Direvale Farm

My entry in the January r/fantasywriters challenge. I suggested the prompt this month: a funny story in which magic goes horribly wrong.

Edwin climbed into the unicorn-drawn carriage. When the tour guide had his back turned, he rubbed his slushy boots all over its upholstery and put dirty fingerprints on the window. He looked to Priscilla for approval, but she simply raised an eyebrow.

“Not many take the fall tour after snowfall,” said the guide, “but, if you ask me, it’s the best time of year for a romantic carriage ride. You’re just in time to see the roc’s molting.”

“Wouldn’t want to miss that,” said Priscilla.

Edwin sprawled on the carriage seat, taking up two cushions. When his arm brushed Priscilla’s fur coat, he recoiled against the window. With a schoolhouse posture, hands clasped in his lap, he eyed the tethered unicorns.

The guide took out a map slate and inked a route. “To avoid unnecessary reality destruction, please keep your hands within the spell bubble at all times.”

The carriage jerked into motion, and a road unfolded before their eyes, snow melting beneath the unicorns’ cloven hooves. Yet when Edwin turned back to see where they had gone, the snow was undisturbed behind them.

“What did you say this spell was called?” said Priscilla.

“I didn’t,” said the guide sheepishly. “I’m afraid I can’t say.”

Priscilla smiled. “Ah, Direvale’s fabled security. Say no more.”

“Like a prison,” muttered Edwin.

The carriage veered towards an enclosure, but before they could collide with the fence, its wood warped into a gate and swung open.

The guide whistled. A pack of collared direwolves shook themselves free from the snow and trailed warily after the carriage. One strayed too close and yelped as a spark of magic singed its nose.

“They dig in for the night.” The guide tossed smokey red pellets, which reeked of counterfeit bacon.

“Sounds cozy,” said Priscilla.

The wolves lined up like regimented soldiers, taking turns with the pellets.

“We’re the number one exporter of direwolves in the kingdom,” said the guide. “See the collars? It’s a new compliance spell. If you know the right words, they train up as good as pups, without all the hassle.”

Edwin sighed. “Such majestic creatures.”

“Who do you sell them to?” said Priscilla.

“Mainly fighting arenas. A few petty lords buy them to stock their haunted forests. Puts the fear of God into the peasantry, if you know what I mean. Keeps poachers out. Gives long-lost heirs something to test their magic swords on before they discover their true heritage.” The guide shot Edwin a nervous glance. “Are you all right, sir?”

“Fine, fine.” Edwin wiped a tear off his cheek. “I’m just so… inspired.”

The carriage warped its way into another pen, where dozens of sullen sheep pressed together for warmth. Their wool was spotted with colour like a tie-dye shirt.

“Rainbow sheep?” said Priscilla.

“A side project of ours.” The guide flipped up a display showing a cheerful cartoon sheep wearing a sweater. “Their wool is used exclusively to make rainbow toe socks.”

“The kind that feel weird between the toes?”

“The very same.”

They passed a pond that was fixed in summer, though a layer of ice formed on its surface as the carriage spell scraped against its enchantment. Little chimeras circled the water like crocodiles.

“They’re called platypus,” said the guide. “Their venom is a potent ingredient in all the best assassination spells.”

Edwin stood in his seat, pointing to a barn roof showing over the next hill. “What’s that?”

“That’s nothing.” The guide clucked his tongue and the unicorns trotted. “A shed where we keep some equipment.”

“If it’s nothing, then I suppose I’ll sit down.”

“Subtle,” mouthed Priscilla.

The guide cleared his throat. “If you’ll look to your right, you’ll see our wishing well. I think you’ll agree that an investment in Direvale Farm is an investment in the kingdom…”

#

“Do you have to wear that coat?”

“Not anymore,” said Priscilla cheerfully.

“It’s one thing to use it for cover, but…”

“To be honest, I just like the look on your face.”

“Whenever you say ‘to be honest,’ I know you’re about to say something horrible,” muttered Edwin.

“Part of my charm.”

Direvale Farm looked like a scene from a woodcut. The snow on its rolling hills was freshly-fallen, its cheerful workers wore crisp buttoned uniforms, and its farmhouse was a cozy family dwelling, only two-storeys, despite the scale of their operations. At night, its roads were lit by an imitation full moon that never set.

But, up close, Priscilla could make out the seams, the magical stitching, that held the scene together. As they neared the gate, she tugged on a strand of magic, working at it like she was unraveling a frayed cloth, until a rift opened in the illusion. Inside, the snow was spotted yellow, and the air reeked of wet fur. A sign read, ‘DON’T BE A PASSIVE PETE. REPORT ALL DUNG THEFT IMMEDIATELY.’

“Typical,” said Priscilla.

The gate appeared to be nothing more than a cattle grid bordered by a wooden fence, but it was charmed with one of the oldest spells in the book: laxative magic.

She sniffed. “After you.”

Edwin held his breath as he crossed the threshold, but the fake ID badge pinned to his vest held up to the spell’s scrutiny. Only then did Priscilla follow. Wherever she stepped, snow hissed and melted down to the dead grass beneath it. An enchanted bramble patch sprang out of the new ground, but Edwin tamed it by summoning a hedge-clipper. Soon enough, Direvale settled down into an ordinary farm, though its false moon gave everything a double-shadow.

