Collateral 4.6

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I’d seated myself so the crowd was at my back, with the idea that I’d be able to see the window, hopefully spotting danger, or seeing if and when Rose turned up.  I felt the absence, and I felt a bit of mounting pressure alongside it.

“So,” I said.  “I dunno about you, but I’m wracking my brains, trying to think about what to talk about, and I have no idea.  Family’s off the table, we talked about occupation, I don’t think either of us are really in a place to look beyond the immediate future…”

“I’m doing the same thing.  Except maybe not thinking about it so much as not thinking clearly about anything particular.”

“Sorry,” I said.  I couldn’t say if it was because of her just being the way she was or if it was because of my influence.  It was too similar to how I’d felt near Pauz.  Radiation?

“But I don’t mind just being here.  Having company.”

“No?”

“No,” she said, avoiding eye contact.

“I, uh, don’t think I’m very good at this,” I said.  “Generally speaking.”

“I think this is the first time I’ve ever been anywhere with a guy.  Unless you count the time I was in fifth grade and I had a boy friend I liked to imagine was a boyfriend.  And I made a fool of myself and his mom was there and… I don’t know why I’m saying this.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Is this your first?  Erm, your first time being out with a girl?”

“No.  I’ve been out a few times.  Some back when I was in school, friend of my cousin.  Some later, there was a girl I hung out with on the streets, until she decided to steal my stuff.”

“Oh, oh wow, I’m sorry.”

“No worries.”

“Did that scare you off dating, or- no, stupid question.”

“I don’t think I’d even care, if I ran into her now.  Sucked at the time, but I’m glad she broke it off, so to speak.  Um.  There have been a few girls that Alexis introduced me to, after I started putting my life together.  The singer, the architect, the big sister.”

“Big sister?”

“I’m still not sure what was going on.  Whenever we spent time together, it was always revolving around these kids, her little brothers and sisters that she was taking care of.  She had her hands full.  We never even broke up.  We just… kind of made less and less dates until I realized it had been two months since we’d last connected.”

“Oh.  How old were the kids?”

“Three and five, if I remember right?”

“Maybe they were hers?  She could have been lying?”

The thought caught me off guard.

“Damn it,” I said.  “You’re probably right.  I didn’t even think about it.”

“I shouldn’t even be asking about this.”

“I don’t mind,” I said.

“I mean- um.  This is a date, right?”

I shrugged, hunched over my coffee and the table, so the steam was in my face, and my face was closer to her, allowing me to hear her in the general noise of the University coffee shop.  I was covering one hand with the other so the locket wouldn’t be the first thing she saw when she looked down.  “Yeah.  Kind of?  Let’s call it the best of both worlds.”

“Can we do that?”

I smiled.  “Why the hell not?  If it works out, then we call it a date.  If it doesn’t, we were just out as two people with a mutual friend, who might become friends.”

“I’m doing it all wrong, either way.  I shouldn’t be asking about exes.”

“I don’t mind.  I think it should be allowable, provided there isn’t any dwelling on the subject, unresolved love, or any of that, and there definitely isn’t, here.  Talking about it lets us share some horror stories, break the tension, maybe even subtly hint at what not to do.”

“What not to do?”

“Well, now you know not to bring your kids if we have a date in the future.”

She laughed, a short, surprised, nervous ‘ha’.  “Not a problem.  No kids.”

“Well that’s a relief.  See?  And I could say the thing with the singer was a horrible comedy of errors, including me having an ear infection for the better part of the so-called ‘relationship’, meaning I couldn’t really hear her when she did a show, and I tried to bluff my way through it.  Then she wasn’t considerate when I wanted to take things really, really slow, on the, er, intimacy front, and I got upset.  Maybe ‘comedy of errors’ is the wrong term.  It wasn’t funny, now that I think back on it.”

“Alexis sort of mentioned some things.  I wasn’t sure if I should bring it up, or how to ask, or if I should.”

“See?  The ex topic isn’t a bad thing, since it lets us gently bring up this sort of thing, right?”

“Yeah.”

I wasn’t able to maintain eye contact, so I looked down at my coffee instead.  “If we were doing something date-ish here, I might say that that thing about me wanting to take things slow is still true.”

“Sure.  I… kind of figured, already.”

“Figured?”

“I mean… even your posture, before?  Here?”

“If you’re talking about those… guys, before, that’s something more complicated.”

“I’m talking about the party, and the way you’re sort of tense now.”

Tense?  I looked at what I was doing, leaning over the table, both arms resting on the surface, coffee in front of me.  I could maybe see how it might read as guarded.

I shifted position, pulling my chair closer to the table, sitting up straighter.  I forced myself to relax some, though I remained very aware of the people going this way and that behind me.

“Don’t- please don’t change what you’re doing, on my account.  I’ll feel bad.  Do what makes you comfortable.”

“It’s cool.  I’d rather not look like I’m being defensive, because that tends to make people think they can pick on you.  Might explain a few things, really.”

“The stuff that’s going on with your grandmother’s house, that you haven’t really explained?”

“That stuff,” I said, “along with the stuff related to it.”

“Which you don’t want to go into detail about,” Tiffany said.  “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You aren’t hassling me about it, or prying.  I’m not looking forward to when the other guys start losing patience.  Joel’s already sort of frustrated with me.”

“Who else is the type to pry?  I don’t really know everyone that well.”

“Alexis.”

“Really?”

“Alexis is cool.  She can be pushy.  She’s a nice pushy, a well-meaning pushy.  I love her for it, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t push things.”

“I haven’t run into that.  She’s helped me out lots.”

“Because she’s helping you get from a bad place to a good place.  Both in terms of where you actually are and in terms of you physically, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually, if you buy that stuff.”

“I don’t, really.”

I nodded some.  “But things change when you’ve reached that good place, and she keeps wanting to help.  Get you from that good place to a better place.  Which sounds awesome, except, you know, it can be awfully nice to just enjoy that good place for what it is, after so much bad.  Sometimes you don’t want that extra push.”

Sometimes, I didn’t say, you didn’t want to be matched up with some singer or architect, or you don’t want that offer of a casual three-way.

Tiffany was nodding, but she looked concerned.  “I think I see what you mean.  Are you- are you angry with her?”

“No.  We’ve had fights, some of the most intense arguments I’ve had in my life, and I’ve had some good ones, believe me.  But elaborating on that means talking about family, and I don’t feel like talking about family.”

“Me either.”

“We were talking about Alexis.  I’ve had moments where I was angry at her, after those crazy intense arguments and it took me a while to realize why I was so upset.  She wants me to emerge from my shell, but shells exist for a reason, you know?”

“Yeah,” Tiffany said.  “I definitely know.”

“Don’t get me wrong.  Alexis is in the running for my favorite person in the world.  I owe her… pretty much everything I have that’s good.”

“Yeah.  I know,” she said.

Was that an agreement, because she felt the same way about Alexis, or something different?

Tiffany continued, “She- I’m afraid to ask, in case it’s embarrassing or private between you two, but-”

“Did we date?”

“No!  God, no, that’s not what I was asking.  I don’t… I’m not even sure if I want to know or if I don’t care.”

“We didn’t,” I said.

“Oh,” she said.  The nervous energy or anxiety dissipating in a flash.  “Okay.”

“What were you going to ask?”

“I… just wanted to know if she did your tattoos.”

Without thinking, I rolled up a sleeve.

My heart might have skipped a beat.  I’d been too caught up in this, too caught up in the normal.  I was being careful not to lie, but I was forgetting the things that were different.

The birds that were perched on the branches on my forearm were… a little worse for wear.  Feathers sticking up, dirtier, the glint in their eyes was glintier.  The background had more red to it than it should have.

“It’s more intense than I expected,” she said.  “The detail is beautiful, though.”

I changed tacks, to distract myself, and to distract her.  “I think you’ll probably have some kind of conflict with Alexis.  Take it from someone who’s been there, she means well.  Take that for what it is, take it in stride.  In my case, I try to give things a shot, let her help now and again, but I have to establish the boundaries with some regularity.  Remind her where I stand, nice and assertive.”

“I’m not very good at taking things in stride.  Or being assertive.”

“How do you handle things?”

“Not… well?  I tend to crumple, or do stupid things.”

“Well,  in an ideal world, I’d say I’ll be there to keep an eye on Alexis and help out if she gave you a hard time, but I don’t-”

A crash nearby startled me.  I was out of my chair in a second, back to the wall, as two guys wrestled.  Trays had scattered all over the floor by the door, knocked off the top of one of the trash cans.  A shove or an overly aggressive friendly bump between two guys in hoodies had started it, and it looked like violence was going to finish it.

I’d hoped the animals would be the only things affected by the radiation, had told myself that Tiffany’s outburst against the Sphinx was a reaction to an authority figure, but this…

Dismissing it as a coincidence seemed dangerous.

Some people around us looked a little too upset at the fighting, at being bumped and having their meals disturbed.

“Tiffany?” I asked.

“You want to go?”

“If we can duck out without getting caught in this,” I said.

She nodded.

I stood by, waiting, watching as someone got bumped a few too many times by the two guys and stood.

Heads were turning.  The brawl had everyone’s attention.

My attention, however, was on the door.  I watched them struggle, slightly back and forth, convinced that the moment I tried to head for the door, they’d stagger back, hitting me or Tiffany, and getting us caught up in the chaos.

I saw them lurch one direction, waited to make sure it wouldn’t switch to another crash into the trash can, and hurried past, getting the door, holding it for Tiffany.

She ducked under my extended arm.

Damn.  Two incidents.  I could only hope that I hadn’t made the University donut shop the site of a brawl, just by being there.

I really hoped I hadn’t started a riot.

I really, really hoped this would end soon.  I’d stepped in shit, I was tracking it everywhere.

“That was crazy,” she said.  “Man, I do not like that sort of thing.”

“I can understand that,” I said.

I glanced at a shop window, half-expecting to see Rose there, sharing some silent commentary on what had just happened.  She still wasn’t there.  How easy it was to get used to mirror-dwelling people-figments.

“You were sharing some personal stuff, about the ‘bad’ we’re trying to move on from?  That’s my sort of ‘bad’.”

“Fighting?  Violence?” I asked.

“Yeah.  It… really makes me feel like I’m seven again.  Helpless, frustrated.  Really… I’m not an angry person, you know?”

I started to respond, then forced myself to stop, reconsidering.  Saying something like, ‘I didn’t think you were’ would be a lie, since I had thought it.

“It wasn’t my impression of you,” I finally said.

“I’ve never been in a fight, not… not that sort of fight.  But it makes me angry.  Makes me want to hit them, beat them senseless for being so stupid that they’ll beat each other senseless.  And now I’m worried I sound like a freak, or an idiot.  I’m not sure which, or if it’s both.”

“I’m not here to judge you, remember?” I asked.

“Sure, it’s easy to say that, but then I say something stupid like that, there’s no way you don’t judge me a little.”

“A good rule of thumb is to assume that people aren’t nearly as fussed about anything you’re doing as you think they are.”

“I keep hearing that, but that doesn’t make it easier.”

“It will.  Look, without getting into detail or treading on sensitive territory, I assume you’re looking to change yourself?”

“Yeah.”

“How many years did you travel down to this point?”

“My whole life, so… nineteen?”

“Nineteen years.  Okay.  Why expect an overnight change, then?  Isn’t that being unfair to yourself?”

“Maybe.”

“I’m… I know I’ve frustrated some people, by being slow to change.  But I think it’s worse to betray myself and expect too much of myself in undoing a solid lifetime of bullshit.  Excuse my French.”

“Ce n’est pas grave.”

“Ah, a French speaker.”

“It’s a bilingual country.”

“I’ll rephrase.  Someone who seems remotely fluent, and who didn’t forget the little they learned in High School.”

“Oh, okay,” she said, but she smiled a little as she said it.  A little praise going a long way.  Praise, perhaps, that she couldn’t deny.

It didn’t hurt to try taking it a step further.

“Take this for what it’s worth, Tiffany… I think I can see why Alexis likes you.  I’m starting to like you too, insofar as I’ve gotten to know you.  I think you’re pretty cool.”

“Oh god.  Don’t start saying stuff like that, or I’ll die right here.”

“Go easy on yourself,” I said.  “I think I would continue to enjoy your company if you didn’t change from the way you are now.  But if you are going to change, give those changes time, to work against nineteen years of history.  Yeah?”

“I’m- I’m sort of worried I’ll get lazy and fall back on old habits if I don’t work at it.”

Which was an indirect, unintentional stab at me.  Criticizing my way of handling things.

“Do what works for you,” I said.  “That’s all it comes down to, once I’m done making it complicated.”

“Okay.  I can do that.”

I saw another window, absent my reflection or Rose’s.

The worry was reaching a critical point.

“Listen, I’m sorry for doing this-”

“You’ve got stuff.  Serious stuff, from what you were hinting at last night.”

Serious stuff.  Yeah, that summed it up.

“Yeah.  Is it alright if we do this again, in the future?”

“Maybe,” she hedged.

“Maybe?”  I hadn’t expected that.  She was interested in me.  I had a hard time grasping why, beyond our common ground, but she was so nice and generally passive that I hadn’t expected anything other than a yes.

