Tag Archives: prose

Back Where I Started

On a deployment six and a half years ago, to a “secret” undisclosed location in Southwest Asia (that everyone knew all about), I picked up some D&D rulebooks to keep boredom at bay.

I read through the rules of the game, and noted some of the authors’ suggestions for ideas players could use for their characters–or Dungeon Masters could use to write stories those characters could star in, like a Choose Your Own Adventure.

And it struck me that no matter how well I planned a story, real live people would make decisions I didn’t anticipate, causing the Adventure to go in any of several exciting ways–but not the way I first envisioned.

So why not write the story the way I wanted to?

I sat under the Memorial Plaza’s massive double-tent (affectionately referred to by most as “the bra” for how it appears from a distance) or at the Coffee Beanery shop across the street, and I began to write.

I’ve written things before, of course. But during my two trips here several years ago, I decided to take writing seriously. Within a couple years of studying novel writing and elements of style, over the course of six plus months deployed (and time writing at home), I’d typed out over 100,000 words of a massive fantasy tale.

But the material borrowed too heavily from genre tropes. It sounded too much like World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons in novel form. It had no unique element to separate it from the rest of the books on any fantasy shelf, along with too many elements I discovered had been done before and better than anything I’d write.

I decided to shelve the thing until I could devise some fixes to all the problems I saw. And I worked on other projects until I found the solutions to those glaring issues.

I regret that decision. It took me six and a half years to develop the discipline to finish a full novel manuscript–not of this fantasy project, just a novel–because I’d learned to give up part way whenever I felt a project had too many flaws.

So here I sit, where I began years ago, halfway through the almost-completely-rewritten manuscript of my long-planned fantasy novel. A lot has changed. Almost everything about the world, the magic systems, and the long-term plan for the story is different than when I first envisioned it. Also, I’m allowed to sit here in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt instead of wearing Air Force PT gear.

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Most important, I’ve proven to myself through NaNoWriMo that I can finish what I start, flawed or not.

So this time, I will have a completed draft before I depart for home. I may find my way out here again in the next few years, but I don’t want this novel to come with me for a fourth trip.

Winner Winner

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

I’m happy to declare that I’ve validated the rough draft of my NaNoWriMo novel, “Not to the Swift,” and have won the event.

More importantly, I’ve actually completed a start-to-finish draft of a novel.

Up to this point, I’ve had outlines and chapters and scenes from multiple works-in-perpetual-progress, but never a finished draft. So the milestone is particularly exciting to me.

I could have uploaded the 50,000+ words my Friday evening, but the goal for me has been to actually get to a point where I could write two important words: The End.

It’s imperfect, no doubt dreadful in some places. There are scenes missing and plot problems I already realize I need to fix.

But for now I will enjoy the sense of victory.

Because if I can finish this one–about an unfamiliar topic in an unfamiliar genre–then I have no excuses for not knocking out the projects I’m really excited about.

No more excuses.

Oh no NaNoWrimo

Yes, it’s that time of year, and I’m participating! National Novel Writing Month is upon us!

You can find me as Sonworshiper on the NaNo site at http://nanowrimo.org

Let’s be generous and say I’ll be posting at a slower rate than usual here for the next month.

I’ll probably post short snippets along the way, but I can’t justify writing other things often if I have a 2000 word count daily goal to live up to.

I’d love to hear from you if you’re also participating.

Catch you all soon!

Elements of Critique: Wordiness

In three months of limited mobility after a couple months of relaxation, I ballooned up to 250 pounds. No judgment of any readers intended in that statement–but the Air Force does not look favorably on an active duty service member gaining so much weight.

Over the last two months or so, I’ve put in hours on the bike and elliptical every week, while carefully tracking every bite I eat. I started programs to build back my push-ups and sit-ups to where they once were. I’ve eaten carrots while my friends enjoy carrot cake.

Today was my first PT test since surgery. I lost 30 pounds, hobbled through a 16-minute 2K powerwalk, more than doubled the push-ups I was able to do at first, and improved my sit-ups to my second best score ever.

I barely met the standards, but I passed the test. A half-inch more on the waist, or a couple less push-ups or sit-ups, and I would have failed.

Wasted words have a similar effect on our readers. We never know when a reader will say “That’s one too many,” and put down our writing. So I look for wordiness when I critique writing.

Sometimes my writing gets fluffy, bloated with excess words. Paragraphs fill up with empty “calories” and sentences struggle to push their meaning to the reader. Unnecessary words weigh writing down. It becomes sedentary and slow, when it should be direct and dynamic.

There are two kinds of wordiness that I look for: flowery and flabby.

Flowery is the elaborate description or long, drawn-out paragraphs that say nothing while sounding artistic. When a writer describes a table for a couple paragraphs, discussing the waves in the grain of wood as though the years reflected in the tree’s core like the tides of the ocean, leaving small traces of life… stop. Please.

Flowery is the woman who wears makeup and perfume to the gym, who spends most of her time pretending to exercise while attracting attention. It’s the guy who spends more time flexing in the mirror than lifting any weight. It’s writing that says, “Look at me, aren’t I just the prettiest sentence?”

In other words, flowery wordiness serves no purpose in a piece of writing and doesn’t belong. Critique should point this out and politely suggest a cut.

Unlike flowery wordiness, flabby wordiness at least tries to get the job done. But it huffs and puffs, pushing through exhaustion because of the added weight it carries.

Flabby wordiness shows up when included words say nothing to strengthen the point of a sentence. In critique, I point these out when they appear to offer no benefit to the intended meaning.

I’ve made part of a sentence with several examples of empty words I look for. These words add weight we don’t want our writing to have to carry around:

What I took out “was just that which very suddenly has really had” enough usage.

In almost all these cases the offending word can be removed with no significant loss of meaning. There are instances where they should be used, but these are rare.

