* * *
The Skeleton Sculptor
J Edward Neill
On the morning the hunt began, we’d had a hundred men.
After three months, we were down to eleven.
We all knew how it would end.
But only a few got to see it.
My name is Costas. Those who knew me would’ve said I listened more than I talked. They’d have been right, of course. I was always a watcher more than a doer. I’d grown up in the Master’s service, in a mountain city graven of pale stone. In the Master’s Citadel, we had towers taller than anywhere else in the known world. We had women more beautiful than the sun, moon, and stars. Why talk, I thought, when surrounded by such glory?
And so I watched. And listened. And learned.
It was a perfect place, my home. I loved it.
And if I weren’t dead, I’d return there and never leave again.
* * *
Most of what I remember of our ninetieth night out was that my feet hurt. I sat beneath the full red moon, the campfire snapping at my toes, and I rubbed my soles until my fingers went numb.
For a short while, I didn’t care about all the men who’d gone missing.
I didn’t care about the Master’s orders.
All that mattered was that my sandals were off, my armor was loose on my shoulders, and my belly was full of stew. After all, there weren’t many of us left to eat the food we’d started with. There seemed no sense in dying hungry.
“It’s ten days home,” a soldier murmured across the dying campfire. “Which means if we leave tomorrow, one of us will survive.”
I looked at the other men. Five of us were hunkered in the scrub. We were sulking by the fire, our gazes inky in the night. The other six were asleep in two tents atop a nearby hill. I could see the lights of their fires dying the same as ours. The flames were red, just like the moon.
There was no wind that night. Only the scarlet light on the silent earth.
“So,” Aios grumped on the fire’s far side, “the one who makes it back home…he gets to die on the Master’s gallows ‘stead of out here in the grass.”
I listened while the argument began.
“We don’t know the others are dead,” Nikolas grunted. “Could be they’re hiding. Could be they’re lost in the hills somewhere.”
Nikolas wasn’t wrong, not exactly. We’d never actually found any of the bodies. But Aios knew better. So did I. Not that I said anything.
“As likely missing as swimming on the moon.” Aios glanced skyward. “They’re all dead and you know it.”
Philok, biggest of our cadre, rolled his massive shoulders. Tanned to gold by the sun, still packed into his hard leather hauberk, he was the only one of us who still looked fierce.
If any of us survive, I thought, it’ll be him.
“I want it to come,” Philok rumbled. “Let it skulk out of the darkness. I’ve a spear for it. There’ll be no more of our bones. Only its.”
It was wishful thinking, and we all knew it. Aios shook his head. Nikolas just looked afraid. Leuk peered over the fire, moonlight in his eyes, and went back to eating from his wooden bowl. He never talked, our Leuk. He was even quieter than me.
“Spears don’t kill ghosts,” murmured Aios.
“Mine might.” Philok glared.
Our huge friend had a point. His spear, a man and a half tall, leaned on a boulder near the fire. Its haft was as thick as most men’s forearms, its tip catching the moonlight just so. I’d seen Phi skewer a boar with it once. It’d split the poor, squealing thing in two.
But our quarry wasn’t a boar. It didn’t squeal. It didn’t die.
All it did was take the living away. And never bring them back.
The men argued more. They’d done the same every night for weeks. But by now no one bothered to get truly angry. We all figured if we started killing each other, it’d only make our quarry’s work easier.
Easy enough for the Ghoul already, I thought.
I rubbed my feet one last time and went to sleep.
* * *
It had started ages ago, this problem of ours.
It’d begun before I’d been born. Before the Master’s great-grandfather had been born.
Before any of us.
Back then, before the Citadel, before all the pale stone cities had sprung up along the coast, it had been a better world. At least, that’s the yarn our elders spun around the hearths at night. And so that’s the tale we believed.
‘A fine, quiet realm,’ they used to say. ‘Green pastures, hillocks teeming with olive trees, golden sun shining on endless vineyards.’
‘And no Ghoul.’
I’d never cared about the stories. Not as a boy, anyhow. In the Citadel, home of the Master, there’d never been any ghosts. The clap of hard sandals on marble streets had been our music, not the howls of mothers who’d lost their sons or or husbands whose wives had never come home. The stories we cared about had been of wars fought and won, of islands conquered, and of white-sand shores. We dreamed of golden coins in our pockets and raven beauties that would one day be ours if we served with honor in the Master’s guard.
We’d known nothing about the Ghoul.
And our lives had been better for it.
* * *
In the morning we woke to shouts again.
“It’s Saulos!” I heard Nikolas scream. “How? He slept in his armor! He’s gone, but his breastplate’s still here!”
“Where were you?” one of the hill-camp soldiers cursed another. “You were on watch! You were supposed to be guarding us!”
“I was on guard! I—”
Amid their shouts, I clawed away sleep’s last cobwebs and sat up beneath the dawning sun. It was hot already, and I was tired despite having slept so well. To defend against the Ghoul’s nightly visits, the others had taken to sleeping for only an hour or two at a time, if at all. Not me. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to be awake when death came for me, and so I’d almost always slept full nights…and weathered my nightmares alone.
I shambled up the hill. My sword pattered against my outer thigh, and the straps of my armor dangled without care. A year ago, I’d been a fresh recruit in the Master’s service, a newly-minted member of his honored guard.
And now what am I?
I came to Saulos’ empty tent. It was just as the others had shouted. There lay his armor, all red leather and polished steel. Saulos had been a captain. His armor was better than ours, or at least prettier. It didn’t much matter. It lay on the ground, almost untouched. It looked like someone had snipped the straps off and carried him away while he was sleeping. There wasn’t even any blood.
As I stood there, the others fell into their ritual panic. Some muttered prayers. Others shouted that we should return to the Citadel at once. Both cries were familiar. Neither really mattered.
“One of us alive is better than nothing!” cried a soldier whose name I hadn’t bothered to learn.
“The hell it is!” argued Aios. “You think the Master will understand when one man marches up and explains ninety-nine of his brothers are dead? He’ll smile, name the survivor a deserter, and hang his body over the cliffs for the gulls to laugh at.”
Aios was right. If there was one truly hard thing about life in the Citadel, it was the Master’s law. He didn’t suffer failure, not from his fabled soldiers. If our hundred never came home, it wouldn’t matter. He’d have a feast, sacrifice a few bulls, and send out two-hundred more men.
Though somehow I knew the result would be the same.
The men argued. It got vicious. Someone cursed the Master’s name. Someone else shoved Nikolas in the dirt. Philok shook his spear, and everyone finally fell silent.
I don’t know why I stopped watching and started talking.
Might’ve ended better had I not.
“There’s one place we haven’t looked,” I chimed in.
“Where? What place?” grunted Philok.
“The lighthouse. It’s only a day south.”
“Why there?” spat Aios. “It’s just one cripple in a rotten tower. He’s probably a hundred days dead. Besides, the lighthouse doesn’t work. Doesn’t need to. Ships don’t use that route anymore. They come up the river.”
“He’s right.” Nikolas stood and dusted off his armor. “We’re trying to help the villagers, not some lonely old cod stuck in a tower.”
They were right, of course. We’d not help anyone by marching down to the sea and visiting one old man in his tower. The lighthouse keeper didn’t even have a family. Never had, not that we knew of. Even if he was still alive, we’d not do the countryside any favors by rescuing him.
But that wasn’t my point. Maybe it should’ve been, but it wasn’t.
“Nikolas, you still have the map?” I blurted.
“Aye,” he said.
“Well. Fetch it.”
He did. In moments he marched down the hill and back up. The others stared at me like I’d just slapped the sun out of the sky. Wouldn’t have been the worst thing, considering how hot it was.
Nikolas brought me the map. It was big, the Master’s chart, and I unfurled it on the hillside while several others knelt beside me.
“There.” I pointed to a village by the sea. Veni, jewel of the south, sat on a beautiful beach right in the map’s center. It was a new city, paid for by the Master’s coin. We’d been there a month prior. None of us had wanted to leave. Until the villagers had made us.
“So it’s Veni. What about it?” said Aios.
I dragged my finger eastward along the map. I stopped at a nameless black ink-blot. It was the lighthouse. I tapped it twice.
“We’ve been to every other village, tower, and crumbling old fort along the sea. But not the lighthouse. Not there.”
No one could disagree with that. We’d marched to dozens of hamlets, fisherman’s wharves, and sad little huts along the coast. All of them had lost people over the years. By the dates they’d given us, we’d figured it out. One person had gone missing every night. Just one, never more, never fewer.
For hundreds of years.
And we’d only just now worked up the courage to try to stop it.
“The lighthouse,” I said, “it’s right in the middle of it all.”
I traced a circle with my finger. All the places that had lost people, all of them, lay within it. And in the circle’s center sat the lighthouse.
The men stared for several moments. I figured Aios would be the first to argue. He was, after all, the smartest of us. If anyone ever forgot it, he was always sure to remind them.
“Now just you wait.” Aios didn’t disappoint. “The Master knew about the lighthouse. He sent men last year to scour the old tower up and down. They didn’t find a thing.”
“Aye,” agreed Philok. “I remember. That’s what started this whole mess. While our soldiers were in the lighthouse, people were disappearing in cities three and four days away. That’s when the Master decided to start the hunt.”
I closed my eyes. I knew what I wanted to say, just not how to say it.
“What if the Ghoul doesn’t come home every night?” I finally exhaled.
“So it goes out on rounds?” Aios let out a morbid laugh.
“Maybe so,” I countered. “But it still has to have a lair, right? A place to retreat? What if it’s the lighthouse?”
“Nice theory, but after all these years the lighthouse would be stuffed with bones a thousand men high,” said Aios. “The Master’s men would’ve noticed, I think.”
“Or they’d have found the bodies along the way,” murmured Nikolas.
And they’ve never found any of the missing, I thought.
They’re right. I’m stupid to bring it up.
But wait. There was something else I wanted to say.
Maybe it’d been a dream. Maybe something else. If the morning hadn’t been so damnably hot, chances are my brain wouldn’t have cooked and I’d have never remembered it.
What was it I’d thought of?
Was it a nightmare I’d had?
A memory of my childhood?
“I think I was born out here,” I said.
“What?” Aios made a face.
Several of the other soldiers stood and left. I knew what they thought. They thought I was a fool wasting their time. I didn’t blame them. I heard them talk about fleeing home to the Citadel. They didn’t want anything to do with the map or hunting the Ghoul. They wanted to be home in their beds.
But Aios, Philok, Leuk, and Nikolas remained.
“I was born out here,” I continued. “Not in Veni. But close. It was near the sea. I remember my mother. I think I do, anyway. And I remember the rocks. And the lighthouse.”
“No you don’t,” spat Aios. “You were born in the Citadel, same as us. It’s just another of your dreams.”
“What if—” I started.
“I wasn’t born in the Citadel either.” Philok came to my rescue. “I’m from the mountains. My father was dying, so they brought me down to the Master’s fortress. My family figured I’d never have a life unless I served in the guard.”
