Category Archives: 16.02

Judgment 16.2

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They didn’t run to Andy and Ellie’s location.  Those two were to the northwest of the lawyer’s contingent, and Rose’s group was to the south.

Everyone, the lawyers and demons excluded, headed west, deeper into a sleeping, frozen Jacob’s Bell.  Evan and Isadora flew, the rest walked.

“Where can we go?” the Elder Sister asked.

“Uncle Laird’s house,” Alister said.  “He has protections against demons.”

“Given the local color, I’d think everyone would,” the Astrologer said.

“Everyone does,” the High Priest said.  “To some degree, anyway.”

“He has protections against demons that were taught to him by the local diabolist,” Alister clarified, between pants for breath.  “Including a protection against the thing that took over Johannes.”

“Johannes is the piper, sorcerer of the north end of this city” the High Priest clarified.  “Previously the leading contender for Lord of Jacob’s Bell.”

Rose felt a chill, and it was mirrored in a way by a near-simultaneous sensation from the spirit that dwelt within her.  The two sensations were just different enough for it to feel uncomfortable.

“He could be a contender again,” she voiced the thought aloud.

There were only the sounds of running footsteps, as everyone present digested the idea.  A demon-possessed individual taking over Lordship.

It wouldn’t be a long reign, Rose thought, but that might only mean more suffering in a shorter span of time.

It wouldn’t have to be a long reign, whatever happened.

To Rose’s right, the Elder Sister directed the Eye at a car.

The rag-wrapped elemental touched one car.  Smoke billowed from under the hood, then froze in time as the Eye backed away.  The elemental lagged behind the group, not fast enough to catch up after the momentary pause.

If they were going to get attacked from behind, Rose judged, better that it be the elemental than them.

“Oh!” Evan piped up.  He was flying closer  “Oh!  Elder Sister!  You’re the person to ask!  I’ve got this idea-”

“No!” Tiff, Ty, and Rose all said, together.

Blake stirred within her, and she could feel his restlessness.  There was so little he could do in this situation, and as her recent encounter with Surbas had indicated, she wasn’t well suited for an outright fight.

If there were battle lines, time to plan, she might have found her niche.  But running and fighting on the fly like this wasn’t that niche.

Could Blake provide that?  Maybe, but it seemed too monumental.  If he did give her something of that scale, what would the damage be?  Would she be recognizable?  Would he?

She vaguely recognized Laird’s home, but the memories were fuzzy.  Her first inclination was to think it was because of damage Blake had done…

Which it was, quite possibly.  Just not so much his fault.  It was a consequence of him being who he was and her being who she was, at the time.  She’d been in the mirror world then.

“Stop!” a high voice called out.

They stopped.

Heads turned.

It was the little girl, Fell’s niece, who had called out.

“They’re on our heels,” the Elder Sister said.  “Why are we stopping, Emily?”

“Illusion,” Emily said.  “Malcolm.  It has to be.”

“Illusion?” Alister asked.  “Here?”

“My bird eye superpowers don’t see anything,” Evan said.  He’d landed on the girl’s shoulder.

“I- I’m not sure,” Emily said.  “I mean, you can keep animals from seeing too, even with the keener senses, and I guess he could.  But it is illusion.”

Every set of eyes present, and there were quite a few, roved over the area.

“Paige,” Isadora said.  “As we practiced.  When we studied the way things were, we used tools, remember?”

Paige had gone still.  Stage fright, or something else.

“Remember?” Isadora said, and the word was less coaxing and more pressure.  Insistence.

“I do,” Paige said.

“Then hurry,” Isadora said, stern.

Paige nodded.  Her eyes briefly met her twin’s.

“I need light,” she said, not looking away from Peter, though he was hardly equipped to fulfill the request.

The Elder Sister produced a flame.

“Brighter,” Paige said, looking away from Peter.

As the light increased in intensity, Paige raised a hand, a short knife held high.

The blade caught the light, and it reflected it, casting a thin triangular beam on the houses around them.

She turned the blade to adjust the direction that the beam was cast, walking backward.

Passing over Laird’s house, the blade cast shadows.

