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Sample: Pact 2

December 21, 2013

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.”

“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.”

Something.

“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.

“-here.”

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“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.

Right.

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.

“Blake?”

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.

Right.

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.

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116 Comments
  1. Landis963 permalink

    euuuuuurgh, I don’t know. I’m torn. Blake seems… too far from freaking out after that ordeal. I mean, if it was obvious that he’s clamping down on freaking once he’s gotten to the relative safety of the rest stop it might get a pass, but he’s still too well-put together. (And someone else noted that really, he should not have been able to run like he did at the end there).

    However, it was much less of a slog than the will-reading yesterday. And a method begins to emerge from the Grandmother’s madness, which will undoubtedly deepen that chapter by a couple of levels. Paige being so low on the list is undoubtedly because of her connection with Peter. Molly was first either because she was a decoy (unlikely, given Rose’s account of her behavior), and Blake is on the list at all because of the Rose-hack. (Furthermore, she put him on the list after his denunciation of her, for myriad possible reasons ranging from “see how YOU like being in my shoes” to “You’re the best person for the job.”)

    But… I’m still torn. Despite my best efforts, Face’s setup had drawn me in, despite or perhaps because of Wesley’s “cool cucumber” facade. Once my worries were assuaged about the “deathmatch” styling (I know that annoyed you, but it’s far too easy to jump to that conclusion with Face 1 as it stands), I was sucked right in. Boil had the creepy-cool setting, and Genie had everything I liked about Skitter. (I’ve said my goodbyes-for-now to the Peerverse, so I’m not even considering it atm). Pact has a protagonist who is intelligent about being in over his head, a strange set of rules that incites curiosity, and an opening salvo which sparks the paradoxical reaction of covering your face – but peeking through your fingers.

    Which means my personal rankings oscillate wildly between Face/Boil/Pact and Boil/Face/Pact and Pact/Boil/Face and every variation thereupon, which is useless.

    *sighs* Hopefully I’ll have my thoughts better in mind by the time I get back to my computer tomorrow.

    I’d say “go with your gut” right about now, but it’s pretty obvious from your previous postings that your gut’s saying “Go with Pact.” And I’m of six different minds about that.

    • Landis963 permalink

      Upon reflection, the fact of the matter is that the chase was less of a slog, but it was still a slog. With that in mind, my selection is Face/Boil>Pact>Peer.

    • Devin permalink

      Not everyone freaks out while in a crises. I know my natural reaction would have been very similar to Blake’s, though I probably wouldn’t have been quite as ingenious as he was. Well I may not have been able to think up some of the solutions he did, my state of mind would have been about the same. Scared in a sort of shock mind frame, while still analyzing everything around me.

  2. Vwyx permalink

    I don’t suppose that there’s any way to take the mystery of Pact, put it in the setting of Boil, and make Wes an alternate viewpoint character? I don’t even know if I’d like that, but indecision is easy.

  3. Mute permalink

    The introduction of the creature on the road was everything I was hoping for from the ‘supernatural/horror’ category.
    I’ve been enjoying all of the samples so far but, as expected, the spooky one is my favourite!

  4. isa permalink

    I still like Pact the best out of the four.
    I don’t really get what Rose’s character is like yet. Is she just in shock, because she seems too calm in relation to the lack of help she’s giving Blake.
    Others have already commented on Blake though I find his character more consistent so far.
    The setting and background – cool!
    The pacing is a bit disjointed but not too much so.
    Really looking forward to more!

    • Pretty sure Rose is currently in the process of freaking the fuck out. A lot of people have been saying that Blake seems to be taking things too much in stride and reacting too rationally, but in his case it makes sense; he lived on the streets from a young age, and survived a lot, so he has practice rolling with blows and adjusting quickly, suppressing harmful emotional reactions until he reaches safety. Rose just got hit with all the same reveals as him, plus the fact that she doesn’t really exist and is now trapped (possibly dying) in a mirror world, and she doesn’t have any of that practice. It’s lucky she’s coherent at all, I think, and most of that seems to be a desperate need to stay connected to somebody in all that darkness.

