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No Mercy No More

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The Web does not have a ritual to remake the world. Or rather, the Web doesn’t have a single ritual. They have options. They have everyone else’s rituals, because they are the webspinners, the crawling watchers, the puppeteers. They only need to use one.

A boy picks up the wrong picture book and it is easy

=

Georgie is recording a podcast when the world ends.

There is a moment of nothingness, of absolute uncertainty, in which nothing is known—no up or down, no you or I, no this or that. When it rushes back, when she knows again that she is Georgina “Georgie” Barker and she is sitting in her chair in her one-room recording studio and that yowling sound is her cat—she thinks she’s dreaming. Then she realizes the feeling of being watched is the same but she is in her recording studio, not the medical science building at Balliol eleven years ago. And silvery strands of something thread the air around her.

She goes to the nearest window and there it is: a massive eye extends to the horizon, unblinking, all-seeing. It is the sky. The light it casts is faintly golden. From Eye to ground and through every building, every person, every object Georgie sees, stretches those same shimmering threads, a mockery of spiderweb caught in morning sunlight.

She knows, suddenly, that the image is right. The understanding is pushed into her mind—and, she knows as part of it, everybody else’s on the planet. The world has been changed forever. Once there were terrible powers that she feared (she had not) but did not realize existed (she knew), but now the Web has Ascended and at its center, the Eye, and all her fear (she has none) is theirs. She would be Watched, Seen, Known every moment, and she would never know which thoughts were truly hers, which actions were choices and which were the tugging of puppeteers on the silver threads that bound her. On impulse, she turned and waved in the direction of Millbank Prison—she knew—and said, “Hello, Mr. Spider!” Everyone did. Everywhere.

That little display done, she cranes her head out the window of properly her own accord (probably.) On the street below, people are staring where they had been turned, trying to tear the intangible threads out of their bodies, hammering on doors and begging to be let in as though a roof would keep them hidden. One woman has sunk to her knees on the sidewalk and started weeping. 

“Oh, Jon,” she whispers, “what did you do.

=

The dreams are even less impressive than before. All Georgie does now is walk with Alex through the medical science building, see the undead woman, watch it take her friend, wake up with its message bouncing around her own head, and remind herself to get out of bed anyway. 

It’s pretty much what she did before, but now the feeling of being peeled apart by an ever-watching Eye, her lack of pain a mild disappointment, is omnipresent in her waking hours as well. Nothing about the dreams is different.

(That’s not true—Jon is different. He doesn’t look scared anymore, doesn’t look like he hasn’t slept in a week. Doesn’t turn away in shame when she frowns at him—though he never had looked away. Now, he just watches with hungry focus.)

Georgie could sleepwalk through her own would-be nightmares. So she jumps about a mile in surprise when there is a new man standing beside Jon, who looks around with curiosity and says, “Oh, this one is nice.”

Somehow, his presence means she can break the pattern. It’s the monster from the hospital, the dead one called Antonio. She stalks over. “What the hell do you want?”

He raises his hands in surrender. “Nothing, really. The boundaries are a little less strict, these days, so I’ve started accompanying the Archivist on his rounds a little. I love what I do, but a vacation is nice, you know?” Recognition dawns. “Oh, I remember you. From when he was making his choice to be—the first time, I guess.” He taps Jon familiarly on the shoulder. Jon doesn’t react, just keeps staring unblinkingly at Georgie.

“Yes, that was me,” she says coldly, and hesitates. Distrust wars with the need for...anything. She asks, “Do you know what happened? With all the–” She waves her hands at the eternal Eye above, the Webs that now stretch even through her dreams.

Antonio shrugs. “Not my area, I’m afraid. Only one person died in the process.” He eyes her consideringly. “You know, if you’d like a little relief, the tunnels under Central London are still relatively unSeen. I’m sure they’ll be cleared out eventually, but…”

He starts to wander away, down some hallways at Jon’s back. 

“Why are you telling me that?” Georgie shouts after him.

“We’re kind of like old friends, aren’t we?” He offers her a fleeting smile over one shoulder, eyes dark and dead. “Consider it an invitation.”

