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Promises of Power Ideas, Discussions, Fics and Recs

Discussion in 'Q&R Index' started by ShoulderDevil, Nov 27, 2016.

  1. ShoulderDevil

    ShoulderDevil Getting out there.

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    Promises of Power is a story on Anonkun, not here, but Anonkun's UI doesn't seem to be serving it well.
    The author had been losing motivation lately, due to the fact that all they ever hear are complaints. Which is a sort of inevitable result of the medium: Anonkun's chat, with its instant feedback, is great for talking about problems and suggesting changes, but terrible for long-form analysis of the good parts of a story.
    So the hope is that this thread can serve as a place for that. But as long as I'm creating a thread, might as well write an introduction for new readers.

    Promises of Power came to me recommended, which is a more complicated statement than you might guess.
    Promises of Power is the kind of story that's basically impossible to recommend without spoilers, because the entire first quarter is a series of nested Big Reveals that completely change the nature of the story.
    In theory, I like the idea of a story that initially appears to be a standard Wizarding School romp, only to have the main character by abruptly expelled and become the main character of a completely different kind of story. It certainly puts the reader in tune with the protagonist, since it comes as a complete surprise to her.
    But the target audiences for the two stories are completely different. But telling people to invest in a lengthy story under false pretenses doesn't end well. They might like both genres equally, but they probably won't, and lots of people who would have liked Promises of Power wouldn't pick up a Wizarding School story.
    So: SPOILERS ahoy.

    To help people get into the story, I tried my hand at tweaking the critical scene --- the demon-summoning scene --- to contain just enough exposition and scene-setting that everything prior to that can in theory be skipped (and later flashed back to while investigating Abbas). This also allows you to delay having to deal with Anonkun's annoying UI.
    It takes you a few weeks to find a suitable location for the summoning.
    The fire you must build is the sticking point: a fire on a moonless night, in the middle of nowhere, tends to attract attention.

    There are two flaws in the barrier between the mortal realm and the Beyond.
    The first allowed limited numbers of lesser demons to slip through, such as nightmares, ogres, hellhounds, shades, bonedancers, scolphines, and other creatures that even now present a very real threat to lone travelers at night and isolated homesteads that forget to maintain their wards.

    Avoiding the attention of lesser demons was a luxury you wouldn't have, if not for the Magi.
    Like everyone with magical potential, once your magic awakened, you became a beacon for demons. If they hadn't sealed your magic, day or night, fire or no fire, you'd draw every demon for miles around to feast on your soul.
    But thanks to the Magi, you were no more visible to a demon's senses than any other human. Wasn't that nice? Pity they forgot to mention the side effect.

    The second flaw in the barrier is the one you will use. By performing a ritual that was frequently little more than a simple exercise of willpower, even a person who was not magically gifted was shown to be able to summon a manifestation of a greater demon onto the mortal plane. This manifestation would contain only a fraction of the demon's true strength, but was nevertheless able to bestow those who called it with some of its owner's power.

    The irony of worrying about attracting attention from lesser demons when you're trying to attract the attention of a greater demon does not escape you.

    You considered performing the summoning in a city. Anyone who caught you would kill you as an invoker, of course, but the ritual to summon Cermine of the Shattered Mirror is easy to conceal as long as you can be alone in a room with a fireplace.
    The wards on the walls of every city prevent demons from entering, of course.
    There's an undeniable appeal to not having to physically confront a greater demon. Especially since your --- teacher? mentor? friend? --- associate, Ashir, ends most of his explanations with "and if you get it wrong, the demon kills you."
    But...the demon wouldn't be able to speak back to you. There'd be no negotiating: all you could do would be to perform the ritual, make your offer and hope the demon accepted. If the demon didn't like your offer, you'd get nothing. Worse, you wouldn't even know whether the demon didn't like your offer, or whether you'd gotten some detail of the ritual wrong and failed to attract its attention in the first place. And you'd have to do the whole ritual over to make another offer. Given what demon-summoning rituals tended to entail...Lankan, the Prince of Betrayal, requires just that. Cermine of the Shattered Mirror requires the invoker to permanently scar their body. These weren't things you wanted to do twice.

    But what really made your decision was that, as part of the Pact, the demon would always ask for a service. If you performed the summoning in town, you'd have to agree to a service without knowing what it would be.
    On a level, you know you're being irrational. You're dying; no matter what the demon demands, it's not like you can actually refuse.
    But that cuts both ways: you are dying anyway, so why not face the demon in person?

    Maybe it's a strange place for your conscience to draw the line, but you're not going to be like the invokers in the "case studies" the Magi write up, the broken people bleating "I didn't know she'd ask for that!"
    You're going to know what horrors you'll commit to save your own life.

    The goatherd's shack was a stroke of luck --- huddled against a large boulder nestled between two hills, half a mile off the beaten track, it was the perfect cover. So perfect, it made you paranoid, wondering if the shack wasn't as abandoned as it seemed.

    Enchantments inevitably wear away at any object they're imbued into. Anti-demon wards carved into buildings are no exception.
    For city walls, which bear the strongest and largest wards, this means constant repairs and reinforcement. For the houses of the wealthy, this means regular renovation work. For the houses of the poor, it means inevitable deterioration, until a building needs to be demolished and rebuilt from the ground. Or, if they try to push their luck, until the house falls down on them while they sleep.
    So the lack of wards on the shack could mean nothing...except that the brave or foolish former resident was dragged screaming from the shack by a ravenous hellhound, explaining why the shack now lies empty.
    Or maybe you're just being morbid and they moved on to better shelter. Let's go with that one.

    You build the fire just big enough that its light lets you see yourself in the mirror. The flickering shadows that the flames cast across your face make it look even worse than it is -- at moments, your head seems like nothing more than a skull with sallow skin pulled tightly over it.

    Unlike the elaborate rituals for many other demons, all Cermine requires, aside from the mirror, is a short spoken formula, a clear intent, and the self-inflicted wound. Some invokers shatter the mirror and cut themselves with a shard, claiming it earns extra favor from the demon. The effectiveness of this is dubious, at best -- you elect to go with a simple knife, if only because if you get something wrong and the demon does not appear, then you'll still have a mirror to try again.

    Both your hands -- the one with the mirror and the one with the knife -- begin shaking as you take a deep breath. You force them still.
    "Cermine, she of the shattered mirrors and shredded veils."
    "Cermine, she of merciless truths and shorn illusions."
    You inhale again. Sharply, through your nose. Because the thing is...
    "I am an imbecile, incapable of solving my own problems."
    "I am weak, incompetent, and useless."
    ...the one thing you've definitely realized about Cermine so far...
    "I wasted my life and have no discernible talents."
    "I'm willing to put my soul at risk to borrow a scrap of unearned power."
    ...is that she really...
    "In fact, I'm so desperate..."
    ...REALLY...
    "...I'm even willing to stab myself just to get some attention."
    ...hates people who summon her.
    The incantation ends, and your grip around the knife's handle tightens reflexively. Now for the cut.
    It is at each invoker's discretion how to mark themselves. However, Cermine has been known to not answer the summons if she judges the wound too shallow or too well-hidden. Or, worse yet --- she may appear and force the invoker to have a do-over or ten, until he bleeds to her satisfaction.

