Damages 2.4

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“You took your time,” I said.

“We were prompt,” the older man said.  Unlike my grandmother, he had the roughness of old age in his voice.  Somehow more human than she’d been.  “But if it helps, we can start the timer from the moment we made eye contact.”

The brown-haired young man, good looking enough to be an actor, but for the tiniest scar on his lip, looked at his watch.  “Twenty nine minutes and forty seconds left on the clock.  For that period of time, you have the benefit of our advice and knowledge, and you can make requests, though we can’t promise we’ll grant them.”

“If you want,” the woman lawyer said, “We can cut it short, and save the time for later this month.  Once the month is over, we’ll be limited to short conversations for each month thereafter.”

“Are you devils?” I asked.  “Demons?”

The older man chuckled.  With the coarser voice, he did sound a little sinister in that moment.  “Some would say that.”

“What would the rest say?” I asked.  I looked at Rose, praying for some backup, but she still seemed out of sorts.

“The remainder would call us practitioners,” the woman lawyer told me.  “Practitioners like you, even.”

“Well, we’re a fair bit different from him,” the older man said.  He arched one thick eyebrow.  “Question is, does it matter?”

I glanced at Rose, but she didn’t volunteer an argument.  “I think it does.  When I know what you’re doing, I can adapt.  Why are you here?”

“Your grandmother willed it,” the young man said.

“Why?” I asked.

The blonde woman responded, “Because matters were too complex for her to handle on her own, it was an economical route to take, she needed power that she wasn’t willing to spare, and we offered.”

“Why?” I asked, again.

“Because we’re in the business of dealing with diabolists,” the older man said.

“Why?” I asked, once again.  There wasn’t any sign that I was bothering them with this particular line of questioning.

“Because we are and were diabolists, ourselves,” the young man said.  “Once upon a time.  We were offered a contract.  Call it bankruptcy.  It fits on more than one level.  Which brings us to you.”

“How?” I asked.

“We’re hoping to include the heir of the Thorburn estate in our number,” the old man told me.

“You want me to work for you?  Did my grandmother take the deal?” I asked.

“Madam Thorburn didn’t, bless her,” the older man said.  He smiled, as if he was acknowledging how odd it was for him to say that.  “She took a harder road.  She needed power, as we said.  I can’t say what for, but I’m sure you could figure it out.”

“I probably could,” I said.

She’d needed the power to create my alter ego.  To bend the rules enough to let me inherit the estate.

The woman leaned forward.  “More to the point, if she had taken the offer, you wouldn’t be here.  At least, not in the same capacity.”

My hand was hurting, the hatchet pulsing cold that was reaching through my clothing.

The pain and discomfort might have made my tone a little more pointed than I’d meant it to be.  “The world would be swallowed up in a sea of hellfire and brimstone?”

“Nothing of the sort.  Before our firm existed, it was an Otherworldly entity that reached out to our forebearers.  The deal was simple.  Our slates would be cleared, in every respect.  We would assume a new role, new names, new responsibilities.  Our old lives and every part of those lives would be left behind.  Perhaps most importantly, most relevant to this discussion, our debts would be cleared.”

Karmic debt?” Rose asked, suddenly paying attention, jumping into the conversation.

“Karmic debt,” the older man said.  “Have you done your reading?”

Rose said, “I started, but…”

I was already shaking my head.

The old man continued, “I’ll explain, then, so there are no mistaken assumptions.  The world seeks balance in all respects.  Whenever a practitioner works, they pay a price.  Sometimes the price is overt.  A soul for someone’s love.  An eye for the service of a powerful spirit.  The life of a companion to triumph over one’s enemies.  Sometimes the price is less of a direct transaction.  A favor to be paid later.  Conversely, an oath given, with nothing expected.”

“Which raises problems, hm?” the young man said.

The old man met my eyes.  “What happens when a debt isn’t paid?  If you take, then die before you can give?  Or the inverse?”

“You pass it on to your kids?”

“In some cases, yes.  But those children might incur more of a debt.  Over time, the debt accumulates.  Perhaps two generations improve matters, working it off, and then the third undoes their hard work and adds more to the burden.”

“The problem is never resolved?” I asked.  “Until some lawyer-practitioners show up and offer a deal, something that wipes all debts clear?”

“That is one option,” the woman said.  “But I wouldn’t say the problem is never resolved.  The universe rights itself.”

“How?” I asked.  Why was the axe acting up?  It was almost as bad as it had been outside, now.

The old man answered, “The cogs that operate in the background take to grinding you up instead.  Funds, treasured belongings, friendships, love, they are all harder to find and easier to lose.  Enemies, danger, chaos, and disruption find you more readily.  In looser terms, all Others, spirits and practitioners get the sense, innate or otherwise, that they can and should work against your interests.  Things start to fall apart, and the pieces fall down in the least convenient arragements for you.”

“The universe,” the young man said, “conspires against you.”

“Ah, hell,” I said.  “That would explain a few things.”

The old man continued with the explanation, “It would cause as many problems as it solve if the universe did it in an obvious manner.  It would raise suspicion and disrupt the smooth operation of things if every coin you flipped turned up with the unwanted side, if every corner held an enemy.”

The young man said, “It’s a stopgap measure.  Sufficient for the non-practitioners who stumble on ways to give themselves bad karma.”

“But,” the old man said, “In cases where the debt continues to accumulate, or it reaches a size that one person can’t pay off, we sometimes see survivors carry on.”

“Survivors?” Rose asked.

“Some dynasties manage to thrive despite the ill fortunes that are visiting them.  There are individuals who are reclusive enough or tenacious enough to carry on.  The universe doesn’t like to act overtly, so it might give you the coin flip that serves you the least, until you start counting the number of times the coin turns up head versus the times it turns up tails.  In any case, the practitioner can live if they’re attentive and clever, and the debt can keep growing.  This is when we start running into problems.”

“Problems being?” I asked.

“Being the dice all turning up snake eyes, or enemies appearing behind every corner.  Once or twice, generally, but that’s all things typically need.  The universe is elastic.  If you push, it bounces back.  If you pull, it pulls against you.  If you pull too hard, too long, and it snaps, with violent consequence.”

He seemed content to stop there, letting that sink in.

“Okay,” I said.  “I might have a general sense of the problem.  But what do we do about it?”

“Well,” the woman said.  She offered me a smile.  “Option one is the simplest, easiest and most obvious.”

“Joining you?” I asked.

“That’s option two.  Option one is that you die.  Violently,” she said.  The smile didn’t even flicker.  “The elastic snaps, and you two find yourself in an ugly situation.  If you’re lucky, you can find the time and opportunity to call us, and we’d arrange a prompt solution.”

“I’m not lucky, though,” I said.  “And Molly wasn’t lucky either…  She…”

I trailed off.  They waited, apparently content to wait while the gears fit together in my head and started turning.

I finished my sentence, along a different line. “Eats a bit of the karmic backlash, pays a bit of the price for the universe not getting what it was supposed to, and the baton gets passed to me.  If I die, the same thing happens.  Each of us absorbs a bit of the brunt of it, until one of us finds our footing and carries on.”

“Very likely to be a factor in her reasoning,” the young male lawyer said.  “She was clever.  But the danger in this plan is that the backlash you face could wipe out your family altogether.  It would be more a backup or a side benefit than a true plan.”

“And,” Rose said, “like you said before, there’s no way she would spend that much power to put me here for that.”

“Right,” I said.

“Karma has very little to do with good and evil,” the blonde woman said.  “It has a great deal to do with right and wrong.”

“Can you have a surplus?” I asked.

“You can.  It’s equally problematic, in many ways,” the woman said.  “Such individuals have good fortune, find life conspires to do them well, all leading up to a moment where an opportunistic Other manages to work around this good fortune and brings about their downfall.”

“Okay,” I said, thinking.  “And… if it has to do with right and wrong… then can you get bad mojo for, say, going after a local practitioner’s livelihood?”

“How?” the young man asked.

I started to reach for the note, then realized I couldn’t without moving the hatchet.  I did it awkwardly with my other hand, handing it to them.

While he read, the woman asked, “Has he acted against you?  Done unprovoked harm to you?”

“Directly?  No.  Indirectly?  He tricked me and left me for the monsters to eat.  We’d only just met.  Unless the whole history of my family counts as a provocation.”

“You’d be secure.  It would even benefit you.  You should be able to find all of this information in the textbooks of the library.”

“I looked,” I said.  “We looked.  There was nothing about what justifies an execution.”

“Executions are a formalization of what we just talked about.  You’ll find more on them in books relating to karmic debt and the manipulation thereof.”

I groaned a bit.  Looking in the wrong place.

“Damn it,” I heard Rose muttering.

“You offend the community, the community retaliates, and the balance is maintained.  If the community acts against you and it’s unjust, then there is imbalance, and this weighs heavier than matters between individuals.   Clever individuals with some knowledge on how to use and manipulate karma could theoretically survive and ride the backlash to a position at the top.”

I rubbed my chin.  “And if I contrived to get them to punish me for a crime I didn’t commit?  Get an order of execution against myself?”

“Blake!”  Rose said.

Theoretically,” I said.

“There are any number of factors to consider,” the older man said.  “If they offer you a chance to speak for yourself and you don’t, they would face little backlash.  Are they brash?  Too stupid to do so?”

I didn’t even have to think about it.  The way they’d shut down my attempt to divide them was still fresh in my memory from last night.  “No.”

“There is also the matter of the debt weighing on you,” he said.  “Nearly seven lifetimes worth of unpaid karmic balance.  You could work hard your entire life and only make up one of those.  Devote yourself wholly and singularly to that one task, and you could maybe make up a second lifetime’s worth.  Reality is not of a mind to assist you in ascending to greatness.  Far easier to help the execution along and take what it can from the aftermath.”

“The universe sounds a bit like some kind of asshole loan shark,” I said.

“Make of it what you will,” he said.

The hatchet wasn’t as cold as it had been, but with the chill it emanated, my hand couldn’t warm up.

I was distracted by the pain, stumbling as I tried to find what I was trying to say, “And… I haven’t read anything explicit about the reason this is all secret.  There are rules Others follow, with stiff penalties, and they generally keep to hunting what they’re allowed to hunt… but what’s to keep me from appearing on TV tomorrow and showing off my magic?”

“Responsibility,” the old man said.  “It started as an ethic; you don’t initiate someone into this world without teaching them the proper way things are done.  That ethic became a rule, and the rule became a part of the fabric of things.  If you introduce someone to all of this and they make a mistake, then some of that karma weighs on you.”

I nodded slowly.

“These are the sorts of things Rose should have taught you.  Any more questions?”

“I’ve probably spent way too long asking about stuff I could read in books,” I said.  “But this is useful grounding to have.”

“And we probably wouldn’t have gotten around to those books for another few weeks,” Rose said.

“Right.  But I should to ask about other stuff.  I’ll start with an obvious one.  Can I trust you guys?”

“No,” the woman lawyer said.  “But you can trust that we won’t sabotage you.  Our interest is in bringing more people under our wing.  We can achieve that by offering you good service.”

“And by helping maneuver me into a corner,” I said.  “So I end up saying your names three times and using the escape clause?”

“We could use those tactics,” she said.  “For the time being, we won’t.”

“That’s vague,” I said.

“Then I’ll be specific.  We’ll tell you before we maneuver you into a corner.”

“Explicitly?” Rose asked.

“Beg pardon?” the woman lawyer asked.

“Tell us explicitly, please.”

“If you wish.  I or one of my partners will look one of you in the eyes and inform you exactly what we’re doing, when it comes up.”

“Why do you want me?”

“We don’t.  Quite frankly, you’re useless to us at this point,” the young man said.  “But things do change.”

“And… the cost is a few thousand years of servitude?  To clear my entire family’s debt?”

“That is part of the cost,” he said.  “Any true mark you made on the world is painted over.  If you want to rise in the ranks and become partner, you’ll need to give up your name, possibly aspects of your identity.  Easier than it sounds, after a few decades or centuries of long days, your past life well behind you.”

“I see,” I said.

“Any other questions?” the old man asked.

Something was bothering me.  I had doubts, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Okay, I had a lot of doubts, but there was one that seemed fresher in my mind, elusive.

“The money?” Rose asked.  “Our allowance?”

“If I may suggest we deduct the necessary expenses for the upkeep of the property?” the young lawyer asked.

“No trick?”  Rose asked.  “If it’s not a trap, then yes.”

“No,” he said.  “No trick.”

He pulled two envelopes from his suit pocket, checked them, and then tossed one onto the table.

Okay, that was handled.  Good.  I picked up the envelope and pocketed it.

“Um.  Important point number two.  Going outside,” Rose said.  “How do we do it?”

“Know how to defend yourself,” the old man said.  “If you wish, we can arrange for an errand boy, to handle groceries and purchases.  You’d be limited to the house all the same.”

Rose glanced at me.  She still looked out of sorts, but she was thinking now.  Which was good, because I was preoccupied.

I nodded absently.  I couldn’t quite figure out what had bothered me.  Something elusive one of them had just said.

“Yes,” she said.

“Then we’ll take out the cost for the errand boy from next month’s allowance,” the young lawyer said.  “If that’s all right?”

“Yes,” Rose said.  “If it isn’t a trap or a trick.”