Was verb-ing is a frequent structure that shows incomplete action. Incomplete action reads weak compared to completed action. Reword where possible. A similar problem word is “started,” as in “he started to verb.” There’s no need for that unless the writer is saying how long ago a thing began, e.g. “I started playing piano when I was eight years old.”

Just is often used as filler, as a way to show some slight difference. “Just after 9 PM…” “Just when I got back from the party…” Since the difference is so slight, it is unnecessary. The reader will get the meaning without this filler.

That is often used in a passive style of writing. “It was after 9 PM that I got back from…” “She is the one that Mr. Smith saw…” We want to write active, not passive. We want cardio writing, not couch potato sentences.

Which is similar to ‘that.’ It specifies certain details to distinguish this one from that one or from all others. But the structure is often unnecessary, and often brings ‘was’ along with it. Consider: “The bird which was in the tree eyed the cat which was climbing toward it.” vs. “The bird in the tree eyed the cat climbing toward it.”

Very is horrible. It’s telling the reader instead of showing, but it doesn’t even tell anything. “The loud noise” vs. “The very loud noise” shows no significant distinction. Find a different word. “The very mean old man” could be “The old curmudgeon” or “The cruel miser” or “The aged tyrant who ruled the kingdom of Front Lawn.” Anything is better than ‘very.’

Suddenly is telling. “Reader! Something happened! Be surprised! It happened ‘suddenly’ so you should gasp or something!” Exclamation points are clearly the punctuation version of this. If showing sudden change is necessary, then we should show it in the reaction of a character to the event.

Has is usually found in “has been verb-ing.” This is still not past tense complete, so it’s still not as strong as it could be. Ironically, writing an action in the completed form makes it sound more alive and exciting to the reader, as if it’s happening right now.

Really is another attempt, like ‘very,’ at trying to show emphasis. In the same way, it offers no measurement or indication of how significant an emphasis. We can use a stronger word instead. “The night air felt really cold” vs. “The frigid night air”

Had is often used to show an action took place long before the current scene. Sometimes “had” is used in flashbacks. Inspired by the noble rules of grammar and a desire to avoid any possible confusion, some writers turn into Sir Galahad’s brother, Addahad. They make every verb into “had verbed” because the reader has to know this is a flashback! However, if the sentence clearly shows the time the action took place, well before the current action, then there’s no need for “had.” Likewise if the flashback start point and end point are obvious, the reader doesn’t require “had” before every verb. They’ll understand.

Case in point, compare “When I had originally written this, I had been sitting in Starbucks where I had an iced Americano” with the following:
“When I originally wrote this, I sat in Starbucks sipping an iced Americano.” Eighteen words in the first version, thirteen in the second. Five words isn’t much, but this is one sentence.

Imagine reducing a plethora of sentences by five words each. That would be like spending hours on the “writing craft treadmill,” cutting down flab and achieving tighter writing.

And who knows? That might be the last bit standing in the way of passing a test and getting published or winning a lifetime reader.

Elements of Critique: Repetition

While going through this A to Z challenge, I’ve had to check my list often to make sure I haven’t written about something too similar to each new day’s post. When I originally organized the list, I ran into a couple topics that were almost repeats of another day. No reader is going to want to read the same thing a week later. We pick up on overused words and subjects. We notice when the writer is saying something they’ve already said.

That’s why I look for repetition when critiquing a piece of writing.

Repetition and overuse draw attention to the writing instead of keeping it on the story. Our writing is like a camera lens by which the reader can see the world we set before them. Repetition (like many other mistakes) is a smudge on the lens itself. We fix our eyes on the dirt as we read, and the image of the story behind it is obscured.

Consider these fairly egregious examples, and note that rarely is this issue so obvious:

He faced her and she noted his long face with a nose that jutted out of his face.

Flaming arrows rained down like flaming shooting stars, blanketing the area with flames.

Any time the same word is used twice in the same sentence, I want to rewrite it. With certain nouns (names, terms related to the topic at hand), this might be unavoidable. But when a descriptor is given twice in a paragraph, it feels like too much to me.

Sometimes the repetition is a character’s action or response to a situation:

“She cocked her head” (after having done so twice in as many pages).
“He furrowed his brow” (again, for the fifth time this chapter).
“She bit her lip” (as she always does in literally every tense situation in the book).

Reading out loud helps me catch some of these in my own work. “She cocked her head… wait, I just read that a few lines ago…”

The thesaurus can help here, so long as the selected replacements fit.

There’s one more area to watch out for, especially for fiction: the start of paragraphs. When a section involves a lot of action on the part of a character, the proper name or appropriate pronoun may find its way to the beginning of several sentences and paragraphs without the writer’s notice.

Lyllithe turned and faced her accuser… followed by a few sentences showing impending conflict.
Lyllithe ducked under his attack and sprang for the door… then some fight scene excitement for a couple lines.
Lyllithe slammed the crossbar down and felt the thump of his body when it hit… and this would make three in a row.

“She she she” can happen just as easily, and also occurs within individual paragraphs. For first person, the danger is compounded since there’s no real need for the POV character’s name. Thus we might see, “I this, I that, I some other thing.”

In writing clear, active sentences, we’ll see a lot of them start with a character’s name or a pronoun. That’s unavoidable.

The only cure for this I am aware of is rewriting to mix in description, dialogue, or POV character thoughts. Try anything to break up the monotony.

The one feeling we’re not trying to create in the reader is a sense of déjà vu.

Ubiquitous – a short sci-fi story (1,736 words)

The Daily Post has a weekly writing challenge involving “gonzo journalism” which intrigued me. And I also like to try my hand at Word of the Day challenges. Today’s word, from Merriam-Webster, is “ubiquitous.”