“Maybe…  But I need some promises,” she said.

“I’m sort of leery of promises, at this point.”

“Okay.  Well, hear me out, first.  The first promise would be that you have to forgive me for mucking this up and making it into more of a therapy session for me than anything.”

“That’s not what it felt like to me,” I said.  “Sorry if I made it into that for you.”

“No.  I don’t know.  Yes.  But I didn’t mind.”

“Well, I already said I would strive to look past any of the minor snafus, or something in that vein.  I have no problem with that promise.”

“Okay.  The second is, well, I need you to not demote me to some label like ‘the singer’ or ‘the big sister’.  Because I’m really afraid of what that label would be.”

“That’s not- I didn’t do that to demote anyone.  Not intentionally.”

“That’s- I don’t think you’re the sort to do that in a mean spirited way, and it didn’t feel mean, but I don’t want to be the Weird Girl or the Shy Girl or the Girl Who Takes Way Too Long To Eat A Donut Because She’s Nervous.”

“Did you?”

“I felt like I did.”

“I didn’t notice.  I hereby swear that you will not, should I be able to help it, become the Donut Girl in my estimation.”

“Oh god.  Donut Girl,” she said.  But she was smiling.  “That statement sounded so important and meaningful when you said it like that.”

“It is,” I said.  “Hey…”

I reached out, hesitated, then took her hand.  I held it between both of mine.  “I’m not very good at this part, but… I enjoyed this.  It did a lot more for me than I can safely put into words.  I’m, uh, not really the sort to make that leap to kissing a girl after a nice first date, and I’m not sure if we’ve agreed it was one, but if I were, and if we did-”

“Oh,” she said, her eyes dropping to the ground.  “You’re back to saying these things.”

“-I’d give you a chaste, quick kiss right now.”

She turned pink.

“Sorry,” I said.  I squeezed her hand, then let it go.  “Another time?  Something I don’t have to cut short?”

She nodded, very quickly, unable to maintain eye contact.

We parted ways.

Immediately, I shifted mental gears.

This had been silly, mundane.

But I’d needed this, much as I’d needed the party the previous night.  I’d eaten, I’d touched base with me, in a way, done as much as I could to recharge that supply of personal power.

I was getting more of a sense of what was going on with my tattoos, though.  They were a barometer of sorts, a kind of representation of what was affecting me on a mystical level.

I wasn’t sure if that went anywhere, if they could keep going down that road, or if there was more to it, but there was no way that the tattoos and Pauz’s effect weren’t related on some level.

Rose had told me that I was pale, before, that I’d been diminished, when my personal power was drained, my defenses low, at the same time my tattoos were brighter and more intense.  My defenses hadn’t yet recovered, so Pauz had been able to affect me all the more.  Had I changed here as well?  How would I change, under a demon’s influence?

I could picture my hair sticking up, like the birds were, my face settling into a natural glare…

Hm.

Hard to link that to the dialogue with Tiffany.  She’d been nervous, but no more than her usual self.

I rolled up my sleeve again, checking the bird closest to my wrist.

It was hard to say.  I hadn’t been paying attention to this particular bird… but maybe it seemed a bit less ‘intense’ than it had?  Was that because I was bleeding off the conflict and radiation, donating it to innocent dogs and people in donut shops?

Or was it because I’d bolstered my personal power on a level?

The other possibility, I couldn’t deny, was that it boiled down to wishful thinking coupled with imagination.

I headed for the apartment.  Not far from the University.

Rose would be recuperating, hopefully, while grabbing and researching the various books pertaining to diabolic bargains.  My job would be figuring out how to draw up a quick, effective circle, using the tools I had at hand.  I’d also need a way to protect myself.

No way was I letting this radiation get worse.

Thinking about tattoos gave me other ideas.

I debated the ideas until I’d reached the apartment.  I let myself in, and made my way up to my place.

With the walls being somewhat thin, I didn’t want to shout, so I did a patrol, walking around the perimeter, my eyes on the various mirrors.

No.  She wasn’t here.

Okay, that wasn’t a huge shock.  What were the rules?  She could only be around me or be in the Hillsglade House.

I checked the time.  The idea was to be there ‘tonight’.  Our deadline was midnight.

We still had to take the bound being to Conquest.

Rose and I had hours to get ready.  Hours to hammer out a good contract.  But too much of it was up in the air.

I fished in my pockets for the subway tickets I’d bought, placing them on the dining room table.

I’d been on the subway at eight fifty, I’d arrived at nine forty.  Thirty minute walk factored in…

Roughly an hour and a half, once I added additional walk time or other distractions.

What was the latest I could possibly leave?  How long would the negotiation over the contract and the following ritual take?  How long would it take to get to Conquest afterward, with Pauz in tow, without having him declare the deadline past?

I ran through the numbers in my head as I pulled off my sweatshirt and t-shirt.

I got bleach from under the kitchen sink.

Zero idea if this would work, but I was operating without books.  Rose was the one with the reading material, and she was AWOL.

I laid out the shirt flat, smoothed out the wrinkles, and set to work.  A droplet of bleach on the underside of a glass, a nail, and gentle scratching of the fabric.

The bleach marked lighter lines in the fabric.  Lighter lines were joined by other lines, carefully measured, geometric patterns, shapes…

Pauz was an imp of things foul and feral.  A being of wanton chaos, of overturned order.  He was weak enough that he could be subdued by ‘like’ elements – fur, blood, and shit, in his case.  It was why the rabbit circle had worked.  But Rose had told me, essentially, that the preferred way to go was to fight with opposing qualities.

Bleach, I hoped, or the aftermath of bleach, was ideally a material that opposed him.  Man made to contrast the focus on the natural, purifying, to contrast the focus on rot, foulness and stagnation.

I stuck with triangles bounded by circles, to lay out the design across the shirt.

It took time, but that was okay.  Time meant Rose could get back to me, find me and give me the lowdown.  If she wrote up a contract to bind Pauz, I’d have to copy it over, which was more time.

When did I start worrying?  Seven thirty seemed like a safe time to leave, but how long did I have to take to copy the contract?

I didn’t really want to think about what happened if Rose didn’t show up.

I was starting to regret not figuring out more about the mirror world, or Rose’s interaction with it.

I finished etching lines in the shirt, bullshitting something that looked like a magic circle, then started on a pair of black slacks.  The clock ticked on.  An early lunch with Tiffany and a short walk back had put the clock at twelve thirty as I’d made my way back.

I watched the clock hit two as I put the slacks down, the inside of the pants etched with an even denser image.  The coarser, thicker surface gave me more freedom, and I was getting a hang of the task.

I had no idea if it mattered or if it did any good.  I’d imagined that the framing of it and the way that the lines and triangles pointed towards the openings at the bottom of each leg would make it stronger, but now I wondered if it would only serve as a weak point.

When building a bridge, was it better to simply use the strongest elements available, or did one try to anticipate the stresses, accommodate the terrain?

No.  I was overthinking it.  Besides, it was done.

My hands hurt.  My knuckles were white and standing up against the skin where I’d been holding my hand in the same position, clutching the nail.

I clenched my fist, and felt the joints pop.  Still shirtless, chilled where the cool air had touched the sweat on my back, I headed for the bathroom, cranking the shower to ‘hot’.

While it heated up, I grabbed my one dress shirt from the closet and hung it up by the shower.  Humidity, steam, heat.

Hot water didn’t really kill germs.  Water hot enough to kill bacteria would generally be scalding.  But hot water could be symbolic, and as long as I was pulling countermeasures out of my ass for the upcoming confrontation with Pauz, I was going to treat myself to a second hot shower for the day.  Wash away the filth and radiation.

Maybe.

When I was done the shower, I shaved for a second time.  I took my time grooming, trimming my nails and body hair, brushing my teeth, flossing, then taking far too long trying to tame my generally uncooperative hair.  The mop.

For long moments, I debated just shaving it off.

I reconsidered.

My enemy was all about challenging the natural order.  I embraced the trappings of civilization.  I used the file on the back of the nail clippers to fix up the rough edges of my nails as I paced nervously to the back of the apartment, then returned to the kitchen.

Grooming was baseline.

But the rest of the trappings of civilization would have to wait.  In boxer-briefs only, I headed for the toolbox.

Acrylic paint, watercolor?

No.  I didn’t trust the effects of the paint, didn’t trust that I wouldn’t have an allergic reaction.

I gathered up every pen in my place.  The clock on The Shitty Little Stove, as I’d come to unfondly regard it, told me it was three.

Keep it simple.

The pens in a pile, I drew a series of lines beside the still-angry wound on my hand, working around the chains of the locket.  One line for each pen.  I very carefully laid the pens down in order.

I waited a minute, taking the time to sketch out what I wanted to do.  My figures were horrible, but I only needed a basic sketch.

No time for anything complex…

Have to work in physical limitations

Wetting my thumb-tip with my tongue, I ran it along each of the lines.

I picked out the winning pen.  The one that had dried most effectively, streaking the least.  Bold black lines.

Compass, protractor, some finangling to get the pen into the compass, and a pink nub of eraser ripped off a pencil

I drew a circle around my heart, off-center in my chest, using the eraser-nub with the compass so the little needle wouldn’t prick me.

Liver, pancreas, bellybutton…

Lines joined it, helped by a set-square, and each line was subsequently joined by an impression of cold metal against skin.

Three twenty in the afternoon.

Still no Rose.

She’d shattered two windows.

One frozen pond had taken the strength out of her.

Two windows, though… one after the other…

I hadn’t seen anything suggesting she was still there.  And if she’d destroyed the windows, she’d destroyed the very reflection that was allowing her to be there.  The way she’d described shattering the pond’s ice, she’d been shunted to another location.  Forced to the nearest safe ground.

So… why hadn’t she found her way back to me?

A triangle, carefully measured, not with right angles, but still very carefully drawn.  The lines didn’t match up, forcing me to make the ensuing line thicker and avoid it being broken up.

The line across the small of my back was harder, slower.  I cheated, leaning against the dining room table until I’d left an impression in my skin, then using the set-square to keep it straight.  Spent far too long trying to get the ruler in place again when the line wasn’t a hundred percent there, after I moved it.

The diagram called for a triangle across my back, pointing up at the nape of my neck.  I debated if I’d have time…

Then, seeing the residual ink on the set-square, I gutted the pen and soaked the edge of the metal ‘L’.  Very carefully, I pressed it against my back, rolling it back and forth to get it into the grooves and recesses.  I checked the end result, then did it again.

Four o’clock.

Legs, arms, hands, feet, including the soles.  Faster due to their location, but my speed at figuring out the process was balanced by the awkwardness of some of the angles, and the fact that I needed the use of the very limbs I was working on.

Rose hadn’t appeared to demand to know what the fuck I was doing to myself.

She hadn’t shown up, shrieked at seeing me in my underwear, drawing on myself.

I was now well past the point where I was worried.

Clothing…

I donned the t-shirt, smoothed out the wrinkles on the button-up shirt, and buttoned it up over the t-shirt.

No horrible burning.  Good.

I put on the hatchet-holster, then pulled the slacks on.  I’d placed open spaces at the knees, so I wouldn’t rub away the image or transfer too much bleach on my skin, but I still worried about the other areas where it might rub.

Not exactly top notch, but it felt like a step in the right direction.

Tie, yes.  I picked a red one.

I wished I had the goblin flute and the paper goblins, but they hadn’t been mine to keep.

I had to be selective in terms of what I brought, this time.  Only so many pockets.  I chose the basics.  Pens, cord, the hook-screws.

Five o’clock.  Five o’clock and I would take action.

I cooked some pork chops, brussel sprouts, and grilled up thick slices of sweet potato, more to keep myself busy than anything else.  Healthy body, covering all of the bases, to counteract the demon that upset the natural balance of things.

Four twenty.  I’d hoped it would take longer.

I fidgeted, then decided to bite the bullet.

The drawer in my bedroom whisked open.  I collected the book.  The only one I had.

Black Lamb’s Blood.

Fuck.

I opened it, and I started reading, book open in my hands while I paced.

Halfway through the introduction, I stopped to go to the fridge and rescue another cupcake from the plastic container within.

I resumed reading, finishing the introduction.

I didn’t read the rest of the book.  I skimmed, looking, hoping for charts, for something concrete.

But it wasn’t a magical tome.  Not really.  There were no rituals within.  No charts, nor ingredients or diagrams.  No proper terminology for bullshitting contracts in an hour.

Not what I needed, even in the slightest.

I needed Rose.  I needed her help to establish a game plan.

I watched the last few minutes tick forward on the analogue clock of The Shitty Little Stove.

It ticked past five o’clock.  I watched until five oh one.

“Rose Thorburn,” I intoned.  “I summon you.”

Nothing, not even a flicker.

That disquieted me.

A vestige was fragile.

Rose had already been abused, hauled into a strange Conquest dimension, chained…

I fidgeted briefly, messing with the chain on my locket-hand.

“Rose Thorburn, by the tie that binds you to me and vice versa, I call you.”

Nothing.

“Rose Thorburn, you are me and I am you, one step apart, I call you.”

I’d had more luck with Leonard, my drunk ghost in a bottle.

“Rose Thorburn, by all your frustration with me, by the oaths I have sworn to you and the oaths you have sworn to me, I bid you to return to my side.