=

One moment, Daisy is asleep; the next she’s fully awake; this is how she has always been. Once, she thought she was just a light sleeper. Later, she knew it was a hunter’s instinct, to go from rest to action in a breath. Now, it could be one or the other or a gentle tug of spider silk because Martin wants her and Basira to start the day.

She rolls over to see Basira awake as well, watching her. Seeing her, exactly as excoriating then the great Eye above but closer, gentler (with Daisy). Basira was too far gone on the Eye not to be pulled right in after the Archivist when the Web drew him in, but no sticky cobwebs were ever needed to keep Daisy watching her back. So here they are. 

(Martin/Web: spider, not skittering prey but great, settled, trapping-hunter {pack}. Jon/Archivist/Eye: always watching/seeing/knowing {pack, and so okay to be seen by}. Basira/Detective/Eye: Basira. Partner/pack, always.)

In a moment, they will get up. They will hunt the few things that are still hidden, still struggling, still preying where they should not. There aren’t many left—the Darkness and foggy Lonely have melted away; Strangers are all Known and the Spiral is mapped for good. But it’s relative, and there are others who won’t accept that they’re not apex predators anymore. Daisy and Basira have destroyed a nest of Nightmares in the dark Scottish Highlands, a bunch of circus flyers in Greenwich, and a flesh hive of bees who wouldn’t stay dead for ages. Basira finds them out and Daisy takes them down, and some days, it’s like nothing has changed. 

Daisy leans forward and steals a peck on the lips. “What are we after today?”

“Marianne Lukas is still hanging on, somewhere in eastern Mongolia now.” Basira answers without hesitation and kisses her back, and maybe once Daisy would have worried about that. “We’ll have to take a plane.”

Daisy grins with all her teeth. 

=

Georgie manages another two weeks before she tracks down an entrance to the tunnels. They’re a bizarre mix of the rough hewn earth she’d expected and strangely carpeted hallways full of shattered mirror, intersecting in ways that were only just barely euclidean. All still softly lit in gold and laced through with shimmering webbing, but Antonio was right: it is dimmer, the strands more fragile-looking. An immeasurably slight but welcome relief to the itch between her shoulder blades. 

She finds Melanie sitting in one of the hallways, playing a shard of glass between her fingers. She doesn’t seem to care that it’s cutting her.

“Hey,” Melanie says, not looking up. “Sorry about all this.” 

“It’s…a mess,” Georgie says, looking at the path of relative safety she had navigated through the shards. “If we get a couple brooms-”

Melanie shakes her head, scowling down at her knees.

It was like a dream, one of the really, really good ones where Melanie got to slip up behind Elias while he and Jon were distracted with their bullshit Eye-apocalypse ritual and hiss, “Bet you didn’t see this coming, fucker,” as she slit his throat.

The knowledge that it was too late crashed into her as euphoric retort, that the Archivist wore the Watcher’s Crown and the door to true Beholding could not be closed by any power—the joy lasted until he saw a little farther to the woman with silken stitches who had accompanied Melanie here, to Martin stepping up to take Jon by the shoulders with mulish determination and an old cardboard book, a spiderwebbed lighter, a hundred cups of tea and shy smiles and hastily bit-off confessions. The Watcher’s smug joy turned to horror in her mind but it was too late as he bled out, as the Web spun– as the world changed—

As a door opened beneath her feet and hands like knives yanked her away down twisting hallways even as they shrieked-echoed with pain and stilled—

Georgie blinks out of the memory that wasn’t hers, breathless. Melanie gives no indication that she, too, was thrust into it, save to scowl even harder at her knees. 

“Like I said. I think I’m only down here until I stop sulking enough to get angry again.” Her lip curls in a mockery of amusement. “I’ll be more fun , then.”

=

There are other people living down here. A dozen odd Tube workers. A woman in St Paul’s catacombs who insists the shadows are better than the light, and clutches a camera in case they, too, got too close. A retired construction restoration expert has moved her entire extended family down to the neatly organized tunnels directly below Millbank. Or, into ten of the thirteen—they blocked off the one that skittered with spiders, and the two on either side of it just to be safe. And nobody approaches the center, lit at all times like day. A mirrorway (as the new locals call them) connects the rest, the most straightforward anyone had found, so nobody has to.

