|Alliance III: Compromise
Author: Guede Mazaka
Balthazar sat on the bed and eyed the new wards Dwight had hastily scrawled over the floor and the walls. The blood was so fresh most of it hadn’t even clotted yet, so the sigils gleamed and shimmered in the dying rays of dusk. Most of them he didn’t know, but he didn’t need to in order to feel the power vibrating off of them. It made his sore bones ache even more.
“How’s the martini?” Dwight said, ducking in through the door. He had an old milk jug that was sloshing half-full of blood, which he set on the bedside table.
“You have a king-size mattress, and your selection of drinking glasses consists of cracked mugs and martini glasses. You really do make a man wonder.” The blood in the glass Balthazar was holding was beginning to thicken. He put the rim to his lips and swirled his tongue in it to keep it thinned out a little longer. Now that he finally had something in his stomach, he was beginning to feel up to dealing with Gabriel again.
Of course, that wasn’t nearly the same as looking forward to it. Personally, Balthazar would rather have found a nice viewing spot, preferably in an exclusive hotel with more extensive room service, and let the others battle it out. His hands were itching to rearrange Gabriel’s guts, but after Gabriel had been secured and was in no position to retaliate. Fair play was something Balthazar left up to more foolish minds.
“Then a demon shouldn’t be surprised at all.” Dwight took off his coat and tossed it on the bed, then rolled up his sleeves. He uncapped the jug of blood and poured some into his cupped hands, red trickling through his fingers so it looked as if thin strings bound him to the floor.
A mutter and the blood froze in the air. Slow and careful, Dwight lifted his hand till it was level with his nose. The lines of blood stretched till they were so fine as to be almost invisible. He waited a moment for some signal, then began to tug and shape them into a hiss of a symbol that hung in the air.
“You can have the rest. This is all I need, but Miho went a little overboard on some out-of-towners that were making trouble,” Dwight said. His eyes stayed on his work, even when John came sauntering by the door.
Balthazar cheerfully raised his glass to Johnny’s pissed-off expression, but he dropped the act as soon as Johnny was out of sight. The blood in his glass was delicious, and he certainly could use it; he was no vampire, but blood was the richest source of magic around. Too rich most of the time—if he drank it while healthy, it had the same effect as a bottle of Jack Daniels did on Johnny. But right now he needed every single bit of magic he could pull into himself in order to heal, and so he shouldn’t have felt reluctant at all to drink. Even if it was an act of charity on Dwight’s part. That shouldn’t matter, and Balthazar should be perfectly capable to smiling gently, lapping it up and then turning on Dwight the moment he was well.
He didn’t think any of his thoughts showed on his face, but there must have been something, because Dwight noticed. “Don’t tell me your pride is getting to you. Just drink the damn stuff before it clots and stinks up this whole place. You can take it out on me later.”
“You’re remarkably generous about that kind of offer,” Balthazar muttered. Though he did down the rest of his glass, and then pour himself another one. “And later? Not if Gail can help it.”
“Don’t. Talk about her.” The sigil flared brilliantly before Dwight when he snapped his fingers, burning high and fast so it zipped out of existence a moment later.
All Balthazar felt was a slight tightening in the air, similar to the tension that gathered just before a storm broke, but the working seemed to take a great deal out of Dwight. The man weaved, then sat heavily on the corner of the bed, wiping at his sweaty brow. He rubbed his fingers over the bridge of his nose, back towards his temples and then down along his jaw. His shoulders slanted low as a defrocked priest’s morals.
“You’re off to play white knight and I have to sit here with Johnny and wait for Gabriel to show up.” Balthazar tipped back half the glass before refilling. He ignored how his hand shook once at the mention of Gabriel. “What else am I supposed to—”
“Why hasn’t he killed you yet?” Dwight abruptly twisted around to stare in annoyance at Balthazar. Of course, he wasn’t annoyed at the question. He was sympathetic and that was the real irritant.
If it hadn’t been a matter of pride before, it was now. “Gabriel? Because he’s used to having his victims come begging to him instead of having to hunt them down.”
“John,” Dwight clarified.
And Balthazar had already known who Dwight had really meant, but he hadn’t felt like giving a direct answer. He drank more blood, letting it roll over his tongue. The coppery aftertaste gathered in bitter pools in the corners of his mouth. “Do I have to explain this to you? You seemed to understand perfectly well before.”
“What, that sometimes you can’t stand to be around the one you love? Or that sometimes hate makes you know a person better? That just applies to me and Gail. You and John?” A harsh smile curled across Dwight’s face. “Blood’s thick, but hate’s thicker. I guess in your respective professions, it makes sense that your enemy would be your nearest and dearest. Closer than lovers.”
Balthazar didn’t want to snap the glass stem because he was planning to continue using the glass. He carefully set it down on the side-table and reminded himself that the jug contained more than enough blood for Dwight to be able to shatter his bones. “I suppose in your profession, it makes sense that you can know everything, but you’ve lost the ability to care. Apathy, I believe they call it.”
Both of them were subtly shading just far enough from the truth for their words to slash to the bone, yet not give away themselves. Because Dwight did care, as was evidenced by the way his white-knuckled hands ground around each other. And the acid gorge rising in Balthazar’s throat said he disagreed with Dwight on whether the one closest to him could called by as simple a word as ‘enemy,’ but he didn’t want to think too long about how and why he was disagreeing.
“This is stupid.” Dwight stood up and stared through the doorway, checking up on the others.
He’d spoken decisively enough for it to be a reasonable conclusion that he was leaving. So Balthazar saw nothing wrong in being too surprised to react when Dwight abruptly swung around, dragged Balthazar up off the bed and pried open Balthazar’s mouth with his lips. His tongue slid wetly past Balthazar’s, shoving it out of the way, and then Dwight tongue-fucked Balthazar so hard that Balthazar’s knees swayed apart.
