Razor Mountain — Chapter 15.2

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

As the day progressed, Christopher realized that all of his conversations would be like this. Some of these people seemed leery or even a little afraid of him. Others overcame it enough to talk with him, but the conversations were all short and focused on what he could tell them about the outside world. They avoided answering his questions.

There were more people than he had initially realized. He guessed that there might be as many as fifty of them. They all wore the same uniform, but there were no markings to tell him what branch of the service they might belong to. 

They didn’t have a lot to do, either. Christopher saw a few people preparing  food, and a few others cleaning the inhabited areas. He saw one man sitting cross-legged on a cot, reading a very dirty and tattered little paperback. Everyone else was talking, or playing cards, or sleeping.

The man named Garrett worried Christopher. He clearly thought that Christopher was a problem, and while he didn’t exactly follow Christopher around, he kept turning up in whatever room Christopher happened to be in. Whenever Christopher looked at him, he was staring. He made no effort to hide it.

When evening came, Amaranth eventually led Christopher to a small room with a single cot.

This is your room.

“All by myself, huh?”

They don’t exactly trust you. You’re not dumb, you see that, right?

“Yeah, I noticed.”

In truth, a room of his own didn’t sound too bad. He felt exhausted from all the interaction. He had spent weeks completely alone, talking to himself. He had rehashed memories of conversations from years ago, and thought through all the things he might say to family and friends when he got back home. Now that he had real people to talk to, the effort of it drained him. It didn’t help that every conversation felt like a confrontation.

“Is it just me, or does Garrett really dislike me?”

Amaranth smiled and let out a half-cough, half-sigh of laughter. Christopher suddenly wondered what injury had stolen her voice. She flipped a page and wrote for quite a while in her book.

Garrett is an idiot. He decided to come with us, and now he regrets it. But he doesn’t have enough brainpower to do any introspection, so he just takes it out on everyone else. 

“And I’m the new punching bag?”

I think everyone was hoping you’d know some things that you don’t know.

“Yeah, I feel the same way. I had this idea that if I found people, that would solve all my problems. I’d be on my way back home within hours. Now I’m surrounded by people, and I know even less about what’s going on.”

Amaranth shrugged.

“If I ask you some questions, will you answer? Or are all of you under orders not to tell me anything?”

No orders. They’re just scared and confused. I’ll answer if I can.

“Okay. Are you all in the military?”

No, but most are.

“So, this place, Razor Mountain, is like an Army base?”

Army base and a city.

“Am I a prisoner?”

She sighed.

No. But I don’t think you can leave.

“How is that any different.”

I guess it isn’t.

“You said they’re scared and confused. What is everyone scared about?”

They’re scared that we’ll get caught.

Christopher thought about this.

“You’re not supposed to be here. They asked me about the plane, about the ‘outside world.’ You’re all trying to get out of here too?”

I’m not. Everyone else is.

“Why not you?”

I like being out here. I like living out in the woods. I can take care of myself.

“You’d just live in the forest?”

Why not?

“I don’t know. It seems hard. And lonely.”

I don’t mind being alone. And I’m good at living in the woods. My dad taught me. I hunt. I fish. I know the plants.

“Wouldn’t you miss anyone?”

Everyone I’d miss is already dead. 

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

It’s fine. It was years ago.

“So why are you here instead of out in the woods?”

I’m trying to help them. I like to be alone, but I’m not going to just ignore people who need help.

“I appreciate that,” Christopher said. “You probably saved my life.”

She shrugged again. They sat in silence for a minute.

“Look, maybe you won’t want to answer, but why are they afraid they’ll get caught? Why did they run away? Is it like treason, or desertion or whatever?”

Desertion. They didn’t think they were being told the truth. They stopped trusting the leadership. But all information comes down from them.

“You don’t have TV or radio? Newspaper? Anything?”

Everything gets vetted by command first.

“What about people coming in from other places?”

Very rare.

“Wait, people must get transferred in and out.”

That’s not how Razor Mountain works.

“So nobody comes or goes and you don’t get any information about the outside world?”

Only through command. A lot of people don’t trust it.

“How can they do that? You can’t just keep people there indefinitely. Even if they’re in the Army, their contracts must end eventually.”

She flipped back a page and tapped the words she had already written.

That’s not how Razor Mountain works.

“And all these people decided to become deserters and leave? Without a plan to actually get to a town or something?”

Amaranth nodded.

Ema was working on a plan, but command found out. They had to leave before they were ready. Or probably face a court-martial.

“And now people like Garrett are thinking the court-martial might have been the better choice?”

Maybe. Maybe he’s just a whiner.

Christopher sat on his cot, back against the wall, and tried to process. Amaranth took out a pocket knife and a chunk of wood that had already been partly whittled. The carving vaguely resembled a person.

“You were the one leaving carvings in the woods?”

She nodded.

“Why?”

She flicked a few shavings off the piece before picking up the notebook and pen.

Just something to do. Decorating my space, I guess.

“Do you know how creepy it is to find something like that out in the woods, when you think you’re alone?”

Sorry.

They sat for a while. The small sounds of knife on wood were peaceful. A pile of shavings started to accumulate on the floor.

“What about me?” Christopher asked. “They shot at me. But I’m not a soldier. I haven’t deserted. If I got into Razor Mountain, would I be a prisoner there too? Would your people let me go?”

Amaranth pressed the knife against a knot in the wood. There was a small ping, and a little piece went sailing across the room to bounce off the far wall. She picked up the notebook.

They won’t want you to go. They don’t want you telling command where to find them.

“What if I promise not to say anything?”

That’s not a promise you can make.

“Why not?”

What if they say you don’t get to go home unless you talk.

“Ah.”

There are plenty of worse things they could do, too.

Christopher took a deep breath.

“So I’m screwed.”

If we find a way to get out, you can go with them.

“Yeah, but you said there was no plan. I don’t know where we are. We could be hundreds of miles from the nearest town.”

Amaranth closed her book.

“Done talking then?”

She tilted her head toward the door. A man was standing there, the same man who had stood guard when Christopher was waiting for his interview with Ema.

“I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced,” he said. “My name is Harold.”

He held out a hand, and Christopher stood to shake it. Amaranth stood as well.

“Am I under lockdown again?” Christopher asked.

“Sorry,” Harold said. “I know it’s unpleasant. People just need some reassurance.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Christopher said. 

Amaranth headed toward the door.

“Talk more tomorrow?” Christopher asked.

She nodded without turning, and raised a hand in a half-wave goodbye.

“If you’d prefer, I could stay outside the room,” Harold said.

“Makes no difference to me,” Christopher replied.

There was a muffled voice from the hall, and Harold stepped out, returning with a second cot. He set it down next to the door.

