Conquest turned his back, pushing a tree aside. Where another tree would have been uprooted, his simply moved over the earth as if it were on rails. The movement stirred cold air, and I flinched.
Rose stared up at him, then down at her hands.
“Hey, Rose,” I said, my hands in my pockets, my arms tight against my sides, trying to stay warm without being too hot at the same time. “Let me start by-”
She heaved herself out of the snow, flinging herself at me with enough force to almost knock me over. She wrapped her arms around me.
All of my fight or flight instincts were in high drive already. Being grabbed suddenly didn’t help.
I would have hit her, but swinging a punch in self defense was different from trying to hit someone who was clinging so closely to me. I would have had to deliver an underhanded punch to the gut, and… no. The fact that it took me a second to get my bearings meant I had time to resist impulses.
It wasn’t helping, though. It was a twist of a knife in an old wound, bringing back pain, shutting down my mental processing centers as every station went on alert.
She squeezed a little too hard, painfully, one arm over my shoulder, another at my side, head buried against my chest. She was also warm, her heart pounding so hard I could feel it.
She was a real, physical person, here, it seemed.
A real physical person who was digging her nails into my back.
“Fingernails,” I croaked.
She didn’t respond, even if she did relax with the fingernails. The intensity of it, coupled with the madness that surrounded us, was enough to rob us of any further communication.
“Fell,” Conquest spoke. “See Mr. Meath out, then stand guard. Nobody comes or leaves without my word.”
“I’d like to ask that you keep me updated, Lord,” the drunk said. “On him and what you do with him.”
“I can,” was the reply. “Why?”
“I have further business with him. In exchange for my continued cooperation, can I ask that he be kept within the city, for the time being?”
“You can ask,” Conquest said. He seemed to consider. “You take no actions to work against me in this endeavor.”
“That is all I need. I will see to it.”
Why the fuck did Jeremy Meath have business with me?
Fuck, what did it even matter?
The nameless practitioner, who now had a name, glanced at me and Rose, and then left, Jeremy Meath and the small contingent of attractive men and women following.
I wanted freedom to move, but Rose was still clinging to me, and it was doing everything a hug shouldn’t. Stirring ugly feelings of fear and unease, making me less calm, making me feel like I stood completely alone and adrift.
“Let go, Rose,” I said, quiet.
She didn’t move, holding me tight.
“Rose,” I said, under my breath.
“Hm,” Conquest made a sound. My heart nearly stopped. Had I accidentally gotten his attention?
My eyes moved to him, and I saw him looking down, pensive, but not looking down at us. He’d changed subtly, and was still changing. The line between clothing and skin was fading, the individual elements that had made up his outfit and appearance were dissolving, while retaining the bits that still let me think he fit with the idea of ‘Conquest’.
He had overlarge hands, now, plated in iron and what might have been bone, or a very pale metal, effectively gauntlets, but I could also see smaller hands, grasping, scrabbling out as if they sought to claw their way free of his coat sleeves. Or his rolls of loose skin. Or chainmail. Whatever it was that wreathed his arms, now that it was ceasing to be a coat. I could see it changing, sloughing away from an endless source, taking on a new texture and form as it layered over itself. Hot wax, melting flesh, layers of dust settling atop one another. All those things and none of them.
His flesh was stretched taut around his face and neck, pulling his mouth into a hollow, perpetual grin. Except his smile wasn’t really a smile, whatever label I might stick on it. Like the eyes had been ‘painted’, the smile was symbolic. Just looking at it put ideas in my head: the rictus grins of the defeated; the expression of a general who had just won the war, caught between the joy of victory and the dawning horror as he left the battle behind and came to terms with what he had done. Twisted into a frozen mask that he wore.
His beard and hair were longer than they had been, paler. He was half again as tall, so broad in the shoulders it was bound to be symbolic in some fashion, and his coat trailed around him like a cape, now, the tips billowing and snaking through the snow as if being moved by a wind that I couldn’t feel. His slaves were hidden by his coat in one moment, gone when the coat flapped open again in the next.
He held the rifle with its bayonet, but the weapon was sagging too, not falling apart, but drooping like the materials were at melting temperatures. When he shifted position, the sun remained behind him, as if the corners of it were anchored to his shoulders. A pale halo.
The painted eyes, at least, were gone. There was only darkness there.
Taking him in helped to divorce my brain from the invasion of my personal space, and I managed to get my thoughts on track, taking in our general circumstances.
Fuuuuuuuuuck, I thought.
His little movements were making the landscape change, and I found myself adjusting my footing, to ensure I could move if I had to. That was Rose’s cue to loosen the hug and look up at Conquest.
“Fuck,” she whispered, echoing my thought.
