California Lunch Room

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Guest Author: Donna Campbell

Donna Campbell is a Northern spirit in a Southern zone, capturing short story fiction. Nicknamed “raptor” by her best friend many years ago, she’s better known in her role of tracking life from every angle. You can follow her on Instagram @imraptorbhm.

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The old, green Pontiac bounced down the two-lane highway off the main road near the outskirts of North Fork, California. A tear rolled down Mabel’s cheek as she drove up the gravel road to the empty, crumbling building that once brought her abundant happiness. As she parked near the front door, the weathered building seemed smaller than in earlier days. Taking a deep breath and opening the car door, Mabel stepped out and stared at the chipping white paint and old signs. A faint smell of cat urine made her wrinkle her nose.

The morning’s events were still fresh in Mabel’s mind. The somber funeral home, the whimpers of hushed tears, the soft organ music…he was really gone.

Mabel had met Jack, her husband of 52 years, at this very place. He was a dusty stranger in need of a cold drink. As he stumbled through the screen door and took an open spot at the tiny counter, Mabel brought him the tallest glass of ice water. Jack smiled. That’s all it took—a smile and a glass of water had brought two people together. Mabel kept his glass full of water that day, and every day thereafter, until Jack’s illness took him home.

With the key in her hand, Mabel opened the screen door and unlocked the wooden door. Looking around, she remembered the store front sold the basics, such as tobacco, candy, soda, and a small assortment of gloves and caps. A small hallway led to the back of the store to the dining area and kitchen. The humble surroundings came to life when dinner and supper were served. The locals and the occasional passerby were treated to the best home-cooked meals and the latest news. The walls buzzed with laughter and the aroma of pot roast drifted through the open window screens.

Jack and Mabel made North Fork their home, and with the purchase of the California Lunch Room, they started a life together. Thirteen years separated them in age, but they were a matched pair in spirit. The day the diagnosis of cancer came for Jack, the California Lunch Room closed its doors. Jack needed daily support.

No one saw Mabel slip out the back of the funeral home. She needed some space away from the grieving. The store seemed the perfect place to reflect on her past, present, and future. Sitting at the counter, Mabel heard a soft meow. Turning to the screen door, she saw a gray kitten saunter in and sit at the sunlight’s edge on the worn floor.

In that moment, Mabel bowed her head and placed her hand on the weathered railing.

“I hear you, Lord.”

Mabel opened her eyes as the kitten brushed against her leg.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to reopen, Jack.”

The kitten purred in agreement.

Villain Series: Part IV

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Forward: Welcome welcome welcome! This is the final part in the villain series. I really hope everyone has enjoyed it so far. Now, part four is a little different from the rest. It’s written in 1st person POV instead of 3rd to allow a better in-depth look at Chernobog. It’s also shorter than the others, because this section has only one purpose: to define Chernabog as a villain, whereas up until this point he toed the line of anti-hero. Well, I’m ready, so if you’re ready too, then let’s get to our villainous conclusion! Muah-ha. Muah-haha! MUAHAHAHAHAHA!


I have wondered at times why some men choose to pick off their prey from a distance. But here Beatrice is, lined up slightly low and right of the center crosshairs, and I now know one reason why long-range killing appeals to some.

I don’t want her to know.

It’s never been a problem before. Killing, I mean, never a problem, but this isn’t the same and there is this … sick twisting in the pit of my stomach. This isn’t something I want to do—it just needs doing.

I slide the bolt back to chamber a round. As the wind picks up, I adjust my aim to compensate—a half centimeter to the left should put the bullet right between brainstem and spinal cord. Quick and painless.

“What are you doing, brother?” Belobog. His light is muted, dim. I look over my shoulder and see him standing there like some goddamn lost puppy. He doesn’t look at me. I don’t blame him.

“I asked her to marry me earlier tonight,” I tell him, turning back to look through the scope. “She said yes. Practically spilled over with delight.”

“Then why…”

“Why blow her brains out?” The words come out low, grunted speech. “You made a mistake, brother. You made a mistake, bringing her to me, and now I’m correcting it.”

And this woman is a mistake. She is affecting some kind of change in me and that can’t happen. That I want her to die happy is unnatural. That I don’t want her to see it coming or know by whose hand she dies is pathetic. That I want her to love me in death is weak. And I know even this favor to her is selfish and self serving, but it matters. That’s more than I can say about much of anything these days. Beatrice matters, her happiness matters.

