Short Piece of Something I Will Never Publish

Something upon which to meditate.

Something upon which to meditate.

While rereading old documents I had saved on a flash drive, I came cross this interaction between two characters in my Soren mythos. Given my head-space for the past, oh, four years, this kind of writing may never come again from my fingers. I enjoy the story it represents, and love the ideas (passive verb choices notwithstanding), but this story might be dead forever. Maybe. I’m unsure. But it bears seeing the light of day, regardless.

This excerpt comes from a series of chess games I wrote for the third novel in the Soren series, one for each major character in the pantheon. This is Darion, a recent addition to the stories, but an old character from the creation story, i pawn dreamer.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Excerpt: Of Salt and Fire, First Two Pages

Photoshop tests are the best!

Photoshop tests are the best!

“…[T]o encompass them by a definition, dæmones are living beings in kind, rational creatures in mind, susceptible to emotion in spirit, in body composed of the air, everlasting in time. Of these five points I have listed, the first three are shared with us, the fourth is their own, the last they have in common with the immortal gods; but they differ from them in their capacity to suffer.” ~Apuleius, On the God of Socrates

“I will still haunt you,” I said to nobody, but her.

Standing beneath our catalpa tree in the middle of Forest Park, St. Louis, I felt her all around me. She fell in pollen dust from evergreens. She disguised the wind with perfume. Tara died four months ago, and I destroyed myself in her memory.

Five months ago, I would have said, all flowery and ignorant, that death was transitory—death, and all the little deaths of life—and haunting was just a relative term for endearment.

And today, I crave, without wanting, death. I nearly tasted her. I wanted to walk through, just for a moment, to kiss her cheek, to say goodbye. To say, unequivocally, she is loved.

Death is a door I once found beautiful. It is still a door. A gnarled, looming door. And I didn’t see Tara beyond it.

Which brings me to the quote on the previous page.

Continue reading

Book Cover Ideas

 

253

So I’ve recently seen some other fantasy writers’ cover art (Aurian and Jin, among others) and it’s got me actively thinking about my own.

I’ve spend the past four years considering this book cover idea, and I’ve had several “THAT’S IT!” moments. To be perfectly frank, if this book were a baby, I’d’ve had two false labors and two botched C-Sections. Yeah. Nothing about this enjoyable piece is coming along smoothly. Actually, I’ve come to think of it more as a Pinocchio than a real boy. I redid that poor boy’s left forearm more times than anything else…

So the title was a really, really long process. The words themselves took half of Mr. King’s so-called million words, and the cover art is no better than anything else. I’m not sure if I have many followers, or watchers, or whatever, still interested in this webpage, but I want to run it by people, and if interested, you could leave your vote on your favorite book cover idea.

The tagline for the book is “Soren has run from his demons all his life, but when a priest begs him for help, he can’t help but take up arms against those in the Astral who would go to war against him. And this time? The demons are real.”

Three sentences. Yeah whatever. Given it’s book one in a series of seven (I like series of seven. I don’t know why.), It’s got a few themes. Titles, for instance. This novel is named “Of Salt and Wine,” because those are the symbols/tools most connected with the evil he fights. Book two is “Of Earth and Blood,” and so on. It’s taken from one of the lines he says in the book, 2/3rds of the way through: “Those of Salt and Wine, I come for you.” Kind of like a war cry, I guess. It was originally called “It Gave Me a Name,” because his darkness, yes, a character, gives him the name of a demon. I liked the rhythm, but it had too many words. People would get confused, I thought, so I strived to be more and more simple in my idea. It perhaps could even end up as “Salt and Wine,” although I absolutely love the “Of” at the beginning, as if it were part of a much larger thought. Which it is.

So the book cover should be as important. I began this project with the idea of a layout of symbols or tools, a la Game of Thrones or Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels. Book one would have a series of thirteen horizontal staves, or several pieces of jewelry, or better yet, a vintage 1800’s tattoo of skulls and vines and whatever the evil looks like. Several experts added their thoughts, stating the best way to sell a fantasy is to depict a scene from the book on the cover, with Magic: The Gathering-esque card art for the cover, similar to the Wheel of Time books. It would most likely have Soren standing in a septagram on the altar of a church while a big read, Diablo-inspired demon pours green liquid into a played priest’s throat. I like those ideas, but I’m thinking a little more traditional. Something I could lay out for all seven books in the series, with small but connective variations. In fact, I’ve already rough-draft finished book two. I’m that serious about this stuff.

So, I’ll run through a handful of ideas. If any single one presents more of a visceral response, please please please say something about it. I don’t mind if you’ve never been here before and are never coming back. I’d absolutely love the feedback.

1) Horizontal (or vertical) staves, all of different woods, straight, like prison bars

2) The “O” of “Of Salt and Wine” being Soren’s personal symbol, while the S of Salt is actual salt and the dot of the i in Wine is actually a goblet of wine

3) The wall of masks Soren has in his home, all looming down

4) A tattoo of Soren’s, laid over polished hardwood floor (he has twelve)

5) The Blackwood Shillelagh, his Modus Operandi for the book and most important item he uses, glowing at the bulb

6) Vintage 1800’s art in the form of a tattoo, possibly using a human or demon skull as the focal point, with dandelion leaves spread out (think this, only inked and not so 3D)

7) Closeup of a man in a suit, tightening his tie, with his sleeve cuff charred or burned or even aflame

8) Closeup of a man in a kurta, signing a mudra, the head of a snake tattoo stretching across his wrist

9) “Evolution” type silhouette, with the four demons, Jack, Olivia, and Soren, walking down the street one behind the other

10) Demon symbol for Ferrulous (circular and striking)

11) Soren at the top of the stairs, wailing at a door half-covered in tar

12) Soren in the septagram, hands up pleadingly, in the classical pose like daVinci and other Reformation artists, toward a demon

13) Soren’s childhood door, half-covered in tar, with Soren’s symbol scratched in chalk

14) A goblet of wine, ringed in salt like a Margarita

15) A man in a top-hat, face obscured, standing off-kilter to a backdrop of brick

16) A man playing chess alone in a park

 

That’s all I got. Any thoughts? 

 

Chris

“Of Salt and Wine,” an Overview

Urban fantasy conjures thoughts of oily streets and gritty dialogue, where the whole city seems to change shape at night, and sometimes (As Pollack’s City’s Son novel shows) even the buildings wake up to wage war. Born partially out of the Harry Potter womb of (what I’d call) Classical British Fantasy, partially out of a new generation of D&D/MTG/WoW players (and the crossbred explosion that is Butcher’s Dresden files), and partially out of a growing number of equally interested women partaking in said fantasy/games/writing, UF has cornered the fantasy shelves like Stephen King and Koontz cornered horror back in the ’80’s. UF could even be seen as Horror Lite (with all the aspartame your squirmy little brain needs to cloud out for a while). But it isn’t. There is no Metallica backing this genre, only alternative about being radioactive, or haunted and dead, or hipster emogoth. No biker gangs smoking huge cigars and reading by candlelight.

This is a new breed.

