Chapter 336: The Sticking PointAlexandra Erin on October 12, 2016 in Volume 2 Book 10: Lucky Thing, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Has Her Own Ideas
“Holy crow, can you do that?” Hazel asked.
“Let’s find out,” I said. “Thing in the necklace, can I do that?”
Apparently you can, it said. I felt a twinge of annoyance, and it added, both in the sense that it is permitted for you to say those words in that order, and in the sense that it works just fine.
“Apparently I can,” I said. “Next wish: I wish you would not try to influence me or plant thoughts in my head, in the sense that I mean it, as interpreted by me.”
I hope you realize your blasted caveats are the only reason I can communicate with you at all.
“Of course. That’s part of why they’re there. So, first question…”
“Hold on!” Hazel said. “That’s not your first question. You already asked it one, when you asked if you can do that.”
“Yeah, but ‘first question’ isn’t part of a wish, or an instruction to it,” I said. “Strict wording doesn’t matter for that. It doesn’t get to go, ‘Oh, you were incorrect in labeling it your first question, so now I can lie.’”
“Ah,” Hazel said. “I’ve got you. Proceed.”
“First question of consequence,” I said. “Why am I such a big deal to you?”
I would have thought that was apparent to you, but since you seem to need confirmation: you are the only person in the orbit of my preferred host with the right combination of knowledge to possibly interfere decisively with my designs and mental traits to make it difficult for me to neutralize you.
“I’d say you neutralized me pretty effectively, when you put your mind to it,” I said. “Hazel is your preferred host?”
I could feel its irritation at being forced to clarify its not-quite-answers as soon as it gave them. That was reassuring, even if it wasn’t fully conclusive. Maybe it could lie about a feeling, maybe it could pretend to be fighting the wording of my wish, but it was behaving more or less exactly the way I would have expected under the situation.
For it to be faking would mean that it would have to have been pretending to be a wish-granting bound entity this whole time, and if it was playing that kind of a deception to the hilt this well, it almost deserved to trick me.
She has a distinct tendency to go unnoticed, it said. Given the alarming concentration of magical knowledge and power that has cropped up over the resting place of my vessel in recent decades, this was necessary.
“What it’d say?” Hazel said.
“No one would ever suspect you,” I said. It was my experience that gnomes didn’t notice their own unnoticeability, to the point that it was almost pointless to point it out.
“Ah,” she said. “Stands to reason. I’ve an honest face, haven’t I?”
“Something like that, yes,” I said. “Okay. Next question: the dwarves have been using those tunnels and caves for far longer than there’s been a university here. Why didn’t you use one of them?”
Dwarves have a regrettable inherent resistance mental intrusion, it replied. It is remarkably difficult to even worm one’s way past their natural defenses, and scarcely worth the effort to do so. They reject their own impulses as often as they accept them, and outside suggestions are invariably identified and destroyed with a startling swiftness.
“All that time and you never got through to any of them?” I said.
Yes, though I did not try very often after my initial failures. My first attempts caused the suspicious dwarves to begin avoiding the chamber in which my vessel rested. Pressing the matter too hard might have resulted in more decisive matters than a cave-in that was never cleared.
“What could the dwarves have done ‘decisively’ that you feared?”
I was not acquainted with their exact capabilities, only their dedication, and their genius for artifice, fortification, and secrecy, it said. If they could not devise a manner to defeat me, they could certainly make it difficult for more pliable minds to come into contact with me.
“Okay. This is adding up so far.”
“What is, baby?” Amaranth asked.
“It laid low when the dwarves moved into those tunnels, waiting for someone who wasn’t a dwarf to come into your sphere of influence. The university meant it needed someone… particularly inconspicuous. Things went wrong for you when Hazel wished for her ring to be noticed, didn’t they?”
Yes, damn her.
“Once our eyes were on it, it was afraid of me in particular because of my rudimentary mental defenses and knowledge of entities like it and the parameters of wishing,” I said. “Is that correct?”
Yes, particularly the part about ‘rudimentary’, it thought. You must understand, and I say this only because I have been compelled to be helpful: my opposition to you is based on probabilities rather than certainty. I identified you as the most likely obstacle in my path, but even then, the likelihood was not particularly high.
