Tag Archives: fiction

Putting NaNo to Bed

Another November passes, and another National Novel Writing Month comes to a close.

You win a self-inflicted nervous breakdown! Also your manuscript needs infinity revisions.

I’m proud to have put over 50,000 words into my project, but I’m most excited about connecting and re-connecting with writers in my area. Not only did all four regular members of our base writing group dive into the challenge this year, but a WriMo participant from a few years ago jumped in (and won!). On top of that, I met four writers I didn’t know prior to the NaNoWriMo events.

Not everything went perfectly.

I had the privilege once again of serving as a Municipal Liaison for Japan–specifically Okinawa.

We have three stellar individuals on the mainland who managed the bulk of the nation’s participants. On island, our group had a rough start that forced me to develop some guidelines and contingency plans for future NaNo events–stuff you hope you never have to enforce, but you realize should be in place “just in case.” Yay for opportunities to grow and practice interpersonal skills!

The librarian on Kadena is passionate about writing groups–participating and supporting–so we enjoyed an array of Keurig coffee cups and a constant influx of writing resources. (Anyone need a journal? Here’s a stack. Need a book about researching how bodies decompose? I know a great one we might even have here… Stuck in your manuscript? Try playing around with some poetry magnets or story dice.) Who said libraries aren’t cool?

Great participants and a supportive location made my job easy and enjoyable!

My writing felt like a mess more than usual.

In the past, I approached NaNo like a plotter, laying out the overall course of the story with key milestones I knew I needed to hit as well as rough scene ideas documenting who needed to say or do what and for what purpose. That usually works for me, like following a recipe of cake mix. I have a little bit of freedom to substitute ingredients, and I can change plans in the middle if I really want to do so. “I think I’ll turn this into cupcakes instead of using a standard 9 by 13 cake pan. I’ll switch out the oil with applesauce for a healthier option.”

Some people are “pantsers” who sit down with a blank document and go to town, allowing the muse and the characters they’ve created in their minds to develop on paper in whatever way the story unfolds. More power to all of you who can manage that.

This year, I think I fell in the middle of the two–what some NaNo types call “plantser.” I had much less to go on than my last three NaNo drafts. The rough bones of a story arc bounced around in my mind, and I jotted down certain key points at the bottom of my manuscript Word document, but I had nowhere near the detail or preparation of previous efforts. It showed, as I left myself a lot more notes with questions to follow-up on, gaps or plot holes I could see while writing, even basic details like “insert her mom’s name here.”

On the one hand, “plantsing” gave me enough freedom to do as I pleased, changing up the events in the story as I wrote, to fit new ideas and revelations. It also gave me enough signposts as reminders to keep me moving in my intended direction. “Not saying you have to take the left lane onto I-80, but Chicago is far down the interstate in this direction, so you do you.”

I kept distractions to a (relative) minimum.

My favorite author Brandon Sanderson released the next novel in his massive epic fantasy series, The Stormlight Archives. Those books are so good, my non-fantasy-reading wife even loves them. That has been sitting on my iPad for the last three weeks, taunting me, beckoning with one finger crooked. “Just one chapter… that’s all… won’t take long… come on…”

The Netflix Punisher series came out mid-November, and I am a sucker for Jon Bernthal’s amazing combination of brooding / unhinged. Dude is like the stacks of unstable dynamite from my favorite 80s post-apocalyptic games. Sure, you might gain something by searching this, but you probably ought to back out of the fallout shelter slowly and forget what you saw here. (Fans of Wasteland might know what I’m talking about. The rest of you can take pleasure knowing I suck at analogies.)

I watched one episode the night it came out, then forced myself to close the app.

Thor: Ragnarok was a must-see, so I used that as my reward for getting ahead of schedule early. Justice League was going to be a mid-month reward, but I started falling behind and never found a good time to see it. In 20/20 hindsight, given the reviews and images, maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.

My pained smile when someone asks how NaNoWriMo is coming this year. “Yeah… I’m writing words or something…”

The addiction to video games kept its hooks deep in my flesh-husk. While I pulled away from WoW, and only played a couple hours of the intro of Horizon: Zero Dawn – The Frozen Wilds (omg such a great game), the mindless entertainment bug bit hard about three weeks in. For inexplicable reasons, as I looked at the Blizzard launcher on my PC, I realized that I own Diablo III, and I never played through the fifth act expansion, nor have I tried the necromancer class they added long after the game’s release. Easy fix! A few minutes of monster-grinding and loot-grabbing wouldn’t affect my writing too much, right?

