The New Year – 2016

 

Blog Segment - Peeking Through The Window copyYou know, typically, I’m not big on the whole New Year’s Resolutions thing. It has always felt a little bit weird to me to have a specific time of the year to say “Things are going to be different, now!” when that’s generally the sort of thing that I would assume we should be ready to do, and be serious about, on any given day. If anything, having a national holiday (kinda) for it makes me realize all the more how bad I am at keeping “resolutions.” Despite this, I find myself here about to write down a little bit of a wrap up for last year, and a look ahead to this one, with a little of resolve for solutions thrown in the mix. So let’s get started.

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Mass Effect 3 – The Review, The Endings, The Controversy


Hello, everybody! I know there are some of you out there who are really looking forward to the next post of the “New Canon” series, but there are some minor hurdles that need to be dealt with before we can post it. Not to worry, though! It’s day will come.

Until then, however, I can’t just let the blog lie fallow, and I have a topic of some interest to me I want to discuss. So let’s get to it, shall we?

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Just the other day I finished up Mass Effect 3. If you want to know my full and detailed feelings about the game, just click on over to my Review. It will come as little surprise that I loved the game immensely. However, on top of all the amazing experiences and emotions that game gave me, there is some sour as well. That sourness, the ending, is what I wish to discuss today. As much as anything else, this post is partially to sort out my feelings about the ending, as well as parse my thoughts on the surrounding controversy, the petitions, the “indoctrination theory,” all of it.

For those of you who think I’m going to be all rage and nonsense, I assure you that there are things I feel the ending did well. For those of you who think the ending is blameless…. Actually I really want to hear from you because I only hear from the ragers (this IS the internet), and I want your perspective too.

Oh, and it should be obvious by now, but there are going to be major spoilers incoming, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know ahead of time. Play it and come back. The discussion might help more people deal with it besides just me. At least that is my hope. So…

**********************SPOILER WARNING**********************


(Before we start, here are some details about my playthrough that my help contextualize the following material, though I will talk about all possible “Best” Endings – I played a Female Shepherd Paragon who only did Renegade Actions to save the lives of friends and innocents. My Shepherd romanced Liara and chose the “Synthesis” ending.)

I think it’s important to start out by talking about what the ending did well. Partially to remind myself that I do, in fact, love this game despite what I’m going to get into later.

The sacrificial element was well done. Beautiful even. The entire game talks about the costs of war, the price of peace, and the sacrifices and lives it takes to get through it all. Shepherd’s sacrifice to either control the reapers, or synthesize all organic and synthetic life was moving to me. I was literally in tears over it. If there was anyone who deserved that retirement, that joy in victory and life at the end of the game, it was my Shepherd. And she would never get it. The thought of all of Shepherds friends living on without her was heartbreaking, especially in Liara’s case (Shepherd will never get to see all the little blue children!).

Shepherd’s sacrifice was also built up to well, if a tad obviously. The growing sense of dread, desperation, and despair combined with the talks with all of her past crew-mates that felt very much like last good-byes, all pointed to a conclusion that wouldn’t see Shepherd alive on the other side. In this respect, at least, it seems like the developers were trying to bring closure to Shepherd’s story. You say your last good-byes and then go save he universe by sacrificing yourself. These little moments with her friends were touching to me.

Of all the endings, I feel that the best ending was the “Synthesis” ending. I’ll get into some of the specifics later, but part of the reason for me was that it touched on three things that I always like to see. First of all, I’m a sucker for stories about the plight of true AI. The idea of this new creation finding life and love, and yet being feared and despised because it isn’t a “real person” is always a touching story for me (I don’t know why, it just is). I also love things that tickle my imagination with the possibilities of a new and different future. And the last is the successful union of love over boundaries that might seem insurmountable. All of these things were addressed in the Synthesis ending.

Specifically, EDI and Joker are able to actually share a future together. In the simple “Control” ending, EDI and Joker, despite their relationship and survival, are still distant and separated by the boundaries of artificial life and the difficulty, no, impossibility of emotion. In the “Destroy” Ending, EDI isn’t even alive anymore. But in “Synthesis” there’s that magical moment when you see Joker’s glowing green irises and realize that Joker’s DNA has been rewritten into a new form of life. The synthesis of synthetic and organic. And then EDI emerges from the Normandy and immediately you can read the emotion on her face. Joker extends his hand to her with a smile and helps her out of the ship. They both shimmer with the newness of their beings, and they embrace lovingly on this garden planet.

Seeing EDI overcome the limitations of her synthetic design, to carry emotion, was a beautiful sight. Seeing Joker up and moving around (I think he may already be healing from his disease) and embracing EDI… well, If there was any one thing I enjoyed more about the ending, I don’t know what it is. And of course I want to know what the combination of these two forms of life mean for the Universe. How does this change things? I could speculate, but that isn’t what this post is for, and the possibilities are endless.
"Yeah, a synthetic/organic relationship. Whatcha gonna do bout it?"
Those are the things I like and love about the ending. Other things, not so much. Before I get into them, I think I should point you over to my Post on the Rough Writer’s Blog where I analyze the ending from the perspective of a writer and what I think went wrong from a technical point of view. I think that discussion really influences all of this, but I understand if some don’t want to go into the writer’s element specifically.

The most obvious problem from the endings, and I do want to emphasize that this affects all of them, is the lack of closure. The “good-bye” chats with the various crew members were good. No question. But they are a sad excuse for closure. I don’t know what happened to any of those people after the fight with the Reapers. None of them. I don’t even have hints to go off of. I don’t know what happened to the galaxy fleet. I don’t know what happened to all those people, or Admiral Hacket – Hell, I don’t even know what happened to Earth! I mean, I assume they survived and rebuilt, but I have little to base that off of. There are exactly three people I KNOW survived. Joker, EDI and Liara. But I’m left with questions there too.

It seems like they crash landed on some sort of alien garden world, so… How do they get off? I don’t think the Normandy is fast enough to get to another planet ahead of that green wave of energy, so that means they did a Mass Effect Relay jump trying to escape. In that case, doesn’t that mean they are stranded? All of the relays were destroyed by the energy. So are they stuck? Forever? Nobody is likely to get to them any time soon. And if you want closure, at the very least, on your Romance choice (assuming they didn’t die earlier in the game) well, you’re screwed. The only reason I know Liara survived was because she climbed out of the Normandy after EDI. Assuming they do get off the planet they are apparently stranded on, what happens to her? Does she ever have any little blue children from that one beautiful night with Shepherd before the last mission?

There are so many questions. What happens to the rest of the galaxy? What happens now that everyone is cut off from everybody else due to the loss of Mass Effect Relays? Where are the Reapers going now, anyway?

The idea that the Normandy crew is stranded, and what happened to Liara, are my biggest issues with the lack of clarity. A lot of the other things don’t have to be explained. It is important as a writer to hold some things back to keep the audience invested in the world long after the end. But these are gaping black holes of depression that need to be filled. If we don’t assume that they are somehow magically saved, the Normandy crew are doomed to a life of isolation and starvation in at least a portion of the crew.

But those are just the obvious issues. Then you get into the plot holes.

How exactly was Liara able to get back on the Normandy when she was down on Earth with me during the final push? Why didn’t the destroyed Mass Effect Relays destroy all life in the galaxy (It’s been established that blowing one up destroys all life in a system)? Why did the pistol have unlimited ammo just before Shepherd went up in the beam to the Citadel? Why was the citadel so different from how they remembered it? How did the Illusive Man get there too? How was Shepherd able to breathe when he was with the Catalyst? Why did the Catalyst look like the little boy who died on Earth at the start of the game?

Let me make something clear before I continue. I have no real issue with “Space Magic” or “handwavium,” or whatever you want to call it. Hard Science Fiction is cool and all, but I prefer good drama to good science. So I don’t consider the “Synthesis” option’s impossible science (as far as we know) to be a plot hole. Same with the “Control” option’s ability to maker the Reapers just sort of fly away. The “Destroy” option, however, is problematic.

In the “Destroy” option, why does the Crucible destroy all synthetic life? How would it not also destroy all technology if it was that far reaching? If so, doesn’t this option reduce everyone to the bronze age again? Furthermore, it implies that Shepherd is still alive somehow. Since we witness the destruction of the Citadel, and it looks like Shepherd is on Earth, how does she survive the fall through the Earth’s atmosphere? She’s not Master Chief, and even if she rode some piece of the citadel through the atmosphere, the crash at the ground would surely have killed her. If some part of the citadel survived and was floating in space, assuming she somehow has atmosphere, doesn’t she now die a slow death there? Remember that the “Destroy” option has eliminated technology, so how is anyone supposed to get to her?

