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Showing posts with label short story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label short story. Show all posts

Friday, August 19, 2016 7 comments

A Titanic Change (#FridayFlash)

"Untergang der Titanic",
by Willy Stöwer, from Wikimedia Commons
September 11, 1931

There is a running joke about using a time machine to go kill your grandfather. I mean to save mine.

April 17, 1912 saw one of the greatest maritime disasters in history. Everyone knows about it: the Titanic, having first dodged a near-collision with another liner as it left port in England, then surviving a brush with an iceberg, came into New York harbor at full steam. It ran aground and capsized. There were few survivors.

I saw the disaster, and nearly did not live to tell of it. I was part of a great crowd, gathered to see the marvelous ship arrive safe in port. Safe! My grandfather, who had retired from the steamer lines, insisted on bringing me to see. I was glad to come, if only to escape school for a day. I remember it was a chilly day, and I was glad for my new jacket.

“The finest ship built by the hand of man,” Grandfather told me as we first caught sight of the proud liner, entering the harbor. “A pity we didn’t come sooner,” he said, waving at the crowded pier.

“You think we could board it?” I asked, every inch the wide-eyed innocent.

“If we can find a man I know—hoo, she’s comin’ in fast. The captain better be going full-reverse—ho!” A tugboat turned hard a-port to avoid the speeding Titanic. “We best get back!”

Too late—the spectators crowding the pier realized the danger as well, and we were swept up in the panicking mob. I stumbled, but Grandfather was there to snatch me up, and we joined the jostling throng. The horrors of that morning are still etched on my memory, and I need only close my eyes to see them once again. Looking over Grandfather’s shoulder, unable to turn away, I saw it all. Smoke poured from the funnels, the mighty engines at full throttle to the last. I saw passengers on deck, fighting to board lifeboats, falling or jumping overboard into the murky waters of the harbor. Terrified faces in the crowd all around me, screaming and cursing. I saw a young woman fall with a shriek, and others running over the place she fell. Though I watched, I never saw her get back up.

I had little time to think There I would be, if not for Grandfather, because the crowning horror now unfolded. With a screeching and tearing noise even louder than the voices around me, the doomed Titanic ran aground. I saw the hull crumple beneath the weight of the ship above it, but its immense momentum carried it forward, forward, up and out of Poseidon’s realm and onto the land from whence it came. I saw passengers, clustered around the now-useless lifeboats, scatter across the deck in all directions.

“It’s falling our way!” I shouted to Grandfather. But others heard, and foolishly paused in their flight to look behind them. Some stood stock-still, dooming themselves double if such a thing were possible. Grandfather bulled our way past several stricken refugees, knocking one or two aside to gain more distance. With the groan of a ravenous monster, the beached ship heeled over, its shadow racing far faster than the tiny morsels trying to escape its hunger.

Grandfather pushed on, trying to get clear, as the hull loomed ever nearer. Even as a child, I knew that getting clear of the hull itself would not be enough—the superstructure would tear free and crush anyone beneath. And for those unfortunate enough to be in the path of the funnels, even the most legendary runners could not escape their fate. But he drove himself onward, although by now he must have been frightfully tired with the added burden of myself.

I recall only snatches of the end. The cries of despair from those behind us, terrified screams as more would-be escapees stumbled and fell from fatigue or over the feet of others around them, the hull and superstructure looming above. There were things falling from the deck—chairs, lifeboats, people, detritus—striking down those behind us. I remember hearing Grandfather’s last words, Ah, shit! and how he flung me forward, giving me all his momentum in his last second of life. The thunder that went on and on, the blast of air flinging me onward. I try not to think about what flew around and past me in that moment.

When I hit the ground, I tumbled like a rag doll, coming to rest at last with a broken arm and more bruises than I could count. (This I only learned later, waking up in a hospital with my frantic mother at my side.)

It was only later that the public learned of the telegraph operator, staying at his post until the last, telling any who had a radio of the cause of the disaster. I cared little, and care little still. Nineteen years have passed, and at long last I am in a position to prevent it. Unbeknownst to the crew, I have made a tiny adjustment in the rudder trim. The Titanic shall strike the iceberg more than a glancing blow, crippling the doomed liner, and its passengers shall be picked up and brought home safely. How many men have saved thousands of lives at a single stroke? I am already a hero, though none may know.

Grandfather, I shall see you soon.

Friday, May 27, 2016 3 comments

Stiletto’s Getaway (#FridayFlash)

This runs a bit longer than a flash should—just short of 1300 words—but it’s part of a larger work in progress (16K words and counting). Stiletto has a bit part in Blink’s story, being serialized at WriteOn now, but she’s the main character in this one. This takes place the winter before Blink manifested…



A jet-black rocket on two wheels glided over the streets of Skyscraper City. What little noise it made was drowned out by the roaring and wailing of three police cars in hot pursuit. The bike had no lights; the rider had a night vision display to show her where to go.

“A little tighter than I’d have liked,” Stiletto muttered to herself, snapping the motorcycle around a corner. The back end stepped out, but Stiletto knew to stay on the throttle and the bike jerked upright with a little wiggle. Pegging the throttle out of the turn, she thumbed the voice command switch. “Deploy caltrops.” Above the soft thrum of the engine, she heard the caltrops rattle onto the street behind her. The cops would have to slow down for the turn as well, and so they wouldn’t plow into a wall when their tires went down. Stiletto would kill only if she had no other choice.

Behind her, the lead cop car went into a skid and the other two braked hard, giving Stiletto some breathing room. “Now they’ll call for backup.” Captain Heroic was retired, it was too cold for No Sweat to do his thing this time of year, and the Masked Warriors never did this kind of pursuit. That left the Devis and Count Boris to worry about… but she was almost home free. She blew through a red light, swerving to miss the delivery truck lumbering through the intersection, then took a left at the next block. Two blocks down, she took another left and slowed enough to keep the traffic surveillance cameras from tripping and giving away her position.

A supervillain had to know exactly where she was at all times, and Stiletto was no exception. Twelve blocks would get her to the bridge and then to Riverside North, where she had her lair. And her home. Cops feared to tread those streets at night, but things were more orderly than they thought. That, of course, was largely due to Stiletto. She had put the word out to the gangs long ago: Don’t recruit kids, don’t sell drugs down here, and don’t involve bystanders in your wars. After making examples out of a few non-believers… well, it was a pretty safe place for everyone who belonged there. But between here and home was—

A cop car skidded around the corner, lights flashing. The driver hit the siren as Stiletto hit the gas. Between here and home was two blocks run by the LeFleurs mob. She had little use for mobs—white guys in suits who thought that made them superior to gang-bangers—but they might be good for a little distraction. Behind her, three more cop cars joined the renewed chase. Good. That should make it a fair fight. “Side guns,” she commanded. “Rubber bullets.” The weaponry clicked into place.

A hard right, a left, and now she was in position. “Fire!” The automatic weapons pumped rubber bullets into storefront windows, shattering them and setting off alarms. Mobsters on watch, hearing gunshots and police sirens, responded immediately. Focusing on the traditional enemy, they barely noticed the black motorcycle without lights. A few bullets spanged off her fairing, spending themselves against brick walls and pavement.

In turn, the cop cars skidded to a halt. Cops poured out the lee side of each, returning fire. “Now they have something else to think about,” said Stiletto, with a satisfied smile. “Disarm all,” she told her bike, slowing to a legal speed. “Let’s go home.”

At an abandoned factory along the riverfront, Stiletto ran her motorcycle up a loading ramp. A narrow door swung open long enough for her to shoot through it. She rolled between two sets of uprights; as she shut the bike down and raised the cowling, the uprights came together, clamping the wheels. The entire thing turned around, facing the door for her next caper. This was Stiletto’s hideout, and it was more comfortable inside than it looked. Some dumbass yuppies had tried to gentrify this part of Riverside back thirty years ago, and ended up running back to the white side of town. She owned this building outright, through a few shell corporations, and the defenses kept druggies out.

City Loan, a notorious payday lender with hidden ties to Grimes Financial, had lost about two hundred thirty thousand bucks tonight. They would get half of it back soon enough; she knew several families who were about to have their loans paid in full. The rest would give her secret identity a little free time. “Yeah, you deserve it hon, havin’ to put up with Stiletto most weekends,” she told herself. But for now, all but a couple hundred went into the hidden safe along with her costume.

Dressed in street clothes, she used a pair of night vision goggles to check the perimeter. Nobody nearby. She locked up and emerged into the night.

A few blocks from her apartment—another failed gentrification attempt—she paused. She knew the snick of a switchblade, the click of a revolver’s hammer, the chick-chick of a cocked semi-auto, every sound of every weapon you might find down here. But this was more of a tock sound, like someone doing a really loud tongue-click.

What the hell? she thought. It was pitch-dark here, so she felt no need to hide. Anyone coming for her would be just as blind as she was right now. She put a hand on her own switchblade.

Tock, came the noise again, rattling up and down the street. “Busy night, hon?”

“You could say that,” Stiletto blurted, expecting neither the kindly question nor the woman’s voice behind it. She always tried to put her villain identity away with her costume, but all her mental alarms were blaring. Just another lady, she tried to convince herself.

“Easy, now. You got nothin’ to fear from me,” the voice came again. “I know where you go and what you do. Doesn’t matter to me.”