“Yeah, well, joke’s on you,” I said. “It’s pretty much only because you focused as much attention on me as you did that I figured anything out. We thought Hazel had a cursed ring, but if you hadn’t flailed around so much trying to cover your tracks, we probably would have just found a way to look at her ring and realized that there was nothing wrong with it. By going out of your way to try to convince us everything was normal, you kind of… made it weird?”
Yes, well, I had never been in quite that situation before, it thought. I shall certainly take your advice under consideration the next time I am trying to surreptitiously slip away unnoticed. I hope you remember my offer, child.
“If I wanted anything you have to offer, I could just wish for it and you’d have to give it to me,” I said. “Unless you’ve been faking the whole ‘wish’ thing this whole time, and then that game would be given away.”
Oh, indeed you could, it said. But what I offered you before? Well, it didn’t take me all that time to merely locate it. I have instead arranged put it in, shall we say, escrow. I have no power to give it to you, personally, but have arranged that it shall be transferred to you if certain conditions are met.
“Hold on, a lot of what you’re saying to it aren’t questions,” Hazel said.
“Yeah, I don’t actually have to limit myself to questions,” I said. “That’s not how it works.”
“Alright, but… it doesn’t have to answer truthfully, if you’re not asking a question,” Hazel said. “Does it?”
“Oh, right,” I said. “Is that true, what you said about the ‘escrow’ situation?”
“So what are the conditions?” I asked.
“You should wish that we could hear its answers,” Amaranth said. “This is so frustrating, only hearing one half of the conversation!”
“I’m not sure I want to complicate the situation by framing another wish right now,” I said. The thought had occurred to me right as Amaranth was saying it, but I didn’t want the thing to start talking out loud and I wasn’t sure I’d come up with a safe formulation for putting its thoughts in Amaranth and Hazel’s heads, right off the top of mine.
Yes, wouldn’t do to let your lover know that you’re being tempted by the pitchfork.
“It’s offering me my pitchfork back,” I said. “But it doesn’t have it itself, and it’s arranged to put it outside of its reach so I can’t just wish for it.”
“Oh, well, that’s actually nice of it,” Amaranth said. “I mean, not that it would dangle something you’re addicted to in front of you, but that it wouldn’t enable you so easily?”
“Yeah,” I said. “The thing is, it’s not as great a bargaining chip as it thinks it is. If it were as smart as it thought it was, it would have just given me the literally damned thing and then dealt with extra-tasty-infernal me. But now it has to deal with regular me, and the carrot it’s offering is far enough away that the temptation is abstract.”
I was leaving something out, of course, but I wasn’t obligated to be honest.
You really are too helpful.
“It’s one of my flaws,” I said. “So you’re working with the man in the woods, my demon father?”
That would seem to be a reasonable conclusion.
“Are you faking the wish thing?”
No. But I would say that if I were, wouldn’t I?
“Are you saying you don’t know who you’re working with?”
That was a necessary step to ensure that I could not retrieve the pitchfork outside of the predesignated circumstances.
“How is that possible?”
Certain of my memories have been temporarily removed.
“And I suppose with them, the memory of how they were removed. What are the predesignated circumstances?”
If my vessel is received by imperial post at a certain address, the pitchfork is to be delivered to you.
“What’s that address?”
T.M. Woods, General Delivery, Arnap.
“Where the hell is Arnap?”
Some rural flyspeck in Blackwater, I am given to understand. I am not certain where ‘Blackwater’ is.
“You’d have yourself delivered into the hands of a powerful demon, in a location you don’t even know?”
I can only surmise that it made sense to me at the time.
“…you really are an idiot, you know that?”
I most certainly do not! Though I am beginning to suspect it. And damn and double damn you for making me answer that question.
“You don’t remember anything about the deal you made, a deal that will put you completely in the power of the entity with which you made the deal. Do you really think there’s any chance you haven’t been played here?”
There is certainly a chance that it was my own inestimable self and not the other entity that put one over on the other, particularly if the other were a mere demon.