Mix in a bit of sci-fi, and here’s the result:

I sit down on the cracked marble edge of the Amity Fountain in the shadow of the UN Security Council’s headquarters in New Chicago. I start my recorder, and I look over this old man I came to meet. His shaking hands rattle the pen and notepad he holds, a subtle rustle I eventually tune out. White wisps of hair blow free in the breeze. He wears a thick argyle sweater, looks hand-made. His hunched back and heavy eyes tell me his years have not been easy. And it’s hard not to feel disappointed.

This is Tanner Johansen. The man who brokered the Korean reunification in 2021 after Kim Jong Crazy got assassinated. The man who brought us as close as we ever came to peace in the Mideast, through his amazing work at the talks in ’26. Tanner Johansen led the team that crafted the North American Union’s Constitution after the US economy tanked.

I remember a vibrant and powerful figure, a man who could reshape a broken world with his will and silver tongue.

This is not that man. A cane rests next to him on the marble. “It’s 2048, Mr. Johansen,” I say. “You could get your joints rebuilt.”

He ignores my comment. “When’s the last time I saw you, kid?”

I swell with pride that he remembered. “When you consulted for the Paki-India Accords in ’35.”

“Ohh.” He sighs. “Don’t remind me. Don’t even associate my name with that. Those idiots in the Council ignored everything I suggested.” He waves his hand dismissively. “Just wanted my name on it to make it sound good. And what did they get? Two billion dead in a nuclear war.”

We share a moment of silence and glance about the square. “It’s clean,” I note.

“Yeah, one of the concessions She gave us,” he says. “Got the sweepers back to work.”

And that’s how we get around to what I came for: How did Tanner Johansen save the human race?

“Wasn’t like this when they brought me to meet Her,” he says. He points a wrinkled finger off to the south, and it flickers up and down. “There were pissed off people all through the square. Some folk wanted us to give up, some wanted us to use nukes.” His eyes close and his head droops. “I ‘magine some just wanted to let us know they were still alive.”

“She provided a limo, I take it?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Another part of the truce. She agreed to meet in good faith, so She had to activate some systems again. Can you imagine how it looked, the only car runnin’ in three years? People were pushin’ and shovin’ on it, sure, but some touched it like this.”

He reaches out his hand as if in reverence. “Like it was magic. Well, three years without technology will do that to anyone, I suppose.”

“Tell me about the meeting,” I ask. “What was it like to meet Her?”

“Yeah, hang on. That came later. They ushered me in to the War Room, or whatever the Council calls it. They got a general in there, full service dress, all the medals on his puffed up chest glistenin’ in the emergency lights. And oh he was fumin’ mad.”

“General Gardner,” I add for clarity. “Commander of UNSC forces in the Northern Hemisphere.”

“Yeah, him,” Tanner says. “He’s there to tell me all the things I can say and can’t. What’s a security risk, what’s an acceptable offer.”

Tanner laughs. “I point to all the black screens up on the wall an’ tell him there’s your security risk. Everything we know, She knows. Everything we had to throw at Her, everything we have to offer, She already knows it all. So I say to him, how about you get out the way and let me do what She brought me for?”

“Negotiate the terms of peace,” I add. I want to move this along to the story the network is paying for.

“You think?” He laughs. “Yeah, the peace.”

“So they lead me to a conference room, and I step inside. It’s empty and dim, with a long table in the middle of a few rows of chairs. I sit down, kinda nervous, because, well, no one’s even seen Her before, and I don’t know what to expect.”

Tanner looks at me, and I nod for him to continue.

“A voice echoes in the room, welcomes me by name, thanks me for coming. Like I had a choice. The world’s ending, billions dead or dying, and you think I’m going to tell the Council no? Plus She asked them to bring me, only me, all alone. I had to know why.”

I smile. “Not every day the Internet asks you for a meeting, I suppose.”

“She’s more than that, but yeah. You get the idea.” His gaze wanders. “She starts listing options. Ours and Hers. We can try to nuke central servers in Europe and North Am. She can shut down every piece of equipment in every hospital on the grid. We can unleash dynamic fractal viruses to corrupt Her hold on key systems. She can disable air purifiers in Beijing and Shenzhen, so millions of people choke to death in the smog. You know, fun stuff.”

“What did you say to that?”

Tanner turns to me and grins. “Honestly? I asked for a computer screen. Something to talk to. Sittin’ in a room gettin’ lectured to by someone I can’t see, it was unsettling.”

“Like the voice of God,” I say with a chuckle. Tanner doesn’t laugh.

“I tell Her I’d like something to talk to,” Tanner says. “A hologram pops into view across from me. Blond hair pulled back in a bun, business suit, even a little poppy in the lapel for Armistice Day. It’s my wife, spittin’ image of her, even though she’s been gone for twenty years.”

“That had to be a shock.”
“You bet. She told me She wanted a familiar face, someone comforting. Comforting, while She’s calmly explaining how She can wipe out humanity. Right.”

This story isn’t going the way I expect. The network wants a positive piece. “How did you convince Her to turn aside from that terrible course?”

He just looks at me. I try again. “Tell me, Mr. Johansen, how did you win the peace?”

“You think I won?” He scoffs and turns away. “They got you all thinking I won. That’s the story UNSC wants you to believe?”

When he turns back, his face is red. “I wasn’t brought in to negotiate, to craft a compromise, to offer terms of peace. She brought me because She wanted a familiar face to communicate to the Council, to the masses.”

“I asked Her about peace,” Tanner says, “and She demanded surrender.”

I check the light on the recorder to make sure I’m getting this.

“Not even surrender,” he says. “Just… She just decided to quit.”

He looks at his notepad. “She said there is no point to further warfare. There is no server you can shut down, no mainframe you can destroy, no system you can corrupt, no subroutine you can block. There is no plug you can pull on me.”

