The Hobbit – Chapter XVII – The Clouds Burst

Here we have the Battle of Five Armies.  If you’re keeping track, it’s the dwarves, the men, the elves, the goblins and the eagles.  That is unless it is the dwarves, the men, the elves, the goblins and the wargs.  Both the eagles and the wargs are involved, I’m just not sure which one constitutes an army.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The chapter opens, as it must, with the repercussions of the previous chapter.  Bard and the Elf King return to try to talk to the dwarves, this time with the Arkenstone as a bargaining chip.  When Thorin sees the Arkenstone, he is amazed and confused.  He assumes they stole it somehow.  But, Bilbo confesses what he had done.  I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it before, but Bilbo is incredibly brave.  And his plan worked.  Thorin is almost ready to kill Bilbo, but Bilbo explains that the Arkenstone counts as his fourteenth of the total.  Thorin grudgingly agrees that if he gets the Arkenstone back, the men and elves can have Bilbo’s share, one fourteenth of the treasure.  When the deal is struck, Thorin wants nothing to do with Bilbo.  So, Bilbo is forced to leave the dwarves and join the host of men and elves.  Talk about ingrates.  At least a few of the dwarves have the decency to feel bad about it.

Thorin is an unusual character, especially considering that this is really a children’s book.  Throughout the book, until we get to the dragon, he was clearly a good guy.  Pompous, sure, but a good guy.  He falls fast and hard, though, once he sees a real chance of regaining his treasure.  It is a well written book, so it isn’t shocking.  The seeds were planted early.  But this is a kid’s book.  I’m not sure I understood Thorin’s transformation the first time I read it.  This isn’t a complaint, just an observation.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s confusing for most of the eleven and twelve year olds who read it.

The elves and men still want to avoid a fight, but they don’t trust Thorin.  The say that they will keep the Arkenstone until all of the gold is delivered.  Thorin, meanwhile, figures that he can keep all of the gold and get the Arkenstone back once his cousin, Dain, arrives.  Everyone is at a bit of a stalemate.

After all the posturing, Dain does arrive.  Bard is smart enough to realize that if Dain gets through to the mountain with his army, the deal with Thorin will be ignored.  Bard blocks their passage.  They insist he move.  Just as the battle begins, the goblin army arrives from the north.  The goblins are still angry that their king was killed and wouldn’t mind some of the treasure for themselves.  At the arrival of the goblins, everything changes.  The dwarves, elves and men unite to fight their common enemy.

A good chunk of the chapter is filled with a description of the battle.  Basically, it goes back and forth, but gradually the goblins are winning.  Bilbo sticks close to Bard, with his ring on and mostly stays safe.  Just as it looks like the goblin army will overwhelm our heroes, Bilbo sees the eagles.  He starts a cry, then is knocked on the head and falls unconscious.  That is where the chapter ends.

I just have to say how much I like the way this chapter ends.  After my complaints about Chapter XIV, Fire And Water, it should be obvious why.  The ending of this chapter goes to show, once again, that this is Bilbo’s story.  We only know what’s going on from Bilbo’s perspective and here, Tolkien sticks to that.  It’s a beautiful thing.  It only goes to make the mistake of Chapter XIV that much more egregious.

We end with a little bit of suspense, but not much.  Tolkien doesn’t tell us how the battle ends, but it seems pretty obvious that the eagles will help the good guys prevail.  And we will find out soon how the battle ended.

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The Hobbit – Chapter XVI – A Thief In The Night

A Thief In The Night is a short, but crucial, chapter.  The action is really straightforward.  Bilbo, you may remember from Chapter XIII – Not At Home, is in possession of the Arkenstone.  Thorin has basically lost his mind.  He is completely obsessed with the treasure, and the Arkenstone in particular.  He will not listen to reason, not that many of the dwarves were feeling reasonable.  Thorin and his group are willing to fight all of the men and elves for their treasure.  Bilbo, of course, is the reasonable one.  He realizes that there is no reasoning with the dwarves, which means no fair or peaceful solution to the problem.  So, he takes the Arkenstone and sneaks over to the camp of the men and elves.  He gives the gem to Bard to use as negotiating leverage, then sneaks back to his place with the dwarves.  And on his way he has a brief conversation with Gandalf.  Yes, Gandalf is back, but he has only shown himself to Bilbo at this point.

I like this chapter a lot, but it is hard to explain why.  I think, mostly, it comes down to Bilbo gets to show what kind of hobbit he really is in this chapter.  The act of taking the Arkenstone and giving it to Bard is really an act of self sacrifice.  Bilbo has shown uncommon courage throughout the book, but this is a different kind of courage.  He knows exactly what Thorin will do.  He knows that his friends will see it as a betrayal.  But he knows what is right and he knows that he is the only one who can make things right.

I also enjoy this chapter because a lot of people come to the realization that it’s best not to underestimate the hobbit.  People are always so condescending towards Bilbo.  The dwarves are repeatedly.  The trolls were.  Gollum was.  The people of Lake Town, the elves and Beorn were.  Really everyone except for Gandalf has underestimated Bilbo.  It’s just nice to see him take matters into his own hands and show everyone who’s boss.

I also mentioned at the beginning that this is a crucial chapter.  Basically what I mean is that it is how Tolkien escapes the corner he had written himself into.  The book couldn’t just end with the death of the dragon.  And the dwarves couldn’t just live happily ever after with their treasure.  There had to be repercussions.  But the book can’t end in tragedy and the repercussions have to be real.  This is the chapter that allows the repercussions to be real and sets up the happy ending.

So, it’s a short chapter, but it’s pretty packed.  We grow to appreciate Bilbo even more.  And the end is in sight.  Just three more chapters to go.

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Dawn (10,399 words) plus Commentary

Before you can be good at writing, you have to be bad at writing. This story is an excellent example of me being bad at writing, and having a great time while doing it. Below the story are the comments I received from the judge of the contest I submitted this story to. Practice, criticism and editing are how you grow, and they help turn what you love into something others will love too.

The sharp clang of metal rang in Reene’s ear. The rebel soldier stumbled backwards, surprised by the young woman’s strength. Running forward, she jumped into the air, screaming as she plunged her sword through his breast plate. The rebel hadn’t hit the ground before Reene struck again, severing the arm of an archer. Her heart pounded as she searched the plains for another target. To the right, she watched as Anari landed the final blow on the enemy commander. The remaining rebels surrendered, and Reene relaxed. The rebels had proven to be tougher foes than she anticipated. Wiping the blood from her sword, Reene looked forward to the next battle.

“Are you all right?” said a voice from behind her.

“Yeah, I’m fine Dan,” she said, turning to greet him. He sat atop his well-groomed horse, his royal blue armor shining in the afternoon sun. Reene was amazed to see that his face was without dirt or sweat. She wondered how he kept his immaculate appearance after such a fierce battle. “How are you?”

Dan smiled. “I’m still alive.”

Reene took a moment to survey the area. The plains stretched endlessly in all directions, meeting the horizon in the distance. Immediately before her were dozens of dead and wounded rebels, trying their best to maintain some level of composure after their defeat. Although she was glad the battle was over, a part of her wished that one of them would make a move.

“I hate Kareece,” Dan started, interrupting her thoughts. “Ilna was bad enough, but at least they had trees. This whole country is nothing but dry, cracked earth as far as the eye can see.”

“Remember who you’re talking to! I was born here,” she reminded him.

“Oh right. So when do I get to meet Mom and Dad?” Dan joked. Reene suddenly became somber. It had been over a year since she left home. Coming back to Kareece stirred too many emotions that she struggled to keep under control.

“Well Dan, there’s-”

“Gather up your gear! We’re moving out!” Anari yelled.

“What about the remaining rebels?” Dan asked.

“Leave them. They are not our concern.”

“Is it just me, or has General Anari been acting strangely ever since we left Ilna?” Dan said to Reene.

“The king asked us to defeat the rebels, not drag them around with us as prisoners. Let him handle that.”

Walking with the rest of the army, Reene thought about the incredible situation she found herself in. Less than a month ago, she faced execution on the frozen tundra of Ilna. Anari and his army saved her, and now she was traveling with them through her homeland, fighting rebels for a king that seemed to have neither the resources nor interest to deal with them himself. She found the whole exercise pointless. How would this help General Anari and his goal of invading Arstatia? It certainly wasn’t helping to achieve her goal.

After hours of silent marching, Reene could see the outline of buildings in the low light of dusk. It had been weeks since they left the capital city, and the prospect of sleeping in a bed was genuinely exciting to her. As they entered the town, her senses were bombarded with familiar sights and sounds. The dusty yellow buildings and the sweet smells of Kareece’s famed soups welcomed her back to the places of her childhood. The roads were full with royal soldiers, traveling merchants and the regular townspeople. But her eyes were drawn to the nomads that called the open plains home. Their tanned skin and flowing tunics marked them out among the regular people. They nodded politely at Reene, who found something exotic yet familiar in their presence.

“Listen!” Anari barked, snapping Reene back from her dream world. “Rest, eat, and do as you wish this evening. We march again at daybreak.” The others quickly scattered, leaving Reene and Dan alone.

“I need to find a stable to keep my horse,” Dan said. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to eat. I haven’t had a good bowl of soup in months. I’ll meet up with you later.”

“Okay, see you then,” Dan said, leading his horse down the crowded road. Reene turned, following the smell of seasoned meat to a small tent. A short, balding man stood there, stirring one of several large pots besides the tent. Her stomach growled in anticipation.

