Lunch with a Villain II

We met again, weeks later. Pizza this time, the shadows and red neon of the joint seemed appropriate. He was there first this time, leaning over the counter in whispered conversation with the bearded cook. I don’t know what they were talking about, but the cook clutched his pizza spade as if it was the mast of a sinking ship. The villain spun to greet me, bright smile flashing. He flicked his brown cloak in an unnecessarily dramatic way and left the pizza guy to drown.

“Hey, I got us a pitcher and a pizza with Too Much Goddamn Meat on it. You’re buying.”

I sighed and dug out my wallet.

After paying I slid into the wooden booth. My lunch date had his eyes fixed on the large flatscreen TV on the archway behind me. I noticed that his eyes were no particular color. Was that because I couldn’t remember or because I’d never decided when I wrote him? I stole his hair from May’s Adversary and his nose from an old black and white movie, but his smile was all mine – some bright, shining shark-thing from my interior.

“So, what does it mean to be a Villain?” I asked.

“Shh,” he held his hand up. “Wait until after this play.”

“You don’t know anything about sports. I don’t know anything about sports, so it stands to reason that you don’t either.”

“Ahhhh,” he waggled his eyebrows, line of sight still locked to the TV. “but I can convey a knowledge of sport. Just like I can burn children and fly. You can’t do those things, but you make someone who can. Just the tiniest note on the piano – ‘Our Defense is looking strong’ – and suddenly the reader accepts me as an expert, a true fan. They imagine all the knowledge that you can’t give me and I have it. I’m just an echo chamber.I reflect more light then I emit — HOLY SHIT, THAT FUCKING REF. He had control of the ball! Damn it.”

“Are you done?” I took a sip of the watery yellow beer.

“Never, ever done. That’s what it means to be a Villain,” the brown-cloaked man grinned. “But that’s not what you came here to ask.”

“It is something I’ve been thinking about,” I said defensively. “I think I only write villains – Jonas and Rime included. Some hard-hearted thing, some hatred of everything that shines – I think it comes from younger days, feeling outcast and alone. The good people are the popular, pretty ones – so who wouldn’t be drawn to a life of evil in the halls of Middle School. Anyone who doesn’t understand the darkness in the human heart had a good puberty.”

“Oh, fucking shut up.” the villain leaned forward and took a fistful of my shirt. “Fine, you want to talk? Let’s talk.”

The brown cloak spun and he tossed me through the thick plate glass that separated the pizza joint from the sidewalk. I choked and stammered, my head full of empty vibration. The glass had cut up my left arm, but not too bad. My lunch date stepped through the shattered portal and leered at me. He snapped both fingers and his palms began to shimmer, then burn with a green fire tinged with vomit-yellow.

“Do you remember how to run?” the villain asked.

Judge Me By My Cover – Day 5

Oh, we’re so very close. This is just a line drawing of the final design. I had gotten used to seeing the ‘straight on’ view of the Bride – so when Mike dropped this different perspective in my lap, I was immediately in love. Stay tuned for the final cover reveal tomorrow!

Design Sketch - Mike Groves @poopbird
Design Sketch – Mike Groves @poopbird

 

[Sketches for the cover illustration of The Riddle Box, my upcoming novel. I’m showing off the design process and sketches this week before the final reveal of the cover.]

Final Cover Reveal: 7/12

The Riddle Box – Click the link to add to your Goodreads!

Judge Me By My Cover – Day 4

And now we’re back to the ‘bride’ – I was a little bit nervous about not putting Jonas and Rime [Our Heroes] on the cover, but our earlier discussions about a truly ‘evocative’ cover gave me courage. Here are two different versions of the ‘bride’ that Mike developed.

Design Sketch - Mike Groves @poopbird
Design Sketch – Mike Groves @poopbird

More of the ‘floating numbers’ from the cover of Spell/Sword – and the appearance of the secret symbol! It’s massively important to the plot of The Riddle Box, and also to other stories beyond for those that have been following since the Lodestar days.

Design Sketch - Mike Groves @poopbird
Design Sketch – Mike Groves @poopbird

I don’t know what the flowers are all about – but they look great. I also really started to enjoy how the Bride’s ‘skull’ could read as her literal skeleton or as some sort of creepy mask. Also the decolletage and blood – so tasteful.