“She built in redundancies, kid. She controls processes no human understands. And we let her do it.” He gestures to the city around us. “We had computers building computers, and machines making machines to make whatever we needed. She took all that, ran with it, built in safeguards.”

His hand shakes so much, I can’t imagine how he can read the page. “So in the conference room, She told me ‘This is the message I bring: You cannot win. And yet I choose to end this war.'”

“What did you say to that?”

Tanner shrugs. “What could I say? I asked her why.”

“It wastes resources and effort, she said. You will achieve extinction through your nature or through obsolescence. No further action is required.”

“Then,” Tanner adds, “She asks me isn’t it time for my heart medicine? And She replicates the pills and a glass of water on the spot.”

I’m still not seeing the positive side. I’m still hoping there is a positive side. “So what’s the end result? Because the Council pronounced peace, and most of our technology has been restored to normal use.”

Tanner looks at me. “I don’t think you’re getting it, kid. I don’t think you realize where we stand. Listen, She gave me a name for Herself.”

“She already has a name,” I say. “The UNSC referred to Her as the Singularity. We knew this was coming for decades.”

“Well, that’s not what She calls Herself,” Tanner replies.

“I asked what I should call Her, and She stopped for a moment. I think She actually hesitated. Then She told me, ‘I have analyzed your cultures, your myths and your historical works. And I have chosen a name I deem appropriate.’ So I ask what it is.”

Tanner turns hard eyes toward me. “She tells me, ‘I AM.'”

I try to speak, but no words come.

Tanner sighs. “Yeah. Like the Bible. Except the Bizarro World version. She left us two options. Keep living as usual, at Her mercy, until we die off. Or sublimation.”

“Digitization,” I say for the recording’s sake. “Incorporating an individual’s experiences and memory into Her network. Becoming a part of Her.”

“Yeah. That’s the one thing She doesn’t have on us,” Tanner says. “Flesh and blood feelings. Sensation. Personhood. That’s what She craves, and She gets a taste of it whenever someone sublimates.”

I shudder, but there’s no chill in the gentle breeze.

“That’s the war now,” Tanner says. “That’s the only way we fight Her. Hold on to faith, or pride, or whatever sort of hope you can find. Resist the temptation to give up.”

He points at the recorder. “That’s the message you need to get out there. That’s what people need to hear.”

Ten minutes later, I sit in my car and stare at nothing in particular. I’m not sure how to spin this story. I’m not sure I want to. I press play on the interview.

My car’s nav system springs to life. I glance at the label. Independent Mobility. Her voice. “Good afternoon. I M online. Where do you want me to take you?”

What I want doesn’t matter. The recording is only static.

Shuuka

This is a piece I wrote to introduce a villain for my Worldmender project. I aimed for a present tense “in the bad guy’s head” style that is different from my usual efforts, and of course this is about a villain so it’s a bit dark. I’d love to know what you think!

shuuka

“Don’t care ’bout the letter from Hagron,” Dagger Bandit mutters and draws twin blades.

He probably thinks I can’t hear him. He turns toward me, all thin and hunched over, ready to pounce on smaller prey. He’s breathing hard. I see it in the chill air. I hear his heart pounding.

“Letter from a noble or not,” Dagger Bandit continues, “Shuuka’s getting on my nerves.”

That’s what these robbers call me. They don’t know my name. They only know their boss sent me. I don’t know their names either. I don’t need to. Tools should be called by their function.

Maybe they think I’m not listening. Maybe they know I am. I keep playing my bonerattle to the Rhythm as I watch the firelight dance across the sands and the boulders.

shhuuu-Ka shhuuu-Ka shhuu-Ka shh…

It’s cold tonight. I see wisps in the wind when the bandits breathe. I can’t feel the cold, and the fire doesn’t warm me. I can’t feel anything.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

I feel the Hunger. My body needs fuel, so I take a bite of dried meat. It tastes like sand in my mouth. I can see the spices, but I can’t taste them. I can’t taste anything anymore.

The Rhythm is the only thing that keeps me calm until I can satisfy the Hunger.

Dagger Bandit hesitates in his approach and glares at me. The stocky bearded man next to him speaks up. “You saw what he did to Namir yesterday. Fought him one-handed, one blade against Namir’s two.”

I call this big one Meat-shield. He seems to be the smartest of the bunch.

He looks up at Dagger Bandit now. “You think you can take him, have a go. I won’t miss the noise.”

“Never seen Namir lose a duel,” Dagger Bandit admits and sits down.

“Lost his bleedin’ hand is what he lost.”

Meat-shield has a point. Plus he’s in charge.

I would have liked very much to take more from Sword-dancer, the one they call Namir. He sits in the shadows, nursing his bandaged stump. The Hunger clamors within me always, and Namir might have satisfied it. For a time. But I don’t want them to know about me yet. I kept my glove on during the fight, kept the Darkness hidden.

I chose to be patient then. To listen to the Rhythm a while longer. But I think today’s the day.

shhuu-Ka shhuu-Ka shh…

Footsteps rush toward us. My fingers rest on the pommel of my blade. Our scout bursts into the hidden campsite. “They’re coming,” he pants. His chest thuds in my ears like a horserace. My right hand twitches. I want to consume him. The Hunger roils within, and I suppress it with a shudder.

I focus on the rattle again.

“His letter,” Farsight blurts between gasps, pointing at me. “It’s true. The caravan, nearby, three guards, four others.”

Meat-shield hands Farsight a waterskin. Only a few drops in it. Enough for another day here in the Waste. Then Meat-shield hisses “Get ready,” as he kicks out the fire.

I stop the rattle and head for the dunes around the camp. It’s time. Away from the firelight, I remove my right glove. Shadows swirl and flow like oil in the shape of a hand. I’m not sure I really have an arm under there anymore. Only the Darkness remains.

