Saturday, July 30, 2016

Six Bells Chime

Photo credit: Nicholas Tonello via Flickr CC 2.0

(originally published July 2, 2015)

Another irresistible writing challenge from the inimitable Chuck Wendig. The theme: random song title—shuffle your playlist and write a story inspired by what shows up. For me, it was “Six Bells Chime” by Crime and the City Solution.

Mackenzie was too wild for the city. The crowds confined her spirit; she hated how people judged her for being from the country. They always said country with a drawl to mock her.
It all fell apart when she cracked a beer bottle against a financial analyst’s nose at a club. He said something about wanting to be her cowboy version of Christian Grey. I would’ve hit him, but she was quicker.

Outside, she pounded the graffiti-covered wall with frustrated fists until they bled. “Get me out of here,” she said. I kissed her bloody knuckles and promised to take her wherever she wanted to go.

So we packed up everything and hit the road.

Mackenzie calmed as tangled expressways became solitary highways. She pushed the passenger seat back and planted her boots on the dashboard. She napped with the brim of her hat over her eyes. The sleeves of her black t-shirt were rolled up, and a thumb hitched in a belt loop. She didn’t wake up until we were surrounded by fields and the occasional farm. As the sun warmed the truck’s interior, the smell of old clove cigarettes infused the air.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked her when she finally woke up.

She pushed the brim of her hat up, bleary eyed and smiling slightly. “Broken places. Let’s just wander for a while.”

“No destination?”

“I know what I want to find; I just don’t remember where to find it.”

“What’s that?”

“Home,” she said, squinting off into the distance. Dark clouds of a thunder storm passed miles ahead of us.

I gestured toward the windshield. “Nice to be out here again. Seeing the big sky.”

Her smile broadened. “I feel like I can breathe again.”
Photo credit: Robert Couse Baker via Flickr CC 2.0
We were good traveling companions. We knew when one or the other of us needed some quiet. Neither of us were very talkative to begin with. The more remote we got, the more interested Mackenzie was in the landscape. Sometimes we slept in the back of the pick-up, philosophizing or recalling old memories as we counted shooting stars.

“Wish I could see an aurora,” she mused, braiding with her long blond hair in the darkness.
“We’ll drive north if you want to, sweetheart.”

“Not yet. Not until I find it.”

“Can you give me a hint?”

She fell silent for a moment. A flash of flame appeared in her hands. The paper on the tip of the joint flared and broke away. “Nope,” she said on the inhale. “Jake, you know me better than that.”

“Queen of mystics,” I said, laughing as she passed it to me.

“A Sufi nomad with Taoist leanings,” she reminded me.

A shooting star ran long across the sky. It seemed to move in slow-motion—a fiery trail blazing toward a broken place Mackenzie wanted to call home.

Then came a long string of visits to the abandoned souls of the American heartland. The dilapidated barns and sagging farmhouses that had been neglected for years. She stepped in each one like she owned the place, exploring even the most dangerous structures that I didn’t want to set foot into. I followed her, though, rather than be called a chicken.

“What are we doing?” I asked, picking up a rusted shovel that disintegrated in my hands.

“Chasing memories.” She threw a rock at the one remaining light in the ceiling of the barn.

Days passed and we kept driving. Our world turned grey when the rain came. She traced the lines of drops along the windows as we rolled down the road. Cracks of lightning illuminated the sky.

The sky stayed grey for days after the storm. We ate lunch in a rest area and watched as crows wheeled and cawed as they chased a hawk from their territory.

“Six crows,” Mackenzie said. “We’re close.”

The music matched the mood. Darker shades of rock, punk, and Goth that we loved. It was a perfectly composed soundtrack to accompany our journey.
Photo credit: Vincent A-F via Flickr CC by SA 2.0
A tree-lined road finally led us to her destination. A hopeful but almost teary smile haunted her features. “This is where it started,” she said.

A burned-out truck disintegrated next to an old one-room schoolhouse that also served as a church in this small town I forgot the name of as soon as we passed the sign. The building was in bad shape. Scorch marks from the truck’s fire clawed along the side of it. The steeple was open on one side, the planks probably torn off by a storm. Mackenzie stepped out of the truck and walked as if she wasn’t sure this was reality.

Her hands were up, her fingers seemingly tasting the air—she stared and closed her eyes by turns to drink in the environment. I heard her humming a favorite tune. She ascended the small steps of the building and ran her hand along the wooden railing. The varnish, if it ever had any, was long faded away. Her hands came to rest on a platform of bells. Each varied in size.

“It was like Morse code,” she said. “The ringing meant all kinds of things.” She struck them—six bells. A languid clangor, one after the other.

“What does that one mean?”

“I reclaim this place. I’m home.”

As she turned around and walked in the front door, I wondered if I would ever learn what that meant. A murder of crows flew out of the steeple and announced her arrival to the turbulent sky.
And for those curious about the song, it was featured in Wim Wenders’ gorgeous 1987 film, Wings of Desire (originally Der Himmel über Berlin):

Fan Fiction—and an Irresistible Urge to Write Someone Else’s Story

(originally published June 19, 2015)

Fan fiction can be a touchy topic. Some authors fiercely protect the worlds and characters they create, while others endorse fan works inspired by them. Hugh Howey happily promotes some fan fiction based on the Wool series. Several years ago, a person who loved my first novel contacted me about writing fan fiction about it. Why not? After all, Vlad Dracula and his family were not of my making. Sure, I took some artistic license in how I portrayed them, but anyone has free reign to write about historical figures.

