Tag Archives: Stranger

From Chapter 17, “Trust” of MINDWRITERS

Carl woke in the torn passenger seat of a shabby sedan, a stranger at the wheel. There was gum in the carpet, scratches in the dashboard, and a radio that looked right out of the ‘70s, lacking even a tape deck. The clock blinked ‘12:00’ in despondent rhythm, as if sorry for not knowing the time. The vehicle smelled of smoke, sweat, and worse. Surely several disappointed teenagers had lost virginity in the cramped back seat, the fairy tale of Mister Right crumbling to dust beneath the crude pawing of Mister Horny.

FRAGILE GODS – Scenes 1 & 2, exhaustively reworked.

anza_cliffONE

 

 

 A knock at Damek’s door disturbed his reading, and he reached out instinctively with the Sight, especially since he was not expecting a visitor at this hour. Stranger still, he found nothing but silence beyond the portal. That itself was unusual enough to identify the visitor; of the handful of people living who were capable of blocking Damek, only Azai was likely to visit.

Suddenly Damek wanted very much to be somewhere else. He briefly considered not answering, but stifled the impulse. Instead, he set down his book, lit a second lamp, and opened the door.

“That’s a poor way to greet your older brother,” Azai scolded without preamble.

“It isn’t personal,” Damek answered, annoyed.

“I know,” Azai said. “But that only makes it worse, doesn’t it?” His lips gave the ghost of a smile. Though six years had passed, Azai looked as hale as he ever had in youth; adulthood had apparently only enhanced his rugged good looks by etching lines of experience into his chiseled face. He was taller and broader of shoulder than Damek, lean and sun-bronzed from constant travel. His only visible flaw was a scar across the left temple, half obscured by a white wool headband which was Azai’s custom to wear.

“Please come in,” Damek said with a gesture, ignoring the question. Azai entered with an air of affected casualness.

“You could do so much better than this,” he said distastefully, glancing around. The main room was tiny, even by Dolmec standards. The rosewood dining set was barely wide enough for two, and a single reading chair occupied the corner. A cooking area dominated one whole wall, and what little space remained was further crowded by shelves of books. There were only two other doors; one for the privy, and one to Damek’s even smaller bedroom.

“It’s good enough for me,” Damek grunted.

Azai looked at his brother curiously. “I guess it is,” he said wonderingly. He perched on Damek’s reading chair as if it were a throne.

Damek shifted uncomfortably and said nothing.

“Sorry,” Azai said abruptly.

Damek snorted. “You’re not sorry. I don’t need the Sight to know that.” Azai was successful at everything he’d ever tried, but success had made him arrogant. Damek knew he ought to love his elder brother, and perhaps he did after a fashion. But Azai could be insufferably smug. Though Damek was pleased to see Azai healthy and happy, he could not honestly say that he had missed him.

Azai grinned conspiratorially. “Damn right,” he said. “You’re the smart one, I know that. That’s why I need your help, Damek.”

“My help?” In spite of himself, Damek was curious. Azai had served as MindSeer and advisor to the most powerful chieftains and Drimmi priests of Dolmec, negotiating trades, treaties, and solving disputes.

And he was stronger in the Sight than Damek would ever hope to be.

“Your help,” Azai confirmed with the barest incline of his head. “I know you’d probably be content to live out your days in this little hovel reading your books. And if I could, I’d let you. But if I do, I’m liable to end up hacked to bits by an Asoki blade, and I’m not content to let that happen.”

“You’re going to Asoko?” Damek asked, still not understanding.

“By Drim or by death, I hope not,” Azai swore. “But it may be necessary.”

“Then what exactly is it that you want my help with?”

“Little brother,” Azai said with a smile like he’d struck gold, “You and I are going to stop a war.”

“Not interested,” Damek said without hesitation. He tapped the side of his head pointedly with a finger. “And you know I’m not lying.”

Azai frowned at him like some sort of puzzle, which Damek supposed he was to his older brother.

“How could you possibly not be interested?” he demanded.

“You want to play the hero,” Damek explained patiently, taking a seat at the table across from his brother. “I don’t.”

“You’re an idiot,” Azai said firmly.

“You were just saying I was the smart one?” Damek pointed out.

