Cannot truly think, can only observe. Detached, while my body staggers, hands on a person’s back, as they kneel with bare fingers of their one hand clutching snow. A table for me to lean on.
The streets run with blood. Horizon to horizon, land to sky. I watch, we watch, a broken portion of my Self and I, and we see it flow and spurt from cracks in between things. From the places where tree meets snow and sidewalk meets snowbank. Between clouds and sky. Not clean blood, not fresh. Something rank and clotted, oozing from the cracks. Where it flows, the gaps are getting wider.
It assaults the eyes like the demon’s howl assaults the ears and mind. The howl pulls, tugs me from sense and reality, makes me ever more detached, my grip on things slipping, one metaphorical finger after another losing its hold. The scene of a town’s streets literally running with clotted blood makes the world a place I don’t want to be.
That shattered part of me that scrapes me raw inside has withdrawn from my eyes and ears and awareness, leaving me alone to fight this. Pulled away from the world by the ears and pushed away by the eyes.
One demon burns, still. Another two advance, while their enemy is insensate. One to split the head in two, its sound like axe blades striking each ear, cutting deep enough to touch grey matter. Another to break the world around us.
The imps have taken to the air. Circling overhead, unwilling to get between their betters and us.
The demons come, and with every movement they promise that whatever torment we experience now, we’ll experience worse when they have us.
Everyone who stepped outside the church has fallen. Even the powerful ones. They kneel and lie face down in viscera and old blood.
When I move my head, my hair gets in the way, and my mind can’t keep up with the way things move as my eyes travel, stuck one step behind.
Cold wind touches tracks of tears I hadn’t realized existed.
I hear voices. Some inside the church, where people are still protected. Even with that protection, they are struggling, protesting, joining their screams to the howls.
The smell is so foul it fills my nose and lungs. I’m certain that if I swallow, I will vomit. If I breathe too deep, or look too closely at anything, I will lose it.
Can’t think, only observe, can’t gather my faculties to move. No help is being offered, though I can feel my other inside, rummaging, getting more frantic with every passing moment. Emotionless, dead, it is still more lively than I am.
The demons approach, wading through patches of flame, and with each step, the screaming gets louder.
A gunshot rings through the air. The noise, violent and painful from only ten feet away, is still clean, ice water when I’m boiling, or scalding flame when I am freezing.
I’m aware of a figure in the door. When I look, my eyes won’t focus. My world spins around me, and I’m afraid at the core of my being that it will never right itself again. That, with a word, this demon has taken my reason and nothing can ever get it back.
The person in the door is female, athletic, not wearing a coat. She aims, and she fires again, and I want her to keep firing, to keep making my ears hurt and my vision swim, because it is better than what the demon is doing.
She says my name, and the sound is unfamiliar. She says something else, saying it to me, and for an instant, she is meat, venting sounds in odd pattern and cadence, and I know that she is a person, and I know that she is saying words, and even what those words are, but I am too far removed from everything to put it all together.
I try to move, but I very nearly slip on ground slick with blood.
I’ve just been given the ability to care, and now I’m left to watch and process it all as the demons have their way with us.
I can look at the lawyers, the ones that are still capable of standing after the fire are now a distance away, observing, utterly still.
The demons, on the other side of the street and steadily approaching.
I can’t face it. Nobody here can.
I think about using the Sight, looking inward, and following my counterpart as far as I can.
But this would be running. Admitting defeat.
Strange, how hard it is to ask.
Help, she asks.
The rummaging through my memories and experiences stops.
Where he once withdrew from what I saw and felt and heard, he now takes those stations again. He takes her eyes and ears and senses and equilibrium.
Rose blinked her eyes, once, twice, thrice. By the third time, they were no longer hers.
The world around her wasn’t bloody. It was icy, her foot had skidded on a spot where snow had been made too smooth and flat. The world was twisting, the gaps opening, things periodically stirring in those gaps, but that was something else altogether.