“We’ll see to it.”

“And the question of marriage, in the instructions?” Rose asked.

That got my full attention.  I’d nearly forgotten.

“What of it?” the lawyer asked.

“Blake has to marry a man?” Rose asked.

“Mr. Thorburn has to do no such thing,” the older man said.  “It has been left up to our discretion, to evaluate Mr. Thorburn’s progress and evaluate him regularly, keeping the intentions of the departed Mrs. Thorburn in mind all the while.”

“That seems too easy,” I said.

“It isn’t easy at all,” he replied, “Rest assured.  I do recommend you marry, and I’d even recommend you marry a man, because fulfilling an obligation is an advantage that can help you survive.   Still, I can’t imagine it’s at the forefront of your mind right now?”

I shook my head.

“Then we can leave it for another meeting at another time.  Speaking of…”

“Fourteen minutes remain,” the younger lawyer said.

“Two more questions,” I said.  “Then I think we’re done, unless Rose has something to say.  You said the cost of working for your firm… a few hundred to a few tens of thousands of years of service?  A loss of identity, a loss of a name?”

“If you rise through the ranks, you might even take the name of Mann, Lewis or Levinn,” the young man said.  Distracting me.

“And what happens to you?” Rose asked.

I bit my tongue before I snapped at her.  She was interrupting my line of questioning.

“We’re done,” the young lawyer said.  “Early.  Not easy, I assure you, but it’s an option.”

“Which is why you want to recruit,” she said.

“A part of it,” he said.

“But there’s something else, isn’t there?” I asked, before I could get interrupted again.  “Hundreds or thousands of years of employment, a loss of identity, a loss of our name.  But you didn’t say that’s everything.”

“No.  We didn’t,” the blonde lawyer said.

“What’s the catch?” I asked.

She frowned.  “In the process of signing the contract, you agree to give them a foothold.”

“Them?” Rose asked.

“Them.  You should know who I mean.  You hand over things of value, and they take them.  Footholds.  To help them climb forth from where they’ve been banished or bound, or give them a foundation to better leverage their strength.  A room, a house, a pen, a sword, a companion.”

A pair of shears.

“I could go into detail about the benefits, the why of it, but I would be frittering away your time.  There is more on the subject in the library.”

“I think I get it, even without the books,” Rose said.  Quiet.  “We make that deal, to save our hide, and they get stronger, making life harder on the rest of humanity.”

“Theoretically,” I asked, “what would happen if I swore, right here and right now, that I was never going to take the deal?”

“We would conduct business as the contract with Rose D. Thorburn mandates,” the older lawyer said, “But you would find that we, like the universe, had far less goodwill towards you.”

I nodded.

She shifted position.  Her tone somewhat softer than it had been, she said, “I can’t speak for the others, but I would respect you for it, I would understand.  In the end, however, business is business, and we have our obligations.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Is there more you would like to ask along those lines?” she asked.

I shook my head.  “No.  But I’d like to ask if you could deliver this letter.  Unless there’s a flaw in this plan I’m overlooking.”

“There are complications,” the young lawyer said, “But there will be complications with any route you take.”

“If you were to take it yourself,” the woman lawyer said, “Or have a more direct hand in it, you reap a greater reward.”

“Personally restoring balance to the grand scheme of things… I can’t help but feel like this is dangerous.  Karmic retribution.  Promoting eye-for-an eye thinking.  How do you know if things are balanced?”

“You pay attention,” the old man said.

“Right,” I said.  I frowned.  To have the lawyers deliver the letter or go myself?

“I think I might have to ask you to deliver the letter,” I said.  I couldn’t ignore the hatchet, or my hand.  “I’ve got something else to take care of.”

“If I may suggest a compromise,” the young woman said.  “I’ve been working for several days, and I’m due a break.  I could spare an hour, if you can see to that something else and find time for the errand.”

“The escort didn’t work out so hot for us the first time,” Rose murmured.  I could see from movement of the lawyer’s eyes that she’d heard, but the woman gave no other sign.

I shook my head a little.  “It’s-”

“The object under your coat demands your attention.  May I?”

I withdrew the hatchet, but I didn’t hand it over.

“I’ll help,” she said.  “No trickery or sabotage.  I can guarantee you’ll be better off than if you saw to it yourself.”

“You’ll see us safely the entire way there and back?” I asked.  “And while we’re there?”

“As safely as you allow,” the lawyer said.

Rose chimed in.  “You promise not to carry out any tricks or traps at least until the next time we meet?”

“Yes,” she said.

“This won’t count against our time?” I asked.

“No cost, insofar as something can have no cost.”

The other lawyers were standing.  The younger one looked at his watch.  “Then we’re done, with just over ten minutes remaining on the clock.  Thank you for the hospitality.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, feeling wary.

The older lawyer extended a hand.  I hesitated, then shook it with my numb hand.  He didn’t react.

“You should only be seeing one of us at a time, now that introductions are done,” the older lawyer said, letting my hand go.  “Barring exceptional circumstance, or a request to join the company.”

I nodded.

“We’ll see you later in the day, Ms. Lewis,” he said.

“You will,” the blonde lawyer said.

I’d expected the two men to disappear, but they left through the front door, collecting outdoor jackets along the way and pulling them on as they made their way down the front steps.

Leaving me in the company of Ms. Lewis.

“May I see it?” she asked.  “The imbued object?”

“I promised it I’d keep it warm,” I said.

“Not exactly true, is that?” she asked me.

I frowned.

“I’m fairly well versed in seeing the nuances of karma at work.  You’ve come very close to lying a few times in a short span of time, and you’ve each outright lied at least once in the half hour prior to our arrival.”

“Oh hell,” I said.

“It’s easy to slip, at first,” she said.  “In this case, you’re bordering on a lie, but you’re still telling the truth.  Rose here promised you’d keep it warm.  Your promise was implicit, and because Rose is an extension of you…”

“It’s borderline,” I said.

“Being more honest means you stock up more goodwill with the universe and any others you meet.  Borderline dishonesty is useful, lying by omission is better yet, and unvarnished honesty is better still.  I can’t quite interpret it, but perhaps you were joking?  Sarcasm?”

I thought back.

Shit,” I said.  “So… what?  I lose my power?”

“You lose some.  And a mere ghost gains more influence over you, even through a circle, or when bound into an object.  It’ll take at least a week to wear off.  Luckily, there aren’t many things in this house to hear, hm?”

“And me?” Rose asked.

“It matters for you too,” Ms. Lewis said.  “For the time being, you are connected to Blake.  Tell me, Blake, did you feel weaker?  More vulnerable?”

“I felt tired,” I said.  “I wondered for a moment if Rose had done something.”

“A vestige is fragile.  Defy the natural order, and the vestige suffers.”

“And a damaged vestige drains energy,” I said, glancing at Rose.

“Just so.”

“I’d kind of expected a… clap of thunder?” I said.

“Barring the exceptional moments of idiocy, such as the breaking of an oath, you typically only discover what you’ve done when you reach for power and find it gone.”

“So stupid of us,” Rose said.

Ms. Lewis smiled and shook her head.  “I will keep the ghost contained.  To do otherwise would put a client at risk.  May I?”

She extended a hand.

I handed the hatchet over.  She didn’t flinch as the handle touched her hand.

“You’ve worked with tools before,” she said.

“Hm?”

“Your hands have that look about them, and you handed the hatchet to me handle first.  It’s the sort of thing you learn on the job, or you’re taught it as a matter of course, becoming a gentleman.”

“Blake, not a gentleman?” Rose asked.

That is the sort of sarcasm you can get away with,” Ms. Lewis said.  “A gentleman would have offered guests something to drink.  As would a lady, Ms. Thorburn.  Shall we go see to your errands?  I can attend to this tool in the meantime.”

A little unsure, I still nodded.

She’d left a winter coat folded over a chair in the front hallway.  She draped it over her shoulders without putting her arms through the sleeves.

I, for my part, did what I could to warm my hands by rubbing them against one another, before we stepped outside.

“Ground rules,” Ms. Lewis said.  “This isn’t business.  Anything I say or do should be taken in the capacity of an acquaintance or teacher.  I won’t give you answers I think you should pay for”

“I understand,” I said.

“Good response,” she said.  “Not committing to anything.  All that said, I’d like to help you if I see the chance.”

“Somehow I anticipated you guys would be scarier,” I said.  “Or, and I hope I’m not being offensive, more professional.”

“We adapt to the client,” she said.  She didn’t flinch at the cold as we made our way down the driveway.  Something a little more Other about her, like the old man’s laugh.

“You’re being awfully helpful, running this errand with me for no benefit.  Or is there something I’m missing?”

“Let’s just say it’s me establishing a relationship with a potential new client.”

“We can say that,” Rose said, speaking from the mirror I wore in the open ‘v’ of my jacket collar, “But what is it really?”

“It’s largely selfish,” Ms. Lewis said.  She drew in a deep breath, then sighed.  “As clients go, you’re quite endearing, compared to our usual.”

She withdrew a spool from an inside pocket of her jacket.  Thin silver wire.  “And this is not something I usually get to do, in the course of my duties.  Nostalgic.”

Ms. Lewis unwound the wire, then began winding it loosely around the foam handle as she walked.

“Who are your regular clients?” Rose asked.

“They vary, and they are confidential,” Ms. Lewis said.  “Speaking in general terms, a rare few are like your grandmother.  A great many aren’t.”

“And what are they like?” I asked.

“You’ve met the barber.  They are the sorts who would use him and sleep that night.”

“Ah,” I said.  “You’re using your sight to see the connection between me and it?”

“Yes.  I would recommend using it more.  Try it now?”

I switched to my sight.  The connections weren’t very clear.

“Look to your three o’clock without turning your head,” she said.

I did.

Something that might have been a raccoon scampered down from the top of the garage to the far side.  It probably wasn’t a raccoon.

“It’s gone,” I said.

“It’s there, it’s just out of sight.  Keep looking.”

I did.  I searched for the connection, but I couldn’t make out much.  The world was buried under a haze, and the wind was blowing in too many directions at once.

“Trace your eyes along the paths that things run in parallel, the straightest lines.  Good place to start, and good places to avoid if you think someone’s searching for you.”

I looked harder.  The saturation and contrast seemed exaggerated, the world painted in a impasto style with coarse brush strokes, animated with life and constant motion.  I followed the areas where the strokes and lines met, so I could see the flow of it, not stopping at a dead end but naturally sweeping my eyes along the straighter paths where the particles danced.

I caught it a second or two faster than I might have if I wasn’t already focused on the area.  It looked like the slop that you dug out of a gutter after a rain.  Leaves, branches, twigs, and a bit or two of trash.  There were only shadows where eyes were supposed to be, and a few pieces of stone, some teeth, and a bird’s beak where it was supposed to have teeth.

It stopped in its tracks, seemingly startled, as if my vision had transfixed it.

A moment later, it bolted, disappearing around the corner at edge of Hillsglade House.

“You looked too hard,” she said.  “You made a connection, and it noticed.  A lesser elemental.  Now keep looking.  Softer.  Relax, and try to see where the longest lines are.  If you don’t focus too hard, it’s easier to see them.”

I looked, relaxing my focus on the spirits.

It very deliberately avoided the railing of the fence as it perched on the stone of the wall, glancing my way.  It seemed bothered that I’d spotted it again.  Leaves and twigs stood up like an irritated cat or a dog with the hackles up.

My eye traveled over the splash of minor spirits that danced around it, seeking out the areas where they were traveling in the straightest lines.

One, blocked by the house.  I eyeballed it, figured out the direction, found it on the other side of the house, faint, disappearing into the woods and glades.

The Briar Girl, I thought.  The Others I’d seen before June showed up… I suspected they were hers.

“She wants your attention, and very possibly wants your help.”

“You know her?” I asked, looking at Ms. Lewis.

“No.  But I can tell.  What does she want?”

“The woods and marshes.”

“She can’t have the woods and marshes, Mr. Thorburn.  She’ll be upset when you tell her.”

“Probably,” I said.

She took a moment to wind the wire around, hooking it through one loop, then adjusting the tightness of each segment in turn.  It was biting into the foam grip, but not so much it was ugly or unnatural.  The end result was more like something between a Celtic knot and a chain-link fence.

“You’ll have some confrontations soon.  You’ll need to be stronger.”

“I know,” I said.

“Are you aware enough to know you’re in danger right now?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“How?  Who?” Rose asked.

“A car, behind us.  Ignore it.  We’ll take an alley the car can’t pass through, forcing them to circle around.  We can stop partway, forcing them to turn around again or stop and wait for us to emerge.  We’ll decide what we do then.”

“This is more passive than I expected of you,” I said.

“I have my hands full, for one thing,” Ms. Lewis said.  “And there are other reasons.  Consider this a lesson.  The first step is getting a bead on them.  As we turn to enter the alley, you’ll have a glimpse of them.  Look for the connection and hold on to it.  Fixate on it without identifying yourself.”

“Sure,” I said.  “You make it sound so easy.”

“It’s moving.  A straight line.  It’s also isolated.  There are few cars on the road.  It’s too early in the morning, and the city sees little traffic.  It’s easier to spot a car alone than a car in the crowd, with your sight just as much as with your eyes.”

“Right.”

