Thursday, 24 of August of 2017

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Failed NaNo Friday: Headlong Part Three


“Ken, he’s been stuck in there for six hours now, in the dark. He’s hurt. He’s confused. We need to try to help him.” Cora was pacing, repeatedly running her fingers through her still damp hair. She’d let Ken talk her into sleep and then a shower while he and Stacy took turns guarding the door that used to lead to the kitchen. And she did feel better for it, but she couldn’t stand waiting outside any longer, not knowing what was probably happening behind the door. She’d barely exchanged three words with Ward since they’d met, but she knew all too well what he was going through, and no one deserved to have to deal with that alone.

“Cora, I hear you,” Ken began in his I-know-better tone, “but he was violent, and he’s probably worse now. We’re not equipped to restrain him without hurting him. We need to wait for…” he trailed off as footsteps approached on the porch. When Lucas stepped through the door, looking wrung out, Ken fell into such an obviously staged casual pose that Cora couldn’t help rolling her eyes.

For his part, Lucas burst out laughing. When he had his control back, he grinned and waggled his eyebrows at the two of them. “You, ah, working on the door there, Ken?” Following his gaze, Ken flushed when he saw the obvious signs of what he’d done six hours ago: the hammer propped against the jamb and the collection of small pieces of scrap wood jammed underneath the door as makeshift wedges. He put on a stern face and opened his mouth, but Lucas cut him off. “Hey, it’s cool. I don’t need to be asking any questions about any secret ninja witchcraft stuff.”

Ken turned even redder. “We are not witches!”

Lucas’s grin widened, and he winked as he backed across the room. “So, just ninjas then. Gotcha. Mum’s the word.”

As Lucas disappeared into the hall Cora wondered Where was he all night? Then realization hit her and she was chasing after him. “Lucas, wait up!”

Lucas stopped at the door to his bedroom and leaned casually against the wall. His face was serious, though. “What can I do for you, Cora?”

Cora stopped at the foot of the stairs and grabbed the top of the post with both hands. “Lucas, where did you go last night?”

A little sarcasm slipped back in with his reply, “A gentleman never tells, my dear.”

Cora shook her head. “Badly phrased. Did you see Ward last night?”

He nodded. “Yeah. I dropped by his place pretty soon after I left here, and we hung out for a while. Why?”

“Did he seem… strange?”

Lucas suddenly looked around uncomfortably. “Cora, where’s Gunner?”

Cora leaned forward intently. “I haven’t seen him since last night. Why, did Ward do something to him?”

“What? To him? No. We just talked. It, ah, turns out Gunner is Ward’s older brother, and they don’t get along, but I don’t think he would have done anything, no.”

Cora’s eyes narrowed. “Then why did you just get so nervous?”

Lucas rolled his eyes. “Because I’m tragically genre-savvy. Saying ‘Yeah, girl, turns out your boyfriend is my best friend’s older brother, but get this, my man Ward says your main squeeze is a sociopath,’ is a one way ticket to ‘He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he.’ It’s called ‘class,’ dear. And speaking of class, my aforementioned main man is way too classy to have done anything sneaky to Gunner, bad blood or no bad blood.”

Cora nodded and grimaced. “Normally I’d just take your word for that, but Ward wasn’t himself last… Wait, what do you mean, ‘sociopath?'”

“His word, not mine. He says it’s always like it’s been this week with… with us. Says Gunner comes on all charm and cool at first, then when he gets bored he gets mean, and eventually he just vanishes down the road again, and if you’re lucky you didn’t lend him your car or your…” Lucas trailed off, obviously searching for a replacement for the word he didn’t want to say.

“Heart.” Cora finished. “Well, that’s not good news for anyone.” She stopped and shifted uncomfortably under the weight of what she knew she was about to ask.

Lucas capitalized on the silence as he so often did. “What’s going on with Ward, Cora? What do you know about who he was last night?”

Cora sighed and closed her eyes for a second, gathering herself. “Ward needs help, Lucas. You can help me help him, if you’re willing to get involved with our secrets. But it won’t be pretty.”

Lucas stepped toward her, scowling. “Does Ward need help because he got involved with your secrets, Cora? Did you guys drag him into something?”

“Yes and no, in that order. I don’t know how it happened. If we’re lucky he’ll be able to fill us in when he’s out of danger. I’ve told you all I can tell you unless you’re going on.”

Lucas sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. Then he dropped his hands to his sides and nodded solemnly. “I’m in. Now what’s going on?”

Cora stepped around the post and held her hands up in front of her, as though in prayer. “Not just yet. Hold your hands up like this.” Lucas raised an eyebrow but did so. Cora then clasped her hands around his and held them tightly. “Repeat after me. I, Lucas Martin…”

“I, Lucas Martin…”

“…will keep the secrets that Cora asks me to keep, listen to Cora when she tries to tell me something important, and generally not be a jerk.” Lucas bit back a laugh and repeated her, and she smiled but did not release his hands. “And I, Cora Lessing, will try to keep you from getting in over your head, not keep secrets from you for no reason, and generally not be a jerk. In the light of order, let it be so.” She nodded at him by way of prompting, and he repeated the last sentence.

“Good,” she said, releasing his hands. “Let’s get you a cup of coffee while I give you the short, short version.”


Five minutes later they sat at the kitchen table. Lucas was experimentally sipping a cup of instant coffee and Cora was wracking her brain for a way to explain quickly the broad strokes of what he would need to know. “You know the word ‘chaos,’ right?” She waited for Lucas to nod and continued. “Only what you know is small-c chaos, the absence of order. The same way that cold is the absence of heat. What we’re dealing with is big-c Chaos, which is a force all by itself. True Chaos is capable of literally anything, but it burns itself out quickly. The world just won’t accept it for long. But when it goes, things are… different. When a person encounters Chaos, it drives them insane if it doesn’t kill them. But sometimes, and we don’t really know why it happens when it happens, sometimes people survive, and manage to keep, or rather regain, their sanity. And those people wind up with… secrets. Like me, and Ken, and Stacy.”

“Ninja witchcraft secrets?”

“Essentially. We can all do… tricks, I guess. This is coming out all wrong.” Cora shook her head in frustration. “I’m distilling too much and it’s coming out stupid.”

Lucas set down his coffee and held up a hand placatingly. “This is just the short short version, so let’s focus on what’s up with Ward, hmm? I’ll ask more questions later.”

Cora nodded. “Okay. Ward showed up last night, hostile and raving. I know it doesn’t sound like him–from the little I’ve been around him, I’d say it’s not like him. But it happened. I suppose he could just have gone crazy, but I have reason to believe that he survived a brush with Chaos and was suffering the aftereffects.”

Lucas dropped his hand. “Is he all right? What did you do with him?”

“We… we trapped him, Lucas, and soon we’re going to have to go in and see if he’s all right. That’s where you could help us out. You know him better than any of us, you have the best chance of getting through to him if he’s still confused.”

Lucas looked over at the door from the kitchen into the living room. “Is this connected to Ken’s sudden home improvement project?”

“Yeah. We trapped him behind the kitchen door and then Ken wedged it shut.”

Lucas shook his head. “I know I’m going to regret saying this, but, you do realize that we’re behind the kitchen door, right?”

Cora let herself smile a genuine smile. “Not exactly. Come with me, this is really cool.” Cora led Lucas, still holding his coffee, back to the living room the long way. Ken was still leaning on the wall. “Ken,” Cora said, “Lucas has agreed to go in with me and look for Ward. Would you open the door?”

Ken looked sour, but he nodded and set to work. As he knocked wedges free, Cora pulled a pair of flashlights from her backpack, then zipped the pack closed and shrugged it on. Lucas just took a long drink from his coffee and waited. Ken finished with the hammer, set it aside, and cleared an errant chunk of wood from the door’s space. “Lucas,” he said, “I assume Cora’s told you that we’ve got certain talents. Well, this is mine.” After a beat, Ken swung the door open. Where the kitchen should have been, there was instead a dark empty room. Bare, smooth concrete floor and ceiling stretched as far as the light let them see, and there was no sign of any wall.

Lucas sighed and drained his coffee.

“I… I wasn’t expecting this reaction, Lucas, I’ll be honest,” Ken said.

Lucas just shook his head and walked up to the door. He set his coffee mug down just on the edge of the carpet, then used the hammer to push it across onto the concrete. Then he stood up and walked out of the room. After a few seconds of confused anticipation, Ken jumped aside as an apple bounced out of the door, unseen until it cleared the threshold. Lucas stepped through after it, shaking his head. “I was really hoping you guys were just crazy.”

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Failed NaNo Friday: America’s Next Failed NaNo

So, at the time this will post there will be thirty six hours left until the beginning of NaNoWriMo 2009. I almost said thirty seven there, because of Daylight Savings, but the time change officially happens at 2:00 AM on Sunday, November 1st. So take heart, NaNo Warriors! This November is actually a whole hour longer than it would first appear!

Now I’ve got no excuse for not getting fifty thousand words written by the deadline.