The scenery had been a trick of the senses, hallucination. An extension of the scream. It meant she still didn’t know what the she-demon with the great cubes of metal intersecting her body was capable of, but things at least made a degree of sense.
She could feel Blake’s pain and disorientation. Where she’d once clung for dear life to her reason and awareness, he was now weathering the storm. He was a filter, a barrier against the outside assault, in her eyes, her ears, and across her skin. Her face crawled, her skin felt like something moved beneath the surface, so many fingers sliding between epidermis and muscle. Like bruises or ink bleeding from a pen, patterns emerged on her wrists, between the sleeve of her coat and the bottom of her glove.
Branches and birds.
Just minutes ago, she’d outlined the benefits that the Barber had from possessing Johannes, that possession afforded one protections and the ability to blur the lines. If a demon possessed a human, it could dwell within and be largely human when dealing with that which would harm the demon, and emerge to be demon when it faced threats that would harm the human.
Blake exercised the same idea here.
“Rose!” Eva shouted, not for the first time. The witch hunter held a rifle.
Rose’s head snapped around. She wavered, a little disoriented.
Eva, Briar Girl, Roxanne, and the High Priest seemed to be the only ones who were weathering this onslaught. The demonic howling had brought everyone else to their knees. Even the sphinx lay on her side by the door.
The demons were so close. Right here.
“How do we stop them!?” Eva shouted. Somehow, Blake found the wherewithal to let the voice reach Rose, enduring the noise alone. Not even taking the respite of another sound to break up the terrible howling.
Rose hadn’t yet shaken the nausea that came with the original visions, or the sheer feeling of hopelessness. At the same time, she felt relieved, freed of the howl’s effect, almost giddy.
Blake’s efforts had helped, but she still lacked equilibrium. She wanted to laugh at Eva’s question.
How were they supposed to stop the demons?
She could remember an excerpt from the texts. It was framed like a joke, but not the sort anyone laughed at.
“The choir of darkness is the worst choir to deal with, because you can’t cast the light to banish them without also casting deeper shadows. You can’t use creation against them when you can’t even see.
“The choir of madness is the worst choir to deal with, because they’re opposed by symbols, symbols are subjective, and they steal all subjectivity from the subject.
“The choir of ruin is the worst choir to deal with, because they’re opposed by structure, and how was one supposed to construct when the foundation was ruined?”
And so on, all of the way through the various choirs. The Barber had proved that last point when it had destroyed Alister’s circle-in-progress.
The demons crashed into a crowd of Briar Girl’s feorgbold.
The female demon with the great iron cubes replacing much of her head, part of her torso, and the entirety of one hand and forearm swung the hand-cube into the crowd. Where flesh met iron, there was a mingling of bloodstains, scabbing, and rust. Sometimes the rust touched flesh, and sometimes it was the cube that was stained with scabs.
Briar Girl dropped, hard and fast enough that her hands didn’t even move to catch her or soften the blow as she met the floor.
Rose could see the Briar Girl’s familiar, a distance away, hunched over, rippling between forms, unable to settle, becoming more nightmarish by the second. It had been doing that since the howling started.
Now it calmed, and Briar Girl, lying prostrate, drew herself into a fetal position, nails biting into her arms as the howling assaulted her.
As Blake was doing, the spirit had absorbed the howling, initially. Now it was making the Briar Girl do the same, freeing it to act.
It flew at the demons like an eagle, with all the mass and ferocity of a bear, and the savagery of a mad wolf.
It evaded the swinging iron cube, and it tackled the howling demon, clawing deep.
Physical wounds wouldn’t do, but it tried.
“We need symbols!” Rose shouted. “Symbols for the howling one!”
“Can’t hear you!” Eva shouted, barely audible over the howling, even with Blake trying to dampen the noise, absorbing it himself.
The howling demon seized its attacker, and the nature spirit vibrated, screaming transmitted along the demon’s arms to its captive. The spirit moved at a speed and manner that made it distort.