Above the door, perched, was a small figure, feathered wings spread.  Below, moving across the front lawn, were two large, adult-sized shadows.

“Show yourself!” the sphinx ordered.

They weren’t given a choice.  She’d pushed, and whatever was shrouding them broke, stirring around them as sand, rather than snow.

The figures were still mid-stride as the shroud peeled away, closing the distance.

The Elder Sister used the light she was producing and cast it out, drawing a line of fire to block the two figures from approaching.  The light from the flame made their faces clearly visible.  Laird and Fell.

The Elder Sister cast out more fire, and Laird gestured, deflecting it, as the pair backed away.

Fell raised a gun, and Ty and Tiff moved simultaneously, Ty with papers in hand, and Tiff with a hand outstretched.

Fell didn’t shoot.

Nobody moved, as they settled into a light standoff, the two constructs on the front steps of the house that was supposed to be a sanctuary, the group on the road outside.

The imp had flown here, brought or resummoned the constructs.

That they had their ability to practice was scary enough.

“Someone please tell me we didn’t kill them, toward the end there,” Nick said.

“That we didn’t?” the Elder Sister asked.

“Because if we did, then that imp can bring them back again and again.”

“We didn’t,” Isadora said, with confidence  “I saw.  Malcolm Fell disappeared in the confusion, very literally, and I was watching the chronomancer, he retreated.  Neither were far enough back to be caught by the explosion.  Nobody defeated them.”

“I’m hopeful nobody will,” Laird added his own voice to the conversation, raising it to make himself clearly heard.  “I can’t help but note you lost your ring, Alister.”

Alister looked down at his stump.

Laird raised his own hand.  The ring was on his finger.  No, a ring.

“That’s not real,” Alister said.

Laird took a backward step.  He put his hand on the doorknob, “And this house is supposed to be protected against entry from unfamiliar persons, unless you decided to revoke that security measure?”

Alister didn’t answer.

Laird turned the knob, and found it locked.

He raised a hand, and gestured.

The click of the locks shifting was audible.

“It seems my demesne recognizes me,” Laird said.

“It is not your demesne,” Alister said.  “You and your ring are forgeries.”

“I’m real,” Laird said.  He spread his arms, “Enough to matter.”

The Elder Sister lashed out with more fire.  Laird deflected it.

“Enough to stop you if you do that,” Laird said, and it sounded vaguely patronizing.

The Eye lashed out, something far more intense, like the shower of sparks that might fly from an exploding transformer or downed power wires, and Laird threw himself back at the door, passing into the house.

The torrent of sparks and arcs of electricity died at the threshold of the door.

Fell had moved, too.  Rose turned to look to the left, where Fell now stood, distant from the house, then reached out to touch the shoulders of Paige and the Elder Sister.

Paige, again, produced the revealing light.

The image of Fell disintegrated into sand.  The real Fell was revealed as a shadow, a solid twenty paces away, more to the group’s left than to the front.

Before anyone could break the shroud, he swept one arm at the ground.  Snow stirred, a cloud of powder six feet high, blocking the light.  When the stirring came to a stop and the light shone through, Fell wasn’t there.

Rose eyed the demon above the door, then the man who stood behind it.

A mockery of a person, turned into a slow burning flame that would slowly destroy all that had tied that person to the world.

“We have trouble approaching from behind us,” Isadora said.  “We’re being followed, the group from the house.”

“Should I scout?”  Evan asked.  “I can keep an eye out.”

“No,” Rose said.  “If imps are flying around, I don’t know that we want you getting caught.”

“I won’t get caught!”

“Stay, it’s safer.”

Blake trusts me!”

Rose hesitated.

“Keep us alive,” Alister jumped in.  “Stay close, help.  The sphinx will keep us updated, I think?”

“She will,” Isadora said.  “They are getting closer.  If it reassures anyone, they’re moving more slowly, but let’s not waste time.”

Rose clenched her hands, and was surprised to find that she was already clutching Alister’s one hand, squeezing it painfully hard rather than forming a fist.

They’re taking the city like it’s effortless.  They’ve got vestiges like Laird to take these key points, or remove key players, and they’ve got Johannes for the North End.

