That Oppressive Script … How Angels of Mercy Changed My Queer Boy Perspective on Sports
(Reprint from Rainbow Gold Reads Review)
Jocks have it hard.
They’ve got a lot to live up to as they pursue their passion in their chosen sport. This isn’t an easy thing to acknowledge on my part. I was one of those artistic queer kids that jocks loved to bag on. So why the change up in opinion?
Simple: I wrote Angels of Mercy.
When Angels presented itself (fully formed to the bitter end, mind you), I thought “Eh, I’ll bang this one out in a month.” I had the ending in my head already. I just had to write to that ending, right? Yeah, not so much it seems.
Here’s what I learned: you see, my main protagonist, Marco Sforza, is built upon my husband’s experiences playing football both at the high school level at Massillon, Ohio (the heart of high school American Football as we know it) and for Clemson U back in the day (admittedly a very different era than Marco’s present day story). So given the disparity in my husband’s and Marco’s timelines, I had to make some adjustments between my husband’s experiences and those that I was building for Marco. But what amazed me is that, at its core, very little has changed with regards to the institutionalization of homophobia within American football – be it, high school, college or pro.
We like to think “It gets better …” but in reality, has it? There are emerging stories about players in high school and college football that have appeared in OutSports where the players have come out to their teammates. In the cases that have been reported the response has been rather positive. Yet, we only have to bring up what happened to Michael Sam to understand that very little has changed with regard to players who hope to play openly and valued for their sportsmanship and not for who they love.
Angels taught me a lot. Not just about my characters and their road to happiness, but also because as I explored Marco’s having to follow that “jock script” all boys are indoctrinated to follow (bag the girl and draw some blood out on the field) Marco goes through some fairly difficult moments in his teenage life. In his desire to play ball and be one of the guys, he’s opened himself up to a major downfall that he can’t see coming – mostly because of the pressure to perform both on and off the field. That pressure is enormous. Yet, there’s a boy that has captured Marco’s attention in a way that no one, boy or girl, ever has. He finds himself on an emotional pendulum – swinging wildly from the life everyone else thinks he should have (girlfriends or friends with bennies, followed by marriage and rugrats), and the life he wants for himself wrapped up in a boy who requires darkness and shadows to survive another hellish day of high school.
It’s a ride my own husband had to play.
Simply put, hiding hurts everyone involved. No one ultimately benefits from that arrangement, despite how much comfort it may bring teammates in thinking that everything is cool, the dude is solid, a man’s man. Marco’s journey changed long held positions and baggage I carried from jocks that tormented me in my own past. I began to understand the pressures boys like Marco – who hide from themselves just to play the game they love to play – are under. But I didn’t want that discussion in my works to be so one-sided.
My granddaughter is queer and I spend a great deal of time with her and her friends. Queerdom is a very different monster with her crew. Just the fact that they embrace the word “queer” has changed my perspective on a word that used to torment me. So I realized that while things may not have totally changed, I also remembered the stories posted in OutSports of players who have experienced support from within their team. So while there is a clique within the team from Mercy High in my stories, I also balanced it with boys who really wouldn’t care if Marco was with a boy. I needed to show that line that things are changing. Maybe not at lightening speeds, but change is coming.
I am not kidding myself in thinking it will change in college or pro-ball in the next five, ten or fifteen years. That may be a long time in coming, but come it will.
With the release of Angels of Mercy – Diary of a Quarterback Part I: King of Imperfections and Angels of Mercy – Diary of a Quarterback Part II: Prince of Mistakes, I wanted to explore Marco’s journey. To be honest, while I started the main Angels of Mercy series from Marco’s boyfriend Elliot’s point of view, the story was really Marco’s to tell. He gets the lion’s share of the series (three books out of the six total).
I am thankful that Marco exists. He’s made me understand my husband’s past so much more. And I am far more sympathetic to athletes who take that courageous step to emerge and live a life out and proud. Their stories will always hold my interest.
I often wonder what I would say to my younger tortured teenboy self that would give my younger self context to understand what those boys go through. Don’t know if it would’ve made a difference or not, but I am glad I’ve grown enough as a writer and a queer man to give them a bit more of a pass and a modicum of understanding that many of them may not feel free enough to live openly and use oppression to express their frustration.
That’s what Angels ultimately explores. Here’s hoping that the trend toward acceptance keeps moving in a positive direction. I look forward to the day when it simply won’t matter.
Until next time …
SA Collins Store (support the author directly)
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So this is an impromptu entry. Just something I felt I had to write about with Comic Con coming to a close this year.
I’ve gone to Comic Con since its very early days when it was a collection of comic book sellers and Hollywood hadn’t attached itself to the massive marketing event it is today. Back then it was just a bunch of geeks who’d get together to celebrate our communal geekdom.
I reveled in those days. I was a comic book fan since my father introduced me to it when I was a boy of five. Aquaman was my first. Dad seemed to like him a lot so he was my very first exposure to the world of super heroes. He’s always been an instant love of mine. He’s been much maligned and dumbed down over the decades, which sort of always hurt that people have a rather skewed and uninformed understanding of who Arthur Curry and his super hero moniker of Aquaman.
Many would be surprised to find out he’s actually a demi-god. His powers easily rival those of Wonder Woman or Superman. Talking to fish is fairly low on his power level, like we think of breathing. He’s even KICKED Superman’s ass in a one on one combat. So yeah, I am totes down with Jason Momoa bringing everyone up to speed on how bad ass Aquaman really is. Bout time y’all were schooled in this guy’s supreme epicness.
Glad to see that Justice League’s trailer shows Aquaman stepping up to the plate in a big way. It’ll also be interesting to see how Diana Prince and Arthur Curry settle their differences given that Atlantians and Amazon’s don’t always see eye-to-eye (given their allegiances to Zeus/Aphrodite and Hera for the Amazon’s and Poseidon for Arthur’s peeps – all of which have been at each other at one point or another throughout history).
And to cast Momoa (a Pacific Islander by heritage) as the Sea King is just absolutely brilliant in my book, say nothing of the fact that a solid Person of Color is one of the big players in the whole JLA realm is fucking off the chain cool in the BIGGEST bad assed way.
But you see, my love of comic book heroes is steeped very much in who I am as a queer man. These people often had to operate outside the spectrum of normal life. As a queer kid, I got that on so many levels. You knew you grew up different than everyone else. You knew that you had talents and gifts that people wouldn’t understand and might even be afraid of. So there were direct parallels for queer kids to draw from the super hero realm. The sad stark truth, until much later in the game, we didn’t have any real representation of superheroes who were just like us – queer – and unabashedly so. That’s changed quite a bit, yet the main heroes are still overridingly straight. No gay Superman, no lesbian Wonder Woman (though there are great hints of it throughout Amazon society at large that could definitely be argued), no sexually fluid Aquaman (mores the pity on that one alone …).
Which brings me to the greatest love in my queer boy life – Wonder Woman.
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Let me perfectly frank here: I am a dyed in the wool DC comic fan. I get the whole Marvel thing, and yeah, they’ve even been more forward an progressive where queer superheroes are concerned. Bravo for them. But Aquaman was my first. So DC has always ruled my world from that perspective. Doesn’t mean I am not into Marvel heroes, just they take a back seat to my DC realm.
But getting back to Wonder Woman. I discovered her all on my own. While my love for Aquaman has NEVER diminished, Diana quickly became everything to me. As a young gay boy I realized just how much I identified with her. Her sense of wonder at how to move through man’s world. How she had this awe and amazement in her burgeoning love for Steve Trevor. All of it. I ate her up like mother’s milk. She was epic and awe inspiring … mostly because she was so closely allied with the Greek mythology that also kept my interest – probably why she rose to become equal to Aquaman, too. I loved them both desperately.
My father probably wondered at my fascination and obsession with Diana Prince. It was fairly obvious to him I was gay. He said he knew that before I was born. I’ve written about that before (both here and on my other site – Violet Quill Redux). Even during the heady disco days of the seventies I had my Wonder Woman fix in so many ways – both on my Saturday morning cartoons (we didn’t have the luxury of a cartoon network back in my day) with the Super Friends (which I totally lay blame on when Aquaman started to become dumbed down) as well as the short lived but wildy cool – to a queer kid like me – Wonder Woman series starring Lynda Carter. That woman will ALWAYS be a goddess to me!
