Friday, December 31, 2010

The Pearl outside Mudan House

Mei Fu huddled on the street. She curled her lacquered fingernails with their gold-flecked dragons beneath her mud-splotched blanket. Holding it close, she watched dark shapes hurrying along the street careful to avoid the sludge-filled puddles as they slunk into the flower houses.

A man paused -- one of the mandarin's bureaucrats and not her target -- and she looked away remembering to slouch her shoulders. When he had disappeared, she smeared more mud on her cheeks. It was too early for the one she wanted.

She wrapped her hands with a blanket to hide the callous-less palms as she waited. A Yiji woman approached from one of the brothels, paint whitening her face and hiding the thin cracks that exposed her as too old for the back rooms. The woman said, "Girl, you've haunted the streets for the last two weeks."

Mei Fu looked away from the woman not daring to say a word and expose her court-inflected tones or perfect teeth.

The woman grabbed her arm. "You're pretty enough. I have a spare bed you could work. You'd clean up well."

The woman frowned when Mei Fu tried to pull away. "I'm offering you something better than the streets." She spat onto the cobbles. She looked about to say something else, but shrugged as a customer approached her doorway. "Change your mind and my door is always open."

Eyelids becoming pregnant with tears, she blinked and shuffled away from the blue light burning liquid fire. The blaze triggered memories of Lanying charring outside the palace. It had been different in the light. Paler. But, no less real; no less deadly.

As the night deepened, fewer men entered the street. A few voices laughed too loudly as they left the buildings and returned to their homes. Satiated, their eyes passed over Mei Fu.

The shadows deepened and Mei Fu nearly missed the figure sliding through the streets dressed all in black, a false Gaquan warrior. She ran to follow him and her foot splashed in a puddle. The sound loud, barbaric, echoed off the houses. She pressed herself into the alcove underneath a lamp and rested her chin on her crouched knees as if she slept. Through half-lidded eyes, she saw the man break his stride while looking behind him. She waited for her heart to slow and then followed him, watching for the puddles.

As he neared an alley, she ducked into an alcove just in time to avoid his glance over his shoulder again. He entered the cross street and Mei Fu hurried to the corner and saw him enter one of the warehouses. It stank with the smell of Emperor Shenzihao's sacred powders. She looked for illusions, but didn't see anything on the street.

Voices from inside the warehouse leaked into the alley. Mei Fu worried they'd have a guard within the door. She needed another way in. She gritted her teeth when she spotted the liquid fire pipework. The pipes led to a cracked window on the second story. She stepped backwards from the warehouse. She hated heights. Did she owe Lanying this much?

Shouts carried from the street. Biting her lip, she tied the grimy shawl around her waist and pulled herself up the pipework. Her nails slipped and she broke a nail. She saw the gold flecks catch the light as it fell towards the street. She scrambled through the window, thankful for the landing inside.

Once her heart had slowed, she heard the voices more clearly. Her brother stood amidst the false Gaquan warriors. She prayed for an illusion. He wouldn't betray them, would he? Her hands became sweaty.

She sneezed.

Faces turned towards her like pink mudan blossoms turning towards the sun. The eyes of her brother, Dengxin, opened as his mouth twisted into a moue that only those close to him in the palace would know. He wasn't an illusion. One of the black-clad men made a chopping motion with his forearm and two of the false warriors drew blades as they ran for the stairs leading to the landing.

Dengxin's eyes remained locked on Mei Fu, but he didn't contradict the man's orders. She shrugged off his glare. Swallowing, there was something in them that she couldn't comprehend and she dared not depend on him to save her from the men.

Her eyes flicked across the room seeing: warriors leap two stairs at the time, bagged boxes lining the attic, her brother's queue, a bluish glow flickering from a light out of sight. The men had climbed three-quarters of the stairs.

Her breath rattled. The bagged boxes had to be full of sacred powder. It had caused her sneeze. She ran, tripping on a ragged corner of her shawl.

A false warrior held the tip of his sword against her shoulder. It pierced the dress.


Dust filled the boards where she sprawled. She knew it wouldn't be pure, but she prayed to Fenghuang there would be enough efficacy. She tossed the powder into the air. An image of her took her shape and charged them. A flimsy illusion. They should see through the deception.

She turned and ran for the bagged boxes. Pulling out a handful of pure powder. She flung it in a circle as images of dozens of women filled the warehouse all trying to escape. All wearing different faces.

She escaped, hoping the men wouldn't remember her face. But, Dengxin -- the traitor -- wouldn't forget. Returning to the palace, she'd need to be careful and think about how to deal with his treachery.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Escape (A Knack for Powders, pt 11)

Part eleven in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

A scritch-scratch noise and sand falling in an avalanche down the rear walls of Merph's cell provided a brief warning before the clod of dirt landed on his chest. The Lord's soldiers had dragged him out into the courtyard to a sunken cellar that had been carved out of the earth. The square room was barely large enough for Merph to stretch out on the bench opposite the door and iron bars sunken into stone covered the single window. Except for a guard who had brought him some moldy bread and something to drink, he hadn't seen anyone the rest of the day. He scrambled away from the wall coughing at the dust he inhaled.

He stared at the place where the window was, even with the stars and moon out, the eaves of the building shadowed the window and made it difficult to see. Something moved. Merph imagined a spider with its body as big as his head and eight legs thrusting itself through the bars as it squeezed its head to fit. In an attempt to squash his fears, he reminded himself that he'd only temporarily hurt Lord Calle. They had no reason to kill him. Wait. The only one who could conjure a giant spider would be Tvinnrun, and if he suspected Merph knew, he'd have reason.

The creature, hidden by the darkness, panted at the window. The spider must be forcing its way through. Merph squeaked an unintelligible cry, which turned into a laugh. _Spiders didn't pant._

"Whitey, is that you?"

The dog answered with a soft yip that wouldn't carry far. More rocks fell into the room.

Relief flooded through Merph and he sagged against the wall. "I'm glad you're here, but there isn't anything you can do unless you can work the lock on this door. I've failed Kluvenstrom."

The dog growled.

"There is nothing I can do."

Whitey cried and more dirt fell into the cellar. Merph climbed onto the bench where Whitey's tongue flickered through the bars to lick Merph's cheek. The boy squeezed as close as he could to the window and felt Whitey's wet nose pressed against his neck and he raised his arm to feel the pig bladders.

Merph sighed. "How are the powders supposed to help? They can't unlock the door."

Whitey bumped the iron bars with his jowls.

"I can't bend bars either." Yet, as he said the words he realized he didn't have to bend the bars he just had to remove one of the bars so he could get out of the cellar. He had to think about things. Kluvenstrom had given him the recipe for gelid powder. He unwrapped the pig bladder from around his neck and dropped a pinch on the bench. A pop crackled before the bench buckled and Merph rolled to the floor.

_Strange._ Merph wondered, _Perhaps, the powder will allow me to break the bars._ Merph balanced the pieces of the bench so that he could clamber onto them and reach the window where he rubbed some of the powder. He pushed against the bar, but it didn't budge. However, the iron became so cold he jerked his hand away and his skin nearly stuck to the metal.

_Interesting,_ thought Merph. He found the mug that the guard had brought him with the moldy bread. There were a few drops of water in it still and he poured it around the bars and then switched from sprinkling gelid powder so that the water froze into the crevice around one of the bars and then he'd sprinkle ash powder to melt the ice and repeated it until the stone that held the bars cracked and he pulled the iron bar out of the wall.

Merph squeezed through the space in the wall and collapsed breathless in the dirt. He hugged Whitey. "Okay, if I can escape from that, I can save Kluvenstrom."

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Cabin

God Julafton (Merry Christmas Eve), the following is my #fridayflash and entry in Loren Eaton's Advent Ghosts series. Check his blog for more.

Drafts remind Corbin to feed the cabin's fireplace. The tinderbox yawns revealing an emptiness marred by scraps of bark. Corbin shrugs remembering the owner's warning to stay inside after dark. Old man's lived in these woods too long. Might freeze if I listen to his crazy talk.

Light slivers around the door. Corbin hesitates. Through the windows, a pack of pines, festooned with garish lights, huddle. He won't wire the cabin but wastes it on the trees? Crazy!

He pushes through the crackling snow. A twig pops. A gnarled branch hangs over him as he falls into the red-tinged snow.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mastering Powders (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 10)

Part ten in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

Merph looked around Kluvenstrom's workroom. A couple packages towered in piles by the door that Merph didn't recognize. The new healer must be using these rooms.

He couldn't let himself feel guilty about leaving Whitey outside the tower. The dog had found him, more accurately it had rescued him, far from any inhabitants and Merph guessed that the dog would survive on its own. At least until he rescued Healer Kluvenstrom from the runelock.

One of the pig bladders caught on Merph's ear as he lifted it from under his shirt to place on the worktable. He'd filled one bladder with ash powder and the other with steel dust. The two books that Kluvenstrom had left him were pushed to a corner of the table. Merph paged through the powder book looking for powders that required steel dust or ways he might release the healer from the runelock. Outside the window, dawn lit the sky. When he looked back at the book, his eyes touched on the bat powder that he'd previously made.

Merph shrugged and took the runelock out of the burlap bag and set it on the table beside him as he dropped a pinch of the bat powder over his nape and held the runelock close to his ear. He murmured, "Healer Kluvenstrom, can you hear me?"

He concentrated on the box, ignoring the clank of cast iron pans in the ovens as the cooks baked the morning bread for the Lord and the crack of stall door latches as the Lord's horses yearned against their box stalls. An emptiness filled the runelock like the wind racing over his ears on a spring morning. Disappointed, Merph began to set the runelock on the table.

"Merph, is that you?" Kluvenstrom's voice was weak.

Merph's heart beat fast. He could complete this quest. "How do I get you out?"

"I don't know, this type of magic is not my bailiwick."

"You got me out the first time." Merph shook the runelock.

"Don't do that."

"Sorry," said Merph.