Christopher considered asking Harold more questions, maybe seeing if he had different answers than Amaranth. However, he already felt overwhelmed, and he decided it would be better to try tomorrow. Maybe, given some time, these people could start to trust him. Maybe they’d figure out how to get to the nearest town. After all, with a whole group working together, they ought to have a much better chance than Christopher all by himself. 

Still, no matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he would have been better off alone in the woods.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 15.1

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

It didn’t take long before Christopher began to feel like a zoo animal. He was allowed some freedom, and once he had rested, Amaranth showed him a hallway full of rooms where these people rested, some normal-looking office bathrooms, the room that served as a makeshift mess hall, and an area where the floors above had partially collapsed down to their level. The ceiling in that area was at Christopher’s shoulder height, and it looked as though there might be ways through the rubble, but it certainly didn’t look safe.

Although he had supposedly been vetted, and he no longer had guns trained on him wherever he went, he was never alone. It was hard to tell if people were just curious or keeping an eye on him. Despite their interest in him, none of them immediately tried to make conversation.

The makeshift mess hall was really just more office space that had been filled with tables and chairs. Christopher ate rice, beans, and some tasteless canned chicken. It was like being back home in the bunker. He tried to get information out of Amaranth, but it was slow going.

“What is this place?”

She set her fork down to write a note.

Building F

“What does that mean? Are there buildings “A” through “E” around here? Letters beyond that?”

She nodded. After another bite she wrote.

There are others. Not sure how many.

“Why is all this out here?”

 It’s all part of Razor Mountain.

“What’s Razor Mountain?”

It’s a mountain. But also a city.

“So it’s all connected?”

She shook her head and wrote, It’s all over the mountain.

While they went through this slow process of question and answer, Christopher became aware that several of the others were watching and listening from nearby tables. They all wore the same camouflage fatigues.

“Is everyone here in the military then? Is that why there’s all this secrecy?

Something like that.

One of the men in the watching group said, “You’d better be careful what you tell him, Amaranth.”

Christopher saw a clear look of irritation flicker over Amaranth’s face before she suppressed it. She wrote quickly on the paper and flashed it at him. Christopher couldn’t make out what it said.

“Hmph,” was his only reply.

As though this small interaction had opened the floodgates, several others moved over to Christopher’s table as a group. They congregated on the other side, with Amaranth, and left a gap on either side of him.

“Where are you from?” one woman asked. “Why are you here?”

Christopher sighed. “I’m from Minneapolis. I was on a trip and my plane crashed.”

“You survived a plane crash?”

“Well, I jumped, and I landed in water. I guess I was just incredibly lucky.”

“Incredibly lucky,” said the man who had warned Amaranth. He was still sitting back at the other table.

Christopher shrugged.

“I found a bunker. It must be one of these Razor Mountain buildings, but I didn’t know that. It’s the only reason I survived. Gave me a warm place to stay, food and supplies.”

“What are things like out there, these days?” the woman asked.

“What do you mean, ‘out there?’” Christopher asked.

“Out in the world. In Minnesota.”

“Fine, I guess. The weather isn’t that different from up here, honestly.”

“But what about the war?”

“What war? Afghanistan? Iraq?”

Christopher looked around. The faces were oddly expressionless, like they weren’t sure how to react.

 “I’m honestly not entirely sure which of those was an official war,” Christopher continued. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. You all must know more about it than I do.”

“What about Russia?” one of the men asked.

“What about it?”

“People aren’t worried about war with Russia?”

Christopher shrugged. “I don’t think so. I guess there are always some people who think the Cold War never ended.”

There was another moment of awkward silence around the table.

“Why is everyone asking me about geopolitics? Why Russia?” Christopher asked. “I feel like there’s something you’re trying to get at, and nobody wants to say it.”

The man sitting at the other table stood up and walked over.

“They’re having a hard time believing that things are going well out there,” he said.

Christopher laughed. “I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘going well.’ Better than the Cold War?”

Again, silence stretched.

“Do you not get the news up here?”

“What’s your name?” The man asked.

“Christopher.”

“What if I told you that I don’t think you’re who you say you are.”

“I’ve been getting a lot of that lately,” Christopher said.

The man nodded. “It’s probably because your story sounds made up. And you somehow got here, into this highly secure area, just by chance.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Christopher asked. “I don’t have anything to prove who I am. I lost my luggage, I lost my wallet, hell, I lost my shoes. I’ve just been trying to stay alive and get back home.”

“And what do you think someone would say, if they came here with other intentions?” the man asked.

“They’d probably have a more believable story than jumping out of an airplane. What intentions are they going to have?” Christopher countered. “To find your secret base here, which kind of looks like it should have been condemned fifty years ago?”

Amaranth wrote furiously on her paper again and held it up to the man. He glanced at it and then casually slapped it aside, out of her hand.

“I don’t care how long you were spying on him,” the man said. “I know you think you’re a real commando, and for some reason Ema thinks so too, but you’re just a fucking kid. You’ve got a lot to learn.”

Amaranth scooped up her notebook and stood facing the man, jaw and hands clenched. Christopher saw several of the others glaring at him. One of the women said, “Garrett…” 

“What? You all get excited over a stranger who just shows up out of the blue, and take him at his word that he’s here entirely by accident? Besides, even if he is exactly what he says, how does that help us? We have bigger problems to deal with.”

“Maybe he knows something that can help,” the woman said.

“What could he possibly know?” Garrett countered. “Either he’s telling the truth and he doesn’t know shit, or he’s lying and he’s not going to tell you anything useful anyway.”

The eyes of the group turned back to Christopher.

“He’s probably right,” Christopher said. “I don’t even know what the problem is. I could point you to that bunker I found, but that’s about it.”

“You said your plane crashed,” one of the men said. “How bad was the crash?”

“Fireball bad?” Christopher said. “I never found the crash site, I think it was pretty high up the slope from the bunker, but I doubt there would be much left to salvage.”

“See?” Garrett said. “He’s stuck. He’s either hoping that we can help him, or trying to get whatever info he can out of you.”

Amaranth wrote in her notebook. 

He’s not a spy!

“It doesn’t matter,” Garrett said. “We can’t help him, and he can’t help us.”

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Revising Short Stories

The Short Story Series

When we think of revision, we often think of line edits: correcting grammar and punctuation; cutting tropes or overused idioms; improving word choices here and there. These are mechanical improvements that anyone can learn to do.

The real challenge, however, is in making the story great. It’s in making something that hits the reader like a punch to the gut. While grammar and punctuation are important, they’re surface polish. What a story really needs underneath that is focus.

Finding Focus

Even the tightest of novels is huge in comparison to a short story. Short stories simply don’t have as much space to maneuver. A novel can choose to have more characters, go into more depth, have more plot points, more ideas. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I said previously, if a novel is a searchlight, a short story is a laser. It needs to cut directly to the point. When it does, it can be incredibly powerful.

