Category Archives: 6.03

Subordination 6.3

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“Power comes with a price.  Believe me on that,” Nick said.  “Now, speaking as the owner of a shitty little store out in the middle of nowhere, that means the power has value.  What we do, we’re bartering with that power.  Sometimes you come out a little ahead, sometimes you don’t.  You can change it around, work in different currencies, different kinds of power, you can give currency for goods or services, or give up goods and services for currency.”

The city seemed darker than it should have been, as I watched out the window with half-lidded eyes.  My allies were in the back seat, Evan was perched on the dash, watching the road.

“You can invest it, and you can be in debt,” Nick said.  “Blake here is in debt, in more ways than one.”

“How come?” Alexis asked.

“My family dug themselves into a deep, deep hole,” I said.  “By inviting you guys in, I may have dug myself a little deeper.”

“I was going to say you cut yourself open and bled your currency out to pay someone or something,” Nick said.

“That too.  You’re close enough,” I said.

“You did that to yourself?” Alexis asked.

I turned around in my seat to look at her.  Tiff wasn’t here, so it was only Alexis and Ty in the back.  The other Knights were in a car that followed behind us.  Alexis had the book on protections in her lap, while Ty had the Essentials tome, his attention apparently on the very last few pages.  The appendix?

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“You said the police did it.”

“You did,” I said.  “I didn’t correct you.”

“You lied to me.”

“I can’t lie,” I said.  “And neither can you.  Be fucking careful.”

“Wait, did I just fuck something up?”

“You were technically correct, because I have lied to you in the past.  But be careful.  I misled by omission, because it was probably going to make things worse if I started rattling on about rituals and ritualistically reducing my personal footprint to evade the cops, or about Rose, who I mentioned just a bit ago…”

“Yeah.  I get it.  But it kind of sucks to hear that you played me.”

“It sucked to have to play you.  Which is why I told you,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.

Evan piped up, “She understands but she’s still mad?”

“Evan,” I said, “It’s cool.  Subject handled, more or less.”

“I’m not mad,” Alexis said.  “I’m disappointed.”

“But you understand why he did it?” Evan asked.

“Evan,” I said.

“Yeah, I understand,” Alexis said.

“But-” Evan started.

Evan,” I said.  “We don’t have a lot of time.  Drop it, please?”

“Okay,” he said.  He turned around to look out the front windshield again.

“I need a smoke so bad right now,” Alexis muttered.

“You were talking about power, Nick?”  I asked.

“Yeah.  It’s a gamble.  People like me and my family, we don’t play with a lot at stake.  You could say we did, once upon a time, and we paid the price.  The rules here, they’re old.  They predate modern society.  Reach back to days when you had kids because many wouldn’t make it to adulthood.  When girls were bartered off in marriage.  People are currency, and we lost our people.  You be careful with yours, Blake.”

“You’re supposed to be helping them figure all this out, not me.”

Nick raised one eyebrow, but he went on.  “Three ways you build up power.  Blake has one, maybe two?”

“Just the one,” I said.

“You buy a property, demesnes in our world, and you hope it’ll appreciate in value.  You cross your fingers that the shelter and comfort it offers you, the status and recognition in the eyes of your peers will add up to the investment paying for itself.  With me so far?  Good.”

Leonard-in-a-bottle rested between my feet.  I also had a hammer I’d marked with a wind rune, as a dim replacement for June, and I had the demon’s arm.

Nick went on.  “You can pick an implement, too.  Your tool of the trade.  There are no takebacks.  Everything matters, when you make your choice.  The style of it, the history, the type of item, the purpose it’s meant to serve, the symbolism…”

“An object?” Alexis asked.

“Like a wand,” I said, “Or a dagger…”

“Any restrictions?”

“Has to be something you can hold in your hand, or hands,” I said.

“I know what I want to use,” she said.

“This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you that it’s a major commitment, that you don’t jump into something like this.”

“Yeah?”

“But I’d be a hypocrite,” I said.  “After jumping into this with Evan here, and I think I know what you’re talking about.”