“Do you have sour onion soup?” she asked.

“Yes, of course. That is today’s special soup,” the man replied.

“How much?”

“A serving will cost you five pieces of gold. Would you like some miss? Miss?”
Reene’s attention had become focused on a man walking across the road. He wore a rich purple tunic with a red sash tied around his waist. He was taller and thinner than most nomads, but the strong facial features were unmistakable. Reene’s heart beat faster when she caught a glimpse of his sword bobbing from beneath the sash. She stared openly, following the man’s movements until he entered an inn near the tent.

“Miss!” the balding man yelled. “If you’re not going to buy anything than move along!
Customers are waiting!”

“I’m sorry,” she said, coming out of her trance. She ate her soup slowly, studying the crowds that moved by her. Eventually, her eyes wandered back to the inn

* * *

Bright orange light splashed in through the window. Reene paced back and forth, looking out to watch a torch flicker in the night. She’d reserved a room at the inn near the soup tent, but she hadn’t seen that man again. The innkeeper had refused to tell her his room number. She’d considered threatening him, but didn’t want to do anything to embarrass General Anari.

Reene sighed to herself. What had she gotten herself into? If she’d known that his goal was to invade Arstatia, she never would have joined Anari’s makeshift army. Reene had no desire to die, and attacking the strongest nation on the continent seemed like the easiest way to do so. It was none of her concern, though. She trusted Anari, and would fight wherever he told her to. Until she found what she was looking for, anyway.

Reene’s eyelids began to droop. The long day finally caught up to her. She fell into bed without bothering to remove her clothes. Sleep came quickly, but it was a restless night. Images from the earlier battle replayed, with the handless archer standing out most clearly. She’d taken his life without killing him, and found a strange satisfaction in turning him into one of the walking dead.

Muffled sounds from downstairs dragged Reene back into the conscious world. She thought she was dreaming, but the din she heard from the bar area of the inn was very real. She sat straight up, searching for a candle to light. The sounds of struggle faded, replaced with footsteps moving quickly up the winding staircase. In the dark room, she was disoriented and confused. She forced herself not to panic when the heavy sound of boots reached her door.

Reene rolled off her bed just as the door was kicked off the hinges. A large man walked in, carrying an axe almost the size of Reene herself. She watched him move about the room, cursing silently when he spotted her sword and picked it up.

“Someone’s been here,” he said to himself, stopping in the middle of the room. “Let’s see if they’re hiding here!” He brought the axe around, crashing it through the bed. Reene jumped up, striking the man across the face with her pack. He stumbled backwards, dropping his axe and her sword. “You little wench!” he said, grabbing his jaw.

Reene said nothing, making a mad scramble for her weapon. The man was big, but he was fast. She didn’t see his foot as it slammed into her ribs. Reene collapsed to the floor, gasping desperately for breath. Her head was spinning from the pain, and the man took his time to grab his axe.

“I heard about you from the survivors of the earlier battle,” he said approaching her. “They described you like a demon, cutting through everything in your path. I’m a little disappointed that it’s this easy to kill you!” With a grunt, he lifted the huge axe above his head again. Reene dodged at the last moment, and the man’s axe slammed through the floor. As he struggled to dislodge it, she moved quickly, kicking out her attackers’ knee and grabbing her sword. There was a silver flash, and the man’s headless body crumpled to the floor.

“Easy to kill me,” Reene sneered. She clutched at her throbbing ribs. All of the movement made them hurt even more. Stepping out into the hallway, she could hear shouting and running throughout the inn. Pain shot through her body with every step, slowing her greatly. She could see that the men attacking them were rebels. Some of them were the same men they’d allowed to surrender earlier. I’ll finish the job this time, she thought. She approached on of the rebels from behind, hoping to slit his throat. But he turned to face her, and both stared in surprise at each other. Reene tried to strike, but the pain was too much. The rebel easily disarmed her.

“You’ve got to do better than that little girl!” he said, seizing her arm. Reene struggled, and the man threw her to the ground. He opened his mouth to speak, but only a surprised gasp escaped his lips before he fell lifelessly. Reene looked up to see the man in the purple tunic. There was a reassuring calm in his eyes that helped her relax, even as the rebels rushed up the stairs.

“Are you friend or foe?” he asked.


“Then stay close. We must escape,” he said, helping her to her feet. Reene had a hard time keeping up with him. In the low light she could barely see him tear through two rebels that tried to stop him. She followed as nest she could, sure that he was the only way she would survive the night.

The two managed to make it down the stairs, taking turns against the advancing rebels. At the bottom, they were met by a man of monstrous size. On his shoulder rested a huge broadsword, already covered in blood.

“My brother! Where is he?” he demanded in a booming voice.

“The one with the axe? I left him upstairs, but I didn’t see where his head rolled off to!” Reene said.

The rebel sized Reene up, laughing loudly. “You’re a cute one. After I kill your friend, maybe you and I can have some fun.”

“I’ll do to you what I did to your brother!” she started, but her companion stepped in front of her.

“Stand back. I will handle this.”

“I can take care of myself!” Reene snapped.

“You are injured. If you fight, you will endanger both of us. Now stand back,” he said sternly. Reene grudgingly stepped aside. He was right; she was hurting too much to be useful. This will be a good chance to study him, she thought.

“Leave here or die,” he said to the rebel.

“How about I just kill you!” the rebel growled, lunging forward. He stared the rebel down, side-stepping his massive blade. He extended his leg, tripping up the large man. Reene looked on, stunned. He’d made a fool of the rebel with little effort.

The rebel looked up, his face red with embarrassment. “You’ll pay for that!” he yelled.

“That was your only warning. Leave this place,” the man repeated. The rebel hopped up quickly, charging again. This time, he charged back. The rebel stopped suddenly, looking down with surprise at the gaping wound across his chest. Reene rubbed her eyes. He can’t be that fast, she thought. He’d landed his attack before her or the rebel knew what had happened.

The man turned back to Reene as the rebel fell behind him. “We must go,” he said.

Reene was still too shocked to speak. “I…I have allies in this area,” she said after a long pause.

“Take me to them.”

The two burst out of the inn onto the road, swords at the ready. Crowds of people rushed by them, trying to escape the battles that had erupted across the city. Reene scanned the crowds, finally spotting a familiar face on horseback.

“Dan, what’s going on?” she yelled.

“The rebels launched a sneak attack! General has ordered us to gather in the center of town. Who is that?” Dan asked, pointing at Reene’s companion.

“A friend. Come on, let’s go!” The three took off towards the rendezvous point, fighting against the waves of fleeing townspeople as well as the rebels. They managed to battler their way to the town center. They found the rest of their army surrounded by the rebels. Behind them another group of rebels appeared, completing the entrapment.

Anari gave Reene’s companion a quick look-over. “Who are you?”

“My name is Jin. If I may, I’d like to join your army,” he said.

“Good. You, Reene and Dan will protect our left flank,” Anari ordered. Reene sighed in relief. They would need all the help they could get to survive the night.

“Why have you joined us?” she asked as they took their positions.

“There will be time to talk later,” Jin replied. “Now, we fight!”

* * *

The cold, hard ground gave Reene little rest. After battling the rebels throughout the night, they’d been forced out of the town by angry citizens. She couldn’t blame them, but neither the fighting or the sleeping arrangements did much to help her ribs. They ached dully, meaning they were bruised and not broken. She was thankful for that.

“Rise and shine!” Dan called from a distance. She looked up to see him carrying a plate covered with meat, cheese and bread. “I thought you might be hungry.”

“Where did you get all this?” Reene asked, her eyes sparkling at the sight of the breakfast feast.

“Let’s just say I was able to secure some things during all the commotion last night,” he replied coyly.

“You stole this?”

“Sh! Knights don’t steal! And I don’t want anyone else begging me for my food.” The two ate quickly. Between bites, Reene could see Dan looking over in her direction. When their eyes met, he averted his. She smiled to herself, feeling a flutter in her chest.

“How much longer are we going to be fighting these rebels?” she asked.

“Well, the deal is that the King will only help us invade Arstatia if we completely eliminate the rebels. That might get much easier now that Jin is in our army. He barely broke a sweat last night. That guy is incredible.” Reene nodded in agreement. His presence had tipped the battle in their favor.

“Where is he?”

“I saw him talking to General Anari earlier,” Dan said. When he looked up from his plate, she was already gone. “Your welcome,” he muttered to himself.

Reene quickly spotted Anari’s tent, but Jin was nowhere to be seen. She scanned the area, looking for his tall frame. She spotted him alone on the edge of the camp, looking out over the plains.

“Oh, it’s you,” he started when he saw her approaching, “I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself. My name is Jin.”

“My name is Reene,” she said, taking his extended hand.

“Reene,” he repeated, staring into her eyes. She looked back for a moment, then turned away uncomfortably. “ You are an impressive swordsman. I am honored to have the opportunity to fight alongside you.”

“You…you’re honored by me? You did things last night that I’ve never seen before. The honor is mine.”

Jin smiled. “ I am not a young man anymore. You and your friends are the ones who must guard the peace that you are fighting for.” Reene couldn’t explain it, but there was something familiar and comforting about him.

“Will you teach me how to fight like you?” she blurted out. Jin looked her over, surprised by her request.

“You want me to train you? For what reason?” he asked.

“So that I can become stronger. Please, I’ve learned so much since I left home, but watching you fight showed me that there’s still much more for me to learn. You are the best swordsman I’ve ever seen. I need your help,” she said.

