Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Newest Big Thing

A GOOD STORY is forever. Maybe. For a few folks, at least.

If we like a movie, Kye and I will go and see it again, and maybe again after that. Rogue One, inarguably the best Star Wars film ever (to this point), we saw four times in the theater. When the price for the DVD drops a little, we'll buy it and watch it again and again and again ...

We're always on the search for "forever" stories, movies, and songs or albums. Such a habit puts us squarely at odds with the suburban mindset, which is solely concerned with the new and trendy. Rogue One wasn't trendy ten days after its release. It was already "old" to people with this toxic, consumptive mindset.

It's a mindset a mile wide and an inch deep. And it's destroying this planet as I write this.

Great stories are timeless. Treated and respected properly, they become lifelong companions. Again, this goes directly counter to the suburban mindset. Everything is expendable. Nothing is irreplaceable. The Newest Big Thing is all that matters; and it matters for less time than the lifespan of a day moth once it's given over for public consumption.

The idea is consumption. The idea is to be the biggest pig you can be so that you can brag about it later. But you also need to be trendy. You need always to be looking for the Newest Big Thing and buy it/see it/listen to it before everybody else. It doesn't matter if the movie or album or, much more rarely these days, book, is great. If it's considered the Newest Big Thing, it already is "great," even if it's nothing but a runny, stench-filled, rotting pile of maggot crap.

Advertisers employ psychologists to brainwash you, the brainless consumer. In effect, they employ expert mind-fuckers to fuck with your mind ever more, making you, ever more, a slave to advertisers' wishes. Read the article if you don't believe me. It's from the American Psychological Association!

And you, the brainless consumer, the suburban you are, go along and get along with this with a piggy little smile plastered to your bloated face.

How pleasant.

I'm convinced after decades of observing this disease in action all around me that if the human species is to survive, even to the next century, that mindset will have to be eradicated. As in permanently.


We don't tell folks that when we find a great TV series that we watch it over and over and over again. The few times we revealed such information were enough to keep our mouths shut forever afterward.

"You--seriously--you've watched Lost six times now? Why?"

"You can't live your life in stories, Shawn. It's not healthy." (An actual, word-for-word quote from a girlfriend who still stalks me thirty-five years later. She said it after my fourth or fifth viewing of The Breakfast Club in the mid-80s.)

"You seriously need to update your DVD collection!"

(Because "updating" is the only thing that matters in the end to these people.)

"Why on Earth do you still listen to Pearl Jam?"

You get the idea.

In writing, the pressure is always on to cater to the masses and their Newest Big Thing. For many, perhaps most, writers, this is precisely what they do. And so you get waves and waves of sewage, most of them emanating from the Romance (read: porn) cesspool. It's the only reason sites like Smashwords continue to exist. Romance (read: porn) is what pays the bills. It's the Newest Big Thing.

The summer blockbusters, so called, are just a few days from being released. For most of them, their suburban Newest Big Thing Approval Badge will expire and turn to dust within forty-eight hours of their premiere. A few might make it to a week; maybe one or two will go past that.

Maybe one will be great and worth owning. Maybe. And if we end up owning it, a year from now the suburban consensus will be, "Oh my God, you still watch that?"


Of course, the Newest Big Thing extends its greasy fingers into everything else, including clothing and fashion. And food. And patio settings. And automobiles. Even religions and religious practices like meditation, which is, again, the Newest Big Thing, just as it was back in the 60s.

That's another feature of the Newest Big Thing. Often it's a retread. It's already been done. Advertisers know that the suburban herd's collective memory is very short, and retreads are way cheaper and safer than anything completely original. Just put a new title on it, spin the concepts to match modern suburbia's ravenous appetite, connect it to something else they want (yoga pants, for example), make them feel like idiots for not wanting it NOW-NOW-NOW-NOW! and serve steaming hot!

And those dumb fucks buy it. Every time.

Maybe you're one of them.


I don't have a lot--at all--but what I have I treasure. And no, it's not, as suburbans believe, because it isn't much and so I'm terrified to lose it, but because those things have tremendous intrinsic value to me, something suburbans can't wrap their minds around, even when it comes down to "things" like their marriage or children.

We don't seek the Newest Big Thing, Kye and I. We seek greatness. We seek timelessness. We seek stories, be they in books or television series or movies, that move us and educate us and inspire us every time we watch them. If one does, we buy it. And so our DVD collection grows very slowly. Our music collection grows very slowly. Our book collection grows very slowly. We rebel against planned obsolescence, which has infected every nook and cranny of this hateful fucking society, and has infected the minds of most people, whether or not they are even aware of it. Some are, remarkably, and don't care. They are willing slaves.

The Newest Big Thing is almost always a tsunami of utter shit.

Don't you think it's time that you deprogram yourself from wanting it, mouth stretched open to its limit, eyes wide, as it gathers and curls over you?


From Melody and the Pier to Forever: The Flag of Galarrage

Government: Strict Monarchy
Last Known Ruler: Queen Ete Luhar IV
Land Area: (approx.) 446,000 square miles (228,000 sq. misons); Earth comparison: about the size of Morocco
Geography and Climate: Hilly, covered in temperate rainforests and two sprawling grassland plains. Northern eternitudes have heavy rainforests. Average temperatures.
Highest Point: Harvan Pt. 5,988 ft. (0.81 misons)
Eternitudes/Infinitudes (rough) With Respect to the Center of Aquanus: .0.96N to .0.29S; .1.0 to +1.09E
Capital City: Jellico; est. pre-invasion population: 558,000
Best Known For: Military, religion; ancient, secretive, martial culture
Interesting Fact: The animosity that had Vanerrincourt and Galarrage at each other’s throats for centuries started with a sneeze by a visiting Vanerrincourtian ambassador at a Galarragian state dinner.


Fractal Art: "Sentiment"



Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Enjoy This Free Chapter from The Cheapery St. Heroes, Which Is Coming Very Soon!

Note: The Cheapery St. Heroes is about ten days or so from being released!

I'm very excited about it. It's a slow-growing contemporary fantasy about six heroes who find themselves in a very unique situation, both individually and collectively. It's full of action, adventure, and humor without losing the character-based narrative.

We've chosen to serialize it, which means each book will be short, something like six chapters or so. This first book has a prologue and six chapters for a total of ten thousand words, something in that range.

Since it's a series starter, I'll release it for free for a short time in order to grab more readers.

In the meantime, enjoy chapter three below!


The Necromancer

LORD KRIRANKOS ZANNIX descended the tower stairs like the spectre of death. He glided more than stepped, his footfalls inaudible. At the bottom waited his assistant, Ajax.

   “Did you sleep well, Master?” asked the small man, offering a simpering smile.


   “Very good, Master, very good.”

   He made his way toward the dining hall. Ajax tagged annoyingly along.

   “Do you not have duties to perform?” he asked more politely than he usually would. But he had slept well last night, and he enjoyed his work, and was looking forward to getting back to it. A little leeway to his underling seemed apropos.

   “There … there is a small problem, Master …” said Ajax in a voice to match his stature.

   Krirankos stopped. He glowered down at the little man, who shrank even more.

   “What problem?” he demanded. The emphasis on “what” made his assistant squirm.

   “The zombies, Master … they … well, some … it’s hard to say … some … that is to say … Gjojerius says …”

   “Out with it!”

   His bright mood was gone.

   Ajax cowered.

   “Brains … they’re very high in calories, Master. Gjojerius says … well, some of the zombies are … well, they’re getting quite fat, Master.”

