Collateral 4.2

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Conquest’s place was the sort of place that looked like it was or had been a government building, fifty or a hundred years ago.  A courthouse, a government office, or something.  In my day to day, I might think it fit into that general category, but there was no sign, and I’d never have cause to try and figure it out.

White exterior, pillars framing the front door, and broad stone stairs.

I climbed out of the car that the practitioner with no name had brought, bringing the rolled up image.  I couldn’t help but note the two men to either side of the double doors.  Both stood, and they had a vague military bearing, with their clothes not really being a uniform, but still sort of playing into my impression of what a hitman or an ex-veteran might wear, if they couldn’t leave the work entirely behind.  Boots, bulky jackets that hid guns, shaved heads.  One wore a shapeless, dull sweater, the other had his coat open, showing a suit or vest with a row of shiny brass buttons.

They also gave off a hostile impression.  The sense that they would attack me at any second, justified or not.  More like the Others I’d seen prowling around the perimeter of Hillsglade House.

I couldn’t say for sure if they were Others or not.

The nameless practitioner gestured, and I led the way to the door.  The men on either side looked at me, up and down, as I ascended the stairs.

“No weapons,” one said.

“Hm?”

“At your side.  A blade?”

Ah.  June.

“I promised the spirit I would keep her close and keep her warm.  Is there room for compromise?”

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” the nameless practitioner said.

“Yes sir.”

To me, he said, “You don’t touch her, unless you give us warning, or you’ll get shot.”

“Noted.  Thank you,” I said.  A part of me was a little surprised that he’d jumped so quickly to calling it a ‘her’, but I supposed that was a part of living in this world.

“Know that whatever you leave behind is lost, past that threshold.”

“That rule ends when I’ve left?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“And if I decide I don’t like the rule?”

“You’ll displease everyone in attendance, the Lord included,” he said.  “And your stay in Toronto will be a very short one.”

“Gotcha,” I said.

“You’ll want to use your Sight to watch your step.”

“My step?”

“Yes.”

I used my Sight as I opened the door, continued using it as I walked down the hallway.  Had I been using my regular vision, I might have found something off with the surroundings.  The furniture was old, everything was nice, but it didn’t really fit together.  It looked nice, when I took any room or area all together, but when I looked at it in more detail, the short table and mirror by the front door had nothing in common with the furniture at the end of the hallway.

Viewed through the Sight, there was another oddity.  Nothing was connected.  No object had a strong tie to anything.  Not to the room, not to any owner, not to events or ideas.  They were isolated, stranded.

Ghosts, if I could even call them ghosts, lingered here and there.  They were so faint I could look straight at them and I wouldn’t necessarily be able to make them out.  Psychic echoes of people who had been slain or defeated, many bearing grievous wounds that stood out, tied to the pieces of furniture, the decorations, and the objects collected on walls.  The tethers binding them were short enough that some were contorted, bent over tables, reaching for but unable to claim swords that rested on stands, clocks and candlesticks.

I got it, now.  This wasn’t a house that had been lovingly, if eccentrically decorated.  It was a large, sprawling trophy case.  Every enemy the Lord had vanquished, he had taken something from them, a piece of their home and a piece of their selves.

“Up the stairs.  Watch your step.”

I made my way up the step, avoiding one section of step that had badly splintered.  I noted the hole in the surface.  Something had penetrated the stair.

As I rounded the corner to continue up the staircase, I realized it was somewhat more involved than that.

The staircase existed in shambles.  A staff had been thrust into someone’s open mouth, continuing into the join between two stairs, punching through tile, concrete and wood.  The skull of the victim, jaw open, was still on the stairs.  The flesh had long since rotted away, the remainder of the body carted off.

A colonial-era sword had bit so deep into the stone railing that it had stuck.

My foot nearly slid on the stairs as I ascended.  I paused, picking it up, and I saw finger bones and shell casings.

I could smell the gun oil, a chalky, burnt smell that might have been the odor of old gunpowder.  Blood.

As I crested the top of the stairs, I saw the walls on either side of me were in ruins.  Open, snow-covered fields spread out to either side of the ruins, the clouds hanging low in the sky, to obscure my view. There were humps in the earth, that could have been shallow graves with the earth still heaped over them.  The alternative was that they were bodies buried by only the shallowest covering of snow.  Weapons of all sorts stood out from the plains like an eerie sort of grass.  There were a surprising number of religious symbols among the weapons.  Crosses planted in the earth.

It was dark, clearly night-time, but the sun hung directly over the long hallway in front of me, blood red and large enough to fill a quarter of the sky.

It was cold, and the sun afforded no more warmth than it did light.  It did, however manage to leech the moisture from my mouth.  It was both hot and cold at the same time, with one not taking away from the other.

“Huh,” I said.

“We’re in the fallow season within the Lord’s domain.”

I looked back at the nameless practitioner.  The moon hung over his head, far smaller than the sun, but still imposing and somehow artificial in how big and imposing it was.

“Fallow?”

“Please watch your step, and do keep moving.  Lingering can expose you to other effects here.  So can a misstep.  Things broken here do not always mend as you hope they would.  You can hastily patch up a wound that may take a lifetime to heal, or you can allow things to become something else altogether, after the breaking.  I doubt you want to do either, if you happen to fall through the floor and break a leg.”

“Point taken,” I said.  I picked my steps carefully, avoiding the increasing number of weapons that littered the area, the parts of the floor where damage, holes, or fire had left the footing unstable.

I elected to pull off my jacket, because I preferred being too cold to being too hot, and it seemed I wasn’t going to get a middle ground between the two.

“To be in Conquest’s domain is to be in a constant state of transition.  Emotions rise and fall, there is fire and rebellion at first, then we make peace with the state of things.  Broken things erode away, and then there is only defeat.  But to be the Conqueror is not a simple thing either.  They either take on a different role, which my lord cannot do, or they find new territory to seize, people to subjugate.  The territory changes as he finds new ground.”

“I didn’t know a demesne could be this… out there.  I mean, I read about apartments covered in flesh, but…”

“This isn’t a demesne, as you understand the term,” he said.  “Some beings are strong enough to influence their surroundings simply by residing there.”

“Ah.”

I continued forward, leaving ruined walls behind me as the hallway continued, unsupported by anything beneath.  A bridge of broken stone and tile, slow going when I had to pick my way around skeletal remains.

It wasn’t a long fall to the ground.  Fifteen feet or so, maybe sixteen if the snow was deeper than it looked.  But somehow, I didn’t get the impression I would be able to get back up if I did tip over.

The bridge reached a hill with more ruins at the perimeter, walling it off from the surrounding region.  The sun, somehow, was now directly above me, pressing down.

The light, however, seemed to come from the snow that dusted everything.

Conquest stood across from me, sitting on a stone.  He had a bit of a mullet, a white colonial-style jacket with a fleece collar and several belts, a rifle with a bayonet resting against one leg, and a badass beard with a waxed mustache.  Two aboriginal men were kneeling beside him, shirtless, with heavy collars shackled to their necks, chains leading up to his hand.  His other arm was outstretched, resting against one knee, hand open, with large green beetles crawling around the palm.

His eyes didn’t look human.  When I let my brain draw the connection, my first thought was ‘painting eyes’.  They were the sort of eyes I might expect to see in a really well done painting… every detail in place, but lifeless and flat.

When I looked him over again, I saw the entire thing fit.  I could have seen something similar on a tarot card, the posture, the very careful arrangement of elements.

A composition, a living symbol.  And somehow, this landscape was an extension of him. It was like he was ink, bleeding out onto the paper around him, and this… diorama was the end result.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

“My lord,” the nameless practitioner said, “he holds a weapon.  I agreed to let him carry it in.”

Conquest nodded slowly, then turned his painted eyes to me.

“I would offer you a seat,” he said, “But the only seat available is the ground, and I have no reason to make you debase yourself.  You may continue to stand.”

“Then I will do so…” I almost said sir, then reconsidered.  “Lord of Toronto.”

That seemed to do okay, as far as acknowledging his position.  I wasn’t dead yet.

Hello, little morsel,” a voice murmured, just to my right.

I broke eye contact with the Lord of Toronto, and I very nearly jumped out of my skin.

She was big.  Maybe, if she’d been human-proportioned, she would have been two or three times my height, going by the size of her head and upper body.  But her body from the waist down was that of a great cat, the rise and fall of the muscles beneath the short fur very distinct.  Great feathered wings were folded against her body, the snow piling on them.

“Hello,” I said, my attention now caught by this new figure.  She might well have been the biggest living thing I’d seen in person.

She wasn’t beautiful, but she wasn’t hideous either.  Her hair was well-tended, falling in dark ringlets over her breasts, where the hair obscured the nipples.  Her fur and wings were pitch black.  Between pale flesh and dark fur, I’d completely failed to see her where she reclined.  Her human arms were folded beneath prodigious breasts, one of her feline front paws were folded over the other, and all of her sparkled with the moisture of snowflakes that had fallen onto her and melted.

I looked away, before I could break some rule, and I saw the others.  A man, bedraggled, in rumpled clothing, with two handsome men and two attractive women attending him.  He sat on the trunk of a tree that had grown horizontally, low to the ground, stump to his left, sparse branches fanning out to his right.  A bottle dangled from his fingers, the contents swishing as he tilted it one way, then the next.  His gaze was hard, penetrating.

The other local was a woman sat on a fallen chunk of masonry, her legs folded beside her.  Her hair was blonde, and she held a golden spindle.  I might have pegged her at thirty.  I almost thought she was a Duchamp, but the facial features didn’t fit the general mold I’d seen before.

“Allow me to introduce Isadora, apocrypha, sixth daughter of Phix,” Conquest spoke.

The sphinx smiled.

“High Drunk Jeremy Meath.”

Jeremy didn’t move an inch, but his underlings did bow their heads, flourishing some.

“And Diana Thompson.  Astrologer.”

“I hope we can get along,” I said.

“Your name?” the Lord asked.

“Blake,” I said.  I wasn’t sure if I had another answer.

“Blake,” the sphinx said.  “From English.  The name means ‘the pale, blond one’, also ‘black’.  A name of contrasts, hinting at duality.”

“Hush,” Diana said.  Her eyes darted from Isadora to the Lord, who was looking a touch irritated.

“Not in attendance is the Sister of Torches, the Shepherd, the Knights of the Basement, the Eye of the Storm, and the Queen’s Man,” Conquest said.

As I looked, I could see the other spots around the perimeter of this space that others might have found ‘seats’.  Stumps and bits of rock that might serve as chairs in a pinch.  Better than sitting on the ground, in any event.  It seemed this place was more like the government, where attendance wasn’t mandatory, and only certain seats were filled at certain times.

Between Conquest and the sphinx, I had the general feeling that I was well out of my depth.

“I’m hoping I don’t violate any protocol,” I said.  “I don’t know the particulars of this sort of meeting.  But I was told to bring a gift, and I would like to present this to you, Lord of Toronto.”

I held out the rolled up piece of art.

The nameless practitioner stepped forward from behind me, snatching the image from my hand.  He carried it to Conquest, handing it over.

Very strange, to see an otherworldly being like Conquest Given Form rolling the elastic down the length of the rolled up paper.  He unfurled it.

The image in the center was a man in a long coat, sketched out and filled in with watercolor and ink, the painting done in high detail.  The edges of the coat, and the edges of his indistinct weapon, which could have been a sword or a gun, were explosions of paint, spattering outward.

“What did this cost you, to bring to me?”

Somehow, saying ‘Five hundred bucks’ sounded inadequate.  “More money than I should have spent.”

“You should know, Lord,” the nameless practitioner said, “he artificially inflated the value, paying two and a half times what was asked.”

Fuck you, Mr. No-name.

“I would ask that you not take that to mean it’s inherently low in value,” I said.  “Art and artists are fickle creatures, and it’s the nature of an artist to undervalue what they create.  Once I saw it, I knew I was right.  Had I been able, I would have paid more.”

“Explain to me why I should value this art as a gift.”

Enough with looking gift horses in mouths.  How the fuck was I supposed to answer that question?  Art was art.

“Art is culture,” I said, speaking very slowly while thinking very fast.  “Taking a piece of culture for yourself seems very fitting for you, given what I know of you.”

“There are two kinds of taking,” Conquest said.  “When one gives love, love is not subtracted from a total.  Love can be taken a thousand or a million times over from the same individual, and that individual will not be bereft of love, if that love is genuine.  I am a taker of the other sort.  The sort to leave things bereft.  I ask you a second time, why should I value this as a gift?

Balls and fuck.  I hadn’t expected to be grilled.  I’d been told that it was a token gift.

“If a man hoards all of the art from a particular era, from a place or person, the world is bereft,” I said.  “That art is gone from the world, given over only to the man.”

“Then the gift becomes an obligation.  If I am to keep to my nature, I must aspire to collect all of this artist’s work.  If I own one piece, then I must own all to take from society and the world.  For the sake of expedience, I should kill the artist, so they can create no more art.”

I was so shocked I laughed a little.  “No.  No, not at all.”

“Then tell me, and I ask you a third time, a final time, why should I value this gift?”

I stood there, a number of eyes fixed on me, thinking.

Dangerous seconds passed, my mind ticking over everything I could think of.  The money, the deal, the friendship… I was reaching for one connection, one seed of an idea I could use to start making my argument.

I thought of Tiffany.  The strange looking girl who apparently had a girl-boner for me.  A damaged person, like me.  Like Alexis.

“Because the artist will mourn the loss of the piece, even as she takes away a profit from the transaction.  She will want to reference it in the future, to inform her future works or to chronicle her past, and this will forever be a missing link in her history.”

“If she didn’t take a photo or scan it,” the nameless practitioner said.

Fuck you, I thought again, more intensely than before.  I vividly imagined killing him, as he was very nearly setting me up to get killed.

Conquest looked at me, raising his eyebrows a fraction, inviting a response or counterargument.

“Nothing will hold up to the original.  She came from a place of pain and struggle, as many artists do, and that pain and struggle informed the work.  She put… something of herself into it.  You don’t do work that good and not miss it when the piece is gone.  In the future, if or when she finds her way to happiness, she’ll view that painting and the sale as a step on the journey to the happiness, and she’ll feel a pang.  There’s an energy in that, I’m sure.  I’ll feel a pang, because I’ll miss the money I could have spent elsewhere.  For the artist and for me, the loss will shape our futures.  She’ll do work without this piece to reference, and our destinies change.”

“Assuming she values the work,” the nameless practitioner said.  “And that it isn’t something she did on the spur of the moment.”

