Category Archives: 4.07

Collateral 4.7

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The smells, the little movements as trash in the corner was nudged by rodents, the noises and scrabbling sounds, and the heaps of filth all made the space seem smaller than it was, almost as if it distorted around Pauz and his host.  The dust, moisture and dead bugs on the sliding glass door to the backyard made even the light seem dingy and insufficient.

But, I noted, the effect of Pauz’s self wasn’t as powerful as it had been before.  I felt the pressure around the edges of my thoughts, the gradual dissolving of my peripheral thoughts, but I didn’t feel as though I were being swept away in it all.

Which in no way diminished how fucking scared I was, or how gross and intimidating this space was.

I was going to fuck this up on some level.  It was practically inevitable.  I just hoped I could reduce it down to a level I could manage.

I needed Rose here.  I was flying fucking blind.

I wanted to ask if he knew what had happened to Rose, but I couldn’t afford to look weak.

“Am I talking with you, Pauz, or am I talking with Mr. Dowght?”

“Me,” Pauz said.

He traced a clawed fingertip along Dowght’s cheek.  The man, sixty or so, reacted as if he were underwater, as if every action faced resistance.  He slowly raised a hand to stop the imp, but Pauz was gone well before the hand reached him.

I realized, belatedly, that the man wasn’t old.  He was withered.  Atrophied.

I wanted to tell Pauz to leave the man be, but I knew I didn’t have the ability to actually follow through if he kept going.  If I was going to bargain, I couldn’t demand things that I couldn’t force or convince the imp to give me.

“I’m assuming he’s aware of… our business?” I asked.

“He’s not aware of anything,” Pauz said.

“Is that true, Dowght?” I asked.

He barely reacted, only lowering his arm gently to the table.  He clenched his fist for a moment, and I wondered momentarily if it was a reaction, a sign.  But he was only working out the kinks that came from sitting in the same position too long.  He was oblivious to the ragged looking rabbits, stray dogs and cats that were perched on and around the table.

Dowght was gone, mentally, a shell.

“Guess so,” I said.

Pauz wasn’t letting his hosts die out of some cunning plan.  He was all about disruption of the natural order, and the power power he had over someone, the more he disrupted their natural functioning.

That raised questions, as well as some general concerns.

I approached the table.  The animals didn’t budge.

The chair at the foot of the table was already occupied.  A cat, a squirrel and two field mice sat on a pile of what looked to be clothes, junk mail and meat packaging, torn up and soaked with urine and trampled shit.  The cat was mangy, not having cleaned itself, and one of its eyes was the same milky white as Pauz’s.  The squirrel climbed halfway up the cat to get closer to me, incisors bared, eliciting a hiss from the cat.

I dropped the tome on the table, aiming for impact, hoping to scatter the animals.  It made a very satisfying ‘bang’ with the landing, stirring dust and various papers across the table.

The animals, however, went straight for the ‘fight’ instinct.  Bristling, teeth bared, poised to jump on me.

Gloved hands on the back of the chair, one foot on the leg, so I wasn’t simply tipping it over, I slid the chair away from the table, simultaneously turning it so the chair back blocked the animals from reaching me.

The animals hopped down from the chair, scattering to the edges of the room, where their bodies disappeared into the shadows, their eyes catching the light to glow in the dim.  I heard the cat snarling and fighting with something in its way as it settled beneath a decorative chair.

Dowght hadn’t even reacted.  The man looked like he was on his last legs.  It got me thinking about what would happen when he died.

Pauz found another host.

Who would Pauz pick?

Someone vulnerable.  Someone weak.

I’d already fallen prey to magical influences with very little warning, not to mention how being forsworn was technically losing the rights to defend oneself against spirits. Pauz could probably take advantage of a small falsehood or karmic foothold, much as the Sphinx could leverage a false answer to justify murdering someone.

It would be very easy to slip up and give ground to Pauz.  Ground I couldn’t afford to give him.

Easier still when Rose wasn’t here to back me up, and I didn’t have a contract in hand for him to look at.

“Have you come to a decision?”  I asked.  Questions were safe.  It was very hard to frame a question in such a way that it could entrap me.

“I have,” he said.  His eyes were on the tome beside me.