Aios looked stunned. I nodded at Philok, grateful.
“I remember walking on the shore.” I stared off into the sky. “My mother sent me off to play while she worked. At least, I think she did. One day, I wandered near the lighthouse. I remember it. It was above me. Way above. And I remember seeing something in the cliffs beneath it. Was it holes? Breaks? Cracks in the rock?”
“Holes?” Aios shook his head.
“I think he means caves,” said Nikolas.
I looked at the three of them. They’d been my brothers for the last year. They knew I didn’t talk much, but when I did, I meant what I said.
“That’s right.” My eyes were wide. “Caves.”
It hadn’t been a dream.
I’d just remembered a part of my childhood.
And my mother, who’d I been made to forget.
* * *
Clouds gathered over the sea. Greys and blues smoldered in the sky, darker than the water. The hour was only late afternoon, yet the world looked ready for twilight.
We were terrified.
We’d every right to be.
The five of us mounted a last hill and caught sight of the distant lighthouse. It was an old, old thing, its stones bleached skeleton-white. It’d been built long before the Master’s time, long before any of us. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the Ghoul’s prey the lighthouse had watched vanish.
One every night.
Hundreds of years.
I couldn’t make the numbers work in my head.
We’d walked all day. Ever since we’d split up from the other soldiers, I hadn’t said a thing. Phi, Aios, Nikolas, and Leuk had decided to join me. The others had chosen to go back to the Citadel and face the Master’s wrath.
Our group hadn’t lost anyone last night.
And so we all knew what had happened.
“I hope it took Diok,” chuffed Aios as we walked down the hill and into the fields between us and the lighthouse. “Never liked that prick.”
Nikolas sighed, “Maybe it’ll follow them instead of us. That’ll give us what…three more days?”
“Maybe.” Philok’s knuckles were white around his spear. “But what if there’s more than one Ghoul?”
None of us had ever thought of that before.
We shivered the notion away and kept walking.
The five of us drew nearer the lighthouse. Switches of dry grass skirled at our waists, dancing wildly in the wind. My feet hurt again. My ankles, too. The grass had nicked me in a hundred little places. If the Ghoul didn’t kill me, I half-believed the fields might drown me.
At least it’s not hot anymore.
By the time we came to the cliff, upon which the lighthouse stood tall and formidable, the rain began. The wind hit us and the storm’s droplets beaded on our sunburned skin. I looked my companions over. To a man, we savored standing in the rain. It was an island of peace in a world of despair.
“Are we going in?” Nikolas nodded.
“The lighthouse?” Aios smirked. “Why should we? We know what’s in there. Nothing.”
“Might be wise to weather the storm in there,” Philok held his huge palm open to catch the rain.
Aios looked annoyed. But then again, he always did.
I knocked at the lighthouse door. The oak plank must’ve been two-hundred years old. It felt soft as soap beneath my knuckles. I rapped it ten times before Philok pushed me aside and kicked the thing in. I’d hoped the old man would answer. But the moment Nikolas fired a torch and walked into the great round room beyond the door, we knew the lighthouse had gone untended for months.
“Think he died all alone in here? Somewhere up there near the top?” Aios’s voice echoed in the void.
“Maybe the Ghoul got him,” said Philok.
“Why would it bother?” Aios cracked. “Old man was damn near a hundred. Pointless to kill what’s already dead.”
Except the Ghoul doesn’t care, I almost said. He takes children. Pregnant women. Venerable old men.
We used pieces of the broken door to light a fire. With it blazing, we peeled off our armor and hunkered down in the shadows. The rain shattered the world beyond the lighthouse walls, harder than anything I’d ever heard. It didn’t feel natural. Bitter breezes flew into the windows, and stray drops of water swirled into the room, stinging our shoulders. No matter where I sat, the rain found me. I finally settled on the spot farthest from the fire. Leuk, stoic and silent, shook his wet hair when he sat down beside me.
“Maybe you were right.” Aios smirked at me while cooking up a pot of stew. “This place is creepy. I hate it. That old man’s body is probably up those stairs. The Ghoul’s probably waitin’ for us.”
“How do you suppose we kill it? I mean really, really kill it,” asked Nikolas.
“The Ghoul?” Philok rubbed his forehead.
“No, the fucking rain,” quipped Aios. “Of course he means the Ghoul.”
Philok didn’t flinch. “This spear.” He flicked the blade of his man-and-a-half tall weapon. “Or Costas’ sword. Or Leuk’s daggers. Doesn’t matter. Everything dies.”
“Does it?” Nikolas looked afraid again. “It’s been a few hundred years, right? It should’ve been dead by now. What if it can’t die? What if it’s…forever?”
Philok thought about it for a moment, and then huffed. “There’s probably no such thing as the Ghoul. It’s probably a family of murderers. Might be they’ve passed down the family secret over the generations. Fathers teaching sons…hell…mothers teaching daughters. ‘Here’s how best to kill a man, lassie,’ they tell the little ones. ‘A drug in his wine to make him sleep, then a knife between his ribs. No one’ll be the wiser. Not even the Master.’”
No one laughed except Aios.
I might’ve known.
We set up a watch. I went first, else I’d never have woken for second shift. The rain raged as I tightened my armor and laid my sword atop my thighs. I probably should’ve been afraid. As it turned out, I’d little energy left for fear.
I didn’t remember falling asleep that eve. I suffered no dreams, no nightmares. One moment I was sitting beside the fire, the mist collecting on my shoulders.
And when I woke, Nikolas was gone.
The others were still dozing. It’d been Aios’s turn to watch, but he was curled up beside the long-dead fire, looking little different than a sleeping boy. Dawn’s first glow crept into the high windows. In a pool of soft light lay Nikolas’s armor, his blanket, and his bowl.
And his sword, still in its scabbard.
If I shout, it’ll go like it always does, I thought.
I’ll be quiet.
I knelt beside the patch of stone Nikolas had slept on. He’d lain there for some time, it appeared. The mist had gathered all around him, but his blanket was dry. I touched the brittle fabric, and in the cold light examined it.
Almost like he left willingly.
And then there was his armor. The straps were sliced clean through, the same as scissors through twine. Looking at the hunk of leather and steel, I wasn’t sure why we even bothered with armor anymore. The Ghoul wasn’t afraid of it.
The Ghoul wasn’t afraid of anything.
I looked at my hand. My knuckles were bloodless. I realized I was squeezing my sword.
For all the good our weapons do.
I woke Philok first. He came to with a jolt, seizing my throat in his massive hand.
“Phi—” I coughed.
He let go of me. As I knelt there gasping, something in my eyes gave the truth away.
“Who’s gone?” he rumbled.
“Niko.” I sagged.
“No blood? No one heard him?”
“Nothing.” I rubbed my neck. “It’s morning now. He’s only been missing for a little while.”
We woke the others. For once, there was no panic. Leuk said nothing. He looked stoic as ever, no different than if he’d slept in his bunk at the Citadel. Frowning, Aios kicked at Nikolas’s things and glared at the rest of us, but kept his curses beneath his breath. This was what it had come to. We were dying one by one, and we hardly even minded anymore.
After a time, Philok dropped a helmet on his head, shouldered his spear, and marched to the bottom of the stairs that led to the lighthouse’s top. The weathered stone stairwell twisted up through a gaping hole in the ceiling. No sunlight spilled down from above. The inky darkness of the lighthouse’s hollow heart oozed down onto Philok’s face.
“I’m going up there,” he grunted.
I expected an argument. But Aios plucked up Niko’s sword, unsheathed his own, and nodded at Philok with both blades in hand. “I’m coming with you,” he said.
Leuk and I had no other choice.
With Philok in front and Leuk in the rear, the four of us stalked up the stairs. We emerged into the void above the room we’d slept in, and we saw slender shafts of light carving pallid lines into the darkness. The windows on the lighthouse’s sides were shuttered. The climb to the tower top would be done mostly in shadow.
Step by step, we marched. The lighthouse felt a thousand steps high. The musty air filled our lungs, while plumes of dust from our footfalls floated the same as stars at midnight. We wound our way up through the cold emptiness, at last arriving at the door to the lighthouse’s top. None of us knew what to expect. I held my sword with no more confidence than when I’d first set foot in the Master’s training garden.
“If anything’s on the other side,” Phi whispered, “kill it. Don’t stop cutting until your blades are down to nubs.”
We all nodded. Aios cracked a wicked smirk. Philok shouldered the door with all his might, breaking the door to pieces.
The sunlight poured over us.
We invaded the lighthouse’s top room. We were an army, the four of us, a cloud of fear and steel. Philok roared when he went in, and Aios growled. Leuk and I didn’t make a sound, but we were ready. Our blades were as sharp as any in the world. And they should’ve been, for we’d never used them.
But there was nothing in the room.
No sea of bones or carpet of skin.
Philok looked disappointed. Halting in the sunlight, he rapped the butt of his spear on the floor and glared at everything. As for me, I couldn’t help but be relieved. I let my sword sag and my shoulders droop. After all, the sunlight in the tower’s top was warm and soothing. It swam over me, gliding in from each of thirty windows, sparkling on the giant glass lens in the room’s center.
I figured it was the last time I’d ever feel warm.
No. I didn’t figure. I knew.
“It wasn’t ever up here,” cursed Aios. “We’re idiots.”
“We still had to check,” argued Philok.
“Yes…well.” Aios shook his head. “We checked. And nothing. So now what?”
“Costas’s caves,” said Philok.
I could tell Aios had expected Phi to say it. “No. Not yet,” he grumbled. “Breakfast first.”
Too soon, we abandoned the warmth of the lighthouse’s top. I felt sad to leave so quickly. Halfway down into the dark, I realized I’d never even taken the chance to look out across the sea.
At the bottom, Aios prepared breakfast for us. It was hard tack and fried cakes softened with hot water, same as most mornings. It didn’t much matter. Cooking had always calmed Aios, so we never complained.
With only a rotten beam of lighthouse timber to burn, Aios’ kindling of choice that morn was Nikolas’s satchel. Nikolas didn’t need it, after all. But just as Aios snared the leather bag and began cutting it to shreds with his knife, I stopped him.
“Wait,” I said, “Something’s in there.”
Aios made a face. “It’s just a book. Tear out the pages. It’ll save us from sending Leuk out to collect things to burn.”
“No…” I grabbed the bag and pulled the book out. “Just use the satchel. Let me keep this. I want to see what Niko wrote.”
Aios squeezed his eyes shut. He looked like he wanted to kill me. “Fine,” he muttered. “But remember; the dead can’t read.”
While Aios cooked and Philok rummaged through the rest of Niko’s things, I sat in a pool of sunlight and cracked the book open. It was well-made, a far finer thing than Nikolas had any right to possess. I couldn’t believe that with all my hours of watching, I’d never seen him with it. And then, when Philok grunted that he’d found a quill and a vial of ink, it hit me. I understood.
Nikolas had been keeping a journal.