So, now that I’ve finished the game, and there are all of these unresolved issues, I find myself aghast that I have to ask the question: “Did I win?”

I mean, I saw the credits. There was even a bland after-the-credits sequence that rubs the fact that what happened was fiction in my face (another issue), but I still don’t know if I actually won anything. As far as I know, everyone died. Most died fighting the Reapers, some died stranded on a planet, For all I know, Earth is stuck in the bronze age with the remains of a galaxy fleet falling from the sky, and Shepherd died, for what?

Did. I. Win. I’m shocked that I don’t know the answer at the end of the game. Everything I love about the ending is possibly invalidated by this singular problem. Did I win? Was there any way to win? Was the whole point from the developers to say that no matter what, Shepherd loses? I don’t know. And looking over everything, this is why I still feel so upset. Why so many people are upset.

This of course is the source of the “Indoctrination Theory” that has sprung up in response. What this theory states, is that the end of Mass Effect 3 was an indoctrination dream. The scene in the “Destroy” ending when Shepherd appears to wake up, actually happened right after getting shot by the Reaper (Harbringer, by the way) before going up the beam to the Citadel. Everything between getting shot and waking up in that ending was a dream sequence.

What shocks me most is how much this makes sense. A lot of the plot holes of the ending are explained by this. The dream-like walk to the beam. The way Anderson is always miraculously slightly ahead of you in the Citadel. The whispers. The appearance of the Catalyst as the boy from the beginning of the game. The sudden switch of priorities from killing the Reapers to letting them live. A lot of the “space magic” plays into this too. If you want to read or watch good analysis of why this might be real, a quick google search will reveal the best laid conspiracy theories about it.

I find it sad that this ending is the most compelling to me. It’s probably more sad that I hope it’s true. The mere prospect of DLC that actually does a better job of ending the series has me salivating. Here, Bioware, take my money! But if this were true, it would be a lousy move on the part of the Developer. Ending the game with a “fake” cluster of endings is like pulling a prank on your customers. And DLC won’t save people without internet access, immediately solidifying a large portion of the player base away from any sort of closure. If this is true, and was planned, then it was a really crappy move.

But that’s why I think there’s no way the theory is correct. I simply think the writers at Boware made some dumb choices and mistakes. It happens. Writers screw up. Believing the Indoctrination theory is reading too much into it.

So we’re stuck with the endings we have, flaws in all. Or are we? Right now there are petitions going on, and organized movements to plead with Bioware to change the endings by providing DLC revisions. Initially I thought these efforts were stupid and misguided. Trying to get a company to change its product through a petition? Silly. What right do these people have to ask for something like this?

But I looked into it further and I’ve changed rather drastically on the issue. First of all, after examining the endings closely, there is no doubt that the fans are right to feel betrayed by them. This Article from GameFront examines why, and talks about many of the same things I’ve mentioned here. Furthermore, the petition isn’t just a bunch of ragers and entitled kids. The petition they’ve begun is also a drive for charity. You can read up on them in this Forum Post and see their progress (over 23k raised as of this writing) Here. I’m so impressed at the level of respect and dedication of the group that I donated a bit myself. Even if nothing is ever done, at least the children get helped out.

Do I think it’ll work? No. Not really. But I think there is one way I might get something out of it. There might be some way for one of the future DLC packs to at least have some kind of “Afterwards.” Something that shows that Shepherd’s choices throughout the game mattered. That people were actually saved. That the Normandy crew was rescued. That Shepherd won.

I cannot express how badly I want this.

Now as for whether Bioware “has to change it” or not – No. Of course they don’t “have to.” Even with its heavy flaws, it is their game, and they don’t have to do anything. But should they? I think so. Their audience has put substantial investment in this series. Not just emotional, though certainly that, but financial as well. These are the people who have gone out and bought it day one. These are the people who buy the merchandise. These are the people who tell their friends, their family, heck probably even their enemies and complete strangers to go and buy this game.

Does Bioware “Owe” this player base something? This is a question whose answer relies on your view of the relationship between the customer and the producer, or the recipient and the artist, or, as I talk about at the Rough Writer’s Blog, the audience and the writer.

The fact is, the process is a two-way street. The customer gives up money in exchange of a product that will keep its promises as advertised. This is easy to discern in a physical product. A toaster that doesn’t toast is a breech of that contract between buyer and maker. A disc that doesn’t play music is a breech between a production company and the listener. The path forward is clear. The producer, the maker, must make amends.
Let's all dream together. ... Of what might be...
When it comes to the more abstract promises, however, in terms of story or quality, things become dicier. There is no question that Bioware broke the promises of its story, but these are abstract promises. So should they “Owe” their audience for it? Should they make amends?

I say “yes.” And the reason why I say so is because that the demand of the maker, the publisher, the producer is in itself becoming more abstract. They demand more than money. They demand mindshare. They demand control over the products they sell. They demand strict DRM and invade the social space of our lives. If companies are allowed to make abstract demands on their audience, then the same may be demanded the other way.

Of course, the demands both ways, being abstract, also mean that there are no legal demands that may be made. Bioware doesn’t have to do anything. They probably should do something, but “have to” goes too far.

For one additional look at the problems of the ending in video commentary format, here’s a guy who puts the heart of the matter in a very concise and clear way:

Now, since the reader is asked to fill in so many of the blanks. I figured I might as well give you my personal rosy and cheery ending, in which I filled in a number of holes according to my own preferences.

It may not be right, but it helps me sleep at night.
Ahem…

When Shepherd Sacrificed herself to synthesize synthetic and organic life, the process evolved life to a higher plane of existence. The basic necessities of life are minimal for these new heavenly beings. While they can enjoy food and water and such, they no longer require it. The Normandy crew, now being immortals are eventually rescued. And go on to live happy lives. Liara has a daughter whom she raises on the stories of her other mother, Nova Shepherd (my Shepherd). The combined galaxy fleet begin the long FTL flight home, but are able to make it within the next few decades with little issues due to their new immortal state. Living as elevated beings, they continue to get along in peace and harmony FOREVER.

SO THERE!

The fact that I have to say this to myself to make the ending bearable says something, I think (and not just about me, to all you smart alecks.)

Here’s hoping Bioware listens.

Edward L. Cheever II

P.S. To those of you who think I may be too down on Mass Effect 3, keep in mind that I love the game until the final 10 minutes. It’s one of the best series of all time, in any medium. I love Mass Effect. Please go read My Review to find out.

The Demise of the Summer Writing Challenge and the Return of D&D


So. I’ve pretty much completely dropped the ball on the summer writing challenge for the Rough Writers. I mean, sure, I’ve done some writing. I’ve done a lot of writing, when you count everything I do for the paper especially, but not only is it almost certainly not enough to really have pushed be toward the 45,000 word count goal (all the stories are short), but I haven’t been writing on what I’ve really wanted to work on, namely “Jaine” and this blog.

I take some solace in the fact that I now know the ending and plot progression for Jaine, but mostly I’m just mad at myself for not scrounging a little more time to dedicate to writing. There are lots of things I’ve meant to do. I’ve meant to write a blog about the educational bill here in texas. I’ve meant to write reviews for Kung Fu Panda 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 4, etc. I still plan to, though I’m a bit behind the curve on all counts. But making myself sit down and do it has been an issue lately.

I was told by a friend that working at a paper can suck your life away. What’s interesting is that it has, but not in the way I was expecting. It takes a lot of energy out of my creative and mental processes. The stress and responsibilities involved, while not anything like overwhelming, are enough that when I don’t have work or sleep, I have very little motivation or energy to do anything more strenuous than play video games.

That’s a bit disingenuous, I know. It’s an excuse. It’s something I could learn to cope with. But at the moment, it’s what’s been happening. I work, eat, sleep and play video games with friends.

That’s not to say I’m not shaking things up a bit, or that I don’t have any idea about how to turn this around. The biggest part is learning to budget my game playing time and my sleep time. I’ve made the commitment in the past to a hard bed time hour and it really helped. But, like most things of a scheduled nature, I fell off the bandwagon. But, if I could get back to forcing myself to be in bed by 1 a.m., not getting ready or taking a shower, but actually in bed, then I think my stress levels would ease off, and I would be able to get things done during the day. As it is, I’m barely functioning till about 5 p.m. every day. Being able to wake up and function would help with work, but it’d also help with my writing. when I’m not covering a story I could be jotting down my most recent review, or drafting some dialogue in Jaine.