In the course of a week, I played through the whole story and raised my overpowered goddess of death to just shy of max level. “Just one more level… just one more quest… just need to kill this one boss…”

Really, with an army of skeletons fighting for me, it just seems unfair.

I’ve put 75,000 words on various projects this month.

I started this year with a goal of writing a thousand words a day. Like many New Year’s resolutions, that lost steam after the first month or two. By about April I recalculated my goal. (500 words wouldn’t be too bad, right?)

In September, I realized if I cracked down and wrote like NaNoWriMo every month until the end of the year, I would make it. That didn’t pan out, though I exceeded my 1K/day goal. After the last month of grinding, I’m sitting at about 320K, with a few different projects clamoring for my attention. (I’ll post about one of them soon, because it has been both fun and valuable to me.)

Not saying those words are great words… but they’re something I can edit, revise, or cut, which is better than a blank page on screen and a bunch of imagined plot lines in my head.

All of that to say, I’m sort of sorry I was gone for the last month (plus), I’m not too worried because I can see how many or how few views come through, but I’m grateful for those of you who care enough to read this and/or support me, even if it’s just asking, “How’s that writing coming?”

Cue the wild-eyed Superman pain-rictus. “Pretty good,” I say through clenched teeth, choking down my self-loathing. “Everything is fine.”

Plots and Plans

At our bi-weekly Okinawa Military Community Writers meeting, Kyle led off the discussion with an exercise in developing the main idea of a short story, novella, or book. He posted about this and covered the 5 Ws that can help a writer summarize the story they intend to write.

I hope to build on that here with some additional tools or techniques for devising a plot line. Your mileage may vary, but hopefully one of these options will prove useful.

So you want to write a book…

Anyone setting out to write hopes to create something new and interesting, a unique contribution to their genre–and that’s a noble aspiration, of course. That might make some of these formulaic approaches seem unpalatable.

The thing to remember about a formula is it exists because it works.

Readers expect certain elements in particular genres… and this is not bad. A reader should have a decent idea what to expect based on the cover, back copy, and the first few pages. The tale may be familiar in structure, but unique in the telling, which makes it a fun read.

Deviating from the standard plan can be creative. Deviating too much is detrimental unless you telegraph it from the beginning.
In one of his excellent lectures on writing, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson brings up the example of a fellow writer who got published around the same time as Sanderson’s first book, Elantris. Sanderson’s book sold well and launched his career. The other fellow’s book sold poorly. What started as one type of novel (fantasy coming of age) suddenly became an entirely different book (dark and gritty science fiction) about three-quarters of the way in. Obviously other factors could be at work in this example, but when a book doesn’t deliver on its promise, that turns readers away.

That’s where planning and plotting can help. If we understand the commitment we’re making and the steps we should take in order to fulfill that promise, it’s easy to give readers what they will like.

“But I write free and unrestrained,” one may protest. “An outline or plot is a straitjacket in a padded room, an orange jumpsuit in a prison cell. I won’t go willingly.”

Pantsers (those who write by the seat of the pants) can still find use in these tools and structures. However, instead of using one to start an outline, the pantser can use these to guide the first major revision. If we’ve done our job as writers, the rough first draft will have elements of story and theme and proper flow between events, leading from whatever kicks off the thrill ride to the explosive climax. Figuring out the main structure of a story–even a free-writing journey of creativity–can illuminate what works and what fits, or highlight what should be cut to make the end result leaner and tighter.

Get your writing on LOCK

James Scott Bell writes about the LOCK method in Plot and Structure, among other books. The elements are:

  • Lead – a compelling or interesting character we’re going to care about enough to read through an entire novel.
  • Objective – the important goal or need driving this character into action they might otherwise avoid
  • Confrontation – the opposing forces or agents keeping the Lead from a quick solution
  • Knockout – an unexpected yet exciting ending that wraps up the conflict while blowing the reader’s mind

The stakes in the conflict have to be high–usually involving death. That doesn’t mean the lead or some support character must literally be hanging from a cliff or targeted in a sniper’s scope. Death can be professional (disbarred as a lawyer, kicked out of the military, imprisoned for a crime, or simply shamed and humiliated), or personal (divorced by the spouse they love, abandoned or rejected by their child, trapped forever in regret and frustration at what might have been).

Varying the Variables

A technique I picked up from George Guthridge during a fantasy writing workshop involves sorting out the variables and reasons that sum up the conflict, almost like a math formula.

