Fiction: Finals Week

[A quick bit of fiction I wrote in a workshop a few weeks back.]

————————–

For the normal astrophysics grad student, finals week is a special breed of hell, purgatory, medieval torture, and bad karma pressed into a few dozen sheets of paper. The multiple choice questions give new meaning to the phrase “pick your poison.” The essay questions give a sensation of one’s brain being dropped into a rusty food processor.

And then there’s me.

Forget the old cliche of sleeping through the wake up call. My alarm clock woke me up when it was supposed to. It’s me that’s the problem.

I wonder why my shaving cream smells like hazelnut, until it dawns on me that my coffee had a distinct odor of Barbasol. I drank it anyway, being too preoccupied with the umpteenth special relativity equation, after which I could only spare half an hour to review my notes on the properties of super-heated plasma jets accelerated by black holes. The fact that I stirred the cocktail of coffee and the wrong kind of cream with a mechanical pencil is a mere footnote in my mental process. But not the kind of footnote I need to memorize for The Exam.

My roommate, before prancing off to his art appreciation final (where, as I understand it, finger painting can be done for extra credit), tells me, “No pressure, dude.”

I’ve never wished so dearly that I could show him what “no pressure” looks like. In the vacuum of space.

No, no, I berate myself as he skulks out the door. Space isn’t a total vacuum! There are still a few particles drifting around out there. Wayward, serving no particular function, just like me if I don’t pass The Exam.

15 minutes later…

Terrific. Notes are piled into my satchel, I’m leaving with three minutes to spare. And now of course is the day my car gives me the silent treatment, until it’s placated with a new battery.

Okay. Okay. Fine. I’ll walk. Or awkwardly jog/hurry with a satchel slapping me in the flank. Whichever works.

I arrive at the imposing silhouette of the university building, and the exam’s beginning in less than five minutes.

Brilliant. How can this day get any —

NO! No. I didn’t finish it. You can’t be jinxed if you didn’t complete it, right?

It’s raining.

Deep breaths. Go to your happy place.

That’s okay. I forgot my shower anyway. Or maybe I did and just forgot to rinse. Why do I smell shampoo?

My eyes are stinging. Yep, definitely forgot to rinse.

The Remaking: A Brief History of the Wolfglen Legacy’s Origins

I thought I could start coming back to this blog with a fresh start, and keep talking about the world for the (still in-progress) fantasy series, The Wolfglen Legacy. I’m impatient to get things off the ground at the moment, but I’ll make sure the books are worth the wait.

In the meantime, here is a condensed history of the world these books will introduce to you. I’ve been working on it off and on since 2004, and hope you enjoy it. I might as well start at the beginning.

The Remaking – Earth’s new start

Toward the close of the 22nd century AD, mankind is crumbling and crippled, on the edge of extinction at his own hands. Wars, nuclear bombs, engineered viruses, and a loss of willpower have pared the ranks of humanity to a few million.

But that is where outside help arrives at last. The creator of this and every other universe, known as The Maker, shows mercy to mankind and gives them another chance. He does this by sending creatures called Founders to Earth, to repair and reshape it. The Founders sculpt new islands and continents, carve out new oceans and rivers. Unforeseen minerals, plants, and animals take shape under their craftsmanship. Structures are given to mankind as well, including cities and towers and deep caverns, as well as structures whose functions are still not recognized.

However, the Founders are not willing to let all their hard work be wasted from mankind nearly destroying himself yet again. They decide to give the remaining humans humbling reminders that they are the Earth’s tenants, and not its landlords. To do this, they remove most fossil fuel deposits to prevent another industrial revolution, lest humanity become capable of destruction on the same scale as before. They even recall the dinosaurs from extinction, and create living, breathing dragons — if you enter a world full of big, strange, wild creatures that weren’t there before, it’s a good reminder that you answer to a higher order.

Earth is not only being renovated for our sake, though. The Maker Himself intervenes more directly by creating new intelligent races, to share the Earth with man as his equals. Five new races are created:

  • Elves, who tend to be even more passionate and aggressive than us, and can live several times as long as a human.
  • Nymphs, an all-female species that look human, apart from the white stripe of hair on their heads.
  • Fairies, two feet high and possessing four leathery wings.
  • Roklew, a green-skinned race of creatures with large, long-snouted heads.
  • Merfolk, more akin to amphibians than fish, who can live in both salt and fresh water.

