Ed Sheeran’s new YouTube video caught my eye in the trending videos the other morning:
The video is a fun romp through the nightlife of the town, from clubs to bars with a dance troupe and a tattoo parlor in between. Sheeran’s music always feels rich and full of inviting complexity to me–easy enough that you bop along to the beat like the usual radio pop, but with enough quality and skill baked in that you can really enjoy some subtle touches. Likewise, the catchy chorus is contrasted with his usual quick-witted wordplay and cadence. It’s a good example of everything I like about his albums.
Despite my love of Ed Sheeran’s music, that’s not what really drew me to check out the video.
About a year ago, I started a series of loosely connected short stories for the wonderful Rachael Ritchey’s weekly BlogBattle. I’d tried my hand at some varied pieces based on the prompts, but someone else had done an ongoing story with a couple interesting characters and their madcap antics. I thought that would be an interesting challenge.
Some combination of the League of Explorer content in Hearthstone and my kids’ enjoyment of the Indiana Jones movie series led me down a path toward a bumbling tough guy with the chiseled jaw and gleaming smile who gets all the credit, and his “hapless” assistant, the fiery redhead from Ireland who actually gets the job done and saves his bacon.
He’s the brash and dapper charmer who, heedless of danger, punches his way through a burial chamber full of Nazis to snag the mysterious artifact and save the damsel in distress. She’s the “weak” sidekick checking meticulous research in her pouch, marking traps with flags, and disabling the Nazis’ death machine–all the while casting sidelong and suspicious glares at the obvious double-agent on his arm.
Enter Grant McSwain, Doer of Daring Deeds, and his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway.
For a dash of realism, I did some wiki-browsing and found articles on supposedly authentic Irish phrases. Those searches led to a travel site for “places to visit in Galway, Ireland,” which seemed like the perfect hometown for this world-wandering adventurer. I loved what I read–it’s always fun trying (as much as one can over the Internet) to dive into the characteristics and unique qualities of a particular town or region.
To see it in living color–even if somewhat staged–is that much better. And while the song and video are entirely modern, Sheeran still conveys that ancient “don’t you wish you were here?” allure of the Emerald Isle.
If you haven’t seen the video, it’s fun and worth a view. And if you haven’t read the adventures of Grant McSwain, you can check the BlogBattle category of posts, or you can find them compiled on Wattpad here.
This week’s Blog Battle entry is for the word “bribe” in whatever genre I choose. This is the second half of last week’s story from the underworld featuring Dom the detective and his dearly loved Innova the spirit of creativity.
I’m a little bit late and a lot bit over the word count but here it is:
I crouch and hustle toward the banks of the River Styx, my drab, lifeless fingers wrapped around Innova’s wrist, almost charcoal against her gleaming skin. The waters ahead churn black and gray underneath a rolling mist. We’re almost to the ferry, hiding behind ramshackle houses, slipping through crowds of bodies wandering aimless near the docks like the wreckage of the afterlife.
Innova digs her heels into the dirt and pulls me back. “Dom, this is insane.” She gestures at the small black box strapped around her radiant ankle. “You should just take me back to the bar before the Oni gets suspicious. Calm, rational responses aren’t his style.”
I ain’t rational either, not when it comes to her. She doesn’t understand the lengths I’ll go to, the madness and hope her presence inspires within me. I’ve been Soulless for years, ever since I pulled the trigger on all my pain and suffering. I’d hoped to end it, and got an eternity’s worth instead. And after years on the outskirts of the underworld, this spirit of creativity clinging to my arm is the only thing that matters to me.
“I still have more time with you,” I protest. “He gave me his word. And if you can’t believe the giant ogre-demon Overlord who runs half of Death’s Landing, then who in Hell can you trust? Other than me, of course,” I add with a laugh.
Innova scoffs, but follows toward the ferry. Fact is, I need her to trust me on this one, maybe more than ever. I’ve been working this plan for a while and can’t have it fall apart at the last step.
The Ferryman stands at the stern of his vessel, watching each tank of bootleg spirits his dockhands unload to their storage facility. “Move faster,” he growls. “I got another shipment to fetch from the other side.”
I can hear a crowd of voices on the other side of the building, the eager buyers who ditched the Oni and his expensive bar to come get a cheaper fix. The Ferryman is building some powerful demand from his customers, judging by the ruckus on the streets nearby. Makes me wonder what he’s getting out of the bargain. The Oni deals in secrets… what does the Ferryman collect?
Questions for another day. We’re a short dash from the mooring, and the dockhands are hauling off the last of the tanks. The Ferryman is already pushing away from the dock. It’s now or never.
I feel Innova pulling away, resisting, quivering with fear now that we’re in sight of the ferry. “Trust me, babe,” I whisper. Then I dash for the boat, and thankfully she comes along, her fingers digging into my unfeeling skin.
The dockhands watch in surprise, and the tanks of spirit they’re carrying fall forgotten in the dirt. The Ferryman’s face twists in confusion at the sight of this blazing bright woman and the bedraggled scrub of a Soulless running toward him.
We hit the edge of the dock and leap, hanging over the black waters of the Styx for a second before crashing onto the planks of the ferry in a tumble.
A voice roars loud enough to shake my heart inside chest. “What is the meaning of this?!” I look up at the Ferryman, but he’s glaring at someone on the docks. Behind me, Innova groans.