  5. Louise Watson-Carver permalink

    I think Pact 2 was an improvement over Pact 1; it wasn’t as hard to wade through, especially as it didn’t have the big chunk o’ tedious malice spewed by Dysfunctional Family. But it was still an effort to read. I’m afraid I still dislike Pact, and was very much hoping Wildbow wouldn’t choose to continue it. I like the *idea* of the setting, the confluence of folklore and mundane reality and their sometimes violent overlap, but I don’t like this iteration of that setting.

    What can I say? I don’t like the main character; Blake feels flimsy, unrooted, with his thoughts and feelings grafted onto him rather than growing organically from his personality and character. The metaphor that occurred to me? Blake’s like the player character of a naive gamer who thinks that *saying*, “My character is reserved and taciturn,” is sufficient to make him so – even though the gamer has his character constantly making stupid jokes, hitting on the barmaids and getting into shouting matches.

    It’s not that Blake’s behaviour contradicts his description, it’s just that the description seems to be all there is to him. He doesn’t seem convincing as a person… and Rose is even worse. I feel no sympathy or liking for any of the characters in this (with the exception of Joel the Landlord); no attachment or investment in them whatsoever. I’ve also realised I really have no interest in knowing what happens next. I don’t care if Blake gets to the family house. I don’t care if Rose escapes the mirror realm. And most damning; I don’t care that Molly was horribly killed (and partially eaten) — and I *should*!

    But I don’t.

    Pact is a misfire on most levels for me. If it’s Wildbow’s final choice for his narrative project, I might skim the comments posted for each update, but I shan’t bother with the chapters themselves.

  6. Subbak permalink

    I’m not a great fan of Pact so far. I think it started being complicated way too soon, as most of those storeis did actually, and then we have less times for getting to know the characters (Worm started super slow by comparison). For me it’s mostly a match between Boil, which feels a little forced at the beginning but will probably get better as I get to know the universe, and Face, which I guess I could like more if things hadn’t gone crazy that fast and if it delivered a little more on the “cyberpunk” and not only “crazy dystopia”.

    I guess it also depends on where you want to take the stories. Maybe you intend to deliver more on Face character and worldbuilding, which would make Face by far the best.

    As an afterthought, I rather liked Peer, except for the main character who was not a very engaging POV.

    • Miyasudokoro permalink

      To be fair, if Wildbow had gone at Worm’s pace for these samples, we would have no idea what the samples were about. I think Wildbow was trying to give us a good idea of what each story would be like in only two chapters.

      • pidgey permalink

        Which is all fine, in theory, but it hurts the quality of the writing. How can anyone give a truly considered opinion about this stuff if wildbow isn’t going to write the samples the way the stories are actually going to be written?

        I mean, yeah, you can say “Caspar is a creep in Peer, Face is easy to misunderstand, and Boil is a slog to write” and justify those as reasons why Pact should be written. But the great bulk of the reactions that you see to these samples have nothing to do with any of that. Most of it is saying stuff like how they like the setting, or the genre, or the characters, or the action, all of which is irrelevant to wildbow’s decision, because he can write any of that stuff into any of the stories.

        It’s really hard to offer any input beyond the extremely obvious, because everything he’s writing here isn’t at a level of quality that actually justifies voting for any of them. (Although don’t interpret that to mean anything but that wildbow’s got his priorities in a twist. I obviously don’t think wildbow *can’t* write all of these stories with good pacing. He’s just chosen to sacrifice certain good writing principles for the sake of demonstrating some quick plot elements, and as a result this exercise isn’t serving the intended purpose of identifying which story is most compelling on its own merits.)

  7. Mrmdubois permalink

    I find Pact interesting, but as interesting as Face or Boil? I dunno…

    What I like about Pact is that something weird is going on, and apparently there is only one safe spot. Will Blake be able to leave the house if he ever gets there and finds out what’s up? That and the mirror visions are the biggest draws for me. Rose I find entirely sympathetic, her “life” sucks. The bird skull creatures were interesting, especially with the hint that they’re female and were apparently going to jam one of the skulls on Blake, my guess is that they’re the dearly departed former female owners of the house…somehow.