Snick. Stiletto brought out the switchblade without thinking about it. “Who are you?” she demanded.

“The phantom who sees in the night.” The woman—whoever she was—pitched her voice to make it sound spooky, then chuckled. “You might want to go around one block. The Three-Knees are hangin’ out up the way you usually go. Young woman, walkin’ by herself? Could be trouble.”

“What… this ain’t their hood.” Theirs was Third Street Northeast; they used 3NE as their tag. Calling them “Three-Knee” to their faces would get a violent response.

“Don’t matter. They’re there. And they don’t quite understand how things are done down here.”

“Yeah.” Stiletto worked by cutting one of the violators out of the herd; she couldn’t take on a whole gang by herself. “Thanks for the warning, uh…”

“Don’t matter who I am,” came the answer. “Some things are gone and not forgotten. Other things… well, you ride your ride, hon. I’ll ride mine.” And the presence was gone. Somehow, Stiletto could sense that.

“No. Way,” she whispered to herself. Her aunts had brought her up on stories of the Night Stalker. The phantom who sees in the night, she thought with a chill. It couldn’t be the real Night Stalker; if she was even alive, she had to be pushing eighty. But you heard things, and not all of them were from superstitious old folks. Women and children, warned of danger up ahead in a hood where most of the streetlights never worked. Or rescued. Not all the peace in Riverside North was Stiletto’s doing, when it came down to it.

She took the recommended detour, chewing over the woman’s riddle. Some things are gone and not forgotten. Other things… “are forgotten and not gone?” she asked herself. “Was there really a Night Stalker?”

Friday, September 25, 2015 4 comments

Stealth and High Explosives (#FridayFlash)

Hey look, a #FridayFlash! I woke up Tuesday morning with the phrase “stealth and high explosives” in my head, so here’s how two opposites work together…



I could imagine the calm-faced bodyguards: Sir, we need to get you to shelter this second. I adjusted my tie and hefted my briefcase.

The side entrance slammed open, and a torrent of bureaucrats and office drones poured out, babbling to be heard over the alarm buzzers. Some were poking at their phones, half an eye on the foot traffic crowded around them. Some might be texting I’m OK to family members, others sharing the excitement on Twitter, it didn’t matter either way. After the initial crush, the traffic tapered off and I slipped inside.

Swimming against the current, I did get the occasional “what the hell?” I didn’t blame them; they were low-level government workers, and running into a bombed building wasn’t in their job descriptions. I was ready for them, though, with a fake badge they wouldn’t take the time to scan. “Security. Please remain calm and evacuate the building,” I said, and they would comply.

Even if I hadn’t memorized the layout of the building, I could have found the stairwell by following the people leaving it. It smelled in there, too many worried bodies in too small a space. Flashing my badge again, I got the crowd of evacuees to make a lane for me along the wall. I took the steps two at a time, in both show and need of haste. I had to get them to clear a lane at each landing, so it was slower going than I liked. But I’d crunched the numbers. If I didn’t get completely blocked, I’d have just enough time.

“Excuse me!” a young woman called. “Are we in any danger?”

“Not at the moment,” I assured her. “The incident occurred at the lobby. But you need to exit quickly, and move away from the building, in case they have more surprises. Tell anyone you see standing near the exits.” I passed her as I said the last. Attractive, especially for a government drone. She must be new; the work had not yet begun to wear on her. Give it a couple years.

Third floor. I had to wave my badge and repeat the magic words several times before I could get enough space to squeeze through the door and into the hallway. There were still a few people lined up, looking anxious. “Plenty of time,” I told those, waving my badge one last time. “Just keep moving away from the building when you exit.”

Past the stairwell door, the third floor was nearly deserted. One or two guys were still at their desks, looking like they were trying to squeeze in one last thing before bolting. Probably looking to prove they were Promotion Material. I was so glad I wasn’t part of that rat-race anymore. But it did remind me of the other potential snag in my plan: someone might still be in Dr. Wackjob’s office suite. He wasn’t the kind to order office assistants to stay at their desks in a crisis, so said his profile. Actually, he was a decent type to work for—which said nothing of how he treated those he worked on.

Dr. Wackjob’s other quirk was that he was ultra-paranoid. None of his work ever touched a computer. That’s why I was here. And—better than I’d dared to hope—the suite was empty, and the doctor’s office door was open. His bodyguards didn’t let him lock up behind. I added a minute to the time I had to work.

His desk had someone’s file on it. Nobody I knew or needed to know, so I went to the file cabinets lining one wall—fireproof, and built like tanks. If we had dropped the whole building, the files would have survived. Dial M for Mayhem, I thought, and opened that drawer. Zachary Malovio’s file was near the front, and I pulled the folder. It was thick with paper, and I knew I had no time to go through the whole thing, but what I needed most was on the front page: facility name, room, attendants, the works. I stuck the whole thing in my briefcase and left.

There were still a few stragglers in the stairwell, and I joined them. We all made haste, although I knew there would be another bottleneck at the exit. I was about the last one out, and joined the throng heading for the transit station.

I hoped for an open table at one of the cafes and bistros lining the street, but all the other evacuees had filled them. Not everything went perfectly, after all, and I was three-fourths done. I stopped and scanned the street, looking for possible tails, but saw neither potential sanctuary nor potential enemies. Three fire trucks blasted by, making a godawful racket, and I ducked onto a quieter side street. There was a coffee shop, a little downscale for how I was dressed, but there were plenty of open tables. I took off my jacket, loosened my tie, and took a chair.

“Everybody okay up there?” the barista asked, checking his phone.

“I think it was mostly the lobby. Can I get a medium with cream, no sugar, to go? And your wifi password?”

“Oh, yeah, no prob.” He rattled off the wifi password as he poured up my order, and I punched it into my phone. “You know they can sniff the traffic, right?”

“I have VPN,” I assured him, and set up a connection. “Just needed to send one item I couldn’t before they chased us out.” I worked from memory, then cleared and shut down the phone. I’d leave it on the train later. Zach would be discharged tomorrow and spirited away, and all would be well. I left a five on the table for the barista and hit the streets.

Stealth and high explosives might not sound like they go together, but sometimes that’s what you need to get the job done.

Friday, July 17, 2015 9 comments

Cornered (#FridayFlash)

This is set in the same world as The Last Lightkeeper… which could be Termag, if the Dawn Greeters’ creation myth is to be believed. It’s darker fantasy than I usually write. I got the idea after reading Catherine Russell’s Caveat last week.



Image source: openclipart.org
Riata rounded the rocky corner, gasping for breath. She dodged around a pile of brush, and barely avoided slamming head-on into the end of the canyon.

“No, no,” she panted. Had she miscounted? Four passages then right, three then left… and she had counted three and four. Of course she had miscounted.

Trapped. No way out. A vicious chuckle echoed down the canyon walls. The minions of the Dark were coming. Their thoughts rang in her head: The Light has forsaken us. The Lightkeepers have fled. We are alone, alone with the Dark. She sat down, her back against the wall. Something dug into her backside, but that was no longer important. The Dark closed in, taking their time, savoring her terror and despair.

For some, there is a place beyond terror, beyond despair. In the slow minutes before certain death, Riata found that place—not rage, not a desire to betray her soul for a few more years of life, but a calm certainty: I will die with meaning. She pushed the thoughts of the Dark from her mind, though they echoed all around, then reached around to see what poked her sitting place…

“Ah. That.” A small copper canister of fat. A little rancid, but it could yet serve. Her wagon had an axle that tended to bind in its bearings, and Riata had not yet found a way to adjust it. She was always greasing that Light-forsaken thing, and she was doing it yet again when the minions of the Dark had come upon her. She must have slipped the canister into a pocket when she fled. Her flint was always with her… and a brush pile lay between her and the Dark.

Hope did not banish fear, nor did she expect to walk away from this canyon—but now, she knew she could fight. The Dark might take her in this hour, but their victory would come with a price. In the eternal twilight, she keened a song of mourning, but broke branches from longer sticks and piled dry leaves around her open canister. The minions of the Dark, hearing only her despair, gave her all the time she needed.

As the Dark approached, vicious and confident, Riata began striking her flint over the canister. Clack. Clack. Sparks fell into the fat, and the leaves she had rubbed in the fat… and a spark stayed. Riata blew gently, continuing to strike her flint. More sparks alit and glowed under her breath as the Dark closed in. A tongue of flame arose.

Fwoomp

Caught in a trap of their own making, the minions of the Dark howled in pain and rage at the flare of Light blooming from the brush pile. Some fell, others charged, as spears of fire rained upon them and Riata’s dirge became a battle song.

Friday, May 08, 2015 12 comments

Sunset (#FridayFlash)

With fridayflash.org winding down this week, I thought I’d write something about closure as well. It’s not nearly as fun as Chuck Allen’s Closing Time, but Termag’s history calls yet again…



Image source: openclipart.org
“…the blessings of the Creator and the lesser gods be on your journey, and may you find peace and happiness at your destination.” The knot of folk standing on the raft bowed with hands to foreheads; Captain Chelinn and Rathu the warrior-priestess put hands to hearts in response.

Chelinn and Rathu stood side by side, watching as the departing folk poled the raft away from the landing. As the Vliskoyr River’s current caught the raft, they turned and looked sadly back at Vlis, a city dying once more.

