Where does creativity come from?

•October 31, 2018 • 1 Comment

Hey there. It’s me. The real me. Not the fantasy-plot-filtered me. More fiction is probably in the works. I couldn’t say when it will actually happen, sadly. But for now, I came upon an idea for a post and figured I’d do my best to put down in words.

There’s an extremely common phrase people who create – whether in words or sounds or images – hear from the people around them.

“You’re so creative! How in the world do you come up with ideas like that?”

So I wanted to write a little bit about where creativity comes from.

I’ll start with the disclaimer: every creative person has a different muse; therefore, it’s impossible to say what, exactly, inspires a particular person to create unless you ask that particular person directly. That said, I’ll talk about myself and primarily about creative writing.

If you know me, or if you’ve read my “About” page, you may know that I live with depression. In my case, creativity often comes from that dark space; it’s a space where I feel emotion most deeply, where I find myself contemplating life and reality more directly, and where I most often wish I could show others the world I’ve experienced. It’s a mindset where I find some of the most moving means to move a character through a plot.

And I’m not alone in this. Some of the world’s most famous writers lived with depression and even wrote through the lens of their depression. Go ahead – open a new tab in your browser and do a quick Google search for writers with depression. There are lots of lists of names. It’s notable enough that the New York Times wrote about the correlation between depression and artistic minds. Here’s an excerpt from a 1994 article written by William Grimes (which you can read in full here):

It is not surprising that these mood disorders seem most at home in the artistic mind. “The cognitive style of manic-depression overlaps with the creative temperament,” Ms. Jamison said. Researchers have found that in a mildly manic state, subjects think more quickly, fluidly and originally. In a depressed state, subjects are self-critical and obsessive, an ideal frame of mind for revision and editing. “When we think of creative writers,” Ms. Jamison said, “we think of boldness, sensitivity, restlessness, discontent; this is the manic-depressive temperament.”

I find that my personal pains come from the hardest or deepest lessons learned in my life. It’s natural that such emotional experiences are also the ones that will resonate most deeply with an audience. Along with the psychological reasons as stated above, depression – mental pain – makes for an unfortunate sort of perfect storm for creative minds.

Of course, creativity doesn’t always come from darkness. To speak a little more generally, I’d say that in my experience, creativity is the result of a mind capable of seeing beyond what the world wants to show. Creativity comes from questioning the reality we live in – not only questioning the truth of what we perceive as reality, but also questioning the possibility of a reality that has never been observed. It’s the ability to ask “what if?” as well as to see an answer without being bound by the limits of what modern society understands to be true.

The next comment is usually something like this:

“I could never come up with something like that!”

Wrong.

Personally, I truly believe that every human being has the capacity to be creative. So how does one learn creativity? My advice is to start with observation. Watch people, watch animals, watch grass grow. As you observe, allow yourself to forget convention and start asking questions. Where did that woman come from, and where is she going? Why did that man decide to wear that particular pair of pants today? How does that dog view the world he’s walking through? What does the grass feel when the wind blows through it, or how does it view the approaching boot versus the approaching bare foot? Any question will do, as long as you answer it. Refuse the urge to think “I couldn’t possibly know,” because in that moment, in your mind, that person, that animal, that blade of grass becomes YOUR character. In that moment, you are the only person who CAN know.

Next, when you ask questions about your observations, think of each answer as a single domino in a longer chain. No question has a single answer; rather, each question opens a door to a new question, a new answer, and a deeper understanding of your new character and fictional world.

Observation is key in other creative mediums as well. If you want to learn how to paint, you need to be able to observe in detail how objects reflect color; if you want to make music, you have to be able to observe and hear other pieces, as well as observing and audience’s reaction to them in order to understand how to better create a work that evokes the emotions you intend.

Will any of this make you a creative master? Probably not. But it is a place to start. And hopefully, you won’t have to rely on your most painful moments to find inspiration.

Advertisements

XVII – Attack

•June 19, 2018 • 2 Comments

grass-leaves-mask-161813

Author’s Note: A precursor to this chapter has been added to Chapter 15. I strongly recommend reading it here before continuing with this chapter. New content can be found right at the start of that chapter. Thank you!

 

There was a heavy hush over the camp when Shayel woke, her body seated and slumped against the bars of her cage. The dozen or so women and children she shared the cage with were still asleep. Her muscles ached, and her hips hurt where the bruises pressed against the uneven wood floor. Sleeping in the cages had not been a pleasant experience. Still, she didn’t move. A little girl’s head rested on one of her legs, and a woman on her other side was leaning gently against her shoulder. Shayel didn’t want to wake them. Her stomach growled, anticipating the meager bit of slop that served as food for prisoners. She ignored it, as she had the majority of the past several days.

She distracted herself by looking out over the tents and to the newly fortified town beyond them. A light morning fog still clung to the ground, and the sun hadn’t fully lifted above the horizon yet, but there was a distinct unease about it all. It was quiet, with only the occasional clanking of metal and shuffling of human and animal feet, but it wasn’t the sort of quiet that came with sleep.

The sound of hoofbeats grew out of the silence as a horse and rider trotted toward the cages. The rider, a younger soldier, glanced at the prisoners as he rode by but didn’t stop until he reached Stamuc’s tent. Shayel turned her ear toward the tent; hers was one of the closest cages to Stamuc’s post, and in moments as quiet as this one, she had learned she could hear much of what the caravanner said to those who visited him. Not that the man had been party to much of anything interesting, but she wasn’t one to complain. Information was information, and there was precious little else to do these days.

The soldier swung off his horse, swung its reins around a tent post and pushed his way through the tent flaps with a loud cough. Stamuc’s waking complaints were clear enough, and Shayel let a smirk touch one corner of her mouth.

“What do you want?” the caravanner grumbled.

“New orders from the commander, sir.” She felt a twinge of sadness for the young soldier and the way his training dictated he treat such a man as his superior.

“Well get on with it, then.” Stamuc was annoyed, and he didn’t try to hide it.

“The army marches this morning. The prisoners are to be moved out just after. The commander wants you to assemble near the north gate.”

Stamuc spat and was quiet long enough that Shayel wondered if she had missed his response.

“North,” he finally answered. “And that road is supposed to be clear?”

“Yes, sir. Our scouts report no notable activity. As a precaution, the commander has assigned a half dozen men to your escort.”

“What good will six spears do if we’re attacked?”

“The commander has deemed it sufficient, sir.”

“Realms save me,” Stamuc swore. “Fine then. You’ve delivered your message and I clearly have work to do.”

Shayel turned her attention back to the camp as the soldier left Stamuc’s tent and rode back toward the town. The signs were becoming more apparent. Men were emerging from the tents, securing armor and sharpening weapons. Captains’ horses were being fitted with plate and mail. Supply wagons were loading up with extra weapons, arrows, food, tools, and wood stakes to carry behind the march. Older healers were preparing their tents in the camp for masses of wounded soldiers, and the younger ones were packing bandages and medicines to ride along with the supply chain.

They were going to war.

Stamuc shoved his way out of his tent, a half-sized staff hanging from one hand. His errand boy scurried out after him, running towards the tents where the cage drivers slept. The caravanner stomped past the cages, banging at the bars with his stick as he went to wake the prisoners, shouting as he went. He did it every morning, and it hadn’t taken Shayel long to figure out why. If he couldn’t sleep, he wasn’t about to let his prisoners do so, either. But this morning, his shouts were different.

“Get up, you worthless rats, it’s time to get you to your new homes!”

Around her, the other women and children in her cage started waking. The children woke with whimpers, but their mothers by now had some acceptance of their conditions. The girl sleeping on Shayel’s lap jumped at the first crash of Stamuc’s stick against their cage, and as she scrambled to sit up, tears started welling up in her eyes.

“Shh, shh, Nessara,” Shayel soothed, smoothing the girl’s matted hair with one hand and clasping her hand with the other. “It’s just another morning.”

“What’s happening?” one woman asked, panic pushing her voice to a higher octave than usual. It was the only seed the others in the cage needed. Suddenly, all of them were wide awake, squirming to look around and eyes wide with fear. After just a few unproductive moments of searching, they turned their eyes on her. She suppressed a sigh and wished she had never told them she had been Galligan’s personal scribe. Yesterday, some of them had spit on her in their own fashion of retaliation. Today, they expected her to explain everything. Well. At least she could.

“They’re moving us to the work camps,” she explained, keeping her voice quiet and still holding the girl’s hand.

“But won’t we be attacked?” another asked, causing a new stream of fear trickling through the group. Shayel shook her head and looked out over the assembling soldiers.

“They’re preparing for battle,” she replied. “The soldiers march this morning. Galligan is counting on a surprise attack, and if he’s successful,” which he usually is, she thought to herself, “the Macreans will be too distracted to worry about a few wagons full of women, children, and old men.” Lucky for Galligan, she thought. The quickest way to be rid of us also happens to be the safest. Of course, he probably planned it that way.

It made perfect sense to her. This army’s entire purpose was to gain a tactical advantage by cutting into their enemy in the place they least expected. From a direction they wouldn’t think to protect so well. Finding Mira — a town they could turn into a military outpost — so close to their objective had been an unexpected boon, but Galligan couldn’t afford to hold off the attack much longer without risking being discovered and putting their primary objective in jeopardy. The king would have received the report by now and should be ready enough to take advantage of the opening Galligan was about to create. Success at this battle would give Arbania complete control over the entire eastern war front, as well as the northern.

But to the rest of her companions, the news was somewhat less than logical. She could see it in the pallor of their faces, hear it in the sudden silence that shrouded their cage. This news, more than any other they had received, was the first crack that would break their spirits. Shayel turned her eyes down to her lap, clasping her hands to avoid the despair spreading among these women.

Her cage remained quiet while Stamuc yelled his drivers to work, directing the harnessing of cattle and securing their supply wagon. Nessara snuggled up against her, watching the activity with wide, frightened eyes. She was alone here; her father and brothers had been conscripted to the war, and her mother had been killed resisting their imprisonment. None of the women in the cage would turn the girl away, but she seemed to prefer Shayel’s company.

The sun was just peeking over the horizon when the caravan started moving. Stamuc moved between the cages with a purposeful stride, quickly and efficiently directing the drivers into line, letting the lead driver track their path toward the town’s north gate. Soldiers were already assembling and marching in rows toward the west gate. Their cage lurched into motion, one of the last in the line. Stamuc’s tent had already been disassembled and packed away, and the caravanner swung up onto the last cage next to its driver.

Their lumbering course took them along Myra’s northern edge. They stopped along the side of the road, the first cage just inside the gate. Stamuc dropped back to the ground once they had stopped, walking towards the lead cage with a much more relaxed look. Shayel squinted, watching the man. Not relaxed, she noted. Reluctant.

Galligan sat astride his destrier not far from where Shayel’s cage waited. He was dressed in full uniform, his face stern and chiseled, his posture rigid. Between them, lines of soldiers streamed, each block earning his keen assessing gaze. Shayel felt her chest tighten and her throat choke up, and she quickly looked away from the commander, turning her attention instead to the men marching off to battle. They were a far cry from the regiments in Arba. There, in the capitol, soldiers were as uniform as the coats they wore. They were mostly of similar age and build, all moving in step, all crisp and deliberate in their actions. These men were laughable in comparison. Grey beards mixed with bare faces, uniforms fit some and were sagging on others — or were incomplete. The spears waggled in the air at varying heights like a child’s flag ceremony, and not a single man or boy could keep the same step as his neighbor. And their faces…. Shayel’s heart went out to the new recruits. They were easy to pick out, with their wide eyes and white-knuckled grips on their spears. Some were visibly trembling. Around them, the more veteran soldiers kept them contained by sheer will. They were the ones without expression, the ones who looked as if they moved only by Galligan’s will.

One of the women in Shayel’s cage cried out suddenly, tearing Shayel’s attention away from the march. The woman had jumped to her feet and was thrusting one arm through the bars of the cage, then pounding herself upon them in a frenzy, screaming at the soldiers approaching them. One of the marching boys stumbled, and his face went white when he saw her but he kept marching, trying to lock his eyes at the back of the man in front of him but unable to keep turning toward the woman.

“Hirol!” the woman screamed, tears flooding her face, her hair whipping around as she beat against the cage, wailing. “Hirol don’t go! Run away! Run! Please! Somebody, please! My son! He’s too young to die! Hirol! HIROL!”

The boy took one final look at his mother, gripped his spear even tighter, and fixed his gaze forward, tears running down his cheeks. Marching on, marching past the cage. His mother screamed and wailed, pulling and beating at the bars, but no one stepped up to save her son.

“This is all your fault!” she howled suddenly, pressing her face against the bars to shout beyond the marching men. Shayel followed her finger to where Galligan sat, ignoring her. “How could you take my boy? How could you send him off to die? He’s just a boy! He’s not even a man! How could you! You monster!

The final word resonated through Shayel’s core, although the soldiers kept marching, and the woman fell to the floor in a sobbing heap of hair and skirt fabric. Galligan finally looked up at the cage, stared at the woman with stony eyes, unfazed at her outburst or her accusation. And then his attention shifted to Shayel. He stared at her a long moment, and she found herself wishing she was back in his command tent, in one of those moments when he would lower the mask of commander and expose the man underneath. But she wasn’t. He turned his eyes back to the marching soldiers, turned his horse’s head and rode away.

Monster, she caught herself thinking, suppressing her urge to cry. The old healer’s voice filled her mind. “He is more a monster than this man could ever be. See through your own eyes.”

She huddled into herself after that, letting the images flood through her mind as she stared into her own lap. The boys who would die in battle just hours from now, the women and children who would never see their families again, who would die laboring for a cause they never agreed to. The lives uprooted and destroyed, an entire town turned military overnight.  The images flowed alongside memories of her own family, her husband and son both killed in an attack that was never supposed to come. She let the tears fall, quietly, hiding in her grief, while the encampment emptied, leaving only a handful of men behind as a cursory defense, and while the caravan rumbled into motion.

“Shaya?” Nessara poked her, her young mouth still unable to pronounce her name properly. “Shaya, what’s wrong?” She tugged desperately at Shayel’s sleeve, fear bubbling into tears at the sight of Shayel’s own breakdown.

Shayel clenched her jaw, closed her eyes tight to stop her tears, and rubbed her face dry with a few quick sniffs. She put on her best reassuring smile and put an arm around Nessara’s shoulders.

“I’m fine, little one,” she assured her, swallowing hard, swaying with the cage as it rolled over the dips and swells in the road. Nessara stared up into her face, her little eyes huge with worry and wet. “I’m fine,” Shayel said again, but the girl wasn’t convinced. She burst out with a loud wail, which only caused the other children to let out their cries as well. Even the women started whimpering, for the first time in days. A horse galloped up, Stamuc on its back waving his stick.

“Quiet!” he hissed at them, face red. “Be quiet, all of you!” He smashed his stick against the bars, which startled most of the occupants into silence, mothers wrapping their arms around their sobbing children to quiet them. But Nessara wailed even louder, her little hands clamping onto Shayel’s arm so tightly she was sure she would leave bruises. Stamuc kicked his horse right up next to Shayel and held the stick high over her head as if he would smash her skull with a single blow. “Shut her up. Now. Or I’ll do it for you,” he spat.

Shayel instantly wrapped Nessara up in her arms, burying the girl’s sobs into her chest to muffle them and positioning herself between the caravanner and the child. She glared at him, but she knew her face was still puffy from her own crying. Hardly an intimidating image. Still, Stamuc lowered the stick and trotted off, leaving her with one final threatening look.

She rocked Nessara and stroked her hair, keeping her crying muffled until the girl calmed down. When she did, Shayel loosened her grip, but the child still couldn’t stop her crying completely. Shayel looked around the cage desperately for something to distract her, but Stamuc had ensured they had nothing but the clothes they wore and the dirt that fell off them. The other women watched her, fearful that the girl would have another outburst, but none offered to help.

The dirt, she realized. Shifting to get her hands on the floor of the cage, Shayel swept up as much dirt as she could into a thin layer in front of her. So far, so good, she thought with a glance to Nessara. The girl was still sniffling, but even this little action had caught her attention. A small circle of grit gathered, Shayel started dragging one finger through it, exposing lines of bare wood under the filth until she had drawn a crude picture of a flower, one she had been fond of when she had lived in Arba. Nessara scooted closer so she could hover directly over the image. She stared at it, then stared up at Shayel.

“More?” she whispered.

Shayel smoothed out the dirt, erasing the flower, and started again, this time drawing a prancing horse. That one drew a quick smile from the girl, so Shayel quickly wiped the image clean and started again, looking back and forth between Nessara and her pile of dirt until she had a simple likeness of the child staring up at her. Nessara was completely entranced. She stared deep into the lines, eyes huge. She reached down to poke a finger at it, but snapped her hand back when she accidentally disturbed one of the lines. Shayel let out a long breath and leaned back, letting the girl alone in her trance. Next to her, one of the women nudged her.

“It looks just like her, how do you do that?”

Shayel shrugged. “Practice, I suppose.”

Nessara had already wiped out the image of her own face and was drawing her own lines in the dirt. Shayel watched as five simple shapes appeared, and she had to fight back the tears again. The girl had drawn her family.

It wasn’t much longer before they started hearing the war horns echoing through the trees. The screams came soon after, and then the smell of smoke and blood. No one in the cage spoke again after that.  

-*-*-*-

Previous chapter

Next chapter

XVI – Pursuit

•June 9, 2018 • Leave a Comment

animal-animals-backlit-236636

It was still early when Dontin woke the next morning. He rolled into a sitting position on the wooden floor, rubbing at a stiff muscle in his shoulder and sparing a glance at the fire they had made the night before, now just a mound of slowly fading embers. He was alone in the room, but he could faintly hear Kane and Foxx talking outside.

He yawned and stretched his arms out, shaking off the fog of sleep. He had slept well, he realized suddenly. For the first time since his parents had been killed, his night hadn’t been filled with nightmares. No images of their gruesome faces. No raging hatred. No blood red phantom staring at him, hissing, dogging his every step. No terror. No helplessness. For the first time in weeks, he had simply slept.

He couldn’t shake the image of the phantom’s appearance the day before, though. Suppressing a shiver, he looked around the room, wondering if it might show itself again.

“Hello?” he whispered, voice shaking. “Are you there?”

There was no answer. All he could hear was the low murmur of the men’s voices outside. Dontin lowered his head and stared at his hands in his lap. He knew the creature terrified him. Still, part of him wanted it to appear.

“What are you?” he whispered, more to himself than to the phantom. Silence.

He heaved a sigh and climbed to his feet. Briefly straightening his clothes, he pushed out the door into the cool morning light. The stench of Dorad’s death had lessened inside, mostly thanks to Kane’s addition of aromatic herbs to their fire. Dontin wrinkled his nose as the odor filled his lungs again. The cool air tempered it a little, but not much. Kane and Foxx crouched just a few steps away, pointing over a set of lines they had drawn in the dirt. They glanced at Dontin as he joined them, but continued their conversation. Neither seemed particularly thrilled.

“This whole region is a warpath,” Foxx said. “It’s not possible to get through the lakes. I think we should turn east,” he added, pointing to an area of the map where they hadn’t drawn any marks. “There aren’t as many towns, it will be harder for anyone to find us.”

Dontin glanced at the map drawn in the dirt, trying to piece together the landmarks. There were a series of rounded shapes on one side, with a series of peaks running along their western edge. Lakes and mountains, Dontin assumed. There were three spots marked with an X, one tucked between the mountains and what looked to be a shoreline, another in the middle of the lakes, and the third southeast of the lakes in an open part of the map. A series of lines and arrows covered the land around the lakes.

“We have to get to Bursat,” Kane replied, sighing and shaking his head. “We need to get on a ship.”

Foxx pondered the map. He pointed to the eastern shoreline, beyond where he had pointed just before. “Those soldiers came from here. They came on ships, right?” Kane nodded. “Then we’ll take one.”

Kane shook his head again, frustrated. “And sail it with what crew? It would take at least half a dozen skilled men to sail one of those ships. We don’t even know if they’re still there. Graidon could have had the crews sail them back to Arba. Or they could have burned them to keep them out of enemy hands. Even if there is a ship, and even if we could sail it, which we can’t, we would have to navigate three times as far. Where would we get supplies? There are no ports until we reach Southport, which, in case you didn’t know, is heavily guarded by the Macrean fleet. Even assuming we could get that far, after that, we’d have to navigate the crosscurrents, which I have no idea how to do, do you?”

Foxx tightened his lips and shook his head.

“Is this where we are?” Dontin asked, pointing to the easternmost X. “Dorad?”

Kane nodded. “And Bursat, here,” he added, pointing to the western X.

“And what’s that place?” Dontin pointed to the mark between the lakes.

“Akaris. It’s the largest city in the lakes region, and the main point of conflict.”

“Between Arbania and Macrea?” Dontin pressed, still trying to make sense of the lines. He had heard of the warring nations before, of course, but he had never been privy to any details. This was, in fact, the first map of the region he had ever seen. “What exactly are they fighting over?”

Kane seemed relieved to delay his argument with Foxx and shifted so he could more easily point out parts of the map. “Land. The border between Macrea and Arbania has always been a bit unclear, between the lakes and lack of population. Hethron, the king of Macrea, decided some years ago he wanted to control the entire lakes region. Of course, if he takes it, he gains both a valuable resource in Akaris, and would place his northern border dangerously close to the Arbanian capital.” He made a new X northeast of the lakes and extended the eastern shoreline towards it. “Naturally, Arbania’s king, Graidon, pushed back.” He pointed to the sweeping arrows and lines between and around the lakes. “This whole area is their battleground. Each side fighting for control of the lakes. Arbania pushing down from the north, Macrea pushing up from the south.”

“Making your plan to walk right between them suicide. Especially since the front lines have apparently extended even as far as this,” he added, pointing to Dorad. He sounded like a man facing his death, and Dontin remembered the man’s desperation to get out of Mira when the Arbanian soldiers had arrived. The pieces were starting to fit together.

“Arbania is killing Summoners,” Dontin said. “That’s why you don’t want to risk going towards the war.” Foxx and Kane both paused to look at him. Slowly, Foxx nodded. “Then why not go farther south, through Macrea?” The two men exchanged a pained look.

“Summoners face a worse fate there,” Kane finally answered. Foxx looked away. Dontin opened his mouth to ask more, but Kane turned the conversation back to the map. “Which is why we have to take the quickest path out. I know it’s dangerous, Foxx, but Bursat is our best option, still. It has a long history of remaining neutral, and it’s a busy seaport, so we’ll be able to hire a ship. You know that getting across the sea is the only way you’ll ever be able to stop running, the only way you’ll ever be safe.” He paused. “It’s the only way any of us will be safe.”

Foxx shook his head, but it seemed to Dontin he was a man accepting his fate rather than defying it. He stared at the lines in the dirt. “How in the five hells are we going to get through all of that?”

Kane hung his head. “I don’t know.”

Dontin stared at the lines. Each one would represent fighting. Each represented hundreds — thousands — of soldiers. Each line was a risk that Foxx would be taken. And killed. He gulped, trying to push down his rising apprehension. He was finally starting to understand their predicament.

“What if we pose as messengers?” Dontin suggested. “I’ve seen them come to Mira before, and no one gave them any trouble.”

“Messengers travel alone,” Foxx replied, rubbing his forehead. “Besides that, Kane is too old and you are too young.”

“But a foreign messenger might not know the area well enough,” Dontin pressed. “You could be the messenger, and Kane could be your guide. And I…” He looked around the ransacked street for ideas. “I could be his grandson.”

Foxx shook his head again. “I don’t think –”

“Surveyors,” Kane interrupted.

“What?” Foxx asked.

“Surveyors. Map makers. It’s why the border has always been so fluid. There aren’t any good maps of the region. Both sides would be trying to fix that.” He creased his brow as he considered it. “The boy’s right. It could work. A surveyor,” he pointed to himself, “his apprentice,” he pointed to Dontin, “and a soldier to guard them,” he pointed to Foxx. “It could work.” Kane looked up at Dontin and gave him a smile. Even Foxx looked impressed. “Good thinking, boy.”

Dontin wouldn’t have been able to stop the grin that stretched across his face even if he tried.

Foxx stood up and started scuffing out the map with his feet. Kane stood as well, stretching.

“We head west, then,” Kane said. “Just as soon as you’ve had your first lesson,” he added to Dontin.

“First lesson?” Dontin asked, confused. “You’ve taught me lots of lessons already.”

“Not with me,” Kane replied. He nodded toward Foxx, who had picked up a long staff, one end of it splintered as if it had been snapped apart. “With him.”

“You’re going to teach me to be a Summoner?” His chest filled with both fear and excitement, and he couldn’t tell which he felt more.

“No,” Foxx growled. He tossed the staff through the air to Dontin, and Dontin fumbled to catch it. “I’m going to teach you how to defend yourself.”

Kane watched a moment before turning away to some other task. Dontin hefted the staff, unsure how to hold it.

“One hand near the base,” Foxx said, seeing his uncertainty. “The other a shoulder-width above. Like a big sword.” Dontin adjusted his grip, feeling the weight of the staff’s end teeter above him. “Good. Now hit me.”

“What?”

Foxx motioned with one hand. “Hit me.”

Dontin raised the staff over his shoulder and swung downwards towards the Summoner. The swing fell well short, however, and the end crashed into the dirt, throwing Dontin off balance. He stumbled to avoid falling.

“First rule,” Foxx said, taking a step forward and picking up the broken end of the staff while Dontin still held the other. “Always know your reach.” He took a smaller step forward, so the end of the staff rested against his side. “You won’t hit anything beyond this distance. Remember that.” Dontin nodded. “Now hit me.”

His second swing wobbled. He could feel the unsteadiness even as the tip of the staff fell through the air towards Foxx’s head. For a moment, he panicked, afraid of hurting his friend. He tried to pull the swing back, but the momentum was too much. He squeezed his eyes shut, not wanting to see the impact. And then he felt the staff jerk off to one side and then wrench itself out of his hands. He opened his eyes, stumbling forward, and saw Foxx with the staff in both hands, poised to strike. Then the staff shot back towards him, coming to an abrupt stop a mere finger’s width in front of his chest.

“Never close your eyes,” Foxx admonished. “Never give your opponent the chance to use your own weapon against you.” Dontin gulped and nodded again. Foxx rose from his stance and pointed the staff at Dontin’s legs. “Swing at the legs to unbalance your opponent. If you can knock them down, even better.” He lifted the staff’s butt end to point at Dontin’s belly. “Jab or swing at the stomach to knock the wind out of them.” He lifted the staff to Dontin’s throat. “A hit to the throat will crush their windpipe and suffocate them.” The staff’s end leveled in front of Dontin’s eyes. “A hit to the head will knock them unconscious. Or kill them.” Dontin’s hands began to tremble. Foxx held the staff back down where Dontin slowly took it back, trying to find his grip on the thing. Foxx took a step back. “Knowing where to hit your enemy also means knowing where to protect yourself. Again. Hit me. Remember your range.”

Dontin tried to ignore his nerves, took a step forward, swung the staff back on one side and swung it sideways at Foxx. The movement felt awkward. Foxx braced a forearm against the swing but nodded.

“Good. Again.”

Dontin widened his feet and his grip for better control and swung again, this time over his head. Foxx blocked the blow again, stopping it easily over his head with his forearm and then using his opposite forearm to knock it away. The staff’s change in direction unbalanced Dontin again, but with his wider stance, he recovered in just one step this time.

“Good. A few more.”

Dontin obeyed, each time feeling his strikes deflected by his teacher. When Foxx finally let him stop, Dontin looked at the ground, his thoughts a jumble of conflicted emotions.

“What is it?” Foxx asked.

“I –” He paused, looked at the staff in his hands and then up at Foxx. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

Foxx gave a dry chuckle. “I’ve noticed.”

“Do I have to learn this?” Dontin asked, looking back at the staff. He heard Foxx sigh.

“Unfortunately, yes,” he answered. “Where we’re headed is dangerous. I’ll protect you as best I can, but I won’t be able to all the time. You need to be able to take care of yourself. Sometimes the only way to do that is to hurt the one who’s trying to hurt you.”

Dontin lowered his head. “There has to be another way.”

Foxx let out a long breath. “Is that why you risked your life to save that man yesterday?” Foxx shook his head, baffled. “What is it with you? Death is a natural consequence, boy. This world is full of death. You’ll have to get used to the idea at some point.”

“I know,” Dontin blurted. “It’s just –” He struggled to find the words he needed to explain what he felt. After a few long breaths, he went on. “One of the first memories I have was with my father. He brought me into town to see an execution. He told me that this man had stolen, lied, even killed another, and that I should see what happens to people who disobey the rules. He brought me right up to the front of the crowd. I could see the man’s face, his eyes, I could hear his voice, begging for mercy. He was terrified. I stared right into his eyes and all I saw was fear. He kept saying he was sorry, he swore on his family’s life that he would never do it again. They killed him anyway. And my father cheered.” He swallowed.

“I remember that execution,” Kane said behind him. Dontin swung his head around. He hadn’t noticed the older man listening. “You must have been barely old enough to walk. Trust me, boy, that man deserved his punishment.”

Dontin shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. But Cassel didn’t.”

Kane’s brows drew together, confused. “Cassel? The executioner?” Dontin nodded.

“My father said it was his first one. He was mad because the council hadn’t chosen him. I saw his eyes, too. He didn’t want to do it. The next time my father brought me to an execution, I saw him again. He looked … cold. Empty. It only got worse every time. My mother told me last year that he killed himself. She laughed. She thought it was funny that the executioner executed himself.” He paused and gave Foxx a long look deep in the eyes. “I think killing changes a man. It brings out the worst in him. The meanest, saddest parts. No one should have to live like that.”

Both Kane and Foxx were quiet for a long time. Foxx kept his eyes locked on Dontin, his thoughts unreadable. Kane gazed off into the distance.

The silence was broken by Kane cursing under his breath. “We need to leave. Now.” He turned back to Dontin and Foxx, urgency written all over his face. “Galligan’s searching for us. They’re just below the rise.” Foxx spat, an angry sound. Kane leveled his gaze on the Summoner. “We need horses. Please tell me you can do that.”

Foxx shook his head. “It would be too much. It would make me too weak.”

Kane’s desperation was rising. Quickly. “Would you rather be weak or dead? They’re right there,” he spat, pointing the direction they themselves had come from. “By now, Galligan knows what you are. Do you really think he wouldn’t send someone prepared to handle you? We need to go. NOW.”

Foxx swore something long and unintelligible. He turned a circle where he stood, searching the area like a caged beast looking for a direction to run. When he stopped, he pointed to a cart, one that had miraculously avoided being broken. A dead horse still occupied the harness. “There, both of you, get in,” he growled.

They ran. Dontin helped Kane pull up their packs and ran them to the cart, climbing up into it as Foxx ripped apart the horse’s corpse with brute strength and freed it from the harness. Kane’s head swiveled back and forth between the Summoner and the gap between the buildings where their pursuers would appear. The harness clear, Foxx pressed one palm against the ground between the straps and spoke the strange language.

“Alokho. Toh vocaiso.”

The ground swelled under the leather pieces, shifting and shaping between the straps, a heavy body, four long legs, a thick neck and head. Dontin felt the hum of the Summoning, like a whispered resonance vibrating in his bones. He held his breath. It was … incredible to witness. Moments after the words were spoken, a massive black stallion stamped its feet, already bound in the harness. It snorted and whipped its tail, swinging its head towards Foxx. Dontin could see white in the stallion’s eyes, and red in its flaring nostrils, and for an instant, he felt terror, imagining this beast turning and crushing them where they stood. Then Foxx launched himself atop the stallion’s back, grabbed the thick black mane in one fist and leaned over its neck.

“So tamora!” he shouted. The stallion tossed its head with a violent snort and launched forward into a gallop just as Galligan’s men came into view. Dontin grabbed hold of the edge of the cart with one hand at the sudden jerk forward, grabbing at one of their packs with the other to keep it from bouncing out. The soldiers shouted and kicked their horses, but Foxx was already urging his stallion faster, guiding them on a careening course between smoldering buildings and debris toward the far side of the outpost. The cart lurched as its wheels hit corpses and broken remnants of the battle. Dontin and Kane both had to hold on as tightly as they could, lest the wild motion toss them out.

The ground cleared a little once they escaped the confines of Dorad itself and started down the hill towards the cover of the trees. Dontin looked behind them. There were four soldiers, each mounted with swords bouncing at their hips. One shouted something to the others, and they spread out, attempting to cut off Foxx’s escape. But their steeds were no match for Foxx’s stallion, even as burdened as it was. The massive black beast was a terrifying bundle of power, sending up clods of dirt with every step. Foxx kept speaking to it in that strange language, urging it faster and faster. When they reached the trees, they were moving so fast that the trees seemed a blur as they crashed between their trunks. Still, Foxx urged the stallion on, and the soldiers kept chasing, although they were already losing ground.

They galloped well beyond the point the soldiers fell out of view, Foxx guiding the stallion first down one road, then another, and another, and finally swerving onto a narrow path barely wide enough for the cart to fit. Only there did he slow their pace. A little ways down the path, he turned the stallion into a small clearing and pulled it to a stop. Dontin, heart racing and muscles numb from holding on, let himself release his grip, but couldn’t bring himself to move. He looked at Kane and found the old man looking as winded and stunned as he felt himself. Foxx slid off the stallion’s back and undid the harness. His movements were slower, Dontin noticed, and even he seemed to be breathing hard. The stallion was covered in foam, its eyes still wide.

Once the stallion was free, it trotted away a few steps, then turned around and faced Foxx, breath heaving. Foxx stood before it, slumped. The stallion reared suddenly, stepping forward on its hind legs and crushing at the air with its forelegs, crashing toward Foxx. It took a moment for Dontin to realize what was happening.

“No!” he screamed, just as the stallion’s hooves struck Foxx. The big man held up his arms to protect his face, but the blows were heavy, knocking him to the ground. Dontin jumped up, tried to scramble over the cart’s edge to help the Summoner, but Kane grabbed at him and pulled him back. The stallion stamped at the ground where Foxx was rolling around, trying to evade, but still taking hit after hit. Dontin broke free of Kane’s grasp, fell over the cart’s edge and started running toward the stallion, yelling and crying all at once.

He didn’t know how the little fox had managed to stay with them. He didn’t remember it jumping into the cart, and there was no way it could have kept up with the horse. But it jumped up at Dontin’s chest, barking and growling and nipping at his face, then dropping back to the ground and herding him away from the raging stallion. Dontin tried to run around it, but the ball of orange fur was a fury, pushing him back until he tripped on a branch and fell to the ground, weeping. It stayed there, teeth bared at him, while Foxx managed to roll to his feet, only to be knocked down again by a kick of the stallion’s back legs. Dontin’s vision started to blur from his tears. Again and again, the horse knocked its master down, pummeling him, biting him, kicking him. Again and again, Foxx tried to stand up, taking hit after hit. His face was already a mess of blood, and his clothes were cut in places where sharp hooves had landed.

Finally, the stallion gave Foxx an extra moment. The Summoner stood, stumbling to one side while the stallion circled the other direction. Then Foxx stopped. He stood still and faced the black demon. Dontin sobbed. He didn’t want to watch. The stallion stopped, pawed at the ground and raised its head as if to charge. Foxx took one step forward and roared.

The pair stared at each other for what seemed to Dontin like ages, the stallion’s breath heaving and Foxx’s bloody body holding every muscle at the ready. Finally, the stallion bowed its head and stepped backwards. It’s shape melted away back into the ground, and Foxx collapsed.

Dontin scrambled back to his feet. The little fox had stopped growling, and this time it didn’t stop Dontin as he ran to where the Summoner had fallen.

-*-*-*-

Previous chapter

Next chapter

chp16mapexcept

This aspiring author is becoming more social!

•June 9, 2018 • 3 Comments

Hello, wonderful readers! (THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for reading my stories!)

Just writing a quick note here to mention that I’m getting much better at keeping my Facebook author page updated with thoughts and progress on my writing. So if you want to know how the next chapter is coming along, or the various sticking points I run into, or how certain ideas come together, give me a follow over there. I also post links to new chapters just moments after they go live on here, so you’ll be one of the first to know when there’s more of the story to see (assuming you play the Facebook game and tell it to show my posts first or something). Don’t worry, I generally only post once or MAYBE a few times a day, and there may be several days of no posts, so I can pretty much guarantee your Facebook feed won’t be getting spammed by yours truly. I also only post links if they’re to this blog or to another online resource I believe my followers might find valuable (free content only).

You’ll also occasionally see adorable photos of my two cats! Mostly because they seem to really like getting in the way when I try to write. 🙂

There are lots of ways to find my page. You could click here: https://www.facebook.com/KatrinaJStyx

You can find the link on the right side of the page ⇒

You can search in Facebook for either @KatrinaJStyx or Katrina Styx – Author

Added bonus… if you want to comment or talk to me directly, I get notifications from the page directly to my phone, so chances are I’ll see any messages pretty quickly.

 

Alright. Now that you all know how to find me when this blog hits a silent phase, it’s time for me to get to work on Chapter 16 of The Summoner!

XV – Protection

•June 2, 2018 • Leave a Comment

art-background-backlit-333850

The cages were heavy wagons, barred on all sides except the floor. There were roughly a dozen of them, and as the guard led her toward them, Shayel saw about half of them were already full with tired, hungry looking people. She recognized a few soldiers who had tried to desert; she remembered writing their sentences. Most, however, were strangers. Most, she realized with a start, were women and children. The few men, besides the deserters, were mostly old or sickly. Even among the children there were few boys.

*They would have been taken for future soldiers,* she reminded herself.  *You shouldn’t be surprised.* The cages were nothing new. They had been with the camp since the day they began their mission. Every battalion had them. Every battalion needed a means to keep and transfer its prisoners and lawbreakers. Still, the sight of them shook her. She had written out sentences and scripted prisoner transfer orders, but she had never visited the cages herself. She had always traveled near the front and middle of the procession. The cages rolled along at the very back.

She was led to a tent near the cages and ushered inside, where a short, grimy man in a yellow coat sat over a ledger. He peered up at her when she entered.

“I’ve got another one for you,” her guard said, pushing her a few more steps forward. The light in the tent was dim, and the caravanner squinted, looking her over like an animal at auction. “The commander says she’s to go to the work camps.”

The caravanner screwed his face into a disappointed expression. “Pity. She’d fetch a decent price as a consort. Are you sure he said the camps?”

“Commander’s orders,” the guard answered. The grimy man grumbled but picked up a quill and made a few marks in his ledger.

“What’s your name, woman?”

“Shayel.” He scribbled it onto one of the lines.

“What was your job here?”

“I am the personal scribe to Commander Galligan.” She tried to sound important, but the man wasn’t impressed. He simply glanced at her over his ledger and sneered.

“Were, my dear.” He scribbled more next to her name. “Do you have a husband here?”

“He’s dead.”

“Children?”

“He’s dead, too.”

He offered no sympathy and no pause, only marked each response in his ledger. “Crime?”

Shayel stood silent. She knew what Galligan had told her, but she couldn’t bring herself to repeat the words.

“Treason,” her guard answered for her. That made the caravanner sit up.

“Treason? And she’s being sent to the camps?” He was incredulous, but her guard just shrugged. Eventually, the caravanner shrugged as well and marked her crime in his book. Finally, he stood up and walked around his little table.

“Well, treasonous Shayel, my name is Stamuc. I am the keeper of the cages, and from now on, I am your lord and master. Whatever I say, you do. Whatever I give, you take. Understand?”

She gulped and nodded, her insides feeling more and more like lead with each word. Stamuc waved the guard to follow and she was led back out of the tent toward the cages.

“You’re headed to the work camps. You know what those are?”

She nodded, still unable to find words to save herself. She knew about the camps. Prisoners who were strong were sent to the mines to dig up rock and ore for weapons and fortresses. Those who weren’t strong enough were sent to work camps to do more … menial work.

“Good.” Stamuc whistled at the soldiers guarding the last of the occupied cages and waved an arm toward the people inside. Immediately, they snatched spears and shoved the tips through the bars, keeping the prisoners at bay as Stamuc flipped through a ring of keys, chose one, and opened the lock on the back of the cage. Once the door swung open, Shayel’s guard hoisted her unceremoniously and tumbled her into the cage, leaving her wrists bound. “It’ll be a few weeks till we head off.” Stamuc grinned at her. “So you’d best get comfortable.”

*************

Shayel’s absence had put Foxx at ease, but Dontin couldn’t help but miss the woman’s quiet conversation and the brightness of her smiles. Kane took every opportunity he could to teach Dontin about the plant life around them – which ones would heal and which would harm – and making him recite recipes for this balm or that antidote. Each morning, Dontin changed his own bandages and poultices, and the old man had even left that task to him alone, forgoing any supervision. Dontin absently rubbed one of the deep bruises on his arm, now faded from the deep blue and purple it had been. Soon, he should be able to leave the bandages off altogether, he figured. Each night, the lessons turned to cooking. Kane had started those lessons by telling him that cooking was just a slower type of medicine; Foxx had snorted at the comment, and the healer had laughed at himself as if he had made a joke, but with several days of travel behind them, Dontin was beginning to understand. A good meal at the start of the day meant strength to keep walking, and a good meal at the end meant restful sleep. At least when he wasn’t having nightmares.

They had kept to the road much of the night after sending Shayel back to Mira, then cut off through the forest once again until after dawn, when they broke out onto another road, this one much narrower than the first. It wasn’t even wide enough for a proper wagon, but the men seemed confident it would take them where they needed to go: a trading outpost called Dorad. Dontin had heard of it. It wasn’t much of a town, from what he had heard from his father. Rather, it was mostly a collection of shops and stalls with a few homes scattered around. The town’s population was said to be mostly transient – farmers and tradesmen who would stay a week or two at a time to sell their wares before heading back to where they came from. The few permanent residents provided basic comforts. His father had called them leeches, sucking their livelihood from the honest traders who gathered there. He had made several trips himself, years ago, selling some of their harvest, but he had never taken Dontin along. And he stopped at the first whispers that the war was getting close. Of course, so did most of the rest of Mira’s folk.

When Kane had mentioned he wanted to stop at the town, Foxx had balked, saying it was too dangerous to get so close to the soldiers. Dontin had heard the rumors himself. A few farmers had tried to sell what little they could, but each one returned with the same story: instead of finding a town full of prospective buyers, they found a town full of Arbanian soldiers who had taken their food and sent them away without payment. Anything grown in Arbania belonged to the king, they said, and the king does not pay for his own food. Still, Kane had won the argument, insisting that even a town overrun by soldiers could provide information. Information they would need if they wanted any chance at successfully navigating the war front.

They smelled Dorad before they saw it. At first, it was the musky scent of old smoke clinging to the breeze. By the time they could see the town, the air was full of a sharp, choking, rancid odor that at first whiff sent Dontin into a fit of uncontrollable coughing. Foxx and Kane both stopped to watch him, their faces grim. Kane offered Dontin a piece of cloth with which to cover his mouth. Dontin took it eagerly, although it did little to dull the stench of death.

“Ready?” Kane asked. Dontin coughed again and gulped, then nodded.

The town sat atop a slight rise in a clearing, with several roads running up its sides. The slopes were dotted with wagons, tents, and makeshift stalls. What was left of them. They sat in tatters and ashes, some burned completely to the ground, others simply crushed. Burnt and rotting corpses, both human and animal, accompanied them. More permanent buildings were at the top of the mound, although those had also taken heavy damage. Thin wisps of smoke still rose from some of them. The carnage intensified the closer they got. What once had been a horse sprawled across half the road, the bottom half of its front legs missing and maggots wiggling about where the eyes had been. Its belly was grossly swollen and a hind leg stuck unnaturally up into the air. Not far from it, a man’s body lay as if it were trying to crawl down the hill. His skull was caved in with a thin string of matted hair falling limp down one side of a half-eaten face. The flesh on his backside was blackened and crusted from burns. It still gave off a sharp, festering smell. Approaching it, Dontin felt his stomach heave. Still, his companions were grim and silent.

They’ve seen all this before, he realized, desperately trying to keep from vomiting. In the back of his mind, there was a solemn hum of agreement.

They continued on, stepping around corpses and globs of entrails and smoldering rubble. The little fox, who normally pranced and trotted around them, was subdued, walking gingerly around the carnage.

“What happened here?” Dontin asked, lifting the cloth from his mouth so the words wouldn’t muffle. The rancid air burned in his throat and he fell into another fit of coughing.

“Soldiers,” Foxx grunted, pointing briefly off to one side. Dontin followed the motion, confused. Then he saw it. One of the corpses wore the same uniform as the men who had taken Mira. A little farther on, a tattered standard had caught on a splintered wagon. The colors were the same. He could barely make out the image through the rips and stains: a white tree in front of a rising sun on a dark green background.