That’s not who I am.

I won’t let her change me, but neither can she continue. And while I might be pulling the trigger, it is Belobog that put her in my crosshairs.

“You say you want to set me free, brother, but I know better. You want to change me.” I look over my shoulder at him again, and this time he meets my eyes. “I will not change. I will not lose myself to you or her or anyone. What you did, brother, was give me another reason to be angry, another reason to hate this goddamn ball of dirt and everyone on it.”

Even as I tell him these things, I’m experiencing what must be regret. I have been in this borrowed body too long. The skin I’m in itches and burns and I can hear it tearing even though I can’t feel it like I can my own.

Through the scope I see Beatrice shift in her chair, showing her ring off to her friends as they sit in front of the café. She leans back again, torso toward the road. Only 200 yards. It’ll be a clean shot. I make one more wind-based adjustment and slow my breathing. My heart rate slows.

Pump, exhale, pump, exhale.

One more heartbeat and on the tail end of my exhalation I pull easily on the trigger. I immediately pull the bolt back, discarding the shell and pulling another into the chamber. Just in case. But I hear the screams, so I know it’s a hit. Looking through the scope, I can see the impact wound.

A clean shot.

I stand and turn to face Belobog. My back and face are sweating. Regret and anger fester as my borrowed human form melts away. My brother watches the scene below play out in silence.

The mistake having been taken care of, I leave.

Villain Series: Part III

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Chernabog looks in the mirror he’s been standing in front of for the past quarter hour. He looks human, but beyond that he has difficulty differentiating this body from that of every other human on the planet. He doesn’t poke or prod at the human jumpsuit. There is just too much of him in it. Chernabog feels the whole of him might burst from the fleshy restraints. Gods and demons weren’t meant for such insignificant casings.

“Well?” Belobog asks.

Chernabog busies himself tightening his tie and straightening his suit jacket. He focuses on as much nothing as he can. “This body is…” he indicates himself with a sweep of his hand, finally settling on, “weak.”

“How so?”

“Small, overfull, boiling. It’s too limited.”

Belobog nods. He grabs Chernabog’s face between his hands and pushes some of his light into the body. Chernabog grunts and pushes Belobog away with a muttered, “Better.” Chernabog isn’t sure what his brother has done, but the body now seems more able and less suffocating.

Belobog slaps a hand on Chernabog’s back. “Try to be… Or, try not to be… Well, try to have fun in any case,” he says. Chernabog shutters, settling in his skin, and heads for the door.

*****

Chernabog taps his fingers on the table as he watches Beatrice walk through the restaurant door. She appears absolutely delightful. Chernabog actually notices her hair—long, dark waves. As she walks toward him she smiles, her unpainted lips only a shade or two darker than her pale skin. She leans slightly to the right and waves uncertainly. He beckons her over and she comes, weaving through the tables.

Chernabog pulls Beatrice’s seat out for her, then takes his seat across from her and bares his teeth in an approximation of a smile.

“This place is wonderful,” Beatrice says, taking in their surroundings as she settles in her chair. “I wonder if there’s anything on the menu I can eat.”

“If you try hard enough, you’ll find there’s almost nothing you can’t eat,” Chernabog says. To his surprise, Beatrice chuckles.

“A sense of humor. I like that,” she says. “I’m vegan.”

“Never heard of it.”

Beatrice waits to see if he’s joking. “No meat,” she says finally. “No dairy… No anything that comes from animals.”

“I think the word you mean is ‘masochist’,” Chernabog says. Why else would someone do that? He doesn’t ask the question aloud, afraid she might go on a tirade about the reason behind it all. She shrugs one shoulder, tilting her head to meet it, the smile still on her face.

“It’s just a choice. That’s one of the things we can rely on in this world, after all. Not saying that’s entirely good,” she says. “Hell, I chose to huff gasoline when I was younger and that wasn’t my best decision.”

Chernabog raises his eyebrows, wanting to hear more about her poor choices.

“Well,” Beatrice says, “I chose to marry a CEO. That turned right around to bite me in the ass. So now I choose to sing karaoke to offset the boredom of being an accountant. One of my better ideas, I think.”

Chernabog laughs, startling himself with the sound.

“And cartography. Can’t forget that,” Beatrice adds.