A second later, he’d dropped Balthazar onto the mattress and was stepping back, hand wiping over his mouth. He seemed a little shocked at himself, but his expression consisted mostly of a brand of black-humored resignation that Balthazar found particularly grating. “There is going to be a ‘later,’ because I don’t want to bury your damn body here. I don’t want you ending up as part of Sin City.”
Dwight took a stride backward, then turned and went out the door. On the way, he passed John, who was trying to process everything with a deadpan face that did nothing to hide his conflicted feelings. Johnny finally settled on razor-edged sarcasm. “You know, that makes you the damsel in distress.”
“And you’d be my lady-in-waiting, then?” Balthazar riposted. He rearranged himself into a comfortable position on the bed and sipped blood.
After a moment, Johnny figured out that he’d better go run if he wanted to get any kind of farewell from Dwight. He left, which allowed Balthazar to sink down, stare at the ceiling and wonder what, exactly, was he becoming. He’d been content before, but events had drastically shifted the circumstances. Naturally, he was adapting. But the alterations necessary were…questionable, at the least. And he wasn’t coming up with answers to them that he liked.
* * *
“Son of a bitch! Bastard!”
Dwight looked up just in time to see Gail go storming out the door, leaving his phone dangling from the wall. He put down his half-loaded clip and went over to hang it up. Then he reconsidered and put it to his ear. “Hello?”
*Oh, Dwight? Did Gail go off—never mind, that’s not important. Miho’s in. You know the warehouse where we’re keeping the ammo and guns this month? That’s where Wallenquist is headed,* Daisy said.
Which explained Gail’s reaction. It was hard to keep a decent supply of weapons stored in Old Town for reasons besides the skimpy things that passed for Old Town girl dress: the cops would keep the truce, but only as long as they thought they could take down Old Town if they had to. An independent armory would set off their alarm bells, so Gail outsourced it to the docks, which everyone considered common ground since everyone occasionally needed to dump a body. But they needed that stockpile in order to keep Wallenquist at bay.
“Got it. I think…” a peek out the window showed Dwight that most of the girls were already on the run “…Gail’s coming. I’ll be along in a bit. Is Miho staying there?”
*Hell, I don’t know. She dropped in the window, she went out the window. I don’t know where she is now.*
Five to one she was heading for here. Gail and Dwight didn’t generally partner up during a fight because she had to lead the girls, and he liked to work on his own terms whenever possible. Usually that meant he was alone, but lately Miho had been coming along more often for whatever reasons made sense to her. He didn’t mind. And actually, he might be able to talk her into staying around the apartment. “Thanks, Daisy. Happy hunting.”
The only reply he received before she hung up was a hungry growl. Shaking his head, Dwight replaced the phone on the hook. He reached to the side for the clip and found thin air.
“I think you and I might have the same supplier,” John said. He was leaning against the kitchen counter, holding the clip in one hand. His other hand was hidden behind it; his wrist suddenly moved and a click shot through the room.
He’d slid a bullet into the clip. Breath still came slowly back to Dwight in spite of that realization. Suddenly Dwight wanted a cigarette. Goddamn it, he quit over and over, only to start up again whenever his nerves got the better of him. The damn things never helped much, nicotine stringing his nerves even tighter and the tiny cinders spreading the burn, but he never could talk himself out of shaking out a smoke. Or picking up one that was three-fourths used and then flung carelessly down on the countertop, scarlet lip-print stark on the black wrapper.
“Girlfriend hates surprises, huh.” John nodded towards the cigarette.
Dwight stuck it between his lips and took the clip back. A few quick motions and he was done loading it, but his hands seemed unconscionably slow about sliding it into his semiautomatic. “For the last time, Gail is not my girlfriend.”
“Yeah? She acts a hell of a lot like one.” Another spiral of smoke joined the one Dwight’s cigarette was sending up. They twined obscenely together as John shifted over to peer at Dwight. He was smiling at first, but the cockiness in his face gradually died away. “I don’t like playing bait, okay? And not with him for company.”
His shoulder jerked in the direction of the bedroom, which had been awfully quiet for the past couple minutes. Hopefully Balthazar was only trying to listen through the walls, and not attempting to crawl out the fire escape or anything stupid like that.
Another reason why Dwight should keep the hell away from cigarettes—they always made him snappish. “Why not? I thought you two had a pretty interesting way of passing the time.”
“What the hell is your—” John abruptly spun around, sucking his smoke down to ash within a minute. He flicked it into the sink, then slowly turned back to face Dwight. This time he was genuinely serious. “Do we have to start over again? I keep thinking I have to define terms or something…what is Gail, then?”
“The love of my life,” Dwight said without a trace of irony. He snapped the clip into his gun before tucking that away at the small of his back. Then he picked up the modified rifle and checked the scope. It was still cracked from where he’d had to club one persistent bastard down a couple weeks ago, but it was working. Worst came to worst, he could always just close his eyes and zero in on the pulse of blood moving through people. Of course, then there was a pretty good chance that he might not snap out of it in time.
For some reason, John was still staring at him. It was probably the longest, straightest look Dwight had ever seen John give anyone; usually John’s gaze was always moving, restlessly tracking every little change for a possible tip in his favor. “So what does that make me? Nicorette gum?”
Bitter words, but Dwight had long since learned to crack a soft, dark chuckle at bitterness. “Does it look like I’m quitting? I try and I try, but it never comes off. I’m stuck.”
“Thanks,” John snorted.
The rifle was fine. It was goddamned fine, and so Dwight was putting it down and finishing the last drag on his—Gail’s cigarette. Beneath the ashes and the sting of nicotine, he could taste the chemical waxiness of her lipstick, could smell the sweat of her skin. He blew out smoke as he stabbed out the butt, swallowed hard, and pulled John in by a fistful of the man’s shirt.
