Skip to content

Ward Off – a retrospective on a sequel

Hm, this isn’t an easy post to write.

If you’re coming right off the back of Ward, might be good to take a break before tackling it.  This is a relatively deep dive, and is fairly lengthy.

I’m aware there are a lot of people who really look forward to these retrospectives after a story, where I dive into the process of writing and the lessons learned.  If the past retrospectives are any indication, the people who loved the story will get protective and even defensive if I highlight the flaws or sound too ‘down’ on the story.  Then there’re the people who didn’t walk away happy.  That last group may have a contingent that want to see me fall on my sword, or they’ll be using my post here as a framework or a Thing To Respond To when making a series of reddit posts or forum threads, or when they’re emailing me with their personal takes.

That’s not to say that any of these approaches aren’t valid (except maybe please don’t email me – I get bombarded as is) or that the negative and positive takeaways aren’t real (they are), but it does put me in an awkward position when trying to frame stuff going forward.  It’s frankly pretty draining to even think about tackling it all in a way that’s fair and doing everything it needs to do.  Every sentence has to be written with that balance in mind, and then there’s other balances to consider, like how some people are going to be reading this retrospective after following the story for 2+ years, waiting days between each chapter, and discussing the story for hundreds of hours.  Others may get here after a solo read that takes two intensive weeks, and find themselves wondering what the hubbub is all about.  I can say a hundred times over that people’s takes are valid and that my focus here is on my own fault in things, and there’s still going to be people (probably a lot of people) who cherry pick my statements and argue that they’ve been disenfranchised as fans.  And at the end of it, more than anything, I want to be frank about what’s going on, what happened, what I thought I did well and what I thought I did poorly, and what played into those things.

All together, that makes each sentence really heavy.  Like, I have to find the words, pick them up, consider them in the context of everything I just wrote above, refine them, then put them down where they’re supposed to be.  All those factors and considerations make it more of a task… and I could spend the next year formulating this post and still not please everyone.  And there’s still going to be a hundred ‘what I feel is wrong with Ward’ posts, answered by a series of ‘what I love about Ward’ posts, and people who argue I say/meant the opposite of what I put to the page here.

All of which (at a risk of giving things away and losing dramatic impact further down this post, where I try to tie the disparate ideas together) may be a good working TL;DR for my journey through writing Ward itself.

Let’s step back a bit, first.


How do I frame this?  How do I even start asking what went wrong?  Or…
Wildbow goes on his Product-Process-Context tangent again

I’ve talked about writing before in a lot of different contexts.  I think it’s actually pretty fitting -and I’ll talk about why later- if I start off the retrospective by going over the basic, broad-strokes lessons learned from the past milestones in my writing.  in one of my University classes we touched on the idea of product, process, and context.  I’ve talked about this ad-nauseum, so let me apologize to those who’re a bit sick of it, but it was the key that let me unlock my ability to write, and I find myself going back to it as a broader framework, especially when I’m struggling to frame something.

The core idea is that there are different areas of focus when creating text.  That text can be anything from a text message or a bit of graffiti to a PHD argument.  These areas of focus pretty much line up with how we’re taught to approach language.  We start off with spelling tests where we try to get the right answer and that’s it, we graduate to essays and writing essays in drafts with peer review, and then we step out into the broader world and realize we have to adapt what we already know to all these different situations, and tackle all these aspects of our lives that make it easier or harder to craft that message.

The product stage is where we’re taking something in our head and putting it on the page.  This is that spelling test in grade school, and in a culture or context that’s focused wholly on the product, that’s all there is.  Right or wrong.  For a while this was how all writing was taught in school; a lot of people think our focus on correctness and having the right answer was and is way too overemphasized in schools.  And it was overemphasized for me.  My writing in the thirteen years prior to Worm was focused on getting ideas down on the page, getting the right story idea, main character, or answer.  I started out able to write tens of thousands of words and then as I realized how wrong everything I was writing was, I struggled more and more.  I spent more than a decade stuck there on that mode of thinking.  Age 13 to 26.

In reality, the key was something else.  Process.  In schools, when they tell you to write an essay over months, have you peer review it, write several drafts, they’re making that move from teaching product-focused approach to teaching the process focused approach.  I heard this and realized my process was wrong, and I decided to try writing a serial, to force a certain kind of process where I had to release writing twice a week, which I’m still doing almost a decade later.  Going into Worm, my focus was on the process.  Learning to write serials, learning to put one chapter after the other.  My takeaways and frustrations were and are largely around the stumbling points in that process.  The timeskip, the points where I wanted to make something happen and couldn’t, or when stuff ran on a bit too long because I was floundering over what came next.  Yadda yadda.

Pact is where mapping things to that product-process-context thing falls apart because Pact was in itself a stumbling block.  I’m maybe most fond of it in retrospect, but life got in the way of the kind of broad-strokes lessons I wanted to come away with and that was frustrating.  I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do.  It’s also, I should stress, my favorite setting to work in, and the one I’m most eager to go back to.  Just… was frustrating to know I could have made something better, if not for having tripped and fallen flat on my face.

Twig is where we return to the product-process-context thing.  Once a writer gets to the point where they can put an idea down on the page and they have a process for doing that, there’s still other stuff to pay attention to.  I approached Twig with the intention of applying the lessons I wish I’d learned & applied in the course of Pact.  Character, moments of intimacy and breathing.  A big part of what I was doing was focused on the context – rooted mainly in the IRL side of things.  People I needed to readjust my relationship with (who acted as supporters or detractors), meeting fans IRL for the first time, etc.  Context is where you look at your life as a whole and figure out how writing fits into it, if it allows room for inspiration, or even for the writing itself.  Neglect context and it doesn’t matter how good your writing is, because nobody can write effectively if they never get the chance to sit at the keyboard or if they’re being yelled at by a girlfriend, mother, sister, or reviewers every five seconds.

Then there’s Ward.  I want to be really careful not to get too down on Ward, because I think I’ve wrapped up every one of the above milestones with a lot of regrets about what I could have done, then a year or two would pass, I’d revisit it, and remember why I wrote it and what I loved about it.  But there were issues.  So… what happened?



If you’ll bear with me, I’ll go back to the period before I started Ward, and what I was expecting going in.

All those lessons from the prior serials?  My thought process was that I wanted to tackle a familiar setting with those lessons and my growth-to-date in mind.  Twig was a sharp turn into the character moments, moments to breathe, and moments of more intimacy with the main character.  It was a bit too much of a sharp turn, so… maybe I could strike more of a balance.  Apply that to all lessons, go back to the Wormverse, approach the sequel, put all of that into action, as best as I could.

I think that’s fair, right?  If I’m not going to learn from my lessons, what the heck am I doing?  Why would I even do these retrospectives?

Tied to that, I had an impression regarding sequels.  I want to be careful about the use of that word, impression, because it wasn’t an out-and-out thought process, and if I’d had the thought process I probably would have stumbled over the obvious.  As it stood, I figured the world was established, people were pre-invested in it, and I had the benefit of the doubt from the audience after seven years of writing for that audience.

Except, uh, sequels are hard, and literally the opposite of those things is true.  The world needed more work, a good chunk of the audience had spent the last almost-four-years diving into fanfiction, developing fanon, and setting up their expectations to invest in Something Entirely Different, and with a good few people I didn’t have that benefit of a doubt.  Just the opposite.

So even before starting, I think I was setting myself up for a sharp turn.  It relates a bit back to where I was when I was stuck in that product mindset, where I was asking a hell of a lot of myself while also working against a headwind.

My approach to choosing what to write, characters, and themes.  In this, I went back to Worm and asked myself what chapters and segments I liked best.  Carol’s interlude is one of my favorites as the author, as were Jessica’s.  The therapy group, the ultimate decision to have Victoria as a protagonist, the intent to tie her coping with the city’s coping, it felt and feels right.  I tried a lot of protagonists, including Rain, Capricorn, and Kenzie, and a long stint of trying to write Ashley, but bringing a bit character back from the dead to be the actual protagonist felt a bit cheap, and her internal voice was really difficult to write.

Victoria ‘clicked’ when I had a late-night thought about her power changing as a consequence of what happened in the background of Worm.  Then I had a couple months to think out what I wanted to do.

I think especially when there’s an active fanbase like Worm has, with a couple hundred thousand readers and 15% of those readers finding places on the internet to discuss it, communities form and communities set expectations.  There’s a part of me that feels that there’s nothing I could have written that would have pleased everyone.  If I’d had that thought process sooner, maybe I could have adjusted or broadcasted something.  But… I firmly broadcasted things like the fact that the protagonist from book one was done, she wasn’t coming back, and there were still people clamoring throughout or theorizing that she’d make an appearance.  I’m not sure there’s any right answer, except for me to forge ahead while communicating as well as I can.

I started the story joking in some circles about how I was going to get burned at the stake for my protagonist choice, but I felt confident I had a story to tell and I had those expectations regarding the sequel and those other things.  “What’s another little added difficulty?” I thought.  I had to challenge myself, and I was hopeful I could sell Victoria as a well-rounded character.  I went in figuring I’d take the time to worldbuild… to introduce characters and lay groundwork.  It took seven arcs to really get started on the Undersiders’ story in Worm, after all.  Ten arcs before the first key character points were introduced.  I was intending to move faster than that, but then I wasn’t even done arc 2 with laying the groundwork and building the world when people started getting vocally restless.  The choice of Victoria as a protagonist wasn’t a flash in the pan backlash I had to get past, but an underlying sentiment that touched everything going forward.  And it was going to do so from the start of the work to the end.

And there were a lot of things like that.  Sticking points that were sticky from start to finish.  I know some people have taken issue with ‘the city’.  There’s a segment of the fanbase that’s rooted in military sci-fi and hard sci-fi, and they’re intrigued by the idea of what it takes to get a post-apocalyptic society going.  I could have and should have telegraphed it better, but I think anyone that’s read my past serials knows that logistics and especially numbers are not my strength.  It was unfortunately never going to be the story I wanted to tell.  I personally felt and feel that having powers like The Number Man, Accord, and prep-work done over years and decades by forces like Tattletale and Cauldron explained it enough.  That the city sat on an unstable foundation and lacked identity in places was intentional, and was tied to the fact it went without a name, but I don’t think this was sufficiently telegraphed and I know some were frustrated with it when Worm had more ‘realism’.

So I was left with a choice.  To carry on and trust that I was on course, or adapt to the feedback?

Here’s where I want to stop, revisit my thesis, and try to give at least one short quote that maybe people can go back to or re-quote if people start saying I’m blaming the fans: This is on me.  Criticisms and disappointments and things people feel were lacking are 100% valid.  I made creative decisions and choices and saying you disagree or you think I did it wrong is 100% allowed and right.  This is on me.  There are no bad takes (maybe bad ways of ~handling~ the takes, but maybe I’ll touch on that in a second).  It’s on me that I shouldn’t have been overconfident going in and I shouldn’t have focused as much as I did on the product (protagonist choice, key themes) and should’ve paid more attention to the context again, and to the broader picture.  I do think I bit off a bit more than I could chew in trying to do a sequel and an epic together and stuff fell by the wayside, or slipped past me.

Some of that stuff that fell by the wayside was like the therapy.  Facing the pressure from multiple corners to move the story along, and a sharp shift in the discourse from “Worm sequel when?  Worm sequel when?  Can’t wait.  When is Twig over, I want the Worm sequel” to “This is too slow” and “by this # of words we were here in Worm vs. here in Ward”, I read the tempo of the community as a whole and dropped some stuff to move stuff forward, telling myself I’d answer it later.  The therapy.  Some of the worldbuilding.  But until I get to ‘later’ it’s a story where the city feels shaky in a way that is thematic but jarring to some readers, and where therapy has sorta failed and that sends a bad message, which ties into the next point.

That next point is the other stuff was stuff that slipped past me.  I wanted to include more LGBT representation and included more characters in that spectrum, but then it’s like… okay, let’s have a character go through a critically bad patch.  Draw a card from the deck of characters and it’s Tristan.  Let’s have a character related to them flip out.  Kenzie.  Let’s have a couple break up.  Parian and Foil.  Then I’ve got a number of characters who are LGBT all suffering in a short span of the story and that’s the kind of thing I should catch.  I don’t know if it’s prejudice that I’m not aware of informing the choices (I really hope not) or bad draws coupled with the fact there’s more LGBT characters in the mix, but… it happened and it’s on me that it happened.  It’s on me, in a similar fashion, that I had a lot of lesbian relationships with power imbalances, sometimes predatory or abusive.  In this case it’s less that I’m drawing characters from a deck and more that I tend to find the power imbalances in relationships to be one of the more inherently interesting parts of relationships, and as such most relationships I write play into that, whether it’s Carol and Mark, Defiant and Dragon, Assault and Battery, Sy and his partners, or Parian and Foil.  But by making it most of my characters’ lesbian relationships when it’s a Thing in media is playing into a bad meta-narrative, regardless of the non-lesbian context.

The ‘suicide’ reading of the last meta-arc of the story was another thing that got past me.  I’ve gone into it in some detail in other discussions and the long and short if it is I expected it to take very little time in-story, where readers were left holding the impression it was sacrifice or genocide just to give the decision some weight… and then it took about 4x the anticipated amount of time and conveyed the wrong messages.  Readers were left with the impression it was a prolonged bout of intentional, author-induced confusion, playing with a really fucking heavy subject, when what I really wanted to do was touch on the notion of heroic sacrifice and what it really means to ask that of heroes, with their journeys and stories sometimes unfinished.  I thought the Natalie chapter-ending would be the capstone to a downer chapter where people went “Oh, it’s not suicide” and that whiffed.  It didn’t work the way I wanted it to, and so it was just three more days of wait for a resolution to that plot, followed by pure downer, followed by another four days of wait.  Fuck.

All I can say is “Fuck me,” feel miserable that I let stuff slip by, and try to watch out in the future.

It’s tough.  There are a lot of things I could divert some of the blame to, and those things have come up in my prior discussions in chats and reddit threads.  At the end of the day, though, it’s my story and my responsibility to watch out for that stuff.  But considering everything makes it heavier and harder to put the words down and that requires effort and consideration that then isn’t going to other things.  It’s very possible I can’t please everyone and very possible that because I’m an awkward guy who barely socialized for a third of his life, I’m always going to miss something.  In saying that I by no means want to excuse fucking up or contributing to a prejudiced meta-narrative.  I really, really don’t.  But I worry I can’t cover and consider every base.  I worry that there’s always going to be people who are 100% valid in being vocally frustrated about my having missed stuff.  And it’s always going to be disheartening when I drop the ball on something people hold close to their hearts, to their identities, or when I walk away from a story with a sentiment (mine or others’) that something could have been better or more fleshed out.

It gets tougher still when I’m not writing one story, but two.  I’m trying to engage the people who are reading along, giving them food for thought and stuff to talk about in the days between chapters, and I’m trying to write for the people who binge.

I’m approaching every sentence asking myself what the catch is.  What’s the point where people get confused?  Every single romance scene I write, I get people saying it’s creepy.  Most combat scenes I write, I get people who are lost about X, Y, or Z.  So I approach each new one with a mindset that I want to be better.  But that requires effort and it requires consideration.  If I write A, B, or C, is it going to be misinterpreted?  If I create a character and they’re M, N, or O, is that offensive?  Am I retreading old ground?  Am I essentially writing a character I’ve written before?  That someone else has written before?    How can X, Z, M, O, A, and B tie into themes or the work as a whole?  Is this interesting?  Does it make sense from a setting or character perspective?  What’s the overall audience mood like, going in, coming out?

Even the little letters I put for interludes get hundreds of lines of discussion and complaining, each.  A single letter.  The chapter’s not even written as anything except some broad notes on a lined post-it note and already there’s ten different things to think about, as I have ‘Daystar 21._’ written and I’m left to figure out what _ should be.

Every sentence gets heavier.  There’s a reason chapters take me 20-30 hours to write when they used to take me 8-15.

Which I guess is where I’m supposed to go back to my thesis here.  What’s the big takeaway, what’s the lesson or what are the lessons I need to learn?



At the end of the day, I think I made a mistake when I thought of the Context lens of creating as an IRL thing.  The audience itself is a key aspect of it, and it’s one I think I neglected.  That is not to say I’m going to go into the more fang-y parts of the fandom and let the more negative voices have at me, and it doesn’t mean I have any intentions regarding trying to change the audience.  And saying this is really tricky and is where again, I have to stress this is about my own decisions and thought processes.

No, I think it’s ultimately about the choices I make, the responsibility I take, and the lens through which I approach and view fandom.  On the author-audience side of things, the only thing I can and should try to change is the author, myself.

I’ve had a lot of conversations in recent weeks where people will say I should stop listening to fans.  I also have people -leaders of sub-communities where my work is a dominant topic of conversation- saying or implying I should be more mindful of fans, of the idea that I’m disenfranchising them or giving fuel to the more negative voices.

At the end of the day, though, I think the point an author stops listening and trying to grow is a sad day.  As part of the discourse around this, I’ve heard that some individual readers may feel they can’t criticize without adding to the negative buzz surrounding the broader audience.  I don’t think this is a problem, though.  I think isn’t should that broader audience be navigated-around, but how.  That there was negative noise around the early arcs wasn’t the fault of the audience.  Rather, I’ve got to figure out ways to do that navigating and figure out how to take that sentiment and work with it without dropping parts of the story or getting too mired in it all.

Because the reality is… that noise will always be a thing.  You can’t create online and ignore it.  Trying just screws up the ‘online’ part of it… or even worse, it screws up the ‘create’ part of it.

An initial takeaway here is that doing that navigating while carrying an epic story and carrying a sequel is hard, if not impossible.  At least, at my current skill level, in the current dynamic.  Solution: I’m going to be doing a series of shorter works for a bit, I think.  Less totality to consider, less investment required from both me and the audience, more room to experiment and explore, and hopefully it’s a bit of a break.

I need to consider the author-audience-text triangle, where each of the three things interacts with the other two.  What am I doing with a work, how can I broadcast what that work is?  Sometimes I just have to be more explicit.

That applies to the story points too.  There were too many points where I approached writing the story with a different audience than the one I had.  I’d write something intended as an invitation for the audience to react, respond, and draw what I felt was a singular conclusion.  “Rain pointed at her.”  And the de-facto response from sub-communities was confusion and frustration at a cliffhanger, and theories all over the place.  Natalie at the end of the story, getting the fob.  I thought it’d land one way and didn’t consider it would be dismissed.  In an ideal world, I should have learned the lesson from the first instance: by and large, that’s not the audience I have and expecting them to sit down and draw the correct conclusions isn’t fair.  Gotta be more explicit.  In the next story, I’m hoping to draw on other material to help make things more explicit.

There are also some gut feelings I had along the way, when dealing with the problematic parts of the author-audience stuff.  I felt bad, dropping the therapy from the story and letting it become something problematic and toxic, when that went against why I brought it in in the first place.  I told myself I’d fix it later, it was the easiest thing to cut when I wanted to move things forward more aggressively, I thought I’d explain it at various points, but ‘therapists are human too’ wasn’t the message I wanted to send, going in.  I should have listened to that niggling feeling.  If I had, I think I’d feel happier about aspects of the story.

I also need to tighten things up.  I think part of what I do when I’m feeling the weight of things is I branch out, or I include more fluff, background, or side characters.  Because that’s easy and fun.  But fluff can look like a thread to pull to the audience, or it can be something they find adorable and then I’m sorta obligated to do something with it, or it’s a background element or a note of something thematic, and readers may think it’s more important than it was originally meant to be.  Withdrawal’s molluscoid trigger background, for example.

To expand on that, a serial is always going to be a serial.  I like sprawl and I like there being a rich background of diverse characters who could each have a story told about them.  I’d hate to write something where the wordcounts and threads are so trimmed down that a gun that gets a passing mention has to be used, where everything is relevant or discarded.  But there’s a middle ground and I created more headaches and ‘noise’ for the audience than I needed to, which may have contributed to the fatigue and the dynamic where people weren’t really engaging with cliffhangers or trying to look deeper when I’d thought I’d invited them to.  Two years of material and a lot of fluff and it’s a lot to sift past if one wants to figure something out.

Which might be a good conclusion for this section.  A serial is going to be a serial.  I can’t get too down on myself when I’m creating what is essentially a shitton of sprawling material on a quick schedule, most of it first draft.


Thoughts, Verdicts

I… don’t hate Ward?  Big question mark there, maybe.

In the end, as much as this ended up being a fairly deep dive into what I think went wrong and why, and ways in which I can address that moving forward, I don’t want to dwell purely on the negative, here.

I’m happy with where I went with the characters.  I’m pretty attached to this cast of characters and side characters.  I’m really happy with some of their interludes.  I didn’t want to tell a story where everyone started and ended their character journeys in a super neat and tidy way, and I like where the characters stand as of the story’s conclusion.  Some have more work to do, and I think that’s entirely okay.

I’m generally happy with where I went thematically.  I am aware there’s the shadow of the ‘suicide’ interpretation hanging over the last leg of the story, but early responses from binge readers who’ve caught up seem to be more positive over it, and it may be something that just read really badly when reading the story on a twice-a-week schedule but comes across better in a shorter timeframe.  I’m kind of interested in where reader perception will stand a year from now.

I made some cool powers, I wrote some really fun side characters, and I think I’d like to do something smaller with some of those side characters in the future.  Will have to see what form that takes.

Ward overall feels like the story I’d most want to go back to and edit.  There were a lot of subtle points where I missed the mark with hints and cliffhangers meant to invite thought and discussion that didn’t achieve their goals.  The ramifications of those individual things was pretty massive, and I’d be interested to see the reception to the story if and when they were tuned to do what they were supposed to in the first place.  Some parts to be trimmed down, some minor bits of fluff trimmed out, some foreshadowing and thematic beats hit…

But I digress.

As much as I want to see where audience perception will stand a year from now, I don’t want to come to a firm verdict on the story just yet.  I have a tendency to be pretty hard on my stories when they’ve just finished and I’m exhausted from 1-3 years spent writing them, and I don’t know that I want to do that here.  Maybe I’ll do another post a year out, when I’ve thought on this some more.

My next project is codenamed Project P, and has launched as of Tuesday, May 5th!


An End to the Twig Experiment

I set out to write Twig with a few ideas in mind.  A major criticism as I wrote Pact was that the pacing was too intense and that the character relationships were lacking.  I set out to write Twig in a deliberate attempt to force myself to slow down and pace things out, and in an attempt to dwell on characters.  There were a few other things which I’ll touch on here.

As I decided to approach things from that angle of testing myself & forcing myself out of the comfort zone I’d perhaps settled into with late Worm & Pact (to good and bad results both), I took on a slightly more unique genre as well.  It was very much, I’ll admit, me taking stock and deciding I was in a position to take a few risks.  To not make the gamble would risk me settling into a rut.  To take the risk meant alienating readers.  With that in mind, I’m exceedingly grateful to those who stuck with me through Twig.

What succeeded, in this gamble?  First and foremost, I learned a crapton, to a degree I wouldn’t have if I’d gone on to write Worm 2 or something in the vein of Pact.  Some of those lessons were painful, some weren’t.

  • I learned a lot about pacing, I think.  There’s a lot to be gained by pacing out a story and giving it breathing room.  I saw where there was room to explore characters and inter-character relationships.  I also think that the pacing of Twig wasn’t quite the balance that’s best suited for me as a writer.  I struggled more to keep things afloat and maintain the narrative threads.  It was very easy for arcs to simply sprawl out into twice the length I would’ve normally maintained, once I’d relaxed the patterns and things that would’ve normally kept it tighter and more intense.  More on that in a short bit.
  • I forced myself out of my comfort zone in the writing of humor.  I’ve long held the idea that humor is hard to do well because it lands differently for different readers.  I liked a lot of the humor I wrote in Twig.  I pushed myself when it came to the banter in particular and I like 95% of it.  It was fun and fulfilling to write, even when it was about stupid stuff, and I want to write more in the future.
  • I forced myself way out of my comfort zone in the writing of romance and intimate stuff.  Similar deal to the writing of humor, but with the added awkwardness that family members read my stuff (Hi Uncle, if you made it this far!) and the fact it’s so damn personal, y’know?  Some of my favorite chapters are ones to do with romance and intimacy in its various forms and it’s something I pushed out there when I made Sy as connection-driven and intimacy-driven as he was, as a stark contrast to my past protagonists. It’s something I explored and I’m really happy with what I came away with, even if interpretations and comfort levels of the readers may vary wildly.  I’d like to think that what I taught myself in the course of writing Twig will make it so future protagonists and characters aren’t quite so sexless in the same senses Taylor and Blake were (in that both give the impression they could do without relationships in large part).

I’ve talked about this before, but when focusing on writing, you can dwell on the product (the writing itself, the nitty gritty), the process (how you go about it) and the context/environment (the lifestyle of the writer & the people/things surrounding it all).  With Worm, the issues felt isolated.  The arcs I’m least happy with coincide with holidays/family events.  Arc 10?  Written when I traveled to Winnipeg around the birth of my nephew.  The awkward Dragonflight part of arc 16?  Written around the Christmas holidays of 2012.  Arc 25 and 26?  Made a little more shaky by the fact I was trying to juggle family vacation time around the writing.

With Pact it was one big event (family wedding) and a bunch of stuff feeding into that or playing off of it – my mom being in the hospital on the regular, me trying to help where I could as a sibling, then also help my  mom do her part, and so the writing was distracted and it impacted the story on a foundational level, which fed into everything else, and blah blah blah.  The wedding itself was beautiful, my handling of pact in the space around it was not and it’s a regret.

