Rose hadn’t expected to feel the burden of this decision. Her hands gripped the sides of the altar, and she leaned forward, head bowing just a little, feeling as if an immense weight had settled on her from above.
The candles that were set in sconces in the pillars of the church didn’t move or dance. There was no smoke. Plastic, the ‘flames’ simply flame shaped bulbs, screwed into candle-like bases. A dozen large ‘candles’ on either side, drawing out a road between Rose and Ms. Lewis. The practitioners, Others and humans of Toronto and Jacob’s Bell sitting at various points on that continuum.
Ms. Lewis, such as it was, didn’t bow or bend. There was no sign that she was affected at all. More like the false candle than a real person.
“If this is a question of my word,” Ms. Lewis said, “I can swear an oath.”
Not a soul responded.
Rose was tense enough that the slight turn of her head to check on Alister and the others made her head jitter partway through the motion.
“You called me for a reason,” Ms. Lewis spoke. “If you aren’t asking for mercy or leniency, what did you want me for?”
“For this,” Rose said. “Go fuck yourself, Ms. Lewis. You have no friends in this church.”
“Are you going to remain in your church, then?” Ms. Lewis asked. “If it’s a question of you not wanting to step foot outside, I understand. Almost every practitioner has some sense of what we represent and what we can bring to bear. Remaining where you are is easier than venturing beyond. We wouldn’t penetrate the barrier around this church, though we have the ability.”
She’s changing the dialogue, Rose thought. Making it so that staying, taking no action, is taking her side, or the Elder Sister’s side. Surrendering.
Rose had to rally others to fight. But now the lawyer was giving people the option of inaction. An option that some were liable to take.
What would Blake do here? He was better with people, but worse with words, form, delicacy. When he’d stood here, back at the beginning, he’d chosen a hard, direct action. Offering to spare others if they agreed to nonviolence. Trying to divide enemy ranks.
Ironic, given what Ms. Lewis was offering now.
“We aren’t going to cave, and we aren’t going to stand by while you do what you’re doing. We talked about it, and we’ve already decided,” Rose said. “You can consider this our declaration of war. This is our town, one we’ve fought for, one many of us fought each other for, and one we’ve bled over. If you think we’re simply going to give it up so you can turn it into some victory for your side or a waypoint for demonkind and diablerie, you’re an imbecile.”
Ms. Lewis blinked very slowly, taking in the words.
Rose was privately proud of her word choice. The imbecile at the end there, it wasn’t a word people heard often, so it had more weight. It attacked Ms. Lewis’ standing more than any ‘fuck you’ or ‘asshole’ could have.
“Those are words you can only say because you stood to lose either way,” Ms. Lewis said. “They lose value when you’ve effectively conscripted these individuals into a war for your own behalf. A war that was heavily influenced by the fact that you allowed a demon you bound to go free. Whatever happens from this point on, I hope they remember that if they’d simply given you to us, it all could have been avoided.”
Going on the offensive. Putting Rose in a position where she had to justify herself.
She didn’t. She let the accusation hang, though she could have explained herself. Blake probably wouldn’t have. He was too much of a scrapper, too intent on surviving, ironically.
He might have lost the war, even as he defended every point.
“Don’t even pretend you guys weren’t maneuvering for Johannes and the Angel all along,” Rose said, her voice hard.
Ms. Lewis smiled a little. “Well. Humanity is on its way out, all the same. If you insist on hurrying it along, I’m sure my group’s, ah, associates don’t mind expediting things. The moment any of you act against us, you can all consider my offer to respect your sanctuary to be null and void. This doesn’t end until we have Rose Thorburn. I would prefer her alive over dead, but dead works.”
She turned to leave.
Rose watched the woman pull the doors wide open, then step out into the darkness and the cold.
She was glad when nobody pulled a trigger or threw a bolt of lightning at her.
“It’s not like that,” Mags said, after the doors had swung shut. “Johannes said humanity was on the up. That we were winning. I think that’s where a lot of his power came from. That he recognized that we were capable or responsible for something greater, and he rode that to success. Enough to be on par with a full family of trained practitioners.”
“I like that,” Rose said. “That’s an idea to hold on to.”