“Not just soldiers,” Kane said. He stopped and pointed another direction. “War.” Dontin’s eyes found another uniform, this one grey with red accents.

“Is that…?” His voice trailed off and Kane nodded.

“Macrean. They must have attacked.”

“Who won?” Dontin asked.

“No one,” Foxx replied. His voice was dark, and he kept his face turned away from his companions.

“Macrea,” Kane corrected. “They may have failed to take control, but they succeeded in eliminating a link in Arbania’s supply chain.” He shook his head. “I didn’t realize how close they were.”

They reached the top of the rise, passing between scorched and collapsing buildings. There were more corpses sprawled around the outpost. Humans, horses, livestock. The ground here was littered with debris from fighting as well as trade. Ruined fruit scattered through the blood where a cart had been overturned. Charred bolts of linen draped in rumpled wads where they had been flung aside. Horseshoes and iron nails messed the ground around a still-smoking forge. The entire place buzzed with the sound of flies.

“So much for supplies,” Foxx muttered.

“There may still be something we can salvage,” Kane replied. “We should camp here tonight.”

“Here?” Dontin coughed. “You can’t be serious!”

“Unfortunately, my boy, I am.” Kane pointed to one end of the outpost, where a few buildings had taken less damage than the rest. “There’s still shelter, and one more fire won’t warrant any notice. If Galligan has sent scouts to look for us, it’s an easy place to hide. Foxx, do you agree?” The bigger man nodded, stepping over a mutilated goat. “Good. Let’s use the daylight we have left to see if there’s anything left we can use.” He paused and leveled a long look at Dontin. “Be careful.” Dontin nodded.

Kane and Foxx split off in opposite directions, leaving Dontin looking around for any sign of something that hadn’t been destroyed. He turned to a nearby building whose door had been ripped off its hinges. He took a regrettably deep breath for courage and walked towards it.

Inside, it looked like the place had once been a pottery; shards of broken vessels and toppled shelves filled the room, although a few pots remained intact hanging from the ceiling. Dyes had spilled and mixed with blood on a table underneath one of the corpses. It was a woman, clothed in a common dress, her throat sliced so deep Dontin could see the opening of her airway in the gash. The other corpse was smaller and lay slumped in a corner, a boy younger than Dontin, his chest and belly torn by stabbing blades. Dontin stared at the boy, his heart racing and stomach churning.

“They were innocent,” he whispered, fighting the gagging feeling in his throat, and again, he felt a solemn hum in the back of his mind.

He tore his eyes away, forcing himself back to the task at hand. There was nothing but clay works in this room, but there was a door leading to another room. He picked his way through the rubble and in the next room found a pair of overturned straw beds and a few wooden boxes, each smashed open with its contents spilling out around it. A piece of wood caught his eye in one of the boxes. It was a short piece of branch, about as long as a man’s hand and as thick as a staff. One end was still covered in smooth bark, but the other was shaved and shaped. Dontin picked up the piece. The shaped end had been whittled like a horse head, but it was unfinished, the ears nothing more than triangular points atop a roughly curved head, the nose a mess of angular cuts.

Movement caught the corner of his eye. A pair of crazed eyes glinted at him from behind one of the upended beds. Dontin yelped and jumped, and the man, bloody teeth bared, surged toward him, shoving the bed out of his way with such force it nearly swung into Dontin. Dontin turned and fled, scrambling over the broken furnishings of the front room toward the street outside. The man behind him crashed after, shouting threats and curses and brandishing a knife. Dontin tried to run, slipped on broken pottery, caught himself and dashed out into the daylight, breaking into a full run. The man behind him was faster. It only took a few frenzied steps before the man lunged and crashed into him, knocking him to the ground. Dontin cried out and scrambled to get away, but the man dragged him back.

Across the way, both Foxx and Kane burst out from where they had been searching. Kane yelled an alarm.

“Get away from him!” Foxx bellowed, charging forward. The noise surprised Dontin’s assailant enough that he was able to scramble to his feet, but as he started to run toward Foxx, the man behind him grabbed hold and pulled him back, wrenching one of his arms painfully behind his back and pressing his blade to Dontin’s throat. Dontin struggled, but the man’s hold just tightened, and he felt blood trickling down his neck. Foxx lurched to a stop, hands balled into white fists and eyes blazing. Kane had slowed, slowly taking a few steps closer, hands held out as if he could calm the man.

“Pl- please,” Dontin stammered between ragged breaths, tears running down his face. “Please don’t hurt me, please, please …” The man ignored him, jerking him back and forth as he turned between Foxx and Kane.

“Let him go,” Kane called, still making his slow approach. The man pulled Dontin back a step.

“Spies!” the man screamed at them. “Stay away! I’ll kill him!”

“We’re not here to hurt you,” Kane called back. Foxx took a heavy step forward, his fury barely contained. The man turned Dontin sharply to face Foxx and adjusted the grip on the blade.

“Stay back, murderers!”

The humming in the back of Dontin’s mind shifted from its solemn tone to one of anger. He heard it then. The hissing voice from his nightmares.

“Command me to kill him,” it whispered, the voice dripping with murderous intent. “Tauma.”

“No,” Dontin whimpered. “Please, no more death.”

“Let him go, and we can all be on our way,” Kane called out, taking another step. “We’re just travelers, nothing more. Let him go, please.” The man hesitated but held him tight. Kane sensed the opening and pressed on. “We don’t want to hurt anyone, we were just looking for food and shelter. Please.”

The man’s grip loosened, just slightly. “You’re not soldiers?”

“No,” Kane assured him. “Just hungry. Like you. Let him go and we can share what food we have.”

“Tauma….”

“No, no no no no….” Dontin whispered, his voice raspy. The man hesitated again but took another step away, dragging Dontin along. Foxx’s voice rang out suddenly with a foreign but familiar word.

“Archeri!” A memory of death flashed through Dontin’s mind.

The ground between them swelled instantly, mud rising from beneath a pile of bodies and taking the shape of a massive bear. The man stumbled back, releasing his grip on Dontin completely. Dontin fell and crawled away as quickly as he could, panic still gripping him. He turned to look back and saw the man fully. He was covered in soot, dirt, bruises, and blood, and was visibly malnourished. His eyes were as wide as they had been when Dontin first spotted him in the pottery, but now they were filled with terror, locked on the bear now roaring and charging toward him.

“No!” Dontin screamed, pushing himself back to his feet and lunging back toward the man. He slid to a stop in front of him, spinning to face the bear and holding his arms wide. “NO!”

He knew the beast was too close to stop. The little fox was barking wildly and chasing after the bear, but the beast ignored it. Memory flashed again of his father crushed by the impact. The slashing claws and deadly teeth. He stared into the gleaming black eyes, the raging face of the bear just a moment away.

The hissing voice rose to a ghostly bellow. Red mist swirled and coalesced around him in an instant, the massive flayed canine body curling protectively around him, long claws digging into the dirt and corpses beneath its feet, long head and neck poised to strike. The phantom’s tail whipped around and smashed into the bear, knocking it several paces to the side and leaving a thick band of scorched fur and skin where it struck. The beast hollered in pain, struggling to get back to its feet.

“Phynos!” Foxx yelled, stumbling sideways, his eyes darting back and forth between the bear to Dontin and the phantom curled around him. “Archeri, phynos!”

The bear hollered one more time and slumped downward, its cry fading away as its shape melted back into the ground. The red phantom circled around Dontin one more time, hissing, then evaporated back into mist and disappeared.

Behind him, Dontin’s attacker was scrambling backwards on his hands and rear. “Demons! Monsters!” he screamed, clambering to his feet, pure terror in his face. Foxx moved to chase him, but Kane, running toward Dontin, stopped him.

“Forget him! We’re safe now!”

Dontin fell to his knees, watching the stranger sprint out of the ruined outpost and out of view down the slope.

*************

“Please tell me you can explain all that,” Kane growled. Dontin leaned on Foxx’s arm, letting them lead him to one of the less damaged buildings. One hand absently clenched an unfinished wood carving. Foxx shook his head. “You almost killed him!” Kane yelled.

“He jumped in the way!” Foxx yelled back. “I meant to save him, not hurt him!”

Kane knew it was true, but he was still livid. It had been too close. If the phantom hadn’t appeared…. A shiver ran down his spine. Even having seen it once before, it still terrified him, as if his very soul knew he was powerless against it. And its speed — the thing had appeared, attacked, and disappeared in little more than a heartbeat. The damage such a thing could do was mind-numbing to consider. But … it had saved the boy’s life. And stopped a summoner’s attack with a single blow. Kane shivered again and looked over the boy. He was spooked, but at least he was still walking. The attacker’s blade had left a shallow cut on his throat, but it would heal easily on its own. *What sort of power do you command?”* he wondered.

“What are you?” Dontin asked, breaking the temporary silence. He looked up at Foxx, still holding onto the big man for support. “That bear. My father.” He paused. “Archeri.”

Foxx’s face tensed, eyebrows drawing together.

“He is a Summoner,” Kane answered for him. Dontin turned to him, confused.

“What’s a Summoner?”

“A rare man with the power to summon power beyond himself and command it to do his will,” Kane explained.

Dontin considered his words a moment. “Command it to kill?” he asked, quietly, looking back up at Foxx. The Summoner gave Kane a pained glance, then nodded.

“Sometimes,” he said. They all were silent, shuffling through the wreckage toward their chosen shelter.

“Can you teach me?” Dontin finally asked. “Not to kill, to be what you are,” he added quickly. Foxx didn’t answer, didn’t even look at the boy. Or at Kane. Instead, he put his attention toward wrenching open the door in front of them and checking the back rooms for any other dangers. Convinced it was safe, he set to work starting a fire in the hearth, placing a few chairs back on their feet and dragging a straw mat next to the fire.

Kane watched Foxx with grim concern, but let the silence stand. He found a kettle on one end of the room and brought it to the fire, slinging their pack of food down to the floor next to it with a sigh.

“Here, boy. Why don’t you get some supper started. We’ll go look for more food. Stay here, and keep the door shut.” He leveled a meaningful look at Foxx. “Let’s go.”

Kane waited until they were well away from the little house they had chosen before saying anything to the Summoner. Even so, he kept his voice low.

“You have to teach him.” Foxx shook his head. “You promised.” Foxx stopped and rounded on Kane.

“You would have me teach him to seek death?”

“The phantom is bound to him, it can’t hurt him.”

“I’m not talking about the phantom, you dolt. The Summoner’s life is one of constant battle. Fighting for mere survival, hunted on one side to be killed, hunted on the other to be controlled, and feared and cursed by everyone else. A Summoner’s life is one of solitude, torture, and death. You would wish such a life on him?” He paced a few steps away. Kane stayed where he stood. He knew the man was right. Dontin stood at the edge of a future more daunting than any he could imagine, but still, the idea of that phantom — uncontrolled, untrained — gave him even greater fear than the life his apprentice would have to lead.

“Besides,” Foxx interrupted his thoughts, “He’s not a Summoner.”

“What do you mean? You said yourself, he said the words and bound the phantom.”

“He didn’t summon it.” Foxx turned back to Kane, determined. “He never said a single word.”

He was right. Kane played the day’s incident back in his head. He could still see Dontin, terrified, crying, panting, desperately pleading for his life, but he hadn’t spoken any word of command.

“You think the bond is one-sided?”

Foxx nodded. “I think it chose him. It follows him, but is not commanded by him.”

“And today …?”

“It protected itself.”

Kane shook his head but resumed their path, making their way into what looked like had once been a tavern or an inn.

“Is that even possible? A bond without a Summoner?”

“It has to be.”

They picked through the disheveled common room, Foxx shoving aside broken furnishings to clear a path toward what looked to be a kitchen and, hopefully a larder. The stock had already been ransacked, but there were a few edible bits left. Kane gathered them up, sorting out what was already rotting.

“You’ll have to teach him something.” Behind him, he heard Foxx rummage through debris, and then the slap of flesh gripping wood. He turned around and saw the Summoner inspecting a spear left behind by the soldiers. The tip was rusted and bloody. Foxx grimaced at the metal part, gripped the spear just below the tip with both hands, strained, and snapped the metal off, discarding it over his shoulder. He held the remaining staff up and gave Kane a questioning look. Kane considered the staff, then nodded.

 

-*-*-*-

Previous chapter

Next chapter

XIV – The Return

•February 9, 2018 • Leave a Comment

pexels-photo-213172

They trekked through the trees a full third day. Shayel kept close to Dontin; he didn’t seem to mind her company anymore, and for that she was thankful. She shared several stories of her son, from when he was a boy. From before the war changed things. She found Dontin smiling at the tales, even laughing at her son’s antics, and she laughed too – for the first time in years. It felt good to share those old joys with someone so genuine. The other two kept mostly quiet, only muttering to each other occasionally and adjusting their course every so often. They had been heading mostly north, and slightly west. The trees were beginning to thin, though. Soon, they would be without the dense cover that had hid them so far.

Foxx kept them moving past nightfall, changing their direction once they had full cover of darkness. It was a winding sort of shift, and without the sun’s position, Shayel lost track of their course. By her best guess, they were headed north. Or maybe east. She grimaced in the dark and wished she knew better how to set a path by the stars, although a quick glance upward showed few of the twinkling things between the leaves. Galligan would want to know exactly where these men were. And where they intended to go.

“Do you know where you’re going?” she asked Dontin, trying to keep her voice low. It wasn’t low enough. Foxx interrupted before the boy had a chance to answer.

“That’s none of your concern,” he snapped, moving behind her and separating her from Dontin with a quick shove. She stumbled forward a few steps and walked in front of them. Kane glanced over his shoulder at her, but said nothing.

Shayel kept her lips pressed tight for the next hours. Her stomach felt uneasy with the summoner behind her. Although he hadn’t used his dark powers since that first night, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was about to call some horrid demon to consume her. She shuddered and tried to put the thought out of her mind, but it stuck there, twisting her nerves and often leaving her feeling weak.

They continued through the night, their winding path leaving her even more disoriented, until they finally came to a narrow break in the woods, enough for the thin moonlight to piece the canopy and show a set of shallow ruts on packed ground, a sparse covering of grass along the edges and down the middle.

“A road?” It was more to herself than to her captors, but Kane answered anyway.

“Your road.” He pointed one direction down its length. “Head that way and you’ll find your way back to your army.” He lobbed a small sack at her feet. “That should be enough to get you there.”

They stood before her, all three staring at her. Foxx had his arms crossed over his chest, glaring. Kane adjusted his pack and hooked his fingers through the shoulder straps.

“You want me to leave now?” she asked, incredulous. It would be hours until dawn. “It’s the middle of the night. What about thieves? I’m a woman, alone!”

Foxx snorted.

“You’re not likely to encounter much trouble on this road,” Kane said. She couldn’t tell if he was trying to reassure her or just be rid of her. Foxx seemed disappointed. Dontin looked at his feet and shifted his weight. She took a step toward him.

“Come with me.” Her voice sounded more desperate to her on the night air than she had intended, and she expected the two men to pull him away. Strangely, they didn’t. But Dontin didn’t move. He looked at her, then looked at them, and back at her again.

“I can’t,” he said.

“My commander will find a good place for you,” she tried again. “He’s a good man, you’ll have a home, food, safety. You can learn whatever trade you like, I’ll make sure of it. You could have a good life. And someday, a family.”

Dontin shifted again and was quiet for a moment. He looked at each of the men. Kane watched him carefully, but Foxx merely huffed and turned to walk the opposite direction down the road. He only made it a few steps.

“They’re my friends,” Dontin finally said.

The words were so simple, but they cut through the dark like a fine blade. Shayel felt tears warming her eyes and had to blink rapidly to keep them at bay. Foxx stopped in his tracks, his back towards them. Kane looked away. Dontin’s decision hung between them all, and only the boy seemed unaffected.

“You could stay,” he suggested. “Come with us?”

“My commander needs me,” she shook her head. “And besides,” she pointed at Foxx, whose back still faced them. “I could never fall in league with such a monster.” She turned back to Dontin. “I’ll come back for you. I won’t let them get you killed.”

“You call me a monster,” Foxx growled, turning around, muscles tense. “You seem to like the boy, but you’re the one who would send swords and spears after him. You’re the one who would rather see him bound to a useless war. You’re the one who would get him killed. And you call me a monster?” He took a step towards her, one arm poised as if to hit her. Her heart lurched, her skin went cold, and she took an involuntary step back. Kane put an arm out and stopped the bigger man, though.

“Let her be,” the healer said. “She’s not our problem anymore.”

They turned and walked away. Dontin paused to offer her what she thought might have been sympathy, but followed quickly after. Soon, they had disappeared into darkness, and she was alone. She could still hear her pulse pounding in her ears, and when she finally moved to take a step, her knees were weak.

*************

She woke to a clouded sunrise. She hadn’t meant to sleep, but the travel had left her exhausted, and she eventually found a grassy spot not far from the road to rest her eyes. Her sleep had been troubled by the summoner’s words, though, and memories of the phantom he had called upon them that first night swirled through her dreams.

She tried to shake off the nightmares by exploring what Kane had provided in the sack. It wasn’t much, she realized with a sigh as she peered into it. A loaf of stale bread and some dried meat made the bulk of it, with a few handfuls of berries they had collected along the way. There was also a waterskin, but she would need to find a place to refill it soon. She sipped the water and chewed on the meat and berries while she walked down the road, hoping the food, along with the cool morning air, would help her ignore her lingering weariness. She kept her eyes on the trees and checked the road behind her often, anxious about thieves, but Kane’s assurance at least seemed to be genuine. She was the only one on the road.

As daylight grew, she began organizing her thoughts and preparing her report for Galligan. He would need to know everything as soon as she arrived back, and she intended to leave nothing out. Hopefully, she thought, his men could track the summoner down quickly and see justice served. And she could get back to her scribing work.

She didn’t see another person until late in the day. She heard him first – or rather, heard his horse trotting down the dirt ahead of her and getting closer. Panic flared up in her chest and she scrambled toward the trees, but wasn’t quick enough.

“You there! Stop!” the rider yelled, kicking his horse into a canter. She obeyed, and as he approached, breathed a sigh of relief. He wore the uniform of Galligan’s army.

“Thank the gods,” she said, grinning while he reined his horse up next to her. “You serve under Commander Galligan.”

“I do.” He was a young man, clean shaven, with a pair of knives on his hips and leather padding instead of heavy armor. He was a scout, then, she assumed. It would make sense, being so far away from the camp. “Who are you?”

“My name is Shayel. I am the commander’s personal scribe. And I need to speak with him at once.”

He eyed her cautiously, then his guard softened and he nodded. “I thought you looked familiar. What are you doing all the way out here?”

“I was taken captive by men the commander will want to know about.” The scout’s brows drew together and he seemed uncomfortable. “Immediately,” she added, but he still made no move to help her. “Well? Aren’t you going to take me to him?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he stammered. “But, are you sure?”

“Of course, why wouldn’t I be?”

“It’s just that, well, all the men know how the commander feels about ones who get themselves captured.” He paused. “You’re not a soldier. You could just slip away.”

She clenched her jaw. She knew how much Galligan disliked seeing his men taken by an enemy. She had written most of the reports herself. He didn’t like the idea of his own secrets being turned against him. And it was true that most of those men ended up either executed or imprisoned, but each of those had betrayed the army. She hadn’t.

“What is your name?” she asked.

“Cavoy.”

“The commander is a strict man, to be sure,” she said. “But he is fair. I have done nothing wrong. Take me to him. The information I have is important. He won’t want to wait for it.” She paused. “And careful what you say, Cavoy. Your words could be considered treason.”

The scout shut his lips, nodded, and reached down to help her up behind him.

*************

Cavoy escorted her all the way to the commander’s quarters. The house had become decidedly more military in the five days she had been away. Wooden bars now covered the windows, and guards stood post at the entrances and corners. The whole town had become more military. She could hear captains barking training orders at new recruits in what used to be the marketplace. Patrols marched every street. The watchtowers were complete, and there were the makings of a perimeter wall being built as well. The homes stayed closed, windows shuttered. Many had been requisitioned and converted for more practical use. The little smithy had been bulked up by the army’s own blacksmiths. The few townsfolk she saw were either men in ill-fitting uniforms or women hauling goods, or farmers moving wagonloads of sorry looking crops under armed escort.

Shayel let Cavoy announce her to one of the guards at the commander’s door, and she was ushered in shortly after. The new soldier guided her directly to Galligan without a word, leaving her alone with him in what had become the command center.

The commander watched her enter without a hint of emotion, standing stiff and straight behind his desk, hands clasped together behind his back.

“I’m glad to see you’ve returned, Shayel,” he said. She ducked her head slightly.

“Thank you, commander. It’s good to be back in safety.”

“My men say you have information for me.”

“Yes, sir. I was taken away unwillingly, but I believe it may have resulted in some good for you.”

“Tell me what happened.”

She nodded and took a breath to steady herself. She did her best to speak as formally as the soldiers would when giving their reports. “As you remember, before I was taken, you spoke with this town’s healer. A man by the name of Kane. After he refused your order to join our ranks, after you dismissed me, I thought to learn more about him.

Understanding the battalion’s need for medicinal care, I thought, maybe, I could convince him to join you, rather than see him killed and his talents lost. I snuck into his home, thinking to speak with him quietly, but instead I discovered he was harboring both an apprentice and a summoner.”

Galligan’s lips pressed together, and his stare reminded her of a freshly sharpened spear. She wavered.

“Continue.” The word was colder than any she had ever heard him utter.

“Yes. Sir. They discovered me and took me captive and took me with them as they escaped the town. The healer forced me to breathe a poison that silenced my voice and prevented me from calling out to the soldiers during their escape.” She paused, seeing the commander stiffen even more. “Sir, I believe this poison may be just what the king is searching for. Or at least close enough.” She paused again, hoping for some other reaction from the man before her, but he said nothing. “I then witnessed the summoner call what I believe to be a phantom. It nearly killed the apprentice.” Her voice shook with the memory. “The perimeter guards chased after us, but the monster – the summoner,” she corrected herself, reminding herself to rid her report of emotion, “called up a herd of stags to stop them. They kept me captive for three days before releasing me and now I have returned to you.

“As we traveled I attempted to keep track of our course. They walked generally north until the third night. I believe they began heading west, but I regret to admit that I lost the direction in the darkness. I also attempted to discover where they intended to go, but was unsuccessful. My personal opinion, if I may, is that they will try to seek refuge in some rural part of Arbania. I believe their goal at the moment is simply to remain hidden.” Galligan still stared at her. Or through her. Normally she could read this man well, even through his steely formality. This time, she couldn’t tell. “They released me the middle of the third night on a poorly traveled road. I believe they continued north from there. I was discovered by one of your scouts the next evening, and he aided my return. I came directly to you upon my arrival.”

Galligan was still and silent for an uncomfortable length of time. Finally, he relieved her of his frozen stare and sat behind the desk, elbows resting on its surface and hands tented in front of his face. Despite that, his stiff posture remained.

“You went along with this capture willingly?” Cavoy’s words rung in her mind, and she tried to ignore the chill she felt. The commander is strict, but fair, she reminded herself. His sense of justice is true.

“No, sir. When I was discovered, the summoner wanted to kill me. The healer’s apprentice convinced them to let me live. They agreed to release me unharmed as long as I didn’t cause them any trouble, once they felt they were far enough away from the town. I agreed out of fear of the summoner. He is a strong man, and the creature he summoned…” her voice faded. “Monstrous,” she finally whispered. “He is extremely dangerous, sir.”

“But they never harmed you?”

“No, sir. The apprentice is a compassionate boy, and the others seemed unwilling to upset him. I believe only his compassion saved me.”

“How did you recover your voice?”

Shayel silently cursed. She should not have forgotten to include that bit. “The first night of my capture, when they made camp, the healer prepared an antidote that reversed the effects of the poison. Although it took some time to fully recover my voice, there seem to be no remaining effects.”

Galligan pondered that for several seconds.

“Describe to me the summoner and the apprentice. I want to know what they look like.”

“The summoner is a large man in his middle years who goes by the name Foxx. Weathered, always with a dark look about him. Brown hair. He’s heavily muscled and bears several scars on his arms. And he has a pet fox, although it came and went on its own, and he never seemed to pay much attention to it. The apprentice seemed more fond of it, in fact. The apprentice, Dontin, is a kindly boy of maybe 13, 14 years, skinny and poorly kept. He had several bruises and walked with a slight limp. I think he may be under some sort of coercion, sir, he’s not like the men.” She hoped the commander would hear her meaning, that when he found the summoner, he would show mercy to Dontin.

Galligan pushed a map across the desk toward her. “Show me where they left you.”
The map had been filled in considerably since they had arrived. She had to search the lines a few times to find the little road Cavoy found her on, then traced it roughly one day’s ride down its length to point to the spot. Galligan stared at the map a moment before pulling it back and setting it aside. He looked up at her, full of formality.

“Thank you, Shayel, for your service to me and for your report. This information may be of great service to the king.”

“Thank you, sir.” She lowered her head in a half-bow, relief washing the tension out of her muscles. Galligan raised his voice so the guard outside the door would hear.

“Prevan!” The guard entered immediately. “Arrest this woman and send her to the cages.” Her heart seemed to stop beating, and the edges of her vision darkened. “She is to be sent with the others to the work camps.”

“Sir?” she choked. “I thought-”

The guard grabbed her wrists and began binding them together.

“Why am I being arrested?” She found her voice again, and the words came out loud. “I have done nothing wrong!” She jerked her hands away from the guard, and he jerked them back. Galligan stood, fists resting on the desk.

“You defied my command by taking action without any order to do so. You compromised an objective of the king by exposing yourself to an enemy. You allowed yourself to be captured and were complicit in the escape of three individuals which you knew would be of high interest to me and to the king. These actions are not only deplorable for a member of this battalion, they are treasonous.”

Her mouth had fallen open, and she tried to deny his accusations, but words failed her. The guard pulled on her, trying to pull her out of the room, but she resisted, panicked.

“But the information! You said it will help! Will you not show mercy for that?”

For the first time since she arrived, she saw something of emotion creep into the commander’s expression. He looked sad. Almost.

“As I said. Your crime is treason. This is mercy.”

The guard pulled on her again, harder this time. She struggled with a desperate cry, tears running down her face. He struggled with her, and he was stronger. He lifted her partially off the floor as he pushed her backwards.

“And what about my husband?” she shrieked at Galligan. “He was your friend! Would you imprison your friend’s wife?”

A part of her knew it was a worthless cry. A pitiful attempt. As the guard hauled her out of the room, Galligan didn’t even bother to reply. He merely stood there, grim, watching her scream and struggle.

-*-*-*-

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

XIII – Men and Monsters

•October 12, 2017 • Leave a Comment

pexels-photo-221516

With the noise of soldiers well behind them, Kane took the lead. Foxx was visibly exhausted but still managed to carry Dontin and keep up. Kane was impressed, but worried. The man would need to rest, and soon.

He pushed through the underbrush at relentless a pace as he could dare, given his companion’s condition. The soldiers wouldn’t hesitate to report the noise they had made, and the commander would undoubtedly send out a search party for his missing scribe. Put the two together, and, well…. Kane clenched his jaw. Their narrow window of opportunity just got a lot narrower. Luckily, he knew the forest well, thanks to his years of foraging for herbs, and this part of the woods was more dense than it was close to town. Even in the dark, he could lead his little band to cover. He hoped.

There wasn’t much natural protection in these woods. The landscape was largely flat, and the trees that provided the canopy, while dense, were only of moderate size. But there was one spot that could offer them refuge for the night. He had used it himself on occasion to wait out a storm or even just to escape the constant buzz of town life. He glanced at the dimming light coming through the canopy. They might be able to make it before dark.

They didn’t. By the time he found the shallow gash in the earth, night had fully arrived. It took about an hour more before they followed the gully to his refuge, a spot where a pair of trees had toppled over the gap. The dead branches formed a natural canopy that he had, over the years, reinforced with enough deadfall to keep out most rains. There were no furnishings under the branches, only a small charred circle for a fire pit.

They settled into the sheltered pocket, Foxx arranging Dontin carefully along one edge before collapsing next to him. The woman huddled just outside, her eyes still red from crying and fearful of the summoner. Kane ignored her for the moment, swinging down his packs and offering a hunk of bread to Foxx.

“Eat this, and get some rest. I’ll keep watch.”

The bigger man didn’t argue. He chewed the bread silently, swallowed it, and rolled over onto his side. Within moments, he was snoring softly. Kane unpacked his medicines, started a tiny fire, and began mixing his cure for the Nightingale he had given the woman. She still stood uncomfortably outside.

“Oh just get in here and sit down,” he finally grumbled at her. “You’ll be coming with us a bit longer, so you might as well get some rest.” He held up the beginnings of his potion when she simply stared at him. “This will take some time. Sit.” Finally, she did.

Kane ignored her again until the medicine was ready and handed it to her in silence. She sniffed it once, then gulped it down, handing his little cup back to him empty. He snuffed out the little fire and climbed to his feet, well aware of her eyes on him.

“Get some sleep. I’ll be just up above, here, so don’t bother trying to run.” She stared back. “Or do I need to tie you up?” She shook her head and settled against the gully’s mossy rock edge. Kane sighed and climbed the few feet up the edge and perched on one of the fallen branches where he could watch the direction of the town. Several moments later, he heard the woman climb up beside him.

“I understand,” she said, quietly. Her voice was raspy still from the Nightingale. Kane glanced at her but didn’t respond. “You mean to lure the summoner into a trap,” she continued. “I can help you. After what he did…” her voice trailed off and Kane heard her stifle a sob. “We can work together, you and I. You’re his captive, too, right? What has he threatened you with?” Kane turned his head just enough to watch her out of the corner of his eye. It was too dark to see anything more than her shape.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t worry, he’s asleep.” She paused. “We could just kill him now.”

“No one’s killing anyone.”

“Then help me bring him back to the commander. Hand him over to Galligan. The king pays a handsome reward to anyone who can bring down a summoner. And with that poison of yours you can guarantee they can’t fight back. That’s what I hear, at least, that they’re just as human as anyone else once you can silence them. Give that to Galligan and you would have status, safety, and more gold than you could spend in a lifetime.”

“Enough.”

“He nearly killed that boy. A child. He’s a monster.

Kane stood suddenly and put his face close enough to see her eyes widen despite the dark. “The man you call ‘commander’ just yesterday assured the death of an entire village, simply because it happened to be in his path,” he hissed. “And how many other villages have fallen to the same fate at his command? How many children has he doomed to die? He is more a monster than this man could ever be.”

She took a speechless step backwards and after letting his words linger on the air a moment, Kane turned and reclaimed his perch.

“Take a bit of advice,” he continued. “See through your own eyes, not someone else’s.”

She didn’t respond, and he kept his eyes on the trees. A few breaths later, he heard her climb back down into their shelter.

*************

When he woke the next morning, he was stiff. And cold. The night had cooled after he woke Foxx for second watch, and the morning was damp. His joints ached and he had to work his limbs a few times to warm up the muscles enough to climb to his feet. He silently cursed his age and tried to ignore the soreness.

A silvery light was filtering through the trees, but the sun was still below the horizon. The woman was still asleep and Dontin was either asleep or still unconscious; Kane checked the boy to make sure he was still breathing before stepping out to find Foxx. The summoner had taken a post within sight of the shelter but a little ways down the gully. Kane relieved himself against a nearby tree and then joined the man.

“Have you recovered?” he asked, keeping his voice down. Foxx grunted in reply, which Kane assumed was close enough to a yes. “We need to head northwest.” He pointed through the trees. Foxx shook his head.

“That’s where the main lines are, where the fighting is worst. I had to go miles out of my way just to get here without being seen. If you’re trying to avoid the military like it seems you are, that’s the last place you should go.”

“I know.”

“It’s too risky.”

Kane sighed. “It’s risky for all of us. You risk being killed as a summoner or worse. I risk being killed for treason. The boy risks being forced into a uniform, or killed.”

“Why, then?”

“Graidon holds the lands north of here and Hethron holds everything south. We’d never be able to hide in either territory. You already had a bounty hunter chasing you all the way out here, so even going farther east into the unclaimed regions is no guarantee of safety. Plus, once this Commander Galligan gets his scribe back, he’ll be on our trail.” He shook his head. “The only chance any of us have of escaping this war alive is by crossing the ocean. As soon as possible. The nearest – and probably safest – seaport is in Bursat. Northwest.”

Foxx was quiet, chewing on his lip as he thought through Kane’s arguments. “I still think it’s too dangerous,” he finally answered.

“It is dangerous. But it’s the only seaport we can get to from here without going through firmly held territories. And,” he added, “we might be able to use the chaos to our own advantage.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean that Galligan won’t expect us to run into the fighting, for one. And with people so focused on the battles and army occupation, it will be easier to hide in plain sight. As long as we keep our heads down.” The last part he added in a lower voice. Kane hoped Foxx picked up the subtle warning, but if he had, he gave no indication.

“And what if one of us is captured? I have no doubt you’ll protect the boy, but…” Foxx’s voice trailed off.

“But you fear I’ll let you go to the wolves.” Foxx nodded, and Kane let out a breath. He spared a moment to glance back at the shelter where Dontin still slept. “I can’t protect the boy from your world, but it seems your world has taken an interest in him. Keep him safe where I can’t, and I swear you will have whatever protection I can offer.” Foxx peered at him a long while and then nodded once. “Now,” Kane continued, “I think it’s time you explained what exactly happened yesterday.”

Foxx shifted uncomfortably and looked off into the trees. “I heard about it from one of the bounty hunters.”

“One?” Foxx merely tossed him a grim expression. Kane waved a hand, dismissing his comment and allowing Foxx to continue.

“He had tried to befriend me first, learn about my abilities, I suppose. He asked me about phantoms one night, and when he found out I didn’t know anything about them, he pulled a knife and tried to stab me. He seemed more afraid of them than anything else, so I decided to go hunt one down and bind it. Seemed a good way to protect myself.”

“You tracked phantoms?”

“I tried. For months. Turns out I don’t have much of a knack for phantoms.”

“Then how did you find it?”

Foxx hesitated. “I got lucky.”

Kane chewed his lip. “And that’s the thing that kept knocking you unconscious? Those nights the boy found you?” Foxx just grunted in reply. “What did it do to the boy?”

“It convinced him to agree to the contract.”

“The summoner’s contract?” Foxx nodded. “Why him?”

“I don’t know.”

Kane mulled the information over. “So the boy’s a summoner, too?”

“No.” Foxx’s expression turned suddenly pained and he quickly turned his head away from the healer. “I don’t know.” They sat in silence for a bit. “The boy never asked. But he agreed, and now the phantom is bound to him.”

Kane sighed, a long rush of air that left him feeling deflated. “Then he’s a summoner.” Foxx kept his typical silence and Kane stared at the big man. He was slouched, no longer watching the trees but watching a short broken bit of wood he turned over and over in his hands. “You’ll have to teach him,” Kane said quietly.

“No.”

“You have to teach him,” Kane repeated.

“He’s just a boy. He’s not ready.”

“He needs to be able to control it. We need him to control it. I saw that phantom. What happens if it decides it wants to come out?”

Foxx shook his head, just slightly, but it seemed to Kane the gesture was more for himself than Kane.

“Fine,” Foxx said. The word had a harsh finality to it, and Foxx stood as he uttered it, closing the conversation. “We should get moving.” Kane nodded and followed him back to the shelter.

When they arrived, they found the woman awake and sitting cross-legged next to Dontin, staring at him the way a concerned mother would. Kane found himself wondering about that. She had called the boy “Mikkel” when they had found her spying, but Dontin didn’t seem to recognize her. He dismissed his curiosity. She didn’t seem interested in hurting the boy, and they’d be rid of her soon enough.

“He’s still asleep?” Foxx’s voice was rough, and the woman glared at him.

“Unconscious, and yes,” she replied. She hunched closer to the boy, and farther from Foxx. “No thanks to you.”

Foxx’s posture stiffened and he took a step toward her, but Kane spoke up to interrupt them. “What’s done is done and you’ll be free of us soon,” he told the woman.

“But not yet,” she said. She spoke more softly to him, and her gaze seemed to be inspecting him. Maybe she thought he might change his mind about turning Foxx in, Kane wondered. Stupid woman.

“Not yet,” he confirmed. “But keep your end of the deal and we’ll keep ours. Come along quietly and we’ll let you go unharmed once we have enough distance. Foxx, get the boy and let’s be on our way.”

*************

Dontin woke to the alternating light and shadow of bright sunshine filtering through trees. He was cradled in a pair of heavily muscled arms, and when he managed to open his eyes, he saw Foxx’s grim face above him. The man called a halt to their companions and set Dontin down on the ground when he realized the boy was awake.

Kane came quickly as Dontin found his way to a seated position on the ground. The woman – their captive – was still with them, too, and she watched him with oddly anxious eyes.

“How do you feel?” Kane asked, peering into his eyes.

“Stiff,” Dontin admitted, rubbing at his eyes. “And my head sortof hurts.” He remembered the creature that Foxx had summoned the night before – how long had he been out this time? “What was thing? What happened?”

Kane and Foxx exchanged a look, but it was Foxx that answered first.

“Nothing you need to worry about right now. Can you walk?”

Kane’s lips narrowed, but he didn’t say anything. Dontin wondered about that, but he nodded and, with Foxx’s help, climbed to his feet. He was slightly off balance for the first few steps but found his footing well enough.

“How long…?”

“Just about a day,” Kane answered, forcing a bit of bread and water into his hands. “Here. Eat this.”

Dontin took the food and followed the healer’s directions, glancing around the forest as he ate. The sun was still fairly high, but on its way toward setting, and they were in a part of the woods he had never seen before. There was no road in sight. Foxx and Kane both seemed tired, but the woman seemed remarkably well adjusted to their travel. Foxx’s pet was bounding through the underbrush not far from where they were, as if chasing some sort of bug.

They barely gave him enough time to chew the bread before resuming their hike, but they did refuse to let him carry any of their packs. Even the woman had one slung over her shoulder, although he assumed she had been forced to carry it.

Soon, he found himself side by side with her as they followed the two men through the trees. Dontin eyed her quickly; her attention to him made him uneasy.

“You’re name’s Dontin, right?” she asked. He nodded, slowly, and she smiled. “I’m Shayel. I haven’t gotten to thank you.” Her voice was gentle, warm, even.

“For what?”

“You saved my life. Back in the village.”

Dontin shrugged, and the movement caused him to stumble on a downed branch. She grabbed his arm and steadied him, then looked down as she released her grip. “Thanks,” he mumbled. “And you’re welcome. For back there. I just -” he struggled to know what to say. “All you did was hear a few words. That’s not a reason to die.”

She smiled at him, a genuine, sympathetic smile, and he couldn’t help but grin back. She was pretty, he realized for the first time. Her hair was long and dark and her eyes matched its rich color, set in a pleasant face lined with just the finest of wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. He figured she had to be close to Foxx’s age. Or his mother’s. That thought wiped his grin away and he turned his attention to the ground in front of him so he wouldn’t trip again.

“How did you get mixed up with these two?” she asked, jutting her chin toward the men.

“They saved my life.”

She came to a stop and he had to stop too and turn to look at her. Foxx growled at them to keep moving, or maybe just growled at her, Dontin realized when he saw the man’s scowl. She hurried forward and fell back in step next to him.

“What happened?”

Dontin hesitated, remembering the murders. His wounds itched and he scratched at them absently. “My mother was murdered. My father blamed me and tried to kill me. Foxx stopped him and Kane took me in. Made me his apprentice, even.”

“They must have had a reason. Men like that always do.”

Dontin shrugged again. “Maybe. But I don’t think so.”

Shayel put her hand on his arm. “I’m sure they did, you just don’t know what it is yet,” she said. “You’re not like them. You’re such a gentle soul, I can tell. Men like that, they’re dangerous. They could get you killed. They’re so calloused to the horrors of the world, they can’t see the difference between right and wrong.” She paused. “Between man and monster. You shouldn’t be with men like that.”

Dontin stared at the two men in front of him, old Kane with those eyes that seemed to understand everything and share nothing, and the solitary Foxx with so much darkness and anger. And then he thought about how quick they both were to protect him. To protect each other.

“I think, maybe, they didn’t start out that way,” he finally told the woman. “I think maybe the world forced them to be something they didn’t want to be.” Her eyebrows wrinkled together and Dontin thought she looked uncertain about something. “Why haven’t you tried to run away from us?” Her mouth fell open at the suddenness of his question.

“I’ve heard what happens to people who get on a summoner’s bad side,” she said with a shudder. Dontin looked at her and found her glaring at Foxx’s back so fiercely he half expected flames to break out on the man’s clothes. “I’d rather go along with your healer’s deal than risk that.” Her voice softened and she looked back at him. “Besides, you remind me of someone I knew.”

“Who?”

“My son. Actually, you look so much like him, I thought you were him at first.”

“Is he back in the town? With the soldiers?”

“No. He died years ago. He and his father were both killed in one of Hethron’s attacks.”

Dontin could hear the pain she felt, and suddenly her strange interest in him made more sense. He even found himself feeling sorry for her.

“I’m sorry,” he said. She took a deep breath.

“I’d do anything to have him back,” she choked. “I never got to say goodbye. Watching you, it’s almost like I’m getting a few more moments with him. I suppose that makes all of this a bit easier.”

“He was lucky, to have a mother who loved him so much.”

“That’s what mother’s do. We can’t help but love our children.”

“Mine didn’t.”

“I’m sure she-”

“No, she didn’t. Both my parents wished I had never been born. They wanted a better life and blamed me for not letting them have it. I think they would have killed me if they thought they could get away with it.”

Shayel gave him such a look of horror that might have laughed, if the memories of the beatings weren’t still so fresh in his mind. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “No child should have to live like that.”

“I wish they had been more like you,” he blurted, and instantly wondered where the thought came from.

Without saying a word, she stepped in front of him, took him by the shoulders, and then suddenly wrapped her arms around him, squeezing him tight, but only for a moment. When she let go, he felt tears warming his eyes. His parents had never hugged him. No one had. Not once.

“On behalf of all good mothers, to apologize for what yours did to you,” she said.

-*-*-*-

Previous chapter

Next chapter

XII – The Phantom (NEW)

•September 30, 2017 • 1 Comment

pexels-photo-475160

Author’s note: After struggling for several weeks to move this story forward, I came to realize that there were some fatal flaws in chapter 12 that had turned my character and plot development slightly off course. Rather than continue with a chapter that wasn’t what it needed to be, I’ve decided to rewrite it. The major plot points here are largely the same, but the details and point of view are different, so I encourage readers who already read the old chapter 12 to read this version before moving on to chapter 13. In the interest of being honest about my writing process, and the fact that this is all a first draft, I am not unpublishing the original version of this chapter. Instead, I’ll simply be applying a strikethrough to all of it and adding a note of explanation there as well. Enjoy, and as always, feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments.

 

Shayel sat quietly in the corner while the men discussed when to make their escape. The summoner wanted to wait until darkness to avoid being seen by the watchmen outside the house and the patrols along the town’s edges. Kane’s logic won out, however. With the bustle of soldiers and townsfolk during the day, it would be easier to blend in, he said. Assuming they survived that long.

She kept her promise and remained quiet, for now, at least. The summoner was right; she would scream the moment she got within sight of any soldier. All she could do right now, however, was watch and listen. The commander would want to know every detail as soon as she got back.

She watched carefully as they went about their preparations. The men worked quickly and quietly, packing sacks with an efficiency that suggested they weren’t unfamiliar with their task. The boy limped about with less confidence. She couldn’t help but stare at him. The differences were more clear now, although she still saw her son beneath the bruises. The healer spent most of his time carefully packing a box  – a double-strapped contraption meant to be worn on one’s back – full of potions, herbs, and varied other medicinal items. Shayel wished she knew what each one was; they hadn’t discussed where they planned to go, and knowing what he was preparing for could help the commander track them. The summoner remained a threatening force. He carried himself like a cornered animal, and his heavy build would make him dangerous to just about any soldier. Too often, he glared at her, dark eyes promising a dark end. She shuddered.

Besides Kane’s medicines and basic necessities, they had bundled a handful of books and more short blades than she cared to count. They even gave one to the boy, not that he was in any condition to use it. After the healer replaced the boy’s bandages, he finally approached her, a folded cloth held in one hand.

“I am deeply sorry for this,” he told her. “But you must understand. We need to ensure your cooperation.”

He pressed the cloth over her nose and mouth and gripped her head with his other arm so she couldn’t escape. She grappled with his arms, trying not to breathe whatever he had put on the cloth, but his hold on her was surprisingly strong, and soon she began to feel lightheaded. Instinctively, she sucked for air through the fibers.