“And?”

“And your companion was supposed to be here to discuss it with me,” he said.  He didn’t look away from the book.

“Are you refusing the offer we suggested?” I asked.

“What happens if I do?” Pauz asked, as he used all four limbs to move along the chair back, before moving forward, onto Dowght’s shoulders.  Dowght winced as the claws pricked his skin, but did nothing.  “Wild animals kill you and rip you apart.”

Fuck.  If I screwed up here, I was dead.  I had only the protective diagrams I’d worked into my clothes, but that didn’t include my head, hands, or feet.  If I offended him, or if I let him start to think the deal wasn’t worth it on his end, he could easily sic the various rodents and animals on me.

“You would miss an opportunity,” I said.  Safe assertion.

“I can hold on to this opportunity,” he said.  He stroked Dowght’s face with the back of one clawed hand.  Dowght closed his eyes.

“A dying man?  Until he dies or gets devoured.  Then what?  You start over?”

“Stronger each time, I’m patient,” he said.  He poked Dowght with a claw.  “I find stronger people, find a crack and worm my way into it, climb the ladder.”

“Can you afford to be that patient?” I asked.

“Immortality has a way of allowing it,” Pauz said.

“That doesn’t answer my question,” I said.  Be firm.  “I’m asking if you can stick to the path you’re on.  You won’t ever succeed, if you keep going down this road.  You might make a dent in the grand scheme of things, do some damage, but I have trouble believing you’ll survive.  If you get to the point of being a meaningful threat, powerful people and entities are going to stamp you out.”

There were so many distractions.  Noise, smells, movements in the corner of my vision…

I could only keep my eyes forward.

“Stamp me out?” he asked.  “They can try.”

“They can succeed,” I said, knowing I was taking a risk with a brazen statement, “Could be Conquest, could be someone from out of town, or it could be all of them.  They could kill your corrupted animals, invest time, money, energy and other resources into containing or cleaning up this area, and you’re done.  You’ve missed a chance.”

“Mm,” he said, “But I’ve done damage.  Diminished mankind and the world, hm?  That’s all my kind seeks.”

All that his kind sought.  Maybe that was true, maybe it was only true when his kind were described in abstract.

He was different from the commonplace demon, on a level.

He was an imp, a parasite, occupying people and then moving on to others.  A mote, a spark looking to ignite a blaze.

What sort of person lived in this upscale sort of suburb where all the cars were nice?  Not lowlifes.  Successful or successful-ish people.  These were his victims.

Pauz took a bit of each person.  Those pieces, as I understood it, formed the sum of his human side.  He took pieces of lawyers, doctors, computer people, businessmen, bankers and whoever else.

He seemed to be enjoying the silence that had followed his statement, letting it sit.  Watching me squirm.

I wasn’t squirming, though.  I was thinking.  Pauz took over the weak, people who gave him an in.  They might be successful people who were down on their luck, or people with a vice that made them weak.  Or they could be people with enough of a problem, karmically, that he could make a bid to get a hold on them, even when they weren’t practitioners.

“Is that really all you want?” I asked, emphasizing the ‘you’.  “A dent in reality and an ignoble death?  Let’s not pretend you’re uninterested in the possibility of what we’re offering.  Don’t you upset the natural order of things?  You could theoretically have access to an Incarnation.  To something fundamental.  You could upset something monumental.”

I studied him, looking for a tell, but I was getting distracted by the subtle ugliness, the way his entire body looked like worn callous, stained gray-black, the teeth, the eyes, the glare…

I continued, “You’ve had time to consider the option.  If you have doubts, we can talk about those doubts.”

“Hmm.  Discuss and compromise?” he asked.

The word ‘compromise’ sounded very strange coming out of the imp’s shark-toothed mouth.

That made me think for a second about what he meant.

Compromise… both sides giving ground?  If I agreed to discuss and compromise, he could be unreasonable, and still demand concessions.

“We’re capable of discussing, certainly,” I said.  “Compromise… naturally depends on how this goes.”

“Mm hmm,” he said.

“Let’s start from the initial deal my partner proposed.  You would be bound until… shall we say five minutes after midnight, two nights from now, as a starting point?”