That poster graced my walls – along with many others of Lynda for many years. It confused the hell out of my dad because my adoration of anything Lynda Carter knew no bounds. He just didn’t get the gayboy connection to how it all worked in my head. Poor Dad, sorry for the misdirect – it wasn’t intentional, Pops.
Anywho, queer kids needed superheroes. I dare say probably more so than our straight counterparts. Only because as queer kids, we had so very little going for us that these characters meant the world to us. They gave us hope. We identified with them in many, many ways. The subversive nature of their lives and loves. How secretive they had to be in the world around them. We got it – on an EPIC scale.
With the close of another SD Comic Con (one that I missed this year) I can’t help but feel nostalgic over not only not attending this year, but the general feeling that these characters matter so much to a queer man like me. Their ideals, their pushing against the monumental odds against them. I get it, in ways that I am sure most people never think about them. They just see the heroes journey. Whereas we see the double-life they have to lead in order to do some good in the world. The duplicity of it all. And queers get it. It mirrors our own lives in so many ways. That big shiny assed unicorn that we all are. It wants to come out and spread rainbows all over the fucking place, but often can’t.
So yeah, so hyped up for the new Wonder Woman and Justice League flicks that are in the pipeline. Momoa is SOOOOO gonna kill it as my fave Aquaman. I am sooo down with him taking the role I get fucking giddier than I’ve ever been about something. I fucking tremble if I think about it too much. And, as I’ve said it before, if I had to wait all this time to get Wonder Woman to the big screen – then I am okay with it. Gal Gadot fucking nails Diana Prince to the fucking wall! Consider the mantle successively passed from my hallowed Lynda Carter to Gal. I can’t wait to see what happens there.
Oh, and one side note: queer identified Ezra Miller as Barry Allen. He is sooooo fucking sexy that I’ve sorta forgotten all about Grant Gustin’s take on Barry. Sorry Grant, but just knowing Ezra’s a gender fluid sorta guy … yeah it brings him one step closer to my queer boy life. And I am so glad they’re letting him be the humor in the DCU. He is so gonna rock that role like no one’s business!
So, until next time …
– SA C
And one more of Ezra … just ’cause I gotta.
Character creation has never really been an issue for me. Having played so many of them on the stage over my half-century of being on this planet, I have pulled upon so many threads of the people I’ve met and crossed paths with. My high school drama teacher taught me many things about the craft. But there was one he taught that has stuck more than any other.
The world will reveal itself to you if you just stop singing, stop dancing, stop talking and just … listen and observe.
Now, if you’ve caught me on the podcast I co-host, you know that my not talking is something of an issue. I love conversation and have little to no filter (yes, I recognize it’s a flaw – but I choose to run with it and hope others can keep up) when it comes into diving in on topics that crop up during the conversation. So it’s no small feat for me to stop, not make a sound, and listen.
Yet, there are moments in my past that it happened for me with very little input on my part. Magical people and events that would just trigger that stop all action and listen (and watch) what was going on around me. And I’ve always come away the richer for it.
In writing the Angels of Mercy series, I have two characters that appear secondary in the story (to the plotline – though, in truth they are very much first level characters for one reason only – I know them both. They exist not only on the page, but also in my books).
I knew them when I was in grade school through high school. La Presa Elementary right up through La Presa Junior High and then ending at Monte Vista High, before we all went our separate ways. When I crafted Angels of Mercy, I knew that my quiet unassuming gay boy, Elliot, would have only one real friend in school before he becomes involved with the love of his life, Marco Sforza. That guy is Greg Lettau. Greg is drawn from the guy I knew in school who I thought was incredibly brilliant and had the wickedest sense of humor. He was skinny as all fuck, pointdexterish in the extreme – horned rimmed glasses and gawkish looking as can be.
But here’s the thing: Greg was so honorable as a friend he’s stuck with me, in my mind, long after we went our own ways after high school graduation. The few times I’d spent at their house after school back in my youth provided me with more than enough fertile ground to plunder when I crafted my two snarky brothers as supporting characters for Elliot and Marco. The Lettau boys are solid guys. Obviously, I’ve not known what they’ve gotten up to since we parted ways so long ago, but the memory of who they were in my past had a profound effect on wanting to capture their spirit and their particular brand of living life that I knew I wanted to pay homage to them.
I know I run the risk of using their actual names in the work, but I think even though it may not be the kind of book either man would read, I think I’ve done right by them. Greg, after all, gets the girl of his dreams in the end. I wanted that for Greg, even back then. He will always be that quick witted, snarky guy with a heart of gold. The banter he had with his brother I recalled was epic. I’ve only barely scratched the surface with them – as in this scene from my soon-to-be released Angels prequel: Angels of Mercy – Diary of a Quarterback Part One: King of Imperfections.
The first scene I had between the brothers had to be key in setting the tone for them. These were two guys who expressed their love by bagging the shit out of the other. The harder you bagged, the more love you expressed. It was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed before – completely foreign to how my world worked. And I remember loving the shit out of how they did it. They never missed a beat between them.
That is, until Greg gave me the greatest gift with his next words.
“Oh yeah. They live out on Oak Ridge Way out on the south-east part of town, up near the oak forest area – well, where the oaks and redwoods sorta mingle. Kinda the last house in town, if you know what I mean. You ever been out that way?” He eyed me for a second before turning the station on the TV to the science channel. This kid really was the quintessential geek.
I shook my head, “No, not really. Why?”
“Ah, well you just seemed the athletic type, being a jock and all.” He gave me a snarky roll of his eyes before continuing, “It’s fairly nice to hike up there sometimes. Hell, if I was half the friend to Elliot that I say I am, I should haul his ass up there for a bit. I know he could use the companionship. I sometimes worry ‘bout the guy, ya know?”
“Why? You think he’ll go all postal one day?”
“Nah, nothing like that. He’s to empathetic to go postal. He’d feel it way too much, ya know? But he’s definitely got a fairly lonely existence. Sometimes I’ve spotted him sitting out along the stands in the stadium – just drawing a bit in that sketchbook he carries around in his backpack while he eats his lunch. You know, way away from everyone. Serious loner stuff. And he’s a really great guy. I mean, I’m not going all gay for him, but he really is very smart and has a twisted as fuck sense of humor. I enjoy his company when we do get a chance to talk. I think he just is thankful that he has someone at school he can relate to a bit. I just can’t imagine how going to a school that holds nearly seven hundred kids and he’s only got pathetic me to chat up every now and then. Sad, really.”
“Maybe I should remedy that, then? I mean, if he’s as cool as you say he is.”
“Yeah, well, Elliot’s right on that score, bud. It’s one thing if the horn-rimmed math geek gets caught chatting him up from time to time. I mean, no one really pays any attention to math geeks unless its the jocks picking on ‘em because the gay kid ain’t around to bag on, ya know? For you, it’s a whole other thing. He’s right. It wouldn’t work out. Just the way it is.”
“Yeah, well, they don’t know dick about me.”
“Well, at the risk of pissing you the fuck off, it wouldn’t matter. This shit’s bigger than the both of us. Always has been, always will be. Ya know?”
I had to shrug at that. I knew the playbook about Jocks and inter-class social associations. The shrug was a requisite at this point if I was to maintain any credibility. Nothing but a pure acknowledgment of the rule book we both were playing by.
I had more than my fair share of intel on what I wanted on Elliot. Fuck me, when I thought on it, I’d hit the mother lode. I mean, now I knew where he lived. If it was where I thought it was, then I was in fucking hog heaven. I never drove out that way and I was kind of glad that the Impala I had back home wasn’t quite ready for her first run on the road since I’d rebuilt her engine. I still had a few things to fix on her before I got her that official armor of black paint to make her just as bad-assed as the Winchesters’ car on Supernatural. From the time I saw the first episode I was hooked and that car is what did it: full on classic muscle car. I could only hope Elliot would like riding around in it.
I looked at my watch; it was still early but I should head out anyway, didn’t want to over-stay my welcome. ‘Sides, I had an itch to scratch that had Elliot’s home address written all over it. I needed to get out there and see if I could sort out where he was. My heart was racing with just the prospect of seeing him this afternoon.
“Well, I better get going. I got some errands to run before I get home and hit the homework.”
“You leavin’ already?” Kevin asked as he came back from the kitchen. He had a grin on his face so evidently he was in tight with his latest conquest. And here I was, pining over the gay kid on campus.
How fucking upside down is that?
“Yeah, I think I better. I got some shit I gotta take care of.”
“Don’tcha mean, someone to take care of?” Kevin snickered and suggestively mirrored his younger brother’s salacious expression a few moments earlier.