He ate his breakfast, snarling the entire time. His household staff worked quietly around him, seeing to his needs, until he roared at them to leave him alone, whereupon they scampered out of the vast dining room.

   As he stared down the long table, he considered the many problems he’d faced raising a zombie army.

   First was the matter of finding a sufficient number of corpses to reanimate. He started by offering money to living relatives of the interred by means of signs posted on the doors to churches at surrounding villages:


   He had some takers, but not nearly enough, which surprised him, for most villagers were quite poor, even destitute. He thought they’d jump at the chance to earn easy money.

   Bribing the villages’ officials came next. When that didn’t work, he tried reasoning with them. “Reasoning with them” meant, of course, the threat of horrific death.

   Those tactics proved much more successful.

   When the villagers who’d chosen to remain poor instead of getting paid learned that they’re relatives’ bodies were removed anyway, they strung up the officials and, wielding torches and pitchforks, came to burn his castle to the ground.

   He tried to reassure them that their dearly departed were being treated respectfully. But mobs, as mobs are wont to do, wouldn’t listen.

   Which was a mixed blessing. Because he was still quite short of bodies, and mobs by definition are full of them, albeit in the wrong condition.

   Which was remedied shortly after.

   Not that he enjoyed taking life, he considered as he shoveled scrambled eggs into his mouth. But they were more than willing to end his, not to mention his innocent household staff and his not so innocent but hardworking assistants. He took umbrage at that. After all, what was their actual beef? He’d returned any personal effects the corpses had on their persons; he needed only their bodies! No one ever visited their dead relatives anyway, so what was the big deal?

   He snorted in derision and took an impatient sip of orange juice.

   He got nothing for his efforts at civility and kindness but those angry torch-wielding mobs.

   In the end it was six of one, half a dozen of the other, so in a way it all worked out. He sent Ajax and Gjojerius to retrieve the bodies of the mob-executed officials, which was a small consolation bonus.

   He had the unanimated corpses preserved and stacked in the dungeon, where the still cold served to keep them fresh. Over many months he garnered enough of them to constitute a small army of the undead. Things started looking up.

   The means for reanimating dead flesh were ready to go. So were the means to grow a constant supply of brains in an adjacent lab. He’d worked on that formula for years.

   One by one he began zombifying the corpses. As per his unheard but oft-repeated promise to the villagers, he kept them (many of whom were former villagers) in large, spacious cages deeper down, ones built specially for them, with padding over the cold stone walls and fresh straw at their feet, which made clean-up easy if one dropped a body part, which occasionally happened. Occasionally one would simply fall apart completely, and Ajax or Gjojerius would have to wade in there and get it, armored against attack. The phenomena came to be known as LHS: “loose hamburger syndrome,” a term he dreaded hearing, for it meant that another undead soldier had been lost.

   And now this problem. Fat zombies.

   Was there a way to grow a fat-free brain, one that could still deliver the necessary calories to the zombies without taking away from the taste? Would they know the difference?

   He finished his toast, wiped his mouth, and stood. He angrily tossed his napkin on the table.

   A fat zombie army simply would not do. If he wanted to rain a horrifying and ravenous zombie apocalypse down upon his enemies, then his undead throngs would have to be trim and fit.

   He made his way down the steps towards the dungeon, resolve firmly in hand. He was determined to make this a good day, despite this latest challenge.

It turned out to a much bigger challenge than he expected.

   The zombies refused at first to eat the products of his efforts. He managed to grow brains with only half the calories and fat as normal ones, but they had a weird industrial smell and were a bit runny and green to boot. The undead would sniff at them with interest, then heave them at the wall, moaning and groaning and stumbling about in anguish. No good.

   He managed to remove all the fat, but to make up for the lost calories he had to add various expeller-pressed oils and something Gjojerius came up with called “xanthan gum,” along with processed salts, dyes, monosodium glutamate, and corn syrup. Many of the province’s farmers were more than happy to sell him the corn syrup, making a pretty penny in the bargain.

   At first it appeared he had met with great success. The zombies loved the fat-free brains, despite the fact that they looked plastic. But against all his studies proclaiming otherwise, they got even fatter. Some started looking like undead bowling balls. Loose hamburger syndrome became more commonplace. Some got so fat that instead of falling apart they exploded, wiping out many others in the process. This came to be known as catastrophic hamburger syndrome (CHS). It took days to clean up the mess. Several zombies exploded on a single night in the same pen, a chain reaction that ended up wiping out almost a hundred undead and compromising the castle’s foundation, which had to be shored up at enormous expense.

   He needed to find a solution quickly.

   He started using all-natural ingredients and removing the corn syrup, which greatly upset the farmers, who showed up wielding torches and pitchforks, which worked out nicely, as it made it easy for him to replenish the lost stock. The new farmers he bought the all-natural ingredients from appreciated his business, and he liked them better. They treated their livestock like he endeavored to treat his zombies: not as production units in a faceless factory, but as living (or, in his case, unliving) beings worthy of at least a modicum of respect.

   He found that if he sliced his all-natural brains thinly and baked them at a high temperature, then gave them a light coating of sea salt (another new and profitable alliance formed with the sea salt miners on the coast), the brains became very light and crispy, which overcame another hurdle, as brains in their natural state were heavy and spoiled very quickly, making them difficult to transport into battle.

   The zombies loved them. He put his organic brain-chips in colorful bags, which they tore apart with moaning, stumbling glee. Eventually he flavored them further and gave them exciting names: “Zesty BBQ,” “Nacho Cheese,” “Luscious Lime and Pepper,” “Jalapeno Cortex,” and, just the other day, a new one: “Cinnamon Synapse Sinfulness.” He knew the zombies didn’t bother to read the bags (could they read? That might suggest a future experiment!) before tearing them open, but that didn’t concern him. He took data on their favorite—either “Nacho Cheese” or “Zesty BBQ”—and then had Ajax and Gjojerius weigh them.

   Success! The zombies weren’t gaining weight. Some were actually losing weight! He investigated and found that those who were consuming the most of “Jalapeno Cortex” were the ones losing weight. He started adding hot spices to the other blends.

   Ajax and Gjojerius complained that the zombies were now getting diarrhea and farting endlessly, but he ignored them. He was finally achieving success. To reward their patience and hard work, he hired several out-of-work locals to help keep the pens clean.

   Things were coming together for Krirankos Zannix. He was finally ready to mobilize his zombie army.


Fractal Art for Beetle Lovers: "Scarabeality"



Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The State of My Art

THIS HAS been a busy year for me.

Let's review, shall we?

I launched:
Early next month I'll launch The Cheapery St. Heroes, which I'm coauthoring with Kye.

Later this year I'll publish the fourth volume of Fractalverse and My Rogue Mile, a collection of thoughts and meditations I posted on Google Plus before I pulled the plug on my account there; and finally, I'll release the paperback version of Otoro Queril: Saeire Insu Executioner, which is the fourth novel in Melody.

For those of you counting, that's seven titles. In a year.

Most writers are lucky if they get one title out in a year.

(Yes. I'm gloating. I've earned it.)

And I'm not even counting the fan fiction I work on in between my original projects, or my illustrations, or my fractals. As far as fan fiction goes, I'm working on a short story about Zelena from ABC's Once Upon a Time, a series that screamed great potential from the beginning but was far too often horridly written and produced. I'm also about to update my Lord of the Rings fan fiction as well.

As far as this blog goes, I'm averaging around twenty-three unique hits daily. Yesterday I got sixty-nine hits; I believe the record high to this point is eighty-one. This blog is about a month and a half old. I try to post to it twice a day--a fractal to begin the day, and then something like a chapter, excerpt, illustration, or news later. I try to avoid looking at it after that, or checking up on the stats.

