“Scared?” Rose asked.
“Yep,” I said. I moved the wreath, and checked it over. I pulled some tape from my pocket to fix a spot where a branch had come loose. Four feet across. I wasn’t sure how to make it fit any geometric principle, so I’d simply repeated a simple pattern. One large circle, one smaller circle, and y-shaped branches filling the space between, all taped together.
Evan descended, setting down on my shoulder.
“It’s an old building,” he said.
“Yeah,” I replied, still pushing the wreath forward.
“Plants growing all over it.”
“Yeah. Did you see anything?”
“No,” Evan said. “I looked in windows, but you said not to get too close.”
“Don’t want anything lunging out of the window to eat you,” I said.
“There’s nothing in a lot of the windows. No people, no things, no walls, no floors.”
“Yeah,” Rose said. “Only emptiness.”
“A little more afraid, now,” I said.
“Good,” Rose told me. “Fear keeps you alive. Just don’t panic. There are rules to follow. It’s abstract-”
“Can’t look straight at it,” I said.
“No. You’re going to have to put my mirrors away.”
“Yeah,” I said. I still carried the little stand-up mirrors that had been in the roadside kit. I began to put them away.
“We’re close,” Rose said. “Let’s get geared up. You know what your number one priority is.”
“Staying alive,” I said. “You and Evan are the scouts, you’re the voice. I’m the vulnerable lump of meat that you two are stuck with.”
I worked while I talked. Only two hands. Four things I really wanted to carry into the building. Gas can, emergency kit, torch and wreath. The torch slid into the holster I’d left for June, a plastic bag over the head, where I’d soaked a strip of bandage in gasoline.
“Evan, whatever happens, you can’t look at the monster, okay?” Rose asked.
“It might try to trick you. Just look away, and stay away, alright? It might be best if you stay outside the building, unless you absolutely have to come in.”
I put the emergency kit down on the edge of the wreath, and grabbed a few items, preparing. More tape, right pocket. Jumper cables, around my waist, clamps tucked into left pocket.
Box knife? I looked at the reflective surface.
“You heard what we said in the car? You know what tools we use here?”
“Light, fire, and growth?”
“Yes. If you see something, let us know.”
I removed the blade, sprayed it with the spray sealant, and scratched it with the bottom of the sealant can until the blade itself was uncovered. Blade replaced, knife in pocket.
“Can we have signals?” Evan asked. “In case we’re far away or something happens?”
“Signals are a fantastic idea,” I said. “Signal number one? Screaming? Screaming means something bad is happening.”
“Don’t be a jerk, Blake,” Rose said.
“I’m not,” I said, at the same time Evan said, “He’s not.”
“Ugh,” Rose said.
I tested the weight of the sealant in my hand. It wasn’t any heavier than a typical spray can, but my arm strength was practically nil. It was like the morning after my first day at work, feeling the impact of nine straight hours of physical activity.
“Can you sing?” Rose asked.
“No,” Evan said.
“Dunno how. Maybe.”
“You’re a song sparrow,” I said, as I stuck the sealant can in the pocket further down my leg, “I think. You’re not rusty enough to be a swamp sparrow, not red enough to be a fox sparrow. Maybe a Le Conte or Savannah sparrow?”
“You know birds,” Rose commented.
“There was a point where life sucked. Then life became okay. Good, even. When I think about the between times? Two memories stick with me. There’s the time Alexis reached out for help, and there’s the time I was in my first apartment. No furniture, aside from a few things I’d borrowed. Living on the street, you have to deal with boredom. You watch people. Deal with them all the time, but not really dealing with them. They’re there. No television, no computer, needed to occupy myself, stay sane and keep from backsliding and missing out on the opportunity I’d been given.”
“Bird watching?” Rose asked.
I nodded. Talking while I prepared myself. Emergency blanket? Why the hell not? It was small. Back pocket. Flashlight went in my other cargo pocket, further down my leg, along with two batteries.
“I try to rationalize it now, but I dunno if it makes sense. I wanted to be away from people some. I paid attention to the birds outside my window, even fed them until Joel got pissed off. My landlord.”
“I know who Joel is,” Rose said.
“Evan doesn’t. I’m explaining this to him too. I got my tattoos because I needed to do something to make what I had permanent. I would have done the moment Alexis helped me, but I dunno how I’d even do that. The birds… above it all, I like the aesthetic, and I liked the idea of the detail contrasted with the vague watercolor… I’m yammering on, here. You gotta stop me before I do that.”