Brothers, I got it, more than they knew.
“Jesus, Kevin, give it a break. Not everyone in this world thinks with his dick like you do,” Greg moaned.
“We’re teenaged men, dip-shit. Even you think with that pencil sized piece you’re packin’ ,” Kevin retorted.
“Still a heap bigger than the thimble-sized chubby you try to force on your latest conquest,” Greg volleyed right back.
“Really, guys? Is this gonna end with each of you marking your territories by pissing here?” I countered to the both of them.
They both looked stunned that I’d insert myself with this very familiar form of brotherly love.
“‘Sides, I’m the one with the monster cock in this room so I got you both trumped,” I said as I started to walk towards the front door.
“Yeah, right,” Greg huffed as he slipped back down onto the sofa. I reached the door and Kevin took the knob from me and held door open.
“No. He’s right, lil’ brother. Even with both our cocks, this guy would still beat us.”
I stopped at the door and just wiggled my brows at them both. Kevin chortled a bit. Yeah, I knew he’d seen the python I got going because of the showers. Hell, even Beau stacked up short against the stallion.
“Fuck me,” Greg snorted. “How’s a geeky brother gonna get laid if we got Godzilla dick out there banging around?”
“Wait ’til Marco roars. Then you’ll see ‘em run. That’s when we bag ‘em, lil’ brother.” We fist bumped as I ducked out hearing Kevin laugh as he started to shut the door.
I just waved a hand without looking back as I got to the family Audi. I had a certain someone I needed to find: a certain boy who had my heart, a certain boy who I was more determined than ever to find my way into his arms. And I knew, I just knew, that I’d gained an invaluable ally in Greg Lettau. He was my key. I only had to find a way to get him to help me out. But I’d get to that later. I had more pressing matters on my mind just now.
Yet, that love they had for one another had to shine through, as evidenced when Greg moves off to grab his jacket and Kevin has a moment to speak with his teammate Marco giving Greg some Jock attention. Although, even in that, Kevin is clear that Greg can never know how he truly feels about it.
“What I said was that there was an opportunity to redeem yourself tonight. A few of us are going to the Hut for some pizza. You should come along. Make up for your serious fuck-up this afternoon.”
I scratched the back of my head considering it. I did have some homework to do, but it was a Thursday night. I guess it would keep until the weekend. I looked at Greg for a moment. His eyes kept conveying to me I had no way out on this one.
“Who’s all gonna be there?”
Kevin shrugged, “Beau, Willem and Mack and their latest squeezes, I guess. Fuck all if I know. I just know the guys specifically asked that you come along for dinner at the Hut.”
“How’d they know I’d be here?” I thought it was a valid question. It seemed to irritate Kevin a bit though.
“I don’t know. Maybe because they’ve seen you becoming besties with Greg here.”
Fuck, now I had the geek kid rep to deal with.
“On one condition.”
Kevin stitched his brow, unsure of what was going to come out of my mouth next.
“I want Greg to ride shotgun.”
Greg looked like he was about to shit a brick over that one. “What? Hey, you can leave me outta this …”
Kevin chuckled, “It would be a bit odd to bring my kid brother along. Might make it a bit awkward for him, too. ‘Sides, I get enough of his lip as it is …”
“Not an option,” I dug my heels in.
“Dude …” was all Greg said as he sighed and shook his head. I didn’t care. I needed an ally if I was going to walk into dealing with that suspicious crew.
I collapsed on the sofa between them both. “Sorry, bro.” I mumbled.
Kevin quirked an eyebrow at that. “You two want to get a room or something? I mean, don’t let me stop you from your budding bromance.”
Greg blushed a bit harder than I thought he needed to. Evidently, he was a bit sensitive about the whole being thought of as a fag thing. But I guess when you weren’t a jock, then you might have cause to be a bit sensitive about it. I observed Greg’s eyes darting to me to gauge my reaction. I didn’t have any, not really. I wasn’t one to harbor weird shit like oh don’t say that, it offends me …
Playing football or hell, any team sport, tended to thicken your skin pretty damned quick or you were out on your ass. Tom Hanks said it best, even if the quote was about baseball: There’s no crying, none. Well, maybe if you lost an important game, but even then you cried your ass off silently, under the shower where no one else could see. I knew the drill. A little bromance joke would accomplish nothing to get under my skin. Only Greg couldn’t leave a line like that dangling without a proper sibling response though.
“Well, at least I’m smart enough not to go out with the likes of you. Speaking of which, how’s things with Suzy, lately?”
Kevin’s smirk faded quickly. His gaze became far more pointed. I still didn’t know what Greg had done but whatever it was, it had to’ve been big.
“Whatever, little brother.”
“Uh-huh, that’s what I thought.”
I looked at my watch: five fifteen. “So what time are we supposed to be there?” I looked over at Kevin.
He shrugged, “I guess around six or so. No one really said.”
I chuckled, “Yeah, that figures.”
I spared a beat while we all watched Guy Fieri chow down on a sandwich that looked like it would guarantee a heart attack just by inhaling the fumes let alone macking down on it like there was no tomorrow. I slapped Kevin’s leg as I pushed off the sofa.
“Well, I’m gonna go home and get sorted. Meet ya there?”
I turned to Greg, “Wanna tag along?”
Greg’s eyes darted to his brother’s – a beat.
“I’m thinking of taking the Impala out for her maiden run.”
Greg face lit up with that. I’d been telling him about it from time to time so he was eager to see what I’d done so far. I already sensed that Greg had a hard-on for the muscle car I was working on. The fact that I’d even suggested that he could ride shotgun on her maiden ride seemed to put him to the edge of cumming all over himself.
I nodded, “Yeah, no time like the present, right?”
“Right on …” He got up and made his way down the hall to his room. “Give me a sec to grab a jacket.”
After he’d disappeared Kevin watched me with a greater interest.
“Greg. I bag on his ass a lot but, and I’ll kick your ass if you ever say that I told you this, but I love the little douchebag. It’s sorta cool you giving him some attention. It wouldn’t mean half as much if it came from me. Big brother n’ all.”
I stretched, then shrugged, “Nah, it’s cool. He’s a great guy. But dude, I so gotta do something about pulling him outta his math geek shell. Dude will never get laid if he keeps going the way he’s goin’.”
Kevin chuckled a bit loudly at that as Greg emerged from the hallway.
“What’d I miss?”
“Eh, it’s nothin’,” Kevin offered, a smirk still coloring his face. I couldn’t help but smile the tiniest bit as well.
Greg stopped dead in his tracks.
“Okay, what the fuck? Out with it. Somebody said something about me and now you both are grinnin’ like you just put one over on me. So what gives?”
I shook my head and approached Greg. I put a hand on his shoulder and started to guide him out the front door.
“It’s nothing, bro. Let’s get a move on before the team has another whine session about my blowin’ them off. Say good-bye, Kevin.”
Kevin shook his head and grabbed the remote from where Greg had unceremoniously dumped it. “Good-bye, Kevin…” he snorted at the two of us making our way out the door.
“Whatever, bro. You both are acting weird,” Greg murmured as I guided him out to the family Audi sitting in front of their house.
Greg could be like a pit-bull with a thought. As soon as he closed the door to the car he was on me with it. “So what did that fucktard of a brother really say?”
I chuckled, “That really does get into your shit, doesn’t it?”
“What? Kevin? You have no idea.”
He shook his head as he put on his seatbelt.
But it was more than just how they bagged on one another. You had to feel the thread of love that ran through it all. For that I had to stop, close my eyes and shut out the world and just listen to those moments I spent in their house, listening and observing them being themselves.
Greg told me that he was making a bit of progress with Elliot regarding the jocks on campus. I asked him to work on getting Elliot talked into going out for the tennis team like I’d overheard that one morning. That proved to be a little tougher to work out. Elliot seemed open to the idea of playing. He told Greg he would get into that part of it, even enjoy the tournaments he’d have to go to. All of that seemed okay. Only one thing he couldn’t get around.
“Being a jock. That’s what he can’t wrap his head around,” Greg admitted to me at one of my after school visits at his place.
He seemed particularly worried about how I took that update. I had to admit, it didn’t suit my fancy too much.
“Does that mean he’s not going to do it?”
Without directly answering, Greg flipped to one of the food networks where we watched some blonde chef boozing it up while throwing some cans of soup on a chicken breast and calling it cooking.
“What I want to know is, why is it so important that he go out for the team?”