[Sketches for the cover illustration of The Riddle Box, my upcoming novel. I’m showing off the design process and sketches this week before the final reveal of the cover.]

Final Cover Reveal: 7/12

The Riddle Box – Click the link to add to your Goodreads!

Judge Me By My Cover – Day 3

And then things got a little weird. As often happens, Mike surprises me with a design that I love, but has very little connection to what we had originally been working on.

Design Sketch - Mike Groves @poopbird
Design Sketch – Mike Groves @poopbird

 

Now, I love this illustration. We had some discussions about going with a very evocative image on the cover, instead of something directly related to the plot. The mystery transpires in the Manor of the Heart-Broken Lion in the novel – and Mike really responded to that. We ultimately decided to go back to the original trajectory, but SPOILER ALERT: this sketch will find its way onto the back paperback cover of the book and potentially tattooed into my flesh at some point.

[Sketches for the cover illustration of The Riddle Box, my upcoming novel. I’m showing off the design process and sketches this week before the final reveal of the cover.]

Final Cover Reveal: 7/12

The Riddle Box – Click the link to add to your Goodreads!

Judge Me By My Cover – Day 2

Never forget the wooden pigs.
Never forget the wooden pigs.

After the initial thumbnail, Mike got very fixated on the exact design of the ‘bride’. [Sort of like how all he wanted to draw for the first book was wooden pigs. It’s a long story.] He has a dozen different takes in his sketchbook, but here are the ones he sent me next for feedback. I, of course, was tremendously helpful – most of my notes disintegrated into – ‘looks awesome’ and ‘god I wish I could draw.’

 

Design Sketch - Mike Groves - @poopbird
Design Sketch – Mike Groves – @poopbird
Design Sketch - Mike Groves @poopbird
Design Sketch – Mike Groves @poopbird

You can start to see the signature ‘numbers’ creeping into the inked sketch.

[Sketches for the cover illustration of The Riddle Box, my upcoming novel. I’m showing off the design process and sketches this week before the final reveal of the cover.]

Final Cover Reveal: 7/12

The Riddle Box – Click the link to add to your Goodreads!

Judge Me By My Cover – Day 1

And so it begins. I am beyond excited to reveal the cover to my upcoming novel, The Riddle Box…but I have been over-quiet on the blog of late – so I’m going to need to ramp up to it. Just clog up your feeds with me for a few days, that’s basically what I want. I thought it might be fun to show a little bit of the process by releasing the sketches that lead up to the final design, before revealing the final cover on Saturday.

First the OG cover design, made by yours truly. YES, bask in its awfulness.

Or maybe it was a reanimated Jackson Pollack.
Or maybe it was a reanimated Jackson Pollack.

I think it’s safe to say that this cover is amazing. Sadly it requires a refined artistic sense to truly appreciate, so it’s probably for the best that I went for something a little more mass market.

All of the art you will see henceforth in this series will be from my illustrator, Mike Groves.spell_sword_cover_final [poopbird.com]. You should immediately click over there and take a gander at his work – it is delightful and amazing. The sketches I’m sharing here are rough and you should do  yourself a favor and look at more of his finished stuff. He is the perfect person to draw zombies or robots for you. Fans of the first book will immediately recognize his style from the cover of Spell/Sword – I was really fortunate that he had time in his hectic schedule to work on the cover for The Riddle Box.

And now – the first sketch.

 

Design Sketch - Mike Groves @poopbird
Design Sketch – Mike Groves @poopbird

I can tell you, my heart skipped a beat when I saw this thumbnail. The book’s lived in my head for so long, to see even this sketch of my heroes got me ludicrously pumped. The final design came a long way from this starting point – here would be a good point to thank Mike for his patience with my endless vague emails and texts during the design process.

Stay tuned throughout the week for more sketches and then…DUN DUN DUNNNN…the Final Cover Reveal.

Final Cover Reveal : 7/12

The Riddle Box — Follow the link to add the new book to your Goodreads!

