Wednesday, January 18, 2012

New Ish for the New Year

So I actually polished this off like a week ago...and then promptly forgot about it. Rather, I kept thinking about what to do with it, whether there was more of this to dig up, whether it was decent enough to bother, etc. I've answered none of those questions, but in the sake of actually saying I've gotten something done, here it is.

Download link:
http://www.filedropper.com/cyberish
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“Got no wings, now do ya, sug?”
His voice drifts into her head as she stares into the mirror of the Regal Hotel's penthouse bathroom. It's his favorite thing to say, and it always pops up when she starts getting nervous. He was right, she thinks, she doesn't have wings. She's got her flashy evening dress and the matching heels, both newer-than-new. Tek says they're not even out yet, says their from that French designer who's got the name that's all consonants just so no one can pronounce it. She's got her doubts, but the opalescent fabric looks kinda like a halo, and maybe real angels were more about the halo than the wings, anyways.

She turns to the door, the hand she places on the brass handle vibrating with the deep bass pulse of the party still raging on the other side, but she pulls it back, opting to put a fresh coat of lipstick on before she leaves. The color, according to the stick, is “Cherry Blossom Breeze.” She doubts that too, but all she's ever seen are the hologram cherry blossoms that blow around on the Daitetsu building all day, and they look about the same for all she knows. She also knows she's just stalling, but even she has no idea why.

Stepping back out into the party, she remembers how drunk she's supposed to be and stumbles, forcing giggles out of herself as she wades through the nameless faces. They're all the same, these ultra-high class events—people drunk on booze more expensive than her apartment and tweaked on all the latest and greatest chems. They dance and talk, forming these tiny cliques like little cells within the living being that is the party. A terrifying, ravenous being, feeding on youth and lust in plain sight all over the city. She used to think the lifeblood, the very nourishment these creatures lived on, was the drugs, the booze, the girls, or something she was just too broke to understand, but it was nothing so fancy. It was money, pure and simple. And nobody understands money quite like the people who don't have it.

She sees her man hanging out of the bedroom door, beckoning for her and holding onto the wall for balance. He's so greased at this point, he probably doesn't even realize he's standing in full view of his own party bare-ass naked, and at half-mast, no less. She laughs, coyly and playfully for his benefit, and dismally because she knows she's the only one sober enough to even notice.

She passes by one of his goons, a guy built like someone carved him out of granite. Hard to tell in the dim, pulsing light of the party, but she figures he's at least half mech, arms and legs at least. Eyes too, no way he could see shit in here wearing those tacky designer shades otherwise. She runs the count of all the others as she pretends to struggle to find her way to the bedroom. Two outside the front door, those Russian micro SMGs in their coats, the kind that fire the high-velocity rounds designed to chew through even military-grade cybernetics. She'd seen pictures of what happens when they unload on flesh and blood—that was as personal as she'd like that relationship to ever get. She just slipped by Mountain Man, and she's neither seen evidence he has a weapon, nor evidence he needs one. There's the guy trying to dance with some of the other guests, but he lacks the practice or the blood alcohol level to blend in half as well as he thinks he is. No doubt he's strapped too, something smaller and quieter. Probably the guy with non-lethal, probably shock gloves the way he keeps his hands in his pockets. And last but not least, the guy in the bedroom closet. She hasn't seen him, but he's always there. Poor bastard.

When she gets to him, he lurches forward, his balance little more than a fond memory at this point, and she just barely manages to catch him. Summoning up all of her strength to haul him to the giant bed, she pulls his arm over her shoulder and kicks the door closed behind her while he mumbles incomprehensible nothings in her ear. For the first time tonight, she finds herself thankful for the deafening music that drowned out whatever stomach wrenching game he was trying to lay down. After an eternity of struggle, they reach the bed, and she lets go, simply letting gravity and intoxication do the rest of the work. Like clockwork, he tumbles backwards into the bed, and, like they always do, he grabs her and pulls her with him. Movies have taught every guy to do the same things, endearing while sober, miserable and embarrassing drunk. She falls on top of him, giggling because oh my god, she can't believe that, like, totally just happened, and he leans in for the kiss. His tongue slides against hers, dry, sticky, and tasting distinctly of death.

She doesn't even flinch. Not then, not when he clumsily slides one of his dirty hands up her thigh, not when he tries to playfully bite her neck and really just bites her, not even once. This is the game, it's just how it has to be played, and there's no one better at it than her. She puts her hand on his chest and pushes his back to the mattress, biting her lower lip and giving him the big bashful eyes—guys eat that shit up. “You know, I don't know if I can really, like, get wild with you if your friend in the closet watching like that...I'm not that kinda girl...” she says in the voice Tek nicknamed “Daddy's Little Hooker,” running her fingernails slowly, gently down his chest.

Of course, he doesn't even think twice about dismissing his last line of defense in favor of cheap party sex he wouldn't even remember in the morning. “Goddamnit! Snyder, get the fuck outta here!” he barks, and poor Snyder slides the door opens, gives a quick nod, and leaves. She shudders to think of how often that unlucky guy has to watch his boss—no, not even his boss but some rich, spoiled bastard that pays his boss—get busy with some random skank. She smiles to herself, though; today at least he doesn't have to suffer that terrible injustice.

Now the guy is getting all handsy, trying to both get a handful of her breasts and get the dress off her at the same time and accomplishing neither. She gives one last look around as she lets her hair down to make sure she's accounted for every last bit of muscle that might pose a problem, then leans in. Her hands meet his cheeks as she plants a brief kiss on his lips, then slide down his neck to his shoulders. Of course, he's still much too far gone to feel the two needles extend briefly from under her fingernails, and the cocktail of tranquilizers cruising through his bloodstream will just feel like maybe he shouldn't have taken that last hit of PlAcid before calling her in. She makes her way slowly, very slowly, kissing down his chest to his stomach, and he's out by the time she hits his belly button.

Game time. This is where she shines, where not a single jacker or shadow in the biz can even touch her. She rolls off of him and grabs her purse from under the bed. It had made sense to everyone to store it their, since, well, no question where she was ending up tonight anyways, right? Ripping out the fake bottom, she fishes out her dummy barrier, jacking it into the back of her head. She takes one deep breath, then rolls her passed out mark over, tilting his head so he doesn't suffocate in the bedding—no, no, can't have that—, then another as she slides open the ports on the back of his neck. This one's easier than most; lots of these rich types get real paranoid and start wearing covers for their in's and out's, even to sleep.

As soon as they're safely connected through the dummy, she goes to work. Personal information, passwords, biometric data, even raw memories; every last facet of this asshole's life condensed into a flood of raw data and copied into the dummy by her invisible hands. Such intimate contact with the sum total of another person's life is dangerous, though its an occupational hazard she's come to accept. She's used to it, and the dummy keeps them 99% separate, even though every now and then something slips through or his consciousness line will run just a little too close to hers. Her mind strays to the horror stories of people who've tried to do this without going through a proxy, only to end up unable to keep themselves separate from their mark, both ending up drooling vegetables at the local hospital. Then she feels the line between them start to blur a little—god, did she ever miss Panther, but, no, no, no, she'd never had cat because she hates them, but he was the most adorable little thing! She bites down on her tongue hard in reflex, the pain pulling them apart and reminding her to focus.

Ten minutes later, she disconnects. While she packs her things back up, she pushes the bed into the wall in a quickening rhythm, tossing in a few dramatic moans here and there for good measure. The suggestions she'd left in his head would make him think he absolutely ravaged her when he woke up, and she made sure she looked the part when she stumbled out of the room. She took a bit of pride in her work when the party clapped and hollered at her dazed and disheveled appearance as she left.

Once she was safely out the door and in the lobby, she straightened out her dress as best she could and quickly fixed her hair up. Tek always made fun of her when he picked her up after jobs like this, and sure enough, he pulls up right outside, flashing her a smile that made her melt a little more than she'd ever care to admit from the inside of his old beater, yelling, “Hey, sweetheart, how's your date?”

She jumps in the car and socks him one in the arm, like always, and he pretends it hurts, like always. He doesn't bother asking her how it went, probably because he knows if it went poorly she'd be in a few black plastic bags being driven out to a few out of the way places to be dumped. Instead, he just looks her over as they pull out, and says, “Y'know, Angel, for a low-down, dirty thief, you look positively radiant. Still ain't got no wings, though, do ya?” And that smile. Goddamn, that smile.

She smiles back and thinks of a school play where she did have wings, back when people still called her Monica and she had no idea why anyone would replace their perfectly good human hands with mechanical ones with poisoned needles hiding just under the fingernails. She had pretended to be an angel then, in a play about Christmas, and she'd been a good girl. Now she stole people's whole lives, her hands were made of everything but human, and she felt like maybe she didn't have to pretend anymore.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Long time a'coming

So I realize I haven't actually posted anything here in awhile. My bad, I'll try to work on that. I also realize I can't actually write stories with happy endings too well. Fortunately, this new bit doesn't have anything even resembling a happy ending, so we're good. Inspired by some conversation held earlier this evening, this one owes a lot of thanks to Kuisti. Near as I can tell, my experiences during the Days of Discordia were generally too wacky and unbelievable to use directly, so I smashed them together with Kuisti's, made some shit up, and stole a character name from Salinger. Also, it's decently long, so I'm going to post a download link so you can read it elsewhere without burning your eyes out, as well as copying the whole thing here. Enjoy, folks.

Also, as always, this hasn't been re-read, spell checked, or anything else. What can I say, I'm lazy.