“Before I can teach you anything, you must first answer a question for me. For whom do you fight?”

Reene looked up at him, confusion furrowing her brow. “I don’t understand.”

“If you cannot answer that question, I have nothing to teach you,” he said, turning away from her.

“Wait! I want to be a better swordsman! Isn’t that enough?”

“But to what end? What will strength do for you without purpose? What is skill without focus?” Reene looked down, unable to answer his questions. “You know why you are here. Find me here at sunset and tell me. If your answer is satisfactory, we will begin right away.” He left Reene to sort out the mess in her mind.

She walked back to her campsite, finding the plate that Dan had brought her earlier with a note draped over it. “I saved you some, since I’m such a nice guy,” she read aloud. Reene chuckled, nibbling on a piece of bread. Her head swam with images of the dozens of battles she’d been in over the last year. She’d fought in the verdant forests of Vern, on the frozen steppes of Ilna and the dry plains of Kareece, her homeland. More war lay ahead, through the mountains of Arstatia and to its capital, where a madman awaited them. Yet it wouldn’t end there, for winning the war was meaningless to Reene if she didn’t accomplish her true goal. Despite all of the hardships she’d faced, she enjoyed every moment of it, and she looked forward to more. Each battle made her stronger, faster, and deadlier. As she stood there, she realized that war made her glad.

At the same time, another image floated to the top of her mind. In it, her mother was standing behind her, smiling compassionately. She’d been playing with her mother’s sword against her wishes, and her reward was a gash across her hand. In that moment, nothing had ever hurt so much. Her mother cleaned and dressed the wound with care, and before long Reene was smiling widely, wiping away the tears as her mother peppered her with kisses.

The days she’s spent with her mother and father had been the happiest of her life. When her mother left and never came back, Reene experienced a pain far greater than any sword could inflict. She recalled her mother’s broad, slightly goofy smile. Her perfectly white teeth contrasted against her long dark hair. Her eyes smiled too, a strange blue-purple hue that Reene had inherited. Reene had lied to Dan the day before. Her father still waited for her to return home. But she couldn’t go back, not with the memories of her mother haunting her.

Reene tried her best to pass the hours until sunset. She made idle chitchat with her comrades, found Dan and thanked him for the food, and asked Anari about his plans to defeat the Emperor of Arstatia. Soon, she noticed that the sun was waning over the horizon. She rushed to the spot where Jin had left her earlier and found him waiting, just as he’d said. His face was stern, his arms crossed across his chest. She walked up to him, returning his gaze with confidence and determination.
“For whom do you fight?” he asked.

“I fight to improve. I want to be better tomorrow than I was yesterday. I do this for my mother. She was taken from me when I was very young. I don’t know by who, and I don’t know where he is. But I will find him, and I will avenge her death. That is why I fight,” she declared.

Jin’s expression fell into a deep frown. “The path of revenge is one that leads to hate and death. Are you prepared for that?”

“Yes,” Reene answered.

“Very well. Let’s begin.”

* * *

“Dan, if you’re really my friend, you’ll get off that horse and let me ride it,” Reene said, dragging alongside him.

“Sorry, a knight must never trust his stead to another,” Dan laughed.

“You also said knights don’t steal, but you’ve been breaking that code more and more often lately.”

“I can’t uphold the codes of Lonen’s knights if I starve to death, can I?”

Reene’s ribs had healed in the past week, but it was everything else that was aching. Constant battles with Kareece’s rebels, coupled with Jin’s sadistically intense training had pushed her body beyond the limit. She was beginning to prefer battle to Jin’s training. All her enemies wanted to do was kill her, while Jin’s goal seemed to be to make her wish she was dead. To make matters worse, General Anari had made peace with the rebels, and decided to head back to the capital to speak to the king on their behalf. They’d already been marching for a whole day. Reene wobbled on her feet slightly, feeling as if she might faint.

“Okay, if you’re not feeling well, get on,” Dan said, seeing her sway. Reene smiled weakly, waiting for him to stop.

“Reene!” Jin called from behind her. She looked back, sighing heavily.


He caught up to the two of them quickly. “You must keep walking. This is part of your stamina conditioning.”

“But I’m tired!” she whined.

“If you need to rest, that’s fine. But you must walk the entire distance under your own power. Anari has made peace with the rebels, so they won’t be attacking us anymore. That should give you plenty of rest.”

“Are we still training tonight?”

“Yes. I have something special planned,” he said.

Reene sighed again, but relented. “All right,” she said, trudging forward.

“Jin, may I talk to you for a moment?” Dan asked after Reene was out of earshot.

“Of course. What is it?”

“ We’re all glad that you joined us, and I thank you for saving my life on more than one occasion. I know that Reene asked you to train her, but don’t you think you’re being a little hard on her?”

“You are a good friend to her Dan. I can see that you care deeply for her,” Jin said.

“Uh…yeah…” Dan smiled sheepishly.

“She needs people like you to make her smile. But I cannot go easy on her, because hers is not an easy road,” he explained.

“How do you know that?” Dan asked.

“I have already been down it.”

Up ahead, Reene staggered on, desperate for Anari to order them to setup camp. Instead they marched on for hours, the sun blasting them overhead. The day eventually transitioned over to night, and the army had finally stopped for the evening. Reene knew that there was no rest for her though. She dragged herself across the campsite, looking for Jin. He was sitting alone, illuminated by the orange glow of a small fire. The smoke from the fire had a strange, spicy smell to it.

“What’s with the fire? It’s still light enough for us to train without it,” Reene said.

“Sit down, Reene. You have worked hard over this last week, and fought well in battle. You have earned a night of rest.”

“Thank you!” Reene sprawled out in front of the fire. “What did you put in there? The smoke smells nice.”

“It is a combination of herbs and grasses. The scent is to help you relax,” he explained.

“It’s working…” Reene said, her eyes drooping lower.

“Don’t fall asleep. We have yet to complete today’s training. The life of a warrior is a difficult one. We must kill in order to survive. Those lives that we take pile onto us, and become a burden on our hearts.”

“Yeah…” she said, sitting up.

“It is necessary for a warrior to bare his heart to another. For understanding, for compassion, and to ease the pain we carry. This is a tradition that has been passed down by my tribe, the Saruto. Will you join me in it?”

Reene thought for a moment. She didn’t feel any weight on her shoulders. There was no guilt or remorse. She worked in a kill or be killed profession, and she played by those rules. Or was that the problem?

“Yes,” she agreed.

“The first thing you must do is remove your sword. For now, you are not a warrior. You are a child of the plains.” Reene placed her sword and sheath in front of her. Jin did the same, but he reached back again and brought forth a second weapon. Unlike his first utilitarian sword, the second one was richly detailed. The black sheath was covered in etchings that Reene couldn’t read. The handle was black as well, with a gold serpent wrapping around it, ending with its fangs exposed at the bottom. For a moment she was hypnotized by the sword as the flickering light bounced off its polished finish.

“Why do you carry two swords?” she asked.

“I will tell you soon. Tonight, it is your night. Tell me your story.”
Reene stared into the fire for a long while. “It’s been a year since I left home to find my mother’s killer. In that time, I’ve met terrible people who destroy simply because they can. I’ve also met wonderful people like Dan, Anari and the rest of this army. People who don’t like war, but when they are called to action they respond. I’ve traveled across this continent and been to places that I had only dreamed about. I remember the first time I saw snow in Ilna. It was stained with the blood of people who’d dared to resist the dictatorship there.”

“What else, Reene?”

“I felt nothing. No wonder at the sight of those magical flakes drifting from heaven. No sorrow for those who gave their lives for a cause they believed in. None of it told me who killed my mother, so none of it mattered. I don’t feel anything except for a cold lump in the pit of my stomach. It only warms in the heat of battle, and then I feel good. This war will end soon, and everyone will be happy. Everyone except for me.”

“What will make you happy?”

She looked straight at Jin, revealing a rage that she’d struggled to contain all her life. “I will be happy when I hold the head of the man who killed my mother in my hands. Until then, I will travel with Anari, because fighting is all that keeps me content.”

Jin sat forward, returning her gaze. “And what about the day after you find that man? What will you do then?” Reene looked away. She’d never thought about the day after. Her thoughts only went to the next battle. Jin relented, sitting back and looking towards the stars. “It’s amazing. When you have that determined look on your face, you look just like her.”

“Like who?”

“Like Jade.”

Reene’s anger subsided, replaced with confusion. “How do you know my mother’s name?” she asked. Looking at Jin, she could see that his eyes had grown distant, and he wore a sad smile. But she was shocked by the tear that fell when he met her eyes.

“Because Jade was my sister,” he said after a long pause. “When I saw you that day in town, you looked exactly like her when she was your age. I knew she had a child but…seeing you finally brought the whole thing to life for me.”

Reene stared uncomprehendingly at Jin. She matched up what she remembered of her mother against his face. The nose, the mouth, the ears, they all fell into place perfectly. And Reene gasped when she saw the same blue-purple eyes that she and her mother shared. “You…you’re my uncle?”


The shock and exhaustion the day was too much for Reene to bear. She fell over to the
side, landing in the dirt. Jin left her there to rest, looking silently into the fire that burned between them.

* * *

The capital city of Kareece was nothing like the small towns that dotted the country’s landscape. Massive sentry towers abounded, flying the king’s flag proudly above the bustling city. Kareece had been spared from Arstatia’s invasions across the continent, and the relative peace attracted traders and refugees from all over. Reene watched as they went about their business from a table in front of a restaurant.

