Category Archives: Arc 5 (Conviction)

Histories (Arc 5)

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The streets were thick with people.  Men in bowler hats, with long coats.  The streets had both automobiles and horses and carriages.  Joseph glanced around, wary of attack from any direction, tales of pickpockets made him anxious.  He couldn’t shake the idea that his wallet would disappear at any moment.

“Rest easy,” the man’s companion said.  “You have me here.”

“You’re right,” Joseph said.

“Is it worth it, this trip?  These extremes?” his companion asked.

“I’m offended that you even have to ask,” Joseph said.

“Hm,” the familiar responded.  “Chalk it up to differences in how we look at the world.”

Joseph turned to regard his familiar.  The man was dressed as well as anyone else on the street, his hair cut short, neatly parted, a long coat over a suit with a tie, and over-the-ankle boots with slight heels.  The only oddity, one that no passerby seemed to take note of, was the face.  The familiar’s face appeared to have been carved off and pulled free, only to be haphazardly nailed back into position, with nails all around the edges.  The skin hung loose in places, was stretched too tight in others, and he had a permanent leer, exposing perfect white teeth that looked like they had never touched food.

The nameless bogeyman had adopted this new role and familiarhood with a surprising ease.  Then again, he was a stealer of faces by trade.  An actor.  Toronto was very much his sort of city.

A boy in a cap came running down the street, jostling the familiar.

“Careful, my lad,” the bogeyman said, clapping a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the boy said.

Then the boy looked up, and his eyes widened in fear.

The boy was still young enough to be innocent, it seemed.

No matter.  The boy was already running away, releasing only a small, incoherent, frightened noise before he was gone from view.

“I’m getting turned around.  I’m not used to wrapping my head around this sort of place.  Would you find us the way?” Joseph asked.  He passed his sheathed knife to his companion.

The face-stealer drew the blade from its ornate sheath, then held out the sheath, arm outstretched.

They passed a gaggle of young women.  One glanced at Joseph, then looked away, suddenly shy, demure.  No attention paid to the bogeyman with the knife and reaching arm.

The companion found the point where he could balance the sheath on one extended fingertip.  A tap of the thumb made it spin.

It came to a stop.  Joseph took note of the direction the sheath’s end pointed.  “Thank you.”

“It’s your trick,” the companion said.  He let the sheath fall, extending the knife, and the sheath slid into place over the blade.  “I’m only borrowing it.”

But you can do it without anybody noticing.  “Thank you all the same.”

The sheath was handed back to Joseph.  He put it away before anyone could take notice.

“What do we do when we find them?” the companion asked.

“Them?  Who was it you just looked for?” Joseph asked.

“I assumed you wanted to find him before anything else.”

“I thought we’d find her, talk to her, and leave.” Joseph said.

“Did you?” the familiar asked.  “Yet you brought me.  You bound me as your familiar knowing full well what your mission here would be.”

“Yes.  Rescuing her.  Your… talents, they’re a just-in-case measure.  Nothing more.”

“I am a murderer, Joseph.  I can pretend to be many things, but when you take off the mask-”

The bogeyman raised a hand to his face.

“Don’t,” Joseph said.  “Not here.  People will notice.”

“As you wish.  Take off my mask, and I’m a monster.  Your mind is sound, you knew what I was, you knew what you were doing when you reached out to me and offered a position as familiar.”

“I liked you.”

“You’re telling the truth, of course, but who was I, then?  You knew that the complete picture was monster and mask.  I was playing a role, in part.  I was a factory worker with gentle hands, genial, a father.  You knew my friendliness was borrowed, the natural charm and kindness taken with the face, and you could peer past the act when even his family couldn’t.  You still made the offer.”

“I suppose I did,” Joseph conceded.

“But now you waver, my friend.  You lack conviction.”

“No.  I have never felt more certain about what I do.”

“You feel certain about why you do,” the companion said.  “You follow your heart.  But what you do?  You bound yourself to a murderer because you knew you might need a specific someone murdered.  Let’s not pretend we aren’t going to run into him.”

Joseph frowned.

His stretched expression as placid as it could be, hands folded behind his back, the companion walked alongside him.  He’d said his piece.

“Does it bother you?” Joseph asked.  “The idea of returning to murder?”

“Not at all.”  As if to reassure, his companion smiled.  It had the opposite effect.

“You didn’t take any compunctions or guilt when you took the man’s face?”

“I don’t know if I can.  It hasn’t ever come up, frankly.”

“I see.”

“You’ve decided that you’ll be using me, then?”

“I suppose I have.”

“Excellent,” the companion said.  “I was wondering if I might need to coax you into it.”

“Are you eager?”

“No.  But I made promises to assist you.  If it comes down to it, I’ll force your hand to see those promises through.”

“That so?”

“Just so, my friend.”

“And how would you coax me?  Or force my hand?” Joseph asked.

“By telling you that she and he are in the same place,” his companion replied.  “Nothing has changed.”

The news hit Joseph like a slap in the face.

“You’re a right bastard sometimes,” he said.

“Yes,” the companion said.  “You asked, I answered.  When I agreed to the deal, I agreed to be your servant and confidante.  The only lies I tell you will be for your own good.”

“That’s all I ask for,” Joseph said.

His companion smiled, a contrast to Joseph’s own stoic expression.

“Shall we point them out again?” the companion asked.

“No.  I can sense them.”

“Very good.”

The building was a proud one.  White, with columns at the front, gardens well tended, trees trimmed.  No single individual could have looked after it alone, much less look after it so well.

They kept walking until they had crossed the street.  Joseph reached into his coat.  When he withdrew his hand, he dashed blinding powder in a half-circle around him.

The powder expanded rather than dissipate.  A rolling cloud.

Along the length of the short side street, people coughed.  They would see it as smoke from one of the nearby factories, fumes from the automobiles, or something of the sort.

One by one, they found a reason to leave.

“Expensive magic,” the companion said.  “Manipulating people to this extent.”

“I’ve been preparing for this day for some time,” Joseph said, not taking his eyes off the door.  He drew his knife-sheath from his pocket.

Nobody emerged from the house.

If it weren’t for his third eye, Joseph might have thought they weren’t inside.

“Will you go knock?”  Joseph asked.

“Of course.”

Joseph remained where he was, knife in one hand, sheath in the other.

His companion knocked.

The door swung open, and a violent noise sounded.  The blast of a gun.  The bogeyman was lifted off his feet by the force of the shot, knocked down the stairs.

The creature rolled on the ground, groaning in pain.

The man from within the house stepped outside, a rifle in hand.  He wore a vest with no jacket, his mustache was curled, his hair graying.

“Ah.  The boy,” he said.

“Where is Hester?”  Joseph asked.

“Inside,” the man said.  “Where she’ll stay.”

“It’s not right, you… what you do with her.”

“What do I do?”

“Keep her prisoner, possess her.”

“I do what men have done since time was first recorded.”

“That doesn’t make it right, Mr. Canfield.”

“It makes it reality,” Canfield said.  “It seems you’ve brought a knife to a gunfight.”

“Are we fighting?”

“You tell me.  Maybe I have the wrong idea, boy.  Could be you’re holding on to that knife because you have another use for it.  Loose thread on your jacket need a slice, hm?  Are you going to tell me it’s something like that?  That you were just stopping by to ask how my daughter was doing, and then you were going to skip along and do whatever boys your age do these days?”

“I was, but I was intending to leave with her.”

“I’m older, boy.  More learned.  Better armed.  I have more power, more contacts to lean on.  I’m in good with the Lord of Toronto.  This isn’t the fairy tales.  This damsel isn’t in trouble-”

“She is,” Joseph interrupted.

Canfield shook his head.  “No.  She’s safe.  She’s in my care, where she’ll stay.  Any misguided hero who arrives to carry her away is liable to get filled with pellet.  If they live, they get a beating too.  The hero doesn’t win by any rights, boy.  There are no happier ever afters.”

“I never aimed to be a hero,” Joseph replied.

“No?  Is that why you’ve bound yourself to this… thing?”

The older man nudged the bogeyman’s head with the toe of one boot.  The creature recoiled, writhing in pain.

“It’s a part of it.”

Canfield stepped over the bogeyman’s body, gun pointed at Joseph.

Not a moment later, the bogeyman rose to its full height behind Canfield.

With the sight, Joseph could see a protection flare.  An ornament that warned of imminent danger.

Before he could shout a warning, Canfield whirled around, firing a second shot.

The bogeyman collapsed on the stairs.

“Persistent fellow,” the man said, aiming his gun at Joseph.  “Not too pretty either.”

Joseph didn’t know what to say in response.

“If you want to scurry off with your tail in between your legs, I understand.  My daughter is watching from the window.  You do that, and that’ll be the end of it.”

Joseph didn’t dare look, in case it was a trap.  But he felt the connection.

Courtney.

“You’re not running.”

“No, I suppose I-” he almost slipped into ain’t.  “I suppose I’m not.”

“If you want to pick a fight, you should know you’ll lose, and if I do you the grace of leaving you alive, you’ll have some lifelong reminders of what it means to cross me.”

He stopped at the far end of the street.

Joseph chanced a look.

Courtney was indeed in the window, blonde hair falling across her shoulders, hugging herself.

Another stolen glance.

The bogeyman was gone.

“Are you going to fight me?” Canfield asked.

“I’m not much of a fighter.”

“What are you, then?  You practice, clearly.  What do you practice?”

“Illusion.”

“Glamour?”

Joseph shook his head.  “Only illusion.”

“Hardly a fitting match for my daughter.”

“Nobody can be a fitting match for your daughter.”

“You and I might agree for the first and last time on that,” Canfield said.

“We agree for different reasons.  You think it’s because no man is worth her.  I think it’s because your perspective is so twisted that you love her.”

“Are you insinuating something?  I’ve never touched her in an inappropriate manner.”

“I believe you.  But you love her in an inappropriate manner, and so you lock her up so nobody but you may have her.”

“We crossed paths for mere hours, a year ago, and you’ve come to such wise decisions?  You must be a genius, boy.  The next Sherlock Holmes.”

“I’ve asked around.  People talk about it.”

Canfield scowled a little.  “Spreading ideas behind my back?  If you’d come at me head-on and been polite about this whole rescue nonsense, I might have let you off easy.  But you’re running short on my mercy, acting as cowardly as that.”

“Your colleagues talk about it as if it were a charming quirk.  Your enemies talk about it like it is.  An ugly thing.  Your family… it hoards.  You collect and make trinkets, you decorate yourself with them, and you’ve twisted that, turned it backward.  You’re hoarding her.”

Canfield fired the rifle.

The bullet felt hot as it tore through Joseph’s knee.  It was the sort of pain that carried a kind of finality.  The knowledge that things wouldn’t be right again.

Joseph screamed and dropped to the street.

“You little pissant.  You letting your cock lead the way, spin you tales?  You’re the one who is twisting things around in his head.  You want my daughter, but there’s no way that could ever happen, and you blame me?”

Joseph struggled to move so he could reach into his jacket, all the while striving to avoid moving his shattered knee.  He found the powder, then flung it out.

Masking his location, a veil.  Altering connections, as well.

“Illusion, you said,” Canfield told him.  “You haven’t moved.”

He leveled the rifle in Joseph’s general direction.

“Sir!” Joseph heard the voice.  Deep.  “I heard a shot?”

“Ah,” Canfield said, his voice pitched to carry across the street.  “You removed the effect you’d erected moments ago.  Attempting to make me look bad in front of my servants?”

“Sir?  What are you talking about?”

“I’ll explain later,” Canfield said.

As the powder cleared, Joseph remained out of sight.

But Canfield had donned a monocle.  Another trinket.

The man aimed the shotgun-

Then half-turned as his heavyset manservant strode down the stairs.  He could sense the danger, but he couldn’t move fast enough.  The heavy man stabbed him.

Nothing artful or honorable.  The manservant thrust the knife into Canfield’s gut over and over as if he were punching rather than holding a knife.  His face was fixed in place by four small kitchen knives.  A man had died to give him that face.  The effect had been fresh and strong enough that even Joseph hadn’t been immediately aware of it.

Canfield shoved him away, then fired the rifle.  The ‘manservant’ collapsed, then immediately began to stagger back to his feet.

Canfield, unwilling or unable to reload, used the rifle as a club to bash at the familiar.

Joseph reached into his pocket.  Cards.  Bound creatures.

Illusion wasn’t all he could do.

He tore the cards, and the creatures lunged.  Three dogs, noble hounds that might have served as companions to divine hunters once upon a time.

Joseph drew further effects from his repertoire.  Things he’d collected.  A rusted old ring- he raised his hand up, then slammed the ring down on the street.  He didn’t succeed in breaking the ring – only hurting his hand.

He did it again, and something minor came loose.  The older books hadn’t ever described a moderate spirit of this kind, but they were becoming more of a thing with the turn of the century.

As the ring had been destroyed and spent, the spirit would be released only the one time, here.

The hounds were leaping into the air when Canfield used another trinket.  A child’s toy, with a handle at the side.  Everyone present, spirit or otherwise, was bound where they were, hounds held in mid-air by green threads.

“Ironic, in a way.  Courtney made this one, believe it or not.  It was meant to be a gift, but the child it was intended for died.  I keep it on my person as a reminder.”

