Posts Tagged ‘high school’

I can’t help but humiliate myself. It seems to be intrinsic in my nature.

When I was in high school, I wrote a crapton of terrible sword-and-sorcery stories. During my senior year, I had this idea for a massive fantasy trilogy, full of demons and magic and things like that. My idea was about a world that Hell had broken into, a world that had become overrun with demons: a sort of post-apocalyptic/high fantasy hybrid.

That was the idea. I only wrote about twenty pages of the story before I got sick of the bloody thing.

The novel would have been called Demonslayers. I’m showing it to you here, with commentary from my present-day self, as an example and a warning to young writers.

In any case– this is it. The prologue to Demonslayers.



Imperial City, Thule

22 Emperor, 708 Thule Era

The sun died in the west as Keltor Kes made his way up the steep mesa upon which the Imperial City lay. It was a beautiful city from far away, its high domes and slender minarets shining in the westering sun. From far away, the city shone like gold, since the palaces and mansions of the mighty had been plated with brass for the express purpose of dazzling the eyes of those who watched below. From afar, the effect was beautiful, but from up close the rooftops were gaudy and cheap. In fact, one could not even see the brass, because the lofty towers loomed so far above the city that it was impossible to see the roofs. The actual streets of the Imperial City were dirty, smelled of shit, and were bathed in a permanent twilight no matter what time of day it was. This was the perfect night for an assassin.

Present-Day Ian: Umm… overwritten much? I guess I hadn’t really got into my head the idea that good language is succinct, and that brevity and flow are often more important than dazzling the eye with a metric crapton of twenty-dollar words. My dad always told me, when I was a kid: “Never use a big word when there exists a commensurate diminutive.” I guess that hadn’t sunk in at that point. 

Also, I seemed to be clinging to the phrase “from far away”. I use it three times in three sentences. That’s not a good thing. In fact, it’s pretty terrible. 

Keltor Kes was one of these assassins. He was an elf– something that was unusual in these parts, far from the elvish forests and the isles of Avalon away to the west. He wore a long, cowled cape, dyed a dark gray color– contrary to popular belief, assassins never wore black: it was too obvious, since shadows were never uniformly black. Dark gray or olive worked much better. He had an androgynous face, which was usual for an elf, and iron-gray hair and a dueling scar across his cheek, which was unusual. He wore only a dark green tunic and brown breeches under his cape, and wore soft leather boots with spikes in the soles. He carried a dagger at his side, in a battered black wooden sheath. At his left hip was a relatively new revolving pistol, a powderhorn, and a sack of lead bullets. His only nod to ostentatiousness was a gold death’s head ring, boldly displayed on his left middle finger: the mark of a Master Assassin in the Shadow Syndicate.

In a good light, one could call Keltor Kes attractive. He had the sort of androgynous attractiveness so beloved by rich ladies of the Imperial City. His lips were pouty, his lashes long, his eyebrows slanted, and his cheekbones high.  Looking at him, though, one thing was obvious above all else: his eyes, as black as the depths of space, with no pupils. This tended to put off the young women who looked his way, and forced them to studiously look somewhere else.

PDI: Why do people seem to think that describing characters down to the last detail is an appropriate way of starting a story? It’s not. While character description has its place, I have to admit that this is the wrong way to do it. For one thing, this isn’t a movie. For another, nobody goes around describing themselves in their head. Right now, I’m wearing an off-black T-shirt, blue jeans, my favorite leather jacket, and no socks or shoes. But I don’t go around thinking that. 

Plus there’s the fact that I made Keltor Kes an assassin. It’s maybe the most clichéd profession in fantasy, apart from royalty. While my current project, The Lotus Imperiate, does have assassins, I’m trying to make them seem less clichéd than normal. It’s not the idea of an assassin that’s the cliché. It’s the particular implementation. And Keltor Kes is about as clichéd as you can get. (Considering that I borrowed a lot of Keltor Kes’ description for The Epic Legend of Damien Fell, as well as the term “Shadow Syndicate”, it’s not a surprise.)

Although, I like the detail that assassins don’t actually wear black. How did I know that back then? I think I’d heard that from my swordplay instructor, who’d said that historical ninja actually wore navy blue, because black stands out against shadows. That’s the sort of cool detail that will eventually go into The Lotus Imperiate, which has assassins who act more like ninja. (The historical ninja, not actually the modern-day conception.)

The perpetual twilight of the Imperial City had not yet darkened to its fullest. He would go to his target this evening, but not now. He would wait for the darkness to deepen, for the night to lie more heavily over the palace. Then he would go to his work. He cast his gaze around. This was an unsavory portion of the city. He saw many people. Rogues, adventurers, mercenaries, beggars, and whores were all around the street.  Here on the street corner, a tall, slender man from Eden, his skin shining ebony in the night. He spoke with a Faldorian whore, little more than a girl, her red-gold curls shining against her ivory skin. He looked to the right. There was a dwarf, long-bearded, red-faced, obviously pissed out of his head, with sweat shining on his face. The dwarf was arguing with an orc, with green skin and taciturn expression. The orc hadn’t drank as much that night, and he was obviously holding up much better than the dwarf. He scowled, and made a small grumble in the depths of his throat. He moved his hand towards his sword, which provoked the dwarf. The dwarf charged, battle axe at the ready, prepared to cut the orc into slivers of quivering green raw meat. But the orc, less drunk than his opponent, easily drew his long tulwar and slashed with a broad, sweeping cut. The dwarf went down, neck bloody and open with a huge, gaping slash. Unfortunately for the orc, there was a band of four dwarves standing nearby. As they saw their fellow dwarf go down, they readied their axes, and charged at the orc.

Humans and all other races cheered on this spectacle. Not Keltor Kes. He had a job to do, and time to kill before that job. Plus, the stench of green orc blood sickened him. So while the crowd cheered as dwarves and orcs from all over heard the clang of steel, Keltor Kes proceeded on.

PDI: There’s lots of borrowing here. And I can trace it back to its sources. 

The first source is the classic Conan story “The Tower of the Elephant”, which begins with a description of a multicultural street scene, showcasing the diversity and chaos of Robert Howard’s Hyborian Age. (I’d been reading the Conan stories for a year and a half before I wrote the prologue to Demonslayers. Clearly all of that sunk in somehow.) The “Tower of the Elephant” connection is even more apparent when you look at what happens later in the story.) 

But of course, the second source for the street scene comes from a source so basic that even I hadn’t internalized it. The various races come straight out of Tolkien– all three of them. Keltor Kes is an elf, of course, and there are a dwarf and an orc in this scene. Now that I’m a little bit older, I’ll admit that I’m tired of seeing elves and orcs all over modern fantasy. Fortunately written fantasy seems to be moving beyond the need to put elves into everything, but gaming hasn’t. I’m playing through Dragon Age: Origins at the moment, and I’m annoyed by the fact that elves and dwarves appear in an otherwise-brilliant game. Fantasy writers don’t need to ape Tolkien. There’s a whole multiverse out there for us to enjoy. 

But of course, I apparently didn’t think that at the time. 

He entered a small tavern. Immediately he was greeted by the stench of human sweat and cheap ale, and the roaring laughter of the tavern’s patrons. Keltor Kes moved through the thick crowd like a wisp of fog on a mountain lake, serene and unnoticing of the surroundings. He made his way up to the bar, tended by a human woman. She had long, greasy black ringlets, a painted face, and large droopy breasts that she wore half-hanging out of her bodice as if they were those of a beautiful girl of eighteen. The effect sickened Keltor Kes. Elvish women did not have breasts, but had chests as flat as washboards. The importance that human women placed on their tits, and the attention that human men paid to them, were both completely alien to Keltor Kes. He fought down his revulsion, and waved his death’s head ring in front of her face. The woman stiffened. Her painted and rouged face was drawn up into a sudden mask of terror.

