Tag: supernatural (page 2 of 6)

Flash Fiction: Knight of Swords

Knight of Swords

This week, Terribleminds charged us with writing using a motif. The d10 told me to go for Swords, in the genre of Paranormal Romance with the setting of Route 66.


“This is insane, even for you. You need your rest.”

Simon Cooper ignored the suggestion. Part of him hoped that the traffic would have drowned him out, but Route 66 was quiet at this time of night. It had to be night, of course. He thanked the powers that things had happened so close to a full moon. He would need every advantage he could get.

“Tell me, Xavier, what would resting accomplish that not resting will not?”

“You’d be able to look at the situation with clear eyes. You’d get some cobwebs and trauma out of your head. And, I hate to say it, you’d see that…”

“You could just say ‘nothing’ and leave it at that.” Cooper was also ignoring the pain in his leg. The blade had gone clean through his thigh.

“Look, Simon…”

“Xavier, you insisted on coming along. Don’t ruin things by trying to convince me to quit. It’d be a waste of gas and, more importantly, time. Time that Esther doesn’t have. Now, listen. There’s a ley line under that diner, and I need everybody out to tap it. Run interference for me.”

Xavier put a hand on Cooper’s shoulder. “Just stop, for a second. Think.”

With a sigh of exasperation, Cooper stopped and turned. “What?

Xavier took a deep breath. “The Legionnaire came for me. She gave her life to save me. I can’t bear the thought of not being there when they turn off the machines.”

“You will be there when they turn them off, because she’s going to come back.”

“Dammit, Simon. The sword went through her neck. It’s a miracle she survived long enough to get on life support in the first place.”

“The Legionnaire carried an epee. It was meant to pierce her defenses, not hack off her head or limbs. And it was enchanted with a spell to part souls from bodies, not nerves from organs.”

Xavier ran a hand through his hair. “If you’re wrong…”

“I’m not. Come and see.”

It was a slow time in the diner. Only two patrons and four staff members in total. Cooper used a pyromantic cantrip to start a fire in the kitchen, and Xavier helped people get out. Simon’s follow-up spells were a wide-area disruption of electronics and putting the fire out while Xavier locked the doors.

“Now, we can begin. The salt, if you would.”

Xavier handed Cooper the container of sea salt. The other man whispered to himself as he turned, pouring the crystals out in a circle around him. He handed the container back.

“The Tarot.”

Carefully, Xavier removed the small leather pouch from Cooper’s pack. Once he had it, Cooper pulled the strings and gently freed the deck from it. He closed his eyes as he shuffled. He dealt one card to the north, shuffled as he turned, dealt to the east, and repeated the process for the south and the west, shuffling once more and turning over the top card before laying the deck at his feet.

Xavier never really understood the whys and wherefores of Cooper’s methods, as he was practically from a different world. But for all the years he’d known the warlock, no spell that had been worked in his presence resulted in evil or even much collateral damage, save for an incident in New Jersey that neither man talked about.

“Eight of Swords to the north. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. So I can’t hesitate. You can stop thinking I need to quit now, Xavier.”

“I wasn’t…”

“Hush. Three of Swords to the east, practically at your feet. A truth, hidden, that will be revealed, and change everything.” He opened his eyes to look at Xavier. “Do your superiors know?”

Xavier bit his lip. “What would they say, Simon? How would they react to a priest being in love with a witch?”

Smiling, Cooper held up a finger. “I won’t tell if you won’t. Just as long as you know that I know.” He closed his eyes again. “Nine of Swords to the south, behind me, meaning that I’ve left behind sleep and other mortal comforts for this. Good. I’m on the right path. And… Ace of Swords to my left. My left hand, the one I’d use to hold a scabbard, draw a sword from, sharp and ready… excellent, excellent. I can do this.”

“What about the one at your feet?”

Cooper looked down. “The Queen of Swords herself. Oh, this is good. Xavier, I was right. Esther isn’t dying because her body is shutting down, she’s dying because her soul was stolen. Some deity or denizen has been keen to her magic and wants her for some purpose.”

Xavier frowned. Then, without a word, he moved to the fuse box and shut down the diner’s power. He removed seven candles from Cooper’s pack, laid them out around the circle, and lit them.

“What else do you need, Simon?”

“My totem belt.”

It was a heavy grade piece of military surplus wear, to which Cooper had affixed several pouches, with everything from herbs to small relics to holy water Xavier himself had blessed. He strapped it on.

“Simon Johnathan Tesla Cooper.”

The warlock turned to the priest. Xavier didn’t often say his full name.

“Bring her back to me. Bring her back to both of us.”

“What did you think I was going to do, Father Xavier, watch as her body slowly gives up waiting for her to come back? She’s my sister.”