If you’re the sort of writer who likes to plan up-front, you may already know what you want the focus of your short story to be. If you’re more of an exploratory writer, you may leave yourself open to a few different options and see what speaks to you as you write. You don’t necessarily have to know all the answers while you’re writing your first draft.

It’s during revision when you have to make the hard choices.

Cutting Diamonds

Once you have a first draft, it’s helpful to go back and think about what you were trying to achieve. What made you want to write this in the first place? Is it still the thing that excites you the most about the story? Is there a twist ending that everything leads to? A particular character or situation? A hard choice that has to be made?

Maybe it’s not a “traditional” story element that excites you. Maybe it’s formatting or style. Maybe it’s tone or exploration of a particular emotion.

If you didn’t have a clear plan, reread your work and see what speaks to you. You’re looking for the core of the story, the beating heart that makes it live. Of course, it may not actually feel like that just yet. The important thing is that you want it to.

Once you’ve found the core of the story, there’s only one thing left to do. Put it at the center and rearrange everything else to support it. Even if you’ve written the greatest sentence to ever grace the page, if it doesn’t reinforce the core of the story it has to go.

Cut Relentlessly

When I was writing microfiction and studying drabbles, I learned an important lesson about revision: no matter how perfect you think your story is, there’s something that can be cut. When you have to fit a coherent story into a single tweet, you make some hard choices. You can replace two words with one, or a six letter word with five. If you can lose a sentence and the story still makes sense, you cut it. If you have a fun little aside you want to include…you don’t. You’re still fifteen words over budget. Cut, cut, cut.

I highly recommend any writer try writing a few tweet-sized microfiction stories. It’s one of the best exercises you can do to really internalize an understanding of trimming a story to its bare bones.

Of course, most short stories are much longer than 250 characters. After writing microfiction, a short story will feel positively spacious, but the same principles still apply. Unfortunately, writing a short story is harder than writing microfiction. Microfiction takes away most of your choices. If you can cut something, you probably do.

In a short story, you have some wiggle room. Not a lot, but some. You don’t have to cut quite as much. You still need to identify the places where you can make a cut with just as much ruthlessness as microfiction. Then, you need to identify the cost of that cut. Usually, there’s some identifiable reason you wrote that paragraph or sentence or word in the first place. If there isn’t, that’s an easy cut.

Once you’ve identified the cost, the only question is whether it’s worth it. Remember, as an author, you’re already biased toward loving your own words. Are those words really earning their keep? Do they reenforce the core, the beating heart of the story?

Cut more than you think is reasonable, and see how it feels. Save as many versions as you need to in order to cut fearlessly.

Getting Feedback

Revision can’t be done in isolation. No matter how much you try, no matter how much space you give it, it will always be your story. You need to see it through the eyes of fresh readers.

Luckily, requesting feedback on a short story is a much smaller ask than requesting feedback on a novel. If you’re lucky enough to have trusted beta readers, by all means ask them to critique it. A writing group is another great way to get feedback from several people.

There are also several online options. Critters is my go-to website for online critique from other active writers. Just be aware that you’ll be expected to return the favor and provide critiques for others in return.

Revision is Exciting

Often, the mere mention of revision is enough to make an author groan. It can sometimes feel like writing the first draft is the creative part of the process, and revision is dull in comparison. However, revision can be every bit as creative and challenging as the first draft. It is the art of perfecting—of finding the core of the story and trimming, sanding and polishing until every single word sings it out.

It is like taking a crude circle of glass and shaping it into a precise lens, to get that laser focus.

Short Story Categorization

The Short Story Series

When you’re writing short stories with the intention to publish, you’ll want to pay attention to your word count. Short story publications most often pay per word, and will have limits on the size of stories they are willing to publish.

As a general rule of thumb, shorter stories are easier to get published than longer ones. Many publications won’t accept longer stories at all, and those that do accept them will often only accept a small number per issue.

On the other hand, the internet has provided new opportunities for longer stories that still fall short of novel-length. Novellas are becoming more common on e-book services like Amazon. If your story lends itself toward serialization, you can also consider breaking it up for episodic publishing, like Vella.

Microfiction/Nanofiction (<500 words)

Not everyone agrees on the definition of these terms, but they typically refer to the shortest of stories. I’ve used the microfiction tag for twitter-sized stories, but some people apply the term to stories up to a page long, or up to 500 words (about two pages).

Drabble (100 words)

Drabbles focus specifically on a length of 100 words. Some publications, like Martian Magazine, require exactly 100 words. Others, like The Drabble, treat 100 words as an upper limit.

Flash Fiction (<1000 words)

Flash fiction is a blanket term for the shortest fiction. One thousand words is a common upper bound, although some publications will categorize up to 1,500 or even 2,000 words as flash.

Short Story (<10,000 words)

Again, this is a little nebulous, but once you get beyond ten thousand words, you’re getting outside “standard” short story territory. Many publications will have tighter limits for what they allow, like 7,500 or 5,000 words.

Novelette (10,000 – 17,500 words)

There is a weird limbo between the short story lengths typically published by magazines, and the length of full-fledged novels. Novelettes live at the shorter end of this range. They’re typically defined as anything from ten thousand to 17,500 words, although some definitions cap them at an even 20,000. Sometimes novelettes are considered a subset of our next category, novellas.

Novella (20,000 – 40,000 words)

Novellas are the top end of the range before you get into novels. These are rare in traditional paper publishing, but they’ve become more common with the proliferation of cheap e-books.

Novel (40,000+)

Anything above 40,000 words is typically considered a novel. If you’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, this is the default goal. However, a higher word count is expected in most genres. This leaves “short novels” in a similar situation to novellas. As with novellas, these have become more common in e-books, where customers are less likely to consider how thick a book is before buying, and the economics of printing are less of a concern.

Others?

Any length-based categories I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Why Read Short Stories?

I began my series of short story posts with the question, “Why write short stories?” This time, I want to look at the other side of the coin and ask, “Why read short stories?”

For Fun

This one should be obvious. This blog is mostly about becoming a better writer, and we all got into this whole “author” mess because we really enjoyed a good story, right? (If you got into it for the fame and fortune, well…maybe you should consider letting someone else make your career choices for you?)

As I mentioned in the last post, novels have become the default unit of fiction. If you chat someone up at a social event and discover you both like science-fiction, you wouldn’t be surprised to be asked, “What’s your favorite book?” But it seems like it would have to be a very specific crowd of people to get asked, “What’s your favorite short story?”

And yet, there is a smorgasbord of great short fiction out there. There are still fiction magazines, even in this very non-magazine-friendly era, but there are also piles of short stories out on the internet, many of them available for free. If you’re the sort of person who reads dozens of novels a year but never reads short stories, I’d encourage you to go out there and try some. You can read a lot of short stories in the amount of time it would take to read one or two novels.