D/L: http://www.megaupload.com/?d=A5SC6VHK


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His hands were pale and nearly useless as he fumbled for a cigarette, awash in a sea of downtown neon and orange. Lane hated the things now, his favorite horrible habit, but they were still the best and only thing he knew to do at times like these. As he managed to free a smoke from the dangerously crumpled pack, the wind kicked back up, a harsh reminder that, yes, it was winter, and, no, he hadn't dressed warmly enough. He took shelter under the overhang of a vacant shop, trying both to remember what had once occupied the now bleakly vacant hole-in-the-wall and force his chilled thumb to work the wheel of his lighter. After a few discouraging failures, the dingy old Zippo finally gave birth to a flame, dancing terrified in the night air before embracing the tip of Lane's cigarette. He blew out the first mouthful of smoke, then took the first drag, the first—and likely the only—satisfying thing of his nightly vigil.
He made the mistake of relaxing for a moment as he exhaled, smoke tumbling out of him in ornate rolls and spirals. His body instantly felt the cold again, and he hunched his shoulders back up and crowded closer to the brick wall behind him. For a moment, the first rush of nicotine from an abandoned habit coaxed out a bitter smile. He thought of how he must look to anyone who had seen him standing here more than once; a single kid, standing alone in a shitty neighborhood, chain-smoking and just loitering.
You've lost it, Lane, ol' buddy. You look and act like a nutjob, and all for something you know just isn't gonna happen.
He snapped out of his self-deprecating humor as the loud voices of a group of people at the end of the block reached him. All four of them were drunk, laughing and swaying slightly as they walked. They were probably college kids just like him, just leaving the bar around the corner, The Grove. It was one of those trendy college bars that just naturally attracted theatre majors and hipsters and everyone else cut from that same cloth that Lane generally just couldn't stand. Oh sure, he'd been in there before, dragged by friends who just wanted a place with a later last call or were, themselves, a part of that pretentious fabric, but he'd hated it. Not just, he assured himself, because she had worked there. No, he also hated how packed it always was, the blaring indie music, the groups of guys in knit beanies and obscure band t-shirts talking about equally esoteric drinks and movies, and so on. And because she had worked there a year ago, and maybe still did.
“Hey bro, can I bum one'a them off you?”
The voice jarred his train of thought off the tracks. He nodded, throwing in an absentminded, “Oh, yeah sure, man.” He didn't even bother risking embarrassing himself with an attempt to use his half-numbed hand to fish a cigarette out for the tall, frat bro who's lady friend was looking longingly at the curb. Instead, he just extended the open pack and a forced smile. The bro took two and left without so much as a thank you, or even a nod. It would have, seemingly should have pissed Lane off, but he found himself oddly apathetic. It's not like he was going to finish the pack anyways. At the end of the night, he always just threw the pack, along with however many cigarettes were left in it, in the trash somewhere on the long walk home.

He remembered when she found out he smoked. He'd tried to hide it as best he could for the longest time, knowing full well that it was a dirty habit and it probably wouldn't help his chances of asking her out any. Back then, they lived three floors apart in a shitty dormitory complex, and they had gradually realized one day that they shared the same walk home from class at the end of the day. After their first conversation, he had made a point to not smoke before his last class or at any point immediately after so he could spend the ten minutes or so of walking conversation without smelling like an ashtray.
All went according to plan until the night he had to cram through an obscenely long and pointless paper and went outside for a cigarette to think his way through it. He was standing in his usual spot behind their building, watching the night's fading traffic, when his phone sprang to life in his pocket. The text message had read: Are you awake/did you just go outside? Lane hesitated, looking around as if he expected to see her jump out of the shadows shouting “boo” before responding: I am and I did. If you werent so easy on the eyes the stalker routine would just be creepy.
Too excited to notice, his cigarette had burned down long enough for the heat to start searing his fingers. He jumped, surprised and dropped it, grinding the already dying cherry into the dirt and patchy grass beneath his feet. As he was lighting another, halfway through his second pack of the day, he got her response: Color me offended. Mind some company or would that be creepy too ;). He hesitated again, this time because he was forced to choose between his secret addiction being revealed or passing up on an opportunity to spend time with her. He didn't particularly like either option, but wasn't about to lose ground with a girl he was rapidly realizing he was falling hard for. He texted back a simple Sure thing and started to walk back towards the entrance. Bringing the cigarette to the grin he just couldn't help but wear, he took another drag, thinking he had ample time to finish this smoke before she came out.
As if on cue, however, she peeked her head around the corner of the building at him. Lane would never admit it, but he jumped back, shocked. She laughed, and then hung her head and pouted, “Aw! I am creepy” before walking over and leaning against the wall next to him. Shocked and too confused to know better, Lane stood and talked with her, his cigarette still burning in his hand. He wasn't sure if she had seen it, and he wondered if it was possible she really hadn't noticed him smoking considering she hadn't said anything about it. So, as they talked, he kept the smoldering cigarette close beside him, pretending as best he could that it simply wasn't there.
After talking for a few minutes, he, again, felt the burning coal meet the filter by his fingers, the heat quickly going from mild to painful. Lane stood, partially listening to a story about her home town hundreds of miles away, mostly trying to figure out how to discreetly dispose of the wad of embers in his hand. His mind raced, and before he had time to stop himself, instinct took over. He pointed across the lawn on which their dorm stood and said, “Hey, look, wild rabbits.” In his mind, as the stump of smoked tobacco fell from his hand, he cursed himself in every way he knew.
Really? Really, asshole? That's the best you can come up with, the old 'Hey, look over there' bit that ran out of gas somewhere back in 3rd Grade? Fuck you, man, fuck you.
And yet, surprisingly, borderline unbelievably, it seemed to have worked. She had turned, staring off into the distance, and by some miracle, had spotted a rabbit staring silently off into the distance. She fawned over how cute the rabbits that wandered into town were, and he just smiled and agreed, thinking about how he'd never eat a rabbit now. He owed the furry little bastards too much.
For over an hour, they stood and talked. He reveled in every word she said, drinking in every new thing he learned about her. She talked about how lonely it got having a single room, what her classes were like, where she came from. It was there, listening to her make idle small talk about nothing of real importance on a dark, early fall night that Lane had realized for the first time that she was different somehow. It was a potent, wonderful, and dangerous sort of different, the kind that he knew could slip right into his heart and his mind and stay there, either blossoming or festering, forever. And he knew he was going to let it.
He wasn't sure he ever wanted to get back to homework, but gradually the realization that flunking a class wouldn't exactly help his cause forced him to end their conversation. He wished her a goodnight, and she smiled and returned the sentiment before stunning him, stepping right up to him. She kissed his cheek with a smile, her deep blue eyes locked with his dull browns, and said, “You should quit those, you know. You'll live longer.” Before he knew what to say, she was already walking away.

Standing there, cold and alone, he realized that was the tone of the whole affair. Throughout it all, she had remained impossible to get a grasp on, and she was always taking the lead. He knew now, when his friends, family, and better instincts all said it was far too late, that it was because she was tied down in the rest of her life—no, in her real life. He winced at that, at the very thought that he was really never a part of her real life, just a diversion, like a vacation or, at best, a dream.
Michelangelo’s—that was the place. Lane gave the cold stone behind him a reminiscent pat, content with having remembered, at last, what the now vacant building had once been. Michelangelo's had been a sort of curiosity shop, selling antiques, books, homemade arts and crafts, and the like. He remembered the old lady who ran the place, her aged frame twisted and hunched with the weight of a long life of joys, sorrows, and likely osteoporosis. She had accused him of trying to shoplift when he had come in before the first date. He was all nerves so he had shown up half an hour before her, deciding to occupy his time looking around the shop across the street from the cafe where they were going to meet.
For half an hour, Lane wandered the aisles of miscellany, occasionally stopping to pick something up and look at it before checking the time and out the storefront window. When he met the stern gaze of the store owner, he had looked away, and had been all the evidence she needed, apparently. She marched right up to him and started laying into him. Lane stood a foot and a half taller than her, weighed probably twice what she did, and was probably close to a quarter of her age, and yet, here she was, right in his face yelling at him about how, if he planned on stealing anything, she would personally kick his ass out into the street. He tried to apologize and explain himself, but that only seemed to confirm his guilt in her eyes. She started taking swings at him with her cane, her face built out of a sort of rage and hatred Lane had never before witnessed.
Under her hail of determined, yet sadly ineffective blows, Lane decided it was best not to make things worse and beat a hasty retreat. Bursting out of the front door and out onto the midday sun, he was greeted first by the surprised face of his date and second by a sharp pain in the back of his head. Dazed, he heard the thrown cane clatter to the concrete as the old crone shouted, “Come back and I'll call the cops, you hooligan!”

Lane couldn't help but laugh, his breath escaping in thick white puffs in front of him. A wiser man would have seen that as an omen, but he had just been too happy that the date hadn't been ruined to think straight. The real kicker was that hadn't even been the only incident in their relationship. There had been the dinner date at Luigi's where their waiter had thrown up on their table, the Halloween party at his buddy John's house where they had bolted out a back window together when the cops showed up, the lunch at Olmec Park that was ruined by a freak hailstorm, and so on. Hell, the first time they were going to have sex, his roommate had come home drunk—fortunately taking just long enough to figure out how his key worked. Somehow, though, despite all of it, he was sure they'd both had a great time, every time. They'd narrowly escape some sort of awkward situation or tragedy, laughing the whole way.
Lane was smiling, wrapped up in the ephemeral warmth of selective memory. But, as the first flakes of snow began drifting down on him, it faded. Slowly, he started seeing things, now as they were only weeks ago, but as they now stood. The memories that he had been so fond of, the little funny stories that had grown out of places all over town like little flowers were all thorns now. Every happy memory with her seemed like nothing more than a reminder that it had all been a lie. Or maybe it hadn't, and she really was going to walk back into his life tonight.
As the clock struck midnight and he still stood alone, the same way it had happened the last two weeks, he wondered where she was at that very moment. It was a thought he immediately regretted. He could see her, sitting warm in a living room somewhere, reading a book while the TV glowed a digital fireplace beside her. She was probably snuggled up tight under the quilt her grandmother had stitched for her when she was ten, the one with all the red roses woven together on it. She was probably snuggled right up to him, her head on his chest while she read, him giving her little kisses on the forehead every so often.
His name, as he had learned, was Sol, short for Solomon, and she had really been dating him the whole time. The first time Lane said those accursed magic words, “I love you,” he had waited until they had been going out for three months. He hadn't wanted to make a big deal of it, and hadn't wanted to freak her out, so he figured he'd wait until it just seemed too natural not to. They had been making out in his new apartment, a movie both had long forgotten about playing in the background, and when they broke for air, he had said it. Immediately, the color faded from her face. She backed away from him, looking sick. It had been his mistake to ask what was wrong—perhaps, he had thought at first, if he had never asked, they could have just gone on as normal with him in blissful ignorance.
But he had asked, and she had laid it all out for him. She said she was sorry, but that she just couldn't say it back, that there was someone else, another man, an ex-boyfriend she just couldn't get out of her head. She had said once before when the topic of his smoking had come up that she didn't blame him, that everyone had an addiction or two, even her. Finally, he understood, and he would rather she had been addicted to crack. Instead, she was addicted to another guy, and she made it very clear that, while she cared for him deeply, she wouldn't, couldn't chose him over Sol. And, before the shock of his completely unexpectedly broken heart could turn to rage, before he could do anything but fumble with words, she was gone.
A day went by before he could even think clearly, and a few more slipped away before he wanted to talk to anyone. Friends and family gave condolences and called her every harsh word they could come up with, but he stopped them. He did, after all, still love her.
On the sixth day, just when he was sure she'd never call again, his phone rang. Just seeing her name glowing on the screen of his cell phone made his skin tingle and his chest hurt. He sat, staring at it for three rings before answering. Neither of them said anything at first. Lane could feel the silence, powerful and strange between two people that had always been able to talk for hours, filling him up. Then she spoke, simply asking if he would meet her somewhere to talk, adding without hesitation that she understood completely if he said no. They both knew he wouldn't say knew, and he hated her for it.

