Category Archives: 16.09

Judgment 16.9

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Each of the blades erupted from the ground as if it was stabbed up and through the surface by something that dwelt just below us.  Twice as tall as any of the denizens here, rusty, scuffed, but horribly sharp, roughly two out of the three blades were left coated in blood as they tore through members of the crowd, the occasional set scissoring closed with sprays of blood and dust.

The blades served two purposes.  They made more wretches, casting some into the air, causing the masses to stumble and pile up.  All by dividing them further.  Broken vestiges even before they were divided.

The second purpose was to form a barricade.  A ring of blades at the edges, ever-closing, and a barrier to block our entrance to the building.

Except there was more at play.  Our circle was filled.  Crammed full of wretches, many ex-human, a small few being ex-Other.  Mad, senseless, savage, driven toward violence and destruction without aim, but it was a pressure from every direction, and as the number increased at the edges, they surged forward, pushed by those behind.  The gaps narrowed and the ones still possessed of a glimmer of sense and sanity struggled to get away from the steadily-approaching eruption of blades.

Irony.  Scary, scary irony.

We were being bound.  Like bound by like.  Humans and others caught up in a sea of humans and others.  They pressed in on us from every direction and matched us in strength, by quantity if not quite by quality.

Even the mechanism wasn’t so different from how I’d dealt with Ur, how I’d theorized the mechanism for his ultimate defeat.  Create a perimeter, then gradually draw it closed.  Choke out those caught within.

There were screams and roars of pain all around us, but not so much it drowned everything out.  All the same, hearing was hard when every second meant I was trying to figure out where to place my feet, how to dislodge myself from wretches that had grabbed me, making sure I was still moving in the right direction, when I was being jerked this way and that.

Paige was shouting something.  I was pretty sure it was Paige, anyway.  Screaming orders, warnings.

A wretch that had originated from some savage, backwoods sort of Other snapped in my face.  Lipless, its face was predominated by thick triangular fangs each as long and wide as my hand.  With one arm grabbed, the other arm busy sticking the Hyena into the lower portion of the wretch’s stomach, I pulled my head back as far as possible, leaning on the crowd behind em.

I twisted the blade.  Something in the crowd behind me managed to dig into a space between branches to claw at Rose’s side, parting flesh with sharp nails.

Another snap of jaws, just shy of my face.  I twisted the blade further, shoved it in deeper, at a sharper angle, and the wretch’s head bowed.

I slammed my wooden forehead into the wretch’s flesh and skull, and it reeled back.  I hurled myself forward, away from the claws that were trying to scratch Rose and drove my head into the wretch’s chin, my hands still caught up in other struggles.

She -I was just now able to see the clues to its gender- toppled over backward, falling against the crowd in front of me, much as I had.  The difference was that she was much larger than I had been.  Her weight pushed smaller wretches down, just enough that her reaching hand couldn’t find solid ground to use to right herself.

I tore myself free of the crowd around me, swinging the hyena to cut at arms and hands that were reaching and seizing me, and set my foot on the fallen wretch’s ruined stomach.  I pushed myself up and forward, stepping on her chest, then the shoulder of another Other just behind her, facing the wrong direction.

I had the raw strength, I had a lower body weight to go with that raw strength.  I’d hoped to cover ground, moving over and on top of the crowd that was now pressing in so hard.

I made it three more carefully placed steps before something grabbed me by the ankle.  I toppled forward.  I didn’t try to stop myself from falling, or even to fall gracefully.  Neither was possible.  I brought the Hyena down into the neck of the biggest, most threatening looking wretch below me.

It was in the midst of this that Paige seemed very intent on communicating something very important.  I didn’t have the focus to spare to listen.

Rose, however, did.  I felt her move.  I was busy trying to deal with the fact that the wretch I’d stabbed was not the most dangerous one present, and one had clawed gauntlets instead of hands, and I knew that Rose was about to complicate the situation.

I badly underestimated just how much she was going to complicate it.

She couldn’t communicate directly, whispering into my head or whatever else.  She didn’t have the mechanisms for that, much as I hadn’t.  I’d suspected she’d shove a memory or experience from her share of things into me.  She didn’t.  She gave me something of my own.

Me and Carl, in the shelter.

Carl grabbing me.  Doing nothing else but talking.  Bringing matters to a head, after I’d spent weeks doubting myself, already on shaky ground before his arrival.  Forcing me to choose.

Would I turn my back on him, or would I plead to go back?

