Category Archives: Arc 6 (Subordination)

Subordination 6.6

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My senses were consumed by images of fire, the sound of screaming, and a six-foot-something brute of a man that looked more at home walking through the flames and wreckage than he had outside of it.  The rags that bound him together were dark, the rest of him burned like it was made to, skin sizzling and popping like meat in the frying pan, but not being consumed.

The big hulking threats in the movies didn’t move fast.  When the main characters were up against the three-hundred pound chainsaw-wielding maniacs, they could at least scramble away and outrun the motherfuckers.  The Eye didn’t move that slow.  Longer legs meant longer strides, he was standing and I was on the ground, and I was a very tired human, while he was some kind of otherworldly abomination.

Evan swooped low, between the Eye’s legs.  Without looking, the Eye reached back, grabbing blindly at Evan.  Evan was in the process of ascending, avoiding the burning wreck, and managed to escape both the grasping hand and the flames.

It was a horrible risk for a negligible effect, nearly getting caught, which would toast Evan and me, and the bird passing by while the Eye was mid-step didn’t even make the thing stumble.  The grab at Evan was more of a delay than anything.

It was a delay I could use.  My progress was impeded by the silhouettes of the rescuers and fleeing bystanders.  They were only partially there, and the further I got from the Eye, the easier it was to fight through them.

I was able to get to my motorcycle.  Getting it up off the ground was another thing.  It wasn’t a big bike, but I wasn’t strong.

Evan appeared, giving the bike a bit of a nudge as he settled on the handlebars.  It was the helping hand I needed.

I could feel the stinging warmth of the Eye on the back of my head and neck as he got closer.

Gunshots rang out.  I could see the flashes.  Fell stood by his car, driver’s door open, gun in hand.  He emptied it at the Eye, and all but one shot hit.

Buying me a chance to get away.

I climbed on the bike.

Normally when riding a motorcycle, the engine needed to warm up first.  Fuck up and move too soon, and the engine could sputter or die.  With the Eye closing on me, the consequence would be me dying a sputtering death.  I couldn’t even trust the temperature gauge.

Staying meant the same thing.  Death.

I could only hope that the engine was still warm from the earlier ride, and that the ambient temperature wasn’t taking hold on the thing.

I was moving a moment later, stopping only long enough to give Tiff a chance to climb on.  While she got in position, I looked back.

The Eye had shrugged off the bullets, but wasn’t giving chase.  It remained near the flames.  Reality continued to distort around it, alternating between showing glimpses of reality and the spirit world.

Distant sirens filtered into this world from the other, moving to the scene.  The Eye was quick, but not fast enough to follow on foot.

He thinned out the border between our world and this one, freeing him to affect both.

But how had he found us?

As I rounded the corner, putting the Eye behind us, I saw more ghosts accumulating.  Maybe it was better to say that I saw them more clearly.  There were no silhouettes, no dark, faceless figures representing the people in the real world.  These were ghosts, wisps, apparitions and specters.  Where the silhouettes were faceless, the expressions on the faces of these guys were exaggerated, their features taken a step too far.

The ones who smiled smiled too wide, the angry expressions twisted their faces into something monstrous.  The wounds that marked how they died were taken a step too far.  A woman with black veins stretching around lower half of the face and throat.  A man with a tumor grown wild, emaciated but for the fleshy lump that stood out from his sternum.

The Shepherd’s servants.  Was he doing something to bring out their more unusual qualities?

Was he the one that was tracking us?

Each of these ghosts could be reporting back to him.

The car caught up to me.  Fell was driving as recklessly as he had when he’d dropped me off with the Knights.

The ghosts all watched us as we streaked down the carless road.  Macabre faces turned as we passed.

How many years had the Shepherd been active?  How many people had died in Toronto in that span of time?  How many of those deaths had been violent or painful enough to make an imprint in reality?

Did he have a mechanism to handle it, or did he simply do it full time?  Collecting the echoes?

The number of ghosts didn’t decrease, even as minutes passed.  If anything, they only got more numerous.  I saw the same ghost twice, then three times.  As if they were being moved ahead of us as we left them behind.

He was with us, even if we couldn’t see him.

I looked for a connection and didn’t find one.  I couldn’t take my eyes off the road or the ghosts nearby to look up or behind us.

Fell drove in the incoming lane, pulling up to my left.  I could see Alexis in the passenger seat.  She was talking, saying something to Fell.  Reporting on my condition, maybe.

The car abruptly slowed, dropping back from my left.

I could see why.  Ghosts were streaking across the street, more like flashes of light than people.  All towards one central point.

They congealed into a form.  The Shepherd.

As the other ghosts had, he watched us, his head turning to track us.

He raised his staff-

We passed him.  He disappeared behind us.

I turned a corner, and Fell turned to follow.  Break from the pattern, maybe catch him off guard-

No such luck.  More ghosts.  More streaking lights.  One or two passed through me.  I could feel it, cold, flickers of emotion so brief I couldn’t pin them down or even react.

I wobbled a bit before righting myself.  I heard Tiff yelp, a brief sound that the rush of wind tore from us.

I moved away from the point where the ghosts were converging.

It wasn’t the Shepherd making another fleeting appearance.  It was a ghost.

A man, older.  I couldn’t make out anything else.

We approached, then passed it.  My focus went to the road, watching for potholes.

An explosion rocked the space behind us.  My heart skipped a beat as the shockwave swept past us.  I experienced a brief, paralyzing terror, a sense of something unfinished.

I wobbled more violently than before in the wake of it.  I slowed, focusing on getting control.

There weren’t half as many ghosts on the sidewalks now.  They watched as I steered the bike around.  I checked over my shoulder, and I saw smoke rising from the point of detonation.  It had images etched in it, the man’s face, repeated over and over.

Fell’s car slowed, continued forward in neutral, then stopped.

I huffed out a breath.  I’d had moments where I’d worked so hard I’d been out of breath, and I’d tried to suppress it instead of make a lot of noise panting and recovering.

This was like that.  It came with a general feeling of unpleasantness, almost but not quite nausea.  Throughout my entire body.

When I felt it starting to concentrate in my left hand, I fumbled with the clutch and slowed.

It got worse fast.  Strength going out of my hand and arm.  More nausea.  A cold sweat.

My heart had skipped a beat, and it hadn’t started up again.  Not properly.

I managed to stop the bike, but I didn’t get the kickstand down.  We wobbled, and Tiff had to brace us with one leg to keep all three of us from tipping over.  I leaned over the handlebars, gasping like a fish out of water.

Fuck me, this hurt.  I felt like something heavy was sitting on my chest.  Big and dense enough that the force of the crushing was enough to take the strength out of the rest of my body.  The limbs couldn’t work if the core didn’t.

“Blake,” Tiff said.  “The Eye, it’s at the end of the road.”

I closed my eyes, because absolute darkness was better than seeing spots and sparks across my field of vision.

“Blake?”

“It hurts,” Evan said.

I forced my eyes open.  I was breaking out in a sweat.  All the little things your body did that pointed to something being very, very wrong.  Evan was on the headlight, looking up at me.  He was lopsided, and his little hop to one side was clumsy, obviously debilitated.

Sympathetic pain?

“That really sucked, whatever it was,” Tiff said.  “Did it get you harder than it got us, little guy?”

“Got Blake most of all,” Evan said.  “He’s really hurting.”

“Blake,” Tiff said.  She got off the bike, holding it and me up, fumbled for far too long to get the kickstand down.

The ghosts around us were drawing closer.  I heard the report of Fell’s gun.  Shooting ghosts?

No.  The Eye.

“They aren’t coming to help.  I don’t know what to do.”

“Get help.”

“I can’t leave him.  If he falls over- can you go?”

“Can’t fly like this.”

“Hey!”  Tiffany yelled.  More sparks exploded across my field of vision at the loud noise.

I was deflating, getting weaker and more numb from moment to moment.  My hands, head, and feet felt heavy.  I’d bled myself out, but this was my heart giving out.  When you died, the doctors used the moment the heart stopped to mark the time of death.  This was… kind of backward.  The heart had stopped, and now the rest of me was swiftly moving from ‘okay’ to ‘dead’.

