Thursday, June 13, 2013

Let's talk zombies

Update from last post: the doctor I visit for ear problems gave me some nice drugs that have been working nicely to make me feel normal again. It really is humbling how much one can take for granted something as simple as being able to walk across a room, until that ability is taken from you.

Anyhow, let's move on to something more cheerful. I was cleaning up my computer files and came across some short stories I wrote for a fiction writing class. Well, more like a novel started coming out of my head during a short story fiction writing class. Since Halloween is coming up here in the U. S. of A, it seemed fitting to post it. The story is something that has simmered in the back of my head since that semester. The characters kind of wrote themselves, but honestly, I'm still struggling with where they ought to be going. It's something anyone familiar with my creative writing would not be surprised at.

That summer I had just finished reading Sabriel by Garth Nix, so there's some of that novel creeping into my style. The concept of a wall separating a mundane world from a magical one I borrowed from Nix when thinking up my story, but he's not the first person to write about it. I find the topic of borders fascinating, probably stemming from all the mythology I read when I was younger, especially about the realms of Faerie. There's also likely a lot of Neil Gaiman and Mercedes Lackey in there too, as they have always been two of my favorite authors. I will also note that I was the only writer of my group that wrote obvious fantasy. I'm including the artist's statement from my portfolio submission as I talk about some nice things about the challenges of writing the type of fiction I like reading, but feel free to skip down to the zombies. 

The following story is rated PG-13 for swearing children learn from the internet before they're 10.


Artist's Statement

I love to read fiction that will take me places. Sometimes it is a fantastical journey, other times it is more mundane. Regardless of the destination, though, I want to be able to enjoy the trip. It only makes sense to attempt to write the kind of stories I like to read, with a strong sense of character and presence at a particular place.

Being a voracious reader has given me an extensive vocabulary and style of speaking that is quite helpful in crafting a fictional piece. Grammar and punctuation is everybody's enemy, so I will not talk much of those weaknesses. The most cliché weakness I feel I have as a writer is choosing summary or scene. Since I like science fiction and fantasy, however, this task becomes a bit more of a challenge. When the scene is a world that can be entirely different to the reader's background knowledge, the writing can become bogged down by details. Making a world that has a sense of history, religion, and language all its own can be a difficult effect to achieve. Yet all is not lost, for I feel I have great sense of characterization and imagination. The beings that populate my particular world have made their voices heard, even if it's a loud screeching. More often than not, I've let a character drive the plot forward, with no idea what he's doing or even knowing much of the place he wants to go. So far this has worked rather well.

Previously as a student I've only focused on reading and analyzing literature. Reading fiction for writing technique, rather than literary analysis was a new experience for me, but an enjoyable one. The particular exercises from the course and the textbook have at least given me a direction to choose from when crafting my work.

I suppose the biggest revision to my story is to link all the story assignments into one continuous piece. After that change, I took the instructor's advice and changed certain parts of the narrative from summary to scene. I think it works better, introducing readers to the world without giving too much away. There has been quite a bit of change since my initial submissions. Not just grammatical or punctuation-wise, but entire phrases and style changes were made. I honestly had no idea Raz and Jaydn from “Ashes of Autumn” wanted to be part of the same story as Old Kort from “One Spring Morning.” At least, not until that moment when Raz does his dramatic pose and indicates he is going to the same town as Old Kort. Characters do that sometimes, and thankfully I didn't mind very much in this case. If I do continue working on this piece, its more likely to end up as a novel. Though I'm not certain any of my current batch of characters would work well as an iconic hero figure. Maybe that will be the point!

Ashes of Autumn

Prologue

Morning dawned through a slate-gray sky, the sun's rays fell on the pockmarked trenches and barbed wire that lined the Wall between the Republic of Talvas and the old empire of Kelgaard. Scattered among the debris, soldiers hauled themselves out of the dirt and stretched after a long night of patrol. More soldiers started streaming onto the old battlefield, some bearing hot mugs of steaming coffee for their weary comrades. The change of shifts occurred without flair, without incident. Just as it had for the last two weeks. The Wall stood eternal and silent, yet even those without magical sight could tell it was not an ordinary stone wall. The stones remained unscathed, even after countless attempts to break it down with ballistics and cannons. Nothing seemed to grow in its immediate vicinity, even when the nearby fields bloomed and grew lush during the Spring season. Such things only added to the general atmosphere of strangeness of the Wall. The soldiers stationed there had only grown slightly accustomed to it.

