Null 9.3

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I clenched my fists, but neither was in particularly good working order.  My left hand was split in two, the wrist of my right hand butchered by the way I’d slammed it through the side of the bridge.

Getting to my feet was a slow process, made slower by the fact I couldn’t use my hand.  Elbow on the railing, which wobbled unsteadily as I put my weight on it, a piece of signboard bowed under my weight as I planted one foot on the ground and used it to stand.

Ms. Lewis was already walking away.  Her suit and clean, shampooed blond hair were eerily out of place in here.

With a quick glance over my shoulder, I looked for Carl.  He was gone.  For the time being, I was sure.

Bystanders stepped out of Ms. Lewis’ way, giving her a wide berth.

“Don’t walk away from me,” my voice was low.

She didn’t respond.  She kept walking.

I hobbled after her.

She paused, and I took that as my cue to stop.  Which was great, because I was aching in a dozen places.  My leg, my hands…

“Talk to me,” I said.  Demanded.

“Talk to you?”  She turned.  “Who are you?  Keep in mind, that’s a very complicated question.”

“It doesn’t need that complicated or loaded an answer.  I’m Blake Thorburn.”

“‘Blake Thorburn’ has no power.  He has minimal presence in the material world.  He has a minimal presence here.  The spirits no longer pay him any mind.  He can lie.  Did you know this?  Your words have no substance anymore.  The only person who actually knows about you is your goblin queen friend, and she recently finished a ritual that obligates her to stay in Jacob’s Bell.  You can’t throw your name around if it has no weight.”

You still know about me,” I said.  “How?”

“Yes.  The demon primarily cut connections to those who were gathered outside the building.  When you lost your grip on the world, other connections broke.  Your home, your parents, your little sister… I held onto mine, as your goblin queen friend did.”

“And I know about me,” I said.

“You do,” she said.

“Why?”

“That would be telling.”

“I want out of here,” I said.  “You can’t tell me you don’t have any use for me anymore.  Just take me out of here, let me see to my affairs, and then you have me at your disposal.”

“Whether you’re talking about the errand I promised or joining the firm, we’re simply not interested.  You’ve served your purpose, you’re spent, as currency goes.  Inviting you back would only undermine everything we put in place for our client.”

“Undermine?” I asked.  My mind raced.

“I understand you’re upset, Mr. Thorburn, but I offered you a means of extending your very short stay in the world, and you refused it.  You’ve effectively ceased to exist, and right now, you’re wasting my time.  If you wish to continue this conversation, I may have to bill you for your time,” she said.

A pause as I glared at her.

“You went considerably out of your way to refuse our last offer.  I don’t think there’s anything I could tell you here that would be worth the price I’d exact.”

Undermine.  It was an idea to latch onto.

If the idea had been to simply bring Rose into the world, they could have set up what they did and simply killed me.

Rose hadn’t become a practitioner, purposefully screwing up the awakening ritual, but she had learned.  She’d studied.

I’d been there for a reason.  Buying time.  Buying Rose time.  I’d been there to absorb the initial hostility, to put Rose in a good position.  Then Grandmother’s ideal heir, custom made, got placed in the real world, replacing me, consuming my energy to become real.  Any enemies vicious enough to put her down would be bewildered.  Rose, knowledgeable enough to know what to do, would capitalize on the confusion that came with her appearance.

Except I’d gone down in the messiest way possible and buggered up that part of things.

Isadora had known it, and she’d tried to offer me a clean death rather than this.  Or whatever fate I was running headlong towards.  Rose had maybe known it.  Laird had known it.

I could understand Isadora knowing because of what she was.  I could understand Rose knowing because she’d been tipped off.  Given a nudge or some lawyerly advice.  How had Laird known?

“I was the sacrificial pawn, then,” I said.  “That’s all it amounts to?  I die, so Rose can live?”

“Effectively,” Ms. Lewis said.  “You were polite in our conversations, and that’s more than some of our more manic or deranged clients manage.  I noticed your call, however small your voice is, and I thought I would stop by to urge you to make peace with your circumstances.”

“Peace?” I asked.  “PeaceHere?

“It would be for the best,” she said.

“This isn’t the kind of peace I want,” I said.  “I’m really fucking tired of people trying to get me to lay down and give up.  To accept their fucking idea of peace.  I want my peace, damnit!”

“Yet the alternative to our idea of peace was and is an unquiet end.  You’re standing in quicksand, Mr. Thorburn.  Thrashing means you only sink faster, exhausted and frightened.  Go still, wait, and you might remain in the quicksand, but it won’t be quite so unpleasant.”

“No,” I said.  “That’s not me.  I’d rather go down fighting and stupid.  Foolish.  I’m asking for your help because I have to keep going somehow, and I can’t keep going here.  Not with the price involved, not when it’s going to grind me down and make me something different.”

She tilted her head a little.  It was unsettling how the gritty droplets that occasionally rained down from the ceiling weren’t touching her.  This place wasn’t touching her.

“I suppose you’re right,” she said.  “You can’t give up, and this may be the worst place for you to be…”

Despite myself, I checked again.  Carl was still gone.

“…But you won’t get help from me.  Unfortunately, that puts me in an awkward position.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, did I put you in an awkward spot?” I asked, infusing my voice with weeks worth of repressed sarcasm.

“Dramatic irony at its finest,” she said.  “Your goblin queen friend can’t and won’t come, and your other friends are preoccupied.  You left no other meaningful allies behind you.  You’re alone.  I’m your last hope, and you can’t let me go… unless I prevail on your wisdom and self preservation.”

“You’re threatening me?”

“I can’t have you following me out,” she said, “And I’d rather not make waves by leaving more dramatically.  People aren’t the only things that come to this place to be worn away.  Many a Demesne or forgotten god have fallen through the cracks, nothing to tie them to the world above.  I would rather not disturb the more powerful locals.”

“You’re saying there’s an exit.”

“I’m saying this conversation is over,” she said.  “I’m not here to hand you a solution.  I’m saying farewell, that I’ve dealt with worse individuals, and I’m choosing to refuse your request in person, rather than leave you to keep wondering.  I’m sorry it has to end on this note, but if you follow me, I will speak a name and you will regret making the choice.”

“I’m not-”

“As I said, this conversation is over,” she told me.

My divided hand clutched my wounded wrist as I stood on the rickety, piecemeal bridge, watching her leave.

When she said she would make me regret it, I believed her.

Frustration, rage, horror and a measure of panic boiled up within me.

Impotent emotion.  I wasn’t dumb enough to follow.

But what the fuck was I supposed to do if I stayed?

I watched her disappear into the darkness, onto some ledge or path out of reach of any of the flickering lights.

My heart pounded.  My mouth and throat were dry, even though my entire body was damp and numb with cold.

The darkness pressed in.  I couldn’t shake the idea that the darkness was as solid as hard earth, and it extended for miles in every direction.  Any progress I made was at the expense of scratching in dirt.

There was only this little patch of reality, and then only constant resistance that cost me more than it was worth to make headway against.

Seeing Carl had fucked me up.

Bystanders were staring.  Others and people who weren’t a hundred percent people anymore.  Broken down individuals who’d been shored up by whatever they could scrounge up from this place.  Animal parts, grit, rags, flesh bloated with water.

I turned my back on the bridge that Ms. Lewis had taken, limping back in the direction of the small settlement.

I would have been lying if I tried to convince myself I managed to compose myself, but fuck it, I was allowed to lie now.

Hard shoe heels struck the tiled floor.  The church was dim, with some multicolored light streaming in through stained glass windows.

Sandra stood in front of the altar, not at the altar.  It loomed behind her, but the fact that she wasn’t using it as a stage to speak from suggested this wasn’t a proper assembly.  Her familiar was perched across her shoulders, body bent to accommodate her neck.  She wore her hair in a braid that draped over one shoulder, and a long coat with a fur ruff around the hood.  Her family was arranged on one side of the aisle.

Mags sat on the edge of the stage, to Sandra’s left.  Three goblins sitting or standing in her immediate vicinity.  Her dark hair turned away from her head in twisted little curls, and only the metal hairband kept her from looking shaggy.  Her t-shirt was black, with a bloody cartoon character on it, her jacket too small for the deep winter.  Her denim skirt had threads hanging from the hem, and her legs were in black tights, jammed into sneakers.  She looked painfully out of place with the modern clothes, and she looked worn out, with dark circles under dark eyes, little injuries everywhere, but the goblins around her were obedient, and formed a kind of unconscious tableau.

Andy and Eva stood leaning against the stage to Sandra’s right.  He looked just similar enough to Eva for them to be obvious relatives, but their style of dress and demeanor were completely different.

Duncan sat with the Behaim family, his jacket draped on the back of the pew behind him.  He wore gloves that extended inside the sleeves of his long-sleeved shirt, had one foot propped up on the seat of the pew.  One finger tapped a relentless metronome beat on his knee.

A younger Aboriginal girl sat on a pew, all alone.  Nobody sat next to her, but the Briar Girl and the Briar Girl’s familiar sat in the row behind her.

The Faerie had taken seats behind the Behaims.  Ev and Keller.  Padraic was absent.

Johannes was the last major player, sitting a little ways back, his familiar beside him.

Other Others were arranged at the edges of the room.

Eyes were on Rose.  Alexis, Ty and Tiff had joined her, and each one of them was backed by a summoned Other.  Alexis had a knight in rusted armor, Tiff was joined by a small child with white hair and pale pink eyes, lower face hidden by a scarf, and Ty was accompanied by both a mangy-looking Evan and a hulking brute of a man draped in what might have been necrotized flesh or seaweed.  It was hard to tell.

Rose was accompanied by James Corvidae, and her style of dress -still wearing clothes from Grandmother Rose’s wardrobe- matched his in a strange way.  Corvidae met the eyes of the small Aboriginal girl who’d partially turned around.  He smiled, a slow, wide smile.  The girl twisted around, sitting back down, eyes forward, but she smiled a little too.

Rose wasn’t in a position to see either smile.

“The diabolist has a cabal?” Sandra asked.

“No,” Rose said.  “A circle.  I haven’t taught them anything that would qualify them as a cabal, not yet.”

“You’re not doing yourself any favors, talking like that,” Sandra said.

“I know.  Can I sit?”

“It’s your prerogative,” Sandra said.

Rose stood by while Ty, Alexis and Tiff filed in to take a seat on the pew.  Their individual others moved into the row behind them, not sitting.

Rose took her seat at the end of the pew closest to the middle of the church.

“I must say,” Ev commented, her voice light and airy. “It is quite refreshing to have an active Thorburn around.  Say what you will about the last one, she just wasn’t that interesting.  We’re happier to be rid of her.”

“If you’re trying to bait me, it’s not going to work,” Rose said.  “I wasn’t fond of Molly either.”

Mags shifted position, uncomfortable.

“For the most part, we’ve made our initial forays,” Sandra said.  “Testing the water.  If I suggest that an outright war is looming on the horizon, I don’t think anyone’s about to correct me.”

Nobody did.

“I didn’t think so.  This may well get very unpleasant, and I’d like to manage how unpleasant it gets.  I’ve touched on the subject with Johannes, and I believe he’s on the same page as me.”

“Geneva conventions?” Mags asked.

“In a sense,” Sandra replied.  “I don’t want this to devolve into the same sort of mess that apparently occurred in Toronto.  I would propose a series of rules, to keep this contained and to keep it private.”

“I’m not against the idea,” Johannes said.  “So long as they’re new rules, not some convoluted tradition that we can’t hope to study before events come to pass.”

“New rules,” Sandra said.  “We limit the collateral damage by keeping all altercations between official combatants.  To protect individuals that can’t speak for themselves-”

“Small children,” Johannes said.

“Yes.  To protect individuals like babies and small children, we assume that only those individuals that sign a given, freely available tome are participants in the struggle for the Lordship of Jacob’s Bell.”

“I’ll have to say no to that one,” Johannes said.  “My allies come and go, and some can’t sign a book.  The rule is biased against humans and humanoids.”

“Individuals that can speak for themselves,” Sandra clarified.  “Make a declaration.”

Johannes spread his arms wide.  “I have friends that can’t speak conventionally.  And how and when would this declaration take place?  You’d need observers, which suggests it would have to take place in a setting like this, but that creates time restrictions.  Not to mention it’s a rule that explicitly puts me at a disadvantage.  I’d prefer my enemies to be surprised with the sheer variety of contacts and allies I have.”

“Then you won’t agree?” Sandra asked.

Johannes shook his head.

“If I may?” Duncan asked.

“Go ahead.”

