Arc 3, Balance 21

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After we were done looking at the Grand Canyon, we started running back to Georgia again.  I noticed something else that moved as fast as we did.  Our shadows, which were ahead of us now, as we ran east.  I stared at our shadows until I figured it out, and I almost stumbled.

“Zeke.  Pay attention.  Match my steps.”  Coyote sounded a little annoyed.

“Sorry Sir.”  I carefully matched my running pace to his again.  “Sir, you’re really fast, but light’s a lot faster, right?  That’s why our shadows keep up with us and the street lights and turn signals still turn on and off so fast?”

“Yes, Zeke.  Light is a lot faster than me, even if I don’t have a companion.  That’s not all of it though. We aren’t exactly obeying all the laws of physics here.  Pay attention to the pace, but enjoy yourself for the last little bit too.”

“Can you run across water, Sir?”

“Can I run across water?”  Coyote looked sideways at me.  “I think I can, Zeke, would you like to run across a lake?”

He sounds like Pops, when Pops is going to show me how to fix something.

“Yes Sir.  That sounds like a whole lot of fun.”

This’ll be great!  We’re going to make a huge rooster tail, like a jetboat!

Coyote nodded, and we took a couple turns.  After a few seconds on a different highway, he said.  “Ten seconds and we’ll hit a lakeshore, and then cross the lake, Zeke.  There will be a couple turns before that, keep the pace.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Can’t wait!  We’re gonna splash so many people!

We made a couple turns, before running through a parking lot, down a boat ramp, and onto the water.  I looked behind us to see our rooster tail.

Nothing.  I couldn’t even see our footsteps.

Darn.  This isn’t any fun.

I stumbled, and Coyote shot his arm out at me, not touching me, but I stopped moving, even though Coyote kept moving and we were still moving fast.

He’s pulling me with him.

“I’m sorry sir, I got too distracted, and lost the pace.”

“You seem disappointed, Zeke, didn’t we do what you asked?”

We did run across water.  I guess that’s neat.

“We did, Sir.  Thank you.”

“You were expecting something different, I can tell.  What?”

Don’t complain, just answer the question.

“Well, sir, as fast as we are, I figured we would create a huge rooster tail, like the racing boats do.  But that didn’t happen.”

Coyote looked at me, and licked his nose.  “I see, Zeke.  It doesn’t work quite that way, but I think we can make a little rooster tail.  Let’s go try that again.  I’ll just carry you next time around, so you can watch without worrying about matching my pace.”

“Yes, Sir.  Sorry I lost the pace.”

“Don’t worry about it Zeke, just watch.  Now that I know what you wanted, I think you will enjoy yourself.”

All of a sudden we were going in the opposite direction.  We didn’t turn, we didn’t slow down.  I was dizzy for a second, but Coyote was carrying me so it didn’t matter.  As we approached the lake, Coyote moved his left arm forward, and I drifted in front of him, turning so I was facing behind him.  I saw him scan in front of us, looking carefully side-to-side with narrowed eyes, and then he relaxed his grip on his cane, allowing it to slide down in his grip, until he was holding it barely below the disco ball on top.

I watched, trying to figure out what he was doing.

As Coyote stepped onto the water again, he dipped his right shoulder a bit and held his cane behind him.  When we were a few feet from shore, he dipped the tip of the cane down until it touched the water.  The water exploded behind us, where the tip of the cane hit it, but after it exploded out a foot or so, it stopped moving.  For some reason, there was steam too, not just water.

Awesome!

Coyote kept running; the tip of his long cane carved a ditch in the water that was a couple feet deep and a couple feet wide.  After a couple hundred feet, he lifted his cane and straightened his posture and picked up his cane so he wasn’t creating a trench in the lake’s surface.

After he straightened up, Coyote carried me to the shore, to a little point that stuck out into the lake.  We were a hundred feet or so from the water trench.  “I’m going to slow us down so you can watch it, but there won’t be a replay.”

I looked at the water trench.  It was pretty weird looking, and seeing it reminded me of the ditch that Pops had me help him dig when an irrigation pipe broke once.  When we first started, Mom had been pretty mad that Pops and I were going to dig the hole rather than Pops renting a backhoe, but Pops said it would build character.  Mom just looked at him funny and walked away, fast.  Pops said something about sleeping on the couch.  I wasn’t sure if we built any character, but I sure remember plenty of blisters that week.

The water and steam suspended in the air above and to the sides of the trench were pretty neat looking too.  I tried to fix them in my mind, since I’d only be able to see it once.

