Damages 2.3

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“Two more books for our reading list,” Rose said.

I groaned a little, grabbing one of the fancy fountain pens from my grandmother’s desk.  It was still dark outside.  “It’s too early for this.”

“You wanted to go on the offensive while he was otherwise occupied.”

While Laird was sleeping.  “Right.  Titles?”

“Title is Standards, subtitle is ‘A history of practices for dealings between the gifted’.”

“Which shelf?”

“Ummm… Bookshelf seven, shelf five.”

I looked at the sheet I had sitting beside me.  I’d drawn out two octagons, with numbers at each side, excepting the sides that opened out into the second and third floor hallways.  I identified bookshelf seven, looked, and was pretty sure I could see the book she’d mentioned.  I wrote it down.  “Standards.  Sounds like a thrilling read.”

“The second book, bookshelf six, bottom shelf, right at the bottom, we’ve got ‘Deaths in the Eastern Realm of the White Tailed Deer.‘”

“Not sure I follow,” I said, even as I wrote the name and location of the second book down.  I put the paper and pen down beside the folded letter Rose and I had written the previous night.

“It’s not about deer.  It’s about the general area.  A straight list of practitioner deaths, times of death, and causes of death since we settled in the new world.  It’s only as recent as twenty-eleven, but I think it covers a list of executions and reasons for execution.  You can skim it for the executions and see if there are any trends.”

“Me?” I asked.

“What?”

I glanced at Rose.  “Me?  You said ‘you can skim’.  You usually say we instead of you, unless we’re arguing.  You’re assuming I’m reading this list of deaths?”

“I’m going to get started on Standards, since you’re already looking through… what was it?”

I double checked the cover of the book that now lay across my lap.  “…Prominent Feuds.”

“Right.  You’re reading that.  I’ll start on Standards, you get started on the deer book when you’re done reading what you’re reading.”

“I’m already pretty fed up with all this.  How long is this death-ledger?”

“Long.  But like I said, you can skim down the one column.  Will you go over it?”

I craned my neck, but I couldn’t see the bottom shelf on the floor above us.  “Can you show me?”

There was a pause.  “I could.”

I turned to look at Rose in the mirror.  “Please?”

She sighed.  “It’s too heavy to lift.”

You were trying to con me,” I said.  “Trying to get me to commit to reading over some ridiculously huge tome.”

“I was.  Just a little.”

She managed to look suitably guilty, all things considered.

“Damn it, Rose,” I said, but I couldn’t help smiling, but I wasn’t exactly amused, either.  She’d almost gotten me.  “We can’t mess with each other when we’re so busy watching our backs against everyone else.”

“I really don’t want to have to read all of that thing,” she said.  “And I thought it would be a little funny.”

“There isn’t anything here I want to read,” I said.  I tossed Prominent Feuds to the floor.  “This plan isn’t working.”

“We’ll find something,” Rose said.

“We haven’t found anything that gives us an exact answer,” I said.  “We probably won’t.  Nothing modern.  All research does is eliminate possibilities.  We get through all of these books, read them backwards and forwards, and we’ll be able to say that we probably aren’t breaking the rules and getting ourselves executed if we mess with Laird’s job and family.  Not definitely.  Just probably.”

“Local powers probably like leaving people a little uncertain,” Rose said.

“Well, it works.”

“We could ask someone.  Which is probably how everyone else figures it out.  They attend meetings and sit back and they figure out what they can do and what they can’t do.”

“Unless the entire town wants to murder you,” I said.  “Kind of throws a wrench in the whole ‘ask a friend’ option.”

“Yeah.”

“Which raises the question.  Who do we ask?”

Rose dragged the chair on her side over to a spot beside the mirror, so we could see each other.  “Maggie?”

“I don’t trust Maggie.  I’m not sure I wholly distrust her either, but I get the feeling that if she could profit from misleading us, she would.”

“If you’re being that selective about our allies, we’re going to be very lonely,” Rose said.

I sighed.  “Maybe.”

“The lawyers?”

I nodded slowly, doing my utmost to avoid rejecting the idea out of hand.  “Maybe.  I don’t like it.”

“I don’t either.  But they’re there, and we do need to talk to them sooner than later.  You need the allowance if you’re going to pay for what we need, and we have questions they could answer.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Which brings me to my next set of questions.  First off, how do we get in touch with them?  How do we mail this letter without cluing anyone in to the fact that we did it?”

“The legal documents give a phone number for the lawyers.  The little black book says we just need to say the firm’s name three times.  Same idea, I think.”

“Which isn’t ominous at all.”

“Not in the slightest,” Rose said, solemn.

“Should we get it over with, then?” I asked.

“We need to do it,” she said.  “Downstairs?  Feels strange, inviting anyone else here.  Even if we know they were here to set things up after Molly died.”

“No,” I said.  “I get what you mean.  It feels wrong.  Downstairs?  Living room?”

“Sure,” Rose said.  Then she cut in, “Wait.  One thing, first.  Can you grab a book on your way down?”

“Which?”

“Bookshelf two, third shelf from the bottom.  It’s by the same author that wrote the book on Vestiges.  Valkyries.”

Meaning I had to climb the ladder up to the next floor, then walk around to the third floor hallway and make my way to the ground floor.  A pain.

I bit my tongue before I said as much.

“Sure,” I said.  I gathered up the books I needed to have on hand, then made my way to the shelf in question.

The book was easy enough to find.  The image on the front was similar to that of the Vestiges book.  A woman’s face in profile, complete with a winged helmet, pressed into the leather cover.

“I-” Rose started.  She stopped when I jumped a little at hearing her voice.

Right.  I had a bicycle side-mirror hanging from a cord around my neck.

“Keep going,” I said, as I made my way downstairs, arms full of books.

“I read it because I thought maybe it was related to vestiges like me.  And it is.  But this one focuses on ghosts too, on historical elements, and some more practical applications.  You’ve got practitioners who specialize a hundred percent on ghosts and vestiges.  A kind of necromancy.”

“Death magic.”

“Right.  In this case, you’ve got practitioners convincing warriors, usually dying soldiers, that there’s an amazing afterlife of parties and respect for their deeds waiting for them, so the warriors agree to give up their spirits after death.  Use that agreement to help make a vestige or create a ghost, a representation of their skills or their knowledge, their strength, whatever else, and imbue all of that into a vessel.”

“Do you want to be imbued into a vessel?” I asked.

“No.  That would be worse than being inside these mirrors.  Not moving ever.”

“Right,” I said.  “But?”

“But I like the concept.  I like the author.  The book talks about working with ghosts being an option for a practitioner without many resources, in an area where practitioners have already taken hold of everything worth holding, or where the Lord forbids certain practices.  You take a ghost, you imbue an object, and you’ve got…”

“A magical item?” I asked.

“A tool, yes.  I don’t think every Other in Jacob’s Bell is beholden to one practitioner or another, and we don’t really have a Lord here dictating rules, but in our situation, we don’t have a lot of options.”

“So we use ghosts?”  I asked.

“We can.  They can be violent, but that’s only a small subsection of the categories they fall into.  We know how to protect ourselves.”

“And what makes ghosts easier to contact than any of the other Others?”

“Those woods behind this house?  The marshes?  All grandmother’s property. Ghosts, like any vestige, don’t hold up that much to poking and prodding.  They’re remnants of horrible or inspiring events.  Psychic impressions, right?”

“So you said, last night,” I told her.

“They function best in enclosed spaces, especially any enclosed spaces they have connections to.  Houses, houses with bodies still in them, lurking near their murder weapons, and so on.  But that’s not the key bit.  They also function in places with very few humans to mess with them.  The wilderness.”

“The woods and marshes,” I said.

“Exactly.  There aren’t many places where you find intact ghosts, and they aren’t really sought after, because they’re unreliable to work with and they tend to burn out if you draw on them for power.”

Like a vestige does.

“Too much expenditure for minimal gains.”

“So we’re supposed to go looking for them in the woods, a good distance from this sanctuary?  Put life and limb at risk, for a minimal gain?”