I haven't made much money this year--just a little more than seven dollars. I suppose it's the inevitable cost of refusing to sell my soul, as so many do. Romance (read: porn) rules the roost as far as genre writing goes. Something like seventy percent of all ebook downloads, paid or free, are in that genre.

I guess that's no surprise.

I work about seven hours a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. I keep my spirits up by realizing how lucky I am to be able to write full time and get my stories and thoughts out there. I'm not looking for some magic bullet to come and thrust me into fame and fortune. That hope is for fools. I'm looking instead to add the greatest possible value to my little corner of the world, which includes my fans, of which I have a small, devoted crowd. If I can make you folks smile or laugh, or inspire and delight you, or outrage you--basically move you in some way, I'll be satisfied. If I can add value to your day-to-day, I've done my job. That's my concern. That's my only concern.

Given that, I'd like to declare that the state of my art is good and is getting better with each new hard-won fan that comes along.

Please keep popping by! And don't hesitate to write to me as well. My email is on my About Me page above. Don't be shy!

In any event, and as I often say, thank you for reading!


Fractal Art Inspired by Melody and the Pier to Forever: "Satelemarkrise"



Monday, May 22, 2017

A Writer's Prayer

A Writer’s Prayer
let me be an interference pattern.
Let me disrupt people’s lives.
For the numb suburban,
let my work cast a harsh light on her unexistence
while showing her the way to a life worth living.
For the smug businessman,
let me show the leprous nature of his greed
and bring him to humility and decency.
For the intransigent materialist,
let my words cast doubt upon his trenchant beliefs,
enough to bring him to his knees to cry,
“I just don’t know!”
For the white-lighty,
let my efforts slop a bitter, acidic paste on her
sugar-coated worldview.
Let it dissolve away the illusion and disease of enlightenment.
For the unserious,
let my books be comets smashing into their
polluted and barren ground. May my words set fire to their skies
and roll them under mile-high tsunamis. Let them
bring lasting gravity and unignorable starkness to their silly moments.
For the cynical,
may my stories be like a fierce sandstorm,
stripping away their pustuled flesh and eating into their poisoned bones
until nothing is left but a Mary Sue or Larry Stu.
For the rich,
may my words make them poor.
For the poor,
grant that my words make them rich.
May my work uproot oppressors and cast them down;
may they lift up the oppressed and give them the courage
to fight on.
May children love my disruptions,
and grow up to love them even more.
And when they become elderly,
may they draw hope and faith from them.
Grant that my interference disrupts generations uncountable,
that through it humankind becomes more peaceful, diverse, tolerant,
modest, grounded, humble, quiet, graceful, judicious, virtuous, and decent.


Fractal Art Inspired by Dr. Evil: "Rigoddamndiculous"



Sunday, May 21, 2017

Enjoy This Free Chapter From Reflections of Connie: Memories of a Sundered Love

My first love was a very pretty girl, pictured above, that I spent my fourth-grade year with.

In this chapter I detail my struggle to find Connie something good for Christmas, and my mother's efforts at helping.

You can download Connie at all major retailers, including Smashwords!