“I am assuming,” I said.  I managed to keep my tone civil.  “I’m awakened, I speak truth, I saw a variety of pieces, I’ve seen a lot of art in my life, and I can make that assumption with confidence.”

“It is best to be safe,” Conquest said.  “Isadora?  You’ve interacted with the art students at your University.”

The nameless practitioner took the image and held it open, facing Isadora.

She nodded once.  “It’s good work.”

“Jeremy.”

The nameless practitioner held it open for the drunk.

He nodded, but said nothing.

“Diana?”

Diana tilted her head one way, then the other.  “I can’t give you a verdict, I don’t know art.  But it looks nice.”

“Then I am satisfied,” the Lord of Toronto told me.  “The gift is received, and I’ll accept your presence in my domain until you give me reason to do otherwise.”

“I’m glad.  I appreciate the consideration, Lord of Toronto,” I said.  I didn’t want to thank him, so I chose my words carefully.

“I open the floor,” Conquest said.

“Abstaining,” the drunk said.

“For once,” Diana said.

“Ha ha,” he said, with zero humor.  “That hasn’t gotten old in the past twenty years.”

“We need to get it out of the way, whenever somebody new arrives,” Diana said.  “Are you new, Blake?”

“I only started a little while ago.”

“You brought a weapon,” Conquest said.  “You’ve Worked it?”

He made it sound like ‘worked’ had a capital to it.  An emphasis.

“If I may do so without offending anyone or inviting harm, I can show you,” I said.

He nodded.

Slowly, with two fingers, as if I had a cop looming over me, I drew the hatchet from my side.

Isadora smiled.  “Novices are so darling.  It’s a mass-manufactured tool, but you put so much effort into the binding.”

“Not me.  A… short lived mentor figure,” I said.

“Nonetheless,” she said.

“I would see the weapon,” the Lord of Toronto said.  “Will you give it over to me?”

I opened my mouth to agree, then stopped myself.

“With all due respect, Lord of Toronto, I’ll lend it to you,” I said.  “But this is, in many respects, like the painting.  An early achievement for me in what I hope will be a long and uneventful career as a practitioner.”

Even if all signs point to the opposite.

“I rescind the request,” he said.

“Sharp for a newbie,” Diana said.

“Once bitten, twice shy,” I said.

“Ahh,” she said, smiling.  “Poor you.  You came out of it okay?”

“I’m here,” I said.  “Not too badly bitten, metaphorically speaking, but shy.”

Her smile widened a bit.  “Shy is good.  A new driver needs to crash to learn a healthy respect for the road.  The same is true for one who practices.”

Oh, hey, practitioners who didn’t want to kill me.  I was getting a sense of how someone could get into this life and lifestyle and not be abjectly miserable.  Cool scenery, neat monsters, a thrill of danger…

“Who bit you?”

The question came from the drunk.

“Nobody local,” I said.

“What non-local bit you, then?” he asked.

“A circle and a coven,” I said.  “Who were looking to establish and secure their territory.”

“Oh,” Isadora said.  “Now you’ve got me curious-”

Damn.  Curiosity was bad.

“-and I’m thinking about all the places where there might be a circle and coven in the same place, ill-disposed to a new practitioner.”

Could I turn that around?

“Then, if it pleases you,” I said, “I won’t say, so you can enjoy the riddle.”

“That’s-” the drunk started.

“What?” I asked.

“A very foolish thing, to make statements like that.  A promise, an oath.”

“Oh,” I said.  “I’m new.”

“Clearly so,” he said.  “I had hoped, for the sake of my interests and yours, to hear your answer.”

In my interests?

“In my… good interests?” I asked.

He smiled, but he didn’t answer.

“I dare say, Jeremy” Diana said, “That you’re more lively in this meeting than I’ve seen you in over a year.  I mean, you showing up is a rare treat, but you participating?”

“A degree of attraction, perhaps.” Isadora suggested.

“I would like him to attend one of my parties,” Jeremy said, allowing himself the smallest smile.  His eyes, though, remained fixed on me.

If I’d allowed myself to relax a fraction, that comment and smile ripped it from me.  It wasn’t the gay or bisexual thing.  It was the vibe of it, the vague hostility I sensed from him, contrasted by the attraction, the fact that he was clearly sixty and that I could smell the booze and pot on him from where I stood, twenty feet away…

Bad memories boiled to the surface, unbidden.  I clenched my hands, and dimly realized I still held the hatchet.  I distracted myself by sheathing it.  Which meant jamming the handle into the side of my pants, so it sat against my leg.

Conquest seemed content to preside over this in silence, while the other three engaged in banter, putting the new guy on the spot.

“What’s your sign, Blake?” Diana asked.

“Can I tell that to an astrologer without putting myself at risk?” I asked.

“You can,” she said.

“Okay,” I said, “Let me rephrase.  Will I open myself up to any risk by sharing it?”

“I promise you no harm from me and mine, along this vector,” she said.  “I’m curious about your compatibility, nothing more.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’d need that sort of promise from everyone present, and I don’t want to offend the Lord of Toronto.”

“We only want to get to know you better, but we can ask more innocuous questions.” Isadora said.  “Answer me this, who are you?”

Who was I?

I thought for a few seconds, trying to sum up an inoffensive answer, one that wouldn’t out me as a Thorburn, something that would put me in a good light, while remaining honest.

“I-” I started.

I stopped as I noticed the silence.

They were all very still, watching me.

Had they figured me out, somehow?

No.  It wasn’t hostility.  Not from anyone except the drunk.

I looked at the sphinx, and I saw how she was more still than any of them.  A friendly smile on her face.  But her body…

Rabbits went still when they sensed danger.  Predators, too, went still, when they were on the prowl, preparing to pounce.

What was going on?

A question?

No.

I had to remember what I was dealing with.

A sphinx and… a riddle.

Did that even count as a riddle?

I seemed to recall that the Greek or Roman myth of the Sphinx involved the murder of those who gave the wrong answer.

Who was I?

How close had I come to giving a simple, casual answer?  Had they collectively maneuvered me into this, or was it Isadora doing what her kind naturally did, timing the question so I might slip up and give the wrong answer?

As for answers, I deliberated for a moment.

“I’m the Fool card, drawn with the right hand, the High Priestess drawn with the left,” I said.

Just like that, the tension was gone.  I could see the others, Conquest excepted, shifting position.  The drunk took a swig from his bottle, looking somehow disgruntled, the astrologer changed position, so she sat with her bare legs dangling over the edge of the large stone block that served as her chair.

And Isadora changed the way her forepaws were folded in front of her, so the paw that had been beneath was now on top.

“Someone told you,” she said.

“I honestly figured it out myself,” I said.

“And you chose the answer that served to sum up who you were, while not giving any points that could be argued.”

“Honestly,” I said, “I chose the most bullshit answer that sprung to mind, because even if I was wrong, I thought it would buy me time to think or to argue the point.”

She broke into laughter.  Loud, and eerily human.  I could see Diana smiling, too.

But the Lord was grim and ‘painted’ as ever, and the drunk didn’t seem any less creepy.

“Most people simply don’t answer when she asks any question,” Diana said.

“Don’t tell him,” Isadora said.  Her paws uncrossed, and one hit the ground with a surprising amount of force as she shifted position to look at Diana, stirring clouds of dry powder.  “I was going to throw some more questions at him, see how easily that bullshit flows.”

“I appreciate the tip, Diana,” I said.

“You owe me one,” she said.

“A little one, maybe?” I suggested.  “I would have figured out that was allowed, sooner or later.”

“Whatever you wish,” Diana said, with a shrug.

“What other answers were you going to give?” Isadora asked.

I opened my mouth, then shut it.

Isadora pouted visibly, “No fun.  Okay, then I’ll rephrase.  I would like to know what other answers crossed your mind.”

I glanced at Diana, who gave me a dismissive wave.

“You’re safe, like that,” she said.

“I was going to tell you an abridged version of who I was and where I came from,” I told the sphinx.

“Ah, but that doesn’t answer the question, does it?” the astrologer asked.

“No,” I said.  “I guess not.”

“Nobody truly understands themselves, and figuring out who we are is an ever-transforming journey,” Isadora said.  “A riddle is merely a question that demands a thoughtful or clever answer.  Do you understand?”

I smiled a bit.

“No fun at all,” she pouted, again.

“Sphinxes are creations and natural Others with a heavy tie to the karmic balance,” Diana said.  “They’re often used as divine guardians for temples or sites of power.  Different sphinxes follow different rules, gaining certain rights and powers from karma and destiny, provided the other party deviates from a code, offers a mistruth, breaks from tradition, or something in that vein.”

“Ah, that makes sense,” I said.  So even here, in Conquests domain, she might have the ability to murder me with impunity?  Or she would gain another kind of power?  One tied to destiny, fating me to die at her hands and paws if I ever gave the wrong answer?

“You seem quick enough,” Isadora said.  “Tell me your other thoughts.  I would like to know how your mind operates.”

I glanced at Diana, who nodded.  Safe?

“The other answer I was going to give,” I said, “Would have been ‘a man’.  But I figured bullshit was better than being a smartass.”

“Yes,” Isadora said, and I could hear something dangerous in her tone, growing in strength as she continued speaking.  “When dealing with creatures such as I, virtually anything is better than being a smartass.”

Somewhere along the way, as she’d said that, her claws had emerged from their sheaths.  Her wings were spread, now, and I hadn’t even noticed, as I focused on her face and her words.

Wait, what?  I’d upset her?

My confusion must have registered on my face, because Diana felt compelled to give me an answer.  “Her mother was Phix, the original Greek sphinx.  ‘Man’ wasn’t the real answer, but it does serve as a reminder that the myth traditionally ends with Phix dying.”

Ah, balls.

“If I hadn’t asked for your thoughts, I would have torn you apart, hearing that come out of your mouth,” she said.  “I remain tempted.”

Double balls.

“I’m genuinely sorry,” I said, as soon as I thought I could talk without interrupting her.  “No offense or disrespect was intended.  Considering that you just tried to manipulate me into a situation where you could kill me, I think you’re pretty damn cool, as Others go.”

I watched her expression, watched the tension in her lower body, the individual claws on her paws flexing, as if her body was telling the story of how much she wanted to tear me apart.

“Flattery is cheap, morsel,” she said.

“But it’s affected you nonetheless?” Diana asked, sounding entirely too cavalier, given the situation.

Slowly, with a note of deliberateness and attention to drama, Isadora folded her wings and sheathed her claws.  I saw her tap one paw against the snow, as if thinking.  “Yes, I suppose it has.  I like him, this Blake.  Sharp enough to be interesting.  Reckless enough to be potential food.  I would not object to having him around.”

“I wouldn’t either,” Diana said.

Conquest glanced at Jeremy, the drunk.

“I abstained,” he said.

“An informal response, then,” Diana said.

“I abstained for a reason,” he said.

“What reason?” Isadora asked.

I saw him roll his eyes.

“Why should your fat fuck of a god care?” she asked.

God?

I care, as a matter of fact,” Jeremy said.  “This Blake hasn’t given us any straight answers.  He’s clever, but we don’t know where he got his power, do we?  He’s the lowest value power and the highest, in Dexter’s hemisphere.  You don’t find that curious?”

“Tarot was never my thing,” Diana said.

“I think our boy here has a story, and I think madam professor isn’t paying it any mind because she likes his mind.  And you, astrologer, are into him because you’re a cougar and you like his body.”

“Cougars are generally older women,” Diana said.

“Your point being?” Jeremy asked.  Two of his attendants giggled at the jab.

“Can we return to the days when you ignored us and we could ignore you?” Diana asked.

“Soon enough.  But I’d like to have some answers, first.  I have reason to suspect he is not what he appears to be.”

Conquest shifted in his seat, leaning forward.  His slaves, chained up at his feet, looked up at me with eyes that were just as painted.  An extension of him.

“He has wounds on his hands,” Conquest said.  “As a man, he is diminished, hollow.  A woman stands behind the throne, in his architecture of the self.”

“Duality,” Isadora said.

Okay, now I was in the middle of very unfriendly territory with two, maybe three powers I really didn’t want to be on the wrong side of.

“Yes, I am inclined to agree with you, Dionysian,” the Lord of Toronto said.

Dionysian?  Dionysus… right.  God.  Greek or Roman, I was horrible at telling the difference between the two, and I was a little too freaked out to take the time to figure it out.

“We could interrogate him,” Jeremy said.  “Or, if you wanted to be especially pointed about it, we could have Isadora interrogate him.”

I watched Isadora’s claws come out.  “I do not exist at your bidding, drunkard, and I do not, especially, exist to be the pawn in your god’s schemes.”

“But,” the Lord of Toronto said, “If I requested it, you would be the pawn in mine.”

I saw Isadora smile, but it was a very dangerous sort of smile.  The sort of smile that would be on a person’s face while they pulled a man’s guts out from a hole in his stomach, if they were the type of person who really enjoyed pulling guts out of stomachs.  “We were getting along so well these past few years, my Lord.  It would be a shame to spoil that.”

Okay, fuck.  Now I was in the middle of something.

Could I use that?

Probably.

My instinct was to set them against one another, as I’d tried to do in Jacob’s Bell.  But, thinking two or three steps ahead, I couldn’t envision many situations where that worked out to my benefit.  Looking one step ahead, I could envision a few scenarios where it didn’t work out at all.

So, the question in the end was whether I should use that.

No, probably not.

But what were my other options?

“Let’s not fight,” I said.  “I’ve already come to like a couple of you, and I respect… I suppose I respect all of you.”

Their eyes fell on me.

I swallowed.  Have to keep control of the situation, because chaos and infighting is not to my advantage when so many of the combatants are this powerful.

“I’ll try to answer your questions,” I said.  “Can’t promise I’ll give an answer to all of them, but you can try to figure me out before you come to blows.”

“The newest member of the family is upset because mommy and daddy are fighting,” Diana said.  “It’s darling.”

“We have little spats all the time,” Isadora said.  “But most of us on this hilltop predate the invention of paper.  We’re not about to jeopardize that, much less over you, no offense.”

I was a little offended, but okay.  I looked at Conquest, but he was stone still.  Unreadable.

“Okay,” I said.

“Now, earlier, you posed a riddle for me.  A place with circles and covens, where could you possibly be from, hm?”

I would have answered, to distract and divert, but she’d phrased it as a question.

“Jacob’s Bell,” the sphinx said.

“I see a connection,” Diana said, sing-song.  In a more normal voice, she said, “Hidden by glamour, even.  I do think you’re right.”

