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Sample: Pact 3

December 24, 2013

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.

“Blake-”

“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.”

“Ordinary?”

“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…”

“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.

“What?”

“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.”

“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.

Glamour.

Poppets.

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.

“What?”

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.

Yours,R.D.R.

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.

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122 Comments
  1. AndR permalink

    Loving it! I’ll probably read whatever you write, and I might like Pact most because it’s the freshest, but right now I’d say Pact > Face > Peer > Boil is the ranking for me.

  2. Togop permalink

    I liked these chapter better than the previous two, but the answers provided worsen expectations about the setting (which I had rated worst of the four anyway). We have a rebellious mc in a setting that just calls for a rebellion. However so far the mc just has to go along with things instead for a while (doing so makes sense, and that’s what he seems to be doing), and that’s a situation I usually find irritating to read about. Well, I could be wrong.

  3. I enjoyed this a lot. Definitely would want to see more! And happy holidays!

  4. evilquaelgeist permalink

    I am torn between pact and boil,
    I really like all four samples but face mainly captured by writing and pacing while neither the characters nor the setting really appeal to me. In peer on the other Hand I liked both the setting and a lot of the characters, of whom you sadly killed most but you are clearly not as comfortable writing it, which shoes.

    Boil and Pact on the other hand are well paced and have interesting settings and characters, and i find the settings even more interesting than Peer’s, which I already found really facinating. But I find pact’s setting more interesting than Boil’s, mainly it has that feel of old mythologie and fary tales to it, which i really like and find far to little of. I especially like the rules about lieing and oath. In Boil thought, I find the main character more interesting, sadly i don’t find the right words to describe why.

    Anyways while i would like to read both of them, i know there can be only one, for now, and while i would prefer for it to be either Pact or Boil, I will most likely read anything you write.

  5. ACH permalink

    Pact sounds amazing. I definitely vote for this one.

  6. Honestly conflicted between this and Boil now, am sort of leaning towards this.

  7. Shoal permalink

    this is awesome! i hope this one wins!

  8. Nicely developed.

  9. Tollymain permalink

    I’m personally of the opinion that a happy writer is a good writer :V

    Which story are you personally feeling most inclined to write, Wildbow?

  10. Aaaaaaand SOLD! This chapter has me rubbing my hands together and licking my lips. I love that he gets to learn magic and that we get the Woldbow level of detail and rationality. Pleas just continue in with this one.

  11. Daniel S permalink

    Pact is my favorite.

    Like Boil, our protagonist has an obvious big problem and unabashedly commits to trying to solve it, which makes him exciting to read.

    And Blake is a stranger to the weird stuff he’s dealing with, just like me. That makes it easier for me to connect with him. (With the other protagonists, they kept acting knowledgeable or unconcerned where I was ignorant and curious.)

    What’s more, this “inheritance” setup gives me cool things to look forward to in Blake’s story. Because of Grandmother’s roadmap and the way Blake needs to grow into her capacities to survive, I get to look forward to familiars, demesnes, old allies and old enemies, and so on. That sort of “vision of what the hero has to become, if they survive” is much vaguer in the other three.

    So (1) because I get this cool frame of Blake’s possible future to look forward to (through the inheritance and Grandmother’s “roadmap”), and (2) because Blake is stuck with a really big problem and is working hard to solve it, and (3) because he’s unabashedly ignorant and trying to figure things out just like I am — for all those reasons, Pact is my favorite.

    I hope you write the rest!

  12. MondSemmel permalink

    The setting sounds increasingly intriguing – more appealing than Peer, and the setting of Face is still a big question mark. I prefer the setting of Boil, but I understand that keeping that world consistent might require crippling amounts of research.

    But I still don’t like Blake. He’s too…normal, too boring; he’s not sufficiently awesome at the beginning of the story. Taylor was interesting in that she started at an incredibly low point in her life, but she’d done her homework, looked into cape stuff, experimented with her powers etc. all before the story began. Westley didn’t have superpowers, but his personality was intriguing. Genevieve was a mad scientist… And so on.
    In contrast, Blake hasn’t managed to surprise or amaze me yet. (Same with Rose.) I have no doubt that whatever protagonist you choose to write has the potential to become awesome in the story, but if you go forward with Pact, I’d rather see someone with the personality and/or abilities of one of your other settings in his shoes. I’d like to see Westley bargain with devils, or Genevieve study the rules of this magical world … Or someone altogether different, of course.
    In any case, is there really no better option than Blake?