“Holding on is going to be harder than finding it.  Now.”

We turned.  The car passed behind me.  I had only a glimpse of the electric blue sedan.  Stuffed animals on the ledge by the rear-view window.

Sure enough, I found the connection, thin.  Holding on… I wasn’t even sure how.  I focused my attention on it.

“It’s turning, and turning again, going around the block,” she said.

“We stop?” I asked.

Ms. Lewis nodded.

We stopped in the middle of the alleyway.

I could see as the car slowed, then stopped.  The connection became far less focused.  Diffuse on one end, tighter on the other.

“There are options, now” Ms. Lewis said.  “The first step would be identifying them.  I’m not going to give you the answer.  Find it yourself.”

I had only the clues to go by, the color and make of the car, the fact that it had been a bit dingy.  Not new by any stretch of the imagination, the stuffed animals…

The wrong track.  Not enough to put any name to it.

The connection itself… I examined it in more detail, as the end closest to me got more and more broken up.  If I had a better eye for this sort of thing, I might have been able to see where they were focusing their attention.

That would be a useful tool.  To know where your enemies senses were directed and to act elsewhere.

I wondered if the Others I’d seen darting out of sight of people had been doing the same.

The spirits that made up the connection took all sorts of shapes.  I couldn’t focus enough to make them out.  They seemed to dart out of my view when I tried to look at them, like the dust that settled on the surface of the eye.

“I’m not sure I can,” I said.

“You would have more focus if you hadn’t lied,” she said.  “Be glad you were in the house and it wasn’t more severe.  Try harder.”

I tried.  Interpreting what the spirits were supposed to be was hard.  They often had arms and legs, sometimes in vague human shapes, sometimes not, and most were transparent.  The shape, the colors, the aesthetics, they all pointed to the ideas and elements these things supported.

I couldn’t decipher them before I felt something shift.  The connection solidified on the one end.  In a heartbeat, they had both focused on me.

Yet they hadn’t moved.

A second later, they were taking some sort of action, moving, and very deliberately, they scattered my perception of where they were.  Disappearing somewhere.  I could tell they had a bead on me, but I had no idea where they were.

They had deftly flipped the tables on me.

“Duchamps,” I said.

Ms. Lewis nodded.  Her attention was on the hatchet, as she scratched at the metal with what looked like a needle.  “Details?”

“Enchantresses,” I said.  “A coven.”

“One of them is calling family,” she said.  “She hasn’t gotten through, probably because it’s so early in the day.  But she’s using an implement to focus the connection.  She will get through, given another minute or two, and you’ll have more enemies to deal with.  Very possibly the entire coven.”

“This is the point where the whole ‘escorting us safely there’ thing comes into play.”

“It is,” she said.  She kept scratching at the hatchet.  When she saw me looking, she said, “Oh.  This will be another minute.”

“You’re not going to fight them?  Or stop the call?”

“No.  I’m not permitted.”

“I… what?”

“I can only make explicit use of my power while I’m working.  As I said before, I’m nothing more than a teacher and an acquaintance while I’m taking this break.”

“You misled us,” Rose said.

“I was very clear.  Don’t start crying now.  We’ve made it this far.  Now face them head-on.  Can you see it?  One coming right now.”

I looked, and I saw something.

A bird made its way into the alley.  Not a hawk or anything like that, but one of the tiny ones that tended to bob up and down in the air more than it actually glided or flew.  A chickadee or sparrow or some such.

It unfolded, feathers sweeping across a space five feet long, a momentary curtain.

Putting me face to face with a woman so beautiful she looked artificial.  Her ears had a slight point to them, and she had an eerie sort of confidence to her step.  Snow settled on platinum-colored hair and bare shoulders, exposed by clothing that seemed more ornamental than anything else.  Something between a revealing variant on a Japanese yukata and a high-fashion dress I might expect to see on a runway in France or Italy, inspired by a flower in bloom.  Any time I thought it might belong to one culture, some aspect of it dismissed the notion.

Her eyes were pale from corner to corner, the eyelashes long and dark in a way a makeup artist would struggle to achieve.  When she smiled, she showed a bit of her teeth.

She drew a sword slowly, with second after second of the clean sound of the weapon leaving the scabbard.  I wasn’t sure what kind of sword it was.

The damned weapon was easily twelve feet long.  Her arms outstretched in front and behind her, she bent the metal until it bowed in a ‘u’.  When it came free, it did so in a shower of sparks, the blade practically dancing as it recoiled, returning to its straight length.  The sound of metal singing filled the air.

She held it pointing straight up until it stilled, then lowered it so the point was aimed straight at my heart, her position very much like a fencer’s.  If I looked past the movement of the wind that made the length of thin metal sway, the blade didn’t shake or waver in the slightest.

Ms Lewis placed a hand on my shoulder, making me jump a little.  When she spoke, it was a murmur in my ear.  “Now, shoulders square, chin up.  Take a deep breath.  Get some oxygen to that brain of yours.”

“What- why are you saying that?” I asked.

“I’m going to walk you through this, and I’m going to hope that you follow my instructions to the letter.  Now pay attention.  The less guidance you demand from me, the faster I can hand this hatchet to you.”

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225 thoughts on “Damages 2.4

    1. Ah, the grand Worm tradition of first post is the typo thread.

      “If you pull too hard, too long, and it snaps, with violent consequence.” Extra “and”.

    2. I won’t give you answers I think you should pay for” -> need period
      To know where your enemies senses were directed and to act elsewhere. -> enemies’ possessive
      It would cause as many problems as it solve -> as it solved

    3. “Ground rules,” Ms. Lewis said. “This isn’t business. Anything I say or do should be taken in the capacity of an acquaintance or teacher. I won’t give you answers I think you should pay for”
      missing a period
      “Trace your eyes along the paths that things run in parallel, the straightest lines.”
      very confusing, possibly unintentionally

    4. Typos:
      – “good looking enough to be an actor, but for the tiniest scar on his lip,” -> ‘good-looking’, ‘actor but’
      – “forebearers” -> ‘forebears’
      – “arragements” -> ‘arrangements’
      – “It would cause as many problems as it solve” -> ‘as it would solve’
      – “If you pull too hard, too long, and it snaps, with violent consequence.” -> remove the ‘and’
      – “you two find yourself” -> ‘find yourselves’
      – “individuals. Clever” and “survive. Still” -> three spaces instead of the typical two
      – “But I should to ask” -> ‘But I should ask’
      – “How do we do it?””Know how to defend yourself” -> ‘yourselves’
      – “If you were to take it yourself,””Or have a more direct hand in it, you reap a greater reward.” -> ‘you would reap’
      – “Good place to start, and good places” -> ‘Good places’
      – “To know where your enemies senses were directed” -> ‘enemies’

      Possible typos:
      – One of the lawyers talks about ‘debts’ (plural), and then Rose asks about, and the lawyer respons with, ‘karmic debt’ (singular).
      – “It would be more a backup” -> ‘more of a backup’
      – “after a few decades or centuries of long days, your past life well behind you.” -> ‘your past life is well behind you’
      – “I had doubts, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.” -> ‘on them’? Not sure about this.
      – “to save our hide” -> ‘our hides’
      – “I could see from movement of the lawyer’s eyes” -> ‘the movement’
      – “you stock up more goodwill with the universe and any others you meet” -> ‘Others’ or ‘others’?
      – “variant on a Japanese yukata” -> ‘of’

      Lines I coldn’t parse or found unclear:
      – “Once or twice, generally, but that’s all things typically need.” -> Is this supposed to mean something like ‘but that’s typically enough’?
      – “Trace your eyes along the paths that things run in parallel, the straightest lines.” -> I can’t parse ‘the paths that things run in parallel’.
      – When the female lawyer accompanies Blake and Rose on their errand, lines of her enchanting the hatchet are interspersed. But you don’t mention the word ‘hatchet’ for the longest time, which I found confusing. e.g. ‘winding it loosely around the foam handle as she walked”She took a moment to wind the wire around’
      – “She drew a sword slowly, with second after second of the clean sound of the weapon leaving the scabbard.”

      1. I disagree with some of these.

        “It would cause as many problems as it solve” -> ‘as it would solve’ — I would rather see ‘as it solves’.
        “variant on a Japanese yukata” -> ‘of’ — “variant on” is perfectly reasonable, although “variation on” is more common.
        “after a few decades or centuries of long days, your past life well behind you.” -> ‘your past life is well behind you’ — The last phrase isn’t intended to be a complete clause, it’s a descriptive phrase indicating how long it’s been. Adding “is” changes the meaning.
        “It would be more a backup” -> ‘more of a backup’ — The original is grammatically correct; adding “of” is equivalent but not necessary.

        Also, parsing:

        “Trace your eyes along the paths that things run in parallel, the straightest lines.” -> I can’t parse ‘the paths that things run in parallel’. — You’re breaking it in the wrong place. It’s “trace your eyes (along the paths that things run) (in parallel)”, that is, make your eyes follow lines parallel to those paths.

    5. ““We would conduct business as the contract with Rose D. Thorburn mandates,” the older lawyer said, “But you would find that we, like the universe, had far less goodwill towards you.”

      I nodded.

      She shifted position. ”

      The pronoun in the final sentence seems like it should refer to the old lawyer, but the old lawyer is male.

    6. It would cause as many problems as it solve –> solved

      If you pull too hard, too long, and it snaps, with violent consequence
      –> Either ‘If you’ or ‘and’ is redundant;
      –>consequences

  1. Enemy Duchamp challenges Blake to a battle!

    Enemy Duchamp sends out: winged elf swordswoman!

    The next episode (maybe)

    Blake sends out: June!

    Blake: “June use blizzard!”

    It wasn’t very effective.

    1. What is the cost to the “Elf” to have a scabbard that holds a sword that large without encumbrance or unnaturally long arms? Blake REALLY needs to be life-logging this stuff – the karmic cost to his opponents would be catastrophic, since his actions would be demonstrably for the best…

    2. Winged Elf sounds like it should be a flying type. At the very least it doesn’t seem to be fire, ice, water or steel type. Blizzard should be at least normally effective.

    1. Intriguing, yes. Surprising? Not in the slightest.

      Seriously, that “truth” thing has blimp-sized holes in it, it only makes sense that the solid portions are, well, solid to make sure it’s followed at all.

      1. Besides, this is clearly a “No Mistakes” sort of setup. Being harsh with idle sarcasm while letting ambiguous wording slide is well in line with this.

    1. I’m thinking she’s going to ask Blake for a favour later on.

      After all, if you do something for someone without overtly expecting anything in return, they’re more willing to help you at a later point, and Blake certainly is decent enough for it.

  2. Well its nice to have a mentor, even if she wants you to come voluntarily into servitude. What happens to the normal people in the town if they peak in an alley where an elf woman is wielding a twelve foot long sword? That’s one thing I still have a hard time getting: how the normal world interacts with this one. Blake didn’t seem surprised enough by it for their muggle world to be the same as ours.

    1. One would think that the Duchamps, Ms. Lewis, or the elf woman are using magic to hide the fight. That said the Duchamps do seem to be taking a big risk. After all Maggie Holt almost got executed for using magic in public. As for Blake not being more surprised. He could have seen the elf woman at the meeting and living on the streets like he did. He would need to learn to react quick and not panic. Or at least not show how scared he is.

      1. I was just talking about Blake being startled in general. There was never a WTF moment where he basically was like WTF is happening to me. He accepted it pretty calmly.

        1. He had little opportunity to do so. The pressure never really lifted since the initial rush. He’s still got a lot to catch up on to be safe. Also plenty of planning to do for that safety to last more than a couple months.

          Freaking out would be awfully counterproductive. Being put in that situation, would you give up your chances, or try your best ?

          1. You don’t have to freak out, true. Sure, Blake might by super chillaxed on the outside, but no one who would go through what he is, wouldn’t at least have SOME thoughts of disbelief. I think a little internal dialogue would go a long way. As of now, I kind of agree, it seems like Blake is way to unfazed by what’s going on

            1. I dunno, he used to do grunt work for all sorts of artists before if I recall correctly.

              A place where people claim to believe crazy things just to stand out as original, and then there are those who actually ARE that crazy and don’t need to act.

              Ironically, a fitting bit of training, having to deal with people who say, do, or believe all sorts of outrageous things.

              I would be more worried about when she says
              “I won’t give you answers I think you should pay for”
              as that sounds like she is saying she is going to give bad or at least not that good advice.

  3. I really enjoyed meeting the lawyers. They’re interesting characters and it was great to see some smart questions from Blake and Rose shedding light on their contracts.

  4. Nice to see someone who isn’t after Blake’s blood, and we finally get an explanation about why that’s so rare. And now, for the first battle of the story! Will Blake use his hatchet of Freezing +1 to escape the coven? Will he run like hell while trying to distract them? Or will it all be resolved through more boring* talking? Tune in on Saturday** to find out.

    *There needs to be a widely used sarcasm font.
    **Or 9:00ish Friday if you’re a lucky bastard like me.

    1. No, she doesn’t want his blood, she wants his soul, which means he needs to keep his blood until he’s willing to give up his soul.

      Ah, the ins and outs of demonic investment in the mortal market.

      1. Well, at least she’s nice about it, and mostly not stabbing him in the back (so far). Most of Jacob’s Bell would have whacked him on the head and dragged him off to the soul extractor by now.