Recently, I’ve been savoring the anthologies of short stories I got from the Martian Year 2 Kickstarter. They’re great, because I can pick up one of these little books and read a story or two when I have a spare ten minutes. When I’m reading a novel, I much prefer longer reading sessions, where I can really get into it. Short stories are more like literary snacks. I can just pop one or two whenever I’m in the mood.

To Feed The Compost Heap

One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read widely, both inside and outside of your chosen genres. Short stories are a great way to survey the scene and expose yourself to the ideas and techniques that other authors are using.

I haven’t been able to find the attribution, but some author suggested that the writer’s subconscious is like a compost heap. You put bits and pieces of stories and style and weird ideas and the nightly news into it, and every once in a while you turn it over with a pitchfork. That mix of stuff becomes good dirt, a fallow base to grow your own stories from.

Short stories give you a lot of good fodder for the compost heap. You expose yourself to so many more ideas and styles by reading an anthology or an issue of a lit magazine than by reading a novel. Of course, short stories are necessarily smaller and less complex than a well-crafted novel, so there’s certainly value in both.

By reading more and more varied stories, you can cover more ground. One of the nightmares that keeps some authors up at night is the idea that they’ll finish their perfect novel, only to discover that an almost identical book was written in the early ’80s. Honestly, I think this is an overblown fear, and that for pretty much any story you can find something similar in the past, if you try hard enough. However, the more aware you are of the “story landscape” that you exist within, the more likely you are to come up with ideas that go beyond what others have done with a particular topic or style.

To Learn Technique

For the most part, we all have the same words available to us, whether you work in the deeper or shallower ends of the vocabulary pool. And yet we manage to have incredibly different styles of writing. Compare three semi-random examples from my bookshelf: Hemingway, Vonnegut and Tolkien. They’re all writing in English, but in a side-by-side comparison, they certainly feel like they’re writing in different languages.

By exposing you to more variety, short stories let you experience more varied techniques and tones. In the span of an hour, you could experience stories with the tight, simple language of Hemmingway, the lush descriptions of Tolkien, and the sly, comedic-yet-depressing viewpoint of Vonnegut.

Short stories also tend to be distilled and concentrated. A novel has some room to meander. A short story needs to be tight; it needs to know what it is and what it’s trying to do. If a novel is a big, bright search light, a short story is a laser.

To Research Markets

I won’t get into this too much, because we’ll talk about it in a later post, but if you’re writing short stories and you want to submit them for publication, it’s always good practice to read some of the stories from that publication before you submit. Magazines and anthologies usually describe in some detail the kinds of stories they’re looking for, but you’ll get a much better idea of the things the editors like by reading some of the stories they actually picked for previous issues or editions.

When you get into the short story submission grind, it might feel onerous to research a lot of different markets like this, but really it’s a great opportunity—you get to target your stories to markets that are more likely to accept them, you get to read some good stories, and the magazines get more readership and maybe a few bucks if you buy a sample issue or two.

Get Started

Whether you want to publish short fiction or not, don’t overlook short stories in favor of novels. There are a lot of great stories out there, and you’re going to miss out on so much if you only read the ones that are hundreds of pages long.

If you want somewhere to get started, check out my page on drabbles. These are super-short stories of exactly one hundred words. That page has links to ten of my favorite drabbles, as well as a couple of my own stories.

Beyond that, a simple google search for free short stories will turn up more than you could ever read. If you prefer reading words on paper, pretty much every genre has a few short story magazines you could subscribe to. Or you could visit your local library where the librarians would no doubt be delighted to help you find anthologies in the genre of your choice. Once you start looking for short stories, they’re not hard to find.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 14.2

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

“Tell me, Christopher, how do you like living in Minneapolis?”

“What?”

“Do you like Minneapolis?”

Christopher shrugged.

“I guess so.  It’s too cold in the winter and usually pretty miserable in the summer too. But I wouldn’t want to live somewhere like California or Nevada where they don’t have real seasons.”

“That’s it?”

“Fuck, I don’t know!” Christopher said, getting to his feet and knocking the chair back. “Why does it matter how I feel about Minneapolis? I’ve been lost in the woods for weeks. I just want to go home and drink a Coke and buy a big steak and, I don’t know, call my parents and friends and tell them I didn’t die in a horrible plane wreck a week into my new job.”

“Sit down, Chris.”

He stared at her.

“It’s Christopher.”

“Sit down, Christopher.”

He sat.

“How do you feel about America?”

“Jesus. I love it. It’s worked out pretty well for me.”

“That’s it?”

He picked at his lips where they were chapped and flaking.

“What do you want me to say? I grew up in America, and it seems like a better option than a lot of other places. I have a good job, when it doesn’t almost kill me. All my friends are here. The politics gets worse and worse every year, but my day-to-day is pretty good. At least it was before this all happened.”

“Christopher, what do you know about the U.S.S.R.?”

He stared into her eyes. Her face was blank.

“Probably not as much as my history teachers would like? I think it was the United Soviet Socialist Republic. Russia and a bunch of countries around Russia. Communist. A lot of people died when they changed their whole economic system. They helped us win World War II, then we had a few decades of the Cold War where we hated each other. Everyone piled up nukes on both sides, once or twice there was almost a global atomic war. We had a space race and America got to the moon. Eventually the U.S.S.R. fell apart. Now it’s just Russia trying to recapture their faded glory.”

“To your knowledge, have there ever been any nuclear strikes against America?”

Christopher blinked.

“No. Not unless you count the tests where we did it ourselves, out in the desert or on islands. Something like that.”

She leaned back in her chair.

“Alright, I think that’s enough. Let’s start over. Who do you really work for?”

Christopher put his face in his hands.

“I already told you, I work for Peak Electric Solutions. In Minneapolis. Look it up. Call them and ask them about me.”

She pulled her gun from its holster and set it gently on the table, resting her hand on it.

“I don’t have a lot of patience right now, Christopher, and I don’t think anything you’ve said so far sounds very believable.”

He leaned back in his chair.

“I don’t know what you want from me or why everyone here is so worried about me, but everything I’ve told you is the truth. It sounds crazy to me too, and I lived through it.”

“You tell me the truth,” she said, “and you tell me about your extraction point. I’m willing to make a deal.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Christopher said. “I was hoping this would be my extraction point. I just want to go home.”

“If you don’t cooperate, you could spend the rest of your life in that closet across the hall,” she said, “although that might not be very long.”

“Do you want me to make something up? I told you the truth, about everything. If you want more details, I can give you as much detail as you want. Or at least as much as I remember. I’m not lying.”

“Alright,” she said. “Let’s get into details. Back on the plane, when did you know you were going to crash? Were there other passengers?”

“Ah,” Christopher said. “Yeah. Sure. I guess I should probably just start every sentence with ‘I know this sounds crazy, but…’”

There was no clock in the room, but Christopher felt like he had been talking for hours. He repeated his story twice more, including all the details that came to mind. He explained the empty plane and missing passengers. He gave her the seemingly random code that gave him access to the bunker. He thought that talking through his story might give him some sort of epiphany, but it still didn’t make sense to him. It didn’t sound any more believable to him with the additional details.

