Flash Fiction: “Saved By The Shieldmaiden”

Chooser of the slain.  Angel of death and mercy.  EMT-certified.

Enjoy.

Saved By The Shieldmaiden, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 686

Another late-night shift for me at St. Mary’s Hospital.  Javier and I manage to get a fallen old man from his beach house to the ER in record time.  I press my hands against his chest, watching for a spike in his circulation.

Not today, I promise him.  With a pointed glare, I will Death back.  This old fellow still has a few more moments left with his children.  Death nods back, but hovers close by.

It’s up to us and the staff at the ER to get poor Jon Thorsen through his cardiac arrest.  No need for the defibrillator, fortunately.  He’ll live through the night, and I whisper a prayer of gratitude to the Almighty.

My name is Kara Macalister.  I’m a paramedic in Los Angeles, and this isn’t my first brush with Death.

Our shells rain down on the Yankee formations at Churubusco for almost four hours.  Once our ammunition runs dry, there is nothing left but a bayonet charge.

While Pat Dalton defiantly tears down the white flag from the convent, I’m running through the field with the other lads, trying to collect our dead and scavenge whatever bullets and powder we can still use.  They call me mad for doing so, but I can’t leave any survivors behind.

What do they know of madness?  Didn’t we sail out from Galway on a bloody awful voyage?  Didn’t we get our teeth kicked in when we landed in Boston?  And didn’t the Eighth Infantry treat us worse than rats before we left?

But it’s all for naught.  Franklin Pierce and his boys are taking our right flank.  Worth’s division hits us from the left, and we collapse in the middle.  I don’t put up a fight when the Yanks come for me.  I don’t give them any satisfaction when they scream obscenities into my face.

I know what comes next.  Trials for desertion, following by a hanging.  But I’m not scared.

My name is Kara Larkin, though the rest of Saint Patrick’s Battalion know me as a young lad by the name of Johnny O’Sullivan.  This hasn’t been my first battle, nor will it be my first execution.

Gloomy gray skies greet the Kings of Leinster and Brega as they ride out for Dublin.  Ivar doesn’t stand a chance when two armies of Irishmen come pouring into his longphort.

I wish I could say I was on his side, but it’s not my place.  I only choose the worthiest of the fallen.  I wander across the blood-soaked green fields, watching for the Norsemen who go out bravely.  The ones who die with sword in hand and a cry in their throats.

Óttar is one such man.  I kneel beside his cold body and touch his bloody curls.  His ghost rises up from his parted lips, placid as he takes notice of me.

“Valhalla?” he asks softly.

I nod and touch my breastplate.  A quiet promise.  Óttar takes my hand and we mount my white steed Vibeke.  With a cry, I urge her forward as we charge away from the clamor of battle and toward the eternal light.

My name is Kára Halfdanardottir.  I am a valkyrie of Odin Allfather, whose mighty hall I now ride toward.

And yet—

Even this is not my original form.

On a cold British coastline, a woman shrieks and throws her spear.  Her foe is pierced and falls to the ground.

Boats are burned.  The battle is won.  Men retreat as the bodies of the fallen are collected.

And hither come the ravens, a constant flutter of black wings and hungry beaks.  Hither come the wise women of the tribes with their herbs and folklore.  The ravens feast on the dead and the women tend to the wounded.

In that moment, an idea is born.

The idea will grow.  A woman who shadows every battlefield.  A valkyrie, an angel of mercy, a friendly face in the darkest hour.

The mortals do not yet realize their power.  Their ideas will take lives of their own.

And one day, this idea will become Kara Macalister of Los Angeles.

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From Holy Ones To Hitchhikers: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Copyright © 2001 by Neil Gaiman.
Copyright © 2001 by Neil Gaiman

There are two landscapes in American Gods.  In a story that takes us through the mundane and the mystical, Neil Gaiman explores the history of folklore and the Americans who’ve abandoned said folklore, which isn’t going to go quietly into the night.

Shadow is a convict who’s just finished his term in prison, only to discover that his wife Laura has died and he’s out of a job.  An offer by the enigmatic hustler known as Mr. Wednesday gives Shadow new prospects, taking him on a journey across the Midwest.  But Shadow is soon awoken to a deeper reality: a world of old and new gods, all fighting for dominance in the modern age, all trying to stay relevant after centuries of spiritual decay.  His road takes him through small towns, the walking dead, and old gods doing odd jobs, all in a bitter attempt to make a living and understand what’s really going on.

Shadow is an appropriate name for our protagonist because there isn’t much personality to him.  Not that it’s a bad thing.  He has a simple resolve to do his job for Mr. Wednesday and figure out what to do with his life after prison and his wife’s death.  He’s a mirror to the rest of the world, which is both familiar and bizarre.