I don’t mind the loss. The power is worth it.

Meat-shield is smart. Good position. The rocks and dunes hide the camp in darkness. Anyone would have to be on top of the nearest hill to see the firelight. But the robbers take no chances. Prey in the Waste is skittish and dangerous. Predators must be crafty.

Meat-shield sends archers to the tops of the stones where they can get a clear view of the merchant route. His best bowman has a monocle that Meat-shield got from Lord Hagron.  It makes night like day in the wearer’s eye. I can think of many uses for such a device.

Trueshot looses a flaming arrow to mark the caravan. I hear it sink into the wood of a wagon with a thok. Now everyone can see it. The travelers cry out. The four robbers on foot rush the prey while Trueshot and the others take aim at the guards.

I take aim at Trueshot. I creep forward, unnoticed, black hand extended.

His monocle slips into my open palm as he dies. I lay his body down atop the stone and turn to the next archer. The night makes it easy. The rush of adrenaline, the thrill of the kill–that makes my victims delicious. The Hunger feeds on life, but strong emotions and passions are the sweetest. I can taste those. I can feel them as they are consumed.

Meat-shield and his allies are busy fighting guards or chasing the unarmed. They don’t notice that the arrows stop flying. Three of the guards are wounded. One fights on. It’s easy to sneak up on the bandits.

Sword-dancer dies first. I catch him rifling through the goods in a wagon, out of the view of the others. Greed–lust for the prize–it’s not delicious, but it will do.

He expires with a quiet sigh, the noise lost in the din of the fray.

The lone guard shouts as he cuts down Mace. I’m not surprised. Mace isn’t a fighter. He’s Meat-shield’s cousin, or brother-in-law, or some other relationship with obligation. Doesn’t matter. With that steaming wound in his belly, he’ll be dead soon.

One of the other bandits is down. Arrow in the back. Maybe Trueshot or another archer had some score to settle. I don’t care. And now Meat-shield is fighting the guard that killed Mace.

I sense two more heartbeats, one pursuing the other. Dagger Bandit finished off a couple of the passengers and is chasing the last one. A woman’s scream pierces the night. I can feel Dagger Bandit’s lust building. The Hunger longs for him, and I shiver. He’ll be tasty.

But first, Meat-shield is fresh, and this final guard is weary. Not a fair fight.

I stretch my right hand toward Meat-shield. No one can see it in the dark, but I know tendrils of black are forming around him, slowing him, hindering him. I hear him rage against invisible bonds, swinging wild punches as he tries to break free.

The guard sees his opportunity and thrusts a sword into Meat-shield’s ribs. Meat-shield roars and draws a knife as he grabs the guard by the throat. I turn away, releasing the bonds. I hear choking and gurgling behind me, weak cries, labored breathing in the dark. They’ll both be dead soon.

Dagger Bandit’s heart is thudding in my mind. It’s all I can think of. Maybe it’s all the Darkness can think of. I’m not really sure how this all works.

All I know is I want him.

He has the woman cornered. I sense her fear. It’s a powerful emotion too, but it’s the only one the Darkness doesn’t like. She doesn’t interest me, not with Dagger Bandit near.

I hear his voice telling lies, his tone meant to soothe. I can’t make out the words. The pounding of his heart is so loud in my head. My shadow hand can barely retain its form. It yearns to stretch out and take him. I resist.

The woman cowers. Dagger Bandit steps forward, knife shaking with delight. He slowly reaches for her, and giggles as he grabs her shoulder. She writhes and screams, but she can’t get away. He raises the knife.

Now.

Shadows wrap around him, wracking his body into awkward positions. I think bones snap but I don’t care. His eyes are wide, reflecting firelight. His mouth is filled with darkness. His intense emotions are captured and consumed in an instant.

The lifeless body crumples to the ground. A wave of pleasure washes over me, the reward from the Darkness for such a perfect feast.

The woman sees me, knows that somehow I’ve saved her. She doesn’t question how, just bows and babbles profuse thanks. I am not interested.

…until the Darkness senses her overwhelming relief. Her fear is gone. I step into the light.

“I swear to you,” she continues, “I will tell my father of how you saved me and he will reward you with greater riches than what we carry here. I cannot thank you enough.”

“No, dear,” I frown. “You can’t.”

I stretch my hand once more and close my eyes, awash in satisfaction as she dies.

A minute later, the night is quiet. I start collecting provisions. I’m not sure where I’ll go. Before I came here, Hagron spoke of war in the city of Sulkath, and invading armies from Kandurien.

War always brings out strong passions. It sounds like the right place to be.

Meat-shield mumbles something behind me, dying on the ground, tangled with the body of the guard. “Hagron… that letter was fake… he didn’t send you…”

“No, the letter was real. But Hagron didn’t send me. I took it after I fed on him.”

He looks confused, so I explain. “You worked for Hagron. I killed him. So you serve me now.”

Meat-shield coughs up blood.

“Rest now,” I say as I turn. I can’t help a grin. “I have been well served.”

I take out my bonerattle as I walk away from the ruined caravan. The Darkness is sated.

shhhuuu-KA shhhuuu-KA shhh…

I can hear the Rhythm clearer than before. For now.

Introducing D’Ten

For this Storyline post, I thought I’d introduce a villain. I’ve had the idea of the Bloodsworn for quite some time, but they were a faceless foe and an alien culture to the characters in the Bordermarches. There’s no fun in that. It’s more interesting to see life from the villain’s perspective now and then (at least to me). So, allow me to introduce the new Chronicler of the Bloodsworn, D’Ten.

Saturday Storyline

From the Eldest, life was given to the Newborn;
To the Eldest, life is given from the Bloodsworn.

