The font of knowledge: a rarely examined trope

By Scott Bury

Last week, Autumn Birt discussed villains and raised some interesting points about whether villains are truly evil, or just have different goals from the heroes.

It would be fascinating to continue this examination of heroes and villains, good and evil, absolutism and relativism. But today, I want to discuss another common trope in all literature, including fantasy, that doesn’t get much attention from critics but plays an indispensible part of almost every story: the source of arcane knowledge.

Keeping any story moving sometimes requires the protagonist to acquire knowledge of remote events, characters or items.

Statue of Perseus by  Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with Medusa’s head

Perseus, for example, had to search for the Grey Sisters or Witches, three sisters who shared a single eye and tooth. Only they could tell him where he would find the Hesperides, who would give him what he needed to slay Medusa the Gorgon.

How the Grey Sisters knew that information is never revealed, and in fact is not important to the story of Perseus. It’s just important that Perseus learns this so he can behead the Gorgon and from there kill King Polydectes and protect his mother.

Gandalf is the source of arcane knowledge in The Hobbit. He gives Thorin Oakenshield the map that shows the location of the secret entrance to the Lonely Mountain, and also explains the fate of Thorin’s father, Thrain. Gandalf is also the source for uncounted old tales and background facts.

In Bruce Blake’s Icarus Fell series, the archangel Gabriel mysteriously appears just to give the protagonist, Icarus, little scrolls with the names of the souls he has to transport to heaven, as well as the location to bring them for the journey. How she gets this information, and how souls are chosen for salvation, is never really explained—and anyway, who are we to question archangels?

This structure shows up not only in fantasy, but in other genres as well. In the TV series Criminal Minds, for example, Penelope Garcia is

Penelope Garcia

Penelope Garcia of Criminal Minds, played by Kirsten Vangsness

a continual source of critical background information that she unearths from any database in the world. The show hints that she has unmatched computer hacking abilities as well as software and skills that allow her to cross-reference all sorts of things in seconds.

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the mysterious hacker Wasp provides clues and facts for the protagonists. And at various points, Lisbet becomes both the protagonist and the font of knowledge.

I don’t know how many Hollywood movies feature a character popping up at a crucial point to impart a little factoid that the hero needs. How they get the information is never explained, and when you think about it, you realize how improbable it is that someone would find this information so easily.

But working that out would take a lot of time, and slow down the story. Good storytellers know when to skim over details that would only distract the audience from the important part, anyway.

The point is, the font of knowledge is an important role in any story—as important as a hero and a villain, because without him or her, the story just cannot happen.

…A Book By Its Cover

by Bruce Blake

I know, I know…it’s Halloween and I really should be posting something with a holiday theme: monsters, frights, or favourite horror stories. I considered it, but Scott did such a good job on his post a couple of days ago, What Scares You?, that I thought I’d let that do the Guild’s fright night talking and I’d carry on about something entirely different.

To that end, my Halloween subject? Book covers.

I was at the library the other day, browsing for something to read, when I caught myself doing something…I’d pick up a book, look at its cover and if it didn’t catch my attention, I’d put it back. If it did, then I’d go on to read the blurb and if that sounded good, I’d flip the book open and read the first page. Ultimately, it’s the first page that convinces me to buy or check out a book, but I really do judge a book by its cover.

A big change I’ve noticed in the almost two years since I published ON UNFAITHFUL WINGS is in the quality of book covers found on self-published books. Once upon a time, it was easy to tell which books were put out by a traditional publisher and which were not. The electronic book shelves abounded with stock image covers marred by glued-on fonts that typically didn’t work too well. Sometime in the last twenty-four months, indie authors en masse seem to have realized that people really do judge a book by its cover and most went out and hired professionals to do the work they didn’t have the skills to pull off themselves.

And thank heaven for that.

The cover of ON UNFAITHFUL WINGS has gone through four versions during its close to two year run. It began with the typical novice author mistake…I designed my own. I started with a moody stock image I really liked. In fact, I’d already used it for the self-made cover of a short story called ‘Wave Songs’. I liked it so much, I couldn’t imagine using anything else.

Man leaning towards the sea. Húsavík, Faroe Islands.To this, I added the title, subtitle, and my name in fancy fonts and interesting colours and…voila, a snazzy book cover, or so I thought.