As I said before, there are two landscapes in this novel.  The first landscape is Middle America, as seen through the eyes of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday in the course of their road trip.  There are funeral homes and diners, roadside attractions and cheap motels.  The road is long and bleak, but the folks are mostly decent.  But Shadow sees past this thin layer of reality into the second landscape, populated by old gods and folk spirits trying to grab some power in the New World, disguising themselves as ordinary people of every color and class.  Jesus is hitchhiking through Afghanistan.  The leprechaun is a mad wino who does coin tricks.  Anubis embalms corpses for a living at a funeral parlor.  At the heart of this story is a struggle for the mystical and mythical beings to take back the mundane world that once belonged to them, to take back power from modern-day objects of worship.  And a strong-bodied ex-convict is all that stands in their way.

Gaiman writes the story in a dry but evocative style, leaving more to the imagination instead of filling in endless details.  He keeps the reader rooted in a familiar modern setting with only the occasional bizarre sight (like a reanimated corpse or sex with an Egyptian cat goddess).  Except for a few moments where some of the characters would ramble in a genial Midwestern style, I didn’t lose my attention too much.  It reads a lot like On The Road, cruising along except for the occasional roadside attraction and theophany.

American Gods is available through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Bibliography: Gaiman, Neil.  American Gods.  New York: William Morrow, 2001.

Flash Fiction: “Final Forest Exam”

You hear a lot about “treehuggers,” but no one ever talks about “predator pals” (no one that I’m aware of, anyway).

This is a prequel to “The Doctor and the Druid” and a sequel to “Fair In Love, But Not In War.”  Enjoy.

Final Forest Exam, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 925

Child, you are almost ready for your anointment.  You have just one more test to fulfill.”

Mother Nira’s words echoed through her mind as she slid to a halt behind a tree.  Several yards away, the wolf growled.  Kumiko closed her eyes and prayed to Mother Earth that the false herbs she’d dropped would distract the beast.

She didn’t know what she was doing.  From the moment she entered the forest, Kumiko knew she was a failure.  She could never become a true druid.

In her mind’s eye, she saw Mother Nira back at the Solar Shrine.  Gaunt-faced and tall, born as one of the male fey, but she wore the gown and veil of a priestess consecrated to the Great Mother.  Nira had smiled and touched the pointed tips of Kumiko’s ears with drops of holy oil.  The air around them had been filled with the birdsong chants of the Sun Dancers, honoring the gods at daybreak.

“You must not falter, you must not fear,” Nira had said, seeming as tender as Kumiko’s mother and aunts.  “The world is a mirror, child.  Show it fear and it will respond in fear.  Show it love and it will love you back.  Show it courage and it will suffer you bravely.”

Sitting behind an ancient black tree, with a great wolf on her tail, Kumiko didn’t think her wisdom could help her know.

The beast snarled and drew closer.  Kumiko cursed herself for trying to rely on false herbs as a distraction.  She was going to die unless she fought the wolf.  But what druid’s spell could do that?

She could heal a wound, tread silently, swim for miles, and sense the presence of flora and fauna alike.  But she was no battle-mage.  Her sorcery could only deflect.  It’d do nothing to protect her from being ripped limb from limb.

Show it courage and it will suffer you bravely…”

Mother Nira, you’re an old fool, Kumiko thought, falling to her hands and knees.  The Wild didn’t care if you were just or brave.  It just ate and gave birth to things that could be eaten.  Nothing more.

Kumiko wished she could see her family one last time, just to tell them how sorry she was to have failed as a druid.  Her father Lord Yori would be disgraced, as if his sept wasn’t in enough trouble with the Erlking.  She’d make everything worse just by being alive.

I’m already dead, the timid fey realized.  I’m dead and there’s no going back.

Impossibly, that thought calmed her a little.  She turned around and stepped out from behind the tree.

The gray, shaggy-coated wolf snarled when it laid eyes on her.  With a saliva-dripping maw widened, it raced forward on all four legs and leapt for Kumiko’s throat.  The fey tilted her head back, ready for the end.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered to her family, to Mother Nira.  “Think kindly of me when I’m gone.  Do that for me.”

Her eyes squeezed shut as the wolf’s forepaws slammed into her chest, pinning her onto the dirt.  Kumiko waited for the jaws to tear into her throat and end her miserable life.

It never happened.

Slowly, cautiously, she opened her eyes and stared into the wolf’s terrifying face.

It was looking down at her intently.  The beast’s breath stank of raw meat and fur as it panted.

“Why?” Kumiko asked.  She wondered if Mother Earth would appear in all Her glory and answer.