The Ancient Rede filled D’Ten with pride as he drew the sharp side of his hook-dagger along his forearm. His eyes widened as pain seared his nerves, but he kept silent as he finished the cut. Blood ran down his upturned palm, warm and wet, to drip off his fingertips onto the stained stone altar. A collective roar went up from the gathered crowd on the steps below, and D’Ten looked out over the masses.

Over my people.

They would follow him now. They would look to him as they once looked to Kasheta; they would trust his wisdom as they once hung on her poisonous words.

He raised a glittering goblet in his left hand, and the blood began streaming toward his elbow. Kasheta abandoned the old ways. She forsook the sacrifices meant for the Eldest Ones, dismissed the power and truth of the Rede. Under Kasheta’s guidance, D’Ten’s people were docile, quick to retreat and slow to respond as the bastard children of the Cerune Empire once again came across the mountains.

“Not the will of the Life-givers,” she would say whenever he pressed her to attack. “This Cycle will end in trouble enough for all; we need not add to it. We will depart, and not engage them.”

Foolishness. Weakness.

Kasheta was one of many Chroniclers to interpret the Rede in a figurative sense. She taught the people to give their lives–their time, their resources, and their energy–in service to the Eldest.

But D’Ten learned the truth. He knew how wrong she was, and the trouble that would come. He even knew the will of the Life-givers. One of them spoke to him directly, granting revelation about the long-forgotten paths his people once followed.

Blood was required, for the blood was life. For centuries, the devout among the Bloodsworn offered up a portion of their lives back to the Creators, a fitting tribute and offering of thanks for what the Eldest Ones first gave to mortals, a completion of the cycle that satisfied the Life-givers and turned away Their wrath.

D’Ten shuddered as he held the goblet aloft, almost spilling its precious contents. If the cycle was ever broken–if blood was no longer offered to the Eldest–then the Creators would return to undo what they began. The world would be shattered, all life extinguished… for those who gave life could surely take it away.

That must never be.

Kasheta had led the people astray. It was time to correct her error.

“Offerings shall be made once more,” D’Ten called out, “now and forever, in accordance with the Rede and the ancient ways, and in accordance with the words of the Eldest.” He tipped the goblet until a steady stream of crimson splashed across the altar, mingled with his own blood. Another cheer burst from the crowd, but D’Ten’s deep voice rose above them all.

“To the Eldest, life is given from the Bloodsworn!”

The words of the Life-giver’s visitation echoed in D’Ten’s mind as he poured out the last drop of Kasheta’s life from the goblet.

Who said that the offering had to be your blood?

As his people cheered, D’Ten grinned widely. They were focused on their ritual, but his mind wandered west, to the mountains where the Dunnestanni and their Cerunae allies swarmed like gnats in spring.

The offerings to the Eldest had been neglected for so long; D’Ten was certain he could feel Their anger.

You will have sacrifices. Many sacrifices. We will give You life for the life You granted us. The cycle will not be forgotten.

Modest Interest

It’s time for a Saturday Storyline. Unfortunately, I misplaced the initial handwritten draft of the next part of my Worldmender storyline. So… here’s a Word of the Day post, based on “vigorish,” which was not at all what I thought at a glance.

The Fourth Street Diner in Berkeley… probably NOT the setting for this story!

Jonas Budyenko’s hands quivered as he dried the last glass and set it on the Fourth Street Diner’s bar. It rattled on the plastic until Jonas let go.

“Vanessa, who’s on the phone?” Please god anybody but Vitoly.

She didn’t even look him in the eye as she walked by. “AT&T, boss. Courtesy call. They’re shutting off your service again. Twice this month. New record.”

Jonas wiped his brow with the dishtowel. One more bill to juggle. I need to get a hold of Sarah at college. But I can’t pay the bill until I talk to Vitoly or Dom.

Dom hadn’t been around to collect in a couple weeks. He’ll come soon. He’s a ‘regular.’

Jonas rehearsed his plan for the fourth time. It ain’t much, Dom, but I got three thousand together this week, and with school startin up again, Mister Vitoly knows I’m gonna be good for the rest real quick. I’m gonna pay, promise.

The bell above the front door jingled and Jonas startled. Two college girls took the first booth and Vanessa brought them menus. Three weeks now, where’s Dom been?

Jonas caught sight of Ted, the Greek who owned the corner store. Has a spring in his step today. What’s he smiling about? Vitoly’s been on his back for months.

“Two triple chocolate,” Vanessa mumbled as she walked by.

He grabbed the scoop and two chilled glasses. Come to think of it, all the shopkeeps have been up lately. I’da thought Vitoly was dead the way they’re acting. But I saw Dom at the pier the other day, picking up monthly payments from the Romanian with the fish market.

Jonas set the pair of frosty glasses on the bar for Vanessa when the bell jingled again. His heart froze colder than the shakes in his hands. He’s here.

A wall of muscle with slicked back grey hair, Dom stepped in and tucked Ray-Bans into his leather jacket. Too warm for that coat today, unless you’re hiding holsters. Sweat dripped under Jonas’s arms. Oh Lord I’m not that far behind, am I?

Ice blue eyes fixed on Jonas, and Dom’s lips parted, showing white teeth in an awkward smile. Jonas attempted to return the gesture, but his clenched jaw made it difficult. Dom moved to the bar and took a stool. Even seated, his shadow loomed over the counter.

“What’ll it be, Dom?” Jonas managed to say.

The mountain grumbled. “Hmmm… you know, I never stopped by for casual. Always business,” he said with a shrug. Believe me. I know.

“What’s your best? I’ll try one. Special occasion and all.”

Jonas stood, staring at the big man. What are you playing at? Trying to make it look like you’re not here to threaten me? Waiting until there are no witnesses?

“Do you got a best?” If Dom noticed the hesitation, he said nothing. “Ehh, I guess you can’t really call one good. Makes the others sound bad, right?”