There was no good way to go on the defense.  Canfield had an answer to everything.

Better to wait and react, counter.

“No smart response?” Canfield asked.  He grunted, wincing.  The stab wounds were hurting.

Have to get him talking.  He’ll die of that stab wound before I die from this injured knee.  He’s older.

“I swear I’m going to watch you die,” Joseph growled the words.  “By my name, by my blood, I’m going to do what’s right and I’m going to free that girl.”

The words carried power.  He felt stronger, the pain was less.  His mental clarity improved.

“Yet you say I’m the one twisted by love,” Canfield said.  “What will you use to kill me?  A moderate rust spirit?  Clever.  Let’s do away with it before it becomes a problem.”

Canfield bent down as best as he was able with his feet trapped in position, and began drawing out a line of chalk.

Joseph, not feeling half the pain he had, reached into his coat for chalk of his own.  A box, with a symbol inscribed on each piece.

He drew out a line, and a dozen other lines scrawled along the length of the road.

He drew out a more dramatic scribble, and scribbles spanned the length of the street, interrupting and confounding Canfield’s circle.

But Canfield continued drawing.

No.

Another trick, then, taking advantage of the pieces already on the board.  Dust, thrown out.  Illusions.  One for the hounds, to make it seem like they were more.  One for the rust spirit, to narrow its focus to Canfield alone, and one for the companion, the bogeyman familiar.  Another illusion for Courtney herself.

Canfield rotated the handle of the toy box, and the lid sprang open, a clown bouncing out of it.

Everything resumed moving.

The circle was complete, and the illusion did nothing to break it.  The hounds landed and stopped.  The rust spirit halted.

Canfield was reaching for a whip.  Something to facilitate turning summonings back on the one who had sent them?

“Father!” the familiar screamed.  Courtney’s voice.

Canfield turned, then went white.

The familiar held the skin of the manservant’s face dangling from one hand.  Courtney’s face was the one that it wore, his body matching hers.

Canfield turned to look, and he saw Courtney in the window, slumped down, her flayed face having left a smear where it had dragged against the window.

It was an opening.  The familiar strode forward and broke the circle.  Canfield blocked the knife before it could strike home.

Joseph allowed himself a moment to try and shift position, so he wouldn’t have to struggle so much to access his own collection of tools.

The movement of his knee momentarily blinded him.

It was the mistake that would decide the engagement.

When he could see again, Canfield had turned the tables.  Canfield had a scrap of white cloth in hand, and he had company.

A man in a white jacket, with a thick handlebar mustache.

The Lord of Toronto.

The illusions had faded, Courtney was fine, as was the familiar.

“You will die soon, Canfield,” the Lord spoke.  “It will be a suffering death if and when it happens.  It is not my place or my way to stop that from coming to pass.”

Canfield nodded.  He wasn’t able to stand straight.

“Hey!” Joseph shouted.

“I prefer subjugation over death.  I surrender my self,” Canfield said.  “It’s my understanding that an incarnation needs to root itself in humanity from time to time, to stay relevant and rooted in the doings of man.”

“Yes.”

“All I ask is that my daughter is taken care of.”

“You’ll have it.”

With that, the Incarnation stepped forward until it intersected Canfield.

For an instant, Canfield was the one wearing white.

Then, a moment later, the one wearing white had a trace of Canfield’s features.

Those features were soon swallowed up in a greater ocean.

The Incarnation brushed at a few traces of blood at its stomach.

“I asked permission to attack,” Joseph said.

“You did,” the Incarnation said.  “You were just.  Not right, but just.”

Joseph grunted as he tried to raise his head.  “If you allow me to walk away, I’ll look after her.  I can guarantee that she will be taken care of, so you can meet your obligation to Canfield.”

“You will marry her,” the Incarnation said.

Joseph nodded.  Hope soared.

“You will not walk away,” the Incarnation said.

Joseph’s eyes widened.

“I name you forsworn, Joseph Attwell.  You did not see the girl’s father meet the end you promised.  You cannot.”

“I…”

“If you would argue your own defense, then do so.  Name the actions you would undertake, and I will grant my assistance in allowing this to come to pass.”

Joseph hung his head.  “I spoke while drunk with pain, and love.”

“Pain is something I know well.  I assure you this is no defense.  Love is something I’m not familiar with, but it is no defense either.  Would you make another defense?”

Joseph shook his head.

“Then I bind you by that which you swore by.  I bind you by name, by your entirety.  I bind you by your blood, to bind all of your kin that follow after you.  I bind you by your word, to claim your obedience for myself.  I offer you a second chance to gainsay me.”

“I can’t,” Joseph said.

“With my claim, I offer you the protections you would forfeit.  It is your choice, whether to accept or refuse.

To be at the mercy of anything and everything, all of the vulnerabilities of mortal and Other both, or to be in Conquest’s service?

“I’ll obey you to the best of my ability,” Joseph said.  And he knew he was, in a way, swearing fealty to Canfield.

“You and yours,” Conquest said.  “All the ones that come after.  You won’t need your familiar.”

He felt his bogeyman slip from his grasp.

“Your children and children’s children, all down the line, are mine, from the moment they learn the practice.  You will not bar them from it, after they’ve come of age.”

Somewhere in the haze that followed, Joseph heard Courtney’s voice.

“I didn’t ask for your help.”

It was then that he knew he was lost.

A hard shove sent the boy sprawling into a chair.

He looked up to see his father glaring down at him.

“What are you going to do about it?” the man asked.

The boy clenched his fists.

“You have no tricks.  You have no power.  I have magic, you don’t,” the man said.  He kicked, and the boy scrambled out of the way.  The man kicked a chair instead, and the boy yelped as the chair tipped over, striking him.  “You’re weak!”

“You want to learn this?” the man asked.  “You want my power?”

A sweep of the arms sent dishes flying off the dining room table, crashing to the floor.

“I have never been more disappointed than I was when I first set eyes on you,” the man said.  “That disappointment, that shame?  It eats at me.  Get out of my fucking sight!

The boy scrambled away.

The man made his way to the kitchen.  His wife stared at him, accusing, holding a child to her shoulder.

“Not a word,” he said.

There was only disgust on her expression as she set a beer bottle down on the counter in front of him.

He swiped at it, grabbing it, and found his seat in his sitting room.

One beer bottle became two, then four.  His nightly routine.

The click wasn’t routine.

He opened his eyes.

It was the boy.  Gun raised, held in both hands.  There were tears in the boy’s eyes.

“You hate me,” the man said.

The boy nodded.

“Then pull the trigger.  Your mother will clean up the mess.  She hates me too.  She’ll be glad to have me dead.  Or are you a coward?”

“You’re the most horrible person I’ve ever met,” the boy said.  His voice was hoarse, his words a whisper.

“If you want me to be scared, you’re in for a sore disappointment, boy.  I haven’t been less scared in a long, long time.  And you know I’m telling the truth, don’t you?”

“I could shoot you, right here, right now.”

“Why are you talking to me, you little fool?  You’ll never work up the courage, doing that.  I’ll even tell you how to do it.  Think back to everything I’ve done to you.”

He could see the boy’s hands shaking.

“I did other things you don’t even know about.  I laughed when I buried Red.”

He’d never shared that tidbit.  He could see the reaction.  The tension that took hold of his son’s whole body.

“God, the way I treated your motherI’d shoot me.  And you don’t know the half of that.”

“She never loved you, she said,” the boy said.

“Yeah.  Loving her was my second biggest mistake, after making you.”

He could see the shock on the boy’s face.

For an instant, he thought the boy would pull the trigger.

Then he saw the cold take hold in the boy’s eyes.

“I’m going to shoot you,” the boy said.

“You keep saying it, but you haven’t done it.”

“After,” the boy said.  “First… I want the books.”

The man shrugged.  “I can’t stop you from taking them.”

“Show me where they are.”

The man lurched, then stood.

The books were in the simplest of hiding places.  On top of the bookshelf.

Drunk, he threw the books down rather than hand them over.  He slumped over.

The boy, still holding the gun up with one shaking hand, grabbed at a book.

The moment that hand touched book was marked by the sound of a shutting door.

The boy turned.

A man in a white coat, with cold eyes, and two figures in chains trailing behind him.

“Oh gods, I’m so sorry,” the boy’s father said.  Tears welled and streamed down his face.  “You should have pulled the trigger.  I deserved no less.”

“You’ve done your duty, Joseph,” Conquest said.

“Please,” the drunk man said.  “Please.”

“Your son’s name?”

“Matthew,” Matthew said.

“Matthew,” Conquest said, noting it.

“What’s going on?” Matthew asked.

“I’m so sorry, my son,” Joseph said.  “I… I thought you’d run away, out of his reach.  That you’d hate me enough to kill me.  I left the guns in reach… none of what I said, I didn’t mean it.  The disappointment I felt was in myself.  I made myself laugh when I killed Red…”

The boy’s eyes widened with each statement.

“Oh gods, I’m so sorry, my son.  It was the only way out that I saw for you.  The only path.”

Conquest intoned the words, “Matthew Attwell, as I bound your father, I bind you.  By your forsaken blood, you are bent to my will, your well-being is purely at my behest…”

“I’m sorry for everything I’ve done, and I’m sorry I pushed you as far as I did.  I’m sorry I didn’t push you far enough.”

“You will serve me unto the end of your days, Matthew,” Conquest said.

“A riddle, if you will,” Matthew said.

“Turning the tables?” Isadora asked.

Matthew smiled.  He was tall, pale blond, with round glasses and a tweed jacket.

“You’re looking at turning the tables,” the sphinx said, making it a statement.

“Is there an escape from my current circumstance?”

“If I told you, you would be compelled to fight against it.”

“If it were direct enough, yes.”

“I would also earn the enmity of Conquest himself.”

“Is that so bad?”

“Bad enough.  My kind is few enough, without getting ourselves killed.”

“Fair.  Is there an answer?”

“There are several,” Isadora said.

“That’s good to know,” Matthew said.  “Is the answer obtainable?”

“Yes.  But not in your lifetime.”

“No?”

“No.  You’ve studied this a great deal.  Approached it as a puzzle.  I respect that.”

“Thank you,” Matthew said.

“You tried the logical, you also tried more free answers.”

“Hm.  Not sure what you’re referring to.”

“Your wife.”

“She’s a lovely woman.”

“She’s unfaithful.”

A wide smile broke across Matthew’s face.

“You chose her because you knew she would be unfaithful.”

“She’s a brilliant person.  She must have figured out what I was going for.”

“You looked for these qualities in her.”

“She’ll teach my children well.  Well, ‘my’ children, even if they aren’t my blood.  Enchantment works well with illusion.  Maybe that’s what we need, in terms of different approaches.”

“You’ve defined yourself by those games, by these studies,” Isadora said.

“Books and deception.  An illusionist’s prerogative.  An Enchanter’s too, now that I think about it.”

“What good is misdirection if your subject finds their direction a moment later?  Don’t answer that.  Rhetorical question.”

“Fair question.”

“I don’t have many of those.  A boxer who only feints achieves nothing, Matthew.  You must feint and then deliver the blow.  If only to have scored the points when the round ends.  Fail to deliver that hit, and your opponent very well might.”

“Conquest will?”

“Your opponent isn’t Conquest, Matthew.  It’s fate.”

“Ah.  Fate’s something of a bitch, isn’t it?”  Matthew smiled.

“A young girl is born in Egypt.  The odds are good that she will be mutilated and sewn up.  A child born in Africa may spend their life in poverty, starving, if they are unlucky enough to be born in the wrong region.  Another child might be born with a disability.”

“And members of my bloodline are doomed to be slaves to a greater power.  Fate deals a harsh hand.”

“Yes,” Isadora said.

“But a child born to poverty can fight their way to success.  A disabled child can overcome their limitations,” Matthew said.

“An uphill battle.  For every one that succeeds, there are many more who simply live with the hand that life dealt them.”

“That shouldn’t stop them, or me, from striving for that success all the same.”

Isadora frowned.

“What?” Matthew asked.

“I’m sorry, Matthew.”

“Sorry?”

“Your wife is unfaithful, Matthew, but the children she bears will be yours.  They’ll be Conquest’s, too.  Your struggles to date have been fruitless.”

The smile fell from Matthew’s face.

“I’m sorry.”

“Damn,” he said.  “Damn, damn, damn!”

Isadora waited patiently.

“Damn!” Matthew shouted.  He kicked the chair to his right.

He hated being this angry, even when it was a real anger, and the anger he’d grown up with had been partially an act.  He forced himself to stand still, calming down.  It wasn’t very effective.

His back to the sphinx, he stood there, head bowed.  He moved his glasses to wipe at his eyes.

After a few moments, Isadora asked, “Would you like more tea?”

Matthew nodded, his back still turned.

“I’ll brew up another pot.  In the meantime, let’s talk about your research.”

Fell closed the car door.  The diabolist was staggering away, gas can and emergency kit in hand.  Hooded jacket, tousled blond hair, and a general look that was more Other than human.  Hollowed out.

The little familiar had taken to the air, circling around a few times, while three maimed goblins with chains around their necks trudged behind, dragging bundles of halogen lights and wires.  A quick glance suggested that Rose wasn’t in the mirrors here.  Good.

