The steering controls were handed over. Considering that the vehicle in question was still moving, it made for something of a stumble.
Green Eyes was far enough ahead in the tunnel that she’d had to stop to let others catch up, just out of reach of Paige’s light. Her eyes glowed in the gloom. Though her eyelids were functionally useless, her facial structure suggested a widening of the eyes.
Her teeth flashed whiter in the gloom, in part because the lips were pulling back in a smile, in part because Paige and the rest of us were drawing closer.
I could feel a stab of pain. I stumbled. My hand touched a wall, and made contact with rough earth. Not soft enough to crumble, but dirty, gritty.
Not really my hand.
Not my body. Rose was smaller than I had been, back when I’d been flesh. She was heavier than I’d been when I’d been sticks and bones. It was an awkward middle ground, and in the midst of it, buried inside, was Rose’s metaphorical heart. She was scared, and in occupying her body, I experienced that fear.
There were Others who did the possession schtick that liked the fact that they could experience raw human emotion and use it to educate themselves on what worked and what didn’t. I didn’t like it at all. It wasn’t the fear that had gripped me, once, being afraid of being bound down, or having someone get close enough to manipulate me, forcing me to back away and keep moving to avoid either of the two things from happening.
Rose’s fears were something else altogether. A fear of the outside world, of people. A fear that permeated everything to some degree. Suspicion and paranoia.
I could see how our progenitor might have functioned before. With this, and with everything I’d experienced, he would have been left with no place that felt comfortable, nobody to turn to. Only a few patches of safety where he could operate on a more normal level. Toronto. Friends from Toronto.
It was too easy to think that the Barber had made us more functional, portioning out the crippling fears. But recognizing that that just wasn’t possible meant facing facts. If I’d done what I wanted to do, just escaping, traveling, I probably wouldn’t have looked after myself in the long run. I’d have resented having to stay somewhere to work to get gas for my bike, food to eat, and I would have been afraid of roots setting in too deep, or getting sick. There was no way for that future to be as free as I’d wanted it to be.
Rose was due another kind of misery. She was meant to survive. To outlast the rest of us. Was it a kind of mercy to others that made grandmother isolate her? Dooming Rose to a relatively quiet, lonely life?
Oh, right there. I felt it, and I knew Rose felt it too, looking outward from within, as I’d done with her. Anger.
The anger was mine.
With the anger came more changes, and more pain. Tattoos crawled over skin, and where they surfaced, they pierced the skin, reaching out and over. A covering, like a second skin.
I lost control of my movements again, as branches came out of skin at the legs. This time, I bumped into Mags.
To give her credit, she didn’t really freak out. Beyond the initial surprise at being blindsided by a staggering branch-woman, she was fast enough to reach out and offer a steadying hand, her fingers finding leverage in the mesh of overlapping branches.
Paige saw, though. She made an incoherent noise and backed off, eyes wide. The light in the tunnel flailed wildly for a moment as she dropped her hand.
“Oh, look at that,” Peter said, smiling. He seemed to be taking far too much joy in being able to keep his cool while his sister was shocked.
With the movement of Paige’s light, the entire group had come to a stop. Green Eyes and the vestige children had stopped, further ahead.
“Is she okay?” one of the children asked.
“She’s bleeding,” Paige said.
I looked down at my hand. The branches were rippling beneath gloves, and I worked to pull the gloves off before they could tear, tucking Rose’s machete under one arm.
In places where the branches and extra bones were punching through the flesh, the flesh was red and raw. In other places, the flesh had been scraped or cut, and trails of blood were leaking out, coloring flesh crimson where the branches had yet to emerge.
I flexed my hand, very aware of how the branches were heavier in some spots than others. It was more like my hand than Rose’s, if I squinted, looking past the fact that portions were dark, dry wood and portions were blood-slick skin.
“I am,” I said, and my voice sounded like a jarring hybrid of Rose’s voice and my own.
“You being… Rose?” Ainsley asked. “Or Blake?”
“Blake,” I said it at the same time Mags did.
“Blake!” Evan said, bouncing in place at a point behind the group. “Oh man! I’d give you a hug if I had arms and if I wasn’t on fire and if you weren’t so gross and bloody and is Rose okay?”