“They’re occupied,” I heard Rose say.  “Trying to stall the Eye and ward it off so it can’t follow.”

“Should I give him CPR?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.  But CPR isn’t a fix.  It’s something you do until better help comes along, and I don’t like the look of those things I’m sensing over there.”

“Ghosts,” Tiff said.

“We need a fast fix.  Do you have something to cut yourself with?”

“Yeah.”

“Do it.  Hold Blake’s hand… his right hand.  Put the blood in his palm.”

Such an ignoble, anticlimactic way to go out.

“Yes, like that.  In his palm.”  Rose said.  “This is my fault,”

I was only peripherally aware that she was touching my hand.

“Why?  How?”

“I told Conquest that Blake was weak.  That he’d been giving up too much blood, and he was tired.  I didn’t know he’d bleed himself out in the prison, to get me back.”

“I think anyone could look at Blake and tell that he had problems,” Tiff said.

I could feel the moisture in my palm.  It was surprisingly warm, when my hand felt so cold.

“I still hate that he’s using information I gave him against us.  Blake’s fragile, and if we lose him, we lose this.”

“We lose, period.”

“Yeah,” Rose said.  “That’s enough.  Cover the cut.  Close his hand.  Ball it up…”

Tiff closed my hand into a fist.  There wasn’t a lot of blood, but with my hand clenched as tight as it would go, it squeezed between my fingers.  More warmth.  When my hand felt nearly normal, it made its way up my arm.

“The ghosts are getting closer.  The salt on the road is hampering them, but they’re finding their way through.  He’s probably burning power to make it happen.  You’re going to need to take action.”

“I’m not good with fighting,” Tiff said.

“Don’t look at it as fighting.  Look, position his hand so it won’t open…”

I managed to raise my hand, clenching the fist, to show I could manage it on my own.  The warmth was spreading through my upper arm to my shoulder, but my feet were almost completely gone, and my vision was going black, lost in a sea of sparks and blots.

“He can hold it up.  Good.  In his bag, there’s-”

“A book, some tools, twine-”

“Box of salt?”

“Yeah.”

“Get it out.  Use the salt.  Don’t worry about wasting it.  Just dash it out.”

“Oh god.”

“Don’t worry.  They’re more a force of nature than people.  It’s like taking shelter from the rain.  Or throwing salt on the sidewalk to prevent people from getting hurt later on.”

“Okay.”

“Good.  Like that.  Stall, keep it up.  I’m going to go help the others.”

The warmth in my arm and shoulder reached my heart, and things quickly returned to normal.  I gasped, and this time the gasp was more like a breath of air after being underwater.

As my vision cleared, I could see how close the ghosts were getting.  They staggered, left and then right, trying to find patches where the salt wasn’t as thick.

When they did stagger through, they visibly weakened, flickering and fraying.

Each one radiated a particular emotion or idea.  If I didn’t feel one hundred percent yet, it was because they were radiating sickness and malaise, weakness and general pain.  Even with the salt as a barrier, it was noticeable.

“I feel better.  You feel better?” Evan asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Thanks to Tiffany.”

Tiffany glanced back at me.  Her smile was fleeting.

I fixed the kickstand, then stood.

Fell’s gun went off a few more times.  The Eye was closing in.

I took the box of salt from Tiff.  She stepped back until she was behind me.

“Evan, fly closer to the ground.  Stir the salt into the air.  Loop by the others, report back.”

“‘Kay.”

A ghost with needles sticking out of it drew closer.  I cast salt out.  It was weak, crossing the salt already on the road, and the salt I used was enough to banish it.  It wasn’t gone, but it was dissolved into its constituent echoes.  Wisps, ectoplasm, flickers.  Whatever snips and snails went into making a ghost on the fundamental level.

I dealt with another.  I could feel how light the box was.  This wasn’t a permanent solution.  I glanced over my shoulder.

The Eye.

Especially not with him around.

“Evan just asked me to come back?”

“What’s holding us up?” I asked.

“Alexis had the same symptoms you did,” Rose said, from the motorcycle’s side mirror.  “Ty’s helping her.  Fell’s stalling.”

“Why her?” Tiff asked.  “Blake’s weak, but Alexis…”

“I don’t know,” Rose said.

“I do,” I said.  “Her dad had a heart problem.  She used to always complain about the food she had to eat as a kid, because her mom made super healthy food with zero cholesterol.”

I threw salt to deal with another ghost.  The needle ghost was already starting to reform, complete with transmitted bursts of desperation that was really fucking with my ability to stay calm and assess the situation.

“She always liked eating crap,” Tiff said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“And she smokes.”

“Yeah,” I said, again.  “Shit, I hope she’s okay.”

“Even if she makes it through this…”

“She will,” Rose said.

Evan returned, flying close to the ground.  He wasn’t flying fast, but snow and salt were stirred in his wake, and the ghosts retreated.

I took the chance to get on the bike.  Tiff climbed on behind me.

I headed back to the others.

The Shepherd wasn’t far from the Eye, standing by a corner, ready to duck behind cover if Fell pointed the gun his way.

The Eye had stopped.

Fell, with his focus on the targets and the encroaching ghosts, wasn’t seeing what the Eye was doing while it was stopped.

The hood of his car was smoking.

Ty and Alexis were in the vehicle, Alexis lying on the back seat, Ty squeezed in between the two front seats, holding her hand.

I knew why.  I knew what they were doing, but I still felt a little uncomfortable seeing it.

“Fell!”  I shouted.

“What!?”  he called out.  He didn’t even turn.  He changed targets, aiming at the Shepherd.

The Shepherd ducked out of the way.  By some unseen signal, the ghosts around us drew closer.

I shook the box, using the last of the salt to drive some ghosts back.

The nearest were half a block away, but I could still feel them, and it was only a matter of a minute or two before they got close enough.

“You’re okay?” Fell called out.

“Fake heart attacks suck balls, but they’re still fake, I’m feeling better every second,” I said.  “The Eye is cooking your car.”

He looked.  “Motherfucker.

“Alexis seems okay.  We should go.”

He nodded.

When he turned, though, the ghosts took that as a cue.  They approached, a little more quick and intense than before.

“Out of salt,” I said, as Fell climbed into the car.  Ty moved out of the way, climbing into the passenger seat.

“Me too,” Fell said.  “Used most of the stuff I had in the back to make a barrier, keep the Eye back.”

“There’s a fuckton of salt on the road,” I said.  “It’s not stopping the ghosts like it should.”

“Shepherd’s implement is the shepherd’s crook.  Guides things,” Fell said.  “Normal rules don’t apply for his ghosts.”

“Why is the Eye not approaching?”

“I bound it, kind of.  It won’t hold.”

He slammed the car door.  I saw the headlights flare as the engine started, then stopped short.  Smoke billowed from the hood.

The ghosts were getting closer.

Fell rolled the window down.  The car was old, and he had to manually crank a handle to roll it down.

“Slow them down,” he ordered.

“How?  No salt.”

“Figure it out!”

He scrawled something on the dash in chalk, tried the car again.  It didn’t start up.

Evan swooped by the ghosts.  More snow and salt moved, a delay.

“I need something more,” I said.

“I’m trying to concentrate, Thorburn,” Fell said.

“This isn’t working.  We need a tool.  Do you have anything?”

“Can’t help you,” he barked out.  He adjusted the rune, another failure to start.

“The Eye is making it worse faster than you’re making it better,” Rose said.  “Leave the car?”

“I don’t need one of you fucking up my concentration, let alone the two!” Fell shouted.  “Without the car, we won’t all be able to keep running!  They will catch us!  They don’t ever stop.”

I looked at the Eye of the Storm.  It stood there, still, still burning in places from the fire earlier, eye glowing.

“Give me that powder?” I asked.

Fell glanced at me, annoyed, then grabbed a handful from his coat.  He slapped it down into my hand.