So, as I mentioned in the podcast yesterday, it’s now time for me to figure out what the heck I’m going to try to write this year. I have a vague notion that I’d like to involve the Philadelphia Experiment in some way, but beyond that I’m pretty blank.

I don’t want to try to tell the story of the Philadelphia Experiment directly, by the way–that ground’s been pretty well covered already, I think. I just think it’s a fun concept, and might make good background for some kind of near future thriller.

Updates as thoughts come to me, and feel free to make wacky suggestions in the comments, or, better yet, describe what you’d write for NaNoWriMo.

–Jake out

Update: As I Tweeted earlier, this morning I woke up with the basic idea. The Philadelphia Experiment stays, for now, albeit as deep background. Plot? Characters? Outline? I have no need of such things. For I… have an idea! We’ll see if that’s enough to get “Saving Lives” off the ground.

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Failed NaNo Friday: Headlong Part 2

This installment of Headlong carries a very similar content warning to the last, to wit: unsympathetic narrator! explicit language! violence! flee for your lives!


He waited in the shadow of the porch, uneasily shifting the messenger bag from shoulder to shoulder. It wasn’t all that heavy, but even after years of similar drops the contents of the bag still made him nervous. Not many things did, any more. He was sure it wasn’t his imagination–he did sense an awareness from inside the bag. Slumbering, to be sure, but there nonetheless. It made his skin crawl. It made his brain crawl.

Finally the front door of the house opened, though the porch light remained off. A young woman, dressed for a casual evening home, stepped to the porch railing, just a few feet from him. She did not look at him or acknowledge his presence in any way, just stood staring off into space with her hands resting on the rail. Her left hand was curled into a fist, except for the thumb and first finger, which stuck out at right angles.

Seeing the all clear signal, Galen relaxed a bit, just a bit, and softly gave the countersign. “Segmentata.”

The girl looked at him then, and smiled. “Good to see you again, Galen.”

Galen stepped forward and gave a tight smile in return. “You too, Cora. Though I can’t say I appreciate the circumstances.” He unslung the bag and held it out toward her gingerly. “Keep it safe, and don’t open it. Someone will be by in a few days to pick it up.”

Cora gulped and took the bag slowly, flinching visibly when her hands touched it. “I don’t get it. Why don’t you burn it like always?”

Galen shook his head gravely. “This one needs special care. Don’t try to deal with it yourself, Cora. I mean that. It’s probably the most dangerous one we’ve found in ten years.”

Cora hung the bag by its strap from the doorknob and backed away from it. “You still haven’t told me why you need to leave it here at all.”

“Cora, I… Something’s following me. Or maybe that. If it’s after me, I can’t afford to have that when and if it catches up again. If it’s after that… Well Ken’s box is the best hiding place we know of. It’ll be safe here until we figure out what’s going on.”

Cora latched onto something in that that made her forget about the bag, temporarily. “Catches up again? Galen, are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine.”

But Cora was having none of it. Instantly she was back at the rail and holding Galen’s shoulder. “Don’t be stupid. You can’t take the chance of an infection.” Suddenly her hand was doing the glow/no glow thing that always bothered him. Warmth flooded him, concentrating on the puckered gash on his thigh. When it receded, the wound was still there, but smaller, and he knew he had no need to fear infection now. Not a natural infection, anyway.

Galen sighed. “Sometimes I wish you would teach me that. It might be worth melting my brain a bit.”

Cora hissed reprovingly. “Don’t even joke about that. The rules are there for a reason. We don’t seek power, you of all people know that!”

Galen nodded. “Sorry, I’m just tired. I’m going to hit the road and see if I can find a place to sleep.”

Cora sighed and released his shoulder. “I’m sorry too. Be safe, Galen.”

Galen turned half way around, then stopped and looked back at Cora. “I’d almost forgotten. I’m supposed to tell you that you’re about to run into a candidate. Or maybe you already have, Walter wasn’t sure.”

Cora smiled. “I think I know who it is. Tell Walter thanks for telling me.”

Galen smiled and nodded, tipping an imaginary hat. Then he was gone. She hadn’t seen him go, but then, she would have been worried if she had.

Gunner slipped back into the house about an hour later. Finding out that the musical buddy Luke wouldn’t shut up about really was Dear Baby Brother had been fantastic, but after the amusement wore off he started wondering why Cora had been so calm about him wanting to step out instead of spending the evening with her. Not even calm, really, almost… eager. Like she’d been looking for an excuse to get rid of him anyway. Little Cora might be slicker than he’d suspected. So when he came back from tailing Luke he parked a few blocks away and let himself into the yard by the back gate. When he arrived, Cora had been standing on the porch with a shoulder bag, shifting it from hand to hand like she was nervous about something. Gunner hadn’t seen the bag in any of Cora’s things, so it was new. It was new, and she was nervous about it, and she wanted to keep it a secret. From him, from everybody.

Cora, baby, are you a mule? A dealer? The thought was almost too delicious to bear. Gunner knew he had to get inside that sack somehow. So he waited, and when Cora finally went back inside with the bag, he followed her movements through the windows. Upstairs to the room that Kenny and his whore of a girlfriend Stacy shared, then back to her room, and lights out. He ghosted into the house, padded up the stairs, and slipped into Ken’s room. Between the night light in the corner and the street lamps shining through the window he could navigate the room easily. He already had a good idea where the bag would be, but to draw out the anticipation he checked all the places he knew it wouldn’t be first. Not under the bed, no. Not in the closet, no, neither on the floor nor up on the shelf. Not on the bookshelves. Not in the underwear drawer, although he was amused to see that Stacy apparently was kinkier than she made out. None of those places would have it, of course. No, it would be in the Devil Trunk.

He’d spotted, and named, the Devil Trunk on his first day in the house. Cora was giving him the tour and through the open door he saw a weird looking wooden box. The wood was blackened, like it had been in a fire, and there were crazy jagged symbols carved all over the outside, and a big ancient-looking padlock on the front. He’d laughed and asked Ken if that was where he kept his spellbooks, and damn if Ken hadn’t clammed up like a champ right then. After that Ken and Stacy kept their door closed when Gunner was around.

The Devil Trunk squatted at the foot of the bed, daring him to open it. There was the padlock, of course, but picking locks, especially old ones, is mainly a question of dexterity and patience. Well supplied with the first if not the second, Gunner grabbed a couple of hairpins from the dresser and made short work of the crude mechanism. The lock fell open with a click and he slipped it free of the hasp quietly.

Gunner grinned like an excited child as he lifted the top of the trunk. The inside was dark, so he grabbed the little flashlight from his keychain and shined a light down. And down. And down. He wasn’t looking into a space a couple of feet on a side, he was looking down through a hatch into a room. The floor was at least ten feet away, and he couldn’t even see the walls. Unmarked boxes and random bits of clutter were stacked haphazardly below him. And right at the top, hanging from a hook driven into the side of the hatch, was the black messenger bag he’d seen Cora with on the porch.

What the hell? Gingerly, Gunner reached down into the Devil Trunk as far as he could. No bottom. Even when he knew his fingers were well below the floor of the room, no bottom. He tried shifting the trunk a foot to the right, but the view through the hatch didn’t change, and his fingers still didn’t find floor. Grinning even more, he lifted the trunk completely off the floor. It was heavier than it looked, but that was the only evidence that something was not right about it. The view through the hatch still didn’t change. And when he tipped it up on its side the bag still hung straight and the stacked boxes didn’t tumble.

This is the coolest thing I have ever seen. Gunner didn’t know or care how it worked, but he knew when he left Larson he was taking the Devil Trunk with him. First thing’s first, though. He set the trunk down and pulled the bag out. It was heavier than he’d expect for drugs, but given what he’d already seen he wasn’t placing any bets on what was going to be in the bag. It didn’t even occur to him that what was in the bag might present a danger to him, nor did he notice the sensation of being watched that stole over him when he touched it. Gunner impatiently undid the clasps and threw open the top of the bag.

Inside was a book. A large thin book, bound in leather with black iron clasps and weird symbols burned into the cover all over, the kind you’d see on somebody’s coffee table in hell. Vaguely disappointed but still curious, Gunner opened the book and started flipping the thick, musty pages. The writing was so spidery he could barely make out any recognizable letters, and the brown ink didn’t stand out very well from the brown paper, but he thought it might be Latin. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but there were occasional diagrams, so he kept flipping, hoping to figure out what was up.

Most of the diagrams were drawings of what looked like a dissection. Page after page of some creepy looking thing that was almost, but not quite, human. Limbs and such were present in the right numbers, but the proportions were off, arms and fingers too long, joints bent in odd angles. And if he wasn’t mistaken, at least some of those pieces that had been peeled back and cut off were meant to be metal.

Gunner should have been feeling uncomfortable by that point, but he wasn’t feeling anything at all. He flipped pages rapidly, mechanically, and his eyes darted across each page, absorbing even if they didn’t comprehend. Finally, after far more flipping than a book of that size should have required, he reached the last page, which was one large diagram. It was a slightly misshapen circle, filled with radiating lines that met and parted in ways that the human eye doesn’t want to follow. Symbols were scribed along each line, so fine they would look like dots without a magnifyer, and in the center the paper itself seemed to fade away, as if the center of the page were a portal to some other place.