“We could.  Or maybe grandmother has a book where she wrote down notable ghosts and their locations.  We call them to us, instead of going their way.”

I stopped midway down the staircase.  I had to shift the books to one arm before I could pick up and move the makeshift mirror-pendant I wore.  I could see Rose standing a short distance up the stairs.  When I had her in my sights, and vice versa, I gave her a disapproving look.  “You mean I’ve got to trek back to the library and go look for some hypothetical book of ghost names?”

“Nope,” Rose said.  She lifted a book so it was visible to me.  “See?  I’ve already found it, and I’ve got it.  Nothing needed here that I can’t recite aloud for you.”

“Alright,” I said.  I started making my way downstairs.  I found Rose waiting for me in the living room.  “Sounds like a plan.  Sounds like we’ve got some disturbing, soulless freaks of nature to summon.  When we’re done that, we can take a break and summon some ghosts.”

“What do- right.  Har har.”

“Seriously though, lawyers or ghosts first?”  I asked.

“Lawyers.  We can’t keep putting it off.”

I found grandmother’s phone.  When I picked up, however, there was no dial tone.

“Fuck!”  I swore.

“Nothing?” Rose asked.

I shook my head.  “Someone must have cut the line recently.  Or the service was disconnected.”

“Repeat the firm’s name, then?  Everything seems to indicate it gets the same result.”

“I have trouble buying that,” I said.  “I can’t help but feel the ominous repetition has a little more weight than a phone call.”

“You said it yourself, we can’t keep putting it off.”

I nodded, looking for and finding the little black book in the pile of books I’d collected.

“Mann, Levinn, and Lewis.”

My words seemed hollow and small in the crowded living room with its books and the lingering mess.

“Mann, Levinn, and Lewis.”

My eyes roved around the room, looking for some sign that something was happening.

“Mann, Levinn, and Lewis.”

The third utterance.

We stood there, quiet, waiting for a response.  I couldn’t shake the notion that the moment I relaxed and heaved a sigh of relief, there would be a knock on the door to startle me, a ring of the phone.

But I did relax, after a few minutes, and there was no knock.

“Nothing?” Rose asked.

I shook my head.  “Maybe I have to be outside.”

“They came in from outside once already.  The lawyers are the only ones this house doesn’t protect against.  Them and the witch hunters.”

I frowned.

“There’s no rush, Blake.  We find another way to contact them, or we keep researching, and we figure out if it’s safe to send this letter.”

“There is a rush,” I answered.  “If we don’t do this soon, they’re going to figure out a trick to throw at us.  A way to get us out of the house, like they got Molly, or the witch hunters, or something else.  What if they come after us and there isn’t an opportunity to do anything like this for days or weeks?  The whole idea is that we’re taking the offensive, to put them on the defensive and distract them to buy ourselves some breathing room.”

“Okay, no, I don’t disagree.  I’m fine with going on the offense, so long as we’re smart about it.”

I nodded.  I placed my hand down on the Valkyrie tome.  “Since lawyers are off the table, and I’m done with the research for now… You’re thinking ghosts, then?  Equipping ourselves, experimenting.  This is smart?”

“I hope so.  We’re going to have to go outside if we’re going to call one and trap it.  Grab salt on the way?”

I nodded.  “Okay.  Okay on the ghosts, and okay on the salt.  I’m open to this.”

She nodded.  I saw a glimmer of that doubt and anger in her expression, but she said, “Thank you.”

I grabbed my winter stuff, the hatchet and bat, then picked up a box of salt from the kitchen.  I passed under the stairs to the back of the house, pulling on the coat and gloves as I went, and stepped outside.

It was still in the early hours of dawn.  The sun had only just started rising, and it was dark.  I’d slept, then woken up early in the hopes of catching Laird off guard, while he was deep in sleep.  If anyone was watching for connections while they were awake, then this was the hour to act.

Hillsglade House was situated on a hill, naturally, but the hill wasn’t a single round hump.  There was a tail, and the tail disappeared into a sparse tree cover that gradually got thicker as it got further away from the house.

It put me in mind of my fight to escape the bird-skull things.  Disappearing into the trees, getting turned around, not being sure of where to go.

The back porch was covered in snow, grit, and piles of leaves that hadn’t quite been cleared.  Snow had piled up around a short wall that enclosed the area.  Stairs led down onto the snow-covered ‘tail’ of hills that gently sloped down into the trees.

Not that gently, when I thought about it.  With the snow and ice, the path would be treacherous.

“Since we’re outside… Mann, Levinn, and Lewis,” I said.  “Mann, Levinn, and Lewis.  Mann, Levinn, and Lewis.”

There was only the sound of the wind whistling through the trees.  Eerily quiet.

We looked around, but there was no sign of anyone being nearby.

“Worth a try,” I said.  “We need a phone, which is another catch-twenty-two.  We need the phone to get hold of the lawyers to figure out when and where we might be safe enough to go get access to a phone.”

“Well, having ghost help might make a difference, in terms of being able to defend ourselves if we’re making a run for it.  If you’re ready?” Rose asked.

“Unbroken circle, I’m assuming,” I said.

“In salt, yes.  You’ll want to clear the snow.”

I looked around, half-convinced an Other was poised to leap on top of me the moment my back was turned.  But it was approaching daylight, and the back of the house was in view of some of the town.  If there were Others near, they were of a sneaky sort.  I grabbed a shovel from beside the back door and began clearing the patio, revealing frost-crusted brick tile beneath.  I had to scrape the shovel against the brick to chip off the ice where it was more stubborn.  Touching the metal handle, I could feel the chill seeping through my gloves.

I caught a glimpse of something at the periphery of the property.

Which would get to me first?  A clever Other or the cold?

“I’m feeling less confident,” I said.  “Being outside.”

“We’re a few paces from safety,” she said.

I frowned.  “Let’s make it fast.”

“Give me a second.  Trying to wrangle two different books.”

I could hear her turning pages.  I fidgeted, partially to keep warm.

“Salt,” she said.  “Is a pure substance, and any ghosts that actively want to hurt us are going to be naturally impure.  Tainted by anger and hatred.”

“I’m following.”

“Easiest way is to bleed,” Rose said.  “If you’re okay with cutting yourself again?”

I looked at my hand.  I still hadn’t healed from the cut that I’d made in my finger so I could draw the sigil on the mug, after getting my power.  Blood didn’t bother me, but I didn’t want my fingertips buried under calluses either.

“We chant the spirit’s name.  This should establish a tenuous connection.  You put power into that connection.”

“How?” I asked.

“Blood.  Draw a symbol, like you see in the book, the median line running parallel to any line of connection you see between yourself and the ghost.  Blood is power, basically the most distilled and direct form you can offer.  The caveat being that when you deal with some Others, you give an inch, they take a mile.  And you don’t want them taking a mile of your blood or personal power.”

I shook my head.  “No danger of that with ghosts?”

“There shouldn’t be.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Anything else?”

“We chant, you draw the line, feed just enough blood into things to bring the ghost into earshot.  After that, we can try communicating with it.”

“Communicating with the ghost.”

“They’re not real beings, they’re echoes of major events that happened.  Typically painful, sad, or angry events.  Sometimes moments of sheer brilliance.  Sometimes other things.  Chances are pretty good that the ghost is going to have a limited script to work with.  They’ll be single minded.  But you should be able to negotiate something.  Remember that every second that you’re using your blood to keep it here, you’re making yourself just a bit weaker.  There isn’t time to hit your head against a brick wall.  Don’t argue with them if they aren’t listening.  But if you find leverage, then use it.  Roll with whatever happens.”

I nodded.

“Another thing?  Misery likes company, and ghosts tend to try to bring others down to their level.  Whatever grips them, they spread it.  Anger, pain, sadness, madness…”

“Fuck,” I said.

“It shouldn’t be so strong that it overwhelms you.  Especially not with the salt circle.  But just in case, I want you to keep listening to me,” Rose said.  “Even if you’re so angry you can’t see straight, even if you want to hurt yourself.”