I turned the bike around and accelerated, lurching as Tiff moved the wrong way and we went less than gracefully into the turn.  I looped around the back of the car, towards the Eye, and I let the powder trail from my hand as I went.  A thin cloud of Fell’s dust between the car and the Eye.

Trying to break the connection.  A line of power to block the flow of things.

The effect was negligible.  The car didn’t suddenly start, the smoke still billowed.

I used what remained to bar the path of the nearest group of ghosts.  It was weak at best.

A woman-ghost screamed at me.  Not the usual sort of scream, but the kind of howl that threw all caution and social grace to the wind.  The kind that usually preceded an accident.

Fell’s powder seemed to dampen the effect.  Pain still rocked through me, and Tiff slipped, hurling herself forward, her chin driving into my shoulder.

This was messy, stupid, and we were dealing with nigh-on inevitable forces.  An immortal abomination and a whole lot of things intrinsically linked to death, which was about as inevitable as it got.

The spirits were crowded at the sidewalk, to the point that they were shoulder to shoulder.  Only the strongest seemed able to make it over what was very hostile terrain to them.  It was good we only had a few to deal with, it sucked that they were as potent as they were.

“Didn’t work!”  I called out, as I pulled up to the passenger window.

“I know it didn’t work!” Fell shouted.

It was Rose who spoke, “How’s he doing this?  The Shepherd?”

“I asked myself the same question,” I said.

“Still concentrating!” Fell said.  His rune was now sprawled almost all the way across the dash.  Interconnecting images.

“He’s got to have a weakness,” Rose said.  “You don’t control this many Others this easily, even if they’re weak ghosts.”

The ghosts drew nearer, and as they did, they lowered our level of functioning.  Distraction, disorientation, pain, panic, all flashing through our minds.  It only ratcheted up the level of panic.

I could see Fell struggling, his hand shaking as he drew one line, licked his thumb to erase it, and drew it again.

“Uneasy departed!”  Rose called out.  She spoke from the car and bike mirrors.  “In the name of the Thorburn Bloodline, with all the respect and history that name commands, I order you to cease!

The ghosts around us stopped in their tracks, no longer drifting left and right to navigate a path.  They were still, and the area was silent.

One even disappeared, frayed and worn enough that it couldn’t stand up to simple words.

“Was worth a try,” Rose said.

“It worked,” I said.

“It was still worth a try,” Ty said.  “Keep going!”

But the Shepherd did something, eliciting a loud clack, and the ghosts resumed their movement.

“Stop!”  Rose commanded.

They didn’t listen this time.

“Almost,” Fell said.  “Almost done.”

I looked at the engine.  If someone had raised the hood to reveal that the engine block was literally on fire, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

What the fuck was he doing?

“By the name of the Thorburns, by my ancestors, greater than me, I order to to be still!”  Rose cried out.

I could see the momentary hesitation, as if the spirits were people who’d stepped out of an air conditioned house into oppressive heat, but they resumed movement all the same.

“Different tack,” I said.

“Okay,’ Rose said.

“What you did when you tried to bind the Abstract-”

“I know!” she said.

The vibration of my bike shifted.  I looked down.

The temperature gauge was rising.

The Eye had set his sights on me.

“Four times, I will bid you to throw off the shackles your master has used to bind you!” Rose called out.  “Let this be the first, spirits!  I, Rose Thorburn, urge you to rebuke him!”

The Shepherd wasted no time.  He dismissed the spirits.  One by one, each ghost that that might have been in earshot disappeared.  It only left one.

An apparent cancer victim.  Bald, shirtless, with only pyjama bottoms on, staring at the ground.

Light began to streak towards it.  Ghosts all being used to supercharge this one.  To get it to explode, and visit us with it’s essence and means of death.

“For the second time, I rebuke you!  Let my words have more power for the repeating!”

It’s not going to work fast enough.

The effect the spirits had on us was ratcheting up.  I was hurting everywhere, but they were phantom pains.  I felt like shit, but it was phantom feelings at play.

I knew because my feelings tended to hit me harder, a little more unforgiving.

I’d wanted to experience the kind of anger I could fight through and use it to fight harder.

This was as close as I’d get.

“Ty,” I said.  “Sword.”

That sword?”

“Yeah,” I said.

He had to twist around and reach down to the floor of the car behind the driver’s seat to grab it.  He maneuvered it through the window.

“Tiff, off.  Ride in the car.”

I pulled off my backpack and turned it around.  Sword lying across my lap, salt-box over the handle so I didn’t gouge my thigh, my backpack at my chest instead of my back, pressing the flat of the blade down against my thighs as I leaned forward, hands on the handlebars.

“Look after Alexis,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.

The moment she was off, I revved up and peeled out.  I suspected Alexis had been in the middle of saying something when I left.  If she had, I didn’t hear it.

It was cold as fuck, the snow had soaked my coat and clothes from the outside in, cold sweat had soaked them from the inside out, and the wind just cut straight through it to bite deep into me.

I passed the line that Fell had described.  Salt plus snow to make something approximating water.  Water to oppose the Eye of the Storm, or so I supposed.  Salt plus water?

The moment I passed the line, my bike kicked.  More smoke, more complaints from the engine.

“Evan!” I shouted.  “Guide me!”

“Yeah!” he cried out, a small voice lost in the rush of wind.

I turned, steep, and steered right for the alley where the Shepherd was taking cover.

I shifted the position of the sword with one hand, steered with the other, and sailed within a hair of the Shepherd, blade’s point sticking out.

A jouster’s run, in a way.

I stopped at the far end of the alley and turned around.  I nearly lost the sword as it came close to slipping from my lap in the midst of my using the clutch, but I caught it and fixed the position.

The Shepherd had turned into a ghost.  Or adopted ghostly defenses for himself.  Untouched, untouchable in the conventional sense.

Ghosts were emerging from the walls.  Slower ones, less material.

The Eye was closer to the mouth of the alley, and a newspaper box was blazing nearby.  I suspected that it could and would combust at the worst possible time.

It was narrow, as escape routes went.

Rose made her third bid, and the ghosts hesitated.  The Shepherd struck the wall with his staff, and the ghosts surged forward again.

Low quality, high quantity bindings, it seemed.

“Another go.  Help keep the way clear,” I said.

“Yep!”  Evan said.

My engine popped.  More smoke.

Fuck me.

The Eye would pay for messing with my bike.

But first, the Shepherd would pay for fucking with my friends.

I left the sword the way it was, shifted gears, then raced for the mouth of the alley.

One hand on the sword, again, and another jousting run.  This time with the Shepherd to my left, the blade’s point to my right.  I didn’t look at him.  My eyes were on the exit.

He moved his crook, apparently planning something.  To catch me around the throat as I passed, possibly.

He wasn’t watching for the sword’s pommel.  It was only when I stuck it out that he saw what I was doing.  I’d focused on the exit only to mislead.

There was magic, and there were magic tricks.  Sleight of hand.

He turned ghostly.  It didn’t help that much.  I still had the box of salt over the handle, and even largely empty, there were trace amounts of salt inside.  Enough to fuck with a ghost.

Enough to fuck with him.

I felt the impact this time, and came very close to both crashing the bike or having the sword’s blade lever over to cut me in the side.  I managed to just barely avoid both.

He felt it too, and he folded over.  A punch in the gut at thirty kilometers an hour.

Ghosts disappeared, one by one.  Ones on and around the car, on the sidewalk, and elsewhere.  I couldn’t say whether it was Rose’s words or my actions that had done it, but we’d banished them.

Rather than risk trying to slip by the Eye and the burning box, I hurried to turn around, riding over and past the fallen Shepherd’s spectral body, hoping there was salt on the tires.

No such luck, as far as I could tell.  He was dissolving much as the other banished ghosts had.  He, too, would reappear somehow.  If I’d had more salt, and if the Eye hadn’t been in the immediate area, I might have tried to bind or disrupt him.  But I didn’t, and the Eye was close enough to get in the way.

I rode through the alley, exiting the far end.