Gunner sat there, motionless, for an hour. He just stared blankly at the center of the page. He was so entranced that he did not notice when the Other entered the room.

It was another three hours before Ken and Stacy got home. They didn’t want to wake anyone, so they didn’t turn on any lights when they got to their room. Silently they undressed by the door, dropping their things on the floor to be picked up in the morning. Stacy crawled into bed and was asleep before her head hit the pillow, but Ken stubbed his toe on something on the way and bit back a curse. He crouched down to see what the heavy thing was, and was startled to find his chest in the middle of the floor. Suddenly wary, he felt blindly at the lid. Closed and locked, and the lock was secure. Mind eased somewhat, he pushed it back to its normal place and crawled into bed.


Ward climbed the staircase doggedly. From where he stood he could see landings above and below him, but no end to the stairs. To either side other stairways crossed the enormous room, leaving no space for anything else. The staircases were dotted with groups of people, some climbing and some descending. Whenever their stairs came close to Ward’s, which was often, the people in the other groups would call out to him. They were people he knew, sometimes people he hadn’t seen in years, sometimes people he saw every day, and sometimes people he hadn’t met yet. Sometimes he asked them where they were going, but they never answered. Everything they said was a variation on the same theme.

“You’re on the wrong path,” Lucas told him, smiling. “Hop over here.”

Ward just shook his head and kept climbing. The red tile clicked under the soles of his shoes, and his hand felt clammy on the tarnished steel handrail. A dozen steps went by and then he was drawing even with a staircase crossing on the other side. A group of his old high school classmates was there, and Lucy Gellar from Algebra turned to him. “Come on over, Ward, that one doesn’t go anywhere.”

Ward didn’t even bother to shake his head this time. On he went, turning down teachers, relatives, and old friends. He never slowed, never got tired.

After what might have been an hour or a minute Ward saw something strange. It took him a while to figure out what was wrong about what he was seeing up ahead, but then it came clear. Someone was just standing there, not moving in either direction. Just standing, right where his staircase met hers, was Cora.

“There’s no one else on that path,” she called as he got closer. “Doesn’t that tell you something?”

Ward stopped a few steps down from her and planted his hands on his hips. “I’ve got to walk my own path.”

She nodded. “But what makes you think you’re the one who decides what that is?” Suddenly she grinned, and Ward jumped back, startled. Her teeth were shining chrome fangs, and something with sharp, angular edges moved under the skin of her face. He started to overbalance, and grabbed the rail for support. Unable to dodge or flee, he threw up his left arm to shield himself, but it was gone. Just… gone. Blood trickled from a clean cut just below his elbow, and as he watched in horror, tiny chrome tendrils poked out from inside the ruin of his arm, waving blindly in the air.

Cora grinned even wider, and when she opened her skullsplitting jaws the voice that came out was not human. “We will come for the rest of you soon.”

Ward woke with a strangled scream and lurched off his couch in mad flight. His feet tangled in the blanket, sending him crashing into the stereo. His elbow cracked against the corner of the speaker, knocking it over and starting a bone-deep bruise. He barely noticed, just caught himself on the stand and kicked his way free before launching himself at the door. Still off balance, he slammed into the door with a jarring thud that cleared his head somewhat. He blinked and looked around at his dark, empty apartment. What am I running from? It was just a dream…

The dim shadows cast by the light bleeding through the curtains writhed and coalesced into a hulking mound of darkness. Ward stared, paralyzed. Soon there was a column of shadow spreading along the floor and ceiling, growing in irregular pulsing jerks, like a diseased heartbeat. In the center of the mass Ward saw a dull glint, like a reflection off the barrel of a gun. The glint moved from side to side, as though looking around, and the inhuman voice from the dream grated “You can not run from us. We are in you.”

The shadow surged forward, and when it overtook Ward it felt like sinking into a pool of cold, dirty oil. Shocked into action, Ward frantically fumbled the latch open with cold-numbed fingers and ripped his door open. Fighting screams of panic, he fell through the opening and half fell up the stairs to the street, splitting the skin over his right knee on the edge of a concrete step.

The darkness followed, of course, snuffing the lights in the stairwell as it rolled out of the apartment into the freedom of the outside. Ward didn’t have to look to know how close it was–the cold that grabbed at his bare heels as he ran down the sidewalk and the shifting shadows as street lamps winked out behind him told him all he needed to know. The voice called from time to time, asking why he ran, but mostly it just wheezed dry laughter. Ward ran past exhaustion, heedless of the cold of the autumn night, heedless of how he must look, running down a sidewalk in the middle of the night dressed only in plaid flannel pajama pants, heedless of the cuts and scrapes accumulating on his bare feet. All that mattered was staying ahead of that voice. He ran without a thought to any eventual destination, changing directions randomly when he saw what looked like an easier path, or sometimes when a shadow to one side spooked him further. The real danger, though, was always behind him, and he was not leaving it any farther behind no matter how he ran.

Suddenly Ward crashed headlong into a chain link fence he hadn’t noticed in the moonlight. He tried desperately to catch his breath, knowing that it was useless, that this delay was the end of the chase, but the shadow and the voice held back, toying with him. As he gathered himself for renewed flight, Ward realized what he was seeing beyond the fence. A big, old house, two stories and an attic, with gables that seemed to frown down at him. Light shone from the ground floor windows and the porch. Lucas’s house. And… Yes. Of course, it has to be her. Cora!

Ward snarled and scrambled over the fence, spraining a toe and cutting his hands, and hit the yard running. He was up the porch steps and at the front door in seconds, and he didn’t even slow. There was no storm door, and the front door popped free of the frame at the impact of his shoulder. The shadow, apparently taken by surprise, was barely to the porch when he slammed the door shut and threw the deadbolt, trying to ignore the thump and scratching sounds from the other side of the flimsy barrier.

Shaking, Ward spun around and saw that he was not alone in the room. There she was, sitting cross legged on the end of the couch, holding a cell phone and staring wide-eyed at her frantic guest. “W-ward? Lucas isn’t–“

Cora didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence, because Ward was there, grabbing her shoulders and shaking her. “What do you want with me?” he shouted. “Why are you after me?” Without giving her a chance to respond, Ward snatched the phone from her and shoved her down onto the couch. He whirled on the door and shouted, into the phone, at the door, “Leave me alone! You can’t have it! Not my hand, not anything! Just leave me–“

“HEY!” came a man’s voice from the other end of the room. “Just what the hell do you–“

Ward spun and hurled the phone with a snarl at the half naked man who stood in the other doorway. Despite, or perhaps because of, his fear and confusion, he came very close to hitting–the phone brushed Ken’s hair on its way into the kitchen. Cora took this moment to stand up, waving her arms. “Ken, I’m fine. He’s confused, Ken. He thinks we’re after him.”

“Thinks? Thinks!” Ward spat at Cora. “I know! I know because you told me! You told me on the stairs, before you grew your teeth! You can’t take it back now, even if your teeth are back!” Shaking with rage, he faced Ken. “And you! You,” suddenly confused, he paused. “I don’t know you.” Ken held up one hand calmly, and swung the door behind him almost closed with the other. He started to say something, but when he opened his mouth Ward saw the chrome fangs again, and the metallic shape moving underneath his skin. “You’re the thing from outside! You got inside somehow and now you’re going to take my arm! Well you can’t have it!” Despite his terror, Ward actually took a step forward and pointed menacingly at the thing that called itself Ken Silva.

Ken sneered. “That’s right. I’m coming for your arm. And you’re going to be easy meat, too.”

Cora gasped. “Ken, what the hell?”

“It’s okay, Cora, he can know. It doesn’t matter. He’s too much of a coward to actually face us. This little rat is going to keep on running in the wrong direction!”

Ward’s vision condensed to a red-rimmed oval around Ken. “The hell I will! I’ll face you right now!” He lunched forward, but Ken threw himself aside, dragging the door open behind him, and Ward stumbled into the kitchen. At least, it should have been the kitchen. Instead of the avocado tiles and peeling linoleum he’d seen on his previous visits, Ward was standing on a bare concrete floor, lit only by the light cast through the doorway. Soon even that light was gone as the door slammed shut. Ward was surrounded by shadow, the shadow that chased him, only it wasn’t behind him any more, it had looped around and trapped him and he’d fallen for it and now there was no way out, no light, no hope, nothing but the dark and the cold and the voices and the sick sensation of unseen fingers on his skin.

Ward lunged to his feet and fled back towards the door, but it wasn’t there. He ran on, hoping to find a wall and another way out, but after running for what seemed like hours he tripped and sprawled on the concrete, sobbing.

“It is over,” the voice purred. “We have you now, and we will make you one of us.”

Ward curled up and lost himself in darkness.

