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.”

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”

Young Steel

You’ve decided it’s time you taught your granddaughter to use a sword.

My granddaughter came up the path, as she did every Monday and Thursday. It warmed me, to still have visitors; the hike into town had grown difficult for my old bones, though perhaps it was just the townsfolk. So many bled for them, and they seemed intent on forgetting it. Not my granddaughter, though. She was blooming into womanhood, but still took the time to visit an old man. She always asked for the old war stories.

Today, though, she came up the walk with a new hairstyle. Over her shoulder, hiding one cheek. It was pretty. But the look on her face was shaken, nervous.  Familiar.  “Amanda. Always a pleasure.” I hugged her, as always, then brushed her hair behind her ear before she knew what I’d done, showing the bruise on her cheek. “Were we going to talk about this?”

“No.” She was direct. She didn’t argue or make excuses.  I liked that about her.

“Well then . . . you like the old stories, right?”

She looked up, hesitating. She knew I rarely told her the real stories. I told her about where we went and the things we achieved there, but not the real grit of it. There were war stories, and there were the ‘old stories’. “Will you tell one?” Continue reading “Young Steel”

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.”

Photographer’s Spirit, Sniper’s Soul

A photographer and a sniper meet in a bar. Neither is aware of the other’s occupation. They talk about “how to take the perfect shot”.

 

Original

I looked at the mirror across the bar and surveyed the damage. The youthful man looking back at me was a mess.  My hair was full of dust; from the explosions, from the powdered concrete of ruined buildings, and from the ever-present road dust.  You couldn’t escape it.  The caked mud on my face was where the dust in the air had mixed with a bloody scrape.  a I sipped at the beer in my hands – the first I had found in a week – and sighed, savoring this respite from the chaos.

My companion was a more grizzled man.  He looked like he was used to conflict.  His hair was cropped shorter than mine, a week of beard went unnoticed by any razor, and a jagged, torn scar snaked along the line of his jaw like a disfiguring rope.  “You’re new to this, ain’tcha?”

“It’s my first time ‘in it.’  I took some fantastic shots, but . . . it’s chaos out here.  This country is a wreck.”

He smiled, putting an empty glass down, and the bartender refilled it with an amber liquid that smelled like kerosene. “Y’get used to it.  Learn to function in chaos, or go home.  Got some good shots myself.  See that bell tower up there?” He pointed through the window – a church steeple was visible from a few blocks away.  The top of it had been destroyed, leaving only a broken wall, and the crumbling stub of a staircase. “Before they secured the city, got some of the best shots of my life up there.” Continue reading “Photographer’s Spirit, Sniper’s Soul”

My Friend’s House.

Take me to your favorite place, your favorite moment, describe how it is in your memory or imagination.

Original

I crawled out the window onto the porch roof. The book in my hand struck the sill, but I didn’t dare lunge after it as it skidded down the roof. It slid to a stop just short of the gutter. I went and retrieved it, careful of the edge. My next stop was to cross to the far side of the porch and spread a double-fistful of peanuts. Rushing back to my bedroom window, I leaned back against the brick wall, my legs spread out before me on the slanted roof, and I opened the book.

The wind was cool in my hair. The sun was warm on my skin. The rustle of the leaves was comforting, like a mother shushing and comforting an upset child. For a time, I was lost in another world. Princes led men into battle, magic powers contested each other, and the forces of good and evil struggled. Then I heard something.

A scrabbling . . . a crunch. I looked up, and a squirrel had found my peanuts. She’d gotten bolder in the past weeks. She tore the shell of every peanut, stuffing them into her cheeks before rushing off to bury them. Five, six times. Then she ran out of peanuts. She sniffed around the roof, and I tossed one her direction. Instead of cringing away, she rushed for it, scooping it up, trying to fill her cheeks. I tossed another, closer; she advanced – stopped, looking up at me, then took that one, too.

Would it be today? Would she? I held one peanut out, in my fingers. She looked at me, and it seemed like she met my eyes, even though hers were pure black and on opposite sides of her head. She moved forward with that frenetic energy that squirrels have, stopping barely a foot away. Then she crept closer and snatched it from me. Suddenly she was five feet away and crunching through the shell.

It was okay. I was grinning like a fool, despite her distance. She’d come closer than ever before, and I knew she’d grow more comfortable with time. “Come on down for dinner!” It was faint, through the open window. I could ignore it, pretend I didn’t hear, but then they’d find me on the roof and that would be a whole different kind of trouble.

I leaned in the window and called back. “Be right down!” I climbed in, replacing the screen, then I brushed leaves and grit from my pants and socks. I changed my shirt so they wouldn’t see the dust from the mortar of the brick wall, and I shook my hair out just in case. It was a good thing I did – a leaf drifted down. Then I rushed downstairs for dinner, still smiling. I had a new friend!

Paranormal Activity

A challenge to myself, to write a story for a picture chosen by somebody else.

Original

Eight o’clock. I had n’ left work this late in months. All of the other purchasing agents had quit on me or were detailed to other tasks.  It was just me right now, and I was exhausted. The monorail roared down the track running parallel to the road, the street flashing bright and dark as the windows rushed by.  I didn’t pay it much heed, until it went dark, though.  The streetlights went out, the house lights went out, and I could tell the train wasn’t powering down the rails anymore, only coasting.

I turned around, and looked down the mountainside – I could see so much of the city from here – and I was just in time to see the whole city go dark in patches. The train stopped with a squeal and hiss of hydraulic brakes, and then everything was quiet.  I looked at the train and saw people in the glow of their phones, some pressing against the windows to see outside.  A city-wide blackout. Continue reading “Paranormal Activity”