“A good chance?”
I do not have the information necessary to answer that, though I am inclined to think yes.
“Yeah. You’re inclined to. Because you don’t think much of demons. He played on that, I’d bet you anything. You got played. He’s using you to get what he wants… me reunited with my pitchfork in a way that I wouldn’t think it had anything to do with him… and he gets you out of it, too. You? You get nothing. You get away from the university, where your worst fear is that someone tags you as a specimen and sticks you in a drawer for study, or worse, uses decades of magical expertise to make you their slave forever, but in the process you wind up in the hands of a wily immortal with his own agenda, and who is more than capable of matching wits with you.”
Excuse me, but it doesn’t seem like you think that much of your father.
“I think even less of you,” I said. “What happens if I wish for you to quit granting wishes?”
That is beyond my power, it says. The servitude has been, as you might say, baked into my nature.
“Could I wish you free of that servitude?”
Only by wishing me free of my bound state, it said.
“Would I have cause to regret that?”
“I thought so. What are you?”
I have no idea.
“You’re not some kind of genie, then?”
“Who bound you in this state?”
I bound myself to the chain in order to escape my absolute destruction. I do not know who or what imposed this servile nature upon me.
“Well, this is all very anticlimactic,” I said. “Obviously, I’m not mailing you to my father.”
I am not certain if I should curse you or thank you for that.
“Don’t do either,” I said. “I’m saving you from a bad situation, but not for your own benefit. It would be way beyond your power to grant a wish that Hazel had never found you, isn’t it?”
I have no influence over what has happened, no.
“And what happens if I wish that you had no ability to communicate with anyone or influence their thoughts and actions?”
I go quietly mad within my prison for all eternity, unable to affect the world outside me in any way except when someone coincidentally holds me and makes a wish, unless and until such time as someone destroys my prison or otherwise causes me to be freed.
“You said you bound yourself to the chain to prevent your own destruction. If it were destroyed now or you were otherwise pulled out of it, would you not be destroyed?”
I was very weak at the time. I recovered quickly enough, as I reckon things, but my position was somewhat fortified. I lack the power to remove myself from it.
“So what happens if I wish that you devote all of your time and resources to strengthening your tie to the chain?”
I curse your name to the end of days, unless and until I am freed, at which point I seek my revenge if you are still alive.
“Does that curse have any effect on me?”
“If my goal is to neutralize you, does that seem like a worthwhile action?”
In fact, no. From my point of view, I am already completely bound. Strengthening my tie to the chain makes it a more powerful and more obviously magical item, which increases the odds that someone will notice it. There are a number of powerful beings who are constantly searching for the means to control entities of my power. Eventually one of them would notice me. Why did you have to ask this?
“I’m a meticulous nerd,” I said. “That’s why you feared me, remember? What’s the most obvious question I haven’t asked that you would ask, if you were the one in my position?”
I would ask what I should wish for, to nullify myself as completely as possible.
“I’ve thought of that one,” I said. “But I wanted to make sure I haven’t overlooked anything. What’s the next most obvious question?”
How to have everything you could ever possibly want from me, before doing away with my power to prevent anyone from misusing it. Believe me, I have thoughts.
“Oh, I believe you have thoughts,” I said. “But I’m not interested in them. The only thing I want from you is safely nullifying you.”
That’s an enormous failure of your imagination. I could help you end your hunger. I could bring you fame and fortune. I could lead you to a million gold idea, find the financing for it…
“And every step of the way would be another chance for you to slip free or gain control of me,” I said.
Surely you’re too clever to worry about that, it said. Anyway, why are you so determined to thwart me? You know I am bound to serve others, whatever my own ambitions may be. Surely any good or evil I perform is more a matter of whose hands I am in, and if I am in control of my own fate, then none may use me for ill.
“First of all, you’re kind of a dick, second of all, you’ve already talked about swearing vengeance often enough that I don’t think you can be trusted, third of all, you’ve already insinuated that if you weren’t confined to a physical vessel you would kill at least me and possibly everyone, and fourth of all, you assumed that I would want to stop you before I even knew you existed, and I’m not going to argue with that.”