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Failed NaNo Friday: Crooked Crown 2

The Thane’s hall was a hulking granite lump in the center of the oldest part of Old Tewett, an overgrown keep long since bedecked beyond any military usefulness with balconies, ballrooms, and colonnaded walks. Every few generations a more paranoid Thane would come into power and brick over the largest windows and wall in the balconies, but when the wind inevitably shifted the other direction the renovations always seemed to run to further additions, rather than remodels. The end result was a drafty, tortuous pile of hallways and rooms, many quite fine, that seemed to have been the result of some kind of civic implosion.

As Quick’s party approached, the Lamplighter guards parted, handing off their charges to the Thane’s civic guards, resplendent in their green and white livery. In addition to their normal kit, their halberds were decorated with small green ribbons–somewhat jarring on such obsessively honed weapons. The entrance designated for party guests was surrounded by shining crystals that made it impossible to see inside past a few feet. A page at the entrance took invitations from Quick and Naiden, bowed, and ran inside without a word. A few moments later he was back, motioning them into the hall. Quick let Naiden take the lead and formed a rear guard to shepherd Daire forward. In the relative darkness of the hallway, Quick found he could barely see well enough to follow his friends. He walked delicately, afraid he’d brush some display of exotic fragilia and cause an incident.

Just as his eyes were starting to adjust, Quick saw that they had arrived at a set of double doors. The sounds of music and conversation filtering through from the other side seemed to enter Quick’s ears and bypass his brain entirely, nestling in some more primitive pleasure center. He grinned as liveried servants stepped out of alcoves and threw the doors open. A senior servant inside, already informed of their identities, announced without looking “Master Naiden Agnithe. Master Daire Agnithe. Master Quinn Callan.”

As the three crossed the threshold, a sprawling multi-leveled ballroom spread out before them. In the center, couples whirled and spun to a rolling tune played by unseen strings, layered skirts and beaded breeches flashing in the dazzling light that seemed to come from everywhere. On raised galleries around the dance floor the dancers’ older relatives maneuvered in shifting patterns of their own, conversations forming and dissolving by some internal logic as the rich and powerful drifted in and out of private salons and each other’s orbits. Through it all, servants ghosted about with trays of food and drink, unseen except when needed.

Quick turned to Daire, prepared to extract the gratitude he was due for bringing his friend to such a fantastic party, but Naiden spoke up first. “Come, Daire, your father beckons.” The older Lamplighter put one big hand on his cousin’s shoulder and turned him in the appropriate direction.

And indeed Donel Agnithe, patriarch and unquestioned head of the Lamplighter clan, was beckoning his son and nephew from a small balcony across the room. In the two-and-a-bit years since Quick had last seen the old man, he hadn’t changed much. The dramatic crest of graying auburn hair, like rusty iron, still drew the gaze to his piercing gray eyes and beak of a nose. He still carried the stick Quick remembered being chastised with after a few memorable boyhood misadventures, a long irregular shaft of milky quartz with a single half-twist near the top, which glowed when its owner was angry (or, Quick suspected, when he wanted to appear angry). The changes came to Quick only on his second survey: perhaps a more defined stoop, which enhanced his raptorial mien; more iron among the rust in his hair; a darkening around the eyes, making them hooded and inscrutable.

“Well, by all means go and pay your respects, Daire, but do seek me out when you can. Family is family, but we must have our priorities, mustn’t we?” Quick grinned and clapped his friend on the back. Daire smiled back–a genuine smile, for a wonder–and turned to follow his cousin.

Quick turned, trying to decide between food, drink, and dancing (could he perhaps combine two of those?), but changed his mind when he saw a swirl of gray silk on a nearby balcony. There was a reunion to be had, and Quick grinned as he maneuvered through the crowd, snagging a pewter goblet of chilled punch from a passing servant. Between the door and the balcony the punch had been quaffed and its container placed on another passing tray. Quick took the steps up to his destination in one bounding stride and slipped between the heavy velvet curtains, half-drawn, that made an ersatz room of the small balcony. Sure enough, his eyes had not failed him. The slender girl–young woman now, surely–in a silvery gray silk gown, now turning and smiling with recognition, was precisely whom he’d thought.

“Quick, I didn’t know you were already back in town!” the young lady swept towards Quick, ornamental draping layers of her gown floating out like pennants with the motion.

Quick took her hand and swept a deep and flourishing bow around a courtly kiss on her knuckles, then rose and allowed himself to be drawn into a less formal but more friendly hug. Upon disengaging, he grinned and said “Ciara, my dear, I’ve barely had a chance to brush the road dust from my boots. I’d planned to call on you tomorrow, but luckily for me you’re here now!”

For some reason that brought a flash of irritation–or sadness?–to Ciara’s face, but her returning smile reassured Quick that it hadn’t been directed at him. She opened her mouth to speak, but a masculine voice at Quick’s elbow cut in “Duels have been fought over less familiar attentions, stranger.” It sounded like an observation, not a threat. Or not entirely a threat.

Surprised, Quick turned. He knew one of the two men that now faced him, but Ciara’s older brother Kai was not the speaker. That one was tall and broad, dressed in loose-fitting black and silver, with black hair cropped close on the sides, perhaps to showcase the scar that started at his cheekbone and ended at a notch on top of his left ear. Quick found his angular face frustratingly familiar, but couldn’t place him. Kai, his family’s traditionally pale and slender build unusually marked in contrast to his large companion, smirked and said “You needn’t fear competition from this quarter. My sister has known Quinn since they were both small, as have I. He’s harmless.”

Quick had been preparing an explanatory introduction, but let it die unspoken and simply raised an eyebrow at Kai. The silenced stretched for a beat before the stranger broke it “Ah, that would make you the young Callan, Turi’s son. I don’t know if we’ve met. I’m called Wolfgang.” He bowed slightly from the waist and did not extend his hand.

Oh. That one. Wonderful. Quick realized why Wolfgang looked familiar–he was usually standing somewhere behind the Thane at official functions, a dark-clad unsmiling man with no title and no House, but a lifetime’s worth of whispered rumors and suspicion. The Thane’s Left Hand, he was called–albeit only when he was clearly not present. Quick responded with a mere nod of the head, technically correct for a son of even a minor House like Callan to a Houseless freeman, but much less than Wolfgang usually received. The taller man’s lips twitched in suppressed amusement at the nuance. Quick decided it was past time to speak for himself, and said “I don’t believe we have formally met before tonight, good sir Wolf, but that seems to have been mended now. Am I to interpret the talk of competition as a clue to your intentions towards my friend here?”

Ciara had moved around Quick by this time, and spoke up “That’s what everyone says, but you hardly ever call on me lately, Wolfgang. One could think you were more interested in my father than me, given our relative time with you.” She was smiling, Quick was sad to see.

“Please, sister. Everyone knows the way to win a young lady’s hand is to win her father’s trust.” He playfully poked Wolfgang’s shoulder, but the gesture met no response. Indeed, Wolfgang seemed focused entirely on Ciara, clearly forming a response. He settled on something and opened his mouth.

“Speaking only for myself,” Quick interrupted, scowling befuddledly at his hand and wiggling his fingers slowly, “I find that my heart influences the disposition of my hand far more frequently than the converse.” He was gratified to be rewarded by a chuckle from Ciara, and a little surprised at an answering rumbling laugh, albeit a beat late, from Wolfgang.

Wolfgang shook his head ruefully. “I’m a simple man, and I take my tasks one by one. Can I be blamed for finding the patriarch of the Shroudweavers less intimidating than his beautiful daughter?” Ciara laughed again, and blushed.

I wasn’t supposed to set him up for a joke. Damnit! Quick’s inward musings on how to embarrass or entrap this oaf were cut short by Kai. “Sister, you must come with me. There’s a little family business that needs us.”

Ciara sighed and shook her head. “Bless my father, but he does not understand the purpose of a party. Very well, I’ll take my leave of you gentlemen now, and hope to see you each again soon.” She backed up a step and curtsied, flashing a cockeyed smile. Kai was already at the curtain, and she hurried after.

“Well, I suppose I’ll need to have extra fun to make up for–“

Quick was just turning to exit the balcony when Wolfgang’s hand closed on his shoulder. “Come with me, Callan, I need to talk to you.”

It didn’t sound like a request, so Quick let himself be steered toward a shadowed doorway leading away from the ballroom. The hallways deeper into the keep were quite dark after the party, and for the first few turns Quick was blindly following the hand on his shoulder. Soon enough, though, they arrived in a tiny bare room. Its irregular shape suggested it was a byproduct of other, more important structural features, and indeed it didn’t seem to have any use now, except possibly as a storage closet, if the dusty barrel in the corner was a guide. Wolfgang closed the door behind them, and the only light came from a crystal torch Wolfgang had picked up somewhere. He jammed that into a convenient crack in the wall and leaned back against the door, looking much more sinister than he had among the party guests.

“I note your father is not among us tonight.” Another observation, with no hint in voice or posture to his intent.

Quick stood in the middle of the room, confused. “He doesn’t often attend functions, so it’s not personal.”

“But you’re here. Just back in town, you said. At some private academy for the past two years, but now back and ready to take an active role in your family.” Wolfgang ran a finger absently along a scar on the palm of his left hand while he talked, seemingly to the air.

“Factually correct, if somewhat oddly slanted,” Quick critiqued, “so clearly you have no need of my input, and I should be going.”