“I am not here to assassinate any of the guests at this establishment,” Keltor Kes said calmly. “I am merely thirsty. Have you any wine?”

“Of course, sir Assassin,” the barmaid said.

“What variety?”

“Fine, rich wine from the west, ten years old. Made from the purple grapes on the shores of the Charitable Sea.”

“Bring me a cup, madam barmaid, and be velocitous in your return.” Keltor Kes said.

PDI: I don’t know what the hell I was thinking with Keltor Kes’ speech patterns here. Or rather, I know my explanation for why I did it: Elves in this universe have a very complicated language that relies heavily on intonation and implication, and therefore when elves speak human languages, they naturally adapt to using big words and convoluted sentence structure. Only, it doesn’t work. It just comes across as cumbersome and weird. 

I guess I was trying to imitate Vaarsuvius, the elven wizard in Rich Burlew’s fabulous comic Order of the Stick. But there’s a completely different context. OotS is comedy, and Vaarsuvius’ over-the-top speech is meant to be deliberately funny. But in a universe that is supposedly serious, we’re meant to take what Keltor Kes says seriously. And since we can’t do that (because nobody ever talks like that), it all falls apart. 

I call this kind of unexplained, pointlessly confusing worlbuilding “lighting a fire at noon”, because of a story I read once on a forum where the character lit a fire in a grate while describing all the while the bright noonday sunshine outside. When we questioned why the character needed to light a fire at noon, the author said, “It’s a special kind of wood! It doesn’t give off heat, only light!” We didn’t accept this as an answer– the properties of this special wood hadn’t been explained in the text, and besides, it was begging another question (namely, why would you need light at full noon?). It’s a mistake that a lot of newbie fantasy writers make: that just because something doesn’t need to be explained to the inhabitants of the fantasy world, doesn’t mean that it has to be explained to us. Especially if it’s something as alien as wood that doesn’t give off heat when it burns, or Keltor Kes’ speech patterns. 

The barmaid bustled into the back, disappearing behind a frayed purple curtain over a doorway in the back of the bar. She immediately returned with a full wooden goblet. The wine inside was thick as syrup, and as red as blood. Keltor Kes took it, sniffed it experimentally, and took a small sip. His face screwed up with disgust as he swallowed.

“Like dwarven urine,” he exclaimed, “but I shall have to make do with what I have.” He downed the rest of the wine in three gulps. “Please fetch me some more of this, madam,” he ordered.

As the barmaid was busy again in the back room, a man caught Keltor Kes’ eye. The man was a merchant from the pine forests to the northeast, wearing a fur cap with a red tassel and a richly embroidered robe. He had stubble on his chin, and his hairy chest peeked out from the v-neck of his robe. His huge belly was easily visible, jiggling and bouncing as the man laughed at the jokes. Keltor Kes frowned at the man, and wrinkled his nose. Humans were disgusting, the way they grew huge and wrinkly.

The man made eye contact with Keltor. His expression soured, curdling like a bowl of milk. “What the fuck are you looking at, elfie?” he snapped. “You want a fight? Is that what you want?”

“I am sorry,” Keltor Kes said. “I meant no offense, sir. I was merely observing a typical human inhabitant of this city.”

“What the fuck are you talkin’ about?” the man roared. “Fucking elvish faggots. What do all those fancy words mean, eh? Speak proper, and not elvish gobbledygook!”

“I am sorry, sir. I am merely speaking Thule Common, as any clown with a quarter of a cerebrum would comprehend.”

“Fucking big words,” the merchant growled. “It’s all gibberish to me!”

“Well, my good fellow,” said Keltor Kes evenly, “I believe that the reason why you are unable to aprehend any of the words issuing forth from my lips is because you are a boor.”

“A what?” the man screamed. He threw his clay mug of ale down to the dirt floor. It didn’t shatter, but instead stuck in the four inches of mud and piss on the floor.

“Idiot. Moron. Imbecile. Retard. Boob. Whoreson. Rascal. Ruffian. Villein. I could go on, if you would be so inclined.”

“I may not be the smartest man in the Empire,” the merchant snarled, “but I know when I’m being insulted! And you– you’re insulting me!”

“Fantastic,” said Keltor Kes. “It seems that you have more intelligence than I had initially expected. I thought your mind functioned on the level of a dog, or a pig. I must confess, however, that you have more of the mental aptitude of a baboon, or a goblin.”

“You want a fight, fag? Is that what you want?”

“I do not wish to quarrel, sir, and I assure you, neither do you,” Keltor said, his voice as cool and calm as it had always been.

“What? D’you think I can’t take you?”

“To put it bluntly,” Keltor Kes replied, “yes.”

“Prissy point-eared whoreson,” the human roared. “I’ll show you!” And he leapt to his feet, fumbling at his side for the short sword that hung there.

PDI: Ah, yes. The obligatory tavern brawl. Clearly teenage Ian needs to have a copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland dropped on his head. Of course, I doubt that he’d listen. With the number of clichés that he’s dropped by this point, he’d probably use it as a guidebook for constructing the “best fantasy novel EVER!” 

I feel ashamed for the person I was. But moving on: 

Immediately, Keltor Kes stood, and grasped the hilt of his elvish runed dagger, Z’gara. With a deft movement, he drew the adamantine dagger. It flashed pearly gray, the color of pewter, as Keltor Kes raised it high into the air. And the dagger flew downwards, sharp edge flashing with malice as it came towards the human’s chest. It was over in less than the blink of an eye: the man staggered back, a huge gash running down from his right shoulder to his left hip, a slash of crimson, dripping blood. This was only a scratch, though, not quite enough to kill the man. As the human gasped for breath, in too much pain to even stand, Keltor Kes deftly tossed Z’gara into the air. It flipped end over end. Now the dagger’s hilt was pointed directly upwards towards the human’s sternum. As the human collapsed to his knees, his eyes widened in pain, Keltor Kes drove Z’gara in a wide arc straight upwards, towards the human’s soft, flabby double chin.

The dagger met him halfway.

Keltor Kes felt all eighteen of Z’gara’s inches drive into the human’s head like a sculptor’s chisel into marble. With a crunch, the dagger met soft, marbled subcutaneous tissue, cut through the thin layer of muscle, and the human’s tongue. This slowed it down a bit, but it continued onwards and upwards: through the soft palate, into the nasal cavity, the sinuses, and finally, directly into the human’s frontal lobe. Keltor Kes felt the man’s life-spark leaving him. With his delicate elvish senses, he could feel a small electrical spark flow down Z’gara’s length, then into his hand. The last spark of the man’s life. With a wrench, Keltor Kes pulled his dagger free. Blood that had been kept in by Keltor Kes’ hand suddenly gushed out of the dead human’s skull, drenching his hand in red blood. The runes that had been carved into Z’gara were glowing blue now, glowing with the fresh life of the dead human and his escaped soul. The whole tavern stared at Keltor Kes, and the corpse of the human. He had not even had the chance to draw his sword.

And Keltor Kes spoke: “Is there any one of you now who would, after witnessing this spectacle, attempt to insult me, my ears, or my elvish heritage at a later juncture in time?”

A chorus of hasty and murmured “no’s”. Every patron of the bar abashedly stared at their mugs and cups, studiously ignoring Keltor.

“There,” said Keltor, smiling faintly. “I believe that we can now forget this slight… misunderstanding, and can proceed onward as friends in the future. Barmaid!”

“Yes, sir?” the barmaid responded, her voice trembling.

“Fetch me a basin of clean water and a cloth– make it two, if you would be so good. And fetch each patron a glass of his or her preferred tipple, which aforsaid beverage shall be paid for, in full, by me.”

“What, sir?”

“Buy everyone a round of drinks. On me.”