(Variable 1) (verb phrase) (variable 2) because (reason).

For example, “A hopeless loser gets his life mixed up with his wealthy twin because neither knew the other existed.” So we get all the variations on The Prince and the Pauper, such as Freaky Friday, the Parent Trap, and a number of plots for one-off episodes in cartoons and comedy shows.

The trick here is to ensure that most of the equation involves some new or interesting. One of the variables can be boring–the hopeless loser, for example–but the rest must be exciting for the equation to work.

For example, the hopeless modern-day loser is trained to use magic by an enigmatic centuries-old sorcerer because only together can they close the portal to Hell in the middle of Times Square.

Okay, that’s been done, but the point is only one part of that equation feels like it fits in the mundane everyday world.

Filling Out the Outline

Guthridge also taught a skeletal plot structure that lays out the protagonist’s character arc, around which all the rest of the story will build. Here are the pieces of that framework:

  1. The Protagonist (what’s interesting about him or her?)
  2. Has an emotional / inner problem (what’s the backstory that led to this personal issue?)
  3. But an outside problem arises (what happens that forces the protagonist to face their issue and backstory?)
  4. Protagonist tries a solution that not only fails, but makes things worse (how are the stakes raised as a result?)
  5. Repeat 4 with another failed solution that builds the conflict and deepens the crisis
  6. Repeat 4 if you have space for a third failed solution and the resulting increased tension
  7. Protagonist solves the outer problem (without help from God, luck, friends, family, deus ex machina stuff)…
  8. And in so doing also solves or overcomes their inner problem

This will establish the main thrust of your character’s journey. Plotters can use it to start an outline; pantsers can look for how what they’ve written conforms to this kind of arc and revise accordingly.

Characters Change… Maybe?

Some books and speakers insist that a story is a series of events where characters change. This isn’t always true.

While considering the path a character will take (or has taken in the first draft), it may be that he or she remained firm in their convictions, against all the odds and pressure to change. Some stories are about people whose unwavering beliefs carry them through seemingly insurmountable odds. The tension builds with the increasing temptation to give in, and readers wonder, “Will they break? Will they sell out?” We’re satisfied when they don’t. Think of Captain America in the Avengers movies, who states that sometimes when all the world pushes you to move, you have to stand your ground and say, “No, you move.”

Conversely, plenty of stories involve the transition from an old belief or worldview to a new take on reality. Most “apprentice” novels and coming-of-age stories involve an underdog who becomes a master of their craft while developing the internal confidence to stand up for themselves.

A character may stand firm or change views–then we can reveal if their decision will end well or poorly for them. Maybe it’s a mistake with dire consequences, a cautionary tale. The unwavering person might not be able to survive a changing world (alas, Ned Stark!), and the person shifting their beliefs might live to regret their decision. Either of these can be a satisfying (if not happy) resolution to a character’s arc.

Nothing New Under the Sun

None of these structures or techniques are first-seen, unheard of, unique experimental snowflake novels. They don’t have to be. Everything we do and create is derivative of something we’ve seen or experienced–that’s what makes it relatable. The familiarity of the structure puts readers in a comfortable place, but each writer’s individual twists or combinations of ideas build a fresh experience that keeps the writing from feeling like what we’ve seen before. On top of that, no one tells a story exactly the same way; the use of voice and style in writing puts the spice in the casserole of words that will satisfy a hungry reader.

I hope the tools above and the 5 Ws from Kyle’s post help spur some creative writing. Whether following a recipe is easier, or looking at a picture and winging it is preferred, let’s get cooking and serve up something delicious.

Finding Allies

Readers: This is a scene I wrote for a character in a tabletop roleplaying game, someone out to do good even if their powers are misunderstood and condemned by society at large.


Fleuris ducked down the alleyway between wooden shops and hawker’s stands near the Quay, weaving her way between the meandering peasants ogling things they could never afford. She shot a glance behind her and caught a glimpse of sunlight sparkling off two shields emblazoned with the six-point sun of Aulivar.

Soulforged—champions of Justice and unwavering bastions of virtue. They’d chased her across mountains and rivers, over leagues and tendays. She’d tried to ditch them in the dark corners of every town and city in the ‘Marches, but still they maintained their pursuit.

Even among their zealous order, few sins earned such relentless retribution as necromancy.

If only they could let me explain… if only they could understand.