Under the first snowfall of the year, they had met outside of the cafe where they had their first date, right where Lane now stood. He could see the two of them talking, screaming, crying at each other like shimmering neon phantoms in the night air. She told him everything, about how horrible she felt around Sol, about how she had just needed an escape, about how much happier she had been with him. He told her he couldn't stand just being her vacation, that, if all he had ever been was a distraction, she could fuck off, and that, if he had been more, if he still was more, he couldn't help but want to work this out. Because, despite feeling used, despite feeling like garbage because of her, he loved her. She was special in ways no one had thought of words for yet, but that poets and artists had tried desperately to capture. She was every cliché that shouldn't exist in his life; she was love at first sight, she had him at hello, she was why cavemen painted on walls. In his arms, she had felt like the last puzzle piece, the one you thought you'd lost somewhere a long time ago.
Through her tears she tried to speak, but the words were gone. Instead, she only shook her head before turning and running away.

Now, what felt like an eternity later, he stood watching it all play out again in his eyes that only saw the past. He had tried calling once, and had left a simple message: “I'll be waiting there, every night at midnight until I can't wait any more...until you come to take me back or tell me to give up...because I don't know what else to do.”

Lane pitched the last cigarette he could stand to smoke into the street, watching the tip burst angrily into a dozen orange sparks that drifted gracefully with the drifting snow. He laughed at himself. He had picked that day, of all days, to finally quit smoking. “You'll live longer,” She'd said. It sounded more like a curse to him now.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

About that time

I hate having a ton of ideas for things to write and having a bunch of other things I'm supposed to be doing. Add those two in with my natural apathy and I have way too many excuses not to work on anything. Sucks. Anyways, started working on this awhile ago, but was too lazy to upload it because I didn't want to add in all the paragraph breaks. There's more than this already, but, again, laziness. It's a killer.

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Shit just never seems to happen quite how you expect.

It was something his father had always said, particularly when something bad happened entirely unexpectedly, like that time he smashed half the bones in his hand into splinters with a hammer. He'd been working on re-shingling their roof, different piles all around him in some kind of order he couldn't understand. His dad, who worked twelve hour days as a line cook at some French joint downtown did that with everything, setting up everything he'd need far in advance, calling them his meez. For the roof job, it had been two packs of cigarettes, Matador Full Flavor 100's, three tallboys of some cheap, generic beer—the kind of swill that tasted like someone else had already drank it once and pissed it back out, still foaming, into the can again—a stack of all the roof tiles that could be salvaged after the last windstorm, a staple gun, hammer, box of nails, towel with grease and blood stains for any inevitable emergency gush of sangre or rush of sweat in the eyes or spilled beer, and a crossword puzzle book for breaks.

What he'd neglected, however, was a pen, a tragedy he'd realized ten minutes after starting, and he'd be damned if he was climbing back down that rickety piece-of-shit ladder he should have replaced a decade earlier when it started rusting and falling apart. Instead, he hollered from the roof to anyone in earshot to bring him a pen, using his usual only semi-coherent blend of profanity, slang, kitchen acquired Spanish, and English that came out specifically when his meez were wrong or, God forbid, messed with.

He had grabbed a pen off the counter, and rushed outside, his older brother in tow, an air horn hidden behind his back. He planned to shock his unsuspecting brother on his way back down from the roof, get a good laugh out of it, and that was all. Unfortunately, as Isaac would swear daily, his older brother was as close to retarded as a bright kid could get.

The air horn squealed for half a second, and then there was a very specific, very instantly recognizable sound that Isaac would remember for the rest of his life. It was the strange combination of a dull thud and a stomach turning crunching, like someone stomping on a pile of chalk but somehow more visceral, personally painful even to hear. Isaac, only ten at the time, had never heard the word fuck said louder—he would swear every time he'd tell the story that his dad screamed it so loud the roof vibrated.

But, impressively, and thoroughly stupidly considering the ridiculous amount of damage done to his left hand, his dad grit his teeth, tied one of the ice-cold tallboys to his hand with the towel, finished hammering down the tile he was working on, and then stepped down from the roof. Isaac, duly concerned, stared on in awe. His dad forced a smile, pain sweat coursing down his forehead, clapped his hand on his son's shoulder, and said, “S'all good, kid. What'd I always tell ya? Shit's never quite the way you expect it to be!”

As he grew up, he thought this made about as much sense as the whole “Expect the Unexpected” bullshit line. You can't expect the unexpected, because, by definition, it's unexpected. You can try to prepare, make room for adjustments to your plans when shit inevitably goes awry, but that just doesn't as much of a catchy saying, he guessed. And of course things aren't exactly as you expect, unless you're Kreskin or something. He figured his dad always meant to be prepared for things to change on you so you can just roll with it, but that just seemed like common sense.

Eventually, and a bit too late, he realized his dad was just trying to say, “no matter how smart you are or how much you know, shit's still going to take you by surprise all the time.” He learned this on a frigid December Saturday, the kind of cold where everything has been plastered with a few inches of snow and ice, and the wind feels like it could freeze the air solid in your lungs. He was just walking home from another boring day of classes, par for the college misanthrope course. Later, he'd try to remember what was on his mind as he stepped out into the crosswalk. He wanted to say it was something intellectual, maybe even pertaining to one of his classes, perhaps something about the implications of Burke's expanded definition of rhetoric. More likely, though, he was thinking about the ass on the girl walking ten yards or so ahead of him. Great shape, nice and round, and the girl was wearing just tights and a long-ish shirt that covered next to nothing so it was perfectly outlined as she walked. Ah, that's right, he was wondering about whether or not he should feel bad about just unabashedly staring at this girls ass.

Then, all of the sudden, he heard it again, that nasty sound of bones being bashed apart into splinters. Suddenly, he was flying sideways, his elbow bumping against the side of knee. How was that shit happening? It was like being in a first-person shooter for a second; he could see out of his own eyes, he was aware that something was happening, and that it was awfully intense and surprising, but that was about it. Or at least, until his now crumpled body hit the pavement. Then it all hit at once, the realization of what would happen, the knowledge of how bad he was hurt, and the pain. Oh sweet hell the pain. He figured it was what it must feel like to be torn in half by a giant or something, his entire middle was far too destroyed to even want to look at...if he even could have. He could vaguely hear voices, could tell they were screaming, but it was muffled. He was slowly becoming aware that even the pain was getting more and more dull—still agonizing, unimaginable, horrifying, but slowly becoming an echo of itself. He'd have laughed at the fact that he was thankful he couldn't feel any pain in his legs if he hadn't also been aware that he couldn't feel anything in them at all, or if he could laugh at all. Breathing was suddenly so hard, struggling just to force haggard rasps in and out through the feeling like that mean ol' giant had his massive mitts on his chest, squeezing and crushing the life out of him.

Keeping his eyes open was getting harder and harder, and everything around him was starting to blur into an incomprehensible mess of lights and shadows, black and white. It was rapidly becoming disturbing that the shadows were starting to blot out more and more of the world. He was aware of sneakers stepping in front of his face and only barely aware of small splash of dirty water and slush that sprayed up in his face. Someone was trying to move him. That's a mistake he thought, absentmindedly, the pain getting further and further away, Didn't anyone ever tell this jackass to not move seriously injured people?

Wait, fuck, I am pretty seriously injured, aren't I?

Christ, this isn't right at all...

I was just walking down the fucking street, car must've been speeding, fucking asshole...
Slid on the ice...
Getting way too damn cold...
This shit isn't right...doesn't work like this...

It's nothing like it was supposed to be. On TV, every death was foreshadowed a few episodes in advance, and the dying character always got their final, important, heartfelt episode. Then, after sufficient tears were shed and enough loose ends were tied up to make things poignant, someone could punch their clock for the last time. In movies it was the same damn thing, and everyone always died in some really cool way. Everyone who died in movies got shot or blown up or killed by some crazy super disease or eaten by zombies or kung-fu'ed to death by Bruce Lee. And video games? God, those were the worst of all. Any major character had to go in the most dramatic fashion possible, probably saving the entire human race or taking the big baddie down with him.

But this? Fuck, this wasn't right at all. Walking home and hit by some speeding douche? Wrong. Incorrect. Try again, asshole.

No, not wrong. No dramatic comeback when the audience doesn't expect it. No extra life or save file waiting so you can pick things up after the unexpected. Just a thud and blamo, one more set of slightly used organs for the hospital.