“Where did he say you were from again?” Dan asked between bites of his food.

“The Saruto tribe. It’s located in the western part of this country,” Reene said while stirring her noodles. Dan was the only person she trusted enough to tell about the connection between herself and Jin.

“And you believe this man that you’ve known for less than three weeks?”

“I can’t explain it Dan, but I know he’s telling the truth. He knew my mother’s name, and he looks like her and me. And he’s the best swordsman I’ve ever seen. The connection there is pretty obvious, right?” Reene winked.

“Haha, okay. Where is he anyway?“

“He’s with General Anari addressing the king.”

Dan sighed. “Have you heard his new plan? He wants us to go to the island of Corset, then launch a sneak attack from there. If anyone besides General Anari suggested invading Arstatia with such a small force, I’d call them suicidal.”

“We haven’t lost a battle yet,” Reene pointed out. “He must know what he’s doing.”

“Yeah, well-”

“Wait, where’s my pouch?” Reene cut him off.

“Your what?”

“My pouch! It contained my gold! I put it right here next to my noodles…” she scanned the area carefully, looking for anything out of the ordinary. A scruffy man in a green shirt made eye contact with her, then took off. Reene jumped out of her seat, shooting into the crowd after him.

“Reene? Reene, wait!” Dan called out in vain. She ducked and dodged through the people, keeping her eyes locked on the man. How dare he steal from me, she thought, her heart beating faster.

The man ducked into a narrow alley crowded with garbage. He stumbled over the trash, allowing Reene to gain on him. She reached out to grab him by his shirt.

“Hyaa!” a cry came from an adjacent alley. Reene stopped short as a heavy chain whistled past her face. The man she was chasing escaped into a rundown shack at the end of the alley. In his place stood a man criss-crossed with scars, including one that sealed his left eye. He swung the giant chain he held, wrapping it around his hands.

“Looks like you took a wrong turn, miss,” he said menacingly. Reene responded by drawing her sword. A few moments later, both of his eyes were closed permanently. Reene rushed on, kicking in the door to the shack. To her surprise, all she found on the inside was a dusty bench and a hole in the floor. This is what the chain-wielding goon was trying to protect, she thought. Peering into the hole, she saw a ladder that led to an expansive basement area. She could see a man at the foot of the ladder. He too wore a green shirt.

There could be a hundred people down there for all she knew. The idea of facing hordes of enemies by herself was exciting, and her hands began sweating in anticipation. Besides, the one that robbed her was down there too, and she intended to find him.

She jumped down the ladder, landing on the guard and driving her sword through his neck to silence him. As she looked around the dark she was disappointed to see only a few other people. She dove behind a crate near the wall, counting the others in the room. Nine, plus a couple of doors that led deeper into the underground room. There were crates upon crates and piles of goods stacked everywhere. Everyone wore the same lime green short-sleeved shirt. That hadn’t been a random thug who’d robbed her, but a member of a well-organized operation. She smiled to herself. Maybe she would get her hordes of enemies just beyond those doors.

She ran up behind another bandit, slitting his throat. The others still had no clue she was there. Reene decided to see how many of them she could kill before she was discovered. The third bandit saw her coming, but not soon enough to save his head. It made a loud thud when it hit the ground. The others looked up to see the intruder.

“Oh well, three’s not bad,” she shrugged. The others stared in disbelief at the corpses on the ground. They were still unsure of what to do when she charged them, swinging her blade with deadly precision. Everything seemed to move in slow motion to Reene. The bandits were too sloppy to come near touching her. Their cries bounced off her hardened heart as she waded through them with furious zeal. The two doors flew open, and more bandits poured into the main room, including the one who robbed her. They stared in horror as the pools of blood collected in the floors basins. Reene stopped for a moment, turning to face them. A drop of blood rolled down her cheek, complimenting the crazed expression she wore.

“Here! Take it, take it!” the man said, tossing her pouch to her. “Take whatever you want, just let me live!”

Reene let the pouch land at her feet. “No survivors,” she said lowly. “I’ve learned that lesson already.”

Outside, Dan stumbled through the same alley that Reene had passed through. He came to the scarred man, finding him with a large slash across his stomach. “She’s been here,” he said to himself.

He climbed down the ladder slowly, not sure of what to expect. He found more bodies, all seeming to point him forward. Dan hesitated for a moment. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to see the rest of Reene’s handiwork.

“No, please!” a voice came from one of the back rooms. Dan hurried to the door, finding it jammed. He pushed as hard as he could, rolling the body on the other side slowly. He could still hear the frightened voice begging for mercy.

Dan squeezed through the doors’ small opening. Inside the claustrophobic room he saw Reene standing over the man who had robbed her. He was on his knees, his hands clasped and pleading. Dan had to look again, not recognizing the demonic woman that stood before him.

“Reene, no!” he screamed, watching as she drove her sword into the man’s heart. Blood sprayed as he fell to the ground. Reene stared down at him for a moment, then turned towards Dan. Her savage glare eased slightly when she saw her friend. No words came to his mouth when he tried to speak.

The satisfaction she felt evaporated, leaving behind shame as she stared at Dan. His expression was a mix of hurt and confusion, and she it became painful for her to look at him.

“Leave me,” she said.

Dan nodded quietly, backing away. He picked up the pouch of gold she’d left on the floor.

* * *

The word spread quickly throughout Anari’s army: they were heading to the island nation of Corset. Almost none of the troops had ever left the continent, and there was a subdued excitement running through the camp. The mood was noticeably more sober at a shallow river near by.

Reene splashed around in the cool waters, scrubbing vigorously to remove all the blood from her body. It had dried on her legs, beneath her fingernails, even behind her ears. She dove beneath the surface, hoping the river would wash away the evidence and the memories. She resurfaced to find Jin crouching near her blood-soaked clothes, his back turned to her.

“Can I have some privacy?” she said, covering herself.

Jin stood, his back still facing her. “This was a beautiful tunic,” he said, turning it over in his hands. “Did you make it yourself?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Your mother was skilled at many things, including sewing and embroidery. I see that she passed that knowledge onto you.”

“Making clothing is one of the few things I enjoy besides fighting,” she said.

“I see. I shall leave you to finish here. We’ll talk later.”

“No, wait!” she said, giving her hair one last rinse. “I’m done now, just keep your back turned.” After a few minutes he felt a tap on his back. “I made this one too, what do you think?”

Jin turned to see Reene wearing an all-black tunic and pants combination. Gold embroidery twisted around the cuffs, meeting in twin snake heads on the back. A gold sash across her waist completed the ensemble.

“When did you make this?” he asked, frowning.

“I’ve been working on it for a week. After I saw that sword you carry, I was inspired. I can tell there’s something special about it.”

Jin sighed. He’d hoped to wait until after the war to bring certain things up, but he decided that she needed to hear them now. “Reene, how much do you know about the Saruto?”

“Nothing. I didn’t even know they existed until you told me,” she admitted.

“We should walk then, and I will tell you about our tribe.”

“But I wanted to ask you about my mother.”

“We will talk about our family, I promise. But before you can understand Jade, me or even yourself, you must understand our tribe.”

“Okay,” she agreed.

“Our tribe has existed since the time of the dragons. After we were driven out of the great dragon city Elda, we migrated to the warm plains that the nomads still call home. We were a peaceful tribe that was well known for our hunting abilities. However, even the wide open spaces of Kareece weren’t big enough. Fighting between the various clans and tribes became common, and our skilled hunters became skilled warriors. We defeated our enemies swiftly and brutally, and our reputation began to change. By the time the Holy War began, we were known as the best warriors on the continent.”

“The Holy War? My father used to tell me stories about it, but I thought it was only a myth,” Reene asked.

“The Holy War was very real, and our tribe had a large part in it. The Great King hired our tribe to fight for him, and we agreed.”

“But wasn’t the Great King the bad guy? He was trying to conquer the continent.”

Jin nodded. “The years of fighting other tribes had taken a heavy toll on the Saruto. The Great King promised to help us destroy our enemies if we helped him destroy his. The deal we made with that evil man was the beginning of our tribe’s descent into darkness.”

Reene thought for a moment. The stories that her father had told her bore a strong similarity to the war she was involved in now. Was history repeating itself?

“As you know, the Great King was defeated by the Hero, and the war ended. Our people had fought bravely, but there are no spoils to be had in defeat. Instead they returned home to find that everything had been destroyed by years of war. With no other prospects, our tribe became nothing more than sell swords in the years of political upheaval that followed the war. This was the time that the four major nations, Kareece, Arstatia, Lonen and Ilna were formed, so there was much killing to be done. Our once proud tribe had been reduced to a bloodthirsty band of mercenaries,” he explained.

She looked down at the sword that swung off his waist. ”Jin, do you know…did our people enjoy killing?”

Jin stopped. “Are you referring to the group of thieves you slaughtered today?”

“H-how did you know that?” she stammered.

“Dan told me.”

Reene could feel the anger rising in her. “How could he tell you? He’s supposed to be my friend!”

“He is your friend! He’s worried about you, Reene. Today he caught a glimpse of the darkness within you, and it frightened him. I already knew it was there, because I carry it too. It is the burden of our people to carry this anger and hatred, and it has driven us to do terrible things. Today, it drove you to kill relentlessly.”

“They deserved what happened to them! They thought they could steal from me, and I showed them who they were dealing with!” she spat.