“Don’t look back!” Chelinn chided them across water. “Forward you go, to the Gulf and beyond!”

Rathu put a hand on his arm. “Tell me true, old friend,” she said. “Do you think they will take that advice?”

Chelinn’s shoulders slumped. “Nar. But we can hope. How many are left now? Fifty?”

“Fifty-seven, including the staff who cook and clean for us.”

“A thousand souls to this, in a few short years. Bah. I oft accuse Ak’koyr of avoiding the truth, when it is convenient for them to do so. It is time I stop doing the same. I have failed here, Rathu. It is time to gather the rest of the folk and follow that raft downriver.”

“Indeed?” Rathu slid her hand to his shoulder. “I expected you to hold out until the last dozen.”

For the first time that evening, a genuine smile came to Chelinn’s face. “Ha! I still have a surprise or three left in me, you old skullcracker.”

“Flattery? At a time like this?”

“I find that few folk have faith in me now. I must do what I can to keep the few friends I yet have.”

Rathu chuckled, a throaty sound that always made Chelinn—for only a moment—look past the comrade in arms, the dear old friend, and see the woman beneath. “So you failed. Ak’koyr will gloat, but we’ve never cared a half round’s worth for their opinion, eh?”

“True. And… ah. Far too late, I now realize my mistake.”

“You rarely fail, Chelinn. Perhaps the Creator is reminding you to be humble. Where did you—we—go wrong?”

“I did not choose my settlers wisely. I recruited among the disaffected of Ak’koyr, those who hated their rulers. I should have brought in others.”

“Others?”

“Yar. People who wanted more than to wave their pinky at Ak’koyr. Ah, there are some good folk among those I brought here, and they all deserved better than what they had in the First Round. But I should have brought in others. Others who were for Vlis, not just those against Ak’koyr.”

“I understand. Where will all of us go, then?”

“Phylok. Ethtar told me long ago that if this experiment did not work out, I and all who came with me would have a welcome and a home.” He chuckled. “Perhaps he foresaw this outcome. Perhaps that is why I waited this long, so I would not burden the good Protector with enough people to fill North Keep.” Chelinn looked downriver, painted red by the evening sun. “I will rename the barge Sunset. We can give everyone a few days to prepare, then bid this place good-bye. And I’ll send a detailed account home to Dacia. Perhaps Sarna’s grandchildren will find it useful.”

“You’re not going south, then?”

“Nar. I intend to be a thorn in Ak’koyr’s side, as always. I’ll see them too busy regretting my presence to gloat at my failure.”

Friday, April 17, 2015 3 comments

Of Made and Born, pt 2 of 2 (#FridayFlash)

The conclusion to last week’s post



Matos stood quiet a long moment, then heaved a deep sigh. “No. But how…? We have children!”

“Your new ‘friends’ have fed you on lies and half-truths. They point to the monsters that corrupt Makers unleash upon the world, and tell you that is all the works of the Makers. They point to the newly Made, or those fashioned by the slothful, and tell you that those mockeries are all the Made. I Made Dawna for you the day after you bared your soul to me, but it was a month before she was ready to meet you. I Made her clever, honest, and above all loyal—but her story, her life history, that took longer—and like the free will that the Born are naturally given, I gave her the free will to choose you or not. If I and my champion live the night, I will do the same for him.”

Inspiration struck me, as it often does at odd moments, and I fed it to the newly Made. The champion spoke again: “I am Chell, of the Seven Guardians! I have sworn to protect all those, Made and Born, who suffer injustice!”

“I have always trusted you, Zand.” Matos’s voice dropped to a near whisper. “Why did you not tell me?” He lowered his sword and reached for Dawna; ever loyal and intelligent, she took his hand. “Did you not trust me?”

I bowed my head. “Matos, I have sinned against you. I did not reveal myself out of cowardice. You know how it is with Makers. Where your new friends do not hunt us, we are shackled by the mighty to Make them even more of what they already have. Or among the poor, we are mobbed to Make the very stuff of life. One wrong word at the wrong moment, and I would be dead or captive, or overwhelmed by the needs of the moment, or on the run. As I may be this night, if my—if Chell must fight while I flee.

“You must choose, my friend. Will you renounce the Cult this night and embrace Truth? Or… or choose the other way?”

“Perhaps they themselves are misled? They have not seen the whole truth?” Matos looked uncertain once again.

“I suppose it possible, but unlikely. But if so, do you think that you could convince them of their error?”

He laughed. “I have never seen them uncertain of anything. No, they would not—they do not—” He paused for a long moment, then fell to his knees in the dirt and refuse, flinging his sword behind him. He drew a long breath. “Matos. Dawna. You have not sinned against me. I have sinned against you. I have—I have thought of you as Evil upon the world, both my dearest friend and my wife.” He began to sob.

Chell stepped forward, sword sheathed, as Dawna and I knelt on either side of the man we loved. “Matos, the Seven Guardians are both Made and Born,” said Chell, kneeling as well. “That is how it must be, for the Creator of all things has made this world for us both. There is a place for you among us, a chance to be part of something greater than ourselves.”

Matos laughed. “A legend that springs from nowhere? Or perhaps, from the dirty backside of a tavern?”

“Why not?” I said. “This is the world we live in: one where, as you say, legends spring from nowhere. Yes, some Makers create monsters to terrify the world, or Make obscene amounts of wealth for themselves. But most of us simply Make what is needed to help our friends or neighbors.”

“So I would become the second of the Seven Guardians. An honorable career, although not a path to riches.”

Dawna laughed. “And when have riches been our great desire?”

Matos gave his wife a happy smile; we stood together once again. “You speak wisely, as always. My beloved.” They laughed together, then embraced. “So we are two of the Seven Guardians, Chell and I. What of the other five?”

“Oh, they will be known as they are needed,” I laughed. “Two more of the Made will join you when they are ready. The others will be of the Born.”

Matos looked past me, perhaps toward a makeshift temple where he had spent entirely too much time lately. He took up his sword and sheathed it. “Yes, my friends, I renounce the Cult. The lies they have told me condemn them. And there will be a reckoning.” He gave us a smile, grim at first, but then turned genuine. “Our new life begins tomorrow. But tonight, let us four find another tavern, one where I have not made a fool of myself, and drink toasts to love and friendship.”

“A toast always worth drinking!” Chell laughed. We made our way around the side of the tavern and away.

THE END

Friday, April 10, 2015 4 comments

Of Made and Born, pt 1 of 2 (#FridayFlash)

I have a two-parter this week. It’s a Termag story, from the distant past before the Makers departed for the City of Refuge. The line "damn it, you fool, I’m her father!” came from a dream I had. I built the rest of the story from there…



Image source: openclipart.org
Dawna found me behind the tavern, watering the midden. “What cheer?” I asked her over my shoulder.

“No cheer, Zand. I’m frightened,” she admitted, as I finished and faced her. “You heard Matos in there. He has fallen in with that—that cult. If he finds out, I don’t know what he’ll do!” She began to cry, then stepped forward, falling onto my chest.

I did the only thing I could: held her and tried to comfort her. “I’ve known Matos forever,” I said, trying to reassure her. “He’s a good man, even if he’s confused—”

“Exactly what are you doing out here with my wife, Zand?”

Dawna spun out of my light embrace, her surprise easily mistaken for guilt. Matos looked puzzled, hurt, and a little angry—the normal things anyone might feel upon seeing one’s wife and best friend embracing in the dark. He put a hand to his sword.

“Matos—” I looked at my oldest and dearest friend. It was time—no, long past time—to drop the pretense. “Damn it, you fool, I’m her father!”

“Father?” he repeated, as Dawna looked back and forth between us. She realized what I was about to reveal, and I saw how that frightened her even more than the Cult of the Born.

“No!” she pleaded, then turned to her husband. “Matos, don’t listen to him, believe of us what you will!” Loyalty was her great virtue. I had seen to that.

“You can’t be her father,” Matos scowled, ignoring her plea. “We’re all of an age. What kind of fool do you take me for?”

“The kind of fool who is a good man, but has been blinded by fear, half-truths, and outright lies,” I said, looking him in the eye.

“Zand, no!” Dawna turned back to me.

I crossed my arms, more to reassure Matos than out of exasperation. “Dawna, he’s been my best friend for years. I’ve trusted Matos with my life. I should have never kept this from him.”

Before Dawna could answer, Matos laid a hand—a gentle hand—on her shoulder. “That an embrace between you two is innocent, I can believe. Even a brief indiscretion, I could forgive. But Zand, don’t try to justify what I saw with outrageous claims. That only makes me suspect you both.”

“Six years ago, Matos,” I said. “What happened?”

“You mean when Audra ran off with the butcher’s son, not a week before we were to be wed?” Matos looked down; perhaps the memory of that betrayal was already twisting his guts. He gave me a thin smile. “You took me out of harm’s way and got me roaring drunk. But what has that to do with this?”

“Walk that old path again with me, friend. What did you tell me when the spirits loosened your tongue?”

He shrugged. “That… that I had been unsure of her for a while. That I’d been turned by her physical charms, but she showed herself neither intelligent nor honest. Nor loyal, in the end.”

“And you said you would marry a woman with the head of a donkey if she were only clever, honest, and loyal.” We both laughed at the memory. “And a month later, I introduced you to Dawna.”