He checked the route on his phone, then mounted it on the dash.

Fell wasted no time in leaving.

His own bloodline had fallen prey to bad circumstance.  The thing in that factory was worse.  Worse than a force that had altered the lives of generations.

He needed to prepare.  The Lord of Toronto, if left unimpeded, aimed to summon things that should be left alone and forgotten.  But they weren’t forgotten, as Blake and Rose were demonstrating, and Conquest was already demonstrating that he had no plans to leave them be.

Fell’s father had turned an analytical mind to the problem their bloodline faced.  He knew that there was leeway. The shackle that bound them was not perfectly fit, and one could wiggle within the confines of the rules and stipulations.  His father had demonstrated as such.  When Conquest had given an order that Fell’s father hadn’t wanted to obey, the man had carried it out with such recklessness that he’d died.

The window of opportunity had passed, resources that Conquest had invested into that particular bid for power remained spent, and Conquest grew weaker.

Their family was no longer growing, and Conquest had less pawns in play as a result.  This had coincided with the Lord’s waning power.

They’d win through nicks and patience, with one eye open for opportunities.

Except the Thorburn had arrived, giving Conquest a convenient way of getting the power he wanted.  Inadvertent, but still a problem.  Still unforgivable.

Fell had little pity for those who’d been doomed by circumstance.

The first step would be getting access to his books.  Too many things simply didn’t make sense.  Conquest’s decisions, the methods, the aims.

The speed limit sign said fifty kilometers an hour.  Fell hit ninety.

A horn blared as he rounded a corner.

He shifted gears, reoriented, and hit a hundred on the next stretch.

Even if he died, there were others in the family.

But it would weaken Conquest, and a death colored by spite wasn’t such a bad thing.

Defeating and removing Conquest would be better still.

Tonight and the events that followed would decide things.

The GPS in his phone told him that it should take an hour to get home.  He made it in thirty-nine minutes.

Powder from his pocket on the car ensured it wouldn’t get stolen or ticketed.

He reached his apartment.

“Uncle!”

He wrapped his arms around his niece as she ran up to him.

“Thank you for picking her up at the airport,” he said to his mother.

“My pleasure,” the woman said.  “How is the situation?”

“We’ll talk later.” He talked to his niece. “For now, I want to hear how my niece enjoyed the last few weeks at the castle.”

“It was amazing!  The very first day there, Jaclyn showed us all of the friendly others!  There’s a merman in the basement, where it flooded, and a giant in the hills, and there’s…”

He only half-listened, hugging the girl close as he kicked off his boots and made his way to the kitchen to get a drink.

Her father, Fell’s older brother, had gone the way Fell’s father had.  A reckless death.  Suicide by Lord, simultaneously causing trouble that put Conquest on uncomfortable footing.

Making her his.

His to look after.  His to doom to subservience, when the time came.

His grandfather had tried to use anger and hate to drive his father away.

His father had tried to misdirect, to game the system.

Fell only used distance.

“I didn’t do any magic,” she said, a little breathless as she finished.

“I know,” he said.  “I’d know if you did.”

“They showed me so much!  There’s an old shrine with a god who people used to worship.  And the merman, every time you go to talk to him, he goes under the water, and he comes up with a present.  Real gold, sometimes.”

“That’s amazing,” he said.  He glanced at his mother.

“Emily brought me back a present,” the woman said.  Showing off a necklace that had maybe suffered for decades spent underwater.

“And they let me sit there when Jaclyn met with her class.  They practiced, and I sat on my hands and kept my mouth shut.”

“Perfect.”

“I really want to start doing the stuff they did.”

“Maybe one day,” he said.

She smiled.  “On my next birthday?”

“We’ll see,” he said.  “That depends on a lot of things.  Some are important things I need to talk to your grandma about.  Which means you should be getting to bed.”

“But you just came back!”

“We can talk in the morning, Emily.  But you know I can’t like, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What I’m going to talk about with grandma here has something to do with whether we’ll let you learn magic.  If things work out in the next day or two, we won’t have to wait.”

We won’t have to wait until Conquest forces me to indoctrinate you, like my father was forced to do with me.

Though the way that Emily was going, she’d probably ask some time after she came of age, and he’d have to obey regardless.

“Go on, honey,” Fell’s mother said.  “I’ll be in to tuck you in soon.”

The little girl pouted, but she left.

Fell and his mother sat at the other end of the apartment.

“We can send her back to the castle after the school year is over.”

Fell nodded.

“I know some people.  They’ll be visiting for the wedding in Jacob’s Bell.  We can send her with them when they go home.”

“She’ll be well-traveled, if nothing else.  Can you manipulate the connections?  Enhance the attachment between them and her?”

“Not without making dangerous enemies.  We’ll find one place to tie her down that’s out of reach.  That reach has been getting smaller.”

“It might not stay small if things start catalyzing here.  Thorburn is dealing with the abstract demon.”

“Will he succeed?”

“That’s the question.  If he does… and if he doesn’t have a plan, then all hell might break loose.”

“Careful about hyperbole.”

“It’s not hyperbole.”

“Be careful all the same.  Go on.”

“If Thorburn fails… something tells me that my understanding of what should happen differs from our local lord’s expectations.”

“He wouldn’t be so reckless with Thorburn, given what the diabolist is to him.”

“No,” Fell said.  “It’s… eight thirty.  Thorburn’s deadline is midnight.  I don’t think things are going to settle down then.  The other local players will make moves, our Lord will respond, potentially bringing out the big guns.  Thorburn is his own camp.  The major players are another camp entirely.  Allied but not friendly.”

“And where do we stand?”

“With Conquest, unfortunately, unless a good opportunity comes up.”

“I’m not quite so beholden to Conquest as you are,” his mother said.

“That reality relies on you staying under his radar.  If you’re going to abandon that position, we should make sure it’s for good reason, with optimal timing.  Tonight, given the chaos that’s likely to unfold, the timing is far from optimal.”

“In enchantment, we pay particular attention to degrees of connection.  There tend to be figures who serve at the heart of the intricate webs of connections.  People who have far more connections extending from them than your typical person.  Social people, players of the game, catalysts…  You most certainly are not this kind of figure, Malcolm.”

“Few illusionists are.”

“Putting aside the fact that you’re an enchanter, not just an illusionist, we should give thought to who the lynchpins are in this tangled web.”

“The Lord of Toronto.”

“Yes.  Who else?”

“Thorburn.  Though I say that with caveats.”

“Which caveats?”

“He’s severed his connections with the rest of the world.  Very nearly bled himself dry.  He’s now straddling the line between human and Other.  I genuinely wondered if he was possessed, earlier.”

My family doesn’t particularly want him to do well here.  My own feelings… well, I feel fairly lukewarm about my family’s wishes, given how things have played out in the last decade or two.”

“Understandable.”

“He’s a tool.  Is he a tool we can use?  You need to give me the answers.  You’re the one with eyes on the scene.”

“Yes, but… well, Blake Thorburn was having a discussion on the way over to visit the demon.  He and his partner talked about the dangers of using fire as a diagram.”

“Not very conventional.”

“That’s just it.  He’s… he is fire, metaphorically speaking.  Hard to predict, hard to control.  Even as a useful tool, he’s dangerous.”

“And if that fire were put out?  If we cut the few connections that remain?”

“He’ll be lost.  Potentially to Conquest.  Do we want to, though?  Conquest seems remarkably at ease with the idea that Thorburn might get devoured by the demon, soul and everything else about him cast down into oblivion.  Why?

“Logic suggests that the demon would eat him, his companions would be lost as well, and the next Thorburn would find themselves heir to the property, powers, and dangers.”

“Yes,” Fell said.  He leaned back.

“The Lord of Toronto clearly feels something else would unfold.”

“Apparently.”

Fell’s mother affected a smug tone, “What could that be?”

“We don’t have time to play games.”

“Not games.  I will always expect you to stay sharp, Malcolm.  Give me an answer, instead of complaining.  Your grasp of the answer will be better if you achieve it yourself instead of me giving it to you.”

“The mirror-companion is heavily tied to Thorburn.  The Lord of Toronto is tied to the companion.  Does he think he can somehow rescue Thorburn if it comes to it?”

“Possible.  But let’s look closer at the mirror-dweller.”

“She’s a bit of a riddle,” Fell said.

“Is she?”

She was maintaining that same smug tone that had driven him batshit insane when he was a teenager.

“What else could she be?” Fell asked.  “If she isn’t the riddle… she’s the answer?”

His mother smiled.

“Thorburn gets removed from the picture and… the mirror dweller is the one who takes up the position as heir?”

“It answers questions.”

“It raises more,” Fell said.

“It’s progress.  A step forward in understanding.  We can illustrate the connections that extend between everyone present,” his mother said.  She reached for her purse, withdrew a tablet, and began drawing on it.  “Everyone is a sun, with rays radiating out from them, attaching them to the world around them.  Mr. Thorburn is a bright star, if one that might burn out soon.  He’s eliminating those rays by his own actions, or circumstances might snuff him out.  Yes?”

“Yes.”

“Conquest is perhaps the brightest star in this city.  He’s connected to virtually everything.  This is one of the factors that make him hard to remove.”

“We’ve been over this.”

“I’m illustrating.  Who, then, is Ms. Thorburn?”  His mother touched the pad, leaving a dot.

“Companion to Blake,” Fell said.  “Bound by Conquest.”

“Yes.  Remove Blake, assume she doesn’t disappear, and she’s…”

“Still Bound by Conquest.  With no other ties to the world.  His and only his.”

“A pet diabolist.  With everything that entails.  It might be in our best interest to look after Mr. Thorburn.”

Fell frowned.

“We can’t help him now.  Trust Mr. Thorburn to manage for the time being.  Let’s arm ourselves for the conflict that’s about to erupt.  Go get the books, I’ll tuck my granddaughter in.”

Fell nodded.

He reached the bookshelf, but he got no further.

He felt a tug, and he was in Conquest’s tower.  He caught himself before he could stumble or fall.

Conquest was here, monstrous, massive.  Expending more power for pure theatrics.

On another day, he would be glad Conquest was expending power so readily.  This day was different.

“Thorburn has escaped the demon’s lair,” Conquest said, his voice a low rumble.

Fell had no idea how to feel about that.  He remained still.

“Is that a good thing?”

“Good enough.  Trouble’s brewing.  The locals are stirring.  I may ask the novice diabolist to help me manage it.”

Setting him up to die.  Again.  Stirring more trouble, creating chaos.

“Shall I assist him?”

“Your choice,” Conquest said.

“I’ll go meet with him shortly, then.”

“Do.”

No mention made of the fact that he’d hauled Fell from his day-to-day.

Fell turned to go.  A disturbance made him pause.

Conquest had brought the mirror-dwelling girl here much as he’d brought Fell.  More expenditures of power.

“Now,” Conquest said, to the girl, “You will tell me everything you don’t want to tell me.  Starting with Mr. Thorburn’s plans.”

“No- I-”

“There is no choice in the matter,” Conquest intoned.

“I-”

Fell paused.  “Miss?”

Conquest turned.  Ms. Thorburn ceased stuttering.

“It goes easier if you just obey.”

Ms. Thorburn’s voice cracked.  “I- he’s setting the imp on you.  It’s already scheduled.  He was calling in the Knights, and he’s releasing the Hyena too.  I think they figured out how.  They want to trap you in your realm with the monsters, and use the demon’s appendage to lock the door.”

Conquest nodded.  “This is a start.  Keep talking.”

Fell took his leave.

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Conviction 5.6

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“Scared?” Rose asked.

“Yep,” I said.  I moved the wreath, and checked it over.  I pulled some tape from my pocket to fix a spot where a branch had come loose.  Four feet across.  I wasn’t sure how to make it fit any geometric principle, so I’d simply repeated a simple pattern.  One large circle, one smaller circle, and y-shaped branches filling the space between, all taped together.

“Me too.”

Evan descended, setting down on my shoulder.

“It’s an old building,” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied, still pushing the wreath forward.

“Plants growing all over it.”

“Yeah.  Did you see anything?”

“No,” Evan said.  “I looked in windows, but you said not to get too close.”

“Don’t want anything lunging out of the window to eat you,” I said.

“There’s nothing in a lot of the windows.  No people, no things, no walls, no floors.”

“Yeah,” Rose said.  “Only emptiness.”

“A little more afraid, now,” I said.

“Good,” Rose told me.  “Fear keeps you alive.  Just don’t panic.  There are rules to follow.  It’s abstract-”

“Can’t look straight at it,” I said.

“No.  You’re going to have to put my mirrors away.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I still carried the little stand-up mirrors that had been in the roadside kit.  I began to put them away.

“We’re close,” Rose said.  “Let’s get geared up.  You know what your number one priority is.”

“Staying alive,” I said.  “You and Evan are the scouts, you’re the voice.  I’m the vulnerable lump of meat that you two are stuck with.”

I worked while I talked.  Only two hands.  Four things I really wanted to carry into the building.  Gas can, emergency kit, torch and wreath.  The torch slid into the holster I’d left for June, a plastic bag over the head, where I’d soaked a strip of bandage in gasoline.

“Evan, whatever happens, you can’t look at the monster, okay?” Rose asked.

“Okay.”