Edwin fidgeted as they skulked between buildings. “It’s just that the coat is a bit against our mission statement, if you know what I mean.”

“You should see my living room rug.”

“Why did you even join the Society?”

“To be honest—”

“Never mind. I don’t think I want to know.”

Her eyes gleamed. “For the challenge.”

Edwin sighed.

A security guard emerged from the farmhouse, took a swig out of a bottle, and strolled towards them.

“Pris! He’ll see.”

“Have some faith.”

The guard hiccuped. “C’mere, kitties.”

Priscilla elbowed Edwin.

He held his ground. “Meow?”

The guard pursed his lips and made a beckoning noise, but when neither of them moved closer, he turned away. “Didn’t want to pet you anyway. Mangy cats.”

“And that,” said Priscilla, “is why I kept the fur coat.”

#

“Let’s see this so-called ‘equipment shed,’” said Edwin, with zeal.

He had stopped to summon a bucket of paint, sized up the barn’s wall, and splashed up the Society of Creature Kindness logo: a doe-eyed baby dragon perched on a crescent moon.

Priscilla grinned. “You know what your real logo should be?”

“Don’t say it.”

“A sock.”

“For the last time, it’s SCK.”

“As a proud member of SOCK, I think my vote counts just as much as yours.”

“Enough!”

Edwin threw open the barn door and gasped. He had expected a slaughterhouse and found… an art studio. A litter of direwolf puppies wearing doll-clothes romped around a playpen. A puppy draped in rainbow sheep’s wool had been left standing, statue-still, before an easel bearing an unfinished painting. The puppy’s control collar buzzed when she turned her head.

“Image magic?” muttered Priscilla.

Finished paintings were stacked against the wall. She turned one over, revealing a portrait of a direwolf pup posed like a peasant, dressed in rags, tending a field of cabbages. It was captioned: ‘but i don’t even likes cabbages.‘ Another painting read ‘do you has some dragons?‘ above a platypus wearing tinfoil armour.

“Oh god. So this is where memetic paintings come from.”

“Those bastards,” spat Edwin.

Priscilla stomped out of the barn. She threw off her coat, soaking it in a mixture of perfume and spices, and lit it on fire. As it burned, she bellowed:

Let all those held in bondage, part or whole,
Of the mind, of the body, or the soul,
Shrug off their chains, release their nature true.
Let no master’s spell ensnare, hold, or subdue!

The coat burned into a pile of pungent ash. Inside the barn, the playpen’s fence rumbled. Its latch sprung open and, as their control collars loosened, the puppies wriggled free. The gate was no match for the combined weight of a half-dozen determined puppies. They ran howling into the snow.

“I suppose we should escape,” said Priscilla. She looked over her shoulder. “Ed?”

And then out came Edwin, wearing nothing but his frilly vest and a pair of boxer shorts. “Today, I take a bold stand against the tyranny of pants!”

Priscilla shrugged. “K.”

“You’re not surprised?”

“You’re an activist. It was bound to happen eventually.”

#

“Must’ve been the spell’s wording. Should’ve been more precise.” Priscilla chewed her thumb. “Was it the ‘part or whole’ bit?”

Edwin sniffled. “It’s beautiful.”

A subterranean facility had burst open, belching smoke and fumes, and direwolves escaped by the hundreds, pausing to gnaw on the bones of the unfortunate rainbow sheep herd. Judging by the scars and bald patches on the wolves’ backs, and the hungry gleam in their eyes, Priscilla had a feeling that a certain local village was going to have an interesting night.

“Such spirit,” said Edwin. Tears streamed down his face.

“If you say ‘wow,’ I’m going to leave you here.”

At first, Priscilla had thought that her skulking spell was still working, until she recalled that she had burned the fur coat. She tried a concealment charm, but the words died on her lips. She cursed. Of course, it failed. Image magic worked by muddling the will of other creatures.

But the wolves parted around them, brushing so close that they left rank tufts of fur on Edwin’s buckled shoes. It was if they knew who had freed them.

“If you look to your left, you’ll witness my grisly demise,” said the tour guide.

Priscilla winced. Two dozen direwolves had descended on the guide, and had made short work of converting his legs into meat.

“Is it painful?” said Edwin dreamily.

“Extremely. But you can’t fault them,” he said, as a pair of wolves fought over his femur. “They’re just doing what wolves do.”

Edwin beamed. “Right?”

“A bit inspiring, actually. I was thinking I should march down to my boss’s office and tell him what a shit he is. But, well, you know.”

Priscilla dragged Edwin towards the gate. “We’re going to go now.”

“I respect that.”

“Shouldn’t have said ‘true nature,’” muttered Priscilla.

#

The next meeting of the Society was understandably a bit awkward, but Edwin thought they had done a good job of justifying themselves. At the very least, public opinion had turned sharply against factory-farmed direwolves, and society enrollment had doubled now that everyone was afraid of them. The rented meeting hall was so crowded that they’d had to borrow some chairs from the brothel across the street. They were a bit sticky, but a chair was a chair.

Priscilla stood before the assembly. “Mistakes were made. I won’t deny it. There are always a few kinks in a new spell.” She looked at the back of her hand. “But if you consider what we set out to do, I think you’ll agree that we succeeded.”

“I don’t understand.” The Society’s elderly mistress shook her head. “Surely, he’ll start wearing pants again soon?”