There was a noticeable delay before Rose said, “No harm done. Does it help you to feel more grounded?”
I felt like the delay said more than what had actually come out of her mouth. “Yeah. I guess it does.”
“How are you physically?”
“I feel like I got gently rolled over by a few cars,” I said.
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Only to me, I guess,” I said. I checked everything was secure in my pockets. All of the stuff would make running difficult, but I wasn’t in any shape to run.
I made my way to the fence that enclosed the area, leaving the kit behind, hand on can and wreath. Weather-worn signs were bolted to the fence. No trespassing. A man in a circle with a line drawn through it. Barbed wire ran along the top of the fence.
In a way, the ‘no man’ thing seemed ironic. Or prophetic, depending on how I looked at it.
“Evan?” I asked.
He flew forward. The locked gate in the fence swung open. I kicked the door open wider and passed through.
There were tools here, abandoned so long they had gone rusty. Had a crew come here at some point to revitalize the place, only to disappear?
Shovel, not so useful. Hedge trimmers, same. Both were so rusty I doubted they would serve their purpose.
The building loomed. Graffiti covered every surface that humans could reach without the use of ladders, paint peeled from red brick. The windows were dark.
Wasn’t even good graffiti, I noted. Big, bulging letters, scrawled letters. People making a mark on the world, showing that they’d been here once upon a time.
That, too, was ironic in a way.
Fucking up here meant being forgotten, being erased. There would be no legacy. No mark left behind.
My existence, recent events excepted, had been a quiet one. I hadn’t made a huge impact in my parent’s lives. I hadn’t done anything so defining that removing me from the picture would make the world a noticeably different reality for anyone. No angel would be getting his wings from showing me some Blake-less world.
Practitioner bullshit aside, I couldn’t see myself having kids. I’d yet to see any good parenting, and it seemed better to be safe than sorry. I had Evan now, but Evan would leave the world when I did. I had friends that would mourn me. I hoped they would mourn me. Being accused of child murder might have hurt me on that front. But mourning was temporary. Those wounds healed.
I wanted to make a disturbance. If the universe maintained a balance, then I wanted to leave something of an imbalance in the grand scheme of things, to be big enough that the world would hurt a bit for my passing.
I clenched the handle of the gas can and the larger branch of the wreath.
Evan’s parents had cared. That much had been obvious.
“You think mom and dad will miss you, Rose?”
“…The fake mom and dad from fake memories?”
“Yeah, of course. Why?”
“Nothing,” I said.
My number one rule here was that I wasn’t allowed to die. The others relied on me to be some kind of pillar that fixed them in the world. Refining that rule… I wasn’t going to go quiet or gentle. Most certainly not into oblivion, as this demon would have me do.
The thought gave me the extra strength and grit I needed to scrape up a bit more energy from the bottom of the barrel, to move forward and ascend the metal stairs to the front door.
Someone had blocked the graffiti-painted door with a two-by-four to keep it from fully closing. Snow had blown against the front of the door and made it into the factory through the gap.
I moved the door and stepped within, my feet touching down on a cloud of powdery snow.
Darkness. Oppressive. I quickly tossed the wreath down onto the ground and limped into the center of it.
I reached for the flashlight and clicked it on, eyes on the ground.
The inside was very much the same as the outside, though the graffiti was more pronounced here, where the urban explorers had been able to take their time. I’d always been under the impression that graffiti artists had a code, and wouldn’t paint over each other’s work, but this stuff overlapped.
With my eyes fixed on the ground, picking up details from peripheral vision and stolen glances, the vague, nebulous shapes and colors that the graffiti left on the walls all seemed like they could be the demon, lying in wait. They were grimy, painted with the illusion of three dimensions, sometimes given three dimensions where leaves or architecture allowed.
The light the flashlight provided was seductive. I could feel the demon’s presence here. No connection I could make out, nothing obvious or apparent enough for me to put my finger on it. When the light was cast on more distant objects, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the demon was just behind me, or to the side of me. So close it could caress my cheek. When the light was closer, it was out there. Watching.
My eye wanted to follow the light. Human nature, common sense, a desire for security. Knowing had a way of making things better.
Distant or close, there was no sign of my demon quarry. I kept scanning my surroundings.