While some of my earliest unpublished works are strongly influenced by other books or video games, I can’t say I’ve really indulged in fanfic—until now. I feel odd delving into a copyrighted world, even if the creators of the world don’t mind. Knowing 50 Shades of Grey began as fanfic based on the Twilight series doesn’t make me feel any better.

There are many sources of inspiration. People who know me well may guess if I were to dive into fanfic, it may be the Elder Scrolls games or George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. However, there is only one story that captures me like no other: Thief.

In 1998, I pulled the box off the shelf at a store, enchanted by the graphics and description. I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d come to love this world. Every game in the series has been amazing. I’d actually have it share the number one spot in gaming experiences alongside the beloved Elder Scrolls series. The Elder Scrolls has inspired me with its worldbuilding as well, but it was Thief that inspired me to put pen to paper.

In short, the world of Thief had (until the recent 4th installment) two factions of faith. The solemn and technology-driven Hammerites, and the pagans who worshipped nature. Both religions were replaced in the latest 2014 release. I miss the old gods, but look forward to seeing where this new lore may be taking us. It’s always been gloomy world—the City is ancient—one layer built on top of another, with eras of secrets and artifacts. Garrett, a pickpocketing youth, was taken in by a secret organization called the Keepers. Though he leaves them in favor of becoming a master thief, he’s continuously manipulated by the Keepers through the end of the third game.

The revamped version of the story is gorgeously gritty and dark. Yes, the longtime voice actor who played Garrett is gone, and the change upset me for a bit, but after 20 minutes of gameplay I was so deep in the storyline I didn’t care. And I want more.

While there have been consistent elements of the story throughout, there is plenty of mystery. The kind of mystery that tantalizes a writer.

In Thief 4, there are several sets of collectible items Garrett saves for his home in a broken clock tower. The paintings are cool, but it was the little snippets that threaded together the collection known as “The Pinned Castinets” that lured me in enough to write fan fiction.
With each pin discovered, a piece of the story is revealed:

  •         It was written that the Castinet daughters were married to lords of the highest standing, all to enrich the family reputation.
  •          Perhaps some of Castinet’s daughters found love. Others knew only the shame of a cold bed and an empty facade.
  •          But his youngest was lucky enough to find freedom from her family’s expectations.
  •          “I will show them all!” she wrote in her diary. “I will show them what true freedom looks like!”
  •          They said her broken body was found at the foot of The City’s walls, and all Dayport wept.
  •          And every summer for years afterwards, pale butterflies would flock to the site, then scatter.

Granted, it’s always the haunting and slightly morbid stories that light my imagination on fire and summon the Muses. You should see my list of novels in progress.

After recently finishing the game for a second time, I was unable to let this story go. I initially refused to write about it. It’s not my world, after all! But then I checked in to one of my favorite flash fiction sites, Describli, and one of the images used for a writing prompt caught my eye. It may as well have come right out of the City where Garrett dwelled. And the prompt involved a visit to a witch. Suddenly, I knew what happened to the youngest daughter of the Castinet family, and I wrote the following story:

The Butterfly Girl

The girl was crumpled by the hearth in an endless fit of weeping. Her red gown and velvet cloak caused a stir when she rushed down the City's wharf to get to the witch’s house. She didn't care. Consumed in her own anguish, she only sought a cure to her problem. 

“I won’t marry him!” Sofia said for the twelfth time. “They can’t make me. I'll run away. All I’ve ever wanted was my freedom!” 

“You’re a long way from home, sweetness,” Agatha said, petting the girl’s head like she was a pet. She admired the comb in the girl’s coal-black hair. Shaped like a butterfly, jewels of pink, lavender, and pale blue sparkled in the fire’s light.

The girl looked up at her, confused. “But I’m from Dayport.” 

Agatha smiled. “Indeed you are. So knows every thief, pimp, and lowlife in the South Quarter. A little discretion would do you a lot of good.” 

“I have to leave the City.” Tears streamed down her face.

“And where do you plan to go?”

“Anywhere…a place where I can be free to live the life I want. To be an explorer, maybe. Do you think one of the sea captains will hire me? I can read, draw well, and can keep things orderly.”

Agatha suppressed a laugh. “My dear girl, women are not allowed on ships for a reason. Imagine one woman on a ship full of men, out to sea for months at a time. You haven’t thought this through.”

“What can you do to help me?” The last words were choked in a sob.

“How much coin do you have?”

Sofia held up her purse. Agatha weighed it in her hand. It was too light to do anything meaningful. The petted the girl’s hair again. “This hair pin will do.

The girl unpinned it and handed it to the witch without a thought. Agatha expected more of a fight. Some are too easy, she thought.

Agatha stood and went to the window. The hearth’s bright flame played on the dusty windows. In the grimy South Quarter, it was a futile effort to keep the glass clean. The City seemed endless. Superstitious folk who never left their own neighborhoods believed it was endless—and that nothing lay beyond it—no pastures or farms, no meadows or vast forests. That the zealous builders devoured all of nature in their plan to obliterate the pagan faith. In the darkest of nights, when the rain was driving and the hearth’s flame threatened to be blown out from the winds that spiraled down the chimney, Agatha wondered too. Maybe it does go on forever.