He didn’t keep hold of that fistful for long. His hands slid around to John’s sides. One went up to rub sweat-stiffened hair soft again, and the other down to smooth along the curve of a hip. They went slow, easy, no blood, and so it ended almost pleasantly, only a little bit of catch when John abruptly ducked his head to cough. They were pressed closely enough together for Dwight to feel every nasty vibration.
“Are you all right?” Dwight asked. He moved his hands to John’s waist so he could prop the other man over the sink if necessary.
John barked a laugh, face still pressed against Dwight’s cheek. His fingers suddenly dug in hard and deep so they punched into Dwight’s gut, and his body gave one hard shake that made them both stumble. “I want to fuck you,” he said, ragged and intense. His breathlessness sucked out Dwight’s air. “Fuck you, and hell, fuck Balthazar while he’s sucking on your cock, and everything else can just…you ever hate what you do?”
“Most of the time.” Some noise came from downstairs and Dwight tilted his head, listening. Gail, yelling that it was time to go, and he knew John heard as well because the fingers on Dwight’s sides sunk in that much deeper. He tugged gently at John’s shoulders, not expecting any give and not getting any.
The clock on the wall ticked off thirty seconds. From the bedroom came a startled exclamation and the unmistakable sound of a sword clicking an inch out of its scabbard. A moment later, Miho sauntered into the kitchen and then out it to the main room. She didn’t give them so much as a second look before she was curling herself up on the sofa. A little bit of Dwight’s worries evaporated.
He pulled again, and this time John almost shouldered off his hands by standing back so quickly. Dwight looked at him for another couple of seconds, taking in the tired stance and the waxy pallor and the belligerent set of the jaw. Then he reached past John, picked up his rifle, and headed for the door.
* * *
They were in a fucking cage. So the bars were meant to slow down Gabriel so he couldn’t rip them up before Dwight got back. So John still hated it and couldn’t sit still to look at them. He paced around the bedroom, studying what he could of the fresh wards Dwight had put up: a couple nerve-charged insights had shown him that most of the superstructure wasn’t fundamentally different from other kinds of magic. Just more powerful.
Of course, they had to leave a couple weak spots so Gabriel wouldn’t just look at it, think maybe another day and leave. Dwight wasn’t nearly as green-behind-the-ears as he kept saying he was, even if he’d only really been in this line of work for a couple years, and that made John worry about how plausible Gabriel was going to find it. He fiddled a little bit with one of the holes, trying to make it seem less intentional, and then the damn thing lashed out at him. Sent him jumping back so his knees banged the bed, a nice red welt springing to life on the back of his hand.
“I don’t know why I bothered with your friends,” Balthazar said. He was sitting crosslegged in the middle of the mattress, downing the last of the blood Dwight had left him and looking far too cool for John’s taste. Bastard had even managed to do something about his hair so it was neatly slicked back, though he was still forced to dress in whatever Dwight could find for him. “I could’ve just had you stuck in an elevator a few times and then you would’ve done my work for me.”
“Shut the fuck up.” Though that reminded John…either Chas or Hennessey was supposed to call him back by now. He’d given them Dwight’s phone number—and damn it, he’d forgotten about mentioning that to Dwight. It was much too late now, so John would just have to hope Dwight would get over it pretty fast.
It was a stupid hope, obviously. Maybe Dwight would just make John’s cure extra-painful.
A loud, grating rumble suddenly came from the alley-side of the building. John froze in his tracks, waiting for more.
Balthazar had also gone very still, but he relaxed faster. “It’s not Gabriel.”
“That wasn’t any truck downshifting on lousy gears, either.” Small apartment, so two steps took John to the window. He stayed to the side of it as he peered out into the falling dusk, searching for the source of the noise.
But the alley seemed to be empty—it was even clear of the piles of trash and the stray mutts that should have been there. Dwight didn’t have many things in his apartment, and he was far more careful than John was, but somehow John didn’t see him as that much of a neatnik. He wasn’t stupid enough to lift the window sash, but he did press closer to the glass in an effort to get a better look.
And he definitely got one. As he was staring at the pavement below, he heard the groaning, gnawing sound again, only this time it was accompanied by a visual explanation: the ground was cracking open. A fracture ripped down nearly the whole length of the alley, gaping apart to show the jagged ends of broken pipes and sparking wires.
It wasn’t an earthquake. Those, John knew damned well, and whatever was making the ground break wasn’t acting like any earthquake or even earth tremor he’d ever been in. Only the concrete around the crack was moving; from where he was standing, he could feel the barest amount of movement, and by rights he should’ve been thrown to the floor by now. And there was also the eerie sensation that it was deliberate, the nasty feeling he got whenever something non-human mimicked a human action.
“So that’s what they do with the bodies.” Balthazar had gotten off of the bed and now stood at John’s shoulder, staring down at the alley.
John started to ask what Balthazar meant, but his attention was yanked back to the alley when, with a snarling grumble, the crack snapped shut. Just like a gigantic mouth.
“Jesus…” Maybe the whole damn city was a demon. Not a half-breed, but a full-blooded one. And even then it had to be old—one of the very first that had sprung up after Lucifer had fallen. Made back when he was still raging at humanity and hadn’t yet figured out that the slow, insinuating approach caught more fish. “And I guess it’s hungry,” John added beneath his breath.
“I’d suggest that you climb over the sill, but I’m not certain how it’d like the cancer in your lungs.” Under Balthazar’s sarcasm was a layer of shaking nerves, and his hands gripped the sill hard enough to make it creak. He recognized whatever it was, or at least had a damn good idea about what was down there. “That explains why you don’t impress Dwight at all. If he has this in his backyard…”
The phone rang. Sudden and shrill, making John jump backwards. He came down awkwardly on one foot, stumbled and regained his balance. His cheeks felt a little red so he kept his back to Balthazar as he crossed to answer the call. “Don’t even start, okay? Because I bet you’d taste pretty goddamned good, what with all that blood you’ve been drinking.”