Cute Little Unmentionables

There were three homeroom teachers for the fourth-grade class. Notably, I don’t remember my own homeroom teacher; I do unfortunately remember Connie’s: a prissy woman with a southern accent who was loved by all the girls and hated by all the boys and went by the name of Mrs. Hancock.
And, of course, I remember him.
Mr. Kaeslau.
Mr. Kaeslau was this great cherub of a man with wild black hair and a clock-round face atop a huge pear-shaped body. He had playful, penetrating dark eyes and always wore sweater vests that were too tight for him, and navy-blue slacks that seemed to accent his bow legs. His big pot belly rolled and trembled when he laughed. It was a laugh you could hear three hallways over. It was always the same hair-raising, crescendo-rising guffaw:
It had a set pattern to it; it never deviated from that cadence. It was the same sort of laugh a fat, Polish Sherlock Holmes would make, I’m absolutely sure of it.
The Sherlock Holmes reference is precisely chosen, for Mr. Kaeslau was a terrifying genius at spotting every single romance within the student body of Tavelli Elementary. Even if that romance were barely budding, he could spot it. And then all sorts of embarrassment ensued, for Mr. Kaeslau would spill the beans to the entire school, sometimes quite cleverly, always loudly. Once spilled, he would give that trademark laugh, and every kid in the building even thinking of hanging out with someone of the opposite sex, or writing them a note, or offering them a piece of candy ...
… or walking around together at recess ...
… or sitting on the bus together ...
… or sitting on the sandbox wall ...
… cringed in total and absolute terror of being singled out.[15]
Connie, as I just mentioned, had Mrs. Hancock as her homeroom teacher, and I had some other (long since forgotten) woman. Thankfully, both Connie and I were rarely with Mr. Kaeslau’s homeroom class. But one day near Christmas the big wall dividers were pulled open, and the three classes became one. There was a freshly cut Christmas tree in Mr. Kaeslau’s room, and all sorts of construction paper and glue and tinsel and sparkles on work tables; Bing Crosby was crooning “White Christmas” on the record player, and the air smelled of pine and peppermint candy canes and cinnamon eggnog. Our assignment was to make the fourth-grade homerooms the best in the school (it must’ve been a contest between the classes; I can’t remember); we would be spending the rest of the day doing so.
I remember the happy thrill that ran through me; I remember an even happier one when I stood, looking for Connie, and saw her sitting in the next room, already looking for me, a smile lighting her face when she spotted me.
And I remember Mr. Kaeslau. He was staring right at me and smiling quite devilishly, just before moving off to get his own class in order.
The game was up.
Connie walked over to me. “Want to decorate the Christmas tree?”
I nodded, glancing nervously over my shoulder at Mr. Kaeslau, who was helping a large group of kids wrap presents at a long table. His attention—for now—had been diverted elsewhere.
Connie didn’t seem at all nervous at the horrifying prospect of being humiliated in front of the entire fourth-grade class.
We made our way to the tree, where we draped gold and silver tinsel over its sharp green needles. We stood close together, touching often, sharing small smiles. Surely she knew the hammer could, and probably would, fall at any moment; but her courage fueled mine,[16] and I pretended that potential humiliation and teasing laughter and pointing fingers meant nothing.
She glanced up from her work at the bottom of the tree. “Do you care?”
I knew exactly what she was asking.
We had already endured to that point no small measure of ribbing and harassment, from the gentle and fun to the vicious and condescending, these past four months, from our classmates. We had given them nothing in return, believing they’d eventually leave us alone, which, to their visible frustration, they did. But this—a teacher getting in on the act—would be too much to deal with. It would give those frustrated teasers new life and energy.
I lied.
Connie’s smile widened. She stood and handed me more decorations. Most of the other kids were boisterously playing various games in a far corner; no one was decorating the tree besides us. Connie stood very close. She was beaming at me in a way that made my heart ache and my neck tingle and my eyes dry. She would throw such smiles at me during times of supreme happiness, and I could do nothing whatsoever but stand paralyzed and astonished.
Mrs. Hancock came abruptly around the corner, breaking Connie’s spell. She gave me an irritated sneer and Connie a quick, gentrified smile.
“Connie, dear” she drawled, “your momma is here, in the front office. You may collect your belongings and go. Have a good Christmas vacation, dearest.”
Another sneer, another country-club smile, and Mrs. Hancock was off to favor the girls in her classroom some more.
I glanced at the time. It was 2 p.m. Just like that, five hours had passed.
But there was still another hour to go! And then the bus ride home—! And I had several gifts to give her yet—!
Connie gave me a very sad look. “I’m going to Wisconsin for Christmas break,” she said. “We’re driving. Hold on a minute. I’ll be right back.”
She went to her desk and opened it, pulled out a gift. She returned and handed it to me.
“Merry Christmas, Shawn,” she said with a faltering smile. Before I could go fetch the gifts I’d gotten her, she turned and hurried out the door, looking back once as she left, that very sad look still on her face.
Her gift came wrapped in ornate pink wrapping paper and was the size and shape of a small shoe box. There was a card attached to it. After looking at both for a long moment, I numbly took them back to my desk, where I stowed them next to the gifts I had so looked forward to giving to her. I had had absolutely no idea what to get her; I ended up meekly going to Mom for advice.
Mom found out about Connie and me at the parent-teacher conference earlier in the school year from my homeroom teacher, who spilled the beans. Mom was one of only two adults [17] who never referred to our relationship as “puppy love,” nor did she ever behave condescendingly about it, or to me, nor did she ever try to break us up or keep us apart, as I’m certain most other parents would have done.[18] What she did was hug me close and then kiss me.
“I guess she likes the tall, dark, and handsome sort,” she said with a laugh and a twinkle in her eye. “She’s got good taste.”
Having asked her what I should get Connie, she nodded thoughtfully.
“Let’s go shopping,” she said.
I remember to this day where we went: Woolworth’s and JC Penney. I remember the sky that day: a deep, forbidding gray. I remember the excitement I felt as I piled out of the station wagon. After all, I wasn’t getting a gift for a family member, who, as I knew, never really cared what I got them (it was the parents’ gifts that had the real weight), but a gift for someone I loved so deeply it was unbearable for me to think of how much for long.
But: What do you get for a girl? No, not my sisters: they weren’t girls. Okay, okay, yes, they were girls, but they didn’t count as such. Not to me, their brother. This was a girl. What do you get for a girl?
I followed Mom to the very back of the Woolworth’s, where a portly middle-aged man greeted her. He glanced down at me.
“This the one?” he asked gruffly, like a police detective would a criminal in handcuffs being hauled into the precinct.
“This is the one,” said Mom with a half-exasperated sigh. She reached up and lovingly patted my shoulder.[19]
“Come along then, boy,” said the man. I gazed at Mom.
“Go on,” she said. “He’ll get you started. I’ve got things to do.”
She gave me a stern stare, and I, flustered and in love, had no idea why. I thought she might be angry at me; in truth, she needed a few moments by herself to get one of my Christmas gifts wrapped, which that particular Woolworth’s did at that time of year. My Mom, the very clever and devious soul she was at Christmastime, had already called ahead and, while I was trotting off with the portly man, other Woolworth’s employees had slipped outside to the station wagon and had found my gift (a wristwatch, if I recall correctly) and had returned with it inside, where they wrapped it in back.[20]
The man took me to a huge rack of Christmas cards in a far corner. He swept his arm out from his round belly. “Take your pick,” he said. He studied me. “It’s for your sweetheart, right?”
Your sweetheart. The words struck me dumbly. It was as though this man was talking to another adult. Shyly, I nodded.
He gave an impatient grunt. “Right here. Look here,” he said. He pointed at a small section of the rack before marching off, but not before giving me a hard slap on my back. I was just one of the guys to this man, nothing more. There was nothing to be excited about; You’re in love, his slap told me, so deal with it. Get her a card. It’s no big deal.
But the cards were so ... well, adult. They felt adult. And I wasn’t an adult. They all offered sentiments that were incongruent to my relationship with Connie. They seemed too sentimental, too smarmy. Too much cursive, and too many pastel flowers, and too many references to anniversaries and weddings and “years together” and whatnot. It took a long time, but I finally found a small white card with a red-line drawing of a puppy on it, no writing at all inside. I was thoroughly frustrated by that point, but the card featured a puppy, and Connie loved puppies. I would have to write her something myself. Already I was mulling over exactly what I should say.
Mom collected me a few minutes later. She paid for the card after giving me a sly but understanding smile, and we hurried out the door and back into the station wagon and the dusty-smelling warmth blowing out of its window defrosters. The roads were freezing over, and I remember her complaining about them as the station wagon fishtailed scarily along College Avenue. But we made it to JC Penney’s safe and sound, parking in its large slush-covered parking lot.
In the past, there was nothing in JC Penney’s that had ever really interested me. After all, it was a store mostly devoted to clothes[21]—and no self-respecting boy cared about clothes. We boys wore clothes only because shrieking about the neighborhood stark-ass naked was illegal. Whenever my brother or I excitedly unwrapped a Christmas gift only to discover it was a new pair of blue jeans or a sweater or a button-down shirt, we’d have to suppress a huge, disappointed sigh. Give us a bike, for goodness’ sake! Give us a GI Joe action figure! Give us a game or, as I received that year, a beautiful telescope. But clothes? Yawn! A waste of good Christmas-loot dollars by our estimation.
Standing with Mom just inside the entrance to JC Penney’s, I now saw the store in a whole new light.
Connie was a girl. And girls—all girls, even girls not girlsloved clothes.
I was standing in a perfumed El Dorado, surrounded by the very stuff that might just earn me another of those riveting smiles and—dare I think it?—a kiss![22]
I had told Mom after showing her the card that Connie really loved puppies, so we trekked immediately to the area of the store where plush puppies were sold. We settled on a really adorable brown one with huge black eyes and a cute stump of a tail. Then we went on the hunt for—girl clothes.
It was certifiably the weirdest hour of my young life. I was excited and exhilarated and knew if any of my guy friends from school saw me interestedly scouring through girl shirts and girl pants and girl hats in the girls’ section of a decidedly girl store, that my He-Man Girl-Hater’s[23] membership card would be cut up in front of me.
But after more than a half hour of looking, nothing jumped out and screamed Buy me! I was growing desperate and very frustrated.
Mom saw my frustration. In a last-ditch attempt to find something, she took me to where they sold girls’ underwear.
This was no longer exciting and exhilarating. This was terrifying. Awe-inspiring.
I have three sisters, all of whom I had seen many times in their underwear. It was no big deal. They weren’t girls, after all. Just girls.
Connie was a girl. And here I was, actually mulling over getting her something that she’d wear under her brown long coat and red skirt, something she’d never, ever show me. My breath was locked up in the dank and deep cellars of my lungs, and something warm stirred just south of my tummy. I kept furtively glancing out from between racks of cute little unmentionables for those boys—when I wasn’t staring open-mouthed at those cute little unmentionables outright. I couldn’t seem to help myself. I remember sweating, and unclear what was making me sweat more: being discovered, or the cute little unmentionables.
Mom suddenly reappeared with something pink on a hanger. I pulled focus, blinking and swallowing, and looked at it.
It was ... a shirt. No, a dorm shirt. A pretty pink cotton dorm shirt with a big red heart on the chest. It would probably fall to just above Connie’s mid-thigh. The thought gave me long pause. I exhaled. Mom patiently waited, studying me with a curious smile on her face.
What was happening to me?
I nodded jerkily, and we purchased it, and we took Connie’s gifts home, slipping and sliding all the way. Mom wrapped them for me. Thankfully they were some of the last gifts Mom wrapped that Christmas. Thankfully—because I was now completely and totally obsessed with that dorm shirt.
In the meantime, after very long deliberation and consideration, not to mention many rewrites, I came up with the work of literary genius that was Connie’s Christmas note. It went thus:

Dear Connie, 
I like you. Do you like me? 
Please place a check next to the answer. 
Merry Christmas, 