No, fuck that. I'll wake up in the hospital. Probably won't walk again. Sucks. Sucks hard. But not dead. Not like this. Doesn't work this way.

As the driver, mildly intoxicated and terrified, the girl with the nice ass, and a group of other gawkers and shocked nobodies crowded around, and amidst the snow-muffled sounds of the paramedics getting closer and closer, Isaac reached out by instinct alone, his hand bloodied and shaking. He was grasping for something; what that was, even he wasn't sure. But something was there. Something had to be there.


Slowly, he became aware of the texture of something in his closed hand. It was warm, soft, familiar. Skin. Someone was holding onto him.

Gradually other sensations started falling into place: warmth from the touch, some cold, hard surface underneath him—was he naked?--the feeling of his heart beating hard and fast in his chest, the sound of voices.

“—another one? Looks like a fucking kid.”
“Shut it, Marcus.”
“Oh, getting all maternal on me, sweetheart? How cute.”
“I said shut it, Marcus, or I'll shut it for you.”
“Try me, cunt. Try me.”
“Both of you cut it out. He's almost done.”

Done? The fuck am I doing exactly?

The last sense to come back was sight, and God, what a sight! Tits, easily D's, in some kinda tight body suit that left very little to the imagination. He was in someone's lap, some hot girl's lap, apparently, in something that looked like an old Gothic cathedral. He tried moving, and his body responded, slowly, sluggishly, fighting him at every impulse. He looked down to make sure everything was still there—holy shit, he was naked—and found with some degree of shock that it was.

“Easy, kid. Don't wanna take it too quick, these marble floors are just as hard as they look.”
The girl, smiling, sat him up and gave him a look over. He covered himself quickly.
“W-what...where...where the hell...ah shit...this is hell, isn't it?”
The girl, the very large, very black man who was telling him to stay down, and a few more, a group sitting a few dozen yards away on an altar, all laughed, but not heartily enough for Isaac's liking.
“Not hell,” the mountain of obsidian said, tossing a pair of slacks onto Isaac's lap, “Probably not, anyways. Put those on and we'll try to explain.”

Isaac tried his best to hide his shame in front of the girl who, giggling slightly—was that a good or bad thing?—turned around. He slipped on the pants, amidst more laughs from the peanut gallery on the other side of the cathedral. There were three of them, all of them with enough piercings, crude ones at that, to look like they'd just barely made it out of a scrape with someone wielding a nail gun. One was a lanky bastard with a long, greasy, and jet black mohawk, another was a short, stubby kid, probably a full head shorter than Isaac with a shaved head, and the last was tan, handsome aside from the metal work and tattooed lines zig-zagging their way up and down his chest and face, with wild, long white shocks of hair jutting out at every angle from his head. Isaac had been in school long enough to know what they were, even if the term was decidedly a little too juvenile for these clearly grown men: bullies. The little one was the toady, the mohawk was the loudmouth, and the expressionless tan one was...well, that one was a mystery, but he just seemed to ooze a don't-fuck-with-me vibe from every pore.

“Hammer, you know you're wasting your time,” shouted the loudmouth through his massive shark-toothed grin. Isaac had heard of people getting their teeth sculpted and filed into rows of razor sharp fangs but had never seen it before. “Trying to help out another green faggot is just gonna gonna get you burned again.”

Hammer, a fitting name for the massive African Isaac decided, simply shot back a cold stare, and took his firm hold on Isaac's shoulder again. Together, with Girl-With-Big-Tits, Hammer led Isaac out of the line of sight of the loudmouth and company and they sat on a small bench under a massive circular stained glass window. They sat in silence for a second, Isaac between the two, looking back and forth at the two very opposite figures, waiting for words that never came. Finally, confusion got the better of nerves and shyness and Isaac spoke out. “Either of you nice folks want to explain what in the hell's going on? Where are we? Didn't I just die on the pavement, like, five minutes ago?”

Hammer held up one of his gargantuan hands and shushed him. “Not yet. Sorry, it'll be easier when everyone is together,” he offered, his accent thick but easily understood. Isaac stared at him for a moment. That was it? I'm magically transported without my clothes to a dark, creepy-ass cathedral where I'm getting cuddled by some babe, and I get hushed by the one who knows what's going on? Serious bullshit, man.

“He's stern, but he's just trying to make this easy,” came from his left, along with a hand on his shoulder, “Hammer's a really good guy, I promise.”

Isaac forced a confused smile, and sat up straight. Apparently, even in hell he still wanted to impress pretty girls. “Finally, someone who isn't an ass or a mute! Mind telling me what's going on?”
“Sorry, I can't say I really know all together too well either. It's best to let Hammer explain it; he's been here longest. I'm Karen, by the way.”
“Isaac, nice to meet you...kind of. I...ah...well, thanks. For earlier I mean.”
“Earlier? Oh, um...gosh,” she said, blushing and looking away, “I was just, um, I was putting my Shadow back on and you started to, well you know, and I was just right there and, it was like, I couldn't help but want to, you know, make it easier I guess?”

Note to self: Hottie will talk way too damn much without saying much of anything if you let her.
Isaac smiled and shook his head. “Sorry, but I really don't understand. Not even a little, actually. Putting on your 'shadow'? Sorry, but to the uninitiated, none of this makes a whole lot of s—shit!“
Before he could finish, a sudden burst of light flashed in one of the empty rows of pews, sending a sudden shock wave of wind, dust, and old cobwebs out in every direction. Hammer and Karen jumped to their feet and rushed off to the source without a word, Isaac scrambling on his still-wobbly legs to keep up.

It was like seeing the divine work of creation first hand, both beautiful and somehow terrifying. There was a faintly glowing outline of a person yet to be, like God's own design sketch, just sitting there in one of the pews. Then it started. First were the bones, starting from the spine and growing outward like a time-lapse of growing tree branches. Then the heart grew in place and started beating out rushing tendrils, veins, arteries, capilaries, and then the brain too, sending out what seemed like a never ending system of nerves throughout the body-yet-to-be. And soon blood, so much blood! It formed splotches like dripping ink which slowly shaped themselves into organs, muscles, everything. The skin started to cloud up in patches, spreading as if it were an infection all over the body, filling out every last line and detail of the glowing design.

Suddenly, where there had only a minute earlier, there was a man where there had been no man before. He was older, frail looking, probably in his late fifties, and he was just there. Isaac realized, while he was just gawking, jaw agape like a moron, Karen and Hammer had been moving. Hammer had clothes in hand and Karen was standing behind the pew with a blanket. The moment the old man was done materializing, she wrapped the blanket around him and stepped back over to Hammer's side. And there, they waited, staring down at the seemingly dead man for what seemed like an eternity. Gradually, he started to stir, moving slowly like a baby still fascinated by his own body's existence and capabilities. Must've been just how I looked, Isaac thought, still staring.

But when his eyes opened, there was only a moment of panicked looking back and forth before the screaming started. He flailed and struggled, Hammer easily holding him down, his arms and legs slamming against the immovable pillars holding him fast like they were made of gelatin.

“No! No! You can't! Get off of me, for God's sake someone stop him! Help me! Please, God, help me!”

Hammer didn't move an inch, didn't say a word. It was Karen who leaned into the fray, dodging and slipping the old man's frantic swings to try to calm him. Eventually it worked, and he stopped, panting and gasping for breath.
“God in heaven...where...where is he? That...that salesman! He...He stabbed me! He had a paring knife or something...put it in me right here! Right here, don't you see?” he said, slapping at his chest, “And then! God, and then! He held his hand over my mouth so I couldn't scream and started ransacking my house! But this...what is...where in God's name are we?”

The dull thud of feet on marble echoed slightly through the cathedral. It was the loudmouth. “Step back, Hammer, I'll take this one. Loooord Almighty knows this old piece-of-shit won't last, might as well let me take him.”
“Marcus...” Karen started, but this time he didn't even hesitate.
“Save it, slut. Oh, and old man! God? Yeah, if he's up there, he deserted your tired old ass right about the time some burglar stuck you, got me?”

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Meh

I'm in an inspiration drought, and still feeling lazy as hell, so I'm just going to post something I was toying around with awhile ago. A story about a guy who lives his life in stories. One of those, it doesn't matter if the story is true or not, the story itself can be important kinds of things. Haven't written anything else on it in awhile, but I might come back to it eventually.

Also, Megaman Legends 3. I'm not even sure what to say about this. I'm am at once both absolutely psyched and already planning on running back through the first two games...and horrendously disappointed. Psyched because I absolutely loved the first two Legends games and a conclusion to the series is gonna be a great thing. Disappointed because it's coming out for the Nintendo 3DS, which I'm not really interested in and which sounds like just another Nintendo gimmick I won't care for. Le sigh.

Anyways, same routine as always, comment with thoughts, etc.

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For as long as I can remember— and granted, through the haze of booze, cigarette smoke, and neon, that isn't exactly that long— my life has always been about stories. It wasn't until I got here, a garage reeking of synthetic oils and elbow grease, amidst the constant clinking of poker chips and low hum of the ceiling fan that sucked in a half dozen or more trails of smoke from lazily smoked cigarettes. It was here, at the weekly poker game of a group of guys from every background who'd done everything, it seemed, there was to do anymore, that it all fit together.

I can still remember the first real story I was ever told. When I was a kid, my parents were killed in an accident. I was too young to understand the details then, too young to even understand the implications all at once. All I got was that mommy and daddy were killed somewhere in the desert where they were working, and that meant I wasn't going to see them anymore. Being only five or six, I still remember thinking it was like a TV show getting canceled or something; they were gone, but that didn't mean they couldn't come back at some point.

It wasn't until I got older that I got the whole story. My parents were doctors working in the Middle East, helping out those that couldn't afford or otherwise reach help. They had gone into Q'Irah just before the war, and had opened up a small clinic. At first they were helping the refugees from the south who were coming in by the bloodied truckload every day. They had a shoe-string budget, more bodies than beds, and the ever present threat of the Q'Irah government cracking down on them for aiding people they were attempting to exterminate, but they pressed on, saving hundreds, maybe thousands of lives over the course of a month or two.