He picked up the phone and Hennessey’s eager slur poured right into John’s ear. *John? Hey. I got something for you. There was this double murder at Ravenscar.*
As always, John twitched when he heard that name. Twenty goddamned years since his stay there and here he was, hands starting up with that fine tremor as he hastily got himself a cigarette. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Balthazar had noticed and so John walked into the hall to continue the conversation. “Who?”
*These two women. Twins that did each other in. Isabel and Angela Dodson, one a patient and the other a cop. Decorated one—she had a big funeral and a nice obit. Apparently she was famous for racking up the body count. Killed twenty, thirty criminals on the job.*
So far it didn’t sound like much, aside from the usual tragedy that probably wasn’t really a tragedy. Being shoved in a mental institution tended to piss off a lot of people, especially when it came to their sane, clueless relatives. As John well knew. “What about the other one?”
*She was in for hearing things. Voices. Talking about things that weren’t there. I couldn’t dig up much, but Chas sneaked into the Ravenscar file room and got a peek at her file. Says near the end, she was talking a lot about angels, angels falling. Demons coming to get her.*
“Anything more specific?” Again, interesting in a tabloid way, but not particularly helpful to John. A lot of crazy people said that kind of thing, but they didn’t all have the Sight. Most of them were just crazy.
“John,” Balthazar suddenly said. He was still at the window looking out. His shoulders had hunched up beneath his shirt, and he was kneading the windowsill.
Idiot was going to scratch the wards there if he kept that up. John stalked over, only to get caught up by the cord about a yard short of Balthazar. He cursed and pulled, but all he got was the phone cradle threatening to rip out of the way. Trying to get Balthazar’s attention without also letting Hennessey know Balthazar was around was difficult, since the half-breed piece of shit was apparently mesmerized by whatever was outside.
*Well, I don’t know what Chas did, but he got a look at the visitors’ logs, too. Isabel has nobody visiting her for years except the sister. And suddenly, a week before they kill each other, she’s got some guy visiting her. Some kind of mental specialist that thought he could help, only Beeman checked it out and the guy doesn’t exist.*
Balthazar stepped slowly back from the window, hands still up in front of him as if he wanted to cast a spell but didn’t dare. He took another step backward, then turned around and scrambled onto the bed just as the wards flared: red lines sprang into existence and crisscrossed the room so it looked as if someone had covered them with a very large, very loosely-woven basket.
John had to jerk up the phone cord to keep it from getting zapped into pieces. “Listen, I’m sort of busy right now, so can you hurry it up?”
“Who is calling you now?” Balthazar hissed.
*Chas went back and chatted up the nurses—they think he’s adorable. But they don’t really remember the guy at all, except he had this habit of flipping a coin over the backs of his fingers.*
Ice filled up John’s veins and shot needle-thin spikes into his gut. He blinked, blinked again and then calmly said, “Thanks, Hennessey. Call you back later.”
“Hennessey? Your priest friend with the excessive love of the bottle?” Fear was sharpening Balthazar’s voice.
Well, he sounded better all scared anyway. John slowly lifted the phone, then dropped it. He vaguely realized that if Dwight was pissed off over his phone number getting out, then letting the wards laser the phone cord into several pieces wasn’t going to make him happier, but frankly, John didn’t give a shit right now. He had more important reasons to be upset, and one of them was sitting on the bed with a look that said he had an excellent idea as to why John really wanted to break his neck.
“John, a car just pulled up to the curb and Gabriel walked out of it. Gabriel’s not supposed to be able to come into this district.” Balthazar was speaking quickly, his eyes locked on John’s in some attempt to appeal to…what, John’s rationality? Was he kidding?
“You said you turned his offer down,” John gritted out, taking a step towards the bed. His hands were already in fists and grinding against his hips. “Before or after you fucked with the women?”
The wards crackled. A bang from the staircase made John swing around, but no one was there.
When he turned back to the bed, no one was there, either. Then something hit him in the back, dropping him to the floor in a ball of agony. But John wasn’t about to give over that easily; he kicked out, bringing Balthazar down as well, and then heaved himself on top of Balthazar. “You did that! You got them to kill each other and then you told Gabriel to go fuck himself, and Jesus Christ, you had the nerve to ask for help after that.”
“If I hadn’t, Mammon would already be roasting your carcass and sticking his tongue out at dear Daddy,” Balthazar snarled back. He jerked at his wrist, pinned beneath John’s hand, then abruptly twisted to throw John off. Before John could grab him, he’d scrambled back against the bed. “They didn’t have any training, he could’ve crossed over through them in a heart—You idiot! They’re on the stairs!”
“I can hear.” And they really shouldn’t be fighting right now, but goddamn it, Balthazar had gotten John into this mess and then he’d gone and fucked around with Dwight’s head. Gotten Dwight looking more slantwise at John than he should have, when here Balthazar had been getting innocent women killed, and that damned well wasn’t going to sit well with Dwight.
Snarling, Balthazar struck out at John. He missed, but he had been aiming more to break John’s chain of thought rather than to do any physical damage. “You stupid hypocrite—you don’t care about those girls. You just care because you couldn’t get Dwight to trust you enough so that you didn’t have to worry about me, and now you think you can discredit me. At least I never pretend to be what I’m not.”
“I—” John started.
Then the front door blew open. The wards surged, their lines thickening so much that John couldn’t even see who came in first. Not that he was looking, as that was a brilliant way to get a faceful of hell. He’d thrown himself to the side so his hip had slammed into the bedside table; Balthazar had gone over the bed and now was softly cursing on the other side. Someone screamed in the next room. The distinctive scent of burning flesh seeped into the air.