Edwin stood on his chair. “Never!”

“Probably not,” Priscilla admitted.

The mistress scowled over her spectacles. “And I suppose the spell changed you too?”

“Nah. I stumbled on a cure for social inhibitions long ago.”

“Confidence?”

“Anonymous forums.”

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Time for that Yearly Goal-setting Ritual

New year, new writing goals.

Finish the sequel to The Hummingbird Familiar.
-Write, edit, and release before the end of the year.
-I’ve made some great progress on the first draft in the past couple months. I’m more than halfway done, and have about 40,000 words so far. This looks like it’s going to be longer than the first book, since I have two point of view characters.

Write at least one short story a month.
-I’ve been loving writing short stories for r/fantasywriter’s monthly challenges. In November, I wrote something I liked so much that I ended up submitting it to a magazine instead of using it for the challenge. The second story I wrote that month turned into Loose Threads, which I posted a few entries back. That story won the challenge in November.

Update this blog weekly.
-Creative time can and should be scheduled. I’m capable of meeting deadlines, so I have no excuse for letting the blog slide. I think it’ll help if I write more about fantasy.

Read 52 books before the end of the year.
-This sounds like a big one, but it’s really only a book per week. That’s easy enough, if I read daily. Reading is a good habit, and it’ll give me material to write about in the blog too.

Finish Text-based Adventure Game

-I’ve been working on a game using Quest. It’s a simple enough program, though it does make good use of the Javascript I’ve been learning through Codecademy. (Even if you don’t need to know how to code, it’s really useful to understand the underlying logic of the game.)

Screenshot from Adventure Game

An early area from the game.

I’ve always loved interactive fiction. Adventure games are like choose-your-own adventure stories with puzzle-solving and exploration thrown in. Good ones evoke a sense of place, and allow players to make meaningful choices. Working with multiple endings is liberating, since it allows me to explore mutually-exclusive outcomes. If my character is tempted to do wrong, what happens if she gives in? What happens if she doesn’t? I love following both paths to their conclusions, though it can be tough keep all the conditional statements straight.

I’m a newbie at this kind of writing, but I’m really enjoying creating settings, objects, and events. The game I’m working on is set in the same world as The Hummingbird Familiar, and lets you play as a witch who has been pushed out of her hometown.

When the game is done, I’ll make it available here for free.

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The Time Capsule

Short story for the r/fantasywriters December challenge: limit of 300 words.

Everyone was drunk. Villagers lit candles, traded hats, and beat spoons against wooden bowls. They gathered around the giant spruce that towered over their houses, taking shelter from the rain under its canopy. Its needles had gone a rosy purple, and knife-blade feathers were caught in its bark.

A priestess in fox fur robes reached into the spruce’s hollow and pried out a pearly black egg the size of a man’s head. Her lord stood beside her. Between sips of beer, he waved a ceremonial sword.

“Behold,” said the priestess. “Our goddess spreads her wings over us.”

In the year of the sparrow, the egg had contained a broken stalk of wheat, and their lord had stored provisions in time for the dry summer that followed. In the year of the gull, they found blood-soaked velvet ribbons, and the king’s tax collectors turned up a fortnight later with a list of names. In the year of the crane, the egg had been filled with fireflies. No one knew what they meant.

The lord tottered as the priestess bowed low, offering the egg to him to open. His fingers slipped over its smooth shell, so he smashed it against the lip of his tanker.

The egg was empty.

The lord turned his sword on the priestess. “What have you done?”

Villagers hooted. A crone threw her spoon at the lord, and a dozen others copied her. A drunkard overturned a table, spilling beer and lamp-oil against the giant spruce. The priestess gave the tree a knowing glance, and then threw a candle against it.

Flames whooshed up the spruce’s trunk, leaping from the oil-soaked bark to its needles. They curled like fingers, crackled, and released a shower of violet sparks.

The villagers stood, red-faced and silent, as their future burned.

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Loose Threads

This story won the November r/fantasywriters challenge.

Zeke locked his truck. “You’re not going to bring the metal detector?”

“If I need it.” Casey trudged across the road, resting her shovel on her shoulder. She stopped in front of the one vacant lot that happened to belong to Zeke. “You lived here?”

“How can you tell?”

“The lilacs. Ghost gardens keep coming up, long after everyone’s gone.”

The lot where Zeke’s childhood house had stood was now a weed-choked field, with only his mother’s lilac bushes to mark the spot where his bedroom window had been. But as they walked through the waist-high grass, Zeke noticed other remnants of the house: cracked slabs of pavement split by thorn bushes, uneven ground that sank into a foundation pit filled with muddy water, and rusty pipes that zigzagged out of the ground like metal roots. All details that he’d missed from the road, when he had first bought the property.

Casey’s brow furrowed. “No house.”

“Nah. We packed it in the truck.”

That move was still among his more vivid memories. It had been a miserable, piss-pouring day, just like this one. Workers slid in mud as they ratcheted the house onto an enormous trailer. And then they had dragged it halfway across the province, diverting opposing traffic on the two-lane highway. Even as a cynical high school kid, Zeke hadn’t been too jaded to think it was cool to move and take your whole house with you.

“That’s a joke?”

“Sorta.” Zeke felt like he needed a cigarette.

“It wasn’t torn down, though,” Casey said, matter-of-factly.

“More treasure-hunter wisdom?”