I’d made my decision, and I hated it.  Despised that I’d once been the person who would choose the latter.  Ever since, I’d fought to get further away from that person.  Fought it to the point that I’d turned my back on my humanity.

I knew the full story now, how we’d been put together.

After becoming a bogeyman, I’d convinced myself the scenario wasn’t real.  That I wasn’t real, and it was just a fabrication.

But Rusty, our progenitor, had gone through it.  It was real.

Now, knowing that, I faced it again.  I faced it and I knew that Rose saw.

That she’d looked through everything, in order to find that scene.

Me, giving up.

I remembered where I was, only just barely managed to move the Hyena to block one of the gauntlet-claws from disemboweling Rose, where she was nestled within me.

Paige was still shouting, only this time she was saying something about ‘toward the light’.  I’d missed the first portion, or the last portion.

Poor choice of words, that.

Rose was stirring, and something told me that she was about to hit me with the exact same vision.

Not helpful!

But I got the message, even if I didn’t understand it.

Give up.

With that thought, Rose relaxed.  She didn’t push, and she didn’t hit me with the memory again.

A second gauntlet came around, and the Hyena was already caught between the fingers of the gauntlet.  I brought my knee up to block the second grasping claw, and the wretch closed pointed fingers on my shin.

I could have pulled the Hyena free, stabbed.

Something clubbed me in the side of the head, and I lost my position, falling amid knees and feet in the crowd.

I was stomped.

I tensed, found leverage, fingers gripping the Hyena.

Rose hit me with another memory, before I could lash out.  Me, in a sleeping bag, beneath the bridge.  Attacked by a small mob of youths, younger than I was, almost savage in expression, memories twisted by imperfect recollection.

A foot kicked past a gap in the branches, striking Rose’s stomach.  I felt the pain, even if I was one step removed from it.

I snarled, and I turned over, Hyena tucked under my body, head tucked down, back hunched over.

In my peripheral vision, through gaps in the crowd of Others, I could make out blood and debris fly as blades stabbed skyward from the street.  Not all that far away.

Light flared.  Paige’s work, as bright to look at as the sun, and a whole lot closer.  Where the light touched, here and there, flesh smoked, and an aurora shimmer of light started to dance over the broader, flatter surfaces, be it the side of a building or someone’s arm.

A half-second later, the effect really started to take hold.

One wretch swung a punch at another that was in its way.  The aurora flared, much as water might splash if one punched a tranquil pool.  The fist came away battered, a finger bent in the wrong way.

More explosions of light rippled around us, clusters and sporadic bursts both.

Peeking out in the other direction, an arm still over my head, I could see the snapping wretch I’d knocked over bite into smaller prey.  Light exploded out the front and sides of her mouth.  She staggered back, blood and trails of light streaming from her open maw.

Metal gauntlets dug into my back.  Wood and bone broke, and I felt the light ripple out, retaliating.

It didn’t prevent the harm, it only punished it.

More blades sprung up.  I was getting very close to the point where, if I had a clear path, I’d be hard pressed to outrun the steadily advancing eruption.

But the way forward was still obscured.  Paige’s effect was steadily wearing down at the massed enemies.  I could see the tie to the sphinx.  Set a rule, with very clear, fair consequences.

Hurt others, get hurt in kind.

A very good rule to set up, when we were dealing with insensate monsters driven by pain and rage.  Thinning the ranks.

Toward the light.

I forced myself to rise, to move.  A wretch behind me struck at my back, and I took the blow, felt it scrape past wood to catch at flesh.  I staggered, and my forward movement worked with the flare of retaliatory light to push my attacker away from me.

It was almost impossible to see where the light was originating.  In front of me, a wretch tackled another, and was thrown off by a matching blast of light.  I squinted, turning my head away.

I was moving in slow motion, trying not to be aggressive as I moved through them.  I saw a gap appear and took two half-steps to place myself in it.  Something struck me with a makeshift club, as if punishing me for trying to fill the gap, and the strike was hard enough to splinter wood.  The weapon the wretch had used was shattered, the fragments tearing into her face and fingers.

A goblin with a bra for a hat pounced onto her face while she was distracted, and was summarily punished, thrown off by a bright flash.

I focused on moving forward.

The light was dying, but it was stronger toward the source, and I was moving in that direction.  I pushed forward, and found far more wretches had fallen or backed away closer to the others.  The group had formed a ring, using wards and makeshift shields to ward off attacks.  Those that hit the shields were punished just as severely as if they’d hit the people protected by them.