Balthazar’s cursing briefly stopped. His head peeked above the bed for a moment, then disappeared as he began murmuring again. Another man shouted, though his was coherent enough to make John suspect Balthazar had only wounded that one.
John reached behind himself and got the drawer open, then groped till he’d found the gun Dwight had left him. At least all the screams sounded human so far, so they weren’t at too much of a disadvantage.
He jerked, then spun to meet Balthazar’s grim gaze. Scratch that—Gabriel had just waltzed in and everything was going to hell. Maybe it was the usual state of John’s life, but that never made it any easier.
He snapped off the safety, squinted past the wildly rippling wards and shot.
* * *
Miho stayed in Dwight’s apartment long enough to take a fifteen-minute nap. She’d intended to take a longer one, but something woke her. A deep, uneasy feeling permeated the city and kept her from sleeping any longer, so she went out onto the roof and tried to see if the winds knew anything.
They didn’t, but the concrete beneath her feet grunted. She tried to lift her foot and couldn’t immediately do so—the ground clutched. She slammed her palm down, smacking power into the concrete, and as soon as she felt some give she was in the air, soaring across the alley to the neighboring building. Not one to make the same mistake twice, Miho kept on moving around, never in place long enough for the city to get a hold on her again.
It was already hungry. By now the first bodies should have been falling along the dock, but that was at the edge of Old Town, and Gail was leading. She knew to drag the corpses back inside Old Town’s borders, but she didn’t understand why in the way that Dwight did. If the fight had quickly escalated, she would have forgotten.
Dwight wouldn’t have, but he was distracted for other reasons. If Miho had been consulted on it, she would have rather seen Dwight staying in the apartment, if only because then he wouldn’t fret. There would have been a greater danger that he’d be taken by this Gabriel, but that risk wouldn’t depend so much on his state of mind, as it did now.
The streets were mainly empty of traffic—this wasn’t a popular cruising area—so Miho deemed it safe to take a quick walk-about. In an alley about five minutes away, she found a pair of college boys trying to have one of the newer girls without paying twice. A few quick cuts, and she was listening to the ground slurp up the blood with relish.
She was still listening when all her nerves sang high and loud. Beneath her, the street quivered in a restive growl.
“What the hell’s that?” panted the girl, still inexperienced enough to be hanging around.
Miho ignored her and quickly got back to the roofs. She raced to Dwight’s place, but by then it was too late. The brightness of the scarlet light and the thick blackness oozing out of the windows said that Gabriel was already inside. Soon Gabriel would figure out that Dwight wasn’t actually there, but instead had fabricated a trace of himself and had left Balthazar and John to anchor the illusion—convenient that Dwight had had sex with both. In terms of that spell, anyway. In terms of the gamble they’d all made, it was a serious disadvantage. If Miho knew Dwight at all, then he’d already panicked and was on his way back.
She crouched on the closest roof to the building and surveyed the street, assessing what damage she could do before he arrived. Several cars were parked along the curb and fairly well-guarded, but the guards were marveling at the strange happenings on the third floor. Miho slipped over the edge of the roof, already having picked out her first five targets.
* * *
Dwight paused to reload and an ice-cold frisson shuddered through his body. It almost got him shot in the head, and as it was, the bullet hit a crate only an inch from him. He instinctively leaped away, unsure whether the crate’s contents were explosive or not.
They weren’t, luckily. He pivoted to return fire, only to see Gail taking down the man. She shouted at him: “We on?”
“Have fun cleaning up!” he yelled back, already backtracking towards his car. He gave her a thumbs-up as he fired one-handed, clearing out a pack of hired guns that had been coming up on her left.
Gail’s smile was bright enough to be seen across the street—bright and sharp and nasty. She wasn’t quite far enough into her killing joy to not be angry and sad at him for having to go.
It made Dwight feel like a bastard, but he couldn’t stop. The wards were breaking down one by one in his head, falling much faster than he’d hoped, and he had to go. He vaulted the car door and slammed down in his seat, nearly ripping a groove in the steering wheel with his key. Nerves almost made him drop it before he finally jammed it in the ignition and got the car on the road.
By the time he arrived, the fighting was well underway. No bodies littered the street, but there were huge splashes of blood on the curb and the steps, and Dwight could sense Sin City’s satisfaction at what it’d gotten so far. He could also feel how much more it wanted. “Damn it. Just wait for once.”
The men around the cars had been Miho’s work. He followed the body parts inside and up the stairs to the second floor landing, which was when he caught up with her. She was just polishing off one groaning man; the swing of her sword nearly sent the poor son of a bitch’s head into Dwight’s face. He ducked and she looked up, then slashed to the side. Halfway through her swing, something stopped her sword. She made the same motion, and again an invisible wall arrested her motion.
It wasn’t local magic. When Dwight pressed his hands up against it, he damn near scorched off his palms. As it was, grabbing the railing to support his reel backwards hurt like a bastard. “Gabriel? But—but he can’t cross into this part of town.”
Miho angrily scratched a symbol in the blood puddling on the landing, which rose and tilted to fizzle out into nothing against the wards Gabriel had set up. She looked past Dwight, then suddenly stiffened.
He turned around and standing in the doorway was a languorous red-headed beauty that sent chills up Dwight’s spine. One of Wallenquist’s top lieutenants, with an assault rifle dangling at her side as if it were a Gucci purse.
“Mr. McCarthy?” she purred. “I believe you’re wanted upstairs. Herr Wallenquist would like me to inform you that you’re not the only man who can bargain with a hungry city—ahh!”
Thank God for enemies that always rambled on and on; the bitch hadn’t even noticed Miho till she was swerving away from Miho’s sword. The assault rifle fell to the floor, accidentally letting off a burst of bullets that sent Dwight to the floor. But neither of the women was injured—unfortunately. The redhead whipped out a telescoping metal rod, Miho slid forward, and the two of them were engaged.