"I could rescue you because the ties that bound you to the astral plane were fresh. I've been in here too long, I might not even be able to find my body if I was searching myself. You must find a runeworker. They will know the way these things work." Kluvenstrom's voice became thin.

Merph's words tumbled out. "Tvinnrun set the trap for you."

"Does Calle know?"


Kluvenstrom coughed. "You must not tell him. It'll be your word against Tvinnrun. What powders do you have?"

Merph got excited and told him how he'd made the bat powder. "And I've got some iron filings from the blacksmith."

"Gelid powder, eh?" Kluvenstrom's voice warmed.

Merph didn't know what gelid meant, but he felt like he had at least done something right. "I don't know what other ingredients I need."

"Oenothera oil."

The door squeaked as it opened and Merph dropped the runelock into the burlap bag grimacing as he thought of Kluvenstrom banged about by the falling cube. A man with a close-trimmed beard stood in the doorway wearing a healer's robe.

"What are you doing here?" asked the man.

"I'm... I'm a healer Kluvenstrom's apprentice."

The man's eyes narrowed. "Don't mind me, I just need to get some herbs." The man grabbed one of the benches and stood on it to push a brick in the ceiling out of the way and yanked on the latch underneath to expose a hidden shelf crowded with jars filled with liquids, dried leaves, and sticks.

Merph's mouth dropped open. When he saw the man looking at him he closed his mouth. "How did you know that was there?"

The man grabbed one of the jars filled with leaves. "Lord Calle told me." His eyes bored into a Merph. "Were you truly Kluvenstrom's apprentice?"

Merph nodded.

The man backed toward the door. "Your right to work here is as good as mine. Continue with what you were doing." He waved an arm.

"Wait," said Merph. "What is oenothera?"

The man stopped as he was opening the door. "What are you going to use that for? Never mind. It's the scientific name for sundrop flowers. Mostly used in ointments for older woman."

"Don't tell anyone about me."

"I won't." The healer slunk into the hallway and closed the door.

Merph pushed the table underneath the shelf. He now knew where Kluvenstrom kept his cache of powders. Standing on tiptoe, he moved the jars searching for powders but all he found were jars with liquids and dried leaves. He looked at the thick oily substance with the label "Sundrop" on it and figured it was fortunate that those two words were easy ones that he knew. If there wasn't any powders here, at least he could make gelid powder, whatever that was.

He mixed the iron, some mastic powder, and the sundrop oil. The powder became a brilliant yellow and Merph picked up a pinch tossed it at the wall. Except for some fog that rose off the ground and beads of perspiration that condensed on the floor, nothing happened. Resigned, he poured the powder into the empty pig bladder and placed both bladders around his neck.

He picked up the mortar and pestle to clean as Kluvenstrom had exhorted him. A clean workshop was a safe workshop. The door opened and Detlef and one of the Lord's guards hurried into the room with the healer standing behind them. Merph placed the mortar on the table and pushed the burlap bag onto the floor hoping they wouldn't notice it.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gods Playing Games

I nestle in my bed as her body spoons against me to cradle the swell of my belly. Her touch promises a gentleness that I know is a lie. Yet, I savor the moments I have to spend with her. Our vibrations leave us chattering in a private conversation.

My skin tenses as the god's footsteps approach. Our chattering grows hasty. Her caresses tell of love, but the god separates us. She slides away and I shake. I know what comes next. Her fist.


The door spins as I crash through. Stars revolve around me and light the kickers with blasts of cherry color, the crashes coming faster. Her punch drives me faster, rebounding in our world as I spy god through the grease-smeared plexiglass. I feel the wound she dealt to me more painful than any of the electrical jolts or off-kilter crashes as I careen about my day job.

The god slaps the flipper and keeps me from the black hole where I want to go. The hole that ends it all and brings me back to my love. Regardless, of what she's done, I'm drawn to her.

I pray.

The god nudges and traps me. The music squeals with a counterpoint rhythm from the digits of the scorecard flapping.

The god is good, but not good enough to keep this pinball from my love. I evade the flipper and head home.

This scene was partially prompted by Tron; but then I went a slightly different direction. Your comments and constructive criticism appreciated.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Desperate Plans (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 9)

Part eight in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

Merph lie on the leaves on the edge of the forest where he could see the midden but upwind where he wouldn't have to smell it's stench. He had a good view of the courtyard around the tower and the stables. On the far side of the stables, a small cabin with a chimney pouring out black smoke pinged with the sounds of a blacksmith hammering iron. Merph sighed. Sitting idle in the forest was worse than sitting on a bench pounding mastic into powder.

His cheeks felt warm in the breeze that raced through forest as he watched Katja leave the tower carrying a bucket and clay pot toward the middens. She swung her arm in long arcs. Merph worried that someone from the tower might see what was carried in the bucket and it might give away the transfer that she had planned. Windows in the tower were dark, but nothing moved. The wind caught snippets of the ditty Katja hummed. She dipped into a smooth motion to place one hand beneath the bucket as she lifted the rope handle high to pour out a dark liquid with foam catching the light. _What had happened to the pig bladders that she'd promised to secrete_, wondered Merph. Had she just poured them into the midst of the midden? If so, she probably thought it was a proper revenge.

He had to wait until the light faded and then he worked his way to the midden. Whitey stopped ten paces from the edge. Merph held his nose as he approached. He'd never liked cleaning the barn and this was much worse. Pools of water gleamed against the darker piles of earth. Merph gritted his teeth thinking that he'd have to sift his hands through the refuse. His foot clanked against a clay pot. He remembered the clay pot that Katja had carried to the midden. He'd only noticed it briefly and realized that her exaggerated swinging of the bucket had been to mislead any watchers. He grinned. It had worked on him and he'd known an exchange was going to occur. Inside the pot, he found the pig bladders and one jar of ground mastic powder. His heart stopped pounding quite as fast. She had successfully gotten the items that he needed.

He hurried back towards the forest and Whitey flinched away from Merph keeping a distance between the two of them.

Merph released his nose. "Don't like the smell, do you?"

The dog wagged its tail.

Merph stopped when he was far enough into the forest that a hummock hid the tower. Selecting pebbles from a pile he'd gathered earlier, he dropped them into a pig bladder and then poured a pinch of ash powder in with them and knotted the end. The clearing began to warm with the heat given off by the stuffed pig bladders.

Merph took the last three pig bladders and sprinkled some of the pure mastic powder into the bladders and rubbed it in so that the pig bladder would become inert. He then poured the remaining ash powder into one of the bladders, the mastic powder into the other, and knotted the ends to each others that they made a long necklace that he could wear beneath his shirt. He looked at the third bladder and remembered the blacksmith's cabin.

Whitey inched closer and pushed his head underneath Merph's arm. The dog's tail swept debris back and forth in the clearing.

Merph would feel a lot better if he had an offensive weapon. It was too bad that he didn't have Kluvenstrom with him who could help guide him on some better powders. The iron filings in the smithy would have to be good for something. Merph thought it would be convenient if they would create a powder that when thrown turned into small darts. Whitey growled.

"Don't worry, I'll be careful," said Merph.

He took most of the ash powder and pebble bladders and left them curled up in the clay pot, which he set beside a fence post on the edge of the stables. He grabbed some of the iron filings and placed them in the third bladder he wore around his neck.


The following night Merph waited in the forest and watched the doorway into the tower. He slapped at a mosquito. And then, the door opened. The guard slipped out of his vest and used it to fan his face. Katja's idea to warm the foyer had worked. The guard had left his post.

Merph patted Whitey's haunch and the dog slipped through the edge of the trees to emerge from the opposite side of the courtyard and bark. The guard looked at the dog and took a step forward. Katja had said everyone in the tower was talking about the dog that Merph had with him. Whitey stepped into the forest and the guard followed him.

Merph didn't run, that would make too much noise, but hurried towards the door. Inside, the foyer was empty. He climbed the stairs hoping not to run into anyone before he arrived at Kluvenstrom's workshop. He hoped he could find something in the book that would help him break Kluvenstrom out of the rune-lock.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Last Mailman

The '34 Starbird's horn blared as it hovered over Malcolm's stumbling steps. The car's exhaust coughed bits of debris leaving a miasma of coffee grounds and burnt banana coating the mailman. A chorus of teenaged hacks laughed while Malcolm grumbled. No one appreciated postal workers.

He waved at Mrs. Tulare but she looked away as she descended her craftmans house's stairs two steps at a time and forced Malcolm to dodge. Several allidogs leapt to snap toothy snouts at Malcolm's terry bag holding the mail. He glanced at the half-dozen fliers addressed to Mrs. Claudia Tulare. The maildrop in her door had one of those "No Advertisements" stickers on it with the letters in large blocky type. He sighed. He was paid to deliver the mail. Neither hurricanes, nor blizzards, nor firerot, nor biopet beast would block his rounds. Let alone an illegal refusal.

His head down, he walked towards the next craftsman house and collided with Mr. Sheron. Malcolm stepped backwards and the watch grass shivered as the notched edges pierced his boot's LeatherSteel™. His stomach roiled like two-week-old yogurt. Malcolm jumped back onto the safety of the sidewalk. Shaking he realized that the shoe salesman had cheated him. True LeatherSteel™ would defend against watch grass.

"Sorry, didn't see you." Mr. Sheron's eyes were puffy and a blackness colored his cheeks.

"No problem." The eyes didn't look right, but the rulebook was explicit about not involving yourself in their lives. He looked at the rust-tones of the sky and then back at Mr. Sheron. He was the last mail carrier and the rulebook was more about guidance than a federal law. "You okay?"

"Nothing." Mr. Sheron pushed past Malcolm.

The footsteps stopped and when Malcolm turned he saw a tear running down the man's cheek. A sign of the times that joy rarely visited.

"I... I won't be living here any longer."

Malcolm flipped through the mailbag to find one of the address change forms.

Mr. Sheron pushed Malcolm's hand away. "No. I don't need that. Do me a favor and continue to deliver my mail here."

A cold wind blew through the neighborhood and carried a scent of rain. Malcolm paged through the Sheron's mail. He opened the mailbox and prepared to drop the mail and stopped. There had been something in the man's voice. Not the sound of a wounded allidog. No, there'd been a note that reminded him of grade school and bullies.

Malcolm held the mail and put it back in his bag. All junk. He couldn't help the Sherons, but he decided as the rain picked up that it wasn't worth delivering ads. What could the city council do anyway? He was the last non-robotic postal worker. He poured his bag into a recycling bin and whistled as he walked home.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Returns (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 8)

Part eight in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

As Merph and Whitey neared the top of the knoll, the gray blocks of Lord Calle's tower could be seen over the trees. Merph stopped, his breath coming in rough wheezes that accompanied the pain in his leg that increased with each breath. Detlef shouldn't have abandoned him. Merph scrunched his hands in the dog's coat. It didn't matter now because Merph would return a hero. Inside the bag stolen from one of the farms, he had the rune-lock that caged Kluvenstrom.

Whitey yapped.

"Yes, yes. Time to return." Without the dog, Merph knew that he would have never made the journey. He'd needed the strong back to lean against. "You're a hero too."

Merph emerged into the cleared area that surrounded the tower. One of Lord Calle's guards oiled the leather hitch on a wagon parked next to the stables. Merph walked towards the tower's entrance.

"Merph?" called the guard.

Keeping one hand on Whitey's shoulder, Merph lifted the burlap bag. "Did it. One step closer to rescuing Healer Kluvenstrom."

"Don't matter," said the guard. He twisted Merph's arm behind the boy's back.

Merph yelped in pain as his left leg twisted and the bone shards rubbed against each other. "Hurts. Why'd you do that?"

"I heard from Detlef what you did. Be glad I'm not treating you worse."

Whitey ran from underneath Merph's grip. The boy sagged until the pain in his arm pinned behind his back balanced the pain in his leg. The dog circled and leapt with both forepaws landing on the guard's chest to knock him against the ground.

Merph limped into the woods. Behind him, the dog's scuffle was punctuated by barks and the guard's shouts. Merph felt for a second container of the ash powder and sprinkled it on the dead leaves and branches that covered the ground. They crackled and smoked a black impenetrable cloud. Merph collapsed into a hollow in the forest and leaned against a fallen tree while he waited for Whitey.


The stables stunk of horses, but outside rain fell in the darkness, which made his alternatives even less desirable. Merph plucked the straw from his vest as he waited for Whitey. He might've misunderstood. He didn't know if he should trust the dog. Yes, Whitey had saved his life at least twice and supported him back to the tower, but perhaps now that Merph had shelter over his head the dog felt that its responsibility had ended.

Whitey entered the stall with Katja's sleeve in his mouth as he pulled her towards Merph. She stopped. The dog gave two quick jerks against her sleeve but she leaned against them so she wouldn't be pulled forward.

"I should've known," said Katja. "Call your dog off me. You better hope that the mutt has only slobbered my sleeve. You know how much trouble you've gotten me into?"


The dog let go of Katja's sleeve as she rolled her eyes. The dog circled once and lay down to face Katja with unblinking eyes.

Merph ignored her question. "I need your help." Merph tried to keep the wheedling note out of his voice, but failed.

"Can't you do anything yourself?"

Her words burned like hot ashes and he looked down at his legs and the mud spattered cuffs. He pulled the rune-lock out of the bag. The box shimmered in the darkness, the markings on the sides glowing orange. "I got this."

She took one step forward. "What is this?"

"Kluvenstrom is locked inside."

"Then let him out." She shook her head. "I'm not sure his reappearance will be enough to get you out of trouble. But, you wanted to save him. He'll be saved, you can go home."

"It's not that easy." He couldn't admit to her that he didn't know how to get the healer out of the box.

Whitey growled.

"It's not going to be easy to get you in either. They've stationed one of the Lord's men in the tower's foyer at all times." She looked at the dog.

The hair on the back of Merph's neck stood up as he realized Whitey glared at him, baring its teeth.

Merph swallowed. It was impossible. The dog couldn't read his thoughts. Merph looked away. What did he have to lose? "I don't know how to get Kluvenstrom out of the rune-lock. I'm hoping one of the powders will help."

The dog's tail wagged and its head swung back to Katja.

"Can't you take this to Tvinnrun? He knows about runes."

Merph picked at the yarn threads of his vest. "Tvinnrun is the one who locked Kluvenstrom away." Merph's voice squeaked.

"No... no." Katja retreated towards the stable's door.

Merph lunged forward to catch her arm. "You must believe me."

Her face had turned white. "I... I do. I've seen some things when cleaning his room that I shouldn't have."

"You must help me. We can't let Tvinnrun succeed."

Whitey's cold nose pushed against Merph's hand.

"I don't know how to get you in."

"We'll think of something."

A smile crept onto her lips like the first crocus through snow. Hope warmed Merph's cheeks.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Management: Aidan's Fiction Selections

The last half-year, I have posted my writings on Friday as part of the #fridayflash community that J.M. Strother established and helps to maintain. It's a great community of writers and part of the experience is posting your own writing but it's also providing feedback to some of the other writers within the community.

I recently started keeping track of my three favorite flashes from the week and tried to post these in a single 140 character twitter post. I often had to get creative about the titles. This week, I discovered that had added a new feature called bundles and this seemed like it would fit my fiction selections well.

The aim of the fiction selections is to identify a couple works that I enjoyed over the week. In particular, I'm including my three favorite flashes from #fridayflash but I retain the rights to add other free fiction I find on the web to my list. I decided to start doing this based on a comment I ran across one of the writing sites about reading slush piles and although I don't read for a competition, I saw the value in trying to decide which out of several stories is your favorite. Unlike a slush pile, #fridayflash has a lot of good writers and so that makes my job difficult.

I don't read all of the #fridayflash stories (most weeks there are more than 80 of them), but I do try to read those in the genres that I write (fantasy, magical realism, science fiction, and steam punk). The stories that I pick speak to me in some way, whether that's a character that stands out or a premise that I enjoyed. By only picking three, I'm leaving out many good stories (favorites for some other people), but it means that those stories that I do pick should be proud that I really enjoyed their story.

You can find this week's selection here.

P.S. I'm trying a new theme after Lara commented that she finds the black background more difficult to read and after reading some of the comments about the amateurish look of a certain publisher who recently purchased a certain magazine and has a dark background as their website's homepage. Let me know if you don't find this easy to read.

P.P.S. Don't expect to see too many management posts. My focus is still on getting published and that means writing short stories and novels and I measure my word count to see how well I'm doing (80,000 words since mid-September, not necessarily that much compared to nanowrimo participants) and blog posts don't count towards my totals.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tunnel of Love

Sun smote the ground between the soles of Síofra's feet and his shadow. Erin shook her head wondering why he bothered to tolerate her and her vestigial wings if his status meant so much to him. She should be happy. The blue-wing had augured that Síofra would propose to her today. If it was such a good match, why did he have to show off?

The wooden dragons-head laid on the grass beside the xylophone bridge. Paint dripped from a wooden sign announcing the "Tunnel of Love". Erin didn't remember it being so close to the bridge, but things in fairyland had a tendency to drift. She'd never ridden through the tunnel -- never had a lover before -- and the sign looked a little amateurish. Yet, the scales on the dragons-head sparkled in the sunlight and it looked so life-like. Erin let the grin blossom across her lips in diamond twinkles. Those who flew were more susceptible to claustrophobia.

"Why are you grinning?"

Erin grabbed Síofra's arm and let the tingling sensation zip through her blood as a glow surrounded them. "We should ride the Tunnel of Love."

"Why?" A flash of lightning sparked between them as Síofra pulled his hand from Erin's grasp. "We're not even promised."

Yet, thought Erin. "Haven't you ever pondered what wonders lie hidden within the tunnels?"

"It's not about the wonders." Síofra's eyelashes became heavy in the sunlight.

Erin raced forward and he flitted close to her always at least a hands-breadth away. She arched her back as she squeezed her hand into the folds of her blouse, searching for a gold coin. His eyes dropped to her exposed cleavage. At least there was something he wanted. Droplets condensed on the blackened edges of the coin drop in the dragons-head's nose. The yellow-green liquid stuck to her fingers and she shook them while making a face.

"I don't think we should do this," said Síofra.

Erin crossed the dragon's wooden tongue, it was moister than she would've expected, and clambered into the trolley. "You're not going to force me to go by myself, are you?"

His wings flashed mother-of-pearl as he perched on the edge of the trolley.

"See, that wasn't so bad. Everyone does this."

"Why aren't there any tracks for the trolley?"

Plaque stained the edges of the dragons-head's teeth. The maintainers of this ride should have kept it in better shape. "Magic, silly." Erin pulled Síofra from where he balanced on the wooden rim.

Warm wind belched over them with a stink of sulfur.

Síofra fluttered his wings but he couldn't budge Erin's weight over him. "We've got to get out of here. Now!"

The mouth closed and the car lurched backwards falling down the tunnel. Síofra screamed. His wings tore as he beat them against the car's walls.

Erin swallowed the fear in her throat. Tearing his wings like that, he wouldn't fly for weeks. Scratch that. They were unlikely to survive. She clenched her hands on one of the boards on the car. It wiggled as she realized the nails were loose. She pulled and it came away. "Hold tight," she shouted at Síofra. She punched the board into the warm esophagus. Erin clung to it.

The trolley struck Síofra's shin and pulled him from his grip on Erin's waist. His hands slid down her leg and caught on her foot. Below them, light flashed in an explosion as the trolley disappeared into the gullet.

"If we get out of this alive, I'll marry you," said Síofra.

A response to Emily J. Griffin's prompt, "Oh No!", on Flashy Fiction. Constructive criticism and comments appreciated.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Busy Week

It has been a busy few weeks. A week in Sweden, a week in Germany, and a week back in the US visiting my sambo's relatives. Although, I tried to plan ahead so that I'd have no break in Merph's "A Knack for Powders" serial, I hadn't planned on forgetting my headset when I visited the relatives and therefore wasn't able to duck out and do some editing this past week. Therefore, I apologize for no Merph this week, but he will be back next week.