Twig, by contrast, was maybe my first experience with burning out.  A different beast entirely, because it played out over a larger, more general span in a harder to define way.  It wasn’t anything to do with the writing, precisely, but starting in late summer of 2016, I started getting a lot of outside attention, with 20+ individuals reaching out about their scriptwriting, they were movie production companies and they wanted to work with [one of the three stories], they were a big name in the industry and they wanted to work with me, or they were TV people and they wanted to work with me, and so on.  A lot of interest, and most of that warranted really attentive and careful responses, with mind paid to traps and decorum and everything else.

My days off became days where I would wake up and write/answer emails from 11am to 8pm, squeeze in errands before & after, and try to get some editing for Worm in there somewhere.  Add in community management, a bat infestation (which flipped me to nocturnal, after several middle-of-the-night wake-ups), and something had to give.  The Wednesday chapters and my health/sleep schedule were that something.

I’ll say I feel like I could have made Twig better than it was.  There were a lot of weeks and even months where I didn’t feel I was putting out my best, in part because I burned out.  That said, I am reasonably happy that I was able to hold pattern without utterly collapsing or having any arcs that I look back on and feel were truly terrible or story-breaking.

That in itself was one place where I felt I tested myself and developed as a writer.  I learned a lot about myself in terms of dealing with burnout, the shape it took, and working through it.

And I know people will comment and insist on the subject, so I’ll address it here: No, I’m not taking a vacation.  The issue isn’t the writing itself.  I could write three days a week no problem if there weren’t other things in play.  Carrying on with writing restores that wherewithal and energy and helps with the burnout.

Where the struggle happens is that I was in a place where I was just trying to juggle too many balls and I started to drop some.  Writing one story, editing another for future publication, planning one further down the road, on top of all the general stuff that needs doing (managing IRC, keeping an eye on the subreddit, finances, answering the many non-professional emails I get, answering the semi-regular professional emails I get – which were super intense for a 5-month period-, plus everyday errands and chores) is what takes it out of me.

Taking a break would only make things worse.  Really truly.  The +SAN (sanity) I’d get from a break would be outweighed by the -SAN as I interrupted my stride and tried to find it again, and it wouldn’t address or even put a dent in the other stuff that’s what’s really taxing me.  So please don’t push it.

Getting back on track.  Twig.

I value Twig as a learning experience above all else, as a test to myself that I’m really glad I took.

What would I have done differently?

  • I think, based on the feedback I’m getting right at the end (from some), I really did a bad job of selling the genre, even in conceptualizing it for my own take on the story, when figuring out my approach.  Twig was always going to be about watching these characters grow up.  Coming of age, in a way, exaggerated and complicated by the fantastical aspect of it.  A lot of readers seemed to expect and want my more usual sprawling fantasy epic and would’ve wanted the growing-up part to be more tertiary.
  • I would have liked to keep it tighter.  I think, more than any of my other works, there’s a lot that I could trim without taking too much away from the story.  It’s very easy, in breaking from my most comfortable tempo (and I’m not talking about the super-high-intensity Pact tempo, mind), to try and leave room for two or three more chapters and instead end up with five to eight more instead.  Add one more scene and it takes longer than expected, which changes the structure of what precedes it and follows it, and so on.
  • I shouldn’t have made it so ‘monster of the week’ at the start.  It didn’t really play well off of any of the things I was trying to do (except perhaps pacing) and was just one more experiment when I was already employing several.  I think this played into the initial break in tempo and the fact that many readers weren’t pulled in as much as they were with more continuity.
  • In addition, with the beginning, when writing a setting that’s not plastered over the skeleton of the established real world with its conventions, and when that setting lacks any convenient labels to slap onto it (like ‘superhero’ or ‘modern supernatural’), it’s not doable to slow-roll the exposition or setting details.
  • I feel I wobbled a bit toward the middle-end, which played into signaling problems.  I had an idea of what I wanted to happen and where I wanted to take things, and I explicitly wanted to avoid the build-up to the same kind of big bad that I’d had in prior works.  But as reader responses shifted in one direction, really wanting that epic fantasy story, I pushed things that way in response.  It led to a final confrontation that was painted as one thing, only for the big bad to not feel as big or bad as they could’ve because it was never really the plan to have them there in that context.  Done again, I would’ve likely stayed the course and tried to tell a different kind of climax/end rather than one that was half and half.

All in all, Twig was a super-valuable process for me.  I really think I’ll carry positive things forward from it.  I feel like I’ve learned a lot (super important for an experiment project), I have a deep and abiding fondness of the characters and many of the setting details.

Thank you all for joining me for the ride.

What comes next

Worm 2 (Technically it’s Parahumans 2) is rolling out soon.  In the meantime, I’ll be dropping some very super minor tidbits on the Worm website.  These interim pieces will serve as kind of unofficial/prelude/tone-setting bits and will go up on my usual schedule, just as things for people to see if they’re keeping to their usual routine of checking in.  They will not be full-length chapters and may not even be 500 words long.

This will go on for a couple weeks (5-10 segments on the usual Tues/Possible Thurs/Sat schedule) and the final installment in the set will link to the site for the Worm sequel.  Links will also appear on all of my sites.  This will give me time to hopefully get some final preliminary work done, wrangle the mailing list, and (ideal world) fix my currently scattered sleep schedule.

Thoughts on Writing Serials

At this stage I’m regularly getting emails and reddit PMs asking me questions and I’m giving the same sorts of answers to each.  In the interest of cutting back on the time spent answering those emails, as much as I’d like to personalize each response, I’m thinking I might write it out as a blog post and point people to it.

I’m thinking of writing a web serial.  Do you have any advice?  Any warnings or things you wish you’d known?

Okay, first off, you’ve got to figure out what you’re doing.  I really, really recommend writing yourself a backlog – 12 to 16 chapters you’ve already got done before you start uploading.  I encourage 12 or 16 because it’s what I did, and because I see an awful lot of serials get started and then stop around chapter ten.  Twelve to sixteen is enough that you’re testing yourself and seeing if you have what you need to really keep going.

The backlog serves a few purposes.  Above all else, a serial is like planning a year-long hike across North America.  You’re really plotting to jump into something for the long-term.  A goal here is to really test your ability and comfort level – getting a sense of the pace you can maintain.

My experience: I initially planned a short chapter every weekday, with interwoven storylines.  I thought twice about it, and considered about a chapter every other day, and then three a week.  I wrote the backlog and realized I’d burn out very quickly trying to do even that, and shifted to a twice-a-week schedule.

The second goal for the backlog is to really just allow yourself to weather the stumbles.  You will stumble, too, because you’re writing the serial while tending to your day to day life.  Stuff comes up.  Sickness, injury, weeks where you just don’t have time, family stuff, internet outages- the list goes on.  It’s not just valuable for yourself in a schedule sense, but in a psychological one too.  If you miss one day then it’s easier to miss the next, and so on, and before you know it you’ve got an inconsistent schedule and you’re not that committed.

You keep that backlog alive as long as you can.  If you have a twelve chapter backlog you release chapter one from it (possibly with revisions the day prior) as you get chapter thirteen written.  Release chapter two as you get chapter fourteen written.  The backlog will shrink over time – there will be those tough weeks.  It will eventually dwindle to nothing, but hopefully by then you’ll know the ins, outs, and your strengths and weaknesses, enabling you to maintain course.  You won’t lose heart and disappoint fans.  More importantly, perhaps, you won’t lose heart and disappoint yourself.

All of which ties into my general sentiment about setting expectations.  Being prepared and knowing your abilities is one thing, but know also what you’re getting into.  An analogy might be going on a strict diet to lose a lot of weight.

  • The initial part, where you most want feedback, is also going to be the part where people are least interested and impressed.  You might get a few rah-rahs or ‘that sounds cool’ lines but while you’re getting everything figured out, it’s a fairly lonely first few steps.  Some people might even be discouraging or believe you’ll fail.  Because a lot of people say ‘I’m going to go on a diet’ and get nowhere.  A lot of people say ‘I’m going to write something’ and few actually finish what they’re working on – if they even get started.
  • You’re doing it for yourself, yes, and you might even tell yourself it’s solely for yourself, but a part of the motivation is external – you want some validation from people around you, and it can sometimes take a long time before you get that.  You’re a couple of months in and you’ve dropped a clothes size, and externally, not a lot of things have changed – people don’t treat you differently, they don’t say much if anything.  A lot of people want to write a serial because they want to get comments and fan involvement, but weeks and months go by and they see a few upticks on the blog stats screen, but no feedback.  Months become the first year and the comments, if they exist, are sporadic.  It can be discouraging!
    …It’s at this point that I’ll stress that because so few people are commenting, the few people you do hear from are going to have a disproportionate weight.  Be wary of that one voice that gives you well-meaning advice that can derail you, and be wary of how hard that one negative voice can hit you if you’re really eager for feedback and it winds up being less constructive feedback.
  • Real life gets in the way.  You’re trying to get into this new rhythm and flow, and shit happens.  You’ve got to travel to see people, or there are events, or stuff you’d worked into your plans for your diet/writing get discombobulated by circumstance.  It’s not always your ankle getting twisted and screwing up your exercise regime or your finger getting slammed in a car door, making typing a nightmare – it’s sometimes as simple as needing to keep doing what you’re doing when holidays happen and everyone else is relaxing from their usual plans & priorities.  (Holidays, in my personal experience, are as much a hassle for the regular writer as they are for the determined dieter.  I haven’t had nearly as much trouble with anything as I have had with holidays in particular)

The key to answering these issues is really just knowing what you’re getting into – start that diet or start that serial for the right reasons and keep those reasons in mind.  The old & tired adage of enjoying the journey rather than the destination is key.

I was lucky in that my expectations were nil as I wrote Worm.  Every new reader was a pleasant surprise, every uptick in views.  It didn’t matter that it took almost a year before comments were regular (and I stress that this was fairly fast as such things went), I was thrilled.  By contrast, people reading this post are liable to know who I am, they’ve likely seen Worm, and consequently they’re going to be aware of the fanbase and reader support it maintains.  I worry that even knowing this is happening elsewhere might adjust expectations when writing for the sake of writing and having no expectations at all might be better.

Either way, yeah, I do just want to communicate that it’s a tough and long road to travel and it’s often a lonely one to travel too.  There’s good to it, it feels great to be underway, it is supremely validating when someone gives you that thumbs up, and it really clarifies who has your back, while potentially introducing you to more people in the same vein.  That counts for a lot.

I think that mostly covers preparation and expectations.  Which leaves me floundering a bit when it comes to figuring out how to communicate some other stuff, because it’s not so tidy or easy to outline.  I’m just going to break up the sections here, in no particular order…

Building a readership, key points to hit and ‘luck’.

Those who’ve followed my other posts on the subject are going to have heard these points before: Consistency, frequency, quality.

  • Consistency is king, in my book.  It’s why I stress the measures with the pre-written backlog to help manage stumbles and pitfalls.  Consistency means having a schedule and maintaining it.  It means providing your readers with an expectation and then holding yourself to that expectation.  It’s my experience that readers are very understanding and kind (it might be that I have awesome readers), but even as they clamor to tell me it’s fine if I take a break, I notice very real trends in readership numbers when I even make a shift from 2.5 chapters a week to just 2, for any length of time.The reality is that when you’re writing an online serial, you’re writing on the internet.  The internet has millions of webpages and countless games, countless other stories or webcomics or videos for readers to get involved with.  With consistency, you enable readers to make reading into a habit, which keeps them coming back.  With inconsistency, where you have hiatuses, delays, changing scheduling, you lead to readers losing track of you – and they’ll find other things to get invested in.
    There’s a double-edged benefit, too.  When you write consistently, it really forms a kind of personal momentum.  Going back to the diet analogy, having a game plan and sticking to it is going to be wildly more successful than days of starvation and days of lavish eating.  There will be rough patches, days where it’s really a grind to get through, and being able to say ‘I don’t eat junk food anymore’ or ‘I always get a chapter out on Saturday’ really forms the absolute force necessary to move forward.  ‘I wrote a chapter on schedule the last 100 days, I’m going to get the next one out, or I’ll diminish all that effort’ leads to ‘I wrote a chapter on schedule the last 101 days, I’m going to get the next one out…’ and so on.
  • Frequency plays into this.  While having a goal of one post a month is consistent, it’s 29.2 days between each update.  That’s a lot of time for readers to forget you exist.  Email notifications and RSS feeds, twitter campaigns and the like can help, but there’s no guarantee that when the RSS notification comes up that the reader is going to click it.  It’s very easy for a reader to put it off until tomorrow and forget, for distractions to win out, and so on.There’s a middle ground to strike here.  Chapter number and chapter size factor in.  A chapter every weekday might be too much, or it might demand softer cliffhangers or too many cliffhangers, making the story too fragmented.  Is it doable?  Sure.  But pay attention to what you’re doing and the following you’re cultivating as you do it.  Once a week might be too little, but again, I think it verges on the doable.  Something between is going to achieve an effect where readers are either reading your chapter or anticipating the next one.

Without being unkind or pointing to specific examples, I think there are shows and webcomics out there that maintain a steady readership simply through frequency and consistency alone, with a very low bar for quality.  Ideally, however, we do want quality.

  • Quality.  We put good stuff out there, that rewards and involves the audience.  We test our abilities and we grow, and we address our flaws and failings.

It’s possible, as I insinuated above, to do just fine by hitting two key points.  Can you slowly build up a readership by having something amazing that comes out on the 5th of every month?  Sure.  Can you pepper readers with something fun and intense updates – some weeks with no updates or one update and some weeks with six?  Sure.  You might lose some by the wayside but you’ll probably pick up a fair number.

The reality is that readership doesn’t grow steadily, not really.  It might look that way when taken in at a distance, but in reality, it’s that one fan who links to you on a message board or that one guy who gives a recommendation that opens the door to thousands of people giving your work a look.  This is the ‘luck’ factor.

You might notice the curious emphasis I place on luck, with the single quotation marks.  I’ve unfortunately had a lot of people say that my success was due to luck.  My personal feeling, however, is that it’s through consistency, frequency and quality that luck happens – these are the things that open the door for luck to happen, should opportunity stroll on by.  You have to be singing for someone to notice you’re a good singer and sign you for a deal.  You have to have work out there for people to notice you and mention you to their two or ten or two thousand friends.

Can you get lucky without frequency, quality, or consistency?  Yes.  But that really is chance and coincidence, rather than the luck one creates with time and determination.

Tending to Audience

I like to describe things using a diagram I ran into during my studies in University.  We draw a triangle and we put Audience, Author, and Text at different points.

There’s a degree of interaction between each.  The author to the audience, the author to the text, and the audience to the text, and vice versa for each.  Be mindful of this.

Author and Text: it’s easy to let this slip.  When schedule demands and real life gets in the way, we can let the story drop in priority.  Given that the story takes place over the long haul and real life goes on in the meantime, it oftentimes has to.  The key thing is to remind yourself why you’re writing the story, what you like about it, and to be sure that you’re writing things you enjoy and things that challenge you.

Audience and Text:  Fans will have their own interpretations of the work.  As the fandom grows and the triangle takes shape, memes happen, conversations will happen surrounding the work, and the work may be tested.  There’s not a lot I can really say on this off the top of my head, except that it’s very easy and very common for fans to be faced with this one side of the triangle and to make judgments about the other point, about you.  I’ve been called a robot, a girl, Asian, black, elderly, a teenager, a Nazi, an only child, the youngest child in a large family, and three feminists in league to a demon, all by people who thought they had divined something about me from the text.  Which leads me to…

Author & Audience: In a normal book it’s very hard for an author to communicate to fans outside of a foreword and afterword.  As a serial author, your involvement may well be a regular thing.

This plays out on a few levels.  I, for example, get financial support from readers.  I’ve had many, many readers tell me I don’t need to actually write the bonus chapters I do as a thank-you for the support, but I do it in part to shore up the left side of that triangle up there.  It’s very easy for the author to become faceless, for readers to feel like they’re throwing money into a well with no feedback to indicate it went anywhere.  It’s where I really liked doing the thank-yous I was doing prior, before numbers made that rather difficult.

On another level, it might be worth just communicating to fans about where you’re at.  A comment on your own chapters, with thoughts and preliminary sentiment.  It lets you put your face out there and it does give you a hand in the discourse.  The fact that serials can enable the author-audience interaction like they do is good for you too, because it lets you adjust the story to correct or respond to misconceptions or gauge the pulse of the greater readership.  Again, be careful you don’t let too small a sample size have too large a voice (as suggested in one of the bullet points up above).

On the other side of Audience, or being tended to by Audience

It’s a tricky thing, audience.  Approaching the writing of serials, it’s very easy to think that you’ll write something and people will see it and then you’ll have usable feedback and things are good.

In reality, it can be tricky.  When you start out, you get nothing.  When you reach the point you think you’ve put enough in to start getting feedback… still mostly nothing.  Then you start to get a few isolated voices with strong feelings about what you’re creating, and some are positive and some are critical.  It’s very easy to let that small sample size and the loudness of negative voices push you to adjust and adapt.

As those voices pipe up, try to keep in mind your rationale for the story – why you’re writing it, what your tastes are, the empty space on bookshelves where this particular book hasn’t been written to fill them yet.  Write the things you enjoy and trust your instincts.  I’ve heard far more from authors who made changes early on to respond to their fledgling audience and who were unhappy with the result, than I’ve heard from the remainder.

There’s a sweet middle ground where you’re starting to learn to pare out the good advice from the bad.  Some people think that negativity and criticism are the same thing when negativity is often something so omnipresent in a given person’s voice that you can’t pare out their good advice from the midst of it.  Beware the people who only ever have bad things to say, who want your work to be something it isn’t, or who take pride in tearing things down.  Find the positive voices and the middle ground becomes something you can learn from.  In my experience it was this time when I really grew.

It was also, I’ll stress, a time that was fairly short lived in my experience.  The audience grew further, in my case.  In others’ cases, where audience didn’t swell to the same degree, I’ve heard that the moderates lost out to the volume of the fanboys and especially to the critics.  Negative voices will always be louder and more determined, and over time they’ll drown out the others.

This is something I wish I’d known to brace myself for, and it’s a hard thing to articulate and really spell out.  With extreme success comes extremely high and loud populations – success I’ve not yet obtained but have seen in others.  I’ve seen online creators have breakdowns, lash out, get physically ill, and cut ties with audience completely, collapsing one end of the triangle, just because it’s such a constant thing.  I get several instances of criticism a day about one bad part of one story I put out three and a half years ago.  Thousands of emails at this stage.  Hundreds of orange envelopes on Reddit.  I expect to get thousands more before 2020 rolls around.

Just be aware that with time and success come a disproportionately high & loud population of negative voices.  It’s not a reflection on you, but just the way things go.

Frequently asked question 1:  Should I have a donation button?

Put off the button for a bit, is my personal feeling.  Focus on the writing.  Focus on the consistency and frequency and quality, and on shoring up the author-text and author-audience relationships.  Focus on taking care of yourself first.

It’s very easy to include the button as a matter of course as you get your site set up, it’s very tempting, but I very frequently hear from people who do so and then feel discouraged when not only is their audience low in number, but the button goes unused.  It sets up a weird expectation.

If I were counseling my younger self, I’d say to keep doing what I was doing, and if people asked about it, I’d include a button.

As an aside, I try not to call it a donation button anymore, because Paypal is persnickety about the use of the language ‘donation’.  It implies charity which implies special taxation rights and rules, and when Paypal gets persnickety they often lock the paypal account and freeze the funds within.  Sometimes they freeze the bank account linked to the paypal account, and then you get into life-gets-harder territory.  I prefer to refer to it as reader support.

Frequently asked question 2: Social media?  Advertising?

My stance is and will likely continue to be that I’d much rather spend time writing more and writing well than spending time fiddling with Twitter, Facebook, and banner ads.  I never really advertised or promoted myself, except to link to my work when asked about it, and I did okay.  I think it’s better to work toward producing something that sells itself than to try to sell something and hope it’s worthwhile.

Your feelings may vary – you may be an avid twitterer (twit?  I’m not sure of the lingo) who tweets like she breathes.  But my sentiment is that promoting your work like this is focusing overmuch on the destination rather than the journey, dwelling on audience overmuch (and often in a shallow way without lasting effect) rather than tending to the text.

Frequently asked question 3: I wrote a book and I’ve decided to release it online.  Any thoughts?

So this is a complicated thing, because in all honesty it flies in the face of a lot of the advice I gave above.  I’ve reviewed a few web serials and it’s very easy to sort of classify them in two types.

  • There’s the organic web serial – chapters are written within a few weeks of them going live, they’re adjusted in reaction to the audience, and it’s all very fluid.  Quality can vary, real life gets in the way, there are factors to consider and measures to be taken to keep it all moving smoothly.
  • There’s the rigid web serial – the entire thing is written, and then it gets parceled out in chunks as a serial format.

My personal feeling, and I’m trying not to inject too much bias into this, is that you really do get major consistency points in the rigid serial, you can set things up in the initial week so it all gets released at set times and you don’t need to get yourself involved except to make sure things are running smoothly.  No fuss, no muss – you’ve already done the hard work.

The tradeoff, however, is that the rigid serial doesn’t feel like a serial in a way that really works.  Very frequently in works I’ve reviewed, you can tell that it was broken off at what felt like a good stopping point, instead of finding its way naturally to that point.  Cliffhangers may either feel shallow or forced.  The story is often well constructed and edited, but it doesn’t necessarily have a pulse, it doesn’t sprawl of its own volition or turn to face the sun when the sun shines on one part of it.  The author may be involved, but many rigid serials may struggle to really implement feedback in a way that causes ripples throughout everything that follows.  Changes and adjustments in reaction to the pressures and sentiments of the audience may be minor or feel mechanical.

When I say implement feedback, I should stress that I don’t mean deciding the story’s direction.  I mean more in the sense of a shift in tone or featuring more popular characters, answering questions or emphasizing different aspects.

There’s a lot to be said for what a story gains in consistency and quality this way – several stories that I believe were written this way have gone on to be picked up by major publishers.  But serial writing is a really unique and new form, and I think there’s a lot to be said for writing to the strengths of that form and seeing what happens.  That’s just me.

Pact Sealed

Well.  That was a learning experience.  I think that’s the best way to put it.

It’s impossible to say anything about Pact without inevitable comparisons to Worm, so I’ll bite that bullet right here and right now.  I suppose what I can say is that where Worm was a triumph, in many respects, Pact was a means for me to grow as a writer.

I should start off by saying that I’m immensely grateful to my readers for reading through Pact and offering their feedback and support.  Pact came to 948,800 words.  We can round that up to 950k words, for the sake of brevity.  It took almost half the time to write that Worm did, and came to about half the word count.  You guys stuck it out with me, you shared your comments, and I was able to make a living as a writer in the meantime.  I appreciate that more than you know.

On its own, to be making a living as a writer, maintaining a wage and a readership, that’s a triumph of sorts.  That may be hard to recognize when compared to where I stood when Worm was done, but just about anything is going to pale in comparison to Worm, so maybe that’s unfair.

Why was Pact a learning experience?  In part, it was something I needed to do to test waters and see what I was capable of.  I know a lot of criticism that gets leveled at the series is because of how nebulous or vague the underlying system is.  Magic in Pact is a vague thing, one that can be interpreted, bent, or otherwise misappropriated.  There’s a logic behind it all, but it remains what it is.  The characters are different, and the story itself takes on a different form, a struggle to catch one’s footing and find a place in the world, which can seem like our protagonist is mired in a situation with no way up or forward.

But being able to write that and see the audience reactions, see my own comfort level, it’s a valuable thing, and something I can carry with me to future writings.  I don’t think I want to write something quite so loose in the future.  I also got more comfortable with humor and lighter characters, and that’s something I had almost no confidence with at the start of Worm.  I felt like I stumbled on certain elements, and exploring simple and juvenile forms of humor in Evan and the goblins was a good thing.  I’ve collected a repertoire of things I now know that I want to do or not to do.

Pact taught me some other things, though.  See, I want to be a career writer.  I’d like to think I have the chops, but the fact of the matter is that I’ve only been doing this for three years and three months.  The things I need to learn aren’t all about sentence or narrative construction or characterization.  Some are about life.

Where Worm left me feeling like publishing (probably self publishing) was something I eventually had or have to do, I don’t feel that way with Pact.  Pact isn’t bad, but it isn’t great, and I feel like the road to making Pact great enough to publish is long and awkward enough that it may not be worth it.  It’s hard to say for sure.

Part of the reason for this is that Pact had a shaky start, and that made for a shaky foundation to build the rest on.  Just off the end of Worm, I was distracted by real life.  It was fairly happy as distractions went, my brother got married.  It just so happened to be a marriage that took place a two hour trip from my place into the woods of Quebec.  The married couple lived a five hour flight away, and I was close, so stuff fell on my shoulders (and on my mom’s, though she had recently been hospitalized for back problems; another distraction).  There was a lot of peripheral stuff to do or get involved with, I was stressed in typical wedding-involved ways and I was interacting with people who were stressed in typical wedding-involved ways, and it made writing hard when it would have been really nice to focus on the story and make it more what I wanted it to be.

The wedding wasn’t the only thing going on, and I maintained my schedule while I moved out of Ottawa and found myself a little bit more elbow room in a smaller town with lower rent.  Moving is a bit of a hassle, as it turns out, and moving to a nearby town when you don’t drive is even more so.