There are books in the rooms at the end of most of those tunnels. They are mostly left untouched, at Melanie’s advice.

The Admiral is a big hit with the kids. Thank goodness he’s a natural attention hog.

The woman made of molten wax arrives a week after Georgie. She is the first person Georgie has seen whom the cobwebs shy away from—when she glares, at least, and her skin ripples with heat. A couple of the other Tunnelers look queasy or shrink back in fear; others stare in awe. The woman smirks and says her name is Jude.

The webs creep back in, however, as she sighs and sags against a wall in the tunnel that is always too hot and fills all who enter it with a terrible sense that everything they love had been destroyed. Few people sleep in this one.

Georgie doesn’t mind it. The loss is there and it hurts, but it’s bearable. She sits down beside Jude and asks, “You’re an avatar, right? I’m guessing Lightless Flame?”

The woman made of molten wax cracks open one eye. Even looking like this is the closest she’s gotten to rest since the world ended, her glare burns. “The one and only left in London. Fuck off.”

“Just trying to keep track of who’s down here,” says Georgie.

Jude snorts and bares her teeth. “Don’t worry, kid. I’m being starved, can’t you tell?” 

She raises a hand toward Georgie’s cheek. Georgie pulls away—though not only is she not afraid, the whole feeling of the tunnel fades. No more missing her apartment, her friends, her podcast, her life. No more banked rage at the loss. Everything is muffled (in spider silk.) It’s peaceful. Her lips curl up in a mocking smile that isn’t hers.

“Like I said. Not worth the effort.” Jude turns her gesture into flipping off the ceiling, and the Eye and Web above. 

=

Martin had a balcony added to the Millbank Prison central tower, along with much homier interior decorating. They could have gone somewhere else, after the ritual, but it seems right to stay. 

Jon puts his arm around Martin’s waist as they stand together at the rail, rests his head against his shoulder and sighs contentedly. Well, Martin puts Jon’s arm around his waist and Jon’s head on his shoulder and makes him content with it, pushing the air out of his lungs in a nostalgic reminder of being people that needed to breathe. If left to his own devices, the Archivist would do nothing but stay where he is put and Know. That is the problem with the Eye: knowledge is power, but it has never had any drive .

It’s not a lie, what Martin is doing. Even he can’t lie in the presence of the Archivist, manifestation and beloved anchor of all-knowing Beholding. There is still a seed of Jonathan Sims in there. It would be consumed in awe and horror if Martin didn’t tend it, wrap it in silk soft enough to caress and strong enough to guide, guard, grow. Who was what they had begun as, anyway, anymore? The world is all Web and the Eye is its center and the Archivist the Eye’s infinite pupil, and Martin was the only one close enough to tie him into it, to tie it all together. So he is the spider that sits at that center, doesn’t even have to think to pull the right threads, to draw Knowledge from his Archivist and move anyone in the world anyhow he chooses—and he gets to keep Jon. Curious, intense, particular, caring Jon. 

Nothing will threaten them ever again.

“The view is nice tonight,” Jon says, looking over the city strung with cobwebs under the unblinking sky that never changes anymore. Martin snuggles closer against him and says, “It really is.”

=

New people join the little community growing in the tunnels. Slightly more often, people leave. Some seem to decide for themselves: that the world has changed and they might as well get on with it, that they still want to have that holiday in the Farallones, that the slight relief from the ever-present Watching and creeping awareness of the Web isn’t worth the loss of cell signal and indoor plumbing. 

More often, people simply leave. They go up for a gallon of milk or a much-needed first-aid kit and they don’t come back. They disappear in the night, leaving blankets and clothing and treasured objects behind. A man who will not give his name but always wears a wailing Greek theater mask he claims to have gotten out of the Magnus Institute’s Artefact Storage—he stands up halfway through another disturbing conversation and walks away, throwing his mask over one shoulder as he goes. It cracks when it hits the ground. The message is clear: none of them are really safe. They are being toyed with. 

Many people try not to think about it, much less talk about it. Others loudly insist that the slow pace isn’t torment, it’s because the monsters above have to make an effort, and that means down here is still the safest place, and they can figure out a way to fight back. 

Melanie walks away one day, with nothing but one more bloody shard of mirror clutched in her hand. That night, Antonio visits Georgie’s dream again.