“We should go,” the High Priest said.  “Another sanctuary.  It has to be better than getting flanked here.  If we reached out to Sandra-”

“That thing has the house,” Alister said, his voice stern.  “I have family members in there.  A bulk of the family’s texts and tools are in there.  Do we really want to let them have that?”

On the other side of Alister, Ainsley stepped a fraction closer to him, and slipped a phone out of her pocket.  She began dialing, without looking.

“Do we have a choice?” the Astrologer asked

“He also has a copy of the ring,” Rose said, her voice quiet.  “If he uses that to reach out to the entire Behaim family…”

“We lose a number of allies, I take it,” the Elder Sister said.

“If you want to be pragmatic about it,” Alister said.  “I prefer to phrase it as ‘a bunch of existences end rather horribly, and the demons win a meaningful victory.'”

“I don’t,” the Elder Sister said.  “Believe me, I don’t want to be pragmatic when I could be more human, but all of this is hard enough to take in.  You know, I could blame to you two for inviting us into this mess.”

“That’s a debate for another time,” Rose said.  “Let’s focus on the now.”

“For now,” the High Priest said, putting a hand on Emily’s shoulder, pulling the little girl back from the edge of the group and toward the middle, “Let’s keep you from getting touched by your uncle Malcolm.”

“I can’t locate him anymore, but he’s out there.  Circling us.  I’ve never seen him like this,” the girl said.

“I have,” the High Priest said.  “I saw his predecessor do it too, but I was young then.  If things had gone differently, you’d have been raised to do it as well.”

“Do what?  I was told, but…”

“You’d stalk.  Hunt.  Solve problems,” the Elder Sister said.

We’re the problem he’s solving right now, Rose thought.

But the inverse was true, too.  Except her side was the one with the time limit, with pursuers on the way.  These vestiges were a problem to solve.

“These vestiges,” she said.  “They do damage through connections.  I don’t think any of us want to touch them, but their footprints form a connection to the ground, and they aren’t doing any damage I can see there.  If anyone is going to deal with them, it should be someone with as few connections to them as possible.”

“Easier said than done,” Alister said, watching Laird.  “It’s the people with connections to them that have the ability to deal with them.”

Like the novice illusionist dealing with Fell.

“Then I would suggest,” Isadora said, “That you give very good advice and leave it at that.”

Alister shook his head.  “Not that simple.”

“Of course not,” the sphinx said.  “I’m sensing hostile intent from our invisible gunman.  Oh, he’s backing off now that I’ve announced it.”

Most of the group was facing outward now, wary for an attack from any direction.  The atmosphere grew a touch more tense after the sphinx’s statement.

“Aren’t invisible assholes supposed to leave footprints or disturb the snow?” Peter asked.  “That’s how it works in the movies.”

“I learned how to stop doing that on my second day of studying illusions,” Emily said.

“Well aren’t you precocious,” Peter said, affecting a tone.  Ainsley jabbed him.  Paige simultaneously shot him a disgusted look.

“Can’t win,” Peter muttered.

“In more ways than one,” Ty said, sounding a little defeated.  Maybe a little broken.

He looked so tired.  Rose was a little startled to see it.  It was like looking at her mom and seeing how she suddenly looked fifty, instead of just looking like mom.

It stung, and it made her feel uncomfortable, realizing that his weariness was partially her fault.  She’d leaned so much on him…

She had to do something, and the best thing she could do was help work through this problem.

“They don’t want to die,” Rose said.  “Self preservation is a part of them.  Something instinctual is probably telling them that they can sustain themselves by consuming us.  Fell won’t attack until he’s reasonably certain he can do it and get away alive after the fact.”

“Ainsley!” Laird called out.

Ainsley startled.

“I can use the Sight.  I’m well aware that you just contacted my wife.  Or rather, that she just answered your repeated attempts.”

He very deliberately looked up at the ceiling above him.

“Maybe I should go say hi to her,” Laird said.  “Or my sons?”

Ainsley brought the phone to her ear, hand over the mouthpiece.  Instructions for those within the house.

Laird smiled a little.  Smug.  The Behaims had a way of looking so smug.

