.  To abandon the others to the fight, instead of taking point?  It felt irresponsible.

But wasn’t that the same arrogance I’d accused Rose of?

“Don’t?” Green Eyes whispered.

“Don’t let me fall,” I said.

Then I receded.  I left the strength and the armor and the bogeyman bits where they were, and I retreated inside Rose, back to the deeper recesses.  The safe territory she’d gone to, to think.

I lost the ability to see, to hear, to think.  I wasn’t tapped into those senses, or those parts of the body.

My expectation was for Rose to summon her strength, to take over again, ready with the names at the tip of her tongue.

She didn’t.

Deep within, she met me.

I knew I was piecemeal.  I was surprised to find that Rose was much the same.  We were two broken stained glass windows, all ragged edges and hard lines, crudely constructed, both glowing from fires that burned within us.  The fires were pretty dim.  Too much of a push, and either of us could collapse inward.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

“We need to unseat the king from the hill.  Everything follows from that.  It should be fast, if we can manage it.”

“For this.  Right here.  We can’t budge him.  He’s strong, he can go wherever he wants, and he has a damn dragon.  Do you have a plan for this?”

“In part,” she said.  “I’ve gathered names.  I could use them, given a chance.  Bogeymen.  Dug through the recesses of my memory.  Stuff I looked at online, stuff I looked at in books that I might have left in the mirror world, when we changed places.  They’re not ones we’ve summoned and used up.”

“Bogeymen won’t win this for us,” I said.

“No,” she agreed.  “No, they won’t.  And even getting that done is hard.  I’m… not assigning blame.  But you’ve kind of left my body in bad shape.  If I take it over, I think I’ll be in too much pain to do anything.  It’s not… not me, but basic humanity.  Agony is a thing.”

I nodded.  “So.  We need my toughness and your practice.  You’re not going to suggest we merge back together or something?”

“No,” she said.  “That’s not possible.  The damage done is permanent.  If it was even remotely doable, I’d have already done it.”

I nodded.  I’d had to ask, but I wasn’t surprised in the slightest.

She said, “I need to patch myself up enough that I can deal with the pain.  I don’t think I can fix the damage that’s already been done.  I can use Conquest, for a bit of an Edge, but that’s a problem while you’re occupying me, and it’s not enough on its own.”

“Spit it out, Rose.”

“Your humanity.  I need some of it.  Maybe most of it.”

“Take it,” I said.

She stared at me.

Take it,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.  “There’s a tangential benefit here.  Because there’s not really much of you left, it’s not very useful.  You won’t default to a human shape.”

“Something else.”

“Yes.  Keep that in mind.  It might be easier if you don’t try.”

Not a human shape.  Alright.

“I understand.  You’re kicking me out, then?”

“Yes.  I hope Green Eyes is ready to catch us, because this is going to suck.”

I could see the white flowers creeping in around her.  Out of some affectation, Rose had them white.  Conquest.

She extended a broken hand, and let the flowers grow there, unfolding, vines stretching.

The vines reached for me, and began to pull me apart.

My awareness faded as I felt true pain, right at the heart of me.  Where we’d scraped each other before, this was something else altogether.

Taking my form.

I reached for something, a place to occupy, and I felt the branches and bones move, but they weren’t rooted in anything.

Just the opposite, they were being forced out.  My connection to Rose’s inner self and to Rose herself was cut.

The branches came away, a jumble.  Green Eyes’ iron grip on my wrist disintegrated as it ceased to be a wrist altogether.

I could feel the rush of wind, and I knew that we were falling.

I kept my eyes, I thought.

Kept my face.

The composition, however, was gone.  Rose had taken that, to fix scrapes and gouges in her own face, burns at the side of her neck.

I found them, digging inside, and pushed them out and forward.

I opened my eyes, and I saw the demonic realm of the Barber all around us, and I saw the tower top, disappearing.  Green Eyes, at the very edge of it, looking down with her namesake eyes.

As we turned over in the air, I could see the sea of spikes below.

Any form I want, I thought.

I reached out, and found anchorage along Rose’s arms and shoulders.  I found the skin of my face, not yet taken, scraps of meat that had lingered here and there, and stretched it all out as far as it would go.

Rose hadn’t patched up the holes in her own body.  She was light.

I gave her wings.  I was the wings.

I had an idea of how to glide, to fly.  I used it.

My vision was distorted, skewed.  I could see from the crooks of Rose’s elbows, where the wood was thicker, recesses in the knotting, overlapping mess of wood serving as eye sockets, in the absence of flesh.  Both eyes too far apart.