The corporal listened with her unreadable expression, occasionally interjecting to ask questions. Halfway through the second telling, she took out a canteen and poured two glasses. Christopher half-expected alcohol, but it was just water.

When Christopher had finished his second retelling, the room fell silent. Ema had stood and was pacing along one side of the room. She came back to the desk and sat down. She sighed deeply.

“I hate to admit it, but I don’t think you’re lying. I don’t have the slightest idea what the hell happened to you or why you ended up here. And unfortunately for you, I doubt you’re any better off with us than you were before.”

They sat and looked at each other. Ema yawned.

“Can you please tell me something about where we are and what’s going on here?” Christopher asked.

“I suppose,” she said, “but I’m exhausted. You can ask the others. I need to think.”

She led him out of the room, back down the hall to the central area. There were still several others still there—two at the table, playing cards, and several more sitting or laying on cots that had been set up.

“I don’t think he’s a threat,” Ema announced to the group at large, “but I don’t think he’s going to be much help to us either. Feel free to make your own assessments.”

Christopher stifled the urge to groan, imagining a dozen more of these people interrogating him. However, he saw Amaranth sitting in the corner, and she gestured to him. He walked over, trying not to look over his shoulder. He felt the eyes of the others on him.

She scribbled in her notebook and held it up to him.

Sleep?

He nodded gratefully, and she gestured to one of the cots. He lay down with his back to the room. He knew they were watching him.

He really was exhausted. The cot wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it was no worse than sleeping in the tent had been, or the hard bunks in the bunker. Christopher felt his mind still racing with everything he had relayed to Ema, and everything he had seen here, but he was too worn down. The ideas were fractured and disorganized, like glassware shattering in his brain. He couldn’t hold on to any idea for more than a few seconds.

Despite feeling frantic and frustrated only moments before, he soon  found himself falling into feverish, hallucinatory dreams.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 14.1

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

Christopher had never had a gun pointed at him before, but within seconds of entering the maintenance room several of the people in fatigues had guns drawn and aimed near his feet. Amaranth immediately interposed herself between Christopher and the others and began gesturing vigorously in some sort of sign language. It was clear by their blank looks that some of the people didn’t understand her, but two or three of them seemed to be following along.

The people whispered to each other in their little cliques, and one man broke off from the card game and disappeared through the door on the far side of the room. Christopher stood, hands up, and waited for someone to decide what was to be done with him. Eventually, Amaranth directed him to an old wooden chair against the wall near the group playing cards.

After a few minutes of awkward silence where Christopher felt like some sort of zoo exhibit, the man who had gone out came back through a side door. Behind him was a woman with her black hair in a tight braid that fell to her waist. She had chevrons on her shoulder, and a few of the others saluted when she came into the room. Christopher wondered what the circumstances were where people in the military were allowed to have long hair. He had a vague sense that everyone got their head shaved in boot camp, and he thought it had to remain short after that, but several of these people had longer hair or beards.

Where everyone else in the room had been content to watch him from a distance and whisper amongst themselves, this new woman walked directly up to him. She had a jingling ring of keys hanging from her belt, and a sidearm holstered at her other hip.

He stood as she approached, slowly and with his hands clearly visible. He wasn’t sure what the protocol was. Should he salute?

She looked him over without speaking, the muscles around her mouth twitching. Then she turned to Amaranth and motioned in sign language. The gestured conversation went back and forth, and Christopher was unable to follow. He tried to stay calm and be patient, knowing that his safety probably depended on it. Finally, the woman held up her hands to Amaranth, as though asking her to pause. She turned back to Christopher.

“Come with me.”

She pointed to Amaranth, then to the man who had brought her. She led the way back through the side door. Christopher followed, with Amaranth and the man following behind.

The door led to a short hallway. There were several doors, some of them open. They had labels etched into the wood: B5, B4, B3. Some of the doors were left ajar, and Christopher could see what looked like dark, disused offices.

Christopher suddenly wondered about the lights. They were simple circles of frosted glass, set into the ceiling every few feet. The color of the light reminded him of sunlight, but he thought it would be impossible to somehow reflect sunlight this far down underground.

The woman with the long black hair stopped in front of one of the doors, “B2C,”  and located a key on the keyring to unlock it. She opened it up and gestured for him to step inside.

It was a closet. The floor was dirty, and the discolored and scraped olive paint on the walls showed where furniture or something else had once rubbed against the walls. Now it was a just a bare room, barely larger than an elevator.

He stepped inside, and the man stepped in after him. As the man shut the door, Christopher caught a glimpse of Amaranth and the woman going into an office across the hall.

“Sit,” the man said. His tone was more a suggestion than an order.

Christopher sat in the corner, facing the door. The man stood next to the door, arms crossed over his chest. He had no weapon, at least that Christopher could see.

Minutes went by. The man seemed content to just sit and watch Christopher.

Christopher began to wonder if he had made a mistake by not speaking up. These people were treating him like he was some kind of danger, when he clearly wasn’t.

“Can you tell me what’s going on?” he asked.

The man shook his head sadly.

“Just try to be patient. They’re going to talk for a bit, then the corporal will talk with you.”

Christopher sighed.

“I’m just a guy who got lost. I’m a sales person. My plane crashed. I was never meant to be here. I’m just trying to find a way to get back home.”

The man held up a hand.

“You need  to be quiet and wait patiently, understood?”

Christopher nodded. He rubbed his palms against his closed eyes. He was so tired. Even here, after all this, he could fall asleep. He let his head tilt back against the wall.

He wasn’t sure if he had dozed off when he heard a knock on the door and it opened again. The woman stood there. He saw Amaranth pass by behind her.

“Stand up, come on,” she said.

Christopher got up, and she gestured that he should go through the door across the hall.

“Thanks, Harold,” she said to the man as he came out behind. “And try to keep the gossip to a minimum until we get this sorted.”

“Sure,” he said.

Christopher realized as he stepped into the room that it wasn’t really an office. It was just another, bigger storage room masquerading as an office. A long folding table had been set up at one end, with an office chair behind it. A pair of beat-up metal folding chairs were set in front of the “desk,” and a pair of wooden benches had been set up in the opposite corner.

She closed the door behind them, then walked past him to sit in the office chair while Christopher looked around. After a moment, she gestured to the folding chairs.

“Take a seat.”

Christopher sat.

“What is your name?”

“Christopher Lamarck.”

“Christopher, my name is Ema. I’m the boss here. I’m going to ask you some questions, and you’re going to answer.”

“Sure..”

“You should know that I have no reason to trust you, and my goodwill is going to depend entirely on how honest I think you are.”

Christopher shook his head.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m just trying…”

Ema held up a finger.

“What did I say?”

