Sine Die 14.6

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“You’re intruding.”

The words carried.  They had an impact that went beyond sound and language.

It was as though the very forest reacted.  Drawing closer.  A pressure weighing on us.  The satyr shifted his footing, uncomfortable, and the weight on the snow made it compact.  He only dropped by an inch, but it was a surprise, and it caught all of us off guard.

I had little doubt that everyone that had a heart could feel it pounding, while they wondered just how dangerous this particular patch of woods was.

Would the ground swallow us up?

Could we do anything if it did?

We’d come here for a reason, and we might as well focus on it.  Dragons and giants aside, our big concern here was what happened to the town.

Might as well get straight to the point.  “Jacob’s Bell is being drawn into the Abyss.”

“I know.  Good,” the crone told us.

“How do you know?” Tiff asked.

“The small warband on my doorstep, blood fresh on their hands, claws, and breath, darkness in their eyes.  They demand answers of me?  Presumptuous.

I spread my wings and arm, bowing a bit.  “Mara Agnakak.”

“Don’t bow to me, Atawateecim.  I’ll see it as mockery.”

“Um,” Tiff started.

The crone didn’t let her finish.  “You betray custom.  One should give notice before trespass.  The laws are with me in this.  The laws are with me in any and all retribution I take.”

Her words took on a heavier accent and a fair degree of force as she said retribution.

“How were we supposed to give notice?” Tiff asked.  “There’s nothing in the books, and in the past few weeks I’ve been here-”

“I am not at your beck and call,” the crone said.  “I would not give out my name or share a means of finding me.”

She was articulate, even if her voice was accented, and awfully good at putting emphasis to words.  Not unlike certain members of my family in that.  I glanced at Roxanne and Peter.  But in her case, she’d had a lot of practice.  She’d been around for a while, even if she hadn’t done much talking in that time.

I really wished I had a better idea of how she operated.  I was in the dark about her particular talents and abilities, or how to counter those talents and abilities.  I might as well have been back on day one.  In the cold, freezing woods, dealing with the Briar Girl’s specialized zombies.

There were differences, though.  Rose wasn’t here, and it was a good thing, rather than the inverse, I had allies, and I was… different.

Very very different.

“Should we have contacted the ambassador?” I asked.

“That stupid little child?  I would not have answered.”

“Meaning we should have called before answering, but you… had no intention of answering the call?”  Tiff asked.

“Yes,” the young crone said.

“That seems like a pretty big flaw in these rules,” Evan muttered under his breath.

“Shh,” I said.

“You can’t complain if we had no other avenue,” Tiff said.

She was trying to sound firm, which wasn’t her usual pattern, and she was almost succeeding.  I was a little surprised to see that she had it in her.  She’d come a long way from the person I’d first met, who’d stuck to Alexis like glue, mouth shut.

“You had avenues,” the crone replied.  “Not coming was one.”

“Mara,” I said.  “I don’t want to start something here.  We’re not approaching with hostile intent.  I don’t want to be enemies.”

“No you don’t,” Mara replied.  “But enemyship is as much my choice as it is yours.  I choose to be enemies.”

I drew the Hyena.

I saw the crone’s expression change.  Not a smile.  She wouldn’t give me that much.  But amusement.  Almost relaxed, more comfortable with this than she’d been with my blade in a sheath.

“Blake,” Tiff murmured.  “Rose told me about Mara.  She might be more dangerous than the dragon.”

“I know,” I said.

“Then… let’s not pick a fight?”

“We’re not,” I said.  “I’m speaking her language.”

“Indian?” Evan asked.

“Algonquin,” Tiff corrected, gently.  “And I don’t think that’s what Blake means.”

My eyes were fixed on the crone’s.  The snow was frozen around her, but her breath billowed out in front of her face, expanding, and here and there, it touched a snowflake, stirring it into motion.

“If I strike at you,” Mara told me, “I’m backed by laws.”

“If I fight back, I am too,” I said.

“I’ve been here for a very long time,” she said.  “This place is mine, and it’s been mine for more years than I can count.  It will serve me.”

“I’ve only technically existed for a few months,” I replied.  “I don’t think I’m long for this world.  It sounds like you have a lot more at stake than I do.  I can’t imagine you really want to pick a fight against someone with so little to lose.”

She didn’t respond.

I took that as a cue to elaborate, “It doesn’t fit what we know of you.  You don’t get to be as old as you are by picking fights or being reckless.  Assuming we each killed the other, I’d be ending something like, what, a few hundred years of history?  What do you gain by destroying me?”

“You understand so little,” she said.

It was a little weird, being condescended to by someone who looked just over half my age.

She went on, “Gain, loss, love, fairness, right, rights.”

Mara put an emphasis on the s at the end of the second statement.

I spread my arms a little.

“Meaningless,” she said.  “The town will fall, just as it rose, two hundred and fifteen years ago.  Before that, I was here.  I watched people come and go.  Settlements rose and fell.  Not many, not large, but a number.  Before that, I was here.”

“Been here a while,” I said.

Her eyes narrowed.  “The man and woman who brought me into this world came to this place on a raft of reeds, and I was so small I had to be carried. We traveled from the west to here over my lifetime, following the deer and the hunt.  When my parents passed, I stayed.  I was one of the first to lay claim here, and I have never given it up.”

“Over the water to the west?” Peter murmured.  “The lake?”

“Ocean,” Tiff said, her voice almost a whisper.

“I nurtured those who followed after me or passed through, offered them my hand and my amassed knowledge, so they could be communities, a people.  Many are mine.  Hundreds of years of work.  I saw things follow in our wake, things stirred into existence by our being.  Your Others, echoing our intelligence, echoing our pride and fear and pain, to join those Others that were here before the first people.  I am familiar with them all.  I know what man is, and I know that your love and law and fairness are invention.  Invention younger than I am.”

These words had a power that went beyond a simple explanation.  It was a declaration, and she was gaining a kind of power through it.  I could feel it.

I could see how tense the satyr and maenad were.  Green Eyes was hunkered down.

“What do you have, if you take all that away?” I asked.  “That’s not humanity.”

“It is everything humans are, distilled.  Your culture, your ideas, they pollute it.  Weaken you.”

