Blake stood at the edge of the street, looking down toward the river. Daniel came and stood next to him. "We're about done here. And just in time, too." He stuck his hands in his pockets. "What're you looking at?"
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Blake pointed down to where two figures fought beside the river's edge. "I think I'm watching the death of a friendship," he said.
"Mm." Daniel said nothing for a moment.
A bolt of lightning struck the top of a nearby church spire with a hollow ponk, followed by a tearing crack of thunder. Neither of them turned around.
"I'm not sure what's worse," Daniel said. "Making stupid mistakes, or watching other people make them."
Blake looked at him. "Well, well. Aren't you the grizzled old veteran now?"
"I may be young, relatively speaking," Daniel said. "But I don't always feel young."
Blake clapped him on the back. "I'm just giving you shit." He looked up as another bolt of lightning struck the spire, which exploded in a shower of red-hot metal.
"I don't mean to ruin the moment," Daniel said. "But we should probably think about getting the hell out of here."
"Right you are." Blake looked back toward the gate. "Go ahead and head back through. I've got a few things to finish up here."
Daniel gave him a questioning look.
Blake waved a hand at him. "Go on. I'll lock up on my way out."
Liam flung himself at Isaac, not making even a pretense of strategy. It was as if he wanted to batter Isaac to death with the sheer force of his rage. He lashed out again and again with his sword, wielding it like a club, banging it off of Isaac's protected arms. He was shouting, snarling, screaming incoherently above the howling roar of the storm. Isaac opened his mouth, as hailstones began to fall around them, and shouted back, hearing something animal in his own voice. It was the voice of the Beast, the part of himself that took control of his body and killed when there was killing to be done.
He batted Liam's blade aside and struck at him, his fist coming down on him like a hammer. Liam staggered back, caught himself, and threw himself at Isaac again, swinging madly. Isaac jerked back in time to avoid a cut at his face, deflected another blow- the sword ringing off his black-sheathed forearms- and kicked out. Liam jumped back from the kick onto a tall rock. Isaac swept both arms around, carapace extending into a wide wedge like a cricket bat, and cut at his legs. Liam leaps into the air, sword held over his head.
Isaac looked up at him, framed by the shattered sky, and saw about Liam the same black mantle he had glimpsed before. It spread out behind him, more shadow than substance; a mantle like a pair of black wings.
Isaac threw his arms up, but Liam's blow sent him reeling. His foot stuck a jutting rock and he fell backward into shallow water. He scrabbled around, trying to get to his feet, and Liam landed on top of him, driving him down into the icy river.
It hit him like a slap to the face, so cold he felt his heart skip a beat in his chest. Liam's hands were on his head, holding him down, pushing him against the black rocks. And yet-
Isaac was suddenly clear-headed. He pulled back from himself and watched himself with clinical detachment, observing from a distance, even as his face was ground into the riverbed.
It's not a question of beating him. You know you can beat him. Take him down and hit him until he stops moving, stops fighting back. That's not your problem. Whatever's going on in his mind, it's killing him, and even if you knock him unconscious, it will still be killing him when he wakes up.
Think! Think, dammit! He's been controlling everything up to this point, even to this, this crowning stupidity. He's so desperate to destroy himself. Stop following his script and think, for both of your sakes.
He extruded spines of bone from his spine, knocking Liam off his back. He pushed himself up to his knees, taking a gasping lungful of air as his head cleared the surface. Liam threw himself at him again, and Isaac caught him in midair, sending them both tumbling into the water. Liam squirmed and struggled, lashing out with hands and feet. One of his knees connected with Isaac's chin, and a flock of black dots rushed across his vision as he fell back. Liam had lost his sword somewhere in the fight, but seemed not to care. He was striking out with his hands now, punching, clawing, swinging wildly in all directions. Isaac's head was ringing, and he felt a dizzy, nauseous vertigo pulling at him, but his mind was still cold, the internal voice calm. It hardly sounded like his own voice anymore, sounded like-
(all of you all at once)
-someone older, wiser. His perspective was pulling back, and back, and back. From this moment, here, now, stretching backward to where it came from, where he had come from. He saw the events of his life in tableaux, the actions and reactions that had led him from the College to this place, here, now. All places and times as part of one picture, one shape uncovered by his blind fumblings. One, one, always one.
Been here before.
Been here forever.
If every action was synchronicity, if everything was linked to everything else, then-
Then everyone is linked to everyone else.
