We watched as the Barber held the shears to one side. The fire that leaked out of the exposed cross-section of the dragon’s head came out in tendrils and lines, and those tendrils and lines touched the metal, slower and more fluid than arcs of electricity, but conducting all the same.
The metal grew white hot, cooled far too rapidly as the tendrils grew hair-thin and disappeared, another reaching out to touch another part of the blades.
Drinking in power.
One foot still rested on a knee. He dropped it to the ground, used the scissors to push himself out of the throne and to a standing position.
As he did, the ambient light took on a different cast as it touched his face. Black veins crawled over and along a horizontal line that marked his face, like cancerous worms, and knots of the veins had replaced his eyes. More marks covered his flesh where the Library had nicked, burned, scraped and scratched him. Like maggots crawling through his flesh, but an oily black in texture and color.
The darkness of his expression was countered by the spread of Faysal’s ‘wings’, though the wings were more a fractal pattern than true bird wings. They reached further, and the light they emanated spread across the tower’s top.
I realized I was backing up, responding to an unconscious impulse, and made myself stop. A fractional movement of his head suggested he’d noticed.
He could see.
Damn it all.
Alright. Alright. Fuck. How were we even supposed to approach this?
He wasn’t going for the jugular. As the Barber, just the Barber, he’d chased, pursued without pausing, closing the distance. He had tricks available, using those shears.
Everything he’d done here had been different. Passive, standing back, laying traps, striking from oblique angles.
Like a practitioner.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Mags whispered under her breath.
“Mags,” I said.
“Keep one of those goblins in reserve.”
If the dragon cooks us, we might need more bodies, or a distraction. It’s a pawn we can place on the board, if we need to.
Johannes wasn’t moving. His shears were dangling from one fingertip. A twitch of the finger could have made them drop to the ground.
If that happened, if we could simply kick them over the edge, that would be something.
It wouldn’t happen.
He was letting us make the first move?
“You are not Johannes,” I said.
The sheer emptiness of this place meant my words didn’t resonate. My own voice sounded too quiet to me, even as I spoke in louder, confident tones.
“I reject your power and your claim to power. You’re a twisted creature belonging to some other long forgotten realm and time, you’re not something to be recognized or respected.“
I managed to inject a fair bit of vitriol into my voice.
The Barber didn’t move. Faysal’s wings continued to rotate in the background, shining past the stone pillars and railings that ringed the tower’s top, the shadows sliding endlessly to the left. The dragon’s smoke rose up in fine curls, from nostrils set too far apart, on a head split right down the center.
“You wear a human’s skin now, but even before that, you wore a form you drew from our heads. You’re wearing a mask under a mask. Your only power is the power we damn well give you.”
The opening salvo. My attack, for lack of a better term.
It took me a full two seconds to identify the speaker. I almost thought it was one of my companions, my ability to intuit direction warped by the nature of sound, here. But, even as I dismissed that thought, I thought it might be Faysal, behind Johannes and the dragon.
No, I hadn’t really grasped that he might actually communicate with me. I was caught entirely off guard, even though I was staring directly at him.
Johannes. The Barber.
“You talk,” I said, stating the obvious.
“I could always communicate,” he said.
The shears snapped closed, opened, closed again.
Tk. Tk. Tch.
He tilted his head to one side, as if trying to read and interpret me. It wasn’t a comfortable position for a human. He righted his head, and hair fell across his face. He didn’t move it.
“You’re not Johannes,” I said, for the second time.
“I am,” he said, and he said the words with a confidence that matched and maybe even outstripped my own defiance. “I’m Johannes, and I’m something older.”
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I’d hoped to discredit, to attack him with words so I wouldn’t need to cross blades with him. If I could have upset his position here just a bit before everything unfolded, it could have made a difference. Maybe led to another thing, which could have led to another.
This started with unseating him from his position, destroying it. Except he now stood at the dead center of the roof, I’d pushed, in a manner of speaking, and he’d resisted my efforts altogether.
Theatrics mattered, and he had stage presence to spare.
“Blake,” he said. “Mags? Paige, Peter, Green Eyes. Listen to me. It’s Johannes.”
“I don’t believe you,” Mags said.
Good, I thought. I glanced at her, and her eyes met mine. I offered her a small nod.
“I’ve seen out their eyes,” the Barber said. “Their memories. Their experiences. I’ve seen how the world is put together, and what it is. The world is meant to be consumed. By resisting, we’re only making it worse. We’re a horse with a broken leg, and the best thing to do is put it out of its misery, because it only gets worse from here on out.”
“You don’t sound like Johannes at all,” Mags said. “He had faith. He was optimistic, even if I didn’t like how he did things, he believed in humanity. Establishing a system.”