The plants had grown into the structure in patches, in much the same way weeds grew up from cracks or slats the sidewalk, but they were stunted, meager, and blighted. Places where the elements had been able to enter the building were littered with debris, the other places so clean and clear that the factory might have been open days ago. The room just inside the entrance was broad and empty of any fixtures. Stairs on the far side led to a catwalk that overlooked the bigger room beyond.
The ceiling had collapsed at one corner. More debris, more snow, and a fairly large barrier to progress.
Something moved at the edge of my field of vision. Not the demon. Evan, flying by and looking in.
Here and there, there were holes on the floor. Cracks, deep enough for me to lose a foot in them.
I knelt on the cold floor, and put the can of gasoline down. I drew the torch out, and removed the plastic bag that kept the gasoline within from soaking into my clothes.
I painted a circle on the floor with the torch, soaked it again, and continued painting. A more complex diagram, very similar to the one I’d seen used against Barbatorem in the house’s attic, but with a wide enough space to spare the wreath within.
I wasn’t even done when the light subtly changed. Rose doing her thing at the window at the far end. Covering things up on her side of the window, leaving space uncovered to let faint light through. It was… it was feeble and weak, I had to admit. It had seemed clearer in my head. But I had a dim oval of moonlight surrounding me.
Something moved in my peripheral vision. Not Evan. Not Rose. A stirring.
“Hurry,” Rose said. Faint and far away.
There was nothing to do but press on.
It took only a second to get the diagram burning. All of my surroundings were dimly illuminated, now, cast in faint yellow and orange. The shapes on the walls seemed to move back and forth as the flame did.
I saw it to my left. It was barely visible in the shadow before it retreated to further darkness, vague and nebulous when I looked at it without really looking. It moved like a hand without an accompanying body, of its own volition, using fingers to drag itself along the floor, perhaps. A bulky, multi-limbed, asymmetrical body, with limbs that moved so quickly they might have been flickering. Matte black. It might have been a spider gone wrong ten times over with some full-body cancer, or a giant hunchbacked man with a dozen arms that were stretched long enough to reach over and under one another. But it wasn’t. It was a demon of the choir of darkness. Something that had been given life in counterpoint to creation. It was aged limbs, withered ones, from every species and no species in particular.
It was nearly silent. There was only a shuffling, the faintest scrape of body against floor.
The front of the body disappeared, and some form of lower body or tail dragged behind it, like entrails trailing behind a man that had been bisected, a spine without the accompanying stomach, or a naked tail. The trailing flesh was bent in places, as if it had been broken badly and bones had reset improperly. A kind of detail that teased, invited me to look, as if it were a clue I could use. But looking was a trap.
The thing didn’t stop moving. I could make out the larger body shuffling forward to my right, and the ‘tail’ was still being dragged along the floor to my left.
Staring into the fire made my view of the darkness less clear when I moved my eyes to stare at a different section of floor. Afterimages danced in their wake, spots in my vision, and imagination filled in the gaps to tell me that I was looking at was a part of the demon.
There was no end to it. It thinned out, leading me to think its tail would pass me by, but then the tail turned out to be dragging something like a fleshy version of an ant’s abdomen, teardrop shaped, moist enough to leave a wet, slick on the ground. It smelled like bile tasted. More tissues dragged behind it.
There were now three places around me where the tissue was dragging along in a continuous, snake-like mass. There were features on parts to my right that didn’t match what I’d seen on my left earlier.
The shuffling could be heard from every direction. Something was knocked over and the collapse prompted more collapses.
“Demon,” Rose’s voice echoed throughout the space. “I am Rose Thorburn of the Thorburn line. All of the choirs know who we are. We are not to be trifled with.”
I heard spattering behind me.
I couldn’t see without taking my eyes off the ground within my circles, but I could infer from the black spatter that was falling down onto the floor.
Some landed just beside my flaming circle, spatter sizzling in the flame itself. The flame’s intensity dropped.
If he was close enough to do that, the circle of moonlight wasn’t doing enough. Couldn’t say whether that was because moonlight didn’t work or it wasn’t clear enough as diagrams went.
“Demon, I compel you to tell me your name! Tell me, or I will claim the right to name you! I will repeat myself thrice times thrice. Prove your weakness by refusing to provide an answer, and I will prove my strength by giving it!”
She hadn’t gone into any detail on this trick.
The demon stopped. All of the coils and cordons, the segments and limbs, they froze.