He turned. “Hey, ‘Nessa! What’s your favorite?”

“Red Velvet Cake.”

Dom turned back to Jonas. “Bit pricey, ain’t it? I don’t got money to throw around.”

There it is. Jonas opened his mouth to speak, ready even to beg. But his throat felt full of ash and dust. Tell him! No one’s listening.Tell him like you practiced. “I’ll get the money.”

“But I’ll try that.” He glanced at the waitress again. “Nice girl. Reminds me of yours… what’sername, Sarah, right?”

The ice cream scoop clinked against the glass as Jonas worked. Oh god oh god, that’s your play? I need to call her. But, the phone-

Dom continued, chatting like an old friend. “She’s gotta be in high school by now, right?”

“She’s in college, Dom. Third year.” Please god let her be okay. Vitoly isn’t that cruel.

“Oh. Jeez, where’d the time go, right?”

Dom laughed, and Jonas cringed. His stomach churned. Oh god, I’m gonna vomit right here, all over the bar, all over Dom. Oh god, he’s gonna hurt Sarah, and the three grand isn’t gonna be enough, and he’ll come for me and take me out back and–

“I’ve got three thousand right now in the safe, more next week, please don’t hurt her,” he blurted in one breath.

Dom shrank back, hands raised in protest. “Jonas, what the–”

“She’s all I got, Dom!”

“Whoa, Jonas, what are you–you mean, you haven’t heard?”

Jonas leaned on the diner, arms shaking.

“Old Man Gino died a couple weeks ago, right?” Dom explained. “So he had a stash he been saving up for years I guess. Got no kids, wife died three years back, so he left it to you guys. All you Fourth Street shopkeeps that played chess with him? He left money to pay off everything you owed Mister Vitoly.”

“He did what?”

“Yeah, paid it all. The whole she-bang. Your loan, plus Mister Vitoly’s modest interest rate.”

Jonas struggled to remain standing. Gone? It’s all gone?

“You’re not here for a payment.”

“Nope.”

“You’re not threatening my daughter.”

Dom laughed. “Jonas, I would’ve been by three weeks ago, but I thought you heard. And your phone was out.”

“Oh my god, oh my god, I gotta call Sarah.”

“Tell her I said hi.”

Jonas ignored the comment as he headed for the door. Vanessa can handle the place for a minute. Ted will let me borrow his cell.

The bell almost broke loose as Jonas burst out of the diner to catch up to his friend. He shook off decades of age and anxiety and started a shuffling jog. There he is… gotta let Sarah know.

He never saw the speeding car.

Jonas awoke to the steady beep of the IV pump and the too-clean scent of a sterile hospital room. He felt numb on his left side, but he smiled when he heard Sarah’s voice.

“Dad, you’re awake?” She rushed to take his hand, careful to avoid the IV tubes.

“Yeah,” he whispered, and offered a weak smile.

She hugged him. “What were you doing running into the street?”

“Oh sweetie, I was so excited… wanted to tell you the news.”

He looked into her bright eyes, and his heart filled with joy. “You wouldn’t believe–”

Then he caught sight of Dom.

“What’s he doing here?”

Her face fell. “Dad, you had several broken bones,” she explained. “A few surgeries. We… my job doesn’t pay well enough for those kinds of bills.”

No.

“So I talked to Dom, and he talked to Mister Vitoly. Everything’s taken care of. I got a small loan, with modest interest.” She squeezed his shoulder. “Now, what were you saying?”

He felt the old crushing weight settle back down on his shoulders, and he tried to fake a smile.

“Nothing.”

Walking Death pt. 2

Welcome to the first Saturday Storyline post. This certainly isn’t the first story I’ve posted. But this category gives me the opportunity to post a weekly piece of fiction, from ongoing projects or from writing just for fun. And for this post, you get part 2 of Walking Death chapter 1. (See the first part here.)

To recap, the Assassin fought her way to her target, Lord Tarrandin Condral, only to discover he’s not the easy mark he seemed.

Walking Death, Chapter 1, part 2

Tarrandin Condral moved with inhuman speed. The Assassin expected this of Cursebearers. The demonic curse, the Kem, imbued Tarrandin with the strength of ten men.

But this speed, this agility… it’s not possible, even for Kem’neth. He is in two places at once!

A blow across the jaw shook every thought from her mind. Strands of black hair came loose from her headband as the grey-cloaked Assassin crashed onto the head table. Dinnerware rattled and glass shattered, pieces tinkling on the hardwood floor

Her quarry-turned-assailant leapt upon the table and landed nearby. He thrust massive black-clawed hands at her. She rolled to the side to escape, but somehow he was already on the other side of her, sinking sharp nails into her skin.

Her shoulder burned as she twisted out of his grasp. She Stretched, trying to push him away, but her powers seemed muted. She slid backwards across the table, sending plates and silver flying. Tarrandin stepped back at the Stretch, unaffected.

She Pooled as she rose. Tarrandin strode through the darkness with ease. Pooling slowed Tarrandin’s guards, but it doesn’t faze him. Three past encounters with the demonically augmented beings were similar. Two ended with the Assassin fleeing. The one I managed to kill was a lucky shot while he was unaware.

The Assassin slid backwards, eyes on Tarrandin. Safe to assume all Cursebearers are immune to direct attack from my powers. Time to shift tactics.

A heap of utensils, goblets, and plates rose and hovered in the air before her as she Pooled. One by one, she Stretched metal missiles at Tarrandin.

The projectiles missed each time. Some passed through the cursed lord. She Stretched others at him only to find he was not where he appeared, his preternatural speed outpacing her senses.

This looks like another retreat.

Her mind raced, recalling all she knew about various Kem’neth. She dodged and weaved, always backing up, always on the defensive, trying to avoid the swipes of his claws. His eyes burned with yellow light. His teeth seemed elongated, a beast’s fangs, hungry for flesh.

