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[BOOKSTORE WINDOW] The Boy in Brown #amwriting #storytelling

The result of my sixth #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on writing prompts supplied by Enigmatic, Entropymanor, and comics creator David Napier. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about 20 minutes:

The discombobulated devil chicken staggered across the damp cobblestone street, and the boy in brown followed.

“Come back, chick-chick!” the child called after his clucking quarry, his reddish-blonde curls wet from the now-misting rain. He waved the iron skillet over his head. “Let me hit you some more!”

“Fenrin!” The shriek came from above and to the right, where two shutters clattered open and a broad-faced woman stared down, red-cheeked, at the child. “Drop that skillet at once and leave the poor rooster alone.”

The boy hesitated, watched in frustration as the ruffled bird disappeared around the corner toward the Mercantik Bloc. “Awww,” he grumbled.

“Whose skillet is that, anyway?” His mother asked, eyes narrowing.

“I found it,” he said, not looking up.

“There you are!” Old Jasper Boots, wiry silver hair puffing around his mostly bald head, limped onto the Trade Road from Sway Alley. He waved a knotted oak cane at Fenrin, demanding: “Give that skillet back to me right this very moment, you conniving sneak-thief!”

The woman in the window gawked and snapped: “You watch what you call my boy, you rotten drunk!”

Boots stopped to poke his cane in the direction of the window. “Get a good man to raise that silly-haired mutt of yours, Gillen Monstep, maybe I wouldn’t have to call him anything!”

Her eyes widened. She ducked out of view.

“Better run,” Fenrin advised. He knew that look well enough.

“Skillet, boy,” the old man urged.

“You’ll be sorry,” the child warned him. Again. He knew perfectly well why his mother had such a difficult time with relationships. She often ended them. Violently. Something he expected a wise old crack like Jasper Boots to know too.

But wisdom didn’t always amount to intelligence. The old man was still standing on the street, shaking his cane at the boy, when the kitchen knife slammed into his right shoulder.

He stumbled backward, a baffled look on his face as he gingerly tapped the hilt of the knife jutting out. His mouth fell open, then he looked up at the window to see Gillen Monstep holding two more knives just like it – one in each hand.

“Next one goes in the other shoulder,” she said calmly. “After that, I give your other leg a limp.”

“Lunatic woman,” Boots whined.

“I told you to run,” Fenrin said, raising the skillet over his head. “But now I want you to stay right where you are.” He took a step toward the old man.

Jasper Boots turned and limped away as quickly as he could. The boy ran after, shouting, “Come back, chick-chick!”

“My boy,” Gillen said with a smile, setting down the knives and closing the shutters.

[BOOKSTORE WINDOW] Night at Remembrigans #amwriting #storytelling

The result of my fifth #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on writing prompts supplied by Colchek, Enigmatic, Lamia, and Azureus. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour and a half:

“Breadsticks?” the harpy asked, sliding the wicker basket across the table toward the dumbstruck treant, who stared in horror at the basket.

“Cannibalism,” he rasped.

“I ordered the chicken,” the winged woman with the beak-like nose snarled. “Do you see me whining?”

They sat in a dimly lit corner booth in Remembrigans, which most people agreed was nothing more than a front for the Pineapple Upside Down Mob, but likewise didn’t care as long as the lolo wine kept flowing and Fiffen the Were-Chef served nightmare cuisine.

The treant, who called himself Birch, grunted in disgust as he pulled a brown twist of dough from the basket, dipped it in some kind of black gravy that looked like the ichor of a dying Soul Spider, and gnawed on it with bark teeth.

The harpy, who called herself Shrewd, crouched on the cushion of the booth, clutching the end with the talons of her feet. She smiled as Birch started eating, but kept one hand on the holstered slugthrower and the other on the hilt of a throwing knife. Her amber eyes took in the crowd, scanning for threats.

Birch followed her gaze. “No one knows. You worry too much.”