“Which opens the way for another riddle,” the sphinx said.  “Where did you pick up the practice?  A place like that, the circles hold tight to their power.  Are you a refugee from the goblin’s festival of blood?  Easy to imagine a practitioner who wandered that way might have lost their belongings.”

“No connections,” Diana observed.

I looked over the group.  Saw the drunk leaning back, murmuring something to one of his attractive companions.  When he looked at me, he looked just a little bit pleased.

This shit was all intentional.  He knew who I was, or he had some idea.  He was throwing me to the wolves without getting directly involved.

And these bastards were big wolves.

“Something else,” the sphinx said.  “Too refined to be self taught.  Crone Mara wouldn’t teach him, as amusing as he is…”

“Thorburn,” Conquest said.  “It would have to be Thorburn.  She was getting on in years.  It’s due time.”

“Connection,” Diana said, her voice barely above a whisper, carrying across the clearing.

“Female heirs only,” Isadora said.

“A thief?  A very good disguise?” Diana said.

“Ah,” the sphinx said.  “And I actually liked you, morsel.  What a pity.”

“Wait a second,” I said.  I tried to look each of them in the eye, but I couldn’t do it without looking frantic.  I appealed to the Lord, even as he seemed the least inclined to back me up.  “I haven’t made any…”

I stopped myself.  I couldn’t actually say that I hadn’t dealt with demons in good conscience.  If the lawyers were representatives of the demons and devils and darker things, then I had.  I’d agreed to read the fucking book.  I’d… fuck.

“I’m doing my damndest to avoid going down that road,” I said.  “The universe is conspiring to push me that way, because I inherited bad karma and it’s probably the easiest route to fuck me over wholesale, but… I don’t want to, I’m fighting it, and I’ll gladly take any help that makes the fight easier…”

I saw the sphinx’s claws come out.

“…provided that help doesn’t involve killing or maiming me on any level.”

Conquest rose from his seat.  Which made for one hell of an understatement.

The landscape changed, as if conquest were attached to each and every thing by drawstrings.  The sun descended, in one smooth motion, as he rose, burning hotter, whiter, as it drew down, while the crimson bled out into the sky around it.  The walls around the hill washed away, like waves that had crashed against a cliffside and were now returning to the sea below.

His flesh pulled back, straining into something macabre as he swelled in size, as if simply standing involved an exaggerated change in size.  The sun, burning white now against a blood red sky, seemed more an extension of him, an accessory.

“If,” he said, and there was a tremor to his voice that resonated through all of the metaphysical strings that tied him to this world, “you would gladly take any help that will keep you from that road, you will have to unhappily take a push down that road.  The beings that diabolists traffic with bring defeat and pain wherever they tread.”

Each other attendee of the meeting was tense.  Even Jeremy, who had set this in motion.

“I could do with a calculated measure of defeat and pain,” the Lord of Toronto told me.  “You can stay here, safe from your enemies, and I will use your knowledge.  I can conquer you, subjugate you, own you, and you will find a peace in surrender.  All do, given time.”

I felt a kind of despair, and I knew he could tell.

I’d walked right into a trap.  Fuck no.

“I don’t know much at all,” I said, “I barely touched the books.  I’m… I’m not a female heir.  I didn’t inherit the respect or the power over Others that comes with the family name.  I can’t get to the books.”

“Then look at me, practitioner, meet my eyes and swear you do not know one dark power’s name.  That you do not know a single one you could summon.

Had the lawyers set this up?

Had this been a factor, ever since Ms. Lewis told me how to summon Ornias?

I looked down at the ground.

“Then we will start with that one.  Then we will find a way to access the rest of your family’s knowledge.”

“Lord,” the sphinx said, “You must realize this puts us at odds with you and your new pet.”

“I act in accordance with my nature,” Conquest said.  “And I realize it makes you a very small problem, compared to how much I stand to gain.”

I saw the sphinx scowl.  “We’ll oppose you.”

“No,” Jeremy said.  “You’ll oppose him.  Lord, promise me you won’t touch the city, me, mine, or the Duchamps of Jacob’s Bell, and I’ll sit on the sidelines for this one.”

“Grant me one token favor,” Conquest said.  “To aid me along the way.”

“Granted,” Jeremy said.

“Traitor,” Diana muttered.

“We’ll be taking our leave,” Isadora said.

I watched her take flight.  Diana held up her spindle, and light from the sky swept over her.  She was gone a moment later.

“I’d like to take my leave,” I added, my voice sounding small, even as I tried to sound courageous.

“You stay,” Conquest said.  He reached, and I saw him touch connections with his broad fingers and hands.  “You-”

He pulled.

“And yours.”

Rose was hauled into plain view by the tug on the connection.

She dangled for a second from Conquest’s grasp.  He dropped her into the powder beside me.

“Let us begin,” Conquest said.

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278 thoughts on “Collateral 4.2

    1. “I would offer you a seat,” he said, “But the only seat available only the ground, and I have no reason to make you debase yourself. You may continue to stand.”

      And I believe there’s an instance in which the sphinx is referred to as “Nomia”.

        1. “what a hitman or an ex-veteran might wear”

          You can’t be an ex-veteran, veteran already denotes having been a soldier.

    2. Conquests’s
      Conquest’s, unless it uses the royal we.

      hitman
      more commonly hit man

      stairs,I
      stairs, I

      There were humps in the earth, that…
      The pause indicated by the comma there doesn’t feel natural to me.
      The whole sentence seems a little long. Punctuation elsewhere perhaps? Split the sentence?

      But the only seat available only the ground
      Missing word? Duplicate ‘only’? Perhaps “But the only seat available is the ground…”

      He carried to to Conquest, handing it over.
      Extra ‘to’.

      I used my sight as I opened the door
      Uncapitalized ‘Sight’.

      ‘Nomia’ is used once, with no clear referent.

    3. One more:

      The other local was a woman sat on a fallen chunk of masonry, her legs folded beside her.
      Verb tense. … woman sitting…

    4. “The landscape changed, as if conquest were attached to each and every thing by drawstrings.”

      Conquest

      1. Also, “one of her feline front paws were folded over the other” should be “was folded over the other.”

    5. “There are two kinds of taking,” Conquest said. “When one gives love, love is not subtracted from a total. Love can be taken a thousand or a million times over from the same individual, and that individual will not be bereft of love, if that love is genuine. I am a taker of the other sort. The sort to leave things bereft. I ask you a second time, why should I value this as a gift?
      –missing a quottation mark

    6. Not exactly a typo, but isn’t “That hasn’t gotten old in the past twenty years.” just the kind of sarcasm (lie) that got Blake in trouble a while ago? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing an experienced practitioner would say.

      1. It hasn’t gotten old to anyone else. My name is a homonym for ‘here’ in my new country, and the joke has never gotten old for anyone…

    7. In the second sentence below, “it” doesn’t have a proper antecedent.
      “My foot nearly slid on the stairs as I ascended. I paused, picking it up, and I saw finger bones and shell casings.”

    8. Not sure if intentional:
      A part of me was a little surprised that he’d jumped so quickly to calling it a ‘her’, but I supposed that was a part of living in this world.

      while two paragraphs higher:
      “I promised the spirit I would keep her close and keep her warm. […]”

    9. Typos:
      – “Both stood, and they had a vague military bearing, with their clothes not really being a uniform” -> ‘being uniforms
      – “view. There” -> There’s only one space, rather the two you usually use.
      – “It did, however manage” -> ‘It did, however, manage’

    10. “I dare say, Jeremy” Diana said, “That you’re more lively in this meeting than I’ve seen you in over a year.
      “…Jeremy,”

    11. “Not in attendance is the Sister of Torches, the Shepherd, the Knights of the Basement, the Eye of the Storm, and the Queen’s Man,” Conquest said.
      Not in attendance are

  1. So currently in the ‘room’ is Conquest, Blake, Rose, Jeremy Meath (and his four servant-people), and the nameless practitioner. I wonder if Rose has actually been pulled here, given flesh? I feel like any straight-out battle right now would end really, really badly for Blake/Rose, so I’m guessing the next chapter is going to be about fleeing or talking Conquest out of it. Somehow.

    Maybe this is when Blake needs to call in that favor from the lawyers and go be their intern.

    1. It would make sense of nearly future-knowing entities how like to… plan. Setting this all up as one big magnificient trap, and the REAL trap has not even sprung yet.

      All in all, this chapter is… without words. Wildbow, you a magnificient bastard.

        1. sorry, I am not a native english speaker. But, given that I speak and write english most of the time at work, I consider myself better in english than I am in my mother tongue. Yes, i suck at spelling correctly in both languages.

  2. Haha wow. I think Blake might be screwed here.I mean, he was sorta asking for it by assuming that the big players in the city would be nicer than the bit players in the small town. Now he has to figure out not only how to get out of Conquests paws, but also how to avoid Granny Rose’s knowledge being used by the crazy motherfucker. Good luck with that!

    So who else thinks Conquest is going to use Blake to go after Jacob’s Bell with the Thorburn’s demons and Blake will end up having to ally with Laird and co to avoid a complete bloodbath?

  3. Shiiiiiiiiiit

    Pros of the current situation:
    Rose seems to have a body.

    Cons of the current situation:
    Hes totally, utterly, completely screwed.

  4. “I’m doing my damndest to avoid going down that road,” I said. “The universe is conspiring to push me that way, because I inherited bad karma and it’s probably the easiest route to fuck me over wholesale, but… I don’t want to, I’m fighting it, and I’ll gladly take any help that makes the fight easier…”

    I saw the sphinx’s claws come out.

    “…provided that help doesn’t involve killing or maiming me on any level.”

    I think there’s a lot of room there for weaseling out and not saying anything or accepting conquest’s “help”.

    Also: Once again a perfect example: Panic and you’re fucked. When he stayed silent or thought about what he was about to say, he deflected the attentions of the sphinx and conquest successfully, but as soon as he felt rushed, felt as if had to say something IMMEDIATELY, he got fucked. He’d have been better saying nothing. It’s not like he’d be actually able to speed past the conclusion everyone was about to make.

    1. Conwuering isn’t offering any help. Blake is fighting to not go down the diabolist path, so Conquest is going to conquer him by forcing Blake to do so.

  5. And this is why the lawyers could tell in advance what favor he would need, so they could set the price in advance. Put a diabolist in front of Conquest and the end result is predictable, as long as someone is intent on outing him as a diabolist. Unless Blake can somehow beat Conquest without the lawyer’s help. Let’s just say that seems quite unlikely to me.

    And now Rose is out of the mirror world. That is bound to lead to interesting consequences. For one, she has to get back in to keep up on reading. Not that they are worried about that given that they are currently facing an incarnation of Conquest trying to conquer them.

    1. It’s possible Conquest’s realm is a meta-verse such that rose isn’t actually free from the mirror universe, just able to visit conquest’s realm as well.

    2. Well, I’m fairly certain that this is for all intents and purposes Conquest’s demesne, which means it isn’t the “real world” per se. Which I have to admit casts absolutely no light on whether this is Rose’s egress into the “real world,” or whether she gets stashed back in the mirrors after this.

      1. How would she get stashed back into a mirror anyway? I’ve been thinking and she’s have to be smashed back in wouldn’t she?

      2. 3.01:

        “We’re going to find a way to get you out of that mirror world.”

        Nothing is actually said about getting her into the real world. That’s…a pretty narrow silver lining to an overwhelming storm cloud, but hey, oath accomplished!

          1. Assuming that the others are not correct and Rose is not held there as collateral, then it’s possible that now that she’s out, she’s out. Or Conquest crafted her a body, which she can now manifest whenever she needs, which would be a much larger silver lining. Or perhaps she can reach into the mirrors like Padraic did.

            But really, I was just thinking of the (relatively microscopic) good karma gains from making such an oath and then following it through, especially since it seems like it may be possible to cash that in early to get some good luck when you really need it.

            Like, say, when Conquest is coming to conquer you.

        1. That’s the kind of thing that would let you out of your oath but earn you a good tanker’s worth of bad karma in the doing.

          1. I’m not sure what you mean, or how you came to these conclusions.

            Do you mean if he stops working on it now that it has been achieved? I got the impression that the oath would essentially evaporate now that it’s been fulfilled, meaning nothing that he does after this would have an effect on it.

            Though it could be interesting if he swears it again, with stricter wording this time. I could see that coming with a load of bonus karma. The system seems confusing enough, however, that I’m not really sure on that…

  6. I like that Sphinx. She reminds me of the Sphinx in Subnormality (although that one canonically ate Œdipus, because the answer was “a woman” :p).
    Acually, I like the astronomer as well. And even if I’m not cheering for Jerry right now he is quite funny.

    But yeah, as usual, Blake is fucked. I mean, it’s not liked we could reasonably have expected anything else. At least he’s got two of the local power who are kinda on his side, so things could be worse?

      1. Well, if the universe wasn’t out to kill Blake I’m sure he could make a decent pink-haired girl. His artist friends (and Blake in the first chapter) certainly have the right type of personality.
        Although pink-haired girl would probably not call someone a disgusting, evil, rancid cunt (with all due respect).

    1. Yeah, the Sphinx from Subnormality is more or less exactly who I pictured in this interplay, too. XD Likeable, in that “Never forget she isn’t human and will fucking eat you.” way.

      1. Although re-reading the description Isadora apparently has black fur and wings (not brown fur and white wings like the Subnormality sphinx), and more importantly has human arms as well as feline front paws. So she’s more like a centaur-sphinx. I don’t think i’ve ever seen another depiction of a sphinx with 8 limbs (the wings should count too).

        1. Yeah Sphinxes are usually depicted as only having the head of a woman not the entire torso. I don’t know if the centaur-sphinx is an original wildbow idea, but if it is it’s a nice touch. :).

          1. It was mentioned that Isadora is the daughter of Phix, the original Sphinx. Furthermore, the gods and monsters of Greek mythology seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time either fighting or fucking. Isadora’s father might have been a human, or sufficiently humanoid for her to end up as an eight-limbed Sphinx-hybrid.

            Alternatively, she might have gotten sick and tired after a couple thousand years of having to interact with the human world without the benefit of opposable thumbs, and magicked up a pair of arms. It must suck pretty hard, trying to comb your chest-length hair or operate a simple door handle with only a set of lion paws to work with.

            Of course, if she’d been an American Sphinx, she might have decided to follow up on her constitutional right to bear arms, and turned herself into a half-grizzly. 😉

            1. No, no it’s the right to BARE arms. The founding fathers really wanted to show off their guns. Ben Franklin had a pair of twenty six inch pythons you know.