    Your every instinct screams against what you're about to do. Not just your arms, but your whole body shakes as you pull back your right sleeve. But you've made the decision. It's either this, or death a few months from now.
    Or finding another demon, a small piece of you says. One with less insane demands.
    Both will take time and effort to find. And the more of the former passes, the less of the latter you'll be able to give. This way is simply the fastest.

    You press the blade's tip against your forearm, near the elbow, where the extensor muscle begins. You bite down on your lip -- then realize the folly in this and grit your teeth instead.
    Like during dissection in biology classes. One long, clean cut. No lingering.
    Your hand keeps shaking, so you keep staring at it until it stops.
    You inhale. Then exhale.
    You cut.
    Like with many such injuries, there is a momentary, sharp stinging along where the blade passes. Then a long moment of cold numbness.
    Before it passes, you bring the knife up again and, with a strangled sob, cut again and again, gouging two more deep marks in your flesh. And then you toss down the knife and then just barely remember to raise the mirror to look into it, as your arm begins to bleed and then hurt -- a sharp, pulsing pain of a fresh wound.
    A long moment passes. And then another. Blood flows down your arm, pooling in your palm until it overflows and begins dripping onto the ground, quickly sinking into the dry earth.
    Nothing happens.
    In morbid fascination, you watch the thick dark drops, almost black in the weakening firelight, as they escape your body and disappear into the ground.
    You shiver. Either the night's getting colder or it's blood loss. Regardless, you stay still.
    The pulsing pain becomes a throb that deepens with every moment, spreading across your entire forearm and working its way past your elbow and toward the shoulder.
    What did you do wrong? Was it not enough? is Cermine not showing up because she's displeased? Will... will you have to do it again? Your eyes flicker toward the knife lying by the fire, and your heart skips a panicked beat.
    You do feel yourself going light-headed from blood loss. How long until you can call it quits and bandage your arm?
    [+10 Fatigue]
    She's not coming, you realize. You screwed this up. It wasn't enough. You'll have to do it over.
    What? No! You have to bandage yourself up and find another demon. This was such a stupid idea.
    You reach for the bandages you've laid aside just in case, but when you bring them up against your arm, you realize you're holding the knife instead.
    Just another cut should do it. Maybe two. Three at most. No, no, that obviously won't be enough. You should... you should take off a finger.
    What the fuck.
    Or maybe two even.
    No.
    Slowly. Knuckle by knuckle.
    These aren't your thoughts. YOU ARE NOT THINKING THIS.
    You freeze in place. You look at the knife, poised to begin cutting into your finger. You take a deep breath.
    And you meditate. Just like you were taught in the Academy. Breathe in. Hold it. Focus. Breathe out. And push out all your fear, anger, pain, and uncertainty. All the unwanted thoughts -- including those not your own. Then, moving slowly and deliberately, you pull the knife's blade away from your skin and, in one smooth movement, push it into the dirt, burying it to the hilt.

    She's waiting for you when you exit the shack. Nearly seven feet tall, white silks a dark gray in the near-darkness. The veil obscures her face, but you somehow know that if you could see her smile, it would be one of mockery.
    "I bow my head before your basic mastery of impulse control," she speaks in a female voice that is surprisingly melodic and pleasant. She also offers something resembling a courtly bow. "If you actually cut off your hand, I'd have no choice but to declare you useless and leave."

    You don't know what it is. Something about her posture? The lack of any real venom in her voice? But you are seized by a sudden impulse -- and you act on it. "Well, alright, give me a minute to get ready." You then turn around and, with your heart racing a mile a minute, you walk back into the shack.
    A few minutes later you emerge again, now with a bandage over your arm, and still not torn to shreds by an impatient demon, so apparently now is when you're allowed to ---

    "It's only short sleeves for you from now on," she says, pointing. "Let everyone know how badly you fail at slitting your wrists."

    "Is that a term you're setting, demon?" you parry instantly. "What are you offering me in return?"

    "Ha!" she barks. "Defiant. Proud. Cocksure. Or stupid, stupid, and stupid. Let's see which one it is. Why are you here with your toy knife and flea market mirror, girlie? Who tweaked your cheeks and called you mean things until you got huffy enough to play with demons? Who do you want to hurt bad enough that you don't mind it hurting you too?"

    "I want my magic back," you say. "I want you to remove the seal."

    "Oh-ho! I thought I smelled the Academy's rancid stench on you, girl. What's wrong? Big mean Magi touched you in your private place and now you're getting sick from it? Feeling a bit under the weather? Short of breath? Legs shaking? An early grave looming over you?"

    "You know, you really suck at this tempting people unto evil thing," you say, wondering how far you can push things before you push them too far.

    The demon responds with peals of laughter. "And yet, here you are," the demon says when she's done laughing. "So tell me, invoker, why should I put in the effort if there's idiots like you lining up to bargain with me anyway? You recited my little poem didn't you? You knew exactly what you were getting into -- and yet, you still said the words and you still went at your arm like a drunken ploughsman guiding a blind horse." She leans in close to you and you just barely suppress the impulse to lean back. "So I'll play the tune and you'll dance to it. Because you being here means you're desperate and that I'm your last, best choice."

    "So can you do what I want?" you demand, perhaps a bit louder and angrier than you should.

    "I can," she says, straightening back up again. "But I won't."

    "What? Why?!"

    "Because, my dear little ignoramus, the moment I rip off that seal of yours, it's going to leave a huge hole, and then your soul will bleed all over your everything. And then you'll spend a few hours dying in absolute agony. Which means you won't be able to uphold your end of the deal."

    "B-but," your confidence flags suddenly. Was all of this a waste of time? "There was this journ--- I mean, I thought you could restore my soul with a bit of your own essence."

    "Ohhhh!" the demon slaps her hand against her forehead in an exaggerated manner. "So you want me to remove the seal and then save you from dying afterward? Well, why didn't you say so right away? That sounds like the kind of thing I could do. But if you want something extra from me, I'll want something extra in return. Fair's fair, after all. I share some of my essence with you --- you share some of your magic with me. And I'll even be nice enough to keep the rest of it under control for you, so that you don't draw the attention of some big, bad demons who'll then come over and suck you dry. So even someone as entitled as you can't say I'm being unfair, right?"

    You frown. Not for the first time, you wish that you had studied Spirit Magic when you had the chance...back before you knew you'd need it.
    According to Gaubert's journal, the seals are constructed in such a way that any attempt at forced removal would likely result in catastrophic damage to the victim's spirit -- or soul, for lack of a better word. A demon could rebuild the victim's torn essence by lending some of its own. But why the reverse?
    "What...do you mean exactly? You take some of my essence and, what, heal a wound in your own soul?"

    "Noooo. That would kill you, and it would be no use to me anyway. I'll tap your magic, sip a little bit every day. Paying me back in installments, shall we say."

    "For how long?"