Christopher sighed. “You’re asking the questions and I’m answering.”

“Good. Now who are you, what is your job, and where are you from?”

“I’m Christopher Lamarck,” he said. “I’m a salesperson for Peak Electric Solutions. I’m from Minneapolis. Well, the suburbs.”

“And why are you here?” she asked.

“I was on a sales trip. Visiting three of the power companies we work with up here.”

He paused to think. It felt like such a long time ago.

“I…I flew into Anchorage, then down to Homer. I spent a day there, and then I was supposed to fly to Fairbanks. But the plane…the plane crashed.”

“What kind of plane was it?” Ema asked.

“I don’t know. It was small, maybe ten passenger seats?”

“How did you survive the crash?”

“I jumped.”

“You jumped out of a plane? While it was flying?”

“Well, I think it had slowed down, and it was low, and I landed in the water. And even then it hurt like hell. I almost blacked out when I hit the water.”

She looked unimpressed.

“So you somehow managed to survive jumping out of a plane by landing in freezing cold water?”

Christopher took a deep breath.

“Yeah, I remember thinking how ironic it was that I would survive the jump and die of hypothermia. I got to the shore and I was freezing. But there was this…door I found,. It opened into some kind of bunker. It was heated. I just kind of collapsed inside.”

Ema’s index finger tapped quietly on the edge of the table. Christopher looked up from his hands to her face.

“Look, I know it sounds crazy. Well, it sounds crazy to me. Maybe it makes sense to you, since you’re out here in…whatever this place is. I found the bunker and I was able to avoid freezing to death. There was food and water and heat. I was there for weeks. I made a signal fire. There was some kind of old military radio that didn’t seem to work properly.”

She held up a hand again.

“And how did you get here?”

“There was a map. It had different points marked on it. I figured nobody was coming to find me, so I had to go try to find someone. So I hiked toward the points on the map. It honestly didn’t go that well. Then I was camped out one night and someone started shooting at me. Amaranth found me. I guess she had been following me?”

“Who was shooting at you?”

“I was hoping you could tell me.”

Ema rubbed her temple.

“What happened after that?”

“I left all my supplies at that camp and she marched me through the forest all night to get to this place.”

“And here we are,” Ema said.

“Here we are.”

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Why Write Short Stories?

Recently, I’ve been looking for ways to write more. I’m currently in the middle of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. A novel is a huge commitment, and while it can be immensely satisfying, it can also feel like a slog sometimes when it’s all I’m working on. So I decided to do something I hadn’t done in years—start writing short stories again.

This is the first post in a series I’ll be doing about short stories—reading, writing, editing, and submitting. Modern fiction has become really fixated on the novel as the most prestigious form of fiction, but novels are just one of the many shapes a story can take. Short stories have a lot to offer.

This week, let’s get into some of the advantages of writing short stories.

Write More

At the risk of controversy, I think that great writing is more about execution than ideas. A great idea is the foundation of a story, but we’ve all read stories with an interesting premise that just fell flat. Likewise, a master of the craft can sometimes make a great story out of a very mundane premise.

Most writers have piles of ideas and just not enough time to figure out the story for each one, let alone actually write it. Even very prolific writers usually don’t manage more than a couple novels per year. For slow writers like me, that kind of pace is impressive. But how many of us only have a couple story ideas per year?

One of the joys of writing shorter stories is that you can write them quickly. A thousand-word flash fiction story can be drafted in a single sitting. Short stories are easier to outline and prepare, if you’re the sort of writer who prefers to do that. Even if you would never dream of jumping into a novel without a thorough outline, you might be tempted to try exploratory writing on smaller stories.

Finish More

Listen to your crazy writing uncle, Chuck Wendig, and finish your projects. Finishing your stories forces you to practice every step in the writing process, and practice is what helps you become better.

Of course, if you’ve ever played a sport or an instrument, you’ll know that the best way to practice is through purposeful repetition, especially of the basics. That’s why you run drills at football practice or play your scales and arpeggios every day.

The truth is that it’s hard to practice writing through novels. Short stories are great because they take you through the full cycle of writing, from ideation to draft to editing and critique and final polish. The shorter the stories, the more you get to practice all of these things. And beyond honing your skills, you can also develop a better understanding of what you like and dislike; what your strengths and weaknesses are; what styles and themes you enjoy.

Publish More

Short stories aren’t only an opportunity to practice your craft and explore more ideas. They also represent more chances to publish.

If you’re going the traditional publishing route, it can take months or years to write a novel, then months or years more to get an agent, go through revisions, get an editor, go through more revisions, and (hopefully) actually get published. If you’re self-publishing, you need to take on the editing and publicity yourself. Either way, a lot of effort goes into the publication of a novel. Even scarier, many authors write several books before they come up with something that catches an editor’s eye or climbs the Amazon lists. Each novel takes a lot of effort and carries a lot of risk of failure.

By contrast, there are hundreds of active publications, anthologies and contests that accept short story submissions. You don’t need an agent to represent you, and the turnaround time is typically measured in weeks, not months or years. Because each story takes less work, it represents less risk of failure. Authors who write a lot of short stories aren’t phased by rejection letters. They know that they can just submit that story somewhere else. They might have five, ten, or more stories out for submission at any given time. And while some of those stories might never find a home, others will, and may even find a long life through anthologies and reprints.

Short stories are not as lucrative as books. You’d have to sell a lot of stories to match the a single mid-list advance. But they provide more opportunity to get your work, and your name, out there for others to see. There is a small (but not insignificant) advantage when you’re able to list a few recent publications in that cover letter for your novel submission.

Level Up

For better or worse, modern authors tend to measure success by novels. But if you think short stories are beneath you, you’re wrong. Great short stories can be every bit as artful as great novels, and while building a big cohesive story in a novel can be challenging, the brevity of short stories can be equally demanding.

If short stories don’t sound fun to you, you might be surprised. Short work provides the opportunity to play, and to try out all sorts of new ideas and techniques. And if you’re trying to get better at writing (as I think we all are, perpetually), each short story is an opportunity to level up.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 13.2

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

He buried the pieces of the stone god as well as he could with the snow. He knew that the spirit had left the stone when it broke. It would not favor God-Speaker after he had failed to keep it safe.

Deep in the canyon of ice, there was only one way to go. The sides were steep and slick, and he was tired and hurt. He found his way down to solid ground, though he could not tell if it was ice or earth or rock. He stood and limped forward. He did not know what direction he was going. He did not know if he was walking toward his people or away. He could only hope that there was a way up to the surface somewhere ahead.

Instead, the crack grew deeper. It split, again and again, but each path looked the same: dark walls of ice and rock and a dull sky above, filled with snow.

The world took on an unreal quality. Faint reflections stared back at him, and shadowy shapes loomed in the ice. He felt again that he was on the edge between his world and the world of spirits. Perhaps he was. Perhaps he was dying.