Then, when the Pan-Pacific Alliance, united under the blinding might of our own country's military, declared war on Q'Irah for human rights violations, genocide, use of biological and chemical agents and a dozen other things (none of which included the vast economic boon expected from the reconstruction and “redistribution” of Q'rah's land and resources), shit hit the fan. Suddenly, instead of having a few more patients than they could handle, they were packed to the rafters with the dead and dying. Where, before, they had been able to stretch their thin supplies just well enough to get by, now they ended every week, if not every day, with nothing on hand. And worst of all, now it was not the Q'Irah government to be feared, but their own.

Day in and day out, they struggled. Twice they were robbed for supplies, mainly painkillers and bandages, once by a patient they had just released. The Red Cross ,who had been providing them supplies before, packed up and moved out, heading to PPA controlled territory. Every day, the howl of jets overhead got more frequent, and the dull rumbling of exploding ordinance got closer and closer. Finally, it was thoughts of me, their young son back home in the States, that settled them on the idea of leaving.

On their last day, they packed up what little of personal value they had left, closed up the shop, and planned to hop into a truck filled with supplies heading for the nearest PPA-held town, Khalef. The driver of the truck had been a patient of theirs, and, having owed my parents his life, gladly offered to risk his to help them. Early on the morning of March 13th, 2005, the nervous couple sat just inside their soon to be abandoned clinic and waited.

For two hours past the appointed rendezvous time, they sat in silence, waiting for their ride out. The truck, unbeknownst to them, had been stopped by Q'Irah soldiers only a few blocks from them. There, the driver was not lucky enough to escape death for questioning his government a second time, and was shot dead. My parents, left unaware, sat waiting until 8:32 AM, local time.

Then, too quick to leave them any time to say goodbyes, an explosion annihilated their clinic, as well as several buildings around it. The explosion had come from an Amistrian smartbomb, one that had landed, as it was designed, perfectly on target. That's right, their own government killed them. Some bad intel had pinned them as a gathering place for enemy militia, failing to mention that they were a medical facility, owned and operated by citizens of the United Amistrian Federation. The site was targeted and wiped promptly off the map in one of over a hundred other pinpoint bombing runs that day.

In accordance with their wishes, my grandma and grandpa on my mother's side became my guardians. Their assets were sold off or placed in either their name or mine, and their funeral was held in their hometown of Rockbend two weeks later. Aside from that our family got a letter from the government, complete with authentic stamped-on signature and the sort of feigned condolences that made you sure that you were reading one of a few thousand identical letters.

Monday, September 27, 2010

This is Fine

Been a long time since I've written anything really, much less posted here. Such is life when you work, I guess. But, I guess tonight I finally got the necessary wild hare up my ass and decided to write a bit. It's not long, or particularly good, but I wasn't really inspired to write anything, so I just sort of stared off into space until my fingers started hitting keys. Seemed to have worked alright. Anyways, tell me what you think, and I'll try to post more often here lol

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In the distance he can hear it— a high, desperate cry. It beckons him.
He wakes up, slowly, the darkness and deep fog of sleep and lethargy lifting slowly from his eyes as he silences his alarm clock. He sits up and rubs at his eyes before feeling someone stirring softly beside him. She's still asleep, he thinks, and pulls the covers up carefully, covering her shoulders. Beneath the long flowing river of scarlet that covers her face, he knows, is his wife. She is gorgeous, a masterpiece no great thinker could ever dream up, no great painter could ever capture perfectly.
He leaves his bed, dressing in only a robe before leaving their room. He has nowhere to be but wherever he likes, no one to. The kitchen is full, and, in minutes, he's made himself a simple breakfast of coffee, eggs, and toast. Taking his plate, he strolls out onto his balcony, leaving his dishes for his maid to clean. From here, his view extends out to the very reaches of the city in the clear morning air. He takes a seat, lights a cigarette from a pack left on the table for him by who-knows, and relaxes.
This is fine, he thinks, a man could certainly enjoy living a life free from worry in total leisure. But somehow, he can still hear it. Again, and again, it screams, calling to him. But for what?

Bolting upright, he swats at his phone, again silencing an alarm. Looking around, he recognizes the pale walls, the old but comfortable couch, and the view of skyscrapers surrounding him from outside the window. He is in the break room at his office building. Just a dream, he thinks, before punching back in for work.
At his desk, he works, relaxed but efficient. Soon, he knows, his bosses will promote him again, sending him ever higher up the corporate ranks, but he doesn't need it. He makes more than enough to make a comfortable living, and needs nothing he can't afford. A part of him wants to keep ascending, but he struggles to see the point. The work is long and mind-numbing, and he simply can't force himself to want more of it than he already gets.
As the day wears on and his pile of work gets ever smaller, he looks with a smile at the framed picture of his family and himself. Taken on vacation in Europe a few years back, he tries to recall more about the trip but it's hazy. He stares at the smiling faces of his wife and children. He already worries he sees them too little, but their time apart only makes their time together that much sweeter. He smiles at the thought and leans back in chair for a moment.
This is fine too, he thinks, a man could grow to love a life of hard work that pays off so well. But there it is again. Like a hand, reaching out and grasping desperately at him. It demands more.

The shock of the shrill alarm sends him tumbling half out of bed. Another dream, he sighs. Looking at the time, he panics and dresses quickly. It was a nice dream, he thinks, but no time for dreams. Thirty minutes before work, and he can't afford to be late. The squeal of car horns and the dull rumbling of traffic outside his window no longer bothered him, but the louder it was, he knew, the longer it would take to get to work.
Twenty five minutes later, and he is on the clock and catching his breath from the rough walk to work. The eight hours of cheap, menial labor, sandwiched between mile and a half long walks isn't anything he looked forward to, but it is just a job. It pays the bills, and that was what mattered for the time being. He isn't planning on being just a cashier for some big, soulless corporation forever, anyways. He would find something he liked better eventually— hopefully something that paid more— and then he would be set. Besides, he started thinking, maybe it's better to just have a job you don't care about when you're young. You could far more easily slack off in a dead-end job than you could in a “career,” anyways.
As he checks people out, he feels his phone vibrate in his pocket. A quick check between customers brings a smile to his face. That cute girl he had met working the graveyards at the gas station a block from his apartment texted him back. Sure lol coffee tmr sounds good :). As another customer pushes a cart of junk his way, he hides his phone, but keeps the grin on his face and the thought of a date in mind as he drifts slowly away, letting his body go on autopilot.
This is fine, too, he thinks, a man could get used to working hard for little reward, hoping good things come his way. Then it calls out to him again, louder this time and getting louder still. He covers his ears and winces in pain, customers looking on in caution and confusion.

Turning off his alarm, he looks at the time. It is noon, and he has overslept again. He sits up in bed and rubs his forehead. He coughs and it echoes off the walls of the bedroom of his tiny apartment. He is alone here.
The kitchen is clean enough to manage a cup of coffee, but the bread has gone stale, and he has put off getting eggs. His stomach grumbles, and so does he. Another dream, he thinks, and scratches his stubble. He checks his pockets and finds a mostly empty pack of cigarettes, stepping outside to enjoy a morning smoke with his coffee. Again, he clothes himself in only a robe. He is unemployed, and has nowhere to be today, no one to see.
Outside, the air is cold, and he wishes he had done laundry already so he'd have another layer to put on. He lights his cigarette and sips at the steaming cup of black coffee, but every drink and every drag reminds him of something. The energy bill is due tomorrow. Rent in a week. Savings are running low. Almost out of food. He sighs and stares out at the frost-covered parking lot for a moment before putting his cigarette out on the bottom of his slipper and flicking it out into the street and going back inside.
He sits at his desk and opens up his laptop. There, he sees it, his goal, his ticket out of poverty, his dream. It's his project, and despite all sense, it's what he has poured day after countless day into. Everything else, any other work cannot catch his interest, but this is the project that keeps him going, keeps him coming back. It is his passion, and despite how nonsensical or financially unsound it may be, it is something he cannot help but pursue. He dreams of it being a wild success, becoming rich off something he loves, but he also dreams of failure, of chasing a delusion into the gutter. It is a chance he is more than willing to take. Stretching and polishing off the day's first cup of coffee, he collects his ideas and gets down to work.
This is good, he thinks. A man can live an easy life, rich and without a care in the world. A man can live, spending most of his life so bored with hard work he can hardly remember the good times he squeezes in. A man can even live doing the bare minimum to get by, just trying to grab at whatever opportunity comes by. But, he thinks, I can only feel alive if I have a dream to chase, bearing whatever suffering may come so I can climb higher and higher towards an ever ascending goal. And, but for the steady tapping of his foot and the work of his hands, there was silence.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Something a little different

I began to notice some common themes in my writing, both in what's kept here and what's left for my harshest critic alone. Chief among these commonalities seemed to be that every story of bitter or broken romance I told worked out in entirely the same way: man in love->gets girl->shit goes awry->exit girl->man in reflective woe. In attempting to get my writing chops back up to snuff, then, I wanted to write something different.

Oh wait, no, that's a lie. I actually just really liked the image of a guy smoking and reading a letter in a bathtub from Franny and Zooey, so I wanted to use it. That, and once I started writing, the idea of creating a sort of anti-Gatsby was entertaining to me. Oh well, maybe some day I'll actually start trying to get better. Maybe. Anywho, enjoy.

Also, I actually have a title, hilariously gay as it may be, for this one. New things, I tell ya, new things. 'S called "Dandelion Bracelets"

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He spent his nights those days looking out over the city's glowing skyline in the sort of melancholy way one looks at the photo of an ex-girlfriend. It had been his once, all of it. Perhaps not tangibly—he'd never been given the key to the city or owned the deeds to any plot of land—but, damn it, it had all been right there, right in the palm of his hands. Sometimes, in the twilight, he'd hold his hands out towards the symphony of lights and think of Gatsby. Is this how he was supposed to have felt? Like everything in the world is shallow and pointless except the things you can't have? The things you almost had?

