Hootenanny

“It is silent and deadly.”

“I’m glad you used the conjunction and.”  Rhys peered into the inky darkness of the cavernous arena before them.  “It’s those silent but deadly attacks that give me cause for alarm.”

The examiner, a willowy woman whose white hair was more pronounced than the lines in her face, narrowed her eyes.  “Mr. Cadwalader, your irreverent levity contributes nothing toward this assessment of your capability.”

Every time she addressed him by his surname, he suspected Val was on the cusp of striking him from the Tracker program.  Although he saw nothing wrong with a little jocularity to ease any tension, Rhys figured he’d better remove any and all complaints she might use against him.  He was, after all, not a typical candidate, which was why she scrutinized him so closely.

“My apologies.”

Her brow remained furrowed.  “The Owl may seem a mundane descriptor for this simulation, but two-thirds of the applicants fail to neutralize their quarry on the first trial.  And remember, despite your … proclivity, you must rely on the techniques that were outlined in the introduction.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Absolutely.”  Truth be told, he was hanging on her every word.  He was about to enter a test that would challenge his prowess, but even with his physical advantage, anybody with an IQ higher than a rooster that got hit in the head understood knowledge was the real key to overcoming an opponent.

The fact Val reminded him to stick to the techniques did cause him to wonder if she wasn’t as eager to eject him from the program as she usually appeared.  Maybe his quips amused her more than she wanted to admit….

“Then you may proceed.”

That was all the clues she was going to give him?  As unwilling to divulge his agitation as much as she might be to admitting amusement, Rhys responded with a smirk and a shrug.

Ball pistol in hand, but loaded with digital blanks, he took one step into the ancient chamber.  With peripheral vision, he noticed she already started jotting notes on her modern, technological clipboard.

Or maybe she was manipulating the Owl.

 He took another step into the cool yet dry sub terrane.  Dug out millennia ago with hand tools and lined with stone throughout, this vault had been witness to countless training sessions.  It also adapted readily to advances in technology, so was currently outfitted with holographic projectors hidden within the chiseled columns supporting the arched ceiling.

The Owl was only a simulation, so it was guaranteed to strike as silently as Val claimed, but its lethalness was confined to the readouts fed back to her clipboard.  Still, only a third of the Tracker candidates succeeded at their objective on the first attempt, and Rhys was determined to number among them.  After all, he should be very good at this.

He skulked to the nearest column and peered deeper into the chamber.  Sparse flickers of light, the only illumination, teased his imagination with the image of some snickering sprite hurling a swarm of fireflies into this lair to taunt its hunter.

Except the only sprite here represented an abomination, a technological rendering of the result when corrupted flesh bound itself to a beast—

The blow across his shoulder blades sent Rhys somersaulting to the neighboring column.  Part of his response had been evasive maneuver, but this mere simulation legitimately struck him with enough force to shove him forward.

He righted himself at a crouch, this time shoving his back against the lithoid pillar.

No Owl loomed before him.  And this was no time to kick himself for allowing his guard to drop.  That whack had probably been delivered to remind him of exactly that.  If there was any trait abominations and examiners shared, it was tormenting their subjects….

Heck, yeah, this thing was silent, and Rhys remembered his rudimental lucidity, usually triggered by someone’s approach, was incapable of alerting him to a non-living simulation.  He was as “blind” as any other man to its approach … and maybe that had something to do with Val’s instruction to rely on the techniques—

It whirled from behind the column he crouched against.  From the corner of his right eye, he caught a flash of rainbow colors swirling together.

Rhys ducked and rolled to the next support, and heard a whump against the pillar where he’d just been.

These columns offered little protection.  He sprang to his feet and performed a whirling routine of his own as he fired ball blanks into the darkness.  When he hit the closest wall, he pressed his back against it and surveyed the arena.

Exactly what beastie had the trainers created for this little exercise?  Despite his in-depth knowledge of the Nephilim, he didn’t recognize it.  But there was one trait these creatures all had in common, and that was a weakness specific to their kin.

Like fending off a vampire with a crucifix or felling a werewolf with a silver bullet, this Owl had to be susceptible to something—

It unfurled from behind the pillar nearest him.  In two seconds that felt more like two minutes, the beast reared before him, suspended for an instant in its full glory.  In an intimidating way, it was one of the most beautiful things he’d seen.  What first appeared to be multicolored feathers were in reality spiky scales.  It didn’t just pummel.  It could slice.