“Right.”  Listen to Rose.  “Roll with it, except for the big part of this where I shouldn’t roll with it.

Rose ignored my quip.  “Let’s start with a ghost that isn’t too new and isn’t too old.  The new ones are stronger, and the old ones have generally held on only because they’ve connected to other spirits or power sources, which is complicated and dangerous.  June Burlison.  She died in the forties, somewhere in the glades back there.”

June Burlison.

I drew out the salt.  Slowly, with care, I layered it in a circle around me.  By the time I finished closing the circle, the ice beneath the first bit of salt was melting.

I could see more shadows in the fringes of the area.  I was fairly sure I could make a break for it if it came down to it.  The door was only two paces away, I had the axe.

“Watch my back?” I asked.  I moved the bike mirror around until it hung between my shoulderblades.

“Will do.”

And the wind, though blocked by the short brick wall, had blown a few stray grains in my direction.

We had to be quick.

I set my bag, hatchet and bat aside.

“Hi there, June,” I said.  “June Burlison.”

I switched to my other sight.  “June Burlison.”

I could see the connection.  Frail, spirits reacting between me and the book, me and Rose, and between me and something out there in the woods.  Too general, indirect and fleeting to point the way to anything.

“June Burlison,” Rose said.  I could see the same connections forming.  The connection passed to me, then out to the woods, like the aftermath of lighting that darted between conductive targets.

Would this same strategy work for finding people?  Objects?  If I wanted to find Laird, could I call out his name until I could make out the connection?

“June Burlison,” I said.  I was having an easier time making out the connection.  Was she drawing closer, even without the blood being offered?

Of course.  The connection wasn’t a one-way street.  There was an exchange.  If I tried to find Laird by establishing some kind of tenuous relationship, he’d know.  He could probably use it against me.

This was the same thing as the lawyers.  Calling their names until they took notice.

“June Burlison,” I said.

The line was clear enough, now.  I used the hatchet’s blade and sliced a fingertip that didn’t have any cuts on it.  I reached past the border of salt and drew out the symbol, copying what was on the open page in the book.

As if lured in by the blood, I could see the Others drawing closer.  Slipping in through my blind spot, popping their heads up around terrain features.  Every time my back was turned, they closed the distance.  Since they were surrounding me, there were some approaching with every second.

“Might have to make a break for it,” Rose said.

“Might,” I said, but I started on the diagram.

“Blake,” Rose said.  A little more urgent.

I glanced back.  “Is it something that the salt circle will stop?”

“Can’t make promises,” she said.

I clenched my teeth, then set to drawing out the rest of the diagram.  When I drew the line of blood against the edge of the salt line, I got salt on the cut.

“Fuck, ow,” I said, swearing under my breath.

I could feel the connection momentarily flare, with that.

June appeared, down at the tail end of the hill, near the treeline.

It wasn’t a fluid appearance.  She stuttered, like a film feel with missing frames.  Her movements were jerky, following the same repeated pattern, as she crawled towards me, clawing in the snow for purchase as she pulled herself forward with one hand and pushed herself another foot or two with one foot.  She was half dressed, her clothing old-fashioned.  The one hand she wasn’t using to crawl was clutching at her collar, the fingers black.

The cold cut deep into me.  She was moving slowly, and I wasn’t dressed warmly.  Much less standing still in the cold.

Except there was more to it.  The onset of cold seemed to match her approach a touch too evenly.

Where June didn’t have the ‘program’ for how she was supposed to look or act while climbing the steeper portion of the hill, she simply disappeared.  A second or two later, she was back, as if she hadn’t left at all, and she’d managed to close the ten or so feet in the meantime.

For all that the image was imperfect, it was remarkably clear.  She wasn’t translucent, as ghosts tended to be in film.

And, mercifully, the shadows of Others were dropping away as this ghost drew nearer.

“June Burlison,” I said.

She stuttered again, then closed half the distance in a single leap.  The remaining Others disappeared in that same moment, ducking away.

The warmth I felt caught me off guard.  That warmth proved short-lived.  It became a prickling heat, with a burning sensation in my extremities.  She’d covered half the distance, but the intensity of what I was experiencing had increased ten times over.

“She’s… affecting me,” I said.

“On two levels,” Rose said, her voice quiet.  “She’s drawing power from the blood you’re using to forge the connection, and she’s giving off a kind of radiation, related to whatever impression she made on the world.”

“Cumulative,” I murmured.  Louder, I said, “June Burlison, I want to talk.”

The burning was getting worse.  It was getting to be too much, to the point that I couldn’t stand still.

June spoke in a voice that was barely above a wheeze, oddly childlike, given her apparent age.  “I fell asleep too close to the fire.  I’ve burned myself.”

What was I even supposed to say to that?

June spoke in an alarmed voice, her voice feeble considering the intensity of what she was saying.  “I was cold, and so I curled up near the fireplace.  I’m burning.  Oh god, it’s so hot.  I’m burning.”

Fingers so frostbitten that they could barely be called fingers clawed ineffectually at her clothing.

She stuttered, disappearing for a moment, then reappeared.  A small whimper escaped her lips as she fumbled at the ruined, muddy, and damp clothes with fingers that were so ruined they couldn’t cooperate..

I could feel the heat.  Worse with every passing second.

“It-” I stopped myself.  I’d almost said ‘it is hot‘.  But that could have been a lie.  I wasn’t sure if it really was hot or if I was just feeling an illusion of heat.   “It does feel hot, yes.”

As if my words were a kind of fuel, the heat increased a fraction.

“Make it stop.  I’m done with this.  Make it stop,” she said.

Her words did the same, ratcheting up the heat.

“Rose,” I murmured.  My voice was a touch hoarse. “I don’t know if I’m up for this.”

“If it gets to be too much,” Rose said, “Break the line of blood.  You can also dash salt on her.  It ends the moment you do.”

June Burlison screamed, sudden, disappearing in one moment and reappearing in the next.  I might have called her movements thrashing, but they were too feeble.  She was playing a different image for me, one of her in the throes of helpless agony.

I realized I was screaming, too, at the wave of heat that rushed past me.  The screaming only seemed to make it worse.

When she started flickering and disappearing again, I had a moment’s relief.  The pain didn’t linger in the slightest, though the pounding of my heart did.  I was left cold, instead.

“Blake?”

I shook my head a little.  It was Rose talking to me, I reminded myself.

“Get answers.  Open a dialogue,” Rose said.

“June,” I managed, panting for breath after the screaming.  I tried to stay calm, even as speaking her name seemed to fan the fires.  But June wasn’t responding.

Rose tried, instead.  “June Burlison.  Do you remember what happened before you went to sleep by the fire?”

Abruptly, she was standing.  Hugging her body with her arms.  Her injuries had taken a leap backwards in severity, and her clothes were more intact.

I experienced a wave of cold emanating from her instead.  It didn’t make the memory of the fire I’d experienced any better.

Rose spoke.  “Do you remember?  What happened before you went to sleep?”

“I’ve been left outside in the woods.  I fought with my husband, and I demanded he let me out by the side of the road.  I couldn’t be in the car with him any longer.  Now I have to walk home.”

“It’s cold, isn’t it?”  Rose asked.

“It’s so very cold,” June agreed.

“Do you fight often?” Rose asked.

“Yes.  Nobody agreed with the idea, but I married him.  They were right, I was wrong.  Soon, I’m sure I’ll pick up the courage and admit it to my mother and father.  It is shameful, but I don’t want to fight all the time.”

“Did he hurt you?” Rose asked.

“No.  But we fight so much.  We’re so different.  It’s so cold.”

“It is,” Rose said.

She wobbled, then fell to her hands and knees.  There was a stutter, and the injuries were worse.  Fingers devoured by frostbite.  “I’m almost home.  I can’t walk anymore, but I can crawl.”

The cold was starting to get to me.  Enough that I wondered if I risked frostbite myself.