    What I don’t like about Pact, it PC’s labelled horror, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels more like suspense. Then again, I’m not very familiar with the horror genre at all, and am not sure what I’m supposed to be feeling to identify it as horror, so whatever.

    Other things, Blake is a pretty cool customer, but I think that’s kind of a given with Wildbow’s writing. I don’t find this bad, I like the fact that these protagonists are up against seemingly impossible situations and then they can still think and act. Maybe Blake isn’t having the emotional breakdowns or responses from finding out about Molly, or being next that people would like to see, but if he broke down then wouldn’t he get killed off pretty quickly?

    I think I like Boil best for setting, lots of weird and possibly cool stuff, but the motive seems a little weak.

    Face I like best for the main character, even if he never got into a physical confrontation I could see him being really badass in a wits dependent game.

    Pact I like for the fact that it’s modern fantasy apparently, and I want to know what’s going on, so it has the best plot hook for me.

  8. Well, two chapters in and I’ll maintain my outsider opinion. It’s shaping up to be better than Face, somewhere even to Peer and behind the fascinating Boil. My only qualm is that it feels too familiar; strong hints of Gaiman here (not a bad thing) some White Wolf press stuff and a book I read years ago as a child -The Giant Under The Snow. The concept seems strong, although Blake seems a bit Ender Wigginish to me, too collected when under threat.

    On balance this is #2 on my list behind Boil, if we can keep the family politics a little smoother flowing.

  9. TheSpudFather permalink

    Can’t say why, but I found this the best, roughky equal with boil. Face was my least favourite… It felt too forced.

    I’ve read worm since around chapter 3 first went up, so I’ve stuck with Wildbow for a long time now, and am fairly confident that which ever he chooses, it will be well written, compelling, and something to look forward to each week.

  10. anon permalink

    After this chapter I still like Boil the best, by a fairly wide margin, but if you’re not going to write that due to the increased difficulty (understandable), then pact should still work for me. If you went with either of the others, I’d probably circle around in a few months to see how it’s going, due to the strength of Worm, but their previews didn’t grab me at all.

  11. Miyasudokoro permalink

    I am still enjoying Pact the most. The most intriguing part for me is Rose, whose nature and situation are highly unique. Most of what I read is contemporary fantasy, and this story seems right up my alley. I am a huge fan of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and the Graywalker series by Kat Richardson, and this story so far has a lot of similarities with the typical storyline from each: the protagonist needs to solve a supernatural mystery before it kills him/her. I don’t think I can ever get enough of that.

    Unlike many commenters, I don’t find Blake’s reactions to be unrealistic. In fact, he reminds me of myself. Whenever I’m in a crisis of any kind, my head is clear. I typically feel only tension, or at worst, I get that sinking-pit-in-the-stomach feeling. The same thing happens when I receive bad news. My emotional reaction (e.g. grief, worry) still occurs, but it’s typically minutes, hours, or days later — whenever it is that I finally relax. Given how I have always reacted to danger and bad news, Blake acted exactly the way I would expect myself to act.

    Let me give an example. When I was 12, I saved my brother (and possibly myself also) from drowning. I didn’t feel a thing about it until several hours later, when it sunk in that we both could have died. I have never been a good swimmer; I can’t even do ten laps in a pool. The time I saved my brother was only my second time swimming in the ocean, and my brother’s first time. My brother, 8 at the time, had found himself in water over his head, tried to swim straight back to shore, gotten too tired to continue, and just given up, all in what must have been less than a minute. I was out swimming also, no more than twenty feet away, and saw him stop swimming and start floating with his back up and his face underwater. I pulled him up with one arm as I had seen people do on TV and started swimming hard toward shore, but I quickly realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere. We survived because I remembered from a book I had read once (a Boxcar Children mystery, maybe?) that there was a phenomenon called “undertow” that could pull people out to sea, and that I should swim parallel to the shore to escape it. My aunt was supposed to be watching us, but she was engrossed in a book, and she didn’t even realize anything had gone wrong until after I had already swam us back to shore. I was utterly exhausted; I have no idea where I found the strength to swim for that long, because I’ve never been able to since. When I was 12, I had not “seen some shit” that would have made me able to stay calm and remember things I had read in books, rather than panic and drown. It was just my personality.

