Saturday, December 19, 2009

Plotting (and sanity) Break

Yep, time for another one of these. I know broadly where the story's going, but somewhere in between "overall plot" and "daily writing," I'm getting kind of muddled. When it gets to the point that I'm up past 5am still trying to get my writing done (I write the evening before it goes up, like most webcomickers, but sometimes have to do it in the wee hours of the morning), it's probably a safe bet that I'm screwed for the day -- and possibly for the next few days, until I figure out whatever's getting in the way of my story. Add in some other positive but definitely serious changes in my life at the moment, and looking at some more before too long, means I'm feeling a little overwhelmed.

Writing is the first thing getting a break because one of the other biggest time-consumers in my life has already been cut (socializing with friends, most of whom are gone thanks to winter break). I'm also dead serious about doing this story right, so the idea of floundering blindly through a couple fairly important scenes is currently quite anathema to me.

So, I'm going to be taking a day or several off. Hopefully not too many, because I really do want to move forward with this story. But I do need some time to recharge and get in the right headspace. I know that Frank Herbert is quoted as saying how he could never tell the difference between writing done in a flight of inspiration and writing done just to get the writing done, but I'm not Frank Herbert. I'll hold myself to more professional standards when I've got a much better chance of being a professional.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Five Days, 1111 words

A tiefling man, not feeling quite so young as he had five years ago, stared up into the night sky. Above, the lights and fires of the Hive sprayed across the darkness, like a scattering of stars. Every point represented a person, or a group of people. Sometimes one of the lights went out, but a new one would alight to take its place, changing the constellations in an endless, intricate dance. Even in a place as dismal and hopeless as the Hive, love could blossom and burn, for a time.

From his vantage near the Grand Bazaar, on the blurry border between the Market and Guildhall Wards, the tiefling wanted nothing more than to reach up and swipe every one of those lights away. He wanted to plunge the whole city – nay, the whole of the planes – into darkness. If day never rose again, that would suit him well.

What had he to offer, he reflected bitterly. No wealth and no prospects. He was not an ugly man, but with his fiendish heritage he was far from fair. He had a little magic to his name, but no more than she. There was nothing, not even his affection and attention, that she couldn't get from someone else.

Cold seeped into him from the stones of the bridge, through his palms and the seat of his trousers. He had perched on the half-wall that came up the side of the bridge, which arched over one of the small canals-cum-rain gutters that ran throughout much of the city below The Lady's Ward. Despite its proximity to the Bazaar, the street saw little traffic – no shops lined the street, just the homes of countless faceless guild factors and city officials, who liked their peace and quiet. In the old days, the Hardheads probably would have tossed him into the canal for simply being a tiefling in the wrong part of town. Now the Sons just nodded as they went by on patrol, content that he wasn't doing anything wrong.

He lifted a hand off the cold stone and pressed it to his forehead, as if the chill could quell the thoughts in his head. Memories. Too many memories, all his but... not. The same night burned in his mind, the same acts done six, eight, a dozen times, in a dozen different ways and places. The same first kiss done a dozen times over – here on the bridge after a chance meeting; outside a cafe where they'd shared a meal; while gasping for breath in an alley after an desperate flight from a pair of muggers; at the front stoop of her home...

Living in Sigil could do that to you. If you weren't careful, if you tried to live too many lives, suddenly you really were living all those lives. And, they discovered, they'd been living them together. All the different copies of them, all the possibilities collapsed into one after that first night.

The trick was living in one life after spending so long in so many others. Too many memories. Too many different versions of her and him, of them – too many hopes and fears crowding together in the same head, jostling for space. Too many expectations.

Her embrace had grown claustrophobic. Her eyes were a cage. Her kiss was suffocation. And, she had revealed after their disastrous first time sharing a bed, so his had been for her. They had become too much and too little for one another all at once.

He closed his eyes and wished... wished what? That it had never happened. That she had been a bad dream. That one day he had turned left instead of right.

A warm hand pressed down on his, on top of the bridge stones, and he flinched. He hadn't heard anyone. He looked over and saw her, a beautiful aasimar, granddaughter to angels and sitting on the bridge next to him, and all but jumped away. He held his hand close as if burned, staring at her. It still hurt to look. Five years since he had met her, three since they'd exchanged even a single word, and it still hurt.

“What,” he managed to croak, his voice strained as if he hadn't said anything in those intervening years.

“I didn't know you still came here,” she said, her voice melodic still, if softer than before. Unfair, he decided, hating the planes all the more. She looked up in the skies at the same fires he had been staring at just moments before.

“What is it,” he demanded, finally sounding like normal. He too-casually held his hands at his side. He couldn't help but remember five days before, when they'd suddenly bumped into one another in the Bazaar – he with more deliveries to make, she with some new purchase. Literally. They'd dropped their things, scrabbled desperately to gather them together, and separated without a word. He'd glanced back, and she had still stood there, looking a little lost.

She looked at him again, now, and he turned his gaze away. Her eyes shouldn't have shone that brightly in the dark. “I'm sorry,” she said. She may as well have driven a sword through a lung. “For my part in how things happened. I'm sorry.” She sat silently, hands folded in her lap, watching him now that she had said her piece.

“I... I...” He stumbled over his words, nervous under her eyes. Finally he managed to blurt out, “I'm sorry, too. But I wish – I wish we'd never... I wish I'd never met you.”

“Do you still love me,” she asked barely above a whisper. He almost couldn't hear her. Wished he hadn't. He felt like he'd kicked something small and fluffy.

“After what I just– what do you think?” He looked out over the houses, imagining the people inside settled into sleep. Sleep and silence. He envied them.

She took his hand and his heart leapt in place so, he feared it would escape. “Would it be so bad? To say so?” she asked.

He tried to draw away but she twined her fingers in his, held him fast. “Reda, please,” he half-moaned. “Don't ask me that.”

“Colius,” she said, and his stomach knotted up at hearing his name on her lips again, “it's been three years. The same mistakes don't have to happen again.”

Colius let out a shuddering breath, and squeezed Reda's hand back. “I...” He couldn't say it, couldn't get the words out. But something about her hand in his felt better.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Five Years Apart, 603 words

The following two vignettes were written five years apart, almost to the day. I can think of nothing I've written that better illustrates my views and fears about what the passage of time can do to people. Call it emo and angsty if you will, but it's something I need to get out of my head.

Colius and Reda are six people. Colius, a young male tiefling, first met Reda, a female aasimar, when he was delivering a package to her home. He met her again when he started studying under the same wizard who teaches her, and met her again by chance in the Great Bazaar a few days later. Each time, the two fit themselves into distinct roles. When he delivered the package, he became polite and deferential while she was gracious and welcoming. When they studied under their teacher, they argued magic in sharp debates that both thoroughly enjoyed. When they met in the Bazaar, they exchanged pleasantries and went back to the business at hand.

Colius has been absolutely infatuated with Reda almost from the moment they met. He's gotten hints from the aasimar that she reciprocates the interest. He can't bring himself to break out of the roles they find themselves interacting in, however, and chastises himself constantly for his cowardice.

Reda is attracted to Colius as well, but is reluctant because she knows so little of him, and her own father would never condone the relationship.

It was not long after their third meeting before strange things began to happen. Various friends of the two would mention seeing them arguing near their teacher's, or chatting politely in the Bazaar, far more often than the two had been going to either place. It was strange, but strange is normal in Sigil.

What had happened was that the two created more of themselves. They began to conceive of their different roles in each case almost like being different people. They became different people in different situations and eventually there were three different Coliuses and three different Redas. The six continued their lives as if their alternates did not exist, fulfilling their defining roles.

There are still at least three of each wandering Sigil, each Colius drawn inexorably towards its counterpart Reda, and vice versa. Neither has yet become aware that its "brothers" or "sisters" exists, and any attempts to tell them seem to be swiftly forgotten. There may be dozens of other pairs of the two, created each time one of the existing pairs defines a new role for the two to interact in. Those who have noticed the situation, and the few of those who care, think that perhaps if even one pair acknowledges their mutual attraction and establishes a relationship, the others will no longer be needed and will cease to exist.

***

Colius and Reda are two people. Once, they had struggled to get a grasp on their feelings for one another. Once, they had ended up as a multiplicity of would-be lovers each playing out a determined role in their intricate social dance.

"Once" doesn't last forever.

They came together. Briefly, brightly. Colius loved Reda and Reda loved Colius. All of them met their partners in a perfect embrace.

But every embrace ends.

They were circumscribed by one another. Defined, delineated, limited. And they found... that it wasn't enough. The circle bound by a lover's arms is a cage too small, and they had become too many to all fit. They fell apart and fell away.

Separated, they lessened even further. In each of them in their isolation, many became one, and one almost became none.

Now, they flee from one another. They flinch away and hide their faces when they meet. They turn their backs to avoid passing on the same street.

They each wonder how to admit to the other that no longer do they simply not love one another, but wish they had never felt that way at all.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I Aten't Dead

No, I haven't forgotten about this place. The past few days of thinking have been helpful, even if I'm not sure how they'll reflect on the actual quality of writing. However, I think that I've made some strides in my... understanding of how to plot, and how "Another Angel Down" must go.

It helps immensely, of course, to have actually developed something of a plan. About where things are going, the major themes I want to touch on, the relationships between the characters. I've been going about this all wrong all this time.

I've been calling this blog a place for my "glorified outlines," but what I've been doing is flailing blindly through my first drafts with no planning. No, an outline can be done on a few pages without devoting months of daily writing. And knowing where I'm going can save me no end of frustration when it comes to actually sitting down and writing. (This is, indeed, how I tend to live my life; flailing around blindly without a plan, and facing a great deal of frustration when it comes to actually trying to do anything I want. But that's something to discuss elsewhere, not here.)