The book has the Master’s mark on it.
Niko had always been a lazy soldier.
But he’d learned to write far sooner than the rest of us.
The rest of the world fell away, and soon it was just me and the journal. I read dozens of entries. Nikolas had done his work well. He’d catalogued how much food we’d had, our movements beyond the Citadel, the people we’d questioned, and the names and ranks of the soldiers that had vanished. He’d even written the dates they’d gone missing.
I skimmed across as much as I could. Most of it was trivial, but the deeper I read, the more I saw of Niko’s personal comments.
And the more I was filled with dread.
He’d written things like:
One soldier from Camp B gone in the night. Left his armor and sword. No blood. Same night: A man from Camp C swore he saw a shadow moving. The camps: an hour apart.
Rained hard last eve. Saulos’s tent-mate was taken. Grigora says he found tracks in the mud. Not one set, but two. Not sandal prints. Bare feet.
Another gone last night. Bibi – Captain, 1st Company. But Camp D, upon returning from the city, says that Veni lost someone that same eve. It’s always been one a night. But maybe this was more.
Does it mean two Ghouls?
Occurred to me that we should look beyond our borders. Ask if others have vanished on the same dates. I know we can’t – they’re our enemies in the North and West, but still.
More than two Ghouls?
Why is it hunting only soldiers now?
Does it know we’re coming?
Will it stop?
I closed the cover. I couldn’t read any more. Aios dropped a wooden bowl in my lap and snorted. “Boring read?” he chuffed. “Books are for scholars, Cos. Now give it over. We’ll use it to make a fire for tonight’s dinner.”
“No.” I pushed his hand away. “I’m going to finish it.”
“Yes. Reading it. And writing it.”
“Why? You’ll be dead soon.”
“I know, but—”
“Fine. Keep the damn thing. Whatever helps you die better.”
I ate in silence. I say silence even though Aios talked the entire time. He rambled about how our lives had become meaningless, how our deaths wouldn’t matter because we had no children, no lands, and no possessions beyond our weapons and armor. Maybe it was true. Maybe we were dead men no matter what we did. But when he said meaningless, it didn’t sit right with me. Whether the Ghoul killed us for sport or the Master hung us for being failures, it seemed wrong to just let it happen.
I have to make it meaningful, I thought.
The journal. I’ll finish it.
Maybe someone will find it.
After breakfast, a deep quiet overtook the four of us. There was no fleeing for the Citadel now, we knew. Unless the Ghoul abandoned his hunt, we’d all be dead within eight days. And so we sat there for a time, sharpening our swords needlessly. I like to think we dwelled on the purpose of our lives, the good things we’d seen, and all the glory we’d hoped for.
But I knew better.
Philok dreams of destroying the Ghoul. Of being heroic.
Aios dreams of how he’d have done it if he were the Master.
Leuk dreams of the life he wanted. Of what might’ve been had he finished his twenty years of service.
And what do I dream of?
And then it ended. Philok stood, spear in hand, and looked at us. We didn’t say anything to him. We gathered our swords, strapped on our armor, and doused the fire. In a short, ragged line, we trailed Phi out into the sunlight.
And for all the glamour of the great blue sky, we felt the shadow upon us.
We left the lighthouse and walked to the cliff’s edge. As the tower fell behind us, I looked over my shoulder at it. The edifice was white as death. Its sides were smooth and ashen, its outer walls seamless. The old thing looked like it had sprouted right out of the cliffs. I was glad to be rid of it. I don’t know why, but I promised myself I’d write about it in Niko’s journal.
“Costas.” Aios’ voice pulled me out my daydream. “Wake the hell up. We can’t get down from here. See?”
I gazed over the cliffs and onto the dark ocean. The water boiled over the shore far below, the waves black and foaming. I imagined if one of us fell over the edge, we could’ve counted to ten before we hit the rocks. Aios was right. From our vantage, there was no way to reach the shore.
Or the caves.
“We’ll have to go—” I began.
“To Veni,” Philok grunted.
In hindsight, I should’ve suggested we find another way down. A quicker way.
But Veni it was.
That eve, tired and sweating, we descended out of the cliffs. Veni lay before us, sprawling and fresh beneath the violet sunset. It wasn’t a big city, but it was still beautiful at twilight. Strands of hanging lamps lit its rooftops the same as the stars. The waves were too rough for sailing, but I could see the masts stark against the sky, and I could hear the people’s laughter. I envied them. But I knew as soon as we soldiers were gone, the Ghoul would go back to hunting at random.
Some from the countryside.
And some from Veni.
“We shouldn’t go in there,” I said to the others.
“Why not?” Aios stared at me.
“We’re bad luck. We’re hunted men. Veni knows us. Even if they don’t kick us out, we’ll not be welcome.”
“The Master’s soldiers can’t be refused,” Aios argued. “If they deny us, it’s under pain of death.”
I looked down at the dirt path leading into the city. Sandy scrub and lonely trees pocked the twilit way. The sky was cloudless; no rain threatened us. There were a thousand places we could camp if we liked.
“I just don’t think we should,” I said. “The city can’t protect us. No one can.”
Aios looked ready to split me in half. “Fine. We’ll stay the night out here,” he said. “In the sand. In the dirt. If the Ghoul comes, you’re first.”
I almost hoped so. Not because I wanted to die. But because I wanted to know.
Beneath the endless stars, we made our silent camp. No one from Veni noticed us. Or if they did, they didn’t care. I’d rarely seen a night sky so bright as that eve. A million white pinpricks in a perfect black sheet, it seemed. Leuk and I stared at it for a long, long while.
By the dying campfire, I wrote my first words in Niko’s journal:
We make for caves east of Veni. Four of us left: Costas, Philok, Leuk, and Aios.
We don’t hope to find anything. We’re going anyway. If nothing’s there, it’s my (Costas’) fault. I convinced them to do this by a feeling in my gut.
And there’s something else.
I think the lighthouse is made of bones.
I closed the journal. I needed to focus. We’d agreed to do a double watch: Leuk and I first, then Phi and Aios.
I worried I’d fall asleep.
But it was Aios who drifted off during his watch.
And Philok who went missing.
I woke with Aios’ boot in my ribs. It hurt. I squinted into the early sunlight and saw him standing over me. He scowled, Phi’s spear shaking in his grasp. He’s gone mad, I thought. He’s going to save the Ghoul some trouble and run me through. But he didn’t. He just glowered and spat in the sand.
“Get up,” he said.
“The caves. Take us now. Let’s finish this.”
“It’s fine if nothing’s there. I won’t blame you. I might kill you, but I won’t blame you.”
We didn’t eat breakfast. We didn’t mourn Philok. Walking ahead of Aios and his spear, Leuk and I led the way down to the shore. At the ocean, a lone child saw us marching. He stood in the foamy shallows, throwing rocks into the water. He smiled at us, watching us long enough to see us pass into the shadow of a stark and terrible cliff. I thought it strange to see the boy all alone. He reminded me of myself, of all the mornings I must’ve spent doing the same as he.
We walked into the shadows. And he was gone.
“I dreamed last night,” I said as I walked on the narrow strip of sand between the ocean and the cliff.
“No one cares,” answered Aios.
“I heard a woman laughing.” I ignored him. “She whispered something in my ear. She had dark hair. She was beautiful. I didn’t want to wake up, even with you kicking me.”
“A shame you’ll never meet her,” he mocked.
Maybe I will, I wanted to say.
We marched. Was it for many hours? Or much less? I couldn’t have said. The ocean crashed against the rocks and swirled at our knees, drowning out all the world’s sounds. Guarded by the mighty cliff, the sunlight never quite reached us. But the shadows and the cold couldn’t slow me. I slogged on, convinced I was going to my doom, certain I still had some part to play.
This is what madness feels like, I thought. All these years of not much talking, and now the loudest voice is in my head.
And then we came to it, a great dark hole in the cliff wall. The ocean roared in and out of it, and the rocks like teeth crowned its top and sides. Twenty men standing side-by-side could’ve marched into the cavern’s mouth.
And all of them would be eaten.
“Fucking lovely.” Aios marched past me. He still had Phi’s spear in his grasp, and he was wet up to his chest in seawater. The salt stuck to him, and us, in powdery white patches. We were miserable. We hadn’t eaten all day.
“Got a lantern?” he spat at Leuk. Leuk shook his head.
“Torches,” I murmured. “Just three.”
“We’ve got some daylight left.” Aios pointed Phi’s spear into the darkness. “Let’s go kill this thing. Just think…we’ll be heroes.”
I fired a torch, and in we went.
We were fifty steps deep when I realized what we’d gotten ourselves into. The ocean’s rush faded at our backs, and the absence of light swallowed us. I squinted in the dark and saw other tunnels, black branches trailing into the underworld. I remembered a story someone had once told me about such places, and why no one should ever go into them.
“Four different tunnels.” Aios saw them, too. “Wonder how deep they go.”
I wished Philok had still been alive. He’d have known which tunnel to choose.
“That one’s half underwater.” Aios nodded at the farthest tunnel. The black hole gazed back at us, smiling as if aware of our fear.
“So we’re going into this one.” Aios pointed his spear at the nearest cave. It sat above us, its archway crusted in ancient limestone. A pile of broken shells sat beneath its mouth, deposited by the sea. It was the narrowest of the four.
And the darkest.
Leuk and I didn’t argue. We clambered up the shells ahead of Aios. At the tunnel’s mouth, I held the torch into the darkness and saw that it went down. Way down. Aios climbed up beside me, snared the torch from my grasp, and smirked at me as he marched straight into the blackness. “Three men wide,” he laughed at us. “It’s perfect. Not scared, are you?”
We were, but it didn’t matter.
Down, down we went into the cave. I couldn’t believe any place in the world could be so dark. The ocean’s crash fell away to nothing. The only sounds were the torch’s snaps and our rotten boots squelching on the stone.
We walked for what felt like an hour. Then two. The tunnel never narrowed, never widened. The air tasted stale. White powder sloughed off the walls wherever we touched, and our boots left footprints in places no other men had ever been. I was sure night had fallen outside, but I’d have given anything to be back out there, to let the Ghoul steal me from sleep instead of moldering away after a long, slow walk to the world’s bottom.
Our first torch died. We lit another. Moments later, we slunk out of the tunnel and into an unthinkably vast grotto. It was truly massive, the cavern we’d found. Our torch felt like a candle in the great darkness. Far above, a lone shaft of moonlight cut through a hole in the ceiling and pooled in the grotto’s center.
“What is this place?” I whispered.
“A cave. Big as Veni.” Aios’ gaze was wide and black. “A giant, empty coffin.”
“No. Not empty,” I observed.
I’d seen caves before. In the mountains east of the Citadel, we’d walked through tunnels and grottos. They’d had growths in them, daggers of lime and ancient rock. There had been beauty in those caves, elegance in the way nature had carved them.
But the shapes in this cave were different.
They were sculptures.
Something had made them.