“It might try to trick you.  Just look away, and stay away, alright?  It might be best if you stay outside the building, unless you absolutely have to come in.”

“Okay.”

I put the emergency kit down on the edge of the wreath, and grabbed a few items, preparing.  More tape, right pocket.  Jumper cables, around my waist, clamps tucked into left pocket.

Box knife?  I looked at the reflective surface.

“You heard what we said in the car?  You know what tools we use here?”

“Light, fire, and growth?”

“Yes.  If you see something, let us know.”

I removed the blade, sprayed it with the spray sealant, and scratched it with the bottom of the sealant can until the blade itself was uncovered.  Blade replaced, knife in pocket.

“Can we have signals?” Evan asked.  “In case we’re far away or something happens?”

“Signals are a fantastic idea,” I said.  “Signal number one?  Screaming?  Screaming means something bad is happening.”

“Don’t be a jerk, Blake,” Rose said.

“I’m not,” I said, at the same time Evan said, “He’s not.”

“Ugh,” Rose said.

I tested the weight of the sealant in my hand.  It wasn’t any heavier than a typical spray can, but my arm strength was practically nil.  It was like the morning after my first day at work, feeling the impact of nine straight hours of physical activity.

“Can you sing?” Rose asked.

“No,” Evan said.

“Tweet?  Chirp?”

“Dunno how.  Maybe.”

“You’re a song sparrow,” I said, as I stuck the sealant can in the pocket further down my leg, “I think.  You’re not rusty enough to be a swamp sparrow, not red enough to be a fox sparrow.  Maybe a Le Conte or Savannah sparrow?”

“You know birds,” Rose commented.

“There was a point where life sucked.  Then life became okay.  Good, even.  When I think about the between times?  Two memories stick with me.  There’s the time Alexis reached out for help, and there’s the time I was in my first apartment.  No furniture, aside from a few things I’d borrowed.  Living on the street, you have to deal with boredom.  You watch people.  Deal with them all the time, but not really dealing with them.  They’re there.  No television, no computer, needed to occupy myself, stay sane and keep from backsliding and missing out on the opportunity I’d been given.”

“Bird watching?” Rose asked.

I nodded.  Talking while I prepared myself.  Emergency blanket?  Why the hell not?  It was small.  Back pocket.  Flashlight went in my other cargo pocket, further down my leg, along with two batteries.

“I try to rationalize it now, but I dunno if it makes sense.  I wanted to be away from people some.  I paid attention to the birds outside my window, even fed them until Joel got pissed off.  My landlord.”

“I know who Joel is,” Rose said.

“Evan doesn’t.  I’m explaining this to him too.  I got my tattoos because I needed to do something to make what I had permanent.  I would have done the moment Alexis helped me, but I dunno how I’d even do that.  The birds… above it all, I like the aesthetic, and I liked the idea of the detail contrasted with the vague watercolor… I’m yammering on, here.  You gotta stop me before I do that.”

There was a noticeable delay before Rose said, “No harm done.  Does it help you to feel more grounded?”

I felt like the delay said more than what had actually come out of her mouth.  “Yeah.  I guess it does.”

“How are you physically?”

“I feel like I got gently rolled over by a few cars,” I said.

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“Only to me, I guess,” I said.  I checked everything was secure in my pockets.  All of the stuff would make running difficult, but I wasn’t in any shape to run.

I made my way to the fence that enclosed the area, leaving the kit behind, hand on can and wreath.  Weather-worn signs were bolted to the fence.  No trespassing.  A man in a circle with a line drawn through it.  Barbed wire ran along the top of the fence.

In a way, the ‘no man’ thing seemed ironic.  Or prophetic, depending on how I looked at it.

“Evan?” I asked.

He flew forward.  The locked gate in the fence swung open.  I kicked the door open wider and passed through.

There were tools here, abandoned so long they had gone rusty. Had a crew come here at some point to revitalize the place, only to disappear?

Shovel, not so useful.  Hedge trimmers, same.  Both were so rusty I doubted they would serve their purpose.

The building loomed.  Graffiti covered every surface that humans could reach without the use of ladders, paint peeled from red brick.  The windows were dark.

Wasn’t even good graffiti, I noted.  Big, bulging letters, scrawled letters.  People making a mark on the world, showing that they’d been here once upon a time.

That, too, was ironic in a way.

Fucking up here meant being forgotten, being erased.  There would be no legacy.  No mark left behind.

My existence, recent events excepted, had been a quiet one.  I hadn’t made a huge impact in my parent’s lives.  I hadn’t done anything so defining that removing me from the picture would make the world a noticeably different reality for anyone.  No angel would be getting his wings from showing me some Blake-less world.

Practitioner bullshit aside, I couldn’t see myself having kids.  I’d yet to see any good parenting, and it seemed better to be safe than sorry.  I had Evan now, but Evan would leave the world when I did.  I had friends that would mourn me.  I hoped they would mourn me.  Being accused of child murder might have hurt me on that front.  But mourning was temporary.  Those wounds healed.

I wanted to make a disturbance.  If the universe maintained a balance, then I wanted to leave something of an imbalance in the grand scheme of things, to be big enough that the world would hurt a bit for my passing.

I clenched the handle of the gas can and the larger branch of the wreath.

Evan’s parents had cared.  That much had been obvious.

“You think mom and dad will miss you, Rose?”

“…The fake mom and dad from fake memories?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, of course.  Why?”

“Nothing,” I said.

My number one rule here was that I wasn’t allowed to die.  The others relied on me to be some kind of pillar that fixed them in the world.  Refining that rule… I wasn’t going to go quiet or gentle.  Most certainly not into oblivion, as this demon would have me do.

The thought gave me the extra strength and grit I needed to scrape up a bit more energy from the bottom of the barrel, to move forward and ascend the metal stairs to the front door.

Someone had blocked the graffiti-painted door with a two-by-four to keep it from fully closing.  Snow had blown against the front of the door and made it into the factory through the gap.

I moved the door and stepped within, my feet touching down on a cloud of powdery snow.

Darkness.  Oppressive.  I quickly tossed the wreath down onto the ground and limped into the center of it.

I reached for the flashlight and clicked it on, eyes on the ground.

The inside was very much the same as the outside, though the graffiti was more pronounced here, where the urban explorers had been able to take their time.  I’d always been under the impression that graffiti artists had a code, and wouldn’t paint over each other’s work, but this stuff overlapped.

With my eyes fixed on the ground, picking up details from peripheral vision and stolen glances, the vague, nebulous shapes and colors that the graffiti left on the walls all seemed like they could be the demon, lying in wait.  They were grimy, painted with the illusion of three dimensions, sometimes given three dimensions where leaves or architecture allowed.

The light the flashlight provided was seductive.  I could feel the demon’s presence here.  No connection I could make out, nothing obvious or apparent enough for me to put my finger on it.  When the light was cast on more distant objects, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the demon was just behind me, or to the side of me.  So close it could caress my cheek.  When the light was closer, it was out there.  Watching.

My eye wanted to follow the light.  Human nature, common sense, a desire for security.  Knowing had a way of making things better.

Distant or close, there was no sign of my demon quarry.  I kept scanning my surroundings.

The plants had grown into the structure in patches, in much the same way weeds grew up from cracks or slats the sidewalk, but they were stunted, meager, and blighted.  Places where the elements had been able to enter the building were littered with debris, the other places so clean and clear that the factory might have been open days ago.  The room just inside the entrance was broad and empty of any fixtures.  Stairs on the far side led to a catwalk that overlooked the bigger room beyond.

The ceiling had collapsed at one corner.  More debris, more snow, and a fairly large barrier to progress.

Something moved at the edge of my field of vision.  Not the demon.  Evan, flying by and looking in.

Here and there, there were holes on the floor.  Cracks, deep enough for me to lose a foot in them.

I knelt on the cold floor, and put the can of gasoline down.  I drew the torch out, and removed the plastic bag that kept the gasoline within from soaking into my clothes.

I painted a circle on the floor with the torch, soaked it again, and continued painting.  A more complex diagram, very similar to the one I’d seen used against Barbatorem in the house’s attic,  but with a wide enough space to spare the wreath within.

I wasn’t even done when the light subtly changed.  Rose doing her thing at the window at the far end.  Covering things up on her side of the window, leaving space uncovered to let faint light through.  It was… it was feeble and weak, I had to admit.  It had seemed clearer in my head.  But I had a dim oval of moonlight surrounding me.

Something moved in my peripheral vision.  Not Evan.  Not Rose.  A stirring.

“Hurry,” Rose said.  Faint and far away.

There was nothing to do but press on.

It took only a second to get the diagram burning.  All of my surroundings were dimly illuminated, now, cast in faint yellow and orange.  The shapes on the walls seemed to move back and forth as the flame did.

I saw it to my left.  It was barely visible in the shadow before it retreated to further darkness, vague and nebulous when I looked at it without really looking.  It moved like a hand without an accompanying body, of its own volition, using fingers to drag itself along the floor, perhaps.  A bulky, multi-limbed, asymmetrical body, with limbs that moved so quickly they might have been flickering.  Matte black.  It might have been a spider gone wrong ten times over with some full-body cancer, or a giant hunchbacked man with a dozen arms that were stretched long enough to reach over and under one another.  But it wasn’t.  It was a demon of the choir of darkness.  Something that had been given life in counterpoint to creation.  It was aged limbs, withered ones, from every species and no species in particular.

It was nearly silent.  There was only a shuffling, the faintest scrape of body against floor.

The front of the body disappeared, and some form of lower body or tail dragged behind it, like entrails trailing behind a man that had been bisected, a spine without the accompanying stomach, or a naked tail.  The trailing flesh was bent in places, as if it had been broken badly and bones had reset improperly.  A kind of detail that teased, invited me to look, as if it were a clue I could use.  But looking was a trap.

The thing didn’t stop moving.  I could make out the larger body shuffling forward to my right, and the ‘tail’ was still being dragged along the floor to my left.

Staring into the fire made my view of the darkness less clear when I moved my eyes to stare at a different section of floor.  Afterimages danced in their wake, spots in my vision, and imagination filled in the gaps to tell me that I was looking at was a part of the demon.

There was no end to it.  It thinned out, leading me to think its tail would pass me by, but then the tail turned out to be dragging something like a fleshy version of an ant’s abdomen, teardrop shaped, moist enough to leave a wet, slick on the ground.  It smelled like bile tasted.  More tissues dragged behind it.

There were now three places around me where the tissue was dragging along in a continuous, snake-like mass.  There were features on parts to my right that didn’t match what I’d seen on my left earlier.

The shuffling could be heard from every direction.  Something was knocked over and the collapse prompted more collapses.

“Demon,” Rose’s voice echoed throughout the space.  “I am Rose Thorburn of the Thorburn line.  All of the choirs know who we are.  We are not to be trifled with.”

I heard spattering behind me.

I couldn’t see without taking my eyes off the ground within my circles, but I could infer from the black spatter that was falling down onto the floor.

Some landed just beside my flaming circle, spatter sizzling in the flame itself.  The flame’s intensity dropped.

If he was close enough to do that, the circle of moonlight wasn’t doing enough.  Couldn’t say whether that was because moonlight didn’t work or it wasn’t clear enough as diagrams went.

“Demon, I compel you to tell me your name!  Tell me, or I will claim the right to name you!  I will repeat myself thrice times thrice.  Prove your weakness by refusing to provide an answer, and I will prove my strength by giving it!”

She hadn’t gone into any detail on this trick.

The demon stopped.  All of the coils and cordons, the segments and limbs, they froze.

The only movement was the distortion in my field of vision, where my eyes had gotten used to movement.  The darkness kept moving, even as the demon remained still.

There was silence, still enough that I could hear my own heartbeat, the creak of the open front door being moved by wind, and the periodic drip of fluids falling from the demon’s body overhead.

It moved.  Faster than before, from zero to fifty in a heartbeat.  It took me a half second to realize why.  Even if I had realized, even if I had been in perfect shape, I might not have been able to move fast enough to dodge.

It lunged.

Maybe it was a small grace that I couldn’t.  I remained where I was, within the circle, not falling into fire or passing beyond any little protection it afforded, and I froze in stark terror rather than look at the massive shape that was now airborne, leaping my way.

It had doubled back, perching above the front door.  It landed a matter of feet from me.  Inches from the circle.  The impact of the landing dashed pitch fluids from its body, a lopsided mouth yawned open, then snapped shut.  The blade of a guillotine.

Blood poured forth, and the demon shook its head like a dog might with caught prey, the movement distorting its features further.

The gore that flowed forth dashed out the flames of half of my circle, giving me only a fleeting glimpse before the darkness made it impossible to see, and the demon’s clutching limbs snatched at morsels.  Where the light touched it, flesh sloughed away, showing muscle and bone, ill-fit together.

It reared back, to draw much of the main body away from the remaining flame, but the periodic spatter was now a downpour.  Flesh falling away in pounds and gallonsWet and smelling so violent that I doubted I’d be able to breathe, if I hadn’t already been holding my breath.

I was intact.  Time seemed to go still.  With the flames flaring and dying, the creature closer to the light than it had been, I could make out the fine detail, even with peripheral vision.  I could tell that it had eyes that were less eyes and more slits in the darkness.  Bright without being light.