Good. Keep up the attack.
“I did,” the Barber said. “It was only yesterday. Hours ago, even. I had hopes and dreams and even a bit of hunger for power, to give me a personal stake in it. And now?”
He spread his arms a little.
“I know better,” he said. His words, like ours, simply ended with each utterance. No bouncing echolocation, no warmth. They were sounds made with our lips, teeth, tongues and throats.
Every response we gave him, I was genuinely terrified that that would be the provocation he needed to come after us. To give the word to the dragon or Faysal.
“You said we’re a horse with a broken leg?” I asked. “Breaks heal. I think I’m speaking for most members of humanity when I say that I’d much rather be alive than gone.”
“Yet,” he said, “The end approaches in fits and starts. You might think that you want more existence, but if you truly felt it, if you believed it deep down inside, then that would tip the scales. If humanity was truly on the side of creation and progress, he-”
The shears pointed at the angel behind him.
“-he would be winning. He would be stronger than I am.”
Tch. The shears snapped closed as he lowered his arm. There was a languid nature to his movements that suggested that some of his internal makeup was a little bit demon as well.
“That’s disingenuous,” Paige said, speaking up. She’d found her voice. “There’s history to take into account. It wasn’t so long ago we were all getting sick and blaming it on humors or miasma. Human existence has sucked. My existence sucked-”
“And,” the Barber cut in, “I’m sorry to say that before the end of the night, it’ll turn out worse than you’ve ever conceived of.”
Paige’s mouth opened and closed, the words she’d been about to form drying out and withering on her tongue.
Come on, Paige, I thought.
“It got better,” she said, but her forward momentum had dissipated. “For so long, it was awful, flat-out toxic. But it got better. Humanity will keep advancing. The broken bone will heal.”
“No,” the Barber said. He fixed his dark non-eyes on her. “Your life only got better because you left it behind you. You threw yourself into the realm of Others, adoration of a centuries-old creature doomed to be among the last of her line. You threw yourself into studying her and how to be useful to her, and you abandoned your human life to do it. You’re a coward, Paige Thorburn. You live for balance, truth, justice and order, and you are none of these things.”
Paige tried to hold fast, but the doubt still crept into her expression.
“If I was a coward, would I be here?”
“Yes. Your particular brand of cowardice led you directly onto this path. To go anywhere else or do anything else would mean you had to return to your old life. I could spare you, I won’t, but I could. You still wouldn’t last the night. Where are you going to go, Paige Thorburn? You threw it all away for a creature that’s now dead.”
Dead. The word had a finality to it, a certainty.
She set her jaw, but the doubt had crept in enough that I couldn’t deny it. The pain.
The Barber looked at me. “You had the right idea. Attack with words. Establish the facts, then use them. If the tables were turned and you were the enemy, me as the one who didn’t know any better, it’s what I’d do. I can show you how fragile you are before I destroy you.”
“I know how fragile I am,” I said.
“You as a collective. Humans. Mortals and Others. I’m trying and apparently failing to convey that this has all been decided. I can see it, and I’m speaking out of the goodness of my heart, as Johannes Lillegard, because I want to spare you the disappointment. You can’t deny that this is reality.”
“I damn well can,” I said. “You pretend to know us all, but you’re badly underestimating Thorburn stubbornness.”
“Underestimating you? I made you,” he said.
Something in his voice made Rose’s heart skip a beat. An edge, a bit of a growl that did echo, responding to elements of this environment.
He went on, “You can’t tell me that all is well and that you have hope, when you’re planning to die. You intend to give up your existence to someone you well and truly know is a sad, lonely, shadow of yourself, devoid of passion. No. You have no place to say anything to me. If you try to win over any subtle powers that are listening, you’re going to fail badly. You have no ground to stand on.”
Why the fuck did he have to be able to talk, damn it?
“You shouldn’t-” Green started.
“Green,” I said, cutting her off.
She shot me a look.
“There’s no rush,” I said. “Don’t speak just because you feel you have to. Consider your words carefully.”
“What you mean,” the Barber said, “Is you don’t want to give up an easy third point of debate. If you challenge my perspective and I firmly establish that a third person has no grounds to make the challenge, I benefit.”
“There is that,” I said.
“He has no faith in you here,” the Barber told Green Eyes.
“That’s not true,” I said.
“Challenging me? Prove it, then,” he said. “The Barber is sworn to the Seal of Solomon. Johannes is a practitioner. If you would mark us as liars with a meaningful show of faith, we’ll be disadvantaged.”
He was right. The more meaningful the show, the greater the disadvantage.