Only weeks ago—and had it really only been that long?—he'd reached out for his own faint green light. And, for awhile, he held that light, that single manifestation of unkempt desire in his hands. Then, after years of trying, years of struggle, years of playing the game together, she walked out. With her gone, his life seemed, not to collapse, but to slowly and unavoidably wither away around him. In the seven long days of complete radio silence from her, he could think about nothing else. Obsession in it's least adulterated from. And then, when that too ended, there was nothing left but nights that dragged on emptily, save for hours spent gazing off into the sea of terrestrial stars.

On the night in question, however, he had taken a break from his nightly staring contest with the ghosts of What-Could-Have-Been, the ones that resided exclusively in far away lights, supped only on the finest of broken dreams, and listened just to the idle delusional banter of dreamers. Instead, he had drawn the shades, filled up his bathtub, filled the room with soft blues, and sank into the steaming water with a cigarette in his mouth and the first nail in his young man's coffin in hand.

It was a letter, the ratty condition of which was evidence to how frequently it had been read. The pages were torn, dog-eared, and re-folded so many times that the words written on the crease lines were now perfectly illegible. Of course, to the one who had poured over every word of the missive so many times that was immaterial; he knew most of it by heart at this point, anyway.

Before even daring to start reading again, however, he set the letter on the tile floor beside the tub and fetched the lighter from his discarded pants pocket. The unbelievably tacky and ostentatious gold plated Zippo spat out a weak flame that flickered dangerously in his breath. It had been one of his first stupid impulse buys after the money started trickling down to him, purchased for the express purpose of showing everyone that he had come up in the world. Now, the burnt out lighter was little more than a symbol and constant reminder of exactly where he was in life.

Taking the letter back in his still dry hands, he absentmindedly flicked his cigarette, the ash tumbling down into his bath water. He took a deep breath in, his eyes closed in a futile attempt to clear his mind, before reading.

“To My Most Dear John Mallory,

I fear it has been ages since you've heard from me, and, worse yet, I fear you may think something dreadful has happened to your most lovable of investments of time and energy. But, really, you need not worry your big handsome mug over it too much, dearest, because I assure you I am quite alright. Well, that is to say I'm in good health and in rather good spirits, though whether or not I'm alright is one of those 'eye of the beholder' things. Mumsy seems to think I've gone completely and wonderfully bonkers, and Daddy has said little to me but 'Are you sure you're alright' for the last week or so, but now I'm afraid I'm just running in circles.

But now where to begin? I knew exactly what to tell you only hours ago, but, wouldn't you know it, my words have failed me. See, I was out buying flowers for my room at that lovely little corner shop a few blocks from our summer home—you know, the one that had that stuffed bear as big as a truck in the front window you said, ever so sweetly, that you'd buy for me some day when you had the money—when the florist's granddaughter came skipping in. Not running or walking, mind you, but actually skipping. That's important. She was a delightfully adorable little redhead, complete with pigtails, freckles, blue plaid skirt, and even missing buck teeth. I sometimes wonder why it is that little kids always seem to lose their two front teeth at the same time, giving them the distinct giant gap in their smile that comes with young age. Anyways, this girl of no more than eight or nine comes skipping into the store, looks up at me with my vase of flowers, cocks her head to the side in curiosity and says, “Lady, why are you buyin' flowers?”

Her grandmother seemed quite ready to scold her on the spot and send her paying customer on her way, but I waved her off and smiled at the little girl. I told her that the flowers were awfully pretty, and I'd love to have them to brighten up my room. The girl looked back at me, her look having shifted from confused to downright puzzled. “Buuuuuut,” she said, “Shouldn't your boyfriend get your flowers for you instead? My boyfriend gave me this and I love it.” She extended her wrist to show off her present, a bracelet made of tied dandelions.

I suppose I should have said something back, but the best I could do was shrug. Really, I wasn't sure how to explain why you weren't buying the flowers for my room, why they weren't a romantic surprise waiting for me when I got home. Looking at her, I started to think that maybe it's only natural that the healthiest relationships are only possible when we're that young, before we learn too much and want more than dandelion bracelets and kisses on the cheek when no one is looking. It's a terribly sad thought, don't you think?

While I was walking home, I wondered what it would have been like if we had met as children? I suppose we were both probably very different then, but still, I can't help but think about it. Would you have seen me at the playground and thought I was cute? Would you have been the sort to tease me to show me you liked me, or would you have just come right out and say it, maybe stealing a quick kiss? Would you have left your friends to come play on the swings with me? Maybe we would have eaten lunch together, sharing a pack of fruit snacks, you eating only the purple and orange ones because I didn't like them.

But then, I feel like you know the answer, don't you? I'm sure if you think about it, you could probably say for certain all the cute little things you would have done that would have won my adolescent heart over just as quickly as you did with my adult heart. And so we both know that, even then, I would have been getting my own flowers, or picking my own dandelions, I guess. And I probably would have been giving you the bracelet, because what else did I have to give you then?

I guess I'm getting off track again. It's funny, because when I set out to write you, it was just going to be maybe a page, maybe even only the front of the paper, too. I knew exactly what I wanted to say, but, testament to how hard I've fallen for you, I just can't really do it. So now I'm rambling, and I suppose you'll have to forgive me for that.

It's funny, because I never would have had to write this if it hadn't been for our last date. I never would have realized, never would have connected the dots. So, thank you, I guess. If you hadn't cared so little as to forget our anniversary, I never would have gotten angry enough to come looking for you. If you hadn't slipped up just quite so badly, I wouldn't have been that determined to find you. I mean, really, going out and partying on the anniversary of our third year together after making a date with me? You spent so long playing your game flawlessly that for awhile I thought you just wanted to get caught. I figured maybe you felt bad. It seemed possible you knew you were wrong but had just come too far, so you wanted me to walk in, just in time to see your drunken make-out with whoever that blonde was.

It's not true though, is it? Everyone makes mistakes, and yours was just getting a little too cocky, a little too complacent. You knew you had me so very solidly that you thought you were bulletproof. Of course, everyone thinks that at least a little bit, right up until the first time they get shot.

Honestly, you'd think I'd be mad. One would suppose that having been so completely foolish for you would have me brokenhearted. Daddy looked truly shocked when I stopped him from marching out of the house, his shotgun in hand. His little muttered mantra of “Little fucker...Should know I'm rich enough to kill him and get away with it” was and is still just kind of entertaining. I guess I'm not angry because I'm just simply too impressed.

I really am, you know. You had me buying into a real fairy tale. Horrendously attractive and popular guy meets quiet and nerdy girl and is inexplicably lovestruck. She had never been asked out before, so when this Man With Everything a Girl Could Want says, “Would you like to come to dinner with me tonight,” she is both shocked and skeptical. But her skepticism is defeated, when he is completely, earnestly in love. He plays her guitar, plays the right movies while they cuddle up on her couch, and plays the perfect gentleman in front of all her friends and family. She falls for him, and so do those same friend and family. They make love, her first time, and there are fireworks, actual fireworks bursting in the distance (From the independence Day celebration, but still). They move into a lavish downtown condo, a full year's worth of rent paid in advance by her father, he gets a job more lucrative than he could have imagined, also courtesy of her father, they attend country club balls together, and so on.

I was really looking forward to the happily ever after to finish that story, but I guess that's because I didn't hear the whole thing. Really, you just knew I was from a wealthy family and you wanted to make it big. You played your part, the hopelessly love-stricken romantic, perfectly, and got exactly what you wanted. Money, I'm guessing, or maybe something less concrete like status or power. For all I know, you might have played me like a fool just to say you did. Whatever your goal was, you put in the work for years, and you got it.

Of course, the way I hear it, most of it's gone now. Daddy put the call in to ensure you were fired before I'd even finished the story, and most, if not all, of our mutual friends hate you with the same sort of passion now. The cash flow from my family's run dry, too, and since you don't have a job, I'm guessing money's getting awfully tight.

And yet, what you still have—the clothes, that lighter, and the apartment—I don't want taken from you. The TVs, the home theater set-up, and all of that other fancy electronic nonsense I purchased for us are already collecting dust back here, and that's fine by me, but I want you to have the things you still do, the spoils of your conquest that still remain.

In part, if I must be honest (and I really see no point in stopping now), it's because part of me is still in love with you. If truly the heart can be so foolish, mine is for you. But more than that, I want the hollow trappings of your short lived success over that gullible heart to stick with you. Every day you spend alone in our home, or with whatever cheap company you bring around to keep the illusion of importance around yourself, I want you to see and remember how empty it all is. While we were together, while you had a girlfriend who loved you dearly and all the money you could ever need, you probably felt incomplete because you still didn't have enough. Now that it's done, before you move onto your next all-too-willing fool, you're no better than a snake, stripped of its limbs for its sins and forced to crawl around in the dirt.

Look at me, I'm rambling again. I suppose my point at the end of it all is that I'm really not angry at you. I suppose you are the first person I've ever honestly been able to say I've loved, and also the first I've honestly been able to say I've hated entirely, but I'm not angry at you. The short truth of it is, I feel bad for you. No matter how deeply you've hurt me or how many tears need to still be shed over you, I'll heal in time. But you? This miserable, unhappy, never satisfied person that I've come to know in the last few weeks is who you really are. And so, while everyone reminds me how livid with you I should be, I won't be able to feel anything but sadness for you. Maybe real love does exist, even for us poor excuses for grown-ups. But not for you, John.

-Lynette”

Without thinking, John dropped his last cigarette into the water around him, which had grown cold and murky with ash and grime in the time it had taken him to read through the letter four times. He was lost in the search, as he had been every few nights since the letter arrived, for any and every possible opening he had to worm his way back into her good graces. Like a machine, his mind churned out every variation and every wording of every half truth, fabrication, and outright lie he could think of. By now, he knew there were at least a few that had a decent percentage of working; this was, after all, far from his first rodeo.