As he limped onward, he began to feel the truth. He was walking toward the mountain. Just as it had called down the storm, it shaped the ice. It pulled him to it. The deep, unreal blue of the ice dulled until it was black. Along the sharp edges, where it caught the light, it glowed deep purple.

The air took on a sharp, foul scent. It felt heavy and thick. God-Speaker held out a hand, and along with the snowflakes, black dust began to collect on his palm. A gust of wind from high above swept over him, blowing his hand clean. Black smoke swirled in the air ahead.

Finally, he reached a place where the sky above went dark. He didn’t know if it was night at last, or if he had gone completely under the ice. The snow and wind fell away, so he supposed the ice must have closed over him. He kept limping forward. There was nothing else left for him to do.

When he had gone down into almost complete darkness, he heard voices once again. They were stronger, clearer. He felt that he should understand them, but the words were always just beyond his reach. The path took him toward the voices, into complete darkness. He felt the walls on either side, and they no longer felt like ice. They were warm stone.

As he continued, his eyes adjusted. Faint purple light came from the stone itself. It was just barely enough to see the twists and turns by variations in darkness. Even so, he nearly stepped into a crack that cut across his path.

He stopped at the last moment and tried to look down. Nothing but pure blackness, a gash across the purple-black of the cave. A gentle breath of air came up from somewhere far below. God-Speaker held on to the rough walls on either side and reached a foot across to find the far side. He didn’t have to jump, he just took a long, careful step across the gap.

The walls came together, pressing in on either side. God-Speaker had to get down onto hands and knees and crawl to fit through. He no longer thought about getting up and out. He would never be above the ground again. Those voices still called to him.

He came to another gap and reached out across it, finding a ledge on the other side, a little higher up. He forced himself over and through, squirming into a gap in the rock. On the other side, the cave opened up.

The purple light was stronger here, but it didn’t help him see. It made his eyes hurt. It throbbed in unison with his heart, in time to the pounding pain in his forehead. He could see it even with his eyes closed. The rock walls of the room were too smooth, too perfectly curved. The room had no ceiling that he could see. It rose forever into blackness, but tiny lights appeared above as he stared upward. The voices came down from those lights.

They fell upon him like a torrent, like a rushing river of whispers. He lost track of his body, and even the pain fell away. He knew now that they could hear him. They could understand him. He could hide nothing from them.

What surprised him was that they, too, were completely exposed. The voices were as open to him as he was to them. So close together, there were no barriers between them.

The voices were old, so old he couldn’t imagine it except by the context they gave him. The idea of Braves-the-Storm or Makes-Medicine being old was laughable in comparison. The lifetimes of the biggest, most ancient trees God-Speaker had ever seen were mere seasons to the voices. They were true gods. They were like the mountain, built up slowly over ages.

They dove into the shallow pool of his memories: the few places he had been, the little group of people he had spent his entire tiny life with.

They were witness to things he could not imagine. He saw landscapes stretching out and out and out, until they curved back into each other. He saw tribes growing into peoples, into societies and cultures and nations and beyond.

They delved into his knowledge, into the worlds of people and spirits, into magic and medicine, into the ways of napping flint into tools, of curing hides and weaving nets and cutting spears into a fine, fire-hardened point.

They knew that these simple (so simple!) tools could grow with the people who fashioned them: tools to make tools, more people specializing into smaller and deeper wells of knowledge.

The voices saw the vast span of time and space and knowledge. They lived lives beyond anything he could comprehend. But even they did not know everything. Even they were subject to great catastrophes. Just as he and his people had journeyed in their small way, the voices had journeyed.

Once, they had a home. They were comfortable. They lived endless lives, minds passed down generations, living endlessly. Then they passed through the void, to find a new home. They would continue, as they had always continued. They would continue in God-Speaker.

They were laid bare to him. He could see, just as they could see, how they had continued endlessly for so long without dying. He could feel, just as they could feel, that something was wrong. God-Speaker’s thoughts were close (so close!) to the shape of their thoughts. More than any of the others. Still, they couldn’t quite fit. They wanted to wash over him, subsume him into themselves, but they couldn’t. They wanted to live as they had lived before, but they couldn’t. They were trapped, at their journey’s end, deep inside the mountain, unable to accept death but unable to live.

God-Speaker could see into them. They knew so much. In mere moments, he felt the world expand around him. It was so much more and so much less than he had thought it was. He could feel his own mind expanding. It was a chaotic blur of images and ideas.

He lay on his back in the center of the chamber, exhausted, broken, unable to move. The purple light washed over him. He was so utterly different from them, yet there was one thing that bound them tightly together.

Like them, he did not want to die.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 13.1

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

Beyond the ice cave was a world of snow. It filled the air. It covered the ground. The few trees appeared like spirits in front of them and faded as they passed. Travel down this gentle slope would be easy, were it not for the snow.

This kind of storm was strange so late into spring. They would not normally travel in such weather, but they were driven to keep moving. The supply of smoked fish was dwindling, and this land was barren. They had to hope that there would be better weather and more to eat somewhere beyond the snowstorm. Nobody mentioned the mountain. Although they could rarely see it, they walked in the shadow of the broken peak. It loomed over them. They felt it watching.

God-Speaker was certain it was the mountain itself pouring snow down onto them. It buzzed like the stone god, with voices that could not be understood. These voices felt different. They wanted. They hungered. He kept imagining the voices as wolves in the distance, beyond the white walls of snow.

They took shelter where they could, among small groups of trees or against boulders. They gathered dry wood when they found it, but there were few places sheltered enough for a fire. After two days of this misery, they came to a shallow overhang shaped in such a way that the wind kept the snow out. Dry grass prickled from the hard ground. They squatted and sat, huddled together, gathering their energy to move onward. Strikes-Flint collected the wood the others had gathered to try to light a fire.

Finds-the-Trail had been quiet and thoughtful since the river crossing. He reminded God-Speaker more and more of Braves-the-Storm. The two men, young and old, often walked side-by-side now. God-Speaker thought that this, at least, was a good thing. They could all see that Braves-the-Storm grew weaker every day. Perhaps this more thoughtful Finds-the-Trail could begin to fill his role when he was gone. If God-Speaker could fill the role of Makes-Medicine, they might serve their people together.

Far-Seeing, who was used to walking by Finds-the-Trail’s side, now walked alone most of the time. Even now, he squatted by himself, back against the rock face, scowling and gouging at the frozen earth with the butt of his spear. He had also become quiet, but it was not a peaceful silence. His face showed his dark moods, and God-Speaker often looked over to see his lips moving without voice. God-Speaker knew that kind of silence, and it usually ended with a fight. He knew he was a likely recipient of that anger when it came out.

As they rested, the wind calmed and the snow lessened. The blowing white powder snow turned into heavy, clumped flakes. They could see some of the world around them, bleak as it was. A few withered trees appeared. The clouds even broke, letting out dim sunlight.

