Category Archives: 16.11

Judgment 16.11

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Dragon and demon-possessed practitioner were poised to strike at me.  The dragon’s teeth were slightly parted, and liquid fire ran out the corners like drool from a dog’s mouth.  It had been poised to breathe fire before I’d acted, and that hadn’t changed, even though the dragon had been cut in half.

Even if I’d wanted to move, I’d have had to dodge the spatters of fire that littered the battlefield.  Where the area could be navigated, the fire stretched up to calf or knee height from pools no wider across than my feet, patterned with no rhyme or reason.  Picking my way through would be hard enough, but getting any distance before getting cut off by a bad spread of fire- no.

No way I could move fast or far enough to get away before the dragon could spit its fire at my back.

The dragon’s fire was less concerning than the Barber, who was ready to use its demonic implement on me and Rose both.

I had one second to process the situation before the dragon shook its head, getting its senses.  The spittle flew to either side, thankfully leaving me untouched, though it made the Barber raise an arm to shield his face.  Dots of burning dragon’s spit speckled his jacket sleeve and arm.

An opening.

I lunged for him, my eyes dropping to track the spots where I could safely place my feet and legs, then rising up to look at him.

Eye contact.

Eye contact, insofar as he had eyes, anyway.  I felt a kind of despair as it happened, because I knew that I couldn’t change course.  I couldn’t do anything except face the situation head on, watching as the shears were moved, raised as a weapon.

All the same, I followed through.  I rushed him, felt the shears draw together at the blade of the Hyena, and carried forward, charging into him.  My shoulder bumped his hands, the crossed weapons pressed between us, neither successfully cutting flesh.

I’d hoped to drive him back, force him to stagger back into open fires, but he barely budged.  Too strong.  Bigger than me.  Somehow more rooted in this reality.

With my free, damaged hand, I reached up, and, unable to reach his face, I scraped at his throat with the ragged, splintered portion.  Superficial damage, but I could see the more demonic tissues reaching out as blood welled, covering the wound, leaving a scabrous patch of black.  The remaining fingers and thumb of that hand bit into flesh, grabbing his windpipe.

My eyes stared at his, fully aware that the dragon was moving in my peripheral vision.

Turning on the two practitioners that were fighting a short distance away.

On the Barber and I.

Did you cut off the portion that was more bloodthirsty, in favor of the side that was more obedient?  Because I don’t think he’s following orders.  And you’re not in a position to give them.

As if answering my thought, the dragon growled, a deep, powerful sound that traveled along the ground to be felt in my feet and legs, low in the throat.

Sorry Rose, but if I can’t win this for us, I can at least take him with us as we lose.

I didn’t sense any protest.

My grip tightened, as if the body that was beneath the now-ruined veneer of criss-crossing branches was offering a touch more strength.  Holding on as if our existence depended on it, when it was very likely to be the opposite.

“Fay-” the Barber started.

I tightened my grip a fraction more, strangling out the rest of the order.

His hands were occupied.  Both held the shears.  I spotted the pipes dangling from one of his wrists, attached by a fine chain, but couldn’t reach for them without sparing vital leverage.

Tantalizing.  Almost bait.

The dragon’s turned its full focus to us.  Snout aimed our way.

The Barber pulled back, very clearly trying to dislodge my hand, but didn’t pull free.

The whole of my being was concentrated on the one partial hand that gripped his throat.  Two fingers on one side, one thumb on the other.

You can’t speak.  If you let go of the shears to do the snapping thing, I’ll stab you.  I’ll get you in the solar plexus, if not the heart.  I’ll take your air, or the center of your being, and that’s a victory for our side.  Let me keep going, and I’ll crush your windpipe.  Even if you heal it, your words won’t belong to Johannes anymore.

Let the dragon get us, and you’ll lose every part of you.

There was no fear in his eyes, but he did struggle again, shifting his grip, gripping the handles of the shears to push, as if attempting to use raw strength to drive me down to my knees, where I wouldn’t be able to get his throat.

Too little, too slow.  The dragon drew its neck pack, mouth parting slightly.