“People can declare themselves out of bounds, with the caveat that they cannot participate,” Duncan said.  “Those who cannot speak for themselves can be named by another.”

“While they are present,” Johannes said, “With room for objection.”

Duncan nodded.

“I have no objection to that,” Sandra said.  “Innocents, and anyone who names themselves or is named by another and cannot or will not speak against that?”

“Works for me,” Johannes said.

“A show of hands, then?” Sandra asked, raising her own hand.  “Who is interested in making a bid for power?”

She kept her hand in the air.  It was joined by Duncan, Johannes…

And Rose.

“Rose, I know you’re new to this,” Sandra said, “But you might change your mind if I were to tell you that if an area has a diabolist for a Lord, that area becomes a target for other groups.”

“Groups with a sense of self preservation,” Duncan said.

“I know that already,” Rose said. “I’m still making a bid.”

“And your, ah, Circle?” Johannes asked.

“We’re standing by her,” Alexis said.

Sandra made a bit of a face.  “Right.  Then do we have any individuals or groups that are declaring for themselves?  Separate and apart from the conflict, or hoping to gain from it without declaring for a side?”

Hands went up around the periphery of the room.  Various Others.  The two Faerie.

The little Aboriginal girl’s hand went up, as did the Briar Girl’s.

“Very well,” Sandra said.  “You agree to abide by the rules?”

“If we don’t,” the Briar Girl said, “You’ll deal with us first, to keep this controlled, won’t you?”

“Yes,” Sandra said.

“Then I guess I have to.”

“I have to ask if there are any explicitly neutral declarations?  A role to play in the contest itself, or in relation to the city?”

Andy and Eva’s hands went up.

Mags raised her hand too.

“Good,” Sandra said.  “We’ll clarify the details in a moment, then.  The second point would be to protect the citizens.  Any altercations for the Lordship, should take place within Jacob’s Bell, which is only appropriate.  No property should be damaged or altered in such a way that it distresses an innocent resident.  I don’t want this to be about bloodshed and destruction.”

“Within Jacob’s Bell and its demesnes, and my residents aren’t considered innocent,” Johannes said.  “Honestly, Sandra.  Do you really imagine I’d let that one slip by?  Amend it and I’ll agree.”

“I’ll agree as well,” Duncan said.

“Very well,” Sandra said.  “Any altercation should involve a clear declaration of war.  Where allowed and fitting, I would like to do this with clear rules of engagement.  Contests, rather than outright fighting and murder.”

“This is getting tiresome,” Johannes said.  “Of course you want contests rather than murder.  You’re an enchantress.  Assassination and violence remain on the table, or this is a farce.”

Sandra smiled.  “Good.  Declarations of war, then.  Fair notice, confrontations should take place behind closed doors, the public none the wiser.  I’ll just suggest it’s more Lordlike if one can best a foe without such barbarism.”

Johannes smiled just a little too much at that.  “Of course.”

“We can add more rules at a later point,” Sandra said.  “For the time being, are these basic restrictions fair?  Any objection?”

“I object.”

Rose’s voice was quiet, but it carried.

It wasn’t the first time she’d displayed good oratory skills.  Eyes turned her way.

“You object?” Sandra asked.

“Yes.  I’m declaring my bid for the Lordship of Jacob’s Bell, and I’m unequivocally refusing all the proposed rules and conventions.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Duncan said.  “You know what’s going to happen.  Anyone who refuses, like the Briar Girl said, is inviting immediate retaliation.”

“You keep telling me things like I was born yesterday,” Rose said.  “I know.  I don’t particularly care.”

“You’re making enemies here,” Sandra said.

Rose shrugged.

“You’re putting innocents at risk by weakening this agreement,” Duncan spoke, his voice low.

“Oh, you’re thinking of your fiancee,” Rose said.  “Again, you keep telling me things I know and have considered.”

Johannes spoke up, “Your circle will be obvious and easy targets to weaken you.  Surely you’re not that heartless.”

Tiff fidgeted, hands out of view behind the back of the pew in front of her.

“It certainly looks like I am that heartless,” Rose said.

“They’re open game, then?” Johannes asked.

Try,” Rose said.

She stood, fixing her coat, then strode from the church.

It was a good twenty seconds before her circle and Others had all departed.  The door shut behind the monstrous Other with the seaweed flesh.

“Well,” Mags said.  “That happened.”

“We could forge the same deal with her absent,” Duncan said.

“It would be far weaker as a group-sworn Oath than it would be if everyone was involved, and it would put us at a disadvantage in relation to our prickly miss Thorburn there, tying our hands while leaving hers free,” Sandra said.  “I’d rather not, not officially.”

Johannes smiled, leaning back on his pew.  “Honor system it is, then.”

The North End Sorcerer excepted, there were very few present who looked particularly happy with the turn of events.

The Faerie were two of those few.

So refreshing,” Ev murmured to Keller, practically squirming with excitement.

Muscles were tense all throughout my body.  My teeth were grit so hard I was getting a headache.

I intentionally walked through the open pool of water, disrupting the image and sounds.  Nobody else had caught them.  The scenes were just for me.

What the fuck are you doing, Rose?

Me being a pawn was bad enough.  My friends being used as pawns?

Holy fuck, if this place wanted to screw with my head, it was succeeding by leaps and bounds.  Fuck me.  I’d already been trying to deal with the frustration and rage that had followed from talking to Ms. Lewis, but now this?  Watching my friends get led to their doom while I was utterly unable to do a thing about it?

I raised a fist, ready to punch a wall, and stopped.  My wrist was still a wreck, badly bandaged with my other spare sock.

My other hand- bandaged with the first sock, divided in half.

A kick then?  My right leg was a wreck, barely able to sustain my weight when I walked.

I would have screamed, but I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t wake up something I didn’t want to wake up.

There wasn’t anything to do but swallow my frustration.  To let it gnaw at me from the inside out.  The environment was doing its fair share of damage from the outside in.  At some point, I’d hit my limit.

This wasn’t that point.  Like I’d told Ms. Lewis, I wasn’t about to lie down and die.

I hiked up my pants leg to double-check my leg’s condition.  Veins and capillaries had burst, causing horrific bruising, complete with what looked like black tracks along the skin where the veins or arteries or whatever had been closer to the skin.  All from a brief touch from the cold tentacled thing in the water.

I let the pants leg drop.  At least it wasn’t an open wound, like the cuts and abrasions on the sides of my right wrist were.  Open wounds meant inviting diseases.  Or, worse, they meant inviting something special to this place.  Fungi, molds, parasites, infections of the sort that weren’t in any medical journal.

I needed a weapon.  There were people selling them here, further into the settlement.

I needed information.

Progress through the settlement revealed more shacks.  In places, shacks had been arranged around resources.  Eight or so shacks were arranged in a ring at one point opposite a chasm, and water periodically emptied from some pipe high above, along with collected debris and garbage.  Where the water passed under, I observed, there was very little garbage.  A grill or grate to catch the leavings, shared communally?

Light, it seemed, was another convenience, many shacks built to covet and borrow the light of a given lightbulb, their windows and shoddy construction allowing only slices of light through for others to use.  Safety was yet another, and the only apparent safety here was the safety of being in the middle of the herd.  As I drew closer to the heart of things, the houses were crammed in closer together.  It was like a very young child’s experiment with building blocks, sloppy, haphazard, and it didn’t make fundamental senseEveryone knew that when one laid down bricks, they staggered it, so each brick was supported by the two below.  Kindergarten level architecture.

Yet over and over, I saw sloppy construction where people had somehow, for some reason, decided to build their shack as an extension of the place below, increasing the pressure, making it all just a touch more wobbly and unsteady.

The people, too, didn’t feel like a society.  The crowd didn’t function as any crowd should.  Individuals stopped in the middle of the footpath, walked against the unsteady flow of people, and ranged from the openly hostile to the hyper-passive avoidant types.

I wasn’t seeing any indication of signs or general means of finding anything I needed.  I had to ask.

I stopped a man who was walking by, looking furtively around, like he might be jumped from any direction.  He startled at my reaching hand, as if he’d barely noticed I was there.  Skin had been ripped away from his face, neck and hands in long, perfectly straight, pencil-thin strips.

“The witch?” I asked.

He started moving again, but he extended a hand, pointing as he walked, eyes averted from mine.

Moving in the direction indicated, I found an alley.  It was the only way to describe it – a bridge with constructions on either side.  Shacks were piled haphazardly beside and on top of on one another, very few any larger than a single room.  They rose like individual walls with only a narrow path between them.

I picked out the Witch’s as one of the biggest, with walls of found stone – clusters of brick and mortar or stone and mortar that had broken away from various walls of the drains, fit together imperfectly.  Something had been stuffed in cracks, sufficient to keep light from shining through gaps where individual elements weren’t flush.

There was even a plant in the window, which was quite literally a hole in the wall, lacking glass or any covering.  The plant was a weedy, shitty looking plant of indeterminate nature, but there was a decoration.  That said something.

Anyone here who isn’t a victim is a predator, I thought.

I knocked on the door of driftwood.  There were cracks between the door and the wall, and candlelight shone through.

“Come in.”

I had to work for a second to figure out how to open the door.  The ceiling was low enough I had to duck a bit.

The witch was surprisingly normal looking.  Back in what Ms. Lewis had called the material world, the witch would have passed for a homeless woman.  Her hair was matted in places, and her skin had stretches of rash where it didn’t seem to have grit embedded in the flesh.  Forty or so, Greek if I had to attach an ethnicity to her.

But she would have passed for normal, and the extensive collection of knick-knacks and decorations, as well as genuine conveniences suggested she had been here for some time.  She’d spliced wiring leading up to a lightbulb and extended it to what seemed to be a hot plate.  A radio buzzed in the background, a man’s voice reading what might have been baseball stats, alternating between English and a guttural foreign language.  Swells of static periodically drowned out the voice.  Candles sat on three different surfaces, fat and crude looking.  Driftwood was stacked by what might have been a fireplace, though it was no larger than a toaster.

“You practiced,” the witch said.  “Before.”

I nodded.

“That was you with the visitor, on the poles?”

The poles?  Now that I thought about it, the bits of architecture between the bridges of scrap metal had resembled pillars, reaching up from the abyss to go nowhere.

“Yes, it was.”

“My visitors customarily bring gifts,” she said.  “I don’t ask them to, but they started doing it, and some even bring small gifts from time to time, so I remember their faces.  An insurance of sorts, so I might give them my time when they need it, and I am otherwise preoccupied.”

“Forgive me,” I said.  “I didn’t know.”

“It’s fine,” she said, “You don’t have to give me anything.  It’s a convention, not a rule.”

“I’d like to,” I said.  “I could give you word of the outside world.”

She snorted rather dramatically.  It wasn’t the usual snort.  It was the sort of snort that one could only manage if they were particularly ill or if the circumstances and environment were just right.  Heavy, impossible to ignore.

“No?” I asked.

“Everyone has the same question, and I’ll ask them if I’m curious in exchange.”

“I like fairness,” I said.

“Good,” she said.  “Ask your questions.”

I shook my head.  “One second.”

I pulled off my winter coat, then my sweatshirt, followed by my shirt.

“You’re more attractive than some,” she said, “But not so attractive a striptease is warranted or wanted, my dear.”

Shirtless, cold, I held out my t-shirt and sweatshirt.  “Sorry this is so impromptu.  You can have either one, your choice.”

“You’re new here,” she said.  “What makes you think I want a filthy, sweaty piece of clothing?”

“I was homeless once,” I said.

“Were you now?” she asked.  She quirked an eyebrow.  “What do I care about that?”

“There’s always a use for an extra bit of clothing,” I said.  “And I assume people are bringing you the wood you’re using for that fireplace, as gifts, and I can’t imagine you won’t find some use for a reasonably clean, intact shirt.”

“You’re not wrong,” she said.  She took my t-shirt, smiling.  “I like you.  Offering accepted.  Sit, please.”

I sat, struggling with my injured leg and hands.

She made no comment on either, taking an excessive amount of time to drape my t-shirt over the makeshift fireplace.

“Ask your questions,” she said.

“How do I get out?”

“There it is,” she said.

“I’ve heard there are exits guarded by powerful entities.  They exact a price for passage.”

“That’s one way,” she said.

“And I’ve heard that practitioners visit, picking up the most monstrous and powerful.”

“Partially right.  The most monstrous are left well alone, and for good reason.”

I nodded.  “My… visitor commented that there were powers best left undisturbed.”

“You know of demesnes?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Gods?”

“I know of them,” I said.