“I promise, this is only temporary,” he assured her. His voice was oddly soothing, but it did little to slow her rising panic. Her throat was tightening on its own, so much so she couldn’t take a breath. She was suffocating.

And then the healer removed the cloth and air rushed into her lungs. Still, her throat felt numb.

What did you do to me?

The words wouldn’t come. She had spoken them, hadn’t she? Her hand flew to her throat, confusion and understanding mingling. She tried to speak again, but there was nothing but rushing air.

“You won’t be able to make a sound until I give you the cure,” Kane told her. He had stepped back, and all three of her captors were watching her intently. “Try to escape and you will never speak again.”

The summoner turned his stare to the older man, his brows drawn together. “This is -” Kane waved him to silence without turning his eyes away from Shayel. Her eyes darted from the healer to the summoner and then back again as a new realization took her. The letters she had written for the commander. His search for a weapon against Hethron’s monsters. The commander had spoken several times of silencing the summoners. This – whatever the healer had used on her – might not be the poison King Graidon was searching for, but it could help. She looked back and forth between the two men again. But if this healer had the power to silence a man, why hadn’t he silenced the summoner? Why wouldn’t he turn him in to the commander? Could the healer be just as much a hostage as she was?

“Do you understand?” Kane asked her. She gasped for her voice once more and then nodded. “Good. Then let’s go.”

They gathered their supplies and snuck out the back of the house as quietly as possible. The summoner dragged Shayel alongside him, his grip on her arm so strong she was sure it would leave a mark. The narrow alley was empty, but the street it opened onto was far from it. Teams of oxen and horses hauled logs and wagons every direction. Nearby, the army builders were nearing completion of their watchtower. Others were pounding standing torches into the ground along the street that would light the entire edge of the town once darkness fell. Depressed and dirty townsfolk wandered among them, some herding children, others leading skinny animals. A small group huddled together near the tower, watching the men work. Some had been recruited to help chop down the trees nearest the road. The healer led them out of the alley, directing them all to follow him, keep their heads down, and act as if they were on some mundane mission; hopefully, he said, anyone who saw them would think they were a family, not prisoner and captors. They wove between the people, gradually working their way to the side of the road nearest the trees, and when the underbrush was close enough, they all darted into it. If anyone saw them, no one raised any alarm.

They quickened their pace considerably once they had the cover of the trees. The soldiers were focusing their patrols on the town streets and open spaces and their progress here was unhindered. The summoner led them through the underbrush, still forcing Shayel along by the arm. He paused every so often to peer through the trees, get his bearing, and adjust his course. No one spoke.

He stopped in a place with nothing to distinguish it from the rest of the forest and shoved her toward Kane, finally releasing his grip.

“Keep moving. I’ll catch up when I’m finished,” he growled.

The healer hesitated. A breeze moved through them with the sound of a whisper, sending a cold chill through Shayel’s shoulders. She glanced at the others; it seemed they felt it, too.

“Too late,” the healer replied. Still, he took Shayel’s hand and pulled her a little farther away. “Remember,” he said to her, his voice dark, “no cure, no voice. Ever. Stay close.”

The summoner muttered something that sounded like a curse and quickly crouched down, resting both fists against the ground. His deep voice bubbled with strangeness when he began to speak, a delicate, intricate, elaborate sound that contrasted sharply against his normally rough speech and demeanor.

“Appari tauma omlea, phynesa, phyneses, toh vocaiso phynensa! Appari tauma omlea, toh vocaiso bostrainsa!”

He repeated the words again, and again, and a fourth time. Each time, Shayel felt the same chill. With the fourth repetition, thin smoke rose from around the old fallen leaves beneath the summoner’s fists. It swirled up around his arms, tendrils of blood red mist weaving into the darkening grey. A hiss echoed around them, circled them, transforming from a whispering wind to a ghostly laughter. Shayel’s heart thrummed in her ears, but she couldn’t look away. The smoke swirled up around the big man, enveloping him then separating to a twisting cloud of red and grey that slowly took horrible shape. Its body was that of a skinned dog, but as big as a horse. Its feet were like skeletal hands, each appendage ending in long, scythe-like claws. Its neck rose like a snake, weaving back and forth in a poisonous sway. The head was long, narrow, and bony, with wide black voids where its eyes should have been and sickly daggers for teeth. Reptilian fins splayed across the ridge of its eyes, neck, and spine, and a whip-like tail lashed back and forth through the air where it circled, lashing through tree trunks but not damaging them. At every angle, red-grey smoke dripped from the figure, leaving swirls of stomach turning mist everywhere it turned.

She tried to scream. She felt the terror grip her chest and her jaw and the breath pour between her teeth, but there was no sound. She had heard reports of what summoners could do, but she had never witnessed it herself. This horror before her was nothing like the reports she had heard. Kane had grabbed her by the shoulders and tried to turn her away from the specter, but she couldn’t look away. She was frozen by fear and panic. The whispering sound grew louder, and the summoner’s pet fox jumped onto the man’s hunched shoulders, crouching and snarling at the phantom that circled them. The summoner spoke in that strange language again, and his voice sounded strained.

Appari tauma omlea, toh voicaiso bostrainsa! Sa eisteso!” The invisible laughter rolled around them again. “Toh eisteso!” The laughter was louder now, and the phantom circled around the summoner with impossible speed, coming to a stop mere inches from the man’s sweat-drenched face.

All Shayel could hear was that ghastly whispering and laughing as the summoner stumbled, caught himself, and rose again to face the phantom, but the bulky man seemed to hear something else.

“Try me!” He snarled and lunged forward, as if he could grab the smoke in his arms by force. It merely shifted out of reach, laughing more. It swirled through the trees again, circling all of them. As it swept past Dontin, it suddenly stopped, turned, and pushed its deathly face close to his.

The whispering changed to an airy hum as its hideous face swayed back and forth, investigating the boy through its eyeless sockets. Suddenly, Shayel saw her son again, his eyes wide in surprise as a spear pierced his belly and pushed out the other side. No! She tried to break free of the healer’s grasp, tried to run to the boy and push him out of harm’s way. Not again! But Kane’s grip was too strong. He wrestled her back under control.

“Let them be, your business is with me!” the summoner yelled. “Toh eisteso! I have need of you.

The phantom sped back to the man, circled him two, three, four times, then poised above him in a threatening stance. It hissed, and the summoner crumpled to the ground, sweat dripping from his skin and breath coming in quick lurching movements. The little red fox snapped and growled, still clinging to its master’s shoulders. The phantom regarded it, offered a short hiss in response, and swirled around again to the boy with the same airy hum it had uttered before.

“No!” The summoner reached one hand toward the boy, but he was too weak to stand. Too weak to do anything but watch.

The phantom pushed close to the boy and whispered. The summoner cried out, desperately reaching toward them.

“Toh attoraso!” he cried, but the phantom just laughed and swirled around the boy, ignoring the man who had called it forth. It simply hummed and whispered at the boy, weaving its head back and forth, red and grey smoke pulsing and building intensity as they wrapped in smoky tendrils around his thin frame. Tears rolled hot down Shayel’s face. She could do nothing but watch this boy, his eyes wide and fearful as her son’s had been, as he faced an unjust death. As he looked his murder in the face. She felt Kane try again to turn her away, but she fought back, locking her eyes on the child. The summoner yelled something and tried to regain his feet.

There was a moment. A heartbeat of silence, when everything stopped. And then, the boy’s fear fell from his face and he uttered a short string of strange words.

“Toh attoraso. Toh eisteso.”

The phantom’s hissing fell to a lengthy sigh, a breath of ease that silenced the chaos that had surrounded them just moments before. The phantom shifted backwards, swirled in a circle, then rushed forward, crashing into the boy, enveloping him, filling him. And then the boy crumpled, lifeless, to the ground.

The forest disappeared. All Shayel could see was the boy, blood dripping from his eyes. Her son, coughing up blood as his eyes found her, too far away to save him. She couldn’t tear her eyes off him. He was gone. He’s gone….

Slowly, their surroundings came back into focus. Kane had let go of her and rushed to the boy’s side. The summoner, the monster who had brought this upon them, was trying to crawl to his feet.

“Dontin! Dontin, boy, wake up!” Kane was urging the fallen youth. Dontin didn’t respond. His head and arms flopped in the healer’s grasp. “Damn you, man, what have you done to him?” he shouted at the summoner. The summoner – the monster – shook his head and found his feet with the help of a tree. She didn’t care that he looked as shaken as Kane was.

“It wasn’t meant for him. It was meant to be me. Kraika.” The last part was spoken to himself. It sounded like a sort of curse.

“You killed him,” she heard her own voice, trembling, barely controlled. “He was just a boy and you killed him!”

“He’s not dead,” Kane answered, but quietly. “He breathes. Barely.”

The monster stumbled over to them and fell to his knees beside the boy.

“Gods be….” he muttered. “He did it.”

Kane glared at the bigger man. She recognized the expression. His eyes burned with rage, barely contained, just like she could barely contain her despair. “Did what?”

“He bound it.”

“That’s not possible. You’re the summoner, not him,” Kane growled. “That thing tried to kill him.” The summoner just shook his head, balled a fist and turned away from them.

A new sound carried through the trees sent both men to cursing. Voices yelling, voices of military timbre. The soldiers must have heard their yelling and now were searching for them. Hope swelled her heart at the thought that her captivity might end, and that this monster might soon be executed, as he deserved. That, under her commander’s care, this boy might not be yet another victim of a summoner’s evil.

The summoner spat, climbing back to his feet and tossing her a hateful glance.

“What are you doing?” Kane asked, still holding Dontin on the ground. “There are too many to fight. We need to hide. You’ll have to carry him.”

The summoner didn’t answer. He planted his feet, his back to them, and held his arms out wide, beginning again that strange language he had spoken earlier.

“Ervidit!” The ground hummed beneath her. In front of the monster, fallen leaves and soil shifted, rose up, and formed tall shapes. The shapes elongated, forming narrow legs, bodies, necks, heads, and finally, wide antlers. Shayel realized she was now seeing half a dozen stags, real beasts, full of flesh and blood and hair. They stamped their feet, snorted and shook their heads, branches upon branches of sharpened antlers tossing back and forth. A breath later they charged off into the trees, side by side, toward where the soldiers were approaching. The next instant, the summoner had spun around, scooped up Dontin with some effort, and started jogging as best he could through the trees. Kane was quick to follow, pausing only to shove two sacks into Shayel’s hands. A sharp glare was all she needed to understand that he still expected her to follow. She clasped the sacks and hurried after, sparing only a moment to glance over her shoulder and wonder how many soldiers would be impaled by the summoner’s stampede.

-*-*-*-

Previous chapter

Next chapter

Now introducing my second blog…

•September 22, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Hey there readers, just popping in (way too late at night) to let you all know about a new side project I just launched today.

I’ve started a second blog!

I know, I know, this seems like a bad idea, since I can barely keep this one updated. But this one’s different. Not in the I-swear-I’m-going-to-post-more-often different, but different in terms of content. Trust me. I have no misconceptions about my ability to post regularly. On either site.

Veil of Shadows here is what I would call my more serious work. It’s where I put legitimate effort into creative writing. My new project is not. Here’s a little bit about it.

It’s called Nature News Observer (http://naturenewsobserver.wordpress.com) and it is not serious. At all. It is based on my real-world experience as a newspaper journalist. At least in the sense that I’m applying what I know of how to write news articles. And the photos are all 100 percent original.

So, basically, I’m writing “news” articles from the perspective of plants and animals (“nature”) and occasionally people (myself, most likely) who encounter nature first-hand. I’ve never been good at writing comedy, but I hope this project is at least mildly entertaining (“mildly entertaining” is probably the best compliment I could get for it).

So if the idea of a toad’s account of its near-death experience or a group of plants renovating a bridge or an art collaboration between beavers and humans sounds at all interesting, click on over and see what’s there.

Once again, that’s Nature News Observer. “Your most trusted source for nature news observations.”

Remai of Calrippa

•September 19, 2017 • Leave a Comment

poison-bottle-medicine-old-159296

Even through the flapping canvases shading the street, Remai felt the heat of the desert sun. Today was especially hot, and even he—who had spent his whole life navigating the sandy expanse surrounding Calrippa—felt the burden of the dense air in his lungs. Of course, he normally wouldn’t be moving about so much at this time of day. But today his work involved a foreigner, a bony man who clearly had no notion of how to survive the desert’s cruel jokes.

The man fanned himself furiously with a cheap paper trinket he had purchased for far too much coin at one of the street stalls, while trying to appear stern in the face of a muscular, leathery skinned woman blocking his entry into one of the sandstone houses that walled the streets in this part of the city. Remai knew her. Sarro was well known among the locals as a dealer of unsavory goods. The sorts of things that got people killed both in their procurement and in their use. The foreigner knew her reputation. It was why he was here, trying to pass himself off as a scholar in search of rare artifacts. Remai knew better. Clearly, so did Sarro.

The woman stood in her door frame, arms crossed and lips pressed closed. The bony man was blabbering something—nonsense, likely, but Remai was too far to hear over the street noise. It didn’t really matter. He already knew what the foreigner wanted, and his task was merely to keep watch. For now.

When Sarro finally rolled her eyes and slammed her door in the man’s face, Remai followed his target back toward the city’s center, careful to keep a certain distance and occasionally altering the wrap of his sandscarf just in case the man happened to spot him in the crowd. It was a simple trick he had learned, but one that was effective at calming a suspicious man’s subconscious.

The man finally stopped at a water house, but not the one he had frequented since his arrival six days ago. Remai knew this one, too, and he furrowed his brow in concern. Sarro was a known dealer in dark things, but the owner of this establishment was known for just the opposite. He was a peaceful old man, reputed to be the definition of honorable. Remai cursed in his native tongue and pushed forward, far closer than he normally would have. He risked being recognized by the water house dealers or even the owner, but he needed to know why this man was bringing his business here.

He ordered a single cup, sad to part with the extra coins this particular establishment warranted, and chose a seat along one wall. His target had seated himself near the center, right next to the long trough full of water that served as both a barrier between the dealers and the drinkers as well as a display of the water house’s wealth. Dealers dipped ladles in regularly to fill cups and flagons for their customers, occasionally adding bits of cactus or fruit for those who wanted some extra flavor. The bony man fidgeted at his seat, looking from dealers to customers to his own cup and over his shoulder toward the front of the water house, where thin fabric billowed in the breeze and kept most—but not all—of the sun from bearing in on the business. Remai sipped at his water and watched.

He watched until the bony man reached into a shirt pocket and withdrew a small silver vial he kept mostly concealed in his palm. He watched until the man opened the vial and, at a moment when the nearby dealers had turned away, flicked the entire thing into the trough.

For just a moment, Remai was frozen. He hadn’t seen this vial before. He didn’t know what it would do to the people here. His job was to watch, to know everything this man had and did, but he hadn’t seen this. And now he had to act. He whispered a silent prayer for his wife, took a deep breath, and stood.

“Everyone out! The water’s been poisoned! Don’t drink the water!”

His shout called the eyes of every dealer and drinker in the house upon him. It was unusual for one such as him, and it likely meant he would never be able to do this sort of work again. His heart was pounding, and he stared directly as his target. He might as well. But the others mostly just muttered in confusion, staring at him and then looking around to see if anyone was heeding the warning, trying to decide if they should give up such a precious drink on the shouts of a stranger. A pair of dealers were making their way towards him with the look of those intent on neutralizing a disruptive customer. Remai shouted again, repeating his warning, and adding one more detail as he pointed straight at his target.

“That man just dropped something in the water. Look!”

The dealers, now unsure, followed his finger to the bony man, then peered into the trough. Remai breathed a sigh of relief when one spotted the vial at the bottom and shouted to the others to stop serving and to clear everyone out. The foreigner’s eyes were full of fury. He stood and pushed through the crowd, escaping through the fabric flaps and out into the street. Remai followed, but he had been seen. The moment he stepped out into the sun, two sets of heavy arms grabbed him and pulled a canvas bag over his head.

Remai whispered another prayer for his wife. He hoped she could forgive him. He hoped she understood.

 

Super quick survey!

•July 22, 2017 • 2 Comments

I’m hoping to get some feedback before moving into the next few chapters of The Summoner. Here’s a super quick survey to gather some of your thoughts. I would REALLY appreciate it if you all can help me out!

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/VHB67NT

XII — The Phantom (OLD)

•July 22, 2017 • Leave a Comment

pexels-photo-475160

Author’s note: After struggling for several weeks to move this story forward, I came to realize that there were some fatal flaws in chapter 12 that had turned my character and plot development slightly off course. Rather than continue with a chapter that wasn’t what it needed to be, I’ve decided to rewrite it (see the new version here). The major plot points are largely the same, but the details and point of view are different, so I encourage readers who already read the old chapter 12 to read the new version before moving on to chapter 13. In the interest of being honest about my writing process, and the fact that this is all a first draft, I am not unpublishing the original version of this chapter. Instead, I am simply applying a strikethrough to all of it.

 

Dontin worked as quickly and quietly as he could, packing the bandages, herbs, and ointments he would need for his wounds over the coming days. The supply wouldn’t last long. They would need to travel light, taking only what they could carry. Luckily, Foxx could carry quite a weight and seemed to be willing to do so. They stuffed one sack full of dried food, another with light blankets, rope, a few wooden bowls and a small cookpot. Kane fussed over a leather box, a double-strapped contraption designed to be worn on the back while keeping the potion bottles inside from breaking. Dontin didn’t know how much of his collection he intended to take with them, but from the sounds of it, he was wishing he could take it all. Foxx strapped his knives to his belt and Kane did the same, although Foxx’s blades looked more like they were meant to pierce flesh, while Kane’s were likely meant for plants. Foxx handed one of his smaller blades to Dontin with a grim look, and Dontin took it slowly. He knew what the older man meant. Chances were, he’d need to use it.

The woman – Shayel, she had said her name was – sat on one of the cots in the corner, eyes wide and darting as they moved about. But she kept her word and stayed quiet as she had promised. Dontin wasn’t sure if her obedience came out of fear or out of her peculiar interest in him. It was odd how she stared at him, abhorrent and fascinated and desperate and full of sadness and longing all at once. He looked away quickly and tried to ignore her.

Foxx sharpened blades and sulked mostly in silence. Kane fussed over Dontin’s wounds, giving them a fresh coat of salve, clean bandages, and a thicker outer layer he claimed would help protect the wrappings in the woods. He made sure Dontin’s sack held a trio of leather-bound books, tomes that were supposed to help him in his studies. If they survived long enough.

Foxx had wanted to wait until darkness to leave, so they could better escape the notice of the watchmen outside and the patrols along the town’s edges. But Kane’s logic won out. With the bustle of soldiers and townsfolk during the day, it would be easier to escape notice. At night, they would stand out if anyone were to see them.

Finally, it was time. They gathered their supplies and snuck out the back of the house as quietly as possible. Foxx pushed Shayel in front of him, keeping his hand over her mouth to ensure she didn’t betray their exit. The narrow alley was empty, but the street it opened onto was far from it. Teams of oxen and horses hauled logs and wagons every direction. Nearby, the army builders were nearing completion of their watchtower. Others were pounding standing torches into the ground along the street that would light the entire edge of the town once darkness fell. Depressed and dirty townsfolk wandered among them, some herding children, others leading skinny animals. A small group huddled together near the tower, watching the men work. Some had been recruited to help chop down the trees nearest the road. Kane led them out of the alley, directing them all to follow him, keep their heads down, and act as if they were on some mundane mission. Foxx dragged Shayel behind him by the hand; hopefully, anyone who saw them would think they were a couple, not prisoner and captor. They wove between the people, gradually working their way to the side of the road nearest the trees, and when the underbrush was close enough, they all darted into it. If anyone saw them, no one raised any alarm.

They quickened their pace considerably once they had the cover of the trees. Luckily, the soldiers were focusing their patrols on the town streets and open spaces and their progress was unhindered. Foxx took the lead then, still dragging Shayel. He paused every so often to peer through the trees, get his bearing, and adjust his course. No one spoke.

Finally, Foxx stopped. There was nothing to distinguish the spot from any they had just trekked through, but he set his sacks down and glared at the rest of them.

“Go on without me. You shouldn’t be here for this.”

“I told you, we’re better off together,” Kane answered.

“I can’t guarantee you’ll survive.”

“We will.” Kane’s voice darkened to match Foxx’s. For a moment, the two men stared each other, as if Kane was daring the younger man to challenge him. If there was a challenge, it went unanswered. Foxx snarled and turned his back.

“At least give me some space.”

Kane ushered Dontin and Shayel several steps away, behind a few nearby trees. He stood in front of them.

A tingle ran through Dontin’s shoulders and jaw when Foxx began his task. The big man crouched low, resting his fists on the ground. His deep voice bubbled with strangeness when he began to speak, a delicate, intricate, elaborate sound that contrasted sharply against his normally rough speech and demeanor.

“Appari tauma omlea, phynesa, phyneses, toh vocaiso phynensa! Appari tauma omlea, toh vocaiso bostrainsa!”

He repeated the words again, and again, and a fourth time. Each time, Dontin felt a chill reach deeper into himself, tugging at the pit of his stomach with more and more force. With the fourth repetition, a thin smoke rose from around the fallen leaves beneath Foxx’s fists. It swirled up around his arms, tendrils of blood red mist weaving into the darkening grey. A hiss echoed around them, circled them, transforming from a windy sound to a dark laughter. Dontin’s heart thrummed in his ears, but he couldn’t look away. The smoke swirled up around Foxx, enveloping him then separating to a twisting cloud of red and grey that slowly took horrible shape. Its body was that of a skinned dog, but as big as a horse. Its feet were like skeletal hands, each appendage ending in long, scythe-like claws. Its neck rose like a snake, weaving back and forth in a poisonous sway. The head was long, narrow, and bony, with wide black voids where its eyes should have been and sickly daggers for teeth. Reptilian fins splayed across the ridge of its eyes, neck, and spine, and a whiplike tail lashed back and forth through the air where it hovered, lashing through tree trunks but not damaging them. At every angle, red-grey smoke dripped from the figure, leaving swirls of stomach turning mist everywhere it turned.

Beside him, Dontin was vaguely aware that Shayel had screamed. It should have deafened him, her terror should have shocked him. But his eyes were locked on the creature before him, and on Foxx, now panting heavily, trying to get to his feet. His pet, the little red fox, had jumped on the man’s shoulders, and it crouched there now, snarling at the phantom that circled around them. Foxx spoke again, and Dontin could tell the words were strained.

“Appari tauma omlea, toh voicaiso bostrainsa! Sa eisteso!” The invisible laughter rolled around them again. “Toh eisteso!” The laughter was louder now, and the phantom formed an impossibly quick circle around Foxx, coming to a stop mere inches from the man’s sweat-drenched face.

“You think you can bind me?” It laughed again. “Twice before you tried and twice before you failed. You are not strong enough to bind me!” The voice seemed to boom through the trees. Foxx stumbled, caught himself, and rose again to face the phantom.

“Try me!” He snarled and lunged forward, as if he could grab the smoke in his arms by force. It merely shifted out of reach, laughing more. It swirled through the trees again, circling all of them. As it swept past Dontin, it suddenly stopped, turned, and pushed its deathly face close to his.

“Hmmmmm?” it hummed. “You’ve brought your friends this time, weakling.” The face swayed back and forth, investigating him through its eyeless sockets.

“Let them be, your business is with me! Toh eisteso! I have need of you.

The phantom sped back to Foxx, circled him two, three, four times, then poised above him in a threatening stance. “NAHRO! Toh retaraiso!” It hissed, and Foxx crumpled to the ground, sweat dripping from his skin and breath coming in quick lurching movements. “I should kill you for your insolence. Kraika!” The little red fox snapped and growled, still clinging to its master’s shoulders. The phantom regarded it, offered a short hiss in response, and swirled around again to Dontin. “But this one intrigues me.”

“No!” Foxx yelled, reaching one hand toward Dontin, but too weakened to stand.

“So eistesa?” it sounded like a whisper, but Foxx must have heard it also.

“Toh attoraso!” he cried, but the phantom just laughed and swirled around Dontin, ignoring the man who had called it forth.

“You could say the same words, unrea. Say them, and you may yet be able to save your friends.” The laughter was a low rumbling constant now, vibrating through Dontin’s mind and shaking his senses. For a moment, he recalled his dream, the image of his deformed parents rushing at him, bony fingers outstretched to kill him, to drag him with them. The phantom staring into his face now hissed again, but this one was full of glee, not danger. “Say them.” The red and grey smoke pulsed, the colors building intensity as the beast wrapped smoky tendrils around him. Dontin’s throat stuck, his heart stopped, his couldn’t even think of closing his eyes, though they were flared wide in the face of this monster. “Say them.” The suggestion resonated along his spine, tingled in his jaw, echoed through his mind again and again until he lost sight of everything except the smoke drenched skeletal figure of death before him. He thought Foxx might be yelling something, but he couldn’t hear. Kane was nothing more than a blurry white figure somewhere in his periphery. Shayel’s panic at his side had faded away to nothing, and the void where the phantom’s eyes might have been sucked at his soul.

There was a moment. A heartbeat of silence, when everything stopped. And then the fear fell away, the paralysis that gripped his mind evaporated. The words rolled across his tongue as easily as if he had spoken them his entire life, despite not knowing the meaning of what he said.

“Toh attoraso. Toh eisteso.”

The phantom’s hissing fell to a lengthy sigh, a breath of ease that silenced the chaos that had surrounded them just moments before. The phantom shifted backwards, swirled in a circle, then rushed forward, crashing into Dontin, enveloping him, filling him. At the phantom’s touch, Dontin’s skin flared to burning pain, his mind exploded in red, and he felt the phantom’s teeth sinking into his soul, shredding at him with its claws, diving into his consciousness and ripping it to pieces. And then, his mind went blank.

*************

Shayel felt her own tears burning at her cheeks, felt the involuntary convulsion that sent her scream echoing through the trees as she watched the demon – the phantom they had called it – crash into the boy, smother him in smoke, and disappear into his screaming mouth. She had no control over the impulse, just as she had no control over the consuming terror that gripped her bowels and her chest.

She watched as the boy, Dontin, who looked so much like her own son, crumpled and fell like a corpse to the ground. Blood dripped from his eyes. Even when the phantom was gone, she couldn’t move. She couldn’t tear her eyes off of the boy, but he remained still. He was gone.

Slowly, their surroundings came back into focus. The healer, Kane, had rushed to Dontin’s side and was trying to revive him. The summoner, the monster who had brought this upon them, was trying to crawl to his feet.

“Dontin! Dontin, boy, wake up!” Kane was urging the fallen youth. Dontin didn’t respond. His head and arms flopped in the healer’s grasp. “Damn you, man, what have you done to him?” he shouted at the summoner. Foxx shook his head and found his feet with the help of a tree.

“It wasn’t meant for him. It was meant to be me. Kraika.” The last part was spoken to himself. It sounded like a sort of curse.

“You killed him,” she heard her own voice, trembling, barely controlled. “He was just a boy and you killed him!”

“He’s not dead,” Kane answered, but quietly. “He breathes. Barely.”

The monster stumbled over to them and fell to his knees beside the boy.

“Gods be….” he muttered. “He did it.”

“Did what?” Kane asked. It seemed his anger was as barely contained as Shayel’s own despair.

“He bound it.”

“How? You’re the summoner, not him,” Kane growled.

“I don’t know.” His face clenched, his eyes flared angrily at the unconscious boy. Shayel thought he might say something more, but he just shook his head, balled a fist and looked away.

A new sound carried through the trees sent both men to cursing. Voices yelling, voices of military timbre. The soldiers must have heard her scream and now were searching for them. Hope swelled her heart at the thought that her captivity might end, and that this monster might soon be executed, as he deserved. That, under her commander’s care, this boy might not be yet another victim of a summoner’s evil.

“I should have gagged her,” the summoner spat, climbing back to his feet and tossing her a glance full of hate.

“What are you doing?” Kane asked, still holding Dontin on the ground. “There are too many to fight. We need to hide. You’ll have to carry him.”

The summoner didn’t answer. He planted his feet, his back to them, and held his arms out wide, beginning again that strange language he had spoken earlier.

“Ervidit!” The ground hummed beneath her. In front of the monster, fallen leaves and soil shifted, rose up, and formed tall shapes. The shapes elongated, forming narrow legs, bodies, necks, heads, and finally, wide antlers. Shayel realized she was now seeing almost a dozen stags, real beasts, full of flesh and blood and hair. They stamped their feet, snorted and shook their heads, branches upon sharpened branches tossing back and forth. A breath later they charged off into the trees, side by side, toward where the soldiers were approaching. The next instant, the summoner had spun around, scooped up Dontin with some effort, and started jogging as best he could through the trees. Kane was quick to follow, pausing only to shove two sacks into Shayel’s hands. A sharp glare was all she needed to understand that his earlier threat still stood. She clasped the sacks and hurried after, sparing only a moment to glance over her shoulder and wonder how many soldiers would be impaled by the summoner’s stampede.

-*-*-*-

Previous chapter

So many games… so shiny!

•July 20, 2017 • 6 Comments

It’s been a few years since I’ve written about video games. So here’s a little update on some gamer related things.

What I’ve been playing

The past few months I’ve been off my game (ha. ha.) when it comes to gaming. Here are the titles I HAVE been working on.

20170622141733_1

One of the horses you can find just outside the main city.

Riders of Icarus – a free-to-play MMORPG on PC, this game accomplishes something that no other MMORPG I’ve played (and I’ve played a lot) has done. Mounts are key in this game; I’m talking full on mounted combat, including aerial mounted combat. I’m only in the mid-20s in terms of level (max being 60), but am already impressed. The story hasn’t yet been anything truly special yet, but they have created a beautiful world. Their main city has some impressive architecture and it was clearly created with thought to how people here would really live. One zone is full of floating islands and requires flying mounts both to complete story quests and to simply navigate. And each mount has different abilities; some can fly higher than others, some can fly longer distances. Players also have to actively tame their mounts, including sneaking up on them or timing a jump off a cliff to land on a wild animal’s back. It’s really quite fun.

Injustice 2 –  I’m playing this one on PS4, and have completed the main story. I’m not very good at this game, but it really is a lot of fun, and with the difficulty set low, it’s playable even for people like me who aren’t good at fighting games. The graphics are beautiful, each character has a unique body style, and the moves are both entertaining and thoroughly destructive. I also really enjoyed how the story plays, and only wish there was more of it. I’ve tinkered at lots of fighting games before, but this is the first one that really made me WANT to keep playing, and the first one that I’ve been able to start to learn actual combos. For someone who was exclusively button-mashing, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.

Pokémon Moon – I took a long break from this franchise after getting about halfway through Sun on 3DS. I had a digital copy of Moon I had been sitting on forever, and finally pulled that up and have been halfheartedly progressing there. I’m a bit tired of Pokémon, to be honest. I was late to the game and started playing just before X and Y came out. I’ve played SoulSilver,White2, X and Y, Alpha Sapphire, Omega Ruby, and now pieces of Sun and Moon. And sure, it’s fun to try to “catch ’em all,” but I find it’s the same story (hey kid! go catch pokémon and stop the bad kids and save the world and become the ultimate champion!) over and over. I’m looking for something new from the developers, something more mature and more complex. I know I’m not the only 30-something playing these games, and I’m sure there are plenty of others who would love to see a version of this game that acknowledges that. Not to mention, I’m starting to feel bad about beating preschoolers all the time.

Legacy of Discord-Furious Wings – Ugh. This is a mobile game. The only mobile game I actually got obsessed with for a bit. It’s technically free-to-play, but good luck being competitive that way. Lots of pay-to-play events. What’s really cool about this game is that it merges a lot of things from several different games (primarily Blizzard games) into one experience. It moves and feels a lot like Diablo or Devilian. It has pets that help you fight, player wings that improve your stats and look cool, other wings that supposedly let you “fly” (it’s a bit of a gimmick). You can go on solo quests, join a guild, fight other players for plunder or in deathmatch. There are PvE dungeons and Heroes-of-the-Storm-like PvP team games. There are bracket-style guild wars and 1v1 PvP arena matches and world bosses. I played for a couple months and just couldn’t do it anymore. The game itself is actually a lot of fun. Until people start dropping hundreds and thousands (seriously not joking here) of dollars so they can smash everyone in their path. It became a chore and an exercise in futility, constantly logging in for certain events with no hope of actually accomplishing anything beyond barely keeping up. I played longer than I should have, but only because of the one thing that somewhat redeemed all this…. the people. Like many MMOs, you get to talk to people in real time. My guild was a pretty good one; we were the #2 guild on our server after battling our way up from pretty much nothing. I fought with people from several countries, including Argentina, Brazil, and I think even Russia somehow. Some didn’t speak any English, and I had a lot of fun working with Google Translate to figure out how to communicate. I never ever thought I would write to someone in Russian, but I did. I felt horrible leaving everyone behind, but I just couldn’t take the game anymore and had to let it go. Still, I’d love to see an honest developer use some of their ideas to make a game that didn’t require so much investment.

Diablo III – I’ve been on a Diablo hiatus for several months now (I play on PC), but hopped in briefly a few days ago to test out the new Necromancer class. I’ll probably get more into this one again once the new season starts.

What I’m looking forward to

AssassinsCreedGames

I have them… I just haven’t played them….

I watched a bunch of the E3 announcements last month and, although I was mostly unimpressed with the news, there were a few things that caught my eye. Assassin’s Creed Origins seemed intriguing, although many of their games have caught my eye in the past and I still have yet to give them an honest playthrough.

I’m beyond excited for Monster Hunter World, and while playing on PS4 is tempting, I’m a little more inclined to wait for PC, just so I can play side-by-side with a certain someone without having to buy a second PS4 and another TV.

The other big thing from E3 I’m excited about is Anthem. The reveal was beautiful, and I’m intrigued at what this game could be.

Those games are all long-term, though, and I do have a few games on my bucket list for now. First is probably Breath of the Wild on the Switch. I’ve watched my one and only play this and I’m looking forward to diving into the newest Zelda game myself.

Ark: Survival Evolved is due to go into its full release on August 8, and that’s a game I’m hoping to return to once the final version goes live. I’ve played several hours on PC while it was in open beta, and really, really enjoy it. I’m hoping I’ll still have the ability to host a private server, since I don’t exactly like seeing other players destroy or disrupt my creations and/or tames. I might consider a PvE official server, but we’ll see. I also like having the entire island to myself and a small handful of other people. But the primitive survival aspect combined with building and creature taming is something I’ve actually been craving quite a bit lately.

I’m also considering ponying up for Ever Oasis and Rime, but haven’t yet made up my mind on those.

What about you?

Have a favorite game you’re playing now or something you’re looking forward to? Let me know in the comments!

An inspiring and overwhelming week

•July 15, 2017 • 2 Comments

Real me here again.

I’d like to add some content variety to this blog. Yes, I want to share my fiction and tell my stories. That won’t stop. But I’m also hoping to include semi-regular updates on the reality of my work and life and how things are going. If that’s alright with you. You can let me know what you think of this concept in the comments down below. But for now, I’m just going to do it.  🙂

The past week has been an interesting one. I’ve done a hefty amount of thinking since becoming unemployed. I’ve spent hours upon hours trying to find a new job, and I’ve spent hours upon hours indulging my need for rest and entertainment. I hadn’t spent nearly enough time working on my writing, or on this blog, however. Not until this past week.

This past week, I shifted my main focus to this. To writing, to creating, to sharing my work. I’ve made an effort to post new thoughts daily or every other day on my Facebook page (if you haven’t checked that out, I post more commentary on my daily writing efforts/struggles/thoughts, so it’s not just a bunch of links back to here, although those happen too). I’ve been trying to write something, whether it’s The Summoner or one of my three other novel projects or a journal type thing (like this!). I’ve spent more time than ever reading other blogs and finding other bloggers whose voices I enjoy reading.

And in just one week, I can see the efforts are working. Here are a few numbers. On my Facebook page, my post reach in the past week is over 255 people, and there were 45 “post engagements” (and I know, these aren’t the best stats to view, but they’re currently my best ones, so let me have my happy moment here). Here on WordPress, I had the second-best view rate I’ve had all year, with 36 views and 20 likes on my various pages. The numbers on their own aren’t impressive, I know. But considering that this year alone, I’ve seen seven weeks with zero views and seven MORE with just one view in an entire week (yes, that’s 14 weeks out of 27 so far with zero or one view per week), I see this as a pretty big win.

So I’m pretty excited. Yes, I’m excited over double-digit analytics that, in reality, prove only that my circle of readers is extremely small. But I’m excited that it’s growing, and I’m excited to see that the effort I’m putting in isn’t entirely wasted.

I could digress into the need for writers to focus on little victories like this one, but I’m not going to. I’d rather not pretend I actually know anything about what I’m doing here, because in reality, I honestly probably don’t. Instead, I’m just going to give a quick summary of what’s happened. Beyond the numbers.

So. This week, I managed to post two new chapters of The Summoner (YAY!). As well as a personal commentary on writing challenges. You can find those posts here (chapter X), here (chapter XI), and here (commentary). Three posts in one week! I can hear the angelic tones of amazement already.

I discovered a talented composer, Peter Gundry (petergundry.wix.com/petergundrycomposer or @PeterGundryOfficial on Facebook), thanks to YouTube. This music helped me get into the needed mindset for working on my chapters. It’s exactly the sort of sound I think fits perfectly with the fantasy genre, and since it doesn’t have lyrics (at least none that I’ve heard so far), it allows me to keep up my own mental imagery without getting distracted by another artist’s narrative. And if, by chance, Mr. Gundry happens to see this, THANK YOU and your music is beautiful!

I’m also delving into the use of Creative Commons Zero licensed photos to add more visual content here. Currently liking PEXELS, so you might see some of those pop up here and there. Like this one.

building-joy-planning-plans

I’ve been watching the television show “Reign” on Netflix (original network is The CW). Beyond being simply entertaining for someone who really enjoys castles and horses and swords and political intrigue and love stories and a little bit of magic and mystery and history wrapped into a cozy little burrito, this has been a great escape. Not to mention, it does help me think more in terms of a less technological world, and shows me details I too often forget about in my writing. I’m currently into season 3. When I’m not watching that, I’ve been going the superhero route with another CW show, “Arrow.”

Not all my writing this week has gone live on this blog. I’ve written several pages of a more modern fiction, something I’ve been mulling about for about five years. This week, I finally figured out a proper sense of direction for it.

My reading life has taken a bit of a hit, what with me spending more time on my own work this week. A few weeks ago I breezed through Paul S. Kemp’s “The Hammer and the Blade” and started on “The Iron Ship” by K.M. McKinley. While I was really enjoying this one and really want to see where it goes, I’ve just been distracted and haven’t gotten very far into it yet.

Today I kicked off my blogging efforts with a roughly 90-minute webinar all about trying to help writers, especially bloggers, grow their audience and develop a profitable platform. It was interesting, and there are ideas that I may toy around with in the future. For now I’d like to keep pushing myself to just keep producing content. Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep engaging. Considering I haven’t yet been able to make a habit of that long-term. I’m also a little hesitant to throw my whole blog onto the advice of a guy who spent at least one third of his time talking like those old TV infomercial sales hosts (you know the ones – buy now for the one-time price of… but wait, JUST for you, RIGHT NOW, that price is lower… and there’s more, get X, Y, and Z, a $$$ value, FREE! But only if you buy NOW, and don’t worry, we have a payment plan ……… ). Maybe they still do that on TV. I don’t really watch live TV anymore. But I don’t really trust anyone who tries to sell me something RIGHT NOW, or any “fantastic deal” that goes away the moment the salesman turns his back. Anyway, I digress. Sorry. Point being, there were some interesting marketing points that probably bear some future research. Key word being future.

So yes, it’s been an encouraging week. But, as the title of this post suggests, it’s also been a bit overwhelming. Or maybe intimidating is the better word. I could easily spend the bulk of my available time each day working on this blog. And I would LOVE to. But I also need to do other things. Vacuum up the accumulating cat fur, for one. Or keeping the kitchen counters clear enough so I don’t need to spend 10 minutes cleaning before I can make that oh-so-precious cup of coffee at the moment I need to be writing a scene I’ve been detailing in my mind for the past day (yes, that actually happened. Yesterday). And the screen fatigue is real, too. So I’m feeling excited, yes, and eager to continue, but also a little daunted at the task ahead, and wondering if I’m really up for it or if my traditional character flaws will win out, yet again.

If you have any reflections, commiserations, advice, anecdotal evidence, jokes, or whatever, please do share it in the comments below. I’d love to hear what you think!

XI – Capture

•July 14, 2017 • 1 Comment

Shayel watched the old man leave, watched Galligan’s posture slump as soon as the door closed.

“Would you really have him executed?” she asked. It wasn’t her place, she knew. They weren’t close, and she had no rank to warrant getting involved. But sometimes, he would allow her to comment on his interactions. Privately, she suspected he even welcomed a chance to share his burdens.

“Order must be maintained. If we tolerate even one man to defy us, the whole town could shift. And we can’t afford to deal with any sort of uprising. Not now.”

“But we need him. Even if he doesn’t know anything of Bane.” Galligan responded by rubbing his temples. They had a handful of healers in their camp. Ancients, really. They had picked up a few here and there in the few small communities they had crossed since landfall. Those they had brought with them from the start had already died, victims of a quick-spreading influenza that had lightened their ships of dozens of people out in open water.

“You think he won’t come.” The commander sighed. Shayel glanced over her paper and pulled up the memory of the man they had just propositioned. He was an old man, as he had claimed, but in truth, if he joined them, he would be the youngest healer they had. He seemed intelligent, well-spoken, but not particularly strong. And he was simple. As  simple as they would have expected of any remote village healer. She considered it lucky that he had traveled even as far as Bursat, that he at seemed to at least know something of the conflict they faced. But his eyes had flared, just a little, at being ordered to join them.

“I think he is loyal to his people here,” she answered. “I think he understands what will happen to them when we leave.”

She had never witnessed it herself, being attached to the army as she was. But she had written all too many orders. Homes would be raided and emptied of anything useful. Food would be taken. Livestock. Weapons. Any man, woman, or child who could be of use to their camp – either as paid workers or as slaves. When they left, anyone left behind would suffer. They would be too old, too weak to survive on their own. The town would die. She swallowed her horror every time it happened, forcing herself to mimic Galligan’s expert, cold poise. It was necessary, she knew. Everyone would have to make sacrifices if Arbania was to win this war. Or even survive it.

“He will obey, or he will die.” Galligan’s hard words put a hard end to his moment of openness. Shayel tucked her head down, her own sign of obedience.  He would not tolerate any more of her opinions on the matter. “A message for the king.” She traded her charcoal pencil for a quill and ink and smoothed a small, narrow sheet of parchment before her. “To King Graidon, ruler of Arbania, from Galligan, commander of the 15th battalion. Fourteenth day of the first summer moon. We have halted our march at at small town called Myra. I am attaching a map with our completed route and current location marked, as the town was not marked on any of our maps. The town was taken without battle and claimed for His Majesty, although sentiment is poor. I believe it to be close enough to our objective to serve as a temporary rear base command for forthcoming operations. Fortifications are underway. Requesting supply lines overland as local resources are insufficient. Locals are experiencing famine due to poor harvest and disrupted trade routes. Extra food from the king would likely engender goodwill toward the crown and minimize future domestic conflict. Scouts are surveying our approach. Expect another update in five days time. I await further orders regarding our advance. In loyal service to the crown.” His dispatches always ended with the same words, a written salute, of sorts. “Send two copies.”

Shayel scripted the message in military code she had memorized long ago, a script that would be nonsense to anyone outside the upper ranks of Arbanian military. She inked a second copy and dusted both with a fine sand powder to keep the ink from smudging and folded each in half so the script was hidden inside. She added a second strip to each, these bearing tiny maps of their route and current location, rolled them together into a pair of tightly wound cylinders and dripped dark green wax – the color of the 15th battalion – over the end to keep it closed. She pressed a tiny seal into the ends as the wax cooled, marking it as official communication from her commander.

“Is there anything else, sir? I hoped to explore the town later, if I might have your permission.”

“Nothing more, thank you. Take the day. Do as you will.”

Shayel offered a slight curtsy, her supplies gathered against her chest, and departed. The house Galligan had claimed was on the edge of town, right next to the little market grounds. They had been nearly barren when they approached the night before, but now the space was swarming with camp followers and townsfolk and livestock, as people handed over their horses and cattle to the army and negotiated their tithes and terms of their service contracts. There was no joy in the tasks. Even the supply sergeants were grim.