Coyote watched me watching the water, and tapped his cane once.  The water started to move, exploding up and away from the trench in the surface of the lake.  A wave several feet tall started moving slowly towards shore as the water and steam in the air above the trench billowed out like a slow-motion exploding car on TV, except there wasn’t any fire.  Everything was moving slowly, but the water explosion continued to expand and the lead wave was coming towards us on shore.  The water in the air hit us first, and threw me back, almost knocking me over, so I had to grab a tree to keep my balance.  The water stung my face, but not too much.  The wave crashed against the shore a couple seconds later, and washed across my legs.  I had to keep holding onto the tree.

“That. Was. Awesome!” I yelled out.

Coyote was standing a couple feet off the ground, looking at me.  After a few seconds he commented.  “Even if everything doesn’t work out, I think you’ll be just fine in a couple years, Zeke.”

What?

Oh, probably something to do with me being older than I think I am.

I’m not sure I want to be that old.

I remembered what I had seen in the mirror.  I had a lot of grey hair above my ears and at my temples.  I looked older than Pops.  Mom always used to tease Pops about the grey hairs she found when she cut his hair, and he had lots less than me.  Pops would make a comment about teaching her a lesson later, and they would both laugh a little.

I looked over at Coyote to watch him when I asked the question.  “Sir, are my Mom and Pops still alive?”

“Yes, Zeke.  I already told you they were.  They will be there when we arrive.  That’s one of several reasons we can take a little time now.  I can tell that things aren’t quite right yet.”

“Is that one of those god-things you can do, or do you have one of those new pager-things?”

Coyote opened his mouth a little and his tongue came out.  I had figured out that was what he did when something was funny to him.

“What’s funny, Sir?”

“Some of the things you’ve forgotten are funny.”

“Well, that’s no fair, if I’ve forgotten them, they aren’t funny to me.”

“That makes it even funnier.”

I don’t get it.

“If you say so, Sir.”

“I do say so.  Are you ready to run again?  The time feels about right.”

I looked at myself.  My shirt had lost a couple buttons, and everything was wet.  My slacks had some patches of mud on them.  “Sir, I’m a mess.  You said you could fix my clothes if they got messed up.  Mom will be furious if I show up to meet family like this, even if the clothes aren’t mine.”

“Sure, Zeke.”  My clothes moved against my skin.  It felt creepy, but as I watched, water drained out, buttons popped off the ground and jumped back onto the shirt, and the muddy spots fell off my pants.  I didn’t even have to take off my boots, I could feel the water from inside my boots climbing my leg up to just below my knee, then it poured down the inside of my pants legs to the ground.

Coyote reached over and ruffled my hair.  “There we go, clean as a whistle.”

“Thank you, Sir.”  I stepped back and ran my fingers through my hair, then shifted my weight from foot to foot to make sure my socks were pulled up and there weren’t any rocks in my boots. “I’m ready to run again.”

“Follow me then, same as before.”

“Yes, Sir.”  Coyote started walking and I matched his pace, then he started moving faster and I continued to match the pace.  “Can I ask a question, Sir?”

“You can.” Coyote didn’t look at me, he was looking ahead of us, intently.

I wonder what he’s looking for.

“How was everything slow when we were at the lake, before you made everything speed up for the water explosion, even though we weren’t running?”

Coyote glanced at me a second then looked intently forward again.  “The running, and the speed of everything around us are two different things I can control.  I can make things really slow around us, or I can make us really fast, or both.  Even I don’t understand exactly how it works.”

That’s crazy.

“But you’re a god, you said?  How can you not know?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know why you don’t know?”

“Exactly.”

“Oh.  I see.  I think.”

Clear as mud.

We ran a few seconds before I decided to play a joke.  “Are we there yet?”

“No, not yet.”  Coyote glanced down at me.

After a second, I started again “Are we…”

Coyote cut me off.  “Nope.”

I couldn’t help but laugh a little, and Coyote looked at me with his tongue rolling out the side of his jaw.

“I’m just a kid, Sir, but you’re spending a whole lot of time with me.  Is it because of who I was, or who I am, or is this normal for the people you rescue?  After you’re done with me, will you go back and go running with the big man and his Walkman that you saved from the truck earlier?”

We continued running for a while and I thought Coyote wasn’t going to answer me.  “It’s because of who and what you were, Zeke.  It’s also because of what you are, or rather what I expect you soon will be again.”  Coyote looked to his left a little and I watched his left eye looking me up and down.  “You were hurt badly, worse than most people have ever been hurt and still lived.  You suffered that hurt fighting a friend of mine.  You and I weren’t friends before, but we knew each other, just a little bit.  It seems impossible that you were able to kill my friend.  There’s really no way you should have ever managed it, but it happened anyway.  Even though you can’t remember it, I can tell because of what I saw back there that you weren’t even aware of how you did it.  Others made it happen, and I know who they are.”

I killed his friend?

How is he not angry with me?

I wasn’t sure how to apologize to a god about killing his friend.  I had to do it anyway.  “I’m very sorry, Sir, I don’t remember killing anyone, but I’ll take your word for it.  If you knew him, and were friends with him, I’m sure he was a good person.  Will I need to go to jail?”

Coyote did not look at me, but he snorted a little.  “No, Zeke, I will not be handing out any punishments.  You killed my friend Ahmed, but others arranged for it to happen.  You were only a pawn.”

“So do you need me to get my memories back, so I can help you figure out who made me kill your friend?”

“No, I already know that.  You figured out at least part of it before you lost your memory.  I saw those connections very clearly in the place where we found you.”

“Oh.  I’m confused then, Sir.  Why does all that make you want to spend time with me?”

“Because when Ahmed died, there was an upheaval.  A great changing.  All the gods felt it.  The world became a little bit easier for us to touch, the people a little more receptive.  Magic responded faster and made more sense.  Our abilities to see connections and intent became much more potent.  This includes our ability to see our own connections.  I have met and talked to many other gods in the eight days since Ahmed died.  We all see the same signs.  Each of us had hundreds, even thousands of connections with Ahmed.  None of us were his puppets, but all of us were controlled in subtle but powerful ways.  The number of suggestions and even very minor coercions laid against us were staggering.  Enchantments to prevent us from remembering certain types of knowledge, a mild fear of him imprinted on us.  None of us were able to see the enchantments or connections Ahmed put in place, and none of us would ever seriously challenge him, even though most of us were far more powerful than him.”

Coyote continued to run, looking straight ahead.  “With Ahmed dead, we can now see the remnants of unraveled connections between him and the Svartalves as well.  Those connections were very strong, and very old.  There is disagreement amongst some of us gods about what that relationship between Ahmed and the Svartalves might have been.  Most of the strongest connections are very dark, but not all.  There were some very benevolent connections as well.  We know a lot of the history between Svartalves and Ahmed, but clearly not all of it.”

We passed a truck convoy.  I gave the trucker in the first truck the horn-pull signal with my right arm, but then realized I was too fast and he wouldn’t be able to see me.

Dangit.

Coyote had been watching me, and when I looked back at him, he kept talking.  “We, the gods, were used and controlled by my friend, who was, in turn, killed by you.  You were guided into killing Ahmed by Svartalves, and the Svartalves were themselves tightly connected to Ahmed with connections that we can’t clearly read, because those connections are now broken and all we can detect are remnants.  The Svartalves are not talking, and they are extremely difficult and potentially dangerous to coerce.”

I was starting to get confused.  “So everything was a mess, and someone tricked me into killing your friend Ahmed.  Now it’s an even bigger mess because now that he is dead, you can see everything he did before, and it wasn’t the kinds of things that you would think a friend would do.  What do I have to do with that?”

“That’s pretty close.  I wanted to see what sorts of connections you had.  I wanted to watch you very closely, to see if there were hints that you were part of an even deeper game on Ahmed’s part than what we have seen so far.  In your altered mental state, any connections to you would be easier to spot, especially connections meant to be very difficult to detect.  The more difficult to detect a connection is, the more extremely tightly individualized they have to be.  In the last little while, it’s become clear to me that you have no such hidden connections.  You are too different now, mentally, from what you were.  Any connections to the adult you would be clearly visible against the young you.”

I didn’t understand half of that, but I was pretty sure I was being tested.  “So I passed the test?”

“You did.  And the little bit of fun we had was an effort on my part to make it up to you while I watched you.  The Grand Canyon is a place where I meditate, I didn’t make that up.  That place used to remind me of Ahmed, as I told you, but I’m not so sure of that anymore.  Ahmed was playing a deception and control game on levels none of us had any idea he was capable of.  Loki was so angry he couldn’t even talk, and that’s quite an accomplishment.  The Abrahamic gods actually talked to us, briefly, and confirmed that they too had been under the influence of great numbers of subtle connections.  Looking at my own broken connections to him, it appears as if Ahmed actually guided my creation, and established controls over me before I was sufficiently formed to have independent thought.  The other worship-conceived gods reported similar connections within themselves.  Some of the gods who were once human indicated they found evidence that their controls were established while they were still human.”

“Well, Sir, I’m not sure I understand all that, but it sounds like Ahmed was really sneaky, good at hiding what he was doing, and really good at making people do what he wanted without them knowing it.  Maybe that’s why you liked him.  Maybe that’s why he liked you?  I mean, you talk about these connections that I can’t see, but one of those connections you can see is friendship, right?  Can you make a fake connection?”

Coyote looked sideways at me again.  “No.  You can hide them, even alter them slightly, but you can’t make fake connections.”

“Then he really was a friend?  Maybe not as good a friend as you thought, but still a friend?”

Coyote continued looking at me for a few seconds, and it made me nervous.  “Did I say something wrong, Sir?”

“No, Zeke.  You didn’t.  Thank you.”  Coyote looked away.  “We’re almost to your home.  Remember, you told your family that you were probably dead by letters delivered by your lawyers six days ago, without giving them any details as to how or why.  They only found out you were alive when Hildr told her sisters that you had been found, a few hours ago, and Sigrun delivered the message.”

“Oh, I didn’t tell them why or anything?”

“Nope, nothing.  Don’t worry about why.  You had good reasons, and you will remember them when your mind is restored.  I’d be willing to bet that your family will be more interested in welcoming you back than quibbling about goodbye letters.”  He paused.  “Until a few days have passed, anyway.”

We ran down a long gravel driveway.  There was a pickup truck that looked vaguely familiar for some reason.  Next to the familiar truck was a station wagon, and another old pickup truck.  Off a couple hundred feet to the left side of the main gravel driveway, with no driveway leading to it, was a big red barn that seemed to be in good condition.  The house was a two-story house in good repair.  White with black shutters.

“Do they know I’m not me right now?  Someone told them that I’m a kid again, in my head, right?”

“They know, Zeke.  They are all here now, so they can go with you and see about getting your mind set straight.”

Coyote opened the front door of the house, and we walked in.  I saw four people sitting at a kitchen table, immobile.  A woman who looked a little like Anne, but a little taller and heavier, a young man who looked a bit like Pops, but a lot skinnier, an old heavyset man, and an old woman.  The old man and old woman might be Pops and Mom, but they were really old with lots of grey hair, even more than me.

“Remember, Zeke, brace yourself.” Coyote said as we both came to a complete stop.

“OK, Sir, I’m ready.”

Coyote knocked on the wall of the entryway from the foyer into the dining room, and I heard people making noises like they had been interrupted halfway through a word.  I was standing in the doorway in full sight of them.

The young man was drinking something, coffee or tea, maybe cocoa, and spilled it on himself when he saw me.  He stood up like a shot, saying “Dad!” in a high pitched, pained voice as he tried to pull his wet shirt away from his chest.  As he stood, he hit the table, knocking it heavily.

The older couple had been preparing their own drinks.  Coffee, it looked like.  The older woman just stopped, immobile, closed her eyes and whispered “Zeke.  Thank God.”  Her cup of coffee moved with the table, but her arm with the spoon in it didn’t, and the coffee cup flipped over as the table carried it under the immobile spoon.  The old man sitting next to her, despite his thick-looking, heavily calloused fingers and hands smoothly picked up the saucer his coffee cup was sitting on, preventing any spillage as the table bucked underneath where the saucer had been.  After the table stopped moving, he set the saucer back down and reached for the paper towels in the middle of the table with his right hand as he laid his meaty left arm across the table to keep the pool of coffee from the older woman’s cup from dripping off the table into her lap.

The woman who looked like Anne stood up and turned to face me, saying “Zeke?” in a small, questioning voice.

We locked eyes, and I was stunned.  Memories poured into my mind.  Our marriage and honeymoon.  Danny’s birth.  Her surprise thirtieth birthday, when I had arranged for there to be nobody home but us, jumped out of the cake wearing only a ribbon, and then fallen over, cracking my left lower floating rib as I fell onto a footstool.  The dinner celebration after her first contract as a freelance web designer.  The episode where Danny caught us in the act in the middle of the living room floor.  Danny’s graduation.  I could feel tears streaming down my cheeks.  The memories faded after a few seconds, but I knew they were there still.  I knew this wasn’t some sort of lie or joke.  All of a sudden, I felt terribly empty.

“Anne.  Help, I’ve lost so much.”

Anne took three quick steps forward and wrapped me in her arms, laying her head on my shoulder.

My arms surrounded her without me needing to think about it.  It just felt right.