There might be an answer in the midst of all of it, but Rose was still reeling. At her best, she could plan ahead a step, each step along the way. The problem was when she missed a step, as she had when the howling had been underway. Stride broken, she was scrambling to even begin finding an answer, and Blake was too preoccupied to supply one.
Only a few on the Jacob’s Bell side were still standing. Why?
Briar Girl had been sheltered, her spirit taking the brunt of the effect. Then shortly after Rose had recovered, it had switched around.
The High Priest worshiped a deity that included madness in his realm of control.
But Eva? Roxanne?
What made them special?
The demon of ruin swung its cube-fist overhead, down for the nature spirit. The attack was only barely dodged, and the strike hit the road.
The town shook, and the entire road cracked and shifted. One lawyer had to stumble back and away. Sections of road with flame on them alternately went partially out or blazed higher.
The spirit struggled to keep its footing. While it recovered, the demon of ruin barely seemed to care about the instability. It advanced, swinging again, and struck the spirit.
Hitting the thing hard enough that Rose could feel it like a hit in the chest from a baseball bat.
A bolt of electricity hit it. Rose could see the lights of the church and surrounding block die.
The Eye struck again. The demon staggered away, and the nature spirit familiar of Briar Girl’s limped back, shaking itself. It took on different forms with every step, but even with the limbs of a coyote, then a lizard, a bear, then a bird of prey, those limbs were shattered. It moved with the same grim tenacity that let a fox chew off a limb that was caught in a trap.
The defenders were reduced to Rose, the spirit, Eva, the Eye, the High Priest and a girl without the ability to practice against the pair of demons, imps circling overhead, on the lookout for opportunity.
No, as Rose looked around, she could see that there were others having varying degrees of success at withstanding the demon’s howl.
Why were various Thorburns doing better? Roxanne more than Ellie, Ellie more than Peter, the two of them more than Christoff. Most of the Thorburns were able to crawl, while many Behaims were utterly motionless, almost catatonic.
Alister wasn’t among those Behaims. He was on his hand and knees, head periodically moving, lips moving.
What made them special? What made the Eye similar to Roxanne? What advantage did Roxanne have over Christoff? The taint of the Abyss? No.
Roxanne and her cousin were close in age. But where Christoff was a bookworm, quiet, disciplined, less touched by the misery of the family than others, Roxanne had been embroiled in schemes and nastiness. Steeped in-
No, simpler than that.
Roxanne was fucked up, Rose knew. She had Blake’s memories of family, along with his memories of friends. Rose knew what he’d experienced when she’d been taken to the hospital, how he’d seen Roxanne operate. That Roxanne had very carefully armed herself.
Roxanne, the Eye, Eva, the Thorburns as a whole, all more unhinged.
More inured and experienced with the various shapes and forms that… what was the word? Not mental illness… mental unwellness. They were more familiar with mental unwellness, on both sides of the fence. In cases like Eva’s and the Eye’s, they were batshit nuts.
It fit with the way demons tended to operate. Damned if one did, damned if one didn’t. The only way to avoid being driven out of one’s mind was, well, to already be out of it.
Rose wanted to retreat, to return to the church, but that was exactly what the lawyers wanted. Any and all momentum was already lost, but to force a retreat, then crush the enemy under their heels? The lawyers were ready and prepared.
That demon of ruin wasn’t a particularly unfamiliar type. Chosen, quite possibly, for how it could destroy the practitioner even as it warred with the practitioner’s workings, it caused damage that rippled through connections to damage things and people close to the target. Damage the city a fraction by damaging the road. Damage Briar Girl by hurting her feorgbold zombies.
By damaging the people familiar with the church or the sanctuary the church provided, the demon could batter it down, or tear those still within to pieces.
She needed a solution to the howl. Injecting spirits into people could work, but that would take time, for each person.
