Setting the Stage for Battle

Alexander slammed his foot down atop the dead body, pointing his sword.  “You’re next!  There’s no room for altruism in the world I’m building.  We fight to win!”

Spartas wiped a trickle of blood from the trickle at the corner of his lips, standing. “That’s why you’ll never win.  Why you can never be allowed to win.”

Alexander rushed forward with a rising slash.  Spartas leaned away from it with inches to spare, grabbing Alexander’s armor to thrust his sword into Alexander’s belly.  His opponent whirled behind his grip, tearing himself free of that hand and bringing his sword to strike at Spartas’s back.

“Stop, stop.”

Spartas – Dan – froze, looking up at me.  Jerry didn’t stop his sword fast enough, and the foil blade bent in half across Dan’s back.

“Ow! Jerr, what the hell!?”

“Sorry!  It was too sudden.  Sorry.”

I sighed, and went to them, patting along Dan’s sides and back.  “Hurts?  No?  And here?  Good.  You’ll live.”  I grabbed a sword up from the bucket of fake swords, and spun it in my hand – good balance, for a prop.  I began to step through the first motions of Alexander’s scene, swinging, whirling, counterstriking, evading, blocking, countering, then the deathblow.  “Come on … what do you see?  A hero?  A man?  This is a performance, gentlemen.  And it looks like it.  Spartas.  Grab a sword.”

Dan grabbed a prop and prepared to meet my charge.  I obliged with the upwards slash, overextending a little.  When Spartas dodged, it left me off balance.  He grabbed me, ready to thrust, and I used his grip as leverage, spinning, slashing, faster than he was prepared for.  He dove out from under the strike, spinning and lashing out in a blind hurry to keep up.  My counter came next, deflecting his blow, then striking hard against his sword.  “Stumble!”  Dan stepped back smoothly, skipping a beat – then he was in the scene, stumbling as if the strike had knocked him off balance.  I took that moment, when he was reeling from the impact, to kill him.  He sprawled to the floor, the fake blade trapped under his armpit, reaching out to Jerry, so convincing that for a moment I’d worried that I’d actually hurt him.  His hand dropped, his face falling to the floor.

Jerry recovered first.  “That was great!  You seriously looked like you wanted to kill each other!”

“Your turn.”  I tossed a prop sword to Jerry, and Dan passed the one under his armpit back to me.  “That’s what a fight like this is.  They’re not dueling for honor.  All that polish is fine for the ballroom scene.  This scene is where they batter each other’s sword, knock each other down, and throw sand at each others’ faces.  This time, you’re Alexander, Jerry.  It’s your role, after all.  Remember what you saw.  Overextend on the first strike.  My strike after I dodge will be wild and blind.  Take advantage of it to overbalance me; strike like you’re hitting my sword hard, and kill me before I get my feet.”

He went to the dummy corpse, and put his foot up, then looked at me uncertainly.  “Brian . . . I thought you were just a combat choreographer.  How do you know what this should look like?”

I sighed, watching him.  He was uncertain, maybe a little worried.  I recognized the look.  When you saw that look on the field, it meant you’d put such fear into your opponent that he wouldn’t act aggressively anymore.  It was the face of the defeated. “Come on.  There’s a Burger Barn down the street.  Collect your phones, let’s take a coffee break.  Forget the costumes, leave them on.  We’ll only be a moment.  Give them something to gawk at.”

Dan smiled at that, slinging a prop sword over his shoulder, and swaggered to the door in his plastic armor.  Jerry looked uncertain, but I grabbed the crown of the warrior king – right now, we were using a cardboard Burger Barn crown, until we got the finished prop back – and put it on his head. “Consider it practice.  A king is above these peons.  A king cares not for a peasant’s ridicule.  They are fleas before him.”

He straightened up, and composed himself, and damn if he didn’t look like the most regal man I’d ever seen, walking down the street with a blanket for a cape and a Burger Barn novelty crown.

We arrived, we ordered, and Dan didn’t give me a moment to collect myself before prodding. “So?  You said you’d tell us where you learned to fight.”

I unwrapped my burger, and took a bite, chewing, slowly, swallowing.  “I didn’t, actually.  But I fought in the Ghokar conflict.  It was desert and grit, and we couldn’t keep the guns clean.  There was more bayonet work than I liked.”