“I know you don’t believe in God…”

“Nonsense, of course I do. I just don’t believe yours is the only one. I’ve met too many.”

“… but may He bless and keep you.”

Simon Cooper managed a smile. “Thanks.”

He turned away, eyes shut, and spoke words in ancient tongues as he flicked various pouch contents into the candle flames. At the last, there was a flash, and he was gone.

Xavier sat on a diner stool, folded his hands, closed his eyes, and began to pray.

Book Review: Cold Days

Courtesy

“Turns out your friend here is only mostly dead.” – Miracle Max, The Princess Bride

It certainly seemed that Harry Dresden, Chicago’s sole professional wizard, was as dead as dead could be. He was shot at the end of Changes and spent almost the entire length of Ghost Story haunting his friends and watching them deal with the fallout of his absence. But it seems that death is too good for Dresden. Before his assassination, he entered into a pact with Mab, Queen of the Winter Court of faeries, to be her Knight, a bound mortal servant who is equal parts enforcer and hitman. Mab absconds with Harry to her ice fortress and, by trying to kill him on a regular basis as he recuperates, ensures she’ll get the most from her investment. By the time Harry is up and about on his own, events are already in motion back home that will force him to take up his old duties, as well as dealing with his new ones, all while struggling against the price he must pay for the deal he struck to save his daughter.

Jim Butcher is an author rather skilled at shaking up the status quo and keeping the stakes on an ever-increasing level. Cold Days is a great example of this. From the intimate, personal start of the tale in the frozen halls of Arctis Tor, we watch Harry come to grips with his recuperation and new station and abilities. When Mab gives him his first true assignment – assassinate an immortal – he returns to Chicago, and things almost immediately threaten to blow out of control. Disaster looms, friends question his loyalty and sanity, and someone is most definitely out to kill him, permanently this time. Now more than ever, Harry has to walk a fine line between power and discretion, and after the events of Changes and Ghost Story, he worries about the impact his actions will have on his loved ones.

This is where Butcher really shines. Despite his ever-escalating levels of power, Dresden remains a sympathetic and likable protagonist. He may possess powers tied into the very creation of the Universe and now has access to superhuman levels of speed, strength, and resistance to cold, but he still sucks at talking to people, especially those he cares about, and his plans very rarely work out the way he would like. Still, his friends are there for him, and his interactions with them are the high points of the book.

If I had a major quibble with Cold Days it is that, for all of its action and dealing with Harry’s return to Chicago and great character moments, it mostly feels like set-up. There is some pay-off of previous plot points, to be sure, and the ending is still satisfactory, but the introduction of the ‘true cause’ of all the bad news in Harry’s life feels somewhat uninspired. On top of this, the suggested influence this previously unknown threat has had on Harry’s life plays out more like a retcon than a major revelation. It doesn’t really detract from any of the over-arching drama of the story in Cold Days, but I felt that existing threats could have been used more effectively rather than introducing something new. But we’ll see how it plays out.

Despite my nitpicks, Cold Days is a worthy return to form for the Dresden Files. I’m quite curious to see what happens next, mostly because Butcher continues to write characters that I enjoy and care about. If you’re a fan of the Dresden Files… well, you probably already read the book. If not, I’d say go back to Storm Front and get caught up. It’s well worth your time if you like modern supernatural urban fantasy.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Wolfman

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

{No audio this week on account of my own lycanthropic rampage.}

There was a time when movie studios didn’t mind being associated with the unusual and the macabre. For years, Universal Studios seemed rather proud of its men becoming monsters. Bela Legosi inhabited the castle and cloak of Count Dracula, Boris Karloff took a couple bolts to the neck to bring audiences the creature of Doctor Frankenstein, and Lon Cheney inspired generations of furries to come by sprouting hair in odd places as The Wolfman. Oscar-winner and character actor staple Benicio Del Toro is a huge fan of Cheney (the actor, not the Dick) and helped bring a new version of this creature feature to movie theatres in 2010. If the production behind the scenes had kept its act together, it might have gone over better.

Courtesy Universal Pictures

It’s 1890, and our hero is Lawrence Talbot, an actor who spends half his time on stage and the other half looking for the hidden treasure at the bottom of a bottle of scotch. He gets word that his brother was savagely murdered near his ancestral home outside the sleepy English country hamlet called Blackmoor. Given his emotional connection to his brother and the heartfelt pleas of his would-be sister-in-law, he sets out to uncover what happened, even if that means putting up with his eccentric and possibly violently sociopathic father. During his investigation he gets jumped and bitten by a brutal and enigmatic creature. While the wound mysteriously heals, the process takes the better part of a month, and before you know it, the moon is full again againd Lawrence is growing hair in some very odd places, to say nothing of different bone configurations, more dense muscles and claws that can tear a man’s head clean from his body.

