Chapter 335: Sales PitchAlexandra Erin on October 7, 2016 in Volume 2 Book 10: Lucky Thing, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Has An Internal Debate
I said nothing.
It was not compliance, exactly, more like a mixture of surprise and decision paralysis. Should I hear the thing out? Should I play along or at least keep quiet long enough that I could learn more of what it wanted? Should I drop the chain to try to break the contact? Relay its words to the others?
Here’s a little tip, in case any of you ever find yourselves living as a disembodied consciousness inhabiting a cursed item, trying to tempt others to advance your own agenda: suddenly putting a voice in someone’s head telling them, basically, to act naturally is not going to work, on an even greater level than telling someone to act naturally usually fails.
You can be all ”let your countenance betray nothing and give no sign that we are in communication” as much as you want, but believe me, their countenance is going to betray plenty. It’s like telling someone not to think of an elephant, with the added complication that you’re sneaking up behind someone and whispering directly into their ear not to think about an elephant and, oh, keep calm and act naturally while they’re not doing so.
“Baby?” Amaranth said. “Do you sense anything?”
“Plenty,” I said. The shape of my mouth felt wrong, and while it was an accurate answer… I was still examining the pattern of magic that ran through the braided silver cord like throbbing veins of living power… it was not what I wanted to say, not all I wanted to say.
I realized that I was under its power, or at least its influence. I had more than the carrot it was dangling over me. I turned my inward away from the cord, looking inward. I could feel… or I imagined I felt… a single point of contact, like a thread that had wormed its way past my defenses during the moment of distraction caused by its surprising offer.
“You can hear it, can’t you?” Hazel said. “It didn’t… it didn’t always talk to me, in words. Rare enough that I’d think I was imagining it, when it wasn’t. But when it did, it would be clear as a bell, no two ways about it.”
“I don’t hear anything,” I said. True enough, again, at least for the moment, but not what I had wanted to say. So that was how this was going to play out? It had steered Hazel towards lies… or maybe left her in a position where her mind had concocted stories that made enough sense to come out of her mouth. I was aware of the struggle.
I could feel it trying to get me to say that everything was fine, that it couldn’t affect me at all, but I was too in control, or its contact was too attenuated. It was like a pressure was building up in my head, and if I opened my mouth, I knew words would come out but I didn’t know what they would be.
Ease off my ass, I thought, as hard as I could. I wasn’t sure if it was actively reading my mind, picking up traces, or needed an intention of communication. If I keep my mouth shut much longer, or stick to the terse non-answers, Amaranth’s going to know something’s up. Back off and I’ll get us some space.
Try nothing, it replied. Your body is strong, your capacity for harm is great, and your kind have a dismaying reputation for violence.
They weren’t just words, but thoughts, and they carried a subtext that was distinctly more than verbal. The undisguised disgust around the idea of my kind was enough to tell me I wasn’t dealing with anything infernal. That might have been a checkmark under Amaranth’s notion of a disembodied celestial, but then, a lot of things didn’t like demons.
Also, this wasn’t hostility so much as withering contempt.
“It’s a very complex energy pattern,” I said. “It’s going to take me a while to untangle this… let me concentrate for a minute and I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.”
“Okay, baby,” Amaranth said. “Just… try to give a sign, if you feel anything you shouldn’t.”
Threaten my friends or my personal safety again and I will bury you, I thought back at it.
Infernal child, I am beyond any harm you might offer.
I said bury you. In a hole, somewhere in the deepest, darkest, feyest part of the woods, where even I don’t know how to find you again.
You would have an interesting challenge, trying to let go of me.
I’d only have to succeed once, I thought. Then I could run like hell in the general direction of civilization. And when I run like hell, I run like hell.
Enough of this foolishness. The threat I made stands and I have no reason to make another and call your bluff. You have heard my offer, demonling.
You’re not the first entity to offer me my pitchfork back. Last I heard, my father had it. He’s not what I’d call completely trustworthy, but I at least credit that as possible. He was at large in the area when its trail disappeared. You’re a voice in a piece of metal, buried until recently.
I am not without certain powers, as you know, and a certain facility for arranging things.
You’re a lot more of a fully-formed consciousness than I was expecting, I thought.
Because of your experience with the pitchfork entity? It seems a capital mistake to generalize so completely from one example.
Well, it’s mainly because of the way you’ve flailed around like a dumbass, I said. You have a serious problem with over-correction.
Do not pretend you can understand the intricacy of my machinations.
To do that, I’d have to pretend they make sense.
Do you want the pitchfork or not? Before you answer, consider this: the fragment of consciousness within it was diminished by its last encounter with a living mind. It would be child’s play for me to reshape it into a less inimical form, toothless and without will. You could have all the power it possesses with none of the danger. Is that not something you would wish for?
Let me get back to you, I said, relying on surprise to allow me to drop the necklace.
There was the magic word: wish. The thing was… I hadn’t wished for my pitchfork. It was dangling it in front of me and asking me if I would. I did long for it, sometimes, still. I couldn’t really think about it any terms other than “mine”. I mean, I could form the words “the pitchfork” in my head, but it sounded wrong.