“There aren’t many of us left,” the witch said. “All but driven to the ends of the earth. A few communities remain. I know an honest captain who can take you to the sunny coast of Illyria. I’ll write you up a letter, and you can be an apprentice of the witches until you can maintain a shrine of your own.”

A smile broke through Sofia’s tears. “That sounds wonderful. When can I leave?”

“Whenever you wish.”

“Now, if you please. I need naught but the clothes on my back.”

“You can sleep in the attic until I make the arrangements. Shouldn’t be but a day or two.”

As a humble host in the poorest region in the City, Agatha fed her guest well. She shielded her from prying neighbors, who came to this relatively peaceful section of the wharf wanting to know about the pretty girl in the red dress.

The South Quarter factories churned in the distance, filling the sky with smoke and soot. Tradesmen and merchants filed in a never-ending procession down the Baron’s Road, on their way to buy and sell goods, and drink their fill in the mangiest of taverns. The girl watched the City in fascination from the attic window. This was nothing like the luxury of Dayport.

Soon enough, Sofia embarked on a ship and cried tears of joy at the prospect of freedom. She vowed to become the best witch in the land. Agatha waved and walked back to her house on the dock.

A torrential storm hit that night. As if summoned by magic, it rose up and smashed the ships heading out. The storm continued for days.

“The gods are angry again,” Agatha said. “There’s no pleasing them.”

When the news came, the witch endured her creaking knees and sore back to go down to the shore where the shipwrecks lay. The girl’s broken body lay by the city wall. The unusual sight of people from Dayport astonished the residents of South Quarter. Her red dress was sodden like blood and oil.

Pity flickered in the witch’s heart. She stayed until the bodies were cleared, and walked to the spot where the girl’s body had lain. She pulled the butterfly hair pin from her pocket and cupped it in her hand. She whispered a brief spell, and a spirit in the shape of a butterfly emerged from the jeweled piece.

A glittering display of pink, lavender, and pale blue, the butterfly spirit hovered in a circle. With each turn around the spot, another butterfly came to be, until there was a cloud of them.

“We all have to make sacrifices,” the witch said. “But you finally have your precious freedom.”

And from then on, on each anniversary of the girl’s death, a flurry of ghostly butterflies appeared and lit up that dark corner of the wharf for the night. 

Five Days of the Cartographer: A Chuck Wendig Writing Challenge

(originally published June 10, 2015) 

One thing I can say about Chuck Wendig’s weekly writing challenges, is that they give me the opportunity to do a bit of worldbuilding. A series has been brewing for a long time, and with many of these challenges, I’ve had the chance to sketch out the lands, the characters, and ideas for the plot. Kind of distracting for making progress on my fourth novel, but at least it counts to another book in some regard!

And herewith, the new random title challenge, “Five Days of the Cartographer.”

Cal hunched over the parchment and groaned. He stretched his cramped arms and turned his neck side to side, but felt little relief. He held the quill over the map. “Where to put Aurora Bay?” Cal scratched his beard.

He decided to place the bay tantalizingly close to Gallixia’s Shellshard Islands in the northeast corner of the region. The stormy seas north of the islands prevented travel most of the time, but there was always one fool who would venture through it, if the promise of treasure was large enough.

It was almost time to go to market. He had five days to sell the map and return to the ship. He drew cross-hatched lines to indicate the steep cliffs that guarded the coast near Aurora Bay. As the cliffs formed, Cal missed home.

Silkur was but a legend to many people in the Vourae and Gallixian kingdoms. Those who had seen it in person never returned. Their people preferred to be left alone. Though resources were abundant on Silkur, they craved the goods from the kingdoms from the south. And sometimes, people were those goods. Trade was one-sided. Fiefdoms in Silkur were comprised of solitary sorcerers who ruled over small villages of corsairs and fishermen.

When the map was done, Cal dusted the parchment with a fine powder to absorb the excess ink. The powder glowed a faint orange. Cal grinned. With the magic imbued in the map, the plan was set. He prepared to walk to the market.

With the exception of the capital, Silkur had no cities. Cal disdained crowds and his mood darkened as he approached the cartographer’s stall. His tubes and satchels of maps landed on the table with a loud thump.

“And a fine day to you, sir!” shouted the cider-seller across the way. He laughed and waved, and offered Cal a free mug of cider.

Cal hung his head down for a moment to regain his composure. “I’m no actor. How I wound up in this job is a wonder,” he muttered.

When he raised his head, his smile was bright. “Thank you, neighbor. And a gentle reminder, please tell your patrons to be cautious with their cider around my maps. Can’t afford any accidents, now.”

The cider-seller laughed again. “Of course; wouldn’t want anyone to lose their way due to a stain on one of your fine maps.”

Cal’s grin was wry. He waved again and proceeded to organize his wares. If he only knew.
By mid-morning, throngs of people pressed through the corridors of stalls. Hunters, traveling workers, and explorers of all kinds visited the cartographer. The ensorcelled map of Silkur remained under the display table, rolled up and waiting for just the right opportunity.