December should be a better travel month (i.e. fewer days away traveling) and you should see me more active on here and other virtual homes.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rune-lock (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 7)

Part seven in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

Merph staggered through the wind where rain splashed his face in tight nearly frozen bits that stung with their ferocity. Pings rang against Detlef's helm as he moved the sword left, right, and stabbed turning during all of this through the practice ring. Mud caked the greaves and chainmail sabaton protecting his feet. Encumbered by the armor, the boy lumbered worse than Merph with his bad leg.

Merph swiped at a strand of hair and the drips streaming into his eyes. They weren't so different in ages, but as Merph watched Detlef sweep the blade in a low swing over the grass, he felt like a child compared to the lordling. Two weeks passed and he had not freed Healer Kluvenstrom from the prison of the astral plane. He'd made one simple powder in that time, a powder any apprentice could mix. Kluvenstrom had placed his hope in the wrong person.

"What are you doing out here? The rain isn't good for your leg." The tip of Detlef's broadsword cut into the mud and he leaned against its weight as his breath came in hoarse spurts.

Pools of water gathered in the footsteps within the practice ring. Raindrops splashed and Merph tore his gaze away. "I need your help."

"More silly words to read?"

"No." Merph's voice felt cold and he paused. "I can find Kluvenstrom."

"Great." A sucking noise escaped from the mud as Detlef pulled the sword out of the muck and grabbed a towel to clean it off. "Tell the Lord, or Tvinnrun. They'll help you."

Merph shuddered at Tvinnrun's name. He couldn't admit what he'd overheard. "He's been imprisoned."

"What does this have to do with me?"

"A rune-lock."

"What? That sounds like something Tvinnrun or his apprentice could help you with."

"Maybe." Merph stepped forward to un-strap some of the clasps that held the armor on. "But, the rune-lock isn't near here. We can get Tvinnrun's help after we bring it back." Merph would need to be careful, and find a distraction so Tvinnrun didn't get the box later, but he needed Detlef.

"And you need my help?"

"It's too far. We should travel by horse."

"In this weather?"

Merph's face burned as he looked away and hoped Detlef wouldn't notice the flush. "How is the Lord doing?"

Detlef spat into the mud. "The new crow-spawned healer is too young. He thinks he knows what he's doing, but my father's condition hasn't improved."

"Kluvenstrom would know how to heal him," said Merph.

"Help me carry the armor to the tower and then we'll retrieve this rune-lock."


Detlef stood on the edge of the cliffs above Lake Rudan. "Okay, there's your broken birch." Detlef had his back to the lake and pointed at the tree whose leaves had been scattered to the winds. "How do we find your rune-lock."

"Not mine." Merph made a sign to ward Othinn's one eye. "There'll be a cave in the side of the cliffs. We climb."

Detlef picked up one of the rain-slicked stones and flicked it over the edge. Although the rain had stopped partway on their trek, the humid air hung close and coated everything. "Too slippery."

"Watch this." Merph lifted the tube of ash powder from beneath his belt and poured a little in his hands. He flung the grains in a smoke descending down the cliff's edge. The black cloud turned white as it passed over the hissing rocks to leave a dried slope. Merph's hand burned from the touch of the grains.

Detlef retreated. "What happened to your hands?"

Merph glanced at the red welt flushing his palm. Ever since the accidental taste of the ash powder he had reacted to its presence. "It's just the ash powder."

"Your skin looks like my father's." Detlef's eyes bored into Merph he took a step forward. "Like you looked the day I came to the Healer's workroom to fetch you. What do you know about my father's affliction?"

The dampness in the air coalesced on Merph's cheeks to chill the burn he felt there. "We don't have much time. The rocks will cool and become slick again."

Detlef grabbed Merph's jerkin and pulled him close, his hands stronger than Merph's brother. The lordling's brows furrowed. "How do we save him?"

"He's... he's fine."


Merph swallowed. "I had... had to find a way to keep us from leaving the tower so I could find where Healer Kluvenstrom's ensorcelled body was hidden."

Detlef grabbed the tube of ash powder with his free hand and then pushed Merph over the edge of the cliff. "I don't want to see you ever again!"

Merph's arms twirled as he fell through the air. The rock was too far away and the surface of the lake raced closer. Tufts of grass grew around the entrance of the cave as he fell. He noticed every detail. Time seemed to nearly stop. He wondered whether one could create a powder to replicate this effect.

When he hit the water, his breath was knocked out of him. The suddenness of the plunge dropped everything into darkness. He turned end over end. His lungs burning, he fought to remember which direction was up.

A wet tongue woke Merph and he coughed to splutter water onto his chest. A black-and-white splotched dog stared at him. The dog yipped and pulled Merph further from the edge of the water. The eyes sparkled and Merph raised an arm that felt like dead weight to scratch at the dog's neck.

"Who might you be?" Merph wondered whether the dog had pulled him out of the water.

The dog barked.

"What should I call you?" He looked up at the white splash on the dog's throat. "How about Whitey?"

The dog's tail wagged.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Visby's Brazen Lady

Night fell in Gotland while an old lady, strands of gray hair escaping from the brown hood over her head, leaned on her fence. Fading sunlight played on the triangular wall of a church ruin. Higher on Visby's hill towered the iron grillwork of Sankta Maria church. Among the cobblestone streets walked emaciated children with none of the exuberance they should've shown. She wondered why Saint Maria couldn't hold sway over the streets at dark. Her neighbors had hidden within their walls, but not her, not a single night over seventy years. She lived her way, not the villager's way. Bribes.

Each child fanned out to wander in a different direction like a drunk weaving his way from a late night rendezvous, leaving the clutches of his love, her vapor thick on his breath. The old woman watched a little girl. Grime coated her cheeks. Blonde hair matted beneath the black rags of her cloak.

The children never looked the same to the old woman. Even though they came every night during the autumn. Why they came, no one knew. Perhaps, for the apples.

She swallowed once so her words wouldn't catch in her throat. "Apple, little girl?"

The girl shuffled closer, her teeth loose in her mouth as the gums pulled back leaving caves of darkness around the gray stumps. The wind, cool off the Baltic Sea, never made the children wince. The girl reached an arm up, a claw, and took an apple.

As the last light faded, night coming earlier every day, the children receded down the hill. They flowed out to the ocean where the fog kissed Gotland's coast.

Unlike the other nights, the departure of the children didn't leave the streets bare. Instead, the old lady, her arms propped on the weathered wood, stared into the depths of the fog. A skeletal man approached wearing a black robe with the hood pulled to leave his face in darkness.

He stopped and crooked his finger to call her forward. Her heart bubbled in her throat as she looked behind her but she knew deep down that he called for her. It was time. The apples fell from her hand and scattered in the grass as she loosened the gate and took his hand to walk through the streets of Visby one last time.

Update: I'm back from Germany; the last week has been particularly busy (meetings all day and then calls with the US office all evening) leaving me with little time to write. I've added a little to an old scrap of writing for this week's nearly Friday Flash.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bat Powder (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 6)

Part six in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

Merph sat by his window mashing mastic in the mortar and pestle while he watched the courtyard through the window. He'd mixed half of the ground mastic with the earwax from the bats, but after sprinkling it on himself he'd heard silence in the cellar and his hearing seemed unchanged. Nevertheless, he sprinkled a pinch in his hair just in case it only helped him hear better in certain situations.

Merph suspected he needed an additional ingredient. The healer's books had a reference to magnesia. He wasn't sure what that was, but the image of a man blowing into a stick attached to a glass bulb gave him a hint.

The jingling of a harness echoed from the tower's courtyard where the lord's cook backed one of the draft horses into the harness trace. Merph poured the half ground mastic powder into a glass flask that he stoppered. Favoring his right leg, he hurried down the curving steps from the healer's workroom and arrived outside as the cook finished hitching the second draft horse.

"Are you going to the town market?" Merph leaned against the wagon.

The cook connected the center shaft to the pole strap of the harness and wiped a hand over his brow. He leaned down to look Merph in the eye and winked. "Let me tell you a secret. The difference between a good cook and a great cook is fresh ingredients. Move away from the wagon so I can get there before the best produce is taken."

"May I come with you? I can help." Merph used the smile he flashed his Ma when he wanted her to cook sausages.

"Don't you have a bad leg?"

Merph raised his right leg and bent the knee. "It's healing. I promise not to slow you down."

The cook's eye twinkled. "I suppose you'd like to feel like you're useful now that the healer is no longer around. Go ahead, but you'd better promise to not run off."

Merph looked away into the woods. "I won't be a problem. Except, I have one errand to do for Healer Kluvenstrom. Before he disappeared, he had something he needed to deliver to one of the glassblowers. You won't mind if I help him out will you? I'm sure he'd appreciate it."

The cook lifted Merph onto the seat. "Make your errand fast so I don't regret this."

The wagon bounced along the path and Merph felt every bump in his leg. Fortunately, the sun was out or otherwise his leg would have felt worse. He hummed one of the tunes he'd learned from his father when they worked the fields. The cook picked up the tune and then softly sang the words.

The cook stopped the wagon. Fruit and vegetable stands created a miniature village between the tall buildings on the edge of the town's square. People bartered, chickens clucked, and boisterous children chased through the stalls.

"I'm going to make a loop to check the produce before I buy anything. Finish your errand for the healer and then help me carry things back from the stands."

Merph hurried to the market sure there was a glassblower somewhere. He grimaced as he ran on the leg. Merph wasn't sure how long it would take the cook to find the items he wished to buy. Ahead, he saw a three walled building with an oven, its belly glowing orange. A man held a long pole into the fire.

A respectable distance away, Merph stopped. The glassblower didn't turn so Merph coughed and then said, "Did you hear about Healer Kluvenstrom?"