Dwight didn’t need a word from Miho to know to make a run for it. He rammed his shoulder into the nearest door, which gave like an eggshell, so thank God for shoddy building materials as well. Nobody was home, so he had a clear path to the fire escape.
Fuck. Sin City hadn’t ever seemed to like Wallenquist before, so they hadn’t figured he could connect to it the way Dwight or Miho did. But they’d forgotten: everything was for sale in this town. And lately they hadn’t been able to feed it enough.
Well, that would change. Dwight was on the fire escape now, but going up and not down; the racket Miho and the redhead were making would draw attention, so he had to get up quick and interrupt whatever Gabriel was doing. Then Wallenquist would be short a partner and Dwight would have nothing to distract him from dealing with that son of a bitch once and for all.
He scrambled onto the ladder and his hand slipped on a slick rung. Cursing, Dwight hooked his arm over it, wondering who the hell had pissed—no. No, it was blood, and fuck, because he knew whose.
He looked up. A dark, twisting shape was swinging from the window of his apartment, just to the right of the fire escape. That’d be his bedroom window.
Far below, there came a horrible grinding noise, like giant teeth mashing on flesh. He looked down and he could see cracks opening up in the pavement. Worse than that, he could see that the bits of fractured pipes and snapped wiring were worming upwards, reaching for…blood was dripping from the body hanging from the window.
It was fresh, at least. Not dead yet, but this was going to make surprise more or less impossible. Gabriel knew Dwight was coming, knew how to work with Sin City, and he’d already gotten to Balthazar and John. Fuck. Fuck.
And sorry, because Dwight wasn’t going to give in quietly, and that meant he’d have to break a lot of promises. He knew Gail wasn’t going to forgive him. He didn’t think John would, either. Balthazar would probably laugh nastily and pull strings in Hell to get Dwight a first-class trip to the torture rooms.
But there wasn’t any other choice. Dwight was a heel and a bastard, and he wasn’t hesitating any more about climbing up. The iron rungs were rusted sharp and cut deep into his palms, so he gripped harder and let himself bleed.
* * *
If God hadn’t yet noticed that one of his soldiers was running amok, then he’d better have by now. Because Gabriel had simply walked through Dwight’s wards as if they’d been tissue-paper, and the only way he could’ve done that is if he’d found a way to undercut Dwight’s connection to Sin City. Which, as far as Balthazar knew, was certainly not a heaven-sanctioned method.
Neither was ripping strips from an enemy’s back and then hanging them by their wrists out the window like bait on a fish-hook, which was what Gabriel was just finishing up. He gave the knots holding Balthazar a last yank, a pat and a serene smile. “I believe you’ll have just enough time to regret betraying me before the city takes you,” he said.
The pain was excruciating, but not quite as bad as when Gabriel had charred Balthazar with a single breath. Possibly…Balthazar forced himself to think past the agony…a hint instead of simple vindictiveness. Hunger was an undiscriminating desire; Gabriel probably had to use a good deal of energy to make sure the city continued to recognize him as inedible.
Balthazar pretended—surrendered to shock long enough to convince Gabriel he was no longer a threat. Once Gabriel had gone back inside to deal with John, Balthazar willed himself out of his dazed state. It was a little less difficult than it would have been if the grumbling ground below him hadn’t been making gritty sucking sounds every time his blood dripped onto it. He hooked his fingers around the rope and pulled up his legs; he wasn’t wearing shoes so it was relatively easy to change toenails into claws and get a foothold in the brick. Less easy was ignoring how that movement brought fresh hot blood sluicing down his back and sent streaks of white pain through his whole body.
“Gabriel…you do realize you’ve completely lost it,” came John’s shaky voice. He sounded like he was stumbling around, hitting walls and falling over furniture.
Hopefully he was putting on an act in order to stall for time…and Balthazar knew an apocalypse was coming when he was hoping for Johnny’s success. He gritted his teeth, braced himself for the wave of pain he knew would come, and heaved himself up the rope.
It was worse than he’d predicted. He blacked out and nearly lost his grip, only to have to scramble up till he could get a hold on the windowsill. There he had to stop because the pain raced after him and hit him like the wrath of heaven. He concentrated on whimpering as soundlessly as possible, less for vanity’s sake and more to avoid attracting Gabriel’s attention.
When his vision cleared, he could see that no, John wasn’t faking it. Actually, Johnny was having a brutal fit of coughing and was on his knees in front of Gabriel, clutching his stomach as if he’d just taken a hard blow to it. Gabriel stood back and watched while John spat blood and jerked himself forward so far that he fell to the floor.
The Spear of Destiny was in Gabriel’s hand. Balthazar’s gaze shot to it and stayed there until his mind had worked past the pain and could understand what his instincts had realized: in order to stay quiescent, Sin City either needed a lot of ordinary blood, or a little of very powerful blood.
Blood of Christ. Nothing more powerful than that.
The alley suddenly let out a rumble that rattled the windowpanes; Balthazar was ready to drop back out of sight the moment Gabriel turned around, but Gabriel didn’t turn. A quick peek below told Balthazar he’d rather be watching what was going on inside as well. He didn’t need to see how the pavement was humping up around the crack, how some grotesque head was shaping itself out of the ground with mouth wide open beneath him.
“I’m surprised at you, John. I thought you of all people would understand the value of suffering,” Gabriel softly said. He leaned forward and put his hand beneath John’s jaw, gently lifting it so their eyes had to meet. “But if you will not stand aside…”
“…you’ll be run over by the train of progress?” The speaker followed the voice and stepped into the bedroom with strained casualness. Dwight didn’t look over at John’s start, but stared straight at Gabriel. “Hi. Dwight McCarthy. I hear you want to see me.”
Gabriel smiled again and wrenched John aside by the jaw. He deftly avoided John’s weak blow, hand slipping down an inch so he had John by the throat. Very slowly, he pulled John up so Dwight had a good view of John’s choking and clawing at Gabriel’s grip.