And could do so silently….

Most other quarry would have frozen at the spectacle, but Rhys leaped aside as he squeezed off another shot.  The Owl’s wings swooped toward him, but struck the wall at the level of his neck.  Another whump was the only noise it generated.

It silently swung toward him as he backed away at a quick clip.

Silence … of course!  The Owl had to be susceptible to noise.  But it would have to be a considerable clamor, or the screams of its victims would be a disadvantage to it—

It lunged toward him, talons and wings outstretched.

Rhys hurtled to the next column.  With his free hand he wrested a digital pad from his belt.  With pure muscle memory his fingers tapped against the keypad and screen.

The Owl swerved and brushed past him as he ducked around the column.  He was pretty sure that pass scored some more injury points for his opponent.

It twisted around and lunged again as he sprang back – but thrust the pad before him.

The cacophony of bagpipes that erupted from the pad was jolting enough, but the fife and drum accompanying them underscored the formidable acoustics of this chamber.

If the Owl screeched, it was drowned out by Scotland the Brave.  It did halt its advance, but began twisting and contorting in a macabre dance, as though thrown into a vat of acid.  It remained suspended, its method of flight not dependent on the aerodynamics of lift.

Rhys took no chances.  He fired digital blanks into its head, chest, and belly.

One or all of those balls made it finally crumple to the floor.  For a couple more seconds he watched its form, confirmed it wouldn’t rise again, and turned off the music player on his pad.  Silence didn’t entirely reestablish itself, however.  There was a slight ringing in his ears.

With a final glance at the Owl, he strode back where he’d left Val.  She hadn’t moved, except this time she was poking at her right ear with her pinky, and her left eye was squinted.

Rhys grinned as he approached.  “I’d say I passed that trial with flying colors!”

She opened her eye to look at him.  “What?”

Repeating the jest would only sap the life from it, so he stood directly in front of her before speaking about the next topic.  “That Owl isn’t real, is it?”

Val’s gaze remained locked on his, and she spoke slowly and distinctly.  “It is a simulation.”

Sometimes he wondered if she really did have a sense of humor, it was just extremely dry.  “The lot of you made up something I wouldn’t recognize, didn’t you?  You purposefully tailored the trial to be more challenging for me.”

“Considering your heritage, working as a Tracker will be more challenging for you.”

She had a point.  It was the same point that hounded him ever since he declared he wanted to be a Tracker.  But did it really make sense to challenge him with trials that directly confronted his … proclivities?

“I still call it cheating in reverse.”

Her gaze locked with his again.  “Nephilim will always cheat.”

He returned the stare.  Val never wavered, her demeanor cool and steely.  During the prime of her life, before he was born, she had waged battles against creatures like the Owl … and others like him.  She had every reason to doubt his sincerity….

His response was not a challenge, but an assertion.  “There are those who were known to play fair.”

Her expression didn’t change for the first few seconds.  And then one corner of her mouth curved upward.

“Which is why you must learn how to cheat.”

Wow, that was the most encouraging thing she’d ever said to him.  “One thing’s sure, if you keep the training this hard for my benefit, actually working in the field will seem easy.”

Her smile deepened.  “And that, son of Cadwalader, is the wisest observation you’ve made in weeks.”

###

Here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the prompt word this round was a bit challenging, if I do say so myself:  Owl.  That’s owl, not ow, although that was my first response when I tried to figure out what to do with it….

So be sure to check out the other submissions, and see how creative the other writers got!

13 thoughts on “Hootenanny

  1. This was full of suspense from the start. I could not figure out who our protagonist really was or who/ what he was preparing to fight. Good job keeping us hooked.

    Defeating an owl with sound? Intriguing concept. This could totally be a part of a longer story.

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  2. Thank you! It was my intention to keep Rhys a bit of a mystery, but hopefully not so much so that readers are left scratching their heads. As is typical of me, this is a bit of backstory – except this time there’s no novella in the works!

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  3. Story comments first–well conceived in the basic story. Rhys has got to defeat a digital enemy, an owl of sorts, to show that he can later defeat more challenging enemies. Kind of like the practice for the Hunger Games in Catching Fire. So, a job interview of sorts. We don’t know why he wants to pass, but that’s okay for now. I like the tie-in to the nephilim, although I don’t know where you’re going with it yet. Be careful with biblical world building, though, if you want to avoid alienating large swathes of audience.