  7. I’m… a little awe stricken at the moment…
    I see death being pulled from the beyond at the behest of sheer will.
    You played conquest nicely. I wasn’t fond of the set up, but I like the characterization of him.

  8. From 4.1:
    “It is an idea given life. You support it and feed it through certain ideas, and you defeat it by taking the strength from that idea. Most often, you accommodate them.”

    Is there any way that Blake and/or Rose can take the strength from the idea? The only trick I can think of is to use Rose’s fragility. She is probably the true heir to Thorburn power, but any attempt to conquer her is likely to kill her (vestiges are fragile), which would most likely break Blake’s hold on the Thorburn succession, which would negate Conquest’s plans. So Conquest may not be able to conquer her without himself losing. Does paradox have some power over him? So, oddly, she can beat him by tricking him into attacking her… at a ridiculously high cost.

    The other routes I can think of are:
    2) Blake has heard Conquest give a promise to Jeremy. Can Blake trick Conquest into breaking it? That would likely only weaken the incarnation, not destroy it.
    2a) If Conquest could be tricked into attacking Jeremy, would Jeremy’s god, or, more immediately to hand, the bacchae, attack Conquest?
    3) The f***ing lawyers, who probably knew this was coming.
    4) “Sure, Conquest, we can go get the books.” And let him go first into the time slowing field.

    Note that I don’t believe for a picosecond that any route but #3 will work.

    1. 5) Conquest forces Blake to say the name Ornias before Blake is actually conquered. And the connection is still strong enough that one repetition is enough. Then Blake has a demon that Conquest cannot actually control. Want to bet who gets the upper hand in a demon-to-Incarnation showdown? Hint: this isn’t Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series.

      1. I’m fairly certain if I’m remember this correctly, Blake said that the connection was still there in one of the previous chapters. Not strong enough to call him if he said it one more time, but not weak enough that he would have to start from the beginning to call Ornias.

  9. And, in the glorious tradition started by Pencil Monkey…

    I continued forward, leaving ruined walls behind me as the hallway continued, unsupported by anything beneath. A bridge of broken stone and tile, slow going when I had to pick my way around skeletal remains.

    “Hello, little morsel,” a voice murmured, just to my right. I very nearly jumped out of my skin.

    She was big. Maybe, if she’d been human-proportioned, she would have been two or three times my height, going by the size of her head and upper body. But her body from the waist down was that of a great cat, the rise and fall of the muscles beneath the short fur very distinct. Great feathered wings were folded against her body, the snow piling on them.

    “Hello,” I said, my attention now caught by this new figure. She might well have been the biggest living thing I’d seen in person.

    “Stop. Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see. What… is your name?”

    “Can I tell that to a sphinx without putting myself at risk?” I asked.

    “You can,” she said.

    “Okay,” I said, “Let me rephrase. Will I open myself up to any risk by sharing it?”

    “We only want to get to know you better, but we can ask more innocuous questions.” Isadora said. “Answer me this, who are you?”

    What was going on?

    A question?

    No.

    I had to remember what I was dealing with.

    A sphinx and… a riddle.

    Did that even count as a riddle?

    I seemed to recall that the Greek or Roman myth of the Sphinx involved the murder of those who gave the wrong answer.

    Who was I?

    How close had I come to giving a simple, casual answer? Had they collectively maneuvered me into this, or was it Isadora doing what her kind naturally did, timing the question so I might slip up and give the wrong answer?

    As for answers, I deliberated for a moment.

    “I’m the Fool card, drawn with the right hand, the High Priestess drawn with the left,” I said.

    “What… is your quest?”

    “To seek redemption from my bad karma.”

    “What… is the lower intestinal capacity of a goblin on an empty stomach?”

    “What do you mean, and African or an European goblin?”

    “I don’t know that.” The sphinx was thrown over in the abyss.

    “How did Maggie even know so much about goblins?” asked Rose. “I don’t supposed she’s had the occasion to travel overseas since awakening.”

    “Well, you have to know these things when you’re a goblin queen, you know”.

    1. “Conquest’s Demesne!” Blake said, surreptitiously admiring the movie poster with Jenna Jameson, hanging on a wall.

      “Conquest’s Demesne!” Rose said, peering excitedly out from the bike mirror around Blake’s neck.

      “It’s only a model,” groused No-Name. The other two gave him odd looks.

      “I mean, a house. He just lives here, you know?” he said. Blake leaned in very close, the tip of his nose almost touching No-Name’s ditto.

      “Noooobody likes youuuu!” he hissed.

  10. First off: I don’t see this ending well for Conquest. “I’ll just add some conquest brought by demons directly into myself. G’yup. Its not like this could possibly end poorly for me. G’yup.”

    Second: The lawyers are fucking brilliant. “Oh here have this piece of free super-demon power!” Then Conquest wants it. And Blake goes further down the road. Oh and more importantly Conquest gets roped straight in to demonology.

    Third: While Jeremy has agreed to not fight Conquest on THIS, he can still try for Lordship, AND he gave the Lord a bunch of enemies. If they win, he completes his promise and he removes the Lord. If the Lord wins two of the allies of said Lord get removed. Win-Win for him.

    Fourth: If you about to embark on something extremely tricky and dangerous you don’t trust an expert you are forcing to help you. This is how important details that you wouldn’t even think to consider get left out. “So this is the super cool Barber you’ve been talking about? How tough can he be when he can’t even look me in the- OH GOD HE’S CUTTING UP MY SOUL WHY, WHY!?!?!”

    1. Well, if I remember correctly, Rose senior had a sign language for dealing with the Barber. Maybe Conquest will actually end up telling the Barber about how his hovercraft is full of eels, and by the way wouldn’t you mind performing some delicate soul-removing surgery on Lardo?

    2. “Fourth: If you about to embark on something extremely tricky and dangerous you don’t trust an expert you are forcing to help you. This is how important details that you wouldn’t even think to consider get left out. “So this is the super cool Barber you’ve been talking about? How tough can he be when he can’t even look me in the- OH GOD HE’S CUTTING UP MY SOUL WHY, WHY!?!?!””

      It’s so creepy, the way that Barbie can (allegedly) leap into the reflections in a person’s eyes. 😦

      …Wait, what was that thing Conquest didn’t have? Oh, right:

      “His eyes didn’t look human. When I let my brain draw the connection, my first thought was ‘painting eyes’. They were the sort of eyes I might expect to see in a really well done painting… every detail in place, but lifeless and flat.”

      8)

    3. “First off: I don’t see this ending well for Conquest. “I’ll just add some conquest brought by demons directly into myself. G’yup. Its not like this could possibly end poorly for me. G’yup.””

      “Second: The lawyers are fucking brilliant. “Oh here have this piece of free super-demon power!” Then Conquest wants it. And Blake goes further down the road. Oh and more importantly Conquest gets roped straight in to demonology.”

      “W-wait!” Rose cried. “Before you force us into servitude and make us teach you all we know about diabolism, I… umm, I have a gift for you!”

      “Well, don’t just dilly-dally,” Conquest grumbled. “Fork it over. Don’t have all day, y’know. Places to conquer, people to… Well, you get the drift.”

      Rose fumbled in her pockets, eventually producing a small, crumpled pamphlet.

      “Tell me, Lord Conquest: Have you let Jesus into your heart?” she said, holding up the pamphlet. From where Blake was standing, he could barely make out the letters ‘ATCHTOWER’ on the front.

      Conquest narrowed his eyes. “Are you trying to pull a fast one, missy?”

      “N-no, not at all,” Rose said. She gulped nervously. “It’s just that, umm… According to the Bible, God and Jesus, and the Holy Ghost-”

      “Not you, Leonard,” Blake muttered, as he felt the bottle stir. Wait, how was that possible? He’d left the bottle in the apartment, hadn’t he?

      “-Well, they’re supposed to be stronger than Satan, aren’t they?” Rose said, unheeding of Blake’s quandary. “Much, much stronger, in fact. So, rather than trying to add diabolism to your portfolio, I think it would be much better to add some holy righteousness to your CV.” She stopped herself before she launched into her improvised spiel about the cost-benefit analysis involved in deciding whether or not Conquest should add Jehovah as a reference on his LinkedIn profile. Conquest’s face was screwed up in concentration, an even more vacant look in his eyes.

      “Damn straight!” he bellowed. “Fuck those demons! I’m gonna turn the other cheek – so I can head-butt people when their guard is down!

      His enormous slab of a hand reached out to Rose with the grace and poise of a Roman legion trampling Europe, palm held upwards in an imperious gesture.

      RENDER UNTO CONQUEST THAT WHICH IS CONQUEST’S,” he said. “THY PAMPHLET. RENDER IT, NOW.

      “Phew! I think I managed to get us out of it,” Rose whispered to Blake, while Conquest was trying to fish his reading glasses out of a bird bath full of congealed blood.

      Blake just continued screaming and writhing on the floor, suffering the nasty whammy of blundering into a continuity error.

  11. Did Conquest just do something really stupid? He promised not to harm the Duchamps (at least for a time), who are conspiring to set up a Lordship, which is evidently bad enough for Toronto that they want to keep it hidden.

      1. I mean, he supposedly didn’t even know about their plans, so it’s understandable. I just wonder if it’ll cause trouble for him down the road.

        1. Hmm, I guess “inconvenience” would be a better term. Also, the wording wasn’t that precise to begin with. Given how Laird easily squeezes out of any promises he makes, Conquest, if the need arises, will surely find a way easily while singing Limbo tunes.

    1. “Yesss,” Conquest hissed. “Strike me down and take my place. Give in to your conquestiness… Conquestination. Thing. Look, just give in to… whatever it is you’re about to give in to, a’ight? Ahem.

      The Duchamps enchantresses looked at him blankly, while their matriarch stamped her dainty Pucci-Grada shoe on the bone-strewn floor.

      “Never! We will never become like you,” she said. “Just look at yourself, all dishevelled and greasy. Completely undignified.”

      “Aww, please?” Conquest said. His lower lip pouted. “It’d be so great if you merged with me, and became a part of the Southern Ontarian avatar of Conquest.” Despite the dead, seemingly-painted look of the Lord’s eyes, they suddenly filled with a wistful look, a hint of longing. “I’ve… always wanted to have proper sweater melons.”

      The Duchamps all recoiled as one, revulsion as plain as the Elven mage-scara on their faces, as Lord Conquest stared down at his chest and started playing with his man-boobs.

      “Jiggle, jiggle,” he said. “Look, if I squeeze them like this, they kinda look like crushed enemies, driven before me, accompanied by the lamentation of their women, who’re totally jealous of my phat rack. Or maybe they look more like a pair of baby seals. What do you think?”

    2. It could be interpreted as not harming the Duchamps with all the demon summoning and subsequent conquering that’s going to be happening. That interpretation would be karma neutral at best and potentially very bad, but I don’t think it would be a violation of an oath.

    3. Either Conquest or Jeremy did something really stupid just then.

      “Lord, promise me you won’t touch the city, me, mine, or the Duchamps of Jacob’s Bell, and I’ll sit on the sidelines for this one.”

      This is just…so vague, considering how essential wording is to the process. Either it is far too restrictive (Conquest cannot do anything, at all, even so much as touch, any of the named, forever, which would also mean that he couldn’t step outside of his personal bubble or even move his space lest it touch upon the city) or not nearly restrictive enough (Conquest cannot touch them, but he can rain down demons and devils upon their heads from afar).

      I suppose it would work if you could trust both sides not to call you out on violating the restrictions, but that kind of trust seems to be rather lacking in this ‘verse, and for what appear to be excellent reasons. And I still don’t know how the universe decides when you’ve violated something like this, not if intent is meaningless next to wording.

  12. …oh hell. I really hope that he remembers that Rose needs to leave before or at the same time as him, or she may well count as something he’s left behind.

        1. It’s because they’re all spoiled brats. They happen to have enough power that most practitioners find it easier to just accept the tantrums than to, y’know, go “no, you see, I don’t like it when you murder people to use their entrails as party ribbons.”

  13. I think that I would rather kill myself than give Conquest the access to Barbie. Or bloody Ornias. Oh Blake, you’re just so lucky. If this keeps up you’ll end up triggering a local apocalypse.

    Seems that Maggie made a promise to the goblin queen? I’m probably off by this, but it seems the goblins are very hardcore.

    1. “Or bloody Ornias. Oh Blake, you’re just so lucky. If this keeps up you’ll end up triggering a local apocalypse.”
      Oh please. With Blake’s luck there is no way in hell it would only be a local apocalypse.

    2. Maggie became a practitioner through the power forged by her oath to the goblin leader that turned her into a beacon for “blood, darkness and fire”.

  14. First of all a big thanks to the donators for getting us this chapter early!

    Next I have questions about 2 parts:

    1)

    “A colonial-era sword had bit so deep into the stone railing that it had stuck.

    My foot nearly slid on the stairs as I ascended. I paused, picking it up, and I saw finger bones and shell casings.”

    —What did Blake pick up here? The sword? Because no mention is made of him carrying the sword further along the story.

    2)

    “But somehow, I didn’t get the impression I would be able to get back up if I did tip over.”

    —Wouldn’t it be more logical to say: “But somehow, I got the impression that I wouldn’t be able to get back up if I did tip over.” ?

      1. Thanks for elaborating! I wasn’t aware you can say you are “picking up your foot” when it’s still attached to your leg. I guess it’s just another way of saying that he lifted his foot then.

        Thanks for expanding my knowledge of the english language 🙂

    1. 1) He picked up his foot.

      2) The second one is probably more accurate but the two are typically used interchangeably.

          1. [Glances over shoulder, quickly pulls the plastic tarpaulin back over Black Canary’s unconscious net-stocking-and-spandex-clad form, concealing it, along with the Brockton Bay newspaper photo cut-outs showing Skitter’s face – and the replica Skitter mask, the hot glue gun, and the 12 liter economy-sized jar of rhubarb jelly]

            …Oh! A spelling error? Erm, of course that’s all it was. Yes, yes indeed. No serendipitous coincidental accidents that brushed up against any potential felonies, certainly. [Cough] Ahem: Damn you, autocorrect! [Shakes paw, balled up into a fist] Aheheh. 🙂

            Umm, what was the question? Worm fan cana- err, drawings? Not yet, sadly. Although, that is a very valid point, sir.