“I go by Oliver, now, actually,” he says when she snaps at him. He offers her a hand. “Want to go for a walk?”

Georgie has nothing better to do. His grip is like rigor mortis, though his skin is warm. Jon follows them silently, staring.

The London he shows her is much the same as the one she hasn’t seen in weeks, which is nearly the same as the one she hasn’t seen since the world ended. They walk through streets empty of life, just stonework and cement, the foggy skyline, the cars frozen forever in traffic. The Eye above and the Web throughout, even here. 

The veins of beating black are new, but something in her recognizes them. They are the same thing that kept that old woman’s corpse moving, and the dead man whose hand she is holding in order to be here. The people they run into, the only people visible, are frozen in terror and pain. 

“The world didn’t end, you know. Not really. But it still will, one day.” Oliver runs his hand along a branch striking through a woman’s chest, splintering through her body. His expression is reminiscing and reverent. “Stray bullet in a drive-by. She’ll lie there for hours before they find her, and it will be too late.”

Georgie can barely spare the attention to be disgusted. Her gaze is drawn to the prison tower that doesn’t actually stand out above the taller, newer buildings of Central London, isn’t really at the center of the staring vastness above. A thick twine runs directly from the peak to Georgie’s heart, through Jon even though he watches from the side. 

Oliver follows the line of her sight and says, “You might be allowed to visit, you know, if you could be afraid again. Martin is territorial, but I’m sure he would mind less if the Web could have your fear. And the Archivist– Jon might like it.”

Now Georgie can barely pay heed to the tower. “I– you could give it back? The End hasn’t just... consumed my life’s supply of fear?”

“Would you be interested?”

She hesitates, looking out of the London empty of everything but the Eye, the Web, and everyone who was about to die. 

“Not remotely.”

“That’s for the best.” Oliver is abruptly cheerful again. “I seriously doubt it can be done.”

He plucks at the spidersilk that wrapped around her chest, including the thick tie to the Archivist’s tower. “If you want to be free of some of this, on the other hand, that I can help with. It’s been a strange last month or so; there’s no communique or anything but I believe we’re short-handed. And nothing cuts threads like dying.”

Relatively little web does cling to him. It seems almost incidental.

“Absolutely not .” She yanks her hand away, reaching for Jon– for the hospital– 

The dead man calls something after her but she wakes up before she can get a new last testament to bounce around her head. 

=

Jude asks, one day, as she tends a skewer of hot dogs over a cookfire in one of the relatively well-ventilated tunnels, “How do you know anything about us, anyway? You’ve End-marked, obviously, but you’re alive, and you don’t twitch like someone who went looking for more trouble.”

“I dated Jon Sims in college,” says Georgie. She edges around the fire to avoid the smoke Jude breathes like fresh air. At her feet, the Admiral mewls impatiently for his share of the meat. “He stayed with me for a while, when he was suspected of murder. I hid his tape recordings until he explained things straight-out.”

Jude’s laugh sounds like a wildfire. “You dated the Archivist! Maybe I should light you up, if it would make whatever’s left of him a little sad.” Her smile is the scavenger at the end of empires, and Georgie is Rome. “I’ve still got enough power left to keep the webs off for one good burn-out. Blackwood couldn’t stop me.”

Georgie points at the flaring fire and says, “Right now, you’re burning dinner.”

=

Basira knows her own mind. It is her right, her power, her duty and her nature, to see even that which the Archivist does not. She knows where the Basira-that-had-been stops and the Detective begins, how the edges blur and don’t matter at all, and where spiderweb lies draped and binding over all of it.

She would be angry at that, if the webs didn’t smother the parts of her that would get angry at it. Instead, she basks in the light of the Eye and goes where she is sent.

With Daisy. Always with Daisy. No weaving-together necessary.

They find the remnants of things that should be dead in the light of the Eye or within the binds of the Web, or that should know better than to keep fighting for more than a distant third, maybe fourth place (the Hunt alone has truly adjusted to the new world.) They are good at it. Where Basira walks the Eye follows, and Knows thereafter. What rare things she can not See even in their absence, Daisy catches the scent of. 