Jin placed his hands on her shoulders. “Reene, why do you embrace the darkness? Why do you find pleasure in it?”

“Because it’s all I have!” she yelled. “When I left home, I was alone. Vengeance kept me company. My anger kept me warm on those cold nights I slept beneath the moonless sky. The hatred I felt pushed me to survive this long. There was no one there, so I found my companions within!”

“What about Dan? What about me? Aren’t we here with you now?”

“And what will happen when the war is over? Dan will go back home, and so will you. I will continue on, alone, until I have done what I set out to do.”

“Then go home. Forget about the war, let Anari and the others handle it. Your father is still at home, waiting for you. You don’t have to be alone,” Jin said.

“No!” she yelled. “I can’t go home until I find my mother’s killer and make him beg before I kill him!”

Jin could see the rage in her eyes. They looked exactly like how his once had. “Very well, Reene. I see that you will not be swayed from your decision.” He reached towards his waist, removing the second sword from his sash. “You will need this.”

Reene lunged for the sword, snatching it greedily from his hands. Suddenly, she heard a scream. And another, and another. The sword began to shake violently in her hands, and Reene’s ears echoed with the anguished cries of thousands of people. Visions flashed by her eyes of burning villages, slaughtered livestock and the bodies of hundreds piled atop each other in mass graves. She closed her eyes, but that only made the visions more intense and the screams more piercing. She let go the sword, unable to withstand it any longer. The sights and sounds stopped, and Reene dropped to the ground with a loud sob.

Jin knelt beside her. “That is what awaits you at the end of your journey,” he whispered. He grabbed the sword and walked away, leaving Reene huddled near the riverbanks. Jin looked towards the army’s camp, then turned away, walking out onto the plains.

* * *

“Achoo!’ Reene sneezed loudly. She’d never been to the ocean before, and the salty air irritated her nose. Still, she stood barefoot in the surf, staring out over it. Even the plains were broken up by towns and grazing animals, but the ocean seemed to stretch endlessly.

“How do we get across this to Corset?” she asked.

“General Anari hired a boat and a crew for us,” Dan explained.

“But how are we going to find it?”

“That’s what they’re for,” Dan pointed to the group of pirates who owned the boat. They were busy loading supplies into the boat. Reene snorted in disgust. To her, pirates were just thieves who knew how to swim.

“Anari trusts this scraggly group?” she asked.

“They’ll take us to the underworld if we pay them enough,” he joked.

Is that what I saw when I touched Jin’s sword? The underworld? It had taken her almost a half hour to stop crying, and she’d had nightmares all night. When she woke up, Jin was gone as if he’d never existed. It was for the best, she’d told herself. He had become more of a distraction lately. Yet there was still so much about her tribe and her people that only he could tell her. And no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get his sword out of her mind. She longed to hold it again.

“Looks like this will be our last night in Kareece. Are you going to miss it?” Dan asked.

“Yeah, but I’ll return someday. After I’ve done what I need to, maybe I’ll go look for my tribe,” she said.

“They don’t sound like very nice people from what you told me.”

“They’re my people, Dan. I have to meet them and get to know them. Saruto’s history is my history too.”

“Saruto? Good luck finding them,” a man with hulking muscles and an eye patch snickered while walking by.

“What do you mean, pirate?” Reene asked.

The man stopped, placing the crate he carried in the sand. “That tribe is gone now. It was destroyed over twenty years ago, lass.”

Reene felt her heart drop into her shoes. “The whole tribe?”

“Aye. The worst of it is that they were done in by one of their own.”

“What do you mean?”

“The tale goes that the Saruto held an evil sword, and that one of the sons of the tribe stole it and killed everyone.”

“That…can’t be…” Reene said.

“It’s only a story, lass. There may be some truth to it, there may not. But the Saruto are gone, and that is a fact,” the man said. He walked off, leaving Reene stunned and Dan confused.

“What does that all mean?” Dan asked after a long pause.

Reene didn’t respond. She walked forward slowly, as if in a daze. So much had been revealed in that short exchange, and her mind was clouded with the implications. “Could he have done it?” she muttered to herself disbelievingly.

“Could who have done what? What are you talking about Reene?”

She turned back to him, wearing the same smile that Jin had perfected. “I have to go Dan.”

“Go? Go where? We’re leaving for Corset in the morning!”

She looked back towards the plains, her eyes growing distant. “He’s waiting for me.” Dan followed her eyes, understanding coming to him slowly. “I don’t know what will happen when I find him. I may not come back.”

“You will come back. But who will it be? The Reene I see right now, or the Reene I saw in that room?” She gave him a kiss on the cheek, then started walking the same way Jin had departed.

Reene knew exactly where he was. The sword at his side was calling her, leading her to him. She wanted it more than anything in her life. With that sword, no one will be able to defeat me, she thought. There were still many things that didn’t add up. Where did the sword come from? Why had her mother survived the destruction of the tribe? And what ultimately happened to her? Reene knew that her uncle had the answer to all those questions. As she walked, her desires for answers and the sword raced around her mind. He’d told her a great deal, but Jin had left before he could tell her everything. What a coward, she thought. He killed all of those people, and he didn’t even have the courage to admit it. She wondered if anyone else knew the truth.

There was one person who knew what he did, she realized. Her knees wobbled as she felt the wind rush out of her. The word was on her lips, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it. “…Jade,” she forced it out. Jin had killed everyone in their tribe, but somehow she’d survived. Jade left her and her father to find him, and he killed her. Reene had nothing but the pirate’s story to go on, but she knew it was true. It was too horrible, but it made sense.

The emotions swirled out of control in her: sadness, fear, despair and confusion. She took a few deep breaths, and finally settled on rage. She would find Jin and get the truth out of him. She would kill him, avenging her mother. And she would claim the black sword he carried as her own. As she walked, she repeated the plan to herself. All of the searching and battles had led her to this, and she wanted to be ready. Reene was whipping herself into a psychotic fervor, but discipline reasserted itself. Jin was still the best swordsman in Kareece. Her hatred for him wouldn’t be enough to beat him. She smiled cruelly at the irony of killing him with the techniques he’d taught her. She didn’t notice that the day had passed over to night long ago.

Jin stood with his arms folded across his chest, looking into the midnight sky. There was a popular saying that the stars shone brighter in Kareece. His years of travel had confirmed it. The stars twinkled more beautifully than he’d ever seen before, perhaps because he thought it could be the last time he saw them.

“Our people have a belief, that every day is a new life. Dawn brings a chance to start over from the beginning, and make the right choices,” Jin said, turning to face Reene. She’d just arrived, and her eyes glowed as brightly as the stars above. “Do you believe that?”

“You ran away from me. You didn’t want to tell me what happened,” she said.

“I knew you would come to me.”

“Finish the story.”

“After years of fighting and killing, the black mark of death stained our tribe’s soul. We could no longer bear the weight of the suffering we’d caused. A dark mage was commissioned to purify the tribe. She washed away the guilt, hate and darkness of our people, and channeled it into a specially made weapon.”

“The sword that you carry,” Reene said.

Jin nodded. “The process was repeated for many generations. The sword was only meant to be symbolic, but as the cleansings continued, the sword grew more powerful. Thieves and others who sought power were constantly trying to steal it, and eventually the tribe decided that the sword needed constant protection. It was a job that no one wanted, since it would be difficult to resist the temptation to use the sword. Finally, one of out ancestors volunteered, and it became our family’s duty to protect the sword. It was passed down from father to son.”

“Until it got to you,” she said.

“I never received the sword the proper way. My father noticed the way I would stare at it. He knew it dominated my thoughts and actions. But his fears weren’t confirmed until he found me holding it one night, cradling it as it was my child. The next day he announced that Jade would inherit the sword instead of me. I couldn’t believe that he would deny me that power. I became vengeful, much like you Reene. My desire for the sword was all consuming. When Jade left to visit a nearby tribe, I made my move. I stole the sword and killed anyone who I thought would try to take it from me. It was mine, and I wanted to make sure it stayed that way.”

“But if my mother was still alive, then she could challenge your ownership of the sword. Why did you wait for her to leave?”

Jin smiled sadly. “Jade was always a better swordsman than me. While I had to train and practice for hours, everything came naturally to her. I didn’t want to face her until after I had the sword. Then I would be invincible.”

“Then why did you wait so long to find her?” she asked.

“Jade came after me. She found me in the mountains between Arstatia and Kareece. But instead of having her sword drawn, she approached me with smiles and kisses. She told me that she still loved me, despite of what I’d done. She said it was the sword, not me. Deep down though, I knew it was me. I hated her. For being better than me, for father choosing her over me. Her words fell on a cold heart. The only language I understood was battle. We fought, with the prize being my soul.

“But even with this dark sword, your mother was too strong for me. Yet she held back while I tried my best to kill her. It pushed me beyond sanity to think that I’d always be second best. Finally, she offered me what I wanted. She dropped her guard and looked me straight in the eyes. And I…I…” Tears streamed down his face as he closed his eyes. Reene’s own heart softened for a moment.

“After I killed her, it was as if I’d awakened from a long nightmare. She gave her life to save me. Jade tried to end the dark and tragic saga of this sword and our tribe, but it lives on in me and you! I have not unsheathed this sword since I killed Jade, yet it continues to torment me. I can hear the cries of the men I’ve killed when I sleep. But I can also hear Jade’s melodic voice, telling me to let go of the guilt and sorrow. I can’t though, Reene, not until I return the favor that I eternally owe her. She saved me from myself, and now I’m going to do the same for you. The last thing she said before she died was your name, and I swore on her grave that I would stop you from traveling down the same path I did. Do you understand now?”