At the edge of the dock, surrounded by a team of hovering demon-spawn, the Oni stands armored and armed for battle, his fists on the massive plates of obsidian at his hips. His mask is a glowing crimson like lava. His horns are tipped in blood. The long sword he holds in one hand looks like a massive sheet of razor-sharp metal with a handle tossed onto one end for convenience.
His mask moves slightly, his gaze taking in the whole scene. When he speaks, the dock rumbles beneath his weight. “A fool hoping to steal one of my precious guests? And perhaps worse—a greater fool cutting into my market with cheap imitations of my product?”
The Oni points, and four winged demons swoop toward the ferry to pull it back to the dock. The Ferryman whistles and a dozen of his burly assistants pour out of the storage facility in seconds, fists clenched, ready for a scrap.
“Dom,” Innova breathes, “what have you done?”
The Oni stomps a hoof onto the ferry and for a moment I fear the whole thing will capsize. His entourage of demons engage the dockhands trying to reach their master, and the shoreline turns into a madcap fight scene from some eighties action movie.
“I’m not trying to escape with Innova,” I say.
“Of course you are not,” the Oni replies, the empty eyes of his mask fixed on the Ferryman. “You are a thoughtful man, Dominick. A calculating man who knows the cost would be more than he could pay.”
“Just figured you’d be interested in what’s going on here.”
The Oni takes a step toward his rival. His fingers tighten around the haft of his ridiculous sword—a wall of metal bigger than my entire body. “You are correct,” he says, fearless, like a master looming over his cowering dog.
The Ferryman’s eyes dart along the docks and the shore. His men put up a good fight, but the demons are driving them back, separating the dockhands from their leader. He throws up his hands in desperation before the Oni. “You can’t kill me! I keep the Underworld full of fresh souls, customers you need. If I stop bearing the departed from the world above, the whole circle of death and life breaks down.”
“You speak truth,” the Oni admits. “I cannot kill you. However…”
There’s a rush of wind as the Oni unleashes an overhead chop. The Ferryman screams and his left arm hits the deck with a thud.
“You can still pilot your vessel with one hand.” The Oni leans in close. “I’m quite certain you could do it without legs if need be.” His expressionless mask examines the ship. “The soul-traps on this vessel… you will disassemble them, yes?”
The Ferryman whimpers and gives a vigorous nod.
Then the Oni turns to Innova and me, standing at the stern, near the rudder and the wheel. “You had a hand in arranging this meeting, Dominick. Did you seek reward? Are you currying favor, perhaps asking for another day with my lovely spirit by your side?”
Now we come to it, the moment I’m expecting and dreading and hoping for all at once. I lick my lips, eyeing that insane, bloody thing in the Oni’s massive hand. “How about—how ‘bout you set her free?”
The Oni stares in silence.
“Otherwise,” I continue, forcing some resolve into my voice until it booms over the waters, “Otherwise, I flip this on and you all get sucked into the soul traps like a Hoover.” I tip my chin toward my hand, resting on the switch that powers the vessel’s mechanisms.
I swear, even the dockhands and demons on the shore go silent. Rule number one of the outskirts: you don’t threaten the Oni.
Innova whips her head around at me, her jaw hanging like a fish plucked from the water. Even now she’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.
I take my eyes off her and find the Oni inches from my face, his blood-mask staring down at me, a fire smoldering in the black pits of his eye holes. “You dare not risk your beloved.”
He’s smart, calling my bluff. I don’t have an answer for that.
“I’d rather die,” Innova declares, “than be trapped on your shelf, brought out to prance before the refuse that frequents your bar, hoping to someday earn the right of basic freedom.”
I take her hand and give it a squeeze. I wasn’t sure how to get around the obvious fact that I would never put her into harm’s way.
The Oni grunts in frustration. His fingers flex and splay around the haft of his wall-sword. “You would be trapped too.”
“I’m Soulless,” I reply. “I’ve got nothing to trap, nothing to lose.”
Our standoff lasts several minutes, and then the Oni laughs. “Well played. Bribing me with my own soul. Truly a calculating man.” He turns to Innova and etches two glyphs of flame in the air. “Your contract is revoked. You are free to go.”
Innova gasps, stumbling like a drunk. Her natural radiance gleams even more, like the sun finally peeking through a cloudy sky. “You—what?”
“You are freed, spirit. No longer bound.” His voice hardens into a primal growl. “Nor do you belong here any longer.”
She flashes me a smile of thanks before he banishes her from the Underworld. There’s a flash of light, then—nothing. An empty spot where she stood, a hole in my heart that only she filled.
I look up at the gloomy skies and the thick stalactites high above, imagining that somewhere, beyond the miles of rock and lava, she’s feeling the sun on her face once again. It’s the only thing keeping me standing under the crushing weight of grief and loss.
“I respect what you have done here, Dominick,” the Oni says. “But you are wrong.”
“About what?” I stand at the stern, staring into the darkness above.
“Having nothing to lose,” the Oni says. He marches off the ferry, each step rocking the shuddering vessel.
Here’s my BlogBattle entry for this week, with the word “pirate” and the genre of crime/thriller, especially mystery.
This was an unexpected return to the setting of a recent piece starring Dom the Deadtective and his love interest, Innova, the Spirit of Innovation, prisoner of the cruel and powerful Oni. I’ll finish this story with next week’s Blog Battle.
Innova tiptoes through the alleyway, weaving between puddles of vomit and piles of Devil-Knows-What. Her nose turns up at the odor, or at least that’s the impression I get. Not sure spirits breathe at all, let alone smell anything.