“People aren’t the only things that find their way down here.  A demesnes with no tie to the world may fall through the cracks just as any person might.  Some say this is how this place learns and adapts to the times.”

“Makes sense,” I said.  “Does anyone or anything run this place?”

“Maybe, maybe not.  I don’t know everything.  I would venture a guess, fellow practitioner, that it was a demesne once, and it was attached to some vital process of our reality.  Through this vital process, it came to devour other demesnes and objects, and it swelled in size.  It connected to other such areas, and formed the backbone for what might otherwise have been the original void.”

“Nothingness?”

“In the earliest creation myths, void was not nothing, but raw chaos.  Nothing was not a concept.  Void was an endless storm of everything under the sun, a great elemental grinder to churn up all which fell into its reach.  But over time, this place became more civilized.  Gods, you see, fall through the cracks as well, without worshiper or memories to hold them in place.  They sleep inside the walls, and bring a kind of logic to this place.  Demesnes bring memories of their masters.  Every visitor shapes this place in little ways.  The drains are but one manifestation of this essential need the universe has, for healthy entropy.”

I nodded.

“Cooperating with this entropy and working in concert with this place might make you sensitive enough to the underlying workings to divine a way out.  The sad fact, however, is that many who do this don’t want to leave, in the end.”

“I, um, had a dream, where I did that.  Cooperated.  But I did want to leave.”

“Many have these dreams,” she said.  “Not all leave in the dream.”

I nodded.

“There are other ways,” she said.  “You know of bogeymen?”

“Yeah.  They get out.”

“Hot malice drives them, anger.  They boil up much as heat rises, and crawl free.  Particularly gruesome, iconic ends give them this strength.”

“I feel pretty goddamn angry,” I said.

“Reports of your discussion with your visitor suggest you are… but the kind of malice and anger I’m talking about is anger where a civil conversation is utterly impossible.  If you were one of them, you would attack on sight.”

I frowned.

“There are other ways, but they are very specific ways,” she said.

“I’m open to specific.”

“I couldn’t name them all, and I couldn’t be certain about them all either.  At times, it’s ambiguous.  Did they escape, or did they die in the process?”

“I’m open to uncertain, too,” I said.

“Too much hassle.  Bring me another gift on a day I’m not so tired, and I’ll entertain you naming the possibilities.”

I frowned, hands clenched.

“Another question?” she asked.  “You’ve found me tired but in a good mood.  Take advantage.”

“There’s something following me,” I said.  “A person from a memory.  But his hair and clothes are black.  A conversation with another resident of these drains suggested she-“

“-Had a shadow as well,” the witch said.  “Not everyone does.”

“What is he?  No, scratch that, dumb question.  How do I fucking deal with him?”

“Most decide to run,” she said.

“I’m not most,” I said.  “How do I bind him?  Or seal him or banish him or whatever?”

“Ah, and I was starting to suspect you weren’t a real practitioner.  Unfortunately, our like don’t have our true power down here, only our knowledge, and some tricks here and there.”

“Knowledge is power,” I said.  “And it’s a huge freaking inconvenience sometimes, but you and I both know that Others can be countered if you have the right material, or the right circumstances…”

“You’re right in that, but you’re wrong in one element.  He’s not Other.  Not quite.”

It wasn’t hard to put two and two together.  If he wasn’t Other, and he obviously wasn’t human, or animal, or plant, or mineral…

I groaned a bit.  “No.  That’s so cheesy.”

“It’s true.”

“He’s me?”

“A part of you.  A reflection, twisted in a distorted mirror.”

“I’ve spent way, way, way too much time already dealing with a distorted reflection already,” I said.

Memories of the recent dreams hit me.  The feeling of betrayal.  There was that anger I’d just mentioned.

Fuck.  I needed out of here.  Rose was fucking it all up.  I was at the point where I might do something reckless if I didn’t see a way through.

“The obvious answer is very simple,” the witch told me.

“What’s that?”

“You simply give him up.  Abandon him, reject him, carve away that part of yourself.  Some do it simply by attacking and killing their shadow.”

I swallowed.  “Like I can give up my need to eat, or my need to sleep, or any of that.  Except there’s a price, isn’t there?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Tell me, did your shadow plague you in this vision you had, of yourself escaping?”

“No,” I said.

She spread her hands, as if that was my answer.

“…I was a monster,” I said.  I wasn’t so hampered in my relationship with Green Eyes.

I only had to ask, and I could be rid of Carl, of those memories.

“Oh fuck,” I said, burying my face in my hands.  “Don’t tell me that.”

“The spirits might not reach us or affect us with the same strength down here, but I believe in truth and honesty,” she said.  “I believe in the bastardized notion of karma that suggests that if one is just and good, then justice and goodness will find them.”

“Telling me that isn’t just and good,” I said.  “Fuck, that’s an easy out I’d totally take in the heat of the moment.  Do you have any freaking idea how scary that is?  I just said that knowledge can be a huge inconvenience.  This is a freaking death sentence you just handed me.”

“I gave you truth,” she said.  “If I started lying to people who come to me, I’d lose what little traction I enjoy, here.”

Fuck fuck fuck.

“Talk to me, stranger,” she said.

We hadn’t exchanged names.

“This isn’t even a slippery slope,” I said.  “My humanity is one knee-jerk reaction away from utter ruin.”

“Humanity?” she asked.  “Look at yourself.  Your hands.”

I did.

I looked down at the feathers and branches, the cuts and scrapes, the wounds on my wrist.

“I guess I’m not so human anymore,” I said.

“I don’t think that’s the question,” she said.  “The real question is, what are you?”

“That sounds an awful lot like the question I just got from my visitor.”

“It’s an important one,” she said.

“I’m… Other,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“And, what, that means I should keep going down that route?  That there’s some weakness or strength I can derive from my status?”

She sighed a little.

“I don’t…” I started, but I couldn’t put thoughts into words.  I was agitated, upset.  “All I ever wanted was to wrap this stuff up.  To go back to something resembling an ordinary life, to have my bike and my familiar back, and just, I dunno… wander?”

I felt like I was going to throw up.  She wasn’t responding.

But she was listening, and that meant something.  I spoke, just to fill the silence, to unload something more that I’d bottled up inside me.  “I… every step of the way, I feel like I’m getting further and further away from that.”

“Hm,” she said.

“What?”

“I’m thinking, nothing more.  When push comes to shove, do you think you’ll take the step that leads you down that path, or the step that leads you to where you need to be?”

“Away from here?  I’ll take the step I need to take.  That’s what’s driving me so insane about all this.  I keep taking that damn step.  Away from what I want.  Why?  Is that bad?”

“It’s what it is,” she said.  “I’ve mused before on the paths some take to escape.  That this place tells them.  Perhaps this vision of your future is suggesting you need to let go of this dream of yours if you want to find a way out of here… except…”

“What?”

“You have a shadow as well.  By my theory, you’d need to confront a reality about your past.”

“Confront the shadow?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

Okay, that sick feeling I had was getting worse at hearing that.

A thought struck me.

“And what does it mean if I have visions of the present?  Of that screwed up reflection I mentioned in passing?”

“A doppleganger?”

Was Rose a doppleganger?  “For the sake of argument.”

“It means there’s a present reality you need to confront or resolve.  I’ll put it simply, stranger.  These things are anchors, tying you down to keep you in place.  This place is taking those anchors and using them, giving them form, to put you off balance.  I’ve never run into someone with three, not that I’ve noticed.”

“This is kind of abstract,” I said, staring down at my tattooed hands.  The branches seemed to move as the shadows the candles cast danced from left to right.  “I’m not sure I grasp how I’m supposed to deal with these things.”

“How does a boat deal with its own anchor?”

“Haul it in,” I said.  “Get it onboard.  Oh fuck no.”

Yes,” she said.

That’s the answer?”

“It’s maybe a part of the answer,” she said.  “This doesn’t make an exit magically appear.  If I’m right, it does free you to walk through an available exit.”

I stared down at my hands.

“You know,” she said, “I came up with this theory based on personal experience.  Glimpses of what was waiting for me if I made it back scared me off when I was drawing closer.  I decided it was easier to remain here, than to resolve the issue and face reality.”

“I can’t be complacent,” I said.  “It’s just not in me.”

“That realization sounds like the first step you need to take.”

“It’s the next step that terrifies me,” I said, my voice quiet.

“Rightly so,” she answered.

A silence lingered.

“I was going to ask about medical care, how to treat my injuries, but I’m already worried I owe you too much.  I jumped into the questions without asking what the proper price would be.  The shirt was just for the sit-down?”

“The shirt was a convention, not a rule,” she stressed.  “As for this… if and when you fail, stop by and tell me.  Or leave me some sign if you can’t speak.  Further my research.”

“If I succeed?”

“Then I won’t have any answer at all,” she said.  “Forcing me to wonder if you’ve died or escaped.  Another data point, if nothing else.”

“I owe you more than an obscure data point or vague sign,” I said.

“If you felt compelled, and if you were ever able to travel like you dream, I think my family has a gravestone with my name on it in Wisconsin.  Zoey Artana.  A flower would be nice.”

“That sounds like a proper wizard name,” I said.  “I’m jealous.  You’ve got a deal.”

I started to get to my feet.

“It’s going to get uglier before it gets better,” she said.

“Believe me, I know,” I said.  “Thank you.”

“We’re all on the same side here,” she said.  “Us against this place.  Doesn’t mean we’re all friendly, but it does make this sort of thing easier.”

“You’re not wrong,” I said.  “If there’s anything that might make me want to stay in this place, having people be decent to me is a hell of a trap.”

“Godspeed, stranger.”

I wasn’t sure what to say in response, good luck with this thing here, so I stayed silent.

I walked until I reached the poles.  Pillars of stonework spearing up from the darkness, until it felt like a strong wind would make them wobble.  Rickety bridges of debris stretched between each of them.

I stood there, in the darkness, cold and hungry, my woolen sweatshirt clammy against my skin, the seams rubbing at my shoulders, hurting from a dozen things at once.

I waited.

There was no standing water for me to glimpse Rose and the others.  I wasn’t about to sleep to confront the future, and I wasn’t sure that was the route I needed to take to pass that particular hurdle.

My focus lay elsewhere.  The first hurdle, the most concrete one.

I heard footsteps and turned.

Carl stopped as I made eye contact with him.

“You got me,” I said.  “I’m not running.”

“Think of everything you could have avoided if you’d done that from the start,” he said.

Fuck you,” I said.  “Do what you gotta do.”

He approached, and I had to stop myself from taking a step backward.

He stopped a foot from me.

He wrapped his arms around me in a hug.

I found myself someplace else.

I’d expected something bad.  The shelter, cold, fear, panic, shame.

This place wasn’t that kind.

I felt warm, sunshine, safety.  I smelled literal bullshit and cut grass.

I felt at peace.

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249 thoughts on “Null 9.3

    1. Mm, Pact fell really behind on the votes, Worm too. This is despite a 15% bump in readership lately – just goes to show how important nagging is if one wants the votes. Good on Rasa for getting lots of votes though – all feedback I’ve heard has been that it’s good quality writing, so maybe check it out after you’re done voting.

      Banner for Pact on Topwebfiction should be up in a little while.

      1. I went on vacation for a bit in a different timezone so I was never here at midnight. Hah, I didn’t think my posts affected the voting that much.

        I’ve read Rasa for awhile, very good story but doesn’t update nearly as much as you manage to do.

        1. A polite reminder and a convenient link to vote make a huge difference in voting rates. I’ve started putting up one link per week myself and it makes a big difference. I also mention to people that they can vote for many stories, you are not limited to only one.

          1. I had no idea you can vote for more than one story. I never voted on Worm because I thought it’ll remove the vote on Pact. Thanks for the hint!

    2. Typo thread.
      – “He was gone. For the time being, I was sure.” -> “I was safe”?
      – “Bystanders stepped out of Ms. Lewis’ way, giving her a wide berth.” -> Maybe: I thought Blake was rather alone when he ran from Carl.
      – “custom made” -> “custom-made”?
      – “unless I prevail on your wisdom and self preservation” -> “self-preservation”; not sure “prevail on” is correct
      – “Their individual others” -> “Others”
      – “Geneva conventions” -> “Conventions”
      – “Groups with a sense of self preservation” -> “self-preservation”
      – “without worshiper or memories” -> “worshipers”
      – “doppleganger” -> “doppelganger” (x2 in this chapter)

      1. to lay down and give up
        to lie down and give up, but given that it is in speech, perhaps the character made a grammatical error

        weeks worth
        week’s worth

        lightbulb (2)
        usually light bulb

        A demesnes
        A demesne OR Demesnes

      2. Mags sat on the edge of the stage, to Sandra’s left. Three goblins sitting or standing in her immediate vicinity.
        The second sentence isn’t complete. May be as intended, but if not:
        … left, three goblins… OR
        … left. Three goblins sat or stood in her immediate vicinity.