By the fifth day, Cal was frustrated enough to sell the map to the first curious patron who came along. And luckily, the first customer was the perfect mark.

Rain drizzled on this grey day. The east coast of the Vourae Kingdom was less tropical than the west coast. The rains tended to be lighter and less frequent. Cal ignored his aching knees as he stood, watching a man stroll through the marketplace. The man wore an oil-coated fisherman’s jacket. He looked like a seasoned seafarer—but not too seasoned. Just ambitious enough.

As the man approached the cartographer’s stall, Cal met his eye with enthusiasm. “Hello there! Are you from the Shellshard Islands?”

The man looked surprised. “What gave it away?”

“Your coat—the best oilskin coats come from the Shellshards.”

“This coat will last longer than I do.”

“What brings you this far south?” Cal asked.

“Expanding my business. My family fished for scallops and crabs for generations. That’s fine enough, but I don’t want to spend my whole life sailing around the same islands like they did. I love seeing new places, and it’s helped my finances a lot since I started importing goods back home. A lot of this stuff,” the man waved his hand around in the direction of the other stalls, “fetches a fine price in the Shellshards.”

“I bet it does. Say, have you ever been to Silkur?”

The man scoffed. “Close to home, but ever so far away—that’s what my granddad always said. Impossible to get to.”

“Not if you know the way.”

A scowl descended over the man’s face. “So say the charlatans.” He took a step back from the stall.

Cal held up a hand. “Now, please, hear me out. My maps are all authentic. There’s not a one on this table that I haven’t traveled myself.”

“Including Silkur?” His arms crossed over this chest and he stared Cal down hard.

“Things are changing there, believe it or not. Yes, they’ve been isolationists for ages. Trade with them meant pirates taking what they wanted and returning home. Did you know that along the coast, the supply of fish has been running low? Overfishing, you know. The people of the villages are crying for change. They need to connect with the rest of the world and they know it.”

“They want to trade? With us?”

“Consider what the prospects are if you are one of the first to establish regular trade with Silkur? You could become a titan among merchants! Handle this well, sir, and your fortunes would help your family for generations.”

The man paused. His hand hovered over a pouch hanging from his belt, surely where his coin purse lay.

Take the hook, my fisherman. It took Cal every ounce of willpower not to sneer.

“Can I see the map?”

“Yes, I have it right here.” Cal reached under the table and pulled out the tube. He gently pulled out the parchment and unrolled it on the counter. “May I ask your name, sir?”

He man let out a long breath as he stared at the details on the map. Lifting his hand up to hold his chin, he stood and grew increasingly distracted. The orange dust on the map shimmered just a bit—just enough to appear as though the light came from the nearby lantern. “Damon Silversky.”

“Mr. Silversky, I don’t think I have to tell you this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I promise you, this map is as authentic as your oilskin coat. Think of the opportunity—The Shellshard Trading Company, founded by Mr. Damon Silversky.”

“How much?”

Cal named his price. High, but not exorbitant. Coin changed hands, and the man with new dreams in his eyes walked away.

Cal sighed happily. “Finally, now I can leave this godsforsaken city. Just enough time to get packed up and off to the boat.”

When Damon Silversky’s ship reached the Ghost Storm Peninsula on the northern edge of the Shellshard Islands, the sunset brightened to fiery shades of orange. Clouds that appeared to be made of soot began to cover the setting sun, swirling too fast for normal clouds.

The would-be trader clutched the map in his hands. “Can’t abide rough seas now.”

The first mate approached with the sextant, handing out to him. “You can see land to the northeast! I think we’re close.”

He used the sextant. His heart swelled with ambition. “What do you make of this sky? What storm are we facing?”

“Honestly, I’ve never seen colors like this. Aurora Bay,” the first mate whistled. “That’s what they say about the skies in Silkur. Absolutely otherworldly. The clouds are unusual, but I think we’ll be fine. The winds aren’t very strong.”

Damon stared at the black clouds in wonder. How they moved so fast, yet the swells and wind remained the same, peaceful calm as they had for hours. “Sail on,” he said.

The enveloping night sky delighted the sailors with the varied colors of the northern lights and the clouds that danced around them. The closer they got to the shore, the more amazing the skies became.

Until the lighthouse came into sight. They didn’t notice it at first. The beacon remained dark until they were close to the end of the bay. The beacon’s light flared into a ball of magical light, and the sky went dark.

They were not blessed with starlight nor moonlight. Plunged into the blackest of voids, Damon called for the ship to be stayed.

They waited, tensely listening to the sounds of the gentle waves.

A crescent of fire surrounded the ship. Seven dragonships of Silkur came into view. Ships of legend, the dragonships were massive, each metal dragon’s head at the bow puffing smoke and flame, ready to burn an enemy ship at a warlord’s command.

A voice came from the darkened bow of one of the ships. “You will surrender.” It wasn’t a question.

There was no choice.

As the corsairs boarded the ship en masse, Damon wondered who Cal really was. 

Obviously no simple cartographer. The slavers clasped each sailor in chains, and assigned their own to guide the ship home to Silkur behind the dragonships.