I was already turning to run, feeling how uncooperative my body was.  How slow.

Limbs caught me.  Fat, brutish ones, like fingers that could bend in any combination of directions, and being so disproportionately long didn’t make them any less fat or brutish.  They hooked between my legs and into the flesh of my belly, trapping one arm against my side.  Clutching my body.  My feet were lifted clear of the ground.

A flutter of wings.  Evan flew right between the demon and me.  As he’d cast the snow aside at the morgue window, the movement had an uncharacteristic force to it.  Enough to dislodge the fingers, to lift me momentarily free.

I fought, and there was too much to fight off to allow me anything but flailing, weak flailing with my current state.  I managed to get loose enough to slip my head free, and I toppled and dropped to the floor, my face mere inches from the ignited gasoline.

I flipped over, grabbing at the gasoline can.  I didn’t bother with the wreath.  The creature’s limbs and bulk were crushing it.  Decimating it.  A waste of time, putting that together.

It was clutching, limbs grasping one after another in Evan’s wake, reaching in awkward ways to stay out of the light and away from the flame, zig-zagging around the barrier with bends in places that shouldn’t have bent, as if it was breaking arms so those arms could work their way past the barrier.

I averted my eyes.  I was coming dangerously close to looking, and it was all too easy for this demon to sinuously slide into my field of view.

When Evan was clearly out of the reach of the hands, coils fell away from the walls where the demon had suspended and hung them.  A falling curtain, the closing portcullis.

Evan found his way through the gaps between the coils, segments and half-formed limbs, momentarily ceasing all flapping and continuing forward with momentum alone, so he could make himself small enough.

I was already moving.  Sluggish compared to Evan and the demon both.  I hopped over the flame, meager as it was, stumbled and crashed to the floor.

It loomed to the side, and I twisted my head away before I could look, twisting my arms around as well, can in hand.  The contents sloshed out, touching the short patch of dying flame that still remained.  It exploded to life with light and violence.

The demon was burned as if the flames themselves had touched it.

It recoiled, more like a snake than anything.  The silhouette wasn’t so different from a cobra, top heavy, supported on too small a lower body.

The darkness consumed it.

I wasted no time in working on my new circle.  Another splash-

It reacted.  On the ceiling, trying to slip by, it recoiled once more, rearing back like a horse might, limbs flailing.

My gaze fixed on the ground, I wasn’t ready or aware enough to see what it was doing.  It lunged again.

This time, it simply crashed into the wall of flame.  The fire did far more damage than it should have.  Incinerating mountains of flesh, torching bent limbs and digits.

In its death throes, it clutched.  One claw blindly reached a foot over my head, me, only to disintegrate as it passed further into the space.  A ‘hand’ reached out to the side, then jammed itself into the thing’s yawning mouth.

Guillotine teeth severed the hand.  Blood flowed forth.  Not the demon’s.

This time I was ready, repairing the barrier with splashes of gasoline.

A naked, jawbone lined with yellowed, uneven fangs clattered to the ground, gums included.

I couldn’t wrap my head around any of it, and that wasn’t helping my mental state.  My hand shook so violently from fatigue and fear both that I dropped the gasoline.  Depositing a pool right in front of me.  Dangerous and wasteful.

It was destroying itself, feeding more and more of itself into the fire.

If there were hints or clues as to why in the creature’s behavior or body language, I couldn’t see it.

I grabbed the gasoline and righted it, then mopped up what I could with the torch’s head, drawing out more of a line.  Two splashes of gasoline closed the circuit, setting the flame alight.

This wouldn’t burn forever.

My eyes fell on the ruins of the roof, on lengths of what had to be too-damp wood.

But still wood.

Outside of the circle.  Beneath reams of the demon’s flesh that had yet to be fed into the fires.

“Blake!”  Rose screamed.

I turned, but all I experienced was disorientation.  I couldn’t search for Rose, because the demon was leveraging its sheer mass to make it impossible to look anywhere without risking looking at it.

“Rose!”

My careful and furtive glances around me showed that the demon had cut itself off.  This part of itself that it was feeding into the fire was dead.  Like a worm cut in two, it had grown another head.

That head had thrust its way into one window, high above.  Nothing in the neighboring windows suggested that it had left that same windowframe.  It had gone in, it hadn’t gone out.

It was in Rose’s domain.

Rather than risk moving my eyes across the intervening space, I closed my eyes until I was looking straight down.

“Blake!  Please!”

I struggled to find my feet, swayed, and nearly collapsed into the fire.  Or, worse, over the other side of the circle.

Was it a trick?  I couldn’t imagine it was.

I dropped the gas can and torch, reached into my pocket and withdrew the small mirror.  I held it straight overhead, covering it with my other hand, and faced it straight down.

“Here!”  I shouted.

I moved my eyes along my body, a safe territory, up my arm, and to the mirror.

Reflected in the mirror, safe within the circle, was Rose, curled up on the ground, so she could remain small enough to be entirely within the reflection.

The demon’s strategy and form had both changed, though it remained a sinuous thing, a centipede of spidery, grasping limbs at the top end and an endless snake body fashioned of oversized intestine, spine and segmented insect parts at the bottom.  A bulbous, tumorous mass three times as wide as a window hit the wall, squeezing through with enough force that fluids leaked forth, streaking the wall beneath.  The fluids encroached on my circle of flame, but stopped short of interfering with it.

The demon’s reflection was it, as much as any part of it.  It passed in and out of windows and unrusted patches of metal without traveling the intervening space.  It kept extending, spreading, claiming all of the darkness.  Becoming the darkness.

It chose only the windows shrouded in enough shadow that I couldn’t see if there was glass or not, metal in the gloom.  At times it bubbled before it erupted forth, seeping in.  Other times, it simply lunged out.  When the clouds shifted and a window saw more light, the demon simply abandoned that section of itself, letting it blister, boil, and die.

I could only hope there was no angle or means by which it could enter the mirror I held.

I heard a scream, and my thoughts turned to Evan.

No.  Trickery?

Not trickery either.  Blood spattered windows, and the creature used the resulting gloom to occupy more territory.  The light that filtered through the stained glass was red.

There was the light of the circle, faint moonlight that came in through some windows and around the collapsed section of roof, and darkness.

This time, when I saw spots and blotches in the darkness, phantom movement in my peripheral vision, it was real.

I could not look directly at the dark here without looking at the demon.  At cords and sinews rubbing against one another, columns of flesh grinding against limbs.

It finished eating whatever it had caught and murdered in order to stain the windows crimson.

“It dawns on me,” I whispered, feeling somewhat numb, “That we really should have hunted this demon in daylight.”

“We’re in over our heads,” Rose said.

The demon’s movements continued.  I was put in mind of a boa constrictor drawing tighter.  Parts rubbing against one another, locking in.  Crushing our little patch of fire-circle light tighter.

I looked to the window, and what had been a gap between the windows uncoiled.  My eye moved a fraction, and I was looking at the demon.

I looked away, and I saw that ‘s’ of bent, broken tail, or arm, staying in my field of vision. creeping out.

I fumbled for and grabbed the flashlight, raising it to my eye.  I held it there, half-blinding myself.

It helped, but not enough.  I couldn’t light the torch without dropping Rose-

I dropped the flashlight, reaching to my back pocket.  The blanket…

I opened the zip bag, clawing it with my fingers more than anything else.

I was going blind in one eye.

I unfurled the blanket, swept it across the patch of unlit gasoline, then into the flames.  I reached up, grabbing too close to the flame, and thrust it at my face.

Not into my face, but enough to fill that one eye’s field of vision with fire and light.

The fire extended to cover the rest of the blanket, and I was forced to keep shifting my grip.  My arm jumped as flames licked it, and I moved the blanket, only to give the remaining tendril ground at one side of my field of vision.

I reasserted my grip, moved the flaming corner of blanket, and burned the rest of the tendril away.  I tossed the blanket into the sea of darkness, where it continued to burn.

Was this measure enough?  It had only been a slim fraction of the demon.  Maybe a bit of the demon’s power rather than the demon itself.  Unintelligent…

No.  There was nothing I could say to convince myself fully.  I could have an expert look me over, and I wouldn’t be convinced.

But this thing didn’t seem to be that intelligent, to be that cunning.  It would take over if it could, and it had tried.  Now it had stopped.  That had to be good enough.

Had it been both eyes, I might not have been able to do what I’d done here.  I laughed a little, heady with relief and nervousness.  I was all too aware of what else was in this space with us.

“You okay?” Rose asked.

“No,” I said.  But the upside is this thing is apparently minor.  Or was it moderate?”

“Being a smartass doesn’t help, Blake.”

More serious, I said, “You’re right.  Um.  I think three of our allies just died.”

“What?”

“Three others.  Maybe more, but I only saw three.  At least one was a goblin.”

“We didn’t bring help.”

“We don’t remember bringing help,” I said.  “If we don’t remember bringing any help, there’s none left, so I have to question how much it matters.  It’s a moot point.”

“Moot point doesn’t mean it’s not a point.”

“It means it’s up for heated debate.  And this is,” I said.  “Just so you know, my arm is getting tired.  I don’t have any stamina, Rose.  I can’t hold this mirror overhead forever.”

“If I don’t have room in this circle, I’ll get shoved out there.”

“I know,” I said.  “Can you jump to grandmother’s house?”

“I don’t think I can without crossing the space in between.  She’s in the space in between.”

“Is it a she?  I thought of it as more of a he.  Or an it.”

“I don’t know, Blake,” Rose said.  She sounded tired.

“Might as well try that binding again,” I said.

“Yeah,” Rose said.

A moment passed.  She apparently needed to compose herself.

My hand was shaking so badly I thought I might drop the mirror.  I felt more hollow than scared, but my body acted scared all the same.

“Demon!  For the second time, I compel you to tell me your name!  Tell me, or I’ll claim the power to name you!  I will repeat myself thrice times thrice, all in all.  Will you give your name, or will you let it lie fallow, all the weaker for being unused?”

“Sounds awfully good,” I said.  “Will it work?”

“Supposed to,” Rose murmured.  “But she can best me in a contest of her choosing, to claim the right to keep the name a secret.  This is kind of a last ditch thing.”

“What if she can’t talk?”

“I don’t think she can’t not.

“Why not repeat it seven more times, all at once?”

“Theatrics.  It becomes a gimmick instead of a power play.  Have to show confidence.”

“We’re not confident,” I murmured.

“Still have to show it,” she said.  “Demon!  You have not answered my last two entreaties!”

Good word, entreaties.  If I were a demon, I’d give more weight to words like that.

I reached up and very carefully shifted the mirror to my other hand, to give my right hand a chance to relax.

“Name thyself, or forfeit that right!  Nine times, I’ll say this, and I’m saying it for the third time now!  I call you coward, for refusing me this nicety!”

Our entire world had been reduced to a space no more than five feet across.  For all intents and purposes, the only thing beyond that circle was the demon, unfurling and unfolding, slithering against and through itself, the occasional mess of grasping, scrabbling, flailing limbs appearing in the molasses sea.

The fires were steadily dying.  Gasoline could only burn for so long, and fluids were encroaching on our space.

I splashed out more gasoline to replace what was missing.

“Four times, I ask you, demon!  Four times you decline to answer!”  Rose’s voice was loud in the relative quiet.  “Are you a mere beast?  No better than a dumb spirit!?”

The coils constricted further.  Our available space shrunk.

A shadow passed over one window.  More of the demon’s mass occupied the area in between.

If I squinted and unfocused my eyes, the factory was only what it was.  A dark factory.  When I didn’t, when I looked clearly, the demon filled the space. Slithering, endless.  Infinite.

“You have the torch,” Rose murmured.

“I do,” I replied.

“And how much gasoline left?”

I swished the can.  “Not enough.”

“Light the torch?”

“I was waiting until we had a game plan.  There’s a chance we can forge a path, use the torch to stay mobile-”

“Splash gasoline in our way?”

“Fire burns me too, Rose.  That’s… I’d rather burn myself than let that thing get me, but I don’t think I can walk on fire long enough or fast enough to make the gamble.  I’d fall and it would be over.”

“Okay,” she said.

I switched the mirror back to my right hand.  It wasn’t only my hands that were failing.  My legs didn’t feel strong.  I swayed.  The morass of demon in the space around us was making me feel seasick.  Another ploy on its part?

“What game plan were you thinking of?” Rose asked.

“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” I said.

“What makes you think I have a plan?”

“I don’t think.  I hope.  Because my plan sucks moose balls.”

“What we saw, before she took over the factory… she didn’t touch the plants.  She stays to the shadows, as a rule.  Plants in places where the sunlight usually reaches were mostly okay.  Patchy in other places.  She’s staying in this building, when she could roam.  She needs a den,” Rose said.

“A den.”

“A hiding spot.  Probably the darkest place in the factory.  If we can find and penetrate that place, maybe we could find the demon itself.  Its heart, its head, its source.  I dunno.  It’s a gut feeling, I guess?”

“It’s a good plan,” I said.  “Better than mine.”

“What’s your plan?”

“Get over there, to where the roof fell in, and get to the wood.  Use it for a longer-burning fire, if we make it.”

“And then?”

“I didn’t get that far.  But maybe you could ask for a name a couple more times?  Speaking of?”