“Getting awful quiet around these parts,” commented one as he blew on his mug.

“Haven't seen any bogies for awhile,” agreed another, taking a small sip.

Sergeant Kort Rawley spat to the side and said, “Its the calm before the storm, boys, don't get lazy just because there's no action.” Kort hefted his rifle and adjusted his sword belt before walking back to the barracks. He could hear the whisperings of the soldiers who remained in the trenches, as well as the tiny clattering of weapons and equipment being checked and held at the ready.

As he tromped along the gravel path, he pulled out a pouch of chewing tobacco and stuck a piece in his mouth. His chainmail armor felt uncomfortable in the morning chill, but he was grateful that it at least fit properly. Some of the soldiers had gotten the short end of the stick when it came to getting outfitted for Wall duty.

Those brass down in the capital still wouldn't supply more than rudimentary equipment for the situation, bizarre as it was. Kort had the sneaking suspicion reports were being doctored for appearance's sake, but unless he got proof to the right person on a high rung of the command ladder, his complaints would all come to nothing. The War had not been kind to anyone, least of all young soldiers such as he. Kort had been hoping for something a bit more active when he signed up for military service. However, like many other recruits along the border, he'd been shipped out for Wall duty when the armistice was pushed through. Shoving his way into his tent, he unloaded his gear and started to disassemble his weaponry for cleaning and maintenance. He was still at it when his bunkmate, Corporal Kalman, came in.

“How's it going, Old Man?” Kalman asked, with a twinkle in his eye.

“Dangit, Kalman, I told you to lay off that nickname! Need to keep a lid on that, or the whole entire camp is going to start referring to me as Old Man Kort before I'm even twenty-seven!”

He snorted, and went back to checking his armor over for weak points.

“Can't help it, man, you got that old geezer attitude just radiating off you in spades!” Kalman laughed, as he flung himself on his cot. “Oh, before I forget, you got a letter down at the depot,” Kalman turned over onto his side, as if to start dozing.

“And how would you know that, since the post master doesn't come in until this afternoon?” Kort continued inspecting his gear, determined not to show any interest.

“I had a vision last night, you were holding a letter in your hand and running around like a maniac.”
Kort looked up and sniggered, “all of a sudden you're this great visionary? Oh please, you've been listening to too many campfire stories, not everyone who comes to the Wall suddenly finds magical aptitude.”

Kalman sat up, “Hmph, see if I ever give you a heads up, then. Last time you got a letter you wouldn't shut up about what your daughter and wife were up to. She's what, starting primary school now? Going to be starting those history lessons soon, right?”

Kort laughed, “I'm amazed you can remember something important like that, seeing as you got that watermelon for a head.” Kort had to duck the flying pillow aimed at his head for that remark.
“Shut up! I had to put up with those crazy nuns in Wilshire. If I forgot their lessons I just know one of 'em would rise up from the dead just to whack me with a ruler,” Kalman shuddered, “bad enough with all the dead around here already!”

“Psh, I bet you can't even remember the Songs of History.”

“Can to! Just you listen,” Kalman cleared his throat, then began to speak in a high nasally voice, “In this land, there is only one border where wild magic still holds sway. For as long as anyone can remember, there has always been a giant stone wall separating Talvas from the old empire of Kelgaard.” Kort was laughing so hard, he managed to fall back on his bunk.

“And damn if we haven't tried knocking it over,” Kalman chuckled in his normal voice.
Kort continued the Song, “It managed to remain standing even after the fall of the empire over three hundred years ago.”