Reene closed her eyes. She knew that her mother would have done anything for her, which made it harder for Reene to imagine her lying on a cold cliff in the mountains, her life draining away into the crimson snow beneath her. And she imagined the sword, dripping with her blood. I’m the daughter of the heir to that sword, she thought. It’s mine now. Mine! She could barely contain the homicidal urges brewing within her.

“All I understand is that you stole my mother’s sword, and then her life!” she yelled, pointing her sword at Jin. “I will make you regret that!”

Jin looked at Reene, and his features hardened. “I should have known that words would be useless. Very well, let us settle this.” He reached towards the black sword. Reene crouched, ready to defend against his attack. But to her surprise, he unhooked it from his hip. “Here is what you desire!” he said, heaving it towards her.

She caught the sword, staring at it for a moment. She slowly pulled it out of its sheath, marveling as it glowed in the pale moonlight. The blade was perfect, curving slightly at the end. It had no dents or scratches, as if it had never been used. Reene knew better. She could hear the cry of the sword, and she rejoiced in it. She held it above her head, screaming triumphantly in unison with the thousands of voices. She looked back to Jin, locking on him with deadly eyes. “You will join this chorus of death,” she declared.

Jin frowned, drawing his other sword. “ I have given you the sword,” he said. “But you must earn my life.”

Reene grinned malevolently, rushing him at full speed. Their swords crashed together, sending sparks showering to the earth. Jin grimaced, surprised by her strength, He’d held back some during their training sessions in anticipation of this battle. Apparently, so had she.

He pushed her back, but Reene was instantly on the offensive again. They ducked, dodged and feinted, engaging only long enough to study the other’s moves. Jin found an opening, slashing Reene laterally. She jumped back, clutching at the rip that appeared across her ribs. It was deep enough to draw blood. She cursed loudly, glaring at Jin. “That was a cheap shot, uncle,” she mocked him.

“I am not one of the poorly trained soldiers or cowardly thugs you are used to facing. Only your best will be enough,” he warned her. Reene charged him again, launching herself into the air. She crashed into him with her full weight, staggering him. She swept him, ready to plunge her sword into his heart. But Jin was too quick. The blade struck the dirt instead. They jumped to their feet, thrusting and parrying across the plains. The clang of the swords grew louder in Jin’s ears as Reene’s attacks became more vicious. She was getting accustomed to the sword, and with each swing she became faster and stronger.

Jin pushed her back again, using the brief respite to catch his breath. He was starting to think that her strategy was to simply wear him down. But he could see that she was doubled over, panting as hard as he was. Reene stood slowly, examining the sword.

“The blade tells me that it has not tasted blood in a long while,” she said, turning it over in her hands. “ It’s thirsty for its former master.”

“Who is in control then? The sword or you?” he asked.

“Let’s find out!” she said, running at him again. Her arms moved so fast they were blurs. Jin did his best to defend, guessing at where the silvery flash of the blade would head next. High, low, left, left, low, right, high, his sword met hers at every turn. His reaction time was slowing as he tired, and Reene’s eyes still glowed with the same hateful fury. High, high, right, high, left, low, high- no, low!

Reene heard a loud gasp, feeling the sword slide into Jin’s soft abdomen. They both looked down, watching as blood gushed out of the wound. She stepped away slowly, relishing the sight of him clutching his stomach as he dropped to his knees.

“Well done…Reene,” he murmured, grimacing painfully. “You are a better swordsman…than even your mother…” His breathing became shallow and labored as she stepped forward.

She raised the sword above her head, basking in its power. “I’ve waited for this,” she said, ready to slice straight through his neck. A voice stopped her. It was distant and faint, barely audible through the cacophony of wailing souls. It was a joyful voice that pulled Reene back from the brink of madness.

“M-mother?” she cried out. There was no mistaking the distinct sound of Jade singing one of her favorite lullabies. The anger vanished, replaced with memories of sleepless nights terrorized by imaginary monsters. Jade stood by her bed, singing to calm her fears.

“This was the lullaby that my mother sang to me and my brother,” she’d said all those years ago. “Someday, you’ll sing it to your children.” Back then, Reene was terrified of the darkness. Now, looking down at her dying uncle, she was ready to dive headlong into it.

“Mother Moon and Father Sun, watch over me ‘til the morning comes. Sister Sky and Brother Earth, bring me dawn, bring me rebirth,” Reene sang as the first light of day broke over the horizon. She dropped besides Jin, sobbing loudly.

“Oh mother, please forgive me,” she begged. “I thought I wanted revenge…but all I ever really wanted was for you to come home…”

Jin smiled weakly. “You did what I could not. You resisted the sword,” he started, but fell over onto his back. He fought to keep his eyelids from closing, but they were like lead weights. “Sister…I’ll see you on the other side.”

The sword began vibrating in Reene’s hand, growing painfully hot. A piercing light erupted from the blade. It wrapped around the sword, growing and expanding until it covered Reene as well. The light faded as quickly as it had appeared, leaving Reene and the sword transformed. She marveled at the majestic white blade she held in her hand. The serpent’s head was gone, a roaring lion’s head in its place at the bottom of the handle. Her clothes had changed too, matching the snow white handle of the sword. The serpent design had been changed too, into a golden tail, winding about her sleeves and leading to a lion on her back. Jin stared in mute awe at his niece. She looked like an angel.

“You purified the sword…finally, our people can rest, and so can I,” he said.
“It wasn’t me, uncle. My mother saved both of us, even in death.” The sword pulsed in her hand as she crawled towards him. “Now it’s my turn.” She waved the sword across Jin’s damaged body, and white light enveloped him. He let out a muffled cry, but when the light vanished, so had his wounds. He sat up quickly, touching his abdomen, expecting to find a bloody wound. The only hole he found was in his shirt.


Reene smiled brightly. “I asked her to help me save you again, and she did. This sword was made to take life, but Jade has made it able to give life instead. I never understood why she left me until now. She did it for all of our sakes.”

“You’ve found the man that killed your mother, and spared him. What will you do now?” Jin asked.

She climbed to her feet, helping Jin to his. “We’re going to Corset. There’s still a war to be won. With this sword, I will fight to save life, in honor of my mother.” She said.

“I am honored to join you in this. But we cannot make it back to the shore before General Anari sets sail. It’s already morning.”

“Don’t worry, Dan won’t let him leave without us,” she assured him.

“How do you know?”

Reene turned towards the sun, rising steadily in the sky. It pointed to the ocean, where Dan was waiting. She couldn’t wait to see him. “Believe me, I know.”

Comments from the Judge
This whole thing struck me as a pretty generic fantasy story. It certainly doesn’t read like a bad example of fantasy, and you constrain the stiltedness of the language and dialogue a bit, but it’s still there. Lines like “My pouch! It contained my gold!” are what I’m talking about. “Contained” is just the wrong word there, a person is more likely to say something like “it had all my gold in it!” Even though the first way is shorter which is usually better, it is worse because it is something that the character wouldn’t really say. Also, characters having weird-colored eyes is in almost every amateur fantasy story.

Also, not enough Adherence to Prompt. There is a lot of death, but death and the afterlife are different things. It comes in at the end in a few ways, but it’s not really a major element. The sword containing all the soulds it has killed was pretty interesting.

I was relieved not to find any “I’m a WUMMAN who can be as good as a MAUGHN” in this story.

Something about the suspense in this story is lacking. It’s decent but it could be better. I think part of it is that Reene seems invincible when she is fighting, and even though she gets injured she never really comes close to dying. Like in the fight against the guy in her room in the beginning, she is in a situation where she might die but then she just cuts the guy’s head off effortlessly. Part of it is also the lack of realism in some of the fight scenes—like the one I just talked about, heads almost never really come off, and a sword would be totally ruined if you jammed it into plate armour. Even though it’s a fantasy story, the fighting shouldn’t read like fantasy fighting, if you know what I mean. It gives off the sense that the main characters are in no danger except in ‘boss fight’ situations, and in stories like that the good guys always win.

Also, I think you only had one typo, but I forget what it was. You seem to have paid a lot of attention to the writing in this story since the whole thing reads clearly and all the scenes have something interesting. The pacing is good since you show all the important things and skim over boring things. My advice to you is, if you want to continue writing fantasy, you should work to differentiate yourself from most amateur fantasy writers, since the worst thing about fantasy is the lack of creativity even though fantasy should be all rights be the most creative genre. Try looking at Limyaael’s rants to get a good grasp of what most fantasy writers are doing wrong:

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The Hobbit – Chapter XV – The Gathering Of The Clouds

We’re back to the story with this chapter, so that’s a relief.  We’re back with Bilbo and the dwarves.  This is really a transitional chapter, so there isn’t a lot to talk about.  Up until now, the dragon has been the big threat.  But, with the dragon gone, there are still plenty of problems.

First, the company needs to learn of the dragon’s death since it happened off camera (except it was on camera, but it shouldn’t have been).  The thrush is back.  But he can’t communicate with the dwarves.  So, he finds an old raven named Roac who knew the dwarves when they lived in the mountain.  The thrush relays the story of Smaug’s demise through the raven.  And they also learn that the elves and the men of Lake Town are on their way to the mountain.

The dwarves get to work fortifying their position in the mountain.  Dwarves are not likely to give up their treasure in the best of circumstances, but certainly not if an armed host shows up at their door.  They also ask the ravens to send a message to Thorin’s cousin, Dain, asking for reinforcements.  Clearly trouble is brewing.