        The rule is biased against humans and humanoids.
        The rule is biased for humans and humanoids. [because they are the ones who can sign]

      3. This isn’t a proper typo, but I want to point out that having Ev, Eve, AND Evan all in the same place at the same time is a recipe for confusion in a work that is not immune to typos.

  1. Your writing is as amazing as always, and the ending makes me shiver as it also always does.

    How do you do the clockwork updates exactly at the 12:01 timestamp? Is it through a queue, or do you just manage the timing yourself with a high degree of precision?

      1. Note: The URL for this page says ‘vull 9.3’, and so does the ‘next chapter’ link from the previous page. Also, the proper next chapter link on the previous page doesn’t work.

  2. What? I’m confused. The best I can figure is that the Drains used Carl’s image to mask something, knowing Blake would run from it.

    Also, Rose is out of control, and everything we feared she would be. At least according to the snippets the Drains pass along.

    1. This whole Carl/face yourself shit makes me think of the Persona series.

      Rose running for Lordship is a hell of a twist. Probably part of Grandma Rose’s plan, the first step in her ultimate goal of changing the system.

        1. I’m not sure if I should be glad or bothered I haven’t played the Persona series. Might make it harder to write if I had to dodge around something that exists in another canon, but conversely, could help on a level, knowing what tropes to avoid/play off.

          This isn’t really collective unconscious though.

          1. For the record, the bit with Carl brings Persona to mind but is different enough that it won’t be confused for a copy or a cop-out. The Persona series draws heavily from both Jungian psychology (or at least a layman’s understanding of it) and uses Tarot to represent the “social masks” element of it. So, it’s only natural that a story that also has psychological themes and traditional magic would have a few things in common with it.

          2. Don’t worry you are pretty far from the Persona series. I was more making a joke on some vague similarities. I also came close to making a reference to the Earthsea series and Ged’s shadow.

            If you like JRPGs then I would recommend the later two games of the Persona series though.

          3. Persona 3 and 4 are both really great, though this is much more similar to p4 than p3. There rejecting your shadow turns the shadow into a monster that kills you, rather than turning you into a monster, but yeah.

            There are two anime of p4 (though at least the first one spends way too much time on the offensive comedy and not enough on the character development that made the game worth sitting through the homophobic/transphobic/sexist parts), but the p3 movie series looks promising, at least from the first one (you know, if you want to get the story in 9 hours instead of 90….)

            (The one good thing I have to say about p4a is that if you can find the official subs (fansubbers screwed it up), they really improved the climactic scenes with [spoiler] in the first ending.

            1. I don’t know if I’d called the game homophobic or transphobic. Or even sexist. But that’s a debate that should be held outside of the confines of a wordpress comment box.

              Thematically Pact as a whole has a little more in common with P3 though.

            2. Persona 4 isn’t homophobic nor sexist.
              Just because they didn’t have time to put in the yaoi doesn’t mean space wasn’t deliberately left for it.

            3. It is neither homophobic nor sexists.The dungeons you refer too talk about the character’s unconcious perception of the stuff,not about the opinions of the author.Transphobic,you might have a case,but the person in question was not really doing it due to feeling gender dysphoria,but because of Japan’s job discrimination.

    1. Well, to be fair, he did call her a rancid cunt.

      …I’m not defending her, I’m just making the distinction between random cruelty and petty cruelty.

        1. No, she sentenced him to death. He made his way to limbo on his own. The reason the appearance of Rose would destabilise people is that she was a vestige – not a real human. Also, she had constant access to Grandma Rose’s library for quite a while, she’s probably very knowledgeable.

          1. If he died he was going to Hell according to everyone else. The fact that Limbo is a better alternative, and I use that loosely, just means he avoided his own planned death arranged by his grandmother and has a chance to crawl up from the mud, kick down Rose’s door, and say “Surprise, Bitch! I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me!”

          2. Rose is from some sort of alternate place (or was created with false memories of such) where perhaps Grandma Rose chose to teach her personally. There were quite a few occasions where Rose’s knowledge seemed quite a bit deeper than expected. I’m fairly certain that in any reality where Vestige Rose was created and taught by her grandmother, when Grandma Rose passed on, she would have passed on the house and power of the name to the next generation.

            Rose may have been offered existence in this world as the Thorburn heir by the Grandma Rose of this world. This world’s Grandma Rose make promises not to teach her family magic, but the Grandma Rose of vestige Rose’s world may not have made that same promise.

            There’s all sorts of alternate reality potential to consider here, but we’ve got no meat in the story to tell us if Rose is the result of a real alternate world, or a fabricated being created by someone. At this point in the story, I don’t think it matters exactly where Rose came from, and whether her memories are real or fabricated.

        2. She was planning this since decades ago, before her own children were even born. I don’t think it had anything to do with the insult.

          1. Which is even worse, because that means she did all the above without malice. She’s ending two of her grand-children’s lives (the nicer ones at that) for the sake of making up for her mistake. It’s one thing to do something like this to someone you hate, not that its better, but if you do this to family simply because it was part of some overarching plan that shows you have less scruples than goddamn Laird Behaim…

    2. I still don’t get it. Molly was chosen first, she was the first choice. If she had died badly, the karma backlash could have wiped out the whole family.

      Also, Mrs. Lewis said “I can see why she might have chosen you.” Talking to Blake.

      Notice this does not mean that he was chosen.

      I don’t think Rose is evil. nor do I think she is the Elder Rose. I think that she is more a reflection of Blake than of Elder Rose.

      So, Blake’s three anchors are Rose, Shadow, and what?

      1. No, Carl is the man who raped blake when he was homeless. A manisfestation of Carl is here, and he has to ‘be one with it’ to get rid of it – aka get raped again.

        1. Where are you getting that from? If I remember correctly the guy in Blake’s memory had his features messed up and what not, implying that Blake was too messed up after the fact to remember the person’s features. Carl has a defined place in his memory, so he’s likely something else.

    1. Trapped in a lotus-eater machine while also trapped in some nightmare land… yikes. I hope nothing eats him while he’s lost in the happy place.

        1. The witch’s name wasn’t originally Artana, it was that of a moderately famous actress with the same first name and a penchant for playing attractive female space aliens. And it seems Wildbow edited my post.

            1. From the hints dropped, I’m guessing it was Zoe instead of Zoey, and the Star Trek mythos was involved.

    1. Fxvggre jbhyq’ir gevcyr-gevttrerq ol guvf cbvag. Ohg va Cnpg, vfbyngvba naq genhzn qbrf abg znxr lbh n fhcre ureb, fb Oynxr vf whfg fperjrq va trareny.

  3. The more I see of Rose, the less I think she’s going full evil. I have no idea what she’s up to, but this doesn’t feel like a rampage is imminent. Then again, Wildbow is a tricky one…

    1. Yeah, I think Rose has some sort of plan she shared with the others that Blake didn’t get to see. Blake’s friends probably don’t have the same level of attachment toward her as they did to Blake, so I don’t think they’d let her do whatever the hell she wanted if their lives were on the line.

      1. I don’t know. I think that Blake’s friends might be running off of friendship inertia. They don’t remember Blake but they remember the impression he left on them, and they’re helping Rose because they’re latching onto the closest thing to what they know they lost but can’t remember.

        So yeah, pawns.

      2. What do Alexis, Ty, etc., most value? Well, Rose there has Corvidae on beck and call to take it away from them. Perhaps they’d love to break free but just can’t see a way to get out of their metaphorical chains.

      3. Not to mention that what Rose is apparently doing is essentially what Blake did in Toronto. Blake put his friends at risk, too, but he doesn’t seem to be as charitable to Rose as he was to himself.

        1. But Blake asked them,and had noble reasons.

          Not that we are sure Rose didn’t also have these things,I do not trust the visions,but if these weren’t true forRose then she risked them for petty reasons.

    2. To be honest, it feels like Blake’s first stunt in town. Make a point of having power, of being the thing that people are scared of.

      Remember the first thing Blake did in the meeting? He opened up with the threat of the Barber. Rose seems like she’s doing the same thing on a scale that’s more in line with her current power base.

        1. Reverse psychology?

          The way all the interactions really-bad-karma-holders have had so far seem to have gone, if you start off acting politely and in good faith with the assumption that everyone else will do the same (in this case, not attack your circle just because they’re your circle and you’re a diabolist, and not to rally people to attack your circle based on half-truths to imply to the less-informed that you have a straight-up diabolist cabal), you’re really just sticking a big “kick me” sign on your back.

          With that in mind, and given that hiding Tiff and Ty and Alexis and Evan or their connections to Rose entirely is probably a lost cause (specializing in connections is sooo unfair!), at least while protecting them, and probably has been since they were dealt in on practitioning, making it clear from the beginning that they’re NOT a weak spot (in that you don’t care what happens to them [implied in a clever wordplay bit rather than stated, note] or that you are confident in the protections you’ve got in place for them or, as Rose seems to be doing here, both) may well be the best of a bunch of bad options.

          tl;dr: they were already on the menu. Rose just told everyone present at the meeting that going after them might be biting off more than they can chew.

    3. I don’t think she is evil, not even close. She isn’t evil in the same manner that almost none of the characters in Pact or Worm are evil. She isn’t hatred incarnate, she doesn’t want to shed blood and rain fire on the world. However, her goals might be hurtful to others, might be unjust, might be selfish and most likely she will rationalize them away as being for the best.

      1. “good and evil” is neither a binary, nor even an axis. It’s quite multifaceted really. But it boils down to at least 2 factors, there being your own goals and the methods you’re willing to use to achieve them. None of the characters we’ve seen so far (demons and goblins excepted) are really going for the “fire and brimstone goal”, rather they’re all motivated varying mixtures of self preservation, idealism and greed. Of course practitioners being one trick ponies, most of these basically result in them grabbing for more power no matter what. As far as goals go, Blake for instance is self preserving first, followed by his ideals (at least most of the time, sometimes he puts his ideals over self preservation). Now as far as methods go… well, pretty much everyone is pretty much ok with pretty much anything that doesn’t leave a huge fallout.

    4. I agree, though there are competing considerations:

      • Rose is not an idiot, and if her circle thought she couldn’t protect them, or that she used them as pawns, one presumes they wouldn’t have agreed. I mean, Rose is a diabolist and a summoner – for all we know, she simply is strong enough.

      • On the other hand, we could interpret everything in the most damning way for Rose and assume she’s coerced her circle with her summoned Others – they aren’t just bodyguards, but also jailors.

      1. I guess we’ll have to wait and find out. It does look kinda bad, but what worries me the most is her shooting down the attempts to keep collatorel damage down.

        1. I think that Sandra, as an enchantress, is going to have a huge advantage in any situation where there are large agreements to avoid damage or chaos. The others are afraid to give her any “cover” to hide in.

          While this might seem suspect at first, remember how easily she can manipulate normal people. If there is an agreement for practitioners or Others not to attack or harm others, well, she can probably arrange for events to occur which would cause normal people to get in the way, causing others to become foresworn.

          Because she knows connections so well, she could probably orchestrate such things without using magic at all, just by analyzing connections and using her years of experience in the town. If no power is used, I doubt her activities could be traced reliably. She may even have ways to make her actions unnoticed by spirits themselves…

          1. Way back, Blake realized that the connections for Molly’s family had been tampered with to make them more hostile to him. Considering what the Thorburns are like it wouldn’t take much to start making them a real problem for Rose. Just make it so they get riled up enough to start trying to kill her.

            1. Yeah, but they’d have to actually meet her. If she remains holed up in the Hillglades house for an extended period and she refuses them access then that’s that. Otherwise she can just use an Other capable of warding them away.

  4. Soooo, does this mean that Laird was trying to keep Blake alive longer so that Rose would have more time to learn? Was he in on the plan the whole time?

    Pretty excited for where the story is going right now.

    1. Rose was created with certain qualities, so she will probably act a certain way. Blake didnt matter other than to give Rose time to learn. Sandra said that Laird would attach himself to Conquest to bring order, but what if he was suppose to support Rose all along and help guide her in a certain direction.

  5. Only Blake would see peace, quiet and all his dreams fulfilled in his personal hell and run screaming in terror to the point of trying to bargain his soul away to Evil Inc.