“The custom iron,” Ty said, looking up from his book.

“Yeah,” Alexis said.  “It’s had a place of prominence on a shelf over my home kit for the last while.  It’d be great to put it to use.”

I nodded.

“Custom iron?” Evan asked.

“Old-fashioned tattoo gun,” I said.

“Oh, cool!”

I’d be worried about corrupting the kid with the smoking, swearing, tattoos and motorcycles, but he’s already dead, and it sort of pales in comparison to the terminal violence, demons, and the magic ritual bullshit.

“That’ll have to wait,” Nick said.

“Okay,” Alexis replied.

“And,” I added, “It’s something that needs more research.  What does the gun imply, and all the rest of that jazz.”

“Sure,” she said.

“These are life-altering calls you’re making,” Nick said.  “Like I said, the rules are old.  You don’t backtrack, you don’t get to decide on one option here and then backtrack.  We talked about setting down roots.  There’s the tool, the choice of vocation, how you want to face down the world and how you want the world to look at you.  Finally, we have the familiar.  Kind of like marriage, but with one of the monsters.”

“I’m getting really sick of that comparison being made,” I said.  “Can we call it something else?”

“A business partnership,” Nick said.

“Much better,” I said.

“One being you tie yourself to.  The demesne, it’s a safe ground.  A place you can call your own, where you can defend yourself far more easily.  It’s a reflection of you and the choices you’ve made.  The other things?  Familiar and implement?  Might be you have less options on some fronts, and more on others.”

“Can you have more than one familiar?” Ty asked.

“Not so much,” I answered.  “It’s more of a commitment than that.”

“Some circles over in Asia do,” Nick said.

I glanced at him.

“Different expectations, different rules.  The ritual’s different, too.  It’s less like a partnership and more… hostile takeover.”

“Like the Lord?” I asked.

“Maybe.  They tend to emphasize having more Others, bound into object forms.  Said Others don’t have to be cooperative.”

“I’d be into trying something offbeat like that,” Ty said.

“Tradition has a power,” Nick said.  I nodded.

“I’ve never been much for tradition.”

“What about respect?” Nick asked.  “Having a familiar earns you some.  Go off the beaten track, it’s going to change people’s perceptions of you.”

“I’ve never put a lot of stock in that either,” Ty said.

“It’s an option,” I said.  “But it may be an option that has to wait until we have access to my grandmother’s library.  Look, we’re running out of time, so let’s not dwell on ‘what ifs’.”

I was anxious, impatient.  I wasn’t entirely certain I’d helped myself by bringing these guys on board.  It had felt right, but in practice… there was no way to get them up to speed.

“Summing it up, all kinds of power are currency, and anything you do from here on out costs,” Nick said.  “Sacrifices, even small ones like being polite, or taking a risk by making a promise, they pay you back.  Politeness forges stronger connections, and connections keep you upright in the grand scheme of things.  Making promises and keeping them buys you favor from the underlying forces that drive things.”

I closed my eyes, leaning my head against the headrest.  “Nick sees things as a broad sort of business.  Rose wants to view it as something in the same vein as science or math, with an internal logic.”

“And you?” Ty asked.

“I described it as a kind of art,” I said.  “There’s some bullshitting, a lot hinging on trends and abstract rules, vague elements you can’t pin down.  Things don’t fit neatly into boxes.”

“I’m not one to talk,” Nick said, “given how I barely practice and how badly the Knights have fucked up when we tried our hands at it, but doesn’t that make you the stereotypical starving artist?”

“By your definition, with power as currency?”

“Yeah.”

“By that definition, sure,” I said.  “I guess it kind of does.”

Nick nodded.

“There’s a lot of different ways of doing this stuff,” Ty said.  “I’m looking at the short descriptions here, and it’s interesting, but I don’t think there are any ways I can figure out in the next half hour.”