“What do you want, Laird?” Rose called out, hoping to distract him.

“What do you think?” Laird asked.

“More to the point,” Alister muttered, “Why hasn’t he gone into the house?”

Rose looked at the doorway.  The front step was scorched, the snow there melted, where the Eye had struck.

“Threshold,” she said.  “The barrier there.”

Alister’s eyes widened.

Rose’s eye fell on the imp above the door.  “If you could get to the door, could you get inside?”

“I have permission.  The barrier allows only people with Behaim blood and those with names written in the guestbook inside.  Major members of the family can give permission, but guests will feel uncomfortable.”

“Because books,” Ainsley said.  “Magical paraphernalia.  Better to keep visits short.

“Is there a back door?” Rose asked.

Alister snapped his head in Ainsley’s direction.  Ainsley nodded.

“That’s a yes, then,” Rose said.  Her eyes turned to the imp, perched above the door.  Murr wasn’t a very vocal or active imp, but god damn, was he troublesome.  “Need to deal with that, and there’s still Fell, who’s liable to capitalize on any distraction.”

“Distraction is a good idea,” the High Priest said.  “Not my forté.”

“It’s mine,” the little girl said.  “But Uncle Malcolm is a lot better at it than me.”

Too many conditions.  These vestiges made life so difficult.

“They’re arriving in a minute,” Isadora said.  “Whatever damage that explosion did, they’ve recuperated.”

No time to plan, if proper plans were even possible.

Her eye fell on the shadow of someone on the upper floor, peering through a window.

“Go,” Rose said, “Go!  Evan-”

“On it!”

We’ll figure it out in the process.

Alister and Ainsley broke away.  Without communicating anything overtly, they’d already chosen their respective directions.

Alister headed for the front door.  Ainsley sprinted for the back.

The group had the knights, they had the sphinx, they had the Eye.

Rose had to hope they could deal with Fell.

Her eyes were on the demon.

What was it?  Not ruin, not darkness.

What plane did it operate on?  Not madness, not feral.  Abstract?

It brought back the dead.  Defied natural order.  But they weren’t truly dead.  They were memories, tainted ones.

Grief?

Choir of sin.

The choir of sin was one of the hardest to deal with.  It required certain human conventions to combat.  Of those conventions, one stood out.

But Blake was there, stirring to life, almost eager to have something to supply.

She closed her eyes, wincing in pain as the memories were pushed to the surface, the scenes distorting, fragments missing.

As if she’d lose the memories in the end, as a price for having them supplied.

But it was a near-perfect recall.  Being in church.  Reading the words, the tips for pronouncing Latin.

The Latin words, ones she didn’t even understand, flowed from her mouth, as the memories were supplied, one after another.

Words became a chant, and, the chant became song.  A hymn.

The hymn made for a pattern, structure, the religion it evoked made for years of tradition and symbolism, reinforced by the collective of man.

To ward off what she hoped was an imp, designed or born to work against mankind on an intrinsic level.

The imp stirred in reaction.

Discomfort?

Gunshots rang out, and people at the edges of Rose’s group dropped.

Her words faltered.

The sphinx and the imp both lunged at the same time.  The sphinx reaching for Fell, way off to the right, the imp going for Rose.

Ty did what he could to erect a barrier, throwing papers into the air, drawing an image, but the imp bypassed it.  Wrong kind of defense for this threat.

The Astrologer glowed, a different collection of points of light, and a great ram appeared in the air.

The imp moved away.

“Brute force works!” the Astrologer shouted.

Rose nodded, raising her voice as she resumed the hymn.

But even though the imp was held at by, shadows all around them grew deeper by the second.

More?

And, worse, Alister and Ainsley were at the house, with no backup.

Another gunshot.  Ty fell backwards, and the movement seemed oddly fake, it was so slow, out of sync with the noise.

The blood was real, however.

“Fuck!” Ty shouted.  “Ah, god!”

Rose only managed to glimpse Fell for an instant before he was gone.

She managed to keep track of the words.  It was hard, because a number of letters were pronounced differently from how they were written, and the words weren’t quite words that came naturally, though they were vaguely familiar.  It mandated focus.