Jerry looked at me, a mixture of horror and curiosity on his face. “Did you ever . . . ”

Dan cut in to save him. “What he means to ask is, those Ghokari girls, you know?  We heard that come festival, when the masks come off, they’re quite the lookers.”

“No, I–“Jerry jumped, and yelped.  There was no doubt in my mind that Dan was kicking him in the shins under the table.

I sighed, looking back and forth between them. “Relax.  I fought.  I killed.  Friends died.  And it took a while, but I became whole.  This job’s part of maintaining that.  Keeping myself grounded in a normal world.  You guys help me through it every day.  So don’t worry.  I’m solid as a rock, and I’m on your side.”

We talked about nothing, for a bit after that.  The weather, the play.  Yes, the Ghokari girls were lookers, but no, I never did.  I was young enough and stupid enough, just never got the chance.  Jerry was smiling more, now, calmer.  He wasn’t a man sharing a table with a killer anymore.  It was a good thing; he would have made a poor Alexander, if he spent all his rehearsals being afraid of me.

“All right.”  I looked at my phone, checking the time.  “We’ve goofed off long enough.  Time to make you guys look like real killers.”

Gentle Death

A quick little story about dating an agent of death.

I saw her, again.  Every day, riding the 45T.  I normally got off at the tracks, the last stop inside the city.

Today, I was curious.  She never spoke and was always alone.  I couldn’t tell why.  She was cute, with short black hair, blue eyes, and adorable freckles, a little on the slender side.  She might have been in her early thirties, a little on the slim side.

I didn’t care.  Today, I didn’t get off on my stop.  The bus was almost empty at this point, just me and her.  “Do you mind if I sit?”

She didn’t respond, just looked out the window.

“Ah, miss?”

She seemed to start, and looked around, not meeting my eyes.  Only after she realized the bus was empty did she look at me.  She seemed surprised to find me looking straight at her.  “Are you speaking to me?”

“Well, yeah.”

“But … well … okay.”

I took my seat beside her, and looked out the window with her, watching the countryside.  “Do you like the country?”

“It’s quieter.  I’m not comfortable around a lot of people.  Nobody likes to make room for me.  Oh, but you’re okay.  You don’t have to move.”

“How about tomorrow, before the bus leaves town, I take you to coffee?  The shop won’t be crowded late in the day.  They have some overstuffed chairs for us to use.”

She looked up at me, her lips upturned. “It’ll be nice to take to someone who can listen.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I just nodded.  I got off at the next stop, and waited for the next bus in the opposite direction, to take me back home

The next day, as we approached the tracks, I stood by her seat.  “Ready?”

She rose without a word.  We walked to the door, and she paused to lean over an old woman sitting by the door, touching her cheek.  “Don’t be afraid.”

She brushed past me and I followed her off the bus, glancing back at the old woman for a moment.  “What was that about?”

“She has a big trip to make.”  She turned, her skirt flaring as she spun, and her eyes turned up to mine. With her eyes upturned and beaming at me, I forgot all about the oddness of the previous moment.  I went to the coffee shop, and we had coffee together.

She liked her coffee without sugar, and her chocolate dark and bitter.  Her nose wrinkled when she laughed, and her eyes brightened every time she saw me.  After a couple of days getting coffee, she started wearing a flower in her hair.  It was almost a week before she let me take her on a real date, shyly agreeing to see a movie with me.

The next morning, I found her in my bed beside me.  We showered together, luxuriating in both the heat of the water and the heat of each other.  I made her breakfast, and it was then that she touched my cheek, and said those words to me.  “Don’t be afraid.”

“You said that to someone when we met.  You dodged the question then.  What’s that about?”

“I told you, she had a big trip.  It’s scary.  You have a trip to make, too.  But don’t be afraid.”

I frowned.  She was beautiful, but the crazy ones often were.  I stood up, wary. “Look, I don’t know what you think you … what you … think”  The words weren’t coming to me.  Everything was on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t catch the words.  I looked up, and everything was askew.  I realized that it was because I was falling, just before my head struck the tile. “Stroke … nine … nine one … “

She crouched beside me, caressing my face. “Before you go … thank you.  Nobody ever sees me.  You’re different, somehow.  It made me remember what it was like, when I was alive.”  I felt her lips on my brow.  “Go on ahead of me.  I’ll meet you there.”

