Drabble — A Going Away Party

The residents of the last escape ship wake up early and decide what events to attend. A Shakespeare reading or a striptease? A fistfight or a folk dance? A prayer service or a rave? An orgy or a tea ceremony?

The sacred, profane and mundane are represented in equal measure.

We disable the fire suppression systems for makeshift campfires. We sing songs and eat nutrient paste s’mores. Some laugh, some weep.

Enemy ships close in, faster and more powerful than ours. We take our sedatives, and sleep in each other’s arms.

All in all, not a bad send-off for humanity.

For more drabbles, check out the fiction section of Words Deferred

Great Writing — Why the Lucky Stiff

Programming computers is a serious business. It is a business involving tens of thousands of workers across thousands of companies, all busy making and spending hundreds of billions of dollars. It is an industry that I happen to have been in for most of my adult life.

You can see the seriousness of software development in the books about programming. They’re often big, weighty tomes, packed full of material that will be outdated within a few years.

What you do not find in typical software books is humor, silliness, or even mild fun. While programmers might occasionally wax poetic about “code as art,” it is art underpinned by logic and exacting precision. Software must be precisely written in order to work correctly. Unnecessary ornamentation is not generally considered a good thing when it comes to programming.

Why’s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby

Why the Lucky Stiff is a programmer. Or at least the online pseudonym of one (often shortened to just _why). I first discovered him the way many people did, through a book that he wrote called Why’s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby.

This strange book title, authored by this strange pseudonym, immediately caught my interest because it is so unlike the serious programmers and programming books that I have become familiar with throughout my career. The book doesn’t begin with a forward, with acknowledgements or a table of contents or a summary to sell you on what you’re about to learn.

It begins with comics. Weird comics. “An elf and his pet ham.” Pixel art and old pictures taken out of context and given captions.

When we get to the second chapter (page 2) and some actual text, it apes the format of a “normal” programming book, but continues to be absurd. The opening blurb sells the book by explaining that it will make us cry over the beauty of this programming language. There’s an extremely long sidebar (and dear God, programming books love sidebars), to talk about what the author will “do with the massive proceeds from this book,” which is, in fact, written under an open license that lets anyone do anything they want with it.

The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to a shaggy dog story with a literal shaggy dog, an explanation of how learning the Ruby programming language will make you a better person, and another nonsensical story to explain why the book has cartoon foxes. It’s a pretty accurate introduction to what you’ll be getting in the rest of the book.

The (Poignant) Guide does eventually settle down into some actual code examples and explanations. However, as you get further along, the code seems to be less and less of the book, while the bizarre stories and long-winded sidebars take up more and more of the text.

The truth is that, even if you’re a programmer familiar with other languages, the guide is not actually all that helpful for learning the Ruby programming language. It’s a fever-dream of non-sequiturs, silly stories and comics that happens to include some programming instruction. When I first read it, it inspired me to seek out other resources to learn Ruby, but it wasn’t enough by itself to really get a grasp on the language.

So what was the guide trying to be? Is it a post-modern masterpiece? An allegory? Just some weird stories that a programmer wrote down for fun? Maybe it wants to be a mish-mash of all of these things.

Why the Lucky Stiff

I only learned about _why after the fact.

_why developed many projects in the Ruby language, some larger, some smaller, some popular and some very niche. Over the years, his philosophies became more apparent through his writings, bloggings, twitter and projects.

He didn’t seem to put much stock in the serious programming that is the norm in the industry. He made useful tools, but he also just goofed around a lot in his literary projects and in his code. From writings like The Little Coder’s Predicament, we glimpse his frustration with the pain and complexity of “serious coding” and a desire to get back to basics: just hacking on things because they’re fun and interesting, and not worrying so much about doing it the “right” way.

I do not write tests for my code. I do not write very many comments. I change styles very frequently. And, most of all, I shun the predominant styles of coding because that would go against the very essence of experimentation. In short: all I do is muck around.

A letter from _why

Many people found inspiration in _why’s hacking and in his philosophy. Some were just in it for the cartoon foxes and the ham. And, of course, all the comics and goofy stories and non-sequiturs irritated a lot of people who didn’t get it.

Interestingly, as _why became more well-known, he remained pseudonymous. Even when he spoke at the occasional software conference or showed up to some real-life community event, he went by his online moniker. For the most part, nobody seemed to mind or think too much about it. It was just another fun quirk on top of all the others. But it turned out to maybe be important, because one day, _why disappeared.


_why didn’t just disappear. He removed all the evidence of his existence. He deleted all of his projects, his website, and his Twitter account. There was no warning. Nobody saw it coming.

If he was a somewhat divisive character before this, he became outright controversial in the wake of his disappearance. There were many people who used and relied on his projects, and many who simply felt abandoned by an important parasocial figure.

Whether or not there were more personal reasons for the emotion, most of the community’s anger manifested as irritation that _why had taken down all of his code. Broken and buggy dependencies on other people’s code are a perpetual problem when it comes to software development, and many members of this relatively close-knit community felt betrayed as they were forced to clean up all of _why’s missing projects.