Now the tavern’s patrons looked intrested. Suddenly everyone was Keltor Kes’ best friend. People crowded around him, trying to shake his bloodied hand. Keltor Kes studiously washed his hands instead. Then, when the round of drinks came, Keltor Kes smoothly walked out the front entrance in the confusion, and into the dark street. It was fully dark now, and there was no moon. Time to hunt.

PDI: This, I think, is the most stupid and pointless part of this whole bloody prologue. Not only does Keltor Kes STRAIGHT UP FUCKING MURDER A DUDE, he buys everyone a round of drinks, and suddenly everyone’s okay with him! What the fuck? I want to slap my teenage self up the bloody head, this is so stupid! 

I unconsciously borrowed this whole scene in the third chapter of The Epic Legend of Damien Fell, where I had Prince Travyss of Rayvenhawke kill a guy and then ask if anyone else wanted to doubt his heritage, or something stupid like that, to be answered by everyone saying, “No! We’re good!” But that was played for laughs. It wasn’t done seriously. It wasn’t a stupid excuse for Keltor Kes to look like a badass. 

God. I knew this was bad, but I didn’t realize it was awful

~ * ~ * ~

As Keltor Kes approached the wall to the Empress’s hardeena, he gazed up, towards the palace. It had not been created with any rhyme or reason. It had started out as a relatively modest five-room structure. Then new things were added: a tower here, a wing here, a small chapel or a new extention here– and as the Thule Empire grew from a collection of pox-ridden human barbarians clustered around their capital village here on a mesa to a continent-spanning empire that devoured countries like small snacks, the Palace had grown as well. It was now gigantic: a jumble of domes, minarets, towers, obelisks, courtyards, rooftops, and other assorted pieces of architecture. Keltor Kes had been around the continent and seen all that there was to see of the palaces of rulers. The palace of the King of Faldor, now, that was a structure designed to some architectural standard. It was a beautiful building. Not so, the Palace of Thule. It was a huge, ugly structure, a crowded mess that had ceased to look like a building so much as a mutated cluster of buildings that had grown around a central core. It was also an assassin’s dream. The cornices and crevices created ideal nooks and crannies for an assassin to climb in. The ramparts were huge, true, but enough extensions had been built that climbing them was just a matter of finding the right foothold. This is why the perimeters had been so well-guarded. However, this newest expansion to the palace, the hardeena built in the traditional Thule style, had a smooth gray granite rampart fifty feet high, facing the street. Getting up was a bit of a bother, but it was just a matter of having the right tools.

Keltor Kes slipped off his shoes, and placed a small pair of leathery gray slippers over his feet. He did the same with a pair of gloves made from the same material. Few humans knew what these garments were. But Keltor Kes knew, and he treasured them as one of the best tools an assassin might have. They were made from the skin of the legs of the ether-spider, that giant gray arachnid that haunted the depths of the nocturnal forests on the north side of the Isle of Avalon. These gloves were covered in hairs too tiny for the eye to see that clung to every pore and tiny crack in a surface. The skin of the ether-spiders allowed them to climb up surfaces too smooth for an ordinary creature. And Keltor Kes had acquired a pair of gloves and slippers. He placed his right foot against the wall, and felt it stick onto the smooth marble surface. He then pushed up, climbing like a sailor in the riggings of a ship. Higher and higher he clambered, passing above the graffitied lower wall and rising up. Ten feet, twenty, thirty, forty, moving like a liquid shadow in the moonless night. Soon he reached the top of the wall, climbed over it. He could see down into the Empress’s hardeena now, its green trees and fountains of wine nothing but shadows in the darkness.

PDI: I don’t know why, but I like really big spiders. And the idea of making a pair of gloves and slippers out of spider-skin is really only something that you’d get in a fantasy novel. Because, as we know, there aren’t really any giant spiders in the real world. 

I kind of wonder if the elves in Mirkwood made clothing or armor out of spider skins. Peter Jackson, the ball’s in your court. 

I must have liked the idea of ether-spiders, because I used the term in a number of stories of that period. And more recently, I put a kind of fabric partially made from giant spider-silk into The Lotus Imperiate. So that’s clearly a thing that resonated with me somehow.

There was a guard on the ramparts, furtively smoking something disgusting. He looked up. Keltor Kes could see his face with his darkvision as clear as if it were day. The guard’s eyes widened, and he shouted, “Halt! Intruder!” He ran off to alert his comrades. Keltor Kes drew his revolving pistol. He always kept a few bullets in the chamber of his gun, and this was a perfect time to use his weapon. He cocked the pistol with a deft flick of his finger, then blasted three shots– bang, bang, bang. The bullets flew straight and true. The first two struck the guard in the back. Tiny bursts of blood, colorless in the gloom, exploded into the night. The third struck the guard in the head. There was a splash, and the guard went down.

There were shouts from far away. The sound of a pistol was loud enough to attract unwanted attention. He needed to get down– fast. With a single leap, he flew over the side of the rampart and into the hardeena. Even with the cat-like reflexes of an elf, the fall would have killed Keltor Kes, had he not timed his leap perfectly so that he landed in a cherry tree. He landed in the branches and felt the soft embrace of leaves. The guards were there, lanterns ablaze, inspecting the dead body of their fallen comrade. None of them thought to look into the hardeena, but their sergeant said, “Look at the body. Two shots to the chest, one to the head. This was a trained killer. Be on the lookout for assassins, lads. This was obviously done by a master.” The guards dispersed. Two of them bore the body of their slain comrade. They left, bringing their lanterns with them, leaving Keltor Kes in pure, soft darkness. He dropped soundlessly to the grassy lawn of the hardeena.

PDI: Shed a tear for the death of poor Random Palace Mook #26. While it cannot be much of a comfort to his grieving widow and crying children, at least it can be said that he died fulfilling one of the oldest and most noble clichés in fantasy. 

Hey, maybe the guard was related to the merchant from the previous scene! That would explain a lot

I will say, though, that “furtively smoking something disgusting” is a lovely little description. While it’s another cliché for guards to take smoking breaks, the “something disgusting” is a nice little twist. And it leaves exactly what the guard was smoking to the imagination– whether it was ordinary tobacco, or possibly cannabis or some more exotic substance. Sometimes the art of description involves choosing what things to leave to the imagination, as well as actually describing things. 

The traditional hardeena was an ornamental garden beloved by nobles of Thule. It was always organized on a geometric pattern: a perfect square, subdivided into quarters by ten-foot wide paths. In each quarter was a perfectly square ornamental pond, where fish swam. In the center of the hardeena, there was a large gazebo, usually with a permanent fountain of wine in the center. Exotic animals lived in the hardeena, and the palace usually staffed an orchestra to constantly play pleasing music in a chamber beneath the hardeena, which traveled to each corner of the hardeena through a series of pipes. These musicians played continuously, taking eight-hour shifts, staggered so that at least one musician would be playing at one time. Right now, the musicians were playing tinkling chimes and violins, in the off-chance that the Empress, or at least a courtier or noble, would be passing through at dusk and wish to enjoy the peaceful stars while enjoying a drink from the wine fountain or perhaps the sexual favors of one of the harem boys.

To Keltor Kes, the music was a mild annoyance at best. In his homeland, the wild mountains and hills of Avalon, music was rare, and consisted mainly of guttural chanting and rhythmic beats, the “heartbeat of nature”, as the elves called it. The noises that humans made with pieces of metal ripped from the earth and the cleaned guts of sheep displeased him. He disliked the hardeena as well. The idea that the humans made a little island of geometric nature, all perfect squares and golden ratios, in a constant attempt to create an image of a paradise, a lost Eden-that-was, he found laughable. The wild ruggedness of the mountain rocks, the violent spray of ocean brine, the eternally perfect circles that the sun and stars traced in their journey across the heavens: those were beauty enough for him. He had no respect for these confining square gardens with their exotic animals and fountains of wine.