“We might have to agree to disagree,” I said.

“No,” she said, and she said it with conviction.  “You know the power of your repetition.  Three times, you do something.  Three times you bind it to make it so.  Agreed?”

“That’s the gist of it.”

Invention.  But at the core, there is truth.  I have not counted, but I can still be utterly confident in saying that I have woken up in the same place for more than nine million of your days.  I have gathered, hunted, cooked and eaten the same foods on those same days.  I have been born, bled for the first time, and been reborn on more than one thousand occasions.  The wheel of life and death turns forward and I am an indelible part of it, especially here.  This is a pattern, this is my ritual.  Now tell me, what is the truth of this.  What does it make me?”

“A hag,” Tiff murmured.  “A blood hag.”

“The dullest person alive?” Peter muttered.

“Powerful,” I said, before she could respond to him.  “A hell of a lot scarier than a dragon.”

“Man, you must be really glad to have visitors,” Evan said.

Mara’s eyes narrowed, face hardening.  “You don’t understand.”

“Guess not,” he said.

“Boredom is a newer invention,” she said.  “Loneliness a luxury.  For most of humanity’s time on this earth, the only desire was to exist.  Food, shelter, water, health.  When our lives ran short, we carried our existence forward through our offspring.”

“Mara,” I said.  “We’re not here to debate the definition of humanity.”

“You’re here to ask if I had anything to do with your town’s descent into darkness, chaos, and ruin.”

“Yes.”

“Did you really expect me to give you an answer?” she asked.

“You’ve already pointed out that we came with something of a warband.  Is that not answer enough?” I asked.

Again, that almost relaxed, easy sort of acceptance of the open threat.

“Okay, Blake,” Tiff said.  “This is part of the reason why Rose wanted me along for the ride, here.  You’re a little prone to pick fights, the way you are now.  Stop.”

“Mara,” I called out.  “Tell me, is there any way we could have done this fairly?  Gotten a straight answer out of you?”

“No,” the crone said.

“There’s no way we’re going to get out of here without a confrontation of some kind?” I said.

“No,” Mara said.  “There isn’t.”

I nodded slowly.

Shit,” Tiff swore, under her breath.

“Had that vibe right from the start,” I said.  “Which brings us here.  Talking.”

Buying time, I thought, though I didn’t dare say it.

Mara was, if nothing else, endlessly patient.

If I said that I was taking advantage of that patience, she might revoke it.

I just had to pray my allies got the message without the message being too obvious.  If one of them lost nerve or pushed things the wrong way, this could all be for naught.

“Mara,” I said.  “You’ve been talking about what lies at the root of humanity.”

“Yes.”  She rubbed her hands together for warmth.

“Trade, barter, that’s at the root of humanity.  You’ve done it.”

“I think,” she said, “I’ve seen it go sour enough times to have little interest in it.”

“Sure,” I said.  “One sided bargains.  That’s at the root of mankind too, isn’t it?  Well, if it’s in your favor…”

“You’re assuming I want anything you have,” she said.

“You said it yourself.  I have blood on my hands.  I suspect you want that, if it’s the right blood.  The lives I’ve taken already tonight have to count for something, given your agenda.”

“Killing is a service, more than deaths are a product,” Mara said.

“Okay,” Tiff said, quiet enough to not be heard by Mara.  “Conversation taking a turn for the creepy.”

“You want deaths, then?” I asked.  “In exchange for the lives of those here, I could promise-”

Mara was already shaking her head.

“No?” I asked her.

“No,” she said.  She pointed a finger at the group, finger extended to point just over my shoulder.  “I want those lives.  One can leave my woods for every one you kill.  For doing the deed and getting blood on that broken blade of yours, I’ll give you your life at no cost, and I’ll give you the answer you want.”

I glanced back over my shoulder.

I could see Evan, Green Eyes, Tiff, Peter, Roxanne, the satyr, the maenad.

The maenad tensed as I made eye contact.

Did she think I thought she was expendable?

Eight of us.  Four would have to die to satisfy the crone.

“Decide,” Mara said.

She didn’t sound happy.  She didn’t sound satisfied.

She didn’t sound sincere.

Weapon in hand, I turned to the group.

“Sorry about this,” I said.

“Um,” Evan said.  “Um, no, Blake.  No.”

Roxanne swiftly backed out of my way, bumping up against Peter.

I saw her put one hand on the front of his coat, clutching it, as if in unconscious fear.

I couldn’t, I realized, see her other hand.  I stopped in my tracks.

“Put it away,” I said.

“Put what way?” she asked.

“Step away from Peter.”

“So I’m first?” she asked.

“Roxanne,” I said, firm.

“What are you doing?”

Answering every statement with a question.  Evading, dodging.

Buying time.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I told her.

“Then why are you paying this much attention to me?” she asked.

“Because I know you’re armed and I don’t want you to attack me from behind.”

“Show me your hands.”

“Why should I?”

I touched the Hyena to her throat.

Slowly, gradually, she lifted up her hands.

I reached past her and into her pocket, and retrieved a small bottle with a scrap of gauze sticking through the neck, loosely corked.

“Peter too.”

He didn’t move.

“Peter.”

I jogged my arm while holding the blade steady at Roxanne’s throat, making it clear that I would attack her.

He raised his hands.  Empty.

Why did they have to make this so hard?

I gently pushed Roxanne aside and pulled down his sleeves.  I gave a light pat to each jacket pocket, then checked the ground.

He’d dropped it out of sight.  A box of waterproof matches.

Held by Roxanne to be lit by him.

Once I had both match and bottle, I planted them in the snow.  “Leave them.  Trust me.  I’m not going to hurt family.”

The two were mute as I turned toward the three less familiar Others in our retinue.  I wasn’t counting Green Eyes among them.  She was familiar.

The satyr and maenad were ready for a fight, spoiling.

I warded the satyr off with one wing, folded around half of my body, and held out the Hyena, pointing it at the maenad, ready if she lashed out.  I knew how fast they could be.

I gave her a slight shake of my head.

She backed away, keeping a certain distance from me, and I walked between the two of the Drunk’s followers.

I reached Corvidae, at the rear of the group.  Corvidae, who had hidden himself out of sight, sheltered by the crowd.