The only movement was the distortion in my field of vision, where my eyes had gotten used to movement. The darkness kept moving, even as the demon remained still.
There was silence, still enough that I could hear my own heartbeat, the creak of the open front door being moved by wind, and the periodic drip of fluids falling from the demon’s body overhead.
It moved. Faster than before, from zero to fifty in a heartbeat. It took me a half second to realize why. Even if I had realized, even if I had been in perfect shape, I might not have been able to move fast enough to dodge.
Maybe it was a small grace that I couldn’t. I remained where I was, within the circle, not falling into fire or passing beyond any little protection it afforded, and I froze in stark terror rather than look at the massive shape that was now airborne, leaping my way.
It had doubled back, perching above the front door. It landed a matter of feet from me. Inches from the circle. The impact of the landing dashed pitch fluids from its body, a lopsided mouth yawned open, then snapped shut. The blade of a guillotine.
Blood poured forth, and the demon shook its head like a dog might with caught prey, the movement distorting its features further.
The gore that flowed forth dashed out the flames of half of my circle, giving me only a fleeting glimpse before the darkness made it impossible to see, and the demon’s clutching limbs snatched at morsels. Where the light touched it, flesh sloughed away, showing muscle and bone, ill-fit together.
It reared back, to draw much of the main body away from the remaining flame, but the periodic spatter was now a downpour. Flesh falling away in pounds and gallons. Wet and smelling so violent that I doubted I’d be able to breathe, if I hadn’t already been holding my breath.
I was intact. Time seemed to go still. With the flames flaring and dying, the creature closer to the light than it had been, I could make out the fine detail, even with peripheral vision. I could tell that it had eyes that were less eyes and more slits in the darkness. Bright without being light.
I was already turning to run, feeling how uncooperative my body was. How slow.
Limbs caught me. Fat, brutish ones, like fingers that could bend in any combination of directions, and being so disproportionately long didn’t make them any less fat or brutish. They hooked between my legs and into the flesh of my belly, trapping one arm against my side. Clutching my body. My feet were lifted clear of the ground.
A flutter of wings. Evan flew right between the demon and me. As he’d cast the snow aside at the morgue window, the movement had an uncharacteristic force to it. Enough to dislodge the fingers, to lift me momentarily free.
I fought, and there was too much to fight off to allow me anything but flailing, weak flailing with my current state. I managed to get loose enough to slip my head free, and I toppled and dropped to the floor, my face mere inches from the ignited gasoline.
I flipped over, grabbing at the gasoline can. I didn’t bother with the wreath. The creature’s limbs and bulk were crushing it. Decimating it. A waste of time, putting that together.
It was clutching, limbs grasping one after another in Evan’s wake, reaching in awkward ways to stay out of the light and away from the flame, zig-zagging around the barrier with bends in places that shouldn’t have bent, as if it was breaking arms so those arms could work their way past the barrier.
I averted my eyes. I was coming dangerously close to looking, and it was all too easy for this demon to sinuously slide into my field of view.
When Evan was clearly out of the reach of the hands, coils fell away from the walls where the demon had suspended and hung them. A falling curtain, the closing portcullis.
Evan found his way through the gaps between the coils, segments and half-formed limbs, momentarily ceasing all flapping and continuing forward with momentum alone, so he could make himself small enough.
I was already moving. Sluggish compared to Evan and the demon both. I hopped over the flame, meager as it was, stumbled and crashed to the floor.
It loomed to the side, and I twisted my head away before I could look, twisting my arms around as well, can in hand. The contents sloshed out, touching the short patch of dying flame that still remained. It exploded to life with light and violence.
The demon was burned as if the flames themselves had touched it.
It recoiled, more like a snake than anything. The silhouette wasn’t so different from a cobra, top heavy, supported on too small a lower body.
The darkness consumed it.
I wasted no time in working on my new circle. Another splash-
It reacted. On the ceiling, trying to slip by, it recoiled once more, rearing back like a horse might, limbs flailing.
My gaze fixed on the ground, I wasn’t ready or aware enough to see what it was doing. It lunged again.
This time, it simply crashed into the wall of flame. The fire did far more damage than it should have. Incinerating mountains of flesh, torching bent limbs and digits.
In its death throes, it clutched. One claw blindly reached a foot over my head, me, only to disintegrate as it passed further into the space. A ‘hand’ reached out to the side, then jammed itself into the thing’s yawning mouth.