Hopefully, I'm doing things right, now. Or, at least that I'm going in the right general direction.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Plotting Break

Taking a few days to try to analyze my plotting skills/tools and see if I can't sharpen and refine them. I experience my own stories too much like my own characters, seeing them in the single layer of "what's happening," and not enough like a composer bending multiple layers together into a cohesive whole.

"Another Angel Down" isn't helping much on this, considering it's written from a first-person perspective. And my other stuff has been third person limited, not omniscient.

It's troublesome being able to see these problems and not knowing how to contend with them. How to correct them. It doesn't help that, when it comes to learning things, I have a hard time internalizing processes. I can grasp something in terms of facts (aspects), but in terms of how to do it (the whole)? Not so easy.

I feel sometimes like I'm trying to divine fiction writing from first principles. I know I'm actually not, considering all the stuff I've read and watched that I'm consciously and unconsciously drawn on, but still.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Trigger Events: The Phone Call and The Dark, 726 words

The Phone Call

Late one night just after moving into your current apartment, your phone rang. You didn't recognize the number on your caller ID, but you were still curious and bored enough to pick it up. The voice on the other end, which sounded oddly like yours, simply said, “Listen,” followed by a loud burst of static. Before you could pull away, it ended, and the voice picked up again, “Don't tell anyone what you heard, until you receive the password.”

“What password,” you demanded of the voice.

“You'll know it when you hear it,” the strange voice said, and hung up.

Less than an hour later, a fist began hammering on your door. When you cracked the door to check who was there, a heavy shove forced it open and left you stumbling back. Before you could recover, a pair of people in dark suits marched into the place and grabbed you. Both had your face, though one had obviously suffered a broken nose at some point.

They began interrogating you, asking you where “it” was. They beat you a bit when you wouldn't – couldn't – answer, and eventually left with warnings that they'd be watching you.

You woke up the next morning in your kitchen, sore from the night spent on the floor but otherwise none the worse for wear. When you went to check yourself in a mirror, you were completely unhurt. But the strange number was still in your phone's caller ID memory.


The Dark

Your parents really weren't the sort of people who should have had children. Certainly, you've wished more than a few times that they hadn't had you. It's not that they were physically abusive, no – if that had been the case, then a teacher probably would've called Child Services long ago. No, they never beat you... but you got very familiar with a certain dark closet whenever you misbehaved too much, or embarrassed them in public.

The dark, confined space frightened you a lot, especially at first. Over the years, though, you got more used to it. The dark became almost comforting, in a way – you learned there was nothing there, and it was a (forced, admittedly) respite from homework, chores, and your parents. You look back on it now and realize what a horrible experience it was, but at the time you just tried to make the best of a bad situation. The really bad times grew fewer and fewer, where you finally stopped having panic attacks and crying fits at the darkness.

You turned to your imagination to keep the boredom, loneliness, and growing claustrophobia away. You made up imaginary friends to replace the real ones, and created silly adventure stories to run through your head. And if you indulged in the occasional revenge fantasy where the shadows came and carried away your mother and father, well, who would blame you?

When you were twelve years old, you had a really bad night in the closet, the worst in a couple years. The place seemed to close in on you and the darkness grew oppressive and palpable, as if you weren't the only person in there. And then you were certain you weren't.

Some of the shadows seemed to take on a physical presence, an inky human-shaped blot distinct from the rest of the dark. And then it spoke, offering to kill your parents for you, just as you always wanted. When you refused, it grabbed you and began to take on your appearance and the sound of your own voice. You felt yourself fading away as the shadow took on more substance, until you found it in yourself to fight back with all your will. The last thing you remember was grabbing the shadow as it had grabbed you, and then you blacked out. You came to early the next morning when your father let you out.

You've rationalized it away, since then, as a hallucination of your traumatized, panicking mind. You understand how sensory deprivation chambers work, how if you're denied stimulation your mind will inevitably make up its own displays. Sometimes these hallucinations are beautiful and enlightening, other times they're horrible and damaging.

However, you still can't bring yourself to sleep without the flickering glare of the TV or the yellow glow of a streetlamp pouring in your window.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Trigger Event: The Cat, 370 words

You were about five years old when your younger brother was born. You were jealous of the attention he received, but you also noticed that your mother turned almost hostile towards your family's pet cat. The cat was never allowed anywhere near your brother. When you asked why, your mother mentioned an old folk tale about how cats would steal the breath of sleeping infants – not that she believed it literally, no, but that what really happened was cats would climb on top of a sleeping infant and accidentally smother it.

Late one night, you got up from bed to go to the bathroom. Your brother's nursery was across the hall from your room, and you saw the door was cracked open. Just big enough for a cat to slip through. Worried, you pushed open the door. There, your cat had perched delicately on the side of your brother's crib. You rushed forward to pull her down, but stopped short when she leaped into the crib and back out in one swift motion, holding a tiny creature in her mouth.

The creature looked like a cross between a cartoon elf and some kind of beetle. Tiny jars, some filled with a strangely luminescent gas that swirled and twisted hauntingly, hung from its belt. The creature struggled against the cat, but was dashed violently to the floor for its troubles. The cat pounced upon it and tore it apart with her claws and fangs, until the creature disintegrated into a yellowish fog. The jars broke in the fight and you could see the luminous gas snake up and back into your brother's crib.

The infant suddenly gasped and began crying, loudly. You went to quiet him, but after a minute your mother came storming in. She yelled at you for letting the cat into your brother's room, and threw the cat out. As she yelled, you could see another of those tiny creatures, riding her shoulder and whispering into her ear. She wouldn't listen to a thing you said about the cat saving your brother, and made sure to lock the cat into the guest room every night.

Three days later, your baby brother was found dead in the morning.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Message in a Bottle, pt. 5, 656 words

And not just that. As I came closer, I saw that it wasn't some single pile being battered by the surf. Like some strange spit of land, the bottles continued out into the water, held stable by their sheer mass. I clambered over them, overtaken by curiosity, and they shifted little under my weight – there were just so many that they held remarkably stable, even if the glass wet by the ocean spray was also extremely slippery. I fell a few times before I made a slow, crabby crawl across the bottles.

My hand closed around a different shape, after a few painfully slow minutes crabbing across the bottles. I looked down and found, nearly buried by the bottles, a brownish jug – also glass, so far as I could tell, and also stopped with a cork. I squatted down to tug the cork free, and a scroll of paper fell out when I upended it. The paper looked older – more discolored, stiffer, tattered at the edges. Very, delicately thin. But still the same message.

The bottles mounded higher as I went, now safely above the waterline, and they compacted together to create a more even surface. I could walk over them, with a little care. Gradually, they changed from bottles to jugs, a rolling wave of green giving way to brown, like a healthy plain bleeding into drought and blight.

The brown glass jugs gave way eventually to old, dirty clay jugs. No fine ceramics, they were rough under my feet compared to the glass, and I kicked up a lot of dust. The ocean was a joke now, with no hope of cresting this mass. If I looked hard and carefully to either side, I could just make out a glimmer of silvery-gray light that might have been the setting sun reflecting off the water. The causeway – no, the peninsula of bottles and jugs stretched as far before and behind me as I could see.

Had I really been walking so long, that shore was out of sight? I shook my head, dismissing the question, and continued on.

Jugs became amphorae became wax-sealed pots, and eventually clay became leather. Waterskins, some rigid and others flexible, sealed with wax or pine pitch, plugged up with clay or wood stoppers. And even these disappeared at the last. Soon, I walked not on glass or clay or leather, but bone.

White surrounded me, like being caught out in the winter. And a ghastly, macabre winter, as a chill wind picked up from nowhere I could tell. The ground under my feet was composed entirely of skulls. Human skulls.

Many were bleached white, as if left out in the desert sun for years. Others looked fresher, with a more natural color than the glaring white, while others had the tarnish of time spent buried. All were intact, though none had their jaw bones.

One caught my eye. Where the thousands – no, millions of skulls around me were all about adult-sized, this one was much smaller. A child's skull. It had all its upper teeth, tiny little things that had yet to fall out and be replaced by permanent teeth. I remembered when my own baby teeth had started to fall out, and realized the skull's owner couldn't have been more than six years old when he or she died.

Something shifted inside the skull as I turned it about. I looked into the hole at the base, where the spine goes up to meet the brain, and shook another little scroll out. I don't think it was paper – it didn't have the right feeling, the right consistency. If I'd had to guess, it was probably a scrap of vellum. Incredibly old, and falling apart even as I unrolled it. Pieces broke off and fell away in my hand, leaving nothing but the tiny shred upon which had been written the words:

help me

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Message in a Bottle, pt. 4, 407 words

Now... now I was really beginning to get disturbed. I got up and looked back at the bottle I'd tripped on. My eyes were drawn along the direction its neck was pointing, and I saw another – not one of the others I'd already grabbed and dropped, those were clustered together a short distance away, but a fifth bottle. Involuntarily, I walked over and tracked my gaze in the direction that the fifth bottle's neck pointed. Number six poked out of the sand.

Just to be sure, I pulled number five out of the sand and forced the cork out. help, written in that same reddish-brown ink on an identical scroll of crackling old paper.

Wait...

I yanked an adhesive bandage off my elbow, which I'd scraped yesterday. A few hairs tugged loose with it. Holding the bandage in my hand next to the paper, I squinted in the failing light.

It was hard to be certain, but the ink could have been blood. The small stain of dried blood on the bandage looked almost exactly the same color. For all I knew, the differences in color could have been from fading with age, or something in the paper.

Slowly, drawn on by mounting curiosity, I followed the path laid out by the bottles. One led to another and another and another, up the beach an interminable distance. I lost track of time as I followed the line, convinced this was a horrible idea but too intrigued to stop. I wasn't sure that turning back would help me anyways.

The bottles came closer and closer, soon in groups of two or three. Sometimes more. Every once in a while I paused to check one, and the same note was within each. The beach seemed to go on forever, a thin strip of sand with the ocean on one side, and ever more trees on the other. I looked up, shading my eyes against a ray of light that broke through the clouds as the sun lowered in the sky, and the water in the distance looked different. The wrong color.