When we see the transformation take hold of our hero, it’s a decent blend of prosthetics, CGI and del Toro giving the role his all. Good sound design makes the cracking of knuckles and sprouting of teeth wince-inducing, playing into the overarching themes of horror and monstrosity. In a similar vein, while you may go into a movie about a wolfman expecting some blood, be aware that this one is full of gore, from gruesome dismemberments to the titular Wolfman chowing down on a hapless victim without the benefit of an after-dinner mint. The movie isn’t all that interested in taking prisoners or pandering to the squeamish, which is a point in its favor.

Courtesy Universal Pictures
They have some good chemistry.

The other thing The Wolfman has going for it is some pretty fine casting. Del Toro is a force to be reckoned with on his own, but Sir Anthony Hopkins very nearly steals the show as Talbot’s father. Instead of going full-on Hannibal Lecter from the start, his growth into the affable madness for which he’s become famous is a slow one, the climax all the more satisfying for the build-up. Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving, as the love interest and the driven Scotland Yard inspector respectively, also slowly become more interesting as the film proceeds after somewhat placid introductions. Ms Blunt’s character in particular seems to defy the ‘damsel in distress’ thing many monster movies like to invoke, and I enjoyed seeing a woman act in a brave and determined manner without it feeling forced or contrived. It made sense, which is unfortunately more than I can say for the narrative structure of the film.

Unfortunately for the actors and special effects crew, the plot and script of the movie are kind of all over the place. It never really comes entirely off the rails in a bad way, but some story points happen too soon, some elements are a little out of place or awkwardly spliced into the flow of the story or some characters are too incidental to justify their screen time. The overall effect leaves one feeling the movie was cobbled together, but as the story isn’t incoherent, it’s more disconcerting than disappointing. I never quite felt like The Wolfman let me down, but I also felt it never truly lived up to its potential. Granted, when breathing new life into a classic you don’t necessarily want to reinvent the silver bullet. But being a troubled production with changes in directors and musicians and whatnot, it certainly could have turned out a lot worse, and when it’s firing on all cylinders it works very well indeed.

Courtesy Universal Pictures
“Hello, Lawrence.”

I was immediately reminded of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola movie that did for classic vampires what this one does for classic werewolves. There as well as here, we have lurid romantic drama juxtaposed with gruesome violence and shameless bloodletting, and while The Wolfman didn’t have Dracula‘s pervasive sexuality, it also wasn’t saddled with a wooden Keanu Reeves. And come to think of it, Anthony Hopkins starred in both pictures, and a venerable character actor brought the eponymous creature to life. So if you enjoyed Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Wolfman is right up your alley. They’re both a little over the top, and both suffer from some flaws in terms of production, pacing and overall presentation, but they are both a bloody good time.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

2012’s First Braindump

In lieu of IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! this week, postponed due to the dayjob workload, I give you the start of that thing I’ve been inspired to write thanks to Chuck Wendig as I mentioned Tuesday. I honestly don’t know if anything will actually come of this, but rather than post some pithy filler I was driven to put this little scene down and see how looks. So here’s the opening to Dead Man On Campus.


Ever been punched in the face?

I don’t mean tapped on the cheek in an endearing way by a family member or close friend. I don’t mean slapped by a girl (or guy) you were trying to compliment and ended up insulting. And I don’t mean the kind of dead-leg punch you get from a chum on the couch when you’re kicking their ass in a first-person shooter on their expensive console that you kind of only befriended them to play since you live down the hall & get bored sometimes.

No, full-on punched. Right goddamn hook to the jaw.

It was my first time and my ass hurt almost as much as my face did from it hitting the curb.

I tasted blood. This wasn’t unfamiliar. Growing up nerdy in the outskirts of a big city, you learn to take a few shoves and pick up books out of the gutters. I’d had a bloody nose from a spill a couple of times. But this was the first time I’d seen a big, idiotic jock standing over me and not felt a surge of paralytic fear.

No. I was fucking pissed.

“What?” I give the jock a shit-eating grin. “All I said was it might behoove you to stop treating your girlfriend like a piece of meat.”

He hauled me up by the collar of my jacket. It’s a really nice pea coat my mom bought me, black with those little anchor buttons, like the ones worn by the Boondock Saints. I’m not Irish, though. I’m some kind of American mutt. The bozo nose-to-nose with me has some Teutonic blood in him, though. He’s tall, broad-shouldered, thick and brawny. His ice-blue eyes are trying to burn holes in my skull.

“You talk to me that way again, freshman, and I’ll turn you to paste. You feel me?”

I glance at the girl. She’s more scared than I am. There’s a switch.