The wolf gave a short yip.  To Kumiko’s ears, she heard it as a common grunt.  But in the depths of her mind, it sounded completely different.

A voice.  A crude, masculine, unlearned voice.

Because girl says so.

“What?”

The wolf barked and she heard it in her mind as, Girl says think kindly.

“Y-you can understand me?”

Yes.

“How?”

With cantFirst tongue.

Kumiko had heard about Cant.  The language of truth, Mother Nira had called it.  A primordial language known to every beast of the Wild and buried deep inside the mind of every fey.  Only a true druid knew how to rediscover the words of Cant, to commune with all of nature and honor Mother Earth in Her Own Word.

And now Kumiko saw the truth of the matter.  That moment of stillness. She’d been ready to die.  She’d conquered her fear.  She’d opened her deepest self to the jaws of death and shame.

“I am not your enemy,” Kumiko said slowly.  She felt uncomfortable staring into the wolf’s golden eyes, but she owed it that much.  “I am a friend.”

Yes, the wolf whined as it pulled its paws off of her.  FriendAm Teor.

“Teor.”  As she sat up, Kumiko didn’t bother brushing away the dirt from her hair or the saliva in her face.  She looked around at the black forest with new eyes.

It wasn’t threatening anymore.  It just existed.  An extension of the Wild and nothing more.

“Teor,” she said calmly.  “I lost my way.  I must go home.”

The wolf barked and wagged its tail.  Home.  Know your scent.  Follow Teor now.

The fey smiled and, after a moment’s thought, she reached down to scratch the wolf’s neck.  When the canine panted in delight, Kumiko pointed back the way she came.  The wolf barked and led the way.

Somewhere close by, the birds were singing and a squirrel was running up the side of an oak.  Kumiko heard it all, just as she heard Mother Nira saying, “Show it love and it will love you back…”

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First Look: RWBY

Copyright © 2013 by Rooster Teeth Productions.
Copyright © 2013 by Rooster Teeth Productions.

Last Thursday was the start of something magical: a fantastic new webseries created by Monty Oum (of Dead Fantasy and Haloid fame) and Rooster Teeth Productions (the makers of the long-running Red Vs. Blue series). This series is a love letter to anime like Soul Eater and fighting games like Final Fantasy, with a dash of rock music by Jeff Williams and great voice acting from the folks at Rooster Teeth.

The series focuses on four girls who attend Beacon Academy, a school that trains Huntsmen and Huntresses in the use of magic–or “Dust”–to fight the numerous monsters that have plagued the world since the dawn of time. With a combination of Dust and extremely powerful weapons, the four girls of Team RWBY (Ruby Rose, Weiss Schnee, Blake Belladonna, and Yang Xiao Long) set out to save the world from villains and demons alike.

Copyright © 2013 by Rooster Teeth Productions.
Copyright © 2013 by Rooster Teeth Productions.

While the first full episode, “Ruby Rose,” premiered last Thursday, there’s been quite a lot of buildup for the series since last November. Four trailers  emerged over the course of several months, introducing each of the four girls, their respective fighting styles, and the overall tone of the show. Ruby’s a boisterous and plucky acrobat with an enormous sniper-scythe. Weiss is an elegant swordswoman, surrounded by snow and sorrow. Blake is a strong fighter with a whip-blade and gun, tormented by her dark past and a relationship with the equally dark Adam. And then there’s Yang, blonde and perky as she uses superpowered gauntlet-guns to beat her enemies into submission with a smile on her face.

But the first episode, after giving us a short monologue on the monsters that populate the world and the Dust that humans use to fight them, puts the focus on Ruby. When she nearly stops the robbery of a Dust shop, her skill with Crescent Rose (a.k.a. her High-Caliber Sniper-Scythe) attracts the attention of Beacon Academy. Ruby is invited to join the school, where her sister Yang is already enrolled and eager for her to join.

Copyright © 2013 by Rooster Teeth Productions.
Copyright © 2013 by Rooster Teeth Productions.

“Ruby Rose” sets up both the fantastic world in which RWBY takes place and the premise of the show: magical girls fighting villains and monsters with insanely-powerful weapons and grace. But in between the beautifully animated action scenes that are Monty Oum’s trademark, there’s still plenty of comedy (Ruby is quite the adorable motor mouth) and some nice subtle moments of introspection and drama. It gives the audience its adrenaline high, then brings it down in a gentle lull with jokes and curiosity about the world that Oum and Rooster Teeth have created.

If the trailers and the first episode are anything to go by, then this series is going to be action, adventure, and art in one very alluring package.

RWBY is available on the Rooster Teeth website and the Rooster Teeth YouTube channel. New episodes air on Thursdays.