I was also trying to figure out a way forward with the editing of Worm, which proves tricky when it is the easiest thing to drop when real life gets hard or irritating.  I know from experience that the way I operate best is to work hard one day, rest the next.  It was the same when I studied and went to school, it was the same when I worked in the produce depot of grocery stores, and when I did some reno work or house painting.  Wedging the editing in there is a tricky thing, and I’ve gradually adopted it, halting as it may be.  It’s been a lot easier since I’ve moved, I can say that much.

In the midst of all of the above, I fell back on some old standbys and patterns and didn’t move the story forward, leading one storyline in particular to drag on.  I didn’t sell the story as it should’ve been, and as much as my audience might have become frustrated at points, I felt that same frustration myself.  In dragging everything to Toronto and sending Blake to the Abyss, there might have been a little bit of a desire on my end to change things up and get some fresh air.

It may never be clearly apparent to readers, but I’ve learned some valuable lessons about time management and balancing different aspects of my life.  I’m hopeful that this will be evidenced by my being more consistent, wiser, and mature as a writer, because I intend to write until I physically can’t write anymore, and those are really good things to give evidence to.

All that said, I’m thrilled that the audience came to be as fond of Green Eyes and Evan (or just Evan, in some cases) as I was.  It’s gratifying that my readers seemed to voice support for many of the same individual elements of Pact that I enjoyed writing, be it incidents with the goblins, aspects of the Abyss, or some of the better scenes.

I’m rather happy to be here, writing this, and I admit I’m relieved to be putting Pact to rest.  It was a good thing, but I’m excited to be moving on.  I think, much like Worm, it’s a setting I’ll have to revisit in the future.  I’ve left some elements still to be resolved, and both Vista and Alexandria referenced the Maggie Holt series in Worm, so… that’s a possibility.  Maybe something shorter and tighter, and in the spirit of the learning experience that Pact proved to be, something where I hold on to only the better things.

As suggested above, Worm’s editing process is underway, though it’s proving about as slow as I anticipated it being.  In the interest of giving myself more structure with the editing process, I’m suspicious I may start asking Reddit for arc-by-arc feedback, revisiting the story one arc at a time and raising some of the issues or questions I have in regard to the editing, so stay tuned for that.

Pact was defined by threes.  Worm is the past, Pact is the present (for now) and that only leaves the future.  Story three.


The site won’t be open to the public until Tuesday, at the usual time.  I’m not doing the sample thing, because I’m fairly certain I know what I want to write, and the samples have a way of breaking hearts one way or another.  On a similar note, I’d rather avoid dropping any hints about genre or anything else, because many will hear ‘sci-fi’ or ‘fantasy’ and they go in with preconceived notions and expectations.

To find out what niche it fits in, you’ll have to check it out.  With that in mind, and on that note, I hope to see you guys for serial number three.

Thank you, and I really do mean that.  You guys are great, and I wouldn’t be where I am without you.

Author News: Pact has launched!


Sample: Pact 4

Moving on with Pact.  It’s the story I’m moving forward with.  I’m putting the fourth chapter here while I work on making the story’s site look good & maybe do a bit of tidying up for the chapters I’ve already done.

I’ll be aiming to get the new site, Pact 1.5 and a bit of polish for this Saturday.

I finished toweling myself dry and wrapped the towel around my waist before I opened the shower curtain.  I used my fingers to comb my damp hair away from my face before approaching the mirror.

I could see Rose’s reflection, her hair pressed flat where the back of her head pressed against the other side of the mirror, looking the other way.  The mirror in the upstairs bathroom was a part of the pedestal sink, surrounded by florets.

It was an uncomfortable setting, with unfamiliar things in unfamiliar places.  Having someone, something like Rose nearby.  Strange smells and tastes, with even the water having a taste to it.  It was drawn from a local well, according to Rose.  I had been forced to use the only shampoo available, and the smell of it was thick and cloying in the humid air of the bathroom.

All of this was helping me to get a sense of why Molly had been so driven to empty shelves and remove pictures from the walls.  My grandmother had a presence here, and it was a presence that felt like it could override my own.

Especially when my own presence seemed somewhat limited.  When I looked in the mirror, I saw only the bathroom, and I saw Rose, her back turned.

No reflection, using different soaps and shampoo that made me smell different, no longer having the little trinkets and touches I’d surrounded myself with over the past year or two, it all made me feel less like me.

Each of those things had a flip side, seeing a reminder of our grandmother’s work in the mirror, smelling our grandmother’s lavender-scented shampoo and soap, seeing her trinkets and small touches wherever I looked, I felt like she hadn’t quite left.  Her presence was still here.

Which it was, kind of.  We had stumbled onto one lingering threat.  The books my grandmother had written, left untouched, still waited in that study.

How deep did that particular danger run?

“Hey,” I said.  “Did you ever share scary stories with Molly and Paige?”

“A little,” Rose answered, without turning around.

“You remember the stories we told about the house?  Some made up, some real?”

“Kind of,” she said.  “We weren’t all that close.  I mean, we were the same ages, give or take a year, but we weren’t friends.”

Really?” I asked, and there was a note of surprise in my voice that seemed to startle her.  She half-turned, caught a glimpse of me, naked but for a towel around my waist, and turned away just as quickly.

I hiked up the towel to be sure I was safe, made sure it was secure, and then said, “It’s fine.  I’m decent, and it’s not like we’re not related, right?”

“Right,” she said, but she took her time.  I caught her giving me a glance, bottom to top and back again, before she frowned a little.

“Was it that you weren’t friends after grandmother announced the whole ‘granddaughter only’ thing, or-“

“Before,” Rose said.

“Before,” I said, considering the idea.  “I considered them good friends.  We exchanged emails, we looked forward to seeing each other…”

I trailed off.  Rose was already shaking her head.  A strand of blond hair had come loose of the pin behind her head.

Rose said, “I know Molly about as well as I knew Callan or Roxanne, which isn’t much at all.  Then the ‘granddaughter only’ thing came up, and that was that.  We were rivals.”

“It doesn’t upset you that she’s dead?”

“It does!” she said, “Really, it does.  But… if you told me Mrs. Niles died, I’d be about as upset.  Someone who was a small, peripheral part my life is now gone.  It’s sad, it’s a reminder that we’re all very mortal, and there’s obviously a lot more going on besides that, with you as the heir for the property and me as… this.”

“But Molly doesn’t rate much higher than an elderly neighbor who you say hi to if you happen to see her,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” Rose said.  “There are nice memories, but there are bad memories too.  Over and over, stuff would come up.  If we weren’t dealing with a situation, we were reeling from the last one.  Ways to weaken me, to take me out of the running, mom and dad sort of keeping it going.  It kind of soured all the rest of it.”

“Soured it?,” I said.

She gave me a funny look.  “Aunt Irene pulled strings to screw up Paige’s chances of getting into University, and she almost succeeded.  Uncle Paul went crazy, Paige went crazy, and we had four straight months where I was genuinely afraid.  My car got vandalized, and they emptied a can of orange juice concentrate under a seat.  The frozen pulp you mix with two cans of water.  By the time I realized what was going on, the smell was so bad I couldn’t drive the car, and no amount of cleaning would make it any better.”

“Doesn’t sound like Paige.”

“That one was Ellie, I’m pretty sure.  She made a comment, then alluded to my brake lines, and I basically stopped driving after that.  When I think of family, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.”

I couldn’t imagine giving up that independence.  The apparent distance between myself and Rose was growing, hearing all this.

She continued, oblivious, “Those are the memories I have, which didn’t really happen, apparently.  But they’re part of what make me me, whatever I am, and so I don’t have any lingering fondness for the extended family, real memories or fake.”

I nodded.  “I remember sharing the stories about the house, even seeking them out, so I had tidbits to share on future visits.  We’d laugh, be suitably horrified, and whatever else.  Paige and Molly had it easier, because they had siblings to tap for stories.  But it’s like… I could tell them how our great grandfather was a robber baron, kind of?”

There was no recognition on Rose’s face.

“He ruthlessly cut out the competition, scared people, beat them, stole from them, up until the day he hired a few goons to go beat someone up and they got caught.  He ran and came to Canada, where was approached by a widow, our great grandmother.  Grandmother Rose’s parents.”

“I didn’t hear that one.”

“The letter she wrote us told us that bastards tend to do better as husbands in this family than the gentlemen do.  So I can’t help but think… how far back does this business with the demons and devils go?  There’s a bit of bloody history tied to this family and this house.  Was grandmother the first to go down that road, or has it been at play from the beginning?”

“I don’t know,” Rose said.  “I don’t want it to be a big thing, because our bloodline is apparently in a kind of debt, and I don’t want to be in debt to anything like that.”

No longer comfortable with the topic, I bent down and rummaged in the cabinet beneath the sink for basic toiletries.  One drawer revealed a narrow can of shaving cream with a woman’s silhouette on it.  It had been there for so long it refused to budge when I tried to lift it.  Further back was a plastic packet of the cheapest disposable razors around, pink.

I opted to shave anyways, tearing the can off the bottom of the drawer.  Sure enough, the razor nicked me no less than five times.  They had been there for so long that temperature had bent the blades.

I preferred to bleed and be clean-shaven over the alternative.  Without a reflection to go by, I had to be meticulous.

It was disconcerting to see Rose standing there, studying me, when I tried to look to see if I’d missed a spot.  I ran my hand over my face, searching for the roughness of scruff, then washed my face to get rid of the remainder.

“Bit of shaving cream at the back there,” Rose said, pointing to the nape of her neck.

I fixed it.

“Putting the more dangerous stuff aside, we should get to studying,” she said.

“Know what we’re up against,” I said, while drying my face.  I tended to the small cuts, but it didn’t make much of a difference, with the cut already on my cheekbone.

“Exactly.  Having information can’t do any harm, can it?  How were you as a student?”

“Horrible,” I said.  I could see her face fall.

“But I can do this.  I have a good memory.  I struggled at school because I don’t have a lot of patience.”

“How far did you get in Essentials?”

“The introduction,” I said, preparing my toothbrush.  I’d managed some before fatigue caught up with me, and I’d napped.  I’d woken, mid-afternoon, and decided to shower to clear my head.  I didn’t function that well when I was grimy and unshaven.

“Only?  I’m nearly done,” she replied.

I looked up at her in surprise.

“Apparently I don’t sleep,” she said, and she sounded somewhat distant, even disconnected.  “I don’t get hungry.  I don’t really breathe.  I barely have a heartbeat.”

“You were up all night reading?”

“More or less.  My focus sucks right now, because I still feel drained from earlier, but I read where I could, then wandered, looked over the library, trying to get a sense of what books are there.  Or at least the books the mirror’s facing.”

I nodded, toothbrush in my mouth.  On a level, I was glad I had an excuse to stay silent.  I was bothered, that she was ahead of me, that she would likely stay ahead of me, without a need for sleep.

How could I even articulate that?  On a level, I wanted us to be on the same page, so we could cooperate, play ideas off each other.

On another level, well… All of the most foolish and brutish Others have been captured, slain, consumed, driven off, or tricked away.  Recognize all Others for what they are, and know that they, by a process of elimination two thousand and six hundred years in the making, are cunning by nature, they are slave to those who are, or they were made to be cunning to better serve in their duties.  Wit is the greatest defense and the sharpest weapon, on battlefields such as these.

Essentials, chapter one, the introduction, on Others.  Laying down the ground rules, the most basic stuff we needed to know.  Others were liars.

What was Rose, if not an Other?  New enough she wasn’t bound by the old rules that forbade lying and mandated oaths, but still an Other.  Not of mortals or the mortal’s world.

“I’m glad you’re up,” she said.  “Three hours alone in this house was too much.  I don’t know how I’m going to get through a whole night.  Dealing with being what I am.”

For all that time had done to heal her weariness, it had made her emotions more pronounced.

In my case… well, it would have been easier to say if any emotion was showing if I could see myself.

“I really like your tattoos,” she said.  She fumbled for words for a second, which caught me off guard.  “I’m… actually envious.  I couldn’t pull that off, but it’s the sort of thing I’d get if I could.”

I looked down.  Small birds perched on tree branches, in pale grays, whites and yellows, against a backdrop of reds, in watercolor hues.  “Thank you.”

Were we similar in some respects?  In tastes?

Or was this a manipulation from a cunning Other?  What was there to guarantee that she was really me, with one not-so-small change?

I left the bathroom, making my way down to the living room.

“I take it you didn’t get to chapter eight,” she said, reflected in one of the glass picture frames along the stairwell.


“Take a look,” she said.  Or it was all she could say, before there weren’t any surfaces for her to communicate through.  I made my way into the living room, and saw her there, waiting for me, in the mirror I’d taken from the bathroom.  The book lay on the coffee table.

Essentials, chapter eight.  Dangers a practitioner faces. 

I pulled on pants under the towel as I leaned over the book, reading the headings aloud.  “Being forsworn, betrayal within the coven, betrayal by familiars, covens, crusades, death, demesnes, execution, exquirere…”

“Skip ahead.”

I did, picking up the book to better flip through it.  “Lords, loss of implements, loss of sight, loss of soul…”

“Towards the end.”

“I’m not patient enough for that.  Give me a letter?  Or, better yet, point me to the section you want to talk about?”

“W.  Witch hunters.”

I flipped through until I found it.  “‘Witch hunters are markedly different from inquisitors.  Where an inquisitor is organized by an outside party, the witch hunter is in the employ of practitioners or Others.  Oft used to guard a Lord’s power, maintain a balance or hunt down rogue parties.  Witch Hunters do not use faith or innocence as tools, but use gifts provided by those they serve, alongside the protections the uninitiated enjoy, as well as the ability to circumvent defenses that would ward off practitioners and Others.'”

Rose was looking at me, expectantly.

“I’m not sure I follow your line of thought.”

“I want to see if you reach the same conclusion I do,” she said.

“You’re thinking of that pair of siblings we saw.  The ones who were getting all geared up to come after us.”

“I’m less focused on them than on the path.” she said.

I thought for a minute.  “Yeah, I’m not reaching the same conclusion as you, I don’t think.”

She looked a little agitated, nervous.  “I think we can go this route.  Avoid getting into the ugliest stuff, the books on demons and whatever else.  If witch hunters and inquisitors can survive this sort of thing, maybe we can too.”

“Borrowing power instead of using it?”

She nodded, too much, too quickly.  She was talking faster.  “Kind of.  Not getting in the thick of this.  We learn what we need to learn in order to survive.  We circumvent this whole situation.”

“While meeting her demands?  Getting a familiar, getting a tool, carving out a little world for ourselves?  Rose, I get what you’re going for, I almost get why, but that’s not going to work.”

With that, I seemed to have upset her.

Rose leaned closer to the mirror, “Why not?  We can do it, while avoiding everything else.  We need workarounds.”

“I get that, but the most basic, number one step?  The one I’m supposed to use to awaken myself… there’s a cost associated with it.  I give up the ability to lie.  What that one guy said in the vision?  There’s always a price.  Become a Witch Hunter, and you face obligations.”

Rose was getting more into it as she argued.  “We can minimize the effect.  Follow the letter of the law, instead of the spirit.  We get a familiar, but we go with the smallest, weakest spirit possible, something small, that won’t demand anything of consequence or challenge us.  We pick an inoffensive tool.  Carve out the smallest possible piece of land for our demesnes.  That only leaves us the problem of some reading, which is a good idea anyways, and getting married.”

“And the debt?  We’re supposed to clear the debt.  How do we do that if we handicap ourselves?”

“If that’s the one problem we have, I think we can find a way around it with some research.”

No, I wouldn’t convince her that way.  Better to get to the root of this problem, first.  “Where does the witch hunting factor in?”

“We figure out how they protect themselves, and we do the same things.  They have sponsors, sources of energy and tools.  So do we.  Kind of.  It’s what we inherited.”

“I don’t want to shoot you down…” I started.

“You don’t need to.”

“I know what you’re feeling.  I felt a  bit of it, when I saw the escape clause in the contract, if we wanted to back out of this.  That there was a way out.  Except I think this is a trap too, in a different way.”

“No, Blake.  We can do this, we just need to do it safely.”

“I don’t think this is a situation where we can do things in half measures.  We can’t be half-heir and half-witch hunter.”

“What’s the alternative?  You really want to do this?  Follow the path grandmother set before us, making infernal bargains to deal with our enemies, while somehow trying to get out of debt with whoever our ancestors got in debt with?”

I stood, making my way to the kitchen.  “I’m not saying I want to deal with devils or any of that.  I’m saying I don’t want to pay a price like the one we pay for ‘awakening’, if we’re not going to use what we paid for.”

She spoke to me from the toaster.  “I get a say in this, you know.”

I moved through the kitchen, looking for something easy to make foodwise.  Bonus points if it didn’t leave me feeling like crap afterward.  In the heat of the conversation, I was making more noise than necessary with the cupboards and drawers.  “You get a say, but it’s ultimately me making the decision and paying the consequences, isn’t it?”

“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of attached to you, metaphysically.  You die, I’m going to be a goner too.”

“You think.  Either way, I’m the one who got injured,” I said.  “I’m the one who has stitches in my hand and a cut on my face.”

“At least you’re alive,” she retorted.

We were interrupted by a pounding series of knocks on the door.  Rose turned her head so quickly that the loose strands of hair flew out to either side.

I remained where I was, staring at the door.

The knocking repeated.

“Whatever this is,” I said, “I might need help.”

She took her time responding.

A third set of knocks, harder than last two others.

“Like I said,” Rose told me, “We’re attached to each other.  I’ll back you up.  Go.”

I nodded.

I grabbed a t-shirt from the backpack and pulled it on as I approached the door, stopping to peek out through the glass at the side.

Relief hit me in a wave, even in the moment my heart sank.

As the door opened, I saw two men in uniform.

One of them was very familiar.  I’d glimpsed him in the odd dream I’d seen, just before meeting Rose.


The other man spoke first.  “I’m RCMP officer Pat Macguin.  This is Chief of Police Laird Behaim.”

“Hi,” I said, guarded.

“Would you give me your name, please?” Laird Behaim asked me.  He had an intense gaze.  Pale blue eyes to go with very dark, straight hair, just starting to gray at the sideburns.

I’d seen him in the vision.  The man with the pocketwatch at the table with all of the blonde women.  I needed a moment to get my mental footing.  I searched for a response  “Um.”

“It’s not a hard answer to give,” the RCMP officer said.

“I just woke up from a nap, a little bit ago,” I said.  “Sorry.  I’m a little muddled.”

“Your name?” he asked.

There was no dodging the question.  “Blake Rosine.”

Laird Demill raised his eyebrows.  “Paul’s son?  No, wait, that would be…”

“Peter.  He’s my cousin.  My dad is-“

“Bradley Rosine, by process of elimination.  Yes.”

The RCMP gave Laird a look.

“I’m fairly familiar with his family,” Laird said.

“You’re alone, Mr. Rosine?”

“Only person in the house,” I said.

“You’re injured,” the RCMP officer said, to me,  “A cut on your cheek?  Can I ask what happened?”

The sudden change of direction caught me off guard.  It didn’t help that this Laird guy was staring at me, studying me while the officer quizzed me.  He would be weighing my answers.

There was a danger here.  I felt a chill, and it wasn’t just the cold air from outside.

I couldn’t get arrested, or I’d get dragged out of the house, far from any protection it afforded.

But this man, here, Laird Behaim, was an enemy.  Would I be worse off if he realized I wasn’t yet ‘awakened’?

I couldn’t get caught in a lie, and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to look like I was trying to word things too carefully.

“Car broke down by the side of the highway.  I tried to take a shortcut through the woods, because I could have been hit in the highway.  Something cut me.”

“Where were you at four o’clock this morning?”

“Sleeping, I think.  I kind of woke up early, so I’m not sure.  Can I ask what this is about?”

“In a minute.  Can anyone or anything confirm your location?”

“Joel Monte, my landlord and friend.  I woke him up to borrow his car, maybe around five.  He’s going to be upset, the car broke down and I had to leave it behind.  I haven’t even had time to think about getting a tow, if it hasn’t been towed already.”

“You said.  His number?”

I gave it.  The RCMP officer glanced at the chief of police, who walked down the stairs, phone up to his ear.

“That’s a different area code than the one in Jacob’s Bell.  You woke up early, borrowed a car from your landlord at an unholy hour, and decided to drive to another town to visit…”

Laird was nearby, in earshot.  I wasn’t sure the RCMP officer was safe, either.  “My cousin Molly inherited this place.  She isn’t here.  I’m not sure where she is.”

“You can understand where I’m a little confused about this sequence of events,” he said.  He sounded unimpressed.  “Why?”

There was no good answer to give.  “Can I ask what this is about?”

“Answer my question, first.”  He wasn’t playing ball.

Damn it.  What was I supposed to say?  I didn’t have time to think.

When in doubt… honesty.

“The car broke down, and coming here seemed like it was less hassle overall.  Molly wasn’t here.  I thought I should stick around.”

All true.

“Which doesn’t explain why you were driving in the first place.”

“It sounds stupid.  I had a bad dream.  I decided to go for a drive, get away.”

He gave me a look that conveyed a whole idea.  ‘That does sound stupid‘.   But he was too polite to say it out loud.  The inconsistency of my actions, he must have thought I was on drugs.

Laird returned to the porch.  The look he gave me, too calm, too casual, made me shiver.

“Landlord confirms the time,” he said.  “And a car was found on the side of the highway.”

I jammed my hands in the pockets, where the cold was starting to numb my fingers.  “If you visit the sandwich shop at the rest stop, just a little up the road from where the car was picked up, the manager and a middle aged blonde woman can confirm.  She gave me a ride here.”

“We’ll check,” the RCMP officer said.

“What’s this about?” I asked.  I knew, but I wasn’t supposed to know.

“Can we step inside?” Laird asked.  “You look cold.”

“Not without a warrant,” I said.  Better to seem unfriendly and overly emotional than risk letting an enemy inside safe territory.  “What’s this about?”

The RCMP officer answered, “Molly Walker, the owner of this house, was found mauled in the woods.”

If I’d harbored any concerns about seeming too blasé, they were gone in the instant I heard those words.  “M-mauled?”

“Brutally attacked by a human, if the tracks are any indication,” the officer said.  “We’re not offering any particular details at this point.”

“I- uh,” I said.  I stopped, then tried to start again, but the words didn’t escape my mouth.  It didn’t help that I didn’t know what to say.

I’d known, but to hear it like this, from very human sources, minus all of the mystic crap?

“You what?” the RCMP officer asked me.

“She has family in town.  They moved to be closer to our grandmother.”

“We know.  We’ve spoken with them,” the officer said.  “They pointed us here.  We’d like to come inside and see if there’s anything that could explain the attack.”

I shook my head.  “No.”

“Irene Walker gave us permission to investigate the premises.”

Which meant letting this Laird Behaim person into the house.

“It- no.  It’s not her call,” I said.  “I’m sorry.  I can give you the number of the lawyer.  The way I understand it, the house would pass on to me, if Molly was dead.  It’s my property, it’s my say.  Not without a warrant.”

“This isn’t reflecting well on you, Mr. Rosine,” the RCMP officer said.

“I know,” I said.  My mouth was dry, and my eyes were tearing up from the cold and the recent announcement.  “Yeah.  I- I’m sorry.  I need time to process the news, and I’m not going to make good calls, as tired and confused as I am.  It’s better if you talk to the lawyer.”

“Mr. Beasley?” Laird asked.

“Mr. Beasley, right,” I said.

“I’m familiar with him,” he said.  When the RCMP officer looked in his direction, he said, “There’s a great deal of concern over this house, in local circles.  The town is booming with the addition of the train station and the proximity to Toronto, property prices are soaring, and the amount of good land that can be bought is somewhat limited, due to certain geographical concerns rooted in this property.  The last time I paid any attention to the money, this property was worth twenty million dollars.”

“It’s worth more now,” I said.

“I imagine.  A great many locals are very interested,” Laird said, his eyes fixed on me.  “Mr. Beasley has been handling the bulk of the disputes for the family.  I know him.  With your permission, I’ll talk to him and see what we can’t figure out.”

“Please do” the RCMP officer said.

“I’d like to have a moment to talk to Mr. Rosine here, if that’s alright.  If he’s telling the truth and he has inherited the property, I wouldn’t mind the chance to talk this through with him.”

The RCMP officer didn’t seem happy with that.  “You’re aware of the time constraints?”

“Of course.  I’ll talk to Mr. Rosine, then the lawyer, and we can meet for dinner?  I’ll fill you in.”

The RCMP officer took that in.  “Alright.  I need to make some calls.  Call me when you’re done.”

Laird nodded.

Together, we watched the RCMP officer trudge away through the snow, his boots squeaking.  When he was gone, Laird withdrew a pocketwatch from his coat.  He popped it open, looked, and then closed it, holding it in one hand.

His implement?

“I admit, thought it was a girl, here.”

“No,” I responded.  “I’m just as surprised to be here as you are to see me here.”

“Well, if it helps, I think you’re innocent,” he said.

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Here’s the honest truth; I wasn’t lying when I said I wanted to discuss things with you.”

“You’re a pretty honest guy, huh?” I asked.

Stupid.  Stupid question.

“I suspect you and I both know why,” he said.  “Can we do away with pretense?”

I sighed.  “Sure.”

“I believe you’re innocent because I know who killed Molly Walker.”