We didn’t say a word. We were too scared to talk, and too weary. Wandering out into the pool of moonlight, we gazed at the many hundreds of pale, ghostly statues standing on the grotto’s floor. They were graven of white stone, and in my heart I knew they were made of the same stuff as the lighthouse.
Most of the statues were of people. We glimpsed beautiful maidens holding decanters. We saw smiling children, some holding hands and standing in great rings, others all alone. As we walked through the pale, silent gallery of thousands, we saw old men and venerable ladies, soldiers and wealthy lords, beggars, fishermen, and stoic hunters. The sculptures were beautiful in a way. Whoever, or whatever had carved them had a talent like no other.
Somewhere in the midst of it all, Leuk tapped me on the shoulder. I looked back and saw horror in his eyes.
“What is it?” I felt myself turn pale.
He pointed at a row of sculptures removed from the rest. I took Aios’ torch and forged into the dark. We came to it, the part of the cavern struck least by the moonlight, and we stood there with our mouths open.
“Monsters,” I exhaled.
“Demons,” we heard Aios whisper.
The sculptures in the shadows were not of men or maidens, children or village elders. They were of monsters, malevolent and skeletal, with talons in place of hands, pale knives instead of teeth, and faces made of nightmares. Some had horns. Others had tails. All of them had strange writing on their skin, words and sigils from a language none of us knew. But the true terror lay in their empty eye sockets, which were huge and full of evil.
As I stood there, breathing not at all, I believed in my heart these statues mimicked creatures that must have existed. “How else could they look so real?” I uttered without knowing it.
Aios pointed his spear at one of the horrific sculptures. He looked wild with fear, sweating and cursing beneath his breath.
“We have to destroy them,” he hissed.
“How?” I argued. “There’s thousands. Tens of thousands.”
“Fine. We have to find what made them. Find it and kill it.”
“What if…” I looked up at one of the horrors. “…what if these are what the Ghoul looks like?”
“All the more reason to kill it,” Aios growled.
I didn’t know where to start. My fingers went numb, and a chill crawled down my backbone. We stood there, the three of us, gazing into the grotto, stricken still with our terror.
It would’ve taken us hours to search the cave.
As it turned out, we didn’t have to look at all.
The first thing I heard was the patter of footsteps. Aios and Leuk heard it, too. Bare feet, I thought. But…small?
Aios waved his spear in the direction of the sound. He crouched, looking deadly and afraid. And then I saw it, a little boy darting between the sculptures. He was naked, pale as a fish, and faster than any child had a right to be. At ten paces, he climbed atop a sculpture and leapt from its head to another, smiling all the way.
I shouted. Leuk pulled his daggers out.
The boy. It’s him…the one throwing rocks on the beach, I thought.
We were too slow.
The boy leapt from atop the statue of a milkmaid. Aios spun, screamed, and jabbed with his spear. He missed. The boy landed on Aios’s head, and Aios started screaming. I don’t know what happened to me. As they struggled, I just stood there with my sword in one hand and the torch in the other. It was like I knew:
No matter what I do, we’re dead.
I never expected Leuk to be the brave one. Never. The boy clung to Aios’s head, clawing and snarling. As Aios squealed, Leuk stuck his dagger into the boy’s back. For a single breath I allowed myself to hope.
Leuk’s done it. I backed away. He’s saved us.
Three times Leuk plunged his dagger between the boy’s ribs, and three times he drew it out. If the boy felt anything, I saw no sign. No blood oozed from Leuk’s steel. The boy’s skin opened up like dry, cracked parchment, but knitted itself closed within moments. I didn’t understand how such a thing was possible. Nothing the Citadel’s wise men had told us lived up to the truth.
With one of Leuk’s daggers still in its back, the boy-Ghoul leapt off Aios’ head. He looked up at us, still smiling, as Aios collapsed dead on the cavern floor. I saw no blood. I couldn’t conceive how so small a creature had killed one of the Master’s warriors. I was paralyzed. My sword felt as though it were made of paper. My blood felt like water in the last moments before a long winter’s freeze.
The boy-Ghoul dragged Aios into the shadows. Leuk stared at me, and then went after them. I swallowed so hard it wounded my throat. I knew what was about to happen. Somehow, someway, I knew. And when I heard a second set of bare feet pattering, and when Leuk cried out his last breath, I sank to the floor in a puddle of my own fear. Perhaps it was cowardice. I knew my sword wouldn’t matter.
So I didn’t even try.
Many thousands of breaths went in and out of me. I closed my eyes, and the world went dark. I don’t know whether I slept, but at some point I lifted my head from the floor and gazed into the darkness. The second torch had burned out, and so I fired another. It burned beside me as I sat there, a red whisper in the vast darkness.
There was but one thing left to do.
I opened Niko’s journal, dipped the quill into the last of his ink, and wrote:
There is more than one Ghoul. There may be dozens. Or hundreds.
In a cave east of Veni, they hide.
They’ve been here for thousands of years, I believe.
They sculpt whatever they kill. Murder is their art.
They made the lighthouse.
They made the cliffs.
They took Aios and Leuk last night.
Tonight they’ll come for me.
The ink was almost gone. I only had a few strokes of Niko’s quill left. I don’t what made me do it, but I stood and walked to the most terrifying of the Ghoul’s demonic sculptures. I wasn’t as afraid anymore. I stuck the torch in the creature’s hand, held Niko’s journal before me, and started drawing the strange symbols and words graven into the sculpture’s skin. The words were old, old things. Maybe they were magic, if such a thing existed. I’d already shut the boy-Ghoul out of my mind, but for him to have survived Leuk’s knives meant something I’d never understand was at work.
I drew as many of the words and symbols as I could. When the ink ran out, I hunkered down and gazed into the dark. I left the book on my lap. I had the foolish hope someone would find it one day. The shaft of moonlight was far away, not enough to see by. I knew when my torch burned out, I’d die even if the Ghouls never came for me.
I didn’t have to wait long.
Within a hundred breaths, I heard their bare feet on the cavern’s cold floor. The boy came first. He was naked and ghostly pale. White powder, surely bone dust, coated his arms up to his elbows. His fingernails were crusted in dried blood. He’d been sculpting, I was sure.
My sword lay beside me. I didn’t bother to pick it up.
And then the second Ghoul came. I didn’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t her. Naked and beautiful, she walked into the yellow sphere of light made by my torch. Her hair was raven, her eyes pale blue lanterns. She wasn’t terrifying at all, at least not yet.
“I dreamed of you,” I said to her.
She didn’t flinch.
“Are all of these your work?” I regarded the thousands of sculpted dead.
She shook her head. Only some of them, she told me without words.
I sat, limp and sweating, and looked at them. The boy was her ward, her student, or maybe even her child. She tousled his hair, and a plume of bone powder drifted into the torchlight.
He’s the next in line, I thought.
She’s teaching him.
Just like another taught her.
Without moving any other part of my body, I extended my arm and set Niko’s journal into the nook between two sculptures’ feet. I left my sword where it lay. It occurred to me that I’d never once used it. Ever.
The Master would’ve stretched my neck just for that.
The boy-Ghoul started for me, but the woman held him back.
And then she showed me what she was.
With her fingers, she pried the flesh back from her cheeks. She tore like sackcloth; the sound alone made me sick. Next she peeled back the flesh from her arms and collarbone. She was one of them, one of the monsters so perfectly sculpted behind me. Her true fingers were boney claws, her real face a horror of white bone. She had no blood in her. She was all sinew and marrow, a skeleton wrapped in human skin.
I understood why none of the missing soldiers had cried out.
She’d probably never shown them the creature beneath her skin.
All they’d seen was a beautiful woman or a handsome little boy.
And when she killed me, it didn’t even hurt.
* * *
Obviously, this list will be super subjective.
With that in mind, I won’t comment on why I believe each cover to be among the best.
I’ll leave that to you.
And I’ll let the art speak for itself.
And then of course…there’s these.
You’re busy, right? Really busy.
Aren’t we all?
What you need are ways to squeeze in a little exercise into the gaps of ordinary life.
Here’s ten simple exercise solutions. Try a few or do them all.
1. Park in the Farthest Spot Available
It’s funny how people operate. The fittest guy or gal, even when driving to the gym for a vigorous workout, will usually pick the closest, most convenient parking spot. It makes zero sense when you think about it. Forget about driving around the mall or the airport trying to find the best spot. Park way, way out there, and burn some calories on your way in/out of wherever you’re going.
Another bonus to this tactic: never having to fight with other drivers over parking spots.
2. Take the Stairs Instead of the Elevator
Three floors up? What’s the problem? Bypass the herd waiting outside the elevator doors and sprint for the stairs. As far as time spent, taking the stairs will cost you…what? An extra 5 seconds per floor? Instead of standing idly inside a big metal box, you can stretch your legs out nicely.
Bonus: Carrying luggage while scaling the stairs.
3. Take the Stairs Two at a Time
Ever notice how close stairs are to one another? It’s almost like they were built to accommodate children and octogenarians. So why are you, a robust thirty or forty-something, taking them one at a time? Come on, man! Move those legs and climb at twice the speed!
Bonus: Taking stairs two at a time…while on an escalator
4. Do One Set of Pushups Every 20 Minutes (while doing household chores)
Stop. Drop. Give me twenty.
You’re doing laundry? Do a set of pushups after hitting ‘Wash’ on the machine. You’re waiting for pasta to boil on the stove? Do another set. You’re waiting for your computer to boot up? Drop to the floor and knock yet another set out. I’ve been doing this for years, and sometimes at day’s end I look back and realize I’ve banged out 500 pushups. You don’t have to do 500. Just do what suits you…while setting aside only a fraction of the time you would have for an actual trip to the gym.
Bonus: Set weekly pushup goals. Then shatter your own records.
5. Buy a Push Mower
Sometimes I peek out my front door and see my neighbor (who’s twenty years younger) riding around his tiny little yard on a $1,500 John Deere mower. And sometimes I see my other neighbor, a former marine, striding slowly behind his self-propelled mower. First of all, these machines cost way more than a typical walk-behind mower. And second of all, these guys are mowing outside on a beautiful summer day…somehow getting no exercise at all. You can get a push mower for $150-$300. Slap on a mulcher (bagging your grass will slow you down) and get going! Studies show that with a medium-sized lawn, you can walk 1-2 miles while mowing.
We have another word for all that walking: exercise
6. While Playing Video Games, Ride a Stationary Bike
This one is among my favorites. I’m a video game nut (see this and this) and yet there’s possibly no activity in the world that’ll kill fitness quite like plopping on the sofa and not moving for hours on end. Solution? Buy a stationary bike and pump out the miles…while crushing your favorite games. I’ve found that the higher energy level the game requires, the faster you’ll tend to bike. Once, while playing Zelda – Breath of the Wild, I biked for two-and-a-half hours without really even noticing.
And afterward, I’d gotten both a gaming fix and a really satisfying workout.
Bonus: Play Mario Kart while on a bike and pretend you’re racing along with the game. Seriously. It works.