“Rose Thorburn…”

I didn’t know how to finish.

“God damn it, Rose, I need your help.  Don’t leave me hanging.”

I picked up the tome, started reading it again, then put it down.  Ten minutes later, nervous, I picked it up again.

I debated calling the lawyers for help.

Had they expected this?  Had they helped it happen?

It would be so fitting if they were somehow in league with Conquest, if they were orchestrating this entire thing to put me on this road.

I had to obey Conquest or he’d murder me and Rose.

Obeying Conquest put me on this road, forced me into a situation where I had to beg for help, accept the deal.  Working for another diabolist.

Where would that path take me?

But if I didn’t take the offer of help?  Where did I wind up?

Dead, probably.

Would the diabolists step in to save me?  They wanted me on board.  They were going to lengths.

I pulled on my gloves with care, the ink and locket in mind, alongside the cuts and gouge that hadn’t yet healed.

The coat was next.  Not quite a suit, but the coat was meant to be worn with a suit, and it looked good.  Suitlike, only it hung longer.  Only closer inspection would see the absence of the suit jacket underneath, or the t-shirt beneath the dress shirt.

I smoothed down some of the curls of blond hair that were escaping  their prison of hair styling glue, knowing they wouldn’t stay down.  I moved my mouth around, stretching my skin to make sure I didn’t have any patches of hair where I’d missed shaving.  Never mind that I’d shaved twice today.

If I was going to armor myself in my own self and identity, I’d damn well stick to my preference of being clean shaven.  I’d spent too many weeks with wispy teenaged beard growth while I’d been on the streets.  I was going to be the best Blake Thorburn I could imagine.  The sort of Blake who could look good in an almost-suit, but still pull off his button-up shirt and start working on framing a new art installation, or do prop work for the theater, or something.  I’d armor myself in my personal ideal, hold it up to give myself courage in a situation where I had very, very little.

The inked out magic diagrams across my skin couldn’t hurt either, as armor went.

Probably couldn’t hurt.

I adjusted my tie.

I was procrastinating.  It was seven.  I had no idea what the evening had in store for me, now.

Rose had removed herself from the picture, Conquest was fucking with me by using that chain to remove her from my company, or something else entirely.

I filled my nicer backpack with essential supplies – the tome, the papers, some of the working pens, and other basic tools that it didn’t hurt to keep, slung it over one shoulder, and left.

No dogs barked at me while I made my way to the subway.  I heard crows caw, but I couldn’t say if they were taunting me or just being ordinary crows.

On the subway itself, no fights broke out.  No disasters happened as a result of the radiation.  There was only the crowd, the late rush of people who had been working until dinnertime.

I hesitated as long as I could, waiting for the telltale Blake in Rose’s voice.

When the doors started to slide shut, I hurried through them.

I walked down suburb streets until I started seeing the telltale signs of Pauz’s influence.  Crows, and watching animals.  Every house had curtains drawn, every light on, otherwise.

The Dowghty house was the only one that had no lights at all.  Flocks of crows took off as I approached, but they didn’t attack me.

I reached into the backpack for the yellow lined paper and the tome, drew out a pen, and then tossed it aside before stepping onto the driveway.

The door opened as I knocked.  The inside was as cold as the outside.

Filthier, oddly more wilderness.

Stray branches, dirt, trekked in mud and snow, frozen in tracks.  Dung and offal, bones.

The smell was enough to make me want to gag.  Cloying, animal, dominating the senses until it felt like throwing up would be a relief, cleaner and less gross than enduring this.

I used the back of the tome as a surface to rest the paper on, making my way through the house.  Store-bought meat and the packaging for meat littered the floor in adjacent rooms.  Cats and rodents hissed and growled as I passed too close to their food.

He was in the room opposite the front door, at the far end of the house.

A broken old man, clearly malnourished to the point that he should be in a hospital.  His reactions were delayed as a cat hopped up into his lap to nibble at something that really didn’t look like it belonged on a dinner plate.  Not cooked, barely taken care of.  His arms were pocked with injuries where animals had nibbled on him and he’d been too slow to react.  Some looked infected.

He smelled like he’d shit himself, sitting there.

A table laid out for a banquet, except the banquet had gone to rot.  The guests remained, lurking at the edges of the room, on and under furniture, staring.

Pauz perched on the back of the chair, just behind Dowghty’s shoulder.

“It looks like it’ll be just me today,” I said.

“I know,” Pauz responded, confirming suspicions I hadn’t even allowed myself to voice.

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251 thoughts on “Collateral 4.6

  1. FYI readers, Pact is now on Topwebfiction and Webfictionguide. You can vote at the former (once a week), and you can rate/review at the latter.

    Big thank-yous go out to Jim Zoeteway and GSW for their reviews. Much respect to these two authors who’ve been at this a lot longer than I have, I love you guys.

    If any of you artists want to take a stab at creating a banner for Topwebfiction, let me know. Art isn’t my strong suit. Financial compensation could be arranged, if you have the skills.

    There will be a Thursday chapter this week, barring exceptional circumstance (illness or losing a limb might keep me from the task).

    Thanks for reading. Stay tuned (and let me know if you want a regular chapter or a Gathered Pages of Black Lamb’s Blood Thurs).

    1. I really like the glimpses into the inner workings of the Pact verse, but Blake’s situation is a little tense right now. So, I would ask for a regular update, as long as we can get Black Lamb’s Blood later. If we can’t, then Blake (and my tension) will just have to hang on for a bit longer.

      1. This was a pretty accurate summation of my feelings on the subject.

        I quite enjoy the Gathered Pages (particularly the tomes) and would like to see more, so “getting more Gathered Pages” takes the highest priority, but if we will be getting them regardless, then I will take “Dealing w/ the imp and hopefully finding out what happens to Rose” sooner rather than later.

        Thanks for all of the amazing work 🙂

    2. So Pact is already third on TWF. That’s impressive. At least I know it has my vote.

      Unless the book has some super awesome foreshadowing or alternative perspective (for the readers), at this point I’d like to see the action continue. I need my Pact fix!

          1. Fortunately, Topwebfiction operates with a top-45 rather than a top 10, or a top 3. Otherwise, it would wind up wall-to-wall Wildbow in a few years. 😉

    3. BLOOD, BLOOD!!!

      Okay, its probably not a good sign I’m calling for blood, but still. We can never have too much blood.

      1. Blood for the Blood God! Skulls for the Skull Throne!

        Blake. The first character who’d actually be better off in the Warhammer 40k Universe.

    4. re: Banner
      What are the dimensions needed? I tried looking around at other listings on twf but none of them seem to have banners, unless I’m looking in the wrong spots.

      In the meantime gonna make a mockup to see if the design idea I have looks as good in practice as it does in my head.

          1. Perhaps Wildbow picked his online handle in reference to one of the critters from Final Fantasy?

            http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Pig_(Tactics)

            Ironically, if a Wildbow (the FF pig creature) is poached to get its shiny loot, you’ll usually end up with a fancy Ribbon, which grants immunity to pretty much all special attacks, and (in some of the games) can only be equipped by female characters. Considering Wildbow’s (the author) penchant for having strong female characters in his stories, that seems appropriate. 😉

            1. So the only way to knock Wildboar off his Topwebfiction throne, is by writing an excellent Asterix & Obelix-inspired webfic? 😉

            2. In FFT, limited to female characters and Cloud. I’m sure he’s still missing Don Corneo.

            3. “In FFT, limited to female characters and Cloud. I’m sure he’s still missing Don Corneo.”

              Is that another vote for the “Blake should start crossdressing for power-ups” coalition? 😉

              “I am Don Cornholio! I need TP for my bunghole!” (Insert head-banging/immature sniggering emoticon.)

    5. Hmm, whatever you think you can write the best, I think. These last couple updates have seemed a little rushed, to be honest

  2. C’mon kids! Going camping will be fun! You’ll get to cook marshmellows, live off the fat the of the land, and look for typos! (This is the Typo Thread.)

      1. No, he was saying that he would wait until 5:00.
        typos:
        –Compass, protractor, some finangling to get the pen into the compass, and a pink nub of eraser ripped off a pencil
        misssing a period
        –“Rose Thorburn, by all your frustration with me, by the oaths I have sworn to you and the oaths you have sworn to me, I bid you to return to my side.
        missing a quotation mark

    1. now that I think back o it
      on it

      I could only hop that I hadn’t made
      hope

      I really, hoped I hadn’t started a riot.
      the comma is unusual there

    2. I suspect his writing is getting tighter over time- or more likely, he’s writing faster and has more time to proof it. I only caught the already-noted bit about the chaste kiss.

    3. I reached into the packpack for the yellow lined paper and the tome, drew out a pen, and then tossed it aside before stepping onto the driveway.

      I’m surprised the Packpack typo wasn’t reported yet.

    4. Unneeded comma after “really”:
      “I really, hoped I hadn’t started a riot.”

      Missing preposition below:
      “When I was done the shower”

      Two uses of “telltale” two sentences apart, which is a bit awkward.

    5. Typos:
      – “Man made to contrast the focus on the natural” -> ‘man-made’
      – “escaping their” -> two spaces
      – “clean shaven” -> ‘clean-shaven’
      – maybe: “suburb streets” -> ‘suburban streets’?
      – “The Dowghty house” -> ‘Dowght house’
      – “Dowghty’s shoulder” -> ‘Dowght’s shoulder’

    6. Compass, protractor, some finangling to get the pen into the compass, and a pink nub of eraser ripped off a pencil –> missing a period, and I’m pretty sure finangling should be finagling

  3. Wow. The date actually went okay. I’m shocked that you let nice things happen to your characters sometimes. =P

    Though it seems Rose is getting the bad end of that. =\

    On proofreading things: “-I’d give you a chaste, quick kiss you right now.”

    And I’m unsure how the triangles work. How does something have right angles on every side?

    1. Curved surfaces. Take the Earth, assume it is a sphere. Put a point at the North Pole and two points one quarter of a circumferance from each other. Join the points with lines on the sphere. Result: a triangle with three right angles.

        1. Well, not exactly a triangle, then, since it has no straight sides. :p

          I mean, chop a golf ball into eighths, and look at it from any angle you like, and there won’t any way it looks like a triangle ever.

          1. They are straight by a certain standard when considering the nature of the coordinate space they are embedded within.

    2. Its actually possible, depending on how one defines a triangle, for a triangle on the surface of a sphere to have three right angles.

  4. Noooo! Don’t do that to us Wildbow! How can we possibly be expected to hold for 48 hours without knowing what happened to Rose? You… demon!

    The way Blake’s waiting is described is especially stressful because it feels so close to mundane situations where someone’s not answering their phone and you have no idea whether they’re out of battery or something happened. (Yeah, I tend to worry a lot for nothing in those situations). Except here the “something happened” is both a lot more likely and a lot more dire… Blake can’t lose his (almost) only friend in the Practitioner world!

    1. Oh yeah so if this wasn’t clear I totally want to know what happened to Rose on Thursday (be it through a regular chapter or a POV of whoever’s responsible for her disappearance). I wouldn’t mind reading Black Lamb’s blood in the future, but it should probably be at a point where the tension is not so high.

      1. Blows a trumpet.. My first pact based typo comment.
        ..
        ‘I could only hop that I hadn’t made the university donut shop the site of a brawl, just by being there.’

        I think you meant hope maybe?

        P.S PACT currently in third place.

    2. I concur. Only Wildbow could make taking a shower, cooking a meal and doodling all over yourself with pens, that nerve-racking.

      And now we get to experience that feeling ourselves while we play the waiting game to see just how much worse this situation can get.

      1. I agree! At first I wondered why he wasn’t freaking out more, if Wildbow was trying to downplay it, but– well, wasn’t it more realistic the way it was? My chest feels tight.

        Also seconding the Gathered pages! I really want to know what happens, but I can wait. I want the “extra” material! I hope it’ll appear other than just on Thursdays. I want to say it has in the past…?

    3. “Noooo! Don’t do that to us Wildbow! How can we possibly be expected to hold for 48 hours without knowing what happened to Rose? You… demon!”

      Did you know that if you call out his name three times, the Author will manifest, so you can give him a piece of your mind directly?

      Although, if you tell him that you summoned His Dire Presence into your local sub-section of the universe with the express purpose of giving him a piece of your mind, then he may interpret it quite literally. 😉

      (NOM NOM TASTY BRAINS)

      1. Well, I gave him a piece of my wallet to restore the karmic balance. Hopefully no one will know any time soon exactly how tasty my brains are… :p

  5. Huh, I am confused. Does Blake have a reflection now, since he’s noted as shaving? I thought that Rose had taken its place.

    1. I don’t think so. I figured he just shaved without looking in a mirror. It’s not preferable, but definitely doable.

          1. …and now I feel crappy for documenting a mistake right before the author fixes it >.>

            Keeping track of that seriously has to be a beast.

    2. Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s actually got his reflection back but he didn’t seem to think anything of it. He’s forgotten he doesn’t have a reflection before, so it’d make sense he wouldn’t think about it when he was preoccupied.

      I’m going to take that as a very big sign that something is very wrong with Rose.

        1. The Krustacean Catch 22:

          Big K draws nice fan art, so everyone wants him to draw the Worm and Pact characters.