Yet, as I’ve read many Big Publishers say, UF is dying. We’ve written all we can on the subject. We’ve even exhausted sub genres of Steampunk and Cyberpunk and… Gaslight and everything else under the creaky, oily sun. What Is Left? The werewolves are overdone and diluted to 90% water, 10% adrenaline. The vampires are more spoiled kids and less immortal world changers. And the undead. Gosh, get rid of the rotting flesh and you have, well, a much more compelling story in war. Heck. Hunger Games is tapping into THAT niche. And Divergent. And all the spinoff Urban Scifi to come.

My Urban Fantasy novel is different. It breathes through the real world. It steps back, behind the curtain, to examine the stuff that comes from a deeper place. Think Poe. Think Lovecraft. Think the earth-thumping, soul-twisting stuff that made Christianity so terrifying back in the dark ages. Think dead poets like Peguey, forgotten pieces from Stoker, from the Gitas, from the Book of Judas, the ravings of Jung’s forbidden diary. Real-world experience, from a real-world shaman, tapping softly on drums so well you hear them in your dreams.

Demons. Doppelgängers. Shadows that know your name. Old gods. Mysticism exhaled with a tremble. All those things you know is real, but science hasn’t quite. Caught. Up. To explain. Sometimes, it’s downright quantum.

But that’s later.

This is the story of a broken man, and of the priest who tries to save him–no. This is the story of a desperate priest who seeks guidance from a world-weary shaman. No. Not quite. This is the story of a church. A church where all the dark things were allowed to grow strong and full, where one priest in a long line of corrupted men decides to fight his way back out. This is the story of the husk of a man who decides to help his fellows through a belief system only barely emerged from the religious soup that is Paganism, Judeo-Christianity, and Buddhism. Armed with a special form of understanding the world–or perhaps a world that only he sees–and a collection of artifacts he’s collected over his twenty-six years, Soren steps out of mourning and into a war only a very broken, or very brilliant, man could survive.

Those of Salt and Wine, he comes for you a-haunting.

~CHeisserer

Of Earth and Blood, Chapter 2

2

A lot went into the two days between point A and B. The morning after the DJ Danceparty—where I saw a dreary Wren take a passed out Autumn home—was punctuated by the swirling butterfly wings of change. I felt its breath.

And Olivia’s.

She slid in easily enough. Between thoughts of work and clientele, between thoughts of Autumn’s unwelcome behavior and Wren’s peacock dress, Olivia wrapped her arms around my back, scraping her teeth against my neck, and pushed muscle against muscle. Her eyes were lures of green in the dark. Her mischievous mouth invited me in and through. She filled me.

Yet she stepped away as quickly as she had come, dipping low and leaving me alone at the front door of my house like some high schooler after a dance. It was our way; our trust, though strengthening, swirled around possibility and my paranoia, her secrets. She, the jealous one. Me, the uncertainty.

Stumbling groggily through my large, hand-me-down house, I grabbed a banana from the kitchen. It was as active as ever: Lady Grinning, a six hundred year old residual, tended a fire that burned a foot beneath the floor; the recent addition of a red-headed boy peered around the hallway door; Rustic Man’s cigar smoke permeated.

They, the enlightened dead. I could spend a chapter discussing energy, here, but I won’t. I’m tired of trying to explain this to everyone. Nobody believes me anyway.

Regardless, I see the dead, and their energies. It is a gift given to me by an enigmatic creature by the name of Malchus Porphyry of Tyre: once a man, now a shade with centuries of knowledge. Jack.

The shade lurked around here somewhere.

My head slightly swimming, I walked a wide berth around Lady Grinning’s fire and descended the stairs to the house’s half-finished basement. The other half, an untended crawlspace and mounds of dirt divided by a dungeon-style, ancient oak door. Lights never worked properly, so I used candles. The morning sun did not wake me with its insistent light; I woke to an alarm, or naturally around seven. Plus, I had grown paranoid.

And paranoia came with a cost.

In a bout of honesty, a few months back, Olivia shared a secret: she was a demon.

Every human has the capability of being demonic. It’s a clarification that speaks on the nature of the person: the philosophy. Any person can live in Fear: that isn’t to say the person is afraid. To the contrary, the person prefers Fear as a tool for accomplishing goals instead of Love.

Unfortunately Olivia spoke of the religious kind. Before Christianity overwhelmed societies—before it was cool to be a part of the Catholic Club—it was a many-faceted diamond much closer to Eastern religion. Demons weren’t all evil. They were like elementals: they existed with as many different personalities. Sometimes, as people. Angels and Demons were the same, with names like Eudaemon and Cacodaemon.

I had no idea which one Olivia was. She didn’t divulge, saying instead that she was as much a demon as I. She had a point: if she wasn’t a true demon, which was also possible, I was sacrificing a potentially very awesome relationship with a very awesome person for the sake of this odd paranoia. So we stepped around each other like dancers.

I wanted her here in my bed. I wanted her curving, sweating body throwing the covers off from on top of me. I wanted oil. I wanted lit candles. Incense burning. I wanted the entire touch of her whole body. Her everything. I wanted Malchus out of the bedroom. I had been pulled taut for nearly four months by her teasing, her physical promises of things to come. Something had to give. Something had to break. She drove me crazy.

I think I drove her crazy, too. I hoped.

Whatever. I still slept alone, despite the games.

Sleep came to me on chariot wheels of exhausted sexual expectation and alcohol.

She woke me in the morning with an apology. Wren, not Olivia. She had a way of moving, like some kind of curious kitten, though she didn’t talk like one. She woke me by yelling down the stairs of the basement at eight o’clock sharp, “Hey! Sorry about Autumn last night. Did you get any?”

“No.”

“Good!” She slammed the door and I fell back to sleep.

I awoke a second time to a killdeer’s chirp. This time, it was the squeaky door leading to the basement, opening by wind, or the dead, or gravity. I rubbed my face, preparing myself for a shower, breakfast, and lots of water. Lots, lots, lots of water. I didn’t want to get up. My head moved faster than my body, all the tension of the tether between my brain and my neck aching.

The kitchen, bright, with Wren preparing a batch of candles for the day. And cookies. She liked making cookies in the morning. She said, a long time ago, that it felt like home. “Hey sunshine. You’ve got some bills on the table. I picked up some Kale. Because, well, I hear it’s awesome.”

I rubbed the back of my neck again. “As long as it’s not drenched in sugar and baked into ‘chips.’ Why—” I stopped. I heard that chirp again. The microwave turner squeaked due to a broken wheel. “I was about to complain. Nevermind me.”

“Complain away,” she said, reading through a coupon book. “I can take it!”

“Something stupid.”

She nodded, then pulled her hair back. She looked as sober as ever, acted like she’d had twelve full hours of sleep. No symptoms from the night before. “It’s kale, you know?” I asked. I didn’t know how to say it. “Why must we slather it with disgusting crap?”

“To sell it. Money, ‘Fisher. Money money money.” She circled something in the newspaper. “I’d like some, someday.”

I watched a murder of crows flap about on the fence outside, all simultaneously trying to balance on a clothes line, little feet swerving back and forth. Then, a bird on the ground. Brown. White stripes on its legs.

“Ever seen a snipe?” I asked.

She glanced up, confused, default smile inching up her cheeks. “Snipe? Isn’t that a fake, um, bird?”