Casey shrugged. “If there’d been a house, I would see it.”

“Ah. You’re like an archaeologist.” Zeke pronounced the word with all its romantic action movie connotations, though he guessed the reality was more like cleaning a bathtub with a toothbrush. “You’ve got that professional intuition.”

“You think I have an eye for details that others miss?”

“Right. History written onto rocks and stuff.”

“No,” she said, pulling up the hood of her windbreaker. “It’s not like that at all. Archaeologists can have the past. I don’t want it.”

As Casey moved through the yard, her gaze was unfocused, and she tripped over the raised concrete that divided the former garden from the lawn. Her expression was slack, without emotion, though occasionally her lips pressed together in concentration. Her hands twitched through gestures like a dog kicking in its sleep. She was doing that thing that Zeke had once hated, where she stumbled around like a glassy-eyed stoner.

She bent over, prodding the soil with her shovel, and unearthed the handle of a bicycle.

“Lucky find.”

Casey shook her head.

“Right. You just had a feeling about this spot,” Zeke teased. “Is this when you tell me about my rough childhood?”

“I’m not into cold reading.”

He didn’t bother pointing out that she should know too much about his past for it to be a cold reading. If he did, she would only pretend to remember, and her acting fooled no one except herself.

Casey dropped her shovel and yanked on the bike’s handle, as if she hoped to pull it out of two feet of mover-packed earth with the strength of her arms alone.

“Hey, forget the bike. We’re—”

The bike came free, and earth sagged into the space where it had been. It was every inch the ten-speed that he had ridden until its gears came apart, except that this bike was new. Its metallic blue paint job still sparkled, even under a grey sky.

“You don’t want it?” Casey let the bike tip into the weeds and walked away.

“But it’s…” Zeke shook his head. It couldn’t be the same one. It had to be some other bike that just happened to have the same frame, paint job, and holo-foil Pokemon stickers on the seat. But staring at it brought up a wave of nostalgia, and he knew in his gut that the bike was his. His heart stuttered, and he gave it a few good smacks.

Casey roamed around the lot like a sleepwalker. “I told you this wouldn’t be what you expected.”

#

“Is it time-travel?” Zeke leaned against his truck. He had called an early break, and opened the thermos of hot chocolate he had intended to save for later, when they would be cold and wet.

“I don’t think so,” said Casey.

“Can you see ghosts?”

“Of toys?”

“I meant the people kind.”

“If there are any, I haven’t seen them.”

“Maybe you just didn’t notice.”

“That’s possible.”

Casey was the type of person who would walk right by her best friend in the supermarket because the store, conceptually, wasn’t one of the places where her friends were supposed to be. She’d told him once that she still remembered him as ‘Math Classmate, Two Seats Right’ a year after they had started dating.

Even when he’d chanced on her garage sale two weeks ago, when he first got back into town, she’d gotten that deer-caught-in-headlights expression as soon as he greeted her by name.

The first words out of her mouth were, “Oh hey. I haven’t seen you siiince?”

It was her standard probing question for smalltalk with acquaintances she didn’t recognize. Zeke tried not to hold it against her. It was just how she was wired.

“I’ll save you the trouble,” Zeke had said. “High school boyfriend. Eleventh grade.”

And then she had smiled, not the forced smile of ‘appropriate social interactions,’ as she had once put it, but the one she saved for people who seemed to get her. “You could have said ‘Zeke.’”

“Glad I don’t have to try to remember where I sat in ninth grade math.”

And when Casey was distracted by someone interested in buying a lamp, one of her neighbours had leaned over the fence, taking a break from watering the garden to dole out life advice to a stranger. “You don’t want to get involved with that girl.”

“Why not?”

“She has a garage sale every week.” She covered her mouth and whispered, “Credit card debt.”

“I don’t buy on credit,” Casey had called from across her yard. Her tone was factual, without offence. “I find stuff.”

The eight other people who had been browsing the garage sale looked in Zeke’s direction. The neighbour retreated into her house, where a yappy poodle watched through a gap in her closed blinds. The conflict left his palms sweaty. He felt a flutter in his chest, and he coughed until it passed. Even if Casey never noticed these things, he felt embarrassed for her.

Zeke took in the whole yard in a sweeping glance. It looked less like the site of a weekly garage sale and more like a dump that had recently received the contents of an entire house. She had everything from appliances to children’s toys. “You found all this?”

Casey muttered an acknowledgement, finished counting out change to a man with an armful of books, and rejoined Zeke beside the fence. “I treasure-hunt.”

“That’s perfect,” Zeke had said. His scalp tingled when she came close; it was the same relaxing sensation he got when someone massaged his temples. “Hey, I just bought my parents’ old place. I was thinking of giving it a pass with a metal detector before I started tearing up the lot. Maybe see if there’s any old family treasure. If you aren’t busy, you should come by and lend me your expertise?”

“I don’t think you understand what I do.”

But it was easy enough to convince her. After all, she couldn’t recognize a lie.

#

“It’s hard to explain,” Casey said. “They’re like leftover bits, outlines that linger when something falls apart. Ties that bind lost things to the places where they belong.”

They were back on the lot, up to their ankles in soupy mud. With hot chocolate warming him from within and the shiny bike out of view, Zeke was already doubting what he had seen.

“Like magic?”

“You don’t believe me.”