I stepped lightly, hurrying forward to see what was wrong. The discoloration came closer, and I soon realized that it was a mass of bottles. All of them that same cloudy green color, so many that they choked the beach where they gathered. Waves splashed futilely against their mass, trying and failing to reach the sandy shore.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Message in a Bottle, pt. 3, 386 words

I picked up the bottle and turned back. It was past time to head back to the little beach house; my mother would probably be preparing dinner shortly. She was a professional chef, and hadn't missed a trick when it came to gathering recipes and ideas all last week here. Now she was going to spend the next week at this resort trying things out on us, while there were still some of the more obscure ingredients readily available. No doubt the little Asian food shop back home was about to see an upturn in business, too.

My foot whacked up against something else hard again, striking the same toe with which I'd hit the bottle. I swore a little more sharply, and leaned down to rub my toe and check what I'd hit.

I blinked, nonplussed. Another bottle. An identical bottle. Even a near-identical chunk of cork, cut in the same shape and jammed in hard. And, I could just barely see through the cloudy glass, another tiny scroll tied with a string.

Swallowing a nervous laugh that suddenly threatened to bubble up, I looked around the beach. Was someone playing silly buggers with the stupid gaijin kid?

But there was no one around to be seen. There weren't even many places around to hide that also offered a good view, unless you had binoculars. I sighed and grabbed the second bottle, if just because it was there, and went on.

When my foot hit the third bottle, I threw the other two down into the sand and marched on without checking for the scroll inside.

A strange feeling stole over me, after marching along for several more minutes. I'd gone beyond the bounds of the resort when walking out along the beach, but I should've come back to it already by now. None of the beach houses were yet in sight, though. The sun was already setting and the clouds rolling back in, but it wasn't so dark that I shouldn't have been able to see the white houses. I set off at a light jog, growing uneasy.

And I swear that the fourth bottle hadn't been there before I stepped right on it. It slid out from under my feet, skidding aside easily, and I got a mouthful of sand for my troubles.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Message in a Bottle, pt. 2, 403 words

Eyes half closed, not really paying attention to where I was going, I suddenly stubbed my toe on something half-buried in the sand. Muttering a quiet profanity, I knelt down and saw an old glass bottle. It had been stopped up with a tough old piece of cork, and dried salt and sand encrusted its side. The glass was a cloudy dark green, almost opaque – from age or by design, I had no way of knowing. It was absurdly heavy for its size.

Curious as to what might be inside, I tugged the cork out. It took a lot of work – I didn't resort to pulling it with my teeth, but I did have to wrap the hem of my shirt around the cork for some extra friction. The cork came out with a loud poonk, and I tucked it into my shorts pocket.

A low whistle escaped my lips. The bottle was completely dry inside – no ancient pirate rum, a fancy that had run across my thoughts in a moment of irrational imagination. Not that I was on the right ocean for that kind of thing. This was almost as strange, though: a small strip of paper, rolled up tight so it could fit through the neck of the bottle and tied with a string. I thought that kind of thing only happened in old stories and cheesy movies.

The string didn't want to untie, but it was easy to just slip it off the paper. I dropped it back in the bottle, set the bottle down in the sand, and unrolled the paper. The paper crackled with age, stiff and yellowed but not yet so old as to fall apart. I had to fumble a few times before it unrolled fully.

In a soft, delicate hand that had swept the letters out in broad loops, some faded reddish-brown ink made a single word, written in English.

help

I think I didn't breathe for a full minute after that. Certainly, I was light-headed when I looked up, blinked repeatedly for a few seconds as if something was in my eyes. I stared off at the dimming, cloudy sky and pondered what I held.

A prank? Maybe. What little payoff, though. They'd never see who had been gotten. And in English, for something found on the coast of Japan?

If it was a prank, it was a flat-out weird one.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Message in a Bottle, pt. 1, 403 words

The storm had passed, finally. I sighed softly, upset with the time already wasted, and slipped out of the hotel room where I'd been trapped for the past half-day with my family. A big trip overseas, which Mom and Dad had spent years saving up for.

We spent the first week playing tourist in Japan's big cities, the stupid white foreigners who had to consult a phrasebook to ask where to find the toilets. That got old fast. After that, we came to a small beach resort to spend the second week of the trip. Japan's got some lovely beaches, or so we'd been told, but our first day there hadn't been very exciting. A storm blew in from nowhere and spent the whole day shaking the little rented villa with thunder and rain. I took off the second the storm broke, determined not to be trapped there with my parents and sister any longer. Even if it started raining again while I was out, I'd rather be in the middle of a thundershower than play another hand of Go Fish.

After the rattling, crashing, booming storm the beach was almost silent. The waves lapped against the shore, but they were low, background noises, easily ignored. Nobody else was anywhere to be found, the other beach resort villas still closed up against the storm and the encroaching evening. That suited me just fine.

The sunlight piercing the clouds limned everything in a faint golden hue, like being covered in a layer of some fine, glittering pixie dust. I tromped down through the powdered-gold sand and kicked a few furrows as I went along, spraying light around me. Only where sea met sand did the illusion of gold give way to reality, as the sand went muddy and brown as the waves went back and forth over it, drenching it more steadily than even a torrential rain could.

The storm had left a lot of flotsam and jetsam on the beach. I kind of pitied the resort's employees, that would have to clean it all up by tomorrow and restore the illusion of pristine paradise.

I kept walking, up along the waterline. The waves lapped against my feet, sometimes engulfing up to my ankles, and I let the muddy sand squelch between my toes. The air was still thick with humidity, but a fresh breeze off the water cut through the worst of it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Another Angel Down, Second Draft

After some extended thought, I'm taking another shot at "Another Angel Down." I really don't like how the first one turned out, so here's the second draft. Most of the characters will be... similar, with the same names and mostly the same personalities. But the world is changing a lot, as is the plot. I'm hoping to learn from my mistakes with the first draft.

Obviously, this won't go up every day. I'm taking more time at thinking it out, considering how the plot should go, so there'll be plenty of shots of other stuff -- more "Sword Gods," which I'm still liking so far (a rarity, this far into things), maybe more "Never Special" if I ever get the plot outlined further with my co-author, and other one-shots and ideas as they strike me.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Sword Gods," Awakening, pt. 8, 366 words

The smith shook his head dumbly. “I was a... a captive.” His thoughts came more easily now, but his tongue still lagged behind. He swallowed against a dry throat.

The other man paused for half a step before continuing on. His gaze slid along the wall, considering the dungeon doors, down there in the depths of the keep, and moved back to the smith in careful thought.

The smith managed to grab at the other's shoulder, shaking his head. “Not a criminal,” he said. “I live in Ordal. Blacksmith. Was brought in by force, to make swords. A sword.”

“A sword? Why wouldn't a Calland smith do?”

“Don't know,” the smith lied. His hands suddenly shook, and the tremor swept up his arms and down his body. He nearly fell out of the other's arm, still doubled over as the shaking went on. He gritted his teeth and tried not to bite his tongue.

“Hey– hey!” Hands on his shoulders held him steady. “Why didn't you say you have seizures?”

“I don't normally.” The smith bit back a sharp profanity. “I was just stabbed through the frigging lung. I think I'm allowed an unpleasant side-effect or two.”

“How are you even still standing?”

The smith squeezed his eyes tightly shut for a moment, and had to make a serious effort to straighten up. Taking a deep breath and letting it out before answering, he said, “With effort.”

“No,” the other man said. He let go of the smith and backed away, shaking his head. “No, no, no. That isn't – it isn't normal.” A pause, and then, “Are you... are you a god?”

Sighing, the smith again briefly closed his eyes. “Maybe,” he admitted. “Not sure.” He touched the ragged tear in his shirt, where the sword had pierced him. “Not much of one, it seems.”

“Swords...” The man shook his head. “I've never heard of gods actually making their swords – or any swords at all. I don't know, they just... don't.”

“Like I said, I'm not much of a god,” the smith said tersely.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Sword Gods," Awakening, pt. 7, 400 words

Footsteps hurried to his side, and an arm slid under his shoulders and hauled him upright. A hand cupped his chin and forced the smith to look up. Blearily, the smith closed his eyes for a moment to stop the world from swimming wildly around him, then opened them to squint at eyes staring into his.

“Who... 're you,” he managed, barely, around a tongue thick and stiff like he had been sick for days.

The person holding him was a young man, late in adolescence and features only just taking on the full sharpness of adulthood. He had a narrow jaw with little chin, and soft brown eyes that, combined with the long black hair pulled back in a queue, conspired to make him look more feminine than masculine. But his features blurred in the smith's eyes, something recognizable in the shape of his nose and the set of his mouth, something in how his brows drew down over those brown eyes in intense scrutiny.

The smith physically recoiled from the younger man, seeing the knight in his features. He fell backwards out of the young man's arm and cracked his head on the stone floor. The ancient straw offered no cushion against the blow.

“...ohh ow...”

“Damnation... What the blazes was that about?” The young man knelt down beside him. Questions flowed in a babbling rush. “Who are you, and how aren't you dead? What are you doing here?”

“Stop,” the smith croaked. “Get away.”

“What? No, you're hurt. And in a place as filthy as this...” He shook his head. “Come on.”

The young man grabbed the smith and hauled him up with surprising strength for his small frame. The smith braced himself, but the pain he expected never came. Oh, his body ached and the wound still throbbed, but he was lifted carefully off the floor so he didn't pull at his hurts. He rocked unsteadily on his feet, but the younger man held him up.

As they shuffled out of the chamber, the smith managed to ask, “Who... What're you doing here?”

With a sideways look at the smith, the younger man said, “I should be asking you that. I live here.” He flicked a quick look around the dim hallway. “In this city, that is. I don't think anyone could live down here.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Sword Gods," Awakening, pt. 6, 381 words

Air.