Wolfgang continued as though he hadn’t heard anything. “Back to the city just when the old feud between the city’s two most mysterious factions looks ready to boil over into the streets. I understand that chaos and change go hand in hand. To a certain kind of person, possibilities might suggest themselves.”

“The major possibility that suggests itself in a war between the Lamplighters and the Shroudweavers is the destruction of Tewett, which I devoutly hope does not come to pass, as I live here.”

“There was a young man with you at the Academy, a Roan Killain.” Quick only nodded, unsure where this was going. “He did not complete the term. It was said that he returned home because of the death of his father, but it was also known that his family could no longer afford the tuition. There were whispers of scandal. His father, so the story went, had sought to improve the fortunes of his house by selling a large stockpile of grain when the price was high enough. To hasten that, in the rumor, he hired brigands to attack river vessels that hauled grain towards Tewett. People would become hungry, prices would go up, and the Killains would make a handsome profit on their secret hoard of grain.”

“I heard that rumor,” Quick admitted, “but I didn’t know whether to credit it.”

Wolfgang shrugged. “Who can say? Certainly there was an increase in river banditry last fall, especially towards grain barges, but rumors often weave coincidental events into their conspiracies. Certainly people did start to go hungry, but before the crisis point the banditry ceased and the market was flooded with cheap grain from an unknown source. It was about that time that the elder Killain was found in his study, the victim of a tragic suicide. Apparently–for reasons unknown to the living, as he left no note–he stabbed himself.”

“I hadn’t heard that was how he–“

“Seven times.”

Quick swallowed, thinking of some of the rumors he’d heard about this man. “That’s terrible, but I don’t see–“

“Just thinking out loud, about what happens when someone tries to arrange something that would be bad for my city but good for himself.” Wolfgang straightened and flashed his teeth in a mirthless grin. “I’ll leave you to your party, young Callan. Good evening.” Without waiting for a response he let himself out and strolled down the hall, door swinging behind him.

What in the three frozen hells was that?

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Failed NaNo Friday: Headlong Part 1

I mentioned my 2006 NaNoWriMo entry last week, and here’s the first part. There’s a content advisory on this one, so be advised.

Warning: Contains explicit language, violence, and an unsympathetic POV character.


“Another one, Ziggy. And maybe get some booze in it this time?”
The thick bald man behind the bar rolled his eyes, but he got to work without dawdling. Soon enough he came over with the finished drink. “If you just wanted rum, Gunner, you shouldn’t have ordered a mojito.”
Just mix the drinks, bar monkey. Gunner didn’t let his annoyance show, flashing his best smile–best any guy was going to get, anyway–as he slipped what would have been Ziggy’s tip out of the little pile of bills on the bar. He took his drink and started making his way back through the bar crowd. Even after four months in this town, he didn’t understand why Thursday was a big bar night for the students, but he was more than willing to take advantage of the target rich environment.
His latest conquest to be was back from the bathroom, waiting at the table with his pitcher. She flashed what she probably thought was a coy smile when she saw him. Oh yeah, he grinned back, you’re mine. He slid onto his stool, setting the sugary minty monstrosity he’d ordered on the table between them. “Shelley, you’ve got to try one of these. They’re supposed to be really hot right now.”
She grinned, a little unsteady, and reached for the mojito. “Okay, but you’re going to have to give me a lift home.” She chuckled, drunkenly pleased with her innuendo.
“We’ll work something ou–What the fuck!” Gunner shot to his feet as cold liquid drenched his back. He whirled, one hand making a fist, the other slipping into his pocket. Two frat boys had taken over the table behind him. One had a dripping upended pitcher and an angry smile. The other was trying to stifle laughter. They both stood up.
“Sorry, br-bro,” Chuckles choked out. “Didn’t, ah, didn’t see you there.”
Gunner’s left hand closed around the yellowed ivory case of the straight razor in his pocket and he felt himself calm down. A little. His eyes narrowed, but he forced a cold smile. “So, did you guys lose a bet? Or did you just decide it’d be fun to get your asses kicked tonight?”
Pitcher stepped forward, poking the empty container at Gunner’s nose. “We’re friends of Candi’s, asshole.”
“Good for you. That means what to me, now?”
Pitcher swung then, and Gunner knocked over his stool getting out of the way. The legs caught his leg, almost tripping him. Even so, he’d have a bruise or two in the morning. Oh you’re making yourself a real nuisance, college boy. For his part, Pitcher overbalanced and wound up sprawled over the table, spilling Gunner’s beer and Shelley’s mojito all over. Shelley shrieked and jumped back, falling over into the backs of the people at the next table. As they turned and yelled, Gunner crouched down next to Pitcher. “Listen, buddy, you don’t want to do this here, you’ll get us all kicked out. Let me get you a beer and we’ll talk.”
Knocking his breath out on the table seemed to have taken some of the fight out of Pitcher, and he nodded. Satisfied, Gunner stood back up and checked on what was to have been his night’s entertainment. She was drunkenly trying to apologize to the people she’d crashed into. Gunner raised his voice so they’d hear him over the bar roar. “Sorry, folks, she’s a real sloppy drunk. Honey, you’d better call the drunk van and get out of here before you hurt yourself.”
His sneer got through, undoing everything he’d been working on all night. Hurt flashed in those vacant eyes, followed swiftly by anger. She drew herself up with as much dignity as a drunk nineteen year old can manage, flipped him off, and stalked off into the crowd, only stumbling twice. Gunner grinned. Plenty more where you came from, chicky.

An hour later, Gunner had Pitcher and Chuckles–they said their names were Brandon and Joe, but they would always be Pitcher and Chuckles to Gunner–eating out of his hand. They’d polished off two pitchers of Gunner’s beer between them and were feeling charitable.
“No hard feelings, bro, right?” Pitcher wasn’t slurring. Apparently he was one of the loud, expansive drunks. “I mean, for the beer, the beer on your shirt.”
Gunner smiled, showing all his perfect teeth. “No… bro, you’re fine, really. I know how it is. A girl comes in, all broken up ’cause some jerk hasn’t called, you get involved, I get it.”
Chuckles leaned over and clinked glasses with Pitcher. “Bros before hos, man, bros before hos.”
They’re going to go on like this until last call. Gunner got up. “Listen, guys, I’ve got to go. I’ve got work tomorrow and it’s late.” They stammered their fond farewells but Gunner wasn’t listening. He threaded his way through the bar crowd for the last time and slipped out the back door. The other side of this block had been hollowed out for parking, and he had no trouble finding what he was after. Just like Pitcher had said, a huge black monster of a rich kid’s blinged out SUV. Student parking permit in the window, right next to the decal with the Greek letters. The carving on the razor’s handle was familiar enough that Gunner could picture it with just his fingertips in his pocket: a naked woman with a bad case of mermaid hair standing on the shore of a storm tossed sea. Supposedly his grandfather, a man he’d never met, had killed a man with it in the second world war. Gunner had always appreciated the clean simplicity of the thing. Even with the ivory handle and the carving, it was basically just a straight blade, honed to perfection. Gunner had used it for many years, but never to shave.

Brandon pushed open the back door of the Ox and held it for Joe, who got his drunk ass through the door on the first try, mostly by luck. I hate having to sober up by last call. “Come on, bro, we’re going home.”
Joe held up his hand in the universal “Hang on a second, I’m going to puke over here in the alley” signal. Brandon rolled his eyes and started for his car. Behind him he heard Joe take a few deep breaths, then call out “False alarm, bro.”
“It better be.” Brandon fished his keys out and pushed the button that unlocked the doors and started the engine. As his eyes adjusted to the glare he mused aloud. “You know, I don’t know what happened with him and Candi, but that Gunner actually wasn’t a bad guy.”
Dimly, “Yeah, he was a real urk–”
“Oh, man, you didn’t get any on you, did you? ‘Cause you are not riding with me if you’re dripping puke.” Brandon started to turn, but suddenly there was a hand over his mouth and something warm running down his shirt. The hand released, and Brandon tried to ask what was going on, but his mouth was full of something salty and he couldn’t talk.
As Brandon fell to his knees, a cheerful voice said “Sorry, bro, didn’t see you there.”

Gunner moved on after that night. He always did whenever a town got exciting. It wasn’t fear of being caught, he just knew from experience that things only went downhill after he relieved a village of its idiot. Pitcher’s penismobile was tempting, but too easy to trace. He kept his leased Lexus, or rather M. Shedisky of Boca Raton’s leased Lexus, and moved on down the Interstate. When he got low on cash or good credit cards, or just got horny, he stopped at the next town for a while. He’d stay a while, running short cons, picking pockets, maybe even doing honest work if it seemed easy enough. A few years ago he’d spent three months selling luxury cars in Kansas City. When he finally left he’d been driving his first Lexus and wondering if he could get the blood off of his boss’s Rolex.
Not that he left a trail of bodies everywhere he went. Gunner wasn’t one of those sick serial killer bastards, no sir, killing nurses or hookers or schoolteachers because they couldn’t bust a nut any other way. Hell with that. But if somebody pissed Gunner off he’d go a little out of his way to help them kick their oxygen habit. And Granddad’s razor was just so perfect for the job. Leaving a body wasn’t nearly as fun as leaving a dozen or so knocked up college girls, either.
The towns after Pitcher and Chuckles went by pretty quick, none held his interest very long. More by chance than anything he found himself working his way up the Interstate towards Chicago. That’s how he wound up in Larson. That’s how he met Cora.