Of course getting to sleep on time every night is a good start, but actually making myself write stuff is going to be something of a challenge too. As I’ve said, I already do a lot of writing for the paper, and even though I may be very much interested in the stories I would like to tell, the idea of sitting down and typing something out feels like a chore. It always has, but now that it’s associated with work it is doubly so. Why would I spend all day at work typing only to come home and do some more typing? At least that’s how the internal lazy-logic goes.

So Laaaaaaaaazzzzzyyyyy


What’ll be ironic is if I still somehow manage to complete the writing challenge despite this posts’ title.

Eh, but I’ve harped on this for too long, so on to the good news. That being that I’m already cutting back on video game time by getting myself involved in other stuff, namely the return of my D&D game.

Followers of my blog know that I had been running a D&D game with Katie and a couple of friends for a while, and when I mean a couple of friends I mean a “couple” of friends. and so when that “couple” became uncoupled, well it threw a wrench into the semi-weekly game sessions. This was something that we all regretted, as we loved our game, but what could we do, really? And certainly me and Katie weren’t going to try and force them to be around each other while things were bad. So the game went on hiatus for a while. And when I say a while I mean quite a few months. It feels like forever since we’ve last played.

But things are changing. I won’t pretend to know what’s going on between those two friends of mine, but regardless, they’ve managed to hang out together again amicably, and without it getting too weird. Are they getting back together? I have no clue. Are they simply accepting a “just friends” approach? *Shrug* Either way, they both requested that we begin the game up again, so that’s just what I’m doing. I’ve gone over my notes. I’ve gathered up my materials. I’ve built some encounters and drawn some maps, and this monday evening we jump back into the fray.

It has been too long. I can’t wait. ^_^

Time to break out the good ol' dice!


I think I’ve yammered on too long. I’ll leave all the possible blogs and reviews I’ve mentioned above till another time. I hope to start updating more regularly, even if the blog posts start getting really short (as if.) Until next time!

– Edward L. Cheever II

Thor is Hiring Writers in the League of Legends


It has been what feels like ages since I last wrote on my poor lonely blog. Not that I don’t have reasons mind, and I know what you’re thinking, “excuses, excuses…” and you’re right, I should have still found the time to post a tib-bit here or there. Well, here’s to a renewal, eh?

So what exactly have I been up to these past few weeks or so? Mostly, a new job. Yup, folks. I now have a real-world job. I’m still more or less on call for SWAU media, and I hope I’ll have time to help tutor in the Write Spot next semester, but for now I’m working as a staff writer at the Burleson Star, one of the star group newspapers who cover a bunch of cities in north Texas.

I cover the hardest hitting stories, my peeps.


I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the idea of getting out there and getting a real job. I suppose I always had visions of the world being a solidly ugly place where, once you left your comfort zone, you’d be lucky to land a job where everybody just ignored you, and if you were unlucky you were surrounded by incompetent jerks.

Thankfully that is not the case. My boss is great to work with, and doesn’t make me feel like I’m being scrutinized for a deficiency in some vital area, as I have at a job or two on campus. I have some funny coworkers, and while they aren’t the type I really care to hang out with all the time, they’re cool to work with. One guy even helped me find my way around on my first assignment. The only person I feel uncomfortable around in the entire building I don’t see often, and my interaction with him would be minimal anyway (he is way above me in hierarchy, for instance.)

In wind and foul weather!


The work itself is mostly in my wheelhouse. The writing part is more or less easy. Time consuming, sure, but not a challenge. The real challenge comes in attending events. Anybody who knows me off the internet knows I am an introvert around anyone who isn’t a friend of mine (and sometimes I’m introverted around them as well.) So, getting into the reporter mind-set, where you’ve got to sort of be a loud and obnoxious, push-to-the-front type of person, who isn’t afraid to jump into conversations and introduce yourself… well, I find that a tad difficult. I’m managing, of course, but it’s a learning experience.

It seems to require the same mental muscles I exercised when acting as Tartuffe in Tartuffe last year. I’m not sure what that says about the reporting business, or what it says about me. Maybe I don’t want to know? O.o

Aside from that, I’ve been utterly absorbed into League of Legends. and it is times like this when my mental faculties fail me, as I can’t remember if I’ve ever discussed my latest obsession here. Simply put, it’s a free-to-play mostly top-down strategy-like game that is centered around team competition. Each team has a base located in a corner of the map called a Nexus, and that Nexus is connected to a series of three lanes that lead around the map to the enemy’s base. Each team also has three massive towers that guard these lanes, and AI controlled waves of minions that spawn from the nexus and proceed up the lanes. The players control special hero units with special powers and abilities, and the heroes’ jobs are to turn the tide of the battle and push all the way to the opponent’s base and destroy the nexus.

It’s a simple game on the surface, but there are all sorts of nuances that are introduced by the differences between heroes, and the ways that items, purchased within each game, can affect the strengths of a hero. Trust me when I say that a newbie would be eaten alive by anybody of high level. Trying out heroes, and getting your item build just right, not to mention the adrenaline of competitive play, are extremely addicting. This, combined with long game times, means that much of my days are swallowed whole by this game.

I’m hoping to turn this around, however, and bring some balance back to the force by cutting back on my league of legends play so I can get back to reading some books I’ve borrowed, and hopefully even finish Red Dead Redemption (I’ve been stuck in Mexico forever, and yes, there are some striking issues with the storytelling and consistency of John Marston’s character in those sections.)

On top of that, I’ve really got to get my life in order so I can be ready for the Rough Writer’s summer challenge coming up in a few days.

*scribble*scribble*

Starting the 15th of May through the 15th of June all participants are going to try and write 45,000 words, or 1,500 words a day. I haven’t even put any thought into the outline of the rest of Jaine yet. *SIGH* The work is never done.

All in all, life has been pretty pleasant. I’ve even been able to go and see some pretty great movies as of late. In fact, I think I’ll finish today’s post with a link to my latest movie review.

Son of Odin, lightning it up.

This one is for Thor. Go read it, and have a great day, everybody. I’ll try to be back around more often.

– Edward L. Cheever II~

Secret

Hey everybody, I’ve been staying busy by doing a lot of creative writing, and while I know that just breaks your hearts that i haven’t been giving you the attention you deserve, I’ve brought the fruits of my labor to share with you as a peace offering. This here story is set in the same world as my fantasy book series (Ancient Conflict) that I have been writing on for years, and it is my first attempt at writing fantasy short fiction. Hope you enjoy!

    Secret

Jaban watched the smoke from the small fire curl and flow like the currents of the Iemere River, up the small stone chimney where it streams into the night spring air, still crest by a wintry chill. But warmth filled their little hut, and thatch kept out the drafts and the final winter tide.

“The plagues have been devastating to the herd , my love.”

Jaban shivered, “I know,” he growled.

“Growl all you wish, but not at me.” His wife slipped around in front of him and eased down to his side. Kaellen was robed in the softest dark-brown wool, a match for her luxurious fur, and a counterpoint to the sharpness of her eyes. He turned aside and his gaze trailed along her short snout, and the soft curve of her nose. His arms encircled her waist from where he sat and he sighed, returning his gaze to her’s. The strength of her will drew him to her in the first place, and as he looked into her unflinching eyes, he knew they would draw him anywhere.

“Tomorrow,” He said. “Tomorrow I will go.”

Her eyes softened then, the hard lines around her eyes smoothed and relaxed like water over earth. “Do not be so hard, my love,” she said. “The hunt is the way of our ancestors.”

“And we left it for fields and pastures; sheep, goats and peace.”

“There is a peace in the hunt.”

Jaban’s forehead drew down, his eyes hidden in himself, “There is also peace in death.”

Kaellen growled sharply and twisted his nose. His lips pulled back in pain, and surprise.

“Stop drawing up the well,” she barked, “You are doing this so our family will survive.” His hand brushed over the bulge of her belly as she spoke, and he felt his throat thicken. “I’m not asking you to chase down the deer with your teeth and claws, or drink the blood and gore as from a vineyard,” she said. “You are an excellent shot with the bow.”

“My bow is brittle and cracking,” he mumbled.

“Then make a new one. We aren’t even much more than half a day’s travel from the nearest wood.”

His ears drooped into the long shaggy hair over his head, “There aren’t many good trees in that wood for bow staves.” It was true, but still they both knew he was making excuses now.

Kaellen folded her arms before her and watched him.

“Very well. I said tomorrow, didn’t I? I’ll be to the wood and back with the makings of a bow before nightfall. Will that suffice?”

She gave a wolfish grin and licked his ear, “It will, at that. Now come to bed.”

“I will shortly. Just give me a moment to think.”

She sighed into his neck fur, “Very well. But I will not find you here tomorrow morning.”

“No, my love.”