“You didn’t consider that I would take it as an insult if your first target was an Other so similar to my people?” Mara called out.

I considered a few things, I thought.  Wanting to see Mara’s reaction was one.

Subtlety wasn’t one of her stronger points.

Which inspired a similar thought.  I extended the sword toward Corvidae.  He backed up, holding up his hand, two fingers touching the flat of the blade, as if he could hold it back with just that.

“Aren’t insults an invented thing?”  I asked.  “For you to be insulted…”

A distance behind me, she didn’t react.

“Hi Crow,” Evan said.

“Hello, Sparrow,” Corvidae said.  “Will you just watch this?”

“Yep!”

“We’ve flown together,” Corvidae said.

“We flew together, and then you flew off, and then you lured an owl to come after me.”

“Mischief is in my nature.  I didn’t let it harm you.”

“Scared the poo out of me,” Evan said.  “I think meanness is in your nature.  Rose said so, sorta kinda in a way.”

“She’s not wrong,” Corvidae said, quiet.  Louder, he said, “Why me?  Why walk past the others and come for me?”

Calling me on the fact that I was calling his bluff?

The tone and the cadence of the reply reminded me of when I’d turned on Padraic, just an hour or two ago.  I didn’t feel it was a coincidence.

Had he been there?  Was he teasing me in the same breath he was asking me to justify myself?

“You’re a bogeyman, you come back after you’re eliminated.”

“Not,” he said, “If you kill me with that.  Probably.”

“Blake,” Tiff said.  “What are you doing?  Do you expect us to just stand here while you pick and choose four members of our group to just kill?”

“Yes, Blake,” Corvidae said.  “Do you?”

“I’d like you to just stay back,” I said.

“If you’re justifying attacking him, because he can come back after being slain,” Mara spoke, her voice carrying across the clearing.  “Kill the one on the ground.”

I looked down at Green Eyes.

“Or both?” I asked.

“Her first, to avoid insulting me,” Mara said.

And then when she’s eliminated, you renege on the deal?

Or keep to the terms on a technical level alone?

I returned the Hyena to the point that I was holding Corvidae at bay.

“No?” Mara asked.

“No,” I said.

Mara didn’t move.  Didn’t do anything, not even exhaling, but the effect broke.  Time resumed.

Snow started falling again.  First by Mara, then as far as we could see.

The wind stirred, and the noise of it was disconcerting, branches touching branches, ice-heavy pine needles rattling like so many wind chimes, wood creaking.

It was the quietest things had been all night without being silent.  Deafening us with a normal level of noise.

An entire forest came to life around us, and the puppeteer Mara Agnakak was pulling the strings.

Subtlety wasn’t her strong suit, she couldn’t keep a secret as simple as Corvidae, but she didn’t have to.

She existed as a static entity.  A closed circle, not unlike the dragon.

“She didn’t just break the effect that the Behaim asshole Rose is marrying said was supposed to remain unbreakable, did she?” Peter asked.

“No,” Tiff said.  “Not exactly.  I’m pretty sure it’s only broken here.”

“In her domain,” I said.  I tried to keep Corvidae within range of a lunge, in case I needed to stab him, while keeping one eye on Mara.

We’d nearly run out of time.  I could stall, buy time, but her ultimatum had forced me to make a call.

“Mara!” Peter called out.

“Whelp,” she responded, voice almost drowned out by the noise of the forest and the wind in our ears.

“You’re doing it all wrong,” he said.

“I am not interested in your perspective.”

“Blake had the right idea.  You want to get revenge?  Bloodshed?  Letting Blake live is the best way to do it!  He’s a maniac!”

“One that is fighting to salvage this town,” Mara said.  “I’ll stop that here.”

“Wake up!” Peter said, raising his voice.  “One town?  Have you not paid the slightest bit of attention to the Thorburn family?  We’re fucked up.  How does someone as immortal as you are not see the long term implications of letting us live?  We’re the worst, most artificial, broken human beings you’ll find around here!”

“You’re asking for clemency, based on the fact that you’re everything I despise?”

“Yes!  Exactly yes!”

Refuge in audacity?

Refuge in repugnancy?

“I wish I’d gone with Rose’s group,” Tiff said, under her breath.

“If you really hate modern humanity, if you hate everything we represent, you should be encouraging us to spread, to do our screwed-up thing to this cancerous non-humanity that’s filling the world.  Do you know how many lives Roxanne here is going to ruin as she grows up?”

Roxanne shot him a dirty look.

“Roxanne and I legitimately thought Blake was going to murder us in cold blood.  That’s how fucked up we are, as a family.  Let us live, we continue to fuck up the other families, screw with or kill Johannes, and Jacob’s Bell becomes worse for all the people you hate.  You win, and it’s easy, and it poses no risk at all to you.”

“If I let this argument sway me, I would become what I despise.”

“Artificial?  The wrong kind of humanity?” Peter asked.  “Fuck that.  You’d be exemplifying what you are.  Continuing to exist, working against humanity.  Even if it’s by letting certain humans live to poison the rest.”

“Mm,” Mara said.  “You’ve challenged your own argument.”

“Hm?” Peter asked, his stride broken.

“You call humanity a cancer.  But poison, applied carefully, can kill cancer.”

Peter recovered instantly.  “Hate to break it to you, but we’re not careful in the slightest.  We’re a reckless, fractious, senseless, sad family, and as far as I can tell, it’s a miracle we haven’t destroyed ourselves yet.”

“It’s due to your grandmother that you haven’t destroyed yourselves,” Mara spoke.  “She is the careful element I do not trust, in all this.  By killing and slaying each of you, I will work against whatever plan she has set.”

“Fuck,” Peter said, on his heels.  He glanced at me, then Roxanne, and bounced right back.  “Fuck you.  You’re wrong.  You lose power when someone calls you on bullshit, don’t you?  Well you’re wrong, you old bitch.  Humans exist to evolve, to adapt, to improve, and sitting here like some wart on a dick, doing the same thing every day?  You’re less human than the sparrow, or the flesh-eating mermaid!”

Crone Mara remained where she was.  She reached out and touched a branch.

A crack and the branch she’d been tending before our conversation now broke.

