Null 9.4

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I guess I’m starting from the beginning.

It wasn’t a memory.  More like a stage play, an act, the objects around me were props, not replicas.

The Drains were telling me I wasn’t out, maybe.  Or tainting my memories with some twisted version, to make bad memories worse.

A light rain fell, and it was dark.  The sky above me was pitch black, and I stood in the middle of a field of grass.  It was blighted.  The lighting was strange, without source, but sufficient to give me a glimpse of a landscape that extended from horizon to horizon.  Flat, checkerboard patterns where the dirt or grass were in different states.  Here and there, I saw animals in the distance.  A gaunt horse, a cow with some prolapsed uterus or intestine dangling from its rear end, a goat with blood on its snout.

I was shirtless, shockingly skinny even to myself, my arms smeared with mud, scratched and rubbed raw here and there.  My body wasn’t my own.  It wasn’t the body I’d worn before I was sent to the Drains, and it wasn’t the body I’d worn in the Drains.  I was lean, eighteen, skin, muscle and bone, with barely a half-pound of fat on my body.

I’d never been stronger, yet exhaustion had a firm hold on me.  Not just the tiredness of a hard day’s work.  The tiredness that came from working oneself to the point of collapse one day, sleeping five hours, then doing it the next, for days on end.  A simple push could have laid me flat.

I was okay with it.  I took in a deep breath, and even the taint of the Drains that marked this place didn’t take away from that essential experience.  The air of the outdoors.  Of cow and horse shit, wet grass, and oxygen.

I felt that peace.  Brief and fleeting, but peace all the same.

I recognized it, in a way.  This was where I’d stood, a little more than two years ago, when I’d first been okay.  Maybe okay for the first time I could remember.  No stresses of family, or school, or ambient hostility, no pressures, no watching people I cared about tear each other apart…

It was okay, but not perfect.  I did have worries looming on the horizon, but it was a damn sight better than it had ever been, and there was hope it could better.

It was a heady feeling, a scary one, because of how fragile and how very surreal it was.  The alien nature of this landscape only enhanced that surreal quality.

My grimy hands pulled a rubber band free from my hair, then pushed that same long, damp hair away from my face.  I tied it back with the simple elastic, so the hair was against the nape of my neck.

The fact that I could do that much of my own volition meant I wasn’t limited to being an observer here, like I had been in the visions Laird and Conquest had bestowed on me.

My heart pounded.

“What are the rules here?” I murmured.  I wasn’t sure if I expected a response or not.  What form would that response take?  An ominous voice?

I grabbed the poles to my right, jutting out of the ground, I recognized them as part of a post hole digger, and I slammed it into the earth.

Eerie, to have two functioning hands, a working leg.  I could see out of both eyes, and the vision out of my right was somehow too sharp, the outlines too defined, as if my brain was overcompensating after the recent lack.

Hole dug, I had to walk ten feet to the pile of wooden posts and boards.  I grabbed one post and a few boards, gathering them up in my arms, and waddled back.  Post into the vacant space… I checked it was secure.

The wood wasn’t supposed to be such poor quality.  It looked like the sections of a post I’d be replacing, not putting up.

All the same, I carried out the necessary steps.  Rotate the post until the slot was in the right place, then move the boards into place.  Nail them in.  I unrolled the length of wire fencing to run along the new section of fence, and I stapled it in place.

I looked at the post hole digger.

I knew what came next.  I’d reach for it, pick it up, but I wouldn’t get to the point of digging the hole.

I bit my lip, and I kept my hands where they were.  I watched the field instead.

Intentionally breaking from pattern.

“Everything alright?” the voice was deeper.

I turned to look.  I didn’t flinch as I saw the old man.

An actor, so to speak?  He looked Other.  His face was pale meat, eyes invisible in the midst of puckered, infected flesh, his mouth a slash across the lower half of his face, the vague hole that was his nose was off-center.

“Everything’s great,” I said.  The rain was falling harder, the light not so expansive, if I was noticing right.

Was that the result of deviating from the script?

He put one hand on the post, giving it a test for stability.  The fingers were all blurred together, like a burn victim’s.  “You’re doing good work, Blake.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ve paid people who weren’t as quick to get their heads around what they were supposed to be doing.  You’ve got a knack.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Now that I wasn’t so active, the cold drizzle was starting to get to me.  I headed to the treeline and grabbed my shirt from where I’d hung it.  The trees seemed too bright and green, given the darkness of the sky, the branches jagged and gnarled.  I pulled the flannel shirt on.

In the midst of the silence, my response was halfway second nature and acting the part, halfway to remembering the line I was supposed to give, “I like having something to do.”

He turned, looking toward the house in the distance.  “Stop what you’re doing, come and eat?”

“I don’t have much more to do.  Can I-”

“I insist,” he said.  His voice was serious.  “I want to chat.”

“Should I bring the tools or-”

“Under the trees,” he said.  “You can get back to it this afternoon.  If the rain’s too bad, you can just pick them up.  Don’t forget.”

It took only a second to move everything from the fence-in-progress to the shelter of the treeline, a matter of feet away.

We walked through the field to head to the house.  A minute passed.  An awfully quiet minute, considering the ‘I want to chat’, a moment before.

I felt trepidation.  Not for the same reason the me of then had.  The me of then was worried about getting fired.  The me of now was worried about what was coming.

“You’re planning on staying the winter?” he asked, breaking the silence.

“Um.  Given the chance, please,” I said.  Then, the me of then felt compelled to add, “I was hoping to have a guaranteed warm place.  It was sort of the point of doing this.”

I remembered how I’d felt guilty about guilt-tripping him.

“Thought so,” he said, festering meat hole of a mouth opening and closing.

I hated to see someone I’d looked up to made into something so disgusting.  It was a slap in the face.

Fuck me, I’d been so relieved then.  Now it was just one step further along the path.

“I was talking about it with Chrissy,” he said.  “We’re kind of in an awkward place.  Wanted to figure out where you stood before we got ahead of ourselves.”

“Awkward?”

“Deal stands, Blake.  You’ve got room and board so long as you’re willing to help out.  I’m as happy to have you as you are to be here, if I’m not making bad assumptions.”

He didn’t sound happy.  “I’m happy to be here.”

When the first really cold rain had hit for the early fall, I’d headed to the youth shelter.  The idea had been floated around by shelter staff, that if we wanted secure accommodations, there was always a chance to find work in the more rural areas between the big cities.  Situations just like this.  Farmers who needed help but couldn’t afford to pay a wage.

It was tentative, mostly for springtime when the workload was heavier.  Most who made the offer had been bitten more than a few times.  Stuff stolen, addicts who flaked, choosing the high over the work.  The job could end any time, without warning, and it was very possible to be worse off in the end than if we hadn’t tried at all.

I’d made the leap, and it had worked out for the most part.

“There’s already frost on the ground, first thing in the morning.  You’re not dressed for it, and neither Chrissy or me have clothes that would come close to fitting you.  If you keep going like you are, you’re going to hurt yourself.”

I very deliberately avoided looking at his more prodigious stomach.  It bulged in a weird way, like he had a hernia or parasite.

He continued, “Unless I’m wrong, you don’t have money to buy better clothes, and we- we’re not in a position to buy clothes for you, however helpful you are.  Not good, rugged, warm clothes that are going to do you for the winter.”

“Oh,” I said.

“I’m not wrong then,” he said.  “You didn’t think that far ahead?  You don’t have clothes I don’t know about?”

“No,” I said.  “Even if I had thought about it, I don’t think there was much I could do.”

“I suppose you’re right, Blake.  Six or seven hours a day of work outdoors, it’s… it would be cruel to expect you to do it, as it stands, and it’d hurt us more than it helped if we kept you on but kept you indoors, in terms of finances and all that.”

I didn’t have a response for him.  There was only waiting.

“Might have to let you go,” he said.  “Just to be safe.”

Oh, the anger that the me of then had experienced.  The frustration, even.  Not so different from my recent experience in the drains.

To fight and work myself feverishly for a place in the world, to do it with my own strength, then to get kicked while I was down, again.  To try my hardest and just have circumstance take it all away?

“Sorry,” he said.

“Yeah, I am too,” I said.  My feelings were so bare that I could only decide between sullenness and anger, and I’d gone for the former.  I’d hated how I’d sounded, then.  How much it reminded me of the family I’d run away from, the passive-aggressiveness.

“I was thinking, after you’re done with the fence, you want to help me with wiring the lighting in the new stable?  You’d learn something you could take with you.”

“Back to the streets?” I asked.  “Yeah, might keep me warm in the coming months, earn me a job.”

I’d been looking to wound, maybe, to slap him in the face, to get a reaction.

He didn’t flinch.

I’d probably felt worse at hearing those words come out of my mouth than he did.

“Shit,” I muttered.  Even now, my shame was as sharp as it had been then.  “Sorry.  Nevermind that, please.  Please just forget I said that.  I’d really like to learn whatever you can teach.”

The silence was like a weight around my neck, too heavy.  Each step forward was harder than the last.

“You know what?  I’m going into town tonight,” he said.  “Need to pick up some stuff.  Why don’t you come?  I can maybe ask some people I know, they’ve got kids who are or were about your age, might have some stuff to spare.  You can stop by the bin at the back of the church.  Bit of a long shot, lot of a long shot, and I dunno how you feel about…”

Oh.

That was how this worked, wasn’t it?

Just like the witch had told me.

All I had to do was say no.

This would end here, on this pleasant note.

All I had to do was deviate from the script.

“About relying on the kindness of others?” I asked, before he could say begging.  “If it means staying, it’s fine.  That’d be great.”

The ‘great’ came out a little strained to my own ears, where I’d meant it to be enthusiastic, meaningful.

“Good man,” he said.

One meaty lump of a hand fell on my shoulder.  For the me of now, it was a weight, body contact, uncomfortable to the point of being unbearable.  For the me of then, it was the first time anyone had ever called me a man in a way that felt real.

There was a reason I was starting this early on.  Digging into a period of time I didn’t even like to think about.

Lose-lose, in the end.  Either I said no, and I gave up, or I said yes, over and over, knowing what was coming.

It wasn’t as fragmented as I’d hoped it would be.  No jumps from scene to scene.

The environment and the hideousness of my surroundings began to grate, fluctuating here and there.  Eating was hard, the taste slightly off.  Everything uncomfortable.  There was no respite here.

I felt like there was a rule at work, and it wasn’t entirely about the script, the story, or the stage.

I was making my way through this with hindsight, and wherever that hindsight helped me against what had been unfamiliar or uncomfortable before, this landscape replaced it with ugliness.  The food was an unfamiliar taste, the dynamic at work still uncomfortable, and that was represented in the meal.

The me of then hadn’t quite been able to trust people.  People were made monstrous.

The end result was that I was more or less on the same equivalent footing as I had been back then.

My mind was working overtime to figure out how this place worked, to take my thoughts off the future, and the realization of when and why things were ugly was my sole epiphany, over the course of the day’s work, finishing the fence and learning about the wiring.

My anxiety ratcheted up as it came time for us to head to town.  In the end, the me of now was almost in a worse mental space than I had been then.

Fuck.  Fuck.

Fuck this reality.  Fuck the Drains.

The small town came into view.  Old buildings, peeling paint, all under a dark sky.  The streetlamps and lights from inside the buildings were the sole illumination.

Fuck, fuck fuck.

Fuck.

The car stopped.

“Got some stuff to do, errand, asking around,” he said.  “Meet you here in, hm, hour and a half?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Good luck,” he said.

I nodded.

This spot was darker, a little more jumbled, the buildings closer together in an odd way, but still spaced apart, as if there was one destination in each cardinal direction.  The church, the stores, the bit of hill overlooking the water.

My memories were indistinct here.  I couldn’t remember the exact order, so the order didn’t feel like it mattered.  I could go to the church and check the bin, only to discover there was barely anything I could wear.  I could go to the clothing stores, hoping for cheap overstock, for stuff that was being thrown out or discarded, only to be disappointed.  I could go to the hill and stare out at the distant lake, at houses separated by quarter-miles of dense foliage or broad fields.  The me of then might wonder about the future, morose, doing his best not to think about the days he’d been beaten, shot with pellet guns, had his things stolen.  Days he’d nearly died.

But one building loomed, larger than it should have been.  Restaurant, cafe, tavern, all of the above, none of the above.  The lights inside were brighter, and the illumination extended further, reaching across the street to where I stood.

Fuck this place.

I crossed the street, not sure I’d have the conviction if I put it off.  Skip the unimportant steps.  This was where this place wanted me to go.

Laughter, one goofy laugh.  Genuine laughter.

More actors.  Three girls, all alien or monstrous in their own ways.  One with a crest of what might have been a hard fungus, shaped like horns, but growing over her eyes, over to and behind the corners of her forehead, her flesh was pallid.  Another looked almost normal, but never blinked, the whites of her eyes visible.  The third had teeth about twice the normal length.  The guy opposite them had scalded, peeling flesh.  They were supposed to be in their early- to mid-twenties.

They were arranged in a booth with a table, three seats with cushioned backs surrounding the three sides of the table.  Each had beers, and overfat, burned french fries sat in a basket lined with paper.  They took turns grabbing the french fries, biting into them.

The actors weren’t my concern.  My attention was on the man at the far end of the booth, opposite the opening, girls on his right, the boy on his left.

Carl.  Just as he’d appeared in the drains, utterly normal, except the colors were off.  Black hair and beard, black turtleneck sweater, black jeans, black scarf around his neck, more for fashion than for wealth.  His arms were draped on the back of the booth, extended out to either side.

The look on his face was different than it should have been.  Or so I thought.  I couldn’t remember the exact expression, or I was remembering it wrong because my perspective had been tainted.

For me, then, it had been a long, long time since I’d dealt with people my age in anything but a hostile context.

Hey there,” Carl said.

“Who’s this?” Fungus-face asked.

“I thought we’d seen all of the local boys,” Teeth commented.  “Hey you.”

“Uh,” I said.

“Don’t worry.  We don’t bite,” Carl said, smiling.  He looked at Teeth, “Right?”

“Right,” she said.

I couldn’t shake the notion that he was in on this.  That he saw what I saw and accepted it.  His expression and posture… he was on this stage that the Drains had created, but he wasn’t an actor any more than I was.  Not really.

“Listen, I feel dumb for asking, but-“

“The only dumb question is the question to which you don’t know the answer,” Carl said.

I hadn’t known how to reply to that.

“I do, though,” I said.  “I’m pretty certain I know what you’ll say.”

“Then why ask?” he said, cutting me off from elaborating without actively interrupting.

“I have to,” I said.

Was it hindsight that colored my view of his words and his attitudes?  The me of then had kicked himself for handling the conversation so badly.  He’d almost walked away.

“Then ask,” he said, serious but still smiling.  “We won’t laugh at you or judge you.  Promise.”

“I’m doing some work for a local farmer, and I’m-” their attention made it hard to press on.  The me of then had stuttered.  The me of now decided not to.  “-sort of underequipped for the winter.  I’m sort of asking around, seeing if anyone has a jacket or boots to spare.”

They hadn’t laughed at me, just as Carl had promised.  That somehow made it worse.  The awkward silence was made doubly worse by the fact that I had no idea what they were thinking.

Except the present me sort of knew.  I could see Carl studying me, very much in the way he’d studied me then.

“Not cool,” Carl said.

I was supposed to say something, to sputter.  I didn’t.

“Before you ask for a favor, you should tell us your name,” he finished.

I resisted, but something in the atmosphere told me I couldn’t bend the rules this much.  I couldn’t improvise here, refuse an answer and expect this test to continue.  Every second I waited, the contrast between light and dark seemed to sharpen, the noise of the light rain outside more intense, until it all felt like it might start to come apart at the seams.

“Blake,” I said.

This shadow reality seemed to sigh.  I blinked, and the contrasts eased up, the patter of rain against window growing quieter.

“Hi, Blake, I’m Carl.  These are my friends.”

I was caught for a second, tripped up because his words didn’t line up with my memories.  Hadn’t he introduced them?

I didn’t complain.  Easier if I didn’t think about it, and they weren’t the focus of all this.

“Hi, Carl’s friends,” I said.

They smiled or gave me little waves by way of greeting.

Carl smiled.  “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, Blake, I actually do think I can help you out.”

I remained silent.

“It’s not a problem, Blake,” he said, smiling.  “We’ve got some spare stuff.  One boot might need some glue where a flap is sticking off, and it’s not pretty, but it should do you.  What size are your feet?”

“Ten.”

“Perfect,” he said.  “You got a car?”

“No.  I can borrow a bike.”

“If you can get here, you can get there.  It’s west off the forty-one rural.  You’ll see a sign.  Loon Lake.  We’ll get you set up, Blake.”

My expression was stern, my gaze hard, as I met his eyes.

“Thank you,” I said, in probably the least grateful tone I’d ever managed.  Only because I was sticking to the script.

“We’ll see you in the next few days, then?” he asked.

That… it felt wrong.  I didn’t remember it.

He was breaking from script.

Making me say it.

“Sure,” I said.  My chest and throat were so closed up with emotion that I could taste bile in my mouth.

He gestured with his hands without moving his arms, “Got plans?  You should sit.  Partake of our fries.”

“I shouldn’t,” I said.

“Don’t worry, really.  We’re about as low key as people get.  Come on, we’ll order a round.  It’s on us.”

His eyes were exactly right in this world of imperfect and muddled details.  For someone who said he was low key, the eyes were hungry, drinking in every detail they could, looking for something he could use.

I’d sat down.  I’d had a bit to drink, despite being under the legal age.  Such was the script.

The past me had.  Here, I took a different option, “No thanks.  I’ve got someone waiting for me.”

His smile was almost smug.  Not Carl’s smile so much as it was my shadow’s.  I was deviating from the script.  I hadn’t ruined it, I wasn’t running, or refusing to continue, but I wasn’t helping myself either.  Not on the surface.

“See you in a few days, then?”  Never-blinks asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.  I raised my hand in a small wave, forcing a smile to my face.

“Bye, Blake,” Carl said.

I didn’t reply as I left the cafe.  I headed to the hill that overlooked the shop, leaned on the railing at the cliff’s edge, and stared out at the alien landscape.  I could take this option, but I couldn’t refuse to give him my name.  I had to give him that power.