She turned away from the town first, into the city of canvas that had erected itself overnight in the fields just outside Myra. She wove her way around tent lines, wagons, soldiers, and workers until she reached an enclosed wagon near the center of the camp. Canvas stretched off one side of it, an awning that provided enough shelter for the bird keepers to work. Inside the boxy wagon were cages full of pigeons. She couldn’t see them, but she could hear them, their bubbling coos oddly comforting amid the tension in the camp. She delivered the two copies of the commander’s message to the handler, watching closely as he sealed them inside metal tubes and attached them to two birds, one bound to the capitol of Arba, the other to a small town just behind the battlefront. Each bird also was marked with a red string, indicating the message was for the king.

Seeing the birds safely aloft, she made her way to the large tent she shared with several other women – the wives of their army’s officers. She had once lived as one of them. Her husband had been a trusted adviser and friend to Galligan. Their son had been nearly of an age to follow in his father’s footsteps. Until Hethron’s soldiers had attacked the outpost where they lived. Until the overreaching king had robbed her of both her husband and her son in one thoughtless blow. Now she steeled herself every time she had to enter the communal tent, bracing herself against the memories, against the hope and love these women held for their husbands as they washed and mended their uniforms. They lived here during much of the day, doing whatever work they could to support the men while staying out of military business. But at night they would each disappear to their officers’ tents to warm their men and leaving only the widows and the abandoned women to their shared shelter.

Shayel avoided the tent as much as she could. She slept there and stowed her things in a box under her cot. But she took her meals alone and outdoors whenever the weather allowed. She spent most of her days working for the commander. She was grateful to him for her post, both for the solitude it offered her and for the occupation. With no family and no home to go back to after Hethron had destroyed them both, Galligan had offered her employment as his personal scribe. She was a skilled writer and had done similar work for her husband, although men of Galligan’s rank rarely allowed women into such a delicate position. She suspected he offered her the position to honor her husband, his friend. But they never spoke of it.

Her writing tools stored, she walked back into the town. It had been weeks since they had landed on the rugged shores east of here, weeks more since they had departed the port at Arba. They had passed small settlements along the way, but nothing of this size. Shayel shook her head at the thought. Myra was not a town of size. It was a collection of a few dozen buildings with rough dirt paths that barely deserved to be called roads. Still, it had been reported that there was a little inn with a tavern, a butcher, and even a small lumber mill. None of it sounded particularly interesting, she had to admit. But perhaps she could find a better meal at the tavern than the plain camp fare. And, she told herself, it would do her good to know where things were, especially if they were to stand post here for a length of time.

The town was, as she had suspected, uninspiring. The butcher’s shop was closed up and the lumber mill had already been put to work by soldiers who needed trees turned to beams for fortifications. The tavern was a dark and poorly kept place, and despite her hopes, the keeper there had only stale bread, a sorry smelling stew, and watered down ale to offer for her copper coins. She watched several soldiers come and go while she ate her lunch, most refusing the inadequate meal and grumbling on their way out.

After she finished her meal, she made her way to the northeastern part of the city, where camp builders were erecting a stout watchtower. The roads through, around, and out of the town converged there, and the forest stretched out along the town’s edge. The tower would offer guards a vantage point of anyone entering or leaving Myra, as well as a view of the town itself. A similar tower was being built on the other side of town, where guards could see far over the fields there as well as the army’s own encampment. She found herself a perch on a sheltered pile of firewood along one of the buildings and watched the men work for a time. Once the builders finished, she would need to climb the towers to draw her own maps of the town for Galligan.

Not far from where she sat, she spotted a pair of guards, one leaning back against the shaded side of one house, the other sitting, apparently resting, on a stack of felled timber. Then the one got up, meandered to an alley between buildings, and lounged there. The other walked across the street and seemed to find something interesting to inspect. She chewed her lip at their odd behavior. Soldiers often lounged around the camp, but any in the town now should be on duty of some sort. When they shifted again not too much later, she realized their task. They were guarding one of the houses, but discreetly. A casual glance wouldn’t arouse any suspicion, at least not to any of the townsfolk. She took a closer look at the house they watched. Like all the homes here, it was small, made of a mix of stone, wood, and daub, with a small room perched on top of the main level. Its window shutters were closed, and there seemed to be nothing special about the place. It was likely the healer’s home, she thought. He would be the only man here worth guarding.

A new thought crossed her mind, one that made her hold her breath a moment. Galligan needed healers. And he needed peace. Perhaps she could convince the healer to join their cause. Galligan would forbid it, surely. But she had listened to him talk to his men enough, heard how he filtered information to his advantage, to convince men to trust his cause, even if he himself doubted it. She could do the same.

The guards were watching the front of the house, but her earlier tour had showed her that many homes here had doors into the alleys between buildings. She avoided the guards along the main street and walked purposefully into an alley she figured would lead behind the healer’s house. With so much activity today, no one would bother to notice a woman in common clothes going about her own business.

The alley was narrow, its edges lined in refuse and filth. The eaves of the houses were close enough to block much of the sunlight, allowing only a thin strip of bright midday light into the gap. She gathered her skirt close and counted the houses until she reached the healer’s. There was a door, as she suspected, and from here, she couldn’t spot either of the guards tasked with watching the house. She shook her head at that. Sloppy, she thought. But maybe their poor performance would save a man’s life and gain them another healer.

Not wanting to call any attention to herself, she pushed on the door and found it allowed her inside. She closed it quietly behind her and had to wait for her eyes to adjust to the new darkness inside. She was in a small, square room that smelled of herbs and ointments. She wrinkled her nose at the sharpness of it, but had to admit it was much more pleasant than the stink of the alley outside. She could hear voices above her, but the wood muffled the words. She worked her way around a little table and stools, identifying the shapes around her as bundles of drying herbs and bottles on shelves full of all sorts of ingredients. She had to gasp at it. None of the healers they had picked up had half so much medicine as this. A collection of this size would be well worth a man’s life.

An open door led towards the front of the house, to another dark and empty room. The hearth was cold, and only slivers of light entered through the shutters. There was another table here, larger than the last. One corner held a pair of cots with curtains pulled back and on another wall was a shelf bearing several books. Traveled, well stocked, and literate, she thought. Her conviction firmed. This was a man they needed with them.

The voices were louder in this room, but she still couldn’t quiet make out what they were saying. She recognized the healer’s, but there were two others. A deep-voiced man and a boy. She tiptoed to the base of the stairs and climbed a few, until she could hear the conversation.

“I’ll help you get out, but when we reach the forest I’ll be going on my own,” the deeper voice was saying.

“Why?” the boy asked. “Why can’t you stay with us?”

“I have…something…I still need to do. Alone.”

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with how we found you, does it?” the healer asked. The deep-voiced man didn’t answer. “I don’t think that’s wise.”

“It’s not your decision.”

“I’m a healer. I’m not about to let you stroll to your death just to appease your stubbornness. Whatever it is you’re trying to do here, it nearly killed you twice. Now there is an army building a wall around us. And you know what will happen if they find you.” The healer’s voice was different than it had been when he spoke to the commander. Shayel recalled his earlier conversation, when he had been a simple old man. His words had dragged just a little then, a slight slurring easily written off as age. Now his words were sharp and clear. And dark. She shuddered at the difference.

“Please don’t leave us,” the boy begged.

“What is this thing you need to do so desperately?” The healer asked.

“There’s something I came here to find.”

“What can be so important?” Silence. The healer sighed. “Then let us help you find it and we can all be out of here more quickly.”

“You can’t. I’m the only one who can.” More silence.

“Fine,” the healer said. The word sounded like venom. “Then you find it. We will help keep watch for soldiers. And,” he paused, “if this thing tries to kill you again, maybe we can stop it before it does.”

“You’re both safer away from me,” the deeper voice said.

“No, we’re not,” the healer answered. “Look at us. I’m an old man and the boy is still injured. We need you. If we’re to stay alive, we need your strength.”

“I didn’t come here to be a babysitter,” the deeper voice spat back. “I came here to collect a phantom!” He stopped quickly. Shayel’s breath caught and she fought to keep her surprise silent. This man was a summoner? This healer was colluding with a summoner? “I need to protect myself,” the deeper voice broke the silence, quieter this time.

Shayel felt her heartbeat quickening. She had hoped to convince the healer to join their cause. But if he was associated with a summoner, he was already their enemy. And a summoner, here! Galligan would need to know about this. She had read reports of what Hethron’s summoners had done on the battlefield. She had read of trees sprouting up in mere moments to form walls or swing branches at Arbanian soldiers. Of beasts and creatures appearing out of nowhere to tear men apart. Of dark phantoms that could pass through hundreds of men and leave behind swaths of lifeless corpses.

She would probably lose her position when he found out how she had learned this, but they couldn’t allow such a monster to walk free. She retreated back down the few steps she had climbed and turned around to sneak out the way she had come in. But there, in front of her now, a pair of small blue eyes glowed up at her through the dimness. Bright blue eyes staring at her from a shadowed furry shape no taller than her knees. It barked at her, a quick, exploding sound in the quiet house. She jumped back and stifled a scream at the suddenness of it, stumbling against the stairs and the wall. Heavy footsteps came from above instantly, the rushing of a heavy man dashing down the steps. A moment later, she was hauled up and restrained from behind, a heavy arm clamped around her waist and a thick, calloused hand holding her mouth and jaw closed. She kicked out of terror, but the man – the summoner – just lifted her enough so her legs flailed uselessly.

The healer appeared a few breaths later. The sense of age had completely left him, even in the darkness. He was full of trained tension. His eyes burned on her. She could feel his suspicion at the same time she saw him recognize her.

“She’s the commander’s scribe,” the healer told her captor. “And his spy, it seems.” She widened her eyes and shook her head as much as she could at the second statement. It was hard, with her head held as it was.

“We can’t let her go, then,” the deep voice behind her said. The words vibrated through her back where he held her against him. The healer pressed his lips thin.

“What’s going on?” the boy called down the stairs.

“Stay back, boy. Don’t come down here,” the healer called back. “We need to know what she knows. Let go of her mouth.”

“She’ll scream. The guards will hear her.” So they had noticed them. So much for being discreet, she thought. The healer put his face close to hers.

“If you scream, I can’t promise he won’t snap your neck. He doesn’t like to do as I say. If we let you speak, do you promise to stay quiet?” There was that venom again. She nodded as quickly as she could. The healer nodded to her captor, and the hand over her mouth loosened, cautiously. When she was silent, it fell away completely, moving to hold her shoulder instead. “Now. What did you hear?”

She was trembling, but she took as deep a breath as she could. “You’re trying to escape. With a summoner.” The grip on her tightened and the healer shook his head. “But I’m not a spy. I only came to try to convince you to join us,” she blurted. “If you refuse the commander will have you executed.”

“If she knows, I can’t let her live,” the man holding her said.

“No! Don’t kill her!” The boy’s voice reached them desperately, and he suddenly limped into sight on the steps. Shayel gasped, and tears came to her eyes.

“Mikkel?” she breathed, heart lurching with every limp he took. His face, his eyes – she saw him not in the shadowed stairwell but through her memory, a grinning boy of 14 years, just starting to put some real muscle on his bones, full of hope and full of pride as he and his father sparred with wooden swords in the outpost courtyard. And then the images mixed. Her son, growing and strong, bathed in sunlight, fell into shadow, his face now darkened with cuts and bruises, his arms wrapped in bandages, holding himself painfully against the wall on the stairs. She sobbed suddenly, the pain of her son’s death crushing her yet again. The boy before her now was not her son. She could see that now. But the resemblance was so striking….

“No more killing,” the boy said. She felt the healer peering at her in confusion, but she didn’t care anymore. Looking at this boy was too much like seeing her son again. She couldn’t take her eyes off him.

“She knows Kane lied,” her captor growled. “She’ll tell them where we’re going. She’ll get us all killed. Or worse.”

“I don’t care,” the boy responded. He was standing on the floor now. Shayel could see the little differences now. This boy was a little shorter than her son, and thinner. His hair was dark and fell in dirty strings around his face, and her son’s had been sandy, and short enough to barely cover his ears. She couldn’t tell through the shadows how old this one was, but it had to be close to Mikkel’s age when he had been killed. “No more killing,” he said again.

“We can’t let her go back,” the healer said. His tension had eased a little. Maybe it was the boy’s presence that had softened him. It had certainly softened her. “We could bind her and leave her here. The commander will have men here by morning. They’d find her then.”

“She’ll make as much noise as she can as soon as we’re out the back,” the summoner said. She didn’t like the sound of his voice. There was bitterness there, a cynicism mixed with deep hatred. It scared her. Plus, knowing what he could do….

“Then let’s take her with us,” the boy suggested. The summoner barked a sarcastic laugh.

“As if we don’t already have enough problems.”

“No, he’s right,” the healer said. He stared at her, as if by staring he could divine their future with her. “We can’t kill her, we can’t leave her here. We can’t risk her telling anyone where we’re going. We’ll have to take her with us. At least until we’re far enough away. Then we can let her go. By the time she gets back here, we’ll be too far away to track.”

“This is madness,” the summoner said. The sound came through clenched teeth. The healer shot him a look and turned back to Shayel.

“I don’t want to hurt you. Nor does the boy. Come along quietly and we’ll keep you safe and let you go unharmed as soon as we can. Resist and we may not be able to stop our friend here from taking more drastic measures to protect us. Understand?”

 

She gulped and nodded.

-*-*-*-

Previous chapter

Next chapter

X – The King’s Command

•July 10, 2017 • 1 Comment

“The peaceleaf,” Kane held a sprig of dark green leaves up for Dontin to see, “grows easily in the woods here. We use it mostly to alleviate pain.” He tore the leaves with his fingers and dropped them into a mortar. “Stronger in a salve, which is what those cuts of yours need. Godseye and dragon tooth don’t grow in these parts,” he continued, picking up two jars. One was full of rust colored powder, the other with clear, thick liquid. Both were nearly empty. “Godseye grows farther south, in the colder regions. The flowers are stunning, and their petals can be dried and stored as a powder. Just a little will keep the wounds from rotting.” Kane shook some of the powder into the mortar as he talked. “Dragon tooth grows in the northern tropics, and there’s really nothing better for helping skin heal.” He started grinding the ingredients together. “We mix them like this to release the best qualities of the dry ingredients and turn them into something we can spread on the injury.”

The resulting mixture was an off-putting greenish brown color. Dontin wrinkled his face at it. “Are you really putting that on me?” he asked.

“Yes. And you’ll be grateful, trust me. Now let me see your face first.”

Dontin obliged, letting his new mentor apply the sticky salve to his cuts. It was a lengthy process. They had removed his old bandages earlier and washed his wounds with boiled water. Kane had stressed to him the importance of keeping the open flesh clean and filled Dontin’s head with tales of rotten limbs and amputations he was sure would haunt his sleep.

Applying new salve and bandages, even with Kane’s expertise, took more time than the washing had. Dontin’s father had not held back when dealing his blows. Dontin’s body was covered in broken skin and dark bruises from his head down to his ankles. Moving anything caused sharp pains and renewed the deep soreness he felt throughout his body. By the time they finished bandaging everything up again, the sun was well into its morning arch and Dontin’s head was spinning with all the lessons involved in his own care.

“How do you feel?” Kane asked, packing away his supplies.

“Grateful for the peaceleaf,” Dontin conceded. They both chuckled, but the effort sent a spasm of pain through Dontin’s chest. He winced. “How do you remember it all? You make it look so easy.”

“You will too, in time.” Kane ran a hand through his greying hair. “I’ve had a few years to practice. Let’s get you downstairs. Foxx should have that porridge ready by now.”

They found Foxx already spooning the mush that served as their breakfast into a bowl. When he saw Kane and Dontin, he added two more steaming bowls to the table. His pet was occupied in a corner, batting at something Dontin couldn’t see.

“You know, Foxx, you may want to take a few lessons yourself. You seem to have a knack for getting yourself injured. I could teach you a few herbal mixes.”

“I’ll be leaving soon. No time for lessons.” The big man barely even looked at either of them.

“Don’t be such a grump. Dontin, boy, do you know your letters?” Dontin shook his head. “No I suppose you wouldn’t. We’ll have to teach you those, too. I’ve got medical books that will help you learn the craft, but they won’t do you any good if you can’t read them.”

The trio sat around Kane’s table, spooning mild-flavored goop into their mouths. A memory flashed through Dontin’s mind and he let his spoon drop into his bowl.

“What’s archeri?” he blurted.

Both men went still. Outside, a wind gust rattled at the window. The draft that slipped inside sounded almost like a whisper. The men looked at him, Foxx through narrowed eyes.

“You said it,” Dontin  said to Foxx. “At my house. Just before the bear attacked. What does it mean?” There was a long pause before Kane finally answered.

“It comes from an ancient language. One hardly anyone recognizes anymore. You don’t need to worry about—”

“It’s a name.” Foxx stared at Dontin, his eyes peering at him as if by locking gazes long enough he could rid himself of some unseen irritant.

“A name for what? Or who?”

“Boy, there are things in this world you don’t need to learn,” Kane cautioned. The healer gave Foxx a look of warning, and the bigger man kept his silence.

“There’s something you don’t want me to know.” Dontin couldn’t ignore his own disappointment, but years of conditioning had taught him to accept the decisions of his elders. Kane, at least, offered him a sympathetic expression, even though he did so while shifting their discussion to a new topic.

“We’ll need to find you some new clothes,” he said. Foxx turned his head downwards, engrossing himself in his bowl and shutting them both out. “I stopped by your old house again yesterday, but it looks like the fire did, indeed, burn everything.” He hesitated. “The council wants to know if you’ll be claiming your father’s land rights.”

“Land rights?”

“You are Bordin’s heir. His farm goes to you – if you want it. If not, they want to divide it up between them.” Hovering over his porridge, Foxx huffed.

“Scavengers,” he muttered.

Dontin found he was speechless. Even with his parents alive, he had never considered he might inherit the land someday. He supposed he assumed he would either escape Myra altogether, or that he would be the first of his family to die. A moment later, he decided.

“No. I never want to go back there. Let them have it.”

Kane nodded. To Dontin, he seemed relieved. He wondered what might have changed between them if he kept the land. “Hurry up and eat then. I have some errands to manage and you’ll be coming along. The walking will do you good.”

Foxx stayed at the house, windows shuttered and doors barred from the inside to keep him hidden while Kane and Dontin made their way around the village. They stopped at a weaver’s shop were Dontin was fitted with an overly large tunic and pants that would fall off without a rope belt to hold them up and legs that he had to roll up to keep from walking on the hems. They were big so he could grow into them, the woman insisted, although Dontin suspected she simply had nothing else to offer. They made their way to the market field, where a meager showing of barely a dozen wagons bearing only modest offerings. Kane negotiated for new food supplies mostly – grain, oats, flour, a basket of limp looking string beans, a moldy brick of white cheese, and various other items, none of which looked particularly appetizing to Dontin. One seller tried to sell them half-blackened and shriveled corn kernels, which Kane quickly rejected, opting instead for a bundle of dry cobs and leaves. One man was attempting to sell cuts of meat off a cow carcass that was buzzing with flies and clearly maggot infested. Kane whispered to Dontin as they approached, pointing out the signs from the corpse that the thing had died of starvation several days ago, and that the meat was already rancid. The smell of it nearly made Dontin vomit. As Kane spoke with the man, Dontin wondered how often his own parents had sold spoiled crops or rotted meat to their neighbors. He wondered how many had been desperate enough to buy it. Kane refused any meat, but bartered for the strands of hair off the poor beast’s tail. Once boiled, he explained to Dontin as they walked away, the strands could be used to mend clothing or even wounds.

Kane went about his business with little attention for his apprentice save the occasional comment about one product or another. That was fine by Dontin. He watched quietly as his new master discussed prices for the goods he purchased. At one wagon, for a sack of potatoes now Kane promised to treat an ailing husband later in the afternoon. For a few spotted onions he offered a bundle of his own dried herbs, packed neatly in his sack. One man parted with a small jar of honey in exchange for Kane’s help reading a letter from a distant relative. Most of the goods Kane packed into their sacks he purchased by trading his own skills, although he did negotiate in copper coins for the string beans. With each trade, Dontin’s sack grew a little fatter, and he started to see the value Kane assigned to things. The healer haggled most over the beans; the farmer had been stingy from the start, and Kane nearly walked away three times before they settled on a number and he grudgingly produced the matching amount of copper. The potatoes had been the easiest. Kane had hardly even addressed how many of the soft, wrinkled things he should receive in exchange for healing the woman’s husband, almost as if he didn’t care about the potatoes at all. And, their dealings done, Dontin looked back on the market field and realized that the healer probably hadn’t cared. They had traded at every single wagon. Somehow, Kane had managed to help or pay every single one of the sellers there.

Their final stop was at the home of Sellof, the head of the town’s council of elders. Kane had Dontin wait with their sacks in the street while he went inside to talk. He waited nearly an hour, doing his best to ignore the furtive glances the townsfolk sent his way and the mutterings about his battered face. To pass the time, he tried to repeat the morning’s medicinal lessons in his mind, staring at his purple hands and trying to remember their treatment.

When Kane finally emerged from the house, he handed Dontin a bulging pouch that jingled as it changed hands.

“What’s this?”

“Payment for your land, courtesy of the council fund.” Dontin stared open-mouthed at the pouch. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get them to pay more. The war, the lack of food, there’s little room for generosity, I’m afraid.” Dontin kept staring at the pouch. His parents had never allowed him to handle any coins, but even they had never managed to collect this much all at once. He blinked and closed his jaw finally.

“I assumed they would just take it. They could have.”

“No sense in that, boy. Coin’s worth little these days, but it can still prove useful on occasion.”

“I wouldn’t have known any better.” Kane’s eyes were sympathetic as he tsked at him.

“We’ll work on that, too. Keep that tucked away where it won’t be grabbed.” But instead, Dontin held it out at arms length toward his master.

“You should take it. As payment. For my learning.” The words came out in a rush, but Kane waved him away.

“Nonsense. It’s yours by right.” Kane squinted at him. “Besides, you’ll earn your learning, don’t worry. I’ll have plenty of hard work for you to do. Again.  Put that away.” Kane turned his back, hefted his sack to his shoulder and walked away. Dontin shoved the pouch deep into his pants pocket, lifted his own sack and hurried after.

They had nearly reached Kane’s house when the rider appeared. He was a young man, layered in dirt from dry fields and kicking relentlessly at the sides of his mule, which still wore its plow harness. The man’s voice pitched high as he yelled, galloping down the streets.

“Soldiers! Soldiers are coming!”

*************

The troops had hardly needed to do anything to lay claim to Myra. Several dozen men on armored horses had ridden through first, swords bared. Behind them had marched a detachment of foot soldiers with spears and thick, smoking torches. When none of the townsfolk offered any resistance beyond distraught stares and a handful of screams, they routed out the residents of the largest home, set up guards around the village perimeter, patrols along the streets, and a city of tents in the fields just southwest of the village. It was all done by nightfall, with the army’s commander, a stern, tall man in green uniform, riding in as the sun fell across the horizon He delivered a perfunctory speech in front of his newly acquired quarters to the folk gathered there – which, as Kane noted, included most of the town and several nearby farmers.

Kane had watched from the back of the crowd, Foxx and Dontin both safely hidden at the house. The commander’s words had been straightforward. He was Galligan, commander for King Graidon of Arbania. He declared they were all now subjects of the king and their land now united to the rest of Arbania. Those who wished to take up arms against Hethron and his Macrean armies, to defend their homeland, would be welcomed and provided with food, clothing and weapons, as well as a monthly stipend. Anyone who fled would be hunted down and executed as enemies of the king. Anyone who resisted would be executed as enemies of the king. Soldiers would protect the village, and in return for their efforts, they would accept a percentage of each man’s harvest, goods, or income, to be negotiated by the army’s quartermaster. All horses, mules, and cattle were to be delivered to the market grounds the next day, in order to support the king’s efforts. Any who refused would be executed as enemies of the king.

With each sentence, the mood among the townsfolk fell further toward despair. They were already on the edge of survival. The commander’s edicts might as well have been a death sentence to anyone unable to join his ranks. By the time the uniformed man retreated into the house, all hope had fled Myra.

Kane watched his neighbors slink away into the shadows of their homes and wondered how many would kill themselves in the night. The commander’s words had been firm. Unrelenting. There were more soldiers than villagers. No one here had a chance of fighting back. They would either become soldiers or camp followers or they would die.

Kane, however, saw something his neighbors couldn’t have. The people here had lived apart from the world for generations. They hadn’t seen war. He had. And he understood what was happening. Arbania and Macrea had been at war for more than a year, but this army was well away from the primary battle lines. They had approached from the southeast, where there was nothing but small isolated farms and communities too small to warrant even a name until one reached the ocean. He saw tired soldiers with lackluster expressions and poorly kept uniforms. And the commander’s demands, so unrelenting, were the sort one would impose on a city won by siege, not an unresistant, starving town. He watched the soldiers a little longer before returning home, confirming his suspicions. This was an army on its last legs. An army that was desperate. An army that couldn’t afford defiance. And that made them all the more dangerous.

The pounding at his door the next morning came as no surprise. He had told Foxx and Dontin the commander’s orders that night. Dontin had gone pale – impressively so, considering how colored his wounds were still. Foxxx had darkened and disappeared to the upper room he and Dontin shared. Kane knew the man’s worry. Those such as Foxx had paid the biggest price in this war. He suspected it was why the summoner had been on the run in the first place. But healers were also being rounded up on both sides of the warfront, and his neighbors wouldn’t hesitate to tell the soldiers his name. When morning came, he made sure Foxx and Dontin kept quiet in their room, and then he sat in front of a cold hearth, waiting. He would have to find a way to get them all out of Myra. Soon. Assuming he survived the day.

The soldiers’ pounding shook the door on its hinges. Kane opened it with little delay, finding two spear-laden soldiers who scanned first him and then the empty room behind him.

“Kane the healer?” one asked.

Kane considered just for a moment denying his identity. But he forced the thought away. There were too many people to confirm it. There would be no denial that would spare his life today.

“I am.”

“You have been summoned by Commander Galligan. Come with us.”

He followed wordlessly. One man led him through the streets while the other followed. The only things missing are the manacles and chains, he thought. Around them, soldiers patrolled the street while camp followers ran about and townsfolk made their way to meet with the quartermaster or surrender their livestock. Not far from the house, where the road slipped off into the forest to the north, a crew was felling trees and preparing what Kane assumed would be some sort of guard post. Wagons full of supplies and tools were being hauled to various parts of the town to set up defenses and convert the little community into an effective military operation. All of it was bathed in a light drizzle that, under normal circumstances, would do little other than cut down the street dust. But now, combined with the excess traffic, it was turning the streets into swaths of sticky mud. Maybe it would also liven the crops enough to get by. Kane hoped.

His armed escorts led him to the house requisitioned by the commander the night before. They ushered him inside and one held him in the entry room while the other disappeared through another door. After a moderate wait, he was led farther into the house and found himself in a room with a large desk. Galligan sat on its opposite side, fingers tented and sharp eyes watching Kane’s approach. A woman in her middle years sat in a corner behind him, discreet, with charcoal pencil poised over parchment on a folding desk that perched above her knees. The rest of the room was a mish-mash of items – sturdy chests lined neatly against one wall, several pieces of the previous owner’s furniture shoved out of the way against the other walls.

Galligan waved one hand and Kane’s escort backed out of the room, closing the door on the three people left inside. But the commander didn’t speak right away. Instead, he stared at Kane. The healer stared back, keeping his composure calm, his demeanor decidedly aged. He allowed himself only a quick glance away from the uniformed man to observe the woman again. She hadn’t moved, but her eyes darted between him and her commander.

Galligan was younger than Kane, but he was not a young man. The wrinkles around his eyes and mouth marked the stresses of a grim life more than they did advancing years. Even seated, he made an imposing figure, with broad, thickly muscled shoulders, a straight back and hands likely calloused by the extensive use of the sword. There was cold steel in his eyes, too. Best be careful, Kane decided.

“Do you know why I’ve called you here?” the commander finally asked.

“I can’t say I do.”

“King Graidon issued a decree that all healers were to report to the nearest garrison. Do you recall such summons?”

Kane did recall. He recalled balling the parchment between his hands and tossing it into the flames.

“Yours is the first summons I’ve had,” he answered. “We don’t get much news of Arbania in these parts. Especially with all the trade roads cut off.” Galligan’s eyes narrowed, ever so slightly.

“Are you the only healer in this town?”

“If there’s another, he’s not getting much business.”

“I’ve no need or time for levity, healer. You’d do well to keep your responses direct.” Kane knew it to be a thinly veiled threat. He felt his jaw clench and forced it to relax. “Do you have an apprentice?”

“No.”

“How long have you lived here?”

“Twenty years, give or take.”

“And before that?”

“Nowhere in particular. I offered my services wherever they were needed.”

“So you are a traveled man.”

“I’ve been down a few roads?”

“Which ones, exactly?”

“Mostly the lake regions. I went to Bursat, once. Never much farther than that.”

“And what about across the sea? Have you ever been to Turamyn?”

“Never. I’m afraid my skills were never good enough to get me anywhere of note.” He allowed himself to chew his lip, just a little. Galligan’s sharpness seemed to dull, so he pushed forward. “If I may, this seems an odd bit of questioning for a simple village healer.”

Galligan sighed and leaned back, looking temporarily defeated. “Hethron employs a particular sort of weapon against us. An evil that cannot be stopped by traditional means. The king seeks a method to oppose it. A cure. The man who can provide it would be richly rewarded.”

“I can heal cuts and breaks and a few diseases, but I can’t say I’ve ever cured anything of evil,” Kane replied. “That sounds like a job for a holy man, not a healer.”

Galligan was quiet. The woman in the corner scribbled on her parchment and then was still. She had been transcribing their entire conversation. Kane wanted a better look at her, but kept his attention on the commander, who spoke again.

“Have you ever heard of a man called Bane?”

Kane pulled his brows together. “Bane?” He shook his head, confused. “No, who is he?”

“They say he was a healer who could cure a man of this particular evil.” Galligan sat upright again, the edge returning to his eyes. “I will send some men to help you pack and move your supplies to our camp tomorrow. We have plenty of men who could use your attentions.”

Kane froze. “With all due respect, commander, I am an old man. I am not fit for the rigors of war. I would much prefer to stay here and care for the people here.” Galligan’s facial muscles twitched and his expression went cold.

“The king demands healers support his troops. Would you openly defy his commands?”

“I will happily treat your men as long as they are camped here. But please, let me stay with my people.”

“Defying a direct order of the king is considered treason. And the penalty for treason is death. You have your orders, healer.”

Kane didn’t bother trying to hide his anger. He stalked out of the stolen office and back out to the muddy streets. He needed to get them all out. Tonight.

 

Conceptual map of Myra

MyraMap1

A loosely drawn map of the town of Myra.

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Oh, the many challenges of trying to be a writer

•July 8, 2017 • 2 Comments

Alright. Time for some reality here. One of the reasons I started blogging was to show that writing isn’t simple. It’s not easy. It takes work, even for those of us who love to do it. Unfortunately, from the outside, it’s easy to miss how much authors have to overcome in order to actually produce something.

Now I’m no expert. I don’t have anything on my bookshelf with my name across the cover, or even a link to something you can pick up with your Kindle. All I have are hundreds of pages of scribbled notes, sketches, and typed excerpts of first drafts and loose concepts. I am not accomplished. But I do have some experience with the struggle of being a writer. Because at the end of the day, that’s what I am, more than anything else. And the fact that I am not a successful writer means I have plenty of experience with the challenges that keep writers from turning their hobby into income.

Three months ago, I was laid off. Before then, you likely heard me talk about how hard it was to spend a long day writing for someone else and then come home and dredge up more words for myself. But as you’ve probably noticed, my output hasn’t changed drastically since then. Sure, I’ve added a few new things. But without working a day job, I should be able to knock out at least a chapter a week, right?

Probably.

So what’s the big deal? I must just be lazy, right? Again, probably. And before I go on, I want to state clearly that I own my failures. I should write every day and I don’t. I should budget my time and I haven’t. I don’t intend to sit here and make excuses for why progress has been slow. So please don’t think I’m whining. None of the reasons below are good reasons to not write. I just want to share the struggle I’ve, so far, failed to overcome.

My first challenge is a personal one. I was raised in a home that demanded a fairly high level of sensibility. We didn’t have much, so what we had had to be used wisely. Our time and efforts had to go first to the things that would help us get through life. And that is perfectly fine and good. But when I discovered my love for writing in middle school and started devoting hours a day to fictional creations, I was dealt a heavy dose of caution that urged me to keep writing, yes, but as a hobby. Not as a career. Writing was too uncertain a future. Writing could not be my priority.

Ever since then, I’ve battled that mindset that sets my writing on the back burner. In fact, I often find myself feeling that just about everything else is MORE important that writing: housework and cooking, job hunting (or, when I still had one, my job and ability to do my job); even socializing – both with those I don’t see every day and those within my own home – so often pushes writing to the back burner, where it tends to simmer and simmer as ideas that never make it to paper because by the time I’ve finished with everything else it’s either too late in the day or the water’s simmered away and I’ve run out of creative steam entirely. Because writing fantasy stories can’t be more important that the people in front of you, the cleanliness of your home, the need to satisfy an economy that has no room for those without dollar signs behind their names. Writing fantasy? That’s a hobby. That’s not really that important, in the grand scheme of things.

To be honest, that’s probably my biggest obstacle. What’s sad is that it’s an obstacle that’s entirely in my own head, one that physically doesn’t even exist. And yet, for decades, it’s lived with me. For decades, I’ve been unable to break down that wall.

Here’s another challenge: the constant flow of distractions. I love playing video games. I love watching television shows. Unfortunately, these also suck quite a lot of time from my days. Again, it’s a priority issue. Watch one fewer episode or write a few more paragraphs? Should be an easy choice, but for me it’s not. I love stories. I love going on a well-crafted journey with fictional characters. I love experiencing something beyond the walls of my apartment, beyond the mostly mundane life I live. Given the choice between enjoying something that’s inspiring and emotional and entertaining and something that feels like pushing a carrot through a keyhole, I find it pretty hard to choose the carrot.

The same goes for games. The games I like tend to be long, drawn-out affairs. Either they require a considerable amount of time to achieve anything worthwhile, or the journey is just plain long and immersive. They’re not the sort of thing I can pick up for 20 minutes and then walk away from. Trust me, I’ve tried. If all I get is 20 minutes, there’s really no point in starting. So here I am, caught in the quicksand of easy technological entertainment, and before I know it, hours have disappeared, it’s time to make dinner, or probably go to bed because it’s probably already 3 a.m. and my eyes are feeling like tiny overworked stress balls. The same goes for reading (which at least is supposed to help me as a writer), doing anything outdoors, and sometimes even just trying to see what people are sharing on Facebook.

I suppose that’s one of the downsides of having a lot of interests. I can sew or paint or draw or do needlework or work on my pitiful balcony garden or read or work on a new foreign language lesson or go take photos at a local park or figure out how to refinish that furniture sitting in the garage. There’s always something else that looks so incredibly exciting, and I really don’t enjoy doing the same things over and over and over and over and over…..

And then there’s just plain writer’s block, when I have lots of ideas, but can’t come up with a means of making them happen on paper in a way I’m happy with. As an aspiring author, there’s nothing so depressing as sitting down to write, reading the last few paragraphs you wrote and realizing you were completely uninspired. Reading something like “Dontin went to his home, where he found his mother, murdered by a strange man. His father arrived at the wrong moment, and, in a fit of rage, began beating his son, nearly to death.” Ugh. Even writing it makes my stomach turn. And I’m pretty sure none of you want to read that, even if this is all technically a first draft. So yes, I should write every day, and I don’t, because I’m afraid that writing poorly today will suck the creativity and motivation out of me tomorrow. Another mental block, I know. And one that would improve if I would just get over it, write the crappy stuff and just give myself time to improve. They say first drafts are always bad. But how does one convince oneself that the bad isn’t bad enough to warrant scrapping an entire project?

The fear hits me in other ways, too. I mentioned on my Facebook page not long ago that I recently refined my outline for a novel I’ve been wanting to write for years. I’ve tried starting it at least three times. I have a few excerpts written from later parts of the book, but I’ve yet to legitimately start writing the thing. My hope is that this idea could be my best work. Maybe. And because I have such high hopes for it, I’m afraid of starting it wrong and not being able to do it right. So instead I keep sitting on it, mulling out new ideas for this part or that part, sketching maps and pictures and jotting down bullet points for how this person gets to that place or how those politics are impacting these people. It’s like I’m perpetually researching something that doesn’t even exist yet. To be fair, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I AM getting a much better grasp on the story, and I do feel like I’m getting closer to actually being ready to start writing the actual narrative. But not yet. And the reality is that “not yet” isn’t good enough.

The last thing I’ll mention here is just plain mental fatigue. The other day I sat down with my writing journal/book/tome/whatever and it took me the better part of an evening to come up with a measly page and a half (and they’re not large pages). Sometimes, words flow easily. An idea springs to mind and the imagery just makes itself available. Those days are amazing (and happened the other night). Most days, it’s much harder to first figure out what should be happening in a scene and how to describe it. Since I write in a semi-medieval style fantasy world much of the time, I occasionally get snagged on a particular description that requires some additional research. Like Kane’s medicines. When I wrote about those, I hit pause on writing for probably a good two hours to look up medieval medicine and treatment methods. Granted, my world doesn’t adhere strictly to what we had in real history, nor does it have to, but I did want an adequate understanding of how people approached medicine in a time when not much was known about the inner workings of the body, and when technology hadn’t yet revolutionized health.

Toss in several hours of trying to assess whether this character would react in such a way, or what the next logical progression is, or trying to decide if this piece of dialogue is really important or if it just slows the whole thing down…after awhile a mind gets pretty tired and just feels the need to give up for a bit. A mind also gets tired if it spends 9 hours searching through job postings and writing cover letters, or if it is working all day to keep me up and on my feet at various tasks. Sometimes, by the end of the day, if I haven’t gotten any words down, I just can’t think enough to try. So on goes the television and off goes my brain.

Wait. One more thing. Engagement. Besides sharing my writing process with the world, I also wanted my blog to be a way to just simply share my writing. I’ve always had people read my work to get feedback. Don’t read “feedback” as “compliments” because that’s not how I roll. Compliments are nice, but honest (respectful) feedback helps me refine and improve, which is what I so desperately want to do. And when I know people are reading, it helps motivate me to give the more to read. So please, please, please – I really am literally begging you – if you enjoy reading my fiction, or if something doesn’t make sense to you, please let me know. Even if it’s just a simple “like” on the blog or one of my Facebook updates, that’s enough to clue me in that there’s someone to write for. And that can make such a huge difference when all the mental blocks and life distractions push their way in.

IX – The Healer’s Tale

•May 31, 2017 • 1 Comment

Kane closed his eyes as he closed Dontin’s door. The boy was once again asleep, this time with peaceleaf tea in his belly to numb the pain. His wounds were terrible still – several ribs had broken and he was covered in deep bruises head to toe. Plus there were all the places where skin had broken; Kane still wasn’t entirely sure he had stopped them all from festering. But he was lucky to still live. Kane could recall several grown men who had died of less. This boy – his apprentice, he reminded himself – had somehow managed to escape the worst.

Apprentice. Kane shook his head and made his way down the narrow stairs.

“You’re going senile,” he muttered to himself. True, the boy was likely as good as dead left on his own. Food was scarce these days, and few people in this isolated town would care to risk their own blood to help the orphaned son of, of all people, Bordin and Genna. Perhaps he could have tried to convince one of the mothers. He shook his head. None would have him. But as his own apprentice, Dontin would have a life of solitude at best. At worst….

The front door rattled suddenly as someone outside tried to open it. When the crossbar over it held it shut, a heavy fist landed against the wood and sent it shuddering. Kane cursed under his breath.

“Who’s there?” There was no response save for more banging. “Who is it? You can stop that racket and just tell me your name.” The pounding stopped as Kane spoke, but started up again as soon as he finished. Kane swore again, lifted the crossbar and opened the door a crack. As soon as he did so, the little red fox darted between his legs. Its master stood before him, tense features barely catching the dim light from inside the house.

“Gods, man, get inside, quickly.” Kane pulled Foxx into the house and scanned the street quickly before swinging the door shut as quickly as he could. It was too dark still to see if anyone else had seen. “The town nearly signed your execution order tonight. You’re lucky the boy woke up and told them what happened.” The crossbeam safely back in place, Kane snuffed one of the lanterns and ushered Foxx into a back room, where the candlelight he kept wouldn’t show through the windows. “I had to tell them you left yesterday. People will get suspicious if they see you roaming the streets now. Why didn’t you just tell me it was you?”

Foxx still didn’t answer. Instead, he paced back and forth. The red fox, which now sat calmly in a corner watching them, seemed less a wild animal than its master, Kane realized. Something’s wrong, he thought.

“What is it?” Foxx stopped for a moment, looking at the healer as if contemplating speech, but then shook his head and paced again. Kane watched him, more closely this time. And then he noticed the signs. The slight limp. The knot of cloth around one thigh that was starting to show red, saturating with blood. His shirt, spattered with more red – blood splatter, Kane recognized. “What did you do?”

Foxx shook his head again. Kane growled through his teeth. “Tell me.”

Finally, the man stopped pacing and faced Kane in a sudden movement. He touched his fingers to his throat and tapped there a few times, then again shook his head and fell into a chair at the tiny table between them.

“What does that mean? Why won’t you tell me what happened?”

Foxx was still for a moment. He put his fingers back on his throat and stared deep into Kane’s eyes as he mouthed two words: I can’t. Kane felt his stomach lurch and suddenly it felt as if he had swallowed lead. Mouthfuls of it.

“The hunter found you.”

Foxx nodded.

“You killed him.” Yes, again. “But…he poisoned you first.” Yes. With each nod, the summoner’s head fell lower into despair. “And now you can’t speak. Not a word.” Foxx nodded again, but more slowly this time. His eyes were full of caution now and betrayed none of the tenuous familiarity that had developed between them over the recent days. Instead, he stared down the healer with the same expression as the first time he laid eyes on him. “Nightingale.”

They regarded each other in the silence that followed. Both knew the significance of his knowledge. Nightingale was a rare drug, and one that few in the world were aware of – a drug with a very particular use. Kane understood his patient’s sudden wariness. After all, the only people who were likely to know of Nightingale were those who had fallen victim to it or those who intended to use it on a particular sort of victim. A victim like Foxx.

Without another word, Kane turned to the shelves full of medicines the lined the little room. Most were at least half empty, several were nearly spent. He picked several from their places and gathered them on a table with a small copper bowl. Peaceleaf and powdered lemon rinds, stoneseed powder, vinegar, dried seagrass and the last few drops of tiger snake venom. He added the ingredients drop by drop in the copper bowl and mixed them until the initial foam settled into a paste. Finally, he added a thick, golden liquid and just enough water to make the dab of medicine thin enough to drink. With a pair of tongs, he held the mixture in the candle flame, waiting for tiny bubbles to form. It would take some time, given the small flame. But he kept his eyes on his work; he didn’t need to see how suspiciously Foxx watched him.

“I didn’t always live in Myra,” Kane said finally, carefully tending his potion. “For a time I studied in Turamyn. An incredible city. It’s surrounded by impassable mountains on one side, empty desert on another, and raging ocean on the last. But so full of life, and riches beyond belief, not just in gold – although they’ve got plenty of that – but in art, knowledge, culture. They don’t see outsiders very often. Most who try don’t survive the journey. So, understandably, they are a cautious people. Slow to trust.

“The richest Turamyns valued secrets most of all. The man who knows your secret is your master, and you his slave, they would say. Naturally, they guarded their own secrets carefully. Some they guarded more carefully than their own lives, at least until they discovered Nightingale. Many, many years ago, their crowned prince, his father on his deathbed, saw fit to discover all his noble’s secrets, but rather than give them up, those who could afford it took the Nightingale, and even forced it upon any who might betray them. Even under pain of torture, they wouldn’t be able to reveal their secrets.”

Kane gave his mixture a quick stir and pulled it from the flame. When the bowl had cooled enough to drink, he handed it to Foxx, who eyed it as if it were poison.

“Breathe in the vapors while it’s still warm, then drink it. Don’t worry. I’m not trying to kill you. Trust me. I’ve had plenty of chances before now.”

Slowly, Foxx breathed in the little tendrils of steam rising from the liquid. His eyes closed briefly; Kane recognized it as a gesture of relief. Good, he thought.

“The prince, however, saw his nobles’ silence as a threat to his throne. Treason, even. He promised one of his desert palaces to the one would could cure Nightingale. Every healer, alchemist, spiritist, con – you name it – they all came and tried their hand. But they all failed. The prince summoned healers from across the seas to try, losing nearly a dozen ships to the waves because he was too desperate and mad to allow their captains to wait for the proper tide. Eventually, one man discovered the cure. Only, there was a catch. It only worked on those who had recently taken the Nightingale. Allow too much time, and the poison would claim a voice forever.