Choking, the smith flopped over onto his stomach and gagged a wad of blood and phlegm out of his throat. A thick film of drying mucous and blood coated the roof of his mouth and tongue, and his stomach heaved. He spat up a thick, half-congealed clot of blood nearly half the size of his fist. More, smaller clots followed. The smith nearly vomited again just from the feeling of forcing out the thick, stringy globs. Something crackled in his chest with every breath as air forced its way past something else in his passages. More blood, he felt certain.

But...

Lying on the ground, ancient straw crackling and squelching under his shifting body weight, face-down in his own bloody vomit and lying in a puddle of cooling blood... he didn't care. He could breathe. He was still alive.

Even the wound didn't hurt as much as he felt it should have. He had been stabbed clean through a lung, and now it hurt less than the time, during his apprenticeship, he'd stepped on an old nail that had been discarded carelessly. The nail hadn't gone right through his foot, but it had bit in deeply, and one of his toes was still numb to this day from some damage it had left behind. The bout of lockjaw he'd developed afterward, and barely survived, had been worse yet. In all, it had set his apprenticeship back by the best part of a year.

After a few minutes, he tried to move. His muscles protested, and the angry pain in his chest flared bright. He flopped flat against the floor, gasping. His desperate need for air made the only noise in the entire room.

The door creaked open, unutterably loud in the dark, silent chamber. Light from the hall stabbed in and at his eyes. He flinched away. His body screamed in pain at even that tiny movement, but he ignored it. All he could do was huddle on the ground in fear of what came now to do away with him.

“Bloody abyss...”

The smith froze. That voice– it wasn't the knight or the Blood God. He'd never heard it before. He tried to uncurl, to look up at whoever had found him, but his limbs refused to respond.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Short Break

Moving again. Taking a short break while I deal with it all and settle in. Can't say I'm going to be enjoying where I'm to be living, but it's only for about 3 months.

"Sword Gods," Awakening, pt. 5, 392 words

The god snapped his hand up and grabbed the tip of the sword in his bare hand. The razor edge cut deep into the god's flesh, but he held on tight, and managed to shift the blow into the ground. The smith lost his grip in surprise, and the god used the sword for support as he pulled himself out from under the rubble. Blood streamed freely but, as the god turned to glare up at the smith, that was the least of his hurts.

Horrible burns marred the god's no-longer-handsome features. He'd had his face all but thrust directly into the heart of a fire when he was pinned, and even a god could burn. Fat had charred and flesh had melted, deforming the god into a waxy parody of himself. His left eye was completely destroyed by the flames, and the right one looked half-blinded as well.

The god reached up and gripped the hilt of the sword, pulling himself out of the rubble pile. He grabbed the longsword in one hand and snatched up his falchion in the other. Most of his clothing was destroyed, charred and burning away, and burns crawled all over his body. Still, the god came onwards inexorably, and as the smith stumbled back he tripped on a fallen beam. The smith fell to the ground, and the god came to stand over him.

Before anything could be said, before anything could be done, the god drove the tip of the longsword through the smith's chest, sliding the blade between ribs and pinning him to the ground. It was the smith's own blade, it wouldn't have killed him – couldn't have killed him – but it did hold him in place long enough, as the god raised his falchion high and then brought it low, cleaving clean through the smith's neck.

Dark.

Nothing.

A sudden welter of confusing images and sounds. More dreams. More visions. Random scenes with no rhyme nor reason.

(A beautiful woman kissing his cheek, the point of contact which suddenly blooms with an irritating itch, which spreads swiftly all over his body.)

(Beating iron impossibly thin, in foil-like sheets, cutting out and assembling delicate flowers out of the foil, each petal's edge sharper than the finest knife.)

(Embracing the god, laughing, the faces flushed with excitement and spattered with drying blood.)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Sword Gods," Awakening, pt. 4, 396 words

He lay on the ground, surrounded by a deadly obstacle course of fallen debris. The god leaped down from the a gap burned in the ceiling and the floor above, his blade descending inexorably toward the smith. In desperation, the smith kicked and rolled away, the falchion crashing down mere inches away from his head. His back stopped up against a burning timber, and he reflexively rolled back aside and scrambled to his feet.

The smith's knee screamed in pain as he rose, but he gritted his teeth and forced a stumbling, hurried trot to put more of the fallen debris between himself and the god. Slowly, slowly the pain abated as the smith moved, until he could almost hobble at his normal pace.

Rising to his feet, the god came at the smith once more. His blade swept out and high, drawn back for a decapitating blow, and the smith held his place just long enough to commit the god to his attack. At the last moment, the smith dove back and to the side, and the falchion clove into a support beam. Driven by the god's might and will, the blade passed through the wood as if it were mist.

The smith smiledlaughedmockedhahaHAgotyounow and smacked the cloven timber aside with the flat of his blade. A normal sword should have broken before it could have moved the thick support beam, even sliced through as it was, but the beam slipped aside anyway. The god recovered from his wild blow just in time to glance up as the ceiling above, deprived of support, gave way. Fire and rubble descended, pinning the god to the ground. If only briefly.

In a fit of spite and malicious joy, the smith clambered atop the flaming rubble, trusting his boots and the thick leather of his clothing to protect him from burns, and stomped hard. The god below screamed in fury and pain, fighting to get up and out from beneath the burning wood and hot stone.

The smith looked down at his trapped foe, quelling the urge to gloat. The god's head, neck and right arm and shoulder were still exposed, not completely pinned but still immobile. The smith sheathed his short sword and took the longsword in two hands, point angled down. He raised it incrementally, then plunged it downwards, to jab clean through the god's neck.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

"Sword Gods," Awakening, pt. 3, 428 words

A building cracked loudly and crumbled directly behind him, as the flames consumed the wooden skeleton that held it in place. Without thinking, the smith threwswamflewmoved himself aside as a flaming support beam from the roof crashed through the wall and hammered to the ground where he had stood. The beam's other end still leaned against the wall, an invitation into the burning hellinfernoabyssbuilding dietherewillDIEtheredieDIEdieDIE.

The smith threw a profane gesture at the god, and leapt upon the fallen beam. Flames licked around his ankles, but couldn't burn through his boots. He ran up the beam, still mostly intact, with inhuman balance. The god followed, blade flashing in the firelight eyesflashinginshadow.

The floor had burned out in several places, pieces of old planking dropping to the ground below. The smith leaped across one of the gaps, his back exposed, daring the god to follow. Another plank went out from under his foot as he landed, and he barely avoided crashing through the floor. Part of the board levered up as the plank tilted to descend, and he kicked it up and across at the onrushing god's face. The god wasted a split second in thrashing the flaming board aside, and the smith was upon him.

Even in the hands of a sword-god, the falchion was not made for defense, especially in an even fight. In an uneven fight, distracted and in a hostile environment... In the hands of a sword-god, a heavy, chopping blade like a falchion was an expression of the wielder's aggression. To be thrown on the defensive left one at a disadvantage. And the versatility of a longsword, and the calm and balanced will that it expressed, became an advantage.

The falchion came up in awkward deflection, parrying the longsword by spare inches. That left the god wide open as the smith slipped his shorter blade in. A single sharp jab and the god was stumbling back, tripping over the burning remnants of the fallen roof.

The blow would have gone clean through a mortal man's liver and left him gasping on the floor, but a god would not shamepityrelief be felled so easily. The god hooked his free hand on a support and used it to swing his momentum about and out of the smith's path. When the smith came around to engage him, both blades up and ready, the god struck. A kick to the knee, identical to the one that the smith had delivered outside, audibly cracked the bone and sent the smith back, back and down a hole in the floor.

Friday, August 28, 2009

"Sword Gods," Awakening, pt. 2, 367 words

He needed (needed?) to kill the man in front of him.

No, not a man, he realized. The figure in his dreams (dreams? figments-fantasies-memories?) towered impossibly tall, moved faster and more gracefully than any man. He wielded the blade, meant for hacking and chopping, with the same grace with which a master fencer might bear a rapier. A god of the sword, implacable and mighty. The blade did not move as an extension of his hand so much as it was part of his hand, while still something separate. It was, he understood in that perfect clarity of dreams (knowledgerecollection), a sword forged by the god who wielded it, as perfect an expression of that god's skill and will as the god's own word.

But the smith flowed with every blow, parrying and blocking that deadly whirling edge. With every opening, he slid the tip of his longsword – selfhandsoul – through the other's guard and scored a red line.

Every cut tallied a sum owed the god, earnedhow? howwhenwhyearned?and soon to be paid in full. Crossing his blades once more to catch another sweeping slash of the falchion, he kicked the god hard in the knee and propelled himself back with the force of the blow. He took that precious second to glance around his surroundings, looking for anything that would give him the advantage. The smith fought too defensively to have a hope of slaying his foe.

The environment swam into focus, now that he acknowledged it. A city burned around them, in the dark of midnight. People were nowhere to be seen, but the flames from a burning shop garishly illuminated a spray of blood on the nearby cobblestones. More blood had been slopped against the sides of some of the burning buildings, as if someone had heaved it there from a bucket. The complete lack of any other human remains only made the spectacle even more surreal.

Where were the dead bodies? The men with their guts laid open? Those pierced and brought low by a dozen lesser wounds? Severed digits, bodiless limbs, decapitated corpses? Did they fight in an empty city, built and set ablaze for the climax of their violent performance?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Sword Gods," Awakening, pt. 1, 409 words

The god and knight departed in short order, leaving the smith alone to bleed out. Eventually, darkness closed over him, and he wasn't sure whether it was from the fading of the room's lights or death's approach. One was as good as the other, he supposed.

Somewhere on the edge he floated, a place he'd known only in those precious moments after a night's sleep but just before waking fully to the dawn. Dreams still haunted him, then, but took on a surreal note as the real world and his own thoughts began to intrude. Those dreams no longer moved to their own logic, but instead played out by rules borne of the waking world and dreaming world's haphazard commingling. They came more vividly and lingered longer in his memory, but in broad strokes at the expense of meaning and detail.