—And here I was, holding those gifts, that very note, looking wistfully at the classroom door that Connie had just hurried through on her way to Wisconsin.
A huge meaty appendage descended heavily onto my shoulder. Startled, I glanced up at its owner.
Mr. Kaeslau.
He was looking down at me with a broad, knowing grin. In his other paw he twirled a sprig of mistletoe.
“Guess I’m a little late to give this to you,” he rumbled. “It works wonders.”
That rictus widened.
But the humiliating guffaw never came, as I fully expected. I had already braced myself.
“You’ve got something very special there, Mr. Helbert,” he said quietly with an understanding—and, most surprisingly, compassionate—nod. “Remember what it feels like, because it doesn’t happen often.”
He handed me the mistletoe.
“She’s a very lovely little girl, and she really likes you,” he added. He glanced at the sprig in my unsure grasp. “If that doesn’t do the trick, come see me. I’ve got all sorts of Valentine’s Day stuff that’ll work like a charm.”
He gave me a couple of friendly, massive, knee-bending pats and walked away. And there I stood, completely dumbfounded. Because I knew with those pats that Mr. Kaeslau had just assured me he’d not tease Connie and me. Against all odds we had somehow received a pardon.
The bus ride home was cold and gray and gloomy. I sat next to the window, the seat next to me sad and empty, and stared out. I was trying to suppress a great big smile. For Connie’s Christmas card, which I’d opened on the bus first thing, read:

Dear Shawn, 
I hope you have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. 
[3 tiny red hearts drawn next to each other] 

“Love, Connie.” Wow. Double wow.
Hearts! And those were Xs—which stood for kisses; and Os, which stood for hugs. I had temporarily lost all interest in the shoe-box-shaped gift still unopened in my lap: those letters were all I’d ever need from her. Before the bus had lumbered up the hill to my house to let me off, I probably reread that card a dozen times.
What was in the little shoe box? As it turned out, it was full of a really odd assortment of knickknacks: stones and feathers, a small book on American Indians, a fresh pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit (often, while sitting on the sandbox wall, I’d offer her a stick of gum—Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit), a circle with wires in it in an interesting pattern and with pretty white feathers hanging off the bottom of it, and, best of all, a crayon drawing. On it was a tall boy with the name SHAWN, and to his right was a shorter girl named CONNIE. The figures were holding hands.[24]
It turned out to be the only time in my entire formal education that I counted down the days till Christmas Break ended and I could return to school.


Fractal Art: "Rendan Mortalis"

Rendan Mortalis


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Enjoy Chapter 40 of Book One of Melody and the Pier to Forever!

History's deadliest Dreamcatcher is thought to be this one, seen here walking away from another of his victims. His name is Riparius. He is the Transform of Luis Arroyo, who at one time long ago was a Spanish Inquisition priest.

In the chapter following, Luis has witnessed by means of a soul-trace the slaughter of his beloved daughter, Espriella, at the hands of the Black Coffin. He has vowed revenge on Prince Trajan Chaundran, second to Necrolius, whose betrayal of Espriella led to her death.

Maggie Singleton watches via a soul-trace as Luis/Riparius goes to work. What she sees forever changes her. She wakes to hear Conor's call to battle against the approaching Gyssian navy.

Book One of Melody and the Pier to Forever is FREE for a short time. Go now and download it, or let your friends and family know!

Enjoy the chapter!


