Feel free to steal this idea.

I want to write a werewolf story with this in it:

Werewolf (charging at hero): Kill! Kill! Eat!

Hero throws frisbee

Werewolf: Kill! K– Oooo! Chase! Chase!

Perhaps the ultimate weapon for fighting werewolves would be the silver tennis ball.

A morning of tough women

I’m sitting at a café/pizza joint in my neighborhood that I have long been meaning to drop in on, but until now I never have. Today was the day, though, as it had one key attribute that no other place had. It was open. It’s a pleasant place indeed, with nice music playing, good ventilation, and a very pleasant staff. My pesto was yummy and reasonably cheap, as well. Overall, a nice place to be on a Saturday morning.

There is a television in here, and I made the mistake of sitting facing it. Yesterday I had had an urge to watch sports on TV, and here was a TV playing sports. On first was the Women’s Field Hockey World Cup match between Germany and India. It was fun to watch, and I can say that field hockey does indeed qualify as a real sport. India led 1-0 at the half, but Germany’s better ball control carried the day, and a goal with little time left on the clock gave them a 3-2 victory. It was a scrappy game, and hard-fought. I haven’t the slightest idea whether I was watching contenders or also-rans.

Next up, and playing right now, are the wrestling world championships. It took me a match or two before I realized that I was watching the women’s matches, but there you have it. I can now offer expert gambling advice for anyone out there looking to wager on women’s wrestling: bet on the woman in red. I’ve seen perhaps ten matches, and blue has emerged victorious exactly once.

It was interesting to watch as the Japanese 51kg contestant beat the crap out of her Canadian opponent for the gold and then cried like a schoolgirl. She is a schoolgirl, so it shouldn’t be too shocking, but the transition from killer athlete to human was fun to watch. During the medals ceremony (US took bronze, along with a Russian — they give away bronzes like candy at this event) the award-hander-outer approached, followed by a train of silk-clad bearers. Hander-outer put the tournament medal around her neck, then awarded her the world championship belt. Then he gave her a leather folder with a certificate of some sort, and a box with an unknown object. While she was juggling these things he handed her a bouquet of flowers and to top it off a crystal vase. Then the award-hander-outer offered his hand in congratulations. This girl, overcome with emotion, who had bowed politely and humbly with each and every trophy presented her, managed to find a hand for this guy to shake. This is a time when you would think that a Chinese man congratulating a Japanese with her hands completely full would recognize that a sincere bow might be a better gesture.

Ah, well. Today’s action is over, I believe, a sweep by the Japanese (the only blue-clad winner was Japanese). By the time they got to the 59kg class, there was definitely a few wrestlers whose gender was by no means obvious. The hander-outer shook the hands of the other winners before loading them down with trinkets, and tonight the twenty-seven Japanese who follow women’s wrestling will be celebrating. And I? I will be repairing to another venue, one with electricity readily available and no sports on television.

Episode 20: Nest of Vipers – Part 2

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here. Continuity issues are nearly certain with this episode.

One way or another. That’s what I’d told Cello and I meant it. There was a war going on, and I was in the middle of it. That’s all right, it’s what I’m paid to do, but now they had Alice, and good secretaries are hard to come by in this town. Lola Fanutti was stewing out in the boondocks and I knew she wouldn’t stay put forever, but I’d deal with that later if either of us were still alive.

My meeting with Bernie the Trigger was brief and businesslike. He was a nice enough guy, and he had once shot someone for my benefit, and soon I had an address. “It’s the Italians,” Bernie said, pronouncing it EYE-talians. “They’ve been coming over from the old country for about thee months now. They’re becoming a problem, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, well, I’m about to be a problem for them.”

“Yeah, well, good luck with that.” Bernie didn’t try to disguise his skepticism.