“I’m not expecting you to,” I said.  “I’m… fuck.  I’m doing this backwards.  Rose is supposed to be the long-term planner, I’m supposed to handle the short term.  But here I am, shooting myself in the foot in the short term for hopeful long-term gains.  We could call you guys my insurance.  You maybe back me up, make it so the other guys are scratching their heads and wondering exactly who you are and what you can do, but you should stay out of the thick of things.  If things go sour-”

“We bail you out,” Ty said.

I nodded.  “Maybe.  If you can do it without putting yourselves at too much risk.”

“Okay,” Ty said.

“There are some basic circles and ideas for protections in here,” Alexis said.

I spoke up, “Rule of thumb, you make a circle oppose whatever it is that drives the Other you or magic you want to ward off.  You can make it similar if they’re weak, but I’ve had fairly limited luck with that.”

“Okay,” she said.

“I’m not an expert by any means,” I said.

“Most practitioners don’t get in any real fights except maybe a conflict over their familiar or demesne,” Nick said.

“Really?” I asked.

“You might be more experienced than most.  Not very knowledgeable, but from what you said about your library, you have a way of fixing that problem.”

“Trick, then, is staying intact until I can make the fix,” I said.

Nick nodded.

There was a moment’s silence.  I felt the pressure descending in moments.

“Would be fantastic if we could try pulling off a binding in the next half hour,” I said.  “I could do with a little more power.”

“Don’t know where you’d go.”

“Sites of recent murders?” I asked.

“The Shepherd claims all local ghosts, spirits, spectres, phantoms, wraiths, poltergeists, and apparitions.”

“Damn.  Goblins?”

“Not anywhere near the heart of the city.  Fringes only.”

“Fuck,” I said.  “What about… I dunno, the local folk tales, the things that go bump in the night?  The miscellaneous monsters?”

“Is the thing we really want to do before you go up against an enemy is to fight another enemy?” Ty asked.

“I want to feel more prepared,” I said.

“I don’t think there are any perfect solutions,” Nick said.  “I doubt there’s much of anything you can do to be prepared for tonight, whatever you’re doing.”

“Having more of an idea what I’m doing would be one thing,” I said.

He smiled without humor, my expression was comparatively somber.

“You feel that?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure what he meant.  Feel?  I felt… tired.  In pain.

No, he was referring to another kind of sensation.

“No fucking way,” I said.

“What?” Ty asked.

“Listen up, you two, here’s your first lesson in the field.  I want you to pay particular attention to all the weirdness going on around us.  Start with the immediate stuff, the connections between each of us, things being carried back and forth.  Over time, you’ll visualize it into something like cords, strings, ribbons…”

“It’s more a feeling for me,” Nick said.  “Physical.  Everyone sees it differently.”

Interesting, but I didn’t respond.  I didn’t want to complicate things.

“I can see a pattern between us,” Alexis said.  “Like a cat’s cradle?  I see the firefly things-”

“Spirits,” I cut in.

“Spirits moving around.  They leave trails in their wake.  It almost looks like strings from my hand to your arm, and from my head to your mouth…”

“That’s essentially it,” I said.  “Ty?”

“I see something.  Yeah.”

“Look beyond it.  Same idea.  Hold your focus, but move that focus.  Like crossing your eyes by focusing on a finger that you’re moving closer to your face, but in the other direction.”

“There’s… a lot of noise,” Ty said.

“A whole city filled with connections,” I said.  “Look for the big stuff.”

“Big?” Alexis asked.  “There are blotches, but they could be the spots on my eyes from looking at lights.”

“Like I said before, a mix of bullshit and confidence go a long way,” I said.  “Trust that it’s right.”

“Okay, trusting… what am I looking at?”

“You’re looking at maybe ten of the major players in one place,” I said.

“Ten?” Ty asked.

“There are ten major players?” Alexis asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Something’s wrong.”

It took us another five minutes to get close enough for Nick to drop us off.  He stayed where he was, waiting to reunite with the other Knights, minus his buddy, who was tutoring Tiff in some basics.

From there, it was another five minutes of walking.