Man leaning towards the sea. Húsavík, Faroe Islands. After a short while, I thought this needed to by snazzed up even more. I delved into GIMP, fished out some special effects, and put my rather limited graphic arts skills to work (I’d like to point out that I am a writer, so please don’t hold my poor visual abilities against me).

Man leaning towards the sea. Húsavík, Faroe Islands.I still have a few paperbacks with this cover lying around the house, so if anyone is in love with it and doesn’t mind the fact the prose needs a little more editing…drop me a line and we’ll work something out.

Sales of ON UNFAITHFUL WINGS boomed, moving a whopping five to ten copies a month for a couple of months (please read a sarcastic tone into that line). Six months after the publication of the first Icarus Fell novel, book number two, ALL WHO WANDER ARE LOST, was ready to go, and I decided I’d reached my limitations–it was time to bring in someone who had some real talent for book covers. Enter Travis of Pro Book Covers. We tossed around some ideas and the new look for Icarus was born, along with a theme to be carried through the series.

Icarus Fell, urban fantasy, On Unfaithful Wings, Dresden Files

On Unfaithful Wings Version 3.0

All Who Wander Are Lost, urban fantasy, Hell, demon, devil, Icarus Fell

All Who Wander Are Lost

Much better. I was happy to have covers that didn’t look like a writer decided to try his hand at graphic design. ALL WHO WANDER was published, the KHIRRO’S JOURNEY trilogy came next (covers also designed by Travis) and a year later, it was time for the next Icarus book. Surprise, surprise, the fickle author decided a new book meant a new direction for the covers. Much as I liked these ones, I felt like they were too dark and had too much flame, so Travis and I went back to the drawing board (well, Travis did, really…I sent a few emails). To celebrate the release of SECRETS OF THE HANGED MAN, new covers were born.

On Unfaithful Wings, Icarus Fell, urban fantasy, Jim Butcher

On Unfaithful Wings Version 4

All Who Wander Are Lost, Bruce Blake, Icarus Fell, urban fantasy, hell, devil, demon

All Who Wander Are Lost Version 2

Secrets of the Hanged Man, Icarus Fell, urban fantasy, Dresden Files, Jim Bitcher, demon

Secrets of the Hanged Man

I feel like these covers are eye-catching, give a sense of genre (urban fantasy), and look professional…quite a change from the first version I cobbled together. The best part is, the more I work with my cover artist, the better we understand each other. I really feel like we’ve grown together over the last few years, right up to the production of the cover for my latest book, WHEN SHADOWS FALL, which I think kicks some serious butt.

When Shadows Fall, Small Gods, epic fantasy, fantasy adventure, George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones, A Song of Ice and Fire

WHEN SHADOWS FALL
(The First Book of the Small Gods)

So what about you? What are your favourite covers, yours or someone else’s? What do you think separates a good cover from a not-so-good cover?

And for those of you who were disappointed at my lack of Halloween post, here is the nasty little pumpkin who will be meeting all the little trick-or-treaters who darken my door…Happy Halloween!

Halloween, scary, jack o' lantern, frightening, monster, pumpkin—–

Bruce Blake is the author of three Icarus Fell urban fantasies, the KHIRRO’S JOURNEY epic fantasy trilogy, and WHEN SHADOWS FALL (The First Book of the Small Gods). The Second Book of the Small Gods will be out in mid-December if he doesn’t eat too much Halloween candy and put himself into a sugar coma with the first round of editing only partially complete.

Promo Update #1

By Bruce Blake

I’m a little behind on getting this post up, but better late than never, as they say. Happily, I’m late because I’m just about to publish the second part of a six part erotica serial I’m co-authoring with my wife (feel free to make inappropriate comments below), I just got the full trilogy collection of Khirro’s Journey published, and I only have three and a half chapters left in the first draft of Icarus #3.

cover2Back on April 10, I did a post detailing my plans for promo for the month of April. The first segment of this plan was centered around a KDP Select free giveaway of the second Icarus Fell novel, All Who Wander Are Lost, so let’s take a look at that.