A titan among merchants, Cal thought with a sardonic grin, feeling the iron cuffs weigh down his wrists. A titan among fools, more like. If I ever get out of this mess, I’ll hunt down that cartographer and feed him to the god of the kraken

A Chuck Wendig Writing Challenge: X Meets Y

(originally published April 26, 2015)

Who can resist the X meets Y challenge? Though this week has been absolutely bananatown on the work and home front, I had to make time for Chuck Wendig’s latest writing challenge. It was my only solace of the week. Herewith, a mash-up between Twin Peaks and The Matrix.

After the walls melted away, Ryland stood alone in a forest. A dense fog settled among the tall pines. A soft lapping of water came from the right, but the body of water wasn’t visible. A crow cawed in the distance, ahead of her on the wide path.

Gone was the labyrinth of skyscrapers she had known all her life. The absence of sirens disoriented her. Ryland turned slowly in a circle. The portal was gone as well. So jarring was the sensation that she wasn’t sure which world was real—the one she believed she was a resident of, or this one, rich in earthy smells with soft ground beneath her feet.

The lone call of a crow came again, this time more urgent than before. Though she couldn’t see it, Ryland was certain it was aware of her presence.

“Damn her for talking me into this,” she said.

Only minutes ago, she was meeting Wren, an old friend, in a bodega near the theater district. She wanted to go clubbing. Wren had other plans.

“You need to help me,” she implored. “I’m trapped between two worlds. I don’t know how much time I have here. Everything flickers—then I’m suddenly elsewhere.”

Ryland reacted calmly. The virtual reality business was a 3-trillion-dollar industry, consuming all forms of media, and all too many impressionable people were overly susceptible to its lures.

Despite safety measures to alert those unable—or reluctant—to come out of a virtual world, many people disabled the alarms on their own devices, preferring to neglect their own needs, often resulting in death. Regulators shrugged off the reports of disturbing trends in starvation and neglect. The benefits were too great—a pacified population and enormous profits. “People should be free to make their own decisions,” they said. “We aren’t in the business of being a nanny state.”

“It’s a portal to the multiverse,” Wren said, sliding the device across the table where they unwrapped their sandwiches.

Ryland rolled her eyes. “So says the ad campaign.”

And yet here she was. It was unlike any VR experience she ever had.

When the crow called again, she began to walk down the path. The fog enhanced the scent of pine needles and moist earth. The scant park in the city was nothing like this. Those trees are fake anyway. Pollution had long since choked plant life into extinction.

The path rounded a corner. Long benches made of split logs stood to the side of the path. A crow swooped down and landed on a nearby tree stump. It regarded her with its head tilted to one side.

When she blinked, the crow had transformed into a tall man wearing a silver suit. His black hair was combed to the side. His grin was wolfish, and his eyes seemed to reveal a cosmos that lay beyond this world. “It’s about time you arrived,” he said in a mellifluous voice.

Ryland cast a skeptical eye over the handsome man’s figure. “Who are you?”

“Your host,” he said. He bowed deeply, sweeping one arm out as if to hold a top hat.

“What’s your name?”

“Ah, well…people find it easier to name what they don’t know on their own terms. Being presented with a title puts many people off.” He paused mid-bow. “I am at your service, however you choose to name me.”

Ryland stopped short of using her favorite swear words. She bit her lip, the unease of this world sinking into her skin and to her very marrow. The beauty of the forest darkened with a creeping fear. The man staring at her didn’t waver.

Unwilling to come up with a name for the crow who apparently transformed into a man, she decided to change the subject. “What am I supposed to be doing here?”

“Didn’t the little bird tell you?”

“Little bird? Oh. Wren.” Ryland smiled in spite of herself.

The man nodded.

“What is happening to her?”

“The answers cannot be revealed outside of the cabin.”

“What cabin?”

When Ryland next blinked, the man was gone. The crow paused on the tree stump next to the bench and flapped its wings. It cawed once and flew down the path. She had no choice but to follow.

The disorienting feeling of being in such a remote place was amplified by the fog. Movies never had the sounds of the forest. There was always dialogue and music. Things rustling in the distance and branches clicking together high above rattled her nerves. Her mysterious shape-shifting host had disappeared, but she was certain he observed her every move. He’s probably in my head, too.

The path wound down to the right, bringing her closer to the water. A crescent of mirror-gray water appeared. Most of the lake was obscured by trees and fog. A low cabin, shaded by trees, rested next to the lake. The cabin was weathered and sagging slightly. Its shuttered windows revealed nothing within.

Ryland approached, stepping onto the porch with trepidation. She put her ear to the door. Strange sounds from behind the door were faint.

The door swung inward. A young boy wearing dark sunglasses held it open, waving her inside with a sense of urgency. “Don’t let the light in,” he said. “And don’t let the truth out.” His sandy blond hair was combed to the side, and he wore an outfit that reminded Ryland of films from the early twentieth century.

As Ryland entered the one-room cabin, she saw Wren, who was dressed in the fashions popular in the city where they grew up—clothes for clubbing—black boots and a purple-blue dress with a black vest. Wren sat in a leather chair, arms straight along the armrests. Her eyes were closed.

The cabin door closed behind her. The room darkened. A bare lightbulb danged from the center of the ceiling. When Ryland came to stand in the center of the room, it began to flicker erratically.

The shape-shifting host in the silver suit leaned in the corner of the room, picking his teeth. “Ah, she’s here. Very good. You see that, son? Have a little faith in the ways of chaos.”