Paige was at the center, standing on a fallen Other, light held high.  Peter was behind her, using a length of wood to batter at the blades that blocked the door.

They parted to let me through.  I glanced over to one side, and I saw the blades springing up, only a short distance away now.  Fifteen paces.  As they rose, they doubled the enemy ranks.  The crowd surged toward us, and the light drove them back as they struck at the shields.

I knew, without a doubt, that the sheer numbers would win out over the light.

I did an inventory of everyone that was present.  Ainsley was down, Lola hurt but helping, Peter and Paige were at the perimeter, Mags and a handful of her goblins were here, holding the line with the vestige kids, Evan was overhead, and Green Eyes-

Wasn’t here.

“Green Eyes!” I shouted.

Mags looked at me over her shoulder, found an opportunity to point.

I wished I could use Rose’s eyes to use the Sight, but that apparently wasn’t an option.  Mags had to provide it.

As fast as I’d passed into the group, I passed out the other side, pushing my way forward.  Head down, shoulders hunched, focusing on moving ahead.

For every three wretches, maybe one had fallen, in the wake of the retaliatory effect.  There were gaps.  I focused on them, and weathered the strikes that came my way.

I found her, on the ground and writhing to try and stay away from others.  Where her tail touched flesh or scales hooked on clothing, the light spat at her, sparks that burned and made her smoke.

We’d had a plan, but with the sheer numbers arrayed against us, the plan had broken down.  Now she was suffering further.  She hurt others by touching them, and now she was being punished for causing that harm.

Stooping down, I reached past the crowd, extending a hand.  She grabbed my wrist, and I pulled, prompting a small storm of light to wreath her as she slid past others.  When she was close enough, I wrapped my arms around her, while she folded her own arms around my shoulders.

A scythe-like blade thrust out of the ground, two feet in front of us.  It cut a wretch in two, and I could see the space between the two halves, the emptiness, void that went beyond simple vacuum.  Tatters and shards of the wretch were swallowed up by that vast darkness.

Shadowstuff and environment gathered to fill in the missing parts, and the two resulting wretches staggered before catching their balance.

They clutched at me, and my efforts to pull away didn’t succeed in breaking their grip.  They hung on, their weight joining Green Eyes in slowing me.

More blades came, not far away now, with masses of wretches fighting to get past what was a veritable forest of the things.  Here and there, they were shoved into the blades another time, cut deep.

I was at the very edge of the crowd before the wall of shields when the light finally died.

They piled on me, striking, swatting, grabbing.

This time, it was Green Eyes who saved me.  She crawled on me like I was a jungle gym, and she was an exceedingly violent kid who’d spent her whole life there, tail swinging, claws flashing, teeth biting.  In the span of one step, I had what probably amounted to a full bucketful of blood pour down on me and Green Eyes.

We reached the defensive line, but it was different from before.  Those who struck at the shields and goblins weren’t being bounced off, but were pushed in by the ones behind.

Green Eyes slid off me, slick with blood.  I let her lie there, heading to Peter’s side.  He’d done more damage than I might have expected to the blades that  blocked the door, even though they were nearly an inch thick.

“Look out!” Lola screamed.

The blades emerged from the ground.

It was meant to be the drop of the guillotine, perhaps.  Corner us, get us to the point where we had absolutely no elbow room to spare, then bring the blades out of the ground.

It was Ainsley, barely sensate, propped up just to Peter’s left at the door, who saved us.

Taking her candle in both hands, she snapped it in two.  Her words were drowned out.

Time slowed, and we slowed with it.  The blades were already rising as the effect took hold.  Our momentum stayed constant, but our brains operated at a normal speed.

It was almost like a dance.  Seeing the blades appear, moving as if we were swimming underwater, to get ourselves out of the way.

The goblins, vestiges, and Mags were the first in the line of fire.  One goblin virtually leapfrogged over the goblin beside it, simultaneously shoving its partner into the way of the blade that he himself was dodging.  The vestiges were already quick, already fast enough to dodge even before time was slowed.

Mags, for her part, twisted around, scarf coming unraveled, her eyes wide, as the blade that was poised to stab right between her legs passed within an inch of her jawline.

The blades were already spearing up to catch the group toward the center.  Paige, Lola, Green Eyes.  Paige was adroit enough, but Lola was hurt, too slow to move fully out of the way.  She crossed her arms in front of her, still backing away, and the blade ran along the backs of her wrists.  Mags, still moving, very nearly stumbled into that same blade.