I ran the free giveaway for three days, April 17-19. I’ve had some good success with free promos in the past, having come close to giving away 10,000 copies of On Unfaithful Wings on each of three occasions. The last of these was in January when I paid for an ad in BookBub and had over 9000 downloaded. I considered this a success because I also did a sale on the second book and had enough spillover sales to more than pay for the ad.

This time, I chose to submit to all the usual places to try to get the free promo listed…a proposition that is becoming  more and more difficult now that Amazon has changed their rules for affiliates. I paid for two guaranteed listings–one on Kindle Book Review ($5) and one on Bargain eBook Hunter ($10) and the listing was run on a number of others, but not on Pixel of Ink or eReader News Today–the two big non-paid listings. My success in the past has normally been linked to showing up with them.

The result? A little over 2000 downloads during the course of the three-day giveaway/

What didn’t work: I can’t say for sure that the money I spent on the guaranteed listings contributed to any downloads. It seems that the big three–Pixel of Ink, eReader News Today, and BookBub–are the keys to having a high number of downloads. Not sure I would spend it again…but it was only $15.

What did work:I put the first Icarus book on sale for $2.99 during the three days of the free promo and had it written into the description for the free book. This produced some extra sales (about 26) that wouldn’t have happened without it and paid for the guaranteed listings plus some. Another things that I was very happy with was listing the promo on Susanne Weigand’s www.xtme.de. Because of that, I had more free downloads in Germany than ever before–more than three times the number downloaded through amazon.uk.

What’s next?

From April 25-29, I have two of my books on sale for 99 cents–On Unfaithful Wings (Icarus #1) and Blood of the King (Khirro’s Journey Book 1).  For this, I have invested considerably more money.final covesmallr On Unfaithful Wings will be listed in BookBub on Apr. 28. For $180, the book will be included in an email newsletter that has over 170,000 subscribers; I also submitted it to be listed in Pixel of Ink at no cost, but that is completely up in the air. Of course, the second Icarus book will also be on sale for $2.99 and referenced in Unfaithful’s description, as will the 99 cent price for BOTK.

BLOOD3Blood will be a spotlight book on KindleBoards’ blog (which includes their Facebook page, Twitter mentions, their newsletter and a listing in the Bargain Booksy email newsletter) on April 27, all for $50. On April 28, I have a listing in StoryFinds ($25), Book Blast ($10) and Free Kindle Books and Tips ($25). That makes a total of $100 spent to promote Blood of the King’s 99 cent sale (and I submitted it to POI, too). As with Unfaithful, I have modified the book description to reflect the sale prices of $2.99 on the second and third parts of the trilogy, and the 99 cent price on Icarus #1.

Total spent: $280. This means I either have to sell 800 of the 99 cent books to make back my investment, or I must have enough sell-through to the other books…or both.

My fingers are crossed…I’ll see you back here sometime next week with the results.

—–

Bruce Blake is a self-published author of five novels who just wishes all he had to do was write instead of having to figure out all this promo stuff.

What to do About Promo

By Bruce Blake

A while ago, I sort of short-changed everyone on a post and promised to do better when there was a hole in the action, so here I am. I

A hole that needs filling, not the one filled by this post.

A hole that needs filling, not the one filled by this post.

didn’t receive a lot of votes on what to write about, but one request was to do something about promotion (sorry, Autumn…I’ll get to those unlikable characters another time).

It is a timely post for me as I’ve seen my sales drop significantly after laying off the promotion for what has turned out to be too long. I had a great January–which included a free run for the first Icarus Fell novel, On Unfaithful Wings, that I advertised on BookBub–and followed up with an only slightly less successful February in which I did no real promo. Then came March and I started to wonder where all the sales had gone. Hmmm…no promo=no sales? Who knew?

It is time to remedy that situation, so here’s what I’ve got coming up:

The second Icarus Fell novel, All Who Wander Are Lost, will be available for free on Kindle April 17-19. I’ve sent notices to a dozen or more websites about it (and will continue to send more), plus paid for guaranteed listings on three of the bigger ones.