We’re a couple blocks down the road from the banks of the Styx, where the Ferryman drops off all the new arrivals–assuming they don’t find other ways into these parts. I can see the crowd of newcomers stumbling around, dumbfounded, maybe trying to make sense of their last moments, struggling to understand how they ended up here.
High overhead, angels speed through the plumes of ash and swirling clouds, zipping to and fro on whatever errands Heaven deems important. Other spirits flicker through the sky over the crowd, curious and watchful, but keeping their distance.
Some goblins are slumped against the wall of the alley, drunken to oblivion, surrounded by the wreckage of a keg and the stench of waste. I’m jealous of Innova, and wishing my nose could block out the stink. But being caught between life and death means just about everything works fine.
Everything except hope.
“I can’t believe,” Innova says, looking around, “that you traded away your Intel on the Prince of Rage for this.”
Turned out ol’ Belial’s got a secret. Big fan of bootleg entertainment smuggled from the up-world… and I’m talking cartoons with ponies and unicorns, or movies where dolphins save the day. Haven’t seen anything so funny in all my years down here as a massive, black-horned Daemon Lord fighting back tears when the little girl and her dolphin finally reunite at the end of the film.
The Oni didn’t believe me at first–I had to bring him proof. Hacked in and copied a video feed from the Prince’s lair. When the Oni watched it, he laughed so hard I thought he’d shatter his armor.
The blackmail potential was worth a fortune. Got me a day with Innova, outside the Oni’s club. The tracker strapped around her ankle rattles a little with each step–a formality, really. Her radiant figure is pretty hard to miss strolling down the black tar streets of Hell. Plenty of petty thugs and beady-eyed hellspawn watching our every move. If I tried to escape with the Spirit of Innovation, one of these devils’ll rat me out to the Oni in a heartbeat.
The thought barely crossed my mind, like, five or ten times. I know some back ways and hidden paths through the outskirts of the underworld. Could prob’ly give the Oni’s toughs a good chase–maybe even make it to some kind of freedom, such as there is to find down here.
But much as I love Innova’s company, I need her for something else right now. Everything’s brighter when she’s around. Clearer. Focused. Complicated things just start to make sense. It’s her effect on the people around her, boosting creativity, inspiring new ideas, new ways of seeing things.
“Dom,” Innova says, “seriously. What are we doing here?”
“I’m hoping it’s just a quick stop before we find something better to do. I’ve got a bit of mystery to figure out.”
Turns out someone’s been cutting into the Oni’s unique business–I’m talking the bottled spirits, not the brokering of secrets. The numbers at the bar have been low lately, like people found another source. Only there ain’t another being with the power to capture and collect pure spiritual essence, so an upstart rival doesn’t make sense.
My lead pointed me this way, before he vanished. Then he turned up a husk, drained of whatever remnants of life he’d brought down here from his mortal days. Figure if someone goes to the trouble of killing a dead person to keep a secret, must be a good one.
Too good of one, in fact. I’ve scoured these streets a hundred times on my own, with nothing to show but worn-out soles. Not a scrap of a clue to go on… and today’s not looking any better.
“Let’s go on,” I say, taking Innova’s hand. But she doesn’t move. Head cocked, brow furrowed, she’s fixated on the main thoroughfare.
“What is it, babe?”
She purses her lips. “Why are so many people moving the wrong direction, toward the ferry?”
I watch the shifting bodies and heads bobbing up and down, letting my eyes go a little unfocused, taking in the big picture. She’s right. Among all the clueless recently departed, there are a handful going against the stream like salmon in the rapids. I’ve been checking out the headstones, so to speak, forgetting that there’s a whole cemetery.
In fact, the only ones that move with any purpose are weaving the wrong way through the shambling masses and their vacant stares. I don’t remember ever feeling that way after I came down here. “Does everyone look sluggish to you?”
We head toward the ferry too, sticking to alleys and side streets–for whatever it’s worth since I’m walking beside a glowing vision of beauty. There’s a rusted ladder hanging from a fire escape on the next building–an amusing feature for the pit of hell. “Maybe we should get onto the rooftops,” I suggest. “Lots of eyes down here.”
Innova shrugs and starts climbing. The look in her eyes is still a mixture of love and confusion. “You have the weirdest ideas for dates,” she calls down as I climb up. Then something catches her eye and she disappears from view.
The ferry pulls up to the dock, full of passengers about to disembark into the wrong side of eternity. They all look just as lifeless as the crowd, no pun intended. I find myself mesmerized watching them lumbering off the boat and into their new home.
“Look at the Ferryman,” Innova whispers. He’s working at the back of the vessel, hooking up fuel hoses or something, charging the ferry’s necrotic cells for another trip, perhaps.
Except when I look at the pulsing lights, it’s clear the energy is pumping the wrong way. Dockhands disconnect metal tanks and carry them off, one under each thick arm. Empty cylinders replace the first pairs, then another set.
Innova peers at the tanks and gasps. “Those are full of spirits… or spiritual essences of some kind. I can sense the emotions, the experiences–the contents of the tanks feel like they’ve been spliced or suctioned off the new arrivals on the ferry.”
Things finally click into place. “They’re burning bootleg copies of souls,” I say, “collecting passions… pirating the human spirit.”
“Is that even possible?”
“Maybe they’re not as high-quality as what the Oni offers, but probably good enough for a cheap fix.” I creep toward the edge of the rooftop. “We need to get on board that ship.”
“Uh, Dom?” Innova kicks up her smooth, long leg and wiggles her foot at me, jostling the tracker. “The Oni will unleash all hell after you if I step on that ferry. What are we supposed to do about this?”