After about twenty minutes, I punched the railing hard enough that I should have shattered my hand.  It hurt like I had.

Time slipped away from me somewhere along the line, as this shadow-reality crept in on me.  Never time that I could have given up.  Hours stretched on, but always the better hours.  I lost track of time while I worked, I experienced time at its normal pace when I lay in bed, awake.

If this was a matter of simply overcoming one or two events, it would have been something else.  Grit my teeth, fight.

But this was a question of endurance, fortitude.  Doing it all over, the bad bits, the stressful bits, the parts I regretted.

I’d been physically exhausted on my initial entry into this shadow reality.  Now my emotions and my sanity were starting to feel the toll.  The hideousness of everything, the darkness, the uncertainty, knowing what was coming…

Fuck this place so very much.  Fuck it, fuck it, fuck, fuck, fuck.

An unspoken curse punctuated every push of my feet against the bike’s pedals.

Wheels skidded on the dirt road as I came to a stop.

Carl’s place.

Cabins, all built on a hilly spot of land, overlooking a lake.

Carl waited on the front steps of one cabin.  It felt imperfect, not exactly right.  He had a bundle in his hands.

The second I was off my bike, he tossed the bundle at me.  Clothes, jacket, boots… Everything I needed.

“Great to see you, Blake,” he said.  “Come check it out.  Get hydrated.”

I couldn’t say no.

Except that wasn’t exactly right.  I could.  I just couldn’t do it without failing this test.

I followed.

More cabins, all log, stripped bare, set down on a concrete-block foundation.  Chunks were cut out of the logs so they could mesh at the corners, Lincoln Log style, with mortar or something filling the gaps.

He grabbed a beer from a cooler, tossing it at me.  I caught it in both hands.

My eyes roved over the lake.  I could make it out, despite the lack of light from above.  I was reminded of pictures of bioluminescent algae on the ocean, highlighting the cresting waves.

It was beautiful, eerie, and unsettling.

Doubly beautiful because it was in stark contrast to the ugliness I’d experienced for the length of my stay here.

“Nice place,” I said.  Script.

“It really is,” he said.  Just like that, simple.  He helped himself to a beer.

We drank our beers.  He finished his first, starting on the second.

Tired from the bike ride, I stayed where I was, content to nurse the empty can and pretend it had more in it than it did.

“Carl!” a girl’s voice.  Fungus-face’s.  “Coop!”

Carl was on his feet in a second, a brilliant smile on his face.  “Come on.  You want to pay me back for the jacket and boots?  Give us a hand.”

Waves crashed against the rocky beach below.  Each crash was more intense than the last.  The wind picked up, my hair and the grass whipping in the gale.

Second by second, it intensified.

“If you’re going to tap out,” Carl said, his voice friendly, as if he was my greatest ally, “This would be the time to do it.”

I felt my skin crawl.

“In a way, it’s the point of no return,” he said.  “Go any further, and you might feel like you have to do something stupid.  Like punching that railing…”

I touched my hand.  The pain was gone, any wound already healed.

“…Or one of us.  You know there’s no situation where you win here,” he said.  “Conquer this reality, attack me, dash any or all of this from your mind and your heart, you leave a hollow that gets filled by other things, and you become a monster.  Abandon it, and you’re still there, in the Drains, for the rest of your short existence.  Go through with it, and you’ll be less.”

“I know,” I said.

“Three,” he said.  “Two…”

“Let’s go build your fucking chicken coop,” I said.

He spread his arms wide, as if embracing this world.  He turned on the spot, and he jogged away.

I had to run to keep up, because hesitating might have spelled the end of this, as good as giving up.

It was a metaphor for what followed.

Actors with smiling faces played the roles of the waiting group.  Small, only six, eight with Carl and me.

It was a barn raising, so to speak, but it wasn’t a barn.  Eight of us worked in concert, starting from the raw materials.

Just as I’d run after Carl, I felt momentum carry me from this point on.  I wasn’t sure how I’d been able to tell, but I’d somehow known that the challenge here wasn’t in making the choices, so I didn’t have to make any.  I rode a cresting wave like the glimmers of light in the water did.  Enthusiasm, cheer.  They passed me another drink.

When I showed that I actually knew stuff, that I’d learned from my time with the old man, that I had talent.

I’d almost forgotten what that felt like.  To have people praise me. Even the old man’s praise had been tempered, mild.  But these guys, a few of them were drunk, and they held nothing back in telling me how amazing I was.

Even in the cool fall air, we got hot.  One of the guys elbowed me, pointing for me to look – Teeth was in the water her back to me, swimming with no top on.  One of the guys and Never-blinks ran to join her.

It was nice.  The me of the past had found it a reprieve from weeks of hard farm work.  The me of now found it a break from the hostility and grind of the Drains.

It took maybe four hours to get the chicken coop and surrounding fence up, between eight of us, though half were drunk or playing around by the time the job was done.  I’d been content to work, because this sort of thing came easily to me.  Putting stuff together.  I had ideas about the roof, and I’d wanted the praise that came with making those ideas happen.

It was dark by the time we were done, and we were sitting on the steps of the nearest cabin.  I had a beer in my hand, and it wasn’t my second, or even my third.  My eyes were on the cresting waves with green-purple light marking the peaks and the foam on the sand, pitch black marking the ebbs.

Carl offered me a joint.  I refused it, passing it to the girl next to me instead.

Even if I’d hopped on my bike now, it would have been two or three in the morning by the time I was back.

I’d told myself I had a job to do.  Part of a job.

I’d then convinced myself it was only a job that I might get fired from if the jacket and boots weren’t sufficient.  A job he’d been willing to fire me from.

Fungus-face took my hand, pulled me to my feet.

Mute, I followed as she led me to her cabin.

I couldn’t see her face in the dark.  I could only feel her lips on mine, her cheek against mine as she hugged me tight.  There was very little ugliness here, because there hadn’t been much holding me back then.  Nothing that needed translation.

“I like the scruff,” she said.

“I’ve always hated it,” I replied, speaking for myself more than I spoke to her, convincing myself I still had some volition in the middle of this scene.  “Makes me feel homeless, reminds me of this night, right here.”

She pulled off my shirt, then pulled me down on top of her.

Actors and actresses on a stage.  Even I played a role here, because I couldn’t be the me of the present day in the midst of this.

The me of the past felt better than okay, for the first time in ever.

“Basics only,” Teeth told me.  The teeth were less pronounced.  Unfamiliarity and discomfort translated to ugliness, but the group was getting more familiar, more comfortable for me.

“Right,” I said.

“Only stuff we can’t get on our own.  We’ve got the cow, the chickens, and the veggies.”

“Yeah,” I said.

She squeezed my arm.  “You okay, Blake?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Toilet paper?”

“Yep.”

I grabbed three packs.

Teeth grabbed another three.

“That’s a little overboard,” I asked.

“I’m going to be polite and sum it up by saying girls use more than boys.  Trust me on this.  Better to have too much than not enough.”

“Right-o,” I said.

Pushing a cart burdened by toilet paper, I stopped in my tracks.

The old man.  The farmer I’d been working for, a basket in one hand.

I’d never actually said goodbye or gone back.

The look he gave me was one of disappointment, as he reached past me for a box of sealable plastic containers.  Wordless, he moved on, leaving me behind.

Yeah, I regretted that.  Not making the trip by bike, not saying something to him there in the grocery store.

Even now.

God, I hated this place.  I had to remind myself of that.  I hated this place, because it was such a petty asshole of a place, to make me face even stupid little moments like this.

“Hey,” you said.  “I’m starving.   You want to grab a snack?”

She squeezed my arm again, offering me a mischievous smile.  “A little something.  Or we’ll get in trouble with the others.  I can’t wait until we have the farm plots up and running.”

“Yeah,” I said.  My eyes were on the old man’s back.

I averted my eyes.

Snow fell.

Of course this place expected me to go through it all.

A bit of anger fueled my strength as I brought the hatchet down.

With deft cuts, I removed branches from a tree.

In a matter of hours, this tree I’d just brought down would be firewood.

“Blake,” a male voice.

“Food?” I asked.

But when I turned, the Scalded Guy had a serious look on his face.

“What?” I asked.  I slammed the hatchet into the tree, then met him halfway.

He looked a little freaked out.

“Something happened,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Who?”

“Better you hear it from her.”

Her.

Even on hearing that, I’d known.

By the time I reached Carl’s cabin, a suspicion had worked its way into my heart.

Fungus Face, sitting on the bed that doubled as a couch.  The others stood at various points around the room.  Ten of us, altogether.

There was only thing that would make one girl look that miserable, the other people that concerned.

“Whose is it?” I asked.

Callow, stupid, insensitive me of two years ago.

On a level, though, I’d been terrified.

“Carl’s,” she said, “He’s the only one I didn’t… we didn’t use a condom.  I can’t be positive.”

“It’s not a problem,” Carl said.  “We’ll figure this out.  This sort of thing takes a village, and that’s what we’ve been building all along, isn’t it?”

There were nods here and there.

The me of then was watching it, seeing the reactions, the way that Fungus Face was the last one to start nodding, and how she didn’t look any less upset.

In agreement, but not agreeing.

I met Carl’s eyes.

His gaze was cool, confident.

The peace of this place had been disturbed.

The cabin doors didn’t have locks.  I was sleeping under heavy blankets, comfortably warm, when cold air swept into my room.

My first indication that I had a visitor was when my sheets moved of their own accord.  A cold hand touched my back as a weight settled in under me.

“Jesus, you’re cold,” I said, turning.  I stopped.

One of the newest to join.  The sister from a brother-sister pair.  Cute as a button, maybe two years younger than me.

“Hi,” she said.  “Is this… a problem?”

When I didn’t respond, her hand touched my stomach, slowly moving down.

My hand fell on hers, stopping it where it was.

“After what happened to…” I couldn’t say Fungus Face, and the only two names in this shadow-place were Carl’s and my own.  “After the pregnancy… this feels less cool.”

“We can be careful.”

“I’m saying no,” I said.

“Okay,” she said, her voice a hush.  “Can I stay?  It’s warm here, and I don’t want to walk back through the snow.”

“You can stay,” I said, reluctantly.  I’d kind of been wanting quiet.  Rest.  It was hard to come by, at times.

She snuggled close to my back, warm, but all I felt was uncomfortable.  Bothered in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.

“Carl said you were into me, that you’d been watching me, so I thought…”

“Another time, it would have been… very welcome,” I murmured.  “But not now.”

“Okay,” she said.  I heard a soft giggle.  “Very welcome?”

“Very,” I said, but there was no warmth in the word.  Even when the past me had said it.

Time passed.  The wind made one bit of fencing rattle around the cow pen.  Every time I heard it at night, I told myself I’d fix it, and then when morning came, there was always more to do.

When I spoke, the words were quiet.  “Around the time… your friend invited you to come here, she was talking about going home for a bit.  It was getting colder, and she wasn’t enjoying the experiment so much.”

The bit of fencing banged in the distance.

“Now she’s pregnant,” I said.  “And everyone’s just assuming she’ll stick around.  I’m not sure I like that.”

“If she went home, it’d be the same, wouldn’t it?  Worse.  Her parents would make her make a decision and she wouldn’t necessarily have a say.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Here, at least, she’s got the freedom to decide on her own,” she said, and there was a finality to her words, like she’d decided.

The present-day me wondered if past-me had believed her.

I heard a car door slam.

I’d been unsure how I’d feel, but when the moment arrived, I felt my heart sink.

“Heyyyy!” a voice.

“Heya!” Carl said.  “I brought people!”

There were cheers, noises of greeting.

I sat on my bed, my knife cutting bits out of a stick.  I was trying to get a figure out of the wood, but I’d yet to get a result I wanted.  There was time.

Fifteen minutes passed.  Carl pushed on the door, and the rock I’d put behind it stopped it from opening.

“Blake?” he spoke through the crack.

“Hi,” I said.  “Sorry, I wanted privacy.”

I didn’t move to stand or move the rock.

“Blake, a lot of the others was saying you were feeling off.”

“Nope,” I said.  “Feeling good.  I’m just not feeling-“

I was cut off as he pushed the door, the stone I’d put down grinding against the wooden floor.

He entered my room, hand over his eyes.

“You’re not jacking off?” he asked.

“Nah,” I said.

“Because there are a lot of girls around who’d be happy to-“

“Not doing that either,” I said, cutting him off.

“Blake, is something wrong?” he asked.  He dropped his hand and managed to look concerned.  “I’m gone for a week and-“

“Nothing’s wrong,” I said.

“You are acting strange, Blake,” he said.  “You’re not helping out, and others are shouldering the workload-“

“No,” I said.  “I’ve gone above and beyond before, they can manage the slack for now.”

“We don’t treat work like a currency here.”

“I do,” I said.

He frowned.

I took a piece out of my stick.

“How can you even sleep in that bed?” he asked.  Change of subject.

I looked down at the spikes of wood I’d carved off of sticks.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“You’ve got cabin fever.  Come on, fresh air.  I’m not one to give orders, but I’m ordering you right now.”

I hesitated, but he pointed, and I moved before I thought to do different.

I climbed out of the bed, stick and knife going on the squat bookshelf that served as my bedside table.  I pulled on my worn boots with the glued sole that Carl had given me, then my jacket.  We ventured outside.

The others were collectively unloading the truck.  Beer, basic supplies, tools.

“This whole thing is supposed to be low stress,” Carl said.  “You seem stressed, Blake.”

“I’m not stressed,” I said.  “I’m me.

“You’re holed up in your room, being antisocial.  People are worrying about you, enough that it’s something I hear from five different people within two minutes of getting back.  All of them are worried about you, Blake.”

“I’m fine,” I said.  I somehow managed to sound less fine each time I said it.

He raised his hands, a placating gesture.  “Great.  I’ll take your word for it.”

We stood on the edge of the grass, where it overlooked beach and the small, dark lake under the pitch black sky.

“You came from a bad place,” he said.  “I heard about your suspicions about the pregnancy.”

“Fancy that,” I said.

“It’s natural to have trust issues, coming from where you came from.  But this is supposed to be a healthy place, Blake.  A good place.”

“The problem’s all me, then.  I’m just screwed in the head,” I said.  The words came out bitter, not like I’d meant them to.

He sighed.  “Something’s going on with you, Blake.  You’re confrontational.  Did you just stew in that room for the last week, convincing yourself something was wrong?  That because this works, there must be something wrong at the center of it?  Because I  know what it’s like to think that way, Blake, I did when I was your age.  I only want you to let that go, so you can enjoy life like I do.”

A group of people walked by.  The new group, taking a tour with Fungus Face leading the way.  She had a baby bump.  The car trip to Toronto had been partially to get her to a doctor for necessary checkups.

“Bonfire for the new guys?” Fungus Face asked.

“Go for it,” Carl said.

Her face wasn’t so much fungus anymore.  The horns were barely noticeable.  A large portion of the strangeness to her features were a blush of green and purple to her pale skin, nothing more.  So easy to ignore it, now.

On a level, I felt like I’d been here months.  It was surreal, to have to remind myself of what was wrong.  That this was a stage, with actors, a test.

Someone had to jog to catch up with the group.  She was lagging because she’d stopped to try and light a cigarette in the cold.  Her hair blew across her face, very nearly coming in contact with the smoking cigarette.  Only her cupped hands stopped it.

I stepped forward, gingerly touching her hair to move it out of the way.

She successfully moved it back, and fixed it in place with her hat.  She flashed me a funny little grin, cigarette clamped between her lips, not even showing a hint of her teeth.

Younger than I remembered her.  On the tail end of a very unkind adolescence.  She had bad pimples, patches of acne.  Her longer hair was meant to cover most of it.

Hey, Alexis.”

Her eyes widened in recognition as she saw me.  She ducked her head down as she spoke, “I don’t remember your name.”

“Blake.”

“You know each other?” Carl asked.

“Crossed paths,” I said, nothing more.

“See ya,” she said.  She ran to catch up with the others, snow flying behind her with each running footfall.

Carl and I walked a bit in the opposite direction, down to the beach.

“I only want to see you happy,” Carl said.  “That’s it.”

“Uh huh,” I said.

“What’s your opinion on Alexis?”

I shrugged.  Wary, I only said, “She’s cool.”

“That’s not very helpful.  I want to know her as a person, and she’s hard to get a read on.  A bit of an odd bird.”

“I like odd birds,” I said.  “She had helpful advice a few times, we watched each other’s stuff in the one shelter.  That’s all.”

Just a bit of a lie.

“Hamm’s Shelter?”

I didn’t respond.

He jammed his hands in his pockets.  I watched the water, while he focused on the group unloading the truck.  The headlights were on, lighting up the exhaust, giving the group a clear view of the unloading process.

“If you like types like her, could I ask you to maybe go out of your way to make her feel comfortable?”

I felt a cold knot in my gut.

“Make her feel comfortable?” I asked.

“Keep her company, pair off, show her how things work, the usual chores and feeding the animals?”

My skin crawled.

I felt vaguely nauseous.

“Pair off… like how you pointed Fungus Face my way?” I asked.

“Fungus Face,” he arched his eyebrows.

Breaking script, both of us.

“When I seemed jealous about Fungus Face and the other guys, you pointed Teeth my way.  One by one, all of the girls.  You sent the little sister to my bed the night I seemed unsettled about the pregnancy.  Now you’re very subtly hinting for me to go keep Alexis company?”

“You’re making this out to be some screwy conspiracy,” he said.  “The only time I’ve seen Alexis smile is when she looked up at you just now.  And you said you liked her type.”

“That’s not-“

“What, Blake?  Am I wrong?”

“You can’t just do that,” I said.

“Do what?

Manipulate us.  Screw with us.”

“To make you happy?

“So you’re admitting it,” I said, and there was anger in my tone.

“No, Blake,” he spoke the words as a sigh.  “I’m trying to figure out what agenda you think I have.  I’d rather solve the big question than the little one.”

“You’ve got this grand idea for this… I dunno, this commune, self-sustaining, whatever, free love, easygoing, away from the pressures of the world.”

“You’re making that out to be a bad thing?”