“…Even if I don’t quite like what he was doing to the vestiges in his territory,” Mags said, as an afterthought.
“You know it, then?” Rose asked. “You know your way around his territory?”
Mags nodded. “Been there quite a bit. Part of my duties.”
“I want you to help me, then,” Rose said.
Mags nodded. “Darn straight.”
There was agitation now, restlessness, most were out of their seats. Many weren’t quite listening to the conversation between Rose and Mags. Their focus was on other things.
Self preservation, fear, general concern. The lawyer had strategically dropped hints, enough to scare. She could bypass the barrier, and Rose had very strategically invited her to. If the lawyer hadn’t rescinded her offer to allow them their sanctuary, then Rose might have had to destroy the sanctuary herself.
Complacency was her biggest enemy here. People being still, refusing to act.
“Listen!” Rose said.
She had their attention. Conquest had nothing to do with it. She’d earned it.
“This won’t be pretty, but the faster we do it, the less organized they’ll be! We push out, we push forward, and my hope is to lead a select group straight for Johannes. Hit them hard, pull out all the stops, create a gap we can use, and then default to staying alive. Preserve yourselves, preserve the town, and keep pressure on them. Recognize theatrics for what they are, respect the power of believing you can accomplish something. That matters so much, I can’t articulate it.”
There were some nods.
“I wish I didn’t need to say it, but you should already know that if you attack me, you’ll violate the sanctuary. I have no expectation that they’ll be merciful. If you’re doing it out of hope that they’ll thank you by letting you leave Jacob’s Bell alive, you’re gravely wrong.”
Even veteran practitioners here looked pretty damn scared.
Rose hopped down from the stage to the floor below. “Evan.”
“You know it!” the bird said, as if utterly oblivious to the tension and the danger.
He flew to her shoulder.
Have to strike a balance, Rose thought. Each person I pick is more capability on my side, but one more body. We have to be small if we’re going to be able to slip through.
“Alister?” she asked.
“I know how to ward off demons,” Alister said. “It won’t work against Johannes, but I can protect these people.”
“Me, then,” Ainsley said.
Rose nodded. “Enchantment would go a long way, for detecting trouble, and avoiding it.”
“I can offer my assistance until you’re out of reach,” Sandra said.
But you won’t come with, Rose read between the lines.
There was a look in Sandra’s eyes. Not hate, not anything hostile, but very negative. Almost but not quite pity.
She doesn’t think we’ll make it.
“If my family is willing to work with me,” Sandra said, turning away from Rose, “We can use the coven to strengthen workings, and we can give everyone on our side the benefit of that trouble-detection and the avoidance.”
Her family members began to gather around her. Some more reluctantly than others.
Not working against Rose. That would betray everything they were trying to do, but leaving Rose to deal with and face the brunt of the challenge she’d led them into.
Rose saw one group of younger Duchamps hanging back. It was almost exactly the image Rose had had in her mind when she’d pictured people taking the Elder Sister’s option to surrender. As more joined the larger group, others were drawn in, as if by a growing gravity.
Until only one was left. The girl hesitated, unable to bring herself to join the others. She looked at Rose.
“I’ll come with you,” Lola Duchamp said.
Even this late in the night, Lola Duchamp was heavily made up with bright colors around her eyes, enough that it could almost be called war paint. She had pink tips to her hair, and a nose ring. Not the typical subtle enchantress. Bold as she appeared, Lola Duchamp looked very frightened.
“Thank you,” Rose said.
Rose turned toward her cousins. “Paige?”
Paige glanced backward, at Isadora, who sat by the door.
“Go,” Isadora said, her low voice carrying from the opposite corner of the church. “Better you than me.”
Many sets of eyes watched that interplay, their attention caught by the sphinx’s very attention-grabbing voice.
There’s something symbolic about who I pick. One from each major group, maybe, and Paige counts as the Toronto end of things. She has talents we can use, that aren’t quite standard practice. We have a Duchamp, and a Behaim, we have me, for the Thorburns…
“You know,” Peter said, “If I were Alister, I’d really have to wonder about how eager Rose was to gather a bunch of girls around her.”
“Ahem,” Evan said.
“You’re vile,” Paige told her brother. “You know I’m related to her.”
“Tell me about it, the implications-”
“Peter,” Rose cut in.