How much was she taking through this blood connection?  Was Rose wrong?  Was a ghost capable of taking this much from me?

Did it have something to do with getting salt in the wound?  Was the circle compromised?

Or, the idea dawned on me, am I already being drained by another source?

When I thought of what other sources might be out there, the only thing that sprung to mind was Rose.

“Stay focused, Blake,” Rose said.

Momentarily, I wondered if she was reading my mind, answering the thought.  But it didn’t fit.

“It’s cold, you’re almost home,” I said.

Nothing.

“Are you?” Rose asked.  “Almost home?”

“I’m so cold.  But my husband will be waiting.  I’ll apologize, and he’ll have a fire going in the fireplace, our little electric heater running.  The house will be warm, and I’ll be able to rest easy.”

“But that isn’t the way it happens, is it?” Rose asked.

I could see the look of sheer bewilderment on June’s face.  The dawning look of betrayal.

Over long seconds, I watched her expression twist in slow motion, beyond the bounds that people were normally capable of, to show a monstrous kind of despair and betrayal, so deep it altered her very being.  For many of those seconds, I thought the emotion was directed at me.

I was seeing her as she had been in the moment she’d opened the door and found her home empty and cold.  An imperfect replay.

The wind picked up around me.  My fingers were throbbing now, almost numb.

“June,” Rose said, her voice gentle.  “Was that it?  You started a fire in the fireplace and went to sleep?”

A disconnect, a jerk, and June Burlison was writhing in pain again, crippled and bent low by it.  I staggered, nearly stepping outside of the circle.

Heat and cold.  But why the disconnect?  Why wasn’t the narrative more complete?

Did it only include the moments she was awake?

I flexed my numbed fingers.

Or was it something else?

“Was the fireplace on?” I asked.

There was no response.  I clenched my hands into numb fists.

“The fireplace was on,” Rose said, “You were asleep…”

“Rose,” I said.  “The fireplace wasn’t on.  I think maybe she doesn’t want to talk to a guy, because of the issue with her husband.  You’ll need to ask her.  Did she get the fireplace going before she fell asleep?”

“June,” Rose said.  “Did you start the fire before you fell asleep?”

“No,” June said.  “I dozed off.  The house was cold, but I couldn’t focus, and my heart was beating funny.”

“And,” I said, “All the blood that your body withdrew from your extremities went rushing back, trying to rescue them.  A sudden, painful warmth.”

But she didn’t hear me.  Not really.

“What are you talking about?” Rose asked.

“I read about it, after hearing a joke once.  About some idiot sitting naked in a snowbank.  Dying by cold, you experience an intense rush of warmth in the end.    June was never burned, exactly.  She was in the last stages of freezing to death.”

“It wasn’t the heat, June,” Rose echoed me.  “It wasn’t your fault.  What you were feeling, what you’re feeling now… it was only the cold.”

“I’m burning.”

I could feel the heat again, but it was somehow diminished.

“You’re freezing, not burning,” Rose said.  “You’re listening to me, right?  You’re hearing me on some level, I think.  Listen, it’s only the cold.”

“It’s so very cold,” June said.  But she was in a state of dress matching the scene where she’d been burning before.

“It’s not your fault,” Rose said.  “It’s only the cold.  Will you make a deal with us?”

“It’s so very cold,” June said.

“If you agree, I guarantee you my partner in the circle right there will keep you warm as best as he can.”

June flickered, writhing in agony for mere heartbeats, limbs flailing, cold-blackened fingers clutching for relief from somewhere, anywhere.

Then she was standing again.  “I don’t want to fight all the time.”

“I have no reason to fight with you,” I said, uselessly.

“He’s not a bad guy,” Rose said.  “His heart is in the right place.”

“I don’t want to fight all the time,” June echoed herself.  Not taking it in.

Rose said other things, trying to convince June, but it only got the same replies over and over again.   While I listened, my mind ran through the conversation.  The unhappy wife, walking home.  The cold, her body failing her…

What would stick with her?  With everything but this one scene stripped away?

“Ask her if she daydreamed about other men, while she was walking home,” I said.  “Other husbands she might find, after she left the current one.  Refer to it in the present tense.”

Rose considered, then said.  “Listen, June.  Are you fantasizing about the men you might marry?”

“Yes.  I can imagine being held.  Being warm.  But then I feel the cold again.”

“When you’re imagining being with those men,” Rose said.  “Do you imagine you’re fighting all the time?”

“No.  I can imagine being held.  Being warm.”

“If you agree to help, my friend can hold you.  Keep you warm.  And you don’t have to fight all the time.”

There was no reply.  June was only standing there, flickering.

I wasn’t feeling any cold except the ordinary cold of winter.

My heart was pounding, my hands throbbing.

I stepped beyond the bounds of the circle.

Still, I didn’t feel the cold.

I reached out, arms extended.

“Blake,” Rose said.  “No.”

I stopped.

“If you do that, you might resolve the dilemma, cancel out the impression.  She isn’t aware enough to fight against that and keep her end of the bargain by helping us.”

“What’s the alternative?” I asked.

“The alternative is giving her a vessel to reside in.  You can fulfill the bargain.  Keep that vessel warm, and she helps us.”

“So… she keeps suffering?” I asked.

“She is suffering,” Rose said.  “As in, that thing you’re looking at is an embodiment of a moment of suffering.  What you see there is all there is.  The real June went on to the afterlife.  This is an emotional event that hit the world hard enough to make a dent shaped like ‘dying of hypothermia’.  If you take away the suffering, there’s going to be absolutely nothing there.  And maybe the balance of the world is a little better off, things are a little nicer without this memory of one bad moment wandering around the woods, but we aren’t any better off.”

I looked at June.  Despondent, shivering.

“It feels wrong,” I said.

“Yeah,” Rose said.  “But it’s necessary, and whatever else it might look like, you’re not hurting it.  It’s not even a person.  Just… an impression.”

“I’m having trouble buying that.”

“Why?  Because it looks like a damsel in distress?”

“Because it is a ghost, only one step removed from being a vestige, remember?” I asked.  My tone of voice might have been a little too harsh.

In the silence that followed, I shivered violently, my teeth chattering together briefly.

When Rose replied, her tone of voice had changed.  “I think it’s nicer, accepting this deal, instead of just canceling her out.  You can hold her and keep her warm, and except for the moments we need her to be a spectre of hypothermia, she can exist as that one fragment of a memory where she daydreamed about a man holding her.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I can buy that.”

I searched my person, but there wasn’t anything I could really use.  I didn’t want her to imbue the keys I’d chosen before, rescued from the bowl I’d used for the awakening ritual.  I didn’t have much else, besides spare chain and the mirror around my neck.

Looking down, I saw the hatchet beside the bag.  I picked it up.

“I hope he’s chopped enough wood for the fire,” June murmured behind me, barely audible.

As I turned around, she disappeared, and something hit the hatchet.

My already numb fingers froze as cold creeped up the handle.  In the span of one or two seconds, they became so stiff I couldn’t open them to drop the hatchet.

“Done,” I said.  “Inside, now.”

“It’s a little more complex,” Rose said.  “If we-”

I’m going to be a ghost soon if we don’t get inside,” I said.  I grabbed the bat, stuffed book and salt into the bag, and looped it over one shoulder.

“If she gets loose inside the house, sanctuary won’t help us.”

“We wrangled her once,” I said, heading for the door.  “We only need to keep her content, right?”

“We need to bind the axe with something.”

“Hatchet, and we will.  Inside,” I said.  I unzipped my jacket and slid the hatchet underneath, so it sat between my coat and my sweatshirt.  I held it there, stiff fingers still gripping the wooden handle.  “Better, June?”

The cold didn’t feel as intense as it had.

“Good,” I said.  To Rose, I said, “Inside.”

I made my way indoors.

The cold in the hatchet was noticeable, but growing less intense by the second.

“We’ll need a way to inscribe the handle, or she can leave any time she feels like it, and she’s liable to go out in one big intense shot of cold the moment you hit something,” Rose said, as I made my way into the hallway.