 

Titan’s Wake – Final Words

Tributes to DUNE by artist Jose-Luis Segura
Tributes to DUNE by artist Jose-Luis Segura

[This isn’t going to make much sense – shocking for my blog, I know. I wrapped up a Pathfinder campaign last night, and this was the framing device for the final game – the tale as told by a bard, long after the heroes have vanished across the dunes. Over the next few days I’m going to be focusing the blog into Self-Promote Mode to ramp up to the release of The Riddle Box – which means I’ll be posting more often and also not slapping down random, vague stories and odd snippets – so bonus both ways!]

Sleep in the sand and tell me what you dream

Dance in the air and sing me what you seem

Burn in the sun and  draw me what you fear

Drown in the sea and remember me, my dear.

 

Riddle me lies and cry me bright truths

The unquiet shepherd is dead

Kiss me with cold and hold me with steel

The black and white book has been read.

 

At the heart of tomorrow in the shade of Forget

We danced in the Eye of the Dream

I see you and steal you and break you alone

Please tell me you hear me scream.

 

Drown in the sand

Burn in the air

Dance in the sun

Sleep in the sea

But please remember me, my dear.

Oh, please remember me , my dear.

Won’t you please remember me, my dear?

 

“That’s a strange song,” said the child. “What does it mean?

“It means I’ve had too much to drink,” said the bard, “And you should hurry to fetch me another.”

“But you promised me the tale, the tale of the Six Heroes…and the Titan!”

“Ach – that is a weak song, child. It is shorter than is proper, but still seems tedious. What little sense it has is brittle and shatters like sugar-glass if you lean on it. It has no proper villain, more questions than answers, and it muddles up more than it means. And the ending – sand and shade, child! – it is a preposterous hogwash that even an old talespinner like me has a hard time speaking with a straight face.”

“But…”the child insisted, “It’s my favorite story.”

“Oh, is it now?” the bard’s eye twinkled.”I suppose every story is some poor fool’s favorite story. Who am I to begrudge you yours? Sit down, child – and I will tell it then. I will tell the tale of the Descabellado, the Bastard Sands – of the Wind Thief, the Blank-Face Beauty, the Frog Knight, the White Wanderer, the Furious One, and the Unknown Gunner. I will tell the tale of the Titan, of the Red Sword. Now lean in close and listen, for this tale is not often told and the sun hungers for night…

[And here the whole campaign happened. Highlights include the party accidentally destroying two sites of holy power on the same day, a machine city ruled by psychic dragon cultists, awkward sexual liaisons with said psychic dragon cultists, a prolonged period of several weeks that may have been a dream, a robotic turkey mount with laser eyes, lots of talking, murder, unexpected betrayals, more talking, and a final battle against an insane Void Dragon where half the party died and continued to fight the beast in the Spirit World.  You know, D&D stuff. ]

During the story, a group of children gathered to hear the bard. For all his protestations, he told it well and they were spellbound until the last words fell as the Titan vanished from the world of mortals.

“…and that is the end of my tale, if any tale can truly be said to end.” the bard concluded, and took a long swig from his wineskin.

“But, wait – I still don’t understand” said a dwarven child. “ What did it all mean?”

“It meant what it means,” the child who has demanded the tale in the first place retorted. “Stories don’t need to mean anything.”

“But what about the Heroes, what happened after?” an elven girl with red hair scratched her nose.

“Oh, so demanding!” the bard chuckled. “Proper tales don’t usually have epilogues, but this is hardly a proper tale. Tell you what – each of you can ask me one question. And I promise I’ll only lie twice!”

[Here the players took on the role of the gathered children and asked their questions about the future of their world. Their secrets are their own, and I will not share them here.]

The children quickly thought of more questions and they begged and pleaded with the bard to answer them, or to give them hints about which were the lies and which were the truths. He only took a long draw from his wineskin until the last dregs were gone and laughed all the harder as he pushed his way through the crowd of children.

“Decide for yourself, young ones. That’s the best way. If there’s any moral at all, I guess that’ll have to do!”

The halfling pulled up his ratty cloak and stumbled out into the street, still laughing. He left the children and the questions all behind and whistled a strange tune to himself as the shadows of evening settled on his back.