        1. I’m getting the impression of a cook tending a boiling pot with an egg in it, adding a bit of salt, watching the timer, making sure the pot doesn’t boil over. Checking back in every now and then. Patiently waiting to be able to collect a perfectly prepared boiled egg which, when cracked, can quickly be peeled and eaten.

          The lawyers aren’t being coy about it either. But neither Rose nor Blake are being careful enough with how they are getting answers. This was another trap, but the lawyers didn’t cause it. The karmic balance did. Blake steps outside that house, and karmic balance against his family pretty much forces the universe to act against him in some way, and the easiest way is to simply put something that wants him dead in his path.

          It’s possible that the lawyer is actually attempting to help him here, by showing him the reality of karmic balance. It’s also possible that she’s going to force him to put himself more in debt by requiring her to act to save him, as the cost of that teaching. It might be worth the price.

            1. Life is arbitrary. Wildbow writes well in shades of grey. I’m happy with it, but I can see where others might want more clear distinctions between good and bad.

            2. It’s still new – I think there are constraints we haven’t heard yet. After all, there are books on the subject and people can mess with it. Influence it, make the best of it, chase it away.

              It’s another environment to navigate, and it’s something you can become skilled in. Turn it into a weapon, even. It’s this kind of subtle tool that can be interesting to read about… though it would certainly get tiring if it was a flat detriment on the main character.

              It’s just another branch of magic. Fate magic, karma magic, luck magic.

            3. It might cause some issues and limit things. I’m reminded a bit of the System Force from Ah My Goddess. That got dropped after a while.

            4. Huh. I actually really like it? Like, in two senses: one, it allows for a grayer interpretation of the nature of truth than you’d be able to pull without some point system, one that is much closer to how truth and lies really operate than one often sees in this setting. Two, I like it because it gives a background reason for why they can’t just get along–like how the reveal that superpowers were /intended/ to draw people into violence/combat/conflict–while simultaneously blocking a “well just kill them all” solution (because other enemies would show up, guided by the Wyrd).

              IDK, it feels like a plot device that covers holes in a way that makes the world more interesting rather than less, which isn’t really that common.

              (Also, I really like the “more personable/reasonable Order Of The Blackened Denarius” vibe I’m getting from the lawyers. Evil, but not scenery chewing evil, and not necessary even enthusiastically evil. I like them.

        2. This is the level we’ve descended to. Where we call people nice if they don’t outright murder you, just put you in mortal danger.
          I fucking really hate this bitch, now.

          1. Eh, she’s teaching him to defend himself. If the shit hits the fan, she can go off her break and eat in to that ~10 minutes of time he has left this month to defend him.

            1. Nothing but a few words would have been sufficient to inform him in advance. She didn’t give him the damn choice. She’s a bitch – oh, I mean Trickster Mentor – and she can’t be trusted. Fuck her.

            2. If you want to teach someone not to trust, you tell them not to trust and tell them why exactly that’s a real good idea. People can actually learn from things you tell them with words, because words are used for the exchange of ideas and information. Like we are now.
              But If Lewis fucks up here, Blake’s corpse won’t benefit much from the lesson.

            3. Littlefinger tried that in A Game of Thrones (Book and TV series). Three guesses how Ned Stark took that bit of relevant information.

          2. That is…. a really extreme reaction that doesn’t really feel warranted. Plus, um, it seems like she’s got a plan, and she definitely wants him to come out alive (and stronger).

            Also I’m kinda guessing she has some level of Contessa-like decision-making ability, and teaching him how to defend himself from an unexpected attack is way more valuable than doing it for him….

            1. Okay, imagine this scenario: We’re serving in Afghanistan, and your squad needs to go somewhere. I, commanding a shitload of tanks, tell you I can get you there, and will protect you.
              Just to be on the safe side, you repeatedly ask me if this is a trick, and because you’ve been told my word is pretty binding, you take my assurances that there is no trick as pretty legit.
              Then we get ambushed by a serious amount of pissed locals, and you’re preparing for some serious killing when you notice me and my guys are just sitting there safely in our tanks, chilling, and the enemy doesn’t seem to be too worried about us. And then I tell you I’ll give you some real good advise on how to tackle this shit.
              ‘sides, I’ve had it up to over both eyeballs with trickster mentors and secret tests of character. From a lot of stories. Not to mention those obnoxious literal genie jackasses.

            2. Consent is about more than sex. When putting someone’s life in danger, sensible people are usually pretty big on being clear on what everybody is expected to do.
              Fuck this bitch with a rake.

            3. Also,
              You seem pretty fucking upset at this point.
              Try having a kid pull a knife on an Amusement park employee…

              Hazards are a part of our world, just like they are a part of that one.
              If a general picks out a good place for you to ambush someone,
              but proposes not to help…

            4. What’s you point with the amusement park scenario? That I should reserve my expletives to situations you decide they’re more appropriate for?

              And in the “general” scenario, the adviser here makes clear in advance that he’s not gonna help. Lewis doesn’t do so until the last second.

            5. Also,
              No, a good general makes sure that folks are prepared.
              And then he tests their preparedness.

              A headshot to the Marked Man (with insignia), is Standard Operating
              Procedure for an ambush, anyway.

              Most of the problem here is that Blake is too much of a n00b to go anywhere.

              But she did promise to escort him Back.

            6. Does the good general test his troops for the first time in a real fight, while surprising them at the same time?
              Blake knows he can’t go anywhere by himself, that’s why he took Lewis up on her offer. Even if he learns something from this excursion, it’s hardly going to prepare him well enough all the threats against him that he can reliably go for the groceries themselves.
              What Lewis promised was “helping”, “guaranteeing [they’d] be better off”. This can mean as much as an even quicker and painless death. She also promised to see them safely there and back “As safely as (Blake and Rose would] allow”. This can mean that Blake’s lack of experience doesn’t “allow” her to escort him safely at all.
              Since nothing she’s done so far apparently counts as a trick, and considering her clear misuse of even the slightest smidgen of Blake’s trust, I’m not inclined to think anything she says can be interpreted in a sensible manner.

            7. Also,
              I believe, if things get really bad, Blake can still call on her in her professional capacity. Perhaps that is what she wants.
              But she can say in good faith that this test will help him.

              No, she’s not being a “good general” — but, yes, a sadistic, psychopathic general would probably like to weed out the folks that will panic when
              confronted with something clearly above their level.

        3. I get the feeling that souls need to be given voluntarily for them to be effective here.

          WIll there be any Lovecraftian Horrors that will eat your sanity or mind later, I wonder?

      2. “And… the cost is a few thousand years of servitude? To clear my entire family’s debt?”

        “That is part of the cost,” he said. “Any true mark you made on the world is painted over. If you want to rise in the ranks and become partner, you’ll need to give up your name, possibly aspects of your identity. Easier than it sounds, after a few decades or centuries of long days, your past life well behind you.”

        At no point did any of the lawyers say that selling he’s soul was need to clear the Blake’s family debt. Not saying they wouldn’t take Blake’s soul or any other soul for that matter. Only that he might keep he’s soul and still take the lawyer’s deal. Honestly if it looked like I might lose my soul I would take the deal to and try to keep my soul.

  5. “And Molly wasn’t lucky either… She…”

    “…Eats a bit of the karmic backlash, pays a bit of the price for the universe not getting what it was supposed to, and the baton gets passed to me. If I die, the same thing happens. Each of us absorbs a bit of the brunt of it, until one of us finds our footing and carries on.”

    “Very likely to be a factor in her reasoning,”
    “She was clever. But the danger in this plan is that the backlash you face could wipe out your family altogether. It would be more a backup or a side benefit than a true plan.”

    Molly seems to have sacrificed herself? Now, I wonder what sort of ghost Molly would be?

    A ghost of karmic responsibility might be handy for Blake, if only to help him evaluate his own actions.

    1. If she went to her death willingly, then there wasn’t enough mental anguish there to create a ghost a la June. I don’t think.

      1. Aren’t ghosts supposed to be an impression in reality caused by the circumstances around their death? Sacrificing yourself in order to reduce your family’s debt seems like a significant enough event that it might leave an impression.

        1. The questions here are this: If that is the case, what is the substrate that can be manipulated? What is the unit of measure for karma? What determines the karmic value of an action? If a person is adopted into a family, informally, do they pick up the debt? If somebody leaves the family?

          1. Answers to those questions probably are magic equivalent of higher math. Like you have to make two hours calculations with pentagramms and arcane symbols to answer simpliest of them. And the answer well may be incomprehensible. Like you ask physicist what’s the velocity of the particle and get wave function as the answer.

        2. Maybe, but I think this is going to be Pact’s version of “Maybe Parahuman X will have a second trigger!” I will admit that the rules around ghostly impact are sketchy at best, but I was under the distinct impression that mental anguish and conflict were essential. If Molly was at peace with the decision, no ghost, or so I thought.

          Also, would Wildbow just hand Blake Molly’s ghost?

          1. Choosing to do something doesn’t mean you’re going to be placid about it. She would be fearful, angry, any number of different emotions, just like anyone else knowingly approaching their death.

            Molly’s ghost wouldn’t necessarily be able to give Blake answers to any big questions – ghosts are not whole beings, just impressions of events leading to their deaths. He could learn why she died, who killed her (or who she thought killed her, and maybe get a useful ghost out of it. He also understood her reasonably well, which should make it a bit easier to bargain with her, even if it’s painful.

            1. Perhaps, but I’m still skeptical of the idea of Molly’s ghost coming in. Maybe once Blake’s built up a power base and can actually move around without requiring overt paranoia, but otherwise no.

          2. Also something I haven’t seen mentioned yet in the comments is that ghosts can also form from positive emotions, A flash of genius is the given example, but presumably others work, too.

    2. …”the backlash you face could wipe out your family altogether”… which STILL wouldn’t necessarily balance the debt, unless lives are of non-fixed, arbitrary value in this system which renders the whole thing pointless.

      1. ““There is also the matter of the debt weighing on you,” he said. “Nearly seven lifetimes worth of unpaid karmic balance. You could work hard your entire life and only make up one of those. Devote yourself wholly and singularly to that one task, and you could maybe make up a second lifetime’s worth. Reality is not of a mind to assist you in ascending to greatness. Far easier to help the execution along and take what it can from the aftermath.””

        We’ve seen what Grandma’s parents were like. Apparently several generations before that were not very nice either. Seven lifetimes of active negative karma building, balanced against a few people dying to pay back a debt they don’t understand? Lives don’t have to be of fixed value. I don’t see how you believe that would make anything pointless.

        How you die is important when it comes to karma. If you die of a heart attack while in the middle of performing a demonic ritual to gain more life, you’re probably not paying back much to the family’s karma pool. If you die due to blood loss suffered after you intentionally sacrificed yourself to stop a school shooter from killing a bunch of kids, well, that’s going to be a much bigger karmic payback.

        1. That’s just idiocy. The whole thing is utterly pointless. Bringing karmic debt into it takes what seems to be a broken magic system into the realms of complete lunacy. Who determines what is right? What is wrong? Staying alive counts as a win, doing least harm is good, martyrdom is selfish, so theoretically should incur even more debt. Any act that benefits you at the cost of another (basically the entire power game) is a negative, so the entire plot loses coherence if we allow for karmic debt. It’s an absolute universe breaker.

          If the interpretation of right and wrong permits the power games as they stand (which would be straining logic to the limit) then it still doesn’t explain the universe’s own negative karma for inflicting the debt on Blake since he was to all intents and purposes innocent of the family. Indeed the only way that can be seen as a workable solution is if the universe is trying to commit suicide by getting somebody to act decisively against the universe’s own utterly implausible sentience.

          Karma is a meaningless concept; it lacks rigour or any attempt at internal consistency – but it is VERY human thinking. If the universe of Pact does indeed support karma it’s going to be a hell of a trick for the story to actually makes sense.

          Given the conversation with the Lawyers, Blake’s best option is to get over the “Electric fence” of observer limitation and get as many mundanes observing as possible. Livestream his experiences, orchestrate events such that a news team has to arrive, make what is happening scene. The bad-luck defence is a weak one because if it is over-used it just draws attention in a world with 7×10^9 inquisitive, prying humans. Hoist the universe by its own petard.

          1. Martin, you seem to dislike about half of everything that any decent fantasy has to have in it to make it interesting. Sure, you can write fantasy without higher powers or karmic balance (good vs. evil) but I’ve very rarely ever seen good fantasy written without those things.

            I have seen quite a few pieces of what I consider to be terrible fantasy written without higher powers or karma/alignment balance. It sounds like you need to find some of that terrible fantasy. Sorry, I can’t remember the names of any of the ones I’ve read. I forget them as soon as I finish reading them.

            1. Both of you are wrong.

              farmerbob, that is an overly simplistic theory and also wrong. A story isn’t the sum of its parts.

              Martin, you are sperging the fuck out all over in here. Please stop.

            2. A story most certainly is a sum of all it’s parts. It does matter how the parts get put together though. Good authors figure out how to add the parts together cleverly. Throwing a potful of story parts together and shaking it a few times until a story falls out still makes a story.

              It’s just like cooking. Give a master chef and a drunk barbarian the same raw materials, and you’ll get two completely different meals.