    There might be a lot of hysterical 911 calls, but there are also a lot of calm ones. I and other “calmly call 911” people are not going to see zombies or mirror people in front of us and drop to the ground screaming; we are going to deal with the world as it is. Think of the teacher at Newtown who was shot in the foot: she was able to call 911, to report where she was and who was in the room with her, and to answer the question of, “Are you okay?” with “For now, hopefully.” Non-panicky people can be found in all walks of life, with all levels of experience with crisis.

    • I remember when I was walking my dog by the lake where my family cabin is at. It’s part of an old hunting & fishing camp.

      I was walking with a friend & her guest, and my dog was walking with us. One of them threw the ball into the water. I told them they shouldn’t – way back in the day, the guys who ran the machine shop used to dump old glass, ceramic & whatever else behind the shed and into the water hereabouts, in this little bay, and it wasn’t the best place for a dog to swim.

      No sooner was I done saying it that my dog came out of the water, limping. Leg cut open from toe to shoulder. There isn’t a lot to hold a dog’s skin in place there, so it was basically all hanging off.

      Friends freaked. I didn’t. I told them to stay calm, that the dog would read our responses for cues on how to react. I very gently called her to me, picked her up (her bleeding/slit open foreleg on my shoulder). Mind going the whole while about who was around, what time it was, who I could go to for help. My mother was there, but was away, riding horses at a special thing at a nearby lake. The dining hall usually had people lingering, drinking coffee. That was my go-to destination. I legged it, straight up a slope/cliff that I still don’t know how I made it up (with both hands holding my dog up, no less). Went to the main camp, found someone leaving the dining hall, told her to stay calm- no. Freaaaaking out. “Oh my gawwwd!” Wailing. (And of course my dog started wiggling). She eventually went in, found the woman who rents my family the cabin (a nurse), and someone else found the camp manager. Those two did most of the work, stitching my dog up. I mostly kept her still, calm and relaxed.

      Honestly, I can’t think of much in recent memory that was as scary as that was. To say I cared about that dog would be understating it. But that’s something I inevitably touch on and think to when I think of the experience of being in a crisis. Even just thinking about it in restrospect gets my heart rate up a bit.

      • pidgey permalink

        Yeah, people can be calm under stress. But look at how you wrote this particular post, and compare it to how you wrote Blake’s reaction to his mirror getting punched from the inside. Calmly identifying a single course of action and then tunneling in on it is a reasonable, believable reaction.

        But that is very precisely what Blake did not do. He went around evaluating everything, turning it over in his head, and taking a very measured and thorough set of actions, while simultaneously saying how panicked and rushed he is. I mean, right in the middle of you writing about how he’s hurrying out the door, you list the things he thought to bring along. Then he’s rushing down the stairs but simultaneously examining his state of mind. Then he’s trying to borrow a car without offering an explanation, because of how much of a rush he’s in, while also pausing to make sure to make arrangements for a replacement band, and making sure his landlord got enough sleep.

        No one reacts like that to anything. You can’t be both simultaneously aimless and focused, or both panicked and level-headed. Trying to write a character’s reactions like that is an exercise in nonsense.

      • I’m sorry, I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about. To elaborate, when I was running to save my dog, I was thinking about what I needed to do to get out of the deep woods and get to a vet to help her. Who had a car, where I could find them. Not so different from Blake thinking about the basics he needed to grab as he pulled clothes on.

        Being in a state of shock is very much like being simultaneously focused yet confused, detached and hyperaware of details. Having slightly screwed up priorities in the midst of being in shock is normal. When the nurse came to help me with my dog, I think I apologized for interrupting her coffee and conversation two or three times. In Blake’s case, his attention to his landlord’s sleep is in relation to the scenario, an abstract outside threat he isn’t sure exists, as Rose warns him.

        I’m not saying there isn’t tweaking to be done, there is. But I think the main thrust of it was more or less okay, especially given who Blake is and his past experience.

        Your comments are pretty excessively negative, argumentative, and sometimes even rude, Pidgey. I’ve had a few people commenting on it, elsewhere. You commented a bit ago about how it was hard to frame the world when there was too much emphasis on one element – feedback is like that too, being hard to frame and take in when it’s almost entirely negative. You have 32 or so comments on this one blog, and 31 were negative, several were quite rude, and some were fairly condescending or presumptuous. Could I ask you to tone it down?