(She is far more Daisy-of-the-Hunt now, again, than Daisy-rebuilding-after-the-Buried, and cobwebbed more heavily than the Detective to be so. But she is always Basira’s partner and that is what matters.)

They destroy a series of fractal graffiti art in Nairobi. They attend a Grifter’s Bone concert and kill the drummer to send the flautist a message. They work with Annabelle Cane and a full pack of Hunters to clean out a Desolation enclave in the American Southwest, and Basira feels amusement that the Spiders still cannot settle their grudge with the Flame and a spike of satisfaction that they still need help to do it.

They are sent into the tunnels below London, eventually, to clean out the remains of what Robert Smirke invited to make home there. Martin walks out most of the people first, but leaves just enough for Daisy to have fun with. Basira lets her stalk ahead, Noting all the blood stains she leaves and Knowing the joy of the adrenaline as she catches their prey and it screams. Basira quietly picks up and burns the books that anchor the whole thing, or in some cases puts them in an insulating bag to be encased in dry ice when convenient, frozen and shattered. She Knows when she’s gotten them all.

The last trail, charred wax and adrenaline without fear and shedding tomcat, ends at an unchained coffin below what was once the Magnus Institute. Basira races to catch up as soon as she Sees it coming, so Daisy does not have to hesitate for longer than a moment. She is staring at the wooden lid. It is slightly ajar.

Because they are good at what they do, because they do not push against the threads unless it is to the benefit of Web and Eye, Basira puts a hand on her partner’s slightly-shaking arm and says, “Jon, if we’re going to delve into the Choke, we should do it properly, with supplies, not at the end of a long day on another hunt.” She adds thoughtfully, “Maybe it will even smother Perry, like poor Eugene.”

(They don’t need to eat or sleep, not so long as Daisy has prey and Basira has secrets to unravel. Daisy’s fear could easily be soothed under silk. The Archivist is the one who Knows her question and maybe the one who will answer, but not the one who will decide. But the fact that she was able to ask means this is part of the game they play with what is now the world.)

Spiderweb puppets her hands to close the coffin as the Knowledge is given to her of Martin’s voice, saying, “All right. Do you want to come up for dinner, then?”

As they climb back up to the surface, they pass a Dreamer of the End going down. He waves cheerfully, and does not hide his destination.

“Nobody dies in that thing,” Daisy says flatly. 

He shrugs. “Everyone dies, eventually. And the boundaries are less strict, these days.” 

=

“Martin, vorpal is not a word.” Even tinged with affection, Jon’s scathing tone could strip paint at fifty paces.

“It is so! It’s in the Jabberwock poem, in Alice —no, in Through the Looking Glass .”

“A poem famous for consisting of made-up words?”

Melanie pulls out her phone, leaning back from the Scrabble board. “I’ll look it up.”

“Yes, please, look it up yourself rather than trust the word of the avatar of knowledge,” Jon says drily. “It’s not there.”

Martin desperately wants to kiss him, so he takes him by the collar and tugs him to lean forward and does so. Melanie looks up and rolls her eyes with a loud, “Or I’ll just give you two some time to work it out!” and Martin even lets her stomp a little as she walks out. She deserves it—she’s almost well-behaved when she’s tied back from murdering anyone.

And now he’s alone with Jon again—Jon whose eyes are as bright as when he used to take statements, and the seven billion souls they can share in an instant, a beautifully overwhelming flood of weavable thoughts and actions and fear, fear, fear .

It sweetens the kiss like cordial.

=

Jude Perry is not stilled in eternal agony by the dust of the Forever Deep Beneath Creation. She steps out of the coffin burning. Cobweb stretches close and burns away before it can touch her, before it can catch on and slow her steps. The stone curdles and melts beneath her feet as she stalks into the Eyelight below the center of Millbank Prison, and climbs the steps to the panopticon tower.

=

There is a rush of scent of meat and Basira yelps in surprise, and Daisy is Let Know about the hole—about the mouth opening in the floor to swallow her down; there are multiple attacks but this is hers to handle so the threads pulled go, go, go . Daisy is already leaping over the banister—

“That was easy, thank you.” 

There is an old man falling beside her—too fast, too far, should have landed already. He looks like he was spry once, but now is only pretending. He falls as though he is standing on something firm, hands clasped absentmindedly around the head of a cane.