I can’t help but grin. She’s so cute when she’s concerned. And like a flash of her bright smile, a moment of inspired genius flares in my mind.
Innova grimaces. “Oh, I don’t like that look.”
“Why not?” I poke a playful finger her way. “”It’s your fault, after all. I’ve got an idea, one that solves all our problems at once…”
Here’s my Blog Battle entry for this week, in the genre of fantasy, with the theme word of “selfie.”
I especially enjoyed writing something placed in my own fantasy setting from my novel Diffraction.
Update: My Life’s Work tied for the winning story this week. Thank you for the votes! The other winning story is World Views by Carl Bystrom. Check his piece out, along with all the other BlogBattlers participating each week.
– – –
I hear their voices long before I see them. Footfalls echo in the halls. Laughter and commentary resounds off the palace’s high ceiling and polished marble floors.
“Look at this piece,” the man says. “Astounding… like what a falcon in flight must see from on high over the City’s towers.” He sounds refined, educated, a man of wealth and relative ease. Probably one of the City’s many so-called Ministers–men and women whose title implies service, something of which they are invariably found only on the receiving end.
“So real,” his companion replies, her soft voice hushed in awe. “I
feel almost faint, as if I might fall through and plummet to my
death.” Too chipper for my taste, too airy. I imagine she’s the upper
class equivalent of dancing girls in the Outskirts–there for show,
not insight. Her voice calls to mind a songbird displayed in a cage,
able to delight for short durations, but insufferable if permitted to
make constant noise.
“Still better to you than the portraits?”
“Much,” she says. “I don’t like the faces. The landscapes at least are
“Reminiscent of Serathil’s work,” the man says. “I know that’s what
they all say of Marwen’s paintings, but I had no idea the similarities
would be so striking.”
“Perhaps Marwen learned some of the same techniques… or more likely stole them.”
Or perhaps I fought for years to master my craft, you coddled child. What do you have that wasn’t given to you for no other reason than the fortune of your birth or the depth of your bosom?
And then I remember the Visitor years ago–his unhinged personality, inhuman predatory eyes, and alluring offer.
Why did I ever agree?
“Do you believe the stories about Serathil? How she captured such
lifelike scenes on canvas?”
The man shrugs. “The Abbey’s Devoted declare it was a gift of the
Divine, some blessing of Aulis that allowed Light to shine through her brush. But the Arcanists claim she used some form of Refocusing
technique, blending the elements into her portraits and landscapes.”
I’ve heard plenty of similar answers. I wish it were something so
simple, so pure.
This month, the Lord Mayor put my life’s work on display–a welcome opportunity for a better perspective. The Academy and Arcanists’ Hall each presented a few well-known examples, and Lord Peledor graciously brought forth several obscure pieces from his private collection. For the benefit of the commonfolk of Aulivar, they all said. But precious few commoners dare walk these halls. All I’ve seen so far are stiff-necked nobles and haughty elites of the upper class.
All of them say what I already know. Her work is so like Serathil, but not quite. Colorful, but less so. Vivid, almost as if the canvas
moves… but not as much as her masterpieces. Forever a step behind.
They don’t know the decades I spent trying to catch up. Days of
fasting, hours of fervent prayer, begging–pleading with the Divine to
grant me a touch of the same favor. I studied with failed Arcanists
and any Elemental willing to explain the secrets of magic. I spent
vast sums to learn what little they deigned to share–all for naught.
And would they even care? Does anyone recognize the effort that goes into an art form? Do they admire the discipline, the growth, the long transition from unskilled pieces no better than blotches of color to amateurish, misshapen portraits, then finally to lifelike scenery and recognizable faces? Perhaps I never reached Serathil’s perfection, but I’m confident no artist worked harder or did more than me with the raw ability granted her by the Divine.
One woman is born with an effortless gift that leads to inevitable
greatness and recognition. Another comes to the art without noticeable skill, but through constant effort and relentless discipline rises and improves to grasp at the master’s heels. Is that journey worth nothing? Must one surpass all others to be praised, or is it enough to improve beyond one’s present limitations?
I already know the answer to this.
Despite all my effort, my skill proved insufficient to garner public
awareness. But with the Visitor’s gift–the brush, its wood stained
and charred black like a log from the hearth.
For a moment, I feel my fists clench, the old fury building and
burning like bile in my chest. Every so often it strikes me that I can
still feel anything at all.
I try to avoid the eyes of the portraits around the room–the ones
that face me, at least. My best work, indeed, but also my worst. I
dare not dwell on it, but every time I behold one of those faces, the
rush of grief and guilt threatens to consume what’s left of my heart.
“Serathil’s methods are inscrutable,” the Visitor hissed so many years ago, his hand extending his dark gift. “Even to the best of your kind. But there are other ways to capture a… life-like, soul-full
In the gallery, I watch the man lead his companion across the hall to
my most famous piece–Dawn Kisses the Snowtips. The ivory walls of Aulivar gleam and the City’s towers cast long shadows that seem to move with the viewer. Sunlight flares off white peaks on the horizon, and clouds shift in hue from crimson to amber to gold based on where one stands.
The woman gives a satisfied sigh. “Marked improvement, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes,” her noble replies. “Consider the light shown here, the way it
sparkles off the windows of the City. Aulivar at the height of the
Alliance, centuries before this land fell from greatness.”
The woman looks around the gallery and shivers. “I like these faces
much less, though.”
“Why is that?”