Blood of the King (Khirro’s Journey Book 1) will be going on sale for 99 cents beginning April 25 and I have purchased advertising in the KindleBoards newsletter as well as StoryFinds. This will run at the same time as a 99 cent sale for On Unfaithful Wings, for which I have purchased an ad on BookBub for April 28th. My plan is to change my description of On Unfaithful Wings to include the BOTK sale (as well as a discounted price on other books) to pick up some extra sales.

sign-24017_640All told, I have invested around $250 in this month’s promo. Why do I tell you this? Because some of you might want to see the cause and effect. I will post updates to the blog here to let you know how things turn out and you can all see if the time, effort and expenditure is worth it. I don’t mind being the guinea pig.

See you in a week or so.

—–

Bruce Blake is the author of five novels, including the Icarus Fell urban fantasy novels and the Khirro’s Journey epic fantasy trilogy. He is currently writing the third Icarus novel and co-authoring a historical erotic romance adventure about lady pirates with his wife, burlesque performer Miss Rosie Bitts.

Fantastic Fantasy Freebies!!!

To celebrate Thanksgiving, the Guild of Dreams are offering you extra reasons to be thankful!

For two days only–Nov. 20 and 21–choose one or all of 4 great fantasy novels to help celebrate the season!

November 20 and 21 only: 

You can download four fantastic Guild of Dreams fantasy books for FREE!

THE BONES OF THE EARTH

By Scott Bury

The Dark Age, eastern Europe: theearth has decided to rid itself of humanity with earthquakes, volcanoes and new plagues. Civilizations, even the mighty Roman Empire, crumble under the pressure of barbarian waves that are fleeing worse terrors.

Rejected by his own people, pursued by a dragon, young Javor heads for Constantinople, the centre of civilization, looking for answers to the puzzle of his great-grandfather’s dagger and the murder of his family.

On the ancient, crumbling Roman highway across haunted, deserted Dacia, Javor rescues the beautiful Danisa from a human sacrifice. He cannot help falling in love with her. But Danisa has her own plans, and when she is kidnapped again, Javor has to wonder: what is the connection between his dagger, his lover and his enemies?

Download FREE from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Bones-Earth-Dark-ebook/dp/B006PI0NRG/

ALL WHO WANDER ARE LOST:

An Icarus Fell Novel

By Bruce A. Blake

Icarus Fell’s life sucked. Then he died and things got really bad.

After muggers killed him, Icarus became a harvester, his job to help souls on their way to Heaven, and it turned out he possessed as little talent for this as he did for every other job he lost. People are dead. The deposed Angel of Death nearly took his teenage son. The Archangel Michael is angry with him and the police think he is a serial killer.

The only one left on his side is his guardian angel, but when he asks her to help him get to Hell to rescue the souls wrongly condemned because of him, she refuses to go against Michael’s wishes.

Then another guardian shows up. Piper is beautiful, mysterious, and willing to help. Having her around turns Icarus’ afterlife upside down. But knowing how to get to Hell is only half of the problem.

Getting back with your soul is the real challenge.

Get All Who Wander Are Lost for free from Amazon.

BLOOD SKIES (Book 1)

by Steven Montano

Free on Smashwords through November 25th!

In the time after The Black, human survivors of the Southern Claw Alliance clash with vampire legions of the Ebon Cities in a constant war for survival. Earth as we know it has been forever damaged by an arcane storm that fused our world with distant realms of madness and terror. Things that once existed only in our nightmares stalk the earth.

Now, humanity is threatened by one of its own.

Eric Cross, an enlisted warlock in the Southern Claw military, is part of an elite team of soldiers and mages in pursuit of a woman known as Red — a witch whose stolen knowledge threatens the future of the human race. The members of Viper Squad will traverse haunted forests and blighted tundra in their search for the traitor, a journey that ultimately leads them to the necropolis of Koth.

There, in that haven of renegade undead, Cross will discover the dark origins of magic, and the true meaning of sacrifice…

Experience a dark and deadly new world in the debut novel of the “Blood Skies” series from author Steven Montano

Get Blood Skies for free at Smashwords http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/64748

Enter Coupon Code: EL47N in the Shopping Cart.