The imp was up there, almost posing in the air, legs crossed, arms and wings spread, fragments of bone and feathers radiating around it, staring through its mask of bone.

Fell stepped out of shadows, gun pointed at Rose’s head.

She already knew moving would, barring magical aid, do nothing.  One couldn’t dodge bullets.  Unless, maybe, they were Blake, or a certain small sparrow.

Instead, she met his eyes with her own.

She pushed Conquest into her gaze.  The glare of a tyrant, a condescending, arrogant, unflinching stare.

It was, as it happened, a connection of sorts.  Conquest had dominated Fell’s life, controlled the man’s destiny.  For this effigy of Fell, well, it was one more connection to use.

With her own gaze, she could see the connection snap into being, the taint dancing along it, reaching out to attack Rose by another angle.

She’d maybe made him hesitate in pulling the trigger for a second, maybe two.  But she’d opened herself up to ruin.  Look away, and he’d shoot.  Stare, and he’d use the connection between eyes, windows to the soul, to consume her.

She kept up the hymn, because to do otherwise would doom all the others, and she stared Fell down, as he brought about her end.

The connection was broken.  Rose blinked.

A mermaid’s tail slapped left, then right, as she tore into Fell.

Rose blinked.

Bloody strings and tatters hanging from between narrow, fishlike teeth, Green Eyes looked at Rose with one intact eye glowing in the gloom.

Green Eyes spat out a gobbet of flesh, then dove into deeper snow, disappearing beneath.

She hadn’t been with the group.  Rose had barely even thought about her.

Blake hadn’t given Rose a connection to the mermaid.  No fondness.

That momentary look that she’d been given, it left her feeling uneasy.

She’d seen horrible things, but the mermaid was somehow one that Rose felt would linger more in her mind while she tossed and turned at night.  Perhaps it was due to Green Eyes’ connection to Rose, or the very human loathing that emanated from a very inhuman form.

Growing up, Rose had been well educated in just how close to home and heart that particular kind of loathing could get.

Alister was at the door, and Laird was standing on the opposite side.  Alister couldn’t approach, but Laird couldn’t back away.

Laird’s head turned.

Rose felt something change.  A shift in pressure, like a door to the outside opening.  Ainsley had broken down the barrier.

“Run!” Isadora called out.  “They’re here!”

One small advantage gained, another major move by enemy forces.

The lawyers were here.  At the far end of the street.  Ms. Lewis and Mr. Levin.  Johannes and Faysal were absent.

The house wouldn’t work as a hiding place.  They couldn’t get to Laird and defeat him in time, especially within his own demesne.

They couldn’t leave him there unmolested, either.

“Burn it!” Rose shouted, abandoning her hymn.  Tiff was quick to throw out another temporary barrier to block the imp as the barrier of words ceased to have an effect.  “Tear down the house!  Get the family out!  Everyone else run!”

Isadora pounced on the edge of the roof, where a window jutted out.  She clawed at it with a great leonine paw, but did no damage.

Laird’s wife and children were just past the glass.

The glass shattered from within.  The sphinx worked to help them out, pulling the two boys against her chest.

The Eye had reached the ground floor.  He passed within the doors, and the walls on either side of him lit up, as if they’d been doused in gasoline and touched with a match.

The rest, Rose included, ran as a mob, and it wasn’t pretty, nor was it organized.  They didn’t have a destination.

Still, they put distance between themselves and the lawyers.

“Hurry!” Isadora cried out.

Isadora’s focus was on the house’s interior.  The bottom floor was already blazing, and the upper floor was joining it.

If Laird was capable of putting the fire out, he would have already.

“Don’t hesitate!” Isadora shouted, louder, an order.

One of the boys reached, shouted something Rose couldn’t hear over the fracas, over her own voice singing the hymn loud enough to maybe keep the imp away.

There was a scream.  The same sort of scream that had come from the Shepherd.  One that went beyond simple sound, reverberated to the soul, and not in a good way.

Isadora twisted her head and body away, not looking, she spread her wings, and she leaped from the roof.

With the boys, but not Laird’s wife.