Chapter 40
The Wheel and the Call

Maggie stood in an expansive, dark enclosure surrounded by high, broken stone walls and shattered archways. Rubble lay in huge piles everywhere, the remains of a great cathedral or something larger. A dim, featureless orange-red sky above showered tiny flakes of hot gray ash on her head, the cries of unseen countless millions filling the air, as soft and somber as winter’s lonely wind whistling through the leafless boughs over an abandoned cemetery.
She whirled about.
Prince Trajan Chaundran was bound naked and back-first to the rim of a large wooden wheel ten yards away, his wrists tied high above his head, his ankles below. Two huge, freakish, sallow-skinned priests with sagging, bleeding, unblinking eyes and misshapen mouths, and dressed also in red vestments, stood one to a side at the wheel, gripping similar iron cranks. A third stood off to the right, slowly waving a bronze incense burner at his hip, the gray smoke from the vessel rising lazily into the hot air. The wheel’s rim dipped into a shallow concrete trough of foul-smelling piceous liquid, oil or gas, mixed with blood or excrement, or both. The mixture caught fire occasionally, eerie blue flames whooshing quietly up a couple feet, then extinguishing, leaving behind wavy, shimmering curls of superheated air which vanished into the hell-sky. The sickly sweet vapors of the incense mixed with the trough’s sulfuric cesspool stench, nauseating her. It smelled like a sewer break in a perfume shop, one located near an oil refinery.
The grotesque priests cranked the wheel one jarring notch:
Trajan jolted with the heavy movement, his body rising half a foot. The Spanish Inquisitor—her friend—came suddenly into view from behind a large, badly damaged altar, stepping solemnly down broken stairs, his hands clasped prayerfully under his chin. He approached his unwilling arrepentido.
The prince’s face was almost level with Luis’. The priests turning the wheel began chanting in monotone Latin.
“The lost soul can be saved,” intoned Luis just feet from Trajan. “But this soul is not lost. It has made its many wicked choices in full awareness and in full knowledge of the grim consequences.”
“Please,” cried Necrolius’ first, “please, Healer, I’ll do anything for you, just let me—”
“Silencio!” thundered Luis. He withdrew a long silver knife from beneath his cloak and slashed it across the prince’s chest.
Trajan (and Maggie) convulsed, tried to shrink in himself, screamed. But he could barely move, so securely was he bound to the rim of the wheel. Blood ran freely down his bare belly as Luis yelled:
“There is no deeper place within the bowels of Hell than that reserved for he who has betrayed his own soul!”
He slashed at Trajan’s midsection again, crosswise to the first cut. The prince’s hideous screams rent the air, sent chills down Maggie’s spine, who curled around herself in sympathetic pain.
Over the prince’s cries, and speaking as though reciting a liturgy, Luis Arroyo, Inquisition priest, said:
“Pray for your soul, Prince Trajan Chaundran Vanerrincourt! Repent! For upon this night, aye this eternal night, shall I damn it forever! The ashes of evil rain down upon thy head, O condemned!” He lifted his arms, gazing into the fire-sky, his eyes wide, unhinged, the knife in his grip dripping with his victim’s blood.
“Upon this eternal night shall I boil sin from thee!”
“Upon this eternal night shall I, upon the slanted and flinty rock, cast the dying spark of thy contemptible spirit into the Pit Everlasting!”
“Come unto me, O angel of torment! Come unto me and guide my Holy Intentions! Guide my hand as I do thy hallowed work!”
“P-P-Please, Healer, please, I ... I beg you,” gurgled Trajan, upside down now, the blood from his open chest and belly wounds flooding over his face, dripping from his hair. “Release me. Go in peace. Let me live. I d-d-don’t want to d-die! I don’t want to die!
The wheel dropped him one jarring notch at a time towards the trough full of boiling, flaming filth.
But the Inquisitor, on the far side of the wheel from him now, ignored him. Trajan’s persecutor lowered his arms and head slowly, placed the bloody knife on a broken marble pedestal next to him.
“Blow thy trumpet, Pale Destruction!” he shouted down the front of his red cloak. “Summon forth the Undead Hosts!”
He lifted his head.
“Call forth the foul waters and pour them into the rent flesh of the Unworthy! Let him bathe in thy scalding piss, let him feast upon thy shit!”
“I, thy servant, beseech thy countenance, O Rotting Maul! Let thy judgment claw over his corpse, let it shatter his teeth!”
As the wheel dropped Trajan Chaundran head-first towards the trough, from beyond the craggy, shattered high walls and through the deep gloom they came, corpses, men and women and children, stumbling forth, their eyes blank, their pallid faces tinged gray in death, their mouths black and cracked and drooling, their bodies covered in all manner of wounds and burns. Many were missing limbs; Maggie choked back the grief of a woman carrying a crying child without legs. Some of the zombies were still dressed in the tattered and burned livery of (she guessed) Gyssian-vanquished Aquanian nations, but most were naked. They lurched past her and surrounded the wheel, where they began marching in a clockwise fashion around it. They moaned and groaned as though in never-ending anguish.
Maggie couldn’t turn away from the scene. Trajan’s torture wasn’t what held her. It was the overwhelming darkness surging like pestilence itself through a valley of massacred innocents writ large on her friend’s face. The Spanish Inquisition priest.
Trajan’s head was just above the trough, his arms past the elbows already in the liquid. He wailed and thrashed in agony as the submerged flesh scalded. The undead turned to face him, kneeling on the baked, lifeless, yellow earth. In unison they spoke, a lifeless, flat chorus of voices not unlike Necrolius Anaxagorius’ own:
“Eternal Night,
Terror and blight,
Extinguish light,
Extinguish light!
Seven sources:
Lepers and corpses—
Souls and spirits!
Souls and spirits!”
“He took her life,” Father Luis shouted over them, “he consumed her soul. But I shall do neither, O evil prince. By fire shall thee yet live! By anguish thy soul shall remain in thy body. But it shall no longer belong to thee!” His rage broke, his face insane: “An accursed vegetable, rotting inside, torn asunder, useless—WORTHLESS!”
Trajan’s head dipped into the liquid.
Maggie, riveted, heard the prince’s burbled shriek, saw the bubbles of his breath rise thickly to the top of the boiling piceous mixture. The undead congregation continued chanting as the priests cranked the wheel—
His entire torso was in. And as the chanting went on—
Trajan Chaundran had disappeared completely into the scalding liquid under the wheel. The undead rose to their feet, began marching and stumbling counterclockwise while still chanting. The incense-waving priest walked solemnly to Father Luis’ side, where they prayed silently, their heads bowed together. The two cranking the wheel patiently waited. Presently the Inquisitor looked up, said something in Latin, and the two priests at the wheel resumed their work as the one with the incense took the bloody knife from the pedestal, wiped it ceremonially on white cloth of some kind, then wrapped it carefully in the same before stuffing it in his cloak and moving away.
Prince Trajan Chaundran emerged from the liquid.
The sight dropped Maggie to her knees, and she began wretching. Her stomach tried expelling nothingness, the convulsions going on and on. She cried and hiccupped as she gagged, her stomach seizing painfully. But she couldn’t look away, as though her choice to cut off the promptings had also cut off her ability to blind herself to that which she just had to witness, what the promptings tried warning her away from.
Trajan’s body smoked like overdone bacon, his blackened skin bubbling, his eyes sucked into his skull, his mouth belching great explosive torrents of excrement-befouled fluid. He still shrieked, unbelievably, inhumanly, his body thrashing as though electrified against the rim of the wheel he was fixed upon. Father Luis Diaz de Luco Mendoza stepped forward until he stood just inches from his victim. Somehow over the man’s screams she heard him say:
“The wages of sin is death, Prince Trajan Chaundran. But you shall yet live—you who have sinned most egregiously against so many thousands, against me, against my own blood.
“Have I not shown you infinite mercy this day? Have I not spared you the judgment only the Most High can exact, and which your master has wrongly appropriated and feels is his sole right?
“Yes, My Lord, you shall live. But you shall not know it. Instead you shall know and feel nothing from this day forward but the eternal and eternally deep misery you know and feel now; and when your master yanks the Emasculatem from your neck, the punishment I have meted out will be made inescapable ...”
Luis reached inside his cloak, produced a vial of holy water. He stepped two paces back.
“... and permanent.”
Raising his voice, he shouted in a singsong fashion:
“Your soul is forfeit, Vanerrincourt Trajan Chaundran, deposed heir of the Aquanicentra Thronehead! In the name of the Father and the Son—” He raised the vial over his head, hurled the liquid in it at the prince in the form of a cross, vertically then horizontally. The water splashed on the prince’s bubbling flesh and he went up like a log doused in gasoline, blue flames entirely engulfing his body, raging and crackling high into the orange-red sky.
“—and the thing forever denied you now: the Holy Spirit!
Maggie, numb from horror, came staggeringly to her feet as the intense heat of the flames washed over her and as the Spanish Inquisitor stepped away from his handiwork, raising and opening his arms and ecstatically throwing his head back to the sky. A tremendous earthquake shook the ground at that moment, and before she reeled backward, stumbling, her head crashing down hard on a thick slab of rubble and knocking her unconscious, she could swear that the entire world around her was blowing away like iron filings in a high wind—iron filings mixed with dust and garbage and death, polluted, filthy, impure.