“Who?” I asked.  I was getting colder, now.

He only shook his head.  “I can’t say.  It will probably go unsolved, the media will report it, but it won’t be sensationalized.  Good officers will most likely put in a genuine, honest effort and find nothing.”

“Doesn’t this kind of conflict with the oath you swore, when entering office?  Or are you faking the police thing?”

He smiled.  “Rest assured, I studied for my position, I earned it, and I’ve maintained it in good conscience.  I’d rather talk about you.  Would you be up for a walk?”

“A walk?” I asked.

“If you’re worried, I can promise you my protection for as long as you’re in my company, I’ll take you somewhere where we can talk, then bring you back, as safe as I can manage it.”

“Which is how safe?”  I asked.  “I don’t know what your protection is worth.”

“You’re thinking I’ve limited myself somehow?” he asked, clearly amused.

“I’m thinking anything is possible.”

“Knowing what I know, if positions were reversed, I would trust my own daughters, who I care about deeply, to the care of someone of equivalent power.”

“This isn’t a trick?” I asked.

His smile faltered a little.  “This line of questioning is getting a touch grating.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“This is not a trick,” he said.  “My primary aim here is to find out who you are.  You’re an unknown quantity in a very delicate ecosystem.  But we can talk about that more after.  I suspect you’ll gain more information than you give up.”

“Right this minute, with everything that’s happening, I’d rather be safe and warm than have information,” I said.  “A bit of time to grieve might be nice.”

“What if I offered to help streamline matters on the legal front?  You’ll be safer and warmer here than in a prison cell, awaiting a trial,” he said.

I considered the idea.

“I’d find that a little more tempting,” I admitted.

“If you’re interested, I’ll wait while you get your coat and whatever else you deem necessary.”

“Give me a minute,” I said.  I shut the door.

I made my way to the living room.

“Don’t,” Rose said.

“It’s answers,” I said.

“It’s dangerous,” she responded.  “We can go the safe route.  Like I was saying before.  There’s too much we don’t know.”

I found my jacket.  “We’ve skimmed the little black book.  Behaim… they’re one of the covens.”

“There’s a better word than coven, but sure.  They’re a local institution, maybe the oldest here.  All the more reason to stay.”

“He’ll fix the legal situation, which is maybe the biggest concern right now.  I don’t know if we can do anything against ordinary people, if the cops decide to kick down the door.”

“Blake!  I don’t get a say?”

“You do,” I said.  “But… you were saying how you were going kind of crazy, alone?  I’m going to lose it if I’m cooped up.  I have to keep moving.  I had to before I left home, and it only got reinforced after.  If there’s an opportunity to stretch my legs and get answers, while preserving my sanity, I’m going to take it.”

“Blake, no.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Come with, as much as you can.  I wouldn’t mind the backup.”

I pulled on my coat, then rummaged in the closet to get a new scarf and hat.  There were two that were plain enough to wear.  The nurse’s?

I stepped across the threshold, half-convinced I’d get shot or something equivalent.  When I didn’t, I carefully locked the door.  I stood there, hand still on the handle.

“You promise to smooth over the legal issues?”

“I’ll make this as stress free for you as I can.  Nobody will enter the house, if I can help it, which I can.  I promise you this.”

“The house is safe?” I asked.

He sighed.  “You don’t know very much, do you?”

“I’m a fast learner, but not as much as I’d like to know.”

“I assure you, the house is safe.  I don’t know of anyone who could or would damage the house or property.  If it was that easy, we would have removed it already.”

I turned, joining him in walking down the long, snow-covered driveway.

“Let me cut to the chase.  I’d like to talk about a hypothetical scenario with you,” he said.

“Sure,” I said.

“Global politics, if you don’t mind?”

“I don’t really mind.”

“In this scenario, we’ve got a situation involving a number of countries. If you will, there’s America.  I’m rather interested in America for the purpose of this discussion, but that’s just me.  Powerful, perhaps overly proud, large, keepers of the peace.”

I glanced at his uniform.  “Sure.”

“Then a European country.  I would say they are very traditional, seductive, beautiful, very prone to holding grudges.  More history, more set in their ways.”

I thought of the blonde women I’d seen at the table with him.  “I can picture it.”

“There are others.  Imagine a small, very old, and somewhat backwards nation.  We’d then have a broad swathe of nature with very few settlements, as well as a very vibrant country that has just come into an inexplicable amount of wealth, which is liable to burn out quickly on its excess.  As well as other bit players who shouldn’t be ignored, but who aren’t of import in our discussion, here.”

I tried to put faces to the descriptions, but it wasn’t easy.  Perhaps the man in the twisted tower, with the talking dog, for the latter?  The girl with the checkered scarf…  If I went by process of elimination…

“I’m picturing an aboriginal woman,” I said.

“I can imagine such a woman leading this very old nation, yes.”

“A young woman, in heavy clothing, with a rabbit, in the middle of the uninhabited, natural setting?”

“Mm.  Quite right.”

“And… a long haired young man, for the wealthy country.”


“If I were to add to this scenario, where would you fit a teenaged girl with a checkered scarf?”

He frowned, “I’m at a loss.”

“So am I,” I said.  The girl who had been talking to the Other, with the face that stretched.

He thought for a second, nodding and smiling a greeting at someone who apparently recognized him in passing.  When we were clear, he said, “Ah.  Someone who intruded on important meetings, perhaps.  A new arrival to the scene.”

“Is that so?”

“Too new and too small to be a serious threat.  Self deluding, even, dealing in things she doesn’t fully understand.  A complicated situation.  I’d call her a terrorist before I called her a local power.”

“Fair enough.  Can we call her Maggie, or is that mucking up the metaphor?”

“We could call her that.  Maggie Holt, I believe.”

I nodded.

He took in a deep breath, opened his watch, then closed it, without looking at it.  “In this imagined scenario, we have a country in, say, our equivalent of South America.  This hypothetical country is unpredictable, has a history of being aggressive, and it just so happens they are the only one in this imagined scenario who have nuclear weapons at their disposal.”

Nuclear weapons.  It seemed an apt descriptor for the books I’d seen.  Dangerous to handle, dangerous to use.  Once they were brought to the table, everyone would lose.

“In this little story, the dictator died, and a successor was assassinated in short order, let’s say.  Now another one has taken the helm, and nobody is entirely sure what type of person the young man is… which is very concerning, considering the weapons he has at his fingertips.  He could be reckless, he could be mild mannered, he could be a merchant, a politician, or a student, but he’s an unknown quality, and appearances can be deceiving.”

“I can picture that,” I said.

“Should this small southern nation cease to be a concern, everyone else profits, and the nukes being removed from the picture is only a small part of that.  The other countries would be elevated to a new age… and the country who is most powerful will take the helm, quite possibly forever.”

If Hillsglade House was the small country…  Jacob’s Bell the region…

“Is it so important?” I asked.  “The… resources or whatever you’d gain?  A few acres?”

“When things develop to a certain point, it takes on a different tone.  Population, wealth, whatever else, they attract attention from everyone.  With the current status quo, our little world here is small enough to be left alone.  Understand, our little metaphor here falls apart when we cease talking about the area that falls within, say, a thousand kilometers around us.  I could start talking about other planets with their own drama and politics, if I really wanted to maintain the narrative, but those thing really aren’t our focus.”

“I understand,” I said.  I also understood that the ‘metaphor’ was making it very easy for him to outright lie, but that was a given.

“When our little world here grows, everyone with an established power base can ride the cresting wave.  Prestige, fortune, status, with others visiting, or attempting to get in while the going is good, and paying a good price to do so.”

“Alright,” I said.  “I’m starting to get a sense of this.”

“The trouble is, when the road block,” he half-turned to gesture back at the house, “Is removed, and when things start developing, there will be a very small window of opportunity in which one of the local powers I just described might take the helm.  If one doesn’t, it’s liable to be a more distant entity, and it’s likely to be someone we couldn’t hope to stand up to.”

Halfway across the world… in this analogy… someone from outside Jacob’s Bell?  Another, greater power.

The families here were small in the grand scheme of it all, and before the city grew and drew attention, they wanted to solidify their positions.

He opened his pocketwatch, then closed it without looking down, like a nervous tic, then continued.  “America rather likes the status quo, and if we were to see this small hypothetical country fall right now, it would be bad for America.  America wouldn’t take power, nor would the European country.  It would be left to the newcomer, with all of his wealth, excess, and arrogance.”

I thought of what I’d read.  The warning to stay out of the north end.  “This hypothetical wealthy country wouldn’t happen to be to the north?”

“Yes, to the north, Mr. Rosine.  I would like to see the small southern entity with the proverbial nukes be a very stable, calm, country for the time being.  America would protect it, and things would be very calm and very peaceful for long enough that the wealthy newcomer might fade in his glory.”

“So it isn’t really friendship, is it?  It’s… buying time.  Then there’s nothing to stop America from crushing the little country.”

“It would be a temporary alliance, I’m afraid.  I don’t believe there’s a way around it.”

“What if the nukes were… given up to greater authorities?”

“Who would you trust to handle such things?  The southern country and any country that received these goods would, in this scenario, become immediate targets, because nukes that are changing hands are far, far more dangerous than nukes that are sitting idle in one place.”

“What if the nukes were destroyed?  In exchange for certain concessions, to protect the southern country?”

“Impossible.  In this scenario, I’d describe it as radiation.  Ugly elements would be let loose.  Elements that are contained so long as the nukes are intact, you understand.  If it’s even possible to destroy those things.  The person who put the things together was very, very conscientious.”

“They can’t be given away, because they’re too dangerous.  They can’t be destroyed, because they’re too dangerous,” I said.

“In the best case scenario for our hypothetical little world,” he said, “our little southern country remains dormant for some time, and is cleanly, quickly wiped out of existence, in a matter of weeks, months or years.  I’m sorry.”

Analogy aside, he wasn’t sugarcoating it.  Somehow that made me feel better.  I had my hands jammed in my coat pockets, and I kept them there, but I pressed my arms tighter against my body.  “The nukes?”

“The nukes are left where they are and everything is paved over, with numerous measures taken to ensure it remains that way.”

I felt cold, and I wasn’t sure how much of it was the fact that I’d stood in the open doorway for long enough to let it soak into me, and how much was emotion and physical reaction.

We walked on for a bit.  People greeted ‘Chief Behaim’ as they passed him on the sidewalk.  He greeted them warmly in turn.

“No consideration to the poor bastard who didn’t even want to take over?”  I asked.

“I suspect the poor bastard is as good as dead already,” Laird Behaim said.  “I am sorry.  If it helps, I don’t think I’ll enjoy the part I play in it.”

He sounded sorry.

“Would you like a coffee, Mr. Rosine?” Chief Behaim offered.

I looked for a mirror and found one, meeting Rose’s gaze.  I still felt numb, cold, a little less like a complete person than before.  Slowly, surely, this situation was chipping away at me.  A little warmth in the form of good coffee would go a long way.

“Sure.  Please,” I said.

Snippets: Before Worm

Author’s Note:  I’ve decided on the story I’m going ahead with, and need to take some time to set up the site and rewrite the first chapter.  There isn’t much use in continuing with samples, so… something else!

I started to write ‘An Über and Leet Christmas’, and it wasn’t fun, funny or Christmassy.  It wasn’t enjoyable, even.

So I was left to think about what other things might be of interest… and I consider this idea kind of a penance.  It’s penance because it’s awful and it’s embarrassing to put it out there.  A lot of it is really awful.  But I think it’s interesting to see where things came from.  I’m picking out the strongest or most noteworthy story from a given set of years.

Presenting: the (terrible) stuff I wrote in the superhero genre before settling on Worm.  Be warned, these stories don’t have endings (Worm was the first thing that did), so they sort of cut off.

There’s actually a lot of words here.  Don’t feel you have to read all of them in one sitting – you’ll hurt yourself.  For a sense of what other stories were written, and my (off the top of my head) framing for many of them, see this comment and the follow-up comments on Worm, a while back.

A bit of history, and an insight into how things evolve over the course of building a world through multiple stories.

Runechild (2002) – The first superhero story I really wrote, back in 2002.  After the bit I posted, it went onto a tangent with Faultline and never got back on track with a main story.

I personally find it interesting to note the elements that are present.  Narwhal, contrary to what I remembered, was the first canon character who was introduced and who stayed with the setting.  Runechild, the protagonist, was supposed to be a novice Doctor Strange, but wound up being a telekinetic with a few gimmicks.  There was more at play with the ‘is it magic or something else?’ question.  In the end, she was the only real character I wrote who didn’t really make it into Worm in one form or another. I would return to it once or twice (the second story featuring her helping Dragon vs. the Dragonslayers, to help circumvent the AI limitations) before deciding that magic didn’t work, and that Ottawa was a crappy place to set a superhero story.

TELUTT (2004) – AKA, ‘the events leading up to that Thursday’.

Not the first draft of TELUTT, the story switched between Faultline, the Triumvirate and Guts & Glory.  It was an attempt at tying everything in together.  I like that there’s one scene in there (At the end) that was pretty much copied exactly and inserted into Worm, even though I haven’t opened these documents in a long, long time.  The nature of Faultline’s meeting with her ‘crew’ is essentially what happened in canon.  That said, wow, are my protagonists a pain in the ass to read this early on (arrogant/annoying).  At this juncture, I was still figuring out a way to make powers interesting.  I was bored with many of them, and I was lapsing into some of the ‘standby’ powers, like tinkers without anything interesting to them.

Guts & Glory (2006ish) – Panacea and Glory Girl.  This could count as canon, almost.

Some names have changed since.  I recall that Amy would have been Annie if I hadn’t changed my mind a few minutes before Interlude 2 went live, in Worm.  The nature of the story would have involved a stronger relationship between Amy/Annie and Brett/Gallant, her finding her way, and ultimately led up to her incarceration.  It was too dark, though, and there wasn’t anything to salvage it.  All those people who talked about what would happen if Amy had gone to the wrong prison?  The other drafts (which are unfortunately handwritten) went into that, and it was ugly, with her basically going full-on Class-S threat.

The Travelers (2007ish) – See the Migration arc.

Basically any drafts I linked would be worse versions of Worm’s arc 17.  I wrote them for a while after a friend suggested I was too fond of the ‘crummy powers being used well’ trope.

Circus vs. Elite (2008ish) – Circus was a character I wrote for a while, but she doesn’t feel like she has a lot of personality, looking back.

Hey, Bitch is there, in her first incarnation!  And a variant on Bonesaw (who made it into every elite team before settling in the Slaughterhouse Nine)! Chuckles features in a fight as well.  This was around the time that I started to conceptualize what I was looking for in a protagonist.  I started to write Grue as a protagonist for a short bit before I finally stumbled on Taylor’s character.

Myriad  (2010) – Worm, second or third draft.

Oh, man, did I ever write a lot of drafts of Worm, covering a lot of bases.  Oh man, do they not feel right, rereading them.  This is going to feel really redundant, but hey.  I’ve alluded to this before, but I started off trying to emulate other serials, and I was writing too little (600-900 word entries), and it really hurts the flow.  I was still finding a voice and an identity for characters at this point.  Eight or nine drafts followed this over the months, as I searched for those voices, tried to figure out where to start my story, and struggled to find my stride.  Then I started Worm.

Sample: Pact 3

It was hard to sum up my feelings as the van drove up the long driveway to Hillsglade House.  It was supposed to be sanctuary, but it felt like the opposite.  Layered in snow, branches of the overlarge trees bent with snow and ice, the house was pale against a dark gray background.  The light siding only accented the effect.  If I closed my eyes enough to let my eyelashes blur the view, it looked almost like the windows were floating there.

It was ominous, and it was a symbol of everything messed-up that had just happened to me.  Maybe all the bad things that had happened to me from the start.

“You going to be alright?” the woman in the driver’s seat asked me.  She had a weariness to her that made me suspect she’d been getting up too early for the majority of her life, but she had been kind and exceedingly gentle, and her idle questions and conversation had helped ground me, distracting me from the possibility that the bird things could catch up and stop this car like they had mine.  With the snow, it looked to be a slow day at the rest stop, and she’d asked her boss if she could give me a ride.

“I don’t know.  Probably not,” I said, honestly.  I felt indescribably weary, and it had little to do with the exhausting run or the fact that I’d woken up four hours after I’d turned in.  Rose, in the rear-view mirror, didn’t look any better than I felt.  I fished for my wallet.  “But that doesn’t have much to do with my getting lost in the woods, or a few scratches.”

“No money, it’s not necessary,” she said, as I pulled a twenty out of the wallet.

“For the cost of gas,” I said.

“I did it to get out of the prep work, that’s enough for me.”

“Then buy yourself and your boss a few beers after you’re done for the day, tell him thank you for letting you drive me,” I said.  I tucked the bill into the cluttered space in the dash, by receipts, crackers and kleenex packages.  Before she could give it back or argue, I opened the door and grabbed my bag.

I was closing the door when she said something.  I had to open it and poke my head down.  “Sorry?”

“Do you want me to wait, make sure you make it inside okay?”

Could I make it inside?  I didn’t have a key, and there was the possibility that something could happen to me in the distance between here and the house.

“Yes please,” I said.

I closed the car door, making my way up to the front of the house.  There was something like a bike lock attached, with a container built into it.  Four digit combination.

I kicked at the doormat until I found a plastic bag with a thick manilla envelope attached, a pad of paper within.

The first sheet had only a simple message, penned in a curling script I almost envied.  ‘Birth date’.

I tried the year I’d been born.  It didn’t work.

Day, month?  One-eight-oh-one.

The container opened.  Two keys rattled within.  One was older, the other a standard door key.

I opened the door with the usual key, then waved at the good Samaritan.

I stood inside the house, watching her pull down the long driveway.  When she was gone, I closed and locked the door.

It didn’t feel like enough of a barrier.

“Molly!” I hollered, loud enough I should have been audible throughout the house.  “Anyone!?”

No response.  Somewhere, in my general confusion and the mess of stuff I didn’t know or understand, I’d hoped that Molly being alive would be one of those things that caught me off guard.

When I had first visited, the house had been my grandmother’s.  She’d marked every surface with some token of her particular tastes and personality.  Molly, it seemed, had been systematically dismantling those touches.  Boxes sat by bookshelves, filled with books, paper-wrapped knick-knacks stowed away in the spaces between the books.  Pictures were gone from the walls, neatly packed into more boxes, some stacked and shoved into the spaces beneath the few bookshelves that weren’t built into the house.

It wasn’t yet done, and it wasn’t an organized process, either.  Some books here, some books there.  A few shelves on one bookcase, another shelf across the room.  Most seemed to be centered around the living room.

Near the center of the living room, Molly had set up blankets and pillows on one couch.

“Blake,” I heard, so quiet it was barely even a whisper.

I looked up.  In this quiet, mundane setting, free of the delirium of sleep, I was a little unnerved to see Rose’s vague shape reflected in the black screen, instead of my own.

“There’s a mirror in the bathroom at the end of the hall,” she said.

I let my bag drop to the floor, then tossed the pad of papers and envelope onto the coffee table.  I pulled off my hat too, running my fingers through sweat-soaked, unwashed hair.  A rub of my chin suggested a light scruff.

I hated being unshaven and unwashed.

I hated the feeling of being overwhelmed.  Of feeling like I was out of the loop.  There was too much to take in, here.  I felt more than a little confused as I made my way back to the hallway and figured out the direction I needed to go.  I moved slowly, taking everything in.  The things of my grandmother’s that Molly hadn’t put away, the things that Molly had left behind.  There were clues here, stories, and I didn’t want to miss any details.

The layout of the books made me think of a ruin.  The layout of the books that remained were like the weathered remains of a brick wall that only partially stood.  Patches.  There were only traces of the personality that had once infused the place, like any ruin might hint at the people, culture and purpose that it once held.

I found the bathroom, but I left the mirror where it was, above the sink.  I could see Rose there as I dug through the medicine cabinet and found a few things I needed to take care of the cuts.

“Is it bad?” she asked.

“Been hurt worse,” I said.

“That doesn’t answer the question.”

I slowly opened and closed my hand.  The cut throbbed in the wake of the movement.  “I can move my fingers.  It’s not the injury that’s spooking me, here.  Those things were dirty, their fingernails especially, and they got me a few times.”

“What can I do?” she asked.

I began unbinding the setup that was supposed to keep the bandages in place.  I got the needle and thread out of the kit and set them aside.  “I don’t know.  You helped, didn’t you?  With the ice?”

“I tried.  I’m not sure it mattered.  I wish I could help more.”

“Do me a favor, then.  Keep an eye on me.  If I get a fever, or if I start to look ill, let me know.  Make me go to a hospital.”

“It didn’t hit me until I saw you back there,” Rose said.  “How different we are.  I wasn’t even in any direct danger, and I couldn’t think of what to do.”

“If I learned to deal with bad situations, you will too.”

She didn’t respond right away.  I opened the packages.

“You know how to do sutures?”  She asked.

“I’ve done it once.”

“When did you need stitches?”

I didn’t feel like answering that one.  “They weren’t for me.  It was for a friend.  This’ll be the first time stitching myself up.”

My good hand shook so much I couldn’t get the thread through the hole.  I swore under my breath on the fifth failure.


“Shh.  One second,” I said, and my frustration made my response more curt than I’d intended.

I ended up having to rest the sides of both hands against the edge of the sink to have something concrete to rest against, minimizing how much the thread and needle shook.

Once I had it threaded, I took my time disinfecting the area and the needle both.  I was rough with myself, all things considered, searching the wound for any fragments.  I didn’t want any trace of those things in or on my body.  When my hand throbbed and involuntarily jumped at the pain, I grimly assured myself I was at least getting the infection out.

I had told Rose ‘one second’, but she remained silent while I worked, and I didn’t break the silence, except to swear.  I used pretty much every curse word I knew, almost every step of the way.  It helped.

I raised my hand.  “How’s that look?”

“Better than I could ever do.”

“That doesn’t answer the question,” I said.

“Ha ha,” she said, humorless.  “It looks good.”

“Good,” I said.  “I’ll be right back.”

I slowly patrolled the house.  The ground floor consisted of an expansive living room, a generous dining room, a smaller kitchen with only the basics, the hallway and a half-bathroom the size of my regular bathroom.

One floor up, I found my grandmother’s bedroom, the same as I’d seen it, though the bed was stripped bare, a small bathroom, a little tea room that might have been a bedroom at one point, and a narrow guest bedroom.  Molly had barely touched anything on the second floor, by the looks of it.  She’d used this bathroom, with a handful of items littering the counter, but that would be because it was the only bath and shower.

She’d been cooped up in this house, and she’d barely touched anything?  The living room, kitchen and this bathroom suggested she’d spent some time here, but how had she managed without losing it?  It had been four months.

The third floor had only three smallish rooms, though ‘small’ was something of a misnomer, with a house of this scale.  Two bedrooms on the right side, with little more than beds and a dresser each, and a small sewing room that was apparently assigned to storage.

A staircase took up the rest of the space, curving up and around to the fourth floor, but the door was locked.

I fished in my pocket, found the old key, and weighed it in my hand.  I hadn’t found a single locked door in the house.  The key was of the old ‘skeleton key’ variety, a round bar as thick around as any of my fingers, with an ornate head and a tab on the end with the teeth.

I knew just by looking at it that it didn’t fit the keyhole.  I tried anyways.

No such luck.  I hadn’t seen anything that needed opening, which raised one big question.  Why was it important for me to get the key, without any lock to go with it?

I made my way back to the ground floor, stopping by the bathroom to lift the mirror free of the wall, then carried it back to the living room, for Rose.

I fiddled until I found I could use the mounts to hang it off the bookcase.  It was just tall enough that it fell between eye level when I was standing and eye level when I sat.  I pulled a cushion from the armchair and placed it beneath, in case it fell.

When I’d finished, I did another look around the ground floor, peering out the windows to see if there was any sign of trouble.  The town was starting to come to life, with cars and a few kids with backpacks on the road, heading to school.

Though a sidewalk ran alongside the outer wall below the house, it seemed to be habit for people to walk on the other side of the street.

No bird masks, no crooked men.  I moved back to the living room to look out a different window for a different angle.

“Well?” Rose asked.

“It’s too ordinary,” I replied.  I rubbed at my face.  “God damn, I’m tired.”


“It’s a house.  A boring, ordinary house that my grandmother lived in for her entire life.”

Our grandmother,” she replied.

“It’s soulless, sorta.  Our dad and aunt Irene and Uncle Paul were raised here, but there are no toys or mementos left around for the memories.  Even my mother and father left some of my stuff around.”

“I really don’t want to be pedantic,” Rose said, “But they’re our mother and father.”

“Are they?” I asked.  I leaned back, propping one foot up on the corner of the coffee table, looking over at the mirror.  “Because I think the dad you got was very different from the dad I got.”

“Same person, different circumstance,” Rose said, her voice firm.

“Sure.  Fine, let’s go with that,” I said.  I dropped my foot and abruptly leaned forward, grabbing the envelope with the pad of paper.  I took a look.

“What is it?” Rose asked.  “I don’t have a copy, here.”

“Legal documents.  Let’s see… forty-one pages.  The transfer of Rosalyn D. Rosine’s estate from custodian Molly Walker, grandchild, to custodian Blake Rosine, grandchild.  The first page outlines the terms of the contract.  The property is mine in a general sense only.  The lawyer manages it until I’m twenty-five, at which point the custodian label is removed and the heir is appointed.”