“You should be grateful, really,” he says. “It could have been much worse, for you, personally. But we concluded only Too-Tight-I-Cannot-Breathe has a chance at containing Miss Cane and her children, so…” He spreads his arms like a showman. “Here we are!”

Daisy twists in the breathless, too-fast air. There is nothing else, except herself, and this man—who she doesn’t know , even though she wants to. That doesn’t happen anymore, not to her. She does her job and she has back-up. Now she barely feels Seen, and silver threads snap off her skin with the speed of the fall. There is only the great emptiness, the plummet—she is dizzy; she can’t breathe—

“It’s nothing personal,” the old man says. “No one even blames Close-At-My-Heels for cozying up. But we can’t have the Detective putting things together at the last moment, and removing you means she is both vulnerable and distracted.”

Daisy has endured too many smug old men threatening Basira. She can still feel the blood (fading). She lunges for his throat.

=

“Stay with Jon,” orders the thing she is supposed to think of as Martin Blackwood, and Melanie is too full of cobwebs to think truly viciously that something must really be wrong, for him to use words as well as webs. 

She stays. The thing that isn’t Jonathan Sims doesn’t move, without the Spider’s attention on it.

Something is burning. But she is a fly paid particular attention, not an employee, so she doesn’t get to know what it is. She wanders toward the window and looks down—crawling spiders blanket the walls and a horde of people rush toward the tower, warm bodies to help with whatever Martin has gone to stop. 

A ghost rises out of the stone and directly into her skin, a man centuries-since dead who came back from a war and killed thirteen more people before they caught him, because he didn’t know anything else anymore. It’s not a split second. It’s not even a decision, it’s just recognition-understanding-acceptance-giddy rage too fast for even a spider to stop; the tide of blood rises and prisoner’s blade is solid in Melanie’s hand, it cuts through every thread touching her. The crier’s drums, the piper’s wail, the crusader’s crashing church organ fills the air and she dances down the notes to the warm bodies below, untouchable and unstoppable as War Herself.

=

No bickering cult. No Georgie and her stupid cat. No place left in the broken world; somewhere nearby the Slaughter has gone to work and Jude does not think that she will see Agnes soon because that would be something like hope—now it is her turn to be Desolation incarnate. She strides through the tower and laughs as she burns every surface she touches, burns every strand of silk that reaches for her, burns herself out at both ends to reach whatever’s left of Martin Blackwood and melt him—

=

( Or at least distract him, because )

=

The Archivist will not move unless his threads are pulled. There is a very well-sewn and lovingly maintained remnant/facsimile of Jonathan Sims remaining but it is so, so, far away. The Archivist Watches and Sees and Knows all.

All except Georgina Barker and the book in her hands, until she steps into range the eyes his body was born with. 

They dashed down the steps and did not bother to close the lid behind them, because either they would be followed or they wouldn’t. Jude went ahead with the fear that affected even her and Georgie was behind with the Admiral clawing up her arms. Her heart raced because she’d been running; her cat knew the terror of the Hunt.

They had to crouch, and then crawl, and then only the Admiral could move without squirming before his fur finally settled and Jude said the sense of pursuit had faded. They pushed back out until they could sit, or at least recline, but no further. It was almost pitch dark down here, and only if Georgie squinted out of the corner of her eye could she see the faintest threads tying her to Jude, to the Admiral, back to the rest of the world like Theseus’s yarn.

“Don’t know if that’s a relief, or if I want to go deeper again,” said Jude, eyeing her own lingering ties. She frowned. “We shouldn’t have been able to go back at all.”

“Maybe it’s because of these?” Georgie took a handful of papers out of her pocket—scraps of pages, torn from books where they might not be noticed. One was dusty to the touch.

“Maybe.”

Oliver found them some time later, looking mildly curious but otherwise unaffected even as he crawled through the narrowing tunnel. 

“You know this is the last place to hide?” he asked.

Georgie nodded.

“And you’re still not interested in…” He twisted his finger through her ties to the surface as though he could snap them.

“I said no .”

Jude grinned. “She likes me better, dead man. She likes to feel her pain.”