I pointed out the window, filling a cup with water from the sink. She stood beside me. It sat and chirped as if someone were too close to its nest of eggs, and it fumbled around on my back porch as if it had a broken wing. The crows cawed, most too busy balancing to take notice. A few stared down, heads cocked to one side, wondering what the strange outsider did. I felt its pain.

“That’s also known as a killdeer.” She nodded.

“Huh. Cool?”

I shrugged. “I’ve heard it for the past few days.”

“Why is it acting like that?”

“Nest must be nearby.”

It was unobtrusive enough. Yet the whole thing felt… haunting. I felt ill-at-ease. Uncomfortable.

Symbols often had ways of making me wake up and take notice. That little bird’s cheep permeated everything.

When I was six I spent a summer playing with the nest of one of those birds. To draw me away, it feigned injury so I would chase it instead of its nest. It had made the nest in my grandparents’ gravel driveway, and my Aunt eventually ran the nest over. On accident. The bird didn’t recover so well.

“I just have a few questions for you,” Wren fake-cheerfully said in the front room. I realized she’d left for a customer while I thought about the past. I filled my glass again. She talked to a prospective client of mine, a woman that sounded in tears. “Full name including middle names and nicknames of importance.” The woman replied. I heard an um somewhere. “What is your totem? Or totems?” she asked. The woman gave a surprised reply I could not hear. “Oh these are just a simple set of questions to figure out your affiliation and focus. Astrological sign? Okay. Religious affiliation? Spiritual affiliation?” There was a pause when the lady asked another question. “They rarely do, Miss. Major fears? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Do you have any items you put a lot of faith into, even for personal reasons?” The lady said something. “Necklaces, bracelets, rings, uh, books of importance, antiques, anything religiously related, paintings, family heirlooms. Things of that nature?”

I enjoyed her questioning. Most of the list she thought up herself as a pre-screening process, mostly because I had asked her those questions when she started coming to me with people asking for help. Most people in average society had little idea how much a word, totem, or anything would tell about a person. I mostly looked for people with intense focus in certain areas, while also keeping the more general beliefs in the front of my mind.

Answers to those questions were also a key to understand their symbol base: their cryptic.

“Tattoos?” The lady sounded nervous in her laughter. Wren asked a few more questions.

The killdeer continued flipping about on the back patio. The more I watched, and the more it continued to focus on me, the more unsettled I got. I decided to humor it by stepping on the patio. The crows took flight immediately. The killdeer, on the other hand, jumped back, closer to the grass beyond, and started squawking its shrill sound. I slid toward it again, and it jumped back a little further. I walked straight out, moving right at it at a steady pace and it simply leapt into the grass and started running on its little striped brown feet. I chased it a few hundred feet until it took wing and returned to the patio to peck at something in the ashes of my little fireplace.

I wondered if Olivia had a pair of killdeer wings on her wall. She had many. I wished…

It seemed entirely uninterested in me until I returned and sat on some of the patio furniture.

“Soren? Someone to see you,” Wren said with a half-smile. She seemed to have no interest in the little brown bird. A magenta summer dress nearly fell off her shoulders, though I wouldn’t possibly consider her scantily clad. A corduroy jacket she decided not to wear in this Indian summer heat draped over her chair in the store.

She grinned nearly imperceptibly when she saw I looked a little too long and handed me her interview sheet. I wondered what she thought of last night.

Whatever. A woman stepped out, middle-aged with short-cut, curly-permed-and-dyed hair. She smudged her glasses somewhere along the line. Her blouse didn’t fit right. She recently lost a lot of weight. The paisley color didn’t match her striped slacks, which also didn’t fit her properly. The heels on her open-toed flats were scuffed. She wore a silky shoulder-cover that served as a half opened vest, half scarf. Her eyes were red around the corners, her palms had bruises on them from her nails cutting in too deep, and she had extra baggage on her face in little pouches.

The edges of her screamed of long-term self-destructive abuse.

“Good afternoon,” I said, offering her a chair on the back porch. The killdeer chirped wildly. “What can I do for you?”

She sighed heavily, trying to ground herself, although I wasn’t sure she knew that was what she did. “My son. He’s been missing for nearly a week. He’s only three years old.”

I nodded and waited for her to continue. Even her voice sounded like she didn’t listen to it anymore. Resigned, dejected, without intensity.

“I last saw him in Hyde park. He wore a little blue and green ballcap, bib overalls and a t-shirt. He wore Nike shoes.”

She looked at me expectantly, and then she looked away in a twitch. She hid something. Her fingers moved as if she held a cigarette. Her mouth frowned and twitched again. She looked at the bird screeching. She brushed at her hip as if someone tugged on it.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you, miss. I’m a healer, and I help you to find your center. I don’t find missing children. I know you’ve already done this, but the police can help.” It was entirely understandable for a parent to exhaust every possible resource when faced with a missing child. The police would do whatever they could for the child.

She stood, saying, “I can pay. I’m certainly happy to pay. Please.”

I shook my head. “I can not find your child.” Something else happened here. I watched the ticks, the actions-of-hiding, and I wasn’t about to get involved in it. “I can help you find peace.”

“I don’t want peace,” she growled, teeth clenched. “I want my baby back. Nobody is willing to find my boy! My sweet, sweet boy! I lost my husband to this! I have nothing in this world!”

It pained me. “Miss. I offer peace, and centering. I offer self-discovery. I can’t find your son.” She sniffled. I escorted her to the front door and out to her car. She carried a small bag of tealights from the shop.

“We could have helped,” Wren said quietly, touching my shoulder. She scratched at her waistline in a distracted way, mimicking the woman’s movement.

“Her son is dead.”

Wren gasped. “You don’t know that!” She watched the woman drive off down the drive, slow and deliberate. “Do you know that?”

I stopped, mouth half-open, trying hard not to be cold to her. “I could have helped, after a fashion. Wren, she knew he was dead. I imagine he’s been dead a long time. I imagine they’ve already found him. She wasn’t all here; she was too far beyond the veil for me to help.”

Wren’s frown grew deeper. “So. You’re saying she’s haunted?”

I shook my head. “No. I don’t think so. If she was, I could have done more. She wanted him back, alive and well, and in her arms. I couldn’t do that for her; nobody can. I had to send her on her way. I imagine she’s been to a few places like this before, and every one of them has failed.”

Wren nodded solemnly. “Gotcha, boss.”

I smiled a little. “Stop calling me boss.”

“Gotcha, ‘Fisher.” She looked smug in her humor. On the third day of working with me, she gave me the nickname Kingfisher. Uncannily enough, my full name was Soren Thomas Fisher Gahiji. Instead of calling me the full word, she abbreviated it to ‘Fisher. She only knew my first and last names. “So would you screw her?”

That lady?” Then I caught myself. Of course not. “Autumn?” Wren, the blunt. I liked that about her. “Absolutely not. But I enjoyed last night in spite of her. I haven’t had a night out like that in a long time.”

“Have you screwed Olivia?”

My smile dissipated. She didn’t break eye-contact with me. “No.”

“Aw,” she said with that same half-smile. “Just wondered.” She swayed back and forth, in thought, looking across the back porch and patio. “Juust wondered. Y’know. She’s dangerous.” I knew her game. “We’ll have to go out again. Sometime. And make sure Autumn leaves that fake ID at home.”