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14 comments

  1. Michael

    Help, I’ve lost so much. Powerful words. Very well done; even though not much happened, exactly, in this chapter, it still held my fascination entirely.
    Wow. Ahmed certainly was a vast puppeteer, wasn’t he? I did not see that particular reveal coming.
    I’d be wary of straying too far towards Pact’s magic with the connections, by the way – it’s not a problem, but I could see it becoming one if proper caution wasn’t used. The above sentence sounds preachy and nagging, so please forgive me.

    • Cultist

      The idea of magical connections (in this sense) is not even remotely original to “Pact”. The Idea is a very old one that a great many writers have used in books, movies, and tv series.

    • AvidFan

      Hmmm. A reader of Pact. I need help… I WANT to read it, I loved Worm, and Pact seems to be popular with readers who migrated from it once he author finished it and started Pact, but the first few pages weren’t, shall I say, captivating…. Would you mind telling me some things about it that will interest me in it, without revealing big spoilers?

      As for Reject Hero: Ahmed HAD to be a master puppeteer, to be anything less would allow other magical beings to eventually discover his role in relation to the Svartelves, thus in order to not kill his friends and family he had to become the man behind the curtains. It makes me incredibly sad for him, although it was necessary on his part, and also probably saved Zeke’s life. His coercien stayed the hands of Coyote, and who knows how many other gods, from outright killing him.

      • farmerbob1

        In Pact, let’s just say that Blake isn’t what he appears to be. Wildbow puts a lot of action into his work, and he also manages to toss dozens of Easter eggs out along the way, which the readers generally don’t understand until many chapters later in a fridge moment. The world he created isn’t incomprehensible, or clearly defined. It’s potentially comprehensible in many ways, even though only one might be correct. I strongly suspect that Wildbow has a rather substantial documentation of what needs to happen in what arcs, what Easter eggs will be left where. What false trails to create to lead readers down a wrong path, or hide a real path. Pact is a labyrinth.

      • Cultist

        I read quite a bit of Pact before I decided to put it down for good. I was determined to find that same feeling of connection that I felt with “Worm”, but Pact just didn’t do it for me. I will say that there is much action, much intrigue from multiple parties that often clash as well as join forces, much evil (a vast majority of the magically involved characters fit very neatly into the D&D evil spectrum with most either being lawful-evil or chaotic-evil, but many are clever enough to portray themselves to the public as either being somewhere on the neutral spectrum or even the good spectrum), and much death as is typical of Wildbow’s style. Where Worm was a story about a girl trying to become something more than what she was and eventually succeeding far beyond her imagination at great and somewhat appropriate cost, Pact is a story of a man trying to survive in a world where he has a very great number of powerful enemies and a very small number of relatively weak friends.

  2. Cultist

    Wow, you have seriously been outdoing yourself the last few chapters, and this is no exception. Great Job. I am impressed in a way that exceedingly few stories have managed to accomplish. I swear you are improving with every chapter. Your conversational wording is becoming more and more natural. Emotions are coming across more easily. Perspectives are becoming more and more relatable. Suspense feels less and less forced, which in turn makes it more effective. Just about every aspect of your writing is noticeably better when I compare it to Arcs 1 and 2. Keep this up, and you will soon be in my mental list of top five best writers.

  3. mandragons

    I get that they’d still see the light from the blinkers and signs and stuff, but wouldn’t they be moving to fast to see them change? If everything else is a statue, then that would indicate that a right hand turn signal or stop light was changing and blinking really really really reaallyy fast. Or are they seeing a gradual procession of changes or something?

    • thomas

      If you’re flying in a jet alongside a convoy approaching stoplights. Trucks in the convoy will appear immobile but the stoplights will still appear to operate at normal speeds. Essentially, the difference in speed here is the real issue: light at 6.7 x 108 versus jet 1500 mph versus truck at 60 mpg. Since light is traveling so much faster than the jet, the stoplights appear to operate as normal. For you to see the light change state – see it brighten or dim – you would need to travel near the speed of light.

    • farmerbob1

      The change of state is what they see. When they were in the city, they were not going so fast. Zeke could actually see people moving if he looked closely, so even though there weren’t that many stop signals, he saw a few of them change. Along the highway, they were going much faster, but passing thousands of cars, and every now and then Zeke would see a turn signal flash on, or off, not en entire cycle. His personal time was moving fast enough to see the incandescent bulbs starting to heat, and then cooling afterwards.

      Coyote plays with personal time, which can make the world around him seem slower and personal travel speed, so he can move faster. He can extend both of those abilities to others to some extent as long as they stay in step with him, or if he carries them.

  4. thomas

    So, was that Odin healing Z at then end? Or just the effect of a connection?

    Interesting chapter, especially the section where Coyote pretended to be Moses.

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