But every time he opened the letter and completed this bitter ritual, he inevitably folded the letter back up, tossed it aside, and decided against having anything more to do with Lynette Dyson. He told himself it was just good sense. As far as he could tell, being a good con man came down to one very essential skill: Knowing when to cut and run. And this one, a three year investment with relatively little long-term profit, was surely due for his departure.

But was it really that?

John stared down at the cigarette butt floating slowly across its squalid pond. Things were not meant to be so calm. He'd been caught before and knew how this story was supposed to end. His and Lynette's relationship was supposed to go out like a dying star, a massive, violent supernova. When something like this turned sour, it was best to be three counties away before the girl's parents' phone could even ring. But this time, things just fizzled out like a dead sparkler, ghosts of smoke trailing up from a tiny ember. It left a bad taste in his mouth.

The whole affair did, really. He'd come so close, so damn close to having everything he could ever want. A doting wife, all the cash in the world, a nice place, any girl on the side he could want, friends, cars—The Life. The whole city, hell, any city, would have been his for the taking. It was the kind of thing that kept him thinking about trying again, trying to spin things his way and start the game into overtime.

But he just couldn't bring himself to do it.

He pulled the plug and the gray water began slowly draining around him. He
told himself tomorrow, for real this time, he'd go out and start looking for a new mark. Tomorrow, he'd just throw the damn letter away and be done with it. And that stupid lighter too. Yeah, tomorrow he'd hop right back on the track to the top, simple as that. But for tonight—one last night, is all—he'd lay awake and stare at the ceiling, lost in thoughts of how silly children could be and of rings of dead weeds dangling from simpler, happier wrists.


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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

New novel concept

Starting a new novel concept. Going a bit deeper into the realm of fantasy than I ever have before, so it should be interesting, but we'll see how it pans out. For now, enjoy the first 5 pages, packed with gunslingery goodness. And by goodness, I mean stuff I wrote when tired and haven't even read back over yet.

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It was late evening and the setting desert sun bled light the color of faraway dying leaves into the sky. In the town of Khalish, a single stranger sat at the weekly meeting, his features hidden almost entirely by his sand-worn traveler's mantle and hood. Only his eyes showed, and they were expressionless, emotionless, yet sharp. The townsfolk hardly noticed, however, filing in around him in the circular room of the town hall. As he leaned against the wall only yards from the exit, the locals pushed and fought for seats on the rings of carved stone benches surrounding the little open circle at the middle of the room. Standing there was the man they all came to see, the town's unopposed chief, shaman, healer, and guardian. From the tattoos running up and down his aged skin, the stranger could tell he was an accomplished and powerful mage.

He's got a “Band of Jygalis on each bicep, the stranger observed silently, that means he's got plenty of strength in those old bones. The “Rising Serpent” on his right wrist means he's got potent poison spells...and that he's right handed. And the “Eyes of Oasis” on his forehead mean he's an illusionist. The stranger slowly, calmly, put a hand into a pocket in his mantle and kept his eyes on the man in the center. The dry skin of his hand met the small piece of lashwood he had cut from a bush before he'd reached the desert, the blade-like thorns threatening to tear into him if he pressed against it any harder.

The dull roar of the townspeople died down instantly as the Chief raised his head and looked out at them. For a brief moment, his eyes met the stranger's. A normal man's eyes would've missed the minute smirk that graced the lips of the Chief for that instant. A normal man wouldn't have even read anything into such a small, almost imperceptible sign. But the stranger was anything but a normal man, and he knew exactly what that little insignificant smirk meant. He pressed the back of his hand against the lashwood feeling the intense sting as the thorns pierced into his flesh. He was ready for what would inevitably come.

For a moment, before the Chief began to speak, the stranger recalled a time when he wasn't so prepared. Still in training, he had run into a master illusionist who had used him like a puppet. To him, the living dead were invading, coming in hordes for his juicy living meat. In reality, the zombies he was attempting to kill were average citizens of the city of Leddick, and, were his Master not there to cut the magical strings that bound him, he would've slaughtered the whole town. Under his coverings, he smiled to himself— he'd come a long way since then.

In the silence of the gathering, the Chief cleared his throat, then produced a long, ornate golden pipe. Packing it with some esoteric blend of tobacco and narcotics, he produced a small flame from his index fingertip. Lighting the pipe, he took a single long drag and then exhaled, shooting an impossibly long and dense stream of smoke out into his audience. Starting already, the stranger thought, a little impatient, aren't we? The audience shared none of the same skepticism, however, and they ooh-ed and aah-ed as the fictional smoke filled the room. To them, it was real as could be; they could smell it, feel the heat of it on their skin, felt their lungs burn slightly as they breathed it in.

“People!” the Chief began, his loud voice thundering through the crowd,” MY people! I come to you today, as I do at the end of every month, with a lesson. My people, it has been a fruitful year for us, and in the days to come, we can only hope to enjoy such bounty. In the last month, the trade route between the great green North and the Trade City Lakhas connected our humble land with the great wealth and influence of the world. Truly, this is a great and amazing thing! Now, like never before, we people of Khalish have access to things many of you have never seen, never before even dreamt of. Wellstones, holding vast supplies of magical energy, medicines and clothing made from the exotic plants and animals of the forests to the north, tools made from the powerful metals mined from the towering mountains of the east, and more now pass by our doorsteps.”

As he spoke and gestured with his hands, the smoke began to swirl around him. Slowly but surely, the smoke began to take shape until it formed a model of Khalish, itself, sprawling just above the head of the Chief. In his model, small figures moved about happily, and caravans of camels marched through, leaving behind boxes that burst apart when touched by the smoke-people, swirling about them and making them larger and more jubilant.

“This, my friends, my family, my people, is most assuredly a cause for great joy. But...I would not be standing here before you if stories ended so simply. No, my people, these joys, these wonders, they are great things, but they must be used carefully. You see, hidden here in the desert, we have suffer the pains of seclusion from the world, but we have also enjoyed the benefits of seclusion. While the rest of the world suffered injustices, prejudices, wars, and the like, we have always been a family, a collection of people entirely at peace with one another. But now we, too, are a part of the world, and we must be careful that the poisons of the world outside of Khalish do not taint our beloved home,” he said, the citizens of his smoke village being strangled and consumed by the boxes left by the caravan. The crowd gasped and whispered amongst themselves. The stranger watched in silence, the pain in his hand keeping his perceptions of reality and of the illusion equal but separate.

“Allow me to tell you a story, my children, of a people that lived long before any of us. They lived before Karak set foot upon our world, forming the desert we call home. They were known as the Akiri, and they lived thousands of years before any of us were born. The archeologists of the world are just now learning about them, but they are people we have long known about. The great spires that still stand in the desert that we use as way points were theirs long ago, the pieces of strange green glass that we still find in shards were theirs, and the only surviving ruin of their once apparently great civilization, Djarah, sits in the middle of this desert of ours. But where have they gone?”

The smoke dispersed and formed itself into single figures constructing an even larger city than the mock Khalish. This one had massive spires, and as the figures built, color flooded into the smoke, filling the city they built.

“The Akiri, from what little remains of them, were obviously a a people with power and knowledge vastly superior to our own. And yet, they are gone now, their greatness left to become no more than grains of sand blowing about in the wind.”

The color faded from the smoke city and it and its inhabitants collapsed, leaving only the slowly expanding cloud of smoke.

“But then, how are we to last? If we are to believe smarter, stronger people were eventually destroyed and forgotten, then how can we hope to escape the same fate? The answer lies in the Akiri's power, itself. You see, my children, Djarah shows the fate that befell the Akiri. The last true remnant of their culture is a temple, in which a massive painting depicts the people of the Akiri cities praying for an angel of death, who comes and rains crimson lightening upon them as they rejoice. Do you get it, children? Do you understand? The Akiri destroyed themselves, not by accident, but on purpose! They intentionally used their immense power to wipe themselves completely off of the scrolls of history. But why? Because they knew they had become corrupt and wished that no one that would come after them would make the same mistakes! That, my children, is the evil power of the wonders that now pass by us. Power poisons the good man, strength corrupts the just! You must now be ever watchful for the burning claws of the world's greed and lust for more power, more strength sinking into our fair city. You may think it cannot happen, that our humble village has not the value to gain the attention of those in the great cities that sit on thrones of greed to come for us, but you are naive!”

The smoke began to swirl around the Chief faster and faster as he spoke with more and more fire and passion. The townspeople were lost in the illusion, completely swept up by the force of his spell and they were seconds away from leaping out of their seats in a frenzy.

“You see, my dearest sons and daughters, there is already a dog of some government here to claim what is yours for his masters! He sits amongst you, waiting for his chance to sell you all for a profit! He has not learned from the mistakes of our forefathers, the Akiri, but instead rushes to the same bitter fate!”

The smoke swirled faster now, forming a single rushing cloud that spun rapidly around the Chief as if it were a living thing. The stranger's free hand inched slowly to his waist, seeing what was coming and knowing just how quickly he could respond to it. Sure enough the Chief threw his hands into the air in a wild shout, his whole body trembling, before dropping a single arm in an accusing point at the stranger.

“It is him my children! HE is the filthy vermin that seeks to poison our homes! HE is the death of the Akiri! HE is the death of us, lest we be the death of him first!”

The smoke broke free of the rings it spun, flying directly for the stranger as the crowd in front of him became a frenzied mob, scrambling to their feet. Had he been unprepared like he was in Leddick, the smoke would've blinded him and the mob would've gotten to him. They would've torn at him and beat him until he bled to death, then they'd have buried him out in the sand. There his story would've ended. But he was not unprepared. He had learned from Leddick; that was his gift. He always learned.

His free right hand moved to the holster at his waist and gripped the solid grip of his weapon, pulling it free and leveling it at the closest member of the mob in half a second. It was fast, but not perfect. Lucian had always had the best of them all when it came to his work with their weapon. His draw was so fast you could hardly see it, and he could shoot a fly from across the room before most could even see it. His talent was a seed that, in time, could perhaps even have grown to match their Master, who could have shot just the wing of that same fly off. But that was not how their story had gone.