“They’re going,” Rose said.  She was on the back of my bike, looking at me through the side-view mirror.

How did that even work?  Was there someone on the bike in her version of the world, or was it moving without a rider?

I put the questions out of my mind.

“Yeah, ghosts are gone,” I said, raising my voice to be heard over the wind.  Easier than it might have been, because I was slowing down to turn the corner.

“I meant Fell and your cabal.  They’re moving.  The Eye is following you, but it’s slow.”

“Good.  Good job,” I said.

There was no response.  She’d already moved on.

I rode down the empty street, parallel with the others.  Evan moved forward to the headlight, perched there, but with his wings spread.

Had we been able to hear each other, I might have asked if he was lending his abilities to our escape from the Eye, or if he was just doing it because he enjoyed it.

I hadn’t been exercising, exactly, but I was still exhausted when we finally managed to stop.

Fell did what he could to break the connections between us and the others.  He set up a few more stick figures and partially masked them, to confuse the trail.

In the end, we pulled into a garage, because Fell loved his car and I loved my bike, and we wouldn’t be able to get by if either one broke down.

Rust, frayed wires, melted insulation…

I’d taken extensive classes on maintaining a car or a bike.  When I set to work repairing some of the damage, I sensed a grudging respect from him.

“You’re an asshole, Thorburn, for dragging me into this,” Fell said, banishing the idea from my head.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  My eyes fell on Alexis.  “I really am.”

“Guess that’s a wake up call,” Alexis said.  “I can’t keep ignoring my heart, if I’m as vulnerable to a heart attack as Blake is when he’s this weak.”

“Not entirely a bad thing,” Ty said.

“No, it isn’t,” Alexis said.  But she looked a little shaken.

“It isn’t, but… it kind of sucks when you have to grow up,” I said.

“Yeah,” Alexis said.  “No more garbage food for me, I guess.”

I looked at Tiff.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m not the type that can deal with pain or anger, or being scared,” she said, quiet.

“You did good,” I told her.

“I don’t, um, I don’t want to be good at it?”

“You mean you don’t want to fight?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I sighed.

“The original plan stands?” Fell asked.

“Yeah.”

“She should stay here, then.  Secure building, I can secure it further, and if we need to fall back to a location, we fall back here.”

“I don’t want to be alone in the middle of all of this,” Tiff said.  “I’ll go crazy, thinking every sound is something dangerous.”

“Rose and I will stay here for the time being,” I said.  “Take it easy, rest, catch your breath, and we’ll fix up the vehicles.  Fell, Ty and Alexis can secure another area to retreat to.”

“Then what?” Rose asked.

“Then… well, we’re going to need to hash out a plan of attack.”

“If we run into the Eye and the Shepherd again, we’ll need firepower,” she said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“We could let Pauz loose.  I know we couldn’t do it back there, but…”

“But it’s dangerous,” I said.  “I’m not saying no.  I’m saying… we need to be careful.  Let’s talk it over when I don’t have my hands full.”

“Yeah,” Rose said.

I applied electrical tape to the wires I could salvage.  Or spirit-world electrical tape, as it happened.

I had so many questions about the relation between this world and that one, but the only person present who might have been able to answer was Fell, and Fell was being a grouch, more than the usual.

When I crossed to the workbench to see what might be available, Evan was there, perched on the toolbox lid, looking down at the Hyena’s sword.

“It’s smiling,” he said.

I looked.  Sure enough, the engraved face was leering in a fanged smile at the hilt.

“It liked the violence, probably,” I said.

“I hate it,” he said.  “I hate it and I can’t do anything to it.  I can’t hurt it or make it stop smiling.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Sorry.”

“If I could crap on it, I would.  See if it smiled when I dropped a big white and black blob on its face.  But I can’t crap.”

“You probably could if you ate something,” I said.

“Really?” he said, with a note of hope.  Then he changed moods, “That would take too long.”

“If it’s any consolation, goblins are messed up enough that they would probably enjoy it.”

He made a small, frustrated sound, fluttered down to the sword, and pecked at its eye a few times.  When that didn’t do anything, he muttered, “Whatever,” and flew away.

“You’re so blasé,” Alexis commented.

“Me?”

“You, yeah.  You’ve totally adapted to this.”

“Barely, if at all,” I said.  I found the wire snips and started stripping the most damaged wires of insulation.

“You’re talking to a bird about a smiling sword not twenty minutes after we almost died.

“Numb more than blasé, I think.”

“You’re rolling with this in a way I couldn’t imagine myself doing if I had a year.”

“Are you regretting the choice?  Getting on board?”

Alexis frowned.

“You don’t have to answer.  Having to tell the truth doesn’t mean you have to respond to every question.”

“Yes?” she said, as if unsure.  “Yes, I regret getting into this.  I’m scared, and I’ve sort of made a point of not being scared for my own welfare, the past few years.”

“Yeah,” I said.  Alexis had always focused more on the welfare of others than on herself.  She had been thrown into the deep end of an awfully big, deep pool, and it didn’t help that she was out of her element, being scared on her own behalf.

“But I don’t regret helping you,” she said.  “Or, I don’t regret doing this to help you… even if I’m not sure what I’m doing, yet.”

“It’ll take time,” I said.  “Get grounded.  Fell will take you somewhere, you do what he says, set up defenses.”

“I’m not a strategist,” she said, “But you don’t win fights just by running away and defending.”

I saw a motion out of the corner of my eye.  Ty, bobbing his head in agreement.  Tiff sat on the bumper of Fell’s car, just beside him, watching Alexis and me, listening.

“Not normally,” I said.  “This fight?  I think we can.  In fact, I’m more confident than I was.”

That had their attention.  Fell shifted position, still ducked under the hood of his car, but keeping an eye on me too.

“The Lord of Toronto is an incarnation.  He’s… I don’t want to say his name, but you know what it is.  C-word.  He’s… the occupying tyrant, ruin, subjugation, the victor ruling over the defeated.  Look at the word, at what it means.  There’s the past tense and the present.  He’s drawing power from past victories where he utterly trampled the loser.  We can’t do much about that, except to take away the trophies and subvert the win.”

“My father wrote a great deal on this subject,” Fell said.

“Yeah.  Well, there’s the present tense too.  C-word in progress.  So long as we’re defying him, keeping our spirits up, staying focused, we’re winning.  We’re making it so he can’t be that.  He can’t be C-word in progress if we’re even or if we’re winning.  We can ride this out.  I’m betting that if we do, it’ll make him hurt, on some fundamental level.  He’ll react to it, and he’ll get impatient.”

“Even if he does,” Fell said, “We don’t have the forces to capitalize on any mistakes.”

“We can get them.  Or we work out a situation where we don’t need them,” I said.

“It sounds thin,” Fell said.  “Too many enemies on the board here.”

“It is thin,” I said.  “But it’s a way through.  More importantly, it’s a way through that we can pursue, with the people and forces we have here.  We seize territories, just like this.  We keep moving.  Maybe after Alexis and Ty take over some other spot, we leave this behind, some big fuck you bit of graffiti on the wall to lay claim to the space.  Take territory from under his nose.”

“Not much territory,” Ty said.

“No,” I said, “It’s very little in the grand scheme of it all.  Thing is… Laird there once compared himself to America, and Conquest isn’t so different.  If someone invaded the States and seized a small town, it wouldn’t be much in terms of square footage or overall population, but you can bet the Americans would be pissed.”

“Tell you what,” Fell said.  “You’re thinking along the same lines my dad did.  Why don’t I grab some of his work while I drop these guys off.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I’m actually kind of itching to read something, so to speak.  Rose is the only one with free access to our library right now.”

“Right,” he said.  “You have wire cutters?  My battery’s fucked.”

“Wire cutters,” I said, “Yeah.”

From planning to the practical.

Movement stirred me from sleep.  I wasn’t sure when I’d drifted off, or even when I’d taken a seat by the wall, but I had.

Alexis was standing, and in the doing, she was jostling Tiff, who sat next to me.