“Right, right, I’ll stop. My bad,” Peter said, while looking as far from sorry as possible. He grinned at her.
“You’re with me,” Rose said.
“Bullshit,” Peter said, smile dropping from his face in a flash. “Bullshit and fuck you and fuck the unicorn you rode in on. Or have Paige fuck the unicorn because she obviously likes the animal-”
“Shut up. There’s no time, and I know you’ll stir up shit until you see a way out of a bad situation. I want a non-practitioner. There are benefits to having you with us, as a relatively innocent human.”
“If he’s considered innocent then this world is fucked,” Paige said.
“Seriously,” Peter agreed.
“Ahem,” Evan said.
Rose shook her head a little. “I mean innocent as in-”
“I know what it means,” Paige said. She glanced at Peter. “It’s still fucked up.”
Rose frowned. “It was down to you and Ellie, Christoff is too young, Roxanne is too young and just a bit tainted by the Abyss, and you’re right. I do need a staff along with the distaff, to balance things out more.”
Peter slapped his hand to his face.
“Fucking serves you right,” Paige said, under her breath.
“Ahem!” Evan said, with a little more emphasis. “Guy here. I have a noodle, pretty sure.”
“I assume she means a guy whose testicles have dropped,” Peter told the bird. “Presumably someone who can actually locate their noodle.”
“Wait, what?” Evan asked. “They do that? Testicles drop? Where? How? Why?”
“That’s essentially it,” Rose told Peter. “Evan is too Other to count, I think.”
“You’re not just doing this to bullshit me?” Peter asked.
“Every body counts here,” Rose said, echoing her thought from earlier “Harder to surround with an effective diagram, harder to stay hidden, to stay together. I wouldn’t say it if it didn’t matter. Humans are protected, on a level. One step removed from all of this.”
“Ah, but see, I’m a cowardly, manipulative asshole,” Peter said. “There’s not much manipulation to be done, and the asshole part isn’t any value. If you want a coward, you should go with Ellie.”
“Fuck you,” Ellie said.
“Come on,” Ainsley said. We really can’t be arguing.”
Peter frowned. It had looked like he was going to say something, but he actually listened.
“How about you decide before we leave,” Lola said. She turned to Rose, “Who or what else do you need?”
“I think that’s-” Rose started.
Then Blake hit her.
A memory, except it wasn’t a memory. It wasn’t a replay of an event or an image or anything in that vein.
It was an impression, a concept. Not a full one, quite possibly because he didn’t want to let go of it. It was a tease, something to lead Rose’s thoughts to a destination.
The Abyss isn’t about destruction and ruin.
It wasn’t a confident thought, it was an idea or a hypothesis, a question without a question mark.
“You think that’s it?” Lola asked.
“I think…” Rose said, trailing off. She turned her gaze to the other end of the church. The Others were there. Isadora was off to the left with the Eye, there were some scattered Others who had come as guests, some ghosts, there was the door, and an empty space as nobody wanted to be the first one through it, and then there were the more disturbed Others. Goblins, ugly things, the revenant, and the bogeymen in residence.
Not about destruction and ruin?
Rose headed down the central aisle of the church, and her chosen group followed. She didn’t turn to check, or to see if Peter was among them.
Her smallest cue here could make a difference in terms of how others perceived the coming conflict. Expressing confidence was everything. If she showed weakness, then that might be the excuse someone twitchy needed to try to take her life.
The trail of people who followed after her was a sticky one, catching or stopping here and there, to say words to this person or that one.
Rose stopped at the end. “Green Eyes.”
The mermaid looked up at her from her seat on the pew.
“Blake wants you to come with, I think,” Rose said.
Blake apparently didn’t disagree or want to clarify his point. He was still, motionless.
“Okay,” Green Eyes said.
Just like that.
As simple as the acceptance was, Green Eyes still glared with a steady, ominous sort of intensity.
She knew, Rose knew. That Blake had made the agreement. That there was no room in this world for the both of them.
She didn’t know, Rose suspected, that even now, Rose was digesting Blake. Eroding him away into nothingness.
And that, very possibly, he was letting her.