I could see it, using the sight.  More clear than before.  The tower.  It overlapped with the manse.

The rest were gathered on or around the steps leading up to the manse.

“Diabolist,” Isadora said.  She stood there on the street, in full sphinx mode.  I glanced down the length of the side street.  Nobody present.

“Greetings, Isadora,” I said.  It seemed like a safer bet than ‘good evening’, because I wasn’t sure this evening would be.

“Hello,” Evan said.

“No shitting way,” Ty said.  Under his breath, he said, “She’s beautiful.”

“Shh,” I said, under my breath.  My mind was working overdrive.

Alexis was silent, which I was grateful for, but I did hear the scratch of her lighter.

Conquest was inside with five others.  Fell was liable to be one of them.

Outside, I could see the sphinx and a number of women with white masks and rings that blazed red.  The Drunk stood a distance away, beside a man with a long, crooked stick, who was busy feeding a carrot to a large gray horse.

Diana the Astrologer wasn’t here.

“This is the one?” one of the ring-wearers asked.

“The Thorburn heir, yes.”

The woman with the mask and glowing ring stepped to one side, as if trying to get a better look at me.  “I remember the last Thorburn diabolist to visit Toronto.  Your grandmother?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I was just a child, watching through a crack in the door while she talked with my mother.”

“Talking about what?”

“Something about her children and the University.”

“Did it go well?” I asked.

“No,” she said.  “No, it didn’t.”

I nodded.  That was vague, but I didn’t want to look ignorant, and if she wasn’t going to volunteer details there, she probably wouldn’t if I pressed her.

“I’m Blake Thorburn,” I said.  “I’d like to ask your name.”

“Names are dangerous to give, and it’s impolite to ask when we’re already taking pains to protect our identities.”

“Okay,” I said.  “My apologies.”

“Apologies taken and accepted.  You can call me Elder Sister, or elder for short..”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said.  “And… the horseman is the Shepherd, I take it?”

“You won’t get much out of him,” Isadora said.

“He have something against me?” I asked.

“Vow of silence,” the sphinx told me.  “Some believe it gives you more power.  If you don’t say anything at all, outside of rituals, then you don’t leave room for even the smallest breaks in the truth.”

I nodded.

“He’s apparently vexed with you,” Isadora said.  “Any particular reason why?”

I saw the connection flicker into being, raised a hand to cut it and Ty off before an answer could be given.

I knew the answer, regardless.  The Shepherd collected the dead.  I’d collected Evan.  Stuck one foot in his territory.

I glanced at the horse.  It wasn’t an Other, but it wasn’t quite a normal horse either.

“You have friends,” the sphinx observed.  “And a familiar.  You’ve been busy.”

“I have been,” I said.  “You’ve been working behind the scenes.  Forming a coalition?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I’m suspicious things are about to get messy,” I said.

“We’re here to keep that from coming to pass,” Elder Sister told me.

“Then cooperate with me,” I said.

“We already received one appeal to cooperate with you.  We said no,” she said.

That would have been Priss.

“I wonder if your new helpers know the danger you pose,” Isadora said.  “Do you know the dangers of being in a diabolic cabal, strangers?”

I remained silent.

“If you aren’t one now, you’ll become one.  The forces we’re talking about, they insinuate themselves into the fabric of reality.  They forge new connections, to draw themselves to people.  I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve seen it happen again and again.  The book consigned to vaults finds its way to mortal hands.  The beast we hoped to leave alone in deep waters is stirred by a wrecked ship.  When you gather in groups, you give them more opportunities.  More flaws to reach for and exploit.  You reek of it.  That wrapped thing you hold reeks of it.  Filth.”

She managed to inject a surprising amount of force into that last word.  She paced closer, until she was a claw-swipe away from us.  One heavy sweep of a forelimb and she could end all of us.

There wasn’t a lot we could collectively do when faced with something that was easily ten times our size, but I managed to stand my ground.  Fifty percent courage, fifty percent me not being steady on my two feet.