          When Big K draws a character, it jinxes them to death, so everyone wants him to stop drawing Worm and Pact characters. 🙂

  6. And how exactly would Pauz know? Did Rose somehow jump to his domain when she hurt herself breaking the windows? Pauz did not seem to be in contact with any local Others or practitioners, so that is my best guess so far. Anyone else want to take a guess?

    If so, Rose is in trouble. Pauz probably did not appreciate her heavy-handed bargaining earlier.

    1. “Pauz!” Rose called out.
      “A little more subtle than that, Pauz.”
      “You’re not even a pawn to them, Pauz,”
      “I don’t think either Pauz or I expected it,” she said. “Why?”
      “In part,” Rose said. “It might be easier to deal with the two of them than it is to deal with Conquest and Pauz separately.”

      Oh, f*** me. Pauz can be invoked by five namings, and Rose named him five times last chapter. Namings are not a one-way street – Blake was warned there was a price for invoking Ornias, though Ms. Lewis was there to take it at that time. Rose just “summoned” Pauz and thereby gave him power over her.

      1. ….Oh damn, you’re right.

        Name = Connection.
        Connection = Exploitable.
        Rose: Total Power – Expended Power (breaking window x 2) = Weakened Rose
        Weakened Rose < Pauz = Bad Things

        1. I have difficulty with the ‘saying ANY deamons name 5 times automatically summons it’ on the basis of then why did Barbatorem need to be baited with “a pile of festering boar carcasses, six feet high…” (etc)? Would not it have been FAR simpler for Rose Senior to just say it’s name 5 times while standing inside the binding circle?

            1. Besides, Granny RDT was describing a ritual she used to both summon and bind Barbie, keeping him trapped in the tower for later use. Presumably, she would also need to speak Barbie’s name X number of times to summon him, and the bacon and the baby etc. were intended as bait, or a distraction, or a bribe, or an offering, or… whatever, to keep Barbie in place, while Granny bound him.

              Rose was using the threat of invoking the name of another demon from the 5th choir, something more powerful than Pauz, to intimidate the little punk. The lawyers gave Blake the name of Hornyass Starchucker, and told him to speak it seven times to call it forth. Apparently, it’s possible to catch the attention of certain Others by speaking their name, in an emergency, but it’s preferable to use a more elaborate ritual to protect your mortal heiney from getting supernaturally buggerated.

            2. It was less about literally being 5 times, I’m quite happy for different deamons to need different numbers of repetitions, and more that we lack evidence that name repetition works for ALL deamons generally, and specifically Pauz in this case.

              IF you can summon any deamon with just name repetition, it does not make sense for Rose Senior to have needed the elaborate bait for the Barber, and it would seem trivially easy for any diabolist to capture a HUGE number of deamons by the already described means.

            3. “It was less about literally being 5 times, I’m quite happy for different deamons to need different numbers of repetitions, and more that we lack evidence that name repetition works for ALL deamons generally, and specifically Pauz in this case.

              IF you can summon any deamon with just name repetition, it does not make sense for Rose Senior to have needed the elaborate bait for the Barber, and it would seem trivially easy for any diabolist to capture a HUGE number of deamons by the already described means.”

              The demons are probably perfectly happy with letting amateur diabolists assume that speaking their name X number of times will summon and bind them. 😉

              Anyone who’s played the Call of Cthulhu RPG will know (most likely from bitter, bitter personal experience) that even though you’ve mastered the Summon Gribbly Squamous Tentacle Colon-Violator spell, you shouldn’t cast it until you’ve learned the matching Bind Gribbly Squamous Tentacle Colon-Violator spell, as well. 😮

          1. Barbatorem is RDT’s designation for the demon – she admits it is a play on words based on its abilities. She does not state its actual name and might not even know it.

            It appears that the problem with naming demons is that it generates connections and obligations both ways – see Ms. Lewis’s commentary on summoning Ornias that way. With Barbatorem, it appears that RDT got him there using other means (attracting his attention with physical objects, perhaps backed by spellwork) and then proceeded to talk to and bind him. So, you can get their attention fast if you know their names… but you better be prepared to pay a price. But if they happen to show up for other reasons, no immediate obligation (but you better be prepared if you tackle one).

            Also, given that normal historical scholars in the Pactverse probably say demonic names all the time, I bet you have to be a practitioner for anything to happen. And the naming ability might be something restricted to diabolists alone.

            Some of that is supposition based on the small amount of available evidence, but I believe it generally hangs together.

            1. Ah, excellent point. Here, have a cupcake. Don’t worry, it’s not made from artificial festering boar carcasses. 🙂

              But seriously though, that sounds like a very convincing argument.

              “Is it more effective to summon demons by speaking their name?”

              “No, no, no! Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

            2. “She does not state its actual name and might not even know it.” – Disagree:

              Does not 1.07 actually state that in baiting the Barber “a pile of festering boar carcasses, six feet high, each carved with his name” was used?

              I interpreted this as that the pigs had the Barber’s name on it, is there an alternate interpretation that I am missing?

            3. 1.06 states no name of any meaning has survived the passage of time for the barber. This could just be an unintended contradiction that hasn’t been caught until now, or it could be that there’s some other name somewhere in the documentation on him that just hasn’t been revealed yet. I think this indicates something interesting – grandma calls him “Barbatorem”, and there’s probably a reason for this aside from a little joke. Sometimes you’re going to have to refer to a demon in conversation, but you don’t want to say the name and call attention. Might be that having a nickname for any being you’re talking about is a useful workaround.

          2. “I’ve left you something, or perhaps it is more correct to say I’ve left you someone. I refer to him as Barbatorem, making a small joke, as I tend to do, but he is an older one, bearing some status and a few stories from years past, with no name of any meaning that has survived the passage of time.”

            Barbatorem isn’t his real name, it’s just what RDT called him.

            1. On the one hand “with no name of any meaning that has survived the passage of time.” and on the other baited with “a pile of festering boar carcasses, six feet high, each carved with his name”…

              Well doesn’t this just bring into question the self-consistency of the whole work…. :/

            2. Rose’s name isn’t Rose, it’s Rosalyn (1.03). And yet Blake summons her by ‘Rose’ a number of times. Why? Because she identifies with it.

              I’m not saying it’s likely, but it’s possible that that’s all that was needed with the Barber.

          3. Replying here since your lower posts reach the “no more replies possible” limit.

            Nice catch on the contradiction. Could indeed be author inconsistency, could be more of the same “we can’t lie but boy we can mislead like crazy” trip that the characters are pulling on Blake all the time. Insufficient evidence to guess on the contradiction at this point.

            1) Calling the name doesn’t obligate the demon to show. If we believe Rose’s description, saying Baphomet five times would allow her to bargain with it, which does not imply it would show up. Ms. Lewis just knew of one who would show up on that basis.

            2) Showing up doesn’t obligate the demon to show up exactly where you want. “Nice binding circle, too bad I am outside of it.”

            3) Just because it is in a binding circle doesn’t mean it isn’t still dangerous. The “safe” capabilities of Barbatorem are limited and the number of ways it can break confinement are significant. And that’s one of the extremely “safe” demons.

            4) Just because you have one or more bound doesn’t mean it is easier to bind others. They might not help. They might not be able to help. The capabilities of each one we have seen so far are different. Call up enough and you will find one with a weakness you can’t find or use and a strength that you can’t dodge or counter.

            5) Every successful bargain costs in this world. Every successful binding does also and the unsuccessful ones’ costs can include everything you have and your children’s futures also. How many would be bound before the practitioner had nothing they could use to bind with and nothing the demon considered worth bargaining for?

            Any diabolist who attempted “as many as I know the names of” would inevitably slip and be destroyed. Quickly.

            1. “no name of any meaning that has survived the passage of time”

              What if it is engraved in a language that has long lost its meaning?

  7. Dragging out the descriptions of how Blake whiled away the afternoon, hour by hour, had the odd effect of giving me a sense of calm, while simultaneously ramping up the suspense and distress, wondering whether Rose will show or not. Not a very meaty chapter, but I did love seeing him on his pseudate; seeing how well Blake treats women speaks to me oddly, being a proper southern gentleman myself.

    Oh and speaking of which, Sharp Dressed Man made for a great montage piece for the prep scene, on the reread, even if it did dissipate the tension.

    Great job Wildbow, you’re well on your way to making us like Blake as much as Taylor. My vote is for a regular chapter.

    1. A visual pops into my head: Sharp Dressed Man played to a time-lapse montage of actual tattooing. Not too far off from what actually happened.

  8. My theory on Rose:

    Paws doesn’t trust Blake and Rose. He immediately sends somebody to Conquest. Conquest then yanks Rose’s chain while Blake is at the university. She travels with enough force to break at least 2 mirrors. Rose has been in Conquest’s domain for a few hours.

    Or something like that.

    1. The last half of your theory works just as well if Rose breaks the mirrors and then is yanked away while she is tired and before she reconnects with Blake, without adding supposition about Conquest’s yanking being capable of shattering windows.

      As for Pauz contacting Conquest in the first place…Idk, it doesn’t really seem to fit his style–or Conquest’s, really. I’m more inclined to believe that it was Pauz himself that started the brawl in the Donut shop, like someone else already said, than to think that he approached Conquest, even indirectly. And Conquest could have grabbed Rose at any time of his own volition, a possibility explicitly brought up by the protagonists. It does suffer a complexity penalty for its coincidental timing, however.

      1. The problem is that Rose was already gone by the time Blake was at the coffee shop.

        Perhaps Paws wanted to go after Blake and so followed him to the shop. Upon arriving he sees Rose being pulled by Conquest? These two ideas seem to work seperately, but I can’t manage to reconcile them in my head.

        1. No, Rose was out of sight by the time Blake was at the coffee shop. We have no idea at what point she actually disappeared.

          Remember, she doesn’t always have to be visible to be present–she was hiding in the reflection of the napkin dispenser during that fateful first conversation with Laird, but Blake couldn’t see her despite checking several times. She could have been exhausted and lurking until she disappeared.

          Unmaker’s observation that Rose might well have accidentally summoned Pauz…I suppose he could have lurked for a time before acting…though that seems to run counter to the whole purpose of “summoning”…hm.

          This is part of the reason I like Gathered Pages. I need more background information! heh

      2. “It does suffer a complexity penalty”… I think I spotted someone who discovered Wildbow by the recommendation of Eliezer Yudowsky. :p

        1. 😛

          Yes and no, really. Technically, no, I ran into Worm ages before the recommendation, but on the other hand, yes, I didn’t take it out of the Needs to Read pile until he recommended it.

  9. well, Blake was bitching about not having a Karma Meter, if the unpleasantness with the dog & Isadora is measured when the birds are simply in a bedragged condition, I’d hate to see what would result if they had their feathers drop odd, grow scales & spokes of villainy.

        1. “Oh, Rose,” Blake said. “Where are you? Will I never get to see you again, sitting in the bike mirror around my neck, making BRRRM-BRRRM! noises and pretending I’m a race car?”

          He blew his nose on an already-soaked handkerchief, unheeding of the tattoos of Lung and Hookwolf who’d ambled onto his arms and started eating his birds, setting fire to the branches and urinating on his elbow.

          1. I think it would be cool if a Worm character was mentionned as fiction in Pact universe, similarly to how Maggie Holt is the heroine a young adult fantasy series in Wormverse.

            1. Seconded. 🙂

              Wildbow never specified any details about the Maggie Holt novels from Wormverse, did he? That story might differ widely from the ‘real’ Maggie’s experiences.

              Likewise, if Wildbow decides to introduce, say, a certain group consisting of Nine capes, they may turn out to have much better PR agents in Pactverse than in Worm. 😉

              “Oh, Rose,” Blake said. “Where are you? Did you expend all your energy when you smashed those two windows on campus? That was so awesome, you know, just like that superhero from the comic books, whatshername. Shatterbird! She’s so cool, and kind, and generous, and… Well, you know. She’s a really good person, Rose, just like you – that’s the point.” 😈

    1. “I wished I had the goblin flute and the paper goblins, but they hadn’t been mine to keep.”

      Because he returned them to Maggie, apparently. Though if that were the case, I’d have expected some mention of it around when he left town.

  10. @Wildbow. How does it feel to see that you have two of the top three spots on Topwebfiction? Brilliant I should hope.

    1. “Tagline is Devils and Details eh? Someone get Blake a D@D set. I mean the RPG, not those two tinkers….”

      Maybe Lardo’s time delay ring-torus whammy wasn’t a trap – he just wanted to turn this into an Ars Magica campaign, where game turns are measured in frickin’ decades rather than minutes. 😉

    2. Watching the Tinkerbell cartoons, can’t help thinking “f****** tinkers!” every now and then. That’s a Worm reference, folks.

  11. Hmmm… Still pulling for Maggs. Unless she’s too young. I thought she was at least a high school senior but I guess her age hasn’t been strictly established yet.

    Of course, if Wildbow really wanted to mess with us, he’d pull a School Days.

    Hehe. If. That’s funny.

    I’m gonna abstain from voting on a gathered pages vs. continuation bonus chapter. It’s a win no matter what as far as I’m concerned.