One of those dreams came to him as he sank into the darkness. A broken, disjointed narrative that flowed from scene to scene with little sense of how he had moved from one to the next.

Visions of casting and forging, of a multitude of beautiful swords of all varieties finished in his smithy. Only it wasn't his smithy, and the blades appeared as if by magic, the secrets and details of their creation never revealed to his dreaming eye. Some, he could deduce what he might do to produce such a thing; others, he had little idea about. And he had tried, but all were crude things compared to the works of art of his dreams.

And not merely the creation of such swords, but their use as well. Practice against imaginary foes, against wooden posts and dummies rigged out of sackcloth and stuffed with straw. One dream jumped erratically back and forth, as the straw-filled dummies turned into men stuffed into uniforms, or the motley of peasants pressed into infantry. Blood spilled freely before turning back into straw and cloth, and a dummy screamed piteously and stank of urine and shit as he plunged a blade into its breast. More dreams of violence assailed him now than he'd ever before remembered upon awakening.

One dream shook him more than any other. A desperate need clutched at his heart with icy fingers, and he shook with exhaustion. He fought with two blades, a long one held tight in his right hand and a shorter blade in his left, crossed to block the blow of a razor-edged falchion.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Sword Gods," A Test, pt. 6, 539 words

“No, my lord,” the knight answered. A small, curious smile crossed his face. “But it is time for blood to flow.” Involuntarily, he flicked his eyes upwards to the ceiling, presumably at the throne room or the king of Calland's chambers.

“Excellent,” the god purred, and jammed the blade point-first into the smith's right breast. The hot steel slid in as casually as it might have passed through lard, slipping between ribs to come out his back. With the same ease with which he had thrust the blade through the smith's body, the god slid it out and twitched the blade aside, flicking blood off in a light spray.

The ceiling forced its way to the forefront of the smith's vision, clouded by a black fog that ate away at the edges of everything. A cracking, breaking pain billowed out from the back of his head, and his breath suddenly came with difficulty. His whole body grew chill except for a bright, searing slice of pain that cut straight through him. Something hot and wet spread over his chest and under his back, and if he recognized what it was, that recognition came only distantly. His thoughts were paralyzed with shock and surprise, consumed with pain.

The cowled figure of the Blood God knelt over him. Proximity did nothing to counter the shadows that obscured the god's face, but his eyes took on more definition than a blurred glow. From so close, the smith thought he could see a slightly darker slit down the middle of the eye, like the pupil of a cat. The god's eyes narrowed in malicious amusement as it stared down at him.

“If you are who you seem to be,” the god whispered to the smith, “this will be the second time I'll have killed you. And by a blade of your own manufacture, no less. I don't suppose you can appreciate the irony of that, but we're... well, we're not supposed to be able to be slain by our own blades. So either you're not who we think you are, or you just haven't awakened to your true nature yet.

“Either way... it works for me.”

The smith managed a shallow breath, just enough to wheeze out, “True... nature?” Was the Blood God really saying what he thought he was?

The god laughed. “She never told you. She really never told you. I'm almost surprised. She forced the compact on the rest of us for you, you know.”

“Why...?”

“The compact? Because the others wouldn't let her get away with killing me. She decided the next best thing would be to fetter me – and all of us, really, given who we are.”

The smith summoned all his strength, barely enough, and managed to shake his head just a little. “No,” he breathed, “why... kill me?”

The god straightened up, looking down upon the smith. He couldn't tell if the god was amused at the question or not. But finally, the god said, “You won't believe me. None of the others ever did. But I'll tell you anyway: it was self-defense. So, I suppose, was this as well. Proactive self-defense.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Sword Gods," A Test, pt. 5, 391 words

Light flashed on suddenly, brighter and more glaring than the noon sun. The smith recoiled, trying to shield his eyes with his free hand. He heard a sinister, hissing laugh before he could see anything, and his blood chilled at the sound.

A gray blur resolved into the source of that laughter: a towering, nightmarish figure shrouded in dirty ashen robes, its face hidden in the shadows of its hood but for two glowing eyes, while the open bony beak of some unearthly huge carrion eater framed the opening. The effect was profoundly disturbing, and the smith felt something deep in his gut curdle and twist at the sight. He knew, in an absent and distant way, that the figure should not have been quite so frightening, but something about it felt distressingly familiar, as if something seen in a dream – and coupled with that sense of familiarity came hair-raising terror, as a rabbit must regard a wolf.

“The Blood God,” he whispered. He couldn't help it, the words slipped out before he could think.

The Blood God, or so he was called by the old veterans back home – and there weren't many old veterans. Wielded by Calland against Ordal and other nations in battle after battle, the sword-god wrought devastating losses amongst the common soldiery. Held back, occasionally, by Ordal's own goddess of the sword, when she wasn't engaged elsewhere. He laughed as he slaughtered, and only stopped the butchery when his blade finally broke. Sometimes it worked against against Calland, when the opposing forces had all fallen and the Blood God turned on their own men. And sometimes he fought so savagely the sword broke in spare minutes, but that meant little to the men hacked apart on the field.

The god laughed. “Are they still calling me that?”

“My lord,” the knight said, and nodded to the sword. With an ungentle shove, he sent the smith staggering forward to present the sword. Repulsed and terrified, the smith did his best to make himself small even as he held the sword up to the god. The god didn't even pause to inspect it.

In one swift motion, the Blood God snatched the sword out of the smith's hands and swung it about the room. “It is time for battle, then?” the god inquired.

Monday, August 24, 2009

"Sword Gods," A Test, pt. 4, 388 words

“Very well,” the knight said, and turned to the open doorway. That, and an open window high on the wall, were the only concessions to ventilation in the place. “Bring it.”

Carefully, the smith took up the sword with his gloved hands, looking around for some kind of sheath or scabbard. None presented itself, and he certainly hadn't had time to get one made. With a tired sigh he carried it carefully at his side, trying to keep the tip from striking stone while not touching the hot blade.

The knight led them down several floors and through a series of ill-lit halls. After a few turns, the smith felt very thoroughly lost. No guards presented themselves this deep in the castle, and he began to wonder if this wasn't some sick joke being played at a peasant's expense. Was he being stuck down here to rot, with nothing but the sword as an escape? Wagers made as to how long it would take him to commit suicide with the product of his labors?

They stopped at a door much like any of the others down there. A single torch on the wall opposite lit the hallway, poorly. The door had, the smith noticed, a simple latch, no bar nor lock to keep an occupant prisoner. The knight put his shoulder to the door, then turned the latch as he shoved against the heavy oak. After a few grunts and forceful heaves, the door rattled open.

The smith's stomach turned at the almost palpable stench that billowed out of the room. He turned his head to his shoulder and coughed hard as his throat tried to close up against the reek.

“Go in,” the knight said.

With a look into the stinking dark and a quick, doubtful glance at the knight, the smith stepped in. He tried to breathe as shallowly as possible, but the horrid stench clawed at him from every direction. It sunk into his clothes and hair and flesh with vile insistence, refusing to be ignored. The smith wanted to retch and, as he stepped in, the squelching of slime under his boots only made it worse. Between his nervousness and nausea, he nearly vomited right then and there when the knight closed the door after them, plunging the room into darkness.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Sword Gods," A Test, pt. 3, 362 words

The hilt had to be finished next. It was a cast iron grip and cross guard with a hole down the length, so he could slide it up the tang to the base of the blade and hold it in place. The end of the hilt was circular and the tang stuck out almost an inch, and after casting he had spent hours cutting suitable threads into it. Its mate sat nearby, a heavy blunted spheroid that would serve as the pommel. It fit comfortably into the smith's palm, and had been threaded on the inside as well for mounting on the hilt. More importantly, the bottom half of the sphere was nearly hollow, as if it had been cast around a mushroom. After heating the protruding end of the tang and screwing the pommel on to the hilt, he hammered it down to secure the pommel and hilt, and to allow the soft, hot end of the tang to mushroom inside the pommel, so the end would be too large to withdraw from the opening.

He spent more than an hour after that on the grindstone, giving it a dull but serviceable edge, feeling ill-inclined to put so much care into the work as he normally would have, yet balking at leaving it too unfinished. He salved his wounded pride by pretending the blade was to be only a ceremonial tool.

By the time all this was completed, the blade's temperature had cooled from searingly hot to merely scorching. The hot air of the forge did little to encourage its cooling, and he found himself guzzling any provided clean water and pouring it over his head to keep from passing out. The smith was shortly soaked to the skin in sweat and water, and spattered droplets about with every motion. Twilight had set firmly in, if he could guess at all from the light through the window.

The smith took a deep breath and said, “It's as done as it's going to get.” Which wasn't to say that the sword was finished, not nearly to his satisfaction, but it was as finished as the knight's impatience was likely to allow.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Sword Gods," A Test, pt. 2, 372 words

The smith bit back the retort waiting on his tongue, instead taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “Very well,” he said after a moment. “Then can you at least bring me some extra layers so I might handle the blade safely while it's still hot?”

The knight shook his head a little. Damn him, he wasn't even sweating. How was that even possible in this closed-up room barely suitable for smithing? “That is also your problem. If the same tools as you keep in your own forge are insufficient to the task... Or is it your insufficiency, perhaps?”

Gaping at the complete leap of non-logic, the smith realized the knight had to be goading him intentionally. Nobody in his position in life could be that – no, no, check that. They could be that stupid. He'd met more than enough who believed the vagaries of steel and fire could be bent to their private schedules. One could tell them that It doesn't work that way until your voice was gone, but they'd just respond every time with Can't you make it work that way?

The smith turned his back on the knight and closed his eyes. A headache already blossomed right along the line of his brow. After a moment, he opened his eyes once more and looked around the room, doing a silent inventory. His life was at stake here – he couldn't forget that – and he had to do what was demanded of him if he hoped to live.