“Indeed.” Matos relaxed a moment, and smiled. His hand slipped off Dawna’s shoulder to her waist. “I’ve said ever since that I am forever in your debt for that. It was like she was made for me.”

“Matos… she was. I Made her for you. Not with a donkey’s head, mind you, but I thought you would forgive me for omitting that detail.”

As usual, my attempt at a jest fell wide of the mark. “What? Are you saying you’re a Maker?” He pushed Dawna away and drew his sword. “Tell me that’s a lie, Zand. Tell me!”

“It’s not a lie, Matos!” Dawna threw herself between us. “I am Made. Zand is my father. He Made me to be your wife! And I swear, if you strike at him, I will leave you!”

I took advantage of the distraction to Make a champion. He strode forth, skirting the midden, facing Matos with sword drawn. “Put away your weapon, O Born, and there will be no bloodshed this night.” Not the first words I would have preferred one of my Made to utter, but necessity ruled the moment.

“See? This is the evil of the Makers!” Matos spat. “They Make not men, but empty shells!”

“That is the half-truth you were taught,” I said. “All the Born are created in the image of the Creator, with the power of creation. You know the rhyme:

Ruler or knave,
The Creator has gave
A part of Himself to us all.

Woman or man,
All of us can
On the power of creation call.

Some create stories,
Some create songs,
Some create sculpture or art.

Others are given
The power of living—
Creation that comes from the heart.

Look at your wife, my friend. Is she an empty shell? Speak true!”

Friday, April 03, 2015 11 comments

The Final Confession of Judas Iscariot (#FridayFlash)

This is one of those stories I’ve wanted to write for a long time, and finally managed it this week. Being Good Friday, I guess it’s the best time for it. It ’s an alternate history in which Judas did not hang himself…



Image source: Wikimedia Commons
The final confession of Judas, the Iscarius and Betrayer.

The Master taught us many things while He dwelt among us, and we did not understand some of them at the time. I, perhaps I understood least of all. But with certain death comes a measure of clarity, and this night I have finally learned the last lesson.

I have spent my final hours in prayer—why sleep, when eternal rest comes with the dawn? I have not prayed for deliverance, for the Messiah had told my fate in the hours before my greatest error: Woe to him by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would be better for him if he had never been born. He forgave me, of course, the night after he rose from the dead. He set out to conquer something far greater than the Romans—He conquered Death itself. And though I wished to die, He bid me live instead.

My errors were many in life, but this was my greatest: I believed He had come to establish an earthly kingdom. I gave Him over to the Sanhedrin, believing that I could force His hand. That He would at last show his power, throw off the shackles of his captors, and restore the Kingdom. One does not force God’s hand! At best, he may find that he has only done what God intended in the end.

Dawn is breaking. My time is short. The scaffold is ready, and I hear the guards coming. Would that I had the honor of dying on a cross, like the Master! But though I am the worst criminal of all, I shall be hung like a common one. Or a suicide.

Friday, March 27, 2015 9 comments

Bailar Downriver (#FridayFlash)

This is another one of the “young Bailar” stories, the next scene after The Voice of the Forest.



The barge crew and porters laughed as Bailar sim Prensin pulled himself out of the muddy water of the river landing, using his staff and the gangplank to steady himself. “An inauspicious beginning,” he muttered, clambering onto the gangplank. On the other hand, he had kept his pack out of the water. His food and belongings were dry and safe.

“Hoy, lad.” One of the crew offered him a hand. “I’d not seen anyone slip off that gangplank before.”

“My balance is a steaming heap of bowgnoash,” said Bailar, letting the poleman haul him aboard. “Always has been.”

“To be rude about it, boy, no need,” the barge master snapped. “Yer pack, under the tarp ya can drop. Settle in, outta the way ya stay.”

“Yes, sir,” Bailar replied, using his new staff to keep his balance. Greased with fat and cured in the chimney, the river water ran off it. The only wet part was its leather boot. He made his way across the barge to the tarp. The crew had their own places staked out already, but there was plenty of open space. He chose a spot near one corner and sat with his pack. His bedroll was wet on one side, but he laid it out and left his pack on the dry side. It would all be dry by nightfall.

With that out of the way, he sat in the sun along the edge of the tarp, watching the porters and crew work. He was alone, but he had said his good-byes. His sisters tried to talk him into staying home, if only so he could mind their children once they chose mates and wed. But sorcery seemed like a good match for him—perhaps he could use magic to go and do without falling on his face so often. He would certainly see more of the wide world than he would staying at home. Even his parents had never been farther than Exidy…

The polemen strained, pushing the barge away from the landing. No turning back now, he thought, letting the early-summer sun dry his clothes. The next two days would be interesting. In the Matriarchy, women ruled from the household to the throne, but barges were a man’s domain.


“Your pardon, notable,” Bailar asked the first person he saw on the Exidy docks. Behind him, the porters offloaded sacks of wheat and rye, likely including some that his parents had grown. “Where might I find the local sorcerer?”

“Old Gilsen?” The woman looked him over. “He dwells across the river.” She pointed to a landing across the Wide; a wide-bottomed craft sat pulled up on shore. “You can hire a boat and paddle across, if you’re in a hurry. If it can wait, Mara can bring him to you even sooner.”

Bailer puzzled at the riddle for a moment. “Are you saying that’s Mara’s boat over there?”

“Indeed. Clever lad, you are. And yonder they come.” She pointed to two figures making their way down the river bank to the landing. “They’ll come ashore at the landing. Follow me.”

They made their way to the landing, Bailar watching his footing to avoid stumbling or worse. At the river’s edge, a sturdy woman pulled her boat ashore while the man sat waiting.

“Hoy, Mara!” Bailar’s guide called. “This boy-sprout wants a word with your passenger.”

The two of them eyed Bailar. The man nodded and clambered onto the damp sand. An old grand, Bailar thought, noticing the white sash draped over one shoulder. The man’s hair was only a slight shade darker than the sash.

“I am Gilsen the White,” the old grand greeted him. “Say your say.”

“My name is Bailar sim Prensin,” said Bailar, putting a hand to his forehead and bowing, the salute to a superior. “I wish to become your apprentice.”

“Indeed?” Gilsen looked surprised. “Son, you know that it takes more than a staff to become a sorcerer. You have to have the Talent.”

“I know, sir. This staff is to help me with my balance. I know I have magic in me, for I heard the Deep Forest speak.”

The two women looked at each other; their smirks said upriver bumpkin. Bailar ignored them.

“If that is true, then you may well be suitable,” said Gilsen, surprising the women.

“Do you have room for another apprentice?”

Gilsen stifled a laugh. “Indeed, son. If you would, come to the market with me. When we finish, we shall return to my home, and I will administer a few tests.”

Friday, March 20, 2015 9 comments

Fair Trade (#FridayFlash)

“Is all well, good scribe?” Breeze wrote on the chalkboard.

Image source: openclipart.org
My feet were freezing, and I hate for my feet to be cold. The lighting was all wrong. This suit chafed me. But I really shouldn’t complain; I was one of the first twenty humans to set foot on Mars and converse with an alien in person. Symbolic, the language the Phwu had taught us over the last year, was very literal; an inquiry like this expected more than fine, thanks for an answer. “There is some discomfort,” I wrote below Breeze’s inquiry, “but I can function well enough.”

“I share in your discomfort, being very warm. Let us proceed, then.”

“Good Lord, it’s -50°C out here and he’s complaining about the heat,” I said aloud. That got a couple chuckles in my helmet radio.

“You’re talking about the fracking weather?” one of the ESA people griped.

“He said ‘let us proceed,’ so I think we’ll be getting down to business now,” I retorted.

Breeze—his (its?) real name was 40kph wind from the northwest at six atmospheres and 120 Kelvin, so you can understand why we gave him a nickname—confirmed my guess. “As we stated (two weeks) ago, we wish to use your fifth planet as a dwelling place. In exchange, we offer you our starship and the information you need to understand its working.”

I translated the Symbolic for the benefit of those in our delegation who didn’t understand it, as well as for the cameras. Everyone tried to respond at once, making a gabble in my helmet radio. “Ask him if the information is in Symbolic, or if we’ll have to figure out another language as well,” someone finally said.

“Got it,” I said, and turned to the chalkboard. “Must we learn another language to understand the technology?” I wrote.

“The information is in all interspecies languages, including Symbolic,” Breeze replied. “We include tutorials so that you may learn those languages compatible with your senses.” There were at least two dozen different languages used to communicate out in the galaxy; usually, two species could find one they could both use. Biologists were already talking about using some of them to communicate with dolphins.

Again, my helmet radio filled with gabble. The Chinese and ESA delegations were urging caution; NASA and Russia were gung-ho. When the transmission got back to Earth, the xenophobes would crap themselves, but that was normal. As far as I was concerned, it was a no-brainer. The whole galaxy in exchange for one lousy gas giant we weren’t going to use anyway? What I didn’t understand was why our delegation was trying to hash this out all over again; the Phwu had made the offer before they sent us the ship to bring us here. (One of the wags at NASA wanted to dub the ship Short Bus, since it seated twenty humans who probably didn’t measure up to the galactic average, but he got smacked down in a hurry.)