“Rosalyn D. Rosine senior,” Rose said.  “I remember him saying something like that at the gathering.”

“I do too.  The second page… is going out of its way to outline that the notes accompanying the text ‘aren’t binding nor are they intended to be read as such’…  looks like the rest is about a fifty fifty split between legalese and explanations for the legalese, for us plebs.”

“No answers?  About the monsters?”

“Not on the surface,” I said.  I paged through the papers, noting the headings  “Times of effect, terms, stipulations…”


I went back a page.

“Taking care of the house, paying upkeep from the account accorded to the custodian of the property to ensure the driveway, lawn and gardens are looked after, attending meetings with the firm, ummm,” I paused to look over the next bit.  “Right at the end, a note saying possession of the property can be revoked if the custodian doesn’t meet the requirements noted by the client, Mrs. Rosine.”

“What requirements?”

I shook my head.  “No clue.  Something to keep in mind.  After stipulations, there’s a section on stipend, with a regular allowance, notes on how often the lawyers can be called without incurring a debt.  Oh, right here.  A mention of the bird-skull monsters.”

“What?”  I could see Rose move, standing from her seat.

“I’m joking,” I said, with zero humor in my voice.  “There’s nothing.  A few pages with pictures of the property and the boundaries, some stuff on the adjacent woodland and marsh, a blurb on council meetings, nonsense on contacting the lawyers, and-”  I stopped.


“A means of opting out.  Not joking this time.”

“Somehow I don’t imagine it would be that easy,” Rose said.

“It’s pretty easy.  Phone or email the lawyer, and custodianship transfers to the next available candidate.”  I reread the legalese and the plain-text to be sure.

“That’s not what I meant,” Rose said.  “This whole situation is a trap, right?  She’s got some goal in mind, she basically, what, let the world know that she picked Molly as her heir, so all of her enemies come crawling out of the woodwork… and then she does the same for you, even going so far as to set up me for some kind of loophole.  She used the situation to force us into this.”

“Right,” I said.

“Does it make more sense that we’re really truly free to walk away, or that there’s a trap waiting for us if we try?”

“A trap,” I said, sighing a little.  If I’d let myself hope just a little, that hope was dashed.

“Just off the top of my head, maybe she announced that she picked her heir, but she doesn’t let everyone know that the heir has stepped down.  Meaning we’d lose all of the protections and resources we’d have, but we’d still be in just as much trouble.”

“It’s a way to weed out anyone too stupid to consider the ramifications.”

“Or anyone too weak to face the situation,” Rose said.  “Knowing her, it fits.”

“You do know her, huh?” I asked.  “All this while, you were immersed in this.”

“All this while,” Rose said.  “Except I didn’t know this part.  Um.  Give me a minute.  I’m wearing pyjamas, and I feel grungy.  I’m going to change, if I can figure out how.”

With that said, she disappeared from the frame.

I remained where I was.  Big key, legal pad…

I rifled through Molly’s things.  She had kept a duffel bag with her things in it, but it was only clothes and a few cables and a set of headphones for a smartphone.

I felt guilty and more than a little creepy going through her clothes, so I stopped there.

Was I damning myself, with fingerprints and the like?  Would the police find her dead and then find that I’d moved myself in, already aware that she was dead?

It was a daunting thought.  Another trap?  Was grandmother testing me?

It raised another question.  Why?  Why had she pit us against one another, picking through us for some candidate that could meet some specific, crazy standard?  Why was she testing us by putting us through this gauntlet, where we were unprepared and ignorant when these monsters came after us?

“You look pensive,” Rose said.

I looked up.  I saw her in the mirror.  Wearing a decidedly old fashioned women’s blouse with pearly buttons up the front and a bit of lace on the collar, and a pleated skirt.  Her hair was mostly straight, with two lengths from the sides drawn back and pinned with something.

I raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t say a word.  There are only so many places with mirrors in the house.  What were you thinking about?”

“Traps.  Tests.  Somehow, I imagine this is about more than looking after a house.  You don’t get enemies from property alone.  Well, you do, but not really in this era.”

“No, you don’t, but this is a world we don’t fully understand.”

I nodded.  “We’re left in the dark.  Let’s assume this is a test… you said the lawyers were picking up books?”

“I only glimpsed it, because the light was hitting the windows at the right angles.  There were books piled on the table.”

“Describe them?”

“Old books.  Like those on the bottom shelf, below me.”

I got up and picked up the book.  It had a hard cloth cover, and the spine had been abused by wear and age, cracking and fraying.

“The ones I saw looked like they were in better shape,” Rose said.  “I think.  It was hard to make out, but he saw me looking, and he approached, and I did get a look at one.  There’s a lot of books in the house.  We’d be talking about needles in a haystack, here.”

“Why would he clean them up if he was going to put them on the shelves?” I asked.  “They deserved his time and attention.  Let’s go back to the idea that this is a test.  Grandmother’s not holding our hands here.  She never did, I don’t think.  I mean, mother and father never really got that whole ‘support your kids’ thing either.”

When Rose replied, her voice was quiet.  “I have to disagree with you there.  They support me.  Supported me, past tense, I guess.”

“Okay, fine,” I said, pushing that idea out of my head.  “Point is, she’s not coddling us.  There are books, they’re important, and the only two options are that the lawyers have them, and the test is as simple as ‘figuring out how to get in contact, or they’re hidden.”


I held up the big key.  “Took a look around, no idea where it goes.  Except I’m not even sure where to begin looking.”

“She’s harsh, cold, but I wouldn’t say she’s unfair,” Rose said.  “If she expects us to figure it out, then we have the information we need.  Information Molly would have available to her too.”

I looked up at the mirror, but Rose was looking down.

“The documents,” I said, as I realized what she was looking at.  “You think Molly got a copy too, along with the key?  Or a key?”

“It’s possible,” Rose said.

I picked up the document.  This time I flipped through to the image of the property boundaries.  Square footage, notes on utilities, restrictions on renovations…

In the midst of the briefs and warnings regarding renovations, I saw a floor plan.  Room layout.

I hopped out of my seat, the map in hand.  “One second.  Can’t take the map and the mirror with my hand like it is.”

“Okay,” she said, but she didn’t look happy.

I got to the third floor and stopped.  I held the map up.

Map: Three rooms on the left, one room and the stairwell on the right.

What I saw: Two rooms on the left, one room and the stairwell on the right.

I looked at the floor plan, then made several very deliberate paces down the length of the hall.

I stopped.  About twenty-one.

My friends were artists and artistic types.  I had the unfortunate distinction of being a less than stellar artist.  But I’d owed them for the help and support they’d given me, and in helping them with their jobs, I’d stumbled onto a bit of work.  Setting up their work, installations, as well as all the other grunt jobs.  Sure, they could go to a carpenter to get something put together in the way of a display stand, but that carpenter wouldn’t necessarily know what was at play with the art.

Along the way, I’d settled into being a go-to handyman and delivery guy in the local art community.  I knew the gallery owners, I knew who was who, and if I couldn’t do a job myself, I knew who to call.

Not so glamorous or fancy, not exactly stellar pay, but I had stupid little skills that I could use here.  In a pinch, I could use my stride or my arm length to help me figure out measurements, thirty three and a half and thirty-two and a half inches, respectively.

Mostly, I tended to eyeball things, and maybe that was a factor in what had kicked my instincts into motion in the first place, when the rooms had felt small, despite all evidence to the contrary.

From one outer wall to the next, the map said the house measured thirty-seven feet in length.  My estimate put it at twenty-one feet in length.

I tried again, going in the other direction, and I got the same estimate.  Houses were supposed to expand and contract with temperature and the like, but not that much.

To experiment, I crossed the hallway and tried once more.

One hallway, with right angles at each corner, twenty-one feet in length down the north side, thirty-seven down the south side.  The ends were each an equal six feet across.

I narrowed my eyes, looking down the length of the hallway.  There was no distortion in the floorboards, and every bookshelf on one side somehow had a bookshelf opposite, of matching dimensions.

I began moving books aside on the shelves down the ‘short’ hallway.

It took me two tries to find the keyhole.  Tucked in the corner just beneath one shelf, at bellybutton level.

The key required a fair bit of effort to turn, and rewarded me with an audible, heavy click.

The bookcase swung inward.  Oversized hinges managed the heavy burden as it swung all the way around and sat flush against the wall.

“Fuck me,” I muttered.

The room was a study.  A library.  There were two parts to the room, suggesting it took up two floors in the house.  The upper half was a ring, looking down through an opening, bordered with bookcases on the four exterior walls, with a wrought iron railing keeping people from falling through the hole in the middle.  Soft, mottled light shone down from a dust-caked window in the ceiling, lighting both halves of the library better than lightbulbs lit the rest of the house.

I slowly circled around, taking it in.  Each wall had ornate stepladders on wheels, which could coast along rails that had been inset in floor and ceiling.  Another stepladder led from a gap in the railing on the far end to the floor below.

I looked at the books, noting the differences from the ones in the rest of the house.  They were better taken care of, for one thing, and they tended to be narrow.

Cassandra’s Gaze.

Deleterious Craftings

Draoidh.  The book had a little ivory mask inset in the spine, with round staring eyes and a very curly beard.



Shamanism: ‘Animus’, volumes one through six, and Shamanism: ‘Umbra’, volumes seven through ten.

Vestige: Glimmers and Gasps.

Wū zhěn: Eastern Vodun Practices.

I finished reading spines along the one wall.  I traced spines with my fingertips as I passed on to the next wall.

Blessed Wrongs.

Dryads, Varieties.

Jokes from the Faerie Folk.

Lilith’s Children.

Maddening Things.

Observations on Bacchae interacting in Modern Society.

On Others.  Editions from 1964 through 2012 were lined up on the shelf.  Thicker texts.

Pitiable: Transcriptions from informal dialogues with Vampir.

The next shelf seemed to be a continuation from O to Z, in the same theme.  The bookshelf adjacent to that one seemed to be in a variety of different languages.  French, German, and a language with characters formed out of triangles.

The barrier to understanding was a reason to stop, where I might have kept walking and reading indefinitely.

Here, in this library, were the explanations and the rules.  It was, theoretically, a way to make it all make sense.  Except there was so much here, I couldn’t begin to take it in.  Where did I even start, when it came to trying to look up bird-skull undead things?  I’d gone from having no answers to having too many.

I felt a little cold, despite the general warmth of the room.  I rubbed my hands against my sleeves.

Feeling restless, I reached the ladder that led down to the first floor and climbed down.

A desk and chair, a cozy armchair, a leather psychiatrist’s couch, a book stand with a book on it, and cabinets.  There were more bookshelves, but many were smaller, squat, set on top or beneath the cabinets.  More private, with personal books.  A blackboard on wheels that could be flipped over to write on either side.

A blanket was thrown over one piece of furniture.  I had any number of reasons not to touch it, but there was a shape to it, tall, narrow, and flatter than the blackboard.  I could see the metal feet…

I walked around to the side, then lifted up a corner of the blanket, where it wasn’t facing me.

Because in this fucked up situation, with all this, I wasn’t going to trust anything.

“Rose?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Sense anything funny?”

“No.  Except for light appearing from nowhere.”

“Covered mirror,” I said, as I threw off the blanket.

I sat back while I watched her take it all in.  In the frame of the mirror, she turned and walked over to a bookcase, picking up a book.

No effect on my end, I noted.

I turned my attention to the desk.  The wood had brown leather inlaid into it with big brass buttons.  I saw pens and inkwells, regular pens, pencils, a calculator, a brush and scalpel and other tools in jars and cases in the corners.  A mug held what might have been tea or coffee, though it had sat for long enough that the milk had congealed into a cloud of white on the surface.  There were books and papers, too.

The papers included one pile of legal documents, virtually identical to the ones I’d left downstairs, only they were addressed to Molly, with some changes in wording here and there.

What caught my eye, however, was the letter.

“Rose,” I said.


I grabbed the pages of the letter, then walked around until we could see each other.  I stood by the mirror, holding it up so we could both read it.

Molly et al,

Please accept my graceless apology.  At this juncture, you’ll likely be frightened and confused.  Chances are good you’ll see outside parties at work, if you haven’t already, helping you to conclude that this isn’t nonsense.  That helps us move on to business.  If you find yourself here and are already injured in body, mind, heart, spirit or other more esoteric departments, you may need to jump straight to instruction number one in the list below, sacrifice sleep to see it through, and then move on to a great deal of research.  The Index is a catalogue of all things found in my library, which I penned myself, and will help direct you to solutions to whatever ails you.

I could explain, justify, and make excuses, but that is very much not my manner or style.  You have a library of explanations sitting around you.  With study, perhaps, you’ll see how I justified what I did.  We can do without the excuses entirely.

I’ll be succinct.  The family line is a long one, and we have had some involvement in more anagogic sciences since the early 1800’s.  We have resources touching on the craft, the arcane, or whatever you wish to call it.  Magic.  However, all things have a price, and it is impossible to become rich, powerful, wise or strong without paying in some form.  For this reason, among others, practitioners rarely ascend to any great status and remain there.  But our predecessors tried, they accrued a karmic debt, and they have passed it on to their children, and their children’s children, and so on down the line.

“You caught up?”

“Yeah,” Rose said.

I turned the page.

Perhaps this seems unfair, but modern standards of fair and unfair are just that: modern.  In this world I’ve imposed on you, there are very old things, and there are very old traditions.  Here, the sins of the father are visited upon the son.  Or mother and daughter, rather.  Beings as long-lived as powerful Others have trouble telling us apart, when we live and die so quickly and when we often look the same, and it helps to establish a pedigree or pattern.  Some have ornaments of office, others carry on with seventh sons.  We use daughters, and we keep to a smaller community.  If they call you Rose, Elizabet, Frances, Esther, Ruth, I recommend you take it in stride.  You are, as of now, simply one piece of a long thread.

My diaries can be found on the shelf behind the desk.  I welcome you to read them if they might shed light on matters.  Perhaps my own realizations will help you find a way to your own.

Now, I charge you with tasks.  To demonstrate the gravity of this, know that you may lose custody of the property if you do not address these tasks.  On a graver level, you may well doom yourselves and the bloodline with your failure, depending on how it plays out.

1.  Read Essentials.  It sits on the book stand.  A novice’s guide to the most basic things, it outlines the steps to awakening yourself.  Be warned, these steps open the door to becoming Other, in a respect.  The oldest of them made agreements in times well beyond us, to guarantee safety and maintain a kind of peace.  Foremost among these agreements is truth.  Should you lie, you may well forfeit your power for a time.  Break a promise or an oath, and you will be forsworn, and you will be stripped of every protection afforded to even the common, ignorant people that decorate this Earth.  On finishing Essentials, awaken yourself.

“Oh fuck me,” I said.

“Oh hell,” Rose echoed me.

Conduct the remainder of these steps in any order.  Monumental as these steps are, you must be suitably armed against your enemies.  You will be asked about your progress with some frequency, and failure to make sufficient progress in the next five years will see your rights and access to this house terminated.

2.  Study and enact the ritual noted in Famulus.  The familiar is your greatest ally, and will serve as a tool, a wellspring of power, an ambassador to dealing with more abstract things, and will be a lifelong companion.  Make this choice with the same respect you would with undertaking marriage, only know there is no form of divorce.  The Familiar is to be a part of you for life.  You gain their services, and they gain a chance to be mortal, even if it is a small mortalhood, in addition to whatever other terms you negotiate.  Do not allow your familiar to take the form of a rat or dog.

3.  Study and enact the ritual noted in Implementum.  Your choice of tool will shape how you interact with this world, your craft, and will be your badge in the eyes of many.  The book is dreary, page on page of examples, but study it thoroughly, for there are many meanings, and a poor choice of tool may well cripple you.

4.  Study and enact the ritual found in Demesnes.  Baba Yaga had her hut, I have my room.  Unfortunately, the rest of the house has been claimed by our predecessors, and while it is a haven, you will need to find your own place to make your own, where the rules bend as you need them to, and where your power is greatest.  The three rituals noted here are fundamental in determining how you access, hoard and focus power.  Note, however, that your real power will be in how you act with others and Others.

5.  Find a good man to marry.  By this, I don’t mean that he should be decent and kind.  Such may be a detriment.  You will need an ally in this, and a man who can support you in more mundane matters will give you strength in this world.  I reckon many of the best partnerships in the recent past came about when our family married bastards rather than gentlemen.

6.  Attend the council meetings.  Second Saturday of every month, at the park, in the twilight hours.  In a five year term, there will be two hundred and sixty such meetings.  Miss thirteen in total, and your rights to the property will be forfeit.

“I think I’m faced with an issue, here,” I said.

“You can’t sit through meetings?” Rose asked.

I shot her a look.

She giggled a little, and it was an uncharacteristic, unfitting, nervous sound.  “I… I don’t know how to react to this.  I tried to make a joke.  It’s laugh or cry, right?  And I was awfully close to crying before I read any of this.”

“I’m supposed to marry a guy.  I’m getting the impression this isn’t the first obstacle I’m going to run into.”

“Gay marriage is legal,” she said.

“I’m not gay.” I said.  “I wonder if the lawyers will allow me any leeway, here.”

“The lawyers?” she asked.  She gave me a look, eyebrow arched.  “Think about it.”

I sighed, and then I did.

“They’re involved in this,” I thought aloud.  “Cleaning up after Molly, they know enough to move the books… they’re setting all this up, so things are prepared for each heir-to-be.”

My voice took a more serious tone as I finished “…and the legal documents made less than specific references to debts.”

“They’re not friends, Blake.  Resources, maybe, but not friends.  We should think long and hard about when and why we contact them.”

I fidgeted, biting my lip as I thought.  Unwilling to dwell on it, I turned the page.

7.  Finish three out of four of the books in this library.  You will need some assistance with foreign languages.  Making a bargain with an Other to learn Sumerian may be novel, I know, but it is easier to ask for it to be translated aloud by a servant or summoning.

8.  See our bloodline to the end of the fifth year with less of a debt than we had at the start of your custodianship.  I’m hoping you can see this through until the end of your lifetime, but I can only focus on these next five years and hope you are on the right road.

Remain out of the north end of Jacob’s Bell until you have completed two rituals and developed a foundation.  Stay out, perhaps, even if you have.  Some individuals are not to be trifled with.

Make no major deals or bargains.  Until the end of the custodianship, you’ll need to run any major deals past Mr. Beasley (including the three major rituals.  He will protect you from other decisions, or lend his aid if he can’t, but he will exact a price.

Mr. Beasley, as well as individuals you’ll find in Jacob’s Bell and the surrounding area, is described in a little black book I playfully dubbed Dramatis Personae, when I was younger.

Our family has made enemies, and I confess that I have turned allies into more enemies.  I will not compel you to read this book, but I impel you to.  It may well be a deciding factor in your survival.  Use all tools I’ve bestowed on you.  We are powerful, we hold a noteworthy position, and this is much of the reason we have the enemies we do.  Chances are good you will need to use everything at your disposal to survive them.

As the sins of the mother pass to the daughter, I’ve passed my enemies and the debt on to you.  I won’t ask forgiveness or understanding.  I suspect you may find those things when the time comes for you to bear an heir and visit these wrongs on them.


I was never good at sitting still when stressed.  Now that there were no more pages to go through, I found myself pacing.

“We have answers,” Rose said, as if reassuring me.

“I don’t like these answers,” I said, raising my voice a little.  “That old bitch.”

“It doesn’t sound like she had a lot of choice,” Rose said.

I spun around to stare at her.  “You’re awfully sympathetic to the old woman who has your name,” I said.  “Can we verify, again, that you’re really a female me?”

Her face settled into a serious expression, as cold as mine was heated.  I was breathing hard, and my sutures were hurting where I clenched my hand.

“Ask me anything,” she said.  “Anything about growing up with mother and father.”

I didn’t respond, scowling and looking away instead.  I was fidgeting with my good hand.  She was right.

“We’re allies, Blake.  Allies, understand?  Look, the letter said a magic user can’t lie, right?  I’m a unicorn from outer space, and I can’t speak English.  See?”

I broke from my pace, crossing the room to the bookstand, where I snatched up the book that was open on it.  I tossed it down on the desk.  Essentials.

Another series of books, in a stack in the corner, where the lawyers had left them.  Famulus, Implementum, Demesnes.  Orange, purple and green cloth covers, respectively, they all matched otherwise, in size and the script on the spines.  I glanced each one over, then tossed them onto the desk, where they rewarded me with a series of satisfying impacts.

I found Dramatis Personae.  I flipped through it.  There were tabs.  One for ‘allies’, which was virtually empty, with only the lawyer’s number.

Enemies…  they took up almost all of the remainder.

It didn’t make a sound, much less a satisfying thud, when I added it to the pile.  I was left without anything more to throw.  Nothing I wanted to risk, in any event.

“Are you mad at me?” Rose asked.  “We’re supposed to be allies, Blake.”

“I’m not… no, I’m mad at this,” I said.  “Look at this.  How many books do we need to read, here?  How many books do we need to read a day, just to keep up?”

“Maybe that’s the cheat?  If we’re both the same person, technically, can we argue that the eldest child of Brad and Christina Rosine has read half the books?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“There are answers.  See?  Look…”

She turned away from the mirror, heading to the nearest bookshelf.

I saw her stop.  She remained where she was.

“Rose?” I asked.

She didn’t move.

I felt a bit of anxiety, and turned away, walking over to that same shelf, on my side of the mirror.

The Worst of the Others.

Devils and Details.

Dark Contracts

Classifying Others: Fiends and Darker Beings.

Hellfire: Bindings

Infernal Wrath

Pacts and Prices

I tried to swallow, but my mouth was too dry.  I didn’t know much, but I knew this was a bad idea of the worst kind.

These were the books that held a place of prominence on grandmother’s bookshelf.  These were the tools she expected us to employ.

No small wonder she’d made the enemies she had.

These books?  They each had the same set of initials on the spine.  R.D.R.

She’d written them.

Sample: Pact 2

I was dressed and heading out the door in less than a minute, a plain black toque pulled over my hair.  I had to fumble around for a moment to manage the coat I was getting on, the backpack I’d stuffed with spare shirts, sweaters and underwear, and the keys I needed to lock my apartment.

I reached the stairwell and took the stairs three at a time, descending each half-flight of stairs in two steps.

Mirror people, visions of talking dogs and stretched faces, vampire hunters or witch hunters or whatever they were.  It was unbelievable, impossible to wrap my head around.  So I didn’t believe it, didn’t try to understand it.  I didn’t disbelieve it either.  I was processing it, really, filing it all away for future consideration.

It was stupid, maybe, crazy, to dismiss it.  By all right, my worldview should have been turned upside down by this.

Except other things were taking a kind of priority, demanding consideration, turning my life upside down.

Molly was dead.  I’d heard it, and I believed it.  Taken alone, the statement might have meant little, but I’d had an ominous feeling since leaving the inheritance gathering.  Right here, right now, I felt like it fit.  I didn’t want it to, but it fit.

The gathering had been the first time I had seen Molly since we were kids.  I could barely guess what she was like now, as a near-adult.

What she had been like, as an almost adult.  I felt a twist of worry, and a fair bit of anger.  Why hadn’t she called me?

For all the impact my family had had on my life, there were very few people I had ever had a connection with.  I had never been mistreated, exactly, but there hadn’t been a lot of love to go around either.  Molly and Paige had been the ones to greet me with smiles on their faces, to hug me instead of offering an informal handshake.  We’d played together, laughed, and bridged the gap between being family to being friends.

When I thought of Molly, I thought of the child she had been ten years ago, not the young woman I’d briefly met at the end of the summer.  When I reminded myself that she could well be dead, I felt like I’d lost something from a relatively small pool of happy family memories.

I reached the bottom of the stairwell, and as I hurried down the length of the hallway, past the elevators that would have taken too long to use, I was still trying to frame it all in my head.

Molly’s death wouldn’t have been random.  There had been a reason, and that reason had driven my grandmother to do what she’d done.  All of the fallout from that, the divide in the family, the animosity that had driven me from home to a cold, hostile, unfriendly world, shared that same root cause.  It was hard to pin how much of my haste was self preservation and how much was my desire to get answers.

Molly was dead.  I believed it.  I could figure it out, I could get the world in alignment again, so things made sense.

If it was even possible for things to make sense with talking animals and twisted mirror-cities.

I stopped at the doors at the end of the lobby, paused, then knocked.

It took time for the door to open.  I worked on getting my scarf on and making sure my backpack was buckled shut, keys stowed away.

The door opened, and my bear of a landlord stood in the way, leveling a stare at me.  He wore an undershirt that strained across his stomach, and pyjama pants with pink and magenta stripes, with thick-frame glasses and thick caterpillar eyebrows on an otherwise hairless, unadorned head.

“Blake?  It’s five in the morning.”  He had a trace of a Quebecois accent.

“Joel.  It’s an emergency.  I need your car.”

“Yeah?”  He switched from annoyance to concern in an instant.  “Need a ride?”

“Out of town emergency.  I’ve got to steal your car for a bit.  Please.”

“How long?” he asked, turning away from the door.

I could see the mirror that was opposite the front door, wide and tall, with an ostentatious frame.  The mirror girl was on the other side, staring at me.

“I don’t know,” I said.

He turned back to me, holding keys firmly in his fist.  His bulk blocked my view of the girl in the mirror.  “Work with me here, Blake.  I need something, if I’m loaning you my car.

“I don’t know,” I repeated myself.  “But I’ve got to go, I can’t ride my bike in this weather, and there isn’t any other way to get there.  I’m stuck, and I don’t know how to handle this.”