Guillotine teeth severed the hand. Blood flowed forth. Not the demon’s.
This time I was ready, repairing the barrier with splashes of gasoline.
A naked, jawbone lined with yellowed, uneven fangs clattered to the ground, gums included.
I couldn’t wrap my head around any of it, and that wasn’t helping my mental state. My hand shook so violently from fatigue and fear both that I dropped the gasoline. Depositing a pool right in front of me. Dangerous and wasteful.
It was destroying itself, feeding more and more of itself into the fire.
If there were hints or clues as to why in the creature’s behavior or body language, I couldn’t see it.
I grabbed the gasoline and righted it, then mopped up what I could with the torch’s head, drawing out more of a line. Two splashes of gasoline closed the circuit, setting the flame alight.
This wouldn’t burn forever.
My eyes fell on the ruins of the roof, on lengths of what had to be too-damp wood.
But still wood.
Outside of the circle. Beneath reams of the demon’s flesh that had yet to be fed into the fires.
“Blake!” Rose screamed.
I turned, but all I experienced was disorientation. I couldn’t search for Rose, because the demon was leveraging its sheer mass to make it impossible to look anywhere without risking looking at it.
My careful and furtive glances around me showed that the demon had cut itself off. This part of itself that it was feeding into the fire was dead. Like a worm cut in two, it had grown another head.
That head had thrust its way into one window, high above. Nothing in the neighboring windows suggested that it had left that same windowframe. It had gone in, it hadn’t gone out.
It was in Rose’s domain.
Rather than risk moving my eyes across the intervening space, I closed my eyes until I was looking straight down.
I struggled to find my feet, swayed, and nearly collapsed into the fire. Or, worse, over the other side of the circle.
Was it a trick? I couldn’t imagine it was.
I dropped the gas can and torch, reached into my pocket and withdrew the small mirror. I held it straight overhead, covering it with my other hand, and faced it straight down.
“Here!” I shouted.
I moved my eyes along my body, a safe territory, up my arm, and to the mirror.
Reflected in the mirror, safe within the circle, was Rose, curled up on the ground, so she could remain small enough to be entirely within the reflection.
The demon’s strategy and form had both changed, though it remained a sinuous thing, a centipede of spidery, grasping limbs at the top end and an endless snake body fashioned of oversized intestine, spine and segmented insect parts at the bottom. A bulbous, tumorous mass three times as wide as a window hit the wall, squeezing through with enough force that fluids leaked forth, streaking the wall beneath. The fluids encroached on my circle of flame, but stopped short of interfering with it.
The demon’s reflection was it, as much as any part of it. It passed in and out of windows and unrusted patches of metal without traveling the intervening space. It kept extending, spreading, claiming all of the darkness. Becoming the darkness.
It chose only the windows shrouded in enough shadow that I couldn’t see if there was glass or not, metal in the gloom. At times it bubbled before it erupted forth, seeping in. Other times, it simply lunged out. When the clouds shifted and a window saw more light, the demon simply abandoned that section of itself, letting it blister, boil, and die.
I could only hope there was no angle or means by which it could enter the mirror I held.
I heard a scream, and my thoughts turned to Evan.
Not trickery either. Blood spattered windows, and the creature used the resulting gloom to occupy more territory. The light that filtered through the stained glass was red.
There was the light of the circle, faint moonlight that came in through some windows and around the collapsed section of roof, and darkness.
This time, when I saw spots and blotches in the darkness, phantom movement in my peripheral vision, it was real.
I could not look directly at the dark here without looking at the demon. At cords and sinews rubbing against one another, columns of flesh grinding against limbs.
It finished eating whatever it had caught and murdered in order to stain the windows crimson.
“It dawns on me,” I whispered, feeling somewhat numb, “That we really should have hunted this demon in daylight.”
“We’re in over our heads,” Rose said.
The demon’s movements continued. I was put in mind of a boa constrictor drawing tighter. Parts rubbing against one another, locking in. Crushing our little patch of fire-circle light tighter.
I looked to the window, and what had been a gap between the windows uncoiled. My eye moved a fraction, and I was looking at the demon.
I looked away, and I saw that ‘s’ of bent, broken tail, or arm, staying in my field of vision. creeping out.
I fumbled for and grabbed the flashlight, raising it to my eye. I held it there, half-blinding myself.