“Well…”

“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t, either.”

Zeke rubbed his beard. “Show me?”

“That’s the best way of knowing.” Casey flashed him another one of those smiles that lit up her face. Even with a few grey hairs and crow’s feet, she looked so much like the girl he remembered.

She dug until she struck something hard, and then scraped soil with the shovel’s blade. A finger-sized bone emerged from the dirt.

“That’s not what I had in mind,” Zeke blurted.

But she had already bent over to tug on her find. A cat came out with all its joints, skin, and fur; everything a pet needed except life itself. It sat on the grass, whole, wide-eyed, and stiff.

“Minou?” Zeke choked.

Casey beamed. “It’s like when it was alive.”

“That’s…” Zeke couldn’t stop staring. Minou’s rigid body looked like it had been stuffed. “That’s something.”

“I’ll show you something better.”

“No, thanks, that’s more than enough,” said Zeke, but she was already in motion, carving out chunks of the house’s former foundations, her shovel slicing through concrete at if it were cake. When he stood in front of her, she seemed to look past him. “Casey?”

He put his hand on her shoulder, and was hit by a wave of vertigo.

The ground had gone flat. It was blurry, near-featureless, like the textures of old video game terrain, and he could see through the surfaces of the world to forms beyond them. The soil teemed with unfinished things: segments of worms, dented cans, the sole of a boot. Severed roots sprouted into twisting trunks of lines, like drawing plans of trees, but every one the same. They were not individual trees, but trees in the abstract sense. Concepts given shape.

Below the spot where Casey had been digging, a toy robot was buried in two separate pieces, connected by waving lines that straightened as he squinted. Her shovel uncovered it, and when she reached to retrieve the robot, she tugged it by the lines that tethered the pieces to each other. In her hands, the toy knitted back together, became whole, and faded from view. Soon, it was as insubstantial as the earth under their feet.

It was then that Casey covered her mouth with her hand. “You followed me.”

Zeke opened his mouth to speak, but his voice came out in a croak. His hand still clenched the fabric of her shirt, and it twisted as she turned.

“I didn’t think anyone could. I thought I was the only one.” Tears welled in her eyes, but he could hardly see them. His vision slipped through her cheek to the outlines of her missing wisdom teeth, more solid than any other thing about her.

Choking back nausea, Zeke looked away. Across the lot, a diagram of his parents’ old shed materialized out of a few weathered boards. From the rusty pipes that had been connected to his house, threads stretched into the distance, pulled taut like rubber bands.

“Zeke. Are you okay?” Casey reached out to take his hand.

“Don’t touch me!” He threw up, and watched his vomit divide itself into distinct food shapes.

“Just don’t let go. Don’t let go. Please.”

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

He broke free, and then the world was right again. Zeke was on his knees, gasping, studying the texture of his own skin. The heel of his palm had slipped into his vomit, and mud had crusted onto his pants. The sky was cloudless, and much darker than it should have been.

Zeke searched the whole lot, tamping the grass flat, but Casey was gone. Even Minou was missing, though the earth was freshly turned where she had dug him up. Zeke couldn’t bring himself to check if there was a skeleton in his cat’s grave.

He stumbled to the truck and sat with his head resting against the steering wheel for a long time, until his pulse slowed and he could think clearly again. He’d lost touch with reality. When he got back to his hotel, he’d google the symptoms to see if he needed to see a doctor. But as he reversed, he heard a metallic crunch. And there it was, wedged under his back bumper: a blue bike with Pokemon stickers on its seat.

#

The lights were on at Casey’s house. From its front step, he could hear canned laughter and music from a TV inside. Blue light flickered on the blinds. He took a deep breath, and then pounded on the door until Casey opened it a crack, keeping the security chain latched.

“Can I help you?”

He pushed on the door, but the chain held. “What the hell happened back there?”

“You’ll have to be more specific.”

“Don’t pull that crap. You don’t have the memory of a goldfish. It’s me.”

“Who?”

“Zeke.”

Casey peered through the crack. Her eyes were red-rimmed, bloodshot, and her face was puffy like it always was when she cried. “No, you aren’t.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He was different. I have no idea who you are.”

Zeke lunged, touching the tip of her nose with his fingertip before she could pull it back. But the world didn’t change as it had before.

She muttered something under her breath, and then clasped his finger in her hand. And he caught a glimpse through the door, as it faded into lines. Her house was a hoarder’s den, piled high with broken things, their lines as tangled as loose yarn.

Zeke felt a flutter in his chest and glanced down, looking through his own ribcage to the heart that stuttered within, unravelling with each beat. He doubled over against the railing.

Casey sighed. “I should have known.” In a blink, she was standing on the front step beside him, with his pinky finger still caught in her vice-grip. She tugged at the loose strings that dangled from his chest, squeezing his ribcage like a shoe laced too tight.

“Stop,” he mouthed.

“Keep still.”

He wriggled his hand free, and pushed her against the door.

And then it was dawn, and he woke on his hands and knees before a silent house. He knocked until his fists were raw, though he knew somehow that she wouldn’t come. Casey’s nosey neighbour came out to investigate, dressed in a robe and slippers. She shot him a look that said ‘I told you so,’ before disappearing back inside, and Zeke figured it’d be a good idea to leave before the police showed up.