“Hm.  I haven’t accepted.”

So little time.

“Then let’s talk in terms of the hypothetical, and discuss when we’re done.  We could say that no term or written word shall be considered binding until both of us agree and sign.”

“Outside of the inviolable rules,” Pauz said.  He hopped down onto the table, picking something out of a piece of raw meat.  He opened his mouth, let it dangle and wriggle for a second, then dropped it into his mouth.

“Which rules?” I asked.  “The rules of binding oaths?”

“Those laws, which were established in the emergence from void and chaos, and the fundamental structures and forces of existence your practice, my power, or practice and power combined can’t alter,” Pauz said, chewing far too much, considering the small size of the thing he’d popped into his mouth.

If we’re talking about rules my practice or your existence can’t alter, why even mention them?

I thought about it for a minute, turning the words over in my head.

Trap?

No.  Couldn’t see a trap.

Not unless the trap was to throw so many terms and ideas at me that I’d stop being careful.

“I could accept that,” I said, finally.  “With further consideration.”

“Then we agree to talk about terms,” he said.  “With nothing binding until we sign and verbally agree.”

More words, more terms and ideas to complicate matters.

I was making the wish to the genie that was hellbent on twisting the terms of the wish to screw me over.  More than that, I was dealing with something very inhuman, in a context I didn’t fully understand.

Here we went.  Dealing with a devil.  “Sign by putting pen to the very set of pages I’ve outlined the terms on?”

And not scrawling your name on Dowght or the underside of the table?

“Yes.”

“And your statements can be considered verbal agreement, even if you aren’t human, or if you aren’t technically there and speaking in the conventional sense?”

“Point conceded.”

“Then we agree to define anything you say as verbal?  Anything you write as written by you?”

“Agreed.”

Circular reasoning, to agree to the terms of ‘agree’, but fuck it.

Where to start?  How did a contract normally go?

Basics first.

“The terms of this contract exist between me, Blake Thorburn, and…”

“Pauz, given of the Marquis Andras, both of the fifth choir, feral and foul.”

I scribbled it out, leaving the names blank.  “Spell.  Your name?”

“In the Dutch tongue-”

“In English,” I interrupted.

“P-A-U-Z,” he said.

Huh.  Not the spelling I’d anticipated.  It rhymed with ‘ooze’ when heard.

“And your…”

“My sire, my lord, the metaphorical tree that bore me as fruit.  Andras.  A-N-D-R-A-S.”

“I bear no risk by inscribing his name or yours?”

“No.  Andras is bound, and only those bearing the saber he was bound to may call him forth.  I am a lowly imp, and my name has no power, spoken or written.”

I scribbled out the paragraph defining myself and Pauz as the individuals the contract referred to.

I used the spine of Black Lamb’s Blood to push the various dishes and bits of food to the floor, clearing the table in front of me, then tore that half of the page off the pad, tore it so the section of paper with the paragraph was the only thing on the page, and slapped it down onto the table.

“What are you doing?”

“Outlining,” I said.  “Conceptualizing.”

If I was going to write a contract, I’d do it like I was putting something together for work.  Start crude, confirm direction, refine, polish.

I needed to bind him, I needed to bind him very fucking carefully, and I didn’t have the background of hundreds or thousands of years of trial and error in diabolism to back me up.

“The goal of the contract,” I said.  “Is that we bind you for a term ending five minutes after midnight, two nights from now.”

“At which point I am given over to the Incarnation’s possession,” Pauz said.  “Or you are forfeit.”

“Forfeit what?” I asked.

“Your word, your being.  Whatever I desire,” Pauz said.

To hell with that, I thought.

“Firstly,” I said, “I am absolved of responsibility once I bring you, bound, to the Lord.  I’m not going to suffer consequences if he or you do anything after that point.”

“You give me to him,” Pauz said.  “A transfer of possession, with no intent to immediately reclaim me.”

“I’m not under the impression he’d give you up once he had you,” I said, looking up from the paper I was writing on.  “But yes.”

“And you make some attempt, overt or otherwise, to ensure he keeps me until such a time that the contract’s terms end and I am free.”

“Unless such an attempt would work against your goals and mine?” I asked.