      1. Note that we don’t actually know anything about their situation. We know it didn’t end well, but maybe they had a good time together before that?

  6. I just had a fridge horror moment when I re-read that last line as I recalled that some of the worst horrors rape victims go through was that they find themselves having orgasms during their ordeal.

    So if this place wants to really break Blake, it could have him live through a scenario where him being publicly sodomised by Carl and feeling peace throughout is treated like a heart-warming scene from a Norman Rockwell painting by the surrounding bystanders… 😦

    Gods, I need Brain Bleach now…

    1. That’s pretty common. The body reacts the way the body reacts and all the mental “No!” won’t really change how your body reacts. It’s something that everyone who has been raped has to learn to dissociate from — you are not your body and your body’s reaction to it and your body flooding itself with so many endorphins, etc., that your mind was altered by it, is not your fault.

    1. I think it’s more a look of understanding/recognition than of memory, but it wouldn’t surprise me too much if the two are connected in some way. There are diabolists in town after all, so maybe he’s been summoned before.

    2. “There’s been theorizing that he was a curse bestowed on us from the First Nations, over some slight.” 6.7

      We just got evidence for that theory. The way to cause the most harm to whitey would be to back Rose as long as she is the underdog, so that the fight stayed even and hot, and then back stab her when she started winning.

    1. I think what we’ve seen of Rose so far is pretty consistent with her being not very different from Blake, and also not planning against him from the start, etc. Her strategy in the meeting was very similar to Blake’s trying to turn everyone against each other with threats of extreme force at the start, and Blake wasn’t seriously about to loose Barbatorem on everyone. Also of course the bit about intentionally fucking up the ritual could be her trying to save face upon forgetting why the ritual didn’t work in the first place.

      Of course, it’s also consistent with her being just like Rose Sr…

      1. Rose made herself a target while Blake was trying to get everyone else to fight. It could be a bluff by Rose, and that place might be trying to provoke Blake to take certain actions.

        Plus Rose did have a chance to learn unlike Blake, so this time she showed up with 4 others and 3 allies.

      2. I think the most damning thing about this comment is that Blake, as far as we are concerned, would just ask to be left alone. He’d name himself out of the competition. That is, unless he expected things to be ten times worse than they currently are if anyone else won. He might also put himself in danger for what he thinks is the benefit of others. Rose, though, appears to be in it for power.

        1. Rose has every reason to expect that whoever wins the conflict will want to kill the entire Thorburn family, burn the mansion to the ground, salt the earth, and then reap the profits as the land defaults to public ownership (which it might not, depending on how spiteful Rose Sr. was-I’m guessing “all of the spite,” myself). At this point she has a choice beyond a guaranteed death at the hands of whoever wins and hoping that the major players are too distracted by one another, letting her pull an unexpected win.

          1. Mmm… Good point. I’d expect Blake to try his best to stay out of it, he is not one to seek fights, and people to not bother him, given the rules of the contest . He would stick them in a mirror if they pestered him. However, Blake has also shown he is unwilling to wait to be attacked and will strike first. Hmmm… what would he do?

            One way or another, from what we have seen, I think Rose is far, far more aggressive and dangerous than Blake ever was. Blake would not (want to) harm unless he was harmed first. Rose is effectively declaring war on everyone.

            1. That’s the problem with the Jacob’s Bell folks. They never realized just how lucky they were with Molly and Blake. They decided to get rid of the two Diabolists who weren’t willing to do awful things. Sooner or later they’ll end up with the one that will fuck them up.

  7. Blake’s going to break free, we know this. It more a question of how much of what gets out is Blake Thorburn and how much is Other. I’m hoping he’ll come out… mostly human. It’ll be interesting to see where he picks back up with Rose when he does anyway.

    1. Blake’s going to break free, we know this.

      I’m kinda expecting the twist to be that instead of exiting the Void, by the end of the story, Blake ends up dragging everybody else down there with him.Maybe he’ll become the Void Knight or something like that.

      1. “I claim this abandoned demesne as mine. To everyone who fucked with me… My pet dragon goblin, the one that just appeared behind you, is very hungry and very grumpy. I have been starving him awaiting your arrival.”

    2. I’m hoping for it to be the other way around, for him to be fairly Other when he exits. The dream sequence was bad-ass and I have a thing for transformation/corruption.

      I do hope that he stays mostly himself on a mental level — which the dream suggested, because he thought it was a bummer his wings were bat-like — and just has to deal with having a somewhat monstrous body. We know that Blake can roll with the punches. I’d like to see him deal with this.

      1. I was wondering if anyone else felt this way. The Void definitely reminds me of the world of Mareth. Though I guess that’s not the kind of story Pact is supposed to be.

      2. I have no thing for transformation or corruption, my thing is for taking what you’ve got and doing unexpected/awesome things with it. So I’m hoping he doesn’t actually change, that he comes out of this mostly like he was before, but with skills, knowledge and/or allies that he builds up through the experience.

        Assuming he doesn’t just die, at least one of us will get what they want. So that’s good.

          1. Based on what we saw of Maggie in Toronto, it seems so. Though now that I think about it, I’m not so sure about that. Did Maggie actually visibly use power as a practitioner? The goblins she summoned were mentioned in the Scarf Girl arc as being bound within objects if I remember right.

    3. I think it will be mainly Blake that comes out. The anchors are key.

      This place keeps hold of people through anchors. You could cut your anchors loose, sacrificing a part of your Self and welcoming something Other to come in and fill the void. If whatever Other fills in the blanks isn’t anchored, then the place has less hold on you and it’s easier to leave. Blake has rejected this path.

      The alternative is to take your anchors back in. Bring part of your Self back into your Self, maybe push out a bit of the Other that was filling the void. Get enough of your Self back, and the place no longer can hold you. This is the path Blake is taking, so I imagine he’ll be significantly more Blake than anything else.

    4. I’m guessing he might be summoned as a minion.

      Mags can use an ally, and has some interest in getting Blake out of there. And if Padraic isn’t naturally a practitioner, and Rose wasn’t a practitioner, then there’s a possibility that Padraic was using Maggie’s practitioner status/knowledge to bind Midge, Tallowman, and friends to Rose’s service, indicating that Mags can call on Bogeymen as well. (Yeah, it’s a bit of a flimsy link, since that could be Padraic’s knowledge applied via Maggie’s practitioner status, but it still seems at least somewhat feasible…)

  8. I was kind of anticipating that Blake might try to bring the hammer down on Ms. Lewis. This is probably because I will always be anticipating that inevitable moment when Chekov’s Demon gets fired.

    1. I wonder if Blake is crazy enough to summon that demon. With Blake’s luck an exit would be created, but a bunch of powerful and malicious others would escape aswell.

      1. With blake’s luck, the demon would be rose, who then tears apart green-eyes in front of him before saying “so long, and thanks for all the fish. And fuck you blake”

          1. Don’t worry, I’m sure things will stay bad enough for Blake that we’ll barely notice the Universe doesn’t hate him anymore.

      2. I don’t think Blake has enough presence to summon anything right now, and if I’m picking up on this correctly there’s nothing in the void the demons really want.

      3. I would be shocked if he did not use it eventually (as a last resort in the most dire situation). Calling the lawyers was pretty close to his last resort, and this situation is pretty dire. However, it seems that there is a way out, in the form of an obligatory resurrection arc, so I guess it is not yet time.

  9. So many thoughts, so little awake. . .

    I kinda want to see Blake embrace being Other. A new start without all the baggage will do him a lot of good.

    What’s up with Rose? I can’t help but shake the feeling that Blake isn’t being shown the full story.

    Ms. Lewis was pretty nice. She provided exposition and closure when it wasn’t required of her.

    If Blake is a developing Other, he needs to focus his development. Just as practitioners (other than Johannes) need a specialty, Others should probably be more than “guy with a hole in his hand”.

    Blake has ratio branches and wings on his arms. I just saw a movie that had a talking tree man and a talking raccoon. Blake should go this route and become either a tree man or a bird man.

    It’s good the inhabitants of Jacob’s Bell are putting a system into place to avoid a Toronto like catastrophe. There’s no Blake to mess everything up, so they’re already on the right foot.

    Poor Blake doesn’t know Laird knew the situation because of his torture training by Granny Rose. The misguided fool was trying to help all along. (And get power along the way)

    1. There’s no Blake to mess everything up, so they’re already on the right foot.

      But there’s a Rose! And a Johannes, for that matter!

      I don’t think we should be optimistic at all about the outcome of the upcoming war. The best outcome is probably Sandra winning or maybe an indefinite ceasefire, but given the nature of the threats here (demons, Johannes, and so on), it’s reasonable to think each player will have a trick or two up xer sleeve.

      I think I agree on everything else, with the addition that the witch was nice and I like her and now I’m worried just what horrible things she does to be so well-off down there.

      1. I’m worried just what horrible things she does to be so well-off down there.
        Well, consider she tried to find her exit, got close to it, and gave up after seeing what she had to get rid of…
        Other people go to her for info and help, and she asks for payment, but we see here she gave a lot of info for a shirt, an eyeful of Blake cake (slightly overcooked), and a promise of a flowered tombstone.

        She feels pretty nice to me.

        1. You know if Blake ever gets over his intimacy issues, he’s got the potential for so many girls going for him. Serously, it seems like a nearly all of them have at least checked him out. Yep, Blake could be a chick magnet.

            1. Ms. Lewis is sending mixed signals as well. She helps a lot despite saying the contrary, both in 2.5 and here.

            2. Maybe I was the only one who thought this, but I actually thought she wanted him to follow her despite her statements to the contrary. Her warnings are vague enough to leave a lot of wriggle-room — she’ll “say a name” and he’ll “regret following her.”

              She implies she’ll summon a demon without making it explicit; there’s a lot of names she could say. And obviously he would regret following her eventually, since what’s waiting outside is terrible enough that at some point he’ll likely wish he’d just given up and died here.

              It felt to me like she was satisfying the wording of some restriction in her, while leaving the door open for him to follow her out. Not that it matters, because he didn’t, but it struck me on reading the unusual wording of her threat — she doesn’t even say that she will make him regret it, just that he’d regret following her eventually, which is almost axiomatically true given the sort of life he leads.

    2. A new start without the baggage means no story for us. Yeah, I guess we would get the story of how he built his life, but that would be leaving behind his family, friends and the issues attached to them. Besides that, if he stops struggling he would probably be stuck in this horrible, disgusting shithole which probably wouldn’t be great…

      It does seem as though that Blake won’t be getting out quite human, and it will be interesting to see how he deals with that.

      1. The most he can leave with is a humanoid shape, but I think he’s a full-fledged Other already.

        I’m guessing, when a practitioner awakens, they host a tiny bit of Other inside their human body. That part grows as the practitioner gains power and knowledge, but is not strictly tied to human biology.

        Right now I think Blake was Urr-stripped of his humanity, which left that Other-inside falling through the cracks. Being able to skip eating, sleeping, forgetting pain, getting rid of some parts of your old life… seems similar to applying glamour on a huge scale.

        1. Anyone and anything can become an Other. This is exemplified by Green Eyes and every other human in the sewers. Even some urban myths have become Others, though it is unclear whether the humans behind those myths became the Others, or the myths themselves became Other.

          It seems as though as a lot of what makes you an Other, a lot of what makes you You, is how you act and see yourself. For example, Mags had to avoid cursing in order to keep the connection to her original name, Maggie. Blake can’t give in to the temptation of not eating, sleeping or feeling if he wants to remain something like a human.

          Blake will come out of this changed, certainly, but I don’t think he has to completely stop being human.

          1. We have also learnt that Faeries were probably humans who deluded themselves so much they deluded reality and goblins were humans or faeries that chopped off the ugly parts of their bodies and personalities. Those others that resemble humans presumably are humans that acted erratically. If Blake wants to be human, he should act like one, and maybe he will be.

            1. I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Remember the context of that Faerie comment. Blake was involved in his first real fight as a complete novice practitioner with maybe 1 or 2 days (I don’t remember how early exactly) and was saying that bit about Faerie to taunt and goad Letita for the battle. Also remember that, at that point, Blake hadn’t gotten the “not lying” part of being a practitioner down yet.

            1. Wait, where is this stated? Rose was literally kicked into reality by the world itself to compensate for the missing link and this was the machination of people who traffic demons. I don’t think most Others have that kind of backing.