Time they didn’t have. The Eye of the Storm wasn’t putting the demons down, even if it was suppressing them for the moment. It could hit one, but by the time the bolt of lightning or spray of flame struck the enemy, the other had more or less recuperated and started advancing again.
Only a good ten paces from Rose, now. Beyond reason and rationale, she knew she couldn’t retreat without leaving Alister behind, and she wasn’t about to let the howling demon have him.
I’ve been infected by Blake’s muleheadedness, she told herself.
She flinched, closing her eyes, as a flash of light struck the howling demon, making it stagger. Twelve paces away, now.
But pain was only an illusion. It wasn’t truly something that could be harmed, it only wore the vulnerability to pain like it wore images conjured from the human subconscious. Its internal directive to bring everything to madness would win out long before damage did anything.
Bending down, Rose tried and failed to drag Alister. Not strong enough, and he was more like a cold, wet sack of potatoes than anything she could carry, awkward in all the worst ways when it came to being moved.
Think, Rose, she thought.
Think. Can’t inject everyone with spirits, to put a barrier between their senses and their minds. Can’t retroactively make everyone more fucked up than they are.
No, wait. She could.
On both counts, she could.
“Jeremy!” she called out, and she tried to put power into the words, give them strength, pushing them along the few stable connections that remained, to ears that were still capable of hearing. “Get our people drunk!”
She managed to drag Alister another foot. The demon was closer to her than she was to the door, and it was advancing faster than she was retreating.
“I don’t have the favor to spare!” the High Priest bellowed the words.
“Get it!” she said.
The demon drew closer. All of the eyes on its cowl of warped flesh were fixated on her.
“Get it now!” she clarified.
Gunshots sounded, one after another. The demon barely flinched, even as bullets took chunks of flesh off its shroud, or put holes in its face and upper chest.
The witch hunter unloaded the first gun, shoved it into a holster, drew another, and proceeded to unload that one.
Eva’s head twisted to one side, her eyes averted, in the same moment she got within arm’s reach of the demon. Nothing to do with the flashes of lightning that seemed almost solely focused on the she-demon of ruin. She was enduring the howling, even if her natural mental imbalances made her more resilient to it.
But flinching and averting her eyes in the same moment she drew close?
“Look out!” Rose said, as the demon moved its hands.
The Witch Hunter stumbled back, eyes open but not seeing.
“Demon of madness and pandemonium!” Rose shouted the words, “Devils in this town obey the Thorburns! By my name, I order you to cease!”
The demon came to a halt, the howl still pouring from its mouth, weaker than before. Eva shook her head, trying to think clearly again.
Rose could hear the words of the lawyer that had summoned the howling demon, distant, almost inaudible.
Not quite so strong, but with a hell of a lot more cachet. The demon resumed moving, not two seconds after it had stopped.
But Rose had provided a window, and the witch hunter used it. Eva slashed her machete horizontally, dragging the blade across the demon’s chest. Following through on the same movement, she brought the machete down, dropping to her knees as the demon’s arms reached for her, catching only air. The witch hunter leaped back, casting the machete in Rose’s direction.
Not a gift, or anything like that. Eva just didn’t have the time to sheath the thing, and tossing it to Rose was just as easy as letting it fall to the ground.
Reaching into her back pocket, Eva drew something she’d scavenged from the church.
A simple wooden cross.
A symbol, Rose thought. She heard.
The demon had only just recovered from its failed grab. Now Eva moved, fluid and smooth, holding the cross out.
The demon backed away, now, redoubling the effort on its howl.
Blake was losing his grip entirely. In a heartbeat, he’d fail to weather the storm, and both he and Rose would be lost to the howl’s effects again.
The witch hunter had the means of warding off the demon, driving it back. She took things one step further. She touched the cross to the demon’s wounded chest, then brought a foot up, pinning it there, keeping it there as the demon dropped to its knees. Smoke billowed.