She couldn’t fly with a burden, so she landed close to the group instead.  She dropped the boys near Paige, then ran alongside the group, wings folded.

Alister and Ainsley were following, catching up, and the Eye followed behind, neither catching up nor falling behind.

Rose looked at the house, and she saw the fires taking it.  Less than a minute had elapsed in total.

She looked for and spotted the connection between the boys and Laird.  She saw it break, dissolving.

The construct was gone.

Her eye turned to look at the pursuers.

They were falling behind, but that was no guarantee that they’d stay behind.  They did what they did for a reason, and if a diabolist like them was reckless, the diabolist would lead a short, unfortunate existence.

If they’d wanted to attack, back at the edge of the Library, they could have been a lot more aggressive than they had.

A desire to avoid recklessness was part of it.  Another part of it was that they did have the tools to utterly destroy their enemy.  They could act in a measured, deliberate fashion, and each action would be meaningful.  Claiming Johannes had been one such action.  Claiming Faysal through Johannes had been another.  Even sending Laird here, to deny the group one kind of sanctuary, it had probably been decided with care and strategy.

If Rose’s allies kept running, they would eventually tire.  They would make mistakes, or get whittled down.

In the now, however, Rose knew they needed respite.  They needed a chance to get everything in order, and plan, or discuss.

The hymn passing through her lips, she realized they did have one answer.

She gestured at Ty, and it maybe said something that she’d reached out to him, that she’d thought of him as quickly as she did.

She touched her index fingers together at the second knuckle, one horizontal, one vertical.

“Cross?  Religion?” Alister asked.

“Church,” Ty said.

Quicker than most gave him credit for.  Creative.

“Sanctuary,” Alister said.  “Except-”

Rose shook her head.  She repeated the gesture.  The hymn continued, almost an afterthought.

“The church is far away,” Alister said.  “And they’re-”

He looked back.  Rose joined him, glancing back.  She caught a glimpse of the imp, following at a greater distance, slowly backing off, but she didn’t see the lawyers at all.

They’d relocated.  Taken another path, or headed to another destination.

Rose feared they’d beat her group to their next destination as well.

If they didn’t, well, that was almost as bad.  It meant they were up to something else altogether.

“Enchantment,” the little girl said.  She was part of a smaller group, including Laird’s boys and Evan.

Rose’s ability to follow the girl’s line of thought was almost interrupted by her recollection that Johannes’ music could captivate children.  In the children’s story, the Pied Piper had rounded up all the children of Hamelin.

“Enchantment,” Alister said.  “Another vestige?”

“Helping,” the girl said, between pants.

It was, Rose realized.  Now that she looked for it, she could see how the route was getting clearer, shorter.  They were skipping the occasional city block.

Reeled in, she thought.

She stopped singing the hymn, in part because she was getting out of breath.  The imp was gone, faded into the shadows of the sunless sky above them.

They reached the church in half the time it should have taken, and there were no enemies waiting for the there.

Sandra stood at one side of the door, alone, no Duchamps with her.

Mags stood on the other side.

Rose’s group was sweating despite the cold, panting, many of them with lungs and throats raw from sucking in gasps of cold air.

“Thank you,” Rose told Sandra.

“I dread the explanations,” Sandra said.  “But we’ll need to hear them.”

Rose nodded.

Her teeth were chattering, and it wasn’t entirely due to the cold.  The adrenaline was still thrumming through her, and Conquest wasn’t keeping it all at bay anymore.

She wasn’t sure if that had something to do with the damage that had been done to Conquest through Fell, or if it was just that she was reaching the end of her rope.

“May we come in?” Rose asked.

“You may,” Sandra said.  “Single file, please.  If you’re a regular councilgoer, please reaffirm that this is sanctuary.”

Rose nodded again.

Alister was the first to go through the door, pausing to say, “I ask for and support the sanctuary here, established when the town was new.”

He moved on.  Rose followed.  She didn’t consider herself regular enough to matter, and she was too tired to find the words.

“Hey Blake,” Mags greeted her.

Blake stirred within Rose.

Rose frowned.

She turned, saw that Nick was behind her, and reached to Nick’s side, drawing the man’s machete from his side, metal gliding against sheath.