“Hm?”

“If he obviously intends to keep you, and pushing him further would look suspicious.”

“Granted,” Pauz said.

I wrote it down.

“Second point,” I said, returning to the larger block of text above.  “I’m not okay with that penalty for failure.  Giving you all of me?  Forfeiting my very existence?  No.”

“I stake my being on this, what other penalty would suffice?” Pauz asked.

Meaning the imp wasn’t so happy with the idea of making a small scar in the universe and then dying ignobly.

Suspicion confirmed.

“I have two other beings to bind,” I said.  “My existence and other aspects of my being are at stake.  If I fail because I’m dead, we can say there’s no penalty clause.”

“Consider it incentive to fight a little harder,” Pauz said.

My eyes fell on Dowght.

Demons want a foothold in the world.  What happens if I give all of myself, if Dowght is what happens when Pauz finds a crack?

Too little knowledge, with the stakes far too high.

Something else.  I needed to cover my ass, while offering him something he desired.

“Property,” I said.  “I’m custodian to a property, that I believe will come into my hands.  We can arrange for a section of that property to fall into your possession, if I can’t meet my end of the contract, and if that property is mine.”

“I would need to see that contract,” he said.

“Too bad,” I said.  “I don’t think I can get access to it by any reasonable, sane measure.”

Not without contacting the lawyers or walking through Laird’s time field.

“I’m left to accept a tenuous offer, or face tenuous reward?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Mortals pass property on to heirs, if they die.  If you die before you meet your end of the bargain, the property isn’t yours to give me.”

“It’s what I’m offering you,” I said.  The only thing I can reasonably offer you, if it’s even that reasonable.

It could be too much.

Oh god.  Wind was blowing in through open windows and the crack in the sliding glass door.  Fresh air was not my friend.  It only made the stench of this place worse.

I had to hold utterly still, fighting the urge to gag, while Pauz deliberated.

“How much space?”

“Fifteen square feet, parceled out as I deem appropriate.”

“Small,” Pauz said.

“Yes,” I said.  “Small.”

You little bastard.  I know this is gold to you, and I’m probably betraying humanity by even offering it.  Take it.

I kept myself outwardly calm, or tried to.

“Offer a larger area,” he said.

“If land isn’t what you want,” I said, “We can discuss other terms.”

Just as he was looking to achieve absolute control over me, in contrast to the tiny hold he had on Dowght, I knew I was offering him absolute ownership over the land.

I had a dim idea of what that meant.

He took his time deliberating.

“Why don’t we cut the crap and stop pretending you don’t salivate at the idea?” I asked.

“Presumptuous,” he said, the gravel of a faint growl in his voice.

The growl was echoed by the noises the animals in the corners made.

“I’m a novice,” I said, “But I know some things, and I know what you want.  Take it so we can move on, or I’m going to start having second thoughts.”

He didn’t respond right away.  He stood straighter, peering at me, then sat down on the table.

I got a nod.

“Verbal confirmation, please,” I said.

“Yes.  That penalty will suffice.”

Which gave me the option of giving him the space inside Laird’s trap, promising to screw over either Pauz or Laird, or, ideally, forced them to deal with one another.  I could take other precautions, too.

Worst case scenario, that.

I took a deep breath, the immediately regretted doing so.  “I have some terms to stick onto this part of the deal.  From the time I bind you, you don’t harm me or mine.”

“Until such a time as I am released?”

“Period.  Ever.  All things with any connection to me, my family, my friends, or my possessions are protected from you, across the board.”

“Hm,” he mused.

“What’s the issue?”

“Merely considering.”

“I need the guarantee that, once we set you on the Lord of Toronto, you aren’t going to harm me, my family, or my friends.”

“I can affect the remainder of the city?  The region?”

“You wouldn’t accept the deal if I forbade it,” I said.

“No, I wouldn’t,” he said.  “I shall prevent harm to you and yours, from my hand, my power, my word, and my servants, to the best of my ability.”

He pointed at the paper.  I bent down to scribble it out, paused.

“You… and any other being you work with,” I said.  I didn’t want him bringing another demon in to hurt me.

“Granted.”

I hesitated.