“The meeting didn’t go so well,” I said.
“You don’t think you’re understating it a bit?”
“I’m understating it a lot. See, the thing is-”
The Lord lowered his weapon, letting the butt-end of it hit the ground, interrupting me.
The stones and snow had moved and resettled, in the wake of the impact. He was molding our surroundings.
I glanced at the exit. No way we could just run out.
“I did not mean to disturb you. Take a moment to yourselves,” Conquest said.
“Really?” I asked, before I could stop myself. “Why?”
“Blake,” Rose said.
I could feel the fingernails again, and that was excuse enough to push her hands away and distance myself. She let me.
“Let’s not question his… generosity,” she said.
“Giving succor to the weak is a tool for control,” Conquest said. He turned, and with a sweep of his hand, he dashed away the snow from the hilltop, leaving only flat stone floor. I winced as trace amounts of the snow hit the walls and came back my way, stinging, cold, and wet. Rose ducked her head down, and I used my hand to help shield her face.
Steam and mist were rising off of us and the newly exposed floor. I wasn’t sure if it was the cold freezing the moisture in the air or the ambient heat evaporating it. At the same time, the air was dry enough that I had to try twice to clear my throat.
The hilltop was now more of a dais, a raised, flat circle of cut stone. The drop down the sides seemed more precarious now.
Conquest continued, “…Break a man utterly, and he may well adore you for the simplest things, like bread, water, and relief from torture. He will hate you too, but one can control them while the heart is swayed by love, and chain them away in darkness when it is controlled by the hatred.”
“Doesn’t it kind of defeat the point if you tell them how you’re manipulating them?” I asked.
“Not at all,” Conquest said. “Allow me to demonstrate… If you remain calm and quiet, I will allow you a moment to talk amongst yourselves. If you do not, I threaten torments that would haunt you for the remainder of your life. Which do you choose?”
“The former,” I said.
“And do you like me more, because I gave you the choice, rather than choosing the latter myself?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“This is the first step on a journey. At the end of these journeys, I have turned men into beasts, groveling for my favor, debasing himself for my mercy. You are fortunate, in a way, because you are an admitted novice, of limited use. I will use you up for the little knowledge you have, and then I will kill you once that knowledge is exhausted.”
“I appreciate that,” I said, trying to get my thoughts together and sound confident. “I’m not a good groveler. I think I’d lose it or snap before I got that far.”
“I am very good at what I do, diabolist, for I am the embodiment of what I do. See to your companion. Be happy for the succor and choices I do give you. We begin in a matter of minutes.”
He turned his back, striding down the length of the hallway-bridge, arms at his sides. I watched as the landscape shifted on either side.
“What are we beginning?” Rose asked, her voice a hush. I watched her fold her arms tight against her body, moving restlessly.
“That’s what I was going to say. I was understating it when I was telling you this didn’t go so well. He wants me to summon something.”
“Something? A something-something?”
“You didn’t agree, did you?”
“He’s not giving us much choice.”
“Fuck,” she said. She seemed to turn the idea over in her head, eyes roving over our surroundings, then said, with a little more emphasis, “Fuck.”
“Well put,” I said.
“I don’t even know what to think,” she said. “One second I’m reading, then…”
“Then this. I know. I was here, and I’m a bit stunned.”
“I’m cold,” she said. “And hot? I’m sweating, and it’s not because I’m scared. The sweat’s making me colder.”
She was wearing a button-up blouse with a dark stone at the collarbone, and a very simple navy blue skirt that sat at the waist and ended at the knee. Her shoes were an older fashion, too hard and black, with a single strap. Grandmother’s clothes, borrowed from the mirror-verse.
But it didn’t really matter.
“It’s this place,” I said. “It’s an extension of him, not a demesne. It bends rules, to be generally uncomfortable. To conquer us physically and mentally, by steadily wearing us down.”
“No, when I said I was cold, I meant I’m cold. I haven’t felt anything except numb for… ever?”
“And you’re fragile,” I said, remembering. “We don’t know how much damage this did, pulling you here, we shouldn’t risk you taking any more damage now. I’d offer you my coat, but-”
“-It’ll only make you hotter.”
“I can deal with the heat. I just… I guess I want more standing between me and the rest of this world. A coat is pretty crummy armor, but I’ll take crummy armor.”
“Then you can most definitely have it,” I said.
I unfolded my coat from my arm, and I helped her put it on. She didn’t slide her arms through the sleeves, but instead clutched at the opening with her hands, wrists crossed over one another.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Sorry about hugging you. I only just realized.”
“It’s…” I started, I trailed off.
“I was going to say it’s okay, but… yeah. It’s okay.”