“The resemblances are far better, yes. But… there’s a sadness when I look at them. They’re all wrong. See that despair in the eyes? Or
perhaps it’s anger. Most unnerving.”
“Not surprising, given the tragic stories behind some of these. That
one,” he says, pointing, “is the youngest daughter of an Aelwyner High Lord, painted when she received the sigil of Strength on Markday. She took ill not long after, and withered away before the year’s end.”
“And this fine elder gentlemen? Grand Sage of the Academy. He
succumbed to dementia in the months that followed. Probably well on his way when this was commissioned.”
He strides toward the one I hate most. “The wedding of House Hallaben and House Veray, nobles who lived in Alathon during the time of the Magistrate. The city fell soon after, and their entire bloodlines spilled on the streets in the overthrow.”
They all stare out from the celebratory scene, not with the joy and
mirth I remember from that day, but eyes full of hatred. Eyes that
look straight at me, knowing, accusing, condemning.
I took pieces of their souls. I dealt them fatal wounds, my
brushstroke more deadly than the rebel swords that eventually finished what my painting began.
The woman shudders and turns my way. “What about this one?”
“Marwen herself,” he says, examining me. “Her final portrait–an
unclaimed commission at that. Typical arrogance, devoting her finest
work to her own image. They found her dead in her studio, with the
paint still wet.”
“Do you think the tears are for what she never achieved, always
sitting in Serathil’s shadow?”
He strokes his chin. “Or perhaps for all she might have done, given
more time to capture the beauty of the subjects who came before her.”
If you didn’t know, I have recently transitioned off my free WordPress site to this one – http://davidmwilliamson.net
If you enjoy the stories and updates I post here, please take the time to subscribe to this new site. Thanks for reading and for your support!
As a first post for my new website – davidmwilliamson.net – I’m proud to announce I am a contributing author for Chicken Soup for the Soul: Military Families, coming out May 9th, 2017.
It’s exciting to be able to share a story of how others have blessed my family. I haven’t seen the finished product but I believe the title of my piece will remain as submitted: “Thank You for Your Service.”
Update: The Finest Spirits tied for the win for the week–thanks to those who voted for Dom and Innova.
On the jagged, winding road that slopes down into the Pit of Hell, inside a little dim-lit crevice nestled between the lost souls begging for someone to drag them out and the angelic patrols enforcing the justice of Heaven, there’s this hole-in-the-wall dive that’s worth a pit-stop.
Pit stop, get it? I kill me… which is part of why I’m here.
Being a shade stuck in Limbo ain’t so bad as it sounds. I got skills from my time in the flesh–after twenty-three years on the beat with a badge, I know how to find what people are looking for, whether it’s a rogue demon giving the angels trouble or a way back for a vengeful victim.
I don’t know the name of the joint. It’s got some kinda Japaneezy scribbles on account of the Oni that runs the place. I try to steer clear of him and his goons. But I keep visiting because they got the best spirits anywhere –above, on the earth, or below, there’s no place like it.
Plus there’s a girl. Of course there is.
The bouncers know me, but I still get a quiver in what used to be my spine when they look at me with those blood red eyes and sharp black horns. They wave me on, but entrance is never free. Just inside the door sits a gangly, rat-faced creature, all done up in a hooded robe and ornate jewelry. He’s the Oni’s info-broker, a dealer in secrets, the only currency that’s any value in this establishment.
I know things, stuff that people would like to think they kept hidden in life. Like I said, decades of detective work. Half my mind is full of tidbits the Oni would accept. The info somehow gives him leverage over people this side of the grave–I don’t know how it works and I don’t need to.
I just need to see her.
The music is thumping inside–sounds like a busy night. After scrawling my offering in the air with flaming glyphs that vanish a second later, Rat-face waves me on and I step through the thick obsidian doors.
The atmosphere is like a swank club back upstairs, with a dance floor and plenty of private seating booths. Some back rooms support larger groups, like the revenants and emo types, the vampires and ghosts that can’t talk about anything other than how much they’re suffering and loathing the crushing burden of their deathless existence. I can’t stand their type. At least when I offed myself, I didn’t make some big, long show of it, and I didn’t spend the rest of eternity talking about it down here.
The real attraction is the bar, of course, and plenty of uglies are clustered around it putting in their orders. The barkeep, Jimmy Two-Claws, spots me beyond the sea of faces and pulls a bright bottle off the shelf. “The usual, Dom?”
They got some kind of tracking system worked out, where Rat-face notifies the bar how much you got on your account based on the value of the secret. Mine should get me twenty minutes.
I find an empty booth and pop the cork. Radiant steam curls out of the bottle, expanding into a humanoid cloud. Then it solidifies in the seat next to me, and Innova appears. Her hair shimmers a rainbow like mother-of-pearl. The embodiment of Inspiration, her skin illuminates the booth with fluorescence like a human lightbulb. She stretches her perfect form and cocks her head like she’s loosening stiff joints in her neck. The sight of her fills me with energy, makes me feel alive again, like I could do anything I want.
That’s how it works. The Oni serves up spirits. You pay a secret, you get to spend some time with whatever you like. Creativity, Adventure, Love, Happiness and the like for the good-hearted. Strife, Jealousy, Avarice, Wrath and such for the rougher crowd. Bottles of every color adorn the shelf behind the bar, every one of them holding spirits trapped by the Oni, earning their freedom night by night depending on how many customers they can bring in.
I wonder how much longer it’ll take my girl to escape this hole.
“You look good, Innova. As always.”
“And what dreams can I inspire within you tonight, Dom?”