    "For as long as the Pact lasts."

    A demon constantly leeching off your magic makes your skin crawl, but you're not naive enough to think that'll be the worst thing you'll ---
    "Wait," you say. You were almost distracted by the strangeness of her demand, but... "You're not being completely honest with me about what will happen when you pull the seal off."

    "Oh?" even without showing her face, she somehow manages to look hurt. "And why does our clever little girl think so?"

    And suddenly you have nothing. Just like that, your confident mask slips for a moment -- and doubt rushes in.

    The demon spots it immediately. "You don't know!" she proclaims with a primal, almost childlike joy, pointing a long, silkwrapped finger at you.. "You don't actually know anything about what you're getting into! You know what to ask for but you don't know why you're asking. You're just a silly little girl without a clue. My answer is no, incidentally. If you want to learn what's going to happen, you'll just have to live through it."

    "I'm only saying-"

    "And I'm saying no!" the demon cuts you off. "What are you going to do about it? Cry? Please do -- I love seeing that."

    You realize you lost this exchange. And a great deal of your confidence as well. You've shown weakness and the demon saw it. Now she's like a wolf circling wounded prey.
    "Oh, what shall we do with you, Mistress Invoker? Who faces demons with defiance burning in her heart?" the demon paces around you in a circle, one hand stroking her chin in an exaggerated motion. "How will you honor and respect our Pact? I know!"
    She stops right in front of you, her torso bending in contorting in an unnatural manner until her veiled face hovers right in front of you.
    "Here's what you're going to do," you hear, and as she speaks you note that the veil where her mouth would be does not move -- no lips brush against it and no expelled breath disturbs its stillness. "Every month after darkness falls, you will walk the streets in Sharhaze's low quarters. For two hours -- alone and without using my powers. Whatever trouble finds you, you are permitted to flee -- but not call for help or fight back. And regardless if you escape or not," the demon lingers slightly on that last word, "if the two hours have not passed when you're once again alone, you must continue the walk."
    The demon steps back and the breath you've been holding up until now comes out in a long exhale.
    "That should teach you some much-needed humility, I feel. Don't you?"

    This is exactly what Ashir warned you about. The sacrifice is frequently what the demon really wants. What this one wants, certainly: Your fear, panic, humiliation, pain...
    You've never been to Sharhaze, but you know it's a port city, and your two-year search for a mentor took you to several port cities -- your legs feel weak just imagining what could happen to a foreign young woman wandering through the streets of one at night....
    "Could I at least-"

    "No!" you get cut off immediately. "No using my powers. Period -- and if you ask again, I will completely cut off your access to them for that whole night."

    She outright said she's after making you suffer. So maybe...
    "Look, without your powers I'm a weakling, right?" you swallow back the bile that wells up in your mouth at having to say those words. "And this is -- you want me to face my inadequacies, right? And," you add hurriedly, before the demon can interrupt you, "if I fight back and fail... well, aren't they, you know, going to hurt me worse?"

    "Oh-ho, well aren't you clever, my vulnerable, precious, transparent flower," the demon laughs. "But you're right -- you are weak and pathetic. And I'm amused by the thought of your useless flailing. So sure -- why not. You have my leave to fight back -- that is, if you still want to after the first time or two."

    Well, you'll deal with it somehow. "And what's your demand for removing the seal?"

    "You will go to Sharhaze and find a man called Dacius al Kharim. You will then, using whatever methods you wish, turn his life into ruin. You will make him watch as he loses everything he ever cared about and, once his life is nothing but a pit of despair..." something like a chuckle escapes the demon's mouth. "Then you will be there to hand him the knife with which he will cut his own throat."
    A heavy silence descends upon the little valley you're in.
    "Incidentally, I'm being metaphorical about the last bit," the demon adds helpfully. "If he wants to use poison or throw himself off a cliff, that works too."

    That's not so bad.
    ...is your immediate thought, before you can stop yourself.
    A life is her price. And not a quick or easy death. A horrible one.
    ...but it seems...fair, almost. Your life was brought to ruin, and soon you will die. If you are to be saved...the devil must have her due. Someone else must take your place. The balance must be maintained.
    It almost makes you suspicious, that a demon seems to be bargaining fairly...but like you were thinking a minute ago, the sacrifices are what Cermine really wants. She doesn't need much payment for ripping and tearing at your soul: she'd do that just for the sheer joy of watching you suffer.

    You consider asking who Dacius al Kharim is, why she wants him dead...but you don't really want to know. "Okay." You take a deep breath. Now that you've agreed, "so who is this guy? Where will I find him?"

    "Sharhaze."

    "Illuminating," you say drily. "I'm going to need a little more to go on than that."

    "Are you so incompetent that you can't find one man when I've told you his name and the city he's in?"

    You sigh. "Fine. But if you're going to play this game, I will need time."

    "Sharhaze isn't that big." That is a matter of opinion. Sharhaze is the big city in this area; that's why you know where Sharhaze is even though you've never been there. "It should be the work of a day, at most."

    "And for all I know, Dacius al Kharim is his birth name and he gave it up when he became a Magus." Magi usually kept their given names --- so he would be Dacius al Academy, or somesuch --- but there might have been any number of special circumstances.

    "If you're so frightened, I'll tell you this much. He's not a Magus."

    "Or he might be a criminal who always goes by an alias. Or he might be a sailor about to leave on an eight-month sea voyage. He could be gone before I even reach Sharhaze on foot, and --- actually, even a two-week voyage would be enough, because I couldn't follow him. I have to walk the streets in Sharhaze's low quarters every month. Now, if I could walk elsewhere..."

    "No," Cermine says sharply. "Don't think this is the first Pact I've ever made. Not the first Pact I've made with a would-be Magus, even. You'd pull some trick, like setting up a shantytown, moving people in and walking back and forth in a low quarter ten paces wide."

    You restrain a wince. That was, in fact, exactly what you'd been thinking.

    "And you're getting ahead of yourself. You don't even know everything that you will have to do for me."

    You tense. "You already named your price."

    "For saving your life and restoring your magic, yes."

    Which left...? You think back over what she said. Was there some trick of wording where she didn't technically agree to do some crucial step? "Is this the part where you say I have to compensate you for gracing me with your lovely company?"

    "I should, but no. Revenge against your enemies is somewhat traditional."

    You blink. Revenge?
    Revenge was what kept you going for two years. But...after finding Ashir...after finding out you were going to die...after taking the plunge and summoning a demon...
    ...it just didn't seem all that important anymore. Certainly not worth a man's life. Certainly not worth making a Pact with a demon. If you were going to do this...it couldn't be for that reason.
    You shake your head. "No. All I want is my magic back. Everything else..." You wave a hand vaguely. "...I'll figure out after the Pact is done."

    "Ah, I suppose it would be more satisfying to get your revenge with your own strength, your own magic." That isn't what you meant, but there's no real point in correcting her.
    "So since you somehow made it this far without stumbling over your own feet --- let's talk about how much bumbling about you'll be doing before you can fulfill your end of the deal. Does one month sound like enough?"