          2. I am going to weigh in on the karma debate with something I don’t think anyone has brought up.

            First, my predispositions are against forcibly balanced universes. They seem like a good reason for everyone to do as little effort as possible, because, hey, the universe will fix it, why should I bother? As the other side of the same coin, I prefer setups where it is possible to win without having a cosmic power pushing you back. As another online author put it “[serious loss and death is] not part of some deep balance built into the universe. It’s just the parts of the problem where you haven’t figured out yet how to cheat.” (http://hpmor.com/chapter/77). Of course, I have another predisposition preferring that assholes get what is coming to them, so karmic universes help that, but is the lesser of my two predispositions.

            To get to my point, I have to start with the lying rules and the “keep the non-cognoscenti out of it” rules.

            It is clearly stated that lying in private is less damaging than lying in public. So the punishment is somehow observer-based. Why does lying, even in private, cause any damage? Probably because their is no such thing as true privacy in a world with lots of small spirits.

            Now, the privacy rule “started out as an ethic … That ethic became a rule, and the rule became a part of the fabric of things.” So a rule that started out as just something practitioners did eventually became a universal.

            There’s another clue in “Sufficient for the non-practitioners who stumble on ways to give themselves bad karma.” So non-practitioners are generally removed from karma. Why?

            There’s one rule that fits (although other interpretations are possible): karma is another rule like the privacy rule. Enough practitioners wanted it, enough magical communities punished people doing bad things and rewarded people doing good things, it became a standard practice, and then it became how things work. Non-cognoscenti are generally out of it because they are not part of the community.

            So maybe karma was a group decision, conscious or not. Sort of an evolved system at the social level. That means it would contain some or all of the crap that comes with group-evolved rules that haven’t been seriously examined and rationally designed: cognitive biases, inefficiency, various levels of prejudice, imbalance, inherent contradictions, various forms of injustice, practices that are no longer considered desirable or are no longer applicable to modern society, other anachronistic practices, etc.

            … and that sounds like the karma system here. So looking for consistent or fair underlying rules in such systems is missing the point – they don’t have any.

            When dealing with such a system, like Blake is, there are not many options. He cannot (now) ignore the system – the entire system of magic, which includes all users of magic, enforces it. He can work within the system, leveraging its various contradictions, exploitable rules, inefficiencies, etc. to make small gains. But with everyone doing that and him being new to the system it does not give him any relative advantage. However, the end game for someone dealing with such a system is to get powerful enough to partially or completely break it and institute something better.

            1. Also the problem with a balance in this case is that it’s kinda debatable. People have different interpretations on what things mean. And sometimes the obvious balance being broken is actually the restoration of balance. Let’s take the balance between good and evil. So to keep this balance you have to keep the two sides equal right? But then you have the interpretation that evil is the imbalance. I’ll use a Star Wars example. The Force needed to be Balanced. If you go with the amount of good and evil in the universe being even, then it was balanced when it was at two Jedi and two Sith. But it was actually balanced when there were no Sith, as the Dark Side is the imbalance.

              Anyways it would be lame if Blake is just automatically fucked. Boring story then. I’ll wait and see where Wildbow goes with this.

            2. I like this. It also creates a very long term potential goal other than simple survival. Not that simple survival isn’t an interesting goal, but after Blake does get settled in, understanding things, if he keeps making stupid mistakes it will get unrealistic – because Blake doesn’t seem stupid, just untrained.

          3. There is a karmic system because people care about right and wrong. The rules seem to be based on what people think the rules are. And if there is one thing people as a whole believe in very strongly, it is that what goes around comes around.

    3. I read that as Molly’s death being part of Rose Sr.’s plan, not Molly’s own. Rose Sr. is the one who was “clever” for setting up the long list of heirs to each absorb some backlash.

      I would be very surprised to find out that Molly got herself voluntarily mauled. She didn’t seem like she had the grit for something like that. Four months in that house could’ve changed that, I suppose.

      1. actually that’s a good point and would explain why all the younger children go before another one of the elder children, who is last. That way there will be an adult to continue with as much debt as possible reduced if it comes to that point.

        1. There’s only one hole in this that I see. If Rose Sr’s idea was to kill off family to reduce debt, why not put Blake at the end of the line. From everything we saw in the first chapters, he seemed to be the strongest choice, even though he was male.

          Perhaps Rose Sr. Expected him to take out a couple enemies before he flames out – which is something like the direction we seem to be heading in at this point, if Blake doesn’t start smartening up soon.

        2. Hmm. If getting rid of the debt were as simple as sacrificing a sufficient number of family members, you’d think someone would’ve gone the direct approach by now, and produced a vast litter of children specifically for sacrificial purposes. The Thorburns seem the types for who this would be plan A.

  6. I find it a bit disappointing that Blake hadn ‘t got around to getting a proper familiar and tool yet. June just doesn’t cut it, if you ask me, although for where I live the name is appropriate, since June is the first month of winter, here.

  7. Hmmm. This chapter may have lost me on the story; the problems of internal consistency are really close to breaking it entirely for me. The truth thing is a fine idea, but so full of holes (as noted by others) that it’s Applied Phlebotinum. What concerns me is the arbitrary nature of the karmic system (given what is being said by the Lawyers) that the universe seems to mediate. It’s idiotically anthropocentric*, not to mention completely universe breaking, even based upon what little we’ve seen so far; it just makes no sense at any level when compared to what we already know.

    Now it’s possible that the Lawyers are lying, which in itself is problematic.

    *The get-out clause here is that this entire world is a construct or game environment. But even then the underlying rules are apparently inconsistent.

    1. I… Think the whole karma may, perhaps, only apply to practioners and Others. Assuming the story about Suleiman is legit, it all comes down to the raw power he infused in the system he apparently designed.

      It is clear Blake is in a no-win situation. If he can, by living as a saint, only clear 2/7 of his family’s debt… He’s pretty well boned. What to do?

      Easy. Break the system down and try again. Or maybe become a Jesus analog. Heh, maybe his familiar should take the form of a lion? Or a cyborg.

      1. Actually, the Lawyers gave him a winning solution that would resolve all his problems, and neatly dispose of ALL Practitioners and Others as threats to anybody, including each other – at least from a magical level.

        It might be the Wildbow introduced a mistake or mis-wording: if that’s the case the Lawyers lied.

    2. [Sorry, hit post mid-type.]

      My biggest single problem that this chapter has introduced is this: Observer based apocalypse is explicitly stated as an end-point for this universe and the constraining conditions are incoherent / internally conflicting.

      Blake’s options for a victory condition should be obvious from this. Of course, this does depend to a greater or lesser extent upon what he would consider a win.

    3. I don’t see very many inconsistencies here. Even in our real world it is possible, and in fact common, for people to lie in ways that are hard to pin down as lies.

      Land disputes get pretty freaking scary too, at times, even without throwing in the occult.

      How can one even make the case for anthropocentricism for the universe when you have predators like the Barber out there, not to mention the birdmen, and whatever is dominating Briar Girl.

      The story is being told from a human’s point of view, so of course it’s going to be shaded from the perspective of humanity, but you don’t have to look far to see that humans aren’t the center of everything.

      To me, it seems like humans are simply a commodity to the higher powers. A self-aware commodity that has the potential for some self direction, and might occasionally bite the hand that feeds, but still a commodity.

      1. Ah, but the Lawyers made it clear (unless it’s a miss-wording) that karma follows people. The fact that the Elf is about to do damage is proof direct that it is exempt. Even threatening it is, by the rules stated, enough. Think it through and you’ll see the problem. The existence of those predators is exactly the point I’m trying to make, they do not appear to be bound by the same rules.

        1. Martin, think of Karma being like energy. For several generations, Blake’s family built up a negative energy. Other families and other persons might have built up positive energy. The Others might just be entropic forces, willing to work against either positive or negative energy.

          When Blake steps out of that house, anything with a positive energy charge is going to be drawn to him.

          Taking an offensive action against Blake might be a negative energy karmic event for the family with a positive balance, but simply surviving it without retaliating against the sender might be a positive karmic event for Blake and his family.

          In fact, that might be where Wildbow is heading with this. Blake learning to turn the other cheek and accept that people have reason to hate his family, and simply act as a karmic lodestone for the other families as they burn off their positive karmic charge against his negative charge. I do not think actions taken against Others affect karma, when the others were directed by other practitioners.

          It’s really rather fascinating trying to figure out where Wildbow is going with this, honestly. But I can see where some might not like the whole mystery/occult/karma/fantasy thing.

          1. Actually, trying his best to help everyone who isn’t actively trying to screw him might be a pretty decent survival strategy.

            Give Maggy free use of his library.
            Find some compromise with Briar Girl on the swamp (maybe marry her so she is part-owner?).
            Keep Padraic entertained.
            Figure out what Johannes and Crone Mara want and help them with it.
            Help out any Others who aren’t actively trying to hurt him (maybe free or comfort some ghosts when he has down-time?).

            This might be good Karma (the rules are still a little vague), and would give a lot of people in town a very strong incentive to keep him alive at least a little longer so that he can keep helping them. It also has the attraction of being the last thing they expect a Thorburn to do.

        2. We have no proof Others do not get Karma,they might.

          Karma is gotten and laid off in small doses.Getting a little bad karma might be acceptable to killing a man you hate….its not a lifetime’s worth.

    4. You seem to have a misunderstanding in your comments.The system is not “good vs evil”or “just vs unjust”,it is”right vs wrong”as defined by the rules,in other words,”lawful vs chaotic”

      If there is no lawful action to take?You get debt,regardless of fairness of the situation.The universe is a jerk,not just here.Arbitary just makes things worse,Wilbow takes the karmic system and runs with its horrific implications.

      1. Not a lie – it’s an explicit statement in context – it isn’t ominous, it’s an absolute certainty. Rose’s line that follows: “Not in the slightest,” backs this up. Blake and Rose know the meaning of the word ominous and used it absolutely correctly.

        1. Ominous: giving the impression that something bad or unpleasant is going to happen.

          Being able to contact the lawyers by chanting their names is pretty much the definition of ominous. The triple chant obviously tends to be associated with evil things, but Blake and Rose don’t know enough about the world to be sure if it is really an evil only thing (and as we see, it seems to be an effective measure for creating a connection to just about anything).

    1. For Rose:
      “Um. Important point number two. Going outside,”
      Several important points were covered prior to that issue.

      For Blake:
      “You’re welcome,” I said, feeling wary.

  8. Well, this explains why Paige is last. She is the backup plan. If the entire family gets wiped out from karmic backlash, even the children, Paige starts off with much less karmic debt. And perhaps Molly, who was rather unsuited to the task of being heir, was chosen by grandma as a sacrifice to soften the karmic debt a bit for more serious contenders like Blake.

    So, you give the demons footholds, with “A room, a house, a pen, a sword, a companion… shears” given as examples. Forshadowing? Who wants to bet we will end up seeing a demon house at some point?

    “Luckily, there aren’t many things in this house to hear (you lie), hm?” So, did the barber hear these lies? Hopefully not.

    The idea of karmic debt is an excellent plot device. Sort of like the opposite of Robert Jordan’s Ta’veren. Bad things will keep happening to Blake, bad luck at every turn, and there is a plot reason for it. Well done.

    1. I think it’s more like Paige is the last possible resort rather than the backup plan. Rose Sr. was pretty adamant that Paige was out of the running, which indicates to me that she’s likely got some sort of character flaw that Rose Sr. noticed. Something that might mean she’s more likely to increase the karmic debt for the next person in line than whatever debt would be paid with her death. Better to give the other candidates a chance to turn things around first, but yes if they die at least Paige starts with less debt than she otherwise would which would mitigate her chances of failing. It could also be likely that Paige would likely ‘take the deal’, which has it’s own problems given what ‘they’ gain from it.

      Molly and Blake were the best candidates to start with – neither of them wanted the property, and they seem to care more about right and wrong than other members of the family. They’d likely pay off the debt. Molly was probably judged as being the second best choice, but the Rose Sr. may have had to put her first for many reasons. Easing the debt a bit for Blake by likely dying was certainly a consideration, but it may also have been that Rose Sr. had said for years that her heir would be a female grandchild – even with her workaround to include Blake in the running, it may have been considered a really big lie if she didn’t put in an actual female grandchild as her first heir which would probably increase the debt quite a bit given the infighting the situation caused in the family.

      1. That’s a good point — on the need to choose a girl.

        But it’s a bit one-tone.

        Molly wasn’t just chosen for that. She was chosen because Blake cared about her.
        Because her death would have him coming back, not telling the whole family to fuck off (which he might have Done, if he’d been First).

    2. so what the hell did that asshole danny hebert ever do to the universe to fuck up skitter’s day so consistently? or was it the evil mother who we only see through rose tinted mourning?

      1. Karma does not affect non-practioners,at least not as severely.

        And I think it might be her grandparents and backwards karmic debt,the reason her mother died and they seem like jerks.

      2. Cool theory I just had: Taylor didn’t inherit her ancestors’ karmic debt; she inherited the karmic debt of the source of the powers, through her shard. Can’t get more specific without spoilers, obviously.

  9. Awesome chapter, but “I caught it a second or two faster than I might have if I wasn’t already focused on the area.” is a really awkward sentence. I had a to read it several times over to make sure I understood it correctly.