It helped, but not enough. I couldn’t light the torch without dropping Rose-
I dropped the flashlight, reaching to my back pocket. The blanket…
I opened the zip bag, clawing it with my fingers more than anything else.
I was going blind in one eye.
I unfurled the blanket, swept it across the patch of unlit gasoline, then into the flames. I reached up, grabbing too close to the flame, and thrust it at my face.
Not into my face, but enough to fill that one eye’s field of vision with fire and light.
The fire extended to cover the rest of the blanket, and I was forced to keep shifting my grip. My arm jumped as flames licked it, and I moved the blanket, only to give the remaining tendril ground at one side of my field of vision.
I reasserted my grip, moved the flaming corner of blanket, and burned the rest of the tendril away. I tossed the blanket into the sea of darkness, where it continued to burn.
Was this measure enough? It had only been a slim fraction of the demon. Maybe a bit of the demon’s power rather than the demon itself. Unintelligent…
No. There was nothing I could say to convince myself fully. I could have an expert look me over, and I wouldn’t be convinced.
But this thing didn’t seem to be that intelligent, to be that cunning. It would take over if it could, and it had tried. Now it had stopped. That had to be good enough.
Had it been both eyes, I might not have been able to do what I’d done here. I laughed a little, heady with relief and nervousness. I was all too aware of what else was in this space with us.
“You okay?” Rose asked.
“No,” I said. But the upside is this thing is apparently minor. Or was it moderate?”
“Being a smartass doesn’t help, Blake.”
More serious, I said, “You’re right. Um. I think three of our allies just died.”
“Three others. Maybe more, but I only saw three. At least one was a goblin.”
“We didn’t bring help.”
“We don’t remember bringing help,” I said. “If we don’t remember bringing any help, there’s none left, so I have to question how much it matters. It’s a moot point.”
“Moot point doesn’t mean it’s not a point.”
“It means it’s up for heated debate. And this is,” I said. “Just so you know, my arm is getting tired. I don’t have any stamina, Rose. I can’t hold this mirror overhead forever.”
“If I don’t have room in this circle, I’ll get shoved out there.”
“I know,” I said. “Can you jump to grandmother’s house?”
“I don’t think I can without crossing the space in between. She’s in the space in between.”
“Is it a she? I thought of it as more of a he. Or an it.”
“I don’t know, Blake,” Rose said. She sounded tired.
“Might as well try that binding again,” I said.
“Yeah,” Rose said.
A moment passed. She apparently needed to compose herself.
My hand was shaking so badly I thought I might drop the mirror. I felt more hollow than scared, but my body acted scared all the same.
“Demon! For the second time, I compel you to tell me your name! Tell me, or I’ll claim the power to name you! I will repeat myself thrice times thrice, all in all. Will you give your name, or will you let it lie fallow, all the weaker for being unused?”
“Sounds awfully good,” I said. “Will it work?”
“Supposed to,” Rose murmured. “But she can best me in a contest of her choosing, to claim the right to keep the name a secret. This is kind of a last ditch thing.”
“What if she can’t talk?”
“I don’t think she can’t not.”
“Why not repeat it seven more times, all at once?”
“Theatrics. It becomes a gimmick instead of a power play. Have to show confidence.”
“We’re not confident,” I murmured.
“Still have to show it,” she said. “Demon! You have not answered my last two entreaties!”
Good word, entreaties. If I were a demon, I’d give more weight to words like that.
I reached up and very carefully shifted the mirror to my other hand, to give my right hand a chance to relax.
“Name thyself, or forfeit that right! Nine times, I’ll say this, and I’m saying it for the third time now! I call you coward, for refusing me this nicety!”
Our entire world had been reduced to a space no more than five feet across. For all intents and purposes, the only thing beyond that circle was the demon, unfurling and unfolding, slithering against and through itself, the occasional mess of grasping, scrabbling, flailing limbs appearing in the molasses sea.
The fires were steadily dying. Gasoline could only burn for so long, and fluids were encroaching on our space.
I splashed out more gasoline to replace what was missing.
“Four times, I ask you, demon! Four times you decline to answer!” Rose’s voice was loud in the relative quiet. “Are you a mere beast? No better than a dumb spirit!?”
The coils constricted further. Our available space shrunk.
A shadow passed over one window. More of the demon’s mass occupied the area in between.
If I squinted and unfocused my eyes, the factory was only what it was. A dark factory. When I didn’t, when I looked clearly, the demon filled the space. Slithering, endless. Infinite.