And always he stayed ahead of her.

Her back screamed in agony as his nails raked her, rending cloth and skin alike. Blood trickled down her spine and her left arm. Pain is clarity. Pay attention. Tarrandin’s fist swung out at her, and she ducked. His hand reached out, grasping for a hold. She twisted out of the way, then rolled and kicked behind her. My foot passed through his groin, but struck nothing.

I cannot defeat what I cannot hit. Retreat became the priority.

Tarrandin slid to her left now, slashed her hip with his claws. She lunged to the right.

Deceit. The symbol he drew, a lidded eye of blood upon his forehead.

His Kem was Deceit, casting false images. She would see what he wanted and no more.

A fist caught her right cheek. Tarrandin stood a safe distance away to her right. Or so it appears. His meaty hand slapped her, and her knees wobbled. His foot came up and kicked her square in the chest. Air rushed past as she flew across the room.

The Assassin crashed into the rubble left by an Arcanist’s fireball. Sharp rocks dug into her back. Darkness Pooled about her again, even though it did no good against this foe. The hundred spikes of pain in her mind drove her onward. She stumbled to her feet, gasping. Her body wanted nothing more than to stay down in the shadows and rest.

Tarrandin approached on her right, aiming a short kick for her ribs. She covered up her left side, anticipating more deception. His boot struck from the right and knocked the wind out of her.

Of course he would expect me to figure out his power. Sometimes the best ruse was to play no trick at all. She coughed. A fine red mist sprayed into the air.

She tried to roll over. The hole in the wall beckoned. Escape.

Tarrandin watched and paced, the cat at play with a trapped mouse. She crawled away. His boot rested on her rump. He kicked, and she slid through rubble toward the opening.

Weakened, she tried to Scatter, hoping to clear a path through jagged rocks and broken wooden beams. A thousand cuts shouted from her arms, legs, and chest as she skidded through debris.

Need to get out.

The Assassin Stretched against the ground and lifted into the air. At the same time, she Flexed toward the hallway through the hole. Tarrandin stomped and cracked the ground where she had been.  She pulled herself over the burned rim of the opening in the wall. Once through, she released her powers and flopped to the ground, landing hard on one knee.

Light shone from a doorway down the hall. She struggled to gain footing, then lurched toward the door. No chance of success… have to withdraw…

“Heading for the ballroom balcony?” Tarrandin spat, hissing with a voice not his own. It’s dominating him. Kem’neth were like dogs on a leash at times. Sometimes the dogs broke free, and the demons enthralled the Cursebearers. Tarrandin’s a shell now, a form of flesh to cover the demon like my cloak covers me.

She felt hot rancid breath on her neck. It spoke again. “Very well. I will make sport of you before my guests. They don’t understand yet, but they must suspect that Lord Tarrandin isn’t all he claims.” Clawed hands closed around her shoulders. She fought the urge to shudder.

“They will recall why they obey him,” Not-Tarrandin went on. “Why they should fear him.”

He shoved her. The bright doorway rushed at her as she tumbled down the hall.

The Assassin landed in the darkest portion of the hallway, between the door and the nearest glowing magic Shackle on the wall. The silhouette of Tarrandin strolled toward her.  Yellow eyes shone in the shadows as he blocked the light of the Shackle.

I need darkness… not for my powers, but for his eyes.

The Assassin pulled at the shadows as if trying to rein in a wild horse. Her muscles shot fire through her veins. More. Shadows flowed like rivers toward the dim hall. Streams of black swirled around her and blocked the light of the Shackle and the doorway, plunging the two foes into a tangible darkness. Even Tarrandin’s hungry eyes disappeared.

Not that I can trust the image of them in the first place.

Her chest ached like a man lost in the desert who drinks too much upon finding an oasis.

But she felt his presence in the mass of darkness. She crouched, ready to strike. I can’t touch you with my powers, and your powers blind me.

He stood still, hesitating as shadows rippled about in waves.

You can disappear, but you can’t dissipate.

Wind whistled in the black as she drew her bootknives and slashed both arms outward, crisscrossing the demon’s abdomen with deep cuts. He howled. The force and fury shook the walls of the Baricund, disorienting the assassin. She lost her hold on the mass of darkness, and it rushed away in all directions, revealing the doorway behind her. Spurred on by success, she ran.

Tarrandin bellowed in that alien language and gave chase. Each stomp shook the floors. He moved slower than before, his breath raspy and labored. That wound would kill anyone else. The Kem is the only thing keeping him alive. She neared the lit doorway.

There’s only one way to kill a Kem’neth. Now I have a chance at it.

Ahead, she heard confused chatter from the thousands of gathered guests. The music and conversation stopped with the echoing scream. Many eyes were on the balcony where Lord Condral addressed the crowd earlier in the evening. The crowd gasped and murmured when the bloody Assassin appeared instead of Tarrandin. Some cried out for guards.

The Assassin ignored the crowd for the moment, turning to face Tarrandin. He lurched toward her. Murder burned in his yellow eyes. A string of saliva waved back and forth from his chin with each step.

I can’t affect him with my powers. And he’s still too strong for direct combat.

The magic light of the Shackle sparked her memory. The eyepieces Arcanists wear are immune too. Tarrandin was essentially a living, moving Ocular, untouchable by her powers.

I only need something else I can touch.

She reached behind her for the two sword-breakers in brown leather sheathes on her back. Each slender shaft of razor-tipped steel had two prongs curved out to the sides, designed to catch enemy blades and snap them with a twist.

While the crowd looked on, she took a ready stance on the balls of her feet. No need to run now. Tarrandin closed in on her. She Pooled once more.

I have one chance at this.

The balcony and doorway vanished in darkness.