She came to with a start, stood too quickly, and fell back hard on her butt, her head and stomach swimming. Tried again. The ground beneath her lurched, impacted something, and she fell again. She scrambled frantically to her feet, groping about in the darkness for support. As her aching head cleared she realized she was no longer in the broken rubble of a tremendous cathedral surrounded by zombies and a lunatic Inquisitor—her friend—as he ritualistically tortured Necrolius’ first. She was back in Trajan’s quarters, on board the Gyssian flagship.
Another lurch, another impact. The muffled sounds of wood grinding on wood; the sharp cry of metal twisting, fatiguing, snapping.
Her eyes adjusted slowly to the deep gloom, her legs like limp noodles, the muscles in her stomach cramped and aching. She gingerly rubbed the back of her neck, looked around.
The Dreamcatcher was gone. Luis was gone. Riparius—was gone.
But Prince Trajan Chaundran was not. Still bound by Unsolvable sinews, his now-pupilless eyes stared unblinkingly upward, vacant, cold, changed to the same deathly blue hue as the flames that had consumed him. His skin was warped and blistered, his mouth drooling and open, purple and split. He rasped wildly for air as the ship lurched again.
Luis had wrecked his soul. Had befouled it. Had mutilated it beyond recognition. All to torture him forever. Maggie had watched him do it. She felt the urge to vomit again overwhelm her senses; she fiercely fought it off, turning away and rushing for the door.
Nothing resisted her this time, nothing repelled her, nothing pushed her back. She passed through it, feeling the fibrous wood against her spirit—and tripped over something large. She fell hard on her stomach, her wrists flashing agony beneath her.
Crying, she came instantly to her feet  and glanced down. She’d tripped over a body. The dead-staring Tracluse lay sprawled on his back at her feet, a dagger hilt-deep in his neck. Maggie turned away, shuddering, and continued up the passageway, stumbling over demons and Tracluse, all dead. The entire ship, dead.
All except the only human being Emperor Necrolius Anaxagorius had ever loved.
But Maggie had no doubt who had suffered the worst possible fate this evening.
Odd sunlight. It came brightly and heavily red-tinted down the stairwell, illuminating her path forward. It was morning—surely the day of the battle. She picked her way around the gruesome corpses and rushed to the top of the stairs, stepping over more bodies. Men were shouting in the distance; she gained the landing with some effort, trying to hear what they were saying just as a crippling chill swept through her and another jarring impact sent her slamming into the wall to her left. She righted herself, stopped walking, and hunched over against the deep, vicious cold. It seemed entirely unlikely that mornings on Aquanus would dawn below—way below—freezing, as this had to be.
And then it came to her with a stomach-dropping shock that the morning air wasn’t this cold. She had felt this exact same deathly chill as she watched Espriella die.
He was coming.
The promptings had returned. This one rang like a church bell, terrifyingly clear, a direct and dire warning:
Panicked, she shrieked, “I wish to be back on the Nicomacus! I wish to be back on the Nicomacus!
She lifted feebly off the top deck like an old helium balloon too deflated to float. Settled weakly back.
She couldn’t leave! She couldn’t leave!
And he was coming!
She hurried towards the bow. The prince’s flagship was grinding against another, smaller warship, its great jibboom shattered, its vast sails unmoored and snapping in the sky, the captain’s wheel unmanned and spinning wildly. Men and demons were shouting from that ship and flashing off to board this one. Gyssian corpses lay everywhere before her, or hung from beams above her, swaying and creaking with the motion of the sea and the random crunching impacts, or were piled on one another, knives and swords and arrows sticking out of them, pools of green and red blood everywhere. She stepped around the bodies, over them, between them, trying to avoid stepping in the gore but finding it impossible, rushing as fast as she could. She had to get off. She had to get off now! NOW!
Swirling motion above her.
She glanced up ... and up ... and up ...
The Omem’s blood veil was much, much closer, probably less than twenty miles away. Directly above, descending straight for her out of the blue sky, came a black streak of motion. It touched down on deck ten feet in front of her with a rumble like a mountainous avalanche of corpses bearing down on her, gathering, substantiating ...
The Black Coffin himself stood directly in her path, the fathomless cowl pointed right at her as though he could see her. His arms raised and spread wide, his green hands aiming her way, those long, thin, evil fingers straightening ...
The single second it took for her to gather her rapidly dissolving wits sank its sharpened nails into her windpipe, cutting off her voice. But then the second was gone, and with caustic relief she screamed: “I WISH TO RETURN TO THE V-NICOMACUS RIGHT NOW!”
She watched, helplessly petrified, as Necrolius floated straight towards her. But then, just as he was almost on top of her, she was suddenly enveloped by some sort of whitish-bluish light that wrapped around her, intensifying by the second ...
She clenched her eyes shut as she felt her feet lift off the deck of the Gyssian flagship just as the emperor’s church choir-like Voice blasted through her brain:
The bright light dissipated an instant later, sparkling out of existence. Maggie blinked her teary eyes open, fighting acute vertigo as it came clear to her that she was back on the V-Nicomacus, on its top deck, safe. Red light flooded completely over her, casting the vessel into hellish relief. She looked up.
The Omem’s blood veil rose just a mile or so behind her—behind the ship itself—tens of thousands of feet tall. It seemed to flow, seemed to be alive, like a gargantuan waterfall, with long, languid fingers of gore falling slowly into the sea, coloring it a shimmering pinkish-red. Where the veil touched the water an extended, brilliant line of continuous aecxes sparkled like a long line of diamonds under bright lights, running the entire ten or twenty mile length of the curtain. Maggie’s mind still rang with Necrolius’ order to his “children,” but who were his children? What did his order mean?
Her attention was jerked into the present moment with a loud bark right next to her, the voice belonging to someone she’d heard before:
Malesherbes Quartermane.
“Come around to two-one-five mark nine-nine, all weapons on full standby! Signal the Empiricus that we’re in position. Resignal the Southern Contingent not to sail more than two misons from Infinitus—that is, if they want to live another day. Remember our objective: to defend Ae Infinitus. Captain Osenello, the Nico is yours. May the spirits of the Great Piers guide your way!”
“Where away, Commander?”
Maggie looked. It was the first time she had gotten more than a passing glimpse at Conor Kieran’s mentor’s face. It was like looking into the face of determination itself wrought into human features. The gray-blue eyes of the Supreme Commander of Conor’s utterly inadequate armada replied:
“Where to? Ha! To gut Gyssians of course!”
The entire command ship came alive, roaring. Captain Osenello slapped Quartermane’s back as the Commander flashed, becoming a golden eagle, winging out over the Omem-bloodied sea. The crew was still yelling when a brilliant flash and jarring crack of thunder caught Maggie’s attention, caught their attention. She looked over the water.
Out of the distant haze beyond the islands that on Earth were known as the Coronados rose the massive sails of the Gyssians, the broadsword thrust down through a flaming ring repeating and repeating and repeating and repeating, close together and billowing, north to south, for as far as she could see. The sky out there, quite unexpectedly, was completely clear of demons and Tracluse and Saeire Insu: no angrily swarming patrols squaring off, no sun-blotting, circling, misshapen malice bearing down on the fleet. Only low, lazily drifting, puffy-white clouds which sparkled brightly and vanished from existence once they breezed overhead and into the blood veil. Maggie thought this was the origin of the flash, but it wasn’t. The flash and the thunder came again, well away from the gore curtain and towards the evil marauders, a good mile or more directly above Ae Infinitus.
The Saeire Insu went into a wild frenzy. They yelled and pumped their fists into the air, waving their swords and lances and bows towards the source of the light.
“It’s the king! The king! It’s the sign he told us to look for! It’s him—look!
The light dimmed for a moment, then brightened into a blinding and sustained supernova with towering radial shafts of yellow-white light. It held, then changed colors abruptly, turning green and blue, forming a mighty V with a cross overlay. The flag of Vanerrincourt! As the thunder of that flag cracked across the armada, the light changed to a flag featuring an albatross over a red coat-of-arms, flashing magnificently; then another deafening crack and it was shiny silver swords crossed beneath a white dove; then twin gleaming-green dragons curling over Ammalinaeus; then gold lances over four blue crescent moons; then sea horses with ruby eyes on each side of a scarlet-and-gold crown; then green-blue palm leaves against the broad banded rings of Ammalinaeus; then what looked like a Keeper surrounding a series of differently sized stars arranged in an arc; then what looked like spires bordering concentric golden rings; then a dolphin and a whale swimming through the vinelike stem of a beautiful white rose. With each thundering change, the boats shouted and stomped riotously. The Mathematician who had led them here to the edge of the world was presenting the flags of the ten nations of the mutineers who had come with him. With a great, crackling, booming display of circular lightning, the final flag emerged: a brown-and-white seahawk with a bloody talon swooping down on King Ammalinaeus himself. The flag of these ten nations united, the Saeire Insu: The Ten Fingers of Insurrection. With this last came the loudest ovation of all. There was no way the Gyssians had missed the lightning show.