“Yeah,” Rose said.  “Demon!  This will be the fifth time now I’ve asked for a name.  Five times, you’ve proven the coward.  Name yourself, or-”

The demon rumbled.  A groaning sound, as if the entire building were straining with the demon’s mass.

“Urrrrrr-” it whispered, a sound from very far away, off to one side.

I wasn’t sure, but I suspected maybe the ‘head’ was there.  Be it the many-limbed head I’d seen earlier, or the actual source of the thing.

The guillotine teeth slammed shut, cutting off the prolonged syllable.

“Name thyself!” Rose called out.

“Urrrr-”

Again, the guillotine teeth.

“It’s name is Ur?” I asked.

“Too short,” Rose said.

The teeth, slamming together…

I shifted the mirror to my other hand.  I almost, trusting my body’s demands, sat down.  I remembered I couldn’t, and shifted my weight instead.

“He’s eating it,” I said.

“Eating what?”

“He’s giving the name, and he’s eating most of it before it can reach us,” I said.  “He’s technically obeying.  It’s not going to work.”

“I guess that decides what our plan is going to be,” Rose said.  “Your plan, it would only buy time.  My plan, it’s a possible win.”

“Getting to the heart of the demon,” I said.  “Probably that way, if it isn’t tricking us.”

“There’s a door and a stairwell leading down.  Maybe a boiler room or something?”

I nodded.

“I don’t think you can keep that mirror clear of the demon when you leave this circle,” Rose said.  “If you get me to the window, though, I can slip outside.  Two paces out of your way, but it’s safer for all of us.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.  The window wasn’t far.

Looking at the window, my eyes fell on Evan.  He was there, perched on the far side, his wings spread.

A shadow had fallen over the window earlier.  It had been my familiar.

“It sounds like a plan… but I think Evan has the better plan.”

“What’s that?”

“Forfeit.  Like you said, we’re in over our heads.  We run.”

“Run?”

“It’s… we can’t beat this.  Not here, not on its turf, not in its medium.  In the dark.”

“We burn the place down,” she said.

“Concrete and brick?” I asked.  “I dunno.  Maybe it could slip away in the darkness of the smoke.  It’s not going to work.”

“Guess not,” Rose said.

I searched my pockets for matches, for a lighter…

A kind of horror hit me.

“I forgot to bring something to light the torch with,” I said.

“No,” Rose said.  “That doesn’t make sense.”

“I don’t have anything.”

“You lit the circle.”

“I-”  I stopped.

“She ate it,” Rose said.

I sighed.

The thirty or forty feet to the door seemed far too far away.

“I can’t run,” I said.

“I know.”

“That’s… that looks like the longest walk I’ve ever had to make.”

“I know,” Rose said.

I closed my eyes, and turned to look to the window.  I saluted Evan, who still remained there, perched on the snow that had accumulated on the window ledge, his small wings outstretched high and wide.  The moon was above and behind him.  He wasn’t so big that it mattered that much, but I respected the idea and the effort.

I bent down and ignited the torch by touching it to the flames below me.

I strode away from the door.

“Blake!  Don’t be dumb!”

Torch slashing low, close to the ground.

Claws grasped at me, only to let go as the torch got closer to them.

Hands gripped at my ankles.  I used gasoline to splash at the circle, eliciting flares of light and fire, and they let go.

Most did.

Only a short distance to the nearest window.

“They’re in here!”  Rose screamed.  Then, “In the Thorburn name, I compel you to leave!”

I had no idea if it worked.

The main body of the demon was drawing closer, if my peripheral vision wasn’t lying to me.  Flanking me.  The head, complete with a mess of grasping limbs around it.

I grabbed the can of sealant and heaved it through the window.  I was weak enough I thought it might bounce off.  I had bad luck with breaking glass.

Glass shattered all the same, and without the grime obscuring it, it made the interior brighter.

I threw Rose’s mirror through the gap.

Hopefully she had a safe escape to Grandmother’s house, from the factory outskirts on.  Nothing barring her path.

The demon’s proper body lunged, and its body constricted around me.  I held up the torch and it fell back a fraction.

I nearly threw myself through the window, but I remembered the tendril that had hidden themselves in the space between windows, only to jump into my field of vision.  If the panes of glass there were two feet by two feet across, was there something lurking in the meager space between?

I waved the shoddily-made torch around, coals falling off, and the constricting body fell back.  I turned around.  I now had a fifty foot trudge to the front door.

I started, pulling against claws and other limbs that scratched at my feet.  Some weren’t shying away from the torch.  I didn’t want to chance a look, out of fear that I’d blind myself permanently this time.

Evan used his trick, closing his wings, moving.  The meager amount of moonlight that he’d been blocking flooded into the factory, and limbs and body all pulled away, overreacting.

The demon got its bearings.  It closed the distance, moving faster than I could move my arm and the torch.

Evan came through the hole in the window, and tendrils and cords snapped shut just behind him, as though the window had hidden a net.  He darted close to the demon, and the demon grasped for him.  Dumbly pursuing the closest available target.

It bought me time.  As the demon moved in pursuit of my familiar, the coils and limbs that moved and constricted around me weren’t moving with me as the target.  They got in my way, but I could stagger over them, stumble through, and use the torch to scare away the worst of them.

I used the last of the gasoline, drawing a line from the the dwindling circle to my left.  More tendrils moving and lurching, this time at Evan’s benefit.  I let go of the empty can, letting it fall somewhere near the thin trail of fire and burning demon.

Fifteen feet.  I staggered forward, nearly losing my balance.  I could barely make out the door, had to shut my eyes for terrifying moments when the light began to fade, a cloud passing over the moon, because I couldn’t let the demon in.

Something barred my way.  Like an arm in my path, pressing against my chest.

Evan flew close, and jarred it enough for me to slip past.

The head of the demon was drawing closer, shuffling, near-silent, and I heard teeth slam shut.

Evan turned, clearly intent on distracting it.

I caught Evan out of the air.  “No.”

Let go.  He took another path.

Something told me Evan wouldn’t escape a third time.

I ducked  under the next limb to bar my way.  Between fatigue and the activity of the demon, the increased shadow closer to the far wall, I felt like it was getting twice as hard with every handful of steps.  As I bent low, the stretches of demon nearest to the floor shrunk away at the sudden approach of the light.

I saw one of the demon’s arms that didn’t shrink away.

Dead, severed.  It had cut the arm off when it had been snatching up a goblin.

I grabbed it.

As I staggered to an upright position, though, my idiocy became apparent.

My torch hadn’t been made that well.

The wood branch that held the burning coil of gasoline-soaked bandage burned before the bandage did, and the head fell to the ground.

Ten feet to the door.

I kicked the torch’s head.  Limbs and body shrunk away, and I broke into a shambling run, off-balance, so slow a person that was walking fast might have outrun me.  The torch head bounced off the door, leaving a small, lingering flame.

Evan soared forth, through the gap of the partially open door.

I reached the door and Evan came back inside, forcefully enough to blow it open a fraction.  I saw the approaching connection, moved  my hand-

Dropped the useless torch-branch and caught him, instead of letting him continue forward, back inside.

We stepped out of the factory.  The door banged against the two-by-four that still held it partially open.

I collapsed on the snow.  I saw the limb shriveling in the light, and shoved it into the cold snow where the light wouldn’t find it.

Evan settled onto my stomach.

We’d failed.

Only a detached limb to show for it.  Three allies gone.

How were we supposed to face down Conquest like this?

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Conviction 5.5

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It was already dark.  Heavy snow was falling, making it feel darker, even if the snow was white.  The lights that shone through windows felt oddly small, and headlights offered fleeting flashes of brightness.

Conquest’s tower still loomed in the distance.  A hint that I was seeing glimmers of the spiritual.  It was probably altering my perceptions, the balance of light and dark, the shape of things.

It was probably visible from anywhere in the city, to Others and reckless practitioners who were struggling to hold on to their humanity, like myself.  Conquest’s symbol of power.

Either way, things weren’t nearly as distorted as they’d been when I’d re-entered the police station and made my way into the morgue.  It was hard to say whether I was recovering or whether I just wasn’t zig-zagging between the real world and the spiritual.  Maybe things were simply leveling off, and I was viewing things through a faintly spirit-tinted lens.

I’d gotten out.  Not out free and clear, but out.

I moved my arm until the locket itself reached my palm, and then popped it open.  I rubbed my thumb on the inside of the lid.  “June.”

Evan made his way back to me.  Surprisingly few people noticed as he descended and made his way onto my shoulder.  I moved my hood.

I felt the connection.  I drew a smudge on the wall, to feed that connection.  “June.”

“Do you want me to get her?” Evan asked.  The hood of my jacket was up, and Evan was nestled in the space between my hood and the side of my face.

“I don’t think you can, June being as heavy and unwieldy as she is,” I said.  I looked over my shoulder.  “Fuck.  I said I’d keep her warm.  I don’t think she’s cold where she is, but… I’m worried.”

Nobody paid any mind to me as I talked to Evan, crazy and bedraggled as I might have looked.  My presence in the world was pretty damn low, and it was very possible that anyone who did see me talking thought I was using bluetooth or drunk.  As for the actual words being spoken, I was moving slower than just about anyone on the sidewalk, and nobody was around long enough to hear what I was muttering, if they cared enough to listen.

I was tired, and I was far enough away from the police station.  I swept snow off the bus station bench, very nearly falling over as I bent forward, and took a seat.

“What can I do?” Evan asked.  “About June?”

“Nothing.  This is… it’s awkward.  Kind of screwed up on a lot of levels,” I said.  “If I feed the connection, though, she might find her way to me, or I’ll at least be able to keep her from slipping away and getting lost before I get back to the station.”

Evan shivered.

“If you’re cold, you could go back to being a ghost.”

“I’d rather be alive and cold,” he said.

“That’s allowed,” I said.  “You’re okay?”

“I feel okay.  My neck hurts.”

“A lot?”

“Some.  I’d go back to being dead if it hurt more.  It feels more better than before.”

“Good,” I said.  I nodded.  “Good.  I don’t want this to be a bad thing for you.”

“I don’t either,” Evan said.

We sat there, not having much more to say.  Evan’s head turned this way and that, watching the city going through its motions.

It had probably been a while for him.

A car slowed on approach.  I felt the connections tying the occupants to me, and tensed.  A drive-by?  Or whatever the practitioner equivalent was?

It was Fell, with Rose in the backseat, not really there so much as reflected in the windows.  He stopped in the middle of the lane.  An illegal park, I noted.  A car honked at him, as it had to change lanes to keep heading down the street.

I tried to stand and failed..  I was like an old man, too stiff to move much, not enough strength to make much of the movements I did make.

I was getting looks from passerbys.  Did they think I was an addict or drunk, as Rose had observed?  A crazy hobo?

It wasn’t something I liked to admit, but the judgments of others did matter to me.  My judgment and perception mattered to, as far as how I could and would view myself.  I didn’t like being bedraggled.  I’d promised myself I’d move forward, that I’d make constant, consistent efforts to be a better, stronger person, both in general, and in terms of who I interacted with and how.

Fell stepped out of the car, ignoring the incoming traffic that very well could have slammed into his open car door, and walked around the front of the car to approach me.

He had a gun in his left hand.  Momentarily I wondered if I’d made a mistake, asking for Rose to summon him.  People weren’t freaking out as they saw the gun.  Fell himself barely registered.

He offered me his right hand.  I caught it, and Fell hauled me to my feet.

He didn’t support me, though.  When I was up, he let go, and I was left to stagger forward to the passenger side door of the car, where I leaned against it.

“Thank you for coming,” I said.

“I didn’t have a choice,” Fell said.  He paused.  As a tangent, he said,  “You’re cutting this one close.”

“Can we get moving, then?” I asked.

I tried the door handle.  It was locked.

I had several pet peeves.  That was one peeve of note.  Few things got me so pissed as when someone made me ask.

“Can I?” I asked, gesturing towards the door.

“I was instructed to bring you to the factory building,” Fell said.  “Turn around, look at me.”

I did, leaning against the car door for support.

“What?” I asked.

“I don’t have to bring you if I have reason to believe you’re not you.  You look like you could be possessed.”

“You’re fucking with me?” I asked.

“If your head turned around three hundred and sixty degrees,” Fell said, his tone placid, “and you started spewing projectile vomit everywhere, I wouldn’t be particularly surprised.”

“Cute,” I said.  “Can we talk instead about how a police officer practitioner at the station was flaunting his power, working against Conquest’s aims?  That I dealt with him?  That’s got to be worth credit.”

“To another lord of a city?  Quite possibly.  To Conquest?  Less possibly.  To me?  Not at all.”

“What do I have to do to prove I’m me?”

“That question is for you to answer, not me,” Fell said.

“Do you want details from our past meetings?” I asked.  “I’m tired as fuck, but I could come up with something.”

“If you were possessed, the being that possessed you would have access to your memories.”

“Can you or Rose tell me, then, how one usually identifies the possessed?”  I asked.

“Request the aid of an expert,” he said.  “Or use one’s common sense.  No expert available, and my common sense is telling me something is wrong.”

“I just dealt with an imp, a crazed goblin-beast and a practitioner with a vendetta, all in the span of two and a half days.  If things were right, that’d be a pretty good sign something is pretty damn wrong.”