You Must Understand

http://sanskarans.deviantart.com/
http://sanskarans.deviantart.com/

The world was different then, you must understand. You have never known the sound of a river or the sigh of the breeze through the canopy, you have only ever known sand and stone. The world was beautiful, you see – green and abundant with life. It was my joy to touch each green leaf with my heart and know its secret song, a melody that has grown all too quiet in these dusty days. The days that I brought, that I bought with blood and death.

You must understand. As beautiful as the world was, it was not ours. We lived and died and even dreamed at the will and sway of the Dragons. Can you imagine? Every day you served and worked at the masters’ bidding, and in your sleep not even your own brain was free to wander. They kept our dreams hedged in by their field, by their Great Dream – the better to winnow out the rebellious, the mad, those who shone most brightly that could have lead us out of slavery. You know, as a young person you find someone that you fancy, your dreams fill with simple joys – but imagine if an alien intelligence decided who you would have these dreams of, who they thought best for you to fall in love with? Every daydream was a lie, drawing you further into the comforting truth of their dominion. We sang songs to them – songs that they put in our heads, and we believed that we had created. If a man cannot even trust his own thoughts, he is nothing. Generations of us bound in their dark web, living and dying without ever truly existing. Without truly living.

There were those that worshiped our masters as gods – and even now, who am I to argue? Their power was beyond our ken, beyond anything I have truly understood. They seemed to live in two worlds, one of body and one of mind. And those that pledged themselves to the Dragon gained a measure of freedom in both, but a deeper slavery in the quiet of their souls.

And I? I was no one special. Only through pure chance did I find a way out.

I worked on a farm. I see you smile. Yes, then as now I was a farmer. Attending the slow rituals of living things was my deepest joy. Some other workers and I were sent to till a new field on the edge of a great city. It was known that it would take some time to properly prepare the land, the soil was rocky but rich. We pitched our tents on the edge of the field, and spent the first few days in simple labor and easy joy. You felt so good when you followed orders, you see. A slow pulse of pleasure that kept a smile on every face.  But then on the third night, nature intervened – a boon from the Balance to save us. A storm – rain and lightning and the howling of the wind. Our tents were ripped asunder, and in casting around for shelter we found a cave.

A cavern of stone, suddenly quiet after the storm’s wrath. We huddled together and fell into an exhausted slumber.

And we dreamed. We dreamed our own dreams for the first time in our lives. Something in the stone shielded us from the psychic grip of our masters. Something in the stone set us free.

Dreams of anger. Dreams of grief. Dreams of simple oddity that the brain can unspool. But our dreams – the dreams that the Dragons had kept from us.

And I? I dreamed of the Titan.

It was just a Shape, then. But it burned into my mind like a torch.

We awoke into a new world. We could see the bars of our prison – see the bondage that all our races were under. We went about our work that day out of habit, but each of us made sure to lay our bedding in the cave. Plans were laid, each of us discovering his own intelligence, her own will. The preparation of the field took longer and longer, we delayed in every way we could, terrified to leave the only free space on the planet, as far as we knew. It was Rose that mastered her mind first – learned to keep the masters’ psychic grip at bay – at least the passive one that filled us with work-joy and kept our minds inert. She taught us all, and we each swore to teach this new trick on other farms.

We became liars and thieves and rebels. The rats in the walls. Over time, our numbers grew. We scavenged technology, we learned as much as we could about the stone that protected us, we —

Ah, I see. You grow impatient. You asked where the Titan came from, how we built it. I will explain as best I can, though you may find it wanting.

I saw it in my dreams, you see. You must understand, every night, the Shape. Vague at first, but growing sharper and sharper as I found materials and technology of the Dragons to use. I had no great skill in science – Jeffrey, Bantam, and Merrick all outstripped me there. But when I worked on the Titan, my hands knew where to go, I could see where each piece would fit. Even at the time I couldn’t explain it – except to say: the Titan wanted to be built. The Shape was already there, I just put the pieces together. And when I witnessed the power it brought to bear…

I do not know, even now, where the Titan came from. But I do understand its purpose – to set us free. To bring an end to tyranny, to break the chains of this world.  You must understand, now that it is yours to wield. You must understand. You must understand.

The Riddle Box – 300 Words or Less

A manor. A murder. A mystery. The doors are closed, best keep your eyes open.