Cora knuckled her back, groaning. The lunch rush was finally over, just a few tables left to watch, people with no pressing business chatting over their coffee. She liked to think she was in good shape, but her second day waiting table’s in Bob’s Classic Diner was making her wonder whether “thin” and “in shape” weren’t farther apart than she’d realized. All the more reason to get EMT certified so I can quit taking these crappy part time jobs… and start lugging stretchers around. Wait a second! Suddenly Cora stopped knuckling her aching back and slapped her forehead. She backed into a corner behind the lunch counter. When she was sure nobody was looking, she spread her right hand over the sore part of her back and concentrated. Without looking, she knew a white glow had enveloped her hand, light too bright to look at that somehow cast no shadows. The pain in her back melted away in a rush of warmth. Not as noble as healing a concussion or stopping a heart attack, but it’s not like I’m going to run out.
She knew nobody had seen, but she still jumped when the bell over the door rang. When she looked, the man letting the door swing shut behind him was backlit by the early afternoon sun shining off a windshield. From just the silhouette he didn’t look like much: tall, a little gawky, in some kind of bulky jacket and with hair sticking out randomly to the sides of his head. Then he moved, and she moved, and suddenly she could see colors and textures. The dark hair resolved into an elaborate coif that might have been a painstaking duplication of the kind of bed head angels got. The jacket likewise was a very expensive thing slumming in the role of something you’d pick up at the Goodwill. She was sure that it had come off the rack looking just that rumpled, complete with the hand mended rips. She was also sure its outer shell had a higher thread count than her sheets. He wore it open over a similarly rumpled and faded striped oxford (open to the third button and displaying an inch or so of a silver necklace) and expensively decrepit jeans and Converse sneakers. She smiled, the outward expression of the inward guffaw that was building in the back of her mind, when he glanced her way.
Gray. His eyes were gray. But “gray” just didn’t describe them, somehow. Towering prairie thunderstorms were gray. Dolphins jumping in shimmering ocean sunlight were gray. These were… Suddenly she realized that her sarcastic smile had turned to an ear spanning grin, and that the stranger was grinning back in a way that said “Yeah, I know.” Cora’s face burned, and she whirled around. Waiting for her composure to return, she walked over to the supply cupboard and replaced the perfectly good ticket book in her apron with a new one. She still felt flushed, so she got a new pen, too.
Cora realized all at once how silly she was being. She wasn’t some stupid teenager to be swept off her feet by a cute guy every other day. She was almost twenty five, and she had a job to do. Besides, he clearly wasn’t local. Just another traveler who’d disappear up the interstate after he finished his late lunch. Squaring her shoulders, she turned around to go get his order. He was studying the menu and rolling one earlobe between thumb and forefinger. Something about the sight of him reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t say what or whom. She was still wondering when she reached him, and he looked up, pinning her with those amazing eyes again. He grinned and reached for her hand. Folding strong, warm fingers around her suddenly clammy palm, he said “Hi, I’m Gunner.”
I hope he’s not getting back on the highway today.

For his part, Gunner was starting to hope he wasn’t getting back on the highway that day either. This waitress–Cora, her name tag said–was worth another look. Tall but not too tall, thin but not bony, with big brown eyes and rich brown hair, and a brilliant smile. More importantly, her hand trembled in his like a baby bird. He was already halfway there, and she knew it. From here on it would just be a matter of keeping up the pressure without spooking her. He would have to be smooth, but then, he always was.
He ordered the patty melt because she seemed to want him to, and filled up the wait with a stream of effortless patter. By the time his patty melt (which was excellent, just like she’d promised) arrived he had found out everything worth knowing about Cora Lessing. Born and raised in Larson, popular but not outstanding in high school, a couple years away at UIUC, then drifted back home, confused about her goals. Currently sharing a rental house downtown with three friends and taking night classes towards an EMT certification, “So I can heal the people who need it most.” Cora, on the other hand, came away with the impression that Gunner was an entrepreneur, or maybe a day trader, or maybe a retired dot commer, or maybe a venture capitalist scouting for the next big thing. The only thing she was sure of by the time she cleared away his plate was that the ten year old Lincoln Towncar he’d pulled up in was not his car, or maybe it was, but only because he hadn’t gotten somewhere where he could purchase a vehicle that was up to his normal standards. She didn’t know she’d been meant to overhear him sigh “I miss the Lexus.”
Well, that was almost the only thing she was sure of. She was also sure she was going to let him take her dancing after she got off work.


Ward rolled over and stopped the music. Somebody was knocking, pounding really, on his door. “Come in,” he tried, but the pounding continued. Sighing, he took a deep breath and yelled. Finally the pounding stopped and the door swung open. A tall young black man tossed something in a plastic bag at Ward, which landed on his stomach with a thump and a rush of outgoing breath. “Howdy, banjo picker!” Ward sat up on the couch and made room for his guest.
“‘Sup, Token Black Man?” Ward unwrapped the package and found a spindle of blank CD’s. “Does this mean I made another fan?”
“Only potentially,” the other man closed the door and plopped down on the couch next to Ward. “One of your existing fans ordered half a dozen copies. My guess is he’s Christmas shopping.”
“Oh? Was it Hank in Georgia? He mentioned he had a couple of nieces who might like my stuff.”
“Um… I can’t place the name for you, but the guy’s in South Dakota.”
“Oh, that’ll be Jim then. I don’t think he’s married; maybe he’s giving them out at work or something. I’ll send them out tomorrow before work.” Ward balled up the bag and tossed it in–well, near–the trash and set the spindle on his coffee table.
“And collect your filthy lucre, too. Speaking of which, it’s time to pay me.
Ward snapped his fingers. “Crap, has it been a week already?”
“‘Fraid so.”
“Okay,” Ward got up, “just let me get…” Stepping away from the couch, he turned to face his guest. He sank to one knee and stretched one hand out, clutching the other over his heart. “Lucas?”
“I just want to say that you are a wonderful and generous and brilliant human being, and my eventual fame and riches will be entirely due to the most excellent website you created and even now run for me. And in return for this, when I achieve the aforementioned riches and fame, you can stay in the guest house as long as you want and decorate it however you want.” Ward stood up. “Did I get it right?”
Lucas shrugged, grinning. “Not quite, but improvisation is the soul of art, right?”
“Close enough. I’m getting a Coke, you want anything?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
Ward’s apartment was a tiny basement studio, so walking to the “kitchen” was a matter of taking three steps away from the “living room” (which also doubled as the “bedroom” at night) and opening the fridge, which was right next to the door to the bathroom. There were only a few Coke cans left, hidden behind the leftover containers filled with various attempts at turning ramen into food. While he snagged one, he called over his shoulder to Lucas, “Aren’t you usually watching cartoons on Saturday night?”
“Ken and Stacy are at a show in Urbana tonight, and Cora’s boyfriend is cool, but she was giving me the ‘leave us alone for the evening’ vibe like you wouldn’t believe.”
Ward closed the fridge and took the two steps into the “computer room” to grab his chair. He wheeled it over by the sofa and sat down, propping his feet on the arm of the couch. “Cora’s got a boyfriend? Since when?”
“Since, like, Tuesday. I can’t believe you don’t keep up with the gossip around here.”
“I’m sorry, I haven’t been to the beauty parlor this week. Tell me everything. Is it scandalous?” He grinned and took a gulp of Coke. He barely knew Cora, but “scandalous” just didn’t seem applicable, somehow.
Lucas laughed, then seemed to stop and think. “Actually, you might say it is. He’s not from around here, and he’s been staying with us all week.”
Ward raised an eyebrow. “Really? Couch surfing?”
“Ah, not since Wednesday, no.”
Ward put his feet on the floor and set down his Coke. “Tell me more about this mystery guy.”
Now it was Lucas’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “You don’t approve, Headmaster?”
“Let’s just say I’ve got a suspicious nature. Now spill.”
Lucas spread his hands. “Okay, but it’s nothing to get worked up over. He’s a good guy, really. You’d like him. And it can’t be some kind of con, the guy’s loaded. Anyway, yeah. He’s like an entrepreneur or investor or something. Keeps him on the road a lot. He was just passing through when he met Cora and they hit it off. So he’s put off whatever he was heading toward to stay here for a week or two. They’re really sweet together, if you can stand the saccharine factor. And it’s not like anybody else has been knocking on her door lately.” He finished pointedly, literally pointing a finger at Ward.
“What? How did this get to be about me?”
Lucas shrugged. “You’re the one who runs away any time a pretty girl wants to talk about your music, or anything else. Apparently quick fingers make up for your looks for a certain kind of girl. If you weren’t so skittish you wouldn’t be single. And if you weren’t single, maybe you wouldn’t be worried about what Cora’s up to with Tall Dark and Handsome.”
Ward gritted his teeth. “Damnit, Lucas, I’m not… I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, so it’s not a good idea to go looking for–”
“Bullshit (no offense). You’ve been saying that for three years, man.” He waved a hand, dismissing the old argument before it could go further, then leaned forward conspiratorially. “Look, man, it’s okay, but… If you’re gay you should tell me. I can work it into the website, probably open up whole new markets for you!”
Ward rolled his eyes and slipped a pick out of the watch pocket of his jeans one handed. From the hip, he flicked it at Lucas, who took it right on the end of the nose. “Maybe when I get the classical guitar album done. Gay bluegrass banjo doesn’t sound like a winner to me.”
Lucas sat back, rubbing his nose ostentatiously. “How you can do that kind of freaky shit with a pick when you can’t even hit your garbage can…” His hand dropped as a thought struck. “I have to see you play quarters against Gunner. He’s freaky fast, too.”
Ward’s hand, reaching for the Coke on the floor, jerked and knocked the can over, but he caught it in time. “Gunner? His name is Gunner?”
Lucas nodded uncertainly. “Yeah, why?”
“What’s his last name?”
“It’s… You know it’s never come up. Why do you ask?”
“Because it’s Carson.” Unconsciously, Ward had begun rolling his earlobe between his thumb and forefinger. “He’s my brother.”