But it was a toxic sort of digestion. He was a poison, and for anything she gained this way, she lost something too. There had to be a cleaner way to do it, and that meant that Rose and Blake were both operating on a time limit of sorts.
If and when she found a moment to extract Blake and place him in a vessel, she would have to watch her back against Green Eyes, out of concern that the mermaid would destroy Rose before she could dispose of Blake.
It was a complication. One that Blake apparently wanted.
“Thank you, Green Eyes,” Rose said.
She gazed over the assembled practitioners. Her eye fell on Ty, who had been draped out over one pew, a bandage around his middle. A card was pressed to the bandage. Someone had offered some help via. practice. He raised a hand in a bit of a wave.
She smiled at him, raising her own hand in a small wave of response.
Fuck. She actually cared what happened to these people. Not just to Tiff and Ty and her family, but to the people as a whole.
It made it so much harder.
“Do you have a strategy?” the Elder Sister asked.
Rose turned around. Many of the Toronto powers were gathered behind and around her, along with Sandra, Alister, and the Briar Girl.
“Beyond the broad strokes?” the Elder Sister added.
“They’ll be waiting,” Rose said. “We’re all gathered here. They’re going to hit us hard. Our fear is their strength. They’ll want to break our momentum. Have us run out the door, then turn and run back inside, before they crush us.”
“You apparently know them well,” the Elder Sister said. The words were accusatory.
I just have to think of Blake’s strengths combined with my own, and strip away the genuine desire to be good. Use that sort of individual and form an establishment.
But speaking and likening the enemy to herself wasn’t going to make her any friends or win her any loyalty here.
“In terms of my group,” Rose said, “If Emily could cover our escape, block the lawyers’ view of us… it would make a big difference, especially if they have their demons on leashes. We break through enemy ranks. Then, if Johannes is here we catch him from behind. If he isn’t, we make a break for his demesne.”
“I can try,” Emily said.
Rose would have asked Emily to come, but the girl was so young.
It was a daunting idea, to ask so much of someone so… unreliable.
“But you think that our group will be tested,” the Elder Sister said.
“Yes,” Rose said.
The rest of the people in attendance at the church had gathered. They were listening, faces solemn and serious.
“We need a strategy, then,” the Elder Sister said. “You have yours, thin as it is. Enchantresses can help sway things, but they can’t form the focus of our attack. I don’t have nearly enough power to bring to bear. Chronomancers alter time, but we need to do something with that time. I don’t have enough power to matter, and the rest seem to have limited resources.”
“We don’t need power,” Rose said. “We need… to pave the way. Leave moving forward as an option.”
The Elder Sister spread her hands. “I lost our little contest, so I won’t say it, but…”
“You’ll imply,” Rose said. That maybe we should hunker down and stay.
“Hey,” Evan said. “Hey. Hey. I have the best plan.”
“No,” Rose and Tiff both said, automatically.
“You haven’t even heard me out!” Evan said.
“He’s right. You haven’t even heard him out,” Lola said. “He’s fighting alongside us, and he has as much of a voice as anyone. If nobody has any suggestions, I don’t see why we can’t hear his.”
“I might love you a little,” Evan whispered.
“The plan?” the Elder Sister asked, her words terse.
“I’m a container for spirits. I’m supposed to be a vessel for an Evan-spirit, but stuff got broke. Spiritstuff is leaking out like a slow drip, so we’ve been giving me more spirits to keep me going. So what I’m saying is, we stuff something inside me. Something like a megahuge fire spirit, and we let me blaze a trail. Literally. And maybe we make them poop their fancy lawyer suits a bit.”
“Someone to lead the way,” the High Priest said. “There’s worse choices than him, if he’s properly equipped.”
“Uh huh,” Evan said.
“I could do that,” the Elder Sister said. “It wouldn’t last, if you’re leaking like you say you are, but I could do it.”
“Let’s make it happen!” Evan said.
“I might have something to contribute,” the Astrologer said. “If I use my dipper sign to refresh the swan sign, given that you’re a bird…”
“Why are we even still talking!?”
Rose and Alister each pulled on one door, just peering around the edges.
The lawyers were gathered. With them were motes, all the ones that had survived the first conflict, along with a few more. But they were joined by no less than three demons. Each was spaced out, and diagrams marked the snow, melted in, forming dark lines where pavement and burned grass were revealed.