BORN OF WATER

By Autumn M. Birt

In the buried archives of the Temple of Dust may lie the secret to defeating the Curse, a creature which seeks to destroy 16 year old Ria for the forbidden gifts she possesses. But it is from among the ranks of those who control the Curse where Ria will find her best chance of success. Only the Priestess Niri can save Ria from the forces that hunt her, if Niri doesn’t betray the girl first. Along with Ria comes Ty and his sister, Lavinia, both bound to defend Ria from the Church of Four Orders and Niri, if they must. However, Ty has been living a life less than honest and keeping it from his sister. To survive a journey that takes them across the breadth of their world, the four must learn to trust each other before pursuit from the Church and Ty’s troubled past find them.

Download Born of Water for free from Smashwords at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/220915

Enter Coupon Code SQ46H in the Shopping Cart.

Or from Amazon.

 

It’s All About Character

Over the past week or so here at the Guild, we have been writing about lines and scenes from our own novels and from our favourites from other authors that have stuck with us. It occurred to me that there is one constant amongst all these witty lines of dialogue, wonderful descriptions, and involving scenes: someone said, perceived, or lived them. A memorable character.

In my post, I talked about how I often don’t remember specific lines from novels, but I do remember the scenes and the feelings they left me with. Often, those scenes involve characters the author has made me care about deeply. In Susan Cooper’s Dawn of Fear, it’s not the way she described the rubble caused by the bomb that brought a tear to my eye, it was the loss of a friend, and the way her character reacted. Characters like the Tin Man, Hermione Granger, Ebenezer Scrooge and Gandalf the Grey become such a part of our culture, and a part of us, that I don’t even have to name what books they came from or who the authors were.

But where do these characters come from? How does an author develop them?

I can only answer that question from my own point of view, one with which you might be disappointed, because it’s neither magic nor hard work.

I write them into existence.

Oh, I’ve tried filling out long, detailed character descriptions like I was adding them to the census. I’ve pondered their political views, wondered what their best friend’s neighbour’s dog’s name was, which Zimbabwean lacrosse team was their favourite, and how often they choose Sanka over Nescafe, but the results have always felt forced. Instead of beginning with a portrait, I start out with a sketch and fill in the details as I go.

I like the character to tell me about him or herself.

For instance, when I began writing On Unfaithful Wings, I knew the details about Icarus that I needed to know: divorced, strained relationship with his son, raised by the church, etc. I didn’t know he’d be a wealth of 70s and 80s pop culture trivia until I started writing and he got his voice. I still don’t know what he did for a living when he died, though I have my suspicions; I figure when the time is right, he’ll tell me. The same goes for his guardian angel, Poe. In the first book, I knew something had gone on in her past, something bad, but she was very secretive about it, embarrassed to tell me. It wasn’t until I wrote All Who Wander Are Lost that she told me, and then I understood why she’d been hesitant, but I also know there’s more to the story that she’s holding back. One of these days, she’ll let me in on the rest of her secrets.

The same is true for my upcoming epic fantasy, Blood of the King. I knew the necessities about my protagonist, Khirro: a farmer who didn’t want to leave home to be a soldier (sorry for the trope, but let’s face it, in that kind of culture, most people were farmers), disliked by his parents, on rocky ground with his girl. I didn’t find out that his father had lost his arm in an accident he blamed Khirro for until I wrote the second draft. The story of the Mourning Sword didn’t come to light until Athryn sat down on the log beside Khirro and told him the story of Monos the Necromancer, and inadvertently, the background of Darestat. I knew the rules before I started (there can be only one Necromancer; that magic steals energy from somewhere else to power it), but I had no idea that the Shaman and the Necromancer were so closely linked until the end of the book.

Let’s be clear on a few things:

1. I’m not suggesting that this is the way all authors develop their characters; it’s just what I do.

2. I’m not suggesting that this is the right way to develop characters; it’s just what I do.

3. All those things I don’t know about my characters, I will find out. I’m the curious type, so I’ll dig out of Icarus what he did for a living before he died, I’ll find out Poe’s secrets, and I’ll discover what Khirro did to cause the accident that cost his father his arm.

So let me ask you this…if you are a writer: how do you develop your characters? As a reader, what makes a character memorable? Who are your favourites?

If you want to find out more about Icarus and Poe, you can find the two Icarus Fell novels on Amazon. To learn about Khirro, you’ll have to wait until the end of the month for the release of Blood of the King (Khirro’s Journey Book 1).