Humans now have a new world to explore, fill, and share with the five new races. It’s a better world than we had made for ourselves, full of countless mysteries, treasures we never dreamed of…and more danger than we ask for.

It is in dangerous times when the best qualities of these peoples at last come to the forefront. In future millennia, that will become all too clear. And soon that history will be shared as well.

Thank you for your time, and God bless you all.

Vipers in the Frost (fiction)

Another quick bit of fiction. I do hope you like it! Now I have to finally go back to polishing the novel. Catch you later!

—————————————————————————–

With a quaking hand he held out the flintlock, knowing it was his one chance for revenge.

Bellem’s boots crunched snow as he stepped inside the abandoned estate, each footfall announcing his presence. Sunlight shot through broken windows on the rotunda’s other side, threading the chamber’s air and catching stray flakes like airborne diamonds.

The witch had to be here somewhere, but where were her footprints?

Icicles hung by the hundreds from the metal fountain in the room’s center, from railings and staircases. Bellem tiptoed around a flow of ice spilling out under another broken window like a giant white tongue.

He tried to not think about Danlec’s corpse outside. The old elf had died shuddering in his pale skin, the snow drinking blood as if to absorb his life and color.

Turning his anger toward steadying his grip on the gun, he knew she was probably watching him now. She must have used a spell to hide her tracks, concealing herself like the coward she was.

“Dryandra! Come on out, Dryandra!” The ruined mansion echoed his demand back to him. She couldn’t be gone. The witch had disappeared into the mansion only a few minutes before.

Icicles started to drip, each new jewel of liquid water boring a tunnel into the shadowed gray snow. But he was still chattering and frozen to his marrow, his breath sending ghosts into the frigid air. The stalactites each seemed to have an off-white core. Something more than ice was hanging from the fountain and rails.

A new chill sank into Bellem’s backbone, deeper and more painful than anything winter in this godsforsaken country had inflicted on him and Danlec. He knew what Dryandra was doing.

Thin, white-scaled bodies unlatched their jaws and dropped into the slush beneath. Snakes. Hundreds and hundreds of serpents glided over the fountain’s frozen-over basin and trickled down staircases, contorting like sidewinders when lifting their bodies off the desert sands.

Stenyran vipers. Uniquely suited to the cold, they’d hibernate while hiding from predators by hanging off of tree branches and letting ice form over their scales. Something in their blood kept them from freezing solid as they were sealed off from the world.

Bellem had stumbled right into a den of creatures whose venom could kill five grown men with every bite. Dryandra must have cast a heating spell on their icy cocoons and woken them up early.

The snakes all closed in on Bellem, a writhing living barrier between him and the doorway outside. He was trapped inside the mansion, and in order to fully wake up every one of the reptiles needed a heat source. Like him. They glared at him with yellow eyes like sparks in the reflected sun, throwing their black forked tongues at him.

All he had was the flintlock’s solitary shot, meant for the witch who killed his best friend.

The Wolfglen Legacy: Sathra’s Introduction

I’m posting another piece from the book’s beginning. Please forgive me for the infrequent updates; it’s been a month of many changes in my life.

This is the start of Sathra Wolfglen’s first chapter. She is a princess who recently witnessed her mother’s mysterious death.

As before, this is entirely open to critique and suggestions. Thanks for reading!

File:Andes bolivianos.jpg

Image courtesy of Wikipedia. A lovely view of mountains to set the scene.

——————————————————

Sathra chased the echoes of broken laughter and screams, her feet pulling her down endless halls of tile and closed doors. The noise gushed from the only open doorway like blood from a wound, and she wheeled inside.

It was a room a thousand miles from home. The bedchamber was bathed in red fabric with splashes of brass. An older woman twisted on the carpeted floor, spewing nonsense while clapping her hands together and clawing at the sleeves of her blue dress trimmed in gold. The balcony door behind her gaped like a jaw into a ferocious blizzard. Its breath placed a bone-frosting chill in the air and sharpened the figure’s ringing cries.

Seeing the mad woman’s head whip about under a flourish of dark hair, Sathra faltered back when she saw the face.

No. Impossible.

“Mother?”