“I’m dangerous, too,” I whispered. She looked at me, then looked away.

“Yep.”

The killdeer still flapped about outside, chip chipping away as if I had stolen an egg and slowly poured its gooey yolk into my mouth.  I mentally shooed it away.

The day shaped up to be a slow one, but pretty carefree. I got into the habit of hanging out on the back porch, squandering the day’s light to meditate and contemplate, and walk the roads of the city. It soothed me. I also handed out pamphlets for the business, talking to people who passed by. Some, as usual, came up to me and offered advice, messages, requested assistance. The homeless mostly, although again, I couldn’t help. The walks allowed me to deepen my center, something that I hadn’t done for more than four years.

I returned home around three in the afternoon.

Olivia came by, throwing me some basketball shorts and a wifebeater t-shirt. “Hallo Shepherd,” she said lightly. Everyone had a name for me. And, subsequently, I had a name for everyone else. It wasn’t so much a game but a mark of respect.

In the Astral plane, people had many names.

We were going to do tai-chi in the back yard. Before that, though, she pulled up a seat beside where I planned my upcoming week and crossed her legs over my calendar. “I almost punched that tart in the back of the head,” Olivia said. “What was her name again? Winter?” I shook my head. “Yeah. Inappropriate.” Olivia licked her lips in thought. “When’re you going to start helping everyone?” She squinted in the glare of the sun. “You keep telling me you want to be a healer. What’s holding you back?”

I looked at the fireplace coals. “Don’t know. I’m trying. That part of me takes time to come out.”

She glanced into the building, making sure Wren was out of earshot. “Sounds just dandy. Let her down, Soren. Let her down easy, but let her down so she doesn’t float for much longer. That girl’s been through enough.”

Her eyes flashed decide, asshole!

Another direct, to-the-point woman. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have to do anything, least of all decide on something that didn’t matter. She had no stake on me. I leaned forward. “She followed me through hell. And where were you? She’s got miles of my trust. You have my curiosity. When you choose to waste some serious time on me, you will get to tell me what to do. Understand?”

She hooded her eyes, though she smiled her quirky smile. Scrunching her shoulders forward slightly, she whispered, “So you wait for me to prove myself. Don’t forget what I did in your little misadventure.”

She did exactly what I wanted to do, for someone else. She soothed, calmed, assisted with the inner violence. She dove into me and pulled me to center, when I fought like a panicked child against the darkness. She did what I should have, for someone who never showed up. I shrugged. “No. I won’t forget.” I scratched my bald head. “She’s got the nightmares. We got the memories. You? Keep playing it safe and see where it gets you.”

Olivia nodded. “Do you love her?”

Love. Before I answered, a door slammed. “Hey! People!” It was masculine, powerful, aggressive, uncomfortable. Someone mumbled to someone else. I heard several sets of feet walking around to the back of the house.

My hackles rose. Rule one. Protect this house. They’ll be lucky if I didn’t call the cops on their trespass. I couldn’t afford to turn down business, I knew, but I also couldn’t afford to remove the layers of defense. Protect the house: as within, so without.

I stood while Olivia remained sitting, legs crossed and causal. The killdeer flew into the rolling hills behind the house. Six people appeared around the corner, led by a taller man in a bowler hat and a tight black muscle shirt. Built like a sensible brawler, with long, lean muscle and swagger to his step, he walked heavy with baggy jeans. I saw a single tattoo on his wrist—a knight chess piece—and he smoked a home rolled cigarette; Golden Virginia. I smelled it like incense, and it tasted amazing. Behind him, another man had a large production-style camera trained on the smoker’s back.

The wind blew just enough for his face to cloud over in a roil of smoke every time he breathed. He didn’t look like he even inhaled.

The guy in front jerked his head up in greeting as if he wanted another shot from the bartender. His smile was thin-lipped and aggressive, as expected, and he threw his hand at me. I shook it, and he embraced me in a “bro-hug,” his steely frame like rock. I wondered what he did in his free time.

“Hey,” he said with the slightest hint of smoker’s voice. “Seth.” Alpha Male, I added.

He stared at Olivia, who stared right back. I was unimpressed. “My property,” I said.

He winked at her. “Yeah, ‘bout that. Listen.” He flashed a full-toothed smile at Olivia and not me. “Sorry. Opened the front door and thought we was in the wrong place. Candles n’ shit. I was looking for a Soren. The ghost guy. Thought maybe he sat around back, doin’ séances and whatever.”

A month after I exorcised a nearby church, the local news did a big article on Wren and me, giving me some publicity while downplaying the murder of a father and daughter by a very unkind demon. The news called me “ghost guy,” as if that was what I did for a living.

“I’m Soren Gahiji.”

He grunted, giving me the once over with his eyes, then winked again at Olivia. “You don’t look so foreign,” he said, seemingly surprised at the last name. “Why don’t you change it to something a little more respectful. Like, Smith. Or something.”

“Or Maccabe!” someone else chimed in. He sneered. I guess he thought it passed for a smile.

I took a deep breath, nodded slightly, and said, “You know your way out.”

I turned my back on him and sat back down beside Olivia. She cocked her head to one side. One of the two women in the entourage said, sagely, “Let’s get the fuck out of here. They aren’t doing anything for us.”

I didn’t have time for prejudicial, careless people. I recognized him instantly from some of the stuff I’ve seen around town. He stood center as the leader of a group of paranormal instigators that called itself STIFS, or Supernatural Targeting Investigators From Syracuse, a group of six or seven people that walked around sensationalizing the paranormal by filming supposedly haunted places at night and making the most out of their meager acting skills by slapping each other off-camera, jumping at random times, and sending some runner around making spooky noises. I had no interest in validating their fake investigating. Also, their name brought about endless pervy jokes during the filming process.

“Yo yo! Yo wait up!” Seth yelled from three feet away. I didn’t swivel in my chair. “I didn’t catch your name,” he said with a sneer to Olivia, extending his hand.

She looked at it as a cat looks at sour milk, and shook her head. She wanted nothing to do with him. She observed him with distant aloofness, and had no problem simply staring.

To his credit, he kept his mouth shut.

“I will call the police,” I said without looking up at him.

“Wrong guy, then,” he said. “We were looking for a badass.” He stomped around the side of the house to his entourage.

I have never been a social person. I’m surprised I decided to be a healer in the first place. I wanted to help. I really, really did. But because of that exposé on the whole Church thing, I got more daredevils and séance-seekers than my expected clientele. Lots of haunted families. Lots of haunted places. A few local attractions had contacted me to do a reading, or a walk-through, to try and “find” the ghosts. As if they needed any help.

The Church expose had been the wrong kind of publicity, and it slowly killed my business. The faster that article disappeared the quicker I could move on with my life.
Plus, in spite of what Wren or Autumn or anyone said, I was not in the right mental place to be doing much of anything.

Like clockwork, the phone rang. Autumn. She sounded groggy and entirely abashed at herself. She apologized several times for the night before, even though I clearly heard I wish you had liked it in her voice. She annoyed me. Classic Midwestern girl playing belle, then macho.

Uninteresting.