            [Scuttles off to update To-Do list]

      1. What’s this nonsense about ‘elder beings’? I’m not a day over 5,000,000 years!

        [Waves tentacles around, holding up a sign that reads: “Thanks for the compliment, tasty human”] 😉

  15. Besides screwing Conquest, as Mark noted, Jeremy’s move also helps us gauge the local power distribution a bit: Today, Isadora obviously thought that an alliance of her+Diana+Jeremy would be enough to stop Conquest, but her+Diana isn’t sufficient.
    Today, Jeremy also usually abstains, so his position might be strong enough that most quid pro quo deals aren’t interesting to him.

    In the past, though, the Duchamp’s didn’t feel he warranted getting a first rate daughter, and the faerie felt his Satyrs were open game even seven years ago – maybe the tragedy Sandra inadvertently helped him create was more beneficial for him than all her help in 15 years of marriage was?

    I’m uncertain what his motives are. He seemed not to be very interested in power before his marriage, but spent 15 years plotting with Sandra. The connection was fragile – so did he keep the desire to become more powerful himself, or did he go back to being content as a servant of the Drunk God and is just doing Sandra a favor?

    1. It’s worth noting that there are still “the Sister of Torches, the Shepherd, the Knights of the Basement, the Eye of the Storm, and the Queen’s Man” to potentially ally with against Conquest, if the error was not that she misjudged just how interested he was in this information.

      Which might mean that all it takes for Blake and Rose to survive is to delay long enough for Isadora &/or Diana to contact one of the others and get back there with their new coalition opposing the motion. Though they really shouldn’t count on it, and…oh, wait. Then they would want him to die, to keep Conquest from conquering him somehow later. Damn. I’m with negadarkwing, this -is- getting disheartening.

      When Sandra is thinking of the past 15 years that she spent with Jeremy, remember her assessment of him:
      “…for a long time, he had been in freefall. He had allowed himself to believe he didn’t need anyone…Once she’d centered him and given him an outlet, he’d come into his own. From there, they’d worked their strategies, divided tasks between them.”
      Clearly, the gamble was paying off at that point.

      The Faerie, I think, are just arrogant pricks who thought they’d get away with it.

      He did appear to develop or uncover “a kind of vision for the future” during the marriage; that could be enough to keep him in the game, but the whole thing smacks of him doing a favor for a woman he still loves. I mean, look at how fast he promised–promised!–to take care of Blake. Wouldn’t he be forsworn if Blake makes it back to Jacob’s Bell even once? Talk about powerful retribution, but -damn- is Jeremy going to be persistent with that hanging over his head.

      (I’ll address the topic of Conquest hamstringing himself [itself?] in another post)

      1. So are the Knights of the Basement a practitioner circle or a D&D playgroup? Because it certainly soundsmore like the latter.
        Although I guess one does not clearly exclude the other, unless acting in-character counts as lying.

        1. The notes from Implementus imply that many practitioners don’t (have to) take it too seriously. It wouldn’t surprise me if they turned out to be a group of rpg gamers (that seems redundant)role players who awakened themselves.

            1. Heh. I’ve heard of Chick Tracts before but never actually seen one. The art is nice.

            2. “Heh. I’ve heard of Chick Tracts before but never actually seen one. The art is nice.”

              It’s probably part of the ‘RPG geek canon’, if anyone’s ever compiled a list of mandatory must-read materials that all gamers should familiarize themselves with, along with Tolkien, Gygax, and the Dead Alewives. 😉

  16. Fuck, fuck, FUCK.

    See that’s why you don’t trust demonic lawyers. Even when they seem to be nice and trying to help you.

    I thought Jerry was going to be more subtle. Then again Dyonisus wasn’t exactly known for subtlety. He was more the ” have people go mad and rip their sons to pieces” guy.

    Conquest is scary, but he looks cool. Both the palace with all the spoils of conquest and both him looking like a scene cut from a painting.

    As for the players, the astrologer was a bit bland ( the abstained joke was funny, though, whatever Jerry says) but Isadora was an interesting character. I wonder what the answer was if it weren’t man. Oh, and seriously, fuck you nameless guy. I wonder what’s HIS motive.

    And hi Rose!

  17. I’m fairly certain we’re nearing the point where any reasonable human being would give in and cover the world in a demonic apocalypse.

    “Fuck this, Fuck you, Fuck ALL OF YOU FUCKS. Demons for everyone.”

    1. And this is why I dont have demons at my command. Cause I would totally do that.

      “You want me to work a double shift? Oh fuck that. DEMONS!”

    2. Agreed. That breaking point, for me, would have come directly after the house got encased in amber. “OK, you fucks, a little parting gift from the Thorburn family. Ornias! Ornias! Ornias! I summon thee!”

      1. I would have checked to see if Lewis’s agreement to take the cost still held. And tried to get an assessment of the collateral damage first. I would also really want something quick like that in reserve.

        I certainly would be taking my second favour right from the lawyers now though. “Bind Conquest and kill this whole list of bastards please and thank you.”

    3. This kind of thought has occurred to me, a number of times. Whenever there’s an untenable position, “Ornias!” pops into my head.

      But the idea that an act to save one or two lives, or possibly accomplish nothing more than vengeance, would result in “hundreds of incidents a year, for decades or a century”…that’s too much.

      1. Also it seems like in the Pactverse everything comes at a price. I mean look at what’s going on now. Blake was hoping Conquest would give him sanctuary from the Jacob’s Bell threats. Well in a way Conquest is offering that now. The cost just happens to be making Blake his own personal demonoligist bitch. I would imagine something like Ornias would be damn expensive, and probably want payment in a form Blake would not like at all.

    4. Suddenly the Universe speaks: “No, Blake. You are the demons.”

      And then Blake was a PB&J sandwich in Laird’s office.

  18. Ha, called it! When everyone was thinking about how Conquest and Blake conveniently had intersecting interests and how that could turn out in favour of Blake I knew that this only meant another way for Blake to get royally screwed.

    In other news, Mann, Levinn, and Lewis would like to welcome our new intern. Please, everybody welcome Blake Thorburn.

    1. Well, at this point Blake getting screwed is par for course. In fact I’m starting to get a bit disheartened by how impossible things are looking for poor Blake.

        1. Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter of *Pact, where Blake tries to escape his enemies by driving non-stop to Cape Canaveral, Florida, sneaking aboard one of NASA’s space shuttles, and hiding on the moon!*

          “Finally!” Blake said. “We did it, Rose! We managed to get away from Lardo, and Rob Fo- err, Conquest, and all the other people who were trying to murderize us. Ahh, free at last, free at last.” He sighed, enjoying the sensation of floating in zero G, even if the space suit was starting to smell a bit musty.

          “Umm… Blake?” Rose said. “I think you’ll want to see this.”

          Blake pushed against a bulk head and floated over to one of the portholes, where Rose was standing in the window, looking into space.

          “What is it, Rose?” Blake said. She simply pointed. He looked, following the direction of her finger.

          Planet Earth was directly in front of them, like a majestic green-and-blue marble tumbling through space. A verdant oasis in the desolation of the interstellar void. Cloud formations spun and twirled across its surface like cotton candy spilled in a bath tub.

          The clouds were coalescing, forming… letters? Blake tried to rub his eyes, only to end up lamely groping at the visor on his helmet. He looked again.

          “YOO’VE SHURE GOT A PURDY MOUTH,” the planet said. “NOW BEND OVAH AN’ BITE YER HELMET, BOY. AH’M GOIN’ IN DRY.”

      1. Bringing down Laird. Blake because, you know, it’s Laird and Conquest because Lairds wants to create his own Lairdom, thus being a rival and a natural opponent for Conquest.

  19. Thoughts:-

    I have to wonder if Blake’s nature of Duality means that “Blake” consists of implanted memories and “his” physical body actually is actually Roses’ that was transformed into a males’ through alchemy while Roses’ soul was separated and sustained as a vestige.

    Also have to wonder if Blake’s nature of Duality means that with enough power, he can force his nature upon Others to call forth their antithesis from within them like say calling forth the incarnation of Rebellion in the face of Conquest.

  20. Well fuck.. how do you defeat conquest?

    Chanting “imagine it is war and no one goes there”
    ..attacking Russia in winter?

    I think that didn’t go as Jeremy planned,.. or did Jeremy plan at all^^?

    1. well conquest said he isnt the kind that claims things like love, so try using the power of friendship to defeat him and then steal his power.

      1. Exactly!!! We know that ideas can gain power in the Pactverse. It seems that right now, Blake’s strongest connections are to his friends. I absolutely want to see Blake wielding the power of friendship!

        Conquest (quite hammily)
        -I will break you. You shall submit. There will always be. . . Conquest! Now give me your power

        Blake (glamoured up to exude confidence)
        -Wrong Conquest. My friends are my power, and I’m theirs!

        *A ray of friendship blasts forth from Blake’s tattoos, shrinking Conquest to the size of a small monkey. He then becomes Blake’s familiar/animal companion/sidekick.

  21. Blake really needs to make use of some of his cleverness. That seems to be the only thing he has working for him.

    So this is how Jerry holds Blake. I was hoping his plan involved more nymphs, but I suppose this works as well.

    Is Rose free of the mirror (for now)?

  22. Well, Laird and Sandra, I can see this whole “Prevent demons from swallowing up Canada” thing of yours is working just great…

    This chapter was so awesome.

    1. See, when you tell your estranged husband that you need someone gone, specify that it’s because you don’t want them to cover the world in a demonic apocalypse.

      1. Especially when he’s associated with the Greek gods! They’re the most terrible literal genies! They don’t do favorable interpretations or tell you that a wish is a bad idea even if they like you!

        1. I’ve never heard it put quite like that before. But yeah, Greek gods love their overly literal wishes. And may the Fates have mercy on you if they ask you to settle a debate between them.

    1. I think most practitioners see Rose and assume that she is simply a vestige, a servant to Blake. Maggie was surprised when Rose had a personality. Dorky witchhunter man (I’m still bad at names) called Rose Blake’s pet and called Blake Rose’s master Iirc.

      Outside of the lawyers, nobody seems to actually know what arrangements Granny Rose left.

      So while Rose is technically “you”, to everybody else she appears as “yours”.

      1. Yeah, but doesn’t she appear as a ‘you’ to Others? Conquest is clearly an Other.

        IIRC she was a ‘you’ to Padraic

          1. As per 2.02, he recognized her as Granny Rose, as part of that whole ‘Others see family members as the same person’ concept.

            “‘A vestige…of Rose?’

            ‘Yes,’ Padraic spoke out loud.”

            Oh, and dorky witchhunter = Andy

            1. Fingers crossed that Andy gets mauled by a weremoose, or a weregrizzly, or a werehouse. Not because he’s particularly annoying, but because it’d provide an excuse to give him a new nickname:

              Raggedy Witch Hunter. 😉

            2. “Be careful with that kind of comment grinvader, it might get you fired.”

              Don’t worry, grinvader’s used to it. His day job is working as a Human Cannon Ball. 😉

  23. “To be in Conquest’s domain is to be in a constant state of transition. Emotions rise and fall, there is fire and rebellion at first, then we make peace with the state of things.”

    Blake was just manipulated. He needs to try to keep a cool head from now on.

    I predict some hostility in the future between the Sister of Torches and the June wielding, Ornias summoning Blake.

    Final thought: Does this mean that Blake has fulfilled his oath towards Rose? That should net him some good Karma, if it truly is the case.

  24. Well Shit. Let’s hope Conquest is cool with the whole “Conquer your own fate” idea. Because it seems like he wants to make Blake his bitch. The lawyers also want to make Blake their bitch. In short lots of people are trying and succeding in making Blake’s life a bitch.

    So just what was the real answer to the original sphinx riddle? Now that’s going to drive me nuts.

    Oh, shit I just realized that having someone who can potentially summon demons in the power of a horseman of the apocalypse wasn’t such a good idea.

    And now even if Blake gets out of Conquest’s meeting without being his bitch, most of the other major practicioners in Toronto will be out to kill him. I really got to hand it to you Wildbow. You just keep finding new ways for Blake to be even more fucked. And this is only Arc 4, so I doubt Blake is done getting more fucked over.

    1. “So just what was the real answer to the original sphinx riddle? Now that’s going to drive me nuts.”

      Subbak mentioned the webcomic Subnormality, in an earlier comment, where the correct answer to the Sphinx’ riddle was ‘a woman’. 😉

      http://www.viruscomix.com/page332.html

      Also, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the original myth has other inconsistencies:

      “Each time the Thebans gave a wrong answer, she ate one of them. Many perished, including eventually Haemon, son of Creon – ruler since the death of Laius, the previous king. Creon then announced he’d give the kingship and Laius’ widow (his sister Jocasta) to whoever solved the riddle. Oedipus, on his way from Delphi, gave the answer: “Man”. The Sphinx threw herself off the acropolis and committed suicide (odd form of suicide for a creature with wings?).”

      Source: http://thanasis.com/sphinx.htm

      1. The wings might have been vestigial. They’d have to be very big wings to let something the size of a lion fly. Or she could have just kept them furled. She was willingly committing suicide after all.

        As for the woman answer amusing I’m not sure how much water it holds. Greek had two words for Man one indicating a general human(anthropos) and one indicating a male/virile one (aner) . While it wouldn’t surprise me if it was the latter that was used ( the Greeks weren’t exactly known for their gender inclusivity), I’m not so sure.

          1. I am greek,and the answer was indeed “ανθρωπος”which does indeed cover both males and females.

  25. For a bit of perspective:

    All of Jacob’s Bell was the tutorial level. That makes Toronto the first dungeon.

    Wildbow’s signature “Pan-to-Fire Flip” technique strikes again, and it’s as awesome as always.

    Oh, and I must say, I’m not the least bit surprised that having an anthropomorphic personification in charge is an objectively terrible idea. They don’t really have goals, just motivations. Especially something like Conquest, who I would imagine doesn’t really “get” the idea of friends or allies. He’s far more comfortable with slaves, subjects, lackies, and those who, at present, could only be beaten at a pyrrhic cost and so are better left alone for now.

    Secondly, when it comes to zero-sum games, then yes, I concede that Conquest is definitely the guy to have on your side… So long you are ok with him being the leader, or at least can consistently let him assume he is without actually letting him take any real power. However, as soon as it comes to literally any other situation… he’s horrible as a leader. Without an enemy, real or abstract, to beat, he is completely out of his depth. He can’t balance a budget, or compromise on policy, or… anything a good politician or leader does.

    Though, I guess, neither can a lot of mortal politicians and leaders either, so… shrug

    Suggested strategy for beating him? The application of the gigglesnort. Because come on. Canadians, conquering things, or raping and pillaging. Just can’t keep a straight face, can you? Push the idea that it would be unfair to kick his ass in this day and age, because, come on, Canadians.