Like the vestige kids, Green Eyes was fast enough she probably could have dodged without help.  Her focus was more on me.

Only Peter, Ainsley, and I remained, with Evan being high enough up.

Like Lola, Ainsley was hurt.  Peter dodged the blade meant for him easily enough, blocking the bulk of it with the block of wood he’d been using to hammer at the barricade.

He and I both headed for Ainsley in the same moment.  I spotted the blade meant for me, and held out the Hyena, metal touching metal, sparks flying, the thrust of the blade now pushing me further away from it’s cutting edge.

Green Eyes’ shriek, drawn out in an odd way by the time-slowing effect, was the only thing that warned me of the other blade.  From the wall beside me, rather than the ground, a sneak attack.

One for me, one for Rose.

It speared out, right for my throat, changing trajectory slightly as I continued to dodge the first blade.

I ducked low to avoid it, but the process of getting out of the way meant I was no longer en route to help Ainsley.

Peter shoved her, hard, landing on his stomach.  The blade sprouted from the base of the building, where it met sidewalk, slicing Ainsley’s hip and elbow, but not cutting deep enough to separate.  The two were parted by the blade that sat between them.

It wasn’t over.  I knew it wasn’t over.

But we had a moment to reel, to react.  Where we’d once had an established clearing, our group was now caught in the midst of a thicket of demon blades, criss-crossing, looming high above us.

Not unscathed, but alive.  We’d avoided being Barbered.

Then the first of the blades moved.

What I’d assumed to be blades were only parts of shears or great pairs of scissors.

Now the shears closed, and they closed as the time altering effect was wearing off.  It seemed to accelerate the speed at which they moved.

Fast enough that I didn’t have time to turn around, assess the situation, or decide on priorities.

Ainsley was clear.  Peter wasn’t.  In the position he was in, he couldn’t move fast enough.

I grabbed him with both hands, threw myself forward, and hurled him back, as the blades meant for him and Ainsley both drew together.  My forward momentum put me directly in the blades’ path.  I put out a hand to stop it, touching the wall.

The blades closed, taking two fingers and a section of both Rose’s left hand and my own.  I had to pull and tear at my own hand to free the remnants.

I could feel Rose’s distress.

All around us, the forest of the Barber’s blades had all snapped shut.

Many of the wretches that had been cut several times over were in shapes that barely resembled people.  Too flimsy, too bent, broken, pre-existing wounds turned into other features.  A break in an arm now a joint, entrails now some mechanism for a glacially slow advance.  Too numerous now to simply be a crowd, many climbed and hung off the blades, like monkeys in trees.  They were slick with blood, and in the curious light, the blood looked nearly black.

The light in their eyes had been portioned out too many times, and had flickered out.  Their expressions were dead, dark.

Peter was staring at me.  I had to double check that I hadn’t been cut so deep that there was a double of me.

“Thanks,” he said.

I didn’t have a response for him.  I nodded, turning to face the situation.

Wretches were forging their way past the blades and one another.  They still fought with each other, but they were so numerous it didn’t matter.

The goblin that had been cut was fighting Mags and its copy.  The rest of us were picking ourselves up.  Green Eyes was okay, and was perching on a set of shears much as the wretches were.  Evan was high enough to be clear of it all, but he was smaller, and the fires were going out.

Don’t go too high, I thought.

Peter was helping Ainsley and wrestling with the block of wood.  I seized the block myself, sticking the Hyena through a gap in my midsection to sheath it before bringing the block against the blades that blocked the door.

They weren’t thin, but they bent when struck.

I could remember the vision Rose had shot me.  Of her atop Conquest’s tower.

It was a little more energy, to push myself forward, hit harder.

Peter reached my side, and he had a concrete block.

I hit, pulled back, and Peter struck.  I timed my swing so I’d hit as he got the block around to the side, readying for his next swing.  Not effective swings, not pretty, especially with my damaged hand making gripping hard, but we were hammering at the barricade all the same.  An ‘x’ of blades, the blades themselves resting against doorknobs, preventing the doors from being pulled open.

The first blade dropped, and I hurried to catch it before it could casually topple onto the group.  I worked to reorient it, blunt end forward, and readied to hit the second blade.

“Hit the door!” Peter shouted.  “On the left!”