“Ecuador is trying to claim this ship as theirs, as it landed there,” one of the Russians said. “Where will the starship land, and what country might claim it?” The question of where the ship would land had almost triggered World War III, although we kept it really quiet so the Phwu wouldn’t hear. In the end, we all agreed on Ecuador. Maybe that hadn’t been such a good idea in retrospect.

“Wait a minute,” I said, and took up the chalk. “Can you broadcast the information and the tutorials to the entire world?” I wrote.

“Of course,” Breeze replied. “We expected to do just that.” You have to understand, in Symbolic, the phrase do just that is very emphatic.

“Uh, guys,” I said. “I think the Phwu understand us better than you think. If you put Breeze’s response in colloquial English, it would be ‘well, duh.’ Nobody’s going to have a leg up, here.”

Blessed silence filled my helmet for a minute. “I think that will be acceptable,” said one of the Chinese delegates.

“Works for us,” said NASA. The others, including the delegates from India and central Africa, agreed.

“We find that acceptable,” I wrote, conscious of the cameras recording my every move. “When will the broadcast begin?”

“In (one hour),” Breeze replied, then threw an arm around me in an approximation of a human hug. “As for the starship, we shall put it in orbit around the third planet. It belongs to all your people.”

“Get soil samples!” one of the NASA people shouted.

“Vacuum tubes?” I heard from an ESA delegate. “The electronics on this barge are from the fifties! Hell, we probably could have traded them a few computers for the starship!”

That, of course, was a completely different can of worms that we opened about seven hundred light-years from home.

Friday, March 13, 2015 9 comments

DeVine (#FridayFlash)

Here’s a peek at one of Skyscraper City’s supervillains. If you haven’t been reading all along, don’t miss out on Blink: Superhero Summer Camp (link to first episode); new episodes drop every Monday. Or hit the Skyscraper City link for other related stories!



From a distance, Gethsemane Church shines like a jewel on Skyscraper City’s northern edge. Crystal spires catch the sunlight, gleaming like a beacon and blinding unwary motorists at rush hour.

The grounds are no less imposing nor less beautiful. Exotic and native plants grow in ordered harmony across twelve acres of prime real estate. A wide expanse of lawn, manicured as finely as any country club’s fairways, provides a natural space for outdoor events. Even the sprawling parking lot, big enough for a thousand cars, has plenty of shade and greenspace. The impious often say that Gethsemane is a shrine to its High Minister, Charles “Chuck” Worley. But it’s hard to argue with success, and Gethsemane is success on steroids.

Image source: openclipart.org
But even Rev. Worley would say that there are two gems in the tiara that is his church. One is the replica of its namesake, the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Savior Himself prayed for deliverance. The other is indoors, the Arch of Living Vines over the pulpit, reminding the faithful of the parable of the vine. (These vines are not grapes, and bear no fruit, but that minor quibble is lost on most.)

On this Tuesday afternoon, the sanctuary is almost empty—except for one man at the Living Vine. Snick go a pair of clippers, and a long length of vine drops to the floor atop a growing pile of clippings. Anyone watching Philip Klor at work would be horrified, but Klor insists on working with nobody nearby. He does his job well (and cheaply) enough that Worley tolerates this one quirk. Nobody else could complete his vision of an arch of vines over his pulpit, after all.

With the arch thinned out, Klor reached out and focused. Slowly at first, then gaining speed, the vines grew. On both sides, the vines stretched up the chicken wire that formed the Arch, thickening and leafing out. In minutes, the chicken wire was hidden by lush green, growing exactly where it needed, with not a single leaf out of place.

Klor hopped down the ladder and strode to the back of the sanctuary to check his handiwork. “Lookin’ good as always,” he muttered. Returning to the risen area around the pulpit, he stuffed the clippings into a bag and fed the planters a generous helping of fertilizer and mulch. Automatic systems, more of Klor’s handiwork, took care of the watering part.

Sauntering out to the prayer garden, he looked around. That chump Worley often brought his own chumps out here to shake more money out of their pockets, but today he had the place to himself. He checked the place out, willing a few of the plants to try a little harder, to get a little greener. As always, they responded. The pay was crappy, and Klor often daydreamed of walking out and burying the grounds in kudzu behind him, but he did his job. It was—no pun intended—excellent cover for his real work.

Tucked away behind a holly hedge was the caretaker’s cottage. Gethsemane provided him with living space, but he had to pay rent out of what little they paid him. Not to mention the ten percent “tithe” they withheld from his meager paycheck on top of taxes… but this megachurch was not Klor’s sole source of income.

Not by a long shot.

He deposited the clippings in the mulcher system behind the cottage, then went inside for a shower. Minutes later, clean and refreshed, he sat at his computer. His Internet link went through the church’s network, which was constantly monitored for signs of impropriety, but there were ways around that. Accessing his cover site, a botanical database, he hopped on the anonymizing relay and went to town. Or, to be more precise, Twitter.

Party at my place Friday, one tweet offered. There were several replies from accounts he followed, chatty cover aliases, offering to bring drinks or snacks. He chimed in with his own reply.

The supervillains were planning something big. DeVine meant to be a part of it.

Friday, March 06, 2015 4 comments

Poison Kaine (#FridayFlash)

Image source:
openclipart.org
Old Kaine paused in his long shuffling up the sidewalk and leaned on his cane, looking over the two younger men who stood in his way. “What’s up?” he sighed, knowing well what was up. They said nothing. “I got four dollars and twenty-seven cents,” he continued at last. “And a paperback. But I guess you boys aren’t much for reading.”

The assailants looked at each other, trying to decide if they had just been insulted. “I bet you got more than that on you,” one said.

Kaine looked around. Nobody was around, let alone paying attention. “Look,” he said, raising his cane. “I think you need to…” The cane made a phhut sound, and one of them fell over, stiff as a statue, staring at the dart in his gut. The other gave his partner a goggle-eyed look. “Young folks these days,” said the old man, now pointing his cane at the second man. “In my day, the survivor would’ve had the sense to run for it by now. So why aren’t you running?”

The would-be attacker took a few steps backwards, hands up, then turned and ran. “About time,” Kaine muttered, plucking the dart out of his victim. He was not quite dead yet, but the poison had done its work, seizing up all his muscles. He was suffocating, and feeling every bit of it, at least until he lost consciousness. “If you were one to do a little thinking, you might have thought about how an old geezer walking alone out here lived long enough to be an old geezer, eh?”

He looked around one more time, then opened his cane at the crook. He dipped the dart in fresh poison and reloaded it into the barrel. One shot was all he ever needed. But there was real work to be done later. The Senator was having his big rally in the Square tonight.

Friday, January 30, 2015 6 comments

Scarecrow 2.0 (#FridayFlash)

Image source: openclipart.org
“Hi, Allie,” Bob said into his cellphone, turning to shade himself and the phone from the summer sun. The corn wasn’t high enough for shade just yet.

“On the way back,” his wife told him. “I saw something interesting at the feed store, though. It might help with the crows.”

“Sounds good.” The crows had been especially bad this year. Bob was afraid they might eat up the whole crop before it was ready to pick. Not that the rats were much better, mind you. Or the raccoons.

“You at your best right now?”

“Yup. Out standing in my field.” This was their little running joke.

“Good. Anyway, I got this flyer. I really think you should call.”

“Will do.” When Allie said I really think you should, there was always an unspoken or else.

• • •

“So here’s the bottom line.” The young fella was earnest enough, but he talked kind of quick and his outdoor clothes didn’t look comfortable on him. “We set up a Scarecrow Two Point Oh system for you. You let us know how it works, and let us come on your property to maintain the thing. Maybe once a week, unless something breaks. If it damages your crops or your property in any way, we make it right.”

“There’s gotta be a catch,” said Allie. “What’s in it for you and your people?”

“Well, ma’am, we do need to field-test the system,” he admitted. “You can do a lot on a test plot, and we fixed some problems that would have had you taking a shotgun to it.” That got a chuckle from Bob. “But we won’t know for sure how well it works until it’s deployed on a real, working farm. We’re sure enough about it to try it, now. If we thought there was a good chance it would damage your crops, we’d still be testing it on our own plots.” He slid a paper out of his folder. “This is the contract.”

Allie looked the contract over. “Huh. Not that legal gobbledygook? This looks pretty clear. Maybe we can work together after all.”

“Great.” The visitor gave them a happy smile. “Just show me a place to put the system, one where there’s lots of sunlight, and I’ll get to work.”

“You’ll need power, right?” Bob asked.

“Nope. It’s all solar-powered. Even we know there’s no outlets out in a cornfield.” All three laughed together.

• • •

A week later, Allie and Bob were congratulating themselves for taking a chance on this “Scarecrow 2.0” thing. The robot patrolled the cornfield and blasted varmints with its laser. Even better, it cleaned up after itself, depositing dead critters in a bin, where Bob counted them up and sent the tally to SC Research. Its best day was the third, with 147 kills; the tally was declining now, but Bob figured it was making a dent in the varmint population and finding fewer targets.

But by the end of the third week, Bob was seeing telltale signs of feeding again. There were only a few critters in the bin each day. “I think we need to call ‘em up,” said Allie.

“Okay,” they heard over the phone. “We see it in the telemetry. It’s tripping a ‘low battery’ fault, then it’s not getting much of a charge in the base station. Probably a defect in the charging system. We’re scheduled to come out tomorrow, we’ll check it out.”