He shrugged, and held out one hand. “Probably for the best. May I be a little forward?”

Georgie crawled forward and took it. His touch was still a warmed-over corpse. He kissed her gently on the lips, and that, too, made her skin crawl more than anything in nearly twelve years. 

“Last words for an old friend,” he said, and whispered something more in her ear.

They didn’t spend long on the book. 

Probably. 

Time was difficult, down there. Georgie and Jude crawled deeper into the Buried to piece it together, in the darkest place they could still move. They had somebody’s left-behind diary for a spine and covers. Georgie arranged the most useful passages in a way that almost made sense when read together, and Jude ran her finger along the edges so gently that the wax she left behind was warm enough to bind but not burn.

Georgie started reading as they crawled back out. Oliver had already gone, with an unhappy Admiral and strict instructions on his care and feeding. Jude got hotter and hotter as they went, until Georgie was suffocating even as the earth opened up. 

When they had room to stand again, Jude whispered, “My turn,” and kissed Georgie on the cheek. It hurt in every way possible. The webs burned away from them both.

Now she stands in the Archivist’s Gaze, where any other human living would collapse in terror from the soul-piercing focus of it. Even the book that should not be, that bleeds fog and darkness, unknown and misdirection, is Understood. The Detective puts it all together at last and the Archivist Knows her Sight to be true—and the carefully cultivated what is/was/could be Jonathan Sims holds everything back as best he can and starts to say, “Georgie?”

Georgie drops her book (as Martin Blackwood screams in rage and reaches for her with strands of silk like knives, as Jude Perry laughs a conflagration and holds him burning) She says, “I’m sorry, Jon,” with the same sad smile she did when they broke up, when he haunted her nightmares but at least she knew he was alive (as Melanie kills and kills and kills the hapless bodies pulled in to help, as Oliver Banks pets his new cat and watches the dark veins twist through London). She goes up on her toes as spiders swarm the room (too late), and whispers, “Goodbye,” and kisses his forehead with death bespoke.

The anchor shatters.

The center of the web falls out.

And the world

ends

again.

 

Chapter Text

The world reset. It was much the same as it had been, or would have been, save for having a handful fewer people. 

(More than a handful, really, but the effects on the birth and death rates of half a year of omnipresent terror wouldn’t be particularly noticeable for another couple months. As memories faded into nightmares, humans doing what humans did best and repressing in order to survive, the actuarial tables would be left with a blip that nobody really wanted to explore.)

Oliver Banks walked through the tower at the center of Millbank Prison—through the remains of it. Like the reality it upheld, the tower lay shattered. 

Oliver had never visited when it stood. Plenty of people died there, daily for a year, but the Archivist had stalked his dreams as much as anyone else, and it was difficult enough to hide a conspiracy from Eye and Web without giving them a toured preview.

He could imagine it, though. It was obvious, for the most part, where the Slaughter had done its work. The dark veins would have run to that stab wound and that one; that gouged-out eye and that torn-off arm. 

Someone would be by to clean the bodies up, eventually. Once the terror eased enough that people started to complain about the health hazard, and the City of London reluctantly sent in workers. Life marched on, for now.

They wouldn’t know what to make of the puddle of hardened wax, cooled in death much like a human body. That, Oliver had seen, before they went their separate ways from the Buried, and it had been beautiful. The cobwebs hadn’t touched her but death had reached for Jude Perry in threads so fine it was almost a mist around her, drawing on every pore through which heat escaped. She’d feared her own god more than his, at the last, but it was still beautiful.

Death was less kind to Martin Blackwood. Oliver had to admit, he was less sure how the dark veins would have attached, here. Just to the husk, now more than half burned away? Or to each spider within, small bodies consumed in black death as they would soon be in flame and wax? 

The scent of burnt spider nearly overwhelmed the blood. The cat following warily at Oliver’s heels batted a stray arachnid corpse, but turned his nose away from eating any.