“Which is hard to imagine, considering that you have no sense of ambition. Real people want to be something more than they are, Damek. They want to excel. Don’t you?”

Damek snorted. “Cliffside is full of people who want nothing but to live out their lives without incident or change.” It was true. Although he thought of himself as more of a scholar, Damek had become something of a counselor for the hamlet, using the Sight in little ways just as Azai used it in big ways, trading advice for the goods and services he needed. The vast majority of Damek’s subjects had never journeyed beyond the horizon or committed a crime of any sort. Their lives were simple, and they tried very hard to keep them that way. After years among them, Damek discovered he had absorbed much of their attitude.

“And you want to be just like them,” Azai concluded. But as soon as he heard it put that way, Damek knew it wasn’t true. And since he knew it, Azai knew he knew it. Hearing Damek’s thoughts and seeing his brother trapped, Azai gave a broad grin.

“You judge them, brother. You try to live a quiet life here with your books, pretending to be normal, pretending to be one of them. But you secretly judge them.” Azai laughed. “That’s what all your books are about. That’s how you escape.” He sunk back into the chair. “We’re more alike than you want to admit.”

“I’m not like you,” Damek protested. “I don’t need to be the center of attention.”

“The center of attention?” Azai echoed distastefully. “No, that is not what ambition means. Don’t you ever want to help people?”

“What do you think I’ve been doing here for six years?” Damek asked.

“Right, right. Some farmer craves another man’s wife, and so you listen to him prattle on. The miller’s daughter gets herself with child, and you advise her how best to reconcile with her family. It’s such noble work.”

“There are worse fates,” Damek argued.

“And yet you’re unhappy. Or at least dissatisfied,” Azai observed. It was true, Damek knew. The Sight told Azai as much, and Damek was not stubborn enough to deny it. The townsfolk were his friends, but they did not challenge him, and they never would. Perhaps there was more of Azai in him than he wanted to admit.

Azai, for his part, knew he had won. Damek could read it in his face, though the elder had the courtesy not to gloat.

Damek sighed. “Fine. I’ll help.” He gave his brother a mock glare. “But don’t think I’m doing it because I like you.”

Azai only winked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TWO

 

 

Jek was trying to ignore a nagging sense of disquiet. Some inner part of him was anxious, even apprehensive, though he could determine no reason whatsoever for it.

The day had gone well, if tiring, leaving him calloused and pleasantly sore. But he had always believed in the value of hard work, and that belief had been rewarded.

He had begun with two inherited acres and expanded it to a modest twenty-two, overlooked by a proud farmhouse with extra wings of his own design. With two loving wives, three beautiful daughters, and sufficient hired help to soften the burdens of maintaining it all, Jek knew he was as blessed as any man had a right to be.

The last remnants of daylight were finally failing, but Jek had already harvested half an acre more than he’d planned. All he wanted now was a warm meal and some time with his family.

As he grabbed the wheelbarrow, movement on the horizon caught his eye, some great gray shadow like a low cloud. When he looked up, however, the sky was darkening purple and clear, marred only by high wispy clouds.

Shrugging, Jek caught the eyes of his two farmhands and gave them the signal to pack it in, then drove his wheelbarrow into the storehouse for the last time.

As soon as he began laying the seedheads out to dry, though, he was immediately called back outside.

“Jek!” called Vake, one of the farmhands. “Jek, get out here! You’ve got to see this!”

Seized by panic, Jek dropped everything in his hand and rushed back outside. He had no idea what to expect, but his biggest fear was wildfire; it would take weeks yet to finish the harvest. If he lost the crop now, his livelihood would vanish like smoke on the wind.

There was no fire though, just Vake and Pep standing idly together, looking awed by something away in the distance. Jek walked over to them and followed their gaze, past Amaranth fields of green seasoned with red

One of the Drim was approaching.

Jek had only seen two other Drim his whole life, and he would have wagered his whole harvest the farmhands had never seen any. The others had been made of water; this one appeared to be made of black and grey clouds, but it maintained the same rough humanoid shape. Its size was impossible to judge at this distance, but there was no denying it was immense, towering over Jek’s fields and three-story farmhouse like toys.

“You lucky bastard,” Pep breathed as Jek joined them, unable to suppress a smile.