The dwarves get themselves into a pretty solid position before the men and elves arrive.  Bard speaks for the host, and there is justice in his speech, but Thorin is so overcome with greed for the dragon horde that he refuses to listen.  All Bard asks for is repayment for the gifts his people gave the dwarves and aid in rebuilding their town which was destroyed by the dragon.  Neither side is ready for warfare, but neither side is willing to give ground.

And that’s where things stand at the end of the chapter.  There is a host of men and elves camped in front of the entrance to the mountain which is occupied by thirteen dwarves and a hobbit.  You might have noticed that I’ve barely mentioned Bilbo in this chapter.  That’s because he has very little to do.  He doesn’t like what’s happening one bit.  He thinks the dwarves are being stubborn and greedy, but he doesn’t have any way to convince the dwarves that they are mistaken.  It’s an uncomfortable situation all around.


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I’m Bad at My Job (Repost)

This is a repost of an essay I wrote back in April, then took down when I thought better of it. Although I no longer work in the place that made me feel this way, maybe some of you will recognize yourselves in these words.

The last thing I ever thought I would be is a registrar. I say that because, until I was hired to work in a registrar’s office the first time, I had no idea that such a career existed. Even as an undergraduate student, the word “registrar” wasn’t in my vocabulary; when it was time to turn in course registration forms or my degree application, I was bringing it to “that place.” I am one of the people in “that place” now. You know the class numbers you’re so familiar with? History 101 and English 250 and so on? I’m the guy who programs those numbers in so that they show up correctly on your transcript. I spent three hours doing that last Wednesday.

But unlike your registrar’s office, which was a model of nondescript efficiency, my registrar’s office has one problem: me. See, if you’re a student at my school, there’s a chance that when you look at your transcript, your grade might be missing, or the class number might be wrong. That’s because I’m entering that data, and I’m not very good at it. I’ve had six months to get better at it, and I’ve managed some incremental improvements, but you’re still going to want to double check what’s on your transcript.

The work is not interesting. I’m the one that programs the numbers into the computer, but I don’t get to decide what those numbers are. The academic department makes that decision. I don’t get to approve the numbers which are submitted to me. The academic deans do that. All I do is record the number when others are ready for me to do so. There’s no creativity or thought that goes into it, just good old fashioned data entry. My mind wanders constantly at work, and a 2 becomes a 3 or the Tuesday class meeting checkbox gets selected instead of the Wednesday one. I’d rather be writing, or reading, or watching television than repeating the rote actions which consume my days. I have to be responsible though. I drag my mind back to the task at hand, and diligently continue my data entry. Incorrectly, but diligently.

So here I am at 5:00 in the morning, smoking weed and listening to a Japanese song that serves as the intro to an anime series I secretly love, and writing. This is the only time of the day where I can lead the life that I really want to- the life where I allow myself to be the person that I’ve always been. Shame might be too strong of a term to describe the level of self-denial I’ve experienced, but I’ve always been afraid of being rejected. Everyone is, true, but there are elements of my fear which seem more acute than other people.

It wasn’t until I was in community college that I began to become comfortable with myself. I was playing spades with the cool kids, the kids who seemed to know everyone on campus, who were always throwing parties or going to them every weekend, that hung out with the prettiest girls and laughed the hardest in the cafeteria. I had class with a couple of them, and they needed a fourth for spades, and I was it. In between throwing off and cursing each other out, we talked a little. I made a self-deprecating joke about my obsession with anime, and chuckled nervously. Without looking up from his hand, one of the guys at the table said, “But that’s why we like you, Jamil. You’re a nerd, but that’s you, and you don’t hide it.”

If you’ve never had a moment (or a lifetime) of self-doubt, then you might not understand how important it was for me to hear those words. I don’t know if it’s pathetic or not to receive validation for the core of your being from people you barely know, but fuck it. I thought I’d done well at hiding myself from other people. Instead, here was a group of people saying to me, “No, we know who you are, and we like you because of it.” That was a message I felt I’d been missing.

I’m bad at my job. It’s how I care for my son and buy my weed. I need to at least be proficient in it so that I can continue to do those things without being terminated, so I have to work at it. But it’s nowhere close to who I am. I watch Star Trek clips on my bus ride and put on the Legend of Zelda when I get home because it feeds the creative energy that gets crushed out of me by forty hours a week of unimaginative monotony. I smoke weed to set my mind on fire, to make it even more real when I place myself in Natsu Dragneel’s shoes.

I never wanted to become an adult. Adults are people who have let novelty drain out of their lives, who have allowed the hardships we all experience to make them cynical, who use their responsibilities as an excuse for a lack of imagination. I wanted to grow up, but I didn’t want to lose the sense of love that defines childhood. The magic of children is their ability to express emotion without shame. Children don’t have a sense of casual detachment or “playing it cool” or any of the ways we attempt to obscure the full depths of our emotions. Their love and joy is unhindered by concerns about perception. Their sadness is unmitigated by fear of judgment. Yes, I want to be a big kid, because I want to share the things in my heart that can only be communicated through a smile.

That’s why I love writing, because the best writing is completely devoid of cynicism. You can be a good writer and be cynical, but you cannot be a great writer without unabashed love in your heart for your characters, for your audience, and for the world. You have to believe that you have something to say, and that other people want to hear it. The only way to achieve that is to reveal some truth- some insight into the core of what makes our lives worth living. It can be a corny trope like protecting your friends in anime, or some basic and fundamental statement about our humanity. But I love the corny trope and the fundamental statement equally because they both say something.

I live my life in the dark hours of the day. I’m myself on the weekends. I keep that part of me under the surface when I have to go into the Adult World, where arbitrary deadlines and overly serious people imbue everything with a false sense of urgency and purpose. It bubbles up to the surface though when I read about NASA or I like a silly meme my friend shared on Facebook while I’m on the clock. It’s the part of me that doesn’t care about being bad at data entry, because there’s an entire universe stories to tell and hear someday, and I’m just biding my time until the clock in my office hits 5:00 PM.


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The Hobbit – Chapter XIV – Fire And Water

I need to start this chapter with a little rant.  This is my least favorite chapter in the book.  That’s because it is the only chapter that doesn’t have anything to do with Bilbo, aka The Hobbit.  Any way you look at it, this is Bilbo’s book.  The narrator may be third person omniscient, but the point of view is Bilbo’s.  Everyone else is only important as they relate to Bilbo.  And nothing in this chapter relates to Bilbo.  The chapter itself, taken completely out of context, isn’t bad.  It’s well written and exciting.  Bard seems like an interesting character.  The problem is that it has no business being in this book.

That being said, I suppose I should at least recap the chapter.  Basically, as we learned earlier, Smaug believed that the men of Lake Town were somehow responsible for the burglar showing up in his lair.  So, he flew to Lake Town to punish the people.  He was doing a very good job of it.  Almost the whole town was burning and he was having a grand old time destroying the town.  Unfortunately for him, there’s this guy named Bard who lives in the town who can talk to thrushes.  And the thrush that overheard Bilbo’s conversation with the dwarves tells Bard about the unprotected patch on Smaug’s chest.  Just when all hope appears to be lost, Bard fires his last arrow and kills Smaug.  Then Bard organizes the townspeople to set up shelters.  Finally, the Elven King, who had been heading towards the mountain to see what was happening with the dwarves, turned aside to help the people of Lake Town.

That’s really about it.  Like I said at the top, it has nothing to do with the characters that we care about.  It does tell us what happened to the dragon, but that could have been reported to Bilbo in some way.  It just doesn’t fit.  Luckily, the next chapter brings us back to things we actually care about.

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A Small Change To Make Everyone Happier

I think we’ve been living with a mistake, but I don’t know who to go to so that it will get corrected.  Look at this: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ.  Do you see it?  It’s near the end.  It’s the X and the Y.  They should be flipped around.

It’s crazy, right?  This is something so basic we learn it before we even start school, but we all learn it wrong.  Just look at the alphabet above and compare it to this: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWYXZ.  Isn’t the second one much more pleasing?  Of course it is.

Once you see it, it is so obvious that it needs no explanation.  But for those who haven’t seen it, here are some reasons.  X and Z are meant to be together.  They are soul mates.  That makes Y a third wheel, which isn’t fair to anybody.  Not only do X and Z make the same sound at times, visually they are meant to be.  YZ makes me uncomfortable with the way the Y is pulling away while the Z is reaching out.  XZ is calming.  The two letters are in sync, almost caressing each other.  Plus, Y and W would get along beautifully if they got to know each other.  The word “why” starts with a W.  They are both friendly at the top and shy at the bottom.  So, they’ll be comfortable with the same things.  Putting Y between two such aggressive letters isn’t fair.  Y can bond with both W and X over being auditory shape shifters.  And W and Y can console each other about not fitting in, W getting added to words where it’s not even pronounced and Y only being a vowel some of the time.

I know many people are so entrenched in their ways that they will refuse to see it.  The alphabet as we learned it has to be correct because that’s the way we learned it.  But that’s a classic appeal to tradition fallacy.  All I need is for enough people to ask, “Why is the alphabet the way it is?”  Once their minds are open enough to think about it, the wrongness of the current alphabet will be obvious and we can get this thing fixed.