“I’m starting to be very glad you were able to get a babysitter tonight,” Chernabog says, surprised that he is, in fact, in a positive state of feeling.

“I’m sorry?” Beatrice says, confusion blossoming over her features.

“Your profile said you had a son. He must be very young since you can’t possibly be older than twenty-something. I only assumed…” he says, letting the statement hang in the air. For the briefest moment, he is concerned that he’s done something wrong. A moment is all it takes for Chernabog’s anger to find kindling in his fear.

Beatrice’s eyes lose focus. She looks down, then back at Chernabog. “I’m thirty-seven, actually,” she says and smiles, but it’s missing the previous joviality. She looks a little dizzy, makes a grab for the edges of the table. “He would have been eight this year.”

Chernabog hesitantly places his hand on Beatrice’s wrist. Through the touch, he can feel her pain. It’s so big, he wonders how she can hold it. His anger settles back down, dormant for now. He pulls his hand back and shifts uncomfortably. “I’m sorry,” he says, the words sounding to his own ears more cautious than sincere. “I shouldn’t have said… But why not take it out of your profile?”

“Because I do still have a son. That he isn’t here any longer doesn’t mean he never was.”

Villain Series: Part II

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For the first time in centuries, Chernabog is too surprised to be angry. He digs one long claw around in his right ear before angling toward Belobog

“I thought you said go out. On a date,” Chernabog says. He wrinkles his nose and draws his lips away from his teeth, brow furrowed.

“Yes, yes. I did,” Belobog says, waving away Chernabog’s incredulity. “You spend all year in solitude brooding over the myriad injustices you think have been done you—”

“Injustices you brought about!” Chernabog roars, wings striking out around him. Ignoring the interruption, Belobog continues.

“—and then when you finally do come out of solitary, you spend your time with these… creatures. You need to spend some time away from your precious mountain. And with someone who isn’t a whipped minion.”

“They are whipped minions, brother, because they are weak,” Chernabog explains. The brothers look at one another. Belobog gives a long, slow blink. “I’m going to bring chaos with me if I go out there.” Another long, slow blink from Belobog. “I don’t need a human to be happy.” Blink.

Chernabog’s jaw tightens, teeth grinding as he feels the anger rise back to full force. “Fine!”

Belobog’s face breaks into a smile, the light emanating from it blinding Chernabog before he can react. Chernabog snaps his eyes shut against any further potential damage and waits for the white dots to stop dancing. His forefinger begins the little circles on his thumb pad. His clawed feet no longer press against stone.

“Belobog,” he growls. “We have you brought us?”

“Sorry about that. Wasn’t thinking. All ready for you to open your eyes again.”

Chernabog tentatively complies. He looks around, unimpressed by his surroundings. The room he’s in is large, open, and decorated in soft, light colors. Large windows overlook a city Chernabog doesn’t recognize. A glass and chrome table is set under a mutedly artistic chandelier, marking the room’s focal point. On the table is a single item.

Belobog crosses to the table and pulls a chair out, motioning Chernabog to take a seat. Grumbling, Chernabog complies.

“This,” Belobog says, motioning at the item on the table, “is a—”

“It’s a laptop. I’m not that out of touch.”

Belobog purses his lips and nods. He takes a seat across from Chernabog and opens the laptop, pulling up the website he saw in an ad several days ago. The page loads a little more slowly than he’d like. Once it’s finished, he spins the laptop toward Chernabog.

Chernabog voices frustration in strangled noises as he looks at the screen. Second Chances, it says. “Finding love for the disadvantaged?” Chernabog is unable to keep the outrage from his voice. “I am not disadvantaged, brother, I am unjustly abused!”

Belobog leans across the table, catching Chernabog’s fist mere centimeters from connecting with the glass. Even so, the force behind the blow causes spiderweb cracks in the table’s surface. “Calm down,” Belobog demands, shaking his brother by the wrist. “Calm down. It’s just marketing. They aren’t the most sensitive lot. This isn’t a dig at you.”

Chernabog pulls his hand back—Belobog lets him. Chernabog sits and studies the website. He tries to scroll but the touch pad doesn’t recognize his finger as touching it. He tries to use the keyboard, but his claws glance off uselessly. He looks over the laptop at his brother as a soft keening begins in the back of his throat. Belobog snatches the laptop away and smiles at his brother.