“Thanks.” I had an extra shot of scotch to steady my shooting hand and stepped back out into the night. It’s supposed to get cooler at night, I thought, but the air was 96% water and held the heat of the day the way a woman retains water after too many pretzels. There was something different about the air that night, however, something pent-up, waiting to explode. A storm was coming. I patted my pocket and was reassured by the weight of my gun.

It was only a few blocks to where the Italians were holed up, but I took my time, sticking to the shadows and trying not to think about rifles taking aim between my shoulder blades.

The two toughs on the doorstep to the apartment building didn’t even bother trying not to look like guards. They’d pumped a lot of cash into the local police retirement fund, and expected to be left alone. Bernie had been disgusted with the cops. “No loyalty, you know?” he said. “They’re your best friends until someone offers them more money. How can you do business with anyone like that? Take away their uniforms and they wouldn’t last a minute.”

There was a curious silence on the street, as if the residents knew that something was brewing and hid away in their apartments, or, more likely, got the hell out of town. I had no idea how to get past these goons, and the others sure to be inside. I had no idea what I would do, even if I did make it inside.

I held my gun in my pocket and walked past the doorway, trying to act casual, hoping the thugs wouldn’t recognize me. They eyed me warily as I approached. I pulled out a cigarette and asked the first one, “Got a light?”

“Beat it,” he said.

At the same moment a voice came from a window upstairs, and echoed up the deserted street. Alice, belligerent frightened. “He’s coming for me, you know.”

“I said, beat it,” said the goon. I started walking.

“For the love of God, shut up,” replied a voice above with a heavy Italian accent.

“Come near me and I’ll bite you again. You think he’s going to come in the front door and say ‘how do you do?’ You think he’s that stupid? Not Mr. Lowell. He’ll find a trap door on the roof or—” It’s lucky my back was to the guards so they couldn’t see my face when I heard the slap echo down the street. “Close the window,” the Italian said. “I don’t care how hot it is.” The window slammed shut with a bang, but not before I didn’t hear Alice crying. A dame who’d cry over a run in her stocking swallowing her teeth without a peep. Sometimes, I guess, you have to light someone on fire to find out what they’re really made of. I decided to go find the trap door before the Italian chose to listen to what she said.

* * *

The top floor was dark and deserted. The next floor had a few people but with patience I managed to look around a bit, springing myself into the rooms along the quiet hallway. One place stood out, furnished lavishly and smelling of the perfume of a dozen dames. This was the lair of the man I was here to meet. I moved an overstuffed chair into the darkest corner of the bedroom and put my gun in my lap.

While I waited I juggled names and faces, trying to make sense of it all. Nobody knew everything, that was obvious, or they’d have the Blood of the Saint by now and the rest of us would just be corpses. But some people knew more than most. My life — Alice’s life — rested in the hope that I knew more than the Italian. Or, at the very least, the Italian thought I knew more than he did.

At the center was one name. Fanutti. One name, two people. One feeding the eels at the bottom of the East River, the other holding the key to fantastic wealth, a treasure beyond imagining. Fanutti. An Italian name.

The outer door opened. There was a patch of low conversation I didn’t catch that ended with, “I am tired. When I wake up in the morning, I expect to hear that you have found him.” He said something else in what I assume was Italian and the outer door closed. The Italian spent some time in the kitchen while I exercised all the will at my disposal to stay put. The greatest advantage goes to the hunter who waits for his prey to come to him.

Finally the Italian’s silhouette was in the doorway to the bedroom. “Don’t even twitch,” I said as he reached for the light switch.

He froze, then slowly moved his hands away from his body, where I could see them clearly. “Mr. Lowell, perhaps?”

“Perhaps.”

“I have been looking forward to speaking with you. My name is Fanutti.”

“Like hell it is. I killed Fanutti myself.”

He chuckled. “Luckily for both of us I know that you are bluffing. I know who killed my brother, Mr. Lowell. If I thought it was you this conversation would be over. My name is Paolo Fanutti, and I am here to recover what rightfully belonged to my brother. I would like to secure your cooperation.”