“Uh, jock? Something in common between us? Any of this ringing a bell for ya?”
“Yeah, okay. I getcha there. I thought of it, too, ya know. But I dunno, Marco. Elliot’s got a weird streak when it comes to guys like you. And before you go off half-cocked, you gotta realize he’s been harassed and belittled for several years now by guys who became jocks. It’s a learned response. He sees the danger and rightly goes the other way. It’s how he’s survived. Of course he’s gonna rail against becoming one of you, even if it’s a game he really likes to play. It still involves becoming one. He’s having a real hard time getting around that.”
I sighed, running my hands down my face.
“Forget it. This whole thing is bat-shit crazy” I got up and began to pace around the living room.
“What’s bat-shit crazy?” Kevin walked in through the front door. “Dude, where the fuck were you?”
Confused, I looked around me, “Uh, I think that’s fairly obvious. Been here, pencil-dick.”
Greg snorted at that one.
“Yeah, I see, but you were supposed to be down at the cliffs with the guys, asswipe. We missed you out there. You know – some quality bud time? And I find you here, holed up with my geeky kid brother.”
“Wow, fucktard, way to feel the brotherly love…” Greg deadpanned.
“No, not like that, dick scum. I mean that Marco knows what team building is like. We do some social stuff together, too. This was one of our days to blow off some steam and he wasn’t anywhere to be found. So not cool, Sforza. So …” he plopped his massive frame down on the sofa and grabbed the bag of chips Greg had thrown on the table between us, “…what the fuck, bro? How does my brother rate when your teammates are having a rather illegal kegger out along the cliffs?”
“Oh yeah, that’s a great place to serve alcohol illegally to a bunch of dumb jocks. Let’s give guys who are hormonely challenged and mentally deprived and have them imbibe along a precipice that’s only a hundred forty feet above the ocean. Yeah, sign me the fuck up. Fuckin’ YouTube heaven, that shit is,” Greg tossed out.
“We are not a bunch of dumb jocks,” Kevin groused leaning in toward his brother to press his point.
“I’ve seen your grades; your position in this debate is questionable.”
He grabbed the chips from his elder brother. I sat back down and watch the sibling rivalry play out, thankfully obscuring my social faux pas. Kevin had the right of it though. I should’ve been out with the guys. Only this whole Elliot thing really did a number on me. Even while I listened to Kevin and Greg verbally pound on each other, a small sense of gratitude moved through me that I had a bit of time to sort out my shit. It did give me some concern that I hadn’t handled all of this with any degree of grace. I needed to get my game face on.
It’s moments like that I tried like hell to capture about these two remarkable boys from my past. Vibrant young men, each of them comfortable in their skin, but they never made me feel less because I was the queer kid. It all just … was. So how do I not run the risk of pissing them the fuck off? Mostly because I did change up quite a few elements about them for the work. My Greg and Kevin Lettau are not the actual Lettaus by a long shot. There are very similar threads, but by and large they are of my own making. As I said, an homage to who they were/are from my youth.
So Greg, don’t know what you’re up to. Don’t know where life has taken you and how it’s all panned out for you, but just know, that some small thread of you, some essence I observed and committed to memory, lives on and bears your name. It’s not you. It was never intended to be you. It was simply my way of acknowledging to the world what great guy I thought you were back then. No page can truly capture your dry wit, and plucky bon monts. That part is wholly you. I’m just winking in your direction and saying, “Thanks, for all of it.”
Until next time …
– SA C
PLEASE NOTE: This post assumes you have a general knowledge (or wish to gain said knowledge) of how Adobe Photoshop functions and makes no attempt to walk you through that process. There are numerous online tutorials (both written/blog versions as well as video examples) that can easily instruct on the basics of Photoshop.
Okay, this one I have to start out by saying I owe a certain photographer out there a book cover tutorial. He already knows the final product. I’ve shown him that much. But what I’ve struggled with is how to document my creative choices AND not permit anyone to steal his photography artwork in the process (he was kind enough to loan me one for the tutorial I proposed to him). So, here’s the lowdown on that little scenario:
I can’t sort out how to make the image non-downloadable. The issue is I know code to make it do that but the upkeep would be a nightmare because the tech keeps changing and thus at some point it would break and his image would be out there for free! I can’t risk that. So Paul, I did come up with a method of protecting your work BUT I also have never attempted to do what I am going to do so bear with me while I work out the kinks. It’s going to be my first screen cap narrated video! All these years involved in tech and filmmaking and I’ve never done one – I find that truly shocking. But there’s no way to lift a clean copy of the image from that and I won’t worry that tech has progressed enough to crack and allow stealing of Paul’s original image. In the interim – I do hope if you are ever in need of a licensed photo for your book cover, seek out Paul Henry Serres Photography … he’s an amazing artist/photographer and such a lovely man to interact with!
Basically I go from this:
Onward to this post in the meantime!
So for Angels of Mercy – Phoenix in the Fire, I needed to come up with the print edition. If you recall, I struggled even to come up with the front cover to begin with. I knew I was going to break from the football theme that had been consistent with the Angels proper series (Phoenix is a companion book and not part of the main series works). If you haven’t seen the evolution of that ebook cover you can find it here.
So the print editions always make me a bit queasy from a design aspect. I mean, I goof around enough with the front cover to get something that looks right. Now to spread that across a full print cover – uh, in a word – YIKES!
But tackle it I must.
So the first stab at it had me thinking since this book was not a proper Angels series book, more of a companion novel, that I could finally depart from the football theme I had going in the Angels proper part of their world. Also, since this book was narrated by Elliot I thought I should sort of mirror what I did for the Angels V1 book – use some artwork that I would create for Elliot and put it on the back cover.
So, with that in mind I toyed around and around until I came up with this little ditty:
While the idea of using another piece of Elliot’s artwork as a way of tying it back to the first book he narrated, the violence he had to claw his way back from didn’t come across in this version. Even with the fire and blood splatters, it just wasn’t where I needed to go with it. People liked it well enough, even I did, to a point. But it seemed I was settling in drafting it. I could do better to represent the story plot line.
So I let it percolate a bit, stewing in its own unsettled sauce, as it were. Then I became inspired – why not go with Elliot being shown as rising (sort of the next step from the front cover of the book – only this time more fully formed and capable – it is what happens in the work) from his adversity? So I decided to start combing the stock photos out there, searching for a teen-ish looking boy that I could put up for Elliot (who also had to fit the way I’d always envisioned him). My budget for this cover wasn’t substantial, so I had to stick to stock photo sites I already had subscriptions to … which can be limiting at times. This time though, it paid off.
Here is the original image I started with (I purchased the license for the actual work – just showing the comp for the purposes of this post).
Two things were against me in starting with this – 1) the background setting and 2) the lighting. Both of which could be addressed but it was a consideration going in.
I also needed angel’s wings … to keep with the phoenix/angel motif I had from the front cover.
And believe it or not, there is actually a background in the final product – though, what I did to the whole piece did sort of obscure most of it. Ah well, the price of art, I suppose.
With my pieces in hand I began to work. The first thing I started off was the composition of elements to see if what I wanted to do would work. After I hastily placed items I twitter messaged my go to for all things Angels and asked him what he thought. He gave me the thumbs up on my little mock up:
It was a start. But I needed to start mucking around a bit to get it closer to both the theme of rising from your own ashes to something greater AND keep to the color spectrum of the original ebook cover.
First up – I needed some action! Photoshop actions, to be precise.
Of course, this begs the obvious that you have to have Photoshop to begin with to attempt to do what I show here in this post. So for those that don’t – might I suggest that if you are a self-pubber wanting to save a bit of cash over time (won’t be an immediate savings) that you subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud (TODAY) and start to dive in and sort it. It’s not all that hard to do. Yes, it will take you away from writing, but if you want to be in control of your creative destiny by self-publishing, then this too, is part of your craft/business. If you can gain these skills and add them to your talent coffers, just think of the money you’ll save on designs for swag, promotional banners/ads/bookmarks and the like? Design once, distribute multiple times (be sure to understand your licensing of the graphics before you do … a very important point I can’t stress enough). You don’t have to have a big time eye for art … look at what attracts you and mimic it for a bit (not using it for commercial purposes, but more to hone your creative eye for placement, typography, and marketing). Learn from those that seem to work and gain your interest – start to cultivate a discerning eye on why it works for you. Then go and make the attempt yourself. Use comp images for that – the intent is not to publish but to perfect your design capabilities. With the subscription price of Creative Cloud at various levels, there is a path to get Photoshop on your desktop fairly easily.