See you then!

A Little Something New to Read

Things are pretty busy on the old writing front right now (and when I say writing, I mean writing, editing, planning, outlining, formatting and promotions. Whew). My first Icarus Fell novel, On Unfaithful Wings, is currently free on Kindle (if you’re reading this between July 19 and 21, go get a copy and tell your friends), and I just released the second in the series, All Who Wander Are Lost. You can get it for only $0.99 until the end of July (tell your friends that, too). I’m editing the first half of my Khirro’s Journey epic fantasy while finishing up the writing of the second half. Underneath it all, the rumblings of the third Icarus book are beginning. I won’t even mention the other 6 or 7 books waiting in the wings.

In All Who Wander Are Lost, Icarus gets himself into even more trouble when he decides to journey to Hell in order to bring back souls condemned due to his lackluster performance as a Harvester. The archangel Michael forbids it, his guardian angel refuses to help, but he still manages to find himself in the one place no one should never want to go.

Here’s a bit of the action:

I opened my eyes, half-expecting everything to be ablaze. It didn’t disappoint me to find it wasn’t the case. The gray sky looked like an average overcast day threatening rain, though I couldn’t discern any clouds, just gray. I breathed deep through my nose but didn’t smell brimstone or sulfur, only the earthy smell of the first rain after a lengthy dry spell.

About time, sleeping beauty.”

My neck creaked as I turned my head and gazed into the eerily blue eyes of Piper kneeling beside me. She smiled.

If this is Hell, count me in.

How long?”

A minute or two. Not long enough for brain damage.”

I’ll have to come up with another excuse.”

She stood and offered her hand, but I struggled to my feet on my own rather than risk the visions her touch was sure to insert in my mind. They weren’t unpleasant, but I’d rather have my wits about me in Hell than walk around with an erection. As I gained my feet I surveyed the area around us: a medium-sized stream burbled on our left, stretching to the horizon; a forest of twisted trees clogged our right. We stood on a swath of earth which accounted for all else.

Where are we?”

Hell,” she said as casually as if she’d told me ‘the grocery store.’

You sure? Doesn’t look like Hell.”

You were expecting a lake of fire, something like that?”

No, actually. Last time I visited, it was a deserted apartment building.”

She shrugged. “To each his own.”

She looked away and took a few paces toward the stream, leaving me to feel as though I’d lost a friend. My eyes followed her, and when I managed to tear them away, I noticed a small city perched on the far bank.

That wasn’t there before.

Is that where we’re going?”

I think so.”

You don’t know?”

She looked back over her shoulder with an expression of mock disdain.

I’m an angel, Icarus. Why should I know anything about Hell?”

Right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–”

You’ve been here more times than I have.”

That shut me up. Still, I didn’t know anything about the place, my exposure being limited to a fiery hallway in an abandoned apartment building and a few rooms which didn’t look like they belonged in Hell. Hardly detailed knowledge.

I walked toward the edge of the stream, fully intending to step in and make my way across. I enjoyed Piper’s company, but the sooner this expedition got underway, the sooner we’d get the Hell out of here, pardon the pun. My right foot was hovering over the water when her hand on my shoulder sent a shock through my spine.

Don’t go in the water.”

I returned my foot to dry land and shook my head as I dragged myself from her touch before all the blood left my brain. I blinked a few times to clear the mud from my thoughts.

Why not? I thought you said to go to the city.”

We do, but you can’t touch the water of the River Styx.”

I stared at her for a moment, looked at the stream, then back at her, trying not to laugh—I didn’t know if doing so would hurt her feelings—but couldn’t stop myself.

The River Styx. Really? Disappointing.”

She raised an eyebrow.

I expected something bigger, a bit more…torrential.”

I gazed back at the over-sized creek, searching the flowing water for signs of damned souls sliding by under its surface, eyes blank, mouths open in eternal screams. Think I saw one of those ornamental Japanese goldfish—koi. Big, but I didn’t notice any teeth.

How do we get to the other side?”

She looked left, then right. “I suppose we have to find the ferryman.”