The witch hunter drew a third gun from within her open coat, and began firing it into the demon’s open mouth, trying to shut it up.
She’s utterly fearless, Rose thought. But that lack of fear echoed Blake’s. It wasn’t a healthy thing, it was a sign of something missing.
“Won’t hold!” Rose shouted. “Get back!”
Eva kicked, pushing herself away from the demon, leaving the cross there, fused with melted flesh. The demon reached for the cross, but the hands were forced away, as if repelled by magnets.
The witch hunter grabbed Alister under one arm, while Rose took the other, handless arm. Together, they dragged him back toward the door, near the point where the sphinx had collapsed. The Elder Sister was only a short distance away.
“…and as I delivered harm to my Sandra’s house, I accept harm to my own,” Jeremy was saying. “In exchange for the power to act now, I forfeit power over my demesne. Let it be something wild and uncontrolled, a garden untamed, and I will tend it. For this, give me favor.”
He met Rose’s eyes.
She drew a line in the snow, a plain circle around herself and Eva. She looked at Jeremy, then nodded.
“This favor I ask for now, is a bit of liquid courage for those who fight against the titanic evils,” Jeremy said. “Excepting my allies in the circle here, please.”
The effect spread, not touching Rose and Eva. One by one, the various fallen individuals roused.
Insensate, maybe, or a little insensate, but only enough to disturb the hold the howling demon had on them.
Alister looked over at Rose, started to rise, then winced.
He’d been on his hand and knees in snow, gloveless, so his hand was free to practice. Now his hand was numb.
Rose seized it in both of hers and held it fast as she pulled him to his feet. Held it after.
Lola. Peter. Paige. Ainsley. Green Eyes. Mags.
She checked on each, helping them rouse, focusing on those who were closest first. By the time she reached Ainsley, the fight outside had resumed in earnest. The Elder Sister was working with the eye, meeting destruction with raw destructive energy, striking imps out of the sky, where they were still wary of approaching or interfering with the other two demons.
The flames around the third demon had been banished by lawyers, and lawyers themselves were rousing.
We have to go now, or we might never get a chance, Rose thought.
Ainsley was taking the longest to rouse. The girl looked hollowed out, almost haunted.
The Sphinx still hadn’t risen. Paige was stroking fur, but got no response. The sphinx’s chest rose and fell, but the angle of her head and the sheer quantity of hair that had fallen in front of her face made her expression impossible to see. Armfuls of hair, really. Thick, luxurious, and on a head that was larger than most. Paige didn’t even try wrestling with it. She only touched onyx fur.
A descent into madness is a bigger fall for some than others, Rose thought.
Hopefully the sphinx would survive that fall, in the end.
Evan had taken to the air again, a streak of flame against an overcast sky.
He strafed the group of lawyers again, but this time he was warded off. A freshly drawn diagram in the snow glowed orange, and Evan was pushed away, the spill of fire dying before they touched ground.
He tried twice more before landing beside the Elder Sister and the Eye.
“That sucked!” Evan declared, putting a little too much emphasis into each word.
“Are you okay?” Rose asked.
“I feel powerful!” Evan boomed each word. “So good!”
“You’re drunk,” Jeremy said.
“Being drunk is awesome!”
The Eye and Sister’s efforts against the demon of ruin were failing. The demon had ceased approaching the church, and was now staggering off to one side. Not trying to make headway against the torrent of elemental energy that the two were capable of putting out, but moving toward the howling demon.
Ms. Lewis shouted something. Communicating to the diabolist by the ward that had stopped Evan.
Too late. The demon of ruin charged its fellow, and she slammed the cube-fist into the cross.
The howling demon was sent sprawling, and the one who had summoned it, off to one side, folded nearly in half.
Ms Lewis scowled, gesturing, her voice inaudible amid the howling, and she dismissed the demon of ruin on its summoner’s behalf. The cube-encrusted she-demon was banished, consumed by darkness.