On the hood of his truck, a toy robot had been positioned so that it was giving a salute. Unlike the toy of his memory, there was no battle damage gouged into its armour, and its grey arms were free of the yellow tint that his parents’ smoking had left on so many of this things. It stood, whole and clean, as if it had just been torn out of its plastic wrapper.

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Rethinking This Blog

I know I haven’t updated for a few weeks. It’s not lack of motivation that has been the problem, nor lack of topics. (I have a file where I brainstorm entry ideas, and I treat the brainstorming itself as a task on my to-do list.) I think I might have been approaching the topic of writing in the wrong way. I’ve absorbed the conventions of ‘how to’ blogs, since those are the sorts that I generally follow myself. But the truth is, I’m not in a position of authority. There are better sources of information out there about the mechanics of writing itself.

This blog is a process of discovery for me. I want to learn and grow as a writer, but I don’t think I’m in a position to frame anything as advice. So, I think I’m going to shift focus to exploration, and include things like writing exercises, excerpts from my works in progress, genre-specific discussion (fantasy), and musings on what I’m reading. Less ‘how to’ and more commentary/analysis on examples.

Expect to see a lot more of my actual writing, particularly short stories.

General update: I’ve been attempting National Novel Writing Month again this year, so I’ve been making nice progress into the sequel to The Hummingbird Familiar. I’m about 8000 words behind where I should be at this point in the month, but I think I can pull this off. I’ve also written a few short stories, including one I wrote for a forum contest. I intend to post that one here in the next couple days.

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At the Coquitlam facility, they let the clones stay up until 9.

A short story based on this contest/writing prompt. A bit silly, but a lot of fun.

“I know, I know, it sounds like a good deal on paper. Job security for life? Three square meals? Room and board? Plus, you’ve got your boss, your parent, and your creator god rolled up into one. Think of the time we save on existential dread alone.” Dust giggled, but she kept her gaze on the radar screen. “Hey, you listening?”

The reporter edged towards the radio. “Just taking notes.”

Across the room, Dust and Stain exchanged grins that were identical, right down to the creases under their eyes. Stain shooed the reporter away from the battleship’s consoles with a few jabs of her rifle butt.

“Let’s see.” Dust snatched the notebook from his hands.

“They’re only jottings. Unfinished thoughts. I hope you won’t–”

“Names: Dust, Speck, Stain. Political message in choice of names? Clones as refuse?” Dust howled in laughter. “You think you’re some kinda shrink?”

“I’m just trying to understand.”

“You’re not meant to understand,” said Stain. “You’re here to record.”

Dust returned the notebook. “Now, where was I? Right. The realization. I think the problem was, they let us watch TV. It was supposed to contribute to our, you know, socialization. Cheaper than hiring thousands of nannies, I guess.”

“And on television, you saw a world that was out of your reach?”

“I was getting to that. Actually, we watched a million shows about destiny. You know, the typical stuff. The pair of lovers who were cloned in the same facility, designed to be the perfect couple, separated by the slip of an evil bureaucrat’s pen. But, wouldn’t you know it, they find each other anyway.”

Stain made a gagging motion.

“But every show had a bad guy, the guy who thinks he can outsmart his programming, the one who doesn’t do what he’s told, so he goes through that door marked ‘Originals Only’ and starts up a whole lot of trouble. And you know what? Maybe they were wrong, but the bad guys just seemed to be having a hell of a lot more fun. And I got to thinking, what would a defect like S5-044 do if he had to scrub rust off a submarine, weld without goggles, and go to bed at 6PM? There’d be special effects, for sure.”

“To clarify, you’re going to ram a nuclear-powered battleship into downtown Vancouver because you think it would look cool on TV?”

“Forget the ship,” said Stain. “We’re stealing these bodies of ours right now, just by being here.”

“You read our contract yet? Check out the fine print.”

Lights flashed on the console, and a proximity alarm rang.

“Hey, I think that’s your ride,” said Dust. She inclined her head, and Stain shoved him towards the door.

“You won’t get near that city. You know that, right?”

Dust giggled again. “Haven’t you been listening?”

“Just play your part,” said Stain. “Everyone knows how this ends.”

Word Count: 481
Writing Prompts: (I was supposed to use at least three of these.)
Subgenre: Tragicomedy
Include this Sensory Input: Melodiousness
Include This Character: Journalist
Include this Element: Cloning
Conflict/Problem: Noone’s Taking Me Alive
Setting to Include: A battleship.
Theme Family to Include: Free Will
Blended Genre: Psychological Horror and Workplace Tell-All

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First Chapter of a Sequel to The Hummingbird Familiar

(Some ending spoilers for The Hummingbird Familiar here.)

By the time Lane noticed the spirit, it had already yanked him underwater. He had been up to his waist in a burbling creek, climbing a beaver dam for a better view of the pond beyond it. Now he felt the spirit as a pressure on his chest that kept him from kicking to the surface.

“Din,” he mouthed, though water rushed in. Its tang was bitter, like unspent magic.

Deep in Lane’s pocket, the shrew familiar cowered.

His breath escaped in bubbles. “Please.”

Din, her nose twitching, emerged from Lane’s sleeve, responding to his distress with a burst of sound too incoherent for his mind to process. As she crawled to his face, her ghostly body moved without displacing water. But what could she do? After all, she was only a shrew.