God-Speaker could see some small relief spread among the people. They opened up from their hunched positions. Shoulders relaxed. But now they could see further and the shadow of the mountain grew more distinct. God-Speaker felt as though they had been approaching it for days, but the distance was hard to judge. They were beside it now. Its presence was still uncomfortable, but he had hope that they could begin to pass it by.

In the opposite direction, above the little wall of stone that sheltered them, he could now see that there was another rise. It looked climbable, although still dangerous-looking. While the storm was quiet, it might offer them a view of the path ahead.

God-Speaker stood and walked to the place where Finds-the-Trail and Braves-the-Storm sat together. Braves-the-Storm sat with eyes closed, his breath wheezing. God-Speaker and Finds-the-Trail both glanced at the old man, then back to each other. God-Speaker thought he saw in the other man’s eyes that he too had been thinking about the future.

“There is a high place,” God-Speaker said, pointing up through the rock wall. “It may be a hard climb, but it could show us a good path, if we can climb while the storm is quiet.”

Finds-the-Trail nodded and stood. “I will go with you.”

Braves-the-Storm opened his eyes to acknowledge them, then leaned back to rest. He would not be making any more dangerous climbs.

Finds-the-Trail, true to his name, found a place where the rock face had cracked and crumbled and they could climb up to the lip that hung out over their resting place. From there, they picked their way up the rough slopes between flat places. Sometimes they could walk carefully. More often they had to find handholds to pull themselves up. The stone god was heavy in God-Speaker’s pack, and his shoulders began to ache. Finds-the-Trail stayed close, though God-Speaker knew he could easily move ahead.

Despite the difficult climb, the high place seemed less high when they reached it than it had from the ground. Even with the storm quieted for the moment, their sight was limited. What they saw did not make God-Speaker happy. Not far ahead, the ground was once again lost in a sheet of cracked and broken ice. Opposite the face they had climbed, the high place jutted out, sending out rocky feet that went down into canyons of ice, their edges glowing blue in the dull sunlight.

God-Speaker knew the snowless lands they had seen in the distance must still be out there, somewhere in the distance, but they were hidden by the walls of snow that he had yet to pass through.

“We are not free of it yet,” Finds-the-Trail said, looking up at the mountain.

“Let me speak to the stone god,” God-Speaker said, “and see if I can learn anything of use.”

“I will wait for you,” Finds-the-Trail said, “but do not take too long. It would be bad to get caught up here if the storm gets worse again.”

Finds-the-Trail descended to a wide ledge just below the high place to wait. God-Speaker gently slid the stone god from its bag and sat with it in his lap, looking out over the ice. The stone chilled him more than the wind.

God-Speaker sat and listened. He had strained to hear the voice of the stone god as they traveled through the storm, and heard nothing. Now, he just sat, leaving himself open to whatever might come to him. He felt his own tiredness now, as he hadn’t let himself feel it in days.

The stone god whispered, but it was drowned in voices, waves crashing over them. The voices from the mountain fell on him like wild animals. They knew he could hear them. They sensed his weakness. Instinctively, God-Speaker pushed back against them. He did not understand what he was doing or how he was doing it. He sensed the spirit world, unseen all around them. Whatever was happening in this struggle, it happened there, beyond what others could see.

The voices were used to being obeyed. God-Speaker sensed the shock, the uncertainty as he pushed them back. He was suddenly reminded of young children demanding food or comfort and being told “no,” for the first time. God-Speaker pushed harder, taking advantage of their timidness. They fell silent.

In the silence, he heard the faint whispers of the stone god. It said the people were nearly through their hardship. They had to pass across the ice one final time. They would escape the shadow of the mountain. There would be better lands beyond the storm. They only had to be strong and keep going.

God-Speaker felt his body flooded with relief. He discovered that he was still sitting in the same place, now soaked with sweat and shivering, but the stone god was warm against his skin.

Finds-the-Trail’s voice came up to him. “Have you seen something? I think the storm is getting worse again.”

God-Speaker began the process of putting the stone god back into its pack. His hands shook.

“I heard the voices of evil spirits from the mountain. They are angry. They attacked me, and I pushed them back.”

Finds-the-Trail was silent for a moment. “How?”

God-Speaker said, honestly, “I do not know.”

“Are we safe then? I still feel the mountain watching us.”

“The stone god spoke,” God-Speaker said, closing the pack. “We must cross the ice again, but beyond that, our way will be easier.”

“Then we should hurry down and tell the others.”

God-Speaker backed carefully down toward the ledge where Finds-the-Trail was waiting, trying to summon strength into his weakened limbs. The spiritual battle seemed to have taken barely any time at all, but it had drained him of the little strength he had been holding on to.

The rock under his foot broke, and he slid the rest of the way to the ledge. Finds-the-Trail reached out a hand to steady him.

The voices from the mountain landed on him like rocks, without warning. He didn’t know if it was the weight of the stone god on his back, or the blows of the spirits, but he stumbled back; one step, then another.

Finds-the-Trail’s fingers brushed his arm, but he couldn’t grab hold. There was nothing beneath his back foot. The weight of the stone god carried him over backwards. Finds-the-Trail’s face appeared over the edge, watching in shock from above. God-Speaker was spun and thrown to the side, tumbling not back to the place where the people were sheltered, but to the other side of the hill, down toward the ice.

The outcrops and thorny bushes grasped and tore at him as he fell, slowing him, but not enough. He could no longer tell where he was or where the sky and ground were. He was lost in a storm of rock and snow and earth and pain, and he could only hope that it would end soon.

He landed hard on his back, knocking the breath out of him, and while he stopped tumbling he continued to slide. His vision swam dizzily, but the cloudy sky was above him again, blotched with sunlight. He reached out instinctively to grab onto something, but everything beneath him was slick and cold. Then he was in free-fall again, with nothing but cold air around him. This time, he landed in snow and was still.

Pain blossomed across his body. For a time, he could only lay where he had fallen and try to breathe.

He realized, laying on his back, that the pack and the stone god must have come off in the fall. This, more than anything else, gave him the strength to sit up. The snow was deep: he found himself sinking up to his thighs. If he was careful and spread his weight, he found that the crusty snow below would support him, and he only sank a few inches into the topmost layer of powder.

Crawling slowly and carefully on his hands and knees, God-Speaker saw that he was back under the ice. Walls of it jutted up on either side. A jagged strip of sky showed through the opening above.

A few feet away, he found two more holes in the crust of snow: the two pieces of the stone god. The hide bag was nowhere to be seen, lost somewhere on the hill above. He kneeled over the pieces, grieving.

He shouted. He shouted for Finds-the-Trail and Braves-the-Storm. He shouted all the names of the people, one after another. The snow came down heavily through the jagged hole above, muffling his voice.

When he couldn’t scream any more, he lay in the snow and wept.

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