The second the word cleared her lips, a solitary puff of fog appeared on the far bank. It roiled and moved in place for a minute, then struck out across the creek, misty tendrils trailing behind. A minute and a half later, it reached us. The fog cleared to reveal a flat-bottomed raft bearing a stooped old man with long pole in hand. A black patch covered one of his eyes, the other bulged and stared beside his hook nose; long, stringy hair hung past his shoulders. He looked enough like Marty Feldman’s rendition of Igor in Young Frankenstein that I expected Mel Brooks to shout: ‘Action!’.

Piper took a step toward the boat but I caught her by the sleeve of her shirt, stopping her.

Whatever you do, don’t pay him ’til we get to the other side.”

She looked at me like she thought she’d been wrong about the brain damage.

Come on…Chris de Burgh. ‘Don’t pay the Ferryman’. You must know it.”

She shook her head.

“‘The Lady in Red’? ‘Spanish Train’? ‘Patricia the Stripper’?”

A blank stare.

You guys need better tunes up in Heaven.”

Nothing worse than funny references your audience doesn’t understand. It felt like I was talking to my ex-wife—she never appreciated classic rock humor, either.

Are you done?”

I paused a second before nodding. She stepped onto the raft, making it rock gently; I hesitated but followed. The bent ferryman stared at us with his one eye but didn’t push off. I looked at him expectantly—this was his job, he should know what to do—then turned my gaze on Piper, who was staring across the stream toward the city. I sidled up beside her.

What are we supposed to do now?” I asked out of the corner of my mouth, one eye on the ferryman.

You can’t wait until the other side to pay him, no matter what this de Burgh fellow told you.”

Her mouth crinkled up in a smirk and I almost laughed aloud, but the urge dissipated quickly as the man’s unblinking eye bore into me. He extended his hand. I patted my pockets and found them as empty as when I’d set out to feed the ducks.

Shouldn’t have left all my change to tip the barkeep.

Pay him what?”

I don’t know, I’m an angel. Ask him.”

I took a hesitant step toward him. The wrinkles in his cheeks and forehead were deep enough to be crags; I thought, if I looked close enough, I’d find tiny mountaineers scaling them. I didn’t want to look that close.

Excuse me, sir. We need to reach the other bank.”

He stared at me, mouth pulled down in a scowl. I swallowed the lump forming in my throat and rephrased the question, not liking how this was proceeding. I gestured across the stream.

What will it cost to get there?”

His palm up, expectant hand turned, the exaggerated knuckles folding all but one of his twig-like fingers back until his hand quaked in my direction. The lump returned to my throat.

Me?”

He nodded. I backed away a step and whispered to Piper.

Ah, a little help here?”

I didn’t look at her—didn’t want to take my eye off the wizened man—but felt her gaze. Its effect didn’t match her touch, but it brought goose bumps to my neck and courage I wouldn’t have found on my own.

Give him what he wants.”

I didn’t want to look away from the ferryman for fear it would be the last thing I ever did, so I clenched my teeth instead of giving her the disbelieving look her statement deserved.

I raised my hand tentatively toward him. Our hands drew closer and I felt an uncomfortable warmth radiating from his flesh. Then, with enough speed to make a mongoose jealous, his fingers encircled my wrist.

As soon as his flesh touched mine, I saw it wasn’t really a man stooped in front of me, but a wolf-shaped beast—the huge, misshapen werewolf from ‘An American Werewolf in London’ come to life. Terror froze me. The wolf-beast jerked me toward him and lurched forward; its jaws found my shoulder, fangs dug into muscle. I screamed.

The thing shook its head once, rending my flesh. It reared back, a chunk of me in its teeth, my blood running between its jaws. A wave of nausea overtook me, spinning my head, dizzying me. I stumbled away and the beast released its hold on my wrist. My feet tangled and my tail bone struck the raft’s deck hard enough to click my teeth together. A second later, Piper knelt beside me.

Are you alright?”

My lips moved but no sound emerged. I registered the concern in her eyes, then returned my gaze to the man-wolf.

Gone.

The stooped ferryman stood at the back of the raft working his pole as he guided us across the stream. I jerked my head around expecting to find the beast behind me, but the raft held only the three of us.

Did you see what happened?” I asked, breathless.