The crack seemed to echo through the woods, in the same moment the wind died.

Like a gunshot, almost, reaching across her territory, the sound bouncing off trees that happened to be in the right place, against stones, skipping over the surface of water like flat, balanced stones.

The sound reached its intended audience.  The birds returned.

Rising from the trees in the distance, they were a vague fog of black against an overcast black, speckled with stars and black-gray clouds.

Their cries filled the air.  More noise, joining the wind and the movement of the trees.

The effect was subtle, but it quickly became apparent what she was doing.

The snow reflected what light there was back toward the sky, giving us something to go by in this dim light, but as the sky was swallowed by a mass of birds, even that light disappeared.

“Roxanne,” Peter’s voice sounded so terribly far away, as acoustics failed.  His voice sounded even further away as he finished his statement, his request.  “Help.”

A bird tore past me, striking me.  I folded my wings back, to reduce the chance that they might get torn.

“Practice,” Tiff said.  “Simple actions, made into powerful ones with tens of thousands of years of repetition.  Train a bird, tune a sound…”

This is how she operates?” Evan asked.

“No,” Tiff said.  Her voice came from another space, as if she were moving.  I hadn’t heard the footsteps.  “She’s a blood hag.  She’ll have Other powers, and practitioner powers.  This is just what someone can pull off if they just happen to be immortal and very patient.”

A match flared to life.  I could see Peter and Roxanne, together, Peter holding his jacket up as a shield.

A bird flying by snuffed the light.

“Shit!” I heard a voice.

The match fire appeared once more.  I wasn’t looking at the pair so much as I was looking out for trouble.

I could see Green Eyes, raised up off the ground, one arm against a tree, cheek bulging, eye wide, mouth filled with crow, straight hair draped over the other half of her face.

Behind her, I saw Corvidae, holding a knife.

I moved faster than I’d ever moved, wings stirring to life, thrusting me forward even as my legs shoved off the ground.  Not flying, not running, but a lunge, covering ten or so feet.

The light went out, snuffed out by another moving bird.  I heard a cry of pain, and suspected someone had tried to shield against the birds with their body, and been hurt for their trouble.

I was forced to move against Corvidae with no light at all.

“Down, Green!” I shouted.

She went down.  In the doing, she placed herself where I very nearly tripped over her.

My wing struck at the knife.  The Hyena stabbed at where Corvidae stood.  Where he had to stand, given the direction of the thrust.

A hand on my wrist arrested my swing.  An iron grip, from a very small figure.

Forward momentum kept me moving, and I’d been moving fast.  The perils of being a lightweight, a man of twigs, branches, hollow bones and feathers.  I landed on my back in snow, and the hand released me.

The cawing of crows filled the air now.  The buzzards were larger, but not nearly so noisy.  There were other birds, too.

The flame came on and went in a fraction of a second.

I heard someone curse at the failure.

But the image I’d seen was burned into my mind’s eye.  Corvidae and Crone Mara, standing practically shoulder to shoulder.

She’d saved him.  He hadn’t even moved from the point I was stabbing at.  Another inch or two, and I’d have cut him.

A boot settled on my wrist.

“Corvidae’s working for Mara!” I hollered the words.

“Working for Mara?” Corvidae murmured.  His voice went perfectly with the noises of the scavenger birds.  “No, no.  I couldn’t do that, see?  Our deal stipulated that I was to assist you.  Work against lone enemies.  So.  In the interest of doing that…”

A blade stabbed at my fingers.

Not to injure, but to pry.

Had I been able to see, or intuit direction, I might have been able to stop him.  It would have helped, too, to have another hand.  I could thank the Abyss for that.

But he found the right grip, and he slipped the Hyena from my grip, the spikes dragging against my fingers.

I reached for it, and found only cloth, with brittle bone within.  The smell of thick dust filled the air.

“There you go,” he said.  “To weaken your enemy, and promote chaos…”

“Corvidae!”

The fourth match or so flickered to life.

It hardly mattered.  The opaque cloud of birds was dissipating.  We had light, if it could even be called that.

Crone Mara was on the far side of the clearing, sitting on one of the fallen trees, gingerly holding the Hyena.

“Three times, you have disgraced yourself.  You have intruded on my territory without due notice.  You have stolen that which is mine, without declaration of war.  You have refused my offer of safe passage.”

“I call bullshit on all three counts!” I shouted.

“Bullshit!” Roxanne joined the cry.  Evan was only a step behind her.

We managed to make Mara look annoyed.

“I have been here for a long time,” Mara said.  “My day is a ritual.  My existence is ritual.  The spirits that dwell here are mine.  They will side with me.”

Her face was cloaked in shadow, framed by her hair, shrouded by the canopy, and something told me it was intentional, as if she instinctively knew where the light fell, here.  The only light there, in her silhouetted form, was a gleam at one eye, like the edge of a knife.

Shit.

She held out the Hyena, balancing it on one hand, so it teetered slightly.  “Enact your judgement.  I am life, birth, death.   By this token, give the monster a heart, and return his weapon to him, impaling-”

A gunshot rang out.  Mara leaned back, swift.  The vague light of the moon and the city reached her face, illuminating it.

I could see the darker spot of blood moving, dripping, at her eyebrow, touching her cheekbone.  The Hyena had fallen to the snow.

The cavalry.

I wasn’t sure it was a good thing, given what the cavalry entailed.

Rose strode from the woods, butt of a hunting rifle touching one shoulder.

Mara didn’t move an inch.

A shot rang off.

A miss.

Others followed Rose.  The remainder of the contingent.

It wasn’t just that it was Rose that had come.  That was a problem, considering our dynamic, but it wasn’t a surprise.

No.

Her group outnumbered mine by a significant margin.

That was… annoying.  A relief, considering present circumstance, but to have me balance the scales, then go out of her way to unbalance them?

Help had arrived.

The Knights of the Basement, armed with guns, joined Rose, Kathryn, Ellie, the Others, and the Behaims.

She’d called in help.  Probably before we’d banded together.

But that wasn’t the focus here.

The crone was.  The immortal.

I sensed the glimmer of fear from Rose as she acted.  I knew Mara had seen some cue too, because Mara was shifting her weight.  Moving.