“I’m making your methods out to be questionable,” I said.  “Pushing people, messing with them, always the group and what we need as a whole, you never give orders and you never seem like you’re doing anything major, but you’re really fucking good at steering the group against anyone who acts different.  You did it to Fungus Face.”

“When?”

“She coincidentally gets pregnant not long after she’s thinking about leaving, and the group decides for her, that she should stay with us.”

“Can you quiet down?” he asked.  “We can have this discussion, but let’s not make it-“

“Fuck that,” I said.

He reached for my shoulder, to steer me in a different direction, or to give me a push.

I flinched, pulling back, fist clenched.

“Woah,” he said.

“Don’t touch me.  Don’t,” I hissed.

“This is coming out of nowhere, Blake.”

“No, it’s really not,” I said.  I didn’t unclench my fist.  “You’ve led us around by our groins, you give us all this work to do and just barely enough food, you make us dependent on you, because you’re the one with the plan, the car, the ideas, the money, five or ten years of age on any of us.”

“What are you saying?” he asked.

“I’m saying just that,” I said.  “That you’ve got this damn dream, and you’re twisting us all around in really subtle ways that make it really hard to point to any one thing.  But somehow, on the days I don’t play ball or join the herd, there’s less food, less conversation, less… I feel sick saying it, less girls.”

“That’s crazy,” he said.

“It really, really is,” I replied.

“How am I controlling the girls, then?”

“The same way you’re trying to control me, but you put twice as much effort into them as you do us guys.  Half of them are in love with you, and they play ball with the group polyamory shit because they think if they try to covet you they’ll be shunned, the other half are… they’re still being manipulated, mostly.  And if they resist that, then you fucking get them pregnant to keep them in the group.”

Carl had gone still.

I turned to see Fungus Face standing at the edge of the trees.

“You know it,” I told her.  “You’ve convinced yourself it isn’t true because it’s easier.  Just go.”

She turned, running to the nearest cabin.

“That wasn’t what you were supposed to say,” my Shadow observed.

“It was something I’ve wished I said a hundred times,” I said.  “Cathartic.”

“Not that it matters,” the Shadow said.  He rubbed Carl’s beard.

“It matters,” I told it.

“Almost done,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Whatever happens, I win,” he said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“See you shortly,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Fuck you.

He ran after Fungus Face.  I headed toward the main area of the commune, taking long strides.

Alexis was with the group, the new people all drinking with Teeth.

“Hey,” I told Teeth, “Carl really needs you.  It might have something to do with the baby.”

Her eyes went wide.  She ran for the cabin where Carl and Fungus Face were.

Alexis rose half out of her seat.  I seized her wrist, shaking my head.

“What happened?” one of the guys in the newcomer’s group said.

“This place is a cult, I said.  “Not a drink-the-Kool-aid cult, but it’s still fucked.  I’m leaving, you have five seconds to decide if you’re coming.”

I didn’t wait for a response.  I headed for the truck.

Footsteps followed.

Only Alexis.

She had just closed the passenger seat when the guy who’d just spoken came to the window.  “You can’t take the car.  There’s a pregnant girl-“

“There’s always going to be reasons you can’t,” I said.  “That’s how it works.  I dunno, I’ll- I’ll send people.”

“You can’t-“

I shifted gears, stalled, and then managed to get the truck moving in reverse.  The guy stepped away.  I turned and pulled onto the road.

“Fuck,” I said.  “Fuck.”

Alexis put her hand on mine.

I pulled it away, sharp, the gear-shift making a violent noise as it jerked in response.

“Sorry,’ I said.  “That’s not nearly as reassuring as you think it is.  I’d explain but…”

“Okay,” she said.  “It’s cool.”

I nodded, focusing only on the unfamiliar act of driving.

Away from the only place I’d ever really felt like I’d belonged.

What was worse than being in a bit-rate cult and then spending a week second guessing yourself?

Being in a bit-rate cult and then spending a week second guessing yourself twice, the second time in some fucked up, twisted shadow realm.

I sat on the cot in the youth shelter, a separate, two-bed room, arms around my knees.  This wasn’t a decision time.  It was an experience time.  I got to sit there and experience the cold, impersonal misery of the shelter, while reflecting on everything I’d just given up.  Just to drive the point home, this Shadow-place made my environment as unpleasant as it could get.  The sheets were stained, and I heard people screaming across the hall, constantly fighting.  Chaos and conflict and urban, in contrast to the commune by the lakeside.

I was giving up feeling okay.  Friends, intimacy, sex.  A sense of accomplishment, of having built something.

I heard the door open.  Even with the benefit of hindsight, I expected Alexis.

It was Carl.

I hadn’t confirmed what shelter I’d cross paths with Alexis at, the shelter we were most familiar with, but he’d intuited it.

And maybe we hadn’t ditched the car far enough away.  He’d gotten a call, and he’d figured out the answer.

I gripped the side of the cot.

“You called the cops on us, Blake,” he said.

“On you,” I said, eyes on my knees.

“It messed up a lot of things.  People got scared, we got fined, for lack of permits, even when I own the land…”

I stood from the bed.  I tried to walk past him.  He blocked me.

“Tell me,” he said, “Do you even believe it anymore?  Now that you’ve had time to think?  This cult nonsense?”

“No.  Not a hundred percent.”

“But you still called the cops.”

“Better to do it and be safe, than not do it and wish I had,” I said.  “I don’t think it was easy for anyone there to say they wanted to leave, and the cops, maybe they made it possible.  Please get out of my way.”

I moved my arm to push past.  He grabbed it.

He wrestled me down onto the bed.

He was stronger.  We’d done the same work, but he had ten years on me, and his build was just somehow stronger.

He pinned me down.

I very nearly succumbed to panic.

“A small part of me has wondered, since all this with the practitioner stuff started,” I spoke, trying to disassociate, to distance myself from this, “Were you an Other?”

“No,” he said.

“But you’re a reflection of me.  If I didn’t know-“

“You know,” he said.  “I’m just a person.  Well, I’m your Shadow, but Carl was only ever a person.”

“Yeah,” I said, my voice very small.  I struggled, but I couldn’t break his grip, or even move.

My eye moved to the door, then back to Carl.

“No,” he said.

I couldn’t even speak.

“No,” he said, again.  “You don’t get to skip it this time.  This ends one of three ways, like I said.”

Banish him and become a monster, set him aside, or…

I waited.

Chronologically, if time didn’t work differently here, I’d have doomed myself, waiting.  The door would open, and I’d miss my window.

“I’m supposed to beg,” I said, my voice a hush.  “To beg you to take me back.  To promise to apologize, and make amends.”

“By the script,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because-“

“No,” I said.  “Time works differently here.  I’ve had time to think.  Why?  Isadora asked it.  Ms. Lewis asked it, or something like it.  Pretty much every powerful being I’ve talked to has asked it.  Including Conquest, who talked to Rose, who apparently knows more than she’s letting on.”

“You’re not afraid,” Carl spoke.

“Which is an answer unto itself, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“It keeps coming down to why.  Just like me and piecing things together with your cult.  The fact that we were hungry.  There weren’t any big huge warning bells.  Lots of little things.  I… it’s a strong hunch, but I have to trust it.  I gotta trust my gut.”

“You-“

“God, I don’t even want to look at you,” I said.  “Alexis, come in.”

The door opened.

Alexis, moving in silently.

She was armed.  Something hard in a sock.

The Shadow knew it was coming.  He only had a blank look on Carl’s face.

He disintegrated as Alexis clubbed him over the head.

“Come on,” she said.  “Go, go, go.”

Old Blake had, according to the script, gone with her.  He’d then gone borderline catatonic after the fact.

She’d talked him through it.  Answered every damn question.  Agreed as he slowly put the pieces together, about the little tricks, the behaviors.  Had come back from the library with lists, about how cults liked to keep the food supply short, so people were more tractable.  Keep people working…  Had answered questions like was Carl maybe stronger because he’d been eating?

Why?

Why?

Why were the people that weren’t Carl or Alexis just blurs?

Why was I the heir, and not Paige?  If Grandmother could set up a vestige, couldn’t she set up a heterosexual Paige?

Why was practically everyone convinced that I was going to die?  Except they didn’t say die.

What the fuck was up with my tattoos?  Why did I get ‘possessed’ so easily?

Why was I good with glamour?

Why were my injuries so transient, so easy to remove, my spiritual damage so hard to shore up?

Why did I remember everyone?

Why didn’t the details add up?

The room in the shelter was gone.  There was only darkness.  Not even a solid surface under me, or air to fall through.

I spoke to the darkness.  “I feel like, if I get this wrong, I’m done.”

Only darkness answered.

“I’m probably fucked if I get it right,” I said.  “But that’s my situation, isn’t it?  Perpetually fucked.”

I could have done with anyone, even a Carl, to be there, to speak to.

“I can’t believe that I needed a Rose,” I said.  “Easier to believe that Rose needed me, a little warrior.  Someone to stall the inevitable.  You cobbled this together, grandmother, my story included, to make it so I couldn’t get touched… because when I did, I got hurt.  Not always right away, but my shoulder hurt after Tiff slept with her head there, and my hand, after I held Rose’s hand and even in the beginning, when I saw the visions, they said something moved… the connections aren’t real connections…”

I trailed off.

“I’m the vestige, aren’t I?  Rose is the second Thorburn heir, I’m just the custodian.  The sacrificial pawn.”

The darkness broke away, crept in.  The tattoos reappeared, the feathers, the birds.  The branches crawled across my skin, my neck and chest, as the Shadow around me found its place.

“That’s the situation I need to accept,” I said, making it a statement, not a question.

I stood in the middle of the Drains.  An Other.

“Fuck,” I said.

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339 thoughts on “Null 9.4

      1. Probably.

        Trying to do two weeks on, one week off, since that seems to be a healthy rate that doesn’t burn me out and lead to me producing crap. Since I just took a week off of Thursday chapters, yeah, there should be one.

        1. I definitely loved it. It came out of the blue, this cult thing, but it really does tie the entire plot so far together.

    1. I don’t know if it means anything or not, but you can put me in the Love category. I did enjoy this chapter. It felt somehow different from most chapters, but in a nice, spicy good way.

    2. I don’t love it, I don’t loathe it… But it is such a huge, even sudden shift that leaves me unknowing how to feel. It’s not bad though, just… confusing. I don’t even know if Blake’s story was real after all. Or rather, if it happened, because should his memories be considered real? Probably not, but still just as valid and valuable as real memories.

      1. I actually considered that Blake might be the vestige at a few points in the story, but dismissed it, because I couldn’t figure out why all the practitioners would have treated him as if it were normal. Especially confused on why Paige knows Blake if he’s a vestige, but I suppose we’ll figure it out later?

        1. I also considered Blake being the vestige, but I pushed it aside because Blake actually had friends in the real world, also his apartment, his bike etc.. I didn’t expect Grandma Rose to do something this MASSIVE. This raises the questions a)whether everything real Blake was surrounded with (i.e. the connections to his friends and all his belongings) were just created out of the blue and b) what happened to Rose’s connections when she got shunted into the mirror world.

          I kind of suspect Tiff was a friend of Rose’s which got pulled into the Alexis and friends circle when Blake was created.

    3. Personally I’m leaning towards the loathe column. Things which edit continuity as presented kinda annoy me. I’m also kind of confused at this stage. Waiting for further clarification.

    4. Right. I rarely read the comments any more, ’cause there’s just too damn much of ’em. That’s great, but not like the good old days, wildbow. But I saw what you just said, and I’m a-gonna reply.

      I loved it. I loved the way you told this story. The creeping, impending terror that was really nothing so creepy in and of itself. Not the most pleasant, what he went through, but not truly horrible, and nobody died, even though Blake was acting like that’s exactly what was going to happen. Instead, all of that was an externalization of Blake not wanting to face the most horrible thing of all: the Truth.

      And if that ain’t a perfect allegory for the human condition, I don’t know what is.

      Bravo, wildbow. Bra-frickin’-vo.

      Hg

    1. Honestly, I think I know as much as you do. My Theory: Every bit of Blake’s pre-Rose history is fake. Rose Sr. cobbled it together, made his connections with his friends, his history, his family, put him in the world, and simultaneously (temporarily) cut Rose Jr.’s connections with the world, carving the mirror-world for the ‘real’ Thorburn heir and replacing it with Blake.

      In this way, when Ur took Blake out of the world, Rose Jr. was put BACK in her rightful place, sort of like a rubber band snapping back in place. I’m really confused about how these connections work, though. Manipulating connections is a scary OP power…

      So vestiges can Awaken and become practitioners? Maybe it only worked through his link with Rose Jr.? Does this mean Johannes really is evil because the people he owns are, in fact, possibly real people and not just mindless VCR-recorded drone clones? Then again, maybe your vestige only gains proper consciousness and thought if you sacrifice certain aspects. I don’t know. So many questions. I can’t wait until Saturday. I don’t think I can even wait until Thurs. 😦

      1. Yeah, the thing about this is that it would seem to show that the “others can’t become practitioners” rule is just like most of the time magic — it only really affects you if you allow it to and buy into it. If an Other thinks its human, even if it knows that Others can’t become practitioners, apparently it can indeed become a practitioner.

        Minor side note, this also explains why Blake just didn’t really have the Thorburn voice,

        1. …And now that throwaway gag with the hunters talking about killing sparkly vampire faeries is revealed to be a massive Chekov’s Gun.

      2. Addendum: All the other heirs also have reflections. Molly’s screwed up after only a few months, either shattering by physical contact or getting nixed by an Other. This explains why nobody had seen or heard from Molly for the first few months. While Paige may herself be a reflection atm, it’s more likely the mirrors will be cycled in at the appropriate times.

        Note: What if a vestige makes it? Survives, gains power, marries. Could a reflection produce a viable heir?

        Comment: Screwing with connections like that is indeed OP. Barbatorem is a demon, though, and we’ve seen how ridiculously OP those are in general. Simply being able to slice people to ribbons doesn’t seem quite enough to account for his reputation. Maybe this is a special torment he vests upon some? Carving out a twisted reflection and making them watch as it lives their lives?

        Comment 2: “Why are your connections to your friends so strong?” – Isadora

        1. This is the second time our hero’s relationship with a near-identical stranger has forced him to question his entire worldview. This time it hit deeper- he’s already lost his ties to his friends and family, and now he’s unsure about his origins, wondering whether he was ever intended as a complete person or just a disposable carbon copy.

          Sounds like we’ve been watching…

          Orphan Blake

    2. I actually totally called this one.

      Basically: Rose Sr. didn’t cut Blake’s reflection off to make Rose. She cut something out of Rose to make Blake, which shunted Rose safely into a mirror in the process and screwed with the memories of the people involved.

      Think about it. Choosing a male and then going to all this trouble to produce a female heir makes no sense, especially if the precious heir is just going to be a visage that would disappear eventually anyway. Choosing a female heir, and rearranging reality so she’s safely in a mirror while a doppelganger takes the risks, makes enemies, and generally gives her a chance to get on her feet? It makes a lot more sense.

        1. Probably everything. Remember, she met the lawyers after Molly died. She told Blake the lawyers explained the situation to her. As in, this trick.
          So she was aware from day one of the balance she needed to keep with Blake and how she should use him to get an edge on her foes, while also trying to make him last as long as possible.

          Rose was going through heavy amounts of “What measure is a non-human” daily, and we thought it was the other way. Clever.

          Since Blake got Urrmunched, though, she doesn’t remember him and may very well botch her previous plans… Things can still go worse.

          Also, it feels like the wham chapter concentration lately has risen beyond Worm’s maximum. Maybe biased due to the different pacing, but I wasn’t expecting one so soon in this arc.

          Congrats to wildbow for hitting 1000 topwebfiction votes in a single week.

  1. To quoth Blake: FUCK.

    Really well done. I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t see any of this coming. Okay, I did sort of have an idea where Alexis would be involved because of how Blake said she helped him out before but

    FUCK.

    Wait, so what does this mean? I’m so confused. No wonder Rose fucked up her ritual on purpose – SHE KNEW ALL ALONG. She must have just kept telling herself that “Blake isn’t real” to keep from feeling guilty. Hang on… what about Blake’s pre-Rose friends? Alexis, Ty, etc.? So, Rose never had a connection with them… Rose Sr. made those connections up and the connections tying them to Rose are, like, double-fake? What? Discuss, please.

    1. I guess they were Rose’s friends from the start and maybe the connections to Blake were fake? maybe? I’m not sure.

      1. But Rose had a totally different history, right? Like, she (claimed) to not have even been in that city… and she would have had no reason to be friends with that group of quasi-homeless artsy folk. She was brought up a proper Thorburn. I could be totally wrong… I don’t know! That might make sense, maybe, if everything we know about Rose’s history is wrong.

        1. It’s entirely possible that Blake was created years ago (my guess is at the point he left home) and that all his friends are genuine. Rose Jr would’ve been put into stasis at the same time and the family’s connections to her tweaked to forget her, only to come out of stasis when Molly died.

    2. No wonder Rose fucked up her ritual on purpose – SHE KNEW ALL ALONG.

      YEP. My guess is that her ritual was an Awakening ritual…but one to grant Blake the use of her power instead of her. Without reference back to Blake, it wouldn’t make sense and she just “screwed up my ritual on purpose.” And then of course him not listening to her would be so much more frustrating than it would be otherwise.

      On the friends: I’m guessing there was a real person, Blake Zero(oh gosh what was their last name before it was Thorburn? gdi), whose backstory was co-opted and fused with Rose Thorburn’s to create a Blake Thorburn with real connections.

      1. one to grant Blake the use of her power instead of her.

        I agree. Let’s see… 1.07:

        I could hear Rose behind me, still talking, as if she were very distant. “-than a vestige.”

        “Let him be more powerful than a vestige ?”

        Mags showed us that you could repurpose a ritual – she turned the Demesnes ritual into… Cognomen, or something. Blake did the Awakening ritual while Rose did that weird hack that could very well have transferred her might to him, leaving her weak and quite vulnerable.
        Quite the gambit Granny got going there.

        Blake subsequently started leaking power back to Rose slowly, giving her some power for the glass tricks she pulled… I don’t doubt a second read right now would reveal a lot. Rose’s reactions to Blake’s choices, for one. Blake was wasting her power with his stunts.

