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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
“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?”
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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 mother? I’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. 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.”
“She’s a lovely woman.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“What?” Matthew asked.
“I’m sorry, Matthew.”
“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.
“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.
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
“There is no choice in the matter,” Conquest intoned.
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.