“Come on. You know you don’t have to keep up the act with me, babe.”
Innova laughs. “Maybe with you it’s not an act,” she purrs.
“We’ve shared too many last calls for that. I’m here for you, not your spiel.”
She smiles, then slouches in the seat and watches the crowd, the sign that she’s finally being herself instead of what people expect.
One of the staff approaches a couple in a secluded booth with an unopened bottle on the table, the contents a deep crimson, glowing from within. Romance, I’m guessing, or maybe Lust. Probably hoped to rekindle something, but neither one made a move to pop the cork.
“Doesn’t look good for those two,” I say, and Innova nods.
This is how we pass the time together–watching the desperate slobs that come in, guessing at what drives the choices they make, wondering what choices led them here in the first place.
“Check out these idiots,” Innova says, pointing to the dark room full of emo kids. A waitress brings them another round of black bottles–spirits of despair.
I listen close and hear a woman’s voice, gritty like a smoker, reading over a soft-tapped rhythm. “Shadows swirl and roll, a collision in my glass-imprisoned soul, this vessel can’t hold the full measure of my sorrow, pour it out tonight, tomorrow there’s more there. One day I’ll be free… what place waits for me? Nowhere.”
“Oh god. Are they doing beat poetry?”
“I tried to offer Despra some tips once,” Innova says of the other spirit. “But she and I aren’t on speaking terms since that ill-fated Karaoke contest last month.” She shakes her head and mutters, “Despra should not sing Disney songs, like, ever.”
“Bet that was a wreck.”
Innova shifts and glances at the hell spawn near the bar. He’s glaring at me, his yellow eyes watching like a predator in the wild.
“Time’s almost up, Dom.” She’s nervous, eying her bottle-prison with displeasure.
“I’ll pay for more, no problem.”
The second the words leave my mouth, Rat-face is at my side, a toothy grin splitting his lips, his rotting breath leaking out with a hiss. Between my need to avoid him as long as possible and my desire to give Innova a reason to keep smiling, I dig up a really good secret from the back of my mind. Juicy details on the intimate indiscretions of certain angelic patrols that aren’t coming down this way for duty.
Once Rat-face is gone, Innova relaxes and puts her hand in mine. “You didn’t have to pay that much,” she says.
“Just helping work off your debt to the Oni.”
Innova brushes her hand through her hair. “Do you realize how much you just put on your account? You couldn’t spend it all tonight.”
I shrug. “I’ll be by tomorrow, then.”
“I know you will.” She hesitates, then leans close. “Or… do you see that violet bottle on the top shelf?”
“The dusty one? Looks like it hasn’t been touched in years.”
She nods. “Generosity isn’t a common companion this side of the pearly gates. Would you do me a favor?”
I already know what she’s getting at. “Sure. I’ll by a shot. Hey Jimmy!”
A moment later, Innova and I work together to pop the cork. A wave of giddiness hits me as it launches across the booth, and we collapse in laughter.
Then I hear myself talking like an idiot. “Jimmy, you know what? Get everyone another round of whatever they’re having–on me!”
The bar erupts with cheers and applause. Even the hardest toughs give me a nod or raised glass in respect. And I’m sitting here wondering what the heck just happened.
Several bottles get passed throughout the crowd. Spirits appear at the bar, in booths, on the dance floor, at pool tables… all across the place, their grateful, liberated faces flash me and Innova a smile.
I jam the cork into the bottle of Generosity before I say anything else stupid. Then I shoot Innova a glare. She gives me a sheepish grin. “Think of how many you just released,” she says. “How much closer they are to freedom. Do you feel the positive energy in the room right now?”
“You knew that would happen.”
Innova shrugs, feigning innocence. “What can I say? It’s my job to inspire others.”
When I finally leave, just before what passes for dawn in this hellhole, I pause to consider if I’m coming back tomorrow. Then I realize, who am I kidding?
I walk up the slope, picturing Innova’s smile and running down the list of secrets bouncing around in my head.
This year I set a goal of writing at least 1,000 words per day. Ideally, that means writing every single day, but the sad fact is, real life happens and it’s rarely on friendly terms with our goals.
I stayed just ahead of January and February, but the first week of March beat me down. I want to pretend I tried hard, but I succumbed all too easily to a combination of upper respiratory congestion, heavy duty medication, and—worst of all—a really exceptional new PS4 game. (Read about the culprit here.)
One of the keys to carrying out the goals we set is accountability of some sort. Telling a friend or declaring a new effort on social media is one way of improving our chances. Our commitment is out there for others to challenge. Are we going to follow through on what we said?
Today was one of those days someone asked about Book Two, and I found myself equal parts embarrassed and grateful—glad for someone who asks the question since that’s encouraging, but disappointed by my failure to make progress.
So with all that in mind, I go to my inbox and find reminders for Camp NaNoWriMo which starts in April.
If you’re not familiar, National Novel Writing Month is an event every November where writers crank out new fiction novels of 50,000 words or more, and I’ve participated three years now.
After November, the organization doesn’t just take the rest of the year off; they run less formal events in April and July. Unlike November’s event, Camp NaNoWriMo participants can write whatever style of material they want – musicals, plays, scripts, novels, non-fiction, poetry, whatever. And instead of a hard goal of 50K words, participants set their own goals based on whatever commitment they can make.
The site has incorporated new trackers and resources: you can log word count, or pages, or hours spent if you prefer. Their writing resources page covers a surprising variety of topics from planning to revising and everything in between.