“Hadn’t thought about that. So sorry,” he says, letting out just enough of his light to distract his brother before the keening becomes another mountain crumbling roar. “I’ll just do the typing, shall I?”

Chernabog listens to the soft clicking as Belobog begins to register an account.

“You need a name,” Belobog says. “Something less… you.”

Chernabog looks around as though he might find inspiration from inside Belobog’s apartment. “Scott,” he says finally, spotting the word on some packaging in a partially hidden room to his left. Belobog follows his brother’s gaze.

“Yes. Scott. Very fitting. Very abrasive, Scott. Perfect,” Belobog says, the words tumbling out to hide his mirth. Belobog types the name in and moves on. “Age and ethnicity are next.” Chernabog opens his mouth to answer, but Belobog interrupts. “You know what? 35-year-old native sounds perfect.”

Chernabog folds his arms across his chest and scowls, but nods for Belobog to continue.

“Looking for…” Belobog looks up and studies his brother for a moment. “Long-term relationship.”

Chernabog growls.

“Children?” Belobog mentally kicks himself for even reading the question aloud.

“I was wondering if you had anything to eat here,” Chernabog says. Belobog gives him another slow blink. He clicks “undecided.”

“Body type…” murmurs Belobog as he reads off the next question. Chernabog knocks a hand against his chest, the sound like two boulders rubbing. Rock solid. “I’ll just mark bodybuilder. Let’s see… Religious preference, political preference… I’ll just leave those blank. Sexual preference?”

“Alive,” Chernabog says eagerly.

Villain Series: Part I

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Mount Triglav gives an earth-rumbling heave before the world falls silent. There is no light here. There is no life. It is Walpurgisnacht—a night the pagans once celebrated with bonfires and dancing.

Thunder breaks the silence and in the following stillness there begins a gentle shutter through the earth, the air, a shimmering of heat waves. The heat waves bend and fold in spatial displacement as one by one the demons come. The shapes and sizes are infinite, this one with a cleft pallet, that one with a leather hide, another with a featureless face, clawed, beaked, razor-toothed, scarred, smooth, beautiful, wretched, they come in all forms. And they are all weak.

Deep inside Mount Triglav, an energy comes alive—noises pour forth, screams of rage and frustrated keening. The demons take a collective breath. The mountain peak wavers and broadens. It bends forward. The keening crescendos, then stops. A bloated silence consumes the world. The demons stretch necks against the air, scratch feet against the ground, curl themselves small, and hold themselves tight. Not a sound breaks that heavy silent barrier. The world is deaf.

Panic creeps up spines, grips hearts, and whispers deep, deep in the mind.

A wing splits from the mountain peak. Another. A body rises up, undulating snake-like to free itself. Chernabog is free. His body shutters, then stills.

One heartbeat.

Two.

A tide is rising in him, the force so swollen it must be released. His mouth is barely open before the sound begins spilling out—a sound that ruptures eardrums for miles. Blood begins to seep from the demons’ ears. The demons nearest the mountain are crushed under the weight of that enraged sound. Chernabog raises his arms, beckons with long, claw-tipped fingers, and the demons come. Up the mountain they stumble, crawl, maimed by deafness and bone-shattering pressure, yet moved by Chernabog’s unbending will.

It is Walpurgisnacht now. None danced willingly.

Chernabog calls the fire imps. They slither and crackle in his palm. They dance naked before his dispassionate gaze. He forces them into new shapes—pig and wolf and goat—and a hint of something like satisfaction crosses his face. He moves his free hand above and over the misshapen imps and they bend and writhe unnaturally, unable to do anything else. The great demon turns his hand this way and that, watching the imps scramble, clawing for purchase at his fingers. The humiliation doesn’t last long. With a hard flick of the wrist, Chernabog dislodges the imps into the core of Mount Triglav.

Chernabog looks down on his minions, watches them cower. His lip curls back, sneering, disgusted. He sweeps a hand forward, beckoning. His harpies descend. He looks on as the harpies grab at the little demons and then soar back into the air, higher and higher. They let go. Little demons producing little, distorted screams.

Chernabog sits back, wings hitching close to his body as his shoulders sag. He waves a hand and the demons fight amongst themselves. He stares blindly at the little fighting demons. He senses his brother. Chernabog clenches his fists as the muscles in his neck and shoulders tighten. One fist relaxes enough for the claw of his forefinger to scratch at the pad of his thumb. Little circles full of angry, nervous energy. Chernabog closes his eyes and waits.