We reached a point near Green Eyes, and I shifted things around.  Focusing on gripping.  I found the Hyena directly between Rose’s shoulder blades and passed it along the wing to her right hand.  Wood served to form a gauntlet so the spikes wouldn’t impale her.

“The Welder,” she whispered.  She scratched a circle into the wall, then a name.  “Once known as Gunter Veit.  I name you and I call you.  You’ll find few fires hotter than these.  Follow the orders my allies give you.  Fight the dragon, distract the man with the black-scarred face.”

The circle shimmered, then became a gate.  Rose held out a hand, ready to catch him.

He didn’t need it.  Scarred from head to toe, the scar tissue had integrated with a welding mask he wore.  He had a heavy tank on his back.

Won’t he explode?  I wondered.

But he found a handhold, and he swung himself around a break in the wall, onto the rooftop, into flames taller than he was.

I watched as Rose started on the next diagram, my eye swiveling around.

Her flesh was too pale.  Almost artificial.  Her hair was lighter than before, but it made her look severe.  The scratches and cuts that remained looked as though they’d been placed there on purpose, a bad makeup artist’s work.

“The Nurse of Darnby,” Rose said.  “You wanted to put others out of their misery so badly you made your way out of the Abyss to keep doing it.  You can stop a lot of misery from happening here.  Let this be your crematorium.”

The nurse did need help.  She looked more like a snuffed matchstick than a person, but scraps of a charcoaled nurse’s uniform and white teeth in the burned shell marked her general form.  Green Eyes gave the woman a hand in swinging over to the same gap the Welder had used.

“Bristles,” Rose said.  She scratched out the name.  “Here boy.”

The fifty-pound animal that came out snarled and snapped, biting at me on the way out.  Once a dog, it was more scar tissue than anything else, from burns to tire treads.  Weapons and tools that had apparently been used to try to kill it stuck out of its back, sides, head and shoulders, like spines from a porcupine.

The dog that wouldn’t die, apparently.

“Go.  Get ’em!”  Rose ordered.

Bristles snorted, then began its climb.  It snarled at Green Eyes on the way up.

It didn’t venture into the flames, but ran along the top of the wall.

“Faceless woman,” Rose said.  “Resident of Jacob’s Bell.  If you’re out there, we need the help.”

“Ah, that’s what you’re doing,” the Barber spoke, his voice still worse for wear.

Rose’s eyes snapped upward.

“Too close to home, that one,” he said.  “She’s sworn to stay out of my realm.  Cause for me to say no.”

The wall began to undo the word ‘faceless’, the lines melting.

Rose moved, slashing at the word as it disappeared, “Everyone, anyone!  Denizens of the Abyss, I carve your names with one of your own!  Hyena, Thorburn Bogeyman, Rose Thorburn, novice scourge!  Thrice over, we are of the Abyss, and we plead your help!  If you are near, if you can hear-”

“Enough,” the Barber said.

One of the lines she’d etched deepened and widened.  I wasn’t sure Rose saw it.

I changed my shape, forcing Rose to release her grip on the wall.

I felt her reach for Green Eyes, I tensed the hand, a squeeze, a heartbeat’s pulse.

“Get back!” Rose called out.

The blades erupted from the exterior wall of the building.  One for the position Rose had just vacated.  One for Green Eyes.

Not technically within the confines of the rooftop.  Less of an interference for his ruse of being Johannes.

I saw the spray of blood, I saw Green Eyes’ grip falter.  She fell.

Wings.

I formed the wings, stretched out the membrane, the flesh.

Guided Rose to Green Eyes’ falling form.

More blades popped out between us and her.  I dodged two.  Rose brought her knees to her chest to avoid having her ankles cut by the third.

We didn’t catch Green Eyes so much as we collided with her.   I steered us into the wall, shoving Green Eyes against a window.

Please be okay, I thought.

More blades would spring out right there.  I knew it.

The question was whether she was capable of moving.

She managed to move at the last second.

“Up,” Rose said.  “Leave her.  If she can move now, she can move later.  Every second counts.  This is a chance.”

I took us up.  I hated to do it, but I took us up.

It was slow, glacial progress, requiring steady flapping, earning us inches at a time, and it was a progress made worse by the fact that the Barber was still there, and every time we drew close to the building, blades appeared, ten or twenty feet long.

“Dog,” Rose said.  “Faysal has to be a dog to be controlled by the pipes.  Even if we didn’t see him, he’s a dog somewhere.  It’s a weak point, just like Johannes is.  I think I know where he is.”

We rose above the tower.  A bird’s eye view.  Rose’s body, my wings.  The heat of the flames made flight easy, though smoke made visibility hard.

I was only wings now.  Not enough of me left.