The Barber cut.  Severing an inch of the Hyena’s broken blade.  In that instant, several things happened.  He found the chance to snap his fingers, and the Dragon paused, watching us.

I shifted my weapon, aimed for the softer parts of the Barber’s stomach, and was deflected.  I managed to press myself in close, chest to chest, my left shoulder jammed against his right shoulder, leaving neither of us the leverage to swing or thrust.

With the close proximity, I could feel as something rippled over the Barber, beneath his clothes, very possibly beneath his skin.  A hundred snakes, or great leeches, coursing out of a source deep within him.

Tapping into a strength that wasn’t his.  It might have been something I could have used, that he was less Johannes now, but I wasn’t in a position to do anything except hold on to his throat and strive to keep his arms pinned closer to his body.

But as his strength grew, my ability to do that faltered.  He pushed out and back, shears against my shoulder.  He pushed down, in a grim parody of the king knighting someone, blade on the shoulder, and my knees buckled with the pressure.

I stabbed at his left arm with the Hyena, and the blade came away slick with blood and black ichor.

I stabbed again, over and over, and he healed as fast as I could hurt.  My arm popped and cracked, stretching beyond all tolerances as he forced me down.

As I was bent down, I could see the stairwell, the others.  Mags and Green Eyes.

Green Eyes looked scared, and I remembered that the dragon had burned her, and she hadn’t yet fully healed.

Mags was holding her piece of pipe, holding it out like a wand, but the Barber was holding me as a human shield.

All the same I maintained a grip on his throat.  More tenuous than before.

Thu,” he managed, rasping out the syllable.  He said another.  “Ban.”

Giant speak, I remembered.  A language of single syllables.  Just what he needed to communicate with the great beast.

A shape lunged from behind, and threw itself at the dragon’s head, knocking its aim off.

In the gloom, lit by fire from below, green orbs peered down at me, before the tail wrapped around, arms reaching down, constricting.

The dragon’s head moved in response to the impact.  Her fins flared, joining her body in obscuring the reptile’s vision.

The flaming fluids shot from the dragon’s nose, rather than its mouth, firing off to one side.  It lurched, and it threw itself against the exterior wall that ringed the place.

I didn’t have time to worry about her welfare.  There was only the Barber.  Forcing me down with a strength that didn’t belong to Johannes.

My grip started to slip.

He parted the shears, shifting the angle.  One blade at my shoulder, the other moving to one side.  The ‘v’ of the blades slid closer to my neck.

I let go, collapsing, falling backward.  I had an upside-down view of Mags, standing behind me.

Mags slammed the pipe together, firing a shot at the Barber’s head.  He whipped around, one hand leaving the shears to touch the wound.  Tendrils of ichor wrapped around his fingers in their effort to find and cover the damage.

“Go, Buttsack!” Mags ordered.

“Fuck you!” Buttsack replied.

“You’re bound!” Mags said.

“Fuck you, you lunatic!  You’re fucking crazy!  Call me forsworn!  Nothing’s gonna happen that’s worse than me going out there!”

The Barber straightened.  He coughed, a small sound, then said something under his breath.

White light flared, and he moved himself clear across the rooftop.

Face injured, arm injured.  And I was largely unhurt.

I started to rise, only to collapse partway through the process.

I blinked.

The arm I’d used to grab him was hurt.  My legs weren’t functioning right.  Even my back, Rose’s back, was locked up.

The power of adrenaline had kept me going, strength of fear, but it wasn’t capable of undoing damage.

Mags did something to move the fire around, stepping out of the stairwell.  She offered me a hand.  I was in the process of accepting it when other hands seized me, lifting me up from behind.  Peter.

Paige was still at the rear, crouched down, her attention on the dragon and Green Eyes. The thing was bucking, clawing blindly at a foe it hadn’t seen, putting holes in the wall and gouges in the ground.

I could have gone after the Barber, pursued the fight.  It even made sense, on a level, given the role he played.

But Green Eyes was a priority.  Taking on the one enemy here we could theoretically kill came a close second.