“Slow down.  What happened?”

“I think my cousin died.  It’s two hours away, so if you needed the car, I could bring it back in a pinch, figure a way to get back, or-”

“Shhh,” he interrupted me.  I made myself stop.  Very calm, soothing, he said, “It’s fine.  I’m so sorry about your cousin, baby.”

I shrugged, breaking eye contact.  I wasn’t good with people being kind to me.  Not without some warning.  “I’m not sure it’s true.  It doesn’t make sense.”

“Go, do what you need to do,” he said.  He extended his hand, keys dangling from the ring that was now around his middle finger.

I took the keys, then fumbled with my own.  I held my bike key for a moment, weighing it in my hand, then handed it over.

“You don’t need to,” Joel said.

“I do,” I said.  “For me, as much as for you.  I’m- it’ll make sure I don’t forget your car back to you soon, because I’ll miss it, and that’ll remind me.”

He nodded, then took my key.  “I got you.”

“Thank you, Joel,” I said.

“You have my number, if you need it.”

I nodded.  “You’re a good friend.”

“Speaking of… weren’t you going to set things up for Goosh’s show?”

I winced.  My job.  “I didn’t think.  I don’t- shit.

“It’s fine.  I’ll explain to the others.  We’ll use the Sisters.”

“Goosh told me she wanted to kill them, the last time she hired them.”

“She’ll find a way to cope, after I explain what’s up.  Don’t worry.  You focus on what you need to, and trust us to have your back.  Okay?”

I nodded.

“There’s a hug here if you want or need it.”

I hesitated, but he knew that I would.

The lights went out.  We were plunged into darkness, the hallway and lobby lit only by the moonlight that reflected off the snow.

I could see movement behind Joel.  The girl in the mirror, moving her arms.

“Power outage?” he asked, stepping further into the hallway to look around.

“Looks like,” I said.  My eyes were on the mirror.  If he turned around, would he see her?

“I should go make sure everything’s okay,” he said.  “Might be the breaker.”

The girl in the mirror raised her arms.  Forearms crossed against one another, forming an ‘x’.

“Do me another huge favor?” I asked.

“What’s that?” Joel replied.

When he looked at me, I had trouble meeting his eyes.  I wasn’t used to omitting the truth when dealing with friends.  “Go back to bed.  Sleep.  I’ve got a bad feeling, and I’m not sure if it’s just because I feel like you’ll never get back to bed if you go now or if it’s something else.  But I’ve got to go, and I feel like I’d be a lot happier if I knew you were in bed, instead of wandering around a dark building alone.”

“Gut feeling?” he asked.  “That’s not like you.”

“Gut feeling,” I said.  “Instincts.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Sure.  For your instincts, I’ll be lazy this morning.  Until I get the first irate phone call.”

I nodded.  Then I accepted his offer for a hug, reaching out.  He folded his arms around me, warm.

The girl in the mirror looked nervous, pacing back and forth, occasionally peering around, as if she could get a different perspective.  A moment later, she strode out of view, stepping beyond the boundaries of the frame.

I took that as my cue to go.  As I broke the hug, Joel rubbed his hand over the toque and then gave me a little push, an urging to get going.

I got going.

His car was in the garage, a few steps away, through a heavy door.  I hit the button to raise the big garage door, and watched as the wall of snow that the wind had driven against the door tipped over, breaking into chunks as it hit the damp pavement.

I unlocked Joel’s Corolla, a car old enough that the only way to open the door was to actually put the key in the lock, and then stopped.

I moved the rear-view mirror until I had a view of the girl in the back seat.

“Answers,” I said.

“Go, and I’ll give you answers,” she responded.  She sounded even fainter and more muffled than before.  “You think the lights went out by coincidence?”

If I went, I’d get answers from her.  I’d get answers from the house, about Molly…

Answers were good.  I took a second to familiarize myself with both the car and with cars in general, where things were and how to operate the things.

In moments, both me and the car were traveling down the near-empty streets.

“Okay,” she said.

“Your name?”


“Rose… who are you supposed to be?  My grandmother?”

“No.  I think I’m you.  Your- our parents named me after her.”

I was silent, taking that in.

“I know I’m supposed to say something witty here, make a quip, but I’m barely thinking straight,” I said.

“I’m you, with one fundamental difference,” Rose elaborated.  “I’m a girl.  I think grandmother is trying to game the system somehow.  A failsafe or trap or something, that kicks in when Molly dies and the inheritance turns over.”

The reminder of Molly’s death was a slap in the face.  “How did you know, that Molly’s dead?”

“That’s complicated.”

“Two hour drive, Rose.  We have time for a complicated explanation.”

“Not the time consuming kind of complicated.  This stuff was explained to me.  I crashed into existence, with only a few places I could go.  I’ve got a lifetime of memories, but I get that I’m a fake.  If I were real, I wouldn’t be sitting here, surrounded by an awful lot of darkness.  I’d have a proper heartbeat, instead of this slow motion thump every few seconds, staying the same even when I’m freaked out.  I see a bit of a glimmer of an outline here or there, where the light’s really strong on your end.  But there aren’t many places I can go, Blake.  Patches of light, where light passes through the mirrors.  Only the mirrors in the house, and the mirrors around you count.”

I glanced up at the rear view mirror.  She looked upset, her knees drawn up to her chin, feet on the seat in front of her.  Was she cold, sitting there in pyjama pants and a camisole, barefoot in a car where my breath fogged up?  Or were the lack of breath and response to the temperature the same as her heartbeat?  Something false or simplified?

I couldn’t look at her for too long, given the need to focus on the road.  I pulled onto the highway, double and then triple checking there weren’t any cars coming.

Rose kept talking.  “The lawyer, Beasley, he was cleaning up.  Picking up books and stuff that Molly left lying around.  When I asked what was going on, he said you were next in line, for custody of the house.  After you, it’s Kathy, then Ellie, then Roxanne, then Ivy, then Paige.”

“Paige is last?”  I asked.  Okay, I got that maybe Kathryn would fit.  She was a mom, a professional.  A serious personality.  Maybe a bit cutthroat, but I could get that.

“Paige is last,” she said.

Placing the two and twelve year old in the list before Paige?  Placing me in the running?

“Doesn’t make sense,” I said.

“Yeah.  I don’t know.  I didn’t stay for explanations.  Depending on how things went, he said, we could run down that list really quickly.  He said it depends on how fast people can get to the house, and how fast they can get to grips with all this.  He said I should find you, and I found you.”

Far less in the way of answers than I’d hoped for.

I drove in silence for a few minutes.

The answers only raised more questions.  How did Paige fit into this.  How did I fit into it?  Most confusing at all… Rose.

“What I’m wondering is… you,” I said.

“I’m wondering about me too,” she said.  “Trust me, if you’re wondering if I’m suspicious, if there’s a catch here, I’m wondering too.”

“How do your memories line up?  Molly got picked, but… you were at the house?”

“I was home, with mom and dad.  They’re mad, you know, obviously, because I didn’t get Hillsglade House, and they thought it was as close to a given as you could get.  Mad at me, especially.  I was in bed, mostly asleep, and then I was at the house.  I remember everything about my life, but I don’t feel like I experienced any of it.  You know?”

“Not really,” I said.  I watched the tail lights of a truck ahead of me disappearing into the snowy fog, further down the arrow-straight highway.  I was driving slower, because I didn’t have much winter driving experience, and I didn’t want to total Joel’s car.  Noting a silence that had followed my response, I tried to keep the discussion going.  “You still live with mom and dad?”

“While I’m going to school,” she said.

“You didn’t leave?”

“No.  Why?  When did you move out?”

Move out.  She didn’t know about me leaving home.

“A bit ago,” I said, noncommittal.  No use volunteering unnecessary information.

What’s the magic loophole?

If Rose was a failsafe, who or what was it trying to work around?  If it was a trap, then who was the supposed victim?  Was there an enemy?  Or was it a trap aimed at me?

Was there a chance this was all a lie?

I could wonder if I was losing my mind, but… I felt lucid.

Which that wasn’t a guarantee I was sane, I knew, but I felt lucid, and it was hard to sell myself the idea that I was insane, if there weren’t any clear symptoms.

I was seeing things, but having two points of reference would have made it a lot easier, giving me a kind of perspective on it all.

My hands were clutching the wheel so hard that it was painful.  I had to consciously will myself to relax.

“Rose, talk to me,” I said.  “There isn’t nearly enough information to piece things together, and I’m not going to make it through this drive if I’ve only got my own worries and paranoia to fill the time.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“You seemed to know something was up, with the power going out.”

“There was a presence.  Like… almost as if there was a patch of something lighter in the darkness, or a sound I could barely hear, or a movement of the air, here, where the air doesn’t move at all.  Something was there.”


“This isn’t helping the paranoia,” I said.

“I’m not any happier,” she said.  “If something chases us, you can run.  Where can I run?  There isn’t much room, on this side.”

“Yet you broke the mirror.  Speaking of, how did you know you could break it?”

“I didn’t.  That was an accident, and I wish I hadn’t done it.  It hurt, and I feel drained, and I feel tired.  It took something out of me, doing that, and I’m not sure I have that much to give.”

“Rose, are you understanding what I’m getting at?  There’s a few things here that aren’t making sense.  Crazy hallucinations or whatever else.”

“You had the visions too?”

Rose,” I said, speaking a little firmer, to keep her on track.  “The more time I have to think about all this, the less I feel like I can trust you.  How did you know how to get from the light at the house to me?  Considering that this all supposedly started less than an hour ago, you’re picking it up pretty damn fast.”

“It’s not- no.  Blake, the lawyer told me to go.  He pointed in a direction, and told me to take a leap of faith if I wanted to help you.  I did what he said, and now I’m here.  I’m jumping from mirror to mirror, and I’m worried I’m going to jump and I’ll miss, and I’m not sure what happens when I do.”

“You left out that part,” I said.  “About him telling you how to jump.  That’s context I could have used.”

“I’m not your enemy, here,” she said, and her voice was harder, angrier.

If I was planning to press the subject, the plan had to go on hold.

I saw a figure standing in the middle of the highway, in the distance.

I slowed the car.

“What is it?” Rose asked.

It was a person, tall, dressed in a long cloak or layered garment of some sort.  Right in the middle of the road.  The cloth had been white to begin with, it looked like, but it was badly stained.  He –or she– wore a mask or a helmet shaped like an overlarge bird’s skull, with a pair of antlers.

I didn’t have a lot of time to take it in.  Even though I was driving slowly, even though I was slowing down, I was closing the distance.  I didn’t want to stop, but…

I turned to go around, giving the white thing as much clearance as I could.  It stayed where it was, standing in place.  There were no other cars on the highway, coming or going.  Woods on one side, field on the other.  Not that I could see all that far.  Snow flurries made vision past a point a little difficult.

“I can feel it,” Rose said.  When I glanced up, she was looking over one shoulder.  “I can see it, almost, standing between the patches of light.”

We flew past it.  I could see its head turn to follow us.  The drape it wore had no sleeves.  It wore hides, almost white, except where the slush and dirt had marred it.

I had to move the rearview mirror to get a better view of it as we left it behind.

A sign of things to come?  A harbinger?

My heart was pounding.

“What was that?” she asked.

“I don’t know.  Something wearing a bird skull mask and tanned skins.”

“What are we going to do?” she asked, with a note of panic in her voice.

What am I going to do, you mean, I thought.  You’re on the other side of a mirror.

“It’s gone,” I said.

“What?  No.  No it isn’t,” she answered.  Panic was now highlighted by confusion, incredulity.  “It’s close.”

I looked back, but the figure was nearly impossible to make out against the backdrop of falling snow.

“We left it behind,” I said, firmer.

“You got close, and it latched on,” Rose said.  “Believe me on this.”

Again, I turned around, trying to see where it might have done so.  Nothing outside the windows, nothing in the mirrors.

When I returned my attention to the road, my eyes darting up to the mirror, she insisted, “It did.  It still feels like it’s here.”

I set my jaw.  What was I supposed to do if it was?  If it could reach out and grab the car with some invisible hand, or if there was something screwed up going on, then what options did I really have?

I didn’t have weapons.  I didn’t have much of anything.  Even information was scarce.  How was I supposed to label the bird skull thing?

It was only when I settled down, returning my attention to the drive ahead of me, that I saw the trouble.

The fuel gauge was dropping steadily.

It had been three quarters of the way full when I’d started driving.  Now it was at the twenty percent mark.

The orange needle dropped faster with every passing second.

It had latched on, but not physically.  Something else.

“The car’s dying,” I said.

“Gas station?” Rose asked.

“There’s a rest stop,” I said.  “Restaurants, gas, bathrooms, stores.  I think that’s what the sign said it was two kilometers away.  Might be a bit further.”

Ten percent.

“Can you make it?”

Eight percent.

“No,” I said.  “Not with the car.”

I watched as the needle stopped descending.  No further to go.

The car shuddered, and the gas pedal quit on me.  I saw the lights on the dash and the radio dim, then go out entirely.

I switched to neutral, hoping to coast, but there was nothing.  I pulled over, instead.  I tried to activate the hazard lights.  No luck.

When I got my cell phone, a cheap non-smart phone, I found it dark.

I saw one car zip by on the other side of the divider.  I hopped out, flailing my arms, but it was useless.  Too little, too late.

“Guess I’m walking,” I said.  I drummed the steering wheel for a second, thinking.  In front and behind me, the snow looked a pale blue in the moonlight, broken up by the dark shapes of trees.  Here and there, the street lights tinted things orange.  The road was a stripe of black in the gloom.

“Bring a mirror,” Rose said.  “Please.”

I looked around.  Nothing.  Joel kept a neat car.  Aside from an abundance of paperwork in the drive compartment, and between the front and passenger seats, it was tidy, and tidy meant it was easy to see there wasn’t anything like that nearby.

“Sorry, Joel,” I said.  I reached up to grab the rear view mirror.  There were tabs I needed to depress.  I had to pull off my gloves to get a good grip.  I fumbled with it some more.

“Blake,” Rose said.  “Blake!”

I moved the mirror to look at her, and saw her pointing.

I turned.

Behind us, beyond a point where the snow obscured the road, I saw the dim orange of the street light flicker, then die, swallowed up by the swirl of white.

“No time to get the mirror, Rose,” I said.  I made sure I had the other essentials.  Hat, scarf, gloves, backpack, coat…

“Break it off?”

I reached up and pulled.  It didn’t budge.  I hit it with the side of my arm, with no more effect.

“I can’t,” I said.

“You cannot leave me here!”  There was a note of hysteria in her voice.

I pulled out my cell phone.  An older model I could slide open to get at the keyboard.  The screen was scuffed badly from sitting in my pockets alongside change and my keys.  “Does this work?  There’s a reflection in the screen.”

“No,” she said.  “Barely anything coming through”

I hesitated, then used my bag, looping the strap around the mirror.  I hauled down with almost all of my weight.

It snapped off.

“Good,” I said.  “With me?”

“With you,” she said.

I left the car behind, pausing one second to lock it, and then got moving.  I maintained a speed that was faster than an ordinary walk, not quite a jog.  Busy walking, I jammed the mirror in the front pocket of my coat, so one end stuck out.  My hands went in my pockets, one end of the tire iron finding the inside pocket, the length resting against my forearm.   I hunched over to help shield my face with the collar of my coat, preparing.  Conserving strength, conserving heat.

I was a fast walker.  Two kilometers… that was about twenty minutes?

I didn’t want to go so fast that I’d have to stop before I got to shelter.  So long as I kept moving, I was warm.  When I stopped, the cold would set in.  Twenty minutes of brisk walking.

When I finally broke and glanced back, I saw there were less lights than before.   The thing was following me.  I couldn’t be sure of the speed it was moving, given how it was out of sight.  I couldn’t tell, either, if it was catching up.

“Talk to me, Rose,” I mumbled, past my scarf and the collar of my coat.  “Can you feel it getting closer?”

There was no reply.  I drew my free hand from the pocket and pulled the mirror free.

Fat, wet flakes of snow had clustered against the surface.  With one hand, I rubbed it against my thigh.

Beads of water still obscured the surface.

“Rose?”  I tried.

There was no response.  Already, the mirror was fogging up from the momentary warmth and the moisture.

If the cell phone hadn’t worked because it was scuffed, then this might be having the same problems.  I needed a clear reflection, apparently.

I picked up the pace a little.  I placed the mirror inside my coat, in the slot where I was supposed to stick my phone.  Closer to my body, warmer, where my shirt and the pocket could maybe dry off the moisture.  The ‘arm’ of the mirror rubbed against my chest as I marched.

The snow that had piled up at the edge of the road, before the ditch that divided the highway from the nearby fields meant I had to walk out on the road itself.  Walking through the snow would slow me down, and I needed speed.  I was in a dangerous position, ready to be clipped by a car in the cruising lane.

My heart thudded in my chest.  A short walk, I reassured myself.

I looked back, to look for cars, and to see the thing’s progress.

It was close enough for me to make it out.  It was making long, powerful strides, at a speed I couldn’t have maintained without risking collapse.  The hides it wore flew out to the side as the legs moved, but I couldn’t make out the legs themselves.

I pushed myself a fraction faster, but I knew it wasn’t quite enough to make a difference.

Still, there were no cars on the road.  I needed one passerby.  One person to stop and offer me a lift.

Except I couldn’t be sure it would work.  They might find themselves running out of gas in some inexplicable manner.  Then the good Samaritan would be caught up in this.

I glanced back.  It was closer, closing the distance with every step.

The wind picked up, and I had to close my eyes in the face of the headwind.  There were tears in my eyes when I opened them.  Totally the wind.  My army surplus boots squeaked against the soft snow and crunched against the harder snow as I marched.

I heard a fluttering noise.  Turning to look, I saw that one of the flaps of hide were whipping around in the wind.  The footsteps, by contrast, were nearly silent.  No squeaks, no crunches, no cracks of ice being broken or scuffs of salt and pavement underfoot.

It was close enough for me to hear.

Better now than never.  I turned around, drawing out the tire iron.

“Fine!” I roared the words against the wind.  I drew the tire iron from my pocket, gripping it with gloved hands.  I could feel how cold the metal was.  “You want me!?”

It closed the distance.  Two feet taller than me, and I was a notch taller than average.  The point of the giant bird mask came dangerously close as I swung the tire iron, bending my legs as I swung low, to strike it in the knee.

I had only a moment to register the fact that it wasn’t reacting before it drew a hand out of the layered covering of hides.  A mitt of a hand, gray-skinned, with knobby knuckles, and fingernails that were just long enough they were starting to curl, almost rectangular.  Dirty, uneven, frayed.

I swung again, a two-handed grip on the iron, aiming for the hand.

I might as well have struck another tire iron, for all it mattered.  The weapon bounced off the hand, the hand was knocked back, and then it clawed at my face.  I twisted partially away, keeping it from getting my eyes, and felt the pain in my cheek, instead.  I backed away, and my scarf stayed.  Caught in the ragged ends of the nails.

The wind was cold against my face as I backed up.  I started to head back in the direction of the rest stop, but the thing circled around me, moving past me, until it was positioned to cut me off.

My scarf was caught by the wind, flapping mercilessly, until it tore free, disappearing over the dividing line of the highway.

I raised the tire iron again, drawing closer.  It, in turn, drew one arm out from beneath the hides.  I drew back a step, and it kept the hand out a moment before returning it to shelter.

“Rose,” I spoke, “Hey, Rose.  You gotta help me out here.”

The mirror was silent.

I backed away, and it moved, approaching with long strides that covered the distance with surprising speed.

I stopped, and it stopped.

“Don’t want me to go to the rest stop,” I murmured.  There was a hitch in my voice.  “Don’t want me to go back to the car.  Where am I supposed to go?  This way?”

I checked the way was clear, then took a step out onto the highway.  It reacted, but only barely.  Tensing.  When I took another step, it followed.  Letting me go, but not letting me escape.

“No way,” I said.  Taking a step to the side, so I was as off the road as I could get without standing in the snowbank.  “I get what you’re after.  You want me to get hit by a car or something.”

The thing remained silent.  Waiting.  The perfectly round eye sockets stared at me.

I swung, aiming for surprise, directing the iron at the skull.

It caught the iron mid-swing.  I tried to wrench the weapon free and failed.

Another hand emerged from beneath the hides.  I had to let go of the weapon and back away before it could claw at me.

It took a half-step forward to follow.  It dropped the tire iron onto the road, where the snow muffled the sound.

Standing still, waiting for this thing to make a move, I could feel my legs getting colder.  I wasn’t wearing long johns.  Boxer briefs and jeans, leaving my legs as the least covered part of my body.  The cold highlighted the tension in my legs, where my earlier pace had stressed muscles I tended to leave unused.

“How does this end, then?” I asked.  “We wait out here by the side of the road until I freeze to death?”

I paced, watching how it followed.  The knobby, long-fingered hand came out as I drew too close.

There was a hint of hysteria in my voice as I spoke, “Can’t go forward, can’t go back.  I won’t go left.   Will you let me go right?”

I edged towards the snowbank, to test.  A ditch, then fields.  The strong wind had blown the worst of the snow away.  It wouldn’t be too deep.

I took another step.  It moved to follow, though it let me create a bit of distance.

Slowly, I climbed over the snowbank.  It continued to let me build up a bit of distance.

I hit the ditch, where some stubborn tall grass stuck up here and there, and hopped over the shallowest part, where the wind had driven snow off of the ice that had frozen in the recess.

The hop hadn’t inspired a sudden attack.  Briefly turning my back, too, seemed like it was fairly safe.

That in mind, when I found flat ground under my feet again, I ran.

The field was flat, the ground hard, and the snow only ankle deep.  The deep treads of my boots gave me the traction I needed to find my pace.  When the spaces filled up with snow, the snow-on-snow traction was still sufficient for me to maintain a good pace.

I slipped, but my other foot was already coming forward.  I felt a twang in my back as I used the leg to thrust myself back up to a fully upright position.  I wasn’t unfamiliar with the feeling.  I’d feel it tomorrow, if I made it that long.

A quick glance back indicated it was following with those same long, steady strides as before.  Running was letting me create some distance.

Across the field, away from the highway, away from the car and the rest stop.

I was fully aware of what was going on.  I knew it was intentional, and that this was as good a way of having me die in a perfectly plausible manner as keeping me in the middle of the highway, where a car could clip me.

Thing was, I’d never been able to sit still while under stress.  I couldn’t bring myself to stand beside the side of the road and get cold.

Fear was taking my breathing and heartbeat up a few notches, which was hurting more than it was helping.  There was a frantic note to my breathing as I panted, my legs ached, and my thoughts were a jumble.

“Rose,” I gasped out the name.  I fumbled for the mirror, but my hands were frozen.  I got a grip on the bar that was supposed to fix the mirror to the ceiling and pulled it out.


Her voice was faint, tiny, and muffled, cutting off as though someone had reached out to muffle her.

Not someone, but something.   Fog, again, had clouded the mirror.  I wiped it with my glove.  I saw only a momentary glimpse of her.

Letting it get damp, then letting it get warm, both were mucking it up.  I held it, letting it cool off, and tried to keep it facing down, so snow wouldn’t settle on the surface.

I kept running.  I prayed for a side street, a side road, a house.  Shelter.  Something to indicate I wouldn’t keep running into the wilderness until I could no longer move.  The snow got deeper as I approached tree cover, where the wind wasn’t as strong.  My pace began to slow, with nothing of import in sight.

I could feel a sick feeling in my gut, a combination of fear, despair, and the exhaustion of running.

I saw a figure up ahead, through the tree cover.

A quick glance back showed me the other one was still following.  Closing the gap.

“Hello!” I called out, and I was surprised at how hoarse my voice was, my throat made raw by the heavy breathing of frozen, dry air.  “Help me!”

The figure pushed through the cover of branches.

A bird skull, a covering of overlapping hides, bleached white and stained, and a heavy wreath of branches around the neck and shoulders, like a nest.

I stopped in my tracks.  When I took in my surroundings, my vision swam, struggling to make the adjustment from the narrow focus on where I was going and where my feet were landing to the broader environment.

There, in the distance, in a gap between neat rows of trees.  A third, with the hides forming a hood over the bird skull.  Shorter than the others.

I turned to head for the widest gap I could make out, and they all moved, not to close the distance to me, but to cut me off.  The calf-deep snow didn’t slow them down.  Even if it did, they had a longer stride, and they weren’t getting tired.

I pushed on, moving towards the gap, forcing myself to run.  They continued to follow, but I made it between the ones with the antlers and the wreath.

Backtracking, almost.  I needed to devote a second to getting my bearings, but I had to keep running.

“Rose,” I said.

I heard only a whisper of a noise.  I wiped the mirror against the side of my leg, mid-run.

I came face to face with another of the bird-skulls, not looking carefully enough for the white skull and white hides against the snowy background.  It clawed at me, backhanded, and dashed the mirror out of my hands.  I fell, a result of the combined impact, pain and surprise, landing just beside the flecks of blood he’d clawed from my hand.  My glove was cut, the skin around it exposed, and a line of blood was nestled in the center.  Bewildered, I watched as the skin parted and joined together, as I opened and closed my hand.

The wind blew, and I heard the flapping of the hides moving.  Others were drawing closer.

The one that had just attacked me wore cords strung between hides, each with a long, narrow bone hanging from it.