Of course, like always, he was wrong. First, he saw Soup sidle in through the North Arch, his wet, leathery flippers equipped with neutralizer pistols. Then his own cousin, Salad, whose canopy of green had gone more orange and brown in recent years. The treant with the crossbow lurched in through the South Arch, knocking aside a grumpy-looking Nar-lamb. The Nar-lamb turned with his mouth open, ready to bleat a few choice curses, but ceased and whinnied apologies instead.

FInally, through the double doors of the East Arch, the oozing slug in charge of the Pineapple Upside-Down Mob slithered in and brought the music, amiable chatter, and high-stakes bargaining to an absolute standstill.

“Shrewd!” Fudge Pop roared as the crowd parted before him. “You’ve crossed me for the last time!”

The harpy drew her knife and pistol. Birch fumbled for the fighting staff slung over his shoulder.

Shrewd assured Fudge Pop: “Don’t know what you’re talking about. You got your money.”

“Fudge Pop don’t take croats,” Soup burbled through his gills as he aimed his neutralizers at the harpy and her treant companion.

“Yeah,” Salad rumbled over the sight of his crossbow at the pair. “Who does that?”

“Right,” the mob boss said, pointing a slime-dripped digit across the room at Shrewd. “Those coins might’ve been worth something on Earth in the 11th Century, but they’re just ballast here in the Bleak.”

“Croats?” The harpy shrieked as she scowled at Birch. “You paid them in those old metal shavings? You idiot!”

He opened his mouth to protest, but never got a word out before the blast from her pistol punched through his trunk above his eyes and into the pulp of his thinkbud. He sagged back in the booth. A hundred people in the pub raised their mugs and shouted “Timber!” in unison.

Fudge Pop eyed Shrewd with understandable suspicion. Salad, on the other hand, seemed ready to fire a few bolts into her chest. “Not just yet,” the slug insisted. “I want my payment.”

Shrewd nodded at the red Coleman cooler on the booth next to Birch’s corpse, which was already losing leaves and peeling bark. “It’s all there.”

Soup flapped his floor fins back and forth until he arrived at the booth. He used his bottlenose snout to nudge open the cooler. He peered inside. Looked toward Fudge Pop. Gave a series of squeals and squeaks, then said: “Nice-looking blueberries.”

“Picked them myself,” the harpy assured him. “Birch whined about it the whole time, called it an atrocity and a war crime.”

Salad lowered the crossbow, but said: “He wasn’t wrong. Those are…”

“Delicious,” Fudge Pop replied, glowering at Salad. “Those little blue children are a tasty treat, so rare in the Bleak. Don’t you agree?” He glanced toward the rotting treant with half a breadstick dangling from its mouth. Salad said nothing more.

Soup closed the cooler and collected it under one fin.

“All good?” Shrewd asked the mob boss.

“For now,” the slug said.

[BOOKSTORE WINDOW] Two Ledges #amwriting #storytelling

The result of my fourth #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on writing prompts supplied by Craig Pittman, Colchek, and Gareth Harmer. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour and a half:

The Herbert drifted above the dark forest of thick green grass stalks, a fat red ocarina of metal and ceramic bristling with guns under a cloud-scudded blue sky.

But the only music this vessel played was a fusillade of death and destruction, raking the Weedlands below. One volley exploded scant yards away from Rachard, his face scarred years ago by his first encounter with one of the thousand other Skybellies in the Greater Fleet. Shrapnel tore a hole through his gray Greatest Infantry uniform sleeve, but left him unhurt as he rolled down a ridge, through a rain-swollen gulley, over a cliff.

He landed on his side on a ledge about ten feet down the chasm. Lost his grip on his gunny sack, which tumbled into the shadows below. He heard it thump, peered into the dimness, thought he saw it on another ledge some twenty feet farther down.

He’d climb back up with his rope and hook, but those were in the pack. He’d radio Copse 227 for a gyro, but the transmitter was in the pack.

So now all he could do was wait and pray for help.

***

“Got a gray whale incoming,” reported the sensors officer on the bridge of the Herbert.

Commander Toltec smoothed the front of his crimson Greater Fleet uniform jacket and gave a curt nod before turning his attention to the viewport. Another Skybelly, plump and gray and lethal as the Herbert, sweeping in from the northwest.