“Goodnight, my dearest.” She slid off of him then, trailing her fingers along his shoulders as she left to their bedroom.

The fire fell slowly, the red and gold glint of its light playing on the surface of Jaban’s eyes as he stared into the embers. His thoughts turned over his unborn son and his wife, and the dying herds that were their world. He glanced up to the Shakan stick above the fireplace. Perfectly straight and balanced, its hardened and smoothed shaft glowed in the light of the last embers. The names of his forefathers and mothers carved in an intricate spiral down its haft. It’s arrow-sharp points at both ends almost invisible in the dark, even to his sharp eyes. It had been six generations since the Shakan stick had been used as anything more than a decoration; a symbol for ceremony. Tales of the hunts and battles of his ancestors were last told by his grandfather, before he died. His father was no storyteller. Neither was he.

The red of the embers receded out of sight beneath the ash into little pools, further buried in earth before Jaban stood and turned to bed.

—-

The next morning a stranger approached their small home. He was a human, dressed in dark brown wanderer’s clothes that seemed black in the shadows of his cloak. He had a weathered face and deep sunken eyes over a grin that spoke of knowledge well hidden.

“Hello, good herdsmen!” He called out, “May I trouble you for a bite to eat and a brief rest for my weary feet?”

“Bring him in, but be sure to find out if he is safe first,” Kaellen said.

“Find out if he’s safe?” Jaban asked. “If he isn’t safe, then not being hospitable would be worse than offering him help. I will watch him, but the secrets of strangers are their own. He can keep them.”

So Jaban welcomed the man into their home. The man scrapped his boots at the door and entered with a friendly nod. “Thank you, kind folk. That aren’t many who let strangers into their house in these harsh times on the plains.”

“We are happy to help,” insisted Kaellen, “Please join us for breakfast.”

“Again, thank you.”

They directed him towards a seat at their dinner table, and as they left him, Jaban could feel a swirl and pull of silence; as if there were undercurrents in the air that whispered and murmured of mysteries. An urge washed over him to ask the man where he was from, where he was going, what was his name, but he fought it down and followed his wife to their small kitchen.

Kaellen and Jaban worked together over the breakfast, as was their morning custom, until they brought plates piled high with breads, eggs and the produce of the land. Warm goats milk and smoked meat from the last of the herd they could spare for the table. A few small apples from the tree outside. A simple meal, but a generous meal; one they both knew they could not truly afford.

The food disappeared quickly, leaving only warms smells as memory, and It was not long before the man wiped his chin with the cloth and sighed, “That is quite possibly the best meal I have ever had. You are remarkable hosts.”

“It is our pleasure, stranger,” said Kaellen, “feel free to come by our home again on your return journey.”

“Ah no,” said the man, “Where I have been, I never return. I am a wanderer through and through. And now I must be off, again.” He rose from the table and dusted the last crumbs from his shirt.

Jaban showed him to the door but the man beckoned him to come outside and speak with him for a moment. Jaban followed, and they walked a small distance from the house.

“You do not ask my intent. You do not ask my name, my path or my destination,” said the man. “You are a most interesting people.”

“We are what we are,” replied Jaban.

“Aren’t we all,” chuckled the stranger. “And you, Jaban of the Harn Clan of the Shaunea, an ancient people. A spiritual people of respect and simple honor.”

Jaban stopped. “You seem to know a great deal.”

“Haha!” the man laughed, “even when you are shaken you respect the secrets of others. Truly there is none like you. Yes, I know many things.”

“Including my name,” said Jaban.

The man smiled his smile, “I will leave you and your family in peace. But first, in exchange for the respect you show secrets, a gift; a portion of my knowledge,” he drew a breath, “Let me tell you of secrets.”

He held forth his hand, “A secret is the unknown. What do I hold in my hand? You cannot tell, for you cannot hear it, smell it, taste it or see it, but it is there. So long as I hold my fingers closed, it will remain so. It is gold. No, it is coral of the sea. Hardly, it is the wool of the beasts of the far winters. I hold the third eye of the Jen. No, it is the smoke of the Black Mountain. I hold the salvation of worlds.

But you do not know, for it is a secret. A secret is magic. Powerful magic. It gives value to the valueless, it makes the undesired desirable, and the weak are given strength. There is nothing more dangerous than a secret,” He paused, then opened his hand. Rich dark earth spilled from his palm, and flowed upon the ground like water from a sieve as he spoke, “A secret revealed is nothing more than soil. It is the ground on which we stand, and the source of our sustenance, but how can one desire the earth beneath you feet? And yet…” He dug his fingers into the earth still spilling from his hand and pulled out a diamond. “…even secrets exposed to light can hold further secrets within.” He opened his mouth and threw the jewel back like a small piece of fruit and swallowed it. “Curiosity is the lover of Secret, but she can never have him, for if she would, he would cease to be of value to her. You are not of her, but you hold no secrets in your heart; you are not one of mine.

“Beware the danger of secrets.” He reached into his cloak and pulled out a round rock-like egg. “Men who hold secrets are the eggs of the Thur lizard. They are hard as rock, unpliable and hide their delicacies within.” He removed a stone from his cloak, “But secrets can be broken.” He took the stone and smashed it hard into the egg. The force of the blow crushed it, sending chips and golden flecks flying.

The man stared into Jaban’s amazed eyes, “Look and know…” He held out the hand clutching the stone and unfurled his fingers where the stone lay shattered on his palm. “…the danger of secrets. See you well.”

With a turn, the man disappeared into the air, leaving only the fresh dirt at Jaban’s feet to speak of his presence.

—-

Jaban returned to his home and prepared for his journey to the wood. He hurried, for he had already lost needed hours of the day if he were to return by nightfall. He tried to keep his mind from the strange words the man had said, but they tumbled through his mind like pebbles in a stream.

“You are distracted, my dear,” said his Kaellen, “What is the matter.”

“It is nothing, my love,” replied Jaban.

Kaellen watched him carefully and worried.

When the last bag was packed, he shod himself at the door and stood. Pulling the last bag over his shoulder Jaban turned to Kaelen, “Are you certain that you will be able to handle the flocks today?”

“There are not enough sheep and goats left to give me trouble. Besides,” she grinned and rubbed her growing stomach, “I’ll have some company.”

With a soft kiss and the touch of noses, Jaban said his farewell and left.

—-

The land was a rolling wave; hills rose, crested and flowed down again into pools of thick green grass and flowers secreted away from unfriendly winds. These grassy waves flowed across the entire landscape and beneath Jaban’s feet until they came crashing to the shore of the Iemere River where they lapped at the smooth waters.

Jaban followed the river northward as the sun crawled the sky.
The sight of the wood came as he crested the last hill before the short plains of Holl and the farther Jinen Forest. The wood was large, dark and deep. No mere scattering of trees, but a thick holding of trunks, leaves and brush that filled this side of the plain for several miles. Jaban set camp at the base of the hill by the river, eating a quick meal before striding amongst the trees.

The making of the bow was well know to Jaban, who had been taught by his father’s father, a master of the craft. Thoughts of his old bow flit through his mind, and the many awards the bow and his sharp eyes had won at festivals and celebrations in town. Never had it been used on the hunt. It hadn’t been needed. It was against his traditions. But even tradition bends knee to necessity.

His eyes searched the trees carefully. Some trees might make simple bows for simple uses, but these he did not know. He searched for the wood he knew, the Western Yew, and though it was uncommon in these lands it was the finest wood to use for a bow. He passed pine trees, fir trees, larch trees. He wandered deep and broad. He found a grandfatherly yew, larger around than Jaban’s shoulders and over four times as tall, but he passed it, for though the Shaunea race are strong he was but one, desiring to make one lone bow, and he would not destroy the pride of so mighty a tree for so little, nor would he be strong enough to haul such a tree home by himself.

His search took much of the day, for there was much ground to cover, but as the sun descended towards the horizon, and the light through the trees became deeper yellow, speaking of the orange and purple display to come, Jaban heard a soft whistle on the wind, warbling and dancing like no bird he had ever heard. It hopped, twirled an jigged in his ears and he followed it. The sound grew till he recognized it for the music of a pipe.

Like a curtain pulled aside for the sunlight, the trees opened into a tiny clearing. It was no more than fifteen forwards round, and near the edge, on the far side stood the perfect yew tree. It was very young, only about twenty feet tall with branches stretching high and wide.

Laying beneath those branches, blowing a merry tune on a pan-pipe was a human youth clad in clothes of leafy greens and browns. He wore a green cap with yew berries in its brim over a smiling friendly face.