But there was no meaningful action I could make that wouldn’t disadvantage us more. I could walk away, head down the stairs, and let her fight the Barber, I could give her the Hyena.
He’d already anticipated this much.
I spoke, instead, “When all of this is over, Green, I’m counting on you to look after Evan.”
“Paltry, as displays of faith go,” the Barber said. He didn’t even flinch. ”
“It’s good enough for me,” Green Eyes said. “I’m counting on him making it through this, and not dying at the end of the night. Even if he hates me for what I have to do to make it happen. He’ll be able to look after Evan himself.”
“I think that sentiment is enough answer to why you have no grounds to challenge me, you and Blake are birds of a feather, after all,” the Barber said. “Mags, I don’t think I even need to say anything to you, after the long conversations we’ve had. That only leaves Peter. Unless you think a goblin would be a better voice for humanity.”
He said Peter with such contempt.
I didn’t agree with the Barber, but I wasn’t the one he needed to sway. He was answering my attempt to challenge his legitimacy and now he challenged ours, and I was betting he was winning over anything that was listening. I hesitated to call them ‘spirits’, but they were. The building blocks of reality were tuned into this conversation. The words chosen, the way they were presented, and the effects they had were all factors.
He’d declared that victory for his side was inevitable, even if we won here. Humanity was instinctively helping his side, and each of us here had no ground to stand on if we wanted to say otherwise.
Except for Peter.
“It’s not like I really got to know you, but I don’t remember you being this big of a dildo when you weren’t playing host to some scissors-demon,” Peter said.
“Petty insults. A small mystery, how I didn’t lose my faith in humanity before the demon opened my eyes.”
“Fuck that,” Peter said. “Petty insults are an art. So is talking out your ass, and you’ve acknowledged that.”
“I can see straight through you, Peter Thorburn,” the Barber said. “Backward and forward. The benefit of an eye for ruin and having a practitioner’s Sight at the same time. Don’t even pretend that you have any faith in humanity. You dwell in the darker recesses of it, and you know deep down inside that when your charm fails you, you’ll plunge deeper still, to your own detriment.”
“Ouch,” Peter said, unflinching. “But who the fuck are you to decide that this is about the now? Because I think that’s the demon talking, not Johannes. There isn’t a single person here on this towertop who doesn’t look back at yesterday and think about how much it sucked. Sure. I might dwell in dark recesses of humanity today, but maybe I get to enjoy a certain girl’s more pleasant-”
“Ahem,” Paige cut in.
“-tomorrow,” Peter said. “Even if it’s not for ourselves, necessarily, we’re all looking forward. Bumps in the road or no, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think there was something better in general, later on. Right?”
“Right,” Mags said.
Paige was nodding, as was Green Eyes.
“Damn straight,” I said.
The Barber looked us all over with a level gaze.
His eyes met mine.
I reaffirmed my grip on the Hyena.
Was this where he uttered a command to Faysal? Or threw the shears to close the distance? We’d answered his challenge, so to speak.
“You know, don’t you?” he asked, the question abrupt.
“When all’s said and done, the Abyss will spread, and it will swallow all things. It’s the next step in humanity’s progress. Left untouched, things will advance, progress and change until they tumble over a cliff. That is what waits for humanity as a whole, in the interim. The things you call demons wait beyond even that point.”
“That was about the sense I had of things,” I said, reminded of why I’d suggested that Rose take a bogeyman as part of the group. Take Green Eyes.
“It’s fine,” I cut him off. My own gaze was just as level as his. “I’m not worried. We’ll find a way to make it work. I’ve gone out of my way to reject tradition, the ties of the past that bind us. Why the hell would I let anyone dictate the particulars of the future?”
“Why indeed?” the Barber asked. “The practitioner you’re currently possessing would do well to keep that in mind, when she considers how faithful you are to the promise you made her.”
I felt Rose react. A sharp movement, too fast and violent, as she did the equivalent of snapping her head around, paying full attention. It tore something. Created a schism.
I tried to open my mouth to protest, but there was a disconnect between the parts of this face that were mine, and the parts that were Rose’s.
I’d left him an opening. He took it.
He was backing up. He snapped his fingers, and he pointed with the shears, a sweeping gesture.
The dragon roused. Suddenly alert, hostile.
I could see the energy building up deep within its body, flowing and flaring at points along the length of its torso, around lungs, up the neck, toward the mouth.
Mags was throwing a piece of paper. Paige, Peter and Green Eyes were ducking toward the stairwell.