So, enough of my – hone your craft – speech, back to the book cover:
With my photoshop actions tucked into my design arsenal I began to work on the individual parts to bring the whole book cover together.
First up I had to address the male model and the background I didn’t need. Easy enough – using the quick select and magic wand tools I quickly selected him and cut and pasted to a new layer in a new doc (or you can place him in a new doc on a new layer – your choice). After putting him on his own layer I went back to the background layer and filled it with a solid color. To properly begin to compile you need to isolate all of your separate images to solo pieces that you can begin to manipulate into your composite artwork. One word about cutting the model out of a background – sometimes precision is required so that every stray (unwanted) pixel needs to be cleaned up before you can proceed to compositing your final image. In my case I knew I was going to throw a helluva lot of graphical elements and adjustments to it do precision on cropping him out of the original background wasn’t so essential. The actions I’d be applying would more than likely obliterate any odd pixel hanging out there that I didn’t have to be so precise this time around.
In this revision, I also had to find a way to use the Mercy High Avenging Angels football logo that I wanted to tie this book with the main series (the team logo appears there). Since I discarded the previous artwork from my first draft I decided to repurpose it as a piece of clothing. The male model luckily had a very neutral hoodie on that had absolutely no graphic or artwork of any kind – BINGO! I’m in.
So how do you do that?
DISPLACEMENT MAPS (learn all you can about them – brilliant little nugget that will allow you to modify standard fair stock art into something a bit more unique)!
For a decent tutorial on them I would start here (though googling “Photoshop Tutorial Displacement Maps” brings up a ton of tutorials out there to guide you along. Long story – short, I got the logo placed on my guy and it bent and folded along the warps of the hoodie with no problem. I was quite pleased with the results. To compare look at the image above this section and then scroll back down to note the addition of the football team logo on the hoodie with the lower image.
This was the end result (obviously sans the “SAMPLE” stamp across it):
The wings and desolate background with the cloudy sunset were fine as they were – the only thing I needed to address was to separate the two wings into two separate images that I could manipulate on the final composite image.
Next up – The wings … I wanted them to have a specific shape (other than the form they came in).
The default layout of the wings from my first attempt (two images above) have them outstretched – the way I bought them. But I wanted them to be more in “flight” mode. Thus I needed to distort each wing to give them that sort of look. To do this you have each wing on it’s own layer and then select the wing and choose EDIT –> Transform –> Distort. Then you pull the handles surrounding the selected image to manipulate the wing into what you want it to do. You can alternatively use Skew and Perspective or Warp should Distort not completely satisfy.
Remember with Photoshop you can always roll back to a previous action via the History panel so feel free to experiment. Don’t like the adjustment you just made … simply click the history level one level (or as many as you like) to roll back to a good starting point and go at it another way.
Once the wings were in the position I wanted them in (see below) I duplicated the layers and placed them in the composite image for further manipulation:
I realized I wanted to make them a bit translucent as your eye traveled from the frame bone structure along the top of the wings to the lower extremities.
So I now compiled the separate elements so I could use the first Photoshop action by Seven Styles (footnote: they’re extremely powerful actions that will save you oodles of time, look great, are easily modifiable, and the best part – they’re super inexpensive!). In this case, I started off using the STORM action from Seven Styles. An example of how it works can be found in the following video tutorial (don’tcha just love his Aussie accent?):
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After applying that action it turned out like this …
As you can see with the video each of these actions can be altered and modified to suit your needs. With the above action the color scheme started to skew toward matching the front cover. Next up I needed to add the fire and brimstone look to it so I could match the front cover’s fiery theme – the big difference? I wanted the back cover to be more hopeful. The front cover has Elliot soaring out of the fiery hellish hole his boyfriend’s teammates put him in. It’s ragged and meant to be representational of his slog to get out of that hell.
So with the Fire action (see the video below if you want to know more), I finally started to see things come closer to what I wanted – a more hopeful vision but still with the grit and determination to find his way back to the love of his life.
[embedplusvideo height=”255″ width=”400″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1ttSMan” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/QVS8gmcBUk8?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=QVS8gmcBUk8&width=400&height=255&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=¬es=&lean=1″ id=”ep8695″ /]
After running that action my photo now looked like this:
I played around with the various layers and adjustment layers to set the right tone I was looking for, getting it as close to the color and tone of the front cover, and then added the blurb to match the author byline on the cover. And, voila! The work is complete.
Feel free to reach out to me with any questions you might have concerning this by emailing me at email@example.com or by leaving them in the comments below.
Until next time …
So here’s the deal: while peeps have heard about the Haudenosaunee (under the more familiar moniker of “The Iroquois”), with the Mohawk (mostly in part because of that wild punker hairdo of the same name) and Seneca being the most widely known, when pressed they often don’t know much about them as a people.
And we can’t leave it to the history books, in part because the Texas Board of Education’s influence on dumbing down of the masses ensures that they’ll never get Native American history right despite the author’s best intentions of capturing what’s really out there.
Some university presses may have a better grasp of the reality but let’s be clear – most of that is written so dryly that just getting through the front matter of the book is a struggle.
So, we storytellers of the modern age who want to craft tales from that rich tapestry of North America’s indigenous cultures, it’s a dangerous mazurka across a cultural mine field. It’s doubly hard if you’re a member of that community mostly because you have to question every aspect of what you’re doing. As a member, you don’t get the luxury of claiming ignorance and white privilege. Because if you’ve had any cultural instruction you know better and more importantly, you know who to ask if you don’t, and second – ya ain’t white, period.
But herein, as a native author, you have to weigh cultural indifference and ignorance on the reader’s part – not wholly of their own choosing, I’ll cop to that right now – on why all natives don’t live in teepees and say “Hau.” Don’t even get me started on the misconception we all refer to our women as squaws, either – ’cause if you really knew the meaning of that word you’d find it as offensive as I do.
So here I am, with my first Sci-Fi work finally coming to life and I ran smack into that cultural wall of:
“Holy Shit! They won’t know our history, the way we look at life, our morals, our creation stories, how we came to be as a people – say nothing of my alt-world spin on it all.”
So, what to do? I’ve heard many authors and readers gripe about prologues that instruct rather than “show” and reveal through the story telling. Or the expository nature of a character who has to impart native cultural history that is NOT part of the mainstream knowledge base. This shit simply is not known. It’s not like JK Rowling giving us a tale about witches and wizards. We know what those are. It’s part of the common vernacular and mainstream understanding. We only have to glean her twist on things to understand her world.
But how many of you could relate to me the tale of Skywoman and her importance in life? How many of you get the allegory of how the world was truly created and how closely her tale aligns with what we know in science to be true. If you knew, you’d think it was rather spooky how we had it down fairly well from a conceptual point of view. Actually, native perspective on the known sciences is rather interesting all on its own. And it’s something I’ll be exploring as we get into the Cove Chronicles. My native characters in my story went to Dartmouth – a university established specifically to address native peoples’ education.
But our cultural stories play a big part in how my characters move through their lives and deal with what I am about to throw at them. It’s fairly epic. Well, it should be if I expect people to care about them, right?
Still, how much to impart? It’s not an easy question. I don’t get that Rowling benefit of a common knowledge thing – aside from their being Indian. And we all know how misinformed that knowledge is. Epic doesn’t begin to cover it.
So, this week, I am posting the revised prologue – I’ve moved the original posting (it’s a work in progress, so shit’s gonna change) to further along in the book. In it, I take five pages to move the reader through a primer on who we are as a people and how my world works. It’s a stab. It’s a what if … kinda thing. I don’t know if I’ll keep it.
But I know I gotta wrestle that white privilege monster to the ground and give y’all some common place to start. Plus I gotta worry about the Natives in this world who might give me shit for condensing it as I have, say nothing of my twist on it all to put it in a SciFi perspective.
So here is my stab at leveling the cultural playing field, presented as an oratory from the guy who is actually the leader of the opposition. Yeah, the baddie gets to bring y’all up to speed on us. As a point of interest, Ati:ron’s part of this posting was written over 8 years ago. It’s still in its original form. It’s been quite the learning experience to see what I was doing back then.
Enjoy! (It’s rough (read: unedited) and still being worked out – so keep that in mind – subject to change).
“I speak to you now, the words and the voice of the people. Words that speak of our coming, our creation, and our enduring peace. These are the words of our fathers, our mothers, given to us since time immemorial. Hear now of the sacred warriors, the Tewakenonhnè, and learn what they tell us …”
All Haudenosaunee children grow up with the creation stories.