Thrashing, Lane reached for the surface. It was so close that his struggles brought his hands into the open air, but the spirit pressed him down until his back was against the rocky bottom. As Lane’s body craved and craved, lungs burning, his mind fled into the hallways of his childhood, lingering beside the box window where his sister did her best thinking. In his memory, she was a silhouette in his tunnelling vision, her hair floating as if caught in a current. Lane didn’t want to die so far from home.

A heavy beat boomed within the creek. Its waters churned as Din crooned and warbled in a myriad borrowed voices. All at once, the spirit released him, and Lane crawled onto the creek’s bank, coughing and sputtering. He breathed in gasps, digging his nails into the loamy forest floor.

With trepidation, he turned back. The spirit had taken the form of a silvery loon, bobbing on the creek as if it were no different than the common animal. It cocked its head, regarding him with curiosity. Lane met its gaze.

“Thank you, Din,” he whispered, stroking his familiar behind the ears.

The silvery loon floated closer, and Din dove down the neck of Lane’s tunic.

“I have no idea what your duty might be.” He held his hands flat in a gesture of supplication. “But I promise I won’t be here long.”

The loon took flight, gliding without flapping its wings, and landed in a clearing coloured by dandelions. It waddled over to a standing stone. Lane held his breath. A grave marker.

“Forgive me.”

Lane approached with tentative steps, mindful of the spirit’s power. The mossy stone lacked an inscription, and there were no grave-offerings. Who was this person whose resting place lacked even the shell beads customarily given to those who died alone and friendless? He bent low over the grave, leaving a chunk of obsidian. He had been saving it as a bribe for his return journey, but the gift felt right. The loon spirit prodded the offering, and then vanished in a puff of silver sparks.

“You can come out, Din.”

Peeking her head out of Lane’s sleeve, Din answered with a series of clicks that summoned an image in his mind, a landscape portrait painted by shimmering sounds. Through Din’s sight, Lane perceived the echo of open spaces, the ripple of the creek, the hoot of waterfowl in the nearby pond, and the relative positions of things unseen by his human eyes. A ghost stirred in the grave beneath him, as if turning over in its sleep. At the image’s centre, as always, was a pulsing light that represented Lane’s own beating heart.

“You could have warned me.” But how could he be angry? After all, he owed her his life.

Din flashed Lane a quick mental image of a loon.

“I doubt it was a coincidence,” Lane muttered.

After all, loons were the reason he was here. It had seemed odd, at the time, that his client had fixated on capturing the call of a loon in this particular pond. Her name was Phyllis, and she was a cousin of the local shaman, the sort of person Lane never felt comfortable refusing. But had she set him up to drown?

Din chirped another image of his heart.

“Just excitement, Dear.” Lane suppressed a shudder. “Let’s get this over with.”

From the vantage point of the beaver dam, the pond was wide and shallow. Water overflowed its banks, drowning a maple grove thick with devil’s club. To his great relief, there was indeed a flesh and blood loon, flanked by two black chicks. Lane had heard long ago that real animals were attracted to spirits with their likeness. Perhaps it was true.

“Are you ready, Din?”

Next came the waiting. Lane sat cross-legged, holding Din in one hand and a glass fishing float in the other. It didn’t matter what object captured the sound, but he liked the floats he gathered by beachcombing. There was something right about using a fragile object as a vessel for the ephemeral. Besides, clients could break them to keep messages from falling into the wrong hands.

The loon let out a long wail and then another. Lane kept still as tendrils of magic crackled through the air between Din’s silver body and the cloudy glass ball. In the pond, the loon hooted to its chicks and then ushered them farther up the creek. No matter. Lane had what he needed.

“Don’t bother with the hooting,” said Lane, as Din licked his palm.

Putting the float to his ear, Lane listened for stray noises. The call of the loon was crisp and clear.

###

“I have what you wanted.” Lane’s tone was guarded.

“Wonderful!” said Phyllis, beaming. If she was surprised to see him on her doorstep, it didn’t show on her face. “Come in, come in.”

The three-storey house towered over its neighbours. It belonged to her cousin, who called himself Grayson; like most people who had a familiar, he kept his true name to an intimate few. The man was hopelessly corrupt, and his house reflected that fact. It was built in the centre of town, rather than on its outskirts. Its many rooms sheltered members of a large extended family. And, rather than accumulating the magical odds and ends of a proper shaman, Grayson kept a private art collection that filled every nook with curios, from ancient pottery to illuminated books. The likeness of his fox familiar was everywhere: draped over his furniture in russet fabric, painted on the walls, worked into silver statues. Lane suspected the man commissioned fox-themed works from every artist he encountered. In such company, a little glass float imprinted with the call of a loon would disappear.

When Lane held out the float, Phyllis snatched it from his fingers and examined it through the light of the window. Its opacity seemed to frustrate her, so Lane tapped his ear to guide her. Once she had listened to the loon’s call, Phyllis broke into childlike laughter.

“This is better than I had hoped. Why aren’t there more out there like you?”

Lane shrugged. Few apprentices wanted a shrew for a familiar.

Phyllis listened to the float a second time. “Wonderful! Loons are very special birds.”

“Not all of them,” Lane tested.

“I have no idea what you mean.”

“I wasn’t alone.”

“Oh! So it’s true, is it? That pond is famous around here.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

“If I told you about it, you wouldn’t have gone.”

“I suppose not,” said Lane.