Before she could, without even glancing to see what I held, I took the object that Corvidae had given me, and I dashed it against a tree.

Rose fired.

Mara moved in the same moment, away from the bullet, simultaneously turning to glance at me.  To see a small cloth doll with a weird leathery face being dashed to pieces.

The bullet didn’t strike home, but I was pretty sure that she’d been grazed.  Clipped in an ear.  One hand went to the side of her head.

“I thought you said this gun made me accurate.”

“Benefits you,” the man I’d nicknamed ‘Shotgun’ spoke, holding his trademark weapon.  “Can’t help you if the target can dodge bullets.”

Mara stood straighter, taking us all in, hand still to her ear.

“I have done nothing to warrant tonight’s intrusion.”

“Living as long as you have, I’m sure you’ve done something,” I said.

“Acting directly against you?” Mara asked.  “Not so.”

“Well,” Rose said, gun still aimed.  “We’re assholes like that.  Did she say, Blake?  Whether she was involved?”

“No,” I said.

“I won’t,” Mara said.

“And… she made it a promise, in a roundabout way,” Rose said.  “Damn it.  That makes things complicated.”

“Corvidae can comment,” I said, glancing toward where Corvidae stood.  Green Eyes was in a tree, braced against branches, and he was standing clear of her lunging range.

“I can,” Corvidae spoke.  “Allow me to consult my notes.”

I’d faced way too many smug motherfuckers to let that slide.

“Shoot him!”  I shouted.

But Corvidae was already drawing something from his jacket.

A hand mirror.  Bound in paper.

“Don’t shoot him!” I shouted.

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155 thoughts on “Sine Die 14.6

      1. Now that I think about it, its also quite possible that Rose will be … rather adversely affected if the aggression source she’s been tapping is suddenly there in the flesh.

      1. The last one serves as proof that he can recognize his mistakes quickly, sometimes even quickly enough to avoid Really Bad Things happening.

  1. Did Crone Mara just state outright that she is as old as the human presence in the Americas? Uh, wow. She literally predates human civilization, and all of the various rules that practitioners have imposed through tradition.

    Also, I am glad to see that Rose has picked up a gun. She’ll need the firepower.

      1. That’s… actually relatively young. Time enough to have tamed beasts and built fires. A million years old? now that would be something to see.

        1. 25,000 years is still a hell of a long time. That’s older than any human civilization, older than cities, older than the domestication of basically any species that isn’t dogs, and about as old as the first pottery, cloth, and villages. The last glacial maximum came during her early years and has seen countless species that today exist only as paintings and bones. She’s older than the Mesolithic period. If that’s not old, I don’t know what is.

      1. I don’t even want to know what would crawl out once the Abyss is finished with her. Or maybe a new environment for someone so bound to routine means that she’ll just fail miserably and become Abyss goblin food. Oh who am I kidding.

    1. Doing some quick math (which may be wrong. I give speeches for work, not math), The Haeg is at least 24,600 years old. I’m pretty sure that basically makes her immortal.

        1. 25,000 may not be much to a continent, but it’s roughly the age of the first settlements humans built, and Mara was born some time around the height of the last ice age. That’s a hell of a long time..

      1. Actually I was gonna comment on that. I got the same number as you, but Mara said she came to North America as a baby, and humans have only been here for about 13,000 years. I could believe she’d been around a little longer than we have evidence, being, by her admission, one of the first, but not 10,000 years more. I know its nitpicky and ridiculous, and not at all important in the grand scheme of things, but that kind of bugged me.

        1. Id like to correct the entire above comment. I did some more research and it looks like 13,000 is the earliest proof we have, but some theorys suggest that people arrived in North America as much as 35,000 years ago

          1. weren’t those theories based on the assumption they were different people(who died in some kind of ash storm before the ‘new’ natives showed up)?

        2. If I got it right then her family was the first in this forest. I’m pretty sure they weren’t the first to cross over from Asia and then decided to travel this far. But I guess plus-minus one or two generations doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.

    2. So this generation will be the first to break the tradition with a hint of either one of the other horsemen, who might appear. Since Conquest is a branch-off of War.

      Who’s the other 3? Blake as Pestilence, Molly as Famine, etc

        1. Pestilence is one of the horsemen nowdays. Conquest is sorta like that guy who got kicked out of the band, and then everyone remembers the guy that replaced him.

          The shift might have had something to do with times people did get counqured, but it wasn’t the end of the world, and you got some good roads out of it, then the Black Plague happened, and man did that suck.

          1. Well as a source and point of interest Pestilence is a newer name for Conquest, sometimes confused between conquest and death. My preference for the 4 horsemen candidates are Death Famine War and Pestilence (previously known as Conquest)

        2. The original four horsemen in the Revelation of John are Nameless Guy On White Horse, Nameless Guy On Red Horse, Nameless Guy On Black Horse, and Death (on a pale horse – hippos chloros). They show up with the breaking of four of the Seven Seals. Showing up when the other three are broken are a host of martyr souls, an earthquake, and seven angels with trumpets.

          I think the lot of them are only very vaguely related at best to the Incarnation of Conquest showing up in Pact, so I wouldn’t count on the horsemen being relevant here.

    3. I’m guessing she’s at least directly descended from the Polynesian boat builders. Yeah that’s fucking old.

      And it’s clearly left her more than a little senile. Sure, law is a recent invention, I’ll give he that. But love and fairness? Invention in general? As fucking if. I think she’s been other so long that she’s forgotten what it means to be human a long time ago but assumes that whatever humanity was it must have been like her.

      1. iirc it wasn’t polynesian boat builders who colonized canada….


        about the whole invention thing:she can’t say for sure what existed before she did. only that she remembers a time when those weren’t things that had the luxury of being and watched them come into it later….the sorts of people who migrate as far as the natives did and to somewhere as shitty as canada along an icy landbridge aren’t likely to have been well off. I can see her survival argument being a thing locally at the time which is what shes limited to.

        1. Yup: she’s spent too long as an enclosed cycle of her own devising.

          Mara, there’s a story about Homo erectus you need to learn. No, not about “inevitable extinction” but “continual change and adaptation showing stunning degrees of variation”. 😛 And, very human. 😉

          Heck, I think a trip into the Abyss might actually be educational for the entity who has not allowed herself to renew for ages and has confused overwriting her daughters as “birth-death-rebirth”.