PDI: A little bit of elvish culture here, which I like. My taste in elves has always been towards Elfquest elves rather than Tolkien elves: tribal, fur-wearing humanoids who exist close to nature rather than city-building smug warriors. (That’s the reason why my main character in Dragon Age, Kÿalée, is a Dalish elf. I like tribal wanderers.) Plus, the whole “elves living close to nature” idea never really squared itself with the fact that they live in cities deep within the wilderness. No offense to Tolkien, but when I have elves or any other manner of fey creature, I’d much rather have them wear leather and have weapons made from wood and stone and bone, rather than wearing steel armor and carrying elegant longswords. 

But he did not have to live in this sad little microcosm: he only had to work here. He made his way around the square pond, two hundred feet on each side, the fish and seals in the ponds sleeping peacefully, unaware of the stealthy figure above them lurking like the shadow of death. He reached the corner of the pond, onto the small path that led directly to the Empress’s dwellings, located directly above the hardeena– two hundred feet up. For security, Empress Ishtar VI lived in the top floors of a tiny minaret high above the hardeena, from which she could survey the palace and the city beyond. The only access to the tower was up a slender staircase that wound up the sides of the minaret, guarded by twenty orcish eunuchs, all raw muscle and power, each one with their tongues cut out to keep them from revealing the secrets of their Empress. This was, they presumed, the only way up. But the guards had not counted on an elvish assassin with the gloves and slippers of ether-spider skin. He could get up the two hundred feet to the Empress’s balcony in an hour.

PDI: You know what the weird thing about this whole hardeena scene is? It feels like a set from the Arabian Nights, but it’s set in a country called “Thule”. Which is some serious psychic whiplash, considering that when an English-speaker hears the word “Thule”, they think of vikings and bearskin kilts, a land of the ice and snow where the hot springs blow, to quote Led Zeppelin. Not Persian gardens and eunuchs. 

I’m still unsure why I decided that the Thullan emperors had to have names ripped from Babylonian mythology. I guess it was because I’d just read Michael Swanwick’s brilliant Dragons of Babel, and the emperors there are named for Mesopotamian gods. But still, it’s a pretty blatant ripoff. 

And so, in the darkness of night, he began to climb the walls. He had chosen this night for an important reason. There was no moon tonight. It was completely dark, with nothing more than the light of the stars and planets above him, and the torches and lanterns of the city below him. He could see fine, thanks to his elvish darkvision, but the blundering human oafs that lived in this city would not suspect a thing– until too late, when their Empress lay dead in a pool of her own filthy blood.

It was slow going: Keltor Kes had been winded in the climb up the ramparts to the hardeena, and this was even more difficult. He had not gone thirty feet up– about a ten minute climb– before he began to feel exhausted, his limbs feeling leaden and weary, his arms aching as he pulled himself, hand over hand, up the wall. The light gray gloves wormed their hairs deep into any crevice, providing him with handholds for him to pull himself hand over hand, foot by grueling foot, until he reached the top of the tower and the Empress’s bower above him. He could feel Z’gara next to him, its rudimentary soul pulsing with want: want for the taste of blood. The fight in the tavern had not been enough. Z’gara begged for the life-force of a noble, blood of the highest. Keltor Kes, with his mind-link to his sword, could feel himself wanting blood. The thought of the Empress dead, and his hands full of the five thousand platinum pieces that her rivals had paid him to take her life, filled his muscles and joints, and he strove harder, his muscles and joints burning with the fire of rage and the lust to kill. Higher he climbed. The stars wheeled in the heavens over the city. He looked up. The evening star had already passed beneath the horizon, and it was deep into the dark hours. As he reached a quarter of the way up the minaret, the clock in the Guildmasters’ Hall gave off two sonorous chimes. Two hours after sunset. He felt his muscles burn. Fifty, sixty, seventy feet: Keltor Kes was living in a dream, a dream where there was nothing but the climb, precariously perched on a vertical wall. Above him lay his goal, the object of his quest. Below him lay death. Let his muscles relax for a moment, and he would fall to his death, a gory stain on the grass of the hardeena below. He kept climbing, not daring to think of falling, for if he did, that would mean not only the loss of his life, but the promise of five thousand platinum pieces: no, all the tortures of Hell would not be so bad as dying a poor man!

So up he climbed. Higher and higher, the promise of blood calling him like the call to mate calls the salmon over thousands of miles, across grueling oceans and great rivers, up waterfalls to tiny ponds high in the mountains. He was spawning, in a way. He was undertaking a journey no less grueling than that of the salmon. A hundred feet now. He couldn’t stop. Here, ten stories above the grass of the hardeena, falling was death. Already he felt his muscles begin to weaken. He had to push himself, and with the call to blood pulsing in his veins and lighting his brain afire, the silent call of his dagger pushing him on, he began to speed up. Faster and faster he climbed, covering four feet a minute. His muscles burned, and half of him longed to fall to the ground below, ease this pain he was in. But he went on. Always onwards. The siren call of the blood above him. He kept going, his heart pounding in his ears, his face drenched with sweat. He was now a hundred and fifty feet above the hardeena, and still he climbed. He climbed like a spider, like a shadow, like an eagle, like a wisp of cloud. His head swam, and his universe had become nothing more than the endless climb, agony, sharp and painful, as he rose higher and higher into the air… his head swam… his mind raced… blood pumped through his body more rapidly than a galloping horse… it was too much… he couldn’t go on… he had to fall…

And suddenly, so suddenly that he couldn’t belive it, he was there.

PDI: This section of description is actually pretty cool. It’s overwritten, just like everything else in this whole story, but I don’t mind that so much. The normally long, languid sentences have suddenly stopped, becoming short and choppy– which carries much more feeling of the physical exertion. Actually, I use this technique a lot lately. I think of sentence rhythms as being like the story’s heartbeat. When it’s going slow, the characters are relaxed and calm. The faster it gets, you feel more and more adrenaline, and your own reading experience tends to quicken. So I save short sentences for the big action scenes, and longer ones for passages of description or narration. 

Although, that the part towards the end, where it all dissolves into ellipses, is pretty bad. A lot of my stories in high school seemed to overuse the ellipsis in a big way. They also had a tendency to go off into elaborately complicated little parentheticals. I’ve pretty much cured myself of the Scourge of the Ellipsis. The parenthetical statements? Not so much. I’ve still got an uncurable obsession with using the em-dash and the parentheses, as I’m sure you can tell by reading my writing style. 

He pulled himself, gasping for breath, over the stone railing, and onto the open-air balcony of the Empress’s bower. He stood for a second, numb with pain, but quickly caught his breath. He drew Z’gara. The dagger gave him strength. His hands, which had felt as limp and pliable as bread dough, were now iron-hard, with a firm grip as if he had not made a two-hundred foot climb. He stepped into the Empress’s bower.

Immediately his sensitive elven nose wrinkled. The stench of decadence and corruption was all around him. Rich perfume filled the room, mixed in with the subtle rotten undertone of human semen. The walls were covered in ornate frescoes: images of magical animals, rich and decadent scenes from mythology, gardens and feasts, scenes of courtly love, and near the Empress’s bower, pictures of the most vile and corrupt scenes of perversion, meant to bring the lovers of the Empress into a rutting frenzy. Along with the frescoes were several pornographic statues, as well as several artificial phalluses alongside the bed, in all materials: ivory, glass, gold, even adamantine. The bower was rich with furs of all kinds: tiger hides from Nagaland, lion skins from Eden, bear pelts from Hyperborea, and even (to Keltor Kes’ incredible disgust) the tanned and perfectly smooth skin of an elvish maiden. It was this skin that barely covered the Empress as she lay in a post-coital slumber, there in the arms of two effeminate young men not much older than boys, with no hair on their faces and only a light down on their pubis.