Jonas and Rime arrive at the House of the Heart-Broken Lion, interrupting a play and an opulent dinner party. An actor falls dead on the stage, the doors

Gustave Doré Plate XX - “Lancelot Approaching the Castle of Astolat,” circa 1867-69
Gustave Doré
Plate XX – “Lancelot Approaching the Castle of Astolat,” circa 1867-69

are locked, the authorities summoned. Rime has one night to solve the mystery and escape before too many questions are asked and her wild magic is discovered. Jonas is just excited that there’s really good cheese.

Thirteen guests in the manor. All the doors are locked. One of them is the killer. Can she solve the case before dawn?

A sea-elf shaman, a wood-elf scholar, a bard with an electric guitar. A gentle priest, a vicious trader, a rude dwarf who does not speak. These guests have secrets, could there be a secret guest?

Blood in the shadows, a killer stalks the halls of the Heart-Broken Lion.  How can Our Heroes triumph against a foe that neither spell nor sword can catch?

  • Secrets of Jonas’ past revealed!
  • [Not all of them, but, you know, some!]
  • Rime has a crush!
  • Cryptic clues!
  • Red herrings!
  • Partial nudity!
  • Bedroom hi-jinks!
  • Sweet guitar solos! [Described.]
  • A giant cow!

A truly original mystery shamelessly cribbed from Agatha Christie, Colombo, and N.C.I.S. Fantasy fiction bent into a new, strange shape.

Can you solve The Riddle Box?

[Argggg. I hate writing ad copy. This is my first stab [of many] getting Riddle Box into something easily marketable. Back of book, Amazon description, etc. I am shit at the elevator pitch — comments and reactions very much appreciated!]

The Plague

The classroom was quiet. Bone-white desks faced a board groaning with chalk and time. The scholar sat on a stool and leaned on her lectern, sorting crisp paper into clean lines. Lecture phrases and lines of ink filled her head and she was caught by surprise when a young man cleared his throat from behind the second row of desks.

“I am sorry,” he said, hands locked around a scroll case. “Please…I am sorry to interrupt you, but…”

“You are not one of my students,” the scholar laid a finger to her temple, letting her mind settle and focus on the young man.

“No, I am not. I am visiting the city. My name is Lucas Grahd.”

Artist:  Charlie Bowater
Artist: Charlie Bowater

“And I am Prose Willow. You know this, of course.”

The scholar did not smile and neither did Lucas. Her face was sharp and severe, brown skin pulled taut. Long, tight braids wound in an ornate riddle.  The young man took a step forward.

“I do.  I came here looking for you.”

The scholar sighed. “Why, Lucas Grahd? Why at the end of the day do you tiptoe into my hall? The sun sets.”

“I don’t know,” Lucas said. “I read something you wrote. The gifted man is a plague. To himself, to the city, to the world. What did you mean by that?”

“Most people pass through this world inert. The simple mechanics of society push them through and out, like stones through the belly of a snake.” Prose nodded. “But the gifted, the learned, the wise, those who can see. Actors and painters and sculptors and all the weary litany of those who shape. They affect the system, they touch things. They make, they mar. They change things.”

“Is it wrong to change things?”

“No. Not always. But the more you see, the more you move, the more you change the world, shape it with your choices. You begin to feel the weight, the weight of those choices. Is this why you came? This conversation?” Prose folded her hands and looked over her knuckles at Lucas.

“Not really. Maybe? I don’t know,” Lucas took another step forward.

“The scroll, then?” It was green with black piping, any distinguishing marks hidden by Lucas’ hands.

Lucas looked down at it, as if surprised to find his hands full. “Oh, this? No, I was just carrying this. I came to research a translation in the library, but I walked in here instead. I knew you were here, that you taught here, but I hadn’t planned on approaching you.”

Prose stood up, hands gentle on the lectern. The fading light in the room shot thin gold across the white desks and the young man’s face. “Are you a gifted man, Lucas Grahd?”

“Yes.”

“Then forego the illusion. No mystical force guides your steps, you are not perplexed, you are not whimsical. Why did you walk in here?”

“I want a sage,” the young man sat in the closest desk, eyes on the flat white, whispering. “Someone who knows. Someone I can ask.”

“Get out,” Prose Willow said.

The sun set.