Kalman agreed, “Its the darnedest thing, isn't it? Near the region of the border all modern technology strangely fails, and not even in a predictable pattern! The suppliers are always tied up in knots, they can't decide when to issue chainmail instead of bulletproof vests, give out spears or swords rather than our ballistic weapons. Heck, we've even resorted to catapults and archery towers!”

“The wise know better than to try and define wild magic in a logical manner,” said Kort.
Kalman blinked. “Are you hanging around those binder mages again? All they ever do is talk about the invisible things no one else can see,” he pouted.

“You're just mad you don't have cool powers. Besides, without them binding up the wild magic and creating the crossroads, no one around here would be safe from the dead.”

“Yeah...” Kalman looked off at someplace faraway from that old tent on the war-torn border along the Wall. “It sure would be nice if those beasties would stay on their own damn side. We got enough problems over here as it is.”

Chapter 1
Seven years later

The sun rose slowly on a chilly Spring day in the northern countryside of Talvas. Frost still clung to parts of the forest, hiding away in the deepest shadows to escape the growing warmth of the season. The snow had melted away completely from the old road that led to Sanborne, but it remained a muddy and mucky mess, not yet worthy of travel. Despite the conditions, two men could be seen walking the road. The younger man pulled a small rickety cart covered in various jars and miscellaneous items, while the more elderly of the two hobbled along with the aid of a long stick.

Old Kort, as he was now called, was hoping to reach Sanborne before evening, and the steady tap-tap of his walking stick was punctuated by mutterings and grumblings. “Road” was a far more kind term than was warranted for this miserable track of land, he thought as he trudged along, dodging an old rusty can. He worried that with the warm weather coming much sooner than expected, the dead would be stirring from their hostels before the larger towns of the border were able to shore up proper defenses. They had wasted precious time earlier clearing the path of that broken old truck, and the sun was now approaching the midday position. Glancing over at the ruins of some wire fencing, Old Kort tried to hurry his steps, hoping his artificial knees would hold out a little longer. He glared to the side at his companion pulling the cart for him, a silly brute of a boy from the village, and sighed.
Resnick? That was his name, I think, Old Kort mused. He knew they weren't safe with the trees crowded so close to the road, the shade was too thick for even the noonday sun to pierce through. Even the weakest of undead could hunt in this place, Old Kort thought apprehensively. There are barely enough hands as it is to gather food, much less maintain these horrid excuses for roads. He spat to the side of the path, very much wishing he hadn't lost his last pouch of chewing tobacco a month ago to those idiotic squirrels.

Resnick, meanwhile, let his thoughts wander here and there like a leaf on the wind, the ID tags jingling on his chain was the only other sound besides the rattling of the cart and Old Kort's grumpiness. Now and then he paused to admire the emerging growth of the surrounding forest awakening after a long winter. The trash and rubble of the road seemed to have no effect on his cheery mood. He started to whistle an old tune he knew, but couldn't really recall where he had heard it. The hunting would be good now that the weather was improving, perhaps he could make a bit of money from selling hides. It sure would be nice to give Annice a present, its been too long since I could afford one, Resnick thought. He was busy contemplating the kind of gifts he could present, and the way Annice's face would light up, when he nearly fell into the large pit in the center of the road.

“WATCH OUT!” Old Kort yelled a bit too late for Resnick's liking, but he did manage to avoid an undignified tumble or have the cart fall on top of him.

“Bother,” huffed Old Kort, “we'll both have to pull the cart to get it across this hole.”

He made no move to help Resnick though, instead glaring and frowning at the pit as if by the force of his stare he could convince the pit to get up from the middle of the road on its own.

“Bah, don't be such a grump, Old Kort,” Resnick said, “and no need to trouble yourself, I'm sure I can get this rig across on my own no problem.” Resnick secretly wondered what had possessed him to volunteer for this journey. There were plenty of other muscled youths from the village who could have accompanied Old Kort to Sanborne with his strange wares.

Resnick gripped the handles of the cart more firmly in preparation to cross the pit. However, he never got a chance to start pulling, as a horrible high-pitched screech resounded from the forest.