    As for Rose… Shit. Spoiled for choice on theories and we just don’t know anything. Conquest could have yanked her. Pauz might have pulled something, or he could just be stating the obvious. Rose may have simply overexerted herself and is too depleted or even… Uh… Dead, for lack of a better term? That would be unsatisfying, but it IS within the realm of possibility, and incredibly tragic. Also realistic. Presumably we shall find out soon. Maybe. I hope.

    1. …thank you for reminding me that I heard Wildbow likes offscreen deaths (and that such did happen in Worm) -.- It doesn’t seem to fit, narratively speaking, though that may be wishful thinking. Bah.

      I don’t understand the reference to School Days. Speaking on romantic prospects, Maggie still seems squicky–she’s still in high school, Blake was gone for three years and didn’t attend senior year at least, putting him one or two years out of high school, and to me that’s too much. Maybe if the story goes on long enough shrug

      1. School Days. Where the PC sleeps with his half-sister (who he doesn’t know is his half sister), he can have the psycho girlfriend who will KILL competition, in sparklingly beautiful fashion.

        This show’s last episode was banned from TV because something disturbingly similar happened in real life. Instead, they aired the infamous “nice boat”

        1. “School Days. Where the PC sleeps with his half-sister (who he doesn’t know is his half sister)”

          Ah darn, that means Wildbow can’t turn Pact into School Days. 😦 After all, Blake already knows that’s related to Rose, in a manner of speaking, so he’ll be making an informed decision before engaging in any rule-63-mirror-clone-incest. 😉

          Of course, Wildbow probably has a metric buttload of plot twists up his sleeve. Granny RDT did fool around with one of the Behaim kids, in one of the interlude chapters. She may well have had other extra-marital trysts that we haven’t heard about, and which Blake won’t find out about until it’s too late to pull out. (Single entendre intended.) 😉

            1. Cue: that Adam Hughes drawing of Hulk walking in on She-Hulk while she’s in the dressing room¤, and going “It’s cool, we’re kissing cousins.” 😛

              ¤Because, um. Comic books totally have dressing rooms, just like movie sets. Didn’t you know that? 😉

  12. School Days is a Japanese harem comedy franchise that shows, in some instances, what actually happens when you try to start a harem with mentally and emotionally unstable young women.

    There’s also a nice boat.

  13. This post is going to be a bunch of thoughts, ideas, and guesses I’ve been thinking about for the past month or so.

    1) Rose is actually the intended heir.
    Molly was and Blake is a custodian according to the legal documents. The lawyers never actually call him the heir. The legal document says that when the custodian becomes 25, “the heir will be appointed”, which is an odd phrasing if the custodian is always intended to be the heir. One of the things that bothered me earlier on was the wishy-washy way in which Blake seemed to have been weaseled into being “heir” in a world that is very rule-driven. He has a female vestige version of himself, so he gets to be heir in a matrilineal succession? No, that’s way too flimsy an arrangement for what we know about this world. Far more likely is that Rose is the heir, not Blake. Rose is also the one with the stronger relationship with Others, which seems to indicate she is the one with the family name behind her. This leads into my second and third points.

    2) Blake is losing something of himself in a significant way, probably relating to his identity and/or permanence.
    This is actually mused on a bit in this chapter, though I think it’s significantly more serious than he realizes. In the chapter, he notes his diminishing, paleness, and susceptibility to him and/or his body being affected by the mystical, but doesn’t seem to make the connections to some earlier foreshadowing and half-assed guesses he’d made. It was mentioned earlier, actually, that Rose is actively draining him, but Blake seems to think this is a temporary loss of personal power of alertness. His paleness, fatigue, diminished power, and loss of shadow seem to indicate he is losing some of himself, which is why he so often notes when he feels more grounded, more like himself. He often attributed his feeling of loss or being out of touch with himself to his circumstances, but I think it’s also due to a drain on his very being, changing him and making him feel less like himself.

    3) Rose is gaining what Blake is losing in some way.
    This explains both all of the foreshadowed mentioning of him noticing her absence and what seemed to be draining, or an especially notable occurrence right after he swore to help Rose: “Odd, that she seemed so diminished, when I felt more energized. Was there something to that?” On multiple occasions Blake has noted such an inversion of energy, almost as if they share the same pool of energy. Also, Rose could might be stealing his position in the Thorburn family line, which would explain her better relationship with Others. What becomes of Blake when he loses all of this? Well…

    4) Blake is becoming Other.
    In the first chapter, there is heavy reference to a “metronome” that he “knocks over”, (metaphorically, I think, though I don’t know what that’s referring to) and Eva says, “Anything that can knock the metronome over isn’t human anymore, or it won’t be for long.” Ms. Lewis alludes to something when she says, “You are not long for this world. Barring exceptional circumstance, and I do mean exceptional, you are going to be replaced by the next heir.” She doesn’t say he will die, and in fact not only offers what seems to be a way out of dying (joining the firm), but says that dying a stupid, pointless death is a “very likely” option, which is a far cry from the near certainty of her statement. Why would she even bother swaying his opinion of the firm if he is going to die “barring exception circumstance”, presumably including his joining the firm? The most reasonable explanation I can see is that he will be forcibly “removed from this world” without dying, and in some way Ms. Lewis knows about.. which leads to my next point:

    5) The lawyers were contracted to create a duplicate of Blake that would supplant him: Rose
    This is the cleanest way to make sense of how whatever is happening is happening and explain Ms. Lewis’ strange near certainty about Blake being “not long for this world”, even with Laird’s previous offer of non-hostility and the firm’s offer of joining (which would presumably protect their employees from enemies). I think that Blake was “picked” in this capacity, and Ms. Lewis “said too much” by making reference to her contract with Rose Sr. Ms. Lewis says that Blake will be “replaced by the next heir”, which indicates that the next person will be the heir. Right after that gut-punch statement, Ms. Lewis says to Rose, “Your future is tied to his. His success is your success. His failure is your failure. Work with him, find a balance, and help him, so he might help you.” The way I see it, Blake is not the heir, but he is the focal point for the heir.

    Now for the more musing ones that are more vague and depend on interpreting mythology:

    6) Blake’s ritual was intended to focus on the physical, and Rose’s was intended to focus on the spiritual.
    Iron is, as noted multiple times, of nature and its usage is practical and for physical things, with symbolism relating to life-blood and the body. Holly historically symbolizes life, death, rebirth, holiness, and protection. These fit the skills they have acquired well. Blake has great intuition for physical things, becoming adept in using the Sight and glamour incredibly quickly. Rose has significantly more sway over the Others they encounter and has protected Blake on multiple occasions. I also have a wild guess that Rose’s ritual was to prepare her for being reborn as the heir and Blake’s was to prepare him and his body for being the foundation for Rose’s rebirth.

    7) Rose will gain the upper hand in the relationship with Blake
    Exactly how this will happen is something I’m not sure about, but I think this is best way to interpret not only the other signs, but also their Tarot cards. Rose’s Chariot can only really be interpreted as her winning or gaining control over something, and the only obvious thing important enough to adequately describe her future is the relationship that is signified by her current card: the Hanging Man, or her (previously) helpless relationship with Blake. Blake is the Fool for obvious reasons now, but the High Priestess is one that symbolizes intuition, wisdom, sound judgement, mystical vision, relationships, otherworldliness, and possibly strong female influences. The intuition, wisdom, and sound judgement seem the obvious point he is heading towards with his way of parsing the world. Mystical vision makes perfect sense given his ability with the Sight. Relationships and strong female influences could refer to Rose, and could easily involve Rose having a stronger position in their relationship. Otherworldliness is foreboding and may be a reference to Blake transitioning to being more Other.

    P.S.: Sorry, please delete both of my earlier posts, the numbers were missing and the formatting was off for the first one, and I accidentally replied to it for the second one.

    1. If one were to follow you’re reasoning, one conclusion comes to mind that allows both for Rose as well as Blake to survive for the time being and give their connection a more solid magical grounding.

      The possibility of the conclusion has already been proven in-story, one only needs to think of the quarterback and cheerleader and their relationship. One the practitioner, the other the familiar.
      The balance of this relationship isn’t as set as it appears to be, one only needs to look at the Briar girl to see a reversed role, with the familiar subsuming the lead and the practitioner being the servant.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if Rose and Blake went down that road, or were forced onto it due to their circumstances and oaths pledge to each other. Though I guess it would be a more equal partnership than most such relationships, with both of them having a reasonable equal share, with Blake more physical and Rose more metaphysical as you suggested.

      On the other hand I could also imagine (and did in a dream, oddly enough) for Blake and Rose to set the demesne in such a way that Rose could freely cross her mirror world to our own in it, like she did in Conquests realm, though granted that wasn’t of her own volition.

    2. i agree. though, when the hanged man came up — one could easily see the chariot merely meaning “rose can make bargains and direct Others”. She was in that much of a static, imprisoned state before she understood that she could do ANYTHING other than read books and not sleep

      1. “She was in that much of a static, imprisoned state before she understood that she could do ANYTHING other than read books and not sleep”

        She discovered her Shatterbird move in the very first chapter, though.

        She managed to break two windows in short succession, just now, so she may have evolved. 😉

        1. You may be giving Rose too much credit by calling it a Shatterbird move (at least for the first one). I think it’s more comparable to forcing your house to collapse and hoping some of the wreckage conveniences the enemy. So technically more of a Fauntline move?

          1. “So technically more of a Fauntline move?”

            That’s a very tempting set-up for a joke about Rose’s disappearance having been caused by Conquest, who’s currently strangling her – for her own good. 👿

            But that would be wrong. Not because the joke is awful, misogynistic, and in extremely poor taste (which it totally is), but because it constitutes a (very, very minor) Worm spoiler: 😉

            http://parahumans.wordpress.com/2011/12/10/interlude-5/

    3. You make a lot of good points, and I had picked up on some of the clues myself, but I still wonder how this could be allowed. Can you really just make a female vestige clone of your grandson and say “Oh yeah, she’s my granddaughter and she’s second in line to be the heir.”

      1. From the lawyers:

        “What advantages are there, to having a vestige partner?”[sic] To making a close copy of someone? Can you use that to get around contracts?”

        “You can.” (2.06)

        However…

        I’m really not certain that Rose actually is a vestige. I mean, it seems to fit, but there hasn’t been any confirmation. The closest we got was from Ms. Lewis, who was asked if Blake’s tiredness was because of ‘the vestige thing,’ to which she replied with:

        She smiled, “‘The vestige thing’, yes.”

        Something I haven’t seen other people comment on–Rose’s memories.

        I mean, what the fuck?

        How on earth did Granny manage to come up with those memories? Too much is similar for her to have come up with them wholesale, too much is different for her to have just copied over Blake’s memories. Where did she get the memories for Rose’s senior year, if Blake did not attend at all–that would have to be a whole year’s worth of memories either made up or copied off of someone else entirely.

        And look at what’s changed. I mean, Rose getting so much more support–is that just because that’s what Granny assumed would happen, or because she wanted Rose to be more well-adjusted (or just more conforming) than Blake, or what? Did Blake have a single better relationship than Rose other than those with Molly and Paige?

        Honestly, it almost seems simpler for her to have reached into another world to actually abduct a rule-63 Blake and place her within a vestige-like construct. Or (more likely) to have the lawyers do something like that which is done by the Faerie courts and psuedo-glamour one up.

          1. That flips my questions about the memories, but it doesn’t answer any of them.

            That requires modifying the memories of at least all of his extended family, and possibly not only his friends but also the people he works with, depending on when he would have been crafted.

            It’s not a terrible idea, but to what end? Blake being male is an obstacle, it would be much more convenient if Rose were alive and Blake the fake personality. What, because Blake is better at the physical stuff? Why shove the real heir into a mirror world then, instead of giving her a physical construct on hand? It’s been handy on occasion, but if Granny had that much control over the situation, why not leave the mirror world as an option, rather than restricting Rose there?

            1. I think Blake is the real one, but I had a thought based on this conversation about the memories. Given the investment of power that Rose Sr. put into creating a female vestige of Blake in order to allow him into the line of succession, there has to be a reason that she put Molly ahead of him. Given how timid she was, I doubt she was given a high chance for success.

              I originally thought that perhaps she was intended to die so that some of the karmic debt got addressed, slightly bettering Blake’s chances, but I think that’s a secondary motive at best. While magic can do amazing things, it still has rules. Creating a brand new being with a lifetime of memories is probably not easy, and might take some time. Perhaps Molly was put first to give the working to make Rose time to “compile”. Time to read Blake, his past, his parents, etc. to create a plausible set of memories for Rose. Rose Sr. reads Molly as the type who would stay in the safety of the house for a good while before venturing out, either willingly or at the prodding of the lawyers, and that she’d likely die afterwards. After that the working activates and Rose crashes into existence.

        1. I assumed the vestige was created by basically creating/using an alternate reality where Blake was instead female (and thus named Rose). That explains all the memories, because you’re simply drawing from something else that already exists. The way I see it, she’s not “abducted”, per-se, just transcribed from a timeline with one change, kinda like Earth Aleph in Worm. It seems significantly cleaner to just be able to look at or take from alternate realities than Rose Sr. somehow having perfect predictive ability.