The man lay his pipes on his chest, “Ho there, traveler!” he greeted, “It s a fine afternoon to be traveling so deep into these woods, is it not?”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Jaban said. “But I cannot stay long. If you could please move, I must be about my business.”

The man’s eyes darted to the the ax Jaban wore and the smile in his eyes faded, though the one on his face did not. “Business,” he repeated. “Well, good traveler, you will have to excuse me as I do not find myself inclined much to be moving today.”

Jaban frowned, “I don’t mean to trouble you, but I will not leave without that tree.”

“Well,” said the man, “If you must stay, then feel free to linger and listen to my pipes for so however long you please.” He put the pipes back to his lips and began to play.

Jaban stared at the man and rubbed his hair and ears back with his hands in frustration, “Will you please move? I must finish here and be away before nightfall.”

The man continued to play, but his eyes watched Jaban carefully.

Jaban breathed heavily and drew his ax from its loop. He made to go around to the far side of the tree, thinking that if he began chopping it down the man would move. But as he neared the far side of the tree the little man leaped up and ran to stand between the limbs and Jaban’s ax, all the while playing his tune.

Jaban kept walking, once again to go to another side of the tree, but the man followed, stepping between him and the tree all the way. Jaban turned suddenly and ran around in the other direction, but the man was swift and beat him there. So Jaban turned suddenly again but the man was there. He faked a return and then ran again, but the man kept with him at every move, his tune growing more frantic and warbling. The man’s eyes were wide and his face sweat, but Jaban saw determination writ in every line of his face.

Jaban felt like a child, playing silly running games around this tree. He clenched his teeth in anger and felt his nose warm with embarrassment, “What is this tree to you? Why won’t you let me to it?”

“It is what it is,” replied the man.

“And it is what?”

“Shade. A place to lay down beneath welcoming branches.”

“Look around you, man,” growled Jaban, “You are in a forest, are you not? There are thousands of other trees from which to find shade, but this is the only tree I have found for my bow.”

“This tree makes for me better shade than it would you for your bow,” He shrugged and went back to playing his pipes.

Jaban walked away a few steps and paced back and forth, glancing from his ax to the tree to the man while growling and breathing heavily. Finally he walked up to a nearby pine and took a great chop at it with a yell, then yanked it back out and slung it in its loop.

“There must be another yew tree in this forest,” He said harshly before striding away from the clearing. The music of the pipes chasing him all the way.

—-

Jaban searched until the light was just barely enough to see his way out of the forest before heading back. Through all his searching he found no other yew trees that would work to his purpose. In anger he settled in to his camp, ate a simple dinner and fell asleep on his pallet. His last thoughts were of his wife and home, and regret that he couldn’t be there before nightfall.

—-

The next day he returned, hopeful that the man had left, but before he reached the clearing he heard again the sounds of the pan-pipes. The man was playing the same merry tune Jaban remembered from the day before while swaying slowly with his eyes closed.

Jaban took a breath and called out, “Ho there!”

The man’s eyes opened. “Hello again, traveler. Not yet done with your business, I see.”

“I have to feed my family,” said Jaban. “I will not be able to if I do not complete my business.”

“That is a shame,” said the man who then returned to playing his pipes.

Jaban snarled and strode forward, “Have you no heart, man?”

The man paused playing briefly, “No.”

“What is it worth to you, this tree? I am not a rich man. In many ways I am a poor man, but I am capable. Is there anything I could do in exchange for letting me at this tree?”

The man closed his eyes and continued playing.

“There must be some price. Anything. Ask any task of me anything and I will see if I can accomplish it.”

The man ignored him.

Jaban’s shoulders fell and he left the wood. He thought of his home and his quiet herds and pastures. It did not take long to pack up camp. He had not wanted to make the bow in the first place.

—-

It took him until the late afternoon before he reached his home. Kaellen had just brought in their few sheep after a brief day in the pastures, and she was not pleased to find him without a tree. After he explained what had happened she was not satisfied.

“There must be some way to remove the man.”

“My love, I tried. He would not listen to reason, and he would not hear my appeals for our livelihood.”

She leaned in close, “His reasons do not matter. Yours do. He may not care for our family, but you do.” She placed his hand on her stomach and he could feel the slightest of kicks, the life of his soon-born babe. “Think of us, go back and do what you must.”

—-

Jaban hid from the sun’s greeting the next morning, and only Kaellen’s glares were enough to pry his from the bedsheets. He packed slowly, and savored his breakfast till there was nothing left to savor in it. As he left the house with leaden footsteps he looked back to his wife, who watched him from the doorway, leaning against it with one raise arm. Worry creased the features of her face, and he saw her holding her swollen belly, their child, with her other hand. He straightened, readjusted his pack, took a deep breath and strode away, determination in his steps.

He arrived at the wood again in the early afternoon, and it was not long before he had camp set at the base of the hill. Foregoing lunch, he slipped the ax haft through its loop, surveyed the camp once more and then turned into to the wood.

He knew the way well enough, but as he neared he felt the heaviness in his feet return, and the determination he had begun with slipping away. He was nearly within sight of the clearing when he slowed to a halt. The birds twittered overhead as he stood there for many moments, thinking to himself and trying to shore up the will he would need, but nothing came. The thought came to him that perhaps he had not searched the woods long enough. Surely there were other good yew trees. He had just missed them. With that thought he turned from the clearing and set to searching the forest.

The second time through was as unfruitful as the first. Jaban searched haphazardly with little care for where he went except that it was not toward the clearing. By the time the sun began its decent he had given up his search in the southern half of the wood, and resolved to look in the farther north. There he saw many strange trees, none of which were of the good yew he searched for. There were twisted yew, not straight enough for a bow, there were grand old yew, too wide and heavy, and there were young yew, saplings only, and then he was on the far side of the forest, looking out across the Holl Plains to the far distant expanse that was the Jinen forests, a green and blue mat stretched across the horizon’s edge. To his left the sun leaned down, arms outstretched to pull the sheets of earth over its head for sleep.

He walked back to camp quickly, knowing that his time spent wandering the trees would mean walking through half the wood in twilight and darkness. With some surprise he emerged into the clearing on the far side, standing not far away from the man and his tree.

“Ho traveler!” greeted the green clad human youth. “A fine evening for a walk in the wood.”

Jaban stared at him.

“Care to stay and listen for a while? I was just about to play my pipes in farewell to the sun and in greeting to the stars.”

Jaban cleared his throat, for it had gone dry, “No I will not, I must get back to my camp before nightfall.”

“That is a shame, traveler. I always appreciate good listeners when I play.”

“Then why don’t you play in a city? Or perhaps a village? Even traveling farm to farm for a night’s rest would provide you more ears than this.”

“What better audience than the earth, the sky and all between?” The man smiled “And these trees could not follow me to the city; I will not leave them without the serenade of my pipes.” He then began to play a sweet farewell to the sun.

Jaban left before the greeting of the night sky. It would greet him soon enough, and he meant to be nearer his camp before then.

—-

Jaban woke to the feel of rain on the wind, and the smell of it in the air. One of the southern rainstorms was coming on fast, and he could just make out distant clouds of gray and blue. It took him little time to take down his camp and set up again on a small rise beneath the trees several hundred forwards into the wood. He did not bother to set the fire, instead eating a small selection of uncooked vegetables and dried fruit with a sliver of smoked goat meat. Just before the first drizzles began he pulled up the flap to his tent and slipped inside, thankful for the oiled rainslip he had brought to cover the tent.

Even under the trees the wind picked up till it howled and rain poured down through the limbs and leaves to swamp the landscape. Jaban listened long to the twisting whipping trees and the occasional distant crack of limbs in compliment to the crash and boom of the thunder and lightning that briefly would light through the roof of his tent.

Even on this little hill it wold not take long for the water to find its way inside. Rainstorms have a way of breaking through the defenses of any tent, no matter how well made, and Jaban new that no one is a fool who respects the danger of storms.

And with that thought, Jaban’s eyes widened and a grin took over his face. He scrambled to take his oiled cloak from inside the pack and wrapped himself with it before untying the flap of his tent and stepping through.

All was a deep blue chaos. The trees above bent over to him as if protecting him like a child from the heavy blows of the sky father. The rain fell through their limbs like tears and abused him hard. Even with his cloak it wasn’t long before his face and legs were soaked. He kept the ax at his side, well hidden under the fabric.

It took him some time to find his way through the wildness of the wood, so unrecognizable in the wet darkness. After a goodly time he emerged into the clearing. It was covered with thick pools and streams of water, and the dancing splashes of a multitude of raindrops, making the ground seems alive and pulsing. He could just make out through the curtains the yew tree at the far side.