            2. @Born of Prayers:

              It wasn’t stated anywhere in the story, as far as I am concerned. Others becoming human is a hypothesis that follows from humans becoming Others, which we know is a common occurrence. While it seems possible for Others to become humans, as you and I said, it doesn’t seem very easy at all. However, I don’t think the difference between Others and humans is clear cut, and Blake can hold onto most of his humanity if he tries and gets lucky. After all, practitioners are a little Other. I’d dare say everyone is a little bit Other.

            3. We shouldn’t forget that very important Other who found a way to be born human in Bethlehem, you know the one who was ostensibly born just before 1AD and then was killed by humans ostensibly around the year 33AD… or would that be 34AD, I’m never quite sure about my math since there wasn’t a year 0. Somewhere around then.

        2. “I’m guessing, when a practitioner awakens, they host a tiny bit of Other inside their human body. That part grows as the practitioner gains power and knowledge, but is not strictly tied to human biology.”

          Hmm, that reminds me of something…

      2. Blake’s already lost his family and friends(except Mags). Everything doesn’t have to come back to status quo for a good story.

        I have no idea which direction the story will take, but I do believe that Blake recreating himself after being brought to this lowest point is a valid and possibly interesting path.

        1. It’s not so much about going back to status quo as it is about the story branching into two: Rose’s story and Blake’s story; completely unrelated to Rose’s from what you are suggesting. Either both stories continue separated, Rose’s story is dropped at some point, or they join again by what might be an unsatisfactory plot device—Blake started a new life but even with no bad karma or connections all his troubles come back for him? I might be oversimplifying a lot, but I think Blake starting anew would be harmful for the story. It’d throw away a lot of character development.

          We would also be left with a character without motivations. Well, survival is a motivation. But what then? Once Blake is on solid ground, what is his next goal?

      3. I’m fairly certain that particular case is a standard possession one. With perhaps a few prophetic dreams beforehand to groom the vessel. And the vessel’s parents for that matter.

    3. I concur with Blake embracing being an Other; the dream sequence was absolutely fantastic. I wouldn’t mind seeing him become something close to what he was there before leaving this place. Blake adapting to a modified body and finding his new place in the material world — not to mention reconnecting to his friends when he’s an Other — sounds like it could make for some decent plot.

    1. No. No it was not. It was Zoey Artana, which led me to quip that we know who’s getting cast as the witch in that scene. Of course, now that he’s changed it, the joke is lost. Ah well.

      1. It’s useless to mention the original name… this isn’t the witch you’re looking for. waves hand
        Move along.

    2. I just looked up the original name for Zoey and was pleasantly surprised to recognize the person when shown pictures. Well played, Wildbow.

  10. Ah, Pact. Where the bad guys are trying to sign the Geneva convention and the good guys are…wait what?

    I can feel the clear distinction between protagonist and antagonist breaking down here. The actual events of the story feel bad. But that feels good.

    1. I just saw the name of “Zoe Artana” on another forum and came here to check because I’d already forgotten what exactly the name in this chapter was.

  11. I wonder what ranks where on the power scales when it comes to Gods, Demons of the First Choir, and the rest. Personally, I’m rooting for Blake’s triumph over his personal hell and then reaping ALL THE KARMA by finding whatever way he can to help those that can still be saved in that place. Maybe befriend a God here and there, who knows. Of course, with great power comes even greater demonic shenanigans to ruin your day…

  12. I have the same response as Ev to that Jacob’s Bell scene.

    Johannes spoke up, “Your circle will be obvious and easy targets to weaken you. Surely you’re not that heartless.”

    Tiff fidgeted, hands out of view behind the back of the pew in front of her.

    “It certainly looks like I am that heartless,” Rose said.

    I think the obvious implication from Rose’s exact wording is that she is not in fact heartless, but is trying to convey that impression. She is formally declaring her bid for Lordship, but does she actually want to win?

    1. Or she is actually that heartless, and wants to convey the impression that she’s badly trying to hide that she’s not actually that heartless. Layers!

      1. Or she is that heartless while trying to convince people she’s only pretending to pretend to pretend to be that heartless while actually pretending to not be that heartless while masking it as being heartless. How deep /does/ the rabbit hole go?

      2. Or she wouldn’t be that heartless, except she’s not really feeling the ‘friends and companions’ vibe from these relative strangers that her post-Urr brain is telling her that she formed into a coven for… some reason she can’t quite remember right now.

        Every time she looks at one of them something just doesn’t feel quite right about the situation. Judging by the looks they give her when they think she isn’t watching, they feel the same way about her. And, well, would she really be all that worse off if something happened to a few of them…?

        …Or something like that. The slapdash mental gymnastics Blake’s posse and Rose underwent to stay sane in the sudden absence of any memory of Blake’s existence aren’t enough to delude them into actually being friends with each other.

    2. Oh, that’s a good thought. She might be trying to last long enough that she could make a deal with the most promising candidate for Lordship to not wipe out the Thorburns in exchange for pulling out of the race/team up. Securing her family’s future while not being forced to be Lord of Jacob’s Bell.

    3. Or, given Johannes’s very unfortunate wording, she’s really going to let one of them die before trying to protect anyone in the circle, then declare Johannes forsworn at a really bad time and get him taken out of the game. Doing that would probably be enough to let her cut a deal with whoever’s winning after that.

      (More likely: she cuts a deal with Johannes so he protects the circle and so can’t be forsworn by whatever bad consequences follow. Much, much more likely: I’m reading way too much into a single qualifier Johannes probably shouldn’t have used.)

      1. I don’t think he would be foresworn for that. Simply telling a lie weakens you, but being foresworn requires breaking an actual oath; we’ve seen enough to know that it doesn’t require actual formal “this is an oath” wording, but I think it does require a declaration about your own actions — an intent to do or not do something.

        If I say “I will kill you!” and I can’t (regardless of the reason), I’m foresworn. But if I say “you’re going to die today” and you don’t, I don’t think that counts, since I haven’t actually sworn anything — at best, I’d be caught in a lie, weakening my power for a week or so.

        (Of course, context matters, since it’s apparently judged by the spirits. If I shout “YOU DIE TODAY!” while lunging at you with an axe, that can be reasonably inferred to be an oath to kill you; but if I’m a prophetic crone on the docks who tells you that this is the day you die, your survival doesn’t mean I’ve broken an oath, just that I’m a bad seer. At worst I suffer the penalties of lying.)

  13. A few people interpreted the ending as Blake being raped, or whatever, again. My first thought was something more cheesy, and apparently this place likes cheesy. Blake confronted his fear and now he feels better about it. It doesn’t mean he is magically over it, but he did it once, he can do it again. He has gained strength from this.

    Or maybe something terrible is going on. Who knows~

    1. I must say, though. Attacking the shadow, or otherwise carving it out of Blake’s mind, seems like a much, much, much reasonable alternative to what Blake is doing. Not everyone has to come to terms with their past, not everyone has to accept the past in order to move on. Pushing away scary thoughts, at least from what I have read, might be a healthy thing to do. A human thing to do. Forgetting about Carl, even killing the shadow… seems very human, and it doesn’t make much sense that it would have the effect of stripping away Blake’s humanity.

      1. Some people think you end up a better person when you forgive those who hurt you. It’s not clear to me yet if this is what Blake chose here.

        1. Right. The shadow is not Carl, it’s part of Blake himself. Killing it would mean cutting off his memories and discarding part of who he is, making him more Other.

          Embracing his shadow could also mean that Blake finally confronts this trauma of his past, deals with feelings of self-loathing etc. Not forgiving the one who hurt him, but rather forgiving himself, so to speak.

          1. Yes, of course. But you don’t need to embrace every part of you. Some memories just make you weaker, there is no silver lining, there is no strength to be gained. They also don’t define you, in the same way your basic needs of sleep, food, water, warmth, affection, entertainment and such define you. I don’t see getting rid of a negative memory as getting rid of a part of your Self.

            What Blake is doing is… fine, but I don’t think it is necessary or that it makes much sense that the opposite would be bad.

            1. If he were in the real world, that would be fine; he could cut away bad memories, memories that make him weaker, and be a better person for it. The thing is, in Pact, especially in the Void space, when you cut away pieces of yourself they get replaced by something else. That’s fine when you’re a real person, in the real world, and can hold off malign influences as not part of your Self, but that’s not the case here. Blake is in a space where everything around him is corrupting and degrading, and so there is literally nothing good for him to replace the bits of himself that he would cut away except something that would be worse off for him.

            2. I’m not sure I agree, because this is supernatural coming-to-terms-with-self. I think whatever established methods exist (like hugging one’s shadow) probably work better than we would think given what we know now of PTSD, but maybe I’m just overrating them.

    2. That’s how I read it. But then, I’ve been playing Changeling: The Lost for about five years now, and addressing with your evil double is a central conflict in a game already rich with metaphor. Some characters ignore the double; some murder them; and a rare few cultivate a bond to the point where they can reintegrate. No one answer is better than the rest, though integration does come with mechanical (and, depending on how you read the canon, metaphysical) benefits.

      But anyway, Blake’s not going back to the shelter – he’s pretty clearly going somewhere he’s never been on an emotional level.

  14. What. I think Wildbow’s changing the comments, so whatever the witch’s original name was, it’s turning into Zoey Artana

  15. Yeah… Say what you will about Rose’s motivations and morality, but what she did at the meeting was genius.

    Nobody agreed to any actual rules because she flipped them all the bird. Everything that wasn’t previously forbidden is permissible. No challenger can really trust, well, anyone.

    1. I disagree. Rose set herself up to be the first target. Unless she does something else that leverages ‘no rules’ to its best advantage, all she’s done is act a fool. And put Blake’s friends in the firing line that much more.

      Consider Tiff versus Johannes. For a ruthless, cold hearted bitch, maybe putting Tiff out on a stake is a good play. If you really don’t care about her. But if you do, or if you want your allies to live long enough to become useful – considering they’re all complete noobs – it’s a stupid move.

      Frankly, Rose of all people is best suited for working within rules of engagement; she can send assassin demons behind closed doors better than anyone else could. She has a practically inviolable fortress to withdraw to, on top of it; no matter what else anyone did, they couldn’t seem to get at Blake while he was in the house, after all, while he was able to wander around their sanctums without even being detected on occasion. I don’t know how that works with Rose, sans Blake and his glamour locket, should still be able to capitalize on that with proper summons.

      So by scrapping the talks, here, she opened herself up to attacks on anyone she cares about that she could have protected by declaring them innocents (or having themselves declared). Further, she’s stating that she’ll go after anyone, anytime, which is kind of a dick move against people who would otherwise be noncombatants. Sandra’s fiancee? Really?

      Last, it set (or continues) a really bad precedent. Power gained by open ruthlessness means that any action taken to bring that powerful person down is justified… thus continuing the cycle. Who the hell wants to live in that kind of world? Don’t we have enough examples from third-world dictatorships and drug cartels – and historical monarchies, for that matter – to know it’s a really bad idea to fight, or even win, this way?

      1. A far better play, if Rose really wants rulership of the area, is to sit this out, let Johannes and Sandra duke it out, the declare herself a contender when everyone else is worn out – strike out and destroy them then.

        Even with karma a factor, it might even be best to declare herself a player until she does a ninja strike on everyone else. Before then, look meek and unnoticeable as possible.

        This way does not seem to have any advantages to me. Except for fluffing her pride, that is.

          1. Come to think of it, Rose perhaps hasn’t even Awakened properly yet – she can still lie in this meeting. Which has all KINDS of strategies she can use, most beginning with “I have no interest in power, but…”

            1. This is not a problem, really. In the first chapters, everyone is aware that Blake hasn’t awakened. The can See that kind of stuff. I would imagine that the practitioners present would be able to recognise whether Rose is a practitioner.

    2. Rather than “genius”, I think the word you’re looking for might be “disruptive”.

      She made them uncomfortable, made them nervous, and threw them off-balance. A good short-term tactic, perhaps, but it’s no more genius than mooning someone who isn’t expecting it. In the long run, there will be consequences.

      In particular, I wonder how the others are treating this situation and how much they KNOW. Sandra and Johannes both seem the type powerful enough to maintain holds on connections if they expected the connection to be lost, so it’s possible that they still have an idea of who Blake is.

      What with Mara being so old, I wonder if Urr’s rules even apply to her.

      I agree with other commenters. If Rose wanted to be intelligent, she had much better options. If she wanted to be antagonistic, she hardly could have done anything else, short of just starting the war right then and there.

  16. What is up with all the commenters suggesting it’s cool for Blake to just go full-on Other? NO. No, no, no! Giving up on himself is NOT OK. Did the object lesson of Green Eyes get completely lost on people? Or the examples given by all the other Others presented in this story – they fairies, the summons of Rose Jr., the victims of Conquest? Even the Others that present themselves neatly, like Isodora, are hiding something horrible and ugly. And you all want to make Blake into that? Blake himself would probably object in the strongest terms, and I wouldn’t blame him.