7. Take the Printer out of your Office
Humans are always striving to increase their level of convenience. But at what cost? This suggestion isn’t just about printers or other office hardware. It’s about purposely not obsessing about convenience. So you’ll have to get up and walk thirty steps every time you print something? Big deal. Just do it. So you’ll have to carry your laundry upstairs? I’m not sure I see the problem.
Force yourself to move. Get out of your chair. Savor every step you have to take.
8. Carry Hand-Baskets in the Store instead of using Shopping Carts
What’s that you say? A shopping cart with just six things inside? Nope. That’s hand-basket territory. You know what a hand-basket is, right? The little things with handles stacked just inside the grocery store entrance.
Bonus: If you must use a shopping cart, push it all the way back into the store rather than into the cart corral
9. Install a Chin-Up Bar in a Household Doorway
They don’t cost much. They’re surprisingly safe. And chin-ups are an awesome way to tone your shoulders and boost your core strength. My suggestion is this: install a bar in a doorway you pass through 5-6 times every day. And then…every single time you pass through that doorway…pump out 5-10 (or more, if you’re buff) chin-ups. Even if you can only do 1-2 chin-ups per pass, it’s fine. They’re quick, and it’s a fantastic exercise.
10. Walk Faster
No, don’t be a fast-walking robot. Just be swift. While taking a stroll at the park, pick up the pace a little. While watching the kids play at the park, walk brisk circuits around the playground. Slogging along through grocery stores, parks, and parking lots is the same as sitting in traffic. Get off the surface roads and onto the highway. Move those feet and get your heart-rate rising!
Bonus: On moving sidewalks, actually walk. (Most people just stand there and let the sidewalk float them into oblivion.)
You’ve started exercising your mind.
Everyone is a Philosopher
(They just don’t know it.)
It’s 8:30 PM, and I’m at a party in suburban hell.
I’m not sure what I was thinking when I said, “Yeah, I’m in.” I mean, I’m at least ten years older than everyone else here, probably more than that.
I’m also single. I’m dressed like a douche. I’m tired. And I’m the only one in the room not glued to his phone.
Yeah. That’s the truth. I’m in a house with twenty people, most of them strangers, and everyone except three little kids is nose-deep in their phone. I count four Xbox controllers lying dormant in front of a paused game on TV. I see plates of half-eaten food and abandoned drinks. Even the music, probably something-something by Justin Bieber, thumps a little quieter in the background.
It’s as if the Biebs himself is ashamed to be heard at a party at which no one is talking, flirting, or looking up from their phones.
I figure I have three choices:
Leave. It’s not as if anyone will notice.
Drink a ton. And then hope a beautiful woman walks in the room in time for me to make a horrible first impression.
Or option three: wake the zombies from their phone-induced slumber.
The way I see it, one and two are boring.
Option three is where it’s at.
In a room full of twenty-somethings, I clear my throat and crack the overwhelming silence. People I’ve never met look up as if to say, “Who the hell are you to distract me from Facebook?” It’s ok. I’m not shy. I’m running on four Krispy Kreme donuts and three Solo cups of liquid courage. There’s nothing in the universe capable of embarrassing me now.
“Anyone here ever heard of the train question?” I blurt out.
Five, maybe six people nod their heads. Everyone else looks confused.
“You know, the train question,” I continue. “If you pull the lever, a mother and her son get smacked by a runaway train – if you don’t pull the lever, five random strangers get run over by the same train. Anyone know what I’m talking about? Anyone?”
At first, only a few people in the room start mumbling. Sure, they’ve heard of the train question. It’s just that no one has asked them anything philosophical since…ever. In this case, it’s the party’s host and his wife who chime in. Yes, they’ve got answers. She says pull the lever because only two people will die. He says, “Nope. Not pulling it. If I divert the train, I’ve directly killed five people.”
The room doesn’t know it yet, but they’re hooked.
Everyone is a philosopher.
* * *
That was three years ago. The night turned out better than expected. People’s shells were broken. Phones were put away. Conversations – real conversations – happened.
And that’s what it’s all about, right?
Anymore, we spend so much of our time talking about weather, about news stories, politics and television shows, we don’t talk about life anymore. We pay attention to what other people are saying, and we miss out on our own stories.
Just under the surface, we’ve all got a story.
And it’s probably more interesting than we assume.
* * *
Dusk approaches. I’m feeling a little fat after devouring a dinner of pasta and bread with my little one, the G Man. In truth, all the food inside me is a good thing. Like pretty much everyone else, I operate better with a full belly. In this case, a little extra full.
Fatter philosophers are better philosophers.
I’m sitting in my house. It’s a small suburban bachelor pad, all mediocre art and empty wine bottles. Tonight, my drink of choice is a Hook & Ladder pinot noir. It doesn’t have the most nuanced flavor, but I’m a fan nonetheless. Not all that long ago, my favorite bartender Sam suggested I try it, and I was sold from sip number one. Sam’s the type of human I really like. She serves a mean drink, carries conversations better than anyone, and served me cake at her kid’s birthday party.
We should all have a good bartender in our lives.
We should all have a Sam.
Sam’s bar, which we’ll call the M, is more or less my haunt. I’m not sure if people have haunts anymore, and I’m doubly unsure whether most people know what a haunt is. What I am sure of is that I spend a lot of time at the M.
I’m quite literally the guy whose name everyone knows.
The guy who helps other patrons with drink selections.
And the guy who’d prefer to dine at the bar with strangers than at a table with friends.
It’s amongst strangers I thrive. And while plenty of people would disagree, it’s amongst strangers at bars the best conversations can be had. One never knows what kind of person might co-haunt one’s favorite bar. And when alcohol hits everyone’s bloodstream, one never knows what might happen.
In my experience, plenty.
If we exclude the obnoxious types and people who are deadly serious about not being spoken to, we’re still left with a huge population of interesting bar-hopping strangers.
There’s the hopeful loner, awaiting someone, anyone, with whom to strike up a conversation.
There’s talkers, the types who will happily invade your conversation and let you invade theirs.
And we’ll find friendly couples, storytellers, broken-hearted romantics, and slightly-too-tipsy people. Most are willing to offer way too much information about their personal lives.
They’re out there.
You just have to know how to spot them.
* * *
It’s sunny outside.
It’s the kind of morning of which I like to dream. Not cold, but not quite warm. No clouds. No wind. I can hear the birds and smell the honeysuckle. It’s perfect.
It’s enough to make me want to freeze time and wander the morning for a few thousand years.
I should be working, but I’m not. I’ve just finished publishing another pair of books, and I find myself slogging through a short story about which I’m only somewhat passionate.
Sometimes, when I hit a lull like this, I pick up my paintbrush and spread out a few shadows. Maybe a colorful tree. A mournful maiden. Or maybe something terrifying.
Not today. I’m not in the mood.
This is where I’m at:
Eaters of the Light, my sci-fi/romance/thriller series? It’s published.
My goal of finishing thirty canvas paintings at this point in the year? Exceeded.
The latest entry in my ridiculous ‘Reasons to Break Up’ trilogy? Slapped together and shipped.
It’s been a good year so far. But I want more.
Some people talk about creative exhaustion. About writer’s block. About procrastination, lack of direction, and boredom.
Nah. Forget all that.
I’ve got 99 problems, but none of ’em are those.
My cardinal sin? Setting reachable goals.
It’s like this. Some mountains in life are meant to be climbed. You say you want to save $1000 bucks for a vacation? Boom, you did it; now get in the car and head to the beach. Land a big promotion at work? Achieved. Need to step outside and mow your lawn? Nice, you’re finished…hopefully with a cool glass of bourbon awaiting you inside.
But artistic goals – are those really meant to be conquered? Of this, I’m not so sure. Is there ever a point at which an author sits down and says, ‘You know…I think I’m done. No more books. I’m just gonna drift away into the sunset .’ Do painters, sculptors, and photographers one day just set down their tools and declare their life’s work complete? I mean…maybe. Maybe some people can do it. Maybe the best of the best reach a point of contentedness, and afterward float away in the clouds with a satisfied smile on their faces.
But somehow I doubt it.
Last night, for the first time in forever, I didn’t create. My brushes sat in a Mason jar full of water, soaking up nothing. My new short story ‘Nadya the Deathless’ laid untouched on my century-old laptop. I didn’t draw. I didn’t write. I didn’t wander outside beneath the perfect stars to dream up a new and exhilarating story.
I just sat there in the gloom of my basement. With a bowl of Progresso soup. Vaguely watching a movie. Not really thinking, moving, or existing.
For a while, maybe an hour, I floated in the stillness. Near the end, a scary idea crept over me. I thought perhaps I’d made a grave error in setting goals that were too easy to achieve. ‘Aim low, and you’ll hit your target,’ I realized. ‘Shoot for the moon, and though you’ll never make it, you’ll get to die trying.’
I opened my eyes. The back door was open, and the moths fluttering inside to get at the room’s only lamp. My cats dozed beside me, savoring my rare moment of inactivity.
It was then I knew my low-goal setting hadn’t been some tragic thing.
I can make a new goal, I realized. Something lofty. Something impossible to reach.
Something I’ll be proud to die trying to do.
So let’s talk goals.
Quest to drop the One Ring into Mount Doom kind of goals.
Right now I’ve got thirty-two published books. My new goal – one-hundred.
Right now my painting store is stocked with one-hundred nine original canvas paintings. New goal – three-hundred.
Season one of Hollow Empire is finished. New goal – finish three full seasons.
This giant fantasy trilogy, the one I published five years ago, has begun to gather dust. New goal – sell one-thousand new copies…and write a sequel.
And my most ambitious goal, the one that’ll allow me to sniff retirement, is to sell one-million copies of this little tome. (Right now I’m only at thirteen-thousand copies sold.)
This should be fun.
It’s still sunny outside, although maybe a bit warmer now. And there’s just a few things more I want to share before I wander outside.
My art partner, Tahina Morrison, with whom I’ve created nearly one-hundred sculpted paintings, is leaving town. It was inevitable, this change. It’s humanity’s natural ebb and flow. As I sit in my little chair and think about the challenges that will arise in her absence, I can’t help but smile.
We did good work together, she and I.
We had a blast.
These are just a few of my favorite collaborative pieces. In Tahina’s absence, I realize my painting goals will be even more difficult to achieve.
So be it. Challenge accepted.
I think it’s probably time.
Time to open the door and step out into the sunlight.
Time to stop talking about goals and start realizing them.
Time to feed my cats.
Thanks to all my readers for sticking with me. Thanks to all the art collectors who’ve invested in me, and who happily stick my canvasses on their walls. And special thanks to Tahina and the G Man, without whom the last two years would’ve been infinitely less rewarding.
Goodbye for now.
I’ll be back.
* * *
Readers will want to check out this book here. Trust me…you’ll be happy you did.
And dark art lovers might appreciate this piece, which I created based on an actual skull sitting in my living room.
Let’s turn back the clock a few years.