As he approached his heart dropped into his boots as he heard a song coming from beneath the branches of the tree:

After many days of dry,
And no loving from the sky,
The gift of clouds, oh rain, sweet rain to me

Sweet rain to me, sweet rain to me,
Father sky, the gift of clouds,
Sweet rain to me, sweet rain to me

Our lips were parched as bone,
Our thirst was sharp and honed,
And our leaves were as cracked as the dirt.

As the dirt, as the dirt,
As the dirt, father sky,
And our leaves were as cracked as the dirt.

Sweet rain to me, sweet rain to me,
Father sky, the gift of clouds,
Sweet rain to me, sweet rain to me

Oh, I gave up hope for life,
And with desperation rife,
Sky hear my pleas! Oh rain, sweet rain to me!

Sweet rain to me, sweet rain to me,
Father sky, the gift of clouds,
Sweet rain to me, sweet rain to me

After many days of dry,
And no loving from the sky,
The gift of clouds, oh rain, sweet rain to me

Jaban listened until the man began the song again then left. He strode alone through the trees, which swayed from the sky to the earth and back as desperate men catching water to spread over a fire too large. Jaban felt he was being drowned in it.

It took longer to find his tent again, for his thoughts were far away. He hoped the storms had not bothered his wife overmuch. He crawled into his tent and lay down fully clothed, fully wet. Sleep did not come easily that night.

—-

The next morning, Jaban woke up cold and damp with a pulsing pain between his ears. The bright sunlight streaming through the trees did not quell his growing anger, and his breaths swelled in time with the ache in his head. It built all morning as he moved his camp back to his spot on the hill, and spiked as the wet wood spoiled his hopes for a warm breakfast. The ground was finally beginning to firm and the sun passed its zenith when Jaban grabbed his ax and strode heavily into the wood.

As he walked his legs swung faster, his arms pumping at his sides as if to beat his way through the trees. He was a sharp contrast to the grateful calm of the land around him. The dancing beams of sunlight dappled his fur, and birds sang softly on tree limbs above, with glistening drops clinging to the underside leaves. He did not see anything but the blood framing the path before him until he stood in the too familiar clearing.

“Ho traveler!” called the man cheerfully, “Is this not a fine day?”

Jaban snarled. Some part of him that still had sense caused him to throw his ax aside before hurling himself at the small green clad youth. The smile dropped from the human’s face and he set his feet firmly. Jaban smiled viciously that the human thought he could match the strength of a Shaunea, but when Jaban grabbed the man to throw him he could not. It was as if the man was rooted to the ground. His eyes widened in shock as the human easily broke his hold, grabbed him by his shirt and waist, and threw him back the way he had come.

Jaban rolled to his feet easily and he trembled in anger. Breaths came through his teeth as heat from the mouth of a furnace. He launched himself at the man again, this time throwing fists and kicks. The man swayed back and forth in no manner that Jaban had ever seen, pushing aside blow after blow. Those that did land left his hands in pain as if he had been throwing his fists at the ground. The man’s lips pulled back and he reached out again, grabbing Jaban’s shirt and waist before throwing him backward. He tumbled to the muddy ground in a heap.

“Do not come at me again, or I will do you harm.”

Jaban slowly pulled himself to his feet, “You do not understand. I need that tree. I have to provide for my family.”

“You must find another way.”

“What use could you possibly have for that tree that could out weigh my responsibilities for my unborn child and wife?”

The man’s face softened, “An unborn child you say.”

“Yes.” Jaban said, his face a mask of anger and pain.

The man was quiet for a moment before saying, “I am sorry. I cannot.” He sat down by his tree and picked up his pipes. “Go home and be with your family. You will find another way.”

“There is no other way,” growled Jaban.

The man’s face flashed to a frown. “If your mind is set so, then perhaps there isn’t,” he replied as sharp as a knife, “And then you will have to kill me to take this tree.” With that, he began playing his pipes. It was a hard defiant song, with little joy and a touch of black melancholy.

Jaban picked up his ax, and tried to brush the mud from his clothes in vain before he stumbled away from the clearing. He headed straight forward, away from the music until he could hear it no more, and there he took his ax and buried it in the side of a great pine. He struck and he struck, cleaving his way through the thick bark and meat of the tree until it fell with an earth rumbling crash at his feet.

He collapsed to his knees, placed his arms on the trunk his head in his arms and wept. He had never tried to do anything so violent to anyone. He had near enough wished the man dead. He wondered what could have possessed him. What had happened to the peaceful shepherd?

He knelt there for hours, trying to heal his heart’s new wound with tears.

When he returned to his camp it was with a renewed determination not to resort to violence. The man was the source of his troubles, of that he was of no doubt. But he would not stoop to attacking him so again.

—-

Jaban woke up on the sixth day angry. He sat in his camp thinking, and stirred his fire with a long stick. Plans and schemes tumbled through his mind as logs in a river, but nothing came to him. What could possible lead the man to move from the tree if violence was out of the question, and even the rain did nothing? Jaban’s eyes were distant and weary as he stared into the flames.

“Not even the elements could move him.” he thought.

The heat from the flames warmed the fur on his hands, legs and face till it was almost painful. The embers danced into the sky in the reflection of his eyes, and one lone ember leaped away from the lazy column of smoke and ash to strike Jaban on the tip of his snout.

He yelped in pain and surprise and jerked backward from the fire, his hands slapping at his face to remove the ember. When he was sure it was gone and brushed away, an idea formed in his mind; it was the image of a fire. He grinned. Perhaps where one elements failed, another would not.

—-

Though it had been more than a full day since the the rainstorm, dry wood, leaves and sticks had still been difficult to find, even more so for the right kinds of wood to produce the amount of smoke he needed. It had taken Jaban most of the morning to collect enough for four large piles, spread widely over a hundred yards from the tree. It took all of the early afternoon to put up rocks and earth around them so they wouldn’t grow out of control. He was far enough away that the piper could not see or hear him, but close enough for the plan to work.

It took many tries, but slowly each pile was consumed by flame until four roaring pits belched out thick smoke of white and gray. The wind favored Jaban. It flowed between the tree trunks, swaying limbs, twirling leaves and funneling the massive clouds of smoke to the west, toward the piper and his tree.

Jaban watched and waited from a distance, tending the fires. Only a steady stream of smoke could push the man from his tree. Surely the man would run when he knew that the smoke was not going away.

Jaban kept the fires going for one hour. Two hours. Finally, only a brief span was left before the close of the day, and Jaban knew that if it had worked, now would be the time. So he pushed over the mounds of dirt onto his fires, careful of spreading the embers. When he was done he gathered his axe and his rope and dashed to the little clearing and the tree.

When he pushed past limb and brush, he was astonished to see the piper at the foot of the tree, arms and legs wrapped around its trunk with his eyes closed, and still. Jaban bent down to the little man and looked for the signs of life. His heart beat slow and his short breath rattled like sticks over a washboard. The piper had stayed with his tree and been left unconscious by the smoke.

Jaban grit his teeth and pushed back his hair and ears with his hands. Some small smoke still hung in the air, and the little man would need clean air to live. With soft hands and hard eyes, Jaban lifted the man from the foot of the tree and draped him over his shoulder.

It took Jaban some time to make his way back to his camp, where he lay the man on his pallet. He was struck that, under the smell of the smoke, the man did not smell human, but rather like leaves, earth, and the heart of the woods. Again Jaban checked for the signs of life. Though he was still ashen of skin, the heart beat a touch stronger, his breathing clearer, and the man’s eyelids wavered like the wings of a moth. It would not be long before he woke.

Jaban’s eyes sharpened and his nostrils widened. A smile revealed his teeth. The man was no longer at his tree. He looked to the sky. The sun was still up. There was still time.

He grabbed his ax and his rope and ran back into the wood. It was darker now as the sun reached out to strike the earth’s horizon. Shadows lengthened, and the corners and caverns of the trees yawned wide and black. Bars of light and shade flashed across Jaban’s face as he ran, and yellow sky fire danced where the leaves let it pass. His breathed rapidly, his pulse pounded, stretching the skin tight over his veins.

He leaped fallen trees, pushed past broken branches, and thrust through the shards of the brush. With a final tear he was in the small clearing, the tree in front of him, twilight on his left. He pulled his ax from its loop and moved forward, planting both feet wide, both hands on the haft.

The tree swayed from him, as if it were to escape, arms reaching for the last of the sunlight. Jaban placed the blade of the axe at the yew tree’s trunk and readied himself. The piper could be waking any moment. He drew back and swung forward, and with a wrenching jolt the head buried itself deep under the bark.

Jaban’s ears twitched. He felt he might have heard a far cry on the winds. The piper could be awake. He must hurry.