If his captors could be even remotely trusted to let him live.

The room he was in had been used for storage, at one point, and not all of its materials had been cleaned out when the forge was installed. Included in those leftovers were some sheets of leather, cut and bound for easy storage. He took up a small knife and went over to the leather, cutting a piece loose from its bindings. Under the knight's wary eye, he cut the leather into strips and wrapped them awkwardly over his gloves. He sliced a hole into another sheet to make a thicker work apron, and so encumbered, took up the still-hot sword blade.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Sword Gods," A Test, pt. 1, 384 words

The smith pulled the blade from the blazing heat of the forge. Sweat ran down his face in sheets, and he awkwardly wiped it away on his arm to little effect before setting the hot blade down to cool. He set the heavy iron tongs aside as well and began to slowly clean and sort his tools. He sighed quietly as he fumbled with the unfamiliar set-up, and wished once more for his own smithy.

“Is it completed?” the knight – his ever-present guardian and captor – asked. The smith refrained from flinching or glancing over his shoulder at the black-armored figure, instead focusing upon the tools.

“It's tempering,” the smith said. “It needs time to cool, and then I can grind an edge on and affix a proper guard and hilt.” He glanced out the high window, considering the dimming daylight that came through the panes. “And considering you haven't answered any of my requests for proper materials to temper it in, it might be ready sometime late tomorrow. The day after is a bit more likely. Air tempering is always a bit loose, especially if I leave it racked here in a warm forge.”

The smith could almost hear the disapproving frown in his voice as the knight said, “Finish it now.”

“While it's still hot?” The smith turned in place, wondering whether the knight was an idiot or intentionally pushing him. “Do you really understand what you're demanding? It needs to cool on its own to prevent irregularities and weaknesses, and it's not like I can hold it very safely for the grinding while it's this hot!”

The knight crossed his arms with a muffled clanking and scrape of armor plates. “That's not my problem,” he said. “This is your test, and if you fail...” He looked meaningfully at the cooling blade.

Hesitant, considering, the smith said, “Maybe if you brought me an extra pair or two of leather gloves, big ones, I could be able to hold it well enough for grinding. And another apron. But are you trying to sabotage the blade? What would your god think of that?”

“What my god thinks isn't for you to worry about, peasant,” the knight said, disdain dripping from his voice.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Sword Gods," Master and Servant, pt. 4, 512 words

The room looked the cage for a wild animal. Countless marks marred the bare stone walls, long scratches that ran from ceiling to floor as if something had scrabbled to get out. Ancient hay and straw lay strewn across the floor, matted down by the constant passage of feet over it. What didn't crackle and crunch drily underfoot was thick with some mold-like slime, the only source of which could have been the barren room's sole occupant.

The bearer of that amiable, absorbing voice seemed a creature of its surroundings. Or, rather, the surroundings seemed a thing of their occupant. Tall and broad of shoulder, half a head taller than even the knight, he won attention by his very presence. He made himself large, with a wide and open stance, shoulders back and head held high – royalty could have learned from him simply how to stand.

But the mien of a king was shrouded in ashen gray robes, voluminous things which swept along the floor and hid all but the broad outlines of the being's body. A capelet hung over his shoulders, edged with yellowing fangs each more than three inches long, taken from some massive specimen of wolf, which clacked and clattered together gently as he moved. The figure's face was shrouded completely in shadow by the hood of its robes, leaving an inky void out of which issued the glow of two burning eyes. The bony ridges of some titanic scavenger-bird's hooked beak protruded from that void, wide open as if the eyes stared out from within the darkness of the bird's gullet.

The sword-god loomed over the knight, staring him down. “Tell me what you know,” he hissed, his voice no longer pleasant.

The knight swallowed against a lump in his throat, and reminded himself that the god was harmless without a blade. No sword-god fought without a sword. “My lord,” he began, “the mounted lady commissioned a blade from a village smith. The smith was said to make exceptional blades, and she had broken her old one in combat, so I was sent to ascertain the truth of his reputation and arrange for him to forge her a sword.

“The smith was a young man, barely taken to his craft, but he made a sword that impressed even her. And it was ready within a spare few days – my lord, this was no simple soldier's blade to be hammered out in a handful of hours, but one suitable for a swordsman of your caliber.” The knight chose his next words carefully. “I believe, my lord... that he is the one you and yours have been awaiting. And so does she.”

The god stood still as a statue for several long seconds, but the light of his eyes grew brighter, betraying the excitement that overtook him. Finally, the god turned his back abruptly to the knight and declared, “Bring him to me.”

“As you will, my lord,” the knight said, kneeling once more in the filthy straw below.

“Always.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Sword Gods," Master and Servant, pt. 3, 404 words

Were he not clad in armor, the knight would have clasped his hands at the small of his back as he responded. Instead, he settled for keeping them at his side, but inclined his head towards the two points of light in the dark. “Never, my lord, for the day I tire of the duties of my station is the day I tire of life.”

The voice chuckled in amusement once more. “So you always say. I wonder, though...” It trailed off, as if in thought. The voice wondered quite a lot. “So what brings you to me this fine morning,” the voice asked. Somehow, it always seemed to know the time of day or night above, no matter how long it had been secluded down in its dark chamber.

“To the point as always, my lord,” the knight observed. Another part of the ritual. For one that spent months at a time alone in shadow, the voice belonged to one who loathed dithering and small talk. “I come bearing news.”

“News,” the voice said dismissively. The points of light grew more angular, eyes narrowing. “Quaint tales of the mayfly lives of mortals. The same things happening over and over again, unto the end of time. There is nothing new to the news, and there is only one kind that interests me. Do you bring it?”

“No, my lord,” the knight said. “I have no news of war to bring you–”

“Then be off with you,” the voice declared, its glowing eyes swinging away in the dark.

The knight simply said, “'Until the fallen rise again.'”

The eyes stopped, turned back to regard the knight. “What did you say?”

“That is the news I bring before you, my lord.” The knight held his hands out, palms upward, as if offering up a physical thing that he carried.

A low growl carried through the darkness, followed shortly thereafter by the voice barking out an insistent, “Light!”

Well, that happened rarely enough. The knight knew not by what mechanism it happened, but light rose gradually within the room. A pair of small crystal orbs glowed brightly, mounted on opposite walls, clean and white like fresh sunlight. As with the rare few times this had happened before, the knight concluded once more that he should have liked the lights to remain quiescent.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Sword Gods," Master and Servant, pt. 2, 380 words

He pulled the door to, once again plunging the room into darkness. In a smooth motion practiced by long repetition, the knight knelt down in the muck and mire below, bowing his head. While he wore his hair long, he'd learned to keep it trimmed enough so it would not touch the filth below when he went down on one knee like this. Already in his mind he gnawed over having to clean his armor when he got out of here; it would not do for a knight to look as if he had been on his knees in a barn, after all.

After a count of ten heartbeats, drumming slow and steady but heavily in his breast, he dared to raise his eyes from the piece of shadow that hid the floor. Two points of light, like burning embers, floated in the darkness. A soft hissing chuckle came to his ears.

“Arise,” the chuckling voice whispered. The voice was entirely incongruous with its surroundings. It was smooth and soft, and the knight almost found himself leaning closer to hear it more clearly, as he always did. It was the kind of voice that belonged to a preacher before his congregation, not in this pit of shadow and offal. The knight came to his feet, not knowing entirely whether he did so of his own volition or if driven by the subtle undertones of command in that one word.

“My lord,” he began, but the voice went on, amused.

“Always so careful. Always as precisely deferential as possible. Do you ever tire of it, I wonder?”

The voice had asked that question, or one much like it, nearly every time the knight came here for the past several years. At first it had seemed an insult, and the knight had nearly lashed out at the voice for it. It continued to rankle for quite some time, but at last he had seen it for what it was: a tiny amusement for a being awash in tedium and ennui. A simplistic attempt to get under the knight's skin, one that had yet to be abandoned even though it was no longer effective and now rendered, by time and repetition, into another part of the normal ritual of greeting.

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Sword Gods," Master and Servant, pt. 1, 381 words

The knight leant his weight upon the door, momentarily grateful that he hadn't yet taken the time to divest himself of his armor. He set his shoulder to the iron-banded oak and heaved. The door gave way on the third shove. Grumbling under his breath at the resistance, the knight straightened up and drew his hair back out of his face.

He had traveled two days with the goddess back to her quarters in the capital, then mounted back up immediately and headed east. On “family business,” he had claimed. Not entirely a lie. His family's holdings were near the eastern border of the kingdom, nearly two weeks' travel away, and this was technically family business. A fact he'd killed to keep secret, but there it was. It had been a simple matter to get over the border from there, and the best part of another month of travel to reach his destination.

The knight had no fondness for the lengthy journey, and wished he could have made it faster. He bore news that could not wait even an instant. Only his horse's needs kept him from pressing on through the night. Finally, just before the noon sun had reached its peak, he had arrived at his destination. The stablemaster's boy, familiar with his comings and goings, had taken the knight's horse for grooming and feeding, while the knight had marched into the bowels of the keep and the business awaiting him.

The room beyond the door was as dark and stifling as the spring day above was bright. A thick, cloying scent billowed out the doorway and filled the air, smoky like incense but thick with odors of rot and decay. The knight schooled his face to stillness, repressing the urge to cover his mouth and pinch his nose shut. No matter how often he came here, the stench never grew any less horrible. Then again, other than for his visits, the door was opened maybe once a year.

Something skittered and scratched in the dark, crossing the room. The sound was suddenly cut short with a muffled squeal, barely audible. A new note entered the foul odors clouding the air. The knight trod into the room, feeling ancient hay squelch under his feet, thick with some festering slime.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

majest1k_w0n, the future, pt. 4, 342 words

Let me express it simply, clearly. No code words, no euphemism, no fauxlosophic rambling: no future.