The glassblower pulled the pole from the fire. Turning it quickly, he breathed into the hollow pole. His cheeks were red and he wore only a white tunic with his sleeves rolled up. "No." The glassblower placed the pole back into the fire.

"He's disappeared."

The glassblower raised an eyebrow.

"Honest. I'm his apprentice."

The man leaned over his pole to stare at the softening glass inside the furnace as it began to gleam with the heat. "I don't have any reason to disbelieve you. I'm busy."

Merph bit his lip as he looked at the man. "I need your help to rescue him."

The glassblower pulled the glass out of the oven again and it flowed so that it was no longer centered on the pole. "How is a glassblower like me going to help?" His eyes narrowed as he looked at Merph. "Aren't you a little young for an apprentice." He began to twirl the pole to correct the leaning glass.

"I'm a new apprentice, and it's all my fault. You've got to help me."

There must've been something in Merph's tone that caused the glassblower to pause for a second and stare at the boy. "What do you need?"

Merph pulled the slip of paper out of his belt and passed it to the glassblower. "Magnesia."

The glassblower grimaced. "That stuff isn't cheap. I need it to decolorize the glass." His eyes narrowed as he looked at Merph's lips turning into a frown. He indicated a box near his work tools. "All right. But, this better not be a ploy to get some free ingredients."


Merph finished mixing the magnesia with the mastic and bat earwax. The powder became pink as he finished swirling it together. The mixture more than the sum of its components. Holding his breath, he pinched a bit of the pink powder and sprinkled it over the back of his head and and over his ears.

He fell to the bench as the clamor washed over him. The honking of geese; elm, oak, and beech leaves rustling together; the scritching of termite mandibles dissolving wood; and voices everywhere.

He could hear everything. Yet, that didn't help because he couldn't hear anything with all the competing sound. His head ached and he leaned against the table.

Suddenly, he heard Katja's voice. "He's not my apprentice." There was a short pause as if someone else was talking. "Nothing happened at the cave last week."

Merph found that if he concentrated he could hear just the sounds in the room were Katja talked to one of the other chambermaids. The other chambermaid teased, "I can see the way you look at him."

"We're just friends," said Katja.

Merph's cheeks burned and he moved his concentration away. He heard Tvinnrun's sonorous rumble. The runeworker's footsteps thumped to accentuate his voice. "We've gotten the meddling healer out of the way." The runeworker tapped something hollow. "He's trapped in this rune-lock. Now, we just need to hide this someplace no one will find."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pua's Choice

Ka'pali Ridge

Pua jammed another cartridge into the pheromone shooter. His father's refusal to allow Pua to study as a spirit speaker echoed in his ears as if wind spirits afflicted him with memories. Pua ground his teeth. Why couldn't the spirits see true?

One of the butterfly prawns veered from the herd. The damn creature's jelly-like shell would spew it's meat on the ridge as if mimicking his father's destruction of his life. Pua aimed the shooter while sliding the range dial so the pheromone would deter the prawn. The trigger stuck. The cartridge lodged improperly against the wrist-rig's flange.

One good smack was needed. A lot of things could be improved with a smack. He wasn't a child any longer. Son of the cloud spirits! The cartridge gashed his wrists and clattered against the igneous cliff. Slip-sliding, it stuck in the roots of a bottle-brush pine.

As if they were conniving against him, a second butterfly prawn drifted near the cliffs and the herd followed. The spirit-cursed creatures had no sense. Any hope of persuading his father would die if he lost their herd. He leaped from the ridge reaching for the fast approaching pine.

Wai'ona Strand

The light from glowing embers reflected off the spirit-speaker's cheeks. Makaha's knuckles, buried in the damp sand, reminded him of Pua's coldness. Ever since his wife -- and yes, his favorite son, Ku'u Maka -- had died, he'd needed his boy, shiftless as he was, to inherit his role.

The elder drank the spirit water and his eyelids closed, the eyeballs fluttering. Makaha clinched his fists in the sand as the elder's voice became other.

"The sun sets on a boy's life."

Makaha's throat tightened. Every night the elder told the same tale. He missed a word. The sun will set. Will. Will. Makaha ran from the pit pounding his hands against his ears.

Ka'pali Ridge

Pua smashed against the tree, teeth chattering. Hands slipped on the bark. Fingernails tore as he stopped his fall. Whipped cloud spirits. His hands hurt, but he'd stopped the fall. He swung to the far side of the tree and felt for the canister.

The first prawn grazed the cliff and popped. Its innards speckled the cliff with a phosphorescent blue glow. Pua repeated to himself that he could still rescue the others. His fingers nudged the canister loose. He lost his grip on the tree. Legs crashed against the rock. Pain exploded with bits of blood.

A spirit face hovered over Pua when he opened his eyes. Death wasn't supposed to be his route to spirit-speaking. He kicked at the figure.

"Nice, a little temper."

Spirits didn't talk. Centered on the man's forehead was a tattoo of the snake warriors. Kicking a leg, Pua tried to escape while the other leg pulsed with pain.

"Your herd wasn't as lucky as you." Tattoos curled at the edge of the man's cheeks as he spoke. "All dead. Your clan won't be happy to have you back."

Pua remembered his father's anger. The world shrank. Pua spat. "I'm not dead yet." He balled his fists. Until he was dead, he would fight.

"You don't have to go back. We need more warriors."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mgmt: Flying to Sweden

I'm flying to Sweden (really, my plane should have left six hours ago), but my flight was canceled, so I'm flying tonight. Although it is annoying to have a canceled flight, I was amazingly lucky to have the airline call and rebook me just minutes before my shuttle arrived to the airport. I was also able to rebook the shuttle for this afternoon. Unfortunately, this did not mean I got more sleep.

Yes, this is a somewhat long explanation to say, I'm traveling and will be updating somewhat less frequently than usual over the next two weeks. Honest, this isn't a fake excuse for my NaNo habit. ;)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bats (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 5)

Part five in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

The light from the red and green runestones blended together to bathe Merph in a yellow glow where he stood outside the door to Detlef's chambers. The runestones, knuckle-sized cubes, balanced within an iron knotwork holding the stones. Merph wondered again whether Detlef had sneaked out of his chambers to avoid Merph's questions. He bit his lips. More time had passed and he wasn't any closer to rescuing Healer Kluvenstrom. He reminded himself that if Detlef could read the marks left on the floor after Kluvenstrom had disappeared, it would save him from searching through the picture books.

A man dressed in a leather vest over his brocaded shirt moved to the other side of the hallway and watched Merph. Merph stared at the floor as if he was a page. Ever since Lord Calle's strange sickness, everyone in the keep had been on edge. Even Merph who knew why Lord Calle was sick. Yet, he hadn't rescued the healer yet.

Detlef's door opened and the lord's son stood in the entryway wearing riding boots with a mink-pelt trim. When he saw Merph, he flinched and placed a hand on the door. "What are you doing here?"

Merph unfolded the piece of paper in his hand. "A question."

Detlef began walking down the hallway. "I don't have time for questions."

"I just need you to read something." Merph hurried to keep up with the boy's boots echoing on the stone floor.

Detlef grabbed the paper out of Merph's hands. His eyes narrowed as he looked at the farmer's son. "Your face was red like my father's when I came to summon you to his chambers. What do you know about his sickness?"

Merph's hands fidgeted. "Nothing. I had worked hard before you came."

Detlef stared at the apprentice's eyes and didn't seem to see the shaking hands. He crumpled the scrap of paper and threw it at Merph whose hands moved too slowly to catch the paper.

"It says listen." Detlef continued down the hallway. "I've got more important things to do. I must summon Tvinnrun home and find a temporary healer until Kluvenstrom is found."

The saliva in Merph's mouth congealed into curds. He watched as Detlef descended a stairway, but his mind was elsewhere. The eyes of the runeworker had been too pointed and he'd attacked Merph. The boy shook his head telling himself that he needed to hurry and rescue Kluvenstrom before Tvinnrun returned.

Merph pondered the word written on the ground of the cellar. It echoed what the healer had told him before Merph had returned from the astral plane. To what was he supposed to listen?


A raindrop splattered against Merph's nose. Katja stood in the gate frowning at the dark clouds hanging low in the sky. She wore a much patched cloak over her shoulders.

"Come on," said Merph.

"I think this is a bad idea." Thunder rumbled.

Merph placed an arm on the stone wall and looked into Katja's eyes. "I need you. The healer needs you."

She stepped backwards. "That's what you said the last time. Before --"

Merph made the sign of Othinn's one eye. "It was necessary. I couldn't leave here. No one will be permanently hurt." Merph walked away from the tower. "If you don't come with me, I'll have to find it myself."

She stepped out of the gate and the door closed behind her. "You won't find the cave without me."

Merph winked at her. "You'll have to come with me to see if you win the challenge."

Merph and Katja walked toward the hills along the stream and Merph stopped for a branch that he used as a walking stick to take his weight off the bad leg. The rolling grasslands became hillier and black rocks scarred the grasses. He moved to the right to follow an animal trail.

Katja tutted with her hands on her hips. "You lose."

"I would've realized I'd gone the wrong way. As long as I find the cave without your help, I win."

Small beads of rain stuck in her hair. She rolled her eyes. "Darkness will come before we return if I let you lead. Follow me."

She stopped at a boulder lying beside the edge of a cliff. Small thistles grew in the crevices around the edges and a dark shadow appeared against the far edge. "Now we've found it. We should go back."

"I need to go in."

Katja scrunched her nose. "Bats live in there."

"I know." Merph stepped into the darkness. He wished he still had some of the moon powder. He should've stolen one of the lighted runestones. After two turns, the cave became darker than the astral plane had been.

He remembered the winter stories his parents had told about bats that turned into people. He told himself that they were stories to keep children indoors after nightfall. Still, he shivered.

