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Smoky Hill Magic

"How are you feeling?" Cindy Hammerstein asked.

Her boyfriend, Brad Smith, sat sullenly at his desk, staring at a blank word processor screen on his laptop, his head resting on his fist. A lock of his long brown hair dangled between his blue eyes. His black T-shirt and jeans were heavily wrinkled and had a few stains on them. The trash can to his left was overflowing with crushed apple juice boxes. Propped up on a stand at the other side of the desk was a black V-shaped guitar with sharp edges, and a faint layer of dust on its surface. Next to it was a large shelf full of metal albums, nearly half of which were black metal. The document he was editing bore the title first-album-lyrics.txt. File size: 0 bytes. The text cursor blinked incessantly. It seemed to be mocking him now. After letting out a frustrated sigh, he got up from his chair and said, "I just can’t think of anything."

Ever since he started listening to black metal, Brad wanted to record his own material, so one week ago, he decided it was time to do so. He had all the equipment for it, he had a few riffs in mind, but when it came time to write lyrics, he was at a loss for words. He sought inspiration in history and fiction, but still nothing came to mind. The background of his word processor was to him like an impenetrable white wall. Cindy hoped that her presence on that day would lift him out of his creative rut, but to no avail.

The young blonde woman took off her paint-stained apron. "You want to go for a walk?"

He looked at her and sighed. "I don’t know if that will help things, but okay, I guess."

She grabbed his hand and they exited his house.

They lived in Shelton, Kansas, a small town of nearly 800 nestled in the Smoky Hills between Russell, Osborne, and Lincoln. After stepping off the porch, they looked around at the clean streets and the lush green grass. A lovely spring day, Cindy thought. Brad stared at the western wall of the town house across the street. His uncle, Brian Smith, Baron of Shelton, lived there. A small park surrounded it. His girlfriend suggested they go there first. He shrugged and went along with her. The paved walkways were shaded by tall bur oaks. In the center of the park was a stone pillar with a metal cross on top. The plaque on the front read:





Brad frowned slightly when he read that plaque because it made him feel inadequate. He had recently turned 18 and he had yet to accomplish even a fraction of what his ancestor did. He knew he still had his whole life ahead of him, but he felt he would never reach those lofty heights. Knowing he was unable to think of any lyrics for his songs made him even more bitter. He suggested they walk somewhere else.

"Like where?" Cindy asked.

"Wherever my feet take me," was Brad’s vague response. She followed his lead out of the park.

One block to the east of the town house was St. Michael’s Baptist Church, a replica of the building of the same name which used to stand on a hill on the town’s southern outskirts. Right next door was St. Mark’s Catholic Church. The Baptist Church was a small wooden structure painted white like the flowers of the catalpa tree, while the Catholic Church loomed over it like a limestone giant. They went inside the Baptist Church first. The interior was simple, clean, and as white as the exterior. Brad appreciated the humble aesthetic, but it failed to awaken his creativity, so they went next door to the Catholic Church. He looked up and beheld the murals of saints and angels residing in Heaven with Christ. Those works were painted by Ulysses and Beatrice Hammerstein, Cindy’s parents. She inherited their artistic skill, though she preferred to draw landscapes. Ever since he was a child, he stared up in amazement at the murals, but even in that moment, he was unable to think of any lyrics. He didn’t want to tell his girlfriend that because he didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so he said, "I wonder what Phil’s up to."

They left the church and went south down Main Street. Small businesses lined both sides. The general store took up an entire block. Immediately to the south of it was the farmer’s market. To the south of that was the town bank, and to the south of that was Fisher’s Auto Repair Shop, which sat at the edge of town. Brad and Cindy were struck by the strong smell of grease and oil as soon as they entered. They found Phil Fisher working on a pickup truck. He was an old man with long gray hair and a thick beard. His blue eyes were hidden behind a pair of circular sunglasses, and he was dressed in a black shirt and oil-stained jeans. He was the one who introduced Brad to the wide world of metal 8 years ago.