Of course, we know by now that nothing ever disappears completely on the internet, and it turns out that most everything, from his code to his comics to his writings, were preserved in various electronic nooks and crannies. In time, pretty much all of his work was reassembled.

With the projects restored, much of the buzz of the event died down. There were some rumors that _why might have been doxxed, and this was what led to his self-imposed exile from the Ruby community and the internet at large. That still left the question of why he was so worried about remaining pseudonymous in the first place. The mystery of _why’s disappearance still bothered some people, but no clear answers were forthcoming, especially from _why himself.


Three or four years went by. Why the Lucky Stiff became just another interesting anecdote in the vast morass of the internet. People occasionally found his writings (re-hosted by others). People stepped in to take over his projects.

It was a bit of a shock when he returned, and he did so in exactly the sort of bizarre and cryptic fashion that anyone familiar with his work would expect. He left a printer queue that provided a series of hidden messages. The internet, being what it is, immediately took up the puzzle, along with renewed arguments over whether _why should be celebrated or reviled.

The eventual results were nearly a hundred pages—another book, of sorts, which was eventually named CLOSURE. As far as I know, it’s the last thing written by _why.

This feels like the ultimate distillation of the _why aesthetic. It’s not wrapped up in being a programming manual. It’s just a series of strange jottings and stranger stories. But here, clearly, it’s not entirely random and surreal. The text itself makes reference to _why’s disappearance, the opinions of the crowd about him, and itself, wrapping around in a sort of literary ouroboros. It’s clearly allegorical, and sometimes even comes out and says things directly. But it’s also contradictory.

NOW: Lay into the printer queue thing. Just lait on thick with the “4 to 11” just over and over. Try to remember, this is the guy’s only chance to recover from annihilating self-sabotage, okay?

_why – CLOSURE


_why’s writings stand on their own. They’re a fascinating mix of surrealism, silliness, and occasionally deep thoughts. _why is a talented, if eccentric writer. He combines comics, drawings, stories and anecdotes into something cohesive.

However, I think _why is one of those writers that can’t be properly read without understanding some of the context around his writings. Being a programmer certainly helps, but his work, his exile and his return all play into his writings, especially CLOSURE.

We’ll never know exactly what motivated _why, what exactly made him go away, or what he thought about all of this. We only have his writings to go by. I suspect those are more interesting and satisfying than the plain, unvarnished truth. And so does he.

In CLOSURE, _why talks about reading all the works of Kafka, who asked a friend to burn all of his work when he died:

Of course he didn’t want them burned.

This was just Kafka, writing his own death.

This ending has his signature on it.

Reality’s a kind of medium, maybe greater than paper.

Further Reading

Narrative in Games — Revisited

Games are uniquely positioned as the newest narrative art form, the baby of a family that contains novels, stories, movies and television. Narrative games are an even newer invention—after all, there is no story to speak of in Pong, Space Invaders or Pac Man, and even many modern games still treat any sort of narrative as an afterthought. We’re still feeling our way through the possibilities opened up by this young new media.

Last time I talked about narrative in games, I discussed the two techniques games use to immerse the audience in the story: experience and participation. Recently, I’ve been thinking about these concepts, their limitations, and how they work together.

Inhabitive Experience

The first thing I want to do is redefine the idea of experiential narrative that I introduced in the original post. This is the idea that games immerse the audience by allowing them to directly experience being in the story.

Other kinds of media can provide this to a lesser degree. Many modern stories use close perspectives, where the audience sees the world of the story filtered by the character they are close to. The most extreme close perspective is first-person limited, where the audience seems to float somewhere in the back of the main character’s head, or reads their telling of the story after the fact.

Interestingly, one of the least-frequently-used perspectives in modern media is second-person. While third-person dictates the story from outside the characters and first-person provides the internal view from within a character, second-person provides the odd perspective of having the story directly addressed at “you,” the audience. (90s kids will remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series.)

Many games make the player see through the eyes of a character, and this is typically referred to as a “first-person” in terms like FPS: first-person shooter. However, there’s an argument to be made that the experience games provide is actually second-person in nature.

In a game, the player can inhabit a character, in the same way that a person comfortable with driving a car acts as though the car were an extension of themselves. When someone talks with the character, they also talk directly to the player. When something happens to the character, it happens to the player.

This inhabitive experience is the core of what allows games to be emotionally impactful.

How to Inhabit a Character

Counter-intuitively, detailed characters are easier to inhabit than generic ones. The history of video game writing is littered with generic protagonists, created with the mistaken belief that an empty vessel makes it easier for the player to step into the game.

A generic character doesn’t give the audience any place to root themselves in the story. There are no attributes to embody, no desires or aspirations to connect with. The player is dropped out of the sky into a foreign world, but the character they inhabit should not be. That character is the audience’s gateway into the world, and when the character has connections in the world, the player can learn about the world through them.

Participation is Secondary

In addition to inhabitive experience, there is a second trick that games use to immerse the player in the story: participation. Instead of merely experiencing the story, the audience can actively participate in it.