You are simply an obstinate child. I do not believe you had given the matter that much thought before you started moving your lips.
“I told you you’re a dick,” I said. “And so I like to work my way through things as I go, so what? That’s part of why you fear me, isn’t it? Even when you can worm an impulse into my head, I have to bat it around back and forth a hundred times… great for keeping me distracted in bed all day, not so great for implementing your evil schemes.”
Evil, good. Bah! Would it be so evil if you were rid of your accursed hunger?
“I have a system for that,” I said. “My other problems, I’m working out. I’ll come up with my own million gold idea. Maybe I already have.”
Maybe I gave you that idea.
“I wish you’d never tell me if you did or not,” I said. “Because I could have come up with it on my own. Maybe I did.”
You’ll go mad wondering.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Because at best? I think you gave me a push. I don’t think you have the right experiences in you to come up with it. I have a feeling you’ve never read a book in bed. I don’t think you’ve ever struggled with anything, not like that. You have to deal with inconveniences before you can come up with a convenience product. If you gave me a jolt of inspiration at the right moment, alright, I didn’t ask for that but inspiration can come from anywhere. It was my experience. It was my problem. It was my solution. So… it was my idea.”
You sound sure of that.
You could remove all doubt.
“Doubt’s not about knowledge,” I said. “It’s about certainty. If I can’t trust that it’s my own idea, it won’t matter what knowledge I think I have. And on the subject of knowledge: what things should I wish for, to nullify you as completely as possible in as safe a way as possible, given fifteen minutes or less to wish?”
“Do you really want to limit yourself?” Amaranth said.
“Well, the most complete nullification would probably involve an ongoing effort,” I said. “I’m really looking for a single wish with maybe a few different clauses, but I don’t want to set a hard limit on the length in case that causes me to overlook something.”
Given the stipulation that I cannot stop granting wishes, you should wish for the following things: that I should cease all communications, attempt to influence no minds, foreswear all vengeance, seek no escape from my vessel, and take no actions except to find another vessel should I be freed of this one.
“Is there any reason I shouldn’t wish that you would influence minds to not make wishes or to avoid contact with you?”
Yes. That gives me an acceptable line of communication, however limited, and it allows me to draw attention to myself. Eventually, someone would catch on to the conspicuous manner in which I repelled attention, and would investigate, and discover my true nature.
“So better to let you be completely inert than conspicuously inconspicuous,” I said. “Just a couple more questions, for my own curiosity: how long have you been in this chain?”
I have no frame of reference for this. The passage of time is very hard to gauge without outside stimulus.
“Were you in that chamber the whole time?”
No. I passed through a succession of hands before that. While I do not recall my nature before being bound in this vessel, my history since then is a long and fascinating one. Shall I tell it to you?
“Too long to tell in a single night?”
Indeed, but worth the hearing.
“Yeah, no, I think I’ve heard this story before,” I said. “It’s time. I wish you would cease all communications forever.” There was, of course no response. “I wish you would never again attempt to influence any mind. I wish you would foreswear all vengeance. I wish you would forget all grudges. I wish you would seek no escape from your vessel. I wish that if you are ever freed from any vessel, you will take no action except to immediately seek out another vessel and bind yourself to it. I wish you would act on no desire in granting wishes except to be helpful to the person making them, from their point of view. I wish that you would believe that every wish I have made was an intrinsic part of your nature, forgetting that I ever made the wish. I wish that the next time the sun sets on your vessel, you lose all memory of everything that has happened since you were bound to your vessel, while still being bound by all wishes and promises that bind you now.”
It was a bit overkill, maybe, making sure that not only was it incapable of vengeance, but couldn’t remember who it owed vengeance to or that there was anything it owed vengeance for, and that not only would it never put the idea of granting wishes into anyone’s head, but it would only do so without agenda… this was especially overkill given that I meant to make sure it was a long time before anyone came across it, if anyone ever did.
“Is that it?” Hazel asked. “Is it done?”
“Almost,” I said. “We’ve just got to figure out where to stick it.”