Finding Rose was difficult, given how every building block of this body had ‘Rose’ stamped onto it. Or, more specifically, the building blocks had ‘Rus-‘ stamped on them, and the smudges and damage made it look enough like Rose that it sort of worked.
I felt her, and I felt how she was hurt. My surfacing had put holes in her body and it had done a degree of damage to her being.
I felt raw, I felt strange, having given up whole pieces of myself, and I knew that I’d been damaged by my close interactions with Rose. Now she was within me, and the dynamic had been inverted.
“Rose is… she wanted to do this,” I said. “I get the body and the fear and she gets to operate free and clear and pull together the things we need to.”
“But is she okay?” Ainsley asked. “She was supposed to be my future sister in law. I’m kind of obligated to ask.”
“No,” I said, “she’s not okay.”
Ainsley was very still.
I left the second part of my sentence unsaid. And what will you do about it?
Maybe someone was about to say something. It was hard to tell, but I hunched over and convulsed. More branches pierced the flesh to embrace my torso.
Before they could fully emerge, I grabbed and tore away the jacket and part of the sweater-blouse combo. The reaching branches destroyed what I couldn’t remove in time.
I tried to catch my balance, but even with support from Mags, I still dropped to one knee.
More blood and blood loss.
“This might not have been wise,” Ainsley said, belaboring the obvious.
“Rule of thumb,” I said. I managed to get to my feet. “If I’m involved, wise isn’t the word you’re looking for.”
“Blake,” Paige said. She was pale.
“We’ve met,” I said. “You don’t remember, but we’ve met.”
“I’ve pieced things together from what Isadora told me and what’s been said, but meeting you is another thing altogether,” Paige said. She seemed to center herself, and she focused on positioning and providing the light, though she didn’t take her eyes off me.
I looked at her too, and it was chilling to realize I felt nothing. Paige and Molly and I had once been close. I knew it, objectively, and I now knew that the memories were unbalanced. But they were memories were more Rose’s than mine.
Playing dress-up or going to the playground down the street from Uncle Charles’ house or any of the other stuff, it was all largely meaningless.
Looking at the human faces around me, very few meant anything at all. People.
Only Mags stood out, and even that was tenuous.
Still, I felt the need to say something.
“Aren’t you glad our grandmother put you dead last for succession?” I asked Paige. My voice was still broken. Partly mine, partly Rose’s.
“Probably the nicest thing she ever did for you,” Peter commented.
“Don’t think I don’t remember what you said, back then,” Paige said.
“You’re right! Nicest thing I’ve done for you, too.”
The changes were still ongoing. Getting me to the point where I’d been after my epiphany down in the Drains. I twisted my neck as the branches climbed it, trying to stay more limber.
But where I’d been empty, before, now I was a cage that housed a largely paralyzed, terrified body. Branches crawled in and throughout the body and formed the exterior covering, which I had more control over. Rose didn’t house the body, but her emotions did.
“Are you good to keep moving?” Lola asked, without an iota of sympathy in her voice.
“Maybe,” I said.
“Because our best advantage right now is that the lawyer that’s chasing us is on foot above ground, and there is stuff in the way, and our way here is mostly clear. If we can get ahead of him, that has to count for something. I don’t think we will, but I’d like to at least try.”
I started forward, and my footsteps were lurching ones. I stopped and pulled off the first of Rose’s boots, and felt the wood grow from the softer, more sensitive parts of the foot, reaching for the ground.
When I set my foot down, the branches splintered, broke, and bent, and were fixed in place by yet more pieces of wood and shards of bone.
I did the same with the other foot.
This time, as I ran, I was faster. The strength was mine, an unnatural sort.
I could have done with being lighter, but I was more mobile, all the same.
As we progressed, the humans naturally fell behind. I found myself in the company of Green Eyes, the vestige kids, and the goblins.
Somewhere in the midst of it, Evan caught up with us. He was about four feet tall, and he still burned, but the trail of fire behind him was intermittent, only really appearing when he pushed himself to catch up.
“Our goal is to clear the way,” I said. “Vestige kids, show us the path, help the others, but whatever happens, stay away from the sorcerer. His pipes pull you under his control. Evan? It’s very possible that includes you too.”