      • pidgey permalink

        I’m sorry if I’ve come across as excessively negative. I don’t mean to imply that I think you don’t have talent or that your work doesn’t have merit. It does. I thought I had been pretty careful to mention in basically every post that that’s true. Even in the post just above this, I’m saying that your description of your effort to save your dog is very realistic and interesting. It’s exactly the sort of writing I’ve gotten used to expecting from you. That’s the sort of descriptions I want to see in action sequences in your work.

        If I say that I think that such has been lacking recently, it’s only because I think you’re distracted by a lot of big changes that are affecting your writing, not that you don’t know how to do it. If that’s condescending or presumptuous to you, then that kinda hurts my feelings, because I would have thought that was the sort of feedback you’d be anxious to get.

      • pidgey permalink

        I mean, not to sound unpleasant at all, but I hope you can see that I’m trying pretty darn hard to give specific reasons why I don’t like certain things. I really think that’s better than saying “I can’t explain why, but I didn’t like such and such”. The fact that I’m focusing on the problems doesn’t mean I dislike your work more than most. Quite the opposite.

        One person in these comments in particular, Sindri, makes a noticeable effort after every chapter to explain away issues people bring up. That person often has great comments about how it seems like you probably intend for things to be, almost to the point where I look for those comments specifically to make your characters more interesting to me. As valuable and helpful as those posts are, I don’t think that’s helpful behavior, because it gives you incentive to be satisfied with your work needing to be covered for by someone else.

        Having people who are willing to point out to you when certain basic elements of fiction are being forgotten is important for every author.

      • The reason I share my explanations and conjectures and such is that very often people complain about how the author left something out, or how something cannot possibly make sense, when really they just haven’t looked carefully enough at what the author has already given. Everybody always says ‘show, don’t tell’ and rails against lengthy explanations and exposition (like Peer), but then the moment that the author does not explicitly spell out every single detail and instead gives you only what is required to see what is happening, those same people start whining about the lack of explanations or pointing out “holes” which don’t exist just because the reason behind something wasn’t covered in blinking red lights. Like the complaints about how Blake has a reasonable response to danger and the unknown, when the backstory we’ve been given already necessitates that. Or the “missing” emotional responses just because his emotions are conveyed in his thought processes and choices of actions rather than saying ‘this makes me angry’ every ten seconds.

        Best case scenario, people take my example and start reading further into things and thinking about the story more instead of just skimming the surface. Also good is when somebody was reading well, but just missed something and my explanation can help those few people without the author bogging things down for everybody (god knows there have been times I’ve had to go to comments to figure things out myself, but I greatly prefer that to when an author assumes they need to write down to the lowest common denominator or nobody will understand them). And when I’m outright wrong in my assumptions, which does happen, that gives a hint to the author that their clues might be misleading (or their red herrings are working perfectly, or I’m just thick).

        I very much doubt that an author will look at me, disregard the rest of the comment section, and say ‘everything is perfect, time to stop trying’. Especially when about half my comments are regarding perceived problems (like Blake’s continued lack of a discernable personality, leading to a notable dearth of interesting characters thus far, which shall hopefully be remedied as the story progresses and we get some breathing room for decent conversation and such).

      • So yes, constructive criticism is very valuable and helpful, but only when the person writing it has actually put some thought into what they’re criticizing and made sure that the problem exists. If you start whining at imagined slights, and then go on and on about them, it doesn’t matter how many “I love your writing, but”s you put in front of the ‘everything sucks now and you should just do what I say’.

      • pidgey permalink

        I’m pretty sure I’ve never said “everything sucks now”. I’ve been pretty generally positive about the work on this blog. I’ve certainly never said that wildbow should take the plot in a different direction or anything. He’s an incredibly creative guy, and I have total faith in his ability to make any of these stories interesting, and it would be incredibly presumptive of me to say that any direction he took his work would be “bad”.