“Redirect cannons,” Toltec ordered the weapons officer.

“All of them?” First Officer Clemeni sounded indignant as she rose from her station and turned to stare at the commander.

She’d only been his second-in-command for three weeks, replacing Immons, who had died in a mortar blast from the Sacama at the Battle Over Sandfall Watch.

Toltec didn’t appreciate her penchant for insinuating his incompetence. He had shown patience the times it happened at Night’s Rise and the Bloody Knife Hills. He could brook no more, he thought, lest he risk a loss of confidence among the rest of the crew.

“Identify that Skybelly,” Toltec demanded of the sensors officer, keeping his eyes on Clemeni.

The answer didn’t surprise him in the least: “The Sacama, sir.”

“The Sacama,” Toltec repeated. He glowered at Clemeni. “Redirect ALL cannons,” he told the weapons officer. Then, to his first officer, he said: “The insects in the Weedlands are of no concern with a true threat like the Sacama looming. Question my orders again and we’ll see how well you can fly.”

But Clemeni wouldn’t let it drop. “With all due respect, Commander, the Grays on the ground should be given no quarter. The Sacama could be part of a diversion. You’re playing right into their trap.” She took a step closer to Toltec, adding, “I’m not suggesting that we focus all our weapons on the Weedlands, but perhaps devote only half our cannons to the Sacama?”

The enemy whale grew larger in the viewport as the Sacama and Herbert closed distance between each other.

“They’ll be in range in thirty seconds,” the weapons officer announced.

“I won’t have it,” Toltec seethed between clenched teeth, staring at Clemeni. He told the weapons officer: “Lock all cannons on the Sacama and fire at will while nav takes us on a Peregrine Loop. Engage!”

The Sacama had other plans, it seemed, slowly breaking away in a broad arc in an apparent effort to evade any oncoming salvos from the Herbert. Bright sunlight flashed off the gray ceramic coating the metal of the enemy vessel’s hull as she angled back to the north.

An alert klaxon wailed just before the sensors officer reported: “Missile fire from the Weedlands, south and southwest.”

Toltec’s stomach sank. “How many?”

“All of them, I think,” the sensors officer replied. “One hundred and fifty.”

The weapons officer called out: “Deploying countermeasures!”

“Oh, excellent,” the sensors officer said. “Down to one hundred and twenty.”

“Time to impact?” Toltec asked. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Clemeni now, but he could feel her eyes on him. She’d been right. Now his pride may have doomed them all.

“Eight seconds to impact.”

***

Rachard watched at first in awe and then in abject horror as the Herbert struggled and failed to avoid dozens of incoming missiles as they homed in on the blood-red Skybelly, burst through the hull, and shattered the craft into so much flaming junk.

Flaming junk that suddenly plunged toward the Weedlands.

“Sha-sha.” He gasped the vulgarity with the reverence of a prayer as he hunkered down, hands over his head, head between his knees, eyes closed, waiting for death to come.

Something heavy struck him, he smelled wet canvas and fuel fumes, and then darkness came.

***

Maybe, Alenna Clemeni thought as she awoke on her back on a rocky ledge, I could’ve handled that better.

The Weedlands on either side of the gorge blazed with the last vengeance of the dying Herbert.

Maybe she should’ve asked Commander Toltec for a private audience instead of calling him out in front of the bridge crew. Maybe she should’ve drawn her service weapon and shot him in the head, saving all the worthwhile lives.

And maybe he could’ve listened to her. Maybe he could’ve given his ego a back seat to common sense. The war, going on seven years now, held few surprises for the combatants. Numerous Skybellies before the Herbert, both the red and the gray, had fallen for the same trick.

Eventually, the Sacama‘s commander might have a bad day and meet a similar fate.

She felt a fierce pain in her left leg. Broken in the landing, no doubt. Her bag, which she’d managed to snatch in the few seconds before the Herbert blew apart, should hold a splint kit.

Her fingers crept along the surface of the ledge until they touched canvas. She found the strap and tugged the sack onto her stomach.

It was gray and bore the double boot logo of the Greatest Infantry.