  2. I had my suspicions. I mean that it seemed odd that the grandmother finds a way to game the system into accepting Blake as the heir, but there is no mention of the methods involved. Then I thought Blake would return from the Drains as a vestige. I still got wowed anyway. Great Job!!!

  3. I get the feeling that Rose Sr. might have… removed someone to make Blake and that that someone was the person they all knew.

    1. We know that Rose Sr. has used Cordivae before…maybe it was to transfer the connections to Alexis and company from this hypothetical removed person to Blake, cementing his “realness” after he was created.

      1. Wow. “That’s so crazy it just might work!” kinda wow 🙂
        But Cordivae doesn’t need to limit himself to just one-for-one. Rose Sr. might have hand-picked people from all walks to connect to Blake. Or maybe this happened early enough that all she needed was to transfer Alexis, who seems to be central to all Blake’s non-family connections

      2. That sounds unnecessarily complicated. Wouldn’t it be simpler if all Blake’s friends are all Blake’s friends and Blake is either a real (homeless) boy who Granny Rose grafted Thorburn connections onto, or a vestige Granny made of the original Blake (in which case the original Blake is probably dead).

  4. I Figure Blake was carved out at the point he ran away. The order is sorta like this:
    Select Rose
    Carve Blake
    Connect Blake
    Cloister Rose
    Let Blake Leave to get Connections/Allies for Rose
    Monitor to make sure it goes right

    or some such

    1. That would explain how he could produce the ghosts that Conquest used on him in Void. I’d thought that that was the damning point against the “Blake is a vestige” theory.

        1. Since a ghost is an imprint upon the world of trauma you left behind, as opposed to anything more connected to a person, I figured that the existence of those ghosts in Toronto made it impossible for Blake’s memories to have been falsified-they were effectively third-party clarification that he’d existed. Blake’s friends could be explained away by reassigning connections, but Blake’s trauma leaving impressions of pain and misery where Conquest could find them implies that it happened and left a mark, and in that general geographic area (given that Conquest is severely limited geographically and his territory is shrinking).

            1. I think the idea here is that Rose Sr. carved away the Blake vestige back when Rose Jr. was 18 years old, sealing Rose Jr. in mirrorworld. The Blake vestige proceeded to run away to Toronto, coincidentally removing himself from his parents’ sight and influence, becomes homeless, joins a hippie commune/cult, etc, coming back years later to be the Thorburn heir’s sacrificial pawn.

    2. Hmm yeah that would be the most likely thing, and it would fit with him not knowing anyone outside the family pre-runaway…yeah this is my guess too

      1. oh wait but didn’t he just say he couldn’t remember anyone besides Carl and Alexia cause they were never real? or maybe im confused about what the fungus face part meant

    3. I think Blake has to be a fairly recent creation, because vestiges don’t last very long. Also, Blake just explicitly said that his history was made up to make him afraid of being touched because being touched harms him.

      As to how exactly he’s friends with all these people who’ve never really met him before, well, a demon did it. Finding a real person to cut out of the world and replace with Blake Thorburn sounds like something Barbatorem could do, but so does just carving the reflection loose and tossing it into the world and letting those connections form on their own. Reality resettling after demonic influence. Blake shouldn’t exist, so his existence creates enough pressure on its own to form the required connections and memories.

      1. I think Blake has to be a fairly recent creation,

        It looks like that to me too, but then that begs the question of where did Conquest get his three ghosts?

        Blake shouldn’t exist, so his existence creates enough pressure on its own to form the required connections and memories.

        Actually making ghost-like impressions of fake memories sounds a bit beyond what demons should be able to do, even with Existence rearranging itself. (Especially given what we’ve read about Barbatorem’s choir.)

        On the other hand, stealing connections from someone who has left ghost-impressions already might be enough to alter the ghosts. (We’ve beet told explicitly that ghosts are somewhat malleable. Besides, a competent practitioner moving connections to fake a person would probably notice the connections to the ghosts and alter them explicitly to fit. And this looks like a very competent job: nobody we’ve seen the POV of suggested they realized the actual truth—including Isadora, despite her prophecies about Blake always avoiding explicit death.)

    1. Black hair and beard, black turtleneck sweater, black jeans, black scarf around his neck, more for fashion than for wealth.

      • “for warmth” instead of “for wealth”
    2. intestine danging
      intestine dangling

      treeline (2)
      usually tree line

      Nevermind
      Never mind

      early to their mid twenties
      early- to mid-twenties

      kool-aid
      Kool-Aid, but perhaps close enough to generic

    3. Typos:
      – “Teeth was in the water her back to me” -> “in the water, her back”
      – ““Hey,” you said.” -> “she said”
      – “second guessing” -> “second-guessing”

      Also: Chapter 9.3 ended on “warm, sunshine, safety”, yet it’s dark at the beginning of this one. Maybe intentional.

    4. Not strictly speaking a typo, but a continuity error.

      The end of 9.03 mentioned that Blake felt sunlight.

      The start of this chapter describes the sky as ‘pitch black’

  5. …yup, gonna have to agree. Fuck!

    Well, at least I know what I’ll be doing until Saturday, (Thursday?) re-reading everything with this in mind. Should be interesting!

  6. Dun, Dunn, DUNNN!!!!

    Forever more, Blake should be known as, the Custodian. The creation of Granny Rose, the Custodian will clean up the practitioner world.

    +8.5 Pact Points for all the people who’ve been saying (all story) that Blake is the vestige.

    Theory time: Rose knew and secretly has been trying to get Blake self sufficient so that he wouldn’t waste away like a simple vestige. During her awakening, she did a partial ritual to give her some powers so that she could ensure that Blake would be “more than a vestiges”. To this end, Rose has a master plan that will end up bringing forth The Custodian to the mortal realm.

    Poor, Poor Blake. May Carl forever be mutilated and molested (bothered) by an orange goat.

    1. Oh shit.

      Good call with the “more than a vestige” bit. Though I think it’s probably not because she felt sorry, but rather because Grandma Rose told her to give her powers to Blake so he could convincingly fake being a practitioner.

  7. Grandma Rose wanted a tenacious bastard. She got one. And now, time to punch reality in the face. No way is Blake going to just sit down and accept all that passively.

      1. Granny Rose created a military android, and then didn’t tell it it was an it. How do you really think this is going to end?

        1. In Granny Rose’s history, didn’t she mention a lord who was a ghost (Less sentient than a vestige) who became a mortal, who became a god? Yeah, Blake doesn’t just have to go gentle into the night.

          1. Exactly! Just because it starts out as less than human doesn’t mean they can’t gain power. Practitioners are merely people who allow themselves to become a bit more Other so the spirits will heed them.

            We already know there’s nothing exactly stopping him from going around and repeating what he did with June or the Hyena. If the spirits didn’t heed Others as well, then they wouldn’t be able to name someone foresworn. If he doesn’t have the clout of the Thorburn family, he gets his own or repeat what he did with Pauz’s animals and gives himself it.

            Him not being human has changed nothing in itself.

            1. Right, the problem is not him being an Other, but that his connections, experiences, and past were possibly all fake. What happened in his (fake?) cult memory – being manipulated and controlled by someone he trusted, losing his volition etc. – traumatized him, but him being an entity with a fake past and artificial personality is far worse along that axis.

              Consider his motivation up to now: where before he wanted to “leave the world a better place”, he now has to wonder whether that was his own wish, or just based on whatever personality trait Rose Sr. found most convenient in her “little warrior”.

              All this doesn’t mean Blake has to reject his personality etc. – it’s not like he can judge it from outside himself -, but it does mean he needs to find a new reason to go on struggling in the Drains.
              And maybe he’ll get that reason next by finding out the truth about Rose and accepting it, whether it leads to revenge, redemption, self-sacrifice or whatever.
              More generally, if Blake’s memories were based on a real person, Blake would benefit from finding out who that was.

            2. And thus we come to what I call the Vivi Problem (Final Fantasy IX). Also known as the clone problem. This can either be interesting or a cliche, but Wildbow is the one who will determine that.

              What I will say, in my opinion, is that Blake shouldn’t care about his origins, or even if his original goal matters. What matters is what he decides to do now. Even if he started out following a script, he’s gained enough sentience that he can toss it aside and ad-lib on his own.

              He’s been cut free of those connections and burdens of the past the moment he fell, free of the path that his creator set him on. Whether or not he continues to follow, to reforge those connections,is up to him.

              If deems that protecting the world and leaving it a better place is worth it, then let him pursue that goal. If decides to bring forth the apocalypse then let him try his best. What matters now is that he has choice.

              Even if his old connections are gone, let him forge new ones. The witch, Green Eyes, Mags, they all present to him different points and connections, those who can get to know him as he is.

              So what if the Custodian is dead, let the Warrior rise in his place.

  8. What if Blake’s wrong? Theory: Blake’s parent had their reflection cut. This leads to 2 differing universes/timelines. In A, Blake was Born. In B, Rose was born. Both lived separately until the universes seemingly merged. In world A, Rose was the vestige. In world B, Blake was the vestige. Rose emerged as the heir in World B but something went wrong. To right this, when Molly died and Blake “became the heir”, B-Rose came to World A, armed with the knowledge of how to better do things. Unfortunately, there can only be one true being at a time, so she was demoted to vestige-like entity while Blake was still around.

    1. From what we read in this chapter, Blake as we know it has been created when Molly died. Suddenly all the connections shifted, so that was when Rose got mirror-bound and he got the scene to himself.

      Which adds an interesting angle to the vision/dream. It happens right as the craft is cast. Seeing all these different places one after the other makes me think Blake was brought from a cloud of spirits genuinely able to witness all of them and condensed into his brand new fleshbag, with crafted memories to boot.

      Cue seeing a woman in his mirror.
      I really want to see that scene from Rose’s point of view now. Pretty please ?

  9. (First time actually posting instead of lurking! Whoohoo!)

    Well, I’ve been considering that Blake was the copy for some time now, but having it confirmed is still quite the impact. I felt like Blake’s history seemed more likely to have been scripted than Rose’s, since the primary difference between them (aside from gender) was that he’d been homeless, an event that specifically led to him being the fighter that he is today, and a useful trait for protecting Rose. That being said, I had discarded the theory way back when we found out that Blake’s friends are real. I’m still not quite sure how that works out… forging connections is SCARY.

    Props to wildbow, I loved this chapter, loved the reveal, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here. Of course, now I’m probably going to have to go on a reread binge to search for clues.

    1. Unless they turn out to be vestiges too, also created by Granny Rose! That would be why Rose Jr might be willing to sacrifice them.

      Probably not though.

  10. From 2.5

    I dropped the club, staggering away. When I dropped to all fours to throw up, it was equal measure exhaustion and revulsion.

    Too many bad memories. Fights that had gone very much like that one had, at the end. Base, violent, ugly.

    “I think I see why she might have picked you,” Ms. Lewis said.

    “Blake was picked, then?” Rose asked. “It’s not just him being the second heir?”

    Granny Rose made Blake, not because of his cleverness or his sense of justice. She made Blake because he’s really good at swinging around his pipe.

    1. Notice the wording.

      Might have picked you.

      She didn’t, of course. She picked Rose. But she might have, in a different world, where Blake was real; which is necessary for his story to make sense.

      1. And Rose jumps in there with a diversion: “Blake was picked, then?” As in, he was picked, not “might have been” picked. Geez, grifters and con artists everywhere could learn from this.

  11. This explains the tattoos that kept changing. In one chapter I’ve gone from hating Rose, to liking her. I would be pissed too if I was suddenly stuck in a mirror and couldnt control the guy that took my place because he was too impulsive.

    When was Blake first created and are all his memories fake? So it was Blake with the handpicked qualities which is why he doesnt act like the rest of his family.

    I guess its possible Blake was created to influence Rose. But the Ur demon fucked everything up by making her forget Blake.

  12. So, this was already guessed by the commenters.
    I still don’t understand why he is so afraid of Carl – is the rape is the thing he skipped here by summoning Alexis or IRL she helped him to wash away the feeling of involvement with the cult and clean his thoughts about Carl’a betrayal?

    1. The part he skipped is the part near the end. I believe he skipped it because he didn’t want to experience the shame, belittlement and confusion all over again. He didn’t want to have to beg, to feel like he was manipulated and brainwashed. He didn’t want to be held down by force by Carl and see him knocked out, probably badly hurt or dead, by Alexis. That is how I understand it.

    2. I know right? I think the rape was just surmised by all the readers, but I don’t recall it ever overtly being stated. From what I read here it seemed more like his issue with Carl was as a cult leader who refused to ‘fess up. If it was a rape happening at the end of this chapter/the first time around, then I don’t understand why. The text isn’t giving me the words, should I just be reading subtext into it?

      Despite my confusion, I loved this whole chapter. The weird setting, the trying to change the script, the lumpkins conscripted to play parts. The acceptance and cleared eyes at the end. I haven’t found this in actual published books in a long while, and I missed it. This chapter, as fraught as it was, was a literary hug.

      1. Yes, the rape thing was never explicitly stated, it was all speculation. And now it’s moot anyway, since this stuff might not actually have happened, depending on the specifics of Rose Sr.’s deal. That said:

        “I’m supposed to beg,” I said, my voice a hush. “To beg you to take me back. To promise to apologize, and make amends.”
        “By the script,” he said.

        So I figure the memory isn’t necessarily one of physical rape, but rather of mental impotence, of having to beg for his life, of finding himself betrayed by someone he originally trusted, and that at a time when life had finally begun to look brighter for the first time since he’d left home.

      2. The implication comes from Blake hating being touched by other people but now that could be a trait that was given to Blake.

        1. Tactile defensiveness is hardly limited to sufferers of trauma. I think that the main implication was more from the way that Blake (and everyone else) danced around talking about it, his strong feelings of shame and self-loathing about it, the way that he centers himself around his masculinity but simultaneously thinks of himself as not being much of a man, etc.

          1. Additionally, if he was a vestige carved out of a mirror, then why would he have any natural acceptance of physical contact. In fact, it makes more sense that he react as violently as he does to physical contact, as anything that could make it into his mirror would immediately be a threat.

    1. An excellent question. Practitioners seem to treat vestiges as useful pieces for spell work, but never as people. Any practitioner except perhaps Mags is dangerous to him now.

    2. Back to the world above, where he will find a way to become real!
      Or at least really mess up a whole lot of schemes. The contest for the lordship of Jacob’s Bell is going to get very interesting when he returns.
      Maybe Mags will take him as a familiar.

      1. Screw that. He may have never been human, but there’s no rule saying that an Other can’t be a practitioner. He’s been following the rules as the shadow of a person so far, all the vestige needs is to pull himself together with a new power source and there’s plenty down there.

        1. Funny, I feel more optimistic for Blake than I have for a long time. He’s accepted he’s a vestige. He’s an other. Now he has to start rebuilding himself. The question, is into what? I don’t think Blake will want to be a boogeyman. Now if he gets a kickass red scarf, and starts appearing before evildoers by standing on something tall and whistleing his theme… Okay that won’t ever happen, but basicly This just makes me want to see Blake win even more.

    3. My first thought is: “He should do a Calling on Rose. Spend a little blood, start invoking her name. Call her up on the spiritual hotline, because she’s due an earful.”

      1. I don’t think he has the blood to give. Remember, there are no spirits down there to make a connection. Not unless someone punches a hole in space and creates one via summoning ritual.

  13. Yes! Blake is embracing his being Other. He rejected the shadow and will become a less human Other. He also believes that he is a vestige. I’m looking forward to seeing what Blake evolves into as an Other.

    1. Did he reject the shadow, though? I think the argument can be made that he didn’t reject the shadow and he still retains some humanity. Assuming he had any in the first place, which I think is a fair assumption based on … how human he’s acted throughout the entire story.

      1. The darkness broke away, crept in. The tattoos reappeared, the feathers, the birds. The branches crawled across my skin, my neck and chest, as the Shadow around me found its place.

        (Emphasis added.) I think you’re right. I think the shadow wasn’t a ghost of Christmas past; it was the fact of his Other-ness. Blake said, “That’s the situation I need to accept,” and he did.

  14. Kudos to everyone who called Blake being a vestige. Rose Sr. was a piece of work, wasn’t she? I will spend the rest of the night trying to work out who came from where and what the original state of this tangled web of connections is.

    I think that Rose Sr. had to spend some major power to create Blake. I don’t think that Blake’s existence, connections, and friendships could be solely the result of ‘tweaks’ to Rose’s existing connections – she would have had to forge some of those whole cloth. How many lives did she uproot? How many memories did she manipulate? What damage hath the Elder Thorburn wrought upon this small world?

    1. Rose (Jr) likes using Corviade. I wonder if Rose Sr. simply had Corviade create artificial friendships for Blake.

      Also, Molly was the sacrificial pawn. Not only was she ill equipped, she was also one of the family members Blake cared about.

      1. I don’t think ‘simply’ has anything to do with it. The thing about Blake existing in the real world and not a mirror world is that he has shared experiences with a lot of other people. For example, Alexis is presumably real, and she knew Carl, Teeth, and Fungus Face. Are they real people, or are they false memories implanted in her as well?

        Either Rose Sr. modified a metric ton of memories in a lot of different people, or she set up a ton of lives like dominoes in order to achieve a very specific end effect on Blake’s personality.

        1. Or maybe Rose Sr. found some poor sap who fit her criteria for Blake’s backstory, dropkicked them out of this dimension, and Corvidae’d all of their connections to Blake…

          1. Or she managed a spell with some kind of inherent ripple effect, kind of like how Ur’s memory-wipe affects everyone even tangentially connected to the unperson/thing, or how Pauz’s reversal funk continues to spread outward.

            And considering that’s supposed to be a defining trait of demons (radiation), and Rose Sr. wasn’t just a really good diabolist but also wrote a number of the major books on the subject, I’m guessing a spell of that particular style and scope wouldn’t be too far outside her abilities.

            1. Excellent point, she can probably harness/control the radiation. I’m starting to realize why people are so scared of diabolists.

            2. Funny thing is though that means Granny Rose did the oppisate of what demons like Urr do. She created, and may have made the world better for it’s presence.