Her friends would be waiting at the docks… Trenton strumming his lute and singing a sailor chanty, Galla sharpening her longswords, Hakri meditating and memorizing a fresh array of war-spells. But the three companions wouldn’t be enough by themselves to take on the pirate crew… so Fleuris intended to bring help.

It shouldn’t be far now, and the ritual wouldn’t take long—provided the Order lost the trail along the way. Her prize lay at the edge of Mirelenai’s sprawl of ramshackle buildings and flimsy shanties. The dread pirate Bloodhook the Brutal, Captain of the mighty Dire Shark, scourge of the Bay of Raentallas, lay wrapped in tight sheets in a shallow grave outside the town. After the mutiny, Bloodhook’s crew buried him on land to prevent his spirit from returning to the seas he loved and lorded over—one last spiteful jab at the savage master who had beaten them into submission.

Now the Dire Shark sailed the bay once more, tormenting seafaring merchants and plundering their ships’ holds. The Seamistress would pour out a chest full of gems and gold coins on anyone who sent the Dire Shark to the ocean’s floor.

“Seize that girl!” a voice shouted from much too close behind her. Another shouted, “The Ghostskin in purple,” and Fleuris gasped. She zipped down a narrow walkway that stank like an open sewer, trying not to consider the filth staining the hem of her burgundy skirt. The deep violet cloak wrapped around her wispy frame obscured her face from view, and her gloves of thick, black lace helped hide the tell-tale alabaster skin the Order sought.

She hustled through the dim-lit walkway, headed for the sunlight at the far end. A few paces from the street, she stumbled over an unseen obstacle like a tree root, and glanced down, squinting in the darkness. A body of some poverty-stricken peasant lay slumped against a wall, not yet dead a full tenday, judging by the rate of decay.

Fleuris probed the supernatural realm with her heightened senses and latched onto a glowing spark of life hanging in limbo. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the soul, then again to the body on the ground. She yanked the life force from the ether and shoved it into the corpse, then watched the fruit of her labor.

The body clambered to its feet, loosing a swarm of flies and dropping chunks of flesh. Dead eyes stared at Fleuris, waiting.

She doffed her cloak, threw it over the corpse’s shoulders, and sent it a forceful command. Then she slipped into the crowds on the street, her step calm and sure despite the racing thrash of emotions and the rapid drumbeat in her chest.

After passing a few merchants, Fleuris paused at a tailor’s stand and reached for her coinpurse. “How much for the forest green cloak there,” she asked, “with the silver trim?”

While they exchanged offers and counter-offers, Fleuris caught the glimpse of her violet cloak near the walkway she’d passed through. The animated corpse shambled into the street and lumbered away from her, toward the busy docks at the heart of the town.

Fleuris threw the new garment over her shoulders and clasped the smooth material with a silver brooch under her chin. Then she froze in fear. Two dozen paces away, she spotted the pair of Soulforged from the Order, stomping their way through the crowd toward her.

“Undead!” Someone shouted in the distance, and another voice chimed in. “A walking corpse near the Ragged Sail! To arms!”

Other cries joined the throng, and the two Soulforged halted their approach. Then they dashed toward the commotion, swallowing whole the hook and bait she’d left them.

Fleuris turned her back to them and strode away with as casual a pace as she could muster. This road would curve toward the fields and foothills outside the town. A short walk by the bay in the afternoon breeze would lead to the grove which held Bloodhook’s remains.

Buried on a slope within earshot of the sea, but laid in a grave that faced away from the water… With cruel care, the Dire Shark’s crew had chosen the site of Bloodhook’s final resting place.

Not final, Fleuris corrected herself. He will rise again… I’ll see to that. Though he did nothing to atone for his crimes in life, he shall do much to repay them in death.

After all, Trenton and Galla had asked for allies on their quest. They didn’t specify living allies.

 


Note: This was written and inspired partly by discussions about whether a necromancer in D&D could possibly be considered “good.” My thoughts on the subject are found here, but I’d love to hear yours.

The Kinder Choice

Here’s a short story for Rachael Ritchey’s Blog Battle this week, where the word is restraint and the suggested genre is Historical Fiction, specifically Western. 

This is one of my current favorite characters, the gambler prophet whose dice give him insight into what’s to come. But this is a generation later, when the Gift has moved on to a new face – Annabelle Boudreaux, a troubled woman with a deck of cards that calls her to action. 

I really want to turn one of these into a NaNoWriMo book or similar project, but for now, they’ll pop up in short stories.