“Any other power you interact with must agree to the same, and they must agree to bind anyone they work with to the same, in turn, ad infinitum,” I said.

“Hrm,” he grunted.

“Yes?”

“Granted,” he said.

I thought of Tiffany… “Tell me you haven’t done harm to others.”

“You’re delaying.  Write.”

“So are you.  Delaying, I mean.  Are my friends okay?  You didn’t send your animals to harass anyone or hunt anyone down?”

“I’ve done nothing direct.  As for incidental damage?” he smiled.

“As for incidental damage?”

“I couldn’t say for certain,” he said.  “I would have to visit the people, objects, or locations in question.”

Worrisome, but the only real solution would be to hurry through this and check on my friends when all was settled.

I wrote it out, tore up the paper, so each paragraph was a separate block, then spaced it out.  Sub-clauses and stipulations were effectively indented.

A field mouse limped closer.

“If they interfere, I’m liable to consider it a sign of your disinterest,” I said.  “We got this far, let’s not spoil it.”

“Mm,” he said.  “Git!”

The mouse scampered off, running off the table.  The thump it made as it hit the ground caught me off guard.  Mice were light enough they wouldn’t necessarily make a sound like that.  I leaned to one side and saw that it had broken its neck in the fall.  Head first.

Was this it?  It didn’t feel like enough.

“Rather than suggest a penalty,” I said.  “We say the contract takes effect the moment you are bound.”

“Yes.”

“The terms do not end when the binding does.”

“Hmm, yes.”

“My binding will be weak, in addition to being temporary.  You will not take any action to free yourself in the meantime, nor will you take actions before or after to work against the contract’s terms, or you will be considered to be acting in bad faith, with a penalty I’m free to designate,” I said.

“No,” Pauz said.  “We’ll stipulate a penalty now.”

“Fair enough,” I said.  “If you act in bad faith-”

Clearer,” he said, sounding annoyed.

“If you free yourself, if you bend or abuse the terms in such a way that suggests you are not acting with the intent of being bound and delivered to Conquest, and subsequently freed-”

ClearerNarrower.”

I almost refined the terms further, then stopped.

That was interesting, that he wanted it narrowed from that.

That was very, very interesting.

“Are you telling me that there’s a loophole you’re already planning on abusing to slip from your duties?” I asked.

“I’m telling you I want clearer, narrower terms,” he said, growling the words.  “And defined penalties.”

Which wasn’t a no.

I leaned on the table, trying to ignore the greasy film on the surface, looking down at the paper, reading over everything.  The parties involved, the objective, the responsibilities of each party, my penalties for failure… I shifted the remaining papers down to leave an obvious gap where his penalties for failure and ill-faith could go.  Protections for me and mine-

“You define the penalties first,” he said, interrupting me.

“I will,” I answered, “After.  Right now you’re trying to distract me.”

“Right now I’m trying to get you to define the penalties,” he said.  Talking more for the sake of distracting me than to add something to the conversation.

“Where was the trap?

Harm?

He would prevent harm to me and mine, by his hand, his word…

Wait.

Okay, I was pretty sure I saw it.

His hand?  Archaic language, or was he justified in using his foot, his teeth?  Even his claw?

I made a mental note.  Something I could use, maybe, and something I would have to come back to in a minute.

“Alright,” I said.  I looked down at the scraps of yellow paper, bright in the relative gloom of Dowght’s home, covered in my scrawled print.  I’d never had tidy handwriting.  “Let’s talk penalties.”

He seemed satisfied with that.  I was backing down.

“If you fail to keep your end of the bargain,” I said, “You forfeit every hold you have in this world.  Every person, every animal, every place, idea, every whatever.  You undo it all.”

“I am starting to think,” the imp said, his eyes flashing in the gloom on the far side of the table, “I should kill you after all.”

From relaxation and satisfaction to a death threat in a matter of seconds.

I stared across the table at Dowght.  The wretched man.

I wasn’t sure what he’d done to give the imp an in.  Good and evil apparently didn’t have much weight in the grand scheme of things, it was about right and wrong.

Had Dowght committed some wrong?  Some betrayal to himself or some personal code?