PDI: Why did I feel the need to put a bunch of dildos in this scene? It’s not necessary. I guess that I wanted to have a certain feeling of perversion and sexual intrigue, but did I need to have a bunch of porn and sex toys here? 

Seventeen-year-old Ian must have thought that this was super kinky. Now that I’ve gone to college, I’m aware that a woman having a vibrator in her dresser drawer is actually pretty typical, and barely registers on the kink-scale. 

Keltor Kes studied the Empress. She was young, probably not even twenty. She had red-blonde hair which spilled down her ivory-white shoulders like a waterfall. Her nose was small and pixie-like, her lashes long and dark, her lips rather thin and severe. Her skin was the color of peach cream, dimpled and unravaged by time. Her breasts were small and well-formed, and reddish hair poked out from under her arms. She wore jewelry, even while asleep: a golden torque adorned her left arm, a platinum circlet shone on her forehead, rings of ruby and sapphire and emerald and amethyst sparkled on her fingers, a diamond sparkled in her belly. She was not unattractive, even by elvish standards. Keltor Kes was sorry that he had to do away with this work of beauty. But business was business, and he had to do things that he found distasteful occasionally, such as doing away with attractive girls.

PDI: I must have been a bloody ball of hormones at this age. I’d expected there to be a bit more of a focus on her boobs, because that’s where the straight guy’s gaze is naturally drawn, but still, there’s quite a lot of sexual imagery there. I hadn’t ever heard the term “male gaze” at that stage of my life. Neither had I started to seriously think about feminism as a topic. But there probably was some awareness. Even if I was thinking about a lot of female characters in fiction and film as sex objects, at some level I was probably aware of the inherent sexism of most fantasy fiction. So I was walking a fine line at this point, between sexual exhibitionism and actually creating fully-rounded female characters. (And Empress Ishtar, as we’ll see, is much more of a fleshed-out character than Keltor Kes, our erstwhile POV character.)

Oh, well. What must be done must be done. He pulled out his revolving pistol, loaded two bullets into the chamber, as well as powder. Then he shot two bullets, one into the head of each prepubescent boy in the arms of the Empress. Their beautiful heads disappeared in a blossom of red blood. Bang, bang. Suddenly, the two boys had three-inch holes in the sides of their head, black openings to their skulls. The Empress stirred, and lazily awoke. She glanced with distaste at the two cooling bodies next to her.

“Oh,” she said. “So it’s come to this, then?” She roused herself, and stood up. Keltor Kes was surprised to see how short she was: only about five feet tall. She was almost a head shorter to the two young boys she had been in bed with.

Keltor Kes holstered his pistol. “Do I have the honor of addressing Ishtar VI, by the Grace of Marduk the  Empress of Thule and High Queen of Faldor, Quarios, Mallear, Caenaar, and the North, War Leader of the Orcs and High Priestess of the Dwarven Clans?”

“You do,” Ishtar VI said. “And I assume, based on the fact that you killed my toys as they slept, you are an assassin?”

“I am that, milady,” Keltor Kes said. He was about to kill this young woman, but all assassins in the Shadow Syndicate were trained in etiquette and courtesy.

Ishtar VI smiled, a grim, sideways smirk. “Well, then, assassin, I would not die without knowing your name.”

“I am called Kelletaáralaéalnauróthúlluáraé Kaístarséatté, but among humans my name is Keltor Kes.”

“That’s a beautiful name,” Ishtar VI said, dreamily. “It translates as… let me see… “Song of the Ancient Smell of Trees Bourne from the North on a Dying Wind?”

“Yes,” Keltor Kes said, taken aback. “You speak High Elvish?”

“I speak all seven dialects of the Elvish tongue,” Ishtar VI replied. She smiled. “But High Elvish is my favorite. High Elvish is pure music made speech.” Keltor Kes noticed her eyes: bright green, like tall grass in springtime.

PDI: Blech. Kelletaáralaéalnauróthúlluáraé Kaístarséatté? How did I think that was a reasonable name in any language? It’s just a random jumble of phonemes. Barely a word at all. If you were going to ask me how to pronounce it, I’d just draw a blank. The first name is twelve syllables long, for fuck’s sake!

At least I didn’t put any apostrophes in. Even in my teen years, I was aware that apostrophes in fantasy names are the worst kind of cliché. If I ever get around to writing a post about naming fantasy characters, I’ll probably make this my first rule: Omit needless apostrophes. 

“Now, I must inquire, good sir Assassin,” the Empress said. “Who has paid for my execution?”

“I believe, from what the Syndicate has disclosed to me, that Queen Laura has given a monetary fee for your death.”

“Laura,” murmured Ishtar VI tasting the name as if it were a fine wine. “Yes, I do believe I know of her. She’s the wife of the King of Mallear, right?”

“I am sure your assessment is correct, milady,” Keltor Kes replied.

“Yes,” the Empress said. “Jealous bitch. I believe that what I did to her was seduce one of her harem boys from her seraglio. It’s not the sort of thing that you’d expect to assassinate the last Empress of Thule over, but still, women will be women, and women are naturally jealous creatures.”

Keltor Kes said softly, “I must say, milady, you are accepting the news of your impending mortality with a certain amount more dignity than I had expected.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” the Empress responded. “This Empire is on its last legs. It’s filled to the brim with scheming nobility, feuding kings and queens, civil wars, bandits in the wilderness, uprisings among our friends the orcs and dwarves… If this empire doesn’t fall in my time, then it will fall in the next emperor’s time, or the next. I hardly expect Thule to extend its dominion over the whole continent for a century. Truth be told, I don’t expect Thule to last two decades once I’m gone! So I figure that I’d better get out while I can. Let me go to the home of the Gods, let me be united with my namesake, and I will watch and laugh when this empire crumbles into the hundreds of barbarian tribes that my ancestors united them from. We’ve had a good run, I say. Seven hundred years of Thule’s domination over the continent! Nothing like that has been seen since the days of Hyperborea! I’m just a rat, jumping off the ship before it sinks.”

PDI: Long speech, much? Ishtar has a bit of a tendency to ramble, doesn’t she? 

She’s pretty lucid for a woman about to be killed, though. I know if I were in her position, I would be like ERMAHGERD YOU JUST MURDERED MY SEX BUDDIES!

“You have a great deal of bravery, milady,” said Keltor Kes.

She waved her hand in a disdainful gesture. “Don’t call me that. I hate being called that. Every one of my courtiers and viziers and nobles and servants call me that. My advisors control everything. I have no power. I am nobody’s lady. I am a figurehead on a rotten ship.”

“Shall I call you Ishtar, then?” Keltor Kes said softly.

“No. That’s not my real name either. I want to go out of the world the way I came into it. With my own name. My real name.”

“If I may inquire, what is your real name?”

There were tears in the Empress’s eyes. “Zalina,” she said quietly, saying a name that had not passed her lips for ten years.

“Zalina,” Keltor Kes repeated.

“Zalina.” Tears streamed down Zalina’s face, but her chin was still held high, her face proud and beautiful.

PDI: And now I’m breaking out the melodrama. Blargh. 

Have you guys heard of the Madonna-whore complex? It’s a feminist idea that basically states that men can only think of women as either virginal goddess-like Madonnas or evil demonic whores. As a male feminist, I’d like to point out the fact that not all men think like that, but I’ll say that it’s more widespread than most guys think. We seem to have this deeply-rooted idea that “good” women don’t have any sexuality, that they’re just passive recipients of male pleasure and dominance, and that any women that have sexual urges, or take any initiative whatsoever in the sexual act, are evil dirty whores. 

Why am I bringing this up? Well, because it seems like most fantasy writers– even female ones, although it’s less common than among male writers– write female characters that only fit into one of those two categories. George R.R. Martin, as much as I admire the man’s work (well, the first three Game of Thrones books, at least), writes only two kinds of female characters: the Madonna and the Whore. Cersei definitely fits into the Whore category. Danaerys is a clear Madonna. The main difference between Martin and the rest of the Madonna-Whore fantasists is that Martin allows his Madonnas to have sex. 