His left hand came free of the pocket of his mantle and, without a moment of hesitation, quickly yet methodically, it fanned the hammer of the large revolver in his right. Six deafening cracks echoed through the room, and six streaks of white hot flame flashed out of the barrel. The angry streams of flame moved faster than even the stranger's trained eye could see, burning fist-sized holes through the ranks of the brainwashed masses. Without thinking, his hands and feet moved, opening the cylinder of his gun and emptying the spent and smoking casings as he dashed out of the room out into the night.

The mob was dead on his heels as he reached the door, but by the time he was under the stars, his gun had another round in it, and he slammed the cylinder back in. Whirling around, he fired again, the shell burying solidly in the chest of the woman at the front of his attackers. Moments earlier, she had been foaming at the mouth, baying for blood. Now, for only an instant, the illusion faded and her expression filled with sadness. What seemed like ages ago, the stranger would've felt sorry for her right then and there in the moment bitter, painful reality flooded back to her— her last second alive. He'd have hesitated, then, and probably gotten himself killed, or at least too hurt to move on, which was almost worse. But he'd come too far in his journey for that. He'd learned better. He didn't so much as blink at the sight of her anguish.

When her instant of clarity ended, the shell erupted inside of her. She was killed almost instantly as the magic stored within the tiny, yet potent wellstone inside of the bullet released its energy, sending great spears and shocks of ice tearing through her body until they broke free. The bloody ice blocked the path of his other pursuers momentarily, but both he and they knew there was another exit, and he wasn't leaving without preparations. No, there was no retreat for either side of this fight out in the brutal desert night. But in his few seconds of hard-earned reprieve, the stranger ran his hand through his pouch, realizing how low he was on ammunition.

Fifteen type 1's, three type 4's, and one type 5 left, huh?...No...that can't be right. I should still have more than that.

That's when he felt the sting. He had gotten cocky, picking himself out of the easy first layer of the illusion without ever even looking for the second. He focused on the faint whisps of pain he could still feel in his real hand as the illusory citizens of Khalish escaped the town hall and made a mad dash for him.

Come on! Come on, you slow bastard! Move your real hand! Feel the real pain! COME ON!

Deep inside, his subconscious listened to his cries, and the pain of the lashwood raking across his torn and bloodied skin became all too real. The real sensation brought the real world back with it, and all at once the world became a blur of two realities, one actual, one fictional, each with it's own distinct attack on his senses. His eyes saw both the enraged townsfolk reaching him, grabbing for his clothes, his face, his anything, and the inside of the hall, something metal glinting in the torchlight headed his way.

Blade. Move or die, rook.

Again, his body listened. This time, there was no need to force it. This time, the voice in his head was not simply his own, but a combination of his and something else. It was the voice of a lifetime of training, studying. It was the voice of a man who had lived his entire life on the razor's edge between life and death. It was a voice of authority, of knowledge, cold, unwavering, and calm. It was his voice, but it was also his Master's. His body listened without question to that voice; the one he called the Killer.

As the knife clinked off the wall behind him in the real world, the stranger's legs threw him into a roll. As he righted himself, his gun was already drawn and aimed at the source, but it had already fled, the cloak of the Khalish Chief fluttering out the door.

“So! You managed to defeat both of my illusions? Your reputation is not unwarranted. Your kind are truly something else!” His voice echoed in the hall, though his body was already outside. The stranger stood and listened, checking his body for any real damage. “For a souldead bastard, you certainly are capable of some amazing things. I saw into your dreams...a weapon that allows even your cursed kind to use magic? Interesting! Very interesting! But I know all of your tricks now, and I still have many more up my sleeve. You were a fool not to run while you had the chance!”

As the Chief's cackling echoed throughout the room, the stranger stood, checked his gun, and then looked out over the sleeping crowd still seated in front of him. He wondered if they were sharing his illusion or if they had their own, but he knew it didn't matter either way. One way or another, their beloved Chief was about to die at his hand, and they certainly wouldn't love him for that.


Outside, the Chief stood in the center of town, waiting with a devilish grin on his wrinkled face. Three days earlier, as the stranger had first set foot in Khalish, he knew who and what this man was. He was an agent of the Kingdom of Ali'sat, sent to this seemingly insignificant town to use his talents to seamlessly replace their old leader. By doing so, the Kingdom would gain a vital resting point for their legion of trade caravans as they made their way along the Burning Path, the infinitely dangerous primary trade route between North and South. He'd seen it three times already on his journey, and this was the second time he had been identified by the Ali'sati agent as a threat. This would be the second time he would have to make an enemy of the very land he was walking into.

For a moment, the Chief and the stranger stood in the dim light from the torches hanging outside of the stone houses, staring at each other. The stranger took a deep breath, letting the Killer take more and more control of his mind, his body relaxing yet ready to move without a hint of hesitation.

Aim with your mind. Never mistake your gun for your weapon, child. Your weapon is your mind. Perceive your opponent with not just your eyes, but all of your senses. In this world, even the sharpest eyes can be fooled by the wave of a mage's hand, but your perception extends far beyond your sight. Kill without hesitation. In this world, child, you are amongst the cursed, and there will be few who would hesitate to kill you. Give them the same, or die.

In an instant, the barrel of the stranger's revolver erupted, the deafening crack of a gunshot echoing throughout the sleeping town. Against a normal man, the lance of pure heat that blazed forth from his weapon would've meant instant death. Against this trained agent of the Ali'sati, the stream of lightening-quick flames met the dull, translucent green of his barrier, and it fought against it until it burnt out into nothingness. The Chief, cackled madly, raising his hands in a sweeping motion, sending a wave of sand at the stranger as if it were water. For him, against a normal man, the wave would've been too massive to avoid, burying the stranger in the cold sand, asphyxiating him. The stranger, too, was no normal man, however, and his second shot connected directly with the deadly wave, bursting on impact.

The explosion blew open enough of a hole, and the stranger was already moving at full speed, throwing himself at the weak point in the wave. Bursting through, he rolled, aimed, and fanned the revolver's hammer. Three bullets made contact with the illusionist's barrier like rocks thrown at a hanging curtain, slowing to a halt inches from his face before they exploded, forming massive jagged flowers of ice that crashed to the sand at his feet.

“One shot left in that weapon of yours! What magic can you hope to throw at me? I know your game, and no magic someone like you could throw at me could possibly break my barri—“

The last crack of gunfire silenced the Chief's gloating, and the sanguine splash of his blood splashed against the sand only moments before his body collapsed on top of it. The stranger stood and holstered his gun, brushing the sand out of his mantle before cautiously examining the body of his foe. It was no illusion, the man was dead.

He had been right about a few things. The stranger's weapon was designed to activate and fire bullets made out of specially refined and charged pieces of wellstone, allowing even someone souldead to use magical power in combat. He was also right in that, as a powerful mage, his magic rejection barrier was likely more than most anything the stranger could fire at him. He, however, didn't realize that the gun could also be loaded with simple metal bullets.

Aim with your mind. That is your true weapon...

The Chief's dwelling was simple at first, matching most others in the town in both size and design. What lied underneath, however, is what the stranger was after. Hidden beneath a trapdoor under his bed was an extra room carved right into the bedrock. Here was all of the evidence of his position within the Ali'sati government; a uniform, letters from his superiors detailing his orders, his new identity, a complete dossier on the man he was replacing and every other citizen of Khalish, and more. Most importantly, there were maps of the desert, including ones detailing the locations of not only the great spires that dotted the landscape, but the stranger's destination: Djarah, the lost temple of the Akiri.

As he collected the maps, he noticed the totem of symbol covered wellstone in the corner of the room. It was the central lynchpin that held the web of illusion over the town in place. By destroying it, the townspeople would be freed from its sway. They would realize that their government had killed their leader and installed one of their own, all to brainwash them into accepting the establishment of a trade route that would drastically change their lives. He knew it was the only moral choice, that it wasn't right to leave an entire town under the sway of a dead man's magic. He knew that they would revile him as a murderer and that the Ali'sati would only support them in that belief.

But he left it be, and left the town of Khalish behind. To him, it was a simple choice between making enemies of the people of a single desert village, as opposed to making enemies of one of the most powerful nations in the world. Morality wasn't something he ever felt like he could bother with. To him, there was only his goal.

He could still remember the cold spring morning where his Master gather all of his children around a bonfire. It was their graduation ceremony, marking their transition from being no more than weak, ignorant children and members of a minority that was loathed by society into the fledgling stages of something more. It was on that night that the five of them were given their first guns, officially making them gunslinger novices. It was also on that night that their Master gave each of them their most vital lesson. Pulling each child aside, he told them, in no uncertain terms, what their true weapon, the power that went beyond the gun in their hand, was.

“Aim with your mind,” he had said, the glow of the towering fire dividing his stern face into vibrant orange light and dim shadow. “That is your true weapon. Amongst all of my children, you have the greatest mind, the greatest intuition. That is where your true strength lies, and because of this, you, child, have the most potential. But in you, too, is a lack of heart. You strive so desperately for what you feel you must do that you care not for others. You would use any means to reach your goals, and that makes you cold. This is where your greatest weakness lies, and, because of this, your story is one of loneliness.”

At the time, he didn't believe his Master. After all, he was one of five novices under a man that was seemingly capable of anything. He would always have these people, this family at his side. But he was wrong. Four years later, the Imperial Army marched on their home with orders to arrest his Master. He surrendered willingly, and was carried off in chains to be executed. Days later, the soldiers returned with orders to capture anyone who remained, killing anyone who resisted. He and his fellow students fled, scattering like falling leaves in the wind. He had seen none of them since.

But the man the Ustian Empire announced was Isaac Desgarro, his Master and adoptive father, the man they executed, was not Isaac Desgarro. Had the real Isaac escaped and been replaced to sate the public? Was he involved with the government somehow? One thing was for certain: Somewhere, he was alive. And one of his gunslingers was going to find him at any cost.