“Been a while since I had any human contact. I just realized, and I wasn’t thinking. It’s like I- I’ve been dealing with everything and there hasn’t been much support, and, even that…”
“I get it,” I said.
I did get it. I knew what she was talking about. To be alone and cut off for so long, and then be offered a hand… it fit with my own experience. A drowning man could make a bad situation worse if he clung too hard to his rescuer. A homeless boy might have to hold himself back, if an emotional connection was offered after years of loneliness.
“The jacket does help. Thank you,” she said, again. She wasn’t meeting my eyes.
I only nodded.
She looked so small. Not that she was, but the coat enveloped her, and this landscape would have made the tallest man in the world look small.
I looked at the hallway bridge. Our only exit, and Conquest was standing at the far end of it.
I had the locket, I had the hatchet.
Hardly enough to go up against this guy.
“I don’t think we have many options,” I said.
“Call the lawyers?” Rose asked.
“Let me clarify my earlier point,” I said. “He wants to summon demons and whatever else to the world to leave whole areas devastated and suffering. Introducing him to lawyers who have bosses that want the same thing? Not a good idea.”
“We don’t have many allies.”
“We don’t have any,” I said. “Maggie’s… sort of questionable, and she’s hours away. The others people who were at this meeting aren’t on their Lord’s side, but they’re just as likely to murder us as help us. Maybe more likely.”
“It’s just us, then?” Rose asked.
“And June,” I said. “She’s… minor, but she’s still here.”
“Us and June, against an incarnation.”
“Did you… happen to be reading about incarnations?” I asked. “Given where I was?”
“I was reading up on glamours,” she said. “I’ve been getting through a book on glamour.”
“At least tell me you’ve picked up a few useful tricks?”
“Just theory, tips, ways to make it more effective. Half of which I think you were doing anyways, by blithely going with the flow.”
“Until I crashed and burned,” I said.
“I read about that too. But that doesn’t help us here,” she said. She shifted uncomfortably beneath my coat.
“Hot,” she said.
“Told you,” I said. I snuck a glance at Conquest. He had his arms raised, and the snow that was pouring down around him was gray.
“Fuck,” she said. Rose turned around, taking it all in. “Fuck.”
“Don’t panic,” I said.
“You-” she started. She stopped, shaking her head a little. “You know when you’re in the dark for a while, and then you step outside into the sunlight? Or you’re enjoying the air conditioning, and you walk outside and it’s hot? It’s worse than it would normally be.”
“It’s like that, on every level. Fuck.”
“But you’re out,” I said.
“I don’t know that I am,” she said. “I’m… not there, but I’m here. The rules are different. There are spirits here.”
“His spirits. I get that it’s a bit of a shock to the system, I do, but-”
“Wait. Spirits. Give me June.”
I glanced at Rose, then drew June. I reversed her and passed her to Rose handle-first.
“Hi, June,” Rose said. She had to adjust the coat to reach far enough, but she ran one hand along the blade, where patterns had been scratched into the metal. Her hand was shaking, in the moment before she set it on the solid metal.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“I’m thinking… no, I didn’t get much useful info out of the book on glamours. But I did check out Valkyrie before I recommended it to you. Binding spirits of the dead to objects. Using their power… um. I just need to remember how to do it.”
“Is this useful?”
“It’s… empirical data, one way or the other.”
“That’s not reassuring.”
“It’s what it is. Unless you have better ideas?” Rose asked.
I shook my head. “No. Go for it, whatever you’re doing.”
“June,” Rose said, more authoritarian in tone, raising the hatchet overhead. “Come forth.”
Rose swung the hatchet down.
Cold air blasted the two of us, and when the dust and snow cleared, June was on her hands and knees in front of us.
“What’s the plan?” I asked.
“Adjusting the temperature,” Rose said. “June? The cold of the cabin, with the door closed. The cold of the room when you tried to get the fire going.”
“Hey,” I said. “You’re-”
I felt it. The cold air. Unpleasant, biting at my exposed flesh.
You’re going to make it worse.
Except she wasn’t. This cold didn’t exist in an eerie, impossible unity with the heat and dryness. It was what it was, and it replaced the pre-existing weather conditions.
At the far end of the bridge, Conquest turned his head to look at us.
“Stop,” Rose ordered. “Rest, like you did when you couldn’t get the fire going.”
June looked up, and the cold started to fade in intensity.
“Return,” Rose said. “Firewood, remember?”
June disappeared into the hatchet, much as she had entered it in the first place.
Conquest was making his way back to us. He was at no risk of falling from the bridge, because the bridge was essentially an extension of him.
“You’ve pissed him off,” I said.