I did.  The wood took far more damage from my narrow battering ram than the blade might have.

Two hits, a kick, and the bottom half of the left door was broken away.

Peter ducked, readying to move under, and the blade moved.

I reached out, too late to be effective, but Peter was already backing away.  The blade dropped, sliding down, cutting into the ground at the base of the door, where Peter would have been if he were crawling through.  A feint, on his part.

He shot me a grin.  “Predictable!”

“Stop being smug and get inside!” Paige screamed.

He looked at Ainsley, but Paige was already there, helping the girl.

I tossed the large blade to one side, drew the Hyena, and joined the front line.  By the time I worked my way past the blades that had sprung up, trying to hit us, the rest of the group was already gone, sans goblins and Green Eyes.

And Evan.

“Evan!” I called out.

He descended.

As one, with Evan facilitating, we retreated into the building.  The moment Green Eyes, Evan and I were through, the others shifted a desk so it blocked the door.

Claws and other limbs scrabbled at the door.

All of the others around me were panting.  Everyone capable of standing was bleeding from existing wounds.

Green Eyes wasn’t one to ‘stand’, but I honestly couldn’t tell how much she was bleeding, with all the gore that she’d covered herself in.  Lola, conversely, wasn’t up to standing due to what appeared to be a hit to the head, but there was remarkably little blood.

Ainsley was both bleeding and incapable of supporting her own weight.

I wasn’t in the best shape, either.  The holes which I’d opened up in Rose’s torso, arms and legs were raw at the edges, she was bleeding, and I was in pretty poor shape as well.  The damage done to my body wasn’t healing.  There was no reserve of power to draw on, here.  Whole sections of my exterior body had been torn away, and Rose’s body was exposed.  More than ever, we were like two very different jigsaw puzzles, pieces hammered and jammed into place in a way that wasn’t meant to be.

Except now, it was very visible on a physical level.

“Okay,” I said.  “First question.  Is there anyone we need to be worried about?”

“Worried?” Lola asked.  She had one hand to her head.

“That might have been cut in two by the Barber,” I said.  Someone that might look familiar, but who was out of sight and close enough to the blades that we might have to worry about them being…”

“Not entirely there?” Peter asked.  “Not limited to being in one place?”

“Basically,” I said.

“Sorry to jump straight to the obvious, but what about you?” Paige said me.  “Before you joined us?”

“Nope, was watching him,” Evan said.  “Was going to help, but then he fell into the crowd, but there weren’t any blades near him.”

“Good,” Paige said.

Thank you, Evan, I thought.

“After he went for Green Eyes, then?” Paige suggested.  “I know you weren’t watching him then, because the light was going out and you were helping the vestiges hold the line.”

“Uh,” Evan said.  “Not then.”

“I saw him,” Green Eyes said.

“You’re suspect too,” Paige said.

Mags was already shaking her head.  “I was watching.  They’re clear.”

For all the suspicion she’d just displayed, Paige looked genuinely relieved.

“He did get cut,” Peter said.  “But nothing came of it.”

More eyes turned my way.  This time, it was less about looking at my expression, more about taking me in as a whole.

“Is Rose going to want that body back when you’re done with it?” Mags commented.

I shook my head a little.  “I don’t know.”

“Just saying.  I’d be more than little bit offended if someone borrowed my body and left it like that,” Mags said.

“She’s not protesting,” I said.  “She was there, she saw the judgment calls, she didn’t say no.”

“One of those calls was getting hurt to save my life,” Peter said.  “Thanks again, by the by.”

That statement was followed by a silence.  Us breathing, momentarily relieved.

Paige, apparently, had a different interpretation.  “Why the hell did you go and do something stupid like that?”

A joke.  Not enough to elicit laughter, but a few people smiled.

“Screw you,” Peter said, and there was no anger in it.  “I’d do it a hundred times over.”

I turned my eyes away from the group, assessing the situation.

The tower’s lobby was ornate, but things had broken and fallen, throughout.  Architecture had crumbled, but it wasn’t the sort of crumbling that came with age.  There was a pattern to it.  More as though the Barber had altered the surroundings, and in the process, hadn’t gone out of its way to keep things intact.  Twist the building, stretch it a little taller, and the hooks that held pictures to the walls simply dropped free.   Minor supports and screws had fallen loose, but Johannes’ power over his territory seemed to be keeping things intact, and that was all the Barber needed.  Stone stairs led up and around, past walls, leading to higher floors, but even those stairs were a little worse for wear.