I'm not calling for an end to humanity. I'm not a complete misanthrope, despite what some of my readers may think. I mean just what I say.

Imagine to the end of all the plans for how the future develops. Imagine an end to the agendas and politicking and wars and other bullshit. Imagine an end to all the symptoms of a sick system based on everyone trying to make sure their future comes to pass. Imagine an end to the elder generation forcing its visions of the future onto the younger generation.

I don't mean an end to individual life planning. I don't mean people should stop worrying about the fact that they have to eat and sleep somewhere eventually. I mean that the attempts to build or chart a future should be abandoned. No future means no social engineering. No demographic engineering. The worst human excesses come from fear of the future, because fear of the future leads to attempts to direct it.

Aryan militia groups that fear the demographic changes coming to the Western world as Caucasian birth rates decline faster than those of other ethnicities. Neophobic neoconservatives that fear the end of the US superpower and formed the Project for the New American Century that led directly into the ruinous policies of the so-called War on Terror. Muslim and Jewish and Christian and other theocrats who fear that new ideas might challenge power structures and ideological pyramid schemes centuries or millennia old. Multinational megacorporations that fear losing their profit margins and try to dictate, package, and stifle the next cultural or technological change.

Everything controlled, everything planned. Until those plans intersect, and everything goes to hell. And the next generations are the collateral damage in the wars for the future. So what's the solution? What will go a long way to ending the wars? Take away the prize that everyone is squabbling over.

Imagine no future.

Until next time.

majest1k_w0n, signing off.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

majest1k_w0n, the future, pt. 3, 346 words

And that's just the internet. If you have a job, if you have a credit or debit card, all your physical transactions are traceable. We don't need a shadowy government agency prying into our electronic and physical mail, trying to puzzle out the secrets of our private lives. We each leave such huge footprints that someone would have to be blind not to be able to follow each of us if he wants.

Niche marketing and customer profiles create an illusion of individuality. Screen names and passwords create illusions of anonymity. And every time we click a link rating some media we've experienced, every time we fill a section on a social networking site's user profile page, we're participating in those illusions. You rate a movie, and your ratings are compared with the ratings of thousands or millions of other consumers, and you have been tracked, profiled, and rated in turn. You type in a short phrase describing an interest, and it's a hyperlink to every single other person who's put that same interest in, and the number on a meter somewhere ticks up by one.

And every one of these sites has the rights to sell this profiling information to others. For “marketing purposes.”

It will only take one agency, be it private or governmental, to start actually doing the data-crunching, buying the rights to your information for “marketing purposes” and feeding it into their algorithms, before everything about each of us is known, recorded, and filed away. There is no anonymity in this system. There is no individuality in this system. Even if we don't wear it, carry it, or ever see it, each of us now has a number. Each of us now is a number.

That's the future we're creating. And each of us is a willing participant in it.

So, some of you will say, what do I think the solution is? Everyone has a system they want to tear down, but they never have any suggestion as to what will replace it. But, I say, why replace it?

Friday, August 14, 2009

majest1k_w0n, the future, pt. 2, 421 words

Over a billion different personal enlightenments making their unique experiences into mundanity. The private worlds of nearly a quarter of the planet compressed and summarized in blog posts, profile pages, snippets of 140 characters at a time. A shared media experience so pervasive that a good half of the people reading this are waiting for the Fight Club quote, code words for the manufactured disaffection of Generations X, Y, and Z.

Here, I'll get it out of the way now. Just for you– actually, no, I won't. Screw the code words. I'm not Tyler Durden, and I'm not going to steal the words of a movie to make my point.

So that covers the futures that we were offered and that we have. What of the one we're making? Frankly, it's just as bad as the one we've got, if not worse.

You know that stuff about everyone indulging in the same shared media experiences and summarizing themselves? Let me tell you, this is only the beginning. This is a nail in the coffin for individuality and privacy, and we're putting it there ourselves.

See, for most of this first decade of the 21st Century, lots of people were worried about all kinds of problems relating to surveillance and civil rights. The government's trying to watch us, it wants to track us, it wants into our mail and political speech and everything so it can mark the dissidents and disenfranchise opponents. Big, big concerns.

At the same time, a lot of these people have joined up with websites like MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking stuff. They got accounts on Amazon.com and iTunes, eBay and Paypal. They fill out profiles on the social networking sites describing their educations, work histories, interests, desires, sexualities, political affiliations, religions, buying histories... What we haven't tagged out in one or two words gets put into blogs and Twitter feeds, every thought compressed into a snippet for ease of digestion. Every idea and trait simplified and boiled down into bland, easily comprehensible little bits of text.

We don't want the government to know what we're doing, but we then go on to tell everyone, especially large companies, just that. We tell Amazon and Netflix what we've read and watched and played and own so they can provide recommendations to us. So they can build consumer profiles on us. And then we use the same screen names, the same e-mail addresses, the same passwords everywhere we go. And our IP addresses stamped on every site we visit.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

majest1k_w0n, the future, pt. 1, 381 words

Good evening, young people. I told you that you'd hear from me again.

I'm here to talk to you once more about something near and dear to my heart: the future.

I'm sure you believe you've already heard everything I have to say, a rage-fueled rant laced heavily with profanity and foul imagery. Why, yes, I did rather enjoy making that rant. It was rather cathartic. But now we get down to the real meat of the situation. Let me tell you something about the future. Or, rather, the futures: the one we were offered, the one we have now, and the one we're making.

See, the future we were offered... Well, we weren't really offered that, now were we? “Where's my jetpack,” goes the litany. “I want my flying car.” That bright, shiny, zeerust future promised by scientists of the 1940s and 1950s, once they were done contributing to titanic wars that showed how ugly humanity really is. But it's not our future. That future belongs to our parents, and their parents. It was sold to them, and like an old sofa, we're the ones inheriting it. Because they couldn't make it happen, they've been trying to offload it on us, living vicariously through their children.

I reject this future categorically. Like the old sofa, I'm hauling it off to the dump and leaving it there. It's not my future, and it's not your future. Eject it from our culture. It's dead and past time to take it off life support.

So what's left to us? And I'll tell you: the future we live in now, and the future that we're making of it. And I reject those, too, as vehemently as I do the dead one. It's time to murder the future, because it's going to murder us.

The future we live in now is poison. It's a construct born of the worst that humanity has to offer: new and exciting toxins, weapons of mass destruction, political superpowers, organized genocide, capitalism rampant on a field of blood, and the rhetoric that made and makes all that possible. Unprecedented interconnectedness and an incredible flow of information across the globe, but with a signal-to-noise ratio so low that everything being said is drowning in a babble of vainglorious self-revelation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"Sword Gods," The Mounted Lady, pt. 5, 413 words

“My lady,” the knight asked, his voice low and hesitant with caution.

“Yes,” the goddess said distractedly. She had been silent since coming down the hill, her eyes locked on some far-off sight that only she could see. They passed through the village as though it was little more than fog, and she sat silent while the knight recovered his own horse from the inn's stables. He'd checked it over carefully and mounted up before daring to interrupt her reverie.

“Does something trouble you, my lady?”

“No,” she began, then stopped. After a moment's thought, she went on, “Perhaps... You are certain the smith made the sword himself?”

He glanced at the blade, still lying across her lap. “I'm certain. One of my men made sure. Is something wrong with the blade, my lady? Shall I have the smith executed?”

“No, the sword is well made. Perhaps too well made, at that,” she said. The distant, distracted look came over her face again. “How old would you guess the smith is? I've no eye for age with you humans.”

The knight shrugged a little. “A little shy of his thirtieth year, I would wager.”

“So less than twenty years before the forge and anvil,” the goddess said. “Do you remember how old the last suitable smith we found was?”

“Well into his fifties, my – ah, I see what you mean,” the knight murmured, half to himself. “And he rarely makes swords, living in a peasant village like this.”

She favored the knight with a short nod. “Do you recall what I told you, when I first brought you into my confidence, while we were searching for that last suitable smith?”

“That you sword-gods can make your own swords, but do not. That it is forbidden.”

“Forbidden by compact amongst us all.”

“'Until the fallen rise again,'” he quoted. “So you said, but you never explained what that meant.”

“It means that our swords are too great. Too powerful. We put everything at risk when we use what we craft for ourselves. We agreed to refrain from forging our own blades, until...” The goddess paused and shook her head. She looked back through the village – no, the knight realized, back towards the hill upon which they had met the smith. “I believe,” she murmured, “that the compact may be soon broken.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"Sword Gods," The Mounted Lady, pt. 4, 425 words

The offer froze the smith in place. Price? From a sword-goddess? He wouldn't even know what to ask a common man for such a blade – the few swords he'd made before had been for petty nobles who'd quoted acceptable prices to him. Given their station, they could have just as easily spitted him on the spot with the swords made for them, and gotten away with it. Nobody cared about a dead commoner, after all.

He'd almost expected the knight to dispatch him here and now on the goddess's orders. The knight certainly had a look upon his face that suggested he wouldn't mind carrying out such a command. The smith dredged through his memory for the sums offered by previous patrons, wondering whether to go high or low in that range – and stopped.

A price didn't have to be money, after all. And when would he get the opportunity again?

“My lady,” he began hesitantly, paused to clear his throat. “If you would... could you answer a question for me? Something you've said has sparked my curiosity.”

The goddess smiled softly. “To satisfy curiosity rather than your purse. That is your price?”

“If you would grant it,” he said, lowering his gaze to the ground.

“Ask your question,” she said.

“You mentioned... You said something about other sword-gods forging blades. Why do you not go to one of– I mean, is the swordsmith's art common amongst your... kind? Is it practiced?”

A sober look crossed her features, dimming her beauty in a moment of mourning. “Once,” she said quietly, barely above a whisper. “But not anymore.”

The smith frowned, confused. “My lady?”