  10. Hmm….

    Here’s what I’m wondering…

    In a world where pretty much every aspect of magic seems to have a dark twist to it, does there exist a subsection of practice that is – for lack of a better word – “Good”?

    That is to say, if, by an almost criminal generalization, I were to surmise that pretty much every magical action described so far has been or required something on just the wrong side of the neutrality scale, can I logically expect to encounter some aspect of practice that draws upon much more benign sources?

    Or some Others that don’t think peeling a man is just another lazy Tuesday?

    If not, I hereby conclude that whatever this ‘magic’ biz is all about, from a macro point of view, collectively, it’s a pretty unidirectional trip down the wrong path. Sometimes by a mile n sometimes by mere inches, but always on the wrong path.

    That said, I’m going to take a measure of refuge in the fact that if ‘karmic balance’ is to be such an important facet of this world, then ‘magic’ must have, if not a counter, then any antithesis….

    1. Considering that “magic” is looking like it exists entirely as deals and pacts with others, and we can’t expect things like that to operate by human morality then I’m guessing that dealing with magic puts you up the shit creek without a paddle no matter what.

      Eventually all those pacts are gonna come down like a house of cards, yeah?

  11. A rather obvious point, might already have been commented on:
    If I were Blake, my immediate priority upon learning about the supernatural world would be to collect information about death and the after life. Presumably he would retain some instinctual fear of death, but he should be behaving intellectually as if he potentially has an important escape route, and place to send his family/loved ones.

  12. I can’t help but wonder whether being friendly with the lawyers is a good idea. In 1.6 Rose Sr. says of Barbatorem:

    “””

    Cast aside all notion of manners. Do not greet him, do not ever say please or thank him. Do not ask him if he would or could do something. Give him no food or succor. There are older meanings in these things and they will either free him or give him power over you. Sometimes it is very little power, and sometimes it is all the power he needs to achieve his ends.

    “””

    I’m not sure how similar the lawyers are in this regard, but I would be more wary of e.g. shaking their hands. (I also would have asked about that while talking to them.)

    1. Exactly. Also, “One thing to keep in mind is that letting people do favors for you without trying to pay them back is a great way to rack up karmic debt. By the way, Ms. Lewis is about to go on break and is willing to fix your axe for you and escort you… no charge.”

    2. The Lawyers aren’t demons though. They are the intermediaries to demons. So I assume they can be interacted with in a different way than Barbie.

      For some reason I’m wondering how the old concept of Sacred Hospitality applies in this setting.

  13. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure the entire karma system was designed for expressly that purpose. The easiest and best way to maintain a positive balance without tipping the scales over to far is to be as reserved and conservative as possible.

    In short, not using great power is the best show of responsibility. No matter how desperate or dire the situation, relying on such unpredictable forces inevitably has consequences. Usually bad ones.

    People should read Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites and Sourcery for a really good explanation, but in short, it all boils down to maximizing the risk exposure to a comparative handful of people to minimize the risk muggles face. Practioners are given great power and responsibility so as to deal with Others on something approaching an even footing, and maintaining good karma improves their standing with the Others… Who may or may not be aware of that.

    That explains Johannes seeming power and prestige with the others, despite being downright scary and evil. He is fully honest with the Others he deals with and has curried their favor by keeping up his end of all his bargains. Laird and the Behaims… May be on their way out, if Johannes really is gunning for a karmic victory.

    It also can’t be emphasized enough that joining the lawyers is not so much an escape clause as much as it is an admission of defeat, with notably worse penalties. Loss of your identity and loss of freedom solely to continue existing in a kind of half life, while giving Others who may have a slightly looser interpretation of the rules they need to follow ever more power… Is not good for anyone. Its a desperation play for people so far gone off the moral and ethical deep end and purposely confused about the consequences of their decision at the time. I am positive that if they regained their identity and freedom, most of them would break down utterly upon realizing what they were responsible for.

    1. Can’t be this bad. The lady is behaving basically morally —
      and judging him like … a non drug addict. She’s behaving
      the way a drug addict thinks of someone who isn’t one.

      “You are better than me” — That’s a statement given
      of free will and consideration.

  14. “The universe sounds a bit like some kind of asshole loan shark,” I said

    No Blake, the Universe sounds like Wildbow during his streak of Things Can Always Get Worse.

  15. I’m a little confused by the Karmic rules. The Lawyers seem to say that getting even with Laird will help Blake’s position:

    “””

    While he read, the woman asked, “Has he acted against you? Done unprovoked harm to you?”

    “Directly? No. Indirectly? He tricked me and left me for the monsters to eat. We’d only just met. Unless the whole history of my family counts as a provocation.”

    “You’d be secure. It would even benefit you. You should be able to find all of this information in the textbooks of the library.”

    “If you were to take it yourself,” the woman lawyer said, “Or have a more direct hand in it, you reap a greater reward.”

    “Personally restoring balance to the grand scheme of things… I can’t help but feel like this is dangerous. Karmic retribution. Promoting eye-for-an eye thinking. How do you know if things are balanced?”

    “””

    So balancing out Karma between two people (in this case Blake and Laird) brings some sort of greater global reward? How does that work? Wouldn’t it be better to just build up positive Karma from shrugging things like that off?

    1. Ah, because he’s taking it upon himself to punish Laird for his transgressions, lessoning the burden on the universe.

      Its a feature, not a bug. Such a system keeps the practioners preoccupied with each other rather than focusing their energies on the muggles.

    2. Notice that in this instance, none of the lawyers had explained or mentioned if it was possible to build up positive karma like using your remaining lifespan to extend the life of your enemies’ loved ones.

      A question that springs to mind is if it is possible to make all the parties responsible for your violent demise heirs to both your fortune & misfortune with a death curse.

  16. Reading the comments it seems to me there’s differences in how people understood what was said here.
    The way I understood it is that the ‘karma’ is not in any way about living a good life or anything like that. It’s more like money – a practitioner calls upon some agencies for their own ends without immediately paying up, a deb is owed. A practitioner takes a clawhammer to another practitioner’s car, they owe for the value they took from the victim. If a practitioner lies they violate the agreement they formed in their Awakening ritual and as a penalty, a debt is owed. The practitioner doesn’t pay up, the creditors sell the debt upward to big leaguers who are important enough to garnish the debtor’s regular income of positive happenstance.
    Don’t want to be in debt? Do everything yourself so you don’t have to pay the help, and don’t harm others so you don’t have to pay for the damages.

    And the really evil things buying souls and looking for footholds? Clearing houses that can forgive a practitioner’s debts with ease because whatever powers that be banished them to wherever owes them enormously for it.

    1. A good analogy, I concur, but the why of things is still, methinks, a good question, along with the mechanisms by which these things work.

      1. Why does gravity pull things together? Why is the speed of light c? Eventually, if you keep asking “why” you get to the answer of
        “Because”, and in fiction, you often don’t have the space to explain every “why”. Why does magic work in LOTR? Because. Why do people in Star Wars have Force Powers? Because, midiclorian Vodoo Sharking aside.
        Some things just… are.
        Also, Suspension of Disbelief is a thing, guys. You just need to accept that Karma of some sort (currently not terribly fleshed out) works in the Pact universe.

        1. The best thing about Worm, however, was that the why was explained perfectly. And I’m hoping Wildbow will do something similar here.

          1. Except it wasn’t explained beyond powers being given by another species. It’s exactly as much of an explanation as it would be to name a particular sort of Others in Pact and say they do the magic and karma, or saying a wizard did it, or a God.

            1. Gotta dissagree a bit there. The reveal in worm was a lot more in depth than just “A Wizard/God/Alien/Karma did it” The reason, mechanism and process was very elaborated on. You could follow the flow of events and the causality.

            2. Kind of. But the worms’ and the component shards’ powers basically amounted to “magic”. Now, the magic started off in a far away planet, probably in a different universe, but its still all “magic”. It just has a sci-fi flavour.

              This is urban fantasy. This time the “magic” has an urban fantasy flavour.

              Plus we’ve gotten far more of an explanation than worm gave us 1 and a half chapters in.

  17. < “An eye for the service of a powerful spirit.”

    So, what did Johannes get for losing control over almost have his body?

    <” Sometimes the price is less of a direct transaction. A favor to be paid later. Conversely, an oath given, with nothing expected.”

    Hm, so did Granny Rose get somethign for giving an oath to not train her offspring?

    On a more general note: I like how the rules in this world are somewhat mushy and the effects of magic are hard to gauge. This way you avoid making magic yet another superpower which very often have clearly defined rules and effects (see Worm). On the other hand, this makes constructing a story very demanding. Mushy, complicated rules demand lots of explanation so it will take a lot time before the rules of the game are clearly defined before the game can begin in earnest. After all, no author wants the rules to look arbitrary, always coming up with yet another ruleset when the story demands it, ready to save the protagonist from a dangerous situation (compare to Brandon Sanderson’s Rule of Magic). This usually leads to a slow start with lots of information to be introduced.

  18. I love how and why karmic debt works in the Pactverse. In particular, that justified (how?) revenge gives you good karma. That makes for a very interesting setup.
    Similarly, having to decide how to maximize the karmic reward and how to minimize the karmic debt of your actions. That almost sounds like having to negotiate with the universe itself…
    I also love how common practice can become common law, i.e. if a behavior is practiced long enough, it becomes mandatory for practitioners and Others.

    And the ‘no lying’ rule alone continues to be so very, very brilliant.

    I’m not that happy about the lines that basically sound like the Pactverse itself has agency, though. Not sure why. Probably because of the following: I loved how the Wormverse had been deliberately designed for maximum conflict and escalation (I won’t spoil by whom), while it currently sounds like the Pactverse is just conveniently setup for karmic debt. ‘That’s just the way it is’ (Pactverse) seems less awesome than what turned out to be, in retrospect, as ‘it couldn’t be any other way’ (Wormverse). (That said, there’s still tons of room for further revelations in this story, so I’m giving this the benefit of the doubt for now.)

    Great lines:
    – “We were offered a contract. Call it bankruptcy. It fits on more than one level.”
    – “The cogs that operate in the background take to grinding you up instead.”
    – ““The universe,”“conspires against you.”“Ah, hell,”“That would explain a few things.””
    – “Karma has very little to do with good and evil,”“It has a great deal to do with right and wrong.”
    – “Clever individuals with some knowledge on how to use and manipulate karma could theoretically survive and ride the backlash to a position at the top.”
    – “There is also the matter of the debt weighing on you,”“Nearly seven lifetimes worth of unpaid karmic balance.”
    – “The universe sounds a bit like some kind of asshole loan shark”
    – “It started as an ethic; [that] ethic became a rule, and the rule became a part of the fabric of things.”
    – “I do recommend you marry, and I’d even recommend you marry a man, because fulfilling an obligation is an advantage that can help you survive.”
    – “In the process of signing the contract, you agree to give them [footholds]. To help them climb forth from where they’ve been banished or bound, or give them a foundation to better leverage their strength. A room, a house, a pen, a sword, a companion.”
    – “If you were to take it yourself,”“Or have a more direct hand in it, you reap a greater reward.”
    – “You’ve come very close to lying a few times in a short span of time, and you’ve each outright lied at least once in the half hour prior to our arrival.”
    – “Borderline dishonesty is useful, lying by omission is better yet, and unvarnished honesty is better still.”
    – “I’d kind of expected a… clap of thunder?””Barring the exceptional moments of idiocy, such as the breaking of an oath, you typically only discover what you’ve done when you reach for power and find it gone.”
    – “As clients go, you’re quite endearing, compared to our usual.”
    – “You’ve met the barber. They are the sorts who would use him and sleep that night.”
    – “You’ll have some confrontations soon. You’ll need to be stronger.”“I know””Are you aware enough to know you’re in danger right now?”
    – “That would be a useful tool. To know where your enemies senses were directed and to act elsewhere.

    1. Do recall that Wildbow has said he had no idea on where the story would end up. I don’t doubt that if this becomes a million word behemoth it will end up looking as if there were no other way.

    2. I wouldn’t be surprised if the karma system was set up by this “Suleiman” for some reason. Or perhaps it stems from all these spirits that seem to be wandering around. I expect Wildbow has an explanation/mechanism in mind for this.

      1. I think this Suleiman guy is King Solomon of the Old Testament. I mean, he’s associated with the occult, and if the religious beliefs of this earth were inspired by the others, what he did to give humans an edge over spirits could be a parallel to the eventual transition from polytheism to monotheism.

        Okay, that last part, maybe not. That be crazy.

          1. You’re thinking of Suleiman bin Selim. The Seal was explicitly that of Suleiman bin Daoud, who as others have mentioned, translates to “Solomon, son of David.”

    3. I don’t know that the justified revenge gives good karma. I think it’s more that because the revenge is justified, it doesn’t give bad karma, so the good karma for pointing the cops towards an accessory to murder (Laird) isn’t overwhelmed or tainted.

  19. If the Universe has a will of its own in maintaining the balance, can Blake take the Unlimited Blade Works route and swear an Oath to the universal balance to become a Counter Guardian in exchange for wiping all past & present debts?

    1. And then he’ll only make things worse by being an embarrassing failure. Such a big grand announcement would not end well, because he simply doesn’t have the power to, you know, do that. Odds are, BFS elves are probably the least of his worries.