“Be awesome. Stay on the perimeter. Hold back the threats. There will be work to be done here.”
“I tackle the biggest threat. Green Eyes? Cover my back and flanks.”
“Yes,” she said.
“Goblins,” I said… I paused. “Be goblins.”
“Can-” one goblin started. He hesitated, “Can I have… that?”
He was pointing.
I pulled the article of clothing away from my shoulder, where it had caught on a length of wood. A bra.
“No,” I said. “No you cannot.”
I felt something stir within me. It felt like the birds had, moving within, but considerably larger. Rose was trying to push me to say or do something.
Did she want me to give the goblin her bra?
“It’s for morale,” the goblin said. “If-”
“No,” I said, ignoring Rose’s stir protest. It hurt, in much the same way the branches poking through the skin had hurt both skin and branch.
“You’re going to kill the monsters the Barber made because that’s what you do best. You are made for this. Be violent, be vicious, be wanton, you’ll probably never get an occasion quite like this where you’ll be encouraged to cut loose like this. Those creatures up there have been carved up by a demon, and they’re weaker, in many respects. Other stuff was highlighted as stuff was carved away, but Rose thinks of them as wretches. They’re weak, you pick on the weak. Be thorough, cut them down and put them down.”
One or two goblins grinned at me. Hard to tell in the dark.
“You know you’re dealing with goblins when a good pre-battle speech for the goblins demoralizes everyone else,” Mags said.
“What are we doing?” Ainsley asked.
“Get into the practitioner’s tower,” I said. “Run interference if you can do it without dying, but focus on getting to a place where you can be practitioners and work your mojo. If it looks like you’re going to die, try to take a few of them down with you, or slow them down.”
“You’re a hell of a lot more vocal than Rose,” Peter observed. “It’s almost reassuring, except for the ‘going to die’ part.”
I frowned, my eyes facing forward, at the endless darkness of the tunnel. Rose’s bundled clothes were tucked under one arm, the machete was in the other. I didn’t plan on keeping the clothes, but I wasn’t ignoring the possibility that I could throw them at someone or something.
I answered Peter’s comment, “She’s been busy thinking. Like this, she’s mostly free to piece things together, without outside distractions. I’ve just spent far too long being forced to sit and wait, wanting to help and being unable to. I’m ready.”
“I asked Rose, but she didn’t give me an answer before you showed up,” Lola said. “Is there a plan?”
“Remember that we can do this,” I said.
“That’s not an answer,” she said.
“She’s putting it together,” I said. “I was there in the background, watching her work at it. It’s predicated on a few simple ideas.”
“Do tell,” Lola said, sounding less than pleased. I suspected the pressure was getting to her.
“I did,” I said. “Remember that we can do this. That’s the basis behind the plan. The demons are essentially Faerie. Everything is Faerie.”
Our running footsteps marked the silence that followed.
There was a screeching roar from above us, the sound of metal tearing.
“I am super duper sorry, I really am,” Evan said. “But you’ve got crazy, Blake. Really crazy.”
“I’m sorry that I said it,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over my protest, the words tremulous where the alcohol affected them, “But it’s got to be said! You’ve lost it!”
“I’m not crazy,” I said. “We challenge them the same way we challenge glamour. This is about belief. It’s about breaking from the conventions that shackle us. Humans and practitioners have a massive amount of power, and this is why the lawyers are doing what they’re doing. Rose and I caught on, but we didn’t buy into their deal and jump on board with them. Johannes caught on, and Faysal and the lawyers both went after him to take advantage of it. Humans are architects of change, and this threatens them to the point that they have to respond. They’re worried, and what we need to do is make those worries justified.”
“Oh,” Evan said. “What?”
“Easier said than done,” Mags said.
“Hell of a lot easier said than done,” I said.
“Push forward, do what you can. Keep an eye out and your mind open for possible chinks in the armor.”
“And some of us will even do it while wearing bras on our heads!” the small goblin cried out.
Rose nudged me.
I hooked the bra strap from the bundle of torn clothes I had under one arm and tossed it to the goblin, who cackled merrily.
“We’re close,” Noah said.