The dragon wretch, as I turned my back on our antagonist to focus on the reptile, was different than it had been.  Mangier, in the same way that a person left to fend for themselves in the wilderness might look tougher and more dangerous, even if it was only hardship that painted that picture.  The scales were ragged, but bristled like saw blades, there was a feral look in its eyes that hadn’t been there before, and it was leaner, narrower, with more muscle.

I moved, and I was surprised at how bad I was at that simple action.  Moving.  Putting one foot in front of the other.

The dragon wasn’t a complete being.  It had weaknesses.

As it happened, I’d seen a cross section of the monster, viewing its insides.

I knew exactly where its heart was.  Low in the chest.  The rib cage was triangular, and the heart rested at the lowest point.  I could see how the scales didn’t line up right.  The Hyena in my one good hand, I aimed it to match the gradient of the scales, to slide under and in.

My lunge missed entirely, as the thing wheeled its bulk around.  In the process, blind, it scraped its head against the wall, and Green Eyes with it.

Bloodied, twisted around, she lost her grip, dropping her constriction of the dragon’s head.  She pulled her tail up and away as it opened its mouth.  Its mouth was full of fluids, and they poured down to the base of the wall.

I backed away before it could splash up on or around me.  I wasn’t very intact.  Maybe only a quarter of my body was protected by the bogeyman exterior.  Rose’s body was almost as battered, inside.

“Blake, guys!” Paige called out.

The Barber.

Moving his pipes in the air, a circular motion.

I felt it like a stiff breeze.  I could see others touched by that same breeze.  Hitting each of us from different directions.

The fire, too, was touched.

Fluids had ignited, and fluids now spread.  Pushed by the effect, they were covering more ground.  The larger flames stayed just as large, but got wider.

I was put in mind of Rose’s sprint through the illusory flames.  Fire on either side of us, spreading, lifting, the gaps all closing.

Working to make the rooftop an expanse of dragonfire.

The spread was too fast.  I climbed onto the only thing that was available.  The Hyena stabbed the side of the dragon for traction, and my toes scratched at scales.  Rough, sharp, they were traction, allowing me to climb.

Before I’d found my first handhold, my wooden fingertips were smoking from contact with the beast.

It lurched, very nearly throwing me off, and lowered its head to claw at the offending mermaid that was clinging to its upper face.  She evaded the scratch and climbed over its head and onto its neck, to a point that head and claws couldn’t reach, between the dragon’s wings.

The dragon’s head turned to one side, peering over its own shoulder.  The eyelid was torn, ragged.

I climbed up higher, but already, the wood of my fingers and feet was turning black, smouldering.  I made a moment’s eye contact with Green Eyes.

“Thu!” the Barber spoke, and his voice had a ragged quality to it.  “Fi!

The dragon responded.  Its head drew back, neck shortening.  I could see spaces at the sides of its neck glow, as loose skin stretched and filled with fluids.  Gorge.

Aiming for the others?  The stairwell?

No.  Mags was manipulating fire, and Paige was drawing out a diagram with glowing lines.  The fire that Johannes was trying to move licked against the edge of the diagram, but didn’t pass it.  Fire wouldn’t hurt them.  Shouldn’t.

No, the dragon pointed its snout straight up.

Well, I suppose this was how dragons dealt with dragonslayers who thought they were clever, occupying the same blind spot as Green Eyes.

Green Eyes was shifting position, getting ready to pounce.  I could visualize the scene, see how she would be too late.  She might stop it partway, but she’d get the worst of it.

“No!” I barked out the word.  “Here!”

I extended my bad hand, as I ran along the dragon’s back.  I felt her take it.

We leaped together, though her leap was far more powerful.  Almost enough to screw us up.

I managed to catch the edge of the broken wall with the Hyena.  We swung out, and we swung around.  I lost my grip almost immediately, blade skittering over stone, but Green Eyes saved the day, finding a ledge.

I dangled from her grip.  I could see the firework spray of the fire spouting skyward, higher than the walls, though most seemed to strike sections of the remaining wall and pillars on the way up and the way down.  That which fell beyond the confines of the rooftop spread out around us.