She asked for a second chance. What? I glanced at Olivia, who grinned slyly as if she overheard it. I told the phone no. Autumn sighed uncomfortably and asked for a game of chess instead. I said, unequivocally, no. “I only play chess with one man.”

Nearly a minute later the crew stomped through the shop. Wren talked excitedly to Alpha. Four looked around. I imagined the fifth still followed with his camera eye. Alpha with the camera. I hoped he didn’t break anything.

One of the candle stands crashed to the ground. “Oh! Sorry, man. I’ll pay. Twenty bucks alright?”

Olivia rolled her eyes and tapped her wrist with a grey-painted fingernail. “Want to go do something?”

I shook my head. Not with the Pack in Wren’s shop. Wren’s shop, in my house.

Wren flew through the dining room in an instant, her eyes shining. “Okay. We gotta talk. We’ve got a camera in the store. More publicity is always good publicity. They’re the STIFS!” She tried to keep her composure but she jumped around like a schoolgirl. “They’re possibly going to buy some candles! Hey! Maybe they’re here to get help from you. Like, on a case or something.” She leaned in and whispered, “I would love to do that.”

Olivia stared long.

I shrugged. “Just get them what they need and get them out as soon as you can. I don’t want a disaster.”

The glitter dissipated. “You mean.” She looked into the house. She wanted to ask a few questions, but instead turned around and disappeared with a sullen, “Yes, boss.”

I went into the house with Olivia behind me. I prepared some food for her and me to eat, and while we sat at the table, we talked about the oddity of the killdeer. But the conversation inadvertently went back to the STIFS crew. “They won’t go away easily,” Olivia said quietly, playing with her honeydew.

“I know. I’ll call the cops if I have to.”

After all, the cops were at the end of my driveway: being implicated in a murder meant being watched by the police for six months. Six months of paying some guy to sit in his car and watch. I didn’t know it was possible to waste so much money and so many man-hours.

I wasn’t a fan of being put on display, and I figured Alpha wasn’t a fan of being turned away. Especially given his nonchalance about staying around. He talked to Wren for a while, flirting with her, until they left without buying anything.

The stand wasn’t broken. No harm done.

While we ate, I scratched another note on a sheet of to-do paper on the table. The calligraphic painter would come sometime later in the week, a commission that I’d pay in trade; I would do my work on his body while he did his on the house; he was an incredible Muslim calligrapher, and I had requested he paint a besmellah in the Bible room the shape of a thick-trunked tree. I’ve seen his work around town, and was quite impressed. Apparently he was impressed with my work, as well.

Or he was just testing it out to see if it’d work out for him.

The back door tap-tap-tapped with someone daintily knocking against it. I sighed, avoiding Olivia’s frown, and prepared for Alpha’s third tactic.

Of Earth and Blood, Chapter 1

(Today I began work on the rewrite of the second book in my Soren series. This is chapter one, where I lay groundwork and hopefully catch the reader’s interest. It’s a little disjointed, scene-wise, but I like it that way. As if it’s all just one, long, dream.)

1

If you spend enough time talking to your shadow, your shadow talks back. Not that anybody listens.

My toes touched carpet that touched sand, a salt-sea breeze drifting through cinderblock walls. The sun filtered hot through rafters. Two chairs waited, one wedged between a pair of identical full-length mirrors.

He preferred dark, dank, rot, death, black, clau-stro-pho-bic rat-races. I preferred sun, sea, clouds, a Mid-west sky.

I rolled a mirror between my fingers and waited for him. I listened to the ocean waves and waited for him. I lined a series of paperclips on the table and waited for him.

And when he chose, he came: first a reflection of black in one mirror, then a shape in both, and then a discerning step as if he had just exited a stagecoach into solid air. Gloved hand sliding along a ruby-tipped cane. Top-hat, gloved hands adjusting.

He had no face. Perfect pinstripe suit, sport jacket a la 1800’s, grey shirt collars up his neck, chin, and where his mouth, nose, eyes should be—black space. A hollow shadow. Ears, shaggy hair beneath his hat, and one big trick of the eyes between it all.

“Porphyrius Jackal,” I whispered. The word vibrated through the air.

He hissed.

Salt-chalk in my mind, in my pocket, clinking against rings. Clinking against ankh, maple-wood, sage.

He sat straight-backed in the chair, brushing sleeves in a grandiose form of mimicry. As if this place made him feel somehow dirty. I patiently waited, my mirror face-down on the table.

I listened to sea-gulls crackle. Jack looked around, up, then back at me. “Soren Jackal,” he said, his voice a hoary echo. My concentration stuttered; my fingers stabilized against the table. I hadn’t expected the name. He smelled like wood-smoke. “Olivia Borea,” he continued.

Here in the Astral, sitting before Jack, the introductions alone could kill.

“Porphyrius, I welcome you.”

Pro tempore.” He stiffened, his ring tapping against ruby. “We do not play chess,” he replied. “We ci-ca-trix.” It sounded like a corpse’s throat clacking with beetles.

He massaged his throat as if he wasn’t used to using it.

I slid the bent paperclips forward on the table, a wall. His side of the room mouldered in the corners with a sickly green pallor. Grave-rot.

“Time for me to talk, Jack. I’ve finally found your name. I’ve finally found who you are. I talk, you listen. At the end of this, I will ask you one question, and one question alone, and I expect you to answer it.”

“Rebirth,” he whispered, and whispered some dead language under his breath. I heard the smile in his voice, almost a chuckle. “Virtus. Simper. Viridis.” He flicked fingers toward the walls behind him.

I waved his archaic words away. “Twenty-six years, Jack. Death. Violence. Abuse.” He stiffened again. I saw his arms tense. I saw him try and adjust. He could not. He was stuck between the mirrors. “I survived. Screwed up, alone, among the dead, but I survived. This is a new story. You took Tara. You took my family. My life. For years, my sanity. You aim to take more. Olivia. Wren. You aim to use me forever.”

He whispered in violent huffs, whuff sounds emanating between syllables. I could only make out ar-gu-men-tum ad ig-no-ran-tia.

“You no longer have all the power.” He splintered the arms of the chair. “Remember the lychee.” He stopped struggling. “I have another guide. I have another teacher.”

More unsettling than his struggles, Porphyrius stopped struggling and waited.

“I do not need you.”

The hole in his face disappeared, and a craggy, disjointed face stared at me. Solemn, hard, black eyes. Wrinkles on his cheeks that looked all wrong. A beaked nose. Thin lips. High cheek-bones. Sallow-to-powdery white skin. “Cravat,” he whispered, angling his chin forward. Other whispers accompanied it.

“I can let you go.” His face slid away to shadow, an endless misty-black hole. Sixteen hundred years of death had turned him to his base. I nearly felt pity. “Why should I not?”

The question posed, I slid back against my own chair. The wall behind him now threatened to crumble away. Dirt cascaded like black hourglass sand over fully-grown, pale mushrooms. My side of the room remained exactly as I had found it. The paperclips—Jack’s paperclips—continued to serve as a boundary.

He sat. Twenty-six years of his black shadow. Twenty-six years of his blood-talks, his cryptic prayers, his lessons, and he sat. “Frightener,” he whispered.

Not good enough,” I roared. My hands veritably trembled. I couldn’t touch him. I couldn’t harm him. This room, this talk, was posed as a gift for him to even show up. A trap he wouldn’t fall into again.