I could dimly remember the bit from before we’d fallen asleep.  I’d finished fixing up the bike as much as I could, and Fell had been only partially done, giving me only a glare in answer when I offered help.  I’d seated myself against the wall, offering some murmured words of reassurance to Tiff, who had been uneasy even in sleep.  When Tiff had leaned over, resting her head on my shoulder, I’d stayed where I was.

There were things I’d wanted to do, preparations to make, but… fuck it, I hadn’t wanted to disturb her sleep.  I’d fucked up her life enough as it was.

Joel had told me to be selfish sometimes, and I’d listened.  I kind of regretted that now.

Somewhere along the line, sitting still, exhausted enough to not care about the immediate presence of another person in my personal space, I’d joined her in dozing off.

Now Alexis was heading out.  Ty and Fell were already in the car.

Alexis raised her hand in a wave.  I raised mine.

The car moved on, leaving on Tiff and I in the dark garage.

A good ten minutes passed, my mind whirling, trying to piece together events.

Tiff stirred, then mumbled, “sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“‘Lexis said you don’t like touching,” she mumbled, barely understandable.

She moved her head away.

I took that as my cue to rise.

Evan was on the workbench, looking down at the sword.  He looked up at me as I passed.

“Tell her where I am if she wakes up?”

“Okay.”

I headed into the back office, searching the space.

I found Rose in the women’s bathroom.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

She was silent.

“Are we still… in a bad place?”

“No.  Yes.  Kind of.”

“Aren’t you guaranteed to lie if you answer like that?”

“I’m telling the truth.  All three are true.”

“Ah.”

“Blake… I’m scared as fuck.  I’m paralyzed, trapped, and being caught by Conquest, made to talk, you constantly doing stuff when I’m not there… I’m helpless.”

“I know,” I said.

“You don’t.”

“I know more than you think,” I said.

“Blake… you need me strong, and I need me strong.”

She moved a book so I could see it through the mirror.  A black cover.

“I want to summon something.”

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Subordination 6.5

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We had no allies.  We probably couldn’t even hope for allies.

The people gathered around this spirit-world version of my apartment were silent.

Damn it all.

I’d known we’d be against ugly odds, especially since I was foregoing allies for the chance to subvert Conquest, to steal his assets out from under him.  He had the muscle, he had numbers, and he had… very possibly centuries of experience.

I’d known that, but I’d gone ahead anyway.  I’d counted on being more indirect.  Fell had demonstrated an ability to avoid notice, some kind of enchantment.  Evan was good at escaping.  Rose was… well, she existed on level that was one step removed from reality.  She might very well be hard to pin down.  I had the Knights and my cabal to back me up.

I figured we could work around Conquest’s muscle, maybe rally some help, and attack from some oblique angle.

That didn’t work if all of the potential help was just as against me as Conquest was.

“You sided with me,” I told Fell.  “Knowing this?”

“I think you know why.”

“You had no other choice,” I said.

“No.  The others don’t see the full effect of what it’s done to me and my family, being enslaved, they don’t pay too much attention to it,” Fell said.  “Yeah… I had no other choice, not really.”

“Sorry,” I said.

He shrugged.  He stood up and crossed the room, looking out the window.

My eye swept over the apartment.  Not everything was in place.  It was almost as if it had stepped back in time a little, my belongings scattered much as they might have been after the cops ransacked the place.  There were other spots where it looked like it had aged, where the paint peeled and the carpet was grungier at the points where it met the wall, cleaner towards the center.  The simple contrast between clean and dirty made for starker contrasts.

My eye fell on the table.  The sword lay in the middle of it.  Ugly, unwieldy, painful to hold, and bearing the Hyena’s features on the hilt and pommel.

“Evan,” I said.  “When I took the Hyena, I did it to take it away from Conquest.”

“I thought you got it.”

“I did.  He’s caught.  And I don’t have plans to do anything with it that will let it go back to doing what it was doing.”

“But it can get free again?”

“Theoretically, but only if given permission.  He’s a dog on a leash now,” I said.  “I’d rather we held the leash, instead of Conquest holding it.”

“I don’t like it.”

“I know.  It’s honestly a little scary for me, too.  But it beats the alternatives.  Make you a deal?”

“What?”

“I won’t unbind the Hyena without your say so.”

“Hmm…” Evan said.

“Don’t make that decision too quickly,” A woman’s voice.  I turned my head to see Rose in the wall-mounted mirrors.

“You’re back.”

“I’m back,” Rose said.

“Why shouldn’t I?” Evan asked.

“Blake made me a similar offer, before.  A few times, really.  Promised to take my counsel.  To give me a chance to offer my input, to decide before he went ahead with anything big.  Do you know how many times he’s actually followed through?”

“That’s not fair,” I said.

“I agree,” Rose said.  “It isn’t fair.  You got a familiar, you got your… circle thing.”

“Cabal,” Fell said.

“Yeah.  Cabal.  Adding more fuel to the fire.  Inquisitors, even.”

“To be fair,” Ty said.  “They say nobody expects the Inquisition.”

“We could forestall trouble by telling them that Alexis and Ty have sworn not to touch the diabolism stuff.”

“I’m just sort of wondering what we’re here for,” Alexis said.

“I know,” I said.  “We’re going to hash that out.  It means more to me than I can say, that I have you here.  Really.”

“You could forestall trouble,” Rose said, “Or maybe they play it safe, you guys go to sleep one night, and you don’t wake up.”

“That seems sketchy,” I said.

“Because everything else here has really been on the up and up, hasn’t it?”

I leaned forward, leaning over the table.  “If it’s a problem, I’m not going to assert any kind of control over them.  Maybe that makes it less of a cabal and more of a circle that has a sort-of-a-diabolist guy as a member.”

“Two sort-of-diabolists, if you count me,” Rose said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Though you don’t really fit the definition.  You haven’t done anything.  You sat out for the imp thing.”

If I maybe made that a bit of a barb, the fact that she’d been so useless, it was because I felt a little bit cornered and a lot betrayed after the lengths I’d just gone to in order to free her.  She was undermining me more than she was helping.

“I’m more of a Thorburn than you are,” Rose said.

I’d been poised to reply, to fight back.  That caught me off guard that I mentally stumbled.

“Be careful you don’t lie,” I said.

It came across as a little wimpy.

“The diabolist of the Thorburn line is supposed to be a woman, or a girl,” Rose said.  “Who got the voice?  Who gets the respect, of the two of us?  You want to talk more abstract points?  I stuck with the family, for better or worse.  I don’t even know how much was intentional, but in my recollection of the conversation with Grandmother, talking with her on her deathbed?  She pretty heavily implied that she wanted us to fight tooth and nail.  But you left.”

“You’re blaming him?” Alexis asked.

“No.  I’m just saying, I’m the girl that’s stuck in the mirrors while Blake’s flesh and blood, but I’m pretty confident when I say that I’m more Thorburn than he is.  He left the family, I remained a part of it.  But that doesn’t mean, Evan, Alexis, that he didn’t take something away from it.  He can apparently be as manipulative as any of them.”

“I don’t agree,” I said, “and maybe this is the sort of thing we should discuss in private.  It’s not really relevant.”

“It’s very relevant,” Rose said.

“To this.  To the fight against Conquest,” I said.

“Ah,” she said.  “Can’t say for sure.  I’m going to go get more books and tools, or I won’t be so useful as one of your champions.  I only want the rest of you to think twice before you accept an offer like that.  What was it he said?  Actions matter more than words?”

“That wasn’t the context,” I said.

But she was already gone.

I leaned back, sitting a bit straighter, and sighed.  “Fuck me.”

“She’s you if you were a girl, huh?” Alexis asked.

Apparently.

“Female you is kind of a bitch,” she said.

I didn’t have a response.  I didn’t want to just slap a convenient label on Rose and demonize her.  I’d had that done to me often enough, even in the past few days.

“Just what happened to her, in Conquest’s realm?”  I asked.

“She already explained,” Fell said.  “Conquest made her do what he wanted.”

“Which was?”