Even through the relative safety of his closed lids, Chernabog can see the brightness as his brother approaches. Belobog. As bright and shiny as a goddamn beacon. The little demons cower from the light. Chernabog grunts.

“Brother,” Belobog says, his voice surrounding Chernabog as completely as the light.

“You came early,” Chernabog says, his voice rubbing like stones, an almost petulant quality to the words.

“You’re angry.”

“I’m always angry,” Chernabog tries to snap, but his tone is anguished, the words drawn out in a painful moan.

“Perhaps change is in order,” Belobog says gently.

Chernabog’s surprise almost has his eyes snapping open, but he squeezes the lids harder, white spots dancing behind his eyes with the effort.

“What does that mean, brother?”

When Belobog is hesitant to answer, Chernabog stiffens, face contorting between a scowl and frown. Chernabog can feel the light fading, drawing in around its source.

“Open your eyes,” Belobog says. His voice is coaxing. Chernabog obeys, warily parting his lids until he is squinting at his brother. That he has obeyed Belobog angers him, as everything in this world angers him. A strangled sob passes Chernabog’s throat. Belobog pulls his light in tighter, mistaking the source of his brother’s pain.

“What do you want?” Chernabog growls.

“To offer you peace.”

Chernabog laughs, the sound a rolling thunder causing rocks to slide down the mountain. But there is fear in that laugh. The only peace is in death.

“You’ve come to kill me,” Chernabog says.

“No, brother. I’ve come to free you.”

On Creating a Villain

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Hey. Hi. Yeah … it’s me. Look, I know it’s been a while, but that’s why my bio doesn’t include “responsible adult” in it anywhere. But I’m back now. Oh, and Dave is here, too. Say hi, Dave. Dave? Hmm, must be his nap time. Well, that’s all right. I’m here. And today, I’d like to talk to you about villains.

Villains can be some of the most fun characters to read and write about. A proper villain is as compelling—and occasionally more so—as the protagonist. When writing, often so much focus is put on the protagonist that the villain falls by the wayside. A good way to fully render a villain to completion it to loosely base the character on someone real. Want an example? I’ve got the perfect one.

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The Personification of Hate and Rage

On September 5, 1930, Carl Panzram was hanged by the neck until dead at US Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas. To say the very least, Panzram was not a good man.

In my life I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and last but not least I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. For all of these things I am not the least bit sorry […] I hate the whole damned human race including myself.

That excerpt is penned by none other than the man himself and published in Panzram: A Journal of Murder. All quotes included in this entry are credited to that book. I highly recommend you read it. However, if you want an alternative, look no further than Last Podcast on the Left’s three-part series on Panzram.

So, what makes Panzram so appealing in terms of creating a villain? Everything. But I’m going to try to keep this short…ish. Panzram is simultaneously like and unlike the average serial killer. Well, maybe average isn’t the right word, but you catch my meaning. Of the unholy serial killer trifecta—bed wetting, animal cruelty, and arson—Panzram is known to have at least dabbled in two: arson and animal cruelty. However, Panzram regretted his cruelty toward animals. A bit unusual for a serial killer. Furthermore, he specifically used arson as a form of punishment. Arson wasn’t about pleasure or destruction, rather it was about revenge against someone who’d done him harm.

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The Blissful Formative Years

Looking at Panzram’s childhood and encounters with authority—he was in and out of lock-up since age 11—it’s not hard to understand how his mentality could be so dark. So angry. At 11, Panzram was sent to a reform school for stealing apples, a piece of cake, and a pistol from a neighbor. At this school, they would use punishment in the form torture:

They used to have a large wooden block which we were bent over and tied face downward after first being stripped naked. Then a large towel was soaked in salt water and spread on our backs from the shoulders to the knees. Then the man who was doing the whipping took a large strap about ¼ of an inch thick by 4 inches and about two feet long. This strap had a lot of little round holes punched through it. Every time that whip came down on the body the skin would come up through these little holes in the strap and after 25 or 30 times of this, little blisters would form and then burst, and right there and then, hell began. The salt water would do the rest.