I’m kind of rambling on about this, but I want to make this clear: I don’t want my female characters to be either Madonnas or whores. One of my biggest goals as a writer is to be able to write strong, interesting female characters. I don’t know if I’ll achieve that– again, I’m hampered a huge amount by the fact that I’m a straight man (and there are differences between the sexes, no matter what some might say). Did I achieve this with Zalina? I don’t know. She’s basically a walk-on. Even if she’s not as much of a redshirt as the merchant in the tavern, or the palace guard, her purpose is still just to get killed. Although, we do get to see a little bit of her character before she bites it. We know that she has a sexuality, as is evidenced from my hamfisted cramming-in of porn and dildoes. In the Madonna-whore complex, that enough would be enough to make her a villain. But that’s not all that she is. She’s also the ruler of a crumbling empire, a person who doesn’t want to be empress, and yet is still forced into her position. And she goes to her death with some modicum of dignity. So she’s not a whining coward. It would have been easy for me to make her one at the age of seventeen. I’m glad I didn’t. 

So is Zalina a “strong female character”? I don’t know. I was still starting out as a writer, and Zalina only appeared for one scene. But there’s something starting to climb towards the light there. Zalina– even if she only had a few lines– is a beginning. 

We’ll see where that path takes me. 

And Keltor Kes drew Z’gara. As he did so, he felt a wave of energy rush up his arm. Z’gara was ready to kill, ready to take her life. And Zalina was prepared to lose her life. She closed her eyes, took a deep, trembling breath, and raised her chin, exposing her perfect, porcelain neck. Keltor Kes raised his dagger, and said, “I am sorry, Zalina.” Then Z’gara’s power rushed through him. He brought his dagger down in a flash of pearly-gray, the runes glowing with a blue light. One cut– Keltor Kes slashed across Zalina’s neck. A spray of blood, a dark, gaping wound, and Zalina fell to the ground. Her heart beat the last of her body’s blood from her, and a red stain slowly spread across the pink satin sheet of her bed. Her eyes were closed and dignified as her last warm breath left her body, and her heart beat a final time. And so it was that Zalina, also known as Ishtar VI, last Empress of Thule, died.

* ~ * ~ *

Keltor Kes pulled a handkerchief covered in dark brown stains from his pocket. He crooned softly to Z’gara, “That was quite a satisfactory job, my companion. I do believe that we have earned our well-deserved reward. And I may even procure for you an improvement: a better sheath, for example. You shall have to reside in a battered old scabbard no longer! I shall purchase you a fine sheath, red leather, with gold embroidery. Would you find that agreeable?” And it seemed to him that Z’gara hummed in response.

PDI: Okay, it’s pretty clear where Z’gara’s literary heritage comes from. Michael Moorcock, author of the Elric novels, as well as many other works of fantasy and science fiction. Z’gara, despite being a dagger, is a smaller, more maneuverable version of Stormbringer, Elric’s big black soul-sucking sword. I love the Elric stories, and I still think that Stormbringer is the coolest weapon in all of fantasy. If I could hang any fantasy sword on the wall of my bedroom, then I’d choose Stormbringer, over anything from Tolkien or Martin or Leiber or anything else. 

I’m wondering where Z’gara comes from, and what its story is. Do all assassins in the Shadow Syndicate have vampiric soul-sucking daggers? Is it something that Keltor Kes bought, or was awarded by his employers? Or did he find it out on a mission? Did he take it from the body of a warrior he killed? What does Z’gara use the souls for? Does it feed on them? Or is it a sort of soul-repository, a place where souls are stored to be used later for some dark purpose? 

None of these questins are answered in the twenty-page text of Demonslayers, of course. I just thought it would be badass for Keltor Kes to have a soul-sucking dagger. 

But no– that humming did not come from the dagger. It came from all around the room. Keltor Kes felt a vibration in his feet. He paused in cleaning Z’gara, and looked around him inquisitively. It felt like an earthquake. The ground shook slightly, creating a buzzing noise that resounded through the room, then began to shake harder, and harder, and harder still.

Strangely enough, Keltor Kes felt lighter on his feet.

The earthquake continued, and Keltor Kes struggled to keep his feet. It may have been the quaking of the ground, or it may have been the fact that Keltor Kes now weighed only forty of his normal hundred-and-twenty pounds. The earth was shaking harder, now. Keltor Kes could hear the screams of citizens outside. He heard a thunderous crash– a tower in the north wing of the palace had collapsed. And still he felt lighter and lighter. He only weighed ten pounds now, and had to struggle to keep from being thrown off his feet. He began to make his way shakily towards the balcony, bounding across the room, leaping higher and higher with each step, until he reached the edge of the balcony. The earth gave a huge lurch, and Keltor Kes was thrown bodily into the air.

He did not come back down.

Keltor Kes was floating in the air just off of the balcony. He was looking down at the hardeena, two hundred feet below him. But he was floating in the air without means of visible support. He kicked his feet in a scissor-like motion, and found that he could propel himself a short distance. He found he could drop a little bit by straightening his body and pointing his feet straight down. But he was still floating, and he could not see why.

Either this is a dream, or I have gone mad, Keltor Kes thought to himself.

He looked straight out. What should have been the utter blackness of the moonless sky, speckled with tiny stars, was a wall of stone, dark gray. He could see huge crags and cracks, and occasionally, the opening to a cavern, as the sheer stone cliffs rushed past him. Obviously he, and all the city, was falling towards the center of the earth. The light grew redder and redder. Keltor Kes began to feel hotter and hotter. He looked at Z’gara. The dagger was starting to glow red-hot. He held on tightly, not daring to let go of his most faithful friend and companion.

The heat was overwhelming. He screamed, a full-bodied primal scream that took all the air from his lungs. Before his eyes, his skin grew black and cracked, like burnt meat. His hair caught on fire, and he screamed as his lungs filled with ash and his muscles became so much meat. His nostrils filled with the smell of burning flesh.

As Keltor Kes died, his muscles and tissue fried clean off his bones, he saw the sheer rock walls open up into a huge, magma-filled cavern. The last thing he saw, rushing from the pit, was a horde of a hundred thousand winged things.

PDI: I guess the ending needs some explanation. 

This would have been explained in the rest of the book Demonslayers, which I never wrote. But basically, the earth was filled with demons at one point in the long past, until they were banished to Hell and humanity could evolve in peace. What happened was that the first Emperor of Thule made a pact with a demonic lord when he was just the chief of a barbarian tribe: that the demons would help him forge an empire that would span the continent, and in return, the demons would get to have the world when his last descendant was dead. 

Turns out Zalina was his last descendant. 

Well, this isn’t good for Team Entire Planet!

Keltor Kes kills Zalina, and the demons come back in force. The Imperial City disappears into a rift, going into Hell, and now demons are back on the earth and running the whole thing. 

So, we cut to about eighty years later, when demons have overrun the earth, and we pick up with two characters who are demon slayers (hence the title of the book). They’re two teenagers named Colin and Luci. (I’ve been using those characters, in some form or another, in a lot of the crap I’ve written since I started writing in 2003.) Colin fights with two swords; Luci fights with a bow. The first chapter begins with them killing a demon, congratulating each other… 

And that’s where it ends. 

In mid-sentence, even. 

I have no idea where I was going with the story, actually. I have an idea that Colin and Luci would have gone to the center of the old Thule Empire, where the demons are strongest. They would probably meet with the last descendant of the man who bound the demons in the first place, and try to bind the demons in Hell again so that humans can live on earth without getting et. I seem to remember thinking about a scene where they go into a demon-infested library in the old Thule Empire so they can find out about why demons are plaguing the world. I also seem to recall thinking about a scene set in Hell, where they talk with the ghost of Keltor Kes. 