Outside, Gunner sat beside the basement window and sipped his beer, grinning.

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Failed NaNo Friday: Crooked Crown Part 1

National Novel Writing Month (hereafter: NaNoWriMo) takes place each year during the month of November. It’s free to participate, and all you have to do to claim victory is churn out 50,000 words before midnight on the 30th. It’s a quantity-over-quality jump start for people who always thought about writing a novel but let themselves get put off by their internal editor. If you’re of the school that holds that every author has a certain predetermined amount of crap they have to write before the good stuff can arrive, this is your event.

I like the idea of NaNoWriMo. It’s the kind of big, dramatic, and self-consciously silly gesture that I go for. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve entered it twice. You’re not allowed to reuse an old idea, so both times I spent the last couple weeks of October brainstorming something, then hit the ground running on November 1st. In 2006 I dove into an urban fantasy called Headlong. In 2007 I sought more traditional fantasy fare with Crooked Crown.

Neither one came anywhere near the 50k finish line.

Neither one came anywhere near a complete story, either.

Still, I like these almost-books, so I’m going to use them in Digital Busker’s first regularly scheduled feature (the podcast doesn’t count because we’ve only had the soft open). I give you: Failed NaNo Friday. We’ll start things off today with the first section of Crooked Crown.

Quick walked under the Lamplighters’ Arch, which glowed as always with a steady yellow light. The guards inside the courtyard looked him up and down as he passed, but didn’t stop him. Either they remembered him, not impossible even after two years away, or they didn’t think he was worth detaining. Certainly any bravo or assassin would be mad to challenge even the youngest Lamplighter with nothing more than the gentleman’s targe and short sword that hung from his shoulder.

Across the broad courtyard rose the family mansion, all arches and columns and stained glass windows streaming light out into the twilight. As he reached the main entrance, Quick was finally stopped by one the two guards there. He looked like a hard man, harder than Quick remembered the men in the red livery being. Have they changed, or have I? he wondered.

“State your name and business, please,” the guard grumbled.

“Quick. Master Daire’s expecting me.”

Black brows drew together and color started to rise in the guard’s face. Quick understood; it must have seemed like the guest was telling him how to do his job, and dodging a question to boot. He could have phrased his answer more helpfully, but this way was funnier. Before he had a chance to try on his innocent confusion face, much less his how dare you address me that way face, a window on the second floor swung open, and a shock of unruly red hair appeared, attached to the head of a young man whom Quick had known since they were children. “Quick, you’re here,” Daire said, obviously trying to sound enthusiastic. “Brynnin, he’s welcome, on my word. Come on up, Quick.”

“You need some more time to make yourself pretty for the party?” Quick called up, hoping for a chuckle or a smile, but Daire was already out of sight again. He shrugged at the guard, then extended a hand. “Quick Callan, by the way. I’ve been away for a while, so I forget that not everybody knows me anymore.”

The guard reluctantly took his hand in a firm grip. “Brynnin,” he said simply, “no house.” There was a moment of surprised assessment on his face as he squeezed Quick’s hand and recognized the swordsman’s callouses. He let go just an instant too late for normal politeness.

“It’s my fault for not putting it together. I’ve heard enough Quick stories I should have recognized you. Except you’re not juggling a half dozen wenches. On you go, then,” he stepped aside and pulled the door open.

Quick sighed theatrically as he walked past, grinning impishly. “I’m afraid those days are behind me, good Brynnin. I’m practically a Monk of the Rule these days.” He was rewarded with an incredulous snort as the door closed behind him. He decided not to let the fact that he’d spoken the simple truth spoil his mood.

The entry hall of Lamplighter Mansion was, of course, spacious and well lit in a dizzying variety of hues and manners. Gleaming marble, brilliantly polished mirrors of every metal that would take a shine, and a chandelier made entirely of the same glowing crystal as the main arch were all he had been able to remember, and that would have been more than enough, but he’d somehow forgotten the backlit stained glass installation over the blazing fireplace showing the first generations of the family, with the near-mythical founder, Praecetus, smiling down on them from the sky in place of the sun. Subtlety was not a Lamplighter watchword. Framed by the sweeping wings of the grand stairs, the crystal fireplace was placed to awe guests. Quick hated to admit how well it still worked on him, no matter he’d been here dozens, maybe hundreds, of times.

Seeing no one about, Quick jogged up the gold-carpeted stairs to the second floor, as richly, though not as ostentatiously, appointed as the entry hall. He didn’t see anyone here either, and he wondered at that. Even at twilight, there should have been servants scurrying about the place, seeing to the innumerable needs of the house and the family. At least, in the old days there would have been. Now Quick looked at the furnishings with a fresh eye, and saw dust on the tops of mirrors, rugs ever so slightly askew, and a long smear on a marble tile. Has the whole house caught one of Daire’s black moods? Newly concerned, Quick made his way to Daire’s door and knocked twice.

“Come in, Quick,” came the barely audible answer. Quick stepped in to Daire’s sitting room and saw his friend clambering up from a divan. Daire smiled, more than a little sadly, and extended a hand. “Good to see you again, friend.”

Quick crossed the room in two long strides and grabbed Daire’s hand, pulling him into a one armed back slapping embrace. “You don’t know the half of it, my fine shining fellow.” Releasing Daire, Quick’s expression turned serious. “But what is chewing away at you, Daire? You’re looking half snuffed.”

Daire whirled and threw himself back onto the divan, sighing. “How should I look, Quick, with my heart in the hands of another?” He sat up and visibly reconsidered. “No, not the hands, the feet! Under her feet! While she stomps, and stomps, and stomps…

Without letting his mask of grave concern slip, Quick sighed inwardly. Ah, a girl. And here I thought he might have grown out of this by now. Well, at least I know how to deal with it. “Keep in mind I’ve been away for two years, Daire. Whom are we discussing, please?”

Daire blinked and smiled sheepishly. “My apologies. I forget myself. Her name, the sweetest and most painful sound in my world, is Miaria, and her beauty outshines…. but I am being a terrible host. You’re back after two years away at the academy, I should think you have other priorities than listening to me eulogize my broken heart.”

Quick sat down at the foot of the divan and flashed a mischeivous smile. “Not just I, Daire. Both of us have more important matters to attend tonight. And by ‘attend,’ I mean,” he pulled a thick folded parchment from his pocket with a flourish, “attend. This is my invitation to the biggest and best party of the year, at the Thane’s hall. Tonight. And it’s for me, and whomever I should choose to honor as my guest.” He tapped Daire on the forehead with the heavy document, making sure the golden wax seal with the Thane’s crest was visible. “That would be you, my old young heartsick friend.”

Daire’s eyes crossed as he tried to read the waggling parchment. “That is a fine welcome home gift indeed, but you should pick someone else for your guest, I have no parties in me tonight.”

Quick let him finish the sentence, but only because he didn’t want to let on that he had the conversation planned out three moves in advance. “Nonsense. If I know you, and I like to flatter myself with the thought that I still do, your Miaria is just the kind of lovely, well bred young woman to get invited to this party herself. This is your chance to impress and woo her. You can let her think I’m your guest, if it helps. Order preserve us, once my novelty wears off–I judge a week on that, and will accept wagers–we will return to our old relative statuses, you and I, you providing the coattails, and I the grip.”

Daire shook his head glumly. “No, she’s set against me, I’m afraid. Her family works for the Shroudweavers, and there’s nothing I can do to make her see past my family.”