“Okay,” Rose said. “Thinking…”
The Lord had long strides, and he was able to move with confidence, despite the shaky nature of the bridge, the unsteady bits and the parts with weapons littering them. When he strode forward, spears and swords were kicked free, to flip over in the air until they disappeared into the darkness below.
“Did you plan to piss him off?” I asked.
“I planned to study the effect on the area. Which, if you’re right, is an effect over him. Can it be influenced? Can we arrest control over it? Which is why we need to think and figure something out.”
“And?” I asked, but it was too late to get an answer. He was in earshot now.
We weren’t about to discuss strategies against him while he was here.
Wait, if this place was an extension of him… could he hear us all the way along?
That was a daunting thought. Had we said anything damning?
Was that why he’d left us be?
He stepped past the threshold, and he brought the gray-black snow with him.
Volcanic ash, not snow.
“This will do,” he said, surveying the area.
I felt strangely okay, better than I had before he’d left.
It wasn’t just having had the chance to talk. I felt okay because the weather wasn’t bearing down on me.
June had broken the effect, and the heat was taking its time to bleed back into our surroundings. It was still cold, but it wasn’t cold and hot.
That said something. I just wasn’t sure what.
“Can I assume you’ll cooperate?” the Lord asked.
“No,” Rose said, in the same moment I said, “Yes.”
We exchanged looks, annoyed with each other. Saying no did nothing except give him an excuse to act against us. The only option was to say…
“Yes,” I said, again, “You’re free to assume whatever you want, but I may rescind my agreement at any time. I presume you’ll punish me at that point.”
“Then I’ll discuss this with you,” Conquest addressed me. “What do you need, to summon a dark power to my realm?”
I thought, hard. Not about what I actually required, but the nature of the question.
“A hell of a lot more courage,” I said.
“Fear of me will have to do in a pinch,” Conquest said. “Do not be facetious. You are in my realm and under my thumb. I do not think you want to fight me. In terms of resources, materials, time, and location…”
“Books,” I said. “If I were to do this, I’d need books.”
Rose snapped her head around, looking at me.
“Texts from a building protected by a magic effect,” I said. “With names, rules for rituals, words for the contracts…”
“There is no need for these things,” he said. “You will summon the entity, and it will attack indiscriminately. Let me change my question. What is the bare minimum you require to bring one of these beings forth?”
I kept my mouth shut.
“You will answer, or I will punish your companion,” he said.
I glanced at Rose.
“You gave her your coat. You’re attached to her. I must assume you would be upset if she were disfigured or crippled.”
I clenched my hands at my sides. The locket’s chain bit into the webbing of my hands. But it wouldn’t be any use here.
“This is another step on your journey, diabolist. You will do as I say, and you will do as I say hereafter. Everything you do will reinforce my power over you. If you obey, then you will continue to obey. If one of you refuses, I punish the other, and that punishment resonates. Accept what is, and this will be relatively painless for you.”
“Not so painless for the bystanders,” I said. “The people you want to sic a demon on?”
“I am patient. I am effectively immortal, and torture is a part of my power and domain. Decide, one way or the other.”
“Can I have a private word with my colleague?” I asked.
“You’ve had your chance. Decide, or perhaps I will make both of you suffer.”
So we did talk in private after all, or was this another word trick? “When you say we’ve had our chance, do you mean here, just now, or do you mean in general?”
“Blake!” Rose called out. “Not the fucking time to quibble!”
He reached down and picked up Rose with one hand, gripping her wrist and hauling her into the air..
“Hey!” I hollered.
“You aren’t grasping the gravity of your situation, diabolist.”
“I’m grasping it,” I said, “I’m trying to adapt to it, and that means figuring shit out!”
“The only adaptation I require is your bending to my will. The only things you’ll want to figure out will be how to serve me.”
“Okay,” I said, “Fine! Cutting past the shit and the figuring… you can hear anything in your realm, so there’s no real point to me whispering and conspiring with Rose, is there?”
He tilted his head slightly.
“Got any bright ideas, Rose? Because I’m running pretty dry, here.”
“I don’t have a lot,” she said.
“Because the alternative is that cliche line like, hey, you know what’s at stake, so you’re okay with making the sacrifice, in exchange for my silence.”
“Fuck that, would you say that?”
“No,” I said.
“Neither would I! Unless you’re saying that I’m a vestige, so I don’t count!”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m saying I don’t know what the fuck to do.”
“You obey,” Conquest said.
I envisioned it. The flow of events, giving him Ornias’ name. The summoning… Conquest would become mightier, and as an Incarnation, he could deal with the fallout. Probably.
“No,” I said. “How does this play out?”
“I believe you are stalling, diabolist.”