“Yeah, bro, I feel ya.”

He drops me. He grabs the girl – by her waist, of course, with hand in prime gropeing position – and walks away. She glances over her shoulder at me, apologies in her wide, frightened eyes. I wave goodbye and, in spite of the pain in my jaw, smile.

She’d been pushing him away, telling him ‘No’, and he’d insisted on being all grabby. What was I going to do? Just let him fondle her in the street between the library and the science building, leading into the big parking lot in the middle of the campus? At one time, I might have. But I wasn’t the huddled little boy trying to get to school without the neighborhood toughs beating me up for my lunch money. Not anymore.

As they walk away I contemplate what I can do. I can make Bozo think it’s raining frogs. I can cause his vision to blur and turn his flavor of the week into a reject from Hellraiser before his eyes. I’d love to set his varsity jacket on fire but I have real trouble controlling that sort of thing. If I were really brave I’d pull my entire being into myself and concentrate my consciousness into a sort of singularity in my soul that would burst out of me and blast all of my organs and senses into overdrive, basically slowing everything around me to a crawl. But the last time I tried that my mentor nearly called 911 when my heart stopped.

I’m sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. My name is Simon Aechmagoras, and I’m a sorcerer.

Well, a sorcerer’s apprentice. Like Mickey Mouse, only taller and with better fashion sense.

I check my watch, a mechanical pocket-and-chain job I inherited from my grandfather, and swear. I get up and run, sore jaw and bruised ass and all. Sorcerer or not, my biology teacher hates it when people show up late for his lectures.

Dresden Zen

Courtesy the Dresden Files

In the process of writing Cold Iron, which is still in progress, I’ve reached for inspiration and motivation from contemporaries in the field of supernatural detective mysteries. First and foremost and long overdue is my reading of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, a series of novels about a Chicago-based wizard who operates a private investigation practice. Beyond the appeal of Harry Dresden himself is Butcher’s take on the supernatural world. The more I read these excellent books, the more I find Harry encountering situations in such a way that can actually inform the life of the reader. It could be a case of me reading too much into some works of genre fiction, but as far as I can tell, Harry’s got some lessons to teach, and not just about the proper care and use of one’s blasting rod.

Lesson: True power comes from within.
Book: Storm Front

One of the first and biggest uses of magic we see in the series takes place about two-thirds through the first book. A demon comes calling on Mister Dresden at home, and our hero is unfortunately not dressed for the occasion. In fact, he’s not dressed at all. His magical implements are not at hand and he needs to muster a defense lest a series of novels quickly become a short-lived one-shot. He taps into the elemental powers of the thunderstorm outside and his own emotional power to find a way to succeed. Without much preparation, without tools, without even clothes, Harry prevails. It’s not just a testament to the power of magic but also to that of the human spirit.

Lesson: Keep an open mind; things aren’t always what they seem.
Book: Fool Moon

Having introduced his version of vampires in Storm Front, the natural thing for Butcher to do in his second book is introduce werewolves. In pursuing a particularly nasty lycanthrope called a loup-garou, Harry goes down a bunch of blind alleys of reasoning and supposition. He always realizes his mistakes and checks himself afterwards, but it does lead him into some bad situations with far-reaching consequences. In later books we see Dresden taking a bit more time to discern what’s going on around him, and it saves his bacon more than once.

Lesson: Unlikely friends can be the best friends.
Book: Grave Peril

In hunting down poltergeists and investigating why they’re so violently prevalent all of a sudden, Harry teams up with a man named Michael Carpenter. Michael is a literal knight in shining armor, though he often wears jeans and a flannel shirt instead of the mail & tabard. He carries a holy sword, Amoracchius, and chides Harry for his habits and occasional disrespect for the Almighty – without being a dick about it. He’s a legitimately nice guy, and turns out to be one of Harry’s best and most trusted friends. You wouldn’t think this to be the case, given the tension that often exists between people who live in the Bible and those who gather the forces of the world unseen, but this sort of unlikely alliance yields a deep and abiding partnership that borders on bromance. Of course that could just be my take on it because I have a soft spot for Christian characters acting like actual Christians and not being Bible-thumping douchecanoes.

Lesson: Nature is both beautiful and fearsome; treat it with respect and wonder.
Book: Summer Knight

The very nature of the Fae is that of nature herself – breathtakingly gorgeous, timelessly alluring and very dangerous. Harry knows this from experience and, coupled with his growing skills of discernment, wades into what amounts to a turf war between camps of Fair Folk with open eyes and canny thoughts. He appreciates the wonders he sees but controls himself accordingly to get his job done. It shows his growth as a character and helps the audience realize that, even when it comes to pixies and water-clad nymphs, this world he protects us mundane folk from is an extremely deadly one.

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