Where there weren’t diagrams, the tumorous imp had blighted the ground in broad patches. The road was cracked and pitted, trees had fallen and now hosted clusters of diseased flesh, and snowy lawns had been poisoned, turned into noxious marsh. The poison there could quite likely kill a man with a touch, and it still festered, still spread centimeter by centimeter.
One demon in a female guise, her body twisted, enclosed in what looked like three cubes that had bitten into flesh. Her head-cube rattled, shuddering, jittering, the orientation moving.
Another, broad in the shoulder, mouth yawning perpetually wide, as if its jaw were broken. It wore human flesh like a shroud, a twisted mass of skin and muscle piled over and around the shoulder, over the head, a twisted mask where the eye and mouth holes of another individual’s face aligned with the dark, burned face beneath. The eyes glowed, and Rose instinctually averted her own eyes away from them. The ‘clothes’ of human flesh it wore moved and twitched, an eyeball that looked to be a heartbeat from falling from the socket moved, looking in another direction.
The third was narrow, a thin androgynous figure, wearing clothes that looked like they had been sewn together around it. Corset thin, with voluminous sleeves, it had a thin mouth, no hair, and an oddly small nose. The eyes, conversely, were overlarge.
Rose had almost expected a horde, but three demons was more than scary enough. If they were anything like Ur or the Barber…
Everyone in the church was taking cover, staying out of the line of sight of the door.
Evan hopped up a bit, the sole exception. In plain view, just a little bit behind the mat for drying and scraping boots, just inside the door.
Lights flared around him. The Astrologer had removed some of the rigging she wore, laying it out on the floor.
Fire ignited, lighting up a trail of accelerant, drawing lines around Evan.
He swelled in size. From something that weighed less than a full glass of water to something the size of a small dog, then a large dog.
His feathers glowed at the edges, like the edges of burning paper on a cigarette.
Evan laughed, and as he grew, the laugh swiftly took on a tone, deeper, almost guttural.
He spread his wings, continuing to grow.
“Yes!” he said, and it was more a man’s voice than a child, gravely, a hair from being a roar.
A bit of the influence from the Eye, which was being tapped as a power source.
The feathers ignited in full. The flames poured off him, and they fell on the mat and the diagram.
“Go!” the Elder Sister shouted. “Before you incinerate all of us, for the love of-“
He took off, and in the doing, he stirred sparks and flame.
Fire poured off him in a steady stream, splashing out onto snow and street.
A hundred feet away, they could still hear the deep, powerful laughter.
Ms. Lewis gestured, and Rose’s Sight could see the connections forming, snapping out, lashing around Evan.
He slipped free as if he were oiled, turned, and let the fire spill down over top of the lawyers and the one female demon toward the front. It fell on and around Ms. Lewis.
The Elder Sister was right behind, gesturing, extinguishing the fire just past the door.
The Sphinx and Briar Girl were the next ones out. Briar Girl gestured, and hands reached out of the snow, figures raising themselves up and out. Her familiar perched on her shoulder, then leaped down, swelling in size, taking on feral qualities.
Evan’s laugh rang through the town. Where the effect that kept the city dark still lingered, his movements created light, parting clouds as he rose higher, wings spread.
He flew past them again. Flames dropped, pouring over another rank of practitioners and devils. A second attempt at binding him failed.
Rose felt Blake stir, warning.
Can’t let him go out in flames, she thought.
She joined the next group out through the doors.
Have to find a gap. Or make one.
Enemy practitioners burned and continued to burn, staggering or crawling away from the fire. Here and there, an enemy practitioner simply burned, and the fires kept them burning, locking them in place.
But the demons – the thin one with the clothes struggled, backing away, but the others remained unaffected.
The one with the cloak of flesh opened its mouth wider, and it screamed.
All rational thought and sanity fled Rose’s mind at the sound, and she wasn’t alone in that. Nowhere close to alone. Even Evan the firebird plummeted from the sky.
The last coherent thought she had was a realization. She’d anticipated that the lawyers would make them turn back, breaking the charge before crushing the residents of Toronto and Jacob’s Bell underfoot.
Her mistake had been assuming that the lawyers would make it a choice in any way, shape or form.