Ruin was part and parcel of the demon, it seemed, even as it tried to hold things together.

But, above all else, what I noted was that the building was empty.  There were no wretches, no others, and no blades.

Almost eerie.

“We learned something,” Lola said.

“Demons suck,” Evan chimed in.  “Demons with a dem-whatsit suck more.  I’m too tired to pronounce stuff.”

“We learned several things,” Lola clarified.  “You were right to bring Peter, Rose.”

“I’m Blake,” I said.

“And I’m assuming Rose is still there and she’s listening,” Lola said, very patiently. “There’s a lot we can learn from what someone doesn’t say.  What they don’t do.  This is Duchamp manipulation one-oh-one here.  He attacked us last.”

“What does it mean?” Paige asked.

“The way the blades appeared, targeting us last, it’s very basic rules for exercising force.  It’s how you do enchantments on stuff that’s resisting you.  Establish a perimeter, establish a precedent for influence, then exercise it.  He couldn’t use the blades to attack us until he’d used them elsewhere.  Peter was one of the last ones he attacked.”

“He’s weaker than he appears?” I asked.

“No,” Lola said.  Then she amended her answer, “Not quite.  Johannes is probably in there, resisting.  Enforcing one’s will on others is another thing common to enchantment.  Even the strongest individuals don’t tend to hold out long.  It won’t be long before the Barber has absolute control.”

“Oh, this is my chance to be sarcastic, right, since you guys can’t?” Peter asked.  “That’s encouraging.”

Lola winced, touching her head.  “Thanks.”

“Never a problem.”

“I’m pretty fricking surprised there aren’t more threats inside,” Mags said, looking around.  “No blades, no Others.  I was expecting a bigger confrontation right here.  Why?  What does this mean?”

Lola shook her head.  “Don’t know.”

“I have suspicions,” I said.  “I can share them on the way up.  We can’t waste time.  Mags, Green Eyes, Peter and Paige, with me.”

There were some nods.

“Evan and the vestiges need to stay,” I said.  I met Evan’s eyes, and forestalled his protest.  “Really.  Stay.”

“Getting left out,” he pouted.

“You’re getting an important job,” I told him.

“Yeah, that’s what they always say in the movies and junk.  They give the kid a kitsch role to shove him into the background.  Sorry, nope, I don’t buy it.  You’re telling the truth, because you have to, but you’re also fibbing.”

“Evan-”

“Nope!  At least have the decency to tell me straight to my face.  I’m done.  Played my role.”

I turned to the others.

“Ainsley, Lola,” I said.  “Since you’re not very mobile, I’m asking you to stay with them and help.”

“What are we doing?” Ainsley asked.

“If we don’t make it.  If the connections break and you’re certain we’re not here anymore, hit the building.  Tear it down, burn it down, I don’t know.  But topple the damn tower.”

“The building?” one of the vestiges asked.

“Tall order,” Lola said.  She paused.  “That’s not supposed to be a joke.  It’s an object in his demesne, and we’re not exactly equipped for knocking over buildings.”

“It’s his seat of power.  Just like Conquest’s was, in Toronto.  He’s using it to do something involving those portals that Faysal is opening.  Maybe we can meet ruin with ruin.  It might delay him, at the very least.  We’re leaving you behind.  Cover our backs and figure out a way to do it.  The vestiges know the way things are put together, and they’re fast.  Evan is…”

“Awesome,” Evan said, a little sullenly.

“And he’s a container for whatever spirit you can give him,” I said.

“Okay,” Lola said.  “Not sure how much we can do.  I’m having trouble seeing straight.”

“Evan and the kids here are your eyes and hands,” I said.

She set her lips into a firm line, then nodded.

“We got this,” Ainsley said, and the lack of strength in her voice didn’t do anything to inspire confidence.

“Are you going to be okay?” I asked.

“Probably not, but nothing to do with how I feel now,” she said.  She winced.  “Ribs, nothing more.  Kind of screws up my ability to do anything and everything that matters.”

“And your candle?”

“I can put it back together.  I spent everything I’d stored for my own use, there, but I’m not useless.”

“Okay,” I said.

Okay.

It took me a bit of courage to convince myself to say it.  “Thanks for helping us get this far.  We’ll be counting on you guys.”

Evan gave me a one-wing salute, wing to forehead.

I did the same with the Hyena.

We turned to go.  Heading up the stairs as a group.  Mags, me, Green eyes, Peter and Paige.