    Aside from what we know about Others in general… If Blake were a different kind of person, or in a different sort of setting, then maybe it would be ok, even be a gain; but for him now it would be a loss. His identity is both too strong and too fragile to handle it well, and from what we’ve seen so far, even if he were back on Earth properly, changes he made would sacrifice pieces of his character, sacrifice his values and his strengths, in order to gain… what? Not peace of mind; chances are any compromise of his self-identity would spiral out of control until he became a mental case and there was nothing left worth saving.

    Furthermore, he’s not on Earth; he’s in an entropic rift of a place, that takes any inch you give it and turns it into a gaping wound. He’d lose his memories, his humanity, his relevance; he wouldn’t come back as a ‘Doom Knight’, as one poster suggested… in fact, he wouldn’t come back at all, because at that point, he wouldn’t care or have reason to think he should care about what he left behind. He, as a person, would just be… gone. That’s not cool; that’s a tragedy with no upside, bird wings regardless. And it wouldn’t stop there; he might be a birdman for a while, then he’d be a smaller, torn-up birdman, then he’d be a wreck of a wraith with shredded bat-wings, with the occasional twinge of regret for something he can’t recall anymore.

    Remember the rule of this place? It just grinds you down. That’s it. If you let it in, it will hurt you that much faster, but it won’t allow for relief of any kind that way – Green Eyes didn’t seem to be really enjoying herself, nor does this witch, or anybody else that’s existing here… which means compromise of any kind – except for what Blake is already doing, facing his demons instead of running away – is a loss.

  17. First time up to date on Wildbow’s writing. Somehow a chapter ending on a superficially upbeat note is more worrying than all the horrific stuff. Though not as bad as [censored]

  18. Comments:

    1. Corvidae is happy about this turn of events. That’s bad. Though Rose is used to the machinations of Others…

    2. The fact that radio works here could be significant – it’s yet more evidence there’s a connection between Limbo and the material world.

    3. The background of how this Limbo came into existence was interesting.

    4. My favorite line this chapter: “It certainly looks like I am that heartless” – I love how Rose sums up her own role in the story.

    5. Why is Rose interested in the Lordship? What’s in it for her? We still have no idea about Rose’s motivations, but could the Lordship help with the Thorburn karma situation, or is this still just a fight for survival as the resident Public Enemy No. 1?

    6. That Carl is Blake’s “reflection” may be significant. More importantly, as someone found last chapter, this guy already appeared in 1.05. What does that mean? Was it really a Tyler Durden scene?

    7. Blake has three anchors. Rule of Three strikes again. Given how Blake reacted to the anchor of his past, I wonder how he’ll react to the one of his present, i.e. Rose. Rose previously complained that she was the only one with whom he never balanced the scales, so maybe he’ll do that now, whatever that means? In any case, I expect a revenge situation, but cooperation would be an interesting result, too.

  19. “It’s going to get uglier before it gets better,” she said.”

    Story of Blakes life. Only right after it gets better it gets much uglier.

    1. “It’s going to get uglier before it gets better”…that would be an excellent tagline for the Pact banner, wouldn’t it???

      (Also this is my first time posting after binge-reading both Worm and Pact; Wildbow, you’re awesome.)

  20. Called Blake not being a practitioner anymore, that he’s an Other now, and only becoming more so. With that said, have an Other guide entry 😛

    The Bleak

    This pseudo-avian Other is most commonly characterised as a bogeyman, despite not matching most of the criteria, its origin is unclear, as no legends, myths or otherwise seem to match its description. The Bleak is sentient, and is capable of conversation. It is of a nature with freedom, movement, travel, and friendly connections. It is not recommended to bind this Other tightly, as counter-intuitively, the more strongly it is bound and restricted the weaker its strength in obeying practitioner direction, and the greater its strength in escaping such bindings.

    The Bleak can be encouraged with certain classes of task, and may even volunteer its services without cost under particular circumstances. Namely attempts to reduce the harm inflicted by Others on innocents, particularly the disenfranchised.

    1. “The Bleak is sentient, and is capable of conversation.” In that dream, Blake gave away his ability to speak. His friends would just see a monstrous flying spiked furred creature almost solely driven by hate — maybe love for Green Eyes, but he said that hate was his primary driving force at that time.

        1. I would point out I said conversation, and not speaking, but… Honestly I just forgot 😛

          idk I was just having a giggle

  21. Here’s a thought.

    What if ‘Carl’ isn’t actually the memory of the rape or something?

    What if this place took some genuinely happy supportive memory and disguised it as the thing that would scare Blake most in order to trick him?

    1. That’s believable. Brings to mind Robin Hobb’s Farseer books where (sorry about being vague, don’t want to spoil) giving up bad memories also means losing the value of the good. Good and Bad individually have no meaning without the contrast between them.

    2. Oooh, and if he fought/destroyed them he would have lost these nice memories ! Pretty devious, so there’s a possibility.

      1. I’m wondering if we won’t get a twist with Carl. Like that it’s not that Carl fucked Blake over, but that Blake fucked up, and has been blaming Carl for his own mistake. Maybe Carl was one of the friends that Blake stayed with, and he tried to get Blake to go back home, to patch things up with his parents, and Blake got mad and ran off. Blake might be remembering it as Carl betraying him, but in actuallity Carl was trying to help.

        Well it’s just conjecture, I don’t have enough information. But it would be interesting to see Blake realize, and accept his flaws and mistakes, and work to improve himself, and be better. Maybe each of his visions is something about himself he has to confront and come to terms with and overcome?

  22. Even if Blake conquers all his anchors it doesn’t mean he gets to go back home though, once you’re on the seabed and reeled in the anchors you’re still on the seabed.

    You have to collect enough power to swim (or fly haha) and lose parts of yourself to fit in the power, which is why things coming back from the Pit tend to be hyped up on rage and hate.

    …Unless you find a way to haul yourself back up. The world has no attachments to Blake except for Mags which makes her his only route out of the Sewer, and I bet the only way to permanently keep himself there would be to become her familiar. Kind of fun to speculate on what powers Blake-as-familiar would have. Bloodymindedness maybe 😄

    I’m probably reading too much into this. Should just sit back and cheer goes to fetch the pom-poms

  23. If Blake really becomes an Other, then he’ll lose some of his freedom and independence. He could be summoned, bound or worse without him ever having a choice about it.

    For a moment I entertained the idea of Blake finding and claiming a lost demesne for his own but that would probably mean he’d have to stay in the void, so that’s most likely not his way out.

    Blake’s problem is that he has nothing to barter with except for things he can’t afford to lose. Even worse, anything that might make him stronger is going to change him, too.

    My money is on Blake finding a lost god and somehow getting past it to an exit. Either by convincing it or by tricking it.

    I’m usually a huge fan of protagonists getting stronger, turning their weakness into strength and escaping a dangerous situation through their wits but there is no way that it’ll be so easy or clear for Blake.

    And the kicker? Even when Blake gets back to the real world, his connections won’t be restored automatically. But I am pretty sure that if keeps his Thorburn name, then the bad karma will be back immediately.

    1. No, technically speaking practitioners and humans can be bound as well. Remember, that Behaim girl bound him in place.

      As long as Blake doesn’t take an Other’s Oath he can do whatever the hell he wants as an Other unless an outside force intervenes. Hence why Bogeymen how come up from the cracks can murder wantonly.

      It’s been made abundantly clear Blake has changed the moment he became a practitioner and the moment he fell through the cracks. He’s at a point where he changes enough to survive and try to hold onto his humanity as best he can while he fights his way out.

    2. Speaking of all this, what happens if Mags just draws up a circle and calls upon Blake?

      Or, worse, what happens if the Behaims call him up? It certainly seems a simple enough affair to just start forging connections, considering how quickly all of Rose’s summons showed up.

      1. That’s… a legitimate question I’d like answered. While only Mags and Ms. Lewis are the only ones who know him well enough to continue to summon him, it doesn’t explain why Rose haven’t given summoning him a shot if she listened to Mags.

          1. That’s not obvious to me. The way I understood ErasUr, it seemed obvious that Blake hadn’t been erased since somebody could still remember him.

            But would Rose & co have the time to summon an apparent stranger? And actually, we don’t even know how summoning an entity for the first time works. There’s no established ritual like for Midge, Corvidae, Bloody Mary etc. That said, Blake “summoned” Fell after the first ErasUr incident, so maybe Mags could try the same. (Nobody else has a connection to him, after all.)

  24. Sandra smiled after Johannes explicitly kept assassination and violence in the rules. That seems counter-intuitive, unless she has an ace up her sleeve or she is doing a psychological ploy.

    Ms. Lewis was far more fair and honest about things than she had to be. Is this courtesy, sentiment, internal subversion of the law firm, or something else good, or is this yet another

    Rose seeking Lordship is… strange in many ways. She is inviting conflict despite being apparently weak and only having weak allies. So it looks like a guaranteed failure, either during the conflict against larger enemies, or after she gains lordship, when outsiders test her. Considering she has been the planning type before, this implies she has some major aces in the hole.

    In general, Rose’s aggression makes no sense based on the information we have. Yes, Blake took out one major enemy (Laird) and destabilized Toronto enough that no-one from there is likely to interfere, but she is still a newb practitioner with a circle of newbs. No implements, no familiars, no demesnes, no obvious trump powers. What the heck?

    1. Didn’t finish one part before accidentally hitting post…

      Ms. Lewis was far more fair and honest about things than she had to be. Is this courtesy, sentiment, internal subversion of the law firm, or something else good, or is this yet another way of leading him to situations that benefit the demons? Hopefully what it isn’t is a cheap way for the author to generate exposition.

      1. I’m a paranoid bastard, so every time the lawyers show up I assume their actions are intended to make Blake jump how they want. They’re demonic lawyers. If they’re not using you as a pawn, they’re not doing their jobs. While it would seem unlikely that Blake would be of future use, there’s no sense in wasting an opportunity to move him around the board.

    2. I don’t try to read much into Ms. Lewis’s niceness. It’s not as though the law firm wouldn’t employ psychological tricks and such, but that is not mutually exclusive with wanting to be nice.

      Also, Rose has a lot of knowledge and even some experience. We saw what Blake could do with zero knowledge, Rose is getting a head start. That doesn’t mean she is stronger than practitioners like Johannes, but she probably has a plan.

    3. Speculation concerning Rose’s aggression, and her play for power:

      • Given what she’s already summoned, Rose is already really powerful. I’m not sure why – maybe summoning really is mostly based on sufficient knowledge of Others (rather than power based on blood, glamour, karma etc.)? In any case, that’s already plenty of a trump. Also, Rose has the Barber at her disposal, whose description made him sound useful for assassinations. Maybe he’s the reason Rose didn’t agree to these rules.

      • Being defensive has not worked well for the Thorburns in the past. This might just be the whole “offense is the best defense” notion (which featured prominently in Worm).

      • Rose now suffers from the Thorburn karma. Maybe she’s reasoned that agreeing to any kinds of deals is bound to disadvantage her.

      • Rose has been tainted by Conquest, which might have made the Lordship more desirable. Plus it’s possible that the power of a Lord (Lady), and possession of a sufficiently large demesne (for conversion of power to karma) is the best/only way of getting rid of the Thorburn karma.

      • But most importantly: the Behaims and Duchamps must not become Lords. Remember Laird’s whole time trap? The whole rationale behind that was “Tying us up until some time when Laird’s ready to deal with us” (3.05). And Johannes would turn the whole town into a theme park for Others. Given that Rose must protect the house or lose her inheritance (i.e., everything), she must not allow anyone else to become Lord.

  25. The conversation with Ms. Lewis brought up a fantastic point.

    How, in the literal HELL does Blake remember who he is and the connections he has? Urr cut the connections and bonds he had with the people outside the factory, and almost all the others broke because of that. And people can’t remember him because of this… but he can remember them?
    WHY!??!

    She said “that would be telling”, so I take it it’s somehow incredibly important?

    I mean, basically, Blake has the connections still, but they are a one-way street, in a sense. He has the memories and feelings associated with eeryone, but they don’t have that towards him.
    That doesn’t sound like a connection that got “cut” or “eaten” to me

    1. Well Urr was focused on stopping help coming to him.

      Plus we’ve had some mention of one way connections before when Blake left the Duchamps house with some of their posessions. Blake lost all his connections, and that makes it obvious (to him) about what’s missing. His friends on the other hand are missing one connection of hundreds or thousands and they can’t sort through that to work out what’s missing?