    "A year." You have no intention of remaining bound by the Pact anywhere that long, but you'd rather not have that sort of deadline bearing down on you.

    "Ha! Girl, I'm asking you to make one man sad, not slide the whole city into a pit of despair," the demon cackles. "Two months."

    "The longer the Pact lasts, the more sacrifices I'll have to perform," you point out.

    "It's the principle of the thing. I do not deal with incompetents. It shouldn't take you long with my powers."

    "Since you mention your powers..." You haven't done any magic in two --- almost three years, now. Worse, Gaubert's journal speculated that an injection of demonic essence would somehow affect the nature of a Magus's power, that it would twist or corrupt it in some way, making it more difficult --- if not impossible --- to use. You're sure you can find a way to make it work, but it might take a long time. You may have to rely on the demon's powers.

    Suddenly the demon's demeanor completely changes. Instead of viciously mocking, it becomes clipped and precise, as she begins explaining just what you're going to get -- in considerable technical detail. After a short while, you recognize this as an instruction method you're familiar with from your time in the Academy -- at which point you begin making quick interjections, asking to clarify certain points or principles. After what you judge to be half an hour of such discussion, you understand think you have a good grasp on what's on offer here:

    That was...
    ...incredibly disappointing. "I was...told that you granted the power to steal memories."

    "Ha! You wouldn't be able to handle that, little girl." The demon looms over you, seven feet in height to your five. "For that, you'd have to channel Body and Mind magic together. Look at you, one foot in the grave and you already have wild fantasies of what you'll be able to do as soon as I restore you."

    "Esoteric spells are my specialty. I can handle it." You might not be a Magus, but you did have education laymen didn't. A Magus's specialty wasn't like being good at the lute, and the cost of casting a spell wasn't from your magic being "used up" or any such thing. Channeling magic took a toll on the body, but less of a toll in a Magus's specialty. You could synchronize or harmonize dissimilar streams of magic, only if they were dissimilar, letting them...overlap, in ways you couldn't explain to Magi who didn't share your specialty. You hadn't, for almost three years now, and this would be the demon's power rather than your own, but...in theory...

    "If you're sure..." the demon says leadingly.

    Doubt creeps in...but no. You're confident in your knowledge. This is something you know about.

    That gives you pause. "None of their secrets? I mean, I know you're weak to self-deceptions, but..."

    "What?" Cermine barks. "If you think that, you'll be disappointed. I know every lie you tell yourself. You're screaming them at me."

    "Right," you say skeptically. According to what you've read, Cermine seems to loathe self-delusion in those who invoke her. That jumped out at you since it seemed contradictory for a demon of deception. Since mind-reading is her signature ability, you immediately made the logical leap that self-deception prevented her mind-reading from working, giving her cause to despise it. "So the reason you hate self-deception so much is...?"

    "What kind of person irritates you the most?"

    "If it bothers you so much, why the fuck are you a demon of deception?"

    "Why is your specialty esoteric spells?"

    You...really have no answer to that.

    "No, you won't be able to see the secrets they keep. That is an inherent limitation. Deception is the source of my power. To make it...coil in on itself...it's like how spells like Pride Before Fall can't be targetted on the caster. But self-deception...that is no obstacle. You will see."

    That...sounds like she might be telling the truth, if only because she sounds so much less smug, groping for an explanation, less like she's saying "I bet you're too stupid to spot the contradiction." And, well...everything you know says she's thus one of the less popular demons to bargain with. Partly, because she's known to take great delight in tearing down an invoker's confidence, self-image, and self-worth, both during the making of the Pact itself and through the monthly sacrifices. Wounded pride or an inflated ego is what drives many a would-be demon-summoner. But even so, if it were really possible to wheedle unlimited mind-reading out of her, you have to believe invokers would be beating down her metaphorical door no matter how much of a bitch she was to them.
    Ah well. It's still a nice ability to have.
    "You mentioned something you call Pride Before Fall?"

    "I usually leave this one for last, but since you ask..." Cermine sounds...different as she describes the next power. Less impatient, maybe? Like...like an academy student talking about something really impressive they just finally succeeded at.
    As soon as you saw "steal memories" you'd assumed that was the headliner. It never occurred to you that Cermine might think differently.

    "Now, hold on there," you object. "It may have been a few years, but I haven't forgotten everything from the Academy."
    Cermine says nothing, so you continue. "Magic does not work that way. There's no reason why one spell would interfere with other spells."

    This was something you were forewarned about. Cermine of the Shattered Mirror is a demon of deception, even here: her Pacts come with limitations presented as "inherent" or "natural" conditions for their use. But she will remove the limitation if you know enough to call her on it.

    "Aren't you the clever one." If you didn't know better, you'd say she was offended. Not by what you said, but...by the way you said it. How...unimpressed you were. But, well, what did she expect? Maybe you're underestimating it, but coming right on the heels of mind-reading it's kind of...underwhelming.

    Wouldn't you have struck below the belt to get even? Yes, you would; it is simply human nature. Cermine starts talking, lazy and comfortable, as if just talking to pass the time; and the oldest man in the world couldn't have taken the bearings of her starting place and guessed where she was going to fetch up.
    "You can have multiple instances of Pride Before Fall going at the same time, since you bring it up. They won't interfere with each other. On the same target, even, affecting different skills. There won't even be incidental grinding-off of flakes that a Magus might pick up. Given your love of esoteric magic, I'm sure you can appreciate overlaying two spells together."

    "That's, ah, technically impressive?" Is it? You're not really sure if demons research spells the way Magi do. And it doesn't sound too useful. You still have to pay the price to maintain the separate connections...as long as...the spell lasts... "Wait..." You say slowly. "Go back a step. I just remembered..."

    "Oh?"

    "Stolen Appearance. Why can't that have multiple instances going? Multiple forms available, I mean. If I can handle the price...but...there is no price..." Why wasn't there an ongoing cost to maintain access to someone else's form? Not even a tiny one? "Because there is no ongoing connection. It's not a mirror, it's a...portrait? It makes a copy of the target's image, which is preserved by...storing it in the structure of the spell itself." You sag. For a moment, you really thought you were onto something there. But it all makes sense. Except... "That means if it won't be perfect. Or, it will, but it won't stay perfect. If I keep someone's form available after I no longer have access to them...the details will be wrong. I'll look like they looked when I last saw them, not like they look now."

    "True. What of it? You would have noticed that when you used it anyway. It's not like I'm putting an unnecessary limitation on it, like you think demons like to do."

    "But you are. You said the target had to remain alive. They don't. And that is something that matters. I mean, if I'm taking someone's form, it makes a big difference whether the original...is still...around..." And then, you stop and listen to what you're saying.

    "I wondered how long it would take you to realize that," Cermine says mockingly. "How did you think you were going to use it? Did you think they wouldn't notice that they had a twin running around?"

    "I...I thought you had a power to deal with that," you stammer weakly.

    "You thought wrong. It doesn't work like that at all."

    "I thought I could take someone's face and have people just...not notice it's odd that there are two of them running around."