“You have the torch,” Rose murmured.
“I do,” I replied.
“And how much gasoline left?”
I swished the can. “Not enough.”
“Light the torch?”
“I was waiting until we had a game plan. There’s a chance we can forge a path, use the torch to stay mobile-”
“Splash gasoline in our way?”
“Fire burns me too, Rose. That’s… I’d rather burn myself than let that thing get me, but I don’t think I can walk on fire long enough or fast enough to make the gamble. I’d fall and it would be over.”
“Okay,” she said.
I switched the mirror back to my right hand. It wasn’t only my hands that were failing. My legs didn’t feel strong. I swayed. The morass of demon in the space around us was making me feel seasick. Another ploy on its part?
“What game plan were you thinking of?” Rose asked.
“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” I said.
“What makes you think I have a plan?”
“I don’t think. I hope. Because my plan sucks moose balls.”
“What we saw, before she took over the factory… she didn’t touch the plants. She stays to the shadows, as a rule. Plants in places where the sunlight usually reaches were mostly okay. Patchy in other places. She’s staying in this building, when she could roam. She needs a den,” Rose said.
“A hiding spot. Probably the darkest place in the factory. If we can find and penetrate that place, maybe we could find the demon itself. Its heart, its head, its source. I dunno. It’s a gut feeling, I guess?”
“It’s a good plan,” I said. “Better than mine.”
“What’s your plan?”
“Get over there, to where the roof fell in, and get to the wood. Use it for a longer-burning fire, if we make it.”
“I didn’t get that far. But maybe you could ask for a name a couple more times? Speaking of?”
“Yeah,” Rose said. “Demon! This will be the fifth time now I’ve asked for a name. Five times, you’ve proven the coward. Name yourself, or-”
The demon rumbled. A groaning sound, as if the entire building were straining with the demon’s mass.
“Urrrrrr-” it whispered, a sound from very far away, off to one side.
I wasn’t sure, but I suspected maybe the ‘head’ was there. Be it the many-limbed head I’d seen earlier, or the actual source of the thing.
The guillotine teeth slammed shut, cutting off the prolonged syllable.
“Name thyself!” Rose called out.
Again, the guillotine teeth.
“It’s name is Ur?” I asked.
“Too short,” Rose said.
The teeth, slamming together…
I shifted the mirror to my other hand. I almost, trusting my body’s demands, sat down. I remembered I couldn’t, and shifted my weight instead.
“He’s eating it,” I said.
“He’s giving the name, and he’s eating most of it before it can reach us,” I said. “He’s technically obeying. It’s not going to work.”
“I guess that decides what our plan is going to be,” Rose said. “Your plan, it would only buy time. My plan, it’s a possible win.”
“Getting to the heart of the demon,” I said. “Probably that way, if it isn’t tricking us.”
“There’s a door and a stairwell leading down. Maybe a boiler room or something?”
“I don’t think you can keep that mirror clear of the demon when you leave this circle,” Rose said. “If you get me to the window, though, I can slip outside. Two paces out of your way, but it’s safer for all of us.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. The window wasn’t far.
Looking at the window, my eyes fell on Evan. He was there, perched on the far side, his wings spread.
A shadow had fallen over the window earlier. It had been my familiar.
“It sounds like a plan… but I think Evan has the better plan.”
“Forfeit. Like you said, we’re in over our heads. We run.”
“It’s… we can’t beat this. Not here, not on its turf, not in its medium. In the dark.”
“We burn the place down,” she said.
“Concrete and brick?” I asked. “I dunno. Maybe it could slip away in the darkness of the smoke. It’s not going to work.”
“Guess not,” Rose said.
I searched my pockets for matches, for a lighter…
A kind of horror hit me.
“I forgot to bring something to light the torch with,” I said.
“No,” Rose said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t have anything.”
“You lit the circle.”
“I-” I stopped.
“She ate it,” Rose said.
The thirty or forty feet to the door seemed far too far away.
“I can’t run,” I said.
“That’s… that looks like the longest walk I’ve ever had to make.”
“I know,” Rose said.
I closed my eyes, and turned to look to the window. I saluted Evan, who still remained there, perched on the snow that had accumulated on the window ledge, his small wings outstretched high and wide. The moon was above and behind him. He wasn’t so big that it mattered that much, but I respected the idea and the effort.
I bent down and ignited the torch by touching it to the flames below me.