“The ways of chaos?” Ryland asked.

The boy put his finger to his lips. “Shh. Learn your place.”

She scowled at him and went to kneel by her friend. “Are you okay?”

The horror sank in. Wren’s wrists and ankles were bound by iron shackles. Ryland shook her by the shoulders. “Wren!” There was no response.

The lightbulb continued to flicker—maddeningly, incessantly.

Obscured by an increasing volume of static, jazz from a bygone era filled the air. Shadows danced along the walls.

“Why are you doing this?” shouted Ryland. “What are you doing to her?”

“Time for the truth?” asked her enigmatic host with a wry smile. “Life is energy.” Shadows flickered over his silver suit. “Energy must be directed to secure the portals. You see, my dear, no reality is real…and yet, all realities are real.”

“So she was right about the multiverse.”

“Indeed. You see so few universes with your technology, but we’re working to change that.”


The host stood and straightened his lapels. “The virtual reality industry, of course! Silly girl. Try to keep up. Some realities are more predatory than others, but all entities must sustain themselves and their worlds. We reach in, we take what we need.”

Ryland shook her friend by the shoulders again. “Wren, wake up. We have to leave.”

Wren’s eyes snapped open. Her mouth opened in a silent scream. Her eyes were windows into an endless cosmos. Wren’s voice blended in with the jazz. The static cleared momentarily to let the lyrics though. Let your heart go and let it drift/Clear the shoals or your soul falls in a rift/The void takes all and each precious moment is a gift

The static rose and devoured the words. Wren’s mouth closed and the jazz continued without lyrics. Her eyes stared sightlessly ahead.

“The little bird is gone,” the boy said in a lilting tone.

Ryland sank to the floor and cowered at her friend’s feet. Rough planks shifted beneath her. Grit coated the palms of her hands. “I want to leave.” Tears crept down her face.

The host swept down and his face hovered in front of her. A smattering of galaxies swirled within his inky-black eyes. “You want to leave?” He sighed, planting his elbows on his thighs as he crouched. “Oh, but where to go? Where, where, where? If you’re trying to hide, understand there is nowhere to go. I’ll let you fly for a while, just like the little bird. But we will always find you. When time runs out…” his mouth made a clicking sound and he snapped his fingers.

The boy behind him chuckled. “Through time, at any distance. We know every place to hide. No one is better at hide and seek.”

The host extended a silver arm and held out an onyx orb to her. “Choose your world, but choose wisely.

An Evening with Laurie Anderson

(originally published April 12, 2015)

1982: My mom comes home from work, raving about a song she heard on the radio. The next album we purchase is Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, and so begins a lifelong fascination with unusual music for me. I was probably the only preteen in the audience for the concert we went to that year. I had no one to talk to about this kind of music/performance art outside of family. At dinner, we listened to Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Shadowfax, and a host of obscure New Wave/New Age LPs that are still an important part of the “soundtrack of my life.” Kids in school were bonkers about light pop like the Culture Club and an array of big hair bands. Laurie Anderson made me feel welcome in an alien world, though even at the time, I understood it wasn’t an alien world at all. Her performances were about our world, seen through keen observation, wit, and a tremendous amount of creativity.

As a family, we went to her concerts whenever possible. I can’t tally the number, but it was a lot. We went to French films and my dad and I revered every Werner Herzog film we could find. Being a teen raised in an alternative cultural environment shaped who I am today, as a writer, an artist, and someone who loves an unusual view of the world.

Laurie Anderson is enchanting on stage. When I saw she was giving the Louis C. Elson Lecture at Harvard, I was determined to go, regardless of my intense schedule. Honestly, she can talk about making grilled cheese sandwiches and it turns into an amazing tale. She has a dedicated following, and I swear, even after all these years, I still recognize the regulars from the audience. We never spoke, but certain people stand out. It’s a silent inner circle that gathers to appreciate one of the most amazing artists of our time.

She opened by polling the audience about their own interests: who’s a musician, who’s a painter, who’s a writer. She preferred “multimedia artist,” because it prevents the “art police” from pigeonholing her. And really, it’s impossible to do so. She only considers herself “a dedicated amateur musician.” She’s a master of storytelling. She sees the stories within a stories, and talked about a childhood diving accident that sent her to the hospital with a broken back. She was put in the burn unit, and the dark nights with were filled with tears and sounds of suffering. Over the years, the body and memory change and cleanse some of that imagery, and it took her decades to realize some of the empty beds she woke up to were the result of children dying in the night. The creepiest parts of then stories are the ones that go forgotten for time, she said. And as Anderson puts pieces of them together, and even the saddest or most disturbing of stories have a positive note. It’s part of her philosophy of life.

Anderson described her early years as a “self-righteous minimalist,” who delighted in creating spare components of performances. Though it was never explained to me growing up, this concept clicked with me as she talked about stage design for her concerts. The epic concert film Home of the Brave is probably the best example. People dot the stage in small groups or individually. Some wear costumes. Others move in an erratic dance. A film of animation and/or words plays in the background. There is dance, lighting, movement, none of which seems to fit together in a linear way. It’s all part of her master plan. Everyone has their own rhythm, she said. You have your own way of constructing stories, and you put together the components in a way that suits you best. It was an epiphany that tied together years of seeing her performances. Whether you watched the musicians, the shadows of people on the screen, or to see what unique item she’d use in the center of the stage—be it a glowing violin or goggles with lights like high beams, there is no one precious single meaning she wants you to take away from it. It’s all about how you want to enjoy what she offers.