          As for whether Rose is a vestige… I think “vestige” is a word to describe what she is, but the “facts” they’ve discovered about them are overgeneralizations. I think she’s draining Blake’s essence and becoming more than just a short-lived vestige.

          @Enjou: I can’t reply to your post for some reason, but I can think of two reasons Rose Sr. chose Molly first:
          1) There’s no way she could have announced Blake as the custodian at the family gathering. The rest of the family wouldn’t have accepted it and he might not have have gotten out of that situation without harm.
          2) She was really more announcing the next in the line of succession, and she couldn’t name Rose, who doesn’t exist as far as most of the family is concerned.

          1. That would resolve most of the issues. It even explains that strange comment in 1.02 about her not feeling like she’s remembering memories without actually having lived them. The only thing stopping my wholehearted embracing of this concept is that alternate worlds have not so much as been alluded to in this story, that I can recall, and it seems to be bringing in an awful lot to justify the (admittedly apparently quite impressive) creation that is Rose.

            re: the draining, I thought that that was already accepted as likely fact? Except for the part where it necessarily extends her life.

    4. Replying here since the thread reached its limit below.

      Some agreement, some disagreement, but overall I see no problem with the core idea (Rose inherits). Details:

      Good catch.
      Blake is weak because he is a newb practitioner without any of the three sources of power fighting for his life against superior opponents for a solid week while a vestige draws on him for power. And he had no chance to recharge. Occam’s Razor.
      We know Blake and Rose are linked and it would be surprising if it were only one way.
      No surprise – several characters have said the class boundaries are blurry to nonexistent and that practitioners tend to take on Other characteristics. This doesn’t prevent him from being a practitioner or heir by itself.

      The rest seems to be based on tenuous evidence and ambiguous statements by characters that even the principal characters know better than to trust completely.

      That being said, I have no problem with the idea that Rose will become the actual heir. She is the inheritor of the Thorburn legacy, if you believe the reactions of the lawyers (to their names) and the reaction of goblins.

      1. WordPress stripped the numbers from my reply. The group of paragraphs starting with “Good catch.” were supposed to be numbered 1-4 to correspond to the original point numbers.

      2. Thanks 🙂

        For your response to 2, while those things do diminish a person, and the actual effects of a loss of personal power are not yet fully described, it has been revealed that the excessiveness of Blake’s exhaustion at least is due to “the vestige thing”, according to Ms. Lewis. Also, his loss of reflection, which I find foreboding, indicates some important loss to me (at least it does in mythology–it could even mean he has lost his soul). In 4.4, the man who mistook Blake for a woman could’ve been confused by Blake’s lack of reflection, rather than seeing Rose. And if he did see Rose, since no normal person has been shown to have seen or heard Rose, (Joel didn’t hear her when Blake got back and was “talking to himself”) that may indicate she’s getting more presence, presumably at the cost of Blake’s.

        For your response to 4, I wasn’t suggesting that he couldn’t be a practitioner or anything like that. I was suggesting that he would become so Other that he’d no longer be human, as indicated by Eva. Also, Ms. Lewis’ quote about “not being long for this world” could refer to Blake’s essence, meaning the shell left behind after his essence is drained will be something that is not him in a significant way. Those are the main pieces of information I was trying to explain, I guess.

  14. Hmm. Personal taste here, but I didn’t much like the date. It seemed… rushed? Unnatural? Blake spoke like someone who’s a character in a book, if that makes sense, not like a real person on an awkward date, laying out all of his motivations and thoughts neatly.

    I like the rest of it, though. I like all the references to Blake’s tattoos so far.

    1. Blake is going out of his way to try and make Tiffany feel comfortable, bolstering her lacklustre self-esteem. He’s also keenly aware of his newly-acquired inability to lie, and hasn’t quite learned the level of Orwellian doublespeak needed to use creative wording while still (strictly speaking) be telling the truth. Instead, he apparently chose to be as up-front and frank with Tiffany as he can, sharing his own insecurities and neuroses with her.

      It wasn’t all that neat, either. Blake managed to muddle his sentences several times, which is in keeping with the ‘rushed’ feeling; Blake is feeling the urge to check on Rose, and might still be influenced by Pauz’ demonic fallout, making him even jumpier by being surrounded by random hostility.

      1. Doublespeak: Actually that gives me an idea: Create a whole new “language” that sounds suspiciously like English, but is actually not like it at all, and will lead to great confusion if you try to treat it like English.

        1. The Dresden novels by Jim Butcher had another interesting explanation for why magic-users often speak in some bastardized pidgin Latin gibberish (or Pig Latin, as the case might be): when you’re a casting a spell, huge amounts of magical energy is passing through your mind as you’re visualizing the intended effect. Therefore, most magic-users acquire a nervous habit of chanting in a foreign language, one in which they aren’t fluent, to occupy their brain and distract it from the visions of Things That Mankind Was Not Meant To Know – otherwise, they’d suffer the full effect of having so much power coursing through their neural pathways, i.e. get zapped in the head with supernatural high voltage.

          1. Even easier to understand: you really don’t want to train your brain to cast spells on standard phrases from the language you speak in. Casual conversation becomes a minefield.

      2. There’s no need for doublespeak with Tiffany in regards to mundane matters. She’s not an enemy, so deception is largely unnecessary. Being completely upfront and honest generates more good karma anyways.

        1. Of course. I believe Pencil Monkey’s point is: if Blake’s speech appears a bit too polished and unnatural, that’s largely because he’s carefully vetting his words for even unintentional untruths. The rest is that he knows Tiffany is fragile and is choosing his words carefully for that reason too. But mostly the truth thing…

    2. I am inclined to agree, but I think Blake wanted to really avoid being misunderstood if Pauz is tainting everything.

    3. I semi agree about the date. I was under the impression though, that it was supposed to feel awkward and unnatural. It would be interesting to see today’s events from Tiffany’s perspective. That might change our outlook on the date.

      1. Yeah, it is supposed to be awkward and unnatural- but personally I found it unnatural in a scripted way, not a realistic way. I can see the puppet strings, if that makes sense.

          1. Thanks! 🙂 Was hoping someone would notice it – or the doormat and the name of the Thorburn mansion in the Blake & Lardo cartoon. 😛

        1. It’s from chapter 3.1, when Blake turned into Lumberjack Blake: 😉

          “We’re surrounded,” I said. “But she wants to deal badly enough that she’ll hear us out before she murders us. Nevermind that. Our analogy here. I’m proposing the pigeon strategy. Knock over all of the pieces, shit on the board, and then strut around like we’re the victors.”

  15. Great story, I’m really enjoying it. I’d rather get on with the story, since it feels like such a cliffhanger to me. After binge reading the first part of the story, I really want to be able to binge read more. I’ll be happy with whatever is released, though. 🙂

  16. Random Thought:-

    Given that Others take on the nature & power of what they eat, I wonder if an Other that somehow ate a Computer-aided design (CAD) software can do the Instant Runes thing without spending hours-days drawing & preparing elaborate circles.

    1. The relationships between Others and Technology appears to be… Complex. Almost entirely depends on the Other in question. A Goblin likely couldn’t get near a computer to begin with. Elves are… Probably responsible for TMZ, while the trolls got 4chan and reddit.

      As for “eating” a program… Uh… How do I put this gently? I don’t think it works that way.

      imagines Sandra Duchamp telling Hildr she has the computer for 5 more minutes before she needs to go to bed, unaware she’s been catfishing a 63 year old accountant as a bubbly barely legal high schooler

      Wow. That was awkward to vizualize.

      1. “A Goblin likely couldn’t get near a computer to begin with.”

        “Stop that, Buttschnapps! That’s not where you’re supposed to stick a USB plug.”

      2. I’m thinking Gremlins (no NOT the movie ones!), the ones that started to appear in WW2 that attacked fighter aircraft that now in the Digital Age, attack computer code & eating them like viruses causing bugs in the system.

    2. “Random Thought:- Given that Others take on the nature & power of what they eat, I wonder if an Other that somehow ate a Computer-aided design (CAD) software can do the Instant Runes thing without spending hours-days drawing & preparing elaborate circles.”

      Failing that, Blake could pick a Porygon-Z as his Familiar. Those critters must have mad renderin’ 5k1llz. 😉

      http://www.nerdragecomic.com/index.php?date=2013-01-11

  17. The date was actually my favourite part. The meeting of two damaged people is awkward, add in the inability to lie and you get a scripted feel. Donut girl, made me laugh. Well done Wildbow.

  18. Tiffany is so exhaustingly insecure and apologetic. I don’t know what happened to her in the past but that girl is a mental trainwreck. And then there’s Blake reassuring her again and again. It felt more like a conversation by two thirteen year olds to me..

      1. I envy you the thirteen year olds that you apparently run into, as I would say that they had a better grasp of their own issues than my mental model of thirteen year olds, at the very least.

          1. Oh come on, none of the eleven year olds in that story were representative of the average child of that age.

            My mental model of thirteen year olds is based much more firmly in all of the actual children that I interact with 😛

        1. I concede that point, but assert that awareness of one’s emotional and psychological state is not included in the claim that one is emotionally some age.

          1. I very much appreciate the open-mindedness indicated by your concession, but unfortunately am not sure that I can reciprocate in kind, as I have long associated awareness of one’s mental state with emotional maturity.

            However, I could concede that that sounded like the emotional maturity of a thirteen year old aside from their self-awareness.

  19. I liked this a lot. I liked the awkward date, but I liked Blake’s planning for the confrontation with Paws more.

    Up until these last 2 arcs, Blake hasn’t really had the ground rules set for the Pactverse. Every move he made has been out of desperation so far and failed.

    Now that Blake has a more solid idea of the rules of this universe, we can see him improvising. I liked seeing Blake improvise and plan, figuring things out based on the information that he has. Now he has a ward triangle suit (there’s gotta be a more clever name for his current outfit).

    I can’t wait to see Blake when he’s finally at full power (by that I mean not drained or weakened.) if he ever gets that far.

    1. “Now he has a ward triangle suit (there’s gotta be a more clever name for his current outfit).”

      Well, given all the debate in the comments about Blake’s (in)ability to draw triangles with three right angles, perhaps he actually ended up drawing a bunch of triangles with three corners that all have less than a 90 degree angle, each.

      In which case, it could be called the Acute Suit. 😉

    2. Corollary: Blake kinda-sorta counts as a woman, right? Fingers crossed that his new Mystically Power Armored Suit of Geometry +1 turns out to work like a Kamui, from Kill La Kill. 😉

      1. Note to self: Don’t watch any video posted by Pencil when you have children in the room. . . or other people.

        I don’t think that would work for Blake. That seems like it requires blood, which would be too much personal power used up for Blake.

        1. “Note to self: Don’t watch any video posted by Pencil when you have children in the room. . . or other people.”

          Hmm? Sorry, what was that? I seem to have gone blind, for some reason.

          And whoa, my palms are super-hairy. What’s up with that?

          “I don’t think that would work for Blake. That seems like it requires blood, which would be too much personal power used up for Blake.”

          The blood expenditure activation cost is negligible, unless the wearer is embarrassed by being naked in public. In that case, he’d end up passing out from blood loss in 5 minutes or less. (And yeah, that’s canon.) 😉

      2. So you’re saying that Blake technically counts as a magical girl? We know that different cultures have different methods of practicing. Perhaps Blake could choose that as his practice. He even has glamour to assist him.

        1. Let’s see:
          Discovers he is the heir to a magical legacy… check.
          Gets a clearly mystical companion and guide… check if you count Rose, otherwise slight genre break that he has to select one.
          Opposed by clearly evil forces, some of whom become temporary allies… check.
          Gets a magical base with hidden dangers… check.
          Has to hide his identity from anyone not in the know, including his family… check.
          Gets a mystical implement… working on it, slight genre break that he has to select it himself.
          Appropriate personality (select one of jock, cheerleader, quiet nerd, punk, loner, stuck-up rich, kid etc.)… sorta maybe kinda on the loner.
          Magical ability to transform… check… into a battle form… no… that wears sexy outfits… I guess he could, not his choice.
          Schooled in his new situation by a magical mentor with a potentially dark past who is often cryptic and only intermittently available… check.
          Wins encounters with apparently superior beings using special techniques… not so much.
          Enemies keep returning with upgrades… some of them.
          Teammates… no.

          So I guess the verdict is “mostly”. Now he just needs to fix the discrepancies:
          Master fast transformation to a female form or in drag.
          Gain powers with the transform.*
          Find some teammates.*
          Start actually winning these battles.*
          Get an implement and possibly familiar.*

          The starred ones (*) are ones he is sort of or seriously working on, so yes, I believe Blake is headed that direction. There has got to be a series where the girl(s) get powers from demons but use the powers to fight demons. Help me out here.

        2. Now he just needs to recruit a bunch of his friends, so they can join his party of adventuring demon-summoners. They should have secret code names, with occult significance; something along the lines of… Oh, say: Diabolist Moon, Diabolist Neptune, Diabolist Mars, and Diabolist Kuiper Belt Object.

          Rose needs a disguise, too. Maybe a mask? And a snazzy top hat and tuxedo, ’cause those go so well with an opera-style mask.