“A good omen on the first day of the harvest,” Jek agreed. “The gods favor me this year.”

“They must,” Pep agreed absently.

“What do you suppose it’s doing here?” Vake asked.

“Maybe it came to bless my crop,” Jek suggested.

“Can they act on their own?” Vake asked with a frown. “I thought they were controlled by the priests.”

“The priests don’t control them,” Jek said. “They just communicate with them. Ask for favors.”

“Did a priest offer to bless your lands?” Vake asked.

“No,” Jek replied wonderingly.

The Drim advanced steadily in roughly their direction. Though still hundreds of yards away, it was now close enough that they could hear thunder emanating from it whenever lightning flashed within, illuminating its cloudy gray mass from inside-out in a bizarre display.

“That’s the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen,” Pep said reverently. They watched in silence for a moment as it came closer, wondering whether it would come right to them, and what that would mean if it did.

“Do you think it knows to stay away from the house?” Vake asked quietly.

“I have no idea,” Jek said, suddenly uneasy. The Drim was nearing the house; whether deliberately or not, it was impossible to say. But each step brought it a little closer.

Drim had never been known to harm anyone; Jek reminded himself there was no cause for alarm. But his fear began to grow as the behemoth approached the farmhouse. Even if it was incapable of intentional wrongdoing, it could still crush Jek’s home and wives and daughters with a single careless step.

“I’d better get the girls,” he decided aloud, and broke into a trot towards the farmhouse.

“I’ll help,” Vake said grimly, falling in beside him.

“Hey, wait!” Pep called from behind, but whether to stop them or to catch up with them, Jek never learned.

Time seemed to falter as the Drim reached the house, standing beside it for just a moment. Jek seized that moment, and turned his trot to run, calling at the top of his lungs for wives, his voice gripped with panic.

“Eldra! Josephine! Get out of the house, bring the girls! NOW!”

But by now he could hear another sound coming from the Drim, a dull roar like the high wind in a thunderstorm. There was no way they would hear Jek’s shouting over that, especially from inside the house.

Before Jek was within a hundred feet, the Drim pulled back a leg and let fly a vicious kick, aimed directly at the farmhouse. The three-story structure splintered like matchwood, debris flying in a hundred directions and flattening Jek’s crop where it landed.

Jek halted, turning cold inside. Vake stopped short beside him, but Jek hardly noticed.

“Why?” he screamed at the monstrosity, his voice cracking in the dull roar of artificial wind coming from the beast.

As if in answer, the Drim raised a cloudy hand and pointed a smoky finger at Jek and Vake. Blue lightning arced from the tip of that finger to Jek, and was the last thing he ever saw.

Vake fell simultaneously, enveloped in the same charge, and Pep turned to flee but a second bolt took him in the back, and he toppled forward, face down.

The fields began to burn.

Earliest results are promising…

hatrack-logoSo after critiquing four or five “first 13 lines” of other writers (and offering to read more of the work which intrigued me), I chose Woman’s Best Friend to post first. Not sure why.

Here’s how the first-13-lines reads:

Naomi woke to the sound of Jessie barking.

She could barely identify the golden retriever’s silhouette against the window. For a confused moment, Naomi thought that Mark must be coming home, but that couldn’t be right. Mark was in Chicago, and Naomi had the car anyway. Besides, Jessie would have greeted Mark at the front door, on the east side of the house. The bedroom window faced south.

Naomi squinted at the clock:

4:30 AM.

“Jessie, hush,” Naomi whispered, settling back down to sleep. Jessie barked on, ignoring her.

Finally Naomi stood and walked to the window, unable to sleep, but also curious what had spooked the normally passive dog.

I just posted it this evening, and so far only one person has commented. He replied:

Okay, I’m hooked. Email me your story, and I’ll be glad to look it over.

Well, dammit! I mean, Good! I mean…dammit!

As a writer sincerely desiring criticism, one of the most frustrating things one can be told is, “It’s good.”

…okay, I take that back. One of the most frustrating things one can be told is, “It’s bad.”

Both are bad news. Criticism tells me what to fix. Praise swells the ego.

So I guess both are good news. But it’s highly encouraging that my first “total stranger” comment was: “I’m hooked.”

I must be doing something right.

Now somebody tell an editor, quick.