"Hi Phil," Brad said.

Phil turned to him and stood upright. "Hey Brad. What’s up?" He had a croaking voice like a frog.

"Cindy and I decided to take a walk around town. How have you been?"

"I was busy putting new brakes on this thing and my wife’s busy growing taters back home. I remember you saying you were gonna record a black metal album. How’s that coming along?"

Brad wished the old man had not asked that question. His eyes darted to the ground for a moment. "Well, the thing is, I have some riffs in mind, but I cannot for the life of me come up with any lyrics."

"Your problem reminds me of Ted Henry Nelson of Nevada Steel. He suffered severe writer’s block during the production of Divine Desert Fire. You know what he did to fix it? He hopped on his motorcycle and drove off into the Mojave. He drove around it for a week until finally inspiration struck him. Maybe you can try doing something like that."

Brad shrugged. "I’ll think about it."

He and Cindy left the shop and noticed that the Sun was setting. She suggested they head back home, but then he spotted the hill where St. Michael’s Baptist Church once stood. He remembered his parents telling him the story where Timothy entered the church and witnesses a ghostly congregation. The wind gently blew across his face and the tall grass waved in the distance, and in that moment, he felt like the hill was calling out to him. He suggested they watch the sunset from atop it. Cindy was hesitant for a moment, but she agreed.

Directly to the east of the hill was a large oak tree where Timothy Smith’s childhood home once stood before it was destroyed by a tornado. Far to the south were several wheat farms which were separated by lines of honey locust trees. To the east and west, the Smoky Hills rolled like green ocean waves. The young metalheads sat and watched as the Sun sank. As the golden rays turned a ruby red, Brad turned to Cindy and saw that she was smiling, but it was no ordinary smile. They had been boyfriend and girlfriend since they were both 14, and never before did she smile as warmly as she did then. He wondered if she was smiling because of him, the Sun, or something else entirely.

The red light then changed to purple, and then the sky turned black and the stars revealed themselves. She told him that she suddenly felt cold, so he put his left arm around her, and they lied down and stared up at the sky. As he tried to find the constellations, his mind went back to his music, and his writer’s block. He thought about all the times when his parents told him to turn his music down, and how he had to do all his practicing in the garage so he wouldn’t bother them. He didn’t want all of his work to be for naught. He thought about how his older brother moved to the Moon and his older sister was married off to the Count of Russell. He didn’t want his parents to see him as a disappointment. He also promised Cindy that he would marry her after he finished his first album. He certainly didn’t want to let her down. Unfortunately, his writer’s block was like a fat bear sleeping in the middle of the road, and it stubbornly refused to move.

A dense fog fell upon the land without warning. It was so thick that the town’s streetlights could no longer be seen. They both knew that the Smoky Hills earned its name from its regular fog, but they never remembered it being this heavy, or appearing this suddenly. The wind howled and the gray clouds swirled around them. They had the instinctive urge to run away, and began wondering if a tornado was forming right then and there. Yet they stayed on that hill, lying perfectly flat. It was like this bizarre phenomenon had put them into a trance.