That was happening to 11-year-olds by reformers trying to beat religion into them. But it gets worse. After his release, around age 13-14, Panzram was gangraped by hobos on a train. He says:

I told them no. But my wishes didn’t make any difference to them. What they couldn’t get by moral persuasion they proceeded to get by force. I cried, begged and pleaded for mercy, pity and sympathy, but nothing I could say or do could sway them from their purpose. I left that box car a sadder, sicker but wiser boy than I was when I entered it.

And that shit happened again not too long after this incident! Panzram’s only education was in the form of the physically strong brutalizing the weak. Through his run-ins with everyone from hobos to law enforcement, he learned that “might makes right.” From his early encounters with men, Panzram learned that sodomy was a display of strength. It wasn’t about pleasure; it was about power.

During one particularly lengthy prison stay—he was constantly breaking out early—Panzram had to carry a 50-lb iron ball shackled to him three miles to a rock quarry, work eight and a half hours busting rocks, then carry the ball the three miles back to prison. This lasted for six months. You better believe that motha’ fucker was jacked after that.

So began Panzram’s reign of terror.

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Writing a Villain

By looking at Panzram’s own account of his life, we get to see a great deal of his thinking, his beliefs, his motivations, and so on. Combine that with others’ view of the man—many of whom stated that his very presence was larger than life—and we start to get a complete picture. This man, whose motto was “rob them all, rape them all, and kill them all” is definitely not one-dimensional. And neither should fictional villains be.

When creating a villain, start from the beginning. Look at the formative years of some of the world’s most prolific serial killers and use that psychology to help you form a background for your character. Think of how you want your villain to be seen by other characters, and by readers. I picked Panzram as an example because he’s both charismatic and terrifying, manipulative and driven by unadulterated hate, uneducated and intelligent. He’s the basis from which you could create the sociopathic villain that everyone likes and trusts until it’s too late or the seeming monster who seeks power and revenge. Either of those choices could build a striking, engaging villain that captivates readers.

Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be posting a four-part fiction series focusing on a villain. This particular series came about in a creative writing class from years ago and sees a Disney villain going on a blind date. My villain is Chernabog. I’ve revisited the original series to incorporate elements of Panzram. I look forward to sharing it with you.


Villain Series: Part I

Villain Series: Part II

Villain Series: Part III

Villain Series: Part IV

The Shill and the Purblind

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It’s a little exposition-dense. A kink I’ll work out over the drafts to come. For now, since it’s been so long and I know you need something to live on—talking to you Dave—enjoy this bit of fiction from The Shill and the Purblind.

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Chapter 1

My mother was a slave, Idun Verdandi recited. My mother tried to hide me. She cared. She cared. She cared. My mother tried to steal me. She cared. She cared. She tried. She died. She died because she cared. She cared. She cared. My father did not care. He died just the same. She tried. She tried. They died. No one deprives the hēahcyning of his property. The high king is all. He is all. He is death. He is soon dead.

Idun knew one truth: In the cold of Ísigstān, the only way to truly keep warm was through hate. Having been born a slave in Ísigstān kingdom, in the house of the Vetr Sun, living in the very same castle as the hēahcyning himself, Idun was always warm.

She hugged her knees to her chest and leaned her back against the ice-flecked stone wall of her chamber as the other slave girls slept. She would not sleep.

To sleep was to give in to the night fevers.

Idun recited the story of her parents again, her warmest story, until the cold left her. She raised a thin, pale hand and brushed her hair toward the front of her face, giving herself privacy from the sleepers. Don’t let them catch you if they wake. Don’t let them catch you. Don’t let them catch you crying.

She watched the silver-white strands that hung in front of her eyes, a genetic camouflage trait bred into Ísigstān natives over the course of a thousand years. Her very birthright. The hair from scalp to shoulder looked dull, stringy. The other foot and a half of her locks, from shoulder to waist was in worse shape. The black dye, a slave marker, dried her hair. Turned it brittle.

The more valuable slaves—those more usable, treated like pets, treated like whores, and pranced around in front of nobility—could keep half of the natural growth.

That mark of ownership was much less humiliating and much less permanent than the other. A brand that ran from cheek to cheek, curving over the nasal bridge in a turned down crescent.

Many of the slave children died from the brand.

Idun touched the rough, raised skin, before her hand fell heavily to her lap, cradled between her empty stomach and shaking knees. Tiredness ate at her. Sleep would soon take her. Another choice made for her.