“Naturally, the prince wasn’t satisfied, but he had gotten at least some of what he wanted. A few of his nobles were cured. When they could speak, he had them chained, tortured until they gave up their knowledge, and executed for their defiance. When the healer found out his cure was being used as a means for torture and death, he stopped making it and refused to give up his recipe. He never got the palace, of course. The prince demanded his death, too. Some say he fled the city. Others say he died, either by royal spears or some jealous con. No one is sure what really happened to him.”

“You learned this cure from him?” Foxx’s voice was dusty and cracking, but it was at least there. Kane motioned for him to stay quiet. The potion needed more time to work.

“No. As the story goes, his apprentice had less reservations about the use of this cure. When his master disappeared, he sold the recipe on his own, to whoever would pay the highest price. And a high price it was; knowing the one formula the prince desired above all else? Whoever knew it would make a slave of the prince. At least until it became known that a cure still existed. When that happened, Turamyns turned back to more…permanent ways to keep their secrets. Within just a few cycles of the moon, both Nightingale and its cure had lost their value, as did the secret of the recipe. I won my copy of it off a drunken servant in a game of dice, and the story along with it. I’m not sure any of it’s even true, but it does serve well to keep a patient quiet while the medicine does its work.” He offered a sly little grin and looked over the bigger man – a quick healer’s check. He seemed to have relaxed a bit. “But as it seems the formula works, I suppose the story of it doesn’t much matter. We’re lucky I still had all the ingredients. A few of those can’t be found anywhere near these parts.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. You’ll want to go easy on the talking for awhile. Give your voice a chance to heal properly. You should be all back to normal in a few days at most. Now let me see that leg of yours. It’ll need a proper bandage.”

Foxx obliged, letting Kane go about cleaning and wrapping the knife cut. “The boy. You said he woke up?”

“What did I just tell you about talking? Yes. He woke up and made a timely appearance for that mob I told you about.”

“What does he remember?”

“He saw your bear. But don’t worry, he didn’t see you. Your secret is safe.” Kane paused, his face twisting in sympathy for his new apprentice. “The boy watched his father murder his mother. Can you imagine?”

Foxx didn’t answer. Instead, he stared into the candle flame.

*************

Dontin awoke back in the little room. His head felt fuzzy, like sleep wasn’t quite ready to release him. But the aches and pains of his injuries were also sluggish, and for that he was grateful. A warmth against his side shifted. He rolled his head that direction and saw a pointy red and white face with bright blue eyes looking back at him.

“He seems to like you.” The big man was nearly hidden in a dark corner of the room, sitting on an old, well-used chest, staring at Dontin. His words were gruff, and his voice seemed…dry.

Dontin kept silent, staring back at the stranger. The man he had saved, the man who had saved him.

And the man who killed my father.

The memories flooded back, flashing images in his mind of his angry mother flailing a switch at him as he went about his chores, the drunken man he had grudgingly called father, the river of curses as his heavy fists had fallen on him. He remembered the times he had tried to flee, only to wind up between them once again, too scared to stay, too scared to leave. Now he was free. And alone. Isn’t that what he had wanted all those years? The big stranger sat with his elbows on his knees, waiting for Dontin to speak. Absently, Dontin’s hand found its way to the fox, and he rubbed his fingers through its fur. What did one say to the man responsible for both his freedom and the murder of the only people he had ever known?

“Why did you do it?” The man hardly moved. “Why did you kill him?” More silence, for a long time, before he finally replied.

“A man who would kill his own son is not a man. He is a demon. He deserved no less.” There was a bite to his voice.

“You’ve known others like him?” The man regarded him carefully.

“I knew one.”

“Did you kill him, too?”

“No. But I wish I had.”

They sat in silence again. Dontin looked down again at the fox. His fingers tangled deep into the fur along its neck, and it had its head tilted sideways, blue eyes half closed but still bright beneath black rims. He watched each breath rise and fall under its fluff, focusing on the movement to slow the stream of horrors he had witnessed.

“Why did you lie about your mother?” Dontin’s mind fell still at the question. He hadn’t thought about why. He remembered her face as she fell from the other man’s blade, shocked – indignant, even – that he had dared to end her life. He remembered the murderer’s sneer as he peered down at her corpse. As if he had just squashed a fly, and its blood had smeared his boot. The man in this very room was the one that other had been looking for. But that one had murdered in cold blood, and this one….

“You saved me.”

“I killed him, too. The man who killed her.”

Dontin wasn’t sure what to do with this new information. His mother’s killer had been a stranger to him. Her death had been an afterthought in a hunter’s search for his prey. If his mother had been another, maybe he would have grieved for her. Knowing that her death had been avenged…. No. Not avenged. Neither of us sought vengeance.

“So you are a murderer, just like they said.” The stranger didn’t deny it.

“Do you hate me, then?” The shared a long stare. Dontin supposed he should be afraid of this man, a man who was bigger and stronger than himself by far, a man who had killed two people in a matter of just a few days, a man who didn’t seem bothered in the slightest by that fact. But it wasn’t fear he felt. It was sadness.

“No. The burden of another’s life is enough. You don’t need my hatred.”

-*-*-*-

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

VIII – The Apprentice

•May 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The commander slouched over his maps, fingers digging deep into his temples, shoulders slumped toward his chin. The half-burned candles threw a light through the tent that accentuated the lines and hollows of his face, making him look, from certain corners of the room, like a skeleton decorated in pressed green cotton.

Shayel was the only person who ever saw him look like this. She poured more wine into the commander’s cup, silent aside from the brief cascade of red into red. He liked it that way – no speech, no rustling about his things, no unnecessary movement. Often, he seemed completely oblivious to her presence, which led to moments like this one, when he seemingly forgot she even existed, allowing her and her alone to see the shadows he wore.

She returned to her corner of the tent, the darkest corner, and sat, preparing her parchment and charcoal pencil in her lap. Her timing was, as always, impeccable. Just moments later, a soldier’s voice called through the tent flaps.

“Commander. The last of the scouts has returned.”

The commander sat up at his table, squaring his shoulders and lifting his face to take on every bit of light in the room. Shayel had to stifle a grin. The transformation was incredible. Moments ago, the commander was a crumpled corpse dangling over some maps. Now, in a matter of a few heartbeats, he was a giant, with a presence like that of an arena champion. Now, there was sharpened steel in his eyes, and even sitting down he seemed the tallest man alive. In her two years scribing for the commander, Shayel never ceased to enjoy watching the change.

“Enter.” Her hand slid the pencil across the parchment, documenting each word in flowing military script. Her eyes, however, glanced only briefly at the lines she drew. Instead, she observed the interaction, prepared to annotate the dialogue with any notable expressions or behaviors she might observe.

The tent flaps swung inward and two men ducked in. One wore the standard leather armor of a camp solider and the other wore dirty and disheveled travelling garb. It was a disguise, she knew. This was a scout who expected to encounter people – people who weren’t supposed to know his true business.

“Report.”

“Sir,” the scout replied, stomping one foot and straightening into the standard salute: right fist to left chest. “Still no sign of the enemy to the north. There is a village, about a day’s march from here. It wasn’t marked on any of my maps.”

The commander waved the camp soldier, who was serving as his guard tonight, to return to his post outside, then gestured to the maps spread across his table. “Show me.”

The scout approached, scanned one of the maps and then dropped one finger down on the parchment.

“Here. It is unprotected and the people there claim no king. There’s been no battle there that I could tell, but the war has shut down their trade routes; they’re suffering, sir.”

“Could they supply us with food? Provisions?”

“Unlikely, sir.”

The commander perused the maps. North of where the scout had pointed, two thick bands arched against each other, marking two opposing battle lines. Those lines hadn’t shifted much at all in the past two years. A much narrower line traced the route they had already taken to get to their current location. Their ships had carried them along the coast from Arbania Bay to a tiny inlet on the continent’s southern bulge. Once landed, the army had trudged their way through woods and plains and around more than a few insurmountable hills, slowly making their way to a flanking position they hoped would catch their enemy unawares. The land in these parts was largely uninhabited, and their army, so far, had managed to make it this far without raising suspicion. A few terrified wilderness dwellers had died for their unwillingness to wear Arbania’s colors, but their deaths paled in comparison to the brutality bleeding across the land farther north.

But while the remote march had kept this army’s presence hidden, it also had another effect. Without towns, the army was left to supplement its food stores by scavenging along the way. The troops were tired and underfed. They had lost more than a few wagons along the way, and horses as well.

The commander had sent a plea for even one small supply route, but King Graidon had denied it. He could not risk the secrecy of their mission, he had said. That was one of the last messages from the king that Shayel had decoded for the commander.

Theirs was, she knew, a final, desperate effort to make headway in the two-year-old battle to the north: a sneak attack with a small army, arriving from the south to break Hethron’s ranks, giving the others on the front lines a chance to finally push forward and secure the lake lands for Arbania.

This village, as impoverished as it sounded, could be the vital resting point this army needed.

“What defenses does this village have?” the commander asked.

“Only a partial wall, sir, poorly made. There’s a forest on the east with a single road through it. The rest is mostly farmland on every other side, but much of it is barren.”

“And militia?”

“None that could do us any harm, sir.”

“A pitchfork pierces just as easily as a sword.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do they have healers?”

“Just one, sir.”

Shayel didn’t annotate the slight sag she saw in the commander’s chest. It disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived, and she wasn’t sure even she was supposed to know how desperately Arbania needed to find a healer with just the right kind of expertise.

“Thank you. You may go.”

“Sir.” The scout saluted again and left the tent. The commander stared over his maps again, this time marking the village’s location with a weighted bead. Shayel would need to make that mark permanent later, but for now she remained in her corner. She watched carefully as his eyes darted from one feature on the map to the next. Finally, he spoke again, this time to her.

“Orders for the captains.” Shayel flipped to a fresh piece of parchment. “Advance due north, one day’s march. Vanguard prepare to occupy civilian settlement. We march at dawn.” He waited only a breath before calling his guard back into the room. “Sergeant!”

“Yes, sir.” The guard stepped back into the tent. By then, Shayel had made the necessary copies, each bearing the commander’s codesign. She folded each, stood and handed them to the soldier.

“Deliver those orders to the captains immediately,” the commander said.

“Yes, sir.” The sergeant took the papers and ran off. Shayel rolled her earlier transcription and tied it with string. The sun had set long ago, and the scout’s report was to be the last business of the day. She placed the parchments on his table, gathered her materials and slipped out of the tent without a word. If the commander noticed, he gave no sign. His attention already was buried in his maps again. Her notes he would read later, reviewing the information of the day before either burning it or storing it away for later reference. The commander wasn’t known for being a personable man, but he was thorough.

 *************

Dontin recognized the voices before he understood what they were saying. Although he was still too young to have any the council’s ears, his father had certainly had plenty of encounters with them.

His father. The darkness of sleep thinned, but trace memories still swirled like dreams in front of his mind’s eye. His father, drunk. His father, spewing curses at his mother. His father, enraged, landing blow after blow on his own son, his eyes wide with bloodlust. His father, crushed under the jaws of a massive bear.

“We demand you turn him over to us!”

The voices resonated through the wooden walls. Dontin felt his mind lurch higher out of the depth of sleep at the angry councilman’s outburst. It was punctuated with a resounding thud of flesh against wood. Dontin groaned and rolled over. Pain shot through his body, but he tried to ignore it so he could open his eyes. He was in a dimly lit room, sparsely furnished, and completely unfamiliar.

Where am I?

“We know that man murdered Genna, and we will have our justice!”

Genna. His mother. Dontin’s head ached.

“Give it up man. We all have seen you with him. We know he’s here, now turn him over!”

“Men, please, wait. What is this talk of murder? I thought you said it was some wild animal that tore them up.”

Kane. Dontin remembered. The old healer, the burly stranger. His father, crushed under the claws of a bear. His mother, stabbed and fallen on the floor. The stranger, standing in the doorway….

“Archeri.”

He killed my father.

His father, beating him to death. Hit after hit, kick after kick, hatred seeping from each blow. The pain was still in his body, screaming through his head, his arms, his ribs, his legs.

“Archeri.”

He saved me.

“There’s been some new information, healer. Genna was stabbed. Means somebody killed her, and we can’t be having no killers here. We’ve been talking to a peacekeeper, one that knows that man you been keeping. Says he’s murdered before, and he’s been tracking the monster on his own for months. Now this peacekeeper’s agreed to bring him to justice for us. Now turn him over, or do you want to throw your fate in with his?”

The crowd of voices yelled in agreement. Dontin rolled again, wincing against the pain. He worked himself to his feet, hearing Kane lift his voice to calm the mob enough to speak to them.

“I’m not one to contradict a peacekeeper, although I’ve never known one to go so far from their cities – and alone, at that.” The mob started muttering, but Kane quieted them again. “Now I am happy to help bring any killer to justice. However, the man you seek is not here. Yes, he came to me for help. I treated his wound, and he left yesterday, as soon as he was able to travel. Please, look. You are welcome to search my home. All you will find is the boy.”

The voices became clearer as Dontin shuffled through the upper room and worked his way slowly down the narrow stairs toward the crowd below.

“The boy is here?”

“Where else?” Kane answered. “His home is gone and his parents dead. Someone needed to care for his injuries.”

“Bring him here! The boy can tell us what happened!”

“Indeed he might,” Kane said. “But he has been unconscious ever since that day. I’m afraid you won’t get much from him.”

Dontin managed the final step of the stairs and shuffled into the room, falling against the wall as he did so. His walk had been a short one, but even so, the exertion had drained him. His vision blurred suddenly and his senses faded; he lost track of the men’s talk as he tried to steady himself, but from the muffled murmurs he could hear, it seemed like no one had noticed him yet.

“Kane.” His voice was hoarse and echoed within his own ears, but he seemed to feel his senses returning. His throat felt like it was full of dirt, but he tried again, louder this time. “Kane!”

Finally the healer heard and turned to him. Dressed in his nightrobes, the old man looked silly at the front of the mob. His hair was mussed, his posture slumped and the lamplight did little to hide the dark spots under his eyes. The townsmen, however, stood fully dressed and alert, some carrying sticks, some confused at Dontin’s appearance, all angry.

No. Not angry. All scared. 

“Dontin, boy! You’re awake!” Kane rushed to him and held him up by the shoulders, inspecting his face, his arms and bandages. “Come, sit. You shouldn’t be on your feet so soon.” Kane guided him to a chair, shooing the townsfolk out of his way. “Sit here. How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine. I – I’ll be fine. Kane, my father–”

The men pushed forward, and Kane had to shoo them back again.

“Do you remember what happened, boy?” one of them asked. Dontin looked them all over while the images flashed again through his thoughts.

“There was a bear. The door was open, and – and it came in and killed him. My father.”

“And your mother, too?”

“What happened to Genna?”

The clean dressed man. The bloody knife emerging from his mother’s belly, her face a sculpture of surprise and death. The man who was searching for the one Dontin himself had rescued.

“Archeri.” He saved me.

“My father. He killed her. He stabbed her. I – I tried to stop him. He beat me. Then the bear….”

“The boy was nearly dead when I found him,” Kane said. “The blood must have attracted the bear.”

The mob shuffled around and the men mumbled to each other.

“Was that big man there, too? The one you were with earlier that day in the street?”

Dontin saw the memory again. The stranger standing just inside the door. Calm. Still.

“Archeri.”

“No. Just my father.” He felt warm drops rolling down his cheeks and suddenly he realized his whole body was shaking.

“You all have heard him,” Kane said. “The boy’s mother was murdered, indeed, but murdered by his father. The father is dead. You can tell your peacekeeper the crime has been punished. Now please, give us some quiet. I have a patient to care for. You can see he is clearly not well.”

It took a moment, but the mob dispersed, one by one skulking out into the night. When they were all gone, Kane shut the door and slid its crossbeam into place. Then, he took a seat in front of Dontin.

“I’m sorry.”

Dontin didn’t respond.

“The bear. It must have knocked over a lamp. The house was on fire when I found you. It’s burnt to the ground.”

Dontin nodded once. Kane looked at him, perplexed.

“There’s nothing for you to go back to.”

“There was nothing for me before.”

Kane offered a grim half smile.

“Do you have anyone else? An aunt or uncle? Anywhere you can go?”

Dontin shook his head. Even if there had been anyone else, no one would take him. He knew his situation. He was of that age – too young to be a man and pull his own weight, but too old to be a boy who might still learn to be useful – not worth anyone’s effort. He wouldn’t survive as a beggar or a thief, not when the village was already starving, and considering his injuries, he’d never survive a journey to a bigger town. If he even knew where one was. And there was the war. Even if he could get far enough to get picked up by an army, he was no fighter. The way things were, he would end up dead by year’s end, no matter what he did. Kane sighed, his brow wrinkled with concern.

“Well then. How do you feel about being a healer’s apprentice?”

Dontin wasn’t sure he heard the old man correctly at first, but as the words sank in, he felt the tears return. He stared at the healer, who simply stared right back.

“Why?”

“I’m an old man. You’re a boy with nowhere else to go, who needs an education. Plus, I know you have compassion. And tenacity. I saw it that first night, when you brought that man to my door. You need that, to be a healer. I think, if you can be a good student, I can teach you to be a good healer. Deal?”

Dontin nodded, his throat too tight to speak.

“Good. We can start in the morning. But now, you need to rest. Let’s get you back into your bed.”

-*-*-*-

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

A pair of short mid-night musings

•May 8, 2017 • 1 Comment

–Dancing trees–

Tonight, the trees are dancing with the rain. A branch dips, its leaves twirl around with drops of water, dodging and then merging with those tiny prisms. A branch whirls, its leaves shed their aerial attachment, sending drops of spinning off to explode in life-giving force across the earth beneath.

The trees are dancing by the light of a silent parking lot, swaying to a sonata unheard by any, but felt deep within each root and stem, sung in chorus from trunk to trunk in tones understood only by the worms taking shelter among each tree’s foundation – worms blind and insignificant, vulnerable, but oh so lucky to hear the song to which the trees dance.

–America–

I gain sight in the night

Blinded in light

Forced to live blindfolded

For the sake of “America.”

At night, my senses come alive,

But I’m told, to live, I must die,

Spending day after day

Earning wages for “America.”

What such world is this?

One man’s hell is considered society’s bliss.

To succeed? Toe the line.

Kill your hopes, kill your joys.

No room for dreamers in this new “America.”

They dare us to try,

To keep passion alive,

Just as long as it doesn’t interfere

With the needs of “America.”

But don’t think about it.

No really, don’t worry.

After all, you’ve got to be up again by 6:30.

No time for questions, no time to ask why

We’re no longer allowed to dream

Of anything more than getting by.

Don’t think about it, it’s OK.

Go to work and make pay.

What’s needed is simple:

Just give your life, the best hours of your day

To “America,” this nation of slaves.

A non-fictional update on the life of this aspiring author

•May 8, 2017 • Leave a Comment

So, it’s been a long time.

A lot has happened, actually. And, since I need to get my fingers tapping at a keyboard, here’s a quick recap of life recently.

As many of you know, I have been a newspaper journalist since graduating college. It’s been a challenging but rewarding career, as it’s taught me all sorts of things about people, life lessons, business, and countless technical and other topics. A year ago, I earned a promotion from reporter to editor, something I (for various reasons not related to my abilities) never expected I would ever accomplish. Unfortunately, that was a position my former corporate employers decided to get rid of in several locations. So now I find myself contemplating my next steps.

It has been fun realizing the benefits of being #unemployed. Things like one tank of gas lasting an entire month. Or finally catching up on sleep. Or having a schedule that actually made me forget what day of the week it was (for about a week straight). And getting to play (and finish) some games I’ve been wanting to play for years.

But really, the time off has been extraordinary. I’ve been spending a lot of time considering what I want my next career to be, and also spending a lot of time reconnecting with those personal interests that have fallen by the wayside in the past years.

I’m reading again, for one. I’ve become a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson, both for his written work and for his public presence. I just last week discovered Robin Hobb, and so far have read two of her novels in the span of four days and am now anxiously awaiting the arrival of the next two books in the series.

The extra reading has had a couple side effects. First, I’ve come to realize I can’t just casually read a book. I. Must. Devour. All of it. At once. That’s one of the the things I both love and hate about reading. I can get sucked in so completely that I barely notice how long I’ve been sitting on the sofa or cycling through sprawled positions on the floor as I turn pages. I’m finding myself debating my better sense at 2 a.m. as to whether or not I should just stay up and read another hundred pages.

The other side effect is much more welcome. Inspiration. As I read other authors’ worlds, I get ideas about how to improve my own. I see how others create beautifully unique and unexpected settings and characters and realize new ways to make my own creations more robust. And, since I’m no longer spending the majority of my day dealing with journalistic writing styles, I feel that the reading is helping me recapture my own ability to truly craft words, not simply use them efficiently. Although I admit I haven’t actually been doing much creative writing in my newfound free time, I have been writing down more notes and concepts.

I’ve also been toying with the idea of launching into the world of video game videos on YouTube. I did make one video. I’ve had a couple ideas for more, but have been hesitant due to uncertainty in how much a priority I can afford to make such a venture. I think I’d rather spend more time here on Veil of Shadows.  🙂

But most of my time these days has been spent revising and re-revising my resume, writing cover letters, researching jobs, trying to network, keeping up with housework, and occasionally getting outside. Now that there’s actually green on the trees and the air isn’t trying to freeze me from the inside out.

I did write a very short bit creatively the other night though. You can read that post here.

VII – Confrontation

•June 10, 2016 • 1 Comment

Chapter 7 Confrontation

Artwork by Vanesai Xiong

For the few nights Fordrin had been in Myra, the tavern’s evening crowd had been mostly quiet – men easing the pain of their work with ale and boasting exaggerated tales of their strength or conquest under a skirt. For the most part, their banter was tedious. Useless.

He sat at what had become his usual spot, a small table near the center of the less-than-spacious room. It was not, perhaps, the least conspicuous place, but it did put his ears in range of nearly every conversation that could be had in the room. Hunched over a bowl of mealy porridge, he attracted a few furtive glances, but as of yet, no one had demanded much of an explanation for his stay there.

He sipped on his watered down ale and listened. The room was already nearly full; the owner of the establishment had passed out a few mugs to those who arrived first, but now he stood among them, his wife at his side and work forgotten. There was one curiosity; another man he hadn’t yet seen in the town. He had already claimed a table in the corner when Fordrin had arrived, and he still sat there, slowly nursing his watered down ale. His clothes were dusty and plain, and he had with him a rumpled sack that sat on the floor beside him. A common traveler, perhaps, but something about him made Fordrin pause. There was something just a little too stiff about his posture, something forced in the way he hunched over his cup. But it wasn’t the man he was looking for.

The men there sat with grim faces. One of the men, a farmer by the look of him, was growling something, his shoulders hunched. Fordrin focused his attention on the conversation.

“… slaughtered the whole bloody lot of them,” he finished.

“All of them?” another asked.

“Ever last one. Said that they belonged to the king, seeing as they were on the king’s land. Nearly slaughtered me with them just for sayin’ a word against it.” The others shook their heads. Some looked down at the table, others looked to the others, as if one of them might give them some clue as to how to respond.

“We have to do something.” That was one of the younger ones. “Our food’s nearly out, the armies have blocked all the trade coming in and they steal everything we try to take out and sell.”

The farmer spat. “And what do you suppose we’ll do? Fight?” he laughed.

“Why not?”

“A bunch of farmers raising their forks against an army? Two armies, no less!” the farmer laughed again, but it was hollow. “We’ll die.”

The younger man’s head dipped. “We’re already dying,” he said, his voice softer. “My wife is sick. My son, too weak. My daughter…”

He choked, and another man next to him offered a consoling pat on the arm.

“We’re all suffering,” one of the oldest said. “Stores are running dry and it will be moons before we can even think of harvesting any of our crops.”

“What do we do, then?”

The older man shook his head. “We  may have no choice but to ally ourselves with one or the other. Perhaps by gaining a king we may also gain food and protection.”

The suggestion left the room muttering, but that was interrupted by the tavern door slamming open and a breathless farmer stumbling in. Everyone turned to look. The man’s face was flushed, likely from running.

“Sogun?” the old one said to the newcomer. “What is it?”

“It’s… it’s Genna,” Sogun said, still catching his breath.

“Genna, yes, she’s dead. Here, sit down, take a drink and catch your breath.” The men opened a spot for Sogun at the table. He looked for a moment like he would refuse, but he obliged when they pulled him in and handed him a cup.

“Tragic accident, that,” one of the men said. “Not that I can say I’m going to miss those two.” Several nodded.

“Bizarre, though, to have an animal come all the way into the house like that.”

“I… I don’t think it was an accident,” Sogun said. The room hushed. Fordrin felt his own heartbeat quicken. Slowly, he took a breath and let it out. “My Orri, she’s wrapping the bodies. They’re both burned pretty bad, and Bordin was pure mangled. But Genna, she had this cut in her belly, like she was stabbed with a blade.” His eyes were big as he took in the shock on his neighbors’ faces, and he gulped. “I think, maybe, she was killed on purpose.”

Suddenly the tone of the room grew tense, as the townsfolk absorbed the news. A few of them muttered to each other. “Maybe Bordin finally had enough,” someone suggested. “Or maybe the boy did it. Gods know they beat him enough.”

Fordrin stifled a smile. He knew the moment he had killed the woman that it was a mistake. Leaving bodies in a strange town was bound to call unwanted attention. He had prepared to leave that night and would have, until he heard that the whole place had burned down the same day and no one suspected anything amiss. At least not  until now. He said a silent prayer that the men would accept the sensible explanation they had just been offered.

“Bordin was a drunk, not a killer,” the old man answered. “And the boy couldn’t even slaughter a goat.”

“Who else, then?” No one had an answer. Instead, their eyes darted around to the other faces at the table, suspicion growing. To Fordrin’s practiced eye, their questions were plain: could you be a killer? Am I going to be next?

“What about him?” the barkeep’s wife chimed in. Fordrin would have cursed her if he dared open his mouth. Even without looking up, he knew the whole gathering was looking at him. “Brinny say she saw him on the road over there just before. Maybe it was him.”

A few moments later, three of them sauntered over to Fordrin’s table, arms crossed. “You,” one of them said. “What’s your name?”

He looked up and feigned surprise. “Laromal,” he lied. “Is… is something wrong?”

“You’re not from around here, are you. What’s your business here?”

Fordrin shook his head. “I’m simply passing through.” He glanced past the three at the rest of the crowd watching from their table. Many, he saw, were anxious. “I had most of my provisions stolen by the soldiers to the north. I had hoped to rest and resupply here before continuing on.”

“You been asking a lot of questions for someone just passing through. You been looking for someone. Don’t think we haven’t noticed.”

Fordrin let himself grimace. “Forgive me,” he said. “I didn’t mean to arouse your suspicion. In truth, I’ve been following a man, a dangerous one.” His thoughts danced as he spoke them, weaving for himself a history that could save him and serve him all at once. “I had been a peacekeeper, until a man murdered my brother. To this day I don’t know why. I left my post and I’ve been following him ever since, trying to bring him to justice for his crime. I tracked him here.” He shook his head. “I’d hoped to locate him without causing any of you to worry. Before anyone here got hurt.”

Fordrin sensed right away that he had broken free of their suspicion. The three in front of him shuffled a few steps and turned back to look at their fellows. The rest looked to each other for guidance. Fordrin straightened his back suddenly and gasped, as if he had come to some realization.

“No, don’t tell me he’s killed another!”

“It seems so,” the old one answered. Fordrin pounded his fist on the table and swore.

“Help me find him and I swear to you this town will see justice.”

“How?” another asked.

“I think he’s been staying in the town, but he’s kept out of sight. He must be getting some help staying hidden. Have you seen anyone you don’t recognize, anyone at all? Perhaps a neighbor’s been keeping a quiet guest?”

“Didn’t the healer have some stranger with him the other day?” Glee swept through Fordin’s blood. His suspicion of the healer had been well placed after all. Several of the others voiced some agreement and in moments they had concocted enough sightings to convict a man they likely had never laid eyes on.

“Why would Kane help a killer?” the young one interrupted. “He’s only ever helped us.”

“That fool never could do his job right,” another replied, with a touch too much bitterness. Fordrin suspected that the man had lost someone under the healer’s hands. Not that he cared. The accusations were enough. The younger man’s doubt didn’t spread, and in a few more moments the rest became a mob on a manhunt, filing out the door to confront their healer.

Fordrin let his mob lead him out into the street, where a half moon threw dim shadows around the buildings. The other stranger, who had somehow managed to escape the mob’s attention, took advantage of the commotion to make his exit as well. The locals didn’t see him slip off into an alleyway, but Fordrin did. The man’s feigned slump had disappeared, and his build and rhythmic jog answered any question Fordrin had had about him. He made a mental note: military. A scout, most likely. Which meant that the armies, or one of them, at least, would soon be here. He let his grin show. With any luck, he’d be well on his way by morning, and a scout here might mean he’d get his reward sooner rather than later.

It didn’t take long for the mob to reach the healer’s home and start pounding on the door. The windows were dark, and at the first pounding, no one answered. They pounded again.

“Healer! Open up!”

Lamps flickered to life in nearby windows, but the healer’s home remained dark.

“Healer! Open this door or by gods I’ll break it down!” More pounding.

Finally, a light glowed through the cracks around the door. “Yes, yes, I’m coming,” the healer called back.

“Open up!”

“Patience, please! Let an old man get dressed!” The men outside grumbled, but they stopped pounding. A few moments later, the door opened and the healer stood before them barefoot, his hair mussed and clothes hanging loose on his body. Fordrin squinted and tried to look past the man into the room behind him, but the single lamp cast more shadows than light.

“How may I be of service?” the healer asked, taking in the sight of the crowd at his door.

“Genna was murdered, and we believe you have her killer inside.”

The old man reeled. “Murdered? A killer, here?”

“Let us in, healer, we’ll have our killer.”

“You think I would harbor a killer? Why?”

“You were the first one at Bordin’s house!” one of the men cried, raising a yell from the rest.

“Don’t make this difficult,” the first added.

Fordrin shifted around the back of the mob, trying to get a better look inside. No. Not inside. A flicker of movement caught his attention. The shadow of a man dashed away from the back of the house, across a street and toward the woods. The healer started to back into his house, motioning the mob inside. Fordrin no longer cared. While the mob shuffled through the healer’s door, he slipped around the side of the house and ran into the woods after the shadow.

Once under the trees, he couldn’t see much of where the man had gone, but he could still hear him. Branches ahead cracked, last year’s fallen leaves crushed under his weight. Fordrin grinned openly now. He’d waited long for this moment, tracking his prey from one town to the next, always just a little too far behind to actually catch the monster. Not this time. This time he would catch up.

That was a fact his prey seemed to understand, too. Fordrin heard the man stop before he saw him. He stood in a small clearing, barely big enough for moonlight to reach down through the branches. He was a bigger man than Fordrin expected. He’d heard the rumors of this one, that he was strong, but that usually didn’t matter. He hesitated though at the edge of the clearing, taking in the sight of his opponent. Even standing still, the man reminded him of a bull about to charge. His build made him look like a brute soldier. Fordrin’s thoughts flickered to the other stranger in the tavern. Had he followed the wrong man? No. His prey was calm. He understood. Brute or not, he had found his prey.

“It’s about time you stopped running,” Fordrin said, walking slowly along the perimeter of the clearing. He reached one hand behind his back, to a small pouch on his belt. Inside, his fingers felt a small wooden vial.

“It’s about time you caught up. How many moons has it been, now?”

Fordrin’s grin fell to a sneer. He paced a little closer, working the stopper out of the vial behind his back as he moved and covering the mouth with a finger. His prey stood in the same spot, only turning to watch Fordrin’s approach.

“There is one thing I’d like to know before I kill you,” Fordrin answered. “What is it, exactly, that made you decide to stop here? I’ve followed you long enough, you don’t stop. Maybe, if you’d left this place behind, you might have managed to escape again. What is it about this place?”

The man didn’t answer. He merely stood, calm, in the center of the clearing. Waiting.

“Did you think you were finally safe? That you finally lost me?” Fordrin chuckled and paced around the other direction. “Don’t tell me you’ve grown attached.” He faked a gasp. “Maybe that crow of a woman I cut – what was her name – Genna!” He laughed again. “It was stupid to put my blade in her, I’ll admit, but gods it felt good.”

The muscles under the man’s eyes twitched. There was something about that, then, but it wasn’t the reason. Not quite. Fordrin pressed on, easing his approach closer with each arcing step. “Maybe there’s something here, then.”

There. Fordrin felt it more than saw it – the sign. That sudden tension that filled the air when he’d worked out something he wasn’t supposed to be able to work out.

“There’s something here,” he repeated, more slowly this time. “And you still haven’t managed to get your abominable hands on it.” The man remained silent and still, but Fordrin knew – felt, rather – that he had it right. “What could a monster like you want so badly to get yourself caught over it?” His reward, it seemed, would have to wait just a little longer. He finally stopped pacing and faced the man. “No matter. You die here.”

“Are you sure?”

Fordrin merely smiled. The man’s muscles tightened at the same moment he took a breath. Fordrin lunged forward and jerked the contents of his vial out toward the man’s face. It was a fluid, practiced motion, timed perfectly. The man stumbled and coughed, his throat and lungs full of fine black powder. Fordrin stepped backwards, letting the dust do its work.

“Do you know why they hired me?” he asked. The man coughed over and over, occasionally looking up to glare at Fordrin as he realized what was happening. “No one understands how to stop a summoner like I do. Some say I’m better than the Summoner’s Bane himself. I’ve certainly killed more of you monsters than he ever could.” Fordrin paused. The man had stopped coughing, a bit sooner than they usually did. His breath hadn’t yet recovered, but he was standing upright again, knees bent to defend himself. Fordrin continued, watching his prey carefully.

“See, a summoner isn’t much without his voice. Odd, how so few seem to grasp such a simple concept.” He shook his head. “Lucky for me, there’s a solution for that little problem.” He tossed his empty vial off into the trees. “Across the sea they call it Nightingale. And your throat is full of it.”

What happened next caught Fordrin by surprise. He blinked once and the man had a knife in hand and was lunging at him. He danced backwards, barely in time. Even so, he felt the sting of the blade against his thigh and the warm trickle of blood that followed. The man charged again, deceptively fast considering his heavy muscles. Fordrin dodged again and dashed away, his own blade out now and slashing toward his enemy. It met open air, but it had stopped his opponent’s charge. Fordrin used the opening to put some distance between them. This wasn’t the fight he had expected. Summoners didn’t fight, not like this. They were monsters, abominations who used the unnatural to do their killing for them. Take their voices and they were as helpless as a child.

This one didn’t seem to mind being crippled. In fact, Fordrin realized, he hardly even seemed to be inconvenienced at all.

He dodged away again as a fist fell like a club just a hairs breadth away from his nose. He saw the flash of moonlight on metal and countered another slash with his own knife. As fast as the summoner was, Fordrin still seemed to have the advantage in speed. He used it to dart inside the man’s reach and bury his knife to the hilt into his thigh. The summoner grunted and Fordrin dashed away again. And then he felt his ankles crush against each other, swept out from under him by a well-timed swing of a branch.

When did he get that?

Before he hit the ground, the summoner’s fist found Fordrin’s face. Pressure and pain flooded his face and nearly blinded him, but he fought against it, desperately trying to get back to his feet if he could. He swung his blade blindly and felt it tear through clothing and skin. The summoner hardly flinched. Instead, he closed his massive arms around Fordrin’s head and started to twist. Fordrin felt the muscles and tendons in his neck straining, screaming against the force that pulled at them. He felt the bones there twist beyond their ability. He heard the pop as his body gave way to his opponent’s will.

And then he felt nothing.

A few paces away, sitting next to a tree, he saw something small as his mind faded. He recognized it. A fox. It sat there and stared at him as his thoughts fell away. Watching through blue eyes as the last of his life evaporated into the night.

-*-*-*-

Previous chapter

Next Chapter

VI -The dream

•February 29, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Chapter 6 The Dream

Artwork by Vanesai Xiong

The world lurched, upside down and bobbing one way, then the next. Dontin tried to open his eyes, but his lids would only give way to a sliver of light with dark, fleecy edges. Before the pain struck them closed again, he saw a strange shape dangling from the ground, where the sky was supposed to be. From it trickled thin arms of smoke that waved to him as it dipped and swung away. His body was… wrong. His joints felt at odds with themselves, and pain throbbed everywhere.

Darkness swirled, blocking the light and hanging like fog around him, thickening until even the disjointed sense of his body disappeared, leaving him to drift alone in the void.

His chest flared with sudden fire, ripping through his lungs. The darkness raced away and the world lurched again.

Have I been stabbed?

“…areful… … … leed out….”

The black fog swirled again, folding him into itself, severing sound and sense. Even his thoughts drifted away, as impossible to hold onto as mist. Eternities hovered between the moments. He existed, although there was nothing of himself in this place. There was nothing of anything in this place.

The void twisted and flung him back to his broken body and a pair of voices murmuring around him.

“…with me…. … … … trong… … …”

He slipped back into the void. It was a pleasant feeling, letting his body fade away, escaping the chaos of sight and sound and feeling, rejecting such tedious tasks such as breathing. The darkness welcomed him, drew him inward, cloaked him in a shell of nothing.

He drifted for a lifetime before he was interrupted. A glimmer of green appeared in front of him for just a moment. It was just a tiny speck, but it glared through the void, defying what this place was supposed to be. And then there was another, flashing off in a different direction. Dontin watched it glide along, its pink light pulsing ever so slightly and then fading away.

He yearned to follow it, but he didn’t know how to move here. Instead, he stayed, watching as, all around him, lights flickered on and off, closer and closer until he could make out their transparent shapes – candle flames and orbs for most, but some looked like long, narrow men without faces. Some watched him as he moved past them, others ignored him.

Dontin tried to focus on the glowing figures around him. There were dozens of them, in all different sizes and colors.

What is this place…

Suddenly all the figures faced him and, just as quickly, dissipated. He was once again in darkness, alone, for some time.

This must be a dream.

A pale blue light coalesced slowly in front of him. Unlike the other lights that blinked on and off in an instant, this one eased its way into form, shifting like a cloud  until it became recognizable. This one was a fox, but half as tall as he was. Its eyes were closed and it stood still in front of him, facing him, waiting for him.

The fox turned, step by step, and started walking away. It stopped and turned its head back towards him, then straightened and resumed its walk.

Follow.

The thought entered Dontin’s mind in his own voice, but it wasn’t his own thought. It was a quick pulse that entered, unprovoked, and then left him to reason with this strange new thing. The fox was growing smaller in the distance. Dontin stared after it, unsure of how to follow. He stretched his thoughts toward it and felt his sense of position change.

He eventually caught up to his blue guide, and when he did, it stopped and sat, its misty blue tail coiling around its legs.

Go.

Go where?”

There was no reply. Dontin moved forward, putting the fox behind him. He moved until the fox was nearly a speck in the distance, while the darkness around him grew heavier.

“DONTIN!”

Fear lurched through him. This was the first sound he had heard since he came to this place. It was a woman’s voice, screamed through snarling lips and dripping in hatred. It was the voice of his mother. It was followed shortly by that of his father, both of them screaming curses at him, getting closer and closer until it sounded like they were circling him – two invisible wraiths stalking their prey, paralyzing him with that deeply seeded fear they had cultivated for years.

Then they appeared. First his mother, a ragged figure of dim grey and boiling red that fell from her frame like fog. Her eyes were missing, and in her chest was a pulsing red line where she had been stabbed. Where her figure should have been smooth, it was instead rough and charred. And then his father, barely recognizable. His body was covered in deep, ragged slashes. His eyes, also, were missing, and his flesh burned.

“You did this to us,” his mother hissed, circling around him, her arms poised to grab him.

“You should never have been born,” his father added, circling him opposite the woman.

“You will not get away with this!”

“We’re taking you with us!”

“You will suffer as we have!”

“YOU WILL DIE!”

Dontin fell, trying to cover nonexistent ears and eyes with nonexistent hands as the two figures closed in on him. He could feel them approaching, cold, but laced with searing heat. And they were fast – so fast – and then the blows fell, shredding across his back one after another, simultaneously searing and freezing him as their murderous frenzy clambered toward his core.

Please, please! This MUST be a dream!

A pale blue flash circled him, and his parents disintegrated into the darkness, leaving only an echoing shriek behind.

*************

Kane recognized nearly all the faces gathered in the tavern’s back room. He was never officially invited to join the council of elders, but as the town’s only legitimate healer, his skills and knowledge often earned him a certain authority among the lesser educated folk.

Tonight, those faces around him were edged with suspicion.

“None of us know what happened there. It could have been anything. Everyone knows Bordin was a drunk and a brute.” The youngest member of the council always tried to be the voice of reason, but he was outnumbered.

“Brinny said she saw that stranger poking around over there just before it happened. You know, the one that’s been asking all sorts of strange questions. I say we lock him up and find out what he’s really up to.”

“Being a curious stranger is no crime here. The man might be odd but I don’t think he’s suspicious.”

“I’m telling you, it’s the war,” another elder insisted for the fifth time. “The war is coming, and if we don’t pick our side, these murders will only continue.”

“Maybe their boy did it. We all’ve seen how they beat him.”

“That twig of a thing? Even if he did snap there’s no way he could have done that. They say Bordin practically had his limbs torn off.”

“Remember that boy from Morriton? Skinny as my old maid and he managed to eat his mum. And you ‘member they didn’t lock him up, either, said he was too young, too weak to do something like that, and then he went and murdered half the town.”

The room started to hum with murmurs.

“The boy is innocent.” Kane’s voice was never loud, but he volunteered to speak so infrequently that it commanded the room’s attention. The elders fell silent and stared at him. “He barely made it out alive himself.”

“Eh, healer, you were there, weren’t you? What were you doing there anyway?” It was the same man who had defended the stranger, Kane noted.

“I was bringing a salve for the boy to help the bruises his mother had given him in the street earlier in the day. The place was already burning when I got there.”

“Was it you that rescued the boy, then?”

“I found him unconscious just outside the door. He had been beaten within a breath of his life but escaped the flames. I took him to my home to treat him, and he has yet to wake up.”

“What do you think happened?”

Kane let the memory play through his mind. The sounds of Bordin beating his son to death, the stranger’s foreign incantations and the massive bear that stormed into the house and made Dontin an orphan. Somewhere amidst it all, a lantern must have knocked over, or the fire must have grown out of its hearth. The flames had crawled across the floor by the time they had managed to get the boy out. It wasn’t an hour later that the town bells started clanging and people rushed over to drown the flames that had claimed it. Kane shrugged.

“It could have been anything.”

He barred the doors of his home that night. The burly summoner was sitting at his table when he arrived, fingers tracing the lines of text from one of Kane’s books as he read, but he stopped when the wood thumped into place.

“What did they say?”

Kane rubbed his temples, trying to work away some of the worry and fatigue gathering there. “They’re scared. They think it was murder.”

“Do you?”

Kane slumped into the chair opposite his mysterious patient. “What that man tried to do to his son was murder. What you did…” he shook his head. “What you did was save a boy’s life.”

They sat in silence for a moment.

“A neighbor disposed of the bodies,” Kane continued. “They’ll send a few men out in the morning to take a closer look at the place. I’m sure they’ll find some signs of your bear. That should be enough to convince them it was an animal attack. After all, we’re not the only ones starving these days. Still, it’s only a matter of time before someone starts asking the right questions. Don’t get too comfortable, summoner.”

“That almost sounds like a threat.”

Kane met the younger man’s stare. “This is a time of war. War is not kind to summoners.”

The summoner’s expression darkened. “Or healers.”

“True. But kings tend not to compel their healers to pay the reaper’s price.”

“You’ve dealt with summoners before.” Kane didn’t bother to acknowledge the statement. “What exactly do you know about me?”

“Enough.”

The summoner’s eyes narrowed and the muscles of his jaw rolled slowly under the skin. After a moment, he stood. “Perhaps it’s time I take my leave.”

“Wait.” Kane folded his hands on the table and sighed. “You have much to lose if you’re found out. In keeping you safe, I – we – may both have something to gain. You saved a boy’s life today, and for that I’m inclined to give you some of my trust. Will you stay and give me some of yours?”

“What is it you want from me?”

“Let’s start with a name.”

“I’ve had several.”

“Then I’d advise picking a new one.”

The summoner didn’t take his eyes off of Kane, but he didn’t respond for a long while. Finally, he answered.

“Foxx.”

-*-*-*-

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

V – The Summoner

•December 5, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Dontin followed his mother home, his shoulders hunched as if they could protect him from the streams of insults and threats pouring out of the woman’s mouth. He didn’t hear much of what she said, but he didn’t need to. Not anymore. He couldn’t even remember the last time she or his father had talked to him without first marinating their words in disdain and rage.