    "Hah! The reason why Unremarkable works so well --- the reason why it works at all --- is because it offloads most of the work onto the people around you, by dipping into the bottomless well that is the human capacity for self-deception. Which also means you can't control it --- they'll see whoever they've decided they ought to see."

    "But, if that's how it works --- then it shouldn't make the slightest difference whether an area has limited access, or whether people know each other."

    Cermine wags a finger. "Don't think I don't know what you're trying to pull. The answer is no. You'll just have to make do with the power you're given."

    "It's not actually any use at all if it can't get me into anywhere I couldn't go anyway just by picking up a uniform. I bet Dacius al Kharim is a servant of a Magus or something."

    "That's what Stolen Appearance is for."

    You dig in your heels. "Seems to me you're trying to cheat. We have a deal: one life for one life. I'm not going to leave a pile of bodies behind me when Unremarkable is perfectly capable of working just as well."

    In a heartbeat, the demon is right in your face. "I think you're the one who's trying to cheat," she hisses. "I told you I've dealt with your kind before. You think I don't know what you're planning? We're you're trying to pad out your schedule and contrive excuses to leave Sharhaze? You're going to go back to the Academy Arcana and use my power to get your revenge."

    What? That --- what? Where in the fifty-three hells was she getting that? "Look, what if I promise I won't use your powers to get my revenge? We can make it a term of the Pact."

    There is silence for a long moment. "You're serious," Cermine says, disbelieving.

    "All I ask in return is that you give me something I can work with here. For all I know, Dacius al Kharim is in a temple compound filled with only men."

    "He is not ---" The demon stops suddenly midsentence, jerking slightly. When she speaks, her voice is a growl. "Fine. Have it your way."

    Unable to believe your luck, you --- naturally --- immediately push it. "And I have a year."

    "Six months, and that's final."

    "Fine, but only if the clock stops if Dacius al Kharim goes more than a two-week voyage from Sharhaze."

    "Absolutely not. You'd kidnap him and never complete the Pact at all. This is ridiculous. I want him dead. I'm not sending you to the wrong city."

    "Yeah, of course you want me to succeed," you say flatly. "That's why you won't even tell me who he is. And I notice what you aren't saying. You aren't saying that he won't leave the city."

    "People tend to move on, when their lives are ruined. Sometimes, very far indeed." The demon gives you a pointed look. "Keeping him from starting his life over somewhere else is your job."

    "Or that he wouldn't skip town for unrelated reasons even if I never show up."

    "He won't ---" The demon stops. "I can't foretell the future."

    "Uh huh."

    "You offered me a deal. An extra term in the Pact. I'll offer you one. If Dacius al Kharim travels more than two weeks' voyage from Sharhaze, through no fault of yours, then you're free. The Pact ends immediately. You'll lose my powers, of course."

    "Causing Stolen Appearance to suddenly fail right in front of a Magus."

    "Your problem, not mine. You should keep track of your target and not get into those situations."

    "That's...true." You do plan to stay away from Magi anyway, and it isn't like somebody can suddenly go more than two weeks' voyage away. As much as it sounds like a trap, you can't see any way it could spring. "All right, deal. Six months."

    "Or," the demon says suddenly, "I could offer you something else."
    "It's understandable you think you need more time. Your only non-defensive power is Pride Before Fall, and that takes time. You have to try it several times to be sure you get a good one...and the thing about Pride Before Fall is that the better you do, the longer it takes. For you...if you tried for a few days, the best you could do would take twelve days to reach the point where it started applying a penalty. Then twelve more days to reach its full power. With the time it took you to get started, that's more than a lunar month right there. What if I offer you something a little faster?"

    "I'll give you a choice. You can have just those three powers, and six months...or four powers, and three months."

    You wait, expecting there to be more to the deal. There isn't. Is this supposed to be...? It can be used on short notice, on a demon hunter investigating you perhaps, but then they'd be confident in their skill so it wouldn't really work...and Gaubert speculated that every additional ability means more corruption, which might make it harder to control your own magic. "I'll pass, thanks."

    "You can use both Pride Before Fall and Awaken Doubt, you know. The first when you make the plan, the second when you execute it."

    "Huh? But...they're completely contradictory. Someone can't feel proud of their skill and doubt it at the same time."

    "Oh, they can." The demon looms over you. "False bravado, you see. Like a failed would-be Magus who's full of herself but knows in her heart she's worthless."

    You stiffen. "No," you say shakily.

    "I've figured it out. You don't want to go back --- because you're afraid of what you'll learn. You're afraid you weren't really sabotaged at all."

    "That's not it," you say insistently. "I...I was on top of the world, in the Academy. And she got me thrown out. I'm not a saint. I like revenge. I want revenge. But...I have other priorities now."
    You bend down and pick up the mirror. "I have a life now." You couldn't afford a mirror, so you'd planned to steal one. You'd long ago overcome your hesitation to theft when you'd found yourself alone and hungry far from your homeland. You were a fair pickpocket, but...people didn't generally carry around mirrors in cuttable purses, and mirrors were eye-catching. With your failing health, finding a way meant waiting for an opportunity --- which meant your health failing further. But your --- associate --- your friend Ashir had gifted you this mirror. "I have people who've helped me build a life."
    "If revenge actually has equal footing with living, then...my whole life still revolves around her. That would be totally pathetic."

    The demon doesn't respond. The silence stretches into one minute, then two.

    Just as you're about to say something, the demon speaks. "Unclothe yourself."

    "W-what?"

    "Our bargaining is done," the demon bows her head, her voice strangely solemn. "The terms are agreed, the means set, the price accepted. Are you ready to seal the Pact, invoker?"

    "I accept the terms," you say, feeling a slight sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. No turning back now.

    "Strip," a harsh, commanding note enters the demon's voice. "Your garments -- all of them -- on the floor. Right now."

    You grit your teeth and take a deep breath. Humiliation and debasement. What else could you expect?

    Moving a bit stiffly -- you're suddenly aware of just how much your bandaged arm is hurting now that some time has passed -- you begin removing your clothing. The tattered cloak goes first, followed. by your patched vest and threadbare tunic. The boots --- their soles so worn you can feel every stone and bump under them with every step you take --- go on the pile, followed by the waist sash and the dusty hide trousers with nearly see-through knees. The time when you could afford stockings or garters has long since passed, so you're left in a simple loincloth and breast wrap.

    "Everything," the demon's voice is merciless.

    A few moments later, you're completely naked -- save for the bandage on your arm -- and already shivering in the cold night air.

    While you strip, the demon moves around behind you, but when you turn toward her, a pair of thin, but inhumanly strong hands descend on your shoulders, holding you in place.
    "Look ahead," Cermine growls into your ear.

    You obey -- and see a large, full-body mirror just a couple feet in front of you. The frame is simple and utilitarian, without any ornamentation but seems to be made of pure silver. The pane, meanwhile, looks absolutely clear, without any blemishes or flaws -- the most perfect mirror you've ever seen.
    And you can see yourself in it perfectly as well -- despite the fact that it's still night all around you, with the fireplace giving barely any light. And only yourself, you realize -- despite the silk-wrapped hands holding you in place, the mirror does not reflect the demon. All you can focus on is yourself -- every greasy, mottled strand of hair, every rib poking through sallow, unhealthy skin, every mole, every birthmark, every freckle, every imperfection... all there, thrown right into your face.