“That could be useful,” I said.

“It would almost definitely kill you,” Rose said.

“Less useful,” I replied.

“You could have chosen a better tool.  That handle looks like some kind of textured rubber, and I don’t know how we’re going to engrave anything into the steel, either.  ”

“She chose it, not me,” I said.  I pried my hand away from the hatchet’s handle.

“Well, this works as a kind of stopgap measure as a half-implement and half-familiar,” Rose said.  “Not sure how you’re going to conceal that hatchet all the time, but it works.”

“It does.  A step forward,” I said.  My hand was throbbing now.  I could feel the cold in the core of my bones.  “We need to do it a few more times, in a few different ways, and we’ll have a passable power base.”

“There aren’t that many good options,” Rose said.

“We can try the less-good options,” I said.  “And hopefully I don’t lose any hands doing it.  Ow.”

“Hopefully,” Rose said.  “Let me go over the inscriptions, and I’ll walk you through it.”

“I’m going to keep our new friend nice and warm like we promised, and see if I can’t warm myself up too,” I said.  “Anything that involves the stove and kettle.”

I stepped into the kitchen to dig through the cabinets.  I’d overlooked the hot chocolate before, dismissing the unpalatable mix of chocolate powder and water, but it suddenly seemed like the best idea I’d had in a long time.

In terms of hot food…

I grimaced and put the oatmeal aside as well.  The only thing I could make in a reasonable span of time.

“Damned oatmeal,” I muttered.  Louder, I said, “Remember that bit I said last night?  About how you had to get on my case and remind me that I could have gone shopping but didn’t?  Now’s the time.  I feel like I’m going to cry.”

“Blake?” Rose called out.

Something in her voice caught my attention.

I turned around and came face to face with a scene.

A gray haired man, a twenty-something man, and a thirty-something woman sat on the couches and chairs in the living room.  All wearing suits, all with nice, utilitarian hair styles.

Rose, for her part, was visible in the mirror.  I couldn’t even process her expression.  Even for this sudden appearance, the level of dawning horror on her face that I saw seemed like it was too much.

Was she seeing something I couldn’t?  Or had she glimpsed something before I turned around?

“The lawyers of Mann, Levinn, and Lewis, I presume?” I asked.

“More specifically, we are Mann, Levinn and Lewis,” the young woman said.  Blonde, with a tidy ponytail and a lock of hair strategically draped over the corner of one eyebrow.  One of her pantyhose-covered legs was crossed over the other, her hands folded over her knee.  “Please, don’t cry while we’re here.  I can’t speak for my partners, but I’d be embarrassed on your behalf.”

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132 thoughts on “Damages 2.3

  1. Oh my. Demon lawyers. This could be interesting.

    So Blake is going to specialise in vestiges and ghosts? Appropriate considering the way him and Rose work together.

  2. Nice! Blake is finally getting some (usable) firepower, we see just how dangerous making contracts with any spirit is, even the lesser ones, and, most importantly, we finally meet the damned lawyers.

    Also, Typo thread I guess.

      1. “For a many of those seconds, I thought the emotion was directed at me.”
        Should be “For many of those seconds”.

    1. It’s a start. If Blake can get enough ghosts bound, then that helps him get started on a power base for the three main rituals.

    2. Continuity problem in reference to the hatchet: “stiff fingers still gripping the wooden handle” and then “That handle looks like some kind of textured rubber”.

          1. Yep, those are definitely a thing. I don’t know that I’ve seen one for a hatchet specifically, but lots of other wooden-handled tools have a rubber grip.

    3. Typos:
      – “I double checked the cover of the book that now lay across my lap.” -> ‘double-checked’
      – “You’ve got practitioners who specialize a hundred percent on ghosts and vestiges.” -> ‘specialize a hundred percent in’
      – “catch-twenty-two” -> “Catch-22” or “catch-22”
      – “They’ll be single minded” -> “single-minded”
      – “She stuttered, like a film feel with missing frames.” -> “film reel”
      – “so ruined they couldn’t cooperate..” -> One period too much, or one too little.

      Possible typos:
      – “June Burlison screamed, sudden,” -> ‘suddenly’ or ‘all of a sudden’
      – “Anything that involves the stove and kettle.” -> ‘the stove and a kettle’

  3. “It would almost definitely kill you,” Rose said. “You really need to read

    “Less useful,” I replied.

    That seems to be a typo.

  4. So, Blake has access to necromancy. He wants to solve the murder of his dead cousin, among other things. I would think that the protocol here is fairly obvious.

    1. Just because he can summon a ghost and that’s akin to necromancy, doesn’t mean he has ‘access to necromancy’ to the extent he would need to solve his cousin’s murder.

      1. Well if Molly left a ghost, I guess he could just ask her. Though it seems like dealing with that would count as cleaning up part of a crime scene.

  5. Magical, almost definitely evil, lawyers. Very Wolfram and Hart.

    If Blake learns to throw his hatchet at his enemy, that might help him not get frozen to death. Blake making an arsenal of magical items is pretty neat, he could become Batman with an item for every occasion.

    That last line was hilarious, btw.

    1. He doesn’t need to throw it, he just needs to do some inscriptions, then he’ll have his +1 hatchet of freezing

  6. Demon lawyers!
    And they seem lovely. Surely the next chapter will consist of a calm logical discussion in which Blake won’t feel out of his depth.

    1. That would probably worry me more than if he did feel out of his depth, because it would mean the lawyers are making a concerted effort to make him feel comfortable and that’s probably worse than having him be on edge.

    1. He can keep the Julie constantly warm by burying her into human flesh & fire elementals. When not in use, hang her above the fireplace as a 3rd line of defence against anything that manages to penetrate The Houses’ defences.

  7. So, given how Molly died, would it be appropriate to call her ghost & bind it to an implement to kill the person(s) responsible?

    Possible use for Necromancy:- Bind ghosts to bullets & inscribe the shell casings with diluted Alchemical acids. Using those bullets against Practitioners/Others/Hunters can form the basis of his fighting style provided he takes the time to train to be a decent shot, bonus if the Ghost Bullets turn out have homing capabilities.

    1. But each bullet needs to be specifically inscribed/prepared for each separate ghost, meaning it’s a very time-consuming and impractical process.

      1. Ok, I’ll give you that. Then other questions spring to mind:-

        1) Will binding multiple similar ghosts into a single implement will allow their powers to stack?

        2) Will binding multiple diverse ghosts into as single implement grant it a variety of powers or render it useless due to conflicting contracts & conditions?

        1. Open to being jossed of course, but do you really think arcane impressions of pain and anger would really appreciate sharing space with each other? I wouldn’t think so, personally.

        2. I think it’s simply a matter of the spirit not being willing to enter a tool that is already occupied. Or, if it is, they might cancel out some of each other’s pain, weakening them.

    2. Forget weapon-binding Molly, summon her for information on who killed her. Then, possibly, bind her into a dog familiar. If the danger of such a thing comes from the spirit, it becomes a viable option if it’s a spirit Blake knows her can trust.

      1. As Rose states about June, Blake wouldn’t be binding Molly, he’d be binding Molly in the moment of her death (fear, despair, pain). Molly’s ghost likely wouldn’t recognize Blake or be able to tell him who murdered her (which is nearly arbitrary anyway).

      2. I’m thinking the “use of tools” on Molly either pre- or post-mortem was to prevent things such as this.
        Any impression she might have left upon the world in her last moments were probably erased, preventing ghost-side interrogations.

        The killer(s) are likely savvy, after all.

  8. Keep in mind that ghosts are considered fairly low on the scale of power. Yes, a lot of ghosts would obviously be a bit further up on that scale but each one costs you something. The whole small gain for effort issue. Blake is on the right path though, he needed to start somewhere and overall, he got a lot more than he paid out on this occasion. Now, he just needs to keep trading up so to speak.