“Ah-ah-ah!” I said and Fanutti number three lifted his hands back up to an acceptable level. “Abusing my secretary is hardly a way to win my heart.”

“I find that people like you respond much better to threats than to promises.”

“Oh? Well if people like you respond to promises, here’s one for you. For every bruise on her, you get two. For every tooth missing, I knock out three of yours. If you run out of teeth, I’ll start on fingers. That’s a promise. I keep my promises.”

Paolo Fanutti was silent for a moment. “What do you propose? If it is her safety you are concerned about, then you need me.”

I stood. I’m not a small man and I loomed over Fanutti. “I propose a trade.”

“What sort of trade?” His question was just a formality; he already knew the answer.

“I walk out of here tonight with Alice, get her safely away, and I’ll give you Lola Fanutti.”

He made a face. “Don’t call her that. She stains the family name.”

“Stain removal is your department.”

He smiled. “It seems we can do business after all.”

“In the end, it’s all business.” I shrugged. Lola was going to cut him to shreds. I just hoped she left enough so that I could keep my promise.

Tune in next time for: Cold Water!

Programming note

It occurred to me that Jer’s Software Hut is a pretty big part of my life, and Jer’s Novel Writer is slowly developing into a piece of software that will long be remembered for all the ideas that all the other word processors eventually copied. As such, I have created a new category here at MR&HBI devoted to all the advancements going on in the hut’s secret bunker, chilly and drippy, buried deep beneath the impassible mountain range that passes through this quiet Prague neighborhood. Security measures are extremely tight here (had to boot Dick Cheny a while back; the dude could could not keep his big yap shut), but every once in a while we allow carefully calculated information to leak to what we euphamistically call the ‘outside world’.

I went back and found some episodes that belong in this category, and along the way I was continuously surprised by the close proximity of events that in retrospect seem far apart, and the distantness of things that seem like yesterday. Most of all, I feel the time. It was a long time ago now that I was exploring the small roads of North America. It was a long time ago that I flirted with bartenders in Montana, and watched a thunderstorm on my cousin’s patio on the Fourth of July.

Whoops! Almost did a retrospective episode, there! This is about the future. ‘Rumblings from the Secret Labs’ will be the outlet for carefully controlled propagana concerning all that is good about Hut products. That is all you need to know.

We have the technology…

I got the Mini back from the shop yesterday, and now everything is rainbows and unicorns once again. Colorful butterflies flit from flower to flower while the birds sing in four-part harmony. The bunnies are tap-dancing, the foxes are doing the rhumba (you would have expected the fox-trot, but they’re crafty that way), and the squirrels have decided to live another day. Why this great joy among the creatures of the forest? Because future releases of Jer’s Novel Writer will run natively on Intel-based Macs, that’s why. Among mac users, forest creatures were some of the first to adopt the new technology.

Because I’m in a jolly sort of mood, I’ve prepared this exclusive peek into the secret labs high atop Hut Tower, perched on its windswept crag, clad in a permanent cloak of storm clouds while lightning crashes all around it, in a quiet Prague neighborhood.

The Secret Labs high atop Hut Tower

The laptop pictured is, of course, my old one, now serving as a very large hard drive enclosure. The captions are thanks to a program called Cartoon Life that came with the Mini, and makes the layout and typesetting of comic book pages extremely simple.

It will take a bit of getting used to having different machines for different jobs (photos on mini, blog on PowerBook), but I am ready for the challenge. The one fly in the ointment (flies, it seems, do not share the joy of the rest of their fellow creatures), is the uneasy fear that the external hard drive which holds all my music somehow caused the earlier demise of my computer. The drive has a chip set that has been branded “not very good at all”, but I’ve never heard of a firewire device damaging a computer. Still, I most certainly do not want to take the machine in for yet another logic board.