“You know your father couldn’t work all morning because he was trying to find you,” the woman was saying. Her skirts swept back and forth across the dirt road like the flail she was so fond of using on him. “All those wages he should have earned, all gone, all because of you. Do you understand what that means? Hm?”

“Yes, mother.” It meant he wouldn’t eat tonight. Even though his father was, no doubt, drinking his way through the nearest tavern rather than looking for his wayward son.

“That means there won’t be enough to pay the butcher’s bill, and how is your father supposed to work tomorrow if he doesn’t get a good meal tonight? And all the work you left behind, who do you think does that? Hm? Sprites? No, it’s me.” He hunched his back even more as she continued so that, by the time they reached their little house, a stranger might have thought him deformed.

His mother took up her switch as soon as they entered the house, laying strike after strike on his back as she herded him. Pick up those dishes. Dump out that dirty water. Scoop out those ashes from the hearth and get that fire going again. When she finally sent him outside to clean the goat pen, his back was layered in red stripes, and his shirt stuck in some places where she had struck again and again and cut open the skin.

The goat pen wasn’t large, and the buildup of excrement made the air sharp enough to burn his nostrils and bring tears to his eyes. Still, he found himself sinking down against the inside of it, grateful for the reprieve it gave him from his mother’s onslaught. He thought about sneaking away, running to the woods and disappearing before his mother could catch him and before his father came home. Of course, he had tried that before. The first time he was only nine years old and got lost, only to be brought back into town by a neighbor. Since then, every attempt had been met with failure and the inevitable return, after which he would be beaten and then starved until he submitted. And the last time, well, the last time he stumbled upon an unconscious stranger.

The tears in his eyes had started to run down his face, and he wiped them off on his sleeve as he climbed to his feet. The goats, a buck and two does, watched him warily from the opposite corner. Even they were mean, but they usually kept their distance. Dontin tried to put his plight out of mind while he scooped up their droppings off the pen’s dirt floor and filled the barrow. Excuses had never helped. After all, he had ruined his mother’s womb when he was born, and they blamed his birth and ineptitude for their poverty.

He wheeled his first load of refuse out of the pen to catch just a glimpse of his mother inviting a strange man into the house. A glimmer of hope sprung up inside his chest. His father held both Dontin and his mother to a strict rule: no one was allowed in without his say, not ever. And if his mother was entertaining another man, there was a chance he could turn his parents against each other and give himself an opportunity to escape for good. Dontin left the barrow where it was and ran as quietly as he could to the back of the little house. There was a little space there, just inside the door, where he could see most of the inside without being seen, as long as no one noticed him slip though the door. And it seemed luck was on his side. He opened the door just a crack and peeked through. He could hear his mother talking, but neither she nor her guest were visible. Dontin held the door firmly to keep the hinges from creaking and opened it just enough to slide through the gap. There was one good thing about all the missed meals, he supposed. He didn’t have to open the door very far.

Once inside, he huddled into the nook. It was a small space, filled with musty animal pelts, the larger ones hanging and the smaller ones piled in a heap on the floor. But the walls here were made of sticks, and there were enough cracks between them to see through well enough, and with no light inside the closet, anyone outside would be hard pressed to notice him.

“I need to speak with that man,” the stranger was saying, strolling idly around the main room, examining the things he saw there. He was dressed in unusually clean clothes – woolen breeches and a leather jerkin – and carried himself with careful poise. “I hear you may have some connection to him.”

Dontin’s mother smiled and rubbed her hands together.

“I’m sure I may be persuaded to help you,” she said. “for a price.” The stranger stopped and examined her.

“You know him, then.”

“Of course I do. Why, I just spoke with him today.”

“Where did he go?”

The woman opened her hands and shrugged, making a little turn so she could tidy something Dontin couldn’t see on the table behind her.

“I’m just a poor woman, sir,” she said. “Surely this information is of some value to you.” She straightened and turned back to him. “A man of your standing certainly wouldn’t miss a few silvers.”

“No, a man of my standing would not,” he said. “But a man of my standing does care to see for himself what he’s bought.” Dontin’s mother waited, lips tightening. “Tell me where he is.”

“It’s not so easy to describe, really. I would have to take you there myself, and that would take me away from my work. And if I can’t do my work, I won’t be able to provide for my family. Three silvers, and I’ll lead you right to him.”

The man took two swift steps toward her and pushed her against the table. Dontin’s mother gasped and her eyes went wide. One of her wrists was held tight by the man’s gloved hand.

“This particular man travels with a companion,” he hissed. “Please, describe that companion.”

Her mouth gaped and her eyes darted around the room, searching for some answer.

“He- ah- it’s a- there’s a – he never let me see ’em, said it was too dangerous!”

As soon as the words were spoken, Dontin’s mother froze, horror seeping from every muscle in her face. Then her head slumped backwards and her body slid sideways against the table and fell hard onto the floor like a sack of rotten potatoes. When the man turned away, there was a bloody knife in his hand.

Dontin nearly tripped over the pile of pets as he jerked backwards from the stick wall. His vision spun for just a moment and his heart skipped a beat as the shock of the murder and fear for his own life took over his body.

He squeezed his eyes shut and huddled against the wall, listening to the man’s footsteps as they circled around the room and finally left the little house, letting the front door bang when he left. Even after the man had gone, Dontin sat frozen in stupor.

My mother is dead. My mother is dead, my mother is dead my  mother is dead dead dead dead dead… The words flooded his thoughts and his memory replayed the scene over and over in his head until the reality of the closet and house around him faded and only the image of the murderer remained.

It felt like hours later that the door banging on its frame finally broke him out of the daze and another male voice shattered the silence.

“Genna! Damn you, Genna, what did you do?”

It was his father. There was no sadness in  his voice, only  rage. And it only took a moment before that rage was deflected onto his son.

“Dontin! Dontin you damned bloody coward, where in six hells are you!” A chair flew across the room, splitting into pieces where it crashed into the hearth. The burly man upended the table and screamed for his son, pounding his way around the room until he finally reached the closet where Dontin hid, his face soaked in his own tears and trembling in urine soaked pants. His father tore through the pelts and grabbed Dontin by the collar, dragged him into the larger room and threw him across the floor into his mother’s corpse.

“You had to do it, didn’t you,” the older man huffed, his words coming out like flames through clenched teeth. “It wasn’t enough to ruin us, to cheat and steal from us, you had to go and kill her, didn’t you.”

“No, it-”

“Do NOT speak, you filthy worm! This is YOUR doing, this is YOUR fault! And YOU will pay!”

He landed a massive fist on the side of Dontin’s head, leaving the boy’s vision blurred, as if he was seeing things a few seconds after they happened.

“I should have killed you the day you were born!”

Another fist crushed his stomach, and another made his ribs pop like wet wood in a fire. The blows fell like hammers all over his body, blood coated his skin and soaked his clothes. Pain was everywhere, but all he could do was sob. His muscles wouldn’t even move to shield himself. He felt himself lifted up again and thrown, landing on something hard on the other side of the room. He didn’t bother trying to open his eyes. He could still hear the heavy footsteps rushing over to him.

This is it, finally, he thought. I’m going to die. His vision started to fade, the edges of the room turning black.

Dontin struggled to hold onto consciousness as something small, red, and furry trotted up to where he had fallen, sniffed his head and shoulders and then sat down with its back facing the boy. A fluffy, white tipped tail curled over Dontin’s outstretched arm.

A guttural roar halted the beating, just long enough for the front door to shatter under another weight. Dontin’s father spun around at the sound, but before he could even lift his arms in defense, a massive bear crashed into him, teeth practically glowing in the firelight. A thick, black furred arm swung wide and slashed open his chest, and then the teeth flashed again and closed on the man’s throat.

The room was nearly all black to Dontin’s eyes, but he made out another figure stepping through the destroyed door. He wanted to scream, to warn whoever it was away. The bear was still battering his father’s corpse, twisting it at the neck. The newcomer stood just inside the door, calmly watching. Then he spoke a word, a strange word that Dontin had never heard, but in a voice that he clearly recognized. It was the stranger he had found.

Archeri.

The foreign word was barely audible over the bear’s grunting and the blood rushing through Dontin’s ears. But the bear immediately dropped Dontin’s father and started lumbering around the room, swiping at anything in reach, until it found the family’s store of root vegetables. It spilled them across the floor and ate several of them before lumbering toward the stranger. The man never moved a muscle. The bear simply walked past him, close enough that Dontin was sure they touched, and left the house just as Dontin’s sight turned completely dark. As his consciousness faded, he heard the slow shuffling steps of another person.

“You should have told me you were a summoner,” Kane said, his voice low.

“Does it change anything?” the stranger asked. Kane sighed.

“No, I suppose not.”

-*-*-*-

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Previous chapter

Next chapter

Connect and help me grow!

•September 25, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I don’t often post in my own “voice” here. I try to keep the bulk of the content on this blog focused on creative writing and the world’s my imagination dreams up.

But today I’m asking a favor. From me, the writer, to you, my amazing readers.

I love this project. I love sharing my stories. I love knowing that somebody out there actually enjoys what I create. And I’d like to share these creations with as many people as possible and to interact with those who are interested in my work. For that purpose, I created an author page on Facebook. There’s a link on the home page. If you haven’t connected with me there, please do! You’ll get to see some insights of my own — the backstage, if you will — regarding the work I’m trying to do and chime in on some of what’s going on. And, if you would be so awesomely kind, share the page or any post you think they’d like with your friends so they can give me a shot, too.

That’s it. That’s all I’m asking. Just a couple clicks. If you can’t find the link, search on Facebook for “Katrina Styx – Author”. I would put a link here but I’m posting from my phone and the links are all wonky. Gr.

Please help me grow my audience!

IV – The Stranger’s Companion

•September 23, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Kane’s lantern ran out of oil before they reached the town’s gates, but by then, sunlight was already working its way between the tree branches and the streets were beginning to release their dust to the townsfolk’s feet. Kane’s house was near the edge of town, but even before they reached it, they were interrupted.

Donty!” Dontin cringed at the sound of it, although it took them all a moment to locate the person who screamed it. “Donty, you rat, get over here, now!” A few years ago, the woman might have been plump. But now, her skin hung loose on her bones. The belt of her apron collected the extra fabric in her dress so much the seams crumpled in odd angles.

“Sorry, sir,” Dontin stammered. “I – it’s my mother. I have to go.” The words were barely out of his mouth before he ran, head and shoulders hunched, towards the woman. She waited for him in the middle of the street with her hands on her hips and a narrow look about her eyes.

“Where have you been, fool boy?” She slapped him on his ear, though if her son had stood his full height she wouldn’t have been able to reach it. Kane couldn’t hear Dontin’s reply, but it didn’t seem to do much to appease his mother. She slapped him again — harder — on the other ear. “Don’t you talk back to me, brat!”

“I wasn-” Another slap.

“What do you think you were doing, sneaking out all night,” she sneered to where Kane and his patient stood, “associating with outsiders? All the work your father and I do to give you a good home, and you repay us by –” she tossed a hand to the air. “By abandoning us! And your chores — did you think they would just do themselves? Or were you counting on forcing your father to do them for you? Well thanks to you, there’s all that work and more to be done, since your father spent all morning trying to find you, and on top of it he’s already lost another ration.” Another slap. “You can bet your boots that’ll be coming out of your portion!”

The scene had attracted a few sunken-eyed townsfolk, but most kept on their way. It wasn’t uncommon to see parents beat their children, at least not these days. Still, Dontin’s mother suddenly noticed the extra eyes. She straightened her back and jerked her son’s arm so he hunched into himself even more. She peered at Kane and his patient. “And don’t you dare be spending any time with the likes of him,” she spat. “This family doesn’t need any business with strangers.” She spit on the ground and yanked Dontin down the street. What meager audience there was dissipated as quickly as it had gathered.

Kane whistled low, so only his patient could hear it. “I suspect he’ll need some salve come morning.”

The stranger didn’t respond. He kept his head down but his eyes followed the boy and his mother. Kane thought he saw the muscles of the man’s jaw working, ever so slightly. Around them, a few townsfolk were taking in the stranger’s appearance, although no one uttered a word and most went on about their business. Kane preferred it that way. If this man was, indeed, wanted, eyes could be a troublesome thing.

“Let’s get you inside,” he said. “Come on, it’s not far.”

He set up a cot in the back room and had the stranger sit.

“Right, then, might I have a proper look at you?” The stranger grunted, and Kane took it for permission. “Let’s start with the head, hm?” He felt the man’s skull with his fingers, then the bones in his neck. He listened to his heart beat, looked in his eyes and in his mouth, but, just like before, could find nothing that indicated any illness. Had Kane not known any of what the man had already experienced, he would have guessed he was just tired. Well, he though, maybe that’s just the trick. “Wait here, I think I have something that will help.” He retrieved a small bottle from his stores and handed it to the man. “Take a good sip of that. Burns a bit going down but I think you’ll find it rather refreshing.”

The stranger obliged. Within a few moments, he slumped over onto the cot. Kane smiled and put the bottle back in its place. The mixture would give his patient several hours of uninterrupted rest, and likely a few interesting dreams to go along with it.

There weren’t so many patients to care for this day as there had been the day before, but it gave Kane a chance to work on his medicines. It wasn’t until about midday that a knock finally sounded. The man that appeared behind the door, however, wasn’t anyone Kane recognized. He was small, dressed in dark browns and black. On his wrists were heavily notched cuffs that marked him as a somewhat successful bounty hunter.

“What ails you, sir?” Kane asked. The man peered into the room.

“I’m looking for a man.”

“Ah, yes, that is a malady indeed.”

“Your neighbors tell me you took in a stranger this morning. I’d like to meet him.”

“You’re late. He’s already left.”

“No one saw him leave.”

“It’s easy to ignore a patient leaving his physician’s home.”

“You say you’re a healer?”

“Yes.”

“Was this man wounded, then?”

Kane shifted his stance to a more casual position. “Nothing serious, really. Likely just a sprain. I gave him something to help with the pain and he moved on. Why, is he… dangerous?”

The hunter chewed his lip, weighing his thoughts.

“More so than you care to know.” He squinted at Kane. “I find him here, I won’t hesitate to cut you to get to him.”

“There must be some price on his head.”

“A king’s ransom. Well worth the cost of a  healer’s head.”

“I will remember that,” Kane said. “I assure you though, I have no desire to harbor outsiders here. You’ll find our little town has had quite enough, what with the war and all, but if you’ve met my neighbors you probably already know that. Now, is that all you came to ask? I’m afraid I must get back to my medicines.” He swept his arm backwards toward the table where he had clearly been working just moments before. The hunter followed the motion and took in the details before turning back to the street.

Kane closed the door with a sigh. He didn’t believe his lies had actually worked, but they at least bought him some time. Maybe enough to get the stranger back out into the woods. He was probably safer out there anyway.

In a few steps he found himself leaning against the door frame into the room where his patient slept. A king’s ransom, hm? Dangerous? What had he done?

“What am I going to do with you?” he muttered.

Something on the cot shifted at his voice and a red-orange mound of fur lifted up above the man’s torso. It had pointed ears with black tips and a white chin under a pointed nose and golden eyes. Kane froze. It was true that some of the animals had been feeling the hunger brought on by war, and if this was one such creature, there was no telling what it might do. The fox stared at Kane but didn’t move any further. Its manner was calm, as if it was accustomed to being around humans. In fact, it appeared to be nestled against the stranger’s body. When Kane noticed that, he let his breath out.

“So, our friend has a friend of his own.”

The fox licked one side of its mouth, blinked at Kane, and settled back down on the cot.

-*-*-*-

If you missed out on the earlier chapters, you can find them here:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Previous chapter

Next chapter

A blast from the past: piece of my first novel

•September 15, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Alright. So if you read the “About” page here you know that I started writing back in elementary school and managed to write a novel before I finished high school. I recently dug it out and started reading a little bit of it and found myself so amazed I just had to share some of it here.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I AM amazed… at how bad it actually is. I even found myself skipping whole pages just because I couldn’t bear to suffer through it all.

I’m happy to say I’ve learned quite a bit since then (like how I’m not supposed to write things like “quite a bit”). So I’m not sharing this to earn any points. Really, I just thought it might be fun to share a few laughs, groans, and maybe some flashbacks for any of you who are writers yourselves. So enjoy — just don’t take any of the actual story here seriously.

Special note: I’ll be inserting my own reactions to reading this as I go along. These present day comments will appear in gold text. Like this. I guess you could use this to catch a glimpse of my editing process, but in most cases, it’s probably safe to read those with heavy sarcasm. So here goes….

She ran through a dark stone passageway, intricate carvings of horses and birds and faces etched into the stone so well that they seemed to move — eyes watched her movement apathetically (then why would they bother watching?), horses seemed to walk just behind her (but really they’re riding hover boards), freezing whenever she turned back to gauge the distance between herself and her pursuer. The stone swirled at the corners of her eyes; up ahead, the passage seemed to shift and bend erratically (not to be mistaken with the normal shifting and bending of hallways), but only when she didn’t look directly at it.

Her own bare feet slapped against the cool stone floor in rapid succession, and her loose hair flew wildly (so descriptive, young me) and stuck to the sweat on her face and neck. Behind her, she could somehow hear the silently-beating hoof beats of a galloping horse. (I can’t… even… no…)

The passage ahead shifted suddenly, and she could no longer run. A stone wall holding a carved eye as wide as the passage rose up before her. The eye blinked once, slowly, as she stared at it in horror (you know there’s a better way to describe all that). Gripping her light nightdress, she slowed to a stop (didn’t we already establish she couldn’t run anymore?) and whirled around as the silent hoof beats rounded the last bend in the passage.

An old, full-length mirror slid effortlessly (redundant) into view and planted itself before her solidly (redundant!). She stared at the glass — smooth (do many readers assume a mirror is anything but?) except for one long crack that reached jaggedly (already sick of anything with “ly” at the end) from near the top right corner toward the bottom left corner (diagonal, from top to bottom. Not drawing blueprints here). The mahogany frame was carved expertly (LY!) into a hundred winged horses who (horses are people too, you know) around and around in endless repetition.

She saw her own self in the mirror (surprise!!!) — desperate, scared. Her white (doesn’t matter) nightdress clung to her young body (whoa, now) with sweat (whoa!). Her long hair (really are better ways to convey this) fell in wet ribbons where it did not cling to her clammy skin. Behind her, the carved eye had grown bigger, and it continued to grow, advancing and intensifying (oooh, advancing AND intensifying!) its gaze on her.

Panic moved her feet, though her lungs burned and her mouth gasped for precious air to breathe (why? Is she tired from running or is she being suffocated or did she suddenly come down with asthma?) She launched herself (pew!) into a run toward the mirror as a horse leaps into a gallop from a standstill (majestic. ….). In the glass’s reflection, she watched, terrified, as the eye chased her, the pupil becoming a black hole ready to devour her (is this an eye or a mouth?) When she was close enough (to the eye??), she dove towards the mirror, her hands held before her (in prayer?), teeth clenched against the pain of screaming muscles. Her hands met the crack on the cool glass; her head and shoulders followed (crunch).

She was falling. A fierce thunderstorm raged (cliché) above and around her as she fell headfirst into lightless oblivion. Cold rain pelted (cliché) her slight frame (that’s really not as poetic as you think it is). Her heart beat like a hammer (at least it wasn’t a drum) in her throat. The furious winds (cliché) ripped a soundless scream (cliché) from her lungs.

Thunder began to roll and crack spasmodically (breaking out the big words, huh?) around her. It came from all places at once (thunder tends to be like that). The downpour thickened (like syrup). From the oblivion above her, a blazing white (cliché) dagger of lightning (cliché) flashed towards her. Her heart stopped beating; her lungs gave up breathing. The deadly white dagger careened through the darkness, seeming to seek her out. It had found her before it started (then it was more than seeming, wasn’t it…). The blade of light filled her vision, and the air boiled (air is a gas, not a liquid) around her….

Farena bolted to a sitting position in her bed. Her light summer bed sheets (evokes a setting you didn’t intend) had been thrown off of her in the night. Her red-brown hair (auburn) wrapped delicate fingers (hair doesn’t need to be personified here) around her neck and stuck to the sweat of her face (again with the sweat and sticky hair). Heavy rain (can we use any noun without an adjective?) of a mid-night (how about nighttime so we don’t make the reader stop reading in order to debate if that’s a typo) storm pounded desperately against the glass panes (again, evokes a setting you didn’t intend) of her bedroom window. Thunder cracked, then rolled into submission a few moments later.

The girl looked to the tall mirror from her dream. It stood placidly (ly) in its corner, the winged horses dancing without moving (frozen in their dance) across the mahogany (already established) frame. The crack caressed the reflection of her damp cheek. Her brown eyes gazed at her reflection (better to show what she sees rather than what the omnipotent voice sees), seeing the soft and strangely beautiful features (I’m supposed to take your word for it?) that had attracted more than one of the town’s young men (uh oh, teenage girl alert).

A light cloak hung from one of the protruding ends of a rod that passed through the mirror’s center (way too many prepositional phrases). When its position was not locked into place, the mirror would swing freely — the backside was exactly the same as the side Farena now stared at, even down to the crack (highly unlikely, given how mirrors are made).

A soft knock at her closed door startled the girl, and she quickly grabbed a few sheets to hold over her blooming chest (is that really necessary?) before granting the knocker access. A middle-aged man ducked into the small room, a look of concern spread across his face (like butter!).

“Are you okay, Fern? You screamed.” (Why is her name different?)

The girl nodded quickly (becoming such a useless adverb). “I’m okay, Riagho. I had a nightmare. The storm must have disturbed me.”

Riagho’s dark brows furrowed (cliché). “You love storms, though.”

Farena shrugged. “It was just a dream.”

“What was it about?”

“I was running…. There were horses, and the mirror (she said, looking at her reflection). And an eye — it watched me. It felt like it wanted to eat me. I jumped into the mirror, and I was falling through a terrible storm. Then lightning struck — I woke up just before it hit me.”

Riagho’s eyes flicked to the mirror in the corner beside him, his eyes carefully guarding anxiousness (apparently not very well).

“It was nothing. I’m fine now.”

“Are you sure?” Riagho asked, a little more distantly. (He was distant before?)

“I’m sure.”

“Alright then. (That was easy) I’ll be leaving in a short while for my watch. Since I wasn’t able to make the last council meeting, they stuck me with the morning shift.”

“I’ll make you breakfast then,” the girl said with finality (good verbs are better).

“No, no, Fern. Go back to sleep. You’ve got to be rested for those time-trials at dawn (don’t you think that seems a little early? Even for sun-centric communities?. I won’t have you ruining my reputation as a trainer by falling off because of fatigue.” (Does anyone ACTUALLY talk like this?)

“Oh, shush. You know that no one on that field can come close to me if I don’t want them to. And besides, I’m awake now. I was planning on being up early anyways.”

Seeing that his arguments were hopeless on his adopted child (oh, so he’s not just a creepy old guy living with an pubescent girl), Riagho cast a soft smile on her (like a spell!) and nodded his head. He ducked out of the small (already said it) second-floor room and closed the door softly behind him. Pausing just outside the wooden barrier, he could dimly hear the girl jump out of her bed and begin to get dressed (maybe he really is just a creeper). With a slight smile, he strode to the sturdy steps that took him down to the ground floor of the house.

Farena stepped quickly down those same steps only a few moments later. Her waist-long hair had been braided (by the ghost under her bed) loosely down her back. She wore soft deerskin breeches that tucked under the tops of her leather boots (is there another way to wear these two items?) at the middle of her calves, and a thin, off-white (doesn’t matter) tunic belted with a wide leather belt (belted with a belt — who would have guessed?). Tan leather gloves flopped, tucked under the belt, as she moved (and now my brain is flopping away from the concept).

She walked smoothly (so smooth her gloves are flopping) into the kitchen, where Riagho had already stoked the fire. He glanced at her when she entered the room, then looked at her (’cause those aren’t the same thing at all).

“You’ll have half the women in this town at my door when they see you in that, demanding that I make you at least dress like a lady,” he chuckled. Farena smiled and stood straighter (than what?).

“And the other half will be demanding the first half to leave you alone! (Why, exactly?) Besides,” she continued, “I can’t ride in a dress.” She stepped past her foster-parent and slipped a waterproofed, hooded cloak over her outfit before slipping (so much slipping) out the back door.

She returned later with a small pail of milk, four eggs, and four strips (oddly specific) of cured bacon (really? in a small house in Medieval-fantasy land?). Riagho added some of the milk to the pancake (at least call them hotcakes) batter he had begun to mix while Farena hung her dripping cloak just inside the door.

“I told you that I would make you breakfast, Riagho,” Farena scolded with a smile (what is this, a bad sitcom?) when she saw what the older man was doing.

“You know I won’t have you waiting on me.”

Farena smiled and broke open the eggs into a skillet and arranged the bacon around the eggs (no eggs in the pancakes?) before sliding the pan onto the iron rack that Riagho had secured above the fire (prepositions are friends….).

………….

Anyway.

III – Help for a stranger

•September 14, 2015 • 1 Comment

It wasn’t a short wait. By the time the stranger began to stir, Kane had managed to sort and properly bundle his herb harvest. Even the tedious work of extracting seeds was mostly finished.  Dontin, meanwhile, had managed to fall asleep against a tree.

The stranger’s revival wasn’t so sudden this night. His first moans were followed by a slow twisting, almost as if beyond his own control. His head rolled from side to side a few times before his eyes fluttered open and fell on Kane. even then, he didn’t move. He simply leveled his blank eyes at the old physician.

“What are you doing here.” The words were hardly a question. They entered the night dry, like sand falling on desert rocks. Kane’s fingers didn’t bother to pause their work.

“Watching over my patient.”

“I told you to forget me.”

“Your, ah, condition seems to have made an impact on our young friend.” Kane nodded to where Dontin slept and the stranger obliged by rolling his head over to look. “He tells me he followed you here.”

“Fool.”

“Likely,” Kane agreed. “However, he’s not the one getting himself knocked unconscious each night.”

The stranger grunted something in reply but remained where he lay.

“So tell me. What is it that renders you so helpless so regularly?”

“Didn’t I tell you your life is at stake?”

“My life is nothing.” Kane waved a hand in dismissal and paused. “But it seems you care more for my life than I do.”

The man’s lip curled in disgust and jerked his chin toward Dontin.

“And what about his life? Do you value that?”

“Perhaps we can manage to preserve it — assuming we can determine what sort of danger it might be in.”

The stranger’s reply was muddled, but it sounded to Kane like a curse — and an elaborate one. He felt the corner of his lip tugging upwards as he stored his work back in his pack.

“You travel light and you travel alone,” he continued. “I believe that means you travel often.” He worked himself back onto his feet and walked over to the man, holding his hand out to help him up. “You’re only seen at night and you avoid the town. You’re being hunted, no? Ah– and, you believe that those around you will be killed, so the price on your head must be worth a life, or maybe it’s your own at stake.” The stranger got himself up into a sitting position but ignored Kane’s outstretched hand. “Given your apparent physical strength, you must have angered a number of people, too many for you to overcome yourself, and so you find yourself on the run. But, that dark temper of yours doesn’t seem to be the type to rile a mob. In that case,” he bobbled his head from side to side, “you must have angered someone very powerful.” He didn’t have to look at the man to know he was glaring. The sense of it was thick in the air. Kane held back another smile. “So who is it? A lord?” Another pause. “The church? No, not with scars like that. Maybe military — a general?” He eyed the stranger. “King?”

“Gads man, just let it be. I’ll kill you myself.”

Kane took in the stranger’s image — the hunched shoulders, down-turned face, shallow breath, a voice lacking in any sort of need. Kane formed his next words slowly.

“I doubt that.” Silence hung for a moment, disturbed only by the sounds of nocturnal insects going about their work. “Come. At least let me give you some proper treatment. You’ve suffered some trauma, even if I can’t see the marks, and it’s clear you’re not handling the recovery so well this time. I can offer you a hot meal — meager, granted — and a dry bed, neither of which you’re likely to find out here. And discretion,” he added.

If I have a price on my head, why should I trust you?”

Kane sighed. His arm was getting tired, hanging in the air like that.

“Our town sits between two warring kingdoms. We owe allegiance to neither but both have robbed our lands and our families. I have refused summons by both kings and its a matter of mere weeks before they find out and order my head for their evening entertainment. Truth be, you may be in more dangerous company than I am. Trust me, man, whatever it is that’s after you has none of my loyalty.”

The stranger lifted his head and peered into Kane’s eyes. There was a cautious hope there, he he thought, though it was buried deep. Finally, he took Kane’s hand and let him pull him to his feet.

“One night,” the stranger rumbled.

Kane nodded. “One night.” He flicked a stone at Dontin. “Boy! Wake up!

Dontin grumbled once but jumped to his feet as soon as he saw the stranger awake.

“Wh- what happened?”

“Our friend is going join us for some supper.”

-*-*-*-

Previous chapter!

Next chapter!

II – A Stranger Arrived

•September 5, 2015 • 1 Comment

Kane began his work early the next morning. The sun had barely risen before he was woken by another knock at his door, a courier this time with a note from King Graidon’s chief physician.

By order of King Graidon, lord of Arbania, you are hearby summoned to the town of Esaba so that your skills and knowledge of the healing arts may aid the King’s armies. Failure to immediately heed these summons is considered high treason, a crime punishable by death.

Kane crumpled the paper and dropped it in the hearth fire, just like he had the one sent by King Hethron the week before. Both armies were still at least two weeks away. Still, the war the two kings were waging wasn’t without its effects, even here in Myra.

His first patient of the day was a little boy, so thin Kane could count his ribs from across the room. His mother carried him, her face covered in lines where her tears had carved through the dirt. He wouldn’t wake up, she said.

Another woman was escorted in by two men who looked like they wanted a third to help control her flailing. Her protests were broken by screams and unintelligible ravings — something about demons eating her eyes, maybe. By the time Kane managed to put her to sleep, he had a bruised cheekbone and more than a few scratches.

An older man complained of pains in his mouth. Kane found that most of the man’s teeth had already fallen out, and the ones that were left were well on their way. If he had the luxury of a solid meal, the chewing alone would likely be enough to work them out. Although, no one here lately had been able to get much more than a mealy mash these days, not with kings on both sides confiscating all the food they could find. It wasn’t even harvest time yet, but the fields were already picked mostly clean. The town’s stores had run out weeks ago.

By the end of the day, Kane’s stores of herbs and tinctures were nearly depleted. It wasn’t likely he would sleep tonight.

As the town fell into evening’s shadow, he shouldered his bags, lit a lantern and stepped out into the street. Night was never the best time to search for herbs, but with as many people as needed him during the day lately, it was his only chance of having anything to help them come morning.

The dim light of his lantern made it difficult sometimes to tell one plant from another, and it took most of the night to fill his bags. It would take the rest of the night to prepare his remedies. Kane sighed and rubbed at the aches forming in his back. Somewhere off in the distance he heard a fox bark. Kane paused and listened for any other sign of the animal. If the fox had found food, he might be able to claim it for himself. A rabbit in the pot would be a treat, and he could make a good broth of it to help the boy from earlier in the day, or any of his patients, for that matter.

He heard scuffling as he approached, but it sounded too big to be the fox. He extinguished his lantern and took his knife from the loop on his belt. The blade was meant for cutting plants, not creatures, but it was the only defense he had, and if there was something already there big enough to scare off the fox, he would certainly need some kind of defense.

There, just beyond that brush. The scuffling was accompanied by heavy breathing. Then the fox barked again. It was so close.

“Shoo, go away!” a male voice hissed. Kane heard the crash of a branch hurled through the undergrowth. A man? He edged closer and peered through the leaves.

“Boy?”

Dontin stumbled and tripped backwards. “Wh- who is it?”

Kane muttered and pushed through the last branches. “Boy, what are you doing out here?”

Then he noticed what the boy was doing. There was another man on the ground, unconscious, and from the looks of it, the boy had been trying to maneuver him.

“It’s him,” Dontin said, scrambling back to his feet.

“What do you mean, it’s him. What have you done?”

“No, sir, from last night, it’s the man. The man I brought to you last night. It’s him.”

Kane knelt by the man and rolled him onto his back. Sure enough, it was the same man. Kane looked at the boy and spat.

“What have you done to him? What are you?”

“It wasn’t me! I swear it!”

“Then what are you doing here? You really expect me to believe that you just happen to be around when he goes out cold, two nights in a row? Leave the poor man alone!”

“No! I- I followed him. He- it just all seemed so strange, so I followed him to find out what had happened to him last night.”

Kane rubbed his eyebrows. Truth be told, he couldn’t really imagine a skinny boy  like Dontin being able to knock out someone as big as the stranger. He had seen him struggle enough to help lift the man onto the cot last night. And he seemed just the sort to poke his nose where it didn’t belong. It was likely he was telling the truth. He growled something low under his breath.

“Well, boy, did you see something then? What did this?”

Dontin paced a few steps, shaking his head.

“I- I don’t know, really. He was just standing there, and then he said something. I don’t know what it was. But he just stood there, and then this fox came out and it looked like it was trying to attack something, but I couldn’t see. This man, he- he just stood there the whole time. And then he just dropped. I don’t know, I don’t know what happened.” He stopped pacing. “And then the fox, it started sniffing around him like- like it might start trying to eat him, so I tried to chase it away, but it wouldn’t go.” Dontin looked out into the trees. “It must be as hungry as we are. I think it’s still there, just waiting for us to leave.”

Kane inspected the stranger quickly. It seemed to be the same condition he suffered the previous night — alive, but completely unresponsive and not a mark on him.

“What should we do?” Dontin asked.

Kane sat down and leaned his back against the trunk of the nearest tree. His herbs would just have to wait a little longer. He crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the man lying on the forest floor in front of him.

“Wait.”

-*-*-*-

Previous chapter!

Next chapter!

I – A Stranger Arrived

•September 2, 2015 • 4 Comments

“Quick, help, somebody — please help!”

Kane shuffled to the door. His bare feet scuffed the wood planks of the room and his knee grazed the edge of one of the cots he knew was set up there. The knocks came furious at the door, but they were weak, more like a cobbler’s hammer than a mason’s pounding.

“Please, wake up!”

“Coming!” He coughed the phlegm out of his throat and blinked hard against the light of his lantern. “I’m coming!”

The wind pushed the door open as soon as it was unlatched. Outside, the sky was still dark. Most of the town was deep in sleep, but it wasn’t so late that the birds were beginning to chirp the advent of dawn. On his doorstep stood a young man — practically still a boy — soaked through by what must have been a recently passed rainstorm, judging by the muddy puddles that filled the street. At the boy’s feet was another man, presumably older, and unconscious.

“Help please, I think he’s still alive,” the boy pleaded. Kane bit back a curse. He recognized the boy, he had seen him around the town every so often although he couldn’t say if he’d ever heard his name. The man, though… a strange man in trouble was the last thing his little home needed. A more superstitious man might have turned the boy away, but Kane’s training and instinct won over.

“Bring him in, quickly.”

He set the lantern on a table and helped the boy pull his new patient inside and up onto a cot. The man was bulky, and Kane was thankful he had an extra back to help.

“What happened? Who is he?” Kane asked, feeling for a pulse and breath. Both were there. The limbs all appeared to be in proper order too.

“I- I don’t know. I was caught out in the storm and found him just outside the town. I thought he was dead. But, I thought I saw him breathing so I- I dragged him here.”

Kane merely grunted in reply — affirmation or complaint, he would let the boy decide. The unconscious man’s clothes were soaked and muddy, but there didn’t appear to be any blood or tears in the fabric.

“What could have done this to him?” the boy asked. His incessant questions were starting to put Kane on edge. “He’s- I mean, he seems so strong.”

That did seem to be true. As he progressed through his inspection, he could feel well developed muscles under the clothes, and his build was most definitely not the sort that betrayed much comfort in life. Even unconscious, this man had something hard about him, Kane thought. He undid the laces on his patient’s shirt and lifted the fabric away.

“Mercy,” the boy breathed. “What happened to him?”

Kane let a word of prayer of his own slip from  his lips. The man was covered in scars from his neck down. Stab wounds, bites, marks where what must have been massive claws ripped through his skin, burns — there was hardly an inch of flesh anywhere that wasn’t affected. But none of it looked recent, either. So why was he unconscious now? Was he sick? There was no perspiration, no sound in his lungs, no variation in the heartbeat, no excessive heat. He had never seen anything like it in all his years as a healer. It was as if the man were asleep, but nothing could wake him. Poison? There was no poison he knew that produced these symptoms. Outsiders?

“Wait here.” Somewhere around here would be a lance. Maybe if he could see the blood he could learn… something.

“Can you help him?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” He rummaged through a box of tools. “Are you sure you didn’t see anything else? Anything at all?”

“No, nothing. I’m sorry. It’s so dark out there. And it was still raining. I don’t think I would have even seen him if he had been a little farther off the road.”

Kane pricked his patient’s forearm and thick bead of red blood gathered on the skin. Normal. Kane sighed.

Then, a moan. Both men rushed to his side. Kane felt the pulse again. Was it getting faster?

“Sir? Sir, are you alright?” the boy asked. His knuckles were white on the edge of the cot.

The patient’s eyes snapped open and in an instant he was scrambling to get up. Kane held him firmly by the shoulders, simultaneously guiding and restricting him.

“Ho, man, easy. We’re not going to hurt you. Easy now, just sit for a bit. You’re alright.”

For years his patients had been telling him how soothing his voice was, that he had a remarkable ability to calm those losing themselves to panic. Tonight, it was a skill for which he was thankful. The patient could have easily overtaken him, that much was obvious. But instead of forcing his way, he simply sat on the edge of the cot, although perhaps not as relaxed as Kane would have liked.

“Who are you?” the man asked. He kept his head low and his eyes down.

“My name is Kane. I am this town’s healer. This young man found you unconscious not far from here and brought you to me for help.”

“And I- I’m Dontin,” the boy stammered. “You were — I thought you were dead.”

“I’m not.” He swung his head to the left and then to the right, snatched his shirt from the edge of the cot and pulled it back over his scars.

“Who did all this to you?” Kane asked. “Please, rest. You may not be well.”

“I’m fine.”

The man got to his feet and peered out the window into the night.

“If you value your lives, forget you ever saw me.”

With that, he stepped out the door and disappeared.

-*-*-*-

Next chapter

 

Rescue: Chapter 2

•April 13, 2015 • Leave a Comment

It didn’t take long for Rook to settle into his new surroundings. For the first week, the family kept him locked up in just one room of the house — massive by the shelter’s standards but tiny compared to the rest of this place. There were two giant silver cubes against one wall that the mother would often put clothing into. Whenever she did, the cubes would hum and vibrate. One of them heated up when it was working, and Rook quickly adopted a towel on top of it as his preferred resting place. There was a window there, too, that he could look out of. He could see mostly trees from this vantage point, and a downward sloping hill. The grass nearby was short, dry leaves blew easily across it.

It was hard to learn about this new place without having access to most of it, but his nose told him a good deal through the space under the door. The first thing he discovered was a dog. She came snuffing loudly at the door as soon as he arrived and usually came by to sniff at least once or twice a day. Piper, they seemed to call her.

The days were quiet. Most days, the whole family left Piper and Rook alone. The mornings were a mad clash of sounds, starting with piercing beeping from somewhere above him. Then came the pounding. It sounded like feet rushing back and forth above his ceiling, and then rushes of water flowing between the walls, Eventually the noise would make its way to his level, the parents rushing about, clanking things together, sometimes making odd sizzling sounds that were accompanied by the smell of smokey, ruined meat and all sorts of conversation, most of which made no sense to Rook.

“Will you take my car to get the oil changed?” “Miles, where did you put your homework?” “I have to work late tonight, don’t wait dinner on me.” “Mom, will you play chess with me tonight?”

One morning, the normal routine was disrupted by an outburst so violent Rook found himself slinking into a corner under the big basin just in case something dangerous came into his room. Miles was above, wailing and screaming. Through the fit, Rook could make out a few words. “I don’ wanna gooooooooo!” he sobbed. His cries rang low throughout the house most of the morning, occasionally rising to a shriek of what must have been terror, joined by Janine and the father, Michael, as they tried to coax their son. Eventually they succeeded, but the boy’s crying didn’t stop until they all left the house that day. It just got quieter.

Each afternoon, the family would return. First, Janine and Miles would arrive. They would visit Rook first. Miles crouched down on his heels if he was on the floor, and if he was on the warm cube, Janine would lift the boy up and sit him cross-legged in front of Rook. To be honest, Rook didn’t care much for the petting. By the end of his isolation he learned to tolerate it, mostly because if he didn’t, Janine would gather him up in her arms and force him to hold still while Miles ran his little hands over his fur. When they were done petting him they would brush him for a little bit and then add more food and fresh water to his dishes. Then they would leave him alone again. Usually, Miles would come back on his own later. He would climb onto the padded bench across from the humming cubes and just sit there. Some days the boy was quiet and just watched him. Other days he talked almost the whole time, chattering on about this placed called school and the other children there who pushed at him or yelled at him or took his homework or this one boy who sometimes ate lunch with him.

Not that Rook cared. Most days he just wished Janine would fill the cubes with clothes and make his towel warm.

By the time they let Rook roam around the house, he was already familiar with most of the smells. It only took a short time for him to sniff out their sources and put shapes and sizes to each scent. Piper was the most troubling part of the home. She trotted around the house always with a ridiculous grin on her face, following the humans around religiously. When one left a room, so would she, even if it meant getting up from her favorite bed, a massive round of fluff that hid half her body when she lay on it. She was particularly fond of Janine, but if any one of the humans put their hands to rubbing her long golden fur, she would forget whatever task she was about, lean her whole weight against that person and close her eyes. A good scratch on her side would send her flopping over, legs flailing above her, writhing on her back for an extended belly rub. It was, in Rook’s opinion, the most abhorrently shameful behavior.

The house itself was huge. On the same level as his first room were several others. One was wide and open with several pieces of soft furnishings to lay on, its floor covered in thick carpet and corners occupied by various tables and lights. Near that was another wide room, but with a cool hard floor, a bare wooden table surrounded by matching chairs. There was the place they seemed to call the kitchen, which didn’t have anywhere meant for sitting but was full of things that kept Janine plenty busy in the evenings, and a bathroom with three different water basins, but only one was kept full. There was also another carpeted room with a tall, broad cushion set up on legs and decorated with various pillows. That, he figured out, was a bed. And if not for how exposed it was to the rest of the room, it would have been a cozy napping place.

A set of stairs led him to another level of rooms, most of which had beds. One seemed to belong to Miles. The bed there was smaller and more colorful than any of the others. His closet was full of bins and boxes, from which the boy would occasionally fetch toys or clothes. Michael and Janine shared another room with the widest bed in the house. That room was relatively bare, with just a few pieces of wood furniture besides the bed, but it was also one of the quietest. There was another bathroom, and a room full of cords and tables – desks, he learned, which were for working at, somehow – and tall shelves full of books. Michael spent a good amount of his evenings in there, sometimes joined by Miles, who would sit on a soft chair in the corner reading a book while his father tapped away at a panel of buttons, staring at a screen that always seemed to show something different.

Rook had access to every room, at least most of the time. The only places he wasn’t allowed to go were on the tops of tables, or on the counter tops in the kitchen, but that was only when the humans were around. When they left, he made sure to explore each one thoroughly, much to Piper’s dismay.

“They don’t want you up there,” she’d whine at him, pacing on the floor below. “They’re going to get mad at you. You’re going to make them upset, please come down!”

Rook flicked his tail and hopped on top of the refrigerator. He knew they kept cold things inside it, but it didn’t seem anything happened on its top. The dust there made him sneeze.

Rescue: Chapter 1

•March 28, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Morning.

He woke to the din of dogs barking hysterically down the other hall. He tried to ignore it, but their frenzy for food and attention was too persistent. He felt his eyelids slide open and saw his tiny room come into view. There was a plastic chair taking up one corner, a carpeted climbing tower in another. A big bowl of food and another of water sat, mostly empty, under the window where the sunrise was just starting to peek through. His own perch was in another carpeted tower, its posts mostly shredded to strings.

He had been in this place – they called it a shelter – for months, brought here after some stranger found him huddled against a basement window, half covered in snow and mostly starved to death. His first few weeks here were a misery. They poked him with needles, shoved pills and gels into his throat, turned him over and over to examine every part of his body. At one point, they forced him to go to sleep – he still wasn’t sure how they managed that one – and when he woke up his testicles ached and stung as if they had been bitten. When he had the strength to groom them, he found they were gone.