I saw two droplets strike Green Eyes, felt it in her grip as she reacted, whole-body, head bowed.

Still, she lifted me up, so I could use the same ledge for a grip.  She fixed her position, and then clawed at the site of her wound.

We started scaling the wall, much as I had before.  I paused to sheath the Hyena in a gap in my midsection, then resumed climbing.

“I know you’re there, Blake,” I heard the Barber call out.  “I can see you with the Sight.”

The walls rattled.  I paused mid-climb to maintain my grip.

He kept talking.  “I negotiated with the Barber.  They aren’t about suffering, per se.  They aren’t evil.  That’s an affectation we gave them, just like the human shapes and symbols were.  Once my eyes were opened, I understood it all.  I saw the issues, I saw where we stood, in the midst of it all, and all I had to do was ask.  It’ll only be able to do its work in a small area.  Jacob’s Bell, Mags’ hometown, Port Hope, a sliver of Toronto.  I’ve asked it to be quick.  Merciful.”

I reached the top of the wall.  I paused, hesitating to show myself.

“You’ll all be snuffed out like a candle flame.  Absorbed into the… what you see above.  Time and space and id and ego won’t mean anything, there.  They’ll become momentary and endless, existent and abstract.  Compared to what we face every day, even on good days, it’s the kindest thing.  To not be.”

There was a note of humanity in his tone at the end of it all.  I looked up at the great spheres above us.

One was opening, closer than all of the rest.  Was that what he was doing, right now?

“That isn’t you speaking, Johannes!” I heard Mags.

The dragon roared.  I heard an impact.  I shut my eyes, forehead pressed against the stone wall in front of me.

We can’t win this like this, I thought.  Rose.  Please, you needed me to take over so you could think.  Do something.

I felt her move.

Words.  Names.  Titles.

The WelderThe Nurse of Darnby.  Bristles.

Stop, I communicated.

Stop.  I can’t practice.

There was a pause.

Another thud, an action on the Dragon’s part.

She tugged.

Not at a memory, or a feeling, or an idea.  Not at an experience of an internal structure within me.

At me.

I drew in a deep breath.

“Don’t…” I started.  I started to have second thoughts.  To abandon the others to the fight, instead of taking point?  It felt irresponsible.

But wasn’t that the same arrogance I’d accused Rose of?

“Don’t?” Green Eyes whispered.

“Don’t let me fall,” I said.

Then I receded.  I left the strength and the armor and the bogeyman bits where they were, and I retreated inside Rose, back to the deeper recesses.  The safe territory she’d gone to, to think.

I lost the ability to see, to hear, to think.  I wasn’t tapped into those senses, or those parts of the body.

My expectation was for Rose to summon her strength, to take over again, ready with the names at the tip of her tongue.

She didn’t.

Deep within, she met me.

I knew I was piecemeal.  I was surprised to find that Rose was much the same.  We were two broken stained glass windows, all ragged edges and hard lines, crudely constructed, both glowing from fires that burned within us.  The fires were pretty dim.  Too much of a push, and either of us could collapse inward.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

“We need to unseat the king from the hill.  Everything follows from that.  It should be fast, if we can manage it.”

“For this.  Right here.  We can’t budge him.  He’s strong, he can go wherever he wants, and he has a damn dragon.  Do you have a plan for this?”

“In part,” she said.  “I’ve gathered names.  I could use them, given a chance.  Bogeymen.  Dug through the recesses of my memory.  Stuff I looked at online, stuff I looked at in books that I might have left in the mirror world, when we changed places.  They’re not ones we’ve summoned and used up.”

“Bogeymen won’t win this for us,” I said.

“No,” she agreed.  “No, they won’t.  And even getting that done is hard.  I’m… not assigning blame.  But you’ve kind of left my body in bad shape.  If I take it over, I think I’ll be in too much pain to do anything.  It’s not… not me, but basic humanity.  Agony is a thing.”