“I am not stalling,” I said. “Or I’m not just stalling. I’m raising a legitimate concern. You promised the safety of Toronto, its citizens, and the Duchamps of Jacob’s Bell.”
“If I call something here…”
“It is sealed. This is my realm, and I can contain an entity.”
“Even when you don’t know the exact rules?” I asked. “The nature of the binding that’s required? The special qualities of these beings? I know of at least one that can tear through connections and enter a demesnes no problem.”
“They were bound once, they will be easier to bind again. I can expend power, shape my domain into a prison.”
“Right,” I said. “Except… I’m not sure the one I’d be calling has been bound before.”
He stared down at me with the black orbs in the midst of his pallid face. He wasn’t smiling that horrible rictus smile, now.
“The one I’d be calling would be strong, and the people who gave it to me, well, I can’t guarantee that any being they put me in contact with was necessarily bound at any point. From the description, this being could be one of the big names, someone who sits on a throne and bosses the others around. Looking for a way to get here.”
“You can’t guarantee that is the case,” Conquest said.
“I can’t guarantee it isn’t,” I said.
“Which means,” Rose said, still dangling from his grasp, “That you’d need the books as much as we do. Blake said he needed the books-”
She shot me a glance.
“I said I needed them because the extra rituals and precautions would keep me safe,” I said.
“Yeah,” Rose said. “And those rules and precautions are probably necessary to keep you safe, Incarnation or no.”
“Unless you really want to get straight into a one on one brawl with a dude that fucks with stars,” I said.
He remained very still.
“Can you put me down?” Rose asked.
“I could break you for your impertinence,” he said, hauling her up until her face was level with his. “To give me orders?”
His breath in her face was enough to stir her hair.
She had the hatchet, still, but… god damn, I hoped she wasn’t dumb enough to swing it at his face.
In her shoes, I probably would have, but I processed things differently than most, when it came to personal space.
“I humbly request that you put me down, sir,” she said.
He let go, and she dropped a few feet to the ground. Not a horrible drop, but still alarming, and the stone underfoot was hard.
When she’d recovered, while Conquest paced, I met Rose’s eyes. I could tell we were thinking the same thing. If we could get him to enter the circle…
“I am older than swords,” Conquest said. “Older than man. I have existed in countless forms, evolving and changing. I rise to power, fall, and then find another environment, shape, and host.”
“As Conquest does,” I said.
“Yet you think I’ll fall for a simple trick? A petty trap? Things such as these do not go unguarded.”
“Actually,” I said. “We didn’t really leave any safeguards.”
“Your forbears,” he said.
“The standard demesne protections,” Rose said. “We can give you permission to enter the building, I believe?”
“Your allies, your enemies? I refuse to believe it would be so easy as that.”
Enemies, well, there was the rub.
He looked between us. I saw the realization dawn on his face, as we couldn’t deny it.
“You toy with me,” he said. He visibly changed, skin stretching tighter. His face shifted to that rigid grin, teeth bared. “I should mutilate you right now, so you remember the mistake of such insults.”
The fucking sky was changing in tune with his emotions. Plunging us into darkness. Black rage.
“If you’re immortal,” I said, “Then yes, there is a trap our enemies set before us, but it will barely affect you, while it could have some pretty grave consequences for us. You can go, get the books, bring them to us, and we could summon whichever sort of being you required.”
“You’re scheming, diabolist,” he said.
“At this stage of things, I’m just scheming to buy us some time.”
“To work against me.”
“More to get the two of us out of this predicament.”
“That is enough impertinence,” he said. He looked to Rose, “You, stay.”
A cage rose up around her.
“No,” Rose said.
“And you,” he said, looking at me.
“Don’t fucking touch me,” I said. I backed away a step, and I found a wall behind me. The wall hadn’t been there before. “I’ll come willingly.”
“Not when you see our destination. You forget what I am. If it’s a choice between your cooperation and your tears, dragging you behind me while you dirty yourself in fear, I’ll take the latter.”
A kind of horror hit me, right in the gut.
Not cold horror, not a chill. Horror as in a horror, a nightmare, a beast that might lurk under a small boy’s bed, wrong and disgusting and bad, as a feeling, slithering around my insides.
Because I knew he was probably right.
Because when it all came down to it, push to shove, I wasn’t really much of a man. Not when someone or something bigger and stronger than me had their hands on me. Not when I was unarmed and certain there was nothing I could do. I had precedent for that.
Once he grabbed me, I was as good as dead, because I’d stop thinking until I was free again, and there was nothing thoughtless I could do to get out of this situation. I wouldn’t listen to reason, and it wouldn’t be me fighting like a cornered rat. I’d maybe manage to lash out, fail, then I’d shut down one hundred percent.