“Drop the cart and run, don't stop until you reach the standing stones at the crossroads.” Old Kort was staring out into the forest, feet apart and stick firmly planted in front of him.

“What in blazes was that noise?” whispered Resnick.

“We're not sticking around to find out, NOW RUN, BOY!”

Resnick didn't need to be told a third time, practically overturning the cart in his haste to get away. Old Kort remained standing by the cart, eyes focusing inward to utilize his otherworldly senses. The creatures were starting to flow into the road from the forest. Damn, I was afraid it'd be Piranha Children. Why can't it ever be something normal? I'd give anything to deal with human bandits for once. The Piranha Children were barely three feet tall, but their small withered bodies belied an astounding strength. Their faces were twisted in a mockery of a human smile, their teeth gleaming in the Spring sun. Old Kort knew even five of them could take down a person in mere moments, unfortunately it looked like there might be twenty or so on this side of the forest.

“Let's see how you demons like this little doozy,” he murmured to himself as light began to blaze forth from the stick in his hands.
****
Resnick was panting and heaving from the strain of running for his life. The screeching seemed to die away behind him, and then there was a loud explosion that rocked him to his knees. Resnick looked back, stopping to catch his breath, the crazy old fool has still got it! Taking a handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped down his sweaty brow. Guess it's safe to check if he survived that blast. Turning back up the road, Resnick stopped short at rustling noises from the shadows of the forest. Shit. From the sound of it, there was a large group of whatever-they-were not too far from where he stood in the road. Resnick very slowly kept moving forward, hand straying to the small pistol strapped to his side.
His heart jumped to his throat when he got a good look at the monsters following him. Oh blessed Creator not Piranha Children! Resnick had heard the fireside stories of Piranha Children, undead that looked like gray, deformed midgets with pointy ears, tiny shining eyes, and an overly large mouth filled with rows of long, sharp teeth. It was said that they could devour unsuspecting travelers in seconds. He remembered hearing somewhere that whoever designed them must have had a sick sense of humor, something about “elves” and a “toy workshop” run by a fat old guy. Don't panic, don't panic, don't panic... Resnick kept up the mental litany as he slowly inched down the path, hoping the monsters would lose interest.  

SHIT! The Piranha Children had apparently decided there had been enough stalking, and swarmed into the road. Resnick broke into a dead run, his hand grabbing for the gun at his side. He turned and desperately tried to fire on the Piranha Children closing in on him. The gun clicked several times, nothing more than an ineffective piece of metal. With a sinking feeling in his gut, Resnick remembered how close they were to the Wall, and watched numbly as one of the Piranha Children leapt for his throat, teeth bared.
****
Old Kort was gasping for air as he pulled the cart up the road, struggling to keep his artificial knees working for a few more steps. He stopped short at the remains of what might have been a human body once. Sighing, he shooed away the carrion birds feasting at the remains and knelt for a closer look.

“Idiot, didn't I warn you to keep running?” Old Kort slowly knelt down, trying not to grunt too loudly. He searched until he found Resnick's ID tags, and tucked them into his pocket. Sanborne didn't have a military records facility, but the offices there could still notify the boy's family. Saying a small prayer, Old Kort called a small flame from his hands, and let it turn the body to ashes.
“Curse you anyway, now I have to drag this heavy rig all on my own to Sanborne,” Old Kort grumbled as he hefted the handles of the cart and went on his way down the old road.