…just for fun.
For argument’s sake, let’s say it’s 1999. Everyone’s prime concern is Y2K, and whether or not our computers are going to self-destruct on New Year’s Eve.
In other news, the human population on Earth has surpassed six-billion people. Two idiots just shot up Columbine High School. SpongeBob SquarePants has hit children’s faces everywhere. And J.K. Rowling just published Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
What a year, 1999.
Feels like centuries ago.
So about that J.K. Rowling Harry Potter book. How’d J.K. get so famous, anyway? Did she debut on Amazon with ten-thousand five-star reviews? Did Dumbledore himself hand-deliver her new book to readers across the world?
See, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban wasn’t a self-published book. J.K. (deservedly so) had a traditional publisher, just like pretty much every other author on the planet in 1999. Between a powerful marketing team and an already fervent fan-base, J.K.’s new book couldn’t fail. It wouldn’t have mattered if no one on the planet left her an Amazon review. Her success was all but guaranteed.
Here we are, two decades later.
Everything is different.
Back in 2007, the game changed. Amazon.com (you’ve heard of Amazon, right?) debuted a little something called Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP. What’s KDP, you ask? It’s a program that allows anyone to publish anything at any time. Writers who would never have come close to publishing a book suddenly had access to publish ALL their books. Instantly. The five companies who’d previously controlled nearly all the publishing in the world shivered in their boots. The market they’d cornered for decades had suddenly opened up.
…to everyone in the world.
And so began the flood. Authors, poets, and illustrators invaded KDP in force. At first, tens of thousands of new, self-published books hit Amazon. And then…millions more. Anyone who wanted to publish something, no matter the quality of their writing, had an easy outlet to push their novels onto the scene.
Sounds great, right? Freedom for authors everywhere! The creative masses, liberated!
Doesn’t KDP sound like the most amazing thing ever?
When the flood of new books hit the world, everything seemed great. Writers were no longer shackled to the five big traditional publishers. Thousands of fantastic new books landed atop the market…which never could’ve happened without KDP.
But along with thousands of good books came tens of thousands of really bad ones.
Poorly edited books.
Books with misleading descriptions.
Books with horrible art, lousy plots, and just plain crappy writing.
A new challenge arose. Readers who’d long been funneled into book-buying decisions by the big five publishing companies faced a whopping armada of new titles. “Which books are good?” they asked themselves. “How do I know if this epic sci-fi thriller is amazing…or total crap?? Which new authors are legit, and which ones are just here to make a quick profit???”
The answer lies in the stars…
Before Amazon, before KDP, the average reader would’ve almost never posted a book review. Reviews were something handled by professionals, most of whom worked for newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals. Readers’ only engagement with books was to buy them, read them, and maybe tell a friend or two about them. That’s it. Nothing more.
But it’s not 1999 any longer.
It’s not even 2007.
Nowadays, we’re in a new era. Self-published books outnumber traditionally published works. Thousands of new novels hit the web every single day. Many are sub-par, but many are just as good…in some cases even better…than what you’d find in bookstores around the world. And yet many of the best books by the most talented writers fall into the shadows. Why? Because no one reviews them. No one clicks the little ‘write a customer review?’ button.
No one cares.
So why should you?
Why should readers, having already paid for and read their book of choice, give any thought to posting a review for a book they enjoyed?
Like any product on Amazon, more reviews means a brighter spotlight.
In the case of a good book, a brighter spotlight means the author (of the book you just enjoyed) is more likely to produce additional good books.
Which is what we all want, right?
Without the marketing power of a traditional publishing house, the burden falls on the author to promote his or her own work.
And the biggest promotional tool available? The Amazon review system.
Even better, the average review takes 60 seconds or less to complete. Don’t believe me? Check this super-fast tutorial.
There’s even a handy tool to help readers decide how many stars to give.
It’s simple, really.
If readers want good books, it benefits them directly to leave honest reviews for what they read.
Otherwise, the market will continue to be invaded with sub-par, poorly-edited clutter.
…which no one will be able to distinguish from genuine, well-written books.
I’m a reader, too. And as a reader, I’m heading to Amazon to leave an honest review for every book I can remember reading.
And I’m doing it today.
I urge you to do the same, fellow book-lovers.
Get in there. Click a few stars. And move on with your lives.
I remember one Friday.
A smoking hot Friday in the dead of July.
A hazy Friday. A humid southeastern US Friday. A Friday that promised to be hotter than Lucifer’s jockstrap.
Most Fridays like this one, I’d have been busy in my workshop painting. Or writing. Or mashing buttons on my Xbox controller.
But this Friday was my first truly free day in a long time. My son was away at summer camp. I didn’t have any plans. Any lunch dates. Any ideas. Somehow, someway, none of my borderline-alcoholic buddies had rung me up for a long afternoon of pounding scotch and making fun of my non-existent dating life.
In short, I had no effing idea what to do.
I guess maybe I should’ve known it was going to be a different sort of day. I’d woken early – long before the crack of dawn. And I never wake up early. Bright-eyed and bursting with directionless energy, I’d trotted outside my tiny apartment and breathed the already-warm air.
I’ve been locked up in here too long, I thought.
It’s time for something different.
Flashback to a few years prior. A ex-girl of mine, a marathon runner, had mentioned a trail she liked to run. “In Suwanee,” she’d said. “Beautiful, wooded trail. Eight miles one way.” Back then I’d never cared much about running. I mean, I worked out and all, but usually in my garage. Or my attic. Or in an overpriced, sweat-scented gym. It’s not that I didn’t like the outdoors, just that I’d never much cared for sprinting along smoking hot sidewalks in the brutal Atlanta heat.
It hit me then.
I’d no idea why, but the idea of running bounced into my thoughts.
I remembered what my ex-girl had said. No, not that time she said I was an ‘real sh*thead.’ I remembered something else. The trail she’d talked about. The Suwanee Greenway. The place runners go to run when they don’t want to pound pavement.
And I realized I lived in Suwanee now. I’d just moved there. Not two weeks prior.
I gotta find this trail.
When I get ideas into my head, I go overboard. It’s either a fault, a virtue, or maybe both. Like that time I started a foam-sword fight club behind my house. Or joined an MMA gym and pounded my hands against heavy bags every day until they bled. So now, as I realized I might live near this fabled Suwanee running trail, a new idea took shape:
I want to run.
I crashed into my computer like a breaking Pacific wave. My fingers moved like the wind, my search terms as sharp as seagulls’ beaks. ‘Suwanee Greenway running trail’ I hammered into the keyboard.
“0.1 miles away” said Google Maps.
I’d had no idea. I was pretty much an idiot. Sitting outside my apartment door, not a hundred meters beyond the stand of pine trees behind my parking lot, sat the Suwanee Greenway trail. It’d been there all along.
In a flurry, I popped into my ugly orange sneakers, slid into an even uglier tank top and shorts, and sped out the door.
I’d never been a runner before. I liked to keep active, don’t get me wrong, but I’d never felt the urge to run. Not in the summer heat. Not in the woods. Not alone. There seemed no reason to run other than to feel my heart hammer against my ribs. To get shin splints. To hurt.
And then I found it. I found the Greenway. The fabled land of trees, creeks, and north Georgia swamps.
You know those disclaimers? The ones saying ‘Consult a doctor before beginning any new exercise routine?’ Nah. I don’t listen to ’em, either. My feet hit the trail and within moments I’d forgotten everything else about my week. About my plans. About my life.
Yeah, it was hot. And yeah, the humidity made me feel like I was a macaroni noodle tumbling in about-to-boil water. But I didn’t care. Suddenly, as if my sneakers had worked some strange magic, I felt the pendulum move inside me.
I’m going to run.
I want to be a runner.
I overdid it on that first fateful day. I ran six brutal miles in one direction, and walked six miles back. By the end, my breaths were ragged, tortured things. My calves were knotted up like old oak trees. My skin, which I’d forgotten to cover in sunscreen, sizzled the same as bacon in a cast iron skillet.
But I felt good.
No, not just good.
Let’s talk about the Greenway. It’s a place I wished I’d found a decade earlier, but was happy to discover when I did. They call it the Greenway because all eight miles hunker beneath the trees. In some spots, in the heavy shade beneath birch trees, the air is a full ten degrees cooler than in the sun. In others, the trail is almost dark even during midday, and the leaves so dense as to blot out the sun entirely. Parts of the trail are paved in wooden planks, and others with a softer-than-concrete asphalt/rubber hybrid. And in many places, the Greenway runs alongside creeks, small rivers, and a sopping wet marshland stocked with geese, ducks, bluegill, herons, and even the occasional beaver.
Twelve miles later, I spilled back into my apartment. My body ached. I was cramped, hungry, thirsty, and tired. But I also felt sublime. The ‘runner’s high’ my ex had talked about turned out to be a real thing. I felt as if I were floating among the clouds, my sneakers like Hermes’ winged shoes, my muscles singing with pain and pleasure.
Sure enough, not long after I finished my first run, a buddy called me. I rehydrated…and then spent the rest of the evening out on the town committing treason against my liver. I’m sure I didn’t once shut up about my experience on the trail. To my buddy’s credit, he just smiled and nodded.
On that day, something had changed.
It was as if I’d reached back into my childhood and stolen some of the freedom my ten-year old self once experienced.
Out there on the Greenway, I’d been in heaven. No phone. No bills to pay. Not a care in the world beyond the next place my ugly orange sneakers landed.
Since that day, and for the last four years, I’ve been out there running. I use the Greenway most days, but also a number of other nature trails. In autumn, when leaves blanket the ground and the wind begins to bite, I’m alone in a season of my own. In spring, when every bird in the universe descends onto the marshes, I run to their raucous music of their honks, quacks, and cheeps. Most times I keep moving fast. But some days I stroll along without a care. Some evenings, I’ve only got enough daylight for three little miles, while others I head out early to conquer the entire trail. I prefer to run when I’m alone, but on particularly pleasant days I’ll find other people running with me, walking their dogs, or wheeling their twin babies along in awesome bicycle/stroller hybrids (here’s to you, bicycle/stroller guy.)
The absolute best days are the first days of the Atlanta winter…just before twilight…when crickets, owls, and leaf-stomping squirrels surround me. No one else is on my trail. No one else exists in the entire world. It’s just me and the road ahead.
And I’m as close to Heaven as I’ll ever be.
I run, and I also drink wine.
Join me on my bounce between bottles right HERE.
Ten Terrifying Ways to Break Up…
I used to think ‘ghosting’ was only for people who were dating. Usually, at least the way I understood it, one person in a relatively new relationship would suddenly cut off all forms of contact—i.e.; they’d ghost their partner.
Ok. Well. I was ghosted by my husband of seven years. I came home from work to find all his clothes, electronics, and a few pieces of furniture gone. He didn’t leave a note or anything. At first I thought we’d been robbed.
The next day, his lawyer called me. I was being served with divorce.