    • How is Genie less boring than Blake? What makes her sufficiently awesome?
      I think Boil’s setting and nature of Genevieve’s problem just allowed more action and immediate decision making with all the knowledge she has.
      Blake, on the other hand, is completely in the dark. He shows much potential as he deals with situations with a huge number of unknowns.
      Blake’s character is, like the Pact samples themselves, a slow start with much potential.

  13. Kachajal permalink

    Ahhh, good stuff. I absolutely adore this chapter. The first two were lukewarm, this one’s excellent.

    Mooooore.

  14. dpara permalink

    mmh damn you Wildbow, I thought nothing could shake Boil from my first place, but it is shaking.

    Yeah I think I’d order it Pact>Boil>Peer>Face now.

  15. Kytin permalink

    I still think that Boil has the most potential out of the samples seen so far, but Pact seems to be… written smoother? Boil has a few moments where the writting feels a little clumsy, where a piece of information is simply insetered into the story and disrupts the flow a bit, or where the description of the protagonist’s internal thoughts doesn’t quite feel right for some reason. Nothing really obvious and probably easy to fix with a little editing.
    Pact on the other hand, hasn’t had as much. I don’t think that the story has the potential to reach the same hights as Boil (just going by my impression of the setups), but Pact’s full potential might be easier to reach.

    • Agreed. Boil is my favorite concept, world, and character, but Pact is a close runner up and the author is definitely more comfortable and maybe better prepared for Pact. So the best thing is probably if Pact moves forward now and then Boil happens in a year or two; that way we get both at top quality.

  16. eduardo permalink

    My vote is still the same pact = boil > peer >face but this chapter is really good. Thank you for the fun.

  17. Jack permalink

    Oh yeah! I was on the fence for the last two chapters. But this, this is the one. The whole creeping horror about the Others, magic has caught me. I like the sort of grungy horror mixed with what seems like the beginning of some urban fantasy very catchy. Mystery magic and horror, a potent combo.

  18. A. Nagy permalink

    Replace Blake with Wesley boom problem solved.

    Pact’s MC, almost doesn’t feel real to me yet we see him get angry at things but he just doesn’t pop like the characters Wesley and Casper did.

    Face/Peer had great MC’s but I felt like Face’s backstory was uninteresting. Peer had a great idea but it felt almost sloppy I would like to see it another attempt at something very similar with the exact same lead.

    Boil is too similar to Worm I would rather have you branch out.

    Current thoughts in their current form.

    Pact > Face / Peer > Boil

    • I still fail to see the parallels between Taylor and Genie.

      • A. Nagy permalink

        Both wanted to be good and work with the “good guys”. Whelp that didn’t go so well, so now they are justifying their own actions which will make them undoubtedly make questionable moral choices throughout the story. Plus superpowers automagically arn’t too far apart from biopunk abilities. The thoughts of Genie read very similar to Taylor’s thought process as well, I mean it was different but I caught a good bit more Taylor in Genie then I did well any of the other characters.

        Taylor was a great character but I would prefer to have a significantly different MC and different story because it’s a breath of fresh air and for most authors. Boil would be great if we didn’t just come off of Worm.

  19. So far, my preference is:
    Boil>Pact>Peer>Face.
    I’m rating Boil higher mainly because there’s currently way too little Mad Science out there, compared to Fantasy & mainstream SF; it’s a supply/demand thing 😉
    That said, Pact seems interesting – handing the protagonist a minor library and saying “yeah we’re gonna need you to read this ASAP” is a refreshing change compared to most urban fantasy I’ve read, where all the actual studying is usually relegated to the backstory.

    Anyway, whichever story you choose to work on, I’m pretty sure I’ll be a reader of it, so go with what works for you 🙂

  20. I am torn between Pact and Boil. I am currently casting my vote for Boil, not necessarily because I think it would be better, but because there isn’t enough like it out there. Biopunk is an underrated and for me underserved genre, but the setting of Pact feels more generic. I think both would be excellent, but Boil would set you up as someone who does unusual worlds.

  21. Jarred permalink

    I thought I was sold on Boil, but I think I have converted to Pact.

    It seems to be the most cohesive story. Aside from the bit of chaos in the first chapter that involved a bunch of jumping around, it seems to fit together the best. I really like the concept of the witch who has too many enemies, and it is a very interesting take on the concept that this guy now gets thrown into the hot seat.