—-

The moon casts a bright silver light across the plains, and stars twinkle over the Falstaff Saloon. The street smells like manure and tabacca-spit despite the soft pitter-pat of rain, and cigar smoke rolls out the door like a fog. The music inside fills the breeze with a dancin’ tune, the fiddler better than this corrupt town deserves.

Mercado’s whole gang is inside. The man himself is upstairs—chasin’ sporting girls, countin’ blood money, maybe both.  The century may have turned, but men are pretty much the same as ever.

I feel the ache in my bones—joints that have seen a several dozen years complain at the thought of what’s to come. I put this life behind me twenty years ago, and I’m not keen on seeing it claw back out of the plot where I buried it.  

The young brunette next to me slides the last round into the chamber of her revolver. The Devil’s Sharpy, Annabelle Boudreaux has the Gift just like I once did—with a deck of cards instead of my old pair of dice. ‘Course she uses it pretty much the opposite of me.

“This is a mistake, Annabelle.”

“It was a mistake for him to snatch Aideen off the stage—one of many poor choices Mercado’s made over his lifetime.”

Aideen Brannaghan—Annabelle’s half-sister and partner-in-crime, a timid Irish lass who’s decent with a pistol, but deadlier with a pair of knives than anyone I know, once you spark her temper. We could really use her now… but then we wouldn’t need to be here in the first place.

“I meant us, alone, trying to take him down.”

“It’s what the cards said would come to pass.” She laughs, and the whiskey on her breath nearly gets me drunk. I wonder how she sees straight to shoot, but then I remember how the Gift worked in my day. It’d be hard to miss a target all glowed up like an electric lantern.

“Maybe something’s changed,” I venture, knowing how weak and futile the plea must sound.

Annabelle slides out a deck of gleaming cards and fans a dozen in her hand, every card a one-eyed Jack. The hearts catch my eye as important—something she never bothered to explain. I ain’t sussed out all of how she interprets what the Gift shows her.

“You of all people should know better, Mister ‘God’s Shooter’ himself.”

I spit on the ground. “A stupid nickname from a far-fetched story written by a fool.”

“Quite a few stories, or so I hear… the better part of ‘em true.”

“Not a lot of men you can trust. Pretty girl like you has to know that by now.”

“Men lie, but graves don’t. You ready?” She flashes me that smile of hers, then turns away before I can respond.

“You ain’t.” Like most women I’ve cared about, once she gets an idea in her head, there’s no dissuading her. My words are wasted before they’re out my mouth, but I say ‘em anyhow.

“Just try to keep up.”

With that, Annabelle dives through the swinging double doors of the saloon, and thunder booms from the pair of Colts in her slender fingers. The fiddler’s bow screeches to a halt and he dives behind the bar.

“Show some restraint,” I shout over the din, laying down some covering fire at the boys on the second floor. “You can’t just go in guns blazin’ like the Gift is some kind of magic shield.”

Annabelle shoots me a glare. “But that’s what you did for years.”

“An’ I got the scars to prove it.”

She plugs one of Mercado’s goons with a no-look over-the-shoulder shot. Makes me wonder if the Gift works different for her than it did for me. Then she gives me a raised eyebrow. “Pretty sure no one but Lucien ever landed a shot on you, Zack. You can’t lie to a natural born swindler.”

“I’m not talkin’ about my skin, girl. Some hurts, time don’t heal.”

“That much I already know. That’s why I’m here… to give back some of the hurt Mercado done to me and mine.” She fans the hammer and sweeps the room. Three more toughs drop to the hardwood floorboards. Quiet fills the main room downstairs, and there’s a muffled scream from the second floor.

“Aideen,” Annabelle shouts. She dashes up the steps, and I hobble after her quick as my age permits.

Before Annabelle reaches the double-doors of the master suite, gunfire tears through the polished wood. Annabelle shoulders through the doorway, guns at the ready, disappearing from my view.

Unexpected silence hangs over the saloon as I lurch toward the shattered doors. Once I reach the suite, I find Annabelle holding Aideen close, the younger girl half-dressed, her short splash of red hair tucked underneath Annabelle’s chin.

A wisp of smoke curls up from the pistol in Aideen’s shaking hand, and two bodies lay slumped in the corner with large crimson stains in their pretty white waistcoats. “Had to wait until I could get loose,” Aideen whispers. “But I almost—they were going to—“ She trails off, eyes squeezed shut.