Chapter Two

It was not the most advanced of hospitals, even for one near the border. The wall tiles were stained an ugly brownish-gray, and dust had caked in the corners over time. The cracks in the floor seemed to have an odd yellow discoloration to them. Jaydn did not want to contemplate what some of the stains might have been, but there was little else to do while leaning against the wall of the hospital corridor. He sighed, there weren't even any trashy magazines to peruse. The hallway in which he waited had a slight indentation going down it in either direction on the floor. The result of hundreds of passing feet, he surmised. The equipment and beds were clean, which was something positive. Not that visiting hospitals is ever really a pleasant experience anyway, Jaydn thought. He stretched his shoulders, wishing he could remove his outer armor for a bit. The hallway was hot and stuffy, with few windows to offer a chance at fresh air. He dared not undress, though, Raz might catch him out of uniform. He'd never hear the end of it! He was about to start twirling his platinum hair through his fingers, before remembering he'd begrudgingly gotten it cut the other day. Now it was too short for him to wrap his fingers around. He grimaced at that realization. His nervous habit was no longer effective as stress-relief. He fought the urge to kick at the tattered black suitcase he had to “guard,” on his master's orders. Which is really just an excuse to keep me out of the labs, Jaydn thought bitterly. Hrmph, Creator forbid any of his precious costumes gets the slightest bit of dirt on them. Jaydn supposed he should be grateful. He could have been asked to guard the empty room Raz had requested for changing.
 
It doesn't usually take this long for the freaking blood tests; I wonder if they actually found something interesting this time? Jaydn didn't want to think about other possible reasons for his master's delay, reasons which may have deadlier consequences than being poked and prodded by a bunch of nitwit Army doctors. Worrying wouldn't do him much good now anyway. He tried to focus himself into a more serious bodyguard mood, with little success. After a few more long minutes ticked by, he gave up and went back to guessing what had left the stains on the hospital floor.

He looked up as some commotion sounded from down the hall. It seemed to be traveling in his direction. His face showed relief at the sight of his master, but quickly changed it back into a more calm and professional one at the stormy expression on Raz's face. The tattoos on Raz's forearms were glowing an ugly shade of purple, not a good sign.

“Seven times! Seven times that incompetent whack-job of a nurse had to poke my ass with those blasted injections before they could even get started on the blood work!” Raz stomped past Jaydn in a flurry of hospital gown and spicy perfume, kicking open the door to the changing room.

“Where's my suitcase?” Raz roared, pausing to look at Jaydn, who handed over the requested object. “Oh, thank you Jaydn. The nerve of these people,” he continued, “they need fifty fuckin' pages of worthless paperwork for a standard blood test!” Raz threw the suitcase on the empty hospital bed, and emptied its contents on the bed, flinging colorful garments and cosmetics jars aside in search of something.

“For the better of mankind or not, I have half a mind to complain to General Kalman. I can't keep coming out here for every little test they want to try to measure someone's magical aptitude! Did you pack my brush?” Jaydn pointed to a side pocket of the suitcase, trying very hard not to laugh at Raz's antics.

“Ah, there it is. And that one doctor was ogling me the whole bloody time! I ought to file for harassment, that's what. Let's see what they think of that, then! Be a dear and get the hairpins, Jaydn?” Raz started brushing and pinning up some of his long ruddy-brown hair, letting some hang loose in long trailing strands. The whole time he kept ranting about the horrors of being tested by Talvas' military forces. Jaydn rescued some items from the edge of the bed before they fell, and barely avoided running Raz over when he turned.

“Why do you have to be so bloody tall? It's not fair.” Raz was pouting now, and Jaydn sighed at the old complaint. He couldn't help being six-foot-three compared to Raz's more diminutive five-foot-one. Without reply, he held out the red patterned long vest Raz had packed to change into after the tests. Raz just managed not to snatch it out of his hands, and walked behind the changing screen to finish dressing.

At a knock and throat-clearing “ahem,” Jaydn turned around to see a petite young woman standing at the door. She couldn't have been no more than twenty five, but the uniform and tags meant she had to be the doctor delivering Raz's results. Jaydn waved for her to come in, and sat on the hospital bed. She was gazing at him with more than a little trepidation, which surprised him. She must be really new if she's never seen a Khalian bodyguard before. He contemplated teasing her by playing the gruff warrior. With his huge bulk, archaic armor, and many blades, he probably did look rather terrifying.