“Intuit. Sahv-ior.” His accent reminded me of an Italian man speaking English for the first time. “Hal-cyon.”

“I earned those names! You gave none! Why should I not?”

The insult sparked his rage. The house shook. I heard the enlightened dead rustling upstairs. He tore against the mirrors, but he remained bound. He roared like a gale wind.

“Don’t make me ask it a third time,” I whispered.

“Fer-ru-lous.” I opened my mouth to speak, and he cut my intake of breath with a hurried, “Truths.” He spat the word, worming his head against the back of the chair as if avoiding a flame under his chin. “Truths and truth.” He clicked in his throat, pinstripe suit splitting with mold. “Ci-ca-trix,” he repeated. When I didn’t react, he tried to lean forward. I felt his power radiating like a Tesla coil. “Even ground.”

Tiny puffballs like pimples broke across his shoulder. He cocked his head to one side.

He offered truce.

“Good enough,” I whispered, picking up the mirror. The moment it reflected him, he exploded to mist. The astral mirrors smashed against opposite walls. The wall behind his chair collapsed.

Vale,” he whispered, nothing more than a pile of spores and dirt.

A truce hard-won. I woke, sweating in my bedsheets, knowing I owed the most powerful of dead philosophers a favor.

 

Her cheeks red with Blue Moon, and her normally restricting and inhibited masque of calm and control shattered around her fake leather chair a half hour ago. She closed her eyes to the music behind her—something old remixed into something new, possibly Imogen—and bobbed her head for a moment before opening her ray-beam intensity toward me.

The things my neighbor Autumn would have asked of me if we were alone.

Thank God we weren’t alone.

The much more stylish Wren sat beside me in a combination of decorated clothing I had never seen before; a sarong-style dress with several different colors of blue and green, all melded together in a trippy design inspired by a peacock that drowned on the set of The Beach. Accordingly, she wore a linen blouse that was see-through at the shoulder and contained small dragon-laced designs over the chest. A single streak of aquamarine ran around her waist and two streaks wound around where the linen lace ended at her shoulders. She wore simple silver earrings and a silver necklace with a single set emerald in the center. She wore a silver bracelet around her right wrist.

As my co-worker, she sold candles in my house. She was once, also, as bubbly a person as you could imagine. Things happened. She changed.

“Jack?” she mouthed, as if suddenly remembering she left the stove on. I nodded.
“Trapped,” I lipped back. She shivered in reply, wiped her cheek on her dress, and stared at the bar behind Autumn. She couldn’t quite hide the fear in her eyes.

I wore a white shirt and a pair of jeans. In my defense, she didn’t prepare me for how she dressed. I wondered if she showed me off—or herself—to her company.

We sat at a table set for six, and five of us had been talking for nearly an hour. An empty seat sat beside me: Olivia, the sixth, hadn’t yet joined. She was my date for the evening, but she had to work an emergency late shift at the bakery, so she wouldn’t come until later. Wren had no issues acting like my date, and filling the seat on the other side of me. Like a couple, perhaps, or a business team administering a perfect presentation.

She simply preened.

Wren’s roommates sat across the table, beside Autumn; a Korean-American by the name of Sung Lee that spoke in a deep Cajun accent and studied Haiku at Washington University, and a tall Michigan woman by the name of Sarah that spent most of her life perfecting her mother’s cooking recipes and painting in shades of white. She studied business.

Sung Lee’s hair reminded me of an even mahogany grain, and she had dark olive skin, yet still managed to radiate a glow. I blamed her smile.

She had intimate knowledge of the workings of alligators, and recited a few poems she had written in growling voodoo-tinted Korean paralleling a relationship to rows of teeth (Kraeken spells my love as “chew”/Clack with its short-teeth/Row, row, tear the tension up). She spoke it in the masculine, and I gave her credit for not speaking Korean in the feminine. I wanted to hear more; her words alone left me daydreaming on the verge of projection, but nobody else understood it.

Sarah was much more introverted, only speaking when directly spoken to, or when a topic specifically interested her. Civil rights activism and religious dogma ran her in circles, and for some reason, she loved a red wagon from her childhood so much she still had it in the closet in her bedroom.

Nearly seven years had passed since I spent so much time with so many people at a time.

I am Soren Gahiji. I am an introverted, socially awkward Egyptian-American man that sits in limbo between having a social life and being a hermit. I owed Wren this night for nearly a month now. Since the Church, and her sacrifices.

Olivia walked into the room and went straight to the bar. She made certain I saw her—it was difficult not to, with her purple-and-white streaked Mohawk tonsure—and she shook her head once while ordering a beer. She wanted to observe the people at my table without them knowing. It was her way. She stared over Autumn’s shoulder, and Autumn burned holes in my skull while I tried—very hard—not to make eye contact with either of them.

It was halfway through the evening, and Wren’s hand absently brushed my arm. She didn’t jerk it back, but merely allowed it to finish its arc across my forearm muscle. I didn’t think she meant to do it. I also didn’t think she minded the touch. She glowed brighter than Autumn; she loved the dynamics of the table, and I don’t think she focused on me more than anyone else. This was her element.

I watched the flare of aggression flicker across Autumn’s face, and the half-smile on Olivia behind her. Too many dancers in this, and for the first time I wondered if I was even a part of it.

“Okay.” My mind reeled from the table’s revelations not five minutes before. I had asked a question between sips of my cold beer: “Tell me something no one here knows about you.” I forced myself through boundaries I promised to uphold with Tara, my dead girlfriend, nearly a year and a half ago. I felt dangerous, loopy, high on the idea that I could be a real person again. The adrenaline of Olivia watching also upped the ante.

Perhaps.

I addressed the question to everyone, and their answers provided a powerful window into their personalities. I heard the Haiku, then the wagon story from Sarah, Wren’s near-death experience on a frozen lake, and finally Autumn’s statement. “I collect souvenirs from those I’ve loved. Belt loops of their favorite jeans. And they’re all in my grandmother’s wish jar buried deep in my sock drawer.” She leaned in close to me, her eyes slightly dizzying, saying, “I did not allow myself to remove them with anything but my fingers. And my teeth.”

“It’s the time you waste on the rose,” Sung Lee said, trailing the statement.

I don’t think Sung liked Autumn very much. She flickered her eyes every time Autumn ordered another Blue Moon.

Autumn leaned back against the music. Nobody at the table said anothing for a bit. I didn’t consider it awkward. After a minute, I saw everyone else did. Olivia rolled her eyes. Autumn grinned smugly, her glance flickering with a hint of fear toward Wren. She tried very hard to remove the rest of the people from the table through sheer mental force of will.

“I,” I almost laughed. I knew my face blushed with the delivery of my answer. “I know ballet.” It had somehow diffused the awkward aggressiveness of Autumn Sloshed, and the table laughed, all but Sung. “What?” I asked. She didn’t answer, only staring at me. I continued. “I learned when I was a kid. Something that helped keep me flexible.” Autumn nodded as if she had known all along, smug and droopy-eyed.

Yeah, her look said, you were my friend first. Before all these posers. Dibs.