“You are tainted by association, diabolists.  Each of you throwing off more taint with every step and action you take.  But when more are tainted, and they interact, they taint each other, and the effect lingers.”

“One diabolist is more agreeable than a group?” I asked.

“Zero is more agreeable than one,” she said, her voice low, her eyes glaring.

Ouch.

“Good thing those guys aren’t diabolists,” I said.

“It is a good thing,” Isadora said.  “If that changes, we will eagerly do what others have done in recent history.  Remove you from the picture before it becomes a problem.”

“Irony is, there aren’t many other actions you could undertake that would make me snap and cut loose,” I said.  “I won’t threaten you and say ‘Leave them be or else’, because that would be dangerous and crass.”

“Yes it would,” Isadora said.

“I won’t say it,” I said, emphasizing the ‘say’.  I stared up at her.

There wasn’t a single identifiable movement to her face.  Not a twitch of eyebrow, nose or mouth.  She didn’t move a fraction, but I could sense the shift in her attitude.  The tension of her muscles changed.  She was danger distilled.

“Things were stable before you came, diabolist.  They are now far from stable.”

“I want things more or less stable, too,” I said.  “But you’re letting the diabolist label lead you to conclusions.”

“Do you have any conception of how old I am?” she asked.  Her voice was more dangerous now.  She was big enough and her voice had enough low notes that I could feel the vibration of it in the air.  “How few of the mortals alive today are able to trace their ancestry back to the day I was a cub breaking free of my egg?  When the first thing I did after that was devour my weakest siblings?”

Her wings had unfolded somewhat, making her silhouette larger.  In the gloom, her eyes caught the light.

“The works which wrote of my mother have largely yellowed with age.  I have seen events play out time and again, and I have grown tired of the patterns I see you mortals repeat, time and again.”

She said tired the way I imagined a serial killer might talk about murder.  With a hint of danger, but a suggestion that it was very matter of fact for her.

“The pattern of the cults, the cabals, the secret societies, it’s one I see again and again.  The only reason I do not say it with certainty, to tell you that you will fall to corruption and ruin, is that I’m not certain you’ll live long enough to get that far.”

“That’s fair,” I said.  “Alexis, Ty, I need you to do all of us here a favor.”

“What’s that?” Ty asked.

Alexis didn’t speak, but I saw a puff of smoke to my left.  I didn’t turn to look at her, in case i started to lose my balance and wobbled on the spot.

“Swear.  You won’t tou- you won’t open or read from any of the darkest tomes.  None of the demon stuff.”

“You said we shouldn’t make oaths lightly.”

“This isn’t light.  This is one sphinx with a lot of experience and a number of concerns, wanting some reassurance.  One way of getting that reassurance is by devouring us.  Another way is for you to make a promise.”

A puff of smoke.  Alexis.  I heard her say, “I promise, I’m not going to mess in the dark texts you and Blake are talking about.”

“Okay,” Ty said.  “I promise.”

I looked up at Isadora and spread my arms.

“I have seen this play out before, Thorburn,” the sphinx told me.  “The oaths.  Oaths can be broken, consequences or no.”

“Then I’ll swear too,” I said.  “I’ll take all reasonable measures to keep the contents of those books out of the hands of my, er, disciples.”

“You would do better to swear not to touch those texts yourself, Thorburn.”

“I can’t make that promise.  I have other responsibilities, and other entities leaning over me.  Were I to promise, I’d earn the enmity of other forces.”

“Forces related to the greater evils.”

I nodded.  The lawyers would stop playing ball if this went any further.

“This does not please me,” she said.

“My motives aren’t to side with those forces.  I speak from my heart when I say that I believe I am one of your better options.  I have no intent to use the knowledge in those tomes in any way that could spread the taint, only to bind the beings and save innocents from their touch.  I did it with the imp, and I tried with another evil.”

“You gave the imp to Conquest,” she said.

“Largely because I had no support to draw on, Isadora, daughter of Phix.”

Her head moved, and her eyes flashed as the light left them, then caught the surface again.  “You blame me?”