          If she learns how to toss things through the mirrors, from her world into Blake’s, she could use that for special surprise attacks. But she shouldn’t throw grenades, or anything that’s obviously dangerous. No, her favored weapon should be something seemingly innocuous, like… A red rose, maybe? Yeah, a paper origami rose, that makes the enemy go: “Huh, what a wuss!” and distracts them, moments before the paper explodes, as Phlegmsipper the Goblin bursts out of the Ofuda‘ed rose.

          1. Personally I feel that the astronomical body themed naming is a little tired. I do however, like the idea of Rose carrying around an origami Rose which contains a goblin.

            1. The original work started/ended 22/17 years ago, so… just in case you genuinely missed the reference, it’s a pastiche of Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon.

            2. I am aware. There’s just something about that specific theme naming that bugs me for some reason. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s because of the ease of concept. What’s next, Sailor/Diabolist Alpha Centauri Bb? It may be irrational on my part. It could just be because it ended almost 20 years ago. I don’t know.

              That being said. . . if Blake were to become Sailor/Diabolist Alpha Centauri Bd, I wouldn’t be opposed.

            3. “That being said. . . if Blake were to become Sailor/Diabolist Alpha Centauri Bd, I wouldn’t be opposed.”

              No way! If Blake gets a Sailor name, it’s gonna be… Wait for it…

              Diabolist Beta Persei.

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

              Astronomy five! SLAP!

              …Yes, I high-five’d myself. No, that’s not a euphemism. (Although it might be – those star charts, so alluring, mmMMmmm…)

    1. I laughed so hard at this comment! I see you have your priorities straight, I like that. I don’t mind willingly suspending my disbelief for Faeries, Demons and Goblins, but if someone mentions in a story a donut shop close to where I live it had better be there!

      1. Hmm… A quick search on the Gurgle Maps of Toronto uncovered two Tim Hortons and a place called the Regal Beagle Pub on Bloor Street, right around the corner from the UoT Centre for Ethics on Devonshire Place. Any of them could potentially be the now-infamous donut shop, although the pub seems to mainly feature vegan pub food. However, this is Canada, and donuts are ubiquitous. 🙂

        (Fortunately, Glory Hole Doughnuts is all the way across town, on Queen St. West, so it’s highly unlikely that Blake ‘n Tiff went there. Come to think of it, the date would probably have panned out quite differently if they had…)

        “I didn’t notice,” Blake said. “I hereby swear that you will not, should I be able to help it, become the Glory Hole Donut Girl in my estimation.”

        And then he was suddenly collapsing on the pavement, gurgling incoherently, as Tiffany repeatedly kneed him in the groin.

        1. I had to wonder if the owners of Glory Hole Doughnuts knew what they were naming it, so I looked at their site. “What creams are made of” is their tagline, another, shall we say, blue reference. So I now suspect that, yes, they know, and it was deliberate. I don’t know if that was marketing genius (I am certainly going to remember them now) or a bad idea (some people will avoid them).

          1. From the ‘About’ page, giving a description of the owner and founder, Ashley Jacot De Boinod, and her personal history:

            “Jacot always thought about opening up a place of her own but what to open? “Doughnuts have always been the perfect indulgence for me…..a good cup of joe, a cinnamon sugar doughnut and a cigarette to finish it off”.”

            Ah, yes. There’s nothing like a quick smoke after a visit to the Glory Hole.

            “You can pick from our available menu or specify custom flavours or designs, like a whole box of Peanut Butter & Jelly with cat faces drawn on them. To give to your cat. For all the hard work she does.”

            That’s very admirable of them, reminding people to take good care of their pussy, too.

            “We are not a nut-free kitchen”

            In every sense of the word. 😆

            1. For the sake of awesomeness, can we just say that the donut shop that Blake went to was Glory Hole Donuts (the fictional Pactverse bakery, as opposed to the real Glory Hole Doughnuts). I think it’s gonna be hard to call that location anything else now.

            2. “For the sake of awesomeness, can we just say that the donut shop that Blake went to was Glory Hole Donuts (the fictional Pactverse bakery, as opposed to the real Glory Hole Doughnuts). I think it’s gonna be hard to call that location anything else now.”

              Is that the place where all the waitresses are referred to as Glory Girls? 🙂

              [Rushes off to the Serengeti to stand on a tall cliff]

              [Discovers how much the ‘plane tickets to Africa cost]

              [Scurries back and jumps on top of a dumpster where a hobo called Cliff usually sleeps]

              [Grabs the most lion-cub-looking rat available and holds it aloft]

              It’s the ciiiiiiiir-kull of laaaaaaaiii-ff! And it mooooves us aaaaaa-all! Through Simuuuurgh and Skitt- Oww! Stop biting, you little pest!

            3. Yup, I think we’ve officially gone crazy now. Let me grab a funnel to wear on my head and I’ll be right with you.

            1. Blake’s visit to a Toronto donut shop ended badly. Let’s all hope that your trip will be blessed with a happy ending. 😉

  20. I love how Blake believes in the symbolic value of a shower. And now he has to deal alone with that little shit. I mean Imp.

    Didn’t Blake make an oath with Rose, promising he would help her?
    Let’s hope he still can.

      1. I wouldn’t be sure of that. I’m guessing Conquest merely tuned his domain somewhat to make her able to exist physically there.

        Maybe Blake can reproduce that effect through carefully applied glamour, and if that works, there’s a whole lot of stuff to try out.

        1. At the very least she could probably be free to move around in a demesne if the owner changes the rules to allow it, so when Blake gets one she should be able to walk around in it.

        2. “We’re going to find a way to get you out of that mirror world.” 3.01

          Rose was in Conquest’s bubble

          therefore

          Rose was not in ‘that mirror world’

          therefore

          The oath is satisfied (one way out is through an embodiment’s meddling, and it actually happened, short-term)

          Remember how much oaths are restricted to the letter rather than the spirit. If you forget, refresh yourself on Laird’s bullshit response in 1.05:

          “Saying you’d trust your daughters to someone like you, if positions were reversed?”
          “To someone as strong as me. If positions were reversed, I wouldn’t know any better than you did, by definition. I double checked beforehand.”

          This still doesn’t make any damn sense to me, not in a manner that allows for the safety of his daughters. Though that’s likely the point. F-ing ugh.

          1. Well, technically the letter of the law hasn’t been met – “We’re going to find a way”. They didn’t find a way, really. Conquest just puller her out temporarily into his domain. At best they stumbled into a hint of a way and they don’t have a method of replicating it.

            1. I disagree. Even if they don’t know how to replicate it, they did find a way to get Rose out of the mirror. Just have Conquest pull her into his domain. I think it requires more mental gymnastics to try to claim that the letter of the law was not met rather than the alternative based on the statement.

              I think we all can agree though, that Blake intends for a more permanent (and Conquest free) solution to the mirror world problem.

            2. I still think it’s reaching to say that the letter of the law was met, especially since there’s one other way to look at the situation – Conquest’s domain is a mirror of himself. A reflection of his existence and nature. Looked at that way, Rose was still technically in a mirror world.

            3. I’m going to go ahead and lodge my disagreement once more before the new chapter goes up.

              Even if we axiomatically assume you are correct, “that mirror world” includes “that,” which is a definite article. It doesn’t matter that Conquest’s bubble is (we assume) a mirror of himself, because Conquest’s mirror world is distinct from the mirror world that Rose is normally stuck in–or in other words, it may be a mirror world, but it is not that mirror world.

  21. The date with Tiffany was nice. She and Blake could be a good fit… and so it’s not going to work out. Grandma said Blake should consider marrying a bastard because he’s in a position where he really needs someone capable of being a pillar of support. Tiffany might be good for him emotionally, but all indicators are that she needs a lot of work to become someone he can rely on. And then Blake would need to introduce her to the whole magic being real and scary thing… I just have trouble seeing it happen that way.

    Moving on, Blake shows his usual skill at bullshitting his way through the whole magic thing. He’s got a good feel for what works. Circles of bleach and trappings of civilization to oppose Pauz, a shower to clean and purify, a shave to make him feel more himself, and more circles on the body to shore up any holes in his defenses. He has a talent for picking up the general concepts of how things work, and his preparation paid off since it doesn’t appear the radiation is affecting him this time, mundane stench aside.

    Now we just need to see how he gets through this without Rose. Pauz is intelligent enough that he can recognize Blake speaking, but he doesn’t have the respect that Rose would get. And Pauz probably is responsible for what happened to her – I agree with the notion that she said his name five times and it gave him a connection which he could take advantage of. Total amateur mistake. Maybe Rose is collateral again.

    1. Y’know, RDT isn’t automatically right about everything. She definitely knows a lot about diabolism and related topics, but who’s to say the whole “marry a bastard” thing wasn’t just her own personal hangup and experience. It’s not like she got off to the best start in love or had much experience at it.

  22. Pauz probably took Rose for 3 reasons:

    1.) She can call his boss. Shutting her up removes that card from the table.
    2.) He obviously didn’t like being manipulated by her. Punishment.
    3.) She’s collateral for Blake’s compliance.

    Overall, Pauz has pretty much crippled Blake. Rose is the only one who most Others will respond to looking at his family line, including June and the other Ghost. Without her his options are limited.

    1. From that perspective, this might actually be good for Blake. If gets a victory and binds Paws, then he should gain some clout separate from that of his family. Paws is already interacting with Blake, so it seems possible.

      A few more wins and spirits might start listening to both Blake and Rose (albeit for different reasons)

      Also, Blake evidently can use June, at least to add a frost effect to her hatchet.

      1. Alas, if only the bursary that Blake got from the lawyers was ample enough that he could afford to buy TM 13 and learn Ice Beam… 😉

  23. It has nothing to do with this chapter, but I was rereading the first Gathered Pages and stumbled across what may be an interesting clue.

    We know little of their great-grandmother, beyond her obsession with collecting tomes, but we do know that her familiar was a snake named Ampelos. Who was Ampelos?

    A satyr of Dionysus.

    I haven’t figured out a smooth way for this to enter the story, but considering that the instigator in the new town is a priest of Dionysus…that seems like it could be relevant somehow.

    Or it’s a red herring or coincidence, which are both possible.

    I also couldn’t help but notice that Rose says vestige–specifically, “than a vestige”–during the awakening ritual, before it was at least implied that she had found the book. That may be poor inference on my part, however.

    1. According to the collective wisdom of Teh Internets, Ampelos was the ancient Greek word for ‘vine’, which is a good name for a serpent. (Especially if it’s green or brown.)

      Ampelos was also the name of one of the Hamadryads, tree spirits. However, Rose Senior referred to Ampelos as a ‘he’ in the Gathered Pages chapter, so it’s probably more likely that the link to the satyr which you pointed out, is closer to the truth.

    2. Jeremy is about 60, which means the earliest he started his practitionership would be about 15, say. If RDT died at 90(?) this puts her at 45 when Jeremy started. Would RDT’s mother have been alive then? And know about Jeremy? We don’t(?) have a solid idea of the age gap between RDT and her mother, or how long RDT’s mother lived. Still a good point to bring up.

      Blake caught the ‘vestige’ reference himself at the time and then realized what it meant when he learned about the practitioner technical term vestige. He also guessed that Rose had found out before her awakening ritual.

      1. “But grandmother lived. She hit the ripe old age of eighty-five” (2.01)

        I was thinking that perhaps it was more along the lines of through Dionysus himself, (remember, Granny attacked Ampelos; the god could be holding a grudge) but as I said, I haven’t thought of a seamless method of entry.

        Ah, he even points out that he heard it from her once, in 2.02. Poor inference on my part, then 🙂 Though my interruption-attuned senses do now notice that their imminent conversation about vestiges was also interrupted by external forces, which might be part of the greater pattern.

  24. Not sure if this has popped up yet:

    Remember how when Rose breaks mirrors she gets shunted to the nearest place?

    Remember how this was near the Spinx’s office(possibly her Manse)?

    What are the odds she’s still there. Stuck, because the Spinx locked the door.

    1. “Please, let me out!” Rose shouted. “I need to get back to Blake! He’s helpless without m- I mean, umm…”

      She paused in her frantic hammering on the frame of the large mirror she was currently trapped in. Her pleas seemed to go completely unnoticed, as the only occupant of the room in front of her was focusing on a, rather above-average, Michael Jackson song-and-dance routine.

      “I’m starting with the maid in the mirror,” Isadore sang, using an oversized hair brush as a prop microphone. “I’m asking her to change her ways!”

      “Listen, we didn’t intend to become diabolists,” Rose said. “We were forced into all this, against our will.” She drew back instinctively when the Sphinx took a huge leap across the room, landing squarely in front of Rose’s mirror.

      “And no message could have been any clearer,” Isadora continued. “If you wanna make the world a better place!” She tumbled to the floor and grabbed the carpet, playfully tearing at it with her claws and fangs. Rose involuntarily gulped, when Isadora sent her a glowering look from half-lidded eyes, shaking the carpet she’d clutched in her jaws.

      “A-are…” Rose stammered. “…Are you flirting with me?”

      Isadora froze, lying stock-still on the de-carpeted floor. She spat out the fabric and leveled another glare at Rose.

      “What are you talking about? Why would I be flirting with you?”

      “Well, you were, y’know… Chewing the rug? And looking at me funny?”