Participation can vary quite a bit. While some games allow the player’s actions to influence the narrative, in many cases the plot points are set in stone. In other cases, the player might decide what order a series of events happens, even if all those events must happen to progress the narrative. This may sound meaningless, but when done well, this small amount of choice can provide the player with a sense of agency.

Even simple participation, like freely exploring a confined area, gives the player a certain sense of involvement. The truth is that participation in the story does not necessarily mean control over the story. The player can be complicit even if they’re not in charge.

It is also important to note that participation, by itself, is not enough to create a narrative experience. The player is a very active participant in a game of Tetris. Even more complex games like city-builders and real-time strategy give the player complete control over the game pieces, but that control has little bearing on the story, if a story is even present.

The Key Narrative Combo

Participation must be paired with an inhabitive experience to create an effective narrative. The game places the player into a character that they can empathize with, then gives the player some degree of control over that character. Now, when the character encounters a series of story events, the player inhabiting that character experiences the events personally, and feels responsibility for the choices they make on behalf of that character.

Unfortunately, simply having these elements in the correct configuration doesn’t automatically make for a compelling story. The setting, characters and other typical story elements still have to be well-crafted to draw in the audience. These are only the prerequisites.

I can look at any of my favorite narrative games and find exactly these elements: a detailed and interesting character, rooted in an interesting world and given problems to overcome. The player is then given control of that character. Beyond that, the story is still a playground for the writer to choose what story they want to tell.

Maybe that’s a young, misunderstood psychic boy trying to save the world and also fit in at summer camp, in Psychonauts. Maybe it’s an emotionally vulnerable man spending a summer as a park ranger, trying to figure out how to mourn his dying, comatose wife, in Firewatch.

Emergent Narrative is a False Promise

A popular idea when discussing deep narrative games is the promise of “emergent narrative.” Modern games are made up of many complex systems, and the argument in support of emergent narrative is that the player can interact with sufficiently complex systems to generate interesting stories that even the creators of the game couldn’t predict.

On a certain level, this is true. My family has certainly told each other stories about the ways an attack on a bokoblin camp can go surprisingly right (and terribly wrong) in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. These stories can involve an inaccurately thrown bomb knocking things around chaotically, or a well-aimed arrow miraculously saving the day.

Likewise, notoriously buggy games like the Elder Scrolls or Fallout series generate endless stories of unexpectedly levitating horses, launching enemies into orbit with a strangely-angled strike, or even stealing the entire contents of a shop after blinding the shopkeeper with a bucket placed over his head.

These make for fun anecdotes, but not for deep, impactful stories. They typically have an element of the comedically absurd or completely chaotic, and that is because the interactions of the player with multiple complex systems will naturally contain a large element of randomization.

Chaos and randomization can be fun, but they do not lend themselves to deep and affecting narrative. Narrative requires structure, and while authors and creators may argue endlessly about what structures work best, emergent narrative is inherently structureless.

We might argue that the job of the game writer is to anticipate or corral the player’s actions, aligning them with the game systems in such a way that a narrative naturally emerges. To me, this sounds like mixing oil and water. Players will always think of options that the creator didn’t anticipate. And if the creator effectively corrals the player into a pre-planned story, it often becomes apparent to players that they are being offered the illusion of choice. The narrative isn’t emerging. It’s being forced. This is something The Stanley Parable explored to great comedic effect.

That’s not to say that a carefully authored story is a bad thing in a game. In fact, I think it’s the only effective way to craft a good game narrative. Emergent narrative can be fun, but it will never result in the same quality of story that purposeful authorship can achieve, just as the proverbial thousand monkeys with typewriters will never produce  Shakespeare.

Reblog: Get the Big Things Right — Nathan Bransford

Today’s reblog comes from Nathan Bransford, who has worked as an agent, author, and now freelance editor and consultant. He knows that there is a lot of side-work that comes with publishing—from query letters and synopses to promotion and marketing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the things that come with writing, but aren’t actually writing.

He gives us a reasonably-sized list of things to focus on when writing and selling a book:

Particularly in this day and age when so many authors are lost in the weeds of Amazon algorithms and marketing strategies and social media and querying etiquette, it’s shocking to me how many people forget this: it all starts by writing a book that people want to read.

And not just want to read: writing a book that makes other people press it into other people’s hands so they’ll read it too.

That’s it. That’s by far (BY FAR) the most important thing.

Unfortunately, it’s also really, really, really hard to do, which is why it’s tempting to focus on things that are easier and feel more in your control.

Read the rest over at Nathan Bransford’s Blog…

The Genre of Inscrutability

I recently watched a show called Bee and Puppycat: Lazy in Space with my kids. The show has had an interesting life, starting as a web short, kickstarting a full series, and then getting a sort of semi-sequel series on Netflix that encapsulates the earlier versions in the first couple episodes. For what it’s worth, I only watched the Netflix series.

The show is a silly and deeply weird cartoon about a lazy girl named Bee and an interdimensional space puppy/cat/thing. Bee is fired from her job for the aforementioned laziness, and Puppycat helpfully takes her to the interdimensional temp agency to do strange odd jobs across the universe every time the pair needs a little cash.