***

“Are you gramand kidding me?!” A woman’s voice, shouting from somewhere below Rachard’s ledge.

He wasn’t dead.

And now he wasn’t alone.

And he was wearing a hat? No. Not a hat. A sack. He rolled aside, clutching the strap, and worked his way into a seated position against the cliff wall. He looked down at the red canvas sack with the winged logo of the Greater Fleet.

Rachard leaned over the edge to look down at his companion in peril. He shouted: “Got your bag! Seems you’ve got mine, eh? Neat trick. Tell me there’s not a God, now, bloody red heathen!”

“If she exists,” the woman below snapped back, “she’s an ironclad bitch to do this!”

He tried to ignore the obvious blasphemy, instead venturing: “Well, he does not suffer from a lack of irony, to be sure.”

***

She opened the gray sack and dumped the contents on the rough stone of the ledge. Some ration packets, a canteen, a coil of rope and a hook, a transmitter encrypted for the infantryman’s biometrics, and seven gold-foil framed holy icons.

“Maybe I can pray to the magic sky ghost to fly me out of this hole,” she mused bitterly.

***

Rachard rummaged through the Greater woman’s bag, carefully setting each item next to him as he proceeded: a canteen, a splint kit, a handful of ration packs, a transmitter attuned to the fleeter’s biometrics, and six bottles of painkiller pills – perhaps intended for an unholy suicide ritual mandated by the heathen commanders to avoid capture.

“Who doesn’t pack rope?” the soldier groused.

***

“Throw my radio up,” the man on the higher ledge urged Clemeni. “Cushion it with ration packs, tie the rope to it, and throw. Easy, right?”

Right, she thought. Give up my food and the rope. Give him a means of reaching the enemy commanders so they could rescue him and either kill or imprison her.

“Drop my radio to me,” she countered. “Much less trouble.”

***

Given the glorious promise of Heaven or imminent threat of burning Hell, Rachard would never surrender that radio into the hands of an enemy who would see his people exterminated.

Just a few minutes ago, after all, she’d been aboard the notorious Greater Skybelly Herbert, gazing down at the Weedlands in atheistic condescension, blithely scorching the world with cannon fire.

“Stalemate, I suppose,” he said, with a weary sigh.

***

Clemeni grunted at the zealot’s foolishness, the sort of blind, stubborn devotion that justified their subjugation.

It always baffled her that people like him could put all their faith in a mystical, unknowable sky ghost, while proving so reluctant to bow under the undeniably real blistering onslaught of the Greater Fleet. She didn’t begrudge the soldier’s beliefs, really. She just hated the haughty insistence that it somehow made his people better than hers and gave him some grander destiny.

She knew better. Her father once told her a truth that she carried with her to this day. He’d beaten Clemeni’s mother for the last time after Mom accidentally burned the Givna warbler. The lawkeepers had arrested him once, but it hadn’t been enough. So she, at age thirteen, had gutted him with a meat fork.

As he lay dying, he muttered: “Little by little…we all become monsters.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked the man on the ledge above. “Pray your way out of this?”

***

Rachard felt sorry for the woman. And that reaction surprised him. The godly commanders of the Greatest Army had taught the troops to fear and despise the faceless heathens arrayed against them by the Prince of Darkness. He should quietly condemn her to the waiting Abyss and turn his thoughts inward to contemplation and meditation.

But now, even in a situation where they must depend on each other for a chance at survival, she belittled his faith in an obvious attempt to make her feel better about the grim situation.

“You’re not helping,” he said. “But, to your point, at the very least, prayer would not *hurt*. My name’s Rachard Limn, by the way.”

“Oh, I don’t give a gramand’s shit who you are,” the Fleeter snarled. “I just want to get the muck out of this chasm and back to my people.”

At that moment, a pair of gyrocopters whirred into view from the north and south over the conflagration caused by the Herbert‘s demise. One of the spindly vessels bore the gray colors of the Greatest military, while the other was a soot-smeared red of the Greaters.

“I suppose God answers prayers of all kinds,” Rachard muttered.