That had sounded better in my head.

I turned to the side, “Rose?  Help me out here?”

“Blake, don’t fight this.”

“Rose-”

“It’s a bad idea, to go forward.  I’ve been reading the texts.  We don’t know enough.  We aren’t ready, not for this, not for tonight.”

The stress she put on that word… she was referring to our ability to deal with Conquest.  To use Pauz and enact some plan.

I worried Fell would catch it, but he just looked generally annoyed, standing there with the gun in hand.

Rose continued, “It’s hard to protect against something as abstract as this, especially when you don’t have the information.  You can barely move.  Just… accept that Fell isn’t going to give you a ride.  That you can’t go and stop the abstract demon tonight.  You tried, you failed.  You met your end of the bargain with Conquest.”

“But not my bargain with Evan.  I told him I’d work against the real monsters,” I said.

“You can.  Your promise to Evan has nothing to do with your promise to Conquest.  The odds are very, very low that anyone is going to get hurt in the meantime, waltzing into the abstract demon’s lair.  It’s isolated, by all accounts,” Rose said.

“It is,” Fell said.

Rose went on, “Take the rest of tonight to recuperate.  We meet with Conquest tonight, as we arranged, we deal with that.”

Again, the thinly-veiled reference to dealing with Conquest.

I was already shaking my head.

“Blake, you can do it another day.  Tomorrow, or the day after.”

“With the way life keeps coming at us hard and fast?  With all the other shit that’s liable to come up?  I’m not so sure,” I said.

“There isn’t a lot I can do,” Rose said.  “I can’t really affect the world you live in.  I was… I was put here, and I’m supposed to be the figure on your shoulder, guiding you, but you don’t listen to me.  You picked a familiar without my input.  You blithely stride forward, trusting your instincts.  Can you understand how this impacts me?”

“I understand,” I said.  “But with all due respect, I’m the one who’s sliced up, I’m the one who almost got shot, who almost got devoured, who fought off a swarm of fucking squirrels, housecats, and other animals, including some murderous relation of Bambi…”

“Careful,” Rose said.  “Lies.”

“…So to speak,” I added, even though I was pretty sure I was in safe territory.  “I’m the one in the line of fire, Rose.  I’m the one who’s doing the binding.  Work with me.  Don’t work against me.”

“I am working with you.  I’m trying to keep you from taking a path that’s going to get you killed.  Maybe, maybe you’ll lose a bit of power, if you don’t meet your obligation to Evan.  But you lose everything if you die.”

“I’m coming out of every altercation a bit stronger,” I said.  “With more tools.”

“You’re coming out of every situation in pieces.  I don’t even think you’re running on metaphorical fumes anymore, you’re running on borrowed fumes.  Power borrowed from me, and now power borrowed from Evan.”

I glanced at Evan, as far as I could make him out.

“What I think,” Rose said, “Is you’re falling into the same trap most diabolists do.  The same trap grandmother did.  An inability or unwillingness to look forward.  You’re too focused on the present.”

“Present is kind of important.”

“I’m sure grandmother thought the same thing.  Except you’re liable to run into a situation like she did.  You reach the end of the line, where you’re cornered or all the problems and consequences you’ve been postponing start catching up with you, and you’re forced to make a big compromise, or you make a mistake, or something.”

“Or something,” I said.  I sighed.  “You’re probably right.”

“Grandmother hit the end of the line, she had to pick an heir… she admitted, at least to me, that she had waited far too long to do it, that she didn’t prepare us enough.  But I can’t help but wonder why she set the rules that she did.  Going to meetings, reading for the future.  Forcing us to make plans and lay groundwork.  Do you think, maybe, she wanted us to do better?  To not repeat her mistake?”

“Do as I say, not as I do?” I asked.

“Look forward,” Rose said.  “Think beyond today.”

“Bringing us back to the issue of today,” I said.  “The problem at hand.  Kind of hard to ignore.”

“Then focus on it.  But… can’t we find a way to work together?  Compromise?  Let me focus on the future, you focus on the now, and we find a way to make it work together?  Except you need to fucking listen to me when I give you advice.”

The anger was uncharacteristic.

For a moment, I wondered if Rose were the possessed one.

“Okay,” I said.  “Alright.  Compromising, then.”

“Thank you.”

“If you two want to hash this out,” Fell said, “I’ll go.”

“No,” I said.  “I… I think whatever happens, we’ll be helping you out.”

“Do you?” he asked.

I didn’t answer.  My thoughts were muddled.  I was thinking about Rose, about the demon.

I couldn’t tell Rose in front of Fell, not without raising problems, but we needed more firepower to deal with Conquest.  We definitely needed firepower to deal with Conquest and Pauz at the same time.

At the very least, if we could do something about the demon, we could get the Knights on our side.

What would Rose say?  She would say that risk wasn’t worth it, and we should push forward with what we had.

If I had to trust my gut on this, though, we couldn’t.  Even as a mockery, as a being that wasn’t really as powerful as he made himself out to be, he was too strong.  I could see the tower now, I’d seen the other practitioners, I’d seen Conquest within his domain, after Rose had passed out.

“Rose, do you have ideas on what to do about this demon?” I asked.

“Some, but they’re incomplete, unverified.  If it slips past your defenses, you’re gone.  I don’t know where that leaves Evan and me, but I don’t think it’s good.”

Slipping through the cracks.  The first ones to mention that concept had been the Knights, if I remembered right.  if they didn’t outright disappear, they’d go where things went when there was nothing to hold them up.

“It’s a scary idea,” I said.  “Let’s… let’s talk compromise.  What if we found a way to do this?  If we hashed out enough of a plan that we could be reasonably certain, using Fell’s term here, that I wouldn’t get eaten?”

“I don’t think anything would make me feel that certain,” Rose said.

“Not certain.  Reasonably certain.  There will always be surprises.  There’s nothing we can do about them.  But if we ignore random happenstance and bad luck-”

“Which are a factor, with our bloodline’s karma.”

Fuck karma.  Life sucks, it’s always sucked a bit.  I’ve fought for everything I have, and I’m still fighting for everything I have.  Nothing’s changed, as far as I’m concerned.  Here’s what I’m saying.  You and me get in this car.  We drive to the factory.  We talk.  We hash out a plan.  You treat it as if we were deadly serious about it, no quibbling.  If we’re not on solid footing by the time we arrive, we turn around and go.  Or we walk back, if Fell insists, or I call friends and get a ride.  I don’t know.”

“Forgive me for saying so, Blake, but I can’t help but imagine we’ll get there, I’ll say we aren’t ready, and you’ll go in regardless.”

“I swear I won’t, so long as you’re saying so in our mutual interest, go against your word.  The power is in your hands, Rose.”

An oath.  The inability to lie was a handicap, a bad one, but the truth had power too.

Rose hadn’t replied.

“All I need from you, Rose, is for you to give me Rose Thorburn’s best showing, from the moment we get in that car until we arrive.  Until we get back, if we actually go in.  That’s the end of the compromise I’m asking you to meet.  If I can’t argue it well enough to go in, we shouldn’t go in.  That’s my end of the compromise.”

“Okay.  Just… just give me a minute to get some things together.”

I nodded.

“I don’t seem to recall giving you permission to enter my car,” Fell said.

“Some practitioners have barometers, to measure where they stand in the grand scheme of things,” I said.

“Implements and the like, yes,” Fell said.

I started to pull off my coat, Evan fluttering loose, and I very nearly fell.  It took me far too long to make any headway in pulling my arms from my sleeves.

I was left standing on the street, the snowfall heavy enough to have piled on the shoulders of my coat, cold, my sliced arms and tattoos exposed.

It was almost too dark to see.

“I hope you’re going to treat that bird on your shoulders better than you treated these ones.”

“I certainly hope to,” I said, trying to catch my breath.  The struggle with my coat hadn’t helped.

“This?  It’s not quite good enough.  It almost works against you.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Man, you really cracked yourself wide open, didn’t you?”

“I guess so,” I said.  “Needed to make myself small.”

“You may well have done that,” he said.

He unlocked the car door.

I opened it, and I didn’t sit down so much as fall down.  Evan fluttered down and landed on my hand, while I took a humiliating amount of time to catch my breath after the brief exertion.

Duncan had been right.  I was sick.  It just wasn’t fever and cough sickness.  Something more insidious, sneaking up on me.

Fell started the car, pulling out.

When I couldn’t catch my breath fast enough, I coughed, trying to pull more air into my lungs.  I waited for Rose’s jab, a reminder that I wasn’t capable of doing what we were talking about.

“Ready?” Rose asked.

No jab.  I was genuinely grateful.

“If you are,” I said.  “Get us started.”

“Demons and devils fall into choirs.  Choir of dark, choir of chaos, choir of ruin, choir of madness, choir of the feral, choir of sin, and choir of unrest, in order.  What we’re dealing with… I think it’s a demon of darkness, by all descriptions.”

“Darkness,” I said.  “Didn’t we hear something different from somewhere else?”

“Maybe you did.  But we don’t know where demons come from, but they exist as a sort of counterpoint to the forces of creation, civilization, growth, and order.  The choirs aren’t real things… only an idea that some have clung to, some demons and devils included.  They’re a handy way of categorizing.”

“A dangerous way of categorizing,” I said.  “Like calling something a goblin, when it could be something else entirely.  You prepare to deal with a goblin, and you get surprised.”

“Yes.”

“Or,” I said, glancing down at Evan, “If you’re open minded, you can figure out that the goblin has another weakness you can use against it.”

“It’s the thing I have the hardest part with,” Rose said.  “I feel like there’s a science here, a rationale behind it all, and then we run into something like time magic or some other garbage, and it doesn’t fit.  I want to figure out the underlying rules, so I keep reading, I keep hitting the books.  If we can figure out the internal logic of this world, we can start to nail some things down.  I don’t like the Others that straddle or ignore categories.  Especially the scary, demon-tier Others.”

“My view on it,” I said, “Is that there aren’t hard and fast rules.  This isn’t a science, exactly.  It’s not like math, where you can decode it and figure out the system.  It’s more like English class.  Or art theory.  You interpret, you divine the symbols and commonalities, you inject your own voice, views, and apply your own labels and rules, given the chance.  Math is just there, waiting to be discovered.  With English, with art, you can forge your own way.”

I saw Fell looking at me through the rear view mirror.

“No comment,” he said.

“I hated English class,” Rose said.

“So did I,” I said.  “Mrs. Gazo?”

Fuck Mrs. Gazo,” Rose said.

“I hate a lot of this too, for that matter,” I said.

“Fair point.”

“If figuring stuff out is your strength, then let’s move forward, and you look at things in that light, and I’ll look at them in my own way.”

“But the important bit of what you just said is that you want to get this discussion moving again,” Rose said.

I nodded.  “Only so much time.”

“Okay.  For our purposes, let’s look at the demon we’re after as a creature of darkness.  Virtually every creation myth touches on certain key ideas.  Light is the most common.  The sun, fire, something in that vein, it’s intrinsically linked to creation in the human consciousness.  To the birth of the universe, the planet, society, and other things.  Water and earth tend to follow in general popularity, but those aren’t choirs we need to focus on.”

I nodded.  “Choir of darkness.”

“The antithesis of creation.  You could say it’s the most powerful choir.  Entropy distilled.”

“I hear you,” I said.  “I’m hard-pressed to think of a good way to ward off something like that, though.”

“I had ideas.  My concern is that it isn’t enough.  There’s too many questions.”

“We ward off creatures with their antithesis, unless they’re weak enough that related elements can repel them,” I said.  “What idea did you have?”

“My idea is that we ward off darkness with fire.  Prometheus, Khepri, the sun.  Fire keeps figuring into myths.  It holds a key place in culture and myth.  I mean, mankind survived, back in the day, and Others presumably preyed on us then.  Fire was a staple.”

“Lighter fluid, then?” I asked.  “A burning circle in the earth.”

Maybe,” Rose said.  “If you stepped into a room with that demon today, it’s what I’d suggest.  I don’t know if it would work, but burning to death would be better than anything that demon did.”

It would probably get my soul anyway, I thought.  I didn’t volunteer that tidbit.

“You’re thinking fire,” I said. “But?

“But fires go out, Blake.  Fires spread, raising questions of what happens if we burn down the factory.  I’m not sure which choir Barbatorem figures into, but he’s an abstract entity, and grandmother bound him with rigid, defined lines.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“How do you do rigid, defined lines with fire?”

“That’s a bit of a problem,” I said.

“There’s also another question… and this is more in your camp than mine, if we’re talking distinctions between diabolism as a science and diabolism as an art.  Look to the stories, evil creatures of this caliber, and fire tends to be their bailiwick.”

I sighed.  “Yeah.”

But this was about finding ideas, not just about shooting them down.  “What if I were to create a flaming diagram using glamour?  Work around some of the inherent problems? ”

“That’s fine if you’re doing it, Blake, if it’s you alone.  Except you’re bringing another individual into the picture, bring the demon into the picture, and maybe it believes in the flame enough to make that flame act like fire.”

“Bringing us back to square one,” I said.

“Or it doesn’t believe the fire, because it’s not exactly in the same realm of experience as we are, and we’re back to square zero,” Rose said.