She swung the weapon around, stopping just shy of swinging it into the side of Mags’ throat.

Mags blinked.  “Um.”

“As I recall, there’s only one faerie in Jacob’s Bell that’s that bad with names,” Rose said.

“I-” Mags started.  She shook her head, blinking hard.  “I’m not a faerie.  I’m Mags.  Born human, still human, as far as I can tell.  Ambassador.  I was using my Sight to scan you guys.  You look a lot different when the perspective changes more toward the mystical.”

“She’s not lying.  I asked her to screen everyone,” Sandra said.  “For the record, I’m glancing over each of you as well.”

Rose’s hand shook as she lowered the machete.

She handed it back to Nick.

On a level, she felt almost delirious, making her way to the front of the Church.

Others were gathered within.  The faceless woman, the revenant.  Summoned things.  Goblins.  Practitioners from Sandra’s camp.  Scattered Behaims.  The junior council.  The Briar Girl.

Ellie was here, as were Andy and Eva.  Ellie sat alone, looking very bewildered.

Mara was absent, but that wasn’t a great surprise.

Still in there, Blake? she wondered.

Blake stirred.

A little less active, recently.  Had he hurt himself, moving things around?  Or had Conquest hurt him, during one of the instances where she’d drawn on Conquest for power?

Or was he just being good, trying to minimize damage?

She noted the entry of the mermaid into the church.  The mermaid gravitated toward the faceless woman and revenant.  At the back, while Rose was right at the front.  The mermaid was seated before Rose even reached the front row.

Rose found a spot by Alister.  A part of her wondered if she should sit there, or if it would be weird.  She’d never dated, never had friends, even.  The memories in her head were of dating girls, but Blake hadn’t been so kind, or so unkind, as to give her the attraction or anything like that.  They were incidental elements, hastily carved out and included in the collection of memories meant to imply familiarity, teamwork, friendship, bonds.

Now, removed from everything, it felt weird to sit beside Alister.

Need to get Blake out, she thought.  It wasn’t a healthy thing, to keep him so close.  Either he would spread his influence and start to take her over, she would digest him, or they’d remain like they were, and steadily erode one another.

The Thorburns were settling in just behind her.  Ellie had gravitated this way.

It made for an odd combination, with the Behaims having already positioned themselves in anticipation of Alister taking the customary spot of the Behaim leader.

A bit of a family reunion, this.  Rose twisted around in her seat, arm on the back of the pew, to look at them.

“Callan’s dead,” Peter said.  “Kathy’s gone the way of the monster.  Not sure what’s going to happen there.”

“Okay,” Paige said, quiet.  “I don’t know how to feel about that.”

Peter shrugged, “It is what it is.  You can hate them and still be sad that family met a bad end.”

“Why hate him?” Christoff asked.  “He sacrificed himself in the end.”

“And he made my life hell,” Peter said.  “I’m supposed to forgive?”

Rose had tensed.  It was, very possibly, a very bad sentiment to express so loudly in this church, around so many individuals and groups who had reason to hate diabolists, while Rose’s efforts in the other direction were comparatively very small and very recent.

Christoff was scowling, but he hadn’t argued.

“So.  Sister.  What’s with… that?” Peter asked.

That?”

“I mean, I’m not sure if I should congratulate you.  You’re into tits?  Those are the biggest damn tits I’ve seen.  I mean, she’s a giant, practically-”

“Stop,” Paige said, putting a hand to her face.

Ellie was cackling.

“And if you’re into pussy, well-“

Meow,” Roxanne added.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Peter said.

“I can’t lie anymore,” Paige said.  “So believe me when I say I loathe you, Peter.”

“Eh,” Peter said.  He shrugged.  “I love you too.”

Haggard, worn, having been to the Abyss and back in several cases, many of the Thorburns were now acting so casual.

The benefit of being survivors, maybe.  Screwed up, but survivors.

Rose heard a clearing of a throat, and turned to see Mags at the front, just before the altar.

“As ambassador, I’ll be leading us through this meeting,” Mags said.

Now we just have to survive what comes next, Rose thought.

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