I was so dizzy the room seemed to spin around me, despite how still I lay.  The room darkened more and more, and then I was gone.

Deadly Wish

Explore a character’s moral dilemma – either he gets a million dollars, and someone he doesn’t know dies, or someone else gets a million dollars, and he dies.

“A million dollars?”

“Yes.”

“Very well.  It’s mundane, so I’ll grant it.  But . . . let’s make it interesting.  I’ll also kill someone.”  The genie that had sprung from the antique lamp pointed out my window, and in the window across the way a woman was dusting; she looked like a cleaning lady.  “Her.  I’ll kill her.”

“What!?  No!  That is nowhere in the wish I made!  I didn’t ask for anything like that!”

To be fair, I had kind of been surprised when a human form billowed out of the lamp.  It was like a silly fairy tale.  But after I spent half an hour crawling around my kitchen counter as a cockroach, I was ready to believe.  It was either that, or risk some new torment.

“Who cares?  The terms of your wish are fulfilled.”

“No.  Take it back.  I don’t want it.”

The genie floated on a cloud of mist, ignoring me.  “Funds will be deposited in your account by six–”

I threw the lamp.  It passed through him, his form swirling like smoke before reforming. “I said take it back!”  I was screaming now.  I wasn’t a killer, dammit.  This wasn’t me!

“Well.  I might be convinced to refrain.  But you’ll have to entertain me, mortal.  Squirm on the hook a little.  Wriggle, worm.”

“What are you talking about!?  You can’t just kill people!”  I couldn’t hit him, I couldn’t stop him, I couldn’t do anything but shout.  Someone in a neighboring apartment thumped on the walls.

“Oh, I can.  And nobody will ever know.  Heart attacks are a dime a dozen.  Even the healthy could have one.  But like I said, I might refrain.  I’ll give her the money instead, and give the death to you.”

I froze.  “You can’t possibly . . . you can’t expect . . . ”

He rolled on his cloud of vapor, stomach-down now, folding his hands under his chin to watch me.  His hair was pure white, like cotton, and his form childlike.  His eyes on me, though, were those of an old man. “I expect you to squirm.  I expect you to decide.  I expect to feast on your struggle, manling.  Take the money, and you may as well have killed her yourself.”

I turned away, planting my hands on the cool tile of the countertop.  I’d never considered myself a great altruist.  I always wondered just how cold I was.  I didn’t donate to anything, didn’t have a great cause.  But could I just let someone die?  I shook my head.  I was looking at it wrong.  Someone would die.  Someone would certainly die.  The question wasn’t, ‘would I let someone die’, but ‘who would I choose’.  I looked out the window and felt my resolve harden.

I was an architect.  I made things, dozens of people were employed to support my work.  She was a cleaning lady.  I doubted she supported more than herself.  I stood up, looking out the window, my decision ready.  I heard the genie’s childish voice pipe up behind me. “Ooooooh, here it comes!”

I saw a second cleaner walk into view, carrying a trash bag.  She was younger, probably still in high school.  The older lady bent to her, and began wrapping some small hurt, then kissed her on the brow.  A daughter.  The girl laughed, pushing her mother away, too old to have boo-boo’s kissed better, but she laughed, she smiled.

I looked around my apartment.  The entertainment center, the Playstation with one controller plugged in, the single microwave dinner on the table, the empty beer can.  Part of me began to die inside, just then.  That part of me so assured of my worth, the part convinced that I was valuable to the world.  I turned back to the genie, whose blue eyes met mine.

With a heart that felt like a lead weight in my chest, I announced my decision.

Geo Rivals

You’re driving home from work late at night when you begin to suspect the car behind you might be following you. You take every right turn until you have made a full circle. The car is still behind you…

Scene from Courtlyn Siepert: You’re driving home from work late at night when you begin to suspect the car behind you might be following you. You take every right turn until you have made a full circle. The car is still behind you…

Why are you so paranoid, and why are they after you?