Dwight didn’t take it. He looked at Gabriel and very calmly began to strip off his coat. “You don’t have to do that.”
“Oh? Are you willing to cooperate?” Gabriel asked.
“Dwight…” John gasped.
Who ignored John. Though Dwight did pause when his coat was almost off, letting it dangle behind him from his wrists. There was something…Balthazar painfully eased further over the windowsill, taking a deep breath. Something about Dwight, something Balthazar should be smelling, only there was so much blood around the place that he couldn’t tell what it was.
The whole building suddenly shook to the side. Balthazar flinched and did not look down to see what had slammed into the side of it. He no longer cared whether Gabriel noticed him climbing over and simply yanked himself over the sill. His back flamed up as he jolted on the floor. One of his molars cracked because of how hard he was gritting his teeth.
Gabriel’s eyes did flick over to him, but apparently revenge had dropped off the agenda, because he received only a cursory glance before Gabriel’s attention returned to Dwight. “Spare these two, and…”
John twisted hard to stare fiercely at Dwight. “For God’s sake, we’d be spared for as long as it took to call up Mam—”
He choked off into incoherency as the fingers around his throat clenched till they’d turned his flesh nearly blue beneath their pressure. Now Dwight did look at John, jaw tightening. Then he returned his gaze to Gabriel, not quite as composed as before. “Can we get on with this? I don’t have all night.”
“Very well.” A flick of the wrist and John went skittering across to knock into Balthazar. Then Gabriel stepped forward, arms spreading as if he were about to embrace Dwight.
“Don’t—” John was hoarsely shouting. He tried to lift himself up, but he was too short of breath.
Idiot. Balthazar twisted out from under Johnny and bit at the ropes around his wrists. They were thick, and that damned molar of his screamed so he couldn’t saw through in one bite. He chewed hard and they finally parted just as Dwight let his coat slip completely off his hands. Both his wrists were slashed and bleeding freely; the dark fabric of the coat had hidden that before, but not now.
Gabriel saw. The beatific smile slipped off his face as if it’d been greased and he sucked in air.
John gasped and started to scramble upwards. While Balthazar would’ve normally been happy to let Johnny-boy fry himself on the power rising around Dwight, right now he needed John intact. He yanked the man back down and then slapped John when the moron persisted in fighting.
“What the hell—”
“The Spear,” Balthazar hissed. “Throw it out the win—”
That was as far as he got before Dwight and Gabriel both unleashed their power at the same time. Gabriel’s wind blew so hard it scorched paint off the walls and ripped Balthazar and John into the corner, but the apartment was so small that the tempest couldn’t blow itself out. Some of it curved back around, and when Balthazar felt the wind direction change, he kicked John into it. Then he drove his claws into the floor and held on as tightly as he could.
John went skidding around and towards the middle in a spiral that saw him slamming into Gabriel. The two of them went down just as the wind whipped Dwight’s blood into a cyclone of destructive power about them. The air crackled with copper and ozone—and with the smell of incinerated wood, clothes, flesh. Wherever the ribbons of blood touched, they dragged out huge gouges.
Bloodmages were rare. One, because their power required a lot of close killing and mutilation to maintain, and that meant they were often killed at an early age, or because they couldn’t cope mentally. Two, because they could destroy so much if they suicided in a certain way. Which Dwight was now in the process of doing.
The building shook again, knocking Balthazar loose from the floor. He clawed for a new grip, but couldn’t get one in time and went sliding towards—towards Dwight. At the same time, a bloody blur shot from where Gabriel had been: John. John with the Spear, and as soon as he was clear, the whirlwind abruptly closed in till it was only around Gabriel. It missed catching Balthazar by a hair; its edge ripped off an inch of the rope still whipping out from his wrists.
He slammed into Dwight and instantly grabbed for what he could—clothing, limbs—but Dwight was completely covered in blood. Balthazar’s fingers slipped and he scrambled to keep seizing more until he’d somehow gotten his arms wrapped around one of Dwight’s.
The wind was dying down now, only to be replaced with faint screaming from within the cyclone. Gabriel, yelling for ‘Father.’ As the shrieks went on and no heavenly reply came, they gained a pleasingly desperate tone.
Still, no time to enjoy that, because judging from Dwight’s color, he’d still have enough life left after Gabriel to lash out for a few seconds longer. And he wasn’t going to be conscious enough to know what he was hitting.
“Balthazar! Make him stop!” John yelled. He’d ended up by the window, slumped on the floor while little ribbons of blood trickled from a half-dozen cuts. The blood was being…drawn into the whirlwind.
Balthazar looked at himself and realized the same thing was happening to him. He immediately grabbed for Dwight’s wrist, but a wave of dizziness overtook him and he missed. His hand knocked against the floor and he fell over Dwight’s chest, gasping.
The building rattled again.
“Make him stop!”
“Throw that damned thing out the window!” Balthazar snarled back, groping for Dwight’s arm. He found it and squeezed his hand on the artery to cut off the blood flow, then reached for the other one. “The city’s crawling up for the blood!”
“What—right.” John tossed the Spear over his shoulder and out the window as if it were a cigarette butt, then dragged himself across the floor.
He was three-fourths of the way over when the ground violently shook. Balthazar managed to retain his grip on one arm, but he lost hold of the other and the whirlwind, which had been dying down, surged up again. It snatched at his bloody back and he wrenched himself away to collapse on the floor besides Dwight.
A sense of deep calm pervaded the room. If Balthazar had been in a position to rip out its throat, he would have. Yes, fine and well for Basin City to finally be satisfied, but Dwight was rapidly losing color and Balthazar no longer had the strength to keep a tourniquet grip on Dwight’s arms.