The young couple continued to watch with wide open eyes as the fog twisted and turned. Brad noticed that parts of the massive cloud began to take on familiar shapes like spheres and bars, which then linked together to form double helixes. He immediately recognized that as DNA. He began to wonder if some intelligence was creating these cloudy images. Was God speaking to him? These strands of DNA then formed membranes around themselves, creating cells. These cells then merged together into complex life. Trilobites emerged and then vanished in seconds. From the darker sections of the clouds there emerged sharks that once ruled when Kansas was beneath the waves. This immaterial force then showed him a scene of an ancient bison battling with a saber-toothed tiger. The vicious cat lunged with its mouth wide open. As soon as those sharp teeth made contact with the bison’s neck, both creatures dissolved. The gray clouds reconstituted themselves into a muscular man with a strong jaw, narrow eyes, and a stern face. He lifted up his spear, took aim, and threw it at a mammoth, striking it between the eyes. When the great beast fell, it shattered into a fine mist, and those tiny pieces took on the shape of two warriors. One was a Wichita and the other was a Pawnee. They raised their tomahawks high, charged at each other, and swung their weapons down in mighty arcs. The howling wind was their war cry. Their vaporous bodies disintegrated from the blows they inflicted upon each other. The particles swirled and coalesced into a man with a European face, who wore simple farming garments. His body then rippled like water, and each time it did so, his face and clothing changed. His simple attire became a suit and tie, then a T-shirt and jeans. Again and again the man changed shape until he finally became someone that Brad recognized: Timothy Smith. His face was stoic and unmoving, but his eyes said what his mouth did not. He knew the young man had immense artistic potential and expected great things from him. And then Timothy vanished, and the fog was lifted, and the wind died, and all was silent.

Brad got up and looked around. Shelton was the same as it always was. Considering how strong the wind was blowing, he expected to see at least some property damage, but there was nothing of the sort. He stared up at the starry sky, still wondering what caused that sudden onset of heavy fog, how it was able to form those images, and if it was all just a hallucination. Cindy got up and asked him if he was alright. Then he felt a strange sense of invigoration, as if he had been starving himself his whole life and just ate a hearty meal. He ran back to his house and his girlfriend followed. He sat down at his desk and rapidly typed out lyrics describing all that he had seen, from the colossal creatures of distant eons to the fierce battles of American tribes to the splendid beauty of the Great Plains and the great figures who came from there. As soon as he finished the lyrics to the final song of the album, he fell asleep at his desk. Cindy, who stood back and watched the whole time, put a blanket over his shoulders.

In his dreams, he relived all that he had witnessed that night, the sensations being even more vivid than they were when he was awake. The wind howled all the while. When he woke up the next day, he got the idea to make his guitar sound like the wind. After several hours of experimenting with the distortion and reverb, he finally got the sound he wanted. He applied the same effect to his raspy vocals. Blast beats and brooding mid-paced rhythms served as the percussive foundation. Tremolo riffs and chord progressions came to him with little effort, almost as if they were divinely inspired. The strings of inspiration sang to him. He could feel it in his bones. One week later, the recording process was complete. He could scarcely believe just how quickly progress was made. After some thought, he called his new band Smirad, a reference to his name. He called the album Smoky Hill Magic. Cindy painted the cover art, which depicted a man standing in the midst of swirling fog at night. When Brad first saw it, he stared at it for an hour, utterly mesmerized.

The album was released to the internet on May 24, 2404. It did not receive much attention at first, but eventually, word of mouth spread and people praised its atmosphere and instrumental work. On July 18 of that year, Septentrion Records gave it a proper physical release. All 1000 copies were sold out in less than a week. In his glowing review of it, Vincent MacIntyre, owner of the Among the Ruins metal blog, said:

"Smirad is more than just a simple Branikald copycat. Their sound is familiar, but their essence is unique. They embody the spirit of the Great Plains. They speak of wide open grasslands and rolling hills covered in mystic fog, of great beasts both old and new. Their instrumental work conjures up images of battles long forgotten and brave pioneers taming a wild land. Smoky Hill Magic is atmospheric, authentic, and truly American."

True to his word, Brad married Cindy at the beginning of June. After she moved in with him, they built a small studio on their property so they no longer had to use the garage. There she painted and he recorded. Their first album eventually caught the attention of three other metalheads from nearby. The first was Gregory Larsson from Osborne, who had his own black metal band called Coyote Hill. The other two were Victor Drachmann and Samuel Wilson from Russell, who had recently formed a black metal band called Kiowa Storm. All four of them met in Shelton one day and, after learning they all had similar tastes in metal, formed a black metal organization called the Smoky Hill Lodge. They then collaborated and recorded music together over many years.


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