Now, of course, it’s time to move on, to persevere, to take up the mantle once more and leave no thesaurus unplundered. Code must be writ, words must be script, and although the clock in Hut Tower has not had the teremity to tick in an unknown amount of time, elsewhere the laws of space and time reign uncontested, sweeping opportunity along with them in a mad rush to oblivion. I sure don’t want to miss that bus!

Pit stop

I spent a long time at the Little Café Near Home today, and as I result I am more than just a little wired on caffeine. Even at one tea per hour, you stack up enough hours and things get a bit on the twitchy side. It seemed like a beer was called for, but I was done with that place. I bought some water and some wine to go and turned my toes toward home.

I didn’t get far. One street up from Little Café Near Home is the Budvar bar even closer to home. On Tuesdays all the staff wear shirts, so I figured conditions would be tolerable. (“Conditions”, in this case, meaning air, and “tolerable” meaning breathable.) I stopped in and grabbed myself a desitku.

It seems that Tuesday night is card night. There are a couple of games going, and fortunately for me people are too busy playing cards to smoke. There are however, several very, very drunk people here. Walking is a dicey proposition for some of these folks, which means the delay the stroll to the relief station as long as possible. I have now witnessed two distressed marches across the room, picking up speed as they go, the pilgrim leaning progressively farther forward and hoping his feet will somehow stay underneath. It is a terrible race, feet handicapped, bladder insistent, and there can be no true winner.

On the TV there is a documentary of some sort. It’s about a festival, and large women in peasant garb have formed a disassembly line to render chickens into chicken parts. Cleavers are flying and you do not want to reach for the wrong bird.

The chemicals, it’s the chemicals. I forgot to post this when I got home. Here it is, (marginally) better late than never.

Don’t get mad, get Glad!

I had an audition today for another commercial. I really, really, don’t think I’ll get this one, but it would be nice if I did. Why? Because this ad would play nationwide in the good ol’ US-of-A, that’s why. I’d never see it, but anyone over on that side of the puddle who watched daytime TV would get to see me robbing a bank in order to sell plastic bags. For the same reason, the gig would also pay a lot. One day of work would pay the rent for half a year, minimum.

Alas, this gig will not come to me. We auditioned in pairs, and while I was not particularly sparkling, my partner was particularly flat. Now, in hindsight, I know exactly what I should have done to make the situation work, but that’s what hindsight is all about.

Many of you will see this commercial, and I will not be in it. Oh, well.

It’s an episode… about nothing.

Sorry for the lack of episodes lately. It’s just that life has carried on in its terribly ordinary way, the wheels of time and space turning on well-oiled axes with nary a squeak.

Of note, perhaps, is that my pants are falling down. Either they have stretched or I have shrunk. While I don’t feel any healthier, and can see no diffference in the mirror, is seems unlikely that all my pants got larger at the same time.

One reason I’ve not had much to say is that I spent more time than I should have in the last week playing a computer game. This is the sort of brain-eating activity that leaves one without an original thought to call one’s own. I finished the game today, and I have no plan to order any of the sequels. Not because it wasn’t fun, mind you, quite the opposite.

Now I am in the Little Cafe, and there is a birthday party goinf on. Birthday girl is very pretty, adn is dancing on the bar as I type this.(pardon the typos, but for authenticity, i will leave this as I firty tuyped iu while watching her dance.) She is particularly happy because her ex-boyfriend showed up for the party, and they are not ex anymore. I am happy because she is very, very, good at shaking her moneymaker. Perhaps they were reconciled before tonight, but I don’t think so. The breathlessly hopeful look on her face when he arrived, the careful way they acted until they fell into their old familiar habits, the disappointment of the other males present, all spoke of this being a birthday she will long remember. For me, in my corner, part of the universe has gone back to being the way it belongs.

And so the world moves on, quietly, calmly (with the exception of the dancing on the bar), and there is little for this correspondent to report.