  9. Really liking the magical praxis that is building up here. So far magic is /practically/ pretty easy to pick up and perform, so skill largely comes down to figuring out how to make bargains that don’t mess you up in the long term (or kill you while you’re mid-deal).

    And every piece of power you snap up is some kind of binding promise that you’re going to have to keep track of, even if the deal you struck was superficially innocuous. “I get a really cool ice axe, and the only downside is that I have to keep it warm,” seems straightforward enough… until the next time you find yourself freezing to death again you ALSO have a bound ghost getting pissed that you’re not living up to the deal.

  10. I wonder what constitutes “warm”? Like, anything above 32 degrees Fahrenheit? Or anything above 98.3 degrees? Even if it’s the former, that has significant potential to be a big hassle over an extended period.

    Building a power base this way seems less like horse trading and more like building a house of cards.

    1. Beggars can’t be choosers.

      I agree that his choice of familiar and implement is suboptimal but Blake was in a situation where he pretty much had to take the first offer he could find.

      Let’s hope the evil lawyers have some good news. Yeah right.

        1. True. But he does seem to be mulling on the idea of using his hatchet of extreme cold +1 as an implement. What with Rose pointing that a hatchet isn’t exactly a subtle choice for an implement.

    2. Well, ghost!June wants to be held and stop fighting all the time. The correct ‘warm’ is probably akin to the both literal and figurative warmth of a comfortable home.
      Wonder how she’ll behave when that peace is tampered with.

      1. If hung above the fireplace, she becomes a pseudo-spirit of the hearth & drains body heat from those who break the Laws of Hospitality, turning them into popsicles?

  11. This isn’t really related to this chapter, though I greatly enjoyed reading it.

    Wildbow, have you ever considered using Patreon?

  12. The ghost summoning had some good atmosphere with it. It was cool.
    Seems like Others don’t carry around a lot in the way of guns or other ranged weaponry, or Blake would probably be dead after stepping foot outside.

    Hopefully, blonde ponytail isn’t “miss Mann.”

    1. Oddly I thought it was rather stilted… not as well thought through / polished as usual.

      I maintain that the magic system here is getting implausibly complicated. Unless there are some ridiculously powerful backdoors we will learn about in the future it’s straining belief that a system of contracts this complicated can be stable enough to underpin a society.

      1. It seems to be the case that practioner/Other society is anything but stable. I concur it is increasingly complicated, but that hardly means things will be forgotten become irrelevant. Just look at what became of Worm’s chekhovian armory and rest assured.

        I am kind of disappointed this chapter ended so soon, though. People have been clamoring for the lawyers since 1.3, and now we get one snide comment as an introduction before waiting again. But, I do look forward to finally getting some freaking answers Tuesday.

        Also, I doubt they are actually demons. I know, its a joke, but I think its been well established that proper demons are not something you call up so simply and easily, not if you like living. I’m betting they are just very well connected practioners. Who may have once had Faust as a client.

      2. It’s called ‘common law, tort, tax code, county codes, city codes, state/federal regulations, statutes, tax law, ordinances, union bylaws, homeowner deed restrictions/HOAs, court precedent, constitutional law, tax law, agency guidelines, workplace guidelines, international treaties, interstate compacts, zoning laws, customs inspections, air traffic guidelines, handshake agreements, rental contracts, and all the fiddly bits where they overlap or underlap’.

        It’s not implausibly complicated, it’s realistically complicated. For beings that can conceivably live forever, contract law has to be something of a nightmare. No way around it.

        1. I meant to put ‘tax court‘ instead of ‘tax law’ – the IRS courts are a realm unto themselves, no connection to criminal/civil court law, with very different rules. Thus, having ‘tax code’ and ‘tax court’ both in the list would not be a redundancy, because they signify different though related areas of inquiry into our lovely legal minefield.

        2. Not exactly what I meant: it isn’t the differing levels of complexity that are causing me problems (and although I like your analogy, I don’t think it holds because the separation between act and consequence here is effectively zero and screwing up is likely to have consequences that the term blast-radius is used to describe), rather that it looks like we have the standard magical problem of conflicting realities. I trust Wildbow to have a very detailed understanding of how magic in this world works, but I do have my concerns about internal consistency. In our world, if laws are inconsistant, well, it causes some operational and procedural headaches and a few people get snarled in the system. In a magical setting, inconsistency leads to either endless handwavium or total collapse of reality / disbelief.

          Ghosts are usually a sign that this is an incoming problem. Ghosts are a nightmare because the moment you start asking questions about them you end up in all sorts of problems. Let me demonstrate with our current case.

          She is a recording of a traumatic experience, in full 3d and with personality encoded, with life history as well, again, stored in fully realized 3d. She is capable of a degree of independent, intelligent processing and decision making based on natural language and abstract reasoning. What are her processing substrate and power supply? How can it be transfered into a hatchet?

          If the answer is handwavey magic, then it makes the situation worse because then we’d have to have an explanation for why this isn’t a common technology given that non-awakened can see Others and be affected by them. If this is the case then normal humanity in its billions would surely have either annihilated the Practitioners (and possibly the Others too), or (and this is being fantastically optimistic about human nature) co-opted them.

          If it is more concrete than that then the whole system is… less plausible.

          This is the problem with the ‘Hidden magical society’ trope; it relies on an audience with REALLY good suspension of disbelief / internal consistency blindness. All I ask for in a story with Magic is that it makes sense internally.

          1. In June’s case, if she were in the Wormverse, she’d have a high probability of a trigger event instead of dying. It’s that level of trauma that provides the “imprint” that Rose described. As for where the intelligence and energy come from, any explanation (even the “hard science” ones) would be pretty handwavey. If a simile could work, think of it this way; A ghost is like the imprint of a falling boulder against the desert of reality. The boulder itself (June’s “soul”) bounces away into the afterlife, relatively unharmed from the experience. A vestige is if the boulder is shaped and specifically launched to create a very specific impact (e.g. “Female Blake, living in mirrors around him, environment as I the summoner remember it.”).

            In this way, the “kinetic” energy of the boulder would be the one defining what shape the imprint takes, and how the sand behaves in response. (“shape” being a highly metaphoric term in this extended analogy) Do we know what sort of metaphysics are necessary to give such an impact “life” while still allowing the rock to bounce merrily off into the sunset? No. Do we need to know? I would argue also no.

            Also, do we know that non-awakened can see June and her ilk? I thought that the ghosts were only visible once Blake put on his awakened-goggles.

      3. A system that complicated can exist if magic users can affect the magic system. Here’s how that works:

        You have powers A, B, C, … Z such that A>B>C>….>Z. The users of weaker powers are threatened by the users of A, so some of them band together and either lower A’s effectiveness or forcibly give it vulnerabilities. But then you have a new greater power …

        Enough of that cycle both levels the playing field and complicates things quicly. With some actual bargaining and deliberate balancing of powers thrown in it can lead to an awfully complicated system with no trump powers and no significant loopholes, because all of the overbearing powers have been weakened and all of the loopholes have been tightened.

  13. “I wrote the name and location of the second book down.”

    I was a bit confused by this, because I couldn’t remember Rose giving any directions to a book based on how far down it was. It was just a fleeting confusion though.

    Maybe

    “I wrote down the name and location of the second book.”
    or just drop the down completely?
    “I wrote the name and location of the second book.”

    Not a big deal but I’m not used to running into stumbling blocks when I run through your writing Wildbow. In this case maybe it was just me being picky 🙂

  14. I like the ghost summoning and the ghost bargaining. Besides, there is the moral dilemma. He could hug the ghost and end its suffering existence improving the world a little bit or he could create an ax of frost and use it to freeze people.

  15. I find the possibility that Rose might be draining Blake interesting… And unsettling. Does Rose suspect the same?

    And now the Lawyers. I was not expecting three of them. No doubt they aren’t human, but demons? Not so sure of that either.

    Considering how much trouble Blake had with just a ghost, he clearly has a long way to go. He’s not using any demons for a good long while if ever.