      “I was threatening you!” Isadora snarled. “It was a display of physical prowess and menace! Why in Hecate’s name would something like that turn you on?”

      “Well,” Rose said. She hesitated, fidgeting with the hem of her skirt. “I’ve been… kinda lonely.”

      Isadora face-pawed.

    2. This is an interesting idea, and trapping Rose would fit with Isadora’s preference of stopping Blake and Rose, but there are some practical difficulties:

      1) Isadora was not introduced to Rose, so there is no evidence the sphinx knows Rose exists.
      2) Even if the sphinx knows Rose exists, there is no reason to suspect Isadora would know the limitations of Rose’s existence well enough to manipulate it. Not all vestiges have the same rules of existence.
      3) Only reflective surfaces near Blake and the house mirrors create a realm that Rose can appear in. So Isadora would have to trap Rose in one of those.
      4) Reflective surfaces in demesnes are off limits (demonstrated when Blake was in Laird’s sister’s house and there were places Rose couldn’t get to). The demesne owner could allow Rose in, I guess.

      So, the idea of a practitioner trapping Rose when she is in a nearby mirror may well work, but it is a bit of a stretch for Isadora to do it in this case.

      Here’s a question about that situation I don’t have a good answer for: why two windows? Rose has never cracked more than one reflective surface and she knows how draining it is to do one, so it is unlikely she did both deliberately. So maybe she did two to signal something was wrong. Maybe there was something in there with her and there was a fight. Insufficient information.

      1. From chapter 4.5:

        “Bringing trouble to my doorstep, Mr. Thorburn?” she asked. “And… female guests?”

        “Guests” (plural) suggests that Isadora is aware of both Tiffany and Rose.

        Furthermore, the windows Rose smashed were only five feet away from Blake when he was standing outside Isadora’s door, right? Perhaps the windows were a part of Isadora’s demesne (or whatever equivalent that powerful Others might claim). When Rose broke them, she may have triggered a trap or a safeguard that the Sphinx had put in place. Hence, two broken windows rather than one, and Rose disappears.

        1. Good catch on “guests”. See #4 on demesnes (may work for area of influence also). The idea of a triggered safeguard makes sense, but then why would Pauz know about Rose’s problems if they were caused by Isadora? Isadora isn’t likely to tell Pauz and Pauz isn’t likely to come too close to Isadora (conflicting natures).

          I guess we will have more evidence tonight… or not.

          1. Several people pointed out that Rose may have (unwittingly) formed a connection to Pauz when she spoke his name five times.

            Even though Pauz is just a squeaky little shart of an Imp, it seems that he’s amassed quite a bit of cunning, at least. If Isadora yanked Rose out of the picture, Pauz may simply have perceived that the connection to her is gone, or stretched into non-space. He might not know any details on what’s befallen her, but he’s aware that’s she not around for the negotiations.

  25. Hmm, didn’t love the date with Tiffany- the frankness felt a bit clinical. I did like reading about his hour to hour prep, that really ramped up the suspense for me.

  26. @Wildbow. At this time of writing, your fiction occupies the first and second spots in the voting

    Everybody

    To be fair to third place. Caelum Lex: Good enough that it took both of Wildbow’s stories to knock it off top spot…

    Serious Mode now. Ia m reading ‘CL’ and i would say that any boyd here who misses Firefly should give it a go. The author admits freely. being inspired by Firefly but it still reads as its own story. For myself, I like the artwork touches that come with it

    NB I’ve only reached chapter twelve since last week though so I cannot review for beyond that point.

    1. I don’t like Caelum Lex much at all.

      I’ve read a little further than you, but I don’t think that it’s those few chapters that made the difference. It’s just…the author, I think, is too used to describing expressions with pictures, b/c they really, really are not good at describing them with words. I don’t know of the best way to describe it, but everyone’s reactions are too strong, all of the time. And emotional responses seem to be off for just about everyone, but especially the central characters. They also aren’t very developed, it seems, but that’s likely something that would improve in time.

      Honestly, it seems like most of the differences in popularity on that site are just sheer publicity. Look at the difference in votes for 3rd vs 4th place. Even better, Zombie Knight was crazy low before the author made a point of saying something about it in his story, at which point he rocketed up to third place, briefly. He’s eighth now, which is lower than third, but it’s also a lot higher than it was before he talked about it with his followers. It’s not like he’s gotten a lot better since then, it’s publicity.

      1. I’ll keep what you’ve said there in mind then. I’ll also give Zombie Knight a perusal.
        I suppose it’s like me not being hyper about Legion of Nothing, although I appreciate the obvious skill and talent involved and I do read it slowly.

        PS. I got to LON from Worm…

  27. Internet was down all day yesterday. Withdrawel symptoms were in effect.

    So Blake needs something that can stop him from being dirtied by demonic or other taints. Don’t suppose Mr. Clean or the Scrubbing Bubbles are avaliable for a Familiar?

    Nice to see Blake starts missing Rose, and worrying about her.

    1. Well, the whole deal with putting bleach circles in his clothes and scribbling on his body seems to be aimed towards keeping out the taint. Seeing as the only thing really bothering him after entering the imp’s domain where the radiation would be strongest is the smell I think he’s found a solution. Of course, he’ll need some other outfits prepared to oppose different types of diabolic beings, but that’s just a matter of preparing them.

      1. Are you suggesting that he should prepare a different power-up outfit for every conceivable occasion? Like he was some kind of… Taylor?

        BOOM! Worm reference five! 🙂

  28. Don’t you ever disparage silly things! Remember, you hid to kick a rabbit over the thousand acre woods earlier today. Now you’re buried in a mess of Pooh.

    Think for one second, man. Boxer briefs are not what you face this demon in. He’s against order. That means the only acceptable underwear to put on when facing him is tighty whiteys. The absolute worst would be to freeball it. Freeballing is the underwear of chaos. You get sweat and curly little hairs everywhere like that. This is underwear 101 here.

    Remember, boxers are chaotic. They rebel. That’s why it’s called the Boxer Rebellion, get it? It was a Chinese cultural struggle against the oppressive tight white underwear forced on them by England.

  29. Comments:
    – Not sure about the date part of the chapter. Felt relatively superfluous in the grand scheme of things, and the banter wasn’t quite up to par.
    – The chapter tells us what Black Lamb’s Blood is not, but not what it is. That feels like a weird omission.
    – Bringing the Black Lamb’s Blood book is dangerous: Blake still hasn’t read it properly (what would he have to do to fulfill that obligation, anyway?), and if he loses it now, he’ll be even more in debt to the lawyers. Though that’s one more problem for the distant future, and Blake first has to survive the near-term future…

    Great lines:
    – ““I mean- um. This is a date, right?”” […] “Yeah. Kind of? Let’s call it the best of both worlds.”“Can we do that?” I smiled. “Why the hell not? If it works out, then we call it a date. If it doesn’t, we were just out as two people with a mutual friend, who might become friends.””
    – ““Alexis is cool. She can be pushy. She’s a nice pushy, a well-meaning pushy. I love her for it, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t push things.””
    – ““But things change when you’ve reached that good place, and she keeps wanting to help. Get you from that good place to a better place. Which sounds awesome, except, you know, it can be awfully nice to just enjoy that good place for what it is, after so much bad. Sometimes you don’t want that extra push.””
    – “Sometimes, I didn’t say, you didn’t want to be matched up with some singer or architect, or you don’t want that offer of a casual three-way.”
    – “it took me a while to realize why I was so upset. She wants me to emerge from my shell, but shells exist for a reason, you know?”
    – “The birds that were perched on the branches on my forearm were… a little worse for wear. Feathers sticking up, dirtier, the glint in their eyes was glintier. The background had more red to it than it should have.” – ‘glintier’…
    – ““I’m not very good at taking things in stride. Or being assertive.”“How do you handle things?”“Not… well? I tend to crumple, or do stupid things.””
    – “I’d hoped the animals would be the only things affected by the radiation, had told myself that Tiffany’s outburst against the Sphinx was a reaction to an authority figure, but this… Dismissing it as a coincidence seemed dangerous. Some people around us looked a little too upset at the fighting, at being bumped and having their meals disturbed.”
    – “Damn. Two incidents. I could only hope that I hadn’t made the University donut shop the site of a brawl, just by being there. I really hoped I hadn’t started a riot. I really, really hoped this would end soon. I’d stepped in shit, I was tracking it everywhere.”
    – ““You were sharing some personal stuff, about the ‘bad’ we’re trying to move on from? That’s my sort of ‘bad’.””
    – “I don’t think you’re the sort to do that in a mean spirited way, and it didn’t feel mean, but I don’t want to be the Weird Girl or the Shy Girl or the Girl Who Takes Way Too Long To Eat A Donut Because She’s Nervous.””
    – ““That statement sounded so important and meaningful when you said it like that.””
    – “I was getting more of a sense of what was going on with my tattoos, though. They were a barometer of sorts, a kind of representation of what was affecting me on a mystical level.” – That’s interesting. I wonder whether all practitioners have something like this?
    – “Or was it because I’d bolstered my personal power on a level? The other possibility, I couldn’t deny, was that it boiled down to wishful thinking coupled with imagination.”
    – “What were the rules? She could only be around me or be in the Hillsglade House.”
    – “When did I start worrying? Seven thirty seemed like a safe time to leave, but how long did I have to take to copy the contract? I didn’t really want to think about what happened if Rose didn’t show up. I was starting to regret not figuring out more about the mirror world, or Rose’s interaction with it.”
    – “But hot water could be symbolic, and as long as I was pulling countermeasures out of my ass for the upcoming confrontation with Pauz, I was going to treat myself to a second hot shower for the day. Wash away the filth and radiation. Maybe.”
    – “Three twenty in the afternoon. Still no Rose. She’d shattered two windows. One frozen pond had taken the strength out of her. Two windows, though… one after the other… I hadn’t seen anything suggesting she was still there. And if she’d destroyed the windows, she’d destroyed the very reflection that was allowing her to be there. The way she’d described shattering the pond’s ice, she’d been shunted to another location. Forced to the nearest safe ground. So… why hadn’t she found her way back to me?”
    – “Rose hadn’t appeared to demand to know what the fuck I was doing to myself. She hadn’t shown up, shrieked at seeing me in my underwear, drawing on myself. I was now well past the point where I was worried.”
    – “I fidgeted, then decided to bite the bullet. The drawer in my bedroom whisked open. I collected the book. The only one I had. Black Lamb’s Blood. Fuck.”
    – “Not what I needed, even in the slightest. I needed Rose. I needed her help to establish a game plan.”
    – ““Rose Thorburn,” I intoned. “I summon you.” Nothing, not even a flicker. That disquieted me. A vestige was fragile. Rose had already been abused, hauled into a strange Conquest dimension, chained…”
    – “I debated calling the lawyers for help. Had they expected this? Had they helped it happen? It would be so fitting if they were somehow in league with Conquest, if they were orchestrating this entire thing to put me on this road.”
    – “Obeying Conquest put me on this road, forced me into a situation where I had to beg for help, accept the deal. Working for another diabolist. Where would that path take me? But if I didn’t take the offer of help? Where did I wind up? Dead, probably.”
    – “If I was going to armor myself in my own self and identity, I’d damn well stick to my preference of being clean shaven. […] I was going to be the best Blake Thorburn I could imagine. The sort of Blake who could look good in an almost-suit, but still pull off his button-up shirt and start working on framing a new art installation, or do prop work for the theater, or something. I’d armor myself in my personal ideal, hold it up to give myself courage in a situation where I had very, very little.”
    – “The inked out magic diagrams across my skin couldn’t hurt either, as armor went. Probably couldn’t hurt.”
    – “I was procrastinating. It was seven. I had no idea what the evening had in store for me, now. Rose had removed herself from the picture, Conquest was fucking with me by using that chain to remove her from my company, or something else entirely.”
    – ““It looks like it’ll be just me today,” I said. “I know,” Pauz responded, confirming suspicions I hadn’t even allowed myself to voice.”

    1. I don’t think it’s weird that what the chapter didn’t address what Black Lamb’s Blood actually is. Blake was specifically looking for something to assist in the upcoming encounter with Pauz. And he was rushed. I’m not surprised his comprehension of the book is basically just “nope, nope… nope. nope…”.

  30. In contrast to many other commenters, I really liked and identified more than a bit with the date scene. Some people really do talk and think like that, even at that age. I’ve had conversations that could have been exchanged with this one in tone and rough content, without people likely noticing the difference. Two broken and awkward people getting together, who are smart enough to have done some introspection. Not that crazy.

  31. She said his name. Rose said Pauz’s name.
    Wildbow, you bastard. I trusted you! And you hit right where it hurts.
    And Blake was still being such a jerk to her. Really, he doesn’t treat her like a person sometimes, and that is annoying. But yeah, she’s gone—for now; I have no doubt that she’ll be back so you can
    kill her again.
    sob

  32. Then, seeing the residual ink on the set-square, I gutted the pen and soaked the edge of the metal ‘L’. Very carefully, I pressed it against my back, rolling it back and forth to get it into the grooves and recesses. I checked the end result, then did it again.

    Blake.

    How did you check what your back looks like?

    How have you been checking what your hair looks like?

    You haven’t shown up in mirrors for over a week…

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