The only time I ever saw him again was about two months later in the courtroom. He didn’t look at me, speak to me, or acknowledge my existence.
To this day, I still don’t understand.
Kicked to the Curb
My ex, who fancied himself an MMA fighter, always liked to play wrestle and box with me.
It didn’t bother me much until one time he play-kicked me in the knee and blew out my ACL.
I was on crutches for seven months afterward.
Straight Outta the 50’s
Shortly after getting married, my new husband informed me that my body belonged to him.
In other words, he meant he could have me whenever and however he wanted.
I suppose some women might find it flattering to be desired that much.
But I’m pretty sure our vows didn’t include, “To have and to hold…and to have sex with whenever you want.”
We’re still married, but we haven’t been intimate in years.
One Story. Zero Winners.
My former girlfriend was high-maintenance.
Beautiful, but vain.
Smart, but ignorant.
She used words like ‘bae’ ‘fleek’ and ‘nice burn.’
She looked great in heels, but refused to pump her own gas.
She took two and half hours to put on her makeup…only to later decide she wanted to stay in.
They say beauty comes at a price.
And that price, my friends, is just too high.
What about Pokemon?
She said Dragon Ball Z is stupid.
I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life.
Long & Hard Road to Recovery
My ex was a self-admitted porn addict.
She (yes, she) watched the stuff several times every day. She used it for her own private pleasure, and she tried to get me to watch it wayyy more than I normally would. I guess she thought everyone would have the same reaction to porn.
I really didn’t mind at first. We were still kind of in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of dating.
But eventually it became such an integral part of her life that she couldn’t orgasm unless she watched highly-specific scenes at the same time as having sex.
All the porn had the opposite effect on me. I eventually lost my attraction to her.
I don’t think she minded breaking up that much. It wasn’t like I could do any of the things her favorite porn stars could do.
She used hashtags.
Every text she sent me had #winning or #loveforever or #youforgottotakeoutthegarbage or any one of a million other things.
It was only mildly annoying at first. But then she started using them in actual conversation. As if holding her fingers up to make a # sign and saying ‘hashtag – don’t talk to me right now’ was an effective means of communication.
I pity her next boyfriend.
He’s in for a #surprise.
Now THAT’s how to Break a Heart
One day while doing some spring cleaning at our house, I found a stack of letters handwritten by my husband. I couldn’t help myself. I read them all.
They were love-letters, and were addressed to ‘the love of my life’ and other adorable terms.
While reading them, I was absolutely positive the letters were meant for me. I felt my heart swell up with so much happiness I thought I’d burst.
But when he got home and I smothered him with affection, he looked at me with a blank stare.
He hadn’t written the letters to me. They were for his side-girl, Tristin, who I’d never known about before that moment.
They’re married now. Still kinda stings when I think about it.
I used to believe her teeth were real.
I mean, she was only twenty-eight.
But those chompers of hers…fake. All of them.
Turns out she was a recovered meth addict.
I’m glad she got past it.
But even gladder I got past her.
Sharing isn’t always Caring
He decided he wanted to get into the nudist lifestyle.
He wanted us to go nude camping, attend naked music festivals, and join all-nude social groups.
I tried to play along at first, but it quickly got weird.
The final straw—he suggested I sleep with several other men during a camping trip.
It wasn’t just about being naked. It was this weird cult-like fad populated with ugly, unshaven people who wanted to sleep around.
Read five MORE brutal breakups right here.
And get more than one-hundred of the most unbelievable breakups HERE.
I recently decided to join the modern world.
And *gasp* create an Instagram account.
I use it mostly to promote my art and post pics of my obese cat.
The longer I scroll through the thousands of daily photographs, the more I learn.
For instance, did you know nearly every Instagram user can be dropped into one of seven categories?
The 7 Instagram Personality Types
THE FOODIE – Pretty normal, I guess. I mean, most people like to eat their dinners. But some people, I’m assuming gourmet chefs mostly, prefer to dress up their food to look better than most supermodels. The Foodie type of Instagram user makes a pretty compelling argument. When faced with the choice of eating a brick-oven pizza or simply photographing a brick-oven pizza, I always… Wait. No. I think I’ll just EAT it. Thanks.
THE ANIMAL LOVER – This archetype of social media user is without a doubt the most common. In fact, most Instagram users are Animal Lover types in addition to whatever other type of user they might be. Whether it’s dogs, cats, sleeping dogs, sleeping cats, gifs of dogs and cats, funny-faced dogs and cats…the variety is almost endless. My day definitely isn’t complete unless I scroll through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to find at least a 50% ratio of dogs & cats compared to every other type of post. Hey, I get it. My cat’s cute, too. Only she’s too fat to fit in a single photo frame, so I’ll make a nine-part Instagram photo series to encompass her beautiful body. K?
THE SCRIBBLER – The number of artists (and photographers) who flock to Instagram is staggering. It’s what drew me to the site, and what keeps me there. Every day, I find dozens of amazing drawings, paintings, tattoo art, and sculpture to die for. But…and this is a BIG but…to get to the good stuff, one must pass through legions of Scribblers. Yeah, you got it. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of actual third-grade pencil pieces. For my own protection, whenever posting art of dubious quality, I always tag it with #WIP (work in-progress) so my followers won’t know just how much I really suck.
THE SEIZURE-INDUCING GIF MAKER – Oh boy. Now we’re getting somewhere. I’m not sure what compels people (mostly ladies, sorry) to make half-second long repeating gifs of themselves gesturing aimlessly into the void. I’m not sure I wanna know. If you stare at the wrong gif too long, I’m convinced you’ll catch cancer. Or Ebola. Or maybe you’ll just die a little bit inside. Whenever surfing Insta videos, I always make sure to keep a bottle of Ibuprofen handy. Because I’m going to get a headache. It’s only a matter of time.
THE MODEL – Yes, you’re beautiful (or so heavily filtered no one can tell the difference.) I get it. We ALL get it. It doesn’t matter where I tumble on Instagram, I see you there in my feed, looking hot, wearing almost nothing, covered in tattoos, doing something funny with your mouth. Look, I’m not complaining. NO one is complaining. But the philosophical part of me wonders what you (yes YOU, model girls) get out of posting dozens of hot selfies every day. Is it validation? Cash? An unending stream of creepy dudes DM’ing you for sex? I’m assuming you get all three. I’m just wondering if it’s worth the effort. Maybe the old saying is true – if a hot girl bounces through the forest and no one’s there to see it, did she really happen?
THE WANNABE MODEL – For every one person willing to put in maximum hours working out, tanning, dressing up in uncomfortable-looking bikinis, and applying the best possible filters, there’s ninety-nine more people who say, “F it. I’m doing this my way.” I’m talking about you, girl who just woke up and took a 6AM selfie. And you, guy in the gym who’s obviously on steroids. And yes, you too, single mom of three kids who’s just fishing for a compliment (or twenty.) Look, we can’t all be beautiful. Despite the hashtags #everyoneisbeautiful #plussize #bringingunibrowsback and #Igaveupworkingouttenyearsago, perhaps it’s best if we leave the modeling to the
most willing to sell their souls for cash most beautiful people out there.
THE PERFORMANCE ARTIST – You’ve seen them. They perform glorious physical feats, leap to incredible heights, and paint themselves with peanut butter and hot dogs. I admit I’ve watched some pretty cool ones. Like the guy who stood on his motorcycle seat while going 100 mph, or the other guy who fell off his motorcycle while going 100 mph. I’ve seen a girl beat a tree to death, a dude somersault over two cars, and a woman bounce her boobs to the beat of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ Narcissism, man. It’s a beautiful thing sometimes.
THE MUSICIAN – Usually a DJ for some crappy downtown club, he really, really, really wants you to check out his mixtape.
THE LONELY MOM – “Hey, guys! I’m stuck at home with seven children. And I’m going to Snapchat bunny ears onto ALL of them!”
THE CAPTION QUEEN – Usually…and I’m only being honest here…it’s a teenage girl posting a pic of herself looking sad while complaining about tomorrow’s math test.
For more fun, here’s my list of Top 7 Facebook personalities.
And I did one for Twitter, too.
Stay tuned for next week’s HUGE article, ‘The Zero Types of Linked-In Users’
In a far and ancient land, Emperor Chakran dreams of conquest. His desire to resurrect the evil, world-ending Ur casts a dark shadow across an unsuspecting world. But as his army butchers its way across the realm, leaving only a vast, storm-riddled graveyard in its wake, a small band of warriors rises up to oppose him. They know what will become of the world should Chakran succeed. They know the Emperor is but a puppet to the true evil – the Tyrants of the Dead.
Follow Rellen Gryphon, Garrett Croft, and Andelusia Anderae on their voyage to stop the darkness.
If they should fail, the sun will die.
…and the night will forever reign.
Tyrants of the Dead – The Complete Collection includes all three epic volumes in the series:
Down the Dark Path
Dark Moon Daughter
Books to give as gifts.
The world’s funniest breakups.
This spring from April 23rd – April 26th, get all my best non-fiction books for $0.99 or less. Read ’em. Love ’em. Review the heck out of ’em!
Being a dad isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It’s much, much better.
Long ago, in the months before my son rocketed into this world, I dreamed of all the challenges I would surely face. I was younger then, and full of doubt. Let’s be honest…I was frightened. I thought to myself, ‘Raising a kid is going to be the hardest thing I ever do. How can I possibly be a guide for another human being? Everything will change. And it’ll happen in ways for which I can never prepare myself.’
I was wrong. And right. And everything in-between.
Not long after my one and only son (the G Man) arrived, I realized three things:
- I’m not frightened to be a dad – I’m thrilled
- This is going to be far more exciting than I’d expected
- Also…I’m about to be a single dad
Just like that, it happened. The G Man was only two-years old when he and I found ourselves thrust out of our suburban paradise and into a tiny apartment. Suddenly, his life completely changed, and all my expectations for child-rearing flew right out the window. It wasn’t as terrifying as it sounds. The word I use to describe it: spectacular. We were broke. We were cramped into a tiny space. We lost all our previous friends and family. We were two dudes on a tiny island.
And it was mostly awesome.
Somehow, we survived. Three-thousand trips to the local park. A million-and-a-half hours spent poolside. Strep throat. The flu. A few hundred band-aids. A rescued Japanese maple tree. Four-hundred thousand fish sticks. And several Christmases, just me and him, waking to our annual two-man treasure trove of gifts.
Here we are, five years later. We’ve left our tiny apartment and moved into a slightly-bigger-than-tiny-house. We have cats. Most weeks, we treat ourselves to Taco Tuesdays and breakfast-for-dinner Thursdays. We do all the ordinary dad/kid stuff, only we do it alone instead of within a typical family unit.
This is our life.
* * *
It’s a Tuesday night, and the G Man is relaxing on the couch. He’s in the middle of reading literary classic, Calvin & Hobbes – Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons. Meanwhile, I’m in the background painting something on a canvas. It’s a pretty typical evening for us. We skipped Taco Tuesday in favor of our latest dinner invention, a little something G Man calls, ‘Chicken with onions in its butt,’ which tastes even better than it sounds.
