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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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 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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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 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.”
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.
“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 looked towards the factory.
First things first.
My hands shook so badly I could barely weave the branches together.