            3. negadarkwing makes a good point. Demons and their radiation are destructive, not constructive. I think this was a controlled and precise deal that resulted in net entropy, not a demon of that causes reality-ripples like Ur.

    2. I see three options here:
      1) Barbatorem finds some poor sap with artist friends and destroys him, replacing him with Blake Thorburn. The person is fake, but for the most part, his history happened to someone.
      2) Barbatorem creates Blake, who causes enough pressure just by EXISTING to create the required connections and memories. Reality resettling after demonic influence.
      3) Barbatorem carves the reflection out, and the agents of Mann, Levinn and Lewis carefully insert him into the world, forging connections and retconning memories.

      So, yeah. Definitely some major power spent, but demons are all about major power.

      1. Demons can’t create. Steps 2 and 3 happen on the same. Otherwise, yeah, major power. I see why Darth Granny (for that is what she will be known as forevermore) didn’t want to push her luck by asking the barber for immortality on the same.

  15. I… what.

    Well, this will be interesting. Apparently, not everything reset back to Rose. Id est, Mags. Mags remembers Blake still. Wonder what will happen with that.

    1. +1 brownie points to me for insisting that Blake had not been raped x3 As far as I understand. Though I can see how this cult thing would have a similar effect on him.

  16. I have to wonder, did Mollie have a vestige guardian also? There are some odd things about her story also, so perhaps she had a vestige guardian who fell, and reality rearranged itself to forget. I don’t put this as a high probability, just a possibility.

    And I am with some of the other commenters who asked how Rose managed to befriend a bunch of starving artist types. That doesn’t make as much sense as Blake’s story did, but I suppose we will start seeing part of Rose’s story now.

    And it is even more bizarre that Ms. Lewis would bother talking to a vestige. Something’s up with that. A headsman’s apology?

    1. Perhaps every heir has a male version that prepares them to take over.

      I don’t think Blake is just a vestige. He may be Other and he may be fabricated, but vestiges are supposed to be incomplete, imperfect copies of something. I think the Thorburn Heir had some vestige like Other created for him/her, but the Other was/is special, sentient, learning and growing.

      1. I haven’t double-checked yet, but I seem to recall Rose Jr. mentioning something about how an Other can be turned into a vestige in some way, but the effect is only temporary and they’ll snap out of it once the vestige itself is broken.

        If I do indeed recall correctly, it could be that Blake’s illusion just shattered and we’re about to see the… Other? behind the mask.

        1. Maybe Rose Sr. used many weak Others rather than a single more powerful one. They might be easier to keep bound to the weakening vestige, keeping them from “snapping out of it”. That would explain a few things about Blake’s tattoos.

    2. Alternatively, Molly was also a vestige. Didn’t Rose mention something about not remembering her, or am I thinking of someone else? If that’s the case, then Mags didn’t actually kill a living person.

      Goodness, the chain of doubt spreads outward. Now everything even slightly connected to Blake is suspect.

      1. Rose remembered her. Assuming Rose was telling the truth back in 1.2, Rose was second in her world, 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?”

        If we assume Rose was telling the truth, this gives us a hard timeframe for when Blake was created — it would be when Rose’s memories cut out, since that would be the moment Rose was “cut.” This would imply that Blake was created immediately after the ceremony to select Molly, but possibly not released into the world until Molly’s death. Obviously, Rose Sr. had just died at that time, and would have been dead for four months by the time he was activated, but she could have had the lawyers do it, or perhaps set it in motion back then.

        (What Rose doesn’t remember is being friends with Molly. Significantly, Paige and Molly’s family didn’t remember Blake being friends with Molly and Paige, either — the fact that their memories lined up with Rose’s and not Blake’s was one of the first hints that clued people that Blake might be the Visage, I think. At least it was for me.)

        1. the fact that their memories lined up with Rose’s and not Blake’s was one of the first hints that clued people that Blake might be the Visage, I think. At least it was for me.

          Thanks, that niggled at me at first but I didn’t realize what it meant until now.

    3. I think Ms Lewis’s original promise to Blake might have been part of what made her show up:[em]
      “Then I’ll be specific. We’ll tell you before we maneuver you into a corner.”
      “Explicitly?” Rose asked.
      “Beg pardon?” the woman lawyer asked.
      “Tell us explicitly, please.”
      “If you wish. I or one of my partners will look one of you in the eyes and inform you exactly what we’re doing, when it comes up.”[/em]

      She didn’t back Blake into the corner, but now that Blake’s in the corner she’s explicitly telling him that they’re leaving him there. Maybe. It’s iffy but then again karma is iffy, so probably better to cover bases. Plus since she acted as a kind of tutor there’s some sort of attachment, or maybe this even furthers their interests because having a pissed off Other gunning for the Heir does make them more likely to take the firm’s Offer.

  17. I am a little confused as to why one of the questions Blake asks is “Why did I remember everyone”? The others make sense and point to inconsistencies, but that one gets me. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    1. Theory:

      The reason he remembers people is because his memories of them were fabricated, baked into him as a Vestige independent of any actual connections to them, only connected to the connections when Molly died.

    2. Wait is he talking about the fact that he remembers everyone even though his connections were all cut? cause yeah why did he remember everyone after all his connections were cut? I guess cause he was a vestige? wouldn’t the whole eraser demon work both ways?

      1. The demon cut the false connections: but Blake’s whole being is basically a false memory that remains because it comes from the “inside” instead of actually happening (and coming in from “outside”, where connections are).

  18. “Does it ever bother you, Amy, that your life doesn’t make any sense?”

    Maybe it’s just that I rewatched that season finale last night but this reminded me very strongly of that.

    1. I am fairly certain that they don’t. In fact I copy pasted my post and tried to post it just to check. It doesn’t allow double posts.

  19. ah, i knew carl wasnt actually the rapist because there was technically no rape at all! and i, for one am glad that wildbow decided to use something more sophisticated for trauma (escaping a crazy cult) than the go-to option for so many uninspired writers out there (rape) it really feels like a breath of fresh air

      1. point still stands that there was actually no rape even though we were all convinced it was definitive. but it brings the question, if it all was fabricated memories then grandma rose has SOME creativity, she didnt do some cheap two bit rehash of a life here, she wrote an entire overcomplicated drama, not sure what is says about her

        1. It probably says just as much of Granny as it says of Wildbow… since he is the one that wrote that “overcomplicated drama” in the first place xD

          More seriously, though, she needed a believable story and it had to hit certain marks and fit in certain constraints. It doesn’t say anything about her personality, it just says that she had the time, power, creative input (I assume the lawyers and Others chimed in) and creativity to come up with an incredibly complicated plan. Which we already knew.

        2. The whole plan was to change things up because she didnt like the Status quo. Still wondering what Laird’s part was.

          I say Blake was suppose to be a good influence on Rose, who claimed she was like every other Thornburn. I think I remember Rose being stunned when Blake promised he would do everything in his power to get her out of the mirror. I dont think Rose would’ve done that if the situation was reversed.

          Rose Sr. created someone that would stand up to her, wanted no interest in the family fortune or their rivalries. Someone with survival instincts.

          Question is, was Blake meant to be Rose’s familiar? Is it why she was upset that Blake made Evan a familiar without consulting her?

            1. Well a familiar is just binding something to you (and you to it). When you get down it, it’s just making a particular type of connection.

            2. The lines in the sand between humans/practitioners/Others/demons is blurry. Blake and Rose often referred to the categories as just guidelines, and all practitioners are a little bit Other anyway.

        3. Point does not stand. The trauma with Carl wasn’t rape. The scene with Laird and Conquest was definitely someone else and may or may not have been rape but likely was.

          1. wait you think it still hapened?…. but here is when his problems with phisical contact started to show up….though i guess it could have happened after this. problem is, we cant be really sure where did conquest got those ghosts in the first place if blake’s past is fabricated by granny rose

            1. As the memories are fabricated, no, the rape did not “actually happen” – keyword being actually. Granny Rose created a vestige with memories of being raped.

              Speaking of being an evil person.

            2. The text strongly implied that Blake’s unwillingness to be touched comes from his Vestige(?) nature and the other stuff was just there to justify that.

            3. @Delphus I believe the point was that there appears to have been no real or virtual rape.

              Whether it really happened or not, the happenings with the cult are what traumatised Blake. People’s speculations of rape seem to have been unfounded.

  20. Hard to be invested in a character that is just a creation. Granny Rose was one mean bitch to create a “person” to be a scapegoat (if that’s what he is), a sacrifice, a pawn. And Rose Jr. apparently is going along with it. I don’t know… The lawyers must know and yet they still wanted him… Agh! So many questions!

  21. Can I say, I hate Rose Sr.? Even if she has the best intentions in the world, even if her plan will result in the most benefit for all, even if, I hate how fucking much she has hurt people to achieve it. Or, at the very least, how much she has hurt Blake. But I guess if Rose is the true heir and this was all staged, it makes sense she is bidding for lordship.

    And… what were the visions Blake got from Laird and Conquest? Were they in this after all? Was Laird trying to help Blake? Aaaah I am so confused x.x

  22. Just read chapter 1. Rose knew Rose Sr. made other arrangements. She knew more about the situation whereas Blake was simply confused.

    I wonder if Ty and Alexis were friends of Molly or even Paige since she was the one that went to school in Toronto.

  23. So what are the rules on the timeline ( http://timeglider.com/t/6d876f2b8ecb1997 )?
    There’s a big void that will have to be filled and it’s crazy confusing even to a live reader.

    I’m rather looking forward to quiet time between Rose and the guard. During the few moments seen, she seems to trust them and have full confidence in her ability to protect them (So much for having backup despite not reading the books, Blake!) by giving each one a guard, but she marches them around like her Others. They seem a lot less alive and vocal than before.

    Sources of still water.
    I couldn’t quite see it, but I could hear it.
    Except I wasn’t hearing it with my ears.
    It resounded through me.

    Stop messing with me Wildbow!

  24. For everyone wondering how Grandma Thornburn managed to fake Blake’s connections to his friends: It’s simple, this is how she knew Corvidae would work for free. Blake’s friends are stolen.

    1. I agree that they’re stolen, but I think they ended up stealing parts of this person’s backstory as well, to give Blake Thorburn a decent supply of memories.

      1. Do not forget that Corvidae does not work like a demon. He is a malign spirit, a boogyman. Everything he/it “steals” still renember everything before the “transaction”, the just miracliously establish a connection they had with one person with another instead, with the victim (the one they got stolen from) also renembers everything and “knows” they belong to him/her. Thats how Crow-man works, thats what how he/it drives wedges between people.

        The barber, and some post-mortem work by the lawyers should very well be able to build a vestige and forge the connections.
        The point of “creation” of Blake/Mirror Rose is most likely the point in time where Molly died.

        1. Learning that your best friend was trapping you in a cult would be a pretty big deal-breaker, right? And the person who exposed said deception would be pretty deep into your good books, right?

          Seems fairly straightforward, to me.

  25. Ugh. My head hurts trying to piece this together. Please WB, make the world make sense again.

    Also, make Blake drag the Drains up into the real world, and claim the whole shebang as a his demesne. After becoming a Practioner or whatever again. Something. Ugh. Look what you did WB. I hope you are happy.

      1. Let’s do crazy other theories about Blake!

        Lets see, currently suffering an a purgatory like place for everyone’s sins, after “dying” and a carpenter to boot. Yep, Blake is Jesus.

        1. Blake needs to develop according to Jungian psychology in order to escape the Drains. He just integrated his Shadow. Next up would be the Anima (Rose) and I guess the Wise Old Man is buried so deep inside him we haven’t met him yet.

  26. Wait, guys. Remember how Rose wrote to herself, and I paraphrase, “they are yours now but you shouldn’t take advantage of that”, about Blake’s friends. This could be as simple as meaning the connections didn’t belong to Rose before, or this could very well mean they were never Rose’s friends in the first place. And Rose would not need to write that to herself if they had originally been her friends. Therefore, some fuck-uppery is going on there. This also means that Rose is at least partially unaware of Rose Sr.’s plan after what Erasurr did.

    1. Its more about inheriting Blake’s connections. Her new circle will do things for her because of some loyalty that they dont actually owe her.

      1. But Blake didn’t exist before this story started. Blake didn’t forge those connections. They came from elsewhere, and it seems as though they weren’t Rose’s either.

        1. Maybe, but they are Rose’s now.

          Then again Blake showed up before Rose Sr. died. Maybe he was living in the real world for a few years. Unless that first scene with the family gathering is just another false memory.

          1. It is a false memory, from what I can gather. Blake came into “existence” at the end of chapter one, where he woke up from a dream and met Rose. Someone mentioned things were moving around in the dream, connections. Those were the connections being tied to Blake.

            And yes, they are Rose’s now. The issue was something else entirely 😛

            1. Did he? The carving out a reflection bit wasn’t right before she died IIRC. Blake could have been made at any point. Between Molly’s death and that scene. I’m guessing that he actually did have friendships with Alexis and co. Or possibly there is some scrub that Blake replaced. (Just like Rose replaced Blake.) Also Blake was able to hug Joel. That raises… issues.

              Wait, wasn’t Rose heir number one in her world?

            2. Blake could have been made at any point between Molly’s death and the dream scene? They happened right next to each other. Blake had the dream after Molly died, then Rose told Blake to leave the house.

            3. This is probably my favorite interpretation of the events Blake saw in his dream, but I don’t think it’s correct. Presumably, the point of binding the Barber was so he couldn’t use his power. The Barber was already bound when Blake got to the house, which was quite a while after Rose Sr. passed. While it’s possible that “create Blake, then return to this attic, which will automatically seal you in” was a condition of the original agreement, or that Rose Jr. somehow learned enough to bind a very powerful demon by herself (in which case, they shouldn’t have had any trouble with Pauz or Ur), those both merit large complexity penalties.

            4. @Leveret: we know Rose Sr. made arrangements with the lawyers, so she wouldn’t have had to be alive by that point; they could have done it for her. The fact that the lawyers know what’s up with Blake points towards this.

            5. @mondsemmel:

              Good point. Now that you’ve brought it up, brokering and enacting a deal between a diabolist and a demon would seem like a very lawyery role. I withdraw my objection.

    1. It could either be that he misidentified them as being Blake’s when they were in fact spawned from other, similar events, or Blake’s history was based off or stolen wholesale from a real person.

      More clarification on the first part, since it’s the crazy theory I’m going with: How much do we know about ghosts, really? Can they give a perfect re-enactment of an event, or are they just the residual emotions and energy of that event? As far as I’m aware, the only things we’ve seen ghosts do to living people is impart a very specific feeling to them based on what ultimately created the ghost, i.e. extreme cold or poisonous vapors. Did those ghosts truly replay an entire memory reel, or did Blake simply expect that they would and the familiar feelings triggered flashbacks a la PTSD?

  27. There is one possible upside to the newly confirmed fact that Blake is a Vestige:

    If he ever gets out of this, he’s a valid familiar for Mags to take.

    1. Wasn’t there a whole big thing earlier about how vestige’s make shit familiar’s since they have to constantly draw on the host to stay real and thus don’t really provide any power to the other person?

      1. Except said vestige can interact with things like a second practitioner, something others can’t do. Regardless of the fact that he was a vestige or not, he’s still capable of doing what he did before, just not in the Drains.

        1. Blake was able to take a familiar. And it doesn’t seem like Evan just transferred over to Rose. So Evan was Blake’s famliar through and through.

    2. And it turns out that Pact is just a prequal spin off of the Maggie Holdt novels fleshing out Blake’s back story.

      1. From my reading, Blake didn’t exist before the story started, and he could have just been designed to shake things up from the beginning, so the second argument falls down.

        Sacrificing a family member just for time seems a bit… unnecessary. It’s not as if Rose Sr. hadn’t had a lot of time and she only got a few months out of Molly. However cruel Rose Sr. might be, it seems out of place she would sacrifice family members for her plans.

        1. Maybe a stronger motivation is needed. Im guessing Blake was suppose to simply fade away after some time. Then Rose would take advantage of the situation created by Blake’s death while also being a better influence on Rose. Instead wanted to do too much good and went after ur.

          1. In 1.1 or so, Rose remembers Molly, I think. But later on, in 7.4, she says:

            Rose nodded. “We all thought Paige was the top candidate, then Peter made his play and… well, the next thing I remember, I got confirmed as heir at the meeting.”
            […]
            “It doesn’t really matter. It’s just the vestige thing. When it’s bent out of shape, reality seeks the straightest path to righting itself.”
            […]
            “Molly. You’re forgetting Molly. If reality is seeking the straightest path, why would you be the first pick for heir? Why not follow after Molly?”
            Rose frowned. “I don’t know.”

            So Rose knows about Molly, but in her (second, later) version of the inheritance memories, she doesn’t appear. Which does make it more likely that Molly was also a vestige. But would a vestige really leave a ghost behind? And creating Blake with help of demons and the lawyers must have cost a lot; would Rose Sr. really expend the same resources multiple times?

        2. Remember, if Molly failed, the karma backlash could have wiped out the whole Thorburn line. Having Rose/Blake was more of a backup than the main plan.

  28. Dman…good chapter though.

    poor Blake. I bet Rose has an allies and enemies notepad where there are actual allies.

  29. What if Blake isnt a vestige? Being some kind of an other would explain the ridiculous amounts of punishment Blake would take and survive and find a way to heal. Then again…being a vestige explains why Rose got KO’d. Blake surviving all the damage came from Rose’s life force.

    I wonder if its possible to take an other an make them believe they are human. Maybe he replaced the poor bastard that was friends with Ty and Alexis. With Blake’s fascination with birds, I wonder if he had wings at one point like in his dream.

    1. In that case, he’d probably be a faerie, which would conveniently explain his facility with glamour-and we already have confirmation that faerie can self-deceive to the point that they develop entirely different powers and weaknesses.

            1. She had her identity stolen, and had to remake herself anew to continue existing. His Identity was fake, and now he must make a new one to continue existing. They just keep getting more perfect for each other!

          1. OH MY GOD this explains why Padriac/faeries were all ‘oh, my little Rose’ because they saw ROSE not Blake, it’s not about them not being able to tell generations of Thorburns apart it’s about seeing the vestige as the original. Plus mistaking Blake for female. Because he’s a twisted reflection of Rose, not the other way around! Otherwise maybe they would’ve called Rose ‘Blake’.