“Which was inconsequential, really.  The part you should be focusing on is the fact that the Lord of Toronto made her act what he wished.  He bent her will to his and took all volition from her.”

I felt ugly feelings stir at the idea, and pushed them away, along with the images that accompanied them.

“He’s done the same to you?” I asked.

“He’s done it to me, my family, my father’s family, my grandfather’s family.  He’s done it to others, and when they broke, he tossed them away.  If and when you lose this contest of yours, he’ll do it to you.”

“If I win, I’ll earn the wrath of every local.”

“Yes,” he said.

I nodded.

“There’s no tidy, neat way to do this,” I said.  “So we’re going to do it in an untidy way.  Alexis, you’ve asked a few times, you deserve more of an answer.  You want to know why you’re here, and not one of the champions?”

“I think I kind of understand.”

“Having contact with you guys helps me.  I don’t need you to be a champion to do that.  I don’t want you, Ty or Tiff to be in the line of fire.”

“What do we do, then?”

“I don’t know how long this is going to take.  It could be over in hours, it could take a few days-”

“Faster than shorter,” Fell said.  He still stood by the window.  I’d only managed to get one light working in the kitchen, and the light from the window was all we had.  It was good, enough to make faces visible, but his presence by the window cast a shadow over everything.  He added, “Conquest prefers short, one-sided fights over long, drawn-out ones.”

“Okay.  Thanks, that’s useful.  Changes it up, then,” I said.  “I was going to say Alexis, Ty and Tiff could set up spaces for us to retreat to, places to sleep, acquire food.  Novice or not, you guys can still draw defensive circles.  But if this is going to be fast… think less about food and sleep, more about the defenses.  The knights lent us a book.”

“I have it,” Ty said.

“Good,” I said.  “We can’t fight them head on.  It’s suicidal.  What we’re going to do is split up.  Rose can find and communicate with our different groups.  We keep moving, we communicate, and we share our assets.”

There were nods around the table.

“Ty, Tiff, Alexis, I’m going to try to stay close to you.  I can’t move very fast or very far, really.  Fell?  Can you do something about their ability to track us?”

Hiding is hard.  Costly.  It’s a lot of people to protect, and there are a lot of forces arrayed against us.  Each one needs different countermeasures, or we take one measure that covers all the bases.”

I nodded.  “What if we don’t hide?”

“What are you thinking?”

“Distractions.  Misdirection.”

“Yeah.  I can work on something.”

I nodded.  “Knights?”

“We’re sitting this one out,” Nick said.

No.  I was short enough on allies as it was.  “I’m not asking for you to fight.  Only that you maybe help my circle get around.  A ride here and there.”

“It’s too close to the fighting,” Nick said.  “I’m sorry.  I told you from the beginning that we couldn’t and we wouldn’t.  We’ve already pushed it.”

I winced.  “Can’t really stop you.”

“Probably could,” Nick said.  He extended a hand.  “Thanks for not making a fuss.”

I reached out and shook it.

They took a moment to grab their jackets.  In another moment, they were gone.

That hurt.  I understood, but it hurt.

“Your friend just replied to the internet message,” Fell said.  “You’ve convinced her.  She’s got to get her things, sneak out, and she’ll be here soon.”

I exhaled.  We got Maggie.

‘Soon’, however, translated to one hour at a minimum.

I looked for a clock and saw it lying on the ground, not mounted in its usual place.

That meant we had a bit of time to prepare, the better part of an hour to endure the hostilities and contest, and then we had Maggie.

Maggie wasn’t a big gun, unfortunately.

It wouldn’t be a game changer.

“Okay,” I said.  “Everyone has a weapon?”

Nods all around.

“Do we need anything before we move?”

“Access to that toolbox,” Fell said.

“Go for it.”

He did, opening it.  He lifted off the top half to check the bottom.

“And, since I’m not seeing them in here, I need scissors,” Fell said, rummaging.

I fished in the kitchen drawers.  All disorganized.  As if my apartment had been taken apart, destroyed, and then put back together and cleaned, with an emphasis on sentimentality and how frequently I used things.

I had five pairs of scissors and they were all at the very bottom of the drawer,

I handed him my best pair.  He’d already laid a hammer and some nails aside.

“Stand still,” he said.

He snipped off a lock of hair.

He proceeded to grab one of my dining room chairs by the back, lift it overhead and dash it to pieces.

Not the real chair, the spirit-world equivalent.  Cheap stuff from a furniture store where the stuff had unpronounceable names.

It still grated.

“Burning off nervous energy?” I asked.

“No,” he said.  He grabbed the hammer and nails.

No further explanation.  He was helping, but we weren’t buddy-buddy.

One long piece of wood, propped against the wall.  He used duct tape to stick the lock of hair to the top.

One horizontal bar, a third of the way down, nailed in place with two deft strikes of the hammer.

Another, at the base, to help keep the thing balanced.

He drew some powder from his pocket, and drew a series of solid lines, forming a triangle around the thing.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It…” Fell said, licking his thumb, then dragging it across the hardwood floor, “is a distraction.”

I could sense the connection shift, and I saw facsimile connections appearing between it and my friends.

Fell’s back blocked my view of the stick thing.  When he was out of my way, I saw a Blake Thorburn sitting inside the powdery pyramid.  He was so beaten-down that I almost expected to see fraying around the edges of his clothes.  He had circles under his eyes, stubble on his chin, and the lines of his face and neck were more defined than they should have been.

His blond hair was almost long enough to cover his eyes, and the only reason it wasn’t was the natural wave, but it was dirty, and it did the same thing my hair did when it was the least bit greasy, twisting away from my head in fat curls.

He looked like I imagined myself looking when I thought of the times I’d been homeless.  If I’d been walking down the street and I saw him sitting on a flattened cardboard box, I wouldn’t have thought twice about him.  Except for the looking like me thing.

I reached up and touched the part of my head where his hair curled.  I felt the hair there, where it had sprung out of place.

“I really look like that?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Alexis said.  “Wow, that’s creepy.  Does it have to stare off into space?”

“It’s a bit of wood from a chair, not a person,” Fell said.  “Yeah, it does.”

It was me if I were brain dead, maybe.  Sitting with one back against the wall.

“Can we do something with it?” I asked.

“We could,” Fell said.

“Booby trap it?”  I asked.

“How?  I’m not really a shaman, and I don’t want anything like fire or explosions to burn down your apartment.”

This version of my apartment, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Why not?”

“What happens here happens there.”

Meaning it would be fire or an explosion of sorts in my apartment.

“Something nonlethal?” I asked.

He rubbed his chin.  “Okay.  Let me think… do you have ribbon?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Let me figure out where.”

It took only a minute to find.  Colored birthday ribbons were sitting in the bottom half of my toolbox.

He unfurled a bit, then handed it to me.  “Tie it to the biggest, most inconvenient object you think you could carry.  Tie it securely, so they can’t untie it, or break whatever it is you’ve tied it to.”

I headed straight for the kitchen.

Stove?  Dishwasher?  Too big, too heavy.

Fridge?

They were options, but there wasn’t anything I could tie the cord to.  The handle on the stove door was loose, and the fridge handle was recessed into the side of the door.  The hinge… it was such a reach I wouldn’t be able to get more than the simplest knot on it.

The microwave, though, was closer.

One loop of cord going vertically around the microwave, another going horizontal.

I tied it firmly.

By the time I was done, Fell was entering the kitchen, scuffing the floor with one toe.  Where he scuffed at the ribbon, it effectively disappeared.  The part I could see stuck out from the gaps in the tile as if the tile had been laid out over the ribbon.

“Neat trick,” I said.

He used his fingers on the part of the ribbon that stretched up to the microwave, turning it until I was looking straight on at the thinnest side.  When he was done, he threw powder at the microwave itself.

“What does this do?” I asked.

“One circle around the effigy, one snare around that.  If they get close enough, the snare will attach to them,” Fell said.  He led the way back into the dining room.

I felt a little creeped out, looking at my double.

Sure enough, words were written on the hardwood.  Simple ones in a foreign language.