    Boil would be my second favorite. I the story line is just as solid as Pact, but the content/theme is a little less appealing short term. I liked the first two chapters a bit more in Boil, but that could be due to the fact we get to see the core element of the conflict sooner.

  22. I love Pact. But Boil is a close second. Don’t care too much for Face or Peer. I would really love it if you continue Pact and then start on Boil after you finish Pact.

  23. Pact feels more ready to me, somehow. Maybe I’m imagining it but it just seems like it fits together into a whole better than the others. I like boil too, but boil had it’s moments of disjointedness that I just don’t see much of that here.

    I’ll give anything you write a shot Wildbow, but this seems like it’s the easiest for you to write, the smoothest transitions, the bits and pieces falling into place. I suppose you might have just spent a lot more time on it, and that’s why, but you’ve been writing regularly for a couple years, regularly and successfully, I’d imagine that changing your actual style of writing isn’t likely to happen between boil and pact.

    You write anything, I’ll read at least the first few chapters of it. You write this or boil and I can almost guarantee I’ll be here for the duration.

  24. No One in Particular permalink

    This is definitely my favorite. My only problem is that is is such a fascinating story, and I’d like to read it for more than a book, as you said your next big project will come after this. If I had to order it:
    1. Pact
    2. Boil and Face
    3. Peer

    I really like the plot ideas for Boil, but I’ve never read bio punk before and I don’t really get it. Worried about keeping up. Face- murder games? THAT I get. Good luck with whatever you write, though.

  25. Andreas permalink

    Hi I just wanted to drop in and say that I really like your stories! but my favourite must be pact.

  26. Subbak permalink

    Meh… Still not convinced. The laundry lists of things to do in Grandma’s letter felt more like the tech tree of a Minecraft-style video game (yes I’ve been playing Don’t Starve lately, why do you ask) than how magic would actually work in a non-game setting. Okay, I get that Grandma’s probably written most of the books herself, but still I feel things should be learned more organically.

    I still vote for either Boil or Face.

    • The ‘harness the power within yourself’ style of magic should be organic. The ‘bargains with otherworldly entities and complex rituals’ style requires a fuckton of book-learning to get started, figuring out who’s who and exactly how to properly form the arcane diagrams and such. And getting good at it is based more on cleverness and charisma.

  27. SpydirShell permalink

    I liked Boil the best of the previews. In part because the main character acts on goals rather than reacting to the situation they are in. In addition it has a non-standard background. Peers – high fantasy / Pact – urban fantasy. Faces – either urban fantasy or modern sci-fi (or both) – the sample didn’t go into enough detail as to what was actually going on to figure that out.
    Pact and Peers both seem to both have a fairly well developed background.
    Faces is my least favorite – primarily since none of the characters feel that sympathetic to me.

  28. Louise Watson-Carver permalink

    No change here; still don’t like Blake, still think Rose is a non-entity and *still* dislike this sample.
    And yes, I do understand the selection isn’t up to me; I just wanted to share my opinions and moan a bit.

    Thank-you, Wildbow, for the fiction and your comments, thoughts on writing. And thanks also for taking the time and trouble to post all this. Some free advice (and potentially worth what you paid for it): Work on your main characters, trim heavily (i.e. kill your darlings) and get an EDITOR!

    Best of luck, and keep going.

  29. DasNiveau permalink

    So back to commenting when i’m not drunk.

    I like Pact. The Main Character is ok’ish. The setting is cool.

    I’m still rooting for Boil, but if Wildbow is not up to too much tech-blah then Pact is second on my list. And close second after the last teaser.

    Peer is third and after the heavy cut qute unlikly.

    Face is still plain meh. With it’s strongest point of beeing “just” 15 Nights long.

  30. dreugeworst permalink

    Pact gets my vote, I like it way better than the other 3. If not pact, then Boil I guess =)

  31. Unmaker permalink

    More details and critique later, but I am sort of hoping for a smart gamer meeting real magic scenario. Right now his greatest unusual resource is his alter ego, who has already suggested a hack – each reading half the books and claiming they have read them all. Just off the top of my head:

    —Put a reflective surface on his back – literal eyes in the back of your head.

    —Coordinate sleep schedules, e.g. one reads while the other is asleep, reverse, and then discuss the reading. Double the reading, plus little chance of getting caught off guard while asleep.