“I had complete faith in you,” Phyllis insisted. “You didn’t seem the type to be done in by a ghost.”

“A task-spirit, not a ghost.” But there had been a ghost sleeping deep in that grave. Given Phyllis’s enthusiasm for the subject, he thought it best to keep that detail to himself.

“One of those freed familiars?” Phyllis hugged the float. “Then the story is true.”

“The story?” Lane said flatly.

“A local legend. Everyone knows it. A tale of a shaman whose beloved drowned, so she left her familiar to watch ever over him. It has been guarding his body for a hundred years.”

“How romantic.”

“You’ve captured the call of that lonely spirit?”

“What else?”

“Wonderful.” Phyllis sighed. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten about your payment.”

Phyllis rewarded him with a basket of fresh eggs, her best smile, and an unwanted invitation.

“You must come to my party,” she purred. “I have the Shadow-killer attending, in the flesh. You simply have to meet her.”

“I’m not big on parties,” said Lane, though it wasn’t quite true. Even if they were great places to meet potential clients, there was only so much Phyllis he could stomach in a single day. “I’m just a servant. It’s out of my depth.”

“No, no, don’t be modest. You’re far from an ordinary servant, talented as you are.” Phyllis threw back her head and laughed, as if she had said something clever. “And, of course, Grayson will be there too.”

Lane cringed. His lips pulled into a delighted smile. Of course, that settled it. Grayson had said something about making the exchange in plain sight. And it was Grayson, not Phyllis, who was a friend of Lane’s true employer.

###

Lane hovered in the orbit of the party, and managed to avoid mingling with guests through the practiced posture of a servant. He had expected to have to submit to Phyllis’s fussing over the loon call, but by the time he arrived she seemed to have forgotten he existed.

Whispering to Din, Lane described details he knew her senses would miss: the scent of baked pheasant, the mosaics on the wall, the honey in the tea he was sipping. Once Lane had finished speaking, Din responded with a soundscape constructed from party chatter, the clink of dishes, and the noises of passing traffic outside. Given the scattered focus of the image, Lane could tell her attention was wandering.

“I’m sorry, Dear,” said Lane. “I’ll try to keep it short.”

Through Din, Lane heard Grayson’s tread behind him.

“Quit being so gloomy, my friend. You look like you’re talking to yourself.”

Grayson embraced Lane so casually that he hardly noticed when the package slipped from his grip. Despite his misgivings about doing the exchange in public, Lane had to admit that none of the party-goers seemed to care. Grayson, of course, was wearing the black and red robe of a shaman, though he had made some alterations to the cut to accent his silver jewelry.

“I hate these events,” Grayson said, “but she is my favourite cousin. Thank you for humouring her.”

“It was nothing. She spoke very highly of you.”

“Have you seen the guest of honour?”

“The Shadow-killer? Not yet.”

“Maya is the name. And she’s already here. See?”

Lane wasn’t sure what he had expected, but the plump, mousey girl who sat at the head of the table seemed unworthy of the title. Her red apprentice robe was travel-stained, and her smile was forced. When one of the party-goers approached her to strike up a conversation, she shrank back from the attention and let the old man at her side do most of the talking. How could this girl have possibly slain a force of nature like Shadow? But when Maya noticed his gaze, it was Lane who looked away.

Phyllis raised her glass. “To Maya. Honour, fortune, and long life.”

“To appearances and empty rituals,” Lane muttered through a professional smile, as glasses clinked and guests exchanged well-wishes.

Grayson clapped a hand on Lane’s shoulder. “Yes, a toast to Maya, the heroic fool who ruined a perfectly good protection racket.”

Startled, Lane said, “That package is for her?”

“Don’t be absurd. She’s a child.”

Older than I am, Lane thought, but he held his tongue. In truth, he was relieved. It was much easier to pretend not to understand what was going on if he didn’t know the details.

“It’s a good angle, that Shadow-killer celebrity business. No doubt the teacher put her up to it.” Hefting the package, Grayson said, “I’ve heard that your familiar has other talents.”

Lane shook his head. “You heard wrong.”

“Oh?” Grayson dangled a silver bracelet from his pocket.

“Her bite does sting a little.”

“Say no more.”

Grayson lead Lane away from the party onto a balcony overlooking a weedy garden that had once been the well-tended shrine of a guardian spirit. Lane had learned from his employer that the spirit’s image had been stolen some years ago; with Shadow gone, Grayson had asserted there was no need to replace the guardian by sacrificing his own familiar. The sight of thistles and clovers choking out the marigolds made Lane wistful for the time in his life when he had believed guardian spirits were immortal.

Grayson held a ribbon for Lane’s inspection. “Will this do?”

“It doesn’t matter what it is.”

Lane took the ribbon, holding his palm flat so that Din could reach. The shrew familiar travelled down Lane’s arm, oriented herself by clicks that only her partner could hear, and sunk her teeth into the ribbon. When she had finished, it was tinted with a characteristic silver haze.

“Be careful. It doesn’t care who touches it.”

“I know.” The man snapped on a pair of gloves. “If it works out, I might call on you again.”

I hope not, Lane thought, but instead he said, “Looking forward to it.”

As he retrieved the ribbon, Grayson passed Lane the bracelet, as well as a favour token marked with the image of a fox. “Give this to our mutual friend. And help yourself to some food. You look like you could use it.”

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