They are the fabric of who we are as a people. They learn from an early age about the fall of Skywoman and how she started life here on Turtle Island, of her epic struggle to find a place to land, of seeding the plants and creating the beginnings of animal life that would populate the land.
After a time, she gave birth to twins. One was a virile strapping boy who would be known as Spruce, bringer of all good things in life. A constant of the universe maintains that a balance must exist. So where Spruce was robust and healthy; his twin, Flint, was sinewy and pallid in color, even at birth. One a bringer of light, love, empathy and compassion. The other of darkness, malfeasance, calculated evil and deception.
Their differences did not end with their out-worldly appearances. As with all things in life, each responds and interacts with it according to their own gifts. From an early age, Spruce was enthralled with every aspect of life. His keen and sharp mind, coupled with his compassion and deep profound respect for all the possibilities life afforded him, became the wellspring of his creations. Spruce demonstrated from childbirth his ability to imbue wondrous things on the island, expanding upon the flora and fauna he freely gave of himself to this world.
Meanwhile his twin, Flint, Spruce’s opposite in every way one could be opposite, would spend his days finding those wondrous things bearing the mark of his brother’s loving creation, and pervert them into creatures of a darker purpose. Flint took on a fiendish delight in bending his brother’s creations to his conniving will. Thus, the common garden snake would, under Flint’s maligned hand, grow fangs and poison others with its toxic venom. This was but just one example of the ways that Flint’s touch could leave his mark upon the innocence of life.
These small skirmishes between the siblings eventually grew to outright warfare. As their bodies grew in stature, their conflicts grew in direct proportion. Ultimately, Spruce found he could no longer bear to ignore the malfeasance that seemed to pour from his brother’s very soul.
Thus the brothers engaged, and a great battle ensued. A cataclysmic tussel that lasted for a very long time – whether one or one thousand years passed – the battle raged on. No one knew as no one was there to mark its passing. What is known, the twins in their epic conflict created the mountainscapes, deep canyons and gorges as they flung their titanic bodies across Turtle Island, slamming each other into the fertile soil.
When the world seemed that it could no longer bear more of their conflict, Spruce finally gained the upper hand and, in his victory, banished Flint to the shadows of life where darkness dwelled and bitterness and anger made a home. Flint’s heart became blackened to his brother.
Though the battle had ended, their war was far from over. From those infernal depths, in the darkened recesses of his banished realm, Flint swore that he would not be gone forever. He retreated into the darkness to lick wounds and bide his time. For time, that ever uncontrollable but progressive companion, he knew was ever in his favor. His brother would soon grow weary of watching for him. Flint knew that he would work his way back. Patience and planning was all that he required now.
Slowly, over the millennia, he crept back into everyday life. Slithering through the cracks he worked out, testing his brother’s resolve to keep him at bay. Whenever threatened by Spruce, Flint and his horde of perverted creatures would retreat back to their shadows to fight another day.
Then a curious thing happened: Spruce decided one day that he had completed his work and confident that his brother was no longer a threat in this world, he became resolved to take his leave, to simply walk away. His sole final imprint on this land was that he put the people of Turtle Island as its custodians, or balance-keepers, of life. It would be to them that the world would be cared for and treasured. They would become the check and balance against Flint and his minions.
For a time, it appeared to work, because in the beginning there was a balance, albeit with the occasional skirmish between both sides. But Flint was not anything if not patient. He could wait several millennia if that is what it took to achieve his ultimate goal. So Flint prodded the people. He poked at their defenses. Never so much as to do them great harm, but to test their resolve.
Over time Flint became more crafty in his offensive tactics, doing great damage to the people. Setting them against one another to the brink of oblivion. In this, Flint’s plan began to establish it’s evil intent. Fear, mistrust and deceit would he plant in men’s hearts.
It appeared to work.
It became apparent to the people that they were losing too many of their kind to keep Flint in his place. The Onondaga faithkeeper, in desperation, appealed to Spruce and begged for his assistance, explaining that the people were losing the battle and that all would be lost if he did not intercede on their behalf.
For a while it appeared that his plea fell on deaf ears. Spruce remained silent on the matter. The people that remained, left to guard the planet were strong in their resolution to oppose Flint, they just did not possess the means necessary to even the playing field, say nothing of actually winning the war.
Under Flint’s influence, the people began to fight amongst themselves on the right way to defeat Flint. Flint saw this as an opportunity and played into this – pooling malcontentedness where he could, caring for festering feelings and enmity toward their brothers and sisters.
On the eve of a particularly cold and bitter winter night, in the midst of a great battle amongst the people, warring amongst themselves, tearing at each other to the brink of desolation, their prayer, long since forgotten, was finally answered.
He came. Spruce returned one last time.
He returned to us not in the form we remembered, but as another great man: Dekanawida – known to us as the great Peacemaker.
He came to a man, a Mohawk man – Aiionwa’tha – who sat grieving near a lake over the butchering of his entire family during a recent battle. The Peacemaker consoled the man in his desolate grief. Tears that seemed to have no end found peace as he spoke to the man. Though not because of his words, but of the calming peace that emanated from every part of him.
Resolved that the warring amongst the people had to end, the Peacemaker implored Aiionwa’tha to help him bring the people together. Using the analogy of a bundle of arrows, he explained that they would get the warring peoples to understand that a single arrow could easily be broken, but combined and of like purpose, they were nearly unbreakable.
The Peacemaker was no great orator. But what he did possess was that calming and abiding peace. It was hard work to bring the people together, but under Aiionwa’tha’s impassioned tongue, and the Peacemaker’s influence, the people began to respond and see the way to the Great Law of Peace, uniting the five nations – Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca – to a common goal and purpose. Like those bundle of arrows, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy became strong.
But Spruce had a higher purpose in mind.
In their slumber as he visited each nation, he gifted the people with the ability to engage his brother and his twisted beasts. His gift would come in the form of preternatural powers that would manifest themselves in unique and powerful ways. Not every man – and later, woman – could answer its call.
At first, Spruce chose warriors who he observed showed the most promise; who were sound of heart and character and ultimately would not abuse the powerful sacred knowledge given to them by the Creator through him.
So the Tewakenonhnè or Guardians, as they came to be known, trained under Spruce’s tutelage in this way. As a warrior moved into his declining years – provided he had survived that long for the work was often lonely, grueling and for the most part, hidden from Haudenosaunee life – it would be up to the aging warrior to choose an able bodied young man culled from the village into the Guardianship and pass on the knowledge.
Sensing the people had taken up the cause for themselves, Spruce decided to take his final leave from us. He gave us every tool we would need to succeed. The rest, he instructed, was up to us.
As he left, he approached the faithkeeper of the Onondaga nation, and gave him a special wampum belt. Not of the white an indigo beads we crafted of our own, this belt, silver and shimmering like the ripples of a lake, is the most powerful and sacred of them all.
Gifted with this final tool to assist him in managing the Guardianship, he became the Guardian’s first Central. He alone would bear the responsibility of the Guardian’s care, welfare and their training. He was not their master insomuch as their caretaker, their counselor, and their elder voice when need arose in the Grand Council for the Guardians to be heard.
“This is the way of the people, this is how the Tewakenonhnè came to be.”
The fog wound itself in and around the trees as if the cloudy moisture would spiral up around their massive trunks, enveloping and protecting each white pine from the evening’s events. Their white tendrils glowing softly in the nearly eclipsed double-moons.
Ati’ron ran as fast as his youthful feet would carry him. Sweat beaded across his upper lip, dripped from his chin and onto the length of this bare torso as he tore through the forest. If he stood still, for even the briefest of moments, the cold would have seeped into his bones from the frigid autumnal air.
His senses bristled, everything about him on alert that he was being pursued on all sides. Thankfully, he had one element in his favor: he knew this area along the river well. He grew up here and throughout his childhood he had played along this river. Born from these lands, he would be hard pressed to come up short by some sort of surprise along its terrain. Its formations and indentations –the weft and warp of his very soul.
But he witnessed something that disturbed that for all time tonight.
It started innocently enough, he was out training with his teacher this afternoon; a man that was very well respected in the confederacy. It was said that he actually knew the Peacemaker himself. Ati’ron, though barely a young man of thirteen himself, thought that his teacher looked old enough that the rumor might actually be true.