At first glance, Bee and Puppycat is just a goofy cartoon, but it is so strange that I found myself thinking about it quite a bit once we had finished the series. Like a curious kid, I wanted to take this show apart and try to understand how it works.

The Legacy of Adventure Time

Adventure Time was a cartoon that exploded into pop culture. It combined absurdism, surrealism, and what I now think of as millennial-style non-sequitur humor with storylines that took unexpectedly emotional turns and occasionally addressed serious topics from silly angles. While it started as ostensibly a kids’ show, it grew a fanbase that was largely young adults.

Adventure Time changed in tone over the course of its ten seasons, perhaps due to a change in show-runners, influence from its fan-base, or its creative staff getting older. The earlier seasons are whimsical and light, often silliness for silliness sake, while the later seasons seem more burdened by the serious undertones, a little more self-conscious, but also trying to be more than just a series of goofy bits.

Clearly, a lot of cartoon television talent was cultivated around the show, because people involved in Adventure Time have gone on to work on many other well-crafted shows. Among that diaspora, the influence of Adventure Time and its aesthetics are clear. Stephen Universe, Over the Garden Wall, and Bee and Puppycat all share some of that Adventure Time DNA.

The Genre of Inscrutability

The world of Bee and Puppycat is strange and mysterious, and we’re dropped right in the middle of it. Initially, it has some of the trappings of the mundane world. A girl losing her job at the café and needing to do odd jobs to make ends meet is a fairly ordinary premise. But this quickly spirals into stranger and stranger territory. What kind of creature is Puppycat, and where is he from? Is Bee actually a robot? Why is her landlord a small child, and why does his comatose mother cry magical tears that transform everything they touch? Why is pretty much everything and everyone on her island home so bizarre, and yet nobody seems to care?

Mysterious settings aren’t uncommon. In fact, they’re a great way to pull the audience into a story. Pretty much all speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy and some horror) create a secondary world that the audience has to figure out. And while older examples of these genres might have front-loaded exposition and lengthy prologues, time and experience have shown that the most effective way to get into this kind of story is to throw the audience right into the middle of it, and help them to figure it out as they go along.

The implicit promise in most of these stories is that the setting is a puzzle that the audience will be able to solve, piece by piece. At the beginning of the Lord of The Rings, all we know about are hobbits and the Shire and a weird old guy named Gandalf. It’s only later that we learn about elves and dwarves and orcs and ents and more elves and the Numenorians and the Maiar, etc., etc. The extreme fans will read and re-read and glean all the little hidden details, and spend hours debating what the heck Tom Bombadil is. But even the average reader will know quite a lot about Middle Earth by the time they get to the end of the third book. Tolkein lays it all out on the page.

What’s interesting about Bee and Puppycat is that it takes place in a mysterious world full of interesting details, but it doesn’t do much to explain how they all fit together. It doesn’t lay everything out. The setting is a puzzle, but the pieces are all mixed up, and a few of them might be missing altogether.

I’ve started to think of this kind of story as the Genre of Inscrutability.

A Very Bad Idea That Seems to Work Anyway

To be in the Genre of Inscrutability, a story has to have a few key things:

  1. A fantastical setting – it may be similar to the real world, or wildly different, but it’s clear that the setting has some unreal rules at play.
  2. The fantastical elements aren’t explicitly addressed.
  3. There’s some mechanism to make that okay

    Now, thing number one is straightforward enough, but thing number two immediately gets us into trouble. Good storytellers know that you don’t show the gun on the mantle unless it’s going to go off, and you don’t set up a mystery that you don’t intend to resolve. The resolution of the mystery and the catharsis that comes out of it are necessary to make a mystery story feel complete. Thing number two seems like a Very Bad Idea from a storytelling standpoint, which is what makes it interesting.

    The big question, then, is how do we do thing number three? How do we make it okay? To answer that, I think it’s helpful to look at more examples.


    The Bee and Puppycat series hints at Puppycat’s past without actually explaining very much. We’re shown what Bee is, but it’s never explained why she was created, or where her “father” is. I still have no idea what’s up with Cardamon or his mom. However, Bee and Puppycat isn’t really about these things at a structural level. The episodes tend to focus on relationships and interactions between Bee and the other characters, or occasionally just between the other characters.

    Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris stories also contain unexplained mysteries. The city is founded on the ruins of a much older (perhaps much more advanced) city inhabited by the mushroom dwellers. The mushroom dwellers go into hiding beneath the city, and collect the refuse the city-dwellers leave behind. While individual mushroom dwellers are superficially weak, it is implied that they are collectively powerful—enough to completely empty the city of inhabitants during The Silence, and perhaps to retake the city permanently in some indistinct future. Who or what they are is never really explained. However, the city and its history are just backdrops to these stories. The mushroom dwellers make it clear that the city itself is a transitory state. There was a before, and there will be an after. They are a natural, elemental force set in opposition to the crass, industrial humanity of Ambergris.

    Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book about a book about a film that tells the story of Will Navidson and his family moving into an old house, which slowly reveals itself to be a supernaturally shifting non-Euclidian space. The book relies on the multiply nested frame stories and footnotes to construct a sense of verisimilitude as well as mystery. Though all of it is fictional, receiving the story through a game of telephone with multiple unreliable narrators only adds to the intrigue. It feels like stumbling into a particularly vivid and heavily documented conspiracy theory.

    Did the Navidson Record ever actually exist, or is it just the crazed ramblings of Zampano? Did the house itself ever exist? And if it did, how did it come to be? How long has it been there? We are never given answers to any of these questions. Instead, we are expected to wonder.

    How to Make It Okay

    The Genre of Inscrutability builds a setting full of mysteries that it doesn’t intend to resolve. This is not to be confused with something like LOST, a very unfortunate show that intended to resolve its mysteries and catastrophically failed to do so. Here, we are talking about purposeful inscrutability.

    As we see in Bee and Puppycat, one way to make this okay is to keep that mystery separate from the tension and catharsis. If the story is about whether the main character will follow his dreams and leave his small town to go to culinary school, his mysterious island home is just interesting set-dressing. When he overcomes his fears and decides to go, the tension is resolved in a satisfying way. The mysterious setting is still present, but it’s not blocking the satisfying resolution of the story.

    Ambergris shows another possibility: a setting so grandiose in scope that it is not fully knowable. I cannot know every nook and cranny of my home city. I certainly cannot know all of its long history. Likewise, Ambergris is a setting with fuzzy edges. We might know some of its history, its inhabitants, its streets and buildings, but we cannot know all of it. There is vague malice lurking beyond the torn edges of the map, monsters that might just come up out of the ground one night and whisk everyone away. Such a setting makes the characters feel small and weak in a very big and dangerous world.

    House of Leaves fully leans into the mystery. The mystery is entirely central to the book. The book itself is a puzzle box, a literary game. It doesn’t give away all the clues, because that would be too easy. You have to want the answers and work for them. You can theorize and guess, but at the end of the day, the book just winks, shrugs, and walks away. It’s up to you to convince yourself you’re right, based on the evidence at hand. House of Leaves forces the reader into the position of the conspiracy theorist, just like its numerous narrators.

    In Medias Res

    When I was a young whippersnapper, I once accidentally read the sixth book in a seven-book series. I didn’t know it was part of a series. I didn’t find out until I got to the end and found the whole series listed out. It was a very disconcerting experience. It is the ultimate form of in medias res.

    This is exactly the experience that the Genre of Inscrutability cultivates, but it’s a dangerous game. Some readers won’t put up with it. I have no doubt that all of the stories I talked about above have left readers and viewers behind. Not everyone wants to work to enjoy a story, and no matter how the inscrutable story tries to make it okay, it is requiring extra effort from the audience.

    On the other hand, the inscrutable story offers a real depth of experience to a dedicated fan. One need only look at the wikis, forums and social media conversations to see that fans of this kind of content derive a huge amount of satisfaction from combing through every detail of the work, and then discussing it with other fans. But woe unto the author who accidentally inserts some small error that the fans latch on to as a meaningful clue. Even if you don’t intend to reveal all the answers, internal consistency is still important.

    If you know of any other stories that you think fall into the Genre of Inscrutability, let me know in the comments. I’d love to find other examples.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 19

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Language Research

For this chapter, I did some research into Proto-Inuit and Proto-Eskimoan language in order to come up with the character names. I already knew what I wanted the meaning of each name to be, so it was a matter of scanning through research papers and websites to find words that fit the meaning and also sound good to my ear.

It’s always a little harrowing writing anything in a language you’re not proficient with, because it’s very easy to miss bad connotations or grammatical rules that alter the meaning. This is a pretty mild case since each of these names are simple phrases and the languages are ancestors of modern languages with relatively small speaking populations. Getting something wrong in French is much more likely to be caught by readers and pull them out of their immersion than getting something wrong in proto-Inuit.

I still like to get it right though, for the sake of craftsmanship and out of respect for the language and the people who spoke it, regardless of what it is.

Building God-Speaker

One of the challenges of an effectively immortal character is that you have such a large span of time to populate, and then such a limited number of scenes to actually show. Act I showed God-Speaker’s origin and how he came to Razor Mountain. Act II is jumping through time specifically to showcase particular formative moments for him. Hopefully this will give the reader not only an understanding of who he is, but why he is that way.

Some of the reader feedback I got for this chapter was that we know almost nothing about the relationship between God-Speaker and Strong-Shield, so it’s hard to care about their fight. That is a valid concern. On the other hand, Strong Shield only lives in this one chapter. I have to limit the amount of words I spend on him. What really matters to me in this scene is that we see what God-Speaker is doing and the state of Razor Mountain.

These chapters will end up being a sort of slide-show, little moments from a long span of history. They will mention or hint at other things that happen in the mountain, but there will necessarily be a lot that is left out. Novels are full of choices like this, and I chose to go a particular way. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was the “right” way or the “best” way (if such a thing even exists).


Chapter sixteen ended with God-Speaker seeking immortality. While this chapter isn’t explicit about how much time has passed, it does reveal that he is in a new body.