I tried to follow suit, and I felt the disconnect between my wishes and the body’s actions. The damage done with that pique of doubt on Rose’s part slowed me down, and I knew it was enough of a break that I wouldn’t be able to get to the stairwell. Couldn’t run back to try and use the pillars or railings that ringed the tower top, and didn’t trust them besides.
The Barber’s dark gaze didn’t break, as he faced me down, the energy crackling and spitting out to fill the ‘v’ shaped gap between the two halves of the dragon’s head.
A pillar rose out of the middle of the rooftop, just behind him.
Control over his demesne.
The only option that remained.
It’s because I believe in changing destiny that I’m walking this road, damn you!
Rose got the message, processed it, and seemed to realize she was holding me back. I had control again. I rushed in his direction, Hyena in hand, as the fire reached the dragon’s bisected mouth.
Two focused streams, one to my left, one to my right, the space between them filling with swirling, erratic gouts and curls of superheated flame.
The only piece of cover available was the one the Barber had given himself. With no other choice, I was heading straight for the Barber, even as the flame closed in to my left and right.
I swung the Hyena, because there was no other choice, here. Too close in proximity, and this scant amount of cover from the flames wasn’t enough to be shared.
The shears caught the Hyena. Almost immediately, I realized that I wasn’t strong enough. He twisted the weapon, and twisted me over to one side, at the same time.
Forcing me in the direction of the flames.
My grip was only a one-handed one, my weapon a broken one, while his grip was two-handed, the individual blades each as long as my forearm.
I was losing this contest of strength, perilously close to the fire that now formed a skewed ring around the tower’s roof, curving with the pillars and railing to flow behind me, simultaneously blazing to my left and right.
Still, a one-handed grip meant I had one hand free. My own grip on my weapon was enhanced by the spikes. Still holding the Hyena, I twisted around, my back to the Barber, and moved to his left, driving my elbow back and toward his elbow.
I hit his upper arm instead. The shears were jarred, the blades closed, and the Hyena was forced out the upper end.
Our weapons no longer pressing against one another, I was given an opening, while simultaneously threatened by the fact that the shears were right there, and I had no idea what he was about to do with them.
Someone was screaming, male but still a high pitched, ragged sort of sound. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t the Barber.
I dropped to one knee, anticipating that he’d thrust the shears at me, instinctively knowing I was off balance enough that if he simply threw his body at mine, he could send me stumbling into the fire. Being low to the ground meant I was harder to move.
But he was more deliberate, careful. He didn’t thrust blindly. He had all the time in the world to decide where he’d put the shears. As my knee hit rooftop, he was already poised, shears drawn back, slightly parted, thrusting them at my neck.
I swung the Hyena around, but I didn’t manage to put them in the way of the Barber’s weapon. The shears were knocked up and to one side, instead. They grazed cheekbone, temple, scalp, and ear, carving away wood and bone that marked my claim to that part of Rose’s face.
I cut at him, in turn, a halfhearted backhand slice at his midsection, given how I needed to move my weapon-wielding hand anyhow. I saw the line appear, red, raw.
It closed instantly, knitting together with those black, leech-like masses. Just as the Barber had been damaged but never actually hurt. Never debilitated.
But, as efforts went, it perhaps made him a fraction of a percentage point less Johannes, a bit more Barber.
My damaged hand, cut by the shears earlier, went up to catch at one of his wrists. I seized him, and he didn’t seem to care. His eyes were elsewhere, looking over and past me.
I saw his lips move.
White light consumed him. My hand closed over nothing.
The screaming I’d heard earlier was getting louder.
It was Mags, her goblin in tow. A goblin, short, fat and wrinkled, was clad entirely in armor that looked like it had been made with some sheet metal clippers and liberal time spent in a junkyard. It had a shield that was taller than the goblin was, and both a hunched-over Mags and the goblin were taking shelter behind it.
“Hot!” the goblin screamed. “It’s hot!”
They reached the pillar. The goblin positioned the shield so it added to the cover the pillar provided.
“Where is he!?” Mags shouted, over the goblin’s whining and the roar of the flames.
“Faysal moved him!”
I didn’t catch Mags’ expletive.
“Hot hot fuck me it’s hot!”
“Why didn’t you use him earlier!?” I called out.
“He’s a coward!”
“Fuck you!” the goblin retorted.
The dragon’s fire was more like napalm than a simple continuous blast of fire. Where it moved through the air, it made for thick licks of fire. Where it touched the rooftop, it spattered, making stone burn with all the eagerness and enthusiasm that wood or paper might.
It wasn’t stopping.
It wasn’t stopping, and I was almost certain that the Barber wouldn’t leave it at that.
He’s playing a role. He’s trying to hold on to Johannes, avoiding doing anything that could jeopardize this claim to a demesne that he might be able to use.