“Holy sh—holy mackerel,” said the technician, wobbling atop a stepladder. “The solar panels are covered in guano.” He took out a rag and wet it with his water bottle. “Man. I’ve never seen one like this,” he grumbled, wiping bird crap off the panels.

Once the panels were cleaned, the charging system jumped right back up to normal, making the technician as happy as the farmers. “Yeah. Keep an eye on this, okay?” said the technician. “Maybe squeegee the panels every other day. I guess the engineers will develop counter-measures to keep that from happening.”

The next morning, Bob went out to check on the Scarecrow. He took a cellphone snap of what he saw, then called the company again. “I got a picture,” he said. “The damn crows are sitting on the solar panels and holding their wings out. It’s like they know what to do or something.”

“This is the kind of real-world info we were hoping to get,” said one of the engineers, after taking them off hold (Allie figured they were cussing the crows). “Sounds like we need to come up with better counter-measures than a wiper. But hang in there, we’ll beat this yet.”

Allie hung up the phone, looking pensive.

“What is it?” asked Bob.

“Well…” Allie trailed off, looking out the window at the cornfield. “They’re gonna come up with something to keep the crows off the solar panels, right? Makes me wonder what the crows will come up with to beat that.”

Friday, January 02, 2015 6 comments

The Swamp Witch Gets a Student (#FridayFlash)

Earlier Swamp Witch stories…



Image source: openclipart.org
Many of those who came to Hattie the Swamp Witch did their business on her porch, and never entered her house. Those invited inside rarely got a look at much more than the front room, the “living room” as most reckoned it. From there, one might get a glimpse of her kitchen, usually as she worked at fixing up whatever it was that needed fixing—usually a love potion, or the results of too much love or lust, but Hattie wasn’t one to judge.

Beyond that, Hattie might let a visitor use her bathroom if they needed. Anyone curious or nosy enough to approach the other two doors (firmly closed) would get a warning from Mr. Sniff, her cat. Once or twice in Hattie’s long career, she had to give a visitor a poke with a broom handle and a dire threat. Not that there was much to see behind either door.

One door went to her bedroom. The nightstand was the only cluttered part of the bedroom, stacked with books. The other door opened on a narrow hallway, leading to a back porch. It was screened in, had indoor-outdoor carpeting, and sported a small hammock. On this muggy summer afternoon, Hattie was snoozing in the hammock, a little afternoon constitutional—

BAM BAM BAM

Mr. Sniff, curled up on the warm carpet, jumped up and hissed. “Wha?” Hattie gasped, flipping herself out of the hammock. She landed on her hip, snarling a curse that would have curdled the swamp water if it wasn’t already nasty.

The pounding again. “Coming!” Hattie snarled, ducking through the narrow hall and grabbing her hat off the dining room table. Mr. Sniff went straight for the door and meowed, stretching himself toward the knob like he would let the visitor in himself.

“Huh,” said Hattie. Mr. Sniff was a pretty good judge of her visitors, even through the door, and he’d never done that before.

“What’cha want?” Hattie asked, jerking the door open and stepping back before the visitor knocked her nose. She sized up the young woman on the other side: she looked both plain and angry. Well, a Loosyana summer was enough to make anyone a bit testy.

“I want to disappear,” the visitor snapped.

“Come back at night and get off the path,” Hattie replied. “You’ll disappear right quick. But I guess that ain’t what you meant. Here, let’s sit out on the porch swing. What’s yer name?”

“Paula LaFria.”

“Okay, Paula. Tell me what’s on your mind, and I’ll tell you if I can help. You want a glass of water or anything?”

“Yeah, water would be good. I’m sweatin’ like a pig out here.”

“Okay. Sit tight. I’ll be right back.”

Pouring the water, Hattie debated, then decided it couldn’t hurt nothing. She poured a goodly knock of vodka into Paula’s glass. It would help to loosen her tongue.

Hattie returned to the porch, to find Mr. Sniff in the woman’s lap, purring up a storm. Paula smiled and obliged the cat with ear scratches and head rubs.

“If that don’t beat all,” said Hattie, sitting next to her. “He ain’t usually that friendly. You must be a good person all the way down. Here’s ya some water. Tell me what’s on your mind. Why you wanna disappear? You ain’t killed nobody, have ya?”

That got a wry chuckle out of Paula. “Naw. Not yet, anyway.” She took a gulp. “No offense, but your water tastes a little funny.”

“It comes out a well. Eighty, ninety years ago, they went drillin’ for oil and struck water instead. They just capped it off, but one of my predecessors tapped it and run some pipe back here. Gotta pump it, but it beats draggin’ a barrel of water down the path. It’s probably healthier than your town water. But that ain’t tellin’ me anything about your problem. You wanna disappear? You don’t need no witch help for that, just head to Nawlins or Baton Rouge like all the other young folks.”

Paula shrugged and slugged down her treated water. “Still got men there. Always starin’, always thinkin’ I’m obligated to show ‘em a good time, like it’s a privilege for me or something. So I thought if you had something that would make me disappear, I could at least live my life in peace. I got two hundred dollars saved up. Ain’t much, but I’ll give it to you if you can make it happen.”

“Hm. You know most of what a swamp witch does ain’t really magic, right? I mix up potions, yeah, but it’s all stuff you can find out here. I checked the library, and I think there’s a scientific basis for all of it.”

“So you can’t help me.”

“I didn’t say that,” Hattie assured her. “I done a little studyin’ where I could, ‘specially where it comes to love potions. I guess my recipe gets yer body chemicals a-brewin’. Maybe that’s a natural thing for you. If I could figure out how the recipe works, maybe I could figure out something to make it go the other way, cut off that brew. But I got a more sure way to make ya disappear.”

“Without me jumpin’ in the swamp, I hope.”

“Yeah. Mostly. You ever think about bein’ a swamp witch?”

“What?” Paula jumped to her feet, swayed for a moment, and sat down. “I think the heat’s got to me.”

“Sure. I’m ready to call it quits myself. But Nowhere, Loosyana needs a swamp witch to take care of things. Nobody’ll bother you, unless they got a death wish. I teach you the recipes, how to deal with folks, and all ya gotta do is change yer name.”

“My name?”

“Yep. My born name’s Susan. But Hattie’s been the swamp witch out here for over a hundred years.”

Paula grinned. “You know what? You got yourself a student.”

Friday, December 05, 2014 4 comments

War Games (“Lost in Nightwalk” excerpt) (#FridayFlash)

If you’ve been avoiding my post-launch giddiness… I can’t blame you. But Lost in Nightwalk is out, and I didn’t have a #FridayFlash put together, so why not excerpt something?



It’s out!
“Strike, forward march,” Firgar ordered. “We are now in hostile territory. Our torchlight gives us away, but all we can do for that is to be at the ready, aye?”

They reached the next intersection. “Here begins the test,” the Grand Commander whispered. “We’ll put two soldiers on each side, shields out, and dash across one by one.”

“Grand Commander,” said Sura, “with your permission. Mik and I had an idea last night, and it might be worth trying.”

“It was mostly Sura’s idea,” Mik added, “but we worked out the details together.” He explained what they had in mind.

Firgar chuckled. “Let’s try our try,” he said. “It hurts nothing if it doesn’t work.”

Soldiers lined up before the corner, and Bailar held the torches, as Mik and Sura shed their white cloaks. Away from the entrance, Nightwalk was equally cool in summer and winter. The cloaks were meant to protect them from bruising by the practice weapons, but they did keep their wearers warm. The apprentices waved their staffs, as Bailar had taught them to do in front of folk, and the cloaks drifted from them. Two torches joined the cloaks, and they floated into the intersection together. The apprentices made the torches move back and forth, as people would if they were deciding which way to go.

From their left came: thwock, thwock, the sound of two crossbows, and a practice bolt struck one of the cloaks. Bailar brought the False Dawn, lighting up the corridor, as two soldiers dived into the intersection and loosed their own crossbows. They rolled across, and two more soldiers did the same.

“Five!” one of them shouted. “Now three!” the other added. “No, two!”

“Charge!” Firgar and Narvin whooped a battle-cry and rushed the remaining defenders. Each threw a spear as they charged, then drew their practice swords. One of the spears found its mark, and the victim sat down. Three of the four mock casualties scrambled out of the way, as the last defender standing drew his own practice sword and tried to back away. It was over quickly.

Four of the defenders lined up against the wall. “What’s with him?” one of them asked, gesturing at the last man lying on the floor.

Bailar made his way down the hall, using the wall to keep his balance. He knelt next to the man, who gasped and sat up. “You died in your sleep,” Bailar explained. “I cut your throat.”

“Five to one,” one of the defenders said, shaking his head. “From what I’ve been hearing, that’s the best showing from your side yet.”

“Five to none, actually,” Narvin grinned. “Our mages floated empty cloaks into the intersection for you to shoot at.”

“Clever.”

“Hundred Thora is an excellent tactician,” said Firgar, “but Lady Sura descends from the finest tactician in Termag’s history.” He nodded to Sura, approaching with Mik and the rest of the strike.

The defenders looked at each other. “A girl planned that? Is that the Matriarchy girl, then?”

“Aye. She’ll make a fine warrior-mage, the first in centuries.”

“Good work,” the defenders’ leader said. “Perhaps we’ll have another round of this. Both sides can learn from its mistakes and successes.” They lifted torches and shuffled away.