I could see what he saw. A shaft of light leaked through a gap in the tunnel roof.
I could hear noises too, feel the tunnel vibrating slightly with the footsteps overhead.
Rose reshuffled memories. The memory she gave me was a heavy one, the sort of memory that burdened.
Her, inside Conquest’s tower, trapped.
The tower? I thought.
She was better at manipulating the memories than I was. The image shifted, an emphasis. A scrap of cloth on the edge of the tower, billowing in the wind. White.
No, white was Conquest’s color. Not surrender.
The vision stayed. Rose, alone at the top of the tower, no exit, no good surface to scale. Even if she’d tried, there was no point in it. It was Conquest’s territory.
I see it. What am I supposed to do with it?
The image she showed me was one of the first I’d seen out of her eyes.
Johannes, emerging from the hole in the world that had swallowed up Hillsglade House and formed the Library. Not him. He held the pipes and the shears.
The memory came with the realization. He was the Barber.
“Here,” Noah said, interrupting my thoughts.
Rose had hated those interruptions. I was more willing to go with the flow.
“Here,” Noah said, again. “It was supposed to be here.”
We’d reached the end of the tunnel. It simply stopped. There was a barrier, with eroded concrete blocks worked into the soil.
“It’s his demesne,” Lola said. “He gets to decide the layout. That we got this close and got stopped… it’s…”
“A massive cockblock,” Peter threw in.
“I was going to say deliberate,” Lola clarified.
“It’s both,” I said.
“We need up and out,” Noah said. “It’s supposed to go up and into a church. This isn’t it.”
“The nearest church is a bit away,” Paige said.
“Oh, the demon doesn’t want a church so close to home? Who’d’ve thunk it?” Peter asked. Ainsley elbowed him, and he shot her an annoyed look. “Stop doing that. Seriously. I’m not good for much more than joking around and offering very basic observations to you jerks, in case you lose sight of the forest for the trees or the trees for the forest or however it goes. Until you come up with something better for me to do, let me have this.”
“If Blake is right,” Paige said, “Then you’re an important tool here. You’re more human than any of the rest of us. That counts for something.”
He opened his mouth, and she cut him off. “And yes, I did call you a tool. Grow the fuck up. I’m not in the mood for it.”
I looked around, and I stabbed the machete into dirt to try and see if anything could be uncovered. It was fairly thorough.
“Well?” Evan asked me.
I looked back at the group.
Ainsley was already stepping forward. “Our job, right?”
Her candle was already lit, joining Evan and Paige in lighting up the area, and she advanced to the tunnel’s end, stepping carefully past Green Eyes and the goblins. She stabbed the wall with the candle, and drew a circle with the softer wax.
She shook the candle, hard, and it returned to its full length. With her other hand, she pressed a pocketwatch to the center of the circle.
I could hear the rapid ticking sound that went hand in hand with chronomancy.
“Let’s see if we can get it the way it was,” she said. “Preferably leading up into where we need to be, not into the church.”
The wall distorted, the circle twisting, opening ever wider, like a gate.
“Shit!” Ainsley said. “He’s aware!”
That word, coupled with the fact that we were in a tunnel, proved to be warning enough. We scrambled back, but the dirt above us was already coming down, billowing into choking thick clouds as it touched the floor of the tunnel.
It seemed to take five minutes before the dirt was done falling. It wasn’t actually five minutes, but time yawned on forever when one was being rapidly buried alive.
The dirt and dust still came down in clumps and trickles as I raised my head. I’d stooped over, and I’d done it with Green Eyes beneath me. She was curled up, contorted into as small a shape as she could manage beneath my shoulders, head and chest. In the oppressive darkness, her eyes seemed especially bright.
Looking past green Eyes, I could see Ainsley lying limp in the midst of the fallen dirt. A hole had opened above her, and the hole was ringed with figures. Many of their eyes glowed too. Countless figures there were broken as the four vestige children had been, but the damage was far more severe. The Barber had carved them into pieces, and spirits had flowed in to fill the gaps, making them more like rodents, more like mangy dogs, more like children, in places. Features were distorted and warped.
I forced myself to straighten, a hundred pounds of dirt sliding off my back and shoulders, and Green Eyes lunged, crawling readily and easily over and through dirt.