            1. Not… not this comment specifically, I was just reminded.

              Ahem. But yes, Bladriac 4ever. (Or should that be ‘Blaggie Tholt’?)

    1. Ooooh, I didn’t think of that.

      If they were her friends originally, just temporarily transferred to Blake, then naturally she’d be furious at having them drawn into this world by him.

  30. This was a great chapter. I loved the whole notion of having a script to follow, of being unable to deviate from it.

    Comments:
    1. “Drains” is a great name for this place.

    1. Wow. I did not expect THIS scene to end in THIS revelation. In fact, I’m not sure how much credence I put into the Blake-is-the-vestige theory in the first place. If Blake had killed his shadow, he wouldn’t have realized this, and as a non-aware vestige there’s no way he’d have been able to escape from there.

    2. People had been wondering why Blake’s injuries (e.g. after Pauz) occasionally weren’t mentioned anymore; now we know. And I guess the gashes Blake had in his arms since falling into the void are the vestige cracks we already saw in Johannes’ domain?

    3. On the downside, Blake has found out that he’s a fake and possibly everything he’s ever found out is a lie. On the upside, if I’ve understood things correctly, Blake’s injuries are now healed.

    4. I’m also curious about Laird’s “This is for the best” line (from 7.6) now.

    5. I’m curious how much time passed in the material world while Blake experienced his past again.

    6. I wonder what people think about Johannes’ theme park now. Yes, Blake was presumably a special vestige, but… does that matter?

    1. We already had (what we thought was) an example of a special vestige in Rose. I’m not sure why this should change anyone’s mind. I don’t think anyone was saying it was okay to hunt Rose-level entities for sport, there were just questions about whether Johannes’s rat-stuffed vestiges really rose (no pun intended) to that level.

      1. One thing this does make me realize:

        Grandma Rose’s letter said to stay out of Johannes’ territory. I think now we can infer why she was so firm on that point: Blake would have been in extreme danger there.

        1. Oh yes, good point.
          Although it makes Johannes’s line about Rose (who he believed to be a vestige, she probably was one at the time anyway) finding herself in good company if she went to the North’s End a bit weird.

          1. Well, if Rose is the real practitioner, practitioners can’t be harmed in the North End… and as someone with a vestige, she has practice at working with illusion/shadow people? I don’t know.

            1. That or Johannes assumed she was a vestige as well, as he is human, was seeing her in the mirror, and was not particularly practiced at manipulating demonic-level identity-reassignment in the manner of Isadora. Mags was a special case, too.

          2. He was poking fun at her.

            “You, like me, are the kind of person who would use a sentient vestige for your own power.”

    2. I didn’t need to know about Blake being a vestige to think that creating intelligent beings to have them tortured is a horrible thing to do. It’s morally no different of cloning a human, and then torturing them under the excuse that they were not born naturally. All sapient life deserves the same respect.

      That being said, Johannes may be a monster, he’s definitely /polite/ about it, he has the whole “Well Intentioned Extremist” trope going for him, and he’s clearly kicking ass, which is why as readers we may feel more inclined to forgive him for his crimes.

      1. Agreed, but under what circumstance do you know if they’re intelligent beings vs. recordings/ghost-like? For instance, ghosts are imprints of trauma and they can sort of react to stimuli, but the kids in the North End seemed more real. According to Mags, though, they’re just an echo of the ‘real’ kids. Echoes who can make new memories and have experiences, though…

      2. You can only torture intelligent beings if they have a capacity for suffering, i.e. if they are conscious, and that was the main thing in dispute here. Though all the vestiges seemed pretty conscious to me, and it’s not like we have a perfect consciousness test that reliably distinguishes between humans and zombies.

        But yes, Johannes is a far more appealing villain than Laird ever appeared to be, though a Laird Histories chapter could still change that. (What’s the weirdest thing that could happen? Maybe Blake’s vestige past being based on, or being a reflection of, Laird’s.)

        1. “Maybe Blake’s vestige past being based on, or being a reflection of, Laird’s.)”
          That would be the most ironic thing ever.

  31. So some random thoughts: Joel seemed able to touch Blake. What does that say about the landlord then? We still don’t know when Blake was formed. How much of his friendship was real? Johannes just gained BBEG status. Blake was feeding Rose power. How would a vestige that should fall apart manage that? Did Grannie find some poor shmoe to fill the Blake shoes? That would explain the echo’s Conquest found.

    Well I’m confused now.

    1. Blake was feeding Rose power. How would a vestige that should fall apart manage that?
      See theories above, that very point was probably the purpose of Rose’s not-really-Awakening ritual.

    2. People can touch Blake. It’s just that them touching him strains the vestige to its limit, so via Pavlovian conditioning (plus these memories to justify the aversion) he doesn’t like being touched.

  32. @Wildbow
    I am curious, how is it writing a web serial where people can comment and discuss it? I’ve noticed multiple times that it seems as though you address some of the points of confusion in the following chapter. You get a lot of feedback with each chapter that allows to make the story better and clearer.

    1. He’s stated somewhere before that he’ll occasionally work something in if certain wrong conclusions seem to run rampant, but that comments don’t influence the overall arc of the story (or at least not intentionally).

      1. One thing I recall is him clarifying Rose’s letter to herself in Histories (Arc 7), to make it clear that she hadn’t known Blake would die vs. ErasUr, but only that she’d been prepared for the eventuality.

  33. Blake originally as an Other. I did not see that coming. Maybe having a case of eaten identity is allowing his backstory to become malleable? Something Rose’s programming is capitalizing on? It’s just really tragic that his main remaining tie back to reality, his humanity, is being cut following the loss of the ties to his familiar and friends. Makes for an interesting origin story of a badass Other though. And about those friends, are they another instance of amoral practitioner (Rose Sr?) brainwashing innocents for a plan?

  34. More comments:

    1. The most amazing reveal here imo wasn’t that Blake is a vestige, but that line: “You cobbled this together, grandmother, my story included, to make it so I couldn’t get touched… because when I did, I got hurt.”

    2. And yet, we don’t know what actually happened – Blake is definitely a vestige, as the chapter end stresses, but Blake may be wrong about some important details. For instance, was his past self pulled from an alternative world (Blake-as-female-Rose), or were his memories “cobbled together” from the experiences of suitable people, or was it something totally different? We do know that Blake-as-vestige could not have experienced this chapter’s original scenario due to the harmful physical contact.

    3. Someone suggested Blake-as-vestige came into existence in 1.1 when the vision started, but I don’t see how the inheritance scene makes any sense as a fake memory. For instance, Rose Sr.’s cryptic “Did you mean it?” line makes no sense to me if it’s fake, nor does “I only want to understand my grandchildren before I make my decision.” – if Rose Sr. had settled on Rose from the beginning, why bother with the other Thorburn muggles at all? Though on the other hand Rose Sr. specifically mentions “the pain I’ve caused you.)

    4. How much did Rose know? In her letter in 1.3, Rose Sr. wrote: “I could explain, justify, and make excuses, but that is very much not my manner or style.”; and later on, Conquest made Rose tell him everything she didn’t want him to know, and there’s no way Conquest wouldn’t have used that weakness to crush Blake if he’d known about it. So either Rose was able to resist, or Rose only found out the truth afterwards.

    5. With this revelation, Pact has moved one step closer to having every frickin’ line be consistent with being foreshadowing of the story. Amazing. For instance, take Andy’s whole scene in Blake’s vision in 1.1: the talk about the faerie; the question “Even if it’s human?”; the line “Anything that can knock the metronome over isn’t human anymore, or it won’t be for long.”

    6. More of this: In his awakening speech in 1-07, Blake mentions past, present and future, and in the Drains, he now has to confront his anchors to past, present and future. Also, Blake uses the words “Above all, I think I’m doing this for my real family”, and then “And I’m doing it for me and Rose. Because I won’t be trapped like this, and she shouldn’t be either.” which is delightfully ironic in retrospect.

    7. Now that Blake knows he’s a vestige, maybe he’ll try to become mortal in the form of a familiar?

    8. Also, I didn’t think it would be possible, but this outcome – where Blake kept his memories despite being nearly erased – is genuinely worse than if he hadn’t kept them. After all, we can put quotation marks on “his memories”…

    9. Yeah, I don’t really get how the whole thing with Blake and Rose worked. Blake had blood he could spill to power his effects; Rose had no heartbeat, no blood, and IIRC when she was wounded in the Conquest arc she didn’t bleed normally. I guess the “Someone moved” line in 1.1 might refer to Vestige-Blake and Real-Rose switching places?

    1. 3) I’m wondering if Blake had been set in place and Rose put to sleep by that time. Or perhaps Rose said the same sort of thing and Blake’s memory is stolen from her? Maybe RDT ran through the question/answer session with Blake the day before? Interesting, though, how he was friends with Paige and Molly.

      4) Or Rose could lie. Conquest wouldn’t be expecting that and would probably take everything said as truth. Give a lie by omission, he presses for details, fill in a little, he presses more, cave in and give it to him. Then he’s done and onto the next question. He found the trap; the lie by omission. Nobody ever looks beyond that.

      9) I’m looking at Blake as something similar to what Padraic did to Maggie. Something that took the connections, took on mortal form, and put itself there. It makes sense in retrospect; he was never of the Thorburn bloodline, so of course Rose is the only one with the Voice.

      1. Ooooh, good point. But Rose had to tell Conquest everything Blake knows she knows, because otherwise Blake would have known she could lie.

    2. As for #9, I agree. I think originally Blake would have been trapped in the mirror realm and Rose in ‘reality’, but RoseSr./laywers/demons swapped the two, causing SOMEONE (Rose Jr.) to move, displacing something (Blake).

  35. Posting now, because I’ll forget otherwise.

    1) You mentioned in the comments section in Worm once about how you disliked rape as backstory. Not because of how horrible it is, but because of how lazy it is. The idea is that you just mention it and sit back while everyone acts horrified. You said back then that you wouldn’t use rape like that. I’m a bit ashamed of myself for rolling with the idea that Blake was raped. Instead, we’ve got a very interesting cultist back story for him. Kudos! This is way better!

    2) The Backstory doesn’t make any sense. Blake having all of these connections, all of these people who are related to him just because of his grandmother. This is something that indicates that Blake was a real person, rather than just being a vestige. Such a detailed back story is not necessary for a doppelganger and requires power to forge.

    2.5) Unless…Rose shares Blake’s back story. RDT transplanted her granddaughter’s connections to Blake, an Other of glamour that made the necessary changes where gender would matter. She gave explicit instructions to Rose about what Blake was, gave the wrong directions for the summoning ritual so Rose could continue to lie, and generally set everything up.

    This is hinted in Carl being so strong while pinning Blake; that’s a pseudo-sexual move and Carl’s definitely heterosexual in terms of how he divides his attention between his cultists. It also explains why ‘Blake’ was so bothered by the pregnancy; it’s much more worrisome when you have to worry about the same thing happening to you.

    On one hand, this would be incredibly tragic; Blake’s connection with Alexis, with Tiff, is not missing because it was broken, but because it was never there to begin with. On the Other hand, this means that Blake can develop himself in such a way to recover as a person, to gain strength, and to return to reforge those connections into something new. Not that he’d ever want to, but hey. It’s an option.

    1. I don’t buy in the “Blake’s friends were originally Rose’s friends” theory. If Rose had that kind of backstory, she wouldn’t have the personnality she has. I think the much more likely theory is that Blake was made with a bit of Rose (for connections to Thornburn family, but they’re much weaker, hence the fact that his parents lost him three times, that he ran away, etc…) and a bit of some random homeless guy/cult victim that happened to have a suitable backstory.

      What is weird is the family reunion scene. Both Rose and Blake experienced it, so Rose can’t have been in the mirror before that, but it doesn’t make that much sense as a fake memory for Blake. Maybe RDT carved out a bunch of throwaway vestiges for the rest of the family and had a fake family reunion just for Blake?

      1. Also, I believe Molly’s role was to avoid having RDT chose Blake/Rose as the heir, because that might have been confusing enough to everyone else (Muggles and practitionners) that people could have discovered the truth.

    2. I think you’ve nailed it on the head with 2.5. Rose was with the cult, Carl assaulted her, Alexis saved her. When you’ve got a vestige that’s easily damaged by physical contact, transferring that memory makes sense.

    3. Your 2.5 makes no sense to me, given that what Rose said about her backstory was different, and while she may or may not have been able to lie, she confronted Blake in 6.5 out of anger, and it didn’t seem like a scene that could work as subtle manpipulation:

      “I’m more of a Thorburn than you are,” Rose said.
      […]
      I stuck with the family, for better or worse. I don’t even know how much was intentional, but in _my_ recollection of the conversation with Grandmother, talking with her on her deathbed? She pretty heavily implied that she _wanted_ us to fight tooth and nail. But _you_ left.

      Now, other things she said may have been lies, but the scenario from that quote doesn’t mesh with someone who ran away from their family, and tried to leave all ties behind.

      So I consider it more likely that vestige-Blake was based on one or several real persons.

      1. Your 2.5 makes no sense to me, given that what Rose said about her backstory was different,

        (a) Practitioners tend to be very careful about the words they use, and in the parts about Barbatorem the phrase used is always “carve a reflection”.

        (b) Throughout the story, a few of Blake’s memories didn’t quite fit his family’s, like him having been friends with some of of his siblings. But the parts about him leaving home always did fit his interactions with his parents.

        I suspect that:

        (1) Barbatorem actually detaches pieces of yourself when “carving” your reflection.

        (2) In our case, he carved out some nasty parts of Rose Jr. (including some of Blake’s traumatic memories) and used them to make Blake; Rose Sr. or the Lawyers also filled in other stuff, including a battery made of several weak Others that became the bird tattoos.

        Rose Jr. was patched up with suitable replacements for the parts Barbatorem cut; probably this includes pieces of her siblings, quite likely Molly, which would explain both why she was “sacrificed” by being put first on the list and why she lasted so little.

        Then Blake was switched with Rose, connections were shifted around, and almost every trace of the hack was erased.

        (Though I’m not quite sure of the timing. I think most of it was a prepared spell set to trigger automatically on Molly’s death, but some parts of it seem like they must have happened during or even before the “farewell Grandma” chapter.)

  36. So, I really liked this chapter. The dread, approaching doom, the moments in which Blake is okay, were powerful.

    I can’t believe that dumb theory that Blake was a vestige was right. I mean, seriously, what?

    I thought attention, not just touch, was bad for vestiges. That’s why glamour could not be used to power one.

    1. Tbh glamour is probably a combination is really good, and really bad. Glamour lose power when it’s being noticed, vestiges lose power when being noticed. The inverse is also true though in that it’s all fine and both are great [i]as long as nobody is realizes[/i]

  37. Holy crackers!

    First off, this picture: http://skart-scratchins.tumblr.com/post/84641556805/a-rendition-of-rose-and-blake-from-wildbows feels a lot more relevant now. Even though I’m sure the ordering was a stylistic choice/preference at the time… (Also relevant: http://skart-scratchins.tumblr.com/post/90938364475/roses-version-of-this , by the same artist.)

    Second of all, that person from 1.5 who’s described in the same way as Carl is here? The fact that he lives in Jacob’s Bell… Rose Sr. might have used him as a source for the Carl of Blake’s memories.

    Also, the more I think about it, the more it feels like Rose knew the whole time. One of the biggest unexplained mysteries about her character was her reluctance to get too close to Blake; every time they started getting especially friendly she pulled away, and there were multiple moments where Blake considered that she was getting mad at him for being so friendly to her. Almost like she felt guilty that this poor, doomed, innocent clone of herself is being used as a meatshield.

    And if this is the case, then that moment where she sacrificed herself in 4.2 for him… fuck. My guess is that if there are in fact two more visions, of the present and (potential) future, that Rose will be the present one, and he’ll piece all of this together for himself. How he’ll feel about Rose having known is a mystery… but it might not go so well.

    1. Also, the more I think about it, the more it feels like Rose knew the whole time.

      Remember when they got in the library, how she was very opposed to Blake looking at Barbatorem? Heh. Didn’t know her well enough at the time, but in retrospect the lady did protest too much.

  38. So, the possibility of Blake being the vestige has come up before, and I had my objections to it, then, and I still have them now.

    Which means I am really curious to find out who and what Blake’s friends are.

  39. Beware the Wall Of Text. There is a tl:dr at the end.

    Interesting, Wildbow. You went in a direction I did not expect, didn’t even see it coming. And yet, it still holds together 🙂

    You are still holding some cards close to your chest, and I’m going to give it my best shot to explain Blake. My best guess is that Blake is the amalgamation of a ghost of a real person, Blake, with the connections of Rose Junior.

    Rose Senior needed a Custodian, a fighter, a mostly-good person who simply did not understand how to stop. Blake’s history of homelessness may be partly real. His memories of times after he ran away from home may be mostly true. They made him strong in some ways, weak in others, but in the end, in the real world, perhaps he died being a hero, and became a strong ghost somewhere, because he failed to save what he was trying to save. The lawyers found Blake’s ghost for Rose Sr., and Barber was used to edit Rose Jr’s connections and his together.

    BUT. Have we seen Blake before? I think we have. In Mags memory, in Arc 2 (Damages)

    Perhaps Blake’s Blake-ness is from the ghost of the practitioner that saved Mags and her family from the goblin queen in her old home town. Mags and her family might have survived, but from what the practitioner told her as she was collecting his magical items, the rest of the town died because Mags and her dads lived. The bargain she made somehow gave the Goblin Queen several more days to act, which would have caused the “Slippery Man” to die horribly at the hands of goblins as they showed him what they were doing to the town he tried to save.

    Rose Sr. might have heard Mags’ story, and had the lawyers investigate to see if there was a ghost. The scene as described looked like it was leading up to a really brutal death with both physical and mental abuse. I bet that would have created a potent ghost. A ghost of a practitioner who was apparently pretty good at hiding and sneaking around, but not afraid to fight or even sacrifice himself if need be. Blake’s strengths as a practitioner were glamour related, and he was willing to take risks to do what he thought was right. That might have been real.