“Some,” I said.

She pursed her lips, then turned her head to glance back at the others.  The Sisters of the Torch, the Shepherd, the Drunk and others.  As she moved her head, her hair moved from where it draped over her left breast.  I avoided looking, in part because I was more captivated by the way the ambient light caught her high cheekbones and the frown-creased brow, making her appear more like a lion or a raptor than I’d ever seen her.  In part because being caught looking seemed dangerous.

She looked down at me.  “So be it.  This promise doesn’t remedy the situation, but if you fail in this, you and yours will suffer for it.  There is justice in that.  I believe in justice.”

I nodded.

“You will exact promises from your other disciple.  I smell one on you.  She was there when you came to my office.  She is warm for you.”

Warm for me?

Alexis coughed, just behind me and to my left.

“I’ll extract the same promise from her, if and when a convenient hour arises,” I said.

“And any disciples who follow.”

“Yes,” I said.  “In exchange for this amenity, I would like to ask a favor.”

“Ask.”

“Let us end the conversation here.  Allow me passage inside.  Don’t slow me down or get in my way.  I have a schedule to keep, and it will do more harm than good if I can’t.”

“If we stopped you here,” she said, “What would the consequences be?”

I remained silent.

“You should give me an answer you know is wrong, feed yourself to me.  With every ending, the cosmos reorders, the geometry settling into new patterns.  At the hands of a goblin, such as the one you bound, the reordering is an ugly thing.  Consequences persist.  The skein tangles.  I am a creature of the balance, and death by my tooth and nail, talon and claw is the cleanest death you could be offered.  The new order would be a better order, for you having left it.”

“I’m almost insulted,” I said.

“You have my leave to go.  I cannot speak for the others,” she said.

She couldn’t speak for the others, but she had enough authority that I suspected her permission would count for a hell of a lot.

“Are we coming?” Ty asked.

I glanced at him.  I opened my mouth to say no.  That the Knights were close, and they should stay behind.  That I needed the backup outside.

“They remain safer with you than elsewhere,” Isadora said.

Seven words to dash my plan to the winds.

“That doesn’t mean it’s better to take them with me,” I said.

“It is better,” she said.  “I’m not a prophet, but I have an eye for the ways of things.  You have help elsewhere, but you’ll need help inside.”

I hesitated.

“I appreciate the advice, but ‘better’ is vague.  Better for me, for them?  For the world as a whole?”

“For all things.”

“I’m too used to having everyone turn on me, everything be a trap,” I said.  “This… I’m having a hard time trusting my recent fortune.  No offense intended.”

“You did a good thing.  A right thing, and you recently transferred some of the negative karma from yourself.  Three separate events.”

I frowned.  “Then the reason I’m free to put a circle together-”

That has nothing to do with it,” she said.  And her expression went a little cold.  “I cannot speak for the particulars.  Maybe there was some good in it.  But I meant what I said earlier.  The cosmos gave you a rope.  You have neatly knotted it.  I hope you are the only one who hangs, but as I said before, I have been around long enough to see the patterns.  I am not so optimistic.  I suspect things progressing smoothly there was not karma being kind.”

That might have been the cruelest thing she could have said to my face.  I was left momentarily breathless.

I pulled myself together.  There were only minutes.  “Yes, you two are coming.”

Ty nodded.

“I appreciate your hearing me out, Isadora,” I said.  “I get the impression something in our relationship isn’t reconcilable, due to history that precedes me by some time, but… I appreciate that you’ll reach compromise with me all the same, and I appreciate the advice.”

She dipped her head in a nod.  “Die cleanly, diabolist.”

With that unnerving farewell, I turned to go.  Alexis and Ty followed.

Passing up the stairs meant passing the other group.

I saw each of them staring at me.  The Sisters glared, the twenty-somethings shifting their weight.

The Drunk remained very still, except for the wine bottle he held and tapped on his knee.

The Shepherd barred my path by stepping forward, directly into my way.

He didn’t look at me.  His eyes were on Evan.