Programming note: episode upgraded

I spent way too much time today putting images with captions in to the episode Floating Down the Vltava. Getting the captions to line up right turned into a big pain in the ass. (The missing element: margin:auto.) The pictures now mostly behave well. I’ll be adding pics to other episodes in the near future, so keep your eye in the “what’s new” section above.

Enjoy!

Arrr! Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Ahoy, maties! I only be havin’ a moment ‘fore I weigh anchor and set sail to rendez-vous with Little John and the rest of his scurvy crew, but it would be ill indeed to let this day pass without a resounding “Arrr!”

Too much left unexplained

In fact, should I rate a tombstone, I’d be all right with that. I got a rejection today that at first glance was just another impersonal note stuffed in the return envelope. I almost didn’t read the text of the note; I’ve seen it before. This rejection was different, however, for two reasons. First, the text of the note actually was different: it said in part, “… your work shows a great deal of promise, and we’d very much like to see more from you.” They don’t have to ask me twice. Second, and even better(ish) was the personal message scratched at the bottom in handwriting worse than mine. The message read, “Some nice writing, but too much was left unexplained.”

Too much left unexplained. I’m trying to explain more now, really.

The reviews of “Memory of a Thing that Never Was” were generally good. There were a couple of professional critics that really liked it, and a bunch of armchair critics who thought it was pretty good. On the other hand, there was a minority of folks who said “I didn’t get it. What happened?” This issue of the magazine had been promoted to the blogosphere, promising free copies in exchange for honest reviews. That would seem like an open invitation to the nutjobs, but I read many reviews and most of these folk stepped up with fair and well-reasoned criticism. Those who rose to the challenge really were passionate about the genre, and ready to help it grow. So, when they ask “What happened?” it’s worth remembering that they are avid readers and champions of the genre.

Too much left unexplained. Some of my good friends here have said the same thing. (It takes a good friend to say something like that — caring enough to risk giving offense and trusting enough to know that the criticism will be taken constructively.) Graybeard, when he read “Memory”, thought for a bit and said, “this should be 600 pages.” From Graybeard, a brutally honest individual, that was for me a great compliment. “Memory” hints at a lot of other things that would take pages and pages to explain, but wouldn’t enhance the short story.

A lot of my stories have holes in them. It seems I’m not writing the holes well enough. Sometimes when I write a short story I’m trying to create a single instant, a moment in a person’s life. A mood. These are my favorite ones and the ones that are the most difficult to write. I worked at a pace of about a paragraph per hour on the rejected story’s opening. The time was well-spent, I think, as the Rejecting Authority appears to have enjoyed the prose. Often I write background bits that I subsequently delete because I see them as distractions. Unfortunately many people find the lack of background to be distracting. If I were to add that stuff, however, it would change the nature of the story.

Thinking about it, I write plenty of stories in which everything is explained. Some of them I even like. (My hard drive is a graveyard of stories written that will never see the light of day, unless I decide to hire some poor slob to find the ones I dropped only because I was in the wrong mood when I reviewed them a week after writing). But my favorites are the very short, very dense stories that are more like a painting than a movie; a single frame in a longer narrative.

Tonight I looked at the rejected story with some frustration. I really thought I was hammering on the important parts, almost embarrassingly so. There is much unknown, but no one in the story knows the answers. They even say as much. The story is about a moment of awakening, but one that has happened many times before. So what can I clarify? The mountains are forbidden. Why? I don’t know. Nobody in the story knows. Why is not important; what matters is that they all believe it enough to kill a friend rather than let him get there. In a novel or even a novella I would explore those questions, but there’s not time for that now.

Obviously I have some work cut out for me as a short story writer, but at the same time I can’t help but think that there is a readership that likes to fill in the blanks. I am more appreciative than ever of the people at Fantasy and Science Fiction for having faith in their readers to put a more difficult story in their pages.

I joked tonight that perhaps I should write my stories in czech because the last thing they want here is an answer. Of course that’s silly; I’m blaming the audience (or actually in this case, a single underpaid slush-pile reader) for failing to understand me when it is my job to be understood.