[BOOKSTORE WINDOW] Eyes of the Stars #amwriting #storytelling

The result of my third #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on writing prompts supplied by Colchek, entropymanor, and nickpalaz0123. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour:

The discovery, like so many before and since, was an accident.

Every 87 years, the six moons in the sky above our world form a perfect alignment with each other. However, it turns out that once every 261 years, that alignment causes a total eclipse of our sun.

And, on that day, something truly wondrous happens.

It was 1,044 years ago that my great-great-great-something grandfather, Helefont Shawmel, left a goblet of clear liquid on a column in the Honor Temple, on the outskirts of what today is Fastheld’s Forest District. Long before the powerful mages of the Shadow Council raised the Aegis as a defense against the Wildlings.

Helefont passed out drunk, but awoke just in time to see the eclipse in progress – one moon sliding in front of another, and then the sun settling behind them all, blotted out and leaving bright coils of light like shining tears brimming.

He stared into the clear liquid of the goblet and it was then, legend holds, that he saw one of those moonshine droplets falling from the eclipsed star and into the drink. He swore to any who would listen that the surface of the drink actually rippled.

Helefont Shawmel then sipped once more from the goblet. What happened next, some say, was a descent into madness. Others called it the blessing of prophecy. Regardless, he went blind for six weeks and wouldn’t stop screaming about the Wildling threat.

So our family tradition was born.

Now, once again, the moons creep toward alignment: the blue moon called Herald, the crimson Dayhunter, the green moon Stormwatcher, the violet Serpent’s Eye, and the twin white-gray moons called the Torches. Once again, the time has come for a total multiple eclipse.

Normally, the honor of seeing with the Eyes of the Stars would fall to our father, Yancey Seamel. However, he died a few years ago in a duel with Jaswiv Zahir. In his stead, by right of succession, the goblet should pass to his eldest son. I, however, am untouched by the Gift.

So it falls to my younger brother, Emmot.

“I don’t want it,” he says, staring at the golden chalice on the squat column in the ruins of the same temple where Helefont took the first sip.

“The honor is great beyond all reckoning,” I tell him, but how can I convince him if I can scarcely convince myself?

“What if I see the end of all things?” Emmot asks.

“Then we prepare for the end and make the best of what time remains to us,” I say. Although what I do not say is that perhaps, if that is his vision, I should smother him with a pillow as he sleeps before panic tears across the realm.

“What harm is there in not doing a thing?” he asks. He gestures at the goblet. “Could we not just let the night pass without compliance with tradition? Can I not leave the drink untouched?”

Maybe we could, I think. But the Emperor has certain expectations, and his Hawk would arrive soon enough for the latest tidings of the stars.

“It falls to you, Emmot, and none other,” I say. “It must be done. It will be done. None in our line has refused it before.”

He frowns at the moons as they continue their relentless geometry toward the waiting sun. “I will go mad,” he says.

I do not disagree. “Certainly possible.”

“When we were children, you always swore you would protect me,” Emmot says.

“Yes.”

“Do so now!”

“Sometimes, I must protect you from yourself,” I say. “Watch the goblet. Await the moon teardrop. I will not leave your side.”

Unhappy about it, Emmot takes a step closer to the column with the cup resting upon it. He scowls at the reflection. “I wish father were here.” Not plaintive. Accusatory.

“Yes,” I say, softly. “But he’s not.”

The moons align, taking their place ahead of the sun for the first time in more than two centuries, and I watch the strange shadows and slivers of light dance on the stone floor.

Emmot waits. Waits. The moment of the brimming starlight tear comes, and he gasps in awestruck wonder. In his amazement, perhaps, he finds lost courage. He takes the goblet. He drinks.

“Brother,” he says.

I look to him. He gazes at me with eyes of void and nothingness. “Are you well, Emmot?”

“I see everything,” he says, his eyes now swirling with scattered stars. “What has come before. What is yet to come.”

I step toward him, placing a hand on his shoulder, and I ask: “What should I tell the Emperor’s Hawk?”

In his eyes, this time, I see twin stars, blazing red and plummeting through the sky. “The end comes,” Emmot says.

And in that moment, I realize, there’s no time to wait for a pillow and merciful slumber.