    Now, yes, I am fully aware that the Canadians do have a damn good military and are, in fact, kicking ass and taking names in the War on Terror and did damn well in the World Wars. Nothing bad to say about them, and I wouldn’t dream of downplaying their accomplishments. It’s just that the way they fight, and the reasons they are fighting, are antithetical to everything the Spirit of Conquest represents in this particular incarnation, and have been for generations. It’s just like the driver said last chapter: The narrative of Toronto conquering anything is such a stretch as to preclude any genuine threat on anything but a comedically hypothetical thought experiment.

    Now, obviously, this Conquest has found an acceptable source of power, but I imagine conquest in the abstract sense, of a bully humiliating a kid, of a con-man making a big score off someone’s grandmother, or a local politician winning a smear campaign is… nowhere near as satisfying as what this incarnation is used to or prefers. It’s an ex-soldier who thrives on bloodlust, stuck running a laser tag joint just to keep a roof over his head. Because, again, making friends and influencing people with anything other than the point of a sword at their throat or a gun to their head just isn’t something it can really conceptualize.

    Wow, that was longer than I thought it’d be. Still got a few other thoughts banging around half-formed too.

    1. I remember taking an US History class a few years back. Some students joked about Canada being weak and defenceless. The professor put an end to that talk by saying that Canada has withstood invasions, forcing all of them unsuccessful.

      After that semester, all of the students would praise the Canadian military, armed with hockey sticks and maple syrup cannons.

        1. Yes, and so did the Canadian parliament, apparently.

          “Ah, the War of 1812. At Queenston Heights there is a stunning monument to a man who would not order his men where he would not lead them, and somehow mysteriously got himself shot by a sniper at point blank. A mystery, I tell you. The war of 1812 is little talked about but it is an excellent example for people from the US and Canada about how no event is recorded without bias. The US regards it, I believe, as almost a second war of independence, and Canada views it as an invasion by Americans. America declared the war, invaded, and we held our ground and staved off their attacks. Canadians don’t learn in school about false impressment of American seamen or seizure of their vessels prior to the war that caused it. Both the Canadian parliament and the American whitehouse burned to the ground. We don’t learn about the Battle of Fort McHenry, they don’t learn about Queenston Heights. Everyone disagrees on who won, even though it was a stalemate. Natives get royally screwed. Normally I am not annoyed by this sort of thing, but in this case, that isn’t so. I watched an American produced documentary on the subject and it made me pull a face so many times it might have stuck that way. The War of 1812 is the Most Irritating War of All. “ – Kate Beaton (You can probably assume she’s right, she knows that historical shizzle-dizzle like the back of her hand.)

          http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=166

          1. There were also points where the USA was feeling expasionistic, but the friction between the Northern free states and the Southern slave states kept them from doing anything. The North wanted to annex Canada, and the South wanted to annex Mexico and the Carrabien. Of course this just goes to show the USA’s long history of mistaking Canadians for pushovers. Just ask any Germans who got stuck fighting Canadian troops during the World Wars how easy Canada is to beat.

            1. Allegedly ( I wish i could locate the article), Canada also had the distinction post D-Day that shortly after meeting the Canadian armed forces, German commanders started lying about whom their men were facing otherwise desertion rates quadrupled.

    2. “All of Jacob’s Bell was the tutorial level. That makes Toronto the first dungeon.”

      That comparison is going to leave me chuckling all afternoon. A game you are likely to die multiple times on the tutorial level… is a damn hard game.

      1. See also: Dark Souls. Of course, it’s only one boss that’s really a danger to the non-stupid in that game’s tutorial, plus some judicious applications of “Thanks for playing my game. I hate you. Die in a fire.”

        On second thought, just see also: Dark Souls.

      2. WELCOME TO PACT: THE GAME

        Choose the difficulty level that you wish to play on:

        CHILD’S PLAY
        SUPER-EASY
        EASY
        MEDIUM
        HARD
        INSANE
        MASOCHIST
        SUICIDAL
        OH GAWD, WHY?!
        ARMAGEDDON
        APOCALYPSE
        WILDBOW

        You have clicked on ‘Super-Easy’. This option is not available at this time. Please complete the game in ‘Wildbow’ mode to unlock other game modes.

        You have clicked on ‘Uninstall’. This option is not available at this time. Please complete the game in ‘Wildbo-

        You have clicked 37 times on ‘Exit’, 12 times on the ‘Power Off’ button, and tried to unplug your console from the power outlet. These options are not available at this time. Please complete the game in ‘Wildbow’ mode to unlock other game modes.

        1. Game starting in 10… 9… No, you cannot abort game start. 6… 5… Running away won’t help, and yes, I am listening to you 2… 1…

    3. Wildbow’s signature “Pan-to-Fire Flip” technique strikes again, and it’s as awesome as always.

      Out of the frying pan and into the bloody sun, in this case.

      1. Oh no, the bloody sun doesn’t show up until he defeats his nemesis, if Worm is any indication. (Too on-the-nose? Subtle enough to pass?) I expect !Fun! to happen once he actually kills off Laird, assuming that comes to pass.

  26. And so things went to hell quite quickly. How will Blake get out of this mess? As others have stated, the lawyers probably planned this so he has to use them to get out of this… perhaps Blake can turn that to his advantage? Let Conquest know he’s being manipulated, and by allowing it he actually makes himself weaker and the demons stronger.

    Also, before everything turned upside down I was thinking that Isadora would make an awesome familiar for Blake. She’s a professor of some kind in what I assume is a human alias, and interacts with art students enough to be knowledgeable about it so they may have a common interest. She also seems to like him, aside from the whole diabolism connection. Maybe a bit risky though, given she’s ambitious enough to take a position on the Lord’s council.

  27. One more, just for complete clarity. I was unable to reply correctly (indent and subset) to Chris’s post or my own – my “replies” were just added to the end.

    I noticed this happen at least once before when a post was deleted. The problem seems to fix itself after a while but I cannot immediately determine how. This is possibly a WordPress issue, possibly an issue with how the browser renders things (Firefox 27.0.1 here). As a temporary fix going forward, editing the posts without deleting them would probably avoid the issue.

    A quick search doesn’t turn up anything helpful because all of the keywords (WordPress, delete, post, etc.) are used in so many other contexts. I will ask the webmonkey (term of appreciation, really) we have working upstairs when I get a chance to see if he can provide help.

  28. Also remember when Conquest was talking about the two kinds of taking? One where the other thing is lost, and the other where its still there. I propose that the anti-thesis of Conquest is OPEN SOURCE! And since bindings are best formed by opposites Blake can defend himself with things like Linux, Wikipedia pages and open source licenses.

    The ultimate in open source however is a viral license. The GNL for example. If Blake can infect Conquest with that it should be all over!

    1. So does that mean that he can defend/attack using a magical version of gimp. He does have talent with glamour, after all.

      1. That’s ‘GIMP’, all capitals, as in: “GNU Image Manipulation Prestidigitation”.

        A ‘magical gimp’ would be useful for a different kind of attack. (With or without the glamour.) 😉

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bondage_suit

        Actually, it might work as a GIMP delivery system, depending on how eager Conquest is to conquer Blake. 🙂

        1. Well, if Blake does decide to go the submissive route and get training from Conquest, we now know what his inplement should be.

          Or possibly desmense. If he makes the suit his desmense, it will be bigger on the inside. He can have a mobile base that he can wrap up and fold into his pack or something.

          1. From Pages 2:

            “Stories abound of practitioners who never left their demesnes. A place that is entirely theirs, where they are a step below a god, and a place where they are safe.”

            https://pactwebserial.wordpress.com/category/story/arc-2-damages/2-x-pages-2/

            A Demesne probably has to be a fixed location, something reasonably static. Otherwise, you just know that a practitioner somewhere would have create their own +5 Iron Man Costume of Invulnerability.

            1. Who’s to say nobody has? If Johannes can pull off what he did in a small Canadian town, somebody can pull off the armor thing. The problem would probably be that it’s hard or impossible to interact with the outside world when inside the protective suit.

              Also, Penelope, or Penny as her friends and family (and me) call her, is the Duchamp girl that was taking Jo to dance practice when Jo had Letita attack. I think they are sisters but can’t remember.

            2. “Also, Penelope, or Penny as her friends and family (and me) call her, is the Duchamp girl that was taking Jo to dance practice when Jo had Letita attack. I think they are sisters but can’t remember.”

              Ah, right, thanks. [Checks chapter 2.5] So Jo is 12-ish, and Penny appears to be around 20.

              If Blake is twenty, that means his non-creepy dating range would be women between 17 and 26 years old; hence, Penny is definitely an option. And so is Maggie, most likely. 🙂

              http://xkcd.com/314/

            3. I bet you could make an RV or gypsy wagon into a demesne but I would also expect a mobile demesne to be a lot less powerful than one that gets to stay in one place and gather power indefinitely.

              also remember that you can apparently teleport to your demesne from wherever you are, if you’re skilled enough. So you don’t really need one that moves around that much.

            4. @Sir Fuente It may or may not be technically possible to make a mobile demesne like a suit or a mobile home. But then you would constantly be finding yourself in the situation where your demesne encroaches on someone else’s demesne. Anyone’s guess what effect that has, but given that Granny advised Blake to not choose a demesne that overlaps even long-abandoned existing demesnes I’m guessing it’s not good.

    2. Mwahaha, that’s it! Blake should write a demonology treaty and publish it all under a Creative Commons license, and then Conquest is fucked.
      And I don’t see anything at all that could go wrong with this line of thought.

      1. Somehow I don’t think that would be a good idea. While it might defeat Conquest… I can’t see giving everyone who looks on line a guide to summoning demons could ever end well.

        1. That’s what I meant by “And I don’t see anything at all that could go wrong with this line of thought”. Sorry if I wasn’t more explicit, I though “I don’t see anything at all that could go wrong” was established code for sarcasm.

  29. Blake is going about this entirely the wrong way.

    Right now, he is basically a Warloc with no demons in his deck. He tried a rush down tactic, but his early game is so weak.

    What Blake needs to do is go full mage. That way, he will have much direct removal for whatever his enemies throw at him. If he lasts until late game, he will have plenty options to defeat the enemy.

    Pact Points to whoever gets the reference. Bonus points to anybody with a suggestion for a better build/strategy.

    1. Hearthstone?

      Maybe Blake is a Rogue. After using hero ability he has equipped a weapon (low damage and probably breaks fast).
      Yet there is the Mirror Image thing with Rose, and he can draw arcane knowledge from the house deck.

      1. Correct!!! +52 PP

        Rose can’t really do any defending, so I wouldn’t call her a mirror image. I can see the rogue thing working, but Blake would probably be better off blasting his enemies with fire. . . or turning them into sheep.

  30. Since Blake has a fixed cost for his next lawyer favor, he should use it for something monumental. Like, say, killing Conquest.

    1. The problem is that while the cost, running an errand, is set, the errand is not. If Blake makes the lawyers do something massive they’re probably going to be pissed and make him go through Hell on his errand. Literally, if possible.

      1. They had to know this was coming. That said, since the demons are all about getting a foothold in our world via demonologists. I strongly suspect they need help from said demonologists to do anything of the sort. I can’t imagine that killing Conquest would do anything other than grant a really big one. Plus Conquest can’t really be defeated without serious screwage with humanity. So it would probably be more like corrupt, control, and conquer Conquest.

        Even if they don’t somehow come out ahead from Conquest getting ganked by the favour they had to realize it was possible. They have Blake a blank check. They had to know this was coming. So yeah, I don’t see the lawyers being pissed if Blake goes big. Its what was obviously going to happen.

      2. Blake orders the lawyers to kill Conquest.

        The lawyers then order Blake to deliver his baby sister to a diabolist that needs the skin of a child to make another copy of the book the Lawyers gave him. Or perhaps he will be required to deliver only the tanned hide of his little sister to the diabolist.

        The cost for freeing the house would be more than Blake was willing to pay, according to the assessment of the lawyer Rose called. Destroying a force of human nature would have to be at least as “expensive” of a task.

  31. Something I don’t think anyone has yet mentioned:

    Rose is probably going to be the “collateral” mentioned in the chapter title. Conquest can effectively break Blake by abusing his promise to free her. Even without the promise he would be unlikely to leave her behind (especially since Conquest’s lackey mentioned anything left behind would be lost).

    So Blake is going to have to either destroy Conquest to save Rose or he’s going to have to cooperate. There is a third possibility, I suppose, in that he could save her through trickery somehow.

    Personally I think it’s all going to slowly build in tension as Blake gets backed further and further into a corner, until eventually he does something ridiculously dangerous that winds up succeeding at a cost (like the death of one of his friends). If I had to guess which friend would die, I’d say the artist whose painting he bought. That’s definitely a thread on which Conquest or Jerry could tug.

    Also, his reaction to Jerry’s interest in him suggests that Blake might have been abused – not necessarily sexually – by an older man. This could explain why he decided to run away. Three obvious possibilities there: that he was abused by a family member (no hints about who could have done so, I’d say it’s unlikely), that he was abused by an acquaintance and the family refused to support him (there’s the reason for the extreme falling out and the general issues with physical contact), or that he was abused while he was homeless (doesn’t explain why he ran away in the first place though).

    Lastly, and I want to get this out there just in case, but I think that Suleiman bin Daoud (I think someone mentioned this is probably the Biblical Solomon; see 1.) is going to play a prominent role in the future. Either he still exists as an Otherised practitioner (which appears to be the fate of those who survive long enough) or his seal – the thing which binds Others to uphold certain rules and protects them from humans a little – is going to be shattered (either universally or for certain powerful Others that we’d prefer stay bound). Also, I wonder if demons are just unbound Others.

    1. I agree that Rose is likely to end up being collateral somehow.

      In regards to Blake being abused, I forget which chapter it is but I believe it was implied he may have been raped or something along those lines while he was homeless. This is why he has physical intimacy issues. He ran away because his family is messed up over the whole inheritance deal and his parents basically not wanting him since he wasn’t female.

    2. Or it could be Blake is reminded of something that happened after he ran away. Jerry might remind him of people who exploited him for example.

    3. Well, when Blake and Rose talked about their shared parents, it seemed to me that Blake fixed on his dad more than his mother as the problem? He said he thinks Rose got a different dad than he did.

  32. Stonking good chapter, I loved the description of Conquest as a 3D tarot card, brilliantly vivid. Poor Blake finally got a taste of how being a Practitioner might just rock, then PSYCH! Nope, actually it’s demon shitmonkeys all the way down!