        What I’m criticizing is basic elements of pacing, and character development. The sort of stuff that actually has objective right answers. I’m not saying that stuff is easy and that he’s doing anything wrong in his work, but those are things that essentially every author isn’t going to get perfect in a first draft. Since first drafts are all wildbow ever does, it’s important that he has *someone* who is capable of calling him out when he loses perspective (which, again, is something every author does).

      • And yet most of your comments are along the lines of calling Blake’s reactions unrealistic because he doesn’t fit into the perfect mold of realistic crisis response in your head. Despite the fact that everything he’s done so far has been well within the range of human psychology which I have personally met. You have a particular idea of what the “objective right answer” is and demand that Wildbow follow that line, when there are actually a multitude (if not infinitely many) equally correct answers and even more perfectly acceptable ones.

        It is important and helpful for somebody to take note if an author loses perspective (incidentally, that is by no means a certain thing, and more often takes the form of a failure to see any quality in their own work than a failure to see any flaws in it, at least among authors with any actual skill). It is certainly not important for somebody to “call him out” when he fails to match up with a single person’s particular ideal of flawlessness.

      • Blake resonates with me because when I mangled my right hand in an accident at the steel mill 17 years ago, I reacted a lot like I see Blake reacting, getting extremely analytical rather than panicked when injured. His ability to function with little regard for injuries suffered also resonates with me, as I also do not experience much pain at all when healing unless I aggravate wounds. I need pain medicine for the first 24 hours after surgery, after that I don’t want or need pain medicine. I’ve never had surgery inside the chest cavity, but I have had four wisdom teeth were removed, (three of them with a hammer and chisel) and three surgeries over 16 or so months as my hand was put back together after the above accident. The only time I have ever used a pain prescription for more than 24 hours after a surgery was after the second surgery on my hand. I needed help sleeping not because of the pain, but because I could feel my heartbeat in my hand so strongly that I couldn’t sleep as my hand was rebuilding blood vessels.

  12. MrThorSir permalink

    I love the worls that have been woven in to stories here. I honestly like each of these four stories, however, none of them quite feel complete yet. I think that any one of these settings could be absolutely fantastic, but a mixture of trying to cram plot, worldbuilding and strong characterisation into each shirt snippet of them makes them feel forced, quite unlike the steady cause and effect writing I am used to from Worm. In their current form, any of these could be woven into an interesting short or medium lenght story, but I feel that all would be improved by writing some shorter works in the world, before threading together a larger story- part of what made Worm enthralling was the way the characters glimpsed for a short while had been thought through- each had a coherent and well developed story of their own. I, for one, would love to see a pastiche of perhaps seven or eight different parts of society in boil, before following a larger plot within the setting, so that I have a more complete connection with the setting, rather than having to follow a protagonist whose actions are interrupted by worldbuilding. Naturally though, you are considerably more skilled than me at this, and I trust your judgement in the end.
    Whatever you chose to write, I will read it.

  13. Jay permalink

    Pact is totally my #1 choice, followed by boil and then face… I’m not gonna critique your characters or anything because while it may seem to us that a person shouldn’t be behaving in whatever way, we’ve only had two chapters to get to know them, so we shouldn’t try and act like we know whether they’re “too rational” in this situation or whatever.

  14. Yggdrazzil permalink

    I like Pact a lot! I still like Peer most though!

  15. Hobo Joe permalink

    This is my first time commenting on here, just wanna say I like this one the best. I like Blake so far as a character, probably because he’s pretty similar to me. The setting is intriguing, and I would love to read more about him figuring out what is going on, especially with Rose. Part 1 was a bit of a slog, though I understand that the story needed a backdrop. I felt like a lot of the family interactions were too dramatic and unconvincing, though. For example, talking about other family members make “plays” doesn’t sound like the way anyone would ever talk, but rather like a story would be told from a detached perspective. On the other hand, the more subtle and believable interactions worked very well, like the father saying “you have tattoos”, using a blunt but plausibly deniable statement to direct a lot of disapproval.