Yes. You asked him what it would cost to cross, shook his hand, then you stumbled. Did you hurt yourself?”

I shook my head and brought my hand up to the shoulder where the beast took a chunk out of me. No pain. When I looked at my fingers, they were free of blood.

What the fuck?

You didn’t see it?”

Piper shrugged. “See what?”

I opened my mouth to tell her about the wolf-thing, its bite, but the instant my lips moved, my cheeks burned with embarrassment.

I must have imagined it.

I couldn’t admit to this beautiful woman—angel—that a mirage made me panic.

Nothing. Never mind.”

She offered her hand to help me up off my ass but I chose again to do it without the aid of her skin against mine. I climbed to my feet, head feeling like the Hindenburg—lighter than air but about to explode.

Are you sure you’re alright?”

I nodded, then promptly vomited over the side of the raft. A group of huge goldfish like the one I’d seen earlier gathered and made a meal of my spew. The sight made me gag again but I retained the rest of the contents of my stomach and stood on unsteady legs.

The ferryman stared straight ahead, his one bulging eye fixed on his goal of the other shore. Over his shoulder I saw the bank we’d left receding.

Good.

I wanted to get off this raft as quickly as possible, leave the man with his craggy face and long pole behind. And whatever-the-hell-it-was that bit me. Pivoting on my heel, I faced Piper. An amused smirk had usurped her expression. I wanted to tell her how it’s not polite to laugh at the folly of others, but the far bank caught my eye.

It was no closer.

What the…?”

I spun back toward the spot we’d left, saw it was farther away, then looked back to our destination which looked the same distance as before.

What’s going on, Piper?”

She shrugged. “It’s Hell,” she said, unconcerned. “We’ll get there eventually.”

I slouched down onto the deck of the raft, sitting cross-legged—what Trevor’s kindergarten teacher called criss-cross applesauce—and breathed deep, attempting to quell my shaking hands.

An hour later, I’d shifted position a few dozen times—criss-cross applesauce is fine for kids but gets uncomfortable quickly when you’re in your fourth decade. A warm wind rose from the direction of our goal, which was no closer; waves lapped the side of the raft. I peered into the water and saw the school of giant goldfish swimming alongside, their tails working but getting them no further ahead than us. Piper sat at the front like a monk deep in meditation. I stared a few seconds at her dark hair hanging to the middle of her back, at the smooth whiteness of the flesh of her arms, then finally at the distant city, still as far away as when we began the trip across the river Styx.

Enough,” I said.

I climbed to my feet, knees aching, and approached the ferryman. He remained fixed on our destination, so I stepped into his line of sight but stayed far enough away he couldn’t reach me.

What’s going on here? You got the payment you wanted, when will we get to the other side?”

I’m not sure what the payment had been—probably didn’t want to know—but felt he’d taken something from me. Behind him, the far bank had disappeared, leaving a stretch of churning water between us and our point of departure. How-the-hell a stream could grow into a small sea was beyond me, then I realized the answer to my query.

Hell.

The ferryman’s eye shifted and he stared at me for a full minute before returning to his survey of the far shore. As much as I didn’t want to deal with this man—this thing—it was time for answers.

Look at me.” I moved again to block his view. “When will we–”

The raft struck something solid spilling me onto my tail bone for a second time. Perhaps we’d hit one of the enormous koi. I righted myself and saw the ferryman pointing past me, gnarled finger extended toward the shore. Piper came to my side.

We’re here,” she sing-songed.

The edge of the raft made contact with the rocky shore. A few hundred yards away, the city overtook the landscape, its buildings rising taller than I’d thought, many reaching hundreds of stories toward the ashen sky. Monolithic, ultra-modern slabs stood shoulder to shoulder with cathedrals which looked like they were erected a thousand years ago. The skyscrapers stretched the length of the shore as far as I could see.

I opened my mouth to ask ‘what-the-hell’ again but closed it without posing the question. This was Hell, after all: apparently I’d have to get used to a little strangeness.

Hope you enjoyed it. I’ll keep you all updated as things progress on the other projects. If you ahve any questions or comments, don’t be shy. Use the comments below or email me: bruceblake (at) hotmail(dot)ca. And reember, All Who Wander Are Lost is only $0.99 until July 31.