I had been beaten. Again. This time I had the advantage though; I was intimately familiar with this neighborhood. I glanced in the rearview and made the turn, heading to the hillside that the latest clue had to represent. It would take anybody from outside the region days to do the research needed—

That’s when I noticed headlights in my rearview, making the same turn I had. My instincts twitched. Continue reading “Geo Rivals”

The Stench of the Hunt

What is that smell? And why are you wearing that?

“What is that smell?”

I wrestled the hip-waders off on the step, then peeled my socks off. Maya came to the open door. She was a head shorter than me, and considered plain by some. But the sparkle in her eyes and her questing mind made her shine. She came to the door now, and looked at me, watching me discard the protective gear, the poncho, the rubber gloves.

“And why are you wearing that?” Continue reading “The Stench of the Hunt”

When You Wish Upon a Star

There are more rules to wishing stars than you realize. One is that your wish only comes true years after you make it. Unfortunately for you, your wish has just come true.

I woke from a dream of shaking earth and sirens, and sat up, grumpy. The sirens didn’t stop. Somewhere, there must be a fire. I plodded into the kitchen in my underwear, then turned back to put on my slippers and a bathrobe. Thus armored against cold tile floors, I returned and filled an over-sized coffee mug with coffee. Sugar. Cream.

I looked at the curtained window, wondering what the ruckus was.  I sipped my coffee, taking the time to indulge the bleary, half-asleep fog of early waking. Then, with another sip of coffee, I shook off my sleepiness and went to the window. I found myself looking at a red stone wall. Not brick, a kind of glazed stone. It wasn’t flat; the wall curved, and each fitted stone had a curved surface, almost like . . .

“Scales?” Continue reading “When You Wish Upon a Star”

Unarmored

Night Diner

This is the third story in what I call the ‘Soul’ series, based on artwork by Klegs.

Original

Artwork: Night Diner, by Klegs (DeviantArt)

“Man, that was great!” Sarah was excited, animated, all the things that set me on edge. But she wasn’t like most people. I knew that she needed to just talk. I was content to listen, and she didn’t take offense.

“It was just me! I mean, the bar was a hole in the wall, but I wasn’t just opening for someone, either. They wanted me! They even applauded!”

I just sipped from my drink, listening. I remembered my impressions as she spoke, building her words and my memories into a fuller picture. The bar was small, and the stage tiny. It smelled like stale beer. People drank and played pool. At first, there was disinterest, then a spark of curiosity as a new face took the stage. “How did they look at you while you played?”

“Man, it was crazy!” Her hands came out of her pockets to gesture. “Everybody was looking at me. It was awesome! It was terrifying! You got to tell me you got pictures of it all, you got pictures, right?”

I remembered that spark of curiosity in their faces kindling into something more, glasses stopping in the air as people paused to look. I already knew that the footage of that moment would go into my final edits. “I got pictures. And I got video.”

“Awesome! We’re getting this on YouTube tonight, right?” Her hands took my arm, but let go again, going back into her pockets against the chill. “Sorry. I’m crowding you. I’m just so excited!”

I smiled and glanced over at her. It was a small smile, but meaningful, and from her expression of relief, I think she knew it. “You’re a step ahead.  Most people just think I need to change.”

“Screw them. You’re you, without regrets.  Anybody tries to make you change, I’ll kick their ass for you.” She thumped her hand on the rail for emphasis, and I could hear the metal resonate like a bell.

I smiled again and felt my cheeks heat. Not many people could get through my shell, but it always unsettled me how quickly those close to me could raise my emotions. I wasn’t used to being emotional. “Yeah. So YouTube. I don’t want to put it up raw. You did really good. Give me some time. I can make something great with this.”

“Yes!” She hopped in place, then clapped her hands. “Thank you! You! Are! Awesome!” I felt my cheeks heat more.

“Just doing what I can do.”

“Doing it great! For me! Without me even asking! Come on, you’re great. People get paid for that stuff!”

I looked at her, not knowing how to respond. I was tempted just to put on the armor and shrug, but I couldn’t do that to my best friend. Instead, I turned and hugged her. It was brief and awkward, then I let her go and turned back away, and put the straw in my mouth so I wouldn’t have to say anything.

She watched me, then leaned back against the rail. I glanced over, and she was grinning like a madwoman. “Thanks.”

I knew she wasn’t talking about the video editing. “Sure . . . you’re welcome.”