From Kluvenstrom's books, he had puzzled through the recipe for a listening powder. One of the ingredients had something to do with a bat. He was confused that the recipe had an image of a glassblower, but he figured he only needed to concentrate on one thing at a time. He bit his tongue. It wasn't getting any lighter in the cave. He pressed his hands against the walls. The rock was cool, almost slimy to the touch.

He moved and wings flapped through the air. Merph jumped to bump his head against the wall. Outside, Katja screamed. One of the bats must have flown out.

Merph tried again and this time, he got his hands on a wiggling bat. It seemed unlike his image of Kluvenstrom to kill the bat. But, the recipe required bat. He shuddered. What if the bat was one of those from the stories his parents had told that turned into humans?

Air swirled cool against his cheek. It felt like a breath. "No."

The words were soft and Merph held his breath.

"Only the ear wax. Rub the ears."

Merph recognized the voice. It was Kluvenstrom. He dropped the bat and it flew away. "Where are you?" Merph whispered. No one answered.

Merph captured another bat and rubbed the bat's ears. It seemed to wriggle a little less. Perhaps, it liked this. Merph's fingers had a waxy substance on them and he scraped his hand against a bowl's edge. He would need many bats. Merph gritted his teeth. The bats began to land on his shoulders as if lining up to bring him their earwax.

Merph crawled out of the hole.

Standing over him, Katja said, "Finally. What were you doing down there?"

"Healer things."

Friday, November 5, 2010

No Shoe Zone

Chatham trudged in the Logan security line. His new shoes nudged the shined shoes of the balding man with a blackberry pasted to his ear. The man shot him an evil glance. Chatham swallowed and stepped backwards tripping over the toe of his other shoe and falling against the woman behind him. He muttered apologies and thought that at least there was one benefit to the long lines.

Glancing at his watch, Chatham was glad his father's girlfriend had dropped him at the airport well before his plane's departure. He shook his head. They hadn't clicked. She'd only done it as a favor to Chatham's father and because she worked downtown and traveled through the underground warren on her way to work.

The line moved faster once the TSA agent had checked Chatham's license and he waddled forward to avoid tripping over his shoes. Chatham dropped his backpack on the conveyor belt.

Another agent, a full head taller than Chatham and built like a comic book hero, grabbed one of the backpack's straps. "You got a computer?"

Chatham shook his head.


Chatham shook his head again and stepped towards the x-ray scanner. The toe of his foot bounced off the side of his other shoe.

The TSA agent grabbed Chatham's arm. "Where you going?"

Chatham's chin jiggled as he swallowed and pointed at the x-ray machine.

"You're standing in a no shoe zone. All shoes must go through the scanner."

Chatham's hand jerked at his side. "Can't take shoes off."

"Your mom still dress you?" Someone in the security line laughed at the TSA agent's slur.

"It's for our good. I must not remove my shoes." The boy stared at the speckled floor.

"I decide what is good and secure. That's my job. Not yours." The agent's arm shook as he pushed Chatham against the belt that led to the scanners.

The crowd of people waiting to go through security pressed forward to compress into a single blurring blob. Someone yelled, "What's the holdup? I'm going to miss my flight."

The agent turned to Chatham and tapped a finger against his own chest. "You listen to me. I'm in charge here and good is no one getting through security without my guaranteeing their safety." The agent pointed at Chatham's shoes. "All shoes are removed, not just yours. Those size seventeen --"


"Don't interrupt me, boy. Those shoes are too large for you and look suspicious. I'm in charge here. You better listen to me."

"I can't take off my shoes."

The agent's lips quivered. He pointed at the gates and shouted, "You see that? If you don't take off your shoes, you ain't flying."

Chatham's head drooped and he began to turn. He needed his mother for the banishment and knew she would be disappointed when he didn't return home, but he couldn't take off his shoes.

"No, you can't just leave." The TSA agent grabbed Chatham's arm and waved to one of his coworkers. "We'll need to ask you some questions." The agent unlocked a doorway to the side of the security checkpoint and left Chatham sitting on a chair. The door clicked shut behind the TSA agent.

Chatham wiggled in the chair, his feet feeling uncomfortable. His shoes writhed and for a moment the tongue pressed upwards from the shoe and exposed a red-skinned demon tied with iron chains to Chatham's foot. Not a great binding and one that the demon could escape if he removed his shoes. He needed his mother who could banish the beast.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Taste for Ashes (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 4)

Part four in The Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

Merph sat on the bench in Healer Kluvenstrom's workshop with his bad leg raised to reduce the throbbing. His scrawl on the scrap of paper taunted him. Merph had scribed the letters -- his best recollection of the glowing moon powder -- that he'd seen that morning.

His head hurt from searching through the healer's picture book looking for the word. He swallowed thinking about the healer stuck in that neverworld. Kluvenstrom had called it an astral plane, whatever that was. How was a farmer's child like Merph supposed to rescue the healer?

A canister of charcoal-colored powder lie beside the two books Merph had studied. The boy stirred the powder with a finger and tasted its astringent smoky flavor. The healer should have had shelves or a chest filled with powerful powders. Instead, Merph had only found the ash powder that he'd personally mixed.

Beads of sweat dripped down his brow and his stomach felt queasy. He recalled the healer's warnings against tasting anything but pure mastic and healing powders.

Someone knocked on the workshop's door. Merph stared at his powder-stained hands as his heart raced realizing that with the healer's disappearance they would send him home. He needed to rescue the healer quickly.

The door creaked open and a boy entered in a brown doublet, embroidered in interwoven red and silver plaits. The absence of dust on the boy's boots and the bits of metal and bone glittering amongst the laces meant that this must be Lord Calle's son. Merph dropped his head and mumbled, "My lord."

"None of that." The boy laughed and made a sign to ward against evil. "Call me Detlef. A younger son shouldn't become Lord."

"Are you going to send me home?"

Detlef picked up the picture book. "Learning to read?"

Merph grabbed the scrap of paper wrinkling it in his hands before the Lord's son saw it. "Yes."

"Do you want to go home?"

Merph's eyes widened. "No. I must rescue the healer."

"You?" Detlef's eyes softened and his tone became more conciliatory. "Sorry, my tutor tells me that I underestimate people. You're braver than I if you're going to meddle in mysticism. Come. Father sent me to fetch you." Detlef turned and left the room.

Stone stairs curled along the outside wall and Merph paused by an embrasure. His leg throbbed with pain from too much movement. Through open shutters, Merph looked down at the treetops that surrounded the tower as their leaves fluttered in the wind.

Lord Calle sat beside a man wearing a black robe with silver embossed patterns in the style of the box that had been lying on the floor of the cellar. "Are you all right?"

"Yes." Merph swallowed. "Yes, my lord."

"Why is your face red?"

Merph heard Detlef's footsteps descend the stairs and wished the boy had stayed here with him. "It's nothing." Merph looked at the cracks between the floorboards.

"Do you know why you're here?" Lord Calle's eyes bored into the boy.

Merph shook his head and looked at the robed man. He guessed the man was the runeworker. He remembered one of his dinner conversations where he'd asked questions about the Lord's runeworker. Katja had refused to answer his questions, telling him that one shouldn't speak about the man.

"Tvinnrun is one of my advisors and tells me that you and his apprentice discovered Kluvenstrom's disappearance. What do you know about that?"

Merph's voice shook. "It's my fault."

Tvinnrun raised an eyebrow. "How so?"

"I opened a runebox --"

Tvinnrun leaned forward. "A farmer's son hardly knows how to read. The boy has listened to too many fireside tales and imagines objects that never existed." He glowered at Merphe. "Besides, we found powders scattered everywhere downstairs. Your fault, I don't doubt."

Merph didn't trust the runeworker. The shapes he'd seen on the sides of the box resembled the patterns on Tvinnrun's robe. He remained still remembering the way he had protested when his older brother had left the pen gate open and their goats had wandered out. The more he'd claimed innocence the more his Pa had suspected him. "I vanished into a world without light. Kluvenstrom called it an astral plane."

Tvinnrun rose and paced around the room before facing Lord Calle. "This is more serious than we thought. Someone sent the astral plane. I'm sure they sent it for you. You must send the boy home and leave this place. Someone is creating traps for you."

Merph's voice squeaked as he interrupted them. "My leg is bad. I can't go." The healer expected Merph to save him and he could only do that if he stayed at the fortress.

Lord Calle sighed. "Yes, Kluvenstrom mentioned you had broken your leg." He turned to face Tvinnrun. "I miss Kluvenstrom's advice. Do I really have to leave here?"

A blackness flashed across Tvinnrun's face but vanished as if it had never been there. "Yes. It is unsafe here."

Lord Calle leaned to peer into Merph's eyes. "Collect your things and you'll ride with one of the wagons when we travel." Lord Calle turned to look at the runeworker. "Where will I go?"

"My apprentice's father holds a barony by the Storsjö Lake."


Merph sat on the bench in the kitchen. Tvinnrun had left with his apprentice to prepare the Baron for Lord Calle's arrival. The cook scraped bits of venison from the roast pan into a pot where he prepared the gravy. Merph couldn't leave the tower. He needed something. Something that would keep them from traveling.

Katja slid across the table from him. Her hair fell bedraggled at the sides of her face. "Your face is red. Are you feeling okay?"

The noises of the kitchen faded away as Merph considered the ash powder. His skin still burned to the touch as if he had a fever. He could make them think that the Lord was sick and then they wouldn't travel. "Stay here."

Merph hurried up the stairs to Kluvenstrom's workroom. He bit his lips to avoid thinking about the pain in his leg. Grabbing a pinch of ash powder, he half-hopped down the stairs and leaned against the walls.

Back in the kitchen, Merph realized that he must ensure only Lord Calle consumed the ash powder. He didn't trust the usual servant that served Lord Calle. He could hear his Pa's lecture about hurting other people. Merph told himself that he was doing this for Kluvenstrom and therefore that made it right. Tvinnrun must've planned the whole thing and therefore he wasn't just helping Kluvenstrom but Lord Calle as well.