Here’s my commitment: I am going to participate this year, and I’m going to pour my effort into the sequel to Diffraction. NaNoWriMo’s 50K is a bit much. However, if I’m keeping up my normal effort, then I should be writing 30K words throughout April no matter what (including any side projects, blog posts, and personal journal writing). So my happy medium is going to be 40K words put into the draft of Book 2.
This is written from the perspective of a character I’ve been using in other Western-Fantasy short stories, a gambler-prophet of questionable character that I hope to develop into a novella or even full-length book. I dialed down the “magic” element to fit this week’s BlogBattle.
This story won the BlogBattle for the week! Thanks to all who voted for this post.
They say life has a rhythm, a music all its own, drummed out in the thum-thump of the heart beating in every man’s chest. They make it sound all wonderful and precious, like the gold-painted clouds and mountain peaks at sunset.
But when you’re lyin’ in the dust bleedin’ out from a gunshot wound in the back, it don’t feel so carefree and melodious as all that. Lots more gasping and choking on blood than any harps or angel-song from on High.
That old devil Lucien’s veiled threat echoes in my mind. “I’d hate for my warnings to go unheeded, Mister Jackson.”
Oh, I heard your rattling an’ hissing just fine, you low-down snake.
The sky fades in an’ out—my eyes closing, longer each time. Someone shouts for the Doc, the only man in town that’s got half a chance of keepin’ me out of the grave. Harmony’s mother cries nearby and whispers thanks to the sweet Lord Jesus for protectin’ her little one.
Woulda been mighty kind of Him to come take the bullet instead of sending me. I can’t draw breath to speak, but I think it really hard.
Harmony grabs hold of my vest and shakes me, tears cutting through the dust on her cheeks, her frail arms straining with my weight. I hear boots scuffing through the dirt and see Doc Hartford running, his little black bag of medicines and tools jangling. Then everything fades to dreams and recent memories.
* * * * *
“You know, Mister Jackson,” Lucien says, his voice calm and measured, “I’m disappointed. With a gift like yours, I expected so much more.”
The setting sun fills the sky with red and purple hues, the rolling hills and waving grass a deep indigo in the fading light. Lucien and his men are like silhouettes, lined up in front of the Branston farm. His hired guns look like specters of death, holsters hanging prominent off their hips, rifle stocks in easy reach over shoulders.
Lucien strikes me as a man likes to think he’s above all that, but I know he’ll get his hands dirty if the situation calls for it. There’s a light in his eye and a quiver of anticipation in his voice at the prospect of violence.
“The Branstons aren’t sellin’ their land,” I say again. “Not to you, Mister Lucien, nor to any of the fine gentlemen you’ve sent in the past.”
Soft wind blows and the horses stamp their feet nearby. Even they sense the tension.
“I do wish they’d reconsider,” he says. “I’m offering a fetching price. They could afford tuition at an East Coast school for their precious daughter, one that specializes in educating those with her affliction.”
Harmony took ill last year, struck with the German measles just after her eighth birthday. One morning she woke up deaf and hasn’t heard a thing since. Used to sing hymns better than anyone in the Parson’s chapel, be they woman, man, or angel of God. Still sings and dances, still holds the key most times… but the songs feel heavy, like someone threw a sandbag on her soul. She and her parents don’t need James Lucien stalkin’ around their land like a wolf eyeing the flock.
“Harmony’s doin’ just fine,” I say. “She learnt her letters before the illness struck, and still speaks clear enough to be understood.”
“That’s good. But I fear she’s not the only one with such a condition.” Lucien leans in, pats two of his boys on the shoulder. “I’d hate for my warnings to go unheeded…”
* * * * *
The sun’s started its descent behind the rough wood buildings of Redstone, which helps to keep it out of my aim. Serendipity’s hitched at a post near the saloon, more for his safety than any intention of mine to visit that establishment.
No sign of Lucien’s man, but the message said out front of the chapel at six o’clock. Maybe the Branstons and some of the other folk gathered into the Lord’s house are putting in some words on my behalf.
I’m putting myself at risk a bit standing out here in the open, trusting Lucien more than I’d like. Not trusting his honor, for sure—rather, relying on his pride.
He doesn’t just want me out of his way, or he’d have gunned me down months ago. My gift with gunfighting ain’t gonna stand up to the number of men Lucien could bring down on my head. No, he’s driven to win this thing between us on a different level. That’s why he keeps poking and prodding like a kid taking the guts out of a grandfather clock to see what makes the parts move.
I’d like to keep my guts inside my skin, if it’s all the same.
Pacing up and down the street ain’t my thing, but here I am doin’ it. My eyes flicker from the upstairs windows of the saloon with its fast-step piano music tink-a-tinking above the laughter, to the rooftop of the apothecary’s shop, to the shadowy bed of the creaky Conestoga wagon slow-rollin’ through the town. I think I got a bead on Lucien’s moral compass, so I shouldn’t be expecting an ambush. But I don’t know the man he sent, and given the choice, people have a way of choosin’ the easiest option.
Then I hear a tune on the breeze, and not some drinking song neither. Harmony Branston twirls among the daffodils and violets on the lawn beside the chapel, picking flowers and singing her heart out. “Still the small inward voice I hear… that whispers all my sins forgiven… Still the atoning blood is near… that quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven…”
There’s a glint of gunmetal from atop the sundry goods store, and my faith in Lucien crumbles to dust. It ain’t aimed at me.