Bibliography: RWBY.  Directed by Monty Oum. Written by Miles Luna, Kerry Shawcross, and Matt Hullum. Produced by Burnie Burns and Kathleen Zuelch. Music by Jeff and Casey Lee Williams. Rooster Teeth Productions. July 18, 2013 – present.

Flash Fiction: “The Last Stormcaller”

Oh, the weather outside is frightful… and so’s the daemon controlling it.  Better call your neighborhood weatherman to cast a few counter-spells or else you’ll be needing FEMA real soon.

Enjoy.

The Last Stormcaller, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 829

Raindrops whipped across Danny Trenton’s face as he skidded to a halt on the pier.  Ancient planks creaked beneath his feet as he stared up at the oncoming storm.

The clouds advancing onto San Ignacio Harbor were black and heavy—an entire mountain range of precipitation, rumbling with barely-contained thunder.  Below them, the Pacific Ocean was choppy, throwing up waves against the pier and splattering over the abandoned boardwalk.  No chance of continuing today’s carnival. No Procession of the Saints tomorrow—not unless Danny could do something about it.

But fuck me, thought Danny as he reached into his jacket, what can I do against that?

His fingers tightened on the amulet under his t-shirt.  A gold coin, caked with dried blood and fresh dirt from the parking lot at San Ignacio High School.  That was all an amulet needed—blood from the one who carried it and dirt from the place it was meant to protect.  But amulets were good for cheap tricks, like conjuring up a little rain and snow in July.

Danny Trenton knew a thing or two about sorcery.  He knew all about the water cycle and the ancient heroes who could bend it to their will.  But he was no Stormcaller.  Just some smartass kid in a jacket and blue jeans, too dumb not to run back inside when the storm showed up.

“Well,” he whispered past a mouthful of rain and wind, “guess I don’t have much of a choice…”

Gulping down some of that rain, Danny smiled.  He let the wind buffer him and pressed both hands over his amulet.  The storm continued to advance, slowly gathering speed and strength.

And then he Spoke.

From deep within his chest, Danny found his true voice.  The primordial Voice upon which all sorcery is founded.  And he let it Speak through him to the heart of the storm.

I give you a name,” said the Voice through Danny Trenton.  “I name you Thor.  I name you Zeus Brontios.  I name you Perun.  I name you the Wild Hunt.

A streak of blinding light filled the skies, followed by the deafening tiger-roar of thunder.

The Voice was making Danny’s ears ring and his throat burn, but he let it Speak.  “I know you and I do not fear you.  I want to ease your suffering.  To share your pain.  Let me in.”

Another flash, another snarl from above.  The rain pounded at the harbor and the choppy waves grew taller.  Almost defensive.

Now the amulet around Danny’s neck began to tingle.  He was soaked through to the bone and deathly cold, but the amulet was only growing warmer.  A pleasant warmth, a spiritual warmth like his first kiss or graduation day.  Danny held onto that warmth as the Voice prepared its next words.

This one will share your pain,” the Voice declared.  “This one will give you peace.  Let us in, mighty Thor.  Let us in, Zeus Astrapios.  Let us in, Great Perun.  Let us in, ye Wild Huntsmen.”

The storm did not challenge the Voice coming through Danny’s lips.  The rain and the wind continued as before.  But slowly, they began to abate.  Inch by inch, the rain decreased.  Knot by knot, the wind eased up.  To Danny’s eyes, the waters were still rolling fierce, but they weren’t attacking the boardwalk like a pack of rabid dogs anymore.  The waves kept their distance.

The warm feeling in his amulet grew stronger.  Danny held on tight as he felt something move inside the storm.  Something huge and old.

In his mind’s eye, he saw the storm as an old man in a tunic, striking at the ground with his walking stick.  He saw it as an angry teenager, sullenly spitting at the ground and flipping him the bird.  He saw it as a crying child, lost and terrified in a crowd of strangers.  It was all these things and none of them.  A cheap metaphor for the truth behind the storm.

An element of nature who’d simply lost its way.

Danny wanted to give it a home.  He pictured his hands pulling the amulet open like a door.  In his mind’s eye, there was a silhouette beckoning the storm inside.  Yes, come in, weary traveler.  Lay down your burdens with me…

The elemental inside the storm heard the offer.  Danny could tell by the way his heart suddenly grew tight.  He dropped to his knees.  For one irrational moment, he wondered if this was how he was meant to go.  A heart attack on a stormy day, just like Uncle Jake the day after he retired.

But the pain was short-lived.  Danny felt the elemental breach the warm barrier of his amulet and disappear.

With labored breath, he forced himself to look up and smiled at the pale gray skies and the dark churning waters.  He was soaked and numb, but deliriously happy.

He supposed there was one Stormcaller left in San Ignacio after all.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.