There were plenty of dead who couldn’t be found here. The world might even be a gentler place for a while, with how few servants of the Powers had withstood the Ascendance of Eye and Web, and how even fewer had survived their fall. He could imagine where the pulsing darkness would have reached so sweetly into Basira Hussain, in every place the Mouth of the Flesh would chew through, but ultimate punishment for the Detective: her body would never be found. Simon Fairchild had fallen out of his infinite sky with a torn throat, and in trade the Falling Titan kept the Hunter who killed him. Oliver had seen people who would be killed by the velocity of the Vast before; the death would have streamed from Daisy Tonner’s lungs like ribbons, or maybe still did. Falling killed slowly, when the victim never hit the ground. Whereas Annabelle Cane, alas, would never die at all; with boundaries restored to something like balance, the Buried wouldn’t allow it.

The Archivist and his killer lay at the epicenter of the destruction, pupil of the eye to the very end. The cat bounded forward to nose at their cold bodies and mewl pitifully. Oliver stood back and appreciated the sight, as pilgrim at a shrine. 

He could only imagine where death had finally touched Jonathan Sims—on the cheek, the forehead, the lips? His eyes were bloodstained caverns, but Oliver doubted even the End of All could have started its assault there. Whatever way, the dark veins would have fastened with the shadow of a kiss.

He knew exactly where Georgina Barker had met her fate, because he had channeled it to her himself. It had settled on her lips and wreathed her in walking shadow, enough death to End a god-on-earth. She bore it fearlessly, of course. Where Jude Perry’s death was beautiful, Georgie’s had been the entropic opposite of incandescent. 

Even cats could mourn; the Admiral sat beside his mistress’s body and yowled in rage, denial, soon to be simple grief. It occurred to Oliver that someone else had already been here, because the bodies could not have fallen this way naturally. They were laid out as for a warrior’s funeral: Georgie’s eyes were closed and her arms across her chest; the pasted-together, now-crumbling last remnant of Leitner’s library was a weapon at her side; the Archivist sideways at her feet like a conquered enemy.

No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than his arms were twisted behind his back and there was a knife across his throat, and the Slaughter snarled, “Who the fuck are you?”

The blade held only faintest chill of death, beneath the coating of warm, fresh blood. Oliver opted not to move.

“Oliver Banks. I’m sorry to intrude. You must be...Melanie, right?” 

He hadn’t met her, and not even he had known every part of the plan. It was safer that way. But he was pretty sure he’d followed the Archivist into her dreams once or twice—there had been a wide variety of them, from blood-soaked ghosts to spiraling, splintering, screaming hallways.

She was the one bathed in blood, now. She drew a nick of his, congealed though it was, and repeated with the echo of drums, “Who are you and why do you have the Admiral?”

Oliver gasped in pain as she ratcheted his arm another inch up his back. “She- Georgie gave him to me! With rather a lot of instructions—do you want him? I’m not sure I’m a cat person.”

With another deliberately careless cut to his throat, Melanie let him go. She looked at the Admiral, who didn’t moved but turned his yowling to her as a recognized person who might do something . She looked down at herself, at the knife and the blood and faint echo of music. 

“I’m not sure I’m a person anymore.”

“That stress should fade,” Oliver said sympathetically as he shook out his shoulder. He would be the last to blame people for overreacting the death of loved ones—even the Slaughter-fueled rage held a seed of fear.

“...But really, do you want him?” he added, gesturing to the wailing Admiral. “I’ve never had a cat before, and I haven’t had to, you know, eat or drink or such myself, for a while, so I’m worried I wouldn’t be a particularly attentive owner. But I don’t want to just leave him on the street.”

Melanie knelt down and approached the Admiral cautiously. She extended her hand, grimaced at it, wiped off some of the blood (on her equally bloody trousers), and offered it again. 

He sniffed at it, lapped up a drop of blood, then turned away and continued wailing.

Melanie stood. “No, you keep him.” 

Suddenly the knife was at Oliver’s throat again, from the front this time, her knuckles white on the haft. The pipes sang. “But I will check up, and if you’ve hurt him at all , I will kill you. Got it? I don’t care what fucked up evil power you serve, mine is the one where I get to murder assholes.”

Oliver raised his hands in surrender. “Got it.”

She sliced his throat once more, almost friendly this time, and ran off—to mourn, perhaps, or to cause more bloodshed. Or both. Likely both. Oliver was left alone with a shattered tower, one cat, and the dead.

It was really very pleasant. He thought he might stay awhile.