Merph grabbed a meat pastry cooling on the counter, stuffed half of it in his mouth, and dipped it in the Moon powder. With a wink, Merph stuffed it into the servant's mouth as she carried a loaf of bread towards the dining hall.

Merph sat next to Katja. "I need you to do something for me."

Katja's eyes crinkled. "What?"

Merph opened the palm of his hand and showed her the ash powder. "I need you to scatter this over Lord Calle's dinner. It must only be on his food."

"I couldn't do that. What if it hurts him?" asked Katja.

Merph grabbed Katja's wrist with his free hand. "Lord Calle is in danger. This is the only way to save him."

Katja stared at Merph for a long moment. "Even if you're telling the truth, look at me. I'm a grimy chambermaid. They won't let me into the Great Hall."

The serving maid returned from the Great Hall and stood with sweat dripping down her face as she wobbled with a hand against the wall.

Merph nodded at the girl. "She's not feeling well. She could use some help."

"Oh, all right." Katja held out her palm. "This better not to hurt him."

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Skeletons in His Closet

Dr. Carlos Santiago searched his lab coat pocket to silence his Blackberry and found two parking stubs, a test tube, a syringe, and the sharp teeth of a lab mouse. With a scowl, he jerked his hand out of the pocket. As always, the mice fouled perfectly good research or in this case his prank to release it during the second of his two committee meetings. If the mouse had behaved, it would have gotten him out of the endless bickering.

A graduate microbial physiology book slammed to the floor, all 1500 pages including folded up notes that slid across the floor. A redhaired first-year shied away from Carlos. The professor bit his tongue to avoid smiling. He'd have to ask one of the philosophy professors over lunch whether his scowl came first or the fear in the student's eyes.

Carlos continued searching for his Blackberry. He rolled his eyes. Its chirps should be a dead giveaway. As any academic study could prove, he found the phone in the last place he checked and acknowledged the reminder about the Ph.D. defense for one of Dr. Lee's students. A smile cracked Carlos's lips. It might not be research, but at least he could make someone squirm.

Carlos entered the classroom and saw the doctoral student hunched over a laptop. He tiptoed forward. "Do you think your research is sufficient?"

The student twisted at the noise and his hand jerked to scatter a folder of journal papers and a couple plastic cylinders to the floor. One of the vials rolled beneath the professor's foot. The student hastily grabbed the fallen papers. "You... you read the dissertation."

"Of course." The student's dissertation, _Methodology and Analysis of Compulsory Ecdysis on Non-Serpentine Physiology_, was unimaginative. The student had discovered a field-shattering method, but he didn't understand how to use it. Mice. Carlos sneered. "What do you think?"

The student retreated to the far side of the table with his laptop. "I spent much time."

"Time does not equate mastery." The words hissed through Carlos' teeth like the forked tongue of a snake. Students these days thought that since the University pushed them to graduate in under six years, they didn't have to innovate.

"Are you terrorizing Pieter?" Dr. Lee stood in the doorway.

"No," said Carlos. "Just a couple of preparatory questions."

Once everyone had arrived, Carlos stretched his feet in front of him, his eyes sliding to a crack. Pieter introduced his findings on a serum that hardened mammalian skin into a scale-like structure and preserved a specimen's inner organs while allowing the central bone system and certain important ligaments to be extracted.

Carlos' eyes sprang open and his laser-like gaze spit Pieter with vehemence. "Removing the skeletons from mice is a waste of time. Have you tried this on any other species?"

The student retreated from his laptop. "Uh... no. But, the mice don't age while they've been extracted from their bodies."

Carlos raised an eyebrow. "You're dissertation doesn't mention anything about re-associating skeleton and flesh."

"She," Pieter pointed at Dr. Lee, "she thought it best that I save that work to publish towards a tenure-track position post-graduation."

Carlos grabbed a syringe from the pocket of his lab coat and the plastic vial that had fallen earlier. He could move fast when he wanted to. He pressed the needle against Pieter's arm. "I suggest we try a new species and add a little excitement to this defense." Carlos released the ecdysis serum into the student's body. The skin became translucent.

"No," shouted Dr. Lee.

Carlos scratched at the student's hairline and the scalp loosed to expose the skull's white bone. He yanked the bones from the body. The skeleton jerked and go fell forward across the table.

"Interesting," said Carlos. He had another skeleton for his closet. And some interesting avenues for research. Perhaps, the morning hadn't been entirely wasted.

A response to my writer's weights exercise, "Humor Challenge". The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less that uses one of the above techniques to create humor or one of your own favorite techniques. Theme for this week: skeleton.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Disappearance (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 3)

Part three in The Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

Merph squeezed into the kitchen and slipped one of the meat pies from a tray before one of the maids carried it into the dining hall. His wrists hurt from eight days of pounding the pestle into the marble bowl. Too much time wasted on books and the pounding, incessant pounding, of mastic. Kluvenstrom had only let him mix a simple ash powder. He had barely accomplished anything in one week. Merph slunk into a corner of the kitchen away from the cooks.

Katja entered the kitchen and grabbed a handful of fried potatoes and an apple that the chambermaid polished against her gray stained dress. Katja winked at Merph as she joined him in the corner. "Did you make anything today?" She set the apple down and flicked her fingers. "Explode?"

Merph breathed in and tried to sit straight like his elder brother had when describing a new way to till the field. "The healer says I'm a natural expert. We're doing important work making ash powders to heat Lord Calle's Tower this winter." He patted his chest. "I'm learning to read faster than anyone Kluvenstrom's worked with before."

The chambermaid smirked as she reached into her bodice to withdraw a folded piece of paper. "Can you read this?"

The cooks and other maids ignored Merph as he unfolded the paper and traced his fingers over the words. There were too many black scratches and letters, but Merph recognized two words. Powder, and power.

"Well, can you?"

"Where did you find this?" asked Merph.

"In one of the rooms I cleaned." She leaned forward smelling of rosemary and thyme. "Bet you can't read that."

"Can too."

"What does it say?"

Merph blew at a strand of hair that had fallen into his eyes. "It describes a powder that's used in the fields to make the plants grow." The chambermaid smiled at Merph and her encouragement led him to speak quickly until he stopped. He had begun to repeat himself.

"It says all that?"

"It does." Merph nodded his head solemnly and the strand of hair fell back in front of his eyes.

"You'll teach me to read?"

"One day," said Merph. When she reached out for the piece of paper, he held it away from her. "This must be Healer Kluvenstrom's. I should return it to him.


Later that night, Merph traipsed down the stairs into the tower's cellar holding the torch that he'd taken from the top of the stairs. He pulled the scrap of paper Katja had found from beneath his trousers and rope belt. He wished that he'd had some of the moon powder that he'd watched the healer mix, but the powder had been moved from the workroom. Instead, he'd paged through the book trying to match the words from the piece of paper with the pictures in the book. He'd managed to decode one more word, cellar.

Teetering on the circular stairs, Merph favored his bad leg. Rectangular chests piled one upon the other and leaned against the stone walls. In the center of the dirt floor, a small fist-sized box stood. Black ink stained the top in a pattern that wasn't a letter Merph recognized. Yet, the pattern looked familiar. He looked at the paper and saw it at the top margin. The box must hold the powder of power. Merph wondered what fantastic powers it might yield. He knelt on the floor and cracked open the box.

The room disappeared as darkness spread in every direction. It reminded Merph of swimming underwater in the river. Except underwater, there was a light above you where the sun shone through the river's surface. Merph yelled but nothing answered him. Pinpricks of light twinkled around him but he couldn't move any closer to them. Time passed.

A sound popped behind Merph and he spun to see Kluvenstrom holding Katja's folded piece of paper. The healer opened a palm filled with the pearlescent glow of moon powder. "Do you know what this says?"

Merph took a step backwards away from the healer.

"No! This is an astral plane and one can become lost here. The paper is gibberish. A trap. You should not have come down here." The healer placed the paper in the boy's hands. "Hold this. It'll take you back."

Merph looked up at the healer hearing something in the man's words. The man looked distant. "What about you?"

"Can't. No time. You must rescue us." Fog swirled and Kluvenstrom faded from sight. The man's last word echoed. "Listen."

Merph found himself sprawled on the floor of the cellar and he scrambled to his feet. The floor was empty with no sign of the box that he'd opened or Kluvenstrom. His hands held a dozen grains of moon powder. His skin crawled as the shadows cast by the moon powder seemed to move. Merph ran up the stairs.

Merph burst through the doorway at the top of the cellar and ran into Mortok. The boy stepped backwards. "I'm sorry."

"What are you doing?" asked Mortok. "That powder in your hand is Kluvenstrom's. Where is he?"

The neighboring Lord's son scared and confused Merph who stepped back against the wall. Merph didn't understand why the sun shone into the hallway. It had been night. He whitened. "I... I..."

Mortok yelled down the hallway. "Servant!" He waited until footsteps ran towards them. "Bring Lord Calle here." Mortok turned Merph towards the cellar. "Let us investigate."

Merph lowered his chin. "I have the moon powder, I can light the way."

"Nonsense." Mortok chuckled. "I saw the healer enter the cellar. Some apprentices can become greedy. Has that happened with you?" Mortok withdrew a cube from the pocket of his coat and the black runes on the sides glowed red.

The stairs creaked as they descended. The cellar had the boxes the same as always against the edge of the room. Mortok closed his eyes holding out his arms and sniffing. He stopped and his eyes popped open. "I sense the otherworld here. We need Lord Calle and my master, Tvinnrun to investigate." Mortok turned and his cloak brushed the stone walls leaving marks in the darkness.

As the red light faded, faint moon powder glowed on the floor. The powder hadn't been there before, Merph was sure of that. It created a six letter word, but Merph didn't know what it meant. He memorized the shapes. _Listen._ He bounded up the stairs.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Writer's Weights: Humor Challenge (WW8)

Want to exercise your writing chops? This week's writer's weights exercise focuses on the writing ensemble. Answers to the challenge will be posted on Friday. If you use this exercise, post a link in the comments, and I'll update the post with your link. Everyone is welcome to participate.