Experimentation takes many forms, and “I appreciate the feeling of not being sure.” Getting out of your niche is key. She plays with tones and pitches of voices. Anderson has created countless films and art installations where the experience of sound is the feature of the work. “I love broken things,” she said as she described the studios where she uses old analog equipment and digital technology to fuse styles into experimental works. She used carpenter’s level to create a speaker system, depending on how it was tilted, you heard a male voice, female voice, or both. When setting up for a performance once, she told the crew to use the most broken-looking but functional equipment they could find. A photo of a keyboard and decrepit microphone stand that looked like it was set up in an old basement appeared on the screen behind her. “I loved it,” she said.

Ever the traveler, Anderson shares a wealth of experience from installations and performances around the world. Her stint as the first (and only) resident artist for NASA illuminated the connection between art and science. Truth and beauty are much more present in science than most people realize, she explained. Even Einstein didn’t accept some of his own theories because they were not beautiful enough.

Though she had many things she wanted to talk about, and surely the audience would have gladly spent the entire evening with her, time ran short. She shuffled her notes and decided which stories she wanted to tell the most before she opened it up to the audience for questions.

When asked about collaborations, she talked about working with Peter Gabriel on “Excellent Birds.” Each respective version has its own bass because they couldn’t agree on one together, she said. A perceptive member of the audience noted how a portion of one of her stories reminded him of Spalding Gray. She nodded, acknowledging they were close friends. “I’d like to think we keep the people we lost in the back of our minds,” she said. “You don’t lose the texture of someone’s voice.”

With time being finite, one person asked, how do you decide on what to work on with so many varied interests? The first criteria, she explained, is “Is it fun?” It’s best to enjoy as much as you can. Have the best time doing whatever it is at the moment. Everything else falls into place. “I choose to believe in progress because it makes for a happier life,” she said.

I walked home feeling lighter. It had been a stressful few months, and that brief session made me feel so much better. Art heals, it helps us reflect and learn, and while the pieces of the story shift, as she demonstrated with great eloquence, the story is ours according to how we want to make it. As I enter a new era of my own, I’m deeply appreciative for the artsy life my parents gave me, and that I’ve been able to carry this particular treasure with me for more than three decades. Laurie Anderson’s amazing work has become part of me too, and like her friend Spalding Gray, you never lose the texture of voices, and for that, I’m eternally grateful. 

The Oathkeeper’s Forge

Photo credit: Frederic Bisson via Flickr CC2.0

[Originally published December 18, 2014: It’s been quite a while since I participated in one of Chuck Wendig’s awesome writing challenges. One of them even produced the final three pages to my third novel, Whiskey and Rue. The randomized titles are among my favorite challenges, and when the d20 gave me “The Oathkeeper’s Forge,” it felt epic. Could’ve been 150,000 words instead of 1,500!]

The sounds of the forge comforted Mattias. He couldn’t remember a time when it didn’t feel like home. His parents laughed and said he was born of it. Now grizzled and beset with a raspy voice from decades of breathing coal dust, Mattias demonstrated his best techniques to his apprentice.

“Why are we here at midnight?” Sylvi asked.

“The oathkeeper’s work is done at night.”

“But you work during the day all the time.”

“That’s regular blacksmith work. This is oathkeeper’s work. Don’t they teach history in schools anymore?” Mattias sighed and drew his gloved hand across his sweating brow. “Yours is a lost generation.”

Sylvi kicked at the loose dirt around the stonework wall of the forge. “Guess I don’t listen very well.”

Mattias smirked. “You’re an oathkeeper’s apprentice. If you don’t know our traditions, then how can you be expected to carry out our laws? I ought to send you back to your family.”
Her head snapped up and she started at him with wide eyes. “I was just kidding. The oathkeeper works at midnight because the Pact of the Four Moons was signed then. ‘The oathkeepers shall protect the land and its people, as guided by the gods and their sentinels on Arúon. They are the king’s guard and chosen among the best warriors in Gallixia—may it rule as long as the Jynghast Mountains that embrace it stand.’”

Mattias nodded, placated for the moment. “You’re not a total loss. I guess I don’t have to send you back just yet. Diligence, my girl. Without it, the oathkeepers are weak. It counts for far more than physical strength. Mind that before I cast you out.”

Sylvi’s jaw dropped. She clutched the hammer with both hands and said nothing.
The upturned curl of a smile and glimmer in his eye belied the threat. He winked.
Sylvi sighed and loosened her grip on the hammer. The high arch at the forge’s entrance revealed a clear night sky. A dragon with crimson wings flew from the open plains to the east toward the mountains. “If forging this sword is a secret, then why are we out here in the open? Won’t people see? Isn’t there a secret forge for oathkeeper’s work?”

Mattias shook his head. “The king ordered us to war.” The word king was said with bitter venom. “We work day and night—so the story goes. Now see here, my fine apprentice. Temper the blade so near the hilt. What we do at this stage is critical—temper it too much, and the blade will be brittle and we may as well be charged with murder when the sword falls apart, leaving our warriors surprised and open to attack.”