Annabelle’s gaze remains fixed. Her hand doesn’t flinch at all, the barrel of her Colt trained on the bead of sweat runnin’ down the furrow between Mercado’s eyebrows. The man sits against the wall clutching the gunshot wound in his leg.

Annabelle’s finger tenses up on the trigger. Then she smirks. “Aideen, go get your knives.”

Aideen starts collecting her things and hands Annabelle one of the long steel blades.

“Let the law clean this up, girl. You done what you set out to do.”

“Oh no,” Annabelle says with a mirthless laugh. “He’s not buying his way off the gallows again. Getting Mercado was just the start. Now we can have some fun.” She turns a hungry grin his way, and he goes whiter than a playing card. “I’ve been waiting years for this, amigo.”

“Annabelle, don’t become the thing you hate. Trust me.”

“This man,” she says, waving the Colt in Mercado’s quivering face, “is a scourge on this whole Territory, a pus-filled boil of infection on the back of humankind.” Her face is red an’ steaming, her eyes like a locomotive furnace at full bore–and Mercado’s tied to the tracks up ahead-a that train. “The things he’s done deserve an eternity of all God’s wrath, and I think it’s fitting we get started in the here and now.”

“Think about what you’re doing, dammit.” I see the pistol flinch in her hand—gotta hope what I’m sayin’ might sink in. “You been given this foresight for a reason, a purpose, something bigger and greater than seekin’ your own self-interest.”

Annabelle swallows hard, and the barrel of the Colt dips toward the floor. “You’re right, Zack,” she says with a long sigh.

Then she blows Mercado’s brains across the wood-paneled wall.

“Christ have mercy, girl, what did I say? Show some restraint!”

Annabelle dumps the empty cartridges on the floor in the spreading pool of blood and hands the knife back to Aideen.

“I did,” she says, colder than a desert night. “You don’t know what all I had planned.”

Download on the Down-Low

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?”
Innova nods. 

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…”

—–

(to be continued next week)

My Life’s Work – a #BlogBattle short story

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
magnificent.”

“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
quality.”

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.”

“Poor thing.”

“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!

– Dave

The Finest Spirits #BlogBattle entry

Genre: Fantasy

Word prompt: Liquid


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?”

“Nothing but.”

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.

Going Camping

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.

There it is, out in the public eye.

Unheeded – a #BlogBattle Western

Genre: Historical Fiction (subgenre – Western) 

Word: Melody

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. 

Update: 


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.

Lifesinger

This is part 3 of 3 for my BlogBattle series of fan-fiction using the characters from CW’s Supernatural. 

Genre: Fairy

Word: Iridescent

Okay, BlogBattlers, I totally blew up the word count rule on this one (just shy of 2000 words), because I had WAY too much fun bringing the story to a close. So I don’t consider it a legitimate entry for the contest. BUT I’m passing it on because you lovely people read the first two and deserve a (hopefully) good ending. 

—–

Bloodied and bruised by the woodland monster they’d taken to calling Thorn, Dean Winchester accepted an offered helping hand for once, and rose to his feet. Frustration filled his eyes and he stared at the human-form angel Castiel. “What the hell was that thing, Cas?”

“A spriggan,” Castiel said. “A woodland spirit of wrath.” He stared up the mountain path as if reading a mystery in the lines of the trees. “Something is amiss here—something of evil that has no rightful place. But you’ll need the Lifesinger of this particular site in order to expel the corruption.”

Sam ran a hand through his hair. “Spriggans, Lifesingers… what are we dealing with?”

“There are more than angels and Demons at war in the spiritual realm,” Castiel said. “Nature has Her own ranks of companions and guardians, and their associations are not always clear.”

Dean shook his head. “Come on, the trees are alive here or something?”

Castiel shrugged. “Your people long have kept stories of such things. Sprites, elves, feyfolkken… faeries. Voices in the wind, women in the waters… why do you think His Word speaks of trees clapping hands and rocks crying out?”

Dean scoffed and opened the door of the Impala. “Come on, Sam,” he grumbled. “We’re off to find Tinkerbell to see if she can sprinkle the ritual site with some of her pixy dust.” He waggled his fingers in the air like casting a spell, then sat in the driver’s seat and started the engine.

Castiel climbed into the back, and Sam grabbed his father’s journals from the glove box. “Maybe Dad can shed some light on all of this…”

Dean nodded. “Which way?”

Castiel cocked his head. “I assume Sam means that John Winchester’s experiences and insights may apply to our own. Are you sure Thorn didn’t hit your head too hard?”