Whatever the case, if I could free him of his burden through some side-clause… he probably wasn’t going to have much of a life, whatever happened, but hopefully the burden wouldn’t drag him down to some horrible afterlife.

“I take it you don’t like the terms,” I said.

“No, I do not.”

Okay.

I knew he wanted me to miss the ‘hand’ thing.  He wanted to slip it through.

Could I use that?  Divert his attention, then resolve it later?

“There’s the question of the actual terms,” I said, staring at him, “What justifies the penalties.”

“Too broad, mortal.  The penalties too weighty, considering the very small parcel of land you offer for your own failure.”

“Seems fair to me,” I said.  “Hell of a lot at stake.  I’ll tell you what.  I’m going to read over what we have so far, look for any sneaky issues in wording, and you can decide what you’re willing to offer as a penalty.  Take your time while I read, come up with a good offer, and I can give it a serious listen.”

“Or,” he said, drawing out the word, “We can talk it out.”

“I’m doing most of the suggesting, you’re dismissing my suggestions, and I really should be reading this over to look for mischief,” I said, knowing full well that there was mischief, and he didn’t want me to look.  “Take a minute.”

I started to pick up the papers, carefully ordering them.

“We define the conditions for penalties,” he said, interrupting me.  “I break free of my own will, or I take action that interferes with the goal, or I take action to harm you or yours, as we covered in the other part.  Connect it.”

Suspicions confirmed.

“And… you agree to the penalty clause, then,” I said.  “Forfeiting all that you have claimed and corrupted?  Undoing the damage?”

“Yes.”

I exhaled slowly.  Better than drawing in deep breaths, with the reek of this place.  The cold made smells easier to handle, but it was still filthy.  I laid out the pages again, then started writing it out.

The lingering animals, I noticed, were gone.  They must have started slinking away when the mouse was killed.

A part of me wanted to think it was ominous, but… I felt pretty damn relieved the beasts weren’t around.

My gut told me he was getting rid of them to put me more at ease, in the hopes that I’d let my guard down and let the loophole slip.

“Two more things to cover,” I said, “Unless you have ideas on what goes into a contract?”

“If I had specific knowledge,” Pauz said, “I would not be free.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I would like to say that, should there be a grievance in the contract, mediation goes to a third party.”

“Who?” he asked.

“A neutral party, or a party professional enough to be neutral and unbiased with both a mortal human and an imp.  Someone we both agree on, with further stipulations to prevent one party from simply refusing every suggestion.”

He cackled.  The little bald, shark-toothed, clawed baby was surprisingly good at cackling.  “Fine.”

“With further rules against the number of complaints,” I said.  “To be defined in a few minutes.”

“Granted,” Pauz said.  “Amusing thing to imagine.  I don’t think neutral parties exist, in the midst of this, but yes.  We can try, or form another compromise.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Which brings us to the last part of sketching this out, before I write out a draft.  We need to clarify terms, which means footnotes.  Let’s start with the definition of harm.  We can rewrite it to be clearer.”

“That portion is done,” Pauz said.  He wasn’t hostile, not tense, but the response was a fraction too fast.

He crossed the table, viciously kicking and flinging dishes, bits of trash, and dried pieces of shit off to either side as he walked.

He stopped a few feet from me, tilting his head a fraction past normal human limits to read the paper.  I felt the intensity of the effect from him increase.  Wearing me down at the corners of my mind.

The stink of him.  There was a sound that rolled off him too, faint and grating, as if he were a radio, generating the opposite of calming, soothing white noise.

I could feel my skin crawling, and I had an awfully hard time convincing myself that I didn’t have lice or fleas, just being in this house.

Too cold for lice, I told myself, not sure if I was right.

“That portion is fine,” he said, again.  He looked up at me, glaring.  “Resolved.”

“We redefine harm,” I said.  “Something simpler.  Implicit and explicit harm.”

He paused, taking that in, then scowled.  “Why?

“Cover more bases.  Unless you’re admitting you’re not acting in good faith?”

How hard would he fight me?  He would have agreed to the penalty with the idea that he could get at me this way.

If he was going to attack me, it would be now.

Long seconds passed, his eyes roving over the scattered paper.

“What if I said I had other issues?” he asked.  “Other grievances.”