    —Spying. Rose can move items between mirror worlds. In the real world, create a large but relatively light mirror and put a few small scratches on the reflective layer so you can see through it. She carries the mirror to the next “outlet” and places it over the outlet. The other side might see some extra depth to the reflected image but it should pass a casual examination. Rose can then keep quiet and look through the scratches.

    —Spying part 2. Can Rose take pictures from her world?

    —Weaponry. Person-portable lasers strong enough to blind are available. Can Rose use one?

    —Communication (requires some technical knowledge). Leave a computer or smart phone on near a mirror, keyed to voice commands. Rose can then interact significantly with the real world. That is a hell of a hack, but is also a sanity saver – imagine if you were suddenly restricted to a world that was dark/nonexistent except for those places with reflective surfaces.

    And yes, there are probably restrictions that will limit some or all of these, but still. And there are probably some nasty surprises about Rose’s existence that will bite one or both of them. Etc.

  32. I’m only up to 6.3 in Worm (just found it), but I happened across the note about there being a sample of new stories and thought I’d check ’em out. I’ve read Boil, and now Pact. I like ’em both.
    I liked the first chapter of this one better than that of Boil – I thought Blake’s character quite compelling, with him telling off ol’ Gran. I wasn’t fond of the second chapter, because I felt so out of the loop, but so did Blake, so I could at least identify. And that may have made this chapter even more of a relief – I love libraries, and secret rooms, so this chapter really grabs me. And I like how Blake is feeling safe enough to do a little venting.
    Daniel S made some good points, as did many other commenters. As far as characters go, I liked the MC here better than Boil’s. And, as others have mentioned, we get to learn along with Blake, as opposed to be continually surprised by what Ms Fray already knows.
    I really like the BioPunk setting you developed for Boil a lot, and I understand that you are starting at the action. Still, I wish we could go through her school days with her – learning with the protagonist is one of my favorite types of stories, though not especially germane to the plot you’re obviously developing there.
    Anyway, I liked ’em both, and would happily read on in either. I think I’ll get back to Worm now — if you go with one of the samples I haven’t tried I’m sure I’ll find them good reads as well. 🙂

  33. DasNiveau permalink

    Well, I had a little car crash today. A Mercedes trided to mate my car from behind. Nothing bad happend only a scratched paint i guess. But I still got a little shock.
    Was awfully cold the rest of the day and my head hurt.

    Then it evolved in my confused mind:

    I felt Tayloriffic!

    Nice to get your favorite heroine to know better.

    • The incoherency of that line last makes worry me. Have you doctor a seen?

      • DasNiveau permalink

        oh nonono.
        The last line was just me failing at english.
        after a good night in my bed im fine.
        Do not worry.

  34. Derek permalink

    Pact over Boil over Face over Peer. And I don’t think that is just recentism speaking.

  35. Well, that connects some dots. And it certainly helps explain why Paige is last on the list – she’s the one whom Rosalyn D. Rosine least wanted to screw over with this obligation.

    Cat must have been her familiar.

  36. BrainFreeze permalink

    Well, that chapter changed my opinion. It was boil>pact>peer>face, now it is pact>boil>peer>face.
    That is brilliant and i hope you will choose it.

  37. changeling permalink

    Pact is brilliant. I would like to see it continued.

  38. Lars permalink

    Pact > Face > Boil > Peer. Glad to hear you settled on Pact.

  39. zebuddha permalink

    Conceptually, I’d go for Peer, but it’s a mess – it needs a serious revision/rewrite.

    Boil is… well, too close to Worm really. While the world behind it is fascinating, it reads like a Worm sidestory.

    Face feels, at least from the sample, too limited – (starting with) 15 nights, The Cube / Survivor-esque sci-fi (and I hate survivor and any similar tv dribble).

    So, in the end, and mainly because of the quality of the writing, the smoothness of the story, and the cohesiveness of it all, I’m happy to hear it’s going to be Pact. Looking forward to seeing where you take it!

  40. ciss permalink

    I’d really like to keep on following this story!

  41. The meeting calculation is off.

    “Second Saturday of every month” means once per month. This means that there are 60 meetings in a five year period.

    260 meetings (with a maximum of 13 missed) assumes 52 meetings per year, so every week.

    Based on a 5% rule that would mean missing 3 out of 60 would be the limit.

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