Thursday, February 4, 2016

Openings, part II: The Darkness

Continued from here...

Dusk bounced off a tree and crashed into the brush, flattening bushes and rolling across moss-covered rocks. Even in her bestial form, she was collecting bruises; it would be much worse if she changed back. She got her feet under her, shook her head to make sure she was stable, and then shook her body to make sure everything was still in place. She was battered, but intact.

Two quick bounds brought her to the edge of the camp. She padded cautiously into the firelight, looking for Somber and the intruder, and finding... nothing. Then something overhead gave a brief, desperate shriek, and a winged thing crashed to the ground almost at her feet. Dusk set a paw on it, claws ready to stab, then realized it was dead. Dead... and strange.

The dead thing was not like any sort of bird or animal she had ever seen. The body was limp and flattened, like crumpled parchment; the wings were extended fans, with flesh stretched between bony ribs; and the legs were boneless tendrils, hanging down from the oddly shapeless body.

A slim, winding strand of darkness slithered down from the massive trunk of the tree on her right, and settled beside her paw. At the moment it carried no scent, but Dusk recognized it anyway: it was the nightmare that accompanied Somber, that protected him and made him so hard to have around. If it had settled beside her, it must be worried... or whatever equivalent an amorphous, barely-substantial nightmare spirit might experience.

Dusk raised her eyes from the dead thing, and looked across the camp again. This time, she saw something on the far side of the fire. It might have been a human shape, lying prone on the rocky ground, but despite its nearness to the firelight it was concealed by a blurring darkness that hid its features. Dusk hesitated, marking locations -- the three trees, the fire, the bedroll -- and decided that if Somber had fallen backwards after the shade had touched him, this was where he would have landed. The intruder, it seemed, was gone... unless it had collapsed into that strange, dark shroud that lay over Somber.

Cautiously, Dusk advanced. The air had changed; for a moment, she had the strange, disorienting sense that the entire campsite had changed. The nightmare moved as soon as she did, flickering darkly around the edges of the camp and then stopping at Somber's side. Dusk approached more slowly, still scenting the air and watching for the intruder's return.

For a moment, Somber was just as he had been: tall and lean, dressed in a plain gray robe, stretched across the dark earth and white stone as if he'd simply settled down to sleep there. Then he was gone again, covered by darkness, and a handful of small, bone-white beasts skittered out from the darkness that surrounded his body.

The nightmare fell on them, and they were gone.

Dusk shifted her throat into human speech and asked, "Somber?" After a moment, she repeated his name: "Somber?" She touched him with an outstretched claw, and felt the darkness try to reach into her. She pushed in long enough to shake him by the shoulder, then pulled back when he didn't react. The darkness clung to her, chilling her flesh even though her armored scales.

She drew back, looking around again. She and the nightmare were the only things moving; Somber was unconscious, and his resurrected beasts were shattered and destroyed. She had no way to bring him back to the monastery, but that might be for the better if he was leaking monsters again. The intruder, whatever it had been, was gone; she couldn't feel it at all.

For a moment, Dusk considered leaving. It would be safer to return to the monastery, tell what had happened, and let the brothers and sisters deal with everything out here. Safer for me, maybe safer for them, but not safer for Somber. No. Whatever had happened, whatever was happening, it was here... and while it might be safer to observe from a distance, unless she could drag Somber away with her, she wasn't going to do that. And dragging Somber wasn't feasible. If it had just been the strange beasts rising out of his nightmares, she might have tried it; but that cold darkness had tried to reach into her, tried -- she thought -- to claim her. She'd reached through it long enough to be sure that Somber was still alive, but she didn't want it touching her again.

Cursing to herself, Dusk settled in to stay.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is this an opening scene?

It's no secret that I've been trying to write a fantasy novel for... I don't know. Several years, now. Longer than that, if you count other fantasy novels that I've also tried to write. Over Christmas, I sat down and sorted out the various opening scenes I'd written for this one project. Doing this was both enlightening, and a little appalling. I have thirteen different approaches that I've tried, each with anywhere from one to eight actual documents. Taken together, it's enough raw text to constitute a novel in its own right, albeit a very weird and somewhat repetitive novel that was basically just variations on a character. On the other hand, it was actually constructive to look at all these different approaches and see how they fit with the characters, how well they did (or didn't) lead into the things I want to do with (and to) the character(s), and why they did (or, almost universally, didn't) work.