Then she began uttering names.
Three. Three more demons, to join the two that remained.
“We have to go,” Rose said. Or we won’t get another chance.
“Go,” Alister said. He pulled his hand away from Rose’s grasp, flexed it, only revealing how stiff it was. “I… I’ll do what I can. My head’s swimming, but I’ve studied this. Protections.”
She checked over her shoulder, and she saw Emily. Fell’s niece, the little illusionist.
“We need to avoid being detected with the Sight,” Rose said.
Emily traced a sign in the snow. A rune.
“It won’t hold for long, but if you need to slip away, this is the thing. One for each of us. Or you can put it on an object to hide it.”
“We need it to hold,” Rose said.
“It’s going to burn up whatever fuel you give it,” Emily said. “I don’t know of much else. I’m still newish.”
“Then we’ll have to use old standbys,” Rose said. Lines of blood to break connections. It won’t keep us out of their sight forever. Maybe not at all. “Get those runes down, people. On your right hands.”
Rose frowned, glancing at the lawyers and the emerging demons.
“Go. Blaze a trail, Evan,” Rose said. “Watch the imps!”
The great firebird took off, leaving a stirring of sparks and cinders behind it with every flap of its wings.
He circled the church, fire spilling out from his tail feathers, then flew through a crowd of imps that were getting too close.
Fire splashed onto the street, near and around the lawyers, but the ward protected them.
Rose worked to draw out the symbols. Mags had already pricked a thumb and was drawing out symbols on the backs of Peter and Ainsley’s hands.
They were finished. Each held up their ungloved hands, marked with blood.
“Ready,” Rose said.
“No you aren’t. Wait,” the Elder Sister said.
More fire. More sparks. Evan was putting his all into it.
The three demons were emerging, rising from diagrams as if lifted by a platform from below.
“Wait,” the Elder Sister repeated herself.
“I’m ready,” Emily said.
“Wait,” the Elder Sister said, again, tense.
Evan completed another loop. Flames splashed onto the road.
The Elder Sister gestured, her ring flaring.
As if they’d been pushed by a great force, the flames parted, the bulk of them slamming up against the barrier the lawyer had erected.
“Go!” Rose and the Elder Sister said, at the same time.
Paige stumbled as she started running, wobbly with the Drunk’s inebriating blessing flowing through her veins. Peter and Ainsley caught her, held her firm until she had her balance.
As a group, the seven of them ran along the path that had been cleared, framed by fire on both sides.
Rose could see Mags’ face. Troubled, as she looked around her.
Was it because the flames were starting to close in again? The fires grew, feeding on nothing, and the path in front and behind became narrower.
Rose wracked her brain for runes she could put down to buy them time, to stop the flame or move them faster.
“The fires-” she started.
“Leave them,” Paige said.
“The power of tradition!” Peter said. “Burn the witch! And the handsome non-witch bystander!”
“Leave the fires alone,” Paige said, her voice low. “And shut up, do you want them to hear us?”
Rose could feel the heat of the flames as they closed in. There was scarcely a foot of ground between the two great swathes of burning ground, now. Her skin prickled and the air was getting too hot to breathe.
A few running steps later, she was running on patches of flame, and wondering if perhaps her hair or the soles of her shoes could ignite.
They were painfully close to the lawyers now.
Leaving everyone else behind, to try and form battle lines and defensive measures before they had to deal with five proper demons. The howler, the demon of the choir of darkness that had been in the fire, and the three new arrivals.
She picked up the pace, pressed on despite the intense heat.
All she could do was run harder and run faster, trying to resolve the situation as soon as possible.
The fire closed in, and it made contact.
It wasn’t any hotter than before.
They were immersed in fire, consumed by it, but they were left untouched, unburnt.
Surrounded by darkness, hidden by the illusion of bright flame, they forged onward. Past the lawyers, rounding a corner, leaving the flames behind.
To the Barber’s demesne.