I thought spending more time on this resurrection, but I decided against it. His new body is mentioned in passing, and this keeps an air of mystery around the process. We know that the voices in the mountain are somehow involved, but we don’t know the exact mechanism of it. The reader understands that God-Speaker can live beyond a normal human lifespan, but there are still questions to string us along. I like this kind of partial answer as a way to dole out information without completely giving up the mystery.

Next Time

Going by my outline, there are three more God-Speaker chapters in Act II. However, next time, in Chapter 20, we are back to Christopher, who is having his own bad times in a prison cell under Razor Mountain.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 19.3

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

God-Speaker found that his eyes were welling up. The voices were right. They were always right. He hated them.

“Don’t walk this path,” God-Speaker said. “Give me some other choice.”

“Step aside,” Strong Shield said, even as God-Speaker side-stepped his spear-thrust.

God-Speaker’s hands were empty. There was nothing on the table except papers.

“You are no match for me,” Strong Shield said, the head of his spear bobbing and thrusting. He approached carefully, ready to strike, making it impossible for God-Speaker to do anything but move backward, away from the doors.

God-Speaker blinked and a tear ran down his face.

“I trusted you. You think you can lead these people? Nobody should follow someone who would betray his own brother.”

Strong Shield only lunged again.

God-Speaker knew these steps, these thrusts. The voices knew much about fighting, but little about human bodies. God-Speaker had synthesized their knowledge into something practical: a fighting style he developed himself. He had taught their first warriors, long before Strong Shiels. His techniques had been refined and passed down. Strong Shield was adept, but his skill had limits.

God-Speaker threw up his arm. When Strong Shield thrust again, he sidestepped and brought the arm down, capturing the shaft under his armpit. He wrapped his arm around it as Strong Shield tried to pull it back, the barb cutting into the flesh beneath his shoulder blade. Wincing, God-Speaker brought his other hand to bear, shoving the spear down. Strong Shield was caught off-balance, brought to one knee with the butt of the spear touching the stone floor.

God-Speaker brought the other end down to his right knee. His other knee fell on the middle of the shaft. It bent, then broke under his weight.

Strong Shield staggered, now holding only the broken butt of the spear and still off balance. God-Speaker held the sharp end under his arm, but he had been forced to throw his weight downward to snap it. Instead of fighting this momentum, he leaned into it, tucking his chin to his chest and rolling forward onto his left shoulder.

He somersaulted, intending to come up onto his feet. Before he could get all the way around, Strong Shield’s hand lashed out and grasped his arm at the elbow. Instead of trying to regain his footing, the man had lunged after him, turning the fight into a grappling match on the floor.

It had only been a few months since God-Speaker had taken on this new body. It was young and strong, but not as muscular as Strong Shield, and God-Speaker was still learning the feel of it. He felt just a little too slow, a little too weak. Strong Shield took hold of his wrists as they tumbled, both men fighting to come out on top.

Strong Shield feared the spear tip that God-Speaker had pried away from him. God-Speaker held it in his right hand. He let his left arm go limp while he struggled to press the right toward Strong Shield’s face.

Strong Shield’s face had shown fear for a moment. Now he smiled, confident in his control of the situation. He held God-Speaker’s right hand firmly, elbow locked as they rolled to a stop, the larger man on top.

“This is meant to be,” Strong Shield said, twisting God-Speaker’s wrist.

“I’m sorry,” God-Speaker said. “I should have seen this coming. I should have been able to stop it.”

Strong Shield cried out in wordless victory as the broken spear fell from God-Speaker’s twisted hand. He scrambled to grab the half-spear. God-Speaker twisted underneath him, but Strong Shield straddled him, grabbing God-Speaker’s right hand with his left.

His body half-turned, God-Speaker bent his left knee, bringing his foot up to his hip as Strong Shield raised the spear point for the killing blow.

God-Speaker’s free left hand slipped a thin flint blade from a hidden pocket on his boot. The blade came up at an angle across the man’s exposed abdomen, cutting a clean line through skin and muscle, only stopping when it struck the bottom of his sternum. The blade was as long as a finger, just enough to wedge under the ribs and press into the beating heart. God-Speaker felt the twist of his wrist, the snap of the razor-thin tip of the blade, buried in Strong Shield’s chest. Then he felt the wave of hot wetness as Strong Shield’s lifeblood poured over him. The head of the spear came down without any force. The arms were already limp. The black irises were dull and empty.

For a moment, God-Speaker could do nothing but sob silently. Then he shoved the body away. He was soaked in blood. The smell and the taste of it was overwhelming. For a moment, he thought he would vomit, but he suppressed it. He stood.

The blood drained off of him, onto the floor. There was a rhythm to it, dripping, like the beating of drums. His heart beat with it, a cold rage building. Underneath it all were the voices of the mountain.

God-Speaker let his breathing slow. His anger and sadness didn’t diminish, they only concentrated to a white-hot point in his chest. He walked to the closed doors, knowing that he left footprints in blood every step of the way.