“The words?”

“Conditions,” Fell said.

“To?”

“It doesn’t matter.  Don’t touch.”

Fell headed to the front door of the apartment.  I heard the closet door slide open.  A little rougher than the sound I was used to.

Alexis was writing on the same pad of paper I’d used to write up the contract with the imp.  I looked over her shoulder, and saw that she was copying the wording Fell had used for the inscription on the floor.

She explained, “He told me it would bind the person to the object on the far end of the ribbon.  The snare releases them only so long as they carry the object on the other side.  If they put it down, the snare seizes them again.”

I considered it.  I could imagine Laird lugging a microwave around.

“Like I said before,” I commented.  “I do respect Fell, even if I don’t always like him.”

“I might say the same of you,” Fell commented.

“Thank you,” I replied.

Might.

I winced.  I’d walked into that.

“If it helps,” Tiff spoke up for the first time since we’d walked into the apartment.  “I respect you, and I like you too.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Yeah,” Alexis said.  “I respect and like you too.  Let’s keep it that way?”

“Please,” I said.  I turned to address the room.  “Alright.  Let’s go!  Get your stuff!”

I grabbed three mirror-shards off the wall, pocketed them, then got the goblin-sword and imp-book.  The imp-book went in my backpack, along with the bottle and a few of the other stuff.

Leave the creepy Blake-doppelganger alone.

Don’t think too hard about why it bothers you so much.

Fell walked through my apartment with boots on, still wet from being outside, not long ago.  He collected the wood from the destroyed chair, using the pieces to fill a trash can, deposited hammer, scissors and nails within, then left the apartment with the can under his arm, not even waiting for us.

We were still only a few steps behind him.

The elevators were out of order, so we used the stairs.  Tough for me, but doable.

I did feel better, having Alexis and Ty close.  I felt stronger, I was bouncing back… it still sucked, but it could have sucked more.  I could be faceplanting like I had outside the factory.

Better or not, I still needed to stop partway down.

Rose appeared in the reflection of the door.

I turned to Ty, who was helping to support me and make sure I didn’t fall down.

“Go ahead,” I told him.

“You sure?”

“Need a private word with Rose, I’ll be right out.”

He nodded.

“You too, Evan.”

“I can’t fly that far away.”

“I know.  Just… out of earshot, please.”

“‘Kay.”

A flutter, and Evan was gone.  Sometimes he flew so gracefully, and then there were times like this, where he’d start flying, then flutter violently to reorient himself before he could hit a wall, fly a bit until he was out of sight, below us, followed by another audible flutter.

“You okay?” I asked Rose.

“Not really.”

I nodded.  “I’m sorry.”

“I need actions, not words.  I’m sorry too, but I need reparations.”

“What do you need?  I freed you.  That has to count for something.”

“I was only caught because of you.  I’ve seen you go out of your way to try to balance the scales with your friends, with the bystander that gave you a ride to Jacob’s Bell.  Always fair.”

“Yeah.”

“Why does it feel like you and I aren’t balanced?  Like I’m the only person you’re not trying to balance the scales with?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Yeah. I don’t know either.  You’re not denying it seems that way?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Well, keep it in mind, maybe.  Weigh it in your head, and if and when you feel you’re sorry enough to act on it, that’d be cool.”

I nodded.

“You should go.  It’s almost time, and you don’t want to be near the apartment when this contest starts.”

I nodded.  “Are we okay?  As a unit?  A pair?”

“No.  Third time’s a charm, remember?  This is the third major time you’ve undercut me when I was helpless to fight back, and it’s making it really hard for us to be allies, Blake.”

“But we’re allies?”

“Yeah.  I really don’t want to be enemies.”

“Do you think that’s in the cards?”

“I worry that it has been from the start.”

“We did pretty damn good going up against the abstract demon.  We didn’t win, but, I mean, fuck me, we could have done a whole lot worse.”

“Yeah.”

“Why can’t we work together like that again?”

“We can try.”

So many noncommittal answers.

“Communicate with me,” I said, my voice low.  “There’s no way we can fix this if you’re leaving stuff out.  I’ve… I know I’ve maybe shortchanged you here and there.  And it’s not equitable, but I’ve consistently tried to be…”

I grasped for a word.

Honest would be pushing it.

“…Straightforward.  To act in our mutual interests,” I said.

“Sure,” Rose said, with a tone that was unreadable.

“You’re not being straightforward.  What aren’t you telling me?”

“It’s… complicated.”

“What is?”

“Conquest.  While he had me, he made me tell him everything I didn’t want him to know.”

“You told him about the books.”

“Yes.  And when he ordered me to, I brought them to him.  He would have made me summon something.”

“The contest here stopped him, right?  You got the books back?”

“I did, but this only stalled him.  If he wins, he gets you, and he gets access to the books all the same.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“Blake, there was more.  I told him other things.”

“Blake!”  A shout from further down the stairs.

“Trouble?” I called down.

“No.  But don’t take too long!”

I started to head down the stairs.  I grabbed a mirror from my pocket and held it for Rose.

I was down half a flight before Rose spoke again.

“I told him your weaknesses.”

Balls, balls, balls.

“You explained how I don’t like physical contact.”

“I explained a lot of things, Blake.”

“My patterns?  Habits?  Mindset?”

“Blake,” Rose said.

“What did you tell him?”  I asked.

“I’d explain, but I’m really, really worried that if I brought it up here, you’d either never forgive me, or it’d affect your mind and emotions, and fuck you up in this thing that’s happening right now.”

What did you tell him!?

My voice rang through the stairwell, echoing off the walls.

“I- I speculated.  I told him things that I wasn’t sure on, about why you were the way you were, on a lot of levels.  The fact that you don’t like being touched was a part of it.”

There they were.  The dark, ugly emotions, settled in the pit of my stomach.

The betrayal was a new one, separate.

I didn’t blame Rose for telling Conquest.

Or maybe I did.  Maybe I would be lying if I’d said I didn’t blame her out loud.

But I didn’t blame her that much.  I couldn’t say until I experienced it for myself, but a part of me wondered if she could have resisted more.  And I knew that was horribly unfair.

No, it was that she hadn’t been upfront about it.  That she’d felt like she couldn’t tell me.

That was the part that really got to me.  That she could very well have let me walk into this without my eyes open, for Conquest to hit me with some custom-made flavor of fuckery, all of the horror and madness that an incarnation of Conquest could bring to bear, designed specifically for me.

I was a flawed person.  I knew it.  Had someone asked before all this started, I would have admitted it.  But one of the places I felt most flawed, one of the least comfortable things for me to admit, was just how weak I was at my core.  Some people could turn to the ugly incidents in their past and find a kind of strength there.  An anger to drive them forward.

When I touched that part of myself, even around the edges, I almost always felt like all the strength went out of me.

I wanted to be angry enough for it to matter.  I drew my arm back, ready to throw the mirror, gripping it so hard that the sharp edges bit into the meat of my fingers.

I stopped there, lowering my arm.

The tension went out of me, the feelings remained.  My arm hung limp at my side.

“Blake!” a voice from below.  Ty, I was pretty sure.  “We need to move!”

Rose had wanted equity.  For the scales to be balanced, and me to make the effort.

Fine.

She was angry at me, too.  She felt betrayed.  I kept moving forward without her, and she was there, stuck in reflections.  She was struggling to deal, but she was playing ball.  Mostly.

I could do the same.  Or I could try.

I was breathing hard, and my body wasn’t in good enough shape to handle the anger well.  I was like an old man, my body going well before my mind did.  Or maybe I was like a demented old man.  Body and mind going, and all there was was the confusion, the anger.

Fuck.

The others were in sight, half a flight below me, when I spoke.  “Rose?”

“Yeah?”

“We’re going to set up a spot we can defend and regroup at, then split up.  Are you okay with coordinating?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Thank you.  You can move faster than any of us, so do what you can to keep an eye on things.”

“I can do that.”

“Thank you,” I said.

We left it at that, by some mutual agreement.