The others were approaching, with some coming from a distance.  All around me, there were clusters of evergreens, branches hanging heavy with ice and snow, and there were patches of grass.  One clearing, where a pond had frozen over.

Slowly, I made my way to my feet.

I tested different directions, to see how they would react.

This time, they weren’t keen on letting me move towards any open ground.  Clusters of trees, the pond, and areas where the snow had piled higher.

The pond, then.  I made my way over, my wounded hand pressed to my chest by my other hand.

No mirror, no Rose.

Frozen earth crunched under my boots as I made my way to the frozen pond.  Every footstep hurt.

Were they wanting me to try to cross?  Was that the plan?

I sat by the bank instead.

I looked at the bird masks that had gathered formed a loose three-quarter circle around me.

“This okay with you bastards?” I asked.  “Can I sit?  You like this?”

The hides flapped in the wind.

“Motherfuckers,” I said.  I moved my hands up to my armpits, squishing them beneath my arms.  I could feel the pain in my wounded hand.  My cheek felt tight where I’d been scratched.

I kicked at the ice on the pond.  Methodical, careful strikes delivered with the heels of my boots, to break up the surface.

It took a good fifteen hits before the cracks spread.

I used the toe of my boot to flip one large, two-inch thick piece of ice out of the way.

“Please tell me reflections in water work too.”

“Yeah,” she responded.

“You see them?”


“I went to a lot of trouble to talk to you,” I said, trying to ignore the looming individuals who were standing behind me.  “I need more than one word answers.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You’re not in immediate danger.  You’re not in pain, I hope.  They’re after me, not you.  So I’m hoping you’re thinking a little clearer than I am.”

“Not- not really.”

I sighed.

A minute passed.  I could feel the chill creeping in.

“I don’t think they’ve got brains in those skulls,” I said.  “Someone gave them orders.”

“Makes sense.  Who?”

“Does it matter?  I think those orders are why they’re behaving this way.  Barring my path to keep me from certain areas.  Driving me away from shelter, wearing me out.”

“They want plausible deaths.”

“Yeah.  Newspaper runs an article on page seven about the poor  idiot who broke down by the side of the highway, wandered into the middle lane and got hit, or got lost in the woods.  No mention of eerily patient bird-masked antler horrors.  They interview my landlord, he mentions I was acting funny, and cousin Kathryn is the one who wakes up with spooky visions, a few hours later.”

“Go for an implausible death?”

“Not sure how I’m supposed to do that,” I said.  I sighed, and my teeth chattered as the air passed through my lips.  “All I can figure is they don’t want to claw me to death.”

“Molly was clawed to death,” Rose said.

I closed my eyes.

“They don’t want to kill two of us the same way,” she said.  “Molly was partially eaten, too, but I don’t think these guys are the type.”

“You can see them?”

“End of the pond,” she said.  “There’s a reflection.”

I looked.

Another one had joined the ranks at some point, where I hadn’t been looking.  Taller than the others, with two more bird skulls worn on sloped shoulders.  He stood on the ice.

I bowed my head again.  “How many?”

“No idea.”

“Is this where everything ends for me, Rose?  Do I die here, an ignoble death, with the mantle passing to Kathryn?  Do you carry on?”

“As a ghost?”

“As a whatever.”

“I don’t know.  I think I’m bound to you, somehow.”

“Right,” I said.

I forced myself to my feet.  I was shaking, now.

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

“I’m not,” I said.  “I just hate sitting still.”

“You need a plan.”

“Any fucking ideas?” I asked.

There was no response.

I moved, and they moved as well.  Organizing, spreaing out a fraction.  I backed up, and they advanced.

I sat down again, regretting it instantly.  Standing would be harder.

The three-masked one slowly removed one mask from its shoulder.

It dawned on me.

That mask was going to be mine.

My mind warred with my body.  Every last part of me hated to sit still, was restless in the face of stress.  But my body was starting to give up.

I was so tired, I felt like I had gone two straight days without sleep.

“No glimmers of light nearby?”

“Not really.”

“Define really.”

“I see patches of light.  I think… even regular surfaces, they reflect light to some degree.”

“Sure.  Listen, what I need to know is… which direction do I run?”


“I’ll take a guess, if you have to give me one, Rose.  Just lie convincingly.  I’ll lose heart if I don’t buy it.”

“Your three o’clock,” she said.

Nothing more.  No details.  No explanation on why it was the right direction.


I needed to run, but there weren’t any meaningful gaps, now.

If I assumed these things were stupid, that they were programmed or strictly following orders… if they’d been ordered not to hurt me unless it was in retaliation or because there was no other way to get past me…

I looked back at the one that stood on the ice.

Slowly, carefully, I stepped back onto the frozen pond.

The ice cracked.  I drenched one boot.  It was waterproof enough that only a trace of the freezing water touched my foot.

Too close to the break I’d made to talk to Rose.


I circled around a bit further.  The bird-masks  at the leftmost edge began to take longer strides, to move around and cut me off.

This time, I stepped onto the ice with care, a distance from the break I’d made before.

I backed up, towards the one with three masks on the far end of the pond.

I watched as others stepped forward, maintaining a roughly even distance.  I saw as the one with the wreath avoided the crack in the ice.

Each step was a careful one as I made my way towards the middle of the pond.  I transferred my weight with care, doing my best to avoid putting too much weight on one point at once.  The three-masked one moved to cut me off, keeping me on the ice.

I heard the faintest cracking sounds.  Around me, not them.

I made a beeline straight for three-masks.

I saw the hands come out.

Woman’s hands, oddly enough, with flecks of nail polish still on one.  Wizened, worn, abused, with bits of nail splintered off where they had maybe scraped violently against something.

The faint cracking sound intensified.  The stress of my weight was going to break the ice right beneath me.


I ran, and the ones behind me ran to follow.

The ice didn’t break beneath them.  My heart sank.

I collided head-on with three-masks, and felt her stab at my shoulders through my coat, clawing through fabric with no heed for her own well being.  Frenzied, violent and noisy after the almost tranquil quiet.

I broke away, as best as I could, and she followed.  I tried to find a path that would get her to back off, give me two seconds, and she refused to give it to me.

Up until I stepped onto the ice at the edge and it broke, soaking my boot.  This time, it lapped around the skin at my calf, soaking my jeans.  A glance back verified the others had stopped when I had started fighting.

Three-masks began stalking around, cutting off my retreat.

I didn’t care.  Reaching down, I grabbed a snow-covered rock the size of my head, heaving at it.  It was half-frozen into the earth.  Prying it loose put it into the water, forcing me to get my uninjured hand wet to pick it up.

In one motion, full-body, I managed to heave it about three feet.  I watched it bounce off the ice and slide, uselessly, towards the middle of the spread out bird-masks.

It lay there for a good ten seconds before the ice broke.  I watched as the things plunged into the water.

Leaving me with only two to deal with.

I ran, fueled by desperation.

I ran, fueled by the adrenaline that pain was dumping into my body.  Through shock and fear.  Nothing conserved, nothing saved.

Thick trees tore at me, costing me my toque.  My frozen hand and foot were throbbing, now, and my injured hand was so cold I couldn’t open my fist.

Every footstep hurt, and the only thing that kept me putting one foot in front of the other was the idea that one more of those things might appear to bar my way if I slowed down in the slightest.

I found the end of the trees.  A strip of snow.  A line of road.

Squat, short buildings, and a sign reading ‘truck inspection area’.

Headlights flared in my field of vision, blindingly bright.

I staggered forward, collapsing onto my hands and knees.  I could hear a vehicle’s door open.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.  If they came-

But there was nothing.  The wind stirred swirls of snow across the road,

“Good god, man,” a deep voice said.  “What the hell did you get yourself into?”

I thought about explaining, about the others.  I’d sound crazy.

I thought about making an excuse, saying I was chased by some delinquent kids.  It would get the police involved, and it would delay me.

“Car broke down,” I said, a little numb.  “I thought I’d take a shortcut, got turned around.  I- I- panicked.  I started running and got hurt.”

“We’ll get you an ambulance, not to worry.”

“No.  No, it’s not as bad as it looks.  I’d be embarrassed,” I lied.  I wasn’t sure where things stood.  If they came after me while I was in the hospital, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk, let alone run.

“You look nearly dead.”

“I need to warm up.  That’s all.”

I glanced over my shoulder, nervously.  The things still hadn’t made an appearance.  They should have caught up by now.

“If I don’t get you to a hospital, and you die-”

“I’m not going to die,” I said, not sure if I was lying.  “Drop me off at the rest stop, I’ll warm up and get food.  I’ll hitch a ride to where I need to be.”

“If you’re positive,” he said.  “I don’t want you haunting me or anything, and I don’t want lawsuits either.  I don’t make that much money.”

He nodded.  “Sure, then.  You need help getting up?”

“Just a bit,” I admitted.

We made our way around, and I climbed up into the passenger seat.  The heating was already on, and I held my hands out to warm them.

Looking out through the windshield, I could see a trace of pink in the sky.

Was that a rule, here?  No monsters after sunrise, or no monsters when others could see?

The truck pulled away, moving down the long road.  I could see the rear half of the rest stop creeping into my vision.

I made eye contact with Rose, in the side-view mirror.

She looked drained, haggard.  Almost worse than I did.

She’d broken the mirror, and it had taken something out of her.  To look this drained… she’d broken the ice, or she’d helped it along.  A bit of an extra push.

The truck driver circled the long way around, pulling into the eighteen-wheeler’s spot for the rest stop.  We climbed out and made our way to the shop opening, where employees were setting up at the fast food places.

As the truck driver talked to some employees, negotiating a way to get me to my stop, I saw a man in the corner with an oddly crooked stance, leaning against the wall as if his limbs wouldn’t hold him up, the whites of his eyes too white as he tracked us with his gaze.  Staying out of the way, almost out of sight.

We’d have a relatively safe way to the house, soon enough.  We couldn’t get there fast enough, for the shelter or the answers we could find there.

Sample: Pact 1

Damn me, damn them, damn it all.

There was a car, my parent’s or my uncle’s, no doubt, parked in the middle of the gates, at the foot of a long driveway, leading up to Hillsglade House.  Symbolic, really, of everything that had gone on for most of my life.  Symbolic of everything I had walked away from.

My uncle… I was guessing it was my uncle, had parked the car at the entrance of the driveway to force everyone else to find a place to park.

I looked down the length of the street.  The property was framed by a short stone wall, shoulder height, along with an elaborate iron fence of roughly the same height, shaped into curling vines with metal points at set intervals.  It had been covered in some black paint or coating, but rust and peeling paint made for a mottled texture.  ‘No parking’ signs, a good distance in every direction.  I was already regretting coming.  Damn me, I thought, not for the first or second time.

Pushing my motorcycle, I guided it through the gap between car and fence, pushed it onto the lawn, and rested it against the inside of the fence.

I wasn’t in a rush.  I had made promises to myself.  I wouldn’t get caught up in their tempo.  Taking my time, I removed my helmet, wiped the sweat from my forehead and scalp.  Putting my hands in my pockets to be sure I had my keys, I felt paper crumple.  I went through my pockets, removed the directions I’d printed out, the receipt from Dead Tim’s, and put the leftover five in my wallet, the change in my other pants pocket.


Looking up at the namesake hill, I could see the house.  Not big, but it drew attention because of the way it looked down on the two-theater podunk town.  It wasn’t dark, and it wasn’t ominous.  Barring a slightly overgrown garden, trees that had grown well beyond the quaint, tidy little decorations they might have been when the house was built, and the railing, it was nothing more than a nice house.  I’d dated a wannabe-architect at one point, a brief-lived fling.  I didn’t remember much, but I didn’t feel confident labeling the place as Victorian.  Three stories, with a one-room tower standing one floor higher, off one corner.  Gray-painted wood siding, decorative ‘lace’ in carved wood beneath the eaves and around the railing on the porch, tall, narrow windows with open shutters.

Somehow, I had conflated the place into being something it wasn’t.  My childhood imagination had taken ideas and run loose with them, and I’d never turned my more adult mind to the subject.

I pulled off my jacket, then my sweatshirt.  Unlocking and lifting the seat of the motorcycle, I retrieved the shirt I had stowed away.  Leaving the other clothes behind, I buttoned up the shirt over a black t-shirt while I made my way up the driveway.

If my uncle had parked nearer to the house, he could have spared himself and his family the walk.  But no, the inconvenience he could pose to everyone else was apparently the top priority.  I wasn’t surprised.  I would have been stunned if there hadn’t been anything like this.

My boots were heavy on the floorboards of the porch as I approached the front door.  I stopped to wipe them on the doormat.  No ‘welcome’ was printed on the mat.  Instead, there were stencil images of roses and thorny stems, as well as the initials ‘R.D.R’.

It fit, somehow.  No consideration to the guests, only self-aggrandizement.

The door was unlocked.  I kicked off my boots and made my way past the front hallway and into the actual house, tucking my shirt into my jeans as I went.

My lingering impressions of the house were soon banished.  Only a house.  Books lined shelves in nearly every room with an available wall, some old with cracked spines, some new, recent bestsellers.  It was all sorted more like a library than a home, clearly by some arrangement of age and alphabetized.

Anachronistic.  That was a good word, to describe it.  Old and new.  A box of colorful cereal sat between the toaster and television in the kitchen, across from a small table with a crimson, lace-edged tablecloth.

A litterbox, with a toy.  Not a dirty litterbox, to look at it, which struck me as odd.  I couldn’t imagine my family had emptied it.  It didn’t fit them.

I reached the end of the hall, and I could hear voices from upstairs.  A crowd, angry, not shouting, but saying hard words, loaded words.  I sighed, putting my hands in my pockets, and made my way up.

Photographs.  Not a single family picture, I noticed.  Instead, there were pictures of nature, blue and green to contrast the dark-lacquered cherry floorboards and furniture, the burgundy curtains.  It made for a startling intensity, but it was jarring, overly saturated.

When I crested the top of the stairs, I saw them.  One family, divided into four factions, all dressed in black.

“Jesus fuck,” Paige said, her eyes going wide.  She was the first to recognize me.  Then again, we’d been close, as cousins went.

“The prodigal son returns,” Uncle Paul said.

That was the last coherent thing I made out before it devolved into a mess of bickering.

“Ten to one he needs the money for drugs.”

“If you want to talk about that sort of thing, Steph, we could talk about Ellie.”

“Fuck you, Irene,” Ellie practically spat the response at her aunt.  “You don’t know anything.  Uneducated bitch.”

Hard words, drawing lines in the sand, striving to establish new ground rules, to hold on to perceived advantages, to garner new ones, or strike at weak points.

For three years, I had been gone.  All of this, it had been going on when I left, and it was continuing now.

It never stopped.

Nine cousins, spread into three camps.  Uncle Paul, his ex-wife, and my Aunt Irene.

My Uncle Paul had a wealth of kids, four by his first wife, two by his second. Kathryn was old enough to have a child of her own, a broad, businesslike woman, holding her child and looking as unmotherly as possible, her husband beside her, listening as she looked at me and murmured an explanation.  Uncle Paul’s youngest, by contrast, was Roxanne, twelve.  Six in all, with Paige and her twin brother Peter in the middle.  Those two would just be partway into college, I was pretty sure.

Paige looked like she wanted to approach me, but doing so meant getting between Uncle Paul and Aunt Irene, as they pointed fingers, digging at each other.

I caught the words ‘failure’, ‘welfare mom’ and ‘slut’ thrown out there, by Uncle Paul, in clear earshot of his fourteen and twelve year old kids.

Aunt Irene retaliated with something along the lines of ‘at least I actually raised my children to be functioning members of society.’  I couldn’t make all of it out in the chaos, with people talking over one another.

She had three kids, but I only saw two.  Molly was close to me in age, and I’d known her well, once upon a time, but I hardly recognized her now.  She looked physically ill, her fingers twisting into one another in her lap, barely noting my existence.  It seemed to be rubbing off on young Christoff, who was looking equally anxious.  Both had brown hair, but Molly was paler than usual, and the black dress she wore only added to the effect.

And, finally, the fourth faction.  My parents.

They approached, and I saw that my mom was holding a baby, swaddled in a blanket.  I wasn’t good at judging the ages of babies… but I’d left three years ago.  I felt my heart skip a beat.

“Everything alright?” my father asked.

“S’alright,” I responded, not taking my eyes off the baby.

“You’re not in trouble?” my mother asked.

“No trouble,” I said.  “I try to avoid trouble.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” my dad said.  I glared at him.  “Nevermind.  I can’t help but notice you got tattoos.”

I looked down.  The shadows of my tattoos were visible through the sleeves of my dress shirt.  I pressed my sleeve down so it was flat against my arm, making the tattoos, clear.  “Watercolor tattoos, by an artist I owe a lot to.  She offered to outline them, another friend inked them.”

I had set rules for myself, to avoid getting caught up in this energy, yet I was baiting my father.  I could see him squirm, wanting to say something.  Question was, would he be willing to criticize the tattoos so soon after my homecoming?

“What?”  I asked.

“I’m glad you’re safe,” he said, with almost no affect.  “You know I never harbored any ill will.”

“I know you didn’t.  But that wasn’t ever the problem, was it?”  I shrugged, my hands in my pockets, and looked at the baby.  “Who’s this?”

“Ivy,” my mother said.  “She’s one and a half.”

“Hi Ivy,” I said.  She responded by pressing her head against our mother’s shoulder.  “Busy soaking it all in, kiddo, so you have some good stories to tell your therapist, ten years down the line?”

“Blake,” my dad said, the word a warning.

Without looking away from Ivy, I kept my voice calm, the tone almost light, so the vibe wouldn’t upset her.  “How hard did you look, Dad?  Mom?  I got in touch with some of my old friends, you know.  Seeing what happened.  Ben and Heather, the only ones you actually called, said you stopped asking about me after a month.”

“You were almost an adult, and the police weren’t interested or helpful.  We called around, trying to figure out where you were staying, but nothing turned up.  I’m not sure what we were supposed to do.”

I smiled a little as Ivy reached out for my offered hand.  Her hand seized my index finger, and I wiggled it, ‘shaking’ her hand.  “Besides, why devote any more attention to your son, when you could just start over?  Have that beautiful baby girl you wanted, right?”

“Blake!”  My father said, raising his voice.

Ivy recoiled at the sudden shout, withdrawing her hand from my finger as her face screwed up.  Tears imminent.

Damn it.  It was too easy, to lash out, to retaliate, to get sucked into this atmosphere.

“Sorry, Dad.  Sorry, Mom.  My bad, Ivy,” I said, my voice soft.  I didn’t wait for a response.  I walked past them.

I stopped in my tracks as a door opened and Callan stepped out of the nearest room.  Aunt Irene’s eldest.  A man in white scrubs followed him.

“Ellie?” the man asked.

Ellie was Uncle Paul’s second oldest, at twenty-four, give or take.  They were going down the list, from oldest cousin to youngest.  I watched as Ellie stood, looking out of place and deeply uncomfortable in a dress that didn’t suit her.  Her eyes had thick eyeliner, her lips had lipstick too red for her complexion.  She slouched badly, with a narrow, flat-chested figure.  I couldn’t help but think ‘ferret’ or ‘weasel’.  She was visibly nervous, but not in the same way Molly was.

The door wasn’t the hollow plywood door that you saw in most homes.  It was wooden, through and through, and it closed behind Ellie with a heavy thud.

“No kidding.  Blake?”  Callan asked, as I started to walk around him.

“Hey,” I responded.

“You’re wearing jeansPaint-covered jeans?  Now?”

I looked down at the jeans, the lap striped with narrow streaks in various colors, then met his eyes, shrugging.  “Doesn’t matter.”

“Why the hell did you come?” he asked.  “Most of us thought you were dead or something.”

“Got a call,” I said.  I glanced back at my parents.  “The lawyer found me, alive and well, without much trouble.  I was wondering how the family was doing, and figured this was maybe the last time we’d all be together.  Thought I’d check in, see how things were, say what needed to be said.”

“If you think you’re going to worm your way in-“

“If I was, do you think I’d be wearing these jeans?” I asked.  “Fuck off, Callan.  Save your energy for attacking the others.  I’m a non-threat.  Promise.”

He scowled a little, then summarily fucked off.  He took a seat on the deacon’s bench, beside Molly.  His hand settled over hers, and he leaned over to murmur in her ear.

I made my way out of the small crowd that had gathered around that heavy wooden door.

Paige fell into step beside me as I walked to the end of the long hallway.  I stopped by the narrow window, where the dim light of the setting sun filtered between the curtains and through the sheers.

“Jesus fuck,” she said, for the second time.

“Hey, Paige.”

She reached out, arms extended for a hug, and I flinched.  I stepped back, and nearly knocked a picture off the wall behind me as I bumped into the wall.

She looked stricken.  Her arms dropped to her side.  Her hair was done up in a french braid, and she looked as comfortable in her clothing as her older sister hadn’t.  It was how she’d always been.  Prim, proper, preppy.  She was almost into her twenties, now, but I could see where she could easily be at home in the world of ties and pantsuits.

“No, I just-” I said. “I… reflex.”

I made myself reach out to hug her.  It was clumsy, not natural in the slightest.  Her head banged against my ear hard enough to be painful, her arms squeezed me in the most careful hug-reciprocation ever.

“What happened?” she asked, quiet, as we parted.

I knew what she was asking, but I answered a different question instead.  “I didn’t see any reason to stay, so I left.”

“You ran away.”

“I always think of little kids leaving with a bundle on a stick, when I think of ‘running away’.  I got fed up with all of this, I went.”  I shrugged.  It was getting to be habitual.  No more shrugs, I told myself.

“Not a word, not a call?  I mean, I know we weren’t close.  We’d say hi, if we met in the hallway at school.  Hang out at events and stuff, maybe.  You dated one of my friends.  I thought maybe you’d say something, let me know you were okay.”

“I didn’t make it hard to find me.  I figured if anyone bothered enough to track me down, I was wrong, and I’d go back or whatever.  But they didn’t, so I didn’t.”

“Did you go someplace, or…” she trailed off, as if afraid to broach another boundary, as she’d done with the sudden hug.

“I was on the streets, just for a bit.  It was bad.  Awful.  But I’m stubborn, and I’d set the rules for myself, that I wouldn’t go back unless someone asked me to… eventually I met people, and one of them was lucky and stubborn enough to get off the streets.  She offered me a hand, and I took it.  I know how lucky I am, I know how lucky I was that I found work.  I’ve been doing well.  A few days ago I treated myself to my first big nonessential purchase.”

I had to lean against the wall, to angle myself so I could see it, leaning against the inside of the fence.  I pointed, then stepped out of the way.

“A bike?”

“And the license and insurance.  It’s about the shittiest, smallest, cheapest bike ever, and it’s used, but that doesn’t matter.  I’m happy, I’m liking where I’m at.  What are you up to?  University?”

“Second year.  Business, hopefully law a bit down the road, if I can finagle it.”   She showed me her crossed fingers.

“You still keep in touch with the people from high school?  Shannon?  Miracle?”

“Mira.  She’s finally going by a different name.  No longer a testament to why immigrants shouldn’t let their kids choose their English names.  She still asks about you, you know?”

“At least someone did,” I said, smiling a little.

Paige looked like she was going to punch me, then stopped short.  Remembering the issue with the hug.  “I did, you jackass.  Fuck.”

Molly stood from the bench and approached us.

“Here we go,” Paige said.  She smiled, quirking her shoulders as she showed an uncharacteristic excitement.  “Us three, back together after… nine years?”

“Ten,” I said.

Paige was a year older than me, Molly a year younger.  We’d always hung out, when the family had gotten together.  That had been a long time.

Molly didn’t look happy, though.  She hugged her arms against her body.  She still looked almost ill.

“You okay?” I asked.

“I want this to be over,” Molly said.  She leaned against a doorframe.  A moment later, she stood, shifting position.  Restless.

“Remember how we used to make up stories about this place,” Paige said.  “Gruesome stories?”

“Yeah,” Molly said, hugging herself tighter.  “They weren’t all made up.  That bit about Great-grandpa and great-grandma being related?”

I shivered a little.  “Thanks.  Thank you for that reminder.”

“The duel where one of our ancestors murdered someone?”  Molly asked.

“Killed,” Paige said.  “I don’t think it counts as murder if it’s during a duel.”

“Semantics,” Molly said.

“I love arguing semantics,” Paige said, smiling mischievously.  “Don’t get me started.”

The murmur of conversation further down the hallway dwindled.  Silence, and the sound of footsteps.

Ellie, making her exit.

“Paige and Peter,” the man in scrubs said.

Paige’s eyebrows went up.

“Lumped in with the twin,” I noted.

Paige forced a smile to her face.  “I’m a little terrified.  Here goes.  Wish me luck.”

“Paige,” Molly said.

Paige hesitated.

“Don’t.  I can’t explain it.  It would sound dumb if I did, but don’t take the offer.”

Paige frowned.

“Paige?”  the man in scrubs asked.  Peter was standing next to him.  Blond, like Paige, the same height and build, even the same general shape to his face.  But when Uncle Paul and Aunt Steph had split up, each one had taken one of the twins.  Peter was a little rougher-edged, at a glance, somehow older, and very much like Ellie, who had joined him in going to their mom, he didn’t look like he’d ever worn anything remotely formal.

He and Paige entered together.

Molly and I were left alone, at the end of the hallway.  The volume of conversation in the hallway gradually rose.  Whispered words to allies, barbs directed at enemies.

When I spoke, my words were closer to a whisper, a murmur.  “Hey, Moll?  What’s going on?”