He opened the doors, letting the cold autumn wind blow over him, and looked down the small flight of stone stairs. There was a wide, flat gathering space below, where his remaining war councilors waited and talked amongst themselves. They looked up at him in shock.

“What happened?” asked Aoyura.

“I was betrayed,” God-Speaker said. “Strong Shield believed that he could lead our people better than I. He thought he could kill me. He is dead by my hand.”

A few others who had been nearby began to gather, staring open-mouthed at God-Speaker’s blood-soaked body.

“I am Tutanarulax Qatqa. I am the one who speaks to the gods of the mountain. I am the one who does not die.”

The gathered people, the councilors, all of them averted their eyes and bowed their heads. Out of respect? Fear? In that moment, God-Speaker did not care.

“Come,” he said. “Bring water. We must cleanse this place of the blood of the traitor. Then I will tell you the future I see for our city in the mountain.”


Razor Mountain — Chapter 19.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Strong Shield paced around the room, his hand first trailing across the maps on the table, then the carvings on one of the pillars. He was clearly agitated.

God-Speaker organized his thoughts before speaking.

“I always listen to your council, but it is council only. I will not act on advice that I know to be wrong. I gave you your name because I know you want to protect our people. You are a great warrior. What you propose will not protect them. You must look beyond one fight, beyond one enemy.”

“That is what I am doing.”

“You have never seen an empire,” God-Speaker said.

“You have?”

“The gods of the mountain show me many things. The idea of empire is new to us, but it is not new to them. Those we subjugate will hate us, and they will do anything in their power to destroy us.”

“What do you propose then? Let them attack us? That is not looking beyond the fight at hand.”

“No,” God-Speaker said. “You said yourself, we are strong and we have what we need. When we trade with outsiders, it is often better for them than for us. For many years we wanted to bring people in, to grow. Now, we are a city.”

God-Speaker gestured to the room. The cleverly slanted windows high above let in the afternoon light while keeping out the weather. Strips of golden light shone across the room, revealing sparkling motes of dust.

“Let us hollow out the mountain. We will continue to live here, but let nobody in. When we go out, we will go out in secret. Let the stories of a city in the mountains become legends. Leave a few burned remnants scattered across the valleys below. Let those put the lie to these stories that bring enemies here in search of treasure. We will make our doors and windows so cleverly that they will never suspect we look down on them from above. They will go home and tell the story of the legendary city which turned out to be nothing but spirits and burned rocks.”

As God-Speaker spoke, Strong Shield’s eyes narrowed.

“You would have us hide away from these weaklings who have no hope of defeating us? You would have us be remembered as a tribe that was utterly destroyed?”

“What do the stories of other tribes matter to you? We will be safe in the mountain. We will have what we need, and we will keep our knowledge and our wealth to ourselves.”

Strong Shield shook his head.

“You are pitiful.”

“Do you truly want to fight so badly?” God-Speaker said. “Can’t you see that it is better to not fight at all?”

“No,” Strong Shield said. “I want us to be led by someone who isn’t afraid of the outside world.”

The conversation had taken a turn God-Speaker had not expected. He realized now that the voices in the mountain were agitated. Their susurration was like a wind blowing in the depths. They saw the signs. They knew what could happen.

The sound was only audible to God-Speaker. There might be one or two others on the mountain who would feel a faint uneasiness. Strong Shield would think that God-Speaker’s sudden change in expression was a response to his words.

“You are like my brother,” God-Speaker said. “You know I want what’s best for our people.”

“Of course,” Strong Shield said. “But you can still be wrong. You are not a strong leader.”

God-Speaker clenched his jaw.

“I came to the mountain alone. I was here before you were born. I gathered the people to me. Everything we have built is because of me.”

“So you say.”

“Only I hear the voices of the gods.”

“Given enough time, perhaps another can learn to hear them.”

Strong Shield reached behind the pillar and pulled out his fine spear, tipped with a sharp barb of whale bone.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 19.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

The lord’s chamber was freshly hewn from the gray rock. It was new enough that the walls still showed the tool marks, and in places there were cracks and openings left behind by the caves they had widened for the construction. In time, these blemishes would be smoothed away and covered over. It was an astonishing task, the work of years and many hands, cleverly trained and carefully guided. It was a needless expenditure of effort, compared to work that could have been done on the smithy or the farms or a dozen other construction projects that would have more direct effect on their day-to-day lives. Its value lied in its beauty. Nowhere else in the world could such a place exist. It was a monument to the people of the mountain city and the knowledge they took from the gods.

The long room had large doors of heavy timber banded with bronze, marked with symbols of protection and warding. Four ornately carved and painted stone pillars told spiraling stories of the founding of the village and the many achievements of its people. The furnishings in the room were moved in and out depending on the occasion. Long tables could be brought in when it was made into a feasting hall. Ornate wooden thrones could be arranged for God-Speaker and his advisers when it was a court for the visiting emissaries of distant tribes. Today, it was a war room, furnished only with a large round table, strewn with durable parchment maps and scrawled notes on the rougher paper made from local reeds.

“Tutan, the scouts report a war party. Less than fifty people. They will come up along the deep river valley, to the place where it splits. They mean to attack the city.”