And he had been drawn back to Liam again and again, even after all rational motivation had departed. Was still drawn to him now, as they fought in the midst of the tempest. Why?
Liam tackled him, grabbing him around the waist and wrestling him back to the ground. Isaac batted away a hand that clawed at his eyes.
Why, dammit? What was this shape he had found?
He thought of the College, of a professor- Dorn?- repeating a variation on the Oath of the Abyss.
"I shall interpret every phenomenon as a personal dealing of the Universe with my Self," Dorn had said.
Isaac had dismissed it at the time, hearing the thump of Deity in the words. But now-
Not Deity. Self. If everything is connected to everything else, then every phenomenon IS a personal dealing of the Universe with the Self, because there's no difference between the two! We're all caught up together- all part of the same pattern-
And suddenly he knew.
Liam grabbed him around the neck, fingers digging into his throat. He pushed hard, and the back of Isaac's head banged off a spur of rock. More black dots- and a flock of swirling multicolored lights- swarmed across his vision. He reached up and grabbed Liam's neck with his own hands, pushing up, trying to throw him off to the side.
What can be done to the body can be done to the soul- the Self-
No. That's not right-
He felt his awareness expanding, as it had done when he sensed the party of assassins in Sandra's apartment. And hadn't Liam done something similar, back when he had first met him? He had treated it like a parlor trick, but-
He pushed the awareness further, untethering from the himself, prying open his inner eyes- no- his other eyes. They were Inside. They were Outside. They were-
What am I missing here?
He could feel Liam's presence directly before him, but what good was that to him? He already knew where Liam was, their hands locked around each others' throats.
What was he sensing? Energy? Spirit?
He stretched out toward the Liam he felt with his mind, pushing himself toward that unique-
And Liam unfolded before his Inner Eye, clearer than he had ever seen him before. It was not just his energy, not just his presence, but his Self- his essential Liam-ness- that Isaac was seeing, and-
This is important.
I need time!
I'm dying, i think.
Liam had pushed his head back underwater, his grip cutting off Isaac's air, but it didn't matter, because-
Because maybe the Soul isn't inside the Body.
He dove toward Liam's mind, reached out for the thousand-petaled lotus unfolding before him-
Maybe it's the other way around.
-but Liam was locked, the core of his mind wrapped around and around itself, tangled in its own black webs. It sensed him and shrank away-
He shouted it across the space between their (minds? souls?), and reached out again-
His friend's mind trapped in its own endless, chattering introspective hell, clenching deeper and deeper into its own black poison, a mindless moaning sound coming from it-
Clenched around a core of something
Liam! Let go!
He was dying, drowning, sinking into enveloping curtains of darkness-
Liam! I love you! Let go!
His hands left Liam's neck. His mind sank into Liam's, enveloped it, joined it-
Not alone, never alone-
-die die we'll die I'll die Liam will die-
-then we'll die together.
They let go.
The thing in the core of Liam's mind opened.
Liam's spine arched, his hands leaving Isaac's neck. He threw his head back, turned his face up to the broken sky, and screamed.
It was a scream that tore his throat, that came up from the very center of him, full of every black and terrible thing, every fear, every burning, disintegrating part of the entity that called itself Liam. It roared in Isaac's mind, both Inside and Outside at once, a torrent of poison and madness exploding from a pit inside him, inside them, burning white hot, until Isaac was certain it would consume them both. It burned its way out of Liam, and a part of Liam went with it, boiling up into the wind of the dying world, evaporating away into the ether and leaving something new, something changed.
He was right, Isaac thought, as his body vomited up water and took in a choked, ragged breath. He did die.
He looked at the figure before him, head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut, body as rigid as if it were made of wires.
"Liam?" he said. His voice came out in a jagged whisper.
Liam's eyes opened. They were black, and strewn with stars, and as he looked at Isaac, the first tears began to form in their depths and roll down his cheeks.
"Oh..." he said. "Oh..."
Isaac embraced him.
The earth erupted beneath them, tossing them into the air. They tumbled back down onto the slope like ragdolls, rocks and earth crashing around them. Isaac hit his head again and felt consciousness begin to slide away. He turned his head, feeling the tacky blood in his hair, and saw Liam lying- unconscious? dead?- a few feet away. He reached out, with an effort, and took Liam's cold hand. Then he lay back, and looked up into a sky that had become a jagged hole, gaping out into the Multiverse.
His eyes closed.
He saw no more.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.