It was mine, and meant to be mine.
But I hadn’t wished for it.
And the necklace wanted me to.
It didn’t wait to find out what I would wish for on my own, didn’t offer me vague things like wealth or power or whatever my heart desired. It had found something it thought I would jump at, and dangled it over my head to make me jump.
If there was any chance it could deliver, then it stood to reason that was what it had been doing during the time it had arranged to keep me on my back. That fit with how everything had worked out so we wound up having dinner with Hazel. It had, in essence, called this meeting.
I pretended to study the necklace, not knowing if the thing bound to it had any auditory channel to the world outside its physical container in the absence of a living person holding or wearing it. I couldn’t keep this up for long… not only would Amaranth and Hazel get suspicious, but it would, too.
I needed to figure this out and I needed to figure it out quickly, while I still possessed the advantages I did. The necklace-thing had made a critical mistake, and one of the reasons I’d broken contact was to keep it from realizing this.
It had assumed that I wanted my pitchfork enough to give in, and it might have been right, except it didn’t understand the nature of that desire. I didn’t care about a piece of weaponized farm equipment. I wasn’t that interested in weapons as a whole, and while it was possible for one to tickle my nerdery, a utensil for lifting hay bales that was magical because a part of a demon had broken off inside of it was not going to hit that particular spot.
The only reason I wanted my pitchfork back was because of the addictive pull it had over me. That which was profane in it recognized and called to that which was profane in me. Taming the demon inside it meant that it wouldn’t give me what I craved.
It would just be a magical weapon, maybe a powerful one, but I didn’t need a powerful magical weapon. Not the way I needed my pitchfork.
On an adjacent subject, another mistake it had made was giving away that it was contemptuous of demons. There was a dismissive undercurrent to its thoughts when it referred to the fragment in the pitchfork or my father, like they were not worthy of its concern on their best days.
So it feared me enough to have a contingency plan for essentially buying me off, but that had nothing to do with me being a half demon. I had no other unusual or extraordinary capabilities beyond that… okay, I had picked up a little bit of psychic defense that Hazel lacked, but there were actual trained subtle artists on our floor that it wasn’t concerned with.
What was left? Magical knowledge? I was on track for graduating early if I kept enrolling in summer sessions, but I was still a sophomore. There was no knowledge I possessed that hadn’t been gleaned from someone with more knowledge, power, and experience in wielding it, so that couldn’t be it.
…except that my professors didn’t know or care about Hazel and her cursed necklace, did they?
I didn’t have enough enchantment knowledge to unmake or alter the binding between the entity and the item. Trying to do that could be disastrous… I could wind up setting it free. It might have had some elemental affinity, if it was of the same order of creation as djinn and ifrits, but I could hardly see how that would be applicable.
What other classes had I taken? It didn’t seem likely I was going to defeat it with my finely-honed sense of aesthetics. I had to think about this logically…
In my first semester of college, I’d taken a class on the logic of enchantment. It was a 100 level course, required for my major, and I’d had a good enough head for the subject to find it enjoyable but not really challenging. While I still used the procedures I’d internalized over the course of the class when I laid out enchantments now, the course itself had made such little impression on me overall I could not even remember the name of the instructor who had taught it.
We’d had a whole unit on the construction of wishes, though. That was how I’d known as much as I did about the nature of magical wishes.
There were true wishes, where you expressed an intention to the universe and it was carried out in a literal yet ultimately subjective fashion… subjective, as anything magical was, but not necessarily subject to you… and then there were lesser wishes, which was when an entity of great but finite power was bound to obey you in the application of that power for a specific purpose.
Such wishes were also subjective, but again, not subject to the wisher. There was a lot of room for interpretation and wiggle room, and while a wish-granter who tried to wiggle too much might risk running afoul of those ineffable universal limits, the advantage was still held to be on their side.
It had to be possible to wish this thing away. In point of fact, it would probably be trivial to do so. Hazel could have wished to be rid of it, and she would have been. The notion that it was her lucky charm, a source of good things in her life, would have helped the entity keep steering her away from that.
Under the right circumstances, it would be easier than trivial to wish it away, because maybe the thing itself would have a yearning to travel, to find itself in greener pastures and more malleable hands, under less suspicious eyes.
The fact that it hadn’t done this when we started to catch on to its existence was kind of worrying, insofar as it suggested it had an agenda in the area.
The trickier thing to do would be to wish it away in a fashion that wasn’t just turning it loose in the world, letting it wind up where it wanted to be.
Trickier than that would be neutralizing it completely. If it were as simple as wishing its destruction or powerlessness, it wouldn’t take anyone in particular to do it. Possibly such things were somehow beyond its power to
I felt like I was getting there, but I really needed to know more about it in order to get the rest of the way. I wished I had a way to find out…
“Okay, okay, I know what to do,” I said.
“What?” Amaranth said.
I picked up the necklace, and said, out loud, “I wish that for each question I put to you verbally, you will give me an answer that is truthful as I would determine it in a manner that is helpful as I would determine it to my agenda I would determine it.”