Things get messy from here—get “Lost in Nightwalk” with Sura, Mik, and Bailar and find out just how messy!

Friday, November 21, 2014 6 comments

The Voice of the Forest (#FridayFlash)

This one runs a little long, not quite 1300 words, so I hope you’ll forgive me. This is Bailar the Blue’s “origin story,” which takes place when he was 13…

Thanks to Catherine Russell for providing a quick beta read.



Image source:
openclipart.org
“Drunk again?”

Bailar sim Prensin caught his footing, not falling this time, and kept walking. Farl’s gibe was hardly original, after all, not worth responding to.

“Crazy lout,” the older boy muttered as Bailar stumbled by. “Someday, the Forest will eat you.”

At this, Bailar smirked. In this little farming community along the edge of the Deep Forest, children tested their nerve by venturing into the trees, daring each other to go a little farther in. But the Forest never held any terror for Bailar—indeed, to him it was a welcoming place. Even as a child, he had oft embarrassed Farl and other older children in their game, wandering farther into the trees than any.

“Don’t know why the mothers let you watch their babies,” Farl sneered, turning away. Bailar often wondered the same, but it was one of the few useful things he could do to earn some coins. He was too clumsy for most physical labor, and there was little call for intellectual pursuits here in the hinterlands of the Stolevan Matriarchy. Still, babies enjoyed his company, and he prided himself on never dropping any of them. As for the mothers, they seemed to like him—or perhaps they pitied him.

He left the road and walked the edge of a rye field, using the fence to help with his balance. A few younger children capered ahead, probably nerving themselves up to dash into the trees beyond. They slowed as they drew closer to the edge of the Deep Forest, though, and he caught up to them. Bailar could hear the trees whispering, even from here, although there was no wind. He knew why: ages ago, the Unfallen had once dwelt in the Forest. The trees awakened under their care, and Unfallen and trees protected each other. The last of the Unfallen had passed on, transcended, centuries ago—but the trees still remembered.

“Crazy Bailar,” one of the bigger girls said. She looked about two years younger than Bailar’s thirteen. “He wins.”

“I’m not playing the game this time,” Bailar retorted. “And yes, I’m just a boy, but I’m older and you should have at least a little respect.” The girl stuck her tongue out at him.

“What are you doing, then?” one of the boys asked.

“I’ll show you.” Bailar stepped past the first trees. “Hoy!” he called. “My eldest sister is sick. Will you allow me to gather everbalm and flameweed to help make her better?”

The trees whispered a reply. Bailar could not make out words, as always, but the whispers sounded agreeable. The younger children gaped as he found his balance and hiked away.

“If a boy can do it, I can do it,” he heard behind him. A girl jogged toward him, the one who had insulted him. “Hoy! Bailar! Wait!”

Bailar stopped to oblige her. It will be interesting to see how long she lasts, he thought. It would be a new experience, hiking the Forest with someone at his side—even a sharp-tongued girl.

“How do you know what to look for?” she asked, matching his stride but stealing glances over her shoulder.

“Healer Rosha told me,” he replied, looking around. “Flameweed to help with her fever, everbalm for the coughing.” He stifled a laugh, thinking about the conversation with Rosha and his mother:

“If I had the herbs,” said Rosha, “I could cure her. But the barge won’t be here for a week, and who knows if it’ll carry any?”

“I can get them,” said Bailar.

“Where?” Mother cocked an eyebrow, perhaps knowing the answer.

“I’ll ask the Forest.”

“The Forest?” Rosha looked horrified. “You’ll go… ah. I forget.”

He had laughed, but thought at last, this might be my calling. Rosha had an older apprentice, but perhaps if he could bring her what she needed, she might take a second…

“How do you know where to go?” The girl’s question brought him back to the present. “Do the trees talk to you?”

“No,” Bailar replied. “You have to have magic in you to hear what the trees say. That’s what the old grands say, anyway. But you know how you can tell someone something without words?”

“Indeed.” She stopped, a step behind Bailar, and looked back. “What are you doing?”

“Looking for the trees to point the way.” He crouched and pointed. “See how the leaves are mounded a little, going off that way?”

“No. Ah, ah, I’d better go back. I shouldn’t be alone with a boy anyway, and someone has to look out for the others.”

“It’s all right,” Bailar assured her.

She turned away, but looked up and screamed. “A dragon! Oh gods, a dragon!” She dashed to Bailar and hid behind him, making him laugh.

“It’s just an Oakendrake,” he said. “They won’t hurt you unless you try to grab it, or get too close to its nest.” Bailar had read everything he could find about dragons, which was not much. But he had seen Oakendrakes before. He looked up at the green dragon, only as long as his arm, crouched on a tree limb. “Hello, dragon. Would you fly away long enough for my friend to run back to her other friends?”

The Oakendrake squawked, making the girl cringe, and disappeared above the trees.

“That way.” Bailar pointed, and the girl wasted no time sprinting away. He shrugged and followed the path the trees laid out for him. The Oakendrake returned, flitting from branch to branch. They were curious creatures, after all.

The line of leaves led to a clearing. The north edge held a riot of different herbs, all vying for a place in the sun. Bailar found what he needed, and gathered a small bag of each as the dragon watched from a short distance.

“Thank you for your aid, O Forest,” he said, bowing with palm to forehead. “And to you, Oakendrake, for watching over me.” The little dragon squawked and flew away again. “I should have asked for a stick to use for a staff,” he muttered, as he left the clearing. “I could—”

His foot caught an exposed root, and he went sprawling. Somehow, he kept a grip on his bags. His free hand caught something hard.

Take up, he heard. A whisper like the trees, but as clear as any voice.

“What?” He pushed himself to his knees. “Who said that?”

Your staff, came the reply. Take up.

In his hand was a dry root, as long as he was tall. He stood, stick in hand. One end was a gnarled knot, the other a ragged break. There were no cracks in between. It would make a perfect staff, with minimal work. “I—I—thank you again, O Forest.”


Later, braced against the work table, the stick clamped down, Bailar sawed off the broken end. He kept his free hand well away, and took his time. He could often avoid hurting himself if he took enough time and care. His sister, already feeling better, had offered to sew a leather boot for his staff, and Mother had donated a handful of fat to help cure the wood. But his mind was elsewhere. I heard the trees speak, he thought. ‘Prenticing himself to the Healer was no longer the best he could do.

He had a little money from caring for infants. But now, minding children was in his past. With two older sisters, he had no inheritance to speak of. So, when the barge came, he would leave his old life behind. Surely a sorcerer downriver would take him as apprentice. He had heard the voice of the Forest, and all things were possible.

Friday, November 07, 2014 9 comments

The Knights of the Irregular Polygonal Table (#FridayFlash)

Any resemblance to Sabrina Zbasnik’s Rejected Story is purely, uh…

OK, let’s pull the pin and see what happens with this one. For other stories in this world, enter “strange lands” in the search box at the top of the page.



Image source: openclipart.org
Once upon a time, in the Strange Lands north of Aht-Lann-Tah, there was a tavern. Actually, the Strange Lands has plenty of taverns, as drinking oneself stupid was far easier than trying to understand one’s neighbors. But this tavern was situated at the foot of Aiken Butte, and was named for the landmark. As it was near the border of the Dominion and several other states great and small, knights of the nearby realms would gather there to drink, tell tales, work out minor differences between the kingdoms, drink, boast of their prowess, drink some more, and set dates for golf outings. And when they finished all that, they got down to some serious drinking.

The owner of the tavern had set aside a long table in the back for the knights. The corners were worn away by years of swords rubbing against them, so everyone called it the Round Table (Sir Pedant pointed out that it was actually a rough irregular polygon, with a general oval shape, but “the Knights of the Irregular Polygonal Table” just didn’t have the same ring). Besides, irregular is the norm in the Strange Lands.

But I digress. One fine day, knights from several realms were drinking and doing the other things that knights do when they’re not golfing or trying to knock each other off their horses. Into this peaceful debauch entered Sir Slice, so named for his golf swing rather than his swordplay.

“Ho! Ha!” the other knights shouted, pulling up a chair and making room. “What news?”

“Dire news, indeed,” said Sir Slice, slamming down his ale. “A dragon has captured another princess.”

“Not Stonebelly?” asked Sir Umber.

“Nay, good Dragonpooper,” Sir Slice grinned as the other knights laughed. “Just a regular dragon.”

“Dragonslayer, if you please,” Sir Umber growled. He had ridden out against a dragon one day, and the dragon laughed itself to death when Sir Umber soiled his armor. His now-former squire had let slip the truth, and nearly lost his head for it, for a secret once out can never be hidden again. “A dead dragon is a dead dragon, no matter how it is slain.”

Sir Slice waited for the laughter to die down. “Be it as it may. Who among us will go forth to rescue the unfortunate one?”

A long silence worked its way around the sort-of round table. “You haven’t heard?” said Sir Pedant. “It’s all about affirmative consent these days.”

Sir Slice scratched his oily head. “What does that mean? You sally forth, you slay the dragon, the princess is yours. That’s the way it’s always been done.”

“Not anymore,” said Sir Umber, glad to change the subject. “The princess must want to be rescued, and tell you she wants to be rescued. Those are the new rules of chivalry.”

“What? Of course she wants to be rescued!”

“She may want to rescue herself,” another knight said. “Or she may find the dragon’s company preferable.”