I strode away from the door.
“Blake! Don’t be dumb!”
Torch slashing low, close to the ground.
Claws grasped at me, only to let go as the torch got closer to them.
Hands gripped at my ankles. I used gasoline to splash at the circle, eliciting flares of light and fire, and they let go.
Only a short distance to the nearest window.
“They’re in here!” Rose screamed. Then, “In the Thorburn name, I compel you to leave!”
I had no idea if it worked.
The main body of the demon was drawing closer, if my peripheral vision wasn’t lying to me. Flanking me. The head, complete with a mess of grasping limbs around it.
I grabbed the can of sealant and heaved it through the window. I was weak enough I thought it might bounce off. I had bad luck with breaking glass.
Glass shattered all the same, and without the grime obscuring it, it made the interior brighter.
I threw Rose’s mirror through the gap.
Hopefully she had a safe escape to Grandmother’s house, from the factory outskirts on. Nothing barring her path.
The demon’s proper body lunged, and its body constricted around me. I held up the torch and it fell back a fraction.
I nearly threw myself through the window, but I remembered the tendril that had hidden themselves in the space between windows, only to jump into my field of vision. If the panes of glass there were two feet by two feet across, was there something lurking in the meager space between?
I waved the shoddily-made torch around, coals falling off, and the constricting body fell back. I turned around. I now had a fifty foot trudge to the front door.
I started, pulling against claws and other limbs that scratched at my feet. Some weren’t shying away from the torch. I didn’t want to chance a look, out of fear that I’d blind myself permanently this time.
Evan used his trick, closing his wings, moving. The meager amount of moonlight that he’d been blocking flooded into the factory, and limbs and body all pulled away, overreacting.
The demon got its bearings. It closed the distance, moving faster than I could move my arm and the torch.
Evan came through the hole in the window, and tendrils and cords snapped shut just behind him, as though the window had hidden a net. He darted close to the demon, and the demon grasped for him. Dumbly pursuing the closest available target.
It bought me time. As the demon moved in pursuit of my familiar, the coils and limbs that moved and constricted around me weren’t moving with me as the target. They got in my way, but I could stagger over them, stumble through, and use the torch to scare away the worst of them.
I used the last of the gasoline, drawing a line from the the dwindling circle to my left. More tendrils moving and lurching, this time at Evan’s benefit. I let go of the empty can, letting it fall somewhere near the thin trail of fire and burning demon.
Fifteen feet. I staggered forward, nearly losing my balance. I could barely make out the door, had to shut my eyes for terrifying moments when the light began to fade, a cloud passing over the moon, because I couldn’t let the demon in.
Something barred my way. Like an arm in my path, pressing against my chest.
Evan flew close, and jarred it enough for me to slip past.
The head of the demon was drawing closer, shuffling, near-silent, and I heard teeth slam shut.
Evan turned, clearly intent on distracting it.
I caught Evan out of the air. “No.”
Let go. He took another path.
Something told me Evan wouldn’t escape a third time.
I ducked under the next limb to bar my way. Between fatigue and the activity of the demon, the increased shadow closer to the far wall, I felt like it was getting twice as hard with every handful of steps. As I bent low, the stretches of demon nearest to the floor shrunk away at the sudden approach of the light.
I saw one of the demon’s arms that didn’t shrink away.
Dead, severed. It had cut the arm off when it had been snatching up a goblin.
I grabbed it.
As I staggered to an upright position, though, my idiocy became apparent.
My torch hadn’t been made that well.
The wood branch that held the burning coil of gasoline-soaked bandage burned before the bandage did, and the head fell to the ground.
Ten feet to the door.
I kicked the torch’s head. Limbs and body shrunk away, and I broke into a shambling run, off-balance, so slow a person that was walking fast might have outrun me. The torch head bounced off the door, leaving a small, lingering flame.
Evan soared forth, through the gap of the partially open door.
I reached the door and Evan came back inside, forcefully enough to blow it open a fraction. I saw the approaching connection, moved my hand-
Dropped the useless torch-branch and caught him, instead of letting him continue forward, back inside.
We stepped out of the factory. The door banged against the two-by-four that still held it partially open.
I collapsed on the snow. I saw the limb shriveling in the light, and shoved it into the cold snow where the light wouldn’t find it.
Evan settled onto my stomach.
Only a detached limb to show for it. Three allies gone.
How were we supposed to face down Conquest like this?