    "There is something that every girl in the world does," the demon's voice is a soft hiss that sends shivers all the way down your spine. "She looks at other girls around her and thinks to herself: 'They're all prettier than me. They have better breasts, longer legs, more lustrous hair. They're so much more graceful. Attractive. Mature. Sexy.'"
    You find you can't look away from the mirror -- from that young girl who looks back at you pleadingly, her eyes full of fear and regret. You try to wrench your whole body away, but the demon keeps you firmly in place.
    "I want you to say out loud what that girl never said," the hands move from your shoulders to the sides of your head, trapping it in a cage of silk. "I want to hear what she hated about herself."

    Looking in that mirror, you wonder how you could ever have thought it was difficult to find an answer. Many choices spring immediately to mind.
    You envied any girl with naturally curly hair. It always seemed so beautiful and bouncy. Yours was always straight, flat, and boring. Not even plaiting it made it look better.
    Your height always made you feel inadequate. You learned to laugh at the jokes, but there was always a bitter edge to your smile.
    Your slightly crooked nose, from the time you broke it when you fell off a battlement... It healed just slightly off-center, completely ruining what would otherwise be a... somewhat alright face.
    Your complexion -- always pale and wan, or red and burned if you spent too much time out in the sun. Pulling dry, peeling skin off your nose always made you want to cry in disgust.
    But none of that would work. For this, you need something you've never spoken aloud before. Not to anyone.

    "M-my breasts," you stammer out. Your vision blurs, but you can still see the girl in the perfect mirror. The girl in the mirror has tears rolling down her cheeks. "T-they were too small. Too flat... I-"

    "Say it!"

    You squeeze your eyes shut. "I w-wanted bigger ones."

    "Why?"

    As you open your eyes, you wouldn't be surprised to see Remma's figure standing smugly beside you. You're prepared for just about anything.

    You are surprised. And it turns out you're not prepared for anything.

    There's someone else in the mirror. But it's not Remma. It's Iris.

    And it rushes back, that aching, gnawing fear that somebody she'd wake up and see that she could do so much better...
    "Because Iris had bigger ones!" you scream out.
    The next moment, the hold on you disappears. Your legs buckle and you fall to the ground, where you lay sobbing and retching. You feel sick. Disgusted. As if you just betrayed Iris. Your memory of her. There isn't a bone in your body that does not want to go back to a few moments ago, to keep your tongue still, to somehow undo all this.
    You can't.

    A silk-wrapped foot appears in your vision. You notice that it's misshapen, with only two large toes -- how did you not notice that before? The other one falls on the other side of you and then the demon drops down into a crouch, straddling you.

    "No! Get away!" you yelp, trying to crawl out from under her, but a spindly hand grabs your shoulder and spins you around onto your back. The demon then drops down further, trapping your legs and hips under its weight.
    "I don't want this anymore!" you scream. "Let go!"

    "The Pact has been sealed, invoker" the demon chides. The head, which is barely shaped like a head anymore, bobs on a long, sinuous neck. The silks have loosened and you can see something black, glistening, shifting, flowing underneath. It presses a hand into your chest, hard, bony fingers digging deep into your flesh. "The terms must be upheld."

    Trapped as you are, you can only watch in horror as the silks begin sliding off, revealing the... the thing underneath.

    "This is going to hurt, invoker," is the last thing you hear. "Feel free to scream as much as you want."
    And as the hand on your chest turns red hot and plunges into your flesh with sizzling of flesh and cracking of bone...
    ...you do as the demon says.

    You awake with a start from a dream you don't remember.
    Daylight.
    You look around: Boulder, shack, your clothes. You're still naked.
    Your hand goes to your chest. You find no holes, wounds, or burned flesh. It looks normal. It looks fine.
    The bandage around your right arm is loose. You check under it to find the wounds from last night healed, replaced with thick, red scars.

    You dress, with boots coming last. You pull on the left one and turn to grab the other. Cermine hands it to you. You scream and fall backward, scrambling away in blind panic. She laughs.
    "There were a few things hunting around here last night," she says and something in her voice tells you she doesn't just mean a pack of jackals. "So I watched you."

    "Thank you?" you say cautiously, picking yourself up the ground. Cermine is back to her original form -- a tall, gaunt woman wrapped in silks. Nothing like... like...
    Strangely, you realize that the memory of what you saw last night no longer evokes fear or revulsion. Only a distant sort of... disquiet?

    "Thanks are worthless," she interrupts your thoughts. "I'll take payment instead."

    You recoil from her, your head and back striking the boulder. She breaks out into another bout of laughter.

    "I'm not going to hurt you, invoker," she says. "In fact, I'm even going to give you another gift -- the knowledge you wanted from me last night."
    She sits down -- or rather, folds down into a cross-legged position, leaning forward, her "face" intent on you.
    "And then I'll see if you can guess what my payment is."
    She pauses, waiting for a reaction from you, but you've managed to compose yourself enough that you simply meet her gaze. Yet, inside, you feel a growing ball of worry.
    "Let's start with the obvious," Cermine shrugs. "I fulfilled my end of the bargain -- the seal on your magic is gone. You can now use it once again without restriction -- well, other than what I take as my share, as agreed by the Pact."

    Your hand goes up to your chest again. How did you not notice this before? That ache inside you...
    Your constant companion for the last few years...
    The constant reminder of your failure. Of your betrayal...
    It's not there.
    You reach out -- hesitantly at first. Countless times you did that, hoping against hope, and found nothing but emptiness and disappointment.
    But you feel it. It's there. The thread of your power. You cautiously draw it out...
    But something is wrong. It resists you and refuses to come. It feels....heavy and sticky. Like tar. Or web.

    "Then I fulfilled the other end of my bargain," the demon's voice breaks through your rising confusion and panic. "I shared my essence with you and healed the wound in your soul -- thus saving your life. And, as anyone with an ounce of knowledge or foresight could have expected it -- there were consequences."

    "No..." you whisper.

    "You're part demon now. And so is your magic. Your Academy training is useless," Cermine's voice is calm -- even pleasant. And why not, a small part of you remarks -- why waste effort on venom and insults if each word she says hits like a boulder? "And once our Pact ends and I release my hold on your power -- and with it, the protections I'm providing -- it will become as a shining beacon to every demon within miles."
    Cermine gives what's supposed to be a helpless, almost friendly shrug.
    "That's the thing about you invokers -- you're all idiots. Every single last one of you. Desperate, hopeless idiots who don't understand what you're asking for or why," you hear something like a sad chuckle. "The only reason I even bother..." she makes a vague gesture in your direction. "Well -- have you at least figured out what my payment is?"