“Fuck you,” I said, moving laterally along the wall to try and put distance between myself and him. But the wall was his. “Piss-poor excuse for an Incarnation. What the fuck is an Incarnation of Conquest doing in Canada?”
“Stop, Blake!” I heard Rose, as if far away.
“I find it interesting, to see what is revealed of people, when they are broken down,” the Lord said. “With things relatively stable here, it’s been some time since I had the chance. You’ve defaulted to scheming, impertinence, then aggression. But it’s only when the pressure is increased, your very being challenged, that we’ll see who you truly are.”
“Fuck you and your fucking philosophy,” I said.
“God fucking dammit, Blake! I am not sitting on the sidelines again, while you cross another fucking line!”
She did, or she started to. She said something, but my focus was wholly, entirely on the Lord.
There was a crash, and I saw her, free of the cage, hatchet in hand, June at her side.
“If I’m to steadily break you down and reveal facets of your being, which of the two should I break first? Your companion said kind words to the bound ghost. Do you feel a kind of fondness for it too? I could scatter her to the Ether with a swat of my hand.”
“You don’t touch either of them. You don’t touch me, either.”
My hands were shaking.
“I can do both, and I can bend you to my will, acquire the powers I wish to acquire,” the Lord of Toronto said.
“Wait,” Rose called out. “I’ll tell you what you want to know. All of it.”
“Your words have no weight, mirror-dweller,” Conquest said. He didn’t take his eyes off me.
“My words are those of a Thorburn descendant, with all of the power of a daughter’s daughter’s daughter’s daughter.”
“Words with power, but nothing I care to hear. I’ll take what I need to know from him.”
“The barrier is one that slows time. You’re immortal, it’s insignificant to you!” she cried out.
“Significant enough. Time is always a valuable commodity.”
You can’t tell him, I thought. Don’t tell him you can go and get the books, or we’re all fucked.
Then I cursed myself for even thinking that. Because I wasn’t entirely sure I wouldn’t blurt something out in panic.
He was everything I couldn’t deal with.
“Can you knock down the barrier?” Rose asked.
He half-turned to look at her. “Potentially. But I’m wondering why I shouldn’t send one of you to fetch the books and return to me. A few months or years of your time are meaningless to me.”
“If too much time passes,” Rose said, sounding a thousand times calmer than I felt, “We lose ownership of the books. They pass to the next heir, and you lose the advantage of having the Thorburn diabolist in your grip.”
She was skirting the truth, and he was buying it.
“Fine. I am a patient being. I will figure out a way to negotiate a path through the barrier, and torture each of you in the meantime.”
It kept coming back to that.
He had us, he knew it, and at this point, anything here was him amusing himself.
“If we don’t give permission to enter the premises?”
“I think you will,” he said, with confidence.
His focus was on Rose, and I could actually think.
We had no bargaining chips. Nothing on the table.
No, we had one little thing. Twice now, June had damaged the environment. Breaking the cage, and dispelling the heat for a time.
It had been almost easy.
What else? I had to pull together all of the little things I’d noticed. What didn’t jibe?
I’d called him out on the strangeness of him leaving Rose and I to talk. Why had he done it? To give us succor and manipulate us?
No, it had been strange that he’d even explained that. I’d called him out on that too.
Why had he done it? To change the landscape? To change it so it snowed black?
What had been the point of that, when he could have started squeezing us for what he wanted right away?
“We could compromise,” Rose said. It sounded feeble, even to me.
“I am not one for compromises. I take everything I want.”
“The idea of conquest is rife with compromises. Cities get annexed, puppet governments and political figures stay in place, a broken populace can still riot, a-”
“I know what I am,” he said.
I wanted to signal her, to push her to keep going, but I couldn’t do it without potentially alerting him.
I could only use what she was inadvertently giving me.
Think. Why had he taken the time to adjust the area?
Did it require constant maintenance? No. I didn’t get that feeling.
But maybe he’d wanted to strengthen it at the core level, in anticipation of the arrival. He’d been fairly confident he could control a creature that had already been bound, which fit, given that he was Conquest. Or a Conquest. But maybe he hadn’t been entirely confident.
With that thought, other things fit into place.
“Then compromise with me!” Rose said. “With us. Why torture us to death when you could have all of our power?”
“Because I take everything I want. I can torture you within a hair of death and have your power at my disposal.”
The conversation continued, but I was thinking, scrambling to put everything in context, and I didn’t even hear it, now.
During the discussion with the other local powers, he’d stayed in the background, had remained mute, except to cut in and occasionally stop the discussion.
He’d only acted to seize at the opportunity I presented, making a hell of a lot of enemies along the way.