I raised an eyebrow.  “Square zero?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Glamour doesn’t work,” I said.  “Okay, something else then.  What about… something glowing?  I’m picturing a length of chain, red hot.”

“Or fluorescent lighting, to be a little more down to earth?”

“Or that,” I said.

“It’s an option,” Rose said.  “I’m not sure how we’d make it work.  Your idea and mine both have problems.”

I looked in the rear view mirror, meeting her eyes.

“They’re ideas,” Rose said.  “A step forward.”

“What other forms of light exist?” I asked.  “Lightning?  I don’t know how we’d do it, but lightning is… unpredictability aside, it’s kind of ordered.  There are rules electricity follows, and we need something ordered to counteract the being’s abstract nature.”

“Lightning would be… impressive if we could pull it off, but I’m not sure where we could find a Tesla coil at this late hour.”

“Moonlight,” I said.

“How do you clarify moonlight?” Rose asked.  “How do you give it enough order that it’s going to stop something like the abstract demon?  A lens?”

“How do you define anything?” I asked.  I leaned my head back against the headrest.  “Boundaries.”

“Boundaries?”

“Without boundaries, nothing has shape.  You shape light with darkness.”

“I think you’re a little delirious,” Rose said.

“Fell, do you happen to have a flashlight in the glove compartment?”

“I have a flashlight.”

“I would be much obliged if you’d give it to me.”

“Give, not lend?”

“That, or we stop by a Canadian Tire on the way.”

Fell pulled over by the side of the road.  He stepped out of the car, and I heard the trunk pop open.  Outside, people came and went.  I saw a figure that wasn’t human.  A ghost, distorted to the point that it was a few feet taller than anyone else on the street.

The passenger door opened.  Fell handed me a roadside kit.

“Can I say-” I started.  He closed the door in my face.

A moment later, he opened the driver’s side door.

“-I really respect a man who’s always prepared,” I said.

He started up the car again, looking over his shoulder before pulling onto the road.

“I can even overlook you slamming the door in my face, because I’m perfectly happy getting to where we’re going,” I said.

“We’ve already talked about where I stand,” he said.  “Right now you’re helping Conquest get his hands on another one of these creatures, and you know my feelings on that.”

“I do,” I said.

“Return to your conversation.  The only help you’ll get from me is either assistance in getting yourself removed from the greater picture, or assistance I’m obliged to give.”

“He doesn’t like you,” Evan commented.

“Very few people do,” I said.  “Of those few people, I think more than a few are going to have an awful lot of questions about the murder arrest.  But that’s beside the point.  Let’s keep brainstorming, Rose.”

“Sure.  I somehow feel like solid barriers aren’t going to hold up against this entity.”

I dug through the kit Fell had given me, finding the flashlight and setting it aside.  There was a first aid kit as part of the thing.  I began patching up my arms, using my glamour to touch up the spots where the tattoos had been distorted, and bandages to bind the rest closed.  “The Knights tried some staple protections, and they didn’t work.  Or some worked and those are the reason they’re alive.  A big part of the problem in dealing with this thing is that we can’t figure out what worked in the past because of luck and what worked because it worked.  Trial and error doesn’t work when the errors get erased from existence and memory.”

“A circle drawn on the ground may not hold up,” Rose said.  “But in the interest of being more positive than negative, putting my best foot forward, there’s another direction we could go, if we wanted to brainstorm.”

“Another direction?”  I asked.

“Rather than light, maybe creation?”

“A circle that grows?”

“Putting it out there.  I don’t know how you’d do it, but… my concern with fire was that it would destroy more than it created.  Fire grows, but that’s a short lived growth.  If we could find something that expands, while maintaining an intrinsic order…”

“Fire doesn’t destroy,” I said.  “It changes.”

“We’re talking magic as an art, aren’t we?  Not science?  Wasn’t that what you said?”

“What does it take to get you on board?” I asked.  “When do you start thinking this might work?  That we might be able to go in there and bind it?”

“I’d want to go in with a few options that make sense.  A few ideas that are sound, given what we know about demons and how they operate.”

“Three?” I asked.

“Okay,” Rose said.  “Three good ideas.”

Three ideas to hammer out.

“Can we count fire as one idea?” I asked.  I held up a pack of matches.

“What are you burning?”  Rose asked.

“I’m hoping our very prepared Fell here has a can of gasoline in the trunk.”

“Planning on blowing yourself up?”  Fell asked.

My eyes closed, I said, “Might incinerate myself, or burn the place down with me inside it.  That a good enough reason to give it to us?”

“Yeah,” Fell said.

“I’ll count fire as half an idea,” Rose said.

“Need two and a half, then,” I said.

“Objects associated with growth… plants?” Rose asked.

“A wreath?”

“Hard to find something that really grows year-round,” she said.

“Evergreen plants,” I said.  “Holly?”

“Hmm.  Or just pine.  I’m not sure you’re in a condition to weave anything complicated, and I’m not sure how ordered it could be.  Put it in the maybe pile?”

I nodded, grabbing the flashlight.  “Light… if I may demonstrate…”

I moved the flashlight, covering it with one hand, so only a sliver of light escaped between my fingers.

A line.

“Darkness,” I said, pointing to an area where the light was blocked, “Light, then darkness again.”

“Okay,” Rose said.  “That’s one idea.”

“One and a half, if we count moonlight?” I asked.

“Maybe.  Okay.”

“If we take Fell’s car battery-”

“No,” Fell said.

“Was worth asking,” I said.  “If we steal someone else’s car battery…”

“That’s more like it,” Fell said.  “If you want to get arrested again, please, be my guest.”

“Let’s consider that another option,” I said.  “Are we on the right track, Rose?”

“If I’m allowed to be negative, I’m not feeling quite ready, even with this in mind.”

“But it’s a step forward?”

“Yeah.”

“Then let’s keep at it,” I said.  “Protections somewhat covered, we can improvise or come up with something else, if we don’t stick with the plants.”

“We need weapons,” she said.  “Protections mean jack squat if we can’t do anything to the demon we’re supposed to take down.”

“We can talk weapons,” I said.  “How long do we have?”

“Half an hour,” Fell said.

“It’ll have to do,” I said.  “Same ideas apply?”

“Light, fire, energy, creation,” Rose said.  “Can you put together a torch without setting your head on fire?”

The oil factory.  The building was ominous.  Blocky, with large windows that hid more than they revealed.  A lonely chimney stack stood off to one side, the trees around the building were thin and badly bowed by snow and ice, like overgrown saplings more than trees,  Graffiti covered the structure, hinting at how many people had once come here to explore and leave their mark on the isolated building before the demon had taken up residence.

Here and there, parts hung away from the factory itself.  A fire escape, half-collapsed, an overhang for a carport, only the rusted skeleton remaining.

Fell had stopped the car five minutes ago.  I surveyed the factory without moving a muscle besides my eyes.  Taking it in.

I couldn’t help but feel that if I asked, Rose would say no.  That she was contrary, on a level, that if I said white, her first impulse would be to say black.  On a level, that was fine.  It was good to have something to keep me in check.  Tiring, frustrating, but good.

But I still wasn’t going to budge or comment.

“We don’t know enough,” Rose said.

“We’ll never know enough,” I said, before I could remember to keep my mouth shut.

Maybe I was the one who was contrary, now that I thought about it.

“If you want to argue a point, Blake, this would be a good time.”

“I think this thing needs to be stopped,” I said.  “There are an awful lot of reasons.  Some personal, some relating to Evan, some relating to Conquest, and some general ones.  Maybe, if we wait a day or two, it’ll be the same.  Someone’s not going to make their way out here and stumble on the demon.  But a week?  Two weeks?  Then it gets a little sketchier.  We have to wonder.”

“So we wonder,” she said.

I continued.  “Black Lamb’s Blood suggested it’s the diabolist’s responsibility to handle this shit.  We had that responsibility thrust on us, in a way.  If we’re going to do any good in our short, violent existences, this is one way.”

“Not if you’re giving that bound being to Conquest,” Fell said.

Not helping.

“Black Lamb’s Blood said a lot of things,” Rose said.

“What I’m asking is just… if we don’t stop it, who will?  And is anything really going to change if I wait until the day after tomorrow?  Do a little more research?  Or is it going to be what it is?  Something scary and unfathomable, where we can only make educated guesses in how to deal with it.”

“A little more education can go a long way here, when we’re relying on educated guesses,” Rose said.  “Hell, we could find a Tesla coil or something, spit out electricity.  Or get a neon sign maker to do a diabolic circle.  We could have better resources, too”

“That sounds marvelously tacky,” Fell said.  “I’d be offended on behalf of practitioners everywhere, if you tried it and it actually worked.”

“Not helping, Fell,” I said.

“But if you’re asking whether we’ll actually make strides worth the risk of waiting?”

“I am,” I said.  “Let’s say we have to do this.  I can’t speak for us, but I can speak for me, and I kind of do have to do this.”

“If you’re asking,” she said, repeating herself a little, “and if we have to weigh it against the chance that we might not get another chance, and all the consequences that would entail?  I guess it comes down to you.”

“Me?”

“I don’t know if you’re in good enough shape to do this,” she said.  “Prove you are.  Get out of the car, without Fell’s help, without Evan’s, and get the gas can out of the boot.  Walk to the treeline, so we can start on our evergreen protection circle.”

I reached for the door handle.

“Blake.”

I stopped.

“Start by telling me you’re up for this.”

“I think I have to be,” I said.

“That’s not an answer.  Think carefully before you open your mouth again.  Because if you say yes, and you aren’t… this is over before we begin.  You can’t afford the loss that comes with a lie.”

I sighed.

“I think I can do this,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.  “You’re hedging it a bit there.”

“I am,” I admitted.  I didn’t waste any more breath.

I prayed I was telling the truth.

I opened the car door, and I forced myself to move.

My legs barely budged.  Stiffness had set in.  It was more like I occupied a corpse than a body.

I used my hands to lift my right leg, moving it over to my right, then did the same with my left.

I slid out of my seat more than I climbed out.

“Don’t forget the kit,” Rose said.

I winced, then bent down to grab the roadside kit.  Flares, matches, emergency candles for setting on the road, a teepee, a blanket… it was heavy.

I held it with both hands, my arms straining against the bandages.

I reached the trunk, and let the roadside kit fall to the ground.

“Shh,” I told Evan.  I popped the locket open and drew a ‘wind’ rune on the gas can, then rubbed my finger against the lid to get more of the dark grit that had accumulated, and did the same for the roadside kit.

“Shh?” he asked.

“I’m cheating a bit,” I admitted.  “Don’t tell.”

“Okay.”

I moved the gas can over to the side of the car and filled it with some gas from Fell’s car, using the squeeze pump.  I shut the trunk and began my long trudge over to the treeline.

The factory loomed there, pale and heavily decorated, the windows ominously dark.

Even the moon seemed to shed less light hereabouts.  The snow typically reflected light, illuminating an area, but we were far from the city, there was less light to go around, and even the movement of a cloud over the moon made a huge difference.

I swayed a bit as my feet sunk a bit too far into the snow.

My hands were shaking, even as they gripped the bag and the half-full can.  I wondered if one or the other would just slip from my grip.

But I still reached the treeline.

I set the kit down, and I got out the deflector mirrors that had come with it.

“You did it,” Rose said.

I nodded.

“Fell just said something, and I’m going to take his word on it.”

“Yeah?” I asked.  The word was curt, cut short because I didn’t have a lot of breath to spare.

Reduced lung capacity?  I thought of the ‘wind’ rune I’d drawn on my chest.  Fuck.

“If you are cracked, if spirits are taking up residence, maybe your spirit needs a bit more encouragement than usual.”

“I wouldn’t complain,” I said.  “But you’re taking advice from the guy that wants us to fail?”

“Does he?” she asked.  “He wants this thing stopped.”

“But he doesn’t want Conquest to succeed,” I said.  “Fine distinction.”

“Yeah,” Rose said.  “We don’t want Conquest to succeed either, do we?”

“No,” I said.  “And we’ve missed out on an awful lot of planning time on that front.  We’re going to need to use what we have.”

“Yeah,” Rose said.  “You want to get us started on the evergreen protection circle?  We’ll need the torches too.  I guess I’ll get us started on the whole plan against Conquest.”

I began to free branches from the tree and wind them together.

“The plan, the thing I read about in Black Lamb’s Blood,” Rose said, “We need to turn them on each other.  One way or another.  It was one of the big options presented.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I caught that when I skimmed it.”

“Can we do it?”

“I think we could,” I said.  “It’s not going to be easy.  Conquest… he’s weaker than he lets on.  If Pauz realizes, that’s going to give Pauz the clear win.  We need to strengthen Conquest, but we need to do it in a way that puts him on an even playing field with Pauz.  We need to do it and we need to get away alive.”

“Yeah,” Rose said.  “We have the goblin?”

“He has the goblin.  But… it’s not very comfortably bound.  Very reluctantly bound.  I suspect we could unbind it rather easily.”

“Okay,” she said.

“And we have the Knights on our side.  If we get this thing, and only if we can make headway against this thing.”

“Okay” she said.  “Give me a minute to think while you work.  First things first.”

I nodded.

I looked towards the factory.

First things first.

My hands shook so badly I could barely weave the branches together.

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