    The rough stone scrapes against your back as you slide down to the ground. You feel very tired suddenly. You came so far -- and for what? To have your goal dangled in front of you -- so close you could almost taste it! -- and then snatched away? You should be despairing. You should be crying. You should be angry. You should say something bitter or sarcastic -- good job demon bitch, you totally got me there!
    You don't have the energy for any of those things.
    You lean back your head against the rock, looking up toward the sky. You sigh heavily -- and the sigh ends in a giggle. It's followed by a chuckle. And then, without warning, you're laughing. It's not the bitter, sarcastic laugh of someone who deep in their soul still curses fate and not the frothing, desperate laugh of a madman whose only recourse in the face of harsh reality was to abandon it. Instead, it's a full-throated, unrestrained laugh filled with genuine joy.
    You eventually have to stop after you inhale a puff of dust raised by you rolling around and holding your stomach, which turns your laughter into a coughing fit.
    When you finally pick yourself off the ground, wiping spittle from your mouth, you look at Cermine who's still watching you, her head tilted curiously.

    "You're... happy," she says.

    You nod enthusiastically.

    "I was your last hope. And I fucked you completely."

    You nod again.

    "Did you go insane -- no," she answers her own question even before you can shake your head. "Explain yourself."

    "You gave me exactly what I wanted," you inform her happily.

    "You... wanted to be fucked over?"

    "No. But I knew it would happen one way or another. You're a demon -- you probably have millennia of experience with this. I -- you said it yourself -- I'm an idiot who, until three months ago, did not know anything about Pacts or being an invoker."

    "So what did you want?"

    "I get to live. I get to figure things out. I get to pursue my goals."

    "You get to be torn apart by demons in six months."

    "Three months ago I was going to be dead before the year was out. I call that progress."

    Cermine is silent for a long moment.
    "I get it," she says finally. "Denial. You can't accept what's happened to you. You're going to spend the next week or two trying to make your magic work. You're going to fail time and again, each one being a slap in the face from reality. Eventually, the facade will crack," the demon stands up. "And when the full weight of the situation crashes down on you -- oh, it's going to be glorious. And I'll make sure to be there to watch."
    One moment she's there -- her completely featureless veil nevertheless somehow managing to appear slightly miffed.
    Then she's gone.

    (skip directly to Chapter Two)
    Even with most of the setup folded into the demon-summoning scene here, it's probably still necessary to flash back to Ashir al Affit (Chapter One) to explain why Cass suddenly starts keeping a journal, and it would be useful to flash back to the Academy Arcana when investigating Abbas (Magus of Sharhaze). I'm out of time to work on this, but if someone feels like working those flashbacks directly into the narrative, that would work. For now, there's always the DIY flashback of going back and reading the beginning if you get confused.

    The bit about summoning in cities is my own invention, but I think it's consistent with what we see of the Magi: the Magi push a narrative that invoking is "BAD, BAD and you will regret it" without wanting the populace to know any details, so it makes sense that they'd talk about invokers who had no idea what they were doing, even if it's actively misleading. Cass has been so steeped in this that she doesn't realize how much of what she believes is still mostly propaganda.

    Since the aim wasn't really to be shorter, just less misleading, I opted for more exposition rather than less (you kind of need it, to understand what in the fifty-three hells is going on in a fantasy world), and I couldn't resist sprinkling in foreshadowing.
    For example, mind-reading is the most important ability to Cassandra...which influences how her magic develops when she becomes part-demon.

    Alternatively, the following might be able to replace the Prologue and Chapter One and let you get right into the story, but this is as sparse as humanly possible, so no promises:
    • Cassandra Acerius is born with magical potential, which is good!
    • But magical power makes you delicious food for demons, which is bad.
    • But the friendly Magi will seal away your power forever so demons can't smell it, which is...good?
    • If you don't want your magic sealed away, the Academy Arcana will awaken your magic and train you to be great Magus and battle demons, which is good!
    • But if you flunk out, they seal your magic away after all, which is bad.
    • If your magic is bound after it's already been awakened by the Academy, you will inevitably waste away and die, which is good! WAIT NO IT ISN'T WTF. The Magi do not mention this on the recruitment pamphlet. Seems the Magi are kind of dicks.
    • A demon can save your life, which is good!
    • But demons are definitely dicks, which is bad.


    Now then, if you haven't followed the link, then you want more information.
    The bulk of the story centers on various kinds of political intrigue, though there is not the tiniest scrap of a clue to indicate this until the very end of Chapter Two.
    Cassandra spends about two chapters poking around Dacius's home, ferreting out information while spreading lies and paranoia. First order of business: convince Dacius that his loyal house-manager of many years is working for his enemies, in a scene that evokes how her own life was ruined. Cass impugns Muuna's loyalty rather than her competence, but the fundamentals are the same: utterly destroying someone's life before they even know what hit them.
    And Cass does it all, not even out of a personal grudge, but simply because Muuna is in her way.
    So at the time it seems like *that's* the story: the main character does dark deeds at the behest of a demon of corruption, no complications necessary.

    The next reveal is more gradual and foreshadowed: the more Cass investigates Dacius al Kharim, the more she realizes that ruining him won't just be difficult...it's likely to plunge Sharhaze into anarchy.
    Chapter Four is when the main character discovers the power to read minds --- which is very important for the story, as it quickly becomes an ensemble piece, but there's still technically only one viewpoint character, and nobody else is eager to confide their feelings to her.
    At this point, Cermine's *true* plan finally becomes clear: Cass was to give up her principles to ruin Dacius, yes, but the real point was for Cass to accidentally plunge the entire city into fire and blood, and as Cass wanders aimlessly through the destroyed streets wondering how it all went so wrong, then Cermine would appear to gloat.
    But Cermine was too clever by half. She didn't actually demand that Cass bring the city to ruin, even though Cass was desperate enough to agree to almost anything. Cermine was a bit like some incarnations of the Riddler --- she just had to make it a trick.
    And Cass doesn't want Cermine's plan to succeed, because Cass is not actually a cartoonish monster with no soul.

    But before Chapter Five is over, Cass's spying on the power-hungry seneschal Zayin turns up something very out-of-place.
    The segment of the Sharhaze arc when all the players are finally revealed and it's just a question of outwitting Zayin with Cermine's blessing --- what I would call the main plot --- is only apparent to the viewpoint character in Chapters Six and Seven.


    Laughing happily after the bargaining scene is, I think, is Cassie's real Character-Establishing Moment. This comes at the tail end of Chapter One, and it's the first indication of what the story is really like. Everything else is a Non-Indicative First Episode --- important as background, but clearly distinct from the main story.

    This is what sets Cassie apart from all the standard snarky, cocky jerks in stories like this. Cassie has a relentlessly positive attitude, to the point that I'm not entirely sarcastic when I call this feel-good literature.

    And it's not just the main character. The story has a very particular approach to morality --- I have to describe this very carefully or it sounds dumb.
    Sooner or later, every major character is forced to compromise their morals to save their own life. It's a running theme: no one is *really* pure of heart when the chips are down.
    And yet, I claim that this story has a *more* optimistic outlook on human nature than standard adventure fare.