And, I couldn’t help but note, again, he’s a fucking Incarnation of Conquest in Canada.
I’d just invaded the Behaim household under the cloak of glamour. Why the fuck was I putting so much stock in appearances?
If I stripped it all away, if I looked at everything he’d said as if he had no power at all…
This bastard was the fucking Wizard of Oz.
A small, insecure, relatively powerless being, and a whole lot of pretending.
Maybe a dangerous amount of pretending, if he didn’t actually have the power to follow through on the threats he was making, when he said he could do horrible things to us.
I was panting, still trying to get my body and thoughts under control, while my emotions had the helm, but there was a note of triumph in that mess of emotions, now.
It wasn’t a realization that won this for us. We were still in his domain, he still had power, and not everything was appearances. If I’d realized this, one of the other powers had to have a glimmer of the same idea. Chances were good they knew. They had other reasons for backing off, and many of them weren’t small fry.
But it was one series of thoughts that shed light on the monster under the bed and made it just a bit less scary.
It was a desperate monster we were dealing with. One that was tormenting and scaring us because, maybe, it was clutching for power where it could find it, even if that meant threatening hostages.
“Is-” I started. He turned, focusing on me, and I momentarily lost my train of thought.
Easy to think something, but hard to act as if it were true. Which fit with what Rose had been saying about my glamour, not so long ago.
“Is… there another option?” I cut in, as Rose was about to speak. “Is there another option that might allow us to show you all the respect you’re due, Lord of Toronto? All due supplication?”
“You grovel after all,” he said.
“I suppose I can,” I said, eyes on the ground. “It beats the alternative.”
I knew what he wanted, now that I had a sense of him.
If he wanted the scraps of power he could obtain, then I’d give it to him through obeisance rather than tortured screams.
“How are you imagining you might show me respect, diabolist?”
The first thought to cross my mind was the deal the lawyers had offered.
“A favor? Favors?” I asked.
“I have subordinates.”
“Surely a Lord as great and powerful as yourself must have use for expendable assets?”
“You offer your lives?”
“I offer to risk our lives,” I said. “But I beg for tolerance. We’re new to this, our repertoire is limited. We’ll need time to prepare for any task.”
“Again, you scheme, you plot.”
So close. We were so close.
“I ask your forgiveness. When dealing with one as great and powerful-”
“Your flattery is painfully transparent, as well.”
“Can we call it awe, instead?” Rose jumped in. “We were talking about what it meant, to be Conquest. Surely awe is Conquest’s due.”
“You take turns trying to manipulate me,” he said, and there was a note of anger in his tone.
“What other choice do we have?” I asked. “In this, you can see our surrender.”
“Can I? I ask, do I?”
In me, no. I was only just starting to fight.
I wasn’t one to pray, so I merely closed my eyes and hoped. Hoped Rose would-
“Yes,” Rose said. “I don’t like it. Not even a little bit. But I don’t see another choice. I guess we’re surrendering.”
“Then we have the groundwork for a deal,” Conquest said. “I will find a way to shatter the barrier and access the house. You will give me access and lend your presence as the Thorburn heir to command the beings you summon. You will also do me three favors. Do them in any order, but I expect one done a day.”
“What favors?” I asked.
“Doing what diabolists do,” Conquest said. “There are three entities in my domain that I have not yet bothered with. Two are lesser, and one is problematic on other levels.”
“Being the sort that diabolists deal in. A human twisted by a mote of diabolic power, left in the wake of a being that passed this way long, long ago. A twisted goblin that even other goblins steer clear of. And an abstract sort of devil, not so powerful that it is worth the trouble of binding it, unless you have an expendable diabolist to attempt the deed. I want each bound, captured, and brought to me.”
Okay, fuck. A little more than I was expecting to have on my plate.
“We accept,” Rose said, “With the proviso that we may need some things, and some more information.”
“Hold on,” I said.
“We surrendered,” she said, and she sounded angry. Or frustrated, I couldn’t tell which.
“You’ll have some limited resources and information. Do you accept, diabolist?” Conquest asked me.
Fuck, this was not what I wanted to deal with. I’d hoped for simpler errands. Less delineated errands.
This threw a wrench into things.
“Why do you even want them?”
“Because power over others is achieved in steps, through footholds,” he said.
“I guess I have to,” I said.
“I’d like to hear a yes.”
Fuck. I’d cornered myself.
“I will strive to carry out my end of the deal,” I said.
“It is nearly midnight now, outside of my domain,” he said. “You have from midnight to midnight to accomplish one task. The same goes for the next day, and the next. By then, I should have the means of accessing your house, or we can negotiate for further errands to buy you a stay of execution, in a manner of speaking.”
“Got it,” I said.