She grabbed the piece of cloth she had ripped from her bedding and placed it in her mouth. She let a corner piece of the cloth stay pressed between her lips so that, once she awoke, she could yank out the rag before she choked. For nearly a month, she slept this way. If her night screams ever woke the hēahcyning again, she was told, she’d pay with her flesh.

Wasn’t she already paying that price? Yes, of course. She had been since the year the blood came on her.

Even as she lay there, she fought to keep her eyes open. The wind kicked up outside. Idun felt the gusts come in through the small, high-set window. The window would close over with ice, soon. For warmth, Idun reasoned, again taking stock of her warmest story. The one she used ever since she’d heard it.

My mother was a slave. My mother had tried to hide me. She cared. She cared. She cared. My mother tried to steal me. She cared. She cared. She tried. She died. She died because she cared. She cared. She cared. My father did not care. He died just the same. She tried. She tried. They died…. The high king is all. He is… He is… soon dead.

Idun curled in on herself. As she began to drift, she felt the skin of her arms start to burn, handprint shapes glowing along her biceps.

Every night, this is how it began.

*****

Idun’s body was covered in sweat, her black eyes open, seeing nothing. Around the rag in her mouth came whimpers that might have been words. Her torso shot up from the straw-stuffed mattress. She screamed. The rag muffled it. Her eyes looked about the room, still sightless. She sensed it in the corner, felt it: a tall, dark shape. She got up from the bed, speaking nonsense around the rag, and clumsily put distance between herself and the shape.

When she got to the door, her heart was beating painfully. The door is gone. She walked along the wall, trying to feel through frozen-numb fingertips. She was cold throughout, though her skin was fever-hot. Beads of sweat ran in lines down her neck.

There is no door.

She circled the room, searching, each circle taking her closer to the shape. She sensed, during the first circle, that the shape was wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. Then, she sensed it was humanoid. Its large white eyes and the red veins running under its skin formed a picture in her mind.

I can promise you… A voice. Its voice. It whispered around her, through her.

Sleep. The word was a scream she sensed more than understood.

She collapsed.

*****

A sharp pain spiked through Idun’s shoulder, jolting her awake. She coughed, nearly gagging until she pulled the rag from her mouth. The edge of the door slammed against her shoulder again, and this time she cried out and scrambled backward on her hands and feet.

“What are you doing down there, stupid girl?” It was Grettna, the keeper, her head poking around the door.

“I don’t… I don’t know,” Idun answered. She looked around her and saw that all the girls were starting to rise from slumber. One by one, they all looked at her.

“Come on then,” Grettna said, holding her hand out to Idun. “The rest of you, sod off.”

The air came to life with the rustling of scratchy wool blankets and the girls quickly shuffled out of bed and filed out of the room and headed next door to the wash stall. The last girl hesitated. Vera, short and thick of frame, if not of actual meat, looked down at Idun. Her eyebrows drew together, concern flashing across her black eyes before her short, black hair swept over them. Idun nodded, but Vera hesitated still.

“Get yourself gone now, girl,” Grettna said.

“I’m fine, Vera. Go on,” Idun said, and it was a good lie. Vera finally nodded and left Idun and Grettna alone.

Grettna set down the basket of clean blankets and sat down, her legs out to the side of her. Her hair was wrapped up on top of her head, bound by rope and mostly covered by a towel. A few black tendrils poked through. She took Idun’s hand.

“It’s happened again, hasn’t it?” Grettna said softly, gently, a doting mother now that none were there to see.

Einar, the Ungelīc: A Character Development Draft

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Einar sat back on his haunches, elbows resting on his knees. The view from his perch on the scorched black hill showed him a valley of the dead. Heat rose in soft waves from open bodies, turning the cold air foggy. Even the rain took on a red glint as it crossed the warm front. His head swayed back and forth on his long neck.

“And for what was this done?” Einar asked the air.

“Blood feud,” the androgynous wind hissed behind him. “Wergild unpaid.”

Einar stood, his tall body stretching out. His limbs and neck were unnaturally long. Darkness pushed through nearly translucent skin, giving him an incandescent-ashen appearance. Dark red veining began at his narrow waist, wrapping undiscernible patterns up his broad back, over his shoulders and around his heart, up the sides of his neck and head. Smaller, more intricate veining wound up his jaw, over cheekbones, truncating at the outside of blank, white eyes.