          1. And yet, an oddly fitting sentiment for an immortal in a closed environment. Too bad her closed environment just got polluted by what amounts to her exact opposite.

      2. It’s possible she’s defining those differently than you. It’s possible she’s excluding certain developments because they don’t count. And it’s possible that the spirits are so under her sway that they wouldn’t react if someone called her out on her exaggerations, so she doesn’t care.

  2. Hurrah, Shotgun’s back!

    Perhaps Fell is the Knight’s secret weapon. I hope so.

    Crow was fun in this chapter. The Haeg seems formidable. Green Eyes should eat them both.

    Peter is so effective. He should be the Heir. His speech about how horrible the Thorburns are was great. It’s a potty it didn’t work.

    1. I’m not so sure compromise is what Blake was worried about, so much as the mirror getting broken, and Conquest getting released.

      1. I’m curious. Does Conquest by any chance remember Blake? He had Rose chained and yet was waging a grand high stakes war game against someone. I’m curious what he has to say.

    1. I am not sure if this is correct, but the Pact Wiki says that Mara’s full name is Mara Angnakak. I didn’t bother to try to search for it in the chapters. The name in the story is missing the n.

    1. He’s basically like “Nope, see, what I’m doing is a trade. I’m giving you something that will hurt Mara, as per the terms of our deal.” It’s bullshit, he knows it’s bullshit, Blake knows it’s bullshit. But guess who here is best buddies with the one that’s been cultivating the local spirits for the past twenty-five thousand years?

      1. Oh, and since Blake had the doll Mara was able to go “Hey, you stole that from me, rule of three, that’s the last strike. I’ma put a sword in the heart that you will have when I’m done with you.”

      2. I get that. WhAt I don’t understand is the superficial layer to his argument. How does disarming Blake help against an Enemy? Where does the (bad) justification lie?

    2. “There you go,” he said. “To weaken your enemy, and promote chaos…”

      Cordivae gave Blake something precious to Mara that would let Blake weaken her. One of her dolls/horcruxes/imprisoned souls of her children? But he did it by his trademark “switcheroo,” like he did with the gun and the cell phone. So he’s weakening Mara, but the terms didn’t technically forbid weakening Blake as a means to an end in the process?

      Okay the exact wording Blake used in Histories 11 was:

      Find them, distract them. Don’t hurt innocents or civilians. Only the local powers, and only those hostile to us.”

      He forgot the ‘no messing with us whatsoever’ clause.

  3. I really want Blake to defeat Corvidae. Not necessarily destroy, but defeat and bind. Have Blake force Corvidae into the shape of a crow, take him in the palm of his hand and force Corvidae deep into Blake’s chest. Don’t know if it’d be a power-up or poison.

    1. I say have Lefty take Corvidae’s power to form a actual body for itself. Evan could call out the name Lefty is bland,as Evan could have made a new name for Lefty.

    2. It’s pretty standard in Pact that power comes with its own taint and ‘flavour’. Absorbing Corvidae would inevitably come with an infusion of Corvidae-ness.

  4. Those Dolls are basically the souls of Mara’s kids put into Spirit Gems, right?.Did Blake just destroy a kid’s soul? Did he set her free? He should find out before he decides to break the third one.

    1. No need, just have Evan peck those dolls free of their bindings all at once, nothing can possibly go wrong.

      That or have Evan find a out way out of this Mexican Standoff.

    2. At this point, I’m thinking they might be some kind of incarnation of a previous Mara. In which case, hard to say what destroying it did.

  5. Jesus. Blake’s gut instinct from the start was that summoning the bird-themed bogeyman was a bad idea that would go horribly awry. His foreshadowed antagonist sense was off the charts. Yet still he chose to summon him in desperate straits in Rose’s absence, just like Rose summoned him the first time around in desperate straits in Blake’s absence/unconsciousness.

    And Blake somehow forgot to include an absolute obedience clause so he could change Cordivae’s orders at any time, which Rose at least seemed to include back in his Toronto summoning. Has Cordivae even benefited the Thorburns in any way whatsoever in the war for Jacob’s Bell?

    I wonder if things would have turned out better, ironically, if Rose hadn’t panicked and banished Cordivae while getting smashed on Dionsysus’s party aura. He probably wanted her to banish him, so he could be resummoned like this, and was just fucking with her head and preying on her paranoia. What could he have done to her while she was asleep then that he couldn’t have done when she slept normally every night with him and the other Others standing guard, after all?

    1. Actually, it wasn’t Blake who summoned or even thought about summoning Corvidae. It was Alexis.

      Blake was trying for what damage limitation he could come up with after the fact (and, naturally, failed). 😦

      1. Wait, where is that established? Alexis was inside the house when Cordivae was summoned. And Blake’s the one who said “We’re running low on convenient allies and especially low on time. That leaves us with the inconvenient ones.”

  6. I notice that Blake doesn’t count the bogeymen he picked up on the way to Hillsglade, here. They seem to have vanished, or possibly died horribly to the dragon and he didn’t find it worth mentioning.

    1. Remember that time Blake had a phone? And then later his phone vanished with no mention of it what so ever? Didn’t even make a note of having lost it when he needed to borrow a phone?

      How exactly do you think that Rose got the Knights to come up to help? The reasonably risk adverse Knights who wouldn’t help in the rather more restrained battle against Conquest?

      Because I think it starts with “Ur” and ends with “‘s weakness”. Anyway looks like Mara is getting shot in the face.

      1. Only vaguely. Any clue where the phone’s last mention was? Because I thought everything Urr ate is so gone Wildbow never mentions it in the story at all.

        1. Blake briefly played with his phone in the first chapter. During Toronto, Fell and Blake twice discuss that he has no phone. This led people to believe that the phone was Erasured. Later, we were shown what you have noticed, that things Erased are not mentioned in the story.

          Post Toronto, we learned that Blake hadn’t existed (as Blake) until Molly’s death. Blake’s memory of the family meeting was false (or at least changed a bit).