He wrenched the blade free and swung again, and again and again. Each swing bit deep into the tree’s flesh. Its skin split and its bones cracked. Jaban felt the splatter of chips and driblets of sap pepper his fur, and he was surprised at how much juice was in the tree. Over and over he swung and chopped and hacked till the tree fell to the ground with a crash.

Jaban looked around, but the man had not yet arrived, and the sun was still with him, if barely. He quickly chopped through the branched that struck out from the side and strapped them to the trunk of the tree with his rope. Then, with glad eyes and strong hands, he draped his end of the rope over his shoulder.

As he marched through the deepening darkness, the tree dragged behind him, limbs splayed and leaves trailing like hair on the ground. Jaban pushed aside the drooping limbs of the forest, and the huddled clumps of brush. The last sliver of the sun remained in the east, and the sky was dripping deep orange and red, their light glistening in the sap still stuck to his fur. He marched till he reached the edge of his camp, but when he did he slowed and stopped. His fingers slipped from the rope on his shoulder, and his arms dropped to his sides.

The piper lay just outside the camp where he had been crawling toward the forest, the ground around him soaked in his blood. Deep gashes marked him over, as if a madman had gone to him with an ax. The blood trailed back into the camp, where gore spatters marked every pot, pan, tool and the tent. The sleeping pallet was deep, wet crimson. Jaban was surprised at how much blood had been in the man. It was a strange think to think, but his mind was too numb otherwise.

Jaban walked to the corpse unsteadily and fell to his knees in front of it. The piper’s severed right arm lay stretched out toward him, fingers open and pleading, begging for mercy.

A hand settled on Jaban’s shoulder. Jaban gasped and fell to the side, scrambling away. Above him stood the stranger, dressed in the simple dark browns of a wanderer, which all nearly disappeared to black in the fading light . He knew the man’s eyes and his knowing smile.

“You!” Jaban rasped, his throat dry and cracked. “Did you do this?”

“Irony from the tongue of a fool,” replied the man. “You tell me. Who killed this poor man?”

Jaban looked into the stranger’s eyes and his smile and saw deep sadness. Even regret. But guilt was not there.

“I…” Jaban said, “I do not know.”

“Come,” said the stranger, “you do not have any secrets. Not even from yourself. You are not a liar, so tell me, who killed this man?”

Jaban stared at the corpse, “That’s impossible. How could I possibly…?”

“I told you,” said the stranger, “secrets are dangerous things.”

“He did not want me to cut down his tree…”

“He was a nymph. One of the wood folk,” replied the man, “The tree was him and he the tree. It was his secret, and with his death it is now mine to give to you.”

“Then why did he not tell me?” Jaban asked. “I would have found a different tree. Anything, but I would not have…” He trailed off.

The man’s smile faded for the first time since Jaban had seen him. “He wished to gain the favor of Secret, his god. So he thought if he could keep a secret till the day he died, the deepest secret he could keep…” The man stared at the corpse for a long moment and murmured to himself, “He never knew that he already had my favor.”

“You…” Jaban licked his teeth, “…are the god of secrets. You are his god.”

The stranger looked up into his eyes, and Jaban saw shadows and shades, swirling curtains and descending sheets, closed chests, locked doors and pressed lips, and in that moment they all pulled away, and Jaban knew.

Secret slowly walked toward the piper.

“But why?” Jaban asked, his lips thin and gray, “Why would you let him die instead of telling him. You are Secret, not the god of death.”

Secret paused over the body of the piper, “He received what he desired at his end.” He said softly, “Secret. For the greatest secret of all the worlds is death.” Secret seemed larger as he picked up the torn pieces of the man and cradled them in his arms. “And now I must be away.” He turned and strode toward the forest.

“You’re just…” Jaban’s voice cracked, “I mean you’ve…. What am I going to…?”

Secret turned from the darkness of the forest and gave Jaban a long sad look. “There is nothing I can tell you to comfort you. But I will give you one thing. A secret between you and me, that must never be shared.” Secret gazed into Jaban’s eyes as he spoke, and Jaban knew that he would never be able to speak word of this to anyone, even till death.

“I am not a god,” he said.

Jaban was confused, “How is that possible? You are the master of secrets.”

“And does your ax, and its mastery over bark and bone and sap and scarlet, make you the god of such things? Listen well. A god is to be worshiped for what It is. A secret… a secret is many things. A whisper in a crowd. The other side of the tree. It is the unopened chest and the bottom of the sea. It is black and it is golden. It is magic. It is power. Above all, it is danger and desire. But worshiped? Never and no a hundred times not. Remember this, and tell no man, woman or creature.” Secret took a deep, shaken breath, “Keep you well my gift.” Then with a hush, Secret disappeared into the darkness of the forest, which holds its mysteries tight.

Jaban was left alone, the dead tree behind him. Twilight danced its last dance at the edge of the horizon, until night took it away.

—-

The next morning Jaban buried the tree and burned his camp till there was nothing left, and then he buried the ash and the misshapen pots and pans. He went home, sold his house and his flocks and moved his family to Khanel, on the coast, where he worked on the docks and raised his sons. His wife begged him for an explanation, but he never gave one.

Jaban kept the the secret of the piper, and the god who was not, until his dying day.

The Last Page

I’m still feeling swamped as of late, so the blog post that’s been swimming around in the back of my brain for a little while still has to wait. Nevertheless, I can’t leave you all alone out in the cold, so here’s my latest short story I wrote late last night. It’s the “explicit” version, so if you want to read the “clean” version that I’m entering into the Rough Writer’s competition, just go to this link. The version below is my official, or normal, version and the one I’m considering sending in to the Glimmer Train competition. The one I see as truest to the image in my head. If you want to argue about why or why not I should keep explicit content out of my stories, well, I’d prefer to argue about it another time.

Hope you guys enjoy, and feel free to comment! 🙂

The Last Page

Marlan Thorne waited until the funeral party left to begin digging. He didn’t know why they had waited until dark to bury the body, but at least it would provide him with valuable cover for his activities. The last of the mourners had been the most interesting to watch. A young man with heavy glasses and a limp. In this age of cheap surgery, the man must truly have been poor to still harbor such ailments. An elderly woman. Not the man’s wife, though; according to public record the wife had been dead for years. She had laid a single white rose across into the hole atop the coffin. The parson was the last to leave. He had stood for some time, weeping. Thorne could just hear his tears from here.

After the last mourner left the workers pushed in the dirt. Eighty years hadn’t changed the process much, though the bulldozers didn’t belch smoke the way they used to. The workers didn’t stick around long, tired of being up so late. The last of the cemetery’s lights went out, the last car door slammed, and the last engine faded into the distance. All was quiet.

Thorne stood from his hiding place behind the mausoleum, shovel in hand. An old technology in this new age, no doubt, but it didn’t make noise the way modern tools did. He strode to the grave sight and the freshly placed earth. He stood there for a moment, his lips twisting, moving as if to speak, turning down and twisting again.

Finally he leaned over with a grimace and said, “Remember me?”

He waited, as if to hear a response. “Oh, no. No, no. Of course you remember me. How could you forget, huh? How could you fucking forget!” He slammed the shovel against the ground hands stinging with the vibration. He breathed for a minute to regain his composure and continued in a restrained voice, “May 12, 2092, dammit. Remember? You were supposed to meet me outside the University gate. You promised to meet me there.”

The grave was silent.

“Oh, no. Don’t you hide away from me,” He put the point of the shovel to the dirt and thrust it in with his foot. He flung the first clod of dirt high over his shoulder. “We’re having some face to face time. A heart to heart. What made you forget, huh? Death? What’s that in this age? Come on, I read the papers. I know. You could have stopped this, you know. Don’t think I’m not aware.” The earth was smooth and soft and easy to move, or maybe that was the adrenaline.

“We had an agreement. You were supposed to teach me things. Things I need to know. Now what am I supposed to do, huh? Find somebody else? There’s only one of you. I mean where am I supposed to go from here? What was all that work for? You know I spent ten years at that University. You know. How many Fs in Physics? How many times did I have to bullshit the work to finally pass? What was all that for?”

The pile behind him grew as he worked and sweated under the warm summer night sky. It was a while before he took a break. As he leaned on the handle he spoke again, “I read on the web you got yourself a wife. Hell, looks like you had a kid too. Didn’t say what happened to them, though.” He was silent for a moment. Then, “Was she pretty?” He paused, “Did you love her?” Another pause, “You know I never thought you’d manage that. Marriage. It wasn’t in your vocabulary.”