With Halloween approaching, I thought that it might be fun to have a break from the horde of gibbering creatures. Instead of HP Lovecraft, this week is inspired by Larry, Curly, and Moe. Attempt to write a scene that includes humor. This can be a leavening of a more serious writing or a slapstick.

A couple of techniques to consider:
  • Brainstorm lots of ideas, the first one you think of may not be the funniest and coming up with several variants may result in a funnier idea.
  • Experiment with placing the punchline (and even the punch of the single sentence) in different places. Many comedians will attempt to place this at the end of the paragraph or sentence, but not always placing the punch in the same place may make that humor sparkle.
  • Make the reader think a little bit to get the humor. This can be difficult to hit that sweet zone where the humor isn't told to them but enough information lies there for them to put the pieces together and that results in potentially someone thinking it is funny.

The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less that uses one of the above techniques to create humor or one of your own favorite techniques. Theme for this week: skeleton.

Further reading:

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pterodon Drilling

The earth quaked. The sky of the gas giant, Aepa, dimmed as yellow-tinged clouds flared against the purpling sky. Brad closed his logbook, thankful for the archaic system. His logs continued long after the year-batteries of his terminal eked out their final charge.

Iepeac Kup, the pterodon priest, fidgeted outside Brad's lean-to wearing a drab cape knitted from the moss that grew between the pterodon's scales. Brad recited to himself using the mnemonic techniques he taught himself to capture the cape's shape as it draped over Iepeac's shoulders and the formal sash criss-crossing his body.

"Come. You must." Iepeac spoke in Brad's language, the tongue of the stars and not spoken in the cities on Aepa.

Brad followed Iepeac away from the native's lean-tos nestled in the scales of the pterodon's shoulder and towards the mile-wide expanse of the wings where the natives grew the food-shrubs on the back of the muscled membranes. Brad asked in Iepeac's own language, "What has happened?"

The priest refused to speak in his own language. "Come. You see. You must stop Athotia."

They climbed over a bone knob above the winged plains. A cluster of natives gathered where the spine lie shallow beneath the membranes. Jerry-rigged hollow bones scavenged from baby pterodons, too small to sustain a city, stacked against each other to create a platform. A weighted bone spike hung from the platform's center and a counterweight suspended it above the pterodon's carapace. Athotia released the counterweight. The spike dug into the scales. A breeze ruffled across the scrubs as the ground beneath their feet dipped for a second before righting.

"Must stop Athotia," repeated Iepeac. "Only you can. They listen to star wanderer." The priest pulled at the vestments rubbing against his neck.

Brad couldn't. His hair stood on edge as the natives reattached the counterweight and pulled it towards the ground to raise the spike again. Didn't they realize that they lived on a sentient creature? Brad shook his head. The Academy had stressed that the pledge was more important than his life. "You are the priest, a leader of your people. Ask them to stop."

Iepeac's face became blank. An eye twitched. The spike fell again and the ground shook. The priest ran down the bony knob, his cape catching on the branches of the shrubs leaving bits of moss behind him. He ran beneath the spike.

His voice rang pure. "You must not do this. The drilling will harm our host."

The crowd stepped away from the release on the counterweight leaving Athotia standing by himself. He placed a hand on the counterweight's release. "Our priest's faith is misplaced. The host's blood will make us strong. Iepeac Kup fears our strength." Athotia released the counterweight.

The bone glanced off the edge of Iepeac's shoulder. The priest fell to the ground his own blood mingling with the black liquid emerging from the pit where the bony spike had clawed into the pterodon's membrane. The ground tilted beneath them as the pterodon dove. The makeshift tower crashed onto its side before the ground leveled again. The pterodon's blood clotted.

"Help me raise the tower," shouted Athotia. "One more blow."

The natives retreated from the tower except for one man who knelt beside the priest and pushed one of the bone shards away so he could lift the priest from beneath the tower. The man looked at Athotia. "The priest is right. We will not drill."

My attempt at this week's writer's weights exercise to make writing efficient by doing multiple things. Comments and constructive criticism welcome.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Craft Analysis: Differentiating Characters and Rinne Groff's "Compulsion" (CA5)

Welcome to another entry in my ongoing craft analysis series (more about it here -- in particular, note that this analysis is not necessarily correct but my attempt to understand). Several weeks ago, I watched the Berkeley Rep's production of Rinne Groff's "Compulsion". I talked a little bit about the play earlier.

This play centered on a single main character and several satellite characters around that character. What I found interesting was that the main character spent every scene on stage as if the other characters were merely figments of that character's imagination. Making them seem even more like figments, only two other actors (one male, one female) played all the other characters. However, I hadn't noticed that the main character's editor and wife were played by the same woman until my sambo mentioned this during the intermission.

I'm interested in how the actor (and playwright and director) made these characters seem different. In writing, the characters come from the author and therefore the author needs to develop ways that characters exhibit different traits and personalities. To do this well, one can use multiple techniques to create this experience.

In the play, this was accomplished through four different mechanisms. The first was a change in physical attributes of the character. The primary difference was a medium-length, curly, blonde wig worn by the editor that contrasted with wife's short, straight, brunette hair.

The second mechanism was the difference in dress. The editor wore business attire with boxy shoulder pads that shaped her body differently than the sun dresses worn by the wife and resulted in the body types of the two characters appearing to look different beyond just the hair.

The third mechanism was in the body language. The editor expresses confidence and acts as if she has power over the main character. Her body language is dominating and done in a way to emphasize the aggressiveness of the business place. The wife plays a very sensual role and takes a more pleading role towards the main character and importantly in the first half of the play is largely overlooked by the main character.

The last mechanism is the voice. In particular, the wife is French and because this is a play you hear her accent with every word that she says. However, it's more than just this. Her word choice uses specific words that indicate that she is French and she remarks on one of the large English words that her husband uses in a way that foreign speakers might and turns it into a joke about the language.

I enjoyed the way that this play used these four different mechanisms to differentiate this character. What ways do you differentiate characters?

Monday, October 18, 2010

New Friends (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 2)

Part two in my Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

Merph pushed the mortar and pestle across the stone table in Healer Kluvenstrom's workshop. His wrists ached from the constant pounding. Two days since the healer's wagon had arrived at Lord Calle's tower. Outside the window, clouds skipped across the sky. Merph had thought magic would be more fun than playing in the fields. Merph mumbled under his breath and dropped his head to rest on his crossed hands on the stone table his head drooping to meet the support of his hands.

Kluvenstrom rested his book on a bench. "You can't be done with the grinding yet. Do you have a fine powder like the sand you'd find on the banks of a river?"

"Done," grumbled Merph.

The healer licked his finger and dipped it into the mortar where it picked up a layer of dust. He stuck his finger in his mouth and the eyes watched Merph. The boy felt uncomfortable under the healer's gaze. He didn't want to do anymore grinding.

The healer wrinkled his nose. "The mastic needs to be finer or it won't dissolve in the tincture that you need for the next step."

"Why am I doing this? It's makework. Worse than staying at home while they work the fields."

Kluvenstrom ruffled Merph's hair. "It's the first stage of making your own powders."

The way Kluvenstrom's fingers stroked through Merph's hair reminded him of his father. "I want to know about the magics."

The healer tapped one of the two books on the table. "This book describes how the powders work and the magic." Kluvenstrom smiled.

Merph set his elbows on the table and let his face sink into his hands. His voice sounded muffled. "Can't read."

In the courtyard outside, a wheeled carriage bounced behind the staccato hoofbeats of two horses. Merph looked out the window and saw a young man nearly as old as his oldest brother. The man wore all black and tossed his reins to one of the servants before hurrying towards the Lord's tower.

"Who's that?" asked Merph.

The edge of Kluvenstrom's lips turned downwards when he looked out the window. "Don't bother thinking about Mortok. He's a noble's son." Softer as if he didn't realize what he was saying the healer continued. "The man should know better than to study with a runeworker."

Merph didn't know why but something about the way the man walked -- a self-confidence -- made him want to speak to the man. Merph exhaled. The sons of farmers didn't get to socialize with nobles.

Kluvenstrom tapped the other book. "We were talking about reading. This book has pictures with the words underneath. If you want to become a master of the powders, you must learn to read."

"Why? Can't I be smart?" Merph tapped his forehead. "Keep all the knowledge in here."

Kluvenstrom laughed. "Too much to know for even the wisest prodigy. Each book contains the wisdom of dozens of powder workers." Kluvenstrom paused and seemed to notice the frown on Merph's face. "Don't worry, it will become easier."

"But I want to learn about the magic now."

Kluvenstrom pushed the mortar and pestle in front of the boy. "I'll make you another deal. If you work on grinding that powder, I'll tell you about mastic."

Merph eyes gleamed. "You will?"

Kluvenstrom nodded. "Mastic resin comes from Bakha trees overseas. They speak a different language over there. The word Bakha in their language means weeping tree and it is this resin that forms the underlying power of the magic. But not the form."

Merph pounded the resin crystals as he listened to the healer's words. A lot of it didn't make sense to him. Why would people speak different languages, but he tried not to let his thoughts wander too much tried to concentrate on what he said. Magic. He imagined the smiles and pleasure on his dad's face when he'd return home and show his Pa the magic powder he'd created.


Merph's stomach growled as he waited in the hallway outside the kitchens. A girl with blonde hair tied into pigtails walked down the hallway. She wore a simple dress and the front of it was stained gray. She smiled at Merph and his stomach growled. "Hungry?"

Merph looked down at his shoes. "He said I'm supposed to wait until after the Lord and his guests finish their meal."



The girl tugged on a curl at the end of one of the pigtails. "You must be the healer's apprentice. I'm Katja, one of the chambermaids. Come on, my Ma works in the kitchen. We'll snitch something so you don't interrupt the Lord's meal with your rumbling."

Merph's eyes widened. The healer would never invite him to the tower again to study after this one time.

"I'm kidding. Come on, get some food while it's hot."