Their practice started out with the basics, but in recent months they evolved into more the advanced teachings his teacher began to press he master. Tonight Tiyanoga, his mentor, decided to take him out to the river along a ravine that was about two miles away from their home to apply those techniques. After an hour or so into them Tiyanoga proceeded to gather herbs and other necessities from the surrounding forest while his pupil continued his training near the river’s edge.
Twigs snapped under Ati’ron’s feet. His breathing was becoming labored. Though physically fit for a young pre-teen boy, it had been sometime since he had run this hard over this great a distance. He turned his head to either side only to find the attackers pursuing him with renewed diligence. The patters of their feet crunching the flora debris around him on all sides felt like ants crawling over his body. They raced around him like the sinewy fog that meandered through the trees, slipping with ease as if the terrain held very little challenge for them. As they gave chase he could distinctly hear their jaws snapping at the air hoping in vain, for the time being, to catch some piece of boy flesh within their maw.
Without looking back he could feel one of them gaining ground on the distance he had fought so hard to put between them. Why hadn’t he listened to his teacher when he was showing him how to slip-run?
Memories of his first attempt flashed across his mind of that feeling of slipping through space and time in a flash. Only in that attempt he nearly ended up right off the side of a deep ravine and a potential plummet to his death. After that scare he was reticent about pursuing it further. Something Tiyanoga would consistently push him toward mastering. Now he was deeply regretting on putting it off for as long as he did.
He hastily reached over his shoulder and pulled an arrow from the quiver he had strapped to his back. The tips gleamed in what little light the night had spared; they were made from the very stone named for the foe he was now facing. He could feel the creature clapping it’s jaws as if nipping at the air between his snout and the heels peddling before him would help close the distance, or at the very least intimidate the boy into the terrifying demise that surely awaited him.
Just as the creature closed in on him the boy disappeared from sight. It took a few milliseconds longer for the creature to realize that he had simply jumped from a small precipice and had slipped below the horizon.
The creature pushed further and leapt from the same jumping point the boy had used. While in mid-air the beast thought he should see the boy in the distance continuing his run back to the village which was now within easy viewing from where they were. He knew others in the village would be coming to help the boy, he needed to finish his work now. The Master would not be pleased to find out the boy had escaped. His mate, a vile she-wolf who lived to mercilessly taunt and cause great amounts of pain had moved off to chase Tiyanoga down and kill him; two more souls turned for the Master.
As the wolf cleared the stone precipice, his fur rising on the attack, he finally spotted the boy just below him bow strung and an arrow notched into the bowstring; the boy struggling to maintain his focus in the face of his exhaustion.
With the single word puncturing the night air in between his deep breathless exhaustion he uttered: “Yotekhà …” and the arrow was loosed just as the creature was about to land. Though stressed to the point of snapping and losing his mind with what he’d seen, the boy’s aim found its mark. The beast’s final cry cut through the night, all at once a human scream and the howling of a wolf. As the arrow pierced the skin a fire-like pain coursed throughout its pulmonary system literally searing from within. The wolf’s fur caught fire and the creature’s eyes melted in their sockets; the final vision etched into the final memory of the beast was of the impending leaf covered ground its body was about to crash into before the engulfing flames consumed it in a fiery comet. The remains, flame licked bones, sinew and bloodied fur, skidded along the earth and scorched the leaves with small flames that were in its landing path.
The others in the pack suddenly stopped their pursuit and howled rage into the night air. The boy breathed hard and uncontrollably bent over bracing himself against falling over by placing both hands onto his knees. He felt like he wanted to wretch, he had expended nearly too much energy in the chase. The smell emanating from the burning leaves where the creature had met its fiery death smelled like fetid, rotting meat which didn’t help in settling his stomach. He heaved just once from the pit of his stomach with a little spittle taking flight from the edge of his lips and into the night air. Puffs of heated breaths accompanied his dry wretch.
Above, he could hear the others pacing around clearly within striking distance. The only reason they must have stopped was that Ati’ron must have just killed the alpha of the pack and they were somewhat confused on how to proceed. Maybe this is how Flint’s hordes worked? Could this be a weakness he needed to ask his teacher about? Something they could exploit to their mutual advantage?
Tiyanoga! In his haste to flee as he was told, he’d completely forgotten about his teacher being surrounded as he took flight back to the village. He needed to go back! But how? Ati’ron turned around to see the other Guardians making their way out of the village and toward where he now stood.
That was all his mind could muster. But how could he? He barely had the energy to stand where he was. The was only one way he was going to get there without complete exhaustion; which he knew wouldn’t help Tiyanoga if he arrived beyond exhaustion.
His only recourse was to slip-run to get to him. He clamored up the side of the precipice; leaves and bits of dirt colliding with his face as he cleared the top of the rocky landing.
Distracted for only a moment, the wolf pack renewed their attack once they saw Ati’ron clear the small cliff. They began to pace about the boy surrounding him as best they could for the kill. Ati’ron could hear the Guardians of his village coming. He felt arrows sing in the night air as they connected with their corresponding targets. It took only a few fiery displays to disburse the pack and send them into retreat. If he was to assist Tiyanoga it had to be now!
He quickly cleared all irrelevant thoughts and concentrated mentally to establish a complete image in his mind of the layout of the land he had just traversed. He had to have an absolute picture of where he and his teacher were so he could slip to him. One mistake could land him in an even more perilous position, something no one would be grateful for attempting.
He saw the path. His eyes narrowed and he could sense in the distance the point he needed to reach. He could do this…he knew he could. He could hear his teacher speaking softly into his ear as if he were right there to guide him forward. “Focus, will yourself to the other point. Find its point and anchor yourself to it – that was the hard part. Then pull yourself to it – it all seemed so easy when he said it like that.” He could do it … he had to!
“Okay, NOW!” He clenched his stomach, which was already a churned up mess, and steeled himself to the oncoming sensation of your soul being ripped slowly, as if peeled, from your body. That was followed by the pin-like pricking sensation behind the eyes that darkened your vision to a deep blood red color where he could only make rough outlines of his surroundings. He barely felt his right foot make the first move and he was already in the slipstream. He could feel the center-point of his destination just there beyond his reach. Now was not the time to lose control. Almost instinctively he reached out with his mind to seize it, as if to hold it in the palm of his hand.
As he neared his destination suddenly a white pine he didn’t remember slammed into his right shoulder. It shuddered violently and he was tossed slightly to his left and came crashing down into the earth in a rush of pain and dirt. His mind was racing he could feel the breath of a hot fetid animal to the right of his shoulder and he rolled instinctively and was onto his feet with his bow up and an arrow notched before he even knew he had accomplished it.
Within seconds he was joined by six other Guardians from the village who appeared, to a casual observer, as if out of thin air. Fortunately enough his abrupt stop had landed him within a foot of his teacher. Who was lashing out with luminescent tendrils that seemed to coalesce out of thin air around the fingers of his hands. Ati’ron had never witnessed anything like this! Tiyanoga moved them about with a whip like action at the she-wolf who was pacing back and forth, gauging where her next move would be; looking for that weak link in his formidable presence. Ati’ron knew at that moment more than any other just what kind of master of their sacred knowledge he had been learning from.
From here he also got a real look at the beasts that were sent out to take them down. From a far off glance across the woods they would appear as any other wolf but for the larger torso and broader chest and head.
Upon closer inspection it was clear that the similarities stopped there. Their teeth were much finer than their canine counterparts, almost needle-like in their precision savagery. The snout, which alternated between fur and a lizard-like scale was a constant river of drool and a slime-like venom that dripped from their snake-like canines that would snap like a rattler into a life threatening strike.
He spared a quick glance at his teacher to take stock of how he had handled the situation before his arrival. At first it appeared that he was okay but a second look revealed a small puncture wound on his lower right calf muscle just above the ankle. The wound had some of the greenish-yellow slime oozing from the lip of the puncture. He could also see that the muscle of his calf was starting to collapse, much like it was losing life altogether and rotting on the bone.
Ati’ron knew he didn’t have much time to resolve this whole stand-off if he was to get his teacher back to the village and some immediate care. For a split second it seemed like all time stood still. Every being present taking full stock of their opponent, then just like water cresting over a dam the whole stand-off teetered on the brink before turning into complete chaos.
The she-wolf lunged forward in a flurry of claws and razor sharp teeth just as Tiyanoga sank to the knee of his injured leg. The field surrounding him, shielding him from her attack weakened and began to fall. Ati’ron knew he needed to strike now. He flung his body directly in her path and loosed his arrow. The tip glanced off her forehead but was enough of a threat that it brought her down to the ground hard. She roused herself up and shook off the blow.