“No, Cas,” Dean growled. “Which way to this Lifesinger you mentioned? Up the path to the site? Somewhere down in Boulder?”

Castiel sat back, eyes wide. “Oh. I have no idea. What about you, Sam?”

“What do you mean, you have no idea?” Dean rubbed his face and sighed. “What, do I point the hood at the nearest Disney store and hope for the best?”

“While potentially fun,” Castiel said, considering, “I’m not sure that would help, Dean.”

“Where do you normally find a Lifesinger?”

“Oh. There are precious few around that I know of. Most of those traditions have died off over the centuries. We could try one of the nearest reservations, perhaps. Ireland was always a good place to look, but I don’t think we have time for overseas travel…”

“The McSwains’ cabin,” Sam said. “Dad said Grant and Teagan watched over this place and did a lot more than that in their younger years.”

Dean put the car in drive, spun a one-eighty, and headed downhill. “Sure,” Dean muttered. “Let’s fetch the hundred year old lady to save us. If she’s not drooling on herself, wondering what decade it is…”

On the return trip, they left the Impala at the clearing where they’d fought Thorn. Sam cut his long-legged stride to baby steps in order to walk with one arm around Teagan McSwain’s frail form. Castiel kept a curious distance from the woman, watching her with sidelong glances and questioning eyes.

Teagan watched the branches, sometimes skittish at each noise, sometimes smiling with wonder. She hummed a flowing tune that made Sam think of dancing, but her faltering steps seemed far from whatever joyful memory she clung to in her mind.

Dean kept getting ahead of the group, then waiting with arms crossed until they reached him. “Shoulda brought the axe, Sammy,” he said as they neared the top of the second hill. “These trees aren’t normal.”

The trunks looked curved and stretched, shaped rather than grown. They formed two long ranks that bent toward each other, their branches mingling high overhead in a natural archway. The air grew stuffy and humid, but carried the scent of lilac. Birds flitted to and fro some distance from the path, singing out warnings to each other. But none came near the path into the ritual site.

Castiel stopped before the first tree. “I can’t enter,” he said. “Or, rather, I won’t.” Dean and Sam turned to meet his gaze and saw resolution plain on Castiel’s face. “I told you, there are other powers at work. And while I could exert authority over this place, I feel it would be… disruptive. Inappropriate.”

“Great,” Dean said, and strode into the dimness ahead, flexing his fists.

Sam guided Teagan beneath the trees, checking over his shoulder. Castiel stood, hands clasped in front of his tan coat, concern etched in the wrinkles on his face.

“He’s right, you know,” Teagan whispered. “His kind… they aren’t always welcome in places like this.”

Sam faced her, shocked. “You know what he is?”

She nodded. “Seen angels a time or two. Bright like dawn, even when they try to hide it.” Her face darkened and she clutched Sam tight. “Better than the opposite kind…”

Sam pursed his lips and thought of his own encounters with demons. Crowley’s face came to mind, the prince of Hell joking and laughing at Sam’s expense. “I’ll agree with you there, ma’am,” Sam said.

Dean’s mouth curled in doubt. “You think you’re gonna walk in and magically fix this?”

“I hope so.”

“Then why didn’t you do it before we got here?”

She rolled up her sleeve and revealed two crimson lines scratched in her skin. “I tried… but Thorn… I couldn’t get here alone.”

Sam glared at Dean and he fell silent.

After what felt like several minutes, the tree-arch opened to reveal a small grotto carved in a sheer cliff of rock. The sunlight felt thin and faded, and its beams wavered as if distorted. Thorn lay huddled against the stone wall in a fetal ball, its green eyes glaring at the intruders. A hissing sound emitted from the spriggan’s mouth, but it made no aggressive move.

Dean stood between Teagan and Thorn, ready to fight even with no chance of winning. Sam led Teagan into the grotto, and she shivered as she took a deep breath.

She pointed at Thorn. “What is that?”

“Cas says it’s a spriggan,” Sam answered. “Some kind of nature spirit.”

“No, you daft boy… the blackness in its foot. It reeks of Hell and corruption.”

Sam squinted and spotted a jagged chunk of dark metal shaped like a spiked jack from a child’s game sticking out of Thorn’s heel. The spriggan’s fingers curled near the object, hesitant and defensive lest anything touch the wound.

Sam approached, hands extended in a gesture of peace. “Let me help you get that out,” he said in a soft tone.

Thorn hissed again and bared its claws.