      1. Personally I suspect it’s a combination of natural law reflecting practitioners’collective actions (and beliefs?). It’s hard to see how a non-sentient universe could arbitrate on something like lying if it wasn’t running metaphysical ‘programs’ left floating around by humanity.

        Like the lawyer said: ethics become rules and rules become the way of things. And “things should be fair/balanced” is fairly ingrained in the human psyche (as is “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”).

  20. For me, this was one of the better chapters so far. I really enjoyed the lawyers. It was very nice to have Blake and Rose interacting with someone not out for their blood. Just like the conversation with Johannes and Maggie. (I’m really hoping Blake can ally with Maggie, she has the practical knowledge he needs, while he has the books).

    Direct teaching by “Ms Lewis” is awesome.

    The karma system makes the constant trouble Blake finds himself in make sense. Also looking forward to understanding how it works. Even the lawyers might not have a complete understanding, hell, the karma consequences could just be a side product of something else. I think it is too early to judge it, at least.

    Something that strikes me: how does the Thorburn karmic debt influence the rest of the family? When granny Rose was still alive, was she somehow upholding the entire debt? I mean, if not, wouldn’t everyone in the family just get run down by cars as soon as they step outside? (based on our Blake’s experiences). Maybe the karma works stronger on practitioners?

    1. I would imagine that inherited family karma primarily affects the head of the family, but family members are likely caught up in it too but to a lesser degree. It might explain why the infighting over the inheritance among the Thorburn family was so bad, and why Blake had such a bad time while he was homeless. Additionally, being involved with the head of the family may make karma rub off more – after his initial misfortune, Blake started getting things together and his life started being pretty good, which may be explained by his separation from the rest of the family.

      1. The lawyers indicated that it’s a lot harder for the unawakened to incur karmic debt. Probably they’re largely immune to the debt incurred by other members of the family, too. They don’t seem happy people though, so they’re probably still getting a trickle of it like you said…

  21. So did we figure out what the lies were or not? Also I’m loving the lawyers who work for the devils. Wolfram and hart in the house

    1. Presumably it’s the sarcastic comments they made last chapter (“That doesn’t seem at all ominous”, “Not at all”).

      Some commenters expressed surprise at the time that they could get away with that. Apparently they didn’t…

  22. I absolutely love how different this story is from your previous one, and how it is still so obviously ‘you’. Well done, Wildbow, oh master of the cliffhanger.

  23. Karma. The important point, I think, is that it’s not about Good and Evil – but about Right and Wrong.

    Think, for example, about the Witch Hunters. Do not ever think they are exempt. But, they are invariably servants of a Greater Power. In this case, community. Their greatest excuse – is that they are “Just Following Orders”. It shifts some of the debt to whoever is in charge of them. In this case, everyone in community who voted aye for an execution. And, because they are not practicioners, their actions in life, usually with explicity prepaid tools, their incurred debts are even more negated.

    Also, it would not surprise me that there are at least two kinds of karmic debts – namely, personal and ancestral. It should make sense because you are not DIRECTLY responsible for the actions of your ancestors, family, etc. It would make some sense with “personal involvement grants greater benefits when rightfully retaliating”,

    Laird attacks Blake for 100 Karmic Damage.
    Laird gets status: Karmic Debt to Blake = 100. (Blake can arrange to give him up to 100 Karmic Damage sometime, and not get in debt)
    Blake’s Family Debt gets lowered by 100 (Blake was attacked for his family’s sins, so that debt gets lowered)
    Blake gets status: Potential Karmic Award from Laird = 100 (he can return the favor, and balance the scales. He gets rewarded for being a trooper and upholding the balance).

    Blake Retaliates for 100 Karmic Damage.
    Laird gets his status effect removed.
    Blake gets 100 Karmic Award, going for debts current and past.

    Blake arranges for 100 Karmic Damage retaliation, second-hand.
    Laird gets his status effect removed.
    Blake at least shares his Karmic Award with the actual retaliator, and/or has to pay for debts actual retaliator may incur.

  24. Ah, this is why the council didn’t want to execute someone so soon after a previous execution. There’s probably some debt associated with an execution and frequent executions could quickly pile that debt high.

  25. Right and wrong, not good and evil.

    Reading through the comments, people don’t seem to be getting this. Saving people from burning buildings has no effect on karmic balance. There’s nothing right or wrong about it. On the other hand, saying “I’ll save you!” or taking actions that tell an observer that such is your intention, and then succeeding, gives you a positive karmic balance, because you were right.

    The reason delivering the letter about Laird has a potentially positive karmic effect for Blake is because it’s providing an opportunity for observers to more correctly see Laird for who he is and what he’s trying to do. The reason why it hurts Laird isn’t directly due to some karmic balance between him and Blake, but because Laird’s abuse of his position is something many observers are in the dark about, and Laird has taken advantage of that.

    When the entire world is filled with observers, drawing attention to the way things are actually happening builds trust with them. There’s very little about that which is mystical. The only really big difference from how you’d expect it to work if it were humans is that Others don’t care about morality, but about character. The more you act in line with your intentions, stated or implied, the more Others will be inclined to act in your interests.

  26. Well Blake’s fucked. The question is can he end up un-fucked? The lawyers seem to think the only way he’s getting the debt gone is by joining the firm, but that doesn’t mean it’s so. They don’t even have to be lying in the least, they just have to think that’s the only way he could clear the debt without it continuing on to his heirs. I wonder if anyone else can buy out the debt? Let’s say he allies with Johannes. Can Johannes take some of his own karmic collatoral, and pay off some of Blake’s debt, leaving Blake indebted to him? Or does Blake have to do it himself?

    I also wondering how clearing your debt by selling your soul affects your afterlife. Let’s say you end up before Saint Peter. “Yeah, I got rid of my karmic debt to the universe by helping the forces of hell gain in power. Is that going to be a problem?”

    1. I get the impression the universe really doesn’t like demons. Actually killing/destroying one may be a major Right Thing To Do and get rid of a lot of bad karma.
      It’s probably really hard, but Others can be killed as far as we know. Even very powerful ones.

  27. Lairded. Again. Kinda ironic that these people who are enforced not to lie are the least trustworthy fucks Ever. Blake is Dark Helmet- just surrounded by assholes. Now at least we know it’s an actual curse.
    “Ah, hell,” my words exactly, dude.

    So far, I like the world-building regarding the demonic metaphysic.
    Still, having to watch what you say all the time just sounds incredibly horrible. Free Speech for life, yo.

    Also, lookit that: a young, handsome, male lawyer with a facial scar.

    At least now the Duchamps are positively identified as enemies, and not just suspects for sending others after Blake. Still can’t figure how it works that murder is legal in the magic society.

    1. “Still can’t figure how it works that murder is legal in the magic society.”
      Looks to still be at the eye for an eye level amongst other things. I get the impression that magic society is very very conservitive, and way behind normal society. Probably has something to do with all the Others who can’t tell people apart from their great grandfathers.

      1. The Duchamps can damn well tell Blake from old Rose, and what is there preventing human practitioners from acting human to other humans?
        My best guess in this case is that we can best describe the situation in Jacobs Bell as a lukewarm war, where the Behaims and Duchamps take out anyone else that looks just vulnerable enough, and all the others aren’t banding together for mutual protection because they’re All assholes with no credibility At All.

        1. Well we have four long established groups in town. Crone Mara has been there the longest. But do to he isolation, and her being self taught she is a loner, and is somewhat limited. The Beihams, Duchamps and Thorburtons are all established dynasties. But the longtime equilibrium between the three has been disrupted. The Beihams and the Duchamps are about the unite, and the Thorburtons are greatly weakened, and risk being wiped out. Brier Girl and Maggie are relitively recent arrivals. Johannes is a recent arrival who has managed to aquire a lot of power in a short amount of time.

          So the way I see it in terms of a cold war is that for a long time you had a Mexican standoff between nations A, B, and C. Now nations A and B are strongly aligned, and nation C has fallen on hard times, but still has it’s nukes. However Nation D has suddenly shown up, and made nations A and B nervous, so they hope to use Nation C as a buffer until they are ready to take out nation D. My question is what will nation D do?

          1. Set Nation C in the path of self destruction in such a way that it causes as much damage Natation A & B as much as possible then consume and strip mine whatever resources the corpse of Nation C has left while sending in saboteurs into A & B to engage in guerrilla warfare to exhaust their resources and mental focus until Nation D is ready to steamroll over A & B.

            Nation C can turn things around but with A & B are actively attacking C and with D being untrustworthy as well as vultures circling overhead, one of the most brutal possible way to survive would be to force A & B to engage in a frontal assault of C on C’s home ground in worst terrain imaginable with all of C’s critical access paths booby-trapped, completely blocked, turned into cul-de-sacs, with pre-planned fields of fire with loopholes and covered positions, laid a few minefields that C’s “people” know how to navigate at a run and then suck the A & B’s into following them to have A & B pay for every meter of ground in blood, lives and karmic resources.

            But all that takes having a demesne & a familiar as well, which means Blake really needs to start reading all the books in the order as instructed by Granny to gain basic knowledge without wasting resources getting from the lawyers what can be obtained for free.

            1. Less of a Cold War analogy and more of a European theater WWII analogy. Duchamps are France, Behaims are British, Johannes is Germany, and Blake is Russia.

              ..That actually works so well, on so many levels, that I’m wondering if it wasn’t the inspiration for the political setup we see here.

            2. “Less of a Cold War analogy and more of a European theater WWII analogy. Duchamps are France, Behaims are British, Johannes is Germany, and Blake is Russia.”

              Depends on what Johannes does. If he declares war on Blake, while still being in conflict with the others… But Blake is also mister unpopular here, so nobody is coming to his aid. And can he stall like the USSR did while getting their shit in gear? And who is Poland? And when is the USA going to get involved?

  28. On the one hand, I’m sure Wildbow has this entire system of Karma and magic worked out in his head and will slowly show us piece by piece.

    On the other hand, I can’t help but get this feeling that he’s at his monitor right now, laughing at the various debates about this Karma system until he sees something that he likes, at which point he’ll say, “I like it! This is going into the story” to himself.

    I respect Wildbow as an author and I enjoy his stories (including this one), but this is how I will picture Wildbow until otherwise stated by himself (mostly because it brings to mind a funny image).

  29. This chapter brings something interesting to the table – lying affects powerbase in a subtle fashion, which means if it comes down to it, bluffing may prove quite effective in a fight.

    Ms. Lewis may have deduced it from experience and context, but for split-second situations, it’s probably hard to see if your opponent is still at ease or struggling for power.
    The wise move would be to take the time to consider what was said, give it some thought while checking the various spirit connections for some hint.

    Enough time to turn an impending death into a better outcome.

    1. Not worth it imo. The bigger the bluff, the bigger the effect on your power, and it needs to be a big enough bluff that they completely give up the attack if you’re going to survive the encounter. Not to mention that the effects are lasting.

      1. Are the effects lasting though? At least for a small lie out of sarcasm, like Blake’s lie, it is said that the effects can wear off in as little as a week.

        I agree with you though, that if two experienced practitioners fought, the lie needed would have too great a cost.

    1. Right and wrong also have the meaning of correct and incorrect. Which fits the lying thing to a T, and for other issues raises the question “correct about what?”. Perhaps it simply means correctly interpreting and following the metaphysical terrain. “Right” is going with the current, “wrong” his fighting it.

  30. “I or one of my partners will look one of you in the eyes and inform you exactly what we’re doing, when the time comes up”. Which Rose won’t be able to do anything about if she’s already braindead or whatever. Methinks this is what Master Blake missed in the conversation.

  31. More reactions …

    Karmic debt can be cleared. More evidence that it is not a law of nature, but a de facto rule of the magical community – see my other commentary.

    My first thought on hearing about the direct lies was to go look for them. Then I realized that this is Wildbow – what looks like a lie now, with one extra piece of information, will appear to be truth, and vice versa.

    And we have a definitive answer on the marriage question – it is best because it fulfills an obligation and a request but it is not necessary.

    Oh shit moment – the demons are working, at least partially as a group to regain power in the world. With Mann, Lewis, and Levinn as one of (probably) many front organizations to help this along.

    “a rare few [clients] are like your grandmother. A great many aren’t.” So RDT was one of the nice diabolists? Ouch.

    The enchantress’s challenge is far too unsubtle compared to other threats we have seen, and it comes from a clan specializing in relationships, not brute force. As other commenters have noted, flat out attacking Blake, no matter how bad his family karma, is probably a major negative in the karma scale … and we haven’t seen anyone do it previously. And, what she did was focused heavily on showmanship. So, this looks like an attempt to get him to panic and attack first. If Blake attacks first, he is probably in the wrong. This looks like another damn newb trap.

    And Martin Winters is right about the sword – that thing is far too impractical to be used without major magic. So either it is an illusion or the enchantress is expending huge amounts of power to maintain it. If it is the latter, Blake can come out ahead of this encounter just by surviving and stalling for time, because it is costing the enchantress every second she uses it. Of course, if he stalls he attracts more and more enemies, so delaying is probably not a wise idea in this case.