Ati’ron reached out with his mind and focused as well as he could in the melee surrounding them both. The she-wolf snarled, then surprisingly she spoke to them both in Mohawk.
“Pretty courageous for a boy. You don’t think that your useless arrows are going to take me down? Just look at your teacher, he isn’t long for this world. Hope he taught you enough. You’re going to need it just to survive what I am going to do to you once I dispatch with him.”
“Stop talking about it and just get to it. You think you can take me? Then let’s do this.” Ati’ron spat at her all the while he was reaching with his mind to the energy that was seeping from Tiyanoga.
Tiyanoga was in agony now but trying to keep a straight face in the sheer pain consuming his lower leg. The others from the village were battling all around them. Both warrior and wolf alike were losing members. Ati’ron didn’t have time to spare taking stock of the score. He had successfully taken hold of the field that Tiyanoga was losing his grip on. He focused the energy just as the she-wolf bounded for a second attack. The shield held as she collided with it. The resounding sound echoed across the ravine as she was repelled back to the ground. She lunged again and this time he was unprepared for the attack and her head pushed at the limits of the shield and penetrated through her jaws snapping at the air just in front of his face. Their razor-like fangs mere inches from his nose. He removed his hand from the bowstring, reached around to his ankle, and pulled up the blade he had stowed there. In one move he thrust it forward deep into the throat of the beast.
She howled and sputtered blood and venom all around. Her thrashing around dislodged the handle of his blade from his hand. In two further shakes it slipped from her lower jaw. She had put all four paws onto the shield and was applying great pressure to bring her head back out of the shield. He couldn’t hold it much longer. Saturated with blood and venom the sick, rancid smell of her breath he let go of the field but she had a plan of her own.
As she sensed his withdrawal from the energy lines she used the same field to grab the boy and rip him from where he was planted. He was pulled from the ground, went careening over the side of the ravine embankment, and tumbled head over feet down to the river’s edge and plunging into its darkest depths. The icy water lacerating his body from all sides.
No time to think on that now. Get back to your teacher!
As he struggled to swim up and break the surface, he sensed the she-wolf enter the water as well. He was fully unprepared for her agility under the water. She sped immediately toward him. He wasted no further time in getting to the surface.
The current was strong and to get away from her he had to swim upstream. She seemed much more powerful a swimmer than he. As he broke the surface he had the good fortune of seeing a low-lying branch hovering just above the waters surface. He lunged for it as he was carried past.
The she-wolf had immediately changed course and spun in the water toward where he had pulled himself onto the branch and was squatted against another branch of the tree for balance. He saw her approach and he pulled an arrow from the quiver still tied to his back. The arrow he chose was a special one. He had worked for well over a year on it. There were ancient markings given to him by Tiyanoga during his trainings. Literally his blood and sweat were born into the arrow. It’s tip, dark flint, was still tinged with the dried blood from his own hand that he gave several moon cycles ago. It was the last of a long set of rituals to bring the arrow very powerful medicine to complete the task it was set for. Tonight was time for that task.
Ati’ron could see the wolf maneuvering under the surface and was now within ten feet of were he was on the branch. The fact that she wasn’t out of breath under the water and could move so easily within its strong current was proof she was a creature of Flint’s own making. In the next instant as he pondered this she broke the surface and was within a foot of him when he loosed the arrow.
He felt it connect with her throat from within her mouth where the tip shattered upon contact literally ripping the head of the beast into bits. Blood, bone and flesh were flung from the fatal wound and the body slammed with all the force of gravity back into the water.
Ati’ron stood there for a second breathing a bit harsh when he realized his teacher was still at the top of the ravine and the venom had more than enough time to take full effect. He ran up the branch and scurried up the embankment using his hands to grip branches, brush and vines wherever he could.
As soon as he reached the top he stopped.
The battle was all but ended. Four of the six warriors were left standing; two with serious but survivable wounds. Their opponents didn’t fare as well.
He saw Tiyanoga collapsed onto the earthen floor almost in exactly the same position he had left him in.
“Tiyanoga!” Ati’ron called out and moved quickly to his teacher practically sliding under his head and propping it up, as gently as he could, onto his curved knee.
“Ati’ron,” he said softly through labored breaths, “You must listen to me now more than ever. It is too late for me.” Seeing Ati’ron’s growing protestation he continued quickly, “No! Now is not a time for debate. I know what I speak of. Listen! Remember what I told you about bringing your thoughts into focus. Only then can you see the dark marks of the enemy.”
He coughed and some blood spewed from his mouth. Ati’ron did not react when Tiyanoga’s bloody spittle hit his face. It bore little concern for him.
“You are truly a great find, Ati’ron. I have been so proud of your dedication and your fearlessness and that you were mine. But now you must go. Leave me to my fate. Whatever you do from here out, promise me two things.” Tiyanoga was really struggling to keep focus in the delivery of his last teaching.
Ati’ron nodded, “Of course, ask anything of me and I will make it my life vow.”
“Remember what I taught you. But be innovative in how you apply it. Creativity is your strongest suit, you need to learn to trust it. One day, many years from now, your grandchildren will speak of you with great awe and reverence. Not because of your talents, but because of the man you will become. Become that man for me. Take hold and never lose sight of it. Promise me!” Pain and tears moved across his face as he was slowly losing his battle to maintain control.
Ati’ron saw small droplets hitting his teacher’s face but there was no cloud above to bring rain now, only to realize, his own tears dotted his teacher’s face.
“And the other promise?”
“Get up and leave. Don’t look back, whatever you do. No matter what you hear, no matter how tempted you might be to watch I need you to be strong and abandon my body as if you never knew it. You must do this! Go! Go now! I cannot hold it back any longer. Go! Please!” Tiyanoga cried out in a desperate whisper that crecendoed to a strangled plea.
Ati’ron kissed his teacher’s forehead, tears mingling with that soft kiss. He got up as he was told and though everything in his body and mind told him to stay and take care of the man who had become the single most influential man in his life next to his father and grandfather, he ran. He did as he was instructed. He would keep his promise no matter the cost. Tears streaked across his face knowing that his teacher was losing the battle against Flint and that if Tiyanoga, with all of the wondrous power he had amassed over his life could fall, how soon would he meet his own end?
He heard anguished cries as his beloved teacher was in the last throws of his rapidly emaciating body.
If he were to turn around he would have envisioned the final thing his teacher wanted to protect him from in his new life: as the light of his soul ascended from the body, its vessel decayed rapidly into an ashen mass. As that brilliant blue-white wisp of light took flight, a tentacle of dark energy lashed out from the decayed mass and ensnared it. For a moment, the light struggled against it, writhing against the dark strand until the light could fight no more and fell back to the earth in a semi-solid state, a small puff of dirt billowed where it collided there. For a moment, Tiyanoga’s spirit rippled and shone brightly, but in refusing death his prize, the light began to turn, take shape and from the decrepit mass that was Tiyanoga a new being began to form. The skin of this new creature darkened considerably to a deep black and almost reptilian in texture and appearance. After the transformation, it did not move. It did not breathe. The forest life became still, holding a collective breath the maligned creature’s presence promise of death and destruction. A stillness permeated every crevice of this part of the forest.
It took a long protracted first breath, before releasing it as an audible hiss.
When its eyes suddenly opened, they glowed with a deathly blood red – savage, brutal bringers of dark light, filled with malice and dark thoughts behind them. It raised itself up from the ground as if riding on the wind only to set foot to land gently on its feet. As it made contact with the ground, he became more solid. Tiyanoga, born into a new life, inwardly swelled with raw unfettered power. Who or what had granted him this he could not be sure. But he knew there would be time enough to ponder upon that. He sat up, taking in his surroundings, finally focusing on the retreating boy – the boy’s soft sobs caressing his preternatural ears.
He watched his former student depart over the horizon. There’s a good little lad, he thought. Always did as he was told. We shall soon meet again, little one; and then I will have the upper hand.
And with that last, he moved up into the air a bit and hovered for a few seconds then moved backwards and faded into the dark recesses of the ravine rock wall some ten feet behind him. A malevolent unspoken promise buried in his dark red luminescent eyes. Those eyes, the last to be seen as the crevices of the earthen wall closed in around him – a smile breaking across his sublimely handsome, wicked face as he watched the last of Ati’ron clear the horizon and slip from sight.
Until Next Time …