Quick silently puzzled over that for a time. Certainly the Lamplighters and the Shroudweavers had been feuding for longer than anyone living could remember, but that had rarely stopped the younger generation from fraternizing. Either this Miaria was stodgy in the way only a young person can be, or the feud had gotten worse since he’d been gone. He would have to ask his father for a more detailed account of what he’d missed than he’d gotten. That was a problem for later, though, after he got his friend back. “Well then in that case, you’ll have a chance to see her up against her competition, and I’ll wager a crown to a penny there will be girls there that make you forget all about… whatever he name was.”

Daire opened his mouth to protest, but Quick barely listened. He’d seen the flicker of interest in his friend’s eyes. He was going to the party, it was just a matter of time.

* * *

Indeed, an hour later Quick, Daire, and Daire’s cousin Naiden were walking through Old Tewett, surrounded by a loose screen of subtle but vigilant Lamplighter guards, led by the unsmiling Brynnin. Naiden and Daire seemed accustomed to the guards, so Quick took his cue from them and ignored them, but he found their presence unnerving. In his short life, Quick had never made any enemies serious enough to warrant a bodyguard–he wasn’t important enough or unpopular enough for anyone to seriously want him dead. The thought that someone might want to kill or abduct Daire or Naiden made more sense–the Lamplighters were very nearly as powerful in Tewett as the Thane himself, albeit in a near tie with the Shroudweavers. But when Quick had left, the protection had been much more subtle. Again he wondered what could have brought such an escalation, but abandoned fruitless speculation in favor of enjoying his time with his friend. Time enough for gossip gathering at the party. Quick glanced at Naiden, a head taller and about twenty years older than Daire, in soul if not in body, and found something new to wonder about. “Naiden, if you don’t mind me saying, it’s an unexpected pleasure to have you along. Did you take up society parties while I was gone?”

Naiden smiled broadly and winked. “I still think the starched collar crowd is dull as cinder, but Uncle insisted.” His smile vanished and he mimed spitting on the cobbles. “Everything is political these days, and I’m supposed to make friends if I’m… going to serve the family.” What he hadn’t said was “if I’m going to take over the family,” Quick was sure. The Lamplighters weren’t exactly nobles, but their succession was usually from father to eldest son, unless there was some reason to believe the presumptive heir was a poor choice. Old Donel, the current patriarch, had exactly one son, Daire, and they didn’t get along. As far as Quick knew, Daire didn’t actually want to succeed his father, but it would have been rude to say what everyone apparently still whispered, that Naiden was being groomed to take over if Daire didn’t show signs of growing up. Both men glanced at Daire to see if he had heard the unsaid and taken offense, but he was gazing off into the distance, apparently in his own world.

Naiden just smiled affectionately and rolled his eyes, but Quick stepped in and put his arm over Daire’s shoulders and made a show of looking for whatever his friend was staring at. “Is my friend the seer having a vision? Pray, wise one, share your gift with these poor sinners. What does the future hold?”

Daire shook Quick off with a laugh. “You jest, Quick, but our family’s gifts have been known to include prophecy. For all you know, I did just see the future.”

Naiden waggled his finger at his cousin, grinning. “Yes, and who was the last Lamplighter with the sight? Our great grandfather?”

His great grandfather, I believe,” Quick put one hand theatrically to his forehead and feigned a swoon. “No word from the heavens on the fate of this poor supplicant? Must I continue to make my way through this world of trouble and strife blindfolded? Oh woe!”

Daire grew serious again, and said quietly, “Be careful what you wish for, Quick. I had a dream last night, and I fear it may be prophecy. That’s what I was thinking about just now.”

“A dream? Not a good one, either, by the sound of it. But what makes you think it’s more than just a dream?”

Daire shook his head. “It was no ordinary dream. All the time I knew I was dreaming, but I couldn’t control the dream, the way you normally can when you know that. And it was so clear, even on waking, even now. I can remember every detail. Not that I want to.”

Naiden looked genuinely concerned. “What did you see?”

Daire shuddered and ran his hands through his hair. “I was running through a swamp, chasing will o’the wisps. I lost my compass, then my staff, but I kept running. I knew I wasn’t going to catch one, because you can’t, but I kept chasing them despite that. Finally I saw what I took at first to be the largest wisp yet, but when I go closer I saw it was a fire. I slogged my way onto an island of dry land in the swamp, where I saw a neat, empty campsite. There was the fire, of course, and a pot of something savory, and wash water, replacements for what I had lost, and a large dry tent. I knew then that this was what I had been searching for, and the wisps had merely been distractions.”

Naiden nodded approvingly. “Well at least it had a happy ending, then.”

Quick winced inwardly, because he knew better. Daire was too emotional by half most of the time, a failing common in his family, but he wouldn’t have been so broken up by the dream if it hadn’t gotten much worse than what he’d already revealed by the end. And indeed, Daire was scowling at Naiden as he continued. “That was not the end, cousin. Though it’s funny you should speak up here, because you are about to enter the story. Just as I was surveying the camp, you walked up, girded in your armor. You said ‘We must go, you are needed.’ Then you reached out with your right hand and…” Daire paused, face etched with remembered pain, and took a quick breath before plunging back in. “You reached into my chest and pulled out my beating heart. Then you placed it in my hands and said ‘That belongs here.’ I nodded and walked over to the tent with it. I placed it on the ground in front of the tent, covering it with a corner of the flap over the entrance. I stood and followed you out of the camp. As we walked through the swamp, we started to burn, brighter and brighter with every step. The very swamp around us was burned away and we walked across an empty plain, blazing like the sun. The shadows grew around us, though, and ate our light as fast as we could produce it. For a time it seemed we must prevail, but the darkness surged around me and I felt my fire die. The darkness crawled down my throat and into the hole in my chest and my limbs went cold and dead. I fell into the darkness, and I knew no more.”

There was an uncomfortable silence, then, that seemed to last for hours. Quick was, as usual, the one to break it. “That is a truly harrowing dream, Daire, and no wonder it still haunts you. There’s no reason to suspect it’s truly prophetic, though. Everybody gets strange dreams from time to time. Just last night I had one myself. Shall I tell it?”

Naiden stared at Quick, apparently trying to decide if he was being serious. Daire knew better, and just smiled weakly. “Well,” Quick said, feigning reluctance, “if you insist. My dream began at a party very much like the one we are about to attend. All the most influential and beautiful people in Tewett were there, dancing the night away. Around they spun, in a complicated pattern that I didn’t recognize. I joined in, though, and the steps came to me as I danced them. I was having the time of my life.” Quick was speaking faster now, though he didn’t realize it, and he was only vaguely aware that he was ahead of Daire and Naiden, zig zagging across the cobbles in an imitation of the dance he described. Suddenly he clambered up a light pole and hung by one hand from the bar next to the shining crystal. “But it was not to last, my friends! The pattern of the dance spun me into a corner where I stumbled into a moldy old tapestry, and I fell through a concealed passage into darkness.” Naiden and Daire were just passing the pole then, and Quick kicked off from the pole and dropped between then, grabbing their shoulders. “I couldn’t find my way back to the light and the music, so I went deeper into the dark, through dust and cobwebs and the names of the dead.” Somewhere in Quick’s head a rational voice said That was an odd thing to say, but his mouth kept going. “I walked for a thousand years in a few minutes and then I saw a light ahead. I knew I hadn’t found my way back to the party, because the light was cold and blue–frozen light, frozen time. Not at all the right light for a party, you see. But it was better than the dark and the dead, so I sought it out. I entered a crypt of marble, lined with the stony visages of great men and women long dead. In the center of the room was a simple stone block the size of a table, and on that block was the source of the chilly light.” Quick let go of their shoulders, now, and darted out ahead again. Dimly he realized that the two Lamplighters were not his only audience. A number of the surrounding guards, and even what looked like random passers-by were watching him with interest.

“Shall I describe the source of this eerie incandescence? Alas, I cannot, for I could not bring myself to look upon it, even in a dream. I was filled with dread, and my feet were rooted to the floor as though by mortar.” As if for contrast, Quick turned and walked backwards down the uneven cobbles, gesturing wildly at his rapt audience. “Desperate to lay my gaze somewhere other than the source of my dread, I turned to the marble walls and the faces of the honored dead. And what I saw then, my friends, wounded me to my very soul–more terrible and horrible than anything that had come before! I saw….”

Quick’s heel struck an upturned brick and he feel backwards. Automatically he caught himself, albeit just barely, with his outstretched hands. Too stunned to move, he held himself there, one foot sticking up, suspended on his other foot and his hands mere inches from staining his breeches on the street. He knew he must look ridiculous, and his face flushed hot.

Daire was the first to laugh, long and hearty, and soon Naiden joined in. Taking their cue from the Lamplighters, but unwilling to risk offense, the guards and random citizens who’d been following the strange performance indulged in scattered chuckles as well. Daire stepped forward and helped Quick back to his feet, turning the movement into a brotherly embrace and a hearty slap on the back.

Quick strode on down the street, trying to hide his embarrassment. Daire stayed just behind and to his right, asking “I’m afraid for both our sakes to ask, Quick, but what was it that you saw?”

Quick stumbled again, although there were no uneven cobbles here, but kept his feet. Forcing a smile, he looked over his shoulder at Daire and lied “I saw people who were stuck in marble when they could have been dancing!”

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