    1. ““a rare few [clients] are like your grandmother. A great many aren’t.” So RDT was one of the nice diabolists? Ouch.”

      if this wasn’t the case, people wouldn’t be so wigged out about them.

      and I agree. This attack doesn’t suit the Duchamp style. So it’s either a “delay and rally the troops” — or a feint, or not an attack at all. It’s quite possible Laird is against Blake, but the Duchamps are more interested in his deal than they’ve let on.

  32. Let`s see if I understand: for magic to work you must make deals, if you break a deal or die before paying your bloodline inherits the debt. If you teach magic to someone, you are partially responsible for how this someone deals.
    If you have to many debts the universe itself collects.
    No, nothing inconsistent in this logical set of rules up to this point.
    Just do not confuse this with the idea of karma in our world that has more to do with doing good things. Karma in this set is more a question of honoring deals.

    Well, of course, there is the other part: if someone wronged you and you make him/her pay in a precise way, you are just balancing things and this may even improve your karma, specially if you are punishing someone that tricked you in a deal.

    I am sure that Wildbow has this all set in his head, including exceptions and good world building.

  33. First off, I am entirely certain the elf is a familiar, and hence, an Other. The laws of physics are clearly more of a gentle guideline for the more powerful ones, as Padraic demonstrated by giving Rose a kiss.

    If you are gonna complain about how magic makes no damned sense, read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Otherwise, suspend your disbelief.

    1. If something affects the real world, it has to at least do passing business with the laws of physics because it actually has to affect the physical world. The relationship may be one-sided, but it exists by definition. And besides, I was talking about magical expenditure.

      Energy limitations were a very important part of Worm, especially during the largest battle, where they came up in several ways.

      There have been multiple statements from different sources that, in this world, greater abilities require greater costs, even though those costs are never stated in kilowatt hours.

      So, from a practical standpoint, a standpoint of author history, and from an internal consistency standpoint, I suspect this world respects some limits in relation to how much a being can get away with.

      And, as a side note, it has been stated that beings in this world transition from practitioner to Other (or spirit to mortal to god in one case) in small steps, so the Other/practitioner measure is a multidimensional sliding scale.

  34. I wonder how marrying a woman with Mann for her maiden name would work?

    But serously, good to see that we got that marriage thing cleared up. However, Blake might want to think carefully about who he marries, no matter how much debt it looks like it might clear up. I suspect practicioner divorce is very uncommon. When you consider all the vows involved in a wedding, you’d better mean it with in sickness and in health, till death do us part.

    1. Nah, Granny clearly spelled it as man and specified the husband part. Nice thought though.

      Far as I can figure, karma and debt works on a sliding scale or continuum thingy. The closer you are to fulfilling both the spirit and the letter of an agreement or debt, the more points you get.

      Marry a guy: 2 points
      Marry a lady: 1 point
      Don’t marry at all: 0 points
      Marry then divorce: -3 points
      Enter a civil union of convenience with few if any actual vows: ?

      1. I wonder if simple deed poll would do the trick. Have your fiance change her name to “a husband”. She can always change it back after – the agreement is to wed a husband. What happens after that is irrelevant to the contract.

        Maybe.

  35. Okay, I’m really, really starting to like the concept of magic. Because it’s becoming clear that practitioners don’t really have magic superpowers but are guys just making deals with the things that go bump in the night.

    It’s cool because I often have a dilemma with magic systems in that I really dislike the idea of an otherworldly force like being constrained within a set of objective rules and basically being humanity’s bitch, while I recognize that it’s hard to involve magic in a story satisfyingly without laying down how it works.

    But here you sidestep the issue by making it not about mana and casting spells and shit, but convincing the supernatural to let you go hog wild with reality, and using the other’s psychology and deals passed down through millennium to get these things we can’t understand to do our bidding.

    I sure do hope that the others stay mysterious and we never learn exactly what they are.

    1. As an aside, there was an interesting optional magic system for GURPS called “Unlimited mana”. It worked the same as the regular magic system except that the amount of mana you could access was essentially infinite. The downside was you had to make a roll for reality backlash – at a penalty for how much mana you tapped.

      It adds a really interesting unpredictability to magic. Every spell cast is an exercise in risk management – and, sooner or later, your luck will turn…

  36. Well, this chapter is just full with interesting information. Poor Blake can’t even use sarcasm now. Is it bad that I like the demonic lawyers better then the Laird, who is a father worried for his children?

    1. “Is it bad that I like the demonic lawyers better then the Laird, who is a father worried for his children?”
      Nope it’s fine. The lawyers know and aknowledge what they are. Laird thinks he’s a good man, while plotting the deaths of innocents for the sake of himself and his family.

  37. Yes… But just how binding is an agreement made under magical compulsion? Also, why must the Behaim be the one to call the wedding off or break the vows? AND, if the Behaim really is under a whammy…. Oooooh, snapping him out of it could make things real interesting.

    1. I dunno, seems like the Behaim’s should have figured out protections for stuff like that a long time ago, living in the same town as the Duchamps.

  38. Oh shit. Blake may well be a balancing force after all. Say Johannes and the two families have built up too much good karma. He’s the big bad who cuts them down to size. It may not do anything for his own debt necessarily, but I’m sure he’ll at least feel better.

  39. Does this mean that laird was talking about karma when he mentioned the consequences of him possibly over using the rune? That would mean that he has good karma right now as he gets all of the free drinks, an that if he over used it he could get bad karma, ending in the results he mentioned.

  40. “Nope it’s fine. The lawyers know and aknowledge what they are. Laird thinks he’s a good man, while plotting the deaths of innocents for the sake of himself and his family.”

    Considering that this “innocents” are threatening his familiy with kind of sadistic psycho torturer I would said that Laird is more sympathetic, IMHO.

    But I liked Armsmaster more than all Undersiders (Imp being only exception) put together, so I am probably wierd.

    1. That’s not fair at all. Laird is deliberately planning for Blake to die, and Blake is certainly not trying to off Laird or any part of his family. The only reason he might have even considered it is because Laird put him in such an impossible situation.

      1. “Considering that this “innocents” are threatening his familiy with kind of sadistic psycho torturer I would said that Laird is more sympathetic, IMHO.”
        Blake’s baby sister Ivy certainly isn’t threatening anyone. Laird has stated that it would be best for him if the entire Thorburton line is wiped out. Right now they have exactly one member who is even a practicioner, and that is Blake.

  41. Karma: Holy hell (heh). We’re working on the good/bad system here? Sure. Can somebody give me the guidelines for good/bad and right/wrong? What culture are we using? Is it good to kill one man because it’s the only way to save three? Should I value freedom of an individual over a larger goal? Is it good to put other people’s goals ahead of my own? Does reaching a “righteous” goal give good karma despite any actions that impair others while striving towards the goal? If I’m attempting to help people I care about and in the process making others weaker good or bad? If John Smith is going to kill somebody a year from now, and my only chance to stop him is to kill him right now is that good karma? Is it bad karma to kill somebody? Should the environment be protected or should humans/others be allowed to shape it as they want? Is good/bad decided by how Others and humans around you perceive your actions? If so, can you surrounded yourself by people with a specific moral set and perform actions which would normally be seen as bad? Can I mislead a person I view as villainous to thwart his goals for more karma? This all feels roughly the same as telling somebody they should try to do things that smell more purple than aqua. This may sound pedantic, but it’s really doesn’t feel that way when it’s such a vital part of the story’s universe.

    1. These are all REALLY good questions – but I’m not sure if that’s how it works in the Pactverse. At least, we haven’t been told enough to be sure yet. My thinking is that the Pactverse has some innate tendency to try to ‘balance’ itself: As stated in the chapter, “The world seeks balance in all respects. Whenever a practitioner works, they pay a price” – but sometimes they die before the price can properly be paid, and things are thrown a little out of whack. So I feel like it’s not so much whether you do GOOD or BAD, but more whether you stay true to your word or not, in the same way that lying rids practitioners of their power for a time – there’s always a price to be paid.

      On the other hand, they later say that being ‘unjust’ garners bad karma and being ‘just’ gets good karma. And I don’t know who would judge what ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ is.

      1. I’m not compleatly clear myself, but here’s how I see it. Karma isn’t decided by Good and Evil, so much as Right and Wrong. Right and Wrong in this case is not moral right and wrong, but doing things in the right manner, by the rules, or the wrong manner, and breaking the rules.

        Lets say you believe someone has commited horrible crimes. You vow you will track this person down and see them executed for it. Then you find out that they are in fact innocent. In a Good/Evil Karma set breaking your vow to see them executed would get you good karma because they are innocent, and killing an innocent person is much worse than breaking the oath. In a setting with Pact’s karma meter, you’d get bad Karma because the Oath is the important thing, and you broke it. You can still get good karma by doing good things, and bad karma from bad things, but that is not what the big thing is.

        In short the Universe is Lawful Stupid.

        1. Semantics make things even more complicated. In your scenario with the innocent person the vow is made against, the way you make the vow could be important.

          For instance, you say “Mr. A murdered Mr. B. I vow to execute Mr. A”. These sentences are separate and not necessarily linked. Your vow to kill Mr. A will be interpreted as having nothing to do with Mr. A being a murderer, so even if you find out that Mr. A is not a actually a murderer you’re still expected to hold to your vow to execute him. Now, it’s also questionable whether or not your statement about Mr. A being a murderer will be interpreted as a lie – if you believed it at the time, it’s not technically a lie, but you are ‘wrong’ so you may end up being held accountable for that to a degree.

          So how about a vow of “I vow to execute Mr. A because he murdered Mr. B”. This vow gives a reason for the vow. If you later find out that Mr. A is innocent, are you still obligated to adhere to the vow? Plus there’s the matter of it being unjust if he did get executed (either before or after you find out he’s innocent) and what the consequences would be for your mistake.

          So you might think it smart to say “I vow to find and execute Mr. B’s murderer” since that’s more general, but that puts you in the situation where if you can’t figure out who actually did it or the person who did so is beyond your capability to execute you will end up breaking your vow. Granted, not putting a time limit on the vow means you may not be held accountable in your lifetime if you still put effort into doing so but your vow will be broken by you dying before accomplishing your task so your heir will probably get a karma penalty.

          It would be still smarter to say “I vow to make a reasonable effort to find and execute Mr. B’s murderer, but will cease my efforts should I find the task to be beyond my capabilities”. This gives you a number of outs, though you still have to make a reasonable effort which is in itself quite vague, so you’d be even smarter to outline the exact steps you’d take to investigate the case and see about executing the culprit. Of course, for something like this the smartest thing to do would be make no vow at all.

          Also as an amusing side note, if you made a vow to “see someone executed” a particularly vindictive enemy could try to blind you right before the execution and prevent any recordings of the event so you could never fulfill the vow to the exact wording.

      2. I like the idea that karma in the Pactverse is all about balance. That seems less arbitrary and more consistent than it being about good vs evil or right vs wrong, especially considering all the practitioners that we’ve met so far.

        On the same line of thought, I thought of a way for Blake to wipe out his debt. He should become the Avatar! That means working to restore balance to the world and acting as a bridge between the human and spirit world.

        We already know that elementals exist in this world. Blake even has his hatchet of cold already.

        That being said, we’ll have to see how this fight turns out.

  42. Just noticed, Ms. Lewis said that “For the time being, you are connected to Blake,” referring to Rose. Does this mean that Grannny Rose made a way out for her? If Rose does somehow separate from Blake, how does that figure into the inheritance?

  43. So, I just noticed, Ms. Lewis said that “For the time being, you are connected to Blake,” referring to Rose. Does this mean that Grannny Rose made a way out for her? If Rose does somehow separate from Blake, how does that figure into the inheritance?

  44. Wait, wait wait… how can you maintain a secret conspiracy for centuries if no one in your conspiracy can ever lie, especially in public ?

    1. Through the judicious application of mind whammies, murder, and the assistance of humanity’s own natural weirdness filter.

  45. So, the end of the chapter hits and I (and hopefully Blake) concluded the following: To hell with the forced-honesty-because-you-cannot-lie thing, people can still lie. I’m going to treat it as that people are still able to break their word. Especially Laird. FFFFFF-

    I think that Ms Lewis will actually keep the spirit as well, though. Even without her power, I think she’s confident that she can still protect Blake. The problem comes up with two questions: “at what cost?” and “is she underestimating his opponents?”.

  46. If I had to marry a man, I’d pick David Bowie. That’s not even a joke.

    That glamour of that fae is for the birds, I know that much. I don’t know how gull-ible they think I am, but I wouldn’t be swallow-ing that sword hook, line, and sinker. That’s the thing about glamour. It’s real and it isn’t. Reality affects belief, belief affects reality, in a sense. Like fear. People can become so afraid that something bad is going to happen to a person or group of people that it causes something bad to happen. Like stock market confidence, or currency prices, or people not doing anything to avert global catastrophes because they’re sure that the world’s going to end anyway.

    Always keep a mind on the facts, though, and you’ll have an easier time of things.

    Now, first thing’s first. Forget the hatchet. Walk right up to that woman with the sword…and rip her dick off!

    Come on, there’s even a precedent for this one. Go all Jack the Ripper on that alley ho.

      1. Still warms the cockles of my heart, the coccyx of my spine, and possibly even the cock of my dick to hear that someone enjoys my contributions to Wildbow’s intense little tale.

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