    Gives me some new respect for Maggie, since she seems to have had to figure things out on her own, and do them herself. She is probably the one local practicioner Blake could negotate with from a posistion of power.

    1. RTD sr. wanted a granddaughter… The first thing that comes to my mind given this set-up is that Rose, over time, becomes more able to influence the real world, until finally the roles are reversed and he becomes vestige-like. This isn’t based on clues, though – just on lots of fantasy literature that would use that idea.

  16. Hmm, I think that the suffering Blake experienced and saw for himself when he was homeless might go a really long way for him with regards to communicating with ghosts. This one was hard for him because she was female, and her death was tied to a man.

    Future ghosts, if chosen carefully, might be much more understandable to Blake. They might also teach him some lessons in patience and caution.

    I’m also rather certain that Rose was sipping at Blake’s energy there. She would be a fool not to, though she might be a greater fool to not ask. Not so sure about that.

    One thing that he probably does need to do, carefully, is summon Molly’s ghost. If possible he’ll want to test it for connections to other practitioners first.

    He also needs to make a careful decision about either talking to the lawyers or binding the ghost. One of the two things needs to be done before the other, and I can see bad things either way. Debt from the lawyers for their time if they aren’t dealt with soonest, and potential escaped ghost inside the house if the ghost binding isn’t done soonest.

    1. Easy, Rose shows him the markings to bind June real quick, then she deals with the lawyers while he works on the hatchet.

      Proposal: From now on, we call the hatchet Frostbite, cuz its badass. Second?

      1. Good Call. Despite having seen it in action a couple times, I still have to doublethink to imagine Rose concentrating on something that Blake isn’t. And that really shouldn’t be a problem for me, considering that I also write about a main character with two aspects, even if it’s in a completely different genre, and they tend to cooperate with one another more.

      2. If Blake leaves Rose with the lawyers and she asks for something, is she a sufficient part of their client for them to follow what she says? Blake is getting the hint that he cannot fully trust Rose. What if the request is against Blake’s interests? If Rose asks for something and Blake asks for something different, who do the lawyers listen to? Will Rose pass on the information accurately or not, especially if it impacts her survival?

    2. An alternative to the “Rose was sipping Blake’s energy” theory is that the lawyers showed up around then (they entered the house at some point), and were drawing on his energy the same way the ghost was.

      1. An alternative alternative is that June’s death, which perceived itself as a result of drained energy due to environmental conditions June was exposed to because of an unwise decision she made in the heat of anger/betrayal at the person June was closest to / most reliant on (phew!), was affecting Blake in a reasonably analogous way.

  17. “Which isn’t ominous at all.”

    “Not in the slightest,” Rose said, solemn.


    This sounds like a lie to me. There was a couple of other places where they seemed to lie. Maybe this is a hint that the lying restriction is more complicated. There’s not many jokes that don’t require technically lying, which would make dialogue somewhat uninteresting.

    1. Yeah, I’m getting a “Doc Scratch” impression from the rules about lying. It’s clearly got holes in it a mile wide and is exploitable all to hell, as Laird proved last arc. I’m guessing it measures sincerity somehow, combined with a “letter of the law” interpretation.

  18. “Blonde, with a tidy ponytail and a lock of hair strategically draped over the corner of one eyebrow, she had one pantyhose-covered leg crossed over the other, hands folded over her knee.”

    Bit of an ambiguous modifier there. When I first read it, I thought it said that she had one pantyhose-covered leg crossed over the other eyebrow.

    1. Honestly, I was kind of expecting them to be in the house before they finished with the ghosts. The fact that Rose looks so horrified could be explained by the woman’s unusual flexibility.

  19. I meant to comment on this last chapter, but since Blake is continuing the idea this chapter, it fits here too: the idea of turning the RCMP on Laird is disastrous. The one thing every Other and practitioner agree on is to leave the non-cognoscenti out of it. If found out, and with the enchantresses in the mix it will be found out, this could worsen Blake’s relationship with every other power out there.

    That being said, the only time to use such a tactic is when everyone is against you anyway, but it still smacks of using chemical weapons because everyone is pissed at you for having nuclear weapons.

    1. Except that the Duchamps have already brought the muggles into the situation, when they loopholed Blake’s relatives into going after him in a shopping mart, magically so no less. It looks like you can point investigation at someone and then it’s their responsibility to avoid being found out-presumably if they were it would be grounds for execution.

      1. OK, that is an excellent point that I hadn’t thought of. I wonder if family of practitioners is a fringe area because they are supposed to be cognoscenti, but in this case RDT’s oath messed that up.

      2. I wonder how much of the hatred in Blake’s family the Duchamps are responsible for. Divide enemies are easier to defeat and all that. Also how much of the towns people’s hatred are the Duchamps responsible for. Not saying the Duchamps are making people hate the Thorburn Family but I think there boost the hate. And if the Duchamps can use the muggles why not Blake.

    2. It might also be a good idea for Blake to read that book on executions to find out if his plan violates any of the rules.

      If found out, and with the enchantresses in the mix it will be found out, this could worsen Blake’s relationship with every other power out there.<
      Well the enchantresses are already messing with his relationships with his family. It might not be that much of a stretch for them to say, make Molly’s parents start thinking Blake killed her, and have one of them knife him to death on the street, and get a few more members of his family taken care of. It doesn’t help that both Blake’s family and the town in general hate him for being in the house, because everyone wants the property sold so the town can prosper. Even before magical interference that is not going to make him popular. Shunning is devestating, and Blake could actually be at risk of starving to death if this goes on.

      Funny thing is that Blake’s keeping the house and not opting for the escape clause shows he does care about the rest of the family, as it’s keeping them protected from magical threats. Although he probably can’t go “Screw this, I’m outta here” since he’d most likely still be targeted.

      I wonder if Grandma Rose’s making it so the house had to be kept is because it can’t be gotten rid of without dooming the family, or as a big Fuck You to the town.

  20. The usual typing to put my thoughts in some order …

    And Blake finally gets around to asking for help from the only party listed as an ally. However, his first words to the lawyers should be something like “If I ask for anything from you that would incur extra debt to you, let me know of the debt before fulfilling the request and only fulfill the request if I explicitly agree to the debt.”

    The list of practitioner deaths in the area since settling in the new world is too heavy to lift. That would imply a ridiculous number of deaths … if the range of the white-tailed deer weren’t most of North America and some of South America. Even considering the “Eastern” qualifier, this includes a huge area. Still, do any practitioners die of natural causes?

    Hastur, Hastur, Hastur … wait, wrong lawyer. Ominous as it sounds, the “say the name three times” summoning can be construed as the equivalent of calling a beeper, or, as Blake notes, just creating enough of a connection to be noticed. But yeah, I agree with other commenters that demonic lawyers is about right, especially given that RDT said they would be unreliable in dealing with actual demons.

    The phone is off. I wondered previously why the locals didn’t screw with Blake’s utility services. I guess it is on outside likelihood that Molly just forgot to pay the phone bill. Now, if they cut power and water things get nasty, especially with a ghost in the house who he has promised to keep warm.

    “And, mercifully, the shadows of Others were dropping away as this ghost drew nearer” If ghosts are weak workings, why is this happening? It should be the opposite – Blake is doing something that could get him killed by apparently natural causes outside of the protections of his house. Why not screw with the exchange?

    Point to Blake, realizing that the dying by fire explanation doesn’t work and using that to help bring in the ghost.

    And Blake is finally picking up on the idea that Rose might be doing things that weaken him without his direct permission. Nothing like a little at-home paranoia to add to the everyone-wants-me-dead paranoia he already has. Oh, wait … Rose chose the ghost … who doesn’t like arguing with her husband … who listened to Rose more than Blake in the exchange. So if Rose and Blake argue, whose side is the ghost on? Can the ghost even affect Rose? So, if I were being paranoid, I would say that Rose chose a ghost that can be convinced to work against Blake.

    1. The Others might not have been concerned with the ghost at all. At some point during the ghost summoning, the demon lawyers showed up. I’d guess they appeared at the same time that the Others started backing away.