But that’s all there is. Like most of my ideas in those days, Demonslayers was doomed to be about twenty pages long, and then it disappeared into the Land of the Aborted First Drafts (along with Winter’s Chill, Fire and Ice, the Exodus Trilogy: Book One, Dogs of War, Wildfire… wow, a lot of things). 

What’s been weird about this whole readthrough of the prologue to Demonslayers is how much of the stuff remains as elements in my later work. In fall quarter of my freshman year, I was working on a work called The Exodus Trilogy, which would be three books (obviously), although I only wrote about sixty thousand words of the first book. And a lot of the stuff from The Exodus Trilogy has carried over to The Lotus Imperiate

I wonder how much continuity there is: how much of my first book, the terrible Tolkien ripoff, still exists in The Lotus Imperiate, and how much The Lotus Imperiate will feed into my future works (which will come after tLI, hopefully when tLI is finished and published). It’s something to think about, anyway. 

In any case, this is enough wallowing in the past. Time to wallow in the present, which will become the future. 


~ Ian

Tonight, I went to a football game.

Specifically, one at Santa Cruz High, which (as long-time readers of Axolotl Ceviche may be aware) is my old high school.

I don’t understand football. At all. Believe me when I say this. I existed in a realm entirely parallel to that when I was in high school. Even though I’m big, and could presumably make a good left midfield wing point guard tacklebacker (or whatever the positions in football are called anyway), I didn’t give one shit about the whole thing. While the football players were “working out” on the “free weights” and chugging their “muscle milk” while they “had sex with human girls”, I was writing “clumsy but earnest poetry about dragons and cowboys” as well as “absolutely godawful sword and sorcery”.

Believe me, I would never have gone to the “Big” “Game” if it hadn’t been for the fact that both Calum and Gabby are in the SCHS band. So I went, and listened to their music, which was excellent, and occasionally watched the game, which was a giant blowout. Believe me when I say this: the Cardinals (Santa Cruz High) were playing the Vikings (some high school in North Salinas that I forget the name of), and it was as if actual vikings were engaged in combat with actual birds. They sucked that much.

But I didn’t pay much attention. Like I’ve said, I know crap about any sport except occasionally baseball, and I wanted to give some description at how little I know about the game.

But, luckily, Penny Arcade did a comic recently where they summed my football knowledge up exactly.

Granted, that was about the new Madden football game from EA Ports. But it could be an accurate portrayal of my knowledge of the football in general.

How did I while away the hours while the teens in helmets tried to score their scores? I reread Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. So, instead of watching a football game, I was transported to a far-future colony planet, where I read the epic tale of the death-god Yama’s encounter with the Buddha known as Mahasamatman, or Sam for short.

And so, wrapped in Hindu-themed science fiction, I ticked away the moments.

Night well spent.

~ Ian


Wandering around my old high school today, when the sun was setting and the school was practically deserted, I was struck by how small everything looked.

The quad, the centerpiece for socialization at Santa Cruz High, was hardly the vast and open expanse of concrete and chewed gum that I remembered it as. The main building, once a towering and immovable monolith, seemed so small that I could reach up and touch its roof. Even the little things– trees, railings, bike racks– all seemed smaller.

It seemed more compact. More decayed. More insignificant.

More… less.

I guess it’s a change in my priorities. When you’re in high school, high school is the MOST IMPORTANT THING EVAR RAAARGH. And I figure that there are two kinds of people who have left high school: those who know that it was a passing thing, and was really less significant than we thought it was, and those who fixate on high school, those who remember high school as some golden age, when the grass was greener and the light was brighter, the happiest days of their lives.

I’ve moved on, in a lot of ways. In a lot of ways, I don’t know who I was before college. At my age, you reinvent yourself every day, and how you saw yourself a month ago is hardly how you saw yourself now.

I looked at my old high school, the tiny, insignificant campus that you could walk across in five minutes, and I tried to remember who I was. And I couldn’t. I mean, I could intellectually, but I couldn’t emotionally. I can’t put myself in the shoes of that angry, weird dreamer that I was at the age of fifteen.

I do wish I could remember. And I was struck by the fact that I would one day, in five or ten or twenty years, forget who I am now, what kind of person I am.

Remember this, I told myself.




~ Ian

A few months ago, I contacted my creative writing teacher from high school, Ms. Franke, who was and remains a fabulous teacher. Basically, I asked her if she would be okay with me teaching a creative writing lecture to her classes this quarter, on the subject of speculative fiction.

Basically, she said yes. And so, on a foggy Thursday morning, I got up in the hours of darkness, hitched a ride to Santa Cruz High with my mom, and arrived at my old high school…

The Fortress of Darkness.

The Seventh Pit of Hell.

The Palace of Rotating Knives.

Santa Cruz High School.

(Yep… can you tell that I didn’t have a very fun time when I was in high school?)

Anyway, I came to the doors of Ms. Franke’s new classroom (which was my Government teacher’s classroom when I was in high school), armed with three powerful weapons:

  • a pink cardboard box filled with eight dozen donut holes,
  • a folder filled with about sixty copies of Neil Gaiman’s poem, “The Day the Saucers Came”,
  • and my trusty Jayne Hat.

Sits sorta cunning, don't it?

Armed with these three tools, as well as my luck and my wits, I came into the Valley of Sorrow and Tears that is Santa Cruz High, and entered into darkness…

Or rather, I sat outside of Ms. Franke’s classroom for about twenty minutes until she showed up.

It was great to see her. Really, it was. I wasn’t aware of this, but Ms. Franke was surprised at how much older I looked. (Yeah, I know: I graduated high school two years ago. I blame the beard.*)

We had a nice conversation for the twenty minutes before class started, discussing such perennial subjects of interest as Michael Chabon and the divide between literary and genre fiction. She also asked me what I was writing, and I sort of evaded the subject, saying simply, “Oh, short stories, mostly. A lot of poetry, too.” I didn’t mention that the vast majority of my creative output was going towards my lame blog, because honestly, when I feel like writing for fun, then Axolotl Ceviche is the first place that I’ll go to put up my random bleatings and babblings.

The students filed in, one by one, somewhat glassy-eyed and sleepy-looking, but hey: I’m never at my best at 8:00 in the morning. In all honesty, I prefer to be unconscious until noon. But I had bolstered my wakefulness with some +3 Coffee of Eternal Hyperactivity, and I was ready. I had prepared myself well.

The first period class went along fine. What I tried to do with the students was to engage them in a discussion, rather than lecturing them. One of the things that I did was, essentially, ask them: “What do you think the definitions of SF and fantasy are?”

There were many interesting discussions to be had. Pretty early on, a student caught me using fancy twenty-dollar words that they done learned me at the univarsity, but when I realized that many of the students hadn’t been through the same sort of classes that I’d gone through where I learned my high-falutin’ vocab, I was able to modify my lecture to kind of talk more… well… plainly. We had a fascinating discussion about what it means for something to be SF or fantasy, and we went off on tangents (specifically, is Star Wars science fiction or fantasy?****)

Eventually we did a writing exercise: I asked them to write down a “What if?” question on a scrap of paper, and then placed the slips into a Jayne Hat. Then, we pulled out five questions, and voted on the three best questions. Then, everyone did a writing exercise (basically writing a piece of flash fiction) for twenty minutes based on that question.