Wren’s roommates apparently approved of me. Sung didn’t insult me in an offhanded manner, even with my ballet comment. Sarah talked—talked! Wren said as a whisper in my ear—more than committal conversation. Apparently, her roommates agreeing on something was a rarity, from television shows to how to decorate their apartment to, well, food. Wren had worked for me for nearly two months before I worked up the courage to attend this outing, and she’d begged at least twice a week. Their approval went a long way toward smoothing out Wren’s insecurities, fears, nervousness.

I glanced at Olivia. She lifted her beer in salute.

The conversation had started with a kind-hearted grilling of my background, affiliations, interests, and the like. I started soft, hoping I would be forgotten in the fray. But they deftly pulled me out. The beer helped.

Wren spent a lot of the time filling in for me; she seemed worried that I would feel uncomfortable around her two roommates. Of anyone, Autumn threw me off. I felt sorry for her, after a fashion; Wren’s roommates did not approve of her. Neither of them did.

Olivia continued to sip her beer at the bar, feigning interest in the Cards game.

Servers removed dinner plates. I enjoyed the energy of the room. “So. Soren,” Sung said loudly over the conversations around us, “What have you found in your life that made it worth living? The ultimate gain?”

All eyes on me. The answer came easy.

“Love,” I replied slowly, thinking the question through. They remained silent, waiting for an explanation. I considered not giving it, but decided against it. “Love. But not with a woman.”

Their eyes widened slightly and Wren nodded and accepted it as if I were bisexual. I wasn’t. “Oh Soren, the sides we have!” she said happily, giving me a gentle hug.

Her statement made little sense. Autumn had downed five tall glasses of Blue Moon in the past hour. Wren wasn’t too far behind her. The roommates and I nursed our seconds. “I found Love when I walked alone,” I continued, barely hearing myself over the music, “in a temple, and owning just the clothes on my back, an empty stomach, and no home. I found Love between five foot thick slabs of rock and two hundred types of incense. In a dark space between footpaths and altars.”

Autumn tried to look as if she were thinking deeply on the reply. “Church?” Sarah asked speculatively. She looked uncomfortable, her hand sliding around her glass through trickling pools of condensation. Autumn snorted as if the question were ridiculous. Sung rolled her eyes at Autumn. A chain reaction of reactions.
“Church, yes, and vision.” I looked around, and I saw I toed a line of acceptance and too much information. “In India. But yes. Love. And Love of Self.”

Sung quipped, “Rumi had a bit to say on that           .”

“’Love comes with a knife, and no shy question,’” Wren intoned.

“We’re all Rumi fans here?” I asked. “At least I’m not losing you with where I’m coming from.”

“Oh, no. You’re with the academics,” Wren said with a broad smile.

I lost Autumn. She bobbed her head to the music and stared into her glass as if confused as to where she sat.

Olivia smiled behind Autumn. I barely saw the dimples set in her cheeks.

For the fourth time that day, I heard the shrill cheep of a killdeer, and it jarred me: the sound didn’t belong. Just echo from the music. Remastering thing. DJ Tiesto’s alternative trance. Something.

Wren noticed my change in focus, and in response she cocked one eyebrow. “Your turn,” She said to Sarah, who squirmed a little at the attention. Wren continued to be a perfect host. The game continued on, and she cast the limelight away from me.

This evening started as a simple dinner meeting, a neutral night out between Wren and I—a celebration of sorts at the success of our business for three months. We actually made money on the thing—most of it coming from Wren’s candle sales. At Ruby Tuesday, huge salad on my plate, Autumn happened to be eating at the same place. Alone. She saw us, chance meeting, and sat with us instead of her family. A table for two expanded to three. Autumn’s hard eyes softened through our discussions on religion, spirituality, crop circles, and eventually Harry Potter and the impossibility of magic as accepted fantasy. She liked the food—not loved it—and at the end of our meals, I wanted to order durian ice cream. Unfortunately, it was Ruby Tuesday and not Indonesia.

Instead we shared a huge brownie with ice cream. I ate dairy for the first time in a long time, and it haunted me as deftly as the killdeer sound.

I paid the bill, Autumn whispered she knew a place we could go, trying to single me away from Wren. Noticing Autumn’s strategy, Wren acquiesced and invited her roommates out to balance the mood—with a “pleeeease, Soren?” I let them power-play. Autumn took everyone on a short tour of the town before we stopped at a bar/rock DJ show. Somewhere between the ice cream and her third Blue Moon, Autumn decided I was more important than she previously thought. Somewhere between her first and second, Wren’s roommates arrived.

Olivia probably hung in the shadows for a while even before she walked in the door. Smoking a cigarette, or brooding, or whatever she did when alone.

Women generally don’t throw themselves all over the man, contrary to what the movies say. At least that’s my experience: they swoon and smolder across the table, perhaps being bold enough to slide their collective foot up my leg or switch sides to sit beside me. They play it as some cat-and-mouse game, parlaying and opening doors before creaking them closed again. The alcohol loosened her up. She tried to play coy with a table full of well-aware people.

She looked so inexperienced I nearly cried in sympathy. Yet beside Olivia, they were goldfish in a lagoon. Here there be sharks.

Wren finally noticed Olivia, and as she nudged me to point at her, Olivia sauntered up.

She clunked another Blue Moon in front of Autumn’s face, sliding her finger along the rim and bringing the froth to her lips. It was Olivia’s way: she took a little bit of everyone with her.

“I’m Olivia,” she said with a smile, waving to everyone before casually pulling the chair up beside me. She used her quirky smile: she perfected the mischievous grin most often painted on succubi. It wasn’t the most genuine one of hers, although it wasn’t fake.

The table’s reaction aptly fit. Sarah’s mouth dropped. Her eyes bugged a little. Sung grinned and tightened her upper lip, grasping her beer tightly as if she were about to go all Martial Arts with a previously-hidden cleaver. Autumn outright sneered like some animal, then stared at her new alcohol with a kind of dollified happiness. Just like that, she gave up on winning me. Too many interested parties. Wren frowned for a split second before waving in mock approval. She stood quickly and said, before I had a chance to do anything, “Olivia. This is Sung Lee. Sarah. Autumn.”

Olivia wore a tight pastel blue t-shirt with an inlaid black dragon in the center and no bra. She wore tight jeans that hugged her hips. She wore no jewelry. I realized that, although I was underdressed for the rest of the crowd, Olivia and I dressed perfectly for each other.

She bowed her head slightly and said, with a slight cock of her head, “Hey guys. Sorry I’m late.”

Olivia nearly slid into my lap, but checked herself, instead sliding around her pilsner like a purring cat. She smelled musky, earthy, like hops mixed with hickory ash.

Autumn squinted and frowned, her eyes no longer registering. She started fiddling with her necklace and looking around the room. “I want to dance,” she mumbled.

Wren touched my arm again, looking deeply into my eyes with a need for acceptance. Given the new addition to the table, her eyes asked, am I doing this right? I nodded with a smile. She smiled back, leaned over, and whispered, “She looks stellar,” in my ear loud enough for Olivia to hear.

Another power-play.

But.

That was two days ago.

Today I sat three stories deep in a skeleton-walled catacomb built over hundreds of generations of sacrifices, lining a labyrinthine pit of guilty, unrested dead. The place was a terror-cage of infinitely waning dead, and the prison-keepers were ancient creatures of Aztec design.