“Keep them in mind, we focus on this one first.  Defining the clauses.”

“What,” he said, his voice low and dangerous, “If I threatened to have you devoured alive, right now?”

“Then we’re just about back to the same point we were at the beginning, and we’ve made almost no progress,” I responded.  “And, again, it’s up to you to decide whether you want the Lord of Toronto in two days or me right now.”

“I don’t have much patience, diabolist,” he said.

Rose had surmised as much.  My heart was pounding, my mouth dry.  I was still leaning on the rather gross table, staring down at the imp.  I didn’t want to be the first to back down.  We’d decided our last conflict when he’d backed away from June’s frost.

“Maybe you don’t,” I said.  “But if that’s true, if you’re that shortsighted, you may well be doomed to being small fry forever.”

“You think me small?”

Well, there I went, insulting him and turning a bad situation into a worse one.

The intensity of the radiation was growing.

“It would be more correct to say,” I said, very carefully, “I think that you could be bigger.”

I saw a smile spread across his face, the very tips of his teeth visible just past his thin lips.

Thank you, Rose, I thought.  It was always so much easier when I had an idea of the motivations at play.  You’re helping even when you’re not here.

Might as well drive the point home.

“I’m not stupid, Pauz.  I know you’re trying to screw with me in this clause.  Bluff me, distract me, mislead, I’m still not going to let it slide.  No harm, implicit or explicit,” I said, tapping the paper.

“Hm,” he grunted.  “Curses.”

“Well?”

“Damnation.  I will, to the best of my ability, prevent you from coming to harm, that implicitly or explicitly derives from me in any way or form.”

I wrote it out.

“You’d damn well better be able to deliver,” he said, clearly perturbed.

“It’s up to you to decide how you’re going after Conquest,” I said.  And it’s up to me to decide how to deal with you both.  Rose had suggested this and then disappeared on me.

“Agreed,” he said.  “I’ll find a weak point.  I always do.”

“Now,” I said, “We go over every single word to make sure there aren’t any hidden meanings.  We define or reword everything, until there are no questions.”

“Hm,” he said.  “I thought you were on a schedule, diabolist.”

“I am,” I said.  “Were you calling me diabolist, before this?”

“No,” he said.  He smiled.  “Because you weren’t.  But you are one now, hm?”

The smile and the idea both disturbed me.

“Let’s begin,” I said.

It was tedious work, slow going, with me taking my time over every word, thinking in abstracts, in terms of symbols, and in terms of the very literal.

Knowing all the while that I was probably missing something vital.  Something that could get me killed or spell horrible doom for everyone and everything.

I didn’t own a watch or a phone, which made it hard to track the time.  The long-faded light did make life harder, as I stared at the paper in the gloom, in a house without power.  I was glad for the light that did filter through the windows, and I was glad I’d left earlier than I had to, that I hadn’t folded and waited for Rose to show up.  This was proving to be time-consuming, tedious, and we weren’t even done.

Time would be running short.

We finished looking it over.  He was pacing, now.  Eating more.

He saw me looking.  “If you fuck this up, mortal, you’ll find how small I am.”

The imp was anxious?

“I’ll make a mental note of that,” I said, being careful to do so.

I had it laid out across the table, footnotes included, and I began copying it out, skipping parts I’d crossed out, rewording even as I went for elegance’s sake.  Seven pages, when it really felt like it should be more.

But the language was tidy and clear.

I could feel the pressure as the clock wound down.

There was also a mounting sense of worry.  The idea that I’d overlooked something.

It wasn’t helped as Pauz got more agitated, watching the contract near completion.

I stopped at the end.

“By signing, Pauz, you agree to be bound, by both me and by the terms of this agreement.  By signing, I agree to bind you by the terms of this agreement.  Neither signature has a hold without the other.”

“Mm,” Pauz said.  He was barely able to keep still, now.  The noise was worse, as was the fuzzing around the edges of my mind, and the sounds in the walls were more intense than ever.

Even the maggots that writhed on the plates of food were more lively.  A reflection of Pauz’s state?

I read it over, looking for spelling errors, for any word I might have overlooked.

“Sign,” I said.