“So what are we supposed to do?” Sir Slice asked incredulously. “Marry a peasant woman?”

“Nay, whatever you do, don’t go there!” Sir H’rangid shouted. “You haven’t seen Hell on Earth until you share a roof with a peasant woman whose elevated status goes to her head. Ask me how I know. I even have to leave my golf clubs at Sir Umber’s keep, and tell her I’m out on patrol when I go anywhere.”

“Again I ask, what are we supposed to do then?” Sir Slice cast a baleful eye around the table, as if he had learned an unpleasant truth about his comrades.

“‘Tain’t so bad,” said Sir Bubba. “Ya ain’t riskin’ yer life for someone who don’t appreciate it anyway, and ya got more time to play golf and drink beer with yer compadres.”

“Bah. I never thought I’d see the day when my fellow knights would refuse to aid a damsel in distress. It is up to me, then.” Sir Slice turned on his heel, stumbling a little, and left the tavern.

“Calm, my fellows,” said Sir Pedant. “Our friend must learn for himself.” He swallowed the last of his ale and waved his tankard at the serving-wench. “As we all did. Now, to the business at hand. What golf course shall we grace with our presence?”

Friday, October 31, 2014 9 comments

A Web of Vengeance (#FridayFlash)

Image source: openclipart.org
Wilson woke up.

Spiders. Everywhere. In his bedroom.

The bugs had invaded his house lately, perhaps looking for shelter from the coming winter. Wilson had declared all-out war. He’d used bug spray, shoes, the vacuum cleaner… and they just kept coming. He had two of those “set off and leave” kind of bug bombs, in case things got out of hand.

“Time to go nuclear, you bastards.” Wilson tried to sit up, but thick layers of spider silk bound him to the bed. He cursed and struggled, trying to wriggle out from under the covers, but he was stuck.

Suppressing a scream, Wilson watched as hundreds—thousands—of spiders dropped or climbed onto the bed.

A weight on his feet. The queen had arrived.

Friday, September 12, 2014 9 comments

End of the Road (#FridayFlash)

Image source: openclipart.org
Vincent “Van” Hendricks stopped at the curb in front of the old mansion. “This is crazy,” he said, for the eighth time since he grabbed his leather bag and jumped in his Impala. The twenty years he spent chasing Jan Meppel demanded he go, though. You are invited to my lair, the letter had said. Bring your tools, and friends if you wish, but I pledge that you will come to no harm by my design. Hendricks had chosen to come alone, but told several trusted friends where he was going that night.

Shouldering his bag, his feet carried him to the door while his mind continued to sift through the reasons Meppel would invite him over. Some treachery, no doubt, but he was prepared.

He raised his hand to knock, but saw the note: Hendricks. The door is open. Please let yourself in and proceed to the parlor. Help yourself to the wine and canapés, and I will join you presently. He shrugged and followed directions. His bag held ways to test for poison, but the food and wine were safe. He poured himself a glass of wine, a vintage far more expensive than he ever bought for himself, and waited.

“Ah, Hendricks,” his enemy, this vampire, greeted him, carrying his own glass and seating himself. “I suppose you are curious why I invited you.”

“I’m sure you have a little surprise planned for me, Meppel.”

The vampire chuckled. “Indeed I do,” he replied. “I am here, you have come, and it is time for you to finish the hunt.”

Hendricks frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“Then I’ll say it plainly. I want you to kill me tonight.”

Hendricks nearly choked on his wine. “What? Why?”

Meppel stood and began pacing the room. “If you include the days of my life, my pre-vampiric existence one might say, I am six hundred and fifty years old, and am bored beyond anything you can imagine. I seriously began to contemplate suicide—which for one in my condition, is a gruesome act indeed—about fifty years ago. Indeed, had you not come along, I would have likely done it before now. Evading you lifted the long boredom for a while, but now it has returned. I’d rather hoped you could have brought me down without my help, but it is not to be.”

“Kill you. Just like that. And you’re not worried about Hell?”

“Not at all. You see, I have no soul. Or rather, my soul went on to its reward with the death of my old self. I awoke into my new existence with my mind and memories, but my soul… gone. Amusing: the one part of me that was fitted for eternity departed when my second birth made me immortal. Such is the curse of the vampire.” Meppel drank and smiled. “I spent many years researching that problem, two centuries ago, and you are the first person to hear the answer I found.”

“That’s interesting,” said Hendricks, truly interested in spite of himself. “Evil without consequence?”

“Evil? You once likened me to a parasite, feeding off those like you. Does a dog call the tick evil? Nay, the tick does what it does to survive. What it is made to do. And I do the same. I may have fed on the unwilling. I may have killed those who deserved death. But never have I done what was done to me, and changed someone against his will.”

“What? What happened?”

Meppel drained his glass and set it on the table next to his chair. “I was in the employ of a merchant, in what you now call the Netherlands. This merchant owed favors to my father, and he persuaded the merchant to hire me on. I was not aware—nor, I believe, was my father aware—that my employer deeply resented my father. One night, he encouraged me to drink my fill of his wine, and I blacked out. When I awoke, it was to my second birth. He who had done this explained how my former employer had sold me, told me of my new existence, what I could do and not do, and so forth. He had a cadre of loyal staff, who also served as our food source. We fed them well, and they fed us in return.

“When whispers of our existence became too loud, we sailed to the Antilles. My master left me his worldly goods when he chose to end his own existence, and I moved on to the Americas. And now, I have reached the end of the road. You have what you need, I presume?”

Hendricks took a stake and mallet from his bag. “I do.”

“Where is your sword?”

“Sword?”

“To strike off my head after!” Meppel looked agitated. “You cannot tell me that you have hunted vampires and—bah. Use that one.” He pointed to an antique sword hanging on the wall. “The scabbard is around here somewhere. Take it with you when you go. You’ll need it when you go back and finish all the other kills you bungled. Will you need me to position the stake properly as well?”

“What? I—”

Meppel waved a ringed hand. “I am sure you know where to put the stake. To my chambers, now. Let us finish this.”

Friday, September 05, 2014 12 comments

The Last Lightkeeper (#FridayFlash)

The knock sounded urgent. Farl forced himself upright, knees popping. He shuffled to the door, trying to tame his unruly tufts of white hair.

“Are you a Lightkeeper?” the young man on the other side blurted, the second Farl opened the door. He looked concerned enough that Farl could forgive his skipping his manners.

“I am,” said Farl, pulling the door open the rest of the way. He stood aside and motioned the young man to enter. “And you are?”

“Bin,” he replied. A common enough name. “Glad I am, that I found you at last.” Bin made to put his hands on his belt, but one hand strayed close to the dagger he wore to one side. He waved his hands for a moment, perhaps trying to decide what to do with them, then ended up clasping them before him.

“And I am here,” said Farl. “But let us have tea as we talk. Putting an end to any problem is best begun with a cup of tea, I have found. Take a seat.” He busied himself with serving his guest. A pinch of leaves in each cup, and the water was already hot. Is this the one, come at last? he wondered as he worked. He would have his answer soon enough.

“So,” Farl prompted, setting a cup before his guest before seating himself. “Tell me why you have come.”

“I am an emissary from Linden Grove, the last free realm,” Bin replied, sipping at his tea. “We are beset by the Dark, that now rules over all realms but our own, and hard-pressed. I was charged to seek a Lightkeeper and beg for aid, that we may repel them, but all of those near to us are gone.”

“I am not surprised,” said Farl. “For I am the last. My fellows have succumbed, some to fear. Some to treason.” He looked directly at Bin. “Many to treachery.”

Bin quailed. “It is true then? You are the only Lightkeeper left to roam the world?”

“Aye.” Farl smiled. “But the last is not least, and I am not powerless. I have set plans into motion that will drive the Dark into the deep fastnesses from which it came. Only one thing is left to do, and then nothing the Dark can do shall avail them.”

“Then there is still time?” At Farl’s nod, Bin leaped across the table and drove his dagger into the old Lightkeeper’s chest. “Fool,” said Bin, jerking the dagger out, “you have given the world into our hands at last…”

Bin’s victorious boast trailed off, as he stared at Farl’s chest. Instead of blood, Light poured from the wound.

“That was the last thing,” said Farl. His voice held both pain and satisfaction, and he managed a smile. “I have faithfully kept the Light, and now I may at last release it into the world.”

“No.” Bin backed away, eyes riveted to the growing torrent of Light.

“You have given the world its salvation,” Farl insisted. “Be sure to tell your master that, when your shriveled soul flees to its dark bosom.” The Light poured out of Farl, stripping away Bin’s disguise, revealing the hideous minion of the Dark beneath. As Bin screamed in pain and terror, the Light dissolved the minion’s hide, bones, sinew. The bodies of both Farl and Bin crumbled to ash as the Light burst forth, free at last.

“Now,” said the Light, in Farl’s voice. “The world shall know both Light and Dark, in equal measure. Thus, the people will choose which path they follow. No thralls, content in their bondage. No slaves, begging for release. This day, they become their own masters, now and evermore.”


In the last free realm of Linden Grove, as the brave folk prepared to make their final stand, a soundless explosion of Light burst upon them from the east. It rolled forth, slow and relentless, pushing back the howling Dark and leaving the folk confused in their victory.

This was the First Dawn.

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