What would Johannes do?
If the pillar fell, we would lose all of the cover we had. The flames could keep coming, and we’d bake. I’d combust, by virtue of the heat around me. We might well suffocate before anything else.
Both were possible even if he left the pillar where it was.
But he had no reason to leave the pillar where it was.
No reason, except to keep us here, waiting for the dragon to run out of fire.
“We have to go back!” I shouted.
Mags seemed to get it.
The goblin didn’t.
“Go!” Mags ordered. She gave him a kick in the rear end.
He did go, and very nearly left before I could join them, with me throwing myself past the licks of accelerant-fueled fire that danced in the gap between shield and pillar.
It wasn’t a long trip to the stairs, but with my focus on the fire, the dragon, the shield, and positioning myself exceedingly carefully in the midst of it all, joining Mags and the goblin in taking a zig-zagging path, I did my utmost not to let myself burn or walk on any patches of ignited ground, I very nearly missed it.
I’d guessed wrong when it came to the Barber’s goal here.
The railing rose, the space between the top of the railing and the floor of the roof grew thicker, with curls of metal and stone filling in to become a wall.
Ringing the tower, sealing everything in.
Turning this into an oven.
Four enemies to fight. Demon, gatekeeper, dragon, and the tower itself.
“Keep going, protect the others!” I shouted.
“What!?” Mags asked.
But I was already changing course. Separating from her. The intensity of the fire got worse as I stepped further from the shield-bearing goblin.
Pieces of wood at my back ignited. One foot did as well.
I could feel Rose’s flesh sear and burn, and it was a pain unlike just about anything I’d ever felt.
But I reached the railing, staggered into it, and cut at it with the Hyena to chop at a piece of it, pushing myself through the biggest gap.
It now shielded me from the fire, giving me avenue to pause. Hanging on with one hand, I used the Hyena to hack at myself. Cutting away wood where it burned, too generous in how I cut, just to be sure I didn’t miss anything. I left Rose’s foot as it was, seared by licks of the flame.
I climbed. Up the exterior wall, onto a pillar.
The fire had stopped, and had perhaps stopped some time ago, but the flames remained intense, burning as if they consumed fire for fuel, endless, roiling, dying out in one place even as it surged in another for no apparent reason.
Looking down, I couldn’t make out the others. They’d retreated into the stairwell, and the fire danced above them.
In the midst of the fire, I could see the Barber. He was joined by the dragon, which moved awkwardly, its entire form and function altered by the way it had been parted.
I was twelve feet up, twenty feet away from the Barber. Armed with only a broken sword.
We weren’t equipped to win this fight as it stood. There were too many heavy hitters.
I stabbed the Hyena into the pillar’s top for leverage, in case he tried something.
The Barber saw me, using the Sight. Or he sensed the offense to the demesne he sought to control.
I was ready for him to move up here. A fight with a burning rooftop below and a fatal drop to the street on the other side.
He ignored me. He used his shears to cut at the flame, severing it like he might paper. A swat of the tool, another cut, and he created a path for himself, the dragon right behind. Moving perpendicular to me, as if inviting me to come.
No, he was forcing my hand.
He was leading the dragon to the stairwell. From there, all he had to do was fill it with fire. The others wouldn’t be able to hold it off. They just weren’t equipped for it.
Have to remove a threat. Can’t do anything about the angel, the Barber is too careful…
My eye fell on the dragon.
Fuck me, I thought. It was really my only chance.
I found myself running along the top of the wall, following the route they were traveling. With the circular nature of the roof, we naturally converged.
I leaped, with all of my strength. I flew, for lack of a better word.
No longer breathing fire, readying for its next blast, the dragon was focused on the stairwell, the Barber was focused on me. I couldn’t touch him. He’d meet my blade again, and he’d move away if he felt threatened.
I landed on the Dragon’s wing, tumbled, and only just managed to grab the dragon’s shoulder to stop myself from falling off to one side, at the base of the wall. The fire there was only part of it.
My goal lay elsewhere. With the leverage the grab had afforded me, I hurled myself over. Into the v-shaped gap where the dragon’s body parted.
Into the divide the Barber had made. With white-hot burning scales on either side of me.
I stabbed the part that looked most like a heart.
I saw the dragon wither, staggering away.
It made for a feeling of victory, however fleeting and tinged with the other danger that was moments away, but even that feeling faded fast.
As I turned, I saw that the Barber had answered my stab with a cut of his own. He’d finished cutting the Dragon.
Now whole, its sickened and dying half killed by my sword, the Dragon rested against the wall. Patches of flame surrounded me, and the Barber faced me, weapon at the ready.