“You have a strategy,” Mags said.  “You were saying, before.  You’d tell us on the way?”

“Rose has a plan,” I said.

“Pretty much the same thing.  Explain.

“I think Johannes might be resisting.  In another part, I’m wondering if the Barber is struggling in the same way Rose and I are.”

“Struggling?” Mags asked.

“Possession can be parasitism and it can be symbiosis.  The Barber is incredibly powerful, while Johannes isn’t strong enough to hold his own.  What if Johannes isn’t maintaining a degree of control through strength of will alone?  What if the Barber is letting him win?”

“Why?” Mags asked.  Where I had more stamina, she struggled to run up stairs and communicate in more than a few words at a time.

“Because if the Barber wins, absolutely and completely, then Johannes is broken and gone.  Useless, for what the Barber wants to accomplish.  The demesne belongs to Johannes.  If we can break that connection, or if the Barber breaks the connection by being too rough with his meat puppet or metaphysical control over this place, we can stop it from accomplishing its goal.”

“And we can do that by killing Johannes?”

“We can, but it won’t be that easy.  Knocking down the tower won’t be that easy, either.  But think about it.  The tower is empty.  Why?  There’s a reason, clearly.  If Lola and Ainsley were in fighting shape, and if I felt more confident about letting the kids try and survive on their own, I’d almost suggest opening the door and trying to bait the wretches inside.”

“It would weaken the hold,” Paige said.  “The Barber’s power inside, the places becomes less Johannes.”

“We’re playing king of the hill,” Mags said.

“King of the hill,” I agreed.  “We need to weaken his hold on this place.  Knock him off the hill.  How ready are you?  How much firepower do you have left?”

“Some,” Paige said.  “I burned a lot.  I’m worried I’m draining more from Isadora than she can give, but… I think she’d want me to.”

I nodded.

“I have some goblins,” Mags said.  “Need more open area.  They’re not fancy.  Not top tier or even mid-list.  But…”

“You have goblins.”

“Yeah.”

“And I’ve got two fists and chutzpah,” Peter said.  “For all that’s worth.”

For all it was worth.

And I’ve got Rose, I thought.  More of a double-edged sword than the Hyena.

Rose recognized the thought, and she seemed to acknowledge it.

I felt her rummaging, searching for something we could use.

I was running out of strength, drawing from a finite well.  I was prepared to cede control, to simply let go and let Rose be Rose, and I knew that it might well be my last action.

But I’d do my damndest to put up a fight, all the same.

We reached the top of the stairs.  Rose’s heart pounded as we crested the top, though the exertion was mine.

As battlefields went, it was terrifying.  The tears the Gatekeeper had opened surrounded us.  Against a backdrop of the great spheres, they were akin to magnifying glasses.  Opening ways that reached to distant places.

To the great sphere which was covered in teeming masses, giving me a close-up of the shapes there.  Lesser demons, crawling and clambering over one another.

To the sphere of fire and ruin, where the tracks and trails of the magma’s glow wrote out something that could have been an alien circuit board, a pattern that seemed to speak to my gut, promising nothing good.

A third and fourth pointed to darkness, and it went a step beyond even the darkness that Rose had feared would lift her off her feet.  It drew away and ate at afterimages of light that danced across the eyes, making even fleeting glances feel like they were giving something to those places and that those places would never give it back.

Atop the large tower top was the opposition.  Faysal was at the back, wearing a gatekeeper’s form, a fractal and abstract image of wings and white fur and an artificial ivory flesh, glowing with light that trailed off and away, oddly small and weak in comparison to the darkness that surrounded it.

The dragon framed it, wings furled.  Bifurcated, nearly cut in half, but not quite, much of what I saw was the cross section of a dragon’s internals, elemental energies and white-hot scaled flesh bleeding heat and energy into the air, framing the sorcerer.

The sorcerer sat on the throne that Johannes had been sitting in when I’d first seen him, in my visions of Jacob’s Bell.  One half of the dragon’s head was to his left, one half to the right.  One of his leg was propped up on the seat, his arm resting on a knee.  The shears dangled carelessly from his fingers.

There was no light in his eyes, as he stared at me.  He didn’t blink, though the dragon did, before snorting a bit of smoke from its nostrils.

Right, I thought.  Just have to unseat the king from his hill.

Which doesn’t actually win us the fight.  It only helps.

“Fuck,” Mags said.

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