The flames were dying in areas.  Oddly enough, it seemed to be Johannes that was quenching them.

I could make out the Welder and the Nurse.  They lurked within tall fires much like a lion might lurk in tall grass.  They circled the dragon, who already had a torn wing.  Little more than a distraction.

The Welder even looked larger than before.  He held a spike of metal in one hand, a torch in the other.

“That’s not what I was planning,” Rose murmured.  “But it could be worse, Blake.  Look.  Where isn’t the fire?”

She’d heard the comment earlier.  Lola’s stratagem.

The Barber was below us.  Watching Rose fly.  As we drew nearer, blades sprung from the uppermost portion of the railing-turned-wall.

“Demons function by absence, by destruction.  And he’s destroying flames closer to the throne.  There’s a reason.  Dive.  Right there.”

I dove.  We completely ignored the Barber, going for the throne.

More blades.  But we were too high above, giving the wall a wide berth.  Diving toward the middle of the roof, changing course-

“Forward,” Rose said, “Forward…”

The Barber’s voice carried over the crackle of fire.

A flash of light.

And he was right in front of us.

I had to veer off course.  I didn’t trust Rose’s movements or my own facility in moving her body.

Our landing was awkward.  I heard Rose gasp in pain.  She shifted position, intent on landing on all fours, and it was all I could do to keep the wings from being crumpled beneath her.

We were kneeling right where the dragon’s right head had been.

From this vantage point, we could see behind the throne.  Faysal’s form, hunched over, strained from head to toe, enclosed within a diagram.  One that fed into… all of this.

“I hereby declare that you are not Johannes Lillegard,” Rose called out.  “You do not have his face.  You do not have his voice.  You do not have his rapport with his familiar!  You corrupt his demesne and-”

The ground split.  Rose threw herself to one side.

A blade had sprouted.  From the rooftop.

Oh, fuck.

He was being serious.  The ruse of pretending to be Johannes was paper thin, now.

“Be careful!” Rose screamed the words.  “The Barber is-”

She was cut off as she had to move again.

More blades appeared.  They were indiscriminate.  The Dragon was speared four times, lifted clear off the ground, but not divided.

He wasn’t going that far, at least.

The others were left to scramble, running.

Faysal was contained within a cluster of blades, shielded from our interference.

“This is not your ideology, this is not how you fight!” Rose screamed the words.

Another blade, one Rose wasn’t prepared to avoid.

Even if she’d taken my humanity to patch up her human shape here and there, she was still hurt, still slower.

I extended more of myself, one wing’s worth of material to block the blade.  It was dashed to pieces.  The Hyena was part of it, and clattered to the ground.

Rose pushed herself forward, staggering at first, then running.  For the throne.

We had his weak points.  Rose was calling him on them.  Driving them home.

We just needed a final blow.

“You don’t have his face, you don’t have his voice!”  She repeated herself.  “You are not Johannes!  Johannes would not bind his familiar like this!  He would not corrupt his demesne!  Johannes would use the flute, not the shears!  On all three counts-”

Another near miss.  I moved to shield Rose, but she avoided it herself.

“You are not Johannes!”

Abruptly, I was caught.  Rose jerked in place, arm trapped.

We were bound.

Rose turned.

At three points around the rooftop were lawyers.  Ms. Lewis stood on top of the impaled dragon.

“And you are not going to save the world,” Ms. Lewis said.  She held a loop of platinum.

“This is a farce,” Rose called out.  Continuing to challenge all of this.  “You’ve lost.”

“Maybe the Barber won’t get his claim,” Ms. Lewis said.  “But we haven’t lost.  We have the Thorburn diabolist, and we can subject her to a fitting punishment for breaking the compact.”

Rose bowed her head.

I felt her clench her hand.

Not a fist.  A pulse.  A heartbeat.

A warning, much as I’d asked her to give Green Eyes.

Ah.  The loop of platinum.

Not to bind her, but to bind me.

I let her go.

Rose stumbled forward the last ten feet.

A blade erupted between her and the throne.

She twisted, kicking the flat of it.

Discredited.  Even the demesne doesn’t believe in Johannes anymore.

The blade broke as if it were made of glass.  Rose stumbled, staggered, and half-spun in the air as she practically fell in the seat.

The impact seemed to reverberate.  Her intact left hand, partially that of Conquest, two fingers a near ivory white, gripped the armrest.

There was a heartbeat’s pause.

Not a victory unto itself.

One step.

Her eyes turned to the remaining others.  “Help!”

She’d taken the hill, in a manner of speaking.  But taking the hill didn’t mean anything if we couldn’t keep it long enough to matter.

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