He stretched in his little bed. His whiskers bent against the side of the cushion. He wasn’t the only one in this room. Two other cats had settled in the tower across the room, and he could sense the third perched on a ledge above him. They had been his roommates for about a week now, replacing three others that had lived there before. He had shared the tiny space with several others during his time here, but they inevitably all left in the arms of some stranger or another. He was the only one who had stayed so long. He was the only one none of the humans seemed to want. Not that he cared, really. He had everything he needed here.

The door opened and a wrinkled woman stepped in carrying a caddy full of cleaning supplies.

“Good morning, Papi,” she sang to the orange short-hair who jumped down to rub against her ankles. “Good morning Kola, where’s Jedi?”

Kola was the youngest, marbled brown with big patches of white and barely out of kittenhood. Jedi, who had apparently found his way to the high ledge next to the door, was a shadow-grey shorthair. The woman set down her supplies to pet them all, laughing at Jedi when she found him dangling both front legs over the ledge. She had to step over a fallen scratching pad to get to him. She rubbed the back of his neck gently.

“Oh Onyx, we need to find you a home. You have been here far too long.”

It wasn’t the first time she had said that to him. It probably wouldn’t be the last. The days here were pretty much the same. The woman would greet them all in the morning, clean their litter box, sweep and mop the floor, brush the fur off the towers, and replace their food and water. Later, another human gave them hairball medicine and any other treatments they had been prescribed. Then the strangers would start to come. Some days there was a steady stream of them moving through the hallway, visiting all the rooms and all the cats. Other days there were long periods of relative silence. Onyx had seen all kinds cycle through the shelter. Couples, singles, old, young, families with shrieking toddlers, teenagers who couldn’t decide which one they like best and teenagers that laughed and made jokes about the less physically fortunate cats. Some took a cat with them when they left, most left empty handed.

Today wasn’t any different. It was one of the busier days. There was a little girl who squealed when she saw Papi and carried him around the little room squeezed tight against her chest while his legs dangled against hers. But she wailed when he struggled to get free and his claws cut three long red lines on her belly. Kola was, of course, the favorite. His unique markings, youth, and playful personality earned him plenty of attention. An elderly man took a liking to Jedi. He poked his cane at the grey and Jedi batted it back over and over, rolling onto his back finally to grapple with the thing. After a good half hour, a younger woman came with a plastic carrier and put Jedi in it. She carried him away in one hand and gave her other to the old man for support. Onyx spent most of his day looking out the window. The summer greenon the trees was fading to yellows and orange. There were birds darting back and forth among the branches, sometimes darting just a few feet away from the window. Squirrels darted around the branches with cheeks stuffed with food, flicking their tails furiously every time they stopped. At the edge of his view he could sometimes spot a few of the dogs in their concrete runs.

The door to his room opened, but he didn’t turn to look. A twist of his ear let him hear everything he needed to know.

“Mom, look at that one!” It was a little boy’s voice.

“He’s pretty,” the mother replied. “Oh look, Miles, isn’t this one friendly! This must be Papi. Miles, come pet this one.”

Onyx could hear the orange purr and glanced back to inspect the trio of humans. The father was settling into the plastic chair while the mother and the boy squatted around Papi. Kola was stretching at the top of one tower and would soon hop down to join them. Onyx turned back to the window. The sunlight was beginning to recede. Shadows from the building were creeping up the tree trunks.

“Look, Miles,” the father said. “See that one coming to meet you?”

The thump of Kola’s feet hitting the floor made him sound much heavier than he actually was. They boy’s giggle had a nice ring to it, not like all the other children who had come through today. That was a nice way to end the day.

Kola and Papi played with the humans another ten minutes before the door opened again and one of the regulars popped her head through the crack.

“We’ll be closing here in about fifteen minutes,” she said. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

The mother looked at the boy. “What do you think, Miles? Have you seen a cat that you like?”

The boy was petting Kola and Papi both at the same time but he looked up at Onyx.

“I didn’t get to meet that one,” he said.

The regular squeezed all the way into the room and lifted Onyx from the windowsill and put him down next to the boy. He tried to walk away, but they held him there so the boy could pet his back, so he sunk to his belly and tucked his feet under his body.

“He seems scared,” the father said.

The boy stroked Onyx’s fur for a few minutes and bent over sideways to look him in the face. Onyx looked away.

“I want this one.” There was a pause.

“Are you sure?” his mother asked. “These two are so friendly and so pretty. Look at the stripes on this one. And he came up to you right away. He already loves you.”

The boy shook his head, still looking at Onyx. “This is the one, Mom. I like that he’s all black. And his fur is so soft.” The last bit came out almost as a whisper.

“Buddy, I’m not sure that one will get along with us,” the father said. His voice was full of caution. “Don’t you want a cat that will sit on your lap and play with you?”

The boy looked at the other two cats, who were now getting their attention from the mother. Then he looked back at Onyx and scratched him gently behind the ears.

“He needs us, Dad.”

The parents exchanged a long look and then the mother let out a loud breath.

“Alright, honey. You’re sure this is the one you want?”

The boy nodded, his head bobbing up and down like a toy on a string.

“I’ll go get the carrier,” the father said. When he had left the room, the mother looked at the regular.

“Do you think he’ll be OK?” she asked.

“Onyx? I’m sure he’ll come around, it just might take a little more time. He’s always been a good cat here, just not quite so social.”

“He won’t… attack, will he?”

“Well any cat can lash out if they’re pushed too far. We’ve had him about seven months and he’s never tried to bite any of us. When you get him home, I’d just give him some space and let him acclimate on his own. He’ll let you know when he’s ready.” She stroked his back and stood up. “I’ll go get you a little bag of his food to take with you.”

When the father returned, they eased Onyx into the carrier and carried him down the hallway, past at least a dozen other glass doors. Through the bars of his carrier he could see the cats behind each door watching him. Some he had seen before but most were unfamiliar. They passed through another door at the end of the hall and came into a bigger room with a half wall dividing one side away from the rest. They stopped there and put the carrier on the ground. The parents discussed paperwork and the cost of the adoption above and the boy squatted down to peer into the carrier. Just a few minutes more and the father hefted the carrier up again and they were moving toward a set of double doors. Their glass windows were glowing with the light of the setting sun pouring through.

Warm wind whistled through the carrier bars when the doors opened and blew his fur backwards. He huddled in the back of the carrier, curling his tail tight around his face. There were so many different smells on that wind; after all that time in the shelter, he had almost forgotten what each of them was. That dry musky one was the leaves and a little bit the dirt; that damp, tangy one was the grass. There was something else, something thick and dark, that was the road and it was particularly strong and mixed with the scents of dozens of people. Somewhere in the vicinity he could smell a number of other cats – at least the urine they had left behind.

They carried him to a shiny black pod with four doors and set him in the back seat. The parents sat down in front and the boy climbed into a raised seat in the back next to Onyx. And then the whole world moved. He tried to brace himself against the carrier’s back, but his weight shifted anyway, despite his best efforts to stay still. It slowed and stopped and then started again, pushing him backwards this time. Randomly, he felt himself sliding from one side to another, and the starts and stops continued. He couldn’t tell what direction was where, anymore. His stomach was starting to feel uneasy. Why couldn’t they have just left him in his room?

“Maaaaoowwwwwww….”

“Oh, poor thing,” the mother said. She looked back at him in the carrier but made no other move. For some reason, this erratic movement didn’t seem to bother any of the humans. “So, Miles, what should we name him?”

“How about Shadow?” the father asked. “Or Midnight? Ebony?”

The boy just shook his head.

“What about Clem Kadiddlehopper?” The mother said. “Or Lord Meowzer?”

The boy giggled but shook his head again. “Those are silly,” he laughed. The parents laughed too.

“So you want something more serious,” the father said. “What about… Bartholomew, or… Reginald.” The boy kept shaking his head. “Jamal?”

“Levi?” the mother asked.

“Ooh, Levi’s nice,” the father said. The boy just shook his head.

“Well he’s a black cat, so what about something a little more scary?” the mother suggested. “Nightmare? Thirteen? Oh, I don’t know about that one. That might be tempting fate too much, naming a black cat Thirteen.”

The invisible force pushed Onyx sharply into the side of the carrier and then the movement stopped abruptly. The parents got out of the pod and the mother opened the boy’s door and started undoing the straps holding him in his seat.

“Can’t I stay here, Mom? I don’t want to leave him alone.”

“He’ll be just fine, honey. Dad’s cracked all the windows for him and we won’t be in the store long. We just need to pick up a few things for him.”

“Like what?”

“Like a litter box, more food, new bowls, some toys, and a bed. Come on, love, you don’t want to miss picking out his new things, do you?” The boy shook his head and let his mother lift him out of the seat. The door slammed shut and suddenly, Onyx was alone.

The silence – and the stillness – was a welcome relief, but he still wished they would have left him in his room at the shelter. He missed the familiar carpet towers, the constant smell of dry food and fur. He wondered if he would ever get to go back.

It wasn’t long before the pod doors opened again and the little family returned with several plastic bags full of unfamiliar smells. Once they were all settled, the movement started up again but it didn’t last as long this time. Before long, he was being carried again through the outside wind and into a new door. The room behind the door was like nothing he had ever seen before. Besides its massive size, it had carpet on the floor, huge windows, and massive seats spread around it. Most of the items he didn’t recognize, and all of them smelled completely foreign. They carried him through that room and into a much smaller one. This one had a hard floor. There were two massive cubes with doors on them on one side of the room, and next to them was a big basin. On the other side was a long padded bench. They set his carrier down on the floor and opened its front.

“Come on out, boy,” the boy said, crouched a few feet away and beckoning to him. Onyx didn’t move at first. There was nothing familiar about this place. But at least he would be able to stand up straight. He took a cautious step, then another, and finally out of the carrier completely. “Good boy.”

“Here, Miles, put his food in his bowl and get him some water,” the mother said, handing the boy one of the plastic bags from the store. The father was already busy pouring fresh litter into a box and situating it under the basin. Onyx made his way to the far corner to get away from the activity. The floor here felt strange, and he found himself lifting his paws unnaturally with each step. The boy poured some food into a little bowl. It was the same food he ate at the shelter, he smelled. At least that was familiar. When the water bowl was filled, the mother handed the boy a big fluffy oval bed. “Put this on the bench, all the way at the end,” she told him.

“Have you decided what you’re going to name him?” the father asked. The boy nodded and crouched down again to look at the cat.

“Rook.”

“Like the chess piece?” the mother asked. The boy nodded. “Why Rook?”

“Because it’s the best piece, and my favorite piece,” he said. “And he’s the best cat.”

The father smiled and shook his head a little. “Then Rook it is.”

Rook

A new project: Written Live

•March 24, 2015 • 1 Comment

It’s been a little while since my last post. I’m sorry. But I have some good news: I’m launching my new project!

I’ve dreamed of being a real author since about sixth grade. I read the “Dragonriders of Pern” books by Anne McCaffrey and fell so in love with her fiction that I desperately needed to be a part of it. So I started writing. I wrote about a girl named Katri who, by some magical twist of reality, was whisked away from the world as we know it and into the world of Pern, where she, of course, got a dragon of her own and a life that rarely happens outside the pages of a book – or Hollywood.

Ever since that first foray into fiction writing, I haven’t been able to stop. I wrote a whole novel – twice. I wrote poems. I wrote down ideas and outlandish names and drew maps of nonexistent worlds. I studied literature and creative writing in college, took on a job where I would have to exercise my skills with words on a daily basis, all with the idea that someday, I could become a real, published, professional author.

But, as anyone who has even considered such a path has realized, the path to authorship is not exactly easy. There’s the outline, the first draft, the editing and refining and tailoring a manuscript until it’s as perfect as you can manage, because anything short of perfection won’t even make it onto an editor’s desk, much less on the bookstore shelves. Competition is huge, with more people than ever having the ability to write a book and publishers being forced by advancing technology to be even more discerning with their selections.

Writing a novel is a daunting task. And much of the work is done behind closed doors. New authors spend years crafting a unique story, while only a handful of eyes – if even that – get any glimpse of it. Masterpieces are written late at night after the kids have gone to bed, in collections of minutes amassed 15 at a time here and there, found at the edges of a full-time job, family, bills, and all the other responsibilities of life until they stack up to hours and days and weeks. Authors battle uphill in relative silence, and their readers rarely get to see anything until the battle is won and the book finally has a price attached to it.

Writing a novel is an incredibly daunting task, and, in many ways, a lonely one as well. I’ve had countless friends, coworkers, classmates, and relative strangers ask me how I managed to put together a 200-page manuscript, how I even imagine something so complex and lengthy as a novel. Too often, I find myself shrugging. Truth is, it mostly just comes to me (and I have a particular knack for writing too much), but how do I explain that?

One way, I suppose, is in this new project.

A few months ago, I reached out to my friends on Facebook and asked for their help. I was delving back into writing again and found myself getting bored with my own ideas. I needed something to shake up my creative mind and make me think of different stories. So I asked for elements from my friends, with each person submitting one element and one element only. The idea was to create a set of story elements that really had little to no bearing on each other and turn them into a single, cohesive short story. The results were not only entertaining, they were also inspiring. Most of what I’ve written on this site this year is the product of those exercises.

Now I’m expanding that concept into something much bigger and, I hope, much more exciting. I’ll be writing a short (I think) novel right here on Veil of Shadows. Each week, I plan to post a new chapter in a continuous story, starting at the beginning and ending at the end. And I’ll be writing it as we go along. As of right now, I have nothing written down except a general concept and a basic outline, so you’ll get to see my personal writing process at work each week.

I’m calling this project “Written Live.” Other types of artists – sculptors, painters, performers, crafters – get to show people exactly how they do, creating something unique and original right in front of their audience’s eyes, but authors don’t. This is my attempt at a live demonstration.

Plus, I’ve learned this year that my writing improves when I know it’s being read, when I have support and feedback from other people. To further that, I plan on asking for more input from readers as this story progresses. That means all of you will get a chance to add to and shape what I’m about to create. Follow me at http://www.facebook.com/KatrinaJStyx to keep up on what’s happening and contribute.

All that said, I can’t say for sure how this will end. I ask that everyone who decides to read along with me as I write this new story keep in mind that this is, ultimately, a rough draft. It won’t be perfect. Some things may not align just right. And while I can’t at this time guarantee the quality of this new undertaking, I can assure you that I will do my best.

The lone runner

•February 26, 2015 • Leave a Comment

At this time of year, the wind was merciless in the grasslands. Adalynn Rayne pulled her shawl tighter across her mouth and nose so she could breathe through the whipped-up debris while blades of tall, stiff grass thrashed at her legs like long slender knives.

Not many would brave the grasslands in this season. The nights were endless, with only brief moments of dusky light to mark the passing of days, and while the darkness kept the heat more tolerable than the scorching summer months, it also left travelers mostly blind. She took a slow step and felt the dirt beneath her boots drop away. Another prairie dog hole, most likely. This area seemed to be home to a rather large community of them, and she had nearly twisted her ankle in more than a few already. To anyone unfamiliar with this land, traveling it in the dark season would be fatal. Even experienced horse runners often died out here in the dark.

Adalynn had been traveling the grasslands since she was a girl. She could still remember the first time her father had let her go with him. That was such a long time ago, though, when she could look under a horse’s belly without even bending down. She rubbed the skin on her hands, now cracked and calloused from 50 years of horse running. How many ropes had burned her? How many times had she bled trying to wrangle the beasts and get them back to the market? Her bones ached, and although her muscles were still strong, she could feel them giving up more and more every year.

The others had called her reckless, shook their heads, and laughed at her when they saw her purchase the last worn-out gear at the store and pack her bags. Maybe she was reckless, she thought. Fifty-seven years old and stumbling around the dark, trying to catch wild horses she couldn’t see, on foot.

She turned her head into the wind and listened for any signs of the herd she’d been tracking. It had been two days since she had found any sign of them. Their hoof prints had been clear at the last watering hole, but half a day – if you could call it that – later they disappeared into the wind. All she needed was two good animals, although a whole herd would set her up for the rest of the year. The summer runners hadn’t had much luck this year, herself included. Horse markets were bare and contracts ended as kindling for campfires, despite more runners in the grasslands than ever.

Word had been spreading from the local villages that the herds had been joining together, roaming the grasses in the hundreds, maybe thousands, led by a magnificent creature. He was silver-white, they said, and bigger than any horse that had been seen on the steppe before. Once the rumor spread, there wasn’t a king or queen that wasn’t willing to pay premium to have the stallion in their stables. Adalynn’s contract wasn’t for the stallion, however. She didn’t even really think the rumors had much, if any, truth to them. Her contract was for a magician of questionable skill in search of two good horses to drive his wagon.

The wind shifted suddenly and without its steady presence in her face she nearly stumbled forward while getting knocked to the side, caught by an unexpected gust. She heard them first, the gentle wuffing of equine nostrils and occasional thump of hoof on hard dirt, the unnatural rustling in the grass and the glassy sound of manes and tails raised by the wind. Then she could smell them, thanks to what seemed to be a fresh set of droppings.

Behind?

That… was new. Wild horses never followed the runners. But not only were they behind her, they were also close, as far as she could tell. If there had been any daylight she probably would have been able to see the whole herd, but now she couldn’t even see the ground under her boots. She heard a single set of hooves take up a trot, approaching her, but circuitously, arching around her until she stood between the one horse and the herd. She let her hand drop to her belt and freed the rope that hung there. The single horse had stopped and pawed at the dirt. He would be this herd’s stallion, she figured, its leader and protector and probably the hardest creature of them all to capture.

And also the most valuable….

It would be better to target a mare. If she was lucky, she thought, the herd might simply walk around her. She was downwind of them now, and her scent hadn’t put them off so far. With the stallion on the other side of her, they might just pass right by, giving her the perfect chance to rope one.

Blind.

She waited, as still as she could manage, rope in hand and facing the herd. But the easy cadence of walking had stopped. Behind her, the stallion snorted and stomped the ground again. Then he let out a cry, and his hoof beats launched into a driving canter, headed straight towards her.

Bloody….

She turned to face him and crouched, listening to gauge his distance and praying the wind wasn’t playing tricks on her ears. She could feel the ground shaking more the closer he got. When he was just one stride away, she hopped to one side and jumped as high as she could, wrapping the arm with the rope under the stallion’s neck to sling herself up and around onto his back. In a second movement, she let a stray end of the rope swing around under his neck and grabbed it with her free hand so she had something more than wild horsehair to hold onto.

Most horses screamed when she did that, but this one just huffed and leaped once to the side, shaking his head just before he jumped into the air. But then his sides exploded out from under her legs. Her knees were thrust painfully outward before sliding forward over – what were those? – and launching her face into his mane. His shoulders heaved under her knees and she was falling, but only for a moment and then she was lurching upwards again.

What the….

The movement smoothed, but she could tell she was still moving. The wind was fiercer than ever, and she could feel the stallion’s muscles straining beneath her, but his hoof beats were silent now. She managed to secure her seat enough to tie her rope to itself around the stallion’s neck. Holding onto the loop with one hand, she reached her other to the things sprouting from this creature’s sides. They moved up and down, grasping at the air and then she felt – feathers?

You have got to be kidding.

Adalynn shoved the free hand into a belt pouch and felt for a walnut-sized stone. With her fingers wrapped firmly around it she held it in front of her.

“Dun-baerrae!”

The stone lit up with a flash. When her eyes adjusted to the new light she saw the stallion’s white mane flying like a flag in front of her face, his white hide, and on either side, a broad white wing that stretched so long the stone’s light didn’t even reach the end. Below her, there was nothing but darkness.

The stallion bent his neck and turned one eye to look back at her. Adalynn grinned at him.

At least he’s not trying to throw me.

He whinnied and tossed his head, gently dipping first to the left and then to the right almost as if in response to her thought.

“This is just fun to you, isn’t it,” she said. He whinnied again. The light from the stone was fading but she could feel his legs pummeling the air beneath them.

“All right then, show-off, show me what you’ve got.”

Winter

•February 23, 2015 • Leave a Comment

“Coming up at seven-o-clock, special guest ‘Take a Hike, Mike!’ talks to us about his latest adventures, and also, stay tuned for the details on just how cold it’s going to get this weekend. We’ll be bringing you the weather right after this.”

The voice on the radio sounded almost like something from the 1950s. Static fuzz distorted the noise ever so slightly, its intensity varying with the car’s position in relation to the surrounding trees and hills. Leslie drove with only half a mind on the program, although she was determined to keep it on for the weather report, not that it mattered. Last week was cold, yesterday was cold, today was cold, tomorrow would be cold, and the weekend was going to be horribly cold. She had already heard the numbers that morning, but some itch in her mind made her hold out a ridiculous hope that maybe, just maybe, the cold front had shifted and relief was in sight.

“Welcome to Minnesota,” she muttered through clicking teeth and a jaw so tense it should have seized up long ago. This was the sort of cold that cut like razors, ignoring all but the warmest clothing to gnaw away at your bones. It was the sort of cold that could render your fingers useless in mere minutes if left exposed, the kind that made snow crunch underfoot more like Styrofoam than ice. She wore a long wool coat over a thick sweater and long sleeve shirt, and thermal leggings under her pants as well, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. Nor did the two pairs of gloves covering her fingers.

She turned her car off the county highway and onto a barely plowed back road that wasn’t even paved underneath. She could see the gravel bits thrown up in the snow as they passed under the front bumper. At the far edge of the headlights’ reach, the road faded into the unknown. Out here, it was hard to tell where the road stopped and the farm fields began. In some places, the only markers were the weathered telephone poles or the rare mailbox or fire number.

Off to the left, a grime-encrusted sign emerged from the black, its whiteish and orange stripes and “Road Closed” message barring the way. Leslie scoured the area for a street sign on either side of the barrier and then on the other side of the road, but there was nothing. She hissed through her teeth, too cold to even attempt a word of dismay. She squinted at the rear-view mirror to see if she could find the sign there, but all she managed to do was blind herself when she looked back at the black and white snowscape in her headlights.

Her eyes were still readjusting when she felt the road shift beneath her, lifting one side of the car just a little higher than the other. In this flat, mostly barren country, the icy curve took her by surprise. She knew she overreacted the instant she did it. The brakes applied too hard, the wheel turned too sharply, and her efforts landed the car in a ditch. Probably the only one for miles, she thought. Just her luck.

The way the car had slid, its headlights pointed out awkwardly into the sky, not quite reaching the road’s surface anymore.

No one’s going to find me out here, she thought. I’m in the middle of nowhere, in a car with no heat, stuck in a ditch and – she fumbled at her cell phone through her gloves and pressed a button – no signal. Awesome.

She suddenly didn’t want to hear the weather report anymore. She scanned through the stations, barely stopping to hear what each one had to offer, until one caught her ear. A single piano rolled a single chord, paused, rolled another, then another and another, and two more, the sustained notes carrying into the darkness like snowflakes. The sound and its corresponding silence soothed the rising tears away as she heard the bells take over the melody and then the strings easing in for the foundation.

Breathe. Just breath.

This trip had been full of trouble from the start. From the moment her sister had showed up to take over her desk at work, to the vet’s discovery of cancer in her cat’s mammary glands, the bills that followed the unsuccessful attempt to save her only friend, and the eviction notice that came not long after. With what little bit of her life she could salvage, she packed her little car and took to the road, headed the only place she could think to go and the last place she wanted to go: her mother’s house, a tiny, dirty old cabin in rural Minnesota. There, in her mother’s voice, the famed “Minnesota nice” turned to passive aggressive poison and condescending, self righteous blame.

And then her car had overheated, bursting a hose at the first gas station she had stopped at. Since then, the heat had also turned its back on her, so she spent the remaining hours on the road shivering against the frost with a blanket wrapped over her lap, her face buried in her scarf up to her nose and cold air blasting her on its way off the windshield from the defrost fan, which she had to keep running to keep her own breath from frosting over the glass.

The piano piece drifted to an end. The radio host was silent for a moment before uttering the name of the piece, “Cobalt Thief,” and a gentle description of its origin, a webcomic called Homestuck. She’d have to check that out. If she didn’t freeze to death first.

As the radio station shifted to another piece, apparently a score from a video game she’d never heard of, she turned her mind to more important thoughts, such as how she would get out of this mess. She didn’t have to get out of the car to know there was no chance she could drive it back onto the road. She dug through a suitcase and found a scarf – it was yellow, not red, but it would have to do – and shoved half of it out the window closest to the road. With an extra blanket wrapped around her, she settled in to wait, listening to the quiet tones of the radio to keep her calm.

—–

A dull thumping woke her from a dream where she was a caterpillar, stuck in its cocoon while ice slowly built up around her, restricting her movement and slowing her breath.

“Hello?” Thump thump thump.

Something kept her eyes from opening, and her cheekbones felt like they had been replaced with fresh coldpacks. Her lips and nose, still buried in her scarf, were cold and wet, and ice crystals had formed on the yarn farthest from her mouth. It was ice on her eyes, too, she realized when she finally got them open. Her feet were numb, her muscles were stiff and sore from shivering and the chill and she felt more than a little dizzy.

“Hello? Are you OK in there?”

It was a man’s voice, and the thumping followed again. It shook the car.

“Help” was the first word she could get past her lips, and it wasn’t very loud. The man outside shook the car again with his thumping. The door handle rattled, but the door didn’t move. She could hear her mother’s voice chiding her in her mind, “well that’s not very smart, girl, you shouldn’t have left the doors locked!”

Her arm felt as heavy as her dead cat, but she managed to get her fingers on the automatic door lock and push it. All four doors clicked and the passenger door swept open. The man’s head and shoulders filled the space and he said something under his breath. A paper bag in the passenger seat crinkled at his touch.

“You haven’t been drinking this, have you?”

“N-n-no. P-please. Help.”

“I’m coming, hang on, miss. I’m going to come to the other side of the car and get you out of here.”

He disappeared, slamming the door hard behind him. The force shook the car again. She could hear his boots crunching unevenly through the snow banks. Then her door was opening and he was back. His hand found the seat belt buckle hanging against the frame.

“Alright, I’m going to get you out now, I’ll have to pick you up, OK?”

She nodded and let him slide her out of the vehicle. Her car was lit by the headlights of his big truck, but her lights had died completely, although she had left them on to signal anyone who might go by.

“My truck’s right here, let’s get you warmed up a bit. How long’ve you been out here?”

“N-not sure. It-t was alm-most seven.”

“Christ… There’s a hospital about thirty minutes from here,” he said, easing her into the passenger seat of the truck. The fan was on full blast, the cabin felt like fire compared to her own vehicle. As soon as she was in, he ran to the driver’s door and hopped in, flicking the fan down to low.

“You’re going to be OK,” he said. As she drifted back off to sleep, she wasn’t sure if he was talking to her or to himself.

The Date

•January 27, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Larry Higgins. Larry. Higgins. LarryHigginsLarryHigginsLarryHigginsLarryHiggins.

The pretentious bastard.

Larry Higgins’ name sprawled across the cream-white paper, neatly boxed in by a gold border and decorated with fanciful curls at the ends of the letters.

“JoAnna Clark and Larry Higgins request the pleasure of your presence as they celebrate their marriage on Saturday, April 4, 2015.”

Request? Who did he think he was, anyway, requesting my presence! Requesting my presents, more like.

David flung the invitation onto the table, where it slid and spun nearly off the far edge and onto the floor. Of course, the ribbon-stitched envelope also included another card, also edged in gold with that impossible-to-read black script, this one intended for him to scratch his own signature and a mark indicating whether he would or would not be attempting to show off his prowess as a male of the species – could he, or could he not, attract and retain a female of at least adequate standing?

Larry Higgins’ bet was likely against him, David thought, his lip curling up in distaste.

David hadn’t been on a date in two years. The last time he had, it was at Disney World, with a stunning creature whose laughter and vivacity put all the parks’ princesses to shame. He remembered her pulling him through the crowds, red hair pouring around her shoulders like fire whenever the sun caught it. She squeezed his hand so tight on the roller coasters that when they got off, his little finger had gone numb. And the whole trip she wore this pair of Mickey Mouse ears that made her look just ridiculous but also a little like a creature from one of Disney’s fairy tales.

The ears still hung, crooked, off his corner bedpost. She had put them on him as they left the park, calling him her little mouse because he had been so timid.

That was the last time he saw her. At least until Larry Higgins  showed up with her at their high school reunion last year. They had met at a business conference, he said, and she didn’t seem to remember David at all.

***

“What can I get you?”

“Whiskey, neat.”

The bartender nodded once and stepped away, returning half a moment later with a lowball glass and a bottle, filling the glass almost half full with amber liquid. Then he was gone, leaving David to nurse his drink alone.

Tonight’s crowd was a cheery one, probably thanks to the fact it was Friday, and most of the drinkers there were finally done with work for the week, with ample time to tend a hangover in the morning in the comfort of their beds. There were some of the regulars, the short, 50-something man who shifted like a wannabe boxer from foot to foot as he tried to impress one much younger woman, and then another, and another, never seeming to understand they all called him a creep. There was the 30-year-old couple that liked to kick back in the corner booth, sometimes with friends, sometimes on their own, talking about everything and nothing while sipping tall glasses of beer and munching on appetizers. There were a couple stray 20-something single men, always on the prowl for a phone number and full of charm to earn them more than a few.

David wondered, briefly, how they all would describe him. The 30-something guy with just a smidgen too much flesh about his belly, maybe, sitting at the bar, alone, spending most of the evening staring into his glass.

But tonight was different. Tonight he was, admittedly, a little bit desperate. With a wedding just a few short weeks away, he still hadn’t managed to find a date. He remembered signing his awkward signature on the pristine RSVP card and slicing a line through the box that read “Plus one.” He was no closer to having a date then, either, but it wasn’t like he could show up alone. Not to Larry Higgins’ wedding. Larry Higgins was the one man David knew who would take such an opportunity to publicly humiliate him. He could imagine it – standing in the middle of the reception hall, Larry Higgins’ arm around his shoulders, champagne glass held high and a grin as big and twisted as the Joker’s, calling out to all the ladies in their fancy dresses: “Ladies! Please! Won’t just ONE of you do this poor man the honor of a dance? I can’t have my man David here on his own the WHOLE night, now, come on!” while the women laugh and cling just a little more tightly to their dates.

“Rough week?”

David looked up to find a woman next to him, easing onto the bar stool and sagging on her elbows against the bar.

“Rough year.”

“I hear ya.” She hailed the bartender. “Vodka cranberry, please, with ice on the side.”

She had one of those low, pleasant voices, the one that is just barely loud enough to hear over everything else in the room. She looked to be about his age, maybe early 30s, maybe late 20s, and dressed in an unassuming sweater and jeans. She had long hair, dark brown and wavy, and eyes that were a mix of hazel and green.

Their conversation started awkwardly, but before the evening was half over, they were cracking jokes, sharing sarcastic stories of their frustrated careers and lackluster social lives. Her name was Gemma, she worked for a human resources firm where she spent most of her day sitting at a desk taking calls and pushing papers, which, somehow, drained her more than a day of chores at her grandfather’s farm ever had, she said. She lived not far away, by herself, in a dark apartment that she paid too much for. She wanted a dog, and a garden, and a garage where she could work on her paintings. And when he told her about how all his college friends were either married, had children, or both, her eyes rolled back.

“I KNOW,” she said. “I’ve been to so many weddings in the past five years I can’t even remember what gift I got for which couple.”

David laughed. “That’s my next problem,” he said. “I’ve got this one coming up in just a couple weeks. I have no idea what to get them.”

“Friends? Family?”

“An old roommate. I wouldn’t say we’re exactly friends. And…” his voice trailed off as an image of JoAnna flickered on the surface of his drink. He must be more drunk than he thought.

“And?”

“It’s nothing. This girl I used to date.”

“Oooh, that is a rough year,” Gemma answered, taking another sip of her third vodka cranberry.

“No, it’s fine. She doesn’t even remember me. But this guy, he’s like…. You know the guy in those movies, the one who’s just a dick to everyone but always seems to come out on top?”

Gemma laughed softly and nodded.

“That’s Larry Higgins. Top salesman, voted best dressed, drives around this shiny red convertible and even – get this – he even points finger guns at it every time he parks it.”

“Seriously? I thought those guys were just a Hollywood thing.”

“Apparently not.”

“So why are you going to his wedding? You should just blow him off.”

“Eh, I thought about it. But that’s one of those things you just don’t do, right? Especially when the guy can come back and make who-knows-what-kind of assumptions about you to your boss.” He took another swig of whiskey.

“True.”

“I just need to find a date.” The words rolled off his tongue as easily as his eyes rolled at the thought. He didn’t intend to blurt it out like that, even though he had been set on asking this particular woman for that particular favor for the past – what was it now – 20 minutes? Two hours? The clock behind the bar read 1:26 a.m. Huh. Maybe it was closer to three hours now.

“I’ll go,” she suggested, just as easily. “When is it?”

“Uh.” He shook his head once and grinned. “April 4.”

She made a halfhearted show of looking at her phone. “Looks like I’m free.”

***

He had a date. Actually, he had a girlfriend. A legitimate, Facebook-official girlfriend. He and Gemma had gone out for coffee the next day (to help both their hangovers, they said), and dinner just a couple nights after that. They had gone to the zoo and made sarcastic jokes about the lemurs and the ostriches. They walked some local trails, he taught her a little about the computer that was giving her trouble and she showed him her paintings. They had even managed to catch a play at the theater; she whispered comments in his ear about the art techniques used on the set and admired the costumes.

Larry Higgins’ wedding was just days away. Not that he cared so much anymore. He let his eyes linger on the invitation he had stuck on the refrigerator as a reminder of the date.

“JoAnna Clark and Larry Higgins request the pleasure of your presence as they celebrate their marriage on Saturday, April 4, 2015,” he read aloud. “The pleasure of your presents,” he amended, smiling at the memory he and Gemma had had not so long ago about what to give the happy couple for their wedding present. She had suggested handcuffs, or a diaper (just one). He wandered into his bedroom and let himself fall on his bed. A rattle at one corner caught his attention and he found himself looking at the Mickey Mouse ears. They were dusty, and a tiny thread of a spiderweb had caught on one of the ears. He felt a grin creeping into his jaw. That would work.

“My little mouse,” she had said. “You’re so timid, David. How do you ever expect you’re going to keep up with me that way?” She had taken the ears off her own head and fitted them onto his. “Here, you should take these.”

“But I bought them for you,” he had protested. She waved one hand in dismissal and patted his head between the ears.

“See you,” she had said, and with that she spun away and disappeared into the crowds headed for the bus station.

The sight of a stranger

•January 13, 2015 • 2 Comments

Thirteen years.

For thirteen years – as long as she could remember, really – Murlayne had lived among the great white walls at the temple. She learned how to scrub floors and dishes and polish all manner of precious metals, how to gather food from the garden and tell a hostile weed from next month’s dinner. She learned the proper way to pray, the right way to kneel and the perfect angles at which to hold her chin when addressing a Priyess, and Elda, or the Voice of Syi herself. There were letters and numbers to etch into her memory, as well as the methods for manipulating them both. She learned which plants would end a high fever and which ones would make a woman bleed when she hadn’t bled in as long as four months. She learned the rituals, the incantations, the many and varied wills of Syi, the proper tone with which to address both high lords and peasants – and how to impress upon them the great need Syi had for their gold, their daughters, or both. For thirteen years, she learned what it meant to be truly pious, to be a beacon of light to those wandering in the gloom outside the temple walls. The true will of Syi was all-encompassing. There was nothing else.

Meanwhile, war raged. Whispers of distant and not-so-distant battles crept into the temple corners. Women submitted themselves to Syi clothed in black or covered in the soot of their kitchen fires. Men came to the temple for healing – both of gruesome wounds to their bodies and of their hearts and minds. Their screams woke her in the night, interrupted her during her prayers, and followed her through the white halls as she went about her chores.

“Why are they fighting?” she had asked the headwoman once.

“They fight over nothing, child,” the woman had answered. “Dust and more dust. It is nothing for your concern.”

Perhaps not for her concern, she mused, but there certainly seemed to be plenty of concern among the Seven Sisters and the Voice of Syi. Messengers arrived almost daily and were shown into their council. They tried to be discreet, dressed in anything from a sailor’s wind-torn shirt to a royal servant’s uniform, but each bore a telltale glance in their eye, and no matter how poorly dressed, was escorted by a silent sister, one of the Seven’s personal attendants.

Murlayne let a few drops of oil fall onto the little stone altar and rubbed them in with slightly less vigor than the Eldas had taught her. Her seven prayer beads clicked against the side, gently tapping the blindfolded face depicting Syi’s justice.

She had seen the war for the first time when she left the temple walls to come to this place, her first assignment as a new Priyess. Eight days into her journey, the caravan providing her passage came upon one of the battlefields. They smelled it before they saw it. The stench of rot and excrement from the scavengers rose from the dirt with the heat. It soaked the valley and stretched foul fingers toward them on the breeze. Bodies blackened by decay and the sun were scattered across the land, any dry vegetation that had been there trampled away or, in some places, burned to the root. Ravens beat their wings at each other and argued over the choicest remains, although the very best had already been eaten. A wild dog snarled at one bird and lost its prize to another that took advantage of the distraction. The dead men might have worn uniforms but Murlayne could not tell. They could have belonged to one lord or another. A standard laying in the dirt might have offered some sort of clue as to who these men were, had it not been shredded and half burned. The caravan did not stop. The travelers did not speak. Instead, they pulled scarves or bits of cloth over their mouths and noses. They tilted their heads at the angle appropriate for the Voice of Syi and drove the oxen forward at a slightly faster plod. The oxen did not protest.

They had been joined once by another traveler, a tinker full of wild stories of demons rising from the dead and dragons falling from the sky, but his tales were accompanied, always, by the bite of a spirit of the liquid kind. When he left them, his words did not linger.

The war had not come here yet. She gave the altar a final polish with her rag and stood to review her work. Suitable. A few boys had left, caught up by the fantasies of glory at war, but mostly the people here went about their work. The rising sun sent them to their business and the setting sun sent them to their dinners. At midday, they gathered around her little sanctuary, drank the water she hauled in for them and ate sun-baked flatbreads made by the women. Her lips twisted a little at the thought of those meager meals. Behind the sanctuary she had started a garden, which she hoped would provide her village with more. Maybe almonds or blackberries, dates or even apricots, but those would take some time. And of course, much of what she would grow would have to be sent back to the temple in tithe. And then, no doubt, the rest would be taken for the war.

The greatest contact Murlayne had with the war came in the formal messages sent by the Seven Sisters. As an initiate, matters of war were no concern to her, she was told. But now that she was a Priyess, and responsible for these common people, the temple seemed to consider her worthy of at least some information. Armies traveled here and there. This lord had defeated that one, and through it all, Murlayne was to calm her people and direct them to Syi. They could protect themselves by diligence, earn Syi’s grace by submitting their most precious possessions to her chosen Voice. They could take pride in their sons who heeded the warrior’s call, and honor in the daughters that devoted themselves to the will of Syi.

And then there were the dreams. At first it was just one. A week later, it came again, the same images pouring through her mind. Now it was nearly every night, always starting the same. A king, draped in red with a towering gold crown, raising a red sword to a black dragon. And on the dragon’s neck, a girl who would turn and look straight at Murlayne, despite the fact that there was no Murlayne in this dream. From there the dream would shift like fog, some nights drifting to the corpse-strewn battlefield she had passed with the caravan, sometimes lifting her into the clouds to look down on the temple of Syi. Once it showed her hand in hand with a man, which was preposterous – a Priyess would be executed if she let her devotion stray from Syi. There were murders other nights, dark and bloody deeds observed with the cold breath of death or through hot tears. Or chases, with unknown terrors driving her across parched deserts or through dank nights. Last night’s had been peaceful, at least. After the girl looked at her, the dream showed her the village with its quiet mornings, the cool light of the morning sun and children laughing as their parents wake up. And a single man walking among the houses, his step slow and thoughtful. He stopped when a boy staggered in front of him with a bundle, smiled, and carried the bundle for the child. He was a gentle man, with hair the color of sand and a long white scarf coiled thick around his neck, mouth, and nose that trailed long behind him over one shoulder. Of all the dreams she’d had since the king and the dragon first appeared, this one was the only one that woke her with a smile instead of a heart racing from terror or disgust.

It was just fear, spawned by letters of armies and deaths. One of the girls who had shared her closet at the temple had talked about the Sight, but it had been so long since any of the Eldas at the temple had that supreme gift that most there now, including the Seven Sisters themselves, believed the stories to be little more than myth. Murlayne’s bunk mate loudly insisted – in front of the whole assembly and the Voice of Syi, no less – that her sister had the Sight and had seen the temple’s doom. Within days, Murlayne had a new girl sharing her closet. The other, well, girls taken to the temple never returned home. And of course, she was never to be seen at the temple again.

The Sight was a dangerous idea, she learned. And like most dangerous ideas, it was rooted in faulted history. Girls often giggled about having it when they dreamed something spectacular, but the Voice of Syi had spoken. Syi had no use for the Sight. Not when Syi could speak directly through the Voice. Still, when the dragon appeared and reappeared night after night, Murlayne found her mind drifting to those old stories of women gifted with the ability to see the events that were yet to come.

“Nonsense,” she muttered. Most likely it was some fear hidden deep within her, expressing itself in symbols. A black dragon – a creature so fearsome it had to be lifted from the depths of fantasy – to be vanquished by a noble king. And a girl – herself, perhaps? – looking to her as if telling her simply that she needed to act. Slay the dragon. Conquer the fear. There were common seers and street peddlers that would perform such readings for five coppers at the foot of the temple’s white steps. The Seven Sisters let them be, and more than once, Murlayne had seen the Eldas pay the fortune tellers a visit.

She shook the dust out of her hem and adjusted her prayer beads on her belt. It was approaching midday, and the villagers would be gathering soon for their water, bread, and to join her in reciting the Seahs. The river – it was really more of a stream – was a good walk outside the village and she would have to make several trips to ease everyone’s thirst. A large copper basin rested near the entrance to the sanctuary. She slid it across the ground just outside, where it would be easily accessible once filled with water. Across the way, a boy laughed. It was a pleasant sound, and she smiled as she turned to find the child. It sounded like one of the elder’s sons.

It was. With him was a man carrying a bundle wrapped in burlap and twine. The man reached down and ruffled the boys hair with what looked like a smile, but Murlayne couldn’t quite make it out under the coiled white scarf that trailed long over one shoulder, its end flapping like a banner in the breeze.

Three kisses

•January 5, 2015 • 1 Comment

Charles didn’t want to die.

But, as luck would have it, that was to be his lot in life. It was a fact. Everyone knew it. Creatures like Charles were never meant to live long.

He swung his head to the side as if it were weighed down by a hundred-pound millstone and kissed his shoulder three times. He couldn’t see it very well, but there were three perfectly shaped white spots there, all in a line. His mother used to kiss them every day. Three kisses for luck, she had told him. Three kisses to keep the fates at bay. His memory of her was foggy, much like the forest he now walked through. He had her brown eyes, her auburn hair, her deep, rich voice — but that was about all he could recall. He was still young when their masters took him away from her. Sometimes he would catch glimpses of her from where he worked in the fields and would call out to her, but she never seemed to hear him, and before long his masters were on him with their whips, punishing him with stripes across his back until he lowered his head again and got back to work, cowed by the inevitability of his position.

As the fog swirled around his legs, Charles could feel the inevitable. Death, he thought, was creeping in, disguising its laughter in the whispers of the stream his captor led him along. He was bound to her by a rope, a single, supple band of fibers that smelled remotely of hair when it was damp. The woman was half his size, he could easily push her over, probably. He kissed his shoulder three times and was quickly rewarded with a sharp tug on the rope that jerked him back to task.

Her name was Colette, he thought, judging by how the other masters called her. Her dress was dirty, although that was nothing new. She was usually the one to clean out the barn where they had kept him and the evidence of her work was left on the hem of her skirt even now. He remembered once, when he was still young, when she came to him in the morning, brown and white feathers stuck to her apron. She tickled his nose with one and laughed when he sneezed.

Colette had always been kind to Charles. Not like the other masters. The others were bigger, meaner. They came at him with harnesses and whips, driving him through the fields day after day until his muscles screamed, his tongue stuck to his mouth for lack of water, and his breath felt like burrs in his throat. Some days they carried axes and struck off the heads of the chickens that foraged around him; other days they thrashed the horses till the beasts were so broken they could no longer fight the weight of the man on their backs. And every so often, Charles would hear the blood flooded screams of his own brothers as they had their lives ended at the masters’ hands. They were coming for him, too. He knew they were. They would eye his body, prod at his muscles and the little bits of fat he had left as if trying to see how much time he had left.

It was their fate. Charles knew. They were meant to work, and then to die. He kissed his shoulder three times. Three times to keep fate at bay.