I nodded.  “So.  We need my toughness and your practice.  You’re not going to suggest we merge back together or something?”

“No,” she said.  “That’s not possible.  The damage done is permanent.  If it was even remotely doable, I’d have already done it.”

I nodded.  I’d had to ask, but I wasn’t surprised in the slightest.

She said, “I need to patch myself up enough that I can deal with the pain.  I don’t think I can fix the damage that’s already been done.  I can use Conquest, for a bit of an Edge, but that’s a problem while you’re occupying me, and it’s not enough on its own.”

“Spit it out, Rose.”

“Your humanity.  I need some of it.  Maybe most of it.”

“Take it,” I said.

She stared at me.

Take it,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.  “There’s a tangential benefit here.  Because there’s not really much of you left, it’s not very useful.  You won’t default to a human shape.”

“Something else.”

“Yes.  Keep that in mind.  It might be easier if you don’t try.”

Not a human shape.  Alright.

“I understand.  You’re kicking me out, then?”

“Yes.  I hope Green Eyes is ready to catch us, because this is going to suck.”

I could see the white flowers creeping in around her.  Out of some affectation, Rose had them white.  Conquest.

She extended a broken hand, and let the flowers grow there, unfolding, vines stretching.

The vines reached for me, and began to pull me apart.

My awareness faded as I felt true pain, right at the heart of me.  Where we’d scraped each other before, this was something else altogether.

Taking my form.

I reached for something, a place to occupy, and I felt the branches and bones move, but they weren’t rooted in anything.

Just the opposite, they were being forced out.  My connection to Rose’s inner self and to Rose herself was cut.

The branches came away, a jumble.  Green Eyes’ iron grip on my wrist disintegrated as it ceased to be a wrist altogether.

I could feel the rush of wind, and I knew that we were falling.

I kept my eyes, I thought.

Kept my face.

The composition, however, was gone.  Rose had taken that, to fix scrapes and gouges in her own face, burns at the side of her neck.

I found them, digging inside, and pushed them out and forward.

I opened my eyes, and I saw the demonic realm of the Barber all around us, and I saw the tower top, disappearing.  Green Eyes, at the very edge of it, looking down with her namesake eyes.

As we turned over in the air, I could see the sea of spikes below.

Any form I want, I thought.

I reached out, and found anchorage along Rose’s arms and shoulders.  I found the skin of my face, not yet taken, scraps of meat that had lingered here and there, and stretched it all out as far as it would go.

Rose hadn’t patched up the holes in her own body.  She was light.

I gave her wings.  I was the wings.

I had an idea of how to glide, to fly.  I used it.

My vision was distorted, skewed.  I could see from the crooks of Rose’s elbows, where the wood was thicker, recesses in the knotting, overlapping mess of wood serving as eye sockets, in the absence of flesh.  Both eyes too far apart.

We reached a point near Green Eyes, and I shifted things around.  Focusing on gripping.  I found the Hyena directly between Rose’s shoulder blades and passed it along the wing to her right hand.  Wood served to form a gauntlet so the spikes wouldn’t impale her.

“The Welder,” she whispered.  She scratched a circle into the wall, then a name.  “Once known as Gunter Veit.  I name you and I call you.  You’ll find few fires hotter than these.  Follow the orders my allies give you.  Fight the dragon, distract the man with the black-scarred face.”

The circle shimmered, then became a gate.  Rose held out a hand, ready to catch him.

He didn’t need it.  Scarred from head to toe, the scar tissue had integrated with a welding mask he wore.  He had a heavy tank on his back.

Won’t he explode?  I wondered.

But he found a handhold, and he swung himself around a break in the wall, onto the rooftop, into flames taller than he was.

I watched as Rose started on the next diagram, my eye swiveling around.

Her flesh was too pale.  Almost artificial.  Her hair was lighter than before, but it made her look severe.  The scratches and cuts that remained looked as though they’d been placed there on purpose, a bad makeup artist’s work.

“The Nurse of Darnby,” Rose said.  “You wanted to put others out of their misery so badly you made your way out of the Abyss to keep doing it.  You can stop a lot of misery from happening here.  Let this be your crematorium.”