Evan was right after her.
He knows. Johannes did, the Barber did.
I shot a look behind me, as goblins worked their way free of dirt that ranged from knee to hip depth, using my own body to gauge. For them, it had completely and utterly buried them. Some goblins were bleeding from fallen stones.
The group behind hadn’t been hit as hard. The further back they were, the less dirt there was.
I knew that Green Eyes and Evan were engaging in the fight, but I still let the bundle of clothes fall and reached for Ainsley. I hated to move her, but I knew that if I didn’t, there would be no way to save her. I pulled her free by the most direct means I could, then turned to place her behind me, so she wasn’t right beneath the opening and eager attackers.
Machete in hand, I threw myself forward.
The little warrior.
Reckless, savage, built to destroy myself in battle, and take Rose’s enemies down with her. A viking berserker, without the viking, the anger a much different sort. Buried.
The wretches, whatever I’d said, weren’t weak. The Barber, by vice of being a demon, was capable of breaking rules, and one rule was apparently that he could carve away weakness.
One half left feeble, the other half left strong.
One half left cunning, the other half left dimwitted.
I wasn’t used to this body. How it moved, where the strength lay. How to fight when I wasn’t lightweight, or when I couldn’t practice in between the exchanges of blows.
I would have liked to say I put up a good fight. I didn’t. From the outset, it was an uphill battle. I went after the biggest threat, which was a vestige of a large, heavyset man. His face had broken, and the spirit that lay within him was that of a screaming infant, streaked with mucus, scaled to size. Twisted, oddly proportioned, entirely out of place on his frame, peering past a face that had shattered like porcelain yet still proved capable of bleeding when I nicked it with the machete.
He swung, and I tried to get out of the way. A fraction too slow. With an overlarge fist, he clubbed me. I felt branches break, and fell to one side, landing amid dirt and shattered pavement, just beside where the tunnel had caved in.
Within moments, I was set upon by two smaller wretches. They grabbed for my weapon and the clothes that I had that still remained, and they inadvertently held me down while the overlarge baby-faced man approached.
He brought a meaty fist down, striking me clean in the chest, breaking more branches and bones, then another.
Evan flew past, and the flames and sparks streaked the wretch’s face. The thing screamed, howling in pain.
I hauled the machete closer to me, bringing a scrawny wretch closer with the gesture, then smashed my forehead into the wretch’s face. I stabbed the other wretch before it could scramble back.
I tried to climb to my feet and I failed to do it before the other wretches tackled me. I had a disorienting moment where the fear that ran through Rose’s body slowed me down even more, before I found the simultaneous adrenaline surge to pull free. I twisted around and swung the machete. Not as clean or pretty as it was in the movies. It cut deep for the first two I struck, and left only a graze on the third. Another wretch was already behind me, grabbing at the elbow of my swinging arm. The larger baby-faced wretch was holding one meaty hand to its face, glaring at me with a disproportionately large, rheumy eye.
Green Eyes was in much the same situation I had been in, but she was more effective like that. Her scales and skin were slick, she did damage just through contact, and she had fangs and claws. She didn’t need the reach or space to swing her arm like I did.
Evan strafed the crowd, still just large enough to fight off any wretch that grabbed him, burning on contact, even though he wasn’t leaving a trail of flame behind him.
The goblins were here and there, doing just what I’d ordered them to. Where some of us struggled in the chaos, the goblins reveled in it. They were completely and utterly at home in the midst of all this. They cut and butchered, found weak points and went after them with no hesitation. Just the opposite. With eagerness.
But our enemies were seemingly endless. We were in the middle of a street, not forty paces from the tower, and the bodies had emptied out of every building, as if there were a festival going on. I couldn’t find a gap any wider than an armspan in the midst of the crowd.
Worse than I’d anticipated.
Worse, going by the stirring inside, than Rose had anticipated. It had looked more manageable from a distance.
Or maybe the Barber was drawing them all closer to him.
It wasn’t like the Abyss, I noted. Where the Abyss had been almost eager to destroy and wear away, this was utterly nihilistic. Bleak, more than savage. The wretches destroyed themselves as much as we destroyed them, and it didn’t matter in the slightest, because they covered the streets around us, as far as I could make them out.