          1. I have beeing thinking about this for a while, but… what if the first chapter “Blake” is not really him, but ROSS? Mirror-rose don’t appear in the first chapter, it’s the only mention ever of the phone that I remember, and the fact they call him “Blake” could be the world working to make things make sense as a whole.

            Blake wouldn’t have the phone on his person, would have the memory of having one in the family gathering, but no memory of having one on his person. And with all that’s goin on with him, this discrepancy could very well be glossed over.

            1. So when Grandma Rose was splitting up the original, the phone went to Rose? She should have gotten a better family cellphone plan.

              If that is the original in the first chapter though, then from what little we saw, they were closer to Blake than Rose.

    1. Because it discomfits Mara, somehow, to have one of those creepy dolls in the hands of an enemy.

      Not his fault if Blake’s too stupid to figure it out.

    2. One thing to keep in mind is that Mara’s domain is in every way hers, most importantly spiritually. Who do you complain to if a bound bogeyman violates his deal? That’s right, the local spirits.

  7. So… I hope Corvidae is not stupid enough to let this slip, but the interaction between Conquest and Mara could be… interesting.

    Mara is practically immortal, and this land is hers. She has claimed it by fact of always having lived there, and making her life a routine and a ritual. Conquest is conquest, and he likes conquering, and dominating, and taking power away. Bringing Conquest into play might very well be Mara’s demise. Assuming Conquest doesn’t go after Rose first, or has other plans.

    1. Oh, I’d like to say I loved this chapter. It is oozing with personality. Literally. It is oozing. Someone should clean this mess up.

      More seriously, though, I found Corvidae’s lines about not having done anything wrong, and Blake’s last lines to be fantastic. Peter’s speech was also great, and it is sad to see… how they just accept how horrible they are. It is sad to think that Mara won’t and can’t accept a different point of view. It is literally impossible for her, for she is stubbornness personified.

    2. Goood point. I mean, he even has chained natives at his feet. She’s about as native as one can be, so he’s probably her ultimate weakness.

  8. Mara is the ultimate grumpy old lady. She has essentially been screaming at people to get off her lawn for thousands of years.

  9. What evil deeds could Blake blame on Mara? He fights for children right? She stole the body of a 13 year old. Killing her would be his entire shtick.

    Corvidae appears to have used his one steal a summoning to take from Blake and fulfilled his obligation to gift Mara with something he stole. He can’t very well do his job if he ends up forsworn now could he? And of the sorts of things he has to give to Mara the Hyena was really the only choice. As far as I can tell he has only stolen: a book, the glamour hair, Conquest, a kid and the Hyena. The kid went to someone else, the book was the only item he had last visit leaving the glamour, and Conquest. Gifting Conquest would be devastating to Blake and loss of the glamour would severely weaken his ability to perform assigned tasks.

    Yeah Corvidae does get to steal one item every time he gets summoned. Cost of doing business. But ignoring that little bit he has performed his assigned task well and not acted against Blake. (Pulling out Conquest was pro-Blake because Blake should be glad the binding didn’t get shot, and hence should be quite happy Corvidae let him know about it.)

    1. Small-ish correction: assuming she had each daughter at 35 and waited until 50 before bodysnatching them, she stole the body of… around 700 15-year-olds.

      Blake: Make her pay.

      1. Hopefully it’s only that many. I dunno, but going by how she appears in the various chapters, Mara seems to be aging really fast.

    1. 9 million days, not years. So, about 24000 years. Which places her somewhere in the middle of estimated dates of the first settlement of North America.

    2. I’m so exited about pact finally getting some fanfiction that I started reading the dresden files for this purpose. So far up to Grave Peril. Which book of the dresden files does the crossover take place in?

      1. Just some points:

        IMO: The early writing was OK, but he definitely gets better as he goes along. I almost didn’t pick up the second book after the first, but was glad I did after about where you are in the series. Some authors then lose quality as they attempt to churn out long series, but I haven’t seen that yet. (crossed fingers)

        In the beginning it doesn’t seem that he had an overarching plot in place, so I noted some continuity errors and contradictory statements between books. That’s another thing that gets better as the series continues – he develops his world and improves consistency.

        And if you have seen or want to see the TV series, Butcher is on record as saying it is a separate continuity from the books, so it is not in the exact same universe. I haven’t seen it myself.

    1. Couldn’t find it in the only dictionary I found, but: words starting with “atawa” seem be related to “selling” or “going”; in a few words ending in “ecim” it seems to mean “shadow” or “falling”. That would suggest “sold to the shadows” or “gone to the shadows”. But Algonquin fuses many morphemes in words, I’m probably not splitting it right.

  10. Note that Mara seems to think that Granny Rose had a bigger plan than we’ve seen (more than just to ensure her succession, that is), and that the current destructive Thorburn chaos is part of it.

  11. Mara is the filth of stagnation, decay without growth, survival through corruption.

    Change is as a lotus flower born in filthy water, grown in filthy water and rises out of filthy water to stand above it unsoiled, so Mara devours her daughters’ place in the world, the seeds of change for filth to remain filth so that nothing could grow there.

    1. Crone Mara is eternal as a mountain, or a lake. But those things aren’t really eternal. They just seem that way because we are so brief. Time to make Mara brief.

        1. I’m not any good at Hiaku. I can never get the number of syllables right.

          Or poetry in general. What prose ain’t fancy enough for you?

        2. Crone Mara endures –
          eternal like the mountains.
          Time grinds them to dust.

          Or alternatively:

          Crone Mara has lived
          an endless eternity.
          Time makes Mara brief.

          Or:

          Time eats eternity.
          Mountains erode, lakes vanish.
          Mara’s eternal.

  12. The pro-Rose interpretation of this chapter.
    -While Blake was idiotically stumbling around and getting into fights that he could not win, Rose was making plans and calling in reinforcements.

    The Pro Blake interpretation of this chapter.
    -While Blake was risking his life to try and stop things from getting worse, Rose was sitting on her ass waiting for allies. Who were actually Blake’s allies originally, but she stole them from him like everything else.

    1. I’m actually surprised the knights showed up. They seem very reluctant to get into conflicts, and right now, this is a full-blown war with the risk of a whole town disappearing.