Sylvi bit her lip. A troubled thought fluttered in her mind. She was grateful for the spray of fiery sparks to conceal her expression as Mattias plunged a massive awl into the coals.
She stared at the blade. Her mentor forged it with such grace and skill; the same hands would wield it for one purpose and one purpose only. The Oathkeeper’s Paradox—when protecting the land and its people meant assassinating the king.

The steel glowed hot. Ash swirled within tendrils of smoke as Mattias turned the blade over the coals. “Almost ready,” he said. “Prepare the cool down.”

Sylvi dropped the hammer she’d been fidgeting with and moved to pour the water in the trough. She murmured a prayer to Setakir, the sentinel of fire, as Mattias lowered the sword into the water.

Mattias peered at her through the billowing clouds of steam. “What’s the matter?”

Sylvi shrugged. “Isn’t there another way?”

“To do what?”

She struggled to say the words. “To…change who is in power.”

Mattias scowled through the dissipating steam. “You can’t be serious.”

“What if it leads to civil war?”

“We plan for everything. This is not a situation we take lightly. You kids. Always thinking we elders are too daft to do anything. The oathkeepers have existed for more than eight centuries. In that time, we’ve forged twelve blades for the Oathkeeper’s Paradox. Each sword only used once. Each one hangs in the chantry behind this forge, and as each one was placed on the wall behind the altar, we prayed another wouldn’t have to be forged.” Mattias grabbed the hilt and turned the blade over in the water.

“He’s not even our real king,” Sylvi said, pulling her honey-colored hair out of a ponytail to redo it. Her hair was damp with sweat. The ponytail redone, she wiped her hands on her leather apron. “Does he even deserve the respect of our traditions at all?”

“You mean why can’t we just execute him like he was a common criminal?”

Sylvi shrugged again.

Mattias pulled the sword out of the trough and rested it on the workbench. “Respect for the order of succession. True, Vrenkai is not from Gallixia, but King Domarr passed succession onto his father before he died. Domarr welcomed Varus as an ally and wanted Gallixia to have the protection of the new empire. Varus was an admirable ruler and he became as Gallixian as you or I. Everyone accepted him, and we were honored to bury him with full honors as befits one of our own kings when he died. Terrible tragedy that. His son isn’t worthy to lick his boots. Vrenkai is greedy and cruel. Like some gods-forsaken evil emperor in a tale told to children. As much as the new empire could have helped us when Varus was alive, it’s time to shed ourselves of its influence and return Gallixia to its old ways. As far as the Oathkeeper’s Paradox is concerned, this is one blade with a unique story. To kill a ruler from another land.”

“Why not have one of the dragons eat him?” Sylvi said.

“They don’t want to be involved in this. Besides,” he said with a wink, “Vrenkai’s blood is so filled with hatred it’s turned to poison. Don’t want to harm one of the dragons, do we? They have better things to do anyway—like watch the eastern border for enemies. We’re at a vulnerable time with broken leadership. Now please fetch the cleaning kit, will you?”
Sylvia crossed the room and grabbed the cleaning kit from the toolbench. The cool air in the shadows felt strange after being so close to the forge. She took a moment to breathe, taking in the meticulous organization of blacksmithing tools—awls ordered by size, and fittings separated by type in earthenware jars.

When she turned around, she paused. What she saw was too shocking to make sense. Mattias stood, arms out and bending back and an unnatural angle. A red stain spread over the front of his shirt, the tip of a broadsword emerged through his ribcage near his heart. Behind him stood Vrenkai.

He leaned in to talk close to Mattias’s ear. “You didn’t think I’d find out about your traitorous cult, did you? I’m going to behead you with your oathkeeper’s blade and display your skull at the city gate. This is the end to your cult.”

Red bubbles issues from Mattias’s mouth. His hand twitched as if to point to Sylvi. Their eyes locked.

She couldn’t let Vrenkai have the sword.

Eventually—she would. When she plunged it into his heart.

There was no time for that now. The emperor’s guards rushed into the room.

Sylvi sprinted out from the shadows. A prayer to the sentinel of the air increased her speed. She leapt up to the workbench by the forge and grabbed the oathkeeper’s sword.
Vrenaki struggled to shove Mattias’s body away as he tried to release the sword from it. 

“Get her!” he shouted, and the guards gave chase as Sylvi’s own heart pounded.

She ran down the street. Cutting into an alley, she crouched behind a stack of empty mead barrels and removed some twine from her toolbelt, then the belt itself. She secured the sword to the belt, then looped the belt over her shoulder and across her torso. Jumping from behind the barrels, she climbed the trellis up to the roof of the meadery.

The emperor’s guards ran through the streets, sounding the alarm for the city guards to join them.

Sylvi clambered over the rooftops, grateful that the buildings were in the business distract and closed for the night. She made her way to an abandoned building and stared. No—they’ll rip every abandoned place apart to the last splinter looking for me. I have to leave the city.

She huddled in an alcove under a chimney on a nearby roof. After an hour or so, let them fan out, then I’ll find my way out. Maybe I can ride in an empty mead barrel in a cart going out to Ironwell Falls.

It was going to be a long night. She gazed up at the four moons—the domains of the gods—and affirmed an oath to keep of her own.