    2. Re: utilities

      We already know that the water comes from a well on the premesis (Blake remarked on the taste earlier), and a large, old mansion in Canada like this one would have to have backup generators to keep the house from freezing over in a snowstorm.

      1. The problem with the generators is that they need fuel, and they can get very expensive very fast. Most generators for backups are just that- for backup, and not something you should try running for your main power.

  21. I’m glad Practitioners can still be sarcastic. By the way, this is yinyangorwuji, on a new account. Solo this time.
    I’m not sure which is more terrifying. That they’re demons, or that they’re lawyers.

  22. I’m only making this comment to note that if Rose actually is draining some of Blake’s energy intentionally without asking him at all, I hope that she gets punished for it later on.

    1. Do bare in mind that as a vestige, she needs power to keep going. She may not even have been doing so intentionally but just couldn’t help herself from taking what was, well, bleeding out.

      Or at the least, that’s how she could justify it.

      1. I did specify that it would need to be intentional, I’m not an unreasonable person. There’s no reason to be angry if she wasn’t even doing anything wrong on purpose, she may not even be aware of it after all.

  23. I have to say that this story is completely awesome, words cannot explain how much I’ve enjoyed reading everything so far. Even when Blake acted a little rash (or ‘dumb’) earlier it was still a great scene. Pact is just so much better than I even dared hoping it would be, and that means a lot when Worm had already raised all my expectations sky-high.

    Now, I have some predictions (POSSIBLE MAJOR SPOILERS depending on whether I’m right):

    Rose is the real heir and the original plan was/is for her to “replace” Blake (i.e. kill him and take his “lifeforce”).
    Rose knows this.

    Evidence:

    It has been firmly established that only a girl can inherit the property.
    Rose’s memories have been carefully selected to dislike/distrust her family (and Blake is family).
    Rose’s awakening ritual was different. Specifically she says “Myself” when Blake says “Family” and her last half-sentence “-than a vestige.” (when speaking of goals) is especially ominous.
    Rose withholds her emotions whenever Blake expresses a wish to help her, consistent with her feeling guilt or regret. For example “Again, looking at her, I could see her withdrawing, a trace of anger in her expression. As if me speaking out on her behalf was somehow worse than me being a jerk.”
    And finally during the ritual in this very chapter:

    “Or, the idea dawned on me, am I already being drained by another source?

    When I thought of what other sources might be out there, the only thing that sprung to mind was Rose.”

    That said, it’s possible I’m seeing hints to something that isn’t there, but in my defence, the plot-twists in Worm has made me extremely paranoid.

    1. Ooh, that is an intriguing idea! My current pet theory is that Rose is a bound demon made up to look like a Vestige to fool other practitioners, but I’m definitely going to look for ways to differentiate between your theory and mine. Nice!

  24. Comments:
    – I like seeing Blake and Rose develop a healthier working relationship. Right now they can’t be equals, but this is better than what came before. Trust, mistrust, and more or less serious pranks are much better than the passive-aggressive behaviour before. I approve.
    – The concept of ‘offense is the best defense’ has obvious parallels in Worm.
    – Ghosts in Pactverse are interesting. Good job.

    Speculation: Blake called the lawyers twice – once in the house, and once outside. He probably screwed up; maybe he wasted one ‘use’ of them this way.

    Great lines:
    – “She managed to look suitably guilty, all things considered.”
    – “Unless the entire town wants to murder you,” I said. “Kind of throws a wrench in the whole ‘ask a friend’ option.”
    – “I nodded slowly, doing my utmost to avoid rejecting the idea out of hand.”
    – “The little black book says we just need to say the firm’s name three times.”“Which isn’t ominous at all.”“Not in the slightest,” Rose said, solemn.
    – “and they tend to burn out if you draw on them for power.” Like a vestige does.
    – “The lawyers are the only ones this house doesn’t protect against. Them and the witch hunters.”
    – “Right.”“Roll with it, except for the big part of this where I shouldn’t roll with it.“
    – “I stopped myself. I’d almost said ‘it is hot‘. But that could have been a lie.”
    – “She is suffering,” Rose said. “As in, that thing you’re looking at is an embodiment of a moment of suffering.”
    – “That could be useful,”“It would almost definitely kill you,”“Less useful,”
    – “There aren’t that many good options,”“We can try the less-good options,”“And hopefully I don’t lose any hands doing it. Ow.”
    – “Please, don’t cry while we’re here. I can’t speak for my partners, but I’d be embarrassed on your behalf.”

  25. Man, I know that Rose being evil is a distinct possibility, but I really wish Blake would stop giving her shit. Hey dude? She’s the one who’s stuck in the mirror and largely powerless to act, not you. So suck it up and pour over the long-ass death tome like she politely asked you to do.

    Also, if it came down to it, I’d want to deal with demons far more than I would want to deal with lawyers. Demon lawyers? Jabber and fuck.

    1. The death tome: Rose was fucking with him.
      Lawyers: You might need one yourself some day, and these are in Blake’s employ. Even at the point when he starts incurring a depth, their are still contractually on his side, and probably comparable to any Other Blake makes deals with.

    2. To fair Rose doesn’t have to sleep and doesn’t have much to do BUT read. And she was trying to trick him instead of just being honest in the first place.

  26. Biggie Smalls, Biggie Smalls, Biggie Smalls.

    Yo, what up, homie. blam blam!

    See, that’s a mundane way to summon lawyers. Usually, you need yourself a big ritual setup, with blood and sacrificial animals and exorbitant fees for every hour.

    Nice that he’s helping out a ghost, though. Or is it more of a geist? Ghost, geist, whatever. If he needs it gotten rid of, though, I know who he can call. You know, if there’s something strange in the neighborhood, or if it’s somethin’ weird and it don’t look good. If he’s seeing things running through his head, or an invisible man sleeping in his bed.

    Alternatively, I suppose a hatchet isn’t that bad of a replacement for unlicensed nuclear reactors and streams that could cause total protonic reversal.

    Now, June here is what we call a focused, non-terminal repeating phantasm, or a Class Five full roaming vapor. Her husband is more like a dipshit, or a class 2 Scumbag Steve. As for Rose, we like to think of her as a Class 3 Pedobear.

    Just, whatever you don’t call Ghost Dad. He’s a free-roaming douche. Very messy.

  27. A few chapters ago Rose was thought to be a demon, or specifically Barbatorem (Barboretum, Barborectum?) because of reflective surfaces.

    Now she’s a ghost-possible because of the resemblance between ghosts and vestiges.

    If she weighs the same as a duck, that makes her… a witch!

    The reflective surface thing might just be a common thing. Awful lot of reflective surfaces, and they “look back at you” so its convenient and thematic.

    The need to draw power from somewhere… well, neither ghosts nor vestiges are “complete” in some sense, so it makes sense to need external power without being the same thing.

  28. I already like these lawyers. Or at least her.
    Rose…is seriously in a bad position. And while Blake is no longer treating her like less of a person than he should be, we now have a bunch of angst on her side. Understandable, but not fun in the slightest, feelings-wise. But that’s good. Your story makes me feel. I like that.
    The whole bit with June was brilliant. This world is being explained in better and better ways as we go along. I am seriously stoked to continue reading.

  29. “Take away the despair and there is nothing left. Nothing but an empty room, and a hook of the perfect shape and size for snagging your heart.” -Sandman, Endless Nights.

  30. why? seriously? why ghosts? such a stupid thing to chose… not to mention that rose is annoying but blakes pretty cool

  31. I seriously would hate having a mirror person,who is functionally a slave, dependent on my well being and unable to affect the real world.

    I would have him/her scrutinize my each option,and I would feel guilt each time I argued,even if I was right,It would limit my choices due to my empathy to him/her,not allowing me to do dangerous maneuers,and I would feel like shit when calling him/her on his/hers shit or fuckery with me.Its strange how a functional slave like that limits the freedom of a moral owner,heh.

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