      1. Rose must have been pretty convincing, I guess. It’s surprising, since Blake couldn’t get them involved in the fight with Conquest. Either she’s better at that than him (more than possible) or she has a better carrot. Like, say, the knowledge of how to bind the abstract demon.

        1. It helps that they probably recall her as having kicked Conquest’s posterior.

          She has a rep now to trade on (which she owes largely to Blake). He didn’t.

    2. Why should one pick one or another?

      the pro both interpretation:
      While Blake was risking his life as a necessity,Rose gathered the forces necessary to assist him in the likely case things went south.They both did what they do best to win a strategic victory.

  13. When everything about Corvidae finally comes to light, Rose is going to feel real heel. You might even say she is going to pauses to put on shades eat crow.

  14. So, a couple of chapters ago I suggested hijacking an incarnation of Revolution (possibly the French Revolution) and using that to kickstart a modern crusade against the intrinsically inimical forms of Others. Here is a revised version.

    Objective: End the predation of Others and Practitioners against humanity.
    – To achieve this, humanity should be made aware of the Other on a grand scale. Preferably, all of humanity should be Awakened or provided with sufficient knowledge to be able to recognize and defend themselves from magical forces.

    Step 1: Identify and contact Others whose nature is intrinsically to the benefit of mankind.
    – Incarnations of Justice, Liberty, Prosperity and the like should be our first choice.
    – Some Angels.

    Step 2: Identify a suitable Incarnation to kickstart revolution.
    – Incarnation should be populist in nature. We want to get the whole mass of humanity in on this.
    – Incarnation should be connected to anger directed at corruption and injustice.

    Step 3: Disseminate information about nature of magic and Others.
    – First target should be goblin. Goblins, by their very nature, have no redeeming value.

    Step 4: Push Others from step 1 into limelight as acceptable Others.
    – Objective is to replace revolutionary other, allowing for long-term stability in aftermath of initial uprising. Essentially, hijack our own plan with something more sustainable.

    Obviously, lot of things to be fleshed out, lot of things that could go wrong. Still, interesting thought experiment/power fantasy.

    1. Oh, and to clarify: Mara is one of the sorts of Others I’d like to see brought down. She likes to think that the artificiality of civilization is weak? Lets see how her 27,000 years of stagnation stands up to, say, sustained artillery bombardment.
      After all, she might personally have 27,000 years to have built up, but Canada alone generates 35 million man-years per year.

      1. Yeah, my first thought was to get out and firebomb the forest. But there are so many ways that could go wrong. I eventually decided that the best way to deal with Mara was to get her to take up knitting, maybe weekly bingo as well. This is all obviously the results of great boredom, and giving her a hobby would help keep her from going on rampages and plotting the downfall of human civilization..

        1. I have to wonder if even by the standards of older cultures Crone Mara wouldn’t be considered a monster. I mean how many cultures would really be okay with stealing your daughters lives to keep your own going?

      2. …Twelve is a stronger number than three, and I’m pretty sure Roxie (or Kathy?) is twelve. How many twelve year olds are there in Canada?

    2. I like this idea, and I agree that there’s a hell of a lot of things that could go wrong. I don’t trust the assumption of “Others whose nature is intrinsically to the benefit of mankind”, for starters. Pact has been too grimdark for me to accept that there are such things. At best you could probably get “Others whose nature you consider to be to the benefit of mankind” and the project would end up remaking humanity in accordance with the will of whatever cabal is running this project.

      1. Eh. If, as they appear to be, Others are generated by sufficiently strong collective belief and emotion there should be spirits of liberty and egalitarianism and hope out there.

  15. Why didn’t blake use the “I’m an abyssal herald” argument? I mean, he’s promised to give the abyss a fantastic meal, and sending a town is benefitial to the abyss, and so the further the town gets to it, the more power he gets. It’s strengthening him and giving him boosts to his karmic gains and plans. So he should have made the argument that the best way to weaken blake for intruding, is to tell him if she’s causing the dip or not, so he can stop it. Why? Because blake was made to be self-damaging. To doom himself. So assisting him is actually harming him and harming everyone near him and everyone he cares about. Assisting him will bring ruin and destruction upon everything he touches, as is his nature as both a fraction of a person as well as a herald of the abyss.

    Honestly, it’s a better argument than peter’s, but it plays off peter’s quite nicely.

    Plus, blake needs to accept his role as said herald and just cause ruin to crone mara’s entire place. Sure, it’s hers, but will she want it when he’s done with it?

    1. Well, to be honest, we don’t know if Mara wants the town to go down to the Abyss. Sure, she hates it, and everyone, and doesn’t seem bothered at all by the outcome. But she has refused to ever state whether that is what she wants and is working for.

  16. Corvidae has brought one of Mara’s most-hated enemies (Conquest) inside her demesne. At the moment, Conquest is bound, but I think the “things are already going to hell” move is releasing him, because the short-term fight would probably be between Conquest and Mara. Mara’s use of her daughters as expendable vessels and power sources probably counts as a form of conquest, so the incarnation of will probably have a point of similarity to use against Mara.

    Then you have a problem with Conquest being released. At that point, getting the incarnation to the Abyss starts sounding like a good idea. A bigger sacrifice, indeed.

  17. Hey guys,

    Think I’m going to have to postpone tonight’s Pact chapter and do a Thursday chapter at a later date. Hate doing it when it’s been scheduled, but was feeling off all day yesterday and then felt a cold settling in over last night and it’s going strong this morning.

    My approach to the writing is to treat it like the full time job it is, and I want to be serious and professional about what I do, so the call I have to make is, well, would I go to a 9-to-5 job like this? And the answer right now is no.

    Will try to make it up to you guys later – sorry to those who check in expecting the chapter and don’t find it. Still aiming to to get Friday’s chapter up (even if I have to give it three days of attention when and where I can).

      1. Yeah, it can really suck when you get a very nasty cold. I had one mid October that put me down pretty bad. I hope that it will be the last major one I have to deal with this year.

        Hmmn, maybe they need to drop an incarnation of General Winter on Jacob’s Bell.

  18. I really like the worldbuilding aspects of this chapter. It states a few things about Mara, implies several more, and perhaps most importantly describes the nature and origin of Others a bit better. Also, some other awesome stuff, but I wanted to gush about the worldbuilding.

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