She shook her head and, with a sad smile, nudged her horse to turn away. “You have your answer,” she said. “And I my blade. We are done with one another, smith.”

“Ah, yes, my lady. Of course.” The smith swiftly knelt before her and the knight as they turned away. They ambled slowly down the hill the goddess had chosen for their meeting place, passing a massive white stone block around which the path bent, and turning towards the village just to the south. When they reached the bottom of the hill, the smith rose to his feet and went over to the stone block to sit and watch. He had little desire to cross their path again, and would only return to the village once they had departed. He'd nothing else to do that afternoon, anyway.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Sword Gods," The Mounted Lady, pt. 3, 389 words

As surreptitiously as possible – which is to say, not much at all – the smith swept the blood from his face and spat out some more. The blow had cut the inside of his mouth against his teeth, and his cheek against the knight's gauntlet. He held his hand over the cut on his cheek in hopes of stanching the flow and babbled out a quick, “A thousand apologies, goddess–” before she cut him off with a raised hand.

“Your craftsmanship is superior, smith,” the goddess said, her voice turning lyrical in his ears with the praise. “A fine blade. Almost as excellent as one of my own might forge – a rare thing, indeed.” She turned the naked blade back and forth in her hand, catching the golden sunlight across its length. The light rippled and snaked across the lightly-oiled blade, moving along the folds of the steel.

With a casual swipe, she sliced through the leaves of the tree overhead. Shreds of green rained down upon the smith and knight, and the sword-goddess smiled beneficently upon them. “A good edge, as well. Do you forge so many swords, smith?”

“I...” The smith glanced aside at the glowering knight, but pressed on. She had asked him a direct question, after all. “No, not so many, my lady. There's not much call for them, in my village. But I've made many blades – knives and cleavers and the like. Enough that I know how to work steel into an edge.”

“Really,” she muttered, half to herself. She twisted the sword about with a complicated little gesture of her wrist, considering. “What of the balance?”

“Um... What of it, my lady?” He swallowed against a rising knot of panic in his throat.

“Nothing,” she said, watching his reaction with an appraising eye. After a moment, when he had had time to calm down, “It is a suitable blade.” She held her free hand out to him.

The smith almost reached for her hand, but quelled the instinct. He realized she wanted the sheath, and passed the plain leather work over to her. She slid the blade back into its sheath without even looking, and laid it across her lap in the saddle.

“Name your price,” she said.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

"Sword Gods," The Mounted Lady, pt. 2, 409 words

She tested the blade's balance and heft, gave it a few practice swings. It was a mortuary sword, so called for the basket guard that resembled some miniature man's ribcage, with a long straight blade. In the hands of a mounted warrior such as the sword-goddess, it would be a deadly effective weapon, slashing across the exposed flesh of her foes and piercing through weaknesses in their armor. The obvious facility with which she bore it made the name and guard design seem more than suitable. It seemed an extension of her arm.

Sword-gods, whether foul or fair of appearance, were creatures of death. No human could hope to match them. But they appointed themselves warlords and champions of human kingdoms, never challenging their chosen king or queen unless they went too long unused in war.

The sword-goddess before him was, or so the smith had heard, one of the “good” ones. One that killed out of her nature, not out of sadism. One that preferred to seek out other sword-gods in battle immediately, turning the tide of battle as soon as possible instead of expending her given time on slaughtering as many mere mortals as possible.

Or so the smith had heard. Every king claimed their sword-god was a killing saint on the field. Every king claimed the sword-god of the enemy was a demon of slaughter.

Unable to hold silent any longer, the smith looked up at the beautiful goddess and asked, “My lady? What do you think?” He had no time to react, barely saw the blow before it came.

When his eyes had refocused, he realized he was staring at the sky above. His face throbbed in great pain, and felt a warm trickle spill down his left cheek. A coppery taste flooded his mouth, and he turned his head aside to spit blood on the ground. Above him, the knight stood glaring murder down. A few specks of blood caught the light on the back of the knight's gauntlet as he went for his blade.

“Hold,” the goddess said. Her voice sighed over them like the breath of new spring, soothing the cold fear in the smith's belly. The icy murder in the knight's eyes remained, but he let his sword rest at his side and stepped back from the supine smith. “Rise,” she said next, and as if pulled up by strings the smith found himself on his feet.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

"Sword Gods," The Mounted Lady, pt. 1, 395 words

The smith knelt on the grassy knoll. The afternoon sun filtered through the leaves of the tree above, dappling him with shadow and light. In his hands he held a sheathed blade, long and light and well-balanced, holding the basket-guarded hilt up to the figure before him, a tall woman mounted on a horse.

The woman was fair and as lightly-built as the blade, but held her war-trained horse with a firm hand. The animal cropped the grass with the same placidity of a farmer's plough-horse, yet occasionally rolled an angry eye at the smith if he edged too close, or even looked crosswise at the horse's rider. A heavy coat of leather armor and a sleeveless mail hauberk hugged her frame, impossibly, like a fine silk dress.

The woman had long, curly black hair that fell down her back in thick waves and served well to set off her skin, pale like alabaster. Rosy lips curved up in an ironical smile as she gazed down upon the smith, and her eyes twinkled with the light of stars. Literally, as the irises were a solid black specked with glittering points of light. They caught the golden sun and reflected nothing.

The smith went to his knees before a sword-goddess, and awaited her judgment.

Another man stood amongst them, off to the side. Like the woman, he was tall. Unlike the woman, he had broad shoulders and a veteran's build, shrouded in heavy plates of blackened steel. His long black hair, straight and fine, framed a long face that was handsome in a cold, brooding way. A knight, he looked as if he never smiled. He took his duties seriously, for there was no honor higher than attending to a god of the sword. He held his helm in the crook of one arm, and his other arm hung freely at his side. Ready to snatch his sword free in an instant if the smith proved too impertinent. Like asking for payment.

The sword-goddess leaned down in her saddle and pulled the proffered sword free in one smooth motion; the leather sheath went slack in the smith's hands, and he rocked back on his heels. Fear and expectation warred over his features, as he knew not whether he should run or prostrate himself before the goddess in case she desired a clean blow to his neck.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"Never Special," Ghoulish, pt. 8, 472 words

He sees me coming. We share a perfunctory hug, then step back from each other. After a moment, he clears his throat awkwardly and asks how I'm doing, how my job is going... if any boy – and he says it, “boy,” like I'm still in high school – has managed to catch me yet. The image of a deer getting its neck snapped by a Siberian tiger flashes across my mind.

Trying not to grimace, I mutter something about there being a guy, but he disappeared from my life rather abruptly. A pained, guilty expression flashes across my father's face, and I realize he thinks I'm referring obliquely to him. I almost want to leave him with that thought, but I'm too honest for it. I explain that I meant a guy I'd met just a few months ago, but who I hadn't heard anything from in several weeks. He looks relieved at that, though still a little guilty, and excuses himself after a few more weak attempts at small talk. I can't say I'm upset to see him go.

I turn back to see Mom heading for her car. The mourners are already starting to break up, some of them getting ready to go to an informal reception at my uncle's house. There are comments passed back and forth about getting hot dogs and baked beans and other summer food ready, but the unspoken promise is that of alcohol. Beer for most, harder liquors for others. Especially those, like Mom, who've been in the middle of all this for a lot longer than the rest. I catch up to her and kiss her cheek once more, then tell her to go on ahead – I'll catch up. I don't tell her how, just that I will, because I need a moment alone – really alone – with Gram. She understands that, at least, and goes on.

It takes nearly ten minutes for everyone else to clear out. The casket's still aboveground when they go, though, so I take my precious moment alone and kneel beside it in the grass. I put a hand on it and remember a conversation we'd had when I was just eight years old and visiting Gram and Gramp on summer vacation.

What do you want to do when you grow up, Gram had asked, as if I knew anything about college and careers and retirement plans. A little girl intoxicated on hero comics, I'd waved the latest issue of The Raptor at her and said, I wanna fly!

Slowly, with exaggerated care, I kiss my fingers and press it to the side of her casket. My voice a little shaky, my throat finally tight with real grief after that sudden memory, I say, “I wish you could've seen it, Gram. I can fly.”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Never Special," Ghoulish, pt. 7, 404 words

And in those pictures, taken just a couple weeks before she died, I could see the loose skin hanging on the stick-thin arms that I just knew had to have been Gram. Finally, one of the pictures showed her head-on, holding the baby to her chest. She looked horrible, wasted away almost to nothing. That image burned itself into my memory, still burns there, and the pictures of her in her youth and from just a few years ago, beside the closed casket, only remind me of how she actually looked when she died.

I stay behind, ignoring the disdainful looks I'm cast for doing so, and walk out with Mom after she takes her moment with the casket. She's holding on to my hand so tight I almost worry she'll break something.

The six pallbearers are my six male cousins, a number that came out to be an eerily perfect fit. Three are noticeably shorter than the others, which looks like it might make carrying the casket awkward, but they manage well enough. They get the bouquets and floral arrangements out first, taking them to the funeral director's station wagon and tucking them in the back, then head back into the funeral home for the casket. It goes into the hearse with little fuss, and soon everyone is piling into their cars to follow after.

Mom says nothing on the way to the cemetery. The route takes us by Gram and Gramp's house, and I wonder if anyone asked the funeral director to do that. In about ten minutes, though, we're at the cemetery.

Gram's casket is set on the contraption that will lower her into the freshly-dug grave, and my cousins spread the flowers around her once more. The reverend says a few more words, and then the group begins to break up. I turn to hug Mom, and as my arms go around her waist am suddenly shocked stiff as a board by what I see over her shoulder.

Hanging back, near the end of the whole group, is Dad.

I whisper a warning to Mom, and she stiffens up as well. Neither of us expected – wanted – to see him here. I haven't seen him since high school. I kiss Mom on the cheek and disengage... because if I don't intercept him, then Dad will try to talk to Mom, and he'll say something stupid like he always does.