Colette’s path took a sharp turn and led them to a flat wooden bridge over the little river. The fog hovered just over the surface of the rutted planks and veiled the opposite shore in grey. Is this how he would die? The wood couldn’t be strong enough to hold them both, and although the water wasn’t deep, Charles didn’t think he could swim at all. Just a little water would be enough to kill him. And the rocks…. He planted his feet firm in the soft ground and grunted.

“Come, Charles,” Colette hissed. The sound was cold in his ears and softened by the fog. That, he thought, that was the voice of the reaper. “Come now.”

He swung his head to his shoulder, but just as he got one kiss planted Colette jerked the rope and snapped his head back toward her. Three kisses. He swung his head, and she stopped him with another flick of the rope.

“Charles, move,” she hissed. The fog swirled around again, eddied by the air moving over the water. No, he would not let fate claim him now. He swung his head again. Two, three kisses to protect him from the fates. Colette yanked hard on the rope, pulling his neck forward in such a way he could not resist taking a step, then another, and a third, and then he was on the damp wood, the whispering water flowing beneath his feet. I will not die tonight, he thought. Three kisses brought luck, his mother had told him. Three kisses would save him from death.

Colette stopped at the middle of the bridge. With a glance to each shore, she bent over and reached under the edge of the railing. Her hand came back grasping something shimmering. It was a small band of metal, one of the rings the male masters wore on their fingers sometimes. Colette dropped the band into a skirt pocket and led them onward. The trail took them farther into the forest, and soon the whispering of the little river grew to violent hissing. Was she taking him to some sort of snake’s nest? He kissed his shoulder once, twice, three times against his master’s tugging.

The path opened to a cascade of water pouring over a series of wide rocks. There was another master hunched near the base of the falls who stood as Colette approached.

“Colette?” he called out. His voice was different that Charles’ usual masters’. While their voices were loud and bold, this man’s voice was soft, and the sounds melded together much like the mist swirled around them.

“It’s me, Francois,” Colette called back.

“You’ve come from the farm?”

“Oui. No one will miss me until morning. Here.” She brought the ring from her pocket and handed it to the man. He took it with care, rubbing the fog from its surface and inspecting its curves. “Who is Sandrine?” Colette asked.

Francois rubbed one finger across the inside of the band. “Sandrine,” he said. “She was my mother.”

“That’s your father’s ring?”

Francois nodded. “The only thing I have left of him.” He straightened and looked at Charles. “That’s the beast, then?”

“Oui, he’s the last.” Colette looked over her shoulder at Charles. “Poor thing. He’d already be dead if he had any meat left on his bones.”

“Leave him here a moment. I want to show you something.”

Colette tied her end of the rope to a tree, leaving Charles to stand alone by the river as Francois led her up the rocks. They crawled into a tiny alcove behind the water, their words covered by the falls. There was the clink of stone on steel, then a spark spark, and then the alcove burst with light. Charles could hear Colette cry out in surprise. Then in the glow he could make out the two masters holding hands, and the man putting the ring on Colette’s finger. She stared down at her hand for a moment, then rushed forward and wrapped her arms around the man. When they emerged together, the alcove stayed lit, a long flame glowing behind the waterfall even though there was no wood to burn and the rocks around were soaked.

Was this some sort of magic? It was not like any fire he had seen before. Charles kissed his shoulder three times. He would not burn tonight, not even if the flames were fed by hell itself.

Tera

•March 23, 2013 • 1 Comment

Okay. I’m officially hooked on Tera.

For a free-to-play MMO, at first glance, this game is amazing. Even as a subscription-based game it’s amazing.

Let’s start with the graphics. I know I commented on these before, but really, this world is beautiful. It’s detailed. It’s imaginative. It’s got enough realism to make me feel like I’m actually in this fantastical place. Take a look:

A view of the Island of Dawn Tower Base.

A view of the Island of Dawn Tower Base.

I mean, honestly. Is that not stunning?? Yes, I do have most of the graphics settings set to high or ultra, but I imagine it would still be good on lower settings too.

Let’s talk character creation. Again: awesome. There are seven races to choose from and eight classes. Tera lets you play what you want by allowing any race to be any class. My one complaint with the classes is that several of them are pretty similar. Warriors, Slayers and Berserkers all are close-combat sword or axe fighters. Lancers are the primary tanks and use a lance (like those used in jousting) and shield. Then there’s the ranged Archer and Sorcerer and two healing classes, the Priest and Mystic. Once you choose your race and class, you have a wide range of customization choices. At least a dozen hairstyles unique to each class, probably two dozen or more colors, facial markings, and the whole compliment of fine detailing – like selecting the EXACT size of the nose/chin/whatever.

I only have two issues with character creation at this point. First, the game likes to kick me out if I take too long creating. Second, on a free account, you only have two character slots. There is an option to purchase more, though, with a maximum of eight slots.

Let’s get into the game itself. For someone as accustomed to World of Warcraft as I am, it took me a little bit to get used to the user interface. There’s no targeting in Tera, so it’s important to always be facing your enemy. No strafing or backing up, either. WSAD will simply turn you to face whichever direction you push. The view locks to the mouse also, so moving your mouse is sortof like moving your head, and if you’re running, moving the mouse will change your direction. Pushing Alt brings up the UI, so you can use your mouse to manage your toolbars, maps, in-game menus, etc. You can also play using a controller instead of a mouse/keyboard if you want.

I’m starting to slip into the storyline of Tera now. Here’s the early basics: The Valkyon Federation is at war with the Argons. In the midst of it, a new island was discovered. After crash landing on the island and attempting to fend of the demons attacking there, the Valkyon’s best commander, Elleon, disappears. Most believe him to be dead. As a new player, you’re sent to the island to train for the war while helping Leander, Elleon’s brother, search for Elleon. Once you get to Velika, the capitol, you begin to learn of other issues facing the Valkyon Federation.

Unlike most MMOs I’ve seen, players don’t choose a faction. All the races in Tera are part of the Valkyon Federation. There is PvP, however, if you choose to become an outlaw. Outlaws can player-kill outside of peaceful areas. Peaceful areas, thankfully, seem to be cities, towns, and quest hubs, while the space in between is free. There are PvE servers too, if you don’t care to deal with other players.

Another interesting aspect is the in-game player government. I’m still learning about this, but it looks like each zone has a vanarch – a governor or lord – who is a guild leader chosen on a regular basis through either player voting or guild-versus-guild battles. Vanarchs are responsible for the governance, of sorts, and they set tax rates (NPC vendors close while a new vanarch is setting up the rules). It seems like a really neat aspect to the game, but I only just found out about it.

I still have a ways to go in the game. I made a Castanic Warrior as my “main,” and am currently level 13. I think the level cap is 60 at this point. But it’s easy to get into. There’s also a nice little Prologue option to play… if you’re not sure what character you want, make one and play the prologue. It puts you on the beach on the Island of Dawn where Elleon’s troops crashed. You drop in at level 20 with all the level 20 abilities, so it gives you a chance to learn how a class plays while also taking you through the early lore. You don’t keep anything from the prologue, but it’s nice to be able to play that piece of the story, and get a chance to test a class in-game.

Here’s another shot from the Island of Dawn:

A view of Leander's Outpost on the Island of Dawn.

A view of Leander’s Outpost on the Island of Dawn.

Degu!

•March 14, 2013 • 2 Comments

So I sortof have a new fiction blog on the way (I hope), but since I’m struggling with a bit of writer’s block and a bit of uncertainty regarding the direction of the tale… here’s a gaming update!

In the World of Warcraft, my characters are getting stronger and stronger. Well, some of them. Ana is trying to keep up with gear scores and whatnot at level 90, Cindyr rampaged from level 50 or so to 75, Amiryx jumped a few short levels and is getting used to new warlock abilities, and Misrielle was reincarnated as a Draenei… named… Kashira, I think. Or Keshira. Something like that. She’s still trying to catch up to where Mis left off.

Yesterday, Ana got a new pet. I’m proud to say I’m continuing to play Blizzard’s game by successfully claiming challenge tame pets. After finessing my way through two Firelands spiders, a crab, a black-skinned red-eyed panther, and then finding and taming several rare spawns from both WotLK and Cataclysm content, I had thought I might be done taming. After all, I can only tame 25 total, and only five can travel with me, and most of my stable slots were already full. And then I saw this guy.

Degu WowHead

Degu
(Wowhead photo)

His name is Degu. He’s a red spectral porcupine. He’s a spirit beast. He one-shots you if you stand too close. He two-shots you if you stand too far away. He runs faster than you. He’s untamable until you drop his health down to about 20%. He has more than 3 million health. I had to have him. 🙂

It took several deaths, the help of a healer and a warlock (although if I had been a little more careful I probably could have managed it alone), and many minutes, but he’s mine. Blizzard REALLY needs to add in challenge tame achievements….

In other game news, I started casually (read, intermittently/rarely) playing Tera. Gorgeous graphics, haven’t gotten far enough to say how well I like it overall yet. I’ve played some Skyrim, but again, it’s not very regular. The Legend of Grimrock is a fun dungeon crawler that kinda has me freaked out about losing torches and heavy mail armor wearers stalking me from behind the walls…. There’s a cute MMO called Dragon’s Nest that is good for a cheery bit of insanity, and then Magicka is AWESOME (mostly for the almost-English language the wizards speak!). I’ll have to write more about that sometime, and the muscle-memory button mashing that it requires.

That’s all for now!

Decade five

•November 7, 2012 • 1 Comment

Cold.

It was the first thing Triss felt. Bone-numbing cold that penetrated even through her heart. The pain was excruciating as her blood warmed, vessels expanded, and her organs started flexing once again. The breathing was involuntary. She gasped for air, trying all the while to stop the reflex and save herself from the fire that was rushing through her throat and into her lungs. When she managed to break her eyelids open, all she could see above her was an opaque pane. On either side were white walls with metal plates dotting them.

Surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the pain to subside, although Triss suspected there was some sort of numbing agent in the air she was breathing.  With heat returning, she could start to remember why she was in the container in the first place. Deep-freezing was still relatively new when she originally put on the special suit and settled into the coffin-sized box. Some Russian scientist had developed the technology, and it had been successfully tested several times on dogs, apes, and even some humans who desperately needed some money. Still, she would be lying if she claimed she didn’t half expect to never come out of the box alive.

A motor whirred quietly behind one of the walls and the pane above her gave a little click. New air — clean air — hissed in around the edges and sank around her while the lid lifted the rest of the way off.

“You made it Triss, welcome back,” a familiar voice said.

Triss sat slowly and looked over the edge of the container. A woman stood there with an infotablet, watching her with great interest.

“Do you remember my name?”

The wrinkles across her cheeks were new, as was the hunch in her shoulders, but Triss remembered.

“Janys, what’s happened to you?”

“It’s called aging, silly. Do you know how many times you’ve come out of the chamber?”

“Five.” Five times Janys had stood before her like this, asking the same set of questions and performing the same physical tests she was about to begin. Every time Triss climbed out of the chamber marked another 10 years of their journey past. She got to wait it out on ice, aging only one day out of every decade. But Janys had to stay awake. She was one of the best doctors in the world for techmed, and easily the youngest when she boarded the ship. Now she got to grow old and frail while she looked after a cast and crew full of ageless, lifeless bodies.

“Good. Lets get you on your feet then.”

Triss pulled herself over the chamber walls and stepped onto the floor. It was warm, but it might have been just that her feet still felt like blocks of ice. The first couple times she had done this, she had leaned on Janys as she put her muscles back to work. This time, she forced herself to do it on her own. There was still another cycle left before they reached Alpha, and it wouldn’t do any good to risk injuring the one person who could make sure every man and woman on board woke up properly. Janys wasn’t alone, of course. Others would have been woken at the third cycle to replace the first shift. But Janys was their head, and without her, mistakes were bound to happen.

“Any news?” Triss asked as the old woman directed her through the physical tests — flexing muscles and joints, hearing and vision screens, motor response, and the like.

“It’s been quiet. The boys have started the garden. It’s only a year in, but some of the varieties they’ve come up with are stunning. You should make sure to see it. The humidity will do you good, too.”

“Any word from home?”

“Nothing. The last message was 16 years ago, and you saw that one.”

Triss had seen it. It had been too short for her liking. Decennial report received. No change to schedule. Continue on course. The last update she sent went unanswered. She had a hunch they were being dismissed, but as to why, she couldn’t say. But it wasn’t worth worrying too much over. It’s not like they could turn around and go home to ask.

“We ran into a dust storm a few years back. The captain — well, the shift captain had to take us off autopilot for a little while to get through it, but everything’s back on course. He thinks we might have lost a couple days, but no more than that.”

“No damage?”

Janys grinned. “You’re not the only one who can dodge rocks around here.”

Triss smiled. It was true, after all. She was the captain of this ship, but her shift captains were quite nearly as capable as she, which was exactly why she chose them. There were several others the Interstellar Federation had offered that might well have gotten them all killed by now.

“And what’s the latest of your hobbies?” Triss asked. Every time Triss woke up, Janys had a new project or a new skill. Her explorations were famous to the shift crews.

“Oh, I finished reading the medical library.”

“All of it?”

“Of course. I’ve got a good start into the botany library as well, and the boys gave me a little plot to tend my own little subjects. Mine aren’t nearly as useful as theirs, but they’re definitely more entertaining! I made this one flower that looks just hideous, all spotted orange and brown and spiked all over the stem and leaves, but it sings the most amazing songs.”

“It sings? Since when do plants sing?”

“Oh, since about six years ago. I just picked up the technique last year. But what I think I can do is program it to meter air quality. The studies say that there are gas storms on Alpha, but they come up slow. I figured if I can program the flowers to read the air content and sing a particular song depending on what it reads, we can still be safe without having to ration the ship’s sensors and personal meters.”

“That’s incredible, Janys.”

The older woman shrugged. “I still have to see if it’s even possible. Right now the thing is more like that budgie I used to have back on Earth. Sings pretty enough but just looks at you sideways if you ask it a question.”

Triss laughed. Janys chuckled and handed her a folded uniform.

“Here. You have your rounds to do. Are we on for that chess game still?”

“Definitely. I’ll see you tonight.”

The cave

•June 17, 2012 • 2 Comments

It was raining outside her little cave when Zira woke up. The air had cooled with the shift in weather, and she was thankful, if a little chilled. The past several days had been hot enough to scorch her skin and there had been enough moisture that each breath felt like drowning.

Outside, water dripped steadily from the firs and fell muffled on the ground. Tiny waterfalls made a sort of beaded curtain at the mouth of the cave and ran off down the side of the mountain. Zira curled her knees closer to her chest and stared out into the wet world. It had been nine days since she left the narrow path the locals drove their goats along. Nine days since she’d seen anyone at all. Nine days since the river, and her escape.

She wasn’t sure where she was supposed to go, or what she was supposed to do, but her husband had told her to go deep into the mountains, well away from the city. And here she was, huddled in a cave in the mountains with nothing but squirrels and birds to keep her company.

Now what.

Her provisions had run out three days ago, but the gamey rabbit she had roasted over her fire last night was still keeping her belly satisfied. There was a little of the meat left yet, wrapped tight in the cloth that had held a partial wheel of cheese and tucked into her depleted bags where, hopefully, it would be safe from the bugs.

A twig snapped outside, bringing Zira out of her quiet reverie. She sat up and pulled her knife from its sheath inside her boot leg. The ground was covered in needles from the trees, and with the rain, it was all soft enough for even large creatures to move around in near silence. Somewhere up the mountain, she heard something scrape against stone, then pebbles tumbling down the rocks.

She edged to the front of the cave and peered out through the watery beads. Standing not thirty feet away, and looking right at her, was a man. She could see the emerald green of his eye as it stared at her over the shaft of a thin black arrow ready to loose.

Zira slowly stepped through the water and held her hands out to her sides and let her knife drop to the ground. She might be quick with a knife, but the arrow would reach her before she could get a blade in the air. The man didn’t lower his bow, but he did relax. She breathed. That was good. He was thinking.

His hair hung soaked to his shoulders and water ran down the oilskin coat he wore. A quiver full of more black arrows poked over one shoulder.

“Who are you?” he finally called.

“Just a woman seeking shelter from the rain,” she answered.

He let the tension out of the bow and took one step, then another towards her.

“You look a long way away from home for shelter. There’s nothing around here for days. What are you doing out here?”

“My business is my own, sir, but I can assure you I bring no trouble. Promise me you’ll do me no harm and I’ll promise I’ll do none to you.”

He laughed and slung the bow across his back as he approached. “Well then. You have my word, miss. Would you share your shelter?”

She nodded and stepped back into the cave, glad to be out of the rain. Just a few minutes had been enough to dampen her hair and clothes enough to be uncomfortable. She’d want a fire to dry herself off, and she was sure this new companion would welcome the heat as well. There was still a little wood she’d collected for last night’s fire.

The man took off his coat and shook the water off it while she got to work getting a spark to catch in the kindling. He was a tall man, enough so that he couldn’t fully stand in the cave, but slender. He moved like a hunter, she thought. A well practiced one.

“It’s not often I find anyone up this far,” he said. “Especially not young women. At least, not anyone alive. I’m surprised you’re still breathing.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“The mountains are a dangerous place.”

“Is it the squirrels trying to take you home for dinner? Or the crows?”

He smiled, but she could see him assessing her as he leaned in to help coax the flames to life. “There are much larger things than crows and squirrels in these parts. Or haven’t you seen them?”

“I’ve seen nothing but creatures barely fit for a stew.”

“And haven’t you wondered why that is?” His tone made her pause. At home she had been accustomed to being in the woods, and now that she thought of it, there was something missing in these mountains. Back home there had been deer, bears, occasionally a wolf. But here there was none of that. The largest thing she had seen since leaving the road was the rabbit she ate last night.

“Why?”

“This is dragon country.” Zira laughed and leaned back against the wall of the cave.

“Dragons? Do you really mean to scare me with children’s stories? The dragons were all killed ages ago.”

“Or so some would have us believe. But I’ve seen them myself. Nearly got killed by one.” He turned and lifted his shirt to expose a thick, long gash stretching from below his belt up across his back. “Startled one feeding once, just about a day from here, actually. Doubt I would have survived if she hadn’t been so set on filling her belly.”

“You’re joking…”

“Not at all. I’ve seen at least three up here, maybe more, but it’s hard to tell what color they are unless you’re close, and it’s hard to get close and live to tell the tale. Vicious creatures, they are.”

“Then why are you up here?”

“I figure there’s a nest somewhere, and if I can find a young one, maybe I can make it think it’s a horse.”

“You mean to ride one?” He shrugged. “Why?”

“What else is there for a man with  no family to do?”

Rally racer

•April 21, 2012 • 1 Comment

His name was Arthur Graham. He sat in an old suede chair that had specks of dust perpetually hovering around it. Shaia wondered how the old man could stand to sit in it, to breathe it. The whole room reeked of dust, actually. There was carpet on every floor, knick-knacks littering almost every flat surface (of which there were many), and old dusty blankets draped over the back of an overstuffed couch.

“Sit, sit,” he said to her, waving her in with a hand covered in thick sagging skin.

She didn’t want to sit on anything here. She finally chose a leather-topped bench sitting in front of a giant black wooden contraption with black and white buttons all across its front. She smoothed her leggings and carefully set her tablet on her knees. This dust would cost extra to get out of her clothes, she was sure.

“Would you like something to drink? Water? Milk?” he asked.

“No.”

“Well what can I help you with?”

“Mr. Graham, have you heard about the death of Jin Tehin?”

“That hot shot politician? Sure, I heard about it. Car crash, wasn’t it?”

“That’s what some would like us to believe, Mr. Graham. We believe that Jin Tehin was murdered.”

Arthur Graham lifted and dropped his hands in his lap.

“Well, wouldn’t that just be a thing.” He leaned toward here and peered at her through his glasses — who wore glasses anymore anyway? “What do I have to do with all this?”

“Mr. Graham, we have determined that you may have had experience in your lifetime with manual driving. We’d like to ask you a few questions about that.”

“Driving, eh? Yes, I used to drive. Back before these new robo-taxis came along.” He laughed suddenly, and Shaia jumped. “I suppose that makes me pretty old, doesn’t it!”

“Ah, yes, Mr. Graham.” Her fingers moved over the tablet. “In your opinion, how easy is it to lose control of a manual vehicle?”

“Lose control? Oh, it takes a good bit, I’d say. Unless you’re drunk, high or just stupid, that is.”

“I see. Are manual vehicles safe to drive off concrete?”

“You mean off-road?”

“What would happen if an automatic vehicle drove on gravel?”

Arthur Graham laughed.

“Is there something funny?”

“No, no, dear. Oh, I remember what it was like to drive on gravel. We used to take the old cars out on the back roads and spin out for hours. There was this one corner, oh it was a sharp one, and we’d go swing the back end out as we went around. My buddy Pete, one time he lost control and slid into a big old oak tree. Have you ever seen an oak tree?”

“Um. No. This Pete. Did he die?”

“Die? No. His dad was sure mad about the car, though. Had to get a whole new rear axel.”

“I see. Would you say it’s difficult to control a manual vehicle on gravel?”

“Well, sure, I suppose.”

“And if there was an outside influence on the driver?”

“Well, I suppose it might, if there was some sort of sudden movement of the vehicle.”

“Thank you, Mr. Graham.”

Shaia slid her tablet back into its case and hooked it on her belt.

“Is that all?”

“Yes, Mr. Graham.”

Prompt: “I remember how it was to drive in gravel.”

The riot

•April 1, 2012 • 2 Comments

Outside in the street below, steel-clad men with heavy broadswords pushed between the buildings, driving merchants, peasants and lordlings alike away from the castle gates. On the city walls, gatesmen were blowing furiously on their horns, calling for everyone to return to their homes.

Zira pressed against the wall by her window and watched the riot bubbling forward, then falling back, then surging forward again. Here and there blood found paths between the cobblestones. A boy just below her had taken an axe to the side of his head and lay in a lifeless heap against the stone of the building across the way. He wasn’t the only one. Wherever the mob fought too hard, the guard raised its weapons and sliced their lives away.

The door to her chamber swung open and her husband rushed in. In one hand he clutched the straps of a half-filled leather satchel. In the other was his own steel helm. His armor clanged with each step.

“Pack some things, you need to leave,” he told her, throwing the satchel on her bed.

“What’s going on?” she asked. She didn’t wait to start packing. Her husband took her place at the window. Doubtless he saw much more than she did. A captain of the king’s guard would have to.

“Too many mouths crying for a new king and not enough hangings to fear them to silence. They’ve been whispering treason for months, and now they’ve got more than half the city trying to force its way into the castle. No one is safe inside the city.” He turned back and helped her shove a few things into the bag. “Dundan is waiting downstairs. He’ll get you outside the walls, but you’ll be on your own after that.” He stopped and took her by the shoulders. “Please, Zira, be careful.”

The pleading in his voice sunk deep in her stomach. She had never seen her husband afraid, not when fighting off bandits five to one, not when he was sent off to a battle few were expected to survive. But he was afraid now, although she couldn’t quite figure out why.

“You won’t be safe anywhere near here,” he went on. “Stay off the main roads and avoid the nearby towns. Don’t tell anyone who you are.” He retrieved her short sword in its sheath and pressed it into her hands. “And if anyone follows you, kill him.”

She took a breath, nodded once, and bent to strap the sword to her leg under her skirt. Two knives were already sheathed in her boots, one in each. Never be without a blade, he had taught her. Since the day she came to the city, she had never left her knives behind. “Where will I go?”

“West. Into the mountains. There’s some food here, but it will only last a few days, I’m afraid. You’ll have to hunt.”

She nodded again. Outside the screams rose suddenly and she could hear a fire flare up.

“We’re out of time. Come on.” She followed him down the stairs to the soldiers’ common room. It was empty, save for one small guard shifting from foot to foot and twisting his head every which way at every sound. He gave her a quick nod when he saw her.

“It’s going to be a close one, captain,” Dundan said to her husband. “The gates will be closing any minute.”

“Hurry, then. To the Sorrow Gate. The Guardian Gate will be too dangerous.”

“Aye.”

“Wait, what about you?” Zira asked her husband. He paused, almost flinched.

“I have a duty here.”

“And how will you find me, when it’s done?” The words spilled out before she realized she had said them. Their marriage had not been an affectionate one, and for months she had tried to find a way she could leave him, but there it was. She didn’t want to leave him.

This time, he did flinch. Dundan might not have seen it, but after so much time with him, Zira could read the micro expressions that would flicker behind his eyes. Compared to most of his reactions, which were normally so subtle even to her, this one painted broad across his face. He took two long steps to her and gathered her up in his plated arms and kissed her. And for the first time, she kissed him, too.

“I won’t.”

“Mi’lady, we must go!” Dundan hissed. He took her by the hand and pulled her away from the captain, who still held his helm at his side.

“What did he mean, he won’t?” she asked Dundan as the man pulled her through the mob to an alley. He didn’t bother to answer, or even look at her. He had drawn his sword and was running through the garbage as fast as she could keep up. The way from the Soldiers Quarter to the Sorrow Gate was normally an easy path, mostly traveled by merchants and farmers bringing their goods to the royal storehouses. Today it was packed with yelling men fighting and screaming women trying to escape. Blades and shields crashed against each other and the cobbles were already starting to get slick from the bloodshed.

Dundan led her down the narrowest of back alleys and poorest of streets, but even there people fought and died. By the time they crossed the canal Dundan had cut down three rioters who stood to stop them. Across the canal in the lower city, fighting gave way to looting. Four more men challenged them for their purses. Two lost hands; the other two lost lives. Zira was grateful for her guardian. Dundan was not a large man, by any means, but he was quick and skilled with a sword, and he never let go of his grip on her.

The Sorrow Gate was crowded, mostly with old men, women, children and nervous merchants eager to escape the mob washing through the city. People pressed thick together to shuffle out of a gate too small to accommodate so many so quickly. A woman screamed against the wall, the press so heavy she was getting squeezed to death against the stone. A man near the middle fell, and was trampled. Dundan swore under his breath.

“Mi’lady, you’ll have to go through alone. I’ll never make it back through if I go with you.” He pulled a small coin purse from under his breastplate, where it had hung from a cord around his neck, and pushed it into her hands. “Hide this, quickly. When you get out, go south to the Harbor. There’s an inn along the river called The Weeping Rock. Give the stable man — and no one else, you hear — give him my name and this purse. He’ll get you a horse and passage across the river. If he asks your name, make one up. After that, you’ll be on your own, so keep your eyes open. Now go! Before they close the bloody gate!” He pushed her forward into the throng and let the current of bodies pull her away.

Zira thanked him, but he was gone before the words came, and she had no choice but to follow the crowd to the gate or fall and be trampled.

 

–Prompt: Write about taking the long way around. —

The red dragon

•March 31, 2012 • 3 Comments

All around was darkness, except for the eye. Gold and massive it stared at her with a black slit for a pupil out of the blackness. There was nothing else, just the eye.

She couldn’t move. If she even had a body she was unaware of it. All she could do was watch the eye watch her. They stared at each other for eternity. It glared at her, the golden tendrils under the surface rippling and shifting as if trying to find an alignment that would cause her to break. If she could break, she would have. She would have rather burned alive than have to stare at that eye any longer.

And then, finally, the darkness melted away and she could see her village. But she could also see what the eye belonged to: a massive red dragon with wings big enough to enshroud a handful of buildings and a mouth the size of a horse and filled with massive teeth meant for ripping life apart. It turned its head to the village as it came into sight, took one look back at her, and then turned to scream fire into the cottages.

No!

But she had no voice, no mouth to warn her people. Buildings burned, people screamed and died, everywhere she could see destruction followed the red dragon. She followed it through the village, screaming in her heart for everyone to get away, but no one heard her. And they all died.

The dragon stopped at the end of the street, where a golden-haired man was slumped, beaten, bloodied, chained in the stocks. The dragon rose up on its legs and screamed its rage over the burning village. The soldiers came running, crossbows readied and lances, spears and swords all pointed at the great red giant. When it heard them it faced them and crouched protectively over the man in the stocks. She heard it hiss, low, menacing. And then the fire came. This wasn’t the fire it had shot into the village before. No, this was something else. The flame licked white around the beast’s mouth and turned blue as it shot across the road toward the soldiers. Only the tips of it were yellow. It scrambled over the dirt and enveloped the men, burning crossbow bolts in the air on their way to the dragon,  never reaching their mark. The air around the stream rippled and bent in the heat. The men in their armor tried to crawl away, but it was too late. Their faces were messes of boiling skin, their hair burst into short-lived puffs of orange, their leather armor shriveled and cracked on their bodies.

In just a few moments, all was silent, save the crackling of wooden homes still burning in the village. The bodies lay charred black.

The dragon took its teeth to the side of the stocks and bit off the side of it entirely. The man collapsed at first upon his relief, but stumbled to his feet and then to the dragon’s shoulder, under the wing. The dragon turned its head to the man and nuzzled him — of all things! It dipped its shoulder close to the ground, and the man clambered up the thick muscles and to the base of the neck. Once he had a firm grip on the beast there, the dragon gathered its hind legs under it and sprung into the sky, the gust of wind from its wings fanning the closest flames higher and sending clouds of ash and dirt up that blinded her vision.

Essana could feel her heart pounding in her neck the moment she woke up. Cold sweat covered her body and made her covers stick to her skin. She took a deep breath, then another.

It was just a dream.

Wasn’t it? It had been years since she had had a telling dream — so long she’d almost forgotten what they felt like. Was this one of them? It couldn’t be. She looked to her little window and found it was still early in the morning. The night before she had been listening to Jorrit’s dragon stories. That must have been what caused her dreams. She took another breath to settle her nerves. No, it couldn’t be a telling dream. The last dragons were killed generations ago.

Essana stood from her bed and dressed herself in a plain linen dress. The only thing to distinguish her as the village wise woman was a copper pendant molded into the shape of a closed eye that hung just below her collarbone.

As the light outside brightened, she heard some excitement rising in the street. When she stepped outside, she saw a crowd moving through the buildings, clamoring around a group of soldiers. Some criminal, it must be, she thought. They were always bringing thieves and renegades here to meet justice. The village had its fair share of dismembered hands and tongues, and not a few full bodies, either. Essana followed the crowd, but not too closely. Whoever it was would be put in the stocks just like all the others until a trial was called. Most likely she’d be among the judges called.

There was a bit of a tussle getting the man into the stocks, but finally the wood slammed down and the metal locks secured. It took a little while to get the crowd to back far enough away for her to get a look at the man. When she did, her blood ran cold, and a thin wail seeped from her lips.

He was beaten, bloodied and covered in dirt, but the golden hair was unmistakable, and his features were the same. He looked up and locked his eyes on hers. And then he smiled.

–Prompt: Write about a fortune teller. —

Where I live

•March 30, 2012 • 1 Comment

The interstate was just a few blocks away, but it could have been an airliner flight path for how little I ever remembered it was there. It seemed about that high, too, but I was just a girl, and around the mountains, major roads follow the high open paths and fly over the lowland nooks and crannies, speeding past the intimate details of the land in the name of saving time.

I remember though a few times, gliding off the interstate in the back of my parents’ van, watching the trees blur by on either side on the exit ramp and slowing down to a less frantic speed around at least one curve, coasting over a set of railroad tracks and coming to rest at an intersection, the stoplight ahead of us red.

If we would turn right, we would pass the middle school, an oddly shaped structure with six pods around a central courtyard, so it looked more like something children would be educated about, not educated in. To the left would be where all the little shops were, the library we would walk to along the tracks, the life-sized railroad museum, and right on the corner there the bank where we once had our family picture taken.

We drove straight through, past a handful of houses, and then would pull into our own driveway, where my brothers and I would sometime play cops and robbers. I was too little to keep up with them on their bikes, so I would play the gas station attendant, and fill their bike-cars with fuel using a stick under the rhododendron bush by the front steps.

Across the street was the high school.  It had a little student commons area with a checkered tile floor – was it black and red? – and a big parking lot we would ride our bikes around. Across the street from our house, sometimes they would bring two llamas that would graze behind the fence. There was a cat too – Boiler – a massive 30-pound black and white shorthair that liked to hang out in the school boiler room and wander the halls. He would slip out the windows by the huge dumpster every once in a while and we’d get to play with him.

Farther down the street was the bridge. Along the way was a musty antique shop I always loved to look into from the sidewalk. My mom would warn us not to ever go in the water at the river, because the current was a lot faster than it looked. When the river flooded, water covered the town and turned our basement into a furniture aquarium. Sometimes we would get all our bikes out of the garage and take a family bike ride across the bridge and down along the river road.

A right turn just before the bridge would take us to my school, the elementary school. We always walked across the field beside our house to get to the school grounds the back way, but sometimes we would walk around for a change of scenery.

The school playground was covered in pea gravel that would get stuck in my shoes at recess. There was a wide set of monkey bars I learned to cross by swinging my legs over a bar, then swinging my body underneath and backwards to grab the next with my  hands, flipping over and over from legs to hands to legs to hands all the way across. I never got good enough to make myself dizzy, but I wanted to.

To walk home, my brothers and I would sometime walk along the newly cut trail along the slough behind the field and behind our house. It was a big deal when it was finished, because the trail ended right behind our yard, so we could walk the whole way to and from school without being in sight of a road. It was dark back there though. The sounds were muted from the trees and soft ground and still water. There were cattails back there, and those were always my favorite. One year in the winter it got cold enough to freeze the water six inches thick  – I’d never seen that much ice before. My dad got out his old ice skates, but he only had one pair from when he was a boy, and I was the only one little enough to wear them, so I got to try to skate while my brothers slid around in their shoes. My dad skated a figure eight, which I thought only the pros could do.

The back of the yard was a big hill, at least it was big to me. There was a huge weeping willow that blew down in a wind storm one night and it filled a good part of the back yard for several days before we could see it cleared away. While it was down though it was great fun to play in. I had my own little world in those strands of leaves. There was also a stand of fir trees – I’m not sure what kind they were, but they were tall with soft needles. My brothers built a five-room fort out of the fallen branches once, and they forbid me from going inside, but I did anyway once when they were away at school. They  had a fort at the bottom of the hill too, with a trail that wound behind the slough water that crept up and pooled there. There was a tiny island they claimed, and of course I couldn’t go there either. I think they let me on it once because I was brave enough to walk through the deepest part of the pool in my rain boots. The water came within an inch of overcoming their top and flooding my feet, but I made it through with dry toes. We would catch tadpoles back there too, and I remember examining fungus growing on a fallen tree.

The back yard was divided by a hedge down the middle of it, and up by the back of the house was a grape vine that would fill up with deep purple grapes every summer. My mom would sometimes cut our hair there on the sidewalk that ran along the back of the house, and we would help harvest the grapes for jelly. I found a big banana slug back there once for a slug race at the library, but it got out and I had to pinch hit with a much smaller slug that just got crawled over by the bigger slugs on race day.

I don’t remember much about the town outside of our little block. But every corner of our property has some memory associated with it – my rhododendron cave by the apple tree, climbing the snowball bush, trying to rescue a captured bird our cat had caught and making a little cross out of sticks for its grave…. The economy might have been good or bad, and politics may have been ripe with controversy or dull as ash, but these and more are the memories of my childhood.

–Prompt: This is a map to where I live–

The Return of the Rampaging (w)Riter

•March 30, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Oh my, it’s a miracle! I’m back! I hope….

Unless this is some weird existential moment and I don’t really exist after all… which it sort of feels like a little anyway, with my laptop running dual monitors. Such a bizarre feeling, typing on a laptop and having the text show up anywhere other than right above my fingers.

Anyway, I realize I am way behind. See, I had good reason for being terrified I would fail at this one. And I’ve proved myself right. Oh the joys of self-fulfilling expectations. Do I have an excuse? I can come up with one if you like. Work has been stressing me out, sleep deprivation, was reading (I finished A Feast for Crows in the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin and also started and finished The Hunger Games), was gaming (finished my Loremaster of Outland achievement as well as the 3,000 quest completed achievement and 1,000 daily quests completed achievement, and the Justly Rewarded – 30,000 gold achievement, and have killed Vyragosa three times in my hunt for that elusive Time Lost Proto-Drake, which I’m stalking right now, hence two monitors… and the 15-or-so-minute delay that just happened in that ellipsis)….

Oh right, writing. So at this point I am… 11 days behind schedule. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make that up quickly, so I’m thinking I’ll just keep plugging along at the days and write doubles if I can. So here goes. Creative brain, ENGAGE!

START!

On?

….

*clap clap*

…..

Okay, fine… where’s that hand crank….

Minnesota nice

•March 22, 2012 • 3 Comments

“Where ya headed?” the driver called over his shoulder as he strapped his seat belt on and turned the key.

Liam fumbled through his jacket pocket and dug out a crumpled slip of paper. “Uh, the St. Paul Hotel.” He shifted in the seat, not quite sure where on the bench he should settle and not a little uncomfortable having another empty bench seat behind him yet. He’d been in plenty of taxis before, but never one that was a mini van. He almost wished he would have accepted his uncle’s offer to send a company car to pick him up at the airport. Climbing into the side of the van-taxi made him feel about ten years older than he was, and like he should have a kid or two tagging along side him. Not exactly his sort of image. And not one that was likely to turn any female heads. He looked out the massive tinted window next to him. Not that there were many of those here he would care to turn.

Dozens of people bundled in heavy black coats dotted the sidewalk at the kiss and ride as the van drove off, most with rolling luggage at their side. Puffs of white surrounded their heads and the only skin in sight was frosted red or covered in facial hair or both.

“Why don’t they just wait inside where it’s warm?” Liam asked his driver.

“This is warm,” the man laughed. “Fifteen degrees in the middle of January? This is damn near tropical.” He laughed again. “I take it you’re not from around here. Where’d you fly in from?”

“Los Angeles.” The monitor in front of his seat on the plane had read 61 degrees when the wheels left the ground there four hours ago. One step outside the glass doors here and the air had sucked the breath right out of him. His jacket didn’t even come close to keeping the cold off his skin, but it was the warmest thing he owned.

“Oh really now? Never been myself but my grandson is going to school out there. Some big shot film school. He’s a senior this year and looking to be some big movie producer. What brings you to these parts?”

“Family  business.” Outside his window the ground fell away under the road and a wide white river spread beneath them. Mounds of snow packed in the corners of the road and the concrete barriers along the edges.

Even the buildings looked cold, he thought as they drove along. They huddled low to the ground and close together with dark walls and small windows. Their driveways — if they had one — were surrounded by heaps of dirty snow piled three or four feet high. There were more trees than he had imagined, too, although they all looked dead.

His driver pointed out a few local landmarks, but Liam paid them little mind. The driver made one particular pub sound at least appealing, but the place didn’t look like much to him. The Xcel Center caught his eye, though. A sizable LED screen flashed a few pictures of hockey players in green and red jerseys, but he couldn’t name the team.

“If you plan on stickin’ around here for a while you’ll want to get a thicker coat,” the driver said with a glance over his shoulder at Liam’s jacket. “They say we’re gonna drop back down here. They’re talkin’ ten to twenty below by early next week.”

Liam felt himself cringe. He didn’t think there was anywhere in this country that could get that cold. How did anyone survive up here? And who in their right mind would want to try? “Thanks,” he said.

The cold slapped him again when he stepped out of the van outside his hotel. His driver didn’t even seem to notice as he walked to the back of the van and retrieved his luggage. The handles were already icy by the time Liam bent to pick them up, and chunky grains of salt from the pavement clung to the bottom of them.

One week, he thought. He couldn’t wait to get back to California. By the time he reached the hotel’s front door he was shivering and didn’t notice the woman leaving until he bumped into her.

“Oh, excuse me, I’m sorry.” The woman reached out both her hands to steady him before he lost his balance. He saw her shoes first, black suede things with tall narrow heels to rival the shiny strappy things his sister liked to wear back home. But his sister never had to walk on salt and ice.

“Excuse me,” he muttered, then looked up at her face. She was smiling, a warm genuine expression under wavy brown  hair. Her coat was rich red and wool, but belted around the waist so he could see her figure.

“Here, let me get that for you,” she said and reached to hold the door open for him while he wrestled his bags through.

“Thanks.” She smiled again. “I’m Liam, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, Liam.” She extended her hand toward him. “I’m Jesse.”

–Prompt: You’re in the backseat of a taxi.–

A broken promise

•March 21, 2012 • 2 Comments

There is nothing that causes so much pain as sincerity.

I’d never seen anyone so sincere as you were that night. The candlelight dinner, the centerpiece of roses and lilies, the adorable attempt at cooking we both laughed at… and when you took my  hand and fell to your knee, reality seemed a poor mask compared to the honesty in your eyes.

“You are everything to me,” you told me. “You are life and breath and everything that makes my existence worth while. And I swear to you, I will never let anything happen to you, I will never let you fight this world alone, I will cherish no one in this world but you, if you would do me the honor of being my wife.”

And I believed you, silly girl that I am.

I would write you a letter, but I can’t move my hands. I can’t feel them, either, or anything else below my neck. But you know that.

You know that when the hospital called and interrupted your date — the one I wasn’t supposed to know about. What was her name, Chelsea? You told me you had to work late that night.

“Its the Boogren case, you know the one I’ve been telling you about? The deadline’s tomorrow and I have to finish it tonight. Go ahead and eat without me, I’ll order delivery. And hey, I love you.”

But when I called later to tell you your mother had had a heart attack, you didn’t answer. You didn’t answer your cell phone either.

If you  had been here, I wouldn’t have been driving to pick you up to go to the hospital. I wouldn’t have stopped at the stoplight and looked in the window of that restaurant and I wouldn’t have seen you fondling that woman’s hand over a bottle of wine. I wouldn’t have gone through the red light. I wouldn’t have gotten hit by that semi that never even had time to brake.

My family is here, and it seems they’re afraid to take their eyes off me, and my mother has been crying. The doctors only come in to make sure I’m comfortable. I wanted to ask for a divorce, but it doesn’t look like I’ll last long enough to see the paper signed. The most I could do was have them take off the ring you gave me and watch them flush it down the toilet.

–Prompt: Write about promises that were broken.–

Fire speaker

•March 21, 2012 • 2 Comments

No one had expected this night to come. Not like this.

Outside, men were stacking wood in silence while tear-sodden faces watched with blank expressions. Inside, Kyree bent over her brother’s body and fixed his cloak firmly in place so it wouldn’t slip and reveal the monstrous gashes that had spilled his life across the cobblestones. She had done her best to cover the wounds on his face, but those were bound to show. She wove fresh strands of ivy around his arms and body and used them to bind his hands to the battered sword they clasped over his chest.

Had it been anyone else going to the funeral pyre, there might have been complaints about dressing the dead in the village’s finest clothes, but this time they were silent. No one would begrudge this man the best even in death — no one could say he hadn’t earned it.

Erril had been their hero, after all. When the Regiment came and burned their homes and stole their food, he had been the one to go after them and repay the evil they had done. When the Regiment came to retaliate, he cut them down one by one on the road until they were scared enough to go back.

He was a hunter from the shadows, deadly, silent, and invisible. No one could touch him. Most of the village didn’t even know he was the one responsible for saving them until one soldier came to announce his description. One of the Regiment’s men had caught sight of him just for a moment, but it was long enough. Sloppy, Erril had called it. That night, the village threw a feast in his honor and vowed to stand behind him.

After that, the Regiment came at the village in force, but Erril was ready. By then he’d gathered the strongest, quickest, and bravest men and trained them to fight back. The blacksmiths had started hammering what plate they could for armor, and when the Regiment came, they were driven off.

It didn’t take long for word to spread of the village that defied the Regiment, and the man who led the way. It didn’t take long before men from other villages joined the cause. By the time the Regiment gathered a full force to sweep through the village, Erril had enough men to meet them on the open field — and win.

When one of the blacksmiths presented him with an iron crown and proclaimed him a king, Erril had brushed it away. But the Regiment’s king didn’t. He had invited Erril to meet under a peace banner, to settle an agreement of mutual benefit. Erril went, and was slaughtered by the regiment, unarmed, in the castle courtyard. The riders had drug his body behind their horses and left it in the middle of the village. Usurpers would not be tolerated, they declared, and proceeded to raid the stockhouses.

Kyree blinked a tear away as she placed the final ornament on her brother’s body. The little wooden ring he had given her when she was just a girl yet, and told her it that the only way they would ever see true peace was by trusting one another.

When they carried his body to the pyre, she was the last of the women in the procession. Draped in ashen robes and her head covered by a deep hood, she knelt at his side one more time before the village.

“You will be avenged,” she whispered. “Acheriass!”

At the command, fire spat out of the wood and swallowed the pyre. It held back from her brother for a moment, but soon the furious wings wrapped around his body. The ivy curled and withered away, and then her brother was no more.

–Prompt: On the eve of the funeral.–

 
%d bloggers like this: