Category Archives: 6.04

Subordination 6.4

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“I expected as much,” Conquest said.  “Every man is someone’s son, and very few men have been born to fathers without some sanguine humors.  To give up without a fight would mean going against thousands of generations of fathers who had the courage, adoration, and aspiration to find a woman, as well as the strength to survive to adulthood.”

“Are you planning on filibustering until the time’s out?” I asked.

“No,” Conquest said.

“Good,” I said.  “Because I really don’t care all that much.”

“You’re being disrespectful.”

“I think actions matter more than words.  I’ve listened, I’ve done as I was ordered.  Three quests, three monsters fought.”

“If you think actions matter more than words, you may not be paying attention,” Fell said.  “Words are very important in our world.”

Conquest spoke, his voice a low rumble that reverberated in an uncomfortable way, as if the deepest rumbles gave way to a nail-on-a-chalkboard screech that I couldn’t quite hear.  “You’ve brought me an arm, but not the demon proper.”

“I still tried,” I said.

He seemed to consider.  “I believe you.  When the younger Behaim reported that you had bled yourself out, I thought you were trying to make yourself so weak as to be useless,” Conquest said.

“I still beat him.  I couldn’t have been that useless,” I said.

Duncan glowered at me.

“You have a familiar, and a cabal,” Conquest observed.

“I prefer ‘circle’ to ‘cabal’.”

“Your concerns matter little to me.  You are a diabolist, few would deny that.  The diabolist’s circle is traditionally called a cabal.”

“Cabals,” Fell commented, “are traditionally exterminated by witch hunters or similar means.  There are inquisitors in Montreal who would be very interested to hear about this.”

“What?” I heard Ty say.

Fuck.

“What are you doing here, Laird?”  I asked.

“My nephew failed to defeat you and ran afoul of the Lord of Toronto,” Laird said.  “I’m smoothing things over.”

“Clever subversion can be overlooked, as it raises my status further when I triumph regardless,” Conquest said.  “To have someone undermine me and fail, they cannot get away with it, or Toronto would seem weaker as a whole in the world’s eyes.  The elder Behaim is offering me some assistance for the time being.”

“Uncle bails Dunc out, huh?” I asked.

“Family looks after family.  Or it should.  Ah, here we are.  Midnight,” Laird said.  “Five minutes until the imp is free.”

“Changing the subject?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter enough to be worth discussing,” Conquest said.

It matters if I can remove two of your allies from the picture.  Turning Conquest’s allies against him had been a plan for some time now.

“I think Laird wants to steal your throne from under you,” I said.

“I know what he wants,” Conquest said.  “The elder Behaim, however, will take a sure thing in claiming Jacob’s Bell over the great risk of seizing and attempting to hold Toronto.  What he wants and what he will do aren’t the same thing.”

“Yes,” Laird said.

“You would do better to focus on what’s going on here,” Conquest said.  “On yourself.  I know what you were planning.  Your companion was kind enough to inform me.”

“I’m sorry,” Rose said.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “Did he torture you?”

“No.  He made me say it.”

I nodded.  “It’s okay.  Not surprised.  I’m sorry.”

“You went and got other people involved?”

“Yes.”

“Without asking me.  Stupid.  So many things wrong with that plan.”

You’ve been through a lot.  I’ll let that slide.

“Four minutes,” Laird said.

I was out of time.

Having Alexis and Ty here made me feel more vulnerable, not less.

“Then I should put my plan into action, I guess,” I said.

“You might want to try sounding more enthusiastic,” Laird said.  “Give the impression of confidence where none exists.”

“Conquest,” I said, ignoring Laird.

“Yes?”

“The Seventh Seal.”

“Hm?  Ah, yes,” Conquest said.

This was the moment of truth.  He knew what I meant.  I only had to let him consider it.

“Rose Thorburn,” Conquest said, taking hold of the chain that led to Rose’s shackle.  “In the time we have remaining, I would like you to draw a circle.  Bind the Imp’s book and its contents.”

Rose hesitated, then lurched to her feet.  She moved like she was a puppet, not a person, fumbling through the books, clumsily pushing them aside, her fingers only dextrous when they found a book she could use.

“I’m not familiar with that particular terminology,” Laird said.  “The seventh seal?”

“It’s not magic.  It’s a movie,” I said.  “A man challenges Death to a contest.  I’m formally challenging Conquest.”

“That challenge will have to be quick,” Laird said.  “You’re short on time.”

“I’m afraid you’re working from a flawed assumption, diabolist,” Conquest said.

“I’m afraid of that too,” I admitted.

Fuck, my heart was pounding so hard I wondered if he could hear it.

“It is the nature of humanity and, in fact, all living things, to vie against Death.  Those contests occur every day.”

“And?”

“And thus Death may very well accept such contests.  It fits with the natural order of things.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

“For Conquest, however, well, it is the nature of mankind to struggle against bondage.  It is also the nature of man to ultimately yield to it.  The forces that would control man are more tireless than the individual man.”

“You would argue there’s no point?  It’s a foregone conclusion?”

“Yes,” Conquest said.

“Three minutes,” Laird said.

“Conquest is also about change,” I said.  “Revolutions occur, dictators are toppled.  It’s in human nature to change our reality as much as it is to go head to head with Death.”

“Change by triumph is the province of another Incarnation.  Liberty, perhaps.”

“When one tyrant takes over from another, that’s not Liberty at work,” I argued.

“You’re talking about War, now.  About Conflict.  I am despair, loss, subjugation and pain, all made incarnate.  I am not the battle, but the one who seizes that which lies in War’s wake.”

I clenched my fists.  “You fucking know-”

“You would do well to show me respect, Thorburn.  I have nothing to lose by saying no.”

“But you’re not going to, are you?” I asked.  “You’re right.  It’s in human nature to wage war against Death.  That makes that contest possible.  But it’s in your nature to crush people under your heel.  Are you going to go against your nature and pass up the opportunity to crush someone?  Me in particular?”

“I am not a slave to my nature.  Many of my kin are, but few of my kin are lords of a city.  I have resources they do not.”

This was the gamble, and I’d lost.

Necessitating a riskier gamble.

“What if I said you were a coward?” I asked.

“If you did, I would respond by subjecting your Rose to the worst I can offer, then turn my attention to your cabal, then to you,” Conquest said.  “You would regret those words.”

“Oh shit,” I heard Ty mutter.  “Torture?”

I didn’t begrudge him that, but I was kind of really glad that Alexis was staying quiet through all of this.

I had.  If I could have said something to him without tipping Conquest off, I might have pointed out that torture here was entirely different from the kind of torture we might experience in the real world.

In the real world, there was only so much pain you could take before your mind or body gave out.  In this realm, Conquest made the rules.

I tried to tell you guys what you were getting into.

Are you calling me a coward, Blake Thorburn?” he asked, stressing the ‘are’.

I had to be very, very careful what I said.

“If you don’t accept my offer for a contest, I’ll call you weak,” I said.  “Not a coward, since you’ve promised to go after my allies if I call you that.  And if you threaten to go after them again, I’ll call you something worse.  Because something as strong as you’re supposed to be should be content with doing your worst to me and me alone.”

He stared down at me, massive, as intimidating as fuck.

A lie.  A delusion.  I was banking everything on that, on the insecurity I’d guessed was at the root of him.

“I can and will make you regret those words, if you insult me,” Conquest said.

“If you do, at least have the guts to make me and me alone regret them.”

“If I accept, I will see this contest through, I will win, free to take my prize.  If I refuse, you’ll follow through with the light oath you’ve made, insulting me, and I will be compelled to torment you in retaliation.”

My mouth was dry.  I tried to swallow and failed.  I hoped I wasn’t giving up a tell.

Or maybe he took it as his due.

“That’s essentially it,” I said.

“I am inevitable, much as Death is.  Eternal.  You can’t expect to win.”

“I don’t,” I said.  “Not really.”

I was attacking him on three fronts.  Or trying to, in any event.  Attacking his nature as Conquest, giving him a chance to crush me.  Attacking his insecurity, using the fact that he couldn’t let on how weak he really was… and I was hoping that there was a little something human in him, something that struggled against the boredom that came with eternity.  Would he find this interesting?  A riddle or a mystery?

I looked at Rose, who knelt on the floor, drawing a circle around the bookstand in chalk.

“One minute and thirty seconds,” Laird intoned.

“We will decide the terms before the time is up,” Conquest said.

He was game?

He was willing to play ball.

I couldn’t bring myself to be happy.  Or I could, but it was a dim thing, lost in the midst of the tension and quiet terror.

“Let’s,” I said, my voice tight.

“What form shall this contest take?  Chess?  A musical duel?”

“I was thinking something more fitting for you, Lord of Toronto.”

“Dispense with the flattery.”

“Fine.  The contest… two sides.  One king, five champions.  First king to topple the other wins.”

“You would go to war against me?”

“Neither king can make deliberate use of power while fighting in Toronto.  We can’t retreat to our personal realms.  This should be a more even contest, more about our leadership and the ability to use our Champions than about the power we wield.”

“You want to cripple me, while negating the effect your own weakness has on things.”

No.

“In a sense,” I said.  “This contest is about leadership, using the resources we have available.”

“Very well.”

That was the gravy.  The tidbit I offered to him as bait.

I knew full well that he had power he could leverage that was intrinsic.  Ambient.  He knew it, and he perhaps thought he was getting one over on me.  He was Conquest and he used power just by being.  I handed him this advantage because it got him on board, and it paved the way for future discussion.

I knew there were a dozen ways he could bend the rule.

But I had him listening, playing ball.

“A king must either surrender or be slain by the hand of the opposing king or that king’s champions,” I said.  “When it’s done, the contest is won.”

“Agreed.”

More gravy.  Conquest couldn’t die.  I could.  He had two ways to win, I had the one.  He was also very good at getting people to surrender.

“We pick our champions.  Taking turns.”

“If the champions don’t agree?” Conquest asked.

“Then they don’t agree, and you have an uncooperative champion,” I said.

“Fair.  I will pick first as the challenged.”

Damn.

“Agreed,” I said.  It wasn’t worth fighting over.

“Thirty seconds until the imp is free,” Laird said.

“You don’t impede my exit, nor my champions, before… let’s say one hour from now.”

“Very well.  What of the others?” Conquest asked.  “The ones outside?”

“You forfeit your power over anyone who isn’t one of your champions.  You don’t have to announce it, because a mutiny wouldn’t be keeping with the spirit of the contest, but you can’t order the supernatural residents of Toronto either, directly or by proxy.  Only your champions can be commanded, and only the champions or you can seize victory, or it’s not your victory.  Everyone outside remains in play, and can be convinced to join one side or the other.  Neither of us are liked, so it effectively levels the playing field.”

“A little extreme,” Conquest said.  “If you fight me without the forces at my disposal, are you truly besting me?”

“It’s the metaphorical chess game,” I said.  “We have the board, we each have the same number of pieces.  It’s a question of how well those pieces are used.”

“I cannot forfeit all of my power over others, diabolist.  It is a part of me.”

“You can decline to exercise it,” I said.

“I am not one for even contests.”

I know, but this isn’t as even as you’re pretending it is.

“Then pick your champions well.”

He stared down at me.  Then lowered his head a fraction.  “I’ll accept with a condition.  When I’ve won the contest, I can demand what I want of you.”

Fuck me.  I was expecting that, and it still almost knocked the wind out of me to hear it.

Fuck me.  Fuck.

It was scary, and it was almost as bad as falling victim to the lawyers.

“When-” I found my mouth dry.  The Eye was still here, the air was hot, and I was nervous.  I couldn’t speak for a moment.

“Time’s up.  The imp is free,” Laird said.

On cue, the book’s bindings opened.

Had Rose finished the circle?

She had.  A simple one.

The book unfolded, and Pauz rose out of it, tearing his arms and tiny horns free of the tendrils of ink that stuck to the book itself.

He looked around.

“Hm,” he said, in the voice that didn’t fit his small body.  He perched on the edge of the bookstand and looked down.  “Hmm!?”

“The circle was the Lord’s action, not mine,” I said.

“The circle was drawn by your hand.  You betrayed your word when your mouth spoke of my secrets to Conquest.  I can see, and I am aware.”

Rose’s hand was my hand, her words my words?

Damn it.

“The hand was forced to move.  It was the Lord’s action,” Rose said.  “The mouth was forced to speak.

Pauz hopped, turning.  It pointed an accusing finger at Rose.  “It speaks!  I might call you forsworn, Thorburn.  Mere excuses.

He looked at me, pointing with his other finger.  He screeched, “Are you forsworn!?  Defend yourself!

Fuck me.  I hadn’t expected this angle.

I managed to hold my composure.  “By the terms of our contract, you can take this dispute to a neutral third party.  Your argument would be a hard sell, I think.  I’m not responsible for what the Lord of Toronto does, after I brought you to him.”

“You are if you led him to this path,” Pauz growled.

“I speak honestly when I say I didn’t plan for or want this.”

“Why am I bound?” Pauz asked, his eyes falling on Conquest.  “Why take me if you would bind me fast?”

“You are of little interest,” Conquest said.  “I had no real plans to release or use you.”

Conquest spread massive arms with draping sleeves knit of his own skin, as if embracing his realm, the scene.  “This is a tableau.  I will use the Thorburn diabolist to summon dark powers to my realm, and I must set the stage accordingly.”

“You had me fight those fucking things so they could be props?” I asked.

Conquest’s voice was deep, imperious.  “I had you fight them for many reasons, diabolist.  They will put all visitors into a particular frame of mind.  I did it to weaken you, to distract while I made use of your Rose.  I did it to better secure my realm from rogue agencies, and for other reasons besides.”

“They’re props.  The metaphorical equivalent to animal heads mounted on a hunter’s wall.  Except you didn’t even do your own hunting.”

“They are sources of power, too, trophies won with my abilities, even if those abilities were used to send others to hunt on my behalf.”

I bit my tongue so I couldn’t say something I might regret.

“You did well, Rose,” Conquest said.  “It seems to be an effective circle.  Tell me, did you subvert me?”

Rose made a face.  I could see the momentary strain, as if she were about to have a stroke, then relief that came with obedience.  “Yes.”

“Tell me, how?”

“The chalk circle is weak.  It won’t hold.”

“I want you to repair it.  Can you do it now?”

“No.  I need materials.  Animal entrail or animal blood.”

“Then it can wait.”

“You deceived me,” Pauz accused me.

“I did, but not on purpose.”

“I will not have what I want, like this.  Forever bound, a decoration?  A well of power to be tapped.”

“No,” I said.  “I guess not.”

I’d hoped to destabilize and distract Conquest and contain the taint, or to make him more powerful in a manageable way.

This was the worst of both worlds.  Conquest had power, but it was tainted power.  He was entirely in control, stronger, in a very hard way to manage.

Well, I had other ideas, but I wasn’t sure if I should use them.  There were consequences.

“I name the Eye as my first champion,” Conquest said.

Quite possibly, by all accounts, the most powerful being in the city.

If I’d had first pick, I’d feel twice as confident as I did. There were traps here.  Ideas that could so very easily fall through.

“I name Rose as my first.”

Rose perked up at that.  “Why me?”

“Come on,” I said.

The chain dragged along the floor as she approached me, a little bent, almost weary.

I found her hand with mine, and made myself hold it.

Physical contact wasn’t comforting to me.  Just the opposite, really.  I could deal – she needed it more than I did.

“The Shepherd, as my second champion,” Conquest said.

Another more powerful figure, and arguably a strategic choice.  The Shepherd was a practitioner specializing in ghosts, and, well, many of my assets were ghosts.  Evan, Leonard.  June, who I didn’t have access to.

If we were kids in gym class, he was picking the power players, and I was picking the geeks.

I couldn’t delay longer.  This would be my first gamble, among my picks.

“Fell,” I said, turning my head.

Fell’s eyebrows raised.

“You would take my own subordinate?” Conquest asked.

“He knows you best.”

“He does not have to agree,” Conquest said.

His words had weight.  A latent menace.

Conquest couldn’t use his hold on Rose or Fell to subvert them while this contest lasted, but he could take revenge for any perceived betrayal after the fact.

Fell looked at me.  “There are things I need to say that I can’t, because I am forced to obey him.  If I joined you, I would be free to say it, but it would be too late.”

“I’m asking all the same,” I said.

“Damn you, Thorburn.  You couldn’t make this simple?”  Fell asked.

“Is that a yes?”

“Yes,” Fell said.  “Fuck you, but yes.

I nodded.

He saw what this was.  A chance to fight back against Conquest.  He didn’t like it, but with all I knew about who he was, I knew he couldn’t say no.

Conquest’s voice was deep, brimming with latent anger.  “For my third, I take the elder Behaim.  He owes me a service for my mercy in regards to his nephew.”

“I do, and I’ll do as you wish,” Laird said.

Great.  Time manipulation.

I could only hope that the Behaim batteries were running low after the recent shenanigans.

Right.  My third pick…

“I pick the Hyena,” I said.

“What!?” Evan piped up.

“Relax,” I said.

“The Hyena is not yours to take,” Conquest said.

“It’s not your place to stand in my way, by the terms of this contest,” I said.  It took all the confidence I had, but I crossed the tower’s top to collect the sword form the Hyena had taken.  I held it gingerly in both hands, so the spikes in the thing wouldn’t stab me.

As I returned to my group, I could see the fear in Alexis’ eyes.

I had three friends who were practitioners now, and only two remaining slots.

Thing was, I wasn’t taking any of them.  I didn’t want them on this battlefield.

“I could take one of yours from you,” Conquest said, to my back, as if he were reading my mind.

It was very possible.  I didn’t take my eyes off Alexis.

He had two options.  He could assert his power, picking safe, strong options, or he could gather power by taking someone like Alexis from me, cowing and breaking her.

I was gambling everything that he wouldn’t.  I was gambling that he was insecure, that he couldn’t afford the loss, that he would favor stomping on me and winning this unequivocally, over taking one of my friends from me.

“Hmm,” Conquest murmured.  The little hum reverberated through his realm.  “The imp and the Hyena are there for the taking, so you seize the Hyena, thinking I might take the imp.  Do you want to trap me, diabolist?  Impel me to take the imp, a being you know how to deal with, that your Rose can deal with?”

I didn’t flinch, managing to keep my expression level.  The best poker face I could manage.

“I will take the Astrologer as my fourth,” he said.

One of my allies, all the same.

Did he know?  Was he aware that Diana was on my side?  Fell was aware.

Damn.

He had some degree of sway over Diana by virtue of being Lord of Toronto.  He apparently thought he could bully her into falling into line.

“Then I take the imp as my fourth champion,” I said.

“I expected as much,” Conquest said.  “I’ll take the one in charge of the Sisters of the Torch for my last champion.”

Great.  The zealots.

He was picking assets that came with forces of their own.  The Shepherd had his ghosts, Laird knew other Behaims, and the leader of the Sisters came with a little bit of clout, some manpower.

The ones who remained, not yet elected to be champions, were the Sphinx, the Knights, my cabal…

Either I didn’t trust them, or I didn’t want to bring them into this fight.

“I name Maggie Holt,” I said.

“I do not know this one,” Conquest said.

“A Jacob’s Bell resident, my King,” Laird said, with a trace of sardony.  “A novice Goblin Queen.  No doubt intended to help with the goblin sword he called the Hyena.”

“Very well.”

It was done.

“You may take your leave, as we agreed.”

I stepped towards the imp.  Conquest didn’t stop me.

“Are you going to play ball, Pauz?”

“What?”

“I can leave you here.  You can spite me.  And you might stay here for the remainder of your existence, an immortal prop for an immortal being.  Or I can bring you with, and you can give me your obedience.”

“Three days of obedience,” Pauz countered.

I turned to leave.

“Yes!” he cried out.

“Tell me you’ll go back in the book, and you’ll return to the book at my order, any time from here on out.”

He glared.

“I’m not fooling around, Pauz.”

“I so swear,” he said.

“All of you.  Including your essence and power that you would cast out.  I don’t want to carry a book that’s shedding your power.”

He remained silent, glaring.

I spread my arms.

He sat down, and the book closed itself, the cord winding around the exterior, the same weird bondage-style knot around the black leather tome that I’d seen before.

I collected it.

“You have what you need.  At ten minutes past one this begins in earnest,” Conquest said.  “Leave.”

“You have to relinquish your power over my Champions, by the terms of this contest.”

“Do I?”

“The terms were that you couldn’t command or assert control over anyone who wasn’t a champion of yours.”

“Very well.  I will exercise no power over them.”

“Not good enough.  Release Fell from the deals that hold him, for the duration of this contest.  Rose too.  The shackle has power over her, a weight on her mind and conscience, a reminder, it links you to her and her to you.”

I could see his expression change.  It was quite dramatic, given how monstrous his face was, the skin stretched.  The movement of a brow made skin slip and snap into new positions, baring more teeth incidentally.

“I see.  You not only sought to undermine me, but to unshackle that which belongs to me?”

I nodded.

“Rest assured, Thorburn, when I take my victory, you’ll regret this contest of yours.”

I was already sort of regretting it.  The forces arrayed against us were pretty ugly.

I had two assets that I was loathe to use, and one that might not answer the call.

“You are hereby freed,” Conquest said.  “Let it be known, what I have claimed, I will reclaim.”

That done, he released Rose.  The shackle came off.

She looked at me, wide-eyed, rubbing at her wrist.

Fell stood a little straighter, as if a burden had been lifted off his shoulders.

That done, I took the first step down the stairs.  When I teetered, Rose used her grip on my hand to keep me from falling.  Alexis, on my other side, caught me.

“Fuck you, Thorburn,” Fell muttered, behind my back.

“What the fuck are you saying?” Ty asked.

“I’m telling Blake Thorburn that if he thinks he’s done me a favor here, he hasn’t.”

“I guess I haven’t,” I said.

“I don’t need a rescue attempt,” Fell said.

“You’re getting it anyway,” I told him.

We passed down only one flight before we reached the base of the tower.  We’d climbed four to six, easily.

Fell pushed open the door, and we didn’t pass into Toronto.

Not exactly.

We were in the spirit world that layered our own.  The same caricature of a world that I’d seen outside the police station, when I’d very nearly slipped through the cracks and ceased being Blake Thorburn altogether.

A heavy fog hung over everything, and a dense falling snow made it harder still to see things.

The only cars were parked.  There were no people.

“Um,” Alexis said.  “Okay, I need another smoke.  Ty?”

Ty took over in helping keep me standing.  “Shit on me.”

“Careful,” I said.  “Lies.”

My eyes were on the forces arranged around us.  The Sisters, the Sphinx, the Shepherd, the Drunk, the Knights.

I felt a tug on my hand.

I looked, and saw Rose’s feet lifting off the ground.  She was fading, eroding.

I let go, and she disappeared.

I felt the connection move.  She’d returned to the reflections.

A bit less of a gap between the mirror world and this spirit world than it was between the mirror world and the real one.  Rose wasn’t contained quite so strictly to the mirrors.

Which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  Vestiges were fragile, and she’d taken a beating lately, on a number of levels.

“You’re using the Hyena?” Evan asked.

“I’m keeping Conquest from using the Hyena,” I said.

“But-”

“I’m so lost,” Ty said, talking over Evan.

“Evan, Ty… All of you.  I know you have questions, but… not now.”

I had questions, myself, but I was keeping my mouth shut.

I didn’t want to debrief or fill in the blanks while staring down the Sphinx and the rest of Toronto’s finest.

I made my way down the stairs, Ty at my side.

The Shepherd and the Elder Sister made their way to the door we’d just left, giving us sidelong glances as they walked.

“You entered through one door and left through another,” Isadora commented.  “You’re standing on the other side of things.”

“War,” Fell said.  “It’s not unusual for a Lord to do this, to minimize the effects to the real world.”

“I would argue which world is ‘real’,” Isadora said.

“The mortal world, if you will,” Fell said.

“I will.  Things will bleed over.”

“They will,” Fell said.  “Five champions to each side, and the rest of the players may pick their sides or sit this one out.  With the kind of muscle he has, I don’t think things are going to be pretty for the residents of Toronto, even with this measure in place.”

Isadora nodded.

“It’s an arena,” Ty said.

“Essentially,” Fell said.

“He’s doing this so he can fight with no holds barred.  It’s an advantage to him, but… this is something that’s in his rights as a Lord?”

“Yes,” Fell said.

I nodded.

“That book you hold offends my senses,” Isadora commented.

“There shouldn’t be taint spreading from it.”

“The book is tainted.  Nothing spreads, but it is perverted, fouled,” Isadora said.  “Please don’t move so much.  You’ll spread the smell around.”

“Sorry,” I told her.  “It’s still less offensive than letting Conquest hold on to it.”

“Perhaps.  I’m not sure I like what I see.”

“You told me to go in there with my friends.  I think you were right.  Conquest maybe expected me to protect those friends, and he let his guard down, giving me the goblin and imp.  Thank you.”

The sphinx shook her head.  It was quite dramatic, all things considered.  “Don’t thank me.  You’ve started something, and I’m concerned that it’s the sort of war where there is no victor.”

“With all due respect, Isadora, daughter of Phix,” I said.  “You didn’t help me before.  If you don’t participate, you don’t get to complain when they don’t go the way you wanted.”

“I’m participating, Mr. Thorburn, rest assured.”

That said, she turned to leave.

Her wings folded around her, and she simultaneously stepped out of this world and into the other, adopting a human guise.

I squinted, using my sight, and I could peer into the real world.

She left in a snit,” Alexis said.

Nick had approached while we talked to the sphinx.  As a practitioner, he straddled this world and the mortal one.  The ignorant were relegated to that other world.  If I focused, I could make them out as silhouettes in the drifting snow and heavy fog.

“I think I need a debrief,” he said.

“I know,” I answered.  “Just… give me a second.”

A few seconds passed.

Blake,” Evan piped up, cutting into the silence.  “What are you doing with the Hyena?”

“I’m kind of wondering what he’s doing with Ty and me,” Alexis said.  “We made this leap, and-”

Guys,” I cut her off.  I came across a little more intense than I’d hoped.  “Take… take a few minutes, get acclimatized.  Talk amongst yourselves.  I just need a bit to get my head in order.”

“What you mean is you want us to leave you the fuck alone,” Alexis said.

“For five or ten minutes,” I said.  “You’ve… A good few of you have been involved in this for a day, for hours.  I’ve had day after day of it.  There isn’t anyone here, Pauz and the Hyena excepted, who I don’t either deeply respect or feel very fond of.  Really.  Just give me five or ten minutes.  Please.

There was no reply.  Awkward silence stretched on.

The awkward silence became a merciful silence, punctuated by whispers between others in the group.

My eye fell on a cracked window.  I could see Rose on the other side.  Hugging herself.

Rose hadn’t even said hi to my new recruits.  My circle.  My cabal.

I kind of missed the point where I could talk things out with her.  We kind of needed to return to that point.

Need being the operative word.  I wasn’t sure we’d survive if we couldn’t.

The sword was heavy as I set it down on the dining room table.

This spirit world was a representation of our world, but the forces that had affected it were very different.  I was only just barely beginning to wrap my head around it.

In the mortal realm, things were maintained by care, regular cleaning and maintenance.  Here, things were maintained, I suspected, by caring.  Things that were neglected were neglected, while cherished objects were well looked after.

The parts of the road where cars traditionally traveled were in pristine shape.  Some of the other parts were so pitted and ruined they might as well have been ditches or chasms.

It was eerie.  An entire city, desolate.  When I did see something, it was an eerie thing, a phantom image of a person in the other world who made a deeper impression, a lesser Other, like some faerie equivalent to a rat or a child’s nightmare that had slithered out of a dream and into this world, where it now hid in the cracks, scratching out some kind of existence I might never wrap my head around.

Even my apartment was an eerie twist on its real appearance.

Evan.  Rose.  Ty, Alexis, and now Tiff, who’d stayed at the apartment.  We also had Nick, his one-footed friend, and Priss, as tertiary allies, Fell as a questionable ally and information source, and the imp and Hyena were… mostly just questionable.

“Can I have your phone?” I asked.

“You don’t have a cell phone?” Fell asked me.

“I… no.”

“I’d like to know how you get by in this day and age without a phone.”

“I just do,” I said.  “I never really thought about it.”

He gave me a funny look, but he handed over his phone.

I searched online.  Finding a phone number was hard.  Finding an online profile wasn’t.  I sent Maggie a message over social media.

I returned the phone to Fell.

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed.  “Okay.  One at a time.  In order of introduction.  Rose?”

Silence.

“Rose?”

I looked, and she wasn’t anywhere near us.

Where other connections were either smooth and fluid, or weak, occasionally jerky and flickering where they snapped into place one moment and disappeared the next, Rose’s connection to me was something else entirely.  Inconsistent, jumping here and there, but most definitely not weak.

She appeared at one of the shards of mirror that I’d tacked to the wall.  My head wasn’t the only one that turned to look at her.

“Rose,” I said.

She dropped some books, making a noise, glanced at me, and said, “Gimme a minute.”

Then she was gone.

“Okay,” I said.  “We’ll touch base with her later.  Who’s next?”

“If it’s order of introduction, shouldn’t we be before her?” Ty asked.

“You were only introduced to this today.  Um.  Fell?”

“I’m the second person you ask?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “You had something you wanted to tell me?”

“It’s too late to make a meaningful difference.  I might say you’ve already shot yourself in the foot, but that’s understating it.”

“Explain, please,” I said.  “Because as far as I can tell, this is the only way I’m going to get one over on Conquest.”

“A contest that overwhelmingly favors him?”

“He wouldn’t accept if it didn’t,” I said.

“He could have taken us,” Alexis said.

“He could have, but he wouldn’t have,” I said.  “I… I sort of understand him.  He’s more machine than man.  He follows certain rules.  If we know what those rules are, on top of the underlying motivations, we can predict him.  Maneuver him.  I don’t think this is as unwinnable as it looks.”

We, the people at this table, just have to get past the coven of elementalists, the time travelers, the ghostmonger, the astrologer, and a flaming force of nature that could theoretically bring mortal Toronto to its knees,” Fell said.

“Exactly,” I said.  “I didn’t say it would be easy.  But it’s not unwinnable.”

“You also have the Drunk out for your blood, for reasons inexplicable to me and Conquest both,” Fell said.

“There’s that,” I admitted.

“And the Sphinx is going to try to kill you.”

“Wait, what?”

“There’s been animosity towards you from the outset, the moment it became clear who you were and how you played into Conquest’s hands.  Can you wrap your head around why?”  Fell asked.

“I’m a diabolist.”

“No.  That’s part of the problem.  That label means anything that goes bad can potentially go catastrophically, but it’s not the whole problem.”

“You’re going to have to explain,” I said.

He frowned, leaning back.  “You’ve upset the balance.”

“Things were stable, now they aren’t.”

“In a nutshell… but there’s a complicating factor.  Conquest isn’t as strong as he appears.  Strong, to be sure, he can protect Toronto from outside forces, and he can hold his ground, but he isn’t as strong as he appears.”

There were murmurs from our assembled allies.

“I know,” I said.  “I’m… I guess I’m not surprised you figured it out too.

Drawing more murmurs.

“You don’t see the problem?” Fell asked.  “We all know, for the most part.  Maybe the Sisters don’t.  The Knights don’t know, I know.  But it’s common knowledge.”

“He’s a figurehead,” Nick said.

“He’s a figurehead,” Fell confirmed.  “He’s predictable, he’s something we can manipulate in a pinch, and he’s got the job that nobody here wants.  If Conquest fails, someone else has to take the job, and unlike Conquest, the rest of us aren’t immune to the thousands of very creative means of assassination that the practitioners of the world might employ.”

He looked around the table.

“When I say things are stable, I’m saying that people are either on board with the figurehead idea, or they’re under Conquest’s thumb, by virtue of being enslaved or being weak.  You coming in here, you’ve spoiled that… and that’s why you’re not going to find one more ally in this city.”

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