Denial fractured under reality’s weight. Queen Iribeth’s eyes adopted a feral look as she cackled. Making up the lost ground, Sathra reached down to help her up from the floor, willing the nightmare to end. She would see a regal queen stand before her again.

Iribeth’s only reply was to shove away her own daughter with an unnatural strength. The room whirled as Sathra flew back, pain shooting through her head when it pounded against the floor. Her eyes shut from the jolt, and when they opened she saw the queen skittering to the balcony, over the open door’s threshold and onto the ice-encrusted platform. A railing ran at shoulder height along its edge, and her mother came to rest prostrate at the base.

Sathra scrambled back to her feet. “Mother, please. Come inside!” Her own voice was a phantom, a strangely detached blur tripping over a dull tongue.

Fingers flexed like talons as the queen’s incoherent mumblings waxed louder and more forceful, as if she tried instilling them with purpose. Iribeth grabbed the terrace’s balustrade and pulled herself up.

Sathra only watched, like the scene played out for someone else, far removed from her and everything she loved. The queen leaned too far over the railing. She raised herself high, and for one terrible second she looked almost majestic. The wind, swimming with snowflakes, caught the tatters in her dress like ragged flags.

Mother fell quiet. And then she tumbled over the rail and disappeared.

Frozen for one moment more, Sathra finally unleashed a scream which split the cold mountain air. It was too late. Her mother had fallen into the storm.

*          *          *          *          *

Gasping, she opened her eyes.

She was in the same room. The blizzard’s frigid white melted away from the guest quarters where her family was staying. The cold remained, though, seeping through her gauzy nightgown.

Flame danced dimly behind the blue glass of an oil lamp, all the more hypnotic for its cool color. Sathra was in a chair at the writing desk tucked into the room’s corner, hunched over and with her head resting on the polished mahogany. Charcoal sticks and papers with sketches of mountains lay next to her. She straightened up and rubbed away the crick in her neck. Outside, the sun prepared to set. Shapes of furniture, half hidden in the glaring light from lofty windows, surrounded her like a crowd of accusers.

“Princess?” a girl’s voice said, muffled through the guestroom’s door. “I brought you something to eat.”

She cleared her throat. “Just a moment.” Most likely the servant was carrying a tray with both hands, and it would be easier for her if Sathra opened the door. Brushing a lock of brown hair behind her ear, she gripped the chair’s armrests and stood up, pushing some of her exhaustion away. Her feet shuffled across the carpet as she approached the door, past the tumble of crimson pillows and bunched-up blankets on her bed. The beds for her father and sister were empty. Both of the striped red-and-gold canopies were vacant shells, each bed’s blankets pressed and set as if already awaiting more guests. Where is everyone? she thought.

Opening the smooth white door with a carved relief of an oak tree, she saw one of the empress’s attendants. A blonde serving girl of ten or eleven, wearing a dress of green with white lace on the sleeves and shoulders. The girl carried a tray with plates of food on it, and a porcelain pitcher with steam rising from the spiced coffee it held.

“Oh, Princess, you didn’t need to do that,” the girl said, looking apologetic. Even guilty. “I would have put down the tray and opened it.”

“I insist. I suppose it’s time I ate.” Hardly a morsel had passed her lips in the seven days since she watched her mother fall. Nineteen was no age for a child to say goodbye to a parent. But Mother would want her to be strong. She always said so.

“Do you know where my sister and father are?”

“Your sister went to the bathing floor about an hour ago. The empress came to meet with your father around the same time. I guess she wanted you to have some rest, so they let you sleep.”

Sathra kept her breath measured and her face calm, despite her burning cheeks. “I see.” They let her face another nightmare rather than wake her up from drifting to sleep on a hard desk. She had tried drawing to hold back another wave of grief, but Sathra must have fallen asleep, exhausted from trying so hard to keep so much sadness away. She would not sleep after eating, being sure the dream would repeat if her head touched a pillow.

“I hope I didn’t wake you,” the serving girl mumbled as she placed the tray on a low-lying dresser. “The empress ordered the food for you, and it was getting cold.”

Most of the food was simple, easy to digest to accustom her to eating again. A plate held plain toast and a wedge of mild white cheese. In the corner a silver bowl held alternated slices of cucumber and yellow squash. There was an empty space on the tray where a side of rare golden raisins normally would have been. Kilfira Lundill, head of the Fwanglind Empire, was careful to always have them included with meals, a gesture of generosity to her guests. They had been a staple in Sathra’s limited diet for the last week.