The others were gathered in the building lobby as I descended.  Evan made his way to my shoulder.

“Ghosts across the street,” Fell said.

“What does that mean?”  I asked.

“The Shepherd fosters psychic echoes in an area around him.  Rouses things that have gone still, for one last action.  He’s close.”

“Will he come alone?” I asked.

“Usually.  But with Conquest giving orders?  I wouldn’t guarantee it,” Fell said.  “We should go.”

“Not complaining,” I said.

“Too many of us for one car,” Ty said, “Unless people want to ride in the trunk.”

“Knights were our rides,” Alexis said.

Losing them sucked.

“Does anyone feel brave?”  I asked.

“You mean suicidal?” Alexis asked.  “I know exactly what you’re thinking.”

“You should say think you know,” Tiff said, her voice small.  She wasn’t so confident in the midst of the group.  “Be careful.”

“No,” Alexis said, meeting my eyes.  “I know.”

Holy hell, I’d needed this.

My friends were one thing, a connection to me.  Like ties that bound me to the rest of the world.

This was another.  When I was miserable, when I wanted escape, or relief, or if I wanted to stop doing something and do something else entirely, this was my go-to.

An escape to myself.  My escape from myself, too, if I needed it to be.

The light snow covering on the roads flew behind me as my bike tore down the dimly lit city street.  There were no lights in the windows.  Only the moon above, filtering through the fog, the dim glow of white snow catching the reflected light.

I saw not by the light, but by the dark.  The road was only a yawning stretch of black speckled by white.  My eyes scanned the surface, watching for any dark areas without a faint covering of snow.

Riding in winter wasn’t the hardest thing in the world.  If the roads were mostly clear, then it wasn’t impossible.  The big concern, inevitably, was the other drivers.  People were stupid, people in winter conditions were stupider, and the guy on the bike was the guy who got the short end of the stick in those cases.

Here, at least, there were no other drivers.  The roads were empty, the sidewalks mostly clear.  No pedestrians running out from in between parked cars.  No being cut off.

Tiffany was riding behind me.  It wasn’t the romantic sort of ride she’d maybe anticipated.  I’d told her that she couldn’t wrap her arms around me, so she leaned back instead, holding the bars behind her seat.  I suspected she’d come with me to avoid having to be with the crowd in the car.  I also suspected she was regretting the decision.

Evan, for his part, was tucked into the ‘v’ where my coat’s zipper parted at the collarbone.  He periodically screamed something that might have been spelled with a few dozen letter ‘A’s, lost in the rush of wind and noise of my bike, and periodically laughed, a noise that was easier to make out.

I was cold, tense, and I knew I wasn’t as strong or coordinated as I could have been.  Visibility could have been better, with the mist and the snowfall.

But every second I was on the bike was a second I felt better, recharging my personal batteries, leaving my argument with Rose and the tensions of the night well behind me.

I accelerated, and I felt myself feeling better faster.  I heard the engine’s volume increase, felt the bike beneath me, reacting.

I was leaving the others behind.  Rather than slow down, I zig-zagged from one side of the street to the other, tentative at first, then a little more aggressive, reminding myself of how the bike handled, how it handled with a passenger, and getting a feel for the road, all at the same time.

Getting closer to the sidewalk, I saw the ghosts.  Greater and greater numbers.

The Shepherd was closing in.

One in the middle of the street, blocking my way.

I gave it as wide a berth as possible.  A quick glance, then I rode up on the sidewalk.

It lunged for me.  Flickered, crossed a distance far greater than it should have.  An exaggeration of what the person who’d hit him must have experienced.  A misjudgment of distance.

A moment later, I heard a loud crash.  I slowed, glancing over one shoulder.

He’d reversed directions, throwing himself into the car with the others.  The windshield was cracked, the hood dented, the ghost gone.

With every passing second, there were more ghosts on the sidewalks.  More psychic echoes.  A few were lingering images that seemed to trail after the gaps in the mist.  Echoes in the process of being engraved on the fabric of reality.  The most miserable, angry, lost individuals.  People who might only need a push to leave a mark behind, a ghost.

The way the numbers were increasing, I took it to be a sign.  We were moving straight toward the Shepherd.

I saw a car on the road, meandering.  A psychic echo of a vehicle.

If it was anything like the ghost who’d thrown itself into Fell’s car, I didn’t trust my ability to avoid getting hit.

I flashed my blinkers, signalling for good measure, my arm bent at a right angle, hand up.

I turned.  Going the wrong way down a one-way street.

Had to lead us further away from the Shepherd.

It wasn’t the Shepherd that made the first appearance.

A dark silhouette, easily six feet tall, broad at the shoulders, dressed in rags.

The Eye.  Given birth in the 1904 fire of Toronto, a reminder to man that the elements weren’t entirely under our control.

It raised its arms, and I saw reality distort.  A glimmer of light, an artificial Aurora Borealis.

The lights, however, weren’t any natural effect.  They were very real city lights.  A bright flash lit up the space behind him, showing just how wide the effect was opening.

There weren’t many lights on in this spirit world.

We weren’t looking at the spirit world.

I slowed, pulling a U-turn to put the Eye behind me.

The bright flash behind him only got brighter.  Headlights.  Multiple sets.

I was looking over my shoulder, and my focus was partially on getting the bike moving away from him without toppling or driving straight into one of the larger potholes.  I didn’t see exactly what happened next.

The collision, however, put the impact of one human body against Fell’s car to shame.  It was easily two or three hundred feet away, but I could feel it like a punch in the gut, a noise and vibration that momentarily tore my thoughts from my brain.

The aftermath wasn’t much prettier.  One car, virtually airborne, followed by chunks big enough to dash my brains in, flipped halfway-over in midair, then hit the road, roof-first.

No illusions about what might have happened to the person inside.

The other car squealed, fishtailing before running up and over a bike rack that was bolted to the sidewalk, half-turning to skid back onto the road.

Another flash, like a stroke of lightning, except this flash, too, was headlights.  Not from behind the Eye, this time.

A squeal, and a car, coming the opposite direction, hit the car that had run over the bike rack.

I saw flickers, brief psychic echoes of pedestrians who had been hit.

The gap yawned larger, and I could see the people on the other side.  I could hear the screams, shouts of alarm.  See people running towards the three-car pileup.

Oblivious to the Eye, who walked down the length of the road.

Approaching the second crashed car.

It might have been the least damaged of all the cars.  The bike rack had gutted it, torn into the underbelly.  It would need work, but…

…But the Eye was moving toward it with purpose.

“Off, Tiff!” I shouted.

“What?”

“Get off!  Now!”

Rather gracelessly, I pushed her to get her off faster, simultaneously turning myself around for the second time in ten seconds.  Back toward the Eye.

“Evan, clear the way!”

He said something, but I didn’t hear it over the sound of the engine coming to life.

I saw him circle, and pointed.  Used my arm to point, so there was no doubt.

The bike soared toward the crashed cars and the Eye.

My eyes roved over the scene, trying to see the very real woman who was in the driver’s seat, trying and failing to open the door.

As I got closer, I could see the pedestrians.  Evan flew through them, darting left, then right, and pushed them to the side with the weight of a small boy, the speed of an unladen sparrow.

I rode onto the sidewalk, shifting to a one-handed grip, letting go of the clutch.

No way this would work.

No.

The Eye didn’t give me a chance for a sudden rescue.  He touched the car before I could grab the driver and pull her out of the window.

The gutted underbelly had leaked gas, against all odds, and the Eye had ignited it.

The rolling eruption of flame knocked me over.  I could hear the screams.  The driver and many of the bystanders who’d tried to help were caught, and onlookers experienced pain of another sort.  Horror.

Another small eruption, the car rocking to one side, partially rolling over.

I tried to get to my feet and failed.  I was stronger than I had been, but that didn’t count for much.

No.  It wasn’t pure coincidence, that second eruption.

The Eye was in the midst of the flame, wading through, using one hand to push at the flaming vehicle, rolling it out of the way.

He was coming for me.

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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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