“And I’ll need a certain guarantee.” he said.
He turned his hand over, and a metal cuff dropped halfway to the ground, where it then dangled from a chain.
“If you want to leave my domain to carry out these errands, you’ll wear it,” he said.
I felt that ugliness worming its way through my gut once again. Horror, nausea, unease ratcheted up to eleven.
I looked at Rose, and I saw her expression change. Concern?
How wary did I look? How green around the gills?
“We accepted,” I said. “We had a deal. A compromise.”
“No, I had your surrender,” he said. “If we don’t still have that, then I don’t see a reason to let you leave. Twenty four hours can pass, I can say you failed to carry out your end, and punish you accordingly.”
But there was no way I was letting him set his hands on me.
I couldn’t really surrender, not like that.
As if on an impulse, Rose stepped forward, extended an arm, and forced the shackle shut around one wrist.
The chain disappeared, and her arm dropped to her side.
The connection, however, between her and the Lord, took an entirely different shape. A connection that wasn’t a cord, but a chain.
“I wanted the diabolist.”
“Through me, you have the diabolist,” Rose said. “There’s a strong connection between us.”
Conquest deliberated for a moment.
“I tire of this. Begone, both of you.”
“Both of us?” Rose asked.
“You’ll have what you need to begin the hunt in a few hours. Take the time to sleep, in the meantime.”
With that, a door rose from the ground.
Couldn’t leave anything behind. The hatchet, Rose…
Rose and I both walked to the door. I grabbed her hand, then for safety’s sake, I grabbed June too. In my hurry to leave, I pulled her behind me.
As we passed through the doorway, I felt Rose’s wrist crumble in my hand.
When I looked behind me, there was no door, and there was no Rose.
When I looked in front of me, I saw a parked car. Rose stood in the window, where my reflection should have appeared, faint. Wearing my coat.
She raised one wrist, showing me the shackle and the seemingly endless chain that trailed off to some far-distant point.
I looked at the car, trying to get my thoughts in order, but emotion boiled to the surface.
I kicked, hard, denting the door of the car. Then I kicked again, this time striking with enough force to dislodge the mirror from the side of the car.
Ow. My foot.
I picked it up.
“That did not go according to plan,” I said, as I strode away from where we’d been dropped off.
“No kidding. Can- can you keep that mirror steady? You’re not leaving me much space to work inside.”
I tucked it under one arm.
“I’m sorry, for all that,” I said. “And thank you.”
“For what?” she asked. I wasn’t sure which that was in reference to.
“For… everything there. It was a clusterfuck, I fucking nearly melted down, and I only managed because you bought time. And that shackle…”
“We support each other, eh? It didn’t look like there was a snowball’s chance in hell that you were going to accept that.”
We walked in silence for a few seconds.
“Let’s not bring up hell, okay?” I asked.
“You did a fuckton of the supporting there,” I said.
“But you found a way to get us out. That gives us a chance.”
“I didn’t plan for us to be dealing with demons and scary-as-fuck goblins,” I said. “I would have negotiated, but you jumped on it so fast-”
“I started to read Black Lamb’s Blood,” Rose said.
Those fucking lawyers. Giving us the book, having things play out like this.
“What the fuck could that book say that would make this a good idea?” I asked.
“Its not a good idea,” Rose said. “But… I saw an out, and I knew you hadn’t read it, so you wouldn’t see it as an out. So I jumped on it.”
“Meaning I need to read the book,” I said. “On top of everything else.”
“It’d be a good idea. But… we’re getting away from the main topic of conversation.”
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Yeah. You said you didn’t plan on errands dealing with demons. What did you plan on?”
I debated for a minute. I could tell her that I didn’t think Conquest was nearly as strong as he let on, I could tell her that Conquest was insecure, desperate…
“I’m not sure what I can tell you while you have that shackle on you.”
“You think he can hear?”
“Just by the look of it, I’d guess it’s more so he can bring you to him whenever he wants. And if he tortures you for information…”
I trailed off, and Rose apparently didn’t have anything to say in response.
“Fuck, I shouldn’t have let you wear that.”
“What’s done is done,” she said. “If he tortures me for information, at least, can you give me a good reason to keep my mouth shut? Tell me your plan is good enough that rescuing me is a possibility?”
“It’s not great,” I said. “But it’s a start.”
“Am I helping? Are you telling me the particulars?”
“You are, and I am. Between running these errands of his, binding the demons and the Über-goblin, we’ve got to wrangle a mutiny, and get some of the other locals and powers on board for unseating Conquest from his throne.”
“That’s it?” she asked.
“That’s all I got,” I said.
“That’s not a very good plan.”
“I know. It’s only a start.”