“Thank you. And don’t trouble yourself about the raisins,” she said. “I have had enough of them for now.”

The girl’s cheeks flushed. “Oh, right. Yes, I must have forgotten to put them on.” She picked a tiny wooden box out of a pocket in her skirt and handed it to Sathra. The girl was careful to avoid eye contact. Sathra noticed it right away.

“No, you didn’t forget.” She whispered it, gently.

It may as well have been a proclamation of guilt. “Attendants have to keep taking these meals back and forth,” she babbled, “and we’re not supposed to eat anything on the trays, even leftovers. Princess, I am so sorry.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “Like you said, you wouldn’t have eaten them, and I never get to eat them. I know it was wrong, but — ”

Opening the girl’s shaking hand, Sathra gave the raisins back to her. “They’re yours, then.”

Shock and relief fought on the girl’s face, until she gave a low and awkward bow. “I can’t thank you enough, Princess,” she said.

Sathra knew she was not referring to the raisins. The girl made a quick exit and closed the door, leaving Sathra with her meal.

She knew she could have had the girl arrested for stealing. But Sathra didn’t want her to suffer for such a minor theft. Her home country was already full of nobles and preceptors who had remade hasty punishment into an art form, and the royal family would not help matters if they started adopting the same habit.

In any event, she herself had much better reasons to feel the cold grip of guilt around her heart. She had been telling her family and the empress that Mother’s death was an accident, the tragic outcome of leaning just a bit too forward over the railing to enjoy the view of the Doheston Mountains. How could she explain Iribeth climbing with purpose to throw herself off the balcony? How could Mother have displayed madness when she had never been tainted with it before?

The First Six Paragraphs of My Book

I realized I’ve done a lot of talking about writing, and the writing writers who write about writing. Did I mention it involves writing? Well, that’s enough of that. Not writing in general. Just writing about writing. Let’s go back to storytelling! I’m resuming a journey back to the dragons and engraved swords, the buildings of high beauty and strange color — the beautiful things that drew me to writing in the first place.

Time to throw some specificity into the recipe. I’m sharing what are currently the first six paragraphs of my novel in progress. If you’ve got a work in progress as well, I invite you to share the first six paragraphs in a blog post of your own.

These words are completely open to suggestion and critique. If you’ve got something to say, feel free to comment or email. As if I even need to say this, but copyright belongs to me. Obviously. Hope you enjoy it!

————————————————————————-

Heavy eyelids opened at a hint of light. The young man’s sight was unfocused, as if underwater, and his body burned. Every movement ground his nerves like a file. He tried to moan, but his sore throat only permitted a gurgle. A blanket’s weight pressed on him. He could make out the walls of a small room and murky shapes of furniture. His only illumination filtered through a window to his right.

Memories were scattered and fragmented, retreating like a swarm of moths when he tried to grasp them. At first he thought it was just a dream. But the blanket’s itching fibers scratched him too coarsely, the sore muscles hurt too much. Where was he? How did he come here?

The young man couldn’t even remember his name.

Heavy footsteps pounded from behind a door at the room’s other side, a door as tall and black as death itself.

His heartbeat rushed. He stumbled around the corners of his brain, probing for clues, for any inkling that could remind him who might be outside. Still the moths fluttered about, turning to dust and forgotten as soon as he caught them. The footsteps receded, leaving him in silence again.

Then his mind grabbed hold of something, tiny and fragile. A name, the most familiar name to him. Josh. Yes, that sounded like it ought to be his name. Josh…Kingston, he thought. My name is Joshua Richard Kingston.

“The Hobbit” — 19 Days Away!

Taking a brief respite from edits to post this. Partly because I want to remind myself that I have a ticket to what looks like an amazing film at stake (by December 3rd I have to finish primary edits on the fantasy novel), and partly to remind you that we’re about to go back to Middle Earth.

So exciting, isn’t it?!

In less than three weeks, I will be trekking across mountains and rivers with a wizard trying to save the world, a Hobbit with more spirit in him than he realizes, and a collection of hilarious Dwarves. This is the kind of story cinema was made to tell, and I can’t be happier.

[Copyrights, of course, belong to Warner Bros.]

Now, back to edits! This book must be done as soon as possible.