Maggie stood awed and calmed at the same time. She was afraid to move, afraid that doing so would release the vision before her and the jaw-dropping amazement coursing through her.
“Look!” yelled a warrior next to her. “Look!”
She looked away, looked back. As she did, something astonishing happened. The Saeire Insu flag faded, and as it did she could see the Red Talon himself as though just thirty feet above her, sitting on the back of his proud sea horse Ion. His crimson cape blew back against the steed’s beautiful fan just behind him, the lizard and the snake of the Pearl-Yang Serpenthelm glowing brightly on his shoulders. The armada must have seen the same thing, because they were going crazy. When she looked away, the vision was replaced with the shafts of interlacing lightning creating the Saeire Insu flag. She returned her focus and fixed her gaze upon Conor, the horrors of the previous night reluctantly dissolving away with the sights and emotions pouring down like a heavenly cloudburst on her now.
The king spoke—she saw his mouth move—and his Irish Voice powered through her spirit:
Well, look at them. Fifty-five days on the open sea, fifty-five days of chasing us—and what do they have to show for it? Their sails are as limp as a dead man’s flute!—
The Nicomacus’ crew laughed and yelled and stomped. Maggie tore her eyes from the king, looking out at the other ships of his fleet. The warriors out there were shouting as well. Despite their considerable distance, she swore she could hear them, could feel their pride, their ferocity, their fear, their anticipation. These feelings stole over her more and more, pulling her into their swirling, mixing, irresistible current. The monarch holding fast above his navy had their complete attention; she knew that the approaching Gyssians were watching (and listening), too. She looked back up at the king, felt that current pull her away from the shores of restraint, felt the vision of him swell her heart.
His Voice roared,  —Look at them, and have no fear! The Gyssian boil is huge, but the Saeire Insu lance is sharp. And we shall lance that boil, yes we shall! We shall send them and their little shadowy emperor back to Hell, where they can swell and pus on the Devil’s own arse!—
The Saeire Insu raised their voices to such a frightful level that Maggie thought she would go deaf. But it didn’t matter to her now, because, against everything she had been through to this point, and against the terrible visions of just a few hours ago, she too was pumping her own fists in the air and stomping and yelling. For one last moment she disconnectedly thought of Trajan Chaundran, then of Father Luis—of Riparius—and wondered where her frightening friend was, if he had made it safely back to the fleet. The inhuman torture she had witnessed last night by his hand was completely subsumed by the torrent of zeal exuding from the warriors, as though Conor’s indomitable will had smashed the horrific visions beneath his heel, to be swept forgetfully up later—after the battle. Now wasn’t the time to consider them, which she knew she would have to. Now was the time to fight. To survive.
The yelling had scarcely subsided a single decibel when Conor’s Voice sounded again in her soul:
Do not fear the veil of blood: sail through it! It is Omem blood—the blood of a great Keeper itself! Any Mephastophian that touches it this day shall catch fire and perish, and will start a chain reaction that will burn all its evil brethren to ashes! They hide, bound and helpless, so as not to see it or what shall become of it! They hide like cowards! Cowards! So sail through the veil—it will touch or affect nothing else—for in a moment it shall become something no ‘child’ of Necrolius can resist! Then turn your swords and cannons and arrows on the Tracluse and destroy them all, for that is all our fine emperor has left to fight with!—
This surprising news seemed to embolden the warriors tenfold, who now, as one, started shouting one word in reply:
Conor Kieran, becoming somber and quiet, continued.
Remember your homes this day, for they have been burned to the ground. Remember the seas you once sailed—for they are now poisoned and barren. Remember the days of peace, the days of sunshine, the days of gentle rain, and the days of worship—for they have been spoilt and outlawed. Remember this day your loved ones, those you left behind, for they are likely dead—or worse. And remember those among us, your compatriots, who gave their lives on the voyage here, for … for they ...—
He paused. Maggie watched him swallow hard, blink rapidly, his eyes glistening.
—... for they shall be remembered ... remembered as ... friends ... and more ... as heroes....—
The word echoed against the distant cliffs of the peninsula, against the hulls of the warships, against the Great Arch above and into the frightful sails of the Gyssians, whose ships loomed larger and larger out of the haze. It echoed and returned as power personified, to rouse every warrior to give his all—or to die trying.
You are fighting for them—for all of them,— said their king. —We are ten nations—the last ten nations of Aquanus. We have called ourselves the Saeire Insu: ‘The Ten Fingers of Insurrection.’— He took a visibly deep breath, and then he thundered, shaking his fist: —But today I say we are the Saeire BAER—
An awe-inspiring, ear-splitting, unified cry rolled across the entire armada that moment, across the sea, through the hearts and souls of all ten nations and the fighters standing in defense of each: a cry of fearsome pride and devastating wrath, a cry that flattened the blood-soaked sea and crushed the jutting black cliffs, a cry that shot through the vast silver-green archway overhead and into eternal space, waking the dragon mother Satelemark herself.
The king finished:
And with that the Red Talon turned Ion, releasing the reins and raising his hands, pointing his fingers at the towering blood veil. Intense white lightning shot forth from them, striking the blood an instant later; and as the warriors shouted “SATELEMARK! SATELEMARK! SATELEMARK!”, raising their weapons and stomping their feet, and as the thunder from the aecxal lighting crashed down on their heads, the veil caught fire with a deafening, roaring WHOOOOOOOOOSH!, engulfing the entire shroud, the spectral flames thousands of feet high, like side-to-side glowing waterfalls falling up not down, flames that flowed towards the top miles and miles above.
Maggie’s solar plexus reverberated—thump!thump!thump! Cannonfire! Necrolius’ mighty navy had been engaged in battle. She craned out to see what was happening, but a powerful prompting called to her—
Follow the king.
She glanced up. The magnificent vision of Conor Kieran and the Saeire Insu flag had faded away, replaced by a sparkling comet’s tail of bright aecxes as Ion streaked far overhead towards the Coronados Islands to the south.
As badly as she wanted to stay with the crew of the Nicomacus, she immediately thought: I wish to follow the king.
She had learned her lesson. She would never ignore or cut off those promptings again.
She flew off deck as off an aircraft carrier, accelerating like a fighter jet. She looked right, then back over her shoulder. The Gyssians were here—overwhelmingly here. They rose sluggishly, portentously out of the south sea towards the very islands Conor was heading for; more came straight along Ae Infinitus behind her. Their numbers were daunting, numbing. And in their path was an utterly insufficient smattering of Saeire Insu just minutes away, sailing straight for them—suicidally for them!
Thump! thump!—thump!thump!thump!———BOOOOOOM!
The cannonfire was coming from well behind her, from north of Ae Infinitus. It came in long rolls and short, random staccatos, the entire sea reflecting the dazzling, roaring fire curtain to the left and behind her—a roar that was indistinguishable from the sounds of crashing surf created by a large gale. She said a prayer for the boats she had flown over yesterday, for the men and women aboard them. The battle was being joined there, and it sounded mercilessly fierce.
She watched as Saeire Insu destroyers emerged through the fire wall, unharmed and unchanged in any way, sailing straight for battle. She thought of her hand, of how the Omem blood (the Omem was a Keeper?) had burned it badly. Why didn’t it do the same to Conor’s warriors and materiel? Or were they right now feeling the scalding touch of Omem blood too? She doubted they did, and wondered why she was different.
It occurred to her that moment that the miles-high wall of glowing flame was heatless. It was heatless! The light it cast upon the waters shimmered blindingly, the sun a minor round spot rising above it—but there was no heat at all coming from it! Maggie wanted to think more on this miracle, but the sounds of distant explosions behind her ripped her attention away, brought her to pray impulsively again:
Dear God, protect them! Please—protect them!
She shuddered. The Gyssians would be swarming over them by now in numbers to stagger the mind. Five?—ten?—twenty?—more?—for every single Saeire Insu warrior. Were those explosions from dying Saeire Insu warships? What was happening to the tens of thousands of demons who were told to hide, bound, in the bellies of the Gyssian destroyers?
More explosions. They concussed the air, sent hollow shocks up her spine. Along with the great fire curtain shooting flames the size of mountain peaks miles into the blue morning sky, it looked and sounded as though the apocalypse had come to Aquanus!
She wasn’t catching up to Ion and the king. He had streaked away at blinding speed, the sparkling contrail of sea horse aecxes raining down in an arcing trail to the westernmost island. To the sounds of utter pandemonium she shot over the long, high ridge of that island and, locating Conor and the sea horse near the edge of a barren, rocky cliff, floated slowly down towards them.