Writing, in a lot of cases, seems to be a lot like trouble-shooting. Maybe not for everybody -- I mean, I know not everybody feels compelled to start at the front of the book and write their way onward to the end -- but for me, usually, it does. In this particular case, I have an idea for a character, I have an idea for an overall plot arc for his world, and I have a couple of particular stages or developments (a real writer might call them "scenes") that I want to see him go through. This is where the problem-solving comes in. The basic questions are, "How do we introduce this character so that readers care what happens to him?" and "How do we get from that introduction, whatever it is, to the things that I desperately want to include in this story?"

Which brings me to the following scene. I'm not sure it's the start of the book; I'm not sure it's part of the book at all. But I think it's the start of the book in the sense that I have to write this, just to have the scene and situation clear in my head when I reach the actual start of the book.

Dusk slipped silently into the tiny camp, a dark, armored shadow intruding into the firelight. Somber had chosen the place well: it was a tiny clearing between three large and ancient trees, with the fire tucked down into the hollow at the center, and the bedroll spread out beside it. If she hadn't been following his scent, it might have taken her hours or even days to find it.

Somber was standing on the far side of the clearing, between the trees, looking out into the darkness of the surrounding forest. The nightmare on his shoulder was a dark blur, barely visible even to her beast-sharp eyes. For a moment, Dusk thought she'd arrived unnoticed; then, without turning, Somber whispered: "Be still. There's something out there."

Dusk paused for a moment, scenting the air. Then she twisted, slipping the roll of cloth off her back and dropping it nearly onto the bedroll. She looked warily around the clearing, and picked out three other beasts... only these were dead, immobile and scentless where they crouched in the shadows of the trees. They had to be Somber's work, but none of them were looking at her, either. Their were merely... waiting.

Oh, I do not like this, thought Dusk.

She could smell Somber himself, the slightly musky scent of healthy human male soured slightly by a day or two without bathing; a faint hint of fresh blood that was probably coming from his nightmare; the heavy earth-scent of the soil; a blend of plant-smells, pleasantly mingled, carried on the night air; and nothing else. She couldn't hear any movements, either, though the night wind pushing through the trees overhead might be disguising any number of softer sounds. The only movement she could see was the flicker of the fire, and the twitching dance of the shadows it cast.

Something moved, circling around the edge of the camp. She couldn't see it, or smell it, or hear it, but Dusk knew it was there all the same. The scales rippled on her back, and her claws gripped the soil. Somber stepped back into the camp. raising his arms defensively.

Darkness gathered where he'd been standing a moment earlier, coalescing into something that might have been a human shadow, except there was nobody to cast it and nothing but empty air for it to fall on. It gained depth, became solid, and before Dusk could even begin to react it became an almost-human figure, looking at them.

It would have been a man, tall, slim, and broad-shouldered, much like Somber himself; but it was built of blacks and grays, untouched by the orange-and-yellow light of the fire.

Somber spat a quick phrase and gestured, and a line of fire flared from the ground in front of the shadow's feet. "No further," he said.

At last... The thought drifted through the clearing. It was soundless, but Dusk heard it anyway. I apologize for the intrusion, and for what I must do to you--

That must have been enough, because Somber whispered a single word and the three dead beasts lunged towards the intruding shadow-man. They were quick and fierce: two wolves, and a tiny thing that had probably been some sort of rodent. Dusk had a brief moment to think that she might have survived that attack, but she knew the dead things were there, and in her bestial form she was armored and--

The intruder moved, almost blurring as something dark swirled around him, whiplike arms reaching out to smash the reanimated beasts. Very good, it acknowledged as the bones fell, and stepped across the line of fire. Dusk caught a hint of unfamiliar clothing as it moved: a sleeveless robe, a wide belt, loose pants, boots...

The camp was small, they were all too close together, and the intruder was fast. Before either of them could do anything, he had reached up to place the palm of his hand against Somber's forehead. Somber reacted automatically, with two-handed deflection that should have broken a man's arm, but his hands passed through the intruder. He jerked back at the shadow-man's touch, his body suddenly stiff.

Then the nightmare on his shoulder threw itself at the intruder. For a moment, it was visible: an inchoate darkness full of claws and teeth, something spreading out behind it that might be wings and a whiplike tail. It fastened onto the shadow-man's face, ripping and tearing, and he wrenched back. For a moment, his body almost mirrored Somber's, but his hand never left Somber's forehead.