    Boil was looking very promising in part 1, but honestly part 2 killed it for me, I know it was a fan favorite but I hope it isn’t the one picked. The protagonist went from being an interesting and sympathetic character to being a weirdly naive revolutionary in 2 hours. The story felt like a setup of a relatable character in part 1, but part 2 ended up feeling like someone just venting all their frustration with “the system” with a crude lack of subtlety. Schools, corporations, governments, moral breakdown of society, and general public apathy were all themes that showed up, and it just seems like really low hanging fruit. The interactions with the disembodied head also felt very… Unconvincing.

    Peer was shaping up to be decent in part 3, but I couldn’t get attached to the protagonist at all, he was too apathetic and detached, and the story was tiringly political. In general there was nothing that stick out to me about the setting or the characters that I actively disliked, but it just seemed bland in general.

    I’m not sure how many more samples you’ll be writing, but I would definitely like to see more of this.

  16. I like ’em all, ’cause you’re a damn fine writer, Mr. Pig.

    Hg

  17. I like this a lot, I think it nearly ties with Boil for me, and if we account for the fact that some of my affection for Boil is likely due to nostalgia for Worm, then this might even be edging it out a tad! Next would probably be Face, which picked up in the second chapter, but had a beginning that just felt too jerky and disjointed to me. Peer was my least favourite, not meaning to be rude or mean here, but I probably wouldn’t read it if it were continued, not my genre and the setting and protagonist didn’t jump out at me.

    As for Blake’s reaction to stress being unrealistic, that seems frankly silly. Many people in the real world handle stressful and dangerous situations similarly, sometimes only after training but often innately. (And given that Blake has had to live on the streets and managed to get off of them, he’s had a lot of informal “training” in that regard). It’s a spectrum we all vary on, and it’s no more unrealistic to place a protagonist on the more useful end of that spectrum than for them to know parkour or be a good cook.

  18. Mayhem permalink

    I think it’s down to Pact or Boil for me (I like Boil a little more, but the difference between them is smaller than the difference between them and Face). I didn’t find the family stuff that engaging when it was happening, but now that there’s this twist with Rose and with grandma maybe not being as terrible as we thought, I think that adds a really interesting dimension–that is, the family stuff is much more interesting in retrospect/it would make a better flashback than a prologue. Blake doesn’t seem too rational to me, his reactions feel desperate to me, not calculated. I find myself wanting to know more about the various mysteries brought up so far–Rose and the house and grandma and dying at the stroke of midnight. And I want to hear more about Molly and Paige–I assume Paige is last to give her the biggest chance…I guess what I mean is that there’s opportunities to read between the lines that I really appreciate, as a reader.

    Also? Male protagonist a world with female-only magic (which I’m guessing this is from grandma/Rose/etc) as I’ve seen it written in Dune, Sword of Truth–where the guy gets the female magic and is automatically the Prophesied One and way more powerful than the girls–is always and inherently terrible. BUT the inclusion of Rose makes me wonder if you’re actually setting up something completely different. So to the extent that you intend to subvert that awful, awful trope, I’m interested in this story, but if you were going to play it straight I’d shy away from it. (ALSO I think Rose might actually make a more interesting protagonist than Blake. Finding out Blake’s backstory through her eyes would be much more interesting than presented through his, and the flight from the monsters in this chapter would be that much more horrifying if you were almost totally dependent on another person to carry you around. Hearing about the family meeting and Blake’s hatred for Grandma secondhand would both be interesting, heighten the sense of unreliable narration, and also allow a means of condensing that slog somewhat–or to reposition it to a place in the story where it’s more interesting, where what’s at stake is clearer. And the idea of being a fake/partial person or a could-have-been makes for a potentially fascinating protagonist, to me. Of course this depends on what you have planned for the characters, but I definitely would want to see her developed in her own right.)

    Face I felt meh about for three reasons:
    1)Everyone seemed to have a way better understanding of what was going on and what they needed to do than made any sense in context. The stuff with the questions, for example. I did like that it wasn’t necessarily a battle royale deathmatch, though. It’s becoming a hugely overused trope in anime, and even if in American media there’s still the Hunger Games.

    2)The setup of Face feels too similar to the setup of Worm (which was the weakest part of Worm, to boot):
    a)single dad
    b)protag suddenly being bullied by a girl
    c)protagonist has power to stop it but doesn’t dare to because they’re a nice person…sort of
    d)must keep anyone at home from knowing about the life-or-death stuff I’m wrapped up in!
    e)secret identities, masks, etc

    Obviously some of these things changed in Worm and some of them would presumably change in Face, but it felt too close to Worm in its setup.