He brimmed with negativity.  The feeling made me think of the shelters in the dead of winter.  The general ambiance, suspicion, loathing, anger without a target, anger with a target, discomfort, pain, hopelessness… he radiated it.  When his eyes moved over to me, it became more intense.

“You had months,” I told the man.  “You didn’t.  He needed someone to find him, and I found him.  Don’t fucking blame me for your cowardice.”

Much as I’d seen in the morgue, ghosts appeared.  Vague, damaged, insubstantial.

Some were a little less ghost and a little more spirit.  Some were so real I might have mistaken them for people.  Others were only fragments of ideas, stirrings of snow suggesting the vague outlines of people.

He had a small army at his disposal.  A collection of Junes, Leonards, Evans and others.

“He’s not one to care about right and wrong,” the Drunk observed.  “The ghost was his, he thinks, and you took it.  Context doesn’t matter.  Doesn’t help that you’re dangerous.”

“You get to be a shepherd by shepherding,” I said.  “Giving shelter and care to your flock.  Evan needed that care, and that man didn’t give it.  The name doesn’t fit.”

“Attacking a man’s name is bad form.”

“I don’t hear him complaining,” I said.

The Drunk smirked.  He raised his bottle, then drank.  More than anyone except maybe the Shepherd, the look in his eyes was dark as he looked at me.  The humor was only a thin, ineffective facade.

I made a mental note.  He was more of a threat when he was being vaguely friendly, over the top, and uninhibited.  It kind of fit.

But he still stepped aside.

As he left, the sisters stepped in.  They’d hesitated before, but they were able to gather some confidence from the sheer numbers and the power that were arrayed here, between the Shepherd and the ghosts.

“If you bar my path, you’re liable to get on Conquest’s bad side,” I said, very deliberately using Conquest’s name, “I don’t want to work under him, but I am, and you’re making the task he assigned me harder.”

“We’ll be on his bad side anyway,” one of the older Sisters of the Torch told me.

“You’re standing against him.”

“And against you,” the Elder Sister said.  “The blackguard was convincing, but not quite convincing enough.”

“We’re on the same side,” I said.

“Not right here we aren’t,” she said.

“That’s unfortunate,” I said.

“It really is.  You messed up a great many things by coming here.  I don’t think you can even fathom how.”

“I dunno,” I said, meeting her eyes with a level stare, “I’m getting a pretty good idea of how fucked up things can get.”

“You’re a threat,” she said.

“No he isn’t,” a voice piped up.  Evan.

She glanced at him, only briefly breaking eye contact with me.

“Blake helped me.  And he promised me he would stop the real threats.  He cares about his friends, and he’s honest, and he’s smart and he’s cool.”

“You don’t know enough to understand,” she said.  “He’s one of the real threats you’re talking about.”

“No he isn’t.  I’ve seen some of the monsters.  One of them sort of killed me, by trapping me until I was too tired and hungry and cold to keep going.  Another one of them was in the factory.  He tried to stop them.  He stopped one.”

“I’m not going to argue with a child.”

“You’re going to lose, by the sounds of it,” Ty commented.

“Did you try to stop the monsters like the one that sort of killed me?” Evan asked.

“We’re not that strong.”

“You’re elementalists, aren’t you?” I asked.  “You deal with spirits of nature, and going by the name and the glowing ring motif… you deal with spirits of fire?”

“Yes,” she said.

“The demon in the factory is vulnerable to fire and light.  You could have done something.”

“It’s not what we do,” she said.  I couldn’t see her face past the white mask.

“It’s what I do,” I told her.  “Tell me again how I’m one of the real monsters.”

“You serve your ends and the Lord’s.  Your family has long dealt in forbidden things.  I know.”

“All I know,” Evan said.  “Is he tried.  You didn’t.”

“Well,” the Elder Sister replied, “I’m trying now, if it means you don’t deliver that thing to Conquest.”

“You’re done trying,” a man said from behind her.