Pauz reached out, scratching with his claw.  He left a dark, brown-black stain where claw touched paper, and he scrawled out his name.

I reached for the pen.

“No,” Pauz said.  “Blood.”

I glanced at him, eyebrow raised.

“I know this much.  To give it power.  Almost always, when contracting with my kind.”

I drew one of the hook-screws from my pocket, pushing the point into my fingertip until I drew a bead of blood.

Signing in blood proved to be harder than most things.

“It’s done,” Pauz said.  “Sealed.”

“Yes it is,” I said.  “Now to figure out the binding.”

I drew the hook-screws out of my pocket, along with a flexible measuring tape, and began screwing them into place, spacing them out evenly.

“Can I ask, now, if you had anything to do with Rose?”

“I’ve had something to do with almost everything that has happened to you since our last meeting,” Pauz told me.

“Did you have anything to do with Rose?” I asked.  “Outside of subtle influences?”

“Yes.  The fact that you noticed, diabolist, means my influences weren’t all subtle.”

“You’re saying you influenced something, made this come to pass?”

“You’re inferring more than I’m saying,” he said.  “Your partner is asleep, in more ways than one.  Think about why.”

“Why she’s asleep?” I asked.

“The wrong word,” he mused.  “Coma?  Why does someone go into a coma, diabolist?”

I couldn’t come up with a ready answer.  “To heal?”

“My biggest regret in accepting this bargain,” he said, looking up at me with an intense expression on his tiny round face, “Is that I won’t be able to see the look on your face when you realize.”

“When I realize?”

“Yes.”

“Realize what?” I asked, knowing I wouldn’t get the answer.

He only smiled wider, showing more teeth, his tattered, bitten tongue visible in his mouth, and turned his back on me, looking at Dowght.

Fuck.

But I didn’t have a choice.  Not really.

I turned each hook so they all pointed inward, then drew the cord from my pocket.  I fed it through the hooks.

Ten hook-screws.  The five outer ones allowed me to make a pentagon, with a five-pointed star within.

The five inner hooks allowed me to develop it further, making a five sided star that overlapped with the other.  I left it incomplete.

As far as actually binding him…

I needed something to bind him into.

I placed the tome in the center.

“Pauz?”

He stepped over the cord, until he stood on the book.

I drew the final cord into place, and tied it.

Blood still beaded at my fingertip.  I drew it along the rope at the outside of the cord diagram.  Faintest traces, but blood nonetheless.

“Pauz,” I said, holding the contract up, “By the terms of this contract, I bind you.”

The wind turned, the contract flapping violently in my hand.

The outer circle of the diagram collapsed, the cord snapping into the center, until Pauz was well and truly bound up, in a series of very careful knots and shapes, ten times more intricate than I could have managed, all connected to the inner diagram that still remained.

Bound as he was, I didn’t miss the pale eyes staring at me.  Smug?

Easy.  But the hard part had been drawing up the contract.

“Pauz,” I said, again, “I bind you.”

The second line of binding snapped inward.  This time, it bound Pauz down.

The book rocked, spinning slightly with the force of the cords that now bound it shut.  A hundred knots, forming a five-pointed star on either side.

Dowght looked up at me, his eyes meeting mine.

It took me about two seconds to realize just how badly I’d fucked up.

The sounds in the walls intensified.

That fucking imp had tricked me, misdirecting, distracting.

He’d do everything in his power to protect me, from the moment he was bound on.

Just like he’d said… I couldn’t transfer property to him on my death if I had no property the moment I died.

He couldn’t protect me while he was bound.

The birds began to congregate outside the window.  Feral animals began to emerge, where they’d disappeared into hiding places.

He had been lulling me into security.  I’d just been wrong to assume.

A chair tipped to the ground.  Dowght stood.  More a zombie than a human, given his state.

A crazed shell of a man, half-snarling, half sneering, but mostly baring his teeth.

I drew June, slowly, to avoid spooking any of them into action.  Squirrels, mice, cats, dogs.

I saw a dark shape moving outside.  It might have been a bear, not heading for me, but a nearby house.

Pauz was bound, and the connections that allowed him to control his creatures were severed.  Taking no overt, direct action, he’d let me trap myself.

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