I scream Harmony’s name—knowin’ full well it won’t do a bit of good—and sprint like a jackrabbit. Her eyes go wide mid-spin at the sight of me barrelin’ toward her. She stumbles, falling back, arms flailing for balance. When I’m practically on top of her, thunder cracks the silence under the clear sky, and pain shoots through my side like someone dropped a hot coal into my belly.
I grip my side—my shirt slick and warm—then fall to my knees, suddenly aware of my heartbeat. It throbs in my head and pounds in my chest like a Chickasaw war-drum, so loud and furious that maybe even Lucien can hear it, whatever hole he’s lurking in.
Harmony clutches onto me, crying for help from a Savior who taught us to pray for our enemies. Someone in that chapel best be prayin’ for Lucien…
Because when I get back on my feet, I’m bringing him some of Heaven’s wrath, and no amount of blood is gonna atone for what he done.
Today I strolled out to the open grass between our base gym’s track and the four co-located baseball fields. I visited places where my wife and I spent hours when we were dating, and the wide spaces I went to on my own when I wanted to be alone and think about life, and God, and myself, and maybe just watch the stars.
Twenty years ago, a small concrete bridge made a way across the drainage that splits the field. During our long nighttime walks, Jami and I would often sit there and talk.
The bridge is gone. It has been for years now, in fact. But there used to be a patch of lighter concrete where you could see its absence. Even that is gone now, the whole drainage ditch a uniform moldy-looking shade of dark grey.
Buildings are long gone that once marked the start of our relationship: a solitary dormitory where one of our mutual friends lived on the opposite end of the fields, and the H-style dorms where Jami and I first met, torn down and replaced with better, newer, four story facilities. The hills look roughly the same, places where we laid in the grass on the slopes and watched the clouds or stars, depending on our shift schedules. The stone bench I’m sitting on, under a tangled mess of trees, still stands and sees occasional use, judging by the trash left beside it.
Me from twenty years ago came to this spot and looked forward, uncertain what “a few more” years of military service might bring, and what new experiences might follow afterward. That young Airman moved with youthful energy, some combination of strength and naïveté, a blissful ignorance and hopeful expectation.
He never would have guessed that I’d be sitting here one day, looking back at him.
Nearby stands one tree which looks more like five twisted together, all on its own on the slope of emerald and caramel and sand-colored grass. Trunks and roots bent and cracked, body slumped over as if halfway broken by a typhoon–a crippled and damaged thing, reaching for blue sky but brought back to earth by the weight of its limbs. Vibrant leaves blossom from every branch; this tree is alive, without a doubt. But it looks broken and scarred, burdened with past trauma, a fighter knocked down, resting on one knee with a gloved hand on the mat for support, catching his breath, straining to rise again but wobbling with the exertion of staying upright.
I wonder, is there healing for that tree? Is there some path to restoration, some hope that one day it will stand–perhaps not upright and firm, but at least a little steadier, a little less bowed, a little more whole…?
Or are there experiences that, though we survive the ordeal, no, contrary to the popular wisdom, they do not make us stronger? Things that leave their scars and cracks in the thickest of bark, that rend and tear and splinter the sturdiest and freshest of young wood?
Can a gnarled, hunched, and wearied thing like this at least become something reminiscent of former glory?
It’s a question people often ask writers, especially when the writing goes to dark places. My wife worries about where I come up with some of my plot lines, particularly if I’m describing some evil deed or villainous plan a character is going to carry out.
While we sometimes have an inkling where and why the inspiration first struck, all too often it’s hard to nail down… hence the superstitious talk of “the Muse” and other ways we describe the inexplicable.
But oftentimes, characters, dialogue, plots, and details slip into our writing because of something we’ve personally noticed in the real world. It’s one reason why writers go to coffee shops or outdoor cafes to people-watch. There are some real characters in the world auditioning for a role in our books!
So the other day I was on my way to a different base on island, and I got behind a small car with one of those stick-figure decals on the back window. This decal was a woman holding a microphone and singing.
As I looked closer, I realized she wasn’t alone, at least not originally. Where there should normally be a stick dad or stick spouse, some stick kids and maybe a dog or cat, someone instead had placed cut decals of black plastic over the other figures so that it almost seemed like they had never been there.
This made me wonder why, a question for which I couldn’t come up with any good answer.
At best, perhaps the woman bought some family’s used car on island. It’s not hard to scrape off an unwanted decal, though. I also thought, perhaps she got divorced and covered up the family.
But to be honest, I can’t imagine covering up instead of removing, unless you wanted it to be obvious that at one point these four family members were there, and now they are not. It seemed like a small memorial of sorts, a way of calling attention to the undesired absence.
Then because I’m warped creative, I began thinking of less uplifting possibilities.
Could it have been a vicious divorce she didn’t want? Perhaps a husband fought for custody of the kids (and even the dog), and convinced the court she was unfit.
Was there some terrible car accident?
Did the family home burn down, claiming those lives? Most buildings on Okinawa are made to withstand typhoons, and aren’t that likely to go up in flames. What about a collapse due to an earthquake?
What about a Yakuza hit? Maybe she double-crossed a crime boss, and instead of killing her, he took out the family, knowing that living with the loss would be harder than dying. I could have been right behind the main character of an action / revenge story, the Japanese version of an 80s Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal film playing out in real life! Who knows!
So… if you ever purchase a used car that has someone else’s stick figure family on it, do all the writers a favor and remove the remnants. Don’t simply cover it up, because I guarantee the story that gets made up will be way worse than the truth.
The home of David M. Williamson, writer of fantasy, sci-fi, short stories, and cultural rants.