    3)Wes felt opaque as a protagonist. We’re aware he has some criminal background but not what, he’s so cool-as-a-cucumber that it’s hard to relate to him, except when he immediately gets angry and tries to turn the tables on people who, at that point, had yet to do anything wrong, and seems to know what’s going on long before the reader has a clue….Presumably there are reasons for all these things, but as a reader I feel alienated from him.

    Boil….I just liked Boil. I liked the world, I liked the protagonist, I liked how it had the good parts of The Name of The Wind with a poor protagonist connected to a University that looms incredibly large and teaches arcane skills (even if it’s not magic here, it’s close enough) without the terrible sexism and Nice Guy bs. I’m not sure the REVOLUTION!! stuff in Part 2 really worked out, though–basically everything Hobo Joe said (except I loved the severed head interactions). I feel like revolution is a motivation/goal that needs to be built up over time? Also…are there good things about this world? Are there reasons (other than apathy) someone might not want a revolution, some ways in which this society is better than the status quo? And how should Genie’s perspective on things, as someone who grew up with this(?) be different from ours, to whom this is not normal? Dystopias where the world is all bad or fall into the trap of Caveman Science Fiction have ceased to feel that interesting after watching the much more subtle Psycho Pass. Worm had a great balance between a lot of things on the surface being really great, but knowing from an outside perspective/as time went on that this world went utterly to shit as a result of powers (yet there are still things to like about it)–I hope you could find some of that balance for whichever story you end up going forward with?

    All three stories (haven’t read Peer since you said you weren’t going forward with it) plus Worm all have protagonists who really can’t deal with Authority / Authority that is (almost) always wrong (at least in the protagonist’s eyes). It would be neat to see a protagonist who understood the the value of order and wasn’t completely allergic to it, even when they did have to resist it sometimes/even when it chafed. In Worm we did eventually get a sense of Taylor being incorrect, that sometimes it was really better not to tear everything down, but I’m not sure she herself ever really realized that.

    IDK, I guess what I really liked about Boil was the protagonist and the University. If we started earlier/slower and went into her plans already in motion by attending University, and had a bit more plausible revolutionary setup, then I think it would work out really well.

  19. The Sandman permalink

    I think for me, I’d say that I prefer Pact as far as the next “big” project, and Face as a relatively shorter item between Worm and Pact; Pact has a lot of potential for more stories after the first arc comes to an end, while I really want to find out what in the hell is going on in Face.

    Boil has an interesting world and a potentially interesting character, but something about the “lone person decides to start a revolution against society” as the basis for a long-term plotline just bugs me. It just seems a bit cliche, and unrealistic to boot (successful revolutionaries, I think, tend to assemble their initial companions before they make the decision to overthrow the old regime). The main character goes too quickly and too willingly from joining the ranks of the oppressors to trying to fight them after her rejection, without the sense of bitterness I’d expect. As a connected series of short stories, though, I think Boil might work quite well; sort of Sherlock Holmes meets Paolo Bacigulapi, I guess it would be.

    Peer needs work. It just felt clunky, for lack of a better term to describe it. The worldbuilding that’s utterly essential to any fantasy story not set in a pre-existing world (including the real one) just didn’t feel properly integrated into the story (as opposed to being a pile of infodumps). Probably one to come back to in the future, with more experience in writing stories set in worlds farther from our own than Worm’s (although in future editing passes, I think Worm itself might benefit from such, at least where it comes to determining how history and society would have changed following the point of divergence in the 1980s).

  20. Bgbg permalink

    This is awesome! The others were pretty good, but this one really ‘hooked’ me. You have the creativity to take it in interesting directions, please do so.

  21. AlsoSprachOdin permalink

    Typos (or rather, missing stuff):
    “I don’t forget your car back to you soon” – forget to get your (?)

    And a paragraph seems missing between
    “I don’t make that much money.””
    and
    “He nodded. “Sure, then. You need help getting up?””

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