      I’m just hand-waving here in case it’s not obvious, not mind me 😄

    2. Could be that, instead of having those connections cut, they were all masked. They’re still there, but only he feels them. Sort of a one way mirror thing. He sees out, nobody sees in, if I’m making sense. If that’s not it, I have no idea.

      1. So it’s like “erasing” a tagged white building- you don’t actually erase it, you paint it over with the same color as the walls, and smooth it out so it looks like it was never there

        Like that?

        If so, then I can see why Ms. Lewis said “that would be telling”. You could potentially undo a lot of the damage Urr did, if you could “unhide” the connections. Not sure how the universe would compensate for it, but whatever. The universe sucks anyways.

    3. I complained about that for all of chapter 9-01.

      I think the best explanation I got was that the only thing Ur does by eating stuff is remove it from the material world; the memory erasure is the whole “reality filling in the void” thing explained in the beginning of Histories (Arc 7). So Blake remembers because he’s in Limbo where there’s nothing to fill in the void of his cut connections.

      Which makes it a real possibility that Blake will forget everything about his friends once he comes back, or that he can’t come back unless he gives up his memories.

      On the other hand, Blake has visions of the present, which, one presumes, would require a connection. But given that Blake sees these visions in water pools, this might be due to the bond he shares with Rose (original and vestige/reflection), which may not have been so easy to erase.

      1. I’m almost positive that the visions of the present are because of the place he is in, and has nothing to do with Rose or his bond with her. Hence why he also had a vision of alexis and tiff with no Rose around.

        So how did mags keep her bond? Was it because at the time she was half-way in the void already?

        1. His connection was with Maggie. Blake doesn’t know who Mags is. Urrr only severed Blake’s connections, not other’s connections to him.

          1. False. Severed connections between him and those outside the factory, then he ran out of enough to hold him up, and most of the other connections fell/broke with him falling. Mags and Ms. Lewis held on to theirs.
            There is no difference between cutting his connections and others connections to him, as there’s no way to tell who “owns” the connection. EVERYONE he knew now can’t remember him, with the exception of Ms. Lewis and Mags. You can’t say that they had their connection to him, but he lost his connection to them.

  26. More questions on my brain:
    1.) So, any thoughts on what those Others Rose summoned were? The knight, the little girl, and the swamp monster?
    2.) Why does Evan look mangy?
    3.) Where are the Pact Fanfics?

  27. What if Blake wasn’t raped? Given how much Blake wants to help others, how much he empathizes and seems to be hurt himself when he views the pain of others, it seems to me that he would be more hurt by having to deal with the consequences (mental and emotional) of having raped someone else than by being raped himself. Perhaps he got really, really drunk one time, or stoned or whatever, then raped someone else, perhaps the “man in black” (Carl) is actually a representation of Blake himself from that time. Perhaps the original victim has long ago forgiven Blake, and Blake has beat himself up for enough years and now can begin the process of forgiving himself.

    Yes, I know that suggesting on the internet that a rapist would ever need to learn to forgive himself is tantamount to suggesting that the Nazis were actually good guys, but eventually, after enough years, at some point, if a person has tried hard enough to do what he can never do — offer restitution for a crime that can never be fixed, he may need to forgive himself. Perhaps this is why Blake doesn’t drink alcohol — he never wants to put himself in a situation where he might potentially make that same decision again, i.e. he never wants to risk ever getting drunk again.

    1. My only problem with that is his reaction towards Laird. He was timid and slightly afraid of big, strong men looming over him. Then after the vision hit him, he lashed out and killed Laird.
      Take his problem with personal contact and how he hates any human touching him, except maybe Alexis, it makes less sense that HE is the perpetrator, and more like he’s the victim.

      If he’s a victim, it makes sense for him to want to help others, like he was helped. Or how he can sympathise with the pain of others, because he’s has a rainbow of different pains.

      Doesn’t mean he was raped, but he’s likely the victim of something. Like, could be he was made into a slave in exchange for food and housing, due to his desparation, and things got messy?

      Plus, Carl said things would’ve been easier for him and he could’ve avoided a lot of hurt if he DIDN’T try to run away from him

  28. A couple things.

    First, I do not know if they have a connection, though it seems very possible, but Mara and Corvidae are probably smiling at one another because the townsfolk might be killing each other soon.

    Second, I’m trying to figure out what Rose might be doing which would allow her to still be one of the good guys here. She just put her circle on the firing line, and they are not ready. However, we just saw a chapter where an Other took the appearance and many traits of a person. Perhaps Rose’s circle agreed to allow Others to copy, but not steal their connections? Decoys? The Others would have the opportunity to act human for a while, and the real human circle would have time to live in the house, practice, and study. Put a time limit on it in case someone traps one of the Others? If someone attacks the Others acting as decoys, the Others are allowed to either flee or fight however they like.

    Third, what happens when Blake leaves the darkness? Does Rose return to the mirror as a full practitioner? That might allow her to create an immense demesnes within the mirror, which might not have been possible before, if her not being able to awaken was real and not a mental fabrication due to Ur destroying her connections to Blake and her mind rewriting things.

    As for Blake becoming an Other, I could see it happening, but if it does, he will be bird-themed, I would think, and I don’t think it will be any sort of ugly winged demon-thing. I could see Blake as a mockingbird-themed other with a strong sense of protection over those who were once his friends. If you have ever seen the aggressiveness that mockingbirds demonstrate when protecting their nests, you understand where I’m coming from 🙂

    (A couple weeks ago the mockingbird nest in a small tree outside my place of work was finally emptied as the young fledged. The parents were dive-bombing any people who came within about fifteen feet of the tree, very aggressively. To the point of slapping people’s heads with their wings if they got close to the tree trunk. The tree happens to be the tree than most smokers stand under. There was much humor involved, and I’m glad I’m not a smoker any longer, LOL)

    1. 1.) Always a chance that’s the case, I guess.
      2.) Or she’s just using them as mobile assets. Remember, Blake and Rose had alternate upbringings, but part of that upbringing was using and manipulating people for their benefit.
      3.) They’ll probably remain separate. Remember, reality shunted Rose into existence because Blake ceased to be technically. Even if he surfaces again, he won’t have the same connections and reality won’t un-shunt Rose. If she thought that was the case, she has the Barber to cut away his connections and name so reality doesn’t register it again.
      4.) Blake already is an Other. He’s just one that resembles a human and hasn’t taken on any defining traits. And when he does, you have to consider that any type of aerial being he becomes would involve dramatic modification to his internal structure as he’d need hollow bones to fly and the best type of wings he can probably find are those fit for the environment he was in.

    2. Maybe both. I mean, there’s a reason JP is considered almost-demon and even diabolist don’t summon him often.
      I’m concerned what possible connection he could have with Mara, who hates white people…

      ….Rose was a good guy? Since when? she’s been lying this whole time, and feeling bad about it, but not bad enough to correct her mistake. She could’ve said since the others had the book with the correct awakening ritual, that maybe she should try it with that one. But no, she kept to the lie. Blake died, and she planned for it. She planned for THIS too, but is doing it in a way that is like how elder Rose would handle things….

      I doubt anything will happen to Rose. She got out of the mirror because the universe no longer recognized blake as part of the world, so she took his place. Getting out is step one, making the universe recognize him again is step 7. Even then, Rose is a part of things now. So things won’t go back to the way they were.

      He is an other already, technically. But my problem with this- All practitioners are part Other already. Some more than others. One even is Other enough to be a familiar. So… where is he on this scale? Full Other? Doubtful, as the spirits would pay him mind, and he’s have SOME value, as currency went for Ms. Lewis.

      That sounds like a funny thing to watch.

      1. We haven’t seen what Rose’s plans actually are. Nor do we know if the images of Rose that Blake is seeing are real. Rose definitely knew what was going to happen to Blake, in some way, but it isn’t necessary that she had an active part in it.

        Remember the karmic load on Blake. It’s possible that she simply knew enough about karma from her studies that she recognized that Blake would not be able to survive for long as the universe tried to grind him down. Walking into a reality-eating demon’s home is a damn good scenario for the universe to find a way to end Blake.

        Rose would have been foolish not to plan for Blake’s death, because he had been remarkably lucky to have survived that long against the enemies he had been fighting. His future was being devoted to getting rid of monsters based on his communication with Evan. It was only a matter of time, and every monster he took care of, every soul he gave peace to with no real gain for himself was a substantial chunk of karma repaid to the universe.

        Of course, I could turn around and make an argument for the “Rose is a traitorous bitch” side too.

        1. I’m not saying she was bad, but certainly not good. She kept a LOT from Blake, which probably helped him meet his end

  29. Hello! Lurker coming out of hiding to say: in Reddit, we have /r/pact, dedicated to the series! But no one comes around! So come check it out–bounce off theories, think up what-if castings, try to figure out what wildbow will do next (impossible, bu it’s fun to try!). Thanks for reading, and have a good day.

    1. Put a link to it here in a comment. Wildbow probably has the comments set to require verification if there is a link, which means he will see your post. Be clear what it is, and he might provide a link to it up near the web fiction guide, top web fiction, and TV Tropes. If it goes through without moderation, well, that will surprise me.

      1. Heh, There are forums with many thousands of posts about Worm in Spacebattles. I don’t know how active the Reddit forums for Pact might be, but these discussion pages are weak and anemic compared to the functionality of a real forum. It’s handy for chatting or throwing out ideas, but some folks just like real forums more.

  30. I wonder. Did Mara return from where Blake is? Did she weaken herself to the point of falling into the drains while trying to save her people from colonists?

    If Blake does manage to return from the drains after collecting what he can of his humanity, he might be able to make a favorable impression on Mara. It would be a strong testament to his strength, humanity, and character that he could come back at all. If nothing else, he might gain a measure of respect from her, even if she still dislikes him for what he is.

    1. Is there any particular evidence from Mara having fallen through the cracks and gotten back out? I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.

      1. It was said early on that she was more Other than Human. Based on what we’re seeing happen to Blake, and what we know of how old she is, and her dislike of colonists, I suspect she nearly killed herself trying to protect her family or tribe from colonial expansion.

        If that’s the case, and if Wildbow contrives a way to have Blake and Mara meet, Mara might actually have some respect for him for trying to stop Ur.

        1. The drains make it easier to turn from Human to Other, in fact it demands it, but there’s a chance Mara has been doing this without going to Limbo. For all we know she ate some vengeful nature spirit or something similar.

          1. Oh, certainly it’s possible Mara lost her humanity in other ways, but based on what little we do know about her, it seems very plausible she might have found her way into the drains as a result of depleting herself while trying to defend her tribe from colonial expansion.

  31. Aaaah, please delete the parent comment, I accidentally posted it in the wrong chapter, and it’s spoiler-heavy.

  32. “Yes. The demon primarily cut connections to those who were gathered outside the building. When you lost your grip on the world, other connections broke. Your home, your parents, your little sister… I held onto mine, as your goblin queen friend did.”
    Um, what? I’m going to request a more detailed explanation about how all this worked. Didn’t the Knights say that all their connections broke? Here, you’re implying that basically all of them broke, but somehow, Mags and Ms. Lewis held onto theirs…

    The conversation with Ms. Lewis leaves a metaphorical bad taste in my mouth. It feels so…forced, like wildbow needed her to appear for exposition but realized that doing so would let Blake out, which he couldn’t have happen because (probably good) reasons, so he invokes a vague threat (which reminds me of another vague method tying into a bad bit at the end of Worm).
    Really, this whole arc is somewhat…unpleasant. Following Rose & co through whatever plans they’re laying? That sounds awesome. This? This is…yeesh.

    1. Hmm. I have a little more faith in Wildbow than that: My guess is that this furthers the Lawyers’ plan somehow or it foreshadows something important about Ms Lewis.

      I don’t have a problem with the lawyers hanging onto their connection to Blake, BTW. Urr is powerful but he’s not omnipotent. It seems reasonable that other beings of great power can resist his shtick.

      Maggie keeping hers is weirder. The theory that she and Blake hung onto their connections because they both happened to be inside protective circles at the time seems as good a one as any at this point…

      1. I suspect I’d accept that explanation about the Lawyers if we knew more about them.

        As for the protective-circle one…I dunno, it sounds pretty weak and speculative to counter what was supposed to be such an all-encompassing ability. I suppose if I was wildbow and I was doing that, I might have had Blake meet that girl that was sort of half-deleted and had her foreshadow it somehow.

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