Autumn and Wren’s roommates quietly slept in their beds. Wren probably just now realized I wasn’t at home, and had no way of finding me. Olivia traveled on an emergency trip to Canada to help a relative. Nobody could help me: nobody knew where I was. Not Cerena and the police. Not Wren’s well-meaning roommates. Not anyone.

“Hey,” a man yelled nearby. I distantly saw him hanging off the wall like some deformed re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion. Seth? His name was Seth. “Hey!”

Before him stood an angel: pristine, beautiful, perfect. Its wings were gossamer and lit from within. Its face radiated benevolence, trust, respect. It spent its entire life down here, beneath the layers of the dead, hiding from the scrupulous eyes of the cynical world. It hovered in front of Seth, floating off the ground. Divinely beautiful.

I sat with my back against a row of femur bones, wiping sweat and dust out of my eyes for a better view while I tightened a strip of cloth around my right arm to stop a slow bleed.

The angel prepared to accept Seth into heaven with a kiss, and I watched breathlessly, terrified and awed, for the very moment.

They connected. Seth didn’t resist. The genderless angel touched his lips. Seth’s body went rigid.

A woman shoved her shoulder against the angel, not looking at it, and slid between the two. Something long and slender gleamed from the angel’s split face: something about it looked off. The woman defiantly raised a shotgun to the angel’s face, and as I let out a cry of terror and pleading, she fired a blast that tore the angel’s face clean off with a spray of green.

I cut my cry short, stifling the sound as if it were a blasphemy. The blast echoed through the rooms. My lips quivered. Tears poured down my face. I felt so very, very alone.  The woman—Carmen—ran over to me and towered above me with her lighter barely flickering across her face. The shotgun smoked in her other hand. “You okay?” she asked in an uncharacteristically quiet manner.

A girl whimpered: it wasn’t just the three of us. As if waking from a dream, the scene around me was a study in chaos: death, gore, otherworldly and disgusting, wounded crawling like a war-zone. Nodding, I tightened the tourniquet tighter. She thought I cried out for Seth, or else she wouldn’t have been so respectful: Seth was her brother.

The otherworldly light of my staff illuminated the corpse of what looked like a massive insect behind her.

This hadn’t been here before. It was a new addition to the room. Where was the angel’s body?

Behind the creature’s corpse sat a massive seal embedded in the church-like wall, brown and caked with the matte sheen of centuries of blood.

“Hey,” a man yelled nearby. He still hung off the wall like some deformed re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion. Seth? His name was Seth. “It was in my throat. It was in my throat!”

I wasn’t about to move. I couldn’t. All interest in breathing, in separating myself from the scene, in existing at all, in fact, had left me when Carmen shoved the shotgun in the angel’s mouth.

In that moment, I hated her more than I hated myself.

I remembered the exact words I used two days previous; “I found Love between five foot thick slabs of rock and two hundred types of incense. In a dark space between footpaths and altars.”

The Love I found in that temple in India shattered along with the very fiber of my being, and the being that I dreamed about seeing, touching, for years dissipated like froth on a pilsner.

Steeling myself, I stood on shaky legs that could barely hold me up.  “Those of Earth and Blood, I come,” I whispered, wiping my face.

Fiction Files: the Baddies of IGMAN

One of my greatest writing weaknesses is my inability to create compelling antagonists/evil/darkness. I’ve written (or written a significant amount of) over twenty-seven books. Most of which were put on the back burner because I don’t believe in my evil.

Most Urban Fantasy or Modern Fantasy or High Fantasy pits evil against good. The strongest plot-driven books generally reinforce the dark forces as, simply, evil. I identify most with evil, therefore, I am evil. I know of many exceptions, but one of my biggest uphill battles has been getting into the collective head of evil.

It Gave Me a Name, and by extention, how I write, focuses on darkness as darkness.

Soren, my main character, isn’t as good as he used to be. He’s pretty busted, actually. He’s at war with himself and his stance on humanity, his past, and the weakness of sanity. He’s no shining white light in a pit of darkness; if anything, he is the source of some of the darkness. He has no zealous bone to his body. In fact, he’s more a self-serving, intellectual, psychic scientist than soldier, warrior, or fighter. He has no problem running, no problem fighting dirty, no problem hurting good people in the process: why? He feels everyone, good-natured or not, is a danger to him. Anyone he lets close, or he helps, becomes his responsibility. A little hurt, for Soren, is much better than a lot of hurt. So he tries–and fails–at keeping people at arms’ reach. Needless to say, he will always do the right thing. (Classic Omega personality)

Jack, Soren’s mentor, is closer to Milton’s Darkness Tangible than anything concrete. He is thorougly self-serving, abusive, violent. He is a wisp: Soren doesn’t know whether Jack was born from Soren’s own dark past, or if Jack is a malignant spirit (mage, wizard, what-have-you) that wasn’t content with death. Nonetheless, Jack has ultimately trained Soren in all things supernatural, and in this way, Soren needs him. Or thinks he needs him. Jack does whatever he wants, and Soren calls him a vampire.

Beyond these two, the first book is filled with demons (not all are evil). Since Soren can’t tell a clear difference between a person and a demon, some of them are obscure (and everyone involved is a suspect).

Schoolboy, the child-like follower of a beseiged priest, chews on his own fist and trades “stories” for his protection. He says little, and is the most primal of the demons. A gatherer of information, he is easiest to understand, and the most dangerous.

Succubus/Watcher, a shapechanger with vast amounts of knowledge, she acts thoroughly benign. She has no problem telling Soren the future, what she’s doing, and why she does it. She offers her services at every opportunity. True to the trade, she gets something in return. She offers no direct resistence to Soren, and instead plays games with his mind. She is thoroughly honest and straightforward through the entire book. She feeds off the priest and the priest uses her to keep the memory of his one true love alive.

Holi Man, a preacher wearing a faded Hollister polo, he craves attention. He loves debate, fire, and double-meanings. He smokes incense and acts like a twisted father-figure, speaking of all the wrong virtues. An intellect, he loves talking about metaphorical upbringings and Hell. He exists outside of the church as well as within, and follows Soren around, hurting those he comes in contact with.

Tara, a manifestation of Soren’s dead lover, is Soren’s personal demon in the mix. She exists solely to confuse him and feed off his doubt. She seems to have all the memories of the real Tara, and never breaks personality. She puts Soren through hell by being a victim throughout the novel, a slave to the whim of the other three demons.

Ferrulous, an ancient scarab demon the size of a Volkswagon accidentally summoned by Jack’s request and Soren’s ritual, is trapped in Soren’s prison staff only to become a time-bomb of power. Soren must choose how to handle it and figure out Jack’s lesson before it breaks free on its own.

Random conflict with other, smaller characters also contribute to the overall conflict of the story.

They come together to create an ensemble of self-serving and ultimately destructive forces. Individually, none of the “evils” in the book are overwhelming. Soren can easily dispatch of any one of them (except for Succubus). Together they create a complicated family of self-actualized, realized demons. I made the book to reinforce that Soren’s greatest enemy is himself, and some things he can’t do alone.

Thoughts?