The nurse did need help.  She looked more like a snuffed matchstick than a person, but scraps of a charcoaled nurse’s uniform and white teeth in the burned shell marked her general form.  Green Eyes gave the woman a hand in swinging over to the same gap the Welder had used.

“Bristles,” Rose said.  She scratched out the name.  “Here boy.”

The fifty-pound animal that came out snarled and snapped, biting at me on the way out.  Once a dog, it was more scar tissue than anything else, from burns to tire treads.  Weapons and tools that had apparently been used to try to kill it stuck out of its back, sides, head and shoulders, like spines from a porcupine.

The dog that wouldn’t die, apparently.

“Go.  Get ’em!”  Rose ordered.

Bristles snorted, then began its climb.  It snarled at Green Eyes on the way up.

It didn’t venture into the flames, but ran along the top of the wall.

“Faceless woman,” Rose said.  “Resident of Jacob’s Bell.  If you’re out there, we need the help.”

“Ah, that’s what you’re doing,” the Barber spoke, his voice still worse for wear.

Rose’s eyes snapped upward.

“Too close to home, that one,” he said.  “She’s sworn to stay out of my realm.  Cause for me to say no.”

The wall began to undo the word ‘faceless’, the lines melting.

Rose moved, slashing at the word as it disappeared, “Everyone, anyone!  Denizens of the Abyss, I carve your names with one of your own!  Hyena, Thorburn Bogeyman, Rose Thorburn, novice scourge!  Thrice over, we are of the Abyss, and we plead your help!  If you are near, if you can hear-”

“Enough,” the Barber said.

One of the lines she’d etched deepened and widened.  I wasn’t sure Rose saw it.

I changed my shape, forcing Rose to release her grip on the wall.

I felt her reach for Green Eyes, I tensed the hand, a squeeze, a heartbeat’s pulse.

“Get back!” Rose called out.

The blades erupted from the exterior wall of the building.  One for the position Rose had just vacated.  One for Green Eyes.

Not technically within the confines of the rooftop.  Less of an interference for his ruse of being Johannes.

I saw the spray of blood, I saw Green Eyes’ grip falter.  She fell.

Wings.

I formed the wings, stretched out the membrane, the flesh.

Guided Rose to Green Eyes’ falling form.

More blades popped out between us and her.  I dodged two.  Rose brought her knees to her chest to avoid having her ankles cut by the third.

We didn’t catch Green Eyes so much as we collided with her.   I steered us into the wall, shoving Green Eyes against a window.

Please be okay, I thought.

More blades would spring out right there.  I knew it.

The question was whether she was capable of moving.

She managed to move at the last second.

“Up,” Rose said.  “Leave her.  If she can move now, she can move later.  Every second counts.  This is a chance.”

I took us up.  I hated to do it, but I took us up.

It was slow, glacial progress, requiring steady flapping, earning us inches at a time, and it was a progress made worse by the fact that the Barber was still there, and every time we drew close to the building, blades appeared, ten or twenty feet long.

“Dog,” Rose said.  “Faysal has to be a dog to be controlled by the pipes.  Even if we didn’t see him, he’s a dog somewhere.  It’s a weak point, just like Johannes is.  I think I know where he is.”

We rose above the tower.  A bird’s eye view.  Rose’s body, my wings.  The heat of the flames made flight easy, though smoke made visibility hard.

I was only wings now.  Not enough of me left.

The flames were dying in areas.  Oddly enough, it seemed to be Johannes that was quenching them.

I could make out the Welder and the Nurse.  They lurked within tall fires much like a lion might lurk in tall grass.  They circled the dragon, who already had a torn wing.  Little more than a distraction.

The Welder even looked larger than before.  He held a spike of metal in one hand, a torch in the other.

“That’s not what I was planning,” Rose murmured.  “But it could be worse, Blake.  Look.  Where isn’t the fire?”

She’d heard the comment earlier.  Lola’s stratagem.