Just as Idun, Einar was born into slavery. His was of a different kind. His ears were his branding, ears that were too long at the top and had chunks removed as if a rat had made a meal of them in the night. He could change form, and often did in the presence of humans, but he could never hide his demarcation.

“What has this to do with me?” Einar asked the air.

The air pressure changed sharply and Einar shivered.

“There are others,” said the wind.

The air in front of Einar moved, mini-cyclones distorting the scene before him to show him something new. The ice country. Ísigstān castle. Two figures.

“The king,” the wind whispered. “And the slave.”

Einar contemplated the scene before him. An old, haggard king, with white skin and whiter hair and eyes as black as coal, so insecure he wore his crown in his own bedchamber. He squirmed and thrashed atop a young, painfully thin woman. She stared out with dead eyes at nothing. Her muscles looked stiff with the attempt not to move, not to push the elderly king away. Her silver-white hair spread around her head like a fan, the ends dipped in black. A scar ran along her face, from cheek to cheek, right across the bridge of her nose.

Einar touched the ragged edge of one long ear, not even noticing the motion until the wind laughed from behind him. He brought his hand slowly around to the front of his neck, scratching just below his chin. He dropped his hand to his side and cocked his head.

“Let the feud end here,” Einar said, motioning to the valley below.

“It will not,” hissed the wind. “It cannot.”

“Then find another. This is beneath me.”

More laughter at this. Laughter that started at one shoulder and blew to the other. He felt the wind become solid enough to touch his face with threatening fingers. Then nothing.

“Nothing is beneath you. Go to the slave. Take her to the eard-stapa wiga.”

Einar looked over sharply, trying to pin the voice with his gaze. It was a useless movement. The wandering warrior. Einar spat at the thought.

“You’d have me run in circles. For what? Kill them both and be done with this.”

No!” the wind picked up to a whistling scream with the word, then almost as suddenly, it died. The quiet unnerved Einar. “The slave must kill the king. After, can the slave be killed.”

Einar’s chest tightened, the muscles in his mid back locking up in preparation for swift movement. He breathed deep, commanding his body to relax.

“Send another,” Einar said through a clenched jaw. His lips peeled back from his teeth, the upper right corner turning into a snarl.

The wind screamed. It howled. It spun down the hill, picking up the dead and throwing them aside. Einar watched this tantrum with a smile. In the end, he would do as he was bid. He would be given no reason. He was never given a reason. But defiance was irresistible. Even considering the punishment to follow. So, he watched and smiled and enjoyed the whirlwind of corpses.

He would go to the slave.

He would take her to the eard-stapa wiga.

And once she killed the king, he would wash his hands of her.

Music is the Muse

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I took a break from writing a blog for which I’d need to indulge in research. I started today off doing something I had zero desire in ever doing. Or, rather, it began last night.

I was driving home, listening to an album. Every time I listen to this album, I feel it building a story. Maybe not the one the musicians are trying to tell, sure, but a story that won’t go untold. It refuses. For months, I’ve resisted. Never, ever, have I had the desire to write anything on the same plane as a work that could be called epic, nor have I had interest in world building. But, what do I know?

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Language, Please…

I see why Tolkien was so keen on using dead languages. Particularly Old English. It’s beautiful, it’s melodic (an educated guess, on account of it being a… well, a dead language), and it feels epic. So, as I sat down to outline the first few chapters for the first book in this tale, I realized I needed to brush off my Norse sagas, my Old English texts, and my Celtic mythology. I realized this mostly after I spent three hours coming up with a couple of character names and the name of the land the protagonist is from. I must have taken a severe linguistic inflection dump after college.

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Sweet, Sweet Resolution

So, I rounded up my linguistics sources, settled on character and (one) place names, and jotted the outline of the first nine chapters for this first installment. It feels great. It feels daunting. It feels terrifying. And boy, I can’t wait until I really get to dig in. I’ve set a happy pace I can keep, because once the outline is done, there’s no stopping the creative juices.

While writing (and editing and touching base with fifty people a day) for a magazine as my day (read: paying) job and writing blogs eat up time, there is an hour per day somewhere in all that for which I can spare a moment of world building, one sentence in a hybrid dead/new language, one action scene or touching moment.

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