He stared at the ground for a moment, unseeing, before snapping back to the present.“What about the job? What about the plan?” He asked, “You had a plan, man. We had a plan. What happened to it? Where did your life go.”

The clouds hung low in the sky. The weather service had scheduled rain for the evening. An inconvenience. He set back to work and the pile grew as he sank into the grave.

“There is so much I wanted to ask you, man. Did you ever get away from your family? I mean, really get away? What did you do during the war in ’69? I can’t believe that even happened. I mean, Germany? Again? What about the third recession? How’d you cope? I mean have you seen what the textbooks say about all that now? No, forget that; who’d you have sex with for your first time? Was it Karin? God, I hope it was Karin.”

He was silent for a long moment, “Why’d you die so early? Fifty-three? You only lived till you were fifty-three? What happened? The obituary said heart failure, but that was hardly a problem in the sixties. Hell, they were starting to figure that out a couple decades after the turn of the millennium!” He frowned for minute thinking, and then set back to work.

Several hours later the pile above the grave was longer than the casket and almost twice as high as the headstone. He’d held his breath a few times as autocars drove themselves past the cemetery, but the drivers never looked up from the screens in their hands. He didn’t know why they were still called drivers nowadays. Only the racing circuits used the old manual steering anymore.

He set back to work when they passed, “You know why I’m doing this, don’t you?” He flung another scoop of dirt above the lip of the hole. “Oh yeah, you know why. You’d better know why. Come on, you had to know. You knew this was going to happen. Didja leave me something? A key? A note? Man, I hope you kept a journal or something and had it buried with you. Journaling was never really your thing, though. You’d leave me something though, right? I mean you wouldn’t just leave me hanging here?”

He’d been working at it for hours when he heard the solid thunk of steel against the ecoplastics of the lid. With a grim smile of triumph he started the process of scraping the last of the dirt away.

“You’ve got a lot of answering to do. I mean, the things I read… What kind of idiot are you, anyway? You know how I found out you had a wife and kid? I found your names in a church registry. A god damned church registry. You said you’d never step foot through those door again, man. What the hell happened to you? You were smart. You went to college. Hell, you were a fucking science major, for christsakes. What happened to all that? Somebody brainwash you? God, I hope it was brainwashing.”

“You had made it, man. You were rich. I know that much. The o-bit doesn’t lie about that sort of thing.” Water was falling from the sky; a slow drizzle. The dirt was turning to mud, slowing him down. “What happened to that? How’d you lose it? I mean, sure not all of it, but… I mean, I stopped by your house, man. It’s practically a shack!”

The last of the mud was scooped out of the way at last. He reached down and undid the clasps. It was uncomfortably like opening a big kitchen plasticware container. The lid was heavy, but liftable, and when he dug his feet into the dirt wall for support he hefted it easily. He stared down into the darkness of the coffin for a moment before switching on the light at his wrist. A a middle-aged face with familiar features lay within above a modern suit modified in what was once a Japanese style. It was a pale, peaceful face, with a small smile for his visitor and the rain.

Thorne stared at it for a long while. The reality of the situation hitting him for the first time. Words tumbled through his mind. Cries of anger. Tears of sadness and betrayal. He couldn’t tell why, but he felt a smile crawl across his face once or twice. He slowly slumped down to sit on the muddy half of the coffin that was still covered. His eyes trailed over the face as he had seen it so many times before. It was the same as he remembered it, but so different. He saw that the water level had crept up to cup the man’s face before he finally realized how long he’d been sitting there, staring in the rain. Rain which was now pouring steadily. He’d always liked the rain. He didn’t know why, but it made him feel different now.

“Look at you,” he said, “Here you are.” The rain drummed a beat on his head, and was beginning to wash away the makeup on the body. “You’re in a coffin, at age fifty-three.”

He was quiet for a moment. “What has life gotten you?” He raised his arms and gestured at the dark walls around them, “What has it gotten you? What has it gotten me?”

He reached in and grabbed the man by the front of his burial robes, the mud from his fingers smearing across the cold chest. He lifted with all his strength and pulled the dead man up into a slumped seating position, “You were supposed to be here!” He screamed into the dead face, “We had an agreement! We had a life to live! We had planned it!” He stood, hunched over, and hauled back with his body weight, dragging the man from the coffin. He held him up, face to face. Water bounced off of the dead man’s cheeks and splattered onto Thorne’s, “What did you do to me!?”

The dead man only had a small smile to give.

Thorne threw the body down in disgust, and it slumped over into a strange position, its left arm sticking up at an awkward angle, the fist was shut closed with a cloth wrap. Thorne stared at it for a moment before his eyes lit up. He grabbed the hand and began unwrapping it.

“Come on, man. Just say you’ve left me something. Anything. Some knowledge that will help me.”

The last wrapping came off the fingers, and he pried them back. Inside was a wet piece of durosheet. Thorne grabbed it and began straightening it, thankful that it hadn’t been written on the paper he remembered as a child. The text was handwritten in a cursive he knew very well:

“Sometimes, you don’t understand a book until you’ve read it all the way through. Even when you skip ahead to read the last page first.”
– Marlan

Thorne’s lips peeled back in rage, “This is it!?” He yelled. “All that time, a life wasted, and all I have to show for it is this greeting-card crap!?” He tried to tear it in half before he remembered it was made of durosheet, so he crumpled it up and threw it back on top of the corpse.

“What’s that supposed to mean anyway? That I’ll become like you? That I’ll fucking like it? Fuck that!” He scrambled out of the hole, leaving it to fill with water.

At the top he threw his shovel aside and stormed over to his bags behind the mausoleum. He switched off his light, as the sun was coming up enough to see faintly through the slowly dying rain. He pulled his bags around in front of him and unzipped them, bringing out his equipment. He set up each post swiftly, three of them precisely three feet apart. He knew he should take more care with the placement, but he didn’t want to stay longer than he absolutely had to. Once in place he stood in their center and activated the pad in his pocket. The return date flashed across his screen: May 12, 2061. He pressed the button and felt a sharp prickle across his skin as the conduit formed.

The last thing he saw before he flashed out of sight was the name on the headstone above the desecrated grave:

Marlan E. Thorne
2039-2092
“Father, counselor, friend.
May His wings carry you home.”

Distance Learning is Taking a Break and I’m Ready for the Holidays

Finally! I am DONE with this semester. W00T!

FREEDOOOOOOOOM!


I wrote an article about Distance Learning at SWAU a while back (it hasn’t been published yet, but will be soonish) but actual first-hand experience has taught me a more critical angle of the program. Everything I said in the article remains true, but I think that an honest appraisal of the program would have to refrain from under-emphasizing the downsides.

One of the benefits of the program is they let each teacher dictate what goes on in their online class with relatively little interference from authorities over them. It has the benefit of letting the teacher leave their own touch on their classes, instead of being churned out like a factory. This is great if you have a great teacher who has lots of excellent material on the site and uses all the fancy bells and whistles made possible by technology, but in the hands of a poor teacher… it falls apart.

When it works, you get a happy diploma in your PJs.


I have one professor specifically in mind when I say that. He is ridiculously difficult to get a hold of (and I’m close enough to campus be able to bother him in his office!), His tests are poorly constructed (and this from a man teaching me how to construct tests), and he doesn’t know how to write a proper project or essay prompt to save his life. If you come to ask him questions about it and exhibit the least amount of frustration and he is liable to become moody, obstinate and impossible to deal with. Thankfully, I’m good enough at acting calm in such a situation to get past all that.

I can’t even imagine what it would be like for someone in… I don’t know, Oregon? To try and deal with him. Talk about a nightmare. Communication isn’t exactly one of his skills. How he managed to get the position he has, I’ll never know.

Communication: Go Get You Some!


But that is over. … for this semester anyways. So it’s time to get into the Holiday spirits as I finally move into the break.

It’s going to be a busy break, despite no schoolwork or work-work. I’ve got a holiday goals challenge over at the Rough Writers to write 10,000 words on Jaine before break’s end. I’m working on a collaborative blog post with Scott Laue that you can look forward to in a bit. I’ve got a secret project that should be a happy surprise to all when I finally reveal it, and that’s just the serious stuff.

Then you get into entertainment and I have videogames to finish (Fable III, Metroid: Other M), books to read or put down forever (Way of Kings, Scourge of God), and a D&D game to plan for.

That doesn’t even mention Christmas-y stuff like holiday movies, walks in the lighted park and the Holiday itself.

Staying busy. Yup.

I could talk about the silliness around Julian Assange, the new Thor trailer, my high hopes for Tron: Legacy and CoN: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but sometimes ya got to keep a post short and sweet, ya know?

Happy Holidays, folks!

– Edward L. Cheever II~