Then his other hand came across, tendrils of darkness swirling around it, and tore the nightmare away. The intruder straightened, struggling to hold the nightmare at arm's length, and turned its attention back to Somber. Dusk tensed. Whatever this thing was, whether or not it was solid or even truly there, this was her best chance to take it down: now, while it was completely distracted.

She sprang, touched down, and then came up for its throat. If there was anything like flesh there, she was going to rip it out.

The world disappeared in an expanding ball of darkness.

There's another scene that comes after this, before what I think will be the actual opening scene. If it works the way I think it does, I'll post that on the blog as well.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Real Adults

First, some background: Secondborn is in Kindergarten. He's been having some trouble with his Sight Words (I suspect mainly because he's been having some trouble sitting still), so the other night the Beautiful Woman (my wife, his mother) took some note cards and made labels for some of the common items in our kitchen: sink, refrigerator, oven, cabinet, step stool, drawer, etc.

Then, a couple of days later, we decided to have Thai food for dinner. Among the items we ordered were some curry puffs. In the dipping sauce for the curry puffs was a bit of jalapeño. Upon finding this in her mouth, the Beautiful Woman remarked: "Wow, I just got a bit of jalapeño. A year ago, I wouldn't have liked it, but that was really good. I feel like a real adult now!"

So I got up from the table, found a note card, and made a little sign. I taped it on her back while she was busy getting a cup for one of the boys. "What does it say?" she asked suspiciously. "'Kick me'?"

I gestured for Firstborn to read it to her. "It says, 'Real Adult'," he told her.

"I thought you needed a label," I added, gesturing vaguely at the various note cards scattered around the kitchen.

The Beautiful Woman laughed, Firstborn laughed, Secondborn laughed, I laughed... and then Firstborn got a gleam in his eye.

He went and found the note cards, wrote something (without letting me see it), then came around and taped it on my back.

"I think I should be worried," I observed.

"What does it say?" asked the Beautiful Woman.

Firstborn just walked back to his seat, looking smug.

I stood up and turned around. The Beautiful Woman looked at it, then had Secondborn spell it out. "R-E-A-L N-E-R-D... Is that a dash? ...U-L-T." There was a brief pause. "Real Nerdult?"

Firstborn nodded. I broke up laughing. We congratulated Firstborn for coming up with a joke of his own that was hilariously funny, utterly appropriate to its target (me), and not in any way mean.

This prompted Secondborn to get up, collect a note card, and write his own note, which he also taped on my back.

The Beautiful Woman read this one with a slightly puzzled expression. "K-O-L-R?" she asked. "Koler?"

Secondborn nodded, grinning happily. "It's because you play Infamous so much," he told me. "And the character you play is Cole."

"So I'm a Cole-er," I elaborated. He nodded, pleased that I got it.

So we laughed and congratulated him on coming up with his own species of joke, which again was funny, appropriate, and not mean.

On a related note, if I ever write an autobiography, I may very well have to entitle it, Memoir of a Real Nerdult.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Kids in Bars

It's late -- a bit after Lights Out. Firstborn, however, is very stuffy, so the Beautiful Woman (my wife, for anyone coming in late) has taken him out to the living room to run the deep-tissue massager over his back and hopefully shake loose some of his mucus. Secondborn, of course, has come out to watch... and then come to the dining room to pry me away from the computer, because apparently I need to watch, too.

When I arrive in the living room, I find that Secondborn has pulled out the long, narrow gymnastics mat and set three child-sized chairs on it, all in a row, all facing the same way. Secondborn immediately seats himself in the front chair. I take the seat behind him, but I'm too late to watch; the Beautiful Woman has just switched off the massager, and Firstborn has just gotten up from the couch. He stops beside the row of chairs on the gymnastics mat, so I say: "Sit back there," and point to the seat behind me.

"You sit back there," replies Firstborn.

I stand up. "What, I'm all back-of-the-bus now?" Then I move to the rear chair and sit down again.

Firstborn takes the middle seat. "No," he tells me. "We're measuring the WiFi signal." He points at his younger brother, sitting in front of him. "The tiny bar's WiFi is weak!" Then he turns back and points at me: "The tall bar means WiFi is strong!"

And that's it. I lose it completely. I am laughing too hard to breathe. I thought we were making a bus, but no: Firstborn has arranged us into a signal strength meter.