    I could easily see the ghost of the “Slippery Man” agreeing to be made able to interact with the world so he might have the opportunity to make a difference, again. What happens with Blake now? The demon lawyers haven’t written him off completely, or they wouldn’t have wasted even a short visit on him.

    Even now, he seems to be more than a ghost. He’s thinking, reacting, acting, trying to figure out what he is, who he is. Perhaps we’re about to see an Other practitioner that is so stubborn they can remake themselves into a mortal?

    I think that, perhaps, Ur’s interactions with Blake managed to interfere with what was supposed to happen. Power invested in Blake was probably supposed to return to Rose Jr. when he was sufficiently damaged as a human body that he should not still be alive. When Ur ate the connections to Rose, there was no path for the power to return by.

    tl:dr version. Wow, Blake is an Other? Perhaps a ghost of the Slippery Man from Arc 2 (Damages) endowed with connections copied from Rose Jr? This would explain a LOT of things about Blake.

    1. I happened to hear “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance. I normally don’t pay much attention to lyrics, but what I was hearing got my attention, and now I’m wondering if this song might have been the seed of Pact.

    2. I thought it was implied the Slipper Man was Fell’s brother who tried to keep away from Toronto (and got himself killed).

      Which would make Blake beating Conquest too fitting. Maybe that’s his reward, the chance to fight Conquest…

      1. From the very little we got to see of the Slippery Man, he certainly seems to be the type that would want to come back for a second round against something like Conquest, but I’m not sure if Rose Sr. was planning that, specifically. I might need to go back and read the bit about Fell’s history again.

    3. The practicioner in mags backstory was at least implied to be what’s-his-names father. He threw himself at the goblin queen because he saw an opportunity to get himself offed.

  40. “I’m probably fucked if I get it right,” I said. “But that’s my situation, isn’t it? Perpetually fucked.”

    And Blake just fount the question for his life, universe, and everything.

  41. I admit I’m confused. But I’m on board.

    I didn’t really want to get all hung up on this issue, but – if Blake’s trauma was written from the beginning to NOT be sexual in nature, then why are there so many small details that seem to suggest it is? Things like Evan not understanding it and thinking of it as a thing that grown-ups have to deal with. His conversation with Alexis about how he has ‘hangups’ about sex. You don’t have to have rape on the brain to assume that’s what happened. It just kinda feels like the readers were deliberately lead to that conclusion. Why? Somehow that seems more tasteless than having it be a real part of Blake’s backstory.

    On a different note, I think part of the reason this was really confusing is the parts where Blake ‘deviated from the script’ and said/did things that he did not in the ‘real’ events. When the reader doesn’t know what those real events were, it makes it hard to figure out what’s going on. Like, I thought that Blake’s entire “You are running a cult and I’m leaving” speech was a deviation, and he had actually stayed there.

    Those problems aside, I liked this chapter despite my many questions (where did Tyler and Joel come from, primarily).

    1. Carl’s assault on (Rose?) Blake wasn’t sexual, but it was no less an act of violence, power, and domination. Carl apparently didn’t rape (Rose?) Blake, but he did pin him down, prevent him from escaping, and force him to beg for mercy, for acceptance, etc. etc. Alexis showed up and cold-cocked Carl from behind, and got (Rose?) Blake away.

      Rose Sr. kept/transferred the memory because as a vestige, physical contact was harmful for Blake; so having that memory copied/implanted into him gave him a strong natural aversion to being touched (and thus preserving himself).

      1. It looks like his aversion to touch actually came more from the entire experience, since he came to associate physical intimacy with being deceived and manipulated.

    2. While I suspect Blake was raped, even before that his sexuality was used to manipulate him, and others. Sex was one of the things Carl used to control others, and he used it on Blake, and used Blake as well.

      It’s interesting. Blake always says Alexis saved him. But it seems he saved her as well, since he warned her off so she didn’t get sucked into Carl’s cult. Though what actually happened since Blake is fake is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

  42. I’m not certain that Blake wasn’t raped. We seem him diverge from the script when he does not beg and when he summons Alexis. I think it’s possible that, in the original series of events, Blake begged Carl and then he was raped and then Alexis came in.

    Blake chose to skip the rape itself because he realized that wasn’t the point of the script. The point was making clear that he was an Other… I guess? I’m not super sure.

    If making Blake realize he was an Other was the point of this ‘vision/memory/thing’ then it must contain some clues to that fact.

    Maybe I’m missing the clues, but I can’t find any. Can anyone else?

  43. It’s a real pity. According to this chapter, Blake isn’t a virgin. I was hoping that he would capture/partner with an unicorn that could transform into a motorcycle, but it seems that isn’t possible now.

    1. Come on, we all know how bad unicorn motorcycle stories end for everyone unless a crazy Maryland ninja intervenes…

      Well damn, Jacob’s Bell is surprinsingly close to Cumberland. Less than a day of driving.
      You should hang on to your idea.

  44. So now that we have this dramatic reveal (as far as we can trust Blake), is it about time to get the History of one of the big 3? I mean The 3 important main characters who we’ve seen a lot of and feel strongly about but haven’t had a History chapter for yet. I’m talking about Laird, Rose and Blake himself. With this new info, will a History clarify and put things in a new perspective for us?

    Also, a question. Who is the good guy in Pact?

    1. You did not seem to pay proper attention, Sir (even if your number of previous commentaries suggest elsewise).
      This is Wildbow. There is no one inherently good, neither in Pact nor in Worm. Good intentions yes, but in choosing their methods, even the most “good” characters tend to “pragmatic” solutions.

  45. Sorry, but I am not the best at remembering things like this, but what is “it”:

    “Isadora asked it. Ms. Lewis asked it, or something like it. Pretty much every powerful being I’ve talked to has asked it. Including Conquest, who talked to Rose, who apparently knows more than she’s letting on.””

    1. Asked him to accept his situation. That’s what he means when he says “that’s the situation I have to accept.”

  46. This chapter contains a lot of revelations, cryptic comments, and references to past events. I’m going to try to compile a list of all of those things in order to try to make sense of it all.

    The section where Blake figures out that he is the vestige begins with him asking Carl “Why?” (I guess he means “Why am I supposed to beg you to take me back?”).

    However, Blake goes on to say:

    “Time works differently here. I’ve had time to think. Why? Isadora asked it. Ms. Lewis asked it, or something like it. Pretty much every powerful being I’ve talked to has asked it. Including Conquest…”

    I’m not sure what Blake is asking ‘why’ about. Can anyone find the passages where the above characters asked ‘why’?

    Blake goes on to ask a number of other questions”

    1) Why was practically everyone convinced that I was going to die? Except they didn’t say die.

    Easy question. Presumably, they knew he was a vestige or something.

    2) What the fuck was up with my tattoos?

    The simple answer is that he is a vestige, so his body is more mutable (perhaps even changing subconsciously), but that just explains the ‘how’ not the ‘why’. Why does he have the tattoos? Did Rose Sr. give him the tattoos as a built in barometer of sorts? Or is it a ‘glitch’ of sorts where his Other nature is showing through?

    3) Why did I get ‘possessed’ so easily?

    He gets possessed easily? I don’t recall him ever getting possessed. He got tainted by Pauz, sure, but I don’t recall him ever getting possessed, which is surprising given that he has purposefully spilled out all of his magic (which should have crippled his magical immune system, according to Duncan Behaim) and he even had a demon in his eyes.

    4) Why was I good with glamour?

    Because being a vestige gives him naturally more mutable? Or is there another explanation? If vestiges are like Ghosts, then they’re not really solid. Maybe Rose Sr. gave Blake a physical body by taking a fey and somehow eradicating its old mind, turning it into a vessel for the Blaek vestige (this seems plausible given that fey have been established as being highly mutable, ex: the self-deluded fey twilight-vamps in 1.01). If Blake is the fusion of a vestige and fey, then his fey ‘heritage’ might give him a talent for glamour.

    5) Why were my injuries so transient, so easy to remove, my spiritual damage so hard to shore up?

    I’m guessing because his physical form is more mutable but, as a vestige, his ‘soul’ is frozen in the state where it was first made (Blake’s personality really hasn’t changed much over the course of the story, possible because it /can’t/ change)

    6) Why did I remember everyone?

    Assuming that Blake meant, “Why did I remember everyone [even after ErasUrr ate my connections?”, that is a very good question. It harkens back to last chapter where Blake pointed out that he remembered himself, which Ms. Lewis implied was significant. Perhaps this is because as a vestige he isn’t as reliant on connections as humans? Maybe his memories of people are a fundamental part of his being as opposed to just connections? I’m not sure.

    1. Concerning your points:
      1) Isadora talked about this in 6-10 – it’s basically supernatural intuition: “just as a mortal might learn to intuit the weather, we learn to intuit other things”

      And incidentally, this all means that Blake wasn’t fated to die in his fight with a monster like ErasUr; he was fated to “die” because of what he was. Which means he’s not only fake, but a doomed fake, one who still lives on borrowed time.

      3) Maybe that refers to Blake losing himself in the glamoured-kid role, or to Blake easily succumbing to the Behaim time shenanigans (Laird in the café, Duncan in the police station), or (literal possession) to his affinity with ghosts and ghostlike beings?

      4) I don’t buy this faerie theory myself, but to fuel your speculation, Ms. Lewis’ line about faerie in 2-5 was: “Some lose their minds, others throw away their minds, carving away their personalities and memories so they might start fresh..”; and Aimon’s line was “carve out a reflection”. But that seems like a spurious connection, and the notion that Blake mustn’t be touched imo strongly points towards him being a vestige, rather than an Other in insane amounts of glamour.

      6) He remembers everyone because the connections Ur cut were fake, e.g. created by Corvidae or something; and because his memories were fake, too.

      (Though I don’t get why Blake shouldn’t be able to remember himself, even if he wasn’t a vestige.)

  47. I’m still kind of stuck on Rose Jr. being a TOO perfect heir. This makes me think that she’s still the carved out reflection of Rose Sr., which isn’t necessarily incompatible with Blake also being a vestige, perhaps? Maybe he is only a vestige now, and Rose Sr. simply orchestrated his isolation and contact issues rather than manufacture them whole-cloth?

    A reread may be in order.

  48. And… I hate this. I hate it when you break so much the continuity.
    I also kind of like it. But this fucking makes me have to distrust pretty much everything you writte. It could all be an illusion, or a lie, or something.

    But it doesn’t really make sense and it makes the world of Pact even more crazy. Why does Rose feel she never experienced her memories? Why would she lie? If she knew, then why does she get so scared when Blake tells her he is going to die?
    How did Tiff, Ty and Alexis and Joel and the others get connected to Blake if Blake got created at the time of the vision? And how do they have a past?
    And of course, what about Conquest’s ghosts? And why wouldn’t powerful beings like Isadora, Ms. Lewis and Conquest (specially) tell him what he is?
    And how come Sandra Duchamp never clued on the fact that Blake has false connections?

    Got damn it.

    1. Rose knows what Blake is. She knows who he was, or had it explained in enough detail that she understands that he’s going to put forth superhuman efforts to protect her. She needs to feed that. Blake is her bodyguard and lightning rod. The universe acts on him rather than her. Her job is to keep him around as long as possible to take the karma hits from the universe. That means feeding him power, feeding his emotional needs, letting him think he is real.

      Human practitioners might not be able to see what Rose Sr. had the demons create for her. Nonhumans apparently could see, or suspect. Why would they tell what they see? What price was being offered?

      Conquest might have seen what Blake’s entire purpose was, to act as a karmic lightning rod, and allowed him the opportunity to fulfill himself specifically so he could dominate a Rose Jr. with a less negative karmic balance. From Conquest’s point of view, Rose Jr. was very attractive as a coerced follower, but her karmic balance would be toxic.

      Isadora asks riddles, she doesn’t answer them, not usually. It’s just a Sphinxy thing, I guess.

      The demon lawyers work for Rose, not for Blake. They only pretend to work for Blake at some level because they know exactly what he is, what his purpose is, and helped to set everything in place. They aren’t going to tell Blake anything. They likely had at least a few meetings with Rose in the mirror world that Blake knew nothing about.

      The fact that the demon lawyer in the drains actually responded to Blake’s call seems to indicate that he’s more than a simple vestige. I think that what the demons molded, when cut off from Rose by Ur, has left something new and different. A vestige with no external connections, and sufficient power to perhaps make himself human once again.

    2. to distrust pretty much everything you writte. It could all be an illusion, or a lie, or something.

      That’s the whole point of Pact. Anything could be an illusion, whatever anyone says could be a lie or something. Whenever you think you know something, you’re probably tricked by somebody.

      Wildbow is just helping us understand how the world feels for the characters. (And he’s doing an awesome job of it!)

  49. This is a double-bluff: Blake isn’t actually a vestige, Rose is there to shelter him when everyone pounces on HER because she’s the “real deal”. Everyone, Laird, Duchamp, the Lawyers even thought Blake wasn’t it, but when he comes back they’re going to be blind-sided.

  50. It’s been hard reading about a character who feels like he’d been set up without a chance from the get go. It resonates though. As things fall in many peoples lives, stuff is often downright unjust, where the folks who are holding the desirable end of the shovel can look you right in the face and shrug. Marginalized, silenced, disregarded, disposed of. When you’re hit with it, you’re made to feel like you’re invisible. When you’re not invisible, you’re reminded that you just don’t matter.

    Reading along as these things go, I’d occasionally finish a chapter and feel absolutely livid. The helplessness, the unfairness. Laird really prickled me in his appearances. A privileged and empowered white male police officer arrogant enough to try to tell you that he was doing you a favor by killing/destroying you and that he was still entitled to respect and to feeling respectable, the double standard inherent in “I may do evil unto you because you are evil, but you may not do evil unto me because I am not,” made my blood boil.

    In this respect, it always impressed me that Blake wasn’t very vengeful. And when I wasn’t impressed by it, I was very irritated by it. I am aware that it’s a very human weakness to fall into the thinking of, “Those who hurt me must be hurt until they can hurt me no more,” and that Blake is “better” for not succumbing to that thinking. But it was hard sometimes, particularly when you’re relating to a character so strongly and then suddenly you don’t feel he’s properly standing up for YOU anymore. But escalating violent vengeful wish fulfillment fantasies are … problematic on a number of levels, particularly regarding who is allowed to have them and how they are made to feel about having them.

    It’s been rough. But I feel connected and invested. In the space of fiction and not our ordinary lives, I can hold out on the fact that I do not believe it’s possible for Blake to be rendered absolutely helpless. That his story has a lot in front of him that’s challenging, or impossible, or discouraging, but that he can find a path forward to something of value, for at least a certain value of value. As awful and unjust as this world (Pact) is, I can believe that Blake can, through his struggle, achieve something that’s at least satisfying, even if we’ll never quite shake from it being thoroughly unjust. In this respect, Pact, for all it’s horrors, is still one order of magnitude better than ordinary reality, where unjust is a permanent descriptor of all human existence.

    Is it better this way? To see things in fiction that makes us reflect on those same things here at home? I think so? Maybe just for me? I’m not even sure if it’s believable to feel so strongly about events that take place in a work and also state that you enjoy it. What am I even saying about the kinds of things I enjoy? Maybe the word that I’m looking for authentic. Blake’s struggle against things unjust feels very real. I am very invested in hoping for his success, with the understanding that if the struggle against things unjust wasn’t as arduous and excruciating as it is, it would feel farcically inadequate.

    (apologies in advance, but i don’t plan to engage in discussion about points raised here, just wanted to say my piece and go back to reading. to explicitly clarify, questions and comments won’t be answered or addressed.)

    1. “Enjoy” is a broad term. It can mean something was satisfying, not necessarily pleasant. People enjoy roller coasters and horror movies.

      Trying to unravel the layers in Pact is a very satisfying endeavour.

      P.S. I totally agree with your comments about the Pact verse being a mirror to sometimes life isn’t fair.

  51. Wasn’t really a fan of the “Blake is a vestige” idea, but guess that’s what ended up happening. Still a powerful chapter, so let’s roll with it.

    I’m sure the exact nature of what Rose Sr. did to make Blake will be revealed in time, and there’s nothing to do to change what’s already happened. The real question is what does Blake do now? As a vestige, he’ll need a power source of some sort just to stay together once he’s out of the Drains unless he becomes something more. And long term he really does need to become more than a vestige if he’s to survive.

  52. Is this real life?

    Sweet canadian bacon, this was pretty good. I like when twists completely blindside me and still male me feel silly for not catching it earlier. I’m gonna be gushing about this for a whole minute, then I will become a regular fan.

    Daaang, I can’t wait for this to go on.

  53. I figured Blake was the vestige some time ago. I’m not sure when Granny made him but it figures that if connections can be cut they can be created from whole cloth as well. I would imagine Angels of the 1st ring can do it – maybe she somehow got an evangelist to help.

    Anyway, I suspect Blake’s tattoos are some sort of extra protection that stop him disintegrating so soon – or maybe keep him in vestige form longer and he’s some other kind of other under the skin.

    1. I would imagine Angels of the 1st ring can do it

      I think that’s overkill, competent Enchanters can probably do it to a point. That Duchamp girl in Mags’ school created half a connection to distract the principal at one point.

  54. Finally an explanation and we’re left with even more questions than before.

    Blake is a vestige/Other now. Okay, that explains why he still has his memories of people when the connections were cut. He was programmed with them. They are at his core.

    Everyone but Alexis and Carl were blurs to him, does that mean those memories were artificial except for those parts?

    “Why was I the heir, and not Paige? If Grandmother could set up a vestige, couldn’t she set up a heterosexual Paige?” – Does tthat mean at that point Blake already realized he was a vestige? Is he talking about changing Paige for real or setting up a vestige of her? What would be the point?
    What roles do Molly and Paige play if Rose was the true heir all along? Rose Sr. put so much work and energy into Rose Jr., what did sacrificing Molly accomplish then? Just to buy time? Time for what? Blake/Rose started with zero anyway. And if Rose was the true heir, then there is no reason to involve Paige at any point.

    Many people and beings knew Blake would end soon. Did they know he was a vestige? Why did no one ever tell him? It would devastated him, it would have been an excellent weakness to use against him. Conquest can’t have known and then ignored it, it would be against his very nature. Telling Blake he wasn’t real would probably have unraveled him, which might have been a merciful way to end him. Why didn’t Isadora do that?
    Maybe through some supernatural sense they felt his end was near but didn’t really know how?