The Barber was below us.  Watching Rose fly.  As we drew nearer, blades sprung from the uppermost portion of the railing-turned-wall.

“Demons function by absence, by destruction.  And he’s destroying flames closer to the throne.  There’s a reason.  Dive.  Right there.”

I dove.  We completely ignored the Barber, going for the throne.

More blades.  But we were too high above, giving the wall a wide berth.  Diving toward the middle of the roof, changing course-

“Forward,” Rose said, “Forward…”

The Barber’s voice carried over the crackle of fire.

A flash of light.

And he was right in front of us.

I had to veer off course.  I didn’t trust Rose’s movements or my own facility in moving her body.

Our landing was awkward.  I heard Rose gasp in pain.  She shifted position, intent on landing on all fours, and it was all I could do to keep the wings from being crumpled beneath her.

We were kneeling right where the dragon’s right head had been.

From this vantage point, we could see behind the throne.  Faysal’s form, hunched over, strained from head to toe, enclosed within a diagram.  One that fed into… all of this.

“I hereby declare that you are not Johannes Lillegard,” Rose called out.  “You do not have his face.  You do not have his voice.  You do not have his rapport with his familiar!  You corrupt his demesne and-”

The ground split.  Rose threw herself to one side.

A blade had sprouted.  From the rooftop.

Oh, fuck.

He was being serious.  The ruse of pretending to be Johannes was paper thin, now.

“Be careful!” Rose screamed the words.  “The Barber is-”

She was cut off as she had to move again.

More blades appeared.  They were indiscriminate.  The Dragon was speared four times, lifted clear off the ground, but not divided.

He wasn’t going that far, at least.

The others were left to scramble, running.

Faysal was contained within a cluster of blades, shielded from our interference.

“This is not your ideology, this is not how you fight!” Rose screamed the words.

Another blade, one Rose wasn’t prepared to avoid.

Even if she’d taken my humanity to patch up her human shape here and there, she was still hurt, still slower.

I extended more of myself, one wing’s worth of material to block the blade.  It was dashed to pieces.  The Hyena was part of it, and clattered to the ground.

Rose pushed herself forward, staggering at first, then running.  For the throne.

We had his weak points.  Rose was calling him on them.  Driving them home.

We just needed a final blow.

“You don’t have his face, you don’t have his voice!”  She repeated herself.  “You are not Johannes!  Johannes would not bind his familiar like this!  He would not corrupt his demesne!  Johannes would use the flute, not the shears!  On all three counts-”

Another near miss.  I moved to shield Rose, but she avoided it herself.

“You are not Johannes!”

Abruptly, I was caught.  Rose jerked in place, arm trapped.

We were bound.

Rose turned.

At three points around the rooftop were lawyers.  Ms. Lewis stood on top of the impaled dragon.

“And you are not going to save the world,” Ms. Lewis said.  She held a loop of platinum.

“This is a farce,” Rose called out.  Continuing to challenge all of this.  “You’ve lost.”

“Maybe the Barber won’t get his claim,” Ms. Lewis said.  “But we haven’t lost.  We have the Thorburn diabolist, and we can subject her to a fitting punishment for breaking the compact.”

Rose bowed her head.

I felt her clench her hand.

Not a fist.  A pulse.  A heartbeat.

A warning, much as I’d asked her to give Green Eyes.

Ah.  The loop of platinum.

Not to bind her, but to bind me.

I let her go.

Rose stumbled forward the last ten feet.

A blade erupted between her and the throne.

She twisted, kicking the flat of it.

Discredited.  Even the demesne doesn’t believe in Johannes anymore.

The blade broke as if it were made of glass.  Rose stumbled, staggered, and half-spun in the air as she practically fell in the seat.

The impact seemed to reverberate.  Her intact left hand, partially that of Conquest, two fingers a near ivory white, gripped the armrest.

There was a heartbeat’s pause.

Not a victory unto itself.

One step.

Her eyes turned to the remaining others.  “Help!”

She’d taken the hill, in a manner of speaking.  But taking the hill didn’t mean anything if we couldn’t keep it long enough to matter.

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