“Goddamn it!” Someone yanked him off—Johnny, pushing in to take Dwight by the shoulders and shake him hard. “Goddamn it, snap out of it!”
But what snapped were the threads of blood: they ripped away from the flayed body that was Gabriel and suddenly wrapped around Balthazar and John. A thousand little sucking mouths attached themselves to Balthazar and in a second he was so weak he couldn’t lift his head from Dwight’s chest. He fought—John fought, but the pull was too strong.
“Goddamn it…” John moaned. It was hard to see, but his cheeks looked wet. He was hunched over Dwight, an effort that visibly took all his energy.
“You got your wish,” Balthazar muttered. “It’s not cancer.”
Somehow John had the energy to jab weakly at him with an elbow. They stared at each other, and then John collapsed another inch. But oddly enough, he was smiling, and it was the old cocky smile. He pressed himself up Dwight and rested his forehead on Dwight’s. “And you’re getting yours—get to watch me die.” Ragged breath. “Hey, Dwight? Okay. Okay. Just…get a better habit than me after this.”
And then John stopped resisting. He was limp and cold in an instant. The blood whirled up and up till it was all Balthazar could see.
* * *
John knew he was going to die. Surprisingly enough, he was okay with that. He should’ve been the angriest he’d ever been, but he wasn’t.
Well. Gabriel was definitely out of the picture, even if John didn’t know whether he was actually dead. Balthazar was coming along for the ride as well, so he couldn’t one-up John and he was where John could keep tabs on him. And Dwight was a moody son of a bitch, but he wasn’t going to die and John was happy about that. Dwight didn’t deserve it—he was elbows-deep in the shit and blood, and he still had managed to stay more human than John. He should get to live.
There were a hell of a lot more loose ends in John’s life after those, but it was hard to care about them when he was so numb.
And then he wasn’t. Then he fucking hurt, deep in his chest on both sides of his ribs, and it was like little hooks were ripping out bits of him from the inside. He opened his mouth and tried to breathe, but that seared till he was spitting out air. Though that didn’t make it any better. And for some reason, he kept breathing. He had to keep breathing. If he didn’t breathe, he felt like shit. Which was weird, since he was supposed to be dying.
He stopped thinking about that when the clumps started to come up his throat. He was too busy choking and vomiting.
The ground beneath him heaved up and sent him sliding off to the side, and he didn’t resist because he was still coughing up disgusting blackened bits of squishy flesh. John caught himself on his elbow just before he fell face-first into some of them. Of course, the next cough almost sent him into it anyway, but someone grabbed his arm and held him up.
That was the last cough, as far as he could tell. He closed his eyes and tried taking a breath. Nothing else came up, and actually, he was feeling better than he had in a couple weeks. So he figured opening his eyes couldn’t hurt too much.
He saw thin lines of red dropping away from his skin to splat on the floor. He saw a bloody hand around his arm, and he followed it up to see a very, very pale Dwight.
“I think I just pulled out your cancer,” Dwight said in a faint voice.
John blinked hard. He glanced back at the gory bits on the floor. The pressure of Dwight’s grip changed and John turned to him just in time to see Dwight’s eyes roll back into his head. The other man passed out before John could convince his sluggish body to catch him.
Dwight’s collapse revealed that, on his other side, Balthazar was also still with the living, though he looked like hell warmed over.
“You snapped him out of it,” Balthazar commented. He actually seemed genuinely impressed, though it only lasted for a moment. “Good thing he passed out again. You’ve completely trashed his apartment.”
Yeah. Well. Now there was time to persuade Dwight not to be mad at him for that.
John reached down and wrenched around his shirt till he’d found a couple clean spots where he could rip off strips. He made two and tossed one at Balthazar, then used the other one to bandage Dwight’s wrist. “Get his other arm. And don’t argue. I can see he didn’t heal you, so I’ve got no problems with kicking your ass while he’s out.”
The grin sneaked onto John’s face, but soon he was letting it unfold without giving a damn whether he looked silly or not.
He was still grinning when high heels clacked through the front door and made an aggressive beeline straight for them. He looked up when they stopped to be replaced by a low gasp.
Gail’s fist took him right in the jaw. John went over onto his back, then slowly levered himself back up while she knelt down to fuss over Dwight. “Jesus! He’s not dead!”
“Still doesn’t get you into my good books,” she snapped back. She cradled Dwight’s head and called over her shoulder for someone to get a doctor. Out in the hall there was a flurry of clicking.
“Well, Johnny likes being in the bad books.” Balthazar let Gail’s glower skate past him, not budging an inch from where he was slumped against Dwight’s side. He glanced at John as if he expected some kind of special reaction.
It couldn’t be annoyance, but John wasn’t sure what else there’d be. He looked around the room, finally settling on the crispy black thing at the other end. “Guess Gabriel lost his support.”
“So you didn’t feel it?” When John gave him a puzzled look, Balthazar lazily smirked. He leaned over Dwight to purr right in John’s face. “I’m amazed, Johnny. You spend twenty years chasing heaven and you don’t even realize when you’ve gotten it. You’re clear.”
What…wait. Then…John had died. For a little bit. And instead of a defibrillator, this time it’d been Dwight that had dragged him back. Dragged them both back. Or maybe it’d been Sin City as well—John would have to sit down later and get everything sorted out. But anyway, there was no easy way Dwight could get rid of him now. “So why do you sound so happy?” he asked Balthazar.
“Well, amusing as it is to see you walking around as one of the damned, there’s a certain attraction in being there from beginning to end.” Balthazar arched an eyebrow. “Knowing you, it’s not going to take long to get you right back where you started.”
“Have fun trying,” John snorted.
“Oh, I will,” Balthazar murmured.
Gail made a disgusted face at both of them. “Not if I get at both of you first. And right now that’s looking damned good to me, so knock it off. Doc? Damn it, hurry up. I’m not having Dwight kick it because of these two clowns.”