 God-Speaker’s name had changed with the language his people spoke, a creole of the varied dialects spoken by those who made the mountain their home. “Tutanarulax Qatqa” was the one who spoke to the mountain, but it had become more comfortable for him to go by Tutan, “one who speaks,” in all but the most formal situations.

“Who are these people?” God-Speaker asked. “What quarrel do they have with us?”

A woman across the table, Aoyura, lifted a piece of paper. “One of my people took meals with the traders who came just after the new moon. They said they had passed a group like this, a group girded for fighting, and the fighters bragged that they were going to take plunder from a great tribe of the mountains. The traders said they spoke little to the fighters, for fear of them and fear of arousing our anger.”

“But they made no mention of an attack to me,” God-Speaker said.

“No, I think they only hoped for good trade and were happy to stay out of it. Strangers offer no kindness to one another in these days.”

A tall, muscular man close to God-Speaker thumped an open hand onto the table. It was Kuoemanuna, who took the name that God-Speaker had given him meaning Strong Shield.

“We were gracious hosts! We gave them good food and warm beds, and a place at the storytelling fire. We gave them good trades, even for the things that are not very useful to us. The least they could do is warn us of this war party.”

“I did not say we were unkind to them,” Aoyura replied. “But the people from far away speak differently, act differently. They do not trust easily and they keep their kindness for their own.”

“Then we should treat them no differently,” Strong Shield said.

God-Speaker put a hand up to halt the line of conversation before it got any more argumentative.

“It has always been our way,” God-Speaker said. “It is what brought many different peoples to the mountain, and why they have stayed.”

“Yes, but are we not our own people now?” Strong Shield asked. “We must protect ourselves.”

God-Speaker loved Strong Shield like a brother, but he was often too eager to solve problems in the most direct and confrontational ways. Aoyura was the opposite. She was known for changing people’s minds, getting what she wanted by making other people think they wanted it too. She had taken charge of a group of talkative women who gathered information within the city and amongst the traders sent out to other tribes.

“Let us focus on the problem at hand,” God-Speaker said. “These people come to take from us. How shall we stop them?

“I think it is best to let them use up their energy and food climbing the mountains. They will have to cross the river at the mouth of the valley to the south. We prepare our defense there. Away from the city, and where the terrain is most favorable. When they arrive, we give them a choice: turn away, or face our sharp spears and swift arrows.”

Strong Shield shook his head. “We have better weapons and better tactics. They have no chance against us. We should meet them further south, where the valley is wide. Show them that even in the open, they cannot defeat us. If they fear us, they will not return.”

God-Speaker nodded. “Our people are strong, that is true. But I do not want to spend our peoples’ blood to simply make a point. If we prepare our strongest defense, that will be enough to show them how outmatched they are.”

“They will learn their lesson best on the point of a spear,” Strong Shield said. “Even if they are shamed and turn away, do you think that will be the end of it? We should at least capture them.”

“For this season, it will be the end of it,” God-Speaker said. “If they dare to return next season, they will find that we are still strong. And I will not keep prisoners on the mountain.”

Strong Shield sighed. “May I speak honestly?”

“Of course,” God-Speaker said. “Speak.”

“We have strength here, but it is wasted. Others hear stories about the city in the mountains, where the people never go hungry and have many amazing things. They grow envious of us. More and more of them will want to test themselves against us, and perhaps take these treasures as war prize back to their own people.

“And yet, the stories they tell of us only guess at what we can do. You know this. This city is a miracle, built on the knowledge of the gods. We should show them that they cannot take what belongs to us. Anyone who comes to us with spear raised should be destroyed. Then, we should send our own warriors to their people. We offer them death, as they would have given us, or the chance to become like us. New villages, just like ours, under the rule of our people. In return, we ask only that they never raise arms against us, and that they send some small fraction of their new bounty back to us.”

He stared into God-Speaker’s eyes, his own black like the water at night, but holding a glint of fire.

God-Speaker shook his head.

“You speak of an empire,” he said. The word was strange in his mouth, a guttural, foreign word that came to him from the voices deep in the mountain. There was no word for it in his people’s language.

“We will have more resources,” Strong Shield said. “Our people will be safe. And others will receive the same miracles we have received.”

God-Speaker held up a hand.

“Everyone who is here chose to be here,” he said. “No miracle comes out of blood. Our people will not be safe. Everyone in these villages, from oldest man to youngest child, will hold their hatred of us in their hearts. Our food and drink will taste sour and rancid in their mouths. They will tell themselves stories of the way we spilled their blood.”

“They deserve it for attacking us,” Strong Shield said, brow contorted in anger.

“Maybe so,” God-Speaker said. “It will not change what is in their hearts.”

“Why won’t you listen to me?” Strong Shield shouted, slamming a fist on the table.

The booming resonance of it filled the chamber, leaving behind a heavy silence. The only sound was God-Speaker’s calm, even breathing.

“Let us speak alone,” God-Speaker said. “Everyone, please go outside.”

The others nodded, walking quickly to the door. None of them had any desire to get involved.