“Don’t know if you remember, or heard, but my mom moved us here.  Podunk nowhereville, so we’d be closer.   Another play, a maneuver, to try to get an advantage.  So Callan, me and Chris, we’ve actually been here regularly.  Usually when mom invited herself over.”

“I figured it was something like that,” I said.

“I don’t think Callan really gets it, but he moved a few years in.  Chris and I have gone to school here.  There’s a vibe.  Too many things that don’t fit.  Complete strangers knowing who I am and not liking me right off the bat.  Does that make sense?”

“Sure.  It’s about the property.”

“More than the property.  It’s about old ladies glaring at me.  Kids going after Chris on the playground, and it’s too quick, too mean, too intense, for me to feel like it makes any sense.  Feeling like I’m surrounded whenever I’m outside.  Like a third of the people around here have decided we’re their mortal enemies.”

I could remember my nights on the streets.  Finding a place to set up camp, out of anyone else’s way.  Even with the city lights, it was hard not to feel like danger was lurking just out of sight, waiting until my eyes were closed.  In quieter areas, where the glow of the city hadn’t been there, where deeper shadows could have hidden anything, the feeling had been all the more intense.

Twice, I’d even been right.  Both times, it had been people.  The worst types of people.  I still had scars.  Some were physical.

I could imagine how Molly might feel, facing a watered down version of the same situation.  Being bullied by a whole community, being somewhere where anyone could be hostile without the slightest provocation.

“You are their mortal enemy, Molly.  We are.  It’s a small town, people obsess over the smallest things, and this is a big deal to people.  When you’re alone, feeling vulnerable to begin with, it’s scarier.  I don’t want to make it out to be less than it is-”

“That’s not what I mean,” she interrupted.

“It’s… what it is, Molly.  Trust me.  Small communities have done scary stuff before, with little rhyme or reason.  You’re spooked, you have a reason to be spooked.  It’s legit.  But don’t lose sight of the issue at the root of this whole business.”

She looked so abjectly miserable, standing there, restless, nervous.

“It’s almost over,” I tried to reassure her.

“I’m-” she started, then she stopped.  She glanced back.  “I’m going to go sit.  I need to get my head clear before my turn comes up.”

“Sure,” I said.

“I’m really glad you’re okay, Blake,” she said.

“Thanks,” I responded.

I watched her make her way back to her seat.

Damn them.  Damn it all.

I could feel the anger stirring, again.  Anger at my uncle and aunts, at my parents, at everything here.

It got worse instead of better, as I waited.

When the door opened and both Paige and Peter stepped out, the arguing started right away.

“Fuck you, Peter.  Fuck you!” Paige said.  Even from the far end of the hallway, there were tears in her eyes.

Peter smirked.  “I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.”

“You don’t know anything, you asshole.  Fuck you!  I needed this.”

“Ellie needs it more.”

“Ellie needs it because she’s a fuckup that hasn’t worked a day in her life.  I’m trying to go to school, Peter!  You make up bald-faced lies, to sink me?  You’re supposed to be my twin!”

Her voice went a little shrill at the end there.

“What?  You thought I’d be on your side?  You only need money because Paul had too many kids to take care of any of them.  Isn’t that right, Dad?”

“I think you and Ellie have demonstrated you aren’t worth the effort,” Uncle Paul said, his voice low.  He’d approached Paige, reaching out to put a hand on her shoulder.

She stepped away, instead.  She was crying, now.  “I thought you’d at least play fair, Peter.  Maybe you have to be loyal to Ellie because you grew up with her, but I thought you’d be fair, with me.  We’re supposed to have a connection.”

“You hear about twins eating one another in the womb,” Peter said.  “Maybe I got some of your brains, huh?  Because that’s fucking stupid.”

Paige stared at him, incredulous.  Then she slapped him, hard.

It was the catalyst for this entire thing to become a full-on fight.  Not sniping one another, not lacing casual statements with words meant to cut.  Shouting, Aunt Steph trying to grab Paige, and Paige ducking out of reach, running instead.

I was already running, myself, trying to catch up.

The man in scrubs, the bystander, stepped in, getting in my way.  He bellowed a single word.  “Stop!”

All fell momentarily silent.  There was only the sound of Paige’s feet hitting the stairs as she made her way down.

I made my way through the group, and Molly did too.

“Molly,” the man at the door said.  “She’s asking for you next.”

Molly and I both stopped.  She looked paler than before.

Paige was emotionally wounded, Molly deathly afraid.

All of the rest of them, too, bristling, on edge.

“It’s my turn,” I said.  “I’m Blake Rosine.  Go after Paige, Molly.  I don’t think I’ll be long.”

“Cutting in, Blake?”  Callan asked.  “I think you were lying, about not wanting any of this.”

I gave him the finger.  When I looked, Molly gave me a nod, before breaking into a run to chase Paige.

The man in scrubs ducked behind the door to say something, then reappeared.  “She says it’s fine, Blake.”

I made my way into the bedroom, and the door slammed shut behind me, more because of the weight of the solid wood than any intention on my part.

Grandmother doesn’t look like someone who’s about to die.   The room smelled of flowers and fresh air, from the windows that opened just above the garden.

She had been propped up in a sitting position in her bed, leaning against an arrangement of pillows.  She was dressed in an old fashioned nightgown that extended to her broomstick-thin wrists, her hair tied back in a tight bun.  Her eyes were sharp as they studied me, and her hands were steady as they raised a teacup to her lips.  Her nurse stood to her left in his scrubs, her lawyer to her right was an Indian man in an immaculate suit.  Her cat, maybe the largest housecat I’d ever seen, gray and well groomed, lay with its head in her lap.

She studied me, judging me, with a cool, calculating gaze.

“Well, this is refreshing,” she finally said.  Her voice was clear.  Not an old person’s voice.  Certainly not a ninety-year old’s.  “It feels like all the rest of them are dressed like they can’t wait for my funeral.  Or maybe they’re too cheap to buy two outfits for the occasion.”

“With all due respect,” I said, picking my words carefully, “I don’t give a flying fuck, you disgusting, evil, rancid cunt.”

I could see the nurse tense, though the lawyer didn’t react.  The feigned politeness disappeared from my grandmother’s face.  Again, she raised the teacup to her mouth to sip from it.  She handed it to the nurse, who turned away very reluctantly, to prepare another cup on the trolley beneath the window.

“Are you done?” she asked.

“I’m thinking both of us are very lucky you have these two men here,” I said.  I put one of my feet up on the wooden chest at the foot of the bed, pointing at the trolley.  “Because I’m angry enough I wouldn’t be above throwing that pitcher of water in your face.”

“I think that’s crude,” she said.  “A more civilized person would use words to attack me.”

“What words are going to matter?  What am I going to say that’s going to make an impact on you?  Honestly, what am I going to do that’s going to make you recognize even an iota of the pain you’ve caused everyone out there?”

“And the pain I’ve caused you?” she asked.  “You’re most likely right, I suppose.  There’s very little that someone could say that would shake me.”

“You don’t deserve to die with dignity, you bitch,” I said.  “And none of them are going to say it, because you’re playing them.  Since I’m the only one that doesn’t give a fuck about the money, I figure I’m the only one that can come here and say it how it is.  You’re scum, and you’re the one thing at the root of everything that’s going on out there.”

I pointed at the door.  I could almost hear the shouting on the other side.

“I would argue they are at the roots of their individual problems.  I didn’t make them petty, I didn’t make them greedy,” she said.  She sighed a little.  “This ridiculous money business.”

“You took advantage of those things, making all of this one big fucked up game.  Laying down the rule, that only one person gets the property and the millions from selling it.  Then you say it has to be a grandchild-“

“My children are useless,” she said.  She was so dismissive and casual about it.

“-And then you drop the bomb that it has to be a girl.  You broke up this family, you did it strategically.  You set us tooth and nail against one another, and now you’re enjoying tearing the others down, ruining their hopes.”

She sniffed, but she smiled.  I almost wanted to hit her.  I wouldn’t, but I wanted to.

The nurse handed her the cup of tea.  She smiled up at him.  “Thank you, Rich.”

‘Rich’ turned my way.  “I can offer you a cup as well, if you promise not to throw it at her.”

“Don’t offer me anything, then,” I said.  I looked at my grandmother.  “I don’t want anything she has to offer.  Not tea, not the inheritance-“

“To clarify,” she said, “I’ve stressed repeatedly that it’s a female grandchild that will get the inheritance.”

“I’m not about to rule out the fact that you’re messing with us, Grandmother.  I could see you handing something over to Callan just to see our reactions.  Not to mention the trouble I’m having with the ‘I’m dying’ bit, which you’re doing a really bad job of selling.”

If anything I’d said had an impact, it was that.  I could see the faint amusement drop away from her.  “Are you accusing me of being a liar, Master Blake?”

I’d never heard anyone say something archly, but she pulled it off.  She even said ‘Master Blake’ like it was nothing, as though she used titles as a matter of habit.

“I’m saying there isn’t anything I’d put past you.”

She sighed, a faint sound, and her cat reacted to the movement.  “Close to the truth, I admit, but I consider myself honest, if nothing else.”

“Weren’t you a lawyer?”

“I am a lawyer, Master Blake, and I expect to be one until I pass on.  I’m disappointed that you would make assumptions about a whole profession.”

I didn’t have a ready reply to that.  I glanced at the nurse, who was shifting from foot to foot nervously.  Was he uncomfortable with the friction?

“Well,” she said, “I take it you’re not going to apologize?”

“You first,” I told her.  “It’s going to take you a while, so you should start sooner than later.”

She sipped her tea, winced at the heat, licking her thin lips with her tongue, and then leaned back against the arrangement of pillows.

“You remind me of my father,” she said.  “He had passion, and an interest in justice.”

“He fucked his cousin, if I remember right.”

She smiled a little, “You heard of that?  Yes.  That would be him.”

“What are you doing, Grandmother?  You want to build a rapport?  Form a connection, when you’ve ignored us from the beginning?”

“I only want to understand my grandchildren before I make my decision.”

“Too bad.  You’re not going to figure us out in the next day or so.  What you should do is sell the property.  Let the town knock down the house, level the hill, drain the marshland and expand like they need to, make them happy.  Split the money between your kids and grandkids, make us happy.  You want to light a fire under everyone and see them react?  That’s how you do it.  Then, maybe just a bit, you’ll earn a measure of forgiveness.”

“Not an option,” she said.  She stroked the cat, scratching him at the lowest part of his back, just in front of his tail.  “The house stands.  I’m picking the young lady who I feel can look after it.”

“Then pick Paige,” I said.  “She’s smart, she’s hard working, she’s independent.  If you’re looking for a clone of yourself to inherit the place, to look after it, I’m betting she’ll fit the bill pretty well.  She’s not a bitch, but I imagine you’ll have to make some concessions.  Besides, if anyone can squeeze a few dollars out of this stone, without breaking the rules you set, it’s her.  Get bribes from people, maybe, or figure out a way to keep the house while still draining the marsh, so she can go to law school.”

“Paige is out of the running,” my grandmother said.  “Who else?”

I stared at her.

“You’re enjoying this.  Playing us,” I finally said.

“I wouldn’t recommend jumping to conclusions, Blake.  Dangerous business.”

“Look me in the eye, then, if you’re so honest, and tell me you don’t.  That you don’t get some measure of glee or satisfaction out of this.”

She looked me square in the eye.

Yet she didn’t say a word.

“Thought so,” I said.  “Bye, grandmother.  When you do die, I hope it sucks.”

I turned to leave.

“Blake,” she said.

I stopped, my hand on the doorknob.  I regretted it the moment I paused..

“When you first spoke to me, you said, ‘All due respect’.  Did you mean it?”

I didn’t look at her.  “All due respect, you’re a festering old cunt?  One hundred percent.”

That said, I opened the door, and I slammed it behind me with enough force that pictures rattled on the walls.

My family was there, staring.

“If anyone needs me,” I said, very deliberately looking at Paige and Molly, who were standing together at the edge of the group, Molly’s arm around Paige’s shoulders.  “I’m going to be outside, by the entrance.”

I made my way out of the house, down the long driveway, and settled with my back to the wall beside my bike.

I couldn’t bring myself to nap.  A good night’s sleep in my place with the doors and windows firmly locked was hard enough.  But I dozed, my eyes half open, a bit of a burden lifted from my shoulders.

It was well after dark when someone stepped outside to talk to me.  I closed out of the puzzle game I was playing on my phone.  The brightness of the screen made for a dark patch that lingered in my vision as I looked up.

Eleven-fifty at night.

“She wants us all together,” Paige said.

“Do you want to give her what she wants?” I asked, not moving.

“I’d really like some backup,” she said.  All of her confidence from before was gone.  “If it’s Molly that’s picked, then I can’t get the support from her, you know?”

“I know,” I said.  I stood, stretching, and I was pretty sure that I’d feel stiffness in a spot or two tomorrow.  “No explanation needed.  I get it.”

“Thanks,” she said.

We made our way back up the driveway.  I wished I had an idea of what to say, but nothing sprung to mind.  Paige was too much of a stranger, in some ways.  Three years was a long time.

This time, everyone had gathered in the bedroom.

Paige and I joined Molly.  Paige and Molly held hands.

“I have to say, I’m painfully disappointed,” my grandmother said.

Nobody had words to reply.

“Don’t worry.  The feeling is mutual,” I said.

My aunts and uncle, along with several of the older cousins, stared at me.

“Molly,” my grandmother said.

“No,” Molly responded.

“Until you’re twenty-five, the estate and all materials herein, my accounts, and all other pertinent materials enclosed in the documents,” my grandmother tapped the papers the lawyer held, “will be managed by Mr. Beasley and his firm.  For that time period, you retain control over those assets, with free access to the full funds, modest as they are, and full access to all things relating to the property, excepting the ability to sell it.  When you turn twenty-five, you may do with it as you wish.”

“I don’t want it,” Molly said, stepping forward.

“Molly!  Don’t be rash!” Aunt Irene admonished her.

“I don’t want it,” Molly said, again.  She grabbed the footboard of the bed.  “No.

“Molly, don’t be silly.”

“If you don’t want any of it, then you remain free to ignore it,” my grandmother said.  “Mr. Beasley?  Is everything in order?  Provisos, follow-up?”

“Everything’s signed and arranged.”

My grandmother nodded.  “Rich, you’ve been wonderful.  I set aside some money already, to thank you.”

The nurse looked stunned.  He looked at my family.  “No.  It’s not allowed.”

“I insist.  Take it and give it to a favorite charity, if you must.”

Even then, he looked a little taken aback.

He probably thinks my family’s going to come after him if he accepts.

She probably plotted this.  Hurting us by favoring the nurse over us.

“If Molly doesn’t want it, I’ll take it,” Callan said.  “She can sign over the rights-“

“Fuck you,” Ellie said.

“Granny?  Why didn’t you pick me?”  Little Roxanne piped up.

I felt Paige clutch my hand tight.

“You okay?” I murmured.

Grim, her mouth set in a line, eyes on the floor, Paige nodded.

“Granny!” Roxanne raised her voice, more than a little shrill.  “You don’t love me enough to give me anything?”

So that was her angle.  Everyone was making a play, and the youngest of the grandchildren that could speak was making the ‘sweetheart’ play.  Or the entitled brat play, depending on perspective.  Misdirected, considering who my grandmother was, but that hardly mattered.

My grandmother hadn’t reacted.  I frowned.

“Blake?” my dad asked.  “Where are you staying tonight?”

“Going home,” I said.

“If you wanted to have a late dinner and stay over-“

“No,” I said.  “I don’t want that.”

“Alright,” he said.

I watched as the nurse approached the bedside.  He touched my grandmother’s hand.

Things went quiet very quickly.

Nurse Rich looked at his watch.  “Two past twelve.”

The arguing had distracted him.  The time was off by two minutes.

My grandmother and her cat were both dead.

“I need to go make a phone call,” the nurse said.  He strode from the room.

Silence followed, broken only by the footsteps of the nurse in the hallway, and the shuffling of papers as the lawyer put things away in a messenger bag.

“Listen,” my uncle said, broaching the near-silence.  “We should have a sit down, talk about the sale of the property, when the time comes, a division of the funds-“

Aunt Irene barked out a laugh.  “Oh, now you talk about dividing up the proceeds?  I seem to recall, only a few hours ago, that you told me it wouldn’t work.”

More arguing, more stupidity.

Why had I told myself it would be over?

“Get out,” Molly said, her voice hard.

“You heard my daughter,” Aunt Irene said.  “Out.  It’s her house and her say.”

“You too,” Molly said.  “Everyone out.”

“She can’t do that,” Uncle Paul said.  “We were invited here.”

“I could call the authorities, Miss Rosine,” the lawyer suggested.  “For the time being, I’m at your service.”

“There wouldn’t be a point,” Uncle Paul said.

“Just go,” Molly said.  “Go.  You’re not going to scheme your way into any deals here.  You’re not going to get some advantage or screw me out of my deal.  Not tonight.  I’m done talking, I’m done listening.  Go, and leave me alone, and when you’ve figured out a plan of attack, run it by my lawyer first.  Not me.”

Slowly, the aunts and uncles, my mother and father, and the various grandchildren filtered out of the room.

Paige squeezed my hand, and then broke contact, leaving the room.

“Molly,” I said.  “Hey.”

She looked up at me.  She looked spooked, even now.

“Why is the cat dead?” she asked.

“I don’t know.  Maybe it was dead all along, and she was fucking with us.”

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“Listen, Molly, family’s supposed to support each other.  I figured I’d offer some support.  I don’t have anywhere to be, no obligations.  If you’re worried about locals giving you a hard time, whatever you need, I can stick around.”

“Uh huh,” Callan said, from the doorway.  “Clever bastard.  You don’t want the property.  You want to scheme your way in with whoever else gets the place.”

“Fuck off, Callan,” I said.

But I could see the expression on Molly’s face change.

Doubt.  Only a little doubt.

“I don’t want to deal with any of this.  With any of that.  Of this.”

“Okay,” I said.  “The lawyer has my number.  Ask him, get in touch, anything you need.  Okay?”

She nodded.

I was the last one to leave.  Molly followed me down, and stood in awkward silence as I pulled on my boots.

“Bye,” I said.  “Good seeing you.”

“Bye, Blake.” she said.

The door swung shut.  My view of her and the lawyer in the background narrowing, then disappearing entirely.

I made my way down the path.  My Uncle’s car pulled out, and I saw the younger kids in the windows, staring at me.

I stopped short as I saw my bike.

Tipped over in a way that had scraped it hard against the stone wall.  Headlight and taillight broken.

Trying to think of whether I had seen any garages nearby, or whether they’d even be open at this hour, I started the agonizingly slow journey to downtown Jacob’s Bell.

Four months later.

There was a pause.  Glances were exchanged down both lengths of the table.  On one side, women and girls of varying ages, all blonde, in matching shades of green, white and blue.  On the other, appearances varied.  Men and women, old and young.  Hair color and appearance varied, but there was little doubt they were a family.

“Huh,” the man at the one end of the table said.  A member of the family.  “I’d hoped she would slip in her old age.  A shame, she made other arrangements.”

The blonde woman opposite him folded her hands in front of her.  “That was… noteworthy in scale.  Kind of her to point the way, but she was never crude.  We’ll need to know what she did before we move on.”

“Agreed,” the man said.  He opened a pocketwatch, glancing inside.  “For now, let it be.  There is enough at stake here that someone is bound to make a play.”

The blonde woman nodded.  She turned her attention to the pair on either side of her, a blonde girl and a dark haired boy.  reaching out for their hands.  “I believe we were talk about wedding plans?”

Another scene, not too far away.

Lopsided, everything turned to a right angle.  A house, messy, with pizza boxes and garbage here and there.  Two twenty-something individuals, a boy and a girl, approached, getting so close their faces filled the field of vision.

A lurch, and the view was righted.

“The metronome?”

“Something big just happened,” the girl said.  “Told you.  Just now, I told you.”

“You’ve been ‘telling’ me for a while now.  This doesn’t mean we should do anything.”

“You’ve got no balls, Andy.  No balls.  We should investigate, and, just to be safe, we should investigate with weapons in hand.”

“I don’t- no, Eva.  This is dangerous, and-”

“And what?  We should ignore it all?”

“It’s dangerous.”

“So are we, little brother.  So are we,” she said.  She opened the ledge beneath the living room window, hefting a crossbow.  She threw it at him.

“Fuck!” he shouted.  “Eva!”

“It’s not loaded, dink,” she said.  She picked up a revolver, then spun the chamber.  “What should we bring?  Silver bullets, inscribed bullets, incendiary bullets…”

“Cold-forged iron,” he responded, a little sullen.  “Bone.  Paper.  Every other follows different rule.  What looks like a goblin could be a demon, or a wraith, or a glamour.  I mean, you remember those ‘vampires’ from out west.”

“Faerie with a thing for boring teenage virgins?  Sure.”

“You’re not getting what I’m saying.  If they can fool themselves into thinking they’re vampires, and believe it to the point it becomes sort of true, sparkly skin aside, then they can fool us.  This is what bothers me about all this.  You can’t make any guarantees, you can’t slap on convenient labels.  It’s why we call them others.  You can’t plot-”

“We can try.  And if we can murder self-deluding faerie, we can murder whatever this is.”

“Even if it’s human?”

“You’re supposed to be the smart one in this partnership.  Anything that can knock the metronome over isn’t human anymore, or it won’t be for long.  Let’s assume I’m going out anyways, what do I need?”

Andy sat down, leaning back.  He sighed heavily.  “Bring everything?  Might as well bring me.”

“Now we’re talking,” Eva said, smiling.

A third scene.

“What the drat was that?” A girl asked.  She stood in the snowy field, her checkered scarf frozen hard.  “It felt like something moved.”

Someone moved,” a young man responded.  “Come on, now.  You know better.  Everything has a price when you’re dealing with this world, Maggie.  Even answers to stupid questions.”

“Right.  Thanks,” she said.  “I’ll figure it out myself, Padraic.  I hope it’s a noob.  Be nice to not be the rookie on the block.”

“Funny thing, Maggie,” Padraic said, and when he smiled, the expression extended further than it should have.  The smile too wide, the eyes too long and narrow.  “When something momentous occurs, it can be the equivalent of lighting up the night sky, scattering fog and clouds to the horizons.  You can see more clearly… but when you look, they can look back, too.”

Maggie went stiff.  “They’re watching.  And listening.  Darn it.  Now I’m going to have to do something.”

“I’ll give you that one for free.  It was worth it, to see that expression on your face.”

He reached out, to touch her face, and she slapped his hand aside, hard.  The small impact banished the scene.

Another scene.

A girl or a woman, swaddled in winter clothes.  Shouting, pointing.

The individual on the receiving end was a rabbit, sitting on a snow-covered rock.

The rabbit turned, and the girl turned to look in the same direction.

Bending down, she reached through the snow until she found a stone.  She threw it right for the center of the ‘image’, breaking the ‘picture’.

A weathered aboriginal woman, brushing a young girl’s hair with a broad-toothed comb.  It might have been an ordinary scene, except it was the dead of night.

She picked up a chain, then shackled the girl at the wrist.  She noted the observer, then scattered the image with a wave of one hand.

A man, sitting on a throne, a tall, long-nosed, long-haired dog at his side.  The room at the top of the tower was subject to strong winds, and his long hair blew as the dog’s did.

Below, the small village sprawled.  Jacob’s Bell.  Except things were different.  A twisted reflection of the buildings, with embellishments and decorations.  Arches, steepled roofs, pointed roofs that curled and bent in zig-zags.  All lit up in crimson sunset.

The other visions had been at night.

The dog looked up.  “Johannes.”

“Mm,” the man in the throne said.  “‘Lo, stranger.  Listen, I don’t think you should believe what any of them say about me.  If you need help, I can offer it.”

“For a price,” the dog added.

“For a price.  Resist the urge to dismiss what you just saw, you’re in a bad enough situation as it stands.  Now do yourself a favor and wake up.”

I sat up in bed.

That feeling Molly had described, four months ago?  Being surrounded?  I could feel it.

I felt like I had when I had been homeless, sleeping under the bridge, where there weren’t any lights to break up the oppressive darkness.

Resist the urge to dismiss what you just saw.

I stood up from bed, staggering for the bathroom.

It wasn’t my face in the mirror above the sink.  Nor my body.  A girl looked at me, her forehead creased in worry.  She was wearing a camisole and pyjama bottoms.  She looked strangely familiar.

I had to touch my own chest and face to verify it wasn’t my reflection.  I was shirtless, wearing different pants.  Her movements didn’t follow mine.

Instead, her fist struck the other side of the mirror.  When she spoke, it was only a little muffled.

“Run,” she said.  “Get to the house, now.”

“Which house?  Who-”

“Molly’s dead,” she said.  “You’re next.”

The conviction in her voice left me with no doubt she was telling the truth.

My voice was thin as I responded.  “Molly’s dead?  She was supposed to call if there was trouble.”

“Blake, I get it.  I do.  But you’re next, understand?  Grandmother made other arrangements, and those arrangements just came into play.  The house is in your custody now, and so are all of Grandmother’s enemies.  Understand?  She has a lot.  The house is sanctuary, Blake.  Molly died because she panicked, and she left the safe ground.  Don’t make that same mistake.  Move.  Run.”


“Run!”  She hit the mirror, and it cracked from the point of impact.  Pieces on my end fell, landing on the countertop and sink.

I ran.