I stabbed the great baby-faced wretch in the general vicinity of the heart, swung low to cut at the side of the knee, more a vertical cut than a horizontal one, then spun to shake off others and carve blindly into the crowd. I was separated enough from the others that I didn’t have to worry about accidentally cutting one of them.
One slash of the machete proved too slow. A wretch closed in, and I hit him with my forearm rather than the blade. More closed in, swamping me. Among them was a goblin, biting at a wretch’s spine, pulling free with a bit of bone and strings of flesh clamped in its bulldog jaws.
Not a goblin that I’d seen in the group below. Mags had called it up or called it out or done something, I had little doubt.
Even with the help, we were drowning. This wasn’t water, but we were still drowning.
Light shone, and I knew it was Paige. A beacon, directed to blind the wretches more than it blinded the rest of us.
I wasn’t sure it helped, because even if it only affected me one tenth of the amount it affected everything else, I was left blind, dealing with five or six blind wretches who were trying to pull me to pieces.
Still, if I squinted, it was an avenue for the practitioners to come to the fore, emerging from below. Peter had Ainsley.
I fought free of the weaker wretches, and rather than try to establish space around myself to swing the machete, stabbed the back of a larger one that looked like it was readying to pounce on Green Eyes. It had once been part cat, part woman, it looked like.
The others were saying something, forming battle ranks. Lines drawn out, a perimeter that forced the wretches back. But for every one I cut down, there was another to replace it. I was locked in place.
The lawyer with the hound was there. Fighting Evan.
No, I thought.
I’m too slow, I thought.
Sorry, Rose, I thought.
There was no reply.
I’d changed, my self coming in enough to fill in the spaces around Rose which weren’t enough like me. But I’d stopped there.
I could push for more.
I had Rose in the center. I knew that there was no way to take strength for myself without drawing from her. Just as she’d drawn power from me. Different types of well.
I pushed. As a bogeyman, I’d been hollow. There had been spaces in me one could see through.
Now, as I focused on the matter, I established similar spaces. Much like how birds had hollow bones. I was a shell with Rose inside, and now there were points that one could see through both the shell and Rose.
Almost from the point I made the decision, the dynamic changed. Where one enemy had stepped up to replace every one I cut down, I was now making fractional headway. For every sixth or seventh wretch I struck at, I could make a gap.
With a gap, and a few more spaces made within, I could make headway.
The lawyer reached out and grabbed Evan. The man’s eyes were deep yellow, his hair wild, scruff on his chin, and he seemed immune to the pain as his hands boiled and burned with Evan’s flames.
I was too far away.
Come on, come on.
With headway, I could build momentum.
I pushed past a lesser wretch, hit a wall of the big ones. I barreled into them, cutting to drive them to either side.
I reached the lawyer, and I didn’t get a chance to swing at him, nor the hellhound he was trying to offer Evan up to.
I swung for the chain.
He knew in an instant, what I’d done.
A gesture, and the hound was gone, midway through opening its jaws to take a piece out of its one-time master.
Held in only one hand, Evan was freed.
I stabbed the lawyer.
I stared him in the eye, oblivious to the wretches around me who were clawing at me, trying to drag me down.
He wouldn’t go down with just that. Not with a cut.
I twisted and broke the machete’s blade.
I stabbed him with the broken remainder.
Spikes impaled my hand.
The machete changed.
I’d left the Hyena back in the Abyss, a symbolic gesture, almost.
Now it was back. As much a denizen of the Abyss as I was.
I pulled away, leaving the lawyer a wound he couldn’t recuperate from.
I cut him again, and turned to fight once more against the tide.
Others were shouting, pointing.
In the distance, blades were piercing the earth.
The same scissor blades as before. Striking the people furthest away, then the next line, then the next. The Barber altering his demesne.
Blood roaring in ears that weren’t mine, surrounding by screams and utter death, I fought my way for the tower.
We have to remember we can do this, I thought.
The others were there, ready to enter the building, but in the instant they got that far, blades appeared to block the door, like crossed spears to wall the others off.
The Barber was going to do everything it could to dissuade us of that notion.