Too much left unexplained. Isn’t that just like life.

My Beers With Angel

I first met Angel at the Little Café near home a few weeks ago. I was worried at the time that if he came in regularly it would be difficult to get any work done. If he is in the room, you know it. He is an energetic soul, and it is only with the greatest effort that he can leave me to work, when he is bursting with stories and ideas. He is able to keep that effort level required for restraint for perhaps thirty seconds before the pressure of all the ideas bottled up inside him pops his safety valve.

Tonight we met at the Little Café by agreement, so I had no expectations of writing. Tonight was for talking.

Angel is by any measure a good guy. He is sharp, no doubt about it — not only does he understand quite a few languages, he understands language. At one time he worked at a university in Peru, and gave most of his salary back to the university because, for him, there is nothing more important than education. Angel is an idealist and a shameless Christian.

I chose the word ‘shameless’ very carefully. Angel is not ashamed to be Christian, nor would he ever try to make anyone else ashamed for not being Christian. He believes in a higher authority is all. He is a philosopher, a lecturer, and a teacher. Much of what he says, I don’t completely agree with, but that’s OK. Part of that is that we agree that when people stop and listen to each other we can get along, even if we don’t agree.

Tonight over beers he said, “You can say ‘murder is bad’ and I will ask ‘why? Where is the authority that says so?’ He’s not arguing in favor of murder, he’s saying there is a reason murder is bad, and that the reason is bigger than humanity. Personally I don’t see the need for a higher authority, but that just made the conversation more interesting. It’s surprisingly hard to find people who are both passionate in their beliefs and tolerant of others.

In the last few days I’ve had fairly intense conversations with Greabeard and with Angel. In both cases part of the discussion is a search for a mutual definition of terms — making sure we’re using the same word in the same way. With Angel the process was much more rewarding. You can posit that this is the difference between argument and debate, but on that point I would have to disagree.

The reason I met up with Angel tonight is because he needs a place to crash for a few days until his new apartment is ready. This will be interesting indeed. My place looks like I’m still moving in (in a sense I am moving back into the room where Soup Boy slept), and there is overall a sense of disorder. I am, in my own small way, entropy’s little helper*. More than that, there will be a very large presence in my sanctuary for a few days. His need for a place is part of a large, complicated fur-ball of events that are his story to tell, not mine, but even being an uninformed bystander has been educational.

*On the entropy bit, it is important to remember that every time you achieve order you must expend enough energy to create more disorder somewhere else. By not moving the stack of boxes out of my living room, I am delaying the heat death of the universe. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

The Bohemian Quarter

I awoke lazily this morning, enjoying slipping back and forth between sleep and semi-wakefulness. While I lay there I thought of how much fun I’d had in the Bohemian Quarter recently, exploring it’s twisty-turny streets, the architecture from an earlier era, and the carnival atmosphere. I remembered being lost and stumbling into a small amusement park. I had to wander the streets of the quarter for quite some time before finally getting a feeling for the layout of the place, using a monument in a little square as my anchor point.

That memory was followed by a moment of confusion as I realized that Prague has no Bohemian Quarter. Still my memory of the place was so complete (new details easily recalled, emotional resonances, a seamless whole rather than a framework of invention), and my experiences there so varied, that I cast about trying to figure out where the real Bohemian Quarter is. I can’t find it, and the only place left to look is in a story I haven’t written yet.

Well, THAT didn’t work…

I’m just coming out of a self-imposed Internet blackout that was intended to let me get things done. Let’s go to the scorecard and see how I did:

  • Refrigeratior: emptier
  • Cabinets: barer
  • Pile of dishes in sink: taller
  • Laundry: still out of detergent
  • Database in Jer’s Novel Writer: guts still hanging out
  • Work table: cluttered
  • The half of lliving room unusable because it’s full of furniture: unchanged.