During a lull in my painting progress, I lean back in my chair and consider the night. As far as weekday evenings, it might not get any better than this. Our bellies are full. We’re listening to an uber-relaxing album – Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss. It’s almost bedtime. But not quite.
What’s next? I wonder.
The G Man is at his most impressionable age. I remember being his age (seven) and it was the same for me. Everything my friends told me, I tended to believe. Everything I saw on TV, I absorbed as if it were utter truth. As I look upon him now, I understand his vulnerability. The things he learns during his next few years, he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life.
This is the task for which I was born, I think. I must become both teacher…and student.
The G Man looks up at me. He sees me staring in his direction, and he’s annoyed.
“What?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I reply. “Just thinking.”
* * *
And it’s true. I think too much.
Some of the things I worry about:
- Will the G Man get bullied?
- Will he be a bully?
- Will he like sports?
- Or science?
- Or both?
- Will he continue to be hard on himself?
- Or will he find the same confidence I did?
- Will he keep reading books?
- Or will he become an iPhone zombie – addicted to social media, selfies, and rabbit-eared Snapchat filters?
- Will he think critically? Will he study every situation based on its own merits?
- Or will he see something on the internet and automatically believe it’s true?
These, and a thousand other questions stew inside me. But like all things, they quickly pass. I can’t yet answer these questions. And ultimately, no matter the subtle lessons I try to instill in my son, he might very well do the opposite of what I teach.
And it’s ok.
When I look around myself, I realize we’re in a tough world. Actually, it’s always been tough. As a whole, humanity has a tendency to group-think, to segregate into specific herds, and to compel each other to believe what the rest of their chosen herd believes. It’s not particularly healthy. To be honest, it’s poisonous. The worst part of this isn’t what the adults decide is truth. It’s that the adults tend to pass the herd-mentality on to their children. They don’t teach their children how to think – rather they teach them what to think.
Believe what mommy and daddy believe.
Go about life the same way.
Love the same things.
HATE the same things.
As I look upon my son, I understand something. All the small lessons I worry about on a day-to-day basis…they’re just that – they’re small. The real lesson is singularly large.
BE WHAT YOU WANT TO BE
Be what you want to be. Easy to say. Sometimes hard for parents to accept, and often even harder for kids to comprehend. For me, what this means is my son doesn’t have to live up to my expectations. He doesn’t have to follow in my footsteps. If he doesn’t want to go to college, fine. If he decides he wants to become a god-fearing, bible thumping preacher, ok. Go for it. If he looks at his life and decides what he really wants is to be a beach bum who smokes weed all day and kicks sand in society’s eyeballs, I’ll shut up and deal with it.
It’s not a parent’s job to mold children into perfect little statues. Quite the opposite.
It’s not even our job to prepare them to become a integral part of society. Society doesn’t care about people. Only people care about people.
It’s our job to open our children’s minds to possibility, to teach them to adapt, to accept risk and reward, and to know the difference between belief and truth. Above all these, it’s important to teach them how to think critically, especially when dealing with us. We aren’t the unfailing gods and goddesses our children think we are. It’s ok to let them see us fail. Actually, it’s essential.
And sometimes the best way to teach these lessons isn’t with ‘we need to talk’ conversations, but instead through subtle everyday interactions:
He asks a question? I ask my son the question right back.
He wants to discuss a topic about which I know very little? I admit I don’t know and we research the facts as a team.
He asks for my help with something? I challenge him to resolve the problem by himself.
He asks for a tough answer regarding religion, politics, or sex? I don’t surround him with my own biases, but instead open the door for him to decide on his own.
I realize this thinking is in the minority. A quick observation of other parents reveals a wide spectrum of techniques, many of which include healthy doses of indoctrination. That’s fine. It’s the way it always has been and always will be.
As for the G Man and I…we’ll be doing it our way.
We’ll have plenty of questions. But not always the answers.
We’ll be individuals, not clones.
And we’ll definitely invade Hyrule while wearing shoes.
For more stories about me and the G Man, go here.
Countless Worlds Destroyed by Vampiric, Star-Eating Aliens
Welcome to the official Eaters of the Light glossary. Herein you’ll find descriptions and blurbs for every major character, place, historical event, and technological advancement appearing in the Eaters of the Light book series. This appendix is for all the folks who’ve read the books AND for those who are thinking about it. Fear no spoilers! No major event taking place in any of the three books will be revealed.
Scroll down to begin!
Aly Armstrong – Sister to Joff Armstrong, Aly isn’t the naïve girl she pretends to be. It’s all an act ordered by Earth’s government.
Babar – A brave pilot from the planet of Hermes.
Callista (Lightbringer) – Cal, a powerful artificial intelligence made of nano-light particles, is created to accompany Joff Armstrong during his voyage between the stars. Little does Joff know, Callista serves many purposes her makers have not yet revealed.
Castyn Clarke – An ice cold news anchor for the Dusktime Dispatch, Castyn tells only the stories her government pays her to tell.
Doctor Abid – He’s not a real doctor. But he is tasked with preparing Joff for his voyage into space.
Doctor Tiana – Abid’s beautiful assistant, her appearance is copied by Callista in the hopes of charming Joff.
Griff – A nano-light AI similar to Callista, only less powerful and with more inhibitors to his personality.
Hephast – The Emperor of a powerful human settlement on the garden world of Sumer.
Joff Armstrong – A young farmer from Earth. He enjoys his simple life and loves his family, but he’s meant for much greater things.
Kira – A soldier of planet Hermes. She’s fought the Strigoi her entire life, and doesn’t want anything to do with Callista Lightbringer.
Lukas Mosk – A smuggler working for off-world weapons manufacturers. Lukas’s real mission is to aid the settlement of Ebes in its battle against the Strigoi.
Mahtim (Captain) – The second in command of planet Hermes’ military. He believes he should be in complete control.
Maliah – The Calipha of planet Hermes, Maliah trusts no one, least of all Callista. She desires only to maintain her iron grip of Hermes’ affairs.
Maura – A human woman from the Sumerian city of Mercuria, Maura is in love with Joff Armstrong.
Mina – A young pilot of planet Hermes. She has to choose between leaving her daughter behind or abandoning her position in the war.
Rami – Commander Strope’s little brother. Rami is a young, prodigal scientist who accompanies his big brother during all his battles.
Samison – Husband to Maura, also a skilled astronomer and physicist.
Siraya – A lonely young woman who keeps her great-grandfather’s artifacts secret from the powerful Arcadian government.
The Strigoi (aka: the Varkolak) – A vampiric alien race desiring the death of all light in the universe. They typically appear as three-meter tall skeleton machines, but they have many other forms unknown to humanity.
Strope – The Commander of planet Hermes’ interstellar fleet. He’s young, brash, and brave. He also keeps too many secrets.
Sylpha Frost – The leader of planet Ebes’ military. She’s willing to do anything to destroy the local dark planet – aka: the Strigoi homeworld near Ebes.
Tabir – Husband to Joff Armstrong’s sister, Aly. Governor of the city of Arcadia.
Wendall Wight – A sicario tasked with assassinating anyone unwilling to help the causes of Planet Ebes.
Arcadia – The largest city on planet Sumer. The humans here live decadent, opulent lives.
Atreya & Kokab – The binary stars around which planet Sumer orbits.
Donva – A highly-advanced Earth city located roughly near modern-day Colorado.
Earth – Hundreds of years in the future, Earth is largely depopulated. Wars, evacuations to off-world settlements, and famine have changed everything.
Ebes – The large human settlement founded on planet Ebes faces the most direct threat of extinction by the Strigoi.
Grave B-7 Black – A giant Strigoi homeworld in the Andromeda Galaxy. Rumored to house enough weapons to destroy millions of stars.
Grave DD-9 Ebon – The largest source of Strigoi in the Andromeda Galaxy. Grave DD-9 boasts a mechanized moon used to create weaponry for the war against humanity.
Hades – The home galaxy inhabited by the Strigoi. All of Hades’ stars and life have been destroyed. Only the Strigoi remain.
Hermes – An icy cold planet in the Andromeda Galaxy. Hermes is the vanguard of human resistance against the Strigoi. Its people worship the small, remote star of Sufi.
Lun-Dun – The ruins of London, destroyed by nuclear fallout after a massive exodus from Earth.
Nosfera System – The source of the Strigoi infestation in the Milky Way galaxy. Nosfera houses a giant, planet-sized weapon used by the Strigoi to kill stars.
Sumer – A giant planet many thousands of light-years from Earth. Sumer has no native animal life, only giant plants and trees.
Zeus & Hera – The binary stars shining on planet Ebes.
Events of Historical Significance
The Exodus – A period of two-hundred years during which millions of scientists, humanitarians, doctors, and scholars abandoned Earth for the hope of a better life among the stars. Many believe the Exodus was triggered when a few select people became aware of the Strigoi plan to annihilate Earth.
Technology & Weapons
Coffin Engines – These massive Strigoi craft can turn large swaths of interstellar space into graveyards, destroying light, planets, even gravity.
Death-Beams – Deadly ‘dark’ plasma weapons used by the Strigoi. They both burn and freeze whatever they touch.
Dream Makers – Tiny devices capable of triggering powerful hallucinations in humans.
Hypo-Chambers – A device which allows humans to exist in stasis while traveling through deep space.
Interstellar Rings – Whenever large groups of humans want to travel at FTL (faster than light) speeds through space, they take their journey using powerful Ring transport ships, which have their own gravity and boast immense food & energy supplies.
Gamma Suit – A super-powered battle-suit constructed for Callista, it’s far more powerful than Joff’s original Vezda suit.
Sabre – The universe’s most advanced interstellar warship. The Sabre packs enough weapons to destroy entire Strigoi planets.
Scythe Ships – Fast and armed with terrifying death-beams, the scythes are the primary warship used by the Strigoi. They’re made of the same bone-like substance as the Strigoi themselves.
Skypads – Small, flat, and sticky, Skypads can be adhered to any surface and used as video screens and high-powered computers.
Sprites – Tiny floating sprites flutter around humans’ heads, providing them information, entertainment, and guidance.
String Reprogrammers (S.R.’s) – Powerful missiles capable of turning all matter in a given area into something else. For example, rock could be changed into hydrogen…or light. S.R.’s can also make stars go supernova.
Tombspire – A giant Strigoi construct capable of tearing wormholes in deep space.
Vezda Suit – A powered battle-suit constructed for Joff to wear during his fight against the Strigoi. Virtually indestructible, it boasts a powerful array of weapons and movement systems.
Xiphos Warships – Slender and swordlike, the Xiphos ships are planet Hermes’ first line of defense against the Strigoi hordes.
The Eaters of the Light trilogy is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle form.
Buy it today.
…plunge into the darkness between the stars tonight.
If you like fantasy more than sci-fi, you’ll love my Tyrants of the Dead glossary.