    The tattoos are the Shadow? Can a vestige even have a shadow? A reflection? A ghost?

    I think this all leads back to the big question: How was Blake created? You could probably steal or trade for some memories. And making a vestige isn’t uncommon either… but a vestige that is real and bleeds and can use magic? A vestige that never felt incomplete or missing something. Did Rose Sr. do more than switch Rose Jr. with a vestige? Did she also give Blake Rose’s humanity? Is that the reason Blake was able to awaken and use magic? Did she create the mirror world or did it always exist? If so, why was Rose the only living being in there?

    Let’s assume everything Rose Jr. told Blake about her family and life was true. Do you know how many connections Rose Sr. would have had to cut and change so people wouldn’t remember Rose Jr.? It explains why she chose for Blake to be estranged from his family, less work there.

    Were Alexis, Ty etc in on this? Alexis definitely saved someone from Carl, who was it? Probably not Rose, unless she lied about her entire past. Would that explain her personality?

    How did Rose Sr. do all this? She probably didn’t travel to all those places Blake remembers personally, that would have given the game away. Did she use Corvidae? The Barber? And how the hell did she hide what she did from Laird and Sandra? Laird was taught by her, he should know enough not to be fooled. And Sandra would notice if connections around her changed, right?

    What fuels Blake now that his connection to Rose has been cut? Shouldn’t he cease to be? Did something interfer with how things were planned by Rose Sr.?

    Is Blake really a vestige? An Other? Or is that only what he thinks? Did the Drains fuck with his mind just now?
    And if he’s an Other, then he can’t really lose his humanity anymore. He could absorb whatever gives him strength and use it to escape and later simply adjust his form again to appear human.

    Are the Drains really where everyone falling through the cracks end up? Or is it more like a garbage dump where all magical constructs land eventually? Blake said all the people seemed to have lost something… parts of them replaced with something else. Like Green Eyes, the creepy mermaid. What if she was never whole to begin with and the spirits in that place filled the holes?

    What is Blake supposed to do now? All his memories are fake, he’s only a few weeks old and he doesn’t have any friends except perhaps Mags. Should he go back and involve himself again, assuming he’s even going to keep on existing as an unpowered vestige? Or should he leave it all behind himself?
    Since no one but the lawyers know what and where he is it’s unlikely that someone will summon him.
    Does Mags have a familiar yet? Wouldn’t Blake be perfect for her? Or if Paige ever becomes a practioner, she could use Blake’s help as well. I don’t think Rose could convince Blake to ever help her again, but I’ve been wrong before.
    What other options does Blake have now? Even assuming he can escape from the Drains, he’d be just another Other wandering the world. One that still can’t be touched. Without the Sight and his magic. No resources or tricks left. He can only ally himself with a practioner or he’ll perish.

    So yeah. Lots of questions. I had less things to ask with Worm, because I only discovered it when the epilogue was being posted. ^^

    1. Blake’s point about Paige was that it would’ve been a lot of trouble for Granny Rose to set up a male heir via a mirror Rose : Why would she go to all that trouble to secure a lineage and heir when it’s probably a lot simpler to just make a vestige Paige who was straight?

  55. So..,.. That happened.

    Problems-
    1. What were the echo-ghosts of his past if they never happened?

    1. If he wasn’t raped, then why, in the actual hell, did Even freak out the way he did? He first asked what Carl was doing, then instantly figured it out and freaked out asking Blake to pause, fast forward, stop the play-back. Was that really just because Blake was begging to be taken back? That sounds friggin retarded and I will lose a LOT of the sympathy I had for Blake if THAT is the case and THAT was the sole reason for his “don’t touch me” gimmick.

    2. When was he created? Because (when the connections “shifted” and Rose woke up in the mirror world, and Molly died) he woke up in Blake’s place, since Rose lived elsewhere. Also, the part about calling her a rancid cunt (with all due respect), was that something that actually happened, or just another made-up memory?

    3. Still don’t know what the cost was for Barber cutting out Rose’s reflection.

    4. Was Blake the only custodian she made? Did molly have one too, and got replaced way too soon? If not, I’m still confused why Molly was picked first over Rose.

    5. When did Conquest ask why? He called Rose the vestige multiple times. If he knew, isn’t he forsworn now?

    6. So, does that mean every time Blake used glamour, he was hurting himself? Messing with the already fragile reflection? Why didn’t Rose warn him, so he didn’t break too soon?

    7. WHY in the LITERAL HELL did Alexis cry earlier when she doesn’t know why she was crying? If it WAS because she missed Blake but couldn’t remember him- does that me he really did have a relationship with her, or was that all barber-JP-connection shenanigans? if the latter- HOW IS IT STILL IN EFFECT AFTER URR- ATE THE CONNECTION?

    8. So. Vestiges CAN have familiars? Cool. And they can also lie before awakening. Why didn’t Granny Rose make him a little LESS sarcastic, considering the amount of times he hurt himself with his near-lies and outright lie right after awakening?

    9. When Johannes’s vestiges start running low, they get patched up with rat-dog-spirit-things and every practitioner can clearly see that they arent real. Blake didn’t have any of those signs and not only could bleed, but had “personal power”. The hell did that come from?

    1. Maybe the person Blake inherited his life, connections and friends from is in fact Molly. This would explain why Molly had to die before the real heir appeared as well as where Blake’s backstory and friends came from.
      This is, of course, just baseless speculation, but what do we know about Molly’s history outside of apparently fake memories and vague statements.

      1. Hey, that doesn’t sound that unlikely. I think parts of Blake’s trauma were cut off from Rose Jr., but he might have gotten big chunks of Molly as well.

    2. 0) echo-ghosts:
      – Conquest asks Rose about Blake’s weakness. Rose (in the know from the start) depicts typical rape PTSD, with as many lies as needed for flavour.
      – Conquest asks Laird to find the ghost imprint of said event. Laird (in the know from the start) finds similar-enough imprints (because, sadly, it happens) so that he is not lying when he produces them.

      1) Evan freaking out:
      – he’s a dead kid who spent a few days as an awesome bird sidekick. He’s not jaded enough yet to keep his cool in a situation getting fairly off-kilter.
      I’m assuming the rape memory they watched was quite violent – a big guy wailing savagely on a weaker one could be enough to make him panic.

      2) I believe in the theory that Blake was obtained by mixing someone else (with ties to Alexis, Joel, Ty and everyone else outside the Thorburn family) in the mess. Then he would have woken up in that person’s home.
      For the when, it definitely happened at the end of 1.01. For the rancid cunt line, maybe a final fake memory used as topping to lock his “programming” ?

      3) Will we ever know ? Poor Charles didn’t even get any line yet.

      4) I’m expecting a Blake-Mags-Rose reunion will answer that one. Especially with Mags defining part of her new identity through her link to Molly.

      5) The question is not why, but who/what. Conquest doesn’t explicitely ask for it, but 4.02 is when pretty much everyone (except Meath, since he already knows) is asking him who he is.

      6) A vestige powering up from glamour is only dangerous when the glamour shatters, which happens only once (the kid transformation). Secondly, there’s the theory that Rose transferred her personal power to Blake to sustain him, which probably softened the blow of that one glamour failure. Thirdly, Rose does warn him that he shouldn’t use glamour like that, although in a subtle enough fashion that he doesn’t guess why she would care that much.

      7) The universe rearranges to fill the hole the best it can, but the new arrangement is not perfect and leaves a lot of cracks. Call those phantom-connections, after the very real phantom-limb sensations. Like Ty, trying to think of Blake, but ending up with someone else, over and over. Some people with different feelings for Blake would experience an unexplainable void inside, turning into pretty real anguish.

      8) A perfect tool wouldn’t have lasted that long, or been half as useful as Blake was. Rose senior filled his life with suffering to make him avoid physical contact and people in general, and those traits just go together with a heavily sarcastic streak.

      9) See 6), theory that Rose fed Blake her power (and that was what leaked back to her) when ‘awakening’. Doubles as a great reason why Rose disliked any time Blake spent that power away.

    3. Re: 1
      Evan was probably feeling Blake’s emotions from the incident, which would be hard on a kid.

      “Was that really just because Blake was begging to be taken back?”
      Short form – that was probably the most shameful part of Blake’s life. He knew he was in a cult, he knew how it was hurting him and others, but somehow it was still better than the alternative. Admitting that was probably the worst thing he ever felt. Blake was psychologically violated and ended up crawling back to the one that did it. That is rape and unasked-for domination, even if the physical aspect never came up.

      “That sounds friggin retarded and I will lose a LOT of the sympathy I had for Blake if THAT is the case and THAT was the sole reason for his “don’t touch me” gimmick.”
      Cults use physical contact as part of conditioning. Blake was reacting negatively to that. Also, it is highly likely that Blake’s reactions were heightened deliberately.

      And don’t trivialize it – look up some psychological studies on cults. On a personal note, I have been targeted by a cult. Their techniques were good, but I had already been burned by a significant other who used similar techniques. If that hadn’t been the case, I probably would have been sucked in. I suspect from your comment you haven’t been in either circumstance, or you probably wouldn’t have made the comment. Their is nothing trivial or minor about cult conditioning or the results of breaking away from it.

      1. I’ve been in both circumstances. So I know both aspects and the potential damage from my own experiences and those like me in similar ones.
        Hence why I felt a lot of sympathy for Blake. He had a LOT of the signs of a classic rape victim. Or at least, physically and/or sexually abused at a low point of his life.

        Rape in general is damaging and wrong on multiple levels. As are cults, but for somewhat different reasons.
        Based on the TYPE of cultish behavior Blake was in, and the length of time he was in it, his EXTREME hatred of being touched, even by people he trusts, as well as his hatred for Laird and conquest standing over him and literally looking down on him, was rather excessive and a slight overraction compared to if he was raped.
        I’m sorry if you think I’m trivializing it, but Based on Blake’s situation, vs what everyone expected his situation to be like before this exposition chapter, Blake seems less justified in his reactions.

        I’ve been in his shoes, including the begging and pleading to be taken back. It’s awful. Obviously. I don’t know your situation, but trying to leave something like that, when you’ve been in it for a massive amount of time, is one of the hardest things I’ve done. But it was totally and completely beaten by trying not to comit suicide after I was raped and trying to not hate myself and get the help I needed.

        Blake is justified, to some extent. but it’s been quite a while since his cult-days and I have a hard time thinking he is still justified in his reactions to physical contact. If it was more recent, like earlier in the year, I’d buy it, But it’s been one or more years.
        And he doesn’t have any signs of progress.
        That’s strange.
        And weird.
        And sad.

        1. In fairness Blake wasn’t designed to put it behind him. The whole scenario was to have him respond in certain ways, to having him move on would be counterproductive.

        2. Your circumstances were worse than mine – I hope you are doing well now. Talking to a therapist did me a lot of good, but you have to find a good one (referrals are the way to go).

          So the most reasonable explanation for Blake’s extreme reaction is that it was artificially induced. Considering his whole life is now revealed to be artificial, that doesn’t seem like a stretch. Perhaps the reason that his history is not completely in synch with his current reactions is that Barbatorem had to use existing elements (from Rose? from Molly? from another homeless person?) and could emphasize/de-emphasize aspects but could not actually create circumstances (Lankhmar said it more succinctly).

          1. Referrals are indeed the way to go. But I’ve come a long way, so thank you/

            Yeah, I’m retarded. Totally forgot it was all artificial for a second- you and Lankhmar are totally right and make perfect sense.
            Blake’s not going to have believable reactions to contact because it’s been artificially constructed to just give him a reason for the reactions, not total justifications, and not so he can overcome them.

            My bad

      1. Right, but mags saw how the spirits infesting the vestiges made the “students” more animal-like.
        On top of that, upon looking at them with her Right, she could clearly see that they weren’t real people. That there were furry-spirits inside of them and that they were shadows/vestiges.

        Blake had bird tattoos, yes, which were spirits, yes, but none of the other signs. He wasn’t bird-like. No practitioner noticed there was something wrong or less-human about him except for fell, and his only concern was that he looked less “blake” than usual, and could have gotten away with not helping him out since he was told to help “Blake”.
        Nothing like telling that he was a shadow/fake/Other, and that there were feathery-things lurking under his skin.

        1. People not noticing his make-up is probably explained by Granny Rose camouflaging it somehow. After all, it wouldn’t make sense to make a decoy heir if everyone could see it’s not real.

          Johannes probably doesn’t need to go to such lengths (besides, he wants them for different reasons, he doesn’t want a demesne full of Blakes). Also, it’s almost certain that his and Rose Sr.’s techniques were very different in detail.

  56. Not sure if this was mentioned but…
    Theory: What if this was a trick to make Blake believe that he is an Other and thus give up his human self?

  57. Fantastic chapter. Wildbow, you’ve said in the past that creating moments where people need to reread the story because of things they find out is one of your favorite things. You’re really good at creating those moments. (Also I liked the origin of Blake’s no-touchiness, knew it wouldn’t be rape.)

  58. People keep indicating that Blake wasn’t raped. We don’t know this. If it actually did happen, (and it could well have happened as Carl tried to punish Blake for what he did to the cult Carl was starting) it wasn’t important for Blake’s self-realization.

    What we do know is that Wildbow chose not to depict rape, but the scene with Carl certainly seems to indicate it might easily have happened. Remember that Blake is controlling the scene by the end, and simply tells Alexis to enter and do her thing to end the scene. He doesn’t need to relive that memory.

    1. If he was raped, that was just the cap on a long period of psychological manipulation and explotation by Carl. So unlike a lot of times with rape in the backstory, the rape isn’t the whole backstory, but rather a part of it.

      1. I agree. I’m just saying that if there had been rape, and Blake realized he didn’t need to live through it, he certainly wouldn’t have allowed it to happen again – and that matches what I see happening.

        The whole not wanting to be touched and dislike of physical intimacy could be a result of what happened to him at the cult, but it seems more likely to be either rape-induced or something added to him by Rose Sr. and the demons to keep him from accepting physical intimacy.

        Rose senior has been planning this for a very, very long time. She had ample time to find all sorts of ghosts and vestiges to eventually use to copy or transfer connections and memories to with the assistance of the demons. A ghost of a man brutally beaten then raped and killed, a ghost of a man like the Slippery Man, other bits and pieces here and there. Maybe even throw in a goblin for mechanical aptitude and magical creativity as the base of it, suitably stripped of atrociousness. With Barber at her disposal and the Demon lawyers to help her, she could have created Blake like a tinker-toy, taking decades to assemble him, and eventually finding the ghost of a once-homeless guy with real, living connections as the final part.

        For all we know, Blake might have even been a living man who really knew Carl and Alexis, kidnapped by the demons or Others, and programmed with all those other connections by Barber and the demons.

        We’re still mostly in the dark here about what Blake really is. I suspect that whatever he is, he was not intended to be this way by Rose Sr. I think Ur broke something, and allowed Blake to continue existing when he should have vanished completely and his power been absorbed back into Rose. He’ll need to find a source of power though, no matter how much he has now. Either that, or he will need to manage to become flesh and blood again.

  59. I just realized something.

    The whole chapter, Blake is busy following a script. He can make some changes here and there, but the overall picture has to stay constant.

    If Blake’s a vestige…then his whole life was a script in the first place, written by Rose Sr, and all he’s done is follow it, with some personal changes along the way. It’s all in parallel, the plot of the chapter and the actual reveal.

    1. Not necessarily. Blake is probably based on a real person. Remember that demons cannot create. They can disassemble and reassemble, but they can’t create. The script is his memory of events, whether real or not.

  60. I might have missed this in the wall of comments.
    And yes, this does make sense of stuff.

    But.
    Blake’s in a place where the purpose is to grind you down
    He’s had visions of becoming an Other there.

    He tries to leave and to do so spends an extended period in a manipulative fake environment
    When he emerges he “realises” that he really is an Other.

    Hmm, I’d be suspicious if I was him.

  61. What if… This is going to be a big one. What if Ms. Lewis is Grandma Rose? Blake (ostensibly) had the gumption to tell her off. What if that’s the reason she’s so helpful to him? Who was Ms. Lewis before she became Ms. Lewis?

    1. That would have been pretty amazing, but here’s a quote to the contrary from 2.4:

      “We’re hoping to include the heir of the Thorburn estate in our number,” the old man told me.

      “You want me to work for you? Did my grandmother take the deal?” I asked.

      “Madam Thorburn didn’t, bless her,” the older man said. He smiled, as if he was acknowledging how odd it was for him to say that. “She took a harder road. She needed power, as we said. I can’t say what for, but I’m sure you could figure it out.”

      1. There are only three partners of the firm. The firm has many people working for them. Possibly she’s one of the named partners now and didn’t take the deal to work for them — she’s not working for them as she is one of them. Who knows, although the quote you had there is a persuasive argument against my hypothesis. 🙂

        1. The discussion from that chapter goes on to talk about karmic debt and says that if Rose Sr. had taken the deal, the karmic debt would have been cleared, and “More to the point, if she had taken the offer, you wouldn’t be here. At least, not in the same capacity.”. But she “took a harder road”.

          Accepting the “get out of jail” option of the lawyers would have cleared the karmic debt, but at the price of giving the demons a foothold in the world. That Rose Sr. “took a harder road” implies that what she did to Rose, Blake and everyone else was the lesser evil. Wow.

      2. She took a harder road.

        Hmmm, that sounds deliciously ambiguous… I wonder if Blake will cross that road in the future.

  62. How could this vestige thing have been foreshadowed in the weirdest way possible?
    Rose Sr. in chapter 1-1, in the Darth Vader voice: Blake… I am your mother!

  63. “The only dumb question is the question to which you don’t know the answer,” Carl said.
    Um…what?

    Anyways, this is a pretty big revelation. It would mean more if I could get my head around what all the implications are.
    Maybe a few chapters from Rose’s perspective would help.

  64. then what the hell is with Molly? rose said she was the first heir, molly only took power or died in blake’s continuity(unless maggs was just talked into murdering some girl not the thorburn diabolist)
    the shamalon-esque twist doesn’t even fit the story.

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