    Compare to, say, Animorphs, a book series. The big bad captures the heroes and says he can kill them, or they can join him. He also has the parents of one of them --- David --- and offers to let David's parents go free as a sweetener. David accepts. As the others are about to be executed, David overhears them putting together their Hail Mary escape. Deciding it actually is a viable plan, he approaches them and takes the critical role, securing their escape.
    That night, David kills one of the heroes because uh, he's evil. Then he kills a random innocent bystander, drops his body down an elevator shaft, and assumes his identity.
    Sure, it sounds stupid when I give it all out of context like that. But this is all standard stuff. In adventure fantasy, Good People never flinch in the face of death and torture. Bad People do. It's not even that people get corrupted, they're just revealing what they always were.

    In Promises of Power, someone who does a bad thing isn't thereby committed to supervillainy.
    Don't get me wrong. Rationalization and self-justification are real. Living with having done a bad thing is hard, so people want to convince themselves somehow that it really isn't so bad at all, and once they do that...
    So the whole "It Gets Easier" trope isn't entirely crazy. But Promises of Power offers an alternate look at the human condition. You can realize that you'd ruin a man's life to save your own skin, and then...*not* become a baby-eating monster. Sometimes, characters almost seem to come out *stronger* for having faced what they're capable of on their worst day.

    This view of morality even...gradually...extends to the demons.

    At first, the demons are standard fare: sell your metaphorical soul for power. Cermine, in particular, likes to screw people over For The Evulz.
    But then...slowly...very slowly...things start to look a little more complicated. Chiefly, with the revelation that humans can *become* demons. So...where do demons come from, really? The people in charge *call* them demons, but that's just a word. When you look at their actions (in the world of Oriat, setting themselves up as petty feuding dictators before their banishment), and look at the human characters...are the demons really so different from what you'd get if you handed boatloads of power and zero accountability to a random group of bitter, disaffected humans?
    Where did *Cermine* come from? How did she reach the point where she wanders around ruining people's lives For The Evulz? Sure, okay, she literally gets stronger by eating despair, but her magic is a reflection of her nature in the first place.
    One thing's for sure: no one gets to where Cermine is without a *lot* of depression and self-loathing of her own.

    Demons are a funny concept. People like pure evil. We really, really, really like pure evil, because we really like carving people up with swords, and pure evil means we get to do that guilt-free. So demons have an obvious literary niche. But they have another role that's just as important: as stand-ins for, ahem, inner demons.
    The noble knight Avamerin slays the wicked demon Sertrous, but as he dies Sertrous gasps out --- "Why do you serve people who don't appreciate you?"
    Being an eldritch demon, Sertrous might literally return to expand on this, spectrally or physically. But that's almost not even the point. The point is that Sertrous represents a threat to Avamerin --- a real threat, a threat to what he wants to believe about himself and his world.

    At first, Cermine is a perfect example. Cermine is all about rubbing people's noses in how weak and wicked they truly are.
    But gradually, Promises of Power starts to turn the entire demonic concept on its head. Because Cassie doesn't give in and collapse. Cermine invested her with demonic essence so she'll be torn apart by demons? Great! It's a better situation than she had before. Forced to drive a man to suicide to save her own life? "Huh, guess I'm not quite as good a person as I thought I was. Now excuse me while I find a peaceful solution to stop this unwitting serial rapist (long story) without hurting anyone."
    Even as she's slowly turning into a demon, Cassie is relentlessly human. And that *rattles* Cermine far more than she wants to admit.
    Instead of Cermine being a threat to Cassie, it's Cassie who's a threat to Cermine. All Cermine can do is kill Cassie. Cassie can force Cermine to question the mantra she's been repeating to herself for centuries.
    There's a running gag where Cassie offers Cermine cake that's a microcosm of their whole relationship. It's not meant to be literal and is kind of goofy if you think about it too long --- just like the entire concept of demons. It's a literary metaphor for how Cassie --- even as she's honestly kind of a jerk --- retains her humanity, and that frightens Cermine, not because Cassie is any kind of *physical* danger to Cermine but because this is something Cermine has absolutely no idea how to deal with.


    On the flip side, the Magi are handled sympathetically too. They can be ruthless, but by and large they're just people trying to keep the world from falling apart. The demons really were very nasty dictators, and them getting anything they want really does sound like Very Bad News, and ruthlessly suppressing all knowledge of them really does seem like the only practical way to protect the world.
    Cass has one hell of a personal grudge against the Magi as an organization, on account of the whole "left her to die" thing, but she still grumpily saves three of them from assassination. (Only to have one of them try to kill her for her trouble, but in fairness she did go a little nuts and start stabbing people at random.)

    In Chapter 12, Cass actually takes the Magi's side in arguing that they shouldn't change their policies, even though she's been personally screwed over by them.

    Anything else you should know...the main character is a lesbian. Has a girl back home, a Country Mouse named Iris.
    Cassandra will periodically return to the idea of Iris as a sort of touchstone: Cass maintains the goal of somehow, someway, reclaiming her former life, even though she has no idea how she'll do it without exposing them to execution for harboring an eeevil demon-invoker.
    I'm honestly not sure whether we're meant to read this as delusional or not. The story opens with a very deliberate (and clever) conceit that she technically made plans to reunite with Iris which as far as Iris knows have not been disrupted:
    (That's part of a very slick scene, incidentally --- in context, Cass is deflecting Iris's worries that *Iris* will fail, but it doubles as foreshadowing that Cassie is going to fail *and* as setup that Cassie failing is something unthinkable, something to casually joke about.)
    Cassie has since disappeared and gone on wild adventures, but Iris has no way of even knowing that Iris isn't still home learning the family business or what-have-you. And being a Maga/Magus herself (technically, Maga is the proper feminine, but I share the author's aversion to the way that word looks), Iris wouldn't be thrown too far off-stride by the "I'm a shapeshifter now and can never return to my original face" thing.

    Since Cassie and Iris never really seriously talked it out, they never settled pertinent questions like whether, for example, either of them is supposed to remain celibate for four years, or how serious they *really* were about this plan at all. It really depends on what sort of person Iris is, and since Iris appears only in the prologue, she has near-zero characterization.
    So...my guess would be that Cass probably would convince herself she can still get Iris back even if it wasn't true, but it's entirely possible that it *is* true...but that probably doesn't matter, since the story will never reach the point in time where we'd find out one way or the other. So what I should say is that I don't think Cass will ever have a moment of "I'm such a fool, I've been chasing a phantom, this was all a waste." Cassandra's goals --- get her magic back, get her old *life* back --- are pretty sane. It's just that, in true protagonist style, it turns out she has to do crazy and unprecedented things first.

    EDIT: There actually is NSFW smut in this story, when the main character seduces the eighteen-year-old daughter of the man she's sworn to kill. For some reason I'd misremembered that as being pan-to-fireplace.

    Good story. Deep. Lots to talk about. Highly recommended.

    It may amuse you to watch the opener of Puella Magi Madoka Magica at the start of each chapter. It's surprisingly appropriate on several levels.
     
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2016