  33. Wait a minute. . . Rose has a body now! Do you know what that means? Blake can now marry Rose!

    That fulfills both the spirit and the letter of the will. That means good Karma. It will also help anchor Rose to the physical world. Its a win-win for everybody (except Maggie, Penny, Padraic and perhaps Alexis/Tiffany)!

    I can’t see how that could possibly go wrong.

      1. A restraining order of 100 meters from any clones, alternate universe versions of you, or body doubles has just been placed upon you for just THINKING that.

    1. “Its a win-win for everybody (except Maggie, Penny, Padraic and perhaps Alexis/Tiffany)!”

      “Good news, everyone!” Blake said. “I’ve become a Mormon! Penis, for everyone! I mean, wedding rings. Ahem.”

      Rose sighed.

      “Blake, I can hear you’re muttering ‘You get penis, and you get penis – everybody gets to try my penis!’ under your breath,” she said. “Please stop.”

    2. Wait – you put Maggie ahead of ‘perhaps’ Alexis? Are you saying it’s more likely that Blake will hook up with the jail-bait teenage Goblin Queen who was tricked into goblining his cousin to death, than Blake gettin’ smoochy with the boheme chick that he’s got a major crush on? 😉

      1. At this point we know Maggie a lot better than we do Alexis. Also to me “Knows you like me, but doesn’t like you in the same way, but wants you to have a threesome with me and my girlfriend so they can hopefully work out issues with sex” rings a bunch of alarm bells. I suppose Duped into goblin murder of favorate cousin should too, but it doesn’t.

      2. Yes I am. Alexis seems like a nice girl and all, but from what we know of her so far, she doesn’t seem like she would necessarily powerful or useful partner. At least Maggie and Penny are awakened and have some skills and powers that can help Blake not get terribly murdered.

        Also, I’m don’t think Jailbait is appropriate when talking about Maggie/Blake. Blake is 20 and Maggie is between 16 and 19 (probably 16 or 17). I’m pretty sure (that with Maggie’s dads’ consent at least) that is legal in Canada. At best they are a few months apart. At worst, 4 years.

        Overall Maggie’s baggage would probably make for a better alliance, while Alexis/Blake’s combined baggage would cause drama and the death of the Thorburn line.

        1. Oh, well. At least it’s been established that Alexis is open for threesomes. 😉

          Which one was Penny, again? One of the Duchamps girls?

          (The name ‘Penny’ just reminds me of Inspector Gadget’s niece – now there’s some jailbait for ya!) 🙂

    3. “I can’t see how that could possibly go wrong.”

      Does WordPress have a ‘My Sarcasm Sense Is Tingling’ emoticon? 😉

  34. Very interesting chapter, and a terrifying conclusion, but I come away from it thinking just one thing: why don’t these experienced practitioners know the most basic thing that all lawyers know? Don’t ask questions you don’t know the answer to.

    Diana and Isadora both were very casually and carelessly stripping Blake of secrets and blurting them out, and they both have serious cause to regret it, now. It’s obviously not reasonable that they could have expected the encounter to turn that badly that suddenly, but it is reasonable to have a little bit more interest in privacy in general. You would think that a bunch of people who thrive on misdirection would be less anxious to give their rivals clues about things, and would rather try to find out this kind of stuff on their own.

    Also, I feel sorry for Blake. Gets to Toronto, and the first thing he finds is 1) an entity who is fundamentally disposed to making him do things he doesn’t want to do, and 2) a dude determined to get him to expose all his desires to the first guy. That is pretty much as bad as it could have turned out.

      1. “Ooh!” Rose said. “I love guessing games. Umm, is it bigger or smaller than a bread box?”

        The Sphinx replied by holding out a paw, and suddenly unsheathing all four claws in a swift, smooth motion. A low rumble emanated from her throat. Rose pulled out a measuring tape and started measuring the perplexed lioness-chick’s flesh-carving appendages.

        “What else have you got in your pockets?” Isadora said.

        “Nuh-uh!” Rose said, wagging her index finger reprovingly. “You only get to ask one question at a time. Otherwise, you’ve got to give me three guesses on the next one.”

        The Sphinx pondered for a moment, rubbing her chin with her other paw.

        “Umm, umm… String! Or nothing!” She frowned. “Wait, which one of us is doing the riddling, and which one is doing the guessing?”

        “I dunno,” Rose said, shrugging noncommittally. “But you’re the one who’s naked in a cave, threatening to eat people if they get their answers wrong.”

        The Sphinx’ frown deepened.

        “Gollum,” she said. “I mean, damn.”

    1. Isadora for a Mentor. Since Blake needs training & compared to the other Toronto powers that ran in the face of a crisis, she’s the only one who has enough integrity to stay and fight.

  35. I’m trying to remember if Blake actually overheard something about Laird’s plans for a lordship, or if it’s something only we the readers know.

    If Blake does know, he might have a bargaining chip or distraction of some value, information-wise. There’s nothing I can think of that a personification of conquest would be more interested in than someone actively working against his interests. I don’t know how much against Conquest’s interests this would really be though. Laird becoming a lord might simple be an irritation and nothing more.

    And one last thing. Remember that we have Blake as a potentially tragic/heroic figure here, and a representative of a Greek god that has already shown a willingness to act against the interests of his avatar.

    I could see all kinds of things falling Blake’s way, after things get sufficiently terrible. Perhaps Blake can convince Conquest to bear the cost of summoning Ornais, and then have Ornais destroy him. Probably nothing so easy though.

    Achilles.

    1. Blake telling Conquest about how Laird is setting up for Lordship, and about how Jerry just played him and Conquest letting Blake go so he can use him to deal with it, is about the only way I can see Blake getting out of this without being fucked worse.

      How did Jerry play Conquest? let’s break it down.
      ““No,” Jeremy said. “You’ll oppose him. Lord, promise me you won’t touch the city, me, mine, or the Duchamps of Jacob’s Bell, and I’ll sit on the sidelines for this one.”
      Conquest just promised he wouldn’t touch the Duchamps… And the Duchamps and Behaims are about to be one family. We know from Sandra’s chapter that Conquest getting his second wind was tottally against what the Duchamps want. I suspect that the Beiham/Duchamp alliance is not interested in more conflict in the world. And Conquest just made it so he can’t do anything to them to stop them. What’s more he now has to deal with fighting the other powers of his city, further giving them free reign. In short they just got a permenant win… A Conquest on Conquest.

      Or Blake will just end up continuing his merry road of increasing fuckedness.

      1. Actually, I don’t think the marriage makes them one family. They’d still be regarded as different bloodlines. It just means the options are limited in regards to who can be attacked, and while Jeremy got Conquest to promise not to touch the Duchamps he neglected to get him to promise his agents couldn’t touch them – breaking the spirit of the agreement, sure, but still to the letter so that he could get away with it without too bad of a karmic hit.

        But yeah, Blake needs to convince conquest that it’s a better idea to do something else. Conquering Jacob’s Bell by overthrowing the current order and installing a Lord who has sworn fealty would probably power him up longer term anyways, since demons bring ruin to those trying to use them more often than not.

      2. It just hit me.

        ““No,” Jeremy said. “You’ll oppose him. Lord, promise me you won’t touch the city, me, mine, or the Duchamps of Jacob’s Bell, and I’ll sit on the sidelines for this one.”

        Jeremy left a hole big enough to drive a truck through here.

        If Blake can stay put together long enough for Conquest to see a threat in Jacob’s Bell, he might have an out.

        Conquest just promised not to personally touch all of these things, but Jeremy got no such promise from Blake.

        Conquest will work through proxies. He’s a force of human nature, and he has mortal guards.

        Conquest sees something bad for him happening in Jacob’s Bell, and happens to look at Blake and see his connections there…

        A brief conversation later, Conquest realizes that if he actually builds Blake up rather than tear him down, Blake will certainly be quite willing to take down at least the adult practitioners who acted in concert against Blake and his house.

        So conquest turns Blake into a weapon, and lets him loose, and watches as Blake goes and does exactly what Conquest just promised he wouldn’t do.

        Hell, if Blake thinks of this, Conquest might actually agree to do it for the novelty of kicking Jeremy in the ass. And Jeremy’s god would probably be laughing at his avatar’s frustration and anger.

        Now that I think about it. That might already BE conquest’s plan.

        And now we’re in author territory.

        1. Unfortunately, that’s a best case scenario for Blake. Consider:

          1) He’s saddled with several generations worth of bad Karma.

          2) He’s the main character of a Wildbow story.

          Blake should learn to hope for worst case scenarios, prepare for worse case scenarios, and expect that he’ll probably end up with worst case scenarios. 🙂

          1. And then find out that the actual worst case scenario is far worse than anything you could have prepared for.

    2. The entire story thus far has been told from the first person, Blake’s perspective. Literally everything we know (but not assume or predict) at this point, Blake knows.

      Unless I’m wrong.

      1. I take back this comment. There have been 2 interludeshistories taken from other perspectives so far. In ny defence, we don’t get the info about setting up the Jacob’s Bell Lord in those chapters.

        Now please excuse me as I add some whipped cream to the humble pie that i’m about to eat

    3. Blake definitely heard it, in the only town meeting he went to, in 2.02. How well he remembers it is another question, given that it was right after his deal plot started collapsing and his cousin’s murder was more or less dismissed.

      …I know that I certainly forgot about it…>.>

  36. Look at Rose’s situation. We are too used to her knowing what Blake is doing. But, we have no evidence that she was “with” Blake during his trip to Conquest’s lair. The current chapter does not show Blake bringing a mirror with him, we never see her image or hear her, and several powerful practitioners who were trying to ferret out Blake’s secrets completely failed to mention her (note they were looking for a female heir, at least until the situation blew up). Also, demesne or not, I would bet Conquest’s hold on his territory is solid enough to forbid her entry automatically, just like a real demesne does.

    So, she is perhaps reading, perhaps monitoring the winding down party, not knowing how Blake is doing and she is suddenly yanked into a nightmarish landscape with Conquest being this terrible monster who just grabbed her. She has not experienced the physical abuse that Blake has, so she probably has less psychological preparedness for this sort of scenario than he does. I would be surprised if she didn’t panic. And she’s the only one who can summon the lawyers. Will that occur to her in time? Or will she instead start chanting Ornias (would it even work)? Or will she just freeze up? This is not a commentary on women, most people who are not used to physical confrontation freeze or panic when faced with a sudden, shocking, nightmarish confrontation like this.

  37. Isadora said “most of us on this hilltop predate the invention of paper”. Most, indicating more than half. There are four of them on the hilltop, five if you count the nameless practitioner. So at least three of them must predate paper. Conquest, I would be surprised if he did not. Isadora I am not surprised by her age in the least. But who’s the other one (or more). Is it the Diana, Jeremy, or the nameless practitioner?

    Context could very easily exclude the nameless practitioner and I think it unlikely that Jeremy, being priest to Greco-Roman god, predates paper. So that means Diana is likely several thousand years old. I think we’ve been glossing over Diana too much. She appears mundane compared to the rest of them, a mere astrologer without a title, a mortal practitioner. If she predates paper, then she is very, very scary.

    Regardless, one of the three practitioners may be older than the Seal of Solomon. Any practitioner who could live through what was effectively open season of humans and come out alive is dangerous.

    1. You failed to count Jeremy’s posse. They probably all predate paper. Which means one of: Conquest, Sphinx and Astrologer predate paper.

  38. This could actually work out for Blake. If he and Rose get some training from Conquest, they could ally up with the others to kill it. Then they waltz back into Jacob’s Bell ready to conquer it and all in their path.

      1. It could be argued that by building up Blake, Conquest is stealing hope away from all of Blake’s enemies. Conquest (do we refer to Conquest as a he, she, it or simply Big C?) seems reasonable enough.

        1. He dresses like a (colonial-era) man and has a beard and a badass mustache. I’d say he’s fair game for “he”.

  39. One can only hope that if Blake ever ends up in England, the Incarnation of Death he meets there would be more like his Discworld Incarnation.

    1. Ah, but in the first Discworld books, Death could be a bit of a hard-ass, a real stickler for formalities. He’s mellowed out a lot over the course of the series.

      If Blake runs into an Incarnation of Death, his best bet might be for her to turn out to be Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels. 🙂

      1. Corollary: If Conquest is a human idea that’s become real from all the imagination and belief that’s been fed into him, and the same goes for the other Incarnations that might exist around the world, could the ideas of other sentient beings become manifest, too?

        If Pactverse turns out to run on the “If you believe in something, it may become real” laws of magic that seem to govern the Discworld universe and a host of other worlds, as well, then that’s probably where the Pactverse goblins and trolls and Faerie came from, and all the other Others.

        But those are all human ideas. What about dolphins, or rats, or monkeys, or white mice called Frankie and Benjy, or ravens, or kea parrots, or any of the multitude of other mundane creatures on Earth that have fairly highly developed brains? Could their semi-conscious perception of reality spawn Incarnations like Conquest?

        In other words: What are the odds of the Grim Squeaker being real? 😉

        http://discworld.wikia.com/wiki/Death_of_Rats

        1. Well, it works for bacteria. Superbugs. The bacteria are pissed off at humans for all these damn antibiotics everywhere. Their anger generates the Conquest of bacteria, who then begins to multiply.

          Yeah, it’s a stretch.

  40. I wonder if next chapter is where Conquest looks at Blake, then at Rose, and says “No, I’m not going to let this charade continue.” Then he snaps his fingers and they join one another, undoing whatever weirdness that Rose Sr. had created.

    Blake + Rose = Rake

    Being female is important for Thorburns, so Rake will probably be female. However, glamour could be used quite nicely to allow the Blake parts to feel comfortable now and then.

    Heh, can’t wait for the next bit.

    1. Wildbow, next time someone posts a spoiler, it might be best to simply leave the response itself in place, and replace the text of the spoiler post with SPOILER comment removed.

      It looks like deleting a response broke something here.

    2. If I delete a comment that’s at the head of a comment chain (a hell of a lot easier than editing it, which is a four-step process), then the child-comments wind up sticking to the bottom of the page. Which… winds up being a sixteen step process as I delete all of the child comments.

      Don’t make me delete comments, guys. >_<

      No Worm spoilers.

      1. Wildbow, you can consider me your knight. The next time someone posts a worm spoiler, I shall call forth the dreaded Pig-type Kaiju.

        They will learn.

      2. There are two effects I have noted:

        A reply to any comment in the comment chain with the deleted comment appears to drop to the bottom also.