“Oh do stop posing, she's probably thinking you should shower more often.” Raz had chosen that moment to reappear from the changing curtain, still smoothing the folds in his outfit. “Costume” was really the more appropriate term, for Raz loved nothing more than to be as flamboyant as possible. Jaydn had long ago surmised that it was his unspoken way of thumbing his nose at the military authorities who hired out his services. Well that, or he really liked shocking people. It wasn't difficult to achieve this reaction when Raz so enjoyed parading around in brightly colored vests, frilled button-up shirts, and knee-length kilts. The high-heeled boots seemed a bit overkill, though. “Give 'em the old Razzle-dazzle!” as Raz would say whenever questioned about his choice of style.

The doctor seemed to have gotten over her shock, and was now frowning rather disapprovingly at Raz. “No one said you were ghibesh,” she said acidly.

Jaydn frowned. While the term was not one of the most horrible things Raz had been called, “ghibesh” was not exactly a friendly way to refer to someone who dressed in a manner that was opposite of societal expectations. Raz motioned him to remain seated, though.

“Look, madam,” Raz returned with equal vehemence, “if all you're here to do is report my bloodwork results, then I suggest you do so and leave. It's bad enough I need to be poked and prodded for your military's precious research. I do not need to tolerate insults to my character by some wet-behind-the ears medical student.” Raz turned his back on the woman to start rifling through pieces of jewelry in the suitcase. He made a deliberate effort to examine each one carefully and laid down his discarded choices on the nearby nightstand.

The doctor had turned an interesting shade of red. Jaydn could practically hear her teeth grinding as she spewed out, “And what would a Kelgaardian binder-mage know about medical advances or the difference between a full-fledged Army doctor and a student? It's bad enough the Army is funding this ridiculous research, half the country doesn't believe in magic anyway! I've heard about some of the crazy shit you pull. I bet the only reason you get free rein around here is because you whore yourself out to the army in other ways.”

Raz slammed his hand down on the nightstand. Jaydn could feel the restrained anger in Raz. It was a wonder he hadn't made a more violent show of temper. “Jaydn, kindly get this miserable twit out of here before I paint the walls with her blood,” Raz stated in a much too calm voice. The shaking fist at his side seemed to be the only outward sign of his agitation, other than the ominous glow of his tattooed arms.

The doctor gasped, whether at Raz's comment or the realization of her own stupidity, Jaydn wasn't sure. She frantically looked back and forth between the two men, probably hoping Raz wasn't serious. Thinking he probably was, Jaydn grabbed the woman's arm and practically had to drag her to the door.

“He wasn't actually going to...I mean...he wasn't, right?” She was obviously frightened, but Jaydn did not feel any urge to comfort her. Instead he carefully kept his face in a calm, blank mask of silence. The reaction had the desired effect, as the doctor shoved the clipboard into his hands and fled down the hallway. Jaydn turned back into the room and set the report down on the bed for Raz to look at later.

“Psh, these Talvasian border towns need to keep hardier staff around who know when to keep their bloody mouths shut. That was great though, the silent treatment always shakes the shit out of them.” Raz chuckled to himself, but the humor never reached his eyes, and his laughter trickled off into awkward silence. The sudden quiet in the room seemed stifling, and Raz nervously fingered the bracelets on his tattooed wrists. Jaydn might almost have missed Raz's next words, they were spoken so softly, “It's such a shame you're mute, the joke of silence loses its humor when you aren't able to do it on purpose.”

Sighing, Raz swept the remainder of his jewelry and cosmetics into the torn-up suitcase. Jaydn packed up the scattered clothing from around the room as Raz slipped into his trench coat. Checking out of the hospital never seemed to take as long as checking in. It seemed mere moments before they were back out in the streets. Raz paused, flicking some dust off of his coat. Tossing some of his hair over his shoulder in what was probably a deliberately dramatic gesture, he turned to Jaydn and said, “We might as well head to Sanborne now. Old Kort is likely already setting up the protections along the border towns close to the Wall. With the freezing grip of winter leaving us so early, the dead are likely stirring as well.”

Jaydn nodded grimly. He was not looking forward to the coming warm weather. Monster guts were easy enough to clean off his weapons, but undead had a way of eating through even the toughest of his metal polishes.