    The fight scene had a nice rhythm to it–good, short sentences, interspersed with some great description. This was my favorite: “Sparse flickers of light, the only illumination, teased his imagination with the image of some snickering sprite hurling a swarm of fireflies into this lair to taunt its hunter.”

    After this I have criticisms. I don’t know if you want them, so if you like, you can ignore anything after this point. Terrain, not terrane. Lithoid seems out of place–rocky or stony would fit your character’s voice better. And I didn’t buy the keypad from muscle memory. Maybe a ringtone on his phone? An alarm on his phone might work better. Something he had that he could work blind. Maybe the alarm is like a flashlight. If he’s a hunter, then it might have come in handy for other hunts.

    I don’t know, though. It’s a lot of world building detail for such as short segment, and you don’t want deus ex machina. He could simply yell.

    Or something better. I just think that part could be improved. A suspension of disbelief issue is a red flag in an opener for me. : )

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    • Thank you, I very much appreciate critiques as well as comments. You probably have a point about ‘lithoid’, I was just getting tired of rocks and stones. 🙂 One of the drawbacks of playing around with some backstory is that certain details, such as terminology, doesn’t get worked out yet. Rhys was using devices I haven’t named yet, which is why I relied on the lame use of ‘digital pad’ to try to get across the fact he wasn’t using a phone. If I failed at that attempt, I completely understand your issue with that. For the sake of pacing, I didn’t go into detail why he came to the conclusion noise volume in self-defense would be necessary other than figuring ‘the screams of its victims’ wouldn’t be loud enough to stop it. And – please don’t take this wrong – I laughed about ‘terrain.’ Mr. Roget influenced that word choice, and because I use an international thesaurus I did try to confirm that wasn’t a UK spelling or something like that. Mr. Webster wasn’t very helpful because I couldn’t find ‘sub terrane (or terrain)’ in the dictionary, but ‘subterranean’ and its kith and kin seemed to support that usage. All the words in English, and there still don’t seem to be enough. 🙂 So what would your improvement suggestions be?

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      • Well, terrain and lithoid are easy–it’s just whether or not you agree. I can hit hard in a critique, but it genuinely comes from a caring place. I’ve had beta friends put me and my stories through the wringer; I’m talking real self-doubt at times as a result. Sometimes it hurt (mostly cutting). I was always glad I did it, though.

        However, I don’t take all advice. I always say the best critique is one that totally makes sense as the author is reading it, and the very best critique is the stuff you want to kick yourself for not seeing on your own. When in doubt, don’t take it. Sometimes you need it for voice, and we all differ a bit there.

        As far as the keypad world building…you’re really the expert on your world.

        If you skip the fart joke opener, which may not wear well: remember–you’re going to have to read this thing at least twenty times by the publishing date–you could open with your protag doing something with their alarm. He’s in some sort of official capacity, so it’s not unreasonable that he could be issued a proximity detector that he needed to turn off for the exercise.

        If that fits your world building. And if you can make it work in your voice.

        OTOH, there’s an old saying about beta advice. I can’t remember it verbatim, but it goes something like: always listen to your beta readers when they say there’s a problem. You don’t always have to fix it their way–they can be wrong about that bit. But something there needs to be addressed.

        World building snags drive me nuts. I’m trying to decide exactly how many fantastical creatures are going to inhabit my Faerie world and what sort of attributes they will all have. I apparently need to know this stuff to write the stories. *insert shrug here*

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      • Yeah, in my local writing group we all know you need a tough skin, and we’re frank and honest with each other because we all genuinely want to improve and help each other out. I’ve learned to keep it lighter on BB, focusing more on what strengths are in the story. We all know there are certain rules to follow, but that some of them can be bent. Whether or not such experiments work often boil down to the subjective!

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  4. Ah, awesome, A.E.! I admit to missing Deuce and that world, but this was great. I love the banter between the two — the intro chat was fantastic. I hope we get to see more of these characters and universe — will you make this into a serialisation like Tossing Dice? 🙂

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    • Thank you – and I’m taking a break from the serializations for a while! 🙂 There’s possibility of seeing more of Rhys and his ilk, it will just depend on the prompt word….

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