The contents of my refrigerator as I write this are: 2 bottles of water, soy sauce, mustard, whipped cream, an open packet of paprika, and a plastic lemon filled with juice. If there’s anything in the freezer, I don’t want to know about it. Last night the cabinets surrendered the last solid food – a box of slovenské halušky mix. I was expecting something that made the meal you get in restaurants when you order slovenské halušky, but this was just the base dumpling part. My results did not match the picture on the box at all. Breakfast this morning was leftover slovenské halušky. I thought of putting soy sauce on it, but decided against it.

On the plus side, I think I’ve reached the point where I must do something or I will starve to death.

But wait, there’s more!

In the immediately previous episode I mentioned reading a Japanese comic that eventually became rather tiresome. The manga is called Bleach, and while the story starts off strong, eventually it crumbles under its own weight, becoming an endless series of battles. Most of those battles follow a form of gradual escalation that is common in literature from all around the globe. Just when the good guy thinks he has the bad guy beat, bad guy pulls out a more effective weapon, and suddenly the tide changes.

The question in a confrontation like that is “why the hell was the bad guy screwing around with lesser weapons in a life-and-death struggle? Why leave your life to capricious chance when you have a devastating first strike at your disposal?” The question, while rhetorical to most readers of these august pages, is direct for the people that write these stories. Think about it. You have a gun and a sharp stick. Which are you going to lead with?

As with any cliché, using it artfully yields magical results. In The Princess Bride, one of the best parts of one of the best books I’ve ever read is when Inigo Montoya meets the Man in Black at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity. If you’ve only seen the movie, you’ve only caught a pale shadow of the scene. Inigo has seen the Man in Black in action, and hopes that, perhaps at long last, he’s going to have a good fight. He wants a worthy adversary more than he wants life itself. He decides to start lefty to give the Man in Black a chance. The Man in Black reaches the top of the cliff, and Inigo waits courteously while his enemy catches his breath. Why? Because he needs this to be a fair fight.

After a few minutes the Man in Black stands and draws his own sword. Inigo smiles when he sees his opponent is left-handed. Strength against weakness. They join battle.

The battle is amazing, and the Man in Black pushes Inigo to his limit. Inigo has not been happier since before the six-fingered man killed his father. The Man in Black corners Inigo, who says (something like) “ask me why I’m smiling.”

“Why are you smiling?”

“Because I am not left-handed.” Inigo moves his sword to his right hand and now the battle steps up. They go all over the place: terrain, footing, tactics, and physical conditioning all come into play, written in so naturally that you think you’re an expert on fencing when the battle is over. Finally Inigo has the Man in Black cornered, and his mysterious opponent is smiling. “I am also not left-handed,” the Man in Black says.

Now, see? If you want to escalate the battle gradually, that’s how you do it. Give the combatants a human reason why they would not open with their most devastating blow. In The Princess Bride it is a mutual love of the contest. In The Monster Within, I notice now that without consciously thinking about it, I did all right with the escalation because the opposition’s goal evolved from testing to intimidating to eliminating. In The Test, no opponent ever holds back. The tension comes from battles pending and battles avoided, but when confrontation occurs, the action is swift and fierce, and everyone, even timid little Jane, bites for the throat. The Test is also different because while there are very bad people, there is no evil. Evil is a cheap excuse to make the bad guys do irrational things.

Which brings me back to where I started. Japanese comic book. Evil in this narrative is not simple, but there is still evil. Where the story gets good (and eventually tiresome as they work it to death) is when the toughest opponents are not the classic evil folk but powerful people with misguided ideas. This one does pretty well with the evil beings, explaining their lust to eat human souls to replace the one they only vaguely remember having themselves. Even within the soul-hungry horde, there is a scale of sins.

Ah… foolish mortal. Do you not know of the power of nantuki?

“Well, crap, if I’d known that, do you think I wouldn’t have mentioned the power of USS Iowa?