“I think that’s my job, son,” Teagan said. She coughed to clear her throat, then stepped into the middle of the grotto. Her voice rose in the wavering song she’d been humming, raspy at first then strong and clearer with every word.

Grey and strong the stone and green the vibrant leaves

And bright the lilac blooms beneath the verdant eaves

Before Sam’s eyes, the woods responded to Teagan’s call. Glowing sprites winked into view and fluttered between sun-drenched branches. Colors like a liquid rainbow dripped from every leaf. Strands of emerald light twisted around Thorn and Teagan, growing in brightness until Sam couldn’t look at them any longer.

Teagan sang on, heedless of the change.

Come now every fae, awaken from your dream,

Bring forth the light of day, unleash the living stream

Let glory shadows slay, and purest life redeem

Thorn jerked and its foot kicked toward the grotto’s entrance. Shimmering light pooled around the shadowy metal. With a thunderclap, the chunk of darkness burst out of Thorn’s foot and hurtled through the archway like a bullet from a gun.

“We need to get that before it corrupts anything else,” Dean shouted, dashing through the trees after the jack.

Sam hesitated and glanced at Teagan and Thorn, who both seemed frozen in swirling light. Then he ran after Dean. They lumbered through the woods, snapping branches on the ground and stumbling over roots. Then they reached the end of the archway and found Castiel.

The angel stood squared up against a man in a long black coat who held the jack up to the light with a grin.

“Crowley,” Dean said. “What in Hell are you doing here?”

“Hello again, boys,” Crowley said. “Sorry for the trouble. And quite right, Dean. One of my lads lost this little bauble during a recent trip this way, and, well… I couldn’t just come get it on my own. Not allowed, you see. Too… disruptive.” He winked at Castiel.

Dean took a position beside Castiel. “What is that thing, Crowley? I don’t think demons are coming up and tossing jacks to pass the time.”

“You care to play?” Crowley extended his hands as if offering the object, then snapped it back. “Whoops, looks like none of you brought any balls. Maybe next time.”

Sam heard more footsteps approaching from the grotto and turned to see a burly, half-naked man in his twenties, with Teagan’s knitted sweater wrapped around his waist, followed by a young redhead the same age wearing the rest of the old lady’s oversized clothes.

The redhead strode past Sam and got in Crowley’s personal space. “I told you before, you’re not welcome here, demon,” she seethed.

“Good to see you again too, Teags.” Crowley turned to the man and looked him up and down. “And you… You’re a lucky man, Grant McSwain. Though you should put on some clothes… you’re going to get Dean all worked into a tizzy.”

Teagan slapped him across the face.

“Well aren’t you a feisty one,” Crowley said as he massaged his jaw. “Such a lost art, hospitality. I suppose I shall bid you farewell.”

He vanished in a puff of brimstone and ash.

Sam doffed his jacket and wrapped it around Grant, but Castiel eyed Teagan with as much suspicion as he’d given Crowley. “Mortals weren’t meant to drink from that. Not even guardians.”

Teagan bowed her head, sheepish. “I know. And we didn’t mean to… but I couldn’t let that piece of Hell corrupt him.”

Dean looked at Grant and sighed. “Thorn, I presume. And you’ve been guarding… what, the Fountain of Youth?”

“We found it in the Fifties,” Teagan answered. “Our last expedition, though we didn’t know it at the time. Once we realized what it was, we stayed to protect it. We had to.”

Dean nodded. “From the Red scare? Worried about Communists?”

Grant shrugged. “More like the Red, White and Blue scare. A source of power that could turn General Patton into a young man again, that could make a man like McCarthy live forever? That’s too much for any government to control. But it’s safe now, thanks to you all. And it’ll stay that way.”

“You weren’t supposed to drink from it,” Castiel stressed.

Grant smiled at Teagan and took her hand. “I wonder if we just got fired from being guardians.”

Everyone chuckled, except Castiel, who disappeared with a rush of wind.

They started down the path toward the Impala, taking in the fresh air. Once they reached the car, Sam offered Grant and Teagan a ride.

“You know what,” Grant said, “I think we’ll walk. I forgot what it’s like to not feel stiff all the time. From age, mind you, not from being Thorn.”

The boys said their goodbyes, and the Impala roared down the hillside.

Alone under the trees, Grant leaned close to Teagan and held her tight. “What did I ever do to deserve you? After so many years, you’ve saved me one last time…”

A mischievous light sparkled in Teagan’s eyes as she looked at the youthful Grant. “Last? Maybe not…”