Here were some of my favorite questions that people asked:

  • What if we had wings?
  • What if we could use technology to control our emotions?
  • What if you found the end of the rainbow?
  • What if oxygen was toxic?*****
By the end of the second period writing class, I felt like I was put through the wringer. For one thing, I had to be enthusiastic with the second-period class, which, while they had many good qualities, didn’t seem like they were very geeky. All the geeks seemed to be concentrated in the first period.*******
Furthermore, I was exhausted, physically and mentally: I tried to have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and that’s not easy. For that, I should have drank more coffee. Or at least used some coffee with a higher enchantment bonus.
However, it was fun and exciting, and a few of the students who enjoyed it more than the others asked me about my own writing. So I mentioned this blog. If any of you are here from Ms. Franke’s Creative Writing classes, welcome. Feel free to leave comments below.********
As for me?
I headed home, watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, and fell asleep on the couch.
DAY WELL SPENT.*********
~ Ian

*Take note, young high schoolers who want to get crazy shitfaced: when you’re in a bar or restaurant, a good beard is more valuable a disguise than any fake ID**. Not that I would know of such things, being the morally-upright and outstanding citizen that I am.

**A good beard, mind you. You’re not going to get into a bar with just any kind of chin-pubes. You need it to be as lush and full as the Amazon rainforests. For those of you who are not capable of growing beards***, why not check out my line of Ian P. McJohnson’s Hirsute Helpers: #1 in Bearded Elegance? We have a variety of false beards, from the Rothfuss, to the Gimli, to the David Gilmour (circa 1977).

***This includes women. Just because your follicles are underperforming doesn’t mean that your beauty couldn’t be improved by a flowing, manly chin-wig. At the very least, it will help you pick up dwarf men in taverns.

****Pretty much everyone agreed that Star Wars was both. This surprised me, because I’d expected at least one person in the class to claim that it was SF.

*****Many of the students who chose to write on this prompt had all the people in the hypothetical society wearing masks. When I asked one student what the people in this universe breathed instead of oxygen, he said that he didn’t know.******

******Okay, fine: one person did state that the people in this universe breathed “sulfur”. I took this to mean that they breathed sulfur dioxide, and amused myself with a visual of a society of people with INCREDIBLY DEEP VOICES.

*******I had to explain to them what Doctor Who is. I WEEP FOR THE YOUTH OF TODAY.

********For those of you who were wondering about the books that I was talking about that none of you seemed to read, then here’s a list of some of them:

  • Dune, Frank Herbert
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation)
  • The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein
  • Probably others that I can’t think of right now. (If you heard any books that you’re interested in, and you can’t remember the title, just tell me a description of the book and I’ll see if I can remember the name.)

*********Yes, I did go overboard on the footnotes in this post. Tough. It’s my blog. I’m driving.

It’s Wednesday again, and a great wail has gone up, echoing across the multiverse, for Ian Johnson has sat down at his computer, and begins to write on his lame blog…


Happy Wednesday, everybody. Our particular installment is… older. It’s actually my first genuinely published piece, and it dates back to… (checks)… August, 2009. When I was still in high school.

Yeah, yeah. It was just two years ago. Shut up. It’s the oldest work of mine that I feel comfortable sharing.

Laugh it up, sausage-toes.

In any case, this poem was originally a dream. I mean that literally– I dreamed this poem into existence. I woke up one summer morning, and there it was in my head. I’d never had something like that happen to me before, so I wrote it down, just as it had come into my head.

It was a strange experience, and honestly, it felt pretty good. I happen to like this poem– it’s not great, but hey, none of my poems are, and it’s one of the earliest of my works that I can remember reading without cringing. So that’s a good thing.

A few details about this poem: the “come ride with me” refrain was, I think, inspired by the Muse song “Knights of Cydonia”, which is six minutes of epic rock awesome, and a song I’d been listening to a lot that summer. It inhabited my brain, and so when I dreamed this poem, my subconscious mind somehow put it into the poem.

I envisioned the Celestial Cowboy of the title as sort of a fundamental aspect of the universe. He’s not a typical “space cowboy” like Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds. He’s more of an anthropomorphic personification of gravity– like any good cowboy, he oversees herds, and in this case the herds he oversees are atoms and planets and stars. I liked the idea of stars as being somewhat similar to cows, and this “Celestial Cowboy” being the being that herds them into galaxies and globular clusters.

In any case, I feel like this poem has two main points: explore the universe while you can, because you won’t always be able to; and don’t be afraid of death, because when we die, our component atoms go back to the universe, and we become part of something new.

It’s a blast from the past, in any case. Hope you enjoy it.

~ Ian

Lament of the Celestial Cowboy


Come ride with me, come ride with me, across the inky skies,

Through silvery ghosts of galaxies and faraway divides,

Ripped away from matter and beyond our feeble minds;

Come ride with me, come ride with me, and see what we can find.


Come ride with me beyond our world, beyond the cold twilight,

Beyond the dead transitions between day and night,

And when you die away, when the hurdy-gurdy’s done,

Come ride with me, come ride with me, beyond the setting sun.


Come ride with me, my friend, through darkness and despair,

Through the voids between galaxies where nothing is there,

Past nebulae and pulsars and supernova lights,

Come ride with me, come ride with me, through endless seas of night.


Come ride with me past planets and through infinite space,

You’re tired of this world, my friend, tired of this place,

And when your eyes turn dim and dark, when the battle’s lost and won,

Come ride with me, come ride with me, before the morning comes.


Come ride with me away from here, across the celestial nave,

We’ll fly like light and darkness, like particle and wave,

And when your eyes grow cloudy and you die into endless night,

I’ll cut you into photons and transform you into light.


Come ride with me, come ride with me, across the inky skies,

Through silvery ghosts of galaxies and faraway divides,

Ripped away from matter and beyond our feeble minds;

Come ride with me, come ride with me, and see what we can find.

I spent some time today lamenting the lack of any decent SF or fantasy in high school English classes. (Of course, English teachers in general are contributing to the collapse of literacy in our society in general… just ask any student who had to write a 1500-word essay on “The Symbolism of the Color Green in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.” (Please note that my high school English teachers were, on average, pretty excellent.))

Anyway, since I was wondering about it, I decided to create an imaginary syllabus for a year-long English class that taught sf and fantasy instead of the “canons” of American literature. Because I’m using my lame blog as an output for my random bursts of Creativity™, I decided to put this up here. The first 18-week semester, I decided, would be dedicated to the teaching of sf, and the second, fantasy. I’m not that happy with it (too many dead white male authors on the list), but hey, it manages to cover most of the enduring classics of Our Beloved Genre(s).


~ Ian


Syllabus for Mr. Johnson’s 4th-Period English Class


Please turn off your cell phones in class.

Semester 1: Science Fiction

Week 1: Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (humor, satire, genre conventions)

Week 2: H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (history of science fiction, time travel, evolution, the far future)

Weeks 3-4: Isaac Asimov, The Caves of Steel (artificial intelligence, overpopulation, robotics, cross-genre connections)

Weeks 5-6: Robert Heinlein, Farmer in the Sky (space colonization, America in the future, Golden Age SF)

Weeks 7-9: Frank Herbert, Dune (ecological SF, mysticism and religion, far-future space travel)

Weeks 10-12: Octavia Butler, Wild Seed (ethnicity and race relations in SF)

Weeks 13-15: Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (militarism and colonialism in SF)

Weeks 16-17: Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (gender and sexuality in SF)

Week 18: Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (SF and film)

Semester 2: Fantasy

Weeks 1-2: Michael Swanwick, The Dragons of Babel (fantasy meeting the real world)

Week 3: Jo Walton, Among Others (magic in fantasy, secondary worlds)

Week 4: N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (gods, religion, and the “civilized/barbarian” divide”)

Weeks 5-8: Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind (the hero’s journey)

Weeks 9-10: Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures (humor and satire in fantasy, fantasy worlds as a reflection of reality)

Weeks 11-12: China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (fantasy and urban environments, non-human races in fantasy)

Week 13: Neil Gaiman, Coraline (horror and the uncanny)

Weeks 14-18: Stephen King, The Stand (epic narratives, good vs. evil, the symbolism of dreams, apocalyptic visions)