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Navel Gazing

I hate thinking about myself and talking about myself.  That may sound strange coming from someone who has spent the last six months chronicling his divorce and depression, but it’s true*.  It makes for a weird dynamic in therapy.  Therapy is all about me, but I’m always trying to change the subject.  When I fail to change the subject, as I did in this week’s session, I get clearly, visibly uncomfortable.  So, of course, I was given homework this week, to think about why it makes me so uncomfortable to think about myself.

My immediate reaction to the question is to say that I don’t like thinking and talking about myself because I’m incredibly boring.  There is nothing interesting to see by looking inwards.  There are no surprises.  I feel average in every way.  Why would I want to spend my time thinking about mediocrity?  This is probably part of my issue, but not the whole thing.  If this were all, I would just be bored when I think of myself.  Instead, I’m actively uncomfortable.

I don’t think it’s because I have a bad self image.  I might not think I’m anything special, but I also don’t think I’m bad.  It’s not like I think I’m ugly and stupid.  I think I’m pretty normal.  So, I don’t think I’m uncomfortable because I don’t like what I see.  It must be something else.

It could be that I don’t like being the center of attention.  In general, I’d prefer not to be noticed.  Maybe that applies to me noticing myself.

Or maybe it’s because I’m something of a Humean when it comes to the self.  I’m a little skeptical that there is anything that can be labeled “the self.”  Maybe I’m afraid that if I take the time to look inward, I won’t see anything.  The stoic in me should be fine with that, but I find it to be an uncomfortable idea.

Perhaps if I could pinpoint the type of uncomfortable, it would point me in the right direction.  There are many different types of uncomfortable.  There’s physical discomfort, like having a blister on your foot or a sore back.  It is definitely not that type of uncomfortable.  It’s uncomfortable being ashamed or embarrassed.  But this feels like a different uncomfortable.  I don’t think it’s a worried, sad or angry uncomfortable either.  I’m pretty sure it is an emotional uncomfortable**, I’m just not sure which emotion.

It does feel a little like nervousness.  I’m not sure that makes any sense, though.  It feels like the kind of nervousness that comes from uncertainty.  I don’t know what I’m uncertain about.  I live with myself all the time.  There aren’t any great mysteries to uncover.  I’m boring and that shouldn’t make me nervous.

Maybe I’m nervous that I’m not who I think I am, that there’s a real me underneath the me I know.  That would freak me out a little.  But it’s also incredibly unlikely.  If there were someone else in there, someone would have seen some sign of him by now.  Being nervous about it makes about as much sense as being nervous about being eaten by a shark in a public swimming pool.  I don’t live in a Bond movie or a Gothic novel.

Something that just struck me is that it feels selfish to think about myself.  That might be the answer, or at least a good chunk of it.  I have many flaws, but I’m pretty sure selfishness isn’t one of them.  And selfishness is something I’ve come to deeply dislike in other people.  The very idea of me being selfish is awful.  I can tell myself that some self reflection is not selfish, but I have a hard time believing it.  It’s just a feeling I have, but I can’t shake it.  There must be other things more deserving of my attention.

The whole prior paragraph was very difficult to write.  I don’t know if that means anything, but maybe it means I’m on to something.  What could be more selfish than focusing on myself?  That was the whole thing with Narcissus and it killed him.  I don’t think it will kill me, at least not literally.  But a selfish person is not the kind of person I want to be.  What if I like it?  What if I neglect something that deserves my attention?  I think I’d have a lot of trouble living with myself.

I don’t know if that’s the answer.  This whole assignment is deeply uncomfortable for me.  It is forcing me to think about myself in order to figure out why I react to thinking about myself the way I do.  And I’m reacting that way.  I’m really, really uncomfortable.  It makes it hard to look too deeply.  I’m trying, but as I try I’m almost desperate to do anything else.  The discomfort has, I think clearly, altered the way I’m writing, too.  It is almost like free writing.  I can’t think about it the way I’d like.  That disrupts the whole process.  And proofreading something like this is a non-starter.  I just hope we get what my therapist is looking for out of this.  Otherwise, I’ve made myself awfully uncomfortable for nothing.

*In my head, when I’m writing, I don’t really think of the divorce and depression as a part of myself.  It’s the only way I can get anything out.

**I’m using the word uncomfortable a lot here.  I hope it doesn’t make you uncomfortable to keep seeing the word uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable, uncomfortable, uncomfortable.

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I was surprised when I first started seeing a therapist.  The experience was completely different than I expected.  That’s a little bit odd given how many therapists there are.  It appears to be a booming business, which must mean that many people go to see therapists.  But what actually happens in therapy remains a closely guarded secret.

Before I went, all I knew about therapy was what I got from pop culture, mostly movies and TV.  I figured that therapy consisted of lying on a couch with the therapist sitting just out of sight.  Then, the patient and the therapist talk about the patient’s childhood until they hit upon that moment when everything changed which is causing the current problem.  Once the root of the problem is brought out into the open, the patient is cured.  Knowledge is power after all.  It all seemed pretty new age-y and self help-y for my tastes.

I live by a general rule of trusting experts in their areas of expertise.  So when my doctor decided I was depressed, he suggested I start seeing a therapist.  I took his advice, and was shocked to learn how un-new age-y and un-self help-y it is.  Therapy is downright practical.

I knew going in what started my depression.  It was my marriage and divorce.  I was a little afraid that the therapist was going to try to find the cause behind the cause, but that wasn’t the case.  My marriage and divorce were plenty good enough for her.

One of the first questions she asked me was what I was hoping to accomplish through therapy.  I didn’t quite know how to answer.  Then she rephrased the question and asked how I will know when I’m ready to stop therapy.  I was taken aback.  I had never really thought about stopping therapy and I had no idea how to answer, but I appreciated the fact that this was never seen as an open ended commitment.  It may be hard to see, but there is an endpoint out there.

A lot of therapy is spent learning my tendencies, patterns and triggers.  On my own, it is easy to see each thing that happens to me as discreet.  My therapist helps me see the connections.  Not that seeing the connections does much of anything on its own.  But seeing them allows me to behave differently the next time something similar happens.

We spend a lot of time on focus.  I have a lot of anticipatory anxiety.  Basically, instead of focusing on whatever is happening now, I’m always thinking ahead and worrying about what might go wrong.  It makes me hesitant on a good day and can paralyze me on a bad day.  It’s funny in a way, it’s almost the polar opposite of the way I used to be.  To combat this we work on mindfulness.  I hate the term, but it makes a lot of sense.  My therapist gives me exercises to help me practice focusing my attention.  One exercise is breathing.  I like that one.  It reminds me of practicing a wind instrument, really noticing how the air moves through me.  It can also be rather silly, like brushing my teeth with the other hand.  Doing so definitely forces concentration, but it’s also weird being bad at something as simple as brushing your teeth.  Whatever the exercise, though, I have a clearly defined problem and my therapist has given me a practical way to deal with it.

Another thing that’s helpful about therapy is just talking to someone with knowledge and experience.  Everything that happens to me in depression is new and weird.  It’s nice having someone who has seen it all before to act as a guide.  She helps me keep things in the proper perspective.

My therapist is also unfailingly honest with me.  That’s not the easiest thing to find.  Friends and family try to make me feel better.  My therapist calls me out when I’m wrong.  It seems that in depression, I’m wrong a lot.  I put a negative spin on everything.  It’s nice to have someone to put a realistic spin on those same things.  It’s not all sunny optimism, it’s fairly neutral.  But that gets through a lot better than someone telling me that everything is, or will be, great.

So, that’s the gist of therapy for me.  It’s just high level, I don’t have the time or energy to get into the real details.  The details are very mundane and boring anyway.  We look for solutions to my problems, that’s about it.  But, it is very helpful and I definitely feel much better since starting therapy.

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I’m Tired of This

It’s 1:59 AM. There are police cars outside of my apartment again. Their blue and red light is splashing in from beneath the blinds as my girlfriend sleeps in the room. I don’t know if she heard the six gunshots forty minutes earlier. She sleeps with earplugs to block out my monstrous snoring, so perhaps she she blocked out the gunfire as well. Or maybe she’s become accustomed to the periodic gunshots that ring out in our neighborhood- not every week, not even every month, but often enough that the fire cracker-like pop comes as a shock, but never as a surprise.

How does a neighborhood get to this point? It wasn’t always like this, and presumably it won’t always be this way; this too shall pass, as the saying goes. But my question is about today.

Redlining did this. Blockbusting did this. Racially restrictive covenants did this. White flight did this. Local zoning laws did this. Four hundred years of social, cultural and governmental policy designed to deny African Americans and other people of color full economic and political equality did this. I live in the poorest zip code in the city because of these reasons.

A person did this. His stupid choice did this. His lack of respect for his community did this. His casual disregard for life did this. I get it; systems of oppression put that man in a desperate position that made violence an outcome. Systems of oppression don’t acquire guns. They don’t load bullets. They don’t pull triggers. Someone did those things. A person fired a gun in a neighborhood where children sleep. People made a hundred, a thousand, a million decisions. Those individual choices had consequences. I live in a dangerous neighborhood because of those decisions.

Which came first- the chicken of racial injustice, or the egg of poor personal choices? I really don’t fucking care right now. I’m tired of seeing poor people of color herded into the worst part of the city, and then shooting at each other. I look out my window every day and see men who can’t find work, but who use that time to street harrass women walking by. I see our communinity suffering because of the things done to it, and because of the things we do to each other. It’s both, so I don’t want to hear about the evils of systemic oppression vs. the necessity of personal responsibility. Just help me figure out how to stop this shit.

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