She moved to look before I did.  Winning the staring contest wasn’t much, but I’d take any victories I could.  Evan could have probably beat me in an actual fight.

Fell.

“Step inside, Mr. Thorburn,” he said.  “Shepherd?  Put your grudge aside.  Sisters, you do not want to cross Conquest right now.”

Reluctantly, the group parted.  Many ghosts faded as they joined the Shepherd in moving to my right, while the Sisters drifted off to the left.

I stepped inside.

I gave Alexis and Ty a moment to get acclimatized.

“I didn’t think you were in this deep,” Ty said.  His eyes roved over the tower interior.

My eyes fell on the clock.  Five minutes to midnight.

“I’m in pretty deep,” I said.

I glanced at Alexis.

She, for maybe the third time in all the years I’d known her, put out one cigarette, then lit up another.

“You okay?”

“Mm hmm,” she said.

“That’s not really an answer, and if it is one, it sounds like a lie,” I said.

“They’re not words.”

“Vagueness and bullshitting,” I said, “remember?”

“I remember,” she said.  “No, I’m not entirely okay.  I can scrap when I have to.  I can’t scrap against something like that.”

“Like the sphinx.”

“Right.  I’d be way happier if I had… I dunno.  Anything?  Some power, some tools…”

“We are most definitely on the same page, there” I said.

“Stupid question, but why is everyone standing outside?”  Ty asked.

It was Fell who answered.  “Preparing for war.  They all have their ways of finding out what’s going on.  That one of your Knights is going around trying to recruit allies for you has helped fill in others.”

“They’re taking sides,” I said.

“Isadora and the Sisters opposing Conquest, though Isadora is keeping secrets.  The High Drunk and the Shepherd are loosely affiliated with Conquest.  The Knights and Astrologer are nebulously affiliated with you and your new circle,” Fell said.

The Astrologer is in our camp?

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Conquest isn’t one for Pyrrhic victories.  He plays for keeps,” Fell told me.  “He’s just about won.”

I had a hard time putting a name to the feeling in my gut.  It was kind of like the abstract demon in that regard.  Too horrible.  Paying too much attention to it would give it more power.

We approached the top of the tower.

“Oh… wow,” Ty muttered.

Conquest was in full monster mode.  A giant, skin stretched over his muscular, warped frame, wearing gear that resembled both armor and a robe, with a halo that made me think of platinum.  A sword twice as long as I was tall was slung across his back.  A rifle with a bayonet attached was also slung over his back, going the other direction.

While my companions were awed at the sight of Conquest, my eyes fell on Conquest’s companions.

A man with rags draped over him from head to toe.  Burly, tall, the sort of guy that’d be a top of the line defenseman on a hockey rink.  Hair stuck out from the midst of the rags, scorched, standing up in sharp tufts.  His skin was blistered and burned where I could see it.  I could smell the smoke and ozone from the other side of the broad tower top.  He burned away the air merely by being here, and I wasn’t in good enough shape to be breathing properly to begin with.

One of his eyes was visible.  It burned so bright I couldn’t meet his gaze.

The Eye.  An unliving, monstrous counterpoint to the notion that fire and energy are man’s tools to be harnessed.  A disaster waiting patiently to happen.

Duncan Behaim.  Not in uniform.  He sat on the wall, slouching a little.  Glaring.

Laird Behaim.  Not in uniform, but he wore a long jacket with a badge on the sleeve.  He didn’t slouch.  He held his head high, his expression placid, pocket watch in hand.

Rose.  Arms limp at her side, her head hanging.  She didn’t even look up as we approached.

Conquest bent down, and he picked up a black-covered book that looked positively tiny in his massive hand.

“Three minutes before midnight,” Conquest spoke.  His voice echoed in his alien realm.

“Yes,” Laird said.

I threw the arm down.

“Eight minutes until the imp frees itself.”

“Close enough,” Laird said.

“I imagine you have a strategy,” Conquest said.

Rose raised her head.  I saw her eyes widen in surprise as she saw my friends.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I do.”

I just wished it was a better one.

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