        Additional top-level comments, for a while at least, may get inserted approximately where the deleted comment was.

        I have promised a guy who develops WordPress websites a free lunch if he can figure out a fix for the problem.

        1. Gahh! Has Wildbow taught you nothing? Never lie, never make promises! 😮

          And especially no promises that violate the natural order – and as everyone knows, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”! 😉

  41. Comments:
    – Wow, Blake’s friends were just barely introduced last chapter, and Blake already nearly got Tiffany killed.
    – The moment with the first sphinx riddle was sooo clever. Well done, awesome even! And I do accept that Blake’s intuition is well-suited towards this kind of situation.
    – Sphinxes in Pactverse sound intriguing. I hope we’ll see more of them in the future, but I don’t really doubt that we’ll at least see more of Isadora, either. Poor Blake could deal well with sphinxes, if only his karmic balance wasn’t SO screwed.
    – The ending of the chapter is evil :(.

    Great lines: (In fact, the whole chapter had an amazing density in great lines. And that in a bonus chapter? I thought you had less time for those? My current best guess: More characters = more dialogue = more great lines)
    – “A part of me was a little surprised that he’d jumped so quickly to calling it a ‘her’, but I supposed that was a part of living in this world.”
    – “It was a large, sprawling trophy case. Every enemy the Lord had vanquished, he had taken something from them, a piece of their home and a piece of their selves.”
    – ““This isn’t a demesne, as you understand the term,”“Some beings are strong enough to influence their surroundings simply by residing there.””
    – “a badass beard with a waxed mustache”
    – “A composition, a living symbol. And somehow, this landscape was an extension of him. It was like he was ink, bleeding out onto the paper around him, and this… diorama was the end result.”
    – “That seemed to do okay, as far as acknowledging his position. I wasn’t dead yet.”
    – “High Drunk Jeremy Meath”
    – ““Not in attendance is the Sister of Torches, the Shepherd, the Knights of the Basement, the Eye of the Storm, and the Queen’s Man,”” – Ooh. The shepherd could be similar to a certain preacher, the ‘Queen’s Man’ is an amusing name, the ‘Eye of the Storm’ might be a living symbol like Conquest…
    – “Between Conquest and the sphinx, I had the general feeling that I was well out of my depth.”
    – “Very strange, to see an otherworldly being like Conquest Given Form rolling the elastic down the length of the rolled up paper. He unfurled it.”
    – ““What did this cost you, to bring to me?” Somehow, saying ‘Five hundred bucks’ sounded inadequate. “More money than I should have spent.””
    – “Fuck you, Mr. No-name.
    – ““Explain to me why I should value this art as a gift.” Enough with looking gift horses in mouths. How the fuck was I supposed to answer that question? Art was art.”
    – ““Art is culture,” I said, speaking very slowly while thinking very fast.”
    – “I am a taker of the other sort. The sort to leave things bereft. I ask you a second time, why should I value this as a gift?”
    – “Balls and fuck. I hadn’t expected to be grilled. I’d been told that it was a token gift.”
    – “I thought of Tiffany. The strange looking girl who apparently had a girl-boner for me. A damaged person, like me. Like Alexis.”
    – “Fuck you, I thought again, more intensely than before. I vividly imagined killing him, as he was very nearly setting me up to get killed. Conquest looked at me, raising his eyebrows a fraction, inviting a response or counterargument.” – I wonder, did Conquest notice Blake’s killing intent, and approve?
    – ““I am assuming,” I said. I managed to keep my tone civil. “I’m awakened, I speak truth, I saw a variety of pieces, I’ve seen a lot of art in my life, and I can make that assumption with confidence.””
    – ““Then I am satisfied,”“The gift is received, and I’ll accept your presence in my domain until you give me reason to do otherwise.””
    – ““I open the floor,”“Abstaining,”“For once,”“Ha ha,” he said, with zero humor. “That hasn’t gotten old in the past twenty years.”” – I love it.
    – ““You’ve Worked it?” He made it sound like ‘worked’ had a capital to it. An emphasis.”
    – “Isadora smiled. “Novices are so darling. It’s a mass-manufactured tool, but you put so much effort into the binding.””
    – ““[This] is, in many respects, like the painting. An early achievement for me in what I hope will be a long and uneventful career as a practitioner.” Even if all signs point to the opposite.” -> ‘long and uneventful’, hah… now that seems impossible in wildbow’s fiction.
    – ““Sharp for a newbie,”“Once bitten, twice shy,”“Ahh,”“Poor you. You came out of it okay?”“I’m here,”“Not too badly bitten, metaphorically speaking, but shy.””
    – “Oh, hey, practitioners who didn’t want to kill me. I was getting a sense of how someone could get into this life and lifestyle and not be abjectly miserable. Cool scenery, neat monsters, a thrill of danger…” -> Hahahahaha, and again, once Blake relaxes for ONE SINGLE MOMENT, bad karma bites him again.
    – “Damn. Curiosity was bad. […] Could I turn that around? “Then, if it pleases you,”“I won’t say, so you can enjoy the riddle.”” – That was also brilliant.
    – ““I had hoped, for the sake of my interests and yours, to hear your answer.” In my interests? “In my… good interests?” I asked. He smiled, but he didn’t answer.”
    – “How close had I come to giving a simple, casual answer? Had they collectively maneuvered me into this, or was it Isadora doing what her kind naturally did, timing the question so I might slip up and give the wrong answer?”
    – ““Someone told you,”“I honestly figured it out myself,””
    – ““And you chose the answer that served to sum up who you were, while not giving any points that could be argued.”“Honestly,”“I chose the most bullshit answer that sprung to mind, because even if I was wrong, I thought it would buy me time to think or to argue the point.””
    – ““Nobody truly understands themselves, and figuring out who we are is an ever-transforming journey,”“A riddle is merely a question that demands a thoughtful or clever answer.”
    – “Do you understand?” I smiled a bit. “No fun at all,” she pouted, again.” – Hah, he’s already stopped answering her questions…
    – ““The other answer I was going to give,”“Would have been ‘a man’. But I figured bullshit was better than being a smartass.””
    – “Ah, balls. “If I hadn’t asked for your thoughts, I would have torn you apart, hearing that come out of your mouth,”“I remain tempted.” Double balls.”
    – ““I’m genuinely sorry,”“No offense or disrespect was intended. Considering that you just tried to manipulate me into a situation where you could kill me, I think you’re pretty damn cool, as Others go.””
    – “I like him, this Blake. Sharp enough to be interesting. Reckless enough to be potential food. I would not object to having him around.””
    – ““Can we return to the days when you ignored us and we could ignore you?””
    – ““Cougars are generally older women,”“Your point being?””
    – “Conquest shifted in his seat, leaning forward. His slaves, chained up at his feet, looked up at me with eyes that were just as painted. An extension of him.”
    – ““He has wounds on his hands,”“As a man, he is diminished, hollow. A woman stands behind the throne, in his architecture of the self.””
    – “I saw Isadora smile, but it was a very dangerous sort of smile. The sort of smile that would be on a person’s face while they pulled a man’s guts out from a hole in his stomach, if they were the type of person who really enjoyed pulling guts out of stomachs.”
    – “My instinct was to set them against one another, as I’d tried to do in Jacob’s Bell. But, thinking two or three steps ahead, I couldn’t envision many situations where that worked out to my benefit. Looking one step ahead, I could envision a few scenarios where it didn’t work out at all.” – I approve of all occasions in which protagonists learn from their mistakes.
    – “I swallowed. Have to keep control of the situation, because chaos and infighting is not to my advantage when so many of the combatants are this powerful.
    – ““The newest member of the family is upset because mommy and daddy are fighting,”“It’s darling.””
    – ““We have little spats all the time,”“But most of us on this hilltop predate the invention of paper. We’re not about to jeopardize that, much less over you, no offense.”” – Such an amusing line in retrospect, considering they are about to jeopardize that.
    – ““Wait a second,”“I haven’t made any…” I stopped myself. I couldn’t actually say that I hadn’t dealt with demons in good conscience. If the lawyers were representatives of the demons and devils and darker things, then I had. I’d agreed to read the fucking book. I’d… fuck.”
    – ““I’m doing my damndest to avoid going down that road,”“The universe is conspiring to push me that way, because I inherited bad karma and it’s probably the easiest route to fuck me over wholesale, but… I don’t want to, I’m fighting it, and I’ll gladly take any help that makes the fight easier…” I saw the sphinx’s claws come out. “…provided that help doesn’t involve killing or maiming me on any level.””
    – ““If,”“you would gladly take any help that will keep you from that road, you will have to unhappily take a push down that road. The beings that diabolists traffic with bring defeat and pain wherever they tread. […] I could do with a calculated measure of defeat and pain,”” – OH WOW. I didn’t expect anyone to want to summon devils…
    – “Rose was hauled into plain view by the tug on the connection.” – Such a powerful way of ending the chapter.

  42. Uh oh

    “I promised the spirit I would keep her close and keep her warm. Is there room for compromise?”

    There you go lying again, Blake. You have got to keep better track of that stuff. I mean, you already lied twice last chapter in the apartment when talking about Molly’s death. Almost certain my ass. You know she was murdered. If this is the height of lying while telling the truth that we can expect of you, then this story’s going to be over…well, knowing Wildbow, it’s only going to be over after recreating the plots of Pan’s Labyrinth, Hostel, and the Saw series, maybe with a little bit of Old Boy thrown in there for good measure.

    I would have included regular ole Labyrinth in there, but technically Sandra Duchamp kicked that one’s ass. Seriously, Faerie, I respect the power grab, but you still got beat sooner than fucking Jareth did. Plus, I doubt your tights showed off the kind of raw physical power he was packing.

    Ouch, Jeremy, now who’s being stupid? You call the Fool card the lowest? Tsk, tsk. In one system, the fool trumps all. In another, it stands between judgment and the world. I wonder if that little bit of symbolism will come into play here.

    The Fool is the beginning and the end. The joker is wild. A contrarian name for the fool fits fairly well.

    Except for the fact that Blake isn’t funny, crazy, or wise, he’d make an excellent Fool. In its own way, that also makes him a perfect Fool.

    But enough ranting on that. I tend to take a slight offense to any implication of a Fool as the lowest of the low.

    Hey, Pencil Monkey, don’t discount other people who have conquered stuff around North America. You’ve got Subway conquering fast food during the depression. That’s how the Incarnate of Conquest got his foot long Meatball Marinara sword. They say it’s made from the meaty balls of his foes.

    And then there was when Charlie Sheen was winning. That’s how Conquest got his mountain of cocaine and his hookers. That, and he was there when Tony Montana’s mansion got raided.

    The guy likes his cocaine almost as much as he likes his BDSM.

    1. I would never give people who have conquered stuff around North America a discount. They can afford to pay full retail.

      And Foo’s may not be the lowest of the low, but there’s plenty of pretentious presupposedly presidential-quality precedent for a Foo’ being pitiful.

      Just axe Mr. T.

      You can argue with angry people, but you can’t argue with an angry mohawk.

    2. His words regarding Molly’s death were along the lines of “I’m pretty sure word down at the police station was that it wasn’t an accident.”
      Meaning that he was pretty sure that the police (Laird, but more importantly, also mortal police officers) were talking about the possibility of it being a murder.

      No lies there. That seems like a reasonable assumption.

  43. WHAT.
    I mean, that’s honestly my reaction after every one of your chapters, but…WHAT.
    Rose is free. Somewhat. Probably not.
    And Blake is screeeewed, screeeewed, screwed. By Conquest, no less. This guy isn’t a Sorceror or a Time Lardo; he’s Conquest. Oh, Blake, how will you ever get out of this one?
    Wait. If Rose is no longer in the mirror world (at least, until we realize that she has to go back, because nothing good happens to these people), does that mean she is her own entity? So, is she no longer stealing Blake’s body? And, furthermore, is Blake no longer accepted as the heir? Is that even how the mirror world worked? Why the hell did Granny Devil choose a mirror world anyway?
    All this and more, on Pact! No, you cannot ask why or how. No, you cannot reasonably try to predict. And yet we always do, because we love it so. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a serial to binge.

    1. I am increasingly thinking that perhaps Blake’s not the heir – Rose is. As a female she can inherit the family’s mystical heritage. As a non-human with no physical existence she can’t legally inherit the property or do any of the physical stuff that needs doing. Blake is less an heir and more a faithful manservant.

      On the other hand, it probably wouldn’t be so critical that he marry if that were the case, so…

  44. Alternate solution to this situation:

    Isadora: “Who are you?”
    Blake: “I’m the Fool card, drawn with the right hand, the High Priestess drawn with the left.”
    Isadora: “What are you here for?”
    Blake: “I’ve been chased here by rival practitioners.”
    Conquest: “Do you know the names of ANY demons you could summon?”
    Blake: “African or European demons?”
    Conquest: “Well I don’t know tha–”
    Isadora: pouncemurder

  45. Well it was refreshing to see the workings of a court that was not overly hostile to Blake,just playfully murderous with everyone.Aaaaand his karma did its job again.

  46. The incarnation of Conquest is asking why he should value tribute offered by a newcomer to his fiefdom.

    As an intimidation tactic, it’s effective- which is good, because on a surface level it’s a ridiculous question. Tribute is his right as conqueror. Receiving it, in any form, is an affirmation of who and what he is. Receiving it from someone he’s never met is an affirmation of his reputation- his relative stature, as warlords measure these things when they don’t have a battlefield handy. It’s absolutely appropriate to his themes.

    Another answer- true, and more specific to the painting, but a bad idea for Blake to offer- would be that giving away Tiffany’s painting instead of keeping it will complicate Blake’s relationship with Tiffany, in a way that’s not easily undone. Blake has handed over a sizable chunk of a possible future, here- not just Tiffany’s artistic progression from this work, but the progression of Blake’s relationship with Tiffany from the sale. The treatment of material goods with emotional significance is an aspect of love and affection that really can be subtracted- shouldn’t that make it a precious thing and therefore a significant gift?

  47. Here I was thinking Tiffany’s painting would be of value because Blake was going to take Alexis up on their deal, and make Tiffany his sexual conquest.
    That was my first thought. Clearly I’m better than Blake at all this jazz. 😛 mild sarcasm, along with a note that I do not envy his situation in the slightest

  48. Hmm, if I were a practitioner I could totally go for a sphinx familiar. That would be totally cool, and it can’t hurt to have a familiar